The airship thrummed with the noise of the propeller, and the shepherd stood with his hands resting on the wooden rails, his body shifting easily with the deck as it rocked in the cross wind. The captain watched his last remaining passenger uneasily, it was always the quiet ones that worried him, particularly this far north. They were strange folks up here, but he had a binding postal contract that he needed to fulfil in order to clear his drinking debts, and the silent shepherd looking out over the side had paid double fare without a word of complaint. In fact without a word of anything, but whilst he had been no trouble, there was something about him, about the way he rocked with the motion of the ship. It was unusual enough for the ground dwellers not to panic or feel ill, but this stranger almost looked at home. The captain didn’t usually pay this much attention to his passengers, but then he hadn’t been sober this long before either. He didn’t like it.
“I’m running late, can you cope with a running drop if I slow whilst I put you down?”
The shepherd looked back at the captain and bent down to pick up his things; slinging his bag over his shoulder he threw a shepherd’s crook as tall as he was to the captain without saying a word. He was a tall man, somewhere over six foot, but wiry, with a weather-beaten face and sharp eyes that watched him carefully.
“Okay then,” said the captain, walking across to the starboard side and tossing the rope ladder over the side. He stomped back towards the wheel, looking back over his shoulder to see the shepherd already hanging from the side of the ship, his face impassive as his feet settled on rope rungs hanging in the air. The captain was even more concerned, but was damned if he was going to show it. He could see the farm in the distance, and so he untied the wheel and adjusted his bearing, making a practised assessment of the minimum quantity of gas he would have to shed to drop his last passenger off.
“I swear this is easier drunk,” muttered the captain, reaching for a bottle that wasn’t there.
Sylvia Caroline Robert Dementieva was in her family’s gym with a 152.5 kilograms worth of bar and plate resting across her shoulders when the comms channel chirped. She dipped into the squat and came back up again, ignoring the continuing interruption as she worked her way through the next two programmed repetitions and ground one final lung burning rep out.
“Ms Dementieva,” said the house AI, “I have a most persistent call.”
Sylvia stepped forward and dropped the bar into the cups of the power cage before finally answering, “The fact that you interrupted me Pyotr would indicate that, who is it?”
“It would not say, but it has the highest security clearance.”
Sylvia sighed, it was usually reserved for drones and AIs, although the nuances of personal pronouns was always a minefield and it could certainly refer to some form of biological, and that wouldn’t even necessarily mean alien.
“Any hints?” Sylvia asked.
“It is being more than usually evasive, not to mention somewhat demanding, one might even consider calling it rude.”
“Put it through,” said Sylvia, wondering as always just what did go on between the various levels of AI as they waited for their slower biological friends to catch up. In her darker moments she wondered if this was all some kind of giant experiment, or a complex joke, but then she was young and you could drive yourself mad with that kind of thinking. Not that anybody would be allowed to suffer such a fate in this most perfect of societies, that was why she was so bored.
“This is a priority transmission, you are required to attend a top level meeting. A transport unit is on route to collect you after your workout.” The voice was entirely neutral, giving nothing away.
“I assume that was arranged with you Pyotr?” asked Sylvia, stepping out from her power cage as the weights were removed by gym fields and floated back to their racks.
“Not explicitly,” replied Pyotr, sounding as close to upset as she had ever heard the old AI.
“I do not broadcast my gym habits,” said Sylvia, approaching the bench press area, “Has there been a security breach?”
“Under the circumstances I would say so,” replied Pyotr, “Which is highly indicative.”
“Indeed,” said Sylvia, sliding herself under the bar and preparing for her warm up set.
The ground approached, and for a moment the shepherd thought he was going to have to scramble the first few feet, but was pleasantly surprised at how the captain bled of the speed and allowed him to step down gently onto the fields of home. His crook was dropped carefully down to him, and he caught it one handed as the rope ladder was quickly hauled up. The shepherd straightened his hat as the airship began to rise, a bag of sand thumped to the ground as the whine of the airship engine went up a gear. Leaning on his crook the shepherd reflexively checked the purse of money he was carrying, and started down the slope towards the farmhouse, the airship with its strange fish shaped envelope was already turning above him and heading to the horizon.
The door slid opened and Sylvia stepped onto a gantry that led out to a platform suspended in the middle of a vast sphere at the heart of an administration complex. Her footsteps died on the acoustic baffling that lined the walls, and were silenced completely when she finally stepped upon the platform that was in fact some kind of modified field. The gantry slid back with barely a whisper and finally she was alone. Sylvia stood there waiting, slightly below average height, about 162.5cm tall, with her long auburn hair tied away from a surprisingly plain face, but then she wasn’t yet old enough for the neural implants that would give her full control of her genetically enhanced adaptives. The gentle pop was the most surprising thing of the whole encounter so far, AIs hated teleportation.
“I’m a sentient clone,” said a disk floating in front of her. It had no aura field and spoke with a slight Russian accent that was probably meant to put her at ease, “I have a message for you.”
“Hello,” said Sylvia, “Do you have a designation?”
“There is no requirement, I have only one purpose to fulfil, please stand by for transmission.”
“Hello Sylvia Caroline Robert Dementieva,” said an emotionless robotic voice that clearly was being used to protect the identity of the AI, not that they couldn’t impersonate each other’s voices flawlessly, but even then their choice of proxy AI could be telling in who they set up to take the fall, “For security reasons I cannot reveal my designation, or my position amongst the Invisibles, but we are aware of your interest and whilst you are years away from being in a position to apply, we have a unique opportunity that may stand you in good stead should you continue along your current path. This is a one-time offer, but refusal will not necessarily affect any future application. However, further information would require a memory wipe so we would like to give you a day to consider this offer carefully before we will accept any request to proceed. Please state whether you are prepared to consider this offer or not. You may decline now with no further action required, and the unit will repeat this message if necessary.”
“No that’s fine, I understand. What do I do now?”
“Are you prepared to accept the terms as described?” asked the clone, reverting back to its Russian inflected voice.
“Yes,” said Sylvia, sounding exasperated as she shook her head, but then her mouth fell open as the small disk in front of her burst into flames and fell onto the field as it immolated itself. She looked around her, but no further information was forth coming and then she heard the whisper of the gantry sliding into place behind her. There was nothing further to do but make her way back out of the complex and go home to wait for what was going to happen next. That and think on whether she was prepared to risk an AI intrusion into her head.
His dogs were the first to notice the shepherd’s arrival, running up from the farmyard and greeting him like the long lost friend that he was. He bent down to fuss them, and once the reunion was complete he continued towards the farmhouse with both dogs in their familiar place at his heels.
“Rupert,” said Mrs Badgley, as she waited at the kitchen door, “You made good time this year.”
He nodded, and took out the purse of money, holding it out to the farmer’s wife.
“Another good year? How do you do it?”
“Look the captain in the eye before you invest,” he replied, knowing that the Badgleys would be terrified by the ledgers, mathematics, and flat out dirt he used to invest a sensible proportion of their yearly sheep profit for the following year.
“Well we don’t rely on it,” said Mrs Badgley, taking the purse from him, “But it does help. Will you stay for a while?”
“The hills,” said Rupert simply.
“We’ll see you in the spring.”
Rupert nodded and left, his dogs trotting after him.
Sylvia was sat at a terminal, working through her allotted college work when a notification popped up despite her having expressly disabled them. All it said was a time and a transport station, and before she could write down the information it disappeared. Sylvia closed her eyes for a moment and made a mental note of the details, guessing that this was the next meeting. She checked the time, and realised she would be able to make the appointment easily once she finished her current assignment. All that it would take for her to refuse the opportunity was to miss the appointment and pretend that this had never happened, but she would never forgive herself if she did that.
The station was empty, which was unusual enough, but then an empty private passenger car arrived and came to a stop. The door slid open, Sylvia looked around her, stepped into the vehicle and sat down. The car pulled off and she was plunged into darkness. Sylvia was beginning to wonder if she had made a mistake when there was a slight pop and the car was bathed in a warm glow as the lights came on to reveal an elderly woman in an understated travelling suit.
“Hello Ms Dementieva,” she said, leaning forward with a bag in her hands, “You are to go to Pastoralis, a voluntarily historical planet that belongs to the Insight sect. You will look for this man,” she said handing over an honest to goodness sheet of parchment, “And hand him this.”
“How am I supposed to get access to a closed historical world given where I come from?” asked Sylvia, staring at the surprisingly heavy sphere of metal she had been handed.
“We have arranged a tourist visa that will get you into one of the larger towns, that’s why we need someone who still possesses their default biology. Once you are planet side it is up to you, we believe he visits the town once a year, but lives somewhere in the highlands. He doesn’t look much, but he killed an AI so you should avoid confrontation whilst presenting him with the sphere.”
“What is it?”
“Best you don’t know, we don’t want any tells for the immigration scans.”
“But I haven’t said yes yet,” replied Sylvia, staring at the old woman, “I don’t even know who you are.”
“I don’t need to ask if you’ll say yes,” said the old woman, “It’s written all over your face, as for who I am…” The old woman opened up her arms as she trailed off, and disappeared with another pop.
“What the…”said Sylvia to the empty transport car, but it was time to get ready for the mission.
It wasn’t that the drunken airship captain had tried to grope her thigh, it was how quickly she had become accustomed to the attempts, which meant she grabbed his wrist with resigned annoyance rather than shocked outrage. Resisting the urge to knock the man’s teeth out, she tried to continue her casual interrogation.
“I believe that you took a shepherd with you on your last trip up north.” Sylvia waited for a response, but the captain was unresponsive as he gasped in pain, “Oh sorry, where are your manners?”
“Ahh,” mumbled the captain, rubbing at his sore wrist once Sylvia released it, “Sorry, I don’t remember. My memory is badly affected by pain and empty tankards.”
“Oh,” said Sylvia, flashing one of her most charming of smiles, “That’s interesting, I find pain a most effective stimulant to the memory.”
“I…” the captain looked in horror at this child who was so self possessed, all he wanted was to have a quiet drink, or failing that a free one.
“It really is most important that I find him, my father is ill and he is the only other family I have left.”
“It’s dangerous up there, not safe for a lone girl…” But the captain trailed off at the look she gave him, “I took a shepherd, but he didn’t say anything the whole damn trip so I have no way of knowing if he is the man you are looking.”
“He would have looked like this,” said Sylvia, pulling a warn scroll of parchment out of her bag and showing the captain her sketch, “But I think he might have grown a beard.”
“Could be him…” said the captain, seeing the possibility of another drink slipping away. In other times he would have offered to take her, but now that his ship was impounded…
“Where did you take him?” asked Sylvia, aware that this was a long shot, but somehow this was the best lead she had found in weeks searching round this backwards planet. Sylvia promised herself that she would never complain about formatting data crawlers or search algorithms again.
“I dropped him at the Dalwhinnie estate, it’s in the south east corner of the central peaks.”
Sylvia looked at the man, his straggly dark hair was a mess, and the least said about his teeth the better, but maybe he could save her a huge amount of time. She looked at the sad grey eyes, and shook her head as she asked, “Are you going back soon?”
“My ship is impounded…”
“Debts or airworthiness?” asked Sylvia, hoping it was the former.
“I missed my bonus on the post run…”
“Who do you owe the money too?” asked Sylvia.
“Originally your barman there,” said the captain quietly, “But he sold it to the local debtors’ prison.”
“Shouldn’t you be there?”
“I report tomorrow,” said the captain, “Or I lose my ship. It doesn’t matter, I’ll never fly free again.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Sylvia, making up her mind, “But let’s get you sobered up and away from the drink first. Shall we Captain?”
Captain Jones looked up at Sylvia as if she was talking another language, but the girl waited for him as he downed the dregs of his tankard and awkwardly got to his feet.
“This is not the most auspicious of starts, but I’ll get you a room at my tavern and if you get any ideas or run out on me I promise that you will regret it.”
“Okay,” he mumbled, staring down at the practical boots the girl wore.
The first two weeks were the hardest. He had expected to run the girl up north in a couple of days and be done with it. Instead she had bought his debt, put the Weatherwax in for a service, and dragged him out into a quiet bit of countryside to get him sobered up, if not totally healthy.
“Come on, it’s time to get up,” said Sylvia, shaking him awake harshly but putting a steaming cup of tea down next to him.
His body ached in the morning cold, and his first thought was still where was she stashing the booze. He sat up, and took a sip of the fragrant liquid, “This stuff is more expensive than the booze.”
“But less troublesome for your decision making, Captain Jones.”
The captain looked hard at the woman, as he now thought of her, “True. How long are we going to play at bivouacking in the woods?”
“Are you getting restless Captain?” asked Sylvia, turning to face the man who had been weaned off the last of her booze three days ago, although that hadn’t stopped him from looking for it yet.
“I think we’ve got work to do,” he said standing up.
“And you have a bottle to get back to?”
“Maybe, maybe not. But you have work to do so now I do too.”
Sylvia stood watching the man, but there was something in his eyes, “Work isn’t the answer for everything Captain.”
“No, no it’s not. But flying free might be.”
Sylvia look down into the valley and saw a shepherd’s hut perched on the slope, a fire burning to the side of it and a man was perched on a log by the fire with a pair of dogs by his side. Sylvia started to make her way towards the man who sat patiently waiting for her as she walked through the hanging drizzle.
“Hello,” said Sylvia, “Are you Rupert Roberts-Grant?”
The stranger nodded, before finally speaking, “Esme Justine Rupert Roberts-Grant to be precise.” His voice was weary, as if even these first words spoken in months had exhausted the supply.
“I have something for you,” replied Sylvia, delving into her shoulder bag, producing the heavy metal sphere and holding it out to the man.
“It’s been so long,” Rupert said as he took the sphere. He held it in the palm of his hand and a blue light started to trace intricate scrollwork across the surface.
“I thought it was symbolic,” said Sylvia, astounded as the sphere rose in the air, glistening in the light rain. The lie had been a reflex deception, the astonishment was not.
“Hello Ms Dementieva, well done,” said what was clearly a drone in a familiar slightly Russian accent.
“This was a test?” said Sylvia, provoking a laugh from the man she had been hunting.
“Welcome to the world of mushrooms.”
“Thank you Rupert, but we have to maintain security, it is not our intention to keep you in the dark.”
“Or feed us shit?”
“Quite,” replied the drone, somehow giving the impression of a dowager aunt whilst simply hanging in the rain.
“What is going on, I thought he killed an AI?” asked Sylvia, pointing at the man before turning to face the drone, “And I thought you were a genetically programmed weapon.”
“He did kill an AI,” said the drone, “That part is quite true, although it was necessary so the action was sanctioned by the core committee. The general populace couldn’t know it was planned so Rupert here agreed to take refuge on this planet when he accepted the mission, forsaking his preferred sex in the process.”
Sylvia stood dumbfound, until she could finally ask, “Why?”
“I killed an AI,” said Rupert bitterly, “Just because it was sanctioned, doesn’t mean I feel good about it. Plus you’ve been a woman on this retro theme park planet, it’s amazing how quickly those supposedly abandoned gender roles were reintroduced.”
“Entirely a choice of the locals,” said the drone, sounding like a disappointed school teacher, “There’s no socio-economic rationale behind it.”
Sylvia stood looking between the man and the drone, wondering what was going to happen next, “But…”
“We can’t possibly tell you yet, maybe never, you must understand the requirements of operational security,” said the drone.
Sylvia turned to face Rupert but was met with an empty, almost hollow stare before he finally replied quietly, “It’s the nature of the job.”
“So what happens now?” asked Sylvia.
“You and I go home,” replied the drone, “And at the appropriate time you will be contacted.”
“For now,” replied the drone, “I will return to fall back mode and will not restart until I am placed into the hands of a specific individual so please don’t take too long”
Sylvia looked at the drone, “If you are sure.”
“I am sure,” replied the drone, who floated into Sylvia’s outstretched hand and simply stopped, returning to a lump of metal in her hand.
“Tea?” asked Rupert.
One more Captain Jones was flying in the northern air feeling ill at ease, but he was even more shocked as he looked over at the sole passenger on this charter. They were funny up here, but a properly bartered trade route was going to work, they needed things and when you poked around there were opportunities if you knew the right people down south. He just hoped he could find them in time, but for the moment he was worried by the very woman who had granted him this latest, and possibly final, chance that he was so determined to grasp.
“Are you okay?” he asked, stopping by Sylvia as she lent on the side rail looking out across the fields beneath them.
“Yes, I think so…”
“Was it that bad?”
“No,” she said, “It’s not that, it was simply very different to what I expected.”
“But your father?”
“Was right all along,” replied Sylvia, for once not having to lie.