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He Who Laughs Last

Part II

The counter clerk at the teleport station ran my citizen ID through the computer and handed me a ticket and three fifty-meseta notes. That was the sum total of my check-in experience at the teleport station. No luggage checks, no security scans for weapons (other than the one at the door, but that's why my ID card is permit-coded), no probing questions about who might have been alone with my bag while I was distracted by a rat running over my foot, none of the usual rigamarole that accompanies air travel. No one, so far as I know, has ever tried to hijack a teleport en route.

No, passengers by teleport didn't have to deal with the threat of an aerojet plummeting out of the sky, taking everyone aboard to a fiery grave. There were problems, of course. Chief among them was cost. The ticket I was holding in my hand had cost Cash somewhere upwards of three thousand meseta. Cheap enough to make the corporate aerojet a thing of the past, but nowhere near cheap enough to put a dent in commercial airlines' market share. Teleportation was a rich person's game, or for those for whom a few hours was money. Which, of course, made me wonder just what I was carrying around and why it was worth so much.

Needless to say, I stifled any urges in that direction. I was being paid to deliver the goods, not snoop at 'em. Couriers who start looking inside the package quickly become dead couriers. Instead, I turned my attention back to the expenses of teleportation while I waited in line.

The problem was largely the equipment. Systems to digitize the body and the person's possessions, space-time synchronizers or something equally incomprehensible, together with broadcast transmitters capable of punching through the "background noise" of Palm's technological civilization all cost meseta. A lot. That's initial equipment cost, operator training, maintenance, energy supply, you name it. Every so often, someone protests, "Why can't teleportation be as cheap as it is on Mota?" According to the scientists (and to the brochure "The Teleportation Industry in Palm Today--A Service to Our Clients by Nakagaki Subatomics" I'd picked up to read in line) it comes down to two things: Mota's airwaves aren't so jammed with transmissions so less powerful equipment can be used, knocking about two-thirds off the cost, and government subsidies provided by Mother Brain. Apparently she was encouraging teleport use as an efficiency study.

All of which wasn't precisely fascinating but did get me to the head of the line, where a Wren android took my ticket. I stepped into the chamber while the Wren inputted commands at its console.

"Destination selected: Scion," said a soft reassuring female voice on the intercom. "Please verify."

"That's right."

"Establishing synchronization. Satellite link between origination and destination in place. Initiating teleport."

Lights pulsed in the cylinder walls and then...I was somewhere else. There wasn't even a moment of transition, just a change in view and a faint buzzing in my ears that passed quickly.

"Welcome to Scion Teleport Station. Local time is 12:23 AM," said the same artificial voice that had greeted us back in Camineet. "Have a pleasant stay."

I stepped out of the teleport chamber and strolled over to Scion Regional Customs. This, at least, was more like what I was used to. My passport and ID were checked, I took a step through the chem-sniffer, and I was out on the other side, free to roam the streets and byways of Scion. I bought a needed cup of coffee from a tired-looking man running a JavaKart next to a vidwall and sipped it, watching thirty holovid screens tell me that LIM Industrial Division Chief Martinez had taken a dive out of his seventy-eighth-story penthouse window. The cops were calling this particular stain a suicide after preliminary investigation, with further details expected later. The newscast's resident business guru pointed out that Luveno's stop price was up one point six meseta per share since the news of Martinez's death broke, which struck me as funny in a morbid kind of way. The guy dies, and the corp's stock was worth more because he was gone. No wonder he'd decided to take a permanent vacation if even his business looks at him like that.

I tossed the polyfoam cup into the nearest bin and headed towards the doors. I could taste the difference as soon as I took my first breath. The air stank as badly in Scion as it did in Camineet, but Scion was a port city, so the usual odor of pollutants was mingled with the ever-so-pleasant scent of low tide.

I was about to head down the street towards the Mermaid when I realized that I still had unfinished business to take care of. Mentally, I cursed loudly and fluently even while keeping my yap shut. Loitering in the shadows around a blown streetlamp, idly smoking a cigarette, was my friend from Camineet, the square-jawed Corsairs fan.

This was impossible. He couldn't have followed me to the teleport station unless he was following a homing device (In the chip? Nah, that was too paranoid even for me.). Even then he couldn't pass me in line and have teleported here first, or have gotten past me if he'd teleported after me. Okay, technically he could have 'ported in after me, then walked by while I was having coffee, but there wasn't a second way out of the teleport station and, damn it, I'm better than that. I was sure he hadn't slipped by me.

Okay, I tell myself, you don't know how he got here, but the fact is you've got to deal with him, and quickly. The weight of the Marksman in its holster was reassuring, but a false hope. In a slum like Ossale Court back home I might be able to blow my pursuer away if it came to that and walk off, but I bet that the Scion DLE would take notice of a gunfight in this district. I had a meet to get to and a delivery to make, and an interview with the cops could mean delays, the chip seized as evidence (and remember, I still didn't know what was on the bloody thing), and official attention towards my job. Bad ideas, all of them. So, no gun, not unless the whole situation went to hell.

I turned and started up the sidewalk, checking on my shadow with a quick glance into the front windows of the station. He flicked the cig into the street, its glowing tip arcing through the night air, and then set off after me. I glanced at my chron a bit ostentatiously, the very picture of a man worried about an appointment, and ducked into the alley between the teleport station and the IMVE Microtech computer shop next door. Sure enough, about forty seconds later, the Corsairs fan edged his way around the corner, hoping no doubt to keep a cautious eye on whatever was going on further down the alley.

He wasn't expecting me to be standing just inside the entrance, back pressed to the wall, waiting to jump him. My hands closed on his lapels, jerking him into the alley, while my left knee came up, burying itself into the pit of his stomach, driving the breath out of him in a whoosh.

"I'd have thought you'd have figured it out the first time," I grunted, hauling him further into the alley, away from interested passerby on the street, and slamming him up against the corp shop's wall. "You suck at following people." I bounced him off the wall again, so he'd get the point. "Now, why would you be trying out these fourth-rate skills on me, and how did you manage to pick me up here?"

"Yeah...yeah, okay, I'll tell you," he said, sucking in wind. "You're making a delivery, right? Well, okay, I'm--"

He was talking too easily, a delaying tactic to get his breath back, so it came as no surprise at all when his right hand made the move for his pocket. I shoved him forward while jumping back, bouncing him off the wall yet again, and missed the slash of the carbon-fiber knife that swept up where my gut had been.

There was no time for finesse, and anyway I'm not one of those guys who's been trained in some combat art, or even cop or military hand-to-hand. No, all Mrs. Marshall's boy knew was what he'd learned in coming out alive from other fights. The square-jawed guy rushed me, knife point low and straight out, and I flung myself out of the way--but I left one foot behind, hooking him at the ankles. He stumbled, crashed into the station wall, barely getting his left arm up to keep his face from taking the impact. I spun him around by the shoulder and gave his mug that impact anyway with a straight right. He continued his affinity for walls, smacking the back of his head off it, and slumped to the pavement.

I kicked the knife down the alley, just in case he was shamming, but he was out cold. I checked his pulse, noted that I hadn't accidentally killed him, and then rolled his pockets as efficiently as a mugger going over a drunk. I found ID identifying him as Wolf Goding, a passport with a two-week expiration in the same name, bank access card, one-ninety-five meseta (which I left for the next guy to come along) but no gun and nothing to explain his interest in me.

Well, this particular mystery could wait. I had a job to do, so after checking my pocket to make sure I hadn't dropped the chip I left the alley and went down the street to where, sure enough, there was a bar called the Mermaid, with the name in green neon next to a life-size holo-image of its namesake sunning herself on a rock. I added meeting the woman who'd modeled for the holo to my list of life's goals, and went in.

Underwater appeared to be one of this evening's themes; like Matrix-4, the Mermaid featured fish tanks inset into the walls, though these were floor-to-ceiling, and the floor was a holovid screen extending the undersea illusion. On second glance, I realized that the wall tanks were holo-screens, too; lots cheaper than real fish and much less work. The light was shifting, green, and diffuse, completing the impression. As I made my way to the bar, the aroma from the all-night grill caught my nostrils and my stomach reminded me that I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast.

"What'll it be?" grunted the bartender, a burly guy with a shaved head and four gold rings along the edge of his ear. I stifled the urge to ask him for seasick pills and ordered a beer and a grilled moonfish sandwich. He served, I paid, and I found a fairly unobtrusive table to occupy while I ate and waited for Cash's contact. A shark swam by my right shoulder and I gave it a sharp look. Obviously, I'd been up too long.

The beer was typical bar draft, but the sandwich was the first thing I liked about the place, tasty, light, and without that strong briny taste some seafood can't figure out how to leave in the sea. Hell, if the food was always this good I'd have to become a regular here whenever I came to Scion, overdone decor or not. Once that was gone, I leaned back in my chair, nibbled at my chips and nursed my beer, waiting for whatever happened next. I half expected to see the Corsairs fan come in the door for a third round, but thankfully he seemed to have better things to do with his life.

Instead, the man who approached me was small and wiry, with a short green beard, shaved head, and military-type carbonsuit under a jacket featuring the logo of the--you guessed it--Drasgow Corsairs.

"Aren't there any Seatigers fans anymore?" I grumbled.

"'Ey, you want to talk sports, or do you want to do biz?"

"Sports, actually," I said. "I've had a bellyful of the Corsairs lately."

The contact smirked. As it happened, the Corsairs were in first place just now and riding a six-game winning streak.

"Well, what do you think of the Knights' chances?"

"Lousy. Trimate may put Malone's leg back together but it won't give him his guts back."

I slipped the chip out, flashed it between my fingers for a second, and laid my hand flat on the table, the chip under it. Greenbeard smirked and took out a bank access card, certified. Not quite as good as blank credit but good enough. He slotted the card in the table's pay slot and, sure enough, one K, eight-fifty popped up on the display. We made the transfer of cred to my account and I slid the chip across. Greenbeard snapped it up.

"Nice talking with you," he said. "Hey, there's still half the season left. Maybe the Seatigers will get out of fourth."

"Just so long as it's not the Corsairs, that's enough for me tonight."

Greenbeard snagged a chip off my plate, got up, and strolled off. That was that. Chip delivered, meseta safely tucked away into my bank account, and all before ten-thirty Camineet time. I could get a chamber at a coffinshop for the night, fly back home, and still be over fourteen hundred to the good. Not bad, Rand. Since I was temporarily flush with cash, I ordered another sandwich. Might as well live well while I could, right?

All was well with the world for about another fifteen minutes. That was when I saw Mr. Cash, pink-streaked beard and all, walk through the Mermaid's front door. Alarms went up throughout my head. This should not be happening. Cash had no business being here.

(A digression. I can see some people sitting there, scratching their heads, wondering what is so unreasonable about Cash showing up at the Mermaid. Here's the score. Cash had sunk some heavy meseta into the deal, five K just on me and Mother Brain knows how many setting it up, paying Naria and Greenbeard and so on. I've been paid already, so he has no need to contact me, and being seen with me might tip off the other side--Wolf Goding or his kind--that I'm with Cash, presuming there's any point to keeping it secret. At the best, it's unprofessional. If it's accidental, such as he likes the Mermaid, then it's just stupid, since he knew I'd be here, and it might, again, let someone link me with him. So, when I saw Cash, I knew at once that either I was working for an idiot or something was seriously scragged up. End of digression.)

Cash didn't waste any time. He scanned the room, spotted me, and walked through the green haze directly to my table.

"Marshall," he said, breaking into a broad smile. "Glad you made it. Sorry to keep you waiting."

I shot him the fish-eye, appropriate for this place.

"Cash, what the heck are you doing here?"

"Hey, now, let's not forget who paid for your ticket. We've got biz to do." He dipped into his pocket and came up with something he kept hidden in his fist. "You're not gonna make me ask you about the Knights, are you?"

The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach jelled into a hard knot.

"The Knights," I repeated.

Now it was Cash's gaze that changed, his eyes growing hard and flat, his brows narrowing.

"Don't jerk me around, Marshall. I'm not some--"

I held up my hand, cutting him off.

"You're expecting me to give you the package."

"Hell yeah I am," he snarled, keeping his voice low. An octopus peered curiously at us, as if considering a snack, then chased off in search of tastier holographic prey. Cash turned his hand over, flashed a wad of meseta at me.

"You're making the pickup," I concluded.

"I am." Now he was getting it too, the sense of wrongness.

"You're not," I corrected him, "because I just made the exchange less than half an hour ago."

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