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Reality Dysfunction: Expansion

Chapter 01

Graeme Nicholson sat on his customary stool beside the bar in the Crashed Dumper, the one furthest away from the blaring audio block, and listened to Diego Sanigra, a crewman from the Bryant , complain about the way the ship had been treated by Colin Rexrew. The Bryant was a colonist-carrier starship that had arrived at Lalonde two days ago, and so far not one of its five and a half thousand colonists had been taken out of zero-tau. It was a ruinous state of affairs, Diego Sanigra claimed, the governor had no right to refuse the colonists disembarkation. And the energy expenditure for every extra hour they spent in orbit was costing a fortune. The line company would blame the crew, as they always did. His salary would suffer, his bonus would be non-existent, his promotion prospects would be reduced if not ruined.

Graeme Nicholson nodded sympathetically as his neural nanonics carefully stored the aggrieved ramblings in a memory cell. There wasn’t much which could be used, but it was good background material. How the big conflict reached down into individual lives. The kind of thing he covered so well.

Graeme had been a reporter for fifty-two of his seventy-eight years. He reckoned no journalist didactic course could teach him anything new, not now. With his experience he should have been formatting didactic courses, except there wasn’t a news company editor in existence who would want junior reporters corrupted to such an extent. In every sense he was a hack reporter, with an unerring knack of turning daily misfortune into spicy epic tragedy. He went for the human underbelly every time, highlighting the suffering and misery of little people who were trampled on, the ones who couldn’t fight back against the massive uncaring forces of governments, bureaucracies, and companies. It was not from any particular moral indignation, he certainly didn’t see himself as championing the underdog. He simply felt emotions laid raw made for a better story, with higher audience ratings. To some degree he had even begun to look like the victims he empathized with so well; it was partly reflexive, they were less suspicious of someone whose clothes never quite fitted, who had thick ruddy skin and watery eyes.

His brand of sensationalism went down well with the tabloid broadcasts, but by concentrating on the seedy aspects he knew best, building a reputation as a specialist of dross, he found himself being squeezed out of the more prestigious assignments; he hadn’t covered a half-decent story for a decade. Over the last few years his neural nanonics had been used less for sensevise recording and more for running stimulant programs. Time Universe had given him a roving assignment eight years ago, pushing him off onto all the shabby little fringe jobs that no one else with a gram of seniority would cover. Anything to keep him out of a studio, or an editorial office where his contemporaries had graduated to.

Well, no more. The joke was on the office has-beens now. Graeme Nicholson was the only man on the ground, the one with the clout, the one with the kudos. Lalonde was going to earn him the awards he’d been denied all these years; then maybe after that one of those nice cosy office seats back home on Decatur.

He had been on Lalonde for three months to do a documentary-style report on the new world frontier, and gather general sensevise impressions and locations for the company library’s memory cores. Then this wonderful calamity had fallen on Lalonde. Calamitous for the planet and its people, for Rexrew and the LDC career administration staff; but for Graeme Nicholson it was manna from heaven. It being war, or an Ivet rebellion, or a xenoc invasion, depending on who you were talking to. He had included accounts of all three theories on the fleks Eurydice had taken to Avon last week. But it was strange that after two and a half weeks the Governor had still made no official announcement as to exactly what was happening up in the Quallheim and Zamjan Counties.

“That executive assistant of Rexrew’s, Terrance Smith, he’s talking about sending us to another phase one colony world,” Diego Sanigra grumbled. He took another gulp of bitter from his tankard. “As if that’s going to be any help. What would you say if you were a colonist who paid passage for Lalonde and came out of zero-tau to find yourself on Liao-tung Wan? That’s Chinese-ethnic, you know, they wouldn’t like the EuroChristian-types we’ve got stored on board.”

“Is that where Terrance Smith suggested you take them?” Graeme Nicholson asked.

He gave a noncommittal grunt. “Just giving you an example.”

“What about fuel reserves? Have you got enough He3 and deuterium to get to another colony world and then return to Earth?”

Diego Sanigra started to answer. Graeme Nicholson wasn’t listening too hard, he let his eyes wander round the hot crowded room. One of the spaceport shifts had just come off duty. At the moment there were few McBoeing flights. Only the three cargo ships orbiting Lalonde were being unloaded; the six colonist-carriers were waiting for Rexrew to decide what to do with their passenger complements. Most of the spaceport crews simply turned up at the start of each shift so they could keep claiming their pay.

I wonder what they feel about the end of overtime, Graeme asked himself. Might be another story there.

The Crashed Dumper certainly wasn’t suffering from the troubles afflicting the rest of the city; this outlying district didn’t protest or riot over Rexrew and the Ivets, it housed too many LDC worker families. There were a lot of people in tonight, drowning their sorrows. The waitresses were harried from one end of the long room to the other. The overhead fans were spinning fast, but made little impression on the heat.

Graeme heard the audio block falter, the singer’s voice slowing, deepening to a weird bass rumble. It picked up again, turning the voice to a girlish soprano. The crowd clustered round started laughing, and one of them brought his fist down on it. After a moment the loud output returned to normal.

Graeme saw a tall man and a beautiful teenage girl walk past. Something about the man’s face was familiar. The girl he recognized as one of the Crashed Dumper’s waitresses, although tonight she was dressed in jeans and a plain cotton blouse. But the man—he was middle-aged with a neat beard and small pony-tail, wearing a smart leather jacket and ash-grey shorts, and he was very tall, almost like an Edenist.

The glass of lager dropped from Graeme’s numb fingers. It hit the mayope planks and smashed, soaking his shoes and socks. “Holy shit,” he croaked. The fright constricting his throat prevented the exclamation being more than a whisper.

“You all right?” Diego Sanigra asked, annoyed at being interrupted in mid-complaint.

He forced himself to look away from the couple. “Yes,” he stammered. “Yes, I’m fine.” Thank Christ nobody was paying any attention, if he had looked round . . . He reddened and bent down to pick up the shards of glass. When he straightened up the couple were already at the bar. Somehow they had cut straight through the crush.

Graeme ran a priority search program through his neural nanonics. Not that he could possibly be mistaken. The public figures file produced a visual image from a memory cell, recorded forty years ago. It matched perfectly.

Laton!

Lieutenant Jenny Harris twitched the reins, and the dun-coloured horse gave the big qualtook tree a wide berth. Her only previous experience with the animals was her didactic course and a week in the saddle five years ago during an ESA transportation training exercise back on Kulu. Now here she was, leading an expedition through one of the toughest stretches of jungle in the Juliffe tributary network and trying to avoid the attention of a possible military invasion force at the same time. It wasn’t the best reintroduction to the equestrian art. She thought the horse could sense her discomfort, he was proving awkward. A mere three hours’ riding and every muscle in her lower torso was crying for relief; her arms and shoulders were stiff; her backside had gone from soreness to numbness and finally settled for a progressive hot ache.

I wonder what all this bodily offensive is doing to my implants?

Her neural nanonics were running an extended sensory analysis program, enhancing peripheral vision and threshold audio inputs, and scrutinizing them for any signs of hidden hostiles. Electronic paranoia, basically.

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