Love is worth a galaxy of trouble.
Pann is a teeming city on the edge of habitable space, the final stop between a hostile Parliament and the safety of another solar system. Renée Bellevue, prefect of Pann’s police service and disgraced exile, has her hands full. That is, if she remembers to work and isn’t distracted by Lane, her favourite enigmatic bar owner. When a politician arrives on-planet to investigate a murder and capture two infamous activists, Renée knows trouble is incoming. Looking the other way will earn her a clean slate and return passage home—at a price that grows steeper each day.
As an unwelcome “mod”—a human with implanted tech—Lane Kovacs fled to Pann with her sister. Running a bar isn’t the best use of her scientific background, but it’s mindless and uncomplicated. Until she’s stuck with a priceless ticket out, her thieving ex reappears, and a scheming Parliamentarian monitors her every move. Her ex offers escape and freedom. Tempting, if not for Renée, the unexpected emotional variable upsetting the equation.
One misstep means arrest or death, but hope beckons bright as the stars. Lane and Renée must decide what they really want, even if it means parting for good.
FINALIST - Foreword Reviews INDIES book awards - Romance 2022
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Heat Wave: 2 - Kisses and touches without love scenes
Erotic Frequency: 2 - Not many
Genre: alternate world / alternate universe, drama, dystopian, romance, sci-fi
Orientation: ace spectrum, asexual, bisexual / pansexual, lesbian
Pairing: female/female, female/male
Tone: dark, humorous, realistic
Themes: addiction, alcoholism, antihero / bad boy, artificial intelligence, death / the afterlife, duty, grief, illness / injury, immortality, interracial/multicultural, lovable rogue, police brutality, politics / power struggle, Quantum Computing, reunion, Totalitarian Government
Settings: alternate dimension, bar / club, city, hotel / motel, police station
Careers: Activist, business owner, law enforcement, scientist / researcher / inventor
The universal clock in the terminal ticked with frankly disrespectful verve, increasing the Parliament member’s lateness—and, more importantly, Renée’s hunger—with every second. The terminal was quiet, the public temporarily barred. Ticket-holders for the portals had been relegated to a waiting room, and stars above that wasn’t an exercise Renée wished to repeat anytime soon.
She eyed a nearby bench, wishing she’d sat down ten minutes ago. Not that it would help for long; another ten minutes and she would no doubt drop dead from low blood sugar. Things like that happened all the time and there was no reason it couldn’t happen to her, if only once. Even worse, her saviour and redeemer—the pork bun she’d bought on her way to work—sat forgotten on her desk, in her office, in the police station, in the centre of the city. Not here in her hands, before the Arden portal gate, in the terminal, on the edge of the city.
“Has he arrived yet?” Atkins crackled in her ear. “Over.”
She scoffed into the microphone in her collar. “As though Parliament members could do anything on time. No. Any updates? Over.”
“Yes. Keller is gathering the leeches, and we’re reviewing the hotel footage now. If we find anything, I’ll report back immediately. Over.”
“Good. Over and out.”
Food stalls weren’t allowed in the terminal for reasons she couldn’t remember, but were probably illogical. How were passengers and people waiting for passengers supposed to cope? Her blood sugar could handle the drive back to her office, maybe. But that wasn’t a prospect, as no one could drive her anywhere, because they had to wait, all because some connard of a bureaucrat couldn’t activate a matter displacer on time—
Violet light seared through the skylight in the ceiling and the portal gate in front of her glowed, announcing his successful arrival. Finally.
She murmured into her mouthpiece, and her colleagues straightened as Janus Parliament Member Richard Elleul appeared in the gate. When the transfer completed, the status light turned green and he stepped out of the portal, through the barrier, and into the waiting area. Average height and heavyset, he moved with the swagger of someone powerful and wore the expression of someone who’d bitten into a mouldy sandwich.
According to the Intelligence database, he was an outspoken devotee of the party line, climbing high in Parliament, and—notably—the minister responsible for the latest restrictions against enhanced beings. He was here supposedly to investigate the recent murder of a courier, but Renée didn’t believe that for a moment.
She glanced him up and down, feeling . . . what was the word? Disappointed? Disapproving? Somehow the man responsible for bringing so much business to her little outpost here on the edge of the system seemed a little short. Very ordinary looking. Someone who’d implemented the kind of policies he had should be more striking. Intense eyes, perhaps, or a wide smirk, or a full head of hair. This man looked like the thieves who chased after the refugees in her city’s streets: self-important and underwhelming. The only difference was the quality of clothing.
Oh well. C’est la vie. The pork bun was close now.
Renée bit back a grin as she saluted him. “Neutral space welcomes you to Pann, Member Elleul.”
Elleul took in her and her colleagues and sniffed before saluting in return. “I wish I were here on more pleasurable business, Prefect Bellevue.”
“Don’t we all, monsieur.” She introduced him to her colleagues, then began walking him through the terminal building. She waited for him to appreciate the old Haitian architecture dating back to the initial days of terraforming and building, when this had been the original entry point to the Janus system for pioneers and explorers from Orion, but he ignored the mosaic on the floor and didn’t even look up at the magnificent skylight in the ceiling. Tch. It was the original glass. Some people had no appreciation for history.
Nonetheless, she had to be professional. “I was hoping you could elaborate on Parliament’s interest in this unfortunate incident.”
The report had appeared on her dash that morning: a courier from the core planets had been found dead in her hotel, room and luggage stripped clean. Nothing unusual about that—people died and their things were redistributed all the time in Pann—until Renée had received a notification from the core planets, stating Member Elleul was coming to personally look into the matter that same day. Naturally she’d bumped the incident up in prioritisation level on her officers’ dashes.
Elleul shook his head. “It’s simple. The courier was actually a diplomat with a missive for the government of Fides.”
Well. A diplomat. How interesting.
Renée didn’t consider herself prone to dramatics, but this raised her hackles ever so slightly. While this region of the habitable zone had been designated neutral space to allow diplomacy and trade to occur between systems, Janus’s Parliament was vocal about refusing to formally negotiate with enhancement-sympathisers. Fides was the closest system to Janus, and welcoming of enhanced beings, which meant it was where all the refugees fled.
But neither system’s government had told Renée the diplomat would be passing through Pann—which meant that this “diplomat” was meant to have slipped over without any notice.
Most interesting was that the missive of said courier/diplomat and her gold standard, iron-clad, irrefutable ticket for the portal trip to Caeliton in Fides were now somewhere in Pann’s black market. Elleul would wish those recovered, though the missive was probably long subsumed into the local resistance cell. They enjoyed any scrap of information they could get.
Renée supposed she’d have to spare an officer to waste their time looking for it on whatever channels the Tech division could access. The ticket might still be possible to retrieve. It would be less easy to hide and too much of an opportunity to destroy.
Now that she wasn’t in the portal area with its huge skylight, she couldn’t glance up towards the star that marked the Fides system, but she could picture its gentle twinkle. The people she’d had shuffled into spare waiting rooms might be picturing it too, because they watched her and Member Elleul walk through the building with silent glares. She ignored them. After all, they’d paid, received their own tickets, and would shortly no longer be her problem.
“I see,” she said, injecting the right amount of surprise into her voice.
“You and your mayor weren’t informed because of classified reasons.”
Classified reasons. Renée knew exactly what classified reasons meant. “Seems a little strange someone so important would travel with something so important without protection of some kind while in Pann. I keep order as best I can, but, as you may have noticed, unfortunate incidents still occur.”
Elleul made a face. “That reason is also classified.”
“I understand completely. You are here to ensure justice for the unfortunate diplomat?”
“You have my force at your disposal, monsieur. I have them rounding up likely suspects as we speak, but I’ll ensure we have at least twice the usual number on this occasion.”
“Your help is much appreciated, Prefect.” He glanced her over, eyes flickering to spots on her face, joints, and limbs for signs of enhancement. “I know this is a neutral territory, but I’m glad to see that the leader of law enforcement here doesn’t feel the need to pollute her body with foreign objects.”
Au contraire, there was a pork bun she was desperate to pollute herself with. Also, he had to know she was a Janus citizen. The prefect always was. Renée smiled at him. “I don’t require much to fulfil my duties beyond coffee, data feeds and good people.” And timely lunches.
The receiver in her ear gently buzzed to life. “Prefect! We have reviewed the camera feeds. It’s Fentiman. Over.”
Putain. Fentiman was a minor but stubborn leech who’d only lasted as long as he had in Pann due to his sole talent of being in the right place at the right time. He’d always been so polite whenever her force had arrested him. She was going to miss puzzling over his airtight alibis and prodigious upselling.
Still, he was nothing if not predictable, which made her job much easier.
She angled the microphone in her collar closer to her mouth and responded, “Excellent work, Atkins. I’m with the member now and will inform him. Over and out.” She turned to Elleul. “We have discovered our murderer.”
“Already?” He beamed. “Prefect, this is superb. Do you have them in custody?”
She waved dismissively. “Oh no. Plenty of time for that. Have you had lunch yet?” Perhaps she could swing a meal on Parliament expenses; failing that, Neutral Zone Committee expenses.
Elleul looked aghast. “This is a matter of utmost importance!”
“Relax, monsieur. He’ll be at Lane’s Salon tonight, we’ll pick him up there.” When Elleul’s expression didn’t change, she patted his arm. “Trust me, he’ll be there. Everyone goes to Lane’s.”
His arm twitched away. “What are you talking about?”
Only one of the most popular video salons in the city, where the games were good and the booze was cheap. It didn’t hurt that Lane didn’t give a shit if people traded on her premises, meaning the leeches and thieves came in droves. Renée was particular to the virtual poker console there.
And particular to Lane herself. Ah, Lane. Renée could almost forget how hungry she was at the thought of seeing her.
“It’s the main salon where Fentiman conducts his sales,” she explained.
Elleul frowned. “Sales? What would he be selling?” His face cleared. “The missive!”
Renée resisted the urge to laugh. “No, Member. That is likely long gone. I mean, of course, the diplomat’s portal ticket.”
They stepped outside the terminal into the busy thoroughfare. A clear day meant the sun beamed down weakly on her city, bringing welcome warmth and light. Clusters of people hung around the building, eager to watch ships come and go from the airfield behind it, and to latch on to newcomers before they could get their bearings. Some lingered to watch the purple light of the intersystem portal shoot through the sky, gazes hungry.
That portal was the conduit between their system, Janus, and their system neighbour, Fides. Portals also connected Salus to the core and other Janus planets. When their star wasn’t in the way, they could also connect to the home solar system in Orion, but it was out of range this time of year. Thankfully. The last thing anyone in Janus needed was Earth’s opinion on events here.
Portal journeys were quick but expensive. Most in demand and most expensive of all was the connection to Fides. Trips were few a day, tickets were extortionate, and slots were booked out for months in advance. The people in Pann had to wait—for a ticket, for a cancelled slot, for the money to purchase a scalped ticket, for months to use their advanced booking, for hackers to open and charge the portal when her force was looking the other way. And while they waited, they watched others leave and arrive and tried to make a living.
Renée noticed the usual scalpers and pickpockets slinking into the crowd at the sight of her and her team, but the regular people—the refugees, the enhanced, the locals, the plethora of beings from other systems—stayed in their clusters, smoking and chatting and waiting.
Elleul’s nose wrinkled as he scanned the area. Renée wondered what it must be like seeing all the people his policies had chased out of the core planets to the very limits of the Janus system. Most rarely thought about this tiny rock on the edge of nowhere and everywhere, let alone visited it. Two years of his policies and Salus’s cities were struggling to support the people fleeing the Parliament. His timing was either dreadfully off or darkly perfect; she couldn’t decide which.
Since her own voluntary expulsion here, she’d come to appreciate Salus for its dubious merits. Most did; most had to. Perhaps he would too. Pann made up for what it lacked in elegance and civility by its sheer amount of entertainment and business—including food.
Speaking of food.
She indicated the car they’d cleaned up especially for Elleul. “Get in. We can discuss more details of your visit over lunch.”
Elleul moved to the car with hilarious speed. “An excellent plan. Of course, it’s not just the murderer we’re concerned about.”
She paused in opening her door.
“There’s someone who’ll be arriving in Pann shortly—two someones, in fact.” Elleul glowered at her over the roof. “It’s very important these two people don’t leave Pann.”
More enemies of the government, perhaps, like the ones surrounding them. These two would be special if this Parliamentary member was here to confront them. Related to those classified reasons? She nodded. “I’m sure that can be arranged, monsieur.”
He smiled at her for the first time. “If it can, you can count on a promotion.”
As though Renée could be swayed by something so tawdry. Well, she could, but that depended on the nature of the promotion. After all, the last time she’d been “promoted,” she’d ended up out here. The location left something to be desired, but she was literally prefect of the Pann police force.
“A promotion? Here?” she said casually. “How incentivising.” The next person up the chain was the mayor, and Renée was very happy to avoid that kind of promotion. Responsibility like that aged people terribly.
He made a gruff, unimpressed noise. “I think we can find you something more appropriate back home.”
Home. Well, thank goodness. Not that she was eligible for mayor in the first place, as she didn’t fulfil the fundamental requirement of being Fides-born, but apparently Elleul thought Janus would welcome her back.
Returning to the core: quite the prospect.
Bah, merde. He was a politician. He could mean running the local police office in one of the desert research stations, typical population of several dozen. He could mean nothing at all. She had to focus.
As she took the seat next to him, Renée considered the rest of the day. Lunch, details of these mysterious visitors and whatever diplomatic missive was so important it required the presence of Elleul, perhaps une petite sieste to recover from all this activity while Elleul checked into his hotel, organising her people to scoop up Fentiman at Lane’s Salon, then executing said scooping.
How unusually busy for her.
Maybe she should message Lane and give her a small warning beforehand. It would only be polite. But it was always so much nicer delivering the message in person.
Elleul was staring at his tablet. “Lane’s Salon. Are you totally certain the murderer will be there tonight?”
“Who is Lane?”
“Lane Kovacs. She runs the salon.”
Oh, Lane. How could Renée begin to describe her? Lane was like every other refugee who’d fled to Salus and never quite managed to leave, yet to consider Lane as similar to anyone else in the universe would be insulting. She was incomparable. Intelligent, fierce, sarcastic. She was a demon straight out of Renée’s dreams. She was—
“Ah, I see,” Elleul said. “I look forward to speaking with her.” His gaze was fixed on his tablet, and Renée angled a glance at the screen. The Intelligence file on Lane Kovacs shone back in the familiar wide font.
Renée realised she was holding her breath and let it go. Then she dragged in another before turning to look out the window. The people-choked streets around the terminal rolled by, gradually giving way to clearer roads and fewer shops. Soon the government buildings would appear.
Most of the city’s population had to be in the Intelligence database, Renée included. Of course Lane had a file. Renée hadn’t read it; she rarely read anyone’s Intelligence files. What was the point? They were all the same. Enhanced or suspected of colluding with the enhanced resistance. Family left behind. Fides ticket request submitted. Payment forthcoming. There was only so much boredom Renée could take.
Now it seemed she’d have to read Lane’s file. Elleul had. Perhaps Renée shouldn’t have flagged the salon to him and thus brought her to his attention, but it was too late now. Something about this wasn’t, as the expression went, sitting well. Something about Elleul, supposedly a high-level pencil-pusher, having such easy access to the Intelligence files very much didn’t sit well with her.
Lunch might help things sit better.
She’d decided: it would be much more pleasant to speak with Lane in person this evening.
Lane wasn’t sure whether it was the air in Pann turning smoky and gasoline-raw in the evenings, or if she was so used to having two fingers of whisky on hand that it had imprinted on her sinuses, but evenings lately tasted like the stuff. It wasn’t a bad thing. Not necessarily. Even if one of her bartenders had muttered something about placing a new order already while opening a fresh bottle for her.
Psh. Like it mattered.
She sipped her drink as she scanned the bar area. The low lights were on, making the place inviting and homey. It was early; just those who wanted to drink or trade in peace were there so far. Most people walking through the door headed straight for the games area through the door in the far wall. She could take in everyone with one sweep.
Several cyborgs entered, followed by a group of humans noticeably lacking tech, enough to mark them as neoluds. They made faces when they saw the cyborgs, but no one said anything. Good. The door policy was clear: people were here to play, sell, buy, or drink. No fighting.
Helen stopped in front of her table, and Lane looked up. Helen raised an eyebrow. Dramatic, but well-executed. “Serge just told me that’s the third bottle of Event Horizon we’ve gone through this week.”
Lane wrapped her hand around the base of the bottle. “Serge has a big mouth.”
“At least his isn’t bottomless.” Helen picked up the bottle, easily pulling it from her. “Keep your lips off the top shelf.”
Lane narrowed her eyes. “Who owns this place again?”
“You, and I want to keep it that way.” Helen’s face was smooth, her voice low and even, but Lane could imagine her original sincerity very easily. “You can’t run it from the grave, Lane.”
“Not with that attitude.”
Helen flicked Lane’s forehead, which stung.
Lane grunted. “Rein it in.”
Helen sniffed. “You’re welcome for the concern, darling sister of mine.” She walked off, taking the bottle with her. Lane watched it go with a sinking feeling, then checked her glass. Oh good, she’d topped it off in time.
It was a slow evening. One of the games glitched, requiring a manual reboot, and Rakesh needed help kicking out a recalcitrant human who’d overstayed her welcome in one of the VR decks, but otherwise Lane was left in peace.
Then Fentiman came through the door. Lane was scanning through the latest news from the core on internal view, her glass down to its dregs, when he sat opposite her. Like every time she saw him, he was dressed to the nines—brushed suit, slicked-back hair, latest in fashionable kicks. Well, latest in what counted for fashion in Pann.
He flashed his greasy salesman grin at her. “Bon soir, Lane.”
“Fentiman.” He couldn’t see the lights flashing on her tech as she read? Wow, people forgot the basics quick out here.
“You know, Lane, there’s something I’ve always liked about you. You’re so direct.”
“Pity I can’t say the same about you.”
“That I’m direct or that you like me?”
She was trying to read. “Either.”
He chuckled self-consciously. “How silly of me to say anything at all. What’s the latest from the core?”
She switched off the headlines and closed internal view to study him more closely. Fentiman’s rat-like face shone and he wore a new shirt; someone was in a good mood tonight. “Since when do you care about the core?”
“Did I say I cared?” He gestured at one of the servers, who came over and took his order of a glass of champagne. When he gestured at her glass, she nodded. The server left.
“What’s the celebration?” she asked.
Fentiman grinned. “It’s a little preemptive. You see, I’m finally leaving Pann. I’m leaving Salus entirely.”
Oh. There had to be a story behind that, but looking at his delighted features and relaxed posture, Lane could guess. “Congratulations.”
“We’ve had a great relationship, Lane.”
The server set down the champagne for him and another whisky for her—and really, it wouldn’t kill her to listen to his rambling for once.
“You’ve never kicked me out of here,” he elaborated. “I’m so grateful. I thought you should know I’m doing one last sale, then it’s au revoir, Pann; au revoir, Salus; au revoir, Janus; bonjour, Caeliton; bonjour, Fides; bonjour, freedom.” He raised his glass to her, then drank.
One last sale. Right.
“I take it you’re doing well out of this final leeching of yours.”
He made a shocked face and pressed one hand to his chest. “Lane. I’m hurt. You know my business. I give these poor people”—he indicated the people in the bar with a lazy wave—“a way off this forsaken rock. A chance at a better life. And for considerably less money than some of the other brokers out there.”
“Uh-huh.” He was definitely doing well out of whatever deal had dropped his way.
He smiled at her. “I know you disapprove of what I do.”
She shrugged. “I run my business, and you run yours.”
“Rightly so. The thing is, I’ve finally reached the payoff. I’ve got my hands on something that no one, including you, Lane, could obtain, not from any contacts or from your Prefect Bellevue.”
That grated a little. Renée wasn’t her anything.
Fentiman pulled out a ticket. At first glance it looked like any other portal ticket, but then he pointed out the holograms and invited her to scan them. “Offline,” he added. Like Lane ever had her tech connected to the main net these days. She kept her gaze still to scan it, and when the ticket information and authorisation played out across the internal view on her optical nerve, she sucked in a breath.
This ticket had been generated by Parliament and granted the holder immediate transport to the Fides system. No expiry date. Couldn’t be rescinded or overruled or faked. A person with this ticket could walk up to the portal, demand it be opened and charged for them, and step through. Easy as that. Not even Renée would be able to stop them. In fact, Renée would be obliged to help them if requested.
“You see, Lane”—Fentiman covered the ticket with his palm—“I’ll be selling this for a very good price to some lucky people tonight, and with the proceeds, I’ll buy my own way out. That’s my last sale. Go on, you can tell me how impressed you are by me now.”
Gobsmacked was more like it. “I’m impressed you’re selling it.”
He shifted weight in his chair. “I would prefer a more, ah, obscure departure for myself.”
One of the headlines had read Diplomat killed on Salus.
She deleted the scan from her archive and cache.
Something about her expression made him shift a little in his chair. He cleared his throat. “The thing is, I have to wait for my clients to arrive, and your games have always been so useful as a distraction. Could I leave this with you while I play? To keep it secure?”
He wanted to hide in one of the games until his customers arrived, and he didn’t want the ticket on him until he made the sale. Given the police’s motivation at following up black market sales could be described as whimsical, at best, this level of caution made her nervous. Lane frowned. “Why me?”
Fentiman finished his glass. “You hate me. It makes me trust you implicitly.”
“You don’t want to keep it on you?”
“No, not when I’ll be deep online. Besides, what if the games somehow scanned it? Far better you hold onto it for me.”
She couldn’t begrudge him that. Her firewalls weren’t good—on purpose; no one expected a salon game to have iron-clad security—so it was a given that there was a hacker or three monitoring game inputs at any moment. And if it helped him leave permanently . . . “I don’t want it here overnight.”
He shook his head. “No, no, of course not. An hour or two at most, I swear.” He slid it across the table to her with one hand as he used the other to wave exuberantly for another drink.
She picked it up and palmed it into her shirt’s inner pocket.
“Thank you.” He finished his glass. “I greatly appreciate it.”
“Don’t mention it. Really, don’t. You know I don’t do favours.”
He tilted his head to the side. “You always say that, Lane, but I’m not so sure.”
Lane crossed her arms and sat back in her chair, glaring at him. Fentiman stood quickly. “Then again,” he said with an obsequious bow, “who can be sure about anything these days?”
The server brought over his glass. Fentiman took it, raised it to Lane, then went to the games room.
That games room. Lane hadn’t realised, back when she talked herself into including it, quite how much work it would entail. The original plan had been a bar, a pleasant place where people could escape their problems one drink at a time without being disturbed. The games had been a fun afterthought, a good way to generate money because everyone loved virtual reality and the chance of winning money from games.
The joke was on her: both the bar and games room became spaces for leeches and traders to do business. The games room let people hide for a few hours if they needed to, trade or gamble under dim lighting, or simply let loose—but mostly people spilled food and drink. Sometimes the machines broke down. The maintenance was momentous.
Not that it wasn’t nice putting things together again. Fixing problems. Using her hands.
She picked up her whisky and took a large sip.
At the bar, one of the neoluds sat next to one of the cyborgs and was showing him a magic trick with a coin. Cyborg was a bit excessive for him—only one arm and one leg as tech—but it was a term Lane found difficult to drop. Modified seemed too clinical, and it wasn’t enough to describe the people who had only a few organs’ worth of organic human left. Mod was a bit better, but still sounded weird to her when describing a person, and besides, its meaning had changed with the rise of the resistance.
Mod was still way ahead of enhanced being. Awful.
Despite their differences, the neolud and cyborg seemed to be getting along. Lane stood with her glass, intending to sequester herself in her office before anyone else asked her for a dubious favour.
A body flew in front of her and landed hard on the floor, sliding until he met the stools at the bar. He swore a blue streak and rolled onto his knees. The place went silent, and Lane spun around. One of the cyborgs—the label was more appropriate for this one; she was so kitted out the only organic parts Lane could identify were her head and one shoulder—strode after him, fury on her face.
Lane whipped out her electric wand and pointed it at the cyborg. “Oi.” Held down a button and the wand lit up. Electricity crackled, and a minor magnetic field generated, sending strange pulses along her arm.
The cyborg kept going.
Lane swung the wand into the cyborg’s knees. She went down hard, legs going dead as the electricity and field fucked with the circuitry. On the floor, twitching, she swore as much as the guy she’d thrown. Lane eyed her warily, but she stayed down.
Lane gestured at her bouncers, then at the cyborg and the guy she’d hurled across the room. “These two, out. Add them to the blacklist.” She took in the other people in their groups, who’d frozen. The neolud girl and cyborg guy at the bar looked deeply uncomfortable. “You lot are free to keep drinking, but any more shenanigans and you’re out like these two.” She circled in one place and raised her voice to address the rest of the bar. “I’m sorry for the disturbance, everyone. Everything’s okay. Please keep having a good time.”
First thing: rescue her drink. Second thing: help the bouncers escort the troublemakers out. Both of them tried to make excuses at the door, but Lane didn’t care enough to hear them. She watched them limp away from the salon—the cyborg arm-crawling to a nearby alley to wait out her reboot—and turned off the wand. Her glass still had a few drops in it. Lucky. She drained it, taking in the view from the façade of her place.
The salon was on a hill, looking out over the rooftops towards the centre of Pann and to the terminal on the outskirts. A river snaked throughout the city, disappearing for a short stretch in the splash of red where the park was. Pann wasn’t a large city, but a dense one. High-rise construction sites lined the edge of the original town, but supply didn’t keep up with demand. People crammed in wherever they could fit. No one had built over her small view yet, but it was a matter of time.
Beyond the city limits was rocky terrain that melted into the darkness of the encroaching night. Behind her, a brilliant flare of orange marked the sunset. A streak of violet erupted from the terminal in a straight line, shooting deep into the twilight above, past Salus’s ring, towards the blocky star that marked the Fides system. Several long seconds later, it disappeared. Another lucky escapee.
It hadn’t been easy getting here, but life had fallen into a manageable pattern. People ebbed and flowed through her business. Fights were minimal. So far, she hadn’t been approached or recognised by anyone from the time before her flight. The neutrality of Salus and the resultant dog-eat-dog atmosphere of its cities was a balm compared to the tense pressure in the core planets.
The Neutral Zone Committee liked to wax lyrical about its mix of representatives—namely that they were all either Janus- or Fides-born—to the point it was obnoxious, but the policy worked at keeping Janus’s and Fides’s interests more or less balanced. Mostly. Maybe she’d finally descended into full-on pessimism, but that neutrality seemed to be disappearing in places, the politics from the core bleeding into life here.
The headline about the diplomat bugged her. People died in Pann all the time, but usually a diplomat came with some protection and fanfare. A secret diplomat made zero sense. Killing one made less than zero sense. Parliament always took an opportunity to promote themselves as open, benevolent, communicative, and would investigate such a high-level incident. Whatever was happening there, it felt like the end of neutrality and the beginning of something else.
Of course, plenty kept saying the resistance would take back the core planets and return things to a semblance of sanity, of—ironically enough—humanity. Lane didn’t know about that, or care.
She needed more whisky. She sighed and tried to relax into the moment. This was a nice evening, as far as evenings went on Salus. The sky was clear and the sunset bright. The ring circling Salus always reflected light, regardless of the planet’s tilt, but Pann was angled nicely tonight—the very outer rim of the ring caught the sun, cutting the night sky in half with a thin bright line. Lane would be able to see more stars than normal.
Despite the filth and busyness of this place, and the circumstances of coming here, she did like the play of light between the sun, the ring, Salus’s moon, and the terraformed landscape of Salus’s surface. Salus was famous for being the only habited planet in all human-populated systems with its own ring. She could seek its beauty out more. Spending all her time inside didn’t do her any favours.
“Just the woman I wanted to see!”
Lane turned. The prefect of Pann’s police force, Renée Bellevue, approached up the hill, as charming, radiant, and corrupt as a fallen angel. Her dark hair bobbed around her chin and her lean arms swung freely as she walked towards the salon. Usually she showed up in casualwear, intent on scamming as much money as possible from Lane’s virtual poker tables while flirting outrageously with Lane and her staff.
Tonight she looked calm and relaxed, but professional in her uniform. The badge on her belt stood out starkly in the play of lights. Six goons trailed her, meaning this wasn’t a social visit. Lane tightened her grip on her glass, then forced herself to relax. Business visits weren’t ever aimed at her, though she pitied whatever moron had Renée’s attention tonight.
“Good evening, Renée,” she called.
Renée came right up to her, smiling widely. “Always a pleasure, my darling Lane.”
Business visits meant less flirting than usual, not none.
“If you came for the brawl, you’re too late.”
Renée arched an eyebrow. “A brawl? What makes you think I care about a brawl?” She gestured at her goons, who went inside. Lane hoped they wouldn’t disrupt the atmosphere too much. It couldn’t be another raid; their friendship didn’t exempt Lane from the usual bribes to keep things peaceful and running, and Lane had paid.
Renée stayed with her. “Enjoying your evening?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
Renée turned to face the same direction as Lane. “Ah, it is lovely. If you ever decided to do something other than tinker with your machines one evening, we could take a stroll across the river. Or there’s a wonderful view from Parc Rouge.”
“So you keep mentioning.”
“And you keep dodging the invitation.”
Lane couldn’t help smiling. “Well, if you stopped ignoring your tab—”
Renée tutted. “Must it always come down to money? Lane, my darling, my sweet, I thought you were above that.”
“I adapt to the company around me.”
Renée pressed a hand to her chest in mock outrage. She was wearing a nicely fitted uniform shirt today. It suited her.
“Besides,” Lane pointed out, “you’re here every evening. Why would I take the night off?”
“Not every evening.” Renée gently bumped Lane’s shoulder with her own, then resumed their usual metre or so of distance. “Tonight would have been a good one to spend away from work. I’m very sorry to say that this isn’t entirely a social call. You see, we have a special visitor in Pann—Monsieur Richard Elleul, High Member of Parliament.”
Stars. That was an unexpectedly familiar name.
Renée missed nothing. “You’ve heard of him.”
“It would be hard not to; he’s the reason most of my—and your—clientele are here.”
“Mm. You heard about the diplomat, oui? The news leaked fast. He wants the murderer caught, and I know for a fact said murderer is in your salon.”
So Parliament sent him? Directly? Seemed a little weird. “Is that so?”
“Prepare yourself: it’s Fentiman. The idiot finally slipped up.”
Looked like today wasn’t such a lucky day for him—
Oh fuck. The ticket. The ticket that had to be that diplomat’s ticket. It was in Lane’s pocket.
She knew she shouldn’t have trusted the shit. This was exactly why she shouldn’t do favours. What would it take for the lesson to sink in?
Lane tried to keep her expression calm. It seemed to have worked, as Renée blithely continued. “Such a shame. I know you don’t like him, but I’ve always had a soft spot for him. Elleul will turn up in a few minutes, and once he’s settled with a drink, we’re going to make the arrest. Be a friend and don’t make a fuss when we do.”
Lane was going to need more booze for this. “Renée, when have I ever made a fuss about anyone you’ve arrested?”
“I meant don’t stop us or interfere. I know what you’re like.” Renée pointedly leaned past her. “Oh my, is that an enhanced human lying in that alley?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“It’s unusual to see one with both legs jammed like that. Remarkable.”
Lane pushed the now-collapsed stun wand deeper into her trouser pocket. “So you’re here to show off to this core prick.” She glanced down at her glass: sadly still empty. “Not my business.”
She wondered if she could alert Fentiman somehow, then decided it wouldn’t matter. There wasn’t time to get him out, and the goons were already inside; it was a lost cause.
“I know, but I wanted to give you the warning.” Renée moved a little closer to her. “I like you, Lane. I know you’ve personally never sold portal tickets or participated in the black market. It’s why your salon remains open.”
Lane shifted weight, Renée’s proximity intense in that way Lane still struggled to articulate. “Pretty sure I’m still open because I gave you the cheat codes for the virtual poker table. And I never call in your tab. Plus the bribes—”
“The thing is, Member Elleul isn’t only here to ensure this murderer pays for his crime.” Renée rested against the wall and crossed her ankles. “There are two people coming to Pann tonight, two very important people in the enhanced human movement. Like everyone else, they’ll need tickets to Fides. It’s very important they don’t receive them.”
Lane eyed her. “And this concerns my salon because . . .?”
“They’ll end up here. Everyone does at some point. I wanted you to know the situation.”
Lane shrugged. “I don’t get involved. You know that.”
Renée had a strange expression on her face. “Mm-hmm. These two people happen to be special cases. They’re quite high-profile. Tori and Ayumu Kusanagi.”
Oh. Oh. “Wow.”
Renée did a double take and reached for her pocket. “Quoi? Is that respect I see on your face? Stay still a second, I must take a picture.”
Lane batted away her tablet. “I’ve heard of them too, that’s all.”
Renée fixed her with another one of those unreadable expressions. “Oh really? That’s interesting. I wouldn’t think they were that well-known outside of resistance circles.”
Lane couldn’t tag her as she didn’t have integrated tech. “Unlock your tablet and bring up the Arden headlines.” Renée did so, and Lane pointed out one from a few days ago: KILLER KUSANAGI STILL AT LARGE.
“‘Killer’ is a little excessive.” Lane watched her put the tablet away. “All she did was block some transports and break people out of that detention camp and publish videos and protest those sterilisation laws—”
“Some of those things got people killed,” Renée pointed out.
“But not by her. She never directly killed anyone.”
“Killing indirectly is still murder.”
Why was Renée arguing this? They rarely brought up politics, and when it did come up, Renée batted it away or Lane started another topic. Well, while they were here . . . “Of course, but then responsibility falls into a grey area. Is it really her fault if destruction happened while she was freeing people who shouldn’t have been locked up in the first place?”
Renée narrowed her eyes. “Yes. She didn’t have to use explosives for that. There are other methods that don’t involve widespread damage. I do, however, see your point.” She sagged further against the wall and sighed dramatically. “My darling Lane, I’m maybe a little jealous—you know so much about this woman’s movements.”
And back on familiar footing. She had to fight the smile. “I just see the headlines like everyone else.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d actually believe that. I can’t remember the last time you looked so interested in someone.”
Lane held up her now-smudged glass for something else to focus on. “She’s practically a celebrity. Funny thing is, for a celebrity, she’s kept anonymous crazy well. No one’s come close to catching her, or taken a clear picture of her or her husband.”
“Probably glitch clothing.”
Renée sniffed. “It won’t help her here.”
“No.” Lane couldn’t stop the smile now. “Your keen eyes see past such low tricks.”
“And in sheer coincidence, our surveillance software is so old it isn’t affected.” Renée suddenly grinned. “Oh my. We will have pictures of the infamous Tori Kusanagi! Imagine what the core networks will pay for them. I can finally get a new carpet in my office.”
A car stopped in front of the salon and a tall man with the doughiness of an office worker stepped out. Renée snapped to attention and went to meet him. Clearly this was Member Richard Elleul, here to see Fentiman arrested.
Damn. Lane had to lose the ticket. If—when—Fentiman spilled his guts, she’d be in galaxies of trouble.
She went back into the salon and surveyed the place again—all quiet, no obvious tension between the neoluds and the cyborgs. Then she headed for the music centre. It was tucked behind the bar, inaccessible to patrons; a clunky piece of crap that ran hot after three hours and lost the network connection every three and a half hours, meaning someone had to restart it when songs stopped to buffer for a nonexistent data feed.
She’d loved it as soon as she’d seen it, because it had tinny retro speakers, an inability to be accessed by personal tech, and the mechanics to play older technology. Like, say, plastic discs. She crouched down in front of it and changed the song, slipping the ticket out of her pocket and sliding it into the disc drive before clicking it shut.
That done, she swiped a mid-shelf bottle of core blend and poured herself another three fingers.
Heh. Three fingers.
Stars. She was too drunk, not drunk enough, or Renée was getting to her.
Renée and Elleul stepped inside. Renée directed him to the comfiest sofa in the place while the goons positioned themselves in a way that Lane guessed was strategic. Lane rounded the bar and took a large gulp of her drink.
Helen stopped next to her, a tray of empties in her hands. “Lane, is that Richard Elleul? Parliament Member Elleul?”
“What the hell is he doing in Pann?”
Lane didn’t respond; she’d download the answer quicker.
Helen swore softly. “Seriously? A diplomat?” Her voice lowered. “I want that asshole out.”
“You know I can’t do that if he’s just sitting there.”
“You kick out people all the time. He’s in Pann now. He’s got no political sway—and we know he’s not modified. You could do it.”
“Renée wouldn’t cover for me if I did.”
“Yes, she would.”
Lane wanted to shake her. Instead, she sipped at her whisky, not missing the way Helen’s eyes darted to it. “It’s more trouble than it’s worth.”
“I owe it to myself to kick him out.”
Lane glared at her, refusing to play along. “You feel that strongly about it, do it. Then put up a sign out front telling all neoluds to stay out and enjoy your new job as a bouncer enforcing our new door policy. Oh, and hope I have the bail money for when Renée arrests you.”
Helen couldn’t cry anymore, but the glistening effect she now implemented in her eyes still did the intended job of jabbing Lane right in the guts. “You know, if my sister is still somewhere in that boozed pathetic excuse of a meatsuit, she’s welcome back anytime.”
Lane scowled, ready to tell Helen where she could shove those empties, then noticed two of Renée’s goons heading for the games room. “Get behind the bar. There’s a spill by the music centre.”
Helen scanned the room. “Renée’s arresting someone? Again? For fuck’s sake.” She moved away, muttering darkly.
Lane put her glass down on the bar counter, remembered she’d sent Helen behind it, and hastily picked the glass back up.
Over at Elleul’s table, Renée watched with a content smile as a server poured wine into two glasses. Elleul sat with crossed arms, clearly unhappy about being in a bar with mods and visible cyborgs. A few of the patrons, mod and neolud alike, had spotted him and were looking a little twitchy.
Fentiman strolled out of the games room, hands in his pockets and a rictus grin on his face. He made for the front door, only to have two goons block it. He instantly turned around and headed towards the back exit, the one hidden by the toilets. Halfway across the bar, two others stepped in his way. Lane watched him pause, grin still in place, before streaking past them. They gave chase.
She frowned and looked back at the front door, which was still guarded by two officers. There was a shimmer in the air before them.
It seemed that Fentiman could do things that impressed her.
The goons in the game room burst out. One of them pointed at the front door. “He’s there!”
The guards pulled out their electric batons and swept the immediate area. Fentiman blinked into life and the projection—which had drawn most of the attention to one side of the room—disappeared.
Fentiman pulled out a gun—an honest-to-goodness firearm—and shot one goon point-blank, sending her down. Screams and shouts erupted as people dove under tables. The other officer lunged at him, and he sprang back to avoid him, then aimed for the bar. He hopped onto the counter and ran along it towards the toilets, avoiding the trajectories of the other officers. Lane took a step back and sipped her drink.
He reached the end of the bar counter and jumped off, stumbling into a headlong rush for the back exit. One goon threw something that hit his shoulder, sending him shuddering and jerking to the floor. Neurastim weapons. Nonlethal but effective, and typical of Renée. The chase was over. Two others went to collect him.
Fentiman’s leeching days were done.
As the goons dragged him past Lane, he lunged for her. The neural scattering still fucked his system; his hands shook violently as they grabbed her ankles, his grip slimy and weak.
“Lane!” Big eyes pleaded desperately up at her. “Help me! Please, Lane!”
What did he expect her to do? “Don’t be an idiot, Fentiman.” It was tough to resist reaching down for him. “Spin things, you know you can—”
The officers yanked him off her, his hands and legs shaking too much for him to coordinate his strength. They continued dragging him, his anguished cries of “Lane! Lane!” following him like so much waste smoke until he was out the door.
She glanced over at Renée and Elleul. Both looked pleased with themselves, though as Lane watched, Renée tapped her chin thoughtfully with one hand, something like concern or pity crossing her face.
Then Lane looked to Serge and Helen. Serge was wide-eyed and wiping an already dry glass. Helen leaned in the shadow of a pillar, separating the whiskies from the rums, face calm and considering.
Serge narrowed his eyes at Lane. “If they ever decide to arrest me for something, I hope you’ll be more helpful.”
Lane scowled. “What am I, your mother?”
Most of the patrons were still crouched under tables and beside chairs, eyes wide and faces ashen. Lane waved for attention. “Sorry for the disturbance. Again. Please, stay and have another drink on me, folks.” There. See if Serge wanted to make another crack about being helpful.
Word Count: 73,000
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 05/02/2022
Release Date: 05/02/2022