He didn't bother finishing his beer. Guinness hadn't quite been the same once it came to the stars. Must have been those hybrid Centaurian hops or the substituted yeast... but it didn't quite taste right. Back in Cork, Fabian Cortez remembered sitting next to Michael Collins, sipping the true brew and talking about the future of Ireland. The old ghoul had told him that he should go ahead with his plans. Britain was too busy with fighting Germany to worry about the emerald isle. Collins took his advice and went off to lead the Easter Uprising.

            1916. Another one of his mistakes; he didn't make them often, but he certainly remembered when he did. Fabian took the back door out of O'Kim's and disappeared. Once he was sure that Babbage's goons were clear, the face mask came off, and he left it dissolving in the gutter. Another two blocks over, Cortez found his way into a public stall, and another man walked out. The latex always felt a little tight at first but you got used to it. It was only five blocks to the nearest monorail station and he took his time. Looking around for snoops, passing strangers looking a little _too_ long at him; nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The old ghoul boarded the monorail and sped off back to downtown.

            Once he hit the seat, Cortez's cybermodem was out and running. Putting in the earpiece and clicking on the dentcom, he was almost ready. Then once he activated the cosmetic program to a random face, he entered the local net, and chased the light threads through the corporate data blocks. Along the upper grid above the Fed Assembly's baroque-looking basilica, there was an entire level of bulletin boards, offering discussion for the entire net. Many of the originals had been co-opted after being vacant for weeks. One of those was an electronic graffiti zone. It was mostly ignored except by your cyber-taggers. That's why Fabian was attracted to it. On the net, nothing was as it seemed. Through the tangled multicolored names, there was a silver shimmering scrawl at the bottom. "Arthur," the old ghoul managed to make out. Excellent; just what he needed.

            With one touch, the rather ignored tag became a instant link. The rest of the bulletin board faded out into bright light. Through the glare, the image of an armored soldier appeared on horseback, everything in white. He had finally reached the White Knight, the queerest and one of the best data pirates on the net. The image boomed through his earpiece, almost breaking the minature speaker, "YES?"

            Through his dentcom, Cortez subvocalized through the pickups right to the net. "W.K., I have some business for you?"

            "Crusade or backdoor shit?"

            "Crusade. Are you up to it?"

            "I don't know, my schedule's pretty full. Pretty maidens on the Angel 2 local want me to save them from some dragons and I don't want to be late."

            "How much are we talking?"

            "What are we talking about?"

            Cortez smiled. The cosmetic program passed it on through his net persona. "We're talking the Factor."

            The White Knight's image flickered. "I'm on FM."

            "Charles Babbage. His public record begins with the end of the 2nd Civil War. I want to know everything that _isn't_ in the records."

            "Who's this Babbage shit?"

            "Vee-pee of Finance at O'Reilly."           

            "No shit?" The White Knight's visor went up slightly to "look" at Cortez's image. Fabian nodded and the visor went back down. "That IS a crusade. You got my attention." His lance dipped down and struck the light glowing around him. The background shifted into darkness and a net address appeared in glowing green next to the lance. "Contact me in two days. I'll have something for you then. But I'll need five thou up front, then you'll pay me for the rest of my trouble when you get the download. Dig?"

            Cortez pulled a credcard out of his pocket and loaded it into the cybermodem. Once five thou scrambled through the net, the White Knight's visor opened completely, pouring out light. "The knight's on the case!" Then the image rode off into the digital sunset.

            Fabian discommed as the sweet feminine voice came over the speaker. "Next stop, City Hall. City Hall." He discommed the cybermodem, got up, and prepared to disembark.


            It took a little bit of scrambling around to finally trace the address of Babbage through the phone directory. However, finally it was there. The O'Reilly exec lived out in the corporate suburb section, some annoyingly rich mansion in Oxfordshire. It was time to check it out. Fabian had to use the sub-orbital to get there; Avalon, being the capital of thirty solar systems, tended to be crowded, creating an infinity of suburbs. Oxfordshire was on the other side of the planet.

            A man's home, no matter how little lived in, was an abundant source of information. Fabian had to check it out. Cortez bought a ticket and made his way to the launching site. It seemed like a normal rush-hour day. The old ghoul bought himself a candy bar and a newspaper as he waited to board the craft. Once the call was made, the mob of humanity passed through the sensor gate. The guard operating it didn't seem to be that interested in the readouts. Although as Fabian passed, he swore that guard's hand was shaking. Cortez was worried at first, but he kept going on scanning just as bored as before.

            The sub-orbital took about 15 minutes, most of it takeoff and landing; a bit on the expensive side, but worth avoiding the two-hour grav train ride. Oxfordshire was also a bit on the expensive side. Late afternoon turned to early evening with the time change. A bunch of boring suits got out of the terminal to return to their boring families and their boring lives. Cortez took the autotaxi, specifically giving it an address blocks away from Babbage's house, and then settled in as it hovered away.

            Out the windows, the old ghoul took a good look at the town. It was a nice place; much better than the pre-fab yuppie zones, the buildings were individualized and LARGE. Another couple of minutes found his way to his desired location. Cutting through service alleys, carefully hidden by shrubery, he made his way to the Babbage estate.

            It was rather small compared to its neighbors, but it had that look of being pre-fabricated.... apparently Babbage didn't care too much about looks. Fabian scanned the place for any alarm, security systems, the works. What he discovered bothered him even more; nothing. He could detect no security whatsoever. Cortez checked his devices. They were working fine. Why would an executive of one of the most powerful corporation in the Federation not have a single security system on his own house?

            Either Charles was very stupid or very smart. From what he could see, he leaned toward the latter; time to be cautious. Fabian crept close to the building in the twilight, following the lines of shrubbery for a closer look. Glancing at the windows, there was nothing to suggest any security, except for the metal slide lock on the window. That was easy enough to take care of, Cortez thought, taking out a thick metal cylinder from his belt pouch. It was a variable magentic manipulator. He had stripped the device from a sex toy he had picked up on the street. With a couple modifications, the sonic vibrator became a useful tool for B&E. He played with the buttons until he got a lock on the slide lock. Finally it flew open. Checking the window for sensors one more time, Fabian went over, opened the shutters, and slipped in.

            First look was a disappointment to a man wanting information. The place was spotlessly clean, tastefully decorated, but in that nouveau country style that wasn't quite country but definately modified 20th Century. It was too perfect, speaking of interior designers and protocol consultants, using this for business parties and "personal" meetings. It was another office. Cortez was disappointed. The kitchen was gleaming white; the color of new dental implants. The old ghoul was hoping for more upstairs and smiled when he saw the cat waiting at the top of the stairs. It meowed quietly at him but didn't seem alarmed at his presence. Something wasn't quite right. Then he looked for its aura; none. Fabian inwardly cursed... the damn thing was cybernetic. Sure, it was damn good, but it was fake. "Saves on the cat food, doesn't it?" he said out loud. The cat just went away. He should have known. A man who doesn't live at home wouldn't have a real cat.

            Finally he came to the bedroom. Although it was spotless as the rest of the place, there was a sense that it had been lived in. A few pictures showed Babbage with some high ranking people; Marshal Dunmeyer, Grand Council Chairman Johnson, what Fabian assumed was O'Reilly. It looked a trophy case then a bedroom.

            The cat meowed from the open doorway. Cortez smiled; that stupid cat, why would a man like Babbage bother with that? He turned around to check out the room. There were clothes in the dresser; mostly formal but a few casual things, probably for golf sessions with a new customer. Nothing useful. It was beginning to look like he had taken a wrong turn. Obviously he _did_ live in his office; it should have been his first choice to gather data on him. There was nothing out of place here. It was all a museum piece, everything perfect, except maybe for the woven scarf peeking underneath the closet door. The closet! he exclaimed in his mind.

            The door opened easily, then suddenly, a garish skeleton jumped forward and passed through him. Cortez jumped and stepped back into a combat pose. He thought he heard laughing; it must have been part of the hologrammatic program. But no... all of sudden he saw the cybernetic cat, rolling laughing on the bed. That was an odd computer glitch.

            The cat rolled over to look at him. "Skeletons in the closet," it said with a man's voice, a familiar voice to his past selves, but he had no idea who it was. "Johnny thought it was ironic, but it's fucking hilarious to me."

            Fabian studied the cat closely, being glad he was wearing a skinmask and the thinpore catsuit, "And who are you?"

            "I might ask you the same question, since you're in my house. Actually I just live here, but since Babbage doesn't use the house, it might as well be mine."

            Cortez raised an eyebrow. "Odd program for a housecat."

            "Cat? Oh, right... cat. Meow." The cat licked his lips. "I spend so much time out of my body I forget what body I get into." It made its way to the edge of the bed. "I was wondering why the camera angle was so bad."

            "You didn't answer my question. Are you skinriding this machine or are you the machine?"

            "Obviously you're not a cat lover." It scratched its ears and yawned. "You could say I'm skinriding this thing if I had much of a body left to call skin."


            "Not yet. Should be, but Johnny's not done setting the interface. Actually he's hoping I die before he finishes it; O'Reilly'd have a shit fit if he knew about me."

            "Really? I didn't catch your name."

            "I didn't give it." The cat looked toward the closet. "Well, are you going to look in the closet, or are you afraid of the boogeyman?"   

            "You look more interesting than what's in the closet."

            "I'm a cat. What's exciting about that?" The cat rolled around for a second and looked back at him. "By the way, that scarf, SHE gave it to him. Back on Alpha Centauri 2, before the plague hit... she told him she was leaving before the TI landed. She said she was sick of it all. 'Try and save what was left,' was what she said. Frankly I thought she was an idiot, but I never did give my niece that much credit. She was right then but she ended up wrong later. Glad Johnny took advantage of it when it was good."

            "So what's in the closet?"

            "Everything you want to know... if you have the time."

            Cortez took out his mini-flashlight and made a cautious look inside. The place was a mess of electronic circuitry and personal possessions. Pictures, books, old yellowed pieces of papers scattered among a connected pile of circuitry which by no means should do anything. There on the floor was an olive green scarf. "What is this stuff?"

            "The person that Charles Babbage left behind. That's all that remains. Literally, a skeleton in his closet. That's what's called irony, son. That's why you weren't able to find any info during the 2nd Civil war; Charles didn't exist."

            Fabian's eyes flashed. "You're the one who warned Babbage."

            "And smart, too? Man, you're good." The cat roared with a snickering laugh.

            "What else do you know?"

            "I know there's a Crusader team closing in on the house... and for some reason they want you, Buddha take all. Maybe it's for your charming personality."

            "Crusader team?" Fabian whipped out his plasma revolver and made quick looks around the room.

            The cat's mouth opened up and the sound of radio chatter boomed, "Squad One, we're on the 2nd floor." "Take it slow, corporal. Don't spook the spook." "Uh, cap? We're getting com echo." "Where?"

            Shit, Cortez thought, time to make a distraction. Fabian ignored the cat's play-by-play, raised the revolver up, and fired.




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Text Copyright © 2000 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.