Written by Gustavo Bondoni / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
Free Fall
“Don’t even think about it,” Gordon said. He hoped his words wouldn’t startle his quarry—if she jumped, they could all be blown into the vacuum of
space, which was never fun.

The young woman turned to look at him, searching for a weapon, scanning him with electronics that told her everything she might want to know
about him. Most of the segregationists had hacker implants capable of turning off his own implants, leaving him bereft of his enhanced reality
drivers—or worse.

Boy, was she in for a surprise.

He could see her blinking furiously, eyes darting from one side to the next as she tried to command her implants. There, she selected an option by
fixing her vision on a virtual screen only she could see, there, she confirmed with a blink. And then she blinked three more times, apparently
surprised he was still just looking at her with an amused expression.

When she finally understood he had no implants, the girl hung her head. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Why isn’t anyone ever happy to see me?” he said. But then his tone took on a harder edge. “I think you need to accompany me to my office. We
really need to have a chat. Do you mind if I carry the bomb?”

He held out his hand, well aware the moment of truth was upon them. If the thing was pre-armed, and she was really desperate…

She handed over a ten-centimeter cube. It didn’t look like much, but the shaped charge, correctly placed, might have been enough to cut through the
main support beam. And without that beam to keep everything together, the cable’s weight might have been enough to tear itself loose from the
station. Nothing was certain, of course, since the elevator was way over-engineered, but the risk was there.

Gordon took it, nodded and made way for her. He wanted her where he could see her. She pulled her way along the latticework towards the
residential areas of the station, the whining of servo-motors drifting back to him. He wondered whether the motors were assistors or resistors, and
quickly concluded they were probably assistors. Her bare arms were well muscled, a sure sign she used them in lieu of assisted legs—which, he
noted, were both thinner than the arms and covered. Ah, vanity.

“Take the next left,” he said. They were in the maintenance area now, still Spartan and unwelcoming, but perfectly habitable. The round tubes of the
corridors were all painted white.

“It’s a dead end,” the woman said. “The door won’t open.”

“Try the handle.”

She hesitantly reached out, and the round door popped open soundlessly. The people who worked with him had gotten used to this one little quirk,
but newcomers always tried to get the door to open through the implants that connected them to the station’s central nervous system.

The office itself was clean and uncluttered, but bigger than most people’s living quarters—one of the advantages of being in an area where real estate
was essentially free. And one of the advantages of being Gordon McLaren. He executed a perfectly practiced back flip, bounced off the ‘ceiling’ and
landed on the chair behind the desk. The girl, he noted, preferred to use magnetic soles to anchor herself, and walked to one of the other chairs.

He took a better look at her. She was too young to be a criminal, he thought, looking at the short black hair and pale skin. But then again, she wasn’t
much younger than he’d been, way back then.

“I’m Gordon,” he said. “I thought we should be properly introduced.”

She said nothing. She might know that she was defeated, but anger burned in her eyes. “Don’t I get a lawyer?”

He chuckled. “That depends. So far, all you’ve done is to get caught in a restricted area. Yes, it was a highly restricted area, but still, you’re young,
you were curious, so it’s only just a hand-slap offense. Now, if we call in the lawyers, I have to give this little square plastic thing to the commission
as evidence.” He flourished the bomb. “I suspect they won’t like what the analysis shows them it is. I’d rather not put them through the trouble of
analyzing it.”

He gave her a hard look, trying to see any signs that they understood each other. There. A widening of the eyes, a flaring of the nostrils. He went on:
“Now, do you want to tell me your name.”

“As if you didn’t know.”

He knew a lot about her, including her name, but he said nothing, perfectly content to let the silence go on as long as she could take it.

“It’s Mara,” she said. “Mara Dwek.”

“Well, Miss Dwek, I’m pleased to meet you. I suppose you have no idea why I’ve brought you here.”

She looked around, suddenly nervous, and he chuckled. “Think for a second, Mara. You know you’re still connected to the net. I’m not. Do you
actually think I would try to hurt you?”

“All right then, what do you want?”

“In the first place, I need to tell you that the rest of the segregationists have been placed under arrest. This is a democracy, and we’ll tolerate any
words—but trying to disable the space elevator was one step too far. You are the only one who is free right now.”

She swallowed, but didn’t challenge the statement. “What are you going to do to them?”

“Not a lot. We both know they’re not really relevant. They’ll follow anyone who gives them something to be mad at. Reconditioning probably. They’
ll certainly have very limited use of their implants from now on. Nothing serious, although I’m afraid Rasheev is going to be deported. Immigrants
should really think twice before committing crimes on this station.”

“You can’t send him back. He’ll die down there.”

“No, he won’t. He’s just blind, and he has implants like everyone else—they can send the images straight into his mind, the same way we do here.”

“Not the same. It’s not the same anywhere else.”

“Then perhaps he should have thought twice about trying to bomb us.” He let that sink in. “But the good news is that Mumbai is buying one of our
systems. It should be up and running in a few months. Let’s call those months his punishment, then he’ll be back up to the resolution he’s used to.
He’ll be fine, even if he doesn’t deserve it.” Gordon took a deep breath, trying to read her, not quite getting a grasp. Her eyes were glassy, but he
could sense strength and determination there too. “In your position, I’d be more worried about the person they were following.”

That stopped her. It was a couple of seconds before she responded. “I suppose I’m going to be an example. What are you going to do, space me?”

She was smart, and she was a realist. Good. “As I said before, that depends on you.” A raised hand cut off her question. “I want to know whether
you’ll take a government job.”

“What?”

“I need a project manager for the relocation project. You know perfectly well,” he smiled at her pointedly, “That we have room in the new wing for
five thousand more people. I want you to help me select the immigrants, and I want you to create the plan to get them up here and get them settled.
And I want you to choose the people who will force us to make our systems better. You know our motto, true equality based only on being born
human. We think we’re there, but we can’t be sure until we have every type of disability possible on board.”

“You want me to lead the new immigration? But that’s what the segregationists were fighting against. The reason I want that space elevator gone is
because we don’t want more people here. Ten thousand is more than enough.”

“I’m aware of what the segregationists want—and I’m also furious you could ever try to cut the space elevator. Have you got any idea how many of
our citizens you would have stranded on Earth? People who would never survive the acceleration of a traditional rocket launch?” He took another
deep breath. “But even though I know what you tried to do, yes, I want you to lead the new project.”

“Why?” Mara asked.

“Why you? I have my reasons. Perhaps someday I’ll tell you.”

“No, I meant why should I help you with this insanity?”

“I could make a speech about the greater good. I could even tell you that, in the end, you will believe in it just as passionately as you currently believe
in having the Morning Star station become an independent nation. I won’t, though. All you need to know is that, right now, you have a choice
between doing this or facing a full criminal process.”

“Would you really space me?”

“I don’t know. I’m not actually a judge. It’s never been done before—but then again, no one has ever tried blowing holes in the station before either.
I guess we can be flexible.”

~ * ~

“I should have let you toss me out of the airlock when I had the chance,” Mara said.

Gordon chuckled. The lines under her eyes, and the greenish complexion of her skin were neither healthy nor attractive, but he could feel the
affection he had for her growing every day. Nothing romantic about it, of course—his wife of thirty years wouldn’t have allowed such a thing—but
he had reached the point, somewhere over the past three years, where he’d come to feel a fatherly warmth for the former segregationist. Or perhaps
grandfatherly would have been more accurate, he thought bitterly. He hated the fact he was nearing seventy.

But then again, being seventy on this station was pretty young. They had a whole wing devoted to people ninety and over enjoying the combined
benefits of zero gravity and servo-assisted living. They liked to call him ‘youngster’ whenever he happened by, and then they’d reminisce about
young mindnet actresses he’d only seen as great dames of the stage.

“Plant another bomb, and I’ll try to get the council to have you killed. It might cause a riot, though. You seem to be pretty popular among the general
population for an unrepentant criminal.”

Her smile was wan. “Today was a nightmare. We finally got the last batch of immigrants up here. Took the lift three days at half-speed, and I’m not
even sure all of them will survive the null-gee acclimatization.” Her eyes belied the cold professionalism of that assessment. They ached where her
words didn’t.

“Tough cases.”

She sighed. “You wanted the toughest, you said. Well, these are the very worst-off. I had to sign a treaty with the government of Mali just to get
them released. GUL-3.”

“Oh, my God.”

“They survived the cleansing of Gao.”

“I thought there were no survivors.”

“There were. Thirty-six of them, to be exact.”

Gordon swallowed. Gao had been a province of Mali which had rebelled over some difference with the central government—which hadn’t hesitated
to use the most abominable neurotoxin ever created by man on the insurgents. They later claimed it had been a mix-up, but the death toll numbered in
the millions. “And you’re bringing them up?”

“It’s going to be a challenge. If it weren’t for the fact they have normal brain function, we’d be talking about complete vegetables here. The damage
is so bad we don’t even know if we’ll be able to implant the interfaces. Without the implants, we can’t get them to see.”

“The old aural interfaces are still working.” Gordon was proud of the aural links. They’d been the very first task that had been entrusted to him when
he came to the station. They’d been superseded as the implants had gotten better and better, but in the early days of the station, blind people would
be guided through the station by sound. Every single surface, intersection, handhold and doorway made a different sound whenever a blind person
came near—and was also capable of giving directions and answering questions, even telling blind people what a can contained or whether a room
was dark or light. It was a great piece of work, which allowed people to go about their lives unaided, and had caused the second major wave of
immigration to the station—the first, of course, being the rich old folks who wanted to be able to bounce around like teenagers again.

“They’re deaf, too,” Mara said. “And we can’t use the caption system if we can’t get them to see. Our systems depend on their having sight or
sound or implants. I mean we can deal with almost any combination of factors. Blind and paraplegic? No problem. Deaf and mute? We can have
them interacting in minutes after their arrival, and fully integrated in hours. But this…” She slumped.

“Trust your team, Mara. Everything that makes our station what it is, from the hyperfriendly design of all the corridors to the servo-motors that link
directly to the brain stem,” he patted her leg, “seemed impossible to us. This is just another challenge. You can do it. Just keep them motivated. Make
them believe, the way you’ve been doing so far. I’m proud of you.”

She gave him a strange look. “How did you know?” she asked.

Gordon sighed. He knew this moment had to come, eventually. She’d always been curious as to why he’d chosen her for the job, but had been
afraid to ask. It seemed the things she’d achieved and the things she’d seen had driven the fear away. “Because you’re me,” he said simply.

She laughed. “Oh, yes. I’m the old man of the station guard, impervious to electronic assault and sowing fear wherever he goes. That’s me.”

No, but you will be in a few years, he didn’t say. “I meant you are me when you were younger. I saw it that day when I caught you.”

“You tried to blow something up?” she asked with a smile.

“No.” he replied. “I succeeded.”

She sat stunned.

“When I was very young, electronics just started to get to the point where they could interact effectively with the human mind. Of course, the first
implants were pretty simple, geared to give you directions to the mall or give you a pop-up price list to the restaurants you passed. Many people
thought they would remain a fad, or a toy for the ultra-rich.

“But soon, everyone had them and you really couldn’t get around without them. It wasn’t safe to drive, for example, because the implants would tell
you about road conditions and even replaced stoplights in some areas.”

“Stoplights?” she asked, puzzled.

“Not now. The important thing is implants were essential for life. And my body rejected them. From that moment—and getting ever worse as the
technology went everywhere—I  was disabled. I was just the same, of course, but the world had changed around me. It got to the point where I
could hardly function in society.

“Of course, everyone was nice about it. The company that created the enhanced reality in my area gave me a good job and even a parking spot near
the door—this despite the fact I was probably their employee who was in best physical condition. But the truth is I was an outcast, ignored by
society whenever they could. They really would have preferred it if I didn’t exist.”

“That’s why you came here. To help create the perfect world for everyone.”

“No that’s not why I came here. That’s why I went berserk. One night, I went into the control room, the place where enhanced reality was beamed
to three states and reprogrammed the mainframes with a large axe. I shut down the implants in a three-hundred-mile radius.”

“But that’s impossible. The McLaren protocols… Oh.”

“They put those in place after what I did, they even named them after me. But before my attack, enhanced reality was seen as a toy—a necessary
toy, but a toy. When I took it down, things went down the tubes. Accidents, power outages. Three people died. Because of me. So now there are
redundancies in separate buildings, in remote locations, and all of that.”

“But I never knew.”

“They didn’t want to make a big thing of it. Hushed it up in the national media, called it an accident. They needed to buy time so they could beef up
security and avoid a repeat somewhere else. And they gave me a choice.”

“And here you are.”

“Yep.”

“Don’t you ever have days when you wish you’d just let them shoot you or whatever they do down there?”

“Not anymore,” Gordon said with a smile. “I’ve learned to delegate.”

~ * ~

Mara’s eyes were wide. “So this is why you wanted the station to be perfect.”

Gordon nodded. It wasn’t as easy to do at ninety as it had been when he was a spring chicken of seventy, but it was easier here than anywhere else.
“Not just me, though. It is humanity’s dream.”

“The stars.”

“Not as easy as the old science fiction stories said it would be, was it? They didn’t have to worry about the debilitating effects of low-gee travel, or
mutations caused by interstellar radiation.”

“Neither do we.”

“Well, we’ve been thinking about it for sixty years. No matter what ravages the trip throws at us, we’ll be ready for them. No matter what condition
we make it to the other side in, we’ll be able to move about just the same as if we were an athlete on Earth. Better even.”

“But five hundred years?”

He shrugged. “The station has been self-sufficient since before you tried to cut that elevator wire—which is why you were trying to do so in the first
place. And besides, I’d rather have a slow acceleration that one which the older members of the crew won’t survive. Call it self-interest.”

She was awed. “So we’ve essentially guaranteed that humanity can cross the abyss between the stars—no matter what the weightlessness does to
our bodies.”

“I’ve heard that for any human to stay in free fall for years they will eventually become a cripple by groundside standards, no matter how hard they
train. In this way, it doesn’t matter. Not in the least.”

“But will the population support this?”

“Everyone who wishes to stay behind will be moved to another station. They’ll be just as comfortable as they are today—more, because we’re going
to be very generous in distributing the accumulated wealth of the station. We probably won’t need it where we’re going.”

“I think most of them will want to come.”

“Oh, I’m sure of it. I just wish I could be alive to see the end of the trip,” he said.

“So the cripples take over the universe? Or do they stay locked up in their nice, comfortable space station?”

“Oh, I’m sure our descendants will manage to find some way to be able to explore the surface of a planet or two, even if they don’t choose to clone
high-gee humans to deal with it. We’re a resourceful species. The plug-suits you created for the GLU-3 survivors would probably do the trick.”

“Tau Ceti, you said?”

He nodded.

“Well, I’m coming then.”

“I thought you might. You’ve always wanted to cut that space elevator’s diamond filament. Now you can do it, with my blessing.”

She smiled.
THE LORELEI SIGNAL
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen
countries, in seven languages. His latest novel is Jungle Lab Terror (2020). He has also
published another monster book Ice Station: Death (2019), three science fiction novels:
Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch.
His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth
Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).

In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018
he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He
was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.

His website is at
www.gustavobondoni.com