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.”

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.

Section 14

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.

11

The data on Karma’s display turned green all at once, and collapsed into a single flashing dot. Her computer and the safe emitted a small beep. As she reached toward them, a hovercar dropped into view, and the window wall by the bed exploded in shards.

Derringer hit the floor and looked up. Karma, crouching, reached up and grabbed both devices from the desktop. “I thought you weren’t followed,” she shouted as she took cover. From her jacket she withdrew a custom automatic pistol.

Derringer lunged over to the portal and slapped the frame, calling the elevator. A few bullets struck the frame and the wall nearby. “Did you ask yourself that question?” He got himself behind a corner in time to hear her fire three shots.

Sticking his head out to look, he saw both men down, one conscious. “I saw it as an eventuality,” said Karma, reholstering her piece. She sent him a wink before crossing the room and withdrawing a rocket launcher from under the bed. Firing from her shoulder, the rocket plumed a white smoke trail to where it collided with the hovercar outside.

Section 11

They felt the waves from the explosion as the flier fell from view. Karma dropped her weapon and headed for the elevator just as the frame illuminated and the door slipped open. Derringer launched himself after her and they were in together.

Through the elevator’s glass walls, he could see the wreckage thirty floors below amidst a growing crowd. The sound of sirens was approaching from a distance. Karma glanced over at him with her computer in hand. “Jacobs warned you, right? He should have.”

“When he hires me, it goes without saying.” A thin red beam stretched itself from her device to the middle of the elevator ceiling as she set another program in motion. “Who’s paying the bill for this? Cause it surely isn’t me.”

“Either my people, who booked the room, or their people, who blew it up. We’ll see!” The elevator detached itself from the building, but instead of going down its appointed route to the ground floor, they headed round to the other side of the building. Her computer chimed, the beam disappearing as she slipped it back into her jacket.

“Where is this going?” asked Derringer.

“Service entrance,” she replied. He relaxed, loosening his joints and smiling a little. This could be fun. He was empty-handed, only a minor disadvantage. When you need a weapon, there’s usually something at hand.

Karma turned to face him. “I can get us out. Stick with me till we’re clear, then you’re free as a bird.” Derringer nodded, though he intended to learn a little more about what he was just dodging bullets for.

The moment the door began to open, they squeezed through and took off down a hallway packed with cleaning carts, linen piles, open supply closet doors and people. Karma was nimble even in her boots, and Derringer enlarged her wake. One man attempted to get in their way, and Karma dodged past while Derringer lightly flipped him down.

Karma tapped a code into her computer. Ahead of them at the end of the hall, the door to the service elevator shaft slid open. “Going down?” Derringer yelled.

“Yes.”

“Is there a hook slider in there?”

She flashed him a look. “Yes.” Must have thought she was the only one here who’d ever planned an elevator escape. The sounds of confusion were rising behind them.

“I’ll take it, then, you hang onto me.”

After a pause, she nodded. “Okay. It’s on the right.” Derringer caught the edge of the opening, with his left hand finding the maintenance rappel device against the wall of the shaft. He hooked it up with the center of the cable, jamming the lever down to keep it steady. With one side, he hung onto the hook slider. Karma stepped into his other arm, hanging onto his shoulders and wrapping around his free leg. He could feel the pistol under her jacket against his side. He jammed the lever up, the door closing as they dropped out of sight.

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.

Section 9

“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.

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.

Section 7

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.