Before he did anything else, Simon Tamil was determined to find himself a gun, preferably something large caliber, yet easily concealable. In other words, this was not the sort of weapon that was simply lying around on Kuroishima, nor one that would be easy to find, easy to purchase, or easy to keep unnoticed. He’d have to pay through the teeth to get it, and chances were that he’d be caught with it and thrown in the brig. It was a testament to his nervousness, then, that he was intent on finding one in the shortest period of time possible.
Simon was nervous for two reasons. First, the ship that had been his home for the last eight years was now gone, sucked through a wormhole to another part of space that might as well have been the other side of the galaxy. On that ship happened to be all the people he cared about, and everyone he called a friend. They and Hornet were headed to parts unknown—OK, the Core Systems, but what did that mean to a man like Simon?—to face risks without him there to help.
As for the second reason Simon was nervous, well, he was about to try to infiltrate a pirate organization with the help of a madwoman. Now, it wasn’t a matter of respect; Simon had lots of respect for Amathea Yakazuma, because people who didn’t tended to end up in body bags, or maybe in those little parts bags they used to clean up after a particularly nasty accident in engineering, when you just had a hand here, a chunk there. No, it wasn’t a matter of respect at all, but rather a matter of self preservation. Yakazuma didn’t much care about her own life, much less those of the people around her.
So, although he’d said nothing but “Yes, sir,” at the time, it had been an act of profound love and respect for his captain that had led Simon to agree to this mission, which would almost certainly lead to his unpleasant death. Thus, he desired a gun, and a big one at that. Maybe getting arrested would be just the key. Of course, Yakazuma wouldn’t let him languish in prison; no doubt a jail break would help her establish her credentials with the pirates.
Simon shuddered at the thought. It was enough to drive a man to chemical support, and would have done in his case, had he not already been at that point. For a long time now, come to think of it.
Zemnox was not a narcotic in the traditional sense. Developed and marketed about two hundred years ago, the drug was sold as a battle enhancement; it boosted strength, reflexes, and neural activity beyond normal capacity. Used in moderation, Zemnox had no noticeable side-effects, nor was it particularly addictive. Simon had a vial of the stuff strapped to his upper arm, attached to an injector that kept him properly fed at all times. For him, the effect was by now minimal, just a scratch on the surface. He was so pumped full of the stuff that his body had assimilated the changes, taken on a permanent boost, so long as he didn’t go off it for long. Doc Monteux had warned him about that. The withdraw would be nasty, the kind of thing that killed people. Not that he needed it all the time. He could go without for hours, even a day or two. Not more than that.
The communicator in his ear buzzed slightly, indicating that Yakazuma was calling him. He’d chosen the annoying sound before leaving the ship, since she never called him and he never answered if she did. Now he was going to have to change it, before the buzzing drove him crazy.
“Yes?” he hissed through clenched teeth.
“Where are you?” she asked, her voice flat.
Simon glanced around. He could always subvocalize the call, let the communications hardware in his brain interpret the signals and generate his voice patters for her, but it wasn’t necessary. He was in the warren of corridors and streets that radiated from the Axis, and in a bad part of town to boot, so there weren’t any listeners, just the sort of people who hurried by and kept their business to themselves.
“I’m in Yattsushu,” he replied. “What the he—” He cut himself off sharply; no need to anger the crazy lady. “What is it?”
“If you still need a gun,” she said, “I have an extra one.” She sounded almost friendly. Almost. “It’s a Smalley J-Eight-Two,” she went on. “Not a great gun, but. . . .”
“Thanks,” he said after a moment. The Smalley wasn’t a bad gun—a two millimeter railpistol with sequential burst fire and a fifty round magazine—but there was a certain standard that he needed to uphold. “I’m about to close a deal here, though, so I think I’ll go through with that. But we should keep the Smalley as a backup piece.”
“Absolutely,” she agreed. “Just. . . .” Another pause on the line, and then she said, “When will you be back?” and now she sounded more businesslike.
“Give me another three hours. After that, you’ll be on your own.”
“Don’t get killed on me, Simon,” she said. “Maccabee would be very angry with me if you got yourself killed.” He could hear her grin.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m tearing up here. Talk to you later.” He cut the signal, then sighed with relief. Talking to Yakazuma always made him more nervous, if that was even possible. She had honestly sounded interested in helping him, however; it was possible that things might not work out terribly after all.
A touch on the injector attached to his arm boosted the dosage for a moment, sending a calming surge of the drug through him. Then, Simon started moving again.
Yattsushu—District Eight—was not a very safe part of Kuroishima. The law here was pretty strict, however, so what this really meant was that pickpockets were pretty common in this part of the station, along with other sorts of petty criminals. Murders, assaults, rapes, those things happened in Kuroishima, but rarely were they random instances, more often directed at known targets resulting from extant relationships. Kuroishima was not the sort of place where a man would be killed for having a bright ring on his finger, or for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Having been in places like that, Simon was just as happy he wasn’t in one of them now.
He had, however, made some contacts. Being addicted to a controlled substance meant having to deal with people who might ordinarily be the sort of folk best avoided in civilized society. Simon chuckled at the formulation in his head. He’d had to restock his Zemnox supply as soon as they’d docked in Kuroishima—he always kept a reserve of the stuff, but preferred not to dip into it—and it hadn’t taken him long to find the right people. Years and years of practice in that area tended to pay off. As it happened, the people who sold illegal and controlled drugs tended to be the same people who dealt in illegal and controlled weapons. Handy.
In another few minutes, Simon was knocking on a nondescript door in an unremarkable alleyway. Drug dealers who had descript doors in remarkable alleyways, Simon reflected, tended to do poorly in the long term. He imagined he could feel the tingle of the high-frequency scanner looking him over through the door, and then it slid aside, revealing a small, bulky man of Japanese descent who tried carefully to be both threatening and harmless at the same time. A delicate balancing act, this was achieved with some skill. The small man bowed very slightly and motioned for Simon to enter, then sealed the door behind him.
The interior of the tiny apartment was decorated in the traditional Japanese style, tatami mats on the floor and framed paper walls between rooms that glided on bamboo tracks. Rather, materials that appeared to be paper and bamboo, and were certainly synthetics. No one on Kuroishima could afford the real thing.
Hirabashi Ichiro was not a young man, but he had piercing eyes. He looked no more Japanese than Simon, yet insisted that he was descended from Samurai, and he wasn’t getting any arguments from people who did business with him. Though he was certainly not the most dangerous man Simon had ever met—not by a long way—Hirabashi was not someone to trifle with. At the moment, he was sitting cross-legged behind a low stand, on which were set two teacups and a small pot, all following the Japanese style so common on the station.
“Mister Tamil,” said the drug dealer, a small smile painting his face for the briefest of moments. “Please, join me.”
“Thank you, Hirabashi-san,” replied Simon with a small bow. He kicked off his boots at the door and padded across the mats to sit across from the other man.
In silence, Hirabashi poured the tea into the two cups, serving Simon first. Every movement was carefully controlled, without any wasted effort or lack of economy. Setting the pot down, Hirabashi raised his cup, as did Simon; they saluted each other, then took a sip.
“What can I do for you, Mister Tamil?” asked Hirabashi, sighing slightly as he savored the flavor of the tea. Simon thought it tasted terrible, bitter and sharp, but he’d always been more of a coffee drinker. “Surely,” continued the drug dealer, “you’ve not already exhausted the supply I gave you?”
“Not at all, Hirabashi-san,” said Simon, keeping the formal mode of address. He’d interrogated several people before making contact with this man, and he knew what was expected, and what was frowned upon. “It was a generous amount.” He smiled. “No, I have another favor to ask of you.”
“Ah, I see.” Hirabashi took another sip of his tea. Simon did not. “Will it be a costly favor?”
“Probably,” Simon let slip, then shut his mouth with the slightest grimace. Keep talking. “I’d like to make a purchase for my personal security.”
“Indeed, Mister Tamil,” Hirabashi said with a sad shake of his head. “That is most unfortunate for you, as I do not deal in such things.”
“Hirabashi-san,” replied Simon apologetically, “my sources were quite clear that you do, and I would be most honored to do business with you.”
“Nevertheless. . . .” Hirabashi sighed. “Mister Tamil, you are a dangerous man. Do not try to protest the fact. I know which ship you serve.”
“Used to serve,” Simon corrected. “You’ll note that they’ve gone and left me here. Hence my need for some extra security.”
“Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether they have, in truth, left you here,” said Hirabashi, his eyes focused directly on Simon’s, “what you ask is no small task and no small risk in this place. You ask me to take these chances for you?”
“If not for me, then for whom?” pressed Simon. “You must be able to name a price, Hirabashi-san; let me at least hear it. If it’s too high. . . .” He spread his hands, palms up. Then he reached for the cup and took another sip. “You can give me that, right?”
Hirabashi considered for a long moment, his piercing gaze never wavering from Simon’s face. It was an uncomfortable stare, and Simon didn’t like to endure it, but he knew that turning away would be the worst possible reaction. So, he stared right back as the seconds ticked by.
“Since you have made a generous purchase from me,” Hirabashi said finally, “I will name a price. It is not negotiable.” Simon nodded, waiting for it. What the hell had Yakazuma done, gone in and killed someone? Probably. “For a railpistol, two millimeter caliber, no less than five thousand. I might find a three millimeter, for one thousand more, but more powerful than that. . . .” The drug dealer shook his head. “I am truly sorry, Mister Tamil, but I must protect my interests, and arms deals are the highest risk endeavors, as I’m sure you understand.”
It was now Simon’s turn to sit back and consider. He had the money—Maccabee had made sure that he and Yakazuma were amply stocked in credit—but spending ten times the gun’s value might draw too much attention. Hirabashi was a discreet operator by nature, but even he would talk if Simon dropped six thousand on a gun, maybe not to many people, but word would get around. It always got around. No, though it galled him to no end, he would have to take up Yakazuma’s offer. Damn.
“My apologies, Hirabashi-san,” he said. Best to stay on the man’s good side, in case he was here long enough to need more Zemnox. “Those prices are more than I can afford.” Hirabashi nodded sagely, though the news couldn’t be a surprise to him. Criminals, especially drug addicts, rarely had that sort of money available. Simon lifted his cup and drained the rest of the tea, then put his hands together and bowed slightly to the other man. Hirabashi returned the gesture of respect.
“Another time, perhaps, I will be able to help you again, Mister Tamil,” he offered by way of saying that this was not an end to the relationship.
“You could recommend someone else’s services in this matter, Hirabashi-san,” said Simon as he rose smoothly to his feet. The drug dealer stood as well. Though obviously hesitant, he was at least thinking it over.
“There is someone, Mister Tamil, though I wouldn’t recommend her.”
“It’s important,” urged Simon.
Hirabashi pulled a small data card from within the folds of his traditional garb, and passed it to Simon. “This has a small listing of people,” he said. “It is categorized for your convenience. I need not add that we would all prefer this information did not get into the wrong hands.”
“Of course,” said Simon. He gave another small bow. “Thank you, Hirabashi-san.”
“You haven’t met any of these people yet,” said the other man with a hint of humor.
Simon smiled. “They haven’t met me yet, either,” he said.
There was a sudden, uncomfortable silence between them, broken only when Hirabashi nodded and turned, disappearing into the house. The small guard and doorman motioned silently for Simon to leave, and he needed no more urging than that. No doubt Hirabashi suspected something was going on with Simon, and that Hornet had not truly abandoned him here. Smart man.
Simon did not pause to study the data card, slipping it instead into his pocket, and walking away from Hirabashi’s place at an unhurried but quick walk. Before long, he was back in the Axis, and surrounded by law-abiding citizens of Kuroishima. Nevertheless, it was some time before he relaxed enough to find a table outside a small café; ordering a coffee to drown the taste of the bitter tea, he pulled out the data card and activated its tiny screen. Text scrolled out in front of him, accompanied by some rudimentary graphics. Either Hirabashi was being quite careless in giving this information out, or it was some sort of strange trap. Did he think Simon was a law-enforcement plant? But a security man would certainly have bought the gun at any price.
Maybe Simon’s refusal of the offer had saved his life; it was hard to tell with criminals like Hirabashi. They were always crossing and double-crossing each other, and paranoia was their way of life. That was all the more reason for Simon to disregard the list in his hand, but he wanted—needed—to prove to Yakazuma that he was able to hold his own in this little pairing, that he wasn’t just along for the ride. She wouldn’t care, most probably, but it meant something to him.
“Damn,” he muttered under his breath. There wasn’t time to properly investigate any of the names and addresses on the little data card, not before he had to meet Yakazuma; he’d have to leave in just a few minutes if he wanted to be on time. Of course, he could always call her on the com, but they were trying to stay off it. It was possible that someone would track the signal, and once it was tapped, it was likely to stay that way. The security algorithms of the com implants themselves were fairly rudimentary; normally they were buttressed by Hornet’s main computer.
“Is this seat taken?” asked a voice from beside Simon. He looked up, startled, and saw a tall man standing there. Dressed in conservative, black clothes with gray highlights and a single, red vertical stripe down the side, the man cut an imposing figure, the more so for his unusual height and broad, muscular build. His skin was pale, slightly yellow but not unhealthy. Altogether an interesting fellow, thought Simon, but he didn’t have much time for playing around.
“I was just on my way out,” he said, moving to stand.
“Please, wait a moment,” said the man, sliding into the seat opposite Simon with a fluid grace that set him on edge. “I’d like to have a word with you.”
“Do I know you?” asked Simon. “What do you want?” There was no particular need to be polite. Something about the man, how he moved, how he dressed, made Simon’s instincts prick up, and he wished more than ever that he’d managed to get that gun. Two days in, and he was already hating this mission.
“You don’t know me, but I know you,” said the tall man, and Simon’s hand tightened around the mug that held the remnants of his coffee. The man was close, close enough that a swing with the heavy mug would probably connect, taking him in the head. Not an ideal weapon, but it might buy enough time for a run to the RAT. Over the side into the trench, then disappear. Dangerous, but quick.
“Who do you think I am?” he asked, trying his best to keep his voice level. More than anything, Simon wished he could up the dosage on his drug injector, but that kind of move was out of the question.
“I know who you are,” said the tall man. “You left Hornet. Either they wanted you to stay behind or they kicked you off, but either way, you know things, answers to questions that my employers would very much like to have answered.” The tall man nodded as Simon’s face tightened. That was fast. How much do they know? “Before you do anything rash, you should know that I’m not alone. There are three men watching us right now. All of them are armed. I’ve no wish for a confrontation here, but I will bring one on if necessary. Do you understand?”
Simon just nodded; there was no use in spitting out some curse at the man, much as he wanted to. There might still be a chance he could make the train tunnel; it was ten meters away at most. They’d have to think to cover that possibility, unless they didn’t expect something so dangerous from him. Closing his eyes for just a moment, he heard the sound of a train passing; the next one would go by in one hundred seconds.
“Good,” said the man. “Now keep listening. We’re going to get up from this table and start moving to the next RAT station. You’re going to walk in front of me. Don’t try to run for it, my men will have you boxed in.”
“Assuming you even have men,” pointed out Simon. “I haven’t seen them yet.” Seventy-five seconds. “I think I’d rather just sit here and have another coffee.” He let go of the mug and signaled the waiter, who started in their direction immediately.
“You’re coming with—”
The tall man cut off as the waiter stepped up to the table. “Sirs? Another coffee? An order for you, perhaps?”
“Make mine a double espresso,” said Simon, pushing his mug towards the waiter. The man lifted it gently from the table. “My friend here will stick with water. He’s got a lot on his mind.”
“Very well, I’ll get that immediately, thank you sir.” The waiter gave a small bow and scurried off.
“You think that was clever?” hissed the tall man a moment later, his hand snaking under his coat to where he no doubt kept his promised weapon. “Get up. Now!”
Thirty seconds. It was now or never. “I’m coming,” Simon said, pushing back his chair, surreptitiously sliding it to the side with his right hand.
“Slowly!” growled the tall man, his fist clenching inside his jacket.
Simon ducked as though nodding, bunched the muscles in his right arm, and flexed, swinging the chair up and over the table in a short arc that connected with the side of the tall man’s head. Made of a light, synthetic material, the chair was hardly a deadly weapon, but it hit hard enough to stun the man and the moment it made contact, Simon was already dropping it, spinning in a crouch, and bunching his legs under him.
Another man materialized out of the crowd at his left, reaching for him, but he spun sideways, avoiding the tackle, just now hearing the shouts and screams of pedestrians around him. Sliding just clear of the man’s fingertips, Simon started running, a clear line ahead of him. Then the distinctive stuttering sound of a railpistol pierced his brain, and he dodged left, then right. A bystander was down, howling in pain, a screeching noise that hurt Simon’s ears, but he was still moving, still pounding towards the two meter railing that shut off the RAT lines from the pedestrian walkways.
Something hit him hard in the shoulder, pushing him forwards and down, spinning him sideways. Letting his momentum carry him, he kept spinning, bringing up his other arm to slam it into the attacker, but no one was there. Then bright pain exploded in his shoulder, and he let out a yell, half shout, half scream. The bullet had passed cleanly through him, and he hadn’t even heard the gun. Blood was suddenly everywhere, and he was staggering now, barely moving, not moving fast enough to clear the fence. What was the count? How many seconds?
Simon slammed into the fence face first, bounced off, tripped over his own feet and hit the pavement. People were screaming and running in every direction as panic tore through the crowd. Pushing up to his knees, Simon looked around him, frantically trying to pin down his enemies, trying to ignore the pain in this arm, that felt like someone was driving a two-centimeter pipe through his flesh by brute strength. With a shaking hand, he reached up and triggered an emergency dose of the drug into his bloodstream. Like a surge of adrenaline, the stuff boosted him up, and he stood smoothly, almost instantly a new man.
He and tall man spotted each other across the crowd at the same moment, and Simon ducked back down as the stuttering railpistol came back to life. He heard the sound of a security troop heading this way, and knew that he was nearly clear, except, of course, for the blood running down his arm and staining his clothes. That, and the fact that as soon as the boost ran down he’d be on the ground, dying. This kind of boost he could only do once in a long while, or it would kill him. Either that or it just wouldn’t do anything at all.
A dark alleyway—relatively dark compared to the Axis, anyway—beckoned to Simon, and he ducked through the crowd, headed that way, keeping his head down, not making eye contact with anyone. In a moment he was there, in the shadows. He didn’t stop, though, but kept moving, taking several turns, hoping to throw off pursuit. Anyone would be able to follow the trail of blood, though.
After two minutes of confusing turns and twists, Simon slammed into an awkwardly placed garbage container as he rounded a corner. Bouncing off, he spun around, trying to keep his feet and failing, hitting the wall across the narrow passage and then falling sideways to the ground. For a moment, he did not move, but just lay there, trying to even out his breathing. He needed to stop the bleeding, but didn’t know how. Pushing himself into a sitting position against the wall, he started tearing a piece of synthetic fabric from his shirt. The stuff was damn tough, though, and he felt the tickling feeling of crippling pain at the back of his mind, slowly worming its way past the drug.
He opened the com link and called Yakazuma. As he waited for her to reply, the fabric finally parted, and a large section tore off in his hand. Moving awkwardly, Simon tried to pass the strip around his shoulder. Blood was already pooling under him where he sat, and he knew enough about wounds to know that he wasn’t going to spend a long time sitting here.
“What is it?” came Yakazuma in his ear.
“Trouble,” he said, and his voice was so hoarse he could hear her intake of breath on the other end of the signal.
“Hang tight, I’m coming. Where are you?”
“Muttsushu,” he managed, wincing as his motions produced a new surge of pain in his shoulder. “Four guys cornered me at a café, I think it was called Latte House or something like that. They knew, damn it Yakazuma. They knew who I was, they knew I was from the ship, from Hornet. They wanted answers, they said.”
“Shit.” He could almost hear Yakazuma’s face turning into stone. “Did you get a gun?”
“No fucking luck, naturally. Apparently I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” He tugged the bandage around his shoulder as tight as he could. “Fuck!”
“How bad are you?” she asked him. Her breathing was coming a bit harder now, but controlled, like a machine simply asked to operate at a higher setting.
“Took one through the shoulder, all the way through,” he muttered. “It’s bleeding damn fast, I tied something on it but this fucking synthetic shit doesn’t absorb much of anything.”
“Keep pressure on it,” she said, as though he wasn’t already. Well, she couldn’t see him, after all.
“Yeah, I’m on that. Listen, Yakazuma, I figure I’ve got about ten, maybe twenty minutes; you won’t make it, so why don’t you just go to ground.” Simon shrugged uncomfortably. It wasn’t as though she needed his help, after all, not the all-powerful Amathea Yakazuma. Would she have been taken by surprise? Would she have been fucking shot, without taking any one of her attackers out? Not fucking likely.
“Shut the fuck up, Simon,” she said, and something in her voice snapped him back into the present. “Put pressure on it, on the exit if you can, that’ll be the bigger wound; I’ll be there in half an hour if I have to kill everyone on this god-damned station to do it.”
“That might blow our cover,” he pointed out, quite reasonably, he thought.
“Hold on, Simon, do you understand me?” She was sounding more stressed now, as though something was finally getting through her armor. He couldn’t imagine what that might be.
“Yeah, I heard you the first time! Hurry it up!”
“Just keep the signal open,” she said. “I’ll use it to home in on you.”
Yakazuma didn’t reply to that. He just heard the sound of her breathing, quick and deep, perfectly even. Like a machine, only machines don’t have friends, do they?