The Networked Planet
We landed back on Abinax just ten hours after I ended that rather awkward call. I’d paid extra for an express shuttle, not wanting to have to explain to Huara why I wasn’t there by the morning, as we’d discussed.
It was still two or three hours before sunrise, and Abinax suffered from that same early morning chill that we had on Terra. I rubbed my hands on my upper arms to try to warm myself up a little and eyed Te’rnu’s insulated mechsuit with envy.
Tall skyscrapers, each housing thousands – some, tens of thousands – stood around us. Abinax was a planet of little land, and so they’d learned to built upwards early in their civilisation’s development. The lower floors of each building, perhaps the first four or five, were reserved for commercial and industrial enterprises. Great webs of pedestrianised walkways wound their ways from floor to floor, from building to building, weaving around one another and the roads of Abinax’s equally impressive shuttle network.
It had been just four days since I had stood in this exact spot, planning Te’rnu and I’s capture of the target that Solita, our informant, was going to point out to us. A lot, I felt, had changed in this time.
Te’rnu and I returned to the same hotel we’d been staying in the week before. It was of the more traditional sort; locals were employed to take payment, show you to your room, that kind of thing. All these tasks, normally, would be completed by the hotel’s AI, thereby eliminating any human error. But here, on Abinax, they preferred that personal touch – for reasons completely foreign to me.
‘How may I…,’ the hotel clerk began, looking up at Te’rnu and I. He raised an eyebrow. ‘Weren’t you guys just here?’
‘Oh, I… I… I don’t mean that in a rude way!’ he stuttered, fiddling absent-mindedly with his name tag, which showed that he had a solid 4-star rating and over 700 followers.
‘No, it’s OK,’ I replied, much to the clerk’s relief. ‘It’s… a long story.’
‘Oh?’ he asked, looking up at me.
‘…which I’ll keep for another time,’ I finished, giving him a knowing look.
The clerk nodded back. ‘Same room as before? Three bed, overlooking the square? It’s still available.’
‘That’ll do nicely,’ I replied.
‘Shotgun the corner bed!’ Te’rnu announced – the same way he had done the first time we checked in, too. I took a moment to once again regret explaining to him the rules of “shotgun”, then paid the clerk, and followed him to our room.
The hotel employee gave us the same spiel about our stay as he had the first time around, again encouraging us to leave him a 5-star rating and to give him a follow if he’d been at all helpful. I’d already given him a rating from our last visit – normally I wouldn’t bother with crap like that, but as it meant so much on Abinax, I broke my rule just that once.
Te’rnu, alongside his 5-star rating, also left a glowing four-paragraph review, explaining in great detail how the clerk was proficient in explaining the hotel’s facilities, giving tips on restaurants in the local area, and laughed at his jokes – something that even his friend, he stressed, did not do. The book of jokes from which he’d been reading went missing later that day, and I feigned my assistance in the thorough search for it.
I took a moment to stare out the window of our room. It wasn’t a bad view at all, especially considering the price range. Outside, we looked onto the central plaza – that same square on which we’d apprehended our original suspect. Crowding around the small, green space (and ensuring that it never really saw any sunlight) were the skyscrapers of the Central Entertainment District. Ostensibly, this area was where all the highest-rated Abinaxian celebrities lived and worked – but, really, it was mostly full of tourists and wannabes. I happened to know from my research that the truly famous Abinaxians lived further east, in the Almistac Peninsula. Or, if they were really well-off, they lived out on Aquilley Hills in mansions so huge that they had their own private land. Our investigation up until this point, sadly, had taken us to neither of those destinations.
If the window was a little further west – and a few dozen buildings weren’t in the way – we would have had a view of the Great Stadium. In lieu of it actually being in sight, a huge picture of the Stadium was positioned above our beds. It showed a massive metal compound, one central area with eight smaller venues dotted around, even the smallest of which could host a couple of hundred thousand people. “Go hard, or don’t go at all,” as the Abinaxians would say.
‘I’m going to pop in the shower quickly,’ I called out. ‘And then we’ll get back to work in… twenty minutes?’
Te’rnu shrugged. ‘Sure.’
I walked into the dark grey bathroom, and the lights automatically switched on – thin strips of blue that glowed from between the large tiles. I stripped completely, got in the shower, and sighed. I stood still for a moment, eyes closed, and enjoyed the sensation of the warm water washing away that increasingly-familiar grime that comes from a day’s travel. I was interrupted by Te’rnu walking in to use the toilet.
‘Te’rnu, would you mind…,’ I began – but was cut off mid-sentence by the whoosh of urine already being expelled from his bladder.
‘Yes?’ he asked, glancing over.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ I replied.
He didn’t give me a second look, instead only finishing up his business to leave me alone once more.
‘Are you sure it’s OK to be naked in front of him?’ a man’s voice asked.
Now clean, I pulled on some fresh clothes from my suitcase and looked up at Te’rnu staring at me impatiently.
‘It’s been twenty-two minutes,’ he said.
‘Yeah, so?’ I asked.
‘You said twenty minutes. I was ready to go two minutes ago.’
I shook my head and resisted the urge to roll my eyes.
‘Where are we starting?’ he asked.
‘I’ve been thinking about that very question the whole way over,’ I replied. ‘We’re pretty much back to square one, aren’t we? I figure our best bet is to find some seedy bar and ask about there. I’m sure we’ll find someone with a contact in there.’
‘Oh, we are going to a bar, are we? That is a surprise.’ Te’rnu responded, a smirk on his face.
‘Don’t push it,’ I told him.
We left the room, Te’rnu locking it firmly behind us – then double-checking it – and went downstairs. The same hotel clerk was still on duty.
‘Can I help you with anything?’ he asked, a wide grin on his face.
‘We were looking to get a drink,’ Te’rnu answered.
‘Great!’ came the reply, ‘My personal recommendation would be-’
I cut him off. ‘No. We’re looking for… Well, what bar around here would you be least likely to recommend?’
The clerk, hesitant at first, pointed us in the direction of a local bar that had a measly average review score of only 2.2 stars.
Our destination was not at all like I had imagined. Where I had imagined dust, grime, damp, there was nothing of the sort. The bar wasn’t entirely different to one back on Terra – there was the familiar table layout, booths at the perimeters of the room, and stools sat right up against the bar. Small lines of yellow lighting ran around the edges of the room, bar, and each of the tables, giving the place a warm, comfortable vibe. If this was the worst that Abinax had to offer, then maybe there was something to this habitual reviewing after all.
All of the booths were occupied – some with large, cheery groups, others with a lone drinker – so I sat myself down at the bar instead. I wasn’t ever one for sitting in the middle of a room.
Te’rnu sat down next to me as I ordered two whiskies from the bartender. He shook his head. ‘Not for me, thank you.’
I tried to retrieve the bartender’s attention, but he was already pouring. The woman sitting next to me watched the full interaction with a smirk on her face. ‘Two for me, I guess,’ I mumbled to myself, glancing at the woman, who had quickly returned to watching the screen above us.
‘Ask around, will you, Te’rnu?’ I requested.
He opened his mouth slightly in surprise. ‘Me?’
‘Are you not up to it?’
‘No!’ he replied. ‘I mean- yes! Yes, boss. I am on top of it.’
I swung back around to face the bar as the two whiskies were placed in front of me. I thanked the bartender, and took a sip.
‘Damn. Rykan,’ I muttered. I should’ve specified.
I couldn’t quite tell, but, from what I could see out of my peripheral vision, it seemed that the same woman was amused by me again.
I focused my attention on the screen as a holographic flashed onto it. The Great Stadium, illuminated for full impact, rotated slowly in front of the screen before an overlay began to appear in front…
ABINAXIAN OF THE YEAR, it read. ANNOUNCING THE FINALISTS.
Dramatic music played over the top, a heavy bassline willing me, the viewer, to care.
This is still going on, then, is it?
An overly-keen presenter opened a golden envelope announcing the first finalist: Turon Tara. The crowd at the venue went wild, as though this Turon had actually won… rather than having just been nominated. Turon took to the stage to thank the Abinaxian Academy for her nomination. It turned out, judging by her speech, that she was a tech genius, working out on Silicon Island, and had revolutionised… something. Part of me switched off when she got into the tech stuff.
The woman next to me scoffed, and I took a moment to look her up and down – probably not as quickly or as subtly as I imagined I was doing. She was dressed in all black, green hair cropped close to the scalp, complementing the pale green of the Abinaxian skin tone. Her narrow frame was matched by a long, thin face, which housed those fully grey eyes that were typical on this planet. As I glanced at her eyes, I couldn’t help but notice that there was something off about them – it didn’t seem quite like there was any life behind them.
I returned my attention to the screen before I could be accused of staring. A new presenter had taken the stage, holding another envelope, again ludicrously gold in colour. The crowd were no less enthusiastic to welcome the next finalist – a Cornar Pruta – to the stage.
I didn’t hear much to come out of Cornar’s mouth, because I was slightly hypnotised by his looks. While the typical Abinaxian frame was bulky – my friend at the bar here a notable exception – Cornar was bulky in just the right places. His hair, greying at the sides, was swept back, accentuating his features, and allowing me to look into his light grey eyes – the lightest I’d ever seen on an Abinaxian.
‘He’s not bad to look at, is he?’ the woman at the bar next to me said, shaking me from my hypnotic state.
‘I… err…,’ I started, mumbling, my cheeks going red at having been caught. ‘No. He’s not. Who is he?’
The woman shrugged. ‘Some trillionaire. Calls himself a philanthropist. I reckon that anyone could be a philanthropist if they had that much money, though.’
‘Cheers to that,’ I replied, clinking my whiskey glass with her highball.
The woman went quiet – that seemed to be the end of the conversation. I looked around at the bar, to see Te’rnu crouching next to a particularly short Turknani, who was very obviously not interested in talking with him.
I turned back to the bar. The woman next to me leaned in conspiratorially.
‘You know… Pruta’s split from his wife was in the papers recently. Never know, if you happen to run into him, you might be in with a shot.’
I simply laughed and shook my head, giving this woman no insight into my current relationship status.
She chuckled back. ‘Fair enough. Some of the papers are saying there might have been something untoward going on – maybe best to keep away from him, anyway.’
‘What,’ I replied, gesturing to Pruta, who was still on screen, ‘He might have done something wrong? This “trillionaire philanthropist”, as you put it? Surely it’ll have been the wife, no?’
The woman shrugged. ‘Who knows? Haven’t given it much thought. Chances of people like us meeting someone like him… One in a bazillion.’
I didn’t quite like the way she was grouping us both together in that sentence, but I let it lie. Instead, I checked in again on Te’rnu. He still seemed to be having no luck – this time at a booth full of young women, who, I suspected, thought he was trying to hit on them.
I’d like to see that.
‘What are you here for? Surely not the drink, or the company… Last I checked this place was only 2.1 stars, after all.’
‘2.2 stars, now,’ I responded.
‘Oh, really? They’re going up in the world. Props to them!’
I looked my drinking companion up and down one last time – and then took a gamble. ‘We’re looking to get our hands on the ‘Liks.’
The woman was visibly taken aback. ‘Really? You didn’t seem the sort.’
‘Do you know anyone? Who could help?’
She paused for a moment, pursed her lips as she weighed this up. ‘I don’t. But I could get to know someone. For a fee.’
For a fee? You didn’t seem the sort…
‘For a…,’ I started. ‘How much?’
Another pause; I could practically see the mental maths going on in the woman’s head. ‘Four thousand units.’
I shook my head to myself, looked around at Te’rnu one last time. He was still having no luck at the same booth.
‘Fine,’ I replied. ‘Half now, half… well, you know how it works.’
‘Excellent. Shouldn’t be more than a couple of days.’
We tapped consoles together, exchanging contact details, and I sent two thousand units over to her.
‘I’m Syl,’ I officially introduced myself. ‘Syl Raynor.’
The Abinaxian shook my hand. ‘Nice to meet you, Syl. I’m doing this right, aren’t I? The handshake? That’s right, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, that’s what Terrans do. Shake hands.’ I trailed off, expecting the woman to offer her own name.
She did not.
‘And… your name… is…,’ I prompted.
‘…Best left unknown. In my business it’s best not to leave any footprints.’
The woman downed the rest of her drink and moved to leave.
‘I’ll speak to you soon, Syl Raynor,’ she whispered as she left.
I looked at her empty glass – with not a drop of alcohol left in it.
My kind of woman.
I summoned Te’rnu back over. He made his excuses to the rather relieved group of young women, and shook his head as he approached.
‘No luck at all,’ he said.
‘No worries. I think I found someone, anyway. Should be in touch soon.’
His face grew sad. ‘I will do better next time.’
I screwed my face up in confusion. ‘Better? What do you mean? You did just fine, not your fault if nobody here knows about what you’re after. It’s just dumb luck most the time, this job.’
Te’rnu seemed a little cheerier after that. ‘I did have one thought,’ he said. ‘We should try our informant again – Solita, was that her name?’
‘Yeah, we could do that, Te’rnu,’ I replied, hoping to encourage him. ‘Yeah! Maybe there was a misunderstanding, or she recognised the wrong person in the shuttle terminal. She could still be useful, I guess.’
I began work on my second whisky while Te’rnu opened his console to send a communication to Solita.
A few moments later, Te’rnu piped back up. ‘Syl… I think I am doing it wrong again.’
I sighed away the frustrations of trying to teach a technophobe to use technology, and returned to him.
His console, however, was giving him an error that I’d never seen before.
ERROR: Identity not found.
‘Hmm,’ I commented. ‘That’s… weird.’
I restarted the software and typed our informant’s name in the send box… only to get the same message.
‘That’s very weird,’ I reiterated. ‘Our informant doesn’t seem to exist.’
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