There were benefits to having one’s own ship. You could travel anywhere, anywhen, and be master of your own fate. A ship represented freedom. Then again, Elise thought as she was moved past customs without a glance, there were also advantages to getting a ride on someone else’s ship, especially a connected ship. Her own ride was connected to House Elaric, therefore they got to land in the crime family’s part of Trevess port, instead of the neutral territory section. It also meant that customs was extremely lax to the point of being a non-entity, even though security was prevalent. The poor fools in non-connected ships would be waiting for hours before setting foot planetside. By the time they got through, she’d be settling into her new shop and enjoying dinner.
Elise looked around after she left the port, hitching her pack of special tools to a more comfortable place on her shoulder. The House Elaric dockworkers would unload and send the rest of her gear to the new premises.
Trevess, both the city and the planet, were just like she remembered them, she thought as she walked down a street. In four blocks, she’d counted ten times as many House enforcers flanking the doors of different establishments, watching each other and the crowds. Different houses, she noted, recognizing a couple. Probably the clubs and restaurants that House elders favored for doing business. Since the planet was host to the top brass of a few score interstellar and international crime organizations, Elise decided to give those places a wide berth. If the town hadn’t completely flipped in the last seven, eight years, those would be the best, most expensive, and most dangerous eateries in the city. Even though most of the big players tried to avoid collateral damage, sometimes people got caught in the crossfire accidentally, and some of the lesser players didn’t much care for the unspoken rules, especially those looking to establish a reputation.
The crowds and obvious bodyguards thinned as she moved north out of the center of town. Various vehicles—wheeled, tracked, GEV, hover—went by without notice. The traffic was lighter than even the smallest of Protectorate or Alliance cities, if more heavily armored. The latter was only really noticeable by those with the expertise or experience to spot the signs of enhanced drivetrains and concealed fire portholes. Some probably even had pop-up turrets, Elise eventually noted, like the ones obviously on escort duty.
She tapped a key on her wrist comp, activating the holodisplay to check an address. The device itself was outdated, replaced by voice recognition models years ago, but she was a tad old fashioned when it came to personality sims and talking to computers.
Satisfied, Elise turned down a side street. A block later, she flashed a cred chit at a door reader, waited a few seconds for positive ID, and entered the apartment building as the house computer opened the door for her. To her surprise, an aging Claxil stood waiting and asked after her bags. She took in his worn and plain uniform with a glance as she turned down the assistance. It was good to know there was a doorbeing, even if it was because the place was too cheap to get a ‘bot or an even more expensive, well trained, living doorbeing. The Claxil would do, she decided, opting for stairs over the lift. At least he wore the protection signs of four different Houses, so the owners weren’t stingy on security.
Truth to tell, the apartment was a closet, but it was only temporary. Once the shop was cleaned up and she’d figured out which Houses to pay off, the back could be fixed up as living space. Until then, an apartment was probably safer. The downside was the lack of eating in the apartment structure. She revised her assessment of the doorbeing, the owners were extremely cheap. Even the most low end places elsewhere has a building kitchenette.
At the thought of food, Elise checked the blaster in her thigh holster and the concealed holdout electromag she always carried on Trevess.
She briefly wondered if Farsun’s was still around. Easy enough to find out. With the touch of a button, she was in touch with the Claxil downstairs. A quick bit of translating into her halting Claxi and she learned the infamous tavern not only still existed but the old owner still tended bar and ran the place. Despite the flux and excitement of Trevess, she was glad there were a few rocks that hadn’t changed.
Getting to Farsun’s was rather fast, once she got reoriented to the city.
The city had been built up a lot since she had last been on the planet, but Elise was pleased to spot the still seedy Farsun’s sign sandwiched between two new complexes similar to the one she was staying in. The two story, windowless tavern looked squat and even more disreputable next to the dingy, once bright, apartment buildings. Hopefully the clientele hadn’t changed either.
Farsun’s had a reputation as the home of dishonorable, unconnected crooks of all sorts. Both were cardinal sins by the standards of the Houses. That meant the Houses avoided the place, unless they wanted to covertly contract a non-House worker. Strangely, Elise thought as she stepped inside, this made Farsun’s a safer place, almost neutral territory. Sure there was the occasional brawl, but at least no one got shot or blown up.
A few seconds passed, giving her eyes a chance to adjust, before she heard, “Elise!” from the direction of the bar.
Grinning, and going over, she returned, “Delvis Farsun, you still watering down the swill you call beer, old man?”
“Just took your advice, miss,” the portly man behind the bar shot back.
Elise bristled a bit at the title, but got it under control. Fair play for her comment.
She took a seat a couple feet from Delvis. “Any chance of a meal and something that’s not rotgut or swill?”
The barman snapped his fingers, which elicited acknowledgment from the kitchen. As he poured an emerald liquid into a glass mug, he asked, “Just passing through? Only it’s great luck, you coming in now, with all the stuff in back needs fixing . . .”
Elise laughed, an odd sound in the tavern, “Take care of my meals and . . . three drinks a day, and I’ll fix anything you’ve got, Delvis. Same deal as last time, but long term. I’m setting up shop over on Fuego. A little info and I’ll fix your backlog too.”
“Fuego? Off Easport? Sure, I can come up with the local Houses, the established big honchos at least. Don’t worry about the small fry.”
“Even if they change daily, I’d like to hear, Delv. Sometimes the small problems cause the most trouble. Remember that cooling unit last time?”
“Aye, details . . . clear forgot your thing about details,” Delvis allowed as a plate of pub grub appeared in front of Elise.
She almost missed the waitress leaving it. The stuff on the plate would, she thought, be better missed. It didn’t really matter what it had been, like all of Farsun’s food it was fried beyond recognition. But the price was right and it would keep her going. Generations of her family had been raised on the stuff, way back to their days on Earth, centuries before the Protectorate or contact with the Nalthians.
“I’ll get that list tomorrow, Elise, come back for lunch,” Delvis said a few minutes later. “It’s not my usual area. People that ways usually go to Varses’ or Gilded.”
“No worries, Delv,” she replied around some of the fried whatever. “Prolly won’t hafta pay anything ‘til I’m set up anyway, that’ll be a week, I think.”
The place was quiet through the rest of the brief meal. Things didn’t usually pick up, if she remembered correctly, until mid-evening, after the people who had day jobs and the younger members of small Houses decided to relax or drink themselves into a stupor. Lots of time for her to get off the streets before they became rowdy.
In fact, the walk back to her closet was remarkably clear. Say what outsiders did, the Houses at least kept the peace well on their own world. Never mind that they broke every law imaginable elsewhere in the galaxy and that Trevess had no real laws. But the Houses did have a code of honor and did protect their own, expecting loyalty and a token payment in return.
Once she was in the building, the door Claxil told Elise, in brief, why the streets were empty. A spectacular House assassination—involving poison, gunfire, and at least one explosion—had apparently been executed across town. Something on that scale was bound to draw both attention from the everyday folks and retribution from the House, one she’d not heard of.
Up in her room, Elise secured all five locks on the door and propped herself on the bed.
She fished a pair of sunglasses out of a pocket, put them on, and lowered the integral ear buds into place.
After shifting to get comfortable, she said, “Verse, Elise forty-five, fourteen, seven delta.”
As soon as the password was confirmed, the computer VR rig allowed her to materialize in a large workroom. The start point, like her avatar, was stowed in the set. One of the three doors led to the local Network-verse, another to the rest of the virtual building, and the last was an out-system connection. Out in the real world, Elise muttered to herself, voicing movement and other commands, too squeamish for a full neural implant link. The voice command vid link was enough for her purposes. And it was familiar.
In fact, she had already unconsciously scanned the virtual space for messages.
Finding none, she sent a command for the ‘house’ daemon to call up the results of her pre-landing search. The program, looking like a shop assistant, handed over a packet of papers. She flicked through them, skimming for familiar names, before shoving the data into a pocket, representing her computer, for later reading. The electronic gossip would hopefully fill in gaps in Delvis’ knowledge, and confirm whatever he came up with.
Elise fixed her avatar, changing clothes and adding a few inches to her hair, before dismissing the daemon. Unlike some, her default avatar basically looked like her real self, with some modifications for Verse life.
Once she was satisfied, she opened the door to the local Verse’s Main Street.
Every solar system’s Verse had its own Main Street, all with the same name, even if they all had their own unique shape and character. Trevess’, for instance, Elise was instantly reminded in a visual assault, was a riot of color and noise. She looked around, taking her time to get reacquainted. Someone had once told her that Trevess’ Main Street was loosely inspired by the glitz and glamour of mid-twentieth century Earth’s Vegas, in the heyday of the western hemisphere’s organized crime. Well before the days of the Protectorate. If that was true, it was heavily modified by alien influence. Hell, even after years of travel, she didn’t recognize a few of the languages written in ten foot high neon characters.
But there were enough recognizable ones.
Enough that she could get her bearings and recall the virtual neighborhoods. To the left, places catering to the young hackers and artists, including the fantastic realms where reality went bye-bye. To the right, and down a long ways, the areas frequented by the belters—miners and other stuck in the belts on single ships or stations with small staff presence. Trevess’ working class gravitated toward that end of Main. Straight ahead, though, were the trendy electronic places where the young House members conducted business and pleasure without their elders’ supervision.
That would be the place to confirm Delvis’ info again, and to get the word out about her new operation. Most of the money and desire for custom arms and armor came from the Houses. Same for the special electronics. That was doubly true of their security and young rich kids. There’d likely be some repair work for people like Delvis, but that stuff wasn’t steady enough to pay the bills.
She drifted across the virtual street toward a gaudy club. Definitely new money and young clients. Their elders would consider the place too flashy and non-traditional, for the most part. Perfect.
Halfway across, Elise stopped, her brain struggling for a second to find recognition.
“The hell,” she breathed, then louder, “Mitch? Mitch Clareson?”
A short distance away a young man, tall and of obvious northern European stock, turned toward her. He still had the blonde ponytail, she saw. Even here he also carried the Japanese short sword and . . . yes, she could almost see its companion dagger, as recognition dawned on his face.
“Elise Gordon,” he said through a grin. “When did you get to Trevess? Or are you just slumming in the Verse?”
She chuckled, steering him toward a quieter looking establishment.
“I just landed today. Sounds like you’re on-world, though. VR rig, I assume? Where are you?”
He shrugged, “Can’t tell you specifics, but a Guild school in the bush.”
“What the hell’s a Guardian doing working for the Mercenaries’ Guild?”
“Earning a living,” he chuckled, “so my more fortunate brothers and sisters can meditate in peace, as usual. And when the Guild hires outside teachers, it hires the best.”
“Bet it’s less dangerous than bodyguarding stupid rich kids, huh?”
“Perhaps, but also less challenging and less . . . opportunity to perfect one’s training, but I’m not complaining.”
Elise outright laughed, especially at the idea that her friend might retire to the monasteries his order maintained. He was, she thought, a field Guardian at heart. A life of contemplation wouldn’t suit her mental image of him.
“I’m kind of here on business,” she said, “but I can put that on hold to catch up with an old friend . . . unless there’s somewhere you need to be, or you’ve got some time in town coming up?”
“No vacations until the contract’s up next month,” Mitch said, “and nowhere urgent to be, there’s always time for my favorite gunsmith, even if . . .”
“. . . you never buy anything,” she finished. His order was forbidden by its own laws from using guns of any sort. Some ancient code that saw them as over-reliance on the external or something. It was an old point of contention between them, but one they often took with minimal seriousness.
They entered the nearest place and found a quiet seat.
The latter was a bit difficult, but the fact that their avatars clashed horribly with the medieval-fantastic décor helped a bit. The sources of the shouting and other noise were three platforms on which pairs or small groups of patrons fought with swords and computer generated magic. Elise managed to refrain from shaking her head and rolling her eyes. Clearly one of the Verse places where reality’s laws were suspended. Mitch never even batted an eye.
On the other hand, he fit in better than she did. His order’s uniform, which his avatar wore, wasn’t that far removed from some of the outfits worn by the outlandish patron avatars. And his sword was more at home than her virtual blaster.
Even so, Elise almost suggested they go elsewhere before a short, stout, bearded woman carrying a large axe asked if she wanted a more appropriate avatar modification. She managed to get the employee to leave without listing all the options while Mitch merely smirked. Guardians, she recalled, were recognized, respected, and left alone pretty much everywhere, virtual or otherwise, in the galaxy. Lucky bugger.
“So.” She turned her attention back to her friend. “How’d you end up with a Guild contract? Weren’t you guarding whatshisname, that kid from House Vash?”
“That was six years ago, and he was fourteen,” Mitch laughed. “The ‘kid’ grew up and his uncle sent him somewhere, began with a c, one of the alien nations. He took House security loyal to his uncle, watchdogs and spies for the old man, most like. I took a couple short term jobs escorting high profile visitors, then the Merc Guild contacted me, about a year ago. The donations to the order were good, the non-disclosure agreement is fair, end of story. And you? Where have you been for half a decade?”
She shrugged, “Nothing too exciting. A bit of armoury and general fix-it work on some merchanters and transports, nothing heavy or grey. Mostly ship and small arms repair and refitting. Bouncing around here and there. Finally hitched a ride on an Elaric cargo ship with my savings to set up on my favorite planet in the galaxy.” Elise grinned with the last statement.
“Definitely one of the best for someone in your line of work, between the Guild and the Houses. I admit to wondering why you had not settled in earlier.”
“Wanderlust, desire to see other worlds and meet new people. Maybe even find myself.”
“The only constant in life is change.”
“One of your masters?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Mitchell grinned. “It appears to be something of a universal sentiment among old Terran philosophers from Lao Tzu to Boethius. The old masters and thinkers, I think, liked to remind their students that we all constantly grow, learn, and change, until we all reach our ultimate end, the one that waits for everyone.”
Elise shook her head.
“Way too deep and morbid for me. But the change thing is good.” She fished out a card, a representation of data. “Here, my address is the local Verse. I should probably get some business done tonight, but we should get together somewhere less crowded tomorrow. I’d love to hear what’s changed since I left, and trade some stories.”
“Indeed. I should not keep you from necessities,” her friend said, rising. “Tomorrow, your place around 2100? My last session ends at eight, that should give me time to clean up and get comfortable.” The datacard disappeared inside his jacket, really being downloaded onto a computer. Belatedly, Elise hoped it wasn’t a Guild system and was secure. Business with the Guild was one thing, giving them her downtime hangout was something else. On the other hand, Mitch was an old friend and discretion was part of his job, if not of his calling.
She shrugged mentally. Too late now, either way.
“Sure, I should be mostly unpacked by then and at least seeing the faint glimmer of being settled in.”
With a lingering clasp of forearms, the two parted, Elise toward the trendy virtual club she’d spotted earlier. It was, despite her need to fully set up premises, high time for her to drum up some business.