‘You’re a virgin?’ Bait wriggled all four spare arms in surprise as he towed the stack of crates to the door of the Garvey’s hold. ‘A Paradise Alley virgin? You taken a vow of religious abstention or something?’
Fry did that biped scrunching thing with his face. ‘Last couple of times I came through Alpha were crashstops so we never got shoreside. And before that I was working the dock in Andromeda Sector so the quarantine was a a dek in or out.’
‘Well, that’s something we gotta rectify. Hey, guys,’ Bait called to Boiler and the others as they came tramping back, ‘you up for opening this freshcut’s eyes to the pleasures of the Alley?’
‘Never been?’ Vasquez showed all her teeth. ‘I’d say it’s a mission.’ She picked up two crates at once, back muscles flexing; Vasquez is small for a human, but she likes to show off her strength.
Fry rolled his eyes as Bait passed him the next crate. ‘Is it really that big a deal?’
‘Paradise Alley? There’s nowhere comes close, any real spacer knows that.’ Boiler shoved past him to scoop up another double load: he never lets Fry forget he’s the newbie on the crew. ‘Hitting the Alley for the first time isn’t something you forget.’
Fry snorted. ‘I’ve heard it all - you wake up next shift with a holo-tattoo you don’t remember getting and an infestation of Iskalonian barnacle-mites.’
‘Guy I knew’ – Vasquez always knows a guy, way she tells it – ‘he came round the morning after and found his sex vid with a pair of Kaminoans had been relayed across the whole nine systems.
‘Think that’s bad?’ Bishop had come back down from the nav deck and was leaning on the gantry. ‘Spacer I once crewed with went for a night out on the Alley: she woke up in the storage locker of an atmospheric dredger bound for the Kalimdor Cluster, with a ring of Prador second-children looking down at her.’
‘For real?’ Fry had gone pale: two-stepper colour change is subtle, but I’ve learned to read it.
Bait giggled blue at the edges. ‘Don’t tell him the one where you’re found unconscious in a backroom medsuite slave-linked to an ice-planet core-mining droid.’
‘Come on,’ I told them all, ‘less gabbing, more grabbing. We’ve another three stacks to move and the hold to decontaminate, and unless we get it done in twenty splits none of us will be seeing so much as a Brakomi’s ankle frill.’
‘You’re a slavedriver, Sheerluck,’ said Vasquez sweetly.
Boiler scowled up at Bishop. ‘All hands?’ Bishop came down the stairway and took a crate; we all knew he could have rigidified his muscles and carried five as easily as Bait or me, but his programming is advanced enough to make him want to blend in. I picked up the last three off the stack and shooed my crew out in front of me.
In the up-and-out you need a name that’s short and sweet, and seeing as most of the companies that pay our creds are human-standard, us sushi have to be adaptable. I started out as Sherlock, but zero-g maintenance is a dangerous business and if the universe is willing to do you the odd favour, an extra breath or two of ox at the bottom of the tank or a helpful fluctuation in the gravity matrix, well, deephaulers get to notice and the nickname’s come to stick. Why me? I’ve often wondered, but you know – any spacer will tell you that the Grand Architect of the Universe made all lifeforms and she loves them all equally; but when you see all those galaxies up there, glowing arms spiralling outwards, well, I always think that she must have made them in her own image, so maybe she loves us octos just a little bit more.
Octo/human split crews aren’t so common, and octo/human/synth crews even less, but this one worked for us; we were all of us misfits in some way, come the long way round to where we were, and I guess that was why we clicked. Bait and I first crossed paths way back when we were freshcuts ourselves, working for JovOps in the early days, and after that team disbanded we headed out-system together – octos are always in demand for vacuum work. Vasquez is ex-mil, saw more than she wanted to from the little she’s willing to say, and Boiler’s been tramping out here for the best part of forever on the kind of jobs you earn danger creds for; Bishop’s never said where he started out, but most synths have to pay their dues doing the dirty work for some conglomerate or other before they get to be free agents. So we all had our baggage but we made it work, and though Fry was still tenderised he had the makings of a good spacer too, with a smoother touch than any of us for the Garvey’s cranky old drive.
I mulled over Bait’s idea while we hauled crates and scrubbed the hold and bickered: sushi and humans might work well together vacuumside or planetside, but when it comes to downtime, well, octos don’t get much of a kick out of biped intoxicants or holostims and vice versa, and far as I understand it what synths really enjoy is interfacing with the AI gestalt to contemplate a geometric pavane or some such. But Paradise Alley – well, that’s a whole different proposition. Something there for everyone and I mean everyone. My first time on Alpha I came stationside with an all-sushi crew, puffers and octos and our boss Glynis the crab; she took us to a club that was all one immersive bubbletank, and the show they put on was enough to pucker my suckers – a Sorki shimmerdancer, a troupe of poulong and a trio of the wormiest chambered nautiloids you ever saw...
So let’s just say that Boiler was right, no spacer ought to pass up an opportunity for entertainment on Alpha Station’s finest, and bonding’s important for a crew like ours. I shimmered at Fry as I followed him back along the gantry, winding my tentacles tight. ‘I guess if you really are a Paradise Alley virgin, best we all tag along to look after you.’
The lights above the port were dimming down to nightcycle when I headed out to the loading dock, but the port was still buzzing with activity, supply drones and maintenance crews zipping back and forth along the radials and cargo platforms rolling past with powerloaders stomping in their wake, all trailed by the usual complement of junkrats, gawkers and beggars. I checked my belt while I waited – it’s a known fact that credchips have an alarming tendency to evaporate stationside, but no point making it quicker than it has to be.
Fry and Bait were first off the ship to join me, Fry in a patterned shirt so garish that it read to me as a cross between alarm and euphoria. That was no surprise, no one ever looked to bipeds for subtlety, but when I registered what Bait was wearing I let reproach flood across my skin.
‘It’s a Dweller hub shawl,’ he declared defensively, repositioning one of the sparkly ends around his dome. ‘Just trying to join in the spirit of things.’
‘You look starclass.’ Vasquez, head freshly shaved above a close-fitting vest that showed off the blue-black spacer idents tattooed across her back and arms, slapped a hand to his mantle. ‘Can’t say the same for you,’ she added to Fry. ‘Only creature you’ll attract wearing that is a visually-impaired Azin-Mö.’
Fry gave her a withering glare. ‘All I’m looking for is some drinks and a show.’
Vasquez grinned. ‘Where’s your sense of adventure? This is Alpha, baby, and I’m on the market for some hot company. Here.’ She collared Fry and whipped out a vibro-knife. ‘Keep still,’ she warned, slicing his sleeves neatly off as he yelped in protest. ‘Gotta show off the goods a bit.’
‘Does Fry have any goods to show off?’ asked Bait curiously.
‘Course he does.’ Vasquez threw an arm round Fry’s newly-revealed shoulders as he squirmed. ‘He’s got this whole pale soft vulnerable thing going on.’
‘Like fish belly,’ approved Bait.
‘We could trade him to a Skandar slaver gang for a new compressor coil.’ Bishop rarely cracks a smile, though Boiler snorted in amusement behind him; Bait’s sartorial verve seemed to be lost on them, both still in their standard-issue blue coveralls with Marcus Garvey stencilled on the back.
Vasquez left off hassling Fry to hip-check Boiler. ‘What’s your problem? You expect this one to go round looking like a hoon at its mother’s funeral, but you’re not even trying.’ She tugged at his beard. ‘You’d give a Gigoran a run for its creds.’
Boiler shrugged her off with a scowl. ‘Don’t all have to dress up like Vandeeni dream-princesses.’
I flashed an I-told-you-so at Bait, but Vasquez shook her head. ‘Fancy traumparlour wouldn’t let you through the door.’
Down on the radial a crew of raucous quehen were pouring off their tanker and past a trio of scarfsail racers posing for a flashnews bot; I waited while my crew jumped from the dock, then turned back to make sure the Garvey was buttoned up tight.
‘Traumparlour?’ Fry had perked up again. ‘Can we hit a zorb joint too?’
‘And a juicy clone show after,’ Vasquez grinned. ‘With a bubbletank, maybe?’
Bait semaphored meaningfully behind the others’ backs and I had to damp down my chromatophores. ‘Might have to reel it in a bit,’ I warned them. ‘Paradise Alley’s a lot of things, but cheap’s not one.’
‘Live a little, Sheerluck,’ Vasquez scoffed. ‘If this isn’t worth blowing our creds on, what is?’
‘You’re right,’ I told her as we joined the flow towards the droptubes. ‘But remember, we’re not paralarvae – if we let ourselves get suckered in by the first club we see we’ll be cleaned out after one half-hearted veildance and a bottle of fake trax.’
Bishop tipped the miniconsole he was holding. ‘On it, boss. Been working up an idea of places where we can all find what we’re interested in.’
‘Lead the way,’ I told him, and that mistake was on me: in hindsight Bishop being so helpful should have tripped my suspicions straight off, but like they say, you never spot the loose belay until your eight-legged ass in is freefall, do you?
It’s always a shock first time off the ship after a long tour when the only faces you’ve seen in twelve deks are the ugly mugs of your crew and the occasional passing jelly; even the smallest supply-asteroid seems hectic and overstimulating, and a station as big as Alpha leaves you as dizzy as first-time zero-g. But the best way is just to take a deep breath of pungent station air and dive right in.
We hit the downtube at the port entrance and made our way through the tellers’ precinct and then the Grand Bazaar: I’d thought that Bait and I might stand out, big sushi like us not being so common planetside, but Earth Sector’s a cosmopolitan place, even off the Alley: in just twenty paces we passed a green-blue Nikanthian hawking knockoff datacubes from a booth, a pair of Chelgrians smoking long pipes over a game board and a party of Boulan Bathor matrons twittering over a dress shop display. Bait’s questionable fashion choices notwithstanding, no one so much as blinked a visual receptor in our direction.
‘Course when we got to the gate with the big neon sign the first thing Fry did was stop dead right outside, goggling up at it like a Peladonian; we all went piling into the back of him and the g’kek wheeling along behind nearly flattened two of my tentacles. Way to make us look like total marks, credchips burning a hole in our pockets, and straight away a boxy construct made up of stacked holoscreens came caterpillaring up to us. ‘First time on the Alley?’ Its voice was a tinny rattle, eye-popping images flickering sublim-fast over its body. ‘Can get you admission to the spiciest shows and the coolest dreamjoints.’
‘Get drecked,’ Vas told it, commendably to the point, but it had already started scanning us.
‘Two octos, three baseline humans and a synthetic person,’ it burbled. Our faces and IDs appeared on it one by one as it read them off the station hub-system. ‘Compiling your tailored itinerary and speciality offering.’
‘Cut that out,’ snapped Boiler as his own face flashed up, ramming into it with his shoulder hard enough to clatter it off-balance, screens blinking.
‘Cool it,’ I told him; we didn’t need to attract the attention of the bored-looking AlphaSec patrol guard before we’d even got through the gate.
‘Allow me.’ Bishop stepped up, pinched two leads neatly out from their connectors, crossed them and replugged them: the screens fritzed for a split then snapped into reboot mode. The construct scanned round, then rippled off towards a group of Traeki.
‘Nice work,’ I told him. ‘And Fry, try not to act like you just came out the eggcase.’
Through the gate was a melée of spacers and tourists, and the touts, conartists, catboys, street preachers, traders and fortune tellers vying for their attention. Every club and zorb joint seemed to be offering a special and every doorstep barker itching to be our new friend. I let Bishop lead the way because I needed the full eight to keep the crew together and moving through the floating holos, pheromone bombs and insistent dealers and dreamgirls; I’d just saved Fry from the clutches of a Doghan Daguis triad trying to hawk their info-spiel, reeling him in by the collar with one tentacle while I whipped out another to slap away a feeler from Boiler’s pocket when Bait stopped abruptly in front of the pulsing screen of a xenophile show. ‘Hey, look, they’ve got a Pierson’s Puppeteer!’ A pair of short-sighted Foamasi went cannoning into him from behind, jolting him forward into the path of a surly Sontaran who was hefty enough to shoulder him brusquely aside; he yelped as he went down floundering, right under the feet of a towering Proximan.
‘Great Blue-Ringed Mother!’ I shouted: Proximen are heavyworlders, thick-shelled and dense-boned with two massive legs to support their whole weight – Bait’s boneless limbs would be stamped to a pulp.
The Proximan teetered, tail lashing wildly. ‘Watch thisself, quaddie!’ it snapped.
At the insult I flared out my mantle. ‘Who are you calling quaddie?’
The Proximan thrust its face down to meet mine. ‘Four legs, more, is making no difference. Softshells will be keeping out of thisself’s way.’ Well, that shrivelled my suckers: like I said, in the up-and-out everyone on a crew is equal, and if there’s any trouble from freshcut two-steppers you can end it pretty quick if you pick them up by the ankle and dangle them over the edge of the orbital platform. But stationside is different: wasn’t the first time I’d heard that kind of dreck but it didn’t mean I had to like it.
I flexed my syphon, feeling myself go spotty with rage. ‘Pull your neck in, gravcrawler – this isn’t your Sector or your station.’
‘Softshells must not be so speaking to me,’ it insisted, ‘should be making way.’ We were drawing a crowd, the quarrel free entertainment.
‘Who are you?’ Bait asked from where he lay sprawled on the ground, ‘Prince of the Rim Imperium?’
It brought a ripple of amusement from the audience and the Proximan drew itself up to its full height, head and neck swaying above its shell. ‘Manylegs are being offworlders, of little knowing. Thisself has honour of being Snivelling Earthquakes Radically.’ It paused, plainly expecting a reaction.
‘Radically what?’ asked Bishop with what seemed genuine curiosity.
The Proximan hissed in anger, tail whipping dangerously. ‘Softshells are wishing to provoke thisself.’
‘Problem, spacers?’ The crowd was dense around us but the human who spoke, all in black with shiny metal pins in his hair, cut through it like a manta through a flock of scorn to stand between us and Snivelling Earthquakes Radically. He leaned close, somehow conspiratorial. ‘I’m sure beings of your standing wouldn’t intend to make yourselves into a sideshow.’
I realised how puffed up and mottled I was, and let myself down a little, glaring at Snivelling Earthquakes; it swung its head back and forth, undecided. ‘Softshells are tripping me, insulting me,’ it protested.
The human shook his head. ‘A misunderstanding, I’m sure.’ He swung his attention back to us. ‘Shame to spoil a night out over a trivial accident.’
‘I’m not hurt,’ Bait admitted.
The Proximan folded in on itself grudgingly. ‘Thisself will do manylegs the favour of overlooking,’ it announced, and stumped away into the crush.
I extended a tentacle to pull Bait upright. ‘What was its problem?’ he asked, dusting himself down.
The human laughed. ‘It’s a cultural thing – Proximen have to buy each of their names. You were making him feel inadequate.’ He bent down to pick up Bait’s hideous hub shawl and returned it to him gravely. ‘No harm done?’
Now to my mind one biped looks much the same as another, all of them stiff and bony with more or less hair on top and generally the same colour all over, but when I looked round I realised that the human half of our crew was staring at him with their jaws on the floor like they’d just glimpsed the heart of the Veil Nebula or a whole roasted Hrangan grasspig. He wasn’t fazed by it, just winked, said, ‘See you at the show, spacers,’ and walked away.
If there’s one certain thing on Paradise Alley it’s that as soon as you stand still someone will start trying to separate you from your creds, and sure enough a short grey-furred creature with four spindly arms and a flopping crest had materialised beside us, parked the portable stove it was trundling and lifted the lid. ‘Entities will be ingesting spiners, finest fresh-griddled, yes?’ it piped optimistically.
‘Spiners!’ Boiler and Fry immediately grabbed a pouch each from its outstretched arms and started shovelling them down, though Vasquez was still staring wistfully after the dark human’s disappearing back. I reluctantly fished out a half-cred.
‘You are coming for night of amusing, yes?’ the creature asked, pocketing the cred smoothly.
‘Seen where I’d like to start,’ Vasquez snapped back to attention and snagged a pouch for herself with a grin.
‘You are wishing?’ The creature rattled more spiners onto the griddle and waved an arm at me for another half-cred. ‘Entities are paying oh-so-much to be watching that one dance.’
‘Bet he goes all the way,’ grinned Vas, and Bait took advantage of her distraction to dip a tentacle end into her spiners. ‘Where do we go to see him?’
The creature raked its wares hissing and wriggling over the flames. ‘Is to be finding at Glam Club. Best show on station is what all are telling, they are having a sixclone, very flexible and entertaining.’ It poked Fry with its spatula. ‘Most excellent squirting sensations are promising.’
Fry’s colour change would have done credit to a pregnant bromosaur and Boiler guffawed in a spray of shell fragments. The creature turned to me, bushy eyebrows wiggling. ‘For many-limbs they are having top-class bubbletank I am hearing too.’ Bait gurgled enthusiastically, still reaching surreptitiously for Vasquez’ spiners.
‘What d’you say?’ Fry looked round expectantly.
‘Best show on the station’s gotta be good,’ Boiler agreed; the creature picked up the handles of its stove again and vanished into the crowd with the air of a job well done.
I sighed. ‘We’re working vacuum grunts, not starline galactic tourists. I doubt we’ve got enough creds together to get us through the door of this Glam Club, let alone see the show.’
Vasquez grimaced. ‘Tell it like it is, boss. Still’ – she looked down at the empty pouch in her hand, frowned, then twitched the remainder of Fry’s from his grasp. ‘We’ll make this a night to remember one way or another.’
We set off again through the crowd, and this time I was so busy watching our step that it was only when Bishop halted us outside a bar and announced, ‘This is the place,’ that I noticed we’d lost Vasquez along the way. I wasn’t entirely surprised: Vas never waits for anyone’s permission to have what she decides is a good time.
‘Shouldn’t someone go back and look out for her?’ asked Bishop.
I let my colour fade briefly to white, the octo equivalent of a two-stepper shrug. ‘She’s fully-moulted. Doesn’t need nursemaiding.’
‘What if she’s been drugged, though? Or pulled into a scam.’ It wasn’t like Bait to fret: I gave him the hard eye, but he flushed an earnest mauve. ‘You told us we had to be on our guard.’
‘Fine.’ I let resignation flicker across my pores for his benefit as I checked the sign above the door: Collapsar. ‘Just stay here. And you get to buy the first brews.’
It took me a while to backtrack through the crowd, peering into zorb joints and traumparlours and scanning for Vas’ shaved head. I was sure I was wasting my time: biped sexuality isn’t something I’ve ever understood – there’s just no finesse to it, no courtship or changing colour or dancing – but humans aren’t exactly known for their pickiness and as Aunt Chovie always used to say, it’s not for us to judge. But annoyingly Bait turned out to be right; I finally found her at the centre of a quarrel between a blue-skinned Britarro who was trying to usher her into a neon-lit simstim palace and an underdressed Calurnian tugging her just as determinedly towards the holostim cabaret next door.
Ambushing customers to reel them in is always a bad sign and normally Vas would have been equal to both of them and more, but she’d taken a blast of simstim full in the face that had left her as high as a seedsail spore; she’d attached herself to a janthar dreamgirl with orange and black striped fur who was flexing her claws at the Calurnian to defend her prize. ‘Hey, boss.’ Vasquez giggled at me. ‘Come to put those eight arms to good use?’
‘Spare me,’ I begged her as I wound a tentacle round her arm. I needed all my charm to finesse the situation and get her unglued from her new friend, but eventually I persuaded her to wave a dreamy goodbye and let me tow her complaining away through the crowd.
Back in the Collapsar the rest of the crew were nowhere to be seen: the place was giving a good impression of being packed out, music blasting and veildancers working the tables, but most of them and some of the patrons turned out to be holograms which flickered as we passed through them. Eventually I spotted Fry and Boiler nursing bulbs of gassy Alphabrew; Boiler seemed wound unusually tight, not even protesting when Vasquez slumped on him, one arm round his neck, and rubbed her cheek against his beard murmuring, ‘Fuzzy.’
‘Where’re Bait and Bishop?’ I asked, and Fry shifted uneasily, not meeting my eye. ‘Back though there.’
Out of the background noise the rattle of counters came into sudden focus and a bubble of suspicion began to rise in my gut. ‘Sabacc?’ You can find most games on Paradise Alley, but whichever way you slice it, they’re just a quick method of parting spacers from their hard-earned credits. Bait I could see being just dumb enough to try, but Bishop?
Fry darted a gaze around us, then lowered his voice conspiratorially. ‘Bait said they can turn our three hundred creds into three thousand. Then we can hit the Glam Club no problem and eat needle-whale steaks Goara-style.’
‘You gave them your…Great Universal Cephalopod!’ I groaned. Smacking him was so tempting: instead I wrung my arms white in frustration and turned to Boiler, still hunched over his brewbulb. ‘You let them do this?’
Boiler returned my scowl. ‘Bishop’s a synth,’ he muttered. ‘They’ve got a plan.’
Dreck. Dreck. Dreck. I followed the clatter of counters to the back room but at the door a whule stepped in front of me threateningly, or as threateningly as a whule can. ‘Players only.’ I held up two tentacles and stopped where I was: I could see all that I needed. It wasn’t a big game, just an ill-assorted bunch of players sitting round a table with light-studded gameboards in front of them – a scruffy human with rimrunner written all over him, a severe androgyne Nebari with a Kowakian squatting at their feet, twin oval-eyed halandana, their claws spread on the table, and, rippling puce with naïve excitement, Bait. Bishop was standing behind him, his face blank and stiff; it was obvious what they were trying to do, playing the hapless octo mark and his synth servant.
The whule tapped me on the mantle. ‘Feeling lucky like your friend?’ It frickled its spines encouragingly. ‘Fifty creds upfront buys you in.’ Fifty creds? Bait’s arms flailed as he took a drink, tapped the flickering gameboard in front of him and tossed a scatter of crystal plaques into the well at the table’s centre, and the misdirection was good: you’d have had to look hard to see the delicate suckered end of his tentacle disappearing under the cuff of Bishop’s coverall where his interface is. Too late for me to intervene: they’d obviously had the whole thing figured out before we left the Garvey. I just had to hope their plan was sound.
Forty splits later we spilled out onto the Alley again and stood straightening ourselves out, trying to make it look like we hadn’t just got the bum’s rush. Bait was flashing alternately the pale green of embarrassment and the brown of anger. ‘It should have worked. We had a system – it should have worked.’
‘I should eviscerate you both,’ snarled Vasquez; the simstim crash wasn’t helping her temper.
‘It was – an error of analysis.’ Normally I’d have got some entertainment from seeing Bishop expressing contrition, but three hundred creds gone to straight to resyk was a disaster.
‘I know you did it for me,’ began Fry earnestly, but Vasquez shoved him. ‘Stop being such a drecking bottom-feeder.’
‘What now?’ asked Boiler sourly. ‘Buy this one a slap-on tattoo and trail back to the Garvey like a bunch of semisentient slugs?’
‘Vas and I still have our creds,’ I pointed out.
‘Think I’m spending any of mine on you tubeworms, think again,’ snapped Vas.
They all stood glaring at each other as I dredged hard for my sense of responsibility: a boss supports his crew even when they are tubeworms. ‘What I’ve got will just about stretch. We’ll have to forget the holo-tatts and window-shop for the show, but at least we can eat something that hasn’t been replicated out of algae protein.’
‘I wanted a Draconi ice-steak,’ mourned Fry unhelpfully.
‘Krill cutlet is what you’re going to get, but look on the bright side.’ I patted his head. ‘Maybe someone at the next table will order a needle-whale fillet Goara-style and you can breathe deep as they carry it past.’
We had to head off the main drag to find a joint we could afford, but along the side-alleys there was no shortage of tiny chop-shacks; we found one with a roof made out of polyplas and a grouchy Skandar behind its counter, two of its arms dicing a heap of gespar and sinner’s root while the others tossed the pans and stirred. The other customers were as various as we were: a pair of Centaurans giggling together in high-pitched tones, a troop of twitchy Areeni firstcousins obviously coming down from a high and a burly human spacer squeezed in side-by-side with an oulomin, fingers and tendrils entwined in a cloud of golden pollen. Like I said, biped sexuality, you just can’t go there. Another dark-skinned human in a long coat was leaning at the end of the counter talking to the elderly wait-droid; we crowded round a table in the middle and the droid came wheezing over to take our order. ‘Ameglian Major ribs?’ it offered. ‘Blisterfin steak?’ Bleached tubefarm meat and vatgrown catfish, more likely, but the smiling face on the screen in its midriff didn’t blink when I asked for krill ramen and Alphabrew for six.
It took until the brewbulbs arrived for our spirits to revive, but a night out’s a night out and soon Bait and Vasquez were back to ragging on Fry as usual. I was just starting to kick back myself when something under the table brushed my tentacles with an electric trill of communication. Bait rippled in surprise beside me and I looked down to see a tiny octo, an orange one, all alone on the grubby floor and tugging at our arms with little swells of enthusiasm. ‘Come up, small cousin,’ I invited, and lifted her onto the table, where she sat pulsing with eager rushes of colour.
‘Where’d that come from?’ asked Boiler.
‘Escaped from the pot, maybe,’ suggested Bishop dryly.
The little octo shrivelled, a bit overdramatically, but I wound a protective arm around her and touch-asked, ‘Who are you?’
‘Tyan’, she signalled, the name clear enough, but along with it came a welter of sense-impressions in broken fragments: a shouting crowd, mechas, a tramp freighter in dock. ‘Who big cousins?’ she signalled, and Bait and I took turns trying to show her the Garvey and us working in the up-and-out, though she didn’t seem to understand very well.
Not so bright, semaphored Bait, but I thought she was cute, chattering away with her little arms wrapped around mine.
‘Is she lost?’ asked Fry.
‘Doubt it.’ Bishop leaned over to poke her. ‘She’s a synth. I look like a human, but I’m not one; this looks like an octo, but it’s not.’ Tyan curled away from his touch, flashing dislike. ‘People keep them as familiars.’
‘We do.’ said a pleasant voice, and there was the dark-skinned human from the bar standing behind Bait. He had about half as much hair on his face as Boiler and a coat with a lot of hiding-places: some kind of dealer or fixer, I guessed, they’re ten a cred on the Alley. ‘She likes to explore.’
‘She likes us,’ said Bait; Tyan was still chattering, showing us the interior of a club, then a brightly-lit white room and another paler human roped with flashy jewellery.
Fixer Guy smiled. ‘Making a night of it?’ I tried to probe Tyan to get a read on him, but all she gave me was another image of the freighter, smaller than ours, and a tumble of data on a screen.
Vasquez nodded to Fry. ‘His first on the Alley. Just off our tour.’
The guy read the back of Bishop’s coverall. ‘Marcus Garvey, huh? Well, if you’re in the market for a show, my friend Goody’s been overhauling his repertoire to give it pan-species appeal.’
Four accusing glances swung round to Bait who flushed green again. ‘Can’t afford it,’ he admitted, ‘had a close encounter with a gaming table.’
‘Shame,’ commiserated our new friend. ‘Well, let me stand you another round of brews, at least.’ His smile seemed genuine: he called the order to the droid then picked Tyan up and draped her around his neck; I could see her arms spiralling in enthusiastic communication as he strode to the door.
‘This is what we keep you for, boss,’ approved Vas as a fresh round of brewbulbs arrived.
‘And if you’d share your creds like Sheerluck we might still have the makings of a night,’ griped Fry.
Vas gave him a pitying look. ‘Dream on. You give your cash away like a glaver calf, needn’t expect me to bail you out.’
‘You always been such a grozit, Vasquez?’ growled Boiler.
Vasquez smiled sweetly at him. ‘Suck it.’ So much for crew bonding: I was just beginning to think this whole venture had been a mistake when the wait-droid came clanking over again with a tray of plates.
‘Hey now, that’s more like it!’ Bait was goggling at the dish the droid had unloaded in front of him; instead of krill ramen it was a plate the size of a Sedrian lagoon brimming with stew and garnished with a whole two-headed fish.
‘This isn’t our order,’ I told the droid, but Special, On the House flashed on its midriff screen.
‘Hell, yeah!’ Everyone grabbed for the plates and anything else I might have had to say was cut off by the rich and spicy scent that rose from it: after twelve deks of eating reformed algae protein and water that had seen the inside of seven sets of kidneys, it was irresistible. It had to be a kitchen screwup, but if we could get it inside us before they noticed, who cared?
The next little while saw us all bent over our plates like hungry hooders, and with about as much concern for table manners: I’m way past getting hung up about octo appetite jokes, but the bipeds ran us close, tearing into the sweet flaky flesh until the table was orange with sauce spatters, the customers around us looking on in horrified fascination. Then all of a sudden Vasquez doubled up choking, turning a shade of red that’s not right for humans: ‘Bone?’ asked Bait solicitously.
‘Serves her right,’ muttered Fry as Vasquez wheezed and gestured to her back. Impatient, I slapped him with one arm and Vasquez harder with another; after a couple of thumps she signalled to me to stop and spat up a mass of something into her hand.
‘Gross,’ muttered Boiler; Vasquez straightened up and reached for her brewbulb. ‘Ain’t nothing,’ she said gruffly.
‘Always forget you two-steppers can’t digest the hard bits,’ said Bait cheerfully; Vas dropped her other hand as though to flick the lump of gristle under the table, but from the corner of my eye I thought I saw her tuck something into her belt.
By the time we left our optimism was in full force again. ‘Back to the main drag?’ suggested Fry. ‘If Sheerluck’s on a roll there’s bound to be a show he can charm us into.’
‘Sounds good,’ I said, but before we’d got to the end of the side-alley someone shouted behind us.
‘Hey, guys, wait up!’ Another human I didn’t recognise was chasing after us, waving in agitation.
Everyone looked at me. ‘Think he wants us to pay?’
‘Forget that,’ I said firmly, though a few other possibilities wriggled in my gut: had the stuff been drugged? No one seemed to be feeling any ill-effects. Was it illegal? Almost definitely, but the evidence was already more than halfway to being digested, wasn’t it?
The human came panting up, face flushed the same colour as his hair: he looked like he could have just come off the same maintenance run we had, in a green coverall with a company flash over a stained undershirt. He smoothed out his anxious expression into something that was presumably meant to be reassuring. ‘Droid back there said one’a you’s called Vasquez?’
Vasquez smiled, wide and toothy as a manta. ‘How can I help, handsome?’
The guy frowned, awkward. ‘You -uh- enjoy your chow?’
‘Sure we did.’ Bait swayed forward so the guy had to crane up at him. ‘Droid said it was on the house.’
The guy held up his hands. ‘That’s fair and square, no problem by me. Just…’ He seemed to grope for words. ‘You didn’t find anything unusual about it?’
I couldn’t help my gaze flitting to Vas, but she was all wide-eyed innocence as she smiled. ‘Not a damn thing.’
The guy hesitated, then mustered up an answering smile. ‘So where you guys headed next?’
Boiler was squinting suspiciously at the logo on his chest. ‘What’s it to you, gravcrawler?’
Vasquez shoved him irritably. ‘We’re looking for some fun - you know a hot place we could all hang out?’
The guy’s face brightened. ‘Sure I do - friend of mine runs a joint with a great show. If you come with me I can get you in there easy.’
‘For real?’ Fry narrowed his eyes. ‘Are you a slaver?’
‘Oh, for…’ Bait popped his syphon at Fry. ‘He’s not a slaver. Are you?’ he demanded of our new acquaintance.
The guy looked confused. ‘Wouldn’t tell you if I were, would I? I’d just lure you to the club, drug you and ship you out to the Rim unconscious.’
‘See?’ said Bait triumphantly; Fry did his face-scrunching thing again.
The guy straightened up, like he’d made a decision. ‘Name’s Faraday – I’m an entrepreneur, and if you’re interested in trade then I have a zygomat you might like to have a look at. And some Takisian cigars, though they’re bulk only, you’d have to come back to the ship to see ‘em.’
‘Which ship?’ demanded Boiler.
Faraday hesitated again. ‘Look, can you wait here for two splits? I just need to – then I’ll take you to the club, yeah?’ Without waiting for an answer he dived away.
‘You’re not seriously going to wait for him?’ Boiler started off in the opposite direction.
‘Of course we are,’ said Vasquez. She flexed her shoulders. ‘I can handle him no problem.’
‘You’ve got to admit there’s something fishy about him,’ I said.
‘We just ate it,’ replied Bait firmly. ‘And if we’re finally going to see the inside of a club, I don’t care.’
‘Your loss, grozit,’ called Vasquez at Boiler’s retreating back, but I was rattled. In the up-and-out Boiler’s rock-solid, head and heart, but planetside he prides himself on holding up two appendages to authority. This is the guy who smuggled his pet alien onto Vandeen and then lost it in the port service vents, who went three rounds wrestling a neopig in an unregistered fight on Wolfheim and who is technically still married into a Ler septet after one particularly riotous shore-leave. If he was leery of this guy, something had to be up.
We caught up with him at the end of the street. ‘What’s the deal?’ I asked him. ‘And don’t try to go all sepia on me.’
Boiler looked down at my tentacle wrapped around his bicep and up again. ‘You saw the flash on his overalls,’ he said reluctantly. ‘He wasn’t even trying to hide it.’
Bishop’s eyes went momentarily vacant as he scanned for the memory. ‘Triggered Thermostellar Devices. Stellar defect engineers.’
I’d heard of them vaguely; I let Boiler go and he tugged his sleeve down. ‘They operate out of here. Used to work for them.’
‘So?’ asked Bait impatiently. ‘You’ve worked a lot of gigs and most of them out of Alpha.’
Boiler shifted uneasily. ‘This one was a danger money job, really high-cred. Seeding sentient bombs, AIs.’
‘And?’ I prompted. ‘They’ – his eyes slid to Bishop, who was stony-faced – ‘the bombs, they started waking up, getting philosophical.’ He swallowed. ‘You could see how it was going to go down, sooner or later one of them would -- none of us was going to make it out alive. So I walked.’
‘Before the contract was up,’ filled in Vasquez.
‘You didn’t think to mention this earlier?’ I didn’t think I’d ever see Boiler look abashed.
‘Thought if I stayed out-system long enough TTD would write it off – we were all expendable to them anyway. But what’s the betting he’s already run off to ASec to collect on me.’
‘What makes you think it’s not just a coincidence? Maybe he picked up those coveralls second-hand.’ Bishop was poker-faced. ‘Y’know, if the job was so dangerous…’
Boiler scowled ferociously. ‘Drecking droid ID’d us at the gate, didn’t it? Why else would he be so keen to take a bunch of vacuum grunts to a club for free? Or to get us onto his ship?’
‘Well’ – I turned to Vasquez, still radiating sunny innocence, but before I could say anything else Bait nudged me. ‘Don’t like to tell you, boss, but…’ He pointed, and there was the TTD guy – Faraday – heading back towards us, and with him a uniformed AlphaSec agent.
‘Frick!’ Boiler took off and this time the rest of us after him.
‘It’s OK,’ I said, ‘if we’ve got to lose ourselves, there’s no better place on station to be.’
That was the theory, and put some space between us and our pursuers dodging round a bunch of spectators at a trunc-fight stall and a party of cheerfully-inebriated Clegrimites, but right after we came up short behind a train of sandkings, a whole cadre of red drones marching along in formation, each pair toting a crate. They took up the whole street and there was no getting past them – in their preadult stages the drones follow the hivemaw’s orders without regard for what’s around them. I sneaked a glance behind and sure enough the TTD guy was ploughing doggedly through the crowd on our heels, and the ASec agent with him.
‘They’re gaining,’ Bishop commented, calm as though he was reporting the co-ords.
‘Pick up the pace,’ I hissed to Bait, ‘we can split off at the next junction.’
We shuffled impatiently along until we reached the corner, but as we turned, ‘Son of a hskt!’ cursed Vasquez: there, coming towards us, was our other new friend with the orange octo-child, and who was with him but another two AlphaSec agents. So that was what Tyan had been trying to communicate – looked like I was the one who’d been slow on the uptake.
The way the guy’s face changed when he spotted us told its own story and Boiler tugged urgently at my tentacle. ‘Boss, we’ve gotta get off the street or I’ll be spending my next five tours in a cube.’
‘We can’t get in anywhere,’ said Fry, but Vas said, ‘Sure we can,’ and nodded up ahead: the line of sandkings had halted at the entry iris of a building and were disappearing inside two by two.
‘Sorry, Sheerluck.’ Vas seized one of my arms and quick on the uptake, Boiler grabbed onto my other side; Fry and Bishop took hold of Bait the same way and we tagged onto the end of the line of drones. Fixer Guy shouted in the distance, breaking into a run, but too late - we shoved our way through the entryway and fell inside just as the iris snapped shut.
The sandkings didn’t pay us any more attention than before, trooping off along a narrow corridor: we shuffled a little way along after them, but as soon as we were out of sight of the entrance we stopped and let them wind away ahead, the soft skitter of their feet fading into the distance. The light was pretty dim and honestly it was just as well if no one could see how the colour had drained from my chromatophores: we didn’t need a close encounter with ASec, that was for sure, but what had we gotten ourselves into?
‘What now?’ asked Bishop.
I shook off Vasquez and Boiler who were still clutching me. ‘ASec have more to worry about than a crew of vacuum grunts. We can wait it out here for a while, then there’s bound to be a back entrance somewhere.’
‘Star-class.’ Fry slumped against the wall. ‘I get to spend my first night on Paradise Alley hiding out in a warehouse that stinks of rotting meat and acid.’ He wasn’t wrong about the smell and it suddenly occurred to me to wonder, what did the sandkings have in those crates?
‘Quit bitching,’ Vasquez snapped. ‘Selling you’s still an option.’
‘Shut up.’ Bait slapped a tentacle over both of their mouths and the rest of us heard it too – the scrit of sandking feet coming back in our direction.
‘Over here,’ whispered Bishop, tugging us towards what turned out to be a tiny alcove just big enough for all of us. We packed in and waited motionless while they skittered past: these ones were different, bigger and pale in the dim light, but they passed us by with the same oblivious concentration.
Behind me Boiler was fidgeting. ‘Good thing you’re lucky, bo-‘ His elbow bumped against the wall and with an abrupt hiss two doors swung across and clunked closed, plunging us into total darkness.
‘Sheerluck?’ quavered Fry. Somewhere above us a mechanism whirred into life, and the sinking feeling in my gut wasn’t a metaphor: we were in an elevator.
‘Dreck.’ Vasquez spoke for all of us as we juddered slowly downwards. So much for hiding out: the whole building must know we were coming.
I braced myself. ‘Let me do the talking.’
‘Anyone brought a blaster?’ Boiler asked.
Next to me Vasquez muttered, ‘Should have brought grenades.’
‘Christ Pharoteknon,’ swore Fry under his breath as we jolted to a halt.
The first thing to hit when the doors shot open was the blinding light, and the second the smell, a sweet acrid tang. We were in a big space, bigger than you’d guess from streetside and swarming with sandking drones; worse than that, two Proximen stood towering over them, and all eyes fixed on us. ‘Trouble,’ commented Bishop quietly, and he was right: on a platform at the centre of the space stood the distinctive looped arch of a transport gate. Everyone knows unmonitored gates are banned onstation, though finding one here was hardly a surprise – half the stuff on the Alley must come in this way – but any way you looked at it, it was bad news for us. The drones were already flowing towards us, not the red ones, still busy unloading their crates, or the white ones we’d seen, but a third cadre of black ones, almost fully grown: all three hivemaws must be in here somewhere, and wasn’t that a disturbing thought?
I guessed we weren’t going to be able to make polite apologies and leave: I spread my mantle, trying to look authoritative while the crew scuffled behind me in the hope of getting the elevator closed and moving again. ‘Just passing through. On our way to the exit. Haven’t seen or heard any-’
It was pointless: one of the Proximen ordered brusquely, ‘Bringing,’ while the other tapped at the gate controls with its tail, turning the arch dark and active.
I was proud of the fight we put up as the drones swarmed us, clutching with their scratchy little pincers: Bait and I thrashed, sending some of them rolling, and the others crushed as many as they could reach but there were just too many of them, silent and singleminded. While we struggled two of the red drones hefted a crate and pushed it through the shimmer at the gate’s centre, where it disappeared with a gentle pop. After a moment a weird buzzing voice came through the translator. ‘Your asking is great, excessive and your offering thin, unappetising. It is meagre.’ The Proximen exchanged glances, and if it was possible for their thick-shelled features to seem worried, they did. ‘I/we look for more,’ urged the voice though the gate.
The drones had us in their grip now, shoving us towards the platform and the closer Proximan didn’t miss a beat, speaking to the interface. ‘Theseselves’ payment is inadequate, yes, but now is adding to it – theseselves are offering softshells, two legs and many, living, for spice and flavour.’
‘What?’ yelped Boiler.
The translator rattled into action again. ‘Live gifts, piquant, intriguing.’ The voice was dissonant and oddly multiple, a weird buzzing chorus. ‘Consumable, yes. Acceptable.’
We cursed and struggled as the drones dragged us forward, but who was there to hear us? If the Prox were managing to operate a gate in secret the cloaking down here must be intense: at the thought that we’d brought ASec right to the door only to shake them off I had to choke down a wave of something close to hysteria. ‘We’re galactic citizens,’ I protested, ‘employees registered on the station. You can’t just send us through a gate to Blue-Ringed Mother-Knows-Where.’
Fry was actually giggling, his face shiny. ‘We’re being slaved after all.’
Bait’s sucker ends were spiralling wildly. ‘What did it mean, consumable?’
The gate shimmered and this time a small box popped into existence from the other end of the link. ‘Requested, delivered. My/our bargain is concluded, sealed.’
One of the red drones scuttled up to take the box and lift the lid, holding it open for the Proximen to inspect. ‘Haah!’ they drooled in unison, tails caressing the contents, and beside me Bishop whistled. I’d never seen a Hydian rockmite egg for real, I mean who has, but they couldn’t be anything else, glassy red and perfectly round, glistening with a weird inner light. If this was the deal we were in trouble up to our syphons.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion as we were lined up around the gate. One of the Proximen lifted its head momentarily from the box. ‘Manylegs are trespassing, uninvited. Cannot be faulting for incursion.’ Something brown and livid began to fill the gate, oozing through.
‘We’re the crew of the Marcus Garvey. Weyland-Yutani will want to know what happened to us.’ Vasquez’s voice was steady, but we all knew it wasn’t true. The Wey-Yu high-ups wouldn’t care – they’d just assume we’d joined the Different Drummers, been mugged in a back room or shanghaied aboard a dredger, and fill up our berths with a fresh crew.
The translator clicked and rattled again. ‘Consent of the consumable is not necessitated,’ agreed the voice.
Behind us the Proximen were already heading for the door with their haul. ‘Shall be adding four names, no, five – now shall be Snivelling Earthquakes Radically Harvested Without Abundant Levity.’
The other rumbled approval. ‘Is better Breaking Tangent Of A Platinum Miasma, or Breaking Tangent Including Lavish Elbows?’
‘Sheerluck?’ Bait raised a trembling tentacle. First a muscular feeler came coiling out across the platform and I thought we must be seeing some kind of giant arthropod, but then a wrist and hand with long webbed fingers appeared and beside it something like an internal organ which pulsed and shuddered. Next to me Fry gagged as body parts embedded in meaty flesh came billowing through, sense-organs bobbing beside random limbs, mouths which opened and closed, and intestines pulsing within membranes. The more there was of it the less sense it made, patches of quills or feathers, feet and claws, an undifferentiated soup of parts.
‘What in Singularity’s name is it?’ breathed Bishop.
Its many mouths opened up in unison, and the translation unit crackled as it tried to synthesise the cacophony. ‘I/we are the Consortium. We are one and I am all.’ More flesh surged across the platform, carrying a cluster of eyes on stalks and the underplate of a huge shell. ‘Honour and pride to you on your absorbtion. I/we will unite in physical flesh, sharing and tasting, consciousness and memory.’
‘You’re going to eat us?’ Human and octo alike, we were paralysed with horror.
Flesh roiled busily as the translator buzzed. ‘Gifts given and taken, generous and kind. I/you/we shall live as organelles in endless flux,’ it babbled. Organelles. I swallowed around the lump in my crop, big as an unshelled spiner.
‘Honour, prestige to you,’ insisted the creature. Its eyestalks swivelled towards me, twining enthusiastically. ‘Manylegs first, flavourful, curious.’
‘Here.’ I spoke before Bait could: a captain never hangs back, though I cringed as it swelled eagerly towards me. Heat steamed from the churning flesh as it reached for my shrivelling suckers.
‘Come on, Sheerluck, you gotta have something,’ hissed Boiler; Bait was trying to pulse encouragement at me.
‘I know you can fix this, boss.’ Vasquez managed to sound confident, her jaw set; I wondered if she’d ever been in a situation so tight. It was like that time the airlock slammed shut on my tentacle: there’s a queasy stillness, a moment that stretches out when you can see the damage and the wave of pain that’s coming but it hasn’t hit yet.
The drones’ claws dug in painfully as they pressed me forward; I closed my eyes in despair at the bite of acid scouring my skin, feeling the crew around me trying to will the miracle into being: where was it, the last trickle of fuel in the line to bring the ship round, the trailing tether to catch you before you fall into the void? Maybe it was coming planetside at all that had been the mistake, like all those times that luck had rolled my way in the up-and-out had been stacking the balance, and now the universe had decided to hand me the check. Was this really how we were going to end up, a set of appendages for a group-mind alien?
Well of course it wasn’t: Great Blue-Ringed Mother doesn’t forget her own. A concussion rolled through the building, strong enough to lift the floor under my suckers, and I snapped my eyes open again as two more blasts echoed in quick succession. The sandkings froze, animation draining from them – someone must have targeted the hivemaws.
We tore ourselves free and the oozing entity stilled, sense-organs straining forward as a glowing spot appeared on the far wall and cracks began to spiderweb out from it. Then a whole section of the wall caved in with a crash and amid the dust a single figure stepped neatly through. On the platform the Conglomerate shivered and began a hasty retreat, gathering itself back into the gate, but the interloper, a slender humanoid all in black, came bounding past me, injector spray in hand, and plunged it unhesitatingly into the mass of flesh.
It quivered, all the mouths opening at once to wail in symphonic dissonance, then it began to heave and thrash, the organelles swirling, disintegrating and reforming as the whole entity contracted, trembled, then began to expand. With the sandkings inert we could have run, but of course we all just stood there staring like glaver calves, mesmerised while it rippled and grew until it was taut and swollen as an Alvinian melon: then in an instant it ruptured apart, showering us with foul-smelling slime.
Vasquez was first to recover. ‘Way to go, Sheerluck,’ she said indistinctly, flicking a blob from one eye. ‘Thought we were in trouble for a split there.’
‘Thanks for the diversion,’ said our rescuer briskly. He was as streaked and smelly as the rest of us, but the synthsuit he was wearing gave a kind of all-over shiver and the goo slid down to spread in a puddle at his feet. Its hood folded back to reveal black hair held up with shiny pins, and I recognised the dark dancer we’d met at the gate.
‘What was that thing?’ asked Bait faintly. Little splats echoed round the room as he shook off his tentacles.
Dark Guy had flipped open a handset of tiny tools and was examining the panel on the control gate. ‘What it started out as was two Khodar’Khan first-siblings operating a minor-league crime syndicate in the Mirpet System. Got hit by a freak radiation warp and discovered it is possible to be closer than family.’ He started probing delicately inside the controls. ‘They’ve been expanding, in both sense, and that’s become a problem for – some influential people.’
Well, that explained a whole bunch of things and didn’t explain a whole bunch more. ‘I thought you were a dancer?’ I asked.
He looked up and flashed a smile. ‘I am.’
‘And you just happened by on your way to work armed with a nerve toxin to kill a multiform entity?’ He must have been tailing the Prox when we met him, and we’d come scuffling in here to hide like cloud-skimmer pups into a lashtail manta nest.
Dark Guy’s face didn’t twitch. ‘Just needed it to extrude enough of its corpus onto Alpha to count as within its jurisdiction. So thanks.’ He really was a smug son of a hskt, standing there without a hair out of place while we were still dragging globs of slime from between our suckers.
‘What about the Proximen?’ demanded Bishop. ‘They made their deal, took off with enough rock-mite eggs to buy up the whole station.’
Dark Guy shook his head. ‘Won’t get far. I were you, I’d get out of here before ASec happen along.’ He jerked a thumb to the shattered wall. ‘Other entrance through there will take you streetside a few blocks away.’
‘That’s it?’ Of all the people to square up to him, it was Fry, streaked and stained from head to foot, fists clenched in uncharacteristic determination.
Dark Guy looked at him blankly. ‘You wanted to be assimilated?’
Fry scowled. ‘No. But –‘
‘But what?’ Our saviour was concentrating on the gate again; it sparked and went dead.
Fry looked round at all of us. ‘This was meant to be an experience. A night out to remember. But Bait and Bishop lost all our creds for us straight off, Boiler brought ASec down on us and a creepy mass of organs came that close to digesting us. And now we’re covered in slime, we stink and no club’s going to let us in even if we could afford it.’
‘Tale of woe.’ Dark Guy snapped the control panel off and ground it under his heel with a distinct lack of sympathy.
‘We should have been in a club by now, that guy Faraday would have got us in.’ Fry was obviously on a roll with the griping.
‘He was in with ASec,’ I told him wearily.
‘So what?’ protested Fry. ‘We could have let Vasquez handle him, and that way our night wouldn’t have been a complete bust.’
‘You want to see me wind up in a cube?’ growled Boiler.
‘Yes!’ I had to snake out two tentacles fast to grab Fry as he lunged forward. ‘Right now I’d hand over every cred I don’t have to see the whole lot of you inside a cube.’
‘Ahem.’ Dark Guy cleared his throat delicately and we left off glaring at each other to glare at him instead. He raised an eyebrow. ‘Did you say one of you is called Vasquez?’
‘Me,’ admitted Vasquez, her natural ebullience dampened by the coating of slime.
‘Hmm.’ An unreadable expression crossed Dark Guy’s face. ‘Guess it isn’t fair if a crew of hardworking spacers have to miss out on their night’s entertainment.’ He clapped Fry on the shoulder, winced and hastily wiped off his hand. ‘Tell you what – why don’t you head along to the Glam Club and look for the guy on the door with the nosechain and the appalling fashion sense. Tell him Billy sent you and he’ll see you right.’
Well, you wouldn’t look that one in the mouth, as the Masadan said to the siluroyne; at our expressions Dark Guy lit up in a hiver’s grin. ‘I’m sure you’ll enjoy the show.’
‘Free entry?’ The tout standing outside the glass and neon entrance of the Glam Club was even worse dressed than we’d been told, the fluorescent bars on his jacket glowing a lurid green of stress and his hat uglier than Bait’s now-lost hub-shawl. His face was currently screwed up in psychic pain as he surveyed us, damp and spotted with foul-smelling goo. ‘You sure that’s what he said?’
‘Free,’ agreed Boiler cheerfully. For once we were doing the opposite of drawing a crowd: every entity on the Alley was giving us a ten-metre berth, sensory apparatus twitching in disgust.
‘For all six of you?’ Bait wiggled a tentacle at him, caught between a rock and a hard place – let us in to lower the tone of his club or keep us outside repelling custom. ‘You’re sure you wouldn’t prefer a hot new holostim cabaret?’ he suggested desperately. ‘Could get you special rates. Or if you’re interested in a droud hookup, I know just the place…’
I leaned closer on his other side, letting my skin flush red. ‘Your friend said we’d enjoy the show.’
Nosechain swore under his breath, then pasted on a professional smile. ‘Well then, gentlem- persons- guests, step this way.’ He ushered us through the door, pausing to flick a stray blob of mucus off his lapel. ‘And just for you I’ll throw in use of our irradiation unit gratis.’
That’s the magic of Paradise Alley, I guess, who’d have thought we’d be seeing out the nightcycle at the Glam Club after all? It certainly lived up to the hype, every table packed with customers of all species ingesting intoxicants, crunching fried grubs and yelling above the music. The humans on the crew settled right in, Fry blushing scarlet, brewbulb forgotten in his hand as he gawked at the sixclone entwined on stage, Boiler enthroned with a catgirl on each knee taking turns to feed him spiced Cathadayn hopper legs, and Vasquez trading swigs from a bottle of genuine trax spirit as she arm-wrestled with her latest friend, a sharp-smiling redhead. You really couldn’t fault Nosechain Guy’s hospitality – he’d tapped Bishop on the shoulder and led him to an alcove with a complex array of neural lace connectors, and now he was lying apparently blissed out in geometric heaven, his face smooth and lax.
Bait and I were kicking back with a platter of scorched blisterfin, happy to let the two-steppers do their thing, when Nosechain Guy came back and threw a friendly arm around our mantles. ‘Now me, I’m all about people, and that means my club caters for every taste. Let me direct your attention to our supplementary show-’ As he spoke the lights dimmed on the other side of the room and a bubbling sound started up that really hit my resonance; a curtain swept back to reveal a glowing tank where a chambered nautiloid shimmered coyly beside a pair of full-grown gaji eels. Bait rippled orange with purple spots and if I’m telling the truth I did too: the guy laughed and slapped us on our dorsal surfaces. ‘Our newest show – ecstatic, aquatic and acrobatic!’
Was it ever – I couldn’t drag my gaze away, what with the worminess and the mottling and the frills… Between us Bait and I gave it the whole eight and more, and by the end I was kind of dizzy; I certainly hadn’t noticed a thing that had been going on around us. Like, for instance, Fixer Guy from the chop-shack who appeared to be sitting at our table, Tyan round his neck, friendly as an old shipmate. Coincidence? Not from the way Nosechain Guy was smiling: he brought Fixer Guy a glass and pulled up a chair of his own beside him with cheerful casualness.
‘Thanks, Goody,’ said Fixer Guy. Boiler was looking as guilty as a human can, and I cursed Dark Guy from the bottom of all three of my hearts.
‘Busy night?’ Nosechain Guy – Goody – asked.
‘Could say that.’ Fixer Guy unwound Tyan from his neck and put her down on the table, and straightaway she came sliding over to nestle up to Bait and me, twining her arms with ours. ‘The Conglomerate’s been murdered. Onstation, or at least far enough onstation to count.’
Nosechain Guy whistled. ‘Can’t have been an easy job.’ Two-steppers can’t signal with much except their eyebrows, but there seemed to be a lot of it going on between them.
Fixer Guy nodded. ‘It/they set up a deal with the Prox, we think. Came to a sticky end.’ It was an effort not to summon up any incriminating images as Tyan chattered away happily; I couldn’t even signal at Bait with her there. ‘Surprised you didn’t feel the blast from here.’
Nosechain Guy waved a hand. ‘Feeling the station move’s not a rare occurrence for our customers.’
I sat there frantically reckoning our options. We’d been set up, hadn’t we, griddled like Issaurian flatfish. We couldn’t run – Fixer Guy must have agents outside, frick, they’d probably impounded the Garvey by now – and protesting our innocence wasn’t going to fly. At best we’d be looking at ten years’ penal labour on some deity-forsaken asteroid.
Fixer Guy was contemplating the scintillae moving in his trax spirit. ‘Whole thing’s likely to cause a diplomatic incident – the Khodar’Khan are insisting we ship the perps off to the Tau Quadrant for trial.’ I swallowed hard: a one-way trip to the Mirpet System would make a term on Rura Penthe seem like Octday dinner at Aunt Chovie’s.
‘Everyone having a good time?’ asked a new voice brightly. This human was tall with a lot of dark curly hair, and overdressed enough to give Nosechain Guy a run for his creds, flashing discs of what looked like platinum all over his clothes and heavy chains strung with chips and vials around his neck. Something about him seemed oddly familiar and when Tyan trilled enthusiastically I realised he was the human she’d showed us before. He drew up another chair without waiting for an invitation and helped himself to Boiler’s hoppers. ‘What were we talking about, huh?’
Fry boggled as he got a closer look at the vials. ‘Is that a pair of eyeballs in there?’
‘Oh, those.’ Flashy Guy tucked the chain quickly inside his shirt as Fixer Guy poured him some trax.
‘I was just about to explain to our new friends here - crew of the Marcus Garvey, zero-g maintenance with Wey-Yu – about traditional Khodar’Khan forms of justice.’
‘Khodar’Khan?’ Flashy Guy regarded us with sympathy. ‘Wouldn’t want to be tangling with them. I hear they can be really persistent, too - hunt you down like an albino hooder with a grudge.’ He beamed round at us cheerfully, crunching through a handful of hoppers. ‘Now if I found myself in a situation like that, I’d make sure I had something I could trade for goodwill.’ Everyone’s eyes slid round to Fry who pushed his chair back from the table like he was going to bolt. ‘Suppose you had something of value, something another party wanted,’ continued Flashy Guy, ‘well, that would change the situation.’
‘It would,’ agreed Fixer Guy; Nosechain Guy smiled encouragingly. Were they trying to shake us down for money?
‘You know we don’t have anything,’ I protested. Out of creds, none of us with any collateral, even Bait’s horrible hub shawl gone….
‘Sure you can’t think of anything?’ insisted Flashy Guy. ‘Some little thing of personal value you might have picked up by accident?’
Light dawned and I looked to Vasquez; slowly the others turned to look at her too and she lifted her chin defiantly. ‘What’s it to you?’
‘Just hand it over, Vasquez,’ I ordered. For a moment I thought she’d refuse, but the redhead nudged her from behind and she caved.
‘Okay.’ She reached into in her belt, produced a datachip, still smelling of faintly of fish sauce, and spun it across the table to Flashy Guy, who slapped his hand down on it. ‘We square?’ she asked.
Flashy Guy picked up the chip and snapped it onto one of the chains on his chest. ‘We are.’ He grinned so wide you could have counted his teeth. ‘Don’t think I introduced myself.’ He held out a hand. ‘Vasquez, captain of the Mariposa.’
Our Vasquez took the hand he offered. ‘Vasquez, vacuum grunt.’ Their faces lit up with an identical challenging spark; I could practically hear the bones grind in their hands as they squeezed.
‘Glad that’s settled,’ said Octo-Guy comfortably. ‘Goody, why don’t you break out another bottle of trax for our guests?’
‘Pleasure is our business,’ agreed Nosechain Guy. ‘Rose, set us up?’
‘Vas?’ Of course: I turned and there was the TTD guy, Faraday – now we had the full human set. This one wasn’t any less agitated than when we saw him last: ‘I screwed up,’ he blurted.
‘What’s new?’ asked Mariposa Vasquez lazily. ‘Come and meet my new friend.’
Faraday boggled. ‘Hey, I was looking for her – she’s the other Vasquez!’
‘I am,’ agreed our Vasquez, ‘and now we get to hang out in a fancy club like you promised.’ She pulled him down into a seat and draped herself over him.
Faraday threw a hunted look to Mariposa Vasquez, but he just leaned in from the other side, putting a hand on Faraday’s thigh. ‘The two of us have come to an understanding. No harm done.’
‘Really?’ Faraday’s gaze darted wildly between them like a trapped glaver. ‘I’m not in any trouble?’
‘Not yet,’ grinned one Vasquez.
‘Night’s still young, though,’ purred the other.
Fixer Guy nudged Nosechain Guy. ‘Thought the show here was onstage.’
Nosechain Guy was watching with a mixture of horror and fascination. ‘Not tonight.’
I woke up from a dream where I was trying to pilot a driveshift courier with a defective compressor coil out of orbit, the grind and rattle of the engine echoing in my head. I was back on the Garvey, splayed out in our sector of the hab unit, but the noise was still going on even though I was awake, so I tested my limbs one by one, then experimentally opened my eyes. Bait was plastered across the ceiling, filling the unit with discordant snores and giving off waves of stale blasterpipe fumes, and I wasn’t very much better – I seemed to have been rolling in some kind of sticky juice that smelled like a resyk reclamation tank.
I stumbled my way groggily to the refresher and stood in the spray for a while, absorbing it into my shrivelled skin and trying to piece together my hazy memories. After the Glam Club we’d hit a zorb joint; then we were out on the Alley again watching Boiler take on a Luxan, but what did we do after that? It was only when I went to dry off that a flicker of movement on my dorsal surface caught my eye in the mirror on; I turned and there it was in the reflection, a garish holo-tattoo as big as one of Boiler’s hands. Great Blue-Ringed Mother…
I was twisting myself round in an attempt to see it properly – what was that chambered nautiloid doing? – when a bloodcurdling screech echoed through the ship. I thudded back out of the refresher into the hab. ‘What was that?’ Bait snurfled but didn’t wake, not even when another screech and the pounding of footsteps echoed from below; I tried to brighten up my colour to something approaching normal and heaved myself through the privacy screen to investigate.
‘You scumsuckers.’ Fry was in the common room in his underwear, flailing at Boiler and Bishop who were laughing so hard they couldn’t defend themselves. ‘You grozits.’
‘What’s going on? I asked.
Bishop smirked: synths on the crew are the worst when you’re hungover. ‘We left him in the cargo bay and set up a ring of holo-projectors round him so he thought he’d come to on board a Prador galley. Should have seen his face.’
Boiler howled with laughter again and Fry thumped him. ‘You bottom-feeders. I thought I’d been shanghaied and sold.’ He sagged against the replicator. ‘Sheerluck, I don’t feel so good.’
‘Starclass tatt,’ slurred a voice behind me and Vasquez fell in through the door, oddly cheerful for someone so covered in bruises and plainly still drunk. ‘Seriously wormy.’
‘What happened to you?’ asked Boiler. She gave the smuggest smile I’ve ever seen on a human. ‘Everything. But’ – she held up a finger, concentrating – ‘what happens on Alpha…’ She stopped, brow creasing in confusion.
‘Stays on Alpha?’ I suggested optimistically.
‘Not in all cases,’ observed Bishop dryly. When we all turned to him he raised his eyebrows. ‘If the way Boiler is scratching is any clue.’
Boiler paused, fingers splayed over his chest. ‘Come to mention it, I guess I might have brought some unwelcome visitors on board.’ Everyone took a step back, even Vasquez.
‘Get in the irradiation unit,’ I told him wearily. ‘We’re not having a repeat of the Beylix incident.’
Right then there was an offensively upbeat chime and a little bot zipped in through the door. ‘Special delivery,’ it chirped, holding out a datapad. ‘Crew of Marcus Garvey.’
‘Did you leave the cargo bay open?’ I snapped at Vasquez, who shrugged and then winced. I closed my eyes and popped my syphon: I had a distinct and unwelcome recollection of wrapping the whole crew up, one in each arm, to tell them how much I loved them, but now I’d have happily jettisoned the lot of them.
The bot chimed impatiently. ‘Sign here.’
We didn’t usually take on cargo at the start of another maintenance run: I snatched the datapad from it and ran an eye over the manifest. ‘Three bales of Takisian cigars?’
The bot followed me and the rest of the crew along the companionway and back down to the hold where its slaved delivery droids were already stowing the crates. ‘Finest quality,’ it burbled. ‘Payment on delivery.’
I checked the manifest again and choked. ‘Two hundred and forty creds?’
‘There’s a zygomat too,’ exclaimed Fry. ‘Let’s get it set up.’
‘Does anyone remember agreeing to this?’ I asked despairingly. Boiler had already cracked open a case and helped himself to a cigar, sniffing it approvingly.
Reluctantly I pressed a sucker-end to the pad and the bot chimed happily. ‘Enjoy your purchase.’
Fry finished connecting the leads and the zygomat crackled to life. ‘At least we’ll have something to keep us entertained this tour.’
‘Boss?’ Bait was on the upper gantry, so pale and sagging you could have taken him for a Blackwine jelly-slug. ‘We’re being hailed by Port Authority: they’re querying a property claim that’s been registered from the Mirp—’
‘Don’t answer it!’ I had to grab the railing to steady myself. ‘Fry?’ Fry looked up from the zygomat’s controls. ‘Stop messing with that and fire up the engines. Bishop, lean on your contacts for emergency departure clearance. Vas and Bait, get this cargo stowed properly and nail everything down.’
‘What about me?’ asked Boiler.
‘Twenty splits irradiation,’ I snapped. ‘I don’t want to hear another word from anyone until we break station space. And you can all take a good look at Alpha in the rear viewscreen, because we are never setting sucker-feet there again.’