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.

No comments:

Post a Comment