Conversations on the Utopian Ideal: Twenty Seven

Commander Amieta Invelen strode into the Captain's quarters without knocking - not a privilege enjoyed by anyone else on the crew. Strictly speaking, not one the XO should have either. Just one of the ways we've been sloppy, Amieta thought. And the Cluster hasn't fallen on our heads, has it?

Silver was at a work bench - real wood, of course - very carefully teasing apart the pages of a book that had clearly seen better days. Better centuries, even.

Probably another accounting ledger or a manual on second dynasty sewage treatment. Just so long as it's old. Amieta rolled her eyes and cleared her throat, and Silver looked up from the book with a barely perceptible start, and then a barely perceptible smile. "Ami."

Amieta closed the door behind her. One more habit we should never have gotten in to. Still, the carelessness they'd both slipped into worked in her favor now. "Silver, we should talk."

His gaze sharpened. "Is something - "

"No," she said quickly. "Nothing's wrong. It's - I'll make us some tea, okay?"

By the time the tea was ready, Silver had carefully stored away the guide to animal husbandry or whatever it was. Amieta poured for them both as he took a seat across the low table from her.

He took his tea, "We don't do this often enough, anymore."

"You're probably right." Ami shrugged, "A lot's changed. That's what I wanted to talk with you about."

Silver sipped his tea and waited. Politely. As usual. Used to infuriate me. Still does, sometimes. It's better, for this though. Better to be able to say what I need to say.

"Cia's ... she's not doing so well, right now. And how things are, between us ... she needs to be able to tell Dr Akell about what's happened. All of what's happened."

Silver frowned slightly, and Amieta hurried on before he could speak, "I know, I know what you're thinking. I think the security issue is pretty much gone, now. I don't think keeping things secret makes any of us any safer. It was you and me for a long time, and I know you just wanted to make sure I was safe. Make sure they couldn't use me against you. But there have been rumors, among the crew, for a long time. Anyone who wants to buy a few drinks for any of the crew on leave can find out that we've been a bit closer than employee and employer."

Silver set his cup down. "Ami ..."

Amieta interrupted him, "As for Cia, well. She's high profile all by herself, now. Not the wet behind the ears pilot she was when you first met her. If anything, more people knowing what's between you and her might make her safer. Knowing it's not just that you're good friends and that they'd be in for a pain shit-storm if they touched her. It might even keep you safer too. I mean, she's a director now." Amieta snorted, "She's probably scarier than you, to some people. Anyway, we can start slow. Just let Hiri - Dr Akell - know, to begin with. We're fucked anyway, if we can't trust her."

Silver finally managed to get a few words in, "If you're sure. Ami, you know it was always about safety. You, Cia, Camille ... It's-"

"-dangerous being close to a podder." Amieta finished for him, The more some things change, the more they stay the same, "I know. But Cia's a target whether you are in the picture or not. So is Camille, because she's Cia's sister. Also whether you're in the picture or not. And Silver, with the twins coming ... a lot of things are about to change."

He nodded, with the faintest trace of a smile. "Unexpectedly. Not unwelcome, of course. But ..."

"I know. How do you think I feel?" Amieta asked. "I feel responsible, you know. You two would still be polite acquaintances if not for the decisions I made. And Cia ... never asked for any of the complications, and she's kept our secrets whatever the cost. And Silver, you know what it cost."

"I know," Silver said quietly. "I was there, Ami."

"It's still costing her. What she can't talk about, to her doctor, hells, I'm half-convinced it's part of what's got her twisted around with Charlie." Amieta shrugged. "How can she get close to someone she's keeping a gigantic mindfuck of a secret from?" She sipped her tea, and watched him over the rim of her cup. "Unless you're thinking that's better. That she goes on keeping him at arm's length."

"That would be ... selfish." Silver said. He paused, and Amieta kept quiet, Let him work out the truth of it himself.

Their closeness was one of the things that made her such a good XO for him. Much easier to anticipate the Captain when you were that close. Easier to tell when he was going to get that you were right -That being most of the time- too. Eventually, he nodded, as she'd known he would. "You're right, Ami. I don't think we have to keep it quite so secret. Keeping everything quiet has served its purpose, but things change. Have changed."

Amieta finished her tea, "Thanks. I'll tell Dr Akell."

"And Cia?" Silver asked.

Amieta shook her head. "She needs to hear it from you, Silver. That it's your decision, not just me telling her what I want to be true. I know it's not ..." She glanced at the teapot and quirked an eyebrow. "Your cup of tea, that sort of conversation. But this really is something she needs to hear from you."

Silver nodded, "I'll just ... try to get used to the idea. It can be an adjustment. Letting go of things."

"Yeah, some things they don't make a skill pack for."


Amieta rolled her eyes, though with a smile, and left.


Job Interview

She was leaving a funeral when he saw her.

She saw him, too. A thrill of... something, when their eyes met. Something he thought he wouldn't feel again. Recognition, maybe, or the nameless sense of knowing that recognition was a pale shadow of.

She was thin. Not like a holostar, but wiry. Spare. Hard blue eyes in a face with its share of laugh-lines.

She cut through the crowd toward him, held out her hand, "I'm Amieta."

He shook her hand. His reply was automatic. Ingrained. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Captain Silver Night."

Vaguely friendly, but impersonal. His expression was a politely interested mask. He could feel the hard metal of a prosthetic under the gloves she was wearing.

I'm right, he thought. I'm wrong.

She's still holding my hand.

I'm right.

She spoke again, voice low with a faint smoker's rasp. "You want to get out of here? Maybe get a drink?"

He didn't drink. He couldn't let her leave. He released her hand and found himself saying, "I would like that, yes."

They found a place a couple of levels down, a low end place catering to dock-workers where shoddy maintenance had green streaks striping condensation-damp walls. They settled at a rickety table with their cheap synthetic whiskeys. Amieta spoke before the uncomfortable silence could gain too much momentum, "You're a podder."

Silver stopped himself from reaching back and touching the plug on the back of his neck. Even though it hadn't been a question, he answered, "Yes. A couple of years, now. For Ishukone, mostly."

She nodded, "I'm in independent security consulting. Up north."

Guristas, she meant. Silver took a drink. Realized he didn't really care if she was a Gurista. Didn't care, right then, that he didn't drink, that she was a Gurista, that this was the last place in the Cluster he'd ever chose to socialize, that he didn't have his security detail, that there was every chance they might be seen.

Nothing mattered but the woman sitting across from him.

"How did you get into that?"

She paused, threw back her drink, and told him. He knew after the first sentence he didn't want to know, knew at the same time that he had to know.

Because it was her.

Because it had always been her.

He couldn't remember later how long it took her to tell the story. Not long, compared to how long it had taken her to live through it. Long enough for a scattering of empty glasses to accumulate in front of both of them.

He tried to think of what to say. Something that wasn't polite and hollow. Something that didn't have pity, or sympathy, or any of the other things he already knew she wouldn't have much use for.

I'll kill them for you. All of them. I'm a podder, that's a promise I can keep.

"Ami - "

His chair flew out from under him and he looked up to see a handful of people in KK service crew uniforms. The one still holding Silver's chair smiled, showing yellowed teeth with a certain lack of sincerity, "You're sitting at our table. This is my chair."

Silver wobbled to his feet. Floor. Moving. Oh, whiskey, that's right. "I'm sure we can-"

Suddenly he was on the ground again, and his jaw hurt something fierce. The man had hit him. Silver scrambled to his feet, adrenaline clearing his head a bit as he tried to remember years-ago self-defense training. The KK crewmen were laughing.

"You can have my chair." Amieta stepped past him, swinging her chair in a tight arc that ended abruptly with the lead KK thug. He went down in a tangle with the wreckage, and Silver stared for a moment, then charged another of the crewmen. He thought that it seemed to be the thing to do, or perhaps the whiskey thought it seemed to be the thing to do.

Tackling him to the ground, Silver got an elbow in the stomach for his trouble. He tried to punch for the man's head, but slammed his wrist into the corner of the bar. He realized, as the man he'd tackled threw him off and into another group of patrons, that he might be a bit out of his depth. He struggled back to his feet and saw Amieta casually headbutt someone, and backhand someone else. She looks like she's having a good time, anyway.

He heard the scrape of chairs behind him, and thought perhaps he should explain it was an accident, knocking over their table. He turned just in time to get punched in the face. Again.

This time, as he sat on the floor trying to get his bearings, a strong hand hauled him up by the collar, and Amieta said in his ear, "Time to go, flyboy. Come on, out the back."

She grabbed his hand, and he tried to keep up as she fled out the back, stumbling after her while angry customers and the sound of approaching station security pursued them. He slipped and slid in something in the alley behind the dive, but she kept him from falling and dragged him around the corner before she let go so that they could both sprint as fast as possible away. They had a good head start, but the sounds of pursuit stayed close as they ducked through twists and turns in the bowels of the station.

Suddenly, he realized she was no longer in front of him, and turned in confusion. He'd lost sight of her for only a moment, and she'd disappeared. Security was close behind them, and -

The walls flew sideways, a firm grip on his arm yanking him into a maintenance corridor. He lost his balance, fell on something soft and hard as the door slid shut behind him, and blinked his vision clear to see Amieta looking up at him, finger to her lips, eyes dancing. Footsteps pounded past outside and Silver held his breath until they faded away into the distance.

"You can get up now," Amieta said.

Silver disentangled himself and propped himself against the wall. Amieta sat up and shuffled over next to him, shoulder touching his. He shook from the adrenaline. He was alone with an admitted pirate, and wanted by station security. He could see his knuckles were split, though he didn't remember getting any punches in. He could taste his own blood, over the flavor of the whiskey. His clothes were almost certainly ruined.

Amieta was laughing.

Silver realized he was too.

"You were pretty terrible back there, you know?" she said. "I thought pod-pilots were supposed to be all fearsome and dangerous."

"With a battleship, perhaps," Silver said.

She turned to look at him. "Did it hurt? Getting those things put in?"


"And now you can't ever die." There was something wistful in her lopsided smile.

"Pilots can die," Silver said. "Not easily. And those close to us ... podders are dangerous. To those close to us, most of all."

"So you call yourself 'Silver Night'," Amieta said. "Can I - " She raised one hand towards his neck, stopped.

The implants were capped, of course, but still, a direct neural connection to his brain. Not something you let strangers near.

She wasn't a stranger, not in any of the ways that mattered. Silver bent his head forward and felt her cool metal fingers trace the edges of the implant jacks, a touch as delicate as a surgeon's from hands that could rip apart a landcar. The forearm resting against his neck was as hard and unyielding as her fingers.

"Your arms," he asked. "Are they - ?"

Amieta drew back with a smile. "All the way up. Want to see?" Without waiting for an answer she shrugged out of her jacket and then yanked her shirt over her head in one economical movement. "Meets at the back here, they rebuilt the spine, can you see? It's pretty good work, I was pissed when it happened, though. Woke up in hospital with - what?"

Silver realized he was staring, couldn't stop. Amieta's body was a map of near-catastrophe, metal and scars, a hundred different ways she could have died if things had been a millimeter different, a hundred different ways she and he could never have found themselves in this maintenance corridor together tonight.

"What is it?" Amieta asked.

"I can't believe we're here. Here doing this." Silver said honestly. "That's all. I can't believe you're real."

She took him by the shoulders, "Damn right, I'm real."

Her gaze searched his. "Damn right," she said again, more softly. "And so are you. 'Silver Night'."

It was hours later when they emerged back into the light of the station. Silver straightened his coat and took a tactful step upwind of Amieta's cigarette.

They both began to speak at the same time, "Well that was-" "It was good to-"

They both stumbled to an awkward silence at the same time too. Amieta broke it first, "I should probably go. My cover here's pretty thin. If they review the video ..."

"Oh, of course."

"It was good to-." She shrugged, "It was good. I'll see you again. Sometime."

Her hand on his cheek was cool, even through the glove. The light brush of a kiss on his opposite cheek, "Bye."

He thought he was going to say 'Bye' too, as she turned and walked away. But she was leaving, and her body was a map of a hundred ways she might never make it to 'sometime' alive.

And it was her

It had always been her.

Silver opened his mouth to say goodbye, and it came out, "Come work for me."

Amieta turned back to him, "What?"

He pressed on, "Work for me. Be my XO - second in command."

"I've never..."

"I don't care. It doesn't matter. The pay's good, you have command experience, and..." He shrugged.

"And?" Amieta studied him.

"We'd be together." Silver realized he was begging, or close to it. "Not like - like this. It wouldn't be safe. But if we were careful, discreet ..."

Amieta hesitated, "I'm a criminal."

"I know that's not everything you are."

"What if I'm no good at it?"

Silver recognized a last, token protest, saw the smile pulling at the corner of her mouth, and exhaled in relief. "We'll put you in charge of chair breaking."

She hesitated, then nodded, "Okay. Okay, I'll do it."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah." She searched for another cigarette, "Guess I'm starting right away, before security wants me for questioning. We should go."

Silver smiled, "Of course. Welcome to the crew, Commander."

"Commander Invelen, I like that. Thank you, Captain Night."


Pirate Stories II

YC??? (100 years ago. More or less.)

Hilion Narath heaved a bail of pikkan over the side of the trawler. The acrid smell of the dried plant hovered beneath the ever-present stink of fish. The stink would stay with the product, but the end users wouldn't care: it was low grade, and any grade of the mild narcotic was tough enough to get on the southern continent.

The sun beat down on the out-of-the-way cove, reddish sand fringed with a tangled, temperate jungle. Hilion was working shirtless and still pouring sweat. At 20, he had already given up hope of ever getting taller than his current 140cm. There was a mild, pleasant ache as he heaved up the next 40 kilo bale. He imagined he could feel the Cyberknight implants coil and uncoil alongside his muscles as he worked. The network of scars over his body were already fading, but a few were still fresh enough he could feel them pull as he tossed the bale to the dock.

All to get the old man political capital. When his father ran out of ways to buy influence directly, he'd started looking for indirect ways. Cyberknight offspring, smart move. But they're never gonna forget he just married into being a holder. It was always there, whenever Hilion went to one of their events. In the glances, in the comments murmured not quite quietly enough. Noone was ever going to see anything but a merchant, especially the old man when he looked in the mirror. Can't fault him for persistence though. Sure glad that leaving me flayed wouldn't have helped him feel more aristocratic.

Of course, Hilion figured maybe he owed the old man something, since it was his boats that were being used to move all the pikkan. He grabbed another bale and smiled.

Hilion had started small, but early: shop lifting expensive electronics when he was 11. Hit so many Holohuts, they've posted my picture in every damn one for 3 systems, he was bragging by thirteen - perhaps a slight exaggeration.

That was before he understood that bragging to the wrong people was a good way to get caught. Of course, when he was caught, his father would make it go away. He'd learned quick that rules were for other people, people who were happy with their boring lives, and he'd picked up plenty of useful skills along the way.

Hilion trotted down the gangway with the last bale and tossed it with the others, then approached the man receiving the shipment. The man's papers (which claimed he was a low level executive for a minor Lai Dai subsidiary) said his name was Verak Kenadenen. He finished tallying as Hilion stopped in front of him, and he smiled ever-so-slightly. "Everything seems to be in order, Narath. I've authorized payment, please verify that it has gone through."

Hilion checked on his com, saw the pleasantly hefty new amount resting in his numbered account with Intaki Bank. He squinted up at the taller Caldari with an easy grin, "Looks good, Verak. Nice doing business with you. This'll be the last for a while, storm season coming, eh?"

Verak nodded, swatting at the biting insects, "What're you going to do until the run opens up again?"

"Well..." Hilion shifted his weight and squinted out over the water, considering what to tell Verak. Truth was, without the southern trade, he was back to the risky, petty stuff for a while. Knocking over stores and hijacking transports and a bit of light extortion. "Ain't got solid plans. Lookin' into a few things."

"If there was something that was solid? Something that pays out, for someone like you?" The Caldari shielded his eyes against whipped up sand as a flyer juddered in just over the treetops, sky-green on it's bottom half, blotchy forest camo on it's top half. It landed with a dull thump and shuddered a moment, then the slaves and workers started loading bales into it's belly.

Hilion watched the work without really seeing it, considering, "Depends. I need to keep a low profile, so I can take the boats out next season for more 'fishing'."

"What if that wasn't an issue?"

Hilion glanced at Verak with alarm, "I'm not looking for anything that's gonna make me 'not an issue'."

"I mean, because you would be off-planet. As long as you wanted. I have some friends who are looking for people like you." 'Friends' meant the Cartel. Verak was a local lieutenant, dirtside, "They're looking for people who can operate on their own. Who have the knack."

"I got time to decide?"

"A couple weeks. Let me know, the usual channels." Verak jogged over to the flyer, which was spooling up for takeoff, fully loaded. He pulled himself into the cargo bay and yelled from the door, "Think about it!"

Hilion narrowed his eyes against the blowing sand and gave the Angel a wave as the flyer lifted off and wallowed away again, nearly scraping the uppermost branches of the trees.

Off-planet work.

Well, it did sound interesting.


Pirate Stories I


Hilion Narath wished desperately for something stronger than the cloying spiced wine rapidly cooling on the tiny table. The galley of the Burning Fields felt even more crowded than usual. He squinted through bloodshot eyes at the man across from him: Oily-bald head, cheap-gaudy robes, pudgy-beringed fingers wiggling around as he made some point or other. Seghet was a slave trader and he was blathering on about how badly the Cartel was overcharging for this latest shipment and how Hilion's transport fees were practically sacrilege and Hilion hadn't really heard any of it in the last ten minutes, but it had given him a headache anyway.

Hilion choked down the dregs of the wine and forced on his most ingratiating smile, "Well, why don't we go check the goods, eh? A'fore we get too much further from Heaven? So's we can still make changes if it ain't all ta yer likin'."

"Finally, a useful suggestion. I trust the wares will meet expectation, at least." Seghet's expression made it clear he doubted they would, "Perhaps be of passable quality, this time."

Hilion gritted his teeth and motioned for the slaver to precede him. "A' course, a' course honored Seghet."

He herded the slaver and his lackeys toward the Dramiel's hold. Seghet nearly tripped over the unfamiliar curves on the ladder down, his men propping him up with difficulty in the narrow space.

"Best be careful, eh? All kinda weird, Angel tech, if you ain't used to it. Got it from you-know-whos." Hilion bobbed his head in what he imagined was a wise way, as if he knew a Jovian from a fedo. Seghet frowned back at him, perhaps trying to sort out what Hilion had said, and almost tripped again. He dropped past several steps and almost crushed one of his unfortunate minions. Hilion felt his headache easing.

The cargo hold was longer than it was wide, with loading doors at the far end. The slaves were huddled in a near corner, chains attached to their right ankles. Already smelling and we've hardly started the trip. Hilion stayed near the entrance and picked bits of spices from the wine out from between his teeth as Seghet and his two overseers began getting slaves up with kicks and slaps to be examined.

The slaves were mostly selected for useful skills; that's what made them worth getting illegally. Doctors, engineers, programmers, skilled tradesmen and others. Seghet was examining a big Brutor, and Hilion checked the manifest. Grisart (last name unkown), accountant.

The chained accountant slapped away the slaver's probing hands, and after a moment of shock Seghet rounded on Hilion, chins wobbling in outrage, "Can't you even keep your stock in line, pirate? He lay hands on my person. Do something about it."

Hilion shrugged disinterestedly, "These're fresh caught, bound to be a bit fiesty. Little spirit's important in an accountant, eh? Make's sure the books is cooked right, don't it? Anyway, once we make delivery, you can discipline 'em however you want, friend Seghet."

Seghet's face went redder. Little less bein' smart, next time. Hilion opened his mouth to try and placate the man, but the slaver spun, a blade flashed, and suddenly blood was welling up all across the slave's throat. Seghet's mouth twisted in satisfaction, and he turned to Hilion, "Maybe you will learn to better contro-"

But behind Seghet, the chained man hadn't fallen. Instead he stumbled forward, and grabbed the slaver by his cheap robes. Seghet squawked in protest, but the slave half shoved, half threw him toward the other end of the hold. The man was obviously almost unconscious, and it wasn't much of a throw, but the slaver was almost round. Seghet landed with a meaty thwack and rolled like an angry soft-boiled egg until he was nearly at the rear cargo door. Hilion was impressed.

The slave fell heavily and was still: dead or dying.

Hilion gestured peremptorily to Seghet's bodyguards, "Dun just stand there, eh? Go see 'es alright."

As they hurried to their fallen boss, Hilion scuttled over, skidding to a halt between the slaves and the slavers. He glanced at the accountant: another slave - a doctor - was working to save the injured man. Probably hopeless. A shame.

He turned back and waited as the bodyguards reached the other end of the hold, wringing their hands and hovering around their boss. He refused their help and tried to roll to his feet himself, his legs pumping in impotent rage. Gonna be messy. Maybe expensive. Hilion considered for a second, then shrugged and pressed his thumb to a pad on the wall. All about respect, really. A panel slid aside to reveal a big, red button. Some people just don't got manners. He smacked the button.

A shimmering curtain appeared, sealing off the slavers near the cargo door from the rest of the hold. Hilion spoke into the intercom, "'ey, you can hear me over there?"

Seghet had managed to get to his feet, run into the shimmering barrier, bounce off like a flabby kendu ball, and then get to his feet again, yelling.

Puffing, sweating, and almost purple in the face, the slaver managed to find the intercom on his side, "What's -"

Hilion cut him off with the same friendly smile, "Well, see, that's the I-F-F-A." He enunciated each letter carefully, "Stands fer Internal Force Field Array. It's fer hull breaches and like that. Cause we're 'bout to have a malfunction, see. This ship, she's always malfunctioning aroun' impolite dick-heads what damage the merchandise, eh? Give the Void a kiss fer me."

Hilion disconnected the intercom as Seghet started shouting again. The bodyguards were firing at the field with no effect. The pirate captain waved cheerfully, headache entirely gone, and opened the cargo doors to the vacuum of space.

And the accountant? He survived, but that's another story.


Syndicate Files: The Sister - Epilogue

And that was about it, really.

Haakinen took his package and his leave.

Siarente took Envelan up the umbilical to her ship.

Auvy took my hand and we went home.

I had the feeling that Sia wasn't going to find it as easy to get her sister back from the boosters as it had been to get her back from the Guristas, but it wasn't any of my business.

My fee arrived as promised, with a bonus 'for my trouble' that was itself double the sum agreed. So did a flat package wrapped in soft silver tissue and tied with the kind of elaborate bow that was clearly the product of someone's life-long practice. Rich people's shops had people like that, I knew, people who spent every working day making sure that the expensive things they sold were wrapped up in a way that made it clear just how expensive they were.

The package was addressed to Auvy, not to me. I didn't object to an excuse to see her again, so I took it over. When she pulled the ends of the bow the whole thing slithered open to reveal a pool of pale fabric the same color as shrip tea, a pale green promise of sweet refreshment, with a name discreetly stitched into the hem that made Auvy's eyes widen.

Straight from the Crystal Boulevard, with Siarente Ross's thanks for Auvy's help.

The money was an easy gesture, but the dress had taken at least a few moment's thought and effort. Seeing Auvy's smile when she saw it made me hope Siarente's faith in her sister wasn't misplaced, that Envelan would find something worth staying sober for, at least some days of the week.

And that I'd be lucky enough to never see either of them again.

Auvy, of course, had to try the dress on right away. She whisked away to the 'fresher, and I helped myself to a drink and took out my neocom to look again at the little twirling holo next to Sia's entry in my transaction list. Pretty girl, blue eyes, blonde hair.

She didn't look like trouble.

I sipped my whiskey and looked at the holo and thought about that, about podders who looked and acted like normal people, about the vast dark spaces between the stars where they lived as comfortably as I lived in my one room with its fold-down bed and fold-out table. About capsuleer ethics, about love and family and other lost causes that people would risk everything for before they gave up the faith.

I mighta got maudlin, but Auvy came back from the 'fresher, wearing her new dress.

Auvy did look like trouble, especially in that dress. Well, she is trouble.

But not the kind a smart man would want to avoid.

And not the kind a man would ever regret.

Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 14

At a gesture from Haakinen, Envelan was yanked forward to stand in front of the desk, beside Sia's chair. Everyone seemed to have forgotten me and Auvy, which was just fine as far as I was concerned.

"I have a package I need moved," Haakinen said. "A small package. And a sensitive one."

Sia nodded, looking a little pale. "You want me to take it?"

"Through null-sec?" Envelan protested. "Sia, no. I- I've got the implants too. I'll do it. I can fly a shuttle."

Saying that seemed to scare her a lot more than the idea of being tossed out an airlock had a few seconds before.

Haakinen glanced from Envelan to Sia, "I had understood that your implants were... non-functional, Ms Envelan. Regardless, it doesn't matter to me who does it as long as it gets done. But whoever it is better be able to do it."

"I can," Sia said. "I have a good fit. Fast."

"A shuttle's fast," Envelan countered. "It's my mess."

"A shuttle?" Sia said. "In null-sec? Through gate camps and bubbles? No, Ani. Be sensible. I'm the pilot. Would you let me lead a boarding party instead of you?"

Envelan shook her head, jaw set, face white. "That's different. I don't want you tangled -" She snapped her mouth shut, then said "I don't want you here."

"Maybe it's different," Sia said. "And maybe you don't want me here. But I am. And I think I have a better chance of getting through. Don't you?" She reached out and put her hand over Envelan's. "It won't take long. I'll be right back, and ... we can talk then."

Envelan closed her eyes for a second, and then her expression hardened and she yanked her hand out from under Sia's. "My answer's not going to be any different then."

"Of course," Haakinen said, "if something should happen and the package is lost, some other way to pay the debt will need to be found. I will see that your sister and associates are well taken care of until you return, Ms Ross."

The threat was really just a formality, we all knew what'd happen if Sia didn't do the job. But then, Haakinen seemed like a formal kinda guy.

Sia glanced at him, and then looked back at Envelan. "Nothing will happen. And if anything happens to my sister while I'm away, M'ser ..." She paused. "They tell me I am likely to live a very long time."

Haakinen inclined his head. "We understand each other," he said. "The package will be waiting for you at the Intaki Commerce Trading Post station in DP34-U. And it is delicate, Captain Ross. Do not take too long."

Sia stood up and glanced at Envelan, who shot a startled glance at Sia exactly as if the pilot had spoken.

She had, I realized. Guess Sia isn't the only one in the room with an internal neocom.

The two women looked at each other for a moment, and then Envelen shrugged a little and nodded.

A flicker of hurt showed in Sia's eyes as she turned and left, face pale but head held high.

They offered Auvy and me seats once the grown-ups were done discussing business. Envelan took out a pack of cigarettes, and without asking Haakinen if he minded, lit one with the same combustible fingersnap she'd used before. Sitting there, feeling like I was facing a school exam except this time it was one I had to let someone else take for me, I almost wished I smoked. It seemed to keep Envelan calm, except for the fine tremor in those metal fingers holding the cigarette.

Her unfocused gaze fixed on the floor, she muttered something. Thinking she was trying to avoid Haakinen overhearing something, I leaned over and hissed, "What?"

She blinked and frowned, then hissed back in a rush, "Wasn't talking to you."

Right. Most people learn pretty quick to keep their internal neocom conversations, well, internal.

Mind, most people generally weren't the casein-grey color Envelan had gone, and most people wouldn't have been sweating that much in a pleasantly temperature-controlled room.

She drew on her cigarette again, the tremor gone to a shake, and muttered, "Use the cloak. Hit warp, cloak right away.Good. You're doing good. I'm not going anywhere. Just - " She clenched her jaw and bent forward, almost suppressing a groan.

I wasn't the only one who could recognize withdrawal.

"Something to make your wait more comfortable?" Haakinen asked. The corners of his mouth twitched up again, "On the house."

Envelan glanced at him. "" Her chattering teeth nipped the words into little pieces, but her expression was crystal clear. She bowed her head, eyes closed, and murmured "Just be careful. I'm here. You'll be okay."

Auvy and I waited, me at least trying to eavesdrop, until Envelan's whispered Thank the Ancestors and a blink on the display on Haakinen's desk both signaled Sia's safe arrival back at the station.

Envelan opened her eyes and went to draw on the cigarette that had burned itself to the filter between her fingers. She grimaced and flicked it away, tapping out another with hands shaking so badly it took her three tries to get the cigarette in her mouth.

"She says you can have your package when we're all at the hangar," Envelan said.

They hustled us down there, and there were a couple of tense moments with Sia and her guards on one side with Haakinen's package on a cargo-loader, and us on the other. Lots of people with guns and hard stares. I took Auvy's hand to make her feel better, or maybe to make me feel better. Envelan stared at the floor, shivering.

"The package first, please," Haakinen said.

Sia shook her head. "At the same time, I think."

He nodded slightly. Sia gave a signal and the trolley edged forward. The three of us started forward as well, dodging the trolley as we passed it.

Sia's guards closed around us and I breathed a sigh of relief, and realized how strange my life had gotten: surrounded by a podder's armed guards inside her hangar wasn't what most people thought of as safe.

She reached out to Envelan. Envelan, pale and sweating, kept her distance.

Sia let her hand drop to her side.

Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 13

The room they herded us into was like a Caille socialite: a lot of time and money had been spent making it look like a picture out of a magazine, and the result was perfectly put together and perfectly empty of anything that even remotely resembled individuality or personality. At one end was a desk so bland it almost put me to sleep looking at it, and sitting behind it was a nondescript Caldari who looked like an accountant, if accountants really looked the way the directors of holos thought. His suit was in a style a couple years out of date, and it looked a little worn, but well cared for - it went well with the old-fashioned spectacles and the comb-over. He was flipping through an expense report as we were hustled into the middle of the room.

Varakin Haakinen, the most powerful Gurista on the station, didn't look up.

I exchanged a glance with Auvy, neither of us having to say aloud what we were both thinking. This doesn't look good.

Envelan caught the look. "This has nothing to do with you," she said. "Haakinen is a business man, no profit in hurting bystanders. This is my problem."

I couldn't quite share her faith in Haakinen's reasonableness.

I leaned closer to Envelan, "You're the Rabbit. What happens now?"

She shrugged. "We wait," she said. "Take our chance when it comes. I'll get you out of here, anyway." She was talking to me but looking at Sia as she spoke, and then frowned a little. "Sia?"

I turned. The pilot's face was pale, and she had the glassy-eyed expression of someone trying to decide whether throwing up or passing out was the better option.

"Do you think I might have some water?" she asked softly and very politely, and then folded up where she stood.

Envelan brushed me aside and caught Sia before she could hit the ground. All around us, hands went to guns. Envelan ignored them, and lowered Sia gently to the floor. The podder wasn't out, not quite, mumbling that she was okay, she'd missed breakfast, she was fine.

"Someone get a medic," Envelan ordered, exactly as if she was in charge, and the authority in her voice was enough to make a couple of our guards twitch reflexively.

Haakinen glanced up, and said mildly, "I appreciate your desire to stick to a winning tactic, but I think you'll find the staff here a little better trained than Inheras's."

"She's not faking," Envelan said. "She's not cut out for this sort of shit." When Haakinen's expression didn't change, she added almost pleadingly. "'At least let her have some water."

Haakinen considered, then nodded slightly. A flunky brought a glass of water, the guards watching closely as he set it down near Envelan and beat a hasty retreat. Envelan dipped one finger in it before she helped Sia sit up and held the glass for the pilot to sip.

"Expecting poison, Ms Envelan?" Haakinen with faint amusement.

"Not really," Envelan said. "But I'd kick myself if I turned out to be wrong."

Sia finished the water. A little color had come back to her cheeks and now she just looked tired, mostly.

"Just take it easy," Envelan told her, more gently than I would have believed she was capable of. "You'll be out of here in no time and the docs'll fix you up."

"I'm all right," Sia said. "It's just this vertigo, since they put the neocom in." She rubbed restlessly at the skin behind her ear and Envelan reached out to capture Sia's hand in her own. Sia blinked and started. "I'm all right, Ani, really." She squeezed Envelan's metal fingers with a weary little smile, and for a fraction of a second they looked like the sisters Sia kept insisting they were.

Then Envelan yanked her hand away and got back to her feet. She turned to face Haakinen, who'd been watching the two of them with alert interest. "Look," Envelan said. "I know you and me have got some things to sort out. But the others, they have nothing to do with this."

"But I think they have a great deal to do with this," Haakinen said mildly. He touched a button on that bland desk and a holo-display spray to life above his head: Sia in the Colonel's HQ, at the poker table, me in the background, Inheras pushing a stack of chips into the middle of the table. Haakinen steepled his fingers. "Inheras is quite ... resentful at losing so much money to a cardsharp. And I tend to agree we should discourage people with the idea of cheating our organisation."

"I didn't cheat," Sia said from the floor. She tried to get her feet under her to stand. When no-one else moved, I took her arm to help her. She swayed a little and then steadied. "Not M'ser Inheras, anyway."

"You just happen to be that good a poker player?" Haakinen said with polite disbelief.

Sia smiled, sweet and guileless as if she'd never ripped open a battleship's hull and sent thousands to their deaths. "I'm quite good at mathematics," she said, and let go of my arm to run her fingers through her hair. The honey-colored curls bunched between her fingers, revealing the pale column of her neck - and the glittering jeweled caps over her podder plugs.

There was a little silence in the room, as if everybody was simultaneously taking a quiet, careful breath. Haakinen looked at Sia with an expression as neutral as the dull blank case around a racing warp-core. "I see."

Sia let her hair fall back over her shoulders. It shifted and rustled as she shrugged slightly. "And besides," she said, "He should have paid as much attention to my cards as he did to my cleavage." She blushed a little as she said it, like a schoolgirl pronouncing a dirty word or a Kaalakiota accountant announcing less than seven percent ROI.

Haakinen looked at her gravely. "I'll pass on your advice," he promised, and gestured to a flunky. "Bring Captain - ?"

"Ross," Sia supplied.

"Bring Captain Ross a chair."

The chair was set on the other side of the desk to him. Sia settled herself in it, calm as cooled casein, if you couldn't see the rapid flutter of the pulse in her neck. She had to know what Haakinen did, what everyone else in the room knew now: a pod pilot wasn't an inconvenience or a future 'example'. In Haakinen's ledger, Sia Ross had just gone from a silly little rich girl out of her depth to someone who could easily have brought a small army to avenge Inheras's efforts to get his own back.

I wished she had, right about then. Even on short acquaintance though, I could tell: that wasn't the sort of thing that would occur to Siarente Ross.

Haakinen's expression hadn't changed, but there was a tension in the air as the silence stretched on. You didn't make an example of a podder, but you might make them and everyone who'd seen them near you disappear to protect yourself. For a moment it seemed likely that Haakinen would solve his problems the old-fashioned way: by tossing it out an airlock. I wasn't the only one who it occurred to, I glanced at Envelan and saw the thin blue lines of nano-tatts creeping up her neck. War paint. She was as tense - more tense than I was, like an anti-matter charge in the breech, just waiting to explode into self-annihilating destruction.

Then Haakinen sighed, "Inheras can sometimes let his temper override his better judgement. I will see to it he apologizes, and I trust we can leave this unfortunate lapse of his behind us." He gestured to Auvy and me, "Can your associates see you to where you would like to be, or would you like an escort?"

It was clearly a dismissal, and just as clearly, Envelan wasn't included.

Sia paused. "I'm sure that my three friends can see me safely home."

"I'm afraid we have a misunderstanding," Haakinen said. "Ms Envelan's betrayed the trust we placed in her, Ms Ross. She killed several of my employees - her colleagues. I'm sure that you understand that I can't let something like that go."

"Mmm," Sia said. "I'm afraid we do have a misunderstanding. I can't leave without Ani."

"You can," Envelan said. "And you will."

"You'll have to leave without Ms Envelan," Haakinen said. "Or not leave at all." The threat was unmistakable. The risk benefit analysis had clearly changed.

"Get the fuck out, Sia," Envelan said. "I told you: I don't want you here."

Sia flinched a little at the harsh note in Envelan's voice, but her gaze stayed steady on Haakinen. "I can't leave without her."

"Why not?" Haakinen asked. "What is she to you?"

"She's - "

Envelan cut her off. "No-one. I'm no-one. So kick the podder out and she'll forget all about this. Won't you."

Haakinen narrowed his eyes, and remarked to no-one in particular "I do hate taking risks I don't understand."

He flicked a finger and one of the guards stepped forward, drawing her gun in the same smooth motion. Sia's yelp of surprise was barely audible beneath Envelan's snarl as the guard grabbed Sia by one arm and pressed the muzzle of the gun to her cheek.

"Get your fucking hands off her!" Envelan lunged, nanotatts flooding over her face, eyes wide and teeth bared, but the guards were ready for her. Sia screamed and kept screaming, shrill as a boiling kettle, as Envelan went down, five of them holding her, face to the floor, prosthetic arms twisted up behind her back past the point my arms would have broken, and still struggling.

"'No-one', I see," Haakinen said. "Hardly seems so."

"Don't hurt her!" Sia was crying, words barely intelligible through her sobs, not pretty tears calculated for effect but the brink of hysteria. "Please, please, don't hurt her, please!"

Haakinen looked from one to the other. "That is really up to her, Captain Ross. One more time, Ms Envelan. How do you know Captain Ross? Why did you kill your own colleagues to protect her?"

Envelan hesitated, and the guard by Sia pushed the gun harder against her face, the pressure of the muzzle turning the skin white.

"My sister." Envelan's tone was tinged with defeat, "She's my sister."

I saw the glances pass between the guards holding her down. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed to me that their grips eased a bit, too.

Caldari put a lot of stock in family. And the Guristas might have plenty of Caldari who don't quite fit in to the State, but they were Caldari, all the same.

"Well," Haakinen said. "Why didn't you say so?"

He flicked a finger and the guards holding Envelan hauled her to her feet, while the one holding the gun to Sia's head holstered her weapon and stepped back. Sia scrubbed at her tear-stained cheeks with her hands and took a step towards her sister, then stopped as Envelan moved just exactly that much away.

"It doesn't change anything," Envelan said. "She's got nothing to do with it. Send her back to her hangar."

Haakinen looked like he might be balancing accounts for all the expression he showed. "Nice try, Ms Envelan. Let loose a pod pilot with a blood feud?"

"It not for her the way it is for us," Envelen said urgently. "You can let her go - she won't hold a grudge."

"Is that true, Captain Ross? Family doesn't mean to you what it would to a Caldari?"

Sia took a shaking breath and found some reserves of composure from somewhere. "I don't know," she said. "I suppose we can't ever know exactly what's in someone else's head, can we? Maybe it is different for me. All I can tell you is, I won't leave here without my sister. I can't."

Envelan closed her eyes. "Sia ..."

Haakinen studied Sia for a moment, then Envelan. "Inheras seems to be making all sorts of errors of judgement lately." Suddenly, I wouldn't have given a bent half-syn for Inheras's career prospects. "Well, we have a problem. Ms Envelan's actions may have been inevitable, given Inheras's misunderstanding of the situation, but there is still a debt to be paid."

Envelan nodded. "Let my sister go. I'll pay what needs to be paid."

"I don't think you should be giving orders." A twitch at the corners of Haakinen's mouth, "And I don't think you'll be able to make the kind of payment I have in mind."


Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 12

We were all hurrying back to the side entrance when Sami commed again, and I put my neocom on speaker, "I've got some good news, and some bad news. And you aren't gonna like the good news."

"Well, just tell us both." Envelan looked impatient.

"Bad news is that with the alarm going off, they've locked down the way you came in, and they are working to lock me out of the system. Good news is I managed to keep another way out unlocked..."


"And it's the front entrance."

Envelan and Auvy both cursed, and I admit I might'a said a couple words that mama Tarva would have hit me with a spoon for knowing. There wasn't much to be done, though. We followed Envelan's lead toward the front.

Sami still had access to some of the internal surveillance, so she helped us avoid a lot of the 'ristas goons in the maze of corridors that made up most of the HRW complex - which meant they were coming up fast behind us when we broke out across the lobby.

Sia was bringing up the rear, limping in her single shoe, clearly not as used to running for her life as me or Envelan - or Auvy, since she'd started hanging around with me.

We stopped at the last corner before the lobby. A quick peek showed the 'receptionist' had found a mag carbine and a couple armed friends somewhere, and an auto-turret nosed around suspiciously from its mount in the ceiling. Things were looking bad.

Then the sharp, piercing bark no spacer wants to hear: The hull breach alarm.

It was only moments before the insistent blatting was almost drowned out by a rush of air past us and doors slamming shut behind us. The lobby doors slammed open as atmo was sucked into HRW. Flashing arrows lit up urgently indicating that out the door and well away would be a better place to be, and a pressure door started dropping across the entrance. Dropping slowly.

The three in the lobby ran for it, too distracted to notice the auto-turret now hung limp, swaying listlessly in the gale.

One of the arrow-strips near me started scrolling words, "Get going, love Sami."

We made a break for it across the empty lobby.

Once we were outside, we picked up the pace. We were barely outside before someone had over-ridden the alarm and gotten the internal doors back open. Guristas swarmed out of HRW like fighters out of a Nyx. We dodged down a side corridor, cut through a stall selling knock-off Dessuetto bags and then dropped down a level via a service staircase. Sia finally lost that lone shoe.

I was in front as we burst out of the stairwell, so I'm the one that bounced off a wall wearing a grey Huas suit. The others skidded to a halt behind me.

We were facing a semi-circle of big and ugly. These weren't your Syn-a-dozen muscle. These were people with enough wiring and modification that they probably needed a permit to walk down the street anywhere except Syndicate. Veterans of fights where being all-human meant being dead. These weren't Knuckles' goons, they were a whole better class of thug. One of them gave us a nasty smile, "Boss wants to see you."

Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 11

It took me a moment of flailing panic before I realized that it wasn't one of the Bunnies on top of me. The form I was tangled up with was too soft and yielding to be a guard, and no self-respecting gangster would have chosen such a delicately floral perfume.

"Having fun there, Rory?" Auvy said acerbically, standing over me.

"Would you mind," Sia said politely, "Moving your hand?"

I let go of the pilot's - well, I moved my hand - and she scrambled up off me.

Auvy folded her arms. "Are you going to get up?" she said. "Or just lie there until the Rabbits catch up with us?"

"How did you - ?" I asked as Envelan reached down and hauled me bodily to my my feet.

"Oh, we should sit around waiting for your heroic rescue?" Auvy said. She shrugged. "Sia came over all faint and when the bozo they had watching us rushed to help her, I hit him over the head from behind." She rolled her eyes. "He was too distracted by the chance to cop a feel to hear me coming. Why is that breasts make men so stupid?"

There were a dozen things I could have said to that, none of them wise.

Envelan saved me. "Hate to interrupt the reunion," she said, "but we tripped at least one alarm on the way in and someone's going to check on you two sooner rather than later." She jerked her head towards the way we'd come. "Less chit-chat, more running."

"You tripped an alarm?" Auvy said, starting down the hall. "That's really helpful, Rory, why didn't you just send Knuckles a mail to let him know his prisoners were escaping?"

"Look, I didn't know you'd have everything under control when I got here," I said, following her.

Behind me, Sia reached out a hand towards Envelan. "Ani ..."

Envelan drew back. "Get moving," she said curtly. "Try to get back to the hangar without getting anyone else killed, can you?"

Sia flinched, and limped after Auvy, wearing the one shoe that hadn't been left on the floor of the storeroom.

Envelan met my eyes with a hard don't-give-a-fuck stare.

If I hadn't seen her face when she'd realized the 'rista's had Sia, I might have even been convinced.


Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 10

HRW Transport didn't look much like a front for the Guristas. I guess that's the point though. Sami's collection of video feeds showed the front entrance was in a nice, upmarket business district. Plants - real ones - ran down the broad corridor in front of HRW's doors. A corporate logo; understated, expensive looking furniture; a desk with a receptionist visible inside the lobby.

There were signs, if you knew what to look for, that there was something a bit different about HRW though. Those doors were thick enough to distort the image inside ever so slightly, and and in a way plain glass wouldn't. A close look showed that an awful lot of the people going in and out of the HRW complex were discreetly armed, too.

Well, that was why we weren't going in the front.

The side entrance that Sami and Envelan had decided on was accessed through the back of a place selling shoes, two levels higher and in a section mostly occupied by factory works and people in the service industries: people who couldn't afford to see whatever the 'ristas might get up to.

I waved off an Achura fellow who couldn't have been much more than four feet tall and told him I didn't need any help finding my size. Envelan glared at him when he persisted, and I was glad for his sake when he backed off. She might blame herself for Sia getting taken, but I wasn't sure she wouldn't take it out on someone else anyway.

The entrance was behind a false panel in the back. We waited for the little guy to be distracted and then slipped into the 'employees only' area. Sami did her magic and the door slid open, revealing a surprised looking guard. I gave her a good whap with my stun-stick before Envelan could do anything more permanent. Envelan snorted and ducked into the corridor beyond. I followed close behind her. Sami called, "Rory, looks like you tripped something. A general alarms gonna go up in the next couple minutes. That's as long as I could delay it."

I was telling Envelan about the alarm, when three more Guristas came around a corner ahead of us.

They were surprised to see us, and that's probably what saved our asses. It gave us time to get close enough before they could draw. Envelan clocked one, who went out like a light - just unconcious, I hoped. I jabbed the other in the stomach with the stun-stick, then gave him a tap to the back of the head on his way down to make sure he got plenty of rest.

Envelan was struggling with the last guy. He didn't look like much, but he was holding his own, and they were both moving faster than I could follow. So he was wired.

Still, he seemed pretty focused on Envelan, so I picked my moment, and whacked him upside the head. Envelan glared at me like I'd just kicked her favorite puppy, but I guess that's gratitude for ya.

"Come on," I said, starting forward. "Sami says they're - "

I rounded the corner and got knocked straight on my back.

Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 9

Sami's news wasn't good. Envelan had gone well and truly to ground, no surprise given what the Guristas must have thought of the outcome of the last job they'd sent her on. There were parts of the station where even the 'ristas trod warily, where Sami's electronic tendrils could catch only glimpses, and Envelan had lost herself in these. Sami reported what she did see, over the next few days. Envelan leaving the 'office' of a known dealer. Envelan at different clubs so far below-decks they were practically sitting on the planet. Envelan beating some poor mugger stupid or desperate enough to try his chances with her. Never more than five or ten minutes in one place, never the same place twice. She knew what she was doing, maybe by instinct since Sami said even in those few places she saw her, she was obviously high as the podder-decks. Maybe the Guristas were even more relaxed about their employees' habits than I'd heard.

Or maybe it was just that Envelan didn't even have a job as an enforcer to make it worthwhile to stay sober enough to get out of bed in the morning.

It took some doing to talk Sia out of heading straight after her, but a few pointed references to the outcome of her last bright idea eventually seemed to get through.

She worried that full lower lip between her teeth for a moment. "Well," she said at last, "If I can't go to her, she'll just have to come tome."

"She made it pretty clear that wasn't on the cards," I reminded her.

Sia waved that away. "She'll come," she said. "I know how to make her. Rory, we'll need somewhere that isn't here. Somewhere less secure."

I could have asked her how many bodyguards she was planning to get killed.

Maybe I should have.

Sami found the place. A storeroom near the edge of a Gurista territory we could rent. Envelan would know what that location might mean. We got there - me, Sia, and Auvy - and Sia made the call.

I dunno what she said over her internal neocom, but from the look on her face it wasn't Captain Ross would be obliged if you would join her for tea.

She opened her eyes and said quietly. "She didn't answer. I left a message. She'll come as soon as she hears it."

"I hope you're right," I said, and not just because sitting here so close to 'ristas territory gave me a strange naked feeling, and not in a good way.

Sia smiled bright, bright like neon and plastic flowers, "She'll come. Soon."

We'd been waiting in the storeroom for six hours, me getting even more nervous than I had been, Sia's confidence beginning to waver, Auvy doing her nails. Then I saw a flash of hard blue through the window. I recognized the eyes, even if the dark circles under them were so deep the shadows looked like bruises. I got to my feet. Auvy and Sia turned at the movement, and Sia spoke, "What-"

I interrupted her, "Think I saw something. Stay here, I'll check it out real quick."

It looked like she was about to say something else, but Auvy put a hand on her arm and said something quietly to her. That was my last look at them as I slipped out into the corridor and hurried in the direction I'd seen the eyes go. I caught up with Envelan just around the corner.

Then I realized I didn't know what to say. "Hey you!"

She spun. "Who the fuck are you, and what do you want?"

Her clothes looked like she'd slept in them, more than once; limp strands of hair had come loose from their ponytail and hung lankly in her bloodshot eyes. A muscle jumped irregularly in her cheek. She looked like she'd been at the bottom of an ore bin when it was tipped into the refinery; like if she'd tried to donate herself to one of the black market biomass dealers, they'd turn her down for quality control reasons.

Or like the fourth day of a three day bender.

I held my hands up, "Whoa. Just someone your sister hired. She just wants to help you."

Envelan took out a cigarette, fingers moving in quick, nervous twitches, "I already told her, I don't need any spirits-damned help. You know what's good for you, you'll make sure she understands that." She snapped her fingers and a flare of plasma incinerated the top half of the cigarette. "Shit. This little plan your idea?"

"Hers," I said. "She said you'd come if she was in trouble. Of course, that was six hours ago."

Envelan drew on the cigarette and looked away. "I overslept. So I guess she can't rely on me after all, can she? She's better off - "

A scream, quickly muffled, came from back in the direction of the storeroom. Envelan was past me at a sprint before the cigarette she dropped hit the ground.

I followed her almost as fast.

One of Sia's blue velvet shoes lay on its side in the middle of the floor.

Other than that, the room was empty.

The expression on Envelan's face looked like the chill in your guts when that outside airlock door opens. She spoke so low I almost didn't catch it, "Ancestors wept, I led them right to her."

My neocom buzzed. It was Sami. "The alley out the back," she said, without any of her usual preliminaries. "Six of them, heading left - "

I took off, Envelan following me this time. The alley was already empty when we got there and I headed left.

It was a blur: We ran past hard-eyed dealers and their muscle; past men, women, and more exotic genders wearing more makeup than clothes and cat-calling from just outside luridly painted hatches; past food-stalls selling grey-on-a-stick that'd probably seen the inside of a chemical drum, but never the inside of a hydro-bay or growing vat, much less a real sky.

We seemed to be gaining, but Sami's directions grew more and more hesitant.

I came to a stop at the junction of six corridors. "Which way, Sami?"

"I - " she paused, and then admitted. "I don't know. You're in a blind spot and -"

I swore.

"I'm sorry, Rory," Sami said, and she really did sound sorry.

Envelan caught up with me, panting. "Where - ?"

"We lost them," I said.

"Spirits fuck," she snarled, "Trust a low rent incompetent - " I expected her to go on to her opinion of my ancestry - that's how it usually goes, in my experience - but whatever else she had been going to say disappeared in a grunt of pain and she leaned forward, curling around like someone had just kicked her in the stomach and bracing herself against the wall.

I took a quick step backwards before she threw up, and asked cautiously. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fucking fine." Envelan straightened, wiping her mouth on her sleeve, and looked around. "You try that way, I'll go - " She turned around on the spot, picked a direction and staggered a few steps.

"Not sure that's a good idea, Envelan," I said, heading after her, grabbing her sleeve when she kept going.

She spun back, hand raised for a blow, then lost her balance with the movement and fell heavily against the wall. "Shit. Shit." Her artificial arms twitched spasmodically and she began to shiver, tried to get up and then vomited again.

"Look," I said, squatting down not too close to her. "We need to make a plan. Sami will keep trying to find them. Once they stop moving, she's got a better chance."

Envelan looked at me, or tried to, her gaze persistently tracking left every time she brought it back to my face. "I led them right to her. I've got to get her back."

"You've got to get yourself sorted out before you can help her," I pointed out.

The trip back to my office was no picnic, but we managed, and I got her a good strong cup of coffee. She cleaned up in the restroom while I was making it, and when she came back she looked a lot better.

I was careful not to ask. "We need to make a plan. Sami should know where they were taken pretty soon."

"We find out where they are." She looked at me, her voice deepened to a hoarse growl, "We go in and get her. Them."

"Well, that's certainly a very simple plan. Let's add we do that with as little noise and violence as we can manage." I sighed and explained, "We don't need heat coming down on us while we're there, and we don't need them being too excited about following us either."

"Fine. Fast, quiet, and as few casualties as possible."

I figured that was the best I was likely to get. I nodded, and Sami piped up, "Found them."

Sia and Auvy had been taken to the offices of a Guristas front company, HRW Transport. Envelan shook her head at the name, "Should have fucking knew it. When Inheras isn't busy being Haakinen's lap-dog, that's where he runs his parts of the operation from. Hell, I've been there before. Security's tight, especially at the front entrance, but there are a couple side entrances that might have potential. Less security cause Inheras doesn't want too many people seeing what goes ina nd out through them."

"Sami, can you open one of those side entrances?"

"By the time you two get over there? Yeah. Probably."

"That'll have to do." I studied Envelan for a moment, "Are you-"

"You worry about yourself, you unwired, feddie rent-a-cop."

Well, she was right, it didn't matter. I was going to get Auvy out, one way or another, with or without her help.


Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 8

"She didn't mean it," Siarente said.

"She sounded a lot like she meant it," I said cautiously. True, she'd killed her buddies when she saw it was Sia she'd been sent to 'educate'. I wasn't sure much weight could be put behind a bit of casually fatal violence from someone who was working as an enforcer for 'Knuckles' Inheras though. My impression of Envelan so far was that she was a tail and set of teeth away from being a rabid slaver hound.

Auvy patted Siarente's shoulder and gave me a glare. "Of course she didn't mean it," she told the pilot soothingly.

I sighed, although since I have a certain rudimentary sense of self-preservation I did so silently.

I'd called Auvy because leaving a white-faced and shaking Siarente with no-one but her crew for company hadn't seemed like a terrific idea. Not that Auvy was the comforting, maternal type, but if I was going to stick around until Sia recovered her composure it seemed smart to make sure Auvy knew that's all there was to it.

For some reason, she doesn't always take my word about these things.

So I'd called her, explained what happened. By the time she'd got down to the hangar Siarente had moved on from shock straight into denial.

"Ani would never - she would never mean something like that," she said now.

"Whether she meant it or not," I said, "She seemed pretty clear that she wanted you to leave her alone."

"You don't know her," Siarente said. "She must have - I told you, she's in trouble. And she - Ani always wants to protect me."

I looked at her arm, the four-fingers-and-a-thumb bruise blooming up nicely. "It seems to me that you might not know her either. Killing someone's bodyguard is a funny way to protect them, where I come from."

Siarente looked down. "I told you she was in trouble," she said quietly. "She's - not quite herself."

The story came out in fits and starts, interrupted by tears. Unspecified 'difficulties', an old booster habit, erratic behavior and a vanishing act. Not a new story, although I guessed maybe it was new to her.

I didn't know whether to be mad at her for not telling me sooner that the missing sister was a one-woman-killing-machine with a taste for mind-altering, judgement-destroying substances, or mad at myself for not asking.

Auvy and I exchanged glances, and Auvy said: "Maybe you need to give her a bit of time. Things like this, you can't force people - "

"No," Sia said, firmly, and then ruined the effect with a hiccuping sob. "I have to find her. She wouldn't - she would never have said those things to me unless - unless she's in real trouble."

I didn't say it to Sia, but Envelan was bound to be in 'real trouble' now, if she hadn't been before. You don't kill 'ristas without it coming back on you, not here, not anywhere. "Look," I started. "You can't- "

"Get your ring back, Mr Tarva?" Sia said. Her voice was soft and even, her expression mild, but right at that moment I remembered I was dealing with a podder here, with the kind of clout to have me and Auvy pushed out and airlock in front of a hundred witnesses and never have to answer for it.

And the theoretically immortal have a lot of time to hold grudges.

Besides, a deal was a deal. In my line of work, if you can't stick to your deals you better find another line of work.

"All right," I said. "But you let me - or Sami - track her down. No more adventures, Captain Ross." I glanced around the hangar. "I'd hate for you to run out of bodyguards."


Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 7

It was a long walk back to the docks and the hangars. Sia had insisted we walk, and she didn't seem interested in making it any quicker, either.

We'd gotten out of the HQ alright, but that wasn't reassuring. No, if 'Knuckles' was planning to teach Sia a lesson in life to match the way she'd schooled him at poker, it wouldn't happen in the Colonel's HQ.

It would happen in a little twisty corridor with no witnesses.

Kinda like the one we were in at the moment.

I tried to hurry Sia along, but she slowed further. "These shoes are a nightmare, Rory." She paused to look down at her feet and then looked up at me with a girlish giggle. "Spiky and vertical."

It was the same look and the same giggle she'd used on the Colonel and I guessed it was meant to have the same effect - to get me to forget any inconvenient questions I might have.

It might have worked, too, under other circumstances, but the possibility of thugs with heavy hands and twitchy trigger fingers concentrates the mind. My mind, anyway.

I ignored the giggle and kept Sia moving.

"You really don't want to be out here longer than you have to be." I glanced over my shoulder. "Where's the rest of your security, anyway?"

"I sent them back to the hangar," Siarente said.

"You should call them back. You took a lot of money from someone who likes his money a lot tonight."

She linked her arm through mine, wobbling in her high heels. "Don't worry so much, Rory. I wasn't born yesterday, you know. Not even this clone was."

I steadied her and picked up the pace again, ignoring her protests. "I can tell. You had that crowd eating out of your hand."

She gave a tired little sigh, and all the playfulness leaked out of her face like air from a punctured EVA suit. For a minute she didn't look at all young anymore. Not that she looked old, either, exactly, but for the space of that soft breath 'young' and 'old' were just words for her, words that didn't have any meaning when it came to herself. Nor did 'life' and 'death', maybe.

I got cold, and a little scared. Scared of her, or scared for her, I don't know.

Podders can look enough like normal people to fool you. For a while.

"Well," Sia said, "Mama always said - "

Next thing I knew I was hanging onto the wall, which was determined to come loose and start waltzing around the corridor. I held it steady until it calmed down. By then the sounds of a scuffle behind me had gone silent, but it wasn't an empty silence. It was a full silence, like the silence between the first shot of a war and the second, or the silence of a falling kinetic round. An ugly silence.

My head was spinning plenty on its own, but I managed to get it turned around so I could see what was happening. Everyone ignored me: the two guys in Gurista's colors on the ground because they were dead, Siarente because she was crammed into a doorway behind her bodyguard, the bodyguard because she was too busy deciding who to shoot next, and the rest of the Guristas because the gun in Helmi's hand was a lot more of a threat than I was.

I recognized the woman in charge from the casino. Well, I recognized the dull, patterned metal of her hands, mostly. She was the only one of the Guristas that hadn't drawn a weapon. She swung at Neve, hard and fast, and the gun went flying. Neve grabbed Siarente by the arm and shoved her along the alley. The pilot stumbled and fell to her hands and knees as the woman with metal arms swung at Neve again.

Her fist connected with the kind of sound you usually only hear in a particularly bad nightmare and Neve went down, limbs sprawling, eyes open and fixed, blood spreading out under her head. The Gurista took one long stride after Siarente and grabbed her by the hair, hauling her to her feet. "My boss," she said, "says you have something that belongs - "

She swung Siarente around to face her and stopped, face blank with shock.

"Ani?" Siarente said.


For a second they stared at each other, and then one of the other Guristas cleared his throat.

'Ani' let Siarente go and turned. She addressed her colleagues, "S'fine. I've got this, so stop pointing the fucking pieces near me." Her voice was slurred, with shock or something else. The four 'ristas that were still standing lowered their weapons, expressions of confusion on their faces.

The four shots came so fast the sound was like one long roar in the closed space of the corridor. I hadn't even seen the grey-armed woman's gun clear her holster. Two of the Guristas died looking confused.

She winged one and missed the last.

Ani cursed and tried to fire again as the uninjured gangster lifted his weapon. Her gun jammed.

She snarled and lunged close. He didn't get a shot off.

There was a blur of movement and a spray of blood.

The injured 'rista took off down the corridor while she was busy.

The running footsteps faded into the distance and left silence broken only by 'Ani's' harsh gasps.

"Ani?" Siarente said hesitantly again.

"Shit, Sia," Ani said. "Just - shit." She grabbed Siarente by the arm and began to drag her along the alley. "You have to get out of here, back-up'll be here any minute - shit, Sia, what the fuck are you doing here?"

Siarente tried to pull away, but the metal hand on her arm was unyielding. "Neve," she said. "Ani, Neve - "

"She's dead," I told her.

"Oh," Siarente said sadly. "Oh, poor Neve. That's the third time."

Ami peered out the head of the alley and then hauled Siarente with her into the corridor leading to the hangars. "It'll be poor you if you don't get a move on. What the fuck are you doing here and what the fuck did you think you were doing, taking Mavare for all that money?"

"Looking for you," Siarente panted as she struggled to keep up. "Rory said they'd send someone after anyone who won too big and when I saw you, I - "

We reached the pilot's hangar and I saw the rest of her security waiting there with a sense of relief. Ani pushed Siarente into the middle of them and let her go, the marks of her fingers standing out livid and red on the pilot's creamy skin. "You set yourself up to get a beating on the off-chance they'd send me? Sia, that is the stupidest fucking plan you've ever come up with, and that's saying something."

Siarente took a deep breath, eyes filling with tears. "I know," she admitted.

"You got Neve killed, for fuck's sake," Ani snarled, for all the world as if it hadn't been her fist that had shattered the bodyguard's skull.

"I couldn't think of anything else!"

"Spirits fuck," Ani said. "Looking for me. Fine, you found me. Now get on your ship and wait for a gap in local and make a fucking run for it, Sia."

"No, I - " Siarente reached for Ani's arm and the other woman shook her off. "Ani. Come back with me. It'll be all right, it - "

"It is alright. It fucking was alright before you got here. I'm fine, but you need to fucking go. Go back to high-sec before you get both of us killed."

"No, Ani, I'm not going - I won't leave you here. You're my sister - "

Envelan paused. "Sister," she said, and blinked, then went on in an even, deliberate tone. "Sia, that was just something I said to keep you from going off the rails back when we thought you'd make a good recruit for the Nation. I'm not your sister. We're not family. I don't want to see you again. Keep the fuck away."

She turned without waiting for a response and stalked off down the corridor, leaving Siarente staring after her, blue eyes brimming with tears and hurt.

My head was still swimming a little, but I managed to clear my throat, "We need to get inside, Captain."

She let me steer her into the hangar, staring over her shoulder at Ani's back until the closing doors sealed her from sight.

Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 6

"I thought you told her," Sami voice murmured through my earpiece, "not to take these people's money."

"I did." And I thought she listened.

Apparently not.

"Three of the little horses," Sia said, "And two crowns. That means I win again, doesn't it?" She giggled delightedly as the stack of chips was pushed towards her. "Oh, I do like this game! I'm having so much fun! Aren't you?"

Knuckles had a good poker face. "You are very lucky tonight," he said with a smile.

It was an unmistakable threat, but it seemed to go straight over Sia's head. "Maybe you'll be lucky next time, M'ser," she said sweetly, beginning to gather up her winnings.

"I'm sure I will be," he said.

Even a naive Intaki from a high-sec backwater couldn't miss that threat, and I saw Siarente's throat move as she swallowed convulsively. Walk away, I willed her, leave the money on the table, get up and walk away.

Instead she tossed a handful of chips into the center of the table. "Maybe this is your lucky hand, M'ser."

It wasn't.

As it turned out, it wasn't mine, either.


Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 5

No caper ever goes according to plan, even in the holos, and this was no holo.

The back room was set out in the same style as the front, only more so. More surprised-looking dead things on the walls, more tidy attendants in black suits and white gloves, more heavy paneling and ornate holos of improbably handsome people doing improbably heroic things.

In the middle of the room was the table, a monsterous, heavy thing. A fortune in wood. The Colonel probably looted it from some Guardian Angel casino in Outer Ring. It fit the men and women sitting around it in equally heavy chairs with gilt-edged arm-rests and slippery velvet cushions.

Our friend, Mavare was there, of course. A woman in a severe business suit was at the place next to him, I recognized her as a banker that helped clean money that had got a little dirty in its trip through the station's underworld. Maybe it was handling all that cash she couldn't keep that had given her the sour expression she wore, like a librarian forced to check out dirty holos when she knew she'd be spending the night alone with her furrier.

Next to the banker was Molotte Voirot, one of the most successful smugglers on the station, even if, or perhaps because, he had the fresh-faced looks of a teenage cadet. Next to him was a Civire with scars criss-crossing the backs of his hands and a very expensive suit, a high ranking Gurista, Ojavas 'Knuckles' Inheras. The last player was a Minmatar woman I didn't recognize, but I smelled an Angel.

If any of them noticed that Siarente was a podder, they didn't show it.

The Colonel was serious about preventing cheating. Apart from the players, only his staff were allowed to approach the table, and there were a couple of dedicated autoturrets ready to make confetti of anyone else who tried to break the rule. The players had all handed over their jewelery and any other personal effects that might be used to mark cards or give them some other unfair advantage, and the faint shimmer of a distortion field made sure no bystander could catch a peek of someone's hand and give another player a high sign. Electronic jamming was in place at the table to defeat any communication to or from the players, and leaving the table except at designated breaks or when you were bust was an automatic forfeit of your entire stake - and any future invitations.

The Colonel explained all of that to Siarente, who thanked him, and slipped into her chair with a giggle and gave a little excited bounce, for all the world like a little girl thrilled to death to be allowed to stay up past her bedtime and socialize with the grownups. She ordered a glass of champagne from the white-gloved waiter, complimented the banker on her hair and winked at Voirot. Her aura of just-waiting-to-be-fleeced had the other players welcoming her.

I'm sure the dress didn't hurt, either.

I was optimistic. Mavare was probably the lightweight at the table, but a million syns should take a while to burn through. Sami was confident she could beat the jamming, and all Sia had to do was keep playing until Ydet was done.

Yeah, I really was that stupid.

The Colonel announced the start of the game, and the first set of hands shot out across the table from the dealer - a real, human one.

The first thing that went wrong was the jamming. Sami's confidence that she could defeat the baffling and get a signal through to Siarente's neocom was justified: right up until the jamming signal cycled through to the next random frequency.

And it was too late to try and back out.

I guessed Sia knew the silence over the internal neocom she hadn't wanted to get in the first place wasn't intentional. She studied her cards with pursed lips and then fiddled with the dress strap, fragile as a Breacher's hull, over her left shoulder - the sign we'd agreed on if something went wrong short of an emergency.

But Auvy knew her cards and Sia was a quick study. She bet a little, lost it trying to draw to fill a hand of three acorns, won on the next with a pair of sixes when the rest of the table had hands full of even more trash, and then twisted a curl around her finger and laid down a flat flush.

Ydet sighed, rolled her eyes, fidgeted, and finally excused herself. Right on schedule. I checked my watch. Forty minutes, she'd said. In and out.

That's when the second thing went wrong. Mavare started losing. I'm no cardsharp, and I couldn't see the cards clearly through that distortion field, but even I could tell he was a terrible player. Not only that, he tried to make up for it by throwing on money. Never play loose in a tight game, Auvy had warned Sia, but that was clearly a maxim Mavare had never heard. I did some quick calculations, and figured we'd be ok, if not by a wide margin, though.

Then the third thing went wrong.

"Rory," Ydet hissed over my earpiece. "I've got a guard and a waiter going at it in the storage room. Right under my exit. I'm gonna have to wait it out. I'll need more time.

Sami was still fighting with the electronic jamming but she was able to get through to Sia for a few seconds here and there. She got word to the pilot about the need for delay.

Sia fiddled with that strap a bit more emphatically than before, putting the whole miracle of engineering at risk, and then eyed the cards face up on the table, twirled that curl around her forefinger and bet high on a five and seven of acorns. Her fake tell had the other players folding fast, but luckily Mavare wasn't so smart, and when Sia's hole cards turned out not to be the missing cards of a straight he raked in enough chips to stay in the game.

There was a break at the hour and a half mark. Sia and Sami's best efforts hadn't been able to keep more than a handful of chips in front of Mavare, so as I escorted Sia towards the bar for the break, I hoped we had bought Ydet enough time.

There she was, waiting in the lounge area when we walked out. She gave the slightest nod when she saw us.

I leaned closer to Ross, "Time to go, Captain."

Ydet joined us as we made our way across the room toward the exit. Then Siarente stumbled. I thought she'd turned an ankle in those fashionable heels, but as I reached out to steady her she bolted, heading across the room at a brisk clip, toward a knot of people around the Civire with the scarred knuckles. Her attention was fixed on a woman with grey, metallic prosthetics in place of both arms. The woman was talking to one of the Gurista's lackeys, making a report it looked like to me. She finished, whatever it was, and was gone again before Siarente got close. The Captain stopped, and the rest of us caught up to her.

"Who is that?"

I looked where Sia was pointing, probably under the illusion she was being discreet. "Him? that's Ojavas Inheras. A ... " I hesitated. Even in a dress that qualified as a fire-hazard for its ability to cause spontaneous combustion in innocent bystanders, there was something about Siarente Ross that made a man feel reluctant to use words like 'gangster' ... or 'murderer', for that matter. "A local businessman," I temporized.

"He's a regular here," Sami supplied. "Likes to win, and wins a lot - maybe because people know what happens to those who get too lucky at his expense."

"Really," Sia said thoughtfully. She turned to look up at me with a smile. "Could you give me a just a second here, Rory? I'll be right back."

That was the fourth thing that went wrong.

Before I could say a word she'd taken off, her heels tapping lightly on the parquet floor as she headed back to the poker table.

Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 4

Inside, a bar occupied one wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves of bottles every color you could imagine and a few you wouldn't want to, from innocent-looking pastel lolly-water to deep blue syrup that promised to make you forget your troubles - and your door-key, your address and your name. Behind the long expanse of gleaming stone, two bartenders in matching uniforms and matching faces dispensed poisons-of-choice to the clientèle.

The floor was made up of little bits of what might even be genuine wood fitted together to make a pattern out of their different colors, and as I followed Sia and Ydet toward the bar a momentary ebbing of the crowd showed me the pattern was another version of the deformed bird Mordu's used as their logo.The pattern almost filled the room, except for a space about two meters by three alond the left wall where the wood gave way to a solid stone around the big fireplace.

I could tell from how close people were standing to it that the fire blazing away wasn't a real one, but the illusion was pretty good. The fire was framed by a dark wood mantle and along the top of the mantel were three large guns, antiques from the look. Directly above each of those guns was the head of an animal, different kinds of animal but all with the same look of slight surprise, as if they hadn't expected to be shot by the Colonel and they certainly hadn't expected to spend their afterlife watching rich people get drunk and lose money for fun.

At the other end of the room, directly in the line of sight of the decapitated and preserved wild-life, a half-a-dozen tables with green baize covers just like the holos were surrounded by little clusters of customers. Their expressions ranged from exhilaration to despair as the roulette wheel spun and the dice fell. For most of the residents of the station, drinking the water that came out of the tap was enough of a gamble for any one day, but I guess the rich had to get their thrills elsewhere. The Colonels' gaming tables were as good as any.

The flickering firelight gave the same febrile glitter to the eyes of the dead animals and the live gamblers alike.

Siarente and Ydet headed straight to the bar, a couple of thirsty rich girls on a night out, Neve and I trailing behind. Sia ordered a glass of champagne and then gave an excited squeal as she 'spotted' the roulette wheel. Glass in hand, she headed towards the gaming tables with all the uncertainty and delay of a piranha missile. Ydet followed with an amused smile but a distinct lack of enthusiasm, a lack of enthusiasm she made more obvious as Sia bounced from roulette to vingt-et-un to craps.

So far, so good.

Ydet examined her nails as Sia swept a pile of chips together and looked around. "Where is the poker game?" she asked guilelessly. "I heard there was poker here!"

As we'd hoped, one of the other patrons was all too eager to enlighten her, pointing out the door to the back room. Sia thanked him with a happy giggle and made her way towards it, the high heels of her strappy red sandals tip-tapping on the parquet floor.

She was stopped, of course, by the guards discreetly posted there. Stopped politely, but even so Neve tensed beside me.

Siarente smiled and twirled a lock of hair around her fingers and fluttered her eyelashes and professed herself most terribly keen on poker and just heartbroken that they wouldn't let her in to the game and before long Colonel Kurata himself emerged from his office.

He didn't stand a chance, by the time Siarente had told him that her little sister was just dying to join Mordu's Legion when she grew up and did he have any advice, and by the way, did he know Jude Kopenhagen?

The Colonel harrumped and patted her on the shoulder and warned her that this was no game for amateurs, but she could play a few hands if she wanted, and just tell him if she wanted to leave early.

Maybe he had a daughter, or a granddaughter, that she reminded him of.

Then again, maybe it was the dress.

Siarente thanked him charmingly, sipped her champagne, linked her arm through his and headed over the threshold with Ydet, Neve, me, and the hapless Colonel in tow.


Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 3

A game like this one could only be held on neutral ground. Holding it in any of the clubs or casinos associated with one or another of the pirate factions or criminal organisations on the station would have been an invitation for cheating, stealing, and a spot of murder: and not a 'call round if you're in the neighborhood' invitation but the kind of invitation that came in a full-color holo of dancing girls and maybe some exotic animals as well.

And neutral ground was in short supply around here. This is Syndicate: everybody owes somebody. Some people owe everybody.

But there was one man on the station who had no debts and owed no favors. Colonel Nesen Kurata, highest ranking officer in Mordu's Legion for a coupla systems in any direction, had come through a long career without giving anyone anything to hold over him and without losing his reputation as an honest man. He was sometimes asked to arbitrate conflicts between factions on the station, and his HQ - The HQ, it's called - is considered neutral ground. In fact, it's enforced neutral ground. He might seem like a rather charming, harmless, antique warhorse, but noone wants to piss off someone who could call in a battalion of MTACs.

He was getting on these days, and most of the business of the Legion was run by his second-in-command, but everybody including his superiors knew that the chances of the old man retiring were right up there with Heth and Roden sharing a sloppy kiss on a cluster-wide live broadcast.

The HQ was the headquarters of the Legion on the Station. The only sign is the Legion logo - you know the one, some kind of bird with a birth defect - etched on the crystal of the recessed double doors. It's not where you'd go if you wanted to hire them, that's a store front in one of the swankier business districts (buy a war, get a minor conflict free!) This was where the commander for the Legion spent his time though, so this was the HQ.

Colonel Kurata liked to think of himself as a gentleman, and from what I'd heard he was. Anyway, he ran his club like the gentleman he thought he was. It was a nice place for the right kind of people to meet and mingle and talk politely, and maybe lose a little money at roulette while they were doing it. The Colonel hobnobbed with bosses, charmed society ladies, drank with the influential in politics and business, and swapped lies about how good things had been with other veterans.

And it was a nice place for a high-stakes poker game, too.

There was that battalion of MTACs, after all.

Another good reason not to get caught.

Getting inside the main part of the club wasn't going to be a problem: the doors of the Colonel's club would open for Siarente, or for her bank-balance and podder implants, at least.

Getting the invitation from the Colonel to the game was a different question.

"Are you ready for this?" I asked Siarente.

She nodded, face pale, and then swallowed hard. "'sec," she said, and hastily snapped open the beaded purse she was carrying, pulling out a small packet of dry crackers.

I watched as she crammed a couple in her mouth and chewed. "Look, if you're having second thoughts ... better to say something now. Once we're inside there won't be room for mistakes."

Siarente swallowed. "I know. I'm fine. It's just ... brain surgery doesn't agree with me."

That had been the point where Sami's plan had nearly come unstuck. She hadn't been able to believe any pod pilot wouldn't have an internal neocom, and at first Siarente had been adamant in her refusal to have one put in. I like picking up my neocom like a normal person, she'd said in a sweetly reasonable tone. And I don't like people poking around in my head.

But the whole plan depended on Siarente keeping Mavare at the poker table until Ydet had time to steal Tialya's ring from the cloakroom and leave the carefully made replica in its place. Mavare wouldn't know that the family heirloom was also a family hairloom with a lock of someone's great-great-grandmother's coiffure sealed beneath the gem for verification. He'd be happy with the high-quality fake Auvy's contact had made, and never know the real thing was back on Tialya's hand - if Mavare didn't loose all his money in the first three hands and go to collect his belongings while Ydet was still wriggling through the airducts.

And Siarente might have been a quick study and Auvy a good teacher, but even when you're planning on losing card-sharping takes a lifetime to master and this table was not a place to make mistakes.

Sami was sure she could hack through the jamming and use the venue's security drones to watch the play. But it wouldn't do us any good if she couldn't get that information to Siarente, and sitting at the table with a comm handset held to one ear wasn't exactly the best way to avoid suspicion.

The pilot had hemmed and hawwed and asked Sami to come up with a different plan, and when Sami hadn't, Siarente had taken herself off to find someone else to look for her sister.

I might have panicked if there'd been anyone else on the station dirt-dumb enough to take the job. Fortune just isn't that fond of me, most days.

Siarente had come back within the day. Another twenty-four hours of lessons from Auvy while we waited for the replica ring to be made and the pilot's own medical team had arrived by Interbus to put in the neocom. Once they arrived, it was over so quick I couldn't work out what all the fuss had been about. The lead surgeon seemed to know her business, her manner as sharp as her scalpel. When they were done, I couldn't even tell where they'd done the work.

So there we were: me in my best suit, the podder's bodyguard with her best deadly expression, Ydet in a deep purple skin-tight that was both fashionable and perfect for eeling through narrow crawlspaces, and Siarente in a scarlet dress Auvy had had to stitch her into. I didn't need to know much about couture to be able to tell that the only thing keeping it up was some sort of technological miracle and from the heads turning as we headed down the boulevard towards Legion HQ, I wasn't the only one wondering how long that miracle would last.

Too many more of those crackers, I thought, and not much longer.

"Are you sure you're all right?" I asked Siarente again.

She dropped the packet back in her purse and snapped it closed. "Yes," she said.

"Now remember," I told her, "You just have to keep him busy at the table, you don't have to win. In fact, do your best not to. These people, they don't like people getting lucky at their expense."

Siarente nodded. "You told me," she said, and tucked her hand in the crook of Ydet's elbow. "Don't let me fall over in these heels,dear."

"Never, darling," Ydet said with a wink.

The bodyguard and I following, they sauntered arm and arm into the club.