Quicksliver — Chapter One

 

Quicksliver

by

Steve Miller

Chapter One

“Pardon me, sir, you are being followed. May I be of service?” With the smoothness of one long used to living in danger, Bannit spun and found himself facing a Thren. Its pale orange skin was stretched tightly over the bony body, it looked rather like a starving horse with a pair of arms on both sides of a too-short neck.

“I’m sorry?” Bannit asked cautiously.

“You, sir, are being followed,” the being repeated, patiently, “and I may be of some service to you. Here is my card.”

The card was a thin plastalloy plate. Embossed in English and several other human and non-human languages, the card gave off an odor which made Bannit want to trust the creature.

Bannit tensed.

Taking the card from the right fore-hand used by Thren for delicate work, Bannit read it carefully.

“Honest John, Public Defender?” Bannit read the card out loud without comprehension. The Arabic, which Bannit also read, came closer to saying,”Assassin-At-Large”.

“Yes, sir,” said the alien, who now sat on his haunches, much the way a zebra might, “Defender.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow you.”

“Sir, I defend publicly. For a small fee — one, of course, appropriate to the occasion — I will defend against harm any creature of intelligence from any other creature of intelligence. I am — as my card shows on the reverse side — a member in good standing of the Public Defenders Association of Demain, which is one of the foremost Guilds on the planet and, by most reckoning, the oldest.”

The being was quiet for a moment as it scratched absently at the left side of its neck with the right hand. “I also,” it added, “deal in life, health and property insurance for all humanoid races. And, sir, you are being followed.”

Bannit had been scanning the terminal mall for indications that he was being followed, and saw none. Most of the first class passengers from the Kraalqueg had, like Bannit, disembarked and, unlike Bannit, emptied out of the mall toward first-class hotel accommodations. The second and third class passengers were now leaving the ship. No one seemed to be very interested in Bannit, though one or two people gave his companion a sidelong glance.

“Thank you for your offer, but I see no danger and have nothing to fear.” The Thren bowed courteously.

“As you will, sir. If you should change your mind, you will find that all standard communicators will read the code on my card and put you in touch with my office. Good luck, sir. There nay well be two following you.”

Bannit again eyed the constantly moving crowd as the creature gathered itself together and left him. He couldn’t see anyone following him. No one could be following him. Maybe this was a standard con out here — the planet had no laws other than those of the Combined Intelligence Missions. And, now that he knew what to look for, he saw that two or three other travelers were being approached by creatures with cards.

His own Thren, “Honest John”, was prancing through the crowd, leaving Bannit to wonder which of the three sexes it was. Unable to arrive at an answer to that one, Bannit again scanned the mall and soon located the welcome sign of a glass-and-smoking stick: With a casual glance behind him (two, even!), Bannit strolled across the mall and into the bar.

To Bannit, after his eight days of confinement, even in the first class luxury of the Kraalqueg, the bar was extremely comfortable, if a shade expensive. Although it stocked the ingredients for alien concoctions, its clientele seemed to be made up largely of humans, unlike the Terminal Lounge, the barkeep told him, where any known — and a couple of unknown — race could find and obtain its own brand of euphoric.

Since the bar was expensive, Bannit took his time, settled back in his corner booth, and let himself relax, bit by bit. He’d made it. Demain, home — no, property — of the Combined Intelligence Mission, somewhat a religion, somewhat a government — but not, in any case, lackey to either the Interspace Control Agents or Jonitan Grandwater. Not even customs police. Just keep yourself to yourself and learn which side of the rules was right and there would be no trouble at all. Bannit very much wanted there to be no trouble. Ten ports in something less than a year — some hard running, that — and he was at the end of so-named “civilized” space, completely out of what was thought of as Human-space. Demain e Bannit supposed he was home.

He ordered another drink and sipped it respectfully, in no hurry. Time enough to do when he had relaxed a bit more and watched a bit more and listened a great deal more. He was very carefully not to think about the baggage he had checked at the terminal lockers.

“Look,” the bartender interrupted Bannit’s mellowing thoughts, “it really isn’t any of my business, but are you an H-O or something?”

“No, no, not at all.” Bannit wondered what the Humans Only League had to do with him. Jonitan Grandwater was the single most powerful patron of H-O and that was more than enough reason for Bannit to not support the group, even if he had believed in its tenets.

“Why do you ask?”

You’re spending a lot of extra money on these drinks,” the barkeep told him. “I mean, if all you have is straight human currency, than I guess that’s what you’ll have to spend. But if you’ve got some other stuff, you might save your human currency for the next time a human ship’s due in — but not while it’s in. With all that extra coming in from the tourists the value goes ‘way down. Now, there hasn’t been a Thren ship in for twelve or fourteen days…”

“I see,” said Bannit thoughtfully. “Thren currency is Threnascent, and that’s perishable.”

“Right. If you’ve got any Threnascent on you, you can add a bit to your Dolarians — make a profit. Next week there’s a CRC ship due in. What you need to do if you’re planning to be here awhile — is get yourself four or five of the currency sheets and the Ship-In ‘casts, study a bit, get the hang of the money. Else you’ll go broke in a week.”

Bannit thanked the bartender, bought a drink at a more favorable rate and tried to recapture his early mood of careful relaxation. The image of “Honest John worried him, and the replay of that soft, sexless voice, “Pardon me, sir, you are being follo—”.

Irritably, Bannit shook his head and re-arranged his slouch in the booth so that he commanded a better view of the rest of the room.

Across from him were five humans engaged in a game of cards. Two of them had come in together first, Bannit recalled, then two more. One of the men in the second pair looked familiar maybe he’d been on board the Kraalqueg?

The fifth man drew Bannit’s attention now. He seemed to have a patter down, even though his clothes proclaimed the most naive of tourists. He also smiled a good deal, joking and laughing even though he seemed to be losing rather more than he was winning. The card game got noisier as the tourists from the ship continued to win. Finally, the odd man rose.

Gentlepeople, I’m afraid I’ve run out of human currency entirely. I thank you for your efforts at letting me stay in the game, but I really can’t expect you to act as moneychangers forever. So, perhaps later, after I see a changer, I can stop back with you?”

The others wished the man goodbye, assuring him of his welcome back into the deal at any time, with liquor-loud voices, and took up the game again between the four of them.

The man moved over to Bannit’s booth and indicated the empty seat. “May I?”

Curious, Bannit nodded.

The man nodded toward the card game. “These gentles have won quite a bit of cash from me… but I have gathered a few Threnascents in the bargain. – Would you care for a drink and a game of chance, perhaps?”

As he spoke, the man handed Bannit a card which made Bannit want to trust and play. Damning the lack of laws which banned such blatant use of odor-ads — and then quickly revising the curse, as he realized that in that same lack of law lay his life — Bannit read “Cherna — Intuitive Statistician”. Hmmm.

“Something quick and easy,” Bannit suggested, “since I’m still tired from my journey… how about the flipping of coins?”

The stranger’s eyebrows lifted toward his receding hairline. “You’re jesting, of course?”

Bannit assured him, “not at all. Not at all. It is a small diversion I’ve played even in the Solar System. Perhaps for Threnascent? One leaf per call?”

The bartender came over and took Cherna order; asked for and received permission to refill Bannit’s glass with more of the same.

Cherna waited for his drink to arrive before replying to Bannit’s offer.

“My friend, you’re on. I am curious about this game — it should be one that will leave each of us neither richer nor poorer than we were when we began.”

For the first time in many months, Bannit reached out for a magnetic field strong enough for his purpose. In the asteroid belt, or on board any of the dozens of ships he had been on in the past year, the effort would have cost him a searing headache in moments. Here, with the entire field of the planet to draw on, he scarcely noticed the effort. He visualized the field carefully, gauging the rhythm.

Cherna called the first coin, which Bannit left alone. Cherna was up one Threnascent.

Bannit nodded wordlessly, slipped the coin to Cherna to flip. Attaching a small charge to the heads side was no problem. When Cherna flipped the coin, it landed with the charged side down.

“Tails.”

At the end, of twenty calls Bannit was eighteen up.

Cherna took a sip from his glass. “This is fun,” he said in a carefully neutral voice, “but I wonder if the same kind of results would occur if the disc was plastic?” He slipped a small plastic token for a house of pleasure out of his pocket and held it out to Bannit.

Ten times in a row, Bannit flipped the plastic token without betting. The same side was up each time.

“So. Can you do the same with dice and such?” Cherna asked, scooping up the disc and rolling it absently within his fist.

“I can occasionally with the twelve-sided. Ten-sided I can frequently control. Six-sided are rarely a problem for me. In the presence of a strong enough gravity, of course.”

“Of course,” Cherna agreed, deadpan. “Cards?”

“I can do a few tricks, but nothing really spectacular. Roulette, dice, coins, anything with motion… I seem to have a small talent.”

“Yes…”

Bannit bought another round of drinks.

Cherna released the plastic disc from his fist and walked it over the knuckles of one hand in the beginning of a conjuring trick.

The card game, which had been losing volume for a time, suddenly got rowdy again as one or another of them won a hand.

“You aren’t really a tourist?” Bannit asked.

“I travel as far as the space port, for the most part. A big ship lands, I carry a bag, look at everything like it was new. I do well for myself.”

Bannit nodded, sipped his drink, remained quiet.

“Why the demonstration?” Cherna finally asked, after sending the plastic disc into, oblivion and retrieving it from the fruit slice floating in his glass.

“I need to settle here. Permanently. Although I would prefer to find another way of making my living, I might end up gambling against you — and we both expect to win.”

“This is true. And you are not yet a Guild member, which might cause other kinds of problems… Let me think a moment.”

Bannit studied his companion. Although his skin tone was not that of a Terran, neither was it the dark “space tan” of Bannit’s own. The cast was slightly yellow and the eyes showed signs of an epicanthal fold. The hands were long-fingered and clever; the man himself moved with the grace of a born performer. Bannit thought that Cherna’s ancestors may have been of the oriental blood in the distant past. What Cherna was of himself was yet to be seen. Bannit rather hoped that he could be trusted.

Pocketing the plastic disc, Cherna picked up his glass and leaned across the table toward Bannit, “You’ll need a place to stay, of course. I’d beware of the large hotels — they charge a lot and play as many games as I do with the currency… Those pleasant people over there think they won, but I did. Hotels are worse. Only they win. So see if you can’t find something over near Seven Station, that’s near the Thren center. Find a local shop, or, better, a local tailor. And here” he said, taking out another card with same name imprint as the first, “this card will work if you want to get in touch sometime.”

Bannit tucked the card away.

“I can’t give you a card, but — I’m called Bannit.”

“Thank you. But don’t worry about the card yet. The insult is in not accepting a cards that someone offers you — that could be fatal with the wrong person.”

“Also,” he continued after a moment in which he finished his drink, “you’ll have to buy a Guild Directory and find out how things are organized. You’ll have to pay taxes if you settle.”

“Taxes?” asked Bannit, startled, “I thought there was no government here.”

“You’d be surprised at the rules and regulations, though. Since the Mission owns the planet, they collect the taxes — or maybe you’d call it rent. But you don’t have to worry about that yet. Have to get set up and settled in first.”

In the background the noise of the tourists’ card game rose over that of the growing dinner crowd in the bar. They were complaining, loudly and drunkenly, about the prices of drinks. In a few moments the bartender approached them and began to quietly deliver his talk on exchange rates, date-due worth and variable currency.

Cherna pointed.

“I think it would be a good idea for me to leave before they realize I traded them Dolarians for Threnascent at a rate they might not appreciate now.”

Bannit quickly shook the proffered hand and smiled at the retreating Cherna. He was satisfied at having met someone with contacts, at least.

It was several minutes more before Bannit, savoring the last of his fine Vegan liquor as he studied the dinner menu, realized that he’d been stuck for Cherna’s last three rounds. Cherna moved away from the bar, puzzled. His long legs carried him quickly, though without betraying signs of speed — a graceful walk that drew little attention in a crowd.

He wondered if the tourists would try to follow him, then shrugged it off. Tourists could, for the most part, be dismissed.

Bannit, now. There was a tourist with a difference. And strong. Stronger than he realized, and bound to get in trouble because of it. Cherna smiled to himself, correcting the thought. Bannit was probably on Demain because he was already in trouble.

But the strength of the man! Cherna fingered the “plastic” token in his pocket. Cherna’s Guild was the Unnamed, one of the quiet guilds. Thieves, spies and the wild talents joined together into one respectable association — only on Demain. Members of the Guild traveled over the explored Universe, paid by this person or that person, answerable only to the employer and to the Guild. Perhaps as well to the Combined Mission — Cherna wasn’t high enough in the Guild to be sure of that, but he had his suspicions.

The Guild should probably be notified immediately of the existence of Bannit, an independent of unknown origin. The token in Cherna’s pocket, which he fingered constantly, was almost ninety percent resistant to the use of ESPer forces. Supposedly transparent to ESP, the token had offered no problem at all-to Bannit.

Cherna moved automatically through the halls and then the streets leading away from the spaceport. Still something nagged at him. Something. About the bar. About the people. Cherna’s own ability was unnamed. Hunches and guesses he made tended to be right.

And the further he got from the bar the more certain he was that something was very wrong. Maybe he should put a call into the Guild? Not enough.

Stopping at the next communicator booth, he fed Sliver’s card into the phone slot, watching the street behind him in the Plexiglas wall he faced. He had been followed from the bars. That was beyond doubt. A sense of danger, to himself and to the Guild, hung over him. Had he let it go too long? Was it Bannit?

Sliver’s face appeared on the screen. She smiled at Cherna, friend to friend.

“Cherna. Good to see you. How have you been?” Cherna quickly brushed aside the formalities of friendship with other formalities.

“Sliver, of you and your guild I seek aid.” The formula made him Sliver’s client if she accepted and brought the Public Defender’s information service into play.

“Surely, my guild is known to you, I will be bound. What’s your problem?”

“I’m being followed. I don’t know by who and I don’t know why. It may have something to do with a person named Bannit I met a few minutes ago… I’m not far from your office. I’ll walk there.”

“How will you come? I’ll walk to meet you.”

He told her his route and closed the circuit. Still that sense of doom all about him, as if he had not acted rightly, as if he had not done enough: thought that, Sliver was more than competent… After a moment’s hesitation, he called in a quick note to his own Guild — a request for all available information on one Bannit, and a request for information on the available working material-handling ESPers, to be waiting when he returned to the Guild Hall.

If… He shook that off and stepped out of the booth. He hoped that he wasn’t acting with undue alarm — all this information-gathering service and protection was going to cost, oh yes. He sighed gently. He couldn’t remember a single instance when he was wrong about something like this, though he had once or twice ignored vaguer warnings, to his sorrowful discomfort.

Cherna saw one of them behind him and on the left side of the street, out of the range of his Plexiglas mirror. It was one of the men he’d played cards with at the bar. Watching him.

So. The danger was here, then, and not in Bannit. Well, Bannit should be looked into anyway.

The man was several hundred paces away. Watching. Making no move to conceal himself.

Cherna scanned the street with his eyes; saw the second man. Another of the card-players. Also watching Cherna.

This is not good, he thought. Such a little bit of money for so much trouble…

A thought struck him.

Angry people move to the source of the irritation. Quickly. Noisily. Angry people do not normally play the game of following and watching. Thus, to one who is aware, angry people are not very dangerous. Cherna was glad he had called Sliver.

Feigning indifference to his surroundings Cherna moved down the street, occasionally stopping to take in the odor-ad from a storefront shop. When he did this he checked his trail. The men were closing, on either side of the street. They seemed very competent.

Sooner or later Sliver would run into him. He hoped it was sooner.

Cherna picked up his pace a bit. There was a small park here, no buildings: to gaze into, not as many people around to see what was going on. But ahead Cherna could see Sliver pacing in his direction.

Risking a direct glance, Cherna discovered the man behind him had also picked up his pace and were almost running.

Never slow when it came to his own survival, Cherna responded to the sudden, overpowering doomfeel in his mind by dropping all pretense and racing toward Sliver.

Sliver saw him and began to run in his direction, and the sound of pounding feet came from behind him.

In each hand Sliver held a long, slender blade. Cherna heard her yelling as she ran.

“This man is under my protection. I am from the Guild…”

The ground erupted almost at Cherna’s feet — they were using energy weapons in a city? He made a frantic sideways dash.

The second man perceived Sliver as a threat, fired at her. She threw her first blade.

Cherna crouched behind an embankment. He saw Sliver launch the blade, saw it ignite as the fins deployed. Now a rocket, it struck the man in the arm, wrecking it and forcing him to drop the weapon.

The other man came on, after Cherna.

Sliver took deliberate aim with her remaining blade.

“Stop, or die,” she cried out at the man, as he continued his rush on Cherna.

The man raised a weapon Cherna recognized as a blaster strictly a military weapon. As he fired at Sliver, she released the blade, which ignited.

Cherna heard a cry as Sliver was hit. Her body seemed to expand for a moment, then deflate. The blade, however, was launched.

The second man, aware of his danger too late, tried to dodge. The blade caught him in the throat and he went down.

Cherna got up to run to Sliver. He hadn’t expected this — energy weapons in the city, Sliver wounded. Was she only wounded? He —

The explosion came from behind him. As the ground bucked and threw him he was still trying to understand how things could have gotten so out of hand —

 

*   *   *

Continue to Chapter 2

 

In case you missed it, here’s the author’s intro link:

http://splinteruniverse.com/?page_id=657

 

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Copyright 2013 by Steve Miller

 

 

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