A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.
Part 1, 2, 3
‘Tell your goon if that paw touches me it’s coming off at the elbow.’
The shifner grunted in surprise as Eliane’s dagger flashed out towards its thick, questing hand. It rippled its enhanced shoulder muscles, the unconscious gesture a dominance display left over from the species’ prehistory on a distant world. Down in civilisation, shifner were mostly tank-bred as corporate muscle and cannon fodder; out on the Riff, among the runaways, you would sometimes find a flesh-bred like this one. There was a complex politics between the varieties, made more arcane by the ability of each to pass for the other, and by the fact that they were all, pretty much, competitors in the same line of work.
‘Don’t make me cut him, Spiker,’ she called out into the dark. She knew the would-be crime lord was watching, even if she could not see him. ‘I’m just here to do business.’
‘Then put the knife away,’ he replied from the gloom, ‘and leave it and the gun on the table.’
It was not within her nature willingly to give up weapons. They made the ground on which she was dealing a little less uneven, but they had also served their purpose. Spiker had his own utterly predictable dominance displays, easily subverted by a few more seconds performance of resistance before complying with his wishes. He was too arrogant to suspect her of concealing other weapons.
‘Good girl,’ he said, as Eliane unstrapped her forearm holsters and dropped them in front of the shifner. It grunted malice at her. She could not tell whether it was genuinely felt or just part of the job. ‘Come and sit with me,’ Spiker added.
He was ensconced in a deep alcove at the edge of the room. All the other tables were empty, and the bar shuttered. For Spiker, it was a surprisingly understated form of ostentation. He liked to hold court there and, Eliane suspected, thought of it, without irony, as holding court. But really it was just business. Money, power, influence, as scuzzy there as anywhere else.
She slid onto the chair opposite him. The upholstery was every bit as plush as Spiker’s taste was poor.
‘You know why I’m here,’ she said, ‘and we agreed a price. Why all the show?’
Her dislike of Spiker was finely balanced – part disliking his kind of nasty little crook with delusions of grandeur, and part disliking him personally. It was not just that there was blood on his hands, but that some of it had belonged to very specific people. Also, he always tried to hit on her, sooner or later, no matter what she turned up looking like. Tall, short, blonde, brunette, male, female, whatever, none of it made a difference to him. He was grossly libidinal, and thought himself charming. Or, she conceded, it was just about possible it was all an act. Which probably made it worse.
He poured them each a glass of something she knew better than to drink, and slid hers over towards her. She reached for it, knowing he would take the opportunity to stroke her fingers. It made her skin crawl but it was part of the cost of dealing with him.
His caress was surprisingly perfunctory. For a split second she was relieved, and then suspicious. On the several occasions they had done business, he had lingered over the prelude to their transaction, relishing any trace of discomfort he could produce in her. She had grown accustomed to disappointing him, not least because it tended to speed things up. The secret was to respond not with a stony glare, but with the appearance of not even noticing. He hated that. He could not stand to be frustrated.
In his sudden haste, he did not even pause to touch his drink. He summoned another shifner from where it had been standing impassively back in the gloom.
Something is definitely amiss, she thought, but he knows better than to try to scam me.
The shifner placed a containment cylinder on the table, maybe eight inches high with a diameter about a third of that. Its matt surface seemed to hold in light rather than reflect it.
‘I’m here for tech, not biologicals.’ Eliane started to slide out from the booth.
‘It is tech,’ Spiker replied, ‘xenotech. Exotic. Not exactly biological. Not exactly not-biological, either.’
Eliane paused. ‘Does it do what you claimed?’
‘Your AI will be able to infiltrate any other shipbrain,’ he said. ‘Overwhelm it. You want bloodless kills, or easy ones, it’s just the thing for you.’
She ignored the contempt in his voice, but his words troubled her. Never before had he said anything that implied he knew who she was and what she did. He was supposed to think she merely trafficked in curiosities, scouring the Riff for unusual artefacts and arcane knowledges to sell to xeno-groupies and other aficianados down in civilisation. ‘How does it work?’
‘It didn’t come with a manual.’ The casualness of his shrug seemed rehearsed.
‘Some kind of virus?’
‘A hack is a hack.’
‘Kinda old school, even for the Riff.’
‘It’s different. Quantum-level stuff, not software. It’s more, well, paracognitive, I guess. Telepathic.’
‘Taking me for a rube, Spiker?’
He did not reply.
‘Let me see it.’
Spiker slid the cylinder across the table. Once more he failed to take the opportunity to touch her as she reached out and picked it up. He wasn’t staring at her cleavage, either. Which should have been a relief. Last time he hadn’t done that, it was when she was male, although that didn’t keep his eyes from roving – or his hands.
She twisted the cylinder open, removed her gloves and reached inside. Her touch triggered something in the artefact. It moved in her hand, imitating her grasp. She did not allow herself to flinch.
She lifted it into view. It looked like a starfish. Its rays appeared metallic but moved as if organic, stiffened by something calcerous. It felt slick against her skin. She peeled one of its rays from her forearm and peered at it. Unexpectedly, the underside was as dry as the topside.
‘Nanofilaments,’ Spiker explained. ‘It needs to bond with your nervous system to work.’
Eliane released the ray, let it coil around her wrist. ‘Then why’s it not working?’
‘Your central nervous system.’ Now he was smiling. ‘It needs access points. Ears. Eyes.’
Her hand was halfway to her head before his grin faded.
‘Come on, we’ve done enough business before. There’s no need to test it here. Besides, you’ll need your ship systems within range to see what it can really do.’
She raised an eyebrow.
‘You know you can trust me,’ he said.
That was enough for Eliane. Not even Spiker was fool enough to think anyone actually trusted him. There was something he did not want her to know.
And he had said the thing was telepathic.
Without further thought she allowed it to crawl from the back of her hand to the side of her face. One ray curled around her ear, extended its tip into her earhole. It halted, but she could sense tiny extrusions were slipping inside, piercing her eardrum, but harmlessly, on a subatomic level. Another ray slipped over her eye. She would probably have flinched away from its touch if it hadn’t suddenly made her feel quite piratical.
Then it hit her.
A clangour of light, a peal of colour.
A cascading vertiginous kaleidoscope of sensation.
An intense vibration took her.
She did not have time to feel nauseous or giddy. It was abruptly part of her. A second consciousness, present everywhere within her, apart yet simultaneously inseparable.
Thoughts, she discovered, were nothing like voices.
Spiker knew who she was. And he’d peached. Sold her out. This was all a trap.
She needed to get out of there. Quickly.
‘Wow,’ she said, stumbling with artful awkwardness to her feet.
Spiker half-rose, uncertain.
‘You can feel it right down here,’ she said, smiling to assuage his anxiety, and reached behind her for the loops at the base of her spine.
In the dim light, Spiker probably did not even see the keratin blades as they slashed wickedly before him, slicing through his throat, leaving an elongated scarlet X.
The nearest shifner reached for the blaster on his hip. He roared in frustration, and then in pain, as he realised that all he was pointing at her was a stump, gouting blood.
She danced around his forward lurch, cutting deep into the backs of his legs.
He threw himself desperately at her. She sidestepped. He hit the floor with a crash. A blade in the back of the neck severed his spine. She could safely leave him to bleed out.
The second shifner, eschewing his sidearm, drew a pair of short swords and stepped heavily towards her, blades held steady in the low light. He seemed to know what he was doing.
She backed away, looking nervous.
The shifner swelled his shoulder muscles in gleeful anticipation of the kill.
She picked up the fallen blaster and shot him in the head. His face vaporised in the intense heat. Sizzling blood and brain sprayed the wall. He swayed upright for a second as if his body did not yet know it was dead, then collapsed noisily, spilling gore across the floor.
Eliane swept up the containment canister, and gently pulled the device from her head. It seemed reluctant to detach at first, and she did not know how much force to exert. She didn’t want to rip out anything vital.
She checked herself for spatter, and stepped carefully over the corpse. The first shifner was still alive, rasping ragged breaths. She drove a blade through its shoulders and into its heart. She hated killing, but sometimes it was a mercy. Besides, in this crazy messed up universe, what was a girl to do?
She grabbed her gun and knife and made for the exit.
She had completely forgotten – if, indeed she ever knew it – that shifners always work in teams of three.
TO BE CONTINUED Part 5