– 14 –
Four of spades. Jack of diamonds. Two men leaned back in identical office chairs, their feet propped up on either end of the institutional metal desk. They took turns tossing cards face up into a hat on the floor between them. The room was small, not much more than a basement supply closet, but it had ambient ceiling light, and the wall com was working fine. The sounds of a traveler string duo piped in, just loud enough to hear.
Three of spades. Six of diamonds. “Think you’re gonna miss the official headquarters?” This from the slender, pale blond wearing sunglasses. He wasn’t tall, nor short, but he did look like he would bruise if you poked him. The sunglasses were mirrored, his eyes not visible.
“Come on.” Ace of diamonds. This man was tall, with a bald head of deep brown skin, solid but not heavy. “Business was terrible. Nobody wanted to hire the guys working out of the old supply closet, no matter how nice they made it in the remodel. No, I won’t be looking back.” Everything that wasn’t furniture or part of the walls was gathered in three boxes, including a pile of com relay displays.
Five of hearts. “Easy for you to say. We’re not moving the office into your apartment.”
Ten of spades. “I can’t afford an apartment.”
Nine of hearts. “You just stay in mine and don’t pay rent.”
Queen of clubs. “I could, but we’re saving up for another office, remember. That’s my savings account,” said the dark man, pointing to his chest.
Ten of clubs. “You mean your ex-wife’s.”
Seven of spades. “I earned that settlement. I didn’t cheat.”
Two of clubs. “You sure did. And you never do.”
Seven of clubs. “Oh what, did you like that one?”
Two of spades. “I like all of ’em, you’re a bastard and I can’t stand the sight of you.”
Ace of clubs. “Can’t stand the sight of myself sometimes, it makes me wonder when I’m gonna get flunked.”
“DeWalt, the sad thing is I think you’re passing with flying colors.”
The radio string music was sliced in half by a screech, and the volume rose as the channels seemed to tune themselves. Both men looked at the wall console.
“I’m on your line, idiots. Did you turn off your ringer?”
They looked at each other. The dark one, DeWalt, made a face. “Sounds like Derringer.”
“I didn’t turn it off,” said wavy blond hair. “Anyway, Derringer. Why are you talking this way. What’s going on.” He threw the three of hearts into the felt brim hat.
“Listen Dremel,” the voice warped, white noise cutting in and out, “I’ve got a pretty big deal in the room here with me, and we need you to show up.” A few strange warbles came through, none of which made sense.
The slender blond leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Last day on this line, bud. You’re lucky you found us here.”
“No, I’m not,” the incoming voice whistled, “you have absolutely no where else to be. Sending the address.” The five working com relays in the box lit up, showing a new message stored.
Dremel sat up, taking his shoes off the desk. “Is that you doing that? Have you learned some new tricks? I didn’t think it possible.”
“Not me. The people I’m working with -” He was cut off by a twenty second drum solo. With a couple sonic slashes, the system reconnected to a pop channel that made both men wince.
“Okay then.” The pale blond Dremel stood, smoothing back his hair with one hand, while adjusting his tie with the other. He bent down and picked up the hat, emptying the cards out onto the floor.
– 15 –
The oncoming sunrise and still-visible moonset balanced each other on opposing edges of the horizon. The grassy slope on one side of the little airlot was just beginning to brighten. Two old friends crossed it towards each other.
Walking part of the way, the wiry, medium-height man crossed his arms, smiling. He angled his chin toward the healthy, muscled blonde throwing her arms open. “Gretz Manoukian, what brings you to Southerpart?” She gave him a tight squeeze and a pat on the back, which he endured with a stoic grin.
“Eyyy, same as you. Unloading government stock.” They stood a few feet apart, facing the changing sky. The breeze smelled of evaporating moisture, and color rose softly.
“How long you staying down here on Genoe?”
“Hey, until I feel restless. I’m paid. You?”
“Yup, I saw the credits hit the account, but I’ll keep moving on. Treat you to breakfast roast? Heard they’re grilling wild runner hens out behind the saloon.”
He turned to face her with a stretchy grin. “If that’s so, you just made my day.” They crossed the airlot together.
Wendel Harper called out as they approached the grillmaster. “Jay, it’s you doing these birds? Is that gunpowder again for the seasoning?”
“Yep. It’s been all head shots lately, but sometimes you miss the taste of scattershot in the body.” He set down his grill poker and caught Wendel in a hug. He and Gretz shared a nod.
“I’ll have one and he’ll have one. Gunpowder’s got all the vitamins and minerals we need.” Jay set to finishing two nearly done birds.
Gretz leaned against the wall. “What’s the news in Southerpart?”
“Well, you know about the livestock failure. They think it’s some rare pollen spread happening planetwide. None of the Aquarii wanted to hang around. Maybe they figured they’d be susceptible.” Jay watched the food cook. “Decent business for those of us who can hunt the planet birds and buzzers. Wouldn’t call it easy living, though.”
“Well anyway,” said Wendel, running a hand over her short hair, “these flocks have got a new fancy-tech innoculant. The bio-imm team sounded pretty confident, so let’s hope they know what they’re doing.”
“Yep. Glad you could bring ’em.” Jay picked up two sticks and offered one in each hand to both of them. “Least I can do is make you breakfast. Gratis.” He hissed a drawn-out S through his teeth. An old man and woman rounded the corner arm in arm, clearly following their noses. Jay smiled and turned the other birds on the grill. Wendel and Gretz raised their food in salute and turned to go.
The two sat on the grassy slope, each biting at the small elongated runnerbird on its skewer. Between them, an open infosheet lay on the grass. This paperweight cloth received Wendel Harper’s subscriptions daily, and bundled or crumpled nice and tight in any pocket she happened to stuff it into. She rustled it flat with a hand, and set it to the daily issue that covered the inhabited planets in the Leuko Galaxy.
“Genesee is coping with major geothermal disruptions. Elections this year for the Genoene Council.” She read headlines aloud when they struck her interest. Gretz Manoukian stared into the sky and ate his breakfast. “Princess Soleil is back from her Alisandrian tour. The hunt for Raev Sturlusson continues.” The sun had fully risen, shining directly into their eyes. She shook it by its corner and the sheet went blank. “I think that’s enough news for now.”
– 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.
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?”
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?”
“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.”
– 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.”
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.
– 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.”
“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.”