Synthesis:Weave – Chapter 3

Chapter 3

In the three years he’d been on the station, Sebastian had never once been to Aryx’s apartment. The layout was similar to his own, except for the larger-than-usual shower unit in the far left-hand corner next to the kitchen, and the shelving that normally ran around the room above the wall-mounted storage had been replaced with a single, continuous planter. Lighting installed around the perimeter of the ceiling provided the plants with bright, simulated daylight. The plants themselves reflected a soothing green glow, giving a peaceful outdoor feel – far more restful than the drab grey of his own quarters – but as with all basic staff-grade apartments, this one lacked a window. To the right of the doorway, opposite the slightly lower-than-usual retractable sofa bed, stood a workbench backed with a computer console. Strewn with an assortment of technological paraphernalia, it cast a stark contrast against the pristine kitchen.

‘I never knew you kept plants,’ Sebastian said, quickly looking away from the mess.

Aryx headed into the kitchen. ‘I fell in love with them during rehab at hospital. After my accident they had me doing gardening for occupational therapy.’ He filled a kettle with water and put it on a gas burner to heat. ‘Before that, when my dad used to make me plant crops on the farm, I hated the bloody things.’

‘I suppose they offset the oxygen … Why the kettle?’

Aryx nodded. ‘The hot water here tastes funny.’ His nose wrinkled. ‘In fact, everything anyone else makes for me tastes funny, so I boil my own water.’ He wheeled over to the bed and stripped off his overalls. ‘I need a shower.’

Sebastian didn’t avert his eyes, as Aryx seemed comfortable with his own nakedness. He had never seen the tattoo on Aryx’s back before; it looked like a large tribal-style bramble coiling around his torso. A long, faint scratch ran down the right side of his back.

‘How did you get that? Is it an old war wound?’

‘What?’ Aryx twisted to look over his shoulder and felt his side with his left hand. ‘I haven’t got any scars on my back. I must have scratched myself in my sleep.’

‘Have you been having bad dreams as well?’

‘I never dream.’ He wheeled into the cubicle. ‘Can you keep an eye on the kettle?’

‘How do I know when the water’s ready?’

‘It’ll whistle at you. That’s when you turn the heat off.’

Steam issued from the shower, filling the room, and Sebastian could almost see himself standing in a tropical jungle. He watched the fuzzy silhouette as Aryx washed himself – with water. Such a luxury, when everyone else had to scrub themselves with gel.

‘Let me know if you ever want me to look after your apartment.’

‘The plants are watered automatically.’

Sebastian’s heart sank. While he waited, he began prodding the items on the workbench out of curiosity. A mass of electronics components, ship parts, and other strange things he’d never seen before littered the surface. One item stood out from the rest: a slightly rounded, rectangular box, twelve inches wide, eighteen inches tall and six inches deep. A complicated set of straps protruded from one side of it, giving it the appearance of a solid plastic backpack with a parachute harness attached. A symbol painted in yellow caught his eye; it depicted a square with a curve arching over it.

‘What’s this?’

Aryx stopped splashing. ‘I don’t know how you expect me to see what you’re on about from in here.’

‘It’s a constrained field device, isn’t it?’

‘Are you poking around in my stuff?’ The water stopped and a dripping Aryx wheeled out leaving tyre trails behind him. Inexplicably, the rest of the chair seemed completely dry.

Sebastian turned his back to the object. ‘No, I was just looking.’

A loud squeal came from the kitchen and Aryx wheeled over to the kettle and turned the heat off. Saved by the interruption, Sebastian looked about the room in an attempt to divert the tension. A moment later Aryx came back with two cups of coffee between his legs and handed one to him.

He took a sip. ‘By the Gods, that’s strong! What have you used, hydraulic fluid?’

Aryx narrowed his eyes. ‘Sorry, I forgot you like yours weak.’

‘It’s no wonder your taste buds don’t work properly.’ Sebastian went to the kitchen, emptied half of the cup down the sink, and topped it up with tap water. ‘So what’s this thing you’ve been working on?’

Aryx gulped his coffee down in one go. ‘If we’re going out, let’s go. I’m not getting you into something technical, or we’ll be here all night – I know what you’re like. Why don’t you go on ahead and get us a table? I’ve got to finish my shower now, because somebody disturbed me.’

Aryx made his way to the centre of the station – near the hub – where The Hive, his favourite nightclub, lay. He passed beneath the neon honeycomb sign over the entrance and an automated voice said, ‘Welcome to The Hive, where the atmosphere’s always buzzing!’ They should change that – it was too cheesy and didn’t fit the tone of the place at all.

The matt-black walls of the club gave the place an enclosed feeling, with pools of light forming areas under which people congregated to dance and chat. He wheeled over the dance floor, passing through regions of sound with music from at least three different DJs. The frame of his chair vibrated to the thumping, sexual bass track that played in the main arena.

Solo dancers writhed on podiums at the corners while others danced both singly and in a mixture of gender pairings, regardless of race or form, their torsos rubbing up and down each other in erotic motion. It was no wonder so many relationships started off – and ended – here. Aryx smiled; at least Humanity had finally grown up and realised it was better if everyone was left to get on with their own lives, regardless of their preferences. He wheeled off the dance floor and the volume dropped sharply.

Sebastian sat, huddled in the corner of a sumptuously upholstered L-shaped seat behind a table in of one the privacy enabled areas. Drinks were already laid out. Aryx pulled up at the table and leaned forwards, clasping his hands between his thighs.

‘So, tell me about this new job of yours.’

Sebastian waved his wristcom over the payment terminal mounted in the table. ‘Engage privacy mode.’

The sounds from the dance floor stopped and a curtain drew around them.

He sat back and folded his arms. ‘I don’t actually know what the job title is.’

‘Why not, you idiot?’

‘They didn’t tell me. A SpecOps agent interviewed me, although I didn’t really get asked any questions. They just told me I had the job.’

‘Sounds a bit weird, if you ask me. I’ve never been to an interview where they didn’t ask questions.’

‘I thought I was going for a disciplinary hearing! They’d already made up their minds that I was the one they wanted.’ He leaned forwards and rested his arms on the table, eyebrows so low Aryx thought they would fall into his drink. ‘Apparently they’ve been watching me for the last couple of months.’

‘What!’ Aryx looked around suspiciously and then remembered nobody could see or hear them. ‘Have they bugged you?’

Sebastian shook his head. ‘I don’t think so. I scoured my apartment for snoopers after I got back, but didn’t find anything. I think they’ve only been watching me at work.’

‘Still, sounds bloody dodgy. Nice outfit, by the way.’

Sebastian looked down at it and smiled. ‘It’s an N-suit.’

‘No way! They cost a fortune. Are they expecting you to get shot at?’

‘That’s one of the things that worries me.’ Sebastian’s brow looked ready to take another dive. ‘They don’t recruit in the normal way. They’ve given me a piece of technology to investigate as induction. Those terrorists that have been bombing colonies developed it!

‘They told me I could bring in a trusted partner to help, and they’d be paid full wages, and have full access to SpecOps resources.’

‘Sounds interesting … if you don’t get shot at, that is. Who did you choose?’ He almost didn’t dare hope.

‘You, if you’re interested – there might be the chance to get off the station.’

‘Are you bloody kidding? Of course I’m interested! Won’t they object to this if we’ve got to go off-world?’ He gestured to his chair. The prospect of doing anything other than repairing engines was exciting, but if they objected to him having to use the chair … It didn’t bear thinking about. It would be great to have a break from repair work, and to get one-up on the terrorists was something he’d wanted to do ever since he’d lost his legs – it was their fault he’d ended up on that damned planet, after all.

Sebastian grinned. ‘I thought you’d be interested. They need us to start the project soon, but Gladrin’s aware of your predicament and said we can use SpecOps resources to find a way to work around it.’

‘My schedule’s clear – I can start ASAP. What SpecOps resources do we have access to exactly?’

‘What do you have in mind?’

‘The thing I bit your head off about earlier, you know, the pack.’

‘What is it?’

‘A device I’ve been developing. I could do with your help on it. Keep it under your hat, though – it’s super-secret … But tell me about this item we’ve got to investigate.’

‘I don’t know much. I haven’t even opened the box. It’s about this big.’ Sebastian held his hands three inches apart. ‘They also gave me a few other items, but it doesn’t end there. They’ve allocated me a private shuttle.’

‘You lucky bastard!’ Aryx paused; his heart sank. ‘Oh, I see, bring the desperate disabled engineer along to repair it if something goes wrong!’

‘No! I almost wish I hadn’t asked.’ Sebastian pinched the bridge of his nose, closed his eyes, and shook his head. ‘You’re the one I trust the most and I thought you’d appreciate the change of scenery.’

‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have jumped the gun. I didn’t mean it. You’re right – it’ll be good to get out and about.’

‘It’s fine. I can see how it might come across like that. I’ll take a look at your pack tomorrow. Do you have anywhere secure we can work?’

‘There’s the hangar, but it’s not secure because it’s open to the other repair bays. Everyone else is on holiday at the moment, though. It’s either that, my apartment, or your office.’

Sebastian’s mouth twisted. ‘I don’t know what tools or computer equipment we might need.’

‘What class of shuttle have they allocated you?’

‘My supervisor is supposed to have sent details to my terminal, but I didn’t have time to look.’ Sebastian tapped on his wristcom and after a few moments said, ‘Talaga class, apparently.’

‘Those usually have a small work area. Can’t get much more private than that. Bring it around to my bay tomorrow.’

‘I wouldn’t have thought of that. I think we can do away with this now.’ He reached under the table and the privacy curtain pulled back.

The floor heaved with a mixture of Humans and aliens, and the pair sipped at their drinks, watching the dancers move to the music. It was odd to see the plethora of joints and limbs moving about in different ways, synchronised to the patterns each picked up in the music. Karan was amongst the disparate group, dancing energetically, limbs everywhere.

Aryx got the overwhelming urge to join in and wheeled over. He beckoned to Sebastian, but the gesture was returned with a sheepish shake of the head.

Karan danced with the fervour of a wild animal. Her energetic and excitable nature was refreshing. Aryx liked her even though she sometimes proved less than confidential – it was probably because she couldn’t sit still. The excitement over the things she heard about others was probably totally different to what she got in her day-to-day life. He sat in front of her and, leaning back, jerked his wheels forwards and tipped up into a wheelie. He allowed the music to swallow him while he rocked back and forth, balancing on two wheels and turning from side to side on the spot. A couple of times he glanced over at Sebastian, and each time he received an apprehensive smile. He didn’t get it. He should learn to let go sometimes.

Aryx wheeled into the centre of the dance floor and began waving his arms over his head to the beat, letting his weight swing the chair from side to side. Feeling a little more adventurous in the hub’s lower gravity, he pulled his brakes on, waited for a break in the music and, when the beat permitted, threw his weight to one side, tipping the chair over. He landed on his outstretched hand and dropped into a one-arm push-up. With a shove, he launched himself upright and over in the other direction, where he repeated the springing push-up again.

Karan loosely mirrored his movements and leaped all over the place with her head thrown back, hair everywhere.

Sebastian smiled and shook his head.

Aryx repeated his performance several times until the music started to calm down again, then returned to the table with Karan following. He was unable to persuade Sebastian to relax enough to join in dancing – even after several drinks – so the trio sat and talked until they had their fill of conversation and went their separate ways.

Aryx woke in the night and turned on the bedside lamp. Its dull light was eerie in the leafy shadows of his apartment. Something rustled in the plants at the back of the kitchen.

He froze. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. What was it? He glanced at the door. It was shut, so he sat for a few moments, trying to decide whether it was just his over-active imagination. He let out a slow breath and the leaves rustled again.

His pulse raced. The last thing he needed was some little alien thing creeping around while he was in bed. The disturbance in the leaves edged closer around the room, moving through the planter. It was time to go.

He reached out for his wheelchair, but it sat beyond his reach; he lay across the bed and tried to stretch as far as he could. It wasn’t enough.

The rustling approached quicker; it was nearly at the bed.

He reached again, straining to span the gap, and fell to the floor. Pain shot through his stumps from the impact and he tried to drag himself along but an immense weight held him down. The weight of fear.

He tried to control his breath, to quieten the ragged sound while he strained to listen. Where was it? The rustling stopped level with him, on the other side of the bed, out of view. He waited, holding his breath, but heard nothing. Mustering the courage to drag himself up to the bed, he peered over the edge.

A small, red creature with tiny horns and bat-like wings sat amongst the leaves. It looked like someone had taken a child’s plastic doll, attached grotesque features, and dipped it in a dark red paint.

The evil thing jumped at his face. He screamed.

He jerked awake, limbs flailing, and bashed the stump of his right leg painfully against the planter. He reached down to rub it and rolled over to turn on the bedside lamp with the other hand.

Somehow he’d got tangled up in the bedding, which he straightened before mopping his sodden brow. The details of the dream were vague. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d woken from a nightmare with such a fright; what a childish thing to do.

A light on his terminal flashed impatiently. Whatever it was, it could wait until tomorrow. He switched off the bedside lamp, and while he lay in the darkness with his eyes open, he couldn’t shake the feeling of something being wrong with the room.

That morning Aryx sat in his wheelchair at the kitchen counter, cooking eggs – one of the few ‘real’ foods you could still get easily in space – while he spoke to Sebastian over the comms.

‘Are you sure it’s okay to work on my pack today?’

‘I’m certain. Gladrin was clear that we could use the resources, as long as we start my assignment soon.’

‘Good. I’m just having some breakfast then I’ll meet you in the hangar. Bring your ship around and I’ll be there.’

‘I’ll see you shortly.’ Sebastian signed off.

Aryx finished his breakfast and cleared the kitchen, making sure the work surfaces were disinfected – he didn’t trust the automated systems to do it properly. He collected a couple of tools from the workbench along with the pack and was about to leave the apartment when he remembered the flashing light from the night before. It was a message, but the terminal didn’t show from whom; it was totally empty.

‘Very strange,’ he said, rubbing his chin. He decided to forward it to Sebastian. Stuff like that shouldn’t happen on his watch.

With the message sent, he wheeled out and headed down the long, curving hallway to the lift.

Sebastian entered the shuttle storage bay – a vast, cavernous space similar to the repair hangar, though completely bathed in light, rather than just the bays. Hundreds of ships and shuttles sat in ranks, filling the space. The harsh, bright lighting flooded the hangar, reflecting off the silvery walls, giving the impression that even amid the huge collection of ships there would be nowhere to hide without casting a conspicuous shadow. He walked past the rows of ships, studying the reference numbers on his wristcom, and after a few minutes of searching he turned down one of the aisles and found the allocated vessel.

At roughly ten metres tall and nearly twice as long, it looked a lot larger than the usual passenger shuttles. The engine exhaust ports were big for its size, and the yellow and black chevrons on the fore and aft quarters of the hull – indicating the locations of four retractable atmospheric Dyson hoops – seemed a little out of place. He’d never seen them on anything other than aircraft and trains, and never the collapsible variety; it was definitely a high-end performance ship. Maybe it was designed for something more than shunting passengers about.

He walked around the vessel, running his hand over the steely-blue hull. The colouration was striking: the side panels and keel were white, separated from the bluish tints of the front, roof, and rear by a long, black stripe that undulated from below the bow, up, and over to the stern, emphasising its flowing curves. It reminded him of the N-suit design. He rounded the port side from the bow and, passing two intakes lined with slats like oversized metal gills, spotted large, black lettering emblazoned near the windows. It read Ultima Thule. Not a bad name – it sounded like an exploration vessel. At the midsection he noticed a small logo imprinted below the airlock door where the hull curved under. It was the same image he’d seen on Aryx’s pack. He let out a whistle. Aryx would be impressed if he knew the ship had CFD generators. He pressed his palm to the airlock’s multi-lock.

‘Greetings, Agent Thorsson, you have been granted access to the Ultima Thule.’ The door retracted a little and slid to the right, into the hull.

A small, glowing glassy orange step appeared in mid-air, halfway between the doorway and the hangar floor, and he jumped back. He could see why it would be necessary – the landing struts held the ship nearly three feet off the ground. He hadn’t had a chance to look at a constrained field closely and he’d never used any of the handheld tools himself, so he bent down to examine it.

The edges were slightly rounded and the step tapered towards the bottom, giving it a soft, wedge-like appearance. The top surface had a slightly ribbed texture, but its semi-transparent nature made it difficult to see the detail, and the lines of light that traced through it caused his eyes to drift.

He reached out and touched it. Warm. No, not warm … neutral. It was probably the temperature of the surrounding air. The surface felt hard and didn’t budge when he pressed down on it. He ran his hand over the side. The surface was slick, like wet glass, with hardly any friction at all. The upper surface seemed slightly different; aside from the large bumps, it had a finer texture that made it feel rubbery. A lot of programming had probably gone into it. The processing power required to calculate and maintain the fine texture alone would have been enormous.

He stood up and tentatively put his foot on the step. He didn’t immediately slip, so he proceeded to climb up. Upon entering the ship, he looked back over his shoulder. The step was gone. He turned around to fully face the doorway and the step reappeared. SpecOps obviously got the best. He turned back to the interior.

The airlock was only a couple of feet deep, just large enough for one person at a time, or two at a squeeze. Ahead a corridor ran left and right, and directly opposite the entrance a small bay housed pressure suits and a medkit. Along the corridor to the left, the walls were lined with storage units on either side until the space opened out into a cargo bay with a smooth-panelled floor. To the right of the airlock, the corridor terminated in a door mounted in the bulkhead. Mindful of the time, he decided not to explore the rear and made his way into the cargo section. To the right of the entrance to the bay stood a small lift platform with an accompanying emergency ladder; both passed through sealed hatches in the ceiling. He took the lift up to the next floor and the hatch snapped open. Several seconds later he was at the top – it would take far too long for someone in a hurry.

He stepped off the lift into what appeared to be the cockpit, which took up front third of the ship. Two seats faced the piloting console – a standard layout with several buttons and a black glass virtual console that curved around the line of the windows. At least he’d be able to pilot the ship, if it truly was standard. He turned to look in the direction of the aft section.

To the right of the lift, a walkway ran the full length of the upper floor and, although he couldn’t be certain, it seemed shorter than it should have been. Something at the back was taking up space. Several consoles projected from the bulkhead, lining the wall on the right, with strip lighting mounted in the ceiling overhead. Freely movable seats stood in front of them, forming an area that might be the workspace Aryx mentioned. On the opposite side of the walkway were three seats with safety harnesses. If the ship could only carry five in total, it certainly wasn’t a passenger shuttle.

He went back to the cockpit area and sat in one of the pilot seats. He touched the console and several virtual buttons illuminated from within the glass with a bright green glow. After entering the access codes, he programmed the transport system to take the ship through the necessary junctions and pressed the initiate button.

The docking arm extended from the ceiling of the hangar and lowered over the ship. Through the use of carefully balanced magnetic fields, it lifted the vessel without touching it, and lowered it into the huge coils of the transport rings. The support struts retracted automatically and the ship floated forward, carried by the magnetic inductors. As it drew into one of the station’s spokes, it started to fall into the tunnel and out towards the rim of the station. Fields caught and controlled its alternating light and dark descent while it passed through the illuminated hoops until it finally entered the outer section and made its way around the arc.

While Sebastian waited, he contemplated the journey. It was odd how it appeared that no species – except maybe the Folians – had yet managed to develop anti-gravity. Nobody knew how the Folian ships operated, and stories of them floating motionless in hangars caused no end of speculation. Had they got anti-gravity technology, or was it something else? It wasn’t a hypothesis that had been substantiated, as no Human in living memory had ever been on board one of their ships. It was a shame his department didn’t have technical manuals he could study, and given what Tolinar had said in the atrium, he’d never see one.

He stared out of the cockpit while the ship drifted past several private bays. All of them were empty. All except one.

His skin tingled. His heart skipped a beat. One of the enigmatic Folian ships floated in the bay he was passing. A cross between a giant almond and walnut – in shape, colour, and texture – it hung motionless, several feet off the floor, just like the stories said.

Within moments the Ultima Thule had drifted past, taking the ship out of view. He had to get a look inside one some day.

Aryx watched from the repair bay while the retrieval arm, with lights flashing, glided over on its Cartesian frame, dropped down, and lifted a ship out of the transport tunnel. It trundled back across the hangar with its heavy load and placed it in the bay where the Antari ship had been the day before. He lugged the pack-shaped device onto his lap and wheeled towards it. The airlock door opened and a step appeared. Sebastian’s head popped out.

‘She’s rather nice,’ Aryx said, ‘and I like the step feature! I didn’t realise CFDs got used for those sorts of things yet … But how am I supposed to get up it?’

‘Give it a go.’ Sebastian moved back inside the entrance. ‘I think you’ll be surprised.’

Aryx rolled his wheelchair towards the step. He got within four feet and it vanished, instantly replaced with a squat, conical ramp. Intriguing, but useless.

‘Won’t it be slippery? These fields are normally smooth.’

‘The programmers have written in textures that provide grip – as long as you’ve got tread that it can catch on to. Try it.’

He edged forwards and brought the front casters of his chair up onto the ramp. They seemed to move normally. He pushed the wheels a little and crept up into the ship. ‘Very impressive. We’ll have to dig through the code for that.’

Sebastian didn’t respond; he just stared off into space.

‘Oi, where have you gone?’ Aryx poked him.

He snapped out of his daydreaming and looked down. ‘I was thinking about Folian ships – did you know there was one parked in one of the private bays just down the tube?’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘Ever had one in for repair?’

‘No, but I saw a damaged one once. What are you getting at?’ He could almost see the cogs going around in Sebastian’s head, formulating some stupid plan.

‘I’d love to see inside one sometime.’

‘Heh, you and everyone else. They arrive, drop off delegates, and then leave again. They never hang around.’

‘What about the damaged one?’

‘Not much to tell. Turned up outside the station one day with a big black patch up the side of it. There were rumours that terrorist group set off a bomb when it visited one of our colonies.’ He waved dismissively. ‘I don’t know how true that was.’

‘Why didn’t it come in for repair?’

‘No idea. Apparently it dropped someone off and went straight back out again. They didn’t even request any help.’

Sebastian shrugged with his bottom lip like he often did, seemingly dismissing the subject for the time being. He stepped behind Aryx and ushered him in. ‘You’ll like the ship.’

Aryx moved through the airlock into the main corridor. He glanced left towards the cargo bay and then turned his attention to the door to the right. ‘Can you code the palm-locks?’

Sebastian reached over, pressed his hand against the lock, and waited a couple of seconds until the coding signal beeped. ‘Add identity to allow list for all locks,’ he said, and pulled his hand away.

Aryx put his palm to the lock.

‘Identity added to list of authorised users.’ The door slid open.

The lights in the room blinked on, revealing a relatively bare space with dark, unpainted brushed-metal walls. The floor consisted of a grille under which cabling ran fore and aft. In the centre of the room, a large rectangular device – at least five feet long, four feet wide, and three feet tall – dominated the space. Mounted in a set of gimbals, it hung suspended by eight hydraulic arms anchored in each corner of the room.

‘This must be the main CFD shield,’ Aryx said, moving around the unit. ‘There’s probably a smaller one just inside the door for the step. Judging by the size of this, it looks like it could generate a shield covering about twenty-five per cent of the hull, I’d say, but if you landed on the shield, it would probably rip the generator off its mountings.’

Sebastian walked across the room and pointed to a panel on the wall. ‘There’s a configuration console here.’

‘This is expensive stuff. The cost of the generator alone must be millions.’

Sebastian did the mouth-shrug thing again and walked towards the door opposite the one they’d entered. Aryx wheeled past and pressed his hand to the lock.

The cube-shaped engine – a compact fusion reactor – stood about four feet tall, mounted directly on the floor. Its sides, covered with protruding vanes, looked like giant heat sinks with coolant pipes running up and down between them and over the top into the middle of the unit. Heavy-duty cabling ran from the centre up to the ceiling and towards the rear of the ship. At the end of the room nearest the stern stood a large oven-like machine: the mass deconstructor.

‘You’re right,’ Aryx said. ‘I do like this ship. You can run these things on literally anything if you’re desperate enough. The reactor uses hydrogen, helium, or almost anything you can scoop from an atmosphere, and the thrusters can use practically anything that can be mined. You could probably use the fusion leftovers in the thrusters afterwards.’

Sebastian laughed. ‘It’s the perfect eco-ship!’

Aryx ignored the comment. ‘Does it run quiet?’

‘I don’t know. I used the batteries to power the inductors when I brought it through the tube.’

‘I guess we’ll find out in time, then.’ He made his way into the forward section. ‘Hmm. Fairly spacious for a cargo bay, but I don’t see how it can be that useful with such a small corridor and airlock.’

Sebastian walked to the far corner of the hold and pulled back the webbing that hung down. ‘There’s a panel here,’ he said, and activated a control.

The forward wall gave a loud clunk and lights in the ceiling started to flash while it hinged downwards, forming a ramp out of the ship.

‘Okay, that’s a bit more useful,’ Aryx said with a laugh. ‘I didn’t realise a ship this small would do that.’

Sebastian fiddled with the controls again and the door closed. Aryx took the lift upstairs and began investigating the consoles in the work area.

Sebastian’s head popped up through the ladder hatch. ‘Will you slow down?’

‘I can’t help being excited. I haven’t flown a ship for years, and there’s so much kit!’ Aryx ran his hand over the black glass of the console. ‘Yes, I definitely approve.’ He dropped the pack next to the workbench and wheeled back to the cockpit where Sebastian stood examining the controls.

‘I’m glad you like it,’ Sebastian said. ‘It’s not like we’d have much say in the matter if we didn’t.’ He pressed a button on the console. The airlock doors whumped shut downstairs.

‘Have you checked for bugs?’ Aryx whispered.

Sebastian shook his head and took a small device out of his rucksack. He pressed a button on it and began walking around the ship.

A few minutes later he came back with a handful of tiny black cubes. ‘I found one in each of the main sections. I’ll ask Agent Gladrin about them. I don’t see why SpecOps would bug their own ships.’ He activated his wristcom. ‘Call Special Projects Agent Gladrin.’

After a moment a voice on the other end replied. ‘Hello, Agent Thorsson. What can I do for you?’

‘I’m sorry to call you, Sir, I wasn’t sure if you were working today. I decided to check out the ship you issued. I was just looking around and found a few snooping devices. I didn’t know whether it was standard practice for them to be here.’

‘Those should have been removed by the preparation crew before the ship was released. Evidently someone hasn’t been doing their job properly! We leave them on the ships while they’re in storage, just in case they get stolen or damaged. There’s a tracking device in the pressure suit locker, if you haven’t already found it. I would be grateful if you could send them to your office at your earliest convenience.’

Aryx raised his eyebrows. It didn’t sound like any kind of standard practice he’d heard of.

‘I’ll do that. Thanks for letting me know.’

‘My pleasure. Is there anything else I can help you with?’

‘Not at the moment, thank you.’

Aryx waited for Gladrin to sign off. ‘That sounds a bit odd,’ he said, ‘but I suppose with these ships being so expensive they can justify taking extra measures for security.’

‘Hold that thought.’ Sebastian dashed downstairs and came back a few moments later with the tracker unit – a slightly larger version of the snoopers with a flat, delicate antenna plate – in his hand.

‘Found it right where he said it would be, in the locker.’ He put the tracker in his rucksack along with the snoopers. ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll send these to the office while you set up. I would rather not have them hanging around.’ He gestured in the direction of the pack and disappeared down the ladder.

Aryx understood what he meant. At least he’d remembered it was meant to be a secret. He went to the diagnostic console and lifted the pack onto the workbench. With a press of a button on the side, a flap opened, and out slid the infoslate he’d set up specifically for configuring the unit.

Sebastian came up the ladder and sat down on one of the seats next to him. ‘I posted the bugs to the office. So, what do you need help with? What is this thing? I thought you said you were doing something with your wheelchair.’

‘Stop it with the questions! It is to do with my wheelchair, in a way. Do you remember the conversation we had the other day about field emitters?’

‘Nope, had too much to worry about with work … Most of the CFDs I’ve seen have either been for partial shielding, like the one downstairs, or the tiny ones in those tools you use. I can’t see how you could generate a useful sized field with this.’ He gestured to the backpack. ‘Are you trying to make some kind of all-over personal shield?’

Aryx shook his head. ‘Don’t be daft. It can’t enclose the generator. I’ll put you out of your misery.’ He strapped the pack to his back and fastened the leg harness. ‘Close your eyes.’

Sebastian did as he was told.

Aryx got out of his chair. ‘Okay, open them.’

Sebastian opened his eyes and they looked like they were going to eject from his head.

Aryx admired his handiwork. The missing part of his legs from the knees down had been replaced with a glowing, glassy force-field in the shape of calves, ankles and feet. ‘I’d like to introduce you to the “mobility pack”. Mobipack, for short.’ He took a faltering step towards Sebastian. ‘I realised I could use it as a prosthesis. These don’t put pressure on my legs because I’m hanging from the harness, so no trouble with my degrading bones.’

Sebastian grinned.

Aryx bent over and passed his fingers through the gap where his knee joint would have been. ‘You can see there’s a bit of space between my legs and the field, for safety.’ He straightened and they slid out from under him.

Sebastian reached forwards but was too far away to halt his fall.

‘Ouch!’

‘Are you alright?’

Aryx rubbed his backside. ‘I don’t think anything’s broken.’

Sebastian held out his hand.

‘I’m okay. I can get up myself.’ Aryx brushed the hand away. He took a deep breath. ‘It’s nearly frictionless. I need to get the field to adapt to the surface. That’s where you come in.’

‘I thought you might have that problem as soon as I saw it. Was this why you mentioned the code for the ramp earlier?’

‘Yeah. I need help with the field programming.’ He sat back down in the wheelchair and pressed a few buttons on the pack, wirelessly connecting it to the ship’s diagnostic console. The legs instantly vanished. ‘I need to get the textures right for the soles of the feet. You know me – I’m no good at programming.’ He unstrapped the pack and put it on the console.

Sebastian rubbed his hands together. ‘I’ll check to see if I can get into the source.’ He reached forward, as though to begin typing, and a keyboard lit up in the glass of the workbench in front of him. It was close to where Aryx was sitting, so he dragged it to a more appropriate position and pulled the opposite corners to scale it to fit his hands.

‘I don’t like those,’ Aryx said, shaking his head. ‘I’d rather have a button that goes click. If I ever work out how to get constrained fields to respond to touch, I’ll make a projected keyboard out of one.’

‘I don’t mind them. Anything’s better than getting a sore throat from talking to a computer all day. It just seems faster to type. You get used to them quickly.’ Sebastian tapped away and pages of source code scrolled up the display. ‘Thank the Gods these systems are all open source.’

‘As long as it’s secure and does what I want it to, I don’t care, and I don’t think your Norse gods have anything to do with software.’

‘You know what I mean.’

It was probably more out of habit that Sebastian said it, rather than because he wanted to remember his Icelandic Ásatrú heritage. Other than wearing a Thor’s hammer as a necklace, and coming out with the odd utterance, Aryx had never seen any evidence that Sebastian paid any attention to his religion at all.

After several hours work, the pair had found the relevant code to generate grip and transplanted it into the mobipack’s system. Sebastian added voice control and an infoslate interface so that Aryx could design field patterns on-screen in his absence.

‘Right, let’s try it,’ Sebastian said.

Aryx activated the mobipack where it lay on the console. He could tell by Sebastian’s slack-jawed expression that he found the process fascinating. Floating threads of light appeared in the air several inches from the pack. They whipped around as though blown by a strong wind, rapidly twisting and contorting until they settled into the outline of the prosthetics. The spaces between the threads on the skin of the limbs were spanned by a glowing translucent region, giving the impression of a luminescent soap film. Instead of rainbow colours swirling on the surface, an intense orange laser lacing moved about to a hypnotic rhythm within. The whole process of coalescence took a fraction of a second, but long enough for the naked eye to see – in contrast to the commercial unit used by the ship. Aryx was glad the effect was so aesthetically pleasing.

‘Why does it look more solid than the step?’ Sebastian asked.

‘It’s made from cheaper components. Most of it’s recycled from old ship parts. Anyway, let’s give this code a try. Mobipack, loose terrain.’ The soles of the feet rippled and Aryx touched the surface. It felt knobbly. ‘That’s okay.’ He moved his hands away from the feet. ‘Mobipack, icy terrain.’ Long spikes extruded from the feet. ‘They’re not sharp, but should be fine. Now for the real test … Mobipack, interior.’

The spikes on the soles retracted and Aryx ran his hand over the surface. Strange; hard, yet satiny – he couldn’t begin to describe it. ‘That feels odd, but I think it’ll work.’

‘Good. I’d hate to think that we’d wasted all that time.’ Sebastian smiled, but his expression quickly changed to a frown. ‘I don’t think we’ll be able to overcome the grip problem on smooth floors, though. It’ll probably be fine on rough concrete and carpet, but not metal. That’s a basic physics problem. We just don’t have the resolution to generate contours small enough to grip hard, shiny surfaces. You’ll have to be careful using it. It probably needs more calibration, but you can do that with the slate.’

‘I don’t mind having to stick with the chair for getting around indoors. I only need the pack for unmanageable terrain, otherwise I’ll never get to leave the station.’

‘How about wearing shoes on the legs?’

Aryx shook his head. ‘Don’t be daft. I want to carry less, not more! And they’d probably fall on the floor when I turned it off and I’d forget about them. Can you imagine the trail of boots I’d leave?’

Sebastian laughed.

‘As long as it works for what I need it for, it’ll be fine,’ Aryx said, trying to reassure him.

‘You walked like a cargomech earlier, all stiff-legged. If you had gyros and pressure sensors on the generators, the legs could move at the knee and they’d know when they were on the ground.’

‘I’ve got a generator in this pack for each leg. Putting sensors on might work … I’ll go and see if I can find some spare landing strut sensors.’ He took the lift down and headed out into the repair bay.

After searching through his storage cabinets for a few minutes, he realised the parts weren’t where he thought they’d be. ‘Seb!’

Sebastian’s face appeared at the cockpit window.

‘I need to go and get parts from the storage lockup,’ he shouted, over-mouthing the words in case Sebastian couldn’t hear. ‘I’ll be a few minutes, okay?’

Sebastian nodded; Aryx wasn’t sure that he’d heard correctly. He pointed at himself and then in the direction of the far end of the hangar. Sebastian nodded again.

Aryx approached the row of shiny white personnel transport pods at the far end of the hangar. The ten foot diameter spheres lined the wall and sat next to an opening similar to those of the transit tunnels, but much smaller. Each sphere housed a tinted glass-composite window in the upper front quadrant and rested against the lip of the landing platform. He wheeled up to the first pod in the line and its curved door hinged down to form a ramp.

The inside was plain with a console below the window, and harnessed seating around the rear. Aryx reached under his chair and pulled a trigger switch. From the underside, four small magnets extended and latched on to the floor with a clunk. The console lit up and he selected the option for unlisted destinations, entering the bay number for the lockup.

The moorings released and the pod lurched sideways. He was glad he’d deployed the magnets – he had no desire to be flung about the pod while it hurtled through the transit tubes. The pod swooped and wove its way through the one-way tunnel and came to a halt in the drab grey of the storage lockup. Aryx approached the caged-in requisitions desk and a stern, elderly woman with hair bound up in a tight bun leaned over and frowned at him.

‘How can I help you?’ Her tone was flat, and suggested anything but helpfulness. She must have hated her job, being stuck in that room and not seeing many people. It was either that or she hated people and loved her job because of it.

‘I need some parts, if you’ve got them in stock.’

She spun a clipboard around on the desk and handed it to him. It had forms made from real paper – a little old-fashioned – but he understood the need for the department to have records that couldn’t be tampered with. He filled out the form and handed it back.

She tapped away at a terminal and after a moment raised her eyebrows. ‘Mr Trevarian, you do not have a scheduled maintenance item that requires these part numbers, and we don’t issue station items for personal use.’ Her stare hardened.

‘I know. This is a Special Projects and Operations thing. I have a requisitions ID.’

She handed him an infoslate and he entered the code. The woman seemed even more surprised when the clearance appeared on the terminal in front of her. She sucked air through her teeth. ‘Very well, I’ll get these for you now,’ she said, and scuttled off.

A few minutes later she came back with the sensors and handed them to him, along with a receipt.

‘Thank you very much,’ he said, and turned to leave.

She didn’t acknowledge him. Obviously, she loved her job.

He re-boarded the transport pod and entered the maintenance bay as the destination, accompanied by the security clearance code. The pod moved off, following the arc around the station’s rim, and turned in the opposite direction when it met the next junction.

After a few minutes, it neared the private bays Sebastian had mentioned. Aryx kept his wits about him. Sebastian had often said that his nephew was obsessed with photographs of aliens, and Aryx didn’t want to miss an opportunity to snap one for him. He manually overrode the speed, slowing the pod to a crawl.

And there it was, the Folian ship, exactly as Sebastian had described. It was unusual for one to be on the station for longer than a few minutes. It did indeed look like a giant elongated walnut-almond, with long, flowing organic ridges interspersed with small holes or indentations upon its exterior. The colour was a dark tan, almost brown, and the ship didn’t appear to have any kind of landing legs – it hung in the air next to the platform, unsupported.

Aryx held up his wristcom and took several photographs, then set the pod’s speed to automatic and waited patiently to reach the hangar. Sebastian was going to love it.

The pod came to rest behind the others in the hangar and Aryx headed back to the Ultima Thule.

‘You won’t believe what I managed to get a picture of,’ he said, entering the cockpit.

Sebastian looked up from the console. ‘I have no idea.’

‘The Folian ship you saw earlier.’

Sebastian’s eyes widened and his lips parted. ‘Let me see!’

Aryx downloaded the pictures from his wristcom and the list of images came up on the display. Sebastian tapped the screen. The first picture showed the private bay area in exquisitely sharp detail.

‘Where’s the ship?’ Sebastian asked.

While it showed the bay in the best detail possible for the wristcom camera, it didn’t show the ship in any kind of detail at all – it was a blurry smudge and looked as though someone had printed the image in oil paint and proceeded to drag their thumb across it.

‘I … don’t get it …’ Aryx said. Was his wristcom broken? He moved on to the next image. It was from a slightly different angle but the result was exactly the same. The two subsequent images were similarly distorted. ‘What the hell could cause that?’

‘I have no idea.’ Sebastian shook his head and did the mouth-shrug. ‘Some kind of new cloaking technology?’

‘I’ve never heard of any race having cloaking technology. There’s plenty of stealth tech, but they block radar and EM scans. I don’t know of anything that blurs out an object in a photograph like this. This is just … weird. I suppose this makes you want to see inside one even more, now?’

‘Too right.’

He knew it was going to be difficult to get Sebastian’s mind off the puzzle of the Folian ship so, rather than pushing him further on the coding task, he focused on adapting the mountings inside the mobipack to accommodate the sensors.

By the evening, the pack was in a usable state. Aryx conducted a few test walks and didn’t fall over.

‘This is great,’ he said. ‘At least if we have to go anywhere off-station I won’t have too much trouble getting about.’

‘Well, don’t get your hopes up,’ Sebastian said. ‘I think the SpecOps task is probably going to be more desk work than anything else.’

Aryx’s stomach growled like a wild animal. They’d been working so intently that neither of them had even thought about stopping for lunch.

Sebastian looked down at Aryx’s abdomen. ‘Do you fancy going to one of the open air restaurants for dinner?’

‘I suppose so. Be a nice change after being cooped up here all day.’

Sebastian stood up and stretched. Several vertebrae cracked back into place.

‘Your posture is crap.’

‘I can’t help that I slouch when I’m concentrating.’ He gestured at the mobipack. ‘Do you want to put that in a secure locker downstairs?’

‘I suppose. Have you removed all access other than ours?’

‘Yes, stop fretting. Where do you want to go for dinner?’

‘I fancy one of those places with al fresco areas under the trees. And no, you’re not taking me to that awful place that does potato as their speciality. Whoever thought up the name Spud Nick’s ought to be shot. The guy who owns it isn’t even called Nick!’

Sebastian laughed. ‘Sorry about that. I know it’s a bit greasy-spoon for you.’

Aryx locked the mobipack away in one of the storage compartments in the hold, left the ship, and headed for the hangar exit.

Sebastian coughed behind him. ‘I thought we might go via the transport pods.’

‘Oh yes?’ Aryx called over his shoulder. ‘To see if the Folian ship is still there, no doubt?’ He stopped and turned to face him. ‘You’re so predictable.’

‘You got me there.’ Sebastian shrugged. ‘What can I say? I’m curious.’

‘We shouldn’t waste station resources making unnecessary trips.’

He frowned.

‘Just this once then, as long as it shuts you up.’

Sebastian grinned, and jogged off in the direction of the transports.

They entered the pod and Aryx strategically selected a destination in the atrium that would take them around the return junction past the Folian ship. He clamped his chair down once again and pressed the initiate button.

Sebastian sat on the edge of his seat, coiled like a cat about to pounce. The first of the empty bays passed and he sprang up and pressed his face against the window. The spherical pod rocked.

‘Bloody sit down!’

‘I want to see the ship.’

‘You’re supposed to be in the harness. Are you trying to get us both killed?’

Sebastian sneered. ‘Artificial gravity. These things are perfectly safe, see?’ He jumped up and down and the pod wobbled.

‘For your own safety, please remain seated,’ the computer said.

Sebastian folded his arms and flopped back into the seat with a deep scowl on his face.

The bay slid into view. It was empty.

Sebastian’s face reddened. ‘That’s so frustrating!’

‘I’m sure there will be another occasion.’

‘Yes, but—’

‘Stop acting like a spoiled child! Think yourself lucky. You’ve been given a job many would kill for along with that ship and other stuff. It’s more than most people get after working their entire lives!’

Sebastian sighed. ‘Yes, but—’

Aryx elbowed him sharply in the ribs; Sebastian merely grunted. The N-suit’s impact protection apparently worked.

The sunlight shining through the sky-pattern filters came in bright and warm, and the trees rustled in the gentle air flow caused by the station’s rotation.

Aryx stretched and took in a deep breath of fresh air. ‘Smell those flowers.’

Sebastian sniffed. ‘Lovely.’

‘It’s the closest we’ll get to Earth for a while. We’ve got two years left before a free round-trip, so make the most of it.’

‘I’d forgotten it was that long.’

‘Right, where to?’ Aryx asked, keen to get back to the subject of food.

‘There’s a place that does Italian pizza on one of the upper terraces, if you fancy that.’ Sebastian pointed to a spot high up on the third tier.

‘As long as they do proper coffee and decent food, I don’t care. My stomach is threatening to take out the hull.’

Sebastian led him towards a ramp next to the river and they made their way up the long, curving slope from one side of the atrium to the other, where it joined a walkway on the next terrace above.

Aryx spotted a group of bald people dressed in bright purple robes coming towards them. ‘Oh no, the Antari delegates.’ He grabbed Sebastian by the hips and positioned himself behind him. ‘Don’t let them see me – they complain about everything.’

Sebastian shuffled to the top of the first ramp, dragging Aryx behind him, and doubled back in the opposite direction, taking an adjacent one. It was a long route to take, but Aryx was glad of the opportunity to be out in the open air – and avoid the Antari. At the top they headed along the terrace for a hundred yards and took another bridge to the other side.

‘I’m glad you know where you’re going,’ Aryx said. ‘It’s like a bloody maze up here.’

Sebastian towed him past a large, point-arched opening in the left-hand wall, surrounded by an eclectic selection of old Earth symbols. He briefly caught a glimpse of the interior through the open doors. A long, red carpet ran from the doorway to the wall at the far end, fifty metres away, where large, coloured panes of glass tinted the purple nebula beyond. In front of the window, at the end of the carpet and on top of three steps, sat a long, low box-like table upon which rested a set of candles. Along the length of the hall, right of the carpet runner, were rows of low, wooden benches where several people sat with their heads bowed. Left of the runner, white-robed individuals knelt upon low, circular mat-covered podiums. They slowly raised their heads, muttered words to themselves, and bowed forwards until their foreheads touched the carpet.

Sebastian stopped. ‘I’ve never seen this place with the door open before,’ he said.

‘What is it?’

‘The Panchurch.’

Aryx stared at the podium-sitters, slowly rotating in unison. ‘What are they doing?’

‘They’re Muslims.’

He scratched his head. ‘I don’t see why they’re turning round.’

Sebastian let out a sigh, as though the effort of explaining was too much. ‘They have to face Mecca when they pray.’

‘Oh yes … Obviously.’ Aryx shrugged and wheeled past the opening as quickly as he could. Religion was weird.

They turned on to a wide, half-hexagon section of terrace that jutted out from the high atrium wall and overhung the terrace below by several yards. They approached a long glass shopfront with a small canopy above it. A sign next to it read ‘Q’orrig’s Pizzeria’. Across from the restaurant, separated by the sidewalk, grew a well-tended lawn with three large birch trees where several tables with umbrellas served as the outdoor dining area. Sebastian sat at one of the tables and activated the service beacon while Aryx moved a seat out of the way and parked his chair in the gap.

A few moments later a young girl came out with a couple of menus. She placed them on the table and said, ‘Welcome to Q’orrig’s Pizzeria. Can I get you some drinks?’

‘I’d like a mineral water, please,’ Sebastian said.

‘I’ll have a double shot of Espresso, thank you.’

‘Would you like to order now?’

‘I’ll have the rim-river seafood with extra olives,’ Sebastian said.

Aryx scanned the menu. There was only one thing he was interested in. ‘I’ll have a large ham and pineapple, with a stuffed crust.’

‘I’m afraid the Hawaiians aren’t real ham – it’s formed mycoprotein. Is that okay?’

It was a little annoying, but as real meat was often difficult to come by, he gave in. ‘Yes, that’s fine.’

The waitress dashed off with their orders and they sat and watched the projected clouds pass overhead, the brightness of which had been slowly decreasing while they travelled from the transport to the restaurant. The light, humid breeze gave the impression of a warm summer’s evening and, as the simulated dusk descended, the solar filters cleared, revealing the glowing, deep-purple nebula hanging against the starry patina of space.

Small lights came on around the tables and handrails lining the walkways, and tiny glowing insects flitted amongst the flowers and branches of the trees. Aryx was glad the station’s gardeners had introduced them for pollination, rather than the usual insects from Earth – at least they were easier to see when they got into places they shouldn’t. He watched the nebula turning overhead and was overcome by an unexpected longing to camp out under the stars on some exotic planet.

The waitress returned with their orders and placed them on the table. Sebastian waved his wristcom over the infoslate she presented.

‘Thank you,’ she said, and moved off to serve some other customers that had arrived.

The fruity aroma of pineapple made Aryx’s jaw pucker, and he tore into his pizza. Initially, it tasted as good as it smelt, but while the mycoprotein was just like meat, he wasn’t too sure about what had been used instead of pineapple.

Sebastian stopped chewing. He was staring right past Aryx, over his shoulder. His eyes were wide.

Aryx tensed. What? he mouthed.

Sebastian replied in kind. Antari.