Chapter One: What’s Illegal, Anyway? (Cont’d)
Akers’ Storage was the larger of two sanctioned courier pickup lots in Catalasca and one of only seven on Salix. It was a family owned business five generations deep and was run by a Human, old Gabber Akers, who had inherited it from his father some years before. When it had first opened, it was a handful of shacks with sliding metal doors and thick metal padlocks –- you could bring your own, but the ones Akers’ sold were often more secure than the options at the nearby stores –- and a couple of family friends that worked for cheap keeping an eye and a rifle on things. They were humble beginnings, but Atrus Akers wasn’t so humble a man. He had a knack for finding the right circles to spread a word, and that –- coupled with a reputation for honesty and reliability –- helped the business expand.
The units filled up quickly and Atrus invested carefully. As demand grew, prices inched up until more units could be built to accommodate customers. More units meant more clients meant more money. Pretty soon a wide variety of spaces were open to rent or store packages until they could be sent or delivered. Atrus Akers dropped Reliable Repository from the space above the door and replaced it with a garish blue neon display of his own name. It was his and he was proud.
The business continued to grow, so the staff did as well. Akers’ began attracting a lot of attention the more clients and couriers dropped off valuable parcels. Fences were constructed around the lot. Wooden buildings were replaced with metal ones. The doors were replaced with thicker steel ones. For the larger units requiring the sliding variants, auto-lock mechanisms were installed to stop any unauthorized breaches. Security cameras kept an eye on the aisles separating the units. Password locks replaced padlocks with software installed to shut down any invasive programs, and an alert would sound when a wrong code had been entered too many times. Even the security had been increased once it was decided that Akers’ would be open all day and night.
Five generations later, it was even older than a few of the courier companies that contracted out to it. Gabber didn’t rest on his laurels, though: he would eagerly snatch up a deal with any new prospects that cropped up. Gaining new clients was good business. Good business was good money. Everyone liked money.
Caesar preferred Akers’ to the other courier stops on Salix. Location, for one reason –- Catalasca was temperate and busy, a real city with a generally well-behaved populace -– but also because the other local pickup lot (Skyline Imports and Exports) was cramped, rarely cleaned, and sat under an ancient bridge in a low-lit part of the city with a history of crime.
The woman behind the desk had her hair tied back in a ponytail and looked up from her paperwork at them through squared-lens glasses. The little metal tag on her lapel read “Morgan”. The expression on her face read “mildly inconvenienced.”
“May I help you?” she asked.
“We’re couriers with ACG,” said Caesar. “We’re here to pick up a package for delivery.” He stepped up to the counter and slid his identification card across to the woman, along with their printed contract for the job.
“Alright, thank you,” said Morgan under her breath, all routine. Her eyes slipped over the details on the paperwork. Her fingers were a blur across the keyboard as she pulled up Caesar’s profile. “You’re all good to go through, but I need to see their IDs as well, please.”
Grey fished his card from his back pocket and handed it to the desk clerk. She glanced at the front and back, pulled up his file and nodded. Everyone turned to look at Archimedes. Ark was chewing the inside of his cheek as he checked his pockets one at a time. He set a collection of items on the counter: a handful of chits, one of the ignition keys to the Searcher, a VIP pass to a nightclub on Peloclade. Noticeably absent was his identification.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked Grey.
“I think I left my card back on the ship,” said Archimedes. He poked his fingers into his inside coat pocket. They came out with an expired transit pass. It was a year old.
“We waited for you,” said Caesar, “so that you could get ready. How are you not ready?”
“Must have slipped my mind. Could have been the terrible music beating me over the head that distracted me. I don’t know.”
“I swear to God,” growled Grey.
“Look,” said Archimedes, leaning over the counter. “I can give you my courier code. You can pull up my profile with that, right? Compare my mug shot to the mug standing in front of you.”
Morgan shook her head. “I need your identification. I have to make sure it’s authentic and up to date. I need to make sure there aren’t any restrictions or revocations on it, too. It’s policy.”
“We’ve been coming here for two years, Ark,” said Caesar. “You know you need your ID.”
“After two years, I would have hoped we’d be more recognizable. What time do you get off? If you could just make an exception for me, I promise I’ll be right in and out. I would be incredibly grateful and more than happy to make it up to you with dinner or a show.”
Morgan gave a thin smile. “I’m not interested. Even if I were, I wouldn’t be interested enough to risk my job.”
“Am I not handsome enough?”
“You aren’t woman enough.” She appraised him. “Although you’re close.”
Grey snorted loudly. “She’s got you there, Carnahan.”
“Just wait in the lobby, Ark,” said Caesar.
Archimedes slumped into one of the chairs set against the wall. “I’ll just wait in the lobby. I guess.”
“Yes, you will,” said the desk clerk. She gave a wide smile to the other two men and handed Caesar a slip of paper. “Your pickup is in unit P-312. I’ve written the code for the lock on the paper there. It’s good for twenty-four hours.”
“Thanks, Morgan,” said Grey. “You’ve been a great help. Don’t let that guy talk to you anymore.”
Caesar pushed through a door at the back of the lobby and walked out amongst the long aisles of storage units. Different colored letters marked the aisles for easier navigation. A handful of other couriers and customers passed them by and milled about in front of the units their contracts had led them to.
As they walked, Grey glanced up at the security cameras. He did it out of habit; he had broken enough laws in his life that paranoia kept a snug seat on his shoulder whenever he was in public. The cameras each had a tiny bulb just below the lens. None were illuminated and Grey figured they had their security systems set for live surveillance only. He chalked it up to trying to save power, but it still didn’t make much sense to him not to be recording all the time.
“What do you think it is?” he asked, bringing his eyes back down to the path.
“What do you think the package is?”
Caesar pushed some of the moppy hair from his face and frowned. “Something valuable, obviously. Jewelry or antiques, I’m guessing.”
“Antiques fetch that much? Even something that small?”
“Antiques and art, sure. Fibrelli eggs, for example. They’re about the size of your fist and fetch an easy ten million chits each. At least.”
Grey whistled. “Good thing we’re honest.”
“I’m honest. You and Ark are iffy. Besides, it pays more in the long run to keep our reputation as reliable deliverers. We can build a career off of that.”
“There are career thieves, too. We just need a couple Fibberal eggs to give us some capital.”
“Fibrelli, and you wouldn’t know how or where to sell one.” The scowl on Caesar’s face looked like it was chiseled there. Grey grinned and shrugged. It was too easy to get his friend riled up. How Caesar hadn’t snapped and tried to kill Archimedes or him yet was a mystery.
They rounded a corner and almost ran into a trio of men, two Humans and a massive Bozav. Grey and Caesar stepped around either side of them and mumbled an apology. The Bozav grunted and shook out his silver mane, then continued out of sight with his companions.
The couriers walked on, eyeing the numbers on the storage units as they counted upwards. P-312 was tucked between two spaces large enough to fit a speeder in; they missed it the first passing and had to backtrack to find it.
Caesar pulled out the slip of paper Morgan had given him and glanced at the digits to make sure he remembered them correctly. His fingers tapped each of the eight numbers in sequence, the pad lighting up yellow as he touched it. Once the code was complete, the pad flashed green twice. There were a series of clicks as the metal door unlocked and then a whirring noise as it slid upward.
A single light flickered to life, bright enough to illuminate the entire space. The unit was unimpressive, bare save for a table situated exactly in the center. A small red cooler with a number lock of its own sat on top.
“Huh,” said Grey.
There were a pair of loud clicks and Grey’s attention was torn from the package. He glanced up at the door, but it hadn’t begun to descend again. The lock pad’s status remained the same as well. He turned to glance back the way they had come and spotted the group they had nearly collided with. The two Humans led, handguns extended in their direction.
“Company,” hissed Grey.
Caesar glanced up, curious. His eyes widened when he saw the approaching gunmen. He crumpled the paper with the code on it and tossed it into the unit. His fingers dragged down the lock pad next, causing it to flare red with the incorrect entry. The door slammed closed, sealing the cooler back inside.
“What are they packing? Pulse guns? Lasers?”
“No. Those ones shoot bullets. Stun rounds if you’re lucky.”
They fell quiet as the three men cornered them. The Humans cast a glance either way, looking for security. With none in sight, the Bozav grabbed Caesar by the neck and lifted him off the ground. Grey stepped forward in protest but the man to his left put the barrel of his gun into Grey’s chest and pushed him back.
“Open the unit,” said Lefty.
“Piss off,” spat Grey in return.
“Come on, guy,” said Righty. “Taghrin can pop your friend’s head right off.” The Bozav grinned, serrated fangs standing out. Caesar had both of his arms wrapped over the one holding him suspended, trying to take the pressure off of his airway.
“The package isn’t yours,” said Lefty. “We’re not taking your stuff. It’s probably insured. You can tell whatever group you contract out of that you got stuck up. It happens all the time. You’re in the clear.”
“You would shoot us in the middle of Akers’?” asked Grey. “That’s gutsy.”
“We don’t want to, but the payday is worth it.”
“Grey,” gasped Caesar. “Let them take it.”
“Shut up, buddy,” Grey said lightly.
“No, keep talking,” said Righty. “Tell me what the lock code is.”
“The lock code is–”
“In my jacket pocket,” interrupted Grey. He held his hands up in surrender. “Alright? You win. Don’t hurt my friend. I’m going to reach into my pocket and grab the damn code. Keep your guns on me if it makes you feel better.”
“It does,” said Righty. “Hurry up.”
Grey reached into his pocket and fumbled around. As he pulled his hand free, he dropped a silver sphere about the size of an orange. It bounced twice and then rolled to a stop between Lefty’s feet.
“Ah, hell,” said Grey. “That’s what happens when you rush me. I panic.”
“What is it, Dawson?” asked Righty.
“It’s some kind of ball.”
“It’s not exactly a ball, Dawson,” said Grey.
“Then what is it?”
“It’s a novelty wallet. The blue button on top, you push it, it opens up. I’ve got a couple hundred chits in there and a meal card to Lorcciano’s. Go ahead and take it while I look for the damn password. I’ll have the company reimburse me for damages or something.”
He eyed Dawson in his periphery. The gunman’s curiosity got the better of him. He held the pistol steady in his right hand and switched the sphere to his left. His thumb found the inset button and depressed it.
“Eyes and ears, Caesar,” said Grey. He didn’t quite shout it, but he put enough of an edge into the words that his friend immediately took note. Caesar removed his arms from the Bozav’s and clapped his hands over his ears. His eyes clenched shut. Grey did the same.
A second and a half later, there was a booming noise loud enough that Grey could feel it in his chest. His eyelids lit up yellow, briefly, and he gasped at the intensity despite taking only a fraction of the glare. He must have forgotten to carry a one somewhere when he was calculating the output. Math had always been more Caesar’s thing.
Grey opened his eyes and saw that the Bozav, though stunned, still held Caesar aloft. He kicked the massive creature between the legs, hoping males of the species had similar anatomy to his own; the wheezing bellow that followed filled him with delight. Caesar dropped to the ground and rubbed at his eyes with his forearm.
“I’m blind, Barrus,” Dawson croaked. He clutched at his face with both hands. His handgun and Grey’s sphere both lay at his feet.
“What?” asked the man to the right. “What?” He waved his gun around and then lowered it, apparently considering the risk to his companions should he start firing wildly.
“You lied to them,” Caesar choked out. His throat was a deep red.
“We can talk about the merits of honesty later, pal.”
“What was that thing? It was no wallet.”
“Really? What gave you a hint, the bang or the brightness?” Caesar opened his mouth to say something else. The words were choked off as Grey grabbed him by his arm and pulled him into a brisk jog. “It was just something I cooked up in my lab. Not exactly illegal, but not legal enough that we should wait around and try to explain ourselves.”
They left the three muggers dazed behind them as the concerned shouts of Akers’ security rang through the air.
The concussive boom could be heard as far as the front office. Morgan started in her seat and alternated looking at the display monitor to turning to the door each time a courier passed through in a hurry to exit. Archimedes watched her from where he sat, more interested in her reaction than whatever had caused the commotion. He drummed his fingers on the seat of the chair next to him.
“Will you stop that?” the desk clerk finally snapped at him.
“That’s what bothers you?” Archimedes asked skeptically. “Not the loud, explosive noise?”
“You’re not bothered by the explosive noise?”
“I mean, this isn’t a place I would expect to hear something like that, but I don’t see any smoke and you haven’t jumped up to swear and scream about a fire. Nobody has run through here covered in blood or missing any limbs. No tears are flowing, there isn’t any news about bodies. I can wait until I know what’s going on a little more conclusively from the, I hope, relative safety of this lobby before I break my neck over it.”
Morgan paused her panic to narrow her eyes at him. “Do you always talk so much?”
Archimedes gave his most winning grin. “Pretty much. That’s why Grey told you not to let me speak to you anymore.”
The woman huffed and turned away. Archimedes craned his neck to see what she was doing. On her screen, the software used to pull up authorized entrants to the storage units was minimized. Replacing it was a large grid of video feeds. She selected one and enlarged it; Archimedes could make out a concentration of bodies engaged in some kind of scuffle.
“What’s going on there, in that square?”
“Mind your own business.”
“Can you rewind it? We can see how the fight started.”
“I’ve been trying and it hasn’t been –- will you mind your own business?”
Sighing loudly, the courier started to sink back into his chair. The door at the back of the lobby whipped open again and Grey and Caesar piled in. The former grabbed Archimedes by the arm and jerked him out of the chair.
“Hold on, what happened?”
“Wouldn’t know,” said Caesar a little too quickly and unconvincingly.
“Where’s the package?”
“Caesar and I were feeling a little peckish,” said Grey. “We decided to get something to eat first and come back later. In case it was heavy or something.”
Archimedes started to ask another question but something in Caesar’s eyes convinced him it would be better to wait. He let Grey push him through the front door and out onto the street. He cast one last glance back at the desk before the entrance closed and caught Morgan staring after him from behind it.
It was late when Euphrates finally arrived home and he was mildly surprised to find several lights on. He closed the door gently, letting the lock arm itself, and took his jacket off. Instead of using one of the ivory hooks on the wall to hang it, he folded it over his right arm. He used his left hand to pull a small pistol from the back of his waistband and slipped it into his right. The coat concealed it nicely.
Talys wouldn’t be so bold, he thought. Especially not so soon after showing his hand. He’s too cocky, too eager to play games, too ready to blackmail. He considered the other advisor for a moment. And too much of a coward. There were a great many other figures without the same hang-ups, however. It would take a tremendous amount of wealth, resources and intelligence to trace his extracurricular dealings back to him, but he hadn’t made it to this point in life by discounting trace possibilities.
He put the toe of one shoe against the back of the other and quietly slipped it off. He repeated the gesture with the other and then stepped quietly through the rooms of his house, his socks masking his steps. The hallway light gave a soft glow over the empty corridor. To the right, the living room was also partially lit. A single lamp –- a golden post topped with glass petals surrounding a tear-shaped silver bulb – stood next to an expensive mulberry recliner. There was no one in the chair, nor did anyone appear to be waiting behind it. In fact, he couldn’t see anybody in the room at all.
Euphrates’ brow furrowed. He continued down the hall and glanced into the next doorway, opening into a dining room on the left. That room was dark; the kitchen beyond it was not. If I were going to set a trap for someone, this is one way I would do it. Use the lights as a distraction, and then…
But if it was truly an ambush, it was a poor one so far. They would have had a better chance blindsiding him on the front porch. Now that the door was closed, they wouldn’t be able to come in from that direction. Not quickly, anyway. The locking mechanism was keyed to only two biometric scans and the materials it was made from could withstand a battering ram. Inside the home, there were no real hiding spots in the living room. None at all in the dining room.
He took a deep breath and stepped past the hand-crafted chairs, past the avorwood table that had cost almost as much as his personal cruiser. His feet pressed into the carpet, prepared to pivot and run. The metal of his pistol was growing hot in his hand. A swallow caught in his throat as he moved into the kitchen.
“There you are. Where have you been all night?”
“Oh, for the love of–” Euphrates cut himself off and closed his eyes. He took two deep breaths and then forced himself to smile, hoping it looked convincing and didn’t betray any of the creeping panic he had felt moments before. “For the love of the job,” he said, switching tacks, “I found myself working long hours today. I had a Council meeting. Our people left upset, the Ryxan left upset, plenty of other members besides the primaries weren’t particularly pleased or left not knowing how to feel. I decided to work late in hopes I could find a way to make the next meeting end more favorably.”
“It was that bad?”
“It actually went better than I made it sound, but there’s always room for improvement. Talys Wannigan decided to meet me afterward. The man could find a way to suck the joy out of a wedding.”
“You shouldn’t let him get to you.”
“Some people have a gift. His is getting to people. It put me in a mood, the mood put me in my office. Believe me, though, if I knew you had come home early, I would have gladly pushed that paperwork nightmare off until tomorrow.”
Nimbus Madasta smiled at him from the island in the kitchen. It dazzled him. It always did, those beautiful white teeth and the way her cheeks dimpled and the skin crinkled by her eyes. She had lilac bangs and the color deepened the further back it traveled in her hair until a rich waterfall of violet spilled down her back. It was a striking contrast to her tawny tone and made Euphrates’ heart beat a little bit faster each time he saw her. Coupled with the adrenaline he had had pumping when he first got home, it nearly killed him.
Probably. It felt like it, anyway.
A bottle of McEvoy’s 32nd Parade sat on the island. She held a glass of the pink wine in hand. He nodded appreciatively. “Good choice.”
“I was reading a romance novel earlier and somewhere between the third and sixth overwrought sex scenes, I realized what I needed to fully appreciate them was an impaired sense of judgment.”
“You picked a refined method for that.”
Nimbus smiled again. “You really didn’t know I was back from the hot springs?”
“I really did not.”
“But you saw the lights.”
“I saw the lights.”
“Were you worried?”
Euphrates laughed. He set his coat on the island, careful to wrap the handgun within it so that the metal didn’t clink off of the marble surface when he let it go. He took her in his arms and kissed her neck. The smell of apricots filled his nose. He couldn’t tell whether it came from a lotion or a conditioner but liked it all the same.
“Never,” he murmured into her shoulder. “Worry is a foreign entity to me.”
“It’s only irritation, dissatisfaction, and determination that are familiar to you.” She kissed the top of his ear. He pulled his head up and matched her lips with his own. They stayed that way for a long moment, the stillness of the house drawing them further into each other. When Nimbus broke away, it was to smile wide and take a draw from her glass. “My, my. I missed that.”
“Love,” said Euphrates.
“I also feel love for you. Sometimes it even relieves the irritation.”
Nimbus swatted his arm lightly. “Only sometimes?”
“Alright, most of the time. I guess.”
“You guess. Come to bed with me and we’ll see if that guess finds itself on more solid ground.”
“One glass and you’ve already achieved the proper amount of impaired judgment.”
“That’s assuming this is my first glass or that you’re an overwrought sex scene.”
Euphrates’ lips turned up faintly. This smile came naturally. He found the tension had fully left him; she really was good at relief. “There are just a couple things I need to do before calling it a night. I can meet you in bed or come get you when I’m done, if you’d like to keep reading.”
Nimbus nodded. She set her glass down and ran her fingers through his hair. She was accustomed to his mannerisms and how much importance he placed in his work. He had proven to her time and again, however, that if she pushed him, he would choose her. He always would.
But she didn’t want to push him. Or perhaps she wanted to but never did. Euphrates was filled with gratitude. Gratitude and guilt.
“Go,” she said softly. “I’ll be reading. Find me when you’re done.”
“I’ll always find you.”
“Do you want me to hang your coat?”
Euphrates glanced at the bundle at the end of the island. He could picture the pistol slipping out and clattering to the floor. He shook his head slowly.
“No. No, I’ll take care of it. I have some notes in my pockets.”
He stepped away and grabbed the bottle of McEvoy’s. She hadn’t quite finished what she had poured, but he refilled her glass anyway. She took it and kissed his cheek. One hand trailed across his chest as she made her way around him and back towards the living room.
Once she was out of sight he scooped his coat and weapon from the island and exited the kitchen in the other direction. He passed the short hall leading to his bedroom and continued on to the double doors that opened up to his home office. Despite the extensive measures taken everywhere else in the house, he kept this room locked in the traditional way, and he had to get a key out to gain entry.
Where his office at the Parliament building was arranged to appear clean and sleek –- white walls, white tile, black furniture, crystal art pieces –- his work space at home was built for comfort. The walls were devla wood, imported from one of the Wanos worlds, burnt red and naturally sound-proofed. The desk at work was a black frame with an IntuiGlass surface, the advanced systems he used were wired through it with network mesh. His desk at home was a heavy thing, thick wood and wide angles. The computer atop it was designed by a number of technicians, independent of each other and with the kinds of materials one wouldn’t find in respectable stores. Put together, the device’s network was impenetrable, its investigative capabilities incomparable. He had back-up files and two other devices just like it, for security in case of emergencies, but this was the primary hub for his power brokering.
Two low chairs were positioned in front of his desk, backs curved and armrests padded. He threw his coat over one of them and took his seat across from it, behind the desk. His own chair had been custom-built, designed to accommodate a slight curvature at the top of his spine and an extended tailbone unnoticeable to any but him and only when he sat.
The gun found itself at the edge of his desk. He opened a drawer and removed a faceted bottle filled with a light blue liquor and a glass. Two fingers’ worth was poured into the latter; the former was returned to its confinement.
He pressed the tip of his index finger against the upper right side of his computer box. A red light scanned it from top to bottom and then a thin metal square unfolded itself from the top. Moments later, a digital screen flickered to life within the frame.
As he had hoped, a glowing orange exclamation point bounced in the lower left corner of the screen, indicating unread messages. He tapped the air just above it and his display was replaced with a transparent gray background. Lines of light green characters flew across the screen. Several layers of encryption rendered them indecipherable. He waited patiently as his own programs translated the message, sipping his drink and rolling the blueberry alcohol over his tongue.
The decryption didn’t take long. Euphrates set his glass down and leaned forward.
Package existence confirmed.
Package contracted for delivery confirmed.
Package delivery recipient confirmed.
Recipient working on behalf of 1.82.2 confirmed.
Package contents pending, confirmed high value, confirmed discretion specified.
Procession parameters requested.
He read the message over several times, allowing each line to weigh on his mind and further fill out the puzzle. He had almost missed the rumor when it first fell into his web. Even later, when he went back and gave it a glance, he hadn’t thought it would reveal any tangible worth under scrutiny. So many similar gossip pieces fell apart once time and money were put into investigating them. This message indicated something different. It was filled with confirmations.
Euphrates was intrigued now. Deeply so. He had to know what was in that package.
He downed the rest of his liquor in a single gulp and set the glass aside. A casual wave of his left hand brought up a keyboard projection. His reply was curt, to the point. Details could wait for the morning. There was a woman waiting for him, after all.