copyright (c) 2007, Don Sakers

Hunt for the Dymalon Cygnet

By Don Sakers

Part 11

The passageway is lit by a single yellow safety strip about shoulder high on the wall to their right, and it takes Rita’s eyes a few minutes to adjust. Jannet takes her hand and silently pulls her forward—of course, with clairvoyance, Jannet doesn’t need to see. There’s water on the floor, less than half a centimeter deep, and the oily smell is replaced by a dank mustiness.

Once her eyes adjust, Rita lets go of Jannet’s hand. “When we get to the subway, what then?”

“We have a conference channel going; I’ll cut you in.”

At once, another multi-threaded conversation weaves into existence around Rita in various pastel hues, accompanied by three-dimensional images of the Junior Delegates. At the moment, Thea is speaking: “…Contacted an undercover Nexus operative who handles refugees. Standard procedure would call for getting Rita to a safe house—hi, Rita—in preparation for smuggling you out on a train. But the train they normally use is scheduled for a departure just before midnight tonight, so she thinks it’s best for you two to make your way to Union Station by your most secure route. She’ll have further instructions once you get near the Station.”

“We can take the subway…” Rita begins.

Girald’s voice cuts her off. “As soon as you pass the turnstile, your location is known. And the cops are waiting for you at the next stop.”

Jannet nods. “He’s right. We’ll have to walk. And shut down all interaction between your databand and the city infrastructure.”

“How do I do that?”

Ray’s face swims before her. “It’s okay, Rita. There’s a simple utility that will take you completely off the grid. Just tell your databand to go into stealth mode.”

Rita flicks her eyes, revealing a menu of utilities; sure enough, Stealth Mode is one of them. With a quick subvocalization, she selects it. A tiny black swept-wing icon appears in the bottom left of her visual field.

Ray continues, “If you have it set right, you’ll see a reminder icon. Focus on it, and it’ll tell you you’re in Stealth.”

Despite herself, Rita smiles. “That wasn’t an option on my old Guardian Angel.”

Girald snorts. “Of course not. How can you have an effective prison, if the inmates can disappear at will?”

By now they have reached the end of the tunnel, another steel door. Jannet leans against the door while Thea’s calm voice says, “Out of the tunnel, you’ll be in a service area at the north end of the platform. Turn right, and in three meters you’ll find a ladder that leads upward to street level.”

Jannet glances back at Rita. “No one’s on the other side, but we should move quickly. Ready.”

“I’m ready.”

Rita follows Jannet through the door into a dim space lit only by the orange radiance of emergency fluoro strips, up a grime-encrusted ladder. There is a sudden explosion of light as Jannet throws open a steel hatch, and then they are on the sidewalk. Jannet helps Rita up and closes the hatch. The street is deserted, the streetlights harsh after the darkness below.

“Okay,” Jannet says, “Which way to Union Station?”

Rita takes a moment to orient herself, then points. “Around that corner, then maybe ten, twelve blocks.”

“Right. Let’s go.”






Union Station is a grand old marble mausoleum, a temple to transportation from an age in which the railroad, not the fusion drive, was the latest technological wonder. The building is protected and maintained as an historical site, but all the action is hundreds of meters underground, the modern transport hub that links subway, local and long-distance shuttles to the spaceport and nearby cities, and long-distance passenger and freight lines.

The cavernous station is quiet and cool; almost as soon as Rita and Jannet enter, Ray and Girald spring up from a bench to meet them.

“What are you two doing here?” Jannet asks.

Ray grins. “You don’t think we’re going to let you keep all the fun to yourselves?”

“Besides,” Girald says, “I’ve had enough of God’s Country. I’m not giving up a chance to get back to civilization sooner.”

Jannet gives a mock sigh. “All right, I guess we’re stuck with you.” She looks around. “Where do we go?”

“Follow me.” Girald leads them across the vast floor toward a bank of elevators. “We’re on the midnight train to Sakatchewan. Our Nexus contact sent me all the access codes we need.”

Rita automatically checks the time. They have somewhat more than twenty minutes.

Ray nods. “Once we’re in Canada, our portion of the train diverts to Winnipeg. By the time we get there, the local Nexus operatives will have the next stages arranged.”

Girald says, “Although I don’t know why Jaison can’t just—”

Jannet frowns. “Jaison went off with the Fodon twins and three liters of Lunar vodka. Trust me, in the state he’s in right now, you don’t want to try it. If you’re lucky, you’d wind up somewhere in the Solar System.”

“You know,” Girald says, “sometimes your brother isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

Jannet answers, “And sometimes, Girald, you’ve not exactly the most diplomatic voice in the choir.” She pats his cheek. “But that’s not why we keep you around.”

Ray raises an eyebrow. “Why do we keep him around?”

Girald answers, “The real question is, why do I keep the rest of you around?”As if on cue, one of the elevators opens. “After you, my friends.” With a flourish, Girald waves them in.

They are the only passengers. The elevator, presumably responding to Girald’s security codes, descends rapidly. Ray fingers the wall and frowns. “Why have transparent walls, if we’re going underground?”

Jannet smiles. “Just wait.”

In a few more moments, light bursts upon them as the elevator descends into the vast vaulted cavern, nearly half a kilometer across, that houses the Denver Transport Hub.

A hundred meters below, trains come and go through a sprawling maze of tracks, switches, turntables, catwalks, and bridges that resembles nothing more than a giant clockwork machine with gears and springs and levers all in constant motion.

At speeds downright frightening to the merely human eye, thousands of individual train cars move through this great machine, each on its own trajectory. Back and forth, over and under, round and round, the cars move independent of one another yet so well co-ordinated that hardly a meter of empty space remains between any two of them.

Jannet gives a low whistle. “You know that this sort of thing goes on, but you don’t visualize it until it’s before your eyes.”

Ray smiles. “You know those puzzles made of little squares, where you have to slide one after another to get the numbers in sequence? This is like that, only a thousand times bigger.”

Rita, happy for the chance to play native guide, says, “Three AIs spend almost all their time overseeing this facility. It’s one of the busiest hubs in North America.”

As they descend, an incoming train rockets into the pattern, breaks apart into component cars, and in heartbeats is lost in the shuffle. Seconds later, a long string of cars assembles and shoots forth like the ultra-fast tongue of an enormous frog, vanished in the space of a breath into an outgoing tunnel.

Rita continues, “We bring the kids here every April, during the unit on transportation. If you watch long enough, it starts to make your head hurt.”

The elevator slows, and the panoramic view breaks down into rushing chaos. They come to rest on a still island at the edge of the pandemonium. The doors open, and they step out onto a concrete platform between two sidings. All around, other elevators rise and descend on other similar islands. Above, a series of stairs and catwalks links all the platforms.

“I didn’t expect it to be so quiet,” Jannet says.

Except for distant clicks and clangs, and the constant susurrus of winds, the cavern is strangely quiet—for the trains, moving on invisible magnetic fields a few centimeters above their tracks, make minimal noise.

Girald cocks his head, like a terrier catching a scent, then leads them between rows of motionless cars, all virtually identical: sleek metal boxes, streamlined against wind resistance. When Rita glances at each new car, a series of identification numbers springs up in her sight, then fades away.

“This one,” Girald says, indicating a car outwardly no different from all the others. “Our home for the next few hours.” He is silent for a moment, then a portion of the car’s skin peels back, revealing a doorway.

From the platform to the car is a giant step; Jannet hops up and gives Rita her hand. Ray follows, with Girald bringing up the rear.

As they enter, lights brighten. Past a narrow vestibule with storage spaces and restroom access, the interior widens to reveal a comfortably-appointed passenger car, complete with a lounge area and a larger chamber with a dozen sleeping berths. In between is a compact basic kitchen stocked with sandwiches, snacks, and a selection of bottled beverages.

Jannet surveys the arrangements. “Well, isn’t this nice? I thought we’d be sharing space with cargo.”

“Apparently,” Girald answers, “railway employees use cars like this to deadhead all the time. Tonight we’re the only passengers.” He opens the small refrigerator, pops open a bottle of beer, and settles into a well-padded chair. “For once we get to travel in luxury. Let’s enjoy it while we can.”

Jannet shrugs. “Nothing else to do, I guess.” She chooses a couch-like seat large enough for three, and pats the seat next to her. “Rita?”

Rita settles into the cushions, and Ray takes a single seat opposite them. He glances away for a moment, then fastens his safety harness. “Ten minutes to departure; we’d better all buckle up.”

As the others arrange their own harnesses, Rita says, “Do you suppose there’s any way we can see outside?”

Girald nods. “Sure.” After a moment, long rectangular windows open on the walls, showing the surrounding cars, platforms, and catwalks. Numbers and arrows danced across the displays, indicating distance, speed, and identity.

As Jannet takes her hand, Rita stifles a giggle.

Jannet raises an eyebrow. “What?”

“This is just like an episode of Miracle Worker. Except usually when Penelope helps someone escape, it’s from the outside into the U.S.”

Jannet grins. “Oh, Mother’s going to love this.”

A moment later, a computer voice warns, “Prepare for acceleration. Passengers present, maximum 1.5 gees.”

The carriage lurches, and for a moment Rita’s eyes are confused; is the train moving, or the surroundings? Then the car accelerates, and all doubt vanishes.

The next few minutes are exciting, chaotic, and more than a bit unnerving, as the constantly-accelerating train car weaves its way through the maze of tracks, swerving and spinning in a precise split-second ballet with hundreds of other speeding cars…until at last, as part of a fully-formed train, it rockets away from the station and into a gaping tunnel mouth. After that, darkness is relieved by a stroboscopic series of bright green pinpoints, one every few seconds.

Girald takes a swig of beer. “Well, that’s that, we’re on our way. In a little more than two hours, we’ll be in Winnipeg.”

As the others chat, Rita stares at the window display, losing herself in the steady, hypnotic progression of one green light after another. Her head droops, comes to rest on Jannet’s shoulder. Soon, Rita is asleep.

She awakens slowly. The cabin lights are dim, and outside a black sky is ablaze with stars, while a dark and featureless landscape stretches in all directions. Rita remains still, half in sleep, and becomes aware of whispered conversation around her.

“Sooner or later someone’s going to have to send a crewed expedition out there.” That’s Ray, the gentle earnestness of his voice apparent even in a whisper.

“Do you think Khria was disappointed that the Council didn’t vote to sponsor a crewed mission?” Jannet asks.

“I think it surprised him that they said no,” Girald says.

“I don’t suppose it matters much what the Council voted,” Ray says. “Now that the news is out, someone’s sure to send a ship to investigate.”

“Who?” Girald says. “That thing’s out beyond Pluto. It would take the better part of two tendays at one gee to get there…and they’d have to drag along reaction mass for the return trip, which means a whopping huge ship. Who could finance an effort like that?”

After a moment, Jannet answers, “Any of the larger Idara, especially if they work together on it. Girald, let’s say your grandfather and Ogano Carroll, maybe in alliance with Ujana d’Herelle. When you put ChenFusion reactors together with d’Herelle’s Rockwell Interplanetary, and throw in some Carroll money, it looks like the basis of an expedition to me.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter who does it,” Girald says. “The thing is out there, and sooner or later somebody will go out to visit it.” He sighs. “To me, the intriguing question is here on Earth: why does this spaceship look so much like a three-thousand-year-old archaeological artifact?”

Ray snorts. “I still don’t think—”

Jannet shifts in her seat. “You can’t dismiss the mystery that easily. Look at the detailed analysis in Dr. Khria’s report. The resemblence between the two is too exact for coincidence.” She pauses. “I’d love to get my hands on the real Dymalon Cygnet. The artifact, I mean.”

“Well you can’t,” Girald says. “It vanished ninety years ago, stolen from the museum and replaced by a forgery. You’ve seen the virtie, haven’t you?”

Jannet gives a tiny laugh. “Girald, don’t be more offensively stupid than usual. The guys who made that virtie were part of the New Athens community even before the move to Mars. Phil Meade told me bedtime stories. George is still around; he’s over a hundred, but still pretty active for an old guy. So yes, I’ve seen the virtie. I grew up watching it. And I know that the original artifact is lost.”

Ray speaks up, “If you had the artifact, what would you want to look for?”

“I’m not sure,” Jannet says. “Markings, chemical composition, isotopic ratios, microscopic surface anomalies, nanomagnetic patterns…deepscan the thing, put every bit of it under a microscope, see if there’s anything inside. There ought to be a way to tell if it’s truly some sort of alien construct.”

Yawning, Girald says, “I repeat, you can’t examine it. So the whole question is academic.”

Rita stirs. “Not really. You might not need the orignal Dymalon Cygnet.” She opens her eyes and struggles to sit up.

“Ah, the sleeper awakens,’ Girald says.

“What do you mean?” Jannet prompts her.

Rita smooths her hair. “I know something about the Dymalon Cygnet. My great-grandmother worked at the museum where the original was housed before…well, before the forgery showed up. They examined the original with many of the techniques you suggest.”

Girald wrinkles his nose. “That was last century; the 1980s, in fact. They didn’t have modern instruments back then.”

“They had microscopes and they had x-rays, and a whole lot else besides. I know because when I was a kid, my Bisabuela took me to the museum and showed me the virtual display of the Cygnet. It was constructed from all the data they had on the original artifact. I know for a fact that you could zoom in to submicroscopic view, or peel back layers and look inside.” Rita feels her jaw set in the stubbornness and frustration that she always sensed when Bisabuela told about the Dymalon Cygent. “It might not be as good as having the real thing in front of you, but it would sure have a lot of information.”

Girald opens his mouth, then closes it. For several seconds, all three of the others stares in Rita’s direction, and she knows that they are using their databands.

Ray is the first to speak. “The Museum of Pacific Culture was destroyed when Los Angeles fell after the Porterville strike. There’s nothing left but rubble.”

Rita sighs. “I know that. My Bisabuela didn’t live to see the strike, thank the Goddess. But don’t you think there are copies of the data? I’m sure all the Museum’s exhibits were online. If I were looking for that virtual Cygnet, I’d start with archives of the Nets from before Porterville.”

Jannet narrows her eyes. “Rita, how many people know about your great-grandmother’s connection to the Dymalon Cygnet?”

Ray frowns. “Everybody. It’s in Rita’s public profile.” He turns his eyes in Rita’s direction, and she has the uneasy feeling that he’s looking right through her. “Rita, you were one of the few who escaped the Washington, DC strike. You were interviewed a lot in the months following. You mentioned your Bisabuela several times.”

Rita shrugs. “So?”

Shaking her head, Jannet says, “I thought the Army of God was after you because you turned off your Guardian Angel and snuck into the Terran Council meeting. Now I think there’s another reason they want you.”

“Don’t be silly,” Rita says. “Everything I just told you is a matter of public record. They don’t need me to find it out.”

“Still, you have a personal, family connection to the the Dymalon Cygent. And just when Dr. Khria has good reason to be searching for that artifact, the Army of God is on your trail. Could be coincidence, but I think not.” Jannet’s eyes narrow. “Have you checked your mail lately? Anything unusual there?”

Rita frowns. “I haven’t checked. I didn’t think it would be smart, with them after me. If I access my mail, can’t they track my location?”

Ray stifles a quick laugh. “Maybe with your old hardware, tied into the US net. Now you’re under Schmidt Foundation security.” Seeing her look of doubt, he smiles. “Look, Rita, our company handles crypto and financial services for the world’s biggest corporations, diplomatic traffic for governments, Nexus datacomm—our security has to be good. Believe me, you can access your mail and all your services, and they aren’t able to track you.” A faraway look enters his eyes. “If they do a sophisticated enough packet-distribution analysis, they might be able to narrow it down to a fair probability that you’re somewhere in North America. That’s all.”

“Okay.” Rita gives a silent command, and her mail opens before her eyes. Line after line of fine color-coded print, each line bearing a small avatar of the sender. The first half-dozen lines were the blood-red of “extremely urgent,” and they were headed by the Seal of the State.

The first message jumped open unbidden; Rita reads as far as “You are ordered to present yourself in person at the nearest police station or Army facility—” before slamming her mail routine shut.

She turns helpless eyes on Ray. “They’ve found me!”

Ray smiles. “Show me.”

Cautiously, she again opens her mail. Ray chuckles. “You might as well delete all those messages, they don’t mean anything. Believe me, if they found you, they wouldn’t be telling you to turn yourself in.”

“Still,” Jannet says, “I’m worried. We have a scheduled layover in Winnipeg coming up. We’ll have to watch Rita carefully.”

Ray shakes his head. “Surely you don’t think they have any idea where to find her?”

“We evacuated under standard Nexus protocols,” Girald says. “If we know all of their security secrets, then it’s a fair bet that they know ours. There are only a certain number of ways out of Denver.”

Jannet nods. “We’ll be cautious in Winnipeg.”

Ray gestures to the window display. “We’re coming up on Regina. This ought to be fun to watch.”

“Hold on,” Girald says. “I’m going to overlay an orbital shot and schematic.”

If Denver Transport Hub is the intricate workings of an enormous pocket watch, then Regina Hub is the works of a great clocktower two hundred kilometers across, a colossal ring surrounding the center city. The orbital view is alive with thousands of tiny colored pinpoints, each one an independent train car with its own destination. Although Rita knows they are travelling at hundreds of kilometers per hour, the dots seem to move through the elaborate labyrinth at a crawl.

“Can we see our own progress?” Rita asks.

Girald’s brow furrows. “I can ask the car to show itself on the display.” After a moment, he says, “I’m going to have to zoom in.”

The display expands and the dots move more quickly. One particular pinpoint shines out bright red; Girald points to it and says, “That’s us.”

The red dot is in the middle of a long string of white ones; they flow like marbles through a succession of chutes. Suddenly, a segment breaks off the front and dashes off in a different direction; a moment later, a string of two dozen blue dots approaches, runs parallel for a few heartbeats, then attaches itself to the tail end of their own train. A few more jugglings of this sort, and the white string becomes increasingly rainbow-colored. At one point several dots pull away from the main train, accelerate, and join the front of the train.

The action lasts several minutes, and when it is done the new multicolor train of dots races off to the right, eastward toward Winnipeg.

Girald lets the display fade, and leans back in his seat. “That’s it. Forty minutes until Winnipeg. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to take a nap.”




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