Parsons slipped through the crowded corridors, scanning the faces and, just as importantly, the hands or manipulative limbs of those beings near him. Embedded in the skin of his left pinna was a device that assessed thousands of transient chemical signatures for weapon-grade explosives, toxins or ammunition. While the heavy-metal component of the atmosphere caused it to repeat a staccato tone in high A above C, so far he sensed no immediate threats to himself or that needed to be reported to station security.
In the very first alcove beyond the doors of the hotel, he had hidden his official uniform under a thin microfiber coverall that had been compressed in a flat pouch under his sidearm. A quick dart of the hand into the tool kit of a passing maintenance technician, and he had the means to appear as though he was an ordinary Smithereenian on his way to or from his employment. One only had to seem as if one belonged, to have a purpose, and no one questioned one’s presence.
A quick check by means of his personal communications unit indicated that the tool he was carrying was to open the valves in waste storage tanks. He was a plumber, then. He straightened his spine and gave his stride more arrogance than before. One had to know the hierarchy of the working castes. A good plumber was worth more than a nuclear engineer. Without one in a mass habitation, be it surface dwellings or starships, it did not matter if the other was effective at his job. Over the years, Parsons had had to plumb a pipe or two for the sake of verisimilitude. He had once been offered a handsome sinecure by the president of a small colony in thanks for unclogging the crucial main outfall from the treasury building. It was an honor he was relieved to decline.
Fish-eye globes were placed at every intersection, sending back complex video signals to security monitors. It was doubtful that considering the purpose of the settlement that it ran metal detection, but radiation and explosive monitoring was certain. Parsons was unarmed except for his sword and pistol, both antique but functional. They were concealed in the press-close seams of the coverall, but could be ripped free at need. At the end of the corridor, Parsons eschewed the escalators in favor of the freight elevators.
His contact was to await him in the fuel depot on the surface. He had not met this particular agent before, but mission headquarters’ briefing indicated that she was a retired active who took the station on Smithereen to supplement the less-than-generous government retirement subsidy. It was also suspected that she simply wanted to keep her hand in. Parsons understood the impulse. To feel needed was one of the most compelling human emotions.
Following signposts, he located the fuel depot. The facility itself was a steel-titanium box jammed among thousands of similar boxes that dated from the origin of the mining settlement itself, housed within the main dome, a clear hemisphere over nine kilometers across. The dome and the alloy boxes could have sustained an impact from incoming asteroids, or take a glancing blow from a falling minecraft—which the shops on the end of the block clearly had, at one time in ancient past. Instead of restoring them, the owners lived with tilted roofs and patched walls.
He was prepared for whatever the mission required, but he rather questioned the recognition litany that the contact had insisted upon. When he beheld her, it strengthened his belief. However, the assignment was not open to interpretation. He drew his body into a posture that his persona might affect, and greeted her with a friendly smile.
“What ship you on?” she asked, holding out a hand. “License and payment card?”
“Hello, gorgeous,” he said, in precisely the casual working class accent demanded by the intermediary back at Command. “You’re a fine sight for a guy who’s been out in the middle o’ nowhere.”
The old woman behind the counter smiled coyly. She was small and scrawny. Her cheeks were crisscrossed with a network of deep wrinkles that collapsed in the center to emphasize the hollowness of her face. Her eyes, a filmy blue, protruded slightly. Her teeth had undoubtedly been replaced more than once, as the colors of the new enamel did not match from tooth to tooth. Her thin hair was a net of flyaway wisps of silvery gray over a pale scalp.
“Ah, you’re space drunk,” she said, leaning over the counter to shove a palm into his chest. Parsons staggered backwards a pace. She was much stronger than she looked. “Besides, I’m taken. My mate would take a hammer to you if he heard you talking.”
“I mean it,” Parsons said, sticking closely to the litany he had been assigned. “A white bird flying by night would be no match for you.”
She raised an eyebrow. Now she had recognized the call-and-response. “But lobsters glide over the black sands in the moonlight.”
“I heard that before. I dunno where,” Parsons replied. “Must’ve been a song. One of those noises the kids like.”
“Uh-huh. So, what can I do for you?”
“My ma sent me.”
“Yer ma?” The old woman’s eyebrows went up.
“Lost a leg. Can’t expect her to stump in here on her own. She don’t have such good balance.”
“Ah, you know dem triple-cursed prosthetics don’t work a damn out here.”
“Too much interference,” Parsons agreed, affecting an aggrieved expression. Was the woman going to make him go through the entire recitation?
Luckily not. “It’s the cursed magnetite,” the woman said, screwing her face into a whorl of wrinkles like a huge fingerprint. “They’re pouring a whole load of pulverized ore today, and it’s making hell out of the signals. My machines has all got the headache.” She looked to either side, and reached under the counter. Colored lights played upon her face and chest.
The whoosh of the hydraulic door sounded behind Parsons. The old woman straightened up immediately. The lights vanished. A Croctoid with weathered, mahogany-colored skin and pale yellow eyes in a once-white shipsuit barged past Parsons and slapped a plastic card and a large square of metal down on the counter.
“I need a fill, granny. Move it smart!”
The old woman glared at him. “Yer one of dem funny guys? Take an hour to load yer fuel. Dem spent fuel rods is unstable. Minute for courtesy ain’t too much.”
“Maybe for you,” he said, showing his snaggled teeth. “I’m paying. Turn the extractors on. Gotta make my turnaround.”
“What’s the hurry?” she asked, drawing her wrinkled face into the semblance of an inviting smile. “Stay for a while. First day’s parking is free. Good honest grub at Oatmeal and Son. Yer can visit the Interactive Dioramas showing galactic history. Museum of Fictional History, good fun for the kiddies. Holograph Palace—them holochambers gotta see to believe. My eldest grandson spends all his paycheck in there. Anything yer’ve ever dreamed of sleeping with, you come up with it, they program it.” She leered at the Croctoid. He cringed at the expression. Parsons did, too, though inwardly. The old woman took no offense. “You prefer something live, there’s a licensed brothel three shops to the left as yer exit the hangar. Like a little more excitement? The casino’s the best in this whole flipping quadrant. Come to think of it, maybe the only casino. Food’s free there if you trade a thousand credits fer chips. Supersonic theme park next to the Street of Churches. Got coupons right here—” She reached for a hand-sized device on the counter and beckoned him. “Gimme yer commlink, chickling, I’ll load ’em.”
The being shook his head. “Fuel, granny.”
“Huh. Some people.” The friendly mask fell, and she returned to the scowl she had worn on Parsons’s arrival. He assumed she received some sort of honorarium for steering a customer to the establishments that she had named and was understandably disappointed.
Shaking her head and grumbling to herself, the old woman took the two documents off the counter and shuffled toward the back wall. A group of small, antiquated machines sat on a shelf. She fed the metal square into a reader. It was the detachable portion of a ship’s license. The second half was bolted into the bulkhead aboard the bridge of every spacegoing vehicle in the galaxy. Licenses were made of titanium, nearly indestructible and ridiculously difficult to mold, engrave or counterfeit. To further prevent false documentation, they were filled with intricate flat circuitry that prevented a ship from powering up unless it was present, within a meter of the permanently mounted half. She possessed the oldest reader machine Parsons could recall having seen, but they were made to last centuries, as were the ship ID plates.
“Holborn Empire?” she asked, looking at the small green screen. “What kind of name’s that?”
“No idea,” the reptilian snapped. “Bought the ship at an auction. It goes from point A to point B, so I don’t give a black hole what it’s called.”
“Changing’s just a few credits,” the old woman said. “No need to get nasty on me.”
“I don’t like having my time wasted!”
“Yer think you’re wasting time now? Wait until yer try to lift ship. Port Authority takes hours to release yer.”
“Let them try,” the reptilian snarled. “Now, move it!” He slapped the counter with a scaly palm.
Suddenly, the lights went dim. All the machines in the shop flickered and went off. The lights came back on, but the machines did not
“Now look what yer did!” the woman chided him. “I gotta reset everything. Come and help me.”
“Nik ba na chish sha!”
“Okay, you’re no help. You, come and gimme a hand,” she said, turning to Parsons.
“I gotta appointment, too,” Parsons said, seeing his brief errand stretching into an endless muddle.
The old woman put her hands on her hips. “Can’t fill either one of your orders until I’m up again! Now, hop!”
Parsons, with a deep sigh, hopped. He put a hand on the counter and vaulted into the space beyond. While the Croctoid paced back and forth, slashing his heavy tail back and forth with annoyance, Parsons attempted to reboot all of the antique machinery, all the while wincing at the shrill instructions being barked into his ear.
“No! Those three gotta be rebooted in order.” A bony hand poked past his nose. “First that one, then that one, then that one! No, wait a minnit. Maybe that one’s first.”
Parsons was familiar with most types of miniature terminals, from billing all the way to ordnance control. These were all old but well maintained. In a battered aluminum magazine underneath the counter, among several other mismatched cases and boxes, she had a circuit-tracer. He ran it over each unit in turn. “There seems to be nothing wrong with your equipment, madam.”
“All the fellas say that,” she said coyly. She aimed a sharp little forefinger. “If they ain’t broken, then why ain’t they runnin’? I got a business!”
“Forget it!” the Croctoid snapped, gnashing his teeth. “I’ll pay cash! Just tell the crew to start!”
“Can’t do that until I run yer plate,” the old woman said. “Come bring it back in a while, chickling. I’m sure me and this fumble-fingered lug can get the reader goin’ by then.”
Parsons offered him a look of sympathy, as any station plumber might to a fellow afflicted being. The Croctoid was not mollified. He slammed out of the door and headed down the corridor, shouting abuse. Parsons turned back to his hostess, who watched the reptilian depart with an expression of smug satisfaction. Then he noticed the buttons hidden in the worn carpet near the counter’s edge.
“You did that on purpose,” he said, very nearly surprised into his normal voice.
“Some people gotta learn manners,” she said. “Now, what is it yer want, friend? Let’s take it from the beginnin’, as if we just now met.”
Parsons did not allow even a modicum of his annoyance to show upon his face. To do so would be to break a lifetime of training. Instead he schooled it into pleased surprise. “Hello, gorgeous,” he said. “You’re a fine sight for a guy who’s been out in the middle o’ nowhere.”
She smiled and put a hand on his arm. “That’s a whole lot better.”
“Now may I have what I came for?” he asked.
“Message cube, right? Came in last sixday.” She looked around. “Well, I gotta find it, now. It’s in one o’ these boxes. Yer can help me look. Start with the ones under there.” She pointed to the chaos underneath the table at the rear of the shop. “After that yer can go through my storeroom.”