Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2008: Orange Is Just Another Color

Orange Is Just Another Color

by S.K. Richards

 

Even three blocks into Security Force housing on Earth, carelessness could get you killed. I almost missed the stranger in civvies watching me from the park bench across the street.

I’d been too lost in thought. Nothing profound. Just painful. Death. Dying. Quietly; no grand gesture, no tantrums, no fuss. That’s the way Stoller’d done it.

I’d just shipped his ashes to his family on Thuria – along with everything that was his, down to toothbrush and toenail clippers. Without marriage or proof I’d born his children, I had no claim to anything. Except memories – most of which would rip me apart the way I felt today.

Self–pity was no excuse. I should have spotted that stranger a block and a half sooner. The guy sat straighter. Ground his cigarette like he’d been waiting half a pack to spot me.

I slowed, and paid attention. Ocean tang in the breeze; sun uncomfortable below summer–uniform sleeves; sidewalk heat seeping up my ankles. Pair of Sec–Force uniforms entered the third apartment building on my left. Boulevard right, Corporal Lassit played catch with his two boys; half a block down, Lieutenant El’Afid showed off her martial arts warm–up. Three parked land cruisers – two right, one left – all with Sec–Force plates. And the stranger staring at me, hand tapping his thigh.

He wore dark trousers and an aqua tunic that fastened shoulder to hip. Too casual for professional; too dressy for casual. Nervous lawyer? Hired by a couple of Stoller’s fifty odd cousins to make sure I hadn’t stolen something?

The guy rose and crossed the street. Well–tuned body. Couldn’t be more than twenty–two. He stopped five meters in front of me, eyes scanning the narrow band of Land Family geometrics tattooed across my face.

Grandma Matia had inked the first green circle on the bridge of my nose when I was two weeks old; she’d worked the final black hexagons – one at each ear – when I reached puberty. Sec–Force doctors had offered more than once to laser my face clean, but I had no wish to deny my heritage. If people weren’t comfortable with our lifestyle on Roline, that was their problem. If people believed fantasies about our procreation practices, the problem sometimes became mine, and I dealt with it.

The stranger studied my tattoo like he knew one Family pattern from another. Like he wanted to make sure I was me. After twenty years away from home, I knew one stare from another. Whatever this guy wanted, he was not comfortable asking.

“Oneek Mellon?” he said.

Senior Specialist Mellon.” I kept right on walking. “Who are you?”

He fell in beside me. “Corporal Gilas Ledowski, Sec–Force Personnel. Could I speak with you a moment?”

“Sec–Force business or your own?”

“I’m sorry for your loss. I came because Sergeant Stoller died of damaso. I know how hard nursing him must have been and I’m hoping that’ll give you reason to help me.”

“I doubt it.” I didn’t like people who didn’t answer my questions. Especially Personnel people. Every so often the brass over there tried to scare us off the big four: alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and dims’oil. All carried the same useless stickers:

 

Warning!
Potentially life–threatening
to certain individuals
genetically prone to addiction.

Probability: Ledowski wanted my testimony for the next round of warnings. Damaso. Fatality rate: 100%. High correlation with addiction to body creams spiked with dims’oil, distillate of Thuria’s renowned dimsilla flowers. If you don’t care about yourself, care about the people you’ll leave behind. Something equally inane.

I turned at my building’s petunia–edged sidewalk. Ledowski turned with me.

“It won’t hurt to listen,” he said. His voice tightened. “Look, I know you can take care of yourself and you’re not afraid to buck the system.”

“Really,” I said dryly. I stopped at the front door and faced him. Fifteen years younger, seven inches taller – and uncomfortable. Because I outranked him? “How did you come by all this knowledge, Corporal Ledowski?”

“The anomaly. Sec–Force physicians assign damaso patients to group homes and hospitalize them toward the end. Sergeant Stoller lived with you the whole time and died at home.”

When the neon yellow in Stoller’s eyes had darkened orange, Major Doctor Somebody–or–other explained that Sec–Force didn’t buy liver transplants for dims’oil addicts. He tried to hospitalize Stoller and reassign me. It hadn’t worked.

“You paid for your own hospice training,” Ledowski added. “The list of officers who approved extended leave made me want to salute the computer screen. You screwed the bureaucracy.”

Well now. Seems Corporal Ledowski from Personnel had access to my file, footnotes and all. By the time banked leave ran out, I’d pulled stats to prove home care was cheaper than hospitalization, even with me limited to updating space station schematics from the apartment. All I’d had to do was talk fast. “What else do you know, Corporal?”

He glowed like he’d been waiting for me to ask. “Planetary records on Roline still list you as a member of the Mellon Family. You grew up with seven grandparents, three mothers, five fathers and three younger sisters. Your sisters now have four husbands and three children under ten. The Mellons are local aristocracy. Unfortunately, two–thirds of the galaxy equates that tattoo with drugs and drunken orgies.”

No one but Stoller knew that much about me, and he was dead. “What do you want, Ledowski?”

“Half an hour of your time. Please. It’s important.”

The only thing he’d missed was how damned tired I was of people eyeing my tattoo with gonad imaginations. Too tired, in fact, to spend one more day policing recycled–air, recycled–water, recycled–lives space stations. I was going home.

I’d babysit, help with schoolwork, weave stories for the next generation about worlds where farmland was measured in thousands of square kilometers, not hundreds of square meters. I’d walk Mellon Arable Land until my legs gave out, and then I’d ask one of the older kids, or one of the new husbands, to help me settle where I could watch the clouds in Roline’s expressive sky.

Most women who left Roline lost home forever. Names excised from all records. Their Departure Ceremonies ended with turned backs and stony silence. Not mine.

The council chamber overflowed with witnesses. I stood up front, close enough to see the stern set of Matron Aglon’s mouth as I relinquished all claim to Mellon Family Land, Sister–husbands and Next–generation children.

“Oneek Mellon,” Matron Aglon boomed, “turn and face the Mellon Family. Know their verdict.”

All eighteen stood in unison. Each one carried a single shaft of Roline rye, green this time of year, tangy like cut weeds. One by one they passed in front of me. They knew I loved our Land, but I needed to wander. Each laid an unbroken symbol of harvest in my open hand. They returned to their places; I clutched the bouquet of grain.

Even at seventeen I could keep head and heart in check. My throat tightened, but my voice held.

“In return for a secure place in Mellon home and lineage, I vow on my life and loss of place that I will never claim a husband. I will never bear a child.”

So damned young. I hadn’t counted on Stoller.

Nor had I understood the depth of the galaxy’s ignorance. I think I invited Ledowski up because he knew my tattoo wasn’t code for I–organize–orgies. He wanted something he wouldn’t talk about out here in the open. Not sex – we’d settled that – and sure as hell not a new training vid. What was left?

]

Even with a breeze tugging thin curtains and sun warming the carpet, the apartment felt closed and cold. The pungent stench of Stoller’s medication had soaked into the walls; the silence echoed agony and drawn–out dying.

I pointed Ledowski toward the two–cushion sofa in my cramped living room. Since I’d gone through all the beer and whiskey last night, I offered him water, then settled in a straight chair the other side of the coffee table.

Ledowski sat at attention. I waited for explanations.

“I’m Thurian,” he said at last. “Gilas Lid’oushk. Outsiders heard Ledowsk and made it Ledowski. I let it pass.”

Before I could ask why I cared, he pinched out the full eyecover inserts all Thurians wore and stored them in a brown case. He set the case on the coffee table. The whites of his eyes were naked.

“Can you read?” he asked.

He wasn’t talking text. He meant human anomaly 573. The whites of Thurian eyes could reveal more than a dose of truth–serum. Fortunately for Thurians, the code was more intricate than Roline land–analysis iconography. Beyond a few basics, it was also harder to master. I’d excelled in every iconography course school offered. Thurian autonomic eye language had taken longer.

Ledowski met my gaze without flinching. Strange. Most Thurians put eye–readers in the same category as a radiation overdose. I caught a pastel green flicker patterned for hope.

“Beyond the obvious,” I improvised, “most Thurians can’t read each other’s eyes. What makes you think I can?”

“One of my cousins knew Stoller’s family. Unlike most, they never wore covers at home. He says Stoller was the sort who’d have been open with a woman he loved. You’re a schematics specialist. You work with patterns and colors.” The curved green hope in his eyes intensified. “I’m willing to bet Stoller cased his covers when the two of you were alone and he taught you everything you couldn’t learn for yourself.”

“It’s okay, Neeki. Try again. I trust you.”

 

I sipped water, silencing Stoller, buying time. Fact: The general population usually wore eyecovers to match their clothes. I used mine when I wanted to hide. Blue had been handy this morning when the mirror shocked me with even worse return than the hangover I deserved and the grief I expected. I was glad I had them, because Ledowski was studying me as if he could read my sorrow as easily as I could read his eyes.

“And if I break it to you that your cousin was wrong?”

Ledowski’s facial expression didn’t flicker, but hope morphed to jagged frustration. “Then I’ve wasted your time and mine. I’ll apologize and leave.”

When I said nothing more, he stood and reached for his eyecovers. “My condolence on your loss.”

“Sit.”

He breathed a thank–you, sat, opened the brown case.

“Leave ’em out.” He’d played for shock value. I needed to know why he was here. Covers off was good as a telepathic probe.

He hesitated, then snapped the case shut and set it back on the table. I didn’t want to taunt the man. Just needed to know. Unless he had something that interested me, he’d be on his way.

“What does eye reading have to do with Stoller?”

Ledowski again met my gaze squarely. “Rothport Brothers murdered him. Deliberate, just not personal.”

Yeah. Like brewers “murdered” alcoholics. I’d have told him to leave if I hadn’t caught the pain in his eyes.

“With my cousin,” he said, “murder was both deliberate and personal.”

“And you know this how?”

“She worked in Rothport Brothers’ labs. They run animal tests for themselves and most of the dims’oil cartel. They use Thurian firrels. Like Thurians, firrels are highly resistant to addiction, which gives everyone good results for official reports. Rothport hired Nunlia because she could handle the little critters. They rile easily and when they’re caged and their quills ooze poison. Makes it hard to oil their bellies for testing.”

“Do I care about lab rats?”

“No. It’s just that Nunlia was good with them. Six months ago, she gave me a fancy brooch. She was scared. She said the brooch was the ‘key to everything’ and asked me to hold it until she sent for it. She said she and Delman – her supervisor. Also Thurian. He and his family knew every stand of wild dimsilla for hundreds of kilometers. When off–world money arrived with big plans, he helped stock the first plantation. He was just a kid.”

“Do I care about Delman?”

“I hope so, yes.” Ledowski downed half the glass of water. “Nunlia never told me what she’d been doing, just that someone reported her and Delman to security. A manger named Cory Jensen. She was afraid of Jensen. She said she and Delman had to run.”

His eyes darkened toward russet. Mini–fireworks spelled tight control over anger. “Two days later she ‘accidentally drowned’ in Delman’s swimming pool. Delman vanished. Until this.”

He pulled a letter from an inside tunic pocket and handed it across. “It’s a copy.”

Mr. Ledowski – send Nunlia’s brooch to her fun house with a dexterous falsilom you trust with your life. I’ll send back everything she promised. Signed: Delman.

“Think of yourself as my falsilom, Neeki.””Stoller, if that translates ‘concubine,’ one of us is moving out.”

 

Falsilom was Thurian for dedicated student willing to learn or dedicated disciple willing to be instructed by a master. Whatever Delman had in mind, it involved training.

“What did your cousin promise?”

“All she said was ‘the key to everything.’ I figure it’s evidence for Citizens Health Guard. They’ve been trying to get the dims’oil cartel into court on criminal health endangerment charges for almost a decade.”

Ledowski’s anger sharpened with frustration. “When I took the letter to Health Guard, their lead litigator told me she wasn’t about to send someone out after Delman on the strength of one letter and hearsay.”

“Where’s your cousin’s fun house? And what’s this got to do with me?”

“Her dad helped build it. She liked to play there.”

“Where, Ledowski?”

He squirmed; his eyes rusted with guilt. “Thuria’s second space station. Cartel owns the main one. A group of plantation owners who refused outside financing cobbled an alternate shipping hub when the cartel raised docking and transfer fees. The plantation owners grow wild dimsilla. Pink flowers, not white.”

Pink. White. This wasn’t about flowers. “Delman’s on Station Sotros?”

Ledowski nodded. I grunted. That was like escaping a solar flare by diving for the event horizon of a black hole. Kindest words I’d ever heard had Sotros a stinking hulk of welded leftovers. No place I’d send anyone. But I could see kids thinking they’d found the hide–and–seek homeworld. Hiding was one of the main reasons updating schematics took priority over patrol duty: isolate pockets where kids, smugglers and vagrants felt safe. Kids and smugglers, you wanted to find; vagrants you tolerated, but you didn’t want them dead. You had to know where to send rescue if air was cut or heat failed.

“Second time, Corporal: What’s this got to do with me?”

Ledowski’s eyes waffled between green–tint hope and rusty guilt. “The colonel out on Sotros requisitioned an eye–reader. I was ordered to stamp it volunteer only. You qualify.”

“To read eyes on Sotros?” Wasn’t gonna happen. Nine–tenths of the staff would be Thurian. Station–dwellers had a nasty habit of sealing their enemies in shipping canisters bound for uninsulated holds on departing freighters. Not the way I wanted to die.

“Put ’em back in. Door’s that way.” I pointed.

Ledowski didn’t move. “Did you ever wonder why Stoller succumbed to dims’oil when the addiction rate for Thurians is less than half a percent?”

“I thought immunity was my birthright, Neeki, to make up for the eyes. Looks like I was wrong.”

“It happens,” I said.

“Not by itself.”

“Meaning?”

“Rothport’s been engineering dimsilla to break firrel resistance, heighten addictive properties. Something went wrong. New dims’oil kills five times as many addicts as the original.”

The blue pattern of certainty in Ledowski’s eyes flickered, brightened toward purple. “You’re lying.”

He blinked and backed off. “Okay. More like triple. That’s still significantly higher. Rothport Brothers sold their research. Even some of the plantation owners bought in. And even with increased death rates, statisticians projected huge profits. They counted on increased sales for rising addiction, population growth and market expansion. Dims’oil still hasn’t fully penetrated sectors six and seven.”

Ledowski’s face tightened; his eyes raged. According to him, Delman and Nunlia’s manager – Renee something – ordered them to send her every file on new dims’oil. Even backups. She had them euthanize and cremate the animals used to test the new oil. Then she ‘restructured’ the division and made someone else responsible for submitting product sample to the authorities for parallel testing.

“As if the two of them were too dense to understand what was going on,” said Ledowski, his voice low and tight. “Nunlia objected and Jensen killed her – or had her killed. Someone at Rothport killed Stoller, too – they just didn’t have his name. First batch of modified dims’oil went into lotions distributed in sector four. You and Stoller were on Station Rankin when he reported damaso symptoms.”

The room closed in. Ledowski wasn’t lying this time. If we’d been stationed in a different sector, Stoller might be alive today. I felt hot, bloated, like I was being microwaved. I laced my fingers to keep my hands from trembling.

“It gets worse.” Ledowski’s eyes mixed hope and anger. “The Trial Management Council told Health Guard to fork over actionable evidence in the next five months or stop pestering them.” He leaned toward me. “I can’t get out to Sotros without raising suspicion. I can’t do a thing to help Health Guard. But you can.”

“If I volunteer for Sotros.” Volunteer meant three years before I could request transfer. “I thought immunity was my birthright, Neeki. . . .” I almost missed what Ledowski said.

“I can classify Sotros as hazardous duty for an eye–reader. That’ll halve the transfer restriction. Eighteen months. I’m hoping you’ll think getting Delman’s evidence out to Health Guard is worth a year and a half anywhere.”

If I resigned, went home, walked away from this, I could sit on the porch and enjoy an old–fashioned Roline electric blowout, one of those angry, charcoal–sky storms that thundered to burst your eardrums and left you thinking the hair on your arms would pull free.

I could have walked, too – if it hadn’t been for rumors about one of Stoller’s Thurian buddies back on Rankin being addicted to dims’oil. I hadn’t believed it. Not then. Stoller deserved a hell of a lot more than ending his life as a collateral damage statistic. Turning my back would have betrayed him and everything we’d had together.

“If you find out Delman’s got something,” Ledowski continued cautiously, “I’ve got a cousin planetside who can come to you. She’s got an in–law. . . . “

Thurians always had cousins. I didn’t need Ledowski’s. If Delman produced something real, I had my own way off Sotros. Not one I liked, but it was sure as hell mine.

]

From space, Sotros looked like an ordinary dual–platter station with a pair of ten–level discs circling a cylindrical core. By the time my flight docked, I knew station insides didn’t match what faced out.

For three generations, Thuria had virtually been lost. Self–sufficient people had figured things out for themselves when geophysicists discovered nickel, zinc and cadmium closer to civilization. Altered trade routes had stranded Thurians. Dims’oil reminded the galaxy they existed.

The cartel controlled commercial traffic these days. Fastest way out had been a gypsy rig, the kind where you don’t ask too many questions about the cargo.

Shitty flight. My one fellow passenger avoided me. Probably a paranoid Thurian on his way home. Two weeks out, the captain called my quarters with a private, after hours dinner in mind. Fact: I worked out. I took care of my complexion. I kept my hair short and clean. I was vain enough to pluck my brows even if I seldom wore makeup. I had nice eyes, a good smile – when I used it – and good teeth. But the only thing likely to draw a captain’s attention to a Sec–Force non–com was a Roline tattoo and a barroom imagination.

I explained how flattered I was – usually a good start to a go–fuck–yourself ending. “Your crew talks about you with more respect than most gypsy riggers allow their officers.”

“Thank you.” He relaxed. “Is that a yes?”

I frowned. “I’m a little concerned about conversation.”

The man almost drooled. “You needn’t be. We’ll simply get to know each other.”

“But you see, that’s what worries me. Over dinner you make small talk with innocent questions I won’t answer about my specialty, which is finding likely hiding places for anything or anyone not officially registered. I ask innocent questions you won’t answer about your ship’s blue prints and cargo capacity. Next thing you know, we no longer respect each other.”

His anger flashed and vanished. “Perhaps you’re right. It was only a thought. Have a pleasant trip.”

Two days later, a crewman who hadn’t made the quarter century mark – big guy, not bad looking – slipped into the elevator right behind me. He jammed the emergency stop and twisted to pin me against the wall. In ten seconds I’d demonstrated how vulnerable eyes were to jabbing fingers, how vulnerable throats were to a pair of thumbs and how vulnerable a crotch was to a well–swung knee. Didn’t even need to prove I knew how to make a fist. But I couldn’t resist explaining that if you’re attacking a woman in Sec–Force uniform it’s not a good idea to wear long hair. I grabbed a hand full of blonde, aimed his head, and broke his nose on the guard rail before I got the elevator going again.

Left him choking, bleeding, and alive.

The kid wouldn’t have dared attack unless the Captain’d let it slip he’d overlook crew–passenger irregularities. I gave up showers, slept sitting and carried my stunner 24/7. Kept myself busy studying Sotros regs and schematics.

One look at the post–construction updates made it clear only shipping docks met standards. Prints showed level after level of closed–off spaces too big for closets, too small for quarters, most of them connected by corridors that twisted like contour lines on a Roline topographical map. Damned paradise for smugglers and anyone not wanting to be found. Little wonder Delman chose this place. And little wonder he’d set up a sequence of message exchanges on the station bulletin board so he could vet me.

I turned to Sotros board protocols and hoped they hadn’t changed since I’d downloaded back at headquarters. The morning I debarked, I was itchy, smelly, well–informed and in need of sleep.

I should have cleaned up in the transient showers, lockered my duffle and picked it up after I had my billet. Should have. Ledowski’d been more than eager to hand over Nunlia’s brooch. I’d booby–trapped the bauble to Delman’s specifications, but I still wasn’t keen on stashing a gem–encrusted “key to everything” in a public locker of unknown security. Besides, I was too damned out of sorts to worry what Colonel Kellal would think.

Probability: Any colonel stuck out this far was on the bad side of someone whose shoulders glinted brighter than his. He wasn’t going to be fussy. I headed for his office as–is, duffle slung over my shoulder.

]

Kellal’s uniform smelled of starch and insignia polish. So much for not being fussy. He sat behind a polished desk in a commendation–plastered office. The place looked like a recruiting vid. Nothing on the desktop but com–screen, coffee mug – on a coaster! – and a short stack of hard–copy folders.

Disapproving eyes swept me nose to duffle–on–floor. His mouth pulled like I was the lengthy power shutdown needed to make repairs. Then he tapped the com–screen. “Send for Cramer.” Made it sound like Cramer was trash pickup.

“You’re a topography and recovery specialist with patrol certification. I sent for an interrogator.”

“They told me you sent for an eye–reader, sir.”

Kellal scowled so tight his lips vanished. “You better be the best damned reader in my half of the galaxy, Mellon, and for the next eighteen months you keep wise–ass to yourself.”

“I am, sir. I will.”

“Good, because I’m glad you’re here. Just understand, I can’t play favorites and I don’t hand out second warnings.”

“No reason to, sir.”

His mouth twisted. “Records say you lived with a Thurian Sec–Forcer for seventeen years.” He checked a paper file. “Sergeant Walter Stoller. Is that where you learned to read their eyes?”

“Yessir.” Ledowski’s cousin was right. Stoller had cased his covers whenever we were alone. “Tell me what you see, Neeki.” The raw honesty of it brought us so close I sometimes thought he’d done my breathing. He’d been smart and tough and I’d have worked latrine passage half across the spiral to spend a week with him.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Mellon, but I can’t afford to have you grieving all over us.”

“No sir.” I wouldn’t give him or anyone else the satisfaction.

“Good. Sec–Force elsewhere might have substituted for the Land Family protection you grew up with, but don’t count on it here. Short of assault, misunderstandings about Roline and that tattoo are your problem.”

They usually were. I’d learned to ignore slurs a long ways back. Our choices worked for Roline. Group marriage kept precious farmland intact. Sisters inherited acreage jointly and shared as many husbands as the Land needed; we swirled eggs and sperm anonymously to procreate. One sister – our Family chose by lottery – carried the embryo. All sisters maintained mothers’ rights; all husbands were fathers. Never expected Kellal to understand the protected environment so many parents created.

“My Thurians wear covers,” he said, “but none of them wants to work with a reader, so you’ll partner with Cramer when you’re not working interrogation. He’s anomaly–free, but he doesn’t like working with women. I’ll tell you what I told him: You two make a problem out of working together, that’s your business. Just don’t make it mine.”

“No sir.”

He tapped his com–screen. “Send him in.”

When the door whooshed behind me, I spun and nearly pulled my stunner. An olive–skinned lieutenant burst in and tripped to a halt. His eyes swept my tattoo before dropping to the hand resting on my weapon.

“Jeezuz, Kellal. Ask the sperm swirl pretty please don’t draw on me, would you?”

“He’s on our side, Mellon.” I dropped my hand. “Cramer, meet your new partner.”

Cramer snorted. We weren’t going to like each other, but we’d work together. He’d need the last insult to establish seniority and I was smart enough to let him have it. Sure enough, his nose wrinkled and he sniffed my direction. “Do us all a favor. Get her to a working shower. Sir.”

That’s when I spotted it. Brackish blue–green worry flecks in the outer corner of each eye, so faint even another reader might have missed it. This guy was Thurian – and Kellal didn’t know it. Cramer’d forged his genetics. Why? Of all the things to lie about, being Thurian or not–Thurian – especially on Sotros – made no sense.

Kellal tossed me a station comlink, a billet swipe key and an address. “I want you showered and down in interrogation in forty–five minutes. Full outfit.” To Cramer: “She’ll report to staff–rec when we’ve finished with Brian. Dismissed.”

Cramer glared my direction. I hefted my duffle.

]

I barreled through concentric ring corridors that sprawled double normal width only to shrink to dual lane and take an awkward jog ten centimeters up, or down. Core–to–rim radial corridors sprouted anywhere they happened to fit, making it impossible to predict distance and I was in a hurry. Not for time to shower, Kellal had been fair about that, but to post my first message to Delman. The sooner I made contact, the sooner I knew whether or not he had evidence worth the trip.

My trek ended at the only door in a cul–de–sac capillary off a radial. The place smelled like ripe oats. Possibility: Someone had been using these quarters to stash bags of grain “misplaced” during cargo transfer out on the docks. Meant I didn’t have the only key.

I dropped my duffel on the bunk and pulled a tape–patched chair to the com–screen. Arranging untraceable posts was one of the tricks I taught Stoller the night – cancel. I wasn’t ready to remember.

Logging an untraceable post would have gone faster if I hadn’t needed sleep, but I managed. Dee Dee, I made it. Elf.

All I had to do was play cryptographer with Delman’s three reply postings, not one of them to Elf directly. First, a message from Evie to Frank (E–F) with the first half of an address embedded; another from Lori to Lenny (L–L) with the second half of the address, and finally a message from Flora to Eddy (F–E) giving me date and time for the rendezvous. I had no idea what “elf” meant to Delman, but that was the name he’d given Ledowski and the name he spelled forward and backward with his imaginary people. If he monitored the bulletins, he’d post a message from Evie to Frank by tonight.

]

Hair still damp, I reported to Kellal prepared for trouble: wrinkled but fresh khakis, cuffs, stunner, short–stick, coil, comlink snapped to my collar. I needed to prove myself to win a little breathing room.

“Thurians won’t admit it, Neeki, but sometimes they want the truth, even if that means an eye–reader. I’ll teach you all I can. Just promise me you won’t reveal the truths no one needs to know.”

I’d kept that promise. Assisted in roughly a hundred interrogations of Thurian suspects. Worked with crack interrogators. Colonels who ran stations weren’t among them.

Kellal glanced at me, at his watch, and at the com–screen outside interrogation room two. We had three angles on prisoner Brian.

Kellal’s eyes narrowed; beyond that his expression was sealed. Brian was easier. He rocked back on his chair looking smart–assed bored. And young. Eighteen, twenty. His forehead shone with a thin film of sweat and his fingers fluttered. Withdrawal from something.

“How long you had him?” I asked.

“Long enough to know he’s addicted to his aftershave.”

I grunted. Dims’oil. Silbo Taylor and Sons, Laura June Cosmetics, Michael’s Lotions for Men. All those friendly–sounding corporations swore their product’s only side effect was strong body odor for those who sweat a lot. Young Brian had probably believed them, just like the rest of us.

“Got him on smuggling,” Kellal said. “Minor player in deep enough to have useful information. I’ve got his eyecovers. You’re going to tell me what he’s saying.”

Kellal strode in. I followed.

Brian eyed me with curiosity. “She training you boys in group orgies, Kellal? Can I come?”

I pulled a chair round to get clear view of his eyes. Kellal sat on the corner of the table, casually in command. “Tell me what Jack Terry’s been shipping in and out of bay E–78.”

“Terry buys and sells. You want details, ask someone else. I ain’t in sales.”

Kellal’s eyes flicked my direction. “He knows,” I said.

At that, Brian’s eyes smudged yellow–green uncertainty. “I got rights. You can’t use a telepath.”

“You telepathic, Mellon?”

“Inert as argon.”

“Brian, what was that last incoming shipment?”

“Boxes said corn meal. I didn’t open them.”

“He did,” I said. With that, Brian shot out of his chair; his eyes stuttered purple defiance.

“I want my covers. She’s the same as a goddamned telepath.” Kellal shoved him back down. Brian closed his eyes. “I want Terry’s lawyer.”

“Son, the minute my reader docked, Jack Terry knew I’d know everything you do. His lawyer won’t be back.”

Brian opened wide enough to hate me. “You’re dead, you goddamned freak. Stone fucking dead.”

“Yeah, I know. Trouble for you is death’s not scheduled today.”

The kid’s eyelids dropped. He folded his arms with a tremor.

“Without Terry’s lawyer,” Kellal said, “you’re public funded. Two weeks for approval and another four waiting for someone to free up.” He plucked a blue–labeled vial from his shirt pocket and tapped it on the table. The kid’s eyes slit. Widened. His tongue played along his lips, coveting that two inch cylinder of raw dims’oil. Connoisseurs dabbed that stuff like perfume.

Kellal twisted the vial to give Brian a better view of the gold crown on the label.

“Tell me about that corn meal and you get oil.” Kellal’s voice flowed smooth as aged whiskey. He wasn’t so bad at interrogation after all. “Crown quality raw,” he crooned. “All you want. Otherwise you go back empty. Take it, Brian. The boys in there won’t like it when your nerves start burning. They’re impatient about the screaming.”

Brian’s eyes ate through the label. He wiped drool against his shirt sleeve. Withdrawal would have had him talking. He’d get to the point he’d say anything to stop the pain. Just like torture. If I weren’t here, he’d have babbled something believable or half true and collected his oil. Now all he had was the truth.

Kellal tilted the vial on its side and rolled it along the table with a well–manicured index finger. “Son, you know what they can make you do for a drop of this?”

Brian squirmed; his eyes seeped gray that brightened to neon blue–green. I’d never seen that particular fear pattern. It took a second to realize it was the sickening fear of knowing. Poor kid had probably been pinned down, forced to watch the alpha male demonstrate the food chain on someone who’d promised to protect him.

“Fern pellets,” he rasped.

Brian had my full attention.

Kellal swept the vial off the table. “Convince me.”

“I swear. Fern pellets. Ask her. Tell him. Fuck you, Kellal, that’s all it was.”

“He’s telling the truth.” Ledowski’s lecture about animal testing drummed like a song fragment. “They use Thurian firrels. . . . use Thurian firrels. . . .” What was the chance Delman and firrel smugglers just happened to end up on Sotros at the same time? Delman could be raking in money handling caged cargo with poison quills. He could be training handlers.

“Firrel fern,” Kellal said, his voice flat and angry. “Where’s Terry sending quilled rats?”

“All I did was feed ’em. No one told me shit.”

I nodded. Brian was about to wet his pants.

By the time Kellal tossed the vial over, ropy veins pulsed at his temple. But he stalked out with the address, dates and times he needed to cross reference departing ships. “Frigging animal trade. Idiots looking for live danger.” Then, “That’s it for today, Mellon. I’ll let Cramer know you’re coming. Elevator seven.”

]

A carriage with nothing but me and graffiti swept horizontally from zeta sector over to gamma, then slowed, juggled into vertical shaft alignment and shot upward seven levels. Slowed as we approached eight. Adrenalin surged; this was not the duty to pull when you’d been dealt an anti–social partner and you needed sleep. Best I could hope for was a no–hassle shift and a message from Delman before I slept.

The door opened with a grease–starved whine. I stepped into the chaotic sound–sight–smell of staff–rec. Staff: Jobs ending with “worker.” Dock–and–cargo worker, turbo worker; supply, hydroponics, maintenance, sanitation. Workers. On shift, they kept the station running; off shift, they played hard and loud and sometimes lethal.

In one sweep I took in flashing shop names, clean shirts, threadbare jeans, sweaty tees, arguments, spicy foods, naked legs, laughter, nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, littered deck and a freshly painted lime green door that looked like it belonged someplace else. Cramer leaned against the bulkhead across from me, casual as if he traveled with impunity in or out of uniform.

He straightened and took off left. “You’re on my time, sperm swirl.”

The fact that I didn’t like the man faded to irrelevance; up here I needed to trust him. “How many Forcers in range?”

“What’s the matter? Not feeling so safe without your Thurian lover tight to your ass? Sleeping with one guy must have been rough detox after rotating sex. How’d you manage? Or maybe you didn’t. He ever find out?”

Cramer could have come by intel half a dozen ways. “You got a hack into headquarters? Wire in Kellal’s office?” If he was worried I’d spot him for Thurian all he’d have had to do was slap in eyecovers. He didn’t make sense. I didn’t like people who didn’t make sense.

“I hear their eyes fire red with a hard–on. That right?”

“You got a point?” Face straight, I kept an even pace. The thought of Stoller’s eyes fading to deep burgundy swept up horrible, empty hunger. Gods I missed him.

“They usually stick to their own. What did an orgy specialist do for him, anyway? Kinky sex?”

“Kinky and frequent.” This bigot wasn’t going to rile me. I hadn’t planned to worry over him hiding his lineage, but about now that nugget of blackmail nestled close and comfortable as the short–stick tapping my thigh. “You going to brief me or collect tidbits for your next porno?”

It took roughly ten minutes to figure out Cramer knew staff–rec down to the rust in the privies, and there wouldn’t be a crowd at his funeral. He stopped for snuff at a pharmacy in an oddly angled capillary. Since he clearly had business with the owner – who eyed me with distrust – I shopped. I needed shower lotion. I had trouble finding my brand. Cramer didn’t wait.

I caught up from behind in time to see a burly worker stumble out of a maintenance alcove. Cramer shoved him aside and kept walking. The worker pulled a mean looking cargo hook. “Cramer!” I yelled. The worker swung. Cramer dodged. I wacked the hook out of the guy’s hand with my short stick. He reeked of alcohol. Cramer whirled and took the guy down with a foot to the knee. I kicked the hook out of reach. I expected Cramer to cuff him, but he grabbed the guy’s right hand instead.

“I warned you, Argo. Don’t fuck with me.”

He wrapped Argo’s index finger with the coil we used for field hobbles and snugged it rigid, then bent it with a flick of his remote. I heard the bone crack. Argo gurgled.

Cramer released the coil and slipped it around Argo’s middle finger. Jeezuz, I had to work with this sociopath. The second bone cracked louder than the first.

When Cramer wound Argo’s ring finger, my stomach twisted. I bent over my insane partner like I was interested and whispered, “One more and I report your forged genetics.”

Having played the only trump I held – a damned sight sooner than I’d planned – I turned and collected the cargo hook. A mountain of silence crushed my backside.

“You’re under arrest,” Cramer finally snarled and smashed Argo’s face on the floor before cuffing him and yanking him upright. “Hope you like solitary.”

He steered Argo toward the elevator. His body radiated a fury that barely colored the whites of his eyes. That took damned steely biofeedback. Stoller had tried and failed five times over. “Not worth the migraines, Neeki.”

Cramer evidently disagreed. He was dead–on serious about hiding his genetics. Could be someone with an ugly vendetta up his – maybe her – ass was buying names of Thurian Sec–Forcers. Whatever the motive, Cramer passed for anomaly free. Any Thurian who could pull that off and forge Sec–Force records to back it up wasn’t going to overlook loose ends.

]

Probability: Cramer would make it look like I took a stupid risk. Or that one of the transients had a grudge. He’d wait a week, maybe two. Give Kellal time to think we’d worked it out. In any case, I was safe tonight. I grabbed a couple of “fresh today” sandwiches after my shift and headed for quarters.

I ate with one hand and logged onto station bulletins with the other. I wasn’t naive enough to think Delman could do more than wound the cartel. Drag them into court. Me, I wanted to crucify them for bioengineering Stoller’s death. For forcing me to live and die without him.

All too soon, message headers started blending together, lulling me to sleep. Worries floated, nuggets in a zero–g mind. Cramer’s vendetta. Delman’s promises. My escape from Sotros.

And there it was! Evie’s message to Frank. Beyond a snarly “you took your time, dearest,” Delman gave me the code for radial corridor two and a capillary numbered so high it had to be close to an outer rim. He should have given me the sector, too. Alpha thru omicron was a big choice.

Dee Dee, I posted, blood’s flowing hot. Talk to me. Elf. I finished both sandwiches and fell into bed fully dressed, wondering if I was here for Stoller . . . or for me.

]

Delman’s second message was there next morning. Lori told Lenny in a pair of five–line, poorly rhymed stanzas that the affair was over and she’d filled a dumpster with the trash he’d called gifts. Two stanzas: Disc B. Five lines each: level five. By a dumpster. But the stubborn bastard still hadn’t given me the sector, which left fifteen to choose from. If his last message didn’t clear it up–

My ears rang. If I’d traipsed all the way out here and ended up with nothing to kick Rothport in their Brotherly balls, nothing to make up for what I–

My hands shook; I broke into a sweat.

Next thing I knew I was on my feet throwing the waste basket at the wall. I wanted to throttle Delman. In that instant, I came as close as I ever would to understanding Cramer’s need to crack fingers.

I splashed my face and called it clean, then salved my arms with high octane shower lotion and reported to staff–rec. Cramer was straight business all morning, even allowed me a quick breakfast stop. That afternoon he pointedly smashed the wrist of a light–fingered woman who’d already surrendered. His eyes narrowed and bored into me with savagery hard to misinterpret. “She chattered.

I hoped to hell I met Delman before Cramer decided it was time to be rid of me.

]

Delman’s final message arrived that night.

Eddy, I’ll change, I swear. Can’t go one more week. Flora.

Eleven words. Meeting time 11:00 one week from today. We rotated to swing shift next week which would have been fortunate if Delman had given me the frigging sector.

I reread every message. The only hint was “I’ll change.” Unless “change” meant delta, Delman wasn’t going to get his sparkly garnet–diamond pin and I’d end up with nothing.

Love you too, Flora, I returned, fingers pounding angrily, but I don’t know if your change is real. Need to think before I cross your threshold. Eddy.

Eddy replying to Flora wasn’t in Delman’s script. Let the bastard sweat.

]

This wasn’t the first time I needed to get around a station without being noticed. Not many Thurians would have volunteered to help me, but their quirks sure did. They’d spread across the galaxy with the dims’oil trade. People knew their habits. When they couldn’t tolerate covers – eye surgery, black eye, allergies – they wore wrap–around dark glasses . . . or veils. Veils that came down far enough to hide a tattoo. Over the years I’d been through a couple tubes of heavy makeup and half a dozen veils. Only one was special.

Eighteen years back, I’d been browsing through veils on a rack near the front of a Thurian catch–all shop. A Sec–Forcer I’d seen around was buying caramels. “The green and brown one will do a better job,” he said. Not flirting or ridiculing, just trying to help. He died of damaso. I was holding his hand.

When “Delman Day” came, I changed to dark brown eyecovers, black slacks and top, shoulder rig for my stunner and civilian shoes. I folded the embroidered Thurian shawl I’d bought a couple days ago into a makeshift backpack and stowed the veil. Final touch: stylish silver filigree dangling from my ears. Nunlia’s crystal–encased brooch went into my pocket.

From an access hatch near my quarters, I slipped into Sotros’s circulatory system. Zigzagging stairwells, honeycombed maintenance crawlways, private hideouts. Getting from Disc A to Disc B on foot meant traveling centerward, up the core, then back rimward on delta sector level five. Two hours. I traveled fast and alert, avoiding anything that rattled, shadowed or smelled.

By 10:45 the metallic tang in my chosen crawlway took on the fuel taint of shipping docks. I settled my veil, wrapped myself in the silky shawl and cracked the hatch. After a couple passing conversations I heard silence. I stepped into a radial corridor empty but for broadsheets advertising everything from palm reading to shipping schedules. I headed for the traffic noise in the ring corridor. I needed transient lockers.

No one looked twice at a woman who stashed a package and programmed the combination. Delman thought his passwords were the final hurdle. I had other plans.

I was supposed to say something about dims’oil and modern education. He’d return orange being the color of wisdom. Bastard might think differently if he’d seen someone die of damaso. Education and wisdom aside, if he couldn’t convince me he had the evidence he promised, he’d never see that brooch.

Two minutes down a radial corridor the far side of the lockers, I turned into an ill–lit capillary with more dumpsters than doors. The place stank of ripe garbage and buzzed with flies. I slipped my hand under the shawl, stunner ready. Cleared the first dumpster, then the second – and damn near choked when Cramer stepped out from behind the third.

“You got business here?” he demanded. Same ruthless voice that meant cracked wrists and broken fingers. His hand rested between stunner and coil on his weapons belt.

I drew fast enough – needed him immobilized until I figured out what next – but the shawl caught; my shot juiced the wall.

Cramer didn’t miss.

]

I came to in a space so black open eyes meant nothing. I was on my side with my knees jammed against my chest. Canister! Heartbeat roared into my ears. Panic sweat. I’d known this could happen. Hadn’t thought I’d come so close to a useless scream.

It took too damn long to realize I was laying on floor, with lots of dusty air and no echo. Not a canister.

I stretched. This wasn’t the chill of the outer warehouses. Not the heat of the station’s innards. Distant tectonic rumblings registered machinery busily keeping everyone shielded from radiation with enough gravity to tell up from down.

My mouth stuck to itself pasty dry from the stun, but I wasn’t tied up. Nothing felt broken. Shawl and veil were gone. Same for shoes and stunner. Even my earrings.

I pulled myself to my feet. Since I wasn’t trussed and knotted like a combat boot, I must be locked in. That meant walls. And a door. Arms guarding, I shuffled through my airy black hole until I found a wall and followed it to a set of metal bars. Twenty, all gritty.

Not even solitary confinement bins – which had doors, not bars – came without lights. Probability: This place didn’t have a regular food run.

I slouched down the wall, arms around my knees. Either I’d come out alive or I wouldn’t. That’s what Stoller would have said. He’d had a way of simplifying things. And a way of smiling. Remembering made my insides crumple. That private smile had survived yellow, but vanished with orange. His joints had hurt so bad he couldn’t move. Not that he’d wanted to. Toward the end nothing had mattered to him except maybe me. Living those last weeks feeding him, cleaning him, holding his hand was the hardest thing I’d ever done, except maybe living afterward.

Which circled back to today.

Stun blackouts were predictable. Cramer would show any minute. The fact that I was breathing meant he wanted to talk. Or practice wrists and fingers.

When a stingy crew light glimmered down the aisle, I pulled myself up. I might be on the shy side of in–charge, but I’d face him standing. Metal scraped metal and work shoes scuffed against the deck. Cramer brought his own wooden chair, set it backwards and flopped his arms over the top rail.

He stared. I waited.

“Okay, swirl, what the hell are you doing here?”

“You tell me.” I thrummed my fingernails along the bars. “This wasn’t my idea.”

His voice curdled. “The cartel send you? Plantation owners? We know they found a reader.”

Strange that’s what worried him. “Kellal sent for an eye–reader. I don’t work for dims’oil people.”

“And you never tell lies.”

Jeezus. That was it. Cramer was worried as Delman would have been. Make Cramer one of Delman’s cousins and forged genetics suddenly made sense. If Rothport’s security guy – Jensen – understood Thurians, first thing he’d do was check Delman’s cousins one by one. He wouldn’t count on Cramer passing for standard. Delman runs for Sotros because of Cramer. Or Cramer forges papers and transfers to Sotros because of Delman. Either way, Cramer stashes Delman somewhere in staff–rec where he can protect him. And that means Cramer can’t leave the station to collect Nunlia’s brooch. Ergo Elf.

“I’d like to keep this interrogation civilized.” Cramer pulled out his coil. “Just bear in mind, exploring your pain threshold won’t bother me.”

It was hard to sound cocky with your mouth stun–dried. “You know, Cramer, dims’oil has brought your people universities full of modern education. You might try using your brains instead of your arsenal.”

Heartbeat thudded in my ears. I’d given him oil and modern education. If I didn’t hear something back about orange and wisdom chances were he’d soon be enjoying himself at my expense. I wasn’t about to go down easy, but I needed him in the cell where I could get at him.

Cramer fed me a long silence. “That’s a damned strange comment for someone with no shoes and one leg in a canister.”

He mulled his silence a while longer. “Your morbid philosophers tell us orange is the color of wisdom come too late. I figure orange is just a color. Keep your damned education. I’ll keep my weapons.”

I breathed again.

Cramer still toyed with the coil. “Next time I have to ask we’ll start with this, so make it easy on yourself.”

“I’ve got a seven–centimeter brooch caked with garnets and diamonds that says I was invited.”

Cramer sprang. Chair flew like a kicked dog. “If that isn’t–! What fucking good are you? Volunteer on a goddamned year and a half leash.” The whites of his eyes flared. I wasn’t close enough to read shapes or color, but that wasn’t necessary. Everything about him said he’d lost control. He yanked his stunner and aimed at my heart. Hearts didn’t survive direct stuns.

I stood there, stubborn as the cell bars between us. My voice was dry–mouth blurry, but I met him square in those raging eyes and rattled off the locker number and combination.

“If you’re fucking with me, swirl, on my grandmother’s grave you’ll regret it.”

I didn’t doubt that.

Cramer hated me with his eyes. Seconds stretched before the colored fury faded. He holstered his stunner, snapped the coil in place and turned on his heel. By design or oversight, he left the crew light on.

I paced, sank to the floor, waited, rose, dusted the grit and paced again. Cramer’d had enough time to round up a maintenance supervisor and search every locker on level five.

Something had gone wrong.

]

Or not. That was Delman walking beside Cramer. Skin the same reddish copper as the picture Ledowski showed me, same stout six feet two, but a different face. Younger. One you’d overlook in a crowd.

Cramer held out the encased disc. “Open it.”

“Not from in here,” I mouthed dryly. Delman had wanted the brooch song–printed, so there it was, locked in crystal, sealed and wired. No one was going to open it but me and voices didn’t sing right when singers had drugs or stunners mucking their brains.

“How are you getting off Sotros?” Delman said, his voice ugly enough to make me think he’d taught Cramer how to use a coil. “Please tell me Ledowski isn’t fool enough to think I’d bring the files in person.”

“I’ve got ways. I want my shoes and some water.”

Face set, Delman thought it over, then nodded.

Cramer stomped toward the crew light. He returned with my shoes clamped under the arm he raised to hold out a bottle of water. Shoes clattered to the floor. I rinsed my mouth and drank before pulling my footwear through the bars. Cramer leveled his stunner and swiped a card to open the cell. The door grated.

“This way,” Delman said.

He headed into shadows. We ended in a small storeroom that smelled of disuse. Nothing but a couple of chairs and unused shelving.

“Sit,” Delman said.

“I’ll stand.”

“Fine. Open it.”

Cramer held the gaudy pin and its explosive casing under my nose. I sang the school rhyme Mom Lillian had taught me the day I started classes.

The latch snapped.

Delman pulled the brooch free and headed for the back shelves. He retrieved a small tool case and a craftsman’s lighted magnifier. He fastened the thing to the shelving frame like he’d practiced. Gems flashed from beneath the magnifier as he twisted the piece round, over and back again. “Get comfortable, this could take a while.”

Cramer settled into one of the chairs, his stunner aimed at my middle. Delman took jeweler’s tools to the brooch.

“How’s it look?” Cramer asked after a stretch of silence.

Delman didn’t answer. He changed tools and leaned closer. Minutes later he straightened and pulled an art print from a cloth envelope set back on the shelf. One of those color blobs in blue and green. He set it upright, then leaned the brooch against a box and pried it with a metal pick. A UV light flared, transformed the print into a topographical map.

“Is it the right one?” Cramer said.

“Yeah.” Delman pulled a micro–camera from his pocket and scanned the map centimeter by centimeter.

“You got what you wanted,” I said. “What about this evidence you’re so proud of?”

“Right here, provided you’re good with your hands.” Delman pulled a second matted print from the envelope. This one was filled with meaningless blots of rose, violet and green. “After I show you how to tweak the setting on that custom–made trinket, you’ll have addresses and combinations to a dozen safety deposit boxes filled with Rothport Brothers material no one in the dims’oil business wants made public.”

Delman repacked his art print. “Fourteen years ago, I isolated the gene that gives firrels resistance to addiction. Finding the human gene took another five. Rothport bioengineered a virus that blocked the addiction inhibitor. It took them seven more years to incorporate the genetic structure into their dimsilla bushes. They perfected a strain so virulent the addiction rate could reach 70% with a 17% fatality rate. Those safety deposit boxes contain lab books, memos, conference recordings, virus recipes and more.”

He paused, his expression bitter.

“Rothport is working to cut the current death rate, proving themselves a concerned corporate citizen before addiction skyrockets. When the death rate keeps pace, the public will find the raw numbers hard to ignore.”

“That won’t help anyone who’s hooked,” I said unsteadily. “Death isn’t what you’re worried about when your body turns acid inside out.”

Delman pointed at the art print. “With what I’m giving Health Guard – what you’re giving them – believe me, they’ll come up with a palliative for withdrawal.” His expression slid toward mean. “Before you get anything, I want to know how you got mixed up in this. I thought Ledowski’d trust one of his cousins.”

“Does it matter?”

“Maybe.”

I got the impression I might not see the other side of that door if he didn’t like my story. Stoller always said the truth was sometimes your best weapon. I started with his eyes turning yellow and stopped when I had nothing left to say.

“How are you getting off Sotros?” Delman said.

This was the part I’d dreaded. I licked my fingers and pinched off both eyecovers.

Delman’s eyebrow arched. Cramer grunted and holstered the stunner. They saw what I’d seen in my mirror the day I told Ledowski I’d play messenger. They saw yellow.

“I’ll live long enough to testify,” I said, my voice surprisingly indifferent. “If Health Guard times it right, it’ll make a good show, me in a wheel chair swearing I talked to you in person. I’ll wait a couple of weeks and ask for medical leave. Kellal may drag his feet until I’ve interrogated a few more smugglers, but in the end he’ll send me back.”

Storeroom might as well have been a sealed tomb for the silence climbing the walls. What could they say?

Cramer caught my eye and surprised the living hell out of me. He let his guard lapse enough for me to read gratitude. Gratitude was so far out of character I glanced toward the map. But no. Before colored patterns vanished behind biofeedback walls, he let me see a loss too raw to heal, and a hatred that’d fuel vengeance beyond the grave. He wanted the cartel worse than I did. I wondered why, but I’d never know his story. I suspected he’d already told me more than most people knew. I let it go at that.

“Show me how that thing works,” I said.

]

Three weeks later, I boarded a freighter back to Security Force headquarters. Me, a dead woman’s brooch, and a rose, green, and violet art print.

Delman never explained the map. Never told me why he was set on helping Citizens Health Guard. Nunlia’s murder? Belated moral outrage? I didn’t really care. What mattered was the blow I could deal the dims’oil cartel. I’d wear that hefty pin at my throat the day my Family wheeled me in to record testimony.

Law wasn’t my specialty, but all that statistical analysis sounded like premeditated greed murder to me. Health Guard lawyers would make it sound worse than that. Once Ledowski had the information, I’d head home to Roline. I had maybe a year.

My weight dipped. Food didn’t taste the way it used to. But oil still kicked. I switched to vials of raw crown grade. And custom–fitted eyecovers. It made me nervous to have yellow leering back at me when I brushed my teeth. Maybe because I knew prisoner Brian was right: I was stone fucking dead.

After yellow, came orange.



S. K. Richards lives near Stillwater, MN and is a graduate of Clarion West 2007. After she finished “Orange,” Sharon expected to leave Mellon’s world forever. Then Cramer demanded equal time for his story. His working title is “What Color Vengeance.”


 

Story © 2008 S.K. Richards. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press 





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