Hard Reboot by Django Wexler

SCHOLAR ZYCHTYKAS THREE—Kas to her friends, of which she had none—had slaved, scrimped, and swindled to get the fourth spot on the team going to Old Earth. She’d pulled strings, spent the pathetic remains of her savings, contemplated blackmail, and come perilously close to having to fuck an associate dean, all to guarantee that her name would be at the top of Archscholar Grio One’s list. No doubt he’d raised one delicately sculpted eyebrow and given the slightest of sighs before signing off, but he had signed off, and that was all that mattered.

So she’d thought, anyway. Now she was actually here and all she wanted to do was go home and stick her jacks in a vat of bleach forever.

The trip was part of the problem. Unlike on a civilized planet, where the transfer point was parked a few minutes’ gentle acceleration from the nearest skyhook, getting to Earth involved spending two days in a tin can. Their ship was glamorous, decorated like a Sixth-Empire battlecruiser complete with masked thralls serving drinks (they’d gotten the uniforms wrong, of course, everyone did), but all the polished marble and fade-silk curtains couldn’t disguise the fundamental fact that they were using reaction jets to accelerate, like a bunch of fucking cavemen.

The reason for all this was that by the time transfer points had been invented, Old Earth had already been surrounded by a belt of slagged tech, fast-moving wreckage, and miscellaneous debris so dense that it required a skilled pilot with algo assistance to navigate it. The last time anyone had attempted to clear a path, they’d accidentally started a conflagration between leave-behind killbots from the sore losers of three different wars, and nobody had been able to reach the planet until the shooting died down.

That was Earth all over: a mix of monument, mausoleum, and trash heap. It was only a small consolation that they were able to land wherever they pleased, agrav spraying substring radiation across a landscape of monocrete and twisted metal. No other traffic to worry about, after all, and who cared if a bunch of carnivorous rats got extradimensional tumors?

It just gave her less time to adjust to the other shock—no network. The ship had plotted their trajectory, then put itself into full blind-deaf-and-dumb mode, which was the only way to protect it from Earth’s corrosive datasphere. Kas put her jacks into full shutdown, something she hadn’t done since she was prepubescent, and then for good measure covered them with blocker, two cool patches of translucent jelly stuck just behind her ears. She’d bought a cheap flimsy for the trip on the Sentinel skyhook, a little flexible tablet that was advertised as being loaded with the toughest anti-malware available. Within minutes of landing, it had started flickering with advertising. By the time they’d boarded the little train to the Drome, it was playing a repeating jingle from some long-dead corporate memeplex, and it gave up the ghost and died entirely before they arrived.

Thinking about that happening inside her skull, combined with the sheer weirdness of being off-net—it felt like losing a limb; she kept reflexively flicking her eye to where her feed should be—meant that Kas didn’t pay much attention on the ride. Nothing to see here, anyway, or at least nothing of interest. The Drome and everything around it were Ninth-Empire trash, aping the grandeur of a bygone age. Anything really interesting was long buried. If it were up to Kas, they’d forego the tourist show entirely—a week was barely enough time to get started, why waste any of it—but the Archscholar had paid Homeward Voyages for a tour package along with their transit, and that apparently meant there was nothing to do but grit her teeth and wait until it was over.

Right now, that meant attending a party.

* * *

Kas did a quick assessment of her level of intoxication, weighed the likely risks, then decided fuck it and grabbed something blue and bubbling from the tray of a passing server. Somewhere a watchful drone no doubt added the cost of the drink to the Scholarium’s tab, but fuck that too; the Archscholar could afford to stand Kas a round or two.

It wasn’t like her companions were restraining themselves. They’d been conducted to a vast curving balcony overlooking the Drome, walled in with nearly invisible warglass to give the impression of being under the open air. Here they’d joined a few hundred people from a variety of tours and missions, all gathered under the auspices of Homeward Voyages to eat, swill liquor, and watch priceless antique machines tear one another to pieces for their amusement.

Most of the guests were first-wave, naturally—either wealthy enough to be tourists or important enough to be sent by some institution. The rest of her own party blended in nicely with that crowd—Scholar Firidi One carried himself with all the casual grace of his exalted pedigree, and his primary husband, Scholar Vanalt Two, was an expert at humbly ingratiating himself in august company. Scholar Gneisin One, barely twenty and daughter of one of Sentinel’s founding families, was throwing herself into the booze with all the enthusiasm of a dog first let off the leash.