60

The light streamed through the holes in the cave ceiling as it bounced off the pool of water and onto the walls. Past where her toes dabbled, Karma Ilacqua watched gold and white fish nibble larva from the surface.

60

“We’ve been lucky twice already.” She sipped her fizzy beverage and looked sidelong at the mustached detective. “With finding the system taproot, and unearthing the Hoopoe in that tent. Blasted kid, sending us on a goose chase.”

Derringer aimed a level gaze at her from where he sat in his shorts under a ray of sunlight. “What do you expect, he’s from here.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry you didn’t learn that sooner. We got a little worried, but he’s going to hold up his end after all.”

“You think so?”

“Oh yeah, he wouldn’t have boarded the jet at all otherwise.”

“You know – I helped this happen, but I still don’t really know what it was all about.”

“You wouldn’t want to. The clearance levels aren’t worth your trouble.”

Derringer leaned back against the knobbly-smooth cave wall and sipped his liquor. “I guessed that.”

“You’re not bad at doing the dirty work, Derringer.”

“My specialty, madame.” He raised his glass in a toast.

Karma cupped water in a hand and poured it over her legs. The computer projected a message to her right. “Our intrepid backup.” She keyed a sequence to show the incoming images without displaying their own. “Greetings, gentlemen. Do you find the compensation satisfactory?”

“Shit yes, Ms. Ilacqua. Shit yes.” Fred DeWalt’s reply piped in with satisfaction.

“Enjoy your new office. My associates and I may be in touch further down the line.”

Chad Dremel nudged his partner out of the screen space. “We’ll look forward to hearing from you. How’s Derringer down there on Lurin?”

Karma raised her eyebrow at the hint of envy, smirking at the detective. “He’s in tip-top shape, we’ve got it wrapped out here. I’ll let him know you were concerned.”

A suspicious pause from the security team. “Are you two just living the lush Lurin dream, or what?”

Derringer leaned over to speak. “We’re hiding in a dank little hole in the ground, Dremel. I’ll be sure and bring you pictures if we make it out of this trench alive.” He reached over and tapped the call closed.

Karma leaned towards him. “I’ll do my best to make sure that happens.”

“You can do your worst.”

40

“You’re from Aristyd – have you heard of the Pliskin Program?” The lean, pale man in hat and shades turned around to face his partner. He sat cross-legged in the office armchair.

“No.” His counterpart spoke from where he lay on the couch, studying an issue of Hover Life in his hands. It featured a Sibley Griffin on the cover.

“It’s a charity fund that builds and improves medical facilities on outer worlds, along with other small projects. Ilacqua, our boss, is employed by them as a Sites and Technology Researcher in the Project Development wing.”

40

DeWalt smirked without lifting his eyes from the magazine. “Which means she can go anywhere and get nosy.”

“I’m thinking she’s got bosses. There are a few above her in the funding scheme, though they’re not all in her department. It’s just one of Plexus Corp’s charity arms. Ravl Pliskin’s company.”

“Who’s he?”

“He set patents on the newer travelgate tech for the major inter-g routes. Made them as safe as they’ve ever been. Only one major accident since the Plexus modules were installed.” Dremel waited for acknowledgment of the achievement, but received none. “That was thirty-six years ago. Now, they’re the main equipment and tech supplier for all our transportation networks.”

DeWalt paused and looked up, furrowing his brow. “Wait, who did you say we were working for, Plixin?”

“Plexus.”

DeWalt cleared his throat. “What, PLEXUS?” He set the magazine aside. “You mean the name on every single drive archway, you see it flashing in and out like an optical illusion when it spins up into transmode?”

“Yeah, Fred. That’s who we’re working for.”

Fred DeWalt put his feet on the ground and leaned over his knees. He issued a chuckle. “Oh, no. No, we’re in deep shit now.”

Dremel put his hands in the air. “Now you understand?”

DeWalt kept laughing. “I don’t understand a damn thing, Dremel, and you know it.”

“I know, Fred. Dammit, I know.”

38

“What he meant, Mr. Dremel, is that Lurin has a masked planetwide network or three, and he wants you to connect to one of them. They connect and control all sorts of Can You Even Imagine. Either you’re more skilled than I gave you credit for, or he really is that desperate.”

“Probably both, Ms. Ilacqua.” He typed as he spoke, the displays above him changing views. Karma Ilacqua’s face was on none of them – voice calls seemed to be a habit of hers. Considered rude, but she’d let you know it wasn’t personal.

“I’m disappointed to hear his contact was awol, though not surprised. Derringer, I figured, could improvise. How he got himself lost is what I want to know.” Her smirk was audible. “He said he knew what he was getting into.”

“Well, you’ve heard the stories, haven’t you?”

“About what?”

“Lurin.”

A sigh came over the channel. “Mr. Dremel, I’ve heard them. I even have a couple of my own.” The two men raised their eyebrows at each other. “I was simply hoping for the best.”

“Do you need someone on the ground? Do you want me to go? Because I’ll go.”

38

DeWalt lunged over from his seat on the couch. “We’ll both go. Dremel and DeWalt, I bet you’ll need us both there.”

“I don’t need either of you there.” DeWalt sat, disgruntled. “Just do what Derringer asked of you.”

“We started when he asked me an hour ago. I detect the presence of a network like you mentioned. You say it exists, right? Then that’s about where we’re at.”

She chuckled. “That’s actually pretty good, champ. Keep going.” The line beeped as she disconnected.

Dremel sat back and crossed his arms. He took off his shades and pressed the back of his hand to his eyes. “Keep going, huh.”

“Yeah.” DeWalt lifted his hands and looked at the office – empty when they’d arrived, now well littered with food boxes, snack wrappers, and bottles. “Keep going.”

36

“So, we’re not that smart; but we’re not dumb, either. They figured things out enough to get there, but not to get what they were after. I figure we’ve got even chances. That’s good odds, quit moaning.” The screens surrounding Chad Dremel were covered in pictures and files. The one he was working on showed a progress bar titled Unencrypt, which stood at just over sixty-five percent. To one side, Fred DeWalt slumped back on a bench, resting the back of his head against a desk.

“This just isn’t simple, Dremel. It isn’t simple. I’m not cut out for detective work. Devious people hiding everything. I just knew when Derringer called…”

Dremel adjusted his screen shades. “Relax. I’m taking care of the research. If we need to chase anybody down, you can drive the Griffin, you can hold the gun.”

“You can hold your own.”

“I do, but it’s not as big as yours.” One of the five com relays lit up and began to buzz. “Speaking of your mother.” DeWalt covered his face with his hands. Dremel sent the call to his lower right hand screen. “Big D. What’s happening.”

36

In the picture, people in all manner of bizarre dress were passing across, behind, and around him. They wore every color of the spectrum, and most sported feathers large and small, including the many Aquarii in the crowd. “–at the Ileus Peak festival on Lurin. I’m A) Lost, and B) Lost. Two different kinds of lost, maybe three. You gotta help me with at least one.”

DeWalt sat up at the mention of the notorious planet. “How, in all the galaxies, did you get to Lurin?”

“Same way you got yourselves a free Griffin. You know, I wonder who it is we’re really working for.”

“That occurred to me,” said Dremel. “And I want to look into it.”

“Kay. And back to our point.”

“You’re Lost, how can we help?”

Derringer looked around at the crowds passing through a wide, forested thoroughfare. “So, Lurin has no street signs, and I lost my landmarks. On top of that, I don’t speak Lurinese.” Dremel and DeWalt were already laughing at him. Derringer showed expression of aggrieved forbearance.

“Well – where are you trying to get to?” asked Dremel, getting things under control.

“That’s the other part. I’m looking for someone. They were not where they were supposed to be, and this is how I reached the current situation.” The screen picture started to change color. Dremel attempted to modulate, with no luck. The image was being captured with wavelength refraction via ambient moisture, transmitted from a pin on his lapel. There could be someone nearby emitting interference; you never knew who was under the aqua feathers and body paint.

The screen image was now fully tinted in gold and black. “Your signal’s bad,” said Dremel, chin in hand. “What are we supposed to do?”

Derringer started walking, the landscape behind him changing as he went his way. “Establish a connection with the planet.” He was looking around as the screen picture finally roughed out and cut off.

Dremel stared at the blank call screen. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

28

As Derringer and Karma caught their breath side by side on the tossed sheets, subdued chuckles escaped from their grins. She sighed, rolling her head to face him. “I’m so glad you could make it out to orbit.”

Stretching his arms above his head, Derringer yawned and smacked his lips. “I had to clear a few things off my plate.”

“Oh, really.”

“My services are highly sought after.”

Throwing the covers off the both of them, she got out of bed and crossed the small private bunk to the sink. She filled a mug with water and drank it down, then refilled it and walked it over to Derringer. Just then, the sight and sound of two honklizards appeared on the screen. “Oh it’s your boys, Dremel and DeWalt. Let’s see what they’ve got.”

28

She tapped a sequence into the keypad. Derringer began to pull a sheet over himself when she waved him to stop. “We can see them. They can’t see us.” She brought a hand to her mouth and winked.

“Hey gents. Your timing is good. Your supervisor and I happen to be meeting at this very moment.” She kept one hand on the console, pushing the button to talk. The other rested on her hip as she faced the detective, staring into his eyes as she spoke. “Is this routine, or have you turned up something new?”

“Both. Yes and yes.” The screen showed Chad Dremel surrounded by his arc of displays and relays hanging from various arms above the desk. He wore his hat, no shades. The changing colors reflected off his cheeks.

“Where’s your partner?”

“DeWalt is on the couch nursing a few bruises and a deep, dark hangover. We traced the driver back to his last job at Capitol Cab. Spent some time getting to know the other drivers. Nobody’s heard from him since.”

“Who owns Capitol Cab?”

“It’s an independent company, this city only. Run by the Mayor’s son, one Iako Shukla.”

“Small-time local hero. He’s got no personal interest in this. What about the gunmen?”

“Mercenary types. We haven’t chased em down yet.”

“So far so good. Keep me posted.” Dremel signed off, and she tuned into an Aquari symphonic channel full of vibrating strings and winds.

Derringer rolled on his side to face her. “Wouldn’t have thought this was your kind of music.”

She lay down on the covers next to him. “I like it to fall asleep to.”

He drew a fingertip down her torso. “Oh, are we falling asleep?”