He was alone. He’d strain the chain on his handcuffs for
entertainment, then rest his palms on the cool metal table he’d
been bound to. He thought he’d been in this room for an hour.
The officer returned with a lawyer. “Sorry about that wait Mr. Bernard, we-”
“So you letting me out of here yet or not?” He interrupted, tapping his foot on the tiles.
She bunched up her mouth. “What about your friends?”
“What about them?” He shrugged, glaring at her from behind sunken eyes. “You want a deal? Is that what this is? I rat them out and we never mention this again?”
“Erm,” the lawyer consulted her file, “well.” She and the officer sat down. “You and your friends-”
“Associates. Just met ‘em. Hardly know the guys.”
“-were taken in on charges of breaking and entering, property damage, forging of official documents, identity theft, ship theft, conspiracy to commit theft, theft, and…”
“I’ve been told the robot and the Marxist-feminist have invented a new crime, yes.”
“Well, yes, but. Your associates have all been released, is the thing. It’s just you. We ran your mugshot through the intergalactic database and found that you, specifically, are wanted all across Andromeda for twenty-three separate counts of fraud, as an accessory to forty-one crimes of differing natures, seventeen counts of illegal data brokering and twelve of identity theft, as well as four robberies like this one; on eight occasions you’ve been wanted for questioning related to various murders and assassinations and you were last seen heading into a gang shootout on Ichabod’s Reach three years ago. These are all just on planets registered with the database. We’ve sent out requests to the other big wanted persons’ registries and we could have more charges within the hour.” She sighed. “Corda is a backwater planet. I deal with drunken assaults, petty theft and planning permission disputes, I’m not sure where to even start with you.”
“I have a question,” the officer next to her interjected. “I only got in twenty minutes ago, sorry. Sola Bernard, isn’t it?”
The man shrugged, leaning back in his chair as far as the handcuffs allowed. “Allegedly.”
“So why does everyone call you Odysseus? Is that your latest pseudonym or something?”
Odysseus sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Well, you see…”
Odysseus, wearing a towel around his waist, followed his nose
through the ship, eyes nearly covered by a damp mop of curly
dark hair. “What smells good?”
“They’re no ready!” Gwen pointed at him with a spatula from behind the breakfast bar. “Yous are aw like fucking midges honestly.”
“Bacon rolls,” Emily shouted over from the sofa. She was wearing a faded E•MO•TION shirt under a flannel, and didn’t look up from the pretty new edition of Ghosts of My Life she read as pink nebulae rolled by the window. “Actual bacon for a change, if you’re into that sort of thing.”
“Oh yeah,” he looked at Gwen and furrowed his faint unibrow like the alternative was unthinkable.
“Good,” Gwen declared. “That makes two of us.”
Redacted ran in and skidded a little on the carpet. The robot played a “clearing my throat” noise and straightened up, placing their hands together in front of them. “Good morning girls and gays. We’re bankrupt.”
“Whit?” Gwen sighed. “I’ve been up maybe eleven minutes hen.”
“I just tried to buy this old Lou Reed record but they’re freezing Liberty bank accounts again.”
“Fucksake.” Gwen turned the heat down on the cooker.
“Why?” Odysseus asked.
“Fraud detection,” Redacted folded their arms. “They think I’m a robot.”
“Uh,” he swallowed. “Are you? A… robot?”
“Oh everyone using Liberty is. It’ll be fine,” they shrugged. “We have people who sort this out for us.”
“Yeah and last time it took like four months,” said Emily, getting up and taking a tablet over to the breakfast bar. “We have enough to scrape together for a while, but there’s hardly anything on the go. We’re in the middle of nowhere just now and I’d rather we not burn the rest of our money getting to the other side of the galaxy.”
Gwen took the tablet from Emily’s hands and swiped determinedly.
“I don’t like where this is going,” Emily shook her head. “I see lots of filters being switched off.”
“Right.” Gwen declared.
“Hey kids, you know how shoplifting is actually really cool if it’s a big business?”
“Oh for f-
Driver Hess sipped on dandelion wine as Dionysus Thrax
slammed against the bar next to her.
“You said you were retiring,” she spread out into a wicked grin. “Away for a quiet life in New Atlantis or somewhere.”
“Yeah, but,” he wiped blood from his lip then laughed at his purple knuckles. “I say a lotta things. You should know this,” he slumped down on the stool and she cooed and rubbed his shoulders. He reached for her glass and brought it to his lips.
“You don’t wanna drink that.”
“You never tried it before? It’s an acquired taste. By most accounts the stuff actually gets worse with age.”
He smelled it, recoiled slightly, and put the glass back down.
“Remember how long it took for you to drop the ‘I work alone’ bullshit?” She growled through the impression of him. “You need someone to tell you these things, to civilise you.”
“Is that them?” He nodded at a stall in the corner of the room.
“Yeah, they just got in. The boys from the Hell-Pit Crew over at the pool table look like they wanna boil the minotaur alive, so we should get going.”
“People eat minotaur here?”
“It’s Fangtoma, Dio,” She leaned over his shoulder. “People eat people.”
Odysseus vanished the sachet of ketchup he’d been spinning on the table.
“Really?” Gwen laughed. “We’re considering robbing one of the biggest casinos in the galaxy and you’re nicking wee ketchup packets from this shitehole?”
“A big heist is just millions of little heists in quick succession,” he inspected the pot of cutlery in the middle of the table. “We good for forks, just now?”
“Ohmgee that’s them,” Redacted whispered.
“See I noticed them looking at us first but I didn’t want to say anything because I don’t want yous all looking at them,” said Gwen.
“I was looking at her ages ago,” Odysseus shook his head.
“Aye?” Emily laughed into her glass.
“Yeah, I’m good at spotting tourists.”
Dorian turned to Redacted. “So how did you notice them?”
“Oh I’m just bisexual.”
The kinetic, strong-jawed man with graying hair and a burst lip wandered over to the table with his companion, a relaxed woman with piercings and big round glasses. The luminous undertone of her skin, intense eyes and her tall nose and bone structure suggested that she was a sidhe, which would have made her age impossible to tell.
“You’ll be looking for me, then, won’t you?” He grinned, teeth stained red, and leaned on the alcove’s arch above Gwen.
“Why would you think that?” Gwen said, taking a sip of a cold lager.
“Okay, don’t tell me,” he put a fist to his stubbly chin and inspected the group. He pointed at the minotaur. “You’re obviously the muscle, and you…” he hovered over Gwen, “must be the ringleader, since you’re speaking for everybody else.” He put his hand on the woman’s shoulder, “this is Driver Hess, by the way, I’m Dionysus Thrax, and I know a conman when I see one,” he said, looking at Odysseus.
“Which makes you,” he landed at Emily. “The brains of the operation.”
“Any custom hardware we need, I can build. Dorian is the brains, really,” she gestured at him.
“Emily is also the brains of the operation,” Dorian clarified.
“It’s a brainy operation,” she nodded.
“And I believe we advertised for a safecracker?” Dionysus scanned the group then landed on Gwen, who was looking up at him with a violently boiling pint in one hand, flashing her implants on the other.
“What about the tearaway child at the back?” Driver asked, nodding at Redacted. “What can she do?”
Redacted smiled on one side, then opened her mouth and stuck out the flailing, enfolding polygon mesh glitch where she usually had a tongue.
Driver and Dionysus had set up in an old repair shop that had
been too small to move the Treehouse into, just outside Black
Smoker territory. The run-down brick room had been filled partly
with scrap furniture, and mostly with Driver and Dionysus’ ship:
a “bottom-heavy” raider with room for two in the cockpit, a
cargo hold and an oversized engine at the back. All their maps
and diagrams were holographic, ready to be packed up at a knock
on the shutter door. A 3D model of the target appeared as
“The Pot O' Gold is the largest casino on Libra, a near-lawless human colony where anything that can be bought or sold will be. There have been a few attempts to steal from the Pot’s underground vaults - Lùg Harmsworth, the owner and Libra’s majority shareholder, is not a popular man - but they all fell at various hurdles. We learned from the CCTV snuff tapes after we’d got what those guys didn’t have, a man on the inside.”
Driver smiled and waved from her patchy recliner chair, not looking up from the handheld device she was tapping away at.
The hologram switched again, without Dionysus doing anything, to a model of the underground layers: three floors containing 110 vaults, going down an inverted pyramid to a fourth floor with only one. “We have blueprints of all the security systems. One lone thief did manage to get past the Balor, the robot guards who patrol the vault layer 24/7, but he was caught out by Lùg’s personal vault itself, at the bottom. The alarm went off and though he escaped the casino, the population of Libra is an entrepreneurial lot: everyone in a mile was after the bounty that had automatically gone out, and everyone of them was armed to the teeth.” He threw up some aerial footage on the hologram: a figure in black being chased across rooftops by a horde of young and old, taking every opportunity to throw their competitors into the riot in the streets below. “First we’re hitting a vault on the second floor to destroy a data-core belonging to Fenrix Jettstrom, the leader of an extortion ring that’s ruined countless lives. Nobody knows what’s in there, but a leaked document values its contents at around eight-hundred thousand credits.”
“Between seven people?” Odysseus squinted.
“Your pay will be coming from the client. Whatever he wants out of there, we’re not keeping it. The thing that separates us from the suicide missions is that we’ve found out the vault can only be opened from Mr. Harmsworth’s office on the top floor, via biometric lock.”
“That’s a ‘clone hand’ job-”
“Amazing,” Redacted beamed.
-which is easy enough to do,” said Dorian. “It’ll cost your client some, and it’ll take a couple of weeks, but it’s more than achievable.”
“No-can-do, it’s not locked to his hand,” Dionysus waved the idea off. “It’s his brain.”
Gwen, Emily, Odysseus and Redacted were all sat on the ratty old sofa together, and one by one they slowly turned to their left as the silence grew longer. Dionysus became fully silent as he realised what they were staring at, and Driver looked up from her device and towards the centre of attention in the room: Dorian, who was looking up at some mote of dust in the air. He was taking a sip from a large bowl of water he held in one hand when he became completely still, eyes narrowing as he swirled the water about in his mouth. Odysseus jumped as he swallowed and nodded fractionally, and the group tensed up as his gaze returned to them. “I could steal a brain.”
“OOOohhh my actual fucking god,” Emily buried her face in her hands.
He turned to Dionysus and Driver. “Misspent youth.”
“It’s…” Dionysus stuttered. “It’s not just his brain that’s the issue, it’s his mind. If we’re going to open the vault at all, someone’s going to have to convince him to let us in.”
“So what happens if we manage that?” Gwen asked. “How are we getting out of there?”
“Mr. Harmsworth’s most flamboyant security measure is a heavily-armed weapons platform that hangs in a geostationary orbit directly above the Pot. If an alarm sounds in the casino, Lúg’s vault will be lowered down into a ship in his private spaceport, which will then fly up there accompanied by a small security detail and watched over by surface-to-air artillery controlled right from the head honcho’s head. Once we’re in the vault, we’re gonna close the door behind us and set off the alarm remotely, which we can do with Ms. Layeni's technical know-how. That’s our getaway plan. While we’re in the vault level, Ms. Hess will covertly take out the pilot and fly the vault to the satellite with us inside. The client has a small team of mercenaries who we’re going to help infiltrate the satellite under assumed identities to commandeer the thing and fly us all safely out of there. Once we’ve shot our way into deep space we all split, deliver the goods to the client, then me and Driver pull a Mr. Mardova and hit the beach for a decade or four. There are a lot of hypotheticals, but, worst case scenario? You look like you can handle yourselves in a fight. We’ll get to the finer details later, but that’s the gist of it. Any questions?”
Emily, who had sunk into the sofa with her arms folded, raised her hand.
“Who’s the client?”
The hologram maps vanished and in their place stood a silhouetted man in a suit. “You’d probably recognise the name if I told any of you, but most people would call me a philanthropist. Mr. Harmsworth and I go way back, and I just think it’s time someone took him down eight-hundred thousand pegs.”
“I’ve done a few jobs for him these past couple years. He’s frosty, but he’s rock solid and he pays well.”
“Has he been here this whole time?” Gwen pointed.
“I haven’t been wherever ‘here’ is at all, this is just an intellogram.”
“Intella-what?” asked Odysseus.
“Limited-AI avatar locked into a physical carrier,” replied the shadow. “Imagine a voicemail that talks back.”
“So how much are you paying us?”
“You’ll get half the money upon accepting the job, and half once you’ve completed it.”
“I accept the job. How much?”
There was a simultaneous buzz in the crews’ communicators.
“Oh,” Gwen blurted.
“…where innovators, hustlers and rugged individualists come
to build their fortune, the free-est planet in the Andromeda
galaxy,” said Emily, stretching as she left the Treehouse. “With
some of the highest inequality, depression and crime rates in
either of ‘em. Smell that air.”
“Could we not have parked any closer?”
“It’s ten minutes away,” said Gwen, slapping a parking permit on the side of the Treehouse, which was resting on a precarious launchpad the landlord had installed in the courtyard of a rundown apartment complex.
“And I’m feeling really self-conscious dressed like this,” Emily muttered, arms clinging to the sides of her tuxedo.
“Are you more worried about the local kids pulling the ship apart for scrap or is it just the optics?” Odysseus smiled.
They emerged out onto the dirt road. Someone on a hoverbike slashed through a puddle of sewage and a gleaming, insectoid veetol trailed them not far above.
“Is that a fucking missile launcher?!”
“Yeah Ems don’t make it too obvious we’re not from around here, m’kay?” Odysseus nudged her as they cut through the busy street, following the claustrophobic stream of human activity around lopsided scaffolding and the afternoon’s sinkholes. A fight broke out in the market as buildings supported eachother overhead. Above the wide road to The Pot O' Gold, thickets of cable bore this world’s only native fruit: small shoes hung in pairs above the crowd. Dorian, who strode over the crowd of humans, stared down some dead-eyed preteens with machine guns who made a point of ignoring them. One had gray hairs.
“I thought this was a hub of shadow-economic activity. Black market cosmopolitanism,” said Dorian. “We’re on the ‘far end’ of Andromeda. Every single one of these signs is in English. And everyone’s so pale.”
“Probably all the chemical exposure,” explained Odysseus, stretching a little as they stepped out of the crowd.
Emily shook her head. “Naaaaahhh.”
“Who do you think Planet Fuck Taxes was built to appeal to, at the beginning, at the expense of everyone else in the universe?”
Odysseus shrugged, and stopped to take in the casino. Above the shanty-town froth, at the foot of a vertical rainbow, there stood a hundred-floor wound in the sky; gold glass reflected nothing, for buildings here that grew more than thirty storeys high would be purchased by the casino’s owner, then demolished. Rickety skyscrapers shot up every year.
The rhythm of bustling streets, echoing laughter and kids stopped. Rotting houses slumped against a featureless metal wall as if it had sliced the block in half. At the archway stood two armoured men with guns, on a raised concrete platform that almost shone against the mud. Beside the little stairway - against the wall of the platform, which zig-zagged to prevent people sitting there - a man was sitting and sucking fumes out of a tight cylinder of paper, holding a painted sign that read: “NO HUMANS BEYOND THIS POINT”.
“IT’S NOT REAL!” he shouted. His voice had worn away; perhaps he’d been shouting for decades. “None of it’s FUCKING REAL you’re not-” he screamed.
“You awright pal?” Gwen hesitated.
“What the FUCK ARE YOU?” he stood up, staring at Dorian. “It’s fucking monsters in there,” he’d turned to Gwen and Emily. “They’re ALL. MONSTERS.” He gestured at the entrance. “Monsters.” He laughed at Odysseus. “I used to look like you!” He bent down and gave Odysseus a look, gesturing vaguely for some kind of permission, but before Odysseus could respond he’d lifted up his leg of his black suit and theatrically clocked the white socks he wore.
“Did something happen?” Emily asked, noticing the open wound beneath his stubbly hair.
“Fucking faeries.” He leaned in close to whisper something, then nodded over the wall at the guards in their metal shells. “Never make a fucking deal with faeries, or take their word for anything. They got my brother when he was nine.” He pinched his bottom lip, like he was trying to keep himself quiet. “He always used to say he saw faeries in his dreams. ‘Sleep paralysis’, dad said.” He nodded, raising his eyebrows. “Then I woke up one night and I saw them too. They were in this huge room with actual hills of gold coins - keep yer fuckin’ pot - right outside our bedroom door. He’d woken me up, said he’d race me to the top. So he runs through the door, runs towards the hills, and he runs right through the hills.” He paused for the penny to drop. “Then it all vanished. I was too scared to leave the bed so I didn’t see the trap, I just saw one of the fuckers lean in, look at me, then reach up and take the wee device from above the door.” He almost returned to the impression he’d made in the mud. “It was years after my dad blamed me and kicked me out before I was old enough to know it was his fault, ‘fore I was old enough to know what a debt collector was. Back then we just got told scary stories about ‘the Thimblerigs’, who’d-”
“Excuse me, is he bothering you?” asked a buzzy, modulated voice. One of the guards was standing above them.
“I dunno about this doorman,” Odysseus laughed, shaking his head. He made his way up the stairs and gestured for the others to follow.
“Do you need to see ID?” Gwen asked.
“Nah, go right in,” they nodded.
There was no path towards the building. The group in their suits and dresses walked over perfect rolling green hills and amongst oak trees shipped across the galaxy until they could no longer hear the city surrounding them. They arrived at the door to the casino. “The Pot O' Gold” was written in neon over the entrance, between a four-leaf clover and a gurning cartoon leprechaun with a green hat and ginger beard.
In the cloistered lobby, more bug-faced suits of armour were frisking gamblers that streamed in from the pavillion, who’d come up from the casino’s private spaceport in the sea cave below. They looked statuesque and standoffish as they were thoroughly scanned, warning the staff not to come any closer. One guard sat at a console at the side of the room, the outfit looked faintly ridiculous doing admin work. One by one the crew lifted their arms inside the elaborate machine, each of them trying to look indifferent as their new identities were verified.
After much deliberation, a holographic whiteboard read:
Gwen: Mrs. Verity Firestone (Socialite. Philanthropist. Art Historian. Arm candy.)
Dorian: Mr. Harold Firestone (Investor, golfer, bore. But sweet.)
Dionysus: Diogenes Olympus-Mons (Poker shark. Silver fox. Friend of the Firestones and K Franca.)
Odysseus: K Franca (Not who he says he is. Our way in here.)
Redacted: Anna Matronic (Algorithmically-sharpened sex on legs, all sparkling everything), Niewell Wight (Semi-retired syndicult man. Looks after his tomatoes and great-grandchildren. Has ordered the deaths of hundreds.)
Emily: Will Powers (Butchy Femme James Bond vibes, can beat up anyone, right-hand woman to Niewell Wight)
Driver: Driver (Driver)
Odysseus, who had led them in, was at the back of the queue.
As he approached, the thump in his chest was too familiar to
really be painful. The dry feeling in his throat was unlike
The guard nodded, and he rejoined the other four. He’d tried to glance at the screen on the console as he passed, but there was a short black visor around it. He was too far away to see six little dots reflected in the guard’s glassy face: five green, one yellow. They pressed a button.
Emily’s eyes widened as she and Gwen approached the tall double-doors. “Oh my god, we’ve not done the thing with K yet have we?”
“We’re no taking his virginity Ms. Powers,” Gwen laughed under her breath. “It’s a completely ordinary thing to happen.” She paused. “In space.”
“What is?” Odysseus cut in-between them. “Look fancy,” he muttered as he took their arms in his.
“We’re just talking about how fast you’re growing up, you probably haven’t seen too many other species, have you?”
Odysseus made a face. “I’ve been around!” [Beat.] “I’d travelled whole counties before I met you.” He unhooked himself from them and hopped ahead, wrapped his hand around the ornamental door handle and ignored the residual tentacle-slime oozing out between his fingers. “And I’ve been to joints like this before, seen guys betting their fingers and dogfights and everything. Same as any other establishment on Albion, okay? Just walk in like you own the place,” he turned to the door, stopped, then turned back to the crew. “And try not to stare.” He pushed the door open…
…and was nearly knocked over by a gaggle of succubi and
incubi cackling at the rowdy gnomes who’d been making moves at
them all evening. Redacted flinched as a huge rakshasa roared at
the slender croupier as he reached across the length of the
roulette table and took his chips. Gwen politely grimaced and
nodded at the centaur waving her over to his crowded VIP booth,
totally unaware of the mad chupacabra and his entourage being
held back by two tengu bouncers. On a stage at the end of the
room the house band played, of all things, an odd rendition of
Masculine Women! Feminine Men! Emily struggled to take
everything in: hydra playing themselves at poker on the upstairs
deck, spriggans holding a mothman by the ankles as he tried to
fly into the chandelier and a line of jolly haradashi (think
bellies on legs) dancing for tips. They headed straight to the
bar, where the sidhe barwoman with large glasses slid a cocktail
to someone totally disinterested in the hubbub: a lone gray
alien, sipping quietly on his martini. The woman spotted Gwen
“I’ll have a PGG,” said Gwen.
Driver folded her arms and leaned over the bar, gesturing for her to come closer. “Not that it’s any of my business ma’am but the DILF in the white tux has been looking at you all night.” She nodded at the casino’s upper deck. Gwen looked up and spotted Mr. Olympus-Mons leaning over the guardrail and raising a glass to her.
“Well, that’s our cue then. Will you kids be okay without us?”
“Go get it, Mrs. Firestone,” Emily smiled. “You look lovely. You should wear lipstick more often.”
She pouted sulkily, dress swishing behind her as she turned and draped herself around Dorian’s forearm.
“Oh my god,” purred Redacted, flicking her literally golden curls and watching the couple immerse themselves into the crowd with Odysseus. “Can you imagine?”
“That’ll be ⥁32.40.”
Emily turned around and looked at the strange glowing mixture in its helix glass. “Umm.”
The barwoman smiled, standing with her hands resting on the cool metal surface.
“You implanted, hon?” Redacted asked, turning a dial labelled “Marilyn” up to a hundred.
“We don’t do contactless.” She held out her palm, and Redacted softly clasped her hands around hers. Red looked to her right. Emily was subtly sticking out her tongue and rolling her eyes up into her brain.
“Okay, we’re getting sidetracked,” the officer sighed.
“It could be important later, you don’t know what mad narratological shell game I could be playing here!” Emily pointed at the woman from her restraints on the table. “And what if it isn’t? Even if Driver never shows up again it can’t all just be raw functionalism, y’know?”
“What happened next, Ms. Layeni?” asked the lawyer.
She sighed. “Right. So I try to lie low for a bit while Redacted socialises with everything and everyone, but meanwhile…”
Dryden marched out of the elevator carrying a glass tablet.
The marble hallway of his boss’ house was all gilded
neoclassicism and oil paintings in the human pre-halcyon style:
the portraits they saved for aristocrats and Christ.
He entered the wide circular office, the largest room in the house, which had a few thugs hanging around watching the curved cinema-screen TV on the wall or admiring the hefty old gamma rifle above the large stone fireplace. A moat encircled the edge of the room and ran down towards the elevator, flowing out from a lookalike Fontana di Trevi behind a large desk. Everything was orange in the sunset, which shone in through one floor-to-ceiling pane of glass that curved around most of the outer half of the room. Embedded in that solid nothing were two doors on either side of the fountain, and one of them was open. He walked out onto the balcony, and stopped to look up at the clouds that curled around the tower’s vertical rainbow. The door closed behind him, seemingly of its own accord.
“What is it Dryden?” asked the small man leaning over the guardrail, watching luxurious ships dock in the sea cave directly below him.
“Mr. Harmsworth, we’ve had a party of five come in through the scanners and one of ‘em popped up on a criminal database. Been on the run for about fifteen years or something, wanted all over Andromeda for-”
“Dryden,” the leprechaun raised a hand and turned to face him. “I’ve got Niewell fucking Wight coming up here soon, whatever this is is like number absolutely fuck all on my list of priorities, alright? Leave it on my desk.” He picked up his ringing phone. “Jax.” A pause. “Bloody hell woman then hit him til he stops crying Jax I didn’t raise a fucking daughter and if I did she’d still have more balls than that that boy should be old enough to know to keep a fucking lid on it by now alright?” He hung up and sighed, running his thick fingers through what remained of his hair.
“You okay sir?”
“Fine.” He clenched the guardrail, looking along the coast. “You been up here often?”
“Look over there. See those needles on the horizon? Going right up to the clouds? That’s the Mar Bay, just outside the fastest-moving financial district this side of the galaxy. There’s such opportunity, th-” he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, “to live there is such a boon to a young man. Property so valuable by the square-millimetre, that those are high-rise buildings you see. One elevator shaft, next to one tower of vertically-stacked sleeper pods just big enough to fit a trim young businessperson, a VR headset and a pot to piss in.”
“It’s hard, it’s murder. Suicide rate through the fucking roof, off the fucking roof and all over the fucking pavement!” He laughed. “But everyone who makes it out of there makes it out rich.” He held up his phone. “How’s that kid gonna survive, do you think? Over there? Cause that’s no place for a fucking snowflake, ninety-nine percent of the kids on this planet were born in puddles and lucky to eat anything they didn’t kill. I’m starting to think I’m being too soft and he’s needing the silver spoon slapped out his fucking mouth. It’s all about putting a face on, d’you get that by now?” He pushed himself off the rail. “Humans moved over here, whole bodies programmed to tell you exactly what they’re thinking at any given moment, and gave us the gift of capitalism. They did this, banking on the ridiculous assumption that there was no other race better at it than they were. They came expecting a legion of servants to smile while we cleaned the shit off their shoes, but, of course, we all looked very sad and oppressed when they started selling our land back to us.” He grinned. “We’re trickster gods, Dryden. Don’t believe a fucking word I’m telling you.”
On the office’s screen, on the feed from the casino, the house band faerie singer stood against his mic stand in a cloud of neon, smoke and glitter. “And now, ladies and gentlemen and everybody outside and inbetween,” he purred, “by request of birthday girl Anna, here’s Freak Like Me.”
Claude sighed again. He’d been patrolling for six hours, and
he’d become desensitised to overstimulation. Some beautiful
drunk human woman stumbled into him and mumbled something about
needing somewhere to sit, but her voice got lost in the roar of
every other single word being spoken in the room. He caught her
as she fell into him, and she fell into him.
He struck the keycard like a match and took her “backstage”, held the weight her upright as he ferried her round a corner. She sobered up very suddenly as he fumbled at the closet door.
“You okay uh,” he swallowed. “Miss?”
“Oh,” she grinned. “I feel fine.”
She pushed him in and locked the door behind them. Claude left, a couple minutes later, wandered as far as Level 1 security clearance would take him then noticed a more senior security guard with a much better jawline, and a Level 2 badge. “Hey Holly, I got something here you should see. Down here.”
Claude grabbed him by the shoulders, pushed him into an
alcove and kissed him where the security cameras couldn’t see.
“Holly, I’ll be nice to you if you close your eyes.”
“Close your eyes and count to ten, trust me.”
Holly did, as Claude left one more kiss on him as he stepped back. “I’ve never done anything with a lad before,” he said quietly, laughing to himself in the dark. “You know when you’re a kid, and you go out further on your bike than your mum said you were allowed to?” He opened his eyes, then stepped out of the alcove. Look both ways along the empty corridor. Fixed his hair as he laughed and shook his head. “Bastard.”
He strutted into the main security office with a pendulum swing in his hips. There was just a woman sat at a deck of screens: the main casino floor, the entrance to the vault layers, footage of Libra from a satellite. Something beeped when he sat on the desk next to her.
“Hey,” nametag, “Suzie, did you see that there’s cake in the kitchen?”
She glared at him from beneath arched eyebrows. “You know I’m on a diet, Holly, and don’t bother teasing me.”
“I grabbed a bit on the way past, it’s really good actually. It’s for Claude.”
“Yeah, he’s leaving next week. Cancer.”
“Cancer?” She pushed her chair out from her desk. “Nobody gets cancer.”
“Never liked that creep anyway.”
“And the breath, yeuch.”
“Ugh, I know,” she sighed. “Oh well!” She got up to go to the kitchen.
Redacted pulled a drive from the cavity in his chest and plunged it into the console. Green text flew up one screen in its human-readable format; he pulled the window by its corners and broadened it out to binary, then watched the program do its work. It added a docking appointment to the satellite’s schedule for ten minutes from now, then fiddled the metadata to make it look legitimate.
Suzie tried to push the door open with her back, but struggled for a moment against the weight of it. Holly pulled it out and she ducked under his arm, picking away at a slice of cake on a paper plate. “Thanks. Didn’t see anyone there, this is really fucking good though.”
“Told you,” he smiled.
Suzie walked back to the casino floor, listening for anyone coming around a corner. She thought about Driver Hess, mentally dialled a number then composed. “Satellite done, tell the mercs they’re clear for landing. I’m away upstairs to find Wight, get going.” She added a kiss, tutted at herself and deleted it again. Decided this was a “no full stops” sort of relationship, then sent.
“Guess my name,” Odysseus told the woman at the desk.
“Lennox Blue, lost his wife’s selkie-skin coat in a poker game and has haunted these halls ever since?”
He held up two fingers.
“Errr, Synico? The disgraced general who comes to lose at fidchell?”
She thought about it. “K Franca?”
He slid his chips through the opening, light reflecting off the cartoon leprechaun embossed on the chip, biting into a gold coin and grinning and winking. “So you’ve been winning big then? What’s your secret?” she asked.
“Oh yeah, it was all very glamorous you should have seen it,” he breezed, smoothing out a strawberry blonde strand of his slicked-back shoulder-length hair. “No plan, no technique. I have made a superpower out of bluffing my way through this life by the seat of my pants and you know how I’ve made it this long darlin’? It’s because nothing else at that poker table could read this face.” He gestured in a circle at his gaunt cheekbones, eyes that protruded from varicose dark sockets and blocky ginger eyebrows that he raised suggestively at every other word.
She put the transaction through and pressed the button to call for a guard, who led them through the casino towards what might have been an actual cave mouth incorporated into the building.
“We’re sending you a message, Mr. Franca,” said the guard, idly pressing buttons at a console near the vault door, some way down the murky stone tunnel.
“Two-fa isn’t massively secure, is it?” said Odysseus as he handed his communicator over to him.
“How would you have received that if you weren’t really-”
“Could’ve just stolen it.”
“Put your hand on the panel here, and look directly into the scanner.”
Odysseus complied, and various lights turned green.
“Okay, just one more thing before we let you through.”
The guard opened a metal box, built into the top of the console, and took out a mesh helmet of glowing blue electrodes wired into the computer. “Put this on. We’re going to set up a live brain-scan then have you answer some security questions. Imagine one of those lie detectors from old TV shows, but for real.”
Gwen balled a fist behind her back as Odysseus put the helmet on, then opened her whole body up again when Dionysus gently tapped her.
The guard sat down at his screen. “What town were you born in?”
“Holburn, on Virginia Nova”, said Odysseus.
“…it’s a beautiful rustic place,’ Emily almost whispered next to Odysseus on the sofa. “And I want you to look around and notice how content everybody looks, and now I want you to walk with your mother to the edge of the village where it opens up onto the countryside, and I want you to look up from your favourite toy and really take in the sight of the landscape.” She was reading from a script, and Odysseus was nearly asleep in a chair as Driver held a little bottle of something under his nose. “Really focus on each and every one of your senses as you stand here, surrounded by nature. The grass is blue, the sky is green, splorchozoids are splorching over the fields…”
“What was the name of your first pet?”
“A baku called Pippin,” Driver piped up, slouched on the old
sofa and tapping at her device. “Oh, he’s sent me a dicks pic
“Oh my god, right,” said Gwen, chugging the last of the wine next to her. “Reply, and tell him that-”
“That’s great, really good. Huge, aren’t they?”
Odysseus nodded. “They’re big animals.”
“And finally, I want you to think about what’s in the vault, and the moment you lost it. At the table. The colours, the smells, how it made you feel.”
CCTV screenshots of the night had been taped up all over the
walls. Driver walked through the table and inspected the other
gamblers. “Can we get a little more fang on
Redacted adjusted the image. They’d taken the form of K, but with two long cables hanging out of the back of his neck: one hooked up to the projector above, with which they were reconstructing the memory, and one connected to the back of Odysseus’ head, and the full-body virtual reality rig he wore standing behind them.
“Okay, dress rehearsal,” Driver picked up a list of timestamped instructions. “You okay Odysseus?”
“Yeah, fine, it’s just weird, everything Red is seeing and doing is what I’m seeing and doing” he said, fumbling as if the VR headset was a blindfold. “I’ve just never done anything like this before.” He wasn’t able to see Driver smirk.
“Shake your right fist up and down six times and roll the dice.”
They did so, in tandem.
They braced for a chill as the huge metal blast door opened.
The guard led them towards Vault 74, and Dionysus nudged Gwen as
they approached the CCTV camera that monitored the door.
Dionysus subtly pulled from his inside breast pocket a device
about the size of a pea, and the tiny drone flew silently from
his fingertip towards the underside of the camera.
“So is it true?” She asked the guard, gliding to the other side of him from the drone. “That Lu Harmsworth keeps all his riches somewhere down here?”
Odysseus turned to her, shook his head and mouthed “What!?”
“Well maybe it was,” the guard laughed. “Mr. Franca, you would have come here before the IA sanctions, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Odysseus nodded.
“So you would have seen this place used to be twice as busy. There’s the political angle, which can’t be helped, but in the years since it’s just been fuckup after fuckup. How dumb do you have to be to lose money on a fucking casino?”
“Poverty of vision friend,” replied Odysseus. “I saw some interview ages ago where they asked him about this place not turning much of a profit, and it’s because he invests nearly 100% back into the machine, his other businesses. It’s not about the money for him, it’s about building up the empire. He isn’t the richest man on the planet, no, he just owns fifty-one percent of it.”
“Who do you think owns him?”
They arrived at the vault. “We’ll start counting your thirty minutes from the second the door closes behind you,” said the guard as he slotted a digital key into a slot in the wall. “Not that it’s my business to know what’s in there, but, why cash in for thirty minutes in the vault? Jewelry remind you of old times or something?”
“Something like that,” said Odysseus.
The door opened, and the little boy stood up.
“Heya kid!” Odysseus beamed.
He entered the vault, kneeled down and opened his arms to scoop up the child that ran through him and hugged a column of air. The others entered, and the door closed behind him.
“‘DARLIN’?” Gwen beamed.
“You’d be able to see how much I’m getting into character if it weren’t for the latex,” laughed Odysseus, pawing at the pale face on his face.
Gwen shot over to the far end of the room, unlocked a crate marked “K FRANCA - WEDDING DRESS” and pulled out a pair of jeans and a black tshirt. She unzipped her dress and threw it down to her feet.
“Uh,” said Odysseus, looking up at the roof.
“It’s fine, yous are all gay.”
Dorian snorted thunderously.
“Is that real?” She asked as she popped up out of a head-hole. “Does K actually have a kid?” she swiped her hand through the image of the boy’s head.
“Had,” said Odysseus, as he switched the intellogram off and looked through the boxes. “I was reading Driver’s file on him at bedtimes. His son died in a fire seven or eight years ago, and then one night K lost the lightshow in a bet.”
“What the hell was he trying to win?”
Dionysus opened up the trunk with his bag inside. “Here we go.”
Dorian took his tools out of the bag. He stretched his tablet out wide and looked through it like a window. “We’re not actually that far from Vault 43.” Dionysus came over and looked, Dorian had converted the blueprints into a transparent 3D wireframe mapped onto their surroundings, in which they could see the vault two floors down, in the centre of an upside-down pyramid. Dorian pressed a button and made the wiring visible, then turned to the vault’s door. He knelt down and carefully stuck a small EMP to the lower corner of the door, set the timer, then covered it with a thick bowl of polished metal. There was a muffled thud and the lights flickered. “Okay, just tell me when you’re ready then we’ll go. We have,” he checked his watch, “Twenty-eight minutes.”
They nodded, and the minotaur rolled up the sleeves of the white shirt that was just a little too small for him. He fastened a wrench to one of the gears of the vault door, then the humans watched the thick metal bend slightly as he pulled it towards him. The vault opened a crack, and its almighty squealing became a hiss as the air spilled out of the gap. Dorian wedged his thick fingers beneath the door, slammed one hoof onto the side of the frame and bared his teeth as he heaved the twenty ton thing open.
Emily finished cutting open a square in the wall with a laser
pen and peeled the section out. She grabbed the skateboard from
her suitcase, set it down in the crawlspace and wriggled her way
in. Using the map Driver had given her, she pulled herself along
to a little cluster of wires, and tugged on the thick one that
looked important. She snipped the cable with some difficulty and
slid the wire cutters into the breast pocket of her tuxedo
jacket. As she fitted the signal jammer there was a loud bang
right next to her, which she imagined for a second was a
jackboot testing the skirting board at her ear. She didn’t
breathe for a moment, then quietly laughed to herself at the
reassuring rhythmic thud of a headboard against a wall. Back in
her hotel room, she slid the square of wall back into place, and
covered it up with the chest of drawers that had stood there
As she approached the second-highest floor of the building, she checked the time on her communicator. Twenty-six minutes. The elevator doors opened with a party-blower shriek and a group swarmed in through the door. Two lamia girls cooed and called her pretty and touched her hair and a man in a pinstripe suit bellowed with two bottles of champagne in the air, and she laughed awkwardly as he hugged her and slipped a baggy of tyger into her jacket pocket.
The vibe was deep red and gold geometry from a dream of a Vegas heist movie. She wondered about that. This was a post-colonial planet, after all. A galaxy of club tracks cross-pollinated in the noisy halls, and perhaps the battered robot cleaning staff - one hobbling around wearing a pink feather boa and some vomit down their side - were on duty all hours of the day.
“Excuse me, fellow traveller!”
Emily stopped for a human man peeking out of his hotel room. He wore small white briefs, argyle socks with those little suspenders, and a large, fully animatronic cartoon dog head which moved in perfect time with his speech. “Uh, hi?”
“You wouldn’t happen to have seen any of my lucky oranges, would you? I can’t go back down to the casino without my lucky oranges, they’re… UGH!” He flailed and stormed back inside, above a certain volume the mask’s voice-filter turned his cursing into yappy barks and growls. Emily glanced into his room: the bed covered in orange peel, perfect rows of orange slices along the furniture, a shipment of orange-garnish cocktails placed around the floor.
Two young men came stumbling down the corridor. One wore a black mesh shirt and booty shorts, the other wore sunglasses. “Have you seen a wee monkey in like a bellboy jacket going about!?”
“Oh don’t listen to him!” Mesh Shirt and Calf Muscles grabbed him and pushed him forward. “Have a good night!” Emily laughed and looked for a monkey amongst the empty bottles and cans, food containers boxes and actual piles of glitter. She followed her tracker down the hall without much incident: avoided a hairy-chested giant from room 61 with a cork-hat and hunting rifle, turned down an old faerie countess’s offer of joining her harem in room 52, caught the chorus of Money, Success, Fame, Glamour blasting from room 37 and stopped to check out the actual space aliens dancing and cheering inside.
She was approaching a shining gold doorway as the tracker counted down. Room 7, room 5, room 3, and then two guards growing tense as she approached. “Yeah?” one asked.
“Hey, I’m here to see Lu.” Said Emily, standing on her heels and smiling with her hands in her pockets like it was nothing.
The guards looked her up and down. “And why would Lu be requesting the company of a dyke in a tuxedo?”
“I’m not alone.” She nodded her head. “I’m the assistant to Mr. Wight? He has an appointment.”
The guard checked a screen on an ornate gold lectern. “Mr. White…”
“Wight. Niewell Wight? Drug lord? Preacher? Once invited a rival for dinner and fed him his pets?”
“Oh, uh, Mr… Wight,” he paused. “of course. Sorry. Is…” he straightened up. “Do you know where Mr. Wight is? At the moment?”
“Oh I’m sure he’s good. He should be…” She stopped when she heard someone belting out Big Top Medley at the top of their lungs, then come racing down the hall on a hot pink adult tricycle with a trailer on the back. They wore a thin houndstooth suit, circular mirrored shades and what appeared to be a live lobster as a brooch. They swerved to a halt, and Niewell Wight stood up out of the trailer. His polished white teeth nearly fell out of his tortoise-like face when he was smiling, which was constantly, and he’d been sitting between a pink-haired girl in a fluffy tiara and regal pink dress and a green-haired girl in a glitchy holographic bodysuit. “…Nah you’re definitely gay,” said the green-haired girl as she ran a luminescent claw up his trouser leg. “It’s fine, I think it’s sexy!”
“Well, ladies I feel privileged to have enjoyed the pleasure of your company but I’m afraid I must be going,” he said, standing up with various popping sounds.
“That’ll be ⥁4.50 pal,” said the tricycle driver, lobster peering up over his shoulder. Niewell exaggeratedly patted himself down.
Emily tossed the bag of tyger with a flick of her wrist which Niewell caught in both hands. He handed over the bag and the tricycle driver nodded, taking off down the hall. The girls waved and Niewell blew a kiss with his trembling supercentenarian hand. “Goodbye, queens! Ah,” he shook his head slightly, watching them throw confetti out of their royal carriage and vanish around the corner to the next party. “Miss Powers, I’m half-convinced I’ve died and gone to Heaven! I want to stay here forever! I was dancing with some of the young people, who are all just terribly sweet, and I approached this very sweaty young man in one of those Shakespearean ruffs and asked if he was doing okay. He told me he’d been partying since the early hours of Thursday morning. I couldn’t believe my ears, the music being so loud that I could feel the bass guitar section in my mucus glands, so I said ‘young man, you mean to tell me you’ve been vogueing to these newfangled ‘hyper-pop’ tunes for three days straight!?’, and he cupped his hands around my ear and he said to me-” he curled his bony fingers to point. “He said ‘buddy, I’m as straight as a roundabout’!”
Emily giggled, and the nervous guards burst into laughter when he looked at them with his twinkly eyes.
“A roundabout!” Wight threw his hands up. “Can you believe that?!” He held the lapels of his suit and sighed wistfully. “Anyway, is Mr. Harmsworth ready to be receiving us?”
They’d been prepared for a frisking, but the guards let them through without delay. When the gold doors shut and the elevator began moving, Ms. Powers turned to her employer and smiled. “The thing is I think this is probably the real you.”
“There’s Jettstrom’s vault,” Dorian whispered, looking
through the tablet like a window. “It’s right on a patrol route
coming from around the corner.”
Dionysus, who kept a chunky pistol drawn, peered around the corner. “It’s fine, go.” The group hurried over to the vault.
“Fifteen minutes to go,” said Odysseus. “Emily should have knocked out the alarm by now, yeah?”
“Only one way to find out,” Dionysus sighed, reaching into his bag for Gwen’s tool.
“Nah I need to butter this thing up first,” she placed her palms on the cold metal of the vault door. “Do keep an eye out for killer robots.” She closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing, metal glowing hot to her touch.
Niewell Wight and his assistant stepped out of the elevator
and into the shadowy cool hall. The big dark rooms on either
side were all black marble and gold rococo opulence, artfully
arranged and empty. They passed a little table with some books -
The Art of War and autobiographies of hyperball managers - and
Niewell ran his finger along a thin pelt of dust on the top.
Paintings hung in sequence: a thin boy stands alone in a
blitzed-out alley down on the planet’s surface; sharp-dressed
young men pose against a wall with guns and an attack dog, one
holding a shiny gamma rifle positioned above the rest; on a
balcony overlooking the city, an old man sits with his two sons.
Emily noticed thick blast doors disguised by the vaulted ceiling as they stopped at a set of thin metal bars. They waited in the gold light from the office for a moment, then the bars split open and retracted into the floor and roof. Thugs stood up and nodded at Niewell as the man sprung out of his chair: wisps of white hair standing out from his shiny head, wide dark eyes and a red suit with a tacky gold trim. Around his neck he wore a thick silver band and as he walked around his desk, Emily spotted the wire from the band that had been fed into his skull and stapled to his neck.
“Niewell last time we met I’m sure you had two bitches on leashes, you goin’ soft in your old age?” He reached out to shake Emily’s hand, then took it and pressed it between his small lips and the heavy gold rings on his fingers. “Your glamorous assistant’s sick of me already!” He grinned, “I can see it, look at that wee micro-expression in the orbicularis muscle like-” he drew a moustache on himself with one finger, “those are kissing muscles, incidentally,” he winked and laughed and gold teeth sparkled in the back of his mouth. “My name is Lu fucking Harmsworth darlin’,” he said, with a voice that was not built to speak English, “if I’m being too much of an areshole don’t take it personally alright?” He smiled and shook Niewell’s hand. “What’s the occasion anyway?”
“Right, that should be it,” Gwen sighed. “Glove me.” Dionysus
held out the ugly homemade mitten: heat-resistant material from
an envirosuit sewn up around a conical array of glass lenses,
and Gwen rummaged around until she’d found her place inside.
“You probably shouldn’t look directly at this.” She stood as far
back from the door as she could, held out her arm and fired a
shining beam of light into the softened orange metal. She aimed
for an archway about seven feet tall and four wide, but the
shape warped as metal fell on the floor in gooey slices. She
took the glove off just under two feet into the door, then cast
a protective bubble around herself as the thin remaining wall of
molten steel fell over her.
The rest of the group entered carefully through the hot wound, into a vault filled with strange artefacts from across the galaxies.
“What kind of man lets his debtors pay him off in trinkets?” Odysseus asked, looking around the room filled with pointlessly gold technology.
“It’s not the monetary value, it’s the personal, emotional value Lu cares about,” Dionysus explained. “Strategic value, in some cases.”
“Most cases it’s seemingly just blackmail. What was that thing Emily said?” Gwen wondered. “Like, nobody actually needs a billion credits, at that point they’re just after power. Harmsworth is after power.”
“I dunno if money’s completely worthless,” said Odysseus, picking up a liquidrive and flipping it open like a fan. “There’s seven thousand credits on here, you could feed yourself for like five years on this.”
“Keep your head on and your hands to yourself. Don’t touch anything we’re not keeping,” Dionysus grumbled, removing the data core from its liquid nitrogen container. “It doesn’t matter anyway, you’re getting paid out of the boss’ pocket anyway. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that getting greedy just gets people killed.”
“‘Don’t touch anything we’re not keeping’, got it,” Odysseus nodded, checking nobody was looking as he slipped the liquidrive into his pocket.
“What’s Jettstrom got on there, anyway?” Gwen asked, as she watched Dionysus covet the ancient metal sphere.
“This is one of Fenrix’s most prized possessions, all the information you could ever want on half the mid-level operators in Andromeda’s criminal underworlds: assassins, shady local politicians, data-brokers and bank robbers. Lu charges Fenrix out the nose every time he wants to get something off here.”
“There’s a lot of bad people’s names on here, then?”
“Yeah,” said Dionysus, inspecting the interlocking seams. “And their kids’ names, and their husbands and wives and friends’ names, the towns they grew up in, where they go to school, anything that could be used to exploit them.”
“Are you on there?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve always been very careful, but Fenrix has a grudge against me, and I have a niece,” he tossed the metal ball to Gwen. “So.”
Gwen opened up her hand and let the sphere float up from her palm, then she pressed it inbetween two streams of warbling heat as it softened and poured from the air between her hands.
“Dorian,” Odysseus piped up, fiddling with K Franca’s bushy moustache, “I’ve barely heard any technobabble from you tonight, how’s the alarm going?”
“Fine,” Dorian grunted, reaching up into a raised panel hiding some wires next to the vault door. “There’s not much to it. The alarm went off as soon as Gwen started tunneling, it’s just that the signal’s being inverted to ‘everything’s fine’ before it reaches the security hub in Lu’s office. When we pull the trigger Dionysus has in his bag, it’ll activate this jammer, which will invert the signal to ‘everything’s fine’ before it leaves the vault layer, meaning Emily’s jammer will be inverting that message back into: ‘nothing is fine’.”
“Shh. Do you hear that?” Gwen whispered, looking back at the hole in the door. In the distance, there was the sound of an engine humming, and wheels turning on pristine metal. “Okay, everyone push up against that back wall.” Everyone followed.
“It’s going to notice the door, right?” Odysseus asked. “The field of view’s pretty narrow, so we slip out behind it while it comes in to investigate, is that what’s happening?”
“Eyes on both sides of its head. If it spots us, it can shout to a relay which will trigger the alarm upstairs.”
“What do we do then!?” He shouted under his breath. “The things are bulletproof.”
“Yes dear, yes they are.”
Odysseus was silent as he watched the reflection of the door in a large glass case. A robot rolled into the dripping orange frame and stopped. It hovered on three wheels and had a minigun and a flamethrower where arms should be. The thing slowly turned, and rolled over the mound of hot slag to enter the vault. It came in, one weapon a hair away from Odysseus’ cheek, and in a perfect instant the room flashed as if lightning had struck underground. Odysseus looked up at the smoking hole in the robot’s head, and Gwen’s ugly mitten pointing through it.
“Huh,” said Gwen, raising an eyebrow.
“I actually thought we were dead for a second there,” she laughed. “That’s always fun. Come on then, we don’t have much time to get to Harmsworth’s vault.”
“Fun!?” Odysseus whined as he stood up, furrowing his brows at Dorian as he chuckled. “You’re not the one who had an open flame this close to their face.”
“Hen,” said Gwen, brandishing the indestructible sockpuppet at him. “I am the open flame.”
“It’s a pleasure to see you in such high spirits Mr.
Harmsworth,” Niewell cawed, as if nearly deaf, “which makes it
all the more heartbreaking to be the bearer of bad news.”
Lu stepped back from Niewell, pursing his lips in thought. “Fuck off,” he gestured at his men who swiftly walked down the hall, the bars sliding up from the floor as he glanced at them. The five-foot-two man, a head shorter than shrinking old Niewell and a than Emily - hopped back into his tall leather seat and hiked it up to the level of his desk. “Sit down why don’t you?” Two chairs wheeled themselves out as he swiped his hand across the desk’s surface, wood cut from some tree Emily didn’t recognise. “So, is this what I think it is?”
Niewell’s warmth faded from his face, little barnacles of skin emerged from the folds of his dimples. “What do you think this is?”
As Lu set his elbows down on the desk, blast-proof metal shutters unfurled down the floor-to-ceiling window behind him and clamped down. “Unseelie business.”
Will looked over at Niewell, and he closed his eyes and nodded. “The Court are less than impressed,” he paused, setting his face to “serious” as he thought. “I don’t want you to worry too much, as long as you keep printing money nobody’s coming for your head, but: the IA have been intercepting more and more shipments on your watch these past few months and-”
“-and I am just as frustrated about that as your bosses are Niewell, and while I’m doing everything I can to take the money where it needs to go I can’t control the political weather over on Corda, a-”
“-Mr. Harmsworth,” Niewell croaked, pushing his large spectacles up the craggy peak of his nose, “the weather on Corda is still controlled by Airzone Solutions, a terraforming company within the Interstellar Business Network whose board of directors is controlled by members of the Unseelie Court.”
Lu leaned back in his chair and squinted. “Do the guys on the board know about eachother?”
“Sorry but can we get a shift on?” Will asked, tapping the time on her communicator. She turned to Lu. “Basically they’re robbing you. Vault 1. Just call it insurance til you get your… well, our house in order. So if you could just open that up that would be great thanks.”
The leprechaun was silent behind stocky folded arms, and then he smiled. “You know it’s impregnable? And blackmail-proof, yes?” He tapped the steel collar around his neck. “I have to want to open it. You could pull my fingers off you could go and get my sons, drag them over onto that floor and start slitting their pretty wee throats open and I still would not open that vault for you because it can smell the fucking fear on me, alright?”
Niewell leaned forward on the desk. “It never would have occured to me that a man like you felt fear, Mr. Harmsworth.”
“Oh I’m scared all the time Niewell,” he smiled. “I have everything in the world and every morning I wake up terrified. How d’you think I got it all? Everybody on this planet wants what I have so I made a game of taking it from me. And I won. The house always, always wins. Because I never let up. Ever. Even when I was a kid. You know that old human expression “sleeping like a baby”? It was coined by people who didn’t grow up in bomb shelters. I have nothing but respect for you and for the Court but do not fucking come for me and my SHIT. Because nothing happens on this planet,” he stabbed his finger into the wood, “unless it happens on my terms.” He quickly drew a circle on the desk which threw Will and Niewell to the floor as their chairs violently spun.
“What kind of man buys evil furniture?” Will laughed, as she stood up and dusted off her suit. “Do you make opportunities to do that? Does it make you feel big?”
Lu laughed as he stood up on his desk. “She’s testing my patience now Niewell, I kinda like her. It’s always more fun when they start off bratty.” He twirled his finger in the air, and the chairs began to circle around them like hungry sharks. “Tell me why I haven’t called my guards in to peel yer skins off yet?”
“Because you’re making two naff office chairs circle around us like hungry sharks which, to be honest, I adore.”
“It is absolutely extraneous!” Niewell interjected, taking it all in from the floor. “Astronomers have reported sightings of my wig, which is currently hovering in a geostationary orbit above,” he slapped his scalp, “my bald head.”
“What is a human girl doin’ with the Unseelie Court anyway? What do you have to gain?”
Will thought about that. “Interbreeding between humans and Others is mostly non-viable, and strictly illegal. But it’s happening-“
“-It’s happening downstairs.” Lu laughed.
“…and Andromeda has been a profitable adventure for us, but that’s only possible because we can keep an eye on what’s coming in and out of the Milky Way. They’re rare, for now, but there are human kids back there living human lives on human planets with alien blood inside them. And one day they’re going to be old enough to vote. And then the dam will crack and the whole structure of the thing will be ground away into silt. That’s bad for both of our galaxies, there are more of us than there are of any of you. It’s not a “racial purity” thing, it’s just that the strictest controls on immigration possible aren’t enough, the working class cannot be made to be paranoid enough; there’s no version of this relationship in which the sensible prevail. So we’re taking a little bit of money from you now so we can keep the machine running smoothly and we can all make a lot of money later. And then we’ll invest that money in furthering everybody’s aims. Help us fight the good fight Lu, do the smart thing. Close the Gate.”
Gwen led the group down the stairs to the lowest level of
this inverted pyramid. Beneath everything: the impenetrable
vault of Lu Harmsworth.
“Can’t you just cut it open like that last one?” Odysseus asked.
“Thing’s solid mithrium, and twice as thick as any of the others,” Dionysus grumbled. “We’re here now, so it’s just a case of waiting for Emily and our friend Mr. Wight.”
Lu looked over into the air for a few seconds, then slowed
down the waltz of the killer chairs. “Seems reasonable.” He
hopped into his seat, then looked intently at the section of his
desk which flipped over to reveal a hand scanner. He rolled his
shoulders to get ready, took a breath and held his hand over the
panel. Then he looked at Niewell. “But you’re one of the few
people who knows about the decoy vault, aren’t you?”
Niewell was quiet, then nodded. “Of course.”
“And you’re one of many people who know I’m nevergonnafuggin open the real one. So, if you’re asking me to open it now, does that mean you’ve a crew down there who have swapped it already?” He dropped his hand on the scanner.
The group jumped as the vault slid back from its socket in
the wall, then got carried away by hydraulic machinery and
replaced with another, which slid back, spun away and was
replaced with the first. Then again, and again, with increasing
“Oh fit the fuck is going on up there!?”
Dionysus tossed the bag on the floor, running his fingers through his thick salt-and-pepper hair. “Lu has two impenetrable vaults, then. Okay. 50/50 chance between a long and sunny retirement or instant death.”
Two whiskey glasses on the desk turned themselves over and
began to slide around eachother in a figure of eight. “Go on
Niewell, pick one. Pokerface on. I used to play this game with
people on street corners when I was a kid.” He grinned. “That’s
how I got my start.”
Niewell slowly pulled a chair over to the desk and leaned forward, inspecting the glasses as they turned, scanning a mental 3D map of the leprechaun’s face muscles and the micromovements of his eyes, checking against the a recorded back catalogue of his mannerisms through this whole conversation.
“Niewell, think about it,” said Will, who slowly paced around the room in a wide curve. “You know that there’s a decoy, and Lu knows that you know there’s a decoy. However,” she made big arcing movements with her arms, “you know that he knows that you know, but I know that Gino, whose nose-“
“Does the movement of the glasses correlate precisely to the movement of the vaults?” Niewell asked, resting his chin on a hand.
“How did you know I’m moving the vaults?” Lu smiled, eyes microscopically widening with delight.
Will continued wandering, closer to Lu’s side of the shell game. “…And Rose knows that I go with no clothes, then we can safely infer that-”
“How do you think?” Niewell removed his hand from his face and placed both his palms on the table, adjusting so that he was right in front of Lu. “What is my face telling you?”
Lu leaned forward a millimetre, searching for tells. He’d played poker with Niewell before, and he knew he was good, but the leprechauns, tricksters and other Beings of Old Worlds had survived this long because nearly every species shared a disadvantage: biological lifeforms are terrible liars. “Absolutely nothing.”
The glasses stopped moving. Lu reeled back in shock, then turned around to see Will, who placed her wire cutters back in her breast pocket, and then knocked him out with a punch.
“Plan B?” asked Niewell, who peered over his spectacles at Will dragging the leprechaun’s body to the centre of the room.
“Yeah. Plan B,” said Emily.
Niewell popped and he was gone, as if brutally unplugged, and the robot stretched out where he’d stood. “Oh my god I feel so old.”
“So, uh,” she turned Lu over on his front as Redacted sat down next to her. “What exactly is Plan B?”
“Take the two white wires out the back of my neck,” they popped open a latch between their shoulder blades and Emily opened it up with the curl of her finger, “snip the ‘female’ wire below the port and tie it up around the wire going into Lu’s head, then snip the ‘male’ wire-”
“-below the plug and tie it into the wire going into his collar. It doesn’t take orders from anyone other than him, so every thought he sends down there is going to be encrypted with one key the collar recognises. Once I have the key it’ll think I’m Lu, then you can just drop his hand onto the scanner and we’ll control the vault. Only trouble is finding it. I could be a minute.”
Emily carefully snipped the second wire and squished the fibres together with the one from the collar. “What the hell does an encryption key look like for a person’s thoughts?”
“I have absolutely no idea what I’m getting into. Isn’t it exciting?”
Emily could see Red raise their eyebrows on that last word, they’d learned it off Bettie Page, even though their face was a black glass visor. Then they were silent, then they gracelessly fell back onto the floor next to Lu.
Some impulse kicked in and Emily tidied up her workstation. She wheeled the chairs back in front of the desk, then reached for one of the empty whiskey glasses. She paused, and her hand hovered over to the other, identically empty glass. She laughed to herself as she picked it up and placed it on the silver tray next to the decanter. Then she picked up the other glass, below which had been a single gold coin.
Emily stabbed at a remote, flipping through CCTV feeds on the
monitor - guests arriving at the spaceport, the house band
playing in the main hall - until she got to Lu’s private hangar.
Driver Hess was leaning against the ship smoking a cigarette,
occasionally checking the time.
Lu stirred on the floor. She pulled the gamma rifle from above the fireplace and watched him down the sights as he opened his eyes.
“Whath-” he slurred as he got up on his hands and knees, “-fuckin… ugh.” Behind him, Redacted lay still on the floor apart from their left arm, which scraped across the floor in a sort of waving motion. “Thasweurd.”
“What’s weird?” She asked, aiming the rifle at the leprechaun.
“I’m…” He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “I’m calling for my guards right now,” the robot flailed both arms, as if trying to wave down an aircraft from the ground, “but nobody’s coming. Nobody’s coming.” He stopped, covered his screwed-up face as he sniffled deeply. “Nobody’s coming.” He swallowed, then opened his eyes.
“What’s happening? Red?”
“EeMmIiLlYy?” the robot jittered.
“I’m still getting used to this,” said Lu, taking in the height of his ceiling, running one hand along the fibers of his fine red suit. Redacted stood up, and he took a couple of steps towards Emily as the robot copied him on a half-second delay. “I thought the system would flow pretty simply and one way… y, but turns out my thoughts have to be boxed up and encrypted on-site,” he tapped his head, “before they can be passed through to the collar in a format that it can understand. Luckily I can get the ‘male’ and ‘female’ wires to go both ways yes pun intended, so I figured out the key by using the implant’s feely-outy bits to build a model of everything coming in that wasn’t going out aaaaAAAAAANNND I think this shiny bastard’s in me now,” he said, tapping Redacted on their visor. “Oh!” He said, as if snapping out of a daydream. “That’s me back in the driver’s seat, you mind if I just-”
“Don’t touch that!” Emily shouted, aiming the gun at him as he reached for the wire coming out of his head.
“That rifle’s a decoration lass,” he smiled, then screamed. “GET IN HERE! GET THE FUCK-” the shutters on the window pulled up, then slammed down as the lights flickered and doors flapped open and shut and every drawer in the room shot out and banged shut and Lu clutched his head on the floor and screamed and trembled. The TV on the wall was back on. “Oh you cunt, you awful little-AGH!” One of the glasses on the desk flew across the room and exploded against the wall.
“Red can you hear me!? What’s happening!?”
On the TV, an audience’s applause got louder, Lu smacked the floor and cried then it was silent again, came back and buzzed out. Now it was showing the local news: trucks like tanks were riding into a slum, and the residents were standing in the road to block their path, and the trucks were rolling over them. Now CCTV footage of the entrance to the vault level, and guards preparing to enter. Now she grabs the kicking leprechaun and tries to drag him towards the panel on the desk. Now a porn video of a human man fucking a slippery naiad as she chokes on air, sometimes shoving her head back into water so she can breathe. Now the house band.
The singer approached the microphone. “For anyone too lazy to just look up the lyrics that last song was ‘Mad About Me’. Now I am not a performing monkey who does requests often, I am a performing monkey with integrity and flair, but this one beautiful girl approached the stage earlier tonight and it’s like she handed me a list of every song I’ve ever loved. If you’re a tall blonde called Anna with green eyes and a deep knowledge of music from the golden age of humanity, I’ll be hanging around after the show. For the rest of you, I may be here for your entertainment, but…” He made a signal to his band, and they began playing.
Lu gasped, screamed “YEEEESSSS!” and shot up off the floor. Emily tried to grab him by the shoulders, but he raised his hand to her with a dramatic curl of the wrist, closed his eyes and mouthed along to the words:
“You don’t own me, I’m not just one of your many toys,” he shook his head, “you don’t own me, don’t say I can’t go with other boys…” He grinned as the music built up, and Emily hurriedly gestured for him to come to the desk.
“AND DOOOOON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO! AND DOOOOON’T TELL ME WHAT TO SAY! AND PLEASE, WHEN I GO OUT WITH YOU,” they both raised their arms in balled fists and screamed, “DOOOOON’T PUUUUT ME ON DISPLAY! CAUSE,” she tried to come over and Lu twirled a finger, the chairs flew around them in a widening circle. “You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way-”
“-you don’t own me,” Red snapped their fingers and fountains popped off on the beat. “Don’t tie me down ‘cause I’d never stay…” The volume on the TV turned all the way up as the music built up again. Men with guns poured in from the elevator. “Mr. Harmsworth!?”
“IIIII DOOOOOON’T TELL YOU WHAT TO SAY!” They slammed four blast doors down the hall in time with the drum beats. “I DOOOON’T TELL YOU WHAT TO DO! SO JUUUUST LEEET ME BE MYSELF, THAAAAT’S ALL I ASK OF YOU!” Every light in the room switched off except one above Ludacted who swayed back to back, clutching their hearts. “I’M YOUNG! AND I LOVE TO BE YOUNG! I’M FREEEEEE AAAAND I LOVE TO BE FREE!” Some lightbulbs burned and popped with energy, “TO LIIIIVE MY LIIIIFE THE WAY I WANT! TO SAY!” Pop. “AND DO!” Pop. “WHATEVER I PLEEAASE!” They stopped, eyes wide and glistening as if in love for the first time and swooned back into their chairs, which swept across the room with the violin.
“Ladies and gentlemen and everybody outside and inbetween let me introduce you to the fabulous musicians you’ve been listening to tonight, on the panglochord we have the multi-talented Venus Quinn,” who did a short solo over the song’s backing as the chairs ferried Ludacted to the desk, stupefied and amazed, and they clumsily placed their hands on the scanner.
The machinery slowed down and slotted a
vault into place, and a crack of light poured out as it hissed
“Last bets everyone,” Odysseus rubbed his hands together. "Not money and not gold, what does Lu Harmsworth value most in this world?"
Dionysus dropped his bag and wriggled into the seam and tried to push the thing open from inside. "Dorian, would you?"
(“Playing the kinetophone is the Naraka System’s favourite daughter, Princess Baby!”
The ten-foot ghost cupped her head in her long hands, and fluttered the holes where eyes might be.)
Dorian held the edge of the metal door and pulled it open, flooding the chamber with cold white light.
Gwen took a second to register what she was looking at, then whispered. “Oh, for fuck’s-”
“Is this the wrong vault? Did we get the empty one?”
“No, this is the right vault,” said Dionysus, heading to the back of the group to rummage in his bag. “I don’t think the treasure’s in it yet.”
“I don’t get it.” Odysseus muttered. “Why would Harmsworth spend all this effort and all this money protecting an empty vault?” And then he felt the gun pressed against the back of his head.
“He’s a leprechaun, you jackass,” said Dionysus, clicking the hammer back. “They’re both empty.”
(“Please show your appreciation for our drummer, the arachnoid wonder Mr. Anan Segun Mr. Segun take a bow!”)
Gwen was calm. “Get away from him right now, or-”
“Or what? You think you can melt me down faster than I can press this button?” He held up the trigger for the signal jammer. “Soon as I press this, the alarm goes off and it’s an uphill battle out of here with you versus the robots, the entire security staff and the population of a whole fucking planet, you think you can win that fight?”
“I’d rather not find out,” said Gwen.
“You’re not robbing an empty vault, are you?” Said Dorian. “So what does your employer really want?”
“One of you is a wanted all across Andromeda for, oh,” he rolled his eyes, “all sorts. And there’s a bounty on your head, and there’s really nothing you can do to get out of this now, so I’d appreciate if you just came quietly.”
Gwen, Dorian and Odysseus all looked at eachother for a long moment, and then Odysseus sighed. These past two months had been a fun distraction, now he was alone again. Now the Odysseus they knew was gone, and now he was alone again. He thought about how they’d leave him to rot when they found out he’d lied to them. He thought about the lies he’d made a life out of. He thought about Sola Bernard. He thought about Ichabod’s Reach. “Okay,”
“Okay.” Dorian stepped out in front of the vault door, and then slowly walked in with his hands up. Dionysus pointed the gun at him and followed. Odysseus didn’t breathe.
“The jet and Harmsworth’s satellite makes for good getaway,” said Gwen, “but if you think we’re not going to tear up the galaxy to get him back-”
“-you won’t get him back.” Dionysus smiled and shook his head, stalking around Dorian in a circle as he brandished the alarm trigger. “My favourite part is how honest the boss has actually been, you know? We’re delivering him the treasure he longed for, from Mr. Harmsworth’s famous vault, which contains something worth around eight-hundred k. Alive,” he put his gun to the base of Dorian’s skull. “Or dead.” He shot him, then pressed the trigger. The blue corridor burned red and lights started flashing. The vault door slammed shut.
(I’m Stardust, by the way.”)
The control panel flashed “INTRUDERS
DETECTED, AUTHORISE TO JETTISON CARGO” as the singer stepped
back into the spotlight. Emily had been watching Lu and Redacted
slow-dance on the desk, in sync with nearly every other object
in the room. “AAAND DOOOON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!” Lu kicked the
decanter and glasses off the desk. “OOOOH! DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO
SAY!” He swept his portrait off the wall. “AND PLEASE,” he spun
and sang to Stardust on the screen, “WHEN I GO OUT WITH YOU,
DOOON’T PUT ME ON DISPLAY!” He hopped off the desk and slammed
his hand onto the panel at the band’s last flourish. “You don’t
The shutters had nearly finished rising when Lu noticed the room was empty. He turned around to see Emily and Redacted outside, many meters away. He looked up at the slow-moving mechanism, and tried to work out exactly how long he’d been alone.
Emily and Redacted stood on the edge of the balcony, clinging to the railing behind them and watching the black void at their feet. Spotlights came on from within the casino’s sea cave port, a hundred storeys directly below them. “That’ll be Driver and the vault with everyone inside,” said Redacted. “You ready?”
They turned around, it was Lu.
“Mr. Literally Named Harmsworth?” they said, in their bitchy monotone.
“What was that? What are you? Really?” There was an explosion inside the penthouse, and guards were streaming in through a cloud of smoke and dust. Lu looked at them, then turned back to Redacted and Emily. “Take me with you.”
“I dunno babe,” said Emily, shaking her head. “Just try getting into Kate Bush or something. Start with The Kick Inside and just like whatever you like from there on out. Also stop being rich.”
Redacted took her by the hand, and they jumped into the dark.
“Mr. Harmsworth!” Dryden shouted. “You okay boss?”
Lu watched a jetpack stream vanish below him, didn't notice his own jet tearing off into the atmosphere, carrying a vault.
“No,” he laughed. “No I’m really not.”
The guards rushed down the stairs then
stopped. Wheels, wires and arms were scattered along the hall.
There was a noise coming from around the corner, with the force
and regularity of a hammer striking an anvil but with no
metallic bite. The guards parted as a Balor rushed up behind
them and shot around the corner, then a woman shrieked and they
jumped back as the corridor ahead filled with a shower of molten
slag. The guard in front made raised his palm to the others,
then stepped towards the corner. “Hello? Miss if you don’t mind
I’m going to come around this corner and-”
“COME OUT. ALL OF YOU. OR I MELT EVERY VAULT DOWN HERE INTO FUCKING SLAG."
The guards poured out from hiding and pointed their guns at the woman in the exosuit, whose fingers curled around a red fireball she held to the vault which was red hot and criss-crossed with deep gashes. Puddles of cooling mithrium lay around her and the man who hid behind her.
“Put that down or we will have to open fir-”
“FUCK OFF,” said the woman. “I'M THE ONLY ONE STOPPING ESS HING FROM FUCKING EXPLODING THROUGH THAT DOOR, KILLING YOUS," she pointed, 'KILLING HIM," she stabbed at Odysseus, "AND FUCKING EVAPORATING EVERYTHING THAT WEE GIMP ON THE TOP FLOOR EVER WORKED FOR, AND THEN I WILL LIQUIFY THE FOUNDATIONS OF THIS BUILDING AND USE IT AS A FUCKING BATTERING RAM IF ANYONE ELSE ON THIS SHITHOLE PLANET TRIES TO GET IN MY FUCKING WAY."
“What do you…" he hesitated, "…want, from us then?”
“What!?” Odysseus stepped back.
“There are no prisons on this planet and nothing stopping you shooting us down as soon as our ship takes off but you make a phone call to the nearest IA prison and you’re bound by intergalactic treaties to get us there in one piece.”
“Into prison, Gwen!”
She looked at him, and just because it could have been a reflection, that didn't mean her eyes weren't glowing red. “You’ll live.”
The guard hesitated, then slowly lowered his weapon. “O… okay? Just put these handcuffs on and-”
“-then you told the security officer, as
you were turning yourself in, ‘don’t tell me what to do’. Is
“No,” said Gwen, who had burned through her handcuffs and was playing with a loose thread on her tshirt.
“You dispute that allegation?” Catherin sighed, propping up her head with one arm on the table.
“I said don’t fucking tell me what to do,” she yawned and interlocked her fingers as she stretched. “Does this answer all of your questions?”
A young police officer slipped in through the door with a phone. “It’s for you, miss.”
“Oh who is it now?” she snapped, leaning back in her metal chair.
“Kendra,” he replied, trembling slightly.
“Kendra as in… Brook? Clarke?”
“Kendra as in…” He remembered to exhale. “The.”
“Geez that,” Gwen reached over the table and took the phone from him. “Awrite mum?” She winked at Catherin.
Emily and Redacted sat alone in the
living room, together. Emily had exhausted herself crying into
her shoulder, which she’d covered in a hard light shell of the
sensation of warmth. She’d taken on wide hopeful eyes and a soft
face which she rested in Emily’s hair.
Odysseus closed the door very gently and looked around. He crept into the living room and spotted the two of them on the sofa. Redacted looked up at him.
“Hey,” he whispered. “How are you?”
“Fine, she’s sleeping,” said Redacted, her voice breaking a little as she spoke for the first time in maybe an hour. “I’ll decide to be sad later, but right now I’m just worrying about everyone else. You took a while in the police station, you okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” Odysseus nodded. “Where’s Gwen?”
“In her room, but you should leave her alone for now.”
“It’s important,” he said. “Sorry.”
He knocked on Gwen’s door, then slid it open softly. “Hi. I need to talk to you about something.”
Gwen was curled up in a ball on her bed, her coat on the floor behind her. “What?” she whispered.
“You're the only other person who saw what happened in that vault, so you’re the only person I’ll mention this to, unless you don’t think I’m being crazy,” he sat down on the edge of Gwen’s bed, then took a moment. “When that door cracked open, Dionysus was the first person to try to pull it open, right?”
“But we needed Dorian to get that first vault open, the one we got out of. He knew the door would be too heavy to pull open himself. I think that was a trick. I think that was a sleight of hand and he deployed another intellogram, like with the cameras, maybe just above the vault’s door. I think everything we saw in that vault after they entered was faked,” he stopped, and then pushed himself forward. “I think Dorian might still be alive. Even if there was a DOA bounty for him, they could haggle with him if he was alive. And then there’s that thing Driver mentioned. The ‘Mr. Mardova’. Do you know what that is?”
“It’s an old space pirate’s term for taking someone else’s identity, doing a job, then faking your death so nobody comes looking for you. There are a few different ways to do it, some more long-term than others, but this ticks all the boxes.”
Gwen took a deep breath, then hauled herself up. She blew her nose with a ragged tissue and looked at Odysseus with puffy red eyes. “You sure?”
“Not really, no, but. If there’s a chance…” he trailed off. “Do you think so too? Do you think I’m thinking straight at all or…?”
Gwen tried to collect herself and rubbed her eyes with her forearm. “I have to.” She trembled as she sat up on the edge of her bed, got her coat off the floor and stood up. She swallowed as she put it on and patted it down, looking at the mess of herself in the mirror. “How do you know that, anyway?”
“I don’t know, to be honest, but-”
“How does a shepherd boy from a Medieval Europe theme planet know about space pirate slang?”
“Oh,” Odysseus nodded. “It was in a book I read when I was a kid. Tourists left that sort of thing lying around.”
Gwen breathed deeply and closed her eyes for a few seconds. "Okay. I'm good. Let's go."
"Wait," Odysseus said, almost involuntarily. "Before we go any further…"
"There's something you should know."
He was alone.
Catherin and the officer returned. “Well Mr. Bernard, we’ve had a match for you on one non-Alliance criminal database, this time from Infidus. Which is, allegedly, your home planet.”
“There’s that magic word again,” Odysseus sighed.
“You were born there in 4151, arrested for shoplifting aged five, selling drugs aged seven and near-fatally shooting a man just before your eighth birthday, just before you were old enough to be tried for a crime. The middle section is stuff we knew about already: you were involved in a bank robbery in 4164, which would have made you thirteen, then a couple years later you pop up on the other side of the planet working for the data-forger Qo Sarros. You were then involved in a shootout on Ichabod’s Reach eleven years ago where you killed ten rival gang members. You died from blood loss in the desert a few miles from the nearest village. Your body was examined at the Kelly Mortuary, in the town of Hope’s Landing. Nobody came to collect your corpse, and so you were burned on-site without ceremony.” She closed the file. “We’ve reconciled this information with the Intergalactic Alliance's records. So, Odysseus or whatever it is we’re calling you, you and your long-lost twin won’t get mixed up again.”
“I’m speaking figuratively. You and Mr. Bernard share a striking resemblance, but the universe is a big place,” she shrugged, “it happens.” The officer took out a key and unlocked his handcuffs.
“And what about the crimes I allegedly actually have committed?”
“We had a phone call from G.R.I.M.M. about half an hour ago. It all sounded very top-secret, and after the almighty bollocking the chief got nobody’s going to be asking any more questions. Officer Berger will take you to get your things.”
As he prepared to step outside Odysseus straightened out his bow tie in the reflection of a window, and fixed that unruly strand of his hair.
"…And there's your wallet," said Berger, fishing things out of a cardboard box. "A watch, and…" she pulled out the gold segmented stick, then flipped it open to see the screen inside. "A liquidrive with seven thousand credits on it?"
Odysseus snapped it shut and took it from her hand. "Thanks. I'll see you around." He walked down the steps towards the street, about to vanish into the crowd.
He turned around, Catherin was sitting on the steps of the police station smoking a cigarette, watching the sun set over Tiziana. “Where are you going?”
“Why d’you ask?” He shielded his eyes from the sun and looked up at her from beneath bushy brows.
“Whatever your whole deal is it’s way above my pay grade now so don’t think I’m trying to catch you out or anything, however,” she straightened up. “I’ll just say that you and your ‘associates’ ship, the- Treehouse?”
“The Treehouse,” he nodded solemnly.
“…Is, I’m sure you’ve been told,” she pointed a thumb over her shoulder, back into the station. “Around the back. What’s going on? Are you not going with them?”
“I am a… drifter, Miss…?”
“White. Catherin White.”
“Miss Catherin White I am a drifter and a lone wanderer, if such things still exist in the civilised new world you’re bringing to this end of the galaxy. I work alone-”
“Which fucking film did you get that from?” She grinned at him. “Fucking sit down, you want a fag?”
“That’s very kind darlin’ but I’m not a smoker.”
“Right, okay. It’s just that I spend half my life sitting in front of guys who get blind drunk and beat up strangers or rob liquor stores and end up shooting someone who hurt their feelings or… finally end up making a go of it and try to kill themselves but just end up causing car accidents. And you know what the common denominator is?”
“Nothin’ a couple more centuries in the evolutionary oven couldn’t fix?” Odysseus laughed as he sat down next to her.
“No, it’s that they’re all in poverty. And life in poverty is hard-”
“So’s being a surgeon-”
“-so how do you survive? You get tough and grow thicker skin, you man up or you die, right? Life’s shit so you just deal with it, and then you deal with it and deal with it and deal with it then take an overdose one day because life was shit so you dealt with it, but here’s the thing,” she pointed at him with the last of her cigarette. “Lots of people are poor, but it’s the men who predominantly kill themselves. The stats vary but across every society that turned out leaning patriarchal, men get the rough end of the stick.”
“Are you suggesting that I’m in need of help Miss White?”
“I’m just saying. The whole ‘Sola Bernard’, thing? We got told to release you by my boss’ boss. Don’t think for a second you’re fooling me, Mr. Mardova. I’m sorry for whatever happened between Ichabod’s Reach and now but you really think a liquidrive with seven thousand credits is going to get you that far?”
Odysseus sighed. “I don’t know about sustaining your kind of lifestyle but seven thousand credits will feed one person for five years if he’s frugal about it.”
“Seven thousand credits could feed five people for one year.” She flicked the cigarette away and stood up, straightening her suit out. “And as if I hadn’t added to your troubles enough already, I’m sending a notice out to all the criminal databases in the galaxy. Sola Bernard is dead, you had the paperwork airtight on that, but there’s nothing stopping me putting out a friendly note saying that there’s a guy calling himself Odysseus running around town, and he looks like this.” She gestured at his face in a circle as she walked up the steps towards the door. “That should make your solo career slightly harder, which is very sweet of me, I think.”
Odysseus was silent for a moment, then turned around. “He looks like this!?” He shouted over.
“Yeah. Incidentally I checked and there’s another Odysseus in the records, apparently.”
Odysseus furrowed his brows at her and scowled. “Is he the hot one?”
Catherin winced, then nodded. “You can get to your ship through that alley to the side of the building,” she pointed. “Go be with your friends. They need you.”
Odysseus was alone again, then he stood up and made his way to the Treehouse.
He was smiling as he entered the alley, then when he knew nobody was looking he burst out into a wide grin. He began outright cackling as he reached beneath the collar of his shirt, and pulled off the sunken old face of K Franca.
The four of them sat around on the living room floor as Gwen
ate a fake bacon sandwich, at Emily and Redacted's insistence.
"So," Emily started, fiddling with the liquidrive and leaning back against the bar. "Are we heading straight to Kendra's after this?"
"We'll need to buy fuel if we're gonna make it there in a oner, but," she nodded at the liquidrive as she swallowed her food. "We can fill up the tank for a while at least."
"You say 'Kendra's' like we're going to her house," said Odysseus, "and not the headquarters of a military organisation called G.R.I.M.M."
"They're our best shot at tracking down the fuckers who took Dorian," Gwen took another bite. "As much as a fuckin hate to say it." She made a face.
Gwen put the sandwich on its plate. "Am sorry but a nearly boaked this is making a shite situation ever shiter."
"Would you rather be eating the dead animal?"
"This een wisny even alive! It's just two slices of bread wae absolute fuck all inbetween. There's nihin that can be done to save that."
"I dunno," Odysseus smiled.
Odysseus reached into the pocket of his jeans, and handed her a sachet of ketchup.
The adventures of Captain Gwen Lambert
and her crew will continue...
Episode 5: ✨ iNnosense ⚔️ XxXspearienz 💔