Gail’s ear twitches at the voice on the radio. She’s prying a beer out of a rack in the cabin’s compact refrigerator. The beverage station does coffee well enough, but its “porter” tastes like cold strained oatmeal.
“This is Phil with Molinar Port Operations. Keces Industries requests you let us redirect the ship you’re towing to bay fifteen.”
“Aren’t you Keces Industries?”
“We’re an independent subsidiary. Do we have your consent for the redirect?”
She twists the cap off the bottle and snaps on a zero-g lid to keep the beer from merrily floating out. Consent is a Secret Code Word from the same family as cooperate. Docking creates an implicit contract, but anything nonstandard requires explicit permission so nobody can come back later and claim to have been coerced. “Is this kinda unusual, Phil?”
“Your parent company making you less independent.”
The voice hesitates. “Someone towing in a wreck is unusual. They’ll have inspectors in bay fifteen.”
“So it’s Keces’ ship?” Gail climbs into the pilot’s seat with her beer, strapping in.
Phil hesitates again. “I’m just the dispatcher, Ms. Simmons. I don’t have that information.”
“Right. Okay, do it.”
“Acknowledged. Stand by.”
Kismet disengages the tow cables and banks slightly to the right. Gail pivots the holo display around to see a school of guppies—tiny unmanned drones, little more than low-power engines coated in silicone—bumping up against the wreck and guiding it away. The wreck, and her still-attached deceleration engine.
“I’m gonna want that engine back, you know.” Phil doesn’t answer. Another ship—manned, not a drone—paces her now; it’s painted in blue, with Keces Industries’ interlocking triangle logo in white on its aft nacelles. A security escort. Lovely.
Molinar uses a stick-and-wheel construction style: a cylinder at the center remains stationary, docks running along it in both directions, and the wheel spins to hit point-nine G at the rim. She doesn’t like to tie up at facilities like this longer than she has to; if she’s going to be docked, she’d rather be at a place whose design extends the courtesy of gravity to Kismet, too.
Most of the view of space projected around her shifts to video feeds from her docking hatch and new instrumentation readouts. She gives them the once-over, then clears Kismet to perform the hatch coupling and to power down the propulsion systems.
She’s switched shirts—this vivid green floral print shirt makes yesterday’s look subdued. Combined with her favorite faux-denim plasticel shorts, it won’t look like she’s taking this meeting seriously at all. Perfect. She slips her furred feet into sandals and floats out.
Two cisform men in brown business suits wait in the access tube. They’re big, burly, and armed. Their names don’t come up on her HUD, and when she does a deeper scan, one shows the signatures of a set of biomods she’s dubbed the cop package. These guys may be from Keces, but they’re not corporate execs. The other one’s giving her a weird look, like he’s never seen a totemic before. Maybe just never a rat totemic. Foxes and cats are cute. Wolves are intimidating. Rats get weird looks.
As the hatch slides shut behind her, the first guy says, “Permission to come aboard,” making it less question than statement despite the bad attempt at a smile.
What the hell? “Sorry, not open to the public.”
“Permission refused. And you’re excused.”
“Fine.” His tone says it isn’t fine at all. “Let’s go meet Mr. Nakimura.”
Gail flashes her best big-toothed rodent smile. “Yeah, we wouldn’t want to delay the conversation he’s requesting with me, right?”
They scowl in unison, and the second guy motions her forward.
The tube opens onto an industrial space entirely shaded in gray, with status displays for a handful of scheduled flights and for the rail car lines that run between the docking arms and the rim. Still no gravity, so travelers stick close to the handrails and well-marked floatways. Or bounce around bumping into things. The only splashes of color are the rail cars themselves, painted in primary colors, and a smattering of badly animated “Welcome to Molinar” banners. They might as well have subtitles reading but not really.
As they approach the rail car loading point, Unsmiling Security Guy One holds up a hand. “Wait here.” The cars have a standard design—rounded boxes suspended between two rails, seats mounted on the sides. They slow down here, but never come to a stop. A car trundles past, then another.
Guy Two, the one with the cop package, points at a red car seventh in line from the one that just passed. Guy One nods. Gail stifles a sigh.
When the car gets there they pull themselves in. Someone else is already inside, as she expected—another cisform. Black business jacket, pale blue shirt, a bolo tie with the Keces logo on the clasp. He’s of Asian descent, only a nose taller than she is.
There are six seats in the tram, three on each side. Gail leaps to take a seat next to Nakimura rather than one of the ones facing him, just beating Guy One to it. Both Unsmiling Guys smile even less as she straps in.
“Ms. Simmons,” he says. “I’m Jason Nakimura with Keces. Tell me about the ship you’ve towed in.”
Her HUD confirms he matches a Jason Nakimura with Keces, a VP of Special Projects. So he’s important, and has an ominously nebulous title. “It’s a Horizon SC71. No flight plans on file, completely unflagged, running dark. There’s a big hole in the bow and pretty much nothing inside.”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
His face tightens for a second, but he doesn’t react otherwise. “How did you come across it?”
A two-tone chime sounds and the car’s doors slide shut as it picks up speed. “A yacht pilot on a run between here and Kingston tipped me off. Said he’d picked up signs of what might be a wreck.”
“He didn’t stop and go help?” Guy Two looks suspicious.
“He said the ship didn’t have any signs of life, and people who charter yachts get pretty paranoid. Even the communication with me was encrypted.”
Nakimura makes a thoughtful noise. “Do you know why he shared this tip with you?”
“There’s only a dozen salvors operating around the River, and I guess I’m pretty well known.” Not for being a salvor, but either Keces knows that already or they don’t need to. They sure don’t need to know the pilot was someone she knows. Knew. Sort of.
The Unsmiling Guys give one another a skeptical glance. Nakimura’s tone remains mild, though. “I see. Would you share your telemetry data?”
“Sure.” She reaches into her vest pocket; immediately Guy One drops his hand to his sidearm. Idiot. She holds a level stare, slowly pulling out a smartpad and pen. Formal contracts have a ritual that involves the physical, even when only the resulting data gets tracked. She scribbles a command on the paper to have Kismet prepare and transmit a report on the wreck. A signature line appears; she hands it and the pen to Nakimura.
He makes a quick slash of a signature across the pad, rips off the top sheet, and hands the pad and pen back to Gail. After a quick glance at the copy the notepad has kept, she tucks it and the pen away. At the same time he pulls a small notebook out of his jacket, opening its fancy cover—likely real leather—and presses the receipt into it, holding it for a moment until it seals.
A second chime signals the rail car is turning down a spoke, rotating so they’ll be facing the right way as down starts to have meaning. Nakimura folds the cover back and studies the display on the other side, frowning, then speaks again. “You went aboard.”
“Of course.” Her right ear twitches in irritation. “The ship was basically empty. It didn’t look to me like it even had more than one or two passengers.”
“Assuming you were recording, I’d like a copy of all the video from entry to exit.”
She clears her throat. “So I take it this mystery ship belongs to Keces.”
“I can’t discuss details about our interest.”
Gravity’s about as strong as it’s going to get; they must be near the disembarking zone. “Jason, job zero for me is establishing vessel ownership. If I can’t do that, I make a claim for pure salvage, and since we’re talking about a mostly intact SC71 the finder fee alone is going to be pretty high. If you want to discuss your ‘interest,’ you’re going to have to be a little less coy.”
The car’s downward motion becomes down and forward, then just forward. The door opens with another chime and they get out.
“Understood.” He leads Gail and his entourage across a short polished concrete floor to the exit doors, and they head outside to the station proper. The Unsmiling Duo stay a little closer to her than she’s comfortable with.
Some arcology platforms go wild with greenery, like the Ceres Ring. Some go for a quirky theme, like Kingston. Molinar, though, chose to instantiate the platonic ideal of bland. Other than the eternal upward arc of the half-kilometer wide landscape, there’s not a single curve anywhere. A vehicle corridor runs straight down the center; they’ve exited onto a pedestrian bridge over that avenue. Other bridges cross over at regular intervals. It’s so free of style it feels malicious. Yes, it used to be a company platform, a mining venture that fizzled before she was born like most of them had by then. But they could do something. Paint the roof blue. Make a few buildings fake brick. Put up a single sad lonely plastic tree.
Nakimura gestures ahead to a point on the left half of the bisected station. “The office is a three-minute walk.”
“I have a simple proposal, then. If the appraisal team looking at the ship now reports back satisfactorily, you transfer the salvage claim to Keces. Finding the owners becomes our responsibility, not yours.”
“Do you have a number in mind?”
“Three percent of the ship’s current fair market value.”
She runs a hand through her chopped blond hair. Given its current condition, fair market value is going to be maybe half of what it’d be worth used, which would be about two-thirds list. Making his offer roughly one percent of list. Making it roughly twice as much money as she’s earned in her entire life.
Nakimura lifts a brow at her hesitation, the most emotion he’s shown so far. “Is that acceptable?”
“I think it’s workable,” she says, tone studiously neutral. Way too workable. She’s waiting for the hammer drop.
Some of the buildings they walk past have wooden trim, at least, but they’re all metal, all anodized. The temperature of the diffuse light from the ceiling a hundred meters above has started to lower in a simulated sunset. Unlike the system on Kingston, Molinar’s color temp never drops below 1900K; “nighttime” here is a dim orange.
The building they’re heading to stands out only by being larger—three stories—and having more wooden trim. Inside the lobby, there’s another cisform waiting. Dirty blond hair, stubbly shave, ill-fitting tan overcoat. His blue tie, complete with little gold lantern tie tack, completes the fashion crime. If the Unsmiling Duo radiate security thugs, the new guy radiates Suspicious Detective. Christ, for a company with a major business line in transformations, you’d think they’d employ a few totemics.
Nakimura addresses him without bothering to make introductions. “Have you gotten the report yet?”
“Yeah.” He glances at Gail, lip curling. “It’s not there.”
Nakimura frowns deeply.
“What’s not there?”
“Let’s have a talk, Ms. Simmons.” He motions at a door just off the lobby. Suspicious Detective opens it, and they all file in.
It’s an office, but looks like one nobody’s ever worked in. Big desk, big chair behind it, a few chairs in front of it, nothing else. Grey walls, grey ceiling, even grey floor. Not carpeted, polished concrete.
Gail starts sending the feed from her right eye sensors back to Kismet. No telling what’s about to happen, but from the turn things just took she’s pretty sure she wants it all on record.
Nakimura sits down behind the desk and points at a seat in front of it. When she sits down the Unsmiling Duo take up standing positions behind her and to either side. “I’d like you to go over what happened again.” As he speaks he pulls out his notebook, reading the screen as if he’s going to be checking her answers.
“I got a tip, I followed it to the wreck, I towed it back.”
Suspicious Detective crosses his arms. “A ship with no ID, no beacons, and not on a normal course. That’s a hell of a good tip.”
“Yeah, it was. They happen.” Her tail flicks reflexively, sending a jolt of pain up her spine. These chairs aren’t meant for totemics. Maybe they did that on purpose.
Detective snorts. “From what I was just told it looks less like a wreck than a bomb.”
“I told you I didn’t think it was an accident.”
Nakimura sighs. “The ship was empty, Ms. Simmons.”
She grits her teeth. “Remember the part about the big hole? It made stuff inside become stuff outside. If whatever you’re looking for wasn’t taken before I got there, it’s probably floating in space.”
“Taken before you got there?” Nakimura tilts his head.
“Your crew noticed the missing escape pod, right? It looks to me like a passenger on the ship either set off the bomb or knew it was coming.”
“And it looks to me like you’re part of their cover story. You knew right where to find the ship, you know just what to tell us.” Suspicious Detective leans forward. “And you know a lot about bombs, rat, don’t you?”
She flinches back, ears going flat.
“Come on, we know your history. Brought up as a totemic supremacist as a kid, decided to be a con artist instead. Maybe you’re finally getting around to taking up where Mom left off, huh?”
“That’s an offensively bullshit way to describe my mother, and what the hell does this have to do with her?”
“You tell me.”
Don’t yell. Deep breath. “Look, I’ve told you exactly what happened. Do you seriously think I went out there running dark, stole something, and blew the escape pod all without leaving any trace, then came back here to tow the ship in? I’d have just left the damn ship there!”
“Criminals are stupid.”
“Clearly some investigators aren’t brain trusts, either.”
He curls his lip, raising a fist.
“Do it and I will hit you back.”
Nakimura looks up at the ceiling as if praying for patience. At length he stares across the desk toward her. “Your story is plausible, Ms. Simmons, but finding you, specifically, involved after multiple attacks and major property crimes committed against Keces, all around this particular project…”
“Mara’s Wounds, I don’t even know what the hell this ‘project’ is!” She wants to throw her hands in the air and just walk out, or to leap up and pound the desk, maybe just pace. She gets as far as starting to stand. The Unsmiling Duo shove her back in the chair and keep their hands on her shoulders. “Hey.” She can hear the nerves jangling in her voice.
Nakimura leans back. “You have no history of involvement with your mother’s politics, her ‘Totemic Equality Association,’ as an adult. But you have no history of involvement with…” He shrugs fractionally. “With anything.”
“I don’t like entanglements.” She squirms; they press down harder on her shoulders. “Come on. Do I have the ‘history’ of someone who’d arrange to wreck a ship and kill people just to steal something off it? Look. Maybe I can help you find whatever’s gone missing.”
Suspicious Detective snorts. “You seriously think you’re going to scam a job out of this?”
She gives him a glare, then looks back to Nakimura. “You hired this ship to transport something, and you didn’t want any records.” She closes her eyes, concentrating. The puzzle’s sliding together. “Until you took possession of the wreck, it couldn’t be connected to you at all, and since you own the port operations here that’ll be easy to make look normal.” Her eyes open. “Now, though, somebody’s stolen whatever was on that ship, and you don’t want to let this crime get to a judicial market. So you’re going to need someone who’s good at finding things and keeping it all quiet.”
“It’s pretty easy to find something if you’ve taken it, and he’s already got someone who’s good at finding things. Me.” Suspicious Detective jabs a thumb at himself.
Nakimura’s voice shows edges of exasperation. “This is ludicrous, Ms. Simmons. Just return the databox.”
“What’s a databox?”
The detective leans down, his eyes as cold as New Coyoacan’s sky. “Tell us where it is.”
“I don’t know what the hell—”
He straightens up and slams his fist into Gail’s stomach.
She’s still in the chair, still held by the other two, so she can’t even double over. Her vision goes black for a moment as she gasps, unable to draw in enough air.
“Where’s the databox?”
She can’t get enough breath to speak. He raises his fist and she puts up her hands, hoping he’ll wait. She could power up her biomods, but Guy Two might pick it up if she does. Fortunately, he waits.
She wipes spittle off her muzzle. Okay, if this is how she has to play it, she’ll play. “Three things. Please.”
Nakimura motions with a hand in a go on gesture.
“Okay.” She takes another ragged breath, steadying herself. “One. I’m betting these three are unofficial contractors, too, just like that ship, right? Mister Detective here apparently missed the part about me being able to record anything I see. I’ve been doing that since before I followed you in here.” She subvocalizes Kis’s name so she takes the next sentence as a command. “Let me share a few seconds of video with you featuring you sitting there watching your thugs beat me up.”
Nakimura looks at his notepad display, frowning, then pales visibly.
“We can either leave this between me and you, or make it between me, you and my judiciary. Do we understand each other?”
He nods stiffly.
“Good.” Since she stopped paying their retainer she doesn’t have a judiciary, but Keces might not know that. She moves to stand up; this time the Unsmiling Guys let her. “Two, biomods are a big thing to miss. So think long and hard about what that says about the guys you’ve hired. I don’t think they’re as good as I am, and I can work with people who are better than me.”
The detective tightens his fists. “I told you we ran into security walls searching her background.”
“The fact remains that your work has put us in an unexpectedly precarious position, Mr. Nelson.” He nods to Gail. “And three?”
“I told this guy if he hits me I’d hit him back.” She engages her biomods and slugs Suspicious Detective’s jaw hard enough to spin him to the side, knocking him right into Guy Two.
Guy One’s going for his gun, but she’s darting behind Guy Two fast enough to be a blur, knowing he’ll engage his own biomechanics when he recovers. So she doesn’t give him the chance, grabbing his arm and twisting it behind him. “Power down or I’ll break it.” The detective slides to the floor, blood leaking out of his mouth. She probably fractured his jaw, but he’s lucky she pulled the punch.
“Let go, bitch!”
“Power down.” She glances at Guy One. “And put that gun away now.” Guy One swallows audibly, and does as ordered.
Suspicious Detective—Nelson, evidently—touches his jaw, wincing, and shoots her another glare. “Animal senses don’t make you better enough than us prims? You gotta add biomods, too?”
“I don’t use the ‘p’ word.”
“Enough.” Nakimura rubs his face with both hands. “You’ve made your point, Ms. Simmons. Let him go.”
“When I do, you and I talk alone for a bit.”
Guy Two protests. “We can’t protect you if—”
Gail twists his arm again and he yelps.
“You’re not protecting me now,” Nakimura says.
She waits until she senses him disengaging his biomods, then lets go. He storms out of the room. Guy One helps Suspicious Detective on out.
After Gail closes the door, Nakimura says, “Turn off your recording.”
“No.” She powers down her biomods, though, before they start to hurt. “What do I do to clear this up and go on my way?”
He drums his fingers on the desk. “You are, at this point, not just a person of interest in the theft, but the only person of interest. Why didn’t you let my men onto your ship when you docked?”
“Because it’s my home and you didn’t have any business asking.”
“Will you let us on board now?”
“Will that prove I don’t have this…”
“This databox, or will you just think I’ve hidden it really well?”
He purses his lips, turning away and falling silent. When he speaks again, he’s still looking at the wall. “The only way to ‘clear this up,’ Ms. Simmons, is to return our property. If you do that, I won’t ask further questions about its provenance. If our analysts determine the data has not been compromised, we’ll honor our previously proposed payment agreement for the wreck.”
Her ears raise. He’s going to go for it, isn’t he? “Deal.”
“Finish signing over your salvage claim to Keces. The contract will explicitly stipulate that any property belonging to Keces must be returned within seventy-two hours of the transfer. If you have taken the databox, consider this a grace period to return it. Otherwise consider that your deadline for playing finder.”
What? Seventy-two…? “Look, I can’t promise—”
“If the databox is not returned, your fee will be forfeit, and you will be reported to our judiciary as socius indignus and be sued for damages.”
Her eyes widen. If the judiciary accepts the designation of Gail as an “untrustworthy partner,” then all of their other clients might stop doing business with her. As a major company, Keces would use a major judiciary. That would mean she’d almost certainly lose the lawsuit. And lose about half the places she does business with now.
And, more than likely, lose Kismet.
“That won’t hold up.” Her voice shakes.
“Given that any counter-argument will be backed up by evidence that only you can provide and no one else can authenticate, I have confidence it will.”
“I can’t do this in three days!”
“If you or an associate of yours is the thief, you can do it in far less. If you are not, three days may frankly be too generous.” He sets his notebook on the table in front of her, a signature line ready for her, and holds out the pen.
“You’d better at least tell me what this thing is.”
“The keys to heaven and hell.”
She stares at him blankly.
“Sharing details would put both of us at even greater risk. Just understand that Keces Industries is not the most dangerous party with an interest in recovering the databox.”
“Yeah, you sure look like the good guys so far.” Gail yanks the pen from his hand.
“When a complex situation appears black and white, Ms. Simmons, it’s almost always an illusion.”
She closes her eyes, feeling like she’s volunteered to climb into a sealed airlock with walls slowly sliding together. After taking a deep, steadying breath, she opens her eyes and signs.
“I’ll transfer serial information to your ship that will make identifying and tracking the databox as easy as possible. I trust you can find your own way out.”
She marches out of the office, switching her biomods on again, primed in case someone’s stuck around to make more trouble for her. Nobody’s waiting, though, either in the lobby or outside. In case they come back, she won’t stick around, either.
The ambient light has deepened to a jaundiced yellow. Her sensors tell her the temperature’s only dropped half a degree, but it feels colder.
Closing her eyes, she allows herself one slow, shuddering breath and soft whine, then hurries back toward Kismet. She has no idea what to do next, but she’s got no time to lose doing it.