Grace followed the signs for transports. She knew that somewhere nearby, six-seat autonomous transports arrived, scanned her destination broadcast, and allowed her to board if the route didn’t cause the arrival times of other passengers to deviate too much. A couple of dozen commuters from the Frawley piled out of other lifts and joined her. She wondered if any might work at ITB. She followed the crowd.

Her uniform afforded her at least a meter of space, which was more than other commuters got as they bumped and cut each other off for transports. Grace walked diagonally, and the personal bubble moved with her. From a handful, but not all, there were mumbles of, “Good morning, protector,” in subdued, respectful voices.

“Citizen,” Grace said to each, feeling embarrassed.

An empty six-seater lingered, and Grace claimed one of its hard resin seats. Her ptenda signaled her destination, and she tapped to confirm. Five others flopped onto the double benches and the transport began to move.

“Would you like to open an account, Ms. Donner?” The computer vocalized through her dermal dot, listing options on her ptenda.

“Single use, please,” said the woman sitting next to Grace. She sported a mechflesh hand, colored pearl white. The thin scaly skin rippled as she tapped her fingers on the screen.

The transport entered a tunnel.

Grace created an account. “Your all-media pass is confirmed, Ms. Donner. Do you need assistance accessing your fact agent?”

“No. Audio only,” Grace said. “Auto queue.” The display went blank and the agent asked what to gather. Grace felt a moment of bliss. She had been reprimanded more than once at the academy for subverting fact agents to gain news from outside Cloister Eleven.

“Search, ITB, last three months, key patent, key Port Casper. Fact cluster count.”

“Twenty seven specific, one hundred and forty seven, secondary, six hundred fifty seven, four hundred sixty five match.”

“Begin specific,” Grace said.

Reports of new inventions and business practices flooded from the fact agent. Grace read that ITB typically tried to acquire their competitors, and when they couldn’t, they used their vast portfolio to strangle smaller firms under legal weight. This didn’t seem too unusual to Grace. What did seem strange was that ITB’s new technologies of late had all been acquired. Nothing home grown.

A steelback, small in stature and covered with a large coat, hopped off of the transport six hundred meters into the trip. Another man boarded and took the empty seat, and the transport lurched ahead again, picking up speed. They headed toward ITB, no stops. Grace wondered if everyone else worked there.

The fact agent reported on ITB’s progress in long-distance space travel. They had investors lined up, but lacked key technologies necessary for success. One of the more esoteric discussions sounded like something Raj would be interested in, so she filed it away for later retrieval.

The transport rushed, gradually rising until it broke into the sunlight and continued down the busy surface street. The avenue bustled with morning commuters. Grace saw the ITB building, four blocks ahead.

Grace surveyed her fellow passengers and tried to decide their professions. The last man on, after the steelback left, wore a dark blue suit. He appeared athletic, had brown hair and eyes, and a light copper tan. He kept adjusting the folds of his clothing, like a preening bird. Grace theorized marketing or sales.

Two younger women, seated directly across from Grace, talked enthusiastically about software the entire ride. They wore casual clothes. Grace overheard the word ‘behavior’ again and again from the pair. Computer intelligence.

The woman next to Grace had dark brown skin and hair, with mechflesh aqua eyes. She wore a simple business suit with threadbare cuffs and elbows. Her posture curved atrociously and her facial expression puckered a constant squint. Desk job doing micro assembly, Grace guessed.

A teenager sat next to the salesman. His pale green skin reminded her of Bod Town. He didn’t look mechflesh, though his yellow one-piece uniform only allowed close inspection of his head and hands. She noticed the small blue insignia on his chest, a circle with a dot attached and a cloud of spots surrounding it. She’d seen it before in an advertisement on her hike to Port Casper. One of the space firms. He’d go on to the spaceport, not ITB.

The transport halted and Grace got out, nearly running over a young couple with two bulky cases who climbed aboard. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled: everybody but the teenager made a quick exit into ITB. The transport sped away toward its next destination.

The ITB building at street level was a wall of glass stretching skyward. No ornate edifice nor hint of curve, just an imposing monolith. Grace moved to get inside, out of the din of the street, when several shouts came from her right. She snapped to attention and did a quick count-and-assess. Five steelbacks were protesting ITB’s expanded use of mining robots. Their powerful metarm exoskeletons clicked and whirred, audible above the sound of traffic. Three yelled they worked better than the bots, and one was brandishing a severed robotic arm to prove the point. The other two lamented they spent heavily on upgrades that became outmoded. She tried to understand their plight, but cloisters existed so that obsolescence would itself be obsolete.

A large, private transport pulled up just as she was turning to go. Several steelbacks got in the way. Grace moved closer, sensing trouble. There was an old man in the transport, looking up at the steelbacks from an open door.

“Let this gentleman through,” she said loudly.

A steelback made a guttural laugh and reached for the man, who squirmed back against his seat. Grace interposed her body. She was about to draw Ronnie when two other protectors arrived, pushing the steelbacks away with silent, calculated menace. Grace approved.

The man got out of his car and regarded Grace. He was tall and thin, with a well-groomed black beard. His brown eyes sparkled as he looked at her.

“Thank you, umm, protector?” he asked.

“Protector Donner, sir. My pleasure.”

He nodded thoughtfully, and the other protectors escorted him into ITB. Grace turned toward the subdued steelbacks, keeping a respectful distance.

“I don’t have an issue with your protest, but you can’t push around innocent workers,” she said.

“Innocent!” roared the steelback. “Varghese is hardly innocent.” His friends loudly agreed, moving closer.

A fight with five steelbacks was not how she wanted to start her first day of work. “You’ve been warned,” she said as she pivoted toward the building. Derision hurled at her from behind. She wondered, belatedly, if she had handled that well. The other protectors hadn’t said a word.

Corey OstmanPort Casper