The Ultra Thin Man (Excerpt)

In the twenty-second century, a future in which mortaline wire controls the weather on the settled planets and entire refugee camps drowse in drug-induced slumber, no one—alive or dead, human or alien—is quite what they seem.

When terrorists manage to crash Coral, the moon, into its home planet of Ribon, forcing evacuation, it’s up to Dave Crowell and Alan Brindos, contract detectives for the Network Intelligence Organization, to solve a case of interplanetary consequences. Crowell’ and Brindos’s investigation plunges them neck-deep into a conspiracy much more dangerous than anything they could have imagined.

The two detectives soon find themselves separated, chasing opposite leads: Brindos has to hunt down the massive Helkunn alien Terl Plenko, shadow leader of the terrorist Movement of Worlds. Crowell, meanwhile, runs into something far more sinister—an elaborate frame job that puts our heroes on the hook for treason.

Amazon buy button ultra thin man In Patrick Swenson’s Ultra Thin Man, Crowell and Brindos are forced to fight through the intrigue to discover the depths of an interstellar conspiracy. Read an excerpt below, and look for the novel August 12th from Tor Books!

 

 

One

They said Dorie Senall deliberately killed herself, but I doubted the truth of that, considering she had worked for the Movement.

Seemed everything the Network Intelligence Organization dealt with on the eight worlds of the Union these days tied into the Movement. Three years ago, when my partner Alan Brindos and I decided to give up our private detective biz to contract with the NIO, we had no idea how much the Movement would change everything.

I sent an ENT to Danny Cadra; the electromagnetic niche-holo tracker left my office and searched for his location in the NIO building. It found him in Evidence, and the pulsing disc hovered within his vision until he acknowledged it with a flick of his hand. He looked more than annoyed, but that was the point of an ENT. My message projected directly into Cadra’s visual cortex, instructing him to bring a holo-vid unit and the incident report to my office.

I nodded at him when he finally came in.

“Love those niche-holos,” I said. As Movement Special Ops, I was authorized to send them.

“Yeah, of course you do,” Cadra said, snapping a vid bullet into the unit. “Holo-recording, just sent through the slot from Ribon. It’s Miss Senall’s apartment in Venasaille.”

Venasaille was the largest city on the colony planet Ribon. I had never been to Ribon, but figured I’d get there someday, when the timing was right.

“Okay.” I walked back to my desk and let him place the vid unit on top of it. About six inches square, it hummed like a tiny insect when he activated it; a newer model, something I never could have afforded for my own private eye business.

“You’re going to love this,” Cadra said.

I thought he meant the incident report—and maybe he meant that too—but it turned out he meant the quality of the holo-recording itself.

Cadra moved the chair in front of the desk out of the way, and I remained standing in the path of the projection. A 3-D slide with the routing list flipped up there first, with “Dave Crowell” at the top of the names, half of whom I didn’t even know.

“It starts in Miss Senall’s suite at the Tempest Tower,” Cadra said. “That afternoon, on the balcony.”

The vid itself lit up, and I was standing on the balcony, right behind Dorie Senall, who supposedly worked for the U.U. Mining Corporation. Standing beside her was our own NIO undercover agent, Jennifer Lisle, who had spent the last few months gathering evidence about Dorie’s involvement in the Movement, including a possible working relationship with the terrorist Terl Plenko, leader of the whole goddamn thing. I jumped back a little, surprised at how real the two women looked standing there, locked in a kiss.

“A kiss?” I said to Cadra, who had come up beside me.

“Yeah, surprise, huh?”

Dorie and Jennifer were carbon copies of each other, but Dorie had long jet-black hair and brown eyes, while Jennifer had long blond hair and blue eyes. Pretty similar in height. Both slender, longlegged, and small-breasted.

The view twisted a bit, and I had a better look at Dorie, who smiled playfully.

“I’m going to lower the shield,” Dorie said.

Jennifer, confused, said, “Okay.”

The camera zoomed in on Dorie, focusing on a panel neatly inset into the wall of the balcony that she flipped up. She palmed the sensor and lowered the electromagnetic shield.

Dorie smiled, then leaned back precariously over the edge, a hundred floors up, letting the breeze blow across her arched back, whipping her black hair upward as though she were falling.

“Jesus,” Jennifer said, “be careful.”

The view shot out, spun, and rotated so quickly that I put my arms out to catch my balance. Soon I had a straight-down look at her death-defying move.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“Marble camera,” Cadra said. “Very small. Transparent. Mostly it stays near the ceilings, floats and positions itself for the best angles, zooms in and out. You’ve got to agree the definition is absolutely amazing. Nothing but the best for even our borrowed hounds.”

I winced at the term. I was a minor player in the NIO, and some didn’t much care about my contract status.

I glanced Cadra’s way and watched him staring at the recording. “Did Lisle place the camera in the suite?”

“Yeah, when she arrived, set to record remotely the first time she spoke.”

Cadra barely moved, his eyes locked on the vid, on the girls enjoying the night air. I wondered how many times he’d seen it.

A few minutes later, the girls moved back inside the suite. Dorie motioned her toward a brown leather couch. The painting on the wall behind it looked like a Vapelt, but it had to be a print. From what I could tell, the suite looked upscale, with dark wood floors, quality furniture and lighting, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a video wall screen, that sort of thing. Certainly more suite than Dorie could afford on a U.U. Mining paycheck.

Dorie smiled and lay down with her head in Jennifer’s lap. She ran her fingernails gently over Jennifer’s stomach, bunching up the material of her blouse, then traced a line upward with her index finger between her breasts, to her neck and under her chin. Jennifer smiled, eyes closed.

Dorie inched Jennifer’s blouse up a little and kissed her there on the belly. She looked up at Jennifer’s face and said, “I want to share something with you.”

The marble cam rolled right, caught Jennifer slowly opening her eyes. The definition was so remarkable I could even see flecks of gray in the blue irises.

“How would you like to be someone?” Dorie asked. “Someone with a hand in shaping the future of sentient life?”

Jennifer shook her head. “What are you talking about?”

Dorie got up from the couch so abruptly that I flinched. She shouted almost incoherently, “I’m talking about the fucking Movement!”

“Movement?” Jennifer asked, feigning ignorance.

“You know. Terl Plenko? Leader of the Movement?” Dorie smiled. “I hear he might come here to Ribon.”

On Dorie’s vid screen on the back wall of her suite’s living room, U-ONE, the Union government network, showed the silhouette of a Union Ark as it sailed across black space, and due to the wonders of the NIO marble cam, I could even read the word orgon flashing in the lower-right corner. Sloping arid hills below the Ark erupted in flames as invisible tongues licked from the Ark’s guns. Viewers probably didn’t know much about the small planet Orgon, a volatile colony where lawlessness sometimes necessitated the need for Union intervention, but it didn’t matter. Televised broadcasts of Union raids brought high ratings.

Jennifer probably knew the stakes had gone up. She glanced at the camera, tucking blond hair behind her ears, as if to say to the surveillance team, “You getting all this?”

“How many people watched the vid live when this went down?” I asked as the cam rolled again, capturing the girls from an angle just above Dorie’s vid screen.

“Just two. A Lieutenant Branson, and the captain there, Captain Rand.”

Dorie paced the room, and the marble camera followed her from above, recording her movements as it repositioned. Dorie stopped in front of the vid screen, facing Jennifer, who had twisted around on the couch to watch. Dorie took out something red from a cubbyhole underneath the vid screen. Also, a glass tumbler filled with something.

“Cadra?” I asked, pointing at the screen.

He blinked, then said, “Oh. RuBy. And Scotch in the glass.”

I nodded. RuBy was a drug from Helkunntanas. The alien substance was legal on most worlds, despite opposition against it. I noticed how expertly Dorie rolled the RuBy, its faceted surface pooling bloody light, some of the red dye trailing in the sweat of her palm. She popped it into her mouth, chasing it with the Scotch in the tumbler, ice clacking. A shudder passed through her body, tightening her skin, the lines in her face. Her face seemed peaceful for a few moments—her jaw slack as she tilted her head back, eyes closed—but her fists closed into a tight ball, and her arms and legs shook.

She opened her eyes, smiled warmly. In the next moment, her feral nature slammed back and she exalted in the high, jumping and twisting for show, showing off her body. I jumped back as her movement brought her close to me. She said, “That’s some good shit!”

She crept to the couch, grinning, slid onto Jennifer’s lap. “You want some?” Jennifer shook her head. “No?” Dorie cupped Jennifer’s breast, caressed her nipple through the flimsy material. “You want some of the action I’m offering you? The chance of a lifetime, girl of adventure.” The camera zoomed in on Dorie; her eyes were lit up from the RuBy, damp hair falling dark over her face.

Jennifer tried to move. Dorie’s body, bathed in sweat, held her down. The marble camera was damn good. Beads of RuBy-induced sweat glistened on Dorie’s face. She forced her lips onto Jennifer’s mouth. Jennifer pulled away. “Shit, Dorie! Take another pill. I’m not in the mood. Get off.”

Dorie drew back, scowling. Jennifer started to say something, and Dorie struck her hard. Before Jennifer could react, Dorie slapped her again. Blood speckled the white sofa cushion. The marble camera rolled, and I felt a bit dizzy with the sudden movement. Jennifer’s head came up, blood smeared over her lips.

Dorie grabbed Jennifer’s hair and gave it a vicious yank. “You’ll do what I say and you’ll like it.” The marble cam zoomed in, catching the fear in Jennifer’s eyes. Dorie opened her hand and caressed the hair she had just grabbed. Jennifer pressed the back of her wrist to her bloody lip.

I turned quickly to Cadra and said, “Was that an echo?”

“You hear it? That’s what blew Lisle’s cover. Watch.”

It was as if it had taken a moment for Dorie to recognize the echo, her dialogue starting up.

“What?” Dorie said, turning around. “What the fuck is this?”

The marble cam seemed to know exactly where to focus its attention, coming in closer on Dorie’s wall vid. The Orgon raid disappeared from the screen, replaced by Dorie’s living room, her own image doubling her motions, as though U-ONE were a sponge sucking violence into the airwaves. She leaped off the couch. Jennifer, her view unobstructed, looked shocked.

I turned to Cadra. “Okay, how does something like that happen? Looping the holo-recording into her goddamn suite’s vid screen?”

“Christ if I know. Some glitch.”

Dorie hunted frantically around the suite, cursing. The camera followed her, and it was as if I were walking behind her. A glitch? Something like that didn’t just happen; someone had betrayed Jennifer Lisle. Was it the Venasaille cop, Branson? The captain?

Suddenly Dorie had a blaster in her hand. Jennifer froze on the sofa, probably wondered where her team was. Not to mention who had sold her out and given Dorie a front-row seat for the surveillance footage.

The view rolled left.

Dorie strode toward the entryway, which happened to be straight at me, raising the blaster. I ducked out of the way as she raised the blaster higher, toward the ceiling. The camera caught her squinting as she triggered her weapon, the blaster’s beam randomly boring holes in the walls and ceiling.

The view rolled left, right, halted. A blinding flash killed the holo and I defensively raised my hand to my face, startled.

“Lucky shot,” Cadra said. “After that, Branson’s backup team went in.”

“Where were they?”

“Room next door. Miss Senall picked off two of them. Hold on.” Cadra reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a second vid bullet.

“There’s more?”

“Branson chucked a second marble cam in there as they stormed the suite.”

Cadra ejected the first bullet and snapped in the second. I strode back to the middle of the room just as the new vid lit up around me.

Immediately, the camera zoomed in on Jennifer Lisle, who had started to run away from Dorie. The camera recorded the scene at a lower angle now, there being no pressing need for it to stay hidden near the ceiling. The camera must have sensed a change in Dorie’s body position, for the view swiveled, catching Dorie as she turned away from the suite door and aimed at Jennifer—through me.

I tensed as she fired, the beam going through my midsection.

Looking behind me, I saw Jennifer go down with a hole burned through her leg; she cried out as she fell, clutching at the wound with her hand.

“Dorie turned and went after Jennifer at that moment?” I asked. “With more cops piling through the door?”

Cadra shrugged. “Doesn’t make sense, I know.”

“Weird.”

“Gets weirder.” He pointed at Dorie, who started to run toward the balcony. She ignored Jennifer sprawled on the carpet.

The Venasaille police were yelling at her to stop. The marble camera didn’t bother with the police. It stayed on Dorie as she fired her blaster at the French doors that led to the balcony, ripping them apart. Pieces flew toward the marble cam, causing me to once again involuntarily duck.

“Goddamn it,” I whispered, but I kept my eyes on Dorie’s back as she ran through the ruined doors. The camera followed her, catching the very moment she stumbled. One cop’s blaster had hit her in the leg. She hobbled forward toward the unshielded edge of the balcony.

Momentum carried her forward.

She pitched over the side and, unbelievably, the marble cam followed her. It was like some sort of virtual thrill ride. I dropped to my knees to steady myself, watching the unusual angle, my point of view following Dorie Senall as she fell one hundred floors. She had her blaster going, carving veins down the face of the Tempest Tower.

There was a moment when the pavement rose up to meet her, when it rushed into my own eyes, that I expected the marble camera to follow her the whole way, smashing itself onto the street, but it stopped several floors up and gave me a sickening view of Dorie Senall exploding on the sidewalk.

 

Two

Alan Brindos arrived on the largest of all the Union worlds, Ribon, in the city of Venasaille, two days after Dorie Senall’s death. The Network Intelligence Office superseded local authority whenever the Movement was involved, and seeing as Dave Crowell was the head of the Movement commission, Brindos had been sent to pull rank and get more information.

Brindos was on Ribon less than a day when things started to go to hell. The ride through the jump slot had been bad enough—Dave knew he hated spaceflight and field work both—but having to deal with the Venasaille police was worse, and what followed that was… well, beyond description.

Brindos missed the old days, when he and Dave Crowell worked on their own, solving the big cases. Okay, none of them had ever been that big. Well, except the Baron Rieser gig. The data forger had taken them on a wild chase around the Union until he disappeared from sight. Brindos, who had no family, liked the close relationship he had with Crowell, and this Movement contract kept them farther apart than he liked. Brindos had been a foster kid all his life, and he’d had quite enough of that not-knowing-where-he-was-going-tobe-next kind of thing.

Although Captain Sydney Rand of the Venasaille police department logged an official protest to the NIO office upon Brindos’s arrival, as soon as he finished watching the holo-vid of Dorie’s death, Brindos ordered an immediate neuro-chemical autopsy of her remains. Rand called in the coroner, pulling him away from dinner with his family, and he locked him in the morgue when he arrived a half hour later. Brindos had the results an hour after that.

The autopsy revealed psychosis in the form of paranoid schizophrenia, a condition made dangerous by Dorie’s drug and alcohol intake. The lack of even solid circumstantial evidence supporting her alleged illegal recruiting scam, and now possible connections to Terl Plenko, meant either suspicions were unfounded, or she really knew what she was doing keeping them in the dark.

Because Dorie’s history of pathological behavior kept him from separating her truths from her lies, and because all her references to the Movement were vague during the holo-recording to begin with—no direct admissions of association—Brindos was forced to look closer for hard evidence that would help justify a raid on Coral Moon.

Using the holo-recording, he had the police department’s computers map the spots Dorie’s body, eyes, and posture pointed to during heightened moments of her conversations concerning the Movement. Her unconscious attention consistently focused on the area below the vid screen.

Lieutenant Branson brought Brindos to Dorie’s suite and they checked it out. Brindos had assumed she’d been thinking about the RuBy, for that’s where she’d rolled it, underneath the vid. When he shined his flashlight in the small cubbyhole, however, toward the very back, barely visible, he spotted something.

He motioned to Branson, and the lieutenant rummaged around in a plastic bag he’d brought with him. He came up with a small aerosol spritz, sprayed his left hand with a light latex polymer, and reached into the cubby. What he pulled out seemed inconsequential at first, a small metal sculpture, spherical in shape.

Branson turned it over a few times in his palm. “What’s this?” “Mortaline,” Brindos said.

“What?”

“The metal it’s made of. Very rare, and fucking expensive. Only found on Coral. The last major deposits of it were mined years ago, as far as I know, and they’re now just cleaning up the smaller bits and pieces in the Rock Dome. Along with all the other failing mines, of course.”

“A connection to Coral.”

Brindos nodded as Branson handed the sculpture over. About the size of a grapefruit, it resembled a planet twisting out of shape, as though a man inside were struggling to break out. A closer look, however, revealed that the black metal’s etchings included subtle forms on the surface, a sea of writhing bodies, what seemed like thousands. Each had a different face, and yet I could see the eyes of every face etched into the sculpture, and they seemed alive with torment.

Like the rest of Dorie’s apartment, this valuable piece of art—albeit disturbing art—was more than she could afford. He wondered if it had been a gift. He figured everything in this apartment had been a gift. From the Movement.

“DNA?” Brindos asked.

Branson nodded and pulled out a sequencer from the bag. He passed it over the black mortaline. “Miss Senall’s DNA,” he said, checking the readout. He waited some more. “Also, DNA of the artist, looks like. All over the crevices of the sculpture’s surface.” He looked up suddenly, a smile on his face. “A perfect match.”

“Match to whom?”

Branson passed the sequencer. Coded DNA strands on the left, photo on the right. An old photo, not very flattering, of a First Clan Helk.

Helks.

Humans regarded the other nonhuman race in the Union, the orange-haired Memors, almost as saints. The Memors discovered Earth and offered their jump-slot technology. It gave Earth access to known habitable worlds that could be used as colonies.

Helks, on the other hand, found by humans twenty years later in 2060, were gigantic and not as highly regarded. Brindos had never been to Helkunntanas and had no desire to go; most humans couldn’t stand the heat, and very few liked the idea of walking around surrounded on all sides by giants. A Fourth Clan Helk you could talk to without feeling terribly inadequate, but that was it. A light fur covered their broad bodies, and they had legs like small tree trunks, and long arms that rippled with muscle. Their heads were hairless, the skin dark and leathery due to the desert climate of their homeworld. When you met a Helk, you took in its size, its sad eyes, the rows of sharp teeth, then decided whether to say hello or run like hell.

Helks and humans didn’t always trust each other, or play nice. It had become a growing concern even before Terl Plenko’s Movement. Humans started calling them Hulks, a colloquial expression that carried with it a pointedly negative connotation. Truth to tell, the name fit, if nothing else, because of the aliens’ immense size.

Clans were based on size and social class, although a certain amount of crossover was allowed depending on upward mobility. First Clan was the largest of four clans. And this First Clan Helk on Branson’s sequencer was one of the largest Brindos knew.

The Helk peering out from the DNA sequencer was the Movement of Worlds leader, Terl Plenko.

“Goddamn.” Brindos pulled out his code card, the NIO agent super tool that allowed them direct communication with the agency brass, other agents, and the DataNet, and had more hidden gadgets than any civilian comm card. It was a little bigger than an oldfashioned paper business card, just as thin, and flexible, covered with flash membranes and tiny nodes. His finger whispered along the comm node, and he sent a message to Dave Crowell at the New York office a few seconds later, giving him a go-ahead to alert the director and President Nguyen to raid Coral Moon.

 

Over twenty small domes on Coral made the moon habitable, conditions imitating Ribon enough so colonists could live and work there. Mining on Coral had been big business, but most of the desired minerals had been mined out, and times were tough.

The NIO had hoped Dorie would raise the stakes on a tenuous friendship with Jennifer by offering a one-way ticket to Coral Moon, a suspected Movement outpost, making it sound like some holiday. Ribon officials had believed Dorie’s dismissal a month earlier from U.U. Mining Corporation had been a cover so she could run illegal recruits past customs to the outpost on Coral.

Crowell acknowledged Brindos and decided to send a message straight to Union President Richard Nguyen’s chief of staff. President Nguyen authorized three Arks for a raid on Coral Moon. It was unknown if the Movement had ships that could match even one Union Ark, but four Ribon days after Dorie’s death, three Arks arrived through the jump slot, armed for battle. They found the moon abandoned, its mass so ravaged by deep core explosives that officials feared it might become unstable in its orbit. As a precautionary measure, Ribon Provincial ordered evacuations of Ribon colonists, command and civilian, loading them onto transport ships, then sending them through the jump slot to a classified location, at some refugee camp on one of the other Union worlds. The transports ran continuously, and after two days, the Arks arrived. After completing a detailed analysis of Coral, the Ark captains okayed a request from Provincial to load as many refugees as they could fit aboard their ships, then jumped home.

Brindos reviewed the survey photos of Coral’s surface while the evacuation procedures continued, and found the evidence striking. Structures on Coral’s surface had been blasted and melted beyond recognition, particularly around the area called the Rock Dome, where much of Coral’s mining took place. All that, coupled with the moon’s missing mass, intentionally removed by explosives not sanctioned for mining, demonstrated evidence of an actual firepower higher than previously thought.

An hour after the Arks left the system, a final, cataclysmic explosion on Coral’s far side lit up the sky. Specifics of the explosion and the harrowing results didn’t come through until much later, but only a few Transworld Transport jump vessels managed to reach the system in time to attempt a rescue of more Ribon colonists. Brindos had already boarded a specially designated TWT vessel, Gateshead, loaded with politicians, dignitaries, and scientists, the last ones out of there.

Brindos sat across the aisle from Grahlst Tah’lah, a Memor scientist assigned to the Gateshead. They had been discussing the grim news.

“The explosion wasn’t nuclear?” Brindos asked the Memor.

“Even that wouldn’t have been enough to cause the damage,” Grahlst Tah’lah said, his orange hair tied back in a tight knot.

“What’s the Science Consortium say about this? Is that their opinion as well?”

The Memor pursed thick, pale lips. “The five from the Consortium have been quiet about the possibilities.”

“Have you heard from them at all since this happened?”

“No. It is… disconcerting.”

“Okay, so if not nukes, what the hell blew up Coral?”

“Rumors are spreading regarding some sort of antimatter disruption.”

Antimatter?”

“It is improbable, of course. The amount of antimatter needed to cause an explosion of that magnitude has never before been created, let alone collected without mishap.”

Brindos had heard as much. Heard that the amount of antimatter humans had created in the past hundred years might light up a small colony town for about a minute and a half.

“What’s going to happen to Ribon?” Brindos asked.

“Coral didn’t fragment completely, but its orbit, now compromised, puts it in the path of Ribon. In a few days, Ribon’s atmosphere and gravitation will shatter what is left of the small moon, and pieces will orbit Ribon. Soon, the planet will have Saturn-like rings.”

“A number of fragments will reach Ribon itself, won’t they?” he asked.

Grahlst Tah’lah nodded and looked at him across the aisle. “Some have already entered the atmosphere. Without time to prepare for a calamity as destructive as this, the damage will be devastating, reaching worldwide in hours. The resulting gamma rays from the antimatter weapon will certainly alter the chemistry of living things still on Ribon. Although Coral absorbed much of the rays, and others dispersed into space, it won’t be known how much of the electromagnetic wave will find its way to Ribon.”

“And for those people not evacuated in time?”

“It will make no difference. Ribon will intersect the moon’s orbit and some of Coral’s larger fragments will slam into it. Shockwaves from the impacts will cause worldwide earthquakes, awakening dormant volcanoes and triggering massive tidal waves. Dust clouds will blanket the planet. Ash will fall from the sky.”

Dear God, Brindos thought. Ribon would know nothing but darkness for months. Plants would die. Animals would die.

Colonists would die.

Sickened, Brindos barely made it in time to the Gateshead’s tiny lavatory and threw up. He had an idea how horrific the loss of life and damage would be. His heart thumped in his chest, and anger rose inside, making him shake. Even with the Arks, even with the transport jumps, only a fraction of Ribon’s population was moved off-planet.

He staggered back to his seat, barely able to walk. Grahlst Tah’lah left him alone.

How could this have happened? Was it deliberate? Had Plenko killed this moon without regard for the inhabitants of Ribon? How had he found the destructive means needed to pull off this despicable act of terrorism?

Brindos stared out the window of the Gateshead, the last emergency Transworld Transport. Now he could see the pieces of Coral quite clearly. The Gateshead was out in far orbit, having just departed Swan Station. All remaining evacuation ships had passed through the jump slot hours before.

Moments before they jumped, he watched some of the remnants of Coral drop away into Ribon’s atmosphere like pebbles disappearing into fog. A million Ribon colonists were dying. It was the worst thing he had ever seen in his life.

He wept.

 

Brindos visited Jennifer Lisle at Sacred Mercy Hospital in New York when he returned. They’d treated her on Ribon, then shipped her off to Earth just before Coral’s high dive. She told him mostly what he already knew from her report, but added a few extra details.

Dorie had first met Jennifer in Celine’s, a cafe in Venasaille where Jennifer had spent evenings watching the ice melt in her Scotch. Talking to Jennifer in person, without the distance provided by the holo-recording, Brindos felt a little uneasy. She was attractive the way a pretty librarian seems sexy with her glasses off. Withdrawn, aloof, skeptical of everything. She’d been disturbed by Dorie, and on more than one occasion had told her to fuck off. But that had only kept Dorie coming on to her. Jennifer had a job to do, and maybe she succeeded in winning over Dorie because of her earlier denials. Jennifer kept mostly to the script given to her by the Network Intelligence Office’s top officials, but she figured a little improvising wouldn’t hurt.

What Dorie lacked in charm, she made up for in persistence. Dorie wanted Jennifer, and as time wore on, her confidence grew and Jennifer’s guard eased, revealing a sexual curiosity. A few days after the initial meeting in Celine’s, they ended up in Dorie’s suite. Brindos asked her about the holo-recording looping into the suite’s vid unit, wondering if she had any enemies, anyone who might’ve wanted to see her cover blown. She didn’t know, but it had definitely unnerved her.

Brindos thanked Jennifer, wished her a speedy recovery, and flew back to New York to work out the kinks this goddamn trip had inflicted on him. He wanted to forget the whole mission, but figured he hadn’t heard the last of the whole affair. Of Dorie Senall, of Coral and of Ribon, of Terl Plenko, and of the Movement.

Sure enough, a week later, at NIO headquarters in New York, Brindos was put back to work.

He met Crowell in his temporary cubicle on the twenty-eighth floor, the same floor his own cubicle was on, the same floor as Director Timothy James’s office and Assistant Director Aaron Bardsley. Only the size and poshness of the offices changed. Offices ringed the floor, and the cubicles of many NIO agents sat in the middle hub. It was evening, and most of the offices were dark, agents and staff at home.

Crowell was a big man, maybe 250 pounds, all muscle, a product of his strict five-times-a-week weight workout. Brindos wouldn’t have wanted to run into him in a dark alley. More than once Brindos had been happy he was on his side. Crowell had fifty pounds on Brindos and, at age thirty, was five years younger. Stubble darkened his face—the beginnings of a beard that matched his dark brown hair. He never grew out a beard, though. His brown eyes could cut through you with a glance.

“After Ribon,” Crowell said from behind his desk, “probably the last thing you want to do is hop on a transport to Temonus, but I need you to follow up on the lead I’ve been given on Tony Koch.”

“Koch?”

Crowell nodded. “If one of Terl Plenko’s cronies is on Temonus as has been reported, maybe Plenko himself is over there. Frankly, it’s probably a dead end. That’s why I thought of you. You can stay a couple of extra weeks. You’re due for a vacation.”

“Look,” Brindos said, “I may be due, but you need the vacation. Have the square boys in the round office been putting the spurs to you because of Coral? Because you went over James’s head?”

“They gave me a choice between getting my nuts crunched in a vise or letting Nguyen throw darts at my ass.”

“Right,” Brindos said. “What you tell them?”

“I told them to save it for Plenko, that I’d have him for them within a year.”

“Liar.”

“Yeah, well those inflatable Plenko Halloween costumes are real lifelike, and I’ve got one that’s just your size.”

“Great. I’ll stay here and terrorize New York while you go to Temonus and sip aqua vitae out of some coconut with a toothpick umbrella.”

Crowell leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Not that easy, Alan. You’re going. Your itinerary and ticket info’s been synched to your code card. Connection to Florida tomorrow morning, then shuttle to Egret Station. Transworld Transport to Solan Station, Temonus. Leaves tomorrow night.”

Brindos eyed his code card, saw the notification pulse green, popping up as a new node on the membrane. He wished it would disappear.

Crowell reached into his desk drawer. “Oh, yeah.” He rummaged around for a moment. “Reading material.”

He passed a flashroll to Brindos. It was extra large, as big as an antique paper scroll, because it was a National Geographic, which demanded increased node circuitry and flash memory to accommodate the graphic-heavy publication. Crowell was the only person he knew who would’ve preferred a paper edition, but no periodical had even bothered with that kind of nostalgia for decades.

Along the skin of the rolled-up flashmag, the magazine’s yellow square logo pulsed. Brushing it with his finger brought up a preview holo of the front cover, the words National Geographic in block letters next to the logo, with a subhead: Celebrating 225 Years. A beautiful shot of some green wetlands filled the holo block. The headline: “Temonus, the Union’s New Frontier.” From last month, June 2113.

Crowell pointed at the flashmag. “I’ve marked an article for you to look at, and left some of my own notes in there. I want you to read it and let me know what you think once you get to Temonus.”

“Okay.”

“Looks beautiful, Alan,” Crowell said, closing his drawer and leaning back in his chair. “I wish I could go with you, I really do.”

“The fuck you do.” He didn’t believe him for a second. Crowell didn’t get out of the office. Besides, if given a choice, he wouldn’t pick Temonus. It would be Aryell, where he’d left behind Cara Landry. He’d fallen hard for her right after they’d contracted with the NIO.

“I’m looking further into this Dorie Senall thing. If you find any connections, I want to know.”

“Fine.” Brindos knew he wasn’t getting out of this one, as much as he’d hoped Crowell might change his mind.

“Koch is your priority,” Crowell said. “Remember, if you do find him, call me. But keep your distance. Like Plenko, he’s a Helk, First Clan, big as they come.”

 

When Brindos got home to his apartment around eleven o’clock, he powered up his code card, and in the semidark of his apartment, the flash membrane lit up with a burst that made him look away a moment. With a swish of his finger he brought up the mission folder with the details of the assignment. Crowell had written “Optay Ecretsay” across the holo image of the folder. Crowell, always the joker, not one to follow NIO protocols, or at least not very seriously.

Brindos thanked Crowell for generally keeping him in his cubicle and out of Director James’s sights by sending low-profile ops, nothing strenuous. He knows me too well. One of the reasons Brindos didn’t particularly care for contract work was the travel. Space flight was a reasonably safe bet now, but he hated it. It wasn’t about safety, or claustrophobia, or uncomfortable differences in gravity, it was just boring. He’d been in enough solar systems to make Galileo pee his pants, but the thrill went out of it. Space was one big black boring void, and most of the worlds in it were poison to humans.

Crowell had found his way to Timothy James’s good graces and grabbed major administration duties. Administration choked Brindos, but Crowell was adept at cutting through red tape. He loved everything about the Union of Worlds, particularly its mix of new and old. You found that curious mix not only on Earth, but also the colony planets of Orgon, Barnard’s, Ribon, Temonus, and Aryell. Things were a little different on the two nonhuman worlds of Helkunntanas and Memory, of course. Crowell loved antiques and memorabilia; he longed for the old days, but they were days he had never lived through, only read about, or heard stories about.

Time to find out what Temonus had to offer. Older civilizations throughout the Network had yet to pay much attention to the young Union colony, and information, even within intelligence circles, was scarce.

Brindos caught the shuttle to Egret in time to make his connection with Transworld Transport Flight #135 through the jump slot to Temonus. With time to burn, he sat back in his private flight cubicle and took out the National Geographic. Brindos unlocked and unrolled the flashmag, the full digital image of the front cover filling the membrane. He stretched and pulled, the nanocircuitry adjusting, expanding the view, then he thumbed the contents node.

Crowell had already digitally dog-eared the magazine, penning questions and observations in the margins. One note said, “Crossreference my appendix, node six, about this, which explains in detail what we know of the device. If you get a chance, take the guided tour and send me a T-shirt.”

He was referring to a double-page spread with the heading “Weather Perfect.” The text read: “Temonus may be young as colonies go, but the advances in weather control technology are making the other worlds of the Union take notice. An engineering marvel known as the Transcontinental Conduit, a spiderweb-thin filament, stretches across the tiny continent of Ghal, held by six towers, each a half mile high, and five hundred feet in diameter. From Tower One in East City, it whistles over plains and valleys as blue as the liquor Temonus is famous for. It stretches over the Micro region, a network of over a thousand small lakes. The Conduit passes over Midwest City skies, continuing to the coast, where it ties off at Tower Six in West City.

“The Conduit—invented by the Science Consortium, and endorsed by Union President Nguyen—was completed a year ago despite early objections from the Temonus provincial government, which had concerns about environmental impact studies left undone. Reports of early tests were encouraging and quieted most skeptics. Because of its classified status, the Conduit is not open to the public, and it is protected by a high-alert security grid and hot zone.”

Crowell had been joking then, about the guided tour. But Brindos did wonder if he might find a T-shirt to bring back.

The photos, he suspected, didn’t do the massive structure justice. He whisked across several of the included graphics of the circular towers, pulling them up in holo from the main membrane to get a closer look. The towers were a glossy black, almost featureless, except for some handholds, outer ladders, and opaqued windows that ran up and down its surface. Even as a graphic, Tower One exuded an almost menacing presence, towering over East City. Almost invisible to the eye, the thin wire stretched across the city out of the frame of the graphic to where it connected to Tower Two, far out of sight.

On the facing page was a photo of five scientists: two humans, a Helk, and a Memor. Brindos expanded this and zoomed in on them.

The caption below read: “The Science Consortium. Five of the Union’s brightest minds are behind the Conduit and the cutting-edge weather control technology.”

And where was the Consortium now? No one had heard from them since before the Coral Moon disaster.

He let his finger hover over the Memor in the graphic, who stood tall and stiff next to the Helk. Her orange hair was bright and long in stark contrast to the bald Helk; the short, thick brown hair of one human; and the thinning gray hair of the other. A text bubble coalesced above her with a quote.

“This is an exciting development in meteorological progress,” Lorway said. “We’re literally changing the landscape of Temonus and making it a better world.”

Lorway. Brindos had heard of her. A female Memor of note, considering most Memor females did not reach any level of importance. During mating, most Memors morphed male, but those rarer occasions when Memors intersexually assigned themselves female, they were bonded to multiple males, their surnames stripped. Lorway was rumored to be bonded to just one male. More often, Memor females were bonded to a dozen males, or more.

So the Transcontinental Conduit was a collaborative effort.

Brindos nodded to himself as he looked at the Memor’s face. She seemed uncomfortable, large, puffy lips locked in a hard smile. Quite the accomplishment to get the Memors signed on to something like this. The technology of the Memors, the creators of the jump slots, could be stunningly breathtaking, although many of the advancements the Memors kept to themselves.

There were also rumors about their enhanced memory capabilities, and their notion of shared memory, which enabled them to excel at Union conference tables and mediation hearings. And yet, most Memors stayed out of the limelight. They didn’t venture far from planet Memory.

The Memor planet had strikingly beautiful cities. Brindos had been there once, before the NIO contract, on a chase of data forger Baren Rieser. Buildings bloomed from the surface like trees, tall and formidable, but aesthetically pleasing with their glass exteriors and brushed, hand-carved stones. The air was a bit thin for humans, but breathable without breathing aids. Memors certainly didn’t like Earth’s hyper-oxygenated atmosphere—probably another reason they preferred to stay home. But in fact, their whole world was beautiful. For as long as the Memors had been on their planet—thousands of years—it felt like a new colony world, the waters pure and unpolluted, skies blue and pristine.

Brindos flicked the photo of the Science Consortium members back to the membrane and kept looking at the Temonus article, but found nothing else about the Conduit and how it actually controlled the weather; the staff writers had decided to enhance the unique graphics with a minimum of text. But he found the crossreference node Crowell had placed on the article, a tiny red square that outlined the letters “CF.” He pushed it and it took him to Crowell’s note:

“This is what I could scrounge up on what the NIO knows regarding the Conduit. The Science Consortium applied for the usual patents and permissions, commissioned impact studies [although all not completed as you know, resulting in early opposition—concern mostly about the wetlands], passed stringent QC checks from the Union and provincial governments, and received the blessings of the intelligence community—NIO, Kenn, and MSA—after confirming no danger of military or terrorist capabilites. The wire connects the six towers as an array of transmitters to push, from the tower caps, artificially created high-frequency waves amplified from Temonus’s existing electromagnetic field, which occurs between the surface and the ionosphere, creating what scientists on Earth call Schumann resonances. [This tech is nothing new, Alan, around for hundreds of years. Memors snapped it into a usable interface, however, with a way to harness the energy and inject it into the ionosphere about ninety miles up, without the need for chemical seeding.]”

Brindos thumbed a node to continue.

“The Conduit itself helps generate the massive energy needed, as much as six million watts. The end result: a purposeful pushing of ionized water particles upward, causing the ionosphere to extend outward, thereby causing the stratosphere to fill in the space. Temonus’s jet stream reroutable. Cloud formations and plumes controllable. [Again, not new tech, but the Memors shared the methods to perfect it.]”

Crowell’s note ended there, and he was thankful. He didn’t need to know much more about the Conduit than that. He rolled the flashmag and put it away, then returned to the mission folder on his code card. Crowell’s earlier folder message, obviously placed there with a data-timed command, now said, “Still Optay Ecretsay.”

Time to dig into the Koch matter.

 

Nearly a day later, Earth time, ten thousand kilometers out from Temonus, the planet showed up on the monitor in his flight cubicle. The pictures in the magazine had displayed Temonus’s natural beauty to full advantage, and indeed, from up here, it looked very Earth-like.

From five hundred kilometers up on Solan Station, however, while awaiting transfer to the surface in the lounge, nothing but vast patches of blue made the planet look like an impossible ball of water in the vacuum of space. Temonus had very few land masses. Cloud formations across the southern pole gave the planet a nice little smile.

He closed his eyes a moment, reverent, remembering Ribon and the horrors visited upon it by Coral.

He didn’t remember falling asleep, but a call to board the shuttle to the surface awakened him. Wearily, travelers channeled into the umbilical tube that connected to the drop shuttle. Under their arms they carried coats they’d had no need of, tired now of the weathercontrolled metal environments, all dreaming of rain and wind, the natural light of a sky.

Brindos watched Temonus turning below them, the Republic of Ghal slipping slowly by. He staggered down to the drop shuttle like a man heading for bed.

 


The Ultra Thin Man © Patrick Swenson, 2014

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