Two Things About Thrand Zandy’s TechnoThèque

By Gregory Norman Bossert

Illustration by Dermot Power

Thruppence Candy by Dermot Power

Thruppence Candy by Dermot Power

There are two things you do not want to do when walking down the six steel steps and through the accessway into Thrand Zandy’s TechnoThèque. First is carry a weapon. Second is have more cash in pocket than you’re willing to spend.

If you go in packing, even something like a cryptoceramic blade, the scanners embedded in the airlock are going to catch you, or Martta’s nose for trouble will. Either way, Martta will have you kissing floor before you can raise a hand or an objection.

If you go in flush, Zandy will know how much you’ve got on you sure as Martta can tell a piece from a pecker at a glance, and Zandy and his techs have more ways to separate you from your stash than there are cheap dives and bam flops in all of New Singapore Station.

That’s why I’d left my hardware in a locker at Transit Terminal Seven, and then had to walk the loop all the way back from Burton Module because I’d forgotten to add my bootknife to the pile. And that’s why I had a chip for two thousand large in my back pocket and another eighty-seven in cash tucked into my bra. Assuming the drop went down and I got my commission, I could afford to drink and jack my way through the eighty-seven bucks. The two million, they weren’t mine — they belonged to my client, Xujenc the Tonguebiter — and I was here to spend them on his behalf.

I was wearing my new boots, a knee-high mesh of titanium chain and eight-centimeter platforms, so I clunked and clanged down the six steel steps dragging a quarter again my Earth-weight. It’s no coincidence that Zandy’s TnT is down in the outermost ring where the Station spin is heaviest; the plus-g helps keeps the damage down when the patrons get feisty. Zandy’s native gravity is even higher; he might look like a flabby four foot bullfrog, but he could climb you like a ladder if he had the need.

I had need to climb the ladder, myself. I was in debt for a lot more than the boots, and Nana Io was threatening to kick me out into the corridors again. I couldn’t afford another screwup.

Here’s the thing about living on the streets on a spacestation: there are no streets on a spacestation. No dumpsters to dive, no alleys to haunt, no space to squat that doesn’t charge you for every breath. No place you’re not on display and if you look like a burden, you’re through an airlock and maybe there’s a shuttle on the other side and maybe there’s just the deep dark. I’d spent next month’s air money on those boots because skinny kid legs are weak and weak gets you dead.

Martta had heard me coming. She was waiting in front of the accessway, massive tattooed arms folded over massive tattooed chest, cropped grey hair bristling. “Halo Shenoy,” she said, flatly. “What brings your skank ass down here?”

Martta and I, we go way back.

I laid my second-best smile on her — the wow-hi-nothing-here-but-a-bimbo smile — and waved, elbows in, hands at my shoulders. “Martta! Howzit?” I twisted, sidling towards the narrow gap between her shoulders and the doorframe. If you make it too easy for Martta, she gets suspicious. More suspicious, that is.

Martta caught me one handed, fingers around the back of my neck, thumb in the groove over my collarbone, and turned my face toward hers. Her irises had the same titanium sheen as my boots: contact displays. “Huh,” she finally grunted, a blast of onions and ethanol, and gestured with her free hand toward the accessway. “Let’s see what we can see, girl.” She kept her grip on my neck as we stepped into the tube.

The accessway was a three meter long cylinder, with massive yellow-and-black striped emergency seals at each end. Thrand Zandy’s TechnoThèque was a converted mining ship, strapped into the web of modules and enclosures that made up New Singapore Station. The entrance alcove at the far end of the tube was a full-on airlock with the doors wedged open. Cables and hoses were looped along the sides, leeching off the main Station power, air, and water. I shook my head. Zandy was the DIY sort, but the bribes to the inspectors had to be costing him more than a legit hookup would.

Sensors studded the walls of the airlock over a bank of monitors. Martta steered me into the center. I raised my arms, did my own scan of the scene while the sensors huffed and hummed.

The front room had been the storage hold back when this had been a ship. It was a big room, high ceilings lined with catwalks, a bar of ribbed steel panels against the thirty-meter length of the left wall, tables in the middle, booths wrapped in shadows along the half-cylinder arc on the right that had been the shuttlebay doors. Zandy’s customers as a rule preferred the lighting low and the conversations muted. Any stray talk that made it past the acoustic paneling would be buried under the scrabbling-spider crackle of the Kana’i glitch-hop that drifted down from overhead speakers. The old ship’s hull blocked the station coms; you wanted network, you went through Zandy’s own authenticating routers: a layer of trust, assuming you trusted Zandy, that is. Me, I trusted Zandy not to do anything that might drive away business.

A dozen faces looked up at me as I stood for the scan, some human, some not, a random assortment of expressions from cautious recognition to studied disinterest. There were a few leers as well, as I shifted my weight against the squirming itch of nanoprobes. I clenched my hands middle-finger shy of fists and smiled my third best smile, the look-how-sharp-my-teeth-are smile.

The sensor array beeped, and half a dozen Halo Shenoys flickered onto the screens, psychedelic false-color slices through the EM spectrum. I try to avoid being imaged, as a rule, but Martta’s scanners were worth the trip down just to see what I was giving away. In thermal, I was skinny stick limbs of green fading to blue fingers and toes, hot spots inside elbows and wrists, torso a swirled yellow flame, face a crayon sketch in red and orange with two black spots where my contact displays hid my eyes. In the magscan I was white metal on black; the fishnet mesh of the boots, the gleam of rings on fingers and ears, a web of wiring and processing nodes under the skin across my shoulders and up my neck to the solid square jack at the base of my skull. In visual, I was a study in don’t-see-me: carbon and leather over my own space-bleached mahogany.

Martta fingered my new earring, a finger-length claw of carbon veined with zirconium with a needle tip that scratched at my shoulder. Four curled stubs like the roots of teeth looped through my ear to blend with the sharp inner edge of the curve. It was one seamless piece, grown in place by nanosculptors. The only way to get it off my ear would be to rip it away, and for a second I could see Martta considering that option, but in the end she shrugged and slapped my back pocket hard enough to sting.

“Let’s have the credchip,” she said. I fished it out; that pocket was tight, proof against pickpockets and accidents in the low-g of the upper levels. Martta ran a virus scan — jack houses got as itchy over malware as they did over weapons — and flipped it back to me. “Spend it all in one place,” she said.

I was early and had those eighty-seven creds to burn, so I headed over to the bar. I had to step over an intestinal tangle of plastic tubing: decompression sensors. Station regs required them to be installed in all modules, as part of the automated warning system, but as usual Zandy was cutting corners and doing the work himself. I stepped carefully; decomp sensors were notoriously sensitive. With good reason, mind you: New Singapore was prone to leaks. Too many residents like Zandy, I guess, cutting corners.

Thrand Zandy was behind the bar, and as glad to see me as Martta was. “Silence comes on clanking claws/Darkness under mirrored metal/Intent behind shallow smile,” he said, a subsonic rumble pitched up to human hearing by the transcoder strapped round his thick stub of a neck. Thrands were like that, all poetry and insults.

“Howzit, Hefty Z? Me, I’ve got no intent beyond a drink or two, and a bit of business. That a new hat? One on the left, I mean.”

Thrands have a globular bulge over each eye, and Zandy liked to wear something on each, between the rows of tiny earfronds that fringed his skull. Today he had a tractor cap on the right side, a spaceship and sickle logo and “Novo Kalingrad Collective” in Cyrillic. On the left was what looked like Scottish tweed.

“Gift from grateful golfer/Spun from shavèd shepherds/Drinks he downed delighted/Credit counted clearly.”

That last was a poke at me, so I pulled out the eighty-seven in cash, flipped through it, whistling. I thought of green cuckoo clocks — I was trying out a new set of neural cues — and the time overlay popped up in my lenses, digits superimposed over Zandy’s lumpy greygreen face. I was twenty minutes early for the drop. “I’ll take a bottle of Baijiu and a ten minute flip-forward. And I think you mean sheep, not shepherds.”

Zandy frowned at me with one eye; the other tracked the waitron as she swiped a creditchip and counted out change. She was a redhead, round and freckled, crammed into a low-cut red vinyl minidress that ought to have clashed with her hair but didn’t. An active tattoo of a snake writhed and spiraled up her right arm and peeked out at me from her cleavage. I leaned over to check the tat and caught her scent: jasmine over a tang that made me think of hospital. I added both my eyes to Zandy’s one as she sashayed herself back towards the booths. The chain wrapped around her left ankle jangled as she walked.

“New girl?” I asked.

“Nelly named/One weeks working/Jacks jump jingling/Cash come clattering/Parties prompt paying,” he said, and added a word in Thrand that sounded like a ten kilo weight hitting the floor.

That was another dig at me; I’d left in a bit of a hurry last time I was down here, and left my tab hanging. Zandy claimed it was thirty-eight creds and change. I snapped my fingers at him — smiles were useless on Thrands, but they have a thing for human fingers — and went to work. Five minutes of negotiation and I had him down to thirty flat on the promise of bringing business into the bar and got a double shot of the booze and the flip-forward for another ten.

That’s what I do: make deals happen when the parties involved don’t see eye to eye, or eye to eyestalk, or eyestalk to sensory spores, which the Kana’i insist on sneezing at you even though they are fluent in eleven variants of sign language and speak English with a vaguely Swedish accent. That’s what I had over my planet-born station-mates; they still live in their own worlds. I’m from here, where those worlds collide. I can dance between them with my boots and my smiles. The sort of courier gig I was doing today was beneath me, is what I thought, but better that than me beneath some sweaty Earther in a flop. Better than taking the long walk outside.

Zandy blinked and got the distant stare of someone reading off their lenses; Thrand eyes are close enough to human that they can use our lens tech off the shelf. “Network null/Connection cracked/Self is same?”

I thought the big blue lowercase ‘i’ for Net search. The overlay in my lenses just spun: no connection. Ditto for the news feeds, the Station map, even the emergency channel. “Your wireless is wedged, Z,” I said.

He grunted something in Thrand I didn’t catch and stomped his squat body off towards the back rooms where they keep the serious jacking rigs and the sensory chambers and those gelatin baths for which the Bhadapa would drop a week’s wages.

I settled into a booth in Nelly’s section and slammed the shot of Baijiu. Johnny G was playing some sort of card game at one of the tables with Thrand Nfarrar and a tall blue-tinged Bhadap who had a “Hello, my name is: Yesska” tag stuck between two of its shoulder-blades. They all looked my way, so I gave them the number three smile until they got the point and went back to their game. Then I looped up my hair with the band from my wrist, found the edge of the jack with the tips of my fingers, and jacked the flip-forward chip.

If you’ve never done a flip-forward, well, you’re more patient than I am. What it does is pushes your sense of time even more subjective than normal. Anything that seems boring flashes past at double or triple realtime. Anything that catches your eye, however, hangs like a series of still frames. Beginners tend to get stuck on random details, bits of passing anatomy as a rule. But with practice, which is to say, a lot of time spent in jack joints waiting for your contact to arrive, you can train yourself to look for particular elements. In this case, I was looking for anyone who looked like Fujiwara-san of the Saito Zaibatsu, Earth, and/or anyone who would want to stick their noses into the business of the same.

What I was getting, mostly, were newbie-grade shots of Nelly the new waitron strutting her stuff to and from the bar while fending off the advances of Johnny G and his Bhadapa friend. That snakehead tattooed between her freckled breasts seemed to be watching me, and once, in the hung frame of the flip, I swear its bulging eyes twinkled. This was not exactly the mission-critical information I was hoping for — sometimes I just do not get my own hindbrain — but it did kill ten minutes easily enough.

Whether Nelly was worth the eyeball time or not, however, she was certainly moving the drinks, so I gave her the number two smile and a hey-ignore-those-scumbags-and-get-me-a-drink wave. She was doing the waitron thing, though, avoiding catching my eye with a precision that defied statistical probability.

I had just gotten up to head to the bar when Martta stepped in and pointed a finger and a glare my way. Three men came through the hatch behind her, tracked her finger over to me. They were younger and larger than I was expecting. I straightened a bra strap and smoothed the hem of my skirt down against my thighs, motions that would have let me check that my weapons were all within reach, if they hadn’t been stacked in the locker in Terminal Seven. I wasn’t feeling my usual chill, but then again, jacking does literally mess with your brain.

Fujiwara-san and party wove their way through the tables to me. Their shuffling steps in the plus-g and their sideways glances at the alien clientele would have pegged them as straight-off-the-shuttle, even if they hadn’t been carrying a shielded case with the luggage tags still attached. I stayed standing and pondered which smile to loose upon them.

Close up, the guy in the lead still looked younger than I was expecting, that or he had one hell of a medical plan. His black suit was made of tiny scales of carbon like snakeskin; active tats writhed at the edges of his cuffs and collar. He looked Japanese, at least. The two dragging themselves behind him were Slavic, maybe, rippling with modded muscle and nervous energy.

“Fujiwara-san,” I said, with a hint of a question and a bow just a touch less deep than I would have if he’d looked more like a respected representative of the Saito Zaibatsu and less like a punk.

He squinted at me through opaque lenses, and proffered his Station visa. If he bowed, it was too subtle for me, and that took some doing. “Halogen Shenoy?”

I nodded and didn’t bother with the “my friends call me Halo”.

He pulled a pinkie-sized cylinder out of his pocket, pointed it towards my face. “I will need a retinal scan.” His Japanese had slight accent; Spanish, maybe. Lots of yakuza out of Peru these days, but not usually Saito material. Certainly not if he was always this rude.

“Dozo,” is what I said, though, and stared into the flash of light. The portable scanner strobed to itself for a few seconds. If Zandy hadn’t gotten the wireless back up then this was going to be a short meeting. But the scanner flickered, and Fujiwara nodded.

“Your turn,” I said and stepped in close, real close. He pulled his head back, and the two big guys stiffened, leaned forward. I tapped my temple and gave them the number three smile. “Got a scanner built into my lenses.”

Even from a handspan away Fujiwara’s lenses were opaque, a glossy black that covered the iris and most of the white. “You’re going to have to pull a lens,” I said.

“Of course,” he said, with his own sharp-tooth smile. He pinched the lens from his right eye, sleeve falling back to reveal a twitching tattooed tail around his right wrist, and leaned forward, eye to eye, almost touching noses. His breath smelled like mouthwash and last night’s booze and under that a waft of something floral off his fingers. His eye was bloodshot an almost solid red. Must have been some party, I thought, and called up the scanner overlay. His retina matched his Station visa, but I double-checked against Xujenc’s database. The overlay spun and glitched like a migraine. I was just turning to complain to Zandy about the wireless again when the connection went through: the padlock icon of a secure connection, a green plus for retinal match. A 100% match, which was rare given the crap scanner in my lenses. It was too slick, like Fujiwara himself, but data was data, and I doubted Xujenc would accept my dislike of perfection as reason enough for screwing the deal.

I fished the creditchip out of my pocket, spun it in my fingers, and tilted my head toward the booth. Fujiwara made a show of putting his contact display back in, an awkward pause as we stood there each waiting for the other to slide to the inside. We finally came to a tacit compromise. Fujiwara slid in on one side, and I on the other, with one of his men next to him and one next to me.

He placed the case on the table, latches towards me, and I set the creditchip on top. He jacked the chip into the portable scanner instead of his skull jack; a cautious man was Fujiwara-san. I opened the case, which held rows of thumbdrives. They were labeled as Bhadapa translators, but were certainly something else, given that my client Xujenc-the-Tonguebiter was likely to speak his own language. Whatever it really was, I didn’t need to know. All I needed was to match the serial numbers and get this deal done. I blinked up a barcode overlay and scanned the drives, sent the codes off to the remote node Xujenc had provided. The connect was even slower this time, the overlay skewed and stuttering, but after an eye-chattering minute or two the codes came back “confirmed”.

I could see Fujiwara’s patient black gaze through my overlay, but I kept the vacant lensing look on my face while I considered the situation. Maybe it was the flip-forward and the plus-g and the wireless glitches and Nelly-the-redhead’s stupid snake tat, but there was something that smelled off about the whole evening. I reconsidered rule two of Thrand Zandy’s TechnoThèque, and decided that even though the two million credits wasn’t mine and even though I was here to give it away, I was not willing to lose it.

When in doubt and in a bar, order drinks. I proposed a round of Baijiu. Fujiwara-san declined, with a frown and a slow shake of his head, so I unleashed my number one smile, the one that says I-know-something-and-you-really-want-to-know-what-it-is, and said, “I understand. You’re tired, and the FTL jump really takes it out of you. You head on, get some rest. I’ll have a glass or two for you.”

It was a matter of face, now, man against woman, and him in front of his flunkies, so of course he made a show of considering and said, “A toast to celebrate our successful business would be in order.”

He raised his hand, and of course this time Nelly noticed from across the room and started over. So I hopped up onto the seat and stepped over the flunky blocking me in. “Gotta watch Zandy pour, otherwise he gives you the cheap stuff,” I said. I smacked Johnny G on the head on the way to the bar. “Ow!” he said, and slicked his hair back down.

I was down to forty-seven credits, so I was going to end up with the cheap stuff anyway. The thing about cheap Baijiu, though, is that it is around seventy percent pure ethanol, which covers up any number of faults. In this case, it entirely obscured the fact that half the twenty-cred bottle I brought back was in fact Kana’i kro’ong, a mix of hydrocarbons and enzymes that is a mild euphoric to Kana’i and an astonishingly fast-acting diuretic to us humans. A favorite late-night game at Zandy’s is one-for-one shots of kro’ong without leaving your barstool; the loser pays for the shots and the cleanup. I never lose.

Back at the table, I juggled glasses and smiled until the flunky on my side got the hint and slid in. Amateur. He and his twin were, however, clueful enough to refuse a drink. I poured for Fujiwara-san and myself, showing off by holding the bottle high and letting the Coriolis forces bend the stream of booze. Fujiwara was profoundly unimpressed. I let him pick the cup, raised the other with a “Kampai!” and drained it. He smiled then, thinly, and drained his own, managed to hold the smile and not shudder, for which I gave him a grudging measure of respect.

I poured another shot for each of us, and blathered about the Station, and one-minute-thirty-two seconds later Fujiwara-san got a look of sudden concentration on his face. “You will excuse me,” he said, and gave the flunky on his side a nudge of with his shoulder. The flunky stood up and Fujiwara slid out, biting his lip, and headed towards the ‘Toilets’ sign in the back, stumbling a bit from gravity and desperation.

“Me too,” I said with the bimbo smile, as I hooked the case with a finger and stood. The flunkies looked like they wanted to object, but the creditchip was in Fujiwara’s pocket and anyway I was already moving in the opposite direction from Fujiwara, towards the accessway. That was the only exit — yet another violation of station regs — and if something went sideways I wanted to be between Fujiwara and a getaway.

Martta was leaning at the edge of the airlock, watching me cross the bar, so she had plenty of time to work up a suspicious glare for me.

“Martta,” I said. “Do me a favor?”

She doubled down on the glare. The urge to smile a smile up into that doubt was overwhelming. I didn’t, though, because Martta’s the one person I know who can see through me, scanners or no. So I took the big risk, the one that can get you dead in a place like Thrand Zandy’s TechnoThèque, and said, “Please?”

She sucked her teeth, glanced over my shoulder toward the flunkies in the booth, looked back at me with an eyebrow raised.

“My associate there, the head honcho, can I see his scan?”

Martta looked up and drew in a breath, so I added, “Something’s not chill here, come on, you gotta feel it.”

She got that glare back.

“Better to stop it now than let it get out of hand,” I said.

“Better to let it get out of here,” she replied.

“It’ll get lost,” I said, and shook the case at her. The drives inside rattled; damn things didn’t even fit into the case right. “And I don’t have another one to lose.”

She stopped then, and looked me in the eye. We both looked down at our feet a few seconds later. She snorted. “Fuck sake, Halo, pawn those damn boots and buy your skinny self some food before you slip through the cracks.” But then she sighed and gestured me into the airlock.

She tapped on the console: mag-res showed the normal jumble of wire under the skin of his back and neck, nanoscan showed no unusual chemical signatures, thermal was the usual smeared rainbow of reds and oranges, and… “Head honcho,” I said. “I should listen to myself more often. Zoom the thermal on his face.”

Martta gave me a funny look, and thumbed the display. Zoomed up, his head was a fat red pear, black holes where his oversized contacts blocked the scan.

“Rotate it,” I said, made a twisting motion with my fingers, back and forth.

Martta slid her fingertips on the display, and the image turned, revealed one hot yellow eye and then the other. I heard her get it, a little hiss under her breath. “His eyes,” she said.

“Different sizes,” I said. “No wonder he’s got those contacts in. I’ll bet they aren’t even the same color.” Wherever the real Fujiwara-san was, he was staring out at his final destination with one eye.

All that was, of course, unfortunate for the Saito Zaibatsu. But my job was to exchange the two million credits for the case of drives and as long as the latter was legit, my work here was done.

But eyes hung framed in my mind, glittering black eyes. Not Fujiwara’s. These were small, beady. Snake eyes.

“Martta, you have whatserface, the redhead?”

She stared at me.

“The waitron. Nelly,” I said. “You have Nelly’s scan from this morning?”

Martta shook her head slowly, still not following me and beginning to look like she didn’t want to do so. “She opened this morning. Said she wanted to give Zandy and me a chance to sleep in for once.”

Snake eyes, and my hindbrain had been hung up on them because they were the one element of that active tattoo that was not moving. The image from the flip-forward was as clear in my head as those on Martta’s screens, snake eyes peering out her cleavage, following me as she moved, gleaming in the light, because they stuck out. They were studs, embedded in her chest, and I’d bet Fujiwara’s one remaining eye that they were the antenna for a wireless jammer and a local-area transmitter. I flicked through my neural cues. Nothing worked, not even the police channel.

“Martta, can you connect to the Net?”

She shook her head. “It’s been out for hours. Zandy’s still trying to figure it out.”

“Son of a bitch.” The glitches when I’d checked the barcodes. The scent of jasmine on Faux-Fujiwara’s fingers. I looked at Martta. “Nelly’s overriding the Net. They intercepted the barcode check on the thumbdrives. It’s a fucking scam.”

Martta looked up at the power cables slung along the ceiling, blew out a breath. “You brought this garbage in here,” she said. “You pack it out again.”

“She’s your damn employee…” I started, but out of the corner of my eye I saw black. Faux-Fujiwara was out of the bathroom, headed this way, and the flunkies were getting up. They were closer to Faux-Fujiwara, but they had tables in their way, and the unfamiliar plus-g. I had a straight shot so I went for it, moving fast but trying to look casual, just a girl headed for the toilet. That wasn’t hard to fake; the kro’ong had kicked in and my bladder was bursting, but it would have to wait until after I had my arm around Faux-Fujiwara’s scrawny neck.

I tried for my bimbo smile but I must have blown it, or maybe it was Martta clomping in beside me with a scowl at Nelly, because the redhead shouted something and Faux-Fujiwara and the flunkies all made the same gesture, hands in front of face, neural cue, and then my eyes melted out of my head.

Not literally, as it turned out, though the sensation was uncannily realistic. My lenses had gone black and my entire neural implant from shoulders to skull-jack to temples felt like it was on fire. Some sort of attack vector, broadcasting full-power on all channels; Nelly must have an entire damn comms unit embedded in her chest.

I tried to pull the lenses out, but my hands were spasming with the pain. I jammed my thumb into my eye twice, pain on pain and a nasty squish, and then I had to squat down and scream for a few seconds, just to clear my head. I could hear Martta beside me, alternating little grunts and a grumble of Finnish. Johnny G was swearing somewhere to my right, in a high-pitched whine; Zandy was a rumble like an earthquake from somewhere to my left. I tried to concentrate on the latter, maybe get to the bar, find something to use as a weapon, a broken bottle or one of those little toothpick umbrellas, but I wasn’t actually breathing and a deeper blackness was flooding up from somewhere at the base of my skull.

I put my hands on either side of my head and managed to get in a breath, then screamed it right out again, the rings on my fingers jangling against the little ones down the back of my ears, the sharp wicked curve of my new nanosculpted earring cutting into my palm and I didn’t even hesitate just kept screaming and ripped that thing straight out of my ear, the roots popping one-two-three-four out of the lobe.

I swung the earring in front of me, hoping to cut down Nelly and the flunkies with one blow, fell over onto my side instead, felt like I was going to keep falling forever. I was losing it, the creditchip, the case, the commission, the chance. If I lived, Xujenc and Martta were going to be fighting over who got to kill me first. Probably the Saito Zaibatsu would want a piece, too, not that that was my fault. Damn Fujiwara, anyway, his eye offendeth me, though wrong order, it had been plucked out first…

Huh, I thought, in the dark.

I reached back, steadied one shaking hand with another, got the point of the earring under the skin close as I could get to the jack at the base of my skull, pushed in, twisted the carbon claw sharp-side out, and pried. I’d have screamed if I wasn’t already doing so. The edge sliced through the wires that linked the jack to the power supply and antenna under my shoulders, the optical feeds, some hopefully non-vital muscle, veins, tendons, fat, and back out through the skin. The pain stopped, the induced pain from the implants, anyway, though my ear and the back of my neck were searing lines of agony. The contact displays didn’t clear, so I took a deep breath, rolled onto my back and popped the lenses out.

The neural attack had seemed to go on for minutes, but Nelly and Fujiwara and the flunkies had barely moved. Nelly was looking straight at me; she opened her mouth but Johnny G let out a wild screech and staggered to his feet. He’d gotten one lens out, scratches across his cheek, and he grabbed a bottle off the table and swung at a flunky. The bottle bounced off the flunky’s head with a dull clunk and spun out of Johnny’s grasp. The flunky blinked, threw a hand out and punched Johnny in the face. He went back-first onto the table, spraying blood and obscenities.

Nelly had turned to track the action so I moved; got onto my knees, one hand on Martta’s shoulder and “Hold still” into her ear, then I found the bulge of wire on the back of her neck and sliced.

Martta didn’t even flinch; she just said, “So,” and stood, fumbled the lenses from her eyes. She spared me a quick glare. Then she reached back over her shoulder, fingers fumbling at her blood-soaked collar, and pulled out a pair of ceramic blades, sent them toward Faux-Fujiwara.

The blades flew true, one full flip, hit Faux-Fujiwara in the chest and bounced. That slick carbon-scaled suit he was wearing wasn’t just well-tailored, it was armor.

Fujiwara was fast, and not reeling like we were from the neural attack. He grabbed one of the blades mid-bounce and sent it back at Martta. He’d have hit her in the heart, too, if he hadn’t been thrown off by the Station spin. Coriolis effect pushed the knife a few inches too far to the right for a kill, though Martta still went down hard.

I dove toward the bar and there was a shadow and a gust of wind and a sense of something massive overhead. Zandy had cleared the bar and myself in one leap, going for Martta, earfronds erect, navigating by sound alone despite the chaos.

Faux-Fujiwara beat him there with the second blade, had the point on Zandy’s contact display by the time the Thrand had thudded to a stop. He said something in soft Spanish — I couldn’t catch it over the damn music and the screaming — and Zandy raised his stubby hands, trembling with the pain of the neural attack. I rolled and sat up, fumbled at my lap, the floor on either side, searching. I’d dropped the earring.

“Fucking mess,” Nelly said in Japanese.

“We gotta blow, boss,” one of the flunkies said. “Get back to the shuttle, and off this damn station.”

“Where’s the case with the dummy drives?” Faux-Fujiwara asked. That was a good question; I must have dropped it when the neural attack started.

“Forget it, we’ve got the real ones,” Nelly said. “You got the creditchip?” Faux-Fujiwara nodded. “Then Max is right. Let’s go.”

“What about Toad Zandy here, and these two psycho putas?”

“Off ’em,” Max suggested and shrugged when Nelly glared at him.

“No more mess,” Nelly said. “Lock them in the supply room. The key’s behind the bar.”

“Well, get it, for fuck sake,” Faux-Fujiwara replied, and gestured with his chin, knife hand not wavering from its aim on Zandy’s huge left eye. “You heard her, froggy, in you go. You, get them.”

That last comment was to the flunkies; they were standing over Johnny’s still flailing form. The big one, Max, looked over at me, headed my way as Zandy and Fujiwara backed slowly towards the storage room.

I crawled back to Martta, got my arms under her shoulders and dragged her toward the end of the bar. There was an absurd moment of slow-motion chase as I tugged and Max sauntered. He finally laughed, and said, “Go ahead, babe, I’ll give the two of you a five second head start.”

I made up a whole new smile, right there on the spot, a mix of desperation and anger and a deep, deep delight at my own cleverness, because Martta had opened her eyes and looked up at me and I had a plan. “Oxygen,” I said, and fell backwards. Martta huffed in pain as she hit the floor. I reached up over my head, found the tangle of tubes at the end of the bar and pulled, dragged the entire tangle over my head and onto my chest.

The flunky had reached us so I got on my hands and knees, shouldered him out of the way and wedged the end of a tube into Martta’s mouth. “She needs oxygen,” I gasped again, over my shoulder at the flunky.

“She’s not gonna need nothing,” Max said and made a show of cracking his knuckles. I ducked down, head to Martta’s head.

“The hell is this?” she asked around the mouthful of tubing.

“Zandy’s half-ass decompression sensor,” I whispered. “I give the signal, you suck like it’s Zandy.”

She grunted. “Zandy got nothing to suck on,” she said. That was a revelation that would have to wait for another day; Max had his hand on my shoulder, was pulling me up.

“Shit, man, I’m dying,” I said, and held up a bloody hand. I finally let loose my agonized, bloated bladder; my sigh of relief made a pretty convincing last gasp, I thought. Max jumped backward with a curse, and I fumbled with the tubes. It took three or four seconds to find the open end of the sensor but Max was looking down at his drenched shoes. I bit down, caught Martta’s eye, nodded a downbeat. We sucked.

If Zandy had ever gotten around to installing the decompression sensors to Station regs, the tubing would have been inset at strategic spots throughout the bar and protected from tampering. A sudden simultaneous pressure drop in two or more of them would signal a leak and trigger the appropriate response. That’s what I hoped, anyway, and sucked hard.

A whoopwhoopwhoop of alarms, then, and even though I had triggered it, it stopped me cold for a second: that sound is drilled into the nightmares of everyone who lives Station-side. Even the customers still writhing in the pain of the neural attack stopped screaming and lifted their heads, faces slack with terror. Explosive decompression, that alarm meant, certain death or not, depending on where you were relative to the leak and the nearest station seal.

There was no leak, of course, but there were two massive seals, one at each end of the accessway outside the old airlock, and they both slammed shut simultaneously, locking us in and severing the power cables that fed the TechnoThèque.

Darkness again, but this time we were all in it together. Max was somewhere in front of me, on the other side of Martta; there was a heavy thud from that direction. But behind me I heard a jingle and caught a whiff of jasmine. Nelly.

I fumbled in front of me for something I could use as a weapon, and found the great curve of one of Martta’s breasts. I traced the bloody mess of her collar, hoping for another ceramic blade. She’d been smarter than me. She had had a backup.

All I found now, though, was the knife sticking up from her sternum. It didn’t feel like it had gone too deep. Maybe pulling it wouldn’t do too much more damage, or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Either way, I needed the edge; smiles weren’t going to cut it, not in the dark. I wrapped my fingers around the hilt.

But something grabbed my arm, something hard and claw-tipped, Martta’s hand with my earring caught between two fingers. Maybe she was my backup, she and Zandy. That was yet another thought for another day. Right now, I had some hard work to do.

Which meant taking the offered earring and rolling backward until I ran up against Nelly’s soft, scented legs. I grabbed the chain around her ankle and reached up with the other hand, fingers running over the slick vinyl of her dress, the velvet notch of cleavage, to find the cold hard stubs of the transmitter embedded in her chest. Nelly snarled something in Japanese, flailed out with sharp fingernails and caught my jaw, but I got one knee under me and planted the claw right between those snake eyes.

Nelly shrieked, a high-pitched squeal like Nana Io’s tea kettle. No human should be able to make that sound. Sparks erupted from her chest, lighting her face in a series of strobe flashes, burning my fingers and face. I blinked the sparks out of my eyes and tried to hold on to her but she dropped away, lost in the dark.

There was a chorus of gasps from one side of the room to the other as the neural attack and the jamming stopped simultaneously, a flurry of movement as everyone’s overlays came on line, everyone’s but mine and Martta’s, of course. Someone, I thought, someone has to have night vision, or a map overlay of the bar itself.

And of course, Zandy did. He shouted something, a roar like a rocket starting up, and there was a crunch, and one last scream.

There were a few moments of chaos after that, a shout in Russian suddenly cut short, a thudding from the bar.

A light flicked on. Zandy was standing over us, holding a flashlight in one hand, Martta’s ceramic blade and a handful of what looked like pretzel sticks in the other. Zandy stepped over Martta to check Max the flunky but he was down. Martta, still flat on her back with the pressure sensor in her mouth, had snagged him by the ankle and his knee now bent the wrong way.

Zandy knelt down, dropped the light and the knife and the pretzels and cradled Martta’s head in his lap.

I picked up a pretzel, realized it was one of Faux-Fujiwara’s fingers, gently put it down again. I closed my eyes, but decided I’d had enough of the dark for a while. So I picked up the knife, instead, and the flashlight, turned it on Nelly. She was staring up at the ceiling and way past it. Her chest had blown out, the hole still smoking. Whoever had implanted the comm gear in her ribcage hadn’t bothered with safeties. I guess it was all she could afford. Her eyes glittered in the beam of light like the eyes of her snake. I wanted to tell her… well, it’s none of your business.

After a while, Martta coughed, tried to say something, and I turned my head so she couldn’t see my face. “Yeah, I know,” I said. “Bitch should have known. First thing you do not want to do, bring a weapon into Thrand Zandy’s TechnoThèque.”

Zandy rumbled, and stroked Martta’s cheek with thick clumsy thumbs.

I got to my feet, spent a while getting my boots pulled up. Faux-Fujiwara was on the ground somewhere back there with the creditchip for two million; that was priority one, before the Station crews got here and popped the decomp seals. And after that, there was a case of thumbdrives to track down, the real ones from the Saito Zaibatsu, and a deal to make. That’s what I do: make deals. I looked at Martta and Zandy then, maybe to keep from looking at Nelly’s body. Maybe, I guess, to see what they’d see in me.

Martta was glaring up from Zandy’s lap. She looked pretty good, considering. In fact, she looked like she was wondering who was going to pay for all of this. I was going to have to think twice about walking into here with any money at all for a bit. “Then again,” I said, and tried on a smile, “looks like I’m walking out of here, and damn me if I don’t still have twenty-seven creds on me, in cash.”

“Clever con confounded/Nelly not noticed—”

“Yeah, well, I caught her,” I snapped, and took a deep breath. “Okay, we caught her.” It felt strange to say that, like taking another risk in the dark. But I guess it made it all a bit better.

“—Scanner scammed scheme,” Zandy finished, pointedly. Martta gritted down on her glare and reached out a hand.

I sighed and looked up into the darkness, down at the glitter of my boots in the flashlight beam. And then I dropped the creds into her hand. “Two things about Thrand Zandy’s TechnoThèque…” I said.

Martta gave me her own big beautiful smile.

cipher disk
Two Things About Thrand Zandy’s TechnoThèque © 2014 Gregory Norman Bossert
Thruppence Candy © 2014 Dermot Power


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