Night City — The Menagerie (2010)

Ed Shafer truly appreciated air conditioning on New Orleans’s hot and humid nights. His people were of good northern European stock, they hadn’t evolved properly for sun and heat. The city was ideal for necromancers, though, he thought. The art required spirits, and there were plenty of those around the city. Most were former humans too, his specialty since he found them easier to deal with. Of, perhaps, greater importance was the fact that the city had been accepting of the art for well over a century before magicians revealed themselves to the public. Sure, they called them medium, spiritualists, voodoun, and a whole host of other names. And most necromancers known to the public in those days had been charlatans at best. But the city seemed to draw North American necromancers like a magnet and lodestone.

And the Menagerie was the traditional meeting place of those necromancers, and, later, other magicians.

The club catered to the younger generation . . . those born in the twentieth-century or later.

Hell, if he allowed himself, he’d see literally thousands of bound spirits and millions of lines of magical energy all over the dance floor.

But he was there, on that night, for business. And business had just walked in the door, looking as out of place as a giant ape in New York. The business suit and military stiffness made Mister White, who was offering to interview him, stand out more than anything else. To make matters worse, the man was obviously a mundane, although he covered his reactions well. Probably used to dealing with the magically inclined.

An impulse toward pity awoke briefly in Ed’s consciousness. He waved to Mr. White after a few moments, giving the government mundane a chance to avoid embarrassment. After all, nearly everyone who did business with magicians in New Orleans did so in the Menagerie.

The government headhunter took a seat as Edward spotted the reason that this meeting would become interesting.

A young, felinoid, thaumod entered the club and unerringly made her way toward the table. Her suit was a little out of place, but otherwise her appearance fit in perfectly, and at least she was a magician.

“Mr. Shafer,” the government man started, before Ed cut him off.

“A minute, Mr. White,” he explained, “let’s wait for our other guest to save introductions.”

The cat-woman slid gracefully into a seat and sipped at a drink she’d acquired a few seconds later.

“Marie Lazarus, Mr. Shafer, from Thaumtech,” she said. “You spoke with my assistant the other day.”

“Indeed. And this is Mr.”

“White, DARPA,” the agent interrupted. “And we don’t appreciate Thaumtech trying to steal our prospects.”

Lazarus flashed a toothy smile and allowed a brief, forced, laugh. The latter audible due to a spell dampening the sound of the club’s music.

“Isn’t that the American way, Mr. White?” she asked. “Your bosses keep saying that healthy competition is good for the consumer, the economy, and the country.”

“Not my department, ma’am.”

“Besides, if Mr. Shafer works for Thaumtech, he’ll still technically be working for the government.”

“Just because you have the largest federal enchantment contract! . . .”

Ed let his attention wander as the two bickered. It was an old argument. Instead of paying attention, he let his vision slip and looked at the dozen of so spirits bound either directly to him or to his possessions. Through his connection to the spirits, he mentally questioned his friends and servitors. After a few moments, three of them—Archibald, Brian, and Sparky, as he called them—confirmed that the DARPA representative was a mundane and that the woman was a sorcerer with several active spells about her person. All of which he managed to do without ritual due to the spirits’ natural abilities. The necessary rituals had been used to bind them.

He let the banter continue for a short time before interrupting.

“I am rather busy . . . Mr. White, what do DARPA and your Area 72 have to offer? Yes, I’ve done my research and know the name, if not the nature,” he admitted to the look White gave him. “Then Ms. Lazarus can present Thaumtech’s counteroffer.”

Ed had to give the government man credit, he shifted gears quickly.

“Without going into too much detail, since neither yourself nor Ms. Lazarus here signed confidentiality agreements or passed security checks,” White began, “the job is an opportunity to work in a completely magical community with full medical, retirement, and housing benefits. The pay scale is excellent and there are no rent, utilities, or food costs on your part. All expenses will be covered by your employers, including relocation costs.”

“Night City without expense . . .”

“Or the guild violence. Or the crime.”

“Or guild support,” Ed added. “And I suppose friends and family couldn’t know where I was, correct.”

“Naturally. The location and projects are top secret,” Mr. White acknowledged, with a glance at his opponent.

For her part, Marie laughed. “Afraid we’re steal your secrets? Thaumtech is decades ahead of DARPA in sorcerous research. Our package, Mr. Shafer, includes a generous salary and benefits. If you wish to remain in New Orleans, we have a facility in town, or relocation costs to Boston will be covered. And we don’t care about any guild affiliations you might have, so long as company secrets are not shared. We at Thaumtech frown on corporate espionage.”

Ed nodded. The typical corporate schpiel.

“And what, exactly, would I be doing in the Thaumtech family?”

“As you no doubt know, Thaumtech is the world leader in enchanted item production,” she replied, with a glance at Mr. White. “Without divulging trade secrets, we are looking to branch out into the named object and fetish markets. So, we’re looking for young, talented necromancers.”

Mr White muttered, “Waste of money,” even as Ed said, “And the fact that no one’s managed to mass produce fetishes in . . . well, since the dawn of magic doesn’t bother your bosses?”

“Of course not, Mr. Shafer. Fifty years ago, no one thought enchantments could be mass produced. Today, every household in the western world has at least two enchanted items,” she explained. “Until we make a breakthrough, there is also the wealthy collector and celebrity market, looking for unique gifts or objects.”

Edward considered the offers for a time. The DJ must have turned up the volume as the club’s music was weakly coming through the dampening field. Heavy bass, not exactly his favorite to listen to. But business at the Menagerie was tradition.

“Both offers certainly sound attractive, but they would,” he mused aloud after a bit. “Honestly, I’ve never really seen myself as a military man. I know . . . DARPA’s not military as such.” The latter cut off White’s objection and caused Lazarus to smile broadly. Her grin of triumph wilted as Ed continued to say, “However . . . the corporate environment’s never been my thing either. Cubicles, suits, and stifling rules.” He exaggerated the involuntary shudder for their benefit.

Despite being an unaltered mundane, White recovered first.

“We have no cubicles and virtually no military presence. And no requirement for suits,” he assured the prospective employee. “In fact, you can have an entire official lab at the facility to outfit as you desire . . . and there are provisions for a private, personal lab anywhere on site, even in your own dwelling. In fact, such labs are encouraged. Finally, I am told we have numerous ghosts and ascended spirits,” he said, nodding toward Edward’s shoulders and elsewhere around the table. Probably enchanted or fetish contact lenses, Ed thought. “And many nature spirits, if you prefer.” Ability to see, but not to properly identify, the necromancer absently noted.

“Well then,” Edward said aloud, “in that case, and since you adapted well, where is that confidentiality agreement, Mr. White? Pending my successful security check, it appears I am all DARPA’s.” For the time being.

Advertisements

Night City — New Academy (2010)

Marcus Sander popped into an empty field displacing a rush of air in the process.

He was jogging toward a stone wall about a hundred yards away even as his mind processed the time of day. Sunset had already started, so he had maybe ten, twenty minutes before the lone break in the wall was sealed for the next couple months. If that happened, he’d miss his second year at the secret academy.

The young sorcerer slipped through the kissing gate in time to see his meager possessions moving across the yard. A few spirits, he knew, bound to the old manor house turned concealed magic school would see that his things ended up in a room. In the meantime, Marcus turned to a Goblin woman a few years his senior. She waved a hand, causing the gate to become indistinguishable from the wall, and said, “You’re the last, Marcus.”

Responding to her concerned tone, he shook his head.

“I meant to be in sooner, Tisha,” he explained. “The TRA’s been relentless back home, especially today. Night Dragons hit the city hall and a bank this morning . . .”

Tisha grimaced. “Psycho bastards. Do more harm’n good. Anyone hurt?”

“Nah. Small town, and both were hit early. No one’s in before nine anyway.”

“There’s that at least. Less the fed can blame us with. Probably won’t get past the local news either, then.”

“Probably,” he affirmed. “Any words?”

“Galen’s been tracking the news, usual start of the year gathering in the theater . . . ten minutes.”

The pair split, with Tisha still having to find rooms for some newcomers and Marcus looking to track down a few friends before the meeting.

Marcus ended up being one of the last group of students to enter the theater, hand-in-hand with Julia Bowyer. A few mutual friends came along with the couple as they took a second to survey the room. Over the last several years, the formerly ruined nineteenth-century décor had been repaired, then partially covered by modern magical amenities during the five years that the school had been open. The right hand wall was already filling with sorcerously scrawled course titles as their fellow students gave Manny Opus suggestions. The other five ‘staff’ members hadn’t gotten there yet, but the hundred some odd students were spread around the room, mostly getting reacquainted.

When the lights dropped for a few seconds, Manny waved off a gaggle of fellow students and most people grabbed seats or a spot on the floor.

Up on the stage, Tisha came out with two humans, a thaumod, and a vampire. Once Manny joined them, one of the humans stepped forward. After a burst of applause, Galen bowed and raised his hands for silence. Marcus had to remind himself that the last of the Academy’s founders was only six or seven years his senior. In fact, this might even be the year that Galen ‘retired’ to go make a life beyond the Academy, like the other founders.

Once the group calmed down, Galen smiled warmly and said, “Welcome to the seventh school year at New Academy.” After a burst of applause, he added, “I want to thank you all for making my dream a reality and continuing our brief tradition of resisting the guild system. Glad to see all the familiar faces, and the new ones. I hope the Academy will outlast myself and the other founders.” A confused round of clapping, uncertain due to wondering what exactly was being cheered. “Before the year starts, I do feel that one announcement is necessary . . . for those who have not been following national news, the Thaumaturgical Regulatory Agency is quietly starting rumors that New Academy is linked to those damn Night Dragon terrorists,” a chorus of boos followed. “So be careful if you’re off campus at all for breaks. On another note, Justin Lee’s going to be doing a class on holistic healing with Lyn Day, mixing spirits and sorcery should be . . . interesting.” Especially, thought Marcus, since Justin was a vampire, albeit a young one. That alone should draw lots of their fellow students, the curious at least.

The meeting broke up after a few questions from the newer students.

As people started milling around, Marcus and Julia tracked down their vampiric friend.

Julia called out, “Justin! Finally decided to teach?”

The third year student clasped Marcus’ hand and grinned. “‘A Little Spiritual Healing’ on Tuesday mornings, so I can take Walter Schmead’s ‘Laughing at Ourselves—Jokes and Jinxes’.”

“Hmm, conflicts with Kaja’s ‘Walking and Talking: Magical Theory and Ethics’,” Marcus noted, “Sorry, Justin, gotta go with the campus walks.” He’d been in one of Kaja’s classes last year, she liked to hold class while strolling throughout the Academy and its grounds.

Julia grinned and playfully punched his arm, “The fact that Kaja’s cute has nothing to do with it, right?”

The vampire laughed at the couple as Marcus flashed a mock aggrieved face. Then he asked, “What about you two? I didn’t see your names on the wall yet. Any ideas?”

“I’m tossing together something about magical gardening,” Marcus replied. “There were some interesting plant hybrids I was working with over the break. I’m not sure what to call it, never was good with names.”

“Elemental physics . . . ‘Playing with Fire,’ or something,” Julia chipped in. “There are some fun things in Sorcery Today about mixing elements and spirit theories. We might have to compare notes on mixing magics, Justin.”

“Anytime. I’ll let Lyn know, she might have some pointers.” He caught sight of a clock. “Speaking of which . . . I’ve gotta run. We’re meeting to plan a few things tonight. See you at lunch?”

The couple nodded in unison and walked, with linked arms, toward the class wall. Most of the students picked up four or five classes that lasted all year, taught by their fellow students. And registering was first come, first served, informal. A demo at the end of the four to five years, or whenever, before the school body determined ‘graduation,’ such as it was. Which was one reason the TRA hated the Academy and was trying to shut it down . . . and the guilds weren’t too happy either.

After a few minutes of staring at the board, Julia asked, “Wanna grab a late dinner and find our rooms?”

“Sure. This can wait ‘til morning,” Marcus admitted. “Good to sleep on it, see what Manny puts up there in the morning.” Although anyone with an ounce of sorcery could put things on the class wall, someone was always designated to do it for the non-sorcerers. Eventually, everyone just went through the designee by habit.

It didn’t take long for the couple to find Ted Satrapi in the old manor kitchens. Getting the thaumod to settle down and stop bellowing at his collection of spirit aides in mingled Farsi and English long enough to grab a couple sandwiches took longer. As they left, hurriedly, both fervently hoped that the kitchen was settled and ready soon. It had become a livelier and louder place since Jen Moi had left for a job with some Wall Street family and Ted had taken over. But the food had also become more mainstream and there were more cooking students.

They took their time over dinner and simply wandering the Academy’s halls, reacquainting and chatting about the month apart. After looking in on a few mutual friends, Marcus was pleasantly surprised to find that Tisha’d put them both on the same floor at opposite ends of the hall. And he’d been roomed with Justin. He didn’t know Julia’s roommate, Toril something or other, but she seemed happy and apparently had had a couple good experiences in the past.

Once they parted for the night, Marcus unpacked and settled in. He figured he basically had a single room, since Justin would hardly ever be around. The vampire liked to stay active, so the room was just a place to toss his stuff. After a while, the young sorcerer stretched out on his bed, but had trouble falling asleep. His brain insisted on trying myriad class names, because everyone else’s were always so creative . . .

Night City (pt. 1) (2010)

A while back, I decided to put together a few vignettes to describe a setting.


“I’m here to see Darius.”

The mass of muscle passing as a doorman gave Robert a visual once over. He seemed to take in everything from the black combat boots to the jeans, shirt, light jacket, and long straight hair. The eyes lingered on both jacket and the thick leather wristband that Robert wore on his left arm. But this was expected as both bore the unmistakable faint blue auras of magic, specifically sorcery, for those who could see them.

“Darius doesn’t see message boys,” the brute responded.

Probably a thaumod, Robert decided, based on his inhuman bulk.

Still.

“He wants to see me,” Robert replied, flashing the symbol on his wristband. The sign was borne by all members of his order when they were not on assignment. “I’m not working . . . at least not that way.” The last added after the thug’s shocked eyes narrowed in suspicion. As a show of good faith, he slowly drew his HK USP and handed it over grip first. “Here, keep it ‘til I leave.” There were still several knives and other pointy surprises on his person plus his sorcery, but security seemed to relax if they thought they had all the guns.

Apparently that held true here as well. The bouncer led him into the club.

Nymphotopia.

Trust the Epicurean Order, he thought as they made their way toward the back, to base themselves out of a high quality strip, sorry, gentlemen’s club. And to make it one of the top restaurants with the best wine cellar in the city too. At least they were sometimes useful, and a few made worthy adversaries.

He allowed a mental sigh of relief as they came to a stop. Darius wasn’t one of the obese Epicures, not that there should be any of that sort with easy access to biomagic. Even the necromancers and wizards could do a little body sculpting. This leader of the order appeared trim and well built, if a little out of shape.

Robert gave a shallow bow of respect due for one of greater rank.

The other mage, a spellcrafter he noted, tore his gaze away from a stage on which a scantily clad man and woman danced. After a second, and what Robert guessed was a muttered word of power, he asked, “You wish to see me?”

“My master has sent me to warn you of an alliance between Julian and Hannibal.”

“How would they ally? They hate each other,” the Epicure scoffed.

Robert had been briefed for this reaction. “Are you not planning to open up a . . . club with benefits called ‘The Zoo,’ specializing in exotics?”

To his credit, Darius didn’t seem shocked, “If I am?”

“Would this not be a rival to Julian’s exotic brothel, ‘The Garden’? And would it not eat into his profits?” he replied, “Your organization and Julian’s are evenly matched.”

Darius nodded. “And what of your master?”

“She is concerned.”

“And does she offer support?”

Robert shook his head. “Simply the warning that Julian intends, through intermediaries, of course, to bring Hannibal to the opinion that another such establishment would be bad for the city. Increased crime and violence, for instance.”

“Which, of course, he’ll pounce on since he’s already tried closing ‘Topia,” Darius muttered, then louder, “I’ll have to confirm this information, but tell your master that I will owe her a debt if it’s true.”

“Of course.”

Recognizing his dismissal, Robert bowed again, retrieved his gun, and left the club.

Once he reached his car and drove several blocks from the club, he concentrated for a few seconds. When the spells he’d cast detected no observation, the messenger drew a flat cell phone and dialed from memory. A comm crystal would, of course, be more efficient, but most of the people he was avoiding took pains to detect and eavesdrop on magical communication. Those same people tended to ignore phones as beneath them, things only mundanes used.

The instant a connection was made, Robert said, “He’s checking, but bought it,” and hung up.

His message sent, with all his boss needed to know, he continued driving toward one of his handful of safehouses in the city.

The apartment was spartan, barely furnished with three easy exits beyond the single use teleportation stone he’d enchanted weeks ago. Like his other boltholes, this one had nothing to identify its occupant. In a city full of, and run by, magical guilds and orders, those lacking in such connections, despite his implied association with the Unseen Order that cowed Darius, needed such precautions. Yet, he had not lied, since the Epicure would assuredly be trying to detect falsehoods. Robert did serve a master, and she was concerned about Darius’ order, just not in the way he had inferred.

What exactly her plans were, Robert did not know or care. It was enough to know that she was powerful and skilled in sorcery, protected him, and taught him the art in return for his service. Not that he was a blind minion. Their’s was a business relationship, of sorts. They were both aware of that truth. She would only protect him so long as he did nothing stupid and doing so did not jeopardize her plans or position. Consequently, he would serve so long as he profited from the relationship and had a reasonable chance of surviving the tasks she requested.

In the meantime, the Mithraic Order awaited him.

Robert tapped a simple tattoo on his wristband. Halfway through, the symbol of the Unseen Order vanished. It was unnecessary now that he was no longer masquerading as one of them. When the tapped rhythm was complete, he held a plain nut brown jo in his right hand. Both focus and wristband had been enchanted to conceal the sorcerer’s staff when it wasn’t convenient to carry openly. His kind had had to develop several such tricks to conceal themselves from mundanes until recently in their history.

Fortunately, most had forgotten the tricks over the last century of living openly.

Carrying the staff in ‘Topia would leave him encumbered. In the rest of the city, especially where he planned to go, it would be no problem. In fact, among the order of warriors it may even aid him. Even so, Robert double checked his HK and added a sheathed, short bladed qama to his person before he left. This visit had nothing to do with his master’s interests, thus he could not count on her aid should things go south, as the saying went.

As he drove across the city, Robert considered. He owed a debt to the Mithraics that his information should pay in full. Still, they respected strength and one didn’t approach them demonstrating weakness. And he did trust his contact in the order. But to arrive unarmed, a gesture others took as a sign of security and peace, the Mithraics took as a sign of disrespect. It was tantamount to saying the Mithraic was weak and beneath your concern, that he wasn’t a threat. They didn’t take kindly to that idea. Nor did their warrior god.

Fortunately, they, like their god, did reward loyalty and truth.

Unlike most of Night City’s guilds and orders, the Mithraics kept their center of operations hidden. Probably their legacy of centuries of persecution at the hands of Christians, their former rivals. Whatever. Robert secretly thought they did it to annoy people. At least they’d given him a place to meet their contact when it was necessary.

He pulled up outside the restaurant, gathered his jo, and went in to find a table.

Robert waited until his chosen table opened up, one with chairs rather than a booth and situated so he could see the door in his peripheral vision. As he sat, he adjusted the qama and leaned his staff against the table near his hand. Neither elicited any comments from other patrons. The Gryphons, Mithraics, and Shadows commonly walked the streets openly armed. Mundane culture held little sway in the city. Especially since most of the other patrons had staves, or the signs of pocketed wands, at their tables. Lots of sorcerers tonight, he observed, although there were also a fair number of necromancers and wizards, both recognizable by the tools of their respective arts. Both used similar herbs and such, in rather different ways. Or so he’d understood.

A cup of coffee and half a bagel, that had been fresh that morning, later, his contact arrived.

Typical Mithraic, he thought as the man crossed the room. Male, average to tall, good build, legionnaire’s haircut. From the European branch, probably from those who’d fled to Spain after the Albigensian Crusade. There weren’t many from the Indian or Persian branches in the city, he knew. This one covered both bases, though, with a gladius and katar at his belt. Probably a few bound spirits too, he knew the man was a necromancer.

“Sextus,” he greeted the man after the other sat down.

“Robert,” the Mithraic returned, “We are safe to speak, those around will not hear.”

“You’ll understand if I add my own protection,” the sorcerer asked. He touched his jo lightly and thought for the necessary heartbeats as he spoke.

Sextus nodded his approval. “My people have learned the value of caution since Constantine betrayed us for the followers of the sheep. But we are not here to discuss the past.”

“Indeed. The future and present are more important at the moment,” Robert agreed, “I intend to pay my debt with information. Soon now, within the month, I believe, there will be a war in the city. Darius and Julian, with Hannibal involved somehow. The feds, as usual, will not get involved. The only way they could is through negotiation or force. The President won’t risk offending one side in diplomacy, so that will fail, especially with appropriate nudges. And he won’t risk the orders uniting against federal troops.”

Sextus nodded, “That would be the averted mundane-magic conflict of the sixties all over again. I agree with your assessment. I will relay your message to the lords of my order and see if they agree. If so, we will prepare and your obligation will be lifted, I think.”

Robert returned the nod, confident that he was free of the debt.

This was not to say that the Order of Mithras were gung-ho berserkers, he thought. They simply enjoyed and sought tests of their skills. Advance warning would let them position their people for the most appropriate tests.

After another half hour of exchanging gossip, both left, Sextus for who knew where, Robert for home and at least a little sleep.

When morning came, he rose, cleaned up, and went to Zeno’s. There was nowhere better in the city to get a coffee and catch up on the goings-on of the previous night. Or day, as the case may be. Being a vampire, Hardrada kept the coffee shop open around the clock. And he ensured that it remained factionally neutral. Not many people wanted to mess with a vamp who remembered the last millennium and had been studying sorcery nearly that whole time.

Hell, Robert thought as he entered, Hardrada was so feared that he enforced the Pax Hardrada to a few blocks radius from the place. With no faction, guild, or order affiliation no less.

Since he was a regular, he found his usual at the counter and left cash before finding a seat near the shop’s bookcase. Once he was settled with his plain, no frills, coffee and an equally plain bagel, Robert tapped out half the tattoo of the previous night, calling his jo. The focus-weapon rested against his knee as he surveyed the room. Most of the other patrons were regulars representing about a third of the city’s orders and guilds. More would pop in as the day went, trading news, spying, making treaties, leveling threats. The usual.

And there were a few newcomers. Or replacements for order operatives otherwise employed.

Dear gods, one of the newcomers was headed his way. Judging by her mildly bewildered look, she wasn’t only new to Zeno’s but to the city as well. Cute, though, he had to admit that. About his height, shoulder length blonde, fit as shown by her khaki cargo pants and black sports bra ensemble, and likely not a sorceress. She had a bit of the necromancer’s distraction to her, like she was aware of other people that most couldn’t see. Which would likely be true.

“Excuse me,” she said, sitting close enough that Robert was acutely aware that her top was maybe a size too small, and he didn’t mean the open jacket. “You look . . . like a native.”

“I’m not sure about that, but I have been here awhile . . . Do we know each other?”

“Sorry,” she said as she blushed a little, “I’m better dealing with the dead than the living, and they’re often not concerned with names. But they’re not helpful right now. Oh, I’m Char Stevens. We haven’t met before.”

“Ah . . . Robert.”

“Robert.”

“Yes?”

“Oh, sorry. I’m looking for something, for a friend. I’ve traced it to the city, but I’ve only been here for a couple hours and never visited before,” she explained. “A spirit said I should come here, but they’re rather vague and aren’t good at explaining.”

“I don’t think I can help you at the moment.”

Char laughed briefly, “No, I wasn’t asking for help finding it, or with the spirit.” She glanced at his staff. “But, maybe . . . you know someone who could help?” The last on a hopeful up tone in her voice.

Robert gave a helpless shrug, “Your spirit gave you bad info. You’d do better at the Knight Museum or the Academy.”

“No, it was very insistent, and truthful. We can tell.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, then, but I’m not the guy.” He spotted someone entering the shop and gestured toward the door. “Sorry, I’ve got a meeting. He’s particular about not having visitors.”

Rather than expecting the newcomer to take the hint, Robert rose and approached his contact before finding a different table.

Undaunted, Char, Charlotte really, gave herself a few seconds to adjust her vision. Once she could perceive both the material and spirit realms at once, she looked at the spirits bound to one of her rings for guidance. The ghost of her former master was, as she’d expected, less than helpful. Much as she liked him, the old Goblin could be as frustrating as he was lovable, although he’d never been the latter around others. Making her figure out his advice alone was probably another test.

She shook her head in exasperation, wondering for the umpteenth time why she’d thought it would be a good idea to bind his spirit.

The only other spirits Char spotted were all either bound to her or obviously under the sway of other necromancers. No help there. So. Plan B. She consciously removed the mental walls she used to dampen her artificially enhanced senses. With the blocks down, the thaumod’s senses picked up subtle odors from the kitchen, muted conversations at every table and couch, even the whispered air currents of the room. Still no help. None of the myriad conversations came close to being interesting.

On to Plan C, then, she thought as the mental walls were rebuilt. Take the local’s advice and check out the Academy. What she sought could be at the museum, but curators were notoriously uninterested in giving up their treasures, even for a good cause or better preservation. And without a TRA presence, the museum probably had private security. Not that the Thaumaturgical Regulatory Agency provided museum security, but the lack of federal officers in a city this size suggested limited policing.

Nothing else to do for it, she thought with mental shrug. Char got directions to the academy from one of the baristas.

A mile outside the city proper, she came upon the Bloyse Academy, or at least the gates of its encircling wrought iron fence. Char was well traveled enough to take it for granted that the fence represented the boundaries of teleport blockers and other magical wards. As she pulled up to the gate, an older woman stepped out of a small office guard house. She appeared non-threatening, probably a formality. Made sense. Even mundane schools were being careful of visitors these days, especially with magic so widespread.

“What’s the nature of your business?” the woman asked as Char rolled down her window.

“I’d like to speak with the principal.”

“Do you have an appointment?” the woman asked as she eyed Char’s attire. Fortunately, she’d buttoned up the jacket.

“Sorry, no. I didn’t know I was coming until a short time ago. I was supposed to be out of town now, but my editors . . .”

The guard woman stepped back into her box and Char saw her tap an earring. Likely a communication crystal. She kept her own on a pendant on the silver chain she wore.

A few moments later, the gate opened.

“Principal Manfred says he can give you ten minutes. Park there, wear this, and his office is on the first floor of that building,” the woman said. As Charlotte pinned on the visitor badge, the woman added, “Any weapons, offensive enchantments, or spirits on your person?”

Because the woman glanced toward her shoulder, Char nodded, “Just two spirits, a ghost bound to my ring and a canine spirit bound to myself. Neither is violent.” The woman nodded in satisfaction and waved her through.

Charlotte parked and walked along the paths across green quads through the neo-classical buildings. She guessed a number were dorms, since the Academy had the look of a boarding prep school. The building she wanted was rather large and grandiose, even compared to the rest. From the directory inside, she discovered that it held the administrative offices, faculty housing, and the main school dining hall. Probably labs for the faculty and rec equipment as well, if she judged the place correctly.

Finding the principal’s office only took a couple minutes, after which she was waved into the office proper.

After exchanging pleasantries with the slightly balding, long bearded man in the pinstripe suit, Hugh Manfred, she went straight to the point.

“Sorry for the unexpected visit, sir. I only discovered that I need the assistance of one of your faculty within the last hour. An interview,” the last added as she noted his concerned look, “for Sorcery Today, an article on detection devices.” Without thinking, she began to produce pheromones magically tailored to lull anyone in close proximity.

As the principal was.

“Of course,” he gave a polite cough and straightened, “An expert on both artifice and oracular sorcery then? Professor Winn should be exactly who you are looking for, and she should be free in a few minutes, once the period ends. Office 315. In the meantime, feel free to make use of the staff lounge down the hall.”

Charlotte repeated the information to herself as she gave Manfred a seated bow. “Thank you, Principal Manfred. I should let you get back to work. My apologies again for being such a bother on such short notice.”

He waved her off, “Think nothing of it. We’re always glad to share the expertise of our faculty especially with the wide reaching press, even if we only normally do so during breaks . . .”

“Thank you for bending the rules this one time, Principal Manfred,” Charlotte said as she left the room. “You’ve saved my job, sir. I’ll make sure the Academy gets a glowing review in the magazine.”

She hurried out of the office and started up the stairs. It would be best, she felt, to avoid the lounge. Best to stay out from underfoot, lest someone change their mind about an outsider and supposed reporter being loose on the private boarding school’s grounds.

Finding room 315 was easy enough, once she determined which wing of the building it was in. Remaining inconspicuous was an entirely different story. Between the upper floor’s general silence and the students downstairs, Char became uncomfortably aware that there were few adults, she guessed around fifty, and that she was an outsider. In the closed community, all the adults probably knew each other. And the kids likely knew all the adults. Then there was the chance that Manfred would change his mind or check thaumnet to verify her non-existent credentials. Maybe the idea hadn’t been a good one. Maybe hiring a private investigator or hunter would have been better. After all, she was a crafter, this wasn’t her expertise. Mimicking movie and story detectives would only go so far before it all fell apart.

The seven minutes that passed since leaving the principal’s office felt, well, not like eons. Too cliché. More like hours.

Finally the old Goblin’s ghost alerted her to someone heading down the hall.

Charlotte looked over and sighed silently in relief. She didn’t recognize the woman. Bracing herself, she fervently hoped this was Professor Winn and, yes, the woman passed by every other door. As the teacher drew nearer, Char noted that she was not quite a traditionalist. Beneath a black traditional, almost collegiate, robe, she wore a knee length grey skirt and white blouse. That, plus the fact that the robe was open and bore no signs of traditional enchantment, spoke volumes. For instance, she was fairly young, but fitting in with an older crowd of instructors. That knowledge, assessed in an instant, helped.

Stepping up, Char delivered a reasonably traditional bow in greeting, “Professor Winn?”

“This is Professor Winn’s office and this is Professor Winn’s key.”

Charlotte flashed a wan smile, choosing to take the reply as poor humor.

“Principal Manfred sent me up. I need to consult with someone knowledgable with oracular sorcery, he strongly recommended you.”

“He did, did he?” the teacher sniffed, “Well, of course I have no papers or assignments to assess. No busy work created by the administration in the name of standards. Nothing at all.”

“I understand you’re busy, professor . . . but I hope my consultation won’t take more than a few minutes.”

“Which means it will no doubtedly take much longer. But, come in and let’s hear about this problem.”

Once they were inside, Char took a seat that had likely been filled by scores of students. She ignored the rest of the office to focus on the other woman. The moment that Winn sat, the necromancer drew a shard of pottery from her bag of materials.

“This is associated with something I seek to help a friend,” Charlotte explained, “What I need is apparently protected from the view of spirits. And I have reason to believe it is protected from the usual sorcerous and wizardly scrying too. I’m not exactly certain what it is.”

“Thus a spellcrafter’s art is useless,” the professor finished, “So you decided on the Academy . . .”

“Because a man in the city recommended it. And I assume you follow the tradition of magic schools?”

“Neutrality? That our faculty are forbidden from joining any guild or order? Of course, we are a reputable institution,” Winn replied with just a touch of imperiousness. “Very well, let me see this shard.”

The teacher ran her hands over the piece of pottery for several seconds, manipulating energy that Char was unable to detect without external aid. From what she knew of sorcery, Winn was probably drawing and shaping energy. Knowing how badly a necromantic ritual could go if the caster was interrupted, she remained silent and watched. The process lacked the inherent show and, some might say, spectacle of her own art. No chanting, no candles, no offerings were present. Simply a woman sitting at a desk touching a piece of pottery with a slender stick barely the length of her own forearm.

After a time, the professor met her eyes across the desk.

“You were correct,” she said, “What you seek is protected from the usual basic divinations and scrying. The wards would block my most advanced students here and would no doubt foil the average oracle for hire. Few in the city are capable of creating such protections, even fewer know how to circumvent them. The one who sent you here has probably helped more than he intended.”

“So you can find it?” Char gave the shade of her ex-master a quick glance.

Winn nodded, “I believe so. I know a spell that should be powerful enough. But it will take at least half an hour to gather the energy and cast.”

She nodded instantly in return. “I’ve been looking for over a year, half an hour is nothing. And I’ll reimburse you for your time, as much as I can.”

The professor flicked her wand at the door, which audibly locked itself. Another simple pattern of wandwork caused the door to glow for a second. “Then I will require absolute silence. You may stay, but any distraction and the spell may fail with disastrous results.”

Char sat back and made herself as comfortable as possible in response.

She intended to remain watchful throughout the process, but after ten minutes of nothing to see but Winn staring into space with her wand raised, she lost focus.

A cleared throat brought the necromancer around.

Embarassed and realizing she must have nodded off, Charlotte took a few seconds before meeting Winn’s eyes. When she did, she started to apologize until the professor held up a hand.

“No need,” the teacher gestured toward the door, “If I got offended every time someone slept around me, I would have been driven mad by this job long ago . . .”

“Did . . . did you find it?”

The professor nodded gravely.

“And?”

“I don’t believe I was detected. And I advise you to leave the city and forget about whatever it is that you seek.”

Charlotte shook her head, “That’s not an option. All my research says it’s the only thing that can help. Where is it?”

“The location is why I advise you to forget it . . .,” Winn sighed, “My spell traced it to Tempus Manor.”

“Alright, that’s my next stop then.”

“You do not just go to Tempus Manor. The manor is the power center of the Shadow Order. They control most of the city’s criminal activity, and have stakes in crime throughout the country,” Winn explained. “Some say around the world. Think of the mundane mafia, but ten time worse.”

“So how do I get this thing?”

“That, I cannot tell you, at least not without violating the neutrality of the school,” Winn replied, touching the pottery shard with her wand. “If you are set on this course of action, though, I can furnish you with this.” She handed the broken shard back to Charlotte. “It will tell you when you are close to the item, a stronger glow the closer you are.”

Stowing the shard as she rose, the necromancer met Winn’s eyes, “Thanks, for that and your time.”

On that note, she beat a hasty retreat from both the building and the Academy. As she drove back into town, Charlotte let her mind wander over the possibilities. According to her research, this was the only thing that could help, but it appeared to be unattainable. From time to time, she glanced at the spectral Goblin in the passenger seat, hoping he would offer some advice.

She was so lost in her thoughts that soon after passing the Night City limits, Charlotte almost hit a young man. As he gave her a gesture that asked what she was doing, the necromancer registered shoulder length straight brown hair, t-shirt, jeans, a staff, and a knapsack with two long white sticks on his back.

Brian Carter jumped as the car almost hit him.

He gestured toward the red light and raised his hands to silently question the driver.

With a shake of his head, the spellcrafter continued to the other side and took a left toward his destination. At least, he hoped he was going the right direction. So far he’d gotten himself lost twice in the city. Being a suburban kid from out of state was no help navigating the busy city. Heck, half the streets didn’t even have signs. He’d already had to stop for clearer directions a few times.

A couple blocks later, Brian muttered two words in a language long forgotten by mundanes. His own kind has kept it alive in some of their grimores and histories over the last six millennia. Combined, the two sought his goal . . . and failed, as they had during his last several attempts. Either he’d gotten the second word wrong or the place was protected against divinations of all sorts. Probably the second, he decided. It was, after all, said to be the home of a great master, one who may choose to test his potential students.

Brian stopped at the corner of an alley, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and willed his body and spirit to relax as he exhaled.

The effect was instantaneous.

He felt loose, all his tension released to go where it would.

His eyes opened to find three people coming toward him. As they approached from in front, behind, and the alley, he noted their threatening body language and similar style of dress. His rattan staff clattered against the pavement as his hand rose in surrender.

The one in front drew a thin wand while Brian heard the sound of steel clearing leather from behind. He ignored his right for the moment, as the one in front spoke, “We’re takin’ donations, sir . . . to beautify the city.”

“I have no money,” he replied, knowing that without his staff in hand, they’d be more confident.

“Why don’ I believe that? Ain’t gonna be a problem if we search ya?”

In response, Brian simply turned to face the knife woman behind him. He grabbed her incoming hand as he pivoted again, muttering two words to block the leader’s spell. As he continued to turn, Brian drew his oak practice dagger and let the woman’s momentum carry her into its point. As she doubled over, he’d already slid toward the alley man, slide stepped next to him, and rapped the hard wood against his assailant’s windpipe. He paused then to face the leader, the tip of his wooden knife pointed toward the man’s throat and words of power on his lips.

“I assure you, I have no money,” Brian tried again, “and no desire to fight.”

When the man glanced toward his disabled companions, the spellcrafter whispered words that caused his dropped staff to float to his open hand. The practice knife returned to its place tucked in his belt. And Brian simply walked away, maintaining his subtle, non-magical, awareness of the mugger for a few yards.

He turned a corner a few blocks later, down a narrow, junk filled alley. About halfway down, between the two soot blackened brick buildings, Brian found the door he sought. He neither saw nor expected any bell or other means of indicating his presence. The one he had come to see would know, or he was not the one Brian looked for. Besides which, he had heard the man was a stickler for tradition and courtesy.

Thus, Brian sat, his pack on his back and his training sticks set to the side in an inoffensive place.

Years of practice from a young age made sitting in the kneeling position comfortable for several hours. Even so, as night drew near and his presence had not been acknowledged, he felt cramps in his legs. Subtle breathing and internal relaxation techniques somewhat eased the ache, but not completely. To deal with the rest, Brian focused on the door and wall. He attempted to let go of conscious thoughts and ignore the night sounds of the city.

In time, the alley became filled with a darkness that passersby found impenetrable, concealing the waiting man.

This also made the city lights more difficult to ignore, or might have if Brian had not entered a trance-like state.

Two days passed in this way.

Near dusk of the third day, a young woman’s head appeared from behind the open door.

“The master wishes to know why you are blocking his door.”

“I seek, humbly, to enter the master’s attention, however briefly.”

The woman left and the cracked door closed.

A few minutes later, she returned.

“The master wishes to know why, if you sought his attention, you did not knock.”

Brian swore she had smiled for a fraction of a second after the statement.

“I had been led to believe that the master greatly honored tradition, and that sitting at his door awaiting notice was traditional.”

“Ah,” the woman nodded, “he thought it would be that. In that case, Master Sikula says you may enter and have an audience . . . after you have knocked on his door like a sensible person.”

After a few minutes, Brian muttered two words in a lost language. The air stirred as the last syllable was pronounced and two dull thuds sounded as the wind made contact with the door. The supplicant was on his feet and waiting when the woman returned, opened the door, and waved him in.

Settling In (2010)

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.

Halloween Sale

McFarland Pub, the publishers of my book, have sent the following:

HALLOWEEN HORROR SALE!

We realize that the stores have had their trees and Christmas decorations out for sale for weeks now. At McFarland though, no one wants to leapfrog past our favorite holiday, Halloween! McFarland has scheduled a sale for our books about horror – whether on film, television, literature, games, comics, culture or anything else. When you order direct from our website using the coupon code HORROR25, print editions of all horror books are 25% off Friday, October 26 through Halloween, October 31. Be prepared to be up late with the lights on…

https://mcfarlandbooks.com/flipbooks/horror-books/

This includes my book: https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/the-modern-literary-werewolf/

Zapanauts (pt. 3) (2008)

By the time they were ready to come out of jump, Sed was back on the bridge. He checked his own gear and stowed his Intech Mk. 7 blast carbine after making sure Orri’s EM-17A and Behr’s carbine were similarly locked down. Any time now, he thought, as he took his seat and took over tactical from the troll. His eyes moved over the display to note she’d kept sensors and picked up comms. Sensible move. She had PR and Orri’d have her hands full if there was traffic in orbit. Last time there hadn’t been much, but the Alliance’d also been actively attacking the Empire then. They weren’t now.

“Exiting jump in five,” the elf announced. She scanned her displays, one hand gripping the ship’s control yoke. She flexed her fingers around the handle, working out the kinks and ignoring their momentary clamminess. “Three.” Her left hung loose at her side, ready to hit controls or grab the yoke as needed.

“Two.”

Behr keyed the comm to broadcast the moment they went STL. The pre-recorded message declared their intent to land in neutral territory. Her hands hovered near the board in case anyone decided to question their neutrality.

“Jump.”

The Zapa returned to STL as close to Burkeport’s planet as was both legal and safe. Orri breathed a sigh of relief as Behr reported that their signal was broadcasting. Her eyes swept across the secondary sensors, noting scores of corvettes and frigates with not a few destroyers in orbit. There were civilian ships as well, freighters too big or old to make planetfall, but those were none of her concern except as obstacles to avoid. “Behr, IDs, a-sap, who’s out there?” she ordered, and offered up a silent prayer that their signal would be accepted. If she were a smuggler regularly, she’d send out false intent and change course once she was low enough.

“Signals claim a mix of Imperial, BCC, Warhawk, and . . . Freehold, Boss.”

“Sed?” For the moment she ignored the last faction, likely a fly-by-night local.

“No weapon locks or signs of immediate interest.”

Behr broke in, “Empire still controls the orbital territory, half the signals are claiming Imperial registry.”

“Two corvettes just raised shields and turned our way.”

“Got it,” Orri shifted her flight path to avoid the newcomers, “If they get too close, Sed, dissuade them.”

“Surface is responding, transmitting flight path from Salma,” Behr reported as she sent the data to the elf.

“BCC corvette’s breaking off,” Sed noted, “Warhawk corvette’s still on approach.”

“Keep an eye on him. Starting descent.” Even with the Vampire on sensors, Orri kept watch on the shorter range secondary system. She picked up a bit more speed to gain some distance on the pursuer. It’d mean coming in faster than was technically safe for a ship this size, but the Zapa wasn’t exactly a stock model. At least Salmagundi was lenient on fines and virtually non-existent with customs. “Got it!” She barely noticed Behr’s shout, “Warhawks’re supposedly Imperial hired mercs, Boss. Data packet from Salma’s got the current sit, political and military.”

The instant they were in the atmosphere and safe to change angles, Orri started randomly dodging the ship to throw off the corvette. She remained roughly on the prescribed path, to land a few blocks from the bar that gave its name to one of Burkeport’s few durable factions.


Orri and Sed watched the door as a squad of well armored dwarves entered the bar.

Their human companion barely glanced at the newcomers. “Ignore ‘em,” he suggested, “Imps come by ‘least once a week. Like to flash the colors, pretend they have authority here. Don’t do nothin’n the staff let ‘em be. Even Imps don’t mess with this place . . . might get the other locals worried . . . Anyway, like I said, Tas, gimme a couple hours, mebbe a day or two’n I’ll get these copied. ‘Less they’ve got some serious defense, like AI prog’ed.”

The elf and vampire continued watching the troops, also noting a few bar staff inconspicuously placed at strategic points, as the mechanic kept the negotiation. “No problem, Ged, give us time to find our drop point,” Tas slid a few local credit sticks across the table. “The rest on delivery, friend.” The sticks disappeared, along with the crew’s datasticks. Then Ged vanished in the crowded bar.

After he’d left, Behr looked up from her computer display. “Sed, sunrise is five, so you’ve got about seven hours,” she stated, “Getting into the drop site should be easy, but the data I’ve found says the authorities don’t let outsiders bring in any kind of missile weapon. They don’t seem to mind blades, clubs, and the like. And they do supposedly random searches of all goods and persons . . . the four of us together’d definitely get their attention, Boss.” And they’d be at a serious disadvantage if the drop didn’t go as planned. Even worse off, she thought, if Sed had to stay back on the ship.

“Drop has to be by five tomorrow evening,” Orri consulted their directions, “or they claim they’ll assume we did a runner. When’s sunset?”

“Eight.”

“No good stalling then. Three hours plus travel time . . . not likely. Ok, Tas get here by four and get those sticks back, copied or not. Sed can coordinate from the ship or keep it running for get away if the sheis hits.” The elf looked over her crew, noting that none of them were happy. Truth be told, neither was she, but there wasn’t much choice. In fact, there hadn’t been much choice since the derelict.

Sed had little choice either. He almost suggested that he could hide out in the building tonight, stay out the day there in concealment. But, their employers had thought of that, had to, he decided. They’d chosen a parcel office. Cliché, sure, but the public section had lots of windows, not somewhere he could go during the day. Even if he was in the building, the vamp knew he’d be effectively absent if there was trouble. He nodded to Orri’s orders, resigned to being separated from the team and unable to help in a meaningful way, not much he could do a mile away without harming bystanders and drawing the authorities’ attention.

“So, we’re got a base plan,” Tas broke in after some discussion, “How do we get the sticks across the border without being searched? A few options come to mind, but too much depends on the guards.”

“Rig something up,” Behr said as she surveyed the room, “Sed and I’ll work the room, with this place’s reputation we’ve got to be able to find someone who smuggles things over the line. If nothing else, we can observe the border guards.” Between the two of them, they should be able to spot likely prospects, even if no actual bribes crossed hands. The problem would be approaching crooked guards in a short time. Finding inattentive ones would be a lot easier.

Orri gestured toward the room at large. “Alright, let’s split and do out thing. Tas with me to the ship to work on the plan. Sed, observation. See if you can’t find some patterns.” Or contacts, if possible, which he’d probably do. “Behr, have fun, here’s a hundred in local currency to lubricate the room.” She glanced at her watch then added, “Meet back at the ship at four. We’ll crash, compare notes, and Behr can go observe day guards, if necessary. I’ll check the local comm traffic and news in the meantime.”


It was four in the morning when Behr arrived at the Zapa.

She made straight for the galley, where the crew commonly met. In fact, Orri and Tasser were already there. The latter greeted her with a drink and a lingering feathery touch on her arm. As they sat, the elf came out and asked, “Where’s Sed?”

Behr shook her head, “Haven’t seen him. Could’ve lost track of time?” She didn’t bother asking if he was back. Dumb question that people only asked in holo-vids. The captain wouldn’t ask if he was around. “Maybe he had better luck. The locals were pretty quiet, I’m guessing trade secrets. I got a few leads, Boss, but they were all tentative and . . . well, I got the sense they were grudging. Probably less certain ones.”

“Alright. I’ll sit up for Sed,” Orri offered, “You two crash for a bit, then check out the possibilities and Tas’ device.”

Both troll and elf knew they’d been lucky with even questionably bribable guards. As she left with her husband, Behr replayed her hours of conversations in her head. Even in that bar, even as a troll, they probably thought she was a plant sent to ferret out disloyal guards. Honestly, new person in town, asking questions in a bar known as a smugglers’ haunt . . . yeah, that’s what she’d think too. The company was probably more racially open than their bosses, and who knew which other factions the mercs were allied with today. At least she’d learned the two current locals were a trumped up street gang calling itself the Independent Liberation Front and a supposed local government ‘in exile’ called the Popular Front. The Freehold ships were still a mystery though. All such thoughts fled as Tas started showing off his datastick smuggling plan.

“Freck,” Orri muttered to herself on the bridge a few minutes later. “What are you frecking up to, Sed?” she asked the empty room as she read over the secure, scrambled personal message for the third time. His luck was good, whatever he was up to. The message light started blinking a few seconds after she’d settled in. “And could you be any more cryptic,” she added aloud. The message itself was clear—scram 5 4pm park street point—but the intent behind it was something else entirely. In the more immediate moment, she silently cursed and fumed. She’d hoped to mine his, she assumed, covert experience in formulating a full plan. As it stood, the best that came to mind was everyone going across individually, staggered, and hoping Tas’ device worked. On the other hand, that could be his plan. Tas wouldn’t be ready to cross until half past . . . So he likely had an idea, but couldn’t communicate it on an open channel and apparently needed the night to prepare. Which meant it came down to trusting him and his experience. Orri already knew how the other two would decide, and they had valid reason since every member of the team’d needed to trust the others for years . . .

Over an hour earlier, across Salmagundi’s territory, a figure crouched out of sight on the roof of an apartment building. It watched the two Warhawk border guards as it had done patiently for the last two hours. Across the five lane road stood other buildings. With the wall cutting off lesser streets and the buildings’ windows filled to the seventh floor, they stood like the towers of some ancient castle. The gap wasn’t nearly wide enough to protect those towers from this intruder. He assumed countermeasures against hooks and harpoons, possibly against sorcery, but there was little they could do against his kind, especially one who only planned to stay a few seconds. Maybe pressure sensors on the roof or windows, if he was dumb enough to stick around and get caught.

After gauging the distance, he backed away from the edge. For the last two hours, neither man posted at the gate had shown the slightest inclination to look around. Three in the morning wasn’t exactly the busiest or most exciting time to be on duty. And virtually all the officers would be asleep, so no real threat of an inspection to keep them alert. He recalled similar policing actions. The two down there would be local recruits, given some training and a uniform to flesh out the ranks and leave the real combatants free to cover more important areas, like the border with more violently aggressive locals.

A good distance from the edge, the figure turned. He estimated his own weight with gear. The opposing roof was roughly level with his own, one reason he’d chosen his perch. So, it should be enough. He dropped into a sprinter’s stance and silently counted to three.

With a preternatural burst of speed, Sed launched himself across the gap between buildings.

He landed with a somersault to absorb the impact and was moving toward the far edge the instant his feet touched something solid.

Two rooftops later, the vampire lowered himself to the ground in an alley and took stock of his position. His hands moved in a blur, assuring himself that everything he carried was still there. Meanwhile, he surveyed nearby buildings. The two he was between seemed to be offices. He dismissed both. The last thing he needed was a lucky maintenance worker. Across the street though . . . apartments from the looks of it. This close to a border in the city, the building was probably mostly empty. Even in the relative dark, Sed picked out the telltale pits and pockmarks that showed the building had been subject to small arms and shrapnel. Broken windows were also visible on a few floors. Exactly what he needed.

After checking the street, he crossed openly as if it was high noon on a busy day, as if he belonged there. In an alley, he found a window covered in scrawled graffiti and listened. Certain the room and apartment were empty, he drove an elbow into the reinforced glass and immediately threw his whole body into the room. After that, getting to the windowless basement and finding a place to hole up was easy.

Tas came onto the bridge hours later to find his captain sifting through local comm chatter on the public frequencies. He paused for a few seconds, watching her absorbed in sorting literally hundreds of messages that the computer filtered and let through. And still no sign or word from Sed. Not that this was unusual on a job, though they typically agreed on comm silence before he left, not after. Must be nice, Tas decided, not for the first time. Even so, the Zapa’d get nowhere without its talented mechanic, if he said so himself.

“Cap’n?” he hazarded after a few more seconds, “Got an update on the sticks. Says four’re all copied, two’re halfway. He figures to have five full copies an’ one half by the deadline. Won’t get to the sixth . . . guess security was tough.” And Ged had been one of the best data crackers he’d known, probably the best. Not that he knew many, or any, depending on who asked.

The elf paused to nod her acknowledgement. “Alright. Plan goes ahead,” she instructed, “I’ll go on just before four, you two meet up and follow alone. Hopefully Sed’ll contact me before the drop.”

As she approached the Warhawks’ checkpoint, the elf kept an eye on the small line of others. She picked out a couple obvious mercs among the regular people, and a few parcel messengers moving between parts of the city. All wore at least two colors on the armbands enclosing their right biceps. Some, like her, had a full seven color band. That didn’t seem to mean much to the dwarf and human on duty. From what Behr’d said, and what she’d seen, they stopped one in six travelers, decent odds. And she learned from those ahead. When her turn at the gate came, Orri slipped her blaster out and directed the grip at the dwarf. As expected, they ignored her knife. The chit he handed over disappeared inside her jacket as she told the Human she was visiting to seek a job for her crew. True enough to pass a simple check, she thought, they’d need a job after this one was safely behind them.

She found a place to wait for whatever contact Sed was going to make. True to long training, the elf took up a position with a clear line of sight to the checkpoint and from which she could see the whole street. She double checked her comm to be certain it was on the team’s fifth scrambler setting, one of their more secure channels. Then she waited, scanning the crowded street and glancing at the time every couple minutes. Really, she decided after a bit, the populace seemed sedate and good natured and busy for a town under what amounted to martial law. Sure, they automatically cleared a path whenever a Warhawk uniform came into sight, but most had probably grown up under the company’s rule of this part of the city. And according to the Salma packet, it was the safest neighborhood in Burkeport, despite the natural proclivities attributed to mercs. The relatively early curfew probably helped.

At exactly four, her comm buzzed.

Orri held it to her ear for privacy. With a half second lag due to scrambling, she heard Sed’s voice. “Five in. Smoke’s hand. Zero,” and it cut out. She pondered a minute, mentally orienting herself. Then she looked up the street and across. A virtual tenement stood a couple blocks from her position . . . making it five in, on the right side. The last was obvious, where else could a vampire be during the day on a planet?

He sat in the dark, his comm back in his pocket. No lights were on, he wouldn’t risk it. That was one reason he’d contacted Orri specifically. Good as they were, neither Tas nor Behr were innately capable of great sight in the dark. Even the elf’s wasn’t as good as his, but that shouldn’t matter. He waited with a view of the stairs for the few minutes it took until she came down.

“Back this way,” he said, leading his captain to a concealed area, a store room that hadn’t been used in years if the layer of dust was any gauge. Inside, Sed gestured toward a shelf and turned on his flashlight. The thin beam illuminated three sidearms. “Two EM, one blaster, boss. I could only get one spare magazine each, but . . .” he trailed off as the elf inspected the weapons, “Got them from some dealers in Salma and brought them over the wall last night. Figured they’d even the odds a bit in a pinch.”

Orri started tucking the arms inside her jacket, better to conceal them. “Nice work. Any way to get back before dark?”

If there was a pinch . . . “Thought of that, boss,” Sed gestured vaguely toward the back of the room, “The smugglers and spies here don’t use the streets all the time. Same with the local resistance groups. City’s honeycombed with tunnels that every faction digs and thinks are secret. This place has one that I’m sure’ll get back to Salma, maybe even to the port.” After that, well, he could stand the sun for a few seconds to dash across the tarmac. Any more than that was questionable.

“Right. Get back a-sap and do everything possible to get on Zapa,” Orri directed, fully aware of what that would take, “These’re great, but I want ears and eyes covering us on this one. Check your comm for three seconds, every five minutes, scram four, in case there’s trouble. Tas’ll do the same as long as we’re together, if we split, everyone will. That starts in . . . eleven minutes.” She watched for a second then added, “Go on. Move.”

As Sed vanished into the back of the store room, she shook her head and vacated the room. He meant well, of that the elf was certain, but sometimes he was a great team player, other times he didn’t seem to know what that meant. In a way, it was good, she thought as she stepped into the sunlight, kept everyone on their toes and adapting. And she understood that his one physical weakness was probably frustrating, especially with the team. But still . . . the elf let the thought fade away as she spotted Tas. Once she caught up, she simply asked, “Any problems?”

“None whatsoever, cap’n. The goods’re safe an’ sound, the goons never suspected anything.”

Sed moved through the tunnels as fast as he could. He was regretting calling them a honeycomb earlier, that implied a sense of order. Warren or maze, set up by a mad designer, would be better. He checked the comm and compass regularly. GPS would be more accurate, but the factions kept knocking out each others’ satellites as soon as they were launched. The vamp rushed as much as he could, painfully aware that Seetee would be monitoring comm traffic, but the ‘bot’s programming in that area was limited, it might miss something critical.

After a bit, he left the comm on receive, the white noise helped him concentrate. And there was the sound of Tas checking . . . and apparently leaving his comm transmitting because Sed heard Behr’s voice . . .

“Sheis! Down!”

A thump of someone being tackled.

Then the loud characteristic sound of blaster fire mixed with the soft crack of EM rounds going supersonic.

Sed started to run, trusting that he more or less had his bearings.

“I count six,” he heard Tas report, “four in the back, two outside.” A sizzle of ionized air followed as a blaster shot came in the comm’s range.

“Authorities have been contacted, sirs,” Seetee reported as Sed took a tight turn, “ETA two minutes.”

By then, everything would be over, the vampire thought as he found a straight tunnel and sped up.

The weapons fire and shouted orders continued until Sed found a door. Hoping it was the one, he figured he was near the port, he dashed through, not letting himself pause to consider what was on the other side.

An intense itching, burning sensation not unlike a full body sunburn started instantly as the light touched him. Squinting, Sed picked out the Zapa across the landing field, a couple hundred yards away. Within a few feet, his inhuman speed kicked in and he streaked across the tarmac, leaving a bit of smoke and black marks on the duracrete in his wake.

By the time he reached the bridge, Sed was bright red and on edge as every nerve ending fired messages to his brain. He’d need to feed soon, it would take a lot to heal. But, he was already starting to fix the damage as Seetee filled him in.

“They have managed to escape, sir,” the ‘bot knew better than to assume he’d rest, “Authorities are on the scene and have located five corpses of the six attackers. Exactly seventeen point eight five seconds ago they split up.”

Sed nodded. Behr was the most important to get back. She stood out a lot more than the rest. By now, all three should have ditched their temporary weapons. “Alright. Get me a channel to Behr on scram four. She should check in . . . half a minute. Once she’s in, we’ll get Tas. Orri knows enough to lay low for a bit.”

What happened then, who knew, he thought. The important thing was to get everyone home now.

Zapanauts (pt. 2) (2008)

Two days later the Zapa was making its approach to dock. The last day had been spent coming in at STL speeds, making sure they didn’t have an accident in the busy system. Every few decades some pilot with more guts than brains tried jumping in close to a station or planet in a high traffic area. Last reported case had popped inside a Republic warship. The pilot spent his life making restitution to a few thousand families. While Orri thought she was good enough to pull off that kind of jump in a pinch, she wasn’t dumb enough to try it without a damn good reason.

When the clang of docking clamps connecting to her hull resounded through the ship a moment later, the Elf released the controls with a tired sigh. For the next couple days they’d rely on the torus station for life-support and power as their own stores were replenished. She thumbed the comm and released her crew to liberty dockside. Not that any of them would find much entertainment, not after a haul-less run. They’d collectively be lucky if they could replenish supplies and still afford rooms at a sleepover instead of on ship. Another sigh passed through her body. Hopefully, they’d find a decent job or two this time.

Down below, the other three waited for the airlock and security door to cycle then hit the docks. Tas split off immediately to yell at the dock crew about supplies and fuel. Sed and Behr continued on toward the far side, the inner wall. They silently crossed the ring that was part hanger, part loading dock, and all mercantile cacophony. Their job was to find a different sort of noise, and there was no point in trying to have a conversation until the green section door closed behind them.

Once that happened, the Vampire and Troll found themselves in the familiar spacers’ section of the station. A quick glance around confirmed their bearings and where they’d expected to be. Nothing in the busy station section of bars, sleepovers, casinos, and store fronts had changed in the year since they’d last docked at Tae’s Station.

Behr clapped his shoulder and nodded to their right. “You’d better take Serret’s. Don’t think he’d be happy to see me,” she said, recalling the inadvertent brawl in the mercenaries’ bar. Sed shook his head, the troll’d been one of a few still standing, therefore the first to be blamed. “I’ll take the Nebula. Meet at Crystal Lee’s in . . . two hours?” The vamp just nodded and headed off to his assignment. Best that she takes the merchant pub, he thought, she had those contacts, he didn’t. Most of his connections were of a more paramilitary persuasion.

Both knew the drill. Go in for an hour, maybe a bit longer, listen for jobs, leave word with the barkeep or owner, head to the next place or home. If someone needed their services, they’d hear, and it wouldn’t be logged in the station comm network. Which didn’t mean the bar owners weren’t funneling news to station suits, he thought, but there were ways of dealing with that. And certain people were trustworthy.

Ninety-some minutes later, there was no hint of surprise in his voice as Sed called in to the Zapa. Serret’s was virtually empty, save only for Kuvos, a human who, it was said, walked into the place looking for work a decade ago and never left. Orri couldn’t say she was surprised either, the docks weren’t exactly booming, which could go either way for them. She passed on the name and address of their cheap sleepover before shutting down all but the most essential systems and leaving CT-721 on the bridge to relay comms. Once all the routine lockdown was done, the Elf descended to the airlock and out onto the docks.

She instantly spotted Tas a couple dozen meters away, engaged in overseeing the refueling. She strode across the deck toward him, veering around crates and cables she’d never consciously registered. The snapshot her mind took when she looked at a scene had served her well while flying and on the ground. If asked, Orri could still recall the day she’d learned that not everyone saw the world that way, where before she’d just thought her childhood friends were simply clumsy.

As she drew closer, she called out, “Tas, leave it . . . let the ground boys do their jobs.” Her tone left no room for argument, while also calling the tech over, a tone she’d spent years learning. She watched as Tas reluctantly left off and made his way to her. He smiled as he drew close, and she let herself relax and relent.

“They’ve got new Anderston couplings, boss,” he offered, “Wanted to be sure there’s a tight fit.” Or they’d be paying for waste fuel, she added for herself. Was she that focused these days?

“No luck for Sed. I doubt Behr had much either,” the Elf explained, “We’ll be here at least a few days, not much traffic in or out for the last week.” Even less scheduled for the next. It looked bad, but she’d bet it was just a cyclic lull in activity. Most stations seemed to get that from time to time. “We’re at the Evening Star for three nights,” she smiled wanly, “It’s not much, but we don’t have a lotta credit here anymore. Two rooms, I’ll share with Sed, unless you’d like to . . .”

Tas grinned and shook his head, “Tough choice . . . my lovely wife or Mr. ‘You-and-Your-Mortal-Frailties’? I’ll pass. ‘Sides, Behr’d take my head off.”

Well, Orri thought as they left the dock, if I’m predictable, at least they are too. Better work on that before we get another military contract. If we ever get another one.

Over the next few days, the whole crew fell into a routine. Practice and check on the ship before noon, visit the bars and other job sites fruitlessly before dinner. Eat frugally, have a couple drinks, turn in early. Just about every night, Orri fell asleep to the sounds of the traditional entertainment of the financially poor coming through the thin wall from her crew’s room. And she never once actually saw Sed sleep, despite several attempts to catch him.

After a week without progress, save at racking up bills, Behr woke her husband and their captain with two jobs. She barely glanced at Sed, who’d been sitting in a corner of his shared room apparently using the station intranet. Gracing them all with a toothy grin, the Troll wasted no time. “I decided to try out the third watch for the last couple days,” she started, “and it paid off. If we move fast, we’ve got a choice of two jobs. There’s a milk run of foodstuffs headed for the Union, only paying enough for a five, six percent profit. And there’s an undisclosed list of goods bound for the Empire, the current owner assures me they are small in size.”

She watched as Orri looked to their partners, gauging their reactions. The Elf got nothing either way from Sed. Typical. The Vampire never really seemed to care what jobs they took. She could see the scales balancing in Tas’ eyes, though. Food to the Union meant a nice easy, and legal, run, barring pirates or other unlikely surprises. A trio to the Empire, with unnamed and small cargo, on the other hand, meant smuggling. High risk, especially moving into Imperial territory, but also high pay. Which all of her crew knew. Tas was obviously, to Orri anyway, weighing the risk to his wife and friends against basic greed and Behr’s equally obvious desire to take the job. Freck all, they could probably use the excitement right now, keep their edge. And gods knew they could use the money, with the Commonwealth cracking down on all the low risk, high profit scams, not that her crew would do any such thing.

The nominal captain moved to flex her privileges and decide the matter before Tasser talked himself out of it. “We’ll take the Imperial job. Sixty-five hundred, plus expenses, including refueling and restocking food.”

Behr smiled broadly, “They’re wiling to go up to nine thousand and expenses, go for seven five? They’re just waiting on your call, boss.”

An hour later, calls had been made on personal comms, avoiding the station system, and Behr led her captain into a small shop off the main visitor strip. Negotiations had been swiftly conducted remotely, with Sed and Tas monitoring the comms for signs of tracing. In fact, as she and Behr entered the shop, Orri decided that they’d been a little too swift. Almost like their employer’d been specifically looking for them. At this point, a job was a job though and this one looked to produce a decent haul for half a week’s work. She veered off from Behr, both pretending to look over the shelves and barely registering the merchandise. After a few minutes, Orri noticed the Troll nodding, their prearranged signal.

Something had been deposited in her hand, Behr guessed it was only as long as one of Tasser’s fingers since it barely fit the width of her palm. A little thick and shifting, possibly a bundle. She subtly examined the object tactilely as Orri left the shop. A few heartbeats later, the Troll followed, convinced that she held a small collection of datasticks. Probably Republic, but Tas and Sed were the experts. In fact, she thought as she spotted her captain, that’s probably who Orri was talking to right now. She lengthened her stride to catch up before the Elf turned off the main drag.

“She just joined me now, Tas. The cargo seems to check out,” or her friend-comrade would have said something, “We’ll take a closer look when we get in . . .ten, twenty minutes.”

Tas leaned back at the little used comm station. The seat hadn’t been broken in yet, Orri preferred to operate in one crewperson mode. He sighed and flashed Sed a wan smile over near fire control. “Everythin’ looks good,” he relayed, “Cap’n doesn’t think they have shadows . . . doin’ a little extra research?” The last as he got up and spotted the Vampire’s screen.

“Just doing a little recon on our buddies,” Sed passed back, running his fingers along the touch screen, “A bunch of dead ends so far, but, well that says something itself. And no one’s reported our wreck in the last six years. About how far off the regular lanes was it?”

“Dunno. Ten, twelve thousand k, just out of standard shop sensor range. A little odd place for a hidden cache.”

Sed nodded, “That’s what I thought. Bit close for your normal dump, if there is such a thing. Only three reasons to put it there. If you’re afraid of losing it, if its temporary, or if you want to visit it a lot.”

“Dead in space with no noticeable drift. And the mil-grade bots’re strange for a place you’ll abandon in less than a year or two.”

“Exactly,” the Vampire frowned, “Seetee. How long would it take you to trace a . . . five jump trip, with a decent look at the ship you’re tracing?”

The robot was silent for a few seconds. Then, “Impossible in 99.4% of situations, sir. There are too many variables. If I knew the ship’s drive capability that might limit the options, but there would still be, conservatively, several thousand possible destinations.”

“What if you had a decent scan and the ship was in a couple public registries?”

“Depending on record access and the ship’s patterns in the region, sir, the possibilities could be limited to a few dozen or a couple score within three days.”

Tasser caught up, “Are you thinkin’ . . .”

“Just exploring possibilities. With the right network of resources, up to fifty or sixty sites could be scoutable in a couple days,” Sed mused, “But too dangerous to go after anyone near a station or even planet where Commonwealth patrols might stray by. But a set trip that included time in international space . . . it bears some consideration.” He raised a hand to forestall Tas’ response as their crewmates appeared on an external camera. “It is only a suspicion. Tell your wife if you wish, I’ll let the boss know, if I get more solid evidence.”

The security lock released as they reached the door. Both women entered without breaking stride.

In the lift, Behr unwrapped the small bundle she carried and showed eight datasticks to her captain. They rolled nearly flat in her palm, seven a dull grey with black markings, the eighth a gaudy red of a brand marketed toward school kids. She looked askance as they reached and passed the second deck. “Red must be the instructions and drop point, you think?”

Orri nodded and took the odd stick as they reached the third deck. “Looks like it. Take Tas and lock everything down,” she instructed as they moved down the short corridor toward the bridge, “I want Sed and Seetee to look this over before we play it, but I’ll prep for launch.” She tossed the stick to the vampire, certain he’d heard her instruction since he motioned the robot over to a corner of the bridge. By the time Behr’d left the other sticks and taken Tasser to the rear, she’d slid into the pilot’s seat, called up the holo-HUD, and started negotiations with station control for clearance to leave. Her eyes scanned the modified room through the translucent screens as she checked supply statuses and made the switch from station to reactor power. All that met her gaze was Sed and the robot hunched over an un-networked computer terminal.

He ran a few basic test programs, CT-721 watching over his shoulder. The ‘bot was a better programmer by far, but he’d had long experience with a certain element of society, and they hadn’t yet managed a program for imagination or intuition. Thus he made occasional tweaks to the program as he figured out how to bring his suspicion to his captain-friend. Behr’s reaction, he expected, would be easily predictable. First she’d think, considering the challenge and excitement, then . . .

“But, he did say it was only a guess, right?” the Troll asked as she checked straps in the relatively bare cargo hold.

Her husband barely glanced at the quarter-full space while he checked seals, “Sure, but you know Sed.”

“He wouldn’t say anything unless he’s pretty sure? Right,” she jerked a strap around a case of food tighter, “And he wouldn’t agree to the job if he thought we couldn’t handle it, love, at least if he saw other options.”

“You think he knows more’n he’s lettin’ on?”

Behr’s bark of a laugh echoed in the empty space. “When hasn’t he held something back? Or Orri, or us for that matter?”

There was that. They’d come together years ago because lone mercenaries didn’t make it often and solo salvage work was too dangerous. And most of what they knew about their fellows, friends, came from reputations, rumors, and random chats. Tas was silent, lost in his thoughts. Sure, Sed’s background was one of those mysteries, but he himself hadn’t told anyone why he wasn’t working a cushy job for a tech firm, not through fear but because everyone needed some private secrets.

As they moved into position to jump and reports came up from Behr and Tasser, Sedge was still working out how to pass on his suspicion without losing too many secrets. The bridge was silent then, as Orri lost herself in the ship, achieving a trance-like state while they approached the countdown to jump. He watched her out of the corner of his eye, having never seen a pilot reach that state before he’d met this crew. At least, no pilot who lacked the cybermods necessary to wire his brain directly into the ship. An involuntary tremor went up his spine at the reminder of those man-machines. Fortunately, the fad had mostly passed after a few decades of spaced out pilots.

A flashing light brought him back an instant before Seetee pointed it out.

“Data’s coming up, Boss,” Sed relayed, his fingers dancing over a networked pad next to the station, “Sending over destination, now.”

The ship entered jump before Orri turned from her screens. “Burkeport?”

“Don’t know anything else there, Boss,” the vampire affirmed, consciously mimicking Behr’s name for the Elf, as he rose from the terminal, “Nothing else has been built there in . . . thirty years? We’ve got bigger problems, there’s a message you should see too.”

He monitored the new station while she silently read. After a couple minutes, Orri returned to her command station. Through the translucent HUD, she said, “As soon as we’re out of jump, get Behr and Tas to the galley. Tell them now, then get back up here and tell me everything you know or suspect, or get off my ship. I don’t pry, Sed, and I don’t work with someone for years without learning some tells. You’re holding back and this isn’t the time for it. So tell me, or get out and I’ll get it from Tasser.” She turned back to the screens, confident he’d follow orders. He’d probably told Behr, but that meant Tas knew. And Tas was easier to get to talk, easier than any troll at least. The Elf captain fumed silently, using her focus on the incoming streams of ship data to keep her face and temper composed.

A few hours later, Tas and Behr sat across from each other at the galley table when their hushed conversation was aborted by the arrival of their comrades. They covertly looked askance at Sed, who led the way. He didn’t reply, but both noted that his complexion looked more pale that its usual sun-deprived hue. Both donned expressionless looks quickly since their captain was right on his heels. As the vampire slid into a seat, Orri planted herself in front of the door and let her gaze roam over the three, appearing for all purposes like a stern mother with a group of wayward children.

She cut off Tas as he started to speak. “As you all know,” Orri started, skipping the part about her being last, “we may be working for the organization that owned the dump. Sed’s already obviously shared his suspicions with you. We need to get down to business, so we’ll refrain from discussing the problems there for now. Since we undocked, further possible evidence has presented itself. The instruction stick included a message. First, we’re only getting a third of the contracted fee for our services. Second,” she held up a hand to forestall comments, “that stick has a suspicious data set that could have been meant to hijack the computer. Third, supposedly one of the sticks has a homing device in it, probably mid-range though we don’t even know which stick it is. So, we assume we are being watched.”

“Dump the sticks,” Behr suggested immediately, though she assumed that had already been dismissed.

“No, not with an organization,” Sedge countered, “It might take a while, but they could have the resources to extrapolate our course.”

“No choice then. What’s the destination?”

“That’s the good news,” the Elf took over again, “The only good news. Burkeport. You still have contacts there, Tas?”

“Probably,” he allowed, “Guy I useta know worked at the Salmagundi few years ago, couple others joined him, cap’n. What’s on the sticks?”

Orri shrugged, “Who knows? If it’s an organization, I’d say fake ID, shipping schedules . . . doesn’t really matter, we can’t risk checking. Not even on the mute terminal.” For all she knew, the things would blow if they tried tampering with them, or might wipe their data. If either happened, they’d be in worse trouble. “We jump again in an hour. Tomorrow we should cross the Commonwealth-Empire border and be at Burkeport by noon.” Which left groundside customs.

“Salmagundi would give us a safe place to land, cap’n. And I could contact people about moving stuff through the city,” Tas added, “Any chance of duping the sticks?”

Sed shook his head, “Not with out equipment and my limited skill. I wouldn’t trust copying to Seetee either, takes a living touch to catch any insurance they might have. But, since we’re being frecked, Salmagundi’s as good a place as any to stop at. Might be we could find a good, reliable datarunner there.”

Behr nodded her agreement. “Beats landing directly in imperial or BCC territory . . . and who knows if the locals still exist.” In the volatile region, only three factions had remained reasonably stable for more than a few years at a time. Though they had worked for the Popular Liberation Party once, years ago.

“Salma it is,” the Elf captain agreed, outvoted. It was a logical choice and her first reaction anyway. “Make it five jumps, just to frek with the frekers. You two are free until then. Sed, consider yourself confined to quarters until we reach Burke’s system. And next time, tell me as soon as you suspect anything.” Honestly, it wasn’t much of a punishment for him ,she reflected on her way back to the bridge, but it was the principle of the thing that mattered.

Three jumps later, Orri took a break to study the Zapa’s long range scans. The ship was practically on the Commonwealth-Empire border. She skimmed the logs, looking for ships. Space was too vast for government patrols to stop every ship for customs checks, but the Empire gave its captains the right to search any ship they saw, especially in the region they were about to enter. The area was home to just under a dozen systems that the governments had been fighting over for generations. And the locals apparently didn’t want to join either nation. Rumor had it that the Republic was adding its own confusion by funding local resistance groups to keep the Empire and Commonwealth attacking each other. All in all, she thought as she decided to get some sleep, not the most stable region of space, even if Tas’ friends panned out. Still, it would be easier to smuggle things into the Empire there than it would be on a more stable planet.

Sed spent the trip in his small quarters, his body shut down in what the others often called hibernation, for want of a better word. Though his body was still, his mind worked feverishly. For a time, he wondered about his comrades. His thoughts focused on Orri. Behr and Tas were probably going at it like zarts, they rarely had the time when things got busy. So he ignored them. Even Orri didn’t draw too much of his attention, except peripherally. The vampire concentrated on ways he could ensure the success of the job and keep the team from losing any major limbs or organs. That would be his captain’s major concern, he knew, and therefore the best way to reclaim her respect would be to find answers to that question. Of his teammates, she was the one most likely to live longest, the last one to leave him through age. The ideas weren’t exactly flocking around him, though. It’d been decades since he’d last dealt with the Empire directly and felt like as long since Burkeport. No contacts, no idea what the current situation was. By the time the third jump ended, Sed gave up fruitless planning, at least until the crew was in orbit and they had useful info.

The next jump found Orri and Behr on the bridge. The pilot ran a few checks on her display. Tas, she knew, would be doing the same in the engine room. She glanced at the troll, “How’s tactical?”

“Everything’s charged, shields and targeting read in the green, Boss.”

“Great.” Orri cleared her throat as a text report came from Tas. She keyed the shipwide intercom, “Alright, people, we’re ready to jump into Imperial space. We’ll run silent and hope to avoid trouble. Once we’re out, we’ll have an hour til next jump, more if we get into a firefight. So, let’s avoid that. Sed, your punishment’s suspended for now, get on damage control.”

Toward the far end of the ship, Tas swung under a railing to secure one last, loose part, when he felt the characteristic sensation of the ship jumping. He absently hoped Sed had gotten stable in time as he started checking displays and making alterations in power distribution. If they got into a fight, he wanted to free up as much power as possible for the jump capacitors. Much as he liked the ship, there was no way the Zapa could stand an hour against an Imperial destroyer or cruiser. Good thing a battleship wasn’t remotely likely.

A short time later, the mechanic felt the jump drive cut off as the FTL trip ended.

“Sheis!”

Tas jumped as Behr’s curse exploded from the comm. Orri’s quickly followed, “Imperial transponder at the edge of sensor range.”

The troll cut in, “PDLs deployed, automatic. Railguns deploying.”

“Divert forward shields to the rear. Tas, get the jump drive any power you can.”

The mechanic’s reply was cut off by a deep, gravely voice on the comm: “This is the I.S.S. Interdiction. You’ve entered Imperial space, cut engines and prepare to be boarded for inspection.” The message began to repeat before Orri silenced it.

“Behr, no fire unless necessary. Knock out missiles, no offense. Tas . . .”

“On it, Cap’n, should be a few seconds.”

Orri nodded to herself, crew as efficient as she could hope. She started weaving the ship to confound any missiles they might try to launch. It had been a while since their last Imperial encounter, but everyone knew the dwarves liked missiles for some reason. She glanced at a time display running backwards. Still nearly an hour before the capacitors would recharge. “Behr, cut dorsal and ventral shields 50%, divert what we can spare to the capacitors.” Tas would, she was sure, already be getting as much power as possible.

Across the bridge, the Troll’s fingers flew over her own displays. She felt a small tremor as she cut power on two facings and the countdown cut fifteen minutes. That done, her attention went back to targeting, which was hopeless at this range. Without augmentation, the targeting sensor range was outstripped by weapon range, at least with modern energy weapons. On the upside, their pursuer didn’t seem to be gaining on them.

“Cap’n! Registry shows a Sturm-class frigate,” Tas came over the comm, “usually on patrols and scouting. About as fast and well armed as us.”

“Great. Sed, up on deck,” the elf ordered, “Nothing else on scan and the Imps don’t have stealth, so. Cut all shields but the rear, divert everything to the capacitors and engines. See if we can’t boost our lead a bit.”

A few moments later, Sed slid into the open bridge seat. He asked nothing, Orri’d already sent the sensor data feed to his terminal. His job was obvious; focus on scans while she did more important things. This wasn’t the time or the place to apologize or bring up the past. Besides, elves were notorious for holding grudges. He repressed a smile at a story that one elf once held a grudge over an imagined slight for well over a century. Hopefully, it wouldn’t take that long. He might have eternity, but even she didn’t, unless she became one of his kind. The vampire glanced up at his corner display.

Thirty-six minutes, Tas noted. Maybe twenty-four if he could get past the safeties and draw more power from secondary systems. Probably not enough time, unless gods forbid the Imps were scouts for a larger fleet. There was a faster method. He started moving around the mechanical room at a fevered pitch. His hands flew, manually disconnecting backup systems, most of them redundant necessities that crew’d added over the years as precautions. Just cut a few more minutes off and it wouldn’t matter if the whole freking Imp fleet was out there waiting in ambush.

Everyone watched the last few minutes countdown, each second passing slowly by.

Orri’s finger hovered before the holographic button that would start the jump drive. She’d pre-calculated their course. The STL distance they’d traveled was insignificant by interstellar reckoning. They just needed full capacitors. Thirty seconds to go. Twenty-eight.

Twenty-five.

Sed’s eyes were locked on the display where a dot representing the Interdiction grew stronger and began to inch closer. Probably pushing their thrusters beyond the safe limit. “Twenty second to intercept,” he informed his captain. Fifteen. They’d be cutting it close, if the Imps had lasers or particle weapons. Because they preferred missiles and railguns, well, hopefully no serious lasers.

Seven.

Sensor data fed to tactical and command diverted Behr and Orri’s attention as their eyes flickered between the readouts. Still the Imp ship crept ever closer. Orri silently sent word to her people’s gods. With luck and some intervention, the frigate’s power plant would blow. Or the captain would decide it wasn’t worth risking his ship over a light freighter. Two.

The frigate’s armament and shields came up on the scan computer terminal.

An instant later, the elf stabbed the holo-button and the Zapa leapt beyond the light barrier.

The crew let out a collective breath. They could be followed, the Imps could call ahead, but the captain couldn’t know where they were headed and tracking ships in jump was virtually impossible without a homing beacon.

Orri let her crew savor their reprieve for a few seconds, let them enjoy the adrenaline rush. Then she got them back to work. “Next stop, Burkeport. Behr, get the shields back online and powered up. Leave PDLs and railguns. Tas, nice work, get things secure down there. Sed, you’re still on probation. Transfer sensors to Behr’s station, then get everyone’s gear. We may need to be ready for a boarding, depending on who’s in space.”