Saturday, January 11, 2014

Prodigal Prince, Ch. 1-10

ONE: Crystal Rendezvous

Why did you kill me? the little girl asked.
            Foxe knew he was asleep. Alone in the cockpit of his Cat, sliding through D-space toward Crystal Rendezvous, he was close enough to consciousness to try forcing the child away in his mind. Sometimes that worked. But now her round little face grew to fill the viewscreen as if she were trying to push back at him before he could fight her off.
            Why did you kill me? she repeated.
            “Hellcore,” Foxe whispered.
            Firstmark Hallick had been the target on that mission. Hallick had killed hundreds of her people in that war—adults and kids, soldiers and civilians. Foxe had been sent down to the planet to survey the situation, and he’d spotted one chance to plant a sidewinder bomb on Hallick’s vehicle, just before a cold dawn on a world whose name he couldn’t remember.
            And the bomb went off too soon. The kids were supposed to be out of the groundskim, leaving only Hallick and the driver. But something—a random signal? Software error? Foxe’s hurry? Something went wrong and the vehicle exploded early, shooting shards of armor and shreds of flesh into the pale sky.
            Why did you kill me? she repeated again, more insistent this time.
            The same question, every time. Little kids, old men, armed soldiers, helpless civilians. Foxe struggled to breathe.
The little girl stared at him, waiting for an answer he could never give her.
Foxe needed to wake up. His heart pounded inside his chest. His lungs ached for air. He felt every muscle in his body, every bone, every inch of skin, tense and ready to explode. He wondered what it would feel like to no longer feel anything at all . . .
            Then his eyes popped open. Awake.
The little girl was gone, replaced on the viewscreen by the luminous undulating strings of D-space, twisting like snakes in a pit in a wormhole that existed outside the real universe where distance didn’t have any measurable definition.
            “Transition in two minutes,” the NavBoard comp announced.
            Foxe blinked at the D-space countdown clock. Hellcore. He’d slept almost four hours. He lurched from his seat and staggered to the head. Cupping his hands in the sink, he took a quick of lukewarm recycled water and washed his face, stretching his neck and shoulders.
The NavBoard spoke again. “Transition in thirty seconds.”
Okay. Time to go to work. Foxe returned to the cockpit and strapped himself back in to his seat.
The count reached zero. The screen went black. The deck shuddered beneath his boots, and for an endless instant Foxe endured the familiar sensation of being spun, shredded, and slammed back together—a timeless instant that seemed to last forever and end before it began, as the Cat slid out of its wormhole and popped back out into the real universe at the same moment it had left, hundreds of light years from its initial transition point.
            Foxe swallowed, wishing for another drink of water. “Transition complete,” the NavBoard stated. “Prime thrusters online. Establishing navigationsal link with Crystal Rendezvous Control AI.”
            The screen blinked back to life.
Crystal Rendezvous: a chunk of snowy gray ice with ice vapor trailing behind it as it spun in the darkness. Half a century ago an armada of ships fleeing a war in the Kolarus system had hollowed out a comet and anchored it in orbit around a white dwarf, creating a refuge for anyone who wanted to escape the eyes on the Aligned Worlds. Renegades, rogues, and runaways had taken control of the deep space habitat since then, turning Crystal Rendezvous from a quiet hiding place to something far more illicit and enticing.
Plasma trails from incoming and departing ships flared around the station’s docking spar. Foxe glanced away from the screen to check the auto-maneuvering readout, and the image clung to his eyes as if burned onto his retina. When he looked back, Crystal Rendezvous had grown to fill half the screen, looming in the darkness with a menace that made Foxe feel like a mouse sneaking toward a cave, hoping to snatch and few crumbs and scuttle away without waking the bear inside.
            An AI voice burst through the CommBoard: “Approaching vessel with temporary designation code MG682 this is Crystal Rendezvous Approach Control please identify yourself and respond within thirty seconds. Repeat: Approaching vessel with temporary designation MG682—”
            “Crystal Rendezvous Approach Control responding to code MG682,” Foxe cut in. “Designate MG682 as CAT XL743, homebase Oberix-2, and grant open-ended docking privileges.”
            “Confirm conditional docking privileges pending clearance please peruse docking charge and station usage fee schedules and confirm with credit code repeat confirm conditional docking privileges . . .”
            The fees for docking and basic services like air and gravity had gone up since Foxe’s last visit. Everything else—medical attention, CrysNet access, and filing charges for any crimes investigated by the Crystal Blades—was extra, and expensive. But that was the price of coming to Crystal Rendezvous.
He transmitted a credit code and waited for permission to dock. The station spun slowly in the viewscreen. Shuttles and ships from CATs to Dragon-class vessels rested in their slips, like birds asleep with their heads beneath a wing.
            Approach Control spoke again: “CAT XL743 please release your NavBoard to Crystal Rendezvous Access Protocols for docking in . . . four minutes. Entry location Branch 1.56.”
            Foxe reluctantly transferred his navigational systems to Crystal Rendezvous. It was standard procedure, but he hated giving up control to anyone or anything.
Maglines pulled the Cat toward the docking spar. Foxe waited, clutching the arms of his pilot’s seat, until his feet felt the solid thud of connection with the slip.
            “Safety seal established,” the NavBoard announced. “Systems link established. Hatch seal is secure. Lock is fully pressurized.”
            He shut off contact with the station and tapped a SystemBoard command. “Enable security protocols and confirm.”
            “Security protocols engaged,” the SystemBoard responded.
            No one without the right access codes would be able to steal the ship. Depending on what they tried, and how good they were, the security program he’d installed would put any intruders to sleep. Or kill them.
            Foxe swung around in his seat and slipped into a long black vest. He clipped his handcomp to his belt and slipped his wavedagger into a boot. He checked the Radley-120 pulser on his hip, charged it for a moment, and then let it slide back into its holster.
Projectile weapons that could punch through a bulkhead or puncture a hull were forbidden, but Crystal Rendezvous didn’t prohibit energy weapons on it decks—just corpses that weren’t paid for.
“System sleep,” he ordered the Cat. The cockpit lights dimmed. The ship would remain inactive until Foxe’s return, but it would be ready to power up for departure within five minutes.
            He slung his pack over one shoulder and took one quick look back through the cockpit. Everything locked down. If he didn’t return . . .
Well, that’s life.
            Foxe stepped into the Cat’s cramped airlock and secured the cockpit door behind him. He shifted the pack on his shoulder, pulled the outer hatch back and to the side, and stepped out into a short entry ramp, slamming the hatch tight.
A few steps across the narrow ramp brought him to a security pad mounted next to the station access hatch. It took a retinal scan and gave him a numeric access code. He punched the code in and the hatch swung outward. 
He emerged into a passageway. The curved white walls were familiar, along with the red arrows pointing the way to the station entry and the golden illumination of lighttubes above and below.
Also familiar: the sight of a humanoid staggering through the passageway, stopping to peer at every hatch as if he’d forgotten which section of the Branch he’d left his ship at. He shot Foxe a suspicious glance, then continued his search. 
            Foxe confirmed that his hatch was secure and headed up the passageway. A clock above an archway marked STATION INGRESS gave the station time as 1737/2500. Two rows of desks, separated by a thin duraploy wall, faced him. At Egress Foxe saw two humans, one male and one female, arguing with an android about station fees. Good luck 
            At the Ingress desk he waited while the android behind it shifted to active mode. “Name,” it said in a typical atonal voice. “With species designation, please.”
“Erick Foxe, human, T-23.” He extended a hand. “Take any finger.”
            The android jabbed a slim needle into his thumb. “Five standard seconds for clearance and authentication.”
            The android would run his data through the Kick List for expulsion orders, bounties, and outstanding fees from previous visits. Foxe thought through his past stays on Crystal Rendezvous. Two Coraxians killed last time out . . . paid those fees . . . The Hydurian assassin two years ago, but they shouldn’t connect that to me
            “I am required to welcome you to Crystal Rendezvous.” The andy handed Foxe a hexagon-shaped badge with a clip on one edge. “This must be visible at all times while you are on station. Please acknowledge this statement in any language. Failure to acknowledge within five standard seconds—”
            “Accepted.” He took the badge and clipped it to his vest. He reached for the chain around his neck that held his ID chip. “Here’s my credit.” He slid the chip into a C-deck. Crystal Rendezvous was a NonAligned station, but they’d accept AW credits as greedily as any station in the network.
“Enjoy your stay at Crystal Rendezvous.” The andy’s eyes dimmed as it went back into sleep mode.
            Foxe resisted the impulse to reply with an obscene gesture.
            The door at the other end of Ingress opened into a long passageway. Illumination came from the advertising screens, interactive and insistent, lining the walls as Foxe walked toward the station.
Win or lose—best gaming booths at Arkadi!” exclaimed one panel. Another display suggested that everyone visit Uldira’s Bliss Pit for the most erotic experience in ten light years. A sonic caress stroked his body, teasing his crotch as he walked past holograms of dancing blue Tadori males. Then exotic, titillating aromas tickled his nostrils: “Inhale the spices of The Cavern on Carmen Deck!” A few steps down multicolored light flowed in fluid shapes around him, coating his body before fading away with a faint sizzle of heat on his skin. “Come enjoy the soothing and stimulating pleasuregels and transfusions at the Ecstasy Court!” He walked through holographic figures, male and female and hermaphroditic, frozen, nude, their eyes vacant as they held their poses and breathed in shallow whispers: “StatueDance Carmen! The most tranquil dancers in three dimensions!Alexis Deck and Carmen Deck! 
Yeah, Crystal Rendezvous exploded the senses at first sight: nerve-numbing sex, high-risk gambling, and nark that would whipsaw the mind. But beyond its façade—and beneath it—was where its real merchandise was bought and sold: information.
Drilling a hermaphrodite in a tub of living gelatin meant visiting the Dammasch Rings scattered across the galaxy. Drugs that combined pleasure with agony, or made God real, sent most beings to the Llanos Cartel, whose dealers could be found anywhere. For restricted weapons, classified data, exotic genetic material, electronic and biological viruses, or to contact merc armies, assassins, and terrorists for hire, Crystal Rendezvous was the first and last choice of anyone who needed to do business they couldn’t transact anywhere else.
Destroy the place—that’s what some planetary governments argued, backed up by religious leaders and, of course, competitors trying to dethrone Crystal Rendezvous’s status as the hub of illicit information and services in the galaxy. It would never happen. Too many of those same worlds, leaders, and competitors needed it. The AW tolerated Crystal Rendezvous because they needed to know where the maggots of the galaxy did their business. And because they needed to do their own business in the shadows when they needed to. 
He emerged from the corridor into Arcade Center, the entry point to everything on Crystal Rendezvous: Throbbing music vibrated across the high ceiling overhead; violent curses roared from a circular door that glowed crimson and orange. On a balcony two female Meerans danced, their fur aroused and pink. He stepped aside for an impatient group of Thalldors and scanned the semicircular chamber, 150 meters across, feeling as if he’d stumbled underground into a cavern of luminous stalactites and swooping bats eager to nip at his scalp. 
            Some of it had changed, but nothing was different. The Octagon Star was still there, its garish green logo beaming as a half-naked hermaphroditic Armala chased after two humans pushing through its doors past two security androids. Sanctum had stayed in business as well; its black doors were shut tight but a blue light winked from either side to tempt passersby to investigate its mysteries. But Shalaki was gone, and so was the Tentacle Bar. Interstellar entrepreneurs fought viciously—with weapons, at times—for rights to a spot on Fiesta. Only the toughest survived long enough to break even. The rest vanished down a black hole of failed enterprises.
            Welcome back. Foxe would have felt safer skimming the event horizon of a black hole.
            Infokiosks were scattered around the open area. He ignored a Khonian female in ceremonial chains and stabbed a warning glare at a roving humanoid male with unnaturally long fingers as he walked with quicksteps to the nearest kiosk. He inserted a credit chip to activate CrysDirectory.  “Spark,” he said.
            In a nanosecond the screen displayed an address and offered directions and a map. Spark’s place was still there in Bemani, the central section, two decks toward the icy surface then forward. Spark always talked about trying to get a better address, closer to Arcade Center, on a higher deck, but nothing ever came of his talk. Spark was consistent, both as a strength and a fault—one reason Foxe had always been able to trust him.
            He headed down a corridor. Its ceiling was higher than the passage from the docking branch, the walls a little wider, but he still felt like a rat in a maze. Unlike most Aligned Stations, which represented vast resources designed to burnish the egos of their corporate investors, Crystal Rendezvous had no spacious gardens or panoramic domes to make visiting beings forget the aluminar walls and stabilizing forcefields that held the barrier between warm, safe atmosphere and cold, empty vacuum. The endless corridors here could feel like a slowly tightening noose even to beings with no sense of claustrophobia. Closed in, trapped, some species went mad in hours.
For Foxe the problem was simply practical: Getting off-station in a hurry would always be a problem. He knew the nodes and conduits well enough to hide from any pursuer from a short while, but every station he’d ever visited always felt like a trap, aching to spring on him at any nanosecond. 
            Foxe walked quickly. Two quiet Ustalli flattened their boneless bodies against the bulkhead to allow him past. He took a tube down to the next level, oriented himself quickly, and found the place where it had always been, its doors open to the wide passageway. The single word SPARK floated in the air across the entrance. With a grin he walked inside, letting his eyes roam.
            Sandpaintings along the walls shifted shape and color in restless waves. Stale coffee, smoldering spices, and ale smells permeated the air. An android stood in standby mode near the door to clear tables and, if necessary, throw drunks and troublemakers out into the passageway. Half the tables were empty; those others had beings in two and threes, drinking quietly, playing hologames, tossing dice, flirting.
Foxe looked for Spark, didn’t see him, and strode to the polished lucex bar, a meter and a half high and solid enough to repel a pulser rifle. He climbed up into a tall stool and waited until a short humanoid female finished speed-chilling a Purple Comet. She had to hop onto a crate labeled MAXCORP ANTARELLAN to set it on the bar for a hulking Rann-dishi. “Drink,” she told him. Or possibly her. Foxe couldn’t be sure from the angle. The bartender turned to Foxe with a shrug. “Drink?”
            “Centauri whiskey. Where’s Spark?”
            She kicked her crate across the floor and found a cube-shaped bottle. “Who’s asking?” She poured—but kept the clouded glass in her fist.
            “I’m a friend. Foxe.”
            With a cautious nod, she set the glass in front of him. “I’ve heard of you.”
            “You work for Spark?”
            They looked each other over. The woman had dark skin, narrow eyes, and muscular bare arms. A tight black vest, loose pants, and a sliverbeam in her belt. Silver hair pulled back tight into a knot on her scalp. “His wife. Dianar.”
            Foxe sipped the whiskey, felt the burn in his throat. “He was sure no female of any species would ever put up with him longer than a day.”
            “Three years.”
            “Congratulations to him. Condolences to you. Where is he?”
            Hellcore. Spark? No—“What happened?”
            She zeroed her eyes on him. Her arms beneath the short-sleeved shirt were thin and sinewy, and scarred. “Typical morning. Fight between three humans. Mo—” She nodded at the andy—“he grabbed one, the other two kept beating on him while Mo tried to toss him out of the way, and Spark jumped over the bar to stop them. He kicked the big one in the kids, but the little guy had a knife. No high-energy tech, nothing special, just a long slice of sharp metal, and he put it into Spark’s throat.” She blinked, her eyes in the past. “Right before I shot him.”
            The injustice of Spark’s fate made Foxe want to laugh—and destroy something, or someone. Spark had flown dozens of pickup runs that saved Foxe’s life when they’d served in AW MilForce, breaking almost as many rules as Foxe did. Anyone who could fly tight and fast with pulse cannons blasting around him didn’t deserve to die on the floor of a bar. Not after he’d saved every paycheck for it, talked about it until all his friends wanted to beat him into silence, dreamed about it every night as passionately as his friends ached for a woman, or a man, or a life without constant war.
            But no one deserved to die. Foxe had learned that early. You just did, without expecting it, leaving the universe behind to forget you ever existed. Hellcore.
             “Foxe.” She looked him over.  “You’re the death-wish guy.” She filled a glass with spiced brandy and set it on the bar, protecting it with both arms. “Spark flew eleven extractions for you and almost got killed every damn time. Gods and demons.”
            “Yeah.” I’m the one who shouldn’t be here. Foxe hopped off the stool and dug a hand after a credit tab. “So long. Thanks for the drink.”
             “Keep your ass on that stool.” Half the brandy went down her throat in an angry gulp. “He’d want you here. Stupid brainwaste. And he’d tell me to give you whatever you want. I can do that much for him. Sit!”
            Foxe paused a moment, then clambered back onto the stool. He wanted to leave. Keep his memory of the living Spark, smiling, pouring drinks and insulting his customers, instead of replacing it with this woman in his bar. But he had work to do, and Spark had always respected that—even when he’d been cursing at Foxe for almost getting them both killed. “I need a place to stay. Probably just a few days. And a data connection for my handcomp.”
            “You remember the storeroom?” She gestured toward a door behind the bar. “The cot’s still there. So’s the dataport. It’s all yours.”
            “I paid him 50 cees a night—”
            “Plagueshit you did. You stay quiet and don’t talk about Spark and that’s all I need. Another drink?”
            “First . . . ” He tapped the badge dangling from his collar. “I need an alternate. I may have to leave in a hurry.”
            Her laugh had an acid bite. “That’s what Spark was there for. Yeah. I can get one. Take a few hours.”
            “Thanks.” He lifted his pack. “I know the way.”
            The storeroom seemed smaller. Or maybe just emptier. The cot was still there, and a sink in the corner, but the smell of sweaty laundry was gone, along with the stacked cartons of illegal dar-brandy. But the dataport cable dangled from a gash in the wall where Spark had hacked into the network.
            Foxe dropped his pack onto a stain in the thin carpetpad and sank onto the cot. Hard as plastcrete. He unclipped his handcomp. Time to review the mission profile one more time.
            He tapped a decryption code into the handcomp’s keypad. “Mission profile,” he said. “Rumav Sil Aldoz.”
            A holoimage bloomed over the handcomp’s screen. A young humanoid with big chocolate-dark eyes and thick yellow hair in intricate braids. In the floating image Rumav wore a sheer tunic of silk brocade; his hands were clasped in front of his waist. Each hand had five long fingers and two opposable thumbs on opposite sides of the palm. Thick jeweled rings circled ten of the subject’s fourteen fingers.
            A caption underlined the floating image:

Rumav Sil Aldoz. Heir to the Century Throne of Riskannon. Born AW 664. Disappeared on AW 6:20:683; using using the name Hanbor Das Tenpil he traveled through the Riskannon Prism to Vostros Prism; undetr the same identity he exchanged AW Interstellar Credits through an independent broker and booked passage on a transport to Crystal Rendezvous.

A birth date of 664 on the Aligned Worlds record—a fiscal calendar whose main purpose was to facilitate trade agreements and commerce—made Rumav 19 years old. Still a kid by most humanoid standards.
            Disappearance six days ago. A long time, but not too long.
            Foxe waved a finger over the screen to continue:

Mission overview (1): Riskannon is a class-3 world in the Vynex System. Its government is a type-4 parliamentary monarchy, with power shared by fourteen Families from the founding world’s three largest continents, now representing 137 Districts across three worlds in the Vynex System. The highest government post, Century-Emperor, rotates between these fourteen families, with each family assuming the Century Throne for 100 R-years [82 years AWFC]. Note: “Emperor” is largely a ceremonial title; Century-Emperors are subject to specific constitutional limits on their powers as detailed in the text of Charter of Families (see appendix two). Riskannon has been an AW member since AW 532.
Mission overview (2): Naden Mor Aldoz is in the 84th year of the Aldoz Family’s current stewardship of the Century Throne. Naden has implemented a program of progressive reform and expressed interest in re-establishing relations with Taormika, a former colony planet [P2974] which broke away from the Republic in AW 419 following a ten-year conflict (See appendix four). Under Section 11 of the AW Third Charter, Naden has formally but confidentially requested assistance from Aligned Research and Intelligence in locating and returning Rumav to Riskannon.

Mission objective: Your contract is to locate Rumav Sil Aldoz and return him to Riskannon alive and unharmed, in suitable condition to re-establish a stable chain of succession. Operating procedures are governed by your sole discretion and risk. Compensation and bonus will be based on our agreed rates according to the current contract. To review your current contract (ER 428GIR) with ARI—

Foxe waved his hand to kill the file. He knew what he was worth to Aligned Research and Intelligence. His contract came up for review next year; he hoped he’d be able to negotiate an increase in his rates. In the meantime . . .
            This was better than lying around his cube on Oberix, reading and waiting for the comm to buzz while he popped nightmare suppressants or just drank enough Centauri whiskey to keep dead people out of his head when he passed out. A mission was a mission: a chance to erase the past and ignore the future, and make some money. Money that he probably wouldn’t live long enough to spend, but he didn’t know what else to do with the rest of his life—however long or short that turned out to be.
            Maybe this will be the one that gets me, he thought. It would almost be a relief. The job sounded routine, but he’d learned the hard way: the seemingly complicated missions frequently turned out to be pretty simple, while the easy ones could turn intense in an instant.
            Foxe stared for a moment at the blank screen, and caught his reflection in the dark surface. Then he turned the handcomp face down. He knew what he looked like.
Eyes like gray clouds. Hair the color of dirt. Scars across his neck from the burns he’d suffered during the mission on Bekkas-tau.
An orphaned child of the Varrian system civil war, raised by local refugees who reluctantly trained a kid to become a resistance fighter in the insurgency against the occupying forces from Varrias-2. After years of bloody fighting, the Aligned Worlds finally decided to step in and impose a peace, and the only way for Foxe to escape the enemies he’d made as an insurgent was to enlisted in the Aligned Worlds Military Force, where he trained as a sniper and saboteur. So he’d served four years in AW MilForce before being court-martialed for assault on a superior officer.
Then he got recruited by ARI one year later.
Security consultant, contract agent, troubleshooter, mercenary, whatever you wanted to call it. Working mostly for ARI—Aligned Research and Intelligence. AW’s intelligence and covert-action section.
            And—oh, yeah. Dreamer of dead people.

* * *
TWO: M’tajj

“I’m looking for this being.” Foxe passed the holocard to M’tajj.
            He sat on a large round cushion, soft as null-field pool. Softer than the cot in Spark’s storeroom. Two of his dead had visited him in the night: a soldier from Antecore, and the Varrian woman who’d tried to sell him out to the occupation forces. The same questions. The same accusing eyes. The same relief when he woke up to start working.
            The parlor smelled like jasmine tea. A tapestry of vines, woven together and still alive, covered one wall, quivering as the larva in its silky strands sucked moisture from the air. It filled the suite with a pale violet glow that matched the wine-red shade of the thick illi-grass rug beneath his boots.
            M’tajj held the holocard in the bucket-sized paw of his larger hand, focusing two of his pearl eyes at Rumav. He used one of his small secondary hands to roll the card’s trackball with a gentle, snakelike finger, turning Rumav around, viewing him from above, from floor level, from the back, from the side. “Humanoid races are so . . . difficult.”
            “Yeah, we all look alike.” It was almost amusing—some planets fought wars because half the population had six fingers and the other half had five, but D’tarrians like M’tajj could barely distinguish humans from hairless, gray-skinned Narixians or Rann-dishii with their twitching eyestalks sprouting from the top of their skulls.  “But you can find him.”
            “I will find him.” M’tajj stated. “Twenty-five hours or less time. The price is ten thousand.”
            ARI would pay the bill, of course, but he didn’t want to insult M’tajj by agreeing too readily—make him think he could get more cees out of the deal later. “No. Five thousand cees.”
            “Leave.” He flung the holocard at Foxe’s face. “Mother of worms.”
            “Dirt mother. Seven thousand cees.”
            “You will lick my small hand. Ten thousand!”
            Foxe grinned. “I would chew your weak fingers and spit the eggs from them.” The exchange of insults was actually a form of respect among D’tarrians—recognition that a being had the strength to withstand abuse. “But I will pay eight thousand to avoid the taste of your slimy blood.” He held out his c-chip.
            “Mother of worms!” M’tajj snatched the chip with a small hand and jammed it into his credit reader. “Nine thousand.”
            “Your eggs are diseased. Your fathers spit into the circle. But—okay. Nine is a good number.” Foxe leaned forward and tapped his code into the reader. “Are we done?”
“I will message you.” M’tajj reached for a bowl filled with squirming white worms with his big hand. He shoveled the worms into his mouth. “Leave now and let me work.”
Foxe stood, his legs aching. A D’Tarrian female emerged from the next chamber to nudge him insistently toward the door. “Master is finished,” she hissed in his ear. “Leave him to his work.”
M’tajj lived in an apartment on 2-Alexis, closer to Arcade Center than Spark’s place and one level higher toward the station core. From his suite he could tap into the station’s ubiquitous security cams despite all the sophisticated anti-hackware the station used. Foxe suspected bribery and a co-operative arrangement with Crystal Security, which worried him, but he didn’t have many options.
            Foxe had spent most of the previous night checking the hostels, pleasure pits, and other likely destinations where a visitor like Rumav would mix in without attracting attention. A search program he’d set running through the connection in Spark’s storeroom was sifting the public infonets for any imprint of a being matching the Riskanon prince’s description. He might catch something lucky, but he couldn’t count on his own efforts in a station this size. M’tajj had a reputation for results—and high fees.
Foxe had already tracked down two passengers on the transport that had brought Rumav here to the station. The Muranni had denied recognizing Rumav at all; he’d been too busy calculating profit margins and checking on his cargo, he insisted to Foxe. The Ustalli recognized Rumav but immediately declared his innocence of anything that might have happened to him: “I didn’t do anything to him! He left the ship and I haven’t seen him! Is he dead? Detained? In debt? I do not know him!”
M’Tajj might locate Rumav through the station network, but Foxe couldn’t lounge around waiting for possible results. He had one more name to check out: a Khonian female who went by Andreal. Her suite was also along the 2-Alexis section, just a few doors down the corridor from M’Tajj.
He pressed the commpad on Andreal’s door. A voice, low and lazy: “Yesss?”
            “I need to talk to you.”
            “Do you want to fornicate? What human class are you? I can accommodate—”
            “Not sex. Information.”
            The door opened a moment later. The Khonian, taller than Foxe, wore a translucent kimono that fluttered loosely around her body. Stripes lashed her copper-colored flesh. “Who are you?”
            “Foxe. You’re Andreal Lar-3. You were on TA-153 from Vostros Platform.”
            “This is fascinating.” She cocked her head. Long, silvery hair dangled over her shoulders. “Tell me my deepest, darkest secrets.”
            “Actually I’m hoping you can tell me about Hanbor Das Tenpil. He was aboard the transport with you. I need to find him. His parents.”
            She smirked. “How touching their concern.” Then she stepped back. “Come inside.”
            Smaller than M’Tajj’s suite, the room looked like an explosion at a fabric replicator. Colorful clothing lay across the double-sized bed, the two chairs, the table pulled out from the wall, and the computer on its perch next to the bed. Enough to stock an entire Varrian refugee camp. Foxe took a position in the center of the room where he could keep his eyes on the hallway door and the entrance to the refresher chamber, with Andreal in the middle.
            She picked up a silky blue shirt from the bed. “You like this one?”
            “Tell me about Hanbor.”
            “A child. Too serious. Cute, but worried. He didn’t want to talk or . . .” She stroked a strand of ebony hair from her slim shoulder. “ . . . Anything.”
            “Worried about what?”
            “Saying too much. You could hear him thinking— ‘Was that right? Did I make a mistake?’ Beings lie to me all the time. Part of the enjoyment for them.”
            “What lies did he tell you?”
            “Very few. What he told me . . ..” She smiled. “He didn’t bring anything to sell, and he wasn’t interested in anything to buy. He’d never been here before but he didn’t ask anyone about where to go, who to see. I don’t think he wanted to stay very long. He kept his bag next to him in the passenger lounge, carried it to the sanitor. No cargo. He was alone, and frightened. He did ask—” She stopped, her eyes glistening.
            “You want to buy some spices? I’ve got one that will attract any human female, another one for males, and many that will send them away when you get bored. Or—”
            “Do you have one that will get people to stop wasting time?”
            She sighed. “He asked about pilots. Where he could find one. He pretended to be looking for a friend, but he didn’t know enough to fake it.”
            “What did you send him?”
            “Adras—he was our pilot—told him to go to first level, down near the Branch. Pilot’s Ward.” She shook her head. “That’s all. He should have asked more questions—who to trust, what offices to stay away from, which trade halls were reputable. None of that. I hope he’s all right.”
            “Now who’s lying?”
            Her laugh was harsh, a warning. “You got what you came for—like everyone who visits me. Unless you want . . .” She pulled on the strap around her waist, letting the kimono fall open again.
            “If I had time.” He let his eyes wander up and down her body. Whatever enhancements she’d had performed were seamless.
            She tied the kimono again, smoothing the silk around her slender hips. “That’s the first thing you said that I believe.”
            “I’m on the job.”
            “So am I. Get out now.”
            Pilot’s Ward. Safe enough if you knew what to ask and where to go for an honest discussion. Dangerous for a kid who’d probably never said more to a D-space pilot than “When do we get there?” But it was a lead. He left the Khonian to her business.
            In the passageway a human female walked toward him from the direction of the M’tajj suite. Short red hair flared around her head like a shield. She wore a sleeveless maroon shipsuit that fastened at her shoulder, and an ion pistol strapped to her leg. Their eyes met for an instant; hers were sharp and blue like the edge of a knife. Foxe nodded. She ignored him and walked on as he passed.
            He looked at M’tajj’s door. Did she come from there? No. Well, maybe . . . He walked to the door and tapped the commpad.
            The D’tarrian female glared at him on screen, arms cocked in a protective stance. “He hasn’t called you.”
            “Was my friend here?” Foxe asked. “Human female, red hair?”
            The screen went black without an answer.

* * *

THREE: Lonan-en

“Spark is dead,” said Lonan-en. The Narixian tossed two twelve-sided dice on the gaming table between them. Seventeen.
            “Spark is dead.” Foxe scooped up the dice and flung them. Twenty-two. A bad throw, but losing could be as useful to him right now as winning. “His bar’s still in business.”
            Pagh on his bar! He wasn’t meant to spend his years spilling swill for scum merchants. Spark was a pilot! Like me!” Lonan-en hurled the dice.
Eleven. The Narixian had won the round.
            Foxe dropped a cee-tab worth 50 credits on the table. “He seemed happy.”
            “A fertile mate can twist anyone’s path.” He picked up the dice. “Again?”
Most Narixians gambled compulsively. Evolutionary biologists speculated it had something to do with the sweeping waves of random volcanic eruptions across their home planet hundreds of thousands of years ago that made every decision a bet against bad odds. Some religious cults required acolytes to play dice endlessly. Others limited the games to just days. Or weeks.
Foxe had met Lonan-en during a previous visit to Crystal Rendezvous. They weren’t friends, or enemies, but they had Spark in common. In a place like Crystal Rendezvous, that was enough for a temporary alliance.
They sat across from each other at a gaming table in the Astari Pilots’ Guild. Foxe dug the holocard from his vest. “Look at something for me.”
Lonan-en considered the image of Rumav, his multi-celled eyes sparkling. “Who is this?”
            “Hanbor Das Septil. He showed up here a few days ago. Family wants me to find him. He might be looking for a pilot.”
             The Narixian swiveled his head around open area. Most of the gaming tables around them were empty, but near the doors of the Astari Guild a handful of beings waited to be called in for consultation.
Lonan-en dropped the card. “I’ve never seen him. But one can find pilots anywhere.”
            “The Guild is the place to start for someone who doesn’t know the way around.”
Foxe picked up the dice. “I want you to ask the pilots if they’ve seen him.”
            “Because I’m a pilot myself? They can lie to me as easily as anyone.”
            “They’ll talk to you because they know you.” He rolled the two dice in his hand. “Let’s bet.”           
            Lonan-en nodded. “Throw.”
Foxe tossed the dice. Sixteen.
Lonan-en clutched the dice between skinny fingers. “Yesss . . .” he hissed.
            The dice rolled across the table. Eleven.           
Foxe lifted the dice. Lonan-en was honest. And Foxe had beaten the odds before. He tossed the dice.
            But not today. Nineteen. “Yes!” The Narixian slapped the edge of the table.
            He dropped another tab on the table. “The dice never lie.” It was a Narixian proverb. Shoving the chair back—
            Lonan-en’s arm reached out to hold his wrist. “Let’s bet. On Hanbor! If I find him, two hundred cees.”
            “And if you don’t?”
            Narixians didn’t smile, exactly, but Lonan-en’s eyes sparkled. “Then we can bet on something else.”
            Foxe slid the holocard across the table. “Good luck.”
“There’s no luck. Just time.” He stood on spindly legs. “A clan proverb. My regards to Dianar. Fertile.” He shivered.
            Foxe watched him stride away, heading for Astari Guild. The beings outside looked resentful as he stepped through the door, and shot suspicious eyes at Foxe.
            He ignored them, walking away. Lonan-en was right—Rumav could find a pilot anywhere on the station. And if he wanted to avoid pursuit, the Ward wasn’t necessarily the safest place to look. Legitimate pilots and crews would insist on ID, even if they didn’t examine its authenticity very closely. But Rumav would start here. Maybe Lonan-en would get lucky.
            But how much time did they have? Rumav could be gone already, on his way to any planet in the Aligned Worlds or outside of it, or to a station off the charts, or—anywhere. The psych profile from ARI gave Foxe a few hints about his personality: Rumav was serious but uncertain, awkward in the kind of formal situations a prince had to participate in. A good student—his tutors rated his intelligence highly. No long-term girlfriends, just a few brief liaisons with women more interested in forging a political connection than a passionate one. He treated his family’s attendants with kindness and respect, and didn’t push himself into political matters. Princes in other generations had already built a power base by Rumav’s age; he seemed intent on studying history, along with philosophy and mathematics as secondary subjects.
Nothing in the data Foxe had seen suggested he’d feel at home wandering a station like Crystal Rendezvous. Foxe had walked past two fights in the corridors on his way to Pilots’ Ward. He’d watched two predatory Krivon prostitutes try to seduce a young pilot in Spark’s place last night before Dianar had thrown them out. Rumav might be lucky enough to survive a few days on his own here. Or he might already be dead.
            But if he was looking for a pilot, and got nowhere here in the Ward, he could make his way to other places where pilots didn’t ask as many questions. Or answer them.

* * *

FOUR: Tijo

The corridors of 2-Carmen were molded from same transaluminum materials as the rest of the station, but the section had its own distinct flavor. Odors of spice and flesh drifted through the circulating air. Knots of beings lounged in the passageways, talking, arguing, playing games. And children. What idiot would bring kids to a station like Crystal Rendezvous? Kids ran up and down in every direction, a mixture of races and genders and skins and limbs, playing and fighting and ignoring the adults like children in any school or playground in the galaxy.
            He felt ignored but not invisible as he walked; he knew every eye would flicker across him, every nose and tongue would analyze his scent, sensitive membranes in ears and foreheads and chests would listen to his footsteps, breathing, and heartbeat. He was a stranger on a station of strangers. He’d have to earn whatever he claimed.
            Foxe dodged a duo of post-larval Sprinj and looked for claws and Life-charms.
            In casino on 3-Alexis for everything from checkers to particle-pistol roulette, Foxe had met an Utan who whose life-partner had seen Rumav twenty-three hours before. Foxe couldn’t question the partner directly, because the Utan had just killed him for cheating at Tridice. But the partner had sent Rumav to his family of pilots on 2-Carmen. Foxe would recognize them from the ceremonial Life-charms they wore around their necks.
            He spotted one female humanoid wearing a Life-charm on a chain around her hips, but she wasn’t an Utan. He avoided her flirtacious eyes. Further down the passageway, though, he spotted two Life-charms. One being was elderly, with a gray mane of hair receding from his forehead, and he wore a long dark jacket with an intricate snakelike design on the loose sleeves. Six or seven Life-charms dangling around his neck. A younger Utan in a sand-colored tunic tapped his claws against the wall in a lazy rhythm.
            Foxe approached them with slow footsteps, his hands in the open. “Excuse me.”
            “What is?” the young one asked. His arms were long with wiry muscles. He had a knife strapped to one leg and a pulser on the other.
            Again the holocard. “I was told this being came down here looking for a pilot.”
            The old one leaned forward; his young companion watched him protectively. “No. Go.”
            Foxe looked at the younger one. “How about you?”
            “Muja say go.” The tapping of his claws on the bulkhead grew louder, faster.
            The language packet in Foxe’s brain could translate every tongue known to the AW, but Foxe couldn’t memorize the body language of over a hundred different races. Their instant dismissal spiked his suspicion, though. Everyone else had taken a second or third look at Rumav before turning him away. Crystal Rendezvous made visitors skeptical and defensive, but also greedy—or desperate. Few beings here would turn away a chance to coax a reward or bribe out of someone asking questions.
            “Okay, there might be some reward money involved—”
            “Go!” Muja ordered.
            The younger male stopped his song and spread his claws, but his eyes were on Muja, not Foxe, as if waiting for a command.
            Foxe shrugged. He could come back and find the young one later. “Thanks any—”
            “Tijo, teach him,” the elder snapped.
            The kid sprang forward, but in his instant obedience he wasn’t ready for a real fight. Foxe ducked his slashing claws and kicked at a rear-flexing leg, and Tijo tripped, a growl in his throat.
            The old one roared and lunged faster than Foxe thought possible, claws extended. Foxe threw himself backward and down, hitting the floor and rolling, and swung a kick that caught Muja in the ribs. The old one grunted, but then leaped at him like a Kairean wingcat. Foxe blocked his arm and jabbed a fist at his chest, surprised at the ferocity of the elderly being’s attack. He didn’t want to kill Muja but he wasn’t sure the old guy would give him an option.
            He hit Muja again, ignoring shouts around him, and Muja staggered a step back, breathing in harsh gasps. Foxe faked a reach for the pulser on his hip and twisted as Muja swung claws at his shoulder. Spinning away, Foxe grabbed Muja’s arm and slammed him against the bulkhead. Then he dropped, feeling the hiss of Tijo’s claws over his head.
            He thrust himself backward, hitting Tijo in the stomach with his shoulder. They crashed to the deck. Foxe stabbed his fingers at Tijo’s leg, hoping to hit a nerve cluster. Tijo yelped and kicked, and his knee hit Foxe’s face. A cloud of red pain blurred his eyes but he jabbed again, harder. Tijo howled and pounded his fists at Foxe’s back. A claw zipped across the back of his neck and he felt blood.
            The pain and the blood jolted him like a slap of cold water across the face.           Foxe rolled away from Tijo’s legs, his face skidding against the deck, and scrambled to his feet again. His vision was still foggy, but he let the throbbing in his face and neck focus his senses. He felt the rush of air as Tijo charged at him again. He lowered his arms and then snapped then outward, forcing the clawed hands wide, and he reached in and grabbed for the young being’s neck. He didn’t want to kill Tijo, but maybe he could cut off his air long enough to—
            Tijo leaned in, his breath hot against Foxe’s forehead. “Leave Muja and go,” he whispered. “Will talk. Will talk! But go, go!”
            Foxe shoved Tijo’s chest and pushed him away. Tijo collided with Muja, who grasped his shoulder and held him upright, and Foxe backed away, hands high.
“I’m going!” he shouted, not having to pretend he felt afraid. “Enough! You win! I’m going!”
            “Go!” Muja roared. “Like a coward, go!”
            Foxe had never minded being thought a coward. Catching his breath, he glanced at the faces of the crowd around him. Some wore fear, others were frustrated that the fight was ending without serious bloodshed. But they parted as he walked backward, his eyes on Tijo.
            Just another day on Crystal Rendezvous, he thought again.

Tijo found him an hour later. Foxe sat on a narrow, low bench in a tube center, drinking cold water from a flask. He watched the twin tubes disgorge and accept passengers, some rising “up” toward the station axis, others descending “down” toward the inner hull. He pretended that Rumav might emerge through one of the doors, and thought about what he’d tell him. But no lost prince appeared, just beings in twos and threes or more, or fewer: security guards carrying massive pulsers on their shoulders, Tanda dealers barely dressed for their casino shift, crew from various ships trying to find their direction. No Tumav.
            He took some paincaps to soften the throbbing in his face but he knew the bruise would grow into a purple blotch until he could get a patch to repair the internal bleeding. He knew a Bekkan chant that was supposed to relieve pain, but it would take him inside himself, and he didn’t want the distraction. Rumav still might walk by, and in any case he’d stayed alive a long time by never assuming any location was completely safe.
            Tijo popped through the up-tube doors, saw him, and sat down at his side, his chest rising and falling as if he were still out of breath from their struggle. “Fight hard, you.”
            “You too.” Tijo’s moves had been clumsy, but enthusiastic. And he had some power in his muscles. Foxe could have killed him right away, but pointing that out now might ruin his chance at getting information.
            “Not want to fight. But Muja, my mother’s uncle. Must follow his say.”
            He nodded. “Sometimes you have to, like it or not.”
            “Is yes.”
            Foxe pulled out the holocard in a motion that felt too familiar to his muscles. “So?”
            “Yes. We see. Want a pilot.”
            “Did he find one?”
            “Not us. Has no money. Robbed, says. Three beings hit him, take all his cees. Will pay us after he get where he want, says. But no pilot believe that. Not us.”
            “Where did he want to go?”
            Tijo hesitated, as if unsure of his memory. “It was . . . Taormika.”
            The breakaway colony. Riskannon had joined AW, but not Taormika. They didn’t have an AW Prism in orbit above their skies. To go there Rumav needed to get himself away from Riskannon, someplace where he could find direct transport without being recognized, without having to explain himself.
            Maybe not simple adolescent rebellion. Following a moshi-band from system to system, joining a religious cult like Vaticlave or the Promise, pursuing a girlfriend or boyfriend—that’s what Foxe had expected. Even if Rumav didn’t want anything more than to annoy his parents by flirting with their oldest enemies, the mission had just gotten a lot more politically complicated.
            “Where did Muja send him?”
            “Registry Office. Sign on to work ship, maybe one take to Taormika. Or close.”
            “Close” in interstellar terms meant nothing. Rumav couldn’t walk the last few light years. He had to find a ship going straight to Taormika, or hope to strike a deal with a captain willing to make an unscheduled detour. And that put him at the mercy of a crew who didn’t care who he was or where he wanted to go.
            Maybe no captain had taken him on. Yet. He had to move. But . . .
            “Why did Muja tell you to teach me a lesson?” Foxe asked.
            “Muja is angered by other one, before. He comes with same questions, but no respect. You come with—”
            Foxe’s spine stiffened. “What other one?”
            “Shrinn his name. Look like boy you want.” He wiggled his fingers. “More of these than me or you. And—” He tapped his right eye. “Scar. Like a hook. Ask about boy.”
            “When? The boy, and the other one?”
            “Boy, last night. Man, this morning.”
            “All right.” He opened a pocket in his vest. “Let me—”
            “No. No money.”
            “Then why? What are you doing here?”
            Tijo stood. “We fight, you and me. Good fight. Maybe you help boy. Boy need help. Boy stupid.”
            “Stupid,” Foxe agreed. “Thank you.”
            Tijo walked to the down-tube without looking back at Foxe.
Foxe tapped M’Tajj’s callcode into the comsol on his arm. Registry was one level up.
            M’tajj Randahosko is elsewhere, a female D’Tarrian voice said. Please leave your message. A chirp.
            “The target may have gone down to the Registry Office yesterday,” Foxe said. “Check there. Look for anyone he talked to. Please get back to me as soon as possible.” He closed the line, then called Lonan-en.
            “Ah, Foxe.” Lonan-en’s voice sounded calm as ever. “So quick.”
            “Your friend made contact with a pilot two days ago, but never returned for the meeting. Others remember seeing him—”
            “He was robbed. I had someone just tell me they sent him to Registry, maybe sign on as crew. Do you know anybody up there?”
            “No, I . . . wait, yes. Lila Frayne is a matchmaker there. She may help—or maybe not. She tried to strangle me a month ago.”
            “Well . . .” Foxe didn’t know the Narixian that well. Maybe he deserved it. “All right. Thanks.” The tube door was sliding open.
            “Wait,” said Lonan-en. Foxe stepped aside as a trio of exhausted maintenance techs in grimy coveralls wandered out. “Another being was asking about your friend. Not me, but I heard from an associate—”
            “A humanoid male, right? Shrinn? What did—”
            “A female. Human, or close enough to make no difference. Red hair. Yesterday.”
            Foxe stayed in the passageway and let the lift doors close. “A woman?”
            “My associate found her highly arousing.”
            He frowned, thinking of the woman in a sleeveless shipsuit outside M’tajj’s suite/ “Red hair? Dressed how?”
            “I didn’t get a fashion report. But yes, red hair. And he did speak repetitively about her shoulders.”
            Working with Shrinn—whoever he was? Or another player in the game? “Thanks.” He closed the link.
            Okay. He could handle this. At least on Crystal Rendezvous he could eliminate the competition without much official interference if they ran across each other. Just one more variable to keep track of. Yeah, he could deal with them if he had to.
            Maybe they’d stay clear of him. Maybe.

* * *

FIVE: Shrinn

Shrinn leaned against the bulkhead, waiting for the three Murrani to walk past him. Their bony shoulders pressed close to each other, and they laughed in hissing whispered like lovers, or smugglers. The female in the center smiled at him as one of the males tugged playfully at her skimpy vest.
Shrinn kept his eyes toward the deck, keeping track of their movements without looking directly at them.
What were they doing here? Lanesh had chosen the maintenance node down on 3-Carmen because these passageways were rarely traveled. But maybe that was why these three were walking the decks. If he killed these Murrani, all three, would anyone file with the Crystal Blades and pay the fees to investigate their disappearance? This station was a playground for criminals, anarchists, the sludge of the galaxy. He’d be doing civilization a service.
The security cam feed from this section of the corridor would show nothing, thanks to Lanesh’s hackware. But he was committed to the mission. His orders. That came first, always.
The three Murrani turned a corner. The female curled her neck for one last look at him, then disappeared.
He turned to the access panel in the bulkhead behind him and punched an entry code into the control pad. The readout turned green, and he slid the panel aside.
            Lanesh was pointing her Kobar ion pistol at him, her hand firm on the handle. She had pale yellow hair and steady hands.
            “At ease, Lanesh.” He pulled the panel closed. A small glowbulb illuminated the cramped maintenance node. Cables wrapped in bunches hung across the walls, linked to junction boxes, and the atmosphere circulator couldn’t quite fight the odor of sweat mixed with chemical lubricants pulsing through bare plasteen pipes.
            She holstered her weapon. He saw the hint of a smile in her narrow eyes, and the hope of one in return.
            Not now. “Report,” he said.
            She hid whatever disappointment she may have felt. “Declannes squirted a message over.”
            Declannes. Alone on their ship, monitoring communications. Waiting. “Let’s see it.”
She swung around in her pull-out chair. Lanesh’s fieldcomp was hooked into the station’s surveillance scanners. The hardscreen above displayed multiple images from passageways and public spaces throughout the station, as well as the private suites she’d been able to hack into. Lanesh lowered those feeds to the bottom of her screen with a flick of a finger and signaled a new command. “Here.”
One short step brought him to Lanesh’s shoulder. The systems maintenance room they’d taken over was small, and he could feel every breath she took. He could imagine station personnel sneaking inside for a quick rendezvous. But he couldn’t afford to let his thoughts drift in that direction.
            Darel Tur Calibron. Shrinn had last seen him only six days ago, but the Third Minister for Defense on Riskannon seemed to have aged years in a short time. His long thin braids had more gray in them, and his flat face looked as if it might crack like an antique plate at any moment.
            Darel rubbed his long jagged nose. He was afraid. Shrinn had seen it from the beginning. The Minister’s determination was strong, but his anxiety was like a storm, crashing against his resolve, fading back for a while, then returning with renewed fury. Now it was swirling in his body, and Darel fought to maintain control of his voice as he spoke.
            “I’ve had no report from you. The schedule is . . . it can be accelerated, if necessary, but that would mean diminished objectives.” He frowned. “Locating the target is imperative.
            “Of course it is,” Lanesh muttered.
            Shrinn hid a smile. He should have reprimanded her: Disrespect to a superior was something the Corps didn’t tolerate. But he’d learned long ago that he didn’t have to hear every murmur from his people. And Lanesh was correct: Shooting a message pod here was dangerous. Planetary Defense could detect a transition anywhere within its orbital grid, and a preset D-space pathway would leave markers that could be untangled with the right software and a few good guesses. A worried reminder that the mission was important wasn’t worth the risk.
            Darel must be closer to absolute panic than I thought. Not for the first time, Shrinn wondered whether he should have rejected this mission—and reported Darel for treason.
            But Darel, for all his nervousness, was no coward—unlike the Century Emperor.
            “I have received word that the—someone related to the target . . .” Darel took a breath, conscious of the mistake he’d almost made. “Someone has retained the services of a freelance agent. This agent may be as close as you. Watch for him. Or her. Don’t take any chances.”
            Chances. As if this mission wasn’t the biggest risk any of them had ever taken.
            Darel gritted his teeth, trying to look fierce. “Report as soon as possible. With results.” His image froze, then disappeared.
            “A freelance agent?” Lanesh brought the cam feeds back up onto her screen and highlighted one square, maximizing it. “There’s been no sign of the Heir on cam. Yulin and Jenks are sweeping 2-Bemani, with Catret and Wynne on 2-Darr. They anticipate shifting to their next patterns in three hours. Unless they find him. But the agent is . . . here. At the Registry.”
            Lanesh had launched a program to sift the security cam feeds for any beings matching Rumav’s description, and she’d added a few other elements to the mix so they could monitor—
            “Foxe.” They’d picked him up using Rumav’s alias several times, and Lanesh had started monitored him closely. Now he was standing in a cubicle marked L. Frayn by the system, which also identified her as a recruiting agent—a matchmaker for ships looking to hire crew from any being looking for a cheap escape from Crystal Rendezvous.
            The freelance agent was male. Slender, short dark hair. He didn’t look overly muscular, but his sharp eyes had an intense focus. Even standing still, he looked powerful and dangerous.
            Shrinn had watched a playback of the human’s fight with the clawed Utans. Foxe moved like a whip, quick and hard, with discipline and precision. He focused on his target, struck without hesitation, and kept moving toward his next opportunity. He had military training, that was certain, and intelligence. An ordinary tracer would work the station on his own, relying on determination and luck. Foxe had enlisted assistance to expand his efforts, and he was obviously skilled at getting information, encouraging beings to talk openly with him.
            “Can you get audio?”
            “Of course.” Her slender fingers manipulated more keys. “Coming up.”
            The female Frayne was speaking. “—only two hits on his sheet, after a handful of look-sees. No confirmed offers. Short one, you know? His best skill is data scanning and research, and those aren’t the major crew slots. They want engineering skills, hard/soft tech maintenance, security. Or maybe comfort services, but you know what that means.”
            They watched as Foxe set a handcomp on the desk between them.  “Can you give me all the ships that looked at his sheet?”
            Frayne looked at the device. “That’s confidential data . . ..”
            Foxe dropped a credit tab next to the handcomp.
            She smiled and stretched her arms. “Give me two minutes.”
            “Can you get that data?” Shrinn asked.
            “One minute. And you don’t even have to bribe me.”
            Shrinn suppressed a smile as he nodded.
            He watched her fingers as they glided across the keyboard, enjoying their dexterity, their skill. The clenched muscles in Lanesh’s neck were hard knots. He held his hands behind his back, controlling the desire to touch her.           
            “Got it,” Lanesh said with a smile. “Antibes and—”
            “Here,” Frayne said. “The Triumph of Baxtill and the Antibes. Plus the—”
            Her smile of satisfaction vanished. “Damn it, I don’t know how she—” She tapped at her fieldcomp.
            “Forget about it, as long as you have the data.” Shrinn patted her shoulder lightly.
            On the screen Foxe stood up. “Okay. Thanks.” He tossed another credit tab on the desk and walked away.
            Lanesh’s fingers whirled over the fieldcomp’s panel. “The target hasn’t passed through any checkpoint for either ship. Or his badge hasn’t, for all that counts.”
“Then he’s still here.” A school rat like Rumav wouldn’t know how to get a counterfeit station badge. He might not even think of getting one.
            “Aje is close.” Lanesh lifted her arm and began tapping at her comsol. “I can have him eliminate Foxe.”
            He shook his head. “I’ll take a run at him. Soft approach.”
            “What about backup?” She swiveled her chair, ready to stand and go with him.
            “Your post is right here.” He pointed at the hardscreen. “Keep track of him. But remember that Rumav is still our objective.”
            “Foxe looks substantial. You might need—“
            “I need you to follow orders.” His tone was cold.
            “Sir.” She sank down in her chair, embarrassed.
            Lanesh was a top officer. The best member of his team at field intel. And she loved him.
A sudden rush of desire heated his blood. He could take her, right here, now—just like the Night of the Knives on Cestar, when they’d been forced to wait until dawn to attack a town of Cestan larval warriors. In the rain. In the mud. Laughing, gasping, muffling their cries. Finished in minutes, unsatisfied but complete.
Not their most romantic encounter, but the most powerful in his memory.
Lanesh didn’t ask for special favors. Their relationship couldn’t interfere with the unit’s discipline. She understood that, and it meant as much to Shrinn as her passion for him. She was a member of the team, first and foremost. The team depended on him. Only that mattered.
She gave him a nod. “I will maintain my post. Sir.”
“Carry on.” He stepped to the panel.
“Be careful, sir,” she whispered.
He opened the panel, stepped into the passageway—and found the female Murrani walking back. Her round eyes flared with surprise. “Ahh . . . you have a hiding place. For play?”
He hesitated. “What happened to your friends?”
“They finished. And paid.” She straightened her vest, emphasizing the curve of her pale breasts.
“How much?”
The female leaned forward. “One hundred cees. Worth it.”
Shrinn gestured her to come closer with one hand. “All right.”
One green tongue slowly extended from her lips. “Like this?” Her legs stretched as she lifted a hand to his shoulder.
Shrinn shifted his other arm and rammed his sonic blade into her chest and thumbed the activation tab. The female grunted. Her jaw dropped, revealing her jagged teeth. He twisted the blade, digging into her furry flesh, and she grunted again as her eyes froze. Her legs sagged. He caught her before she fell, disengaged the blade, and returned it to his pocket.
Good, he thought. One less stupid cunner infecting the galaxy.  Quickly he covered her wound with dermal spray before the bleeding could spread. Then he slung her arm over his shoulder and began to carry her, murmuring in her ear as if she were drunk, too drunk to walk or fight back. He only had to get her to another section, then dump her body in a sanit cube. Where she belonged.
            No one would pay the Blades to look for her, or to hunt for her killer. Crystal Rendezvous was a place where beings vanished every day, and no one cared. Animals. Whoever found her would probably use her body for pleasure, even though she was dead.
            Find Rumav. Get off this station. Deal with Foxe—whoever he was. Do your job. No one else mattered.

* * *

SIX: Encounter

Foxe logged onto CrystalWeb at a kiosk outside the Registry. The two ships actively requesting Rumav’s sheet had already paid off their station fees and were probably already inside D-space right now. But four of the six other look-sees were still docked at the Branch:Queen of CastledonS’harefQuili’s Fire, and Anistor.
The names and registration info told him nothing. He couldn’t search each ship, any more than he could interrogate every being on the station. He needed to work faster now that he had competition in the game.
            A sharp pang in his stomach reminded him that he’d eaten only a nut bar for breakfast. He could go several days without food—once in the mountains on Metras he’d gone a week and a half on nothing but a few bugs while hiding from a vengeful nark dealer—but the odor of grilled eel and baked sweets from the restaurant seemed to attack the hollow feeling like a smart missile. He could ignore the hunger. The impatience growing inside his guts was more insistent.
            He called Lonan-en on his comsol. The Narixian listened to his list of ships. “Well, Smitty of S’haref only checks the postings to look for sex partners. The others I don’t know. I have heard from Delmass of Masonian, who says a being with seven fingers approached him, but he already had a contract to Sector Seven. I am running out of places and beings to ask.”
            “So you concede defeat?” Not that the money mattered to Foxe.
            “There is no luck—only time,” Lonan-en reminded him.
            “I’m running out of time. I’ll send your payment and we can dice for another time.” The kiosk had a credit transfer.
            “I await the day.”
            He smiled grimly at the dilemma: Where did he want Rumav to be right now? On station—where he might be captured or killed before Foxe could locate him? Or on a ship headed anywhere in the galaxy? Where he might be safer for the short term, but harder to find than a speck of interstellar dust?
            Too many options could drive a being crazy. The Bekkan monks had taught him a proverb: Roots in the ground guide the tree toward the stars. The tree never got to the stars, of course, but that wasn’t the point. The tree stayed connected to the world around it. He had to do the same.
            He began calling each ship’s recruiter individually. The conversations were mostly short and uninformative. One recruiter challenged Foxe to a duel for suggesting he’d try to dodge the Registry commission payment by hiring “Hanbor” off-book; Foxe pleaded cultural stupidity to calm him down before signing off. He sat back and rubbed his eyes. Debasing himself to strangers was the easiest part of the job. At least he no longer had to do it to screaming staff sergeants.
            When he opened his eyes something around him felt . . . different. He automatically brought his comsol to his face and punched in a random code, frowning to the error message and punching in another code while he scouted the area. A human couple near the kiosk were kissing; a Narixian female sauntered from the Admin office; a mixed group stood in front of the Registry office, speaking quietly among themselves. Nothing unusual.
            He’d spent too much time alone on a hundred different worlds, waiting for something to happen, to mistake the feeling of being watched. A subtle flicker of the eyes, an unexpected movement—or the lack of motion, a halt, sudden silence. He couldn’t always find it, and sometimes it probably meant nothing. But he didn’t dare ignore the sensation if he wanted to stay alive.
            He stood up form the kiosk. The human couple moved away, down a corridor. Foxe followed them, not because he thought they were watching him, but to see who followed him. Drawing out surveillance was always tricky—too many other beings around and they’d lose each other; too few and the pursuer might simply drop away. With a little luck he could find a spot out of sight without alerting the hunter—and without giving the hunter a clear shot at him. He forced himself to breathe with a slow, steady rhythm, keeping all his senses pitched to their highest point.
            A lifttube junction came up. Foxe let the human couple head down the passageway and joined a trio waiting for the next lift, turning his head casually. Two symbiotic female Mestians linked through an umbilical in their chests, came up to wait.
            An Up liftcar opened. It was large enough to carry twenty beings or more, and Foxe counted eleven streaming off, some dressed for work, others for games and fun, a few not dressed at all. Then the waiting throng began filling the car. Foxe held back as if he’d changed his mind. Doors closed.
One male humanoid stayed with him, arms folded across his chest. He saw the hands. Seven fingers.
Rumav had seven fingers.
            A Down car arrived. As it cleared, Foxe looked over his shoulder. The humanoid hesitated, and Foxe stepped inside. He pressed the button to hold the car for a moment. With a mild shrug—but without direct eye contact—the seven-fingered follower slipped quickly into the car.
            Foxe stood near the control panel next to the doors. His passenger slouched against the rear wall as the car began descending. Advertisements for bars and exotic services flashed on the wallscreens around them.
            He used a glance at the flowing ads to check out his target. Brown shipsuit, no ID tags. A pulser strapped to his right hip. Sharp angles on a face tanned by harsh suns, coal-black hair cut tight like his own. Yellow eyes like distant stars, and there it was, above his right eye—a small scar, curved like a hook. Just like Tijo had told him.
The door hissed open. Foxe slipped out of the car first, moving to immediately join two Narixians and a four-armed android waiting in the junction for the next Up lift. The hook-scarred humanoid followed, as if he was no longer trying to hide. But he took a position next to an android, ready for Foxe’s next move.
            Okay. They couldn’t play comet-tag forever.
Foxe pushed the Narixians aside as the liftcar doors opened. “Sorry, none of you.” He held up a hand and gestured toward his pursuer. “Come on.”
            One of the Narixians cursed him viciously. The android remained rooted to the deck.
Foxe motioned again. “You. Come on.”
            His lips twisted in a smile. Then he stepped into the car.
The doors closed.
            Foxe stared at his face, but kept his eyes on the seven fingers close to the pulser at the man’s hip. “Shrinn.”
He nodded. “Foxe.”
             “What’s your game?”
            Shrinn met his gaze. “None of your concern. Get off this station while you can.”
            “You know that’s not going to work. Who are you working for? Why are you looking for Hanbor?”
            “Hanbor is mine. That’s all you need to know.”
            “You’re going to kill him?” They were the same race. Maybe—just maybe—Shrinn had the same mission: to bring Rumav home safely.
            “You’re just a merc. This isn’t worth you dying along with him.”
            That’s a yes, then. “And you’re a soldier? I don’t take orders anymore.”
            “Did they throw you out?”
            Foxe nodded. “Actually, yeah. Court martial. I deserved it.”
            “Don’t get in my way.”
            “We can shoot this out right now,” Foxe said. “Which is fine with me. Or you can walk out without getting anyone standing outside that door killed. And we’ll finish this later. Your choice—right now.”
            “I can see why they let you go.” The doors opened. “Coward.”
            “I’m alive. Let’s see if we both stay that way.” He gestured. “Out.”
            A human female led two androids into the liftcar, brushing past him. They glanced at Shrinn, and pressed themselves against the wall of the liftcar nervously as Shrinn watched the doors close from outside.
            Foxe took a deep breath.
            Shrinn had let him go without hesitation. That meant he expected to find him again whenever he needed to. A link into the cam network, probably. Hellcore. Shrinn, the red-haired female—how many beings were looking for Rumav? How close were they? Was Rumav even on Crystal Rendezvous yet?
            His comsol tingled. M’tajj. Luck? “Foxe here.”
            “Greetings. You should come here.”
            The doors opened again, and Foxe headed out into the junction, checking ahead and behind for Shrinn in case he’d managed to grab another car and get ahead of him. “You’ve got something?”
            “Has anyone else come to you, looking for this being?”
            A pause. “You didn’t ask for an exclusive contract.”
            Hellcore. “A human female with red hair? Or a humanoid male with yellow eyes?”
            “Not on the open network. Come to my suite.”
            Slimewhore. “I’ll be right there.”

The signal from Shrinn brought an unwanted pang to Lanesh’s throat. The mission, she told herself. Only the mission. But she couldn’t ignore the hope: Maybe he’d found Rumav. They could return. Be together. “This is L-One, all secure.”
            “This is Prime-One, all secure. Where is Foxe now?”
            She maximized his data. “He’s on . . . 2-Alexis. Possibly heading toward the D’Tarrian.”
            “I’ve approached him. He’s dangerous—a mercenary. We need to remove him. Get Aje and Catret to me. Track Foxe and keep me informed.”
            “Yes, sir.” Before she could say anything else, Shrinn cut the signal.
            Be careful. Sir. She bit her lip, then opened a signal to Aje.

* * *

SEVEN: Double

The D’tarrian female sputtered in anger as Foxe shoved past her and stalked through the outer parlor. Two more of M’tajj’s females rose from mats, dartwands dangling from their thick necks. He ignored them and waited for the inner door to open, their whispering curses and threats hovering in the air as he tapped his boot.
The door opened. Foxe marched in, then came to a quick halt, hand on his pulser.Hellcore. “Who’s that?”
M’tajj lounged on a vast pillow, his big feet propped up on a stool. “Greetings. No!” he shouted the females crowding the doorway as Foxe marched into the suite. “We are fine. It’s just business. Just the three of us.”
The females hissed in disappointment, but the door closed them out, leaving them alone. Just the three of them.
            The human female stood next to M’tajj, her bare arms folded across her chest like coiled whips. Foxe saw dark green eyes like jade, and a hard, determined chin. She wore a maroon shipsuit, an ion pistol strapped to one long leg, and Foxe saw a whispergun down by her other ankle. Her red hair framed her face like a fireball.
            “Valeria,” she snapped, as if he’d asked an impertinent question. “Valeria Lynd. What is this, M’tajj?”
            “An ethical dilemma,” the D’tarrian said. With his small hand he lifted a fat white worm and plopped it into his mouth. “Two beings . . . mmm . . . come to me for the same service. Should I perform for one and not the other? Should I expect payment from the first and not the second? Should I cheat one of you, or both? I won’t cheat myself.” He burped softly and licked his thin lips. “So what should I do? Perhaps you should decide between yourselves.” He plucked another worm.
            “Who are you?” Valeria Lynd demanded.
            “Erick Foxe. Who are you?”
            She cocked her head. “Reclamation agent. You?”
            Bounty hunter. Who was her client? “Security consultant, freelance.”
            “Mercenary.” She nodded as if she knew everything she need about him. “Who you working for?”
            “Who’s your client? There was no open bounty on this one, is there?”
            She flashed a teasing smile. “That’s a joke, right?”
            “Ha ha.” He hadn’t killed Shrinn, but it might be worthwhile to kill her—the game already had more players than he could track. But the icy look in her eyes told him she was thinking the same thing. Not the right time.
            “I want what I came for,” she told M’tajj, watching Foxe like a panther poised to strike.
            “Answer me one question,” Foxe said.
            She shrugged one bare shoulder. “Maybe.”
            Her eyes flickered, suspecting a trick. “Who?”
            “Male humanoid with yellow eyes and seven fingers. Short black hair. A scar above one eye. Is he one of yours?”
            “I’m here on my own.”
            Whether that was good or bad he didn’t know right now. “Seen him?”
            “No . . .” She frowned, searching her memory. “Maybe.”
            “Maybe this isn’t the job for you. Why don’t you go home and get some training in hologame design?”
            She smirked. “Ha ha. All right, M’tajj. Give it.”
            M’tajj rolled forward on his cushion and stood with a grunt. On his big feet he tromped to vine curtain and pulled it aside, revealing a viewscreen tall as he was, surrounded by tapestries of swirling blue dirsilk. He inserted a reed-like datatube into a socket. The screen flared.
            Scattered images raced across the shimmering energy screen like random pulser blasts. Foxe glimpsed an empty kitchen, followed by two andys in an arena fighting each other with gleaming swords, and then a crowded tube center. Then the screen flickered. Strings of light rearranged themselves until he and Valeria saw Rumav standing between two doorways, hands lifted in a weak defensive stance, as three beings closed in one him.
            “Robbed, as you reported,” M’t’ajj said. Two of the beings—humans, held Rumav’s arms, which twisted and flailed until the third attacker, a blue humanoid with arms almost a meter long, began beating his chest and stomach. Rumav tried to back away from the punches, to curl up and protect his torso, but in just a few moments he was sagging in the humans’ arms, his fists clenched helplessly. The Blue stopped him pummeling and grabbed Rumav’s face, turning it left and right, poking at his mouth as if examining his teeth. Then he stepped back and caressed Rumav’s cheek like a tender lover.
            The two humans released his arms, and he dropped to the deck. They ran their hands across his body, ripping credit chips from his pockets. Rumav clutched at his station badge like a talisman that might still protect him, and they left it alone. Then all three walked away, leaving Rumav in a twitching lump as he gasped for air.
            Valeria stared at the screen, her face cold. She whispered something Foxe couldn’t hear.
            “He had no money left to file with the Blades, so nothing was done, of course.” M’tajj’s finger tapped the datatube. “The next morning he was here.”
He showed them a view of Pilots’ Ward. Rumav was talking to a Udorian, one arm pressed to his ribs, pausing every few seconds for breath.
            “I talked to that one,” Valeria said. “His breath smelled like stale mutefish.”
            “Quiet,” said Foxe. “I’m not paying for vacation highlights, M’tajj. Where is he now?”
            M’tajj replied with a long curse that had something to do with Foxe’s grandfather. “Any idiot being can scan the camfiles. I analyze everything. Everything.” He froze the image, then zoomed in at a point beyond Rumav’s shoulder—two beings sharing an I-Cube, apparently playing a game. M’tajj pushed his finger deeper into the socket, grunting, and the image sharpened.
            Two humans. They’d held Rumav’s arms while the Blue beat him.
            “Do they show up again?” Valeria demanded.
            “For several hours. This is yesterday, 1328. Today, at 802 . . .” The image whirled and reconnected at the Central Arcade, just off the Branch access. Foxe saw Rumav, trudging like an exhausted trooper, one of the humans at his side. The Blue walked behind him.
            “Out into the Branch,” M’tajj said. “And then he’s gone.”
            “Who is the Blue?” Foxe asked.           
            “Well, he’s obviously Tadori,” Valeria said. “I’ve only seen a couple on station so far.”
            “His name,” Foxe insisted.
            M’tajj withdrew his fingertip, and the screen dissolved. “That is my dilemma. Who should get this information?”
            “How much?” They spoke together. Valeria shot him a laser glare.
            M’tajj sank onto his cushion and gobbled a fistful of worms with his large hand. “Ahhh . . . that is up to you.”
            “I don’t have time for games.” He wanted to jam his pulser into the D’Tarrian’s mouth, but the bounty hunter would interfere and M’tajj’s females would arrive within seconds. He waited. He saw Valeria take a deep breath, one shoulder tense.
            With his big hand M’tajj flung a slate to Foxe and then picked up a second one, tossing it to Valeria. “How much do you value this piece of information? The one who wants it more should get it. It seems fair business.”
            “Fair to the owner of the business,” Valeria said, catching the slate in one hand.
            “Money isn’t the only way to measure value,” Foxe said.
            M’tajj waved one of his small hands. “It’s the most convenient. My assistants will file a complaint with the Blades, along with full payment for a third-level investigation, if you refuse my terms and resort to violence here. The files are already prepared.”
            Valeria had punched in her bid already. “Here.”
            Foxe considered the proposition. His credit chips had enough i.c. to finance a civil war, and he could recharge them in an hour once he found a Q-Banc link on station. But ARI would take a good hard look at his cred records when he got back. If he got back. 20,000 i.c., he punched into the slate. “There’s more,” he said, holding the slate forward.
            M’tajj used two of his small arms to take the slates. His eyes glittered. Foxe glanced at Valeria. She grinned at him.
            At any other time he would have smiled back. Her arms were lean and muscular, like whips, and her eyes promised secrets she’d never reveal. But her grin was too cocky. Foxe would need to keep his guard up with her.
            He scowled at her. She turned to M’tajj.
            “You’re sure?” M’tajj said.
            M’tajj looked at Foxe. “Thank you . . .”
            Foxe reached into his vest with a heave of relief. “Here’s—”
            “. . . You may leave.”
            What the—? “Hellcore!” he said. “What did she give you?”
            M’tajj made a sighing noise and held up the slate.
            Double his bid, Valeria had punched in.
            Foxe stared at her. She winked at him.
            Damn it. He forced a smile. “I’ll have to remember that one.”
            It wasn’t over, and she knew it. He’d have to move fast, though. Get a readout on all Tadori aboard Crystal Rendezvous, or maybe just wait until she left the suite and offer M’tajj even more money.
            She slid a credit chip from a pocket and held it out to M’tajj. “Pleasure meeting both of you.”
            Liar, Foxe thought.
            M’tajj tapped a control on Valeria’s slate. “The matter is—”
            An explosion roared through the room like a plummeting meteor.
Foxe grabbed for his pulser, Valeria’s arm swung in the same motion. M’tajj pushed his chunky body to his feet, teetering like a tree cut off at its roots, and lurched toward a blue tapestry behind the curtain of vines he’d pulled away from viewscreen.
            The door burst inward, dissolving like ice under a spray of hot water. Shrieks erupted from the parlor. The deck rocked beneath his boots, and the air was suddenly thick with heat. Foxe fired at the door and saw the ion beam of Valeria’s weapon join his an instant later.
White dust swirled around the opening. A bolt of plasma, fired blindly by someone who didn’t care what he or she killed, incinerated M’tajj’s cushion, reducing it to a black lump of burning fabric that smelled like rotting leaves.
            Valeria spun like a dancer and dashed toward the blue tapestry. Foxe fired at the doorway, and another plasma bolt soared past his arm into the viewscreen. Its crystals crackled and popped and began dropping to the floor to hiss like angry hornets on the quivering illi-grass rug.
            M’tajj had vanished behind the tapestry, and he saw Valeria’s feet disappear after him. Not a bad idea, Foxe realized.  He directed a steady stream of pulser fire at the wrecked doorway.
            “Hahhh!” The vines swung back as M’tajj’s shout tore the air. Foxe dropped and rolled as M’tajj stepped out from the blue tapestry, larva dropping from the vine curtain all around him him. He held a flechette rifle in two small hands and a pulser in a third. Foxe saw an opening in the wall beyond, quick movement, and then the tapestry fell, covering the exit.
            “Harrhh!” M’tajj roared again. His slender arms trembled as he triggered a storm of tiny barbed flechettes across the room into the swirling gray cloud. Foxe heard shouts and commands through the ringing in his ears. How many attackers? No point in finding out, not as long as he had an escape route.
            “Get out!” he shouted, but M’tajj either didn’t hear or ignored him. The big D’tarrian fired his pulser along with the flechette weapon, waving his big arm defiantly over his head. Foxe flung the thick vines aside. Dozens of larva fell over his neck and scalp and down to the floor as he plunged into the shadowy shaft behind it, hoping he wasn’t retreating into some kind of trap—or that Valeria wouldn’t blast him away out of reflex.
            A second explosion rattled his skull. Foxe flattened himself on hard tile and felt shock waves roll through his spine. M’tajj’s belligerent cry of challenge twisted into a bellow of pain. “Scum of Haldon!” he heard M’tajj curse. “Plaguewhores! Demons and . . ..”
            A hiss of pulser fire cut off his deep voice like the crack of a metallic whip. Hellcore. Foxe scrambled around in the narrow space and peered out through the skein of vines.
            M’tajj’s big body lay sprawled on the rug. The illi-grass carpet was soaking up the yellow blood that leaked from his torso. Illi fed on dead bodies.
            A humanoid form emerged from the smoke carrying a compact pulser rifle. Yellow eyes roamed the room like optical scans.
            His face was stone as he caught a hint of movement behind the tapestry. More larva dropped off the vines, bouncing and writhing on the floor. Shrinn swung the rifle and pressed the firing stud, burning the vine tapestry to ash.
            Foxe pushed backward on his knees. One boot hit an obstacle while the other one kicked only empty space. How deep was the drop? Valeria must have taken it. He didn’t have much choice. Another shot from Shrinn—
            He clutched his pulser with tight fingers and rolled backward. He fell—two meters, maybe three, but they felt like light years until he hit bottom and rolled. He came up on his elbows, feeling exposed, helpless, and disoriented, but relieved that he’d been able to hang onto his weapon.
            He’d landed in a communications conduit, a long cramped tube stuffed with cables and relays and output monitors and overload shunts, Even here, holographic advertisements for bliss pits and no-limit Tanda games floated in the air. Graffiti scrawled beneath the bundles of cable declared sincere and obscene declarations of love, lust, and hatred. It was like being trapped inside someone’s unconscious brain.
            Skittering sounds rustled in the shadows. Station rats, mutated rodents and lizards that no space habitat of any decent size could exterminate completely. A flexible glowstrand, wrapped around the wall of the conduit, provided his eyes with dim light. The conduit stretched to infinity in both directions, but closer, maybe five meters up, he saw a flashing sign above a square opening. Egress? Valeria must have left it open. For him?
            Move. Shrinn wouldn’t waste time. Foxe pulled his legs around, and slipped through the opening. It put him inside a systems node, one of the hundreds of small chambers between decks and behind bulkheads, where techjocks and hardware runners performed routine maintenance on local segments of the info grid. He slammed the hatch shut and holstered his pulser, then leaned against a bank of network switchbacks and took a deep breath.
            The fear would come later, but it wasn’t fighting for control now. With another deep breath he looked around, found a door, and pushed it open. Back to work, he thought.

* * *

EIGHT: Valeria

A Dolcean female, thin as a sapling, gazed at Valeria in the liftcar as it ascended. Trap? Should have waited for a crowd, Val thought.
            The Dolcean stretched her spidery fingers wide, and Val saw her yellow skin darken to a deep gold. Sexual arousal. Oh, no—not now. She leaned back against the car wall, her hip still complaining from the fall into the service conduit, and hid her own hands behind her back, signifying rejection. “Sorry,” she whispered.
            The Dolcean curled her fingers in frustration.
            The doors opened. Val headed down the corridor, her thoughts furious but focused. Just a few more minutes and she would have had the Tadori’s name, ship, and probably his favorite dessert. M’tajj was thorough. Had been. Kitt, she cursed. Now she had nothing.
            At least the other one—Foxe?—had the same nothing to work with. Where had he come from? The client should have told her if they’d hired anyone else to look for Rumav. And that attack . . . Maybe they were working with Foxe—ordered to burst in if he didn’t get the data he wanted.
            No. She’d seen his face, just before diving for cover behind the tapestry. His eyes were hard as death, but he’d been just as surprised by the blast as any of them. He’d looked angry, but his mind had already started skipping ahead, processing the data, looking for a different angle.
Maybe they were just some angry customers. M’tajj had his enemies.
            And maybe Rumav will just walk out of that casino up ahead right now. Val kept her eyes alert for movement around her. She’d learned to anticipate good luck in this business, but it was more important to prepare for bad luck. Disastrously bad luck. Carry more weapons than you think you need, scope out additional exits wherever you were, hide some extra credit tabs inside your panties, and assume every being you see is going to ruin your day.
            She wondered if Foxe had gotten out alive.
            She headed south down the passageway, pulling open a pocket near her knee. Two paincaps—the med would take a few minutes to kick in, but just knowing they were in her system made her feel better. Keep your eyes up. They could be just around that corner. Or behind her. Pain stabbed her neck as she glanced back over her shoulder. 
            How many Tadori on station? She’d seen only a handful. Her memory was good but she hadn’t gotten a long look at the image M’tajj had captured. She’d stored her equipment in a locker just off Arcade Center. The datasifter in her pack could link into CrysNet, help her search through the Branch files for Tadori. And Foxe, for that matter. Learning more about him might—
            No. She shook her head. Foxe wasn’t important. The faster she could locate Rumav’s snatchers, extricate him, the sooner she could leave this plague-damned station. In a few days he’d be just a note in her files. Big part of the job was leaving beings behind. And I’m good at that.
            An information kiosk stood in an intersection, and a shortcut popped into her head. A human female was finishing her call. Val waited for her to walk away and stepped up to the board. She ran fingers through her synth-hair, and hoped her face hadn’t taken any bruises. She could use her comm bracelet to make the call she wanted, but that could be traced, and visual would have more impact. She unfastened her shipsuit at the shoulder, letting it drop just enough to reveal some skin beneath. Tools of the trade, she reminded herself. She punched in the code.
            Crystal Rendezvous Blade Security in sharp black letters flared across the blue screen. Analyst Jorge S-32 Dekk . . . charging your account . . . connecting . . .
            She’d met him during her last visit to Crystal Rendezvous. Good-looking but shy—easy prey for a female willing to show him a little interest.
             “This is Analyst Dekk. Are you—” Jorge stopped. His lips grew tight, and he leaned forward in his chair. His eyes shifted upward, over the screen, checking whoever might be nearby.
            Val hesitated. Not his typical reaction. “I was wondering—”
            “What is your request?” The words were clipped and formal.
The Blades were supposed to stretch out every call to increase the charges. He stared at her, his face tense, and then Val saw him slowly move his head. Just a few centimeters from side to side. His face was close enough to see every pore.
            “Nothing.” She cut the connection.
            Kitt. M’tajj had been dead for only a few minutes, and the file was already active. Jorge’s formality was a warning. Or more likely a precaution for him.
            The screen automatically flashed her account total. What? Down 40,000 cees from just a few minutes ago. Clonesucker, she thought. M’tajj had collected his fee automatically—but it wouldn’t do him any good now.
But the D’Tarrian had attached a file to the transaction.
All right . . .
            Val walked away from the kiosk and found a sanit cube. Locking the door, she activated her handcomp, and her smile grew wider.
            Thank you, M’tajj. With a deep breath, she pulled the red synthhair off her head, gritting her teeth at the sting of the adhesive. Washed her bare scalp. Jammed the wig down the sanitary disposal. Then she adjusted her shipsuit’s fit—looser this time—and pressed shifted its color from deep maroon to midnight blue.
            Wouldn’t fool anyone who knew her, but the Blades would be looking for a redhaired humanoid female in a maroon suit, not a bald one in blue. Hopefully they’d just leer at her ass. She had to deal with the security badge situation before getting back to the Branch, but that would be easy. With a tight smile, she left the cube.
            She forced herself to walk slowly, no hurry, as if the most important thought in her head was a drink with an attractive male. The act allowed her to make flirting glances in every direction, keeping her alert to possible pursuit. No one recognizes me, she told herself. I’m just a cute body and a bald head. No one . . .
            Foxe’s eyes flashed in her head. Yeah. He’d remember me.

The knot of hair on Dianar’s head swung side to side as she shook her head at Foxe. “There’s a file on you.”
            He gripped the edge of the bar. “Hellcore.” Of course. M’tajj had prepared the complaint before Shrinn’s attack. Hellcore.
            His body felt ten kilos heavier. Paincaps helped, but the memory of his drop into darkness pushed at the edge of his brain. M’tajj was dead, Rumav could be anywhere in the galaxy, some crazy redhead was ahead of him, and now he had the Crystal Blades to contend with. What else could go wring?
            Oh, yeah. Spark was dead, and his wife was kicking him out.
            He nodded. “Just let me get my stuff—”
            “I never said you had to leave right this second.” She looked disappointed in him. “It’s just a level-three on the general channel. But soon. Maybe the end of the day.”
            He grinned. “An hour.” Kiss her? No, she was still Spark’s wife. “Thanks.”
            In his back room he popped another paincap and opened a connection into CrystalWeb.
            Valeria—was that her real name? He didn’t have time to run a search on her. But she’d seen several Tadori on the station, she said. Foxe hadn’t noticed more than one or two, and he was pretty sure he the being from M’tajj’s vid wasn’t any of them.
Tadori were typically xenophobic, and few traveled outside their own system. And they had quirky nutritional needs. A quick directory check located a shop that sold the stems of taye ferns. Other beings might eat the leaves, but only Tadori natives could digest the thick stems.
            He tapped the code into his comsol. An automated voice began reciting items and prices; Foxe bypassed it and waited for a live being to connect.
            “Angelri Delicate. You have questions?” He couldn’t identify the species but the voice sounded eager to sell something—or just to talk.
            “I’m looking for a friend, a Tadori, who might have been in there with two humans in the last two days.” When the shopkeeper said nothing, Foxe added, “The slimesucker owes me money.”
            “Let me see . . . We sold some taye stems yesterday, yes. And a supply of Strong in the same transaction. I see a Tadori name on the copy.”
            Keep throwing the dice and sometimes you win. “What name? What ship?”
            “How many cees does he owe you?”
            Everything has a price. Foxe checked the location. “I’ll be there in thirty.” Ten, really, but he wanted to give himself some time for recon.
            “Very good.”
            A call to the other food shop brought nothing. Right now one greedy shopkeeper was his best lead.
            He packed his gear. Strapped a sliverbeam weapon to his left arm under the sleeve. Checked the plasma cartridge in his pulser. Tested the vibe on his wavedagger. Took one last look around the storeroom.
            “That’s it,” he told Dianar out in the bar. “Thanks for your help.”
            “Happy landings.” It had been Spark’s sign-off.
            Foxe left without looking back. Focus on the mission.

* * *

NINE: Lanesh

Lanesh wiped sweat from the back of her neck. The maintenance node wasn’t intended for long-term occupancy; the air circulation was growing thicker with each passing hour, like a cave cut off from the rest of the world.
            The other members of the team were out in the station. Catret goaded her when he got the chance: Be careful in your little room, he said. Keep the door lockedDon’t walk into a wall.  Clonesucker. He’d beg for open space after an hour inside this shrinking cage.
            The screens danced in front of her eyes. Udorians, androids, humans, Blades, Rann-dishii—no Foxe. Where had the plaguedamned human gone? They’d been unable to worm into the badge monitor controlframe, which would have made tracking Foxe by his station badge as simple as playing a game of NetJump. CrystalEye cams covered every public centimeter of the station, but image recognition had its limitations when the program had hundreds of faces from dozens of different species to sift through.
            She could calculate his likely escape routes from M’tajj’s, but two or three quick, random turns were enough to take him off her search grid. Once again their search—for the prince, and now for Foxe—came back to routine search protocols and random chance.
            Keep the hope, she told herself, entering new search parameters. As vast as it was, Crystal Rendezvous was finite in area. As long as their targets remained on the station, they could be found. 
            She swallowed a sip of water from her bottle. She had to drink sparingly, to avoid frequent trips to the sanit cube down the passage. She saw Yulin onscreen, talking to a Murrani, and hoped. Hoped they’d locate Rumav, soon. Hoped she and Shrinn could return home, and . . .
What? She was no lovesick vid heroine. Shrinn’s ambitions reached far beyond a military career. Hers were simpler: advancement, rank, power, but within the Riskannon Starforce structure. Their sexual needs might intersect from time to time, but any future together was a tangled path she couldn’t foresee. Better to enjoy the sex while she could.
Only work—duty—fed her family. Her family, which would never become a Family, one of the Fourteen. She cracked her knuckles, one by one, every finger, counting, as she stared at the board.
            Her comm unit buzzed. Shrinn’s code. She licked her lips. Maybe he’d found something. Maybe . . .  “This is L-One, all secure.”
            “This is Prime-One, all secure. We’ve got—”
            The panel behind her shifted. “Stand by. This is L-Two. Stand by.”  L-Two meant a possible breach. She swung her chair and reached for her weapon.
            A shoe and then a leg swung through the gap in the bulkhead. Then a short, confused human in coveralls carrying a toolpack was staring at her.
            “Who the Mouth are you?” he demanded. “Nobody’s supposed to be in . . .” His voice faded.
            She pointed the Kobar ion pistol at his chest. It felt heavy and awkward. “Close the panel,” she told him.
            “Why is . . . who took this node offline? What are you—”
            “Close the panel,” she repeated. “Right now.”
            He blinked as if seeing her weapon for the first time. Keeping the toolpack close to his body, he reached behind his back and pulled on the panel. His hand slipped once. Then he yanked it shut.
            “Good.” She planted her feet on the deck, leaned forward, and held the Kobar with both hands. “Why are you here?”
            “Just—doing some maintenance down the way, checking the links, and I—I saw this node was offline, and . . ..”
            “You called in to check its status?”
            “No, no. I’m trying to—got three more jobs on my sheet, if I call in they’ll give me more, so I just—I don’t get it. You with the Blades or something?”
            For a moment she considered the question. Convince this tech worker she was on an official mission and he’d leave her alone. Or maybe not. She saw his eyes measure the distance between them, saw his arm tighten. The toolpack was small but heavy.
            “That’s right. What’s your name?”
            He shifted on his feet. His knuckles were white. “I’m . . ..”
            As if the impulse—or the fear—was too strong to resist, he started to bring his arm back, planning to throw the toolpack like an action vid character. Idiot.
            The Kobar wasn’t heavy anymore. An ion bolt soared from her Kobar straight into his chest. The toolpack dropped from the tech’s fingers and landed on the deck next to his foot. His eyes widened, red with surprise, and he stumbled backward, clawing at his burned coveralls.
            Lanesh shot him again and he dropped like the toolpack, clutching his chest as if trying to force one more breath into his lungs. A final gasp, and he died.
            Lanesh holstered the Kobar, stood, and stepped over the body to check the lock on the access panel. Her legs shook. She sank back into her chair.
            “This is L-One. All secure.”
            “What happened?”
            She hesitated. Maybe she could have handled it better, without killing someone who might be missed. But the truth was all she could think of.
            “We had an intruder. He’s . . . silent now. He was just checking an offline node, but there’ll be a problem.”
            “All right. Pack up the room. Prepare to leave.”
            “But—” She could find another node, some other fieldbase. Was he punishing her?
            “The subject is no longer on this station. We were able to enter the D’Tarrian’s files. The data was—I’ll explain later. Ready for new orders.”
            What now? “Ready.”
            “Foxe’s ship is docked at Branch 1.56. I’m sending Aje, Catret, and Yulin to meet you there. Disable it. If you meet Foxe there . . .” He hesitated. “Take the appropriate action. Then meet up at our ship to move out.”
            Finally they were leaving. After two days sitting in this node, lurking on the network, she had action. “Understood.”
            “Good.” He paused. “You’re all right?”
            “Yes. I’m fine.”
            “That’s . . . good. Be careful.”
            The air in the tight, cramped chamber smelled cleaner now, despite the spreading odor of the tech’s death. He’d brought some freshness in, but that wasn’t the only reason Lanesh felt suddenly energized.
            She began shutting down her gear, unhooking cables from ports, wiping down every surface she’d touched with DNA-eradicating pads. After days of inactivity, movement and action felt good. Once they found Rumav they could go home, and she and Shrinn—
            No. She couldn’t think about that now. Shrinn was her officer, and he’d given her orders. That came first.
            The dead tech lay on the deck, his eyes wide, his trousers soiled. She stepped over his body, took one last look around the node, and opened the panel. Let us find him soon . . .

* * *

TEN: Arcade

Lonan-en’s chirp of irritation came through the comsol connection clearly. “More dice?”
“Do you know a Tadori named Lyten?” Foxe growled. “A ship called Quili’s Fire? Anything?”
            He’d been lucky: The bribe he’d paid to the shopkeeper at Angelri hadn’t even been that outrageous. The Strong the Tadori purchased had been scheduled for delivery to Quili’s Fire by 1750, two hours ago. CrystalNet had the ship scheduled for departure in less than an hour, pending final payment of fees.
            He was walking down a 2-Bemani corridor. Two blacksuited Crystal Blades stood near the tube center ahead, interrogating a Ustalli. Foxe adjusted his pack and kept his eyes forward, his footsteps steady. The Blades didn’t notice him.
            A familiar sense of liberation came to Foxe during moments like this—he was racing a laser beam, leaving behind his memories and nightmares. It might last a day, or ten seconds, but at least temporarily his existence made sense in a universe that didn’t follow any plan he’d ever been able to figure out. He was only himself, Erick Foxe—not the cumulative product of all the beings he’d killed and those he hadn’t been able to save. Right now his mind was focused on this moment. Nothing more.
            “I know Lyten.”
            “What about him?”
            “The only thing you need to know is this: cloneslaver.”           
            Hellcore. “You’re sure?”
            “He’s well known in certain communities. Wealthy enough to pay for his secrets, paranoid enough to kill anyone who threatens them. He’s always on the lookout for material.”
            Material. He remembered the Tadori’s hands on Rumav’s face, turning his head back and forth. Jabbing a probe into his mouth. Collecting a DNA sample. They’d left him his station badge behind so they could find him again. If they found something they wanted to collect. Genetic material.
             Cloning in the Aligned World was common; some planets barred it for various religious or political reasons, while others preferred it to the messy and random process of sexual reproduction. On worlds where it wasn’t restricted, the AW Charter insisted that it fall under the heading of voluntary agreement—governments couldn’t compel citizens to submit to cloning against their will, any more than they could require augmentation, abortion, or experimentation on sentient subjects without their consent. A member planet could find itself slapped with heavy economic sanctions and travel restrictions if it was ruled in violation of the rules.
            But restrictions created black markets. Foxe imagined them forming in the first few seconds following the Big Bang, sub-atomic particles exchanging energy and mass in violation of the new laws of physics as the universe was struggling to be born. Maybe that was the origin of dark matter.
            Cloneslavers hunted for their “material” among the dozens of different species across the galaxy. Sometimes they had contracts for specific genetic material; some of them simply collected whatever seemed interesting; others wanted to experiment. Some unwilling subjects became the source of stem cells; others were cloned with modifications to become obedient soldiers or potential organ donors or mindless sex toys. 
            The victims spent years being harvested, some in biostasis the whole time, others conscious and aware of every intrusive procedure. After a few years they’d be dumped into the vacuum, used up and useless. But their DNA would live on in dozens or hundreds of beings across the galaxy, and the cloneslavers would keep hunting for a new crop.
            “Hellcore,” Foxe said.
            “Is that all? I have dice to return to—”
            “Go.” Foxe cut the connection.
            He walked faster, his boots hammering his frustration on the deck. Searching for Rumav on Crystal Rendezvous had been hard enough; getting him out of a cloneslave facility might be impossible. But he had to try. Rumav might have been stupid to believe he could survive Crystal Rendezvous on his own, but his short life as a cloneslave would be a hell no being deserved.
            I’ll have to talk to ARI about hazard pay, he thought.
            The feeling of freedom was gone, as if the backpack’s mass had doubled, digging into his shoulders. Damn it . . . Spark was dead. Foxe wanted to envy him—he was out of this life, beyond pain and despair. But Spark had enjoyed his life. He had a wife, a business. He’d left death behind, at least for a few years. He deserved more.
            It never made sense. It never got easier.
            He took the lift up to 1-Alexis and headed toward Arcade Center and the Branch. The passageway grew thick, beings jostling his legs and shoulders from all directions. He kept his senses on full alert, his eyes in motion, and tried to listen between the voices, the curses, the thrum of machinery vibrating through the bulkheads. The walls veered away as the Center grew near.
            He listened to the voices around him:
 “So I offered him fifty but he said seventy-five and then I said . . ..”
             “ . . . bitch was sweet but then she got nasty and I had to hit her.”
            “. . . from the D’tarrian, maybe. At least we get off this cesspool.”
            “But we should have been there.”
            The D’tarrian? M’tajj? Foxe slowed his pace, looking for the source of the voice.
            He stepped onto Arcade Center. Music blasted from a fightclub. Exotic aromas drifted from vents next to a spice parlor as a stumbling Ustalli lurched through the  door, leaking juices from the odor receptors in his head. Two humanoids bumped him and his tentacles whirled as he fought for balance. They veered out of his path, paying no attention, and he hobbled toward the slidewalk, murmuring a happy song to himself.
            Moans of ecstasy flowed from speakers at the door to a bliss pit. Foxe turned and paused, as if examining the flashing holos that hawked the bliss pit’s specialties.
            “Forget it, Aje, we’ve got instructions from Shrinn. Come on.”
            Foxe swiveled his head, hand near his pulser. Two humanoids hurried by him, their arms swinging in identical brown shipsuits just like Shrinn’s. He zeroed in on their hands.
            Seven fingers.
            Shrinn’s people. Heading back to their ship?
            Damn. If they’d cracked M’tajj’s datacore they’d have everything he’d gotten on Rumav. He could track these two, grab one, make him talk . . . No, that would take too much time, attract trouble. Foxe had what he needed. Quili’s Fire. At least this gave him confirmation. Shrinn was exiting the station. Rumav was gone.
            He wondered for a moment about Valeria. He hoped she was chasing a bad lead. Or heading home. Out of his way, and out of any crossfire. He didn’t need any distractions.
            The two humanoids hurried ahead of him. No chance to tag them and follow from a safe distance. He hurried after them, letting other beings shift in and out of his path as he kept his targets in sight. He had to shove one when to close the gap a little, and the being responded with a vicious hiss of challenge. He muttered a quick apology. The being slouched, disappointed.
            Foxe walked faster. They stayed off the slidewalks and headed in a straight line through the Center. He could take them down, reduce the competition—how large was Shrinn’s team, anyway?—but getting back to his Cat and finding Quili’s Fire took priority. A quick quantum tag on the hull and he’d be able to locate it when the ship transitioned from D-space. Of course, Shrinn could do the same thing, but there were ways to delay him.
            “You! Stop right there!”
            Hellcore. Two big Blades, Udorians, stalked toward him, wearing light battle armor over their torsos and carrying long-barreled N-Tron 55s in their fists.
            “Let’s see that badge!” one of them barked. “Right now!”
            A split second to make a decision. Foxe slowed but didn’t stop as the guards approached him.
            “Aje!” he shouted. “Aje!”
            One of them turned. Tall and broad, his eyes darted through the crowd in surprise.
            “Get out of here!” Foxe motioned at the Blades closing in. “They’re on us!”
            Aje blinked in momentary confusion. His companion glared at Foxe, then slapped Aje’s chest. It’s him! Foxe couldn’t hear the words but the statement was plain. He pulled on Aje’s arm.
            One of the Blades started toward the two. The other Udorian stalked toward Foxe. Foxe shifted his backpack and then launched himself forward.
            The Udorian grunted as Foxe rammed his shoulder into his armored chest. The lunge didn’t hurt him but it did force a backward off-balance step. Before the Blade could catch himself Foxe grabbed one of his thick legs and yanked it up. The Udorian howled in anger as he slammed onto the deck, dropping his N-Tron in surprise. Foxe kicked it between the forest of feet and jabbed the Blade’s throat.
            The Udorian let out a screech of anger. Someone in the crowd hooted with pleasure. Crystal Blades weren’t popular anywhere, and they weren’t likely to get much assistance from the locals.
            Aje was backing away from the other Blade, confused but reaching for the weapon at his hip. The Blade heard his partner’s shout and spun toward Foxe.
            Foxe grabbed for his pulser and shot him point blank in the chest. The pulser’s plasma scorched his chest armor, but the intense heat made him stagger. A half-naked female kicked at his ankle, and he fell with a roar into a wall of laughing beings behind him.
            Aje stared at Foxe as if he wanted to take a shot, but the other one clamped a hand on his wrist and dragged him in the opposite direction. Good. They’d attract attention. He holstered his pulser and stepped over the wounded Udorian on the deck. The nearest door was another bliss pit. It opened as he walked over.
            A short Ustalli stood in the dark room beyond. The floor sloped downward and curved to one side. Foxe heard gasps of urgency and ecstasy from the pit, amplified by speakers overhead.
            “Fifty cees.” The Ustalli sounded resentful.
            Foxe dropped a hundred-cred tab in the box. “Rear exit?”
            His head gestured with one tentacle. “Far side of the pit. Leads to the blood dreamers next door. But I won’t stop anything that comes in here looking for you.”
            “I just need a few minutes.” He hoped.
            The Ustalli let him pass. The floor of the entryway felt rough and pebbled beneath Foxe’s boots. Some bliss pits were set up for beings to literally slide into, but this one had to accommodate dozens of races and walking styles. Ten meters down the twisting walkway he came to a meter-wide ledge that looked out over the pit itself.
            Three andys stood around the pit, watching, ready to pull out anyone who misbehaved, or needed medical attention from too much blissful excitement. Amber light glowed upward from beneath the twisting, writhing bodies. Foxe smelled thick floral perfumes and animal-scented oils mixed in the unmistakable aroma of sexual heat.  A human arm snaked around a Murrani thigh; a ten-fingered hand stroked the sensitive eyestalks of a Rann-dishi. Someone screamed, a high-pitched cry of pleasure or agony above the urgent moans.
            Foxe had done bliss pits. He’d done everything once or twice in his life. A few hours of losing himself in physical sensation that pushed thinking and memory light years away. But coming up, crawling out—everything came rushing back, like a neglected lover angry at being left behind. Momentary pleasure wasn’t worth the enduring regret anymore. He looked away and moved around the ledge.
            The andys gave no sign of noticing him. Locked cubicles lined the wall, storage for clothes and equipment, but between two cubes on the far side he spotted a narrow opening. Glowtubes outlined the walls. He glanced back, but so far no one had followed him.
            The constricted passage behind the blisspit came to a doorway. Foxe pushed it open and stepped into a low, cramped hallway illuminated by a dim lighttube in the ceiling. He moved quickly, his pack scraping the walls on either side, and in a few dozen meters he found another door. It was marked “Delemar.” Closed, but its locks were green. Foxe pulled.
            White light stung his eyes as he stepped through. He blinked and saw a tall humanoid female standing at a long metal table. She wore a short gray labcoat and sandals, and she was peering up at a compscreen as she drew a murky blue fluid into an injector. Her hands had three fingers and two thumbs. Vials of blood from a half-dozen species, along with other substances, hung in a large nullgrav box mounted on a bulkhead.
            The female turned her face to him, unsurprised, as if visitors through this rear door were a common interruption. “That way.” She pointed the injector toward a doorway behind her.
            He nodded. Dropping his pack, he pulled a few pieces of equipment from its side pockets and jammed them into his vest, then kicked it under the table. He tossed another hundred-cred tab on the table.
            “Give me the coat,” he said.
            She stared at him. Then, with a smile, she pulled open the coat. Naked except for some sort of thong that wrapped around her hips, she tossed it to Foxe and slid the tab into a pouch in her skin between her breasts. “Good chance.”
            “Thanks.” He fastened the coat, smoothed his hair, and pushed through the door she’d pointed to. A dozen beings lay on cushioned tables scattered throughout the room, tubes inserted into various limbs to let the hallucinogenic chemicals flow through their blood. He nodded to the two female attendants. They belonged to the same race as the one in the back room, but they didn’t wear lab coats. Mostly naked, they adjusted the dosages, watched for signs of overload, and fondled the dreamers’ sensitive areas.
            One lifted an eyebrow in curiosity. The other ignored his intrusion. Foxe made his way between the tables and headed out the door onto Arcade Center again.           
            No sign of any more excitement than usual. Beings chattered, argued, bumped into each other. He saw a Rann-dishii Blade emerge from the bliss pit and extend his eyestalks in opposite directions. Turning away slowly, he tapped a Narixian on the neck. “Where’s a good sex palace?”
            “Landi’s,” the Narixian responded without hesitation. “Bemani-three. I can take you there.” He cocked his narrow head, assessing Foxe with interest.
             “No, thanks.” He stepped quickly onto a slidewalk. The Narixian watched him go, irritated.
            The slidewalk demanded patience. Foxe could move faster at a brisk walk, but that would attract attention. And he wanted to watch out for Aje and his friend up ahead.
            The lab coat wouldn’t hide him for long. But it would take the Blades a few minutes to get his image into the bone-structure recognition programs. Branch access was in sight.
            “Good chance,” the nude female in the blooddream shop had wished him. He hoped she meant it.

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