Jim Baen's Universe 1 Vol 1 Num 1: June 2006



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Slanted Jack


Written by Mark L. Van Name
Illustrated by Phil Renne


 0

Nothing should have been able to ruin my lunch.

Joaquin Choy, the best chef on any planet within three jumps, had erected his restaurant, Falls, just outside Eddy, the only city on the still-developing planet Mund. He'd chosen the site because of the intense flavors of the native vegetables, the high quality of the locally raised livestock, and a setting that whipped your head around and widened your eyes.

Falls perched on camo-painted carbon-fiber struts over the center of a thousand-meter-deep gorge. You entered it via a three-meter-wide transparent walkway so soft you were sure you were strolling across high, wispy clouds. The four waterfalls that inspired its name remained visible even when you were inside, thanks to the transparent active-glass walls whose careful light balancing guaranteed a glare-free view throughout the day. The air outside filled your head with the clean scent of wood wafting downstream on light river breezes; a muted variant of the same smells pervaded the building's interior.

I occupied a corner seat, a highly desirable position given my background and line of work, that let me easily scan all new arrivals. In the clouds above me, Lobo, my intelligent battle wagon, monitored the area surrounding the restaurant so no threat could assemble without my knowledge while I ate. I'd located an exterior exit option when I first visited Choy, and both Lobo and I could reach it in under a minute. Wrapped in a blanket of security I rarely achieved in the greater world, I could relax and enjoy myself.

The setting was perfect.

Following one of my cardinal rules of fine dining—always opt for the chef's tasting menu in a topnotch restaurant—I'd forgone the conventional offerings and instead surrendered myself to Choy's judgment, asking only that he not hold back on the portion size of any course. Getting fat is never an issue for me. At almost two meters tall and over a hundred kilos, I'm large enough that I'd be able to eat quite a lot if I were a normal man, and the nano-machines that lace my cells decompose and flush any excess food I consume.

Spread in front of me were four appetizer courses, each blending chunks of a savory meat with strands of vegetables steaming on a plate of slowly changing color. Choy instructed me to taste each dish separately and then in combinations of my choice. I didn't know what any of them were, and I didn't care. They smelled divine, and I expected they would taste even better.

They did. I leaned back after the third amazing bite and closed my eyes, my taste buds coping with sensations that in over a hundred and fifty years of life they'd never experienced. I struggled to conjure superlatives equal to the flavors.

The food was perfect.

What ruined the lunch was the company, the unplanned, unwanted company.

When I opened my eyes, Slanted Jack was walking toward me from the entrance.

Slanted Jack, so named because with him nothing was ever straight, starred in one of the many acts of my life that I'd just as soon forget. The best con man and thief I've ever known, he effortlessly charmed and put at ease anyone who didn't know him. Maybe ten centimeters shorter than I, with a wide smile, eyes the blue of the heart of flame, and skin the color and sheen of polished night, Jack instantly grabbed the attention of everyone around him. While weaving his way across the room to me he paused three times to exchange pleasantries with people he was almost certainly meeting for the first time. Each person Jack addressed would know that Jack found him special, important, even compelling.

While Jack was chatting with a foursome a few tables away, I called Lobo.

"Any sign of external threat?" I said.

"Of course not," Lobo said. "You know that if I spotted anything, I'd alert you instantly. Why are you wasting time talking to me when you could be eating your magnificent meal, conversing with other patrons, and generally having a wonderful time? It's not as if you're stuck up here like I am, too high to even have the birds for company."

"It's not like I could bring you in here with me," I said, parroting his tone. "Nor, for that matter, do you eat."

"You've never heard of take-out? I may not eat, but I can be quite a pleasant dinner companion, as I'd think you'd realize after the times we've spent together."

I sighed. Every time I let myself fall into an argument with Lobo when he's in a petulant mood, I regret it. "Signing off."

I blended bits of food from three of the plates into another bite, but I couldn't take my eyes off Jack; the food's charms were dissipating faster than their aromas. Jack and I had worked together for almost a decade, and though that time was profitable, it was also consistently nerve-wracking. Jack lived by his own principles, chief among which was his life-long commitment to target only bad people. We consequently found ourselves time and again racing to make jumps off planets, always a short distance ahead of dangerous, very angry marks. By the time we split, I vowed to go straight and never work the con again.

"Jon," Jack said as he reached my table, his smile as disarming as always. "It's good to see you. It's been too long."

"What do you want, Jack?"

"May I join you?" he said, pulling out a chair.

I didn't bother to answer; it was pointless.

He nodded and sat. "Thank you."

A waiter appeared beside him, reset the table for two, and waited for Jack's order.

"I throw myself to Joaquin's mercy," Jack said. "Please tell him Jack asked only that he be gentle."

The waiter glanced at me for confirmation. Jack wasn't going to leave until he had his say, so I nodded, and the waiter hustled away.

"Joaquin truly is an artist," Jack said. "I—"

I cut him off. "What do you want?"

Jack took bits of two of my appetizers and chewed them slowly, his eyes shutting as the tastes flooded his mouth. "Amazing. Did I say he was an artist? I should have called him a magician—and I definitely should have eaten here sooner."

He opened his eyes and studied me intently. The focus of his gaze was both intense and comforting, as if he could see into your soul and was content to view only that. For years I'd watched him win the confidence of strangers with a single long look, and I'd never figured out how he managed it. I'd asked him many times, and he always told me the same thing: "Each person deserves to be the center of the universe to someone, Jon, even if only for an instant. When I focus on someone, that person is my all." He always laughed afterward, but whether in embarrassment at having said something completely honest or in jest at my gullibility is something I'll never know.

"We haven't seen each other in, what, thirty years now," he said, "and you haven't aged a day. You must give me the names of your med techs—" he paused and chuckled before continuing, "—and how you afford it. Courier work must pay far better than I imagined."

I wasn't providing private courier services when I last saw him, so he was telling me he'd done his homework. He also looked no different than before, which was to be expected: no one with money and the willingness to pay med techs needs to show age for at least the middle forty or fifty years of his life. So, he was also letting me know he had reasons to believe I'd done well since we parted. I had, but I saw no value in providing him with more information. Dealing with him had transformed the afternoon from pleasure to work, and the same dishes that had been so appealing a few minutes ago now held absolutely no interest for me.

"How did you find me?"

He arranged and slowly chewed another combination of the appetizers before answering. "Ah, Jon, that was luck, fate if you will. Though we've been apart for quite a while, I'm sure you remember how valuable it is for someone in my line of work to develop supporters among the jump-gate staff. Some of my better friends here at Mund's gate agreed to inform me when people of a certain," he looked skyward, as if searching for a phrase, "dangerous persuasion pass into the system. Traveling in a Starlon-class battle wagon earned you their attention, and they were kind enough to alert me."

I nodded and silently cursed myself. During a recent run-in with two major multiplanet conglomerates and a big chunk of the Frontier Coalition government, I'd made so many jumps in such a short period that I'd abandoned my previously standard practice of bribing jump-gate agents not to notice me. Break a habit, pay a price.

I ignored the bait about Lobo and tried to wrest control of the conversation away from him. "Jack, answer or one of us leaves: what do you want?"

He leaned back and looked into my eyes for a few seconds, then smiled and nodded. "You never could appreciate the value of civilized conversation," he said, "but your very coarseness has also always been part of your appeal—and your value. Put simply and without the context I hope you'll permit me to provide, I need your help."

Leave it to Jack to take that long to give an answer with absolutely no content.

"When we parted," I said, "I told you I was done with the con. Nothing has changed. You've ruined my lunch for no reason." I stood to go.

Jack leaned forward, held up his hand, and said, "Please, Jon, give me a little time. This isn't about me. It's about the boy."

His tone grabbed me enough that I didn't walk away, but I also didn't sit. "The boy? What boy? I can't picture you with children."

Jack laughed. "No," he said, "I have not chosen to procreate, nor do I ever expect to do so." He held up his hand, turned, and motioned to the maître d'.

The man walked over to our table, reached behind himself, and gently urged a boy to step in front of him.

"This boy," Jack said. "Manu Chang."

Chang stared at me with the wide, unblinking eyes of scared youth. With shoulders slightly wider than his hips and a fair amount of hair on his neck, he appeared to be somewhere between ten and twelve, not yet inhabiting a man's body but beginning the transformation into one. His broad mouth hung open a centimeter, as if he were about to speak. He wore his fine black hair short, not quite a buzz cut but close. Aside from the copper hue of his skin nothing about him struck me as remarkable, and even that skin tone would be common enough in any large city. He stood still, neither speaking nor moving, and I felt instantly bad for him, stuck as he was in an adult situation beyond his ability to understand.

"Are you hungry, Manu?" I said as I sat.

He nodded but didn't speak.

"Then please eat with us." The maître d' was, predictably, ahead of me: two waiters appeared, hustled the boy into a chair, and composed a plate of food for him from the remains of the appetizers and two new dishes they brought. After I took a bite of mine and Jack did the same, Manu followed suit.

I turned my attention back to Jack. I realized he was almost certainly manipulating me, because he knows no other way to interact with others. I also knew the odds of my later regretting this question were high, but I was curious. "Why do you want my help?"

Though I was certain that inside he was smiling, all Jack permitted his face to show were concern for the boy and appreciation at my interest. "My answer will make sense only if I give you some context," he said, "so I have to ask you to grant me a few minutes to explain."

"Go ahead," I said, "but, Jack, don't play me." As I heard my own words, which I meant and delivered seriously, I realized how well he'd hooked me. I was speaking nonsensically: Jack isn't capable of saying anything to anyone without having some angles at play.

He leaned conspiratorially closer and lowered his voice. "I know you're aware of Pinkelponker," he said. "Everyone is."

"Yeah, of course I've heard of it," I said. "It's quarantined."

Pinkelponker. The name shook me more than Jack's appearance. I did my best to hide my reaction from him. I was born there, and I lived there with my sister, Jennie, an empathic healer, until the government took her away and forced her to heal only those people it deemed important.

Pinkelponker occupies three unique niches in human history. It's the only planet successfully colonized by one of Earth's pre-jump-gate generation ships, though the ship crashed and stranded the entire population until humanity discovered the series of jump gates that led to the single-aperture gate near Pinkelponker. It's the only place where radical human mutations not only survived but also developed trans-human talents, such as my sister's healing abilities. And, it's the only planet humans have ever colonized that is now forbidden territory. It exists under a continuous quarantine and blockade, thanks to a nanotech disaster that led to the abandonment of all research into embedding nano-machines in humans.

What no one knows is that the rogue nano-machine cloud that led to the planet's forced isolation came into existence as part of my escape from Aggro, the research prison that orbited Pinkelponker. More importantly, to the best of my knowledge no one alive knows that I'm living proof that nano-machines can safely exist in humans—and I want it to stay that way. Any group that learned the truth about me would want to turn me into a research animal. I'll never let that happen again.

I realized I wasn't paying attention and forced myself to concentrate on what Jack was saying. Fortunately, he didn't seem to have noticed that I'd lost focus for a moment.

". . . hasn't been open to travel in over a century and a quarter," he said. "If you haven't spent much time in this sector of space, you wouldn't have any reason to keep up with it, though obviously even you know about the quarantine."

"Who doesn't?" I said as casually as I could manage. Jack held my attention now, because I realized that far more relevant than my past was a disturbing question: was he telling me all this because he'd learned more about my background than I ever wanted anyone to know?

"It's tough to avoid," he said, his head nodding, "particularly for those of us who always need to plot the best routes off any world they're visiting." He smiled and lowered his voice further, speaking low enough now that without thinking I leaned forward to hear him better. "But have you heard the legends?"

"What legends?" I said. Playing dumb and letting Jack talk seemed the wisest option.

"Psychics, Jon, not grifters working marks but real psychics. Pinkelponker was a high-radiation planet, a fact that should simply have led to a lot of deaths. Something about that world was special, though, because instead the radiation led to useful human mutations—something humanity has never seen anywhere else. The legends tell of the existence of all types of psychics, from telekinetics to healers to seers."

Jack sat back, his expression expectant, waiting for me. I've seen him use this technique to draw in marks, and I wasn't about to play. As I now feared Jack might know, I hadn't come to Mund simply for Choy's cooking, as amazing as it was reputed to be. Mund was one of the worlds with a jump aperture to Drayus, the only planet with an aperture to Pinkelponker—a blockaded aperture, one no human had successfully passed through in a hundred and thirty years, but an aperture nonetheless. I visited this sector of space periodically, each time wondering how I could get back to Pinkelponker and see if Jennie still lived—and each time realizing with a gut-wrenching sense of failure that there was no way I could reach her, no chance I could save her.

I could only lose by giving away any of this knowledge about my past, so I waited. Manu chewed quietly. I eyed the food but couldn't make myself eat.

After a minute or so, Jack realized he'd have to keep going on his own. He leaned closer again and, his eyes shining brightly, said, "Can you imagine it, Jon? In all the colonized planets, not one psychic—until Pinkelponker."

Jack was as dogged as he was slippery, so I knew he'd never give up. I had to move him along. "You said it, Jack: legends. Those are just legends."

He smiled again, satisfied now that I was playing the role he wanted me to fill. "Yes, they're legends, but not all legends are false or exaggerated. In the less than a decade between the discovery of Pinkelponker's jump gate and the permanent quarantine of that whole area after the nanotech disaster, some people from that planet naturally visited other worlds. Some of those visitors never went home. And," he said, leaning back, "a very few of those who stayed away were psychics." He put his right hand gently on the boy's back. "Like Manu's grandmother. Though she died, and though her only son didn't inherit her powers, her grandson did.

"Manu did. He's proof that the legends were true, Jon. He's a seer."

I stared at the boy, who continued to eat as if we weren't there. I already knew the legends were true, because I was proof of it. I was born retarded, but Jennie not only fixed me, she made me somehow able to communicate on machine frequencies, see in the IR range, and control the nano-machines the Aggro scientists later injected into me. She'd told me that others with special powers existed, but she'd never provided specifics, and I've never met any of them. Though Jack's story of Pinkelponker natives visiting other planets seemed reasonable enough—the wealthy of all worlds move around readily—I'd never heard it before. More importantly, with Jack I couldn't trust anything to be the whole story. I needed to keep him talking and hope I could lure him into giving me more of the truth than he'd planned.

"I don't buy it, Jack," I said. "If the boy could see the future, he'd already be famous or rich—or the hidden property of some conglomerate. He sure wouldn't be with you."

Jack shook his head. "Wrong on all counts, Jon." He held up his right hand and ticked off the points on his long, elegant fingers. "First, his powers don't work reliably. I told you: he's two generations away from the planet. He sees the future, but in visions whose subjects he can't control. He doesn't even know when they'll hit him. Second, his parents, though not well off, aren't stupid, so they've kept him hidden. Third, and this leads me to why I'm here, the visions damage him. In fact, without the right treatments to suppress them, and without continuing those treatments indefinitely, well," he looked at the boy with what appeared to be genuine fondness and then stared at me, choosing his words carefully, "his body won't be able to pay the bill his mind will incur."

"You don't need me to go to a med tech," I said.

"Normal med techs can't provide these treatments," Jack said, "and those few that do offer them charge a great deal more than his parents can afford. The whole situation is also complicated by our need to keep Manu's abilities quiet."

"You said he's with you, so why not just pay the bill yourself?"

"Alas, Jon," he said with a wistful smile, "my own funds are inadequate to the task."

"So you want to borrow the money from me?" I said. Jack and I had covered this ground before, after the second time I was stupid enough to grant him a loan, and he knew I'd vowed never to do it again.

He hadn't forgotten: he waved his hands quickly and shook his head. "No, no, of course not. I'm simply helping Manu and his parents get the money. I've arranged a way, but it has," he paused, giving the impression of searching for words I'm sure he'd already rehearsed, "an element of risk."

I motioned him to continue and looked at Manu. The boy ate slowly and methodically, without pause, with the kind of determined focus common among those who never know how long it'll be until their next meal.

"Pinkelponker is, as you might imagine, the object of considerable interest to certain mystic groups, as well as to many historians. One particular Pinkelponker fanatic, an extremely wealthy man named Manute Dougat, has set up a Pinkelponker research center and museum—almost a temple, really—near the ocean on the northern edge of downtown Eddy. Dougat's interviewed every Pinkelponker survivor and survivor descendant he's ever found. He claims to make all the recordings available in his institute, though," Jack paused and stared off into space for a moment, "I suspect he's the sort who's held back anything of any serious potential value. What matters most is that he pays for the interviews. I've contacted him about Manu, and he's offered to pay enough—just for an interview, no more—to keep the boy in treatments for a very long time."

"So what's the problem?" I said. "It sounds like you've found a way to get the money you need."

"I don't trust Dougat, Jon. He's rich, which immediately makes him suspect. Worse, you can hear the fervor in his voice when he talks about Pinkelponker, and fanatics always scare me. When I told him about Manu's visions, he sounded as if he were a Gatist with a chance to be the first to learn the secret of the jump gates. He's not faking his interest, either. You know I've spent a lot of my life cultivating desire in marks and spotting when they were hooked; well, Dougat wants Manu badly, Jon, badly enough that I'm worried he might try to take the boy."

"You're asking me to provide protection?" I said.

"You and that battle wagon of yours," Jack said quietly. "If I'm wrong about Dougat, this will cost you only a little time. If I'm right, though, then I'll feel a lot better with you beside me. You know I'm no good at violence, and, as I recall, you are."

Despite myself, I nodded. I don't like violence; at least the part of me under my conscious control doesn't like it, but the anger that's more tightly bound into me than the nano-machines emerges all too readily. I tell myself I do everything reasonably possible to avoid fights, but all too often the jobs I take end up in conflict.

"You've already learned I'm a private courier," I said. "If you and the boy want to go somewhere, and if you have the fare, I'll treat you as a package and take you to your destination under my care. I'm no bodyguard, though"—I had no reason to assume Jack knew of the five years I'd spent being exactly that—"so I can't help you with the meeting."

"One day, Jon," he said, "just one day. That's all I need you for. We meet Dougat tomorrow at the Institute. I wanted a safe, public place, but he wouldn't go anywhere he couldn't control the security. We compromised on meeting in the open, on the grounds in front of his main building, where anyone passing by could see us. All I'm asking is that you come with us, watch our backs, and if things turn bad, take us out of there. That's it."

I knew Jack wouldn't drop it until I'd found a way to say no that he understood, so I cut to the easiest escape route. "How much do you propose to pay me for this?" I said.

"Nothing."

No answer he could have given would have surprised me more. Jack always came ready to any bargaining table. I fought to keep the surprise from showing on my face. It was the first thing he'd said that made me wonder if he might actually be straight for once.

"I don't have any money to pay you," he continued, "and I won't make any from this meeting; everything Dougat pays goes to Manu. I'm doing it for him, and I'm asking you to do the same. With all the dicey business we've worked, wouldn't you like to simply do some good now and again?"

The spark of trust Jack had created winked out as I realized there was no way he was doing something for nothing. "Why are you involved in all this, Jack? Skip the pitch and just tell me."

Jack looked at Manu for a few seconds. "I really am out to help Manu. His dad's a friend, and I feel bad for the boy." He straightened and a pained expression flickered on his face for an instant. "And, Earth's greatest export has once again led me to a debt I must repay, this time to Manu's father."

"Poker," I said, laughing. "A gambling debt?" Jack had always loved the game, and we'd played it both for pleasure and on the hustle, straight up and bent. I enjoyed it well enough, but I rarely sought it, and I could always walk away. For him, poker held a stronger attraction, one he frequently lost the will to fight.

"It was as sure a hand as I've ever seen, Jon," he said, the excitement in his voice a force at the small table. Manu started at Jack's tone but resumed eating when everything appeared to be okay. "Seven stud, three beautiful eights to greet me, the next card the fourth, and a world of opportunity spread before me. He caught the final two tens on the last two cards—cards he never should have paid to see. Unbelievable luck. A better player would have folded long before. I put everything into that pot. It was mine." He paused for a few seconds, and when he continued he was back under control. "Honestly, Jon, I was willing to help Manu before that hand, but yes, losing it guaranteed my participation."

"Your debt is not my problem, Jack."

"I realize that, and I wouldn't be asking you if I had an alternative. Unfortunately, I don't. Dougat is the only option Manu's father has found, I'm committed to help, and I don't trust Dougat. I'll go it alone if I must, and I'm confident I'll walk away from the meeting, because I hold no interest for the man, but I fear—" he glanced down at Manu and then spoke quickly—"that I'll exit alone."

That Jack was in a bind was never news—he'd be in trouble as long as he lived—and my days of obligation to him were long over. I felt bad for the boy, worse than Jack could know because my inability to save Jennie has left me a soft touch for children in trouble, but I learned long ago that I can't save them all. Worse, recent experience had taught me that trying to rescue even one of them could lead to the kind of trouble I was lucky to survive. If I wanted to avoid more danger, I not only needed to steer clear of Jack, I had to leave Mund soon, because I had to assume the same gate staff he'd bribed would be alerting others to my presence. Anyone willing to sell information for the sorts of fees Jack could afford would surely try to boost their profits by reselling that same data.

The only reasonable choice was to walk away now and leave the planet.

As much as I fought it, however, I knew I wouldn't make that choice.

The problem was the Pinkelponker connection. Dougat's research center might provide information I could use. If Manu really were a seer, he might be a source of useful data. I also had to determine whether Jack knew about or even suspected my ties to the planet, and, if he did, just what he'd learned.

Finally, I had to admit that because so many of the jobs I've taken have led to so much damage, the prospect of doing something genuinely good always appealed to me.

I stared into Jack's eyes and tried to read him. He held my gaze, too good a salesman to look away or push harder when he knew the hook was in deep. Even as I looked at him I remembered how utterly pointless it was to search for the truth in his face. Jack excelled at close-up cons because at some level he always believed what he was selling, and so to marks he always appeared honest. The only way I could glean more information was to accrete it slowly by spending time with him.

When I glanced at Manu, I found him watching me expectantly, hopefully, as if he'd understood everything we'd discussed. Perhaps he had; Jack hadn't tried very hard to obscure the topic.

I took a long, slow, deep breath, and then looked back at Jack. "I'll help you," I said, "for the boy's sake."

"Thank you, Jon," he said.

"Thank you, sir," Manu said, his voice wavering but clear. "I'm sorry for any trouble we're causing you."

Either Jack had coached the kid well, or the boy meant it. I decided to hope the sentiment was genuine.

"You're welcome," I said to Manu.

Jack caught the snub, of course, but he wisely chose to ignore it.

I now had a job to do and not enough prep time to do it right. We had to get to work. "Jack, you said the meeting was tomorrow, so our mission clock is much shorter than I'd like. Lay it out for me."

* * *

The Pinkelponker Research Institute sprawled across the built-up northern border of Eddy like a fever dream. No signs warned that when you passed the last of the rows of permacrete corporate headquarters buildings you should expect something very different indeed. No lights, labels, tapestries, recordings, or welcome displays offered to explain it to you. In the middle of a five-hundred-meter-wide lot the gleaming black ziggurat simply commanded your eye to focus on the miniature of Pinkelponker that revolved slowly in the air a few meters above the building's summit.



A perfect lawn the muted green of shallow seawater surrounded the building. Circular flower beds rich in soft browns, glowing yellows, and deepwater blues burst from the grass at apparently random locations all over the lot. Only when you viewed them from the air, as I had when Lobo and I had made our first recon pass after my lunch with Jack, did you realize that each grouping of plants effortlessly evoked an image of one of the many volcanic islands that were the only land masses on my birth planet. The ziggurat itself looked nothing like any of the individual islands I'd seen, yet its rounded edges and graceful ascent reminded me of home, made me ache for it.

I'd taken Lobo to a docking facility on the west side of town and hopped a cab from there. I'd changed cabs twice on the chance anyone had tracked me from the restaurant, but neither Lobo nor I spotted anyone following me. The last cab took me down the street that bordered the Institute on the ocean side, a wide avenue jammed with hover transports, cabs, and personal vehicles all rushing to and fro in the service of Eddy's growing economy. The length of the crossing signal made it clear that city planners valued vehicles and commerce far more than pedestrians.

When I finally made it to the Institute's ocean-side entrance, I found the overall effect far more entrancing than anything I'd anticipated from my aerial surveillance. I felt as if someone had sampled my memories and recombined them, managing in the process to create a setting that in no way resembled home but that at the same time rewarded every glance with the sense that, yes, this feels like Pinkelponker. Working in the grain fields under the bright sun, the constant ocean breeze cooling me, Jennie due to come to visit when her day was done—I drifted back involuntarily, my memories summoned by Dougat's artful evocation.

I shut my eyes and forced myself to focus on the job. It was a site I had to analyze, nothing more. Jack's task was to keep Manu hidden until the meeting. Mine was to make sure we all got out safely if anything went wrong. To do that, I had to learn as much about this place as possible in the few hours available.

When I looked again, I did so professionally. None of the scattered plantings rose high enough or were dense enough that you could hide in them. That was good news for possible threats, but bad news should we need to take cover. I couldn't spot any lawn-care, gardening, or tourist appliances, and when I tuned my hearing to the frequencies such machines use, I caught nothing.

"Lobo," I said over our comm link, "have your scans turned up anything?"

"No," he said. "If there are weapons outside the building, they're not giving off any IR signatures I can trace. I can find no evidence of sensor activity on the grounds. I can't recall a more electromagnetically neutral setting this close to a city."

"Any luck penetrating the building?"

"No. It's extremely well shielded. It's transmitting and receiving on a variety of frequencies, of course, but everything is either encrypted or just the usual public data feeds."

"Anything significant between here and his warehouse?" Dougat operated a shipping and receiving center on the south end of the city.

"Encrypted bursts of the size you'd expect for inventory and sensor management. That place reeks of machine security, but it's not as shielded and currently reads IR-neutral. Best estimate is that no people are there."

Good; the security we found here might be all we had to worry about.

The air was cooling as night approached, but Eddy was still warm enough that the slight breeze from the ocean felt fine against my skin. I'd stood in one place longer than I felt a normal tourist would, so I walked slowly toward the building.

"One data point you might find useful," Lobo said, "is that in the last fifteen minutes over two dozen humans have entered the building on the far side and twenty have left."

"Shift change. How many look like security?"

"All were wearing comm links, so that's impossible to gauge. Based on the building's total lack of visible external sensors or weapons, however, I suggest we assume most are hostiles."

"Even if they're all security, they're not hostiles," I said. "At least not yet. They become problems only if Dougat chooses not to play this straight."

"You're indulging in distracting games," Lobo said, "induced by your emotions. You've chosen to involve us, an involvement that matters only if Dougat attempts to kidnap Chang. If he does, he and his staff become hostiles. If he doesn't, we're spectators. The only reasonable option, therefore, is to treat them all as hostiles for the duration of our participation."

Though I'm glad Lobo is mine, his lack of tolerance for ambiguity frequently leads to conversations that are far more cold-blooded than I prefer. "By that logic," I said, "to maximize our probability of success we should simply kill them all now."

Lobo ignored my sarcasm. "That would be sensible from an efficiency perspective," he said, "but it would remove Dougat's ability to pay and thus compromise the overall mission."

Before I could decide whether I wanted to know if he was also being sarcastic, I reached the ziggurat's entrance.

"Signing off until I exit," I said.

The atmosphere inside was a perfected version of what I'd felt outside: a bit warmer, a little more humid, with light breezes of unknown origin wafting gently across you no matter where you stood. Perpetual daylight brightened the space. Cloudscapes played across the ceiling. The faint sounds of distant surf breaking and wind moving through grasses tickled the edges of perception. Once again, I had only to shut my eyes to transport myself to the Pinkelponker of my childhood. Either Dougat or someone on his design team had visited my home world, or their research was impeccable.

The center of the space was a single large open area broken by tables, two-meter-high displays, and small conversation areas. The island theme continued here, with each cluster of displays centered on a topic such as early history, agriculture, speculation on the exact cause and final outcome of the disaster, mineral and gem samples, and so on. A few dozen people stood and sat at various spots around the interior, some clearly serious students, many only tourists. Even the most studiously focused of the visitors would close their eyes from time to time as the interior effects worked on them.

The exceptions, of course, were the security personnel. You can costume security staff appropriately, and you can train them to circulate well and even to act interested in the exhibits, but you can't make them appear under the spell of the place they're guarding. Even the most magical of settings loses its allure after you've worked in it for a few weeks. I counted fifteen men and women on active patrol. I had to assume at least a few more were monitoring displays and weapons scanners, occupying rooms I couldn't see, and generally staying out of my view.

I kept in character as a tourist, staying long enough at the historical displays to appear interested but not so long as to look like a student of the planet. I'd learned almost nothing of the world's history growing up there, so I found the background on the generation ship and the later discovery of the jump gate to be genuinely interesting. Docent holograms snapped alert when I lingered at any exhibit, and I let a few of them natter at me. At a display on the various religions of Pinkelponker—growing up there I never saw a place of worship, and the closest I came to prayer was the occasional desperate hope for Jennie to come visit me or for my chores to be over—a docent asked if by chance I belonged to any organization that viewed the planet as sacred. I hadn't even realized such groups existed; I obviously had a lot to learn about how some people viewed my home.

A large display in the right rear corner of the space offered the only discussion of the legends Jack had cited. Dougat might be as personally interested in the stories of Pinkelponker psychics as Jack had said, but the man wasn't letting his interest shape the Institute's exhibits.

Like the other tourists I spotted, I made sure to invest a large chunk of my time gawking at the cases highlighting jagged mineral samples and large, unrefined jewels. Though I frequently stood alone at one of the historicals, I always had company at the mineral and jewel displays. For reasons I've never understood, standing near items of great monetary value, even things you'll never get to touch or own, is a compelling experience for many people. As best I could tell, the larger samples here, like the big jewels in any museum on any planet, illustrated the power of natural forces applied slowly over long periods of time to create artifacts of great beauty. The waterfalls outside Choy's restaurant and the grooves they'd cut into the cliffs there made the same point and were, to me, more striking and more beautiful, but for most they lacked the powerful allure of gems.

I was intrigued to learn that Pinkelponker had been extremely rich in jewels and that the business of exporting them to other worlds had constituted a major source of revenue for the government. All I'd seen of Pinkelponker was a pair of islands: the one where I lived until the government took away Jennie, and the one where they tossed me until my failed escape attempt led them to sell Benny and me to the Aggro scientists for nanotech experimentation. The gleaming government centers sparkling in sun-drenched images and the stories of gem-fueled wealth led me to wonder, not for the first time, at the amazingly different ways that residents of a single planet can view their world.

The rearmost of the exhibits ended at a long wall that extended across the back of the building and rose to the ceiling. Offices, storage, and loading docks probably filled the remainder of the interior space. As I exited I counted off the distance from that wall; knowing the size of the staff and private space behind it might prove useful. I hoped everything would go smoothly and this scouting would prove to have been a waste, but until this was over, the more information we had, the better.

To the left of the entrance I paid a visit to a small concession area. The two machines there offered everything from beverages to quasi-historical data files to glowing bouncy models of Pinkelponker. I purchased some water and listened on the common appliance frequencies on the chance that I could glean something useful.

"Another big spender," the beverage dispenser said. "Does anyone who visits this place even appreciate what I'm capable of? If they'd bother to scroll through the menu, or even just to ask, they'd learn that I could provide everything from juices to local herbal teas—and some quite good ones, if the reactions I've heard are any indication."

"Isn't that always the way it is?" the keepsake vendor said. "Oh, sure, a few will buy a bouncing model, but what about the built-to-order and personalized options? How many of these people will take real advantage of what I could do for them? Precious few, I can tell you. Why, I bet not one in a hundred of them has even a clue as to the breadth of Pinkelponker material I could fabricate."

"If it weren't for the staff," the dispenser continued, "my conveyor and rear assembly parts might die of disuse."

"I'm sorry I'm not thirstier," I said on their frequency, "but I do appreciate the work you both do."

Though machines don't expect humans to be able to talk to them, it takes an exceptionally intelligent one, such as Lobo, to ever question why you're able to do so. Most appliances are so self-absorbed and have so much spare intelligence that they'll dive at any chance to chatter endlessly with anything or anyone that responds.

"Thank you for saying so," the dispenser said.

"At least he bought something from you," the other commented.

I interrupted before they could get into an argument and forget me entirely; appliances also have extremely short attention spans. "The staff must keep you very busy. I'm sure they appreciate you, and they seem to outnumber the visitors."

"They appreciate it," the keepsake machine said, "but not me. Except for the odd desperate birthday gift purchase, they never even visit me. Of course, it's not like I have an outlet in the back of the Institute. Some machines work at a disadvantage."

"Some machines are simply more important than others," the beverage dispenser said. "Every human has to drink, so my offerings are vital. They do not have to purchase the sort of disposable afterthoughts you hawk."

"I bet each staff member uses you at least once a day," I said, focusing on the dispenser.

"Not quite," it said, "but some order multiple times, so the average daily total is actually a bit better than that."

"You must keep quite busy simply helping them," I said, "because that must be, what, sixty or eighty orders a day."

"I wish!" it said. "It's more like thirty-five to forty orders a day, and I could handle ten times that quantity with ease."

That put the staff count at about three dozen, which meant security could run as high as twenty or more during busy hours. That estimate roughly matched what I'd guessed from walking around. That much security would have been overkill for a place this size were it not for the jewels, but given their presence it was believable. Because Dougat had the option of summoning a lot of human backup, I definitely needed to keep the meeting in the open, where Lobo could reach us quickly.

I walked outside and wandered for a few minutes among the islands of flowers. That Jack had approached me about a job involving Pinkelponker kept nagging at me. Did he know something about my background, or was it just a coincidence induced by me choosing to spend time on a world only two jumps away? If he'd learned more about me, how, and from what source? With many people I would either ask or feel them out on the topic, but neither approach would work with Jack; he was too much a manipulator for me to play him, and if he knew nothing, I certainly didn't want to alert him that this was a topic he should pursue further.

My safest option was to do the job at hand and listen closely in case he let something slip—an unlikely event, of course, but a possibility nonetheless.

I headed off the grounds and opened a link to Lobo.

"Enjoy your tour?" Lobo said.

The tone of his voice answered my earlier, unspoken question: he had been speaking sarcastically then. Lobo's mood never changes due to breaks in a conversation, no matter how long the breaks may be—unless, of course, the concerns of a mission intervene. Though his emotive programming was, in my opinion, overblown, his designers had at least possessed the good sense to make him turn all-business when the situation demanded. For that, I was always grateful.

"It was informative," I said, ignoring his tone. "As you would expect, we're going to make quite a few modifications to the draft plan we discussed earlier. Pick me up at the rendezvous point in an hour and a half, and we'll walk through it again."

"It's what I live for," Lobo said.

I ignored him and continued. "In the meantime, consider options that do minimal damage to this place. I see no reason to trash more than we have to."

"No reason?" Lobo said, incredulity replacing sarcasm in his voice. "Your instructions were that the top priorities were to get you, the boy, and Jack, in that order, to safety should this turn into more than an interview. You even established that Jack would be in command should you be incapacitated. You would not have given those orders unless you believed this could go badly. The simplest way to achieve your goals and avoid an unwanted conclusion is to take out all opposition staff and positions."

"That's not an option," I said. I winced inside at having put myself first on Lobo's list, but the reality was that if the day went nonlinear, the best hope Jack and Manu had was that I stayed alive and protected them. I also had to admit that my concern for the boy and for what Jack might know about my past extended only so far.

I signed off without further discussion. Lobo didn't agree with my orders, but like any professional soldier he'd obey them. He would, though, find ways to remind me of his displeasure; his programmers had mastered the art of the passive-aggressive comment.

I'm glad Lobo is on my team, but right then the prospect of spending the evening with him made the next afternoon's meeting appear almost attractive.

* * *

 

We entered the Institute grounds along the same path I'd taken during my recon. Jack and Manu walked hand in hand ahead of me. I kept out of their way but close enough that my role would be clear; for me to be effective, I would have needed to stay close enough that Dougat's people would have made me no matter how hard I tried to blend in, so broadcasting my presence seemed the best option available. The feel of Pinkelponker washed over me as I walked, and at a gust of ocean breeze I involuntarily smiled, the wind taking me back for a second to one of my most persistent childhood memories: sitting on the edge of our small mountain in the afternoon, my chores done, soaking up the warmth while waiting for Jennie. I pushed aside the thought and focused on expanding my peripheral vision as much as possible so I could take in movement all around us.



Jack's pace accelerated a bit.

"Slow and easy," I said.

He nodded and resumed his earlier pace. I wanted as much time to assess the situation as I could reasonably arrange.

The sky out to sea and above us sparkled with cloudless perfection, but a storm was approaching from the west. Lobo was marking time about five miles away behind the cover its dark clouds provided. I'd have preferred him overhead, but at this distance he could stay subsonic and still reach us in less than thirty seconds; the reward of keeping him hidden outweighed the risk of having him closer but visible.

About ten meters from the building's entrance stood a small sky-colored canopy covering two chairs and a small table. A man sat alone at one of the chairs: Dougat. Four more men stood in a rough semicircle on the other side of the canopy. Roughly three meters separated each of them, and none was in the line of fire of any of the others. All tried for nonchalant postures, but I was acting casual as well; all our attempts were equally unconvincing. The two in the middle focused completely on us, while the end men constantly swept the area.

"Lobo," I said. We communicated via a comm link that allowed me to sub-vocalize and so not be heard by those near me. Any reasonable security person would know I was talking to someone, but that was fine with me; if they believed I had backup, they might be more careful, and the more cautious everyone was, the better. "Dougat and the four behind him are obvious. Other possible hostiles?"

"Since you stopped moving," Lobo said, "one man to your left of the building has altered his path to take him in your direction."

I spotted the guy, who immediately sat on a bench in a garden area and studied the flowers there. He held his head at an angle that let him keep us in sight. "Got him," I said.

In a clear voice I said to Jack, "Hold."

He did. He stood still and appeared completely relaxed. Manu fidgeted but didn't complain. I appreciated the boy's willingness to do as we told him.

"Six more in various locations between you and the road have drawn slightly closer," Lobo said. "Locations on overlay now. Sweep once to mark them."

The contact in my left eye turned the world a slightly darker shade as the overlay snapped on. I turned slowly and surveyed the grounds behind me. As I did, small red dots appeared on the chests of the four men and two women Lobo suspected. Each avoided looking at me and found something nearby of great interest, so I assumed Lobo was right. "Track them, the obvious four, and the one near the building," I said.

"Done," he said.

My order was unnecessary, because Lobo was a pro and knew his role, but I couldn't stop myself from giving it. If we weren't in the middle of a mission, Lobo would have harassed me about the redundancy, but he never mixed serious business and sarcasm.

"We're probably missing one," I said. "Security teams love pairs. Scan again."

"A woman to your far left has walked closer to the man at the building's edge," Lobo said, "so she's a possible. No other human in the area is exhibiting any telling behaviors. So, either that's all of the external security or the remaining members are significantly more skilled at blending in than their colleagues."

I looked at the woman and smiled. She reacted with a smile of her own and then turned away, but the reaction was slow and forced.

"Assume she's a hostile," I said. "More are inside, but we'll go with this count for now."

Dougat stood, an impatient expression on his face.

Jack glanced back at me, but to his credit he stayed put.

"Proceed," I said.

Jack and Manu headed toward the canopy. "Mr. Dougat," Jack said in his most winning voice. "How nice to see you again."

Dougat ignored Jack completely and focused on the boy.

Like any good merchant, Jack paused so his customer could take his time to study the goods. Even as I hated myself for thinking of a child that way, I realized that we were in it now and I had to stay cold to be maximally effective.

I couldn't read Dougat's expression. I've seen the very rich examine other people with all the passion of butchers trying to decide which meat scraps to feed their pets, look completely through others, as if the strangers were no more substantial than mist, and stare with undisguised lust at newcomers they planned to own. Dougat did none of those.

Then I got it: Dougat viewed Manu as a potential religious artifact, something possibly precious, definitely puzzling, a little hard to believe in, and yet wonderful if it proved to be the real thing. However rich the man was and however much he had profited from his institute and his research into Pinkelponker, he was above all else a believer in the religious importance of my home world.

That scared me more than mere lust or greed would ever have troubled me. Not long after I stopped working with Jack, I spent quite a while with what is, in my opinion, the finest mercenary company anywhere, the Shosen Advanced Weapons Corp., the Saw. Several of our actions pitted us against armies of true believers determined to convert worlds to their gods or, in some cases, to purify whole planets of their heathen nonbelievers, and they were fearsome opponents. I learned to respect, fear, and despise the utter fanatical focus of their mission.

"Are you ready to proceed?" Jack said to Dougat.

Dougat stared at Jack as if he was seeing excrement on his dinner plate, then forced a businesslike expression. "Yes," he said. "Let's begin the interview."

"Should we get another chair?" Jack said, indicating the two under the canopy.

"The interview is strictly between the boy and me," Dougat said. "You and," he paused to make a dismissive motion in my general direction, "your associate should wait where you are."

Jack turned and looked at me. I shook my head slightly and turned to directly face Dougat.

"Will your associates also remove themselves?" I said. "Both those four and," I pointed slowly toward the building and then casually behind me, "the two closer to the building and the six in various locations behind me?"

Dougat smiled for the first time. "I must apologize not only for the size of my security team but also for the clearly underdeveloped skills of its staff. I mean the boy no harm. I have enemies, so I generally don't meet outside. My team seemed a reasonable precaution. Everyone will back away."

The ones I could see in front of me withdrew so they were farther from the canopy than Jack or I by at least five meters.

I turned to look behind me and the contact showed the other six had also fallen back.

"Hostiles have pulled back," said Lobo, who was monitoring the conversation via delayed bursts from transmitters woven into my coat.

"Thank you," I said. To Jack, I added, "Your call."

Jack nodded and faced Dougat again. "Perhaps we should get the payment out of the way."

Dougat smiled again, but this time the expression was pure show. He turned to one of the four men behind him, nodded, and faced Jack again when that man nodded in return. "Check your wallet," he said. "The money is in the local account you specified."

Jack did, lingering long enough that I was sure he moved the money at least twice before he looked up and smiled with what appeared to be genuine relief. "Thank you. We'll wait here while you talk." He dropped to one knee beside Manu. "All Mister Dougat wants to do is ask you questions for about an hour. Answer them honestly, and then we'll go. Okay?"

Manu studied Jack's face. "You'll stay here?" He looked at me. "Both of you?"

"Of course," Jack said. "We'll be right here."

Manu kept staring at me until I nodded in agreement.

"Okay," he said. He walked to Dougat, glanced for a moment at the man's face, and then went over and sat on one of the chairs under the canopy. Dougat shook his head and followed; I got the impression he spent about as much time around children as I did.

After Dougat sat, he offered Manu a drink from a pitcher on the table.

Manu checked with me, as we had discussed, and I shook my head. The boy murmured something—we were too far away to hear his light voice—and leaned back. The kid's behavior continued to impress me; I've guarded grown-ups with far less sense. We didn't worry about the contents of the interview; Manu had so many recorders in the active fiber of his clothing that we'd be able to view a full replay later.

"Lobo," I said. "Alert me if any of the hostiles draw closer or if Manu moves. I'm going to sweep the area visually every thirty seconds or so, and each time I do I will lose sight of the boy briefly."

"You could stay focused on him and leave the others to me," Lobo said.

"Yes," I said, "but I won't. My perspective is significantly different than yours, so I might gain data you won't, and by visibly looking I will make sure Dougat's team knows I'm on the alert."

As I finished talking, I turned and briefly scanned all the way around me. The hostiles appeared in my contact as I moved. The situation remained calm. Manu and Dougat continued to talk, the boy occasionally animated, the man studious and absorbed. Jack stood about a meter away from me, as motionless as a rock carving, watching the interview with a deceptive stillness.

Jack was right when he reminded me that he was bad at violence, but that didn't mean he was helpless. He possessed an amazing ability to simply be in a moment, to drink it in and focus totally on it, and in those times he appeared so still that you might believe he was physically and mentally slow. When he needed to move, however, he was one of the fastest humans I've ever seen, able to go from motionless to full speed almost as quickly as if he were a simulation freed from the laws of physics.

Over the next thirty-five minutes we all kept to our roles. Dougat once left the boy to ask Jack if they might run a bit over an hour, and Jack agreed. Every indication was that Dougat would behave, do the interview, and let us go. I felt the strong urge to relax, but no mission is over until you're back home safely, so I maintained my routine.

I was between sweeps, staring at the chatting boy and man, when Manu grabbed his head, cried loudly enough that we could hear him, and ran toward Jack.

Jack was moving before Manu had taken his second step and reached the boy quickly. I was right behind them.

"What's wrong?" Jack said to Manu. He stared at Dougat. "What did you do to him?

Dougat looked genuinely upset. "Nothing," he said, "nothing at all. We were talking, then for no reason I could see he appeared to be in pain."

Jack looked down at Manu. "Did he hurt you?"

Manu was holding his head and shaking it back and forth, moaning softly. "No," he said. "Not him. It's not him. It hurts." He looked up, his eyes wide, and pointed toward the road. "We can't let it happen. We have to stop it." He grabbed Jack's hand and pulled. Jack, Dougat, and I exchanged glances, and Jack decided for us by letting Manu lead him.

"All hostiles changing course and approaching," Lobo said.

I grabbed Jack's arm with my left hand, and he stopped.

Manu tugged hard at him. "We have to stop it!" he yelled.

I kept my hand on Jack's arm and faced Dougat. "Tell all your people to return to their previous positions," I said. "I don't know anything more about this than you do, but it's clear the boy wants us to move. Keep them back, and we will."

"Now!" Manu screamed. "We have to!"

Dougat nodded, turned his head, and whispered something I couldn't hear.

"Hostiles returning to prior locations," Lobo said. "All clear."

I let go of Jack's arm.

Manu saw me do it and immediately pulled harder on Jack. Jack let him set the pace. Manu ran for the road, Jack in physical tow and Dougat and I staying as close as if the four of us were trapped in the same gravity well and careening into a black hole. Manu was crying and blabbering, but between his tears and the sounds of us running I couldn't understand anything he was saying.

Five meters from the road he raised his hand and shouted a single long, hysterically elongated word, "Noooooooooo!"

I looked where he was pointing, and four events occurred in such rapid succession that I could separate them only in afterthought.

A hover transport hurtled down the road from my right toward my left.

A man stepped from a crowd of pedestrians in front of the truck, his head turned to his right as if saying goodbye to a friend, clearly unaware of the vehicle speeding toward him.

The transport hit the man.

The man sailed into the air like a flower blown free of its stem by a strong wind, red blossoming across his shirt as he flew over the crowd he'd just left. He landed behind them, out of our view.

Manu let go of Jack and ran for the road, but Jack caught him with one long stride and grabbed both his shoulders.

"I saw it and I couldn't stop it and we should have stopped it!" Manu said, tears flowing as quickly and as uncontrolled as the words.

Jack picked him up, turned him away from the sight of the crowd converging on the accident victim, and held him tightly. "It's not your fault," he said. "You did everything you could. You know we can't change what you see." The boy sobbed and tried to wriggle free, but Jack clung to him with a strength I'd seen but also with a tenderness I'd never witnessed. "It's not your fault."

Jack supported Manu's weight with his right hand and held the boy's head to his shoulder with his left. Keeping the boy's head tucked there so he wouldn't catch a glimpse of the accident, Jack turned and walked away from the road, toward the Institute.

As he moved, he looked at me for a moment, his eyes glistening, and then at Dougat. "Perhaps," he said to the man, "we could spend a few minutes inside. I'm afraid the interview is over."

For the first time since the accident, I focused on Dougat. His face was wide with shock, but more than shock, belief, the sort of ecstatic belief I've seen previously only on those in the grips of strong drugs or stronger acts of religious or violent fervor.

"He is a seer," the man said. "A true child of Pinkelponker, maybe the only one in the known universe. I've talked to so many people, heard so many stories, but I could never be sure." He ran in front of Jack and put up his hand. "You can't leave. You can't." His pupils were dilated with excitement, and his breathing was ragged.

Everything about him broadcast trouble. We needed to leave.

"Lobo," I said, "Come in fast, and prepare for full action on my command."

"Moving," he said.

"As you can see," Jack said, anger clear in his voice, "Manu is in no shape to continue. I'll return half of the fee if you'd like, but I have to get him home to rest. Even the easiest visions are hard on him, and this one, as you can clearly see, was not easy."

Dougat didn't move. "He can rest here," he said, more loudly than before. "My people will help in any way they can, but I can't let you leave."

"Hostiles converging quickly," Lobo said, his voice crisp and inflection-free in my ear. "I'm six seconds out."

"Execute plan," I said.

"Three missiles hitting Dougat's warehouse now," Lobo said. The explosions there would, we hoped, occupy the minimal local law, which predictably maintained its headquarters near the always troublesome port areas.

I grabbed Jack's shoulder and spun him to face me. Behind him I glimpsed several of Dougat's men running toward us.

"Three seconds," Lobo said.

Jack nodded and gripped Manu tightly.

I dropped and swept Jack's legs out from under him.

Lobo activated the heads-up display in my left eye, and the view from his forward video sensors overlaid my view of the approaching security men.

I watched with both normal vision and that display as Lobo transformed the Institute and its grounds into a fire zone.

Two low-yield explosive missiles left Lobo and almost immediately blew apart what I hoped we'd accurately identified as a receiving area on the back of the building. No transports were parked there, so with luck the area was unoccupied. At the same time, the world went silent as Lobo remotely enabled my sound-blocking earphones. I hoped Jack's and Manu's worked as well, because a second later the howlers rocketed out of Lobo and tore up the grounds around us.

Right behind them a cluster of sleep smokers mirved to their targets and turned the air the color of storm clouds about to burst. I kept my mouth shut and forced myself to breathe through my nose; the sinus filters worked perfectly. If Jack and Manu did the same, they'd be fine. The active antidotes we'd all taken would keep us awake even if we breathed the gas, but until it had dissipated for a few minutes it would be hard on our lungs and throats. The nano-machines in my cells would repair mine quickly enough, but I saw no reason to suffer any damage I could avoid.

The rest of Dougat's staff and, unfortunately, nearby pedestrians wouldn't be as lucky, but aside from any injuries they sustained when they fell they should suffer only long, drugged naps, raw sinuses, bad coughs, and, from the howlers, some minor ringing in their ears.

I reached for Jack, but he wasn't there. Damn! Anger shot a flood of adrenaline into my body, and I trembled with barely controlled energy and rage. He knew he shouldn't move!

"Where's Jack," I mumbled through pursed lips.

My words were clear enough for Lobo.

My left eye's display turned into an aerial schematic of the grounds, with red dots marking Dougat's staff, a blue dot indicating Jack, and a green one on Manu's position. The blue and green dots were streaking toward the building.

"Running toward the ziggurat," Lobo said. "External staff and bystanders are all sleeping. I'm hovering overhead. Howlers have discharged; reenabling hearing."

In an instant the thrumming of Lobo's hover jets joined the unconscious moans and wheezes all around me to replace the silence I'd been enjoying. I stood and headed forward. The blue and green dots veered to the side of the entrance to the ziggurat. A second later, a stream of red dots poured out of it. These guys were clearly prepared for gas, because none of them fell. I cranked my own vision to IR for another view of them and watched as the ten new security people fanned out in front of me. The blue and green dots ducked behind them, Manu barely ahead of Jack, and zipped into the building. Great. Now I had to get past this new team, retrieve Jack and Manu, and go back outside for pick-up. If they'd only kept to the plan and stayed near me, we'd already have been on our way out of here.

"Image enhancement suggests new hostiles are armed and environmentally prepared," Lobo said.

Sure enough, the new squad broke into four clusters. One sprinted for Dougat. The remaining three focused on me, one taking a direct approach and the other two going wide to flank me. The only good news was that either they'd missed Jack and Manu or they'd assumed those two were down.

"Trank 'em," I mumbled.

Lobo didn't waste time answering. I heard the rounds spraying from guns on his undercarriage, and in less than two seconds everyone on the new team dropped.

"Public feeds are rich in data about our assault," Lobo said. "We must exit soon or expect to face additional local resistance."

"I have to get Jack and Manu," I said as I ran to the side of the entrance. I stopped long enough to pull a trank pistol from the holster at the base of my back, then dove inside. I hit the ground on my shoulder and rolled quickly to a prone position. I glanced to the right and the left of the entrance. No one.

I stood and immediately regretted the action as a projectile round to the chest knocked me down. The body armor stopped it from seriously injuring me, but my chest throbbed with pain and breathing hurt. I slit my eyes and stayed still. Precious time was evaporating, but if I moved I might suffer a head shot, and I don't know if my nano-machines can repair brain damage. I hope to never find out.

A guard emerged from behind an exhibit about five meters in front of me. He kept his pistol aimed at me and moved cautiously forward. He stepped with care, and his weapon never wavered. I did my best to look unconscious; the lack of blood would tell him I wasn't dead.

A crashing sound ripped the air from somewhere behind him, and he turned for a moment to check it out.

I fired multiple times at his back and head.

He dropped.

Too many trank rounds might kill him, something I didn't want to do, but I couldn't afford the time to check on him and make sure he was okay. Dougat might have more security personnel around, and the warehouse distraction south of us was old news, so I had to get out of there, but I couldn't leave without Jack and Manu.

I had no feed from Lobo to guide me in my search, so I decided to run to the center of the building and hope I spotted them.

Before I'd gone five steps, Jack dashed toward me from my left, Manu's hand in his.

"What were you doing?" I said, my voice shaking with my anger at Jack's violation of our agreement. The air inside was now clean enough that I could talk freely without hurting my throat. "You idiot! You don't freelance and leave your team."

"Manu was terrified and ran," Jack said. "I didn't expect it, and I couldn't see him clearly, so I fell behind. I couldn't leave him here, Jon. I had to get him."

Though his answer was reasonable, even admirable in some ways, I still shook with anger and adrenaline. I forced myself to nod. "Follow me," I said.

 

"Heading to you," I said to Lobo as soon as we cleared the building. "Land in the closest clear area—not on people—and direct me in." Lobo had argued in our planning meeting that if we ended up in a fight he should set down right beside us, and that anyone he squashed in the process was an acceptable casualty, but even with time short I saw no reason to kill if we could avoid it.



"Moving," Lobo said. "Media scans put police ETA at under ninety seconds."

I kept moving and didn't waste any energy replying. Jack and Manu stayed close to me as we ran. A vector in my left eye's display led me about forty meters ahead and to the right, toward the southern side of the grounds. Even staying slow enough for the boy to keep up, we reached Lobo quickly. As we drew closer to Lobo, his camo armor exterior blending so well with the still gas-filled air that I doubt anyone watching without IR knew where he was, he opened a hatch on the side facing us. I ran to him, stepped inside, and turned around to make sure Jack and Manu made it.

They were right there, Jack actually showing a bit of stress, Manu in tears. We were almost clear. Jack picked up Manu, whose wide eyes reeked of terror, and handed the boy to me.

I grabbed him, turned around, and put him down.

As I was straightening, I said, "Lobo," but I never finished the sentence as I felt Jack's hand on my neck and then passed out.

* * *


I awoke slowly, my head aching and my neck and shoulders stiff. When I opened my eyes, I had trouble focusing, but after a few seconds the world snapped into view. I was lying on the floor inside Lobo, right where I'd fallen.

Where Jack had left me, I realized as the memory of what had happened caught up with me. I pushed up on my arms and quickly regretted the action as the remnants of whatever drugs he'd used coursed through me and nearly made me pass out again.

I decided the floor wasn't such a bad place to be right now. My system would naturally wash itself of the drugs in time, and the nano-machines would speed the process, but resting there for the moment seemed reasonable.

"Welcome back," Lobo said. "Are you coherent enough to respond?"

"Yes," I said. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"You made enough noises while unconscious that several times I thought you might be awake," he said.

"Fair enough. How long was I out?"

"Approximately three hours, fifty-seven minutes," he said with what I thought was a trace of amusement. "Jack claimed you'd be unconscious for at least five hours, but my experiences with you led me to estimate a quicker recovery. I was, of course, correct."

Lovely. How long I'd remain out of it had turned into a betting game for my battle wagon and the old friend who'd just screwed me once again.

"Why didn't you stop him?" I said.

"I had no information from you to suggest Jack would drug you," Lobo said with annoyance. "Once you were unconscious, he was, by your orders, in command. Had he then tried to injure you further, your earlier orders would have allowed me to take action to prevent him, but he did nothing to harm you from that point forward. Had your health showed signs of worsening, I could have transported you to a medical facility, but your vital signs remained steady and strong. Consequently, I could only obey his instructions—again, per your orders."

I hate being stupid, and Lobo's tone made the annoyance all the greater. At the same time, I'd given Lobo those orders to protect the boy, and they reflected the best data available at the moment I gave them.

Except, of course, for the key fact that I'd known and chosen to ignore: you can't trust Jack.

Even though years of experience had taught me that lesson, something about the way he'd behaved this time had struck me as different; it was as if he actually cared about Manu.

Manu.

"What happened to the boy?" I said.



"To the best of my ability to tell, they are safe," Lobo said. "On Jack's orders, we invested an hour in evasive action and then proceeded to the jump gate. They departed there."

Given that we'd just attacked one of the richest men on the planet, the jump gate was a reasonable place to go. Jack would have caught the first available shuttle off-planet and be far away by now. I would have done the same.

My thinking was definitely not up to par, because it took me this long to realize that what mattered was not what I would have done, but what I needed to do now—though in this case they were the same. I needed to leave Mund.

"Where are we?"

"In orbit around Drayus," Lobo said. "On the far side of the planet from the jump gate, hiding with a group of tediously dull weather satellites."

Lobo was ahead of me—but how? "You jumped from Mund on your own?" I said. "It's not that I'm not grateful, or that it wasn't the right choice—I am, and it was—but I didn't think you could book transport through a gate without a human's approval."

"Once Jack left," Lobo said, "I had to follow the next most relevant of your orders, which was to protect you. Leaving Mund was clearly the best way to do that. As for needing a human's approval, you are correct—but all approvals, including those that require DNA samples for verification—are electronically transmitted. I have complete records of all our jumps, the accounts you've used for payment, and your DNA and electronic signatures, so I simply forged your presence."

"The jump systems didn't catch the forgery?"

"We are in orbit around Drayus, as I said, so clearly, no, they did not." Lobo's voice crackled with annoyance. "As I've explained to you before, my programming is vastly beyond that of most commercial systems."

I chuckled. "I apologize for underestimating you, and I thank you for getting me off Mund."

"I accept both your apology and your thanks," Lobo said. "Would you now like to view the recording Jack left for you?"

"Jack left a recording?"

"Why do you persist in asking questions to which you already know the answer?" Lobo said, the annoyance back.

"It was a rhetorical question. Jack's never done anything like that. When he vanishes, he leaves no traces."

I sat up, and this time doing so didn't leave me weaker. "Play it for me."

A display opened on the wall in front of me. Jack snapped into view. He stood beside Manu and held the boy's hand. My unconscious body lay on the floor behind him.

"Jon," he said, waving his hand briefly at my body, "I'm very sorry for treating you like that. If I'd thought there was any other reasonable option, I would have taken it. But, I didn't. The problem is that you wouldn't have approved of what I did, and then you would have tried to make it right, and in the end there was too big a chance that Manu might have gotten hurt." Jack sounded genuinely torn and upset. He paused, glanced down at Manu, and stroked the boy's head lightly.

"The fee Dougat paid for the interview was enough to buy Manu treatments for a while, but only for a while. He was going to need more, a lot more. We—his parents and I—were hoping Dougat would be willing to pay for more interviews or maybe even to help with the med-tech bills just because of Manu's Pinkelponker ancestry." He put his hands over Manu's ears for a moment. "Yeah, I know: it was a dumb hope. I tried to tell them, but it was the only option any of us could come up with that might help for the long term. The alternative, well—" he paused and looked at Manu, and when he faced forward again his eyes were wet, "—none of us were willing to deal with that."

He took his hands off Manu's ears. "When I caught up to Manu inside the Institute, he was hiding behind one of the gemstone displays." He paused, shook his head, and smiled. "Look, I know it's not right, but Dougat is so wealthy he won't even feel the loss."

Jack turned, stooped, and reached behind Manu. When he stood, he was clutching a cluster of at least half a dozen different Pinkelponker gems, his hands twinkling as if holding a night sky drenched in green, red, blue, and purple stars. "The right collectors will pay enough for these to cover Manu's treatments forever—and then some." Jack laughed. "Besides, a man has a right to make a profit now and then, eh?"

I laughed with him. Leave it to Jack to fall into a mess and walk away rich.

Lobo's video sensor tracked him as he walked to the front acceleration couch and left a huge green gem on it.

"For your help, Jon," he said.

"Docking with jump station in sixty seconds," said Lobo's voice on the recording.

Jack nodded and returned to Manu.

"I wish it had gone better, Jon," he said, "and just as I promised, this time we did some good: Manu will get his treatments."

Jack smiled that beautiful, wide, glowing smile of his, and I felt myself smiling involuntarily in response.

"Besides," he said, "admit it: wouldn't you have been at least a little disappointed if everything had played out according to plan?" He laughed lightly. "Take care, Jon.

"Jack out."

The display vanished.

"Bye, Jack," I whispered to the still and empty air.

I stretched out on the floor. I was alive and unhurt. Manu was not only safe, he'd also receive all the treatments he needed to stay alive. I didn't approve of stealing, but it wasn't like I'd never done it before, and Jack was right that Dougat could afford the loss. I'd even come out of it with a profit; a gem that size would, from the right buyer, bring me more than the cost of the weapons we'd used.

Compared to most of my experiences with Jack, this had been a dream.

"Did I mention we called him 'Slanted Jack'?" I said.

"No," Lobo said. "Why?"

"Because nothing's ever straight with him," I said, smiling. "But sometimes that's okay."



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