If you like this story please drop a coin in our hat:
“The first thing a free-spacer learns about Suivi Point,” Ignaceu LeSoit said to his companions, “is that the people who keep their money here don’t want to have anything to do with the people who help them make it. So they want to keep the scum and riffraff confined to the spaceport district as much as possible.”
“You could say the same thing about Galcen,” Beka said. She was taller than either LeSoit or his friend Pav Eterynic, with a long blonde braid hanging down her back, and unlike them, she spoke the common Galcenian of the spaceways with the smooth accent of a native speaker. Eterynic and LeSoit had been old hands on board the Sidh when she joined the crew, and she’d let them take her under their protection for this liberty excursion in the capital city of the Suivan asteroid belt. “What’s the second thing that I’m supposed to learn?”
“That one’s easy,” said Pav. “If something isn’t for sale on Suivi, then it isn’t for sale anywhere at all.”
The glidewalk ahead of them finally started moving.
“Looks like the shopkeepers along here paid for slide service,” Ignac’ said. “We’re getting into a higher-class neighborhood already.”
“No class at all would be higher class than this,” Pav said. “Next set of blast doors coming up—do we pay the bribe to get through, or make our own fun on this side? I spotted a couple of places off the last branch that looked like they might be okay.”
“Right you are,” Ignac’ said. “If you don’t mind paying twice as much for a steamed dumpling and a pot of cha’a as you would downtown for a five-course dinner.”
“There’s other stuff, this side,” Pav said. The glide walk carried them past a young woman who stood outside a storefront with the holosign YOUR FANCY flashing above her. Pav grinned at her. “Hello, doll!”
“Hello, spacer!” the young woman said. “Looking for a good time?”
“No, thanks,” Ignac’ said. “I had a good time once. I didn’t like it.”
“Come on, spacer.” She nodded her head at Beka. “I’m better bouncy than that one, I bet.”
“Yeah, probably,” said Beka. “Pav, Ignac’—don’t let me ruin your fun.”
“I’m on liberty—we’re on liberty—for the next thirty-six hours,” Ignac’ said. “Nothing and no one could possibly ruin my fun. Standing on my head in a cloaca wouldn’t even ruin my fun.”
“I didn’t know you hated the ship that much,” Pav said.
“I don’t hate her,” Ignac’ replied. “She’s a pretty good ship. It’s just that the cloaca would be dirtside.”
✧ ✧ ✧
The headquarters of Nalosh Guaranty Trust—the third largest bank on Suivi Point, and working hard at making second—lay in the Suivi financial district, hard by Money-Printer’s Square. Grevvit Mancinom occupied an office suite there, with real fish in the real water tanks in the outer waiting room, signifying his ability to maintain useless and decorative objects in his working space. Mancinom was in the business of making decisions on his employers’ behalf, and his decisions had, over time, proved lucky.
At the moment, however, he was doing nothing more strenuous than half-dreaming at his desk, sipping at his midmorning cup of cha’a and contemplating the early financial reports. The bing of an incoming message brought him to full alertness.
He pushed the button for SPEAK. A synthesized voice said: “Operations calling. High-value package located. Decision tree open. Input required.”
Mancinom set aside both the cha’a and the financials. Time to do the work he was paid for. “Decision tree. Parameters?”
“Four options.” The voice this time was human; whoever was holding down the desk in Operations would have seen the message get picked up and come online to respond. “Just came up on the tree: Operations Raging Manhood, Clever Endorsement, Roly-Poly, and Dead Blonde.”
“How do their deniability indices look?” Mancinom asked.
“Deniability’s within normal limits for all four.”
“What about cost/benefit?”
“Dead Blonde and Raging Manhood come up at the top of the tree for that one.”
“Glad you asked that,” Operations said. “Failure mode in Raging Manhood has Ahlquist Dahl getting an extra fiver uptick in popularity. Failure mode in Dead Blonde gives us a shooting war between Dahl&Dahl and Suivi Mercantile—bombs in safe-deposit boxes and tellers found in back alleys.”
“I’m starting to like Dead Blonde,” Mancinom said. Dahl&Dahl and Suivi Mercantile were the first and second largest banks on Suivi Point, respectively. Trouble between them, while unsettling to domestic tranquility in general, could never be entirely bad for their next-closest competitor. “What’s the package?”
“Scans from the portside strip report a Level One Registered Incognito passing through the outer blast doors. No further info as yet.”
“Right,” said Mancinom. Level One Registered Incognitos didn’t pass through the scanners every day, even in a cosmopolitan place like Suivi Point. He found it hard to imagine what the holder of one might be doing at the Point’s commercial spacedocks. “Well, get further, and meanwhile, patch me through to the executive council. I’m going to need votes.”
✧ ✧ ✧
By the time the glidewalk had carried Beka, Pav, and Ignac’ past the young woman at Your Fancy, she had already forgotten them. A cheery hail of “Hello, spacer!” echoed through the corridor behind them as she addressed the next person passing by.
“None of this is for-real ‘dirtside,’ you know,” Pav said. “Asteroids don’t count.”
“Why not?” Beka asked. “Dig down far enough, and there’s dirt. Or rock, at least.”
“Because,” said Ignac’, “dirt or no dirt, it’s still artificial gravity, artificial atmosphere, air locks, and armor-glass the whole way.”
As if to illustrate his point, a double-bolted access hatch slid by to the right, stenciled with the notice: WARNING. NO GRAVITY OR ATMOSPHERE FAR SIDE.
Beka said nothing. Her fantasies of a life in space, half based on her father’s stories, half based on holovid romances, hadn’t included the guarded air locks and the garish storefronts, or the smell that wafted on the air currents from the overhead vents. To reassure herself, she looked up at the stars through the transparent roof of the corridor. They were still there, which was good.
“Stop that,” Ignac’ muttered. “We’re almost at the main air lock to downtown. If you look too much like a newbie, the price will go up.”
A sign ahead of them flashed, ONE STREET, and Pav said, “Here’s where I say good-bye. Catch you when you get back.”
“Be careful,” Ignac’ said. “Captain’ll skin you if you get in trouble.”
Pav laughed. “What he said was, ‘Don’t get in trouble: I can hire new crew cheaper than I can bail you out.’ Don’t worry, I’ll find someone to buddy up with. You stay out of trouble yourself.”
“I’ll do that,” Ignac’ said. “ ‘No-Trouble LeSoit’ is what they call me back home.”
The glidewalk carried Beka and Ignac’ steadily away from Pav Eterynic and the commercial spaceport, toward the massive set of blast doors that restricted access to the rest of the asteroid settlement. After a few moments, Beka said, “Where is home, anyway? You never mentioned.”
“I never got that drunk,” Ignac’ said. “I’m for finding my fun away from the Strip this time—think you can fake being a hotsy-totsy high-class lady, Galcen Girl?”
Beka smiled a little. “I think I can handle that.”
“Good enough.” Ignac’ paid the suggested gratuity listed on the plate by the blast doors for passage-without-body-search, waited for the door to open, and hopped onto the glidewalk on the far side. “Come on, or miss the fun.”
The corridor was wider on this side of the main doors, and the shops, though catering to spacers, looked somewhat less tawdry. Ignac’ was scanning from side to side, clearly looking for something. He spotted it, and sprinted over to the nonmoving walkway that bordered the glidewalk.
He looked back over his shoulder at Beka as she came to join him. “This isn’t an invitation. But the next part of this expedition will involve a snug-shack. You game?”
Beka paused and regarded his carefully noncommittal expression. “If there’s a just-friends option available—then yes, I’m game.”
“Just friends,” Ignac’ agreed. “Okay, here we go.”
The sign over the building’s doorway advertised “Rooms by the Hour,” and the automated panel beside it displayed a list of prices and options. Beka looked at it curiously. Places like this had never featured in her father’s tales; she began to suspect that he had edited the stories a bit for family consumption.
“Let’s see,” Ignac’ said, surveying the menu. “One room, one large bed, and . . . water, one, two, many. I think I’ll go with the ‘many’ option.”
“What’s the difference between one, two, and many?” Beka asked.
“One is if you want to wash up after, two is if you want to wash up before, and many is all the baths, showers, and hand washes that you want.”
“Nothing but the best for us spacers,” Ignac’ said. He slid his pay card into the slot on the machine’s face, waited until the countdown reached “enough,” then took Beka’s right hand and placed it beside his left hand on the scanner screen. A light glowed inside the screen, and the scanner binged.
“There we are,” he said. “Your right hand will open the door to room—“ he squinted at the screen “—number Fourteen Alfa, for the next thirty-six hours. So will my left hand.”
“Just like that?”“They’ll be selling our palm prints, of course,” Ignac’ said. “To people who want to know who’s come through the port. That’s why the room’s so cheap. But I figure that anyone who’s interested already knows.”
He turned back to the street.
“Aren’t we going to go in?” Beka asked.
“Not yet. Next step, shopping.”
“We won’t have much fun downtown if we show up dressed in ship’s coveralls.” Ignac’ smoothed down his moustache with his left hand, then offered his arm to Beka in a courtly gesture. “Come, my lady—the galaxy-famed secondhand clothes shops of Suivi Point await our pleasure.”
✧ ✧ ✧
“What’s the consensus?” asked Sahe, the elegant member from Suivi’s Tarn Gate district. “Ops likes this one a lot, and I have to say it has its attractions.”
Council member Orfan Roos said, “We’ve been spending a lot of money—”
“Not all that much, actually,” Mancinom said. “Less than what gets spent every month on exotic plants and original artwork for the main lobby.”
“That’s public outreach and support for the arts,” Sahe retorted. “Our image—”
“A lot of money,” Roos said firmly, “that needs to be justified by a return, maintaining an address with a years-long paper trail leading back to Ahlquist Dahl at Dahl&Dahl. If we don’t use it for something—”
“But is this the best possible something?” inquired yet a third council member. “If it doesn’t work, then we’ve knocked a fraction off our profits for nothing.”
“It is necessary to speculate in order to accumulate, ” Sahe replied. Her image in the members’ flatscreens made a shake-and-release gesture with one hand. “Sooner or later one has to throw the dice. I say today.”
One by one, the other member nodded in response. “Well, then,” said Roos. “Mancinom—how late in the actions can we change from Dead Blonde to Raging Manhood and still be credible?”
“At the point violence becomes necessary,” Mancinom said.
“Keep both options open, then, as long as possible. We’ll take either course. Now—what’s our package?”
“As it happens,” Mancinom said, “the package is in fact female, and is in fact blonde. I think our luck is in.” The members’ flatscreens switched to showing a grainy image of a young woman in a spacer’s coverall. A time-tick in the corner showed that the picture had come from that morning’s security cameras at the portside locks.
“You’re the best one to judge,” Roos admitted. “What more can you tell me?”
“That the clock’s running. Ship’s patches on the suit she’s wearing tell me that she’ll be away again in less than thirty-four hours.”
“Who’s that walking beside her?” Sahe asked. “With the moustache.”
“Same ship designation,” Mancinom said. “An expendable. If we go with Dead Blonde, he’s history. If we go with Raging Manhood, he’s the outrage that’ll fuel the assassination of Ahlquist Dahl.”
“Poor Ahlquist. Either way, he’s not going to have a happy day.”
Roos snorted. “’Poor Ahlquist’ my ass. He was the node point of a three percent decline in our fortunes over the last two quarters. Mancinom, you’ve got project lead—do we go for Raging Manhood or Dead Blonde?”
“Dead Blonde’s on top by five points,” Mancinom said.
“Dead Blonde it is then. Brief us again in thirty four hours.”
✧ ✧ ✧
“You or me?” Ignac’ asked as they entered the snugshack lobby.
“Let me,” Beka said. “It’ll do both of our reputations no end of good.”
She reached out her right hand and touched the back wall of the lobby, inside the outlined palm plate. Part of that wall slid up, revealing a dimly lit hallway.
“I feel so wicked,” Beka said, as the outer door slid closed behind them.
“Oh, you are wicked,” Ignac’ said. “Trust me on that. Our room should be . . . there.”
He nodded to where the flickering blue script beside another palm plate read 14A. Again Beka palmed the plate, and again part of the white-metal wall slid up, revealing a room beyond. Beka entered and tossed her purchases onto the center of the large bed in the middle of the room. Then she took a step back, put her hands on her hips, and said, “I sure hope you didn’t pay a lot for this.”
“No more than I was willing to,” Ignac’ said.
He tossed his packages onto the bed next to hers. The room’s water facility was a plain slab with a drain in the far corner, a nozzle pointing straight down from overhead, with a convenience made of stainless steel beside it. Neither shower nor convenience had any screen or covering around them.
“The setup,” Beka said, “assumes a certain degree of familiarity between the occupants of this room.”
Ignac’ was looking over a set of buttons by the side of the bed. He pressed the top button experimentally, and the blank white walls transformed into a decent holo of a forest scene. The water facility, unfortunately, remained unchanged.
“I’ll wait outside in the hall, if you insist,” he said. “Or I can promise to avert my eyes while you freshen yourself and dress, if you’ll do the same for me.”
“That sounds good,” Beka said. “You can go first.” She lay down on the far side on the bed, facing away from the facilities, and was asleep and snoring before Ignac’ had even started the shower.
When she awoke, she was alone in the room under a light sheet, and the lighting had been dialed back to “subdued.” The woodland scene had ambient noises with it, the sounds of wind and distant running water and the calls of unknown forest creatures. She was still wearing her ship’s coveralls, buttoned, zipped, and snapped to the neck. Ignac’ must have pulled off her boots, though, since she didn’t remember doing it for herself. She pulled off the sheet and stood. A note on the door read, “Out for food, back soon—LS.”
The bedside control panel had a dial that ranged from white to black. Beka put her finger on it and moved the wheel toward white; the lights came up.
Ignac’s bundle of secondhand clothing had been opened and its contents folded on one of the room’s two chairs. Her own packet, still tied, rested on the other chair. Beka pulled it open and took out a pearlescent bodice with trousers and loose overjacket in white spidersilk. A pair of light grey shoes—since space boots wouldn’t fit the role of a civilian on a holiday—completed the outfit.
There was no sense in putting it on over a grubby body, though. Beka could feel the accumulated dirt that shipboard sonics wouldn’t remove, plus her own night sweat. She glanced at the door, put a towel where she could grab it in a hurry if the door started to slide, and stripped.
She was wearing the bodice-and-pants combo and brushing out her hair when the door finally did open. Ignac’ appeared, carrying a plastic bag full of little boxes.
“Ah, there you are,” he said. “You slept like a rock for over twelve hours. I didn’t know how much you snored.”
“My dear young lady, I wouldn’t fib. At least not about that.” LeSoit was pulling the boxes out of the bag and opening them on the bedside table. “Have some breakfast or lunch or something.”
“What’s that?” Beka asked, pointing at one of the boxes.“That’s the ‘something,’ ” Ignac’ said. “It was cheap.”
He pulled out plastic utensils from the bottom of the bag and handed a set to Beka. “Do you want some of the blue, some of the brown, or a bit of the green?”
Beka was suddenly aware of how hungry she was. “Some of everything.”
Despite Ignac’s remarks, the food—ethnic specialties, she guessed, from some world or culture she’d never encountered on Galcen—turned out to be delicious. Only the hard-learned lessons from her school days at the Delaven Academy kept her from spilling any of it on the white bodice. She kept on eating while Ignac’ stepped to the other side of the room, and studiously ignored the subsequent rustlings and rattlings.
Finally Ignac’ said, “You can look now.”
She turned then, and saw him wearing a not-bad formal outfit of trousers, tunic, and sash. A brush with liquid polish had brought his space boots to a mirror shine.
“Shall we go for a walk?” he said. “The glittering wonders of the world—or, at any rate, of Suivi Point—await our pleasure.”
Beka gave him her best finishing-school curtsey. “Gentlesir, I would be delighted.”
Together they went out the door and down the hall, and to the street, where the lighting hadn’t changed, the smells hadn’t changed, and the mixture of working folks hurrying by and gawkers looking at the sights had only changed in their faces.
“The usual way to go on liberty,” Ignac’ said, as the glidewalk carried them onward, “is to put all your money in your pocket and dress up in your fanciest clothes, then go to the worst part of town and drink as much of their most expensive beer as you can in four hours. You’re practically guaranteed an adventure doing that.”
“But we aren’t.”
“Not this time. This time we’re going to have some serious fun, and that means going where the rich folks go and doing what the rich folks do.”
“That’s not as much fun as you’d think,” Beka said.
Ignac’ looked at her.
“I mean,” she said hastily, “so I’m told.”
✧ ✧ ✧
“So it’s blown. Walk away,” Fane replied. The two street-level Nalosh Guaranty Trust operatives sat at a table in the bun-and-biscuit shop a corridor-turning away from the snug-shack. Fane had his eyes on the lock-and-trace box that displayed the current location of the package in question. “Operations doesn’t like it, that’s their problem.”
“And our paychecks. But I’ve seen the pictures of the girl—if I was traveling with her, I’d spend the whole time back at the snug-shack.”
“She’s not that good-looking,” Fane said.
“But she looks like she might be friendly.”
“If it’s female, you think it looks friendly. It’s been twelve hours already . . . they’ve got to come out for food sometime.”
“I wouldn’t put money on it,” Bimmesh said. “Do we have video feed from inside?”
“No. Landun Security has that franchise, and we don’t have a contract with them . . . wait. What’s this? Motion outside of coordinate field. Our package is in play.” Fane shoved the lock-and-trace box across the table to Bimmesh. “Look at that—package in motion, not heading back to the docks. Alert the cleaning crew; we’re going to need ’em.”
✧ ✧ ✧
Beka and Ignac’ took the glidewalk up to the easement for block twelve, paid the fee, and went through.
“What happens if we don’t have the money to pay our way back?” Beka asked.
Ignac’ pointed at an overhead sign: LAST EXITS. “Worst comes to worst, they’re always hiring.”
“I’m sure they are—but for what?”“Contract killings,” he said. “If you can pay for something here, then it’s legal. So there’s always quick jobs for transit cash.”
“No, not that, but there’s always something to sell, and someone to buy. The law here is money.”
“Then let’s not spend ours down to zero, eh? I like the law on my side.” Beka took his hand. “If we’re going to be upper-class twits, now is the time to start acting it.”
“Speaking of acting it—I’ve always loved that posh accent you can do, when you’re swearing at the engines or getting off the midwatch.”
“’Posh accent’?—oh. This one?”
“Yeah,” Ignac’ said. “You’ve got a great career in the holovids waiting for you if you ever get tired of pushing ships through vacuum.”
“Oh, Ignaceu,” Beka said, her Galcenian tones growing even richer. “I do so adore your little drolleries.”
“I’m glad you’re amused. What I’m saying is, if money’s tight, you or I can always get a short-term contract with Contract Security—y’know, ConSec—to do something down portside, get a pass through the gates, and off we go.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said. “Do they ask you to do anything obnoxious?”
“Done it before?”
“Once or twice. Low-level stuff; deliver papers to someone, get a thumbprint. Jobs that require a warm body, nothing else. They don’t even check your blood-alcohol level first.”
“Speaking of which,” Beka said, dropping farther into the deliberately posh accent, “my blood-alcohol level is near an all-time low. Do you suppose we can remedy that? I’d gone to space in the fond hope that you spacers were a hard-drinking lot.”
“Let’s go somewhere fancy,” Ignac’ said. “I want a drink with fresh fruit and flowers in it that costs about a day’s pay.”
“Live music,” Beka said. “I want live music.”
“We’ll have to ask directions, then.”
“No need. We want to find a hovercab and ask the driver to take us to the Tarn Gate District.”
“Are you sure that you’ve never been here before? What do they teach you back on Galcen?”
“Nothing useful,” Beka said. “Believe me, I know.”
The route to Tarn Gate passed through Suivi’s Main Dome, through the banking district, past the great mosaic depicting the Spirit of Enlightened Mercantilism, then through more easements and locks into the glittering onyx-and-steel vaults and domes of the extremely rich.
“Looks like the inside of a coffin,” Ignac’ observed, when at last they emerged from the hovercab.
“The very air you breathe here is high-class air,” Beka told him. “None of your sleazy recycled stuff, full of dirty socks, farts, and belches. This air is hand-synthesized from free-range interstellar nitrogen and farm-fresh organic oxygen, lightly scented with ozone for your breathing pleasure.”
“When you say it like that, it does smell different.”
“Damn straight it does.” Beka nodded toward where a discreet engraved placard in a tinted window indicated that a restaurant was somewhere inside. “Let’s see what passes for a quaint little bistro in these parts.”
They sauntered up, and were greeted at the door by a footman. He looked from Ignac’ to Beka, and his eyes went wide. “My lady!” he exclaimed.
“None of that,” Beka said, making a five-credit chit appear and vanish into his hand with the skill of a magician. “Two, with privacy, if you please.”
They were whisked inside to a booth near the back. As she’d requested, the room was private; they could see the bar, but none of the other patrons. The music being played by the ensemble near the bar was, indeed, live.
“This is different,” Ignac’ said, his fingers rubbing the dark surface of the table between them. “What is it, do you know?”
“It’s called ‘wood,’ ” Beka said, straight-faced. “Every board foot of it imported by starship at vast expense.”
“I’ve heard of it before,” Ignac’ said, equally straight faced. “I’d just never seen any.”
“Where did you say you’re from again?”
“Ah, the mysterious stranger,” Beka said, leaning closer and resting her chin on her laced fingers. “I so love a mysterious man. I shall have to get you drunk.”
The drinks, which arrived soon after, had Ignac’ in a state of wonder. “This doesn’t taste like it has any alcohol in it at all,” he said.
“Don’t be fooled by the decorations,” Beka said. “Two of those things would put you on the floor.”
“Do you really think so? Then I believe I’ll have another when this is done.”
Beka laughed. “A week’s pay, easy come, easy go.” She held up a finger to summon the waiter.
The waiter, however, did not appear. Instead, two men, large-shouldered and heavy-jawed, pushed into the booth and shoved Beka and Ignac’ against the far wall. Beka felt the muzzle of a blaster pressed against her midsection.
“No noise,” the man beside her said. His voice was a high tenor, and he spoke softly.
“What a surprise to find you in a place like this,” the other man said to Ignac’. His voice was rougher than his companion’s; otherwise, they were much of a sameness, with nothing to distinguish them from the general mass of Suivi’s inhabitants except their size. “We’d expected to find you down by the docks.”
“I’m afraid you have the wrong person,” Ignac’ said. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Believe me, we’ve got the right person,” Tenor Voice said. He turned to Beka and tipped a folder at her. A Contract Security device with flashing identifier appeared. “We have no instructions concerning you, my lady. However, be advised that this is a security matter.”
“What he said,” the other man said to Ignac’. “Do you want to walk, or must we drag you?”
“Walk, I think,” Ignac’ said. He turned to look at Beka. “Don’t worry. If it’s a ConSec matter, they’ll send word to the ship.”
The men pushed away; the blaster disappeared; then they were gone from sight, Ignac’ walking between the other two.
Beka sat back and considered her options. She would have been more inclined to trust Ignac’s assessment of the situation if some of her father’s war stories had not featured less-than-flattering commentary on the Contract Security of Suivi Point.
“Never trust them if you can’t see both their hands,” he’d said, “and never let them keep a shipmate overnight.”
She picked up her drink and downed it. Then she reached across the table, snagged Ignac’s abandoned drink too, and tossed it back.
“Gun shop,” she said aloud. “I need to find a gun shop.”
✧ ✧ ✧
“We have contact,” Mancinom said to Operations over his desktop link. “Target two in play; we’ve got him.”“Switching all resources from Raging Manhood to Dead Blonde,” Operations replied.
“Do you have the ConSec lockdown?”
“We have it,” Ops said, “but it’s costing us. Can’t maintain for too long.”
“Three hours is what the update calls for.”
“That’s our weakest point. Someone may ask why.”
Mancinom shook his head, although there was no one in his office to see. “No one will know, and it won’t be connected.”
✧ ✧ ✧
She went in, under the sign that said “Cash Sent Anywhere” in three languages plus another line that probably said the same thing in an alphabet she didn’t recognize. The money changer didn’t appear to see anything odd about a blonde in evening dress walking into his shop.
“Help you?” he asked. His Galcenian had a strong but unfamiliar accent; she wondered if it belonged to the same world as the unknown alphabet. He had a blaster strapped to his hip.
She pointed at the weapon. “How much for that?”
“Not for sale, this one,” the money changer said.
“Who’s got one, then?”
“I do. Just this one isn’t for sale.”
“Where are the ones you are selling?”
“Back here.” The money changer walked to the rear of his shop. Objects ranging from clay pots to musical instruments were stacked against the walls and arrayed in cases. “It’s all for sale, you show me some cash.”
Beka pulled out her pay card and slid it across the counter. “You said you had a blaster?”
“Yeah.” The money changer ran the card through a reader. “Not enough on this to pay for one.” He nodded toward the shop door. “You go away now.”
“Wait.” Beka pulled out a different card. “Try this.”
The money changer ran it through the reader. His back straightened a bit. “My lady—”
“None of that. Blasters.”
“Got a nice one. War surplus. You like?” The man ducked down and pulled a heavy-barreled weapon from under the counter. “Comes with holster and everything.”
“Everything includes a full charge?”
“If you have two of these, I’ll buy both.”
“You’ve read the card. I’m good for it.”
Beka picked up the blaster. The grip was a bit big for her hand, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d grown up around such things; her father had taken her to the range for her tenth birthday to let her start learning on his own personal weapon.
“When you’re older,” he’d said, “you’ll have body guards and flunkies galore . . . but there’s no guarantee that when the bad days come you won’t have to shoot your own way out.”
Her mother had shaken her head disapprovingly, but she hadn’t denied the truth of it, either—and she hadn’t tried to stop the lessons.
Now, under the harsh overhead light, Beka looked over the sights of the unfamiliar blaster. Her finger reached the firing stud. The weapon was heavy and cold in her hand, the power of life and death.
“Two,” she said firmly. “The other one.”
The money changer pulled a second, similar weapon out of another box. “Not so nice, I don’t charge you as much.”
“I don’t care about pretty. The charge chambers?”
“I got ’em.”
Beka took the charge chamber, snapped it into the side of the handle. The little red light on the side read FULL. “Very good.”
“Anything else?” the money changer asked, sliding Beka’s card back over to her.
“Yes. I want to know where my left hand is.”
The man pointed at her left arm. “Where always is.”
“No,” Beka said. “I’m going to put my right hand on your palm reader. You’re going to tell me where the left hand that goes with that right hand is. Got a problem with that?”
“No, no problem. Cost you more.”
“I have more. How much for you not to tell anyone about my visit for . . . six hours?”
“Valuable information, your visit.”
“I’ll give you six hundred. That’s a hundred an hour.”
“Then let’s do it.”Beka tucked one of the weapons into her waistband and slid the other into its holster on her hip. She and the money changer walked to the front of the store. Beka laid her hand on the palm plate, and the machine blinked and chinged. The money changer ran Beka’s card through the reader one more time, then returned it.
“Your left hand on Fifth and Rabban,” the money changer said. “No guarantee will stay there long, or even there still. May have not touched anything sensitive since.”
“I’ll take my chances. Where on Fifth and Rabban?”
“Number Four One Seven. Top and back, letter C.”
“My gratitude,” Beka said.
“And your family’s?” the money changer asked, but he was asking her retreating back.
✧ ✧ ✧
“Lost trace on the package,” Operations reported to Mancinom. “Either she’s gone into hiding, or she’s not touching a sensitive surface, or she’s headed back to her ship . . . no, wait a minute, she’s back in play, and heading in the right direction. Just got a visual lock from a public data point. Do you think it’s time to give her the trace box?”
“Long past time,” Mancinom said. “Got the obvious-trail unit ready to go?”
“Got it,” Ops said. “The plan is coming together nicely.”
“It’s our job to make it that way. Have we got the scandal-rag reporters in position?”
“Ready in hot standby,” Ops assured him. “On scene before she’s cool.”
Mancinom contemplated the image on his flatscreen of the package’s most recent encounter with a public security camera. She’d changed her clothes, replacing the drab coverall with a stylish trousers-and-jacket combination, and had put up her long hair into a complex arrangement of multiple braids.
“She’s taken the bait,” he said. “Under the circumstances, I almost feel sorry for her.”
“Any idea what the real name is behind her incog?”
“All we know is that ‘Beka Lokkelar’ shows up registered as a Level One,” Mancinom said, “and flagged as connected to both Suivi Mercantile and Dahl&Dahl.”
“We could find out right now if we pushed.”
“Not without drawing notice,” Mancinom said. “We’ll have to wait and see what’s left of her incognito after the scandal-rags are done with it.”
✧ ✧ ✧
Outside the pawnshop, a public signpost with an interactive map told Beka where Fifth crossed Rabban: well outside the Tarn Gate district, but close enough to get there on foot. All she had to do would be stay away from ConSec, and away from whoever it was who’d taken an undue interest in a couple of spacers in search of a drink and a good meal.
The crossing of Fifth and Rabban lay in a residen tial area, some foot traffic, tunnel oriented and well inside the shell of the asteroid. Steam and power lines ran along the left-hand wall of the corridor, past the safety barrier. Beka reconnoitered around the corner, her pale dress reflecting the overhead lights. There, up between two crossings, was a multiple-occupancy dwelling.
“Hah,” Beka said. “If that isn’t Four One Seven, you can call me a kwoufer and feed me to the brine shrimp.”
A green hovercab waited on the surface of the trafficway beside the glidewalk outside Four One Seven, its lights out and its nullgravs disengaged. When thirty minutes by Beka’s chronometer had passed and the hovercab had not responded to another call, she nodded to herself and slid her newly purchased blaster from its holster.
“Time to go.”
She walked up behind the vehicle, her pace steady, approaching it on the driver’s side. When she drew even with the cab’s back door, she grabbed the handle and pulled. The door came open. She slid in and pushed the muzzle of her blaster against the back of the driver’s head. Only then did she recognize him as one of the two men who had taken Ignac’ away at the restaurant. The revelation stiffened her resolve.
“Talk fast,” she said. “What do your people want with the guy inside the building?”
In spite of everything, she half expected the taxi driver to respond to her question with a heated denial of all knowledge. Instead, he shrugged, being careful not to jar her blaster hand in the process, and said, “We’re finishing up a contract. If you haven’t got a contract of your own in force, stay out of the way. You don’t want this to go to the Labor Board, do you?”
“Maybe I do and maybe I don’t. Whose contract?”
“Laedin and Sons. You want to check my license?”
She pulled her blaster back from the man’s head.
“No, that’s okay. But are you sure you’ve got the right guy?”
“Sure I’m sure,” the driver said. He reached over to his right.
“Ah, ah.” Beka pushed the blaster back against his head. “Don’t try that.”
“Would you put that thing away? Anybody would think this was your first job.” The driver’s hand came back up holding a small box fitted with a screen. The screen showed a blue bugtrace, gently pulsing, with a bearing and range subscribed. “There. That’s him. Once he’s dead, that won’t blink, so he’s not dead.”
“Do you have any objections if I rescue him?” Beka asked.
“Kronitz and Spez, Custom Rescues,” she replied. She took the box from his unresisting hand. “We’re in the comm-code listings.”
✧ ✧ ✧
“She’s got the tracebox,” Ops reported to Mancinom. “Bemmish says she pulled a blaster on him, though. Looks like our little package has unexpected depths.”
“So long as he handed over the bugtrace, it doesn’t matter. Is the bug in position?”
“In position,” Ops said. “Fane’s waiting for her.”
“What about the boyfriend?”
“We’re holding him under wraps off-site; we can make him dead at leisure once this is finished.”
“Very well,” Mancinom said. “Pass to Fane: ‘In place, on time, and witnesses located. Package should be at your posit in five; be aware package is now armed.’ ”
✧ ✧ ✧
The bugtrace showed Beka the direction of Ignac’s location—somewhere inside Four One Seven, as she’d expected. She entered the building and found her way to the proper apartment with only a few wrong turnings. She touched the lockplate beside the apartment door.
A familiar tenor voice said, “Welcome, my dear,” over the annunciator, and the door slid open. Beka tightened her grip on the blaster and walked in.
The lights were low and the decor of the room was one of understated elegance. Beka dismissed it at a glance and concentrated her attention on the room’s single occupant, and on the blaster he had pointed in her direction.
“Please,” Tenor Voice said. “Put your blaster down on the floor before you come any closer.”
Reluctantly, she knelt—straight-backed and folding gracefully at the knees, the way she’d practiced it in dancing class every year from six to sixteen—and laid the blaster on the deep-piled carpet.
“Who the hell are you guys?” she demanded, standing up again. “And where is Ignac’?”
“That’s not important,” Tenor Voice said. “There are some people who want to meet you; that’s all.”
“Sending me a text message or a voice-chip wasn’t good enough for them?”
“Not with you having a Level One Registered Incognito,” Tenor Voice said. “If you’d come to Suivi Point openly, in your persona as—who did you say you really are?—then the situation would be different.”
“My real name is none of your damned business,” Beka said. “I want to know about Ignac’ LeSoit. The guy I was having dinner with. That you kidnapped.”
“Through that door,” Tenor Voice said, nodding toward an interior portal to his right. The location matched the range and bearing Beka had taken earlier from the bugtrace. “If you please. Truthfully, we desire conversation with you.”
Beka glared at him. “So all of this has to do with me, and not with Ignac’ at all?”
“Quite right,” Tenor Voice said. He pointed to a gauzy red garment draped over the back of a nearby chair. “I must insist, however, that you dress properly for your meeting. Would you indulge me?”
“Say that I don’t?” Beka said. “Say I decide instead to drop my incognito and buy you, and buy this building, and buy everything that’s in it?”
“They aren’t for sale,” Tenor Voice said. He raised his blaster. “Now—put on the clothing, my dear young lady. I promise that all the visual recorders in this room were turned off a moment after you stepped in.”
She pursed her lips. “If I change clothes, will you close your eyes while I do it?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I get few enough fringe benefits in my line of work.”
Beka walked over to the chair and picked up the loose bundle of red cloth. She frowned at it. “There isn’t enough material in here to be decent.”
Tenor Voice shrugged. “I suppose not.”
Beka gathered the red gauze in front of her in what she hoped would pass for a gesture of modesty, blocking his view of exactly what her own right hand was doing.
“Please,” she said again. The quaver in her voice was convincing, she hoped—the fear behind it was real enough. “Put down the blaster and let me walk out of here.”
“I’m sorry,” Tenor Voice said. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible.”
“Then put down the blaster. It’s bad enough having to change clothes with you watching me—”
“No. Really, we’re on a tight schedule here. You want to see your boyfriend—”
Beka shot him through the armload of red gauze fabric, setting it on fire. She dropped the burning fabric, her left hand coming up to grasp the wrist of her blaster hand as she held the firing stud down, spraying the room in front of her with lines of energy until the sound and smell of it filled her ears and nostrils. Burn marks appeared on the wall, on the floor, and on Tenor Voice as he stood amazed, before falling, still amazed, to the carpet.
Beka eased up on the firing stud.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she said. “He’s just a friend.”
She wasn’t really surprised when the next room, equally elegantly appointed, didn’t hold Ignac’—though it did hold a wide bed with ropes attached to the posts, and a blindfold and a gag laid ready on the bedside table. The lock-and-trace box helped her find the hidden snoop-button soon enough. She pried it free and took it with her when she went.
✧ ✧ ✧
Bemmish stood leaning against the side of the hovercab. His part of the operation was over, though he couldn’t help worrying a bit about how Fane would handle the supposedly docile package. None of the earlier photo refs on her had shown her going armed; the appearance of that blaster had been an unpleasant surprise, even if it had served to make his handing over of the bugtrace more convincing.
He had confidence, though, in his partner’s ability to handle things. Fane was a cool one, not easily distracted; Bemmish didn’t expect he’d have to wait much longer before closing down the finished operation and going home.
He certainly wasn’t expecting to feel a blaster pressed against his back, at the same moment as a woman’s hand came around from behind him to dangle a fifty-credit chit in front of his nose.
“You have a choice,” the package’s Galcenian accent whispered in his ear. “You can consider this a down payment on enough money to buy a ticket off this rock to anywhere in the civilized galaxy, you name the place, or—”
“Or I can blow your spine out.”
“Do I take it I have the pleasure of addressing a Level One Registered Incognito?”
“I’m not stupid; I’ll take the money.”
The hand with the credit chit withdrew; the blaster didn’t. When the hand reappeared it had a tiny round metal object in it.
“Swallow this,” she said.
“Bug and trace. I want to be able to find you. Again, your choice is do it, or I blow your spine out.”
“You have the blaster. I’ll do it.”
“Open wide,” she said.
He did, and swallowed.
He felt the woman moving away from him. “Now. Turn around.”
He did so, and was disappointed to find that she’d stepped back several feet—and was holding the blaster close to her body. She was leaving him no chance to take it away from her. He saw its empty holster riding low on her hip, and wondered again where she’d picked up the firepower—and where she’d learned to be so cautious with it.
“What do you want?” he demanded.
“I’m asking you the same question that I asked your pal inside,” the young woman said. “Where’s my partner? You know, the free-spacer with the moustache who was with me at the restaurant. The guy you kidnapped.”
“He’s standing by, waiting for me to broadcast a ‘mission accomplished’ to the guy who’s holding him.”
“Take me to him,” she said. “And if you try to make a getaway, I’ll shoot you before you can run. I’ve already killed a man, and people tell me it gets easier with practice.”
✧ ✧ ✧
The man walked. Beka followed. She kept well back, using the locator button to keep him in sight. He paused at a door with the HARD VACUUM designation stenciled on it. Beka caught up with him.
“Through here,” he said.
“You have a pressure suit and oxygen with you?”
“No. The sign is lying.”
“Is it really?” Beka said. “You go first.”She stepped back and watched as the man undogged the hatch. It looked like he’d told her the truth. No sound of a vacuum hiss followed the action, and he had no problem opening the door.
“In,” she said.
He ducked and entered. She followed. Her feet felt light; the gravity was lower here on the other side. Corridors full of pipes and conduits stretched out in front, behind, and up and down from them.
“This way,” the man said, dropping into a tunnel that intersected ninety degrees down. Beka followed; they didn’t fall fast. The speed of descent slowed the farther down they went. Then the man she was following slowed and stopped, hanging in midair—they’d come to a null-gravity zone, caught between two gravity generators, pulled equally in either direction. He kicked out against the bulkhead and shot through another opening ninety degrees to the right.
Beka stopped where he had; followed; and crossed the threshold into a larger space. As soon as she’d entered, several things caught her attention at once.
The first was Ignac’, tethered to the overhead by one ankle. The second was a body floating in midair. And the third was the man she’d been following, chopping down on her wrist, knocking the blaster out of her hand as he swung behind her with his arm around her neck in a chokehold.
Beka yanked the second blaster from where it had once again been concealed beneath her jacket and sent it spinning toward Ignac’ in a long flat trajectory.
The arm around her neck tightened. Her vision grew red, then started to fuzz to black—then, came the sound and heat of a blaster bolt passing by her head, and the pressure relaxed. She shook her head, clearing it, drawing in deep lungfuls of air. Then she snatched the first blaster out of the air where it had come to rest, slowly spinning around its center of mass, holstered it, and shoved off from the bulkhead to propel herself upward.
“Glad to see you,” she said to LeSoit, as soon as she was level with him. Her voice came out in a hoarse croak. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Glad to see you, too,” he replied. He gestured toward the stranger, floating limp just beyond the maximum extent of LeSoit’s tether. “If you could give me a hand here—that fellow over there has the key to my leg irons in his pocket. I was able to incapacitate him earlier, but he floated out of reach before I could search him.”
“That wasn’t very cooperative of him,” Beka said. She was already maneuvering to grab the man and go through his pockets until she found the key.
“No. It’s a good thing other people are more obliging—thanks for providing the last-minute hardware, by the way.”
“No problem. My father always said you don’t bring cheese sandwiches to a gunfight. I used to wonder exactly what he meant by it.”
“And now you don’t?”
“No. Not anymore.”
✧ ✧ ✧
“The operation didn’t go exactly as planned,” Mancinom admitted to the other members of the executive council. “But still, not a bad outcome. A dead man in Ahlquist Dahl’s private love nest is nearly as good as a dead girl.”
“Imagine the look of surprise on dear Ahlquist’s face when he learns that he has a love nest,” Sahe replied, pouring a cup of cha’a from the warmer on her desk. “And who would have suspected that Bemmish would sell us out?”
“Who, indeed?” Orfan Roos said. “But with his partner dead and Bemmish missing, it does seem the most likely possibility. Unless the package herself was somehow responsible . . . ?”
Mancinom shook his head. “We don’t want to go that route, believe me.”
“Why not?” Sahe asked.
“Because I finally got through to the ID behind that Level One Registered Incognito.”
“It was that high-powered?”
“Look at it this way,” Mancinom said. “If Dead Blonde had gone off without a hitch, Beka Lokkelar’s death would have made a scandal big enough to turn Dahl&Dahl and Suivi Mercantile into piles of smoking rubble. But she got clear under her own power, so whatever she did with Fane and Bemmish, it’s best to let it lie.”
“Agreed,” said Roos. “Put in a ticket with ConSec on the quiet, all the same, and tell them to keep it open. You never know when something like that might come in handy.”
✧ ✧ ✧
When Pav Eterynic returned to the Sidh, two minutes before liberty expired, he was amazed to learn from the watch-stander on duty that Beka Lokkelar and Ignac’ LeSoit had returned to the ship some sixteen hours before.
“What’s the matter?” Pav asked, when he encountered Beka a few minutes later in the ship’s mess. “Miss the old rust-bucket that much?”
“No,” Beka said, refilling her mug with cha’a from the big forty-cup urn. “I didn’t have as much fun dirtside as I expected to, that’s all.”
“You should have stuck with me,” Pav said contentedly. “We’re going to be in low orbit before my hangover even starts.”
Copyright © 2005 by Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald
This story originally appeared in Cosmic Tales: Adventures in Far Futures edited by T. K. F. Weisskopf
|If you liked this story you may also enjoy "A Death in the Working" (an Inquestor-Principal Jerre syn-Casleyn mystery).|