When she wakes up there’s a moment of disorientation until she realizes Catboy—she did learn his name, didn’t she?—is taking up slightly more than half of her bunk. For a single person it’s more than big enough, but not for two. Why did they come back here instead of his place?
Oh, right: because here is her own private spaceship. That’s still a hell of a pickup line.
He stays asleep even as she carefully unwinds that amazing tail from around her leg and slips out of bed. It takes her longer than it should to locate her clothes, given how small the cabin is. After she’s dressed she walks to the beverage station and punches up some coffee.
“Mmm?” Catboy sits up, rubbing his eyes. “Morning, Gail.”
Dammit, he knows her name. She hurriedly calls up her contact manager, hoping she’d remembered to activate it. Yes! Maybe.
“Adrian,” Kismet says in her ear.
She gives the cockpit a glare, since the ship doesn’t have a face to glare at. “Hey, Adrian.”
He stretches, then twists around, pulling his pants off the floor and over his legs. “There’s a cafe just a half a block away if you’re looking for breakfast.”
“Yeah. Well, a coffee and a donut or something, at least. Gonna be a busy day.” It’d better be one—as nice as last night was, she’s wasting time. And she doesn’t have anything more to go on than she did when she left Molinar.
“Is salvage work that regular?”
“No, it isn’t. Sometimes I take odd jobs.”
“I guess you don’t volunteer for the River Totemic Equality Association.”
That’s a hell of a weird—oh. She flashes him a wry smile. “When did you get a chance to look me up?”
“After you fell asleep. I didn’t know you were from a famous family when we met.” There’s an anxious edge in his voice, like he wants to reassure her that he didn’t try to pick her up because of her name. That’s happened before; it’s common to do a quick search on people you want to hook up with.
It’s ludicrous to give her family celebrity status, let alone her, though. “Only mom was famous and I’ve been a lot happier staying off that radar. Working with the RTEA didn’t work out too well for her.”
His ears flick. “I’m sorry.”
“Long time ago.”
“In a sense she’s won, though. Maybe there’s more active prejudice out on the far fringe platforms, but in the Panorica Federation? I’ve been transform for five years and never had a problem.”
“It’s better now. Uh, since I didn’t look you up, did I ask what you do?”
He grins, moving in front of her and running his claw tips along her sides. She wriggles reflexively. “Work-study program at the university.”
About what she’d guessed. So all the time he’s been transform, he’s been a student, and probably only on Panorica or a platform allied with it. A Panorican college might be the most totemic-friendly environment off the Ring you could find. He’ll hit turbulence soon enough. “What’s your major?”
“That’s not an academic way of saying ‘dancing,’ is it?”
He nuzzles one of her ears, making it very hard to focus on his answer. “It’s more about putting other things in motion, not me.”
She nods, touching her lips to his in a light kiss, and chuckles. “I thought my line of work was volatile. I know artists can make a lot if they get a few good patrons, but…does the university help at all with that?”
He steps away and shrugs. “Their matchmaking service is pretty cheap for students. My parents have been making up the difference between what I’m making now and my tuition, so I won’t be in debt when I graduate. And as long as I stay on Panorica the basic income should be enough to at least keep me in a place like this.”
She lifts her brows. “Basic income? It actually managed to pass?” The Ceres Ring has a version of that, but to nearly every other arcology that’s near the top of the list of horrifying things about the place.
“It won’t come back up for a vote until next year. But it’s just about guaranteed to pass then.”
Most of the direct propositions can’t be voted on by people who don’t live on Panorica, whether or not they hold citizenship, so she hasn’t been paying much attention. She remembers the battles the first time this came up, though, seven years ago, and shakes her head. “It’s hard to imagine enough people voting in a flat income tax. Hell, it’s hard enough to get them to raise the VAT.”
“It’s just two percent. That’s less than a quarter of the Ring’s.”
“Yeah, but the Ring had one from the start.”
Adrian shrugs again. “You know the saying. If you don’t like where you are, the River’s very, very long.”
She nods. She’s heard it. You can beat Panorica’s cost of living elsewhere and you can beat its standard of living elsewhere, you just can’t beat both. But if one’s more important to you than the other, nothing stops you from moving.
He pulls on his shirt. “So why a rat?”
“That wasn’t my choice. Mom liked the symbolism. Resourcefulness, adaptability.”
“It’s your choice to stay that way, though, isn’t it? Nothing stops you from another transformation.”
“Other than money and medical risk.” She laughs. “But I like the symbolism, too. And, hey, most people don’t choose what they are.”
“I guess your mother thought of that as a design flaw.”
Her eyes narrow, but he sounds curious, not challenging. “She wanted totemics to be able to give birth to other totemics, not cisforms, yeah. But that’s been fifteen years out for the last sixty years. Like I said, I don’t begrudge her making the choice for me. So why’d you choose a cat?”
“Why a totemic at all? The paradox of advanced technology in the service of atavistic desire, living in outer space with a personal connection to wild Earth. We make better humans than cisform humans do. But as for why a cat, I could say I’ve always felt feline, and that’d be true. And I like the aesthetic.”
“You are an artist.”
Beedle boop “You have a call from Jason Nakimura of Keces.”
He looks up at the hidden speaker. “Is that your ship?”
“I thought I’d introduced you to Kis last night. But hang on, I should take this. Put him through, Kis, direct to me.”
Nakimura doesn’t bother with a greeting. “You’re on Panorica.”
“I told you I have people. I’m seeing them.”
“You’re on one of the few places in the River with both a long-range spaceport and a law enforcement agency that coordinates with agencies on Earth and Mars.”
“That’s because it’s also the biggest metropolis on the River. Look, if I was going to run somewhere to hide behind law enforcement, I’d be making my first trip back to New Coyoacan in a decade.”
“It appears all you’ve done there is visit a tourist attraction, then return to your ship. I have doubts as to how seriously you’re taking your task.”
She walks closer to the cockpit, both ears and voice lowering. “You’re my temporary employer, not my chaperone. I’m researching leads, all right?” Nakimura said “tourist attraction,” not “club”; he doesn’t have specifics. So that means he’s set up searches on public viewfeeds to report on her. Low granularity, but profoundly annoying. “All you need to care about is whether I show up with your widget in two days.”
“I also care about whether you’re taking that ‘widget,’ as you put it, to the inner system.”
“I told you,” she hisses, “I’m following a lead. I’ll see you in two days. Until then get off my ass.” She disconnects the call before he responds.
“It sounds like your busy day’s already started.”
“Yeah. I’ve gotta get going on that assignment.” No, don’t say that I’ve told you about, since she hasn’t.
“I have a class in an hour myself.” He steps close, tilting her head up and lowering his own so their noses nearly touch. “Will I see you back at the Club sometime?”
For a while she went there a couple times a month, but that was—longer ago than she’d thought, when she puts a year to it. Recently she only gets there when she’s meeting Ansel, but she should try to make it more often. Three days from now, for instance, she’s going to want a lot of alcohol one way or another. “You might.” She turns the nose-touch into a kiss.
The breakfast place Adrian told her about turns out to be another Magnolia Cafe, but this one’s set up as the kind of high volume, low cost operation that appeals to students. A single employee behind the counter looks so engrossed by the smartpaper she’s holding that someone has to yell to get her attention when a serving station breaks. The coffee’s good, though, and the pastry’s acceptable.
Christ, what’s she supposed to even do now? She’s sitting here alone with a bum at a nearby table giving her the evil eye, no closer to knowing where and how to look than she was yesterday evening. How do you find a thief who’s left no trace?
By finding a trace of something else. Figure out where the ship was coming from and where it was going. She pulls out her smartpaper pad. “Kis, send me a news bulletin about the attacks on Keces that Nakimura mentioned.”
After a moment the smartpaper fills with an article. Three separate attacks: offices on Panorica and Lariat hit by EMP drones, and a laboratory floating off Arelia hit with a full-fledged bomb, killing nineteen workers. Nobody claimed responsibility, and Keces made no statements beyond indicating they’d handle it internally. The lab’s described only as a “research facility.”
She taps the side of her coffee cup. The thieves weren’t stealing copies of the databox, they were destroying copies of it. But not this last one. So they didn’t just want to steal the data, they wanted to make sure Keces couldn’t keep using it. “Kis, if that SC71 had set out from Keces’ HQ on Molinar, what would its likely destinations be based on its course?”
“In decreasing order of likelihood, Panorica, the Rothbard Republic, New Amsterdam and the Ceres Ring.”
“Are any Keces divisions headquartered on Panorica?”
“Keces Data Fabrics, Keces-Okita Transit, Keces Bioengineering, and Freshbright Markets.”
“Transit,” she murmurs aloud. One of Ansel’s guesses. Maybe this really is a clue, but how does she translate that into action? She can’t just go in and ask them about the damn thing without Nakimura’s help, and he’s such an—
She almost drops the last bite of her donut, and flicks both her ears—big ears that should keep people from sneaking up on her or what good are they—as she turns.
It’s the bum. Okay, not fair: he’s not in bad shape. Cisform, white, looks ten or fifteen years older than she is, zipper-down square shoulder salesman clothes that look ten or fifteen years older than hers. But he knows her name? Crap, does she know him? She calls up her contact manager, even though using her HUD when somebody’s looking right at her eyes makes her look kinda unfocused-spooky. No hits.
“Tom Laurel.” He holds out a hand. “We met when you lived on Carmona.” His voice is the sound of a baritone jazz singer who took sandpaper to his vocal cords.
Carmona. She never lived there, technically, but she spent a lot of time docked at that platform the first couple of years she lived on Kismet. It seemed like the free-wheeling, lawless epitome of “do what thou wilt,” the polar opposite of life with Big Sister. She’d worked in a terrible little cafe until the novelty wore off, then kept working until she soured on the whole experience. It turned out that most people who insisted on doing what they wilt were kind of assholes.
While his name doesn’t come up in her contacts, there’s a few hits in public databases—oh, him. Speaking of those people. “Yeah. Okay. Hi. You used to come into Brio Coffee.” She touches his hand perfunctorily rather than shaking it. “Still in the amp business?” She hopes the man’s not about to try to sell her some.
He shakes his head. “Not as a main business. I can still get you some—still good quality—but…Panorica, you know.”
She knows. It’s one of the few drugs that’s tightly controlled on Panorica and the Ring. On Carmona, and most other places across the River, it’s not. What you put in your body is your choice. Of course, it’s also your employer’s choice to fire you faster than a railgun if you work under the influence. She tried amp once (Jesus, was that a mistake) and she probably bought from him.
Images of Tom are beginning to come back to her. He always overdressed, always looked like he’d stepped out of a high-end fashion browser. He’s wearing the same kind of clothes now, just well past their recycle date.
She finishes the donut and picks up her coffee, as if she’s got somewhere to be soon. “So what are you up to these days?”
“Oh, this and that. Working a few angles, following a few leads. Divest, diversify. Amp’s a great business, but it’s bad for it to be your only revenue stream. I’d like to get to Rothbard, some other place where they’re not locking down freedom, you know?”
Rothbard would be right on board with the “this is good because governments on Earth say it’s bad for you” spiel she remembers Tom pitching, but unless you’re employed by one of the mega-casinos there you’d better be a billionaire to afford permanent residency. Maybe the casinos hire amp dealers, though. “What was wrong with staying on Carmona?”
He sighs heavily. Whatever’s on his breath makes her want to scrub her nostrils out. “It’s the business associations, the neighborhood associations. They don’t want you to sell in person anymore, don’t even want you to sell by delivery. The neighborhood I lived in banned amp! Can you believe that?”
“Rough break.” Tom lived in the upscale district Brio catered to—cheaper neighborhoods have mostly automated cafes like this one—and it stayed upscale by promising residents a certain “quality of life” and enforcing it by contract. Honestly the biggest surprise is that they hadn’t banned it before he’d moved in. He might be the proximate cause for the new rule.
“You were always the best thing about Brio. You still have the prettiest blue eyes I’ve seen.” She remembers him telling her that before now, years ago, and it was just as unexpected and weird then. He grins, more slyly. “So are you still running cons?”
Oh, great, this is either going to turn into an illegal business proposition or a lame blackmail attempt. Just what she needs. She tightens her grip on the coffee and lowers her voice. “I was a waitress, Tom, and now I’m a salvor. Pretty above board stuff both then and now.”
He raises his hands. “Maybe I’m misremembering. But there was that, what was he, an otter guy you sold a broken water pump to? Thompson, wasn’t it?”
“It wasn’t broken, just useless for what he wanted. And he’d been charging his own purchases to Brio’s account and the owner didn’t want to go to a judiciary over it.” She shrugs. “I was just getting the money back.” She did, and maybe a little more for herself.
He leans close, whispering in confidence. “I’m sure that wasn’t the only time.”
Nostril scrub again. She musters a laugh, starting to walk slowly backward. “Look, I’m seriously not in that business. It’s been good catching up, but the business I am in is waiting for me.”
He follows slowly, not taking the hint. “The business you’re in. You’re a salvage operator, aren’t you?”
“So that means you found something. I’m not asking what it is, I’m just saying if you need a buyer, a sales broker, I’ve got a lot of connections, especially back on Carmona.”
“I’m not…” She trails off. She doesn’t have anything to sell, no, but maybe somebody does. It’s longer than a long shot; this isn’t the kind of job you do without a buyer already lined up. But that doesn’t mean you’re working with the buyer directly. “Brokers, huh? Do you know anyone who might specialize in ferrying something small and discreet from a seller to a buyer?”
“Sure.” He waves a hand dismissively. “Even down to handling, you know, complicated payment details. I know people in the banking system.”
“Anyone you can hook me up with?” She’s continuing to walk to the exit, more slowly.
“I can take you to somebody, yeah.” He bites his lip. “Yvonne, maybe.”
“I’m on a really tight schedule. Can you just get me her contact information?”
He draws back, giving her a more guarded look. “That’s not how these sorts of deals work. I’m happy to take you to Yvette, but I’m going to introduce you in person.”
“What was her name again?” Her eyes lock onto his face.
“Yvonne.” His uncertain eye twitch isn’t something most people would catch. Not people who can’t overdrive their optic system just a little. Just enough. Tom isn’t exactly lying, but his memory holes make him even less trustworthy now than he was a decade ago.
She blinks twice rapidly as her eyes resync, then smiles apologetically. “Sorry, I don’t have time for this.” They’re at the door.
“I could do it right now. I mean, it’s not far.” He steps ahead so he’s blocking the exit, standing just ten centimeters away.
He’s tall and she’s short; there’s probably forty centimeters height difference between them. Kilogram for kilogram he might be stronger than she is, but she’s in so much better shape that’s not a given even without biomods. And, of course, she does have biomods. No sign he has any of his own, no sign he’s on amp now, even if he stopped being smart enough not to take his own product. Maybe he thinks he’s going to get a bolt of inspiration, maybe he just thinks he’s going to get her in bed. Neither one is going to happen.
“Tom.” She reaches up and puts a hand against his shoulder, and keeps her tone pleasant. “Right now you’re my friendly acquaintance the drug dealer, okay? Let’s not ruin that good impression.” She ramps up her strength just enough that when she squeezes his shoulder it’s balanced right between nice to see you, old buddy and I will snap you like balsa.
He makes a pained noise, stepping back hurriedly and rubbing his shoulder. “I’m just trying to help,” he mutters.
“If I make a deal with Yvonne, I’ll send you a sales commission for giving me her name.” She steps out of the cafe. “I hope things turn around for you, Tom.”
She can hear him mutter get yours, fuckin’ rat bitch under his breath, but she doesn’t turn around.
The “small craft” docks are part of Port Panorica, the official name of the spaceport operation, but they’re a separate facility from the real spaceport, the one for long-range passenger craft. Some go across the whole River, and when Earth or Mars and Ceres—the reference point all the platforms match their orbits to—are close enough, weekly passenger liners run to one or both planets. Gail’s only been to it a few times. Once she bought Kismet she stopped flying on intra-River passenger craft, and she’s never been on a long run ship. But she’s watching one of them now. It docked last night, a cruiser from Earth or Mars, and it’ll be heading out later tonight. It looks like a cylindrical station in miniature; she wonders how many passengers puke when they go from full gravity to zero, then get slowly brought back up to point-eight for the rest of the trip.
She’s watching from Kismet’s cockpit, knowing this is wasting time and that she needs to do the research she’d hoped Ansel would do for her. Problem: she doesn’t even know what she needs to research. Okay, she found Keces-Okita, but so what? What does that tell her? She can’t work backwards from where the databox was supposed to be, can she?
Keces-Okita has a few competitors, but they’re much smaller, and it looks like most of them actually buy equipment from a different Keces division. Despite Ansel’s suspicion, she remains dubious that the transportation industry—at least this corner of it—is a hotbed of corporate intrigue and murder.
Okay. If they knew what it was, this thing would be valuable enough for the dark courier operation to screw their own client. But that’s not what happened. The ship’s crew was killed. So Keces might have sent someone with the databox on the courier ship, but whoever they sent was actually a double-agent, working for the thieves.
Why the hell leave a wreck at all? Why not wait to steal it after it got to Panorica? That’d be much simpler, much less risky, and it wouldn’t attract the attention of, well, people like her. What does having done it this way accomplish?
She rubs her face. What if it was supposed to attract the attention of people like her? What if the plan was to focus Nakimura’s attention on a salvage operator, letting the real thief get somewhere past Keces’ reach while they were busy making her life miserable?
No. No, that would mean Randall was in on it, that he helped set her up. She doesn’t know what he’s been doing the last twenty years, but even if he’d become a criminal mastermind, she can’t imagine he’d come across her name on a list of salvors and think yeah, why not make my childhood buddy the patsy for all this?
Gail looks back out at the passenger cruiser. Then she frowns.
Somewhere past Keces’ reach.
“Kis,” she says slowly, “when does that ship leave?”
“The Starliner Supera departs for Earth at eighteen hundred forty-five, two hours and fifty-three minutes from now. Final boarding is two hours and twenty-three minutes from now.”
“Crap.” She gets up and hurries toward the ship’s door, grabbing her jacket on the way, throwing it on as the door closes behind her. “Send me a passenger list as soon as you can, filtering out anyone who’s mentioned the trip on any of their social feeds.”
She’s not going through the terminal lobby so fast that she doesn’t catch sight of Suspicious Detective out of the corner of her eye. Other side of the open space, different clothes to look less obvious, not quite facing her direction, looking down at a smart paper in his lap as if it’s the most interesting thing in the solar system. It’s him, though. How long has he been there? Did he report on her going in? He’ll sure report on her leaving, running out of her ship like her tail’s on fire.
So far he’s staying interested in that paper, not so much as glancing toward her, no sign he might follow her out of the lobby. He’s just a casual random guy who comes to small craft spaceports to hang out and read.
Is it worth trying to lose him? If he tells her buddy Jason she’s going to the main spaceport, he’s going to start shitting kittens. But what’s he going to do? Order Mr. Detective to take her down? She’s not going to go to any ticket counters, not going to make an attempt to get on the cruiser. She doubts you can even do that on this short notice. She’s just following a hunch. A hunch she can’t turn into anything actionable besides “start profiling people waiting for the cruiser to see if they look like thieves,” but it’s the best hunch she has.
But Suspicious Detective is following a suspect, too: her. Even if she doesn’t try to get on board, she might try to hand the databox they think she has off to a partner in crime. Well, let him think what he wants. Losing him would be temporary anyway; the main spaceport is going to be full of public feed cameras. Hell, maybe he’s staking out Kismet, to see if anyone comes to meet her. She hopes he’s disappointed his life choices have brought him here.
Gail steps through the terminal’s exit doors and someone grabs her from the side.
“What the—” She can’t finish the curse before she gets slammed against the wall. Hard. It’s Guy Two, and this time he has his biomechanics engaged. Of course.
“Kind of in a hurry, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I kind of am,” she wheezes. If he’s got the typical cop package, she knows just how strong he is, how fast, and what other enhancements she’s facing. No guarantee he hasn’t gone a la carte, but he doesn’t come across as the creative type. Unfortunately, since he has the jump on her, she can’t strong-arm her way out of this.
“You wanna share where?”
No, of course not, you idiot. Well, no. Maybe she does. Sometimes honesty’s the most confusing policy. “To the main spaceport to try and catch the real thief.”
He sneers. “Yeah, sure you are. Nakimura’s already told us you wanna go there so you can run.”
“For God’s sake, use your head. If I was going there to run, I wouldn’t have just told you that’s where I’m going, would I?”
His brow furrows.
“I think someone’s going to run, but it’s not me. You can either let me go, or you can let somebody take your damn databox off the River entirely because you wanna butt heads with me. Which is it?”
He takes a very, very long time to consider that. “Okay, rat girl,” he finally says. “I’ll go check it out. You stay here.”
Something jabs her in the side. Her vision goes to static and she can feel things in her switching off. Everything turns to blue-white electric pain.