The priest was old. Intaki, I think. Maybe a native. Skin that looked pale and fragile like the yellowed, heat-warped plastic of a discarded protein-bar wrapper in a recycler slag-heap. He'd probably never been off the station. Heavy robes, with a symbol over the breast: an orange crescent like an umbrella over three red dots in a triangle. He was a Dronie. A member of The Church of the Created Ascendancy.
The CCA was one of the more notorious bunches of religious wackos on the station, which was saying a lot. From what I'd heard, Dronies believed that rogue drones were a hop-skip-and-a-jump further along the road to godhood than people. Worshiped the things. Word was, they were behind a spate of disappearances a few years back: people to feed to their mad, mechanical overlords. Or something. The details were sketchy.
If they had done it, either there wasn't much evidence or they paid up their bribes, because no official action had been taken. These days they mostly kept to themselves in a few below-decks compartments.
The priest blinked watery blue eyes at me past the end of the gun, as if he didn't see it. Maybe he thought that was the way I greeted everyone. Some days he wouldn't be far wrong. I already had a sinking feeling about this day.
He cleared his throat, and his voice was a wheezy exhalation with an off-rhythm, irritating cadence - clearly he wasn't the great orator for the congregation, "Tarva? Rordon Tarva? Yes, of course you are. I want to hire you. To recover stolen property."
Well, he didn't seem to be trying to grab me as the next sacrifice. I lowered the gun. Might as well give him a chance, "Is this a personal item? Something of yours?"
"Oh yes, very personal. Very important.
"Nope, sorry." I cut him off, "I don't do religious, bub."
"We can pay quite-"
"Answer's still no." I know what you're thinking, but for once I really was doin' ok. The jobs that encouraged me to get the gun also gave me the stack of syns to buy it with. I had a feeling this guy wasn't being straight with me anyway, "I don't. Do. Religious. Gods make lousy clients."
He blinked at me a couple of time, looking confused, "Oh, but-"
I picked the gun back up, waved him toward the door, "Really, no. Plenty of other PIs that'll take the case, go bother one of them, huh?"
He regarded me with eyes that suddenly seemed a bit less lost and watery, and then turned and hobbled out.
My morning just kept improving, after that. I'd just gotten up to get a cuppa coffee, having given up on getting my new neocom working right, when my door opened again. More priests. Five, six of 'em this time. Red crescents, orange dots. The leader looked to be in her thirties, a bit scrawny, fevered looking. Her eyes bulged, maybe from all the crazy she was stuffed with; it made her look like one of those little dogs that shake all the time. I regretted that the gun was back in the desk drawer.
She pointed an accusatory finger at me. "We followed the Heretic here!" I could hear the capital 'H'.
"Well, good work. Guess you don't need a detective if you can do the following yourself. Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out." Like I said, one of those days, sinking feeling. They were members of the Congregation of the Greater Mind. They worshiped artificial intelligence. Minders and Dronies hated each-other in the way that only people who believe not quite but almost exactly the same thing can. It ran to bloodshed pretty frequently.
"You are the Thief that the Deviants hired to steal the sacred Relic." More audible capitals, which in my experience were only slightly less dangerous than audible bullets. It looked like her eyes were so outraged they might actually pop out of her head to attack me. This one believed what she was saying, even if it was dead wrong, "Seize him!"
Who actually says that? She was the only little one in the bunch, and the others didn't look like they'd been picked for their perfect memorization of the holy texts, if you know what I mean. And me without even my stun stick. I let'em grab me and tried reason and truth, "It wasn't me. Never seen the guy before in my life. Plus, I'm a PI: I find things, I don't steal 'em."
"Lies!" Well, I knew it'd been a long shot. I watched with foreboding as white foam collected at the corners of her mouth, "You will return the Mind to its rightful Owners or we will remove your Brain so that we might learn from its Imperfections."
One of the goons - acolytes? - punched me in the stomach, gave me a good right hook to the face, and they dropped me on the floor. They headed for the door. Bulgy-eyes paused before she left, "Two days, Thief."
Then they were gone.
I'd never found religion, but it looked like religion had come and found me.
I got to my feet, got that cup of coffee, and got to my desk.
I don't like being threatened. It made me stubborn, made me wanna take stands, and in Syndicate neither of those was good for life expectancy. Still, I didn't see a way around it. Find the relic and then I'd at least have a bargaining chip. And maybe know a little more about what the hell was going on.
If you want to find out about something that's been stolen, ask a thief. I had a hunch about which one to talk to. I got my kit, my stun stick, and my pistol and headed out.
HoloHut's are the same, anywhere in the cluster you go. There is a plan to all of them, and it's the same in Tash-Murkon as in the middle of Syndicate. Neocoms by the counter, the newest display of Egones on the table in the aisle, the latest in holodisplays along the left wall; you know the drill. I wasn't shopping though. The franchise owner for this particular HoloHut - the real one, at the end of the chain of front corporations - wasn't the same as all the others. Not nearly.
I told the kid at the register, "I'm here to see Ydet. Tell her it's Tarva."
He nodded and disappeared into the back, then reappeared moments later to wave me through and resume his place at the counter, flipping through a Zainou catalog with a bored look. His boss probably got a lot of people who weren't there to buy electronics. I went through to the back.
Ydet was sitting at her desk, doing paperwork. She looked over and smiled when she saw me, "Hey Tarva. Long time."
She was in her late twenties, maybe early thirties. Open, friendly, trustworthy looking face. Like your kinda cute neighbor. Built like a dancer. Or a cat burglar. I smiled back, "Too long, Ydet. How've you been? How's business?"
"Oh, I get by." I'll bet she did. There are thieves everywhere, but Ydet was a professional, worked contracts. The list of people who do that isn't long. The number of people on that list willing to do me any favors was exactly one.
"I'm looking for some specialty electronics. A certain piece of software, something real smart. Someone I know lost one, recently. They really want me to replace it." Bulgy-eyes had called it a 'Mind' - that's Minder slang for an A.I. Of course, it probably wasn't a real one, cause no way could a bunch of loonies like that get their hands on prohibited tech.
Ydet considered for a moment, eyed the shiner that was starting to show around my left eye, "Well, I can't help you. Sorry."
"Thanks anyway. Take care, Ydet." I turned to go. I wasn't about to lean on her. Long story.
"Tarva, hold on." I looked back at her and she went on, quick and low, "There was something like that, recently. A special order, one of mine. Quick and easy. Can't tell you who for."
I nodded, "Thanks. Guess I'll have to order mine somewhere else. The person who ordered it, drone enthusiast were they?"
"Can't tell you. You know how it is. Clients." But she shook her head slightly, and I'd seen the flash of confusion when I'd mentioned drones.
"I'll just add it to your tab."
"I know. You're Fortune's own smile, Ydet, really. See ya."
I chewed it over on the way back to the office. The Minders had what they thought was an AI - one of their gods. Someone hired Ydet to steal it. Whoever it was, it wasn't the Dronies. The item itself was probably pretty small too. Ydet liked crawlspaces, vents, things like that. She said it'd been quick and easy.
So, I had not too big, not stolen for the Dronies, and it was somewhere on the station. Probably.
Rordon Tarva. Master investigator.
I got to my office, and the door was open a crack. I'd left it locked, though some days I wonder why I even bothered.
I drew my pistol and kicked open the door, "Hands!"
The intruder showed me his palms. In one of them was a badge with an ID, "Tybak Simaaka, DED. I have some questions for you, about an AI."