"Activate your Neuropause. Prepare it for a command, but issue none. Your continued cooperation will make this experience as painless as possible." I don`t say anything. I knew that they`d go straight for the Neuropause after the physical analysis. It only makes sense. It`s a wonderful device in some situations, but if you`re caught by the wrong people with the right technology, it can be hacked or turned against you just as easily.

As soon as the command is given, the Neuropause is jumping routines all its own.

SpecComm[Ext]:Route(Perm/Access[all]{ext\\G9:1221x1;A4:1201x1})
WARNING! (Route(any[any]{ext\\pathaddress; pathsource}) User is placed in functional command of external resource for operative or data transfer purposes. Control cannot be reinstated to user without release directive from external resource. Continue?

No. No no no no...

SpecComm[Ext]:AuthConf.
ILLEGAL. (AuthConf.) Command is not an available external resource. Only the user may authorize command confirmations.

Yes! I try not to let victory show on my face. Direct connections aren`t accepted from the outside. I`m the only one who can initiate a route command, and if it doesn`t have my thoughts tied to it, then--

SpecComm[Ext]:MntnOvrd.

MAINTENANCE OVERRIDE.
PREPARING STATUS. . . . . . . DONE.

OvrdMenu[Ext]:LckErrCk(AuthConf.)

CAUTION! (LckErrCk(AuthConf.) This command will disable some resources and is estimated to run a duration of 7200 s. Continue?

Not a chance. If it didn`t let the external command through the first time, why would it be different this time? Unless there`s something I don`t know...

OvrdMenu[Ext]:OvrdConf.

MAINTENANCE OVERRIDE
PLEASE ENTER YOUR REGISTERED MAINTENANCE IDENTIFICATION.

OvrdMenu[Ext]:****************{encrypt}

Registered maintenance identification? I can`t see how the Syntyche would have the authorized maintenance database from a small set of experimental first-gen neuropauses. It`s why I have the old shell--the assumption is that some old analog tricks can fool a scan interface that`s meant only for more advanced--

OVERRIDE AUTHORIZED.

F--uck.

CHECKING FOR LOCK ERRORS.
NEURAL INTERFACE COMMANDS AND SYNAPSE MODIFICATIONS ARE UNAVAILABLE.
INTERNAL DIRECT ACCESS IS SET TO BYPASS.

Bypass. Crippled. I've lost all control over the Neuropause now. Every fear response, every thought, everything I experience through my senses is raw now. In the background, they`re hacking me. They`re going to find a way around most of the outer defenses, and there`s nothing I can do about it. I want to move off this spot. Nothing. My legs won`t respond. I can feel the contraction in my muscles making me remain standing, but--now I`m panicking. The unreflective black-body in front of me seems to extend beyond the corners of the room.

I can still move my eyes, but apparently it`s the only physical response I`m allowed now. Every time I shift them, more darkness. I can`t feel my legs anymore, but I haven`t moved an inch. I`m being shut out of my own senses.

It`s only a matter of time before I lose all control over the information stored in my neurons, before I`m as easy to read as the contents of a filing cabinet.

OvrdMenu[Ext]:#M@_Diag

DiagMenu[Ext]: !Hush

OVERRIDE AUTHORIZED.
DIAGNOSTIC SYSTEM RUNNING IN SILENT MODE.

It`s the last command I`m aware of before even the status of the device is hidden from me. The last flickers of photo-sensitivity are wiped from my sight. Darkness.

DiagMenu[Ext]: Run(DxLckErr[Deep])

OVERRIDE AUTHORIZED.
RUNNING DEEP-SCAN LOCK ERROR DIAGNOSTIC.

I get something like motion sickness now, but because of the bypass, I don`t know what`s going on within the system. Darkness and the hum in the room are the only things I experience outside of my own thoughts. Anxious as fuck. I`d be sweating if I could feel my body. It`s maddening that I have no way of knowing whether the effects on my state of mind are my own reactions or the Neuropause. Then it becomes crystal clear: the hacking has already started.

"Relax, Mr. Adriksehn." But it`s not like the hum. Its different. I`m hearing it inside me. "Whatever your transgression, Syntyche law calls for no corporal punishment nor purposefully induced suffering. If you are deemed unreleasable, you have nothing to fear from pain. Its effects will be prevented." The Tycharegent`s words don`t console me at all.

Then, like a dream state--

 

"Kalin, you've already seen more of the Ontoverse than most of my agents." It`s my first meeting with the Candymaker, playing like a vid from the lenses of my eyes. "Based on the information I've received from your old friends in Arespolit, your tendency for--survival--might outmatch most I've met."

"Never been to Arespolit," I say it, and I hear my own voice say it. A little higher-pitched. A little less experienced. "Though I`d be interested to know who`s spreading rumors about me."

"It`s understandable that you don`t trust me, Kalin. All I ask is that you hear me out before you make any decisions." I watch the man stand up, turning his back to me and looking out at the Ischarislan sky. "IDOX doesn`t consider you a threat. Do you appreciate what that means?"

"Hearing you out doesn`t mean answering your questions, Candymaker." Still a tough guy. Runner. Cool as ice water. Diplomacy isn`t in the vocabulary yet.

"Then recognize the rhetorical question and keep your mouth shut for a moment." He turns back to me, backlit by the dawn behind him. "You've overseen operations that have included XS Intelligence objectives, but you've not ONCE taken a job under an IDOX badge."

"I don`t know grease about IDOX affairs. Official business isn`t my game, and I don`t play politics. Job howls, I sniff. If I like the scent, I take it." I find my own words funny, and the reaction reminds me that I`m being hacked. I haven`t spoken street in so long that I've forgotten exactly how much I've been groomed. For a second I hear the hum of the Syntyche Interrogation room and I feel my own body jerk a little. It`s laughter. I laughed on the outside.

"It just so happens, Kalin, that nearly every job you've taken has been--from the perspective of IDOX interests--quite beneficial. I find it difficult to believe that this is a coincidence."

"I`m not going to try and convince you one way or the other," I say, calm tone. "Quid pro quo with the information, Candymaker. You want any out, I need some down payment on the in." He laughs.

"The more impolite you are, the more I appreciate your survival skills." I can feel myself getting nervy, like I`m about to stand and leave the meeting--or ready to pull my weapon.  "I asked you here because I think it could be very valuable--both to your career and to my own--if you agreed to be trained as a diplomat."

The sensations playing before me fade like a dream, just as I`m answering him. The scene is being replaced, piece by piece, and now I`m no longer safe and sound on Ischarisla with the Candymaker.

 

Suddenly--I`m cold.

"He`s here," a staticy voice says in my earbud. I`m on their shifting signal. "I`m not losing any more resources on a fuckin' kid. There`s only one way out of the lab. Flush it with inert and freeze him out." A pause. He goes audible. "I know you can hear us in here, you little rat! We`re authorized to protect this shit. Just because your balls haven`t dropped doesn`t mean we`re gonna play nice." I actually can`t hear their footsteps in this helmet and fluid-locked pressure suit--only the transmissions, both private and audibles, and the faintest vibrations of the metal beneath me.

I want to cry. I`m so cold, so tired, so close to passing out--and I`m about to be sealed and suffocated. I can`t get past them undetected, and I have seconds before the only exit is locked forever, and I`m deprived of air as my suit and helmet become a coffin. Right now, I can`t even allow a gas purge. I have to keep breathing the same single breath, my mind panicking with every molecule of CO2 my lungs add to the mix. Now, memories inside memories. I go blank for a second, wishing I was back home in Systemia--wishing I hadn`t stowed away, wishing I never agreed to--

"Set the seal for 15. Get yourselves out the door now. We`ll find him when he`s a fuckin' block of ice." I feel the weight walking past the same cabinet I`m hidden in, and something animal in me reacts. Move now, or die. I throw the cabinet door open with all of my weight, hitting the tracker in the back. He reacts fast, and non-lethals spray the cabinet door, banging on thick glass and denting thin metal doors.

I leap out after the initial volley with a nitrogen infuser in my right hand. He`s over a foot taller than I am, and when he tries to brush me aside with an armored hand, the infuser I`m driving toward him hits the joint at his forearm. Contact point. Lucky fucking shot.

"Fa--!" Is all he can force out before the infuser decompresses, blowing out his inner shell and filling his assistance armor with forty-kelvin liquid. His particular equipment prevented me from seeing his face, but that didn`t stop me from picturing it. That split-second so excruciating--ice cold running up his arm, evaporating inside his suit faster than it freezes him, building enough pressure to pop his eyes. Intentional but necessary, calculated and delivered with the fury of survival.

And I hang on to the feeling for what seems like minutes, even though in the same split-second, three more helmets turn my way. It doesn`t matter that the man after me was going to kill me. It makes no difference to me that he`s a hardened grunt. Even as I`m diving to the floor, praying for a way through the lab door that doesn`t end in my death--I`m hanging on the last sound the man made before my fatal attack.

I ended a life for the first time.

As I crawl through the darkened space, the scene starts shifting again, and...

 

Now I`m on a job as envoy security--in Vestinia.

"Don`t stare, K. You`re liable to be hauled off with them if you seem too interested in the prospect."

And...I am. Very much so. I've never seen anything like it. Leading an entourage of eight or so, a regal looking empty ballgown slid its way along the elevated path adjacent to us. Behind it was some kind of official uniform--a blue jacket and skirt over a white blouse and sheer white stockings--also empty, clicking along the walkway on glossy white boots. At the end was a matching outfit, and in the middle, five human beings in various states of restraint, some getting attention from hovering gloves or animated straps. None of them seemed particularly upset with their positions. In fact, from what I was seeing...

"Mister Adriksehn," I hear from over my shoulder. When I turn, there`s a woman hovering two feet above me, off to the side of the elevated path. "You ought listen to your Primary. You`re fortunate to be here with such a versed diplomat--you should be one hundred percent safe."

"With me, perhaps," The Candymaker says, smiling. "But with you, Cynthia? How have you been, my dear?"

"You've heard of our local neighbor`s--regime change?" She`s...absolutely stunning. Every part of her, from her face shining grace against the amethyst sky to her toes covered in fine fabric pointed gracefully toward the ground far below her. Floating there effortlessly. A goddess. She`s still talking to the Candymaker, but now she looks at me, almost hypnotically. "I've been occupied with negotiating the terms of keeping our gates open, with more than a few complications."

For a second, I think it`s my libido responding to the look she`s giving me. It`s way, way more--because the traitor in my pants is moving on its own--in ways I didn`t know it could move on its own.

"I can see you`re anxious to get on with our arrangement," My mentor says politely. When my eyes jump away from her gaze, I stutter.

"I--I`m bound to you as a security envoy, your excellency." Words of formality, stumbling out of my mouth like a drunk leaving a bar. I`m not used to it. I only use the title on diplomatic business--

"Unnecessary," my mentor says. "And per my agreement with our friends here, your stay will be administered by the Lieutenant while I attend to my meeting. Enjoy yourself, Kalin." Just as I feel myself rising into the air--whisked out of gravity`s effect by the woman I've been rented out to...

 

And now, all I know is white again. Blinding--only I can`t shut my eyes. I can`t see myself. I can`t feel anything.

I`m sure that I`m back on the slab.

"You are guilty of the violation, Kalin Adriksehn of Systemia."

The violation? Oh, shit. The--

"Contraband, as you think of it--but that classification is incorrect. You knowingly allowed a Syntyche -restricted entity to pass through the administrative area concealed on your person."

Searing pain in the base of my neck. And now I`m aware of my body.

"Your interface is an unfortunate complication. We`re attempting to compensate to keep your pain to a minimum."

I gurgle, trying my best to sputter "char-ter."

"Much of the motor neuron system is currently suppressed. For comfort, continued passive communication is preferred. Diplomats are aware that invocation of Charter Rights is null outside the administrative area."

Which means that they can even tell when I`m trying to resist, when I`m reasoning plans, coming up with--

"Clear your panic. Though your guilt is decided, Syntyche is not interested in your suffering. Procedure calls for immobilization in general physical comfort to keep your body from being any threat for the remainder of your pre-process time. Your mind is free of the limitations."

Pre-process.

Process.

Process is the nightmare when I`m pinned to the ground. A boot on my back, digging into shoulder-blades so hard that I can`t move. Process. It`s what happened to almost anyone opposing Arespolit`s "cultural awakening". Process.

I am going to die.

And it`s sorrow at first. All sorrow. The simplest things. A cup of coffee with Bailey Bridgman. A taste I`ll never taste again, a voice I`ll never hear.

When`s the last time I thanked the Candymaker for the life he`s given me? Did I pay up my publicity team well enough for them to write my final story? Did I leave all my possessions to the people who could use them?

Why did I take this job? For the favor of some manipulative, slave-trading tyrant? To be one of the only men of status in a society where the Y-chromosome is the mark of a pet?

I can see the room changing around me, grey blurs and graceful forms fading and coming into view. I`m going to die, but there`s something so un-sinister about all of this. Something comforting. I don`t know how much time passes, but I let everything happen around me as I dive deeper into memory.

 

* * *

 

"He`s not back yet." It was well past zenith now, and Bailey was pacing the observation area of the hold while her stockings and Kalin`s suit reclined on lounges, playing footsie and apparently snuggling with each other.

"You don`t really think something happened, do you?" The suit asked. "I don`t have a moment`s memory of fear from him."

"Kind of the issue," Bailey said, crossing her arms and looking at the two strange ghosts. "The Syntyche is...very zero-tolerance beyond their charter area. Their leniency in the banks doesn`t extend to their soveriegn territory. At all."

"What would they do if they caught him smuggling?"

"Inert goods? Probably a massive fine and resgate bank restrictions for a while. Fuels or high restricteds--maybe diplomatic recall and an IDOX censure." Bailey shook her head. "A sentient, ethera-based life form, though? I don`t know. Suffice it to say Syntyche don`t exactly have press releases--and they have a special relationship with IDOX outside the charter area. He walked into soveriegn territory. They won`t owe information to anyone."

"I--I don`t like this," the pantyhose replied, standing and walking away from the lounge. "This feels awful." The suit sat up, watching the living hose walk down the spiral stair near the center of the deck.

"What was that about?"

"You`re stressed," The suit said, standing and approaching Bailey. "All her ethera was converted from your biology, so call it severe empathy." A sleeve placed itself on her shoulder. "Almost despair, isn`t it?"

"You can sense that?"

"I told you, chem-sprite. Anything you feel...we taste it when we`re around you. The good and the bad. It goes triple for her. Can I do anything?"

"Hold me for a minute," Bailey said. "I feel stupid even asking it, but--just hold me." The suit opened its arms, and Bailey clung to it, wrapping her arms around its back and pulling. She buried her face into the jacket, breathing in and smelling Kalin. She absorbed it for a few moments, chiding herself for being so emotional to this shell of her co-worker. "What does this taste like to you?"

"Devotion...anger...anxiety...Bailey, what are you going to do?" She took a deep breath and let go of the suitcoat, stepping away.

"You`re his suit--" Bailey said. "I really don`t like the fact that he`s going to be privy to all this sappy shit if..." Her face broke into a half-sob, but she shook it off, getting angry. "I`m gonna fucking trace that idiot`s Neuropause and find out what happened." She headed toward the aux lifts. "And if you`re as loyal as you claim, you`re gonna keep your mouth shut about all of this between you and I, and you`re gonna help me."

"I`m a Vestian, my dear," The sleeve reached out to her hand, gripping it in invisible fingers and gently raising it to an unseen pair of lips. Bailey felt the emulated kiss happen even while the voice continued. "The command of a strong woman trumps any wish of a man--even if it`s my former owner. Rules of the culture."

"What a relief," Bailey said, nonplussed. "Come on. I`m going to need a draft audience."

 

* * *

 

Lake Manitoba. Cool summer morning. Throwing rocks at anything that moved. Blazing around the walking paths on a grav scooter. Pretty much terrorizing everything a 7-year-old kid could.

It was hours of this. Days? The sun didn`t go down no matter how long I played. My comm never went off. Not mom, not Lindsey...no one was looking for me. This day was gonna last forever.

And then everything went dark.

 

"KALIN ADRIKSEHN OF SYSTEMIA, ISCHARISLA, YTOLEPIA, ARESPOLIT, HILDAGAEN, SARANISIDS VI."

It boomed with so fundamental a power that no other sensation existed. Darkness, light, comfort, discomfort--nothing. Nothing but the words.

"KALIN ADRIKSEHN, IDOX LID 0-0-S-Y-I-S-3-4-7-2-7-7-2-1-5-2. YOU ARE AN OUTSIDER TO SYNTYCHE BEARING NO ESCORT NOR SUMMONS."

Sentencing. Process.

"YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR AIDING FORCES SUBVERSIVE TO SYNTYCHE PEACE AND GUILTY OF MALICIOUS TRANSPORT OF AN ETHERA-BASED SENTIENCE CAPABLE OF INFINITELY RECURSIVE REPLICATION.

"SYNTYCHE PROCEDURE GRANTS YOU ANNIHILATION WITHOUT SUFFERING WHEN YOUR OWN SENTIENCE NO LONGER SERVES THESE PROCEEDINGS.

"YOU ARE REQUIRED TO IDENTIFY ANY AND ALL AGENTS IN ASSISTANCE OR KNOWLEDGE OF THIS ACTION, KNOWN OR UNKNOWN TO SYNTYCHE AND IDOX DATA HOLDINGS.

"IN THIS ENDEAVOR, YOUR BIONEURAL ENHANCEMENT HAS BEEN BOTH USEFUL AND DECEPTIVE."

Deceptive? There`s no way. They hacked the thing. Deep hacked. What I knew, they know.

"FURTHER ATTEMPTS AT INFORMATION RETRIEVAL WILL IRREVOCABLY DAMAGE SENTIENCE TO THE END THAT NECESSARY INFORMATION MAY BE IRRETREIVEABLY LOST. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.

"YOU WILL BE FULLY REVIVED IN THE PRESENCE OF TYCHABRAHMA. YOU WILL PROVIDE NECESSARY INFORMATION. RESISTANCE IN SURRENDERING INFORMATION LEAVES SYNTYCHE WITH NO OPTION BUT PERSUASION BY DISCOMFORT."

My eyes burn. My eyes?

Light. It hurts like fuck, even with my lids shut tight and my facial muscles contracting around them. I blink, and I`m sorry I did.

"Fuuhhhhck!" I scream.

I scream?

I can move. I`m not restrained. I`m in the same stark room this process started in, reclined against a hard obsidian block.

"Relax. Your senses will reacclimate. You may move and speak freely, though I implore you to take your time. Our routing was not kind to your nervous system." Twinges of expression in this level voice. Pitying. Almost pastoral.

"You`re gonna kill me. I`m not an idiot."

"Yes, because of what you've done, termination is standard procedure...but we do need information from you. Information we can`t force from you involuntarily." This isn`t the voice I expect. It can`t really be THE Brahma.

"You scanned my whole fucking mind. I felt you poking around, making me relive things. If you don`t know everything now, then I never had the information you`re looking for." Hard, searing pain that feels like all of my toes are breaking.

"Skajjjjjj!" I cry out in Hildagaen, pulling my feet up and cradling my toes. There`s nothing physically wrong with them, but the neurons are flipping shit. Trying to curl them doesn`t ease the emulated signals enough to help me.

"This is an unusual procedure for us, you must understand." The pain dies down, giving me a chance. "Unlike so many of our trade partners--your own kind included--we are not a vengeful culture. But we DO value stability, at an extreme. Please, allow us to make this easy on you." A figure finally steps into my peripheral vision, and I turn my head to see the tall figure, cool grey hair against pale skin. Pale, but not the same cyanic hue of the other tyche.

"You`re the Tikes' lord and master?"

"I serve as the prime administrator, yes. But I believe you know better than to ascribe terms like `lord' or `master' to my position. You`re well-enough versed in our culture, Kalin."

"Well, bossman, if you can`t get information from a subversive like me, why--" My back seizes, making me gasp for air. Tears well up in my eyes immediately. I cannot accurately describe this pain with any analog I know. It is not cutting, burning, peircing...it is fundamental pain. "Oh my god...oh my fucking god..." I`m crying. Wailing.

"You deserve much better than this, Systemian." The pain disappears again, like magic. It doesn`t mean I stop crying. This is nowhere near what they`re capable of. "You see that I gain no pleasure from your suffering." The Brahma frowns, shaking his head as he paces around me. "This is a very special circumstance, and I beg you to cooperate. We will keep you in this state as long as we need, much as I deplore the necessity." He stops and faces me directly. His face is cool, but serious. "You will give us additional information."

"Be more specific," I sniffle.

"The commissioner of your task, Kalin. All the details surrounding it."

Candymaker. Bailey. Ghebrin. Holt. Ranssvic. Lena. Aumbrie. Saddak. I keep pouring names through the filter. Eat shit, you fucks. Eat all the noise I can create.

"I`m reminded of our ancestors. Your willingness to bond with your technology--to become vitally dependent on it--this makes us distant cousins in some spiritual sense. Though you carry little of their pragmatism when placed under duress."

"Just---pull it out of me!" I`m nearly begging like a child. "Pull it out of me. You`re going to kill me anyway."

"It`s very remarkable, actually," He shrugs his shoulders. "It`s a one-of-a-kind, and its storage is fluid. It depends on you. We can`t just pull it out...and we can`t just let you die." He actually barks a single 'ha' afterward, and I look at his awkward smile. I can`t tell if this is malice, or if this is truly a novel situation for them. Masters of technology, and the leader utters 'we can`t?'

"You hacked in!" I cry. "Take what you want and get this shit over with." The Brahma shakes his head, almost smiling.

"Don`t be obtuse--you must know the strengths and weaknesses of the device that was installed at the most critical point of your own neurology. You purposely have this equipment. It`s undocumented. Unencountered. Unique. The structure and integration are such that proceeding with our extraction without your cooperation might irrevocably damage the information we require. We can effect stimulus upon you--but certain extraction is an impossibility."

"So you really do need me," I say. "How`s that feel?"

"We need to confirm information," He says, ignoring my jab. "We can do this without you--but it would require more resources and efforts beyond our own path--expenditures we`re loathe to make. We would prefer your cooperation, so that at least your termination would come at some value."

I scoff.

"I don`t understand your defiance," The Brahma says. He sounds hurt, if that`s possible. "Have you personally any grievances with us? We've provided you with safe and easy routing through Ixibiac with our banks. Privacy of your travels from any governing body, even your own IDOX consortium. We've served you, your path and countless others with free and secure travel. You have committed a crime of willful destabilization against our sovereign path--at the possible cost of our security and both your occupation and life. Why should you be so defiant in this position? You were well-aware of the risk, both to our civilization and to your own freedom and person."    

"Exchange information," I offer. "If you`re going to terminate me anyway--tell me a couple of things."

There`s a pause for the first time in my conversation with this system.

"This is a unique situation, so I`ll oblige you as best I can."

"Did you catch the recipient?" I ask.

"She has been destroyed," He responds. And right on its tail, "Name the commissioner of your task."

It`s only fair.

"Nyxe, High Governess General of Vestinia, Primary Path."

"This is invaluable to us--it confirms our prior suspicion," He says, looking away for a second. Is that worry? "Please, your next question."

"Will you punish any of my associates or other contacts?"

"We have no reason to believe your action had anything to do with your IDOX-registered employer. Unless we obtain absolutely irrefutable evidence to the contrary, your crime will not become their concern, except to the end that they will lose you as an employee, which we regret is necessary." The Brahma turned away from me as he continued. "Please explain the nature of your relationship with the contraband sentience." I sigh, frowning a bit.

"Cordial. Sexually intimate."

"Do you harbor any concern for the sentience at the conclusion of our business?"

"You haven`t destroyed it?"

"We have no evidence that the sentience had awareness of Syntyche law, nor a choice in the matter of your crime. It has been subject to suspension until further processing reveals the proper procedural course of action. Does its outcome concern you?"

"Yes. I want to--" No, only give what you need to. "It`s not her fault. She should be released."

"Your information may determine this as an acceptable course of action. Continue cooperating with us, and we`ll soon make that determination. What is the nature of your relationship with the Vestinian leader?"

"Professional."

"You are aware that she is suspected of IDOX-banned organized pursuits such as espionage, livery smuggling, and socio-political sabotage of other sovereign paths?"

"I`m aware she`s been accused." The Brahma looks a little annoyed by this.

"By taking on this task, Kalin, your awareness is that those accusations hold undeniable veracity. Your prior knowledge STANDS as an admission of being a willing agent in endangering our stability!" He raises his voice the only time in the entire conversation--I suppose because the last thing I said was probably the dumbest. This is not going well for me.

"If you needed more information about this, why kill the recipient?"

"You misunderstand," The Brahma says. "Syntyche did not terminate the recipient. The recipient destroyed herself." There`s no way. That wild-eyed rebel just offed herself? I try to make sense of it. "You acted on no political motivation whatsoever?"

I don`t have to think.

"Nothing but the payment offered. I harbor no ill will against Syntyche Sovereignty. I fully expected to leave the non-charter area without issue, and counted on the fact that your capable resources would quickly eliminate the threat to your stability--which you did." A raised eyebrow there? I pretty much just said I was playing both sides. If you`re going to go stupid, be pretty about it.

"Explain your offered payment."

"Citizenship and residence in Vestinia Prime." He brings a hand to his face. I never expected to see such a human sense of deliberation from any Syntyche, let alone their leader.

"Have you any other questions?"

"Is there any way you`d release me?" This time the Brahma does smile. Transparently.

"Kalin, you have violated the most fundamental of the laws owing to our stability. You have broken the trust Syntyche has extended to you through your very, very important employer. Barring remarkable circumstances, you will die here today." I sigh, resigned.

"What happens to the sentience?"

"She remains. To be studied and analyzed. Ethera is dangerous in Syntyche sovereignty. Its nature is a direct threat to the stability we have enjoyed, and a threat to that stability, in turn, threatens our maintenance of the major body of resonance gate banks that so many Ixibiac paths rely on for trade and commerce."

"There`s no way you`ll release the sentience to any other agency?"

"Perhaps, in time. As of your processing, she is to remain. I can offer no other details on the matter."

"You've got everything you need from me, then."

"Why would the Governess risk further IDOX sanction?" Right in front of me now. Searching my eyes. I feel my neuropause droning between my ears.

"I didn`t want to know. My business was the delivery of a single Vestian. Nothing more." He backs off.

"You have one final question, Systemian."

"Are there ethera wells in Syntyche?" The Brahma`s rigid stance eases, and he places a hand behind his head. He laughs for the second time.

"You endanger your employer," The Brahma says. "You are an opportunistic, reckless, avaricious operative." He gets back in my face. "Our people are engineers of connection, Systemian. We wish that all civil mind can communicate and trade in peace. We serve this goal and this goal alone. We make no great wars, broker no great alliances. Our fortune is in our purpose, and our future is in perpetual service of that purpose--diffusion of intellect and innovation. Free connection. We can only provide this freedom to all if the Syntyche is kept in its order."

"You`re not answering my question?"

The black wall in front of me turns a blue that burns my eyes again.

"--reason to believe that a unsanctioned criminal element has crossed beyond the charter area of The Syntyche and into your inviolable territory. As your sovereign procedures are rightfully private due to special IDOX licensure, CMH Arbitration and Diplomacy Services have no knowledge of the status of this element nor his processing procedure in the eventuality of his capture."

It`s a voice I know so well. Still rattling on the floor, my mind can`t make sense of what`s happening.

"As a duly licensed representative of CMH and a friend and ally of The Syntyche, having functioned as The Syntyche vice diplomat to Ackelysneth..."

It`s Bailey.

"...it is my duty to inform you of every detail regarding our suspicion and to offer to you any additional assistance you require in the detainment of this criminal element. CMH is prepared to take every action required to bring this element to justice under IDOX charter law, where he is wanted for questioning in other paths of the IXIBIAC range. As your duty is to Syntyche Sovereignty above all else in resolving this critical matter, we understand that you are within every right to deny our request for extraction."

No, no, no...she`s turning me in?

"Nevertheless, in the interest of resolving critical diplomatic issues elsewhere among your central allies, CMH requests that The Syntyche release Kalin Adriksehn of Systemia into our capable custody for processing and detention under any additional condition that the sovereign bodies deem necessary."

The idiot`s trying to save me by dragging Candymaker into it. I shouldn`t have said...

"Diplomat Bridgman, your request is being considered presently." It`s a Tycharegent. "The Syntyche offers its gratitude for sharing your concerns and suspicions during this critical security breach. The Syntyche vows its determination to best accomodate CMH`s request and asks patience for the duration of our assessment."

"Of course, Regent. We appreciate any consideration given the severity of these circumstances." She`s cold and present. Pro all the way. Maybe I`m the idiot. Remarkable circumstances, I think over and over again. I wonder if the Brahma is reading the shock on my face.

"We are not as unimaginative as you suspect, Systemian," The Brahma says. "Keep listening."

"Diplomat Bridgman, Adriksehn`s IDOX licensure is to be conditionally suspended under classified terms. He is to remain active on your roles and no official report of his transgression against Syntyche is to be made publicly, or directly to IDOX officials. He is to remain in CMH custody excepting the custody of the authorities in the paths where his criminal activities are to be resolved, except for Arespolit, whose extradition requests you are forbidden to follow. Adriksehn is not to cross over into ANY Syntyche bank nor Syntyche-administered link gate except by exceptional and pre-arranged circumstance given the adjunct permission of this Regent and that of Syntyche Soveriegn Affairs. CMH nor Adriksehn himself will initiate this circumstance--ever. We shall allow it only when it serves us. These outline the Syntyche conditions of Adriksehn's release to your custody."

Better than dying...but there`s something I`m missing here.

"I will confer with CMH council momentarily. If these conditions are not accepted, we understand that The Syntyche`s original intended procedures will prevail."

The blue screen blacked out. Bailey. In diplomat-speak. was wrong about her being too soft. Maybe she wasn`t trying to save me; maybe she was under orders to get CMH into the best position possible in case Syntyche blamed it on them.

"YOUR BIONEURAL DEVICE HAS BEEN AUGMENTED WITH A SYNTYCHE MODULE," Booms the voice from before. "YOU WILL MAKE NO ATTEMPT TO REMOVE IT NOR ALTER ITS PROGRAMMING."

"Wh-what?" I palm the back of my neck as if I could feel the thing.

"We`re aware of your capacities for sabotage, deception, and disruption," The Brahma explains. "Given these skills and the diplomatic pragmatism we will continue to exercise,  your utility to Syntyche interests outside of our mostly-isolated cultural sphere are highly valuable. This utility must be well explored."

It finally hits me: the Brahma had no intention of destroying me. Bailey`s messages weren`t anywhere near real-time. This decision was made well before now.

"You altered my Neuropause. Didn`t you just say you couldn`t fuck with it without damaging me?"

"We can do many things with its architecture. Forcibly removing specific information, however, is not advisable due the nature of its integration. We can`t risk overwriting your skillsets, your past experiences or their meaning to you. We have only what you were willing to give in our diagnostic--and the information you've related here."

I've been had. I've been fucking had. The Syntyche aren`t just clockwork scientists crossing resonance space and seeking cold, hard knowledge. There`s animal self-interest here that runs deeper than any of the paranoid legends about them tell...and they've just forcibly recruited me as a double-agent. Except--

"I don`t understand. Didn`t the Regent just demand that my license be stripped?"

"You are a dangerously resourceful sentience with a unique skill and toolset, Kalin. Your danger to Syntyche stability and violation of our laws is far, far outweighed by your utility to us. This has quickly become clear." I don`t fucking believe this.

"You`re going to force me to work for you."

"We will retain the capacity to monitor you through your implant, but we guarantee non-interference in affairs that are not ours. Should we find a specific use for your skillset, you will be informed of the task via transontonic communication."

"You--you practically stripped me of my credentials! You`re having me secretly suspended by my own employer!"

"You had no credentials on Arispolit. You had no credentials in your unauthorized transit to Hytypica. You are highly, highly resourceful. Should a special need arise due one of our requests of you, we will supply you with additional resources. Until then, you can get by without our gates."

"A forced agent. You tricky shit."

"We will not compel you to perform. However, should your performance in our interest be exceptional, a degree of trust can be regained through utility."

"You want me to do your dirty work."

"You are a beast taught the refinement of diplomacy. You will be our diplomat to other beasts our hands can`t reach. Accept this position, and you may find that our utility to you is once again extended in partnership. Or decline and suffer your pathgrounding on Ischarisla silently with CMH."

"But you just told CMH--"

"Your chief employer and handler alone will be privy to this arrangement--the additional details of which you will deliver in confidence after we surrender you to them as an extradimensional prisoner." The Brahma is deadly serious. "You are to reveal your relationship with us to no other diplomat, authority, nor IDOX agent. Use a sanctioned gate, and we will know about it. You will find yourself here once more, and we will salvage what we can from you before we eliminate any future risk you may pose us." I`m a fucking unperson. I`m completely fucked.

"If you want me to help you like this and you don`t want me officially reprimanded, I don`t understand why I can`t stay on the grid and just--"

"It is non-negotiable." Stern eyes. I nod.

"You don`t absolutely need me anymore; now you`d just prefer me to stick around."

"We have the most critical information. We recognize your utility, but unless you can follow our rules, your danger to us is not worth the risk. We will kill you; CMH would believe it was not avoidable." The Brahma`s eyes lower, and he smiles at me. "I wonder if they might actually be relieved by that arrangement. The insurance dues would certainly drop."

"No gates with an IDOX identification," I sigh. "Will do."

"Your first task is to find a return path to Vestinia, claim your payment, and make arrangements to secure path transits outside of Syntyche banks."

This can`t be happening. Not only did Bailey save my ass at the effective expense of my IDOX badge--but now I`m a member of the Syntyche secret service. Maybe the only member.

"And when I've done that?"

"We will know--and we will make contact."

"Why are you doing this?" I ask. Somehow I`m a child again. "Why?"

"For the same reasons you give me, Systemian: the opportunity has presented itself."

 

* * *

 

"So--it worked?" The suit asked as the connection timed out.

"In a way," Bailey shrugged. "But I have a feeling we`re all in pretty deep shit."

"Why?" The suit asked. Bailey didn`t answer. She simply sat, draped over the table, thinking for a while. She gave a heavy sigh and let the words out.

"The Syntyche runs on expectation, you know? Rigorous custom and procedure. They didn`t even ask me what developed that made me recall him," Bailey said. "They requested no information on his other warrants to apply their claim...they didn`t ask me--if we had an agent operating under suspicion of criminal action--why WE didn`t internally suspend him." She buried her head in her hands. "This was supposed to be a long-shot. Anything--EH-NEE-THING--straying from the usual normally means a lot of additional information and cross-confirmation, but..."

"But?" The suit stood behind her, reaching its sleeve up to her shoulders. She drooped when the invisible hands plied against her tension, putting her face in her hands on the table.

"It was like--it was like they just wanted to end the conversation." She shook her head. "I used to be their vice-diplomat to my own home," She said, sick with certainty. "I know Syntyche--and I know something`s up. Not good."

"He`s coming home," the suit said. "Breathing."

"Which I`m grateful for--but there`s got to be something else to it. I don`t like the feeling that we owe the Syntyche something big just for the extradition request." She chuckled, mirthless in the action. "You`re going to have to give him a lesson in how to hang out all day," she shrugged. "I wonder how he`s going to act."

"Just so I`m clear on this--this whole thing here..." The suit trailed off, apparently sensing Bailey`s anger enough to know better. "Actually, you know what I think?" It said, its tone shifting gears. "I think you both should stop acting so goddamned tough," the suit finally said. "It`s pathetic."

"We`re diplomats," Bailey said, slumping in her chair. "We`re always acting."

--