Demain’s year was short, its day long, its gravity light. Bannit stared into the morning fog’s drab gray, expecting the flush of orange to burn through shortly to reveal a cab sitting at the curb for him, working on the understanding that he had three more of these long days of normal cab service and then a five-day when service might be whimsical at best as Periastra was celebrated. That this event would happen twice within the time that distant Earth orbited merry old Sol just once amused him, that his attempt at achieving a modicum of security might be put off by it did not.
That was the thing – he didn’t want to be beset by small issues and ordinary things now that he’d achieved Demain, nor had he expected to be so soon worried about his security and the safety of the diamond. Even going to breakfast was a risk, but he didn’t want in-room service, nor for the staff to become too familiar with his hours, and with Cherna’s words in his memory he did wish to establish himself elsewhere. Seven Station, well, that was possibility, given the eclectic population there: Thren and humans, the artists, the day workers, the nearly hidden. Housing there, yes, it could work. His breakfast destination was on the edge of that district.
In that district, he could be just another artist. He’d said he’d help the Guild, and he was doing that, now, by being inconspicuous. That was a good start. Once there, once set-up, he’d be able to do his research in peace, in his own fashion. He was nothing if not self-directed.
The hotel had but one public way in, but it was as wide as the building was, and cased in the common thick and slightly greenish glass the city apparently admired. Twice his height, in full daylight it looked inviting going in and out. In this weather the green cast muted vision uncomfortably, reminding of under-lit sleeping quarters in a ship gone to half-power.
He flinched at a sudden point-source brightening of fog – perhaps that was his cab arriving, at the far right edge of the building. This dependence on cabs was maddening, but he’d not found a way around it if he wanted not to be tied to the guilds and Honest John….
The light softened, moved on, and from within the fog there was orange bordering on brown, approaching…
The Thren saw him through the hotel’s transparent doors, raised two hands – palm down – to elbow height in recognition, and came on directly.
Bannit considered the expanse of the lobby behind him, knowing there was no way he could avoid the assassin without actually running, and he stepped aside as he waved a hand to signal the door open. Perhaps he’d have breakfast in the hotel, after all.
Tea all around, and breads with cheese, and fruit on the sides. An ordinary morning’s breakfast extraordinarily to be paid for by someone else, he realized.
Bannit permitted himself a slight smile at his own expense. He’d become far too conditioned to paying, and often paying too much, for even the simplest things. He understood that the Thren across the table wanted something from him, but there’d been so many time over the last three years when he’d been stuck with the check – even here on Demain! – that his default social protocol for many things was to simply reach for his wallet or his fee-flash.
Bannit corrected his thought. Not really an ordinary breakfast, after all, for the hotel was perhaps the finest on Demain, and the cheeses and teas among the top available in the system, and perhaps across local Oxy-Consenusal Space.
“Ah, excellent,” his host muttered, inhaling a half cup of tea with one quick flip of wrist, “fine, indeed.”
With one more nod at the cup, Honest John settled himself across his rest and smiled a Thrennish smile.
“I was so glad to find you about and on the move today. It is a fine day to be out, and early is better than later.”
Bannit nodded, permitting his host the conversational floor. His host glanced to the small device he’d assured Bannit was not a recorder, and went on as if the topic had been long under discussion.
“And so, after discussion, we shall hold you to your offer to help. It is, we understand, not what you had intended when you arrived, but the follow-on to the attempt on Cherna and Quicksliver’s death in his defense means that we – the guilds of Demain – are not able to ignore you to the degree you’d like. If it were an ordinary robbery attempt, or an ordinary personal feud we were looking at, I suppose we’d elect to watch the play and simply charge the winner for us to pick-up the remains of the loser, if a loser was evident.”
Bannit sat his tea cup down with a little more alacrity than he would have preferred.
Honest John raised a calloused hand in conciliation.
“Given the usual result once a resourceful person reaches Demain, we would not have given odds in either direction. We offer a peaceful place to those who are peaceful, and security for those who wish it for themselves. Most of our immigrants can expect a long and healthy life here – which is what we strive for all.”
“Mr. Bannit, it is clear we do not have an ordinary situation. The weapons employed by the attempted assassins were of no common measure, and their use against someone not in main stream of event is unconscionable, and illegal as well. Sliver was a personal friend of mine as well as a respected Guild member, as is her heir.
“Cherna is a man of the city – and now a target of one of the largest and most unforgiving enterprises in Oxy-Space. You have brought us a problem, and you must know that we will face it. You did say you would help. But your address changed …”
The Thren let his hands show an edge of agitation, “Revenge is a must.”
Bannit sipped his tea, seeing his face in the surface as he held the cup close.
“I am not now in favor of seeking revenge against the unknown….”
The Thren tapped fingers on the device he held before him, and gave an exaggerated version of a human sigh. His gusty breath reached Bannit, offering the odor of spices they’d not had for breakfast.
“This will not do,” Honest John said, and then added with the brief flapping of his two lower hands, “it is as nearly unacceptable as the act of invasion performed by the assassins. Therefor,” here he paused, leaning gently forward across the table, “it will be as I say and not as you prefer. Changing your address is insufficient help to us – denying that you are here is useless. Your revenge is incomplete, and ours is unformed.”
Bannit offered nothing, options sliding away. If the guilds acted together, he might not be able to reach even the diamond, much less a space port.
And there was where options ended, for Demain had been his goal, the place he would take refuge. There was no other place as safe for him, now that what revenge he’d attempted was done.
“My revenge…” Bannit began, and stopped, trying to put another face on it. Why let Honest John define the terms, after all?
“My goal is to live a long and comfortable life, sir. I’m able to live comfortably here – or I will be as soon as I’m able acclimate myself to Demain. I was going to …”
“Demain,” insisted the Thren, “will not permit you to acclimate yourself in isolation. You will participate in this, as directly as possible. The easiest way to do that is to hire me and –”
“So this is a shakedown? Now that I’m in your power, you’ll run my life?”
Bannit regretted the words as soon as they were said, but once beyond recall he reinforced them by starting to stand.
“Sit, Mr. Bannit. There are choices, but first you must agree to listen to what I say until I am finished. If you do not wish to listen to me, I will send Quicksliver to you, and she will discuss your future with you. If she will not do, we will send a committee. You would prefer to deal with me.”
The Thren looked away, the pause lasting several of Bannit’s breaths, and several more, and ….
He turned back, orange muzzle gone pale, nostrils wide.
“We’re not going to hurt you, Mr. Bannit, but we’d prefer to work with you rather than place you in isolation. It is clear that you’re perfectly able to get into trouble and it is also clear that you now need aid getting out of it. If we need to hide you and bear the unassisted burden of protecting Demain against those who follow your trail, we will.”
Fingers tapped on the device, and Honest John picked it up and tucked it into his vest.
“Do you swim, Mr. Bannit? Do you enjoy your own company above that of all others, even to the exclusion of all others? Please – let us have another cup of tea while you consider these questions.”
It had been road-building, this time around. Though his lot for the two-day had been more clerical than manual he’d felt the long day in his feet and legs, since his duty this times was a go-between and checker. He should always be that lucky.
It was amazing how far from the proper spot a bundle of wire-wrap might stray, and given the motley mix of citizen volunteers the few professionals involved were willing to take their time and permit the transient labor to do the running around. His part had been that: finding the misplaced items and the misplaced people and making them work toward the common good, his radio-link to the day boss his prod. He’d done well, at his tasks, so well that they’d offered him paid week at it, if he wished … but he’d turned them down. Imagine the hit to his reputation if he became known as Cherna the road-worker!
This gray morning he was in theory on his own time, free from tax-duty until sixty days after Periastra. Not free though, since Honest John was still calling in his guild-duty – and that he could not ignore. And it looked likely he’d walk as much today as he had these last two days together. Periastra was approaching and they’d need a place for Bannit before then, if they could, for revelry was a great mask acts of chaos as well as acts of joy.
Cherna swiped at the fog as he stepped into it. As much as he loved his city, the weather in this season made finding a bright and cheery place to hide a high-value fugitive for years a daunting challenge.
The glance about showed no one, though the sounds of distant carts and wagons echoed off the buildings eerily, a combination of whines, steps, and rattles he knew well. It was early and the hucksters would be making their way to their spots. Often, he was on his way home at this hour, while they were prepping their ovens and braziers and searching for an extra half-meter of space for their wares.
His toes settling into their socks as he paced toward Seven Station, he considered which streets must be out of bounds, and which …
Somewhere a sound, an echo, a hint. Behind him, then, too familiar a feeling – he was being followed. Dread flooded his gut; his left hand tingled, wanting to grab for the derrygun under his day vest. He almost tripped stepping up a curbway, and took the recovery from that misstep as an excuse to watchers to stop and check his com for the time.
It vibrated lightly in his hand as he pulled it out and then the message scrolled…
“Walk on. It is best that I use the fog, while we have it. Once the day is bright, I will walk with you this day. Q.”
Cherna tried to relax, found his hand still twitching to hold that gun. He wondered if he was being foolish to be this nervous with his silent watcher close by. Then he remembered Sliver’s fate and shivered.
He stood tall, sensing the light of morning brightening around him, smelling the distant sea as the dawn breeze kicked in. Yes – there – there above the still shrouded buildings, there morning would shred fog into clouds. In that direction he walked, Quicksliver soon to join him.
If you liked this chapter, please consider donating to support the Quicksliver project
Over time, Splinter Universe readers have indicated that a suggested donation would be helpful to them. For those readers, a donation of $10 is recommended for supporting this novel in progress.
If you prefer not to use Paypal, you can donate by check via US mail — in US dollar amounts only, to Steve Miller, PO Box 1586, Waterville, ME 04903