Null Vector – Part One

When I published Intersection, I thought I’d finished writing about the adventures of Joe Ballen and Dollie Buntin, but apparently my brain had other ideas and came up with the story of how they first met. I expected it to be a short story, but it ended up as a novella set approximately two years before the story that appears in Mathematics of Eternity.

I’m sharing it for free in ten weekly installments here on my site every Thursday, but my email list subscribers will get the story in ebook form before Christmas, once I have all the special graphics ready! For anyone collecting the Joe Ballen books in print format, I plan to release a paperback version in a little while too. That won’t be free I’m afraid, but I’ll keep the price to a minimum.

So here we go. Once upon a time…

One

“What does a girl have to do to get screwed around here?”

The voice was feminine, high-pitched, and squeaky, in a fake “little girl” manner. It was a way of talking that had come into fashion recently, and meant to be sexy, but sounded to me like a chipmunk on neopenth yelling through a straw.

I was drinking my way through my medical pension in Hagar’s, a cheap bar with delusions of low-life on the corner of Cathedral and Preston. Decorated in tenth century Viking re-imagined by Hollywood, it came complete with fake aged-knot-wood cladding, printed axes glued to the wall, and faux iron cannons idiosyncratically poking out from portholes close to the ceiling. I’d wandered in after seeing an ad in my inbox and was curious about the boast of all-Geneered staff.

“Just order a drink,” I said, not caring if she heard or not. Like all theme bars, the liquor was overpriced and watered down.

The thumping metal-rock soundtrack was muted around the bar to facilitate ordering, and she looked over. Her too-bright sapphire eyes locked with mine, and she pushed her over-curled blond hair back from her face. Her makeup and the fifty grams of purple mirrored dress, complete with dramatic slashes in all the right places, marked her out as a working girl, while the small traces of scars around her lips and eyes and the slightly stretched look to her skin said she’d been cosmetically Geneered—undoubtedly older than she appeared.

“You buying, spaceman?”

She was good, I had to give her that. I wasn’t a spaceman, not anymore, and the scars on my arm and legs tingled painfully at the memory. But how she’d picked me out was a mystery. She saw me looking her over and slipped onto the stool next to mine like a cat settling on a tree branch to hunt its prey, a slit in her dress sliding open to reveal a long, toned thigh.

“So how about that drink?”

I checked my chip. To my surprise, I had enough credits and waved a finger at the grizzled barman who’d been Geneered to look like a troll.

“Another Freiskein for me, and whatever the lady is having.”

“Lady?” She lifted her eyebrow and looked from me to the barman. “A Dirty Peach. Make it a large one, Stan.”

“Sure thing, Tawnee.”

The barman knew her name, which meant she was a regular, so maybe this was one of her frequent hunting spots. It didn’t matter to me one way or another. I had neither the inclination nor the funding to sample what she was selling. I swallowed half my glass of Freiskein, the amber liquid burning through my larynx as it went down. “Cheers… Tawnee?”

She picked up her tall glass of pinky-orange slop and took a sip. “You know the best thing about being Tawnee?”

“I wouldn’t dare guess.”

Her voice lowered to a semi-whisper as she leaned closer, the slit in the upper part of her dress stretching open to display a generous amount of cleavage. “It rhymes with horny. How about you?”

“I’m Ballen, it rhymes with broke.” I held up my credit chip to display the big fat zero indicating my credit status.

Tawnee pulled back slightly, her lips tightening momentarily, then she smiled again. “You really spent your last credit buying me a drink?”

“No. I spent it buying me a drink.” I held up my glass. “Yours was second to last.”

She laughed and raised her glass. “What are you? The world’s last gentleman?”

“I hope not, or we’re all in big trouble.”

Tawnee took another sip and slipped down from her stool, ending the flesh display in a shimmer of glinting fabric. The show was over now she knew she had more chance of getting blood out of a politician.

“Business calls,” she said. “Thanks for the drink.”

She sidled off toward the more crowded areas of the bar, and I watched her sway until she vanished from sight. “Think pure thoughts, Joe,” I murmured. “It’s cheaper, and healthier.”

Despite being muted, the vibrations from the music shook my barstool as the barman-troll came up, actually paying some attention to me. Up to now our interaction had been strictly supply and demand.

“You missed out there, buddy.” He gestured toward the back of the bar. “Tawnee’s a nice girl. Expensive, but real nice. And she looks after her men, she ain’t one of these pay-as-you-go types.”

“Thanks for the tip, but I’m not in the market.” I held up my credit chip again so he could see the display.

He nodded sympathetically. “Too bad, you still missed out.”

I emptied my glass in a gulp and put it down on the holographic bar top that resembled a lava flow. “Thanks for the information. Time I was leaving.”

The barman nodded, looked around shiftily, then back to me. “That was a nice thing you did for Tawnee. Not many guys would do that with their last dime.”

Then he surprised the hell out of me by lifting the bottle of Freiskein and pouring me a generous glassful.
“On the house.”

“Cheers.” I lifted my glass to salute him. “Very good of you. Amazing, in fact.”

“I like to look after the girls who come here. Some of them… Well, they ain’t had much good in their life, ya know?” He poured himself a half glass too. “Some guys think a girl ain’t worth nuthin’ if she works the streets.”

I knew what he meant and ignored the likelihood that he probably looked after them because the girls brought in the guys. I’d seen some guys on the High-Rig or Luna Free State get “tired and emotional” and take it out on some woman whose only crime was trying to earn a living. It wasn’t pretty. And the best thing I could say about such men was that they usually didn’t last long in those environments. Most spacemen appreciate female company, and accidents happen so easily in ZeeGee and vacuum.

One of the things I hated about being forced back to Earth was the monitoring and legal setup that pervaded the USP, making such personalized corrections almost impossible. The surveillance typically meant that offenders were caught and forced to undergo “attitudinal re-adjustment,” but it didn’t have the same sense of satisfaction.

“Stanis Ridge.” The barman held out a thick-fingered, green-tinged hand, and I shook it. “Most people call me Stan. I heard what Tawnee said. She’s a good judge of character. How come you’re down here? Thought the space business was booming with all this starship stuff.”

“It is.” The starship was the reason I was down here. “I’ll tell you, those parties up in orbit—they never stop. It’s like New Year’s Eve every day. Got to be I needed a vacation. Name’s Ballen.”

“Ballen?” Ridge’s wide mouth screwed up, exposing his prominent Geneered incisors, and his thick brows bunched together—making him look like a puzzled walrus. “That sounds famil… Wait a sec, you that guy who was chopped in half or something?”

“Or something.” My accident had made the news even here on Earth. I had the extremely dubious distinction of being the most badly injured person to have been rescued in space and survived. “I changed my name to Lucky.”

He laughed. “Nahh. I remember now, John Ballen.”

“Close—it’s Joe.”

We talked for a while, in between Ridge serving others. Like all bar staff, he had a million and one stories about customers past and present. Tending bar gives you a window into people’s lives that few jobs do. I finished my drink, refusing his offer of a second freebie. My body might have been wrecked, but a tiny fragment of my pride was still intact.

I staggered a little as I walked out to the Jump-Off platform, partly from the booze, but also from the still-reconnecting nerve fibers sending neural tremors through the freshly grown limbs. I had a medical free transit pass and opened my Scroll to call a cab when a voice hissed from the shadows behind me.

“Still lonely, Joe?”

I turned clumsily, narrowly avoiding pitching myself from the platform. The bar was on L8, and even “Lucky” Ballen would find it hard to survive a ninety-meter drop at one gee onto the concrete below. I stabilized myself with the handrail and looked to see who’d spoken.

Tawnee stepped into the garish exterior lighting, her skintight dress picking up the red and green lights to outline the lithe shape of her body. I hadn’t noticed before because she’d been more side-on to me, but her waist had been pulled in to further enhance her hips, whether through Geneering or something less permanent, I couldn’t tell.

“I don’t have any more money now than I did earlier.” I shrugged. “And, no offense, but all I want to do is get home.”

“Me too.” She stepped closer, her eyes wide and almost black in the harsh lighting. “But I can’t.”

“If you’re behind on the rent, sorry, but I—”

“You’re a nice guy, aren’t you, Joe?”

Sure I was, mostly. Well, sometimes. Okay, make that occasionally. “Didn’t you hear? Last nice guy died in seventy-eight saving a cat stuck in a box.”

Tawnee smiled, but it was forced. “There are some men…”

“There sure are.”

“Serious men…”

“I’m not much of a comedian either.” Where was she heading with this? Her hesitation was making me nervous, and I wasn’t going to make it easy for her.

Dangerous men…” She made a sign with her hand, curling her thumb and forefinger into a circle and fanning the remaining fingers out to form a spiral.

“The Silent are after you? What the hell for?”

The Silent was a notorious gang-clan that controlled much of the illicit activity in what was left of downtown Baltimore. Rumor had it they operated out of a base in the tumbledown maze of row houses that was all that remained of the historic Pigtown neighborhood. Even the Argus surveillance system that blanketed all of Baltimore hadn’t allowed the police to corner more than a handful of unimportant members.

“I’m not the type to kiss and tell.” Her teeth grazed her lower lip. “But someone doesn’t believe that.”

“Sure, I’ll help.” Her face lit up, then fell again as I held out my Scroll. “Call the police.”

Tawnee backed away a half step. “I can’t.” She took a deep breath. “They might be involved…”

“The cops are hooked up with The Silent?” That would explain how the gang got away with serious crimes right under the noses of the authorities, and would be as explosive as a mining charge if it hit the newsfeeds.

“Yes… maybe… Oh, I’m not sure… but some of the things I heard suggested there might be a connection.”

The spasms in my arm and legs were getting stronger, and it took all I had to stop myself from turning into a quaking jelly in front of her. She might think I was a potential protector, but in my condition I couldn’t have defended her from a drugged mosquito even if I’d been wearing Johnny Rico’s powered armor.

“I’m not the hero type.”

Her chin dropped and a moist glisten formed in the corner of her eyes. She was either a great actress, or genuinely upset. It didn’t matter which. I couldn’t help her, and I wasn’t about to tell her the real reason why.

“Look, Joe. All I need is a place to crash. I’m leaving town tomorrow. Got a job as an entertainer in LFS.”

“So why are you out here looking for customers?”

She made a face that was half smile, half grimace. “Trying to make some last minute cash for the trip. Stupid, huh? But no one’s biting tonight. Even you don’t want me.”

“Show me the ticket.”

“What?”

“Passengers for Luna Free State have to book five days in advance to allow for security clearance. Show me your ticket.”

She pulled away a little, and for a moment I thought she was going to walk off, her story blown. Then she surprised me by reaching inside the dress and pulling out a mini-Scroll. She unrolled the screen, brushed her fingers over it, and turned it toward me.

The screen showed a Lunar transit pass with her name on it, and a 3V of her face. Next to it was the stripy, rainbow-colored pattern of her genome, proving her identity. I still wasn’t entirely convinced, but couldn’t see any harm in giving her a place to stay for a night. It wasn’t as though I had anything worth stealing.

 

*

 

I used my Scroll to call a cab, and in less than ten minutes a rickety old AeroMobile dropped to the Jump-Off. Despite its age, it was freshly painted, and the overly ornate script on the door read Dollie’s Cabs. I hadn’t used the company before, but it must have been approved by the insurance company that arranged my transit services.

“Where can I take you folks?” An attractive contralto voice from an equally attractive driver came through the screen between her and the passenger compartment.

“Cloverdale Towers, L1,” I said.

The driver turned around and I got a better look. She had a perfect oval face, with lustrous lips and eyes wide and deep enough to drown in, her head crowned with a halo of raven-toned hair that glittered as the curls picked up highlights from the dashboard lights. I suddenly regretted being with Tawnee, even though the circumstances were entirely innocent.

“That’s the Social Relief housing out by Lake Ashburton, right?”

I muttered to myself. She needn’t have spelled it out so bluntly. Out loud, I confirmed the destination. The turbines picked up speed, and the cab rose up into the SkyWays.

The driver was presumably too stupid or vindictive to let the matter of the location drop. “Do they have level Jump-Offs on social housing? That’s a waste of taxpayers’ money if you ask me.”

“Not everyone who lives in those places is a deadbeat.” The dig about my address made my cheeks burn. “Sometimes it’s temporary until somebody can pick themselves up again.”

“Yeah?” the driver said. “You seen anyone picking themselves up out of the crap recently?”

“Forget it, Joe.” Tawnee wrapped her arm around my elbow. “She’s not worth fighting with, and it’s not important to me.”

We were already in the high-speed zone, heading north over the city. It was late enough that traffic was light, and the occasional car that went by reminded me of the clichéd moving stars effect they still used in low-budget sci-fi flicks. I missed space—the reality of space that was. The eerie sense of infinity and ever-present danger always got my adrenaline flowing. Life on Earth was dull and flat in comparison, and not only in a figurative sense.

We were maybe halfway there when the driver spoke again. “Any reason someone might be following you folks?”

“No.” Tawnee blurted out her response too fast to sound even vaguely convincing.

“Possibly,” I corrected. “Why?”

“There’s been someone on our tail since I picked you up at Hagar’s.” The driver glanced around, and I caught another glimpse of her perfect profile. “Could be a coincidence, but then again…”

If what Tawnee said was true, there could well be someone following us: The Silent, or maybe even the cops. If we went straight to my place, her attempt to hide would be useless.

“Any way you can tell if they are or not?” I called through the screen.

“Sure.”

The AeroMobile banked, and we turned hard right, dropping through several different traffic lanes until we were zipping along a hundred meters above Eager heading east. The buildings rushed by at a speed fast enough to be alarming, and Tawnee gripped my arm tighter.

“Still following,” the driver said.

“Can you do something about it?”

“For a fixed-price insurance job?” The disdain dripped off every word. “You’re kidding?”

Tawnee jumped forward, her face close to the screen, and held up her credit chip. “I’ll pay.”

The driver executed a heart-stopping thrust reversal, dropping us closer to street level as though we were about to land. At four meters, she jammed the throttle forward and spun the cab down Calvert. We were traveling far faster than permitted at that height, and if the driver wasn’t careful she’d end up getting a ticket and could even lose her cab license.

She guided the cab under the New City Hall as though looking for a landing spot. Like most modern municipal buildings it was raised on stilts, but instead of stopping she weaved through the support beams as if ducking through a crowded forest, finally emerging heading east above Orleans Street. After several more high-speed and seemingly random turns we climbed into the main cross-town commercial lanes. They were always busy, even at this time of night, and the cab zigged and zagged through the traffic like a shark cutting through a shoal of minnows.

“They’re gone.” The driver spoke with a trace of pride that was entirely deserved. I considered myself an above average pilot, but I’d have been hard pressed to keep up with her through those maneuvers.

We turned back toward my place, the driver staying in the highest traffic lanes to minimize the chance of being picked up again. Finally, the cab dropped almost vertically to ground level outside my crappy apartment building. In the darkness it looked like any other nondescript apartment block, all slab-sided walls and poky windows. By day, it more closely resembled an old-fashioned prison.

“Thanks,” I said as we clambered out. “What do we owe you?”

The cab driver wound down her window and looked me up and down slowly, before turning to Tawnee. “I hope he’s got something that ain’t obvious, sweetie.”

“He’ll do for tonight.” Tawnee held out her credit chip again.

“Keep your money, girl. You’re gonna need it with this one…” She increased the thrust on the turbines, ready to lift off, calling over the increased noise, “I hope he paid you up front.”

I bristled at the cab driver’s parting comments, but she was gone before I could respond. Instead, I waved angrily at the door sensor to trigger the fingerprint and facial capture system, and it unlocked as we approached. This wasn’t a luxury feature: it was there so only those with paid-up rents could enter. Defaulters were automatically locked out and their possessions dumped in pick-up bins. My medical insurance had me covered for a whole six months of recovery time—a generous two months per limb lost—but in a couple of months I’d have to worry. Once inside, I registered Tawnee as a temporary guest, which meant she could come and go freely for the next forty-eight hours. After that I’d get dinged with an extra “cohabitation” charge.

The elevator made my legs shake even more, and by the time we reached my apartment, I was staggering, the seams in my thighs buzzing painfully with neural dissonance. Inside, I slipped into the bathroom and swallowed several nerve-tranq pills. I wasn’t planning any more activity that night, but I had no chance of getting any sleep without them.

Tawnee was leaning against the two-person couch when I came out, the slightly cloying scent of her perfume filling the space between us. My “apartment,” like the others in the block, was a meager twenty-five square meters: enough space for a bed, the sofa, a postage stamp-sized work table, and a generously dubbed “micro-kitchen.”

I hadn’t realized it before, but there was an odor in the room—a mix of stale liquor, coffee, Buffo’s burgers, and a faint acrid smell from the concrete walls. I grabbed a garbage bag and swept the empty bottles and cans from the table and couch, pushing them hastily into the minuscule bathroom.

There was nothing more I could do quickly. Besides, all she wanted was a place to hide out. So why did I feel as awkward as an eleventh-grader on his prom date? Not that I was that innocent, but I’d been alone a long time and still wasn’t sure what Tawnee’s game was.

“How about a drink?” I finally mumbled.

“Sure.” Her lips curved into a smile. “But nothing too strong—or are you hoping to get me drunk so you can take advantage of me?”

I tried to think of something clever and failed. “All I have is coffee—Jamaican Blue.”

Her eyebrows lifted into an arch. “That’s some expensive java.”

“It’s my only vice.”

“I hope not.” She laughed. Now we were alone, she’d dropped the mock girlish voice and was speaking in a regular manner. “Sure, why not.”

I turned to the coffeemaker and loaded it up. “How do you like it?”

“Hot and sweet always works with me.”

Her words drifted over from behind as she moved across the room. The coffee hissed and bubbled, and I turned in her direction. Tawnee leaned against the wall by the bed, arching her back provocatively. As I watched, she reached behind her neck and a fraction later, the dress she was almost wearing slid down her body, revealing an almost naked, blemish-free body concealed only by three microscopic fragments of “invisible” underwear.

“See anything you like?”

I froze and opened my mouth to say something, but my mind had switched over to the male caveman response. I wouldn’t say she looked like a million dollars, only maybe half that, but I hadn’t been intimate with anything more alluring than a physiotherapy machine in over twelve months. I tried again a couple of times and finally squeezed out some words. “You take the bed, I’ll use the couch.”

Her voice changed to one of incredulity, and she edged closer. “Jesus, have I lost it? Am I that bad, Joe?”
I shook my head. “You look fine. There’s one thing, though.”

“What’s that?”

“How come you know my first name?”

Silence filled the small room like smoke from a fire pit. Tawnee shook her head slowly, as if confused by my comment. “You told me back at the bar. You’re even more drunk than you think.”

The coffee pot rattled, and I switched it off. “I told you my last name. But you’ve been calling me Joe since outside Hagar’s.”

“Okay, you caught me…” She laughed. “Sometimes a girl sees something and has to go for it. Nothing wrong with that, is there?”

I turned back to face her. “That still doesn’t explain how you know my name.”

“Simple.” She moved closer, took my hand in hers, and placed it against her chest. “I came back to find you, but you’d gone. So I asked Stan if he knew you.”

It was possible, but I judged it unlikely. While I might have batted the averages in the past, I was under no illusion I was devastatingly attractive to women.

She looked up at me and slipped her hand behind my neck, pulling my head down. Her ruby lips brushed mine, and the soft taste of strawberry melted over my taste buds, washing away the harsh aftertaste of the whiskey.

“I—”

“Don’t say another word, Joe.”

Then the lights went out.

—– To be continued —–


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