Blade returned to her room, and loqed the door behind her.  A moment later, she glided into the bathroom, and loqed that door, too.

Stepping into the shower cubicle, she put her bag at one end, herself at the other, and started the water.  Not the best water pressure (understandable for a satellite), but at least it has hot.


She stood motionless under the spigot a full five minutes, feeling the water cascade off her body.  Lazily, she fumbled on the imitation-tile wall to the controls, pressed a button that added soap to the water flow.  The ceramic floor turned leprous green as jungle grime swirled down the drain.  With an almost erotic enthusiasm, she scrubbed her body clean of the scum of two different planets.  Slowly, the natural snowy hue of her skin shown through.

Her hair was another matter entirely.  Adding shampoo to the mix, she went to work detangling it, and was surprised to see a small dead spider among the debris that rinsed from her mane.  So I wasn’t the only jungle refugee, eh?

Out of her purse she pulled a thin stiletto, and bending over, carefully began to shave her long, slender legs.  White stubble whirled down the drain, until the metal was clogged by the scummy shreds of the make-shift field dressing she removed from her calf.  White skin was marred by an ugly red laceration that refused to heal completely—her other memento from the swamp.  Hot sudsy water stung as it ran through the wound.  Carefully she shaved around it, studying it for infection.  Fortunately, the scabs seemed free of other nastiness.

Forty-five minuets later, an albino prune emerged, feeling refreshed, invigorated, and sanitary.  Steam billowed into the bedroom as she came out, toweling off.  She was expecting to see a pile of white clothing neatly lain out on her dresser, or (ideally) on a freshly made bed.  No such luck.

Putting her (washed-off) purse on the bed, she rooted around for a brush, and went to work on her hair.  That was a ten-minute ordeal, and still no clothes-bearing bell-boy.

Wrapping the towel around her torso, she decided to take care of he matter herself.  Unfortunately, the towel was fairly small and her figure was fairly long: the top ended millimeters above her nipples, the bottom just barely concealed strands of close-cropped whiteness with just a hint of creamy labia.  Unfortunately the towel was white, and worse, it was wet.  It clung to her form, and though not exactly the same shade as her skin it was close enough to still give the illusion of nudity.  Before, she had felt too gross about herself to give a phuq; now that a hot shower had improved her appearance and morale, she was a little more self-conscious.  Blade knew she had a good body, but she preferred to select those she showed it to.  The towel only helped psychologically, but she reasoned that she could always shift the weight of her bag to help her in this unexpected wave of modesty she was suddenly experiencing.

She stepped into the hallway, and looked around.  At the other end, a man whose age was proportional to his weight lumbered into a room with the aid of a cane.  He leaned on the archaic aid heavily, and it was bowing visibly under the bulk of its owner.  Blade watched him a moment, then remembered that she was standing nearly naked in a public hallway.  But the old man was concentrating on getting into his room, so he not only missed a free show, but further proof of his cynical view that this hotel—his home since it had opened—was going to hell.

Blade started to loq her door behind her, decided not to bother.  Starting off down the hallway, she followed her recollections to where the elevator was.  There were several clues to help her: the characteristic ping! and illumination of a white down arrow on the wall.  Approaching it, the portal collapsed back with a grating scrape.  Two men sauntered off, laughing to each other in Old High Pandrovian.  They were both wearing the away uniforms of Pandrovian tactical engineers, and their shifty, green eyes quickly homed in on the marble statue of beauty awaiting them on the other side of the elevator’s door.  Looking past them, a third passenger wondered if a gorgeous naked woman would be waiting for him when he got to his floor.  Blade saw the lift was continuing up, and turned on the worn out carpet toward the stairs.  She could feel four olive eyes pouring over her bony form.

“Excuse me, miss?” one of them asked; his thick accent could not disguise his mood.

Blade spun around fluidly, and continued her forward motion by walking backward.  Her Light Armour Utility Purse swung out, giving the two onlookers a teasing glance of what lay beneath the towel before she maneuvered her bag into a more demure posture.

White eyebrows cocked in the question well, what the phuq do you want?

The one who had spoken caught the question, but hesitated on whether or not it was a proposition.

“Are you the Hotel’s Welcoming Committee?” he asked with a smile.

She smiled back as she spun into the stairwell.  Down to the lobby, humming the Main Title Theme from Uncle Meat to herself.  She pulled the door out, and into the side of the lobby next to the front desk.  The black and white tom was still chomping down on its toes, but a young woman was seated on the stool, looking into a vidio phone.  Her attention was occupied with taking a message, so she missed the comet streak down the hall.  Right before heading up to her room, Blade’d seen the subversive Saladrin go this way with her clothes.  Between the counter and the elevator was a heavy metal door.  Pulling it open, Blade noticed the frame lined with atmosphere seals: if the station sprung a leak, this was a cut-off point.  Also handy for security: if the laser seal was good enough to keep a tiny air molecule in, a big, bulky Human certainly couldn’t pass through either.

Long corridor full of maintenance equipment and muffled music bleeding through from the bar.  She passed a door that was a service entrance to the station’s canteen; apparently it and the hotel utilized some of the same maintenance equipment.  As she approached, the door swung open, and the music increased in volume, though not clarity.  A Hamaddi emerged, carrying an armful of collapsed cardboard boxes.  He looked at the scantily-if-at-all-clad female coming his way, thought nothing of it, and headed down the hall away from her.

“Excuse me,” she called.

Without breaking stride, he spun around fluidly, and continued his forward motion by walking backward.  Hamaddi senses helped him navigate the obstacle course around him.  Although it was a little too dim for Blade to see his eyes cock in question, the Hamaddi’s eyesight considered the human.  This time he saw the towel, and saw that it didn’t help much.

Man, this station’s gettin’ weird...

“Is there a Laundromat around here?” she asked, also considered him.  Ill-fitting apron (not designed for his species) indicated he was bar staff.  And as expected, he knew the answer.

“Yeah,” came the thick-throated growl, “end of the hall on the left.”  He spun again, having reached another door.  He opened this, and stepped partially inside.  A moment later, the loud thumping of him dropping his bundle on the floor.

“Thanks,” she said, walking by.  Inside, she saw him putting the expended boxes on shelves with others of its type.  Looking back down the hall, she saw the green light designating an emergency exit at the very end, with a bright shaft of light on the wall to the left of it.  Reaching the portal, she saw the light came from the entrance of a small room.

Standing over a fold-out table, a darkly tanned man was grounding out a cigarette in an ashtray amid a pile of clothes.  He looked up at Blade, smiled in approval.

“Hello,” he said simply.  Friendly smile, and he didn’t take his eyes off her.

Blade nodded to him, but just before she would have realized that he was kind of cute, she saw her clothes rumpled into a pile on a long fold-out table.  The table had several other piles of dirty clothes on it, some in tied-up cloth bags.  Across from it were three laundry machines, idle but not empty.

Blade scooped her grungy clothes up, and her fresh, clean skin could feel the soaked in oils and dried jungle rot.  Gaaa—I wore these for how long???

“Are these yours?” she asked, going over to one of the machines.

“No,” he called, picking up a powder blue shirt and folding it carefully.

Blade dropped her stuff on top of the machine, opened the side panel.  In immediate view inside were women’s undergarments.  Hamaddi women’s undergarments.

“I should hope not,” she commented, and pulled them out.  They were warm, but not steaming hot—they’d been in there a while.  Looking around, she put them on a beat-up chair with a missing leg and ripped green vinyl.

Absently, he folded another shirt while watching her stuff her clothes into the machine.  Blade slowly became aware of the scrutiny, looked up at him while continuing her work.  His eyes followed her hands: first her jacket, then a sock, followed by her shirt.  Blade wondered if this guy had anything better to do than watch someone do laundry, especially when she was expecting him to make a comment about her towel-shrouded figure.

“You’ve been in the swamps on Marmidon,” he said simply.

Blade paused from stuffing in her fatigues to look at him levelly.

Realizing he’d gotten this stunning young woman’s attention, he pointed at her pants and repeated “you were just on Marmidon.”

She continued to look at him, obviously unhappy that her previous excursion had been spotted.

He smiled.  It was a nice smile; practiced yet honest.  “I was there two years ago,” he continued.  “Spent two weeks there doing an ecological story.  I’d know those stains anywhere.”

Blade nodded, resumed shoving her clothes into the cleaner.  She closed the lid, surveyed the controls.  It was originally fitted with a pay slot, but that had been disabled.  Good—she still had no money.  She made an educated guess on which buttons to press, and the machine warmed up with a hum.  A moment later, a loud click, and it began to vibrate slightly.

“How are things on Marmidon?” he asked, starting on another shirt.

Blade shrugged, and the towel shifted slightly.  Peripherally, he caught a glimpse of light pink on white.  Small and swollen in reaction to the cool climate.  Caandelenians didn’t have areolas, he realized for the first time, and the corners of his mouth perked in approval.

“Probably haven’t changed since you were there,” she answered.

His smile turned into a discouraged frown.  “Aw, shit, then.  I was hoping it would’ve improved by now.  I’m on my way there tomorrow.”  Blade looked at him, curious.  He doesn’t look like a merc, she thought, but then he volunteered an answer to her unasked question.  “I’m doing a story on the Qorporate clash going on.  Have you heard about it?”

With a straight face, Blade shook her head.  “When I was waiting to get up to the orbiter I heard something was going on, but I didn’t hear what.”

“Oh,” he replied, “well, word is a couple of Qorps are espionaging each other down there, and it’s starting to get ugly.”

“Then I guess I picked the right time to leave.”

“Probably,” he said, putting the shirt gently on a pile of its brethren.  “If my hunch is right, this could be major, and I might get a great scoop out of this.”

Blade heard the machine click, reaching the half-way point of the rapid cleaning cycle.  Leaning back against it, she felt it vibrate warmly in the small of her back.  Kind of felt nice.

“Who do you work for?” she asked.

“Pas'Qaal News Network,” he said with a small amount of pride.  “I used to do fact-finding research for them, but they’re finally trying me out on reporting.”

“Oh, well congratulations,” she said.  Blade had once dated a writer; he was always bitching about how hard it was to get work in qommunications.  In a universe full of vidiaddicts, it was where the real money was.

“Actually, the only reason they picked me to do this was because I’d been to Marmidon before.  And they think it’s a minor story.”

Since Blade had first-hand knowledge of this story—including some details that this reporter would probably goo his shoes over, she was happy for him because she knew exactly how big this story was.

“Well, happy hunting,” she said, and her machine reached the end of the cycle.  She turned around, and opened the door.

“Thanks,” he said, and took the time to run his eyes over her body now that her back was turned.  He liked what he saw, then noticed that despite her thinness, what meat she did have on her bones was well toned muscle.

“So, what were you doing there?” he asked casually, folding a pair of slacks along the seams.

The first thing Blade pulled out were her pants.  Nice and steaming hot, and bright white.  She put those on top of the machine.  “I was visiting my sister,” she said, reaching in again.

The reporter glanced from her to the jeans she had just pulled out.  They were the type favoured by military, but that meant little, given that they were also fashionable street wear.  He remembered the thick, coated-on jungle grime, wondered why her sister would be in the jungle.  A curious look crossed his face, one which his editor would have recognized.

Blade’s next handful held her shirt.  She unslung the bag from around her shoulder, and dropped it to the floor.  The towel followed it, exposing her front to him.  Small and firm, he saw with aesthetic approval.  Just the size he liked them.  Just the size she liked them, too: firm enough that they didn’t get in the way, and small enough that she wouldn’t be playing kick-ball with them if she lived to see an old age.  Slipping into the white cotton t-shirt ended the view, much to his regret but not hers.  The garment was toasty warm, and felt wonderful on her skin.  Except for the lump on her armpit; reaching in awkwardly, she removed a sock.  Reaching down, she put it on.

“Where’s your sister live?” he asked her as she extracted another armload of clothes.

“Osco,” she said, picking the first Marmidon city that came to her mind.  Unfortunately, she picked one that was not near that dreaded swamp.  He picked up on this immediately.  Pulling out a pack of cigarettes, he asked, “care for one?”

She pushed an arm through the sleeve of her jacket, continued the extension over to him to take one of the white cylinders.  She slipped it behind her ear for a moment, finished putting on her sparkling white fibermesh jacket.

“Oh, I’m Gaerry, by the way,” he said, pulling out an everflame.

Blade smiled at him, a wry, fun smile.  “Friends call me Blade,” she said, slipping deftly into wonderfully warm white lace panties.  If only her bra had survived...

Gaerry smiled amusedly at her name, lit his cigarette while he pondered it.

“Blade, eh?” he asked, then blew the smoke out of his lungs.  Thin gray smoke wafted from the tip of his cigarette up into his field of vision, veiling Blade in a surreal haze.  He took anther puff, pulled it out to flick ashes.  “Must be because of your slicing wit.”

Blade smiled: that was a new one.  Out of her purse she pulled a white fibermesh sheathe with an elastic thong.  She secured it around her thigh like a garter.

“Ever do any stories about art?” she asked.

He nodded at the sight of knife.  “ ’Fraid not.  Marmidon has some nice art, though.”

Into her jeans.  Skin tight from the cleaning; the warmth caressed her legs.  Mmmmmmmmm.  She tied a white utility belt around her hips, its only adornment was a bayonet scabbard.  At the end of the ten-inch plasteel sheathe was a nylon thong, which she double-tied around her thigh.

“I’ve herd of legs that could kill, but...” Gaerry said with a thoughtful puff.  Blade looked up at him with a grin, then looked inside the machine for her other sock.  It was nowhere to be seen.

“This machine ate a sock,” she complained.

“Yeah,” Gaerry said, putting aside his cigarette to consider the folded pile of clothes before him.  “Ate one of mine, too.”  he picked up the surviving sock, held it up for display.  Then he tossed it over to her.

“Here,” he said as she caught it, “looks like you need this more than I do.”

She looked at the item in her hand.  Black with a faint gray pattern interwoven.  She shrugged, and put it on her other foot.  The opposite one, needless to say, was bleach white.

“Thanks,” she said, and slipped into beat-up white hightops.  Looking up at him, she smiled “I’m in your debt.”

He considered asking her to answer some questions about Marmidon, settled on asking her to dinner.

Blade was running on an empty stomach, but then again she usually was.  Most people mistook lifestyle for anorexia.

“Well,” she said, pinning on Jack’s captain’s insignia, “I haven’t seen a clock, so I don’t know what time dinner is.”

Gaerry shrugged.  “Everything here is open around the clock.  They’re pretty flexible, and so am I.”

Blade nodded.  “I have some things to do, but I’m free after that.”  She looked at him, cocked her head slightly.  “Dinner would be nice.”

“Okay,” he replied, and took a final puff off his cigarette.  “When will you be back?”

She clipped on the yellow smiley face, but a frown appeared on hers.  The bean juice stain was still on there.  Aw, phuq it; it adds colour.  She let the button’s mood infect herself.  “Oh, maybe half an hour.  Meet me in the lobby.”

            “Okay,” he replied.  “And if you’re late, I’ll just play with the cats and talk to Spunky.”

Spunky?” she asked with amusement, and deftly slipped a stiletto inside her jacket.

“Yeah,” he answered with a laugh, “that’s what I call the Saladrin bell-hop.”

Blade in turn laughed.  “Okay...”

“Have you actually talked to him?”  Blade admitted that she hadn’t.  He smiled again.  She had to admit it was a charming smile.  “I was stuck in an elevator with him,” Gaerry said, picking up his clothes.  “He’s different...”

“Then I’ll try and be on time to spare you,” she said, affixing the Braddendouriff decoration.

“See you in an half an hour,” he said, and left with his laundry.

Blade watched him go, smiled to herself, and loqed up her purse.  Shouldering it, she looked at herself in a lengthwise mirror affixed to the wall.  The bottom was broken, cutting off her feet.  So she forgot that her socks didn’t match.

The rest of her, she appraised, looked fine.

She pulled the cigarette out from her ear and her everflame from her pocket.  Sparking up, she tasted burnt clove.  A wave of numbness rippled from her scalp down to her extremities, and her angels mouth adopted a slight smile.  Wow, I’d forgotten what a good cigarette was like.  It faded quickly, thought, and she renewed her resolve to get home so she could quit smoking.

Just then, Spunky the Subversive Saladrin strolled in.  It was the first time it’d seen Blade clean and clothed, so it took it a moment to recognize her.  It watched her walk out the door, made its equivalent of a shrug.  It certainly had better things to do than the hotel’s laundry; especially since clothing was something it didn’t really understand.  Saladrin literally lived out of their atmosphere suits, even on planets hospitable to them.  Loaded with beloved gadgets and even chemosynthetic plates, clothing to them was something vitally useful and practical.  These Humans and Hamaddis, from what it observed, wore clothes for three reasons: to keep warm, to cover body parts that embarrassed them, and—most importantly—to tell each other who they were.

What bizarre species.

It set to work doing another load, humming the Universal Saladrin Anthem.

Blade walked down the hall, humming the music bleeding up from the bar.  She knew the tune, liked it.  Great to dance to; a bounce entered her step, and subconsciously she altered her pace to fit the beat.  She pushed the lobby door open on an accent crash, and was promptly run over by a sandy kitten.  She watched it disappear down the hallway, shut the door behind her as she entered the oppressive lobby.

Behind the desk, the girl was slumped in a chair, listlessly watching a vidio screen.  Blade walked up to the counter, looked at her expectantly.  Her counterpart sat motionless, seemingly unaware of the customer.

Blade looked around, saw the tom still gnawing in between its paws.  She noted the name tag:



AL #198

Hotel Miramar


“Felix the Cat?” she asked.

The girl looked up and over.  “You’ve heard of him?”  She sounded surprised.

Blade looked from the cat to the girl, then back to the feline.  “I believe I’m looking at him.”

“No, I mean the original Felix.”

The cat’s munching was starting to get on Blade’s nerves.  She stroked it, and as expected, it stopped cleaning to stretch out and consent to be petted.  “Oh, was there a Felix before this?”

“I guess there was,” the girl said.  “Some extinct breed I’d never heard of, called cartoon.  Managers named all their cats after them.”

Blade looked at her shoes, so her silent laughing wouldn’t be visible.  Having a good vocabulary and background in ancient history, she not only knew what cartoons were, she had actually seen grainy footage of one.  Some type of dog chasing a bird around a desert.  The dog kept using bizarre devices from a mysterious Qorporation calling itself Acme.  She noticed the devices never worked, so she always made sure that whenever she hired herself out it wasn’t to any Qorporation with that in its name.  But aside from knowing the word cartoon, she also knew the word Felix meant “cat”, from a long-dead language which was allegedly pre-Earthly.  Blade suspected an inside joke here somewhere.  And since she loved inside jokes, she smiled.  Even more so at the fact that the girl was completely oblivious to it.

Blade loved knowing things that other people didn’t.  The more useless and trivial, the better.  She was constantly dropping cryptic references around her, and seeing who’d pick them up.  Usually no one.  She used to joke that she would marry the first human to give the proper counter-sign to her most obscure reference.

So far, no luck, though occasionally she would meet men who picked up on some of the ones that weren’t quite as difficult.  The last one was Sean, eight months ago.  He knew who the Indian of the Group was.  Oddly enough, that would be the one Corcey would get while the two of them stood in Stoneburner’s foyer, waiting for Beth to get her Party clearance.  But that was three years in the future.

The girl had returned her attention to the vidio.  Blade took a deep puff, coughed it out at her.  The seedy haze floated in front of the monitor, reminding the clerk that she still had a customer.  From her chair, she looked over.

Blade: “Is there a purser’s office around here?”

The girl swung out of the chair and ambled up to the desk.

“We’ve got a safe,” she said.  She was pulling out a small ledger.

Blade had already seen an example of the hotel’s security, so she clarified, “I mean, does the station have a purser’s office.”

“Yes,” patiently repeated the girl, “and so does the banking centre in the promenade.  But we also offer those services.”  She opened the book up to the first blank page, about four sheets into it.  “What would you like to check in?”

Blade sucked in another puff.  “Nothing.  Where’s the one run by the station?”

The girl frowned—it had not occurred to her that someone would use it.  “Uh, it’s in the command centre.”

“Where’s that?” she asked patiently.

Frown, like she had just asked a really stupid question.  “You don’t know where the command centre is?”

Blade looked at the girl.  “I’m new here.”

“Oh, are you?” she asked, apparently not realizing that someone staying at the hotel of a space station would not be a recent arrival and not familiar with its every detail.  Blade studied her.  Chocolate skin, pink pupils, frizzy, static-filled hair in a pony-tail.  She didn’t recognize what planet she was from, but wondered if low iq was a genetic characteristic along with skin pigmentation.

Blade tapped ashes onto the ledger, said “the faster you tell me how to get there, the sooner you can return to your vidio.”

The girl looked at the ash mound like it was a dead animal, then said “get in the elevator outside, and follow the signs.”

Blade turned, walked smartly away.

To her surprise, she found that the elevator did have a directory of what was available on each floor.  Somehow she’d missed that when she first arrived; probably too tired.  But now that she was alert, she read the floor-by-floor inventory and found that all the administrative offices were at the very top of the station.

The lift was crowded when it arrived, but oddly she was the only person who rode it all the way up.  Stepping off, she was confronted by an information desk.  A make-shift sign had been taped to it: back in 5 minutes.  Looking around, she saw no one.  Curious: the supposed brain centre of the station was deserted.

Halls ran off in three different directions, and fortunately, each had a guide telling what they led to.

The Purser’s Office was listed right below Security.  That was reassuring.

She headed that way, down a long white corridor.  None of the doors she passed were labeled, but all of them had card loqs.  Blade shifted the weight of her purse, looked around.  Frown.

Where was everyone?

Something shuffled behind her.  She turned around, saw nothing.  Just as she was about to turn away, a small rat darted across the intersection she had first arrived at.  Looking at the intersection from afar, she noticed a convex dish on the junction’s ceiling.  She nodded: multi-functional surveillance pod.  Fairly high-tech; looked like one of the newer models.

Continuing on, she gradually became aware that the corridor was curving.  Just before she left the view of the pod at the intersection, she saw in the distance another elevator intersection with an electric sentinel affixed there, as well.  Three people were standing by the elevator, talking quietly.  Two wore the indigo uniforms of station security, the third was in a partially disassembled atmosphere suit.

Just as Blade got close enough to ask them directions, the lift arrived, and they boarded and disappeared.  So much for that.  But looking around, she saw a wall of transparent plasteel with white lettering on the door: Purser’s Office.

She pushed on the door.  No give.  But a moment later, there was a soft buzzing, and the door opened electrically.

A Hamaddi took his finger off the button, moved from behind the desk to welcome the guest.

“Can I help you?” he asked politely.

Blade unslung her purse.  “Yes, I have some valuables I’d like to put into safe keeping for a while.”

Nod, then he motioned her to the back.

“But first, I’d like an explanation of your security precautions.”

Another nod, joining her at the far wall.  Double electric doors with a small panel on the side.

“Only station security have access to this room,” he said, pressing a button on the panel.  An electric eye dilated, and a small red laser scanned his retina.  A moment later, the doors opened.  Inside was a small mausoleum of storage cubicles.  The overhead light was another security pod.  Seeing that she saw it, he said “Vidio and motion tracking.  If anyone is in here and the door hasn’t been properly accessed, it sounds an alarm.”

He led her up to one of the safes.

“Two and a half centimeter thick duridium,” he said, tapping it.  She saw a small calculator in the centre.  “To get access, two codes must be entered.  One is mine, which only Station Security knows, and the other is yours, which you enter upon rental.  Incorrect entry of a code—or any form of tampering—immediately triggers a silent alarm in three places: outside on my desk, at the main security office, and at the guard room next door.”

Blade nodded.  “Ever had a break-in?”

“Not a successful one,” he said smugly.

“Okay, I’ll take it,”  she said, and unslung her purse.  The guard, in turn, opened the door to the miniature vault.

“Qomputer, identify Lieutenant Mal’lich,” he said aloud, and a moment later a soft series of beeps issued from an unseen source.  He continued, “begin inventory for safety deposit box number 421.”  He looked at Blade expectantly.

Blade opened the bag, and began pulling out the contents.

The qomputer cataloguing took a little under two minutes.  Due to their obscure nature, he was unsure what the more valuable ones were, and she fudged on their true classifications.  The only unusual item he was familiar with was one of her knives.

“Keldish barong,” he said, eyeing it with interest.  “Very nice.”

“Thanks,” she said, putting it on the floor with the rest of her belongings.  When they were done, she thought a moment.  Since the quick check back in her hotel room, this was the first real chance to assess her belongings and see what was missing.

If something had been taken, her memory could not identify it.  This bothered her greatly: if someone (or something) went through her purse, what were they looking for if not to rob her?

She looked over her booty silently, thinking about this.  Her eyes absently traced the outline of one of the odd auxitane talismans, and suddenly she noticed she had five of them.  She only remembered finding four: two incorporated into what she assumed were Other Culture headstones, one in the collapsed archives vault, and one rather poorly concealed under a loose stone on the altar floor.  Where did she get a fifth?  Maybe someone broke in to give me one!

A moment later she decided to forget the whole issue, because she noticed that the gemstone in the scepter had again changed colour.  When she first encountered it (buried with a husky exoskeleton in the Mausoleum), it was clearly a ruby.  It had a healthy red hue to it.  At one point on the freighter, though, she noticed that it was suddenly a sapphire.  The stone was a cool blue.  She pondered it at the time, but not half as long as she currently was, where the gem growing out of the scepter was... an amethyst, maybe?  Blade wasn’t quite sure what the purple stone was.

“Yahh?”  The word was Hamaddi for ma’am.

Blade looked up, startled.

“I’m sorry,” she said, coming back the matter.  She began to put everything back inside her bag, and placed that inside the box.

“Do any of these require specific atmosphere or climate controls?”


“Is there anything else you would like to put in there?”

Again, “No.”

“Qomputer, end inventory for number 421.”  Another chorus of beeps.  He shut the door, spoke “Loq and seal, Authorization Mal’lich.”

A soft click came from the box.

With a taloned finger, he tapped the calculator.  “Okay, now enter a code.  It can be as long or as short as you want, but make sure it’s something you’ll remember.  When you’re done, press the red button, and then enter it again to confirm it.”

The guard turned his back so he could not see what she entered.  Blade cupped her hand over the keypad so even the monitor pod couldn’t see the sequence: the Cabalistic value of her full name.

“Okay,” she told him after pressing the red button again.  The moment she did, a small plasteel card sprung out of the top of the pad.  He took it, handed it to her.

“This is your claim card,” he said.  She looked at it: 421 written across it, plus a bar code.  “When you wish to retrieve your items, present this to the guard out front.  I suggest you don’t lose it; there is a replacement fee.”

“Oh, that reminds me: how much is this going to cost me?”

“Ten bytes a day.”

Well, at least I don’t have to put a deposit down.

She pocketed the card, thanked the Hamaddi, and left.

Just before the elevator closed, she saw another rat scamper down the hallway.  Then the lift descended, stopping on every floor to acquire people, all heading for the main level.  By the time they reached the promenade, it was quite crowded.

Blade stepped out last, looked around.  The station’s commons was full of people; seemingly even more than when she had first arrived fourteen hours ago.  The din of conversation equally matched the din of music coming from the bar.

She was right outside the yellow corridor to the doqs, which, she realized, was where she had originally come in.  That was convenient: the Communications Centre was right to her right.

Blade pushed the glass doors open, looked inside.  Half the vidio display units were public, half were enclosed private cubicles.  All of those were in use.  She waited outside one, keeping an eye on all of them to monitor their availability.  It was thirty seconds before the glasstic doors at the second to last one slid apart, and a very small Saladrin skittled out.  Seeing that another Saladrin was keen on getting to the booth before her, Blade moved quickly and just beat the crab creature to the qommunications stall.  Despite the opaque faceplate on its suit, she could tell it had a perturbed look on its face when she shut the portal.  She smiled at it, then loqed and activated the soundproofing.

She inserted her identification card into the slot, and the machine read the data on the magnetic strip.  That data included who she was, and what her preferred language was.  Speaking to her in that, the graphic of the Pas'Qaal Qommunications Qorporation’s logo was replaced by a menu of options.

Blade chose the fifth: charge a qal to her home phone on Blackmoore II.  She entered in two authorization codes, then dialed a number on Retiva, Cassidine’s largest moon.

The Qorporate standard reappeared, along with a please stand by message.  The time code at the bottom reached thirty seconds before the qomputer informed her with a series of beeps that it had located the number.

Please Stand By was replaced by a hazy reflection of herself: the screen went black as the phone rang on the other end.

A warm, pleasant tone, then a voice message.  Male, with the Cassadinian intonation that always glossed over vowels.

“The number you have reached is 088-R-9025.  Obviously, this is an answering machine.  If you don’t know what to do next, you shouldn’t be using a fon.”


“Hey, Geoff,” she said with a smile, “I was just vacationing on Marmidon, and picked up some interesting trinkets.  And not all of them are Marmidonian, if you know what I mean.”  She gave a cryptic wink she was sure he’d understand.  “Anyway, I thought you might like to add them to your collection.  If you’re interested, give me a qal.  Right now I’m at the Sk'Gdadda Thirteen orbiter, at, uh,” she struggled to remember the full address, “Room 240 of the Hotel Miramar.  I’m not sure how long I’ll be here—hopefully not too long, if you know what I mean.  I’ll keep you posted.  Uh, hope to hear from you soon.  Oh, say hi to Ursula and Joe.  By-eeee.”

She pulled out her identification card, which ended the call.  Blade sat there a moment, thinking if there were any other prospective buyers who would be interested in taking these items off her hands.  Geoff was her main connection for black market artifacts  She liked doing business with him because he was discreet and rich (he was also gorgeous, but unfortunately he was faithfully married.)

The only other person she could think of was Cairn, and she really didn’t want to talk to him.  Two years ago, she’d sold him some religious statuary associated with the Alien cult.  The money he paid for the contraband imagery was the only good thing about him.  Blade didn’t understand why anyone would venerate the Aliens, and she treated those who did with justifiable suspicion.  In a galactic society of religious tolerance, Alien worship was the only theology that was universally condemned and outlawed, because it was believed that its practitioners were breeding the damned things.  High priests allegedly offered themselves as willing hosts to the face-huggers to propagate the species.  Blade didn’t know whether that was true or not when she made her transaction with him two years ago; back then her interests were strictly mercenary.  Now that she was older, and her morality had increased with her wealth, she wasn’t so willing to enter a business deal with someone like him.  And besides, he not only had a blatant hard-on for her, but was really gross looking.

But right now, she needed the money, and she needed it pretty fast.  While debating on whether to dial the number or not, she heard a knock on the glass.  Looking out, the Saladrin was still standing sentinel, impatiently awaiting use of the booth.

Blade considered it a sign that she shouldn’t call Cairn, and exiting the booth, decided that it was best to let that one alone.  She stood in the lobby of the centre, deciding what to do next.  She started by exiting and continuing her earlier survey of shops that the station had.  She headed left, in the opposite direction she had set off half a day earlier.

Across the yellow corridor was a combination animal vendor and veterinary hospital.  A note taped to the door apologized that they had no more cats for sale, and that a shipment of six-toed Panatato high-brids was due in one week.  A quick glance inside showed that despite a lack of living inventory, business was far from dead: a Hamaddi salesman was showing a customer various rat traps and repellents.

Next was the white corridor.  Actually, it was only white to humans and Hamaddis: the actual colour was beyond their visual spectrum (Saladrin, who could see it, called it V'Jahm).  On the other side was what Blade was looking for:


Port O’Bello



Blade smiled at the acronym: to her, MOI stood for Mothers of Invention.  The space port’s Ministry of Information occupied the entire area between the Green and V'Jahm corridors, and one of it’s main features was a travel guide.  Complete listings of all private and commercial flights in and out of the station appeared on a large screen, and two booths were set up to assist with flight reservations.

Blade examined the Departure screen.  Not that she had any money to buy a ticket, but she wanted to plan ahead.  Unfortunately, the next flight out was headed Marmidon (coincidentally, it was the very same freighter that had brought her here.)  In fact, the next two flights out were either headed directly there, or had it as their first stop.  Inventory showed that quite a few people had booked passage.  Ten hours from now, a liner was scheduled to stop here to refuel before continuing on to Adri Jeklea.  That was no good: a ten day voyage with a ship full of stinky Hamaddi pilgrims to a planet nowhere near either Blackmoore II or Cassidine.

Looking down the list, she saw that she was going to be stranded on this (or actually in this) floating tin can for quite a while.

Blade looked at her watch.  She had another ten minutes to kill before dinner.  Looking up from her wounded timepiece, she surveyed the Port O’Bello Touristry Information Centre.  Professionally set up, with lots of fliers, information displays, and customer assistants.  She smiled, and headed across the station.

Cutting through the bar, traffic became increasingly thick.  Almost everybody was drinking, and about half of them were eating.  All the tables were occupied, and scooting around the standing patrons, she began to wonder if she had chosen the best path to get to her destination.

Just as she came to the conclusion that she hadn’t, the people in front of her began gyrating and contorting in ways she was most familiar with: she’d just stepped onto the dance floor.  The smile touched her lips again, and she stopped to survey the crowd participating in her favourite musical response.  Alas, none of them were very good.  She considered showing them how to do it right, but all of the guys on the floor were losers, more concerned finding sex than finding the groove.  Oh well.

Suddenly she was jostled from behind, and then again as several people pushed their way past her.  The loud (and not very good) music masked their apologies as they quickly made their way to a table at the perimeter of the floor.  Irritated, Blade looked over to see three men in indigo security uniforms walk up to a civilian seated behind a plate of spaghetti.  The man was in the middle of a mouthful of pasta, and did not see the officers until they were right on top of him.  Blade saw a look of panic cross his face, and for a moment thought he was going to rabbit.  But a fourth indigo—a female Hamaddi with more muscles than the three men combined—had materialized on the other side of the table, blocking any potential movement.

The seated figure realized this, and a look of resignation touched his face.

“Right, now, wot’s all this then?” the first guard said, reaching the table, but then the Hamaddi slammed an iron grip onto his shoulder and cried “You are nicked!”

Still chewing on his food, and thus having giant hamstercheeks, the seated man merely swallowed and mumbled “It’s a fair cop.”  He wiped his mouth with a napkin, and was promptly handcuffed.  Without any fuss, he stood up, and was escorted to the back.

Blade watched the scene with a frown, then realized that she was the only one who had seen it.  The rest of the people continued their dancing as if nothing had happened.

With a shrug, she continued on, making her way around dancers and bus-boys who went out to clear the newly vacated table.  With purpose and effort, she was able to cut through the bar’s throng, and across to the other side of the station’s promenade.

Blade was not surprised to see the same chap seated at the tiny Sk'Gdadda 13 MOI booth, nor was she surprised to see that he was still reading a vidio booq.

“Keeping busy?” she asked, stepping up.

The guard smiled, put the book down, and looked up.  The dim light of the station and the back-lighting from the bar made it difficult to see her clearly, but he recognized the voice (that was how few people talked to him.)

“Actually,” he said, “I did a flight pass down to the planet right after you left.”

Blade frowned, though more for effect  “Oh?  Why would anyone want to actually go down there?”

He looked hurt.  After a moment, he replied “I was born down there, and I still go home on weekends.”

It actually took her a moment to realize that he was serious.

“You were born here?”

Nod, and a slight smile.  There was just a hint of pride in that grin.

“I didn’t think the station was that old,” she said.  She’d never even heard of this place until a couple of years ago.

“We’ve been mining the planet for nineteen years.”

Blade allowed herself a slight laugh.  She was about to ask him how old he was, then realized the stupidity of the question.  Still, he certainly looked older than someone still in his teens.

“I was the first person born down there,” he added after a moment.  “My parents were with the original administrative staff.  I’ve been here all my life.  That’s why I was elected envoy to the station.”

“Oh, are they grooming you to take over the booth on the other side?”

He shook his head vigorously.  “No, that’s run by the Station.  I handle planetary affairs.”

“Why would they separate them?”

He didn’t look surprised by the question.  “Simple: the station and the planet are two separate entities.”

Blade’s ivory eyebrows arched.  “Oh?  Why’s that?”

He leaned forward in his chair, and began to get a better look at the person he was talking to.  The pause and flared eyes indicated his surprise finally seeing the face behind the voice, and approval of what he saw.

“It’s got to do with a lot of uninteresting qorporate legalities.  If you like, I can give you a pamphlet on our exciting history,” and he pulled out a four-page leaflet.  Blade was expecting to see dust on it.  She glanced at her watch.  It was five minutes before Gaerry.

“Why do you have a rubber band on your watch?”

“A long story, probably about as interesting as the history of your planet,” she said with a smile.

He put the pamphlet away.  “I thought so.”

Her stomach rumbled in discontent of its emptiness.

“I may be here for a couple of days,” she said to him, “and I think I’ve already seen the highlights of the station.  Is there anything worth seeing on the planet?”

“Lot’s of cobalt,” he answered.

“Well, if I get bored, I’ll stop by, and you can help me plan a travel prospectus.”

“Sure, if you like strip mining.”

She wasn’t sure if that was a come-on or not.  She decided to find out.

“Is there anything down there beside mining?”

“No,” he answered.  Rather quickly, she noticed.

Curious, “So why would anyone go down there?”

Shrug, rather forced.  “I dunno.  We do get visitors, though.”

“Just visitors?  Has anybody ever moved there to live permanently?”

“Only Qompany personnel associated with the mining operations.  And even then, they’re rotated.”

If Blade had been paying attention, she would have detected that she was being fed misinformation, but as it was, she was just making trivial conversation to kill time.

“People move to the Orbiter, though,” he said.  This surprised Blade enough that she didn’t notice the shift in subject.

“Why?” she asked.  The expression “nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live here” clearly didn’t apply to this place, because even visiting wasn’t very enjoyable.

“The Qompany that runs the Orbiter is in it purely for money, so they encourage all forms of tourism, including permanent ones.  After all, if someone lives here, it’s a steady source of revenue for the Qompany-run shops,” and he waved his hand to indicate the promenade.  “Most recent people to come here are the couple that just bought the hotel.  Retired history professor and his wife; nice folks.  That’s why I sent you there, instead of the orbiter’s official lodgings.”

That reminded Blade of her dinner date.

“Speaking of which, I have to get back there.”

“Okay, well maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Maybe,” she said with a smile, and headed for the elevator.

To her disappointment, the only occupant of the Miramar’s lobby was a fat rust-coloured tom named Garfield.  No sign of Gaerry, but she was early.

Blade went up to the desk, where the dark-skinned girl was still watching television.  She hadn’t moved a millimeter.

“Any messages for me?”

Without looking up, “What room?”


The girl glanced at the message board, saw it blank.  Since her head was in motion, she decided to look over and address Blade face to face.

“No,” she said, then did a double-take when she realized who she was speaking to.

“Oh, but somebody was by looking for you just after you left.”

Blade nodded, described Gaerry.

“No, it was somebody else.  He had a holograph of you, and asked if you were staying here.”

Blade did some cerebral conjecture.

“Short, muscular guy with the worst haircut in the galaxy?”

“Just the opposite: tall and nice hair.  Five-piece suit, too.”

Normally Blade would have asked if he was cute, but was unsettled that she was being asked for by name.  Especially since she preferred to keep a low profile at the moment.

“Did he say who he was?”

“No.  I asked him if he wanted to leave a message, but he said no.”

Blade went over to a chair to sit and ponder that.  The girl returned to her vidio screen.  Garfield tromped off in pursuit of a rat.

“Mizz Az-mo-dee-uz?”

Blade cocked her head to see who was addressing her.

It wasn’t Gaerry.

It wasn’t Jaymz.

It wasn’t a mysterious figure in a five-piece suit.

It was a trio of sinister men wearing snazzy black uniforms devoid of any insignia.

“She’s not in right now,” Blade said smoothly, “but if you’d care to leave a message...”

The one who spoke, a brawny Hamaddi with an unusually prolonged snout, was able to interrupt her statement with a disapproving stare.

“Wood jew cum wid uzz, pleez?” he asked with a thick accent, and it was clear that the word pleez was not a regular part of his vocabulary.

Blade blew out a breath, looked at him.  “What are the charges?”

Frown.  “Char-jez?”

“Can I at least see some badges?” she asked innocently.

“Batches?”  Snout looked befuddled.  “We ain’t got no batches.”

Before he could protest that he didn’t need no steenking batches, his two accomplices assumed menacing postures on either side of her chair.

Blade shrugged and stood up.

“Okay, where are we going?”

“With us,” one said simply.

“Our employer would very much like to meet you,” the other added with an ominous smile.




[next chapter]