Why did you kill me? the little girl asked.
Foxe knew he was asleep. Alone in the cockpit of his Cat, sliding through D-space toward Crystal Rendezvous, he was close enough to consciousness to try forcing the child away in his mind. Sometimes that worked. But now her round little face grew to fill the viewscreen as if she were trying to push back at him before he could fight her off.
Why did you kill me? she repeated.
“Hellcore,” Foxe whispered.
Firstmark Hallick had been the target on that mission. Hallick had killed hundreds of her people in that war—adults and kids, soldiers and civilians. Foxe had been sent down to the planet to survey the situation, and he’d spotted one chance to plant a sidewinder bomb on Hallick’s vehicle, just before a cold dawn on a world whose name he couldn’t remember.
And the bomb went off too soon. The kids were supposed to be out of the groundskim, leaving only Hallick and the driver. But something—a random signal? Software error? Foxe’s hurry? Something went wrong and the vehicle exploded early, shooting shards of armor and shreds of flesh into the pale sky.
Why did you kill me? she repeated again, more insistent this time.
The same question, every time. Little kids, old men, armed soldiers, helpless civilians. Foxe struggled to breathe.
The little girl stared at him, waiting for an answer he could never give her.
Foxe needed to wake up. His heart pounded inside his chest. His lungs ached for air. He felt every muscle in his body, every bone, every inch of skin, tense and ready to explode. He wondered what it would feel like to no longer feel anything at all . . .
Then his eyes popped open. Awake.
The little girl was gone, replaced on the viewscreen by the luminous undulating strings of D-space, twisting like snakes in a pit in a wormhole that existed outside the real universe where distance didn’t have any measurable definition.
“Transition in two minutes,” the NavBoard comp announced.
Foxe blinked at the D-space countdown clock. Hellcore. He’d slept almost four hours. He lurched from his seat and staggered to the head. Cupping his hands in the sink, he took a quick of lukewarm recycled water and washed his face, stretching his neck and shoulders.
The NavBoard spoke again. “Transition in thirty seconds.”
Okay. Time to go to work. Foxe returned to the cockpit and strapped himself back in to his seat.
The count reached zero. The screen went black. The deck shuddered beneath his boots, and for an endless instant Foxe endured the familiar sensation of being spun, shredded, and slammed back together—a timeless instant that seemed to last forever and end before it began, as the Cat slid out of its wormhole and popped back out into the real universe at the same moment it had left, hundreds of light years from its initial transition point.
Foxe swallowed, wishing for another drink of water. “Transition complete,” the NavBoard stated. “Prime thrusters online. Establishing navigationsal link with Crystal Rendezvous Control AI.”
The screen blinked back to life.
Crystal Rendezvous: a chunk of snowy gray ice with ice vapor trailing behind it as it spun in the darkness. Half a century ago an armada of ships fleeing a war in the Kolarus system had hollowed out a comet and anchored it in orbit around a white dwarf, creating a refuge for anyone who wanted to escape the eyes on the Aligned Worlds. Renegades, rogues, and runaways had taken control of the deep space habitat since then, turning Crystal Rendezvous from a quiet hiding place to something far more illicit and enticing.
Plasma trails from incoming and departing ships flared around the station’s docking spar. Foxe glanced away from the screen to check the auto-maneuvering readout, and the image clung to his eyes as if burned onto his retina. When he looked back, Crystal Rendezvous had grown to fill half the screen, looming in the darkness with a menace that made Foxe feel like a mouse sneaking toward a cave, hoping to snatch and few crumbs and scuttle away without waking the bear inside.
An AI voice burst through the CommBoard: “Approaching vessel with temporary designation code MG682 this is Crystal Rendezvous Approach Control please identify yourself and respond within thirty seconds. Repeat: Approaching vessel with temporary designation MG682—”
“Crystal Rendezvous Approach Control responding to code MG682,” Foxe cut in. “Designate MG682 as CAT XL743, homebase Oberix-2, and grant open-ended docking privileges.”
“Confirm conditional docking privileges pending clearance please peruse docking charge and station usage fee schedules and confirm with credit code repeat confirm conditional docking privileges . . .”
The fees for docking and basic services like air and gravity had gone up since Foxe’s last visit. Everything else—medical attention, CrysNet access, and filing charges for any crimes investigated by the Crystal Blades—was extra, and expensive. But that was the price of coming to Crystal Rendezvous.
He transmitted a credit code and waited for permission to dock. The station spun slowly in the viewscreen. Shuttles and ships from CATs to Dragon-class vessels rested in their slips, like birds asleep with their heads beneath a wing.
Approach Control spoke again: “CAT XL743 please release your NavBoard to Crystal Rendezvous Access Protocols for docking in . . . four minutes. Entry location Branch 1.56.”
Foxe reluctantly transferred his navigational systems to Crystal Rendezvous. It was standard procedure, but he hated giving up control to anyone or anything.
Maglines pulled the Cat toward the docking spar. Foxe waited, clutching the arms of his pilot’s seat, until his feet felt the solid thud of connection with the slip.
“Safety seal established,” the NavBoard announced. “Systems link established. Hatch seal is secure. Lock is fully pressurized.”
He shut off contact with the station and tapped a SystemBoard command. “Enable security protocols and confirm.”
“Security protocols engaged,” the SystemBoard responded.
No one without the right access codes would be able to steal the ship. Depending on what they tried, and how good they were, the security program he’d installed would put any intruders to sleep. Or kill them.
Foxe swung around in his seat and slipped into a long black vest. He clipped his handcomp to his belt and slipped his wavedagger into a boot. He checked the Radley-120 pulser on his hip, charged it for a moment, and then let it slide back into its holster.
Projectile weapons that could punch through a bulkhead or puncture a hull were forbidden, but Crystal Rendezvous didn’t prohibit energy weapons on it decks—just corpses that weren’t paid for.
“System sleep,” he ordered the Cat. The cockpit lights dimmed. The ship would remain inactive until Foxe’s return, but it would be ready to power up for departure within five minutes.
He slung his pack over one shoulder and took one quick look back through the cockpit. Everything locked down. If he didn’t return . . .
Well, that’s life.
Foxe stepped into the Cat’s cramped airlock and secured the cockpit door behind him. He shifted the pack on his shoulder, pulled the outer hatch back and to the side, and stepped out into a short entry ramp, slamming the hatch tight.
A few steps across the narrow ramp brought him to a security pad mounted next to the station access hatch. It took a retinal scan and gave him a numeric access code. He punched the code in and the hatch swung outward.
He emerged into a passageway. The curved white walls were familiar, along with the red arrows pointing the way to the station entry and the golden illumination of lighttubes above and below.
Also familiar: the sight of a humanoid staggering through the passageway, stopping to peer at every hatch as if he’d forgotten which section of the Branch he’d left his ship at. He shot Foxe a suspicious glance, then continued his search.
Foxe confirmed that his hatch was secure and headed up the passageway. A clock above an archway marked STATION INGRESS gave the station time as 1737/2500. Two rows of desks, separated by a thin duraploy wall, faced him. At Egress Foxe saw two humans, one male and one female, arguing with an android about station fees. Good luck.
At the Ingress desk he waited while the android behind it shifted to active mode. “Name,” it said in a typical atonal voice. “With species designation, please.”
“Erick Foxe, human, T-23.” He extended a hand. “Take any finger.”
The android jabbed a slim needle into his thumb. “Five standard seconds for clearance and authentication.”
The android would run his data through the Kick List for expulsion orders, bounties, and outstanding fees from previous visits. Foxe thought through his past stays on Crystal Rendezvous. Two Coraxians killed last time out . . . paid those fees . . . The Hydurian assassin two years ago, but they shouldn’t connect that to me—
“I am required to welcome you to Crystal Rendezvous.” The andy handed Foxe a hexagon-shaped badge with a clip on one edge. “This must be visible at all times while you are on station. Please acknowledge this statement in any language. Failure to acknowledge within five standard seconds—”
“Accepted.” He took the badge and clipped it to his vest. He reached for the chain around his neck that held his ID chip. “Here’s my credit.” He slid the chip into a C-deck. Crystal Rendezvous was a NonAligned station, but they’d accept AW credits as greedily as any station in the network.
“Enjoy your stay at Crystal Rendezvous.” The andy’s eyes dimmed as it went back into sleep mode.
Foxe resisted the impulse to reply with an obscene gesture.
The door at the other end of Ingress opened into a long passageway. Illumination came from the advertising screens, interactive and insistent, lining the walls as Foxe walked toward the station.
“Win or lose—best gaming booths at Arkadi!” exclaimed one panel. Another display suggested that everyone visit Uldira’s Bliss Pit for the most erotic experience in ten light years. A sonic caress stroked his body, teasing his crotch as he walked past holograms of dancing blue Tadori males. Then exotic, titillating aromas tickled his nostrils: “Inhale the spices of The Cavern on Carmen Deck!” A few steps down multicolored light flowed in fluid shapes around him, coating his body before fading away with a faint sizzle of heat on his skin. “Come enjoy the soothing and stimulating pleasuregels and transfusions at the Ecstasy Court!” He walked through holographic figures, male and female and hermaphroditic, frozen, nude, their eyes vacant as they held their poses and breathed in shallow whispers: “StatueDance Carmen! The most tranquil dancers in three dimensions! Alexis Deck and Carmen Deck!”
Yeah, Crystal Rendezvous exploded the senses at first sight: nerve-numbing sex, high-risk gambling, and nark that would whipsaw the mind. But beyond its façade—and beneath it—was where its real merchandise was bought and sold: information.
Drilling a hermaphrodite in a tub of living gelatin meant visiting the Dammasch Rings scattered across the galaxy. Drugs that combined pleasure with agony, or made God real, sent most beings to the Llanos Cartel, whose dealers could be found anywhere. For restricted weapons, classified data, exotic genetic material, electronic and biological viruses, or to contact merc armies, assassins, and terrorists for hire, Crystal Rendezvous was the first and last choice of anyone who needed to do business they couldn’t transact anywhere else.
Destroy the place—that’s what some planetary governments argued, backed up by religious leaders and, of course, competitors trying to dethrone Crystal Rendezvous’s status as the hub of illicit information and services in the galaxy. It would never happen. Too many of those same worlds, leaders, and competitors needed it. The AW tolerated Crystal Rendezvous because they needed to know where the maggots of the galaxy did their business. And because they needed to do their own business in the shadows when they needed to.
He emerged from the corridor into Arcade Center, the entry point to everything on Crystal Rendezvous: Throbbing music vibrated across the high ceiling overhead; violent curses roared from a circular door that glowed crimson and orange. On a balcony two female Meerans danced, their fur aroused and pink. He stepped aside for an impatient group of Thalldors and scanned the semicircular chamber, 150 meters across, feeling as if he’d stumbled underground into a cavern of luminous stalactites and swooping bats eager to nip at his scalp.
Some of it had changed, but nothing was different. The Octagon Star was still there, its garish green logo beaming as a half-naked hermaphroditic Armala chased after two humans pushing through its doors past two security androids. Sanctum had stayed in business as well; its black doors were shut tight but a blue light winked from either side to tempt passersby to investigate its mysteries. But Shalaki was gone, and so was the Tentacle Bar. Interstellar entrepreneurs fought viciously—with weapons, at times—for rights to a spot on Fiesta. Only the toughest survived long enough to break even. The rest vanished down a black hole of failed enterprises.
Welcome back. Foxe would have felt safer skimming the event horizon of a black hole.
Infokiosks were scattered around the open area. He ignored a Khonian female in ceremonial chains and stabbed a warning glare at a roving humanoid male with unnaturally long fingers as he walked with quicksteps to the nearest kiosk. He inserted a credit chip to activate CrysDirectory. “Spark,” he said.
In a nanosecond the screen displayed an address and offered directions and a map. Spark’s place was still there in Bemani, the central section, two decks toward the icy surface then forward. Spark always talked about trying to get a better address, closer to Arcade Center, on a higher deck, but nothing ever came of his talk. Spark was consistent, both as a strength and a fault—one reason Foxe had always been able to trust him.
He headed down a corridor. Its ceiling was higher than the passage from the docking branch, the walls a little wider, but he still felt like a rat in a maze. Unlike most Aligned Stations, which represented vast resources designed to burnish the egos of their corporate investors, Crystal Rendezvous had no spacious gardens or panoramic domes to make visiting beings forget the aluminar walls and stabilizing forcefields that held the barrier between warm, safe atmosphere and cold, empty vacuum. The endless corridors here could feel like a slowly tightening noose even to beings with no sense of claustrophobia. Closed in, trapped, some species went mad in hours.
For Foxe the problem was simply practical: Getting off-station in a hurry would always be a problem. He knew the nodes and conduits well enough to hide from any pursuer from a short while, but every station he’d ever visited always felt like a trap, aching to spring on him at any nanosecond.
Foxe walked quickly. Two quiet Ustalli flattened their boneless bodies against the bulkhead to allow him past. He took a tube down to the next level, oriented himself quickly, and found the place where it had always been, its doors open to the wide passageway. The single word SPARK floated in the air across the entrance. With a grin he walked inside, letting his eyes roam.
Sandpaintings along the walls shifted shape and color in restless waves. Stale coffee, smoldering spices, and ale smells permeated the air. An android stood in standby mode near the door to clear tables and, if necessary, throw drunks and troublemakers out into the passageway. Half the tables were empty; those others had beings in two and threes, drinking quietly, playing hologames, tossing dice, flirting.
Foxe looked for Spark, didn’t see him, and strode to the polished lucex bar, a meter and a half high and solid enough to repel a pulser rifle. He climbed up into a tall stool and waited until a short humanoid female finished speed-chilling a Purple Comet. She had to hop onto a crate labeled MAXCORP ANTARELLAN to set it on the bar for a hulking Rann-dishi. “Drink,” she told him. Or possibly her. Foxe couldn’t be sure from the angle. The bartender turned to Foxe with a shrug. “Drink?”
“Centauri whiskey. Where’s Spark?”
She kicked her crate across the floor and found a cube-shaped bottle. “Who’s asking?” She poured—but kept the clouded glass in her fist.
“I’m a friend. Foxe.”
With a cautious nod, she set the glass in front of him. “I’ve heard of you.”
“You work for Spark?”
They looked each other over. The woman had dark skin, narrow eyes, and muscular bare arms. A tight black vest, loose pants, and a sliverbeam in her belt. Silver hair pulled back tight into a knot on her scalp. “His wife. Dianar.”
Foxe sipped the whiskey, felt the burn in his throat. “He was sure no female of any species would ever put up with him longer than a day.”
“Congratulations to him. Condolences to you. Where is he?”
Hellcore. Spark? No—“What happened?”
She zeroed her eyes on him. Her arms beneath the short-sleeved shirt were thin and sinewy, and scarred. “Typical morning. Fight between three humans. Mo—” She nodded at the andy—“he grabbed one, the other two kept beating on him while Mo tried to toss him out of the way, and Spark jumped over the bar to stop them. He kicked the big one in the kids, but the little guy had a knife. No high-energy tech, nothing special, just a long slice of sharp metal, and he put it into Spark’s throat.” She blinked, her eyes in the past. “Right before I shot him.”
The injustice of Spark’s fate made Foxe want to laugh—and destroy something, or someone. Spark had flown dozens of pickup runs that saved Foxe’s life when they’d served in AW MilForce, breaking almost as many rules as Foxe did. Anyone who could fly tight and fast with pulse cannons blasting around him didn’t deserve to die on the floor of a bar. Not after he’d saved every paycheck for it, talked about it until all his friends wanted to beat him into silence, dreamed about it every night as passionately as his friends ached for a woman, or a man, or a life without constant war.
But no one deserved to die. Foxe had learned that early. You just did, without expecting it, leaving the universe behind to forget you ever existed. Hellcore.
“Foxe.” She looked him over. “You’re the death-wish guy.” She filled a glass with spiced brandy and set it on the bar, protecting it with both arms. “Spark flew eleven extractions for you and almost got killed every damn time. Gods and demons.”
“Yeah.” I’m the one who shouldn’t be here. Foxe hopped off the stool and dug a hand after a credit tab. “So long. Thanks for the drink.”
“Keep your ass on that stool.” Half the brandy went down her throat in an angry gulp. “He’d want you here. Stupid brainwaste. And he’d tell me to give you whatever you want. I can do that much for him. Sit!”
Foxe paused a moment, then clambered back onto the stool. He wanted to leave. Keep his memory of the living Spark, smiling, pouring drinks and insulting his customers, instead of replacing it with this woman in his bar. But he had work to do, and Spark had always respected that—even when he’d been cursing at Foxe for almost getting them both killed. “I need a place to stay. Probably just a few days. And a data connection for my handcomp.”
“You remember the storeroom?” She gestured toward a door behind the bar. “The cot’s still there. So’s the dataport. It’s all yours.”
“I paid him 50 cees a night—”
“Plagueshit you did. You stay quiet and don’t talk about Spark and that’s all I need. Another drink?”
“First . . . ” He tapped the badge dangling from his collar. “I need an alternate. I may have to leave in a hurry.”
Her laugh had an acid bite. “That’s what Spark was there for. Yeah. I can get one. Take a few hours.”
“Thanks.” He lifted his pack. “I know the way.”
The storeroom seemed smaller. Or maybe just emptier. The cot was still there, and a sink in the corner, but the smell of sweaty laundry was gone, along with the stacked cartons of illegal dar-brandy. But the dataport cable dangled from a gash in the wall where Spark had hacked into the network.
Foxe dropped his pack onto a stain in the thin carpetpad and sank onto the cot. Hard as plastcrete. He unclipped his handcomp. Time to review the mission profile one more time.
He tapped a decryption code into the handcomp’s keypad. “Mission profile,” he said. “Rumav Sil Aldoz.”
A holoimage bloomed over the handcomp’s screen. A young humanoid with big chocolate-dark eyes and thick yellow hair in intricate braids. In the floating image Rumav wore a sheer tunic of silk brocade; his hands were clasped in front of his waist. Each hand had five long fingers and two opposable thumbs on opposite sides of the palm. Thick jeweled rings circled ten of the subject’s fourteen fingers.
A caption underlined the floating image:
Rumav Sil Aldoz. Heir to the Century Throne of Riskannon. Born AW 664. Disappeared on AW 6:20:683; using using the name Hanbor Das Tenpil he traveled through the Riskannon Prism to Vostros Prism; undetr the same identity he exchanged AW Interstellar Credits through an independent broker and booked passage on a transport to Crystal Rendezvous.
A birth date of 664 on the Aligned Worlds record—a fiscal calendar whose main purpose was to facilitate trade agreements and commerce—made Rumav 19 years old. Still a kid by most humanoid standards.
Disappearance six days ago. A long time, but not too long.
Foxe waved a finger over the screen to continue:
Mission overview (1): Riskannon is a class-3 world in the Vynex System. Its government is a type-4 parliamentary monarchy, with power shared by fourteen Families from the founding world’s three largest continents, now representing 137 Districts across three worlds in the Vynex System. The highest government post, Century-Emperor, rotates between these fourteen families, with each family assuming the Century Throne for 100 R-years [82 years AWFC]. Note: “Emperor” is largely a ceremonial title; Century-Emperors are subject to specific constitutional limits on their powers as detailed in the text of Charter of Families (see appendix two). Riskannon has been an AW member since AW 532.
Mission overview (2): Naden Mor Aldoz is in the 84th year of the Aldoz Family’s current stewardship of the Century Throne. Naden has implemented a program of progressive reform and expressed interest in re-establishing relations with Taormika, a former colony planet [P2974] which broke away from the Republic in AW 419 following a ten-year conflict (See appendix four). Under Section 11 of the AW Third Charter, Naden has formally but confidentially requested assistance from Aligned Research and Intelligence in locating and returning Rumav to Riskannon.
Mission objective: Your contract is to locate Rumav Sil Aldoz and return him to Riskannon alive and unharmed, in suitable condition to re-establish a stable chain of succession. Operating procedures are governed by your sole discretion and risk. Compensation and bonus will be based on our agreed rates according to the current contract. To review your current contract (ER 428GIR) with ARI—
Foxe waved his hand to kill the file. He knew what he was worth to Aligned Research and Intelligence. His contract came up for review next year; he hoped he’d be able to negotiate an increase in his rates. In the meantime . . .
This was better than lying around his cube on Oberix, reading and waiting for the comm to buzz while he popped nightmare suppressants or just drank enough Centauri whiskey to keep dead people out of his head when he passed out. A mission was a mission: a chance to erase the past and ignore the future, and make some money. Money that he probably wouldn’t live long enough to spend, but he didn’t know what else to do with the rest of his life—however long or short that turned out to be.
Maybe this will be the one that gets me, he thought. It would almost be a relief. The job sounded routine, but he’d learned the hard way: the seemingly complicated missions frequently turned out to be pretty simple, while the easy ones could turn intense in an instant.
Foxe stared for a moment at the blank screen, and caught his reflection in the dark surface. Then he turned the handcomp face down. He knew what he looked like.
Eyes like gray clouds. Hair the color of dirt. Scars across his neck from the burns he’d suffered during the mission on Bekkas-tau.
An orphaned child of the Varrian system civil war, raised by local refugees who reluctantly trained a kid to become a resistance fighter in the insurgency against the occupying forces from Varrias-2. After years of bloody fighting, the Aligned Worlds finally decided to step in and impose a peace, and the only way for Foxe to escape the enemies he’d made as an insurgent was to enlisted in the Aligned Worlds Military Force, where he trained as a sniper and saboteur. So he’d served four years in AW MilForce before being court-martialed for assault on a superior officer.
Then he got recruited by ARI one year later.
Security consultant, contract agent, troubleshooter, mercenary, whatever you wanted to call it. Working mostly for ARI—Aligned Research and Intelligence. AW’s intelligence and covert-action section.
And—oh, yeah. Dreamer of dead people.