– 5 –
“Was just thinking about you the other day, D.” Jacobs leaned over the phronium, examining each through a multi-lens in his hand. “Business has been picking up. All different kinds.” He went from capsule to capsule, his head bobbing like a poult pecking rocks. Finally he straightened up and directed a satisfied gaze toward Derringer. “I could put you to work if you’ve got the time.”
For a moment the only sound came from Derringer’s index finger tapping the tabletop. He was smirking as he drew in a breath. “Little or big?”
“I’ve got both. What do you want?”
“I’ve had action lately… but I’ll take something on, so long as it doesn’t send me to the shipping docks.”
“Easy breezy, D. I’ve got just the thing for a man of your talents.”
– 6 –
From her place at the table of honor, Soleil could see nearly everyone attending, both extended family and intimate court. Many of these found reasons to stop by during dinner to exchange oblique words of opinion. There were warm reunions as well, enough to add genuine pleasure to the evening. As these weren’t official court visits, no weighty matters were brought to her plate, so to speak. Those went to the Queen. People came to the Princess to talk about the future, show loyalty, and express hopes.
She ate enough between courtesies so that she wasn’t hungry, though they had taken the game hen away from her untouched. She’d watched it go regretfully. But while dinner was over and the plates were still being cleared, she had a moment to breathe.
Soleil looked from face to face, gauging what moods had changed since the beginning of the night. She met eyes with Arkuda, the Dragon Councillor. He wore his courtly form, slightly larger than the size of a man, sunrise-golden scales gleaming on his torso and head. Soleil nodded to him, showing a trace of a smile. He lifted his scale-clad hand in greeting before continuing his conversation with the Orconian natural resources director seated next to him. She would see her teacher and friend again in a few days to resume their study.
She wouldn’t presume about Dragon friendship, but Arkuda had been her steady mentor for over ten years, and probably knew more of her mind than anyone besides her grandmother. As the sole ambassador of his people to the court, and special advisor in a great many matters, that he chose to have her as a student was a blessing not lost on her.
Maybe it was all the time recently spent in tiny hill villages, but there was a strange current running through the room. It felt like someone she couldn’t see was trying to find her.
– 7 –
The front gate of Jacobs’ house buzzed for a few long seconds, and Derringer eased out of the doorway into the morning light. His feet fell onto the pavement and turned him north, toward the residential blocks past the market streets. The business day had already begun, with transport cars and service rigs filling the aerial roadways. There were a few clouds in the sky, but it was going to be another gorgeous day.
Despite his preference, he stuck to the main walkways. Gentlemen who look as sharp as he did are always headed somewhere in a hurry. Jacobs had a tailor fit him into a new suit last night, just the thing to wear under high-profile security in the financial district.
It was part of the deal that his cargo not get aboard any vehicles or vessels on the way. No taxis. The simplest systems contain the fewest errors. It was a fine day for a walk anyhow, and he took his time through the mostly empty neighborhoods.
The facades got fancier as he came into the money part of town. The buildings doubled and tripled in height, and now he shared the walkways with steady streams of office goers. Derringer cut through a multi-level car park. Shunning the elevator, he took two flights of stairs up to the next street.
Iljen Square. He stopped in front of an azure-tinted window to check the time on his borrowed wristwatch. The square was the size of a city block, and the Monument seemed to fill it all, a great calculating dome of information rising from its center. They’d unveiled it four years ago, and it was a huge deal, big breakthrough accomplishment for Aquariid-human engineering. Derringer had only seen it once before. The weather was still friendly, and he was running early. He sat himself on a nearby bench to take it in.
It was like a great fountain, but instead of water, in the air hung a three-dimensional constellation of information. Within its visual hemispheres spun layers of data. There were projections for every planet of the Pan-Galaxy, with tickertape lines threading everywhere between, showing shipping and trade data, stocks, politics, even jokes. This was all changing position according to a logic that Derringer could see but not understand. He just let his mind wander from one tidbit to the next. A little girl, parents in tow, screamed amusement as she passed her hand through a seemingly solid planet. His watch beeped at him. Monument Synchronize? He tapped its corner. No, thank you. But it was time to go.
“The other end of this delivery is at the Massey-Sonnes Hotel at Iljen Square, in a suite accessible only by private elevator. You’re the guest of Ms. Karma Ilacqua, tell the front desk she’s expecting you. They’ll send you up. She’s the only one supposed to be there, as much for their good as ours. She’s gonna plug it in, read and verify the data, and when she says thank you, you go. That’s all that needs to happen.” With that, Casper Jacobs had shut the metal case with the data key in it and slipped it into Derringer’s breast pocket.
There was a lot that could go wrong. The contingencies were so numerous that they couldn’t be planned. No wonder Jacobs had saved this gig for him.
They stopped in front of reflective metal portals. The bellhop, a young guy who looked like a card shark, faced them as he spoke. “You’re going to Ambassador’s Suite 7. Ms. Ilacqua has not informed us that you require guest access, so once you leave the suite you cannot return without authorization.” Derringer flicked his eyes over to the bellhop, who wasn’t looking at him, and nodded.
His reflection gleamed back at him, framed in one of the portal doorways. At a little taller than average, he stood sturdy, on a well-used frame. His face was friendly, no-nonsense, with a full mustache and curling brown hair. In this suit, he looked like he’d stepped off his own stellar yacht.
The frame he was gazing into lit up, and the panel slid open with a slight vacuum suck. At the bellhop’s gesture, Derringer stepped inside. “Enjoy your time at the Massey-Sonnes Hotel, sir. Let us know if we can be of any assistance.” He looked over his shoulder, meeting the bellhop’s eyes. The ovoid elevator opening slid shut, and the chamber detached out from the building with a barely noticeable vibration. As it lifted out and up, Derringer turned to the glass walls to watch the square disappear below.
– 8 –
The last few attendees were ushered to their seats in the Auditorium Salon. It was a small, fully-fitted theater with royal accoutrements. A 16-piece orchestra sat at the foot of the velvet-curtained stage. Princess Soleil sat midway to the left in the front row, with her cousin Margeaux on one side and her grandmother the Queen on the other. The musicians continued tuning while people settled in their seats.
Margeaux leaned towards her cousin. “Did you get enough to eat?”
“Only just,” Soleil spoke in a stage whisper. “Did you try the teriyaki fish thing?”
“That was pretty good. But I liked the game hen.”
A hush descended through the room. The lights dimmed, and the curtains opened to reveal the performer at center stage. She wore primitive but graceful lizard buckskin dress armor, her hair a bushy black mane over copper skin.
The Huntresses’ Aria begins with a soloist who plays Lysha, amazon of ancient Iza. She sings of her tribe and the night hunt. When a terrible murder is discovered, the song turns into a bloodthirsty battle cry. Soleil knew the piece, part of the larger Erris of Rahm. It was one of her favorites. She turned her head to smile at her grandmother. Queen Celeste returned it warmly before pinning her eyes on the stage.
Mara Kamini joked that she had performed for half the Pan-Galaxy, and the other half didn’t like opera. When she was invited to perform at an Imperial event, she cancelled other scheduled shows, pouring herself into the Huntresses’ Aria. She took pains in finding the other singers, for the piece was notorious for falling apart in the transition from solo to chorale. Three months later, she found herself twenty-five feet from the attention of Her Vast Eminence and the royal family. She could not remember how to begin. The Queen and the Princess shared a smile, and the court began to focus on her. Kamini felt a wave of helplessness and desperation rise larger than she could overcome. She met eyes with the Queen, opened her mouth, and let it out.
– 9 –
The private elevator door, the only way into and out of the suite, slid open. A slight figure of a woman in a grey wool suit stood at the desk, her fingers on its surface while her face was turned looking out the window. Immediately Derringer recognized something about her body that made him narrow his eyes. When she turned her face to greet him, he realized where he’d seen her.
Like him, she was much better dressed than before. Her eyes registered a shadow of surprise, and she quirked her lip. She studied him, poised, for a moment longer. “You have something for me,” she stated.
“Yes I do. Delivered on foot, as requested.” Derringer continued to stare at the small capitol woman with red hair. Three days ago when she’d passed him in the Diplomat’s Quarter, she resembled a housewife on her errands. But she was in fact the contact for the other end of this delivery. He waited for her to say something. She could be drawing conclusions, just as he was.
She opened a soft briefcase sitting on the desk chair, withdrawing a computer the size of her hand. “Bring it here, lay it on the desk.” Derringer fished the mini safe from inside his breast pocket. He came close enough to leave it on the corner. His nerves were jangling. An alarm was going off, and he couldn’t pin it on this lady, or the situation. She looked a little on edge herself.
She aligned the devices and switched them on. A hemisphere of floating words and icons sprang into the air a foot tall above the desk, a tiny replica of the Iljen Monument. Jacobs said the data storage had program locks and tamper checks, and these had to green light at the other end in order to complete the delivery. She manipulated these elements into place, going through programs and items that Derringer couldn’t guess, never mind that he’d never seen a computer like that before.
“What do you have there? Is that hooked into the Monument?”
She glanced at him sidelong while she continued arranging data. “It can be. Just like that watch you’re wearing. It isn’t, right now.” She continued arranging and relating programs. “It’s its own system. Prototype model, not on the market yet. It has… its points and kinks, but I’d say the development is useful. I keep finding new things I can do with it.” She stopped herself. “How was your walk?”
“Good weather and nothing but strangers.”
“That’s good to hear.” She tapped a few things into place and straightened, turning to him and leaning against the chair. “This will be a few minutes.” She looked him in the eyes for a breath, sizing him up. “Would you like a drink?” She pointed toward a bottle of golden-brown spirit, two glasses next to it.
The brandy was a good label, he’d had it before on remarkable occasions. Derringer nodded and stood at ease. “Yes, thanks.” He watched her pour. Her nails were electroplated, with glowing phronium tips.
He took the glass when she held it out to him at arm’s length. She really was petite, disarmingly so, like a fairy woman. But she held an immense and dangerous electricity. He took a sip and licked his lips. This stuff was old-fashioned, but he liked it.
“I’m assuming deliveries aren’t your main line of work.”
“What makes you assume that?”
“You look like a man who does a great many things,” she said, pacing a half-circle around him with her drink in hand. “Usually alone. Though never without help.” Derringer didn’t bother to reply. She cracked a smile. “Sorry if I’m teasing you. It just… I know the type.” She looked bemused, sipping from her glass.
He rose to the bait. “You can call me Derringer.” He stuck out his hand. She stepped forward and took it with a ladylike grip.
“Karma,” she said with a smile.