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Authors: Joel Shepherd

Crossover

BOOK: Crossover
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Crossover

Joel Shepherd

The first Cassandra Kresnov Novel

Joel Shepherd was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1974, but when he was seven his family moved to Perth in Western Australia. He studied film and television at Curtin University but realised that what he really wanted to do was write stories. His first manuscript was shortlisted for the George Turner Prize in 1998, and Crossover was shortlisted in 1999.

Apart from writing, Joel helps in his mother's business, selling Australian books to international schools in Asia and beyond. This has given him the opportunity to travel widely in Asia and other parts of the world. Joel also writes about women's basketball for an American internet magazine.

Crossover is Joel's first published book.

To my parents, for making everything possible

CHAPTER 1

Sunlight lay across the bare floor of the hotel room, falling rich and golden upon the smooth white sheets of the single bed, and the exposed pale arm of its occupant. Sun-dappled sheets shifted as she stirred sleepily, pulling smoothly to the pronounced curve of a hip.

Eyes blinked softly open. For a long moment she lay awake, listening to the morning. Distant traffic could be heard drifting up from far below. City sounds. The faint whine of the maglev line distinct above the rest. Then, past the window, the mournful, deep-throated whine of an aircar passing a skylane nearby.

Loose, dark blonde hair lay mussed and untended to her forehead. She brushed it back with a lazy hand. Rolled onto her back, sheet and mattress smooth and pleasant against her naked skin. Turned her head against the pillow to gaze calmly toward the broad, wide windows that counted for the far wall, tinted darkly gold against the deep glare of the rising sun. Another aircar passed with a sound like a throaty sigh. It moved on past the window, sunlight flashing from sleek, angular lines.

"Minder," she said, her voice thick with sleep. "Less tinting, please." The windows lightened, the sunlight grew brighter. "That's enough." The sun was painful to look at now, but her eyes adjusted, filtering the glare.

Outside were the city towers, tall, broad and varied. An architect's delight, they were. An economist's dream. A technologist's marvel. The towers stood not so close as to crowd, leaving plenty of open space between, gleaming golden with sunlight on glass. Aircars curved gently between them, banking slowly, unhurried and safely guided by invisible automation.

This was the city of Tanusha in the morning light, viewed from a single hotel room on the sixty-first floor of the Hanaman building, where the Emerald Si'an Hotel made its residence between the fiftieth and seventieth floors. The woman blinked at the view, no longer sleepy. Calm. Her lips pursed slightly in what might have been a smile. The traffic hummed, a gentle cacophony of life, and she listened, searching for nothing in particular, as her eyes took in the view without really looking ... just drifting. In the comfortable bed with the silky sheets.

The net traffic was increasing, too. She could hear it — or feel it, which was perhaps more accurate — a steady drift and flow of voices and machine-talk across an undulating landscape of static. It increased as she focused, snatches of words, broken, obscuring walls of encryption, action and counter-action on the early morning airwaves. People talking sleepily over breakfast, their bellies full of coffee or tea, a paper on the slate to read in the golden light through the windows, munching a pastry... And she let it go, having little interest at this moment, content to feel it as a constant murmur, pressing comfortably at the back of her consciousness.

It was 07:13 local time on the 24-hour clock. She stretched, luxuriously, arching her back, arms overhead, fingertips brushing the wall. And sighed. Pushed the sheets to one side, swung herself easily off the bed and walked naked to the bathroom, fingers combing her hair into some kind of order.

Emerged from the shower at 07:26, having taken more time than she needed. But that was becoming her habit these days. She stood on the warm bathroom floor, her skin tingling from the drying cycle, small, fine hairs standing pleasantly on end. Ran a palm across her forearm, brushing at the hairs. Curious. Her forearm tingled. And she smiled at her own wanderings, and gave a slight shake of her head. Picked a brush off the bench, and began work on her just dried hair, watching the mirror as she did.

Pale blue eyes stared back. Attractive eyes, she thought. Yes, definitely attractive, as the hair began to fall into place. She put down the brush and leaned forward on the bench rim, gazing closely into those eyes. Ran the tip of her forefinger across an eyebrow, down to the tip of her nose. And trailed further down, pulling at a lip. Tried a smile, and liked how that looked. Content, she walked back out to the main room, still naked, sat down on the softly carpeted floor and began to stretch.

After several minutes, the door chimed. "Room service," called a very real and unautomated male voice. The woman climbed smoothly to her feet, gave her arms one last swing and reached for her white hotel bathrobe.

"Enter," she said, tying the robe loosely about her waist as the door light flicked to green and the door swung open. A smallish man entered, well dressed and with a bow tie beneath his collar, supporting a breakfast tray in one hand.

"Your breakfast, madam," the very unautomated hotel man said. His cart was in the corridor behind him, loaded with other breakfasts.

"Thank you." She smiled at him, and took the tray from his hands. He smiled back.

"I apologise for the slight delay, Ms Cassidy. As you may appreciate, only the machines are never late." She waved a hand.

"Not at all. I prefer the personal service."

"I'm very glad." The man smiled again, and gave a small bow before retreating. The door shut behind him, and she was alone again. The woman carried the tray to her bed, placed it carefully upon the rumpled covers, and climbed up beside it. She ate her breakfast like that, cross-legged on the bed in her bathrobe, watching the airborne traffic weave and sigh amid the tall, strikingly modern and eye-catching buildings of Tanusha, gleaming in the sun.

She washed down a slice of toast with a fragrant mouthful of Chinese tea, for which she had developed a strong liking, and reached for the small, compact unit on the bedside table. Palmed it in her lap and drew from the side a long, slim powercord. Brushed aside the hair at the back of her head and inserted the slim metal connector into the receiver socket with a small yet profound
click!
that she felt rather than heard, deep in her inner ear. Touched a button on the hand-unit and began the interface.

She found her personal records and files, all safely contained within hotel barriers and encryption walls. Darted inside, sorting bits and pieces, checking her traps, records of access, authorised and unauthorised. Found nothing, which pleased her. Her luck was holding. Surrounding traffic was very strong, as she'd become accustomed to in Tanusha. Automateds darted this way and that, countering, interacting, doing whatever their programming instructed them to do, all with that familiar, mindless tenacity. Minds were slower, pondering, thinking. Walls of light and motion, shapes and textures, glowing, impenetrable yet transparent, branches and limbs of consciousness that grew and retracted with intent or otherwise ...

She flicked through her records one last time, scanning the numbers, the names, the images. April Cassidy. Which was not her name, but it was the name she wore for now, while it suited her. Born 15th of May standard, 2521, on Octavia 3, city of Tillanna. A registered citizen of the Confederacy, subject to its various rules and principles, recipient of its evident benefits. Both parents killed in the war against the League. No brothers or sisters, or close family of any kind. Raised under the legal guardianship of a war orphanage now disbanded, owing to Confederacy cutbacks on repatriation expenditure, now that the war was over. There were other things, too — social security number, birth certificate, credit cards, records of employment and company details ... she was a cognitive software expert, self-employed — a journeyman, headed wherever work was available. And, of course, she had plenty of money, and generous terms of credit from her bank.

It was an interesting life. She thought about it for a while, disconnecting the hand-unit and letting the coil retract inside. She wondered what such a person would be like, this April Cassidy, with her orphanage past and her software skills. Sometimes she fancied she empathised, particularly over the lack of parents, a home life, a childhood. At other times she thought the deception might well be beyond her, this woman, with her civilian thoughts and peaceful upbringing, no matter how disrupted. She sat cross-legged in the bright pool of sunlight that fell across her bed, thinking about this life she had borrowed, as the city awoke from a light, almost-slumber, and a new day began.

A good life, she thought, finding peace amid the myriad simple, everyday intentions, the people intent on work, and family, and children on their way to school. The priorities were simple here. Life was a tapestry of basic concerns, and basic needs, and people were happy. The war had never touched this place, although. Tanusha's technology and its cash had driven the war's progress to no small degree. She could be happy here. And if not here then, well, there were many stars, and many planets, and many cities and places to see. But for now, there was today. And she had an appointment.

It was 08:19 when she was invited in for her first interview. She left the
Street Scene
magazine on the coffee table in the waiting room, followed the secretary down the corridor to the open door, and walked inside.

"Ms Cassidy?" the small, Vietnamese-looking woman said as she entered, rising from the seat at her broad working desk.

"That's right," April Cassidy said, exchanging smiles as she shook the other woman's hand. "Nice to meet you, Ms Phung."

"Likewise. Please, take a seat," indicating the cushioned chair before the desk. She took it, glancing once more out the office windows as Ms Phung settled back into her chair. This office was not so high up as her hotel room, only the twenty-third floor. The streets were closer, as was the moving traffic, distinct beneath the shading trees.

"Lovely view," she commented. "Every office in the city seems to have a view like this."

"Yes, it's a definite plus to living and working in Tanusha, that is certain. You've travelled quite a bit, I've noticed, to look at your resume." April Cassidy nodded, legs neatly crossed, hands folded comfortably in her lap.

"Yes, I love travelling. And I've never really found a place that I feel I could call home. Although this," and she indicated out of the window, "this feels very nice. I could certainly get used to this."

Ms Phung smiled, and examined the datapad on the desk before her. "You graduated with full honours, I see ... very impressive." April Cassidy sat patiently, not fidgeting, waiting for the next question. "How would you rate the Batista University? I've not encountered anyone from there before."

"It's extremely good. They're not overly theoretical, as a rule, and they have plenty of private sector involvement, so there are lots of practical, hands-on projects to get involved with. Plenty of job opportunities — I got a number of offers on graduating, but remaining on Octavia wasn't a high priority for me at that point."

"Hmmm." Ms Phung nodded, appearing genuinely interested, eyes continuing to peruse the slate. "I've heard that the opportunities on Octavia are quite good."

"Yes they are, but I've always been a little more ambitious. I wanted to travel, and probably to work some place where the environment is a little more cutting edge. Most of the best places on Octavia are already taken, and promotion doesn't come easily."

"I see." More study. "And what drew you to Wardell Systematics?"

"It was one of the medium-sized firms most highly rated for innovative work in Tanusha, with lots of R & D, plus some very interesting long-running contracts — that aroused my interest."

"You'd choose a medium-sized firm over a larger one?"

"Given the choice, yes, I would. I like the necessity towards creativity wherever possible. That's the kind of work that most excites me, and it's what I'm best at, too."

Ms Phung nodded to herself. "Well, perhaps you could show me what you can do?"

"Of course." She reached into her inside pocket and withdrew her small black hand-unit, withdrew the cord, reached the end around behind her head, and jacked herself in. Thumbed the receiver button on the hand-unit, which set itself to the office frequency with a click and rush of data, a visual, sensual wave. Strong setup. But she was getting used to that in Tanusha. "What would you like me to look at?"

"This." Ms Phung tapped a few buttons on her desk keypad, and a strong system appeared amid the corporate boundaries ... solid, intricate construct, a very impressive piece of intelligence programming. "What can you tell me about it, at first glance?"

"Well, it appears to be a level nine cognitive function ... in fact, I'd say it was a visual sorting function, the way the memory bands are branched with third level backups as they are ..."

The analysis went on for a while. Ms Phung gave no overt signs of approval or disapproval, but April Cassidy could tell she was impressed. Which was not surprising. April Cassidy, for her part, was similarly impressed with the level of engineering in Wardell Systematics' work — much of it was truly cutting edge and very creative, verging on custom design. Which was the one area where the smaller firms had a real edge over the larger ones, who were unable to get big enough returns from the smaller, custom contracts to justify their initial expenditure. And she doubted that this particular construction was the most they were capable of, either — much of that would be classified. Very interesting.

"I'll have a discussion with the rest of the group," Ms Phung told her when they were finished and rising from their seats. "Obviously I can't promise you anything in advance, but I must say I've been very impressed with what I've seen here today."

"Thank you. You do know where I'm staying?"

"The Emerald Si'an Hotel, yes. I've got the room number recorded somewhere. That's a nice place, the Emerald. Try the Thai restaurant on the top floor, it's marvellous." She extended her hand, and April Cassidy took it in a firm, friendly clasp, and smiled.

"I'll remember that, thank you."

"You have other interviews today, I suppose?"

"Yes, three more today, and another four tomorrow. I intend to spend the time in between just wandering around."

Ms Phung sighed. "Well then, I suppose that if we did decide we could take you on, we'd be lucky to get you, wouldn't we?"

April Cassidy's smile broadened. "As you say, I can't guarantee anything ... anyway, it was a pleasure to meet you, and I'm sure I'd be very happy to work for your company if that is what eventuates. It all just depends. I'm sure you understand."

BOOK: Crossover
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