Saturday, January 25, 2014

Prodigal Prince, Ch. 18-19

Because it's been so long since I posted any new chapters, I thought I'd give you a double dose.


Time to work, Val thought. She wore a loose white shirt, unzipped far enough to draw attentive eyes. Tight black slacks wrapped around her slim hips, emphasizing every step as she walked across the cabin to the door.
            “Where are you going?” Foxe asked from the bed. “That’s pretty slink for breakfast.”
            She shrugged. She saw his eyes follow the rise and fall of her shoulders. “Just—around.”
            “Don’t forget we’re viewing the profiles in three hours.”
            Hands on her hips, she stared at him. They had the bickering down all too well. “And don’t forget we can’t change our minds about the eyes again. Blue moon is what we agreed on.”
            “I just said maybe we should think about—”
            “Just think about leaving here as soon as possible. With a product. Unless you want to stay here and gamble all our money away with that Frique.” 
            “I’m due for a winning streak. With what this is costing us—”
            “Just shut up! Please.” Her voice shook. “It’s what we settled on.”
            “Yeah.” He looked away from her. “Just be . . . watch yourself. Lot of crazies in this place.”
            He was actually worried. He didn’t think she was up to the job. She shook her head, irritated. I can handle this, she wanted to snap. Not even the toughest location I’ve gotten out of. “All right.”
            She left.
            She walked quickly, her heart beating harder than she expected. Foxe could play games with Frique all through the Alpha Shift, and maybe he was good enough at enough gambling to turn Frique, force him to co-operate, but she had something better. A little flirting and a certain amount of flesh, and Ben would give her anything she asked for before half-shift break.
            Of course, that’s when things could get tricky. She’d handled beings like Ben before, males and females and gender-swingers of different species who expected to get their taste of her whether she laughed or screamed. They usually underestimated her ability to slide away from their slimy hands before they realized they weren’t going to get sexed. A handful of times she’d had to actually perform, but even then she’d been able to play the game until they were so caught up in passion or cruelty they let their guard down and gave her a chance to kick their genitals whichever way hurt most. She didn’t like to remember those episodes, but they were necessary. The memory kept her alert.
            But Ben wouldn’t be a problem. A horny kid, too long stuck in the middle of this nebula, a hundred light years from anything female that would look at him twice without checking his credit first. He was aching for attention. And other things. She’d need to be cautious—frustrated lust was one of the deadliest forces in the universe, she’d found—but she probably wouldn’t have to kill him.
            Val knew what Morine and her crew would do to Ben if she got what she wanted from him. But she didn’t let herself think about that. Couldn’t afford to. Ben was on his own, just like she was. Just like everyone.
             Maybe she could get him out. Maybe she could rescue all of them, lead a revolt against the clonesavers, take over the station, and bring Rumav back home unharmed. Uh-huh. Right.
            You can’t save everyone, Vallie. The universe has to take care of itself. Sorry, Ben.
            She made her way down to the maintenance decks, using a code Ben had given her to open doors. She found him sitting in the corridor, legs crossed, his fingers punching the controls of a vidgame. He didn’t notice her, and she watched him as his round eyes darted like angelfish tracking the game. His concentration was pure and total. His breathing was shallow, and he didn’t laugh once for the ninety seconds she watched him.
            “Hi, Ben,” she said when she decided he wasn’t going to take a break on his own. “What you playing?”
            “What? Oh, hi—hi, Val.” He blinked, torn between staying with his game and looking at her. “It’s just a new version of River Rats. Hamnet gave it to me. Do you ever—ever play River Rats?”
            “V-games aren’t that much fun.” She crouched to peer at the screen.
            “Yeah, this is good, though. You got to navigate down a river, and each game is a river on a different planet. See, this is the Brandyroot on Corius Seven, it goes across the whole planet.” He jabbed a thumb on one control. The small craft flitted away from a rising tentacle, but Ben’s maneuver took it into the path of a jagged boulder falling from a tall cliff over the shore.
            The craft dropped beneath churning waves. GAME OVER.
            “Sorry. I distracted you.”
            “That’s all right.” He turned the player off and stuffed it down a pocket as if ashamed of his defeat. “What you doing down here?”
            “Bored.” She sat next to him, stretching her legs. “Slept bad.”
            “Bad nightmares?”
            “Just . . . lonely. I’m stuck in that compartment with just my husband, nothing to do, just waiting . . ..” She closed her eyes.
            Was he running his eyes over her body? Probably. She’d caught shy glances from him before when he thought she wouldn’t notice.
            Foxe’s face reared into her mind for a moment. He’d gotten a look at her body a few times, and while he didn’t try to hide his interest, she sensed that he had other priorities—not just here and now, but in his life outside the station. She hadn’t let herself wonder what they were.
            She had more immediate goals right now, too. Getting attention with her body was easy. Using that attention to get what she wanted—without losing control of the situation—that’s what took skill.
            “You’re going soon, right?” He blurted the question, as if she scared him.
            “Well, I can’t live here. If we can decide on the right specs it could be soon. Today, maybe. But Erick can be a pricking pig sometimes.”
            “Yeah. What’s a pig?”
            She smiled, her eyes still closed. “An animal. A dirty animal.”
            Pause. “Why do you like him?”
            “Good question.” She wasn’t sure how she felt about Foxe—he was difficult to scan. Probably good at his job, but too defensive. Hiding behind jokes and attitude. “He can be—fun, sometimes. Just not here.”
            “Yeah. Not much fun here.” He was getting restless.
            She had to keep his interest. Val opened her eyes and sat forward. “You know what?”
            He blinked, shifting his eyes away from her body now that she could see him again.
            “You could do me a favor, maybe.” Val looked into his three eyes. They were perfect circles, yellow and unsettled.
            “Yeah—maybe.” He looked away from her. “What?”
            “We’re supposed to view the embryo profiles in a few hours. If I could get a look at them—well, I’d know what Erick’s going to argue about, and I could make him shut up.”
            “You want me to show you the profiles? That’s—I don’t know.”           
            She glanced up and down the corridor, then leaned closer to him. “Maybe not the final profiles. Just the raw data. The genetics. You could do that, couldn’t you?”
            “Well . . .” He wanted to.
            She put a hand on his leg. “Nobody has to know.”
            He grinned suddenly. He had a single ridge of bone inside his mouth, the color of pearl. “There’s a work carrel. It’s private. It’s kind of tight. We could . . .” His eyes grew shadowed, embarrassed.
            “Yeah, we could. Can we do it right now?”
            “Right now.” He forced himself to look away from her again and focused on the time implant in his wrist.  “I’ve got an hour.”
            “That’s long enough.” She gave him a smile. “Let’s do it.”
            “Okay.” He scrambled to his feet and stamped them on the deck, as if they’d fallen asleep. “This way. Come on.”
            Got you, Val thought. “Lead the way.”

Bacat was based on an old Terra-1 game called Holdem, with one element added by the Narixian Temple of Ramos the Champion: Bets were made by throwing a twenty-sided dice. The only decision was whether to toss the dice or not.
            Dice made Foxe’s plan more complicated. Foxe could have rigged the gameplayer on his handcomp to let him win—or lose—whenever he needed to, even though Frique had naturally insisted on scanning the software. But he couldn’t control the dice and how much it let him bet.
But Foxe had played this game during the Varrian Occupation with chainsaw bombs exploding over his skull. The dice variation barely distracted him.
He’d created a “tell” for Frique to notice, rubbing his nose before tossing the dice whenever he was bluffing. Foxe was careful to keep it subtle and rare, avoiding Frique’s eyes and using the tell only when his hand was weak enough that desperation was his only hope of winning.
Frique came from the Danquin homeworld: a short humanoid with no hair on his body, no ears, and a web of bulging blue veins that crisscrossed his bare scalp. His job was keeping the genetic manipulation equipment running smoothly. He had access to all the crèche data. He could find Rumav—with the right incentive.
And he was a decent bacat player, but he didn’t want to play today.  “I just got off Gamma Shift.” He leaned against a bulkhead. “Go away. I’m tired.”
“I’m leaving today. Probably.”
Then he straightened. Only slightly more than a meter tall, he was solid and thick as an oxblix. “Then you’d better give me my 300 cees.”
“It’s 287.” Foxe flicked his fingers across the screen of his handcomp. “How about double stakes?”
Frique sighed. “You’re defective. All right, come on.”
            The empty shelves inside the storage compartment where they played reminded Foxe of prison bars. He set up the game on a small worktable in the corner. Frique perched on a stool, watching to make sure he didn’t load any suspicious apps at the same time. Frique had checked the gameplayer’s software before their first game to be certain the hands were really generated randomly. He supplied the dice.
            The gameplayer on Foxe’s handcomp would project two holoscreens visible from only one angle, displaying randomly generated images of playing cards. A third screen between them showed their common cards. The gameplayer kept track of their scores.
            “Getting your embryo today?” Frique asked as Foxe dealt.
            “We look at the profiles in a few hours. I just hope she’s happy with one of them.”
            Frique smirked. “You want to get out of here.”
            “Soon as possible. Hey, you’re a tech. You seen my profiles?”
            “Can’t tell you that. You know the rules.”
            “The only rule I care about is a flush beats a straight. Or is it the other way around?” He grinned.
            “Really—Can you check the profiles out for me? I just want—”
            “No! Can you hear with those ugly flaps of skin you wear on your head? I can’t do that. Don’t worry, you’ll be on your way soon enough. Let’s play.”
            They tossed the dice and entered their bets on Foxe’s handcomp. For the first few games they’d used credit tabs, until Foxe had lost big and claimed he couldn’t give him all his tabs without his wife finding out. He had to get Frique to lose more than he could easily pay, but he also had to make him think he had his own limits.
            Two quick hands, and they were almost even again. Frique smiled, his face sweaty. “Your wife going to cover you if I empty your credit deck?”
            “Can we not talk about her? This whole trip was her idea.”
            “We could work out a trade. She’d have to co-operate, you know?” The veins in his forehead pulsed as he chuckled.
            “Keep yanking it. I’m the best she can handle. And she wouldn’t touch your—”
            “Not me. I don’t tilt her way.” He tossed the dice. “But some of my friends . . .”
            Foxe looked up, his eyes sharp. “What?”
            “Nothing, just—”
            He pushed himself up to his feet. “What?”
            Frique tilted his stool back. “Ay, back down over there. You wanted to play cards?”
            Foxe sank into his chair and glared at his card display. He wanted to keep Frique wary of his temper, but his irritation wasn’t totally an act. Even though Val seemed perfectly capable of protecting herself. “Keep your mouth shut about my wife. Just shut. You going to bet?”
            He rolled the dice. Eleven. Frique peered into his screen and matched his 22 cees. “Ready for the cap?” He flipped the last card.
            “Hellcore.” Foxe was down fifty cees.
            A few more hands passed in silence. Then Frique, after a few stolen glances, said, “There’s this one, named Ben. Creche-tender, used to be material. He just talks about your wife a little.”
            “I said—” Foxe stared at him. “Like what?”
            “Thinks she likes him. Your bet.”
            Foxe tossed the dice. Twenty. He rubbed his nose and entered a bet of 40 i.c. “Well, she’s not about to share fluids with refuse from a crèche. I know the bitch that well.”
            “He thinks . . . ” Frique turned the river, giving him three Lesser Monarchs to Foxe’s two black tens.
            “Shove him. And you, if you keep talking.” He’d lost 130 cees in the hand.
             Frique’s chatter about Val irritated him. He wasn’t sure why. Val irritated him even more. Okay, not fair—it wasn’t her fault she’d been born with money, and her body was a legitimate tool if she wanted to use it. Frique’s words didn’t bother him as much as the truth—that she was somewhere below them working Ben, letting him think . . .
            “You going to deal?”
            Foxe tapped a key. “Let’s make this worthwhile.” He anted double the usual amount.
            Frique smiled and met him.
            Foxe lost the next hand, without using his tell. He managed to lose 500 cees after that without even trying, thanks to a potential flush that didn’t materialize. Frique won with a pair of twos and cackled as he checked his score. “Ready to pay up?”
            Foxe glared at him. “Just deal the cards.”
            His two pocket cards were useless, but he tossed the dice anyway. The three-up cards gave him nothing. He let Frique see him hesitate. Betting too aggressively on trash would arouse some suspicion, but he needed to keep the stakes rising. With a loud sigh, he tossed the dice. Ten. His bet was 20.
            Frique tossed the dice, then closed his screen, conceding the hand. Foxe cursed inwardly as he gave the tech a big grin. “Things starting to turn, my friend.” He was still down by 220 cees.
            “I gotta go.” Frique shoved the cards across the table. “Alpha’s what—shista, half over? Need some rest.”
            Arguing would just make him stubborn. With a shrug, Foxe said. “Fine by me. I can’t get this money together anyway right now.”
            Frique froze. “What?”
            “I can get it, all right?” He edged his chair backward, as if afraid. “Just not right now.”
            “You better, clonesucker.”
            “One more hand?”
            “So I can win more money you can’t pay?” His face grew red, a sharp contrast to the blue veins in his forehead.
            “I can get it! One more, come on.”
            “You better. Or I get to take your testicles, if that’s what your species carries.” But Frique sat down. “This is it.”
            A prince in the three-up gave Foxe a pair. He tossed the dice. Nineteen, which he doubled. Frique threw a twenty and bet 40. The next card that opened, a greater monarch, didn’t help Foxe at all. He threw fifteen, and doubled it again. Frique threw a twelve and bet.
            Now the cap. The final card popped open.
            Three. Foxe’s other pocket card was a three, giving him two pair. He tossed the dice. Sixteen. But on the cap he was allowed to wager up to ten times the dice. He took a long look at his pocket card, then rubbed his nose, keeping his eyes away from Frique. He bet 160.
            Frique tossed the dice for seventeen. With a grin, he bet 170. “All right, you’d better have it by tonight . . .” His voice trailed away as their screens displayed each player’s hands.
            Foxe sighed loudly. “Finally.”
Frique had one pair of nines.  
“Shista!” Frique slapped the worktable hard enough to send the dice to the floor. “That can’t be right!”
            “Hey, you checked the software. You insisted.” Foxe breathed a long sigh. “I was about due for luck.”
             “I was going to get some rest . . .”
            “Well, you can sleep all you want.” Foxe pulled the cards together. “We’d better settle, though, I’m going to be leaving soon, and you owe me . . . 756 cees.”
            “Bann’s ass!” He grabbed the handcomp. “That’s out of—”
            “Check the log,” Foxe snapped. “You weren’t asking questions when I was down. Come on, let’s finish it and you can get some sleep.”
            “I can’t—” Frique stopped, glaring at Foxe. “You needed time to get the money.”
            “You said you were going to cut off my testicles.”
            “You’re going to leave!” He stood up, knocking his stool over, and kicked the wall behind him. “Just as soon as you get your embryo. You and your luck. All right, Koro owes me some money. Let me talk to him. Gamma shift.”
            “Koro owes you money.” Foxe closed the game, clipped the player to his belt, and bent down for the dice. Time to raise the stakes.
            “Yeah, he’s an andy programmer—”
            Foxe hurled the dice at Frique’s face. It struck him just below one eye, then dropped and bounced beneath the shelving as dark maroon blood began dripping down his cheek. He shouted in pain and surprise, but before he could move Foxe jumped around the table and slammed a fist into his chest. The bone beneath was soft. Frique screamed. Foxe hoped he hadn’t damaged any important organs underneath.
            Frique tried to lift his arm to defend himself, but Foxe brought his boot down hard on his foot. Bones crunched, and Frique doubled over, gasping. Foxe grabbed Frique’s neck in a tight painful pinch and pulled him upright.
            “Goddeshi, you don’t have to—ahh!” He squirmed. The veins in his forehead were dark purple.
            “That’s for saying things about my wife.”
            “I didn’t—Ow! Okay, apology, okay! Stop . . ..”
            Foxe released him, and Frique sagged, laying his smooth head on the desk. Foxe’s heart thudded. Frique was a cloneslaver. He deserved worse than this. But Foxe needed him. For now.
            “I’ll get—the money—just don’t—hit me?”
            “Oh, keep your filthy credits. I don’t need your money.” Foxe nudged his leg with one foot. Frique flinched. “I’ll tell you what I want instead.”
            “Wh-what?” Frique peered up at him, the bruise from the dice pushing his eye half shut.
            He leaned over. “I want seven fingers.”
            “I don’t . . .” He blinked, trying to focus on Foxe’s hands.
            “For my embryo! I want seven fingers. It’s just—something I want.” He gave Frique’s chest a tap. Not hard, but Frique flinched and swore at him. “There’s got to be something in one of the crèches with seven fingers, isn’t there?”
            “I don’t know. I don’t know!”
            “Well, let’s find out. Right now.”
            “I can’t—”           
            “Of course you can. Weren’t you bragging yesterday about checking out the material for good bodies?”
            “But I—wait! Don’t!” he shouted as Foxe drew his fist back again. “Shista. You’re crazy, you know that?”
            Just what Foxe wanted him to think. He grabbed Frique’s neck again, squeezing the nerve center near his spine.
             “Stop! I can do it. Back off, would you?” He curled up into a ball. “I can do it. Goddeshi . . ..”
            Foxe released him and took a step back. Frique’s arms dangled at his side, his face on the table, breathing hard. “All right.”
            Foxe didn’t enjoy beating people who couldn’t fight back, even when they deserved it. But at least they didn’t haunt his dreams. He wiped the sweat from his face with the back of his arm. “Then let’s go.”
            “Right now?”
            “You either pay me right now or do it right now. Or get more of the treatment right now. You pick. Right now.”
            “Okay, all right.” Frique took a deep breath and pulled himself up, holding onto a shelf. “I’m bleeding.”
            With a scowl, Foxe pulled a dermalspray from his vest and tossed it. “Here. Anyone asks, you had an accident shaving.”
            Frique sprayed his hairless scalp. “Shaving?”
            “Never mind.” He pointed to the door. “Let’s go.”


Quili’s Fire is here.” Declannes highlighted an icon on the tactical screen.
            Shrinn’s eyes moved between the tactical display and the main viewscreen. Tactical showed positions and distances relative to their ship. His ship could identify tactical configurations, list known weaponry, analyze energy signatures, prioritize potential targets, and suggest manuevers for attack and evasion. The main screen showed reality: The cloneslaver facility floating in space, 1.5 million kilometers away, shrouded by the glowing dust of the Sorresana Nebula. A thick block of metal, scarred and dirty, rotating in a lazy, random pattern like a piece of stellar driftwood.  
            The ship was in stealth mode. Under normal circumstances it would be impossible to spot, but any decent survey array would pick up disturbances in the stellar dust of the nebula around them. In the viewscreen, ships connected to the station with flimsy-looking tethers looked like insects caught in a huge web, not trying to escape but hoping to make a deal with the spider with their souls as payment. The other ships docked to the station’s hull were like sandleeches, sucking the life from their prey, depositing their waste onto the station so it could feed and continue to survive.
            Perversions were being committed there that they couldn’t see through any screen. Disgusting experiments that no one should witness, let alone suffer through. They’d all seen the AW archive vids on cloneslaver horrors. Every civilized culture was sickened by the practice. And yet it persisted. Thrived. Fed on the beings it captured and spewed the refuse it produced into the galaxy
            But Shrinn’s anger had nothing to do with the horror in front of him. He had a different target. “Is Foxe still there?”            Unscrambling their tag through the strangled mess created by the hotpaint had taken days—although it could have taken weeks if he hadn’t insisted on the best tech for his team. But long as Foxe was still here, Rumav was within reach. And neither one of them would escape.
“Let me . . .” Declannes hesitated, manipulating the CommBoard controls. “Yes. Here he is in their current client database. Valeria Lynd is with him.”
Lynd. The bounty hunter from M’tajj’s suite. Also hunting Rumav. Had they teamed up out of necessity? Maybe they’d been working together from the start, pretending to be adversaries.
It didn’t matter. If she got in the way, she’d die too.
            “Set a tag on her ship. And in the name of the Seven, test it this time.” Declannes had all the right skills, but he’d missed that step at Crystal Rendezvous. Lanesh wouldn’t have.
            “Yes, sir.” Declannes bit his lip as he tapped the controls.
 His Weapons Chief nodded. “Sir.”
“Start planting SP-2s on the station’s hull. I want enough to obliterate the station with one single command within the hour.”
            “The structural survey will take several hours—”
            “Skip the survey. Just plant as many as you can in one hour without being detected.
            “Sir?” Aje spoke from the doorway. He didn’t have a station on the bridge, but he had the right to observe operations.  “My squad can board and take the station.”
Was it a challenge? They’d exchanged only a few words since Crystal Rendezvous—curt orders and terse acceptance. But Aje seemed determined not to give into any sense of guilt he felt for Lanesh’s death. And Shrinn had realized, reluctantly, how great his shame must be. Aje was a good soldier. He deserved respect. Despite his mistakes.
            “No.” Tempting as it was, that meant fighting from deck to deck, one cubicle after another, and a station like Leda would have too many potential deathtraps waiting for any invading force. Better to stand off in the darkness. Play to their strengths—power and patience.
            Aje nodded. “Then we should place SP-2s on the docked ships as well as the station.”
            It made sense. But he couldn’t give the station too much time to react. “How many ships?”
            “Fourteen.” Declannes checked the board. “Counting Lynd.”
“Place one on Lynd’s ship, transition trigger. Leave the others. I want to be able to make contact with that station within the hour.”
            “On it, sir.” Mateon was clicking keys as fast as he could.
            Aje nodded. “Your command, sir.”
            The Century Heir was somewhere in the facility. Helpless. Waiting to be harvested. They could just leave him there. The cloneslavers would never identify him. If he ever regained enough consciousness to stammer his name they’d assume he was lying, or insane. Or they could simply destroy the station and leave its wreckage to drift in the nebula dust. Erase it from existence, along with everyone on board: the victims in their crèches would never know, and the crew and their clientele didn’t deserve any warning or explanation.
            But he had to see. To give an accurate report to Darel, he needed to know for a fact that Rumav was dead. No longer any threat to them That meant restraining his impatience, keeping his team ready, not taking any chances.
            He heard the voices of his team murmuring around him, on the bridge and within the ship’s onboard network, asking questions, sharing jokes, placing bets, cursing each other. The various control boards of the bridge hummed and beeped like crickeers in the grass of home. His own breathing seemed to thunder in his chest.
            The Century Heir was on board that station, but Foxe was he pictured right now, alive and healthy, oblivious to the damage he’d done and the punishment that was coming for him.
            Any two-day recruit could go in blasting. As much as he wanted to act quickly, decisively—violently—he needed to take his time.
            No more mistakes. Not after Crystal Rendezvous.

Ben was nervous. Sweating like an adolescent sneaking into his father’s wine cellar or his mother’s virtual sex platform, his t-shirt sticking to his skinny shoulders, he whispered a quick, please-don’t-answer-me hello to one crewmember in the corridor and waited for him to disappeared before taking Val through a secured door. Inside he took a deep breath, half relief and half increased anxiety.
            They were deep within the station. Val could feel the power from the multi-fusion chamber humming through the deck. They stood in a short, wide hall with a circular lighttube overhead, doors with security locks glowing red on either side of them.
            Ben avoided looking directly at her. “It’s probably this one,” he murmured, stepping toward the second door to the right with the words STATION 4 printed in black. “Or one of the others. But probably this. It should have what you want.”
            “I’m sure it will.” He needed confidence. Needed to trust that she wouldn’t punish him for a mistake. “Let’s take a look.”
            He nodded, but didn’t move for a second. Val waited, scanning the area with her eyes and ears. Finally Ben sighed and headed to the door. He jammed the chip into the reader, tapped a code into the keypad, and tensed as the door slid open.
            “No one’s usually in here,” he said without looking over his shoulder as he entered. “You can access the database anywhere, but you've got to log in unless you’re using one of the terminals here, so this—this seemed like the best way. We can’t change anything, just look at the data. I’d need an override key to do anything else”
            “You used a code on that keypad. Will anyone know we’re in here?”
            “No. It’s a just generic entry code. They don’t really care if we’re in here. It’s just that—you’re not supposed to be here.”
            The room was slightly larger than the compartment she was sharing with Foxe. Six comp stations jutted from the walls, screens on standby. A glowsphere floated in the center of the room, flooding every corner with white light. Signs were stuck to various monitors—CLOSE ALL INTERFACES WHEN COMPLETE, NIKOLAS DON’T CHANGE ANY PASSWORDS AGAIN, ALLPORN MOVED TO CHANNEL N32, XR KEY STICKS SO PRESS HARD!!!
            Ben picked a seat, and the dark screen in front of him came automatically to life. He peered at the menu. “Okay. What—what do you want?”
            “Embryo profiles.”
            “Do you have the—no, you wouldn’t have a base ID. When did they take your specs?”
            “Two days ago.”
            He licked his lips and punched in a date. Lines of data poured down the screen. “It could be—okay, here it is.” He highlighted one line and tapped a series of instructions. The screen blinked, and five image icons popped into view. “There they are.”
            Val leaned down over him, one hand on his shoulder. She could feel his arm shake as she stared as he clicked on each icon, one by one.
            Just a cluster of cells. It was hard to visualize any living potential in this clump of genetic material, but she knew that in a matter of days it would develop into a real embryo waiting to be born—or flushed. The cloneslave trade was based on the ability to produce fully-grown specimens as quickly as possible, even faster than the typical acceleration process used by impatient beings on a hundred worlds to reduce the waiting time between conception and birth. Many would-be parents didn’t rely on sex to produce offspring; those that did frequently had their embryos removed at an early stage to grow in gestation tubes, monitored and manipulated to guarantee health and whatever advantages they favored.
Val’s mother had done it, sculpting both daughters and one son for physical beauty. Adriann had been more beautiful than Val, while Paul seemed modeled after ancient statues of the gods of Greece on Terra-1 and the saints of Orion Prime. Val, leaner than her sister and more athletic than Paul, didn’t know what template her mother had used to guide her physical development, and she’d given up pondering that long ago.
            Panels opened next to each icon, listing basic genetic stats. The High Lady Jatril had provided her with a thorough summary of Rumav’s genetic code for identification purposes. The strings of data meant little to her, but she’d highlighted some genetic abnormalities for Val to look for. She searched the data, aware of Ben’s eyes on her, his closeness.
            The third profile looked like it contained some of Rumav’s DNA. But when she tried to drill down for the precise data, the system demanded an authorization code. “Can you?” she asked Ben, her voice implying rewards for success.
            “I think so.” He entered a sequence. “This —it’s a code that belongs to a friend of mine. He might get in trouble.”
            “Don’t worry.” New panels appeared with chromosomal source data. She frowned, wishing she’d studied genetics better at University before dropping out.
            She felt Ben shift in his chair. Was she losing him? That would be fine in the long run, as long as she got what she needed. But she needed his interest now. “This won’t take long,” she whispered. “Then we can . . ..” She left the possibility wide open for him.
            “O-okay.” He moved close to her again. His arm trembled as it brushed her shoulder.
            This is it. The DNA was definitely a match for Rumav. But something was wrong. She rubbed her eyes, trying to find the mistake in the streams of data. Something didn’t match, but she wasn’t a geneticist. Just a bounty hunter. And she was closing in on her prey.
            She smiled. She’d found the target.
            “I need to see this one.”
            He blinked. “It’s right there. Do you want—”
            “The material. Where is it?”
            His body stiffened. “It’s in a crèche. I can’t—Why?”
            “It’s important. To me.” She turned and faced him, her hands on either side of his chair. “Can you do that?”
            “I could—but . . . I don’t understand.” Doubt was beginning to grow in his eyes.
            “I had a friend like this one. Once, a long time ago. Before Erick—he doesn’t know. He had a son—”
            “This is just genetic code! You can’t tell anything from this!” He stabbed a key and the panel vanished.
            “We were going to have children. Real children.” Hand on his arm? No—not right after talking about her “husband.” “We submitted specimens to an agency, but they disappeared and the agency went out of business. This fits the profile we were planning.”
            “It’s not yours. It came in just a few days ago. It’s fully grown, mature—”
            “I’m not as young as I try to look. Really, I could be Erick’s mother. Maybe even his grandmother.” Not true, but bodysculpture and youth treatments could maintain a youthful appearance for decades. “Maybe it’s a mistake, but—I’d really like to see him. To be sure, before I—before Erick and I . . . ”
            She stared into his eyes, not letting him look away. Threats, pain—they might work, but the best way to get his co-operation was to enlist him. The hope of sex was powerful bait, but sympathy would win real loyalty.
            He stared back at her, his eyes shivering. “I suppose. But if they catch me . . .”
            “I’ll take care of you.”
            “I thought you—” He shook his head. “Why are we here? Really?”
            She sighed. “I thought . . . he wanted a child, a—special child. I thought it would help me keep him. Things haven’t been—good, lately. I’m not sure what I want anymore. But if this is a real child, a healthy one, it . . . changes things. Maybe everything.”
            “You can’t buy it. They won’t let you take it away. They never do, people have tried—”
            “I’ll—I’ll think of something. But I need your help.” Now she put her hand on his arm, a soft touch. “Please?”
            He looked away from her, shaking his head. When he looked back his face was calm, his breathing slow and even. “O-okay. I’ll help.”
            She kissed his cheek lightly. “Thank you.”

In a sanitation chamber Frique washed the dried blood from his face. Then he opened a panel in the bulkhead above the sink and hauled himself up into the opening.
Foxe followed and found himself in a cramped passageway that ran behind the walls. He had to turn sideways to follow Frique, hunching down so his head didn’t scrape the ceiling. Only a few distant glowrods cast enough light to see through the shadows. Frique climbed a ladder to the deck above, turned, and headed down the passageway. They were somewhere near the station’s hull, and all alone. Apparently.
            After a few dozen meters Frique stopped and opened a door. “Here.” Foxe stepped through into a long narrow room stretching almost a hundred meters in either direction. Cables and pipes ran down the walls and ceiling, and discarded bottles, food wrappers, and contraceptive devices littered the floor. He heard the skittering noises of station rats in the shadows. The usual sour odors lay heavy in the air—sweat, stale beer, vomit and urine, lingering smoke.
            His nerves felt red and tight. Frique could easily be leading him into a trap. The whole station was a trap, and he’d been living inside waiting for it to snap for too long. An attack would be almost a relief. Action was always better than the worry that came before.
            “Don’t let your feet stick to anything,” Frique muttered.
            “This is where you come for privacy?”
            “It’s a good place for—well, parties.”
            “Yeah, very posh.”
            Frique sat on the floor, crossing his legs, and picked up a handcomp that was linked into a cable running along the curved outer wall. “The comp’s off the grid. We—some of us use it to scope the material.”
            “Better than porn?”
            “It’s a small station,” he said, defensive. “We’re stuck here. I’ve been here four years. We don’t get visitors like your wife often enough.”
            “I said to shut up about her,” Foxe growled.
            “Forget it. Let me . . ..” He activated the handcomp. Foxe crouched next to him, avoiding a pebble of dried rat dung.
            Frique had seemed to calm down during their walk through the passageway, but Foxe could see his muscles bunched beneath his shirt. His breathing was quick and shallow. Foxe centered his weight and kept his hands loose. Frique might be hoping he could catch Foxe off guard. It wouldn’t happen, but Foxe didn’t want to waste any more time.
            “What is your thing for seven fingers?”
            “My lucky number. What do you care? Just find some.”
            Frique rocked back and forth as he ran the handcomp. The screen was small, and Foxe had to lean in close to watch. “Is this going to take long?”
            “They’ve got everything catalogued. This isn’t even the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
            “You’re cloneslavers. Nobody comes here to breed any great intellects.”
            “Sometimes they want beings who can do all kinds of math in their brains. For gambling, I guess. They want everything. Not just genitalia. Warriors, beings who can breathe water, or methane. Sometimes they bring—hey, here it is.”
            Foxe blinked. “That’s it?”
            “Just one. Material 9749. Take a look.” He moved back.
            Foxe clamped a hand on his wrist. “Right here where I can see you.”
            “Ay, I’m not trying anything! Just take a look!” He pointed.
            The screen showed a panel of basic specs—height, mass, race, physical characteristics. Material 9749 was humanoid race R-72, 380 centimeters tall, 56 kilos, male gender, general health good. And then Foxe saw it: seven fingers.
            “Can you get me a visual? His face?”
            “Face?” Frique looked as if Foxe had asked for 9749’s favorite color. “What difference does that—wait, wait! Goddeshi, I can get it. No one ever wants to see their face.”
            Probably not. Looking at faces meant recognizing that a piece of “material” was a sentient being. “Do it.”
            “You’re kind of strange.” But Frique worked the handcomp, and in a moment an image came up on the screen.
            Rumav. Eyes open but glassy. Foxe felt his anxiety lift for the first time in days, only to crash down again a nanosecond later. Yeah, Rumav was here, alive. Now he just had to get him out.
            “Where is he?”
            Frique sighed and produced a schematic of the station. “Right here. Material Management Two. What’s going on, Erick? You just said you needed something with seven fingers, and now—”
            Foxe stood up. “Now I’m going to have to tie you up and leave you here. I’m sure someone will find you.”
            Eyes wide, Frique tried to scramble away. Foxe caught his arm and hauled him to his feet. Frique squirmed, pulling at Foxe’s hand. “No, no, you can’t—wait!”
            Foxe hit him in the face, and Frique sagged to his knees. His arm slipped from Foxe’s hand but as he lurched forward, gasping through the pain, he clutched Foxe’s fingers like a spacer holding desperately to a shipline.
            “Wait,” he whispered hoarsely. “Don’t leave me here.”
            “Someone will find you,” he repeated. “You just said—”
            “I can help you get to him. I’ll help you get him out of here.”
            Foxe’s blood felt icy. “What?”
            “That’s it, right? Some kind of a rescue?” He blinked up at Foxe, his eyes pleading. “Isn’t it?”
            Foxe reached down and wrapped his fingers around Frique’s throat. He didn’t want to see the tech in his dreams, and argue about why he’d had to kill him. But if Frique knew his plan, could figure out what he was up to in a momentary flash of fear . . ..
            No. No need to kill him. He just had to hide him somewhere he wouldn’t be found quickly. I can leave a note—if I have time . . . but that might get him into more trouble.
            “Take me,” Frique squeaked through Foxe’s grip. “With you. Take . . .”
            “You don’t want that.” Somewhere in the passageway behind the bulkheads, a dark corner—
            “I can get you in! I can get you out! Just—get me off this hell-damned station!”
            Foxe looked at him. No time for distractions. “I work alone.” Except for Val. “Mostly.”
            “Please! Get me out of here! I’ll help you!”
            Foxe released Frique’s throat, grabbed his shoulders, and shook his body hard. “You’ve been here four years and you want to quit now?”
            “You think I like being a hell-spawned cloneslaver?” He coughed, a dry hack in the pit of his throat. “No one leaves. They try. Mishel, three years ago—he tried to hide on Vini-2. They found him. The vid in the airlock—choking on vacuum—” His voice rattled. “They showed it to us. Over and over.”
            He lifted his hands and pulled at Foxe’s vest. “Take me with you! Please!”
            Damn it to hellcore. Frique should already be unconscious and bound. But something in the tech’s shaky voice wouldn’t let Foxe write him off. It wasn’t just fear he heard, but something else. Desperation. Hope.
            Foxe dug his fingers into Frique’s shoulder as deep as he could. “You interfere and I’ll kill you, and if I have time it’ll hurt. If I don’t have time, you’ll never see it coming. Any questions?”
            His eyes lit up like shooting stars. “Yes! Yes, whatever you say! Thank you!”
            Foxe let him go, and he fell away, trembling. “And you called me kind of strange,” Foxe muttered.
            “Okay.” Frique took two deep breaths. “Okay. I can get you there, but we have to be quiet. And fast.”
            “No argument there.” He shut down the handcomp and yanked the linking cable loose. He wrapped it around his wrist. Closest thing to a weapon available, unless he found a pulser lying around.
            He wanted to contact Val, tell her he was on his way to the target. But they’d agreed on silence until one of them was actually in the room, and he couldn’t think of a solid reason to change that now. Too much could go wrong.
            Frique headed to the opening. “Are we going?”
            He didn’t trust the tech. Couldn’t afford to, even believing Frique wanted off this station almost as anxiously as Foxe. But he didn’t have time to search for more options. “Lead the path. Don’t get too far ahead of me.”
            “Right, right.” He ducked his head into the passageway, eager to get moving. Before he lost his nerve? Foxe knew the feeling.
            Someday he’d lose his nerve for this work. He just hoped it wasn’t in the middle of a mission. He hoped it wouldn’t be today.

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