Best served cold


…or, Just how many graves was that?

The target world showed large in the synthesised external view arching over the control room of the Lovely Angel, a globe of dull umbers and ochres. Even the cloud swirls were a dingy beige. A far cry from the usual ultramarine and blinding white of the worlds that we visited.

But then, Anfield was not one of the worlds that the United Galactica cared to boast about, one of the occasional failures of terraforming, where only those who were just too poor or too rooted to the place still remained. Gazing down at the scene of ecological devastation, it came as something of a relief to know that the disasters that had befallen this world were all fifteen years in the past, and that I could say with more than the usual assurance that this was indeed not my fault.

“Kei…”, I began, about to ask her to handle traffic control communications, before I caught myself. I wasn't alone at the controls, but the slumbering form in the other couch that was emitting the occasional grunting and whistling noises was larger and black haired — furred, really — though Mughi's repertoire of sleep noises weren't quite as aggressive as those that Kei could muster. I let the request die on my lips — although he would be fine with the comms gear, Mughi does have this little problem with larynx, lips and pharynx than weren't shaped for anything like human speech.

It was strange being here, on duty, all alone — the result of being the only TroCon on the spot when something came up.

We had just finished successfully rounding up a network of wartech smugglers bringing in all sorts of cutting-edge nastinesses from the fringe worlds and — so rumour had it — even from some of the transhuman anomalies. We'd brought in most of them in a state for interrogation and trial, without too much collateral damage. Apart from the war-goo spill, that is, which had caused some significant civilian casualties, and had left Kei hospitalised for a serious amount of rebuild and rehab. So she'd been flown off on a 3WA hospital ship, while I had been left to pilot the Lovely Angel back home. And while en route, I'd received a call from 3WA Operations — a ship had been hijacked from an orbital in a nearby system, and I was the closest/best equipped resource out in the field.

I'd even rated a personal pep talk from the Chief, after the initial brief info-dump as to the hijacked ship's heading and data on the suspect…

“Yuri, I wouldn't normally ask you to do this, while your partner's hors de combat, but I have some confidence in your abilities. Just take your time. Don't rush things through, because you'll not be operating with your normal back up. When Kei's out of physio, then the pair of you can get around to taking some of the leave you've both been letting build up.”

And it looked like it would be a fairly simple case. The suspect was a Vincent Stone, a chancer from one of the minor worlds in the UG, no known family, had had a number of brushes with the law, generally operated in the grey economy at best, just out from a five year stint with a private army. Apprehending him would be no problem. The thing that gnawed at me during the pursuit was why he'd done this — this was something completely out of character for the small time operator he had been, and didn't there seem to be anything extreme, be it political or ideological, that he had ever expressed an interest or commitment to.

But he had led me here, to this world that looked like it would have been much happier playing the role of Mars' bigger brother than being anything baseline humans would feel happy living on. And with Kei not being around to do the job, I was scanning for the local orbital comms network.

And not finding any.

This place was really suffering, if it didn't even have any functioning remnants of the first-in top-down orbital infrastructure left. There was some radio traffic from the planet itself, but nothing in the way of aerospace traffic control chatter. Which left doing things the hard way. Fortunately, there was an obvious center of habitation, a city built on the shore of one of the seas, with a spaceport several miles inland. IR traces showed one of the ships on the deck was still hot from landing, and visuals matched it with the one I was after, though it looked like its landing had been none too gentle. The others all showed near ambient temperatures, well within the temperature range of bits of the nearby landscape, showing they were warm only from the sunlight falling on them. This world was worse off than records suggested — if there was any off-world contact any more, it would be from ships visiting, rather than anything launching from this graveyard of spaceships.

I plotted a course to land that would not take us over anywhere inhabited as we descended, coming in to the apparently deserted port from the barren interior of the continent, and paused, hovering just beyond the landing area boundary. At this range, I could confirm what I'd deduced from orbit. The ships were hulks, showing signs of several years exposed to the elements, and most likely stripped of any useful parts; and there was no trace of any large life forms across the whole area. I set down on a remote part of the field.

“Mughi! Oh, Mughi!” It was time for sleeping beauty to wake up. “Guard duty while I'm away!” I patted his head, and scratched him between the ears to offset his sulk, “And a treat when I get back.” He gave a gruff miaowling noise, that indicated his displeasure, but with an abashed posture that showed that he would be a good boy, and keep everyone else out.

I packed some useful equipment into the cargo space on a scooter, waved Mughi good-bye, and flew over to the cooling ship on the concrete. It looked like it had been through one of Kei's early attempts at landing — signs of touchdown at some significant horizontal velocity without rolling undercarriage lowered — and there were still the occasional popping and creaking noises of cooling metal from the main jets. The crew hatchway was open, and the ladder deployed — but if I ducked, there was enough room to fit the scooter in without having to park and climb.

With headlights on, I steered into the dark hatchway. It was just wide enough, and I drifted through at a dead slow pace into a nondescript length of gangway, where I could set the scooter down. Gun in hand, I started down the corridor, intending to turn towards the flight deck, when the I spotted the first signs. There was a faint buzzing noise, and an unpleasant smell overlying the normal smells of machinery and the baseline smell of the local atmosphere, and swirls of movement in the dim back-up lighting. As I carried on, all these grew stronger — a swarming of flies, and a stench of decay. I pulled a mask up across my face, and stepped hesitantly into the cabin

I had found the crew. They had been dispatched execution fashion, a single shot to the back of the head.

I really didn't want to examine the rest of the ship, but it was duty. This was one time when I'd much rather have Kei around — someone else to take the other direction, and then let her need to always appear tougher than me do the rest.

The rest of the ship was as bad as I'd feared. Stone had clearly not been sleeping though the military training he'd had, but had butchered his way calmly and effectively to control of the craft. And as he was not amongst the dead, and someone had had to open that door manually and deploy the ladder, that meant that he at least had been alive after landing. And with the city occupying the space between the port and the sea, there was a pretty obvious place for him to have gone.

That would also be a problem for me. I'd seen absolutely no aerial traffic on my approach — not even anything as small as a scooter like mine, which meant that flying in would be highly conspicuous; and on a world as apparently abandoned as this one had been by the UG, it wasn't clear exactly how the average citizen would greet a 3WA TroCon, especially one who wasn't really concerned with their planet as such. Normally, with Little Miss Peace-through-superior-firepower in tow, that wouldn't have been a problem. So I'd just have to take the Chief's guidance, and take things slowly.

A brief aerial survey confirmed my guess — that someone — most certainly Stone — had recently started to hike along the remains of the road into town from here, so with my equipment in a bag slung over one shoulder, and the uniform morphed into a nondescript crew-wear set of drab coveralls, I would follow.

The outer perimeter of town, that had once been the support services and industry for the port, was deserted and derelict, and eventually the developed area thinned out into the local scrubland and a road that led over the ridgeline that protected the main center of habitation from the port, and the worst of any disaster that might happen. The sight that greeted me as I crested the rise was not inspiring — a sprawl of uniform fabbed buildings, with a froth of shanty-town, and a sprinkling of taller structures that marked the main district, here and there a patch of open ground that might have been planned as a park, but was now no different from the scrub that this remnant of a highway wound through.

I'd gone over a kilometer inside the boundaries, through an area that was as dead as the spaceport, before there was a first sign of life. The radial spaceport road had now given way to an irregular grid, through which I was having to zig-zag as I headed towards the central towers, and when I turned a corner, there were a gang of a dozen or so youths all dressed in various styles of faded black, with mesh masks pulled over their lower faces. Some carried sticks that appeared to be sports equipment repurposed as blunt implements — and some appeared to have recent contusions.

The leader shouted something at me. It took a little while to unpick the local accent, but on the third or fourth repetition, it became clear : “You an off-worlder? Eh? Eh?” A taunt, a prelude for a fight. And I'd clearly been right about how a TroCon might be received. I sighed. None of them had enhancement signatures, even when I scanned for some truly obsolete models.

After a minute or so's aerobic work-out, with half their number down, the rest fled. One of those down with only temporarily disabling injury cursed the leader, the gist of his complaint being that this was twice in one day. Since I couldn't apply the usual Nice Cop/Nasty Cop routine, I settled for an arm-lock and showing him a picture of Stone. It didn't take much persuasion — he averred in the strongest terms that that was the last person they'd picked a fight with, and that he hoped I'd do to him what he'd done to them. I let him drop.

I was tidying my hair which had been a little mussed in the fight when I rounded the next corner, and a smart-poster flickered into life ahead, welcoming me to an entertainment — well, not me personally by name or title, but a generic bit of advertising triggered by a warm body. The images showed dancing, drinking, and various contact sports; but always with the picture of an old man — one who had the air of one who'd had plenty of the original stop-at-sixty extension treatments. It was also a face that had something of the familiar about it.

“Mughi — can you trace this guy in any of the files?” I beamed a shot of the image for him, and kept on walking.

Before I'd gone much further, I finally found signs of habitation, a street market, and people going about their daily lives. By slouching a little, and letting my outfit become a little dingier, I didn't look out of place here, so long as I didn't walk around staring like a stranger — which was getting hard to do, with the place festooned with static as well as active posters with the same old guy's face. Why was a guy who was clearly old enough that he must be Earth-born (for lack of alternative human habitation) — conceivably old enough to have been born before Gagarin walked on the Moon — a local icon?

Data Mughi beamed back to me a few minutes later started to make sense of it. The face was familiar. Claudius “Duke” Ducati, of the Ducati crime family, missing, presumed rubbed out by his competitors a few years previously, still wanted, along with his sons, for racketeering, extortion, and a number of mass murders with what had at the time been cutting-edge wartech agents.

Wandering into an unsolved case like this seemed too much to be a coincidence — until I scanned names on the crime reports. Stone had been one of the few survivors of one of the last mass murders, and he had signed into military service a few weeks later. That gave a plausible motive for his recent actions — and would also make tracking him down a lot easier. If I watched Ducati, I'd sooner or later find Stone, and be able to return with not one, but a whole set of perps.

By evening, by dint of much wandering around, and trading with the only form of specie I had that had currency here — the ration bars I'd packed, doled out to a few indigents as payment for gossip, I'd formed a better picture of what was going on here. Some of what I'd heard left me wishing that I had rather more backup than I did. Other data made me rather glad that I was not going to be subject to a constant barrage of what Kei would consider to be her sparkling wit.

Notionally, the colonial administration was headed by its president, Antonio Chan, another old guy — but that wouldn't have stopped Kei comparing him favourably with — well, let's just say that it was an incident back at Mezuiru and that the scars were still tender. The de facto authority, however rested with the Ducati family, who blended protection and racketeering — especially by controlling what little off-world trade there was, with enough of a panem et circenses policy to smooth over the transition; though from the sound of the mutterings on the street, the original welcome had worn thin by now. The policy continued though — that evening there was going to be an entertainment — some local team sport that seemed to involve mainly violence or its threat — at the sports arena, and both big players were going to be present to show their backing for the teams they sponsored.

Which was why I was standing in a crowd of people mainly shouting abuse at the Ducati family in an ill lit area next to the stadium, on a dank evening, with dampness in the air that was threatening to congeal into rain at any moment. Crowd control seemed mainly to be in the hands of the official police, in their bright yellow jackets, but here and there were more somberly and impeccably dressed types who had the brisk air of those who really had the clout around here. Earlier, a limousine had drawn up, and to cheers, the Chans — Antonio and his trophy wife — had gotten out, and been escorted to the VIP area, and now the mob was awaiting the fashionably late arrival of the Ducatis.

This time, it was a whole motorcade, outriders first, followed by several limousines — muscle in the first, then Ducati and his wife in the next, with the swaggering bravos they had spawned bringing up the rear. The crowd went wild with shouting, but that seemed to be the tolerated level of dissent, and no-one was going to step over the mark just yet. Then a surge burst the thin yellow line, and some of the crowd were hammering on the side of Ducati's limousine as he was being escorted from it, a tall gaunt looking fellow at their lead. It took me a few seconds to recognise him, as the ID images I'd been shown were from before his service days, when he'd sported a pony-tail, but this chap with the military cropped hair was Stone. I'd been right in guessing where to look for him, and had scored first time — or would have done if the crowd hadn't been so thick that I couldn't move.

The cops moved in to suppress this incipient riot, and the crowd surged back, taking me with it, but in glimpses through momentary gaps, I could see Stone being hauled off by one of the guys in yellow, before I lost sight of him completely as the crowd broke and everyone began to try and make themselves scarce. I let myself get dragged along with the current for as long as I had no option, and then managed to slide into the narrow opening of some service way, which brought me into some sort of back-stage area, where all the real work of keeping the show on track was happening, and where some of the pre-match entertainers were now winding down.

Having chosen a dark, and utilitarian look for my outfit, I fortunately didn't look out of place as one of the general run of gophers and, by timing my emergence carefully, I was able to insert myself into this scene without being noticed, taking a hot drink from one of the dispensers, and sitting myself down near one of the performers, so that if one of the staff noticed me, and didn't recognise me, they'd think I was road-crew, and vice-versa.

“Is it a riot out there?” The girl I'd sat near to asked me out of the blue, while my thoughts were turned to how I'd go about extricating Stone from the local slammer in the morning.

“Pretty nearly,” I replied, “but the cops split it up before things could get out of hand.”

She edged a bit nearer, and spoke in a lowered voice. “You're not from here, are you? Have you come after Ducati at last?”

Reading the play of muscle tone and the pitch of her voice told me that either she was an unusual genetic upgrade, was wired to gills with inter-personal skill adaptations like mine, or was sincerely hoping that I was indeed going to clean the place up — she'd been ready to spit after speaking Ducati's name. And given the apparent lack of local high-tech that I'd seen during the day, I was fairly happy that she was genuine.

“He's one of my targets,” I kept it ambiguous, but truthful, “I'm…” No, I wasn't going to blab the whole thing just yet. “My name is Yuri.”

“I'm Cassie.” Pause. “Where…?” I guessed she'd been about to ask operational details.

“At the moment I'm here strictly incognito, gathering intelligence.”

She took that as an excuse for unloading her dislike of the way things were, and that helped to round out the picture I'd picked up, and from there things went to inconsequential small talk, but not before she'd insisted that if I didn't have any local money or a place to stay, that I was going to accept her hospitality.

And then things started getting exciting — Sophie Chan came rushing in from one of the doors that led through to the arena proper, dishevelled, and screaming rape, followed shortly by one of the younger Ducatis, who, by the surprised look on his face hadn't realised that he was about to run into a place with a lot of people about. “Him!” she turned and shouted.

I clamped down on the impulse to intervene, and joined Cassie in assisting the victim, while in the hurly-burly, security were eventually summoned. It was interesting to to note that it was a couple of the guys in smart suits who marched him off in a none too gentle manner, with one of the cops tailing alongside. And even more interesting to spot, as the double doors they hauled him off through swung back and forth, that Stone was now standing in the corridor, deep in conversation with another of the Ducati brothers.

By the time Chan arrived, along with more police, Cassie and I took it as a cue to fade. There were just too many forces at work here — and the 3WA doesn't work on a one planet, one TroCon basis, like we were some enhanced sort of Texas Ranger.

The journey to Cassie's place was a dispiriting ride on the dilapidated public transit system, and then a long hike on darkened streets, to where a number of industrial buildings had been turned into a shanty-town, a far cry from fabled warehouse conversions. As we approached the somewhat ramshackle construction of construction plastic and epoxy, Cassie told me that she didn't live alone — her mother lived with her, needing looking after, as the once fashionable optical upgrades she had installed when she was younger had almost completely failed, and they didn't have the money — or more importantly, the off-world contacts that money could buy — to repair or upgrade them

Mother was asleep when we arrived, and we tiptoed around to avoid waking her, while Cassie put together a basic crash space in one of the little rooms on the mezzanine level within the substantial area they occupied — there was plenty of space left from the original colony construction, so there was plenty of room to go around, just not enough capital, human as well as financial, to manage the upkeep. And with adjusting to planetary time combined with having walked an unaccustomed distance, I declined her offer of supper or night-cap, and prepared to sleep like the dead, unfamiliar surroundings or no.

I think I must have dozed off straight away, because it didn't feel that much later when something jolted me awake. Trying not to tense up, keeping breathing in a slow, sleep like rhythm, I listened intently. Voices — two — a man, and Cassie, arguing in low voices, out in the main living area. I slid out from under the blanket, and slid the door a fraction ajar. No-one in line of sight. Keeping low, I edged on to the balcony, and spotted who else but Stone, who had turned up like the proverbial bad penny.

This was too good an opportunity to pass by. I took the time to morph into uniform, then hopped up onto the hand-rail around the balcony, and carried forwards to land on a soft chair between Stone and the door, and thence to dismount on the floor.

Rising from the dismount I launched into the standard spiel — “Vincent Stone, by the powers invested in my by the 3WA, I place you under arrest for hijacking and murder.”

He reacted the fastest — he was still packing his military upgrades — but they were enough to tell him that I was just as enhanced and armed in addition. Cassie next — looking up at him with a disbelieving expression.

“Vince,” she said, “it is you. You've come home.”

And then she turned on me with a venomous look “And to think I trusted you, that you were after the Ducatis.”

I was about to try and explain, when Mother emerged from one of the other rooms, feeling her way past the clutter. The jewel green fashion eyes looked incongruous in her time-worn face.

“Is that you, my son? And who is that other woman I heard? Are you married now, and come back to settle down?”

I was busy keeping my attention on Stone, lest he bolt, but the words brought a strange play of emotions across his face, and he howled as if in anguish. “My wife is dead, murdered by Ducati, and I have only managed to kill his hirelings.”

“Explain.” I wanted to keep him speaking, giving time for the tension to evaporate.

His gaze went distant as he recalled events.

“I had had some incredible luck — we just clicked together, and she was so perfect. But given the circles we moved in, it was no surprise that Ducati knew of her, and wanted her as a mistress. She spurned him, and he made an example. So I swore revenge — but first I'd need to get the skills and enhancements I'd need to stand a chance, and for that I needed a stint in the military.

“Imagine my surprise on mustering out that Ducati had fled from a gang war — and come here, to the lousy mudball where I'd been born. I pulled in a few favours, and managed to get myself aboard one of his little fleet of tramp traders.”

Maybe I would be able to kill two birds with the one stone, as it were. I made a show of pondering for a while.

“I can be flexible on this. Frankly speaking, you're small-fry — Ducati's a long-time fugitive and a big catch, better still if we can take the whole family. Cooperate with me on this one, and we can see about getting a retrospective deputization authorized. Or the original report might just have been identity theft.”

“But if…? Why were you…?” Cassie spotted a gap in the conversation, but was still too stunned by the rapid pace of events to frame a coherent question, while their mother was just trying to hug Stone, while weeping copiously. Easing the older woman to one side, he sat.

“I needed to be sure where you stood, and I needed to worm my way into the confidence of one of the younger Ducatis. Lex — ” he turned to me to explain “— the heir apparent — may not be quite the randy old goat his father is — was — but does have an eye for the ladies. Having managed an introduction to him, he wanted to prove my willingness to serve his interests by inviting the woman he'd spotted and taken a fancy to earlier that evening. My sister. My own sister.”

He turned to her. “But now I know you despise the Ducatis as much as I do, and I don't have to do this all on my own.”

“One question,” I asked, “I saw you arrested for trying to start a riot, and then talking to — I guess it was Lex.”

“It was Jack, our older brother, who arrested me — though he didn't recognise me any more than the rest of the family. It's been a long time. But Lex — it seems that he's becoming dissatisfied at not running the show, and is starting to set up a shadow organisation within his father's empire. I'd told Jack I was here to take down the Ducatis, and he told me that apart from that, I looked like an ideal candidate for a position Lex had to offer. Lex liked the look of what he saw.

“And now you're here, and now what?”

“We take down the Ducatis. Together.”

Frontier justice was rapid. Next morning, Vince, Cassie and I were at the Tribunal, watching from the public gallery as the case against Piero Ducati was heard. He took it all as a big joke, having lived his life in the world where all children of despots exist, where action and consequence are decoupled, expecting nothing more than a reprimand which he could close his ears to; and the other brothers — apart from Lex, were happy to join in barracking until urged to silence by one of the mob heavies. Claudius himself sat at the back of the hall, with an expression that should have been accompanied by a little thundercloud hovering over his head, while Madame Ducati sat downcast, discretely mopping her eyes at regular intervals.

The evidence and testimony was delivered rapidly, and a verdict of guilty was soon returned. At this point, Ducati père signalled to the defence counsel, who rose to request an adjournment before sentence. Sitting next to me, Stone chuckled, and whispered “Well, that's one hung out to dry.”

I raised an eyebrow in enquiry.

“The mandatory sentence for any sort of aggravated violence against the person here is salvage — breaking for spares.”

I supposed that it made sense if you had a medical infrastructure that — if it matched the rest of the colony infrastructure — would be stretching it to be as good as was available a hundred years ago.

After a bit of back and forth between the legal teams and the judge, the adjournment was granted, and while Piero was taken down for transfer to the remand center, the rest of us filed out into the sunshine. Cassie merged with the crowd, wanting to stay unremarked by the Ducatis — indeed she'd sat with a scarf covering much of her face in the Tribunal Hall — while Stone made straight for where Lex was standing, watching his father depart; and I tagged along in Stone's wake.

Lex's gaze settled on Stone, and then turned to me. I was being appraised.

“Good morning, Vince. No luck with the other business, I see, but who is this tasty morsel?”

I returned his gaze. He was easily old enough to be my father. Maybe back about the time I'd been born, he had been handsome, but now he showed the signs of debauch. Nor was I keen on the person as indicated by the fresh cuts on one cheekbone that spoke of some ritual self-mutilation.

“I'm Vince's business associate. Call me Yuri —” it was a common enough name for a Russian boy or a Japanese girl, that not being currently burdened by having a psychotic redhead in tow, it shouldn't give anything away “— and I'm not your type. Trust me on that. And hands that get out of place get their fingers broken.” It was better to get all that out of the way up front — though I'm sure if it were Kei here in my place, she'd've given the guy a quick road-test before letting him down hard. Lex, in response, held his hands up as if to fend me off, and retreated slightly.

I let Stone take the lead in blarneying Ducati, while I kept an eye on the surroundings — and just as well. Madame Ducati and one of the other brothers had remained behind. He was apparently trying to console her — but the body language was not so much filial as Oedipal. A quick rummage in my bag turned up a compact with a mirror.

“Don't turn round,” I interrupted, “but take a look in this and see what your mother is doing, Mr Ducati.”

He took the mirror and made as if to examine his scarification, while I whispered my conclusion to Stone. “It means he, ahem, loves her rather more than a good boy should,” I added in explanation, responding to a blank look.

Lex had also seen enough to agree with my interpretation “I'll kill him,” he snarled, “I'll kill the little m—”

“Exactly.” He'd hit the nail right on the head, “but it's probably better not to do it right here and now. Let's wait until you catch them in flagrante, and then you'll have no problem proving provocation.”

Lex waited in ill concealed impatience until the rest of the family had departed, then summoned his car, inviting us to join him.

“Are you armed?” I asked Ducati, as we were driven through the shabby streets. He wasn't. “Then you'll want this.” I fetched a small pistol out of my bag, and handed it to him. There was a brief moment when I worried whether paranoia and alarm at having a virtual stranger with a gun in close proximity might have made him suspicious, but he was clearly too angry for sober thought. For my part, I wasn't worried about him being now armed, as I was carrying an IFF transponder which the gun was keyed to.

The Ducati residence was an extensive beach-front property, at the northern edge of the city, and we breezed through the gates, and were deposited at one of the entrances. Stone and I were directed to a table on the verandah — the weather just about being warm enough for such, now it was going on noon — and a flunky sent to get us refreshments. “I shall be down again, shortly, after I've seen my mother.”

We waited nervously. For some minutes, calm prevailed, and then all hell seemed to have been let loose upstairs, with plenty of shouting, and several of the big guys in suits running around. Then things went quiet.

Stone and I looked at each other, nervously. Had our spur of the moment gamble paid off?

Barefoot, clad in an expensive dressing-gown, Claudius Ducati emerged from the house, then stood in the sunshine, and oversaw two of the suits as they dragged Lex off. At our table, we sank down, keeping a very low profile.

“Ooopsie!” I thought. There hadn't been a shot, and our foothold into the Ducatis' inner circle was being bundled into another of the black limos.

While all eyes were on Lex's departure, we made ourself scarce, heading towards the outbuilding where the limos were garaged. There, for once, luck turned in our favour — there were some motorbikes as well as the big cars. I hotwired one, and we were soon heading along the beach, running parallel to to road when the car in which Lex was being taken was driving — and heading back into the city, whereas I'd been expecting a trip out into the wilds for a simple execution.

Some minutes later, all was made clear. We passed the black limo parked outside the police HQ without stopping — but not without being able to see Lex being dragged inside, to be handed over to the cops.

“Back to plan A.” I sighed, as we rounded the next corner, “I have to spring someone from the detention center, just as I'd been expecting to have to do today. Just not the person I'd been expecting to have to spring.”

A couple of hours later, enough time for all the bureaucratic procedures to have worked through, and for me to set a tap into the police networks, I was wriggling my way through a ventilation duct to the cell where Lex was languishing. Fortunately, the security precautions here were laughable, and mostly intended to keep people in, not to keep them out — and for once, it was not even a tight fit in the ventilation duct, and there were no fans on the route I'd be taking.

The duct opened into the ceiling of Lex's cell. When I arrived, he was lying on the bed, staring into the distance, so when I slid the grille out of the way, he was pretty much looking straight at me.

“And what do you want now?” he asked sourly.

“To get you out of here.”

“And why should I trust you this time? That was my parents you set me on to.”

I shrugged, for all the good it did, with only my head showing. “These things happen. But if you want to, you can stay here. No skin off my nose.”

I moved to put the grille back, which seemed to have the desired effect. Lex bounced up, and pulled the bedstead across to under where I lay. When he stood on the bed, I could reach down and take his hands, and with my knees jammed into the sides of the duct for purchase, slowly haul him up.

He was quite a weight, and by the time I'd hauled him up enough that he could scramble the rest of the way, I was ready to lie back and gasp for a while, but I waited until I could replace the grille before pausing for a rest.

As it turned out, we were just in time. While we were wriggling our way back to the service level, where I'd made my entrance, I intercepted an alert on the local network. The remaining Ducati brothers had arrived — I could follow them on the surveillance cameras — and were headed up to the superintendant's office. Their ill-concealed glee behind their attempts to pretend to be solemn suggested that they were up to no good.

What it was became apparent a short while later, while Lex, Stone and I were making our way through the late afternoon streets. My tap in the police network informed me that a salvage order had been made out against Mr Ducati fils. Fortunately for our man, the intended object of the order, he was out of the way. Not so fortunate was young Piero, the expected sentence having arrived, who was now being strapped, screaming and ranting, onto a gurney for the one-way journey to the organ banks.

I felt relieved. The first collateral damage of the case, and it was not only plainly not my fault, but even arguably the result of due process of local planetary law. I went so far as to let myself entertain notions of achieving a clean sweep here, with no civilian casualties.

Next morning, the three of us, all dressed in black, were waiting near the Ducati family shrine, amongst the trees and grave markers that showed where Terrestrial biochemistry was enriching the once barren soil. A freshly turned patch of soil and a sapling showed where the otherwise unusable parts of Piero Ducati were being recycled.

About half an hour after we arrived, about the interval we had expected, the remaining Ducati brothers approached, dressed somberly, for a change, and appearing ready to pay their respects to their brother. But when they reached the plot, rather than hanging their heads or leaving flowers, they looked at each other, looked around to see whether they were being watched, and, not expecting anyone to be lurking in concealment, whooped, and began an impromptu jig on the loose soil.

Our cue. Lex, in a full mourning outfit that was at least a century and a half too formal, stepped out into plain sight, carrying a small wreath, while we stayed behind cover. And the celebration turned to panic.

We were far enough away, and Lex kept his voice low enough, that I couldn't catch his words, but the body language was eloquent : “I have you now!” Within a few minutes, he was established as the alpha male of that pack — they had tried to kill him while he was helpless, and somehow he had survived. Now the retribution could be equally lethal in intent. Without turning to face us, he gave a — somewhat redundant — thumbs up behind his back, and marched off, his brothers fawning before him.

So much for the sons — now what about the father?

He turned up not too long after, with a number of enforcers in tow, to find Stone standing over the grave, where he had tidied up the evidence of the celebration.

Claudius favoured him with a sour look as he knelt to pay his respects, then, that task done, turn on him with a leer.

“You were my son's pimp, weren't you?”

Stone stammered vague agreement, and Ducati continued.

“I need a woman, I want a fresh young one. Call me on this number in an hour.”

He handed Stone a card, and then he turned his back. And I muttered “I have you now!”, and then sighed at the thought of the things I do in the line of duty. But even if Kei were here as well, I don't think I could have passed this particular job over to her — I doubt she would have quite matched the stated requirements.

When all was quiet, Stone turned from where he had been standing, dumbstruck, and came over to me.

“And now what do we do?” he asked. “I don't have the contacts.”

So I explained what was going to happen.

Early afternoon, a rooms-by-the-hour “hotel” in the city. Stone had paid off the concierge with a chunk of the money he'd been given by Lex as business expenses, and I was waiting by the stairs, wearing something rather less revealing than my normal uniform, and fending off the occasional passing trade, while he was in the room at back with screens showing the output of the peepshow cameras, supposedly in case things should not go as intended, but mainly to keep him out of the way.

Ducati arrived dead on time, hat pulled down to conceal his face as he crossed the street from where the car had set him down. As he stepped into the comparative gloom of the interior, I simpered, and toyed with a strand of my hair, letting it fall across my face like a veil, then beckoned to him, as I turned and started to mount the stairs.

He took his hat off in some reflex action, and then showed that he was a spry old goat, by bounding towards me. I increased the speed of my ascent, so I was at the half-landing just ahead of him. As he approached, I bit down on the capsule I had kept in one cheek, and spat the rather foul tasting contents across his face — a new gimmick just under test, which I'd packed in case I needed to use it on Stone.

He stopped, and a look of bewilderment crossed his face.

“I'm under arrest,” he said, with a tone of surprise, “How can that be?”

Now was the time to go in-yer-face public. I changed the tart's outfit into uniform.

“The 3WA always get their man. Claudius Ducati, you know the charge sheet.” Then keying on the comms link “Mughi. Get the Angel over to the pick-up location, and let's have a good sonic boom while you're doing it.”

I led the compliant prisoner down the stairs, letting him stand while I fetched Stone, and then all three together headed out to a nearby open lot. As we were walking, I asked the question that Stone's Cheshire Cat grin demanded. In response, he flourished a recording crystal, then said “You were right about number three son. And this evening it'll be all over the local media.”

We'd chosen this location for maximum public exposure, and by the time Mughi had flipped the Lovely Angel into a gratuitous ascent into the stratosphere, and brought it to a halt just yards overhead, there was quite a crowd of on-lookers to see Ducati hauled aboard a spaceship with obvious 3WA markings by a bona fide TroCon — even if they didn't all recognise them for what they were, enough people would — said ship then hauling out for space with all speed, not even bothering to touch down.

As I maneuvered the compliant Ducati into the medical stasis tank which would hold him while I finished mopping up here, he showed the first glimmers of resistance, the chemical arrest wearing off.

“No, you mustn't take me away. Please, I beg of you. You don't understand.”

“I understand that you're scum,” I told the air, as I slammed the lid on him. I needed a shower, badly — even just being near him left me feeling soiled.

Events moved swiftly after that. By evening, the regime change had taken place with the brutal efficiency of a corporate takeover, and a night's revels were under way in honour of the new “Duke” — and thanks to Stone's recording, two more Ducatis, mother and son, were sleeping soundly aboard the Lovely Angel. Once again, Stone and I were back-stage at the arena, this time in our party outfits.

Cassie had just finished singing her heart out on stage, and tonight Lex was going to make her an offer she couldn't refuse, with no intermediaries to get in the way. We were in tow as loyal flunkies to the new capo, his brothers were following because they had at least to pretend to be loyal, and their respective minders were along on general principles.

I could see the tension in Stone's posture as we walked. Something would happen, soon — the sewage system and the air conditioning being cross-coupled, one might say. We passed a Ladies bathroom, and I took that as a cue to step aside from the crowd.

It seemed that I'd judged things about right. Barely was I safely concealed in one of the cubicles than a commotion broke out — shouts, screams and a few shots. I counted five, then attired as one of the stage-hands, stepped out into the corridor, and joined the hubbub.

All the Ducatis were down, while several of Chan's police were wrestling Stone and one of the minders to the ground, as a number of back stage folk — staff and performers — were emerging to gawp at the scene. Eventually Chan himself arrived, and we lesser mortals were shooed away — but not before we all knew that the three brothers were dead, though not the exact train of events that had led to this end. My guess was that Stone had done what he had trained himself to do, and gone bare-handed for Lex, and that that had precipitated a messy succession struggle.

But with the Ducatis dead or in custody, and Stone in the hands of the proper authorities, my job here was almost done. I made one last use of the tap into the police network to file a formal 3WA extradition request for Stone, and that was it until I could file a report to the Chief, who could organise to have someone come around and pick him up.

I hummed a merry tune as I slipped out into what had become a gloriously star-filled night, with the Milky Way arching overhead, a couple of bright planets, and even the large fuzzy shape of a comet.

“Pick me up, Mughi”, I signalled, as I emerged into one of the gardens around the arena. The Lovely Angel descended quietly from where it had been hovering, fifty miles up, and scooped me up in its tractor beam. Mughi was glad to see me again, and this time I did reward him with one of his special treats, but that didn't seem to satisfy him, as if there was something else he wanted me to do.

“In the morning,” I told him sternly. “At the moment, I need to wind down. And maybe celebrate a little that I've finished a case without causing a disaster.”

Eventually, he seemed to decide that whatever it was wasn't worth him putting himself out, and he stalked off to his den. With the bridge to myself, I set a slow course that would take me to a suitable distance to warp out by the morning. That chore attended to, I headed to the galley to arrange myself just a little celebratory tipple.

Bottle in one hand, glass in the other, I wandered back to the lounge area that doubled as a back-up control centre, and arranged myself a starry night to toast my success under, with the rapidly receding disk of Anfield briefly providing the equivalent of moonlight, until it sank below the horizon described by floor and furnishings. All that spoilt the sweet feeling of satisfaction at a job carried out calmly and precisely was that there was no one here to gloat at.

I guess I must have dozed off after the second glass, because the next thing I remember is all sorts of alarms being triggered. Pushing sleep aside, I pulled up a summary of communications to see what had triggered the noise, and found that the alarms had come from a series of previously quiescent orbital sources around Anfield. The Lovely Angel's on-board systems were tentatively identifying them as part of the terraforming project, demanding command updates.

With a sinking feeling, I panned the view overhead to face towards Anfield, which was currently physically underfoot, and to zoom in.


The light I was seeing this by was tens of seconds old. It had already happened. There was nothing I could do. Helplessly, I watched the comet intersect with the planet, a bright hard point of light as the atmosphere was raised to fusion temperatures, rapidly quenched, replaced by a duller red glow. The impact point was two hundred miles offshore from the city. Already walls of water would be spreading out to wash all evidence of habitation away.

I felt like stamping my foot. I'd done everything so carefully, I hadn't even fired a shot in anger — or been shot at — and it had happened again. But with it clearly being one of the seeding comets bringing volatiles, left over from the failed terraforming, one thing I could be sure of—

It wasn't my fault.

© Steve Gilham 2004