Aphelion Issue 262, Volume 25
June 2021
 
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Down & Out On Triton

by David Barber



1



Officer of the Steady-State Prabda Lal was chasing rumours of illegal technology. The trail began with the Mount Fuji, the recently docked c-ship, involved a trade for bulk art, onto an AI in a futures deal for a consignment of deuterium, then into the hands of a manimal, after which the data went cold.

The Mount Fuji had last docked a century ago, Priest-Captain Satou, crewing a benevolent theocracy.

A young woman, etiolated and undermuscled, met Lal at the main lock. It was the first crew of a starship he'd ever met. "Where have you come from?" he asked as her followed her, for something to say. "Speak to Captain Satou about that." "I meant your last port of call." Still she did not answer. "It’s a matter of public record," added Lal, irritated. "No need to ask me then," she shrugged, and they walked the rest of the way in silence. Lal had hoped to see the Bridge of a c-ship, but he was shown into a cramped office, probably only used at dock. Priest-Captain Satou listened to Lal before explaining the cargo from the Wolf 365 colony world had been sealed. "It would have been illegal to open it. I cannot help you." He handed back Lal’s credentials. Lal asked more questions, so it didn't seem as if he'd been dismissed, but they both knew who was in charge here.


2



Interviewing the AI involved a maze of legal complexities and the investigation stalled. Prabda Lal had wasted so much time that when it came to the manimal, a known fixer for such shady deals, he asked a colleague to help.

OSS Larson pounced on her in the Port Area’s main corridor with a spot DNA check. Lal saw a passer-by hastily turn away, but illegals were not his concern today.

"Ho, manimal, way less than human," announced Larson, always happy in his work.

The manimal didn't seem alarmed, insisting she was on her way to get her ID chip fixed. Feathers cresting on her skull hinted at dubious ancestry.

"I think that ID of yours is bogus," said Larson, scanning virtual data. "Yet here you are, breathing air like you pay taxes."

All this was going according to plan. It only remained for Prabda Lal to intervene and hint the problem might vanish if she cooperated.

In theory, the manimal could face deportation via the nearest airlock, but she seemed unconcerned. Perhaps this was what annoyed Larson.

The Officer towered over her, bulky with armour and muscle. He raised his voice. "You think this is not serious, hey?"

She looked around until her gaze rested on Lal, nondescript and impersonating a concerned citizen.

It was all too much for OSS Larson. He grabbed a handful of her coat and shoved her up against the wall. "You roaches think…"

Lal had heard veteran Officers speak of the Pit and its dwellers. Like roaches under the floor.

He stepped forward. "Ho there, Officer, ah, Larson. Is there a problem here?"

"No, no problem."

The man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Illegals, hey."


3



Prabda Lal wasn’t always an Officer of the Steady-State, never a popular career on Triton, where its grip was officious.

Back then he worked for Triton Green, as a glorified tech moving samples from one instrument to another, cheaper than automating the whole lab. Elise Allaway was the Phage Manager, standing at his elbow as he hurried her priority sample through the system.

"Triton Station," he said as they waited. Glass vials rattled round a track inside the scintillation counter. He could smell her hair, freshly washed.

"Excuse me?"

"The Station accent. You never really lose it." It seemed they grew up in the same locale, around the same time, though they’d never met.

"You stayed in studying while I was out roaming the tunnels."

Lal knew he wasn’t in her league. She took care with her appearance, wearing the outfit of a professional, but expensively cut, with a small dignified tattoo on her brow.

"Did well for yourself," he added.

She glanced at the time.

"No, I mean I admire you. An advert for smarts and hard work."

"Need to get qualifications then," she said. "Unless you want to be a lab drone all your life."

She visited the labs once more before he quit.

"Ho, glad I caught you." He gave her his best smile. "Took your advice. Going back to school."

Med tech qualifications looked dull, but the Steady-State paid your way through Officer training.

"Good career structure," she acknowledged. "Opportunities for someone ambitious."

Eventually he called her.

"OSS Lal. Ho, knew you wouldn’t recognise that. Finished my training. Uniform and everything. Was wondering if you’d like to help me celebrate? In a way, it’s all your doing."

They saw each other occasionally, though she always seemed busy, and he worked shifts. But it seemed she could relax and be herself with him. They’d both come a long way.

She was complaining about a colleague.

"He says you can take the girl out of the Station, but you can’t take the Station out of the girl. Tries to do the accent, you know?"

Lal was sympathetic, though he pretty much thought that about himself. Later, she hinted that he might stay over tonight, and he realised he would have to tell her.

"Ho," he began, as they walked to her rooms. "There’s something you should know."

He explained about his trichosis. A single gene defect. It just made him hairier than most men. And usually he depilated, but tonight was unexpected. Great, but unexpected, so…

And they walked into a routine stop-and-check. A pair of OSS in full gear. Lal held out his arm like the diagram in the manual. He’d done this random chip and DNA testing himself.

"I barely know him," he heard Elise insisting to the female Officer. "Had me fooled. He doesn’t look like a manimal because he shaves. He told me so. And Officer, if I could be kept out of this? I have an important position at Triton Green, and..."

The Officer tapped Lal on the shoulder. "You’re clear, citizen."

He followed Lal’s gaze over to Elise Allaway. "Hmm," he said.


4



The manimal led him deep into the cryozone, location of heat pumps near the surface of Triton. Even with metabolic assistance, Lal would not last long amongst these panting pipes and frost-rimed machineries.

"This illegal tech involves time travel?" Lal sounded incredulous, this being the first step in unpicking a suspect’s story. "The paradoxes are dire and numerous."

The manimal halted, and out of the shadows shuffled a hulking figure. The creature wore no protection against the cold, and frost glittered on its skin.

"You have a bodyguard?" Prabda Lal should not have been surprised, she had agreed to his deal too readily. "A mistake to threaten an Officer of the Steady-State."

Their freezing breath clouded the air between them.

"Not time travel," said the manimal reluctantly. "Seeing the future. Precognition."

"A device of such value swapped for a cargo of fuel?" jeered Prabda Lal. "I mock your tale."

"Learn your fate, but is no help."

"Knowing the fall of the dice is always an advantage."

The manimal made an uncertain gesture, her scaly hands tipped by talons. "Hold such opinions because you think yourself free."

"Then convince me." Prabda Lal was growing impatient, the cold seeping into his bones. This female connived in some scheme of her own. They all did. "Prove you have seen the future."

"Knew about the arrest. Knew you would interfere."

Lal shrugged. "Easy to claim now."

"Know you came armed."

It was true that working undercover, Prabda Lal carried a bioweapon, grown from his own flesh and bone, which had proved undetectable in the past.

"Know you use your weapon."

Of course she was tricking him somehow. Prabda Lal produced the gun. "You would not be here if you knew that."

"Knowing is a curse. The AI was eager to be rid."

"The opinions of silicon do not concern me. Where is the device?"

She might delay, but in the end she was here because there had been no choice. And despite her scan showing Prabda Lal was unarmed, he had carried a gun, just as foreseen. Events closed in. A decaying orbit with only one outcome.

The manimal gestured towards the creature and it took a moment for Prabda Lal to understand. Ah! So she had deceived him all along. Not a device then...

Talons quivering, the manimal leapt, and the gun spat.


5



Chilled fingers felt for the pulse in her throat. In the end, what choice had there been?

"Your own fault," muttered Prabda Lal. He stood and faced the creature, the gun held loosely by his side.

"Few believe the future they are told," it rumbled. "But it makes no difference."

"I am an Officer of the Steady-State, you will come with me."

"You will not deliver me to the Steady-State."

Lal raised his weapon. "Don’t try anything foolish."

The creature calmly repeated itself, and Prabda Lal had the first inklings of doubt.

"Because you see this?" Lal ventured. "You see the future and I don’t take you in?"

The Steady-State had valid reasons for suppressing new technology, and in the common good Lal had helped to silence those involved once before. This time though, he guessed the Steady-State would be unable to resist the possibilities. So even more important that it all remain secret. Could he trust some nameless authority not to want his mouth shut also?

Prabda Lal weighed the weapon in his hand.

"You do not kill me."

Lal had been considering disposing of the creature, but then all he could show his superiors was a corpse. What if they suspected him of trickery and hiding the illegal technology for his own ends? He’d witnessed what they would do to be certain.

So he could not kill the creature nor hand it over.

Prabda Lal began to see that knowing the fall of the dice was not always an advantage. "Then what happens?"

"Our futures diverge. An Officer Larson will inform on you. You flee the Steady State. A place called the Pit."

Their voices grew indistinct. Toxins clutched at the manimal’s heart. She wondered what came next.


6



The Pit was on permanent night-cycle, with graffiti on the walls and rubbish underfoot.

A row of cargo containers looked lived in, their open ends curtained and lit. The inhabitants of this place came and went about their furtive business, while Prabda Lal watched from the shadows. He was unsure whether he could trust what he’d been told. Even out of uniform, with his own clothes dirtied and made shabby, people sniffed something amiss.

Now the OSS chip in his arm was a liability instead of an asset, informing on his whereabouts, on each transaction, even on those he had bribed for information. The Steady-State gripped his throat, and he must rid himself of it.

A curtain was lifted and a figure scurried away. Lal stepped forward.

The old woman inside looked human enough, until she flicked out a whip-like tongue, once, twice, as if sniffing the air.

"Am guessing you already got a chip. Full human chip, citizen."

"Which you can keep in payment. Just need a replacement that’s good enough."

She ran a cumbersome scanning device up and down his arm.

"No anaesthetic?" protested Lal, just as the device snapped out his chip in a core of flesh.

"And no questions asked," she hissed.

Lal declined the rag she offered for the wound.

When he emerged, three locals lounging against the wall followed. They knew these corridors and he did not. Thinking to elude them down a dim side passage, he found it ended in a manual airlock stencilled with skull and bones, the traditional warning of vacuum beyond. This, like the Pit itself, was a remnant of an ancient failed colony.

"Wait," he said when the three teens pulled blades. "You think to sell me out to the Steady-State, but they will repay you with a bullet."

It was the look on the faces of the girls. The Steady-State meant nothing here. They were just predators, and he was just prey. He shot them down and ran.

The sight of a man fleeing attracted attention and calculating looks, wondering if it was worth finding out why, or just something to be avoided. He turned into a main corridor and slowed to a walk, then loitered by the tunnel wall.

He was here because of the creature’s words. Was this to be his life, a roach in the Pit? The Steady-State would make it known there was a profit in betraying Prabda Lal. Soon he would be unable to trust anyone. It would not be a life, just the constant avoidance of a death.

Yet if Lal knew about anything, it was the daily workings of the Steady-State. He knew that reports must be submitted and files read before one superior or another realised they should act. Perhaps there was still time.


7



Triton Station was where c-ships came in from the dark, confined there because the consequences of the new were too dangerous. The Steady-State already groaned with the effort of maintaining itself, and the second law of thermodynamics insisted almost all change is for the worse.

"I knew you would be back, Officer Lal." Satou's attitude was different. "I have been trying to recall the name of your predecessor."

Prabda Lal shrugged. Long before his time. "Is it true you call us the Quick?"

The Priest-Captain inclined his head. "Some say that."

It was contempt for the stutter of faces that greeted them. Officer Lal and successors yet to be born would be forgotten when this c-ship returned.

Lal sent the Priest-Captain a data-package, encrypted with the emblem of the Steady-State.

Satou made no move to view it, the creature having predicted this very conversation.

"A warrant for the crime of dealing in illegal technology," shrugged Satou. "If I offer you refuge you will make it vanish." His expression gave no hint of what he thought.

Disconcerted, Lal tried to regain the initiative. "The Quick have crewed on c-ships before." He brushed back his hair, exposing a socket, explaining how his job meant he was proficient at data herding, a useful skill.

The Priest-Captain sighed. "Have you no ties here, Officer Lal?"

Prabda Lal hesitated.

"Because every soul you know would be dead when you returned."

The Priest-Captain was a Buddhist and a man of principle. He had traded the cursed creature at a loss rather than listen to any more of its fortune telling, which was a low art.

The last thing the creature had foretold was that an Officer Larson would betray Prabda Lal. But allowing the Steady-State to claim him would mean Satou had no choice, and he preferred to believe that his will was free.

Besides, it was a small thing. The Mount Fuji was departing and relativity would do its work. The concerns of the Quick would become history, seen for what they were. Though it was true that some men took their prisons with them.

Still, he gave a small formal bow, barely a nod.

"Welcome aboard, crewman."



THE END


2021 David Barber

Bio: David Barber lives in the UK. His ambition is to continue doing both these things.

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