Conversations on the Utopian Ideal: Thirty Two

First Technician (Neuroengineering) Lieutenant Kentanen Tashotsu spun on his stool idly. “Don’t you think it’s weird?”

“I’m not paid to think,” Lab Four Lead (Neuroengineering) Padrah Erbamait said. “And neither are you.”

“That’s exactly what we’re both paid to do, Pad,” Kentanen said. “Think.”

Padrah flicked the viewer to another experimental study, this one from a private Federation research institution she remembered from the minor scandal surrounding its sudden closure and the arrest of most of its staff for ‘ethical violations’. “Not about weird,” she said. “We’re paid to think about how to give Captain Night what he wants.”

“Which is weird.”

“Void’s sake, Ken. He’s a pod pilot. You were expecting normal when you signed on?”

“Have you ever even heard of anything like this, though?”

Sighing, Padrah pushed the viewer away and turned. “Sure. There’s plenty of VR games and infotainment about the capsule. Even TCMC enhanced for a fully immersive experience.”

Kentanen shook his head. “Games. Recordings.”

“Recordings, transmissions, what’s the difference?”

“Input only, Pad. Those are all input only.”

“So is this,” she said. “Mostly. It’s not like Captain Night wants Dr Toin plugged into the ship’s systems. Not that it would be possible if he did. Just a buffered re-transmit of the signals coming into the pod and what’s basically a comm link.”

“Basically …”

“A very sophisticated comm link, yes.” Padrah shrugged. “Not much more sophisticated than a really good neocom implant with VR capability. There’s a bit of difference, yes, with the type of output, given her existing … wiring. But that’s all.”

Kentanen spun on his stool again. “We hook those receivers she’s got to translate the feedback from her assistance device up to a transmission from the pod systems, she’ll be able to feel the ship.”

“In an attenuated and limited way.”

“And we link the output that usually goes to her holoprojectors to the capsule, he’ll be able to see
her thoughts.”

“A projection of signals from her visual cortex.” Padrah stuck out a foot and stopped the stool spinning. “Which it’s our job to make happen, so let’s do it, huh?”

Kentanen leaned closer and lowered his voice. “You know, I heard Captain Night uses antimicrobe nanites every time he shakes someone’s hand.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Nothing.” Kentanen shrugged. “I just think it makes all this weird.”


“Because I never thought I’d see the day that Captain Night asked us to find a way to let someone else plug into his brain.”

"If only you’d never thought, full stop, we might actually get this done." Padrah pointed at his work station, "Those studies aren't reviewing themselves."

"Yeah, yeah. Back to it." Kentanen spun reluctantly back to his viewer, "Hey Pad..."

"Yes, Ken?"

"I heard that Dr. Toin is some kind of Sansha experiment. That's why Captain Night stole her from Ishukone."

"How would that even-" Padrah shook her head, "That doesn't make any sense Ken. If she was a Sansha experiment, why would Ishukone have had her. Unlike whatever brain-dead security grunt you heard that from, you know what's in her head. It's a little unusual but it isn't Sansha."

"What if what we're doing will be the set up for it, though, Pad?" he pressed. “You know, you’veheard the stories. Sansha turning people into Titan pilots overnight. They haveto have some way to link ordinary people into pod systems.”


“So what if this is it?Or a testfor it, a trial, maybe.” He leaned towards her again. “You knowCaptain Night used to be – ”

Padrah slapped her hand flat on her desk. “Usedto be, yeah, I know, I workedhere back when he was, unlike you, Ken. And none of us ended up with chips in our heads or wires sprouting out of our nostrils thenso I don’t see it suddenly happening now.” She pushed the key for the next article with enough energy to wring a strangled bleepfrom the viewer. “So stop listening to stupid Sansha ghost stories down at the guard post. You knowWemer only tells them to creep people out.”

“Yeah, I guess. Captain doesn’t seemlike the type to go chipping people.” He paused, then added slyly, “Especially not Dr Toin.”

“Why especially notDr Toin?” Padrah asked in spite of herself.

“Oh, come on. They spend hours together in his office, I heard from Gia down on F-Deck, she’s right down the hall from there. With the door closed. Talking about shield efficiency, I’m sure. And mathematics.” Kentanen’s tone made it clear how implausible he found the idea.

“You think …?”

“Well, he’s still human, isn’t he?”

“It’s kind of hard to imagine …” Padrah said doubtfully. “Captain Night.”

“Maybe they’re not. Maybe they do talk about algebra and he’s like those pilots you hear about, you know, the ones with the special ordersat the Pleasure Hubs. The low-secPleasure Hubs. Maybe that’sthe reason we’re based here, so the Captain can go out at night and – “

Kentanen’s expression froze at the same moment Padrah felt something touch her calf, a soft inquisitive snuffling.

That, she realised, is Colonel Teirild’s creepy little pet.

Which means Colonel Teirild …

“I take it your report for the Captain is ready,” Colonel Teirild said from directly behind Padrah. “And you’re fully prepared to begin work on the interface adjustments he requires.”

Kentanen, the bastard, looked at Padrah.

“Not, ah … as such, Colonel,” Padrah said.

“Then perhaps,” Colonel Tierild said, “ You should concentrate your attention on that?”

“Yes, sir!” Padrah and Kentanen chorused.

"Good." The security CO turned on her heel and walked away, her weird little big-eared creature trotting along after her.

Padrah bent back to her viewer.

"Hey Pad."

"Yes, Ken?"

"You hear what they say about Colonel Teirild?"


Conversations in Vourassi: Thirty One

Vuorrassi V – Moon 13 – Ishukone Corporation Factory

Security personnel were not an unusual sight in the corridors of the Ishukone Corporation station that kept measured and deliberate orbit around the thirteenth moon of the fifth planet in Vuorrassi. These men and women, however, were not in Ishukone uniforms, and that was enough to earn a few second glances from those they passed.

Second glances, and then stares, when curious glances fell on the man they so discreetly and alertly shadowed.

Security without Ishukone colours might be rare, but pod pilots on the loose in the station corridors were unheard of.

Capsuleers were … well, every one of the Ishukone citizens who paused and turned and gawked had their own opinions on what capsuleers were.

Dangerous. Crazy. Wealthy.

Ghosts. Madmen.


This capsuleer, Captain Silver Night, did not look to be any of those, except perhaps wealthy, to those close enough to see the expensive cut and dull lustre of a suit far too polite to announce its cost above a whisper. If he noticed the stares, he gave no sign of it as he walked down the station's corridors, absentmindedly following the directions his implants threw up on his field of view.

There is a certain comfort being home.

Of course, this wasn't a station he'd ever been on before, but he was back in the State, and it was an Ishukone station, and that was close enough.

He focused on business as he approached his destination. One of many labs in that section, it was bigger than some and smaller than many. The front room hummed with the harmonics of the shield tech operating further back in the complex, and with a quiet but intense concentration.

Even if he had not been expected, his reputation with the corporation was more than sufficient to ensure his access.

But he was expected, and after the usual routine pleasantries was navigating the narrower corridors leading back into the lab proper.

If his internal neocom had not provided him with the layout and directions, he would still have been able to locate the room he sought from the raised voice audible some distance down the hall.

“Then pay attention,” Dr Nolikka Toin said sharply to someone who replied in a lower voice, words indistinct but tone placating.

Dr Toin was clearly not placated. “It's Spirits-damned obvious to anyone with half a brain. Look, just go and work it out. I have work to do, I can’t hold your hand every minute of the day.”

A shaken-looking young man exited the lab hastily. Silver gave him a pleasant smile and received a slightly terrified stare in response before the scientist hurried away up the corridor.

As always, he called Dr Toin from outside the lab. As always, she assured him that he was not interrupting. Only after receiving that assurance did he open the door.

It was not a large room, even as far as rooms on stations in general, and laboratories for theoretical research in particular, tended to run. Utilitarian grey walls and floor, a terminal – not the latest tech, Silver noted – with a hard-wired connection snaking a very busy IK111 supercomputer, a stool, and little else besides the scientist standing beside the terminal, one hand resting on the keyboard.

Dr Toin turned towards Silver as he stepped inside, and they exchanged the usual professional courtesies.

Silver was dismayed to hear her explain the difficulties she was facing with her project: a new team, inexperienced colleagues. She didn’t mention the deficiencies in equipment, and nor would Silver have expected an Ishukone scientist to make such a complaint to someone who was, as he sometimes still needed to remind himself, an outsider, but those he could see for himself.

Could see, too, that the corporation had not done perhaps all it could to provide a conducive working environment. Noises from the hallway – people passing, an inquiry called from one room to another – clearly disrupted Dr Toin’s concentration.

“Have you had …” he started, and then paused. “That is, do you have everything you need, Dr Toin?”

“The corporation has been very generous with us all, Captain,” she said.

He looked at her folded arms, knuckles white, and then around at the lab again. "The discussion we had before you left stands, Dr. Toin."

“Captain,” she said softly, and then stopped. “This is where the corporation believes I belong.”

“It just seems as though, ah, your work might progress more quickly in a more..." Silver paused for a moment, trying different words in his head, "An environment that better fosters the concentration your work requires.”

“The station is - I'd forgotten how much noise there is, on a station,” she said. “How many people. I would wish there was somewhere a little quieter, though. From time to time”

Somewhere on the station. Somewhere calmer. “Have you tried the hydroponics bay? It isn't entirely quiet, but it is a different sort of noise.”

“I’ll have to find it,” she said, with what seemed like genuine interest.

“I could, perhaps, show you where it is.” The words were out before Silver realized it. Of course, it is probably much more convenient for her, if someone can act as a guide. It only makes sense. He hastened to add, “If there's a convenient time, for you.”

“That would be most kind,” Dr Toin said. “I would not want to delay you, though.”

“My time at the moment is my own, it would be no delay.” He hesitated as he turned toward the door. “Would it be simpler if you took my arm? For navigational purposes?"

"It, ah. Would, yes."

Dr Toin moved easily beside him, her hand resting lightly on his arm, as they left the lab complex.

The corridors of the station were crowded as ever, and though Silver’s security kept a small buffer of clear space around him, there was nothing they could do about the hum and hubbub of thousands of voices, of footsteps, of people.

As they made small talk about Dr Toin’s assignment to the station, about her family, her discomfort with the crowds was barely noticeable, her voice steady, if at times so soft Silver had to stoop a little to hear it. Extraordinary self-control.

They reached the hydrobay, with its rows and rows of tightly packed plants stretching towards the ceiling. As a child, those walls of green had seemed to tower up forever, and as he looked up past the gently waving leaves Silver half expected to see three small faces looking down at them from the catwalk above, Jan, Ami and Val escaping from the supervisors for a snatched half-hour in their shared secret garden.

Or hear Jan’s voice. Ancestors, man, it’s been an age …

But there was just the hiss of the sprinklers, the faint gurgle of the drip-irrigation system, the quiet whir of pumps.

He realized he had been silent for several moments, and turned to Dr Toin. “Here it, um, is.”

And then he realized it wouldn’t have mattered to her how long he’d been silent. She was smiling faintly, one hand outstretched to brush the leaves of the plant nearest her, reminding him of the way she’d reached out to trail her fingers through the holographic equations dancing around the Ideal’s lab the last time he had seen her.

She moved further down the row of plants, to the arm’s length limit of the hand that still rested on his sleeve, and Silver took a step towards her and reminded himself to stay close. “I’ve always found these places … “ He paused, finding the right word. “Calming.”

“It’s beautiful,” Dr Toin said quietly. “Almost like not being on a station at all. It must look like – like a garden?”

“Very much like a garden,” Silver agreed. He described the walls of green for her, the plants stretching far above both their heads, identified the different varieties as well as he could. Perhaps she could envision it: she had, it turned out, spent time on a planet. One with an awful lot of sky, she said with gentle amusement, and weather, a reaction much as his own had been the first time he had dropped into a gravity well.

“How did you know it would be – ” She paused. “How did you know it was here?”

“This station is similar to the one I was born on.” As Dr Toin leaned forward to inhale the scent of the plants, Silver found himself adding, “My creche-mates and I used to sneak off to the hydro-bay. My brother became a hydro-engineer. He was a supervisor, had his own bay."

“What does he do now?” she asked.

“There was an accident,” Silver said. “He’s no longer with us.”

Dr Toin was still for a few seconds. “I’m very sorry,” she said. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“It was a long time ago,” Silver said.

“Does it get … easier?” she asked quietly. 

“Yes. Easier.” The sprinklers hissed softly and Silver felt he should be honest. “It doesn’t ever go away, though.”

“There are people … “ Her voice trailed away to silence for a moment. “People you think … nothing can divide you. And then ... when something does. You keep running up against the nonsense of dividing by zero having actually happened. Like walking into a wall that wasn't there yesterday.”

“It does … it takes time. Fitting something like that in.” Silver said. “It does happen, though, Dr Toin.” He cleared his throat. “What does, ah. What does your sister do?”

Applied electronics, was the answer, a lab manager in the same system. With a young son, Dr Toin’s nephew, just a little older than Jan and Madlen. She was telling Silver about him when her comm chimed: a call from the lab. She was needed back there.

“Do you – “ Silver said. “That is, shall I walk back with you?”

“Thank you,” she said. “I can usually remember the way, once I've been somewhere. But it's not the same in reverse, you know? Finding one's way back is harder than it seems.”

“Yes,” Silver said. “I've experienced that myself.”

As they left the hydrobay, Silver again choosing a route that kept them, as far as possible, out of the more crowded areas of the station, Dr Toin’s smile vanished. Still, her careful self-control seemed to take less effort than it had. If the corporation cannot provide the environment most conducive to concentration at this time, at least there will be an alternative for her.

They reached the lab complex and he stopped.

Dr Toin stopped with him. “Thank you, Captain,” she said. “I’m glad your business allowed you time to visit.”

“As am I,” Silver said. “I hope your research goes well, and I look forward to seeing the results.”

Her hand dropped from his arm. “I will make sure to keep you informed.”

“I appreciate that,” he said. “I look forward to hearing from you.”

She hesitated a moment longer, and then, with a quiet “Travel safely, Captain Night,” turned and was gone.

As he made his way back to the hangars, Silver wondered if an alternative would be enough to allow Dr Toin to complete her work. Perhaps the corporation could be encouraged to move a little faster.

There was more than one Ishukone agent always ready to take a call from Captain Silver Night. Indeed, one at this very station. Silver made the connection with a thought.

“Mr Iwahari. I hope I find you well? I have a research matter to raise with you …”


[OOC] Silver's Second Annual Fiction Contest (Billions in Prizes!)

Today I'm kicking off my Second Annual Fiction Contest!

Check it out Here.

Prizes include 4 faction battleships!


Friends: Part 4

Saer nodded toward the pictures on the wall, "It must be expensive, sending your son to private school."

Bjerd's expression tightened, and she didn't glance at the pictures, "Yes."

"You knew it wouldn't last forever. Not with Tidjias running it. If I had a way for you to come out from the other side of this in the clear and still earning would you be interested?" Saer smiled, "And you'd probably never have to see me again."

Bjerd hesitated, then nodded.

* * *

Tani Akell followed Saer through the duct. "Are we going to find Tidjias?"

Saer didn't look over her shoulder, or slow her crawl through the grimy metal tube, "Stay quiet until we're out of here."

Tani scowled, her feet rattling against the panels with enough noise to make Saer wince. Her clan teaches traditional things, isn't moving quietly one of those?

At the exit panel, Saer stopped and motioned for Tani to be still and quiet. The shadow of the patrolling guard passed the slats of the vent, and Saer counted out thirty seconds under her breath - enough time for the guard to turn at the next corner. She popped the vent cover off and slid out of the vent, dropping the few feet to the ground. She waited for Tani to tumble out, then carefully fitted the cover back on the duct.

Tani had recovered and was dusting herself off. Saer jerked her head toward the nearby industrial buildings, "Come on. Walk."

Saer walked purposefully, but not too quickly, away from the Maintenance facility. Tani followed, peppering Saer with questions. "Where are we going? Are we going to get Tidjias? Are we going to the police?"

What is it with this family and all the questions? Saer put a few blocks behind them and then stopped and turned on her. "What happened?"

"What happened?" Tani put her hands on her hips indignantly. "They hit me and tied me up!"

"After you what? Walked up and told them you knew they were stealing parts?" Saer asked dryly.

"No, of course not."

Saer started towards the motel again, keeping her pace at a casual stroll, two friends on their way home from an evening out. "What did you do, then? That made them suspicious?"

"I told them I knew how they could not get caught." Tani said, overtaking Saer and then slowing to match her pace. "They weren't even grateful!"

How is someone this naive even still breathing? "You expected them to be grateful?" Saer asked. "You let them know that you knew."

"You told me to find a way to make myself useful to them," Tani said. "How were they going to know I was useful if I didn't tell them?"

"Groups like that don't usually like someone coming from the outside and announcing 'I know what you're doing, and why don't you do a better job of it?'"

Tani deflated a bit. "Oh."

"You have to do it a bit at a time, Tani."

"Oh," Tani said again. She scowled. "So what do I do now?"

"It's up to you," Saer said. She paused as a group passed them, the worse for alcohol. One made a slurred, lewd suggestion to Tani and the girl clenched her fists. Saer grabbed her arm and gave the man a hard stare, cold as the void. He was sober enough to take the warning, and stumbled on with his friends.

Saer let Tani go as they moved away and said "Do you still want to be a mechanic there? If we got rid of some people?"

"Yes, but they do have to stop, or change anyway," Tani said. "There's going to be a crash, if they keep going how they are. Did you hear what that guy said to me?"

"Don't get distracted," Saer advised her. "I talked to one of them, on that crew. He mentioned there was someone in small parts who would be easy to work with. If she was in charge. do you know who he was talking about?"

"Yeah," Tani said. She jerked her thumb back in the direction they'd come from. "We just tied her up."

"Okay," Saer said. "Well, here's what we can do. We can go to the police and they'll shut down the whole department. They may or may not get everyone involved. You may or may not have a shot at a job there. It might stay exclusively Sebbie. That's one option. Or we do nothing. They probably won't go after you if they don't hear from the police after a little while. We have a copy of the evidence now. We put it in a safe place. That's what's called insurance. If they go after you, we can always release it."

"We can't do nothing," Tani said decisively. "They're using bad parts."

Saer had heard that tone of voice before, over years on ships and stations. It was the voice of an engineer or a mechanic whose professional standards had been affronted, and it was the end of that line of discussion.

Saer nodded, "Alright. There's a third option, too. We can find out who controls that department. We can offer them a deal: Either we go to the press with the evidence and they look incompetent or corrupt, or we give them a copy, and they use it to clean up the department. Getting rid of the people we want them to get rid of, and seeing that they are the ones that get tossed to the police. We make a deal with Bjerd - she gets to be the new boss, and in exchange she supports the internal housecleaning, and hires you afterward."

"What do you think we should do? Hiri would say go straight to the police." Tani went on. She snorted. "Like they helped her."

"I think we should find out who has oversight of that department," Saer said. "Offer them the deal."

Tani nodded decisively. "Okay. I have the department staff chart and contact list, we can - "

Plenty of drive. Now if she just manages to live long enough to get some experience. Saer reached out and grabbed the back of Tani's shirt as she started down the street. "Right now, we need to go check on your sister. Then we'll need to talk to Bjerd and make sure the authorities find- "

Tani stopped. "Hiri? What's wrong with Hiri?"

No point sugar-coating it. "When we were asking questions, one of the people found her. Beat her up."

"Beat her up? Hiri? How bad? Is she okay?"

"She seems ok." Saer watched Tani's reaction carefully and filed it away.

"Seems okay? Is she okay, though?"

"She was fine when I left," Saer said. She had already started walking again, "Are you coming?"

Tani scrambled to catch up.

* * *

"Good. I'm going to put the gun away. Don't do anything stupid." Saer watched Bjerd carefully as she tucked the pistol away. "Right about now, the director of operations for the shuttleport is calling a press conference. He's going to announce that an internal investigation has revealed a parts theft ring and that the perpetrators are being taken into custody."

"That's why you wanted what was on my terminal." A note of bitterness crept into Bjerd's voice, "How does getting arrested help me?"

"You won't be arrested. You're going to be promoted."

* * *

The streets near the motel were run down, the only windows without bars over them were the ones that were boarded up. Saer was relieved to see that even Tani seemed to be paying attention to their surroudnings. At least she isn't entirely oblivious.

"You know," she said, "Next time you see an... opportunity, you can give me a call first. I can give you some advice. You can still get hurt if you screw up. Even dealing with half-assed operations like this one."

Tani said "Like the advice about insurance?"

"Yes," Saer said. "You have to make sure it is always riskier getting rid of you than keeping you around."

Tani said soberly. "They talked about killing me. But they couldn't work out how to get the body off the shuttleport"

"Lucky for you," Saer said. "These are the kind of situations where people play for keeps, Tani. And people will panic and do stupid things when they're cornered, so if you decide to corner someone, make sure they don't have those options. Better to ease them into things, though, and not corner them at all"

"How do you do that?" Tani asked.

Saer considered how to compress a lifetime's experience into something Tani would understand. "Keep your eyes open, and your mouth shut. Make sure if you find things out, you keep a copy somewhere with instructions in case something happens to you. Be useful, but not loud about it. Be trustworthy and reliable. Take some initiative, but don't, for example, demand that someone change their whole operation because you know better. Help them make money, and again, show that you keep your mouth shut. Of course, it's a bit late for that in this particular case."

Tani frowned. "So I did it wrong?"

"Yes," Saer said. "Actually, it's possible it might have worked, if you'd had insurance. But usually just going right for the throat like that isn't the best way, even if it is quick. If you're using that kind of leverage, they're not going to trust you. It's a last resort if you're talking about the people you're going to be working with directly. It's more useful with superiors or people in a position to help you."

Tani studied Saer, and asked thoughtfully. "Do you do this a lot?"

"I used to," Saer said.

"Before you became a soldier?"

Saer shrugged as they reached the motel. "This is it."

Tani hurried inside. Saer overtook her and showed her the way to the room, Before, she thought, the girl starts knocking on doors at random.

Both sisters exclaimed at the sight of the other, Hiri with relief, Tani in horror at Hiri's bruises. Saer interrupted what promised to become a full explanation carried out in the hallway and herded them both inside.

"You look awful," Tani said frankly. "We should get you home, Uncle Husvard should look at you, who was it? Who hit you?"

"One of the people from maintenance," Saer said. "I've already discussed things with him. He was very co-operative."

Tani Akell turned to Saer "You didn't let him go, did you?"

Saer shrugged "He was still tied up when I left. Why? What do you want to do with him?"

Tani narrowed her eyes and clenched her fists.

"Tani," Hiri said with gentle reproach.

Tani looked at Hiri and then said to Saer, "What he did to my sister. To start."

"Why?" Saer asked.

Tani asked incredulously, "What do you mean, why? Look at her!"

Saer looked at Hiri, then back at Tani, "She took a beating, yeah. So? What would be the purpose of doing more to him?"

Hiri took one of Tani's hands and uncurled her fist. "It wouldn't serve any purpose, Tani, you know that."

Tani scowled, but didn't voice any disagreement.

Saer nodded, "She's right. If you're going to hurt someone, you should have a reason. Making a point, getting information, making an example. He already gave up the information we needed, and I don't think we need an example, at least not yet."

Hiri eyed Saer, "I don't think that's exactly what I meant."

Saer shrugged. "It's just practical. If they take another shot at you, we might need to make an example. I'll use whoever they send, though. In the mean time, no need to make things any messier."

Hiri said to Tani, "You're all right, that's all that matters. You are all right? They didn't hurt you?"

"Yeah, I'm okay," Tani said. "They pushed me around a bit but that's all."

I should say something. What would someone say in one of those holo-shows? Saer frowned for a moment, "I'm glad that you're both alright."

"Okay, well," Hiri said, "Let's get you out of here. We'll get you home and call the police, okay?"

"I'll take care of the police," Saer said firmly. "Make sure that their investigation is focused efficiently. It's important they get the right people."

Tani opened her mouth, looked at Saer, and closed it again. A miracle, Saer thought.
"You take care of Tani," Saer said. "I'm sure that everyone will want to hear about what happened. And then perhaps it might be a good idea for her to visit her big sister in space for a little while, while everything settles down here."

* * *

"Promoted?" Bjerd frowned, "Promoted to what? Head janitor?"

"No, I think that's still a Vherokior job." Bjerd stared at Saer a bit blankly. Guess it wasn't that funny. "Head of maintenance. Tidjias's job. I understand there is a healthy pay raise involved."

"But Tidjias will-"

"Tidjias, and several of his cronies, are going to be in prison. For quite a while." Saer's smile was chilly, "I understand that when it comes to interfering with flight safety, the penalties can be severe."

"Okay. Yeah." Bjerd took a deep breath, "You said you'd help me, and I'd help you. What would you want me to do?"

"Nothing, for now. Forget about that kick Tani gave you - youthful enthusiasm. Don't share what really happened with anyone. Make the department run the way it should."

Bjerd nodded, shifting in her seat, "That's not all, though, is it?"

"Tani. If she still wants it, give her a job. Make sure that she doesn't take the heat for what happened, either. You don't want me having to come back here."

"I think I can do that. That can't be everything." Bjerd looked like someone bracing herself to sell her soul. "What else do I have to do?"

Well, at least she seems committed to the idea. Either the private school, or the imported soap, must be even more expensive than I thought.

Saer shook her head, "No, think that's everything." She stood up.

"That's- Then why did you do all this?"

Saer didn't bother answering as she left the apartment.

* * *

As the shuttle hurtled down the runway and lifted into the air, Tani leaned forward eagerly, face pressed against the window. Hiri leaned back in her seat, holding an icepack against the side of her face. Her bruises had reached their full glory over night, and whatever 'Uncle Husvard' had had to offer, it hadn't been close to professional medical care.

Saer had gone so far as to consider a hospital or at least a doctor who could be bribed, but they'd be back on station in a few hours.

She flipped through the holo-catalogue from the seat pocket in front of her, wondering if people really needed self-heating pen holders, and glancing up occasionally to make sure the Akell sisters hadn't been able to get into any more trouble. It was hard to imagine what they could find, seatbelts fastened and with Saer in the aisle seat, but you can never be too careful.

Hiri opened her eyes as Saer glanced up. "Saer?"

Saer closed the catalog and looked over, "Yes?"

Hiri said carefully, "Some of those things you said to Tani ... I'm not sure if those are the best things for her to be hearing, at her age."

"What would you prefer?" Saer asked with genuine curiosity.

"I know that, with what happened to you, it must seem as if the world works in certain ways," Hiri said. "Sometimes it seems to me as if you have a ... utilitarian view towards people you don't know."

Saer considered that. "I try to be practical," she ventured.

Hiri nodded, and winced at the movement. "But being practical isn't the only thing in life."

Saer could tell from Hiri's tone that this was one of those times when the blandly mundane words were supposed to convey a far more complex message than she could decrypt. She settled for a nod. "Of course it isn't."

Hiri paused. "The advice you gave Tani, last time we were here, and today ... I know you meant well."

"Well," Saer said. "I hope she can benefit from my experience."

"I know you do," Hiri said. "But I think perhaps the lessons of your experience might not be the best ones for Tani to learn."

"Why not?" Saer asked.

Hiri said gently "Saer, do you ever think about the ways there are difference between how you look at things and how other people do? Me, for example?"


"What differences do you see, when you do that?"

Saer eyed Hiri carefully and chose her words precisely. "You believe that people in authority are there to help. For example."

Hiri nodded. "I know that when 'authority' is the people keeping you as a slave, that's not what it feels like. I do know that, Saer. But that experience, it's exceptional. It's not a good guide to the rest of the Cluster."

"I've been on both sides of that line, being subject to authority, and being in authority, Hiri." Saer said patiently, "I've been other things a lot longer than I was ever a slave. I don't think my experience with it is exceptional at all."

"Do you think your perceptions are in line with other people's perceptions?" Hiri asked.

Saer shrugged. "What about you? What are your perceptions, based on your experiences relying on authorities?"

"That individuals in positions of authority are as variable as individuals in any walk of life," Hiri said. "In good and bad ways, but that the structures that give a community order are important."

"I agree," Saer said.

"Yes," Hiri said. "But I think that what Tani understood from your advice wasn't exactly that."

"Well, she did bite off a bit more than she could chew, there," Saer said. "Very enthusiastic. I did try to impress on her that it was a serious situation, and to be more cautious."

"Yes," Hiri said. "Um. Saer. That's not exactly what I meant. I don't think it's a good idea for Tani to think that the only thing she did wrong there was being 'enthusiastic'."

Saer nodded. "What do you think she did wrong?"

"She should have gone directly to the police when she found out what was going on," Hiri said.

Saer nodded again. "And what do you think would have happened then?"

"The police would have investigated," Hiri said, "and there would have been arrests and and investigation and so on, but that's not the point. The point is, it would have been the right thing to do."

"Even if it got your sister hurt worse?" Saer asked.

"You can't just take things into -" Hiri paused. "Well, you can. You can take things into your own hands, Saer, and you have, I understand that. But it hurts Tani is a different way to think that's how it should work. Do you understand?"

Saer considered. "So, it would have been better to go to the police, and risk them being paid off or bungling it, allowing them to go after Tani for talking? I don't disagree that there are many situations where the police are an excellent resource, Hiri. I prefer to be as careful as possible, though."

Hiri said "I understand that you believe things are best handled in a certain way, yes. But that is not the way I think they're best handled or the way I want my sister to grow up believing they're best handled."

"So, it's most important to do the right thing?"

"Yes," Hiri said. "It's most important to do the right thing." She added gently, "I know that sometimes it might be hard for you to see what the right thing is."

"Well, I appreciate you explaining things to me. Is that true even when it's a choice between what you think the right thing is, and something that will keep people close to you from getting hurt?"

"That's what we call an ethical dilemma," Hiri said.

"And doing the right thing wins by default?" Saer smiled slightly, and shook her head "I've never worked for anyone that was really interested in teaching a lot of ethics."

"Sometimes people make the right choice, sometimes the wrong one, in these situations," Hiri said. "But a lot of the people who end up talking to someone like me are there because they made the wrong choice and they don't know how to live with it. I don't want Tani to grow up making the wrong choices."

"Do you think I made the wrong choice in not calling the police to begin with?"

"I think you made the best choice you knew how to make," Hiri said carefully, "but I think it might have been better to go straight to the police, yes."

There is so much to try and understand. So much that makes no sense at all, but people really believe it. Saer thought. All she said was, "Well, hopefully it won't come up again."

Hiri nodded, and winced again. "Hopefully. But I'd really appreciate it if you remembered, talking to Tani, that it's important to me that she doesn't get the wrong idea about things. And remember that when you're giving her advice."

Saer nodded. "I will remember."

Hiri smiled. "Thank you. Please don't think I don't appreciate everything you've done."

Saer smiled. "Well. What are friends for."


Friends: Part 3

The apartment door opened and light spilled in. The woman stepped inside and quickly shut the door. She walked toward the center of the room, throwing her purse on the couch, "Lights."

As the lights came up Saer moved, sliding over to stand in front of the door and pointing her weapon, "Hello, Bjerd."

The woman spun around.

* * *

The motel room bathroom was cramped, and Saer could see various animal life scatter as she dragged her prisoner in and wedged him into the tiny shower stall, chair and all. He glared at her over the gag while she searched his maintenance jumpsuit.

He had an ID, a residence passcard, a couple of security passes for the shuttleport, and some cash. She pocketed everything except the ID. That she held up in front of him, "I have your name, Snallfur. That means I can find you whenever I want. I own you. Understand?"

The prisoner - Snallfur - nodded.

Saer went on, "You have a family? Girlfriend? Most people have someone they care about. I can find them too. If I care. Make sure I don't have a reason to care, so I don't have to stay on this piece of shit planet any longer than I have to."

Snallfur nodded reluctantly, eyes on Saer wary.

"Is there anything else you want to tell me about the Vherry girl, and your friend Tidjias?"

He considered, then nodded again. Saer removed his gag, and he spoke without hesitation, "They keep their stuff in a room, at the shuttleport. The stuff they keep, off the manifests."

"Maintenance area?" Saer asked.

"Yeah." Snallfur hesitated, then added, "And the only way out is to walk out, you know? So she walked out, or she's still on the shuttleport."

"You can describe where, exactly, this room is. First, though, are there any other ways into maintenance other than the main checkpoint?"

He nodded, "Where the parts come in, loading bay. At the back."

"Good. And the room where they keep their stuff?"

Snallfur described the location of the small room, not far from the loading dock. Saer committed it to memory. When he finished, she said, "Thank you. You've been very helpful."

He must have been getting some of his spine back, because he glared at her. Remind him what I'll do if he fucks with me? Saer considered, No. No need, nearly finished with him.

What she said was, "Last thing, your friend Tidjias, anything else you can tell me about him?"

"Don't cross him. He's mean. Holds a grudge. Likes things his own way."

"Is his second more flexible?" Saer asked.

"Dumb." Snallfur shook his head, "Like a slaver hound. Dumb and vicious."

Saer pursed her lips, "Pretend that I work for the Cartel, and I wanted to find someone reasonable in management, there. Just how many people would I have to eliminate before they were in charge?"

Snallfur snorted, "Maybe ... five? There's a girl in the small parts division, has her head screwed on. Smart. Scared though."

Five isn't so many. Saer smiled thinly, "Well, thank you again for your help."

* * *

"What-" The words died as the woman - Bjerd - saw the gun, and who was holding it. She asked more quietly, "What do you want?"

Saer nodded at one of the chairs, "Sit down. I'm here to talk to you, Bjerd."

* * *

When Saer left the bathroom, careful to close the door behind her, Hiri was sitting on the bed, looking more alert. Saer grabbed a bottle of water from a bag in the corner and offered it to Hiri, "How're you feeling?"

Hiri sipped it, "Better. I think. My head is killing me. What happened?" Another sip, "I remember the shuttle landing, and then ..." Hiri shrugged, then winced at the new bruises the motion tugged at.

"We asked some questions. Too many, apparently." Saer gestured to indicate Hiri's injuries, "One of the people involved beat you up."

"Questions? About Tani?" At Saer's nod, she went on, "If they... She really is in trouble, isn't she?"

"Looks that way."

Hiri began to fumble in her pocket, "I'll call the police."

This again. What have the cops ever done for anybody? Saer held her hand out in a placating gesture, "Police start showing up, they might panic. And we don't have any real evidence."

Hiri stopped, "Panic?"

"Yes." Saer nodded toward the bathroom, "I questioned one of them. I have an idea of where they might be keeping her."

"Is she all right, do you know, is she all right?" Hiri tried to get up and sank back with a groan.

Saer hesitated. Contact. They say contact is important. She reached out and gently touched Hiri's arm, "You stay. I'm going to go and either find her, or find out where she is."

"What can I do?" Hiri looked out of her depth. "Call someone? Do something?"

"Stay here. If I get her out, I'll send her here."

Hiri nodded.

"There's some water and protein bars in the bag. First aid stuff, too, if you need it. Don't open the door to anyone except me or her." Saer added, "I haven't been terribly impressed with these people's operation so far, but they did manage to track you down once. I've been surprised before."

Hiri nodded, with a nervous glance at the door, "Okay."

"There's also a stun stick in there." Saer pointed at the bag, "Just press the button is make sure it makes contact. It does the rest."

Hiri hesitated, "A stun stick... okay."

"Just in case."

Hiri looked nauseated, "Just in case."

"If you don't hear from me by tomorrow, call Commander Invelen." Saer started getting equipment out of the bag, "Tell her what's happened. She'll take care of things."

"Ami... should we call her now?"

Saer shook her head, "I'm probably just being over-cautious. This looks like a two bit operation, to me. I'll be back." She hesitated, "Anything else you need?"

"No. No, I'm okay." Hiri didn't look okay, but there wasn't anything Saer could do about that now, "Just - find Tani, please?"

"I mean to." Saer double checked her gear, then left. She waited to hear the snick of the door being locked behind her.

* * *

Bjerd sat. "Tidjias is- If he finds you, he's going to kill you. You and the girl." She didn't seem happy about it, just resigned. "Are you going to kill me?"

"That depends on how the conversation goes." Saer sat opposite Bjerd, keeping the gun trained on her.

* * *

Saer studied the maintenance section loading docks. She'd hoped it would be an easier way in than the main entrance. No such luck. There were armed guards, along with cameras. She slipped back out of sight and brought up the interface for her internal neocom. A few minutes later, her search agent came back with plans for the shuttleport.

Saer narrowed down possible access points until she was left with a maintenance access to the building's climate control. She made her way around the side of the building until the access point came into view. She timed the guard's patrol pattern, then sprinted to the wall between two cameras' fields of view. Sloppy, leaving a gap between the cameras. Just because they're sloppy doesn't mean you can be. Remember it.

She slid along the wall to the maintenance access point, and made quick work of the cover. She slipped inside, pulling the cover back on behind her.

'Climate control Maintenance Access Point' was code for 'way into the air ducts' of course. It wasn't like in the holos, where there was enough room for the broad-shouldered male lead to do a handstand inside. Saer was small enough to fit, but it was slow going, and filthy.

She made her way to the vent nearest the storage room, and checked the corridor outside with a mirror. Clear.

She carefully worked the vent cover loose and dropped to the floor. The storage room door was just down the hall.

The lock on the door was of a significantly higher grade than the ones on the other doors, confirming Saer's suspicions. It was mechanical, too. Someone's made an investment in making sure that whatever's in this room isn't discovered, and that if it is, there aren't any access records.

She took a slim case from her inside pocket and squatted down. Higher grade or not, the lock was no match for the small but very expensive collection of tools inside the case, and after a moment Saer heard a quiet click as the lock's mechanism gave up the fight.

Carefully, she eased open the door. The light from the corridor gave her a glimpse of a tiny storeroom, lined with shelves and crowded with boxes, before a shape lunged at her.

Saer sidestepped, registering female - medium build - short hair, and the figure crashed past her and landed on the floor with a grunt. Hands and feet tied - tape over her mouth.

The girl writhed around and tried to kick Saer, glaring at her with more anger than fear, and the movement gave Saer a clear enough view of her face to make a positive identification.

She said quietly, but with emphasis, "Tani." When the girl still glared at her, she went on. "It's Saer. Hiri's friend? We met at the dances. Remember?"

Tani stopped trying to kick Saer and started making urgent, muffled noises through the tape over her mouth. Saer knelt beside her and pulled it off. Tani yelped as some skin came with it, and then said indignantly, struggling against the plastic ties on her wrists and ankles. "They hit me! And tied me up! Get these off me! I'm going to kill them!"

"You're going to do exactly what I tell you to do," Saer said. "Hold still."

Tani stopped struggling as Saer drew her knife and began to cut her bonds. "Those four-footed sons of mice!"

"And stay quiet," Saer said. "Can you stand? Walk?"

Tani got to her feet, only slightly unsteady. Whoever tied her up didn't pull those ties tight enough to cut off the circulation, Saer noted. Either not paying much attention - or particularly careful. "I told them I wasn't going to tell anyone," Tani said, only slightly more quietly than before.

"Too late for that now," Saer said. She took another look in the storeroom. She might not be a mechanic but years on ships and stations had given her enough familiarity with the profession to identify the pictures stamped on the sides of the boxes. "Parts? Is that what's in there they don't want people to know about?"

Tani nodded. "They're selling them. Putting the old parts back in he shuttles. But they're too stupid to tell which ones really are past it and they're not doing the reconditioning right, something's going to crash and they'll all get caught, being greedy."

Saer shook her head. "Amateurs. If I get pictures, will there be serial number or something? Something that could be used as leverage? Parts that should already be in ships?" She checked the hallway again and then ducked over to take a couple of quick images of the boxes.

"All the parts are marked," Tani said. "They're changing the manifests though, too. Someone gets in the computer and changes the list so it looks like the serial numbers are the right ones."

"Would there be evidence of that? Maybe on Tidjias's machine? Or in his office?"

Tani snorted, "Him? He doesn't know how to turn on a terminal, let along use one."

"Who changes it, then?"

"Bjerd. Bjerd Esmur." Tani jerked a thumb over her shoulder, "In requisitions."

"We can go, leave now. Get out safe and walk away." Saer watched Tani carefully, "Or we can go to her office and get evidence. It's up to you."

Tani's response was immediate and indignant, "They're going to get people killed! They're supposed to be engineers!"

Saer nodded, "Alright then. Her office it is. Which way?"

"This way!" Tani started marching down the corridor like she owned the place.

Saer grabbed for her and snagged the back of her shirt. She pulled her back, and said firmly, "Stay behind me, and stay quiet."

They found Bjerd's office, more of a cubicle, without incident - and Bjerd was there. Tani immediately pushed past Saer and stomped into the office, saying truculently "I know what you're doing, you know!"

Saer frowned, If she doesn't learn to be a little more subtle, someone's going to off her. She keeps on like this, it might be me.

Bjerd looked at Tani in surprise and alarm. She slammed her terminal closed and lunged for her com.

Saer moved forward and shoved Bjerd back into her seat with one hand. She produced a knife and held it to the woman's throat with her other hand, "Don't. They wouldn't be here in time." Saer glanced at Tani, "Tani, there's a datapad in my bag. Get the information. Try not to make an announcement over the PA that we're here while you're doing it."

Tani got the datapad and turned the terminal back on, with a breif confused look at Saer at the mention of the PA. Apparently I need practice with sarcasm. Saer thought, Unless she really has no understanding of the situation we're in.

"What ... what do you want?" Bjerd's eyes rolled in fear, "Money? I have some, not much, but some."

Saer ignored the offer, "Does your boss, Tidjias, does he kick any of the take up to anyone?"

Bjerd started to shake her head, then thought better of it, "No. Him, share? No."

"So there's noone protecting him upstairs." Saer mused, "Well, I knew this wasn't exactly Fatal I was dealing with. Did you know he'd had Tani here kidnapped?"

"Yes. I tried to tell-" Bjerd looked at Tani, carefully not moving her head. "I told you, Tani - not to say anything to him."

Tani looked away from the monitor with a slight frown, "This isn't right. These aren't the right numbers. Why are you changing them again?"

"Don't tell TIdjias." Bjerd looked even more desperate, if that was possible. "Please? I have money, some money, I can pay you!"

"I don't really give a shit about your money." Saer increased the pressure with the knife a touch, to make the point, and a bead of blood welled up along the edge, "You and this whole operation are small change to me. I promise you that Tidjias should be the last of your worries right now. Answer her question."

"Some of the parts are still good! Some of them... Some aren't." Bjerd looked from Tani to Saer, "He doesn't care! He wants them all swapped back in, so I... make changes. He doesn't know. Please don't tell him. Please!"

"I told you, don't worry about Tidjias. I'm going to tie you up and leave you under your desk. Stay quiet, don't make any problems, and you're keep your health." Saer glanced at Tani, "Do you have the evidence?" At Tani's nod, Saer went on, "There are ties in the bag, tie her hands behind her."

Saer waited for Tani to get Bjerd tied up, then put away the knife. "Put the datapad in the bag. It's time to go."

Tani did as instructed, then gave Bjerd a kick before going to check the door.

Saer frowned slightly, Bright, but more than a little impulsive. Saer glanced out at the hallway, "Follow close, stay quiet. We run into anyone, let me handle it."

Saer's caution proved unneeded, and the trip to the nearest vent was uneventful. Saer wriggled inside, then pulled Tani in after her.

* * *

Saer studied Bjerd, "I'm here to help you, if you'll let me."

"Help me?" Bjerd eyed the gun, "Really."

"I'll help you, and you'll help me." Saer smiled, "That's the way things work."


Friends: Part 2

Saer sat, pistol in one hand, as twilight deepened into night. She sat and she listened.

There was the sound of the brpbrp, scratching at the door to the bedroom. Somewhere above her, she could hear a baby crying, someone arguing. The muffled thump thump thump of bass, like a heartbeat, stripped of any accompanying music by the interposing walls. The wail of some new Gallente pop singer from another, closer apartment.

* * *

The bar was busy, but the people Saer was looking for weren't hard to spot. The maintenance workers were at a corner table by themselves, radiating a distinct air of 'fuck off'. There was a clear space all around them, an area that the rest of the customers seemed to avoid instinctively.

Saer sat at the bar and ordered a drink. It wasn't hard to keep an eye on her targets without seeming to watch them.

She saw it right away. The group mentality, the brittle good humor and 'friendliness' that fronts for raw pack mechanics and posturing, the cash changing hands. This was something she recognized, something she was used to. She'd run a few gangs herself, once upon a time.

As she kept an eye on them, she noticed one of them, one of the bigger men, had fresh split knuckles and blood on his shirt.

Saer bided her time, waiting for her moment.

It came when the big man got up, calling loudly that when he got back, the next round was on him. He went out the back.

Saer slid from her barstool and slipped out the front, then around to the alley between the bar and the Jin-Mei fast food place next door.

Her target was in the alley. He finished pissing on the wall and zipped up as she padded toward him.

He turned away from her, back toward the bar, but he must have sensed something, maybe a sound or a movement of the air.

He spun to face her, meaty fists at the ready.

He dropped them in confusion, though, when he saw the petite Sebeistor woman standing a bare meter away, "What're you being so quiet for? I'm not in the market right now, go bother someone else."

Sloppy, letting him know I was here. Saer thought, with something like irritation. At least he think's I'm a hooker. She made sure that the blackjack in her right hand stayed out of sight. She took a step closer.

His expression became annoyed, "Look, I told you. Shove o-"

Saer's kick doubled him over, though she doubted it had done any permanent damage. Still, he wouldn't be 'in the market' for a while. She stepped smoothly to one side and gave him a carefully measured tap to the back of the head with the little club.

Why'd he have to be so tall? He had nearly half a meter on her, she could guess it looked ridiculous as she levered him up from the ground and propped him across her shoulder so she could drag him along like a drunk friend. Hopefully no one will notice.

She started dragging him toward a motel.

* * *

Saer could hear sounds outside the apartment, too: a scream, cut off sharply; the wail of sirens; the buzz of hovers and roar of shuttles thrumming through the thick, polluted air as they landed at the shuttleport nearby. The rustle of voices and vehicles and blaring ads and all the other sounds of thousands of people packed together in poverty and filth on the streets below. She leaned back into the chair slightly. Away from all of it.

* * *

He started to come around, and she gave him a sharp slap to help him along. He groaned, then cursed as he came to. He glared at Saer, strained against the ties that held him in the chair and found them unyielding. He didn't bluster or threaten. Maybe there's some hope for him yet.

The motel was run down, and didn't even pretend to be clean. It was the kind of place where no one asked questions, or even for IDs, so it was ideal.

Saer sat on the bed across from him and let the facade fall. It felt good, not having to pretend and react and care the way she was supposed to, for a little while. She asked, without preamble, "The girl, where is she?"

"What fucking girl?"

"The Vherry girl." Saer answered, patiently.

"Which one?"

"Both of them."

"Both of who?"

She wondered why people in this situation insisted on delaying tactics. He has to know he's short on options and I'm short on time. She said, her tone that of someone explaining an important but boring bit of real estate law, "The next question of mine you don't answer, I'm going to break your little finger. Both of the Vherokior girls."

His brow furrowed, "The nosy ones?"

So he did know something.

She reached out and he tried to jerk his hands away. Unfortunately they were zip-tied to his knees. She took a firm hold on his right pinky, "Yes."

He shrugged as much as he could, "Now? Dunno."

Saer tensed her arm, and suggested, "You're going to want to be more helpful."

"Well, I fucking dunno. The nosy one from maintenance stopped hanging around couple of days ago. The other one, who knows by now? It's a big city."

Saer jerked his pinky sharply, and felt it break between the knuckle and the first joint. He grunted sharply at the pain. She left it pointing away from all of the others and explained, like a teacher suggesting that a student could do more to live up to their potential, "It's going to be difficult to do maintenance with broken fingers. I don't care what you and your people are into." She made sure to look him in the eyes. He tried to look away and she slapped him again, then grabbed his jaw, turned his face toward her, and went on in the same calm voice, "I'm not the police, and I'm not interested in your turf. I just want the girls. Where are they?"

The words tumbled out quickly, "The second one, last I saw her, she was in the alley down from the bar. Two blocks. The other one, at the shuttleport, I dunno! She was asking around and hanging around and then she wasn't!"

"Anyone take an interest in her hanging around?"

He tried to shrug again, "Nosy isn't good."

She got a firm grip on his ring finger and asked, "Who would I want to talk to, about that?"

"Yeah, all right!" She relaxed her grip slightly, "Tidjias, him and his boys. They get real nervous about questions."

"Tidjias." Saer tested the name, "Does he have a last name? Who is he?"

"He runs the section. Tidjias is his last name. I dunno his first." She tightened her grip slightly, and he nearly yelled, "I don't!"

There were more questions, but Hiri was out there in some alley. Better to get her taken care of first.

She nodded, "Good. Thank you for your help."

She gagged him and dragged him into a corner.

* * *
Saer sat in the apartment and remembered other nights, like this. A city like this, far away. Waiting for the door to open. Taking the time to carefully wipe the sweat from her palms so her hands wouldn't slip, her weapon a 'knife' made from a carefully chipped piece of a ceramic tile, with a cloth wrapped handle. Crude, but sharp as winter. It had been decades ago, and light-years away, but the sounds were the same.

* * *

There was no sign of Hiri in the alley.

Saer studied the pavement, trying to see any signs of a struggle or worse, blood, in the rubbish and dirt. Had she been lied to?


The man had been telling the truth, Saer was almost certain. She could go back and get more details from him, but that would take time.

He was a big man. Hiri was a small woman. And whatever happened to her, she hasn't been able to call me for hours now.

Saer tried Hiri's comm frequency, and a cheerful trilling came from one of the huge trash bins that squatted along the alley.

She heaved back the lid and the trilling grew louder, coming from somewhere in the pile of stinking bags. Saer began to throw them aside.

There. An arm: tanned, plump, small. Saer hauled, and Hiri emerged from beneath the rest of the trash. Saer pulled her over the edge of the bin and lowered her to the ground.

Hiri was limp and motionless, but breathing, her face swollen and bruised from what Saer judged to be a beating, the kind where the survival of the victim wasn't really a big concern.

Saer felt her arms and legs. Not broken. Breathing doesn't sound like there's a punctured lung. It's been hours and she hasn't bled out yet from anything internal.

Hiri stirred and groaned, and Saer squatted next to her, "Hiri?"

"Saer?" Hiri opened her good eye, "Ohhh... What happened?"

Saer helped Hiri to sit up, and got Hiri's arm over her shoulders, "You were beaten up. Let me help you, we need to get you somewhere safer."

Hiri leaned on Saer as Saer hauled her to her feet. "At the shuttleport? Where are we?"

"An alley." Hiri's knees buckled, and Saer held her up. "Come on, I've got a room."

"An alley?" Hiri asked, and then again, "What happened?"

Concussion probably. Saer half-helped, half-carried Hiri along, considering taking her to the hospital. No. Too risky. Tidjias's crew know she was beaten up, and they might have realized their friend didn't just wander off drunk. They might be watching the hospitals. Worse, the police might get involved, if she comes in like this.

No one at the motel seemed to notice or care that this was the second 'drunk friend' Saer was helping to her room. She kept Hiri on her feet long enough to get her inside the room and lowered her onto the bed, turning to lock the door behind them.

When she turned back Hiri was staring at the man tied up in the corner, "What...?"

"He's the one that beat you up," Saer said. "I'm just asking him some questions."

"He beat me up?"

"Yes." Saer dug out her first aid kit.

Hiri put her head in her hands, "At the shuttleport?"

"After the shuttleport," Saer said patiently. "Lemme take a look."

Hiri straightened up a little and whimpered. "My head hurts."

"You got beat up." Saer opened the kit. "Hold still, now."

Saer did the best she could with Hiri's scrapes and bruises, and gave her a painkiller that wasn't a standard part of most first aid kits. No skull fracture. Disoriented, retrograde amnesia, no vomiting, pupils normal.

No hospital.

"Did we find Tani?" Hiri asked plaintively.

Saer shook her head, "I'm working on it."

Hiri stared at the man in the corner. "Why did he beat me up?"

"For asking questions." Saer said without a trace of irony. She turned and considered her 'guest'., "I'm going to talk to him and find out about Tani. You rest."

"Okay." Hiri nodded and winced.

Saer hesitated for a moment. What would a friend do? She patted Hiri on the shoulder, "It'll be okay."

"I think ..." Hiri looked pale, "I want to lie down."

Saer turned on the holo, the picture grainy and rippling, "Try and stay awake if you can."


"You've got a head injury." Saer sat on the edge of the bed as Hiri lay back, "I can't stay with you, because I need to ask a few more questions, and find Tani."

"All right." Hiri still seemed a little vague, but at least she was conscious.

Saer nodded, then stood, grabbed the back of the chair that the man was tied to and dragged him into the bathroom. She closed the door behind her.

* * *

Saer's attention sharpened as she heard footsteps in the hallway outside the apartment stop in front of the door. She stood and listened carefully, but they didn't move on. There was the rustle of someone fishing in a purse or bag. Saer slipped over to stand against the wall next to the door, pistol held ready, quiet as the void.


Friends: Part 1

Saer looked in the mirror and a stranger looked back.

She blinked, and the face was familiar again. Sebeistor, tanned now rather than station-pale. Thinner than it had been, cheekbones slightly more pronounced. Other changes, easy to buy at any drug store or salon: darker hair, fuller lips, grey eyes.

She studied that flat, grey gaze. Some things didn't change. Whatever the color, her eyes were always the same.

* * *

Two Days Earlier

Saer's eyes traced the atmosphere-misted curve of the planet as the shuttle descended. She thought about friends.

She was here to help a friend. She'd met Valhiri Akell because Saer's CEO had recommended the psychologist to help Saer research her background, as a returnee. To help her learn about what it was to be Minmatar, and Sebeistor (though Hiri was Vherokior). To learn about what it meant, to have been a slave and to now be free. All the things that those born in the Republic took for granted.

The shuttle juddered a bit as the atmosphere thickened. The curve of the horizon had begun to flatten and shields covered the windows, blurring the view. The pilot's voice came over the intercom, practiced and calm, explaining that they would touch down shortly.

Saer didn't have many friends. She had trouble understanding friendship. She understood loyalty, though. She understood reciprocity. The other things, the little things, she could fake. That's one of the ways Hiri was valuable to her. Saer learned a lot about being the person she was supposed to be from Hiri.

Urbrald was a new city, as cities go. Many cities in the Republic were. She watched the blot of it spread on the shuttle's monitors: smudged and cross-hatched; browns and tans, greys and blacks; weals and drips of livid color here and there. It was new (as cities go), but it was an old type. The type of city she recognized.

Hiri's teenage sister had disappeared, leaving just a note about leaving with a man. Hiri had worried about the type of man. Saer had explained about notes. How easy they were to fake. Saer knew the kind of things a city like Urbrald could do to a teenager. And Tani was Hiri's sister, and Hiri was Saer's friend.

And what are friends for?

* * *

Saer looked away from the mirror, running her eyes over the room around her. The bathroom was small, as such things were measured planet-side. Saer had lived in spaces that were smaller. A short, neat row of beauty products below the mirror, a shower stall, a toilet, all spotlessly clean. The drawers beside the sink held the expected: hygiene products, toilet paper. And something else: a half-dozen wrapped cakes of soap, a Federation brand. Hand-milled. Expensive.

* * *

The shuttleport was just as Saer remembered it from her last trip: losing a half-assed, budget-limited war with decay.

In space, people don't have the choice of doing the job poorly. It was one of the things she liked about it. Something worth doing is worth doing properly.

She settled the strap of her pack more comfortably on her shoulder and turned to Hiri as they found a spot out of the flow of traffic, "Should we talk to your clan first, or start here?"

"Well..." Hiri looked around the arrival hall, as if she could search out the answer, "If this guy she ran off with works here ... what do you think?"

If she ran off with some guy. Saer considered, "Do you know who Tani's supervisor was? They might know who she was friends with."

"She works for the cleaning crew, we could ask." Hiri seemed more decisive, and with a couple of questions to the cleaning staff, they had directions

The situation had come up so quickly, Saer hadn't had much - or any - time to get information about what was happening. Information is, they say, half the battle. Usually it's more than half.

"How long ago did she get this job?" she asked as they headed towards the offices.

Hiri glanced over, interrupted in her own thoughts, "About a month. I guess after what you said, she thought she could work her way up, or something."

"She's an ambitious girl." Saer offered, "She seemed quite determined when I talked to her during my visit."

They entered the warren of corridors and rooms occupied by the cleaning staff. It was crowded with people and equipment in various stages of repair. The smell of cleaning agents vying with the undertones of machine oil and humanity.

"There's ambitious and there's unrealistic." Hiri shook her head, "She's the wrong clan. She's even the wrong tribe. It doesn't matter how long she works as a cleaner, or how much she wants to be a mechanic. That's not how things work here."

Ambition works everywhere, so long as you're willing to do what it takes, Saer thought. She kept her mouth shut, though, as they arrived at the supervisor's office.

The door to the office was open, but Hiri knocked anyway. The supervisor was an older, harried looking Vherokior. A few wisps or grey hair escaped his carefully constructed comb-over and floated back and forth as he labored over his paperwork.

"Come in." He didn't look up while delivering the brusque invitation.

"Hello. My name is Valhiri Akell, and my sister Tani works for you."

"Worked." He still hadn't looked up, frowning over some form or other.

"Worked?" Hiri asked, "Did she quit?"

The supervisor finally looked up, "She stopped coming in, so yeah. She quit. Yesterday, the day before, I dunno. Kids, you know? No staying power."

Saer didn't know Tani well. They'd only met for a couple days, when Saer had visited Hiri's clan's lands. Still, that didn't sound like the girl she'd talked to, "Was she unreliable before that?"

The supervisor shrugged heavily, "I don't remember, so I guess not."

"What about overtime?" Saer tried. Hiri had mentioned Tani working 'overtime'. It was a lie as old as the Eve gate, for when you needed some time after work and didn't want anyone being suspicious why.

The supervisor snorted "Overtime? Like we have a budget for that?"

"Do you know why she would have been here after her shift ended?" Hiri asked.

The supervisor leaned back and called out the door, "Jeri! Jeri! That girl, Tani? You remember if she used to hang around after shift?"

Another woman, Vherokior, in a cleaning staff uniform leaned into the office, "The little one? Always hanging around maintenance, yeah. Thought she was going to get a job. Ate lunch over there and hung around them after work."

"Yeah." The supervisor snorted, "Like they'd adopt her or something, bunch of stuck-up Sebbie shits."

"Do you know if there was anyone in particular she was friendly with?" Saer asked.

Jeri shook her head, "Dunno. Not like I spend any time over there, right?"

Of course not. Thought Saer, Maintenance is a different clan. Always a Sebbie clan. Everyone knows they are the ones who are good at mechanical things. We are good at mechanical things. And it's Vherokior clans that have cleaning locked down.

Saer kept her expression impassive, "Thank you. When was the last time you saw her?"

"Two days ago, maybe." Jeri thought for a moment, "Yeah, two days ago. She finished her shift like normal. Think she was heading over to hang around maintenance like normal too."

"I see." It was somewhere else to look. Saer quirked her mouth in what might have been a smile, "Thank you for your time, both of you. Did you have any other questions, Hiri?"

Hiri shook her head, with a slight frown.

"Let's check maintenance, then."

* * *

Saer slipped out of the bathroom, into the living room, made her way to one of the chairs - worn, but well cared for and comfortable.

There were knick-knacks scattered here and there. A newish holo-projector. Framed pictures of family on the walls and tables; many of them showed a boy, a happy boy. In some of them he was wearing a school uniform. In a few there was a man with the boy. She could see the similarities in their features. There were a couple of pictures of a brpbrp too, a small pack predator and scavenger native to the planet. Named after the distinctive sound they made, they were a popular pet.

* * *

There was a manned barrier at the entrance to the maintenance section. The guards saw them coming,

"Authorized personnel only." One of them said, sounding bored.

"My sister's missing, I know she spent time here." Hiri looked worried, "I just want to talk to the staff, ask if anyone knows why she might have left."

"Sorry," The other guard said, "We still can't let you in. Rules are rules."

Saer spoke, "Excuse me, Hiri. May I?"

Hiri stepped aside to let Saer address the two. Saer glanced at Hiri, then back to the guards and smiled, "It was worth a try. Look, truth is, we work for an exec off-planet who stashed something, you know, sensitive in a shuttle. We found out it's in maintenance. This guy screwed up and now all of a sudden it's our problem." She flashed a little of the local currency, "No harm in letting us take a look for it, is there? One Sebbie to another?"

She saw they were considering it, then one of them reached for the currency, "You tell us what it is. We'll look for it."

"I don't think you get what I mean when I say sensitive. I probably shouldn't even tell you, but," Saer looked around, as if making sure no one else was nearby to overhear, "his boss's daughter sensitive. Apparently she likes, you know, filming things. 'fraid we need to take care of it ourselves. It gets out, it's my ass. Look, I'll double up, how about that? You won't even know we were here."

"And if I let anyone back there, it's my ass." The guard that had taken a lead in the negotiations shook his head, "Sorry, sweetheart. Either we find it or it doesn't get found."

They don't object to being bribed, but they won't take it.

"Guess I'll have to find someone higher on the food chain to give my money too." Saer shrugged and turned away, "Come on, let's go."

She waited until they were out of earshot of the barrier and glanced at Hiri, "Let's see if we can find where they hang out after work. Find out what's going on that way. If not, we'll sneak in."

Hiri seemed puzzled, but nodded, and followed Saer.

It didn't take much asking around to find out which local bar benefited from the maintenance crew's custom. Just theirs, though: Saer got an incredulous stare from a baggage handler and a blank look from a custom's clerk when she asked if they ever went there. Maintenance keeps themselves to themselves ... and everyone else knows to stay away.

She assessed the environment and identified a cafe large and noisy enough to let them talk without human or electronic eavesdropping. When they were seated with coffees in front of them, Saer said, "There's something going on."

"What do you mean?" Hiri asked.

"They keep to themselves, and they didn't take the bribe." It should be obvious.

"And that's bad?" Hiri still looked lost.

"Yeah." Saer sipped her coffee and barely stopped herself from grimacing. You like coffee, she reminded herself, "It means they have something to hide that's worth more."

Hiri frowned, like someone trying to do a puzzle without knowing the shapes of the pieces, or the picture it was supposed to make. "Something to hide?"

"Yeah. They're into something. I'm almost positive." Saer tried dumping more sweetener into her coffee, "Can you find a room at a place near the bar? Somewhere that takes cash and doesn't worry too much about IDs?"

"Find a room. Okay. Yeah, I can do that" Hiri continued, after a beat, "Should we call the police, then?"

Remember, she doesn't know any better.

"And tell them we couldn't bribe security, so something's going on?" Saer shoved away the coffee and stood, "I have some shopping to do. I'll meet you at the bar in an hour. Is that enough time?"

"Um." Hiri still looked hesitant, but she nodded "I guess?"

* * *

The brpbrp was locked in the main bedroom. Saer could hear it through the door, but it wasn't loud enough to disturb the neighbors.

She had left the lights off, but everything in the apartment was clear to her augmented vision. The view outside the room's small window was of a blank wall, ruddy in the sunset.

* * *

Saer found a spot, in the shadows of an alley across the street from the bar, and settled in to wait. She was good at waiting. There was a knack to it, to staying perfectly still for as long as it took. To fading into the background. So she waited.

The hour came and went, and no Hiri. Maybe she got lost. Saer gave her an extra hour, then tried calling. There was no answer. Saer let another hour pass, called again. Still no answer. The workers from the Maintenance section started filtering into the bar, the main shift getting off.

Not lost, then. She imagined Hiri getting a room at the sort of place she'd specified, She'd stick out. Sometimes it was easy to forget just how little Hiri knew, of all the things Saer took for granted. I should have realized she wasn't up to the job.

Saer studied the bar across the street, It's them, because we were asking around, or it's someone else. Someone random.

Someone random could be anywhere, by now. But they're right here.

Decision made, Saer headed into the bar.

* * *

There had been a time when an apartment with a window was the highest ambition Saer could conceive of. A place of her own, where the door could be locked. That was a long time ago.

She tugged her gloves a bit tighter and pulled out her pistol. Small, with a built-in suppressor.

Saer had different ambitions now.

And this wasn't her apartment.