Ceras Rane was woken by bright, early morning sunshine streaming from his window. The damn thing was obviously malfunctioning again because he’d set it for ‘April Shower’ when he got in last night. He slid his six foot two inch frame out of bed and thumped the window's plastic surround. It snowed. He thumped it again and got the purple fog and green lightning of ‘Morning on Galadan’. He gave it his best menacing growl with no noticeable effect so, with a snort of resignation, he turned it off. He scrubbed fingers through his short dark hair, yawned and stretched expansively to relieve muscles that were cramped from sleeping in a bed a couple of inches too short for comfort.
Taking two paces across the small box that passed for his living quarters he slipped into the shower cubicle. He selected ‘Forest Spring’ from the menu and stood patiently as a thirty-second burst of spray and disinfectant more reminiscent of industrial bleach than forest spring cleansed his body. With a degree of trepidation he selected ‘shave’, standing as still as humanly possible while the tiny flashing blade flew at frightening speed around the contours of his face. He sighed with relief at having survived the whirling edges unscathed and pressed ‘cool dry’, stretching out his arms and pushing his palms flat against the translucent sides of the cubicle to steady himself. The blast furnace effect that followed was mercifully brief and a lightly-baked Ceras stepped back into his room. From the clothes unit within arms reach on his left he selected ‘uniform’ and waited a few seconds while the machine digested yesterday’s clothing, recycled it and, with a small electronic burp, popped out his crisp new apparel.
Ceras turned to the full length mirror alongside the clothes unit. Though not exactly vain he was particular about his appearance and his blue-grey eyes reflected a twinkle of satisfaction at his well-proportioned, muscular physique. He dressed with meticulous care, experiencing a sense of pride and achievement as he did so. It had been his mother greatest wish that he join the Rangers, like his father before him. It was unfortunate that she couldn’t pin his parentage down to a particular individual but, she said, they were all fine men. He checked his watch; six thirty-five. Time for breakfast.
Ceras reached across the bed to the rectangular white kitchen unit and selected Full English. He stared at the machine through half-closed eyes as it whistled an annoying little tune and made odd sizzling noises in a pathetic imitation of someone preparing food. Not fooled by it’s apparently jovial air, Ceras waited patiently. The machine went ominously quiet and slowly, inch by inch, a white tray began to appear from the slot in its base. Suddenly it gave a metallic snarl and fired the plastic tray across the room at almost supersonic speed. Ceras was ready. With feline agility he launched himself across the bed and snatched the edge of the tray just before it impacted on the far wall.
“Got you!” he said, with a satisfied sneer at the now silent unit. It was as he turned away that he realised his mistake, but before he could react his toast struck him smartly behind the left ear. Fortunately the knife and fork which followed were made of plastic. Cursing himself for his poor judgement, and the machine for its malevolent streak, he retrieved his cutlery and, turning to the bed’s headboard display, selected table and chairs. The bed crumpled into its slot and the required items unfolded from the floor.
With little relish – and no sauce because the machine had decided not to provide any – he started to consume the virtually tasteless shapes which constituted his morning meal. It might contain all the necessary vitamins and nutrients, but he was sure that calling it a ‘full English breakfast’ must contravene some regulation or other. For a moment he thought about using the power of his office to investigate the company responsible for producing the mush in front of him, but on reflection decided that he’d probably rather not know. In his ignorance he could deceive himself into thinking that the various items had some kind of relationship to a pig and a chicken, but it was just as likely that they were once a floppy disk and an old sock. He considered selecting coffee, but the probability of having to wash a warm brown sticky mess from the walls decided him against it.
Ceras finished his meal and tossed tray and cutlery into the bin in the corner which, with a small whoosh, reduced the items to their component parts and shuffled them off to the building’s recycling unit. He rose from the chair and, having stowed both it and the table back from whence they came, turned towards the door.
"Open," he said, and walked out into the passage. The door hissed shut behind him as if glad to be rid of him. "Yea, and sssss to you too," he snarled.
Ceras’ current lodging was in a standard city residential block of 15,360 rooms divided over its 128 floors, thirty of which were below ground level. Around a fifth were family units, another fifth for couples and the remainder for singles like himself. As he entered the corridor it was seven a.m. and it seemed the entire population of the building was on its way to work. The mass of bodies jammed into the corridor took on a life of its own, gelling into a single shuffling centipede-like creature which issued grunts and curses as people tried to break in or out of the main body.
After a few minutes of rapid shuffling, Ceras saw the overhead display for Parking Area 9 and managed to squeeze close to the edge of the stream as they approached the curved steel filter channels. With a heave he popped free of the organism and was carried by his own momentum into one of the individual padded lift cubicles where he stabbed a button marked G. The lift door closed, carried him upwards so quickly he hardly had time to hear the musak, then stopped so abruptly his feet actually left the floor momentarily.
The door slid open, allowing Ceras to enter the parking garage. He passed just two vehicles on the way to his cruiser, both nondescript dark blue models designated for government personnel. Given there were something in the region of twenty thousand people in the block, you might have expected more, but these days people walked as much as possible to keep up their required cardio-vascular exercise minimums or, if they were going any distance, took the extensive and efficient Free Access Rapid Transit network. The only ones with private vehicles were government officials (for protection should citizens wish to express their displeasure at the latest health and safety regulations), or law enforcement (who might need greater speed in getting to their destination, or want to transport people or materials securely).
Ceras checked the wall-mounted charger, unplugged the car from the mains, got in and turned on the heads-up display.
"Location of individual," he demanded curtly, "Joseph Andles." The screen filled with color, different areas flashing up briefly as the computer performed a rapid search for the person in question. After a few seconds a single grid emerged with a small red glow pulsating softly in the centre. A coffee shop in Mall 12.
"Go," Ceras commanded, and the cruiser slid silently away from its bay. Often he liked to drive manually but he had things to think about today. He slid back in the seat and carefully re-checked each stage of his plan.
He'd been struggling to justify what he was going to do for several weeks, not just because carrying it out threatened his future as a Ranger if he was caught but because it meant over-stepping personal boundaries as well. He believed in the law, in the right of all sentient beings to have a fair hearing. The more he thought about it though, the more he realized he had little choice. Something had to be done about the one-man crime-wave that was Joe Andles and the system had failed time after time. Ceras might be the only person on the planet who could stop him.
It had all started a little over a year ago. Two local police officers had caught Andles running out of an electrical goods store clutching the latest Apple iWatchPodPhone. The store owner had seen him take it, the store CCTV had recorded it. Open and shut cases didn't get any more tightly closed than that.
Except that in court the next morning, when asked how he pleaded, Joseph Andles had said, "It wasn't me." Which would have been laughable, if the judge hadn't immediately ordered him released. What's more, the prosecutor didn't object and the store owner and two arresting officers looked at each other in complete confusion, unable to understand how they'd got the wrong man.
In fact they hadn't. Examination of the video evidence clearly identified Andles as the perpetrator. DNA evidence showed he had handled the item in question. What nobody could account for was the undeniable plausibility of Andles argument when he claimed he didn't do it. In spite of all the evidence, everyone knew he was innocent.
When he was arrested for theft of a Wii-oo-e-oo games console three weeks later the chain of events was so similar as to be astonishing. Once again his innocence was upheld by everybody who heard him.
Ceras became involved when things took a turn for the worse. Andles entered a jewelry store, took a hammer to a display case and grabbed a handful of diamond-encrusted watches. The owner attempted to prevent him leaving, at which point Andles took the hammer to him. Physical violence was so rare on Earth that the case was immediately bumped from local law enforcement to the Rangers.
Not that they had any trouble apprehending the suspect. He even wore one of the watches in question during the interview. Once again there was corroborating video evidence.
Once again, in court, Joseph Andles expressed his innocence and was freed.
When he heard the news, Ceras thought his superior was joking. When he realized he wasn't he erupted into a series of explanations, demonstrations, demands and expletives that almost got him suspended.
The situation got worse as Andles got bolder. No matter how greedy he got, no matter how brazen, he always walked away from court a free man. Ceras came to an unlikely conclusion, but the only one that fit the circumstances: Joe Andles could, quite literally, talk his way out of anything.
So what was to stop him talking his way into anything? It took Andles a couple of weeks to realize this side of his abilities himself, but as soon as he did he began simply walking into places and asking for things. "Would you mind giving me that new suit?" "I'd like a table for one and a bottle of your finest champagne. That's on the house isn't it?" "Would you mind if I borrowed your car?" He might not be the brightest criminal ever, but he soon realized that if he didn't need to resort to violence - and if people gave him things willingly - he didn't even have to go through the short-term inconvenience of arrest and spending a night in the cells.
Ceras was at a loss. It seemed he was the only one immune to the effects of Andles' voice but it didn't do him any good. It became an obsession. He took to following him everywhere (which eventually got him a brief suspension) but technically there weren't even crimes being committed. Finally he formulated his plan, but even now he had his doubts. Not about whether the plan would work or not, he was certain it would, but whether he should really step outside the law - however justified his actions might be. He was still struggling with that aspect when, with the merest pshhh of the air brakes, the cruiser pulled up outside the coffee shop.
The decor mimicked one of those old-fashioned bars from back before they made alcohol illegal in 2062. The windows and door were half-frosted glass, the floor was broad wooden planks, the seating button-down red leather - or at least they were pretty good imitations of wood and leather. The air was filled with holographic cigarette smoke. There was even a vague hint of stale beer in the air. It was rumored that for the right money you could get coffee with real caffeine in it here too. Joe Andles was developing expensive tastes.
He was sat on a tall wooden stool at the far end of the bar. Just an ordinary kind of guy, mousey brown hair, average height and build. From a few yards away the only things that stood out were the tailored suit and expensive shoes.
Close up there was something unpleasant about the cold blue eyes. He looked to Ceras like someone who hurt small animals as a child.
"Ranger Rane," he sneered. "What's an unpleasant person like you doing in a nice place like this?" He took a sip from his small cup of cappuccino. A barista appeared at the counter in front of them but Ceras waved him away. "I see you're back in uniform," Andles noted. "You won't be for long if you keep hassling me. I might have to have a word with my good friend the Captain." The combination of shrug and laugh that followed made Ceras ball his fists with anger but his antagonist hadn't finished.
"It's really getting to you, isn't it Rane. We both know I'm guilty but we both know there's nothing you can do about it. I guess being the only one on Earth who's immune to my charms - and being an officer of the law - must be hell."
Both were distracted by the door opening. An attractive blonde woman walked in and Andles made an appreciative sound.
"You know it's just occurred to me," he said with a mix of surprise and sudden realization. "I haven't tried that yet. Wonder if she'd like to sleep with me? I should go ask her." He put down his cup and slid off his stool. Ceras caught him by the arm.
"Thank you," the Ranger said with a tight grin. "You just made up my mind."
The small hypodermic had been carefully concealed in his palm. The effect was immediate. Andles looked slightly puzzled as he lost control of his limbs. Ceras caught him by the lapels to stop him falling to the floor then turned to frown at the returning barista.
"We've heard rumors you were serving real caffeine in here. If this man's intoxicated," he paused to let the accusation hit home, "I'll be back."
He bent and lifted Andles easily onto his shoulder before heading for the door. He ignored the "I just work here" protests from behind the bar and silenced the glances of other patrons with a glance.
Back at the cruiser he gave a short, sharp whistle and the rear passenger compartment opened. He bundled Andles in roughly before opening the driver's door and retrieving a small black object from the glovebox. Completely illegal, it was a scrambler, designed to destroy the signal emitted by the biometric implant everyone got at birth. He couldn't afford any inquisitive agency to be tracking Andles now. Slapping away his captives' weakly waving hands he held the device behind his right ear for a second then, job done, he closed the rear door and took his seat in front.
"Spaceport 41," he commanded. "Maximum velocity."
He glanced over his shoulder through the protective glass, watching for a moment as Andles struggled to exert enough control to sit upright. Ceras smiled, put his hands behind his head and his feet on the dash. Stage one complete, he said to himself.
Twenty minutes later the cruiser came to a stop at the perimeter gate. It was only a momentary pause as a hidden scanner checked Ceras' own implant and let him through.
"Ranger Launch Area," he instructed, and the car moved silently towards a large white hangar with a number of small, sleek, silvery rocketships parked outside. Another Ranger appeared from inside the building as the car drew to a halt and Ceras stepped out.
"Hey, Flaff, how's it going?" He held out a hand, warmly shaking that of his friend, Officer Ingredian Falffafel.
"Rane y'old reprobate," the Ranger replied with equally warmth and humor. "Heard you'd been suspended!"
"Hah! Only briefly. I'm too good for them to keep me off the job for long!"
"Yea, right. What can I do for you buddy?"
"Can you log me in for a quick training flight? I'm a bit behind on my hours."
"No problem." The Ranger pulled a mid-size tablet from his pocket and tapped its surface a couple of times.
"Ah, can you make it a two-seater?" Ceras asked conspiratorially. "Only I've go the idiot brother of some politician in the cruiser. He's out of his head on goodness knows what and I need to get him back home to the moon and sober before the press find out."
"Why not, you can take that ZX80," Flaff indicated a stubby winged aircraft with his thumb. "It's just been serviced and it could do with a shakedown. Don't go far though, it's only got half a tank of gas."
"Once round the moon and back by tea-time," Ceras grinned and punched his friend playfully on the shoulder. "I owe you one."
Flaff shook his head. "You owe me plenty," he said with a laugh. Ceras snorted in agreement.
"You want to go find yourself something to do in the back? That way you can deny ever having seen dopey over there." Flaff nodded, raised a hand in salute and was gone. Stage two, thought Ceras.
Once again he whistled to open the rear compartment. As he reached inside Andles was showing signs of recovering from the drug. He started to thrash around, uncoordinated but difficult to handle. Ceras took great pleasure in giving him a heavy slap.
"Stop that or I'll really hurt you," he said through gritted teeth. His captive become docile and once again Ceras lifted him onto his shoulder, walking the short distance to the ZX80, climbing the ladder to the open canopy and dumping Andles unceremoniously inside. He slid quickly back down, pushed a button to stow the ladder and ducked under the aircraft before climbing up on the pilot's side. He reached across and secured his passenger, stowed his own ladder and buckled his own harness. With a series of quick taps on the controls he closed the canopy, entered coordinates into the navigational computer and lit up the engine. He grabbed the joystick and moved the craft a safe distance from the hangar before bracing himself and hitting the launch button.
Take off was almost vertical and fast enough to push the air from his lungs. Andles grunted uncomfortably, coughed and struggled momentarily to regain his breath. Ceras glanced across to check that he wasn't actually choking, but apart from that ignored him. As they hit the edge of Earth's atmosphere he had to concentrate to avoid the various objects floating around: spent booster rockets, old communications satellites, bits and pieces of unidentifiable machinery that had been propelled up here over the years. It was getting to look like a junk yard.
They soon cleared the debris field and Ceras breathed a slow sigh of relief. It was great that the plan was on track but it was also great to escape the ceaseless noise and bustle of Earth. The place hadn't had a breathable atmosphere for decades but it wasn't just that you couldn't go Outside, there was no escaping the claustrophobia of the immense population inside either. Ceras recalled his history lessons. Way back when they still farmed animals they wouldn't have kept chicken in those conditions.
His thoughts were interrupted by an amber light flashing on the display in front of him. He throttled back to a more sedate pace and up ahead the stars started to go out as their light was blocked by a massive intergalactic vessel.
"Wathehelszat?" Andles asked. His tongue was still not entirely under control.
"It belongs to some friend of mine," Ceras responded cheerily. "We're going to drop in and say hello." Andles smiled a lopsided smile too.
"I soooon talkum round."
Bay doors opened beneath the giant ship and Ceras expertly guided his craft inside. As he came to a rest he hit ladder and canopy releases in quick succession, then his harness. He thumped none too gently in the centre of his passenger's chest to release his harness too.
"Out we get," he said with a satisfied smirk. Andles shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. His motor skills were just about back to normal and he needed no help to climb out of the spacecraft and down onto the deck. Ceras was waiting for him.
"Over there," he ordered, indicating an open doorway a few yards away. Andles complied without resistance. He turned towards the Ranger as they walked.
"It doesn't matter what you do you know," he said, as if pointing out the obvious to a small child. "I'll just have a word with whoever's in charge and I'll soon be back. Or maybe I'll go exploring? Don't worry though, I'll always let you know how I'm getting along."
Ceras stopped just in front of what was clearly a cell. There was a plain bed, a table big enough for one and a toilet. Andles entered with a slight shrug as if to say "it's only temporary." Ceras was joined by a slim being about his own height, dressed in a loose yellow floor-length robe. Its skin was like dark glass, unblemished and slightly translucent. Each touched the centre of their own forehead with the middle three fingers of their left hand, then touched the other's forehead with the same three fingers.
"Ah, our host I presume," Andles said cheerfully. "Are you going to introduce us?"
"Of course," Ceras replied politely. "This is Rad, his people are called the Efenodas. You might notice the lack of apparent auditory equipment." For the first time, Joe Andles' face showed a frown of concern.
"They're telepaths," Ceras continued, a clear note of victory in his voice. "You know that old saying, "in space no-one can hear you scream"? Well where you're going, no-one will hear you talk."
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