Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘The Spiral Labyrinth’
I realized that this interrogation might take a long time, leading to frustration that could impair my performance. I instructed my assistant to take over the questioning, at the speed with which integrators discoursed amongst themselves. Less than a second later, it informed me that it had lately been Chup Choweri’s hobby to shop for a relatively low-cost, used vessel suitable for unpretentious private travel along The Spray.
“He planned to surprise Effrayne with it as a retirement present,” my assistant said. “He meant to sell up the emporium and take her to visit some of the Ten Thousand Worlds. If they found a spot that spoke to them, they would acquire a small plot of land and settle.”
Some of Choweri’s shopping consisted of visiting a node on the connectivity where ship owners alerted potential buyers to the availability of vessels for sale. Having come across a recently posted offer that attracted him, he made contact with the seller, and rushed off to inspect the goods.
“Who was the poster?” I asked.
“Only the name of the ship was given: the Gallivant. The offer was made by its integrator on behalf of its owner.” The arrangement was not usual, but also not rare. Integrators existed to relieve their employers of mundane tasks.
“What do we know of the Gallivant and its owner?”
“It is an older model Aberrator, manufactured at the Berry works on Grims a little over two hundred years ago. It has had eleven owners, the last of whom registered the vessel on Sringapatam twenty years ago. His name is Ewern Chaz.”
Choweri’s integrator knew of no connection between its employer and the seller. I had my assistant break the connection. “Let us see what we can learn of this Chaz,” I said.
The answer came in moments. “Very little,” said my assistant, “because there is little to learn.” Chaz was a younger son of a wealthy family that had lived since time immemorial on Sringapatam, one of the Foundational Domains settled early in the Great Effloration. His only notable achievements had been a couple of papers submitted to a quarterly journal on spelunking. “Neither was accepted for publication, but the editors encouraged him to try again.”
“Spelunking?” I said. “Does The Spray contain any caves yet unexplored?”
The integrator took two seconds to complete a comprehensive survey, then reported, “Not in the foundationals nor in the settled secondaries. But apparently one can still come across an undisturbed crack on the most remote worlds.”
I could not determine if this information was relevant to the case. I mentally nudged Osk Rievor, who was mulling some abstract point of wizardry, gleaned from an all-night poring over a recently acquired grimoire, and asked for his insight.
“Yes,” he replied, “it is.”
“How so?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Now let me return to my work.”
I sought a new avenue of inquiry and directed my assistant to connect me to the node where space ships were offered for sale. A moment later I was browsing a lengthy list of advertisements that combined text, images, voice and detailed schematics for a range of vessels, from utilitarian sleepers to luxurious space yachts. The Gallivant would have fit into the lower third of that spectrum, affording modest comfort and moderate speed between whimsies.
The ship itself was no longer listed. “Does the maintainer of the node keep an archive of listings?” I asked.
It did, though obtaining a look at the now defunct posting that Choweri had responded to proved problematical. The integrator in charge was not authorized to display the information and did not care to disturb its employer, who was engaged in some favorite pastime from which he would resent being called away.
“Tell him,” I said, “that Henghis Hapthorn, foremost freelance discriminator of Old Earth, makes the request.”
Sometimes, such an announcement is received with gush and gratitude, my reputation having won me the enthusiastic interest of multitudes. Sometimes, as on this occasion, it brings me the kind of rude noise that the node’s integrator relayed to me at its employer’s behest.
“Very well,” I said, while quietly signaling to my own assistant that it should seek the information through surreptitious means. As I expected, the node’s defenses were rudimentary. My integrator effortlessly tickled its way past them and moments later the screen displayed an unpretentious advertisement that featured a three-dimensional rendering of the Gallivant, its schematics, a list of previous owners and a low asking price that was explained by the words: priced for quick sale.
“I can see why Chup Choweri raced off to inspect the vessel,” I said. “At the price, it is a bargain.”
“But what could Ewern Chaz have said to him to induce him to go haring off up The Spray without so much as a parting wave to Effrayne?” my assistant said.
“You are assuming that Chaz did not simply point a weapon at Choweri and haul him off, unwilling?”
“I am,” it said. “There is nothing in Chaz’s background to suggest kidnaping.”
“What about an irrational motive?” I said. “The man had recently traversed several whimsies.” The irreality experienced by travelers who neglected to take mind-numbing medications before passing through those arbitrary gaps in space-time could unhinge even the strongest psyche and send it spinning off into permanent strangeness.
“Again,” my assistant said, “there is no evidence.”
“Yet he travels to uncouth worlds just to poke about in their bowels. If we went out onto the street and questioned random passersby it would not be too long before we found one who would call Chaz’s sanity into question.”
“The same might be said about you, especially if you were seen talking to me.”
I declared the speculation to be pointless, adding, “What we require is more facts. See what else you can find.”
Its small triangular face went blank for a moment as it worked, then the screen showed two other advertisements. Both had been posted within the past month, and both offered the Gallivant for immediate sale on terms advantageous to the buyer.
“Now it looks to be a simple sweet-trap,” I said. “Bargain-hunters are lured to some dim corner of the spaceport, where they are robbed and killed and their bodies disposed of. Ewern Chaz probably has no connection with it. He is probably exploring some glistening cavern on Far Dingle while the real culprit pretends to be his ship’s integrator.”
“A workable premise,” said my integrator, “except that spaceport records show that the Gallivant was docked at the New Terminal each time the advertisement was posted. And on each occasion it departed soon after.”
“Was Chaz ever seen or spoken to?”
“No. The ship’s integrator handled all the formalities, as is not uncommon.”
“And no bodies have turned up at the spaceport?”
“None that can’t be accounted for.”
I was left with the inescapable conclusion that someone, who might or might not be a wealthy amateur spelunker from Sringapatam, was collecting fanciers of low-cost transportation, transporting them offworld one at a time, then coming back for more. While I sought to put a pattern to the uncooperative facts, I had my assistant revisit the node’s archive and identify all the persons who had responded to the Gallivant advertisement then see if any of them had disappeared.
Many prospective buyers had leaped to reply to the ship’s integrator each time the attractive offer had been made. My assistant had to identify each of them, then discover each’s whereabouts by following the tracks left by subsequent activity on the connectivity. Some of the subjects, wishing to maintain their privacy, used shut-outs and shifties to block or sideslip just such attempts to delineate their activities. So the business took most of a minute.
“Two of the earlier respondees show no further traces after contacting the Gallivant,” the integrator reported, “one for each of the first two occasions the ship was offered for sale.”
“Did anyone report them missing?”
Another moment passed while it eased its way past Bureau of Scrutiny safeguards and subtly ransacked the scroot files, then, “No.”
“Why not?” I wondered.
A few more moments passed as it assembled a full life history on each of the two missing persons. Then it placed image and text on the screen. I saw two men of mature years, both slight of build but neither showing anything extraordinary in his appearance.
“The first to disappear,” my assistant said, highlighting one of the images, “was Orlo Saviene, a self-employed regulator, although he had no steady clients. He lived alone in transient accommodations in the Crobo district.
“He had, himself, earlier posted a notice. He sought to purchase a used sleeper. It seems that he desired to travel down The Spray to some world where the profession of regulator is better rewarded. But no one had offered him a craft he could afford.”
Sleepers were the poor man’s form of space travel, a simple container just big enough for one. Once the voyager was sealed inside, the craft’s systems suppressed the life processes to barest sustainability. Then the cylinder was ejected into space, for a small fee, by an outward bound freighter or passenger vessel. The utilitarian craft slowly made its way across the intervening vacuum until it entered a whimsy and reappeared elsewhere. It then aimed itself at its destination and puttered toward it, broadcasting a plea for any passing vessel to pick it up in return for another insignificant fee.
It was a chancy way to cross space. If launched from a ship with insufficient velocity, the sleeper might lack enough fuel to reach its targeted whimsy. Sometimes the rudimentary integrator misnavigated and the craft drifted away. Sometimes no vessel could be bothered to answer the pick-up request before the near-dead voyager passed the point of reliable resuscitation. Sometimes sleepers were just never heard from again.
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