20

Residential ramparts ran along both sides of the aqueduct waterway, sunlight still touching their uppermost stories. The water ran slowly between two high fences, contained in its hardstone channel.

A boy sat on a bench at the base of the channel wall. He’d seen people on his way here, but now the area was empty. A beetle droned past, which meant that someone might have fruit trees on the rooftops. He scanned around for public access stairways, but couldn’t see any on this side. That didn’t rule out the possibility.

He gazed at the upper rooftops, taking in the last of the light. A sunstrip gleamed bronze, transporting the sunlight into subterranean depths. He withdrew half a sandwich from his schoolboy’s pack. It was gone in short order and he stretched, shouldering his bag again. He felt almost full.

Looking up and down the channel, he turned away from the sunset toward an alley leading out from the aqueduct. Before he could find a stair to the rooftop, or someone who knew where one was, there came a causeway leading into the bedrock. Down it he went.

The temperature dropped, hardstone giving way to natural hewn stone walls. There were more people in the belowstreets here, where the sunstrips spread their illumination through branching networks around doorways and windows. More and more people were ending their workdays, crossing between levels above and below.

He scanned the crowd as he walked, noticing a couple boys leaning against the wall of an alcove. They were older, both wearing dark jumpsuits covered in pockets. The moment he met the eyes of the one at the corner, they grinned wolfishly.

Section 20

“Where you going in such a hurry?” said the boy who’d met his eye. Tattoos peeked out from both sides of his collar.

“Nowhere,” said the boy, getting out the main walkway. A few Aquarii passed behind him, mantislike legs clicking against the stone, head-tendrils waving.

“So, take a load off.” They sized him up, from his bag where he set it on the ground, to his clothes which were none too fresh. They were just playing, and he played back. The three of them narrated stories about passersby until a girl stopped in to visit.

She had an Aquari projection orb. They sat on the ground and passed it around. She was adept with it, intricate and luminous colorscapes rising from the orb in her hands. A few stopped to watch. She held it out to the boy in a scene of turquoise and silver filigree. When his fingers touched it, a series of orange polygons bounced and tumbled through, colliding with each other and exploding in puffs. They broke into laughter.

“Do you all want to come to the Valley?” she said playfully. The two in jumpsuits smiled, and seeing them, the boy nodded as well. She rose, brushing dust off her rag-stitched skirt and placing the orb in a belt pouch. Without another word, they followed her lead.

After following for miles of alleys and innumerable corners, ladders, and staircases, he found himself tagging along, ready to locate his whereabouts should he need to. This might have troubled him, but he decided the only way they might actually get there was if he stopped worrying about it. He was having a good time along the way.

The four of them occasionally emerged onto the surface, popping up in different neighborhoods. He lost count of the new faces he’d met at the houses and porches where they stopped to talk. Their smiles grew wide. Finally, they went through a door that looked like any other door, and he realized they’d arrived.

In a mudroom decorated with lights and branches they took off their shoes, adding them to the small mountain of footwear. Stepping in from there, he felt his soles touch soil and grass. Astonished, he looked up straight into the night sky. This was a courtyard, an orchard brimming with gardens, all lit by lamps and lights hanging from the trees. Heads turned to see them enter, and the four of them raised their hands in greeting.

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19

The place sat amidst other medium buildings its size, an ordinary metal-and-glass affair that reflected the last glow of afternoon. The address was its only sign, though there were traces of past businesses. The first floor windows were blacked out. Derringer tossed a ring of keys from hand to hand. “Well, this looks promising.”

Fred DeWalt leaned toward the detective. “Do you think it’s a trap?”

“Only insofar as working for a woman like that is a trap. No, this is for you to use. Just like the hover.” He turned halfway to look at the gleaming, new-model stock racing flier behind them.

Section 19

“Stars afire, Derringer,” said Chad, adjusting his glasses, “when he drove this up I thought it must be the boss’ car. And then she hands us the keys. To a Griffen.”

The detective showed a wide grin through his mustache. “Tools to your advantage. You found yourselves a good game here, don’t be afraid to play it. Savor this moment. You’re aces!”

“What about you, D?” asked Chad as they walked to the door.

“…I’m aces too, yeah.” He almost started laughing. “Trust me. But this is your gig.” He fit the key into the door, which unlocked smoothly. He looked up at the side of the building. “What do you think this place was? Newspaper?”

“Old insurance company.” The other two men looked at Fred, who’d spoken. He shrugged, they shrugged, and they all went in, leaving no sign of themselves but the shining white Sibley Griffen out front.

18

“So you want us to figure out who it was went after you at the handoff.” Chad Dremel, wearing both hat and sunglasses, spoke from the loveseat in the front room of Col’s safe house. “Why? It’s not our uh, expertise. You’d know better than we would.”

Section 18

“That’s just it. I thought I knew all the players who would be after this research, but that attack and the way it was done doesn’t make sense for any of them. Because you know nothing about this scenario, you might be able to figure out something I couldn’t.” Karma Ilacqua leaned against the table. “Besides, their attempt failed, and I don’t have time to go chasing down every Jack and Jill who tries to trip me in the hallway.” Her eyes gleamed. “But I’m curious.”

Dremel turned his head to DeWalt sitting next to him. They read each other’s faces for a few seconds. DeWalt tilted his black pate and looked over at the business woman. “We’ll need an office.”

Smirking, she glanced at the detective before looking back at them. “I’ve got an office you can use.”

17

A small cohort of kids filed in through the door to the viewstudy, a teacher shepherding from their midst. The room was empty of seating; instead, bright cushions and stuffed animals formed an inviting pile in the center of the floor. The curved window wall was set to transparency, with the view of Capital City as backdrop.

Three remote cameras lifted off a high shelf and began hovering around the room like lazy winged mice. Everyone made themselves comfortable, the teacher on a large cushion at the back of the group. When all eight children had settled, she smiled directly at the camera blinking red.

“Good morning, Rocketeers! We’re so glad you could join us here at the Pan-Galactic Imperial Court on Alisandre.” She radiated eager warmth, her curling golden hair seemingly reflecting it. “Today, Prince Cristobal is going to tell us about the ten federets of the Pan-Galaxy.” The body of another camera turned red as it transmitted a close-up of a young boy of about twelve. He looked like his oldest sister, dark-haired and pale, though his eyes were grey like his father’s. Quiet and self-possessed, he nodded at the camera. “Sir Prince, thank you for sharing. The floor is yours.”

Section 17

He smiled briefly, rising from where he sat at the edge of the group. He was tall for his age, and the black-with-gold garb that he wore made him look taller. From his pocket he withdrew a data chip, which he inserted into a console by the side of the window wall. The center panel turned a flat white, and he stood in front of it, notecards in hand.

“The Pan-Galactic Imperium is divided into ten parts, or federets.” Behind him, a red circle drew itself against the white backdrop. Lines crisscrossed it to divide the pie into ten pieces, which separated to array themselves around the Prince’s silhouette. “The Imperial planet of Alisandre is separate from these, to better serve as a neutral governing body. This means each federet is equally important.” A red dot appeared above the ten dispersed shapes, encircled by a line of gold.

He was reserved, if not shy; but his voice stayed steady and his diction clear. “Each federet is a common sense group of planets and galaxies. Some were formed when they became part of the Imperium. Others have been regrouped depending on population and transport accessibility.” The diagrams rearranged themselves around him, illustrating the changes he spoke of, each shape taking on its own new color.

As the Prince described each federet, the teacher shifted her gaze from him to the city view on either side of the screen. He’d been her pupil for almost six years now, and he always lit up when the topic came to worlds outside the court, especially the distant edges of the Imperium. His usual reservations would melt away. Even now, he became more animated as he sprinkled the cut-and-dry presentation with some favorite gems.

His oldest sister would rule, but as the first boy and third child of the family, his destiny was very much in his hands. For now, he could only repeat the canonical histories as they were taught to him. As his teacher, she could feel his yearning for original knowledge from outside his sheltered world. She had a feeling he would find it, soon enough.

16

Derringer peered down the sight of the assault rifle into the corner of the room. He butted the stock against his chest to feel the hard spring in it. After working a few of the actions and feeling them click smoothly, he lay the rifle down on the large wooden desktop next to the lady’s pistol. He looked over at the man holding the shotgun.

Section 16

It was a short-barreled type, with a carved stock in wood. The man holding it was tall, and wore a stern face behind dark spectacles. His short black hair was decidedly unruly. He checked to make sure the chambers were empty before leaning it over to Derringer’s scrutiny.

Derringer turned to inspect, one hand on the desk. The condition of it was unnaturally new for its design; some parts must have been re-machined. “Col, that thing belongs in a museum.”

“That’d be a shame, considering it still does what it was made to do, as well as it’s ever done it.” Col withdrew the shotgun possessively and set it back in its case. He clicked the snap shut and elevated it back to its former place on a high shelf. “One of my daddy’s daddies back down the line was a gunsmith. We keep it in working order.”

“Yeah, and did your great-great-grandpap sell to all sides?”

“Actually, yeah.”

A hallway door opened and shut, footsteps approached. Karma entered the study, going straight to the cabinet to pull out three glasses and a carafe of golden whisky.

Derringer squinted at her. “Did you just change?” She was now wearing a black turtleneck sweater instead of her suit jacket.

“Perceptive of you. Yes, I did.” She poured them each a drink. Derringer looked from her, to where she came from, to Col, and just blinked. When she offered a glass, he took it with a nod.

She handed the other to Col. “That attempt to steal this data was so… rent-a-wreck. I’m slightly insulted by whoever thought it would be that easy.” Col smirked, taking a sip while Karma gestured with her glass. “Who would be so amateur, yet able to risk so much and walk away with nothing?”

Col polished his sunglasses, inspecting them in the light from the window before putting them back on. “Fortuity?”

“No, Irons wouldn’t dream of sending in that sort of skeleton crew. That isn’t her style. If it were her, we would’ve needed the safety net. As it was, your guys never got involved, did they?” Karma tilted her head at Col.

He shook his head. “Didn’t have to. What you saw was it. You took out the thugs and the hover. Hotel and emergency cleaned it up. We just watched.” A smirk curved at the corners of his face.

Derringer finished the last of the whisky, setting the glass down with a loud clack. “You had guys on this?” He pointed at Col.

“I know, when does Col hire anybody.” He shrugged again. “Right timing, good pay for easy service.”

“You’re welcome,” Karma shot in his direction.

“You are also welcome,” deadpanned Col. He finished his glass and left it on the desk next to Derringer’s.

Karma swirled her last sip and drank it down. “When do you think those two will be here?” This she aimed towards Derringer.

“Chad and Fred? Ten, twenty minutes. They pick up easy, and I’m sure they were impressed with your dj skills. But I warned you, they’re only sort of competent.”

“That’s perfectly alright,” she murmured, staring into nothing. She flashed Derringer a self-consciously charming smile and kept her mouth shut. He picked up her gun and handed it to her, holding it by the barrel. She reached toward it, eyebrows raised, and grabbed it. “Are you done looking at that?” It went back in her side holster with a pat.

“One of a kind, isn’t it?”

“That’s right.”

“What do you think of those?” Col asked, pointing at the assault rifle on the desk.

Derringer eyed the rifle from end to end. “The mechanics are smooth, but it feels light. Even flimsy… where are they from?”

“Don’t let the weight fool you. The recoil is like a feather in the wind. I have two shipments and no regrets. Made on Geris.”

“Geris… the crude ore planet?” Col nodded.

Karma was rearranging the vase of flowers on the windowsill. There was still sunlight in the day, and it lit her hair in a flaming halo. Black knee-high boots elevated her a tiny bit above her tiny stature. Derringer wasn’t fooled. “Cobra lilies,” she said, “that’s what this bouquet is missing. Col, where did you get these.” Derringer’s eyebrows lifted at the imperative in her tone.

“The Array. I was shopping there the other day.” Col’s face was inscrutable.

“Well, this florist is okay, but…” Her voice drifted off, one hand on her chin, one on her hip, still facing the vase. Her gaze was aimed out the window. “Cobra lilies.”

“I know where to find those,” Col said from where he stood.

Karma faced them, a closed smile from ear to ear. From behind her the sound of doors opening and shutting. Derringer nodded to the other two and headed to the entrance. “I know that van.”