Soon after the lift doors closed behind Ray and Mo, Harry and followed Koz into a kitchen that featured moss green tiles, expanses of dark wood and slate against cream-colored walls.
It was smaller, and infinitely more cozy, than the lounge o’death that had first welcomed he and Ray.
Cozy, and cluttered, Harry noted, given the oval table, the kitchen island, and most of the counters were crowded with portable comps of various design.
Many even had live screens hovering above the control pads.
Some of the holos flickered with lines of code, or formulas, while others featured 3D projections of various technologies.
Harry recognized an FTL engine schematic, and maybe a toaster, but beyond that, he might as well have been looking at Suradi pop art.
One screen displayed a facsimile of an ancient text, and Harry and Jessyn both paused to study what turned out to be a page from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was the scene in which Miranda was proclaiming over a brave new world, and the people in it.
A shimmer to his right had him turning to the wall where he found, not a window, but a multi-paneled screen, four panels wide, three high.
The top two rows ran security feeds from inside the arcade.
The row beneath, however, shifted continually, showing street scenes around the VRcade. Peering closer, Harry noted the time stamp and IPPD logo, and realized Koz had sliced into the Inner Pallash police departments LCTV.
A glance at the slated oval of a dining table showed a series of notes had been scribbled directly on the table’s surface.
Curious, he ran a finger carefully over a cosine mark, but while the scribbles looked to be made of chalk, the symbol remained unsmudged.
Harry let out a slow breath at the scope of activity in the kitchen. Hells, not even Mollin had—“Oh, shit.” He cut off his own thought just as Jessyn followed Koz to the kitchen island. “Sorry,” he added. “I just remembered, Motherboard doesn’t know what happened.”
“Motherboard?” Koz set Harry’s mug in front of him and edged back to the opposite end of the counter.
“Our friend, who remained aboard the ship,” Jessyn explained.
“We lost contact when we got to your penthouse,” Harry continued.
“My scans didn’t pick up any active comms,” Koz said, his brows furrowing.
“Ah.” Harry looked at Jessyn. Since the communicators had been a gift from Fayla Szado, Dama of House Szado, and Jessyn’s version of Colonel Doyle, he shrugged. “Your House. Your call.”
She nodded her understanding and turned to Koz. “We are using a new design,” she explained. “The comms are made from entirely organic materials, and implanted here,” she pointed to a spot behind her ear and above the jaw. “Very effective, and undetectable.”
“Organic?” Koz’s eyes sparked with interest. “No one in the ConFed’s come close to that level of bio-tech.”
“Do you mind lifting the damper?” Harry asked before Koz could press for more information. “Just long enough to send an all’s well. I only ask because Mollin’s worse than my mother, and if we—”
“Wait.” Koz blinked, the glow of a new form of bio-tech dissipating. “Did you say Mollin?”
“Ah.” Harry looked from Koz to Jessyn and back to Koz. “I did.”
At which point Koz made a sound similar to one Harry’s aforementioned mother had on discovering Harry and his two siblings had let a squirrel loose in the house.
Stepping out of the arcade with Mo, Ray couldn’t prevent the sigh of relief.
He had his weapons, all tucked in their proper place, and with Harry and Jessyn dealing with the neurotic Koz, could look forward to a relaxing hour with one of his oldest friends in the Known. Someone he’d known since childhood. Someone he never had to lie to. Someone who— “Ow!”
Was drilling her finger into his shoulder.
“Stop that!” He brushed at the offending finger.
“No,” she replied, drilling him again before adding a singsong chant, “You’ve got a girlfriend.”
“Are you twelve?” he asked as they stepped out from under the glittering green Oz marquee and into a street thronging with shoppers, commuters, and pleasure seekers of all ages.
“Always.” Mo slipped an arm through his and eased him to the left. “Not just a girlfriend,” she continued. “A Rasalkan girlfriend. She shared a little of herself… by sharing a little of herself,” Mo explained at Ray’s questioning glance.
A drop of rain, and then another, fell from skies that had gone leaden sometime after Ray and party had entered the VRcade that morning. “You don’t have a problem with Rasalkans, do you?” he asked, hunching his shoulders against the wet.
“Not a problem, no.” Mo flicked her wrist unit open, tapped a command and held the unit up so the ionic rainshield covered both of them.“It’s more, in my line of work, I’d be an idiot if I weren’t a little nervous around the member of a species known for reading minds.”
“You didn’t come off nervous during that whole, guarding Jessyn’s honor, thing.”
“I try to keep up with all the customs in the Known,” she replied, allowing him to steer her away from the splash sent up by a passing hover-scooter. “Besides, if I hadn’t promised Jessyn I’d keep you safe, she might not have let you come out to play.”
“What?” Ray froze, rain, skate rats, and pretty much everything else forgotten. “Keep me what?”
“You have an objection to the name Mollin?” Harry asked as Koz went silent. Less because he’d calmed down and more because he’d apparently ran out of breath.
The AD glared at him. “Only if this particluar Mollin is a medium-height Cherrii.”
“Mollin is a pretty common name among the Cherrii,” Harry said, while Jessyn’s expression took on the serene expression that meant she was anything but calm. “And many of them come in medium size.”
The dark eyes narrowed. “A medium-height Cherrii who is also suffering from Zvcyrdoal’s Syndrome.”
“Oh,” Harry said, though privately, he was impressed that Koz not only knew, but could pronounce the clinical name for Mollin’s condition—a rare disorder that prevented a Cherrii’s skin from changing pigment.
“Granted, it’s a small portion of the population,” Harry said. “But—”
“A medium-height Cherrii suffering from Zycyrdoal’s Syndrome, who also has a pathological obsession with Polaris Abbey,” Koz cut in, through teeth gritted so tight the words wept on their way through.
“Then, yes,” Harry admitted. “That is our Mollin.”
Koz made the noise again.
“You heard me.” Mo’s eyes twinkled under the rain screen as she looked up. “Don’t tell me you don’t know?”
“Know what?” When her response was a delighted laugh, he let out a growl. “Don’t make me hurt you.”
“As if.” But she did relent. “Fine. Let’s just say, when a Rasalkan woman is intimate with someone, and especially when that someone is male, there’s a certain amount of protectiveness involved.”
“So when she said you held her honor, she was talking about—”
“You, Cowboy. She was talking about you.”
He stood silent a moment, while the patter of rain increased and his synapses shot into new pathways he wasn’t entirely comfortable treading. “Huh,” he said at last.
“I can see this is going to take some time for you to process,” Mo said, tugging him back into motion. “How about we give your caveman sensibilities a break? Talk about something else.”
“Sure. Great.” He shook his head. “Sure,” he said again.
“Great,” she echoed his statement. “So, what can you tell me about Harry?”
Ray rolled his eyes as she steered him into a smaller walkway, which led to, praise Jesus, a building that featured a holo sign blaring name Phantasmik.
“Talk about some things not changing,” he said. “When are you going to start going after partners your own age?”
“Never,” she replied. “So, spill. What’s the dish on the well-seasoned dish?”
In the penthouse kitchen, the object of Mo’s interest watched Koz circle the island, cursing in a multitude of languages.
“So,” Harry ventured when Koz paused for a breath, “I’m guessing you and Mollin had a falling out?”
“Mollin…” Koz all but spat the name. “That back-stabbing, one-shaded, lying son of a brach’u!”
“You were close?” Jessyn ventured.
“I thought we were,” Koz said. “I thought a lot of things,” he said, then looked at Harry, and sighed. “We met five standard years back.”
“That’d be two years after I tangled with Tammas Ren,” Harry noted.
Koz nodded. “By then the Baseline movement had started planting the first seeds of genetic enforcement in the CF senate,” he began. “I met Mollin when he sat at the table next to mine at a cyber-cafe on Cisco Prime. We bonded over holo-games and coffee, and one thing led to another, and another.” He paused, shook his head, shoved his hands in his pockets. “It wasn’t too much of a stretch. We were both outcasts, of a sort, both into cy-space—in a big way. He even ran clean-up for me when I sliced into the Deca—when I went diving for data,” he amended, quickly.
Harry, who’d always thought Mollin the straightest of straight arrows, whistled.
“How did he hurt you?” Jessyn asked, leaning on the counter.
Koz looked away, towards the video screens on the far wall. “He told me the truth.”
“What truth?” she asked as he paused, but Harry had a sneaking suspicion what was coming.
“That he hadn’t randomly chosen the table next to mine at that cyber-cafe,” Koz said, confirming Harry’s supposition. “He told me he’d been assigned to me. Assigned,” he echoed the word, “to determine the level of threat I posed.”
“Which agency?” Harry asked.
“Threat?” Jessyn asked at the same time. “To who?”
“ConFed Intelligence,” Koz told Harry, then looked at Jessyn. “To the ConFederation way of life, or baseline Humans, or sub-light traffic laws. Whatever slight, crime, or insult could be rallied around to make ADs look scary.”
“Which is bad, granted,” Harry said, “but the fact is, Mollin did tell you the truth—and in so doing, broke at least a dozen Decagon regulations.”
“Yes.” Koz let his eyes drift to the wall screens, then back to Harry. “I know.”
“Why did he tell you?” Jessyn asked.
Harry, who had a feeling, added, “When did he tell you?”
Koz gave Harry a look that spoke volumes. “Two days before the senate passed the ADHLF Registration Act.” His eyes shifted to Jessyn. “Which is also why he told me. Mollin knew if I stayed in ConFed territories, I would have to register.” Again his eyes slid up, towards the security screens on the wall of his kitchen. “I carry DNA from survivors of Auschwitz and Srebenica, Hutto and Titan, so believe me when I say, I know the sound of glass breaking when I hear it.”
“Much as I hate to burst your bubble,” Ray told Mo as they entered Phantasmik, “the dish—Harry—is married.”
At least, Ray supposed he was married.
The legal status was gray, what with all the years Harry had believed himself a widower, but he figured there was some level of marriedness involved.
“Too bad,” Mo’s features shifted into a regretful pout. “Then again, that strong-but-broken thing he’s got going can be exhausting.”
“And then some,” Ray agreed.
“I wasn’t talking about Harry. I was talking about you, Cowboy.”
“I am not—whatever,” he grumbled, following her through the foyer of the club.
It was only as they crossed into the club proper, and Mo disengaged the rain shield, that Ray noticed Phantasmik was more than just a gin joint.
Though a quick skim of the room did reveal a fully-stocked bar, the smattering of tables and booths were ranged around a series of raised stages, and each stage featured a dancer.
Or writher, or wriggler, given that Phantasmik catered to all manner of species.
“This is a flesh parlor,” he said, tearing his eyes from the gyrations of a young Eiolan male—and his noteable assets—to land on a writhing Milleon in its third larval stage.
Mo gave a shrug. “The booze is better than the nightsider crap most flesh clubs serve. And they treat the dancers like people.”
“And you know this, because?”
“Koz owns the place,” she said, throwing a nod and holding up two fingers to one of three bartenders, this one a Human female, while leading Ray to the back of the room.
“Busy man,” Ray observed, following.
He got a whiff of booze, various musks of various species, but at least the music had a recognizable beat, and nothing seemed overly sticky.
Reaching Mo’s chosen table, he waited until she slid into the rounded booth before taking his own seat, appreciating that she left him the spot that faced the door.
“Koz only owns four businesses outright,” Mo explained as he sat. “But he’s invested in several more. All under unique IDs. Me and my team helped him out with those. It’s why I’m here, now, actually. He needed a new bio so he could submit a patent.”
“No offense to your profession,” Ray said, “but from what I hear about the guy’s IQ, I wouldn’t think he needs the help.”
“Koz may be the brainiest of brains,” Mo said, tapping the side of her head, “but he’s got the emotional savvy of a nine-year old. Which I guess makes sense, since he’s, what, maybe sixteen, standard, in real time?”
For the second time that day, Ray felt his jaw dropping. “Say what, again?”
“Wow.” Mo’s expression went from thoughtful to pitying. “You really don’t know a thing about ADs, do you?”
“It’s a big-ass universe,” he pointed out. “Big and filled with lots of people doing very bad things. So forgive me for being too busy keeping the Known safe for all sentient-kind to read up on the latest bio-tech.”
“Just saying, it wouldn’t kill you to pick up a newsfeed once in a blue.”
Before Ray could come up with a suitable retort, a figure appeared at the side of the booth.
Ray’s hand dropped to the knife, once again nestled in the boot he’d crossed over one knee, and stayed there even when Mo shot him a warning glance before addressing the newcomer.
“Thanks, Nious,” she said to the young Surad who laid their drinks on the table.
“No problem, Duchess.” Nious, whose indigo flesh was barely covered by a loincloth, favored her with a smile, and Ray with a murderous side-eye, before returning his attention to Mo. “Word is you’re engines up tomorrow?”
“Word’s straight up,” Mo confirmed. “Got a job in the Qylln sector. Hard creds on the line.”
“Can’t argue with that, but we’ll miss you around here,” Nious said. “Be sure to stop by next time you make planetfall.”
Ray listened to this byplay as he sipped his drink which, while no Wallace Blue, was still a respectable glass of scotch.
Once the young server was gone, with one last acidic glare for Ray, he held his up his glass. “You still use Duchess as your nom de guerre,” he observed.
“I’ve got a lot of street cred under that name,” she pointed out. “Why mess with what works?”
“So say we all.” He raised his glass, as did she. “To the old days,” he said.
They each took a healthy slug, then Mo held her drink up. “To absent friends.”
Ray’s glass thunked on the table.“Dammit, Mo, can’t you let it go?”
“No,” she said, tipping her head so the slick pink hair swished over her shoulder, “Though I think it’s telling that our brother asked me the exact same thing, last time I saw him.”
“It is telling,” Ray agreed. “It’s telling you to let. It. Go.”
Thank you so much for continuing this journey with Ray and Harry. LG and I hope these dips into another world provide some respite in a tough time.
For those who are able, The International Rescue Committee provides lifesaving programs to vulnerable communities worldwide.