Welcome aboard Fortune’s Light, the largest of the Pharaoh Consortium’s fleet of luxury gaming ships. We offer visitors across the galaxy a vast selection of games: Tanda, Spheres, Tridice, and other pursuits are all available in over 120 lavish gaming chambers. Safe rooms and privacy-shrouded gaming tables are also available. Our main casino offers dozens of games at every level of skill and any amount one wishes to wager. Attentive android servers will take care of every request. Weapons are strictly prohibited; please be ready to submit to security transer search upon docking. Enjoy your stay, and good luck!
* * *
Foxe spotted the Narixian walking through the crowd of eager gamblers in the casino, and for a moment every thought of a routine runaway daughter mission dissolved from his mind.
Canos Station, nine months ago: The Rostumi woman dying on the deck outside the Narixian’s ship. Foxe firing his FDS rifle into the ship, his heart pounding with fury. The D-projectiles exploding in shattering microblasts against the hull. The hatch slamming in his face.
Why did you let me die? It was the question she asked in his dreams. The question he heard almost every night as soon as he closed his eyes.
His sleep was haunted by dead people.
The gray-skinned Narixian had an elongated head and thin, reedlike arms and legs. His back was rigid as his black eyes scanned the room. He had to see Foxe—tall for a human, slender and wiry, with short brown hair and hard gray eyes, his most expensive nearsilk shirt and jacket—but he gave no evidence of recognition.
The Narixian took his seat at the game table. Two beings stood behind him: An Inkorrian female with ebony skin, and a bony male Rann-dishii. The woman had no hair and a thin, wiry build; the Rann-dishii had five eyes on twitching stalks that roamed the room like restless snakes. He wore a thick comsol bracelet on one of his wrists, like the Narixian and almost every other being in the casino—except for the Inkorrian woman.
Two of the Rann-dishii’s eyestalks targeted an arched entryway, and Foxe spotted the target of his assignment: Devion Borrlill.
Human female. Young. She wore a short black shimmerdress with luminous tendrils of liquid crystal that swirled like a churning nebula. A smile of eager anticipation stretched across her face.
Devion slid a chip into the casino’s credit reader and pushed aside a lock of her silky black hair to plug a silvery input cable into a port behind her left ear. Then she leaned forward, impatient to begin.
Her android, stocky and solid with yellow biocrystal eyes, stood behind her chair. A human male stood next to her with one hand on her bare shoulder.
The game was a variation of the ancient earth game Go, projected in a holographic 3-D cube instead of a flat game board. Their brains linked directly to the cube, Devion and the Narixian maneuvered a dazzling array of bright icons, attempting to stake out their own territory while surrounding the other’s position to remove the opponent’s pieces. Foxe watched as icons appeared, shifted position, changed color, and vanished. Numbers flashed in the air by the side of the game board to indicate the changing score.
Devion lost the game, forfeiting 17,000 cees. She had the lead up until the last few minutes, then apparently grew overwhelmed and let the Narinian take the final point. He didn’t look satisfied with his victory. He stared at Devion, his neck rigid, as she unhooked the cable from her skull port and rubbed her eyes.
Time to start working, Foxe thought. He pushed past a tall Udorian, avoiding his shoulder spikes, and intercepted Devion as her friend led her from the table, the android trailing them.
“We need to talk,” Foxe said.
She blinked as if waking from a restless dream. “Who are . . .”
“My name’s Foxe. Your parents sent me.” Not exactly true, but she’d probably respond a little more favorably to a family messenger than an agent from Aligned Research and Intelligence.
She shook her head. “Not going back.”
“We still need to talk.”
“Name of K,” she muttered—a curse. “All right. My suite.”
The boyfriend clutched her arm possessively. “Dev, is that a good—”
“Not now, Manning. I’ve got Elmo, and I’m tired. I keep losing!” She shook her arm free and shoved past Foxe. The guy glared and followed her, the android close behind.
Foxe looked back. The Narixian and his party were gone.
* * *
Foxe knew from the mission profile that Devion was the daughter of a prominent ambassador in the Anskarii system. According to the profile, her mother Litarr Borrlill had been training her for a role in the Diplomatic Ministry since birth, teaching the child protocol, manners and rules every day of her life.
Foxe couldn’t blame her for running away. Devion had disappeared sixteen days ago. Litarr’s people had hushed the matter up in her home system. She didn’t want the Crown Council to think she couldn’t keep track of her own daughter—or more importantly, the diplomatic codes and other data in Devion’s brainware implants. But Anskarr was a member of the Aligned Worlds, and Littar was able to quietly invoke her right under the AW Charter to enlist Aligned Research and Intelligence—the AW intelligence agency—in tracking her down.
Foxe got the assignment.
Devion wasn’t accessing her family’s credit, and her escort android had stopped transmitting its tracking code, but ARI had supplied him with a file of acquaintances. One new “friend” had connections with a half dozen shadowy groups—terrorists, nark cartels, clone slavers. His name—Manning Lilek—had popped up on the transit databases, which noted that he was traveling with a young woman and an andy. Foxe had just missed them at Baldur Station but uncovered their reservations for the Fortune’s Light.
It was a routine job, until the Narixian showed up.
Devion’s suite had luxurious formshifting sofas, a basket of exotic fruit on a floating AG table, living plasma sculptures, and a spectacular viewscreen feed of the Jackson Nebula that filled one entire wall. Golden waves of cosmic dust mixed with silvery trails of dying comets, illuminated by the protostar that the Pharaoh Consortium orbited from half a light-year away.
Foxe took a position where he could keep an eye on both doors: the passageway, and the bedroom. Devion slumped on one of the sofas, exhausted by her game. Manning brought her a tall bubbling drink. The android stood like a statue.
“Let’s talk,” Foxe said.
“You’ve got three minutes,” Manning snapped. “Then you need to—”
“Shut up. Devion, why’d you disappear?”
“Hey, wait a—”
“Manning, shut up.” She groaned. “What am I supposed to say? ‘You wouldn’t understand. And then you say what? ‘Try me?’ And then I say . . .”
“You fell in love with a handsome smuggler—not him, obviously.” He shot a scornful look at Manning. “Or you hit your head and lost your memory, that’s always good, at least on the vids. Or you’re perfecting your formula to break the bank on every gaming ship in the galaxy, although the way you’ve been playing? I’d say you still have some work to do.” He gave her a friendly smile—one he’d practiced on other missions. “Any of those sound good? I’ve got more.”
She laughed. “All of them.”
“How’d you end up here?”
“Oh, it was all his fault.” She winked at Manning. “Met him a couple months ago at a Bandi club. He does some kind of AI programming. Or something. I’m not really sure. Does it matter?”
He turned to Manning. “And what’s your game?”
Manning tensed his arms. “I’m Devion’s boyfriend. She wanted a change of scenery. How’d you find us?”
He glanced at Elmo. “You jinxed her andy so they couldn’t track it, right? That doesn’t make you a black hole. I picked up your transit plan at Baldur Station—”
“This is boring.” Devion held up her empty glass. “Get me another drink?”
Manning scowled. “He should leave.”
“Sure,” Foxe said. “I’ll report back to your parents and be on my way—”
“Wait!” Devion sat up. “Do you really have to tell her where I am?”
“If I want to get paid.”
“Mann—give him some money.” She waved a dismissive arm. “Get him out of here.”
Spoiled princess, Foxe thought. Rich kids always thought they could just pay problems to go away.
Manning wanted to object. Then he smiled. “Okay. How much do you want? To get off the Light and leave us alone?”
He couldn’t leave. Not yet. Not with the Narixian here. “I’ll take ten thousand cees not to tell your parents where you are. But I’m going to stay here and keep an eye on you. You’re not safe here.”
“What the K? I don’t need a spy.” She stood up. “Forget the drink. Mann, get rid of him.”
She crossed toward the bedroom door, her feet unsteady, and paused at the beverage center for some water. “Lock,” she muttered as the door whispered shut behind her.
Foxe and Manning stared at each other like fencers waiting for an opening.
“You’re working for the Narixian, aren’t you?” Foxe asked. “What’s his game?”
“Get out.” He stepped forward. Foxe let him close in. Manning raised his arms, fists clenched, his sleeves falling back. Foxe spotted a thin silver band around one wrist, with a jewel that glowed like fire. It looked familiar.
Manning’s fist lashed out. Foxe blocked it and hit him in the chest. Manning staggered back with a grunt, and tripped. He hit the floor, coughing. “Elmo!” he barked, his voice raw and angry. “Flash five!”
Foxe turned. The andy launched itself forward, arms extended.
He hated androids. It was irrational—they were machines, programmed for a function just like the beverage dispenser in the corner—but he’d fought them often enough to despise their mindless determination. He saved his contempt for the cowards who used them because they didn’t want to do their own dirty work.
Fighting andys had taught him some tricks, though. Foxe dropped his head as Elmo lunged at him, and jerked the andy’s leg out from under its torso. It tumbled backward to the carpet, but it swept its other leg at Foxe’s feet and Foxe slammed to the floor as well.
Red waves of pain clouded his eyes. Elmo spun and grabbed Foxe’s neck, squeezing its high-powered fingers around a nerve cluster. Foxe bit his lip and jabbed at the andy’s chest. Most security androids had their central processors and power units buried deep in their armored torso, but a hard, well-placed punch could temporarily—
It worked. The andy’s body seized up, and Foxe rolled away, ignoring the aftershocks of pain. He pushed off the floor and grabbed Manning, wrapping his arms around him in a tight, painful hug. Manning squirmed but Foxe held on, pulling him around to block the android. “Shut it down,” he ordered. “Now!”
“What the K?” It was Devion, shouting from the doorway. “Elmo, stop! Bravo four!”
But Elmo rose to its feet again and moved toward Foxe, ignoring Devion’s command.
“Come on,” Foxe rasped, his fingers on Manning’s throat. “Take it down!”
“Dingo Nine,” Manning gasped. “Dingo . . . dingo nine.”
The andy halted. Its golden eyes dimmed as it shut down.
“What did you do to him?” Devion demanded. “You changed Elmo! You—”
Foxe hurled Manning at the couch, his muscles aching. “An artist, huh? How well do you really know this guy?”
She stepped forward. “Get out.”
“And stay away from us,” Manning ordered.
Devion stabbed a glance at Manning. “You too. Out!”
His eyes grew black and angry. “I’m paying for this room. I’m paying for your games—”
“You said you wouldn’t hurt him! You promised!”
“I can fix the thing. You know it’s just an—”
“Elmo’s not a thing!” She slapped Manning’s face, hard enough to leave a red welt. “Get out!”
Manning grabbed her wrist, and Foxe got ready to hit him again. Then Manning backed away, clenching his fists in frustration. “Fine.” He turned, his face red, and looked at Foxe as if searching for a target. Foxe expected another punch, but Manning jabbed a finger at the door. “Come on.”
Foxe shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“I can call security. They’ll throw you out.”
He ignored Manning. “I said I won’t contact your family. Fine, but I have to keep you in my sight. That’s the deal.”
She crossed her arms. “Not going home.”
“Fine with me.”
Manning’s voice shook. “Dev, this guy is—”
“Manning, just shut up and leave!” She actually stamped her foot on the carpet. Manning tried to think of something to say, to do. Foxe said nothing.
Manning couldn’t let his anger and his pride take over. The Narixian’s punishment would be terrifying. Finally he swallowed and forced himself to walk to the door. “This isn’t over,” he told Foxe, and left.
“Name of K.” Devion looked exhausted. “Okay, you stay. I don’t know why I should listen to you, but . . ..” She looked at Elmo and wiped her eyes. “You stay out here. And don’t try to take me home.”
“And I’ll claw your eyes out if you touch me.”
He nodded. “Deal.”
* * *
Foxe opened his eyes. Devion sat in front of the table, gobbling a rich pastry, nodding her head to the beat of music from the walls. Foxe sat up.
He’d been meditating, using the breathing rhythm some Bekkan monks had taught him years ago. Not fully asleep, just recharging.
She wore a thin blue robe, wrapped tight around her body and fastened high at the neck. “There’s coffee and stuff,” she said. She sipped some thick sweet danju-tea.
He stood and stretched. “We need to talk.”
She frowned. “Music off.” In the silence Foxe sat down at the table.
“Tell me about the Narixian,” he said.
“Emchi-Ar?” She shrugged. “That’s his name. Manning knows him from somewhere. We play the game. We don’t talk much.”
“The game was Manning’s idea?”
“I wanted to play Spheres. And Bacco. I’ve played this one before, and Mann showed me some tricks, but it’s hard. I thought I was good, too, but . . .” She shook her head. “I lost ten thousand cees the first night, and I wanted to quit, but it was Manning’s money and he made me go back and keep playing. Four nights now.” She glanced at Elmo. “What do you care? I thought you were just my mother’s errand drone.”
You thought you were the center of the galaxy. “I know this Narixian. He’s dangerous.”
“He’s a menace at the game table. Sometimes I don’t think he’s really trying to win. Like he’s just trying to drag the game out.”
She sat back and lifted her arms above her head, stretching her body like a Kairean wingcat. She was spoiled and immature, but still a woman in a tight, silky robe. Foxe forced himself to look at the nebula in the viewscreen.
Devion stood up. “I’m going to take a refresher. Then—” She smiled like an excited child. “We can go out and find a game.”
Games. “Whatever you want.”
* * *
Devion played a game called Spheres all afternoon, betting on which symbols would line up within a series of spinning concentric holographic globes. She stood between a crimson-feathered Vaar clan leader and a pair of symbiotic Plix. Foxe watched her from a balcony, his eyes on the crowd.
Security androids roamed the main casino, some obvious, some inconspicuous. Andy servers offered drinks, snacks, Iradian cigars, and rare Katari spices to inhale. Gamblers won and lost, laughing or groaning or gesticulating wildly. A jaxx-music band played soft Skandelian hymns, and a handful of couples swayed together to the music.
Foxe noted the exits, possible lines of fire, and potential troublemakers, all while trying to decide whether to confront the Narixian directly or wait for him to make a move. When he spotted the Inkorrian woman making her way toward him he didn’t know whether to feel relieved or angry.
“Spheres is a fool’s game,” she muttered to Foxe as the large Sphere whirled faster and faster. “The odds are ridiculous.” She wore a simple blue shipsuit with short sleeves that made her long arms seem like dangling pythons.
“She’s just a kid playing games,” Foxe said. “What’s your game?”
“I ran some gaming systems on another Pharaoh ship until Emchi-Ar bought out my indenture bond.”
It clicked. The Narixian would need someone who knew how the gambling systems worked.
“I am Ranlae Kuartz. Kuartz of the Outer Highlands. He said you should know my name.”
“I’m Erick Foxe.” He kept his eyes on Devion in case Ellin’s job was distraction. “So talk, Ranlae.”
“Emchi-Ar doesn’t need to harm the girl. But she has to win. Tell her to focus her mind on the game and beat him. Then he’ll leave.”
Foxe watched as Devion keyed in a bet. The Plix symbiots murmured their surprise the amount of her wager. “Why did he send you?”
“Since he can’t touch Devion Bor-Lill, he has another threat.” She held her slender arm out: Like Manning, she wore a thin silver band that held a red jewel, glistening like flame. The gleaming metal dug into her dark skin. “There’s a bio-toxin inside. If you interfere with the game, he will kill me.”
Foxe looked at the band. He’d seen one just like it on the arm of the Rostumi woman the Narixian had murdered. “Does your Rann-dishii partner have one too?”
She nodded solemnly. “But he trusts Jor to enforce his commands. All one of them has to do is tap a comsol and it jets into my bloodstream. And I’ll be dead in seconds.”
Foxe shrugged. “Why does he think I care what happens to you?”
“He says you almost died trying to save a woman on Canos Station last year. A woman not worth saving.”
Foxe gripped the rail. “Maybe I’ve changed.”
“He’s betting my life you haven’t.”
Down on the gaming floor the Sphere ground to a halt. Devion jumped up and down. She’d won.
“Then he made a bad bet.” Foxe turned and walked away.
* * *
“Why do you keep losing?” Foxe asked.
They sat in a dark café near the main casino. Glowing golden fish swam between strands of bioluminescent seaweed in tanks hovering overhead. A group of Ustalli played Tanda at a nearby table. Foxe drank Takka juice; the girl kept one hand on her glass of Rhysian wine.
“Do you think I like it?” she snapped. “I’m fifth percentile intelligence in my family. I can beat you at Holdem, Starplex, even ancient chess. But that game—It’s like something gets in my way every time I get ahead. It’s driving me into psych-overload.”
“Then why keep playing?”
“Because . . ..” The question seemed to puzzle her. “Well, I owe Manning almost ninety thousand cees, all right? He’s paying for this whole trip. Clonesucker.”
“You could access your family’s credit on a Q-connection, no questions asked. Are you afraid of him?”
“Mann?” She laughed. “You saw what he’s like.”
“Then why not walk away?”
“I don’t . . .” She stopped, sipped some wine, and stared at the fish. “It’s like a song I can’t get out of my head. All the time. I dreamed about it all last night. Every play, every mistake. I hate it. But I just don’t want to stop.”
Something about the game . . . a hook. Maybe something Manning had planted while she slept? “What kind of brainware do you have?”
“I don’t know. I’m in training for the Diplomatic Corps. Like mom.” She made a face. “So I guess I’ve got basic access codes, encryption keys. Contact protocols. Last year I downloaded a pleasure enhancement from the priestesses of Helgira.” She grinned. “That was a wave. Until my mother found out. Bitch.” She gulped her wine. “Won’t even leave me alone in my own brain. That’s why I had to—”
“You deleted it?”
“She had it erased. I can’t alter my own brainware. They have to go inside with a digital resource scanner and—”
Hellcore. “So you can’t modify the brainware yourself?”
“I can download new programs and applications. Taking anything out is a lot harder. You have to be senior level before they let you do that.” She looked surprised. “I mean, it’s encrypted and locked, isn’t that enough?”
“I’ve dealt with this Narixian before.” He leaned toward her. “He’s an information broker—genetics, financial codes, military programming. He steals and sells data to the highest bidder, and he doesn’t play by any rules or laws. He’d rip your implants out of your brain if he could.”
She stared at Foxe, and for the first time she looked frightened.
“But if he wanted to do that, he wouldn’t have brought you here. He wants you to play the game. That means something—maybe he can slip the raw data out of your brainware past whatever security blocks your people installed, in the rush of winning a challenging game. Maybe that’s why you keep losing.”
“You don’t have to remind me about that.” Her fear turned to anger.
“You should leave. Get off this ship.” It meant possibly losing the Narixian. Again. But Devion didn’t have any part in his quest for vengeance.
She pushed her wine away. “K’s name, who are you?”
“Just a freelance.”
She closed her eyes. After a moment she shook her head. “I just—I have to do it. Or else I’m just playing runaway. Waiting for my mother to come get me back. No. I’m staying.”
He could force her back to his Cat and take her off Fortune’s Light. Protecting the data in her brain was what ARI would want.
But this was his best chance to get the Narixian. If she was willing to take it . . . He didn’t like it, but he was willing to use her. “You’re an adult.” He finished his Takka juice. “Let’s get back to your suite.”
* * *
The massive ship had been designed for easy access between the gaming halls and the luxury suites. Foxe kept close to Devion as they rode the tubes. Rounding a curve in the corridor they saw Manning leaning against the bulkhead. His eyelids drooped as if he hadn’t slept. The Rann-dishii stood behind him, his eyestalks watching every direction.
“Emchi-Ar sent me with a message,” Manning said, unhappy. “He sent Jor to make sure I delivered it.” He glared at the Rann-dishii.
Jor’s bony shoulders twitched like an imitation of a shrug. “We both serve his wishes.”
Foxe keyed the door open. “Inside.”
Devion glared at Manning as they entered. Foxe gently pushed her behind him, blocking them. He kept his arms loose, ready for anything. “Well?”
With a sigh, Manning opened a pocket. “Just read—”
Manning’s eyes shot wide open in pain and surprise. He twisted to stare at Jor, and Foxe saw one of the Rann-dishii’s long fingers pressing a stud on the comsol bracelet around his wrist. Manning’s face flushed a deep red. He lurched toward Jor, gasping as if he couldn’t breathe. Then his legs folded up beneath him and he crashed to the carpet.
Devion’s legs shook. “M-manning?”
Foxe yanked Manning’s sleeve up and found the silvery band around his arm. The glowing red jewel was dark.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” For a moment Foxe thought Devion might collapse on the carpet next to him. But she stood straight, took a deep breath, and stared at his face as if trying to memorize something important in it.
Foxe opened Manning’s hand. His fingers clutched a short strip of paper. The game continues. He showed it to Devion.
Jor turned to leave. “We will meet at the table.”
“Yeah. We will.” Devion tossed the paper to the floor as the Rann-dishii left.
“We should get out of here right now.” Foxe had to make the offer again.
She shook her head, her shoulders shaking. “I’ve got to play the game again. One more time.”
He wasn’t sure if this was some sort of programming, or a simple desire for vengeance. But the game was her only chance to challenge the Narixian and win, one way or another.
“Do you need a drink?”
She shuddered, then wrapped her arms around her body as if she needed to literally hold her fear inside. “I guess I’d better get ready.”
Foxe nodded. “Tonight you’ve got to win.”
* * *
Canos Station, nine months before
Foxe stalked down the passageway, firing his FDS-60 at anything that moved. An android stepped into the open, and Foxe triggered a burst of explosive bullets into his chest. Its arms stiffened, and it dropped to the deck.
Foxe pressed his back against the bulkhead and looked around just in time to see a big Udorian with a pulser lean out from a cabin. Of course—sacrifice the androids as a distraction. The pulser’s beam seared the air, but it missed him by a few centimeters. His blast blew the Udorian’s wide face to shreds.
“Human!” The Narixian’s voice blared through the shipwide comm, cutting through the echoes of the explosions around him. “Make this end.” A pause. “The female is on the ramp. The female will die in . . .” Another pause. “Sixty seconds. Unless you leave and remove her with you.” Pause. “The game is over. For now.”
His right leg burned from a plasma beam that had singed him on the entry ramp to the Narixian’s ship. Trap? Maybe. But the Narixian couldn’t waste too much time defending himself before station security showed up. He could have decided that getting rid of Fox was his best bet.
Or his best chance to kill both Foxe and the Rostumi woman?
Counting down the seconds in his mind, Foxe raced down the passageway back to the main hatch. The Rostumi woman waited about five meters down the ramp. An android held one of her arms in a tight grip.
Her thick stalks of hair were streaked with clotted blood. She was young for a Rostumi, only eighty standard years old. Almost a child, she’d risked everything she had to help Foxe in exchange for a promise of protection.
The android stood like a statue, waiting for commands. Foxe lifted the barrel of his FDS and shot the android through the face. The explosive bullet exploded inside its skull casing, spewing nanoprocessors and circulation fluid from is head unit in every direction.
Foxe skidded down the ramp. “Are you all right?”
“You said you’d protect me.” She tried to spit at him but her mouth couldn’t summon the moisture. “Why didn’t you—”
“I’m sorry.” It meant nothing, but it was all he could say.
She pointed a bony finger past him. He swung his head back toward the hatch.
The Narixian stood in the hatchway, tall and calm. “We are finished here.”
The woman screamed. Her fingers curled into a fist, and she clawed at a slim silver band with a bright red jewel locked around her wrist as she toppled backward on the ramp, grunting and cursing, her body shuddering and jerking as if a sudden deadly seizure was gripping her. She pounded the deck with one weak fist, moaning in frustration, and then her fingers opened and twitched. Just once. Then her arm dropped to the deck, and her chest stopped heaving. Dead.
Foxe opened up with the FDS rifle, but the Narixian had jumped back around the edge of the hatch. A pulser weapon blasted away at him from inside the ship.
Foxe pulled back, his finger on the firing stud, his heart steady and slow. But the Narixian’s crew forced the hatch securely into place. The microblasts from his demolition slugs wouldn’t penetrate the hull or stop them from leaving.
Alarms began blaring. Decompression in thirty seconds. The Narixian was leaving.
He knelt next to the woman. Her wide eyes glared up at him in silent accusation.
The silver band—some kind of toxin, injected directly into her veins? Foxe should have been ready for a trick. He’d been too willing to escape, too eager to accept any excuse to get out of this alive . . .
“I’m sorry.” Too late now. But it had to be enough. Twenty seconds. The station hatch was starting its inexorable slide into place, cutting him off if he didn’t move now.
He’d retrieved the dataclip the Narixian had stolen. So the mission was a success …
Hellcore. Foxe limped away with one last glance over his shoulder at the Narixian’s ship.
Not finished, he promised. Not a chance.
They stopped at Foxe’s small stateroom on their way to the main casino. Foxe found a fresh shirt and changed in the bathroom while Devion waited.
“What’s that?” she asked when he emerged.
“My shaver. Perfectly harmless.” He slipped the device into a jacket pocket. “Lowest-level laser setting for smooth skin.”
“So why are you bringing it? You look fine.”
“Thanks.” He grabbed up a multigamer control from his pack and dropped it into the same pocket. “We’re ready.”
She stood up, trembling. “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
“Then I’ll take you home. Right now.”
“No! No, for the love of K—”
“So let’s go. You’ll do fine.”
* * *
More beings than usual crowded the main casino that evening. Devion held Foxe’s hand with tight fingers as they walked through the arched entry. Foxe wished he could reassure her that nothing would happen, but every time he felt tempted he remembered the Rostumi woman glaring at him as she died. No promises.
Devion wore her black shimmerdress. Her breathing was ragged and shallow. “A little scared.”
“Me too.” He smiled at her. “If you’re not scared, you’re not alive. Use it. Just play your game. Let me do my job.”
“What if I—” She stopped.
The Narixian had arrived. Jor walked at his right side, with Ranlae on the left. She avoided his eyes.
The Narixian paused before sitting down. He looked at Foxe, his eyes icy white. “You’re here again.”
Foxe nodded. “We got your message.”
“Remember it.” He sat. “Let’s play.”
Devion sank into her chair, rubbed her eyes, and inserted her credit chip. The holographic game board sprang up; discs popped into untouchable existence. Foxe could hear clicking and beeps around him as spectators finished placing their side bets on the outcome.
Foxe patted her shoulder. “Knock him dead.”
She forced a grin, and the effort seemed to bring back a fraction of her confidence. “Okay.”
“Let us begin.” The Narixian plugged in his neural cable.
The game might last an hour or two, or Devion could choke and lose in ten minutes. Foxe had a plan, but he needed to act while the Narixian’s attention was occupied.
He walked around the table as discs began dancing in the air. “We need to talk.”
“For what purpose?” Jor asked.
“There’s something you should know about your boss.” He pointed toward an empty game table equipped with a privacy shroud. “Let’s sit down.”
Anyone who worked the Narixian for any length of time had good reason to be wary. Jor’s paranoia would do Foxe’s job for him—he hoped. Foxe walked toward the table without looking back.
The Rann-dishii clutched Ranlae’s arm and pulled her to the table, veering around a half-naked android server.
“Good.” Foxe pressed a pad. The privacy shroud went up, blurring the room around the table. No one outside would be able to see or hear them through the distortion field.
Jor perched on the edge of a chair. Foxe saw the comsol on his left arm, with the silver band above it near his lower elbow. The Rann-dishii held Ranlae’s wrist in a tight grip with his right hand. “What do you have to say?”
“Your boss is going to be interested in this.” He drew the shaver from his jacket.
Jor grunted. “That’s a tool for removing unwanted hair growing from your flesh.”
“It’s more than that.” Foxe pulled out the multigamer control and quickly hooked it into a slot on the shaver’s side. “Now watch carefully—”
He pressed the shaver’s power switch. A thin sliver of energy from the head of the shaver shot into the Rann-dishii’s forehead.
Jor was dead before his head hit the table. Two of his eyestalks jumped up as the others sagged, and then they dropped onto his skull, twitching for a moment before they crumpled over his skull.
Foxe didn’t enjoy killing cold. But Jor had done the same to Manning. And he’d worked for the Narixian, who had executed to the Rostumi like a bug. This was the game they were playing now.
“The Narixian can trigger the poison—anyone else?” Foxe asked.
Ranlae shook her head. “Just—just Emchi-Ar. There’s no one else.”
“Does he have anyone else here working for him?”
“Just androids. He had that human—Manning? He reprogrammed two androids here. But there are three more waiting on his ship.”
Grim relief eased his nerves a little. Maybe good help was harder to hire after Canos Station. “Was Jor armed? Check him.”
Ranlae grimaced, but then she overcame her nerves and went through the Rann-dishii”s sleeves and pockets. She came up with a small sliverbeam disguised as a laz-pen, hardly more powerful than his amplified shaver.
“Keep it,” he told her. “Find a sensorrium, one with security shields, and stay inside as long as you can.”
Ranlae stared at him. “Why—”
“Because once there was another woman and I couldn’t save her. Go!”
She jumped up. Foxed deactivated the privacy shroud.
An andy server offered him a drink. He looked for Devion. The game space was a large fractal quilt of multihued shapes. Devion’s eyes blazed and one edge of the holographic image suddenly erupted with color. One of the spectators gave a shriek of pleasure, and the game froze. Devion had won.
Curses, laughter, and various forms of scattered applause greeted her victory as he approached Devion’s seat. She smiled with the first genuine pleasure Foxe had seen in her face.
“I won,” she murmured as Foxe knelt beside her. “But—something happened. Like you said. He got inside—just for a second . . ..”
Foxe looked across the table. The Narixian’s head rocked back and forth as his dark eyes cleared, and without a word he detached the cable from his skull, his slim fingers in a hurry.
Foxe pressed an ID key into her hand. “My ship is section four, dock 78,” he whispered into her ear. “If I’m not there in one hour it’s all yours. Take it and go.” He hesitated. “You did good.” He kissed her cheek.
The Narixian was on his feet, twisting his head in search of his crew.
“They’re gone,” Foxe said.
“What did you . . .” The Narixian jabbed a stud on his comsol. Trying to summon Ranlae and Jor—or kill them? Foxe hoped she’d found a protected room fast.
Dropping his arm, the Narixian turned and scurried through the arched doorway. He needed to download the data he’d gotten from Devion as soon as possible. A secure location—probably his ship.
Foxe followed, his heart pumping fast, one hand on the modified shaver in his vest. He could kill him now, out in the hallway, and try fighting his way through Pharaoh’s security androids. But too many people might get hurt.
The Narixian’s head swiveled around as he strode down the hall. “I told you not to interfere.”
“You told me the woman on Canos Station would be safe.”
“She was finished. And I want to be finished with you.” One thin hand jammed into a pocket and Foxe tensed, expecting a weapon. But the Narixian veered toward a door and shoved a credit chip into a slot in the wall.
“Let’s end this,” the Narixian said. He slipped through the doorway.
Trap? Probably. But Foxe had no choice, even if the fear hammering in his chest urged him to run. He yanked the shaver from his jacket, fired a blind burst through the doorway, and dove forward.
Lights flared and loud music blared in the air. Foxe hit the soft maroon carpeting and rolled. He heard the Narixian shout “Attack mode!” and a hard sharp boot kicked his ribs. Foxe swore in red-streaked pain. Yeah, a trap.
In a glimpse Foxe recognized a small gaming room, probably for private parties. A bank of jackball gaming machines lined one wall. The Narixian was scuttling backward toward a thick pillar. Two androids were converging on Foxe. A male model andy’s black suit was singed from his fire; the female wore next to nothing.
These were the two andys Ranlae had warned him about. Manning had reprogrammed them, just as he’d altered Elmo. They weren’t security models, but they didn’t have to be. They just had to keep Foxe pinned down long enough for the Narixian to kill him.
At least they weren’t equipped with pulsers in their arms. Foxe dropped the shaver into his pocket as the male-shaped andy charged him.
“Drink order?” it shouted over the crashing music. Foxe kicked at its torso. ”Excuse me,” it said, and lunged forward again. Foxe darted in to jab two knuckles into its chest. The server andy wasn’t armored, and Foxe’s fingers hit its central processing unit. Its eyes flashed.
“Service required,” it announced, its arms twitching. “Shutting down for service . . .”
Then the female andy launched itself at him. “I can offer you any refreshment you wish . . .”
A flare of pulser fire burst from around the pillar, burning the betting chips on a nearby Tanda table. The Narixian had hidden a weapon in here—smuggled a fully charged pulser past the transers. And all Foxe had was the amplified shaver in his jacket. Hellcore.
Foxe grabbed the andy, clamping his arms around its torso and lifting its lightweight frame from the floor. “Sir, this is inappropriate,” the andy said, swarming in his arms. “Please cease this behavior.”
Foxe lurched toward the pillar. The android struggled like an angry child, but Foxe gritted his teeth and held on, ignoring its stern warnings to behave as he marched forward.
Peering around the pillar, the Narixian fired again. The plasma burned into the andy’s back and its arms flailed out of control. “I must . . . summon . . . a manager,” it whispered. Foxe almost felt sorry for it.
He caught a flutter of motion as the Narixian scuttled away from the pillar, retreating toward the jackball machines. He shoved the andy to the carpet and rushed to the pillar, breathing hard.
Any minute now the door would slide open and someone would walk into the crossfire. He didn’t need any more dead people in his dreams. Foxe reached for the shaver in his pocket. Unless he could get close enough to the Narixian to rip its head off—
A sharp blow in his neck sent a wave of pain through him. The female andy , staggering on its slender legs, stood behind him, its dark synthetic flesh scorched. “Would you—like—a beverage?” She jabbed her fingers toward his eyes.
Damn all androids. He spun and grabbed the andy’s arm as it tried to hit him again and twisted it, using the force of its punch to pull it off balance. It toppled forward and he rolled down onto the carpet with the andy on top. It hammered its weak fists at his chest.
The Narixian skittered out from behind the jackball machine, pulser in his fist. “Now we’re finished,” he hissed.
He fired his weapon, and the andy’s body burned. Tendrils of plasma seared Foxe’s arms.
Foxe rolled to one side, holding the andy’s smoldering body with one arm as he grabbed for the shaver-weapon in his jacket. Come on, Foxe thought, a little closer . . .
The Narixian took one more step to be sure of a killing shot. Foxe had to shove the andy away to raise his weapon, and the Narixian leaned back as the android’s bare synthetic leg flailed in the air.
Foxe pressed the power switch as hard as he could.
The thin beam drilled the Narixian’s face. His dark eyes turned ice white. The pulser wavered in his hand. He stood frozen in place for half a second, then dropped to the carpet like a falling leaf.
Foxe pulled himself up and staggered forward.
The Narixian groaned. “You’re . . . weak.”
“Yeah.” He took the pulser from the Narixian’s thin fingers. “Weak.”
He used the pulser to blast the Narixian’s head until he could see his cortical implants melting, then dropped the weapon and turned away before he could get sick. Nothing could retrieve the information from Devion now. ARI would be satisfied. And the girl was safe.
“Game over,” he whispered.
* * *
“You’re—what happened?” Devion gasped at Foxe’s burns.
“Let’s get out of here.” He stumbled into the cockpit and activated the NavBoard. Lights turned green. The yacht tilted to one side, tossing Devion against a bulkhead. He sagged in his seat. “Where do you want to go?”
“Is he . . .?”
She stared at the viewscreen. “Not going home.”
“Fine. Maybe . . . “ He blinked, his eyes tired. “Two days to Kallnor. You can get passage anywhere. Or there’s an entire island for gaming.”
Devion shook her head. “I don’t think—no more games. For a while.”
Foxe tapped instructions to the pilot, sat back, and closed his eyes. “No more games.”
I should have warned you there’d be a quiz.
Thanks for reading “Mind Games.” Hope you enjoyed it. Please remember to tip your server. But before you go I have one question:
When the story was being critiqued at Windycon, one of the comments I received was: “When Foxe kills the Rann-dishii, he stops being a hero.” I think that meant only that Foxe’s willingness to gun down an enemy in cold blood changes the perception we have of him up until that point of the story. In some revisions I changed that scene so he traps Jor without killing him. But I’ve put the killing back in because I want to show that Foxe can be pretty ruthless when he has to be.
So, the question: Does this change your opinion of him? I did tweak the scene a bit to suggest that Foxe doesn’t like “killing cold,” just to make him a little more sympathetic, but if it really turns Foxe into an antihero, or just a jerk—well, that doesn’t mean I’d necessarily change the scene. But it would be good to know.
(Of course, you’re free to leave whatever feedback you like.)