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Episode 215: Manufactured Paradise

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They would be looking for him, now, and the docking tower was not so huge that it would be difficult to search. Simon tucked Amathea’s body into a dark corner of the storage cage and started moving. Better to stay in motion than hide in one spot, he figured, though he knew that time was short. He had no idea what to do next. Without a weapon, without money, without even clothes that weren’t caked with dried blood, he had nothing, no hope of escape, even less of taking his vengeance. He’d abandoned any hope of a quick retaliation almost as soon as he’d breathed the words to Amathea’s corpse. What revenge he might manage, he would need help. That meant only one man: Maccabee.

It was time to go back to Hornet.

He ghosted through the dark passages and catwalks of the tower’s maintenance facility. It wasn’t long before he came to a locker room, a break room and dressing area for the men and women who worked the shifts back here, keeping the station running. There seemed no sign of activity, but the door was sealed and operable only by an ID chip. Reasonable as these security measures were for a door that was, at heart, not protecting a delicate area, the ID scanner had its weaknesses. Simon glanced around for a few minutes, then found a discarded piece of piping that seemed of the appropriate size. Bending the plastic with his hands, he jimmied it into the scanning unit.

The small scan box tried to read the unmarked plastic, and Simon watched carefully as the indicator light flashed green for a split second, then shone bright red, blinking twice before turning off again. He took out the plastic, smoothed it again with his fingers, then reinserted it. This time, when the light flashed green, he kicked the door, and it flew open. Simon smiled. Few people probably knew that this sort of lock cycled to a half-open setting when it scanned ID chips, in order to open the door more quickly if the scan returned a positive verification code. Not the most clever thing to design into a secured door, but, as he’d already noted, this wasn’t a vault being guarded here, just a mess hall.

Simon was inside and moving before the door bounced back off its stops, knowing full well that the scan box would register an unauthorized entry. Depending on how close his pursuers were, they’d be here in moments. Dashing through the mess area, he burst into the locker rooms and started ripping open doors and pulling out uniforms. He found one that looked the right size quickly enough, and started tearing off his own clothes—or rather the ones that he’d been given by the Commodore. Those went in a recycling bin, where they’d hopefully be incinerated before anyone got here, and he pulled on the dark blue maintenance jumpsuit, scrunching his shoulders to get the front seam to seal up. The fabric was semi-intelligent, however, and it expanded just enough so that he’d look like someone who’d put on a few pounds, rather than someone who’d stolen a uniform that wasn’t his.

On his way out, Simon picked up a tool belt with a few handy items on it, and pocketed an ID chip he’d spotted left out on the table. It would be very risky to use it, but in an emergency, it might be worth it. Then he was out the door and running down the corridor, making a few quick turns to get as far from the locker room as possible. There was no sign of pursuit. Slowing his pace, Simon moderated his breathing and started concentrating on being quiet again.

He went over his priorities again: first was finding more Zemnox. Already, he was feeling the jitters of withdrawal, and they’d be getting a lot worse very quickly. The Commodore had fed him just enough of the drug to keep his body functioning, another guarantee for his good behavior. Now, he was without, and didn’t see much hope of getting more. It might be time for him to find out of Doc Monteux was right about the withdrawal symptoms killing him, he thought grimly. If he could get back to the Mulberry Branch, he might be able to steal some Zemnox, but that was a big maybe. Especially since he violated the criminal code by attacking Infinite Justice. It wasn’t just station security and the Commodore who’d be looking for him.

Second priority was getting Amathea’s body on ice. He did not plan on leaving her here to rot, nor on tossing her out an airlock like some lump of meat. Either he needed a cryotube, which seemed passing unlikely, or he needed a pickle pack. That was the undignified nickname they’d given to the embalming bags Simon had used back on Saint Martin, during the Striker rebellion. Handy little devices, the pickle packs kept bodies from starting to decompose, at least for a few days, even weeks. Where Simon might get a pack, however, he had no idea.

That left the third priority for last: getting Amathea, pickle pack or no, and himself, with drugs or without, off the Gatehouse and to Hornet. As hard as the other two would prove, this was the toughest, especially since Simon had no money. And he didn’t know where Maccabee was. Just a few little problems.

Simon worked his way back to the tower concourse, and had no trouble exiting the maintenance area. Reentry might be an issue, however, so her jerry-rigged the door to allow it to close, but keep it from locking. That would raise an error message, but he was hoping it wouldn’t catch anyone’s eye. He would be gone soon. As he’d suspected, people were moving again in the concourse—the Gatehouse had no docks to spare, and since Infinite Justice was not, in fact, about to explode, there was no reason not to let people back to their business. That gave Simon an advantage, the first break he’d had so far on this cursed day. He blended into the crowd, keeping his face down, and kept a weather eye out for bad guys—and for likely targets.

He picked out the latter somewhere too close to Infinite Justice for his own comfort, but the mark was good, a couple of vacationers from the Core Systems, he guessed, wandering about aimlessly, looking at the store windows and chatting happily about their upcoming trip to San’a. A good choice of destinations, Simon thought. He tailed the pair until the made a purchase, then noted carefully where the woman kept her credit chip: in a small bag she was carrying by a strap that went around her wrist. An easy mark for a snatch-and-grab, but given his outfit, that wasn’t a great option for Simon.

Instead, he looked for another opportunity, passing the couple and watching for the right target coming towards him. He found her a moment later, a young woman, self-absorbed, moving quickly. Almost stopping, but still moving his feet, Simon backed off until the intended couple was only a step or two behind him, then watched the young woman. She was right on target. He stepped right, she moved around to his left, and he gave her a surreptitious nudge with his arm.

The young woman snapped out of her reverie, but before she realized what had happened, she was plowing head on into the couple. She and the woman collided, sending both of them bouncing back from each other. “Watch where you’re going!” spat the young woman at the couple.

“You ran into me!” protested the other woman. But the younger one was already moving again, hurrying to her destination. Simon turned around with a conciliatory smile on his face.

“Is there a problem?” he asked the couple. The woman was still staring after the girl who’d run into her, but the man turned towards Simon, took in his uniform and his ready smile, and managed a smile of his own.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

Simon turned to the woman, touched her on the shoulder, and, as she turned, took the purse from her wrist with a quick, careful movement. Though his body blocked the man’s view, he held his breath, certain that the woman would realize; yet she didn’t. He hadn’t lost his touch, apparently. “Ma’am, is everything all right?”

“Yes, of course,” said the woman, almost taken aback at his interest. “That woman just ran into me so hard.”

Simon frowned. “There are plenty of pickpockets around here,” he said gravely. “Have you checked your valuables?”

“Of course,” said the woman, “I’ve got. . . .” But, of course, she didn’t. Her mouth dropped open and she looked up at her husband. “Samuel!”

“Fucking hell,” muttered the man, more vulgar than Simon had expected. “That little bitch!” He turned and started moving through the crowd. The woman hesitated, not sure of what to do.

“Stay with your husband, ma’am,” he suggested. “I’ll get security and point them your way.”

“Thank you,” she said, quickly and without much weight. Her mind was already on other matters, the glorified janitor forgotten. She turned and Simon melted back into the crowd.

His first stop was a clothing store. It wouldn’t take security or the Commodore’s people long to find the ransacked locker room and to guess he was wearing a maintenance jumpsuit. It also wouldn’t be long—but long enough, he hoped—before the couple caught the young woman and accused her. She’d deny it, of course, and then they’d think of the friendly maintenance worker who’d helped them out. Maybe. Either way, they’d be canceling their credit chip as fast as they could reach a terminal, which meant he had precious little time. If they beat him, he’d be caught when he tried to use the chip.

He bought a new pair of pants, some regular work boots to replace the spacer’s pair he had on, a simple shirt and a faux-leather jacket, all at discounted prices. No need to completely spoil the San’a vacation, after all. Those went through the purchase without any hassle, and he was out of the shop in just a few minutes. Now, though, he was more conspicuous, a janitor with a shopping bag, and he ducked into a restroom as soon as possible. Changing his clothes, he kept the maintenance jumpsuit, in case it might come in handy, stuffing it into the shopping bag. On his way out of the bathroom, he dropped the stolen credit chip into the urinal, smiling with satisfaction as the splash guard zapped the thing dead. It would be harder to identify now, though certainly not impossible.

He worked like this for the rest of the day, moving around cautiously, taking another two credit chips and using them once before discarding them. By the time traffic began to thin out, he’d managed to arrange a deal for some Zemnox, though he didn’t have the drug yet, and had rented a spot in a public storage freezer on one of the tower’s lower levels. Most people used the freezers to store non-perishable items that would be essentially freeze-dried and stored in a carefully neutral environment. They weren’t too particular about scanning items, however, so now all he had to do was find a case in which to hide Yakazuma’s body and somehow get it to the freezer without being spotted.

As he approached the door he’d left unlocked, Simon scanned around for any sign that it was being watched. Of course, if it was being monitored by cameras or other hidden sensors, he’d never know it, would never be able to spot them before they spotted him. The whole business was risky to the point of being stupid, but he didn’t have much choice.

Simon stepped through the door and let it close behind him, then froze as someone stepped up and pressed the muzzle of a gun against the back of his head. “Gotcha!”

“Gotcha?” he replied. “What kind of cop are you?”

“No cop, mister,” said the man behind him. “But I do enforce the Law.” The man tapped the back of Simon’s head with the gun. “Start walking. Go right.”

Simon started moving. He’d been expecting something like this all day, but he’d envisioned a visit from the station security, not the local brotherhood of criminals. That this fellow had managed to find him before security meant that either the real cops weren’t looking for him, or they were idiots. Or possibly both. But there was no denying the skill and determination of the crime bosses who had presumably tracked Simon down.

They didn’t like attention, those bosses. A killing here or there, drug running, robbery, crimes that were quiet and unobtrusive, that was how the bosses operated. They didn’t assault ships, tap into station systems—in an obvious way, at least—or cause the evacuation of entire sections of the Gatehouse. All of which Simon had done, with a highly illegal weapon that he’d proceeded to leave at the scene of the crime. It occurred to him then that the Commodore might well have helped this process, contacted her friends among the criminal element—she had to have them, after all, to do what she did—and told them the details, told them how to find him, or how to try. It would be a nice piece of work.

“Where are we going?” he asked, keeping his hands visible at all times.

“Shut it.” Simple enough. Simon did just that; no reason to antagonize the man.

They moved through the warren of passages without hesitation, the man with the gun—whom Simon still had not actually seen, except for brief glimpses out of the corner of his eye—giving instructions for each turn and branching. Finally, they arrived at a small shuttle bay, tucked into the tower’s base, obviously used for maintenance access. A single shuttle sat there, an older model that had obviously seen a lot of work, its nose blackened from countless reentry trips on distant worlds, its paint peeling, and its ceramaplast skin dinged and dented and gouged in countless places. Simon didn’t like the look of that shuttle. It wasn’t local.

The people next to it were less savory. Two men and a woman stood there, all dressed in black formal wear, the woman quite attractive in her own way, but Simon didn’t look too closely, didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. All three of them were carrying railpistols, heavy models with expanded magazines and snub-nosed barrels. Ugly guns, Simon thought, but certainly effective. The man behind him nudged him forwards with his own gun, then said, “Stop,” when he reached the middle of the bay.

“Hi,” he said, smiling at the three unsmiling people in front of him. The other man stayed behind him. Was he nervous about being identified? Surely they were going to kill Simon.

“You’ve been a busy fellow, Mister Tamil,” said one of the two men in front of him, the larger one, who obviously enjoyed a soft life of many pleasures and had the soft body to go with it. Simon didn’t doubt for a moment that the man was deadly, though. “Caused a lot of trouble, for a single man.”

“I have a gift,” Simon replied. He wasn’t much in the mood for this sort of banter. Better to cut to the chase. He’d failed, and that was all there was to it. A quick death, he hoped, assuming he managed to anger these idiots enough.

“Apparently a gift for angering important people,” said the man. “Boss wants to have a word with you.” The man motioned with his head towards the waiting shuttle.

“I’ll have to send my regrets,” said Simon. “Terribly busy at the moment.”

“It’s your business that the Boss wants to put a stop on,” said the man. “So either we take you with us, or we leave you in the bay when the shuttle leaves.” He smiled thinly. “I hear they scour the surface once a month or so, looking for debris and whatever else washes ashore.”

Simon sighed. That was no way to go, not for him. “You’re very persuasive. Let’s have a chat with the Boss, then.”

The man just nodded, not at all surprised. Simon climbed into the shuttle after the woman, letting the others bring up the rear. Only the two men he’d seen with the woman climbed aboard; the one who’d caught him did not.

“Where’s the other guy going?” he asked the man he’d spoken with as they took seats in the shuttle and strapped in. The woman climbed into the pilot’s seat, her skirt riding up around her hips invitingly. Simon forced himself not to look. No reason to offend them more than necessary.

“He’s taking care of your girlfriend,” said the man.

The shuttle jerked as they lifted off and in that moment, Simon was out of his seat and across the shuttle, his elbow smashing the thinner man in the face, his hands ripping the gun from the man’s grasp. The shuttle rolled slightly as the woman eased it out of the bay, not yet realizing what she was hearing, and then Simon had the pistol pointed at the other man’s head. He, in turn, was pointing his weapon at Simon’s chest, his eyes suddenly wide. The man Simon had attacked was moaning and clutching his face, which was covered in blood from his shattered nose.

“What the fuck are you doing with her body?” growled Simon.

“Easy,” said the other man. “No need for killing, mister.” Simon was aware of the woman looking back into the shuttle, realizing what was happening, and climbing out of her seat, gun in hand. “You’re covered,” said the man, hearing the woman approach. “You can’t take us both.”

“Answer me now,” said Simon, “or you die. No matter what happens to me afterwards.”

“He’s retrieving her body,” said the man, trying to keep his voice level, obviously convinced he was dealing with a crazy man. “He’ll put her on ice and bring her over to the Boss’s place. Where you’re going right now.”

“Why do I not believe you?” Simon snarled, pressing the muzzle of the gun in his hand against the other man’s forehead.

“I don’t fucking know,” he replied, “and I don’t fucking care. I’m telling you the truth.” He licked his lips. “Boss said to bring you both. We’re not psychopaths or something, mister. She’s dead, for God’s sake, we’ll keep her safe.”

Simon sucked in a deep breath. He could end it right now, take one of them with him, check out fast and relatively painless. It was an option worth considering. But he knew he couldn’t do it, couldn’t deliberately end his life, even if it wasn’t by his own hand. He let the gun drop to the deck, and the woman stooped quickly to grab it. The other man did not lower his weapon but kept it trained on Simon as the latter moved back across the cramped shuttle cabin and strapped himself back into his seat.

Still training his weapon on him, the man reached into his pocket and retrieved a simple set of binders, tossing them to Simon. “You don’t mind putting those on, do you?” he asked. Simon shook his head, slipped the binders onto his wrists, and let them tighten down against his skin. The sensation was not pleasant, but neither was it painful.

They sat in silence as the woman returned to her seat and got the shuttle moving. Simon heard no communications, which probably meant nothing more than that she had an implant like his and was communicating through that. Or, possibly, this shuttle was recognized by traffic control and given a free pass to go wherever it wished. That was certainly the more disturbing option. The man Simon had smashed in the face was sitting now, staring at Simon with undisguised, undiluted hatred, but doing nothing else other than hold a medical pad to his shattered nose.

It wasn’t long before they got where they were going—wherever that was. The small, shabby shuttle had no windows, or none that Simon could see. Perhaps there was a small forward viewscreen he couldn’t spot past the woman at the controls. Their landing was smoother than the takeoff, and a moment later, the hatch was sliding open, letting in the bright blue light of a ship’s docking bay. Even from the small angle that Simon could see, the bay was obviously on board a vessel of some sort, just from its layout and construction, but what type of vessel he couldn’t say. It was well-maintained, but not new, that much was readily apparent, and it wasn’t Infinite Justice. A small blessing but one worth counting.

Muttering under his breath, the man with the shattered nose climbed out of the shuttle, shouting a loud curse as he caught the top of his head on the hatchway. Simon suppressed a smile, and nodded as the other man motioned with his gun for him to go next. Moving carefully, knowing he couldn’t easily catch himself with his bound hands, Simon stepped out onto the deck and stood straight, taking a quick look around while trying to seem entirely unconcerned with his surroundings. He heard the big man getting out of the shuttle behind him.

The bay was good-sized, and the shuttle was entirely at odds with everything else here. Without any other exception, the bay and everything in it were immaculate. Two high-speed shuttles that Simon would have killed to fly stood parked neatly at the far end of the large space, while closer in was a standard transport model, but similarly cared for as though it was just as much a prized possession as the ships ten times its cost. There was no sign of either crew or welcoming committee. Simon thought he caught a glimpse of the man whose face he’d hit disappearing through a hatch, but he wasn’t sure.

“This way,” said the other man, stepping up next to Simon and motioning towards the main blast doors that led out of the bay. They stepped through those and walked down a corridor just as clean as the compartment they’d left and just as empty. Simon noted that the woman had stayed with the shuttle, or at least was not with them. They took a few turns and stopped at a lift, rode that two decks down, and then headed aft, or so Simon thought from the markings he was seeing. Whatever ship this was, it was heavily modified from its original design, which Simon was starting to think was some sort of cargo ship. His guess was confirmed when they reached their destination.

Massive pressure doors loomed up at the end of the corridor, which now widened suddenly as it intersected another passage that probably came from a cargo port on the ship’s side, perhaps where it was docked with the Gatehouse. Assuming it was docked, and not somewhere in orbit. Two men dressed in military-style combat gear, gray and gold in color, stood in front of these doors, the first people Simon had seen in the ship. Each had a holstered plasma pistol at his hip, and a combat visor on his face, obscuring eyes and nose and mouth.

“This is as far as I go,” said the man who’d brought Simon from the shuttle. Simon turned with a raised eyebrow. “You go in alone.” The man chuckled and shook his head. “You’re about to have a bad day, mister.”

Now it was Simon’s turn to laugh. “I doubt it’ll get much worse,” he replied.

The other man shrugged, then turned and walked away, his ugly pistol still in his hand. After a moment, Simon turned back to the massive door and the guards. They gave no sign of even noticing him, but he was sure they’d have no trouble gunning him down if he tried to run. No choice in the matter. He stepped up to the doors and they opened, slowly rumbling aside in a manner that Simon recognized as carefully calculated. Doors like these did not normally make so much noise, nor take so long to open. Someone was trying to make a point.

Beyond those doors was one of the most lavishly outfitted compartments Simon had ever seen. It was a full-sized cargo hold, but it had not carried cargo for a long time. A good forty meters overhead, the entire ceiling of the compartment had been rigged with active lighting, and a bright sun shone clearly in a blue sky as clouds ambled across and birds swooped and dove. Most of those birds were real, Simon realized, no doubt genetically engineered to behave in an appropriate, picturesque manner, but still real, actual birds. And they were cavorting through what looked like an idyll from some ancient mythology. Rolling, grass-covered mounds started at Simon’s feet and faded into the distance of the massive hold, and carefully tended trees grew on those mounds, their leaves rustling in the faint wind that stirred the air around them.

None of it was real in an absolute sense. The trees were alive, and the birds, and the—what was that, some sort of cat?—all of them were real in a purely physical sense, but the whole tableau was designed, engineered, placed just so, to be a perfect image of someone’s fantasy, not a reality at all. Clever holograms and thin layers of mist made the space seem bigger than it actually was—though the bay was likely eighty meters wide and twice that long—and now that Simon was getting used to the bright light, he saw a white temple shimmering on the tallest of the hills. He assumed it was a temple; it was built of white marble, or something that looked like that, tall, graceful columns laid out in a circle and roofed with a dome, which in turn was topped with a statue of a robbed figure.

Taking a deep breath, Simon walked on into the hold, and the massive doors slid shut behind him, closing with a solid BOOM that echoed through the hold and sent a flock of birds into the sky, crying their clear, crystalline calls to the fake sun.

There was no place else that seemed likely to hold this boss character, so Simon started walking towards the temple. The air was warm, much warmer that spacecraft usually were kept, and he was soon sweating as he climbed up the small hills, letting his hand touch the trees, savoring the sensation of their rough bark against his skin. He had to fight an urge to take off his shoes and run barefoot through the grass, and he was starting to understand why someone would go through this much trouble. This wasn’t his vision of paradise, but it was certainly someone’s.

A moment later, this vision’s proximity to Simon’s own paradise seemed a lot closer, as he saw two beautiful women coming towards him, wearing diaphanous white robes that fluttered about their bodies as they walked and showed off rather more than they hid. Simon stopped walking and watched appreciatively as they approached, noting only now that he’d reached the temple, or at least the hill where it sat. The hill loomed ten meters high, so that a long, rough-hewn set of steps led up to it. It was down these stairs that the two women now came. Both were smiling.

“Welcome!” said one of them, reaching him and putting her arm around him. She felt real enough, but Simon wondered briefly if she was a hologram of some sort. Anything seemed possible in this ridiculous, compelling vision. “Come.”

The two women led him up the stairs and into the temple. It was not a large building, but it was high enough to command an imposing view of the hold. Here, on low couches, sat two more women, both equal in beauty to the two who’d greeted Simon. One wore the same robes as the first two, while the other was completely naked. She was reclining on her couch, eyes closed, apparently asleep, every centimeter of her perfect body on display. It was almost a full two seconds before Simon noticed the man sitting across the circular floor from him, on an ornate, carven throne strewn with pillows.

This kingly figure, Simon supposed, was the Boss. He was tall, thin, almost gaunt, and his face was severe, not at all in keeping with this place. In fact, had Simon seen him, been asked to describe his fantasy based solely on his appearance, this would certainly not have been it. Maybe that was why it appealed. He wore simple spacer’s clothes, and looked for all the universe like just another crewman on just another tramp freighter, like thousands Simon’d seen.

The two of them stared at each other for a long moment, the women and the place around them forgotten. Then, the man in the throne straightened and cleared his throat. “Tamil, right?”

“Yes,” said Simon. He didn’t ask anything, didn’t volunteer anything. He suddenly felt that this was a very dangerous situation, and that he really didn’t want to die right now after all. Inconvenient timing.

“You broke the Law, caused a lot of ruckus here,” said the man. His voice was low, scratchy, as though maybe he’d had a throat injury sometime ago and not bothered to fix the damage, or wasn’t able to.

“I don’t deny it,” said Simon. Why bother?

“Lucky thing is,” said the Boss, “those you troubled happen not to be friends of mine.” Simon raised an eyebrow, but the man’s face remained impassive. “Happens they’ve been right annoying me, long time now. Happens that I don’t like that.” The man’s expression didn’t change, but his eyes narrowed slightly. “You’ve saved me a good bit of trouble, Mister Tamil, as I see it.”

“Really,” said Simon, keeping his voice as noncommittal as he could. Certainly there was some sort of catch here. Just a matter of time before it showed itself.

“Really,” said the Boss. “There’s some who say I oughta kill you anyway, just outta good form. Others that you’d be best off in the Commodore’s hands, where she can teach you a lesson about manners and such.” Just the slightest hint of a smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “Yep, I know who she is, mister. Ain’t none around here who don’t know her, not in my business. And I know what she’s after, too.”

“What’s that?” Simon asked, his heart beating even faster.

“Some fellow, name of Maccabee.” The Boss shrugged off this knowledge as apparently inconsequential. “He caught himself a fair bit of trouble when he was here, too. Left in a hurry, just a few days before you came along.”

“Any idea where he went?” asked Simon, deciding the question was worth the risk.

The Boss eyed Simon for a long moment, and that hint of a smile crept back onto his face. “Happens that I do, mister, happens that I do.” He leaned back on his thrown. “The only question is what you can give me for that information.”