The Hell! Kyle sat bolt upright. The inner tube he was sitting on flipped, thumping him on the back of the head and dumping him into water deeper than he was tall.
With a nose and mouth filled with a mixture of chlorinated water and profanities, he struggled to get one arm around his tube. The hell, I thought this was the art museum.
Well, mate, a stranger in the next tube said, putting a foot against Kyle's tube and pushing him toward the river's edge, it were. Near an hour back. The stranger waved a bottle of green and most likely intoxicating liquid in is direction. But you had y'self one too many of these. We been takin bets on when y'd awaken. Looks like ye lost me some eighty bergs. The stranger paddled his own tube toward the nearest exiting tributary. Thanks a lot, mate. Way to ruin an off-world vacation.
Kyle hoisted himself onto the riverbank and pulled the tube up after him. Now where in all of forsaken Burgess am I. With that amount of alcohol still in his system, his head felt as if it were a fishbowl that's inhabitants were violently kicking the water about. The rest of his body felt as if it were attempting to walk atop the water of that bowl even though he was sitting firmly on the plas-rubber riverbank.
The first thing he noticed was that his drink bottle was still wedged into the storage hole of his flotation vehicle. Pulling it out, he threw it as far as he could.
A response came from downriver, Hey, ya turd-muffin, you nearly hit me in the head. If I see you when this ride is over
Kyle looked about him, struggling through the blurry double vision. Across the water, which looked to be a good twenty feet, he could see some kind of cage enclosure and someone beside it wearing black leather holding a whip. On his side of the water, just beyond arm's reach, was something that looked a bit like a massage table but probably wasn't.
Oh, great, he mumbled to himself. I fell asleep and floated half way into thethere's no way I can afford this.
Kyle moved the tube behind him so that it was pushed up against the thing that probably wasn't a massage table. He laid back with his feet and shins in the river and his head on his tube. Maybe I can sleep it off. Vik's going to kill me . . . if I survive the alcohol.
At a point in time which may have been anywhere from thirty seconds to thirty minutes later, Kyle opened his eyes when he heard a voice off to his right. You're pathetic. He turned his throbbing head to see a very large man wearing a very small amount of leather clothing approaching him.
I-I didn't . . . um
The new arrival picked him up by the armpits and lifted him so that his heels hung almost a foot above the ground. The gentleman kicked his tube back into the river. Pathetic. Stupid little mutant. Mommy and Daddy paid for the Gen Mods, so you think you can treat everyone like dirt because you're made of money and you're better than the rest of us? Little Asian piece of shit.
Kyle shook his head, No. The anti-nausea drugs this place mixed into their alcohol were certainly proving beneficial.
Liar! The gentleman in the small amount of leather shook him like a rag doll.
Kyle struggled to pull together every ounce of consciousness he could find, just to whisper something that sounded a little bit like, I don't want to be here.
The large man sneezed in his face. Wow. Man, you are drunk.
Kyle nodded his head, which he found exceptionally easy given how he had just been shaken.
The large man lowered him to a standing position. Do you need to leave?
Kyle responded with something that he hoped sounded reasonably close to, I think that would be best. Maybe next time I'll stick to the golf course.
The large man leaned down and whispered in his ear, I can take you to the exit, but you would forfeit the fee for the remainder of your stay at the resort.
Kyle tilted his head to look past the gentleman. His inner tube was slowly floating away. The Bondage Zone extended as far as he could see, past the next bend in the river. Yeah, I'm done.
The gentleman lifted him off the ground again and cradled him like a baby. He started walking toward the rear wall.
It's just the fingers, Kyle mumbled, hoping the man could hear him. I'm not rich. My grandfather's parents got him several Gen-Mods. All he passed down to me was the gene for the two extra fingers. Which come in handy because I'm a mechanic.
No troubles, bro. I've got more than a few mods myself.
The gentleman turned to see if anyone was watching him. The few inebriated patrons floating down the river had their attention focused elsewhere. He placed his palm on the wall, and a large part of it slid to the right, revealing a hallway.
Whoa. Kyle belched.
Inside the hall, the gentleman placed Kyle back on his feet as the wall slid closed again. Just wait here a bit, Security will take you back to Reception. He put is palm on a keypad to wake it up, then pushed a few buttons. Something on the screen seemed to surprise him. Well, looks like you'll get the refund after all. You've got a call from someone on your emergency list.
Kyle stared as the gentleman disappeared through the sliding wall again, leaving him in a long hallway by himself. He was very confused. In the last few minutes he had woken up suddenly, nearly drowned, been shaken about and manhandled by a giant, walked through a wall, and missed a phone call. And he thought that that was probably leaving something important out.
Sometime later, which seemed much closer to thirty minutes than thirty seconds, a man in a blue uniform rode up to him in a small cart. Would you come with me, sir? You have an urgent call at the front desk.
The man in the uniform waved at the seat beside him, as if to indicate that nodding one's head did not magically levitate one onto the seat of a small cart.
Kyle soon found himself at the resort's entrance, sitting in some leather chair sort of thing, looking at a rather angry Native-American girl on a small display.
Aw, great. You're drunk, the face on the display complained.
Kyle nodded. Well, Seka, what did you expect to happen?
I expected you to be able to do your damn job. I'm on vacation.
Well your vacation's over. I need you to get on the train and go see Barajasnow if not sooner.
But I'm onwhy?
Because he got that gear motor you were looking for and
So go pick it up, Kyle pointed at the screen.
No, see, this thing is a hundred years old and you need to make sure it's the right one.
But . . . um
Barajas has places to be. He's doing us a huge favor even talking to us today. Get yourself sober and get over there. I don't care if you paid for three more days in the spa. If we don't get this motor replaced then Lynx's airlock will break down. If you get sucked into space you won't care about three days at the spa either. The display went dark.
Kyle tapped the display but nothing happened. Seka had a habit of cutting conversations short and everyone hated it.
Kyle stood up and turned toward the front desk. And fell on his face.
A pair of resort attendants approached and helped him to his feet. Are you all right, sir?
IumI need to beah . . . able to walk. Andahto think.
We have a soberant available, sir. The price is a thousand to your account.
Kyle belched and nodded his head. That's more than I paid for the whole weekend.
* * * * *
Kyle opened his eyes to find himself in a soft reclining chair. His memory of the last few hours was quite fuzzy, but his mind was clear now. Seka wanted me to go somewhere, he mumbled to himself.
He was surrounded by strangers, some sitting in chairs like his and others standing. Some were staring and poking at small hand-held screens, while others watched the displays that lined the top of the wall all the way around the room. So, I'm on a train. But where am I going.
Excuse me, he asked the middle aged man in blue jeans and a tan jacket to his right, where are we going?
The man tapped his earpiece to turn down the volume. I am going to Calgon to visit my mother. But I cannot speak for you, sir.
Okay, so I'm going to Calgon. To pick something up . . .
But you don't remember what?
Kyle shook his head and looked up at the displays lining the walls. They were all showing product movies, dramatic films which often ran for several minutes just to sell you a product. Except the one directly in front of him. It was blacked out on one side, so it was only showing the right half of a cooking film. It's been a long day.
Off to Kyle's left, an egg-like sleeping pod opened. A young woman with short red hair and a matching skirt climbed out and started pacing up and down the aisle.
She's been doing that the whole trip, the man on his right explained. Every fifteen minutes or so she walks around, does some stretches, and gets back in. Nothing good to watch on her screen, I guess.
Maybe she's seen it all.
It's my mother's birthday. I found this painting of a cat at the factory store. I think she'll like it. I go to Calgon and visit her every day, but every day isn't her birthday.
Kyle nodded. I always meet the oddest people on trains. He lay back and closed his eyes.
After a few moments his wrist-phone started chirping. He tapped it and Seka's face appeared. Where are you?
Headed for Calgon at the speed of sound. Could you tell me why?
Shit, can't you remember anything? Get the airlock motor from Barajas. She looked as if her day was not going according to plan.
You found it? Is it any good?
How should I know? That's your department.
You better not have cost me three days of vacation at the best resort in the Heavens for some broken down piece of trash.
Yeah. Just call Barajas. The screen went dark.
After a few minutes of sorting through directories, Kyle was able to call Barajas Pawn.
Hey, esse, who's this? asked the new face on the other end.
This is Kyle. I was told you have the motor I've spent the last eight months looking for.
Yeah, man, I got it. But choo know what, Holmes? You coulda just had one of these fabricated or something, man.
Yeah, I wish. Couldn't even find the design plans for it. I've looked all over the galaxy, and I think the plant manager took the plans with him when he retired.
Well couldn't choo jus take the one you got and get it replicated?
Not without leaving my airlock open so anybody could just float in there.
Aw, that sucks man. Well, listen, I am like way late for somewheres I gotta be choo know. So, like, I'm'a meet yous at the train station. An if dis the part you need then it's all yours okay?
UmI don't have any cash.
Thas okay, man. You ole lady, she already paid for it and everything.
* * * * *
When the train came to a stop, Kyle took the stairs down to the platform in a single jump. Now where was Barajas? If he couldn't enjoy the next three days in the resort, at least there should be enough time to fix the airlock before they had to leave.
His wrist-phone chirped. He looked down and answered the call, expecting to see the pawnbroker staring up at him. Instead he saw his ship's security officer again. Seka, he asked, where's he supposed to meet me?
Oh my gawd, that fight was smokey. Rizzik was unstoppable. He dodged this way, he jumped that way, and then he ripped that guy's head off.
Seka, where is Barajas?
What? Oh, the motor thing? I don't know. Probably at his shop. But did you see what happened at the opening bell? It was crazy smokey.
Seka had a weakness for the Mech Fight Arena and a bit of a gambling problem. It was the main reason they came to Burgess. She had dreams of winning enough on her betting slips to afford the deposit money to drive one of the enormous mechs into battle. When she won the battle she planned to buy a giant estate in Burgess and mechs of her own. When the Arena was having team tournaments, they often couldn't find her for a week.
So, you couldn't go see Barajas because you wanted to go see a fight?
What? No. You really did need to see if it was the right one. And it wouldn't fit in my locker. Arena spectators were forbidden to take anything in except their betting slips. They got to watch the action on a dozen screen angles, but nothing was broadcast outside until each battle was finished. I gotta go place my next bet. I'll see you at the ferry. The screen went dark.
Shit. Seka can be such a jerk. Surprising no one has pushed her out an airlock.
There was a tap on his shoulder. Kyle?
Kyle jumped and spun around, startled but not expecting anything particular.
Here it is man. Barajas was pushing a small dolly with a large box resting on its foot. Keep the dolly. Get it back to me later Holmes. I got to get back to the fight. He turned and sprinted off through the crowd. He half-tripped over a cart of cleaning supplies that someone was pulling toward a train car, but stumbled back to his feet and kept going.
Kyle bent and opened the flap of the box, and his eyes nearly jumped out of his head. The Hell, I can't believe this. He had been hoping to see the part he needed, rusted and dirty, but still serviceable. What he saw instead was another box. But this box had words and pictures beneath the cellophane it was wrapped in. This was the exact motor he needed, made by the original manufacturer, that had probably been sitting in the back of some warehouse since before his grandfather was getting ready to pass on the six-finger gene. This was better than a week at the spa!
A hand clapped his shoulder from behind. Kyle?
Kyle turned around slowly. Yes?
The other man was gesturing at his own chest. It's Ben. Ben Stewart. Man, you haven't changed one bit in like twenty years.
Kyle took a step back and almost fell over his new motor. Ben? He pointed at the other man's chest as well. I haven't seen you sincewell, forever.
And I never thought I'd see you again, not since you went off to see the stars. What have you been up to?
Kyle bent over and opened the flap to the box. Same as always. Up to my elbows in gears and grease.
Ben pulled him into a less than wonderful-smelling bear-hug. You a trader, hoarding antiques?
Ships mechanic. Just, ah, trying to keep the airlock sealed.
That was always you, man. Every nut in its place and . . . you know. They both stood around like they were waiting for the other one to say something important. So, ah, you've aged well. Must be those yellow genes.
Nah. Science. I stopped.
You stopped what?
First thing I did after I flew off Leora, paid a doctor to stop the clock. No more aging for me.
Well, shit. How does that work? Ben threw up his hands. We need to tell everyone about it!
No idea. I just have to take some extra vitamins 'n' stuff. Hey, my ships in orbit and I've got to get this thing back to the ferry. You wanna give me a hand?
Kyle looked around at the three Platforms he could see. None of these mag-lev trains were going back to the Ferry Port. Shoot. He turned to his wrist-phone and pulled the train schedule from the local network. Where is Platform 7-C?
Bro, that's all the way on the other side.
Well, we've got five minutes to get this thing over there.
The two men lifted the dolly with the box and carried it up a flight of stairs to the opposite platform. This was the greatest part of coming to Burgess. The king had made the whole planet a center for Galactic commerce. Even if the constant surveillance was unnerving, it made travel free and unrestricted. Just step on a train, a boat, or a ferry and you could go anywhere in a hurry.
So, are they still at war back on ole Leora?
There've been two or three wars since you left. Same as ever, the Alliance think they can take whatever they want.
Did you ever get drafted? Kyle asked.
Yeah. Why do you think I'm living here now?
Kyle laughed and slapped his friend on the back. They had reached the platform just as a police bot dragged a handcuffed man off the third train car.
So, what have you been up to here on this evil rock?
Watching the fights, mostly. I wash dishes in the Arena restaurants, so I get to see most of the fights for free.
Well don't tell Seka, you'll never hear the end of it.
She your wife?
No, just one of my crew. She's obsessed. Over there right now, losing all her bergs on the next round.
I don't know. You can make a killing if you do your homework, all kinds of stats on which fighters do best in which kinds of mech. Who's been on a break the longest, whose girlfriend just broke up with 'em.
So you win a lot of bets?
Nope. Not me. I never bet. Can't seem to process all the data, figuring out what's real and what they just made up. I did pilot a mech once, though.
No way! Kyle set the box down as the train car emptied.
Yep. Saved up for two years to make the deposit.
What kind did you choose?
Couldn't afford much, just a little tank tread mech. Weapons-heavy, of course.
Did you go for the cockpit, or
Oh, no, jacked in all the way. What'd you think, I'd spend my life savings to look through screens and push buttons? Ben thumped the side of his own head with a finger. Plug that data right into the ole cranium. Be the mech, Ben. Be the mech.
Did you dominate?
Nope. Some jerk had an illegal software patch, froze me up in the second round. Got targeted pretty bad. Blew me to pieces. But I blew some big guy's leg off first. Earned back about half my deposit.
The doors opened and they pulled the dolly onto the train car. Hey, you should come up, see the ship, help me get this thing plugged in.
I'm gonna fly off this rock with you. I'll be your new cook.
Well, I'd have to ask the Captain. We do have
You mean it's not your ship?
Me? My ship? No, I'm just the mechanic.
Well . . . someone else can be captain. I don't mind. Where're we headed?
* * * * *
An hour later they rolled the dolly off the train at the ferry port, filled from one end to the other with advertisements for ways to spend your money in orbit and other planets that would be just as happy to take your life savings.
So, Kyle, have you been back to Leora?
Oh, I've thought about it. I always dream of that beautiful sunset over the city. We don't get many sunsets, floating through the Heavens. What about you? Have you been back home since you got here?
Home? Ben let go of the dolly and took a step back. He sat down on a bench that bore a warning about the dangers of alien pathogens and gravity sickness, rubbing his forehead with his palms. Home? I haven't been home since Carolynsince youyou left. You kyou kyou killed my sister and then you just up and leave? H-hh-how could you do that to me, man?
Kyle carefully turned the dolly around so he could pull it by himself. II didn't. She justwe didn'tI didn't kill her. It just happened.
Y-youyou did. Tears were dripping from between his fingers. She was so strong, and y-yyou m-made her weak.
Kyle inched the dolly backward toward the door to the nearest ferry, which was luckily only a few yards away. He knew that while he was no saint himself, Benjamin could be his own kind of crazy. That was another thing he hadn't thought about in twenty years, how Ben would be perfectly friendly until he was reminded of something upsetting, and then all bets were off.
The way the two of you w-wouldI tried to keep her safe but she l-let her guard down. My parents made me p-promise to keep her safe and you Ben looked up just as Kyle pulled the dolly through the ferry door.
Kyle turned his head just in time to see his friend jump up from the bench and almost fall on his face.
You fucker! You're just going to leave again?
The door slid closed and the air vents hissed as the cabin started to pressurize. Ben's fists started to pound on the window to the outer door. Kyle was unable to hear what Ben was shouting, but it looked to be something along the lines of, I'm going to kill you.
Just as the windows darkened for blast off, he could see a pair of police-bots taking hold of Ben's shoulders.
Kyle let go of the dolly handle and dropped himself into an open seat. Well, that's over with. Now, we wait. I wonder where I'm going.
With all the galactic commerce moving through Burgess, you had to be able to come and go easily. If you wanted to take your purchases to your ship in orbit, you could just hop on a ferry. With controlled grav all the way up, the g-forces of liftoff wouldn't play havoc with your brains or your merchandise. The difficulty arose, as Kyle was just realizing, when you boarded a shuttle to the wrong station.
Kyle looked around the cabin. There was only one other person making the trip with him. With spots of glitter in her cheeks and pulsing green fluorescent hair, she looked to be about sixteen. Excuse me, miss, he asked before she could put on her VR mask and completely zone out, could you tell me where we're going?
No, I mean which station.
Maikon, of course. She waved a hand toward the rim of lights in the ceiling, which where glowing a soft green. Each station orbiting Burgess had its own color code, but Kyle hadn't memorized them. Hey, was that your friend pounding on the door out there?
Just a sec. She put down her mask. Police report. Disturbance at Maikon Ferry. Threatening language. Scan being performed. You couldn't usually tell if someone had a brain-chip, but given this girl's other modifications, it was an easy guess. I can keep an eye on it for you.
The windows turned clear again and they could see the city and the coastline falling away beneath them.
So why is he trying to kill you?
I killed his sister.
No, I mean he thinks I did. It's a long story. And how do you know about that, anyway?
It's in the police report. Public record. He was yelling about wanting to kill you.
Oh. Kyle stared at the box with the motor in it. He squeezed his eyes shut. He opened his eyes. He was still on the ferry. It's a long story.
We've got an hour.
Kyle sighed. He kept staring at the box. Her name was Carolyn. And we were . . . we were just meant for each other. I don't know how to explain it. He laced his fingers together. Like two puzzle pieces. We just fit, you know? People talk about love at first sight and being madly in love but it wasn't
The girl tapped the side of her head. News update. They've finished his brain-scan. A-a-a-andthey're letting him go.
No hostile intent. No danger. They let him go.
Security was the other thing Burgess was known for across the Heavens. Police were everywhere, whether you could see them or not. A bot could unfold itself out of a closet and be wherever it needed to be in under eight seconds. King Burgess and his thousands of descendants were constantly connected to the cameras and police, monitoring the feeds, stomping out crime to keep the commerce flowing.
The worst part was the brain scans. No outside ships were allowed to land on the surface; everyone had to dock at one of the forty stations and be ferried up and down. Before anyone could board a ferry to the planet's surface, they had to go through a complete memory scan. The computer would wipe its memory after every scan, so as not to reveal all of that person's deepest secretsunless it found something criminal or dangerous, in which case it reported the information to the cops and they would be denied entry to the surface.
But he's crazy.
There's different kinds of crazy. If he doesn't have any plans to kill you, they let himoh! She tapped her head again. He's checkinglooks like he's getting information on the other stations. So he's not following us to Maikon. When they release someone, the police report follows them for an hour or two, usually.
Kyle gave a relieved sigh. Well, good. He's not coming after me. He smiled, then went back to staring at his box. Three years . . . three and a half. That's how long we were together. Her parents were killed in an air-strike by the Northern Alliance before we met. She and Ben were living in the burned-out husk of their apartment, stealing scraps of food and hiding from the gangs. I bumped into them on the street one day and II know it was against my better judgment, but I was having one of my really good days. I invited them to my place for dinner.
When Carolyn saw my auto-shop, her eyes lit up. It was magical. She'd never touched an engine or programmed a controller before, but she . . . she just picked it up like she'd been doing it forever. She could see the perfection of things, how everything worked. It was in her soul.
Kyle just stared at his box. The world continued to fall away outside the window, but all his eyes could see was his Carolyn.
So how did she
The gangs. I woke up one morning, and she wasn't beside me. Ben said she'd gone to the store for something.
The silence dragged on for several minutes as the ferry took them toward the Heavens. The box with the airlock motor continued to sit on the floor. With the carefully controlled gravity it wouldn't slide away. They found her body on the far side of her old neighborhood. They took her money but left her ident.
The girl just shook her head. I'm so sorry.
I never went back. I couldn't bear to even go back to my own house, because she was gone. I've never even been back to Leora. I just ran for the Heavens.
Well, looks like your friend is on a ferry to a different station. So you're safe.
Kyle sighed and a weight lifted off his shoulders. Wow.
How long have you been away?
He looked up. About twenty years.
She raised her eyebrows.
I had the clock stopped. He patted his chest.
She smiled and nodded. She stood up and looked out the window.
Kyle checked his wrist: good signal, no messages. Guess I'm in the clear.