Authors: Jaine Fenn
To everyone in the Tripod writers’ group, past, present and future – especially Jim, for asking so many awkward questions.
‘Touch the divine
As we fall in line’
‘City of Delusion’, Muse
‘Who can in reason then or right assume
Monarchy over such as live by right
His equals, if in power and splendour less,
In freedom equal?’
, John Milton
This was no way to save the universe. Taro fiddled with the sauce dispenser on the table and tried to look inconspicuous. Business like this should be going down in a dingy bar, with a scowling barkeep and shadowy booths where trigger-happy space-dogs were striking smoky deals. And here was he, in a family diner full of grizzling brats, wipe-clean surfaces and eye-searing ceiling lights. So much for the glamorous freetrader lifestyle.
His attempt to act casual was rewarded by a trickle of yellowish goo from the dispenser. He snatched his hand back, resisting the instinct to lick the sauce off his fingers. He’d made that mistake once already. Instead he wiped it on the edge of the table, warily eyeing the garish menu emblazoned across the tabletop. Now he’d finished his bowl of crunchy-deep-fried-whatever he expected he’d be asked to order more food or shove off. He probably shouldn’t have eaten so fast, but even the local junk was a pleasant change from his usual diet. No matter how good a ship’s reclamation unit was, shit was still shit.
When the menu display didn’t light up and try to sell him more food he risked a glance at the nearest diner, who was tucking into a plate of orange rice-type-stuff using one of the oversized spoons that passed for cutlery around here. Nual had arrived a few minutes after Taro, because they didn’t want anyone getting the idea she was with him – which, of course, she was, in every way. She must have sensed him watching her because a warm spark blossomed briefly inside his head. He looked away reluctantly. Mustn’t let himself get distracted.
Taro checked the door for what had to be the twentieth time. Still no sign of the contact.
The only reason they’d agreed to this meeting was credit – or rather, lack of it. Perhaps they should’ve refused the request from a local freight service asking if they could transport a box of ‘biological samples’ – but whilst they’d got themselves a paying passenger for the trip back to the shipping lanes, they had a half-empty cargo-hold, and half-empty cargo-holds made customs officers suspicious. Plus, the freight company had offered nearly as much as ‘Apian Lamark’ (almost certainly not his real name) was paying for his ride. Freetrading might be just what they did as cover for their
mission – the important,
one – but if they didn’t score some heavy credit soon, they wouldn’t have a ship with which to carry out that mission. Jarek had still been sorting their ongoing cargo when Taro had commed him, but he’d agreed it was worth following up the request.
Rather than watch the animated woodland critters on happy drugs dancing around the walls, Taro looked out of the diner’s picture window; the view was filled with flying people, locals and tourists alike in neon-bright wing-suits, swooping and gliding through whirling vortexes of multi-coloured petals against the pale mauve sky. The imaginatively named Star City sprawled up and along a ridge of pink-grey rock of the sort that was apparently common in this particular region of this particular continent on this particular world. (The world was called Hetarey, he remembered that much; he’d looked it up on the way here, but the details hadn’t stuck. They didn’t need to. It wasn’t like they planned to be here more than a few hours.) The starport itself was on the flat top of the ridge; the other flat land, at the bottom, was for the rich coves who liked houses with flat floors and big rooms. In between, built into a slope that varied from inconvenient to impossible, were the houses of the average folks, plus all the diversions and entertainments that went with being the only place on this backwater planet where the universe came to call. The slope was extra-steep just here, and heavy-duty grav-units and massive fans had been installed at the bottom to give those without Nual and Taro’s unnatural advantages a chance to fly.
When he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, Taro turned his head quickly enough to blow any pretence of being a casual customer. That
to be his contact. The locals had a thing about hair – everyone wore theirs long, and shaving was against their religion or something – and while that wasn’t such a prime look on the men, especially combined with their preference for short trousers and stupid hats, on a good-looking woman waist-length red curls were pure blade. And this was a good-looking woman.
Even if he wasn’t currently gawking at her, she’d have no trouble spotting him. Hetarey didn’t see many offworlders – in a busy week, they might get two whole shiftships landing. Taro was unfeasibly tall and thin, and dressed the way he knew he looked good – big boots, tight leggings, vest top and black jacket – he had already attracted the attention of the other diners (‘Eat your greens darling or you’ll grow up
’ – not in this gravity you won’t, kid). Nual had also drawn looks, though for a different reason: she was beautiful, probably the most beautiful woman they’d ever set eyes on – though Taro was biased. People looked at her like they wanted or admired her, and the same people looked at him like he was an alien who shouldn’t be allowed. Which was funny, really, given he was the human one, and she was the alien.
The woman smiled and headed straight over. She had a sense of style most of the locals lacked, and she moved well. Her body wasn’t bad, either, from what he could see of it under that flouncy top.
He felt a tickle of amusement in the back of his mind. He resisted the temptation to look in Nual’s direction. Instead he smiled at the newcomer, and gestured to the chair opposite. She ignored the offer and instead took the seat at the end of the table, which put her immediately to Taro’s right. More annoyingly, it meant she had her back to Nual.
‘Thank you for coming, Medame Klirin,’ he said. ‘Did you, uh, want anything to drink? Or eat?’
‘No. Thank you.’ She tapped a dark spot on the table – so that was how you turned the damn thing off – then leant forward and gave him a sideways look. ‘La, not meaning any offence, but why do we need to meet in person? Can you take the shipment? Or not?
– just like to meet potential customers.’ The gappy-sounding question thing was just how they spoke around here, so he added, ‘Right?’
‘Sirrah sanMalia, are you actually the captain of the
Heart of Glass
Taro didn’t need Nual to tell him what she was thinking: she was wondering why someone who’d yet to survive his second decade was making deals on interstellar cargo. ‘No, I’m the junior partner. The captain is tied up elsewhere.’ He spread his hands. ‘If you’d got in contact sooner, I’m sure he could have met you, but at this short notice, I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with me. All right?’
In the brief pause while she digested his apology he sent a silent query in Nual’s direction. Her reply came through at once:
‘Sorry,’ Medame Klirin was saying, ‘No offence taken, right?’
‘Er, right. Really, we just wanna know more about this cargo you want us to ship. And why the sudden rush?’
She brushed back a stray strand of hair, and Taro tried not to be distracted. ‘It’s a matter of commercial confidentiality, see?’ she said quietly. ‘A delicate and perishable product which we need to get to a company in Perilat. All sealed and safe; and we’ll provide the permits and specs to keep customs sweet, la. We’ve been watching the listings for a ship heading out to Perilat, haven’t we? So when you registered that as your next destination we got in contact.’
Before Taro could query Nual her comment arrived in his head: <
I think she’s lying
Can’t you be sure? And which bit’s a lie?
> he sent back.
No, I can’t, not when I’m looking at the back of her head! I’m only getting this much because I’m in your head when you hear her words
Which was, Taro had to admit, somewhat freaky. Oops, Nual would pick that thought up too, of course.
‘Are you all right?’
He realised Medame Klirin was staring at him. ‘Yeah, I’m— Let’s just say you were right to avoid the food here. Um, when you say “we”, who d’you represent?’
‘A corporate interest.’
Definitely a lie
.> This time Nual was sure.
‘That’s a bit vague,’ said Taro. ‘Can I have some details?’
‘I can provide them, la.’ She held up a hand to show her com; like his it was a slap-com on the back of her hand, not an implant. Jarek had advised them against getting implanted coms – not that he could afford one right now – because they could cause issues with their not-entirely-accurate-and-subject-to-future-change IDs; that she also hadn’t an implant was another point against Medame Klirin. Then again, what did he know? He was pretty new to this whole freetrading lark. Madam Klirin continued, ‘Did you want details of the company at Perilat who’ll eventually receive the goods? Given the confidential nature of our research, we’d rather you just dealt with their agents, you know?’