With the deliberate pace of a Cooley-61 mining robot ripping chunks of ore out of a rock wall, the shrill beeping of the visiphone tore again and again into Hale Brandon's stupor of sleep. His eyes ached as he came to; the apartment was dim but they still pulsed painfully as if daggers of light were searing into them. The veins in his temples throbbed, his mouth was dry, and his tongue felt swollen and generally in the way.
Hangover, he concluded, a logical deduction for the morning after drinking himself to sleep.
The last third of the bottle of Loar whiskey beckoned to Hale from the nightstand. He reached for it instinctively, not even thinking about what he was doing until his hand was six inches from the bottle. When the realization hit him, he snapped his fist shut, nails digging into his palms.
"No," he growled aloud. "Not...yet..." Hale tried not to think how good the strong liquor would taste sliding down his throat, or how much better his pounding head would feel, or, most of all, how he wouldn't have to think with his system saturated with alcohol.
It was the last one that almost got him.
When he finally stood up, he was shaking from the effort and a light sheen of perspiration covered his body. The damn visiphone was still ringing.
Hale took three steps across the room and punched the connect button, leaning against the counter to brace himself.
"All right, what's so bloody important?" he snapped.
The visiphone screen stayed dark, but it seemed to ripple now and again, as if the darkness was moving. Three brilliant silver eyes took shape.
"Your gratitude overwhelms me." The voice rising from the speaker was shrill and rasping, not that of a living thing but generated electronically and intentionally made to sound that way. "I come bringing gifts, and find myself received with delays and curses. 'Tis true that no good deed goes unpunished."
Hale swore again, then angrily added,, "If you've got something to tell me then do it, but spare me the crap, Ebon. I haven't got the time."
"Yes, so I can see. You're shaking like the proverbial leaf, Hale. From where I stand, you need to take the job I'm offering you just to give you a reason to leave your apartment. Unless you've finally finished the slide into full-fledged alcoholism, in which case I'll be glad to find someone else and let you crawl back into your nice warm bottle and rot."
It was funny. His words were nasty and sarcastic, but Ebon almost sounded worried.
"Stow the preaching," Hale snapped, shoving away any implied concern. "If you've got a job for me, let me know. And no more of those damn metachem runs. I'm not going up against Mother Brain and the Algo system patrol just so a bunch of crooks can get rich poisoning people."
"For all you know, those neuro-stims were intended for Motavians."
"Yeah, right. Do you think the Seven Hands Gang would have been smuggling them to Native Motavians, on whom they act like coffee, or to Palmans, who get addicted and go through six kinds of hell's worth of withdrawal symptoms if they can't pony up the meseta for their daily dose? Nice talking to you, Ebon."
His hand moved towards the disconnect key.
"This isn't like that. It's not a smuggling job after all."
"What else is out there for space pilots, now that Mother Brain's killed off travel?"
"Interested, are you?"
"Yeah, all right, I am." He pushed himself upright and tried to locate some halfway clean clothes. Clients were impressed with stuff like that. "You gonna throw yourself a party for getting me on the hook, or are you going to reel me in?"
"Your rancorous attitude towards life, while certainly reminiscent of certain popular fiction heroes, is rarely productive."
Hale fished a pair of pants he'd worn only once out from under the bed and located a short-sleeved green shirt that hadn't picked up any major stains, then pulled them on over the underwear he'd slept in. A carbonsuit would give a more professional appearance, he knew, but he'd hocked the only one he owned a couple of months back.
"Yeah, and you talk like you're from a couple thousand years ago, but I don't see you losing any biz over it."
"If you want to use that line, then turn off the vid pickup so I can't see your apartment. I know how your bank balance stands, Hale. Your net worth is exactly three hundred forty-eight meseta."
"Damn it, Ebon, who made you my keeper!?" Hale roared.
"I'm referring to facts. If you don't want to be called on your lies, don't try them on someone who knows better."
Hale dug a package of coffee grounds out of the cupboard and got the machine going. Maybe that would clear his head.
"Look, spare me the social commentary and tell me about the job."
Ebon sighed audibly, no doubt using whatever computer he was generating the voice with to wring the maximum amount of emotional content out of it.
"Very well, I've arranged for you to meet the ones hiring you at eleven-thirty. That's two hours from now," he added as Hale's bloodshot eyes began to hunt out a clock.
"Jacquez's, the outdoor cafe in Madore Park."
"Fair enough," He got a mug out of the sink and rinsed it. "Who am I supposed to meet?"
"One man; he'll be wearing a black coat. You'll get more details and the front-end payment from him."
Hale gave the visiphone screen a dirty look.
"More details? You've got to have some before you can have more, and right now I don't have any at all. You like facts so much, tell me a few about this job."
"Look, all I know is this: the job involves rescuing someone, and they need space transport to pull it off. They also need to acquire a spacecraft, since neither you nor they actually owns or has access to one."
Hale's eyes widened.
"Wait a minute. You mean, first we're going to be swiping a spacecraft, and only then does the real mission start?"
The silver eyes dimmed momentarily, then shone brightly.
"Essentially, that is an accurate summation of the matter."
Hale shook his head in disbelief.
"They're crazy. You're crazy, too, if you think that I'd go along with a suicide run like that. Where are they getting the ship from, anyway?"
"They didn't say, which does not particularly surprise me."
"Probably one of the corp hangers on those closed-up fields outside the city, unless they're intending to swipe one from a smuggler. Hell, I probably won't even get to do a halfway decent preflight on it. We'll be lucky if we don't run out of fuel on the way there."
The coffee pot was half-full by then; he paused the machine's operation long enough to fill his cup, drain half of it, and fill it up again. The hot, bitter brew scalded its way down Hale's throat, cutting through some of the pain-induced haze and warming up muscles that ached from a cramped sleeping position.
"How much are they offering for this great chance to get myself killed?" he groused.
"One hundred thousand meseta."
Hale almost dropped his cup.
"One hundred thousand."
"Now I know you're yanking my chain, Ebon. Hell, even with the theft you're talking about maybe twenty, and that's only if you talked up my rep until you were blue in the face. Not that you've got a face."
Lacking a mouth, Ebon's image on the screen couldn't smile, but Hale could hear it in his voice.
"Now, perhaps you begin to see why I've been so insistent that you should hear me out."
Hale dropped onto a corner of the bed. He'd never even heard of a six-figure fee before. Those kind of numbers couldn't even be comprehended by anyone but financiers and accountants. It also stank royally. The only reason people waved money like that around was if they didn't intend to pay it. Even money on whether the customers intended to stiff him or just make sure Hale didn't live to collect.
"Ebon," he sighed, "I appreciate the thought, but this has got 'too good to be true' written all over it. There's no way I'll ever see any of that money."
For a minute there, he'd actually been getting excited, interesting in maybe using this job to make a turnaround in his life. Now it was back to spending his days trying to convince himself that what self-respect he had left was enough reason not to shut out the past and present with as much booze as his three hundred forty-eight meseta could buy.
"They're offering thirty thousand as front-end money."
Hale snapped his head up.
"You mean, I would walk away from that meeting today with thirty K in my account? These people are going to fork over that much, no matter what?"
"Presuming, of course, that you do agree to take the job. Your time alone isn't worth a consulting fee."
"Yeah, but what I mean is, even if they shoot me in the back after the job, they're still out the thirty K, right?"
"Ahh," the inhuman voice purred, "the light begins to dawn upon my understanding. Yes, Hale, in the unlikely event that a double-cross is planned, then it will be an extremely expensive one for them."
Was it worth the risk? Did Hale still have the talent for a high-risk job like this? If the job wasn't a double-cross, it was almost certainly the suicide mission he'd labeled it.
Then again, a quick, clean death would be better than the slow death life offered as an alternative. Hale looked at the whiskey bottle again, sure that if he didn't do something about it soon, the drink would have him too tightly to let go. Maybe it already did, but he had to try.
Besides, the only way he could hide from his own mind was to give it something else to work on, something immediate that would drive out all other thoughts.
"All right, Ebon. I'll do it."
* * * * *
Ironic, Tyler thought. It was a beautiful, sunny day for the first time since he'd come back to Camineet, and he was planning to leave the city that night. Even the light haze of smog in the air couldn't block out Palm's blue sky, the gleaming star Algo, or the fluffy white clouds that drifted on the breeze.
Madore Park was probably the nicest of Camineet's public parks. The paths were broad, the lawns and greenery neatly kept clean, and it was safe, at least during the day. The cafe, Jacquez's, was a popular stop for park patrons, offering coffee, soft drinks, sandwiches, snacks, and ice cream. Tyler wouldn't have picked the spot for a meet; he and Melora had gone there together more than once during their off-duty hours, playing, talking, laughing together. He remembered Melora's sweet tooth, and the way she had always made the most unique flavor choices.
White chocolate cinnamon truffle, he thought, laughing. The grin remained as Tyler walked up to the cafe. Good memories endured just like painful ones.
Hale Brandon was easy to spot. Just as he'd been described, the pilot was tall and lanky, with jet black hair laced with gray pulled back in a ponytail, the sides of his head shaved, and dark stubble covering his chin and cheeks. A braided thorn-vine tattoo snaked its way up his bare right forearm. His clothing was simple and well-worn, from his battered, heavy work boots to the loose-fitting shirt. Like almost all of the cafe's patrons, he was unarmed. Tyler, of course, was not.
"So you're the man. Have a seat."
"Let's go for a walk. There's too many ears here."
Hale shrugged, rising.
"Suit yourself; you're paying the freight." He picked up his burger and cola, then took a big bite of the sandwich. They headed off down one of the paths. "You got a name, or do I make one up?"
"Call me Tyler."
They walked on for a bit, passing parents with children, teenagers trying to look cool, and wageslaves trying to salvage some fresh air while on their lunch break.
"So you're a space pilot."
"I was, until Mother Brain put me out of a career."
"Six years with Gothic Titan Shipping, then eight more with the Algo Space Administration. Then four years out of the trade, more or less."
That checked with the information Anje had provided.
"That's funny," Tyler said. "I...retired four years ago, too."
"Small world. So what's this job you want me to do? I'll tell you right off, I'm not doing any metachem smuggling or terrorism."
Tyler thrust his left hand into his coat pocket.
"How about anti-corp work, and cleaning up some military corruption besides?"
"Better. So what's this about having to steal a spaceship?"
Hale took another bite. "Where from?" he mumbled around the mouthful.
The black-haired pilot nearly choked on his burger.
"Are you crazy?" he exclaimed. Hale glanced around to see if his outburst had attracted any attention, then said in a softer voice. "No wonder you're paying so much. Whoever you get is gonna need it to pay their shrink and their funeral expenses!"
"You think we haven't thought of that ourselves?" Tyler asked.
Hale finished off his burger, tossed the wrapper into a trash can, and chewed thoughtfully, using the time his mouth was full as an excuse to think things over.
"It's absolutely necessary? You can't go somewhere else?"
"We need to access the flight logs in the spaceport computer, so we have to break in there anyway."
"The flight logs?"
"Be nice to know where we're going before takeoff."
Hale gave Tyler a wide-eyed look.
"Let me get this straight. You're hiring me to fly a spaceship you don't have to somewhere you don't know."
"Essentially, yes," Tyler said blandly.
"Oh, hell," Hale groaned. "You couldn't just have a gridrider hack the logs from someplace safe, then swipe a ship from somewhere a little less well-guarded?"
Tyler shook his head.
"Unfortunately, no. From the way our hacker explained it to me, the spaceport's system is part of the military net. All the access channels from the regular datanet are walled off by alpha-level security set up by Mother Brain. The internal system security isn't all that bad, or at least it shouldn't be, so if we can get inside and link up from within the milnet, we've got a fair chance of getting the data we want with little fuss."
"Still sounds insane, but at least you've got a good reason. What's the timeframe?"
"We go tonight."
Hale was getting used to these little surprises. "Oh, fine. That's right in line with everything else about this job." His eyes turned towards Tyler with sudden suspicion. "I presume this means that if I take the offer, I'll be going directly with you?"
The ex-agent shook his head.
"Not quite; there's one other thing to take care of." He pulled a bank access card out of his pocket. "First you get paid the front-end money."
Hale relaxed visibly. The transfer from the credit blank, this time funded by Anje, to Hale's bank account took only seconds from a public visiphone. The call to verify the transaction took only a few moments longer.
"Satisfied?" Tyler asked.
"Well, that ought to cover the cost of burial, at least. Let's get going before my brain recovers from the sight of all that meseta and decided it would rather live."
* * * * *
Gage Worthmann was going over the designs for an upgrade to the corporation's Tracer robots when the secure line on his visiphone beeped. Gage keyed the pickup and was surprised when Dr. Hurlston's face appeared, rerouted through the satellite link.
"We have a problem," the scientist stated.
"Wait a moment, please."
It had to be important, for Lianora to contact him directly; Gage put away the design specs.
"Now, what is it?"
"Last night another subject was delivered here. The last one, I believe the communication was."
"That's right, presuming that the prototype lives up to its promise."
"Oh, yes. We've been running analyses on it ever since Nuada returned to Lianora this morning. Last night's excursion into the field had no apparent negative side effects."
"Quite a number of positive ones, in fact," Gage agreed. "You were given full reports?"
"Indeed so. All traces, all evidence destroyed with the minimum possible expenditure of time and energy. Which, unfortunately, beings me to the subject of this call. When we ran a battery of standard tests, we discovered an anomaly. This."
The doctor held up a tiny sliver with a pair of tweezers.
"What is it?"
"An intradermal transmitter. The Commander had it inspected; I'm transmitting the results now."
Worthmann tapped another key, and the screen quartered. In the window which appeared in the lower right-hand corner, data scrolled by.
"Professional class," he concluded. Garrett would know more, but that wasn't particularly relevant. "Thank you, Dr. Hurlston. Appropriate steps will be taken."
When the call was over, Gage leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers thoughtfully. The obvious conclusion was that Tyler Jorran was responsible for the tracking device, given what LIM now knew about his resources and skills. Gage didn't accept that assumption outright, instead considering alternatives, but this time at least the executive found the most obvious possibility to be the one most likely correct. Tyler must have deciphered whatever information the hunter, Melora, had found for Eric Stephens. That had taken him to the clinic in Rendak, barely a step ahead of Luveno's cleanup operation. From there, the transmitter had undoubtedly led Tyler to Camineet Spaceport. Just how much of what was happening Tyler knew wasn't so obvious, but the man's next move was.
Gage reached for the visiphone. It was time to arrange a little reception committee for Tyler Jorran and his friends.