The Exchange
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2011 by Vasileios Kalampakas

"Will you make up your mind already?", said the bulky man to the small group of interested though taciturn buyers.

The trio of men wore black, unadorned exo-suits. Optical augmentations of varying quality featured prominently on their faces. They had been meticulously examining the article on sale for what seemed to be an inordinate amount of time, while one of them had communicated a single word. Neither spoken nor transmitted, in any single language or wavelength. Gretchetna was evidently growing impatient, and put down his chopsticks and bowl of arsubuta before assuming a faintly sour expression:

"It might be the pork, but I'm smelling something sour. If you're here to waste my time, buzz off. If you're here to buy, then buy. Am I getting through to you? Is your auvosense busted or something?"

The irate commentary did not appear to have much of an effect on them, nor the rude gestures that accompanied it. These by no means ordinary customers seemed to be looking for something particular, running meticulous scans with some kind of sensory equipment that looked delicate, expensive and very sensitive all at once. They had largely ignored Gretchetna and that was perhaps the real reason he looked like he was about to explode from frustration.

He decided it was about time he made his point a little more convincing, so he reached for his amada gun below the counter, and clicked the on switch. The characteristic low-pitched harmonics were heard, and the trio were suddenly but calmly becoming aware that some kind of important event had just occurred. They momentarily stopped fiddling with their equipment and the box on sale, and slowly lifted their heads to look at Gretchetna. A radiant smile had appeared on his face, and he seemed to be enjoying the fact that he finally had their attention, even for a little while:

"You said you wanted a look-see. Fine, you looked at it. You can probably just make a copy by now, with all that scanning. The point is, are you buying? 'Cause if you're not, I'd like to be compensated either way. I got a Lambda-Lambda here which says you'd be happy to reimburse me, unless you feel strangely attracted to plasma projectiles. Still want to play dumb and mute?"

The trio exchanged some silent, unemotional looks. One of them made a small step forward, his hands half-raised in a non-threatening gesture. For the first time, he spoke with a dry voice and a heavy mandarin accent:

"We do not wish to buy."

Gretchetna's smile widened to an impossible grin and he aimed the LL-type amada gun directly to the small-framed man:

"Do you wish to be evaporated? I don't mind the cleaning-up later. Pay up. Next thing I know, you'll be selling these cheaper than hamps."

"We wish to destroy it."

Gretchetna's fingers twiddled with the side-switch settings, amping the power to the megawatt scale. The humming noise from the amada gun became a loud buzz, an onerous cacophony that usually implied something was about to catch on fire, explode, or probably both. The moustache on Gretchetna's face seemed to droop somewhat, barely moving with each word:

"Pay up first, buddy. Last chance before you get to see the Big Bang from real up close and personal."

All three men were facing Gretchetna now with hands outstretched, as if they wanted to show they meant no harm. Their palms seemed to glow faintly. The one who had spoken up first, continued:

"You have been tainted. This is nothing personal."

Gretchetna had time enough to see the glow from their hands turn into a searing beam of light. His unaugmented nervous system barely had time enough to let his finger squeeze the lambda-lambda's button. The superconducted mass driver unit on the amada gun started discharging, accelerating the tungsten-beryllium projectile to near-escape velocity. The tiny projectile turned into plasma, illuminating the shady emporium of Gretchetna as if an exotic aurora had manifested itself. At the same time, a searing pulse of light came out of the men's palms, a blinding blue and white illuminiscence filling the space between them and Gretchetna.

When his body hit the floor, there was no blood to speak of. There was, in fact, no sign of Gretchetna's upper torso. The three men though, seemed quite unharmed. There was a passing smell of ozone, and the quite distinct acridity of burnt human flesh. As the three men once again approached the box, this time they each produced a small metal object, each different in shape and size.

One of them made a sudden alarmed motion with his head and an intricate sign with one hand. The one who had spoken before did so again, his voice unnatural, icy and dry:

"Assemble the device. I will take care of that."

While he started walking towards the entrance to Gretchetna's emporium, the two other men complied with speed and precision. They made adjustments to the metal objects with their hands. The pieces interlocked, a perfect fit. Then, they placed the resulting object on the box that was so misleadingly plain and ordinary that Gretchetna had been using it as a bench.

The large emporium echoed suddenly with the massive thumping and ricocheting sounds of a hail of bullet rounds. Immediately, they stepped right in front of the path of some incoming stray shots to protect the device they had just assembled.

Crude and cheap, kinetics were quite efficient for most rough types of troublemakers. To Vic's surprise though, these men were not the usual kind. Vic had just unloaded a full box of 20mm caseless on them, and they had actually got in the way on purpose.

"Oh, f$%k me," Vic said quietly to himself, the twin muzzle from his CK-auto making the air sizzle.

Instinctively scrambling to reload, Vic didn't have a chance to see the blurry shadow that hit him with enough force for his ribcage to shatter and his body to be send flying across the emporium, only to have his neck broken on impact with the aerogel walls.

Momentarily assessing the badly light corridor outside, the talkative member of the trio asked the other two:

"Is the Exagrammaton aligned?"

They had been merely looking at the box and the device attached to in a sort of hallowed silence. After a small amount of time had passed, as if they counted every millisecond with atomic precision, they replied as one man, with one voice and one mind, as if they were nothing but automatons:

"The Exagrammaton is aligned. What about the rest of them?"

"Trivial," the one they seemed to defer to as their leader replied, while the the one who had never spoken a word said with what a careful voice stress analysis could identify as a hint of worry:

"Leave now, and let us remain."

The man who had led Gretchetna and Vic to their untimely deaths, was now wearing a grin that felt completely out of place with the rest of his face, as if someone had painted a smile on a jagged piece of granite:

"A touch of Anxiety, Dispatcher?"

To which the man promptly answered while bowing his head only slightly, an almost imperceptible gesture of subservience:

"Only for success, Exchequer."

The man they called Exchequer nodded briskly and said:

"Move. We are done here."

He then suddenly turned into a transparent shadowy figure that challenged any eye, even augmented ones, to an impossible task. The other two men also seemed to quickly vanish into a wispy shade, and then they blended into nothingness. Even their footsteps seemed to be echoes of ghosts. The only sound that could be heard was the repeating welcome message, blowing over the ceiling soundbands, in a rugged but hearty voice:

"You just made the smartest choice, mister!"

"Sam, I know it's going to sound old, but ... What have we got here?"

Sam smiled with a slight hint of irony before assuming a business-like manner and answering with a voice that could have easily belonged to a first-gen android, flat and almost emotionless except for boredom and the occasional hint of irony:

"I thought noticing stuff was your job, detective Bodereau. Two victims. One and a half, actually. The one behind the reinforced bench is semi-evaporated. High-yield high-frequency lasers, most likely. The other one seems beaten to death. Got a broken neck. Medbots are sweeping for the details you never really care about."

Bodereau's gaze ran around the points of interest that Sam, the forensics officer, had brought up. He seemed to look around as if he was another customer, and not the detective on the case. After a small period of silence, he asked Sam, his words heavy with dissapointment, floating on the vapors of cheap liquor:

"That's it? No DNA on the perps? Something I could use so I can post a warrant and let the 'forcers handle it? Doesn't seem they wanted to keep the place clean..."

Sam lit up a cigarette, the homegrown-in-orbit variety, which made Bodereau reach out and grab it from his mouth just when he was taking his first draw. Sam instantly became pretty full of emotion:

"Hey! Hey! f$%k you Bodereau!"

"Why, won't it grow back? You're messing with the crime scene, asshole."

"That's bullshit. As if someones care for a smuggler like Gretchetna and the likes of him. Who probably wiped him cause he owed them money. Or because he owed them, same deal."

"Do you want my job, Sam? Cause if you got it all figured out, I can go home, and you can fill in the blanks, do the monthly report and yeah, you can have my implant too."

"I'm fine with letting the robots cut up corpses, thank you."

"So stick to your end, then. Gretchetna had a good name, as good a name as they come down here. Every dealer in the market has had tradings with him, and word is he kept his word, which in this line of business is like sainthood or something. I don't think his esteemed colleagues did it."

Detective Bodereau started to stroll around the emporium, noticing the signs of the firefight: intense heat marks from the amada gun, chipped off blocks of aerogel and polysteel from the kinetics, clean-cut holes from the lasers. Not much in the way of looting, which only made him pause and think.

The medbots were hovering a few feet away, humming like worker bees, their sound unobtrusive yet prevalent. At length, Bodereau took notice of the box lying almost in the middle of the emporium, not far from Gretchetna's bench. Sam had moved over to one corner, trying to light up another cigarette without being noticed, taking advantage of Bodereau's unusually deep thinking. Even while Sam savoured the first few puffs, Bodereau started talking without taking the box out of his gaze:

"Do you hear that?"

Sam looked at Bodereau with confusion.

"What, the medbots?"

Bodereau had his eyes fixed on the box. His voice came out suddenly diminished, faint and trembling:

"The voices, Sam. Can't you hear them?"

Sam furrowed his brow in disbelief. He then nodded and grinned, the cigarette hanging from his lips:

"Medical discharge on grounds of mental instability. Can you put on a good act for the tribunal?"

Bodereau became strangely drawn to the box, running his hands around it, almost caressing it as he would a marvellous sculpture or the body of a beautiful woman. He seemed to revere it, as if it was something hallowed. The sight alone gave Sam a chill down his spine.

"You can cut the crap, Bodereau. The tribunal won't eat it up. You'll get the Farm for that kind of bullshit, not a discharge."

"I can hear them, Sam. They're wonderful. They're so vibrant. So real."

Sam dropped his cigarette and put it out. He walked towards Bodereau, his expression a mix of anger and worry, the grin extinguished.

"Bodereau, what the f$%k? Snap out of it. Are you on something? It's bad enough with the drinking, don't tell me you started doing trippers or sky now. Hey, man. Look at me when I'm talking to you!"

Bodereau did not turn to face Sam. Nor did he stop his weird show of adoration towards the box. Sam still felt he was looking at a bad practical joke. Bodereau became ever more attractede to the box, almost hugging it now. Sam took a deep breath and punched him on the face. Bodereau calmly took the hit, and started mumbling. His eyes had now taken an otherworldly gleem, their focus somewhere beyond the walls of the emporium. Sam was now starting to worry. In fact, he felt an uncanny sensation of fear across his spine. He took a step back before touching his armband's interface.

He quickly selected the Emergency tab, and then brought up the Officer Assistance dialog. He selected two enforcer droids and a class-II medbot, complete with table and restraining harness. This was not an act, he now knew. Bodereau seemed to have snapped like a twig, in the blink of an eye. Perhaps it shouldn't come as a shock, with all of Bodereau's history and psych profile. But to see a man break down just like that, was enlightening.

Sam felt a sadness and pity he did not think himself capable of. Then, as he stood there, near the mumbling, hunched form of Detective Bodereau, he heard a voice. It was the voice of an angel, or perhaps the voice of the heavens. It was a sweet melody, not a voice. There were no words, only chords of blissful sounds. It was like everything around him vibrated with music. He could still see Bodereau hugging the box as if they were lovers, his lips moving endlessly to a rhythm that now Sam could understand.

It was joyous. It was an answer. The answer to everything. It felt like everything could be explained, that everything could have an absolute, infallible meaning. The sensation of wonder was mind-numbing. Sam could now see more clearly than ever. He could now feel everything in dizzying detail. A cosmic awareness seemed to envelop him, and caress his heart and mind like only a mother would know how.

Then he heard a clear voice, bright and mellow like the sun:

"Will you have us?"

Sam felt tears of running down his cheeks, like icy rivulets on desert bedrock. He still possessed a clarity of mind and self to ask in his mind:

"What about Bodereau? What about me?"

The voice then spoke with a timbre that could noone could resist to hear in awe and tearful marvel:

"He is spent. You are not. Will you have us?"

Sam closed his eyes and accepted, in what he believed was his last act of free will. He knew then, he had no other choice. As the enforcer droids entered the emporium with the medbot in their trail, Sam disappeared as if he had never been there, as if he was less than a mere illusion. Along with the box.

The small device the three men had left behind gave a flash of light, but the droids' advanced sensors registered nothing. And then a stream of high-energy particles ensued before the orbital was obliterated, turning into a cloud of ionized plasma. The death shriek of a small star in the sky.

Sam looked up into the bright mauve sky, and saw the small cloud hanging like an iridiscent pearl, shining with an ever diminishing glow, until nothing but a faint, hazy shadow remained. It was still him, he thought. And then he heard the voice once again, crystal clear, and much less monumentally awe-inspiring:

"Welcome to the Exchange, Sam."

He talked to himself then, feeling a strange serenity, as if a huge burden had been lifted off his shoulders:

"What now?"

If the voice could have been the voice of a man, the man would have been smiling:

"Now Sam, we walk."

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