Sunday, January 12, 2014

Prodigal Prince, Ch. 11-16

ELEVEN: Branch

The andy inserted Foxe’s counterfeit badge into a reader; the display flashed an instant “I.C. 700.” Two or three days’ worth of station fees, not too high or too small, an amount that wouldn’t trigger any security flags. He shoved an ID-free credit chip into the slot and tapped in a confirmation code. Hurry, he urged it. He kept his face calm, his breathing light. The andy’s receptors would pick up excessive levels of stress.
            Two slow seconds, and then the chip reader’s beadlights shifted from amber to green. “A detailed readout of your charges is available,” the android said.
            “No.” Foxe tossed his badge on the desk and headed
            “You may proceed,” the andy said. “We welcome your return—”
            Foxe walked away. Spark had always said “thank you” to andys. Of course, he’d sung to his ships, and probably thanked every toilet that flushed for him. Foxe taunted him for it.
            But Spark was dead. Damn this universe.
            No time for that right now. His upsurge of energy was fading, and if he wasn’t careful he’d relax and start making mistakes. He had to get back to locating and tagging Quili’s Fire as soon as possible. He could sleep in D-space if he had to.
            Down the gray corridor. Tiny cleaning bots scrubbed graffiti and grime from the walls. A humanoid male snored on the deck, naked, shivering in his sleep. Foxe paused and pulled off his lab coat. He spread it over the man. A hatch slammed and he straightened up quickly; two Khonians clambered out into the corridor, stretching their backs and groaning.
            Glancing over his shoulder, Foxe increased his pace. The good and bad thing about the Branch was lack of cover. Thieves and burglars had nowhere to hide, but the long straight corridor exposed everyone. It was a shooting gallery waiting for the first weapon to fire.
            His ship waited up ahead. Just a few dozen meters more . . .
            A head popped out of an open hatch. His hatch.
            Their eyes locked. Aje’s face was flat, expressionless. Recognition but no fear.  He ducked back inside the hatch.
Foxe flattened himself against the bulkhead and reached for his pulser.
What would Aje do? Call in some support? Or take the offensive and come out shooting? It’s what I’d do. The next few heartbeats . . ..
            Aje came surging through the hatch, firing a big Kobar pistol.
            Ion pulses seared the bulkhead next to Foxe’s scalp. Foxe fired back as Aje skidded across the deck on his belly. Foxe’s aim was no better than his—two plasma bolts sailed over Aje’s head and seared a bulkhead. But his third shot burned the deck next to Aje’s leg, and a few stray particles of plasma splashed on Aje’s knee like white-hot lava. Aje dropped the Kobar and clutched at his leg, howling in pain and anger.
            Shouts of anger began swirling up and down the passageway. Foxe checked over his shoulder. Shrinn could have a squad converging on him, or even a small army. And he had only a few minutes before the Crystal Blades showed up, ready for a fight, looking for someone to pay for the disturbance and damage. The Blades would lock off the Cat. By the time he sorted things out and paid everyone off, Rumav and Quili’s Fire would be light years away, impossible to trace.
Foxe leaned forward for a quick glimpse through the hatch. Was Aje working alone—or with a team? He half-expected an ion blast to come streaming through the opening. Instead a slashing kick hit his shoulder, sending his pulser flying across the deck.
He jumped back, grabbing for the wavedagger in his boot as a female, slender and blonde with eyes as sharp as diamonds shoved away from the hatch. Her weapon was identical to Aje’s but she didn’t take her shot, more concerned with getting away from the—
            The deck shook beneath his legs, a rippling vibration like an avalanche that sent the female sprawling onto her hands and knees at Foxe’s feet. He felt a crashing motion, like waves breaking against the bulkhead.
His first thought was a stray asteroid striking the station, but anything massive enough to shake the Branch this hard would have been detected and deflected by station defenses.
            A klaxon pounded at his eardrums. A bright red light flashed on the entry pad beside his hatch. Words scrolled across the pad in large amber letters: HATCH SEALED . . . DO NOT ATTEMPT TO OPEN . . . POSSIBLE HULL BREACH . . . HATCH SEALED . . ..
            Hellcore. They’d blown up his Cat.
            The female was on her feet again, stumbling down the passageway. She reached down to haul Aje along with her. Aje tried to shake her off, pointing toward Foxe. She’d holstered her weapon, apparently more concerned with coming to Aje’s rescue than terminating Foxe, now that she’d destroyed his ability to escape.
            Foxe’s wavedagger was useless now. He looked down at the deck, searching for his pulser. There. He lunged across the deck for it. In the moment it took him to bring it up Aje had gotten to his feet.
            “Lanesh!” Aje shouted at the female. “Just go!” But she ignored him, pulling Aje toward an access shaft that would take them to a different wedge of the Branch.
            Foxe’s shot missed her. A hatch opened next to her shoulder, and a human male head popped out, eyes wide and mouth open to demand an explanation. The woman’s arm shot out like a whip and wrapped around his neck, yanking him forward. She spun him around, one arm locked across his neck, and then she grabbed her ion pistol from the holster and jammed it against the human’s ear. Staring at Foxe.
            The human’s arms flailed, his lips trembling. He stared at Foxe in confusion merging quickly with terror.
            “Go!” Lanesh shouted, and Aje tumbled into the access shaft, leaving a bloodstain on the deck. She tightened her arm around her prisoner’s throat. His face grew red.
            Foxe remembered a time when he would have shot through a hostage without hesitation. He saw their faces at night, like the little girl’s, repeating the same question until he screamed in his sleep: Why . . . why . . . why . . .
            He nodded, lowered his pulser. But kept his arm ready to bring it back up into action. “Okay. Your win, this round.”
            She smiled.
            Then the choking human, frantic, stabbed his elbow into Lanesh’s ribs. He was gasping in loud hacking groans, spit flicking from his mouth, twisting his body in an attempt to loosen the arm around his throat.
            Her foot slipped. Her eyes flickered with uncertainty, looking from Foxe to her hostage.
            The captive slammed his head back into her face. Her hand jerked, and—
            Maybe an accident. Or maybe she decided her hostage was too much trouble. The weapon went off. The hostage flew out of her arms, half of his face contorted in surprise and anger and the other half of his head . . . gone.
            Lanesh jumped back, off balance, as the captive collapsed to the deck. Her feet skittered as she brought her weapon up with both hands.
            Foxe shot her in the chest. Her eyes flared wide, as if she’d just realized her mistake, and then she dropped, flat on her back. The ion pistol bounced on the deck as she stared at the ceiling through sightless eyes.
            “Stupid,” Foxe whispered, though whether he meant the captive for struggling, or the woman for shooting him—or himself for being here in the first place—he couldn’t have said at that particular moment. Maybe everyone.
            Aje leaned through the access shaft hatch, his face pale and sweaty. Foxe pointed his pulser and he jerked away, missing the plasma burst.
            Alarms pounded in his ears. The Blades would arrive soon. His ship was gone. The hostage was dead. Would he visit Foxe in the darkness?
            No time to worry about that now. Foxe staggered toward the access shaft and plunged in.
            Aje was nowhere in sight above him. Fear must have given him speed. Foxe reached inside the access shaft, grabbed a rung, and began to climb, scrambling upward, breathing deeply, ignoring his fear. The rungs were spaced half a meter apart. Most beings around the galaxy could climb a ladder, though Ustalli had trouble roping their tentacles around the rungs. But ladders didn’t suffer from power failures. Sometimes low tech was the best solution.
            He emerged from the top of the shaft into a long zero-gee cylindrical passageway. The central axis of the Branch. No Aje. He pushed off toward another shaft at random. The momentary freedom of weightlessness calmed his hammering heart temporarily. Then he flipped over and pushed his feet down, letting the gravity pull him into the opening. His arms shook as he gripped the ladder. Breathe, he told himself. He tightened his feet around the sides and slid down, counting the rungs, letting each one take some of his fear away. At the bottom of the shaft he wiped his hands on his vest and felt better. The fear wasn’t gone—it would never disappear completely, no matter how often he whispered the Bekkan chant—but he could manage it now. Fear was like gravity, always pulling you down. You had to learn how to balance it with your mind.
            He stepped out into the passageway and leaned against the bulkhead, resting his legs a moment, and darted a quick glance up and down, hand on his pulser.
            No sign of Aje, but he wasn’t the main problem right now. Foxe needed transportation. Stealing a ship would be difficult. Not impossible, but a decent starship of any size would be keyed to recognize only its authorized pilot and Foxe didn’t have any hackware sophisticated enough to bypass the barriers, at least not very quickly. Kidnap an owner? He’d be at the mercy of the ship’s internal defenses. Bribe a captain? That could get him off the station, but he needed to track Rumav somehow.
             Foxe couldn’t sit down on the deck pondering the perfect strategy. With a deep breath, he stepped away from the bulkhead and started up the Branch.
            A hatch opened up ahead. A female Udorian’s head popped out. She turned toward Foxe as if looking for someone. After a full second she pulled herself back in, closing the hatch with a firm yank. No help for Foxe there.
            Two tall human males jumped from an access shaft. They glanced at Foxe, and then one looked past him. The other slapped a hand across his chest and shook his head. The first one laughed.
            Foxe took a quick look over his shoulder. Human female, attractive—for a moment envied the tall ones who had nothing more to worry about than a chance at sex. She was bald, her skull gleaming in the glare of the lighttubes, and she wore a sleeveless blue shipsuit, a duffel slung over one bare shoulder, her long arms swinging . . .
            Her jade green eyes glowing with purpose.
            Those eyes were impossible to lose. But her arms were what caught Foxe’s attention. Slender and taut, they looked strong enough to rip his head from his shoulders. And her fingers . . . he’d seen them tapping a bid onto M’tajj’s slate.
            “Valeria,” he said.
            She blinked just once, as if he’d materialized in front of her from nowhere. “You.” She let the duffel slip down her shoulder and caught the strap, preparing to hurl it at him.
            “My ship got blown up.”
            She rolled her eyes. “Things seem to get destroyed when you’re around, don’t they? Maybe you should think about changing careers. Go home and get some training in hologame design.”
            “It was Shrinn’s people. The same ones who attacked M’tajj. They’re looking for Rumav, too.”
            “Rumav? Who is—”
            “Don’t waste our time. You know who he is. I know where he is.”
            “He’s a popular kid. So?”
            This wasn’t perfect option, but it was the best one he could think of right now. “I need a ship.”
            She snorted. “You want mine? Riiight.”
            “We can—”
            She swung the duffel up in a blink of motion so fast Foxe saw only a blur before he felt it jolt his shoulder. He jumped back, narrowly avoiding a follow-up kick that would have cracked a rib. Their pulsers rose like angry snakes. He stared at her fingers, watching for the squeeze that would tell him he’d gambled on her and lost. Who was this woman?
            “We don’t need to get ugly,” Foxe said.
            “Then stay out of my way.”
            “I know where he is,” Foxe repeated.
            She flicked her eyes past him and then once over her shoulder. The humans who’d been leering at her had ducked back into their ship. The tube was empty for twenty meters in each direction. “Okay. Tell me.”
            He shook his head. “We go together.”
            A crazy idea, sure. But at least she had a stake in the same game—finding Rumav.
            Her face curved in a skeptical smile. “You trust me?”
            “Of course not. You?”
            “Sure. Like a brother. Of course, my brother tried to rape me when I was thirteen. You figure it.”
            He spoke as urgently as he could. “Then we’ve got two things in common. We hate each other and we both want to find the kid. The Aligned Worlds wrote the First Charter with less than that.”
            He could feel her eyes drilling into him, trying to hack his thoughts. A reassuring smile wouldn’t reach her. He met her gaze with a challenge. Do you have the nerve? Her bidding maneuver with M’tajj proved she was smart, willing to take risks. Now he had to bet that she needed to find Rumav as urgently as he did, and that she wouldn’t back down from trouble—any more than he could.
             Valeria held out her hand, palm up. “Your weapon.”
            Of course. He reversed the pulser in his hand and held it out. “You want the wavedagger too?”
            She shook her head. “You’re not going to get that close to me.” She jammed his pulser into a pocket. “Now where’s Rumav?”
            “When we’re in your ship.”
            Valeria grinned. “Good. I didn’t think you were stupid.” She jerked a finger over his shoulder. “Hatch 2.43.”
            He turned his back on her. Letting her know he wasn’t afraid, and telling her she didn’t have the guts to shoot him in the spine. The two humans watched with a mixture of admiration and pity as he passed them.
            He stood next to the hatch and let Valeria enter the code and press her palm to the reader. The hatch popped open. Valeria motioned him through and followed, keeping her distance. A dozen meters down the docking ramp they reached the hatch to her ship, and she punched another code and stood for a retinal scan.
            Through the airlock, he found himself in a wide entryway that stretched in two directions. She gestured right. “Cockpit.”
            He passed one secured door and stepped through an opening at the end of the passage. Valeria gave him a shove. “Move.”
            The bright cockpit was larger than his Oberix apartment. Multiple control panels blinked as if craving attention and instructions. The seats looked brand new, no crumbs or stains or patches. One of the six viewscreens stretched from the deck to ceiling, displaying an outlook of the dozens of ships floating in space just off the Branch, shuttles zipping between them.
            “We’re powered up. Strap in.” Valeria pointed to a synskin couch in the rear, between a large food and beverage dispenser.
“Don’t touch anything?” Foxe asked.
            She smirked. “Touch whatever you want. Only equipment that’s not keyed to me is the waste flusher.”           
            He sank into the couch, ignoring the grateful release of his muscles, and reached for the harness straps. Valeria perched on a control seat, her back to him, but he saw a small box in a corner of her monitor. He waved an arm and saw the motion mirrored on the screen.
            “Yes,” she snapped. “I am watching you.”
            “Smart. As well as gorgeous.”
            “Shut up.” She tapped a key. “Crystal Rendevous Control, request immediate cast off and query: position of starship Quili’s Fire.”
            Foxe opened his mouth. Then closed it. She knew. Hellcore.
            She swung in her chair with a grin. “Ready to go?” Navigational data jumped across the monitor.
            He met her jade eyes with a guarded nod. “The sooner the better. But why am I here if you already knew—”
“M’tajj’s system sent me the data automatically when he accepted my bid—right after he took my money. I’m out 40,000 cees to a corpse right now. But I can afford that. Hang on.” She poked a touchscreen with her finger. Foxe felt a surge of acceleration.
Rich bitch. “So you managed to tag Quili’s Fire?”
“Do you think I’m an amateur? Gemstone hotpainted it as soon as I had the name.”
Gemstone? Foxe shot a glance over his shoulder. Did she have a team? “Who is—”
“This is Gemstone.” She patted a panel. “My ship. My baby.”
She names her shipsGreat. “Any chance Shrinn doesn’t know how to tag a ship too? Maybe he missed that class in whatever military academy he went to.”
“Don’t you listen?” She glared at Foxe, exasperated. “I didn’t say tag. Three dots of hotpaint will scramble any military-grade tag.” She grinned brightly. “Gemstone painted nine on the hull. It’ll take Shrinn weeks to untangle all the strings.”
Foxe couldn’t calculate the cost of that much hotpaint in his head. “You can double my bid sight unseen, you can afford high-q hotpaint—Why do you bother to work if you've got that kind of money?”
She rubbed her hand across her bare scalp. “A girl gets bored, you know?”
            “Who are you?”
            She spun in her chair and tapped commands into the Board. “Valeria Lynd. I’m a bounty hunter based on Claudius Station. I’m level ten in k-bola, scored three-tenths off perfect in shooting last time I registered with the Marksman’s Guild, and rated 97th percentile in hostage situation at the Breckman Institute on Sator-Three. Who are you?”
            He held up his hands, fingers wide in mock surrender. “Freelance. I’m—just a freelance.”
            She cocked her head, skeptical. “Riiight.”
            “Why am I here? You never needed me.”
            “You were coming—one way or another.” Valeria swung back to the NavBoard. “Friends close, enemies closer.”


Shrinn’s ship was a Mavron-class cruiser from the Covert Operations Directorate. No official name, just an alphanumeric designation. The crew had tried to give it a nickname—Jatrinn, after a pornographic figure based on Jatril tal-Eldir Aldoz, the High Lady, spouse of the Century Emperor. As much as he despised the name of Naden Mor Aldoz, Shrinn had prohibited had prohibited it from the beginning. Treason was punishable by imprisonment, but disrespect earned the team Shrinn’s contempt. They’d been together long enough to know how unpleasant that could be.
It had once been a cargo transport. Now its weapons lockers were stuffed with everything from sliverbeams to pulsejet launchers, and its hull was equipped with spider mines and the best survey gear the Empire could buy or steal from AW. To Shrinn it was better than the finest luxury yacht.
            They were cleared to detach from Crystal Rendevous. His pilot Olare was already linked into the NavBoard, cables connecting her brainware to the computer, ready to guide them through D-space once hey got the signal from the tag they’d planted on its hull. Lilliar, in the engine center, had the Forward Drive ready for transition.
            Shrinn had hoped to intercept Quili’s Fire before it escaped into D-space. But he had to wait for everyone on his team.
            For Lanesh.
            The team knew, of course. Impossible to hide anything important from soldiers who’d worked together for years.
            “It’s Aje.” Declannes, a young soldier with nerves of ice, glanced over her shoulder at Shrinn’s command chair from his station at the CommBoard. “He’s—he’s alone.”
            Shrinn kept his face stony, but the word sent a chill through his spine. That was wrong. Aje and Catret had been sent to Foxe’s ship, to assist Lanesh in setting the explosive. Yulin was supposed to join them in the Branch.
Maybe she’d sent Aje ahead. He hoped . . .
            Shouts. He looked around. Aje swayed in the doorway to the cockpit, shaking Mateon’s supporting hand off his shoulder. “Sir, I . . .” He lurched forward, reaching for the headrest of a chair to steady himself, but he missed and then fell, crashing to the deck like a wounded eagle. Blood seeped from his leg.
            The staineating fibers in the carpet soaked it up greedily. Aje fought to sit up, pushing Mateon away as he tried to support him. Shrinn saw dread in Aje’s eyes, a fear more powerful than the pain in his body.
            He’d seen that dread before. Failure had consequences, punishment, but it also offered a chance for redemption. This was worse than failure. This was—
            Jonash, the team’s medic, jumped into the cockpit. “Aje, you defective—” He snapped his medkit open. “Sit still and let me look at that!”
            “Sir, my report—” Aje closed his eyes, fighting the pain.
            “Hold off, Jonash,” Shrinn said. His voice seemed to come from a distant star. “Report.” Shrinn’s voice was quiet and tight.
            “But he’s going to—” Jonash, short and stocky and strong, stopped when he saw Shrinn’s eyes. “Make it quick, Aje.”
            Aje opened his eyes, then looked away from Shrinn, breathing hard. “Lanesh . . . dead, sir.”
            Hearing it didn’t hurt as much as he’d expected. He felt—nothing. An emptiness. He’d been through this before, with—other members of his team. Soldiers died. But Lanesh—
            The need to remain calm, in control, took over automatically. Don’t let them see you react. No matter what. “What happened?”
            “It was Foxe. He shot her.” His face was sweating. “I couldn’t do anything. I tried.”
            He let her die. Son of a clonewhore! Incompetent . . .
Shrinn looked at the blood.  “You were wounded.”
            “Badly,” Jonash said. His hands flexed in frustration as he watched the blood soak Aje’s shipsuit.
            “He got to his Cat while Lanesh was setting the implosion trigger. He killed Catret, and Yulin. Yulin was late, the idiot. But the ship is destroyed. Sir.”
            Foxe’s ship. What difference did that make? “Foxe?”
            Aje blinked, helpless. “He—got free. I don’t know . . . but his ship . . .”
            They’d done their job. All right. But Foxe . . . the name was a growl in his brain. Shrinn wanted to slap Aje, kick him, strangle the breath from him. Foxe
            He pushed it aside. “Help him,” he told Jonash.
            “Yes, sir.” The medic sighed with relief as he knelt next to Aje. 
            Shrinn turned, his arms and legs heavy as stone. “Cast off,” he told Olare.
            “Yes, sir.” She swiveled her chair to face the NavBoard, eager for an excuse to avoid his eyes.
            “Quili’s Fire’s Forward drive is active,” Mateon reported. “They are transitioning.”
            “Be ready to receive the tag.” He wanted to sit but his muscles were locked.
            “Sir.” Aje.
            Damn him, what more did he have to say? Shrinn turned. “Yes?”
            “I’m . . . sorry. Sir.”
            Apologies. Did he really believe Shrinn needed his sympathy? When he was alive and Lanesh—Lanesh? How did he dare—
            “Aje. Let Jonash fix you up.” He couldn’t smile, but he managed a nod of some reassurance. “We need you healthy.”
            “Yes, sir.”
            “Get him out of here,” he told Jonash, more sharply than he intended.
            Aje was a good man. Not smart, but brave and tough when it mattered. Lanesh’s death wasn’t his fault. Even though—
            No. That wouldn’t change anything. Lanesh was dead. And Foxe—He pictured Foxe in his mind. Dying. His body mangled, bleeding, ripped apart. Shrinn took a slow breath, enjoying the vision. 
            Rumav was still the primary objective of their mission.  The Century Heir—son of Naden, the traitor. Shrinn would find him, stop him, kill him if necessary. For a brief moment he wished he could cram Darel’s orders down a wastehole. But that wasn’t his way. Command—he followed the chain of command, no matter how difficult it was. Foxe knew nothing about that. Or him.
            Foxe would learn about him, though. And he would suffer before he died.
            “Sir?” Mateon’s voice was clenched.
            “There’s a—a problem with the tag. Sir.”

THIRTEEN: Riskannon

Where is my son?
            It was the question that eclipsed every thought, every breath. When she was able to sleep, she asked it in her dreams. It was the first thing she wanted to say when Naden entered their apartment in the Century Palace, and she saw it in his eyes whenever he looked away from her.
            Jatril tal-Eldir Aldoz, the High Lady of Riskannon, stared through the shockglass at the lights of Ressick and the darkness of Swordhead Bay, its waterfront docks jammed with yachts and pleasure craft; the massive cargo barges floated farther out, smaller ships hauling their loads into port and returning for more. Even under the night sky business went on in the city, all the reassuring evidence of trade, prosperity, and profit. But Jatril couldn’t watch it, any more than she could sleep.
            Where is my son?
            She heard Naden’s footsteps on the stone floor outside her bedchamber. She didn’t turn. If he had good news his pace would be quicker. He’d call out to her. Even if the word was . . . the worst thing she could think of. She closed her eyes.
            “There isn’t any news.” Naden stopped inside the door, as if he didn’t dare approach her with failure.
            “I know.” She turned and looked at him. Still handsome, his long braids only slightly wispy from the hours he had to spend on his official duties despite the awful uncertainty of the situation. Negotiating with Family representatives who should have been allies, persuading his own Council to carry out his directives, cajoling his political enemies to withhold their opposition . . . she wanted to draw him to bed, open herself to him, help him forget for at least a few minutes that anything else mattered but her love, her body, her passion for the man who had selected her to become High Lady.
            But that was impossible now.            Where is my son?
            “The AW has no report.” His voice was bitter. “They tell me their operatives are frequently unable to report in on a timely basis. This agent is supposed to be reliable, efficient . . .” He shook his head. “Fourteen hells.”
            “We couldn’t trust HomeGuard or StarForce.” Jatril’s bitterness matched his. “That’s what you said.”
            “You understood the—”
            “I know!” They couldn’t trust their own forces. “There’s too much going on. I know that.” Jatril’s arm trembled as she picked up a pitcher of pale Wenndal District wine from the nearby table.
            “I don’t accept sacrificing Rumav. No matter what.”
“We didn’t have a lot of choices.” Neither one of us. I hope someday he understands that. She poured a glass, offered it to him.
            He took the wine and watched her poured a glass of her own. They clicked together.
            “What about . . .” She took a sip. The wine was sweet, like honey in the spring. “What about Darel’s project?”
            Naden sighed. “I hope we know enough. The reports are on time, if I can believe them. It would be easier if I just didn’t trust him at all. But we need him if we’re going to have any credibility in the end.”
            “We have to trust someone.”
            “I trust you. Almost no one else.”
Jatril gave a wan smile. “You told Rumav once to trust you and me and almost no one else, no matter how loyal they’ve been or what promises they make.”
            Naden shook his head. “I gave him lots of advice. Did he listen to any of it?”
            “He grew up watching us. We didn’t hide him from reality. Except for—” She shrugged. “He learned from us.”
            Naden nodded. “I only hope he learned the right lessons.”

Where was Rumav Sil Aldoz?
            Darel Tur Calibron’s temples ached from anger, tension, frustration. So soon . . . just a few more months, maybe just weeks. But if the Century Heir reached his destination—
            The office was the largest room in his Ministry-provided apartment, a reminder that residence in the Century Houses was a privilege to be earned with work, not a refuge for recreation. The kitchen was for brief meals, not feasts; the bedroom was for quick naps, not lengthy sexual romps. This central, secure office was meant to be every Minister’s focal point—the reason he or she merited a Ministry residence.
            Darel leaned back in his chair, eyes flicking around the room. He kept his office spare and utilitarian. Desk, chairs, computer workstations, vid consoles—only the portrait on the wall hinted at anything beyond his dedication to the Ministry’s work. His father: Murtha Lan Calibron. In full uniform. A Wing Captain with the Riskannon Star Force.
            Killed in a skirmish in the Taormika system.
            He’d only uncovered the true details when he’d been named to the post of Third Minister, but he and his family had always known the facts. The government classified the reports, kept them hidden away, but they all knew Murtha hadn’t died in a transition failure over Kanner’s World.
            More lies. The government thrived on lies. No matter which Family held the Century Throne.
            The computer display interrupted his thoughts. Message coming through. Maybe—he shook his head, angry at his eagerness, his wishful thinking. He planned, he worked, he manipulated and lied just as purposefully as the Century Emperor and the rest of his Council, but he never expected easy conclusions. To have power, to change the course of the Republic, he anticipated nothing but effort and disappointment on the road to a victory that would certainly be mixed with defeat.
            But even defeat would be preferable to living the lie that an enemy could ever become an ally.
            He unfolded his arms and touched a key. An image solidified on the screen in front of him. Vinas Dan Partir wore his Sixth Command military uniform like an artist’s smock, loose and casual, as if rank and formality were nothing to him. Behind him Darel saw the shadows of his office at Military Command, but no hint of movement. Good.
            “Good evening, minister.” Vinas was leaning toward the monitor, his youthful face in need of a shave. “My apologies for the late message. I am sending you the latest material regarding the Eldron project on Triannon. I hope it meets with your approval. Glory to the Century Throne.”
            The image faded. Glory to the Throne. Darel felt his neck tense, his eyes suddenly dry and scratchy. He highlighted Vinas’ attachment, and the computer screen turned blank, as if a blue curtain had dropped over it. Then a green star burst in its center. The words beneath it were bright scarlet. InfraNet tranmission . . . Privacy Three protocols engaged . . . confirm/deny.
            “Confirm.” He leaned forward so the green star could read his retina. In a moment it faded, the words disappeared, and the schematics of a Herculon-class power station appeared, images from 12 angles, interior and exterior, with detailed descriptions of materials and components for creating energy, transmitting it through resistance-free neocortese bundles, and safeguarding the station’s perimeter from attack and sabotage.
            He glanced through the data and found the link he needed, a line of text with the words To be determined at future date highlighted. He clicked to open the file.
            A thin, stony face filled the screen. Shrinn.
            “Status report.” Shrinn looked uncomfortable. Angry. “The subject has been taken from Crystal Rendezvous by a group of cloneslavers. We are attempting to track them, but are delayed due to . . .” His face tensed. “Due to an unexplained failure in the Q-tag placed on the slaver’s ship. The technical details are—irrelevant. We will be able to re-establish contact with the tag, and resume pursuit shortly, and presumably, the subject will remain a prisoner of the cloneslavers for quite some time. The team has suffered . . . casualties.” He took a deep breath. “But we remain on task. Further reports will be sent through the usual protocols. Shrinn out.”
            Darel instantly erased the message, using the scrubber thoughtfully provided by Ministry Security as well as a secondary program developed by one of his own family. It would download a virus into any network that attempted to retrieve the message, one that would take hours or days to eradicate.
            In time a skilled comptech would be able to dig the message up, of course. And others might identify the source of the virus. Darel accepted the risks he was taking. He only wanted the opportunity to take action before anyone could arrest him.
            Cloneslavers. That might be as good a solution as anything. Rumav wouldn’t escape, wherever their harvesting facility was. But he could conceivably be identified. And a demand for ransom would give Naden the opportunity he needed to launch the full strength of the military on a rescue mission.
            Of course, all Darel needed was to prevent Rumav from getting to Taormika. Perhaps when Shrinn located the facility he could leak the information to the AW MilForce somehow . . .
            No. Whatever the advantages, his original plan was simpler. Capture Rumav. Kill him if necessary, or at least hold onto him until no one could stop Jerricor.
            He crossed his arms again. The Emperor was probably asleep right now. Or in bed, with that commoner he’d brought into the Century Palace. Enjoy your sleepNaden Mor Aldoz, Darel thought. Your time is almost over.

FOURTEEN: Gemstone

He cowered behind the metal storage locker, covering his head with his arms, trying to muffle his mother’s screams. Three Varrian soldiers were taking turns with her. Hide, she’d told him. Stay back here and don’t come out no matter what happens. Promise.
            He’d promised. And heard everything. He was six years old.
            But then his arms felt different. Bigger, heavier. He’d grown up. He was strong. He didn’t have to cower. He rose up on tall legs and to face the hulking bastards. They’d removed most of their armor to have their fun and they hadn’t expected any interruptions. Foxe clutched a flechette rifle in one hand and he jerked the trigger violently, sending streams of barbed darts into their ugly flesh, smiling as their blood burst through their skin and they howled in rage and pain.
            When they were dead he felt cheated, betrayed. He wanted them to suffer for hours, squirming in agony, begging for mercy, knowing they wouldn’t get any. He stepped around the locker and spit on the nearest corpse.
            “E-Erick . . . ”
            Mother. He knelt next to her, holding her face next to his chest. “Why d-didn’t you save me?” she whispered.
            He clenched his fists. They were small, his hand chubby and pink. He was a child again.
            “You told me,” he said. “You told me to hide.”
            “Good. You did it right. I’m going . . . I just need to rest.” She closed her eyes.
            Why didn’t you save me?
            His eyes jerked open. Where the hellcore—
            Right. He let his head drop, looking up at the cabin ceiling. Valeria’s yacht. Somewhere in D-space.
            He lifted his comm bracelet for the time. Four more hours to transition. They’d pop back into the real universe less than a microsecond after leaving, only a few seconds after Quili’s Fire—and Shrinn. He had to be ready.
            He took a quick stop in the head, then pulled his shirt and socks out of the clothing refresher. Underwear could wait one more day. He checked the charge of his wavedagger, the one weapon she’d left him with, then slapped the commplate next to the locked door.
            Gemstone had two guest cabins. She’d converted them into brigs. Foxe had no doubt he could escape if he had the time—though her locks were more sophisticated than most he’d seen—but there wasn’t much point. She’d pointed out the obvious security measures before sealing him in, and he assumed the yacht had more serious enhancements than shockdart stations and forcefield barriers every ten meters. Besides, they were theoretically on the same side. For the moment.
            “You’re awake,” Valeria said.
            “Let me out,” he growled.
            The door slid open. “Come up to the pit.”
            She had his pulser in her lap as he entered the cockpit. “Coffee if you need it. Fruit and pastries. Transition in three hours, fifty-two minutes. Stay on that side of the room.”
            “Good to see you, too.” He filled a mug with coffee and pulled some tiel-melon from the dispenser.
            She’d taken off her shipsuit and sat in black shorts and a sleeveless white tunic, her feet bare. Was she trying to distract him? Her body had hard muscles that came from training and exercise, not the tension lines that came from genetic remodeling and nanosurgical sculpting. Her scalp was still uncovered, smooth like an eggshell except for a shallow dent on the side of her skull. He wondered if it was the result of an injury. Brain damage might explain some of her behavior.
            Foxe had always worked alone. He didn’t have to worry that someone else’s mistakes might get him killed, and he didn’t want his own errors to put anyone else at risk. Even if he trusted this woman, he couldn’t risk relying on her.
            But she looked good.
            “You didn’t sleep well,” she said.
            “You were watching me?”
            She shrugged. “Cheap thrills. Was the bed bad?”
            His dreams were his own business. “I’ve slept in ditches and launch tubes and cells. This wasn’t any worse.”
            She nodded. “Cells—guessing you spent a lot of time in the brig. AW MilForce, right?”
            “They said I had an attitude problem.”
            She cocked her head. “Not a surprise here. No neuro treatments?”
            “No. No neuro, no nano, no reflex enhancements, no combat augmentation . . .” He stopped, aware of the anger in his voice.
            “No wonder they didn’t like your attitude. What were you? Cook? Latrine maintenance?”
            “Sniper.” He swallowed a chunk of melon. “And sabotage specialist. This tastes fresh.”
            “Best freezing tech in the galaxy, according to the marketing materials. Sabotage? Sounds glamorous. No point in wasting top nanotech on someone who’s just getting himself blown up or blown away.”
            “Sniper too. You get to shoot things from far away.”
            “Before you get a chance to annoy anyone. Which happens a lot, I’m guessing.”
Foxe sipped his coffee. “And yet, here I am. What’s your story? Valeria Lynd, Bounty hunter. Let me guess—a lot of adventure vids as a child?”
            “Every girl needs a hobby.” She leaned forward in her chair. “Let’s cut the kral—ever heard of Dimon Jakarti?”
            For a moment her loose tunic didn’t distract him. “The terrorist? Atreos Cell?” Dimon Jakarti and the Atreos Cell had unleashed biological devastation on three AW systems. The reward posted for his capture was more than he made in a year.
            “Know who brought him in?”
            He’d read the reports. ARI had tracked Jakarti to a moon on the far side of the galaxy, and then . . . “Okay. You?”
            “Aligned Research took the credit, I got the credits.”
            Bad joke—but an impressive operation, if she was telling the truth. Foxe nodded. “That sounds pretty typical for ARI.”
            “Sounds like you know them.” She was probing—trying to decide who he worked for, how far she could trust him.
            Foxe set his mug down and looked at her. She met his searching gaze with an expectant expression, as if any response he gave, even a denial, would tell her something interesting. She didn’t need him—or at least she thought she didn’t. But he needed her, until he had access to another ship. The thought irritated him. He’d never liked depending on anyone, except Spark and a handful of others.
            But she could have left him on Crystal Rendezvous, or tried to kill him as he slept. Instead she was waiting for an answer. Any answer. What was her game?
            He shrugged. “I work for ARI. Contract basis.”
            “What are they paying you to find Rumav?”
            “Who posted a bounty on him?”
            “Not an open bounty,” she warned. “Private contract. So don’t think you can collect anything on top of whatever ARI is paying you.”           
            Foxe was exasperated with her after five minutes of jousting. “Fine. Whose contract?”
            “ ‘Private?’ ” she repeated. “Check your language package for a definition.”
            What was her problem? “We can debate your business ethics another time. Shrinn wants to kill Rumav. If he does we can both lick our contracts good-bye.”
            She cocked her head, skeptical. “So we should make friends?”
            “Friends, allies—I don’t like to lose, and I don’t think you do either.”
            After a moment she nodded. “First thing you’ve said I can agree with.”
            “I’m stunned. Do we shake hands now?”
            Valeria smirked. Then she turned and leaned over the CommBoard. Foxe watched the muscles in her arm as she tapped a sequence “If you really work for ARI, you must know how to keep your mouth shut. Remember that.”
            The screen blinked. A woman with long silver hair stared out at him with poised, penetrating eyes. Her face was stiff but her voice was soft, almost a whisper, as if sharing a secret:
            “I am Jatril Tal-Eldir Aldoz, High Lady of the Republic of Riskannon. This statement signifies that I am entering into a contract with Valeria Lynd to locate my son, Rumav Sil Aldoz, and return him safely home. The terms of payment—”
            Valeria slapped the CommBoard, and the image vanished. “You don’t need to hear all that.”
            He grinned. “Maybe I do. I might want to renegotiate my rates with ARI.”
            “I’m already regretting this.” She leaned against the edge of the panel, waiting. “So what have you got to share?”
            Maybe she deserved a fair trade. “Naden Mor Aldoz brought ARI into this.”
            “Interesting.” She nodded, thoughtful. “Maybe the High Lady doesn’t trust ARI.”
            “Maybe the High Lady doesn’t trust her husband.”
            “Trust. It’s a funny thing.”
            “So where does that leave us?” He stood up. “Do we trust each other? Arm wrestle? Shoot it out right here?”
            Valeria stood a meter away from him. Facing each other, he had barely five centimeters of height on her. And the muscles he could see in her arms and legs—as well as the icy glint in her green eyes—told him she wouldn’t be easy to kill.
            “One question,” she said. “Anything you want. Then I ask you. Then we decide.”
            He’d expected a pointless fight. Or unrealistic demands—no weapons, a leash on his neck, a pedicure. This was different.
            And better. Even a lie would tell them something interesting about each other.
            “All right . . .. ”  Questions raced through his mind, professional, personal, rude: What made you a bounty hunter? What was your toughest capture? What makes you orgasm? What’s with your hair?
            “The first being you killed,” he said. “Tell me why.”
            She smiled. Relieved, maybe, that he hadn’t asked her anything she considered truly intimate.
“I was twenty.” She calculated in her head. “That’s about seventeen years, AW Fiscal. Not in this business yet. I was climbing cliffs at Celtur Canyon on Bellatris with my sister. My family—we were camping. With four andys and a solar-pack for hot showers, but camping. I was about a hundred meters above Adriann, close to the peak. Two suns. One was just coming up but it was already burning. I stopped to rest for a moment on a ridge, about five centimeters wide. To let Adriann catch up. I heard something above. Looked up. Couldn’t see, but I heard it again—breathing. Loud.”
            She scratched her scalp. “Celtur Canyon runs through an entire continent on Bellatris, and it’s a parkland. Beasts were bioengineered decades ago to remove dangerous traits. But mutations still get into the mix. Saw a newsvid piece about—” She shook her head. “Never mind. That’s all I thought it was, and I figured I’d better check the noise out before Adriann got closer. I had an AG belt, so I switched it on and grabbed an outcropping. Pulled myself up. A couple more meters and my face was at the top. Weeds and red sand. And a foot.” She looked at Foxe’s boot. “Bare. Four toes, and three claws between them.”
            She took a deep breath now. “No one was supposed to be here—my family reserved a ten kilometer area. I stayed there. Started to call Adriann, tell her someone was up there. Then the foot came down on top of my hand. I felt a claw go right through it, into the dirt. Must have screamed. Adriann fell. I heard her—rocks slipping loose, swearing. I knew all she had to do was hit her AG belt and she wouldn’t splatter, but I wasn’t sure she’d remember that. And I was mad.” She rubbed her hand.
            “So I grabbed the clawfoot with my other hand, and then I brought my feet up against the cliff face and pushed. Claw wasn’t very deep in the dirt. I’m strong—gymnastics mostly when I was younger. I had my other hand around the guy’s ankle and I kicked out away from the cliff as hard as I could. I only fell back a meter or two, but he was leaning over, off balance. Heavy bastard, bigger than two of me. But he fell. I was floating in mid-air, maybe five hundred meters up, and the AG belt wasn’t set for the extra weight, so I started dropping. Not fast, but . . . the claw was still in my hand. I was upside down. He was dangling underneath me, swinging his other foot up, trying to grab onto me. I had a wavehammer in my belt for digging into the cliff face. It self-activated when I grabbed it. He almost pulled it out of my hand while I was swinging it. Got his leg. His scream was really high, like an opera singer. His other leg—he clawed my face and I couldn’t see anything but I kept swinging. Hit something solid. I could hear Adriann yelling my name. Then the claw slipped away from my hand, and I lost the hammer. I saw it falling. Then I saw him falling too. He looked . . ..” She smiled. “Like was he trying to fly. He didn’t learn in time.”
            “Who was he?”
            She shrugged. “Trying to kidnap my sister. Or me. My family had money. Always a problem. I got my first bodyguard right after that trip.”
            “First bodyguard? How many did you go through?”
            She blinked. For a moment he thought she hadn’t heard the question, which didn’t make sense. Then she sat down, as if the story had exhausted her. “One question. My turn.”
            Her answer told him more than the obvious. She could keep her focus under fire, and improvise when her options were limited—and reliving the experience hadn’t traumatized her.
            But Valeria Lynd wanted him to see her as a coldblood. She thought he wanted that from her. She had good instincts. She could read beings and without excuses. He might not trust her, but he could trust that
            Foxe waited for her question. He thought for a moment about his first kill. He’d been twelve. Carried a bomb into—
            “Those burns.” She pointed at his neck. “There, and—all over.”
            “You were voyeuring me?”
            “My ship. Answer.”
            Not the question he expected. Or wanted. But a deal was a deal, especially if they were going to work together—or pretend to trust each other.
            Bekkas Tau: A Dumash assault cruiser had landed outside a small Bekkan town for repairs—and for a little recreational rape and slaughter. AW was fighting the Dumash on behalf of the Trellian Commonwealth, an AW member and a source of duranium ore. Foxe was aboard the stellar destroyer that had damaged the Dumash cruiser. Captain Hiller didn’t want to target the cruiser from orbit—a neutrino blast would destroy the town, and unlike the majority of MilForce officers Foxe had worked for, Hiller actually tried to limit collateral damage. At least when it was just as easy to send an expendable saboteur down to do the job.
            Hiller sent Foxe down to blow the cruiser. Foxe dropped in a disposable insertion capsule, got inside the cruiser by crawling up a waste-evacuation chute, and planted the Foley charge near the ship’s engine core, but it detonated prematurely, just as Foxe was sliding back out the chute. The cruiser dissolved in a ball of plasma. So did forty-six percent of the skin on Foxe’s body.
            “When I didn’t contact the destroyer for pickup,” he told Valeria, his voice hard as a rock, “they put my name on the Dead List and left the system.”
            But he wasn’t dead. A group of Bekkan monks found his body in the smoking grass. They carried him back to their monastery, ignoring Foxe’s pleading, pain-wracked requests for death—“The bastards,” he told Valeria— and laid him in a bed of delgash leaves that numbed his body, and through the shadows of the distant pain he heard them chanting over him, day after day, until eventually he began murmuring the words along with them.
            “I was blind and I couldn’t move,” he told her. “All I could do was repeat the chants over and over in my mind. And it helped.” The monks began teaching him different chants. Some relaxed his body, allowing it to absorb the lotions they poured on his charred flesh; other ones quieted the screaming riot in his mind and let him rest as their medicines slowly took effect. Foxe believed in no gods or demons, no religion or destiny, but he wasn’t too stubborn or stupid to turn his back on any tool he could use.             The monks’ meditations eased his pain. They took his anger and his fear and used them for strength. He didn’t tell Valeria about the struggle inside to confront the buried emotions that the Bekkan meditations unearthed from deep inside him: hatred of the occupation forces he’d grown up fighting, the soldiers who’d raped and killed his mother, even his mother for forcing him to hide and listen while she sacrificed herself for him. He had to get past his anger at the Dumash and AW MilForce and even the monks, but soon the meditation led him inevitably toward deeper sources of rage. And fear: Fear of mistakes that would endanger other people, fear of death, fear of living with his nightmares and memories until they drove him crazy.
            He told Valeria none of that. Just that somehow, after a year recovering in the monastery, when he finally managed to contact AW for a pickup, he knew how to sleep with his senses fully alert, live through pain that would have paralyzed most humanoid beings, and accept fear without letting it control him. Fear of failure, fear of blame, fear of death.
            “One journey, many paths, one destination,” he said. “That’s the meditation for greeting death.”
            “Use it a lot?”
            “Every day.”
            She nodded. He didn’t know what she’d learned from his answer, but it seemed to satisfy her. “Okay.”
            Something had happened between them. He felt himself relax, and saw her face lose a little tension. “So, are we done?”
             She looked him over as if she’d made up her mind before he’d begun to speak. “Maybe we can work together.”
            She glanced at the countdown. “Three hours, twelve minutes. I’m going to change. The controls won’t respond to you.” She walked to the cockpit door.
            Yeah, maybe we can work together, he thought. For now.

FIFTEEN: Material

He couldn’t move. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t feel his fingers, his legs. He felt as if he was floating in space, in a black empty void. He wanted to scream but his lips wouldn’t open. He wondered if he was still actually breathing.
            Am I dead?
            No. He could feel his chest moving, just barely. Breathing. He remembered a fist in his face, a kick to his stomach, and a sharp sting in the back of his neck. Maybe something broke. His spine . . .. Paralyzed?
            His eyelids lifted like a dark sheet rising from his face. Lights, too bright, stung his eyes. Shadows shifted above him. Med center? He felt a groan pour from his throat without hearing it. No, he wasn’t on the station anymore. He was far from home, far from his destination. Wherever he was, he wasn’t anywhere near safety.
            Voices murmured in his ears, but they sounded like waves in the distance. He groaned again, and this time he heard himself, a low, weak rumbling that reminded him of the dying huffleboar he’d shot during a hunting party with his father.
            Then, as if he’d broken some rule by groaning, his chest seemed to freeze up. Panic filled him. I can’t breathe! Air . . . Everything turned gray and cloudy and for a moment nothing mattered, nothing at all . . ..
            Rumav woke up. White light over his face burned his eyes. Where . . . No idea. His throat ached as if he’d been screaming. Water—he tried to sit up but his arms . . ..
            He remembered the paralysis. The fear. But this was different. He could feel his muscles, his skin. Then why couldn’t he sit up?
            Something held his arms down. His legs. His head. He tried to push, but even though he could move again, he had little strength in his body. “Hhhh . . ..” Help? Was anyone near? Anyone who would help him?
            A hand on his forehead. Another on his arm. A third on his leg, checking the restraint. Take it off! he wanted to shout. Let me go! But he could only groan again.
            “Quiet . . ..”
            He had no strength to speak, or even to hope anyone would listen. He remembered now, like a burst of lightning in a starless sky: the unexpected sting in his arm as he talked to the Udorian in Pilots Ward, followed by a numbness that spread through his body and into his brain like a warm soothing bath. Then walking—floating above the deck, his feet free of his body, drifting through the corridor walls. Then he was in the Branch. He tried to stop but only fell forward, and strong hands caught his shoulders and jerked him upright. Tried to speak but only mumbled, unable to form words or even coherent thoughts. Then a hatch like the jaws of a shark, wide and eager for food. Then—nothing.
            He forced his eyelids up, fighting the harsh light above him. The sight told him nothing about where he was or who had taken him prisoner. A white ceiling dotted with amber lights. Shadows swirled in the air; he breathed as quietly as he could, afraid of the voice that had ordered his silence. He tried to turn his head but the pain between his eyes was even more powerful than the strap around his skull.
            A face appeared, round and black, with three eyes and one nostril slit. “Don’t move,” it told him. It spoke through an opening in its neck.
            “Wh-wh-where . . . .”
            “Quiet. Don’t damage your cells.”
            “I—I . . ..” He coughed. His lips felt thick and awkward.
            A tube sank into his mouth. “Drink,” the voice said, and Rumav sucked water with a metallic tang. In a moment he was coughing again, and the being yanked the tube out and pushed his head to one side until his throat was clear again.
            “You have to stay quiet.” The being laughed, a high-pitched burst. “Or we’ll put you to sleep again. It’s better if you’re conscious. We don’t want your muscles to lose blood flow. Or your brain.”
            “I’m—I’m . . . ” Rumav Sil Aldoz, Heir to the Century Throne of the Republic of Riskannon. No, he couldn’t tell them. The Emperor—his father—would never forgive him. He’ll never forgive me anyway. But his mother . . . no.  Wherever he was, it was safer to stay anonymous. A nobody. Not a source of ransom, an embarrassment to the Throne. “Hanbor,” he whispered. “I’m Hanbor.”
            “You’re a specimen now. Number—” One of his eyes closed for a moment, accessing a neural link. “Number 9749.” Another laugh, short and ragged.
            I’m not a number! He opened his mouth to shout it in the being’s face. Then he closed his eyes. For a moment he let himself relax and feel safe. They wouldn’t kill him. They wanted his cells. These were cloneslavers. I’m a specimen. They wouldn’t even inflict any pain on him, aside from the occasional jab of a probe or a collector. No damage to his tissues, no punishment that might injure an organ or trigger a release of hormones that would affect his profile. They’d keep him alive and healthy for as long as they needed him. When they were done with him he’d just go to sleep. Dark, deep sleep.
            No. The thought reared and rose up in his brain like a dog in a fighting pit. They couldn’t—he had to get out. Somehow. He pulled against the restraints. They were soft, flexible, but anchored firmly in the crèche around him.
            “Go ahead and struggle,” a new voice said. “Won’t do you any harm. Or any good.”
            “I’m . . . I’m . . . Hanbor—”
            “You’re material.”
            Rumav pushed his eyes open. The being above him had a round face, two circular yellow eyes with a single nasal slit right between them, and a wide, lipless mouth.
            “You’re just a specimen,” the being said. “Like me. When they use you up, maybe they’ll give you a job like this one. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than the cycling chute, but it’s a change. Right now you belong to us.”
            “Who are . . . you?”
            The mouth curved in something like a smile. “I used to be 1312. Now they call me Ben.”
            “Ben.” Not a friend. He might seem sympathetic, but he belonged to them. But still . . . his sanity wouldn’t survive without some kind of contact. He remembered reading ancient reports about prisoners locked away for years beneath the CenturyGuard stockade—traitors, and innocents alike. When they were finally released, most of them couldn’t speak a coherent sentence, or even wipe themselves after finding the toilet. That won’t be me, he thought sternly. I’m Rumav Sil Aldoz. The Century Heir. No matter what happens to me, I will maintain our dignity. No matter how long . . .. 
            He looked at the being, trying to read behind his eyes. “I’m . . . 9749.”
            Ben nodded. “Now you’re learning.”

* * *

SIXTEEN: Leda Station

The transition felt smooth, like a slide into a warm pool instead of an abrupt drop into an icy bath. Foxe decided he could definitely appreciate the advantages of traveling in an expensive yacht like Gemstone. Room to pace and work out, triple backup systems in case the NavBoard crashed, an eighteen-channel Q-comm setup, and a full shower instead of a cramped head. But he still missed the rented Cat.
            He’d lost them before. The Llanos Cartel had destroyed one in an asteroid field in the Kander system, and he’d been forced to abandon another in Holarus Prime. ARI complained, but they always paid.
            No point in regrets. Just a ship, after all. His Varrian resistance cell had abandoned safehouses and caves once a month or more. You used what you had and you kept moving. It was his law of survival.  
            “Welcome to the Sorresana Nebula.” Valeria wore a sleek black shipsuit and long boots, and she’d planted some long blonde hair on her scalp. If she had any weapons on her they were slim and small—the short-sleeved shipsuit hid nothing.
            The nebula stretched across the cockpit’s multiple viewscreens, a curtain of glowing gas in colors Foxe couldn’t give a name to. Sorresana was 12 light years across, a supernova remnant still cooling almost a million years after the self-destruction of the white dwarf at the center of the cloud. From the outside it would look like a ring of energy expanding into oblivion. On the interior it was a sea of ionized gas and plasma  that rippled in Foxe’s eyes like sand dunes under a quiet breeze.
            He glanced at the SurveyBoard readout. “You’ve got rad shields on high?”
            “They adjust automatically.” She looked at the readings. “I’ve got two high-rad exosuits if we need them, but I’d rather avoid a prolonged EVA.”
            “Total agreement. Where are they?”
            She waved a finger over the SurveyBoard, and one of the screens magnified. “There.”
            The cube-shaped outpost was half a kilometer along each edge. The surface of the structure was scarred with improved vacseal patches and plasma burns. It spun in a lazy, erratic circle like a child’s toy rolling across a brightly textured carpet. Three docking rings extruded from one side of the hull, tethers attaching a half-dozen ships to the station. Foxe counted: Each ring had six tether ports. The cloneslavers could accommodate a lot of customers.
            On another side he saw a row of ships lined up, attached directly to ports in the hull. Supply transports, probably, delivering food, equipment—and beings for harvest. A handful of other ships floated nearby. “Any of those belong to Shrinn?”
            “I told you—we’ve got a week. At least four or five days. Here.” She highlighted one craft, a bumpy oval saucer mounted directly on the station’s surface. “Quili’s Fire is right there.”
            “When did they transition?”
            “Thirty minutes.” D-space travel could theoretically produce minor temporal paradoxes—ships re-entering the real universe before they’d technically left, but at celestial distances the discrepancies didn’t create causality problems for anyone except multiverse physicists.
            “They’ll have Rumav aboard by now,” Foxe said. “This space toy can go into Stealth mode, right?”
            “They’ve got us on their nets already,” she said. “I’ve signaled them for docking—”
            Was she crazy? “No, transition out and then come back in with your blockers enabled—”
            “We can’t dock and then shoot our way in. Finding one being inside those vaults in there while everyone is shooting at us? Could take days.”
Foxe thought of the Llanos Cartel nark facility on Optimix Four. “I’ve gotten in and out of worse. On my own.”
            “And that would fill me with confidence if I knew anything about you—aside from the fact that your ship got blown up.”
            “And your successful career is based on what? Hoping for good luck?”
            “Right now it’s based on my ship, my rules. Simple enough for you? There’s the hatch.”
            He bit off his reply. No point in wasting more time bickering. “I hope you strategize better than you argue. So what are you going to tell them?”
            She fluttered her eyelashes at him. “We’re here to have a child, lover.”
            “A freak child?”
            “We have very specific requirements for our baby. We want at least six fingers on each cute little hand—but no more than twelve. Reduced mental capacity. Hermaphrodite.” She winked at him. “A little something for both of us.”
            Foxe had witnessed a lot of cloning perversions around the galaxy, but hearing it in Valeria’s words made his stomach boil with disgust. “Are you serious?”
            “Oh yeah, I’m serious.” Valeria planted her feet on the deck. “And you’re nauseated just thinking about it. Hold onto that for a while. I can be very insistent.” She leaned back and stretched. “A bitch-goddess, you could say.”
            He smiled. “Can I say that to them?”
            “Not in my hearing, lover.” She wiggled her fingers at his face. “Make them think you’re a little bit scared of me.”
            “Oh, I’m scared of you. That’ll be no problem.”
            The CommBoard beeped. Valeria swung around to the panel.
“Attention, ship.” Not an automated voice—a living being was tracking them. “This is your one warning. Get out of this nebula.”
             “Hey, hey—don’t shoot us, okay?” She sounded frightened. Her face didn’t flicker, though. Still hard and determined. “This is Gemstone. My name is Val, and I’m here with my lover, Ernest.”
            “Erick,” he snapped.
“Whatever. We need your, uh, your services. We can pay! We can pay whatever you want.”
            A pause. “Where’d you hear of us?”
            She opened her mouth to reply, but Foxe tapped her arm. “Dammasch Cult,” he whispered. “DemandWeb Three.”
            “From the Dammasch Cult,” she repeated. “One of their DemandWebs. Three, I think.”
            “We’re not on the DemandWebs. Firing in five seconds.”
            “Of course you’re on DemandWebs,” she snapped without hesitation. “It’s what Dammasch is all about.”
            One of her hands drifted toward the NavBoard controls. They could probably evade an initial attack and make a quick exit to D-space, but that would make the job harder.
            “All right—transmit your ID codes and stand off until we confirm,” the voice said. “If you change your mind and leave, don’t bother coming back.”
            “Transmitting.” She tapped a key and sighed.
            “Did you have an actual plan for getting in here?” Foxe demanded.
            “Your Dammasch thing was better.” She stared at him, curious. “So, are you thick with the Cult?”
            The Dammasch Cult was a group of humans dedicated to extreme pleasures: sex, pain, incest, and other activities. He looked away from her. “I’ve had to deal with them. Have you visited their Rings?”
            “Sometimes. Is this station is really on their DemandWebs?”
            He shrugged. “Probably. You can find pretty much anything there if your tastes are slimy enough. Postings get deleted all the time.”
            “All right,” said the voice from Leda. “We’re extending a tether. Attach and then wait for the signal to come in. No weapons.”
            “Thank you!” She set her NavBoard to meet the tether. “All right, good on you,” she told Foxe. “We’re on our way in. Want to get our story straight?”
            In the screen he saw a tether extrude from one of the rings, slow and heavy like an anaconda. “No time like the now.”            
They pulled themselves through the weightless tether, a snaking tube of tissue-thin duralar, then into the central access shaft to an airlock. After fifteen minutes the airlock opened into a junction where two andys and a human male the size of a grizzly bear met them. The andys searched them and scanned the bags they carried. The human—“I’m Borr,” he grunted—stood back, one hand on the ion pistol at his hip, and smirked at Valeria, as if this was the best part of his job.
            The andys found a sliverbeam from Foxe’s bag and a small pulser strapped to Valeria’s ankle. Borr confiscated the weapons with a smile. “Everyone tries.”
            “That sliverbeam cost me 200 i.c.,” Foxe protested. “I’d better get it back.”
            “My pulser was 300,” Valeria snapped. “So shut up.”
            Foxe glared at her. But they’d planned for their weapons to be found and taken; it suggested they were stupid, and gave the cloneslavers a sense of security. Valeria still had her handcomp, clipped to her waist, and they left Foxe with a gameplayer in his bag after they checked it out and copied some of the games they didn’t have in their system.
“Okay,” Borr said with a yawn. “Come on.”
            He led them down a low corridor, gray walls scarred with stains that might have been blood or other bodily fluids. The andys followed behind Val, boxing them in.
            Foxe glanced up and down the passageway as though fighting the desire to run back toward the tether. Fear was good camouflage, letting the enemy think you could be threatened and manipulated. But Foxe’s fear was real enough. Walking unarmed into an outpost full of cloneslavers reminded him that fear could overpower all his training and any Bekkan chant. The cloneslavers might not even kill him if everything went wrong. They could keep him alive, in a tank, for years—for harvest. No hope of freedom, or even death.
            Like all the others they kept here.
            The human halted before an open door. “There.”
            “What’s this?” Foxe asked.
            “Just go,” Valeria snapped.
            “All right, I just want to know—”
            She grabbed his arm and shoved him through the door.
            “Hello,” Foxe said. “I’m—”
            “I know who you are,” said the woman inside the room.
            She sat behind a deskcomp, floating on an AG chair. A cascade of holodisplays glowed around her, then flickered as she closed them all at once and leaned forward to give them a skeptical look-over.
            She looked human, or at least humanoid, but a second glance showed that her pale blue eyes were optical implants. Her black hair was tied back in a tight braid, and the cortical cables connecting her brain to the deskcomp looked like more braids trailing down her back. Her arms, sleeves rolled back, wore a series of bright comm bracelets with dark jeweled control studs. Some of the bracelets were implanted directly into her flesh. Her long fingers were a hybrid of flesh and metal.
            “Sssooo . . ..” She drew the word out as she scanned them with their artificial eyes. “Val and Erick. I’m Morine Andala. This is Leda.” She spread her hands in an insincere gesture of welcome. “Tell me why you’re here.”
            Foxe started to speak but Valeria kicked his leg. She opened a pocket on her hip, next to where her handcomp hung from a belt, and tossed a datachip on Morine’s desk. “There’s twenty thousand shares of Rabix Corporation, blind transfer. We want a child.”
            “Twenty thousand?” Foxe turned on her. “Are you sanity-challenged? We could go to—”
            “As a down payment that may be enough,” Morine cut in. “Depending on what you want.”
            “Give her the data,” Valeria snapped.
            Foxe frowned, dug into a vest pocket, and set a second datachip next to the credit chip. “It’s all there.”
            Her fingers scooped up the datachip like a hawk snatching its prey. She inserted it into a slot and her desktop glowed. Foxe saw genetic codes and physical specifications flow down the screen. She tapped commands on a touchscreen beneath the edge of her desk.
            No place to sit. Morine had the only chair. Maybe she expected her business with unexpected visitors to be brief.
            She nodded to Valeria. “Your down payment will cover half of the process.”
            “Half?” Foxe took a step forward, reaching out to snatch the credit chip. Then his arm froze and he couldn’t move his feet. An N-field surrounded the desk, paralyzing anyone who got too close.
            “Kitt,” Valeria muttered in disgust. “Let him go.”
            Morine held the field a moment longer, gazing at Foxe with a cruel, feline glint in her eye. “Remember this.”
            The field pushed Foxe back. He staggered, glared at Valeria, and shook his head. “Let’s get out of here.”
            “We’re staying.” She gripped his arm with tight fingers. “We agreed.”
            Foxe opened his mouth to argue. She squeezed his arm harder.
Damn. She was good at this. “All right. Fine.” He pulled his arm free. “But I get to choose the components.”
            Morine stood up. Foxe saw a dartwand dangling from a leash at her hip.             “Everyone wants to play with DNA,” she said. “Chromosones aren’t interlink blocks or origami sheets. You can’t mix them together like exotic cocktails. You’ll get choices of genetic components taken from our available material, based on the specific traits you’re interested in, and we’ll perform three physical modifications within Darkins-Xingli parameters. You’ll get five samples to choose from when accelerated gestation occurs. And we aren’t responsible for any product defects because you pick incompatible genetic traits.”
            “We agree,” Valeria said.
            Foxe sighed. “All right. Whatever she says.”
            Morine looked amused. “First look at this.” She touched a bracelet stud, and images of zygotes, embryos, and newborn infants appeared in the air. Most were humanoids, but none of them looked like conventional beings. Some had extra arms, or just one; some had three eyes, others none at all; some looked like a contorted tangle of limbs, while others were chimericals, a mixture of humanoid and animal DNA.
            Morine was trying to shock them, scare them, so they’d have no excuse for backing out after she’d begun her work. The whole enterprise disgusted Foxe. He kept his face steady and waited with an impatient frown.
            “This is a business.” Morine killed the holoimage. “There are no tours of the crèches, no access to our databanks, no watching our techs at work. The accelerated development process takes three days. Your fee includes a gestation unit for transporting the finalized embryo. Until delivery, you remain on Leda. No going back to your ship for anything you ‘forgot.’”
She leaned back in her chair. “You’ll follow our rules explicitly. Follow instructions from station personnel at all times. Assume that we’re monitoring everything you say and do all the time. Don’t make trouble. We are a long way from any authority. Remember that.”
“Fine,” Valeria said.
            “Let’s get on with it,” Foxe snapped.
            With a skeptical smile, Morine sat down again, pulled down the holoimages, and slipped the datachip into a deck. “Confirm payment now, please.”
            Valeria tapped a code into the reader. Then she crossed her arms, impatient. “Well?”
            Morine smiled. “I’ll begin processing your specs. Since you indicate you want to use some of your own genetic material, I’ve scheduled an exam for thirty minutes from now. Do you need one compartment while you’re here?” She looked at Valeria. “Or two?”
            “Just one, I suppose.” She rubbed Foxe’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine.”
            He nodded. “It better.”

The compartment held a pair of narrow cots, a transparent table with two chairs, and a head with a refresher instead of a full shower. The gray walls were bare, and dented in one corner, as if a guard had hurled a prisoner against it over and over. It smelled of bugkiller. One amber lighttube ran across the ceiling. The door had no lock, internal or external.
            Foxe sat on one of the cots, looking for spycams. “Figure they’re listening in?”
            “You never know with people like—I mean, out here, middle of a nebula, all the guards.” She shrugged, sat down, and unclipped the handcomp from her hip. “We’d better assume.”
            “I don’t like that. What if we want to—”
            She slammed her hand on the table. “Oh gods and demons, shut up! Give me five minutes of quiet.”
            “Fine.” He lay down on the cot.
            She drew a stylus from a slot in the handcomp and tapped it three times on the screen, her lips clamped together. Then she pressed down on one end of the stick, holding her thumb for three seconds. Without looking up she said, “Better keep this short—they might notice the signal interruption. And if there’s vid surveillance they’ll see us talking. Any ideas?”
            He stared at the ceiling. A cascade of minuscule spycams could be watching them even if she’d blocked the audio signal. “We’ve got to hack into their databanks somehow.”
            “Hackware here—” she rapped the handcomp with a knuckle. “That might do it.”
            He frowned at the risk. “How much more money can you throw around?”
            “Client placed her funds at my disposal. You?”
            “Special accounts. If I can get a Q-bank link. My ship got blown up, remember?”
            She drummed fingers on the table. “We can’t start by throwing cees at them. An argument. Make them think the deal’s going to fall through. Force a concession.”
            It made sense. “You want nine fingers, I want six, we can’t agree—“
            “Too trivial. Don’t we—”
            “Ever had a boyfriend? Trivial is what real couples argue about. You tell them you can work it out, we argue a little longer, and in the end we compromise on seven fingers, as long as it’s fresh material. Nothing that’s been lying in a crèche for months.”
            Valeria nodded. “Might work. If you can be childish and irrational.”
            “I’ll do my best.”
            She glanced at her handcomp. “Better quit.”
            “Fine. I have to use the head anyway.”
            She clicked the stylus. He got up, stretched, and stepped inside the head. After washing his hands and purging the toilet. He returned and sat on the bed again. Valeria’s handcomp was back on her hip and her arms were tightly crossed. She didn’t look at him.
            He lay down on the cot, crossed his arms over his face, and gave a long, frustrated sigh. Rumav was here, maybe only a few hundred meters from this compartment. They’d keep the kid healthy, at least. It’s my health I’m worried about, he thought. He glanced at Valeria. And hers.
            “Will it hurt?” he asked, playing the role of the anxious spouse. “This exam?”
            “I don’t know.” She sighed. “Not too much, I’d guess. They need to keep us happy.”
            “They can do anything they want to us here.”
            “Stop whining. Think about the child.”
            “Yeah.” He closed his eyes.
            In his life he’d killed people, suffered torture, almost burned to death, and seen his mother die. But the toughest part of the job was waiting. Facing a battery of pulser cannons was almost relaxing compared to the dread of anticipation.
            He heard Valeria move across the floor. “You want something? Coffee, liquor—nice selection.”
            Some Centauri whiskey would feel good, but he needed to stay sharp. “You go ahead.”
            Liquid poured, and he heard a sigh from Valeria’s lips. “That’s good.”
            “Come here.”
            She laughed. “Not now.”
            “Oh, come on. All this talk about babies—”
            “Just yank yourself. If you don’t mind them watching.”
            “Fine.” He rolled over. He hadn’t wanted her to agree. Just keeping up the cover. But the stab of disappointment from her bitter laugh surprised him. You’re not a kid, he told himself. This is work.
            Then he felt her hand on his shoulder, rubbing his muscles. “Just relax.”
            “That helps.”
            She stopped. “Shut up.”
            That was going to be difficult.

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