Story Excerpt

A Stab of the Knife

by Adam-Troy Castro

 

Draiken has previously appeared in Analog in “Blurred Lives” (January/February 2018), “The Soul Behind the Face” (October 2016), and “Sleeping Dogs” (July/August 2015). Andrea Cort has most recently appeared in “The Coward’s Option” (March 2016) and alongside Tasha Coombs in “Tasha’s Fail-safe” (March 2015). 

The takedown defines the phrase coming out of nowhere.

Draiken, who was trained not to enter any space without first accessing it for potential angles of attack, doesn’t see it coming at all.

On this trip, he is supposed to be a businessman seeking government contracts, and so he is doing what business people do when traveling in support of their enterprises: staying at a hotel. His room is at the midpoint of a long straight corridor, lined by doors. It is a classical space, identical to any number of others that have existed on any number of worlds for thousands of years; a form that follows function, altered from the general model only when some local designer feels like showing off. It would have been comprehended perfectly by guests at a similar establishment, from a hundred years back, or a thousand.

He has seen no other guests since his walk from the elevator. He’s registered no doors opening, nobody entering the hall from either side, nobody approaching rapidly in order to close with him in the time it takes for him to reach his door and speak the admittance code.

One moment his assailant is nonexistent, the next he is looming in Draiken’s peripheral vision, his powerful right hand reaching for Draiken’s neck.

Draiken spins, recognizes the man as one of the persons of interest he’s been trailing, realizes from this that his operation has gone wrong, and out of a variety of possible counterassaults instantly selects a crippling jab to the throat.

The man parries the blow with no difficulty at all.

Draiken has spun to face him, though, and so he is unprepared when with supernaturally perfect timing, the door to his room retracts into the wall, and a smaller and more delicate arm emerges to affix a buzzpatch to the base of his neck.

It’s a fast-acting paralytic, one that spreads numbness from the point of contact.

By the time Draiken feels the first effects, they have spread past his shoulders and are crawling down the muscles of his back. He aims a weak, uncoordinated blow at the woman in the doorway, who also parries it with no difficulty.

She wears the firm but sympathetic expression of the caretaker of animals who does not take it personally when the creature in her care resists the application of medicine; she knows that it is terrifying to the animal, but also that this cannot deter her from getting the hard part out of the way as quickly as possible. She actually mouths the word, Sorry.

He is not used to getting apologies from his enemies, but okay.

He is useless within two seconds, unable to stand in less than five.

They catch him as he falls.

As darkness comes, he registers that both man and woman are, as per their observed habits, dressed as if they find it a virtue to get as close as they can to nudity without quite arriving there. Thin strips of metallic silver, light enough to reveal the shape of what lies beneath, cover their midsections. The man’s chest is bare; the woman uses the same silver material to cup her left breast, but not her right. Both have covered their neck and their shoulders with the same material, which looks less like fabric than form-fitting paint. Both man and woman have what are, despite the intervening millennia since the abandonment of the homeworld, still called Asian features, in both cases to beautiful effect, though the silvery bristles they both have as hair are as odd an aesthetic choice as streetwear that resemble bathing suits. Even on New London, a diplomatic hub where most visitors affect whatever’s fashionable on the worlds they come from, exhibitionism on that scale is pretty much showing off.

His last thought is that he might be about to die. It’s a reasonable thing to worry about. He’s dealt with kill teams before, sometimes surviving only after spilling blood, sometimes getting away with the spilled blood his own. A couple of times, put out the way he’s been put out today, he went under aware that it was quite possible that he might not be waking up, at all. Always, he felt a vague disappointment in a life that had come to this. Always, when consciousness returned, it might have been under terrible circumstances, but it still arrived as a pleasant surprise, confirmation that at the very least he had something to work with.

When he wakes, he finds himself in his own hotel room, or at the worst one identical to it, which seems unlikely. His captors would have had little reason to move him, let alone bring along his one simple traveling bag, if all they were going to do is transfer him to an identical room with the bag occupying the same corner of an identical dresser. The lights have been turned down low, and the atmosphere is gloomy but for a wedge of light escaping the corner bathroom. He can hear someone moving around in there, running water.

Draiken himself is now what a colleague used to sardonically call a “floating head,” in short, a temporary quadriplegic thanks to a spinal block at the base of his neck. (Of course, it might be permanent for all he knows, a lingering misnomer left over from the days when actual spinal damage was a life sentence, not only as long as it takes him to get somebody to drag him to an AIsource Medical kiosk.) There’s plenty of reason to believe his condition temporary and artificial, because he retains enough physical sensation and balance below shoulder levels to keep from sliding out of a chair, which has no armrests or other impediment to a body otherwise totally at the mercy of gravity. He’s been in this state before, and it’s annoying but familiar, again welcome at the very least because it establishes his captors as not the type to kill him right away.

The water stops running. The beautiful woman with the spiky silver hair emerges, unsurprised to see him awake. She offers him a light smile. She is no longer dressed in the lopsided bikini but in a new outfit, considerably more conservative: a tight gray jumpsuit that covers her from her neck to her ankles, but for her right arm, which it leaves bare. The skin there is sleek and tan over the developed musculature of an athlete, leaving open the question of whether her physical gifts are naturally acquired or enhanced by surgery.

She says, “I’m happy to see that you’re feeling better.”

“Why?”

“Why not? I take no particular pleasure in the use of force. I’m just skilled at it. “

“I’m sorry it was such an inconvenience for you.”

“See? I hope that once we get past this we can move forward as friends.”

He gets the clear impression that she’s serious. “Do you think that’s likely?”

“No. But it is still something I can hope for.”

Damn. She is serious. “How long have I been out?”

“Three hours.”

“It feels like more.”

“I would have no reason to lie to you about so small a thing, not in these circumstances. If it’s any consolation, the dose was expected to put you down for about five, but failed to compensate for what appears to an iron constitution. My compliments to you, Mr. Draiken.”

“Thank you. Why did you need me down for so long?”

“We didn’t. But we respected your capabilities and were willing to accept the inconvenience of having to babysit you for so long as long as you were neutralized with a minimum of violence.”

“That was accommodating of you.”

Another brief smile. “I think you’ll find that we have no intention of making this ordeal more unpleasant than it has to be. I for one hope that we can get what we want out of you in record time and send you back on your way.”

“You for one. I presume that there’s some interpersonal disagreement on this?”

“Unfortunately, the woman I represent has been through a lot in her life and is not as attached as I am to ending this amicably. I can advise, but I still defer to her judgment.”

“Ah. That might get in the way of us becoming friends.”

“Again: I hope not.”

This is all familiar, the disconnect that goes along with being captured, the friendly veneer, the understated but very real threat of harm that goes along with it. In the past, with other enemies, such cordiality has always been there to provide the carrot that goes along with the stick, the illusion that his captors are perfectly willing to be reasoned with, as long as he obliges them by being reasonable.

What remains unresolved is whether this particular set of antagonists falls into such well-worn patterns because it fits the interrogation rulebook, even if they intend to kill him, or whether they’re just protecting their own interests and really do intend on treating him with something like fairness.

He still gets the distinctly odd impression that this one really is trying to be friendly.

He says, “Where is she, then? And your other half?”

“Down at dinner. We were all getting hungry and thought there’d be enough time to grab some, before you awoke. They know you’re awake, though, and are settling the bill early so they can join us as soon as possible.”

He doesn’t ask how she’s relayed the message. He knows how they know, understands that all communication between the bristle-haired woman and the bristle-haired man is instantaneous, or rather that there is no communication, because communication as the word is usually understood would be redundant. Instead he says, “I can use a sandwich or something, if you’re amenable to that. Being attacked, drugged, and paralyzed is hungry work, and even if I die tonight, I’d appreciate the comfort of a last meal.”

“I’ll arrange it.”

If she does, whatever action she takes is not visible. She settles in at the edge of the made bed and says nothing else while they wait for the other interrogators to arrive.

*   *   *

This is actually Draiken’s second trip to New London in the past couple months.

His first visit was to reconnoiter and lasted four weeks Hom Sap Mercantile. He spent the first two familiarizing himself with the territory. It’s a highly civilized and well-funded cylinder world that has mostly escaped the terrible things that can happen to such places when the local economies falter and the environment is allowed to degrade. The habitat is comfortable, the curved cityscape well-maintained, the streets as free of crime and corruption as it’s possible for any space inhabited by those contentious, argumentative, and contrary creatures known as human beings. It’s a showcase for how good life can be in the Confederacy, a model world designed to impress the other sentient species who maintain permanent embassies and enterprises there, and as a result he learned everything a tourist would need to know about its current layout in a little more than a week.

For the next stage of his overview, he moved to a less expensive hotel and spent another week exploring the places that the tourists never go—the industrial spaces where the machinery of civilization has been tucked away and the access tunnels that the humans among the maintenance crew use to keep their errands out of sight. Then he spent a week in the cheapest quarters available, a cubbyhole of the sort used by itinerants who have exhausted all their available funds, and familiarized himself with the station’s more disreputable places, which included the smuggling routes dealers in forbidden things use to get from Point A to Point B, without detection.

At no time during this crash course in station geography did he breach the grounds of New London’s single biggest holder of land, the headquarters of the Diplomatic Corps. He was aware that he might have to, eventually, but such penetration is the act of a man who’s mastered his environment, and these were still the early stages—the time when it’s best to take baby steps.

Only when he felt that he’d become minimally familiar with New London’s nooks and crannies did he take the first transport out, travel a fair distance away, rendezvous with a contractor he’d left hiding in the system’s Oort cloud, and through him transfer to another ship heading back in, this time wearing a new face and cover identity.

Now he was who he still pretends to be, a well-heeled traveler with no particular agenda taking in the same sights he did a month ago and showing only the polite interest of a tourist.

This time, he focused on his target. He discovered that she enjoyed breakfast on a certain café on a balcony overlooking the three hundred terraces of the Dumas Plaza, so he affected a liking for another café overlooking that one and made a habit of dining there, watching her. She always sat with the same pair of companions, the same ones who have just captured him. He noted how they always wore as little as they could get away with, while she preferred severe black suits. Tracking them from a distance, he mapped the usual route they took to their apparent offices in the Dip Corps campus, and how much time they usually spent there before emerging at about station sunset. He confirmed that they always ate at one of a small number of local restaurants, none fancy, before returning to the quarters they shared in one of New London’s less tony residential sections.

The three were always inseparable in public, corroborating intelligence to the effect that the spiky-haired man and woman functioned as full-time bodyguards of the woman who prefers to dress in forbidding black suits. He gathered from the way they moved that they were formidable and began to formulate strategies for taking them out with minimal fuss, clearing the path to her.

After the three locked themselves in for the night, he returned to his hotel and collated his growing store of information. This is what he found out.

She was a high-ranking prosecutor for the Dip Corps, one her colleagues describe as brilliant, difficult, asocial, ruthless, and dangerously resourceful. She was officially a war criminal, thanks to participation in a bizarre massacre that took place when she was eight. At least two sovereign alien worlds she’s been to are now under permanent military blockade, for reasons that remain classified but are heavily implied to have been her recommendation. In the past year or so, she has risen to a rank that his researches indicate never existed before, Counselor-At-Large, a position that allows her to travel freely and set her own agenda without Corps approval; it practically makes her an independent arm of the government, and this makes so little sense in the scheme of things that it drove him to seek three separate forms of confirmation before he was willing to accept that, yes, it appeared to be true. It was also suspicious as hell.

The most suspicious item in her background was a recent visit to Xana, the home world of the Bettelhine Munitions Corporation, whose ruling faction publicly treated her not just as envoy but as honored guest, a strange way for them to treat a Dip Corps prosecutor, since the Confederacy and the Bettelhines have never gotten along.

This was not the first time the Bettelhine name had come up, in respect to Draiken’s own agenda. His target’s recent coziness with the family implies a connection worth investigation.

The bodyguards are Oscin and Skye Porrinyard, a man and woman who have had their personalities cybernetically fused, forming a new shared intelligence who exists in both their bodies simultaneously. This is fairly new technology that Draiken has never encountered before, as its proprietary sellers, the software intelligences known as the AIsource, only started introducing it into human space during his long years in exile on a world where nobody would have ever even considered partaking. As a man who’s spent much of his life fiercely guarding his individuality, perhaps to a fault, he barely understands the motivation. But upon reading up on the procedure, he confirmed what it meant tactically—that the pair functioned as one person and that there will be no point in trying to turn one against the other, let alone in pursuing any strategies that rely on divide-and-conquer. They would be difficult opponents in any head-on confrontation.

He was still planning his approach, taking more time than was typical for him, when they beat him to it.

*   *   *

Thirteen minutes after his conversation with Skye Porrinyard, the door retreats back into the wall, and the others enter. Like Skye, Oscin has changed clothing since taking Draiken down; he now wears a jumpsuit identical to that worn by his other half, except that in his case the arm it leaves bare is his left. The polite smile he flashes Draiken is identical to the one Skye displayed earlier. He says, “Hello.”

“Hello,” Draiken replies.

There is no particular malice in the other man’s demeanor, only measured affability. He carries a quartet of food cartons, which would presumably include what’s left of a pair of dinners cut short, another brought up for Skye, and even Draiken’s sandwich. The implied presence of the sandwich doesn’t impact Draiken’s personal assessment of his chances of surviving this night, except as evidence that these people intend on employing the carrot as well as the stick.

The woman who enters behind Oscin is beautiful, in a harsh way; fierce, stern-eyed, and scowling. All the official images Draiken has of her depict short black hair with one lock long and dangling over one side of her face, but of late she’s changed her look, for some reason, and now wears lush auburn locks that dangle to her shoulders. The style, emphasizing soft femininity, doesn’t suit her.

All the overt hostility in the room comes from her.

She sits on the edge of the bed regarding Draiken with a measuring scowl.

He speaks mildly. “This is excessive, Counselor. I have not yet declared myself an enemy.”

She says, “It makes no difference to me whether an enemy has declared himself. I’ve survived assassination attempts by strangers and by people who came pretending friendship. It’s made me inclined to expect betrayal, unless I have pressing reason to believe otherwise.”

“It seems like a sad way to live.”

“It’s the water in which I swim, sir. And I’d wager the same true of you. Your effectiveness against my companions might have been pathetic, but they were still able to assess your response time and judge in it the training of a man accustomed to fighting for his life.”

He nods. “I commend them for being able to infer so much from such a minimal sample.”

“You’ll find that I make the most of observable data, as well.” She announces this without sadness or self-pity, her demeanor that of a woman reporting a fact beyond contention. “For your benefit, sir: have you ever dealt with a cylinked pair before?”

“I’ve done some research of late, preparing from some version of this conversation, but I confess that they’re still a relatively new phenomenon to me.”

“Then let me demonstrate their nature, for your reference. Oscin? Skye? Say something to him.”

Skye Porrinyard has already conversed with him as an individual, but now both Oscin and Skye speak in perfect unison, uncanny in its precision. “Hello again, sir. I repeat what Skye said alone, when you woke in your current predicament. We have no intention of making this any more unpleasant than it has to be. We hope that you’ll assist us in this by cooperating.”

Draiken’s impressed, despite himself. He has seen people attempt simultaneous speech before: actors and singers, attendees at houses of worship. Sometimes they’re practiced to the point where they seem driven by the same will. But in those cases there’s just enough difference in their rates of delivery, even if constantly corrected, that their voices can be discerned as the product of different mouths. The Porrinyards do something else. Not precisely matching words but sharing tones and phonemes, they produce a voice utterly different from the ones they employ individually, one that appears to spring out of the empty air between them. “That does take some getting used to.”

“I know,” the counselor acknowledges. “The act still gets on my nerves from time to time.”

“Which is what makes it so fun,” the Porrinyards counter, with what looks like merriment.

“In any event,” the counselor says, “I establish what they are in order to point out for your benefit that their shared nature doesn’t just make them superb bodyguards; it also provides them great talent at triangulating the behavior of human beings and, in particular, at detecting lies. This is also a skill at which I excel, though my significant gifts are based in observation and logic, not their analysis of eye movements and other facial tics. I assure you that even if you do what most people cannot, successfully lie to one of us, you would have to be a truly gifted indeed to lie to the other. Between us, we are very difficult to fool.”

“Consider me forewarned, then.”

“Very well. Getting to it: you clearly know who I am.”

“I know who you’re reputed to be.”

“Say it so I know we’re talking about the same thing.”

“You’re Counselor Andrea Cort.”

“We have that point of consensus, anyway. Who else do you think I am?”

“I know you were born Andrea Cort. I believe that you might have aspects you haven’t shared with everybody who knows you.”

“That happens to be true of most people, sir. We are all multifaceted.”

“Speak for yourself,” the Porrinyards say. “I’m multifaceted only in the sense of having more than one face. As a personality, I’m remarkably without depths, if I do say so myself.”

Draiken admits, “I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.”

“I’m straightforward,” they reply. “Again, I hope you have the opportunity to find this out.”

If Cort is annoyed by this seemingly whimsical interruption, she doesn’t show it. Her gaze remains fixed on Draiken. “I repeat, sir: who else do you think I am?”

“I’m afraid I need some assistance with the question.”

“I am, to various people, a war criminal, a symbol of the Confederacy’s endless capacity for corruption, a murderer, an enemy of the state, an inconvenience, a Dip Corps asset, and a bounty.”

“Also,” the Porrinyards say, “a pain in the ass.”

Cort ignores this interruption as well. “Which of these brought you here looking for me?”

He says, “As of now, none of the above.”

“Who are you?”

“To echo you, Counselor, you know who I’m reputed to be.”

“You’re traveling under the name Liam Vireinja, and you claim to be a habitat engineer, visiting New London in pursuit of Dip Corps contracts. Who you really are remains an open issue, since you’ve conducted no real business while here, and have in fact done nothing during your two-stage visit to New London except prepare for this confrontation with me. I repeat: who are you?”

Draiken is impressed that she’s detected not only his current activities, when he’s been focused on tracking her, but also the earlier, more general information-gathering of his first, preparatory visit. “My birth name would mean nothing to you, I’m afraid. I think of myself as Draiken.”

“That is neither enlightening nor helpful. Who are you?”

“Draiken is about as far as that goes, unfortunately. My identity is fluid depending on my circumstances.”

“I must have omitted the part of the conversation where I told you my lack of patience for games.”

Were he capable of moving his arms, he would spread his palms, indicating nothing to hide. “I’m not playing games, Counselor. I’m speaking the absolute truth, admitting that I don’t possess the easy answers most people provide when asked for biographical detail. For more years than I care to count, I’ve never been anyone in particular, except for who I pretended to be. You could say that being anyone is my skill set.”

“A spy, then. Or assassin.”

“At different times, yes.”

She offers a barely perceptible nod. “Working for who?”

“That’s just as unclear, even to me. Part of the reason I’m here. But I’m not necessarily your enemy, in any event. My mission here is my own, and it involves research, not assassination.”

“That still doesn’t make me feel any safer. Research into what?”

“For one: just why your name would come up, when I was questioning a very bad man.”

Cort raises an eyebrow. “My name?”

“Yes, Counselor. I got it from a man named Silver, on a cylinder world named Liberty.”

“I’ve never heard of the place, or of him. Why didn’t you simply ask him why he would mention me?”

“I can’t. He’s dead now.”

Her scowl narrows again. “Do people always die when you question them?”

“Not always. This one died of untreated natural causes, by his own choice. Old age, as it used to be called.”

The Porrinyards twinkle. “Just how long was this interrogation, sir?”

“Our entire association was pretty much entirely a deathbed confession. I asked him some questions about this matter that interests me. He gave me your name, and recommended that I approach you with care. He appears to have been right about how formidable you are. I’m not a man accustomed to being detected.”

The linked pair appears to take some pity on him. The character of their melded voice changes slightly, taking on more of Skye’s softer tones. “I assure you, sir, you committed no obvious errors. You were quite professional, indeed suspiciously professional, at every moment. But one of the advantages of seeing the world from more than one set of eyes, as I do, is more efficient processing of detail. I first spotted you a week ago, and remembered you when I spotted you again one day later. When you appeared a third time, you became a person of interest. With the Counselor’s approval, I took the prudent course and arranged some countesurveillance.”

He says, “Official or unofficial?”

Andrea Cort resumes control of the conversation. “Suffice it to say that if I chose not to bring your activities to the attention of my nominal employers in the Dip Corps, it’s because they subscribe to laws that limit what can be done to stalkers of their personnel.”

“And you do not?”

“As I’ve told you, sir, I’ve suffered many attempts on my life. Too many. Three separate organized efforts, on just my last errand off-world. They came with a price in the lives of innocents. I’ve become too practical a person to always handle such matters according to Corps guidelines. Sometimes I’m obliged to take shortcuts. Just to let you know, I’m not mollified. I’m still considering extreme action, in your case.”

He can’t help it. He grins. “I believe I like you.”

“That is also neither enlightening nor helpful.”

He shakes his head. “Look at us, Counselor. I am clearly not currently equipped for an assassination. Your friends are clearly equipped to protect you. If I’m a threat, it’s one you appear capable of handling.”

“I believe you. I also believe that you could have contacted me without subterfuge, via the New London directory. The worst I would have done to you, in that event, was tell you to go away. Now, I’m faced with the very real possibility that you’re a threat to me, or to the Corps I serve. Giving you the benefit of the doubt might be suicidal.”

“It might be,” he says, calmly enough. “But if you cut off the end of this conversation prematurely, you’ll never know what I came for, and I suspect that you’re the kind of person who would not be able to live with that.”

The Porrinyards surprise him by laughing out loud: a sound enchanting when it comes from both of them, her tinkling laugh a fine counterpoint to his deeper bellow. Unlike their speech, it sounds like the laughter of two people, even if it’s too people so much in synch that they know one another to the marrow. “He has your number, Andrea.”

“Oh, shut up,” she says. But she is no longer wholly listening to them, or to him. She’s processing. The way she tilts her head, right now, looks uncannily like she’s listening to someone, a voice in her head as audible to her as the voices of Oscin and Skye must always be to each other. It is intense concentration, over in seconds, and when it is done, she seems to relax, though it would remain a profound mistake to mistake this for her being at peace. He suspects that, much like himself, this woman is always in a state of war, even in the absence of an identifiable enemy.

No obvious signal passes between herself and the Porrinyards, but Skye rises from the bed, passes him, and removes a small disk-shaped object from the base of his neck. An unpleasant tingling sensation, neural sediment, returns to his limbs, and he flexes his arms, relieved to enjoy mobility once again. By the time he is fully himself, Skye is a safe distance behind him.

They have not lowered their guard, not one of them. And this is only smart. Though he is not at all confident of being able to take down all three, starting from this position, he is reasonably certain that he could if he wished do mortal damage to at least one, before the others would be able to react.

Were this a suicide mission, he could even be reasonably assured of taking out the Counselor herself, with perhaps a 10 percent chance of escaping to fight another day.

This is something to keep in mind, because he has not yet decided what to do with her. With them, since the Porrinyards are apparently an inextricable part of the package. His initial ambitions are as harmless as promised, but then he has not gotten all the information he needs, and this can very easily change.

He stands, just to get some blood flow in his legs. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the Porrinyards say, from opposite ends of the room—and even this far apart, the sound appears to be come from the midpoint of the space separating their physical bodies, indeed, from right next to him. It is an uncanny ability that unnerves even Draiken, a man unused to being unnerved.

Then Andrea Cort says, “I’m listening.”

*   *   *

The biggest problem, which he admits, is of course that while he was indeed directed to Cort as his next contact, the man who provided him with this information perversely failed to explain just what he could expect to gain from her.

He is left with no alternative other than telling his story, if not from the beginning, then nearer to the beginning than the present.

He explains that in the past he spent some time as a prisoner, being interrogated under torture at what is most easily called a reeducation camp. He explains that what he underwent was an attempt at what was once called brainwashing and that he barely escaped with his sanity intact; that after many years in hiding he came across the intelligence that the same parties responsible for his suffering were still at large somewhere in Confederate Space.

He specifies that one of the things he’s found out is that they are still refining the science of mind control, and that they are disturbingly not alone, as there are now multiple powers who have made frightening advances in the field.

Cort stirs. “Is this what you’re after, Mr. Draiken? The acquisition of such technology for your own ends? Would you fancy that capability, for your own use in whatever it is you do?”

“Far from it. I’ve been the victim. More than once. It’s left me with scars that will never heal. I think it’s obscene, and I want it destroyed wherever it exists.”

A shadow briefly passes over her stern features, giving him a fleeting glimpse of the forces that sculpted her into what she is. “I’ve been a victim too, Mr. Draiken. More than once. It’s left me with scars that will never heal. I also think it’s obscene, and I also want it destroyed wherever it exists.”

“It appears that we have some things in common.”

“Superficially, yes. But I am not quite ready to declare you a long-lost spiritual sibling yet. Please continue.”

He moves on past his recent ordeal on the world known as Liberty, wrapping up with the specific citation of her name by the dying man he knew as Silver.

The full narrative, itself as brief a summary as he can manage, takes almost two hours. Throughout it Andrea Cort listens in near silence, her dark eyes focused on him, her absorption of every detail total. He has seen concentration like hers before, but not often, and always at the command of skilled interrogators adept at probing all assertions for flaws. Her few questions only serve to refine his already formidable estimate of her intelligence. He knows he would rather have this woman as ally than as enemy.

When he indicates that he is done, he expects further interrogation, but instead she does what he least expects; she stands up and says, “Good night, then.”

He is stunned. “What?”

“I’m compelled to believe you, sir; it does not mean that I’m quite prepared, at this hour, to help you. This has been a long and stressful day, and I’m tired. If you refrain from harassing me, I’ll be in touch sometime tomorrow, when I have the energy. In the meantime, please let me set the pace.”

Skye returns to her side, serving as visible counterpoint to the larger but still twin-like Oscin, both Porrinyards smiling back at him with eyes that persist in measuring him from complementary angles. They even blink in unison, it seems.

They stay behind for a second, after their mistress leaves, their empathy palpable.

Oscin speaks alone. “You’re lucky. She likes you.”

Then Skye enters their vocal chorus, and they speak the next few words together. “So do I.”

And then they leave.

*   *   *

Draiken doesn’t trust Cort as far as he can throw her. He doesn’t need the fruits of his crash course in her history to know her type. She’s known extreme and intimate betrayal, not just once or twice, but often. She’s never known safety, and she locks most people out not just because she fears them doing the same, but because she’s aware that circumstances might require her to betray them first. He has no doubt that she possesses a grand talent for that black art, and that she does not allow moral considerations to place any governors on the ruthlessness with which she wields it.

All of this reminds him of his now absent old ally, Thorne; a dangerous comparison.

On the other side he has just one ameliorating factor:

Despite himself, he trusts the Porrinyards.

He doesn’t know why. They’re clearly loyal to her, but they have enough latitude in her presence to constantly prick her pretensions. They have considerable influence over her decisions and appear to be a moderating force. And yes, despite having been overpowered and imprisoned by them, he finds himself reciprocating their claim of liking him.
This doesn’t mean that he’s safe from them or, for his part, that they’re safe from him, but it is a factor that will color things, moving forward.

The room is compromised, but given how carefully Cort must be keeping tabs on him, there’s no point in finding another one. Nor is it a bad thing, for the moment, that she knows where to find him. What he faces now is a choice between remaining here and meekly waiting for her, or leaving if for no other reason to document that he still can.

He finds he wants the illusion of freedom.

So he changes clothes to something a little more casual and goes downstairs.

The hotel is part of an entertainment complex with twenty bars and restaurants, many of them geared to habitats other than New London’s generic human-neutral. He is not in the mood for anything neutral. Alternatively, he could go to the Bursteeni place, where he will be greeted with warmth and not left alone until he concedes eternal friendship. Or, if he wishes an evening of snotty condescension, he can submit to being likely the sole human willing to endure the attitude he’ll receive at a smaller club run for the Tchi. Out of the several other options, he decides on a place influenced by the desert climes preferred by that ubiquitous alien race known as the Riirgaans.

He feels the hot, dry air, not quite set to sauna intensity but close, as soon as he enters the space, a room geared to the monotonous brown palate preferred by the dominant subculture of the species. Many Riirgaans sit at tables, absorbing their most popular light intoxicant, a scented vapor rising from a bowl of something that Draiken’s never bothered to find out about. Few humans aside from the academically interested would, since the substance doesn’t affect homo sapiens, for good or ill. But the combined scent is not unpleasant, and the music is relaxing, and there are so few humans, enjoying the establishment’s other offerings, that chances are he will not be bothered. He takes a seat in one of the handful of booths with seats designed to accommodate the human rump, punches in his order for water laced with a mild stimulant capable of comforting him without affecting his judgment, and spends a few minutes listening to Riirgaan melodies.

He takes about three times longer to finish the first drink as most human customers would before ordering his second and is just beginning work on that when a stranger emerges from the murk, his tan-brimmed hat doffed and held respectfully in his hands. “Excuse me? Mr. Vireinja?”

Draiken immediately returns to his traveling persona, gruff and businesslike. “Yes? Do I know you?”

“I believe not. But I suspect that we have business in common. May I sit?”

Company is the last thing Draiken wants, but he gestures toward the seat opposite his own. “Please.”

The stranger drops his hat on the table, and takes his seat. He is a compact individual with shiny black hair, a pale complexion, and eyes that would resemble saucers were they not determined to rest at a semi-lidded position. He is courtly, in a manner that strikes Draiken as antiquated, but there’s also a jumpiness to him, the nervous energy of a man who is afraid that enemies are watching him but not quite practiced enough to hide it. “Excuse me.”

“For what?” Draiken asks.

“I am aware that I give a poor first impression, and a worse second impression. Forgive me; I was the object of a minor legal dispute on a world I won’t name, and suffered their traditional punishment, the installation of a tiny psionic transmitter that makes me an easy person for strangers to instinctively despise on sight. I assure you that without its influence this is not the impression you would have naturally.”

“I tend not to form impressions at once,” Draiken says, “even if I must warn you that I form them quickly. Out of sheer curiosity, I must ask: if you’re no longer on that world, why not stop in at some clinic and have the offending device surgically removed?”

The stranger’s grin is sickly, the look of a man trying to keep up a brave face during a public embarrassment. “Were I an individual with no responsibilities to anybody, I would of course do just that. However, I regularly do business with enterprises whose relations with that world would be irreparably harmed, were one of their associates to cheat that world out of what it considers justice.” He flashes a nervous smile that fades immediately. “It is not a life sentence, fortunately. In a little more than months, the term of my punishment will be up, and the device will turn itself off. At that point I assure you I will become much more likeable, among members of the fairer sex in particular. They are quite fond of me, under normal circumstances.”

He actually blushes a little, at this boast.

Draiken nods. This tends to eliminate one working theory of the stranger’s reason for approaching him. And now that he’s been in range for a while, he’s apparently telling the truth about the device. There’s a low-level buzz around him, one that renders him if not completely hateful then at least vaguely repellent, like a nagging odor neither pleasant nor unpleasant that would tip to the latter if identified. “I will try to keep in mind, Mister . . .”

“Lawray. Mr. Derausch Lawray. There is yet a third name, but most people here on New London cannot pronounce it. I prefer most friendly associates to call me Lawray, no honorific.”

Draiken refrains from pointing out that he has not yet declared himself a friendly associate. “As I insist on the honorific for myself, I’ll take the liberty of doing the same for you, Mr. Lawray.”

“That will be acceptable, sir.”

“Our relationship will still be a brief one unless you can clarify the nature of our mutual business.”

Lawray smiles broadly. “Why, the Counselor, of course.”

“Andrea Cort?”

“Please don’t pretend that you don’t know her. I am aware that for some time you have been following her and that she has rather forcibly visited you.”

Draiken cannot resist a wry, self-deprecating grin at the operation that keeps acquiring complication; at this rate, it will be the most public job ever originally undertaken in stealth, of his entire career. “I’m genuinely gratified to find my travels such a universal source of fascination.”

“Your origins are unknown to me, sir. My primary interest is in the Counselor, and that means I possess a secondary interest in those who associate with the Counselor.”

“Why is that your business, Mr. Lawray? Can’t a man have a quiet gathering of friends?”

“One can,” Lawray says, “if one is the kind of individual who has friends. We both know that the Counselor is not. She is a notorious misanthrope, who would brook no social interaction at all were not some required for her work.”

Draiken maintains a bored expression. “She seemed fond of the two she travels with.”

“They are, as you should know if you met them, not quite human.”

“They are unusual, I admit, but I found them fully human. Perhaps more human than I am.”

Lawray’s lips curl. “This is slicing the onion further than is useful. Your meeting with her was not a gathering of friends. What I observed of the prelude was two equally predatory parties, circling one another before contact is made. Am I wrong? Because if I am wrong and genuine warmth resulted, I will happily withdraw.”

There is something clownish about this man, a vague absurdity that clings to him like another layer of clothing, but if he’s managed to observe the covert dance between Draiken and his subject, without either party detecting him, he’s more dangerous than he appears . . . and quite possibly not working alone. “What do you want with her?”

“I believe that I have found a source of potential profit, sir.”

“For you?”

“Potentially, for both of us.”

“Financial profit?”

Lawray titters. “Among other kinds.”

A server approaches, forcing an interruption in the conversation. Draiken orders another glass of the stimulant-laced water. Lawray orders a more conventional alcohol-laced concoction. Within two minutes the drinks have arrived, and the pair imbibe, regarding each other with care.

After a while, Draiken says, “Who do you represent?”

“At this point, myself. I occasionally take on clients, but my approach to the current matter is, as in most things, speculative. I find that my profits benefit that way.”

Draiken says, “This would tend to indicate a choice of clients. A highest-bidder situation.”

Lawray titters. “You are clever, sir.”

“Narrowing it down still further: you don’t seek the Counselor’s death—at least, not from your own hand. If you did somehow manage to pull off that trick before negotiating a price from some interested party, then nobody among her collection would have any motivation to pay you.”

“This is elementary, Mr. Vireinja. I don’t run a charity.”

“You want something else from her. Blackmail strikes me as unlikely; she’s not the type to sit still for it. Information? Granted, she must have access to at least some classified intelligence, but also doesn’t strike me as the kind of compromised individual any intelligent information broker would bother trying to turn. Process of elimination suggests that you want to take possession of her, in some manner, only contacting potential buyers once she is safely in your hands.”

“Would something like this be a proposition that interests you?”

“I don’t have that desperate a need for money.”

Lawray titters softly, the laugh like a whisper shared only with himself, which crosses the table only because of a break in the alien music. “I have always found that such declarations grow progressively weaker as the potential profit grows more grandiose.”

“That is true,” Draiken admits.

“Perhaps you’ve heard of the good Counselor’s recent visit to Xana, the homeworld of the Bettelhine Munitions Corporation. You do know that they are a sovereign power, correct? Not signatories to the Confederacy she serves; a commercial enterprise, long ago grown sufficiently powerful in and of itself that it functions as a monarchy. For all practical purposes, a bank, with coffers we might as well estimate as infinite.”

“And?”

Another little titter. “I believe you know the first rule of commerce, sir.”

Lawray retrieves his hat and begins to slide out of the booth. There is no immediate point in stopping him, because he is the type of man who will always have one more thing to say, and so he does, as he stands with that hat of his still politely gripped in his hands. “The enterprise does not wholly require your participation, sir, but I have been watching your skill at tradecraft and would nevertheless find your cooperation an asset. I will be in touch in a later time to determine your level of interest.”

Draiken says, “What if I want to locate you?”

“I will locate you, sir. I have already shown it within my capabilities.”

Lawray dons his hat and heads for the exit. Draiken is after him at once. He cannot tackle the smaller man in public, not without involving civilians and whatever this establishment might have in the way of security, but he can move quickly enough to gain ground, and does, to the point where he’s just a few steps behind when Lawray takes a hard right turn upon entering the public spaces beyond. It is a crowded evening in this complex filled with night spots, the path teeming with pedestrians human and other-than-human, the smiling faces of people looking forward to or coming from a good time, the unsmiling faces of races whose features are not meant for smiling. Between the loud music, the flashing lights, the hubbub of the crowd, and a curving sky that is also a busy cityscape glittering like a night filled with stars, the sensory overload is more than sufficient for any man evading a tail to get lost in; but Draiken is good at what he does, and so he spots Lawray’s familiar shape, topped with that familiar hat, entering a crowd that swiftly closes behind him.

Draiken judges the man’s trajectory and charts his pursuing course. He has tracked targets through raging street riots. He will not fail at tracking Lawray. He is aware of a dozen different efficient ways for the man to lose him. But he also knows his own capabilities and is prepared for all of these, including the one that actually occurs, a sudden assault from behind.

It is the second time in a matter of hours that somebody has attacked from Draiken’s blind spot. There is a difference, though. What the Porrinyards did, back at the hotel, was more or less magic. This new attacker is merely trained and formidable and wholly flawless in technique, and therefore fails at achieving surprise.

Draiken perceives the sudden motion coming from behind him and to the right. He sidesteps suddenly, the way people usually don’t if they’re making a beeline on a busy thoroughfare. The space he just vacated fills with a massive arm, hurtling by in the wake of a fist. Draiken seizes that arm by wrist and elbow and adds his own momentum, hurling its owner to the ground.

Even as he manages the trick, he feels the added strain it involves and knows that he’s likely in big trouble.

A quick dodge-and-spin, measuring the shocked faces of the surrounding crowd, establishes that there aren’t more attackers approaching from other directions. That’s good, because the one he just tossed has incorporated a tumble into her fall, and is already rising to face him.

She rises.

And rises.

Were Draiken the kind of man who reacted to a formidable-looking enemy by saying Holy Shit, he would now react to the sight of this woman by saying Holy Shit.

Not long ago, he met a woman named Edifice, whose size had established a record he had imagined, and hoped, would remain unchallenged for a while. This one would challenge Edifice. Towering over him by a head and a half, she has massive shoulders and weight-lifter arms that strain at the cords of tight scarlet sleeves, as well as a jaw that, though set between rounded feminine cheeks, still looks like it would not break even if he piloted a skimmer into it. She’s had a cosmetic skin job, too, apparently to accentuate the impression she already gives of a person one should not, under any circumstances, mess with. It has given her blockish features a bright and metallic gold tint, reflecting the ambient light, and emphasizing the way her cheeks crinkle as she faces him. Her shoulder-length hair is the same golden color as her skin, but not metallic. It might possibly even be her natural shade, some genetic throwback to what her lips and nose appear to mark as a more pan-racial background. It doesn’t lessen the impression that she could rip the head from his own shoulders without breaking a sweat.

She speaks in a soft whisper, less a seductive voice than a ravaged one. “Go order yourself another drink. I’ll even buy you one, if you want.”

Damned if she doesn’t manage to make it an attractive invitation.

Draiken says, “I’m not that easy.”

What follows is a communal gasp among onlookers as he charges. Given the difference in their respective sizes, the act must look suicidal. There is, however, an instinctive human reaction to an oncoming attacker, one that is, if anything, more common among those whose greatest weapon is their bulk, and that is to brace for impact. Even Goldenface here does that, while preparing to do what someone her size would just naturally do, grab him.

He doesn’t hit her mid-body, as she must have expected. As she reaches for him he drops and rolls under her lunge. In the instant she’s off-balance, he plants his palms against the ground and with both legs delivers a powerful double kick to her rump. What he might not have been able to do if she’d been prepared for an impact of that power, knock her over, is relatively easy when she’s still leaning into the frontal attack she’d expected.

He is up and running before she hits the floor. She’s not finished, obviously, and assuming she can run as fast as he can she’s still very much a danger. But she’s now the problem behind him, and that returns Lawray to being the problem in front of him.

If, that is, she hasn’t already delayed him long enough for Lawray to get away.

Draiken can only head in the direction he last saw Lawray headed, and it is frustrating, because the longer the interval between the last sighting and now, the more his actual trail becomes buried by multiplying alternatives. He can only try to cover the distance and trust in being able to tell about when he gets as far as Lawray could have. The street is crowded with groups of friends traveling together, some forming barriers by walking three and four abreast, and as he weaves in and out of the spaces that exist, blessing those pedestrians of any species who are fast enough to get out of his way and dodging the little sale kiosks where merchants sell comfort food and useless crap from a thousand worlds, he is acutely aware of how much every even momentary sidestep narrows the possibility of finding Lawray again. He knows for a fact that in another hundred meters or so, a nexus of avenues that intersect in a square with escape routes in every direction, the chances will descend, irrevocably, to almost zero.

To the right, up ahead, is a sidewalk café, cut off from the main flow of foot traffic by a colorfully-painted waist-high wall, encircling the diners like a protectively cupped hand. The wall is some form of simulated stone and wide enough to support as he neatly hops on top, taking advantage of his new height to scan the hundreds of people milling about up ahead. In that sea of heads he thinks he catches a glimpse of Lawray’s hat, receding in the distance. He leaps off the wall at its other end and aims himself for the spot he saw, emboldened now that catching up with him once again seems a possibility.

But by then, he feels a steady, machine-like drumbeat from behind, another set of footfalls to match his own. Years of experience grant him a fleeting guesstimate of his pursuer’s size and bulk, and he knows it must be the woman he’s provisionally dubbed Goldenface, who is faster than him after all, coming up faster than seems possible.

Later, analyzing why he hadn’t detected her sooner, he will conclude that she hadn’t ever been running all out to catch him; she’d been pacing herself, trailing at a distance because there’d been no real need for her to close the gap as long as she could keep him in sight. Only at the first clear opportunity had she gone full-sprint.

He tries to dodge again, but two hands that feel the size of bread-loaves close on his shoulders. Their grip is bone-crushing and painful. He struggles in the last moment it’s possible, tearing skin, and she winds up with two fistfuls of cloth. His shirt comes halfway off his body and he tries to sink out of it, but she uses what grip she has and flings him to one side, sending him over a sidewalk kiosk selling what look like throbbing gray blobs of protoplasm. He hits a support pylon shoulder-first and feels it dislocate. Not quite blacking out despite the additional pain that comes when he hits the ground, he still manages to stand and face her, from opposite sides of the kiosk.

She is not looking at him, but at the throbbing gray blobs, which seem to have no purpose other than repeatedly inflating and deflating. She may be the only person in sight looking at them; all around her, keeping their distance, are beings of various species intensely interested by her.

Not even winded, Goldenface glances down at the vendor, a frightened little man who is crouched beside his kiosk, shielding his bald head with his arms. In the same gentle whisper she used before, she asks: “What are they? Pets or toys?”

“P-plants,” the vendor stammers. “Sort of.”

“Are they hard to take care of?”

“No.” He’s still stammering, but growing more in control of himself as the circumstances become more familiar. “Two spoonfuls of water, a little crust of bread, once a day. They’re as big as they’re going to get.”

“Amazing,” Goldenface says. She produces an object, places it on the counter, and claims two of the pulsating blobs for herself. Only then does she turn her attention back to Draiken, who’s swaying on his feet. “I’m sorry, Mr. Vireinja. But you really should have allowed me to buy you that drink.”

“I’m beginning to get that impression,” Draiken manages.

She nods at the vendor and seems to notice the small mob of onlookers for the first time. “It’s all right,” she says, sincerely. “There’s nothing to see here.” Then she turns her back on Draiken and departs. The crowd obligingly parts for her, its two halves becoming a corridor meant only to facilitate her exit. Even though it seals up behind her, she remains visible, a towering head and shoulders, long after most people would have vanished.

Any ambition Draiken had of tracking Lawray is of course shattered.

He considers trying to stagger to an AIsource Medical kiosk, or even to make it back to his hotel room. These are both things he could do, if the need presented itself. Certainly he’s managed to function, for longer periods, with worse injuries. But as he sees two figures wearing the uniform of New London’s security forces, each resting a hand on a teeming pistol at their side, push their way past the crowd, he also calculates how little he is likely to gain in the attempt. Sometimes there’s a reason to exercise one’s powers of resilience, and sometimes there’s not. Sometimes it’s most profitable to just fade to black.

 

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Copyright © 2018. A Stab of the Knife by Adam-Troy Castro

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