21st Century Science Fiction (56 page)

BOOK: 21st Century Science Fiction
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Hitchens gestured for Gennady to climb into the van. “Reindeer?” he suddenly said with a grin.

“You ever heard of the Becqurel Reindeer?” said Gennady. “No? Well—very famous among us radiation hunters.”

The transport truck was pinioned in spotlights now as men in hazmat suits walked clumsily toward it. That was serious overkill, of course; Gennady grinned as he watched the spectacle.

“After Chernobyl a whole herd of Swedish reindeer got contaminated with cesium-137,” he said. “Fifty times the allowable dose. Tonnes of reindeer meat had already entered the processing plants before they realized. All those reindeer ended up in a meat locker outside Stockholm where they’ve been sitting ever since. Cooling off, you know?

“Well, yesterday somebody broke into the locker and stole some of the carcasses. I think the plan was to get the meat into shops somehow then cause a big scandal. A sort of dirty-bomb effect.”

The man with Hitchens swore. “That’s awful!”

Gennady laughed. “And stupid,” he said. “One look at what’s left and nobody in their right mind would buy it. But we caught them anyway, though you know the Norwegian border’s only a few kilometers that way . . .”

“And
you
tracked them down?” Hitchens sounded impressed. Gennady shrugged; he had something of a reputation as an adventurer these days, and it would be embarrassing to admit that he hadn’t been brought into this case because of his near-legendary exploits in Pripyat or Azerbaijan. No, the Swedes had tapped Gennady because, a couple of years ago, he’d spent some time in China shooting radioactive camels.

Casually, he said, “This is a paid consultation, right?”

Hitchens just nodded at the van again. Gennady sighed and climbed in.

At least it was dry in here. The back of the van had benches along its sides, a partition separating it from the cab, and a narrow table down its middle. A surveillance truck, then. A man and a woman were sitting on one bench, so Gennady slid in across from them. His stomach tightened with sudden anxiety; he forced himself to say “Hello.” Meeting anybody new, particularly in a professional capacity, always filled him with an awkward dread.

Hitchens and his companion heaved themselves in and slammed the van’s doors. Gennady felt somebody climb into the cab and heard its door shut.

“My car,” said Gennady.

Hitchens glanced at the other man. “Jack, could you clear Mr. Malianov’s account? We’ll get somebody to return it,” he said to Gennady. Then as the van began to move he turned to the other two passengers. “This is Gennady Malianov,” he said to them. “He’s our nuclear expert.”

“Can you give me some idea what this is all about?” asked Gennady.

“Stolen plutonium,” said Hitchens blandly. “Twelve kilos. A bigger deal than your reindeer, huh?”

“Reindeer?” said the woman. Gennady smiled at her. She looked a bit out of place in here. She was in her mid-thirties, with heavy-framed glasses over her gray eyes and brown hair tightly clawed back on her skull. Her high-collared white blouse was fringed with lace. She looked like the cliché schoolmarm.

Around her neck was hung a heavy-looking brass pocket-watch.

“Gennady, this is Miranda Veen,” said Hitchens. Veen nodded. “And this,” continued Hitchens, “is Fraction.”

The man was wedged into one corner of the van. He glanced sidelong at Gennady, but seemed distracted by something else. He was considerably younger than Veen, maybe in his early twenties. He wore glasses similar to hers, but the lenses of his glowed faintly. With a start Gennady realized they were an augmented reality rig—they were miniature transparent computer screens, and some other scene was being overlaid on top of what he saw through them.

Veen’s were clear, which meant hers were probably turned off right now.

“Miranda’s our cultural anthropologist,” said Hitchens. “You’re going to be working with her more than the rest of us. She actually came to us a few weeks ago with a problem of her own—”

“And got no help at all,” said Veen, “until this other thing came up.”

“A possible connection with the plutonium,” said Hitchens, nodding significantly at Fraction. “Tell Gennady where you’re from,” he said to the young man.

Fraction nodded and suddenly smiled. “I hie,” he said, “from far Cilenia.”

Gennady squinted at him. His accent had sounded American. “Silesia?” asked Gennady. “Are you Czech?”

Miranda Veen shook her head. She was wearing little round earrings, he noticed. “Cilenia, not
Silesia
,” she said. “Cilenia’s also a woman’s name, but in this case it’s a place. A nation.”

Gennady frowned. “It is? Where is it?”

“That,” said Lane Hitchens, “is one of the things we want you to find out.” The van headed east to Stockholm. All sorts of obvious questions occurred to Gennady, such as, “If you want to know where Cilenia is, why don’t you just ask Fraction, here?”—but Lane Hitchens seemed uninterested in answering them. “Miranda will explain,” was all he said. Instead, Hitchens began to talk about the plutonium, which had apparently been stolen many years ago. “It kept being sold,” Hitchens said with an ironic grimace. “And so it kept being smuggled from one place to another. But after the Americans took their hit everybody started getting better and better detection devices on ports and borders. The plutonium was originally in four big slugs, but the buyers and sellers started dividing it up and moving the pieces separately. They kept selling it as one unit, which is the only reason we can still track it. But it got sliced into smaller and smaller chunks, staying just ahead of the detection technology of the day. We caught Fraction here moving one of them; but he’s just a mule, and has agreed to cooperate.

“Now there’s well over a hundred pieces, and a new buyer who wants to collect them all in one place. They’re on the move, but we can now detect a gram hidden in a tonne of lead. It’s gotten very difficult for the couriers.”

Gennady nodded, thinking about it. They only had to successfully track one of the packets, of course, to find the buyer. He glanced at Fraction again. The meaning of the man’s odd name was obvious now. “So, buyers are from this mythical Cilenia?” he said.

Hitchens shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Then I ask again, why does Fraction here not tell us where that is, if he is so cooperative? Or, why have those American men who are not supposed to exist, not dragged him away to be questioned somewhere?”

Hitchens laughed drily. “That would not be so easy,” he said. “Fraction, could you lean forward a bit?” The young man obliged. “Turn your head?” asked Hitchens. Now Gennady could see the earbuds in Fraction’s ears.

“The man sitting across from you is a low-functioning autistic named Danail Gavrilov,” said Hitchens. “He doesn’t speak English. He is, however, extremely good at parroting what he hears, and somebody’s trained him to interpret a language of visual and aural cues so he can parrot gestures and motions, even complex ones.”

“Fraction,” said Fraction, “is not in this van.”

Gennady’s hackles rose. He found himself suddenly reluctant to look into the faintly glowing lenses of Danail Gavrilov’s glasses. “Cameras in the glasses,” he stammered, “of course, yes; and they’re miked . . . Can’t you trace the signal?” he asked Hitchens. The IAEA man shook his head.

“It goes two or three steps through the normal networks then jumps into a maze of anonymized botnets.” Gennady nodded thoughtfully; he’d seen that kind of thing before and knew how hard it would be to follow the packet streams in and out of Fraction’s head. Whoever was riding Danail Gavrilov was, at least for the moment, invulnerable.

While they’d been driving, the rainclouds had cleared away and visible through the van’s back windows was a pale sky still, near midnight, touched with amber and pink.

“Do you have any immediate commitments?” asked Hitchens. Gennady eyed him.

“This is likely to be a long job, I guess?”

“I hope not. We need to find that plutonium. But we don’t know how long Fraction will be willing to help us. He could disappear at any moment . . . so if you could start tonight . . . ?”

Gennady shrugged. “I have no cat to feed, or . . . other people. I’m used to fieldwork, but—” he cast about for some disarming joke he could make, “I’ve never before had an anthropologist watching me work.”

Veen drummed her fingers on the narrow tabletop. “I don’t mean to be impolite,” she said, “but you have to understand: I’m not here for your plutonium. I admit its importance,” she added quickly, holding up one hand. “I just think you should know I’m after something else.”

He shrugged. “Okay. What?”

“My son.”

Gennady stared at her and, at a loss for what to say, finally just shrugged and smiled. Veen started to talk but at that point the van rolled to a stop outside one of the better hotels in Stockholm.

The rest of the night consisted of a lot of running around and arrangement-making, as Gennady was run across town to collect his bags from his own modest lodgings. They put him up on the same floor as Veen and Hitchens, though where Fraction stayed, or whether he even slept, Gennady didn’t know.

Gennady was too agitated to sleep, so he spent a long time surfing the net, trying to find references to his reindeer and the incident on the road that evening. So far, there was nothing, and eventually he grew truly tired and slept.

Hitchens knocked on Gennady’s door at eight o’clock. He, Veen and Fraction were tucking into a fine breakfast in the suite across the hall. Fraction looked up as Gennady entered.

“Good morning,” he said. “I trust you slept well.”

The American term ‘creeped out’ came to Gennady’s mind as he mumbled some platitude in reply. Fraction smiled—except of course, it was Danail Gavrilov doing the actual smiling. Gennady wondered whether he took any notice at all of the social interactions going on around him, or whether he’d merely discovered that following his rider’s commands was the easiest way to navigate the bewildering complexities of human society.

Before going to sleep last night Gennady had looked up Fraction’s arrangement with Gavrilov. Gavrilov was something Stanley Milgram had dubbed a ‘cyranoid’—after Cyrano de Bergerac. He was much more than a puppet, and much less than an actor. Whatever he was, he was clearly enjoying his eggs Benedict.

“What are we doing today?” Gennady asked Hitchens.

“We’re going to start as soon as you’ve eaten and freshened up.”

Gennady frowned at Veen. “Start? Where is it that we start?”

Veen and Hitchens exchanged a look. Fraction smiled; had somebody in some other time zone just commanded him to do that?

Gennady wasn’t in the best of moods, since he kept expecting to remember some detail from last night that made sense of everything. Though the coffee was kicking in, nothing was coming to him. Plus, he was itching to check the news in case they were talking about his reindeer.

Miranda suddenly said, “Hitchens has told you about his problem. Maybe it’s time I told you about mine.” She reached into a bag at her feet and dropped an ebook on the table. This was of the quarto type, with three hundred pages of flexible e-paper that could all take the impressions of whatever pages you wanted. As she flipped through it Gennady could see that she had filled its pages with hand-written notes, photos and web pages, all of which bled off the edges of the e-paper. At any readable scale, the virtual pages were much bigger than the physical window you looked at them through, a fact she demonstrated as she flipped to one page and, dragging her fingers across it, shoved its news articles off into limbo. Words and pictures rolled by until she planted her finger again to stop the motion. “Here.” She held out the book to Gennady.

Centered in the page was the familiar format of an email. “
Mom
,” it said:

“I know you warned me against leaving the protection of Cascadia, but Europe’s so amazing! Everywhere I’ve been, they’ve respected our citizenship. And you know I love the countryside. I’ve met a lot of people who’re fascinated with how I grew up.”

Gennady looked up. “You’re from the Cities?”

She nodded. Whatever Miranda Veen’s original nationality, she had adopted citizenship in a pan-global urban network whose cities were, taken together, more powerful than the nations where they were situated. Her son might have been born somewhere in the Vancouver-Portland-Seattle corridor—now known simply as Cascadia—or in Shanghai. It didn’t matter; he’d grown up with the right to walk and live in either megacity—and in many others—with equal ease. But the email suggested that his mother had neglected to register his birth in any of the nations that the cities were supposedly a part of.

Gennady read a little further. “Anyway,” it said, “I met this guy yesterday, a backpacker, calls himself Dodger. He said he had no citizenship other than the A.R.G. he’s part of. I went sure, yeah, whatever, so he mailed me a path link. I’ve been following it around Rome and, well, it’s amazing so far. Here’s some shots.” Following were a number of fairly mundane images of old Roman streets.

Gennady looked up, puzzled. Alternate Reality Games—A.R.G.’s—were as common as mud; millions of kids around the world put virtual overlays and geographical positioning information over the real planet, and made up complicated games involving travel and the specific features of locale. Internet citizenship wasn’t new either. A growing subset of the population considered themselves dual citizens of some real nation, plus an on-line virtual world. Since the economies of virtual nations could be bigger than many real-world countries, such citizenship wasn’t just an affectation. It could be more economically important than your official nationality.

It wasn’t a big step to imagining an ARG-based nationality. So Gennady said, “I don’t see what’s significant here.”

“Read the next message,” said Veen. She sat back, chewing a fingernail, and watched him as he read the next in what looked like a string of emails pasted into the page.

“Mom, weren’t those remappings amazing? Oversatch is so incredibly vibrant compared to the real world. Even Hong Kong’s overlays don’t cut it next to that. And the participatory stuff is really intense. I walked away from it today with over ten thousand satchmos in my wallet. Sure, it’s only convertible through this one anonymous portal based out of Bulgaria—but it is convertible. Worth something like five hundred dollars, I think, if I was stupid enough to cash it in that way. It’s worth a lot more if I keep in the ARG.”

BOOK: 21st Century Science Fiction
4.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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