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Planethopper

It was latening dusk, and he was driving up the quicksilver-road with his sister and her boyfriend slumped together in the back seat, dead. He’d turned the temperature down to the negatives, in the hope it’d retard cell death, and thrown the foil blanket from the cars survival kit around his shoulders. He should have been worried – deep in a psychotic panic – but he wasn’t; the little nootropic patch gummed to the roof of his mouth had drawn a great grey blanket out over the disconcerting sight of his sibling’s silent body all-a-crawl with the mite-like forms of the Emdees. So while they eased their prehensile, respiratory stems in behind her eyes – down past the optic nerve, down to the oxygen starved forebrain – he just concentrated on the road, watching the silver boughs of larch and birch flash past and singing along in snatches to the radio.
The road crept west, skirting the shore of the Caloris Sea, before cresting the encircling range and striking due north, straight toward the Cap and the boreal city-states. As the Benz cantered up and out of the basin, he noticed the forest drawing back – leaves bleached and furled as the towering trees prepared for the coming cold – before it gave way to stands of dwarf pine, then a stretch of bone-white grassland, before all dissolved into a waste of bare rock. The car began to hum a warning note and the screaming song of the electric engine was joined by the whine of compressors as they struggled to maintain the cabin pressure. The air was desperately thin up here – the sky overhead darkening toward pure black – and he fancied he could make out the slight coruscation of the morning star, way off in the east. At the peak of the pass, when they’d neared the two thousand metre mark, he slowed the car for the first time in three hours, and then – at the behest of the beatifying nootropic – he cut the engine and coasted to a stop.
‘I wish you could see this, Sis,’ he whispered.
Behind them, the bulk of the Caloris Sea shone silver in the twilight – the forest marching upslope lightening as it rose, until it, too, drew down to the pale dirt of the crumbling peaks. There’d be snow on the lower reaches come nightfall, he thought – more lightness and whiteness amongst the ghostly ranks of the mutant evergreens – and the sudden, sensory image of the cold and the quiet and the silence chilled him. The nootropic was wearing off, he realised, and a feral edge of fear was rising like bile, so tore off another tab and gunned the engine, heading north as fast as the Benz would roll.
‘Won’t be long, guys,’ he said, turning and grinning at his two silent passengers. ‘Won’t be long…Hey, Sis?’ Yet the manic flavour of the phrase frightened him, and he downed another tab and gummed them both into the hollows of his cheeks, where the bitterness tightened the flesh and drew his face up into a stiff parody of a smile.
Ahead of them the air-moon was rising – wreathed in its vaporous, out-gassed corona. They were down in the boreal plain, now, and the road had widened, drawing in traffic from outlier settlements, and it was all he could do to keep the Benz under control as he rocketed past bemused ore-freighters and the increasing number of sleek sedans and bulbous little coupes, all heading on up to the Cap. Residents of the summer-states, looking to wait out the wintry night, he guessed.
‘It’d be nice if we had a siren, or something…’ he said, as he threw the car hard-right to overtake a lumbering road-train. As he drew abreast of the cabin, the engineman hailed him.
“You okay down there?’ The voice, marked by native Scandian, rang out from the dash.
“Not really,” he offered. “Bit of a fuck up, actually.”
“What sort?”
“Medical. Death. Deaths. Two of them. My sister and her fuckwit boyfriend…”
The freighter had slowed and he’d already pulled past it, drawing back into the safe-lane, but the engineman was still talking.
“They stabilised?” the engineman asked.
“My sister is. There were only enough Emdees for her,” he explained.
“Oh. Well…. You called base hospital?”
“Not yet. I don’t know the codes and I’m not thinking clearly enough to run a query. Besides, this the first time I’ve ever driven this car.”
“You’re not doing to badly,” the engineman offered. “You know you’re running nearly 480… maybe 490 klicks per hour?”
“Yep.”
“Well. Just try to stay on the road. I’ll cast out a wide-warning, see if they can’t clear the priority lane for you. And…”
There was a satisfied warble from the dashboard navigator.
“…I’ve just pushed the hospital codes across to your car. You should give them a call – tell them what they need to expect.”
He tongued the nootropics and smiled – a real smile, this time – amazed at this odd moment of unmeditated kindness.
“Thanks,” he said, as the Benz hurtled out of range. “Thanks, mate!”

Now the traffic pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway as he passed and he sped onward unobstructed. The air-moon was higher, growing wider with every passing moment, and he knew the Cap was close. Soon the moon would crest the horizon, and he’d see the thick pillar of the lifeline – the column of ice and air spilling down from the trapped planetesimal, the feedline for the scant atmosphere – and then it would be mere minutes before he reached the outskirts of the Cap. There – the very calm, collected dispatcher had assured him – the paramedics would be waiting, and then it’d cease being his problem, and he could kill the car and hustle his passengers away, and maybe palm a sedative off of the paras, and zone out until it all stabilised.
No. That was the nootropic talking. He’d follow the ambulance down to the hospital, and wait as long as it took for them to clear his sister. He glanced back. The Emdees were still waging their war against hypoxia – clever little things, like little air-moons themselves, like little lifelines; shivering systolic, diastolic – convulsing as they fed her starving mind.
She’d be alright, he knew it. The boyfriend, however…

“The girl’ll be fine.” The medic said, as the bodies were zipped down into clear plastic womb-bags and hauled up into the back of the ambulance. “Brain appears intact – there might be a bit of memory loss but nothing spectacular. Everything else can be repaired. But the guy…”
He was still huddled in under the foil blanket in the front seat of the Benz. The medic was leaning in over the open door – her long, pale face a picture of sudden consternation.
“The guy?” He prompted. The nootropics had all but bled away, and he didn’t want to be seen popping any this close to authority. Now he just felt a desolate emptiness. Behind them, the ambulance threw its turbines into action and leapt away in a fountain of dust. The medic waited for the thrum of the rotors to recede before she continued.
“The guy was… not so lucky. It’s a pity there were only enough emdees for one. He’s been brain-dead for just over seven hours. We’re going to have to rebuild his personality from scratch…”
“Oh,” he ventured, trying to suppress the traitorous smile. He failed, and the smile broke the levee and ran over into laughter – great, sobbing coughs of anger and relief.
“You’re in shock.” The medic said. “Shove across. I’ll drive you to the hospital.”

The Benz nosed its way into the stream of traffic creeping inward and upward. This was just the fringe of the Cap, a ring of refineries and solar furnaces – patchy infrastructure broken intermittently by wide swathes of tract housing. The air-moon dominated the sky now, skirted by the glowing life-line.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it,” the medic ventured, abandoning the wheel for a second to dose him with a stabiliser.
He shuddered as the hypoderm needled in behind his ear. “I’ve never seen it from this angle. When we came in we dropped down from the parasol – it looked so tiny from up there, and so… so blank. You couldn’t even resolve the lifeline from that distance.” He was talking on automatic, talking to kill the silence.
“You all touched down recently?”
“A week or so back. My sister was meant to play at nightfall. With her band, I mean. She’s their guitarist –one of the best in the inner system.”
“Her name?”
That, he knew, was just politeness. They’d have had her name as soon as she was aboard the ambulance – and her medical history, as well as her inventory of known allergens, her religious and moral stance on gene-therapy, organswap and rebirthing, and a thousand other sundry factoids.
“Anjuli. Anjuli Chandrakasan.”
“And the fellow? The man with her?”
“That’s where I can’t help you. Johan, or Jorn, or something like that. I just called him the dumb-fuck.”
“No love lost…”
“I knew he was bad news.” The stabiliser had kicked in at full force, and he felt as if he was melting down into the fabric of the passenger seat.
The medics face contorted in a secondlong spasm of surprise. He noticed that she bore the gold-alloy latticework of an implant at the nape of her neck. Something had just been downpatched to her.
“Medical Deebee says the man was someone called… yes…you were right… Johan Klimmer. Venus-born. Mars-resident. Otherwise, his record is blank. Suspiciously so. He’s probably lost a persona at least once before. Statistically, if it happens once, it’s much more likely to happen again.
“To think,” he said, as the seat, recognising weariness, threw itself backwards, leaving him supine. “To think that the little fuck would crashline himself for fun.”
He was gazing through the sunroof, up at the pale pearl of the air-moon. “To think,” he went on, “that he could make my sister do it, too.”
He turned to face the medic.
“She’s not stupid, you know. He would have done it while she was sleeping. I’m sure of it.”
“Well, whatever the case, you can’t press charges. He’s been dead too long; Mr Klimmer isn’t ever waking up again. Whoever he was, whatever he was, he’s gone – and that’s sort of punishment enough, isn’t it?”
“I don’t need to punish him. I just need to know that my sister is safe.”
“She’ll be fine, don’t worry about it. You saved her mind; that’s what matters. Bodies are reparable; souls aren’t.”
The traffic murmured onward through a twilit concrete canyon. The life-line thickened overhead and the sky grew brighter, bluer despite the deepening dusk. Then, on the horizon, a band of cirrus clouds, gold shot by the sunset, and a flight of birds silhouetted against the light, and he knew they were worming their way into the city of Cap, where the pressure topped out at nearly half an atmosphere.
“So,” the medic ventured, as the Benz crawled beneath a triumphal arch a full four hundred metres high. “What’s your name?”
More politeness, he thought, happily. It felt good to be inquired about.
“Vik,” he murmured.
“And what do you do?”
“I’m…” He yawned, and watched, bemused, as the air-moon span in a crazy arc before his eyes. Through stabiliser’s deepening fug he wondered whether he should tell her – whether it’d ever be worth the ensuing atmosphere of embarrassment and suspicion. Yet she’d stung him with the hypoderm, and that’d drawn blood enough to run a hundred character scans. It’d be a matter of seconds. Hell – she’d probably already run one, in which case his recalcitrance would seem suspect. He snuggled deeper down into the blissful state of numb, and relented. “I’m a journalist….”
“…working for?”
“Hustler, Vice and Thompson.”
When she failed to trip the brakes, or arch the car out into oncoming traffic, or thumb the passenger door wide-open and hurl him away onto the roadway – when she failed to react with anything more than a noncommittal ‘sounds… fun’ – Vik felt a sudden stab of dislocation. You’re not around the Two Sisters’ crowd anymore, he told himself. They were calmer out here. Quieter. Saner. He wondered what that meant for his line of work.
We’ll see, he thought. When Anjuli wakes we’ll see.

For two days she slept.
As soon as the sedative had worn off, Vic had clipped on his PC and spooled off an order, a wide-cast order to any Two-Sister’s trader who’d take it. As he ran through the mass of concealed clauses he felt the faint blush of warmth where the computer nestled up against his temple, nestled up against the patch were a thousand subcutaneous strands of wire drew together in the delicate knot that was his Interface. It wasn’t an implant – it required the PC to work – but when you’d slung it over your ear and booted it up and let the local network deamons authenticate you and grumble over the dubious legality of your credentials, it was just as good. Better, even; implants were never turned off, and you had to be incredibly gregarious to deal with that maddening level of connectedness.
The medic wore an implant, he recalled – but then a sheet of legalese drew down before his eyes, and the thought was lost as he scrambled to finalise the order. So many conditions, and then that interminable wait – bare seconds, but more than long enough to thrust him into the existential fug that accompanied any supplication to authority – as the local network secured his credit rating and bundled it up with the order. Yet his account had, somehow, remained in the black; the order was good, the PC sung a sweet tone of contentment and the trace-route – a stylised orrery crisscrossed with gossamer strands of light – unfurled itself and settled upon the edge of vision. From the corner of his eye he watched as the order threaded its way through the aether; a pair of thicker orange vectors describing the most economical route between the chaos of routers and relays littering the inner system. In the shadow of the orrery, twin counters sprang to life – it’d take four minutes to reach Venus, the first of the Twin Sisters, and another minute or so to reach the Big Sister and her progeny; Earth and Luna and the vast cloud of habitats slung between them.
While he waited on a reply the Band appeared – ushered into the foyer by a perennially personable receptionist. As it shepherded the group towards him, its panoramic smile, lit up in lights across the dark dome of its skull, tightened into a tight-lipped grimace of care and concern.
“He we are,” it offered, as it nuzzled its way up toward his bench. It stood about waist height, and scuttled, skate-like, across the polished concrete on six thin, wheeled limbs.
“He we are,” it repeated, as it turned to survey its bemused charges. Its voice was deep and rich and shot through with hidden hints of the maternal. A kind voice, Vic thought, but an automatic sort of kindness. The grimace broadened back into a smile; it drew one of its forelimbs up and across its thorax and executed a precise curtsy.
“If you need anything,” it continued, its little skull bobbing earnestly, “any service or assistance – do not hesitate to inquire of me.”
Vic and the Band stood still and silent. It took that as its answer.
“Very well,” it said, and in the voice Vic heard an edge of disappointment. “But if you do need anything, just page us,” and then it was gone, shooting madly back towards the reception hall.
Vic sent his PC to sleep and inspected the Band. They were all Earthies, and carried themselves with the careful confidence of those born and raised in terrestrial gravity – the one G baseline shared by Earth and Venus and all the inner habs. In the hierarchy of habitability the children of the Twin Sisters reigned; able to go anywhere in the system, live undaunted in any environment, stand erect and untremelled on the surface of any planet or moon, or the inner ring of a habitat, or the cold, hollow void of a Beltwise colony. Below them were the Double-Worlders – the progeny of Mars and Mercury; equally at home on either planet, or out among the farthest flung settlements in the system, but unable to countenance a return to earth unless they planned to spend the entire trip supine. Below them were the Luns, the moon-dwellers, from Luna and Ganymede and Io and Titan and Triton – the weak, tall, gracile creatures from the lightest of worlds. You hardly ever saw a Lun back on earth, unless they were plodding around in a scarab suit, up to their necks in shockgel and all encased in a shining white powered carapace. The only ones below them were the Nulls, the strange few who lived in the dark fastness between the worlds and the moons and the habitats – freeloaders commandeering the drifting hulks of old bulk traders, fanatics eking out a meagre existence on whatever asteroid they’d seized as their Eden. The Nulls lived in perpetual zero-g, or a micro-gravity close enough to be irrelevant, secure in their liminal domain but as helpless as beached jellyfish anywhere else.
The only ones stronger than the scions of the Twin Sisters were the Jovians – the deep tribes, who lived a secret and closely guarded existence in the aerostatic cities buoyed up above the thunderheads of that bloodshot giant.

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