Coming from Free City and from Jupiter Orbit as I did, I wasn't particularly acquainted with concepts such as “rust” and “grime”. At Jupiter, I was a network tech, my world abstracted as far as possible from the real world. Our offices and labs were spotless, as the only tools we ever used were right inside our heads. Back on Free City, it was quite a shock to be thrust back into semi-skilled labour, and more of a shock to be working with real things – meat, vegetables, knives and saucepans and so on. But apart from during actual food preparation, it was just as clean as my offices used to be. Nanoparticle fluids had long ago removed any difficulty from keeping surfaces clean at the molecular level.
All of this is the reason why stepping into the Maria's cargo hold was possibly the closest I'd come to culture shock in the previous twenty years. It was rusty, the kind of deep all-the-way through rust that makes one ask questions about structural integrity. It was dusty too, with bare metal just about showing through in the areas where large crates had been pushed around seemingly by hand.
An intercom crackled into life, sounding just as decrepit as the rest of the ship.
“Welcome aboard, Jenny! How do you like her?”
I shouted back, assuming there was some sort of two-way communication involved in the system.
“How do I…? José, how old is this thing?” I could hear Junko chuckling in the background.
“Two hundred and fifty-seven years if she's a day!”
“Two hundred? This thing flies?”
“Sure she does! Found her in a heap one day, restored her myself. Now she's good as new!”
“This is restored? What was it like beforehand?”
“Oh, shit,” I said, clearly not quietly enough.
“Heard that!” said José. “It hasn't killed me yet. Look, if you want to go back to your café, you know where the door is. On the off-chance you want to make something of your life, come up to the bridge. You'll find the way.”
The intercom clicked, I assumed meaning the conversation was over. Not exactly the best start to our journey; clearly the guy was pretty touchy about this old rust-bucket. Still, I figured Junko was sane, and if she put up with it then I probably ought to too.
I cast a cautious eye over the meagre contents of the cargo bay on my way past, wondering if perhaps they were carting me around just because they'd fallen on hard times and couldn't find anything else of a dubious nature to transport. Not so, though. Next to one crate reassuringly and childishly labelled “JOSÉ'S STUFF!” sat another three, shorter and fatter and covered in warning labels. 'Corrosive', 'harmful' and 'explosive' were all there, topped off by one I'd never seen before: 'Active nanomachines'. Well, that just topped it all off. These were the critical technology inside makers, and inside the Celestial Fleet's waste reprocessing facilities too. Nanoscale robots, programmed to assemble and disassemble matter molecule-by-molecule, turning one thing into another. Of course, such were the potential hazards of these things going wrong, that you had to have a special and very expensive licence just to possess them, let alone to use them. Chances of José and Junko having that kind of licence? Pretty much zero, though I supposed that somewhere out there, some computer or other thought they did.
José was right, I did find the way to the bridge – mostly because there wasn't really anywhere else to go. Once I'd headed up the walkway out of the cargo area, there was only one corridor. To either side, cabins and a mess room declared themselves from fading labels on rusty doors, leaving only the unmarked one at the very end. It opened as I approached.
Inside, the bridge was a mess beyond anything I had encountered on the rest of the ship, and I struggled to remember ever in my life encountering something so disorganised. It must have once been designed for at least four or five crew each with their own console; big lit-up screens and touch panels. These archaic-looking pre-Angel era consoles had been stripped out, but not to be replaced with some more efficient control mechanism. It looked like they'd simply been moved over to the Captain's chair by hacking together anything that was lying around. Above the Captain's console, several layers of touch panels and telemetry data screens rose up in an arc, welded to big steel pipes that stuck out of the floor at odd angles. Connecting them to their original positions were wires, often bare, sometimes so long that they coiled on the floor, sometimes so short that they hung taut in mid-air. One of the latter had laundry hanging from it. The whole setup, mercifully excluding the wet clothes, was caked in dust and oil. It gave the impression that one day José decided that flying the ship was too easy, so he fired the rest of the crew and just moved their consoles over to his seat so he could do it all himself. This was, of course, pretty much the case. The captain himself was virtually lying down on a tattered old reclining chair, staring up at his five peoples' worth of screens and tapping away on panels. He didn't look up as I entered.
“Pre-flight checks,” said Junko, beckoning me over to where she was sitting in the bridge's only other seat. She must have noticed my bewilderment at José's rapt attention to the dangerous-looking array of consoles. “The only thing I've ever seen him take seriously. Come over here a minute, let me show you something.”
Junko sat on her own, no console in front of her, looking for all the world like a passenger, but a white box above her head – trailing bare wires, as everything seemed to here – made it pretty clear what her function on the bridge was. It was marked with the hand-written phrase 'ANGEL RELAY 1'.
The other woman must have noticed my curiosity once again. “Turn your Angel on,” she said.
“But won't they-“
“Know where you are? No. Trust me, try it.”
What did I have to lose? Not a lot, I supposed. If they could locate me here, Junko and José would be in much deeper trouble than I could ever be. I turned my Angel on.
“It's not working!” I exclaimed.
“Ask for ship schematics.”
“Okay,” I said, and thought about ship schematics. Soundlessly, a model of the Maria appeared in the centre of my field of vision, and proceeded to de-construct itself into neatly-labelled parts.
“It is working! Sort of. So why don't I get my normal display?” I asked.
“You're not on the network as you. The relay routes your Angel data through the ship's connection into Free City.”
“But the ship's relay should get my profile, shouldn't it? As soon as I switch on here, it ought to fetch my profile from the peer network. Unless…” Knowledge was coming back to me, bit by bit, memories that had been worn away by twenty years of drudgery. “Oh, that can be disabled, can't it? At the relay level, so it just comes through as anonymous traffic. But isn't that illegal outside of the military?”
Junko gave me a look.
“Yeah, good point,” I said, her meaning having been plenty clear without the need for words.
“I suppose,” I continued, “that I'll have to avoid looking up anything personal, right? Even though we're routed through the ship, if we start searching for Lance, they'll trace it to Maria at least.”
“Not necessarily,” Junko said with a smile. She was clearly in her element here, much as I would have been back on Jupiter Orbit. “Not while we're docked, anyway. We route straight through to the Explorers' HQ under crypto. Search all you like for you, him, even us two. Nothing suspicious about that coming from corporate HQ, we're all supposedly their employees.”
“But won't they be able to trace your crypto stream? They must employ dozens of people just to look out for that kind of hack.”
“They do,” said Junko primly. “And I am better than all of them.”
There was an uneasy pause for a while after that, and Junko went back to whatever dubious business she had on Free City's Angel net.
“Junko, finish up,” said José, sitting up and peering out between two sections of what would once have been the Navigator's console.
“One step ahead of you,” she replied, tapping a lit orange light on the wall next to her seat. “I wired this light into the Nav computer, remember? It tells me when a course is plotted, which is always the last thing you do pre-flight.”
José grumbled, unimpressed at having such a predictable routine, then reached back to the Navigator's console and deliberately deleted then re-entered a course. The light blinked. More grumbling ensued from the Captain's seat.
“Anyway,” said José, “we've got launch clearance. Buckle up.”
It was a figure of speech, of course – neither of their seats had any kind of safety feature whatsoever, and in my fifteen minutes on board I had not even heard any hint of there being a third seat anywhere. Clearly they didn't often have passengers.
José counted down from three, and with an unceremonious thud of the docking clamps, centripetal force carried us out of Free City and into the carbon-black night of the universe.
As the ship banked out of her spiral course and headed for the shipping lanes I felt blood rush up to my head, and I instinctively grabbed for the nearest solid-looking bit of metal. “Shit. Of course,” I muttered to myself as I struggled to stay what I considered to be the right way up. Not only did that heap of junk pre-date Angels, it pre-dated artificial gravity, too.