Upon waking to find himself naked, alone, and floating inside an airlock, even a man as handsome and talented as Jan Sabato might understandably become concerned. However, the screaming hangover from whatever the guards had dosed him with (after shooting him with stunners, of course) argued for oblivion. Given a dozen transport shuttles were exploding in his head, a quiet death in deep space would probably be a relief.
A groggy and floating self-inspection revealed at least four new stunner burns on his dark brown skin, but no broken bones. A cursory hand-to-scalp check assured him he still possessed his springy coils of dark hair, which was another plus. His hair felt knotted and sweaty, but he’d just been stunned, drugged, and stuffed naked inside an airlock. One day with less than perfect hair was understandable.
Still, the airlock wasn’t opening — yet — and no one was kicking him in the ribs or screaming about cutting his eyes out — yet — so Jan found the nearest yellow emergency grip and grabbed it, carefully spinning his body until his feet were facing “down.” He pushed his feet to the cold metal floor, glanced out the airlock door, and verified his first impression.
Yes. There it was. Space.
There sure was a whole lot of it out there.
So why was he in here? And more importantly, how was he going to get out of here? There was a nine-digit keypad directly beside the closed inner door, but that was about as useful as a spare magazine for a gun he didn’t own.
The airlock was small, about the size of a closet, formed of the vaguely brown plastic and metal that formed most plastic and metal spaceships. The floor was light gray, as shiny as if it had never been scuffed, and a green dot blinked encouragingly beside the door leading into space. Green was preferable to red, so he had that going for him.
Jan supposed he could try shouting. When all else failed, that always caused … something, to happen. He’d just opened his mouth when a grating buzz stabbed his medical hangover like a needle through his skull: an intercom system announcing itself.
Jan swallowed his groan. It seemed whoever had locked him in here planned to threaten him now, and that was always extremely monotonous.
“Jan Sabato.” A pitch-shifted voice, deep and robotic, echoed through the tiny airlock. “You’re awake.”
Jan massaged one temple with his free hand, pain lancing through his head. “You are observant.” Whoever was outside was likely watching him through the one-way window in the inner door.
“In a moment, I will present you with an offer,” the threatening, unnecessarily robotic voice continued. “If you accept this offer, you will be released, dressed, and fed. If you refuse, you will be jettisoned into space.”
“Ah.” Jan squinted at the opaque window. “Then offer is the wrong word in this context, yes? Might the word ‘ultimatum’ serve better?”
“Whichever you prefer.”
“I’d prefer not to be jettisoned into space.”
“Then here is my offer. My employer requires your services, free of charge. Should you agree to work for my employer, free of charge, the freedom my employer has recently purchased on your behalf will become yours. If you do not—”
“I will proceed out the airlock.” Jan nodded to the very opaque window in the very closed interior door. “This is most clear. Thank you for explaining it.”
“Which would you prefer, Mr. Sabato?”
Jan rolled his head around on his shoulders, took a breath that stabbed the inside of his ribs, and swallowed the cotton in his throat. “You have my services, free of charge.”
“You are getting a spectacular deal.”
There was a moment of silence from the intercom. “My sources told me you were arrogant. I see now what they meant.”
Jan allowed himself a wide and quite genuine smile. “I am simply aware of my value.” He glanced down at himself, then up. “And also, as you can see, blessed in many ways.”
No response from the intercom. No movement from the door. As the silence stretched out before him, Jan began to fear he might actually be going out the airlock. Given his head had stopped feeling like exploding shuttles and now felt mildly volcanic, it wouldn’t be his first choice.
A small panel in the wall beside the inner airlock door slid open. A syringe the size of a pencil was clipped inside, filled with viscous purple fluid. Jan regarded it with the trepidation one would expect when presented with an unexpected syringe.
“I trust you’re capable of injecting yourself?” the robotic voice asked.
Jan was, unfortunately. “Is this a condition of my employment?”
“I’m almost certain you can figure that out.”
Jan sighed, popped the syringe from its clip, and pumped his fist until he could pick out the barely visible line of a dark vein beneath dark skin. He slipped in the needle precisely, with the skill one developed from decades of wielding very sharp objects. He depressed the plunger.
Cold rushed through his arm, then his chest. He withdrew the needle, snapped it back into place, and watched the panel close. Better than having a used needle bouncing around the ship’s interior, he supposed.
“Stand away from the door,” the robotic voice said.
Jan pressed his back against the cold metal of the outer airlock door. The inner door hissed open to reveal his captor, a dark-eyed, short-haired man with a magnificent beard that easily reached his chest. He stood, not floating, which suggested magnetic boots. His skintight blue flight suit and the muscular form beneath suggested poise and combat training, but that wasn’t unusual in Jan’s line of work. What was unusual was his captor’s face.
The man’s tawny brown skin and perfectly sculpted features suggested he was Advanced — one of the genetically modified humans who inhabited Phorcys, the watery sister planet to Jan’s own Ceto — and Jan had only met a few Advanced in his time running guns, drugs, and medicine for the Patriots of Ceto or their eternal enemies: the Supremacy. While Advanced were innately stronger and faster than natural-born humans, with enhanced reflexes and agility, they tended to remain on Phorcys. They also, in Jan’s experience, tended to be mildly sociopathic.
Jan spread his hands. “I realize the view is intoxicating, but shouldn’t we get on with your employer’s business?”
The man snorted and shook his head. “Don’t flatter yourself, Sabato. You’re not remotely my type.” His accent was absolutely Advanced: stiff, well spoken, and exactly as stuck up as you’d expect someone who occupied other planets to be.
Jan kept smiling. “Then why do you continue to stare?”
The man chucked a satchel his way. “Get dressed.” The door hissed closed. Jan caught the satchel in transit, opened it, and found comfortable underclothes and a blue flight suit like that worn by his Advanced captor. He dressed slower than necessary, feigning inexperience in zero gravity, as he evaluated just how fucked he was right now.
It was a good bet he was on a private spaceship. The Advanced military — or as they called themselves, the Supremacy — were awfully proud of their shiny black space uniforms, which they eagerly festooned with all sorts of rank badges and insignia. By comparison, his latest captor’s unadorned flight suit practically screamed private security.
Given that Advanced generally employed only other Advanced, that suggested whoever had freed him from Tantalus prison was a wealthy Advanced citizen with no military oversight. Worse, despite the so-called armistice, the Advanced military on Phorcys — the Supremacy — could still reconquer Ceto at the slightest provocation. Jan doubted Ceto’s government would launch a serious investigation if some natural-born prison escapee got himself spaced in neutral territory, so perhaps he should be less annoying today.
Once Jan had dressed, the airlock door opened again, but no one waited outside. Two boots waited instead, unoccupied and maglocked firmly to the floor. How generous of them.
Jan pushed off the wall and floated into a hexagonally-shaped hallway just wide enough that he could stretch out both arms and not touch the walls. He felt simply hungover now.
He got the boots on with a minimum of fuss, crunched up his toes to activate them, and locked his feet on the deck. Yes. Walking. He’d done jobs in zero gravity before, but he’d never liked the feeling that one false push would leave him flailing like a toddler on a freshly waxed floor. Not that that had ever happened to him on a job. More than once.
Jan walked at a jauntier than necessary pace down the empty hallway, around the only corner it presented, and stopped as he found the same bearded Advanced from the airlock waiting by a sealed door. His captor wore a gun belt now, with what looked to be a needle pistol ready to draw. That seemed smart, given the spaceship. Bullets tended to punch holes.
“When my employer arrives,” the man said, “you will wait for her to speak, answer her questions only when she asks them, and try not to be an absolutely insufferable ass.”
Jan inclined his head. “I am quite charming.” He searched the man’s suit for a name tag. “What shall I call you?”
The man watched him for a moment, then probably decided refusing wasn’t worth the annoyance. “Bharat.”
Jan smiled. “A grand name. Were your parents proud of their old Earth heritage?”
Bharat cocked an eyebrow. “You’ve studied Hindi?”
“I’ve studied many things.” Jan evaluated the hallway behind this man and the most likely path to the bridge, and judged the whole ship couldn’t be more than a half-block long. “The ancient languages of old Earth are a particular favorite. It’s fascinating to think there were once so many people that they spoke over two thousand different languages, isn’t it?”
“It’s fascinating you wasted your time learning what they did on a random planet a thousand years ago.” Bharat looked tense, as if he expected Jan to jump him at any moment. “I suppose there’s not much to do in prison.”
“Oh, my passion for languages came before prison. In prison, I merely pursued my doctorate.”
Bharat’s brow furrowed. “In what, exactly?”
“And just how did you plan to use a doctorate in pharmacology in an orbital prison, Sabato?”
“Ah,” Jan said, “you must understand, when many are stuck in a repetitive environment for an extended period, those who can safely mix available compounds into substances that relax the mind can do well for themselves.”
Bharat rolled his eyes. “You studied pharmacology so you could become a better drug dealer.”
“I prefer the term ‘pharmaceutical enthusiast.’”
Bharat’s head tilted as if he’d gotten a call. “I’ll give you this, Sabato. For a somewhat infamous smuggler who went to prison on two dozen charges between the Supremacy, Ceto’s laughable new government, and eight municipal precincts across two planets, you’re a depressingly ordinary man.”
“I’m also extremely talented in bed.”
Bharat scowled as the sealed door to their right opened itself. “In a moment you’ll meet Senator Tarack, a woman who could buy and sell you, your house, and the town where you grew up with the interest in her bank account. Please, don’t hit on her.” Bharat motioned with a tilt of his head. “Inside.”
So his new employer was a sitting Supremacy senator. Tarack wasn’t a name Jan found himself familiar with, but he hadn’t bothered himself with the names of the two hundred governing Advanced before he went to prison for five of what was to be forty very long years. Jan marched himself inside.
The roughly circular room beyond the door had no windows, more brownish plastic walls, and a round white table flanked by comfortably upholstered high-back chairs. Jan strapped himself into the chair facing the hall. Once he’d done so, Bharat drifted inside and took up position beside the door.
Senator Tarack — Bharat’s employer, and likely the owner of this very expensive spaceship — arrived wearing a flight suit similar to Bharat’s, over which she’d donned light blue senatorial robes. Robes seemed impractical in a zero-gravity environment, but this woman was a senator, so telling her not to do stupid things was probably ineffective.
Jan evaluated his prospective employer and/or murderer in silence. Like all Advanced, Tarack’s skin was a genetically fixed shade of tawny brown, and she wore her impressively blond hair in a bound topknot. She was full-figured, muscular, and attractive, but all Advanced were ridiculously attractive — it was built into their custom-designed DNA.
Her blond hair was something, though. Blonds always reminded him of Fatima, which reminded him of why he was in prison, but he wouldn’t hold this woman’s hair color against her. Unlike Fatima, this woman hadn’t actually betrayed him.
Senator Tarack strode into the room at an unconcerned pace, the hem of her robe drifting. She strapped into the chair across from Jan in the bored, unhurried manner of a person who expected the world to run on her timetable. Bharat floated not strapped in by the door, ready to pounce if Jan tried something inappropriate. Bharat also didn’t close the door, which suggested the three of them were alone on this ship. Good.
Senator Tarack was obviously wealthy, judging from the tailoring of her robe, and obviously paranoid, judging from the body armor she wore beneath it. Given she had a bodyguard in the room with him, and she could probably snap him in half with her Advanced super-strength, body armor seemed … excessive.
Tarack crossed her legs and frowned. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Sabato, but I prefer honesty, so I won’t begin our prospective relationship by lying to you. I detest thieves.”
Jan half-floated in his very comfortable chair. “And I detest liars, so honesty is welcome. However, to ensure there is no misunderstanding, I am a smuggler, not a thief.”
“These are different how?”
“Thieves steal objects,” Jan said. “I move objects from place to place, discreetly and, often enough, legally.”
“Fine, whatever.” Tarack waved the matter away. “I don’t care what you call yourself, so long as you deliver results.”
“This, I do. What result can I deliver for you?”
“Something priceless has been stolen from me, and Bharat” — Tarack tossed a glance at her impassively standing bodyguard — “has assured me that my item will be all but impossible to recover without the help of someone intimately familiar with Ceto’s criminal underworld.”
“Ah,” Jan said, as he suddenly felt a whole lot better about not going out an airlock. “I am that.”
“In short, it takes a thief to catch a thief, and Bharat claims you’re one of the best thieves in the business.”
“Smuggler.” Jan nodded. “But yes.”
“And all of this leads me to wonder why the best thief—”
“Smuggler,” Jan corrected.
“—ended up rotting in Tantalus prison,” Tarack continued, “instead of whoring it up on a beach at Valor’s Squall.”
“Whoring is overrated.” Jan allowed himself the smallest of smiles. “Also, beaches.” He leaned forward. “What stolen item would you like me to recover, Senator Tarack?”
Tarack frowned. “That’s your first question? Not what I’ll be paying you, or who stole it, or where we think it is now?”
“If you knew where your item was now, you would not have arranged this meeting with me. As to payment, Bharat and I discussed that. Given I am now in your employ … happily, I might add … I will not be tossed out an airlock.”
Bharat didn’t move from his place beside the door.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” Tarack said. “If you’re so good at this, how’d you get caught?”
Jan pushed aside an unwelcome image of Fatima’s wide, dark eyes. “My poor choice in business associates.”
“And that’s supposed to reassure me?”
Jan shrugged. “Even a man as charming and intelligent as I can, in unlucky circumstances, be brought low by traitorous partners who lack both judgment and moral character.”
Tarack snorted. “You are arrogant.”
Jan simply inclined his head as a taunting and impossibly appealing possibility slipped inside his mind. “As for who stole your item, would you allow me to hazard a guess?”
He saw Fatima as clearly as when she’d betrayed him to the authorities: the small yet perfect line above her lips, the curls of dyed platinum-blond hair blowing in the wind, her haunted gaze as he glared daggers and walked away in cuffs. He’d dreamed about catching up with her every day since she’d sent him to orbit, but now … was this even possible?
Tarack glanced at Bharat, then returned her gaze to Jan. “Sure. Impress me.”
“The thief who stole your item is the Golden Widow, yes?”
Tarack’s audible intake of breath would have been more than enough to confirm his suspicions, though her wide and now murderous eyes helped. “How the fuck do you know that?” Tarack’s eyes narrowed noticeably. “Are you working with her?”
The rush of dopamine flooding Jan’s silently cheering brain was tempered by Senator Tarack’s ire. One of Bharat’s hands went to the holstered needle pistol on his hip, but his gaze remained on his employer, not Jan. Interesting. Very interesting.
Jan ignored the butterflies in his stomach, the chance that all he wanted could be snatched away again, and spoke quietly, keeping his expression as pleasant as if they were enjoying tea. “I am simply piecing together all available facts.”
“Purchasing a prisoner of my caliber from Tantalus prison cannot have come cheap, and even a senator of your obvious means would not have done so without a very specific purpose in mind.”
Tarack gripped the edge of the table with both hands. “Don’t flatter yourself, Sabato. When a space station filled with violent criminals is always a week from flying apart in orbit, a reasonable donation goes a long way.”
“My obvious value aside,” Jan continued, “my partnership with the Golden Widow was well known. If one wronged by her wished to ensnare her, and one was either unaware of the identities of her current associates or unable to locate them, one’s next logical step would be to interrogate the only remaining associate who could be easily obtained. Providing one had the financial means to purchase them from prison, of course.”
Tarack released the table and sat back, frown incrementally less murderous. “So you’re not hopeless.” She glanced at Bharat. “You win this one. I expect I’ll earn it back.”
Jan glanced between Tarack and Bharat. “I am responsible for you losing a bet?”
Tarack scowled. “I’ve spent more on bedsheets.”
“Generously threaded, I assume.” Jan missed real beds. “Now, to business. What did the Golden Widow steal from you?”
A glowing projection of a sandwich-sized data disc snapped into view on the table between them. As with the door, Tarack and Bharat must be controlling the ship’s components using their Personal Brain Assistants, or PBAs: brain-mounted computers that offered wireless control of any number of devices and access to simulations that seemed more real than reality itself.
This was what Jan had heard, of course. He’d never been willing to install a PBA himself. As a person who made much of his living hacking into computer systems, he knew better than to shove a hackable computer inside his brain.
“How long will it take you to get this back?” Tarack asked, pointing at her holographic projection.
Jan regarded the rectangular disc. “If you will forgive me, Senator, I had twenty such data discs stashed inside my yacht before it, er, exploded. I may need a bit … more?”
“You won’t, actually.” Tarack swiped two fingers against the projection and spun it around, showing the back side of the disc. “Take a good look.”
Jan leaned in and spotted something unusual on the disc’s undercarriage: a blue square about the size of an eyepatch. He’d seen it before only in pictures. He whistled and sat back.
“Impressed?” Tarack might be gloating a bit. “Do you even know what you’re looking at?”
“I have never actually seen a data disc with a quantum crux drive.” Jan agreed to be impressed. “That drive is worth about the same price as this ship, isn’t it?”
Tarack smiled like the rich asshole she was. “It’s also impossible to decrypt without the associated cipher key, which the Widow was stupid enough to overlook.”
“Nothing is truly impossible to decrypt.” Also, Jan really doubted Fatima had overlooked the decryption problem, though he saw no benefit in pointing that out to his latest employer.
Tarack unleashed a put-upon sigh. “Sure, yes, if you had a thousand years and a planet full of supercomputers, I’m sure you could get into it eventually. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy arguing semantics?”
“Your disc is distinctive,” Jan said, “but I would caution that the Golden Widow has already created many convincing facsimiles. Given what I know of her talents and resources, creating a dozen fake discs would be kitten’s play.”
Tarack frowned. “What the hell is a kitten?”
Bharat cleared his throat, but Tarack snapped her fingers and pointed backward before he could speak. “Don’t tell me. I don’t care.” She kept her eyes on Jan. “So are you telling me you can’t find the Golden Widow, or you can’t find my disc?”
“I can find the Golden Widow,” Jan said. “I can also find a disc that looks very much like this one. As to whether it is your disc, well … without the cipher key for verification …”
Tarack snorted. “Right. Of course! I’ll just hand over the one thing protecting my quantum crux drive to the completely trustworthy thief I recently purchased from prison.”
“Smuggler,” Jan corrected.
Tarack’s jaw tensed. “Don’t worry your fragile head about verification. Bharat will handle that.”
Of course he would. “Bharat will be my contact on Ceto?”
Tarack smiled in a delighted, predatory way that made Jan distinctly uncomfortable. “Bharat will be your partner, Mr. Sabato, and he will remain with you at all times.” She leaned over the table. “Did you honestly believe I would dump you on Ceto, with only your word that you’d find my disc, and expect you to do anything but crawl beneath a rock?”
A rock wouldn’t have been Jan’s first choice. “I had assumed whatever nanos were in that purple liquid would allow you to track my whereabouts.”
“Oh,” Tarack said, as she pushed back in her chair. “He thinks we injected him with tracking nanos.” She chuckled in a way that was just a smidge maniacal. “That’s adorable!”
Bharat didn’t smile when Tarack did, which worried Jan. Bharat should have chuckled. Thugs were supposed to chuckle when their employers chuckled.
“The nanos inside you aren’t trackers, Sabato.” Tarack looked more delighted than anyone should when saying those words. “They’re so, so much more than that.”
“Oh?” Jan resisted the urge to catapult himself over the table and try for the bridge.
Tarack glanced at her bodyguard. “Show him, Bharat.” An eager edge crept into her tone. “He needs to understand why he’s going to be so loyal to me.”
“Ah,” Jan said, as his spine prickled and fear blossomed in his gut, “you don’t actually need—”
Agony erupted inside his suddenly paralyzed body. Jan couldn’t scream, couldn’t gasp, couldn’t even twitch. A symphony of exploding planets erupted as shards shredded his lungs, his heart, his mind. This hell ended without warning and flung his upper body onto the table, gasping like a dying fish.
Tarack smirked as she unstrapped and pushed off toward the door. “Surprise.”
For his part, Jan merely squeezed the table in two trembling hands and tried not to lose bowel or bladder control. He’d just been given the first pair of clean underwear he’d had in months. He really wanted to enjoy that a bit longer.
Tarack snapped her boots back onto the flooring and stomped through the open doorway. “In case it wasn’t clear, Sabato, what you experienced lasted ten seconds.”
Truly? Jan had thought it lasted much longer.
“That’s the pain you’ll experience until you die of dehydration,” Tarack said, “if Bharat doesn’t reset the nanos now imbedded inside your bones once every twenty-five hours.”
Ah, Jan thought, an echo of that agony imbedding itself deep into his brain. So he had torture nanos imbedded in his bones now. That was … bad.
“If you kill Bharat,” Tarack continued, “or you let him be killed by some gutter-born on your little Ceto adventure, you will enjoy a hundred hours of agony before you choke to death on your tongue. Also, if you disobey us for any reason, we can send you to Hell with our thoughts. So be nice.”
“Unnecessary,” Jan managed, glaring from the table as he floated in residual agony. “Truly, hideously unnecessary.”
Tarack rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
Jan focused on breathing. “And when I succeed?”
“If you do somehow recover my disc, I’ll order Bharat to disable your nanos and free you to fuck off wherever.” Tarack snorted. “Good luck with that.” The door hissed shut.
The room fell into silence, and Bharat didn’t move. He didn’t have an expression now, which was disconcerting given he could send Jan into a paroxysm of agony with one wireless signal from his PBA. Jan did not enjoy paroxysms of agony.
Jan didn’t move. He didn’t dare speak until he was sure Bharat wasn’t going to activate the torture nanos again. He wondered if he should go toss himself out the airlock right now.
“So,” Bharat said, “shall we be off?”