Bruce Davis


Tales From the OR
Chain Story
The Quality of Mercy
Benthic Rhapsody

Chapter 1 and 2 of the new novel PROFIT MOTIVES is on the SERIALS page.



Chapter 1

“Highpoint Control, this is VC-334 Profit requesting final vector and approach clearance.” Sylvia’s voice was a soft, musical contralto. I smiled in spite of a jolt hangover that made my head feel like it was on fire. The traffic officer had been flirting with Sylvia since we entered Highpoint Arcology’s zone of control. He was going to be heartbroken when he found out she was the ship's Artificial Intelligence.

“You’re clear for approach, Profit--Bay 42 spinward. Vector download on my mark; mark.”

“Thank you, Highpoint. Vectored and locked," said Sylvia. "You’ve been so helpful.”

“You’re welcome, Miss,” answered the traffic officer. “I get off shift in a few hours. Maybe I could show you some of the sights, seeing as how you’re new here and all.”

“Why, that’s so sweet of you,” cooed Sylvia. “Let me ask my husband how long it will take to clear customs. I’m sure he’ll be as thrilled as I am to have a guide to show us around.”

“Uh, husband? Well, sure. . . glad to, Ma’am. I’ll look you up at your berth when I get off, unless the boss needs me to work a double shift.”

“Oh, you poor dear,” Sylvia purred. “Does that happen often?”

“Oh, yeah, all the time,” he answered, sounding relieved.

“Well, I hope they don’t work you to death. And I intend to tell the Port Authorities how wonderful you’ve been. Thank you, again. Profit out.”

As soon as she signed off, I laughed out loud, making my head hurt even more. “You're cruel, Sylvia.”

“He started it,” she protested. "I was just protecting the ship's good name. We can't have the whole system thinking we're easy."

I shook my head, still chuckling. “I’d better get down to the forward hold. We can't afford to have Deuce rough up a customs inspector.”

I swung through the hatch at the rear of the cockpit and crossed the catwalk above the cargo hold. Deuce was just squeezing his bulk through the passageway from the aft hold. I waved him back and he nodded. I slid down the ladder to the main deck. Muted thumps outside the hull announced our docking in Bay 42 spinward. Indicator lights next to the forward lock changed from red to green as the outer bay sealed and pressurized.

Five minutes later, I cycled the forward lock and lowered the cargo ramp. It touched down near the feet of a small, officious looking man in a Highpoint customs uniform who stood waiting on the steel deck of the docking bay. His trouser creases were sharp enough to cut hull metal and his boots gleamed like mirrors.

I shivered involuntarily and wished I'd taken the time to down some analgesics before docking. The nanofibers bonded to my central nervous system made my hands tingle as my fists clenched. I forced them open and took a couple of deep breaths. Uniforms triggered that involuntary response and took me back to Bruneault Prison- the Bear -a place I'd been trying to forget for the last two years. I might as well try to forget my own name. The nanos were a gift from the Bear, part of an insane attempt to create an augmented superman. They could make me faster and stronger, but I'd have gladly ripped them out of my nerves if I could.

“Permission to come aboard, Captain?” asked the customs man. He snapped a brisk salute as he started up the cargo ramp. We both knew the request was a joke. He was coming aboard no matter what I said. Still, this was Highpoint, and the forms of protocol would be preserved.

“Welcome aboard the Profit,” I said, keeping all but a trace of sarcasm out of my voice. The nanos retracted into their sheaths in my nervous system. I could feel a trickle of sweat run down my back as a wave of nausea swept over me. I wasn't sure if it was from the jolt I'd finished the night before or my proximity to this asshole in his crisp uniform.

The customs man flipped open a polished synthetic leather case and extracted a silver-plated datapad. He held it out and I pressed my thumb to the print reader. He glanced at the pad. “Captain Zachariah Mbele,” he read. “Cargo manifest and customs declaration, please.”

“My AI will download it to your link. Sylvia?”

“Done, Zack,” she answered crisply, the seductive voice gone without a trace.

“Data cubes and DNA biochips for Iwamoto Artificial Intelligence Arts," he read sourly. He looked at me as if I'd just insulted his sister.

“High value and time sensitive. Profit specializes in priority cargo and rapid delivery,” I said brightly, hoping to dispel the sinking feeling in my gut.

The inspector smiled thinly. “Good for you. But I’m impounding your cargo. Please certify the bill of lading with a finger or voice print and the stevedores will offload you immediately.”

“Whoa, wait a minute. What the hell do you mean, ‘impounding my cargo’. There’s a heavy penalty for late delivery on this stuff. The manifest and declaration are accurate. What gives you the right to impound it?’

“This does." He shoved the datapad under my nose. “Iwamoto Arts was shut down by a bankruptcy court order sixteen hours ago. All company assets are impounded pending liquidation.”

I read the notice, my gut feeling confirmed. I had to have the money from this job. We operated on a slim margin as it was and I had a loan payment coming up in five days.

“So who’s going to pay the shipping fee on this stuff,” I demanded. “This is a Freight On Board shipment. Iwamoto’s responsible for the freight costs and we’re on time and still under contract.”

The customs man shrugged. “Take it up with a magistrate. You can file a claim along with the rest of the creditors.”

“And wait months before I see a single yuan. Look, you’ve got to give me a break here. This is a premium cargo. Maybe it technically belongs to Iwamoto, but I’m on time and they owe me my fee.” I lowered my voice. “Why don’t you let my AI make a few adjustments to that manifest? Leave me a couple of cases of chips and you can impound the rest. I'll make it worth your while. You’re just doing your job, but I really need to cover my expenses.”

“I missed the part where that was my problem." He didn't look up from his datapad. “Now give me your print before I charge you with attempting to bribe a customs officer.”

He finally looked at me. He gave me a hard stare as he held out the datapad. The station's stevedore ‘bots were already starting up the ramp. I thought about telling him where to shove his datapad, but decided he might enjoy it. I gritted my teeth and thumbed the pad.

The ‘bots loaded up our cargo, rolled down the ramp, and turned right toward the customs yard, all under the watchful eye of the inspector. The last stevedore hoisted the final two cases of biochips and followed the others. At the base of the ramp, it turned left instead of right. The inspector glanced at me with a faint smile, then touched his forehead in a mock salute.

“Welcome to Highpoint." He turned and followed the last ‘bot.

“Son of bitch," I swore and slammed my fist into the nearby bulkhead.

“Everything Jake, LT?” asked Deuce from behind me. He pronounced each letter, El Tee, a holdover from our military days.

“Golden,” I snarled. “Except we just got taken for two cases of biochips by that ferret in a customs uniform. Our client is bankrupt and can’t pay our fee, and there’s a mortgage payment due on the Profit next week. Add to that a killer hangover, and yep, everything’s golden.”

Deuce leaned against the hatch coaming, arms crossed, his solid bulk nearly filling the hatchway. Sven Gulbrandsen the second (Deuce to everyone except our former commanders in the Martian Special Operations Corps) was hard, bearded and blond. He was also the best top sergeant I had ever served with. Deuce had been with me since Basic, watching my back. He’d managed to escape the purges that had condemned me to Bruneault Prison as the Martian Revolution descended into madness and suspicion. And his was the first friendly face I saw when I walked out of that hellhole two years later.

He looked at me impassively. “You through?”

“Yeah, I’m through."

“Good. Then what’s our next move?” Deuce didn't mention the hangover. He wasn't happy about my jolt habit, but we'd come to an understanding. He didn't bug me about quitting and I didn't use the drug outside of my own cabin. Besides, there was none left. No more bliss for me until I could hook up with my dealer back in Tycho City.

I sighed. “We head back to Tycho and try to find another job before the bank forecloses on us. If we have to, we’ll head for the Belt and lay low until we can scrape up some cash.”

“Uh, Zack?” Sylvia interrupted. “You may have to rethink the back to Tycho option. Highpoint Customs just slapped a ten percent import duty on us for the cargo they confiscated. We’re under launch hold until we pay it.”

“Bullshit! That’s ridiculous. It’s not our cargo.”

“I know, but Highpoint's customs regulations say that if the recipient defaults on the duties, the freight carrier can be liable for the tariff up to ten percent of the total value.”

“And that’s legal?”

“This is Highpoint,” said Sylvia. “Under the Unity Convention, they have carte blanche within their own zone of control. Yeah, it’s legal.”

“I don’t suppose they’ll take a marker?” I was only half joking. We were truly tapped out.

“Not a chance. This is serious, Zack. We’ve got seventy-two hours to pay up or they’ll take the ship and auction it off to pay the tariff.”

“I’ll blow her up right here in the bay before that happens."

“Y’know, LT." Deuce tugged at his beard. “I’ve got a bit of construction grade Selenite in my kit. I might could make a hole in the outer bulkhead of the docking bay. Maybe big enough for us to squeeze through.”

I shook my head. A sabotage rap wouldn’t solve our financial problems and I didn’t want to know why Deuce had that much high explosive aboard. Still, I liked the way he thought. A year ago I would have taken him up on the idea. Maybe I was mellowing. Or maybe I was just tired.

“No, Deuce. We wouldn’t get a hundred kilometers before they blew us away. Highpoint has its own defense forces and they’re damned good.”

Deuce shrugged. “Just a suggestion.”

“Exactly how much do these pirates want from us, Sylvia?” I asked.

“Five-thousand, six-hundred and twenty-seven yuan."

That plus the thirty-five hundred I needed for the loan payment came to a little more than nine thousand New Yuan. All in less than five days.

I had no doubt that the Highpoint authorities would take the ship if I couldn't come up with the cash. Highpoint was one of the old and powerful L4 arcologies. Together with Alta Hesperion and O'Neil, still commonly known simply as L4, it was part of the nearly independent League of Lagrange Stations.

The Lagrange points provided gravitationally balanced locations in the Earth-Moon system where large structures could be build and maintained without the need for constant orbital adjustments. The oldest of the three huge stations was O'Neil. Its keel had been laid over a hundred years ago as a military base. The Feds still controlled about half of the station, but leased the rest to various defense contractors.

Alta Hesperion was the newest of the three but by far the most powerful. Its owners were the last survivors of old capitalist money from the North American Conglomerate. Conservative, insular and politically connected, they financed the careers of most of the leading Federal politicians. They were the real power behind the Federal Republic of United Earth and Mars.

The Martian Revolution had been especially threatening to the oligarchy of Alta Hesperion. Their position depended on controlling a strong Federal government, and any threat to the existing order, especially one that promised freedom from the stifling domination of Earth, cut to the core of their power. They'd played a huge part in pushing and financing the Reunification War.

Highpoint was the home of the nouveau riche. Entrepreneurs, criminal bosses, industrial upstarts, gamblers and thieves. Anyone with enough money to pay for citizenship papers and maintain the kickbacks that fed the governing council was welcome. Graft and bribery were as natural to life at Highpoint as breathing.

With Alta Hesperion in the lead, the three arcologies were virtually independent. The military had its own reasons for wanting a base that needed no government funding and was happy to go along with the other two. Highpoint provided money laundering and a no-questions-asked banking system that attracted huge amounts of cash and Alta Hesperion provided political muscle. All together, a very cozy arrangement.

I turned to Deuce. “Keep your Selenite handy. It may be our last option. Meanwhile, see if there are any spare parts or fuel cells we can hock to raise cash. Maybe we can buy some time if we make a down payment on the tariff.”

Deuce nodded. “I’ve got a couple of plasma batteries for the pulse rifle. They should fetch a hundred yuan each if I can find a buyer. I’ll get ‘em and try at a bar I know in the lower decks.”

On Highpoint, status and class determined where one lived. The arcology was a huge cylinder, thirty kilometers long and almost six in diameter. The outer shell was two hundred meters thick and housed all of the life support, reactors, utilities and service personnel that allowed the elite class to live in the tall fairy towers and manicured parklands of the open central core. Bars in the lower decks catered to the working class. They were also the likely spots to find buyers for unauthorized merchandise.

I nodded to Deuce and he ducked back into the passageway that led to his workshop. Somehow, I didn’t think that a few hundred yuan would be enough to hold the customs collector at bay. But given what I'd just seen with the inspector, it might be enough for a bribe.

“Sylvia, any word from Rabbit?”

“Not yet, Zack. Edward Conejo is registered in the Highpoint database as a transient worker, but there is no contact information available.”

Edward Conejo, alias Eddie the Rabbit, was a freelance computer analyst, a top programmer and slicer who knew everything about every operating system on three worlds. He was the reason that Sylvia's personality program could make you believe she was human. He was also a friend. We'd been cellmates in the Bear during the Revolution and had both done time as human guinea pigs in Hans Metternich’s biotanks.

Rabbit had contacted me a few days ago and asked if he could hitch a ride home to Tycho with us. I was mildly surprised. Rabbit was paranoid; he had been since the Bear. He would occasionally hire out for a consulting job if the price was right, but he’d be nervous about commercial transport. It was natural for him to beg a ride. How he knew we’d be at Highpoint was another matter. I hadn’t told him, not that that made any difference. Rabbit was the best data slicer in the system and had probably accessed my contract and delivery schedule the minute I'd signed it.

I didn’t know anything about his job here on Highpoint, but knew the price had to be high to get him to come in person. I hoped he was flush enough to float me a loan. Otherwise we’d all be walking home.

"What's the plan, Boss?"

"No plan. I'm just trying to stay a jump ahead. How much can you access on the arcology database?"

"Only the public net. What are we looking for?"

"Work. Anything that can raise some cash quickly. And see what you can find out about that inspector who just raped us. If he's crooked, maybe his bosses are too. We need to find someone we can bribe or lean on for more time."

"Okay, Zack," Sylvia sounded skeptical. "But this is Highpoint. Graft and corruption are art forms here."

"I swear, Sylvia, if I hear 'This is Highpoint' one more time, I'm going to disable your voice programming. Just get me something I can use."

"Yes, Boss."

Deuce stepped through the aft hatch, a small canvas bag slung over his shoulder. "I found a couple extra coils of platinum monofilament. Should fetch a thousand or so from the chandler, maybe more below decks if the buyer ain't particular about purity."

"We'll sell them at the chandler's. We'll take a discount but the sale will be quick and legal and it'll look better when we suddenly have some ready cash."

"Whatever you say, LT," Deuce shrugged. "But I could get more down below."

"I know. But we'll do it this way. Fewer questions. And don't get caught pushing those batteries. I don't want to have to bust you out of a Highpoint brig."

"No fear, LT."

"Never," I grinned. "Sylvia, are we cleared to leave the ship yet?"

"Yes, Boss. You and Deuce are registered as business travelers with access to all public areas."

"I'm going as far as the chandler's with Deuce, then I'm going to see if I can find Rabbit. I'll be on my link. Put him through if he makes contact."

"Sure, Boss."

Deuce opened the weapons locker and drew out a blunt nosed pneumatic pistol. I slid a short-bladed sheath knife into the top of my boot and a slim Huang needler into the inner pocket of my jacket. I didn't know what the local laws on concealed weapons were, but I never left the ship unarmed. Needlers and pneumatics could be deadly to flesh and bone but wouldn't breach a pressure hull, so it wasn't like I was placing the whole arcology at risk. Besides, I was packing a sleeper magazine in the needler. I doubted that would carry much weight if the local cops frowned on citizens bearing arms, but I didn't much care, either. Deuce secured the locker and we walked out through the starboard sally port.

"Lock down, Sylvia," I said as we descended the boarding ladder. "Release code: 'Tharsis seventeen'."

She'd button the ship up tight as a vacuum bottle until I gave her the release code. I hate people snooping about when I'm not home.

Our footsteps echoed in the cavernous docking bay. I glanced back at the ship. She always took my breath away; a slim cylinder with her cockpit perched high on the bow. She had a pronounced bulge amidships where the gravity drive and reactor were housed.  Her paint job was gleaming black with gold trim around the cockpit, cargo doors and sally ports. Gold lettering spelled out her name and registration number on the nose and the impulse engine nacelles. At 60 meters overall length and four thousand metric tons of capacity, she was small for a freighter, occupying only a quarter of the bay. She'd started her life as an interceptor for the Martian navy. Property often went missing in a war zone and it hadn't been too hard to sneak past the Feddie blockade. The bribes for forged ownership papers and the conversion from warship to freighter had cost me plenty, though. I'd been struggling with debts ever since. Still, her drive and inertial dampers could accelerate her at thirty G's for short bursts and she could maintain ten G's until her reactor ran down. With her, I could run far and fast.

The ship chandler was two decks up, near the main spaceport at the 'north' end of the cylinder. Right next to the spaceport were the tube and lift stations that led to the rest of the arcology. The lifts gave vertical access to the various decks of the main hull and tubes ran lengthwise along the main axis. By convention, locations were designated 'spinward' or 'antispin' for their direction away from the arbitrary baseline running through the main cargo terminal. The designations were artificial now that gravity grids provided a uniform Earth standard G throughout the arcology. The station turned once in twenty-four hours to simulate a day/night cycle rather than to simulate gravity.

The chandler occupied a space three bulkheads spinward of the centerline. Large holotanks displayed wares ranging from biochip processors to whole ships. Here they bought and sold anything and everything a ship captain needed to keep his vessel flying.

Deuce and I found an open sales window and keyed up the AI. We dropped the coils in the analyzer and after a second or two a quote flashed in the matrix. Eight hundred and twenty-seven yuan. Less than I'd hoped, but clean and legal. And more than I'd had when we'd docked less than an hour ago.

"Do you wish to confirm this sale?" the AI asked. Its tinny vocal synthesizer wasn't nearly as smooth as Sylvia's. I couldn't tell if it was supposed to be male or female.

"Confirm," I said.

"Eight-hundred twenty-seven yuan will be credited to any business account with the Highpoint Security and Trust Bank, unless you prefer a cash payout."

I didn't have a business account. "Cash."

"There is a ten percent charge for issuing Federal scrip. Highpoint scrip can be issued for a three percent charge. Would you prefer Federal or Highpoint scrip?"

I had to admire the AI's masters. They knew how to run a tight scam. They'd also make sure their own scrip was marked and tracked.

"Federal." I'd take the seven percent hit.

The cash slid out through a slot next to the analyzer. I scooped it up and we walked away as the AI thanked us for our business.

"Could have gotten a lot more down below," muttered Deuce.

I ignored him. "Sylvia," I said over the link implanted in my right mastoid. "How does someone get a business account with the local bank?"

"It's not hard, Zack. Any registered visitor can open a temporary account with the government-run bank. A lot of businesses will only accept a direct debit from a registered account. There's no service charge and the temporary accounts don't earn any interest. It's mainly a convenience service."

"Which lets Highpoint track everyone by the way they spent their yuan." I shook my head. "No thanks. We'll deal in cash or not at all."

Deuce was muttering again. I turned to him. "You got something to say, Deuce?"

"We don't belong here, LT. Too much damn government. The sooner we can raise some cash and get back to Tycho, the better."

"Yeah, I'm working on that. Try to get what you can for the plasma batteries, but be careful. We don't need to attract any more trouble. I'll meet you back at the ship."

"You worry too much, LT." He grinned. "I'm just gonna hoist a few in a working man's bar. What could go wrong?"


He punched my arm and turned away, heading toward the lift for the lower decks.

I called up a map on my link and found the lift for the upper decks. A few minutes later I stood on a balcony near the lift station and looked out over the open parklands of the arcology central core. Tall spindly buildings with outsized cantilevers and balconies lined a broad tree lined avenue that stretched thirty kilometers to the opposite end. Green parklands sloped up the sides of the cylindrical space covering almost half of the circumference. The green ended abruptly at a five-hundred meter wide stretch of transparent glass. High overhead, the central spine was packed with mirrors to reflect sunlight throughout the interior. Beyond the central core, on the opposite surface of the arcology was a mirror image of the greenery that stretched out in front of me.

I shuddered inwardly. Wide-open spaces gave me the shakes. Raised underground in the cities of Mars, I had the tunnel rat's mistrust of open sky. Duraglass and viewports were for the Earthbound or the very rich. Tunnel dwellers preferred a few tons of friendly rock over head. I had thought to look around and play the tourist until I heard from Rabbit, but hadn't counted on this much open air. Now I felt like running back to the ship and putting plenty of hull metal between me and the great black beyond on the other side of all that glass.

As I gripped the railing of the balcony and struggled to settle my nerves, my link chimed. Sylvia was calling. I flexed my jaw twice to activate the connection.


"Hello, Zack. You said to call if Edward Conejo checked in."

"Good. I need to speak to him."

"Are you all right? You sound strange."

"I'm fine," I said through gritted teeth. "Where is Rabbit? Did he say?"

"He left a comm locus. He wants you to call him back at 1600 local time. That's about fifteen minutes from now. He said he wanted you to meet someone who may have a job for us, but didn't give me any details."

"Why can't I call him right now?"

"You could try. But he was very specific about the time."

I thought for a second. Rabbit had been paranoid about maintaining security since we got out of the Bear. This was probably just another of his neurotic fantasies, but it would freak him out if I tried to call early. I decided to wait.

"Ok, Sylvia. Any luck with that other matter?"

"No. There's not much personal data on the public net. Highpoint has pretty strict privacy laws."

I slammed my palm into the railing in frustration. It had been a long shot, but I seriously wanted to get something on that inspector. I hated being manipulated, and this was now personal.

"Zack? Any other instructions?"

"Not right now." I sighed and broke the connection.

I turned my back on the greenery and headed toward the lift with a feeling of relief. I told myself it wasn't fear, just sensible precaution. Whatever lies you have to tell yourself to get through the day, right?


I felt better as soon as the lift doors closed. I rode back down to the spaceport and found a coffee bar a couple of bulkheads spinward of the ship chandler. I used a little of the cash in my pocket to buy an espresso. Caffeine was supposed to be good for a jolt hangover. The barista eyed the Fed scrip suspiciously for a second, but took it and gave me change - in Highpoint currency.

I found a table where I could see the door and keep my back to a wall. I sipped the hot coffee and waited until 16:00, then called up the locus Sylvia had downloaded to the link. Rabbit answered on the first chime.

"Zack?" he said in his high-pitched, breathless way. "You're late. I've been waiting for almost a whole day for you to get here. This place isn't safe, you know. They think they know about security, but their systems are hopeless. Did you know that they're still running Vigilant 3.2? Three point two for God's sake! It's like two years old and so full of holes a three-year-old could slice it. They hired me to update their face recognition protocols but what good is that if they haven't updated the root code in over twenty-four months? Of course, I took their money and did the job. Even gave them a free update, but it's like patching a sieve. And did they thank me? No! Bunch of arrogant bastards. By the way, what kept you?"

"Nice to hear from you too, Rabbit." I knew the sarcasm would be lost on him. "Sylvia said you had a line on a job."

"Huh? Oh, yeah," His voice became hushed. "I met a guy here. He needs a ride out. Says it doesn't matter where, as long as the Feds and the local law don't know he's gone. He can pay, Zack. I think he's legit, or at least he's got the cash. I checked that out first thing."

"Okay. Who is this 'guy' and why is he on the run from the Feds?"

"Who said anything about being on the run? He's just in a jam and needs to get back to the Belt in a hurry."

I thought about that for a second. Rabbit might be paranoid, but he didn't know shit about people. Still, I couldn't afford to turn away from a paying job.

"So how do we play this?"

"There's a food court in the FashionMaxx shopping arcade on deck three." Rabbit paused for a second, probably consulting a link. "It's ring seven, frame 33 spinward. Not real secure but Marco wants to be in a public place. That's the guy's name: Marco. He thinks it's safer in public. I tried to tell him it's not. A meeting in my hotel room or better yet, aboard the Profit, would be a lot more secure. He says he doesn't trust you. Wants to meet you first. I told him --"

"Rabbit, enough! When?"

"Oh, um, is half an hour okay? He's waiting for me to call and tell him it's on."

"Fine. Tell him I'll be there." I logged off and called up the map again. In a few seconds it showed me the best route to the shopping arcade. I dropped some of the Highpoint money on the table as a tip for the barista and walked out.

The FashionMaxx arcade didn't look very fashionable to me, but then, I don't keep up on the latest trends. The food court was one of those pretentious spots that seemed to be cropping up in middle class areas all over Tycho. Here, too, apparently. No AI operated food stalls; real people manned the food vendors and waited on tables, just like in the old days. At premium prices, of course. I sat at a table near a bulkhead and ordered some orange juice. Vitamin C is supposed to help jolt hangovers, too. I desperately wanted something stronger, but didn't want to spook a potential client. I was watching the door, looking for Rabbit, when the waitress arrived with my juice.

She set it on the table and asked, "Will that be all, sir?"

I glanced up at her and stared in spite of myself. She was stunning. Short black hair framed her heart-shaped face. Her skin was smooth and brown, the color of Saigon cinnamon. Her lips were painted a brilliant red. Not overly tall, she was trim but not thin with a full bust and hard, cordlike muscles on her bare shoulders and forearms. She obviously worked at staying in shape. But it was her eyes that grabbed me. They were emerald green flecked with gold and silver, like moonlight on a tropical sea.

"No, no," I stammered. "Nothing else." Smooth. You really impressed her, sport.

She smiled, enjoying herself. She held my eye for another second before she turned and walked away. I gazed after her.

"Zack?" Rabbit brought me back to the moment. I hadn't heard him approach. "You okay?"

I nodded as I turned his way. "Fine, Rabbit. Is this your friend?" A short, lumpy looking man stood behind Rabbit's power chair.

Rabbit rolled closer to the table and waved his hand to the man. "Come on, Marco. This is Zack Mbele, the ship captain I told you about. Zack, this is Marco Scalzi. Marco needs a ship."

Scalzi approached slowly, looking around as he pulled out a chair across from me and sat down. He didn't offer his hand, just nodded my way as he settled into the chair. His eyes never stopped moving as he continuously scanned the food court.

I looked him over. He was short and overweight, soft around the middle and thin in the legs. His suit might have been stylish once. On him it looked shapeless and rumpled. His scalp was dark with black stubble, three or four day's growth at least. He smelled faintly of garlic.

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Scalzi," I said.

"Yeah, likewise." His voice was thin and reedy. He nodded again, only briefly looking me in the eye before resuming his scan of the room.

The guy was obviously a twitch, and a skittish one at that. Still, Rabbit said he had ready cash, so I decided to play it light until he was ready to do business.

"New chair, Rabbit?"

"Yeah." He smiled. "The latest DeCastro. Cost me my entire fee, but it's worth it. Shiny, isn't it. You can't get one of these on the Moon. The only distributor off Earth is right here in Highpoint. 'Course, I modified its root code to accept my nanos. The interface is kind of wonky, and it makes my left leg hurt like hell, but that'll pass as the nanos adapt."

I knew what he meant. Rabbit and I shared a bond born in the biotanks of Bruneault prison. Rabbit was luckier than most. Nine out of ten who went into the 'tanks died in agony as the nanofibers ripped their nerves to shreds. A lucky few, like Rabbit, emerged with a partial bond, crippled but alive and maybe even sane. He was paralyzed from the waist down, but he could use the nanos to control a power chair.

My bond was different, unique as far as I knew. The nanofibers were there, stable but dormant. When I needed them, they could augment my own nerves, speeding my reactions, increasing my sight and hearing, even making me stronger for short bursts. The price was pain--searing heat like I had felt when they first invaded my nerves, deep aching as my tortured muscles recovered after each use, and blinding headaches as my brain burned with sensory overload.

I shook my head, coming back to the present. I was getting careless, losing focus twice in one day. Some hotshot operator I was. I glanced at Scalzi. He had stopped studying the room and was now studying me.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Scalzi?"

"Conejo tells me you can get me out of Highpoint." He resumed his scan of the room. It was getting on my nerves.

"We do take passengers on the Profit occasionally. We have a standard charter package. Where do you want to go?"

He stopped looking around and leaned toward me, lowering his voice. "I'll tell you once we're outside the zone of control. I'll pay well as long as it's soon and quietly. No customs or immigration. And no cops. The authorities can't know I'm gone until we're clear. Can you do that?"

"Yes." I gave him a reassuring smile, one of my best. "But that sort of service is more expensive."

He nodded and scanned the room again. "I'll pay you ten thousand yuan."

"Cash," I said. "Fed scrip, none of that Highpoint crap. Five now, five once we're clear."

He shook his head. "Three now, the rest when we're outside the zone." He touched my hand. "And you take me where I want to go once we're in the clear."

"Four thousand now." I kept my tone even. "Or you can find another ship."

He sat back in his chair and rubbed his upper lip. His hand shook, only a little but I noticed. Gotcha.

"But you'll take me where I want to go once we're outside the zone of control?"

"Sure. For ten thousand, we'll take you all the way to the Belt if that's what you want."

"When can we leave?"

"Whoa, spaceman." I held up a hand. "There are some things we need to cover first. If I'm going to run interference for you, I need to know why you need to stay invisible. What sort of heat should I be looking for?"

"No heat. I just want to leave quietly."

"Then book a commercial flight. You don't need me." I pushed my chair back and started to stand up. "Good bye, Mr. Scalzi."

"Wait." He grabbed my arm. "I'll tell you. Just sit down."

I settled into my chair again, feeling smug. I'd read him right. "Go on."

"I have an ex-wife," he said. "We were married here, but lived in Gagarin Center most of the time. I should have suspected something when she insisted on coming back here for our fifth anniversary. She filed for divorce the day after we docked."

"So, she's your ex now. Why should you care if she knows you're gone?"

"Zack," said Rabbit. "It's Highpoint. Community property."

"I don't understand."

"The court gave her half of everything," said Scalzi. "Because we were married here, the divorce magistrate claimed jurisdiction. She gets half of the savings, the flat in Gagarin, half of my pension. And I'm supposed to pay the court costs, which amount ten percent of the settlement." His eyes hardened. "They won't get it. I converted whatever I could to cash. She doesn't know and once I'm outside of Highpoint's jurisdiction, these bastards can't touch me."

"Hard luck." I nodded. "Okay, so it's not a criminal jam you're in. That's good. I think we can help you."

"So, when do we leave?" he repeated.

"I'll need a few hours to arrange our departure. Rabbit, are you ready to go?"

Rabbit nodded. "I just need to pick up my gear. I can meet you at the ship whenever you say. How's Sylvia? I haven't been able to update her personality routines for a while. Maybe I can do that while we're traveling, okay?""

"Sure. We'll meet at the ship as soon as I get in touch with Deuce." I gave Scalzi a hard look. "And as soon as I see some cash."

"Oh, yes," he stammered. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. At least he had enough sense to keep it hidden under the table. He peeled off four notes and handed them to me.

"Go with Rabbit to his hotel. Deuce will pick you up there and see that you get to the ship. Don't worry, Rabbit knows Deuce. He'll vouch for him." I pushed back my chair to leave. "And Scalzi, stay with that story if anyone else asks. It's a little rough, but believable."

He opened his mouth to protest, but I shut him up with a wave of my hand. "Calm down. I didn't believe a word you said, but you offered more money than you needed to for a charter, and enough more to make it okay. Don't worry. I'll get you off Highpoint. Then we can discuss your real story."

I started to stand up but froze as I caught a glimpse of movement to my left. It was the goddess who had brought me my drink. Only now she held a long black needler in a shooter's stance. She was pointing it at my new client.

"Marco Scalzi," she said. "You are lawfully detained to answer charges filed with the Highpoint Judicial Magistrate. Don't move. I am authorized to use force to detain you."

She looked even better with a weapon in her hand.

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