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.

Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 2

When it comes to poker, my skills just about extend to knowing how much money I'm about to lose in the five seconds before I lose it. If Captain Siarente Ross was going to give a convincing impression of a high-roller in the highest-stakes game on the station, she was going to need help from someone besides me.

And that was just for starters. Getting into the game, not getting rumbled in the first hand, those were the easiest parts of the whole scheme.

I needed experts.

Ydet is a professional thief. A specialist. She could probably steal the ears off the Rabbit, but the poker game only had one way in: the front door.

Auvy is an expert in lots of things, though I think sometimes mainly in making me scramble. I happened to know she was a damn good poker player too.

I can't say the thought of introducing Auvy to my new client didn't cause me a twinge of anxiety. As for adding Ydet to the mix ... well, I guess sometimes I'm just a glutton for punishment.

I had a stiff drink and made the calls.

My office was crowded with Auvy, Ydet, Siarente and her bodyguard all in there, and not just cause it was a storage closet before I rented it. Four women, all of them blonde - even Auvy, this week - all of them as different as could be.

Ydet, with her wide smile and her honey-colored hair pulled back in a ponytail was the kind of blonde you played stick-ball with on the rec-deck, in your dreams anyway.

The bodyguard - Neve, her name was - was the sort of dirty white-blonde that looked like ice in the 'cycler: she was cold and hard and she'd been around.

Siarente Ross was what I always thought of as a default blonde - with her soft blue eyes and her gentle voice, she would have been blonde even if her hair color had been black as the space between the stars.

And Auvy, well ... today Auvy had her hair a shade of gold so rich it made Siarente's earrings look cheap and fake and a jacket in a lustrous red with a shimmer of the same tone. She looked like a million syns and maybe a million sins, too.

I had the schematics for the place the game was held spread out on my desk, courtesy of Sami, but I was the only one looking at them. Ydet and Auvy were giving each other the kind of polite smiles that make a wise man come up with a reason to be elsewhere, the pilot's bodyguard was studying each of them with flat-eyed professionalism and Siarente was looking from one to the other and then at me with knowing expression that made me even more nervous than Auvy and Ydet did.

I cleared my throat. "So. Getting into the HQ is easy enough, but to get into the Table we'll need the Colonel's invitation. They take their security seriously inside - weapons checked at the door, scans to make sure, auto-turrets to take care of anyone who tries to start any trouble; no surprise given the mix they get."

Auvy spoke up, "So, how are we going to get an invitation?"

"Well." I picked up my glass and realized it was empty. "That part I haven't exactly worked out yet. We can go down there and do some recon though. See if there's a way. We'll have to get one somehow, though, unless you wanna try and mug Mavare in the corridor on his way there."

Ydet stretched out her shapely legs and then curled up in her chair like a cat - or the cat-burglar she was. "Remind me again why it's such a good idea to pick the most tightly-guarded social gathering in Syndicate for this little heist?"

"Security might be tight at the game but it's tighter where Mavare spends the rest of his time," I said.

Ydet snorted. "Your lack of faith hurts my feelings, Rory."

"I'm not a religious man. And I'm sure you could get in - "

"Oh, I'm sure Ydet has no problems getting into gangster's bedrooms," Auvy said.

"And no problem getting out again," Ydet said, and smiled. "Unlike some."

Auvy drew breath to reply but before she got a word out Siarente leaned forward. "Is that jacket a Ceverette?" she asked Auvy. "It looks like his new line but I don't think I saw anything that nice at the show."

All I know about clothes is that it's a good idea to tell Auvy how good she's looking in whatever she's wearing, which isn't hard to remember since she always looks good, but the name Ceverette seemed to work as some kind of code. Auvy half-boasted, half-admitted that the jacket was her own design and not the work of a Federation fashion house and Siarente widened her eyes in what seemed to be genuine admiration and asked a half-dozen questions about seams and facing that had me mystified.

Ydet shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes and leaned forward to study the plan. "So why aren't we hitting this guy's crib?"

"Because the only time Mavare takes off his little love-token is when he has to," Sami piped up from my NEOCOM. Right at that moment, she sounded blonde, too: the kind of blonde who'll promise a man the world and leave him flat broke in the gutter - and grateful for it. "Believe me, the hours I've spent wandering around in his surveillance system. The things I'm seen. Sometimes deleting just isn't enough. Anyway, the thing about poker games with high stakes ... they tend to be pretty strict about cheating. Especially the Colonel's Table. High quality comms jamming, for example, although nothing that'd cause me trouble. And they don't like giving people the chance to mark the cards. You know, like ... with a ring."

Ydet nodded. "So we go in as what, the girl's staff?"

"Me and the bodyguard will be flunkies," I said. "But you'll need the chance to slip away and break into the cloakroom. You'll be the bored girlfriend."

Ydet glanced back at Siarente. "Girlfriend, sure. Bored?" She gave me a wink. "That might take more acting."


Syndicate Files: The Sister - Part 1

Her name was Siarente Ross and the story she told me was a simple one, the kind of simple you get when you skip, eyes closed, straight past all the awkward, embarrassing, unpleasant details. The sister, who'd been 'experiencing some personal difficulties', was overdue back from a business trip to meet 'associates in the area'. The podder was concerned enough to be out here looking. Even with podder resources, she'd realized quick enough that she needed a native guide, and the ad that Sami'd tricked the station channel into running had brought Mademoiselle Ross straight to my door.

If I'd had any intention of taking the case I would have asked some of the obvious questions. Questions like 'Are these 'associates' Serps or Guristas?' for example. Or 'Personal difficulties with gambling, booze or boosters?'

But I wasn't going to take the case - I'd had enough podder trouble to last a lifetime.

I should have said that straight out, but the girl's lower lip started quivering as soon as I shook my head and I tried to soften it a little.

I should have remembered that the ones who don't look like trouble at first glance are sometimes the ones that end you up in the airlock with the wrong door open the fastest. More fool me.

"I'm all tied up with another case right now, Miss," I said. "If it weren't for that, I'd help you, but - " I spread my hands. "Sorry. You know how it is."

"Is this other case going to take you long?" she asked. "Because ..."

"Could take weeks," I said, and I wasn't lying this time, except for where I didn't tell her I'd been about to throw the case in. "It's pretty complicated."

"What sort of case?"

"Recovering stolen property. A ring."

"And it's complicated?"

A big part of my business is discretion, and I'm good at keeping my mouth shut - even when it's a pretty girl asking. Those blue eyes, though, or maybe it was the gentle lilt of her accent and the soft curve of her lips ... she was made to draw out a man's troubles just as surely as a tractor beam draws wrecks. A few details won't hurt, I thought, Fortune help me.

"The guy who's got it is a Serp lieutenant, Voilies Mavare. Few steps below the top of the ladder, but still out of my league. Bases out of a club, The Nest, and security is air-tight."

Siarente blinked thoughtfully. "Maybe you could just buy it back from him," she said.

I shook my head. "My client's bankroll doesn't run to the kind of sums that would tempt Mavare. And mine sure doesn't. Besides, she wants it kept quiet - and throwing that kind of money around would make plenty of noise. Even if he were selling."

"Steal it?" she suggested, with a matter-of-factness at odds with her innocent expression.

"Thought about it," I admitted. "But getting anywhere near him is the problem. Sami says he never leaves his place, The Nest - well, almost never."

"Sami?" she asked.

"My ... assistant."

A faint, delicate raspberry came from my neocom at that. The podder didn't notice, but her bodyguard flicked a glance at the handset and then looked back at me, eyes as grey and hard as the skin of the station, and twice as cold.

"Associate. My very talented, brilliant associate," I corrected hastily, before Sami could make her feelings known any more clearly. "Anyway. The only time Mavare every goes anywhere is to a monthly high-stakes poker game, the Colonel's Table."

"And why can't you steal it there?"

"Security's almost as tight there," I explained. "Only players and their flunkies get in."

She looked puzzled. "Can't you just go and play, then?"

"This is a real high-stakes game," I said. "The buy-in is a million syns."

"That's about 10,000 isk?" The look of bemusement lingered a moment longer before comprehension dawned. "Oh," she said. "That's a lot of money, isn't it." She looked at me for a moment, chewing thoughtfully on that full lower lip, and then went on: "More money than I'm going to just hand over, that's for sure. So I'll tell you what. I'll buy in to the poker game. You can come along as my ... boyfriend? Bodyguard? You can steal this silly ring back and then you'll be free to help me find my sister."

It took me a couple of seconds to grasp that she'd just tossed away 10,000 ISK - more than a million syns - without blinking. Then I realized she'd just solved my most pressing problem and trapped me into working for her in the same breath.

"Do you know how to play poker?" I managed to ask.

She smiled serenely. "I think I had a lesson once," she said. "It didn't seem too hard."


Syndicate Files: The Sister - Prologue

((Co-Authored with Ciarente))

The trouble started with the girl.

That's not where the whole thing started, of course. The whole thing started with Tialya Kikkettan's ring.

Tialya Kikkettan was like just about everyone who ended up in my office: she had just enough trouble on her plate to want to pay someone to make it go away, just enough money in her bank account to afford my rates, and just enough to hide to want to keep the whole thing off any official radar.

Her husband gave her the ring, a family heirloom, Tialya said, sitting in my office clutching her bag so hard the swollen joints of her skinny fingers were white with the force of her grip. I wasn't sure which she was worried might try and scuttle away into the corner and do something unmentionable: the bag or her hands.

The ring had been stolen, probably by the maid she'd fired last week. She wanted it back, and she didn't want the police involved.

The way her gaze slid away from mine when she mentioned the police made me think that 'stolen' might not be the right word, but it's not my place to judge, especially when there's 500 syns a day plus expenses at stake. She wasn't the first woman to give a trinket to a lover, and she wasn't the first woman to regret the gift after the relationship went sour.

Trace and retrieve, that was the job. How hard could it be? I thought.

Then it turned out that Tialya's former 'maid' was keeping new and dangerous company. The ring that Tialya's husband thought had been sent away for cleaning was on the hand of a mid-level Serpentis boss. Trace, well, I'd done that. Retrieve? Getting anywhere near him was next to impossible.

So I was having a cup of coffee and glumly contemplating how I was going to return Tialya Kikkettan's advance, since I'd already given most of it to my landlord, when the door to my office opened and trouble walked in on two-inch heels.

At first glance, she didn't look like trouble: soft blue eyes, a pretty face too young to have lines to show if that polite smile was her usual expression or if she'd worn it just for me, and a well-tailored dress doing its best to play down curves that could stop traffic. But the pretty face and the softly curling blonde hair and the demure dress all had that faint gloss of wealth, like they started their day being polished with 500 Syn notes. And if that hadn't warned me, then there was the bodyguard who came in with her sporting a look that said 'I can kill you with my pinky', the two big, square-jawed types who blotted out my doorway looking just as mean, and when soft blue eyes sat down in the chair across from me I caught a flash of jewels and metal on the back of her neck, almost hidden in that gently curling blonde hair.


That was enough to tell me she was trouble, however she looked. Besides, trouble is why people come to me. They're in it, they want to cause it, they want to head it off at the pass, or -

"It's my sister," the podder said, in the soft Gallente accent of the high-sec Fed-bred. "She's in - "


Her blue eyes widened. "How did you know?"