You wouldn’t think that it could rain in a space station – though calling Echart Hub a mere space station was stretching the definition by quite some way. As it went, looking up from the gritty pavement and seeing a ribbon of water in the park-lands on the other side of the central light well was impressive.
Down here in the industrialised sectors though the rain wasn’t any product of such wholesome things as clouds and weather patterns, but of condensation on the supporting struts and arches interlaced around and about the whole area like a half-formed geodesic dome.
A grimy semi-articulated road cleaner growled past, amber lights flickering in the gathering gloom. Its brushes were raised, the driver on her way back to the depot at
the end of her shift. Efhans watched it go, smelling the tang of oil and cleansing chemicals rankle his sinuses into coppery protest. Streetlights were starting to glow gently to dispell the early evening gloom, soft light attracting the moths that still resisted all attempts at extermination.
The massive shutters on the central column of hot plasma were what enforced the progression of night and day on Echart, producing a twenty six hour cycle that reflected
an average of the expected circadian rhythms of the most likely visitors. Anyone else would just have to lump it and get used to it. Their shadow was now marching
across the section just behind the igniting lights. It was a simple enough trick of timing, but even now Efhans found it a mildly impressive piece of engineering, and wondered how long it would resist the grind of entropy that seemed to draw in so much else here.
He walked on his way now the cleaner had passed. The constant drizzle had made the kerb slippery, and under the glowering lamps it was getting increasingly difficult to make out precisely where the edge was. Occasionally his feet found shallow puddles among the cracked and uneven paving slabs, which wet the hems of his trousers briefly before the water-repellent material dried again. More traffic was passing – the ground traffic an anomaly that he was only now getting used to. He side-stepped the larger washes of water displaced by their wheels, hurrying across junctions and not making eye-contact with anyone he met along the way A break in the roadside warehousing revealed more of the surrounding infrastructure across a poorly-maintained yard that was currently seeing service as a hard stand for a number of industrialised vehicles.
Efhans stopped to look up again as various high-flying craft took advantage of the rolling shutters to cut across portions of The Well that would otherwise have baked the occupants. A degree of autonomy was allowed by the Station Sentience in the control of the flightpaths, but anything beginning to exceed safe parameters suddenly found itself rolling back into the more sedate mediated traffic streams. The flickers of hazard lights, directional indicators and occastional thrust verniers always reminded him of fireflies from the forests of his youth. He hadn’t seen them in a couple of centuries or more in accumulated time-debt. He sometimes wasted time wondering if the forests were even still there, or if the small township had expanded to envelop the land yet.
Beyond the yard was another row of anonymous semi-industrial buildings and then, under a battered neon sign that looked rather better maintained than the wall to which it was attached, he could see the usual cluster of people to be found milling around the entrance to The Edge. He didn’t know any of their names, though most he knew to nod to – which he did as he approached. In turn he was recognised in the tightening of eyes or the nod of head from different people. The traffic on the road was just as heavy, and stray gusts tugged at his coat while making his way to the door. He was careful to note however that non of the tugs were from anyone trying their luck at a bit of dipping.
There were new bouncers at the door – the usual anonymous and vat-enhanced presences with grafted muscle and animal traits. The management seemed to have an endless supply of them, though maybe that said more about this part of the Station than any hiring strategy on behalf of the bar. The alpha male sniffed as Efhans approached, nose rankled slightly but waved him through without more comment than a sneer that revealed slightly overlong teeth.
The Edge was nothing too special – a bar and meeting place balanced between the industrial sectors, the docks and a major transport hub. The owner, an androgyne going
by the moniker of Annis, prided hirself on the privacy of the building, which was set with anti-surveillance equipment of various shades of dubious legality. As a result, a more refined locus of illegal and paralegal activity was hard to find this side of the plutocrat estates. The police tended to watch from a distance and occasionally come in en masse to crack heads when things got out of hand on the general assumption that if you were in there at the time then you were probably guilty of something.
A motley gang of spacers were heading out as he headed in, their skinsuits and short-cropped hair as much a mark of authenticity as their biomods. He moved aside to give the largest one, near ape-like with his bulked upper body mass filling the short stairwell, a bit of room. No sense in asking for trouble.
As expected, the place was mainly catering to a mix of crews straight from their docking berths, work gangs and assorted unidentifiable people of whom it was probably best not to ask. Like everyone else, Efhans made his way to the bar in turn, and didn’t go out of his way to make eye-contact with anyone. Annis slipped him the usual tight-lipped half-smile and nod as he approached, but he waited his turn like everyone else – another feature that kept people coming back here oddly enough. There were several other staff on duty, so he didn’t have to wait long.
“How’s it going, my boy?” Given Annis’ indeterminate age and gender it was always best not to spend too much time wondering about the propriety of what was said – you just let it wash over and past you as just part of how you interacted with hir.
“Oh the usual, back in town for a break, you know how it is” Efhans let a smile slip and accepted the glass of single malt that Annis placed before him. Hir public tags flickered along hir cheekbone as the credit transaction flowed between them. His own tags had no visible display. He preferred it that way. “Anyone new and interesting you can gossip about?” The transaction value had been significantly larger than that of a malt – even one imported from Earth that was already three centuries old at the time.
“You’re a naughty and devious young man Mister Efhans. What would my clients say?” There was a sardonic tone to the reply. Annis paused to take an order from someone
the other side of him, their tags luminescing in counterpoint for a second or so to the flickering of their fingertips. “Table seven it is then, cutlery just past the pillar there along with the condiments and napkins. Should be with you in about fifteen minutes – alright?” A small mixed group moved away towards the table identified, and Efhans took the opportunity to belly up to the bar and smile, a patient blankness to his expression. Annis raised a pencilled eyebrow and waved broadly and vaguely in the direction of his staff. “Look after things a minute, yes? Mister Johnson here’s next, then these two lovely ladies fresh from their berth, alright?” The last was generally aimed, but could as easily have been for Efhan’s benefit as the barstaff’s.
“Don’t mention it, far be it for me to hold you up. Besides, you were starting to make Boris nervous.” Annis’ eyes flicked quickly in the direction of a pale and rumpled-looking young man sporting several bruises to his face, hands and – as far as Efhans could make out through the v-neck of his open shirt – his chest as well.
“Got himself into a bit of bother last week and he’s been jumping every time he sees someone looking, well, a bit official really…” Annis’ voice trailed off speculatively.
“I don’t look like an official anything do I?” Efhans took a sip from his malt. It really was rather good.
Annis smiled coyly and watched him take another couple of appreciative sips. “Now, now – no asking questions you already know the answer to – its a waste of your time and money if I answer.”
“So what’s Boris’ gig then? Haven’t seen his mug in the usual places before.”
“Oh he’s not been on the scene long – arrived in-system a month or so back from one of the Dysons I think. Small-time dealer so I hear, out here to make a fresh start – the usual story.” Annis’ eyes continually scanned the clientele, watching for queues of buildups or for trouble.
“So he messed up and ran out this way is what you’re saying. Well the only moderately scary organisation that’s Dyson-based and likely to be his point of origin is The Tithe. As far as I know though they’re not an Intersolar group…” Efhans was keeping half an eye on Boris with a practiced half-focussed gaze noting position and movements. “But that looks like a punishment beating – so has he been slipping back into unfortunate ways or was he a really bad boy back home?”
“Ah…well…Therein lies a tale if you have the time…” Annis paused to refill his glass and hir subdermals fluttered once more.
“Go on” he said
“Well, scuttlebut has it that the youngster there arrived here with very little in the way of the old filthy lucre, and so has been hustling round the edges – nothing serious enough that I’ve had to have words or ask one of the boys to escort him from the premises, but I’ve kept an eye on him – much like you are now.” Efhans gave hir a sour look and waved the comment past. “Elegantly silent as ever dear, nice to know you don’t change.”
Efhans made a show of reaching for some water to add to the malt and smiled at the intake of outraged breath from Annis that accompanied the threat. “You were saying?”
Annis shot him a venomous look
“Please don’t even joke about sullying such glorious nectar again my boy – or its the blended rotgut in future for you.” A flourish of the hands and the story was taken back up. “So anyway, he teamed up with one of my regular bad boys -”
“Oh, Not important – the cypherthug in the corner with his sense slaves if you must know” Annis pointed to a skeletally thin, shaved and port-stud headed man with thin fibre cables running to the backs of the skulls of four scantily-clad men and women who were arranged around him gazing in adoration at him. Efhans rolled his eyes.
“I can guess, but what were they going to do?”
“Identity theft for a shotgun messaging scam”
“That’s a big leap from amphetamines and personality modding” Efhans mused. Most people’s mail accounts were pretty heavily filtered against unwanted mail from scammers and other con-artists, the most basic and heavily restrictive being that mail be only accepted from a registered real person, confirmed by the central registries. To send mail out on more than a small distribution level required licensing, backed by the registration.
As a result, the type of uncontrolled mass distribution of illegal or offensive content that had so plagued early incarnations of electronic consumer mail was now a somewhat more involved affair than simply harvesting addresses and names. The name and security details of someone had to be used – and the longer the person targeted was unaware of being used in this way, the more messages could be sent – typically time-delayed – so when the police came in response to complaints, they would often find someone heavily sedated in their home with little or no memory of the supposed friend who had stolen their identity for a time.
Anyone caught therefore by the authorities pursuing this course would most likely not only have fraud and public nuisance charges logged against them, but quite likely various degrees of assault, breaking and entering, and anything else that could be found on the statute books. It was usually therefore the general preserve of career criminals in larger organisations, rather than down on their luck second-stringers.
“It certainly is” purred Annis – “of course if I had known what they were planning before they actually went about it…”
“You’d have sold it on of course…”
“Of course.” Annis smiled, a wicked glint in hir eye.
“Well I don’t recall being shotgunned in the last few days…so I assume something went wrong.”
“Oh yes…yes indeed…”
Annis bent hir head conspiratorially towards him. “Ok, here’s what I heard happened. A week or so back we had some sleeper ships come through – dropping off and picking up – nothing unusual in and of itself. Had good takings from the crews, not too much trouble.” Annis smiled “Nothing that made the news anyway”
Efhans was quietly eyeing the cypherthug and his satellites. “Is he a regular?”
“Oh, yes – pays their way and doesn’t cause any undue problems.”
“So, from what I understand you’ve got these two casing out the crews – knowing that if they can pick the right one or ones, their victims will be in cold sleep for years or decades. The wirehead over there has his thralls on remotes to increase area coverage, while Boris is doing the social work, checking who has filters or memory cores that might need flash wiping.” Annis refilled his glass and wiped the area of bar around them of spills and condensation. “I suppose that took about a week or so of him splashing the cash, takings were up.” S/He smiled warmly at the memory.
“So the mark fought back? Sounds like they picked the wrong person.”
“No, the mark had no idea and was easily taken down…”
“Doesn’t look that way to me.”
“They’d spent quite some time scoping people out, getting to know some of their stories, and picked someone whose story resonated with Boris’ own escape from less fortunate situations-”
“Someone else on the run from past…business partners…”
“Quite so – and last weekend, knowing that their mark’s ship would be moving on the next night, they made their move, getting him out of his face with copious amounts of alcohol and a few psychonarcotic additives. Then, with the promise of going to a party they headed out. The cops were on to them of course – ident theft is pretty heavy duty these days, and sleeper ships are always tempting targets – and those clowns aren’t the brightest pair at the best of times. All this time they’ve been tracking and logging the comings and goings, they’ve got names, faces, times and methods – the works – and as they leave, there’s a couple of plain-clothed officers on their tail.” Annis paused to flash a smile at someone leaving the bar.
Efhans finished his glass and put his hand over it when Annis offered another refill. “I take it they don’t pick up because they need to see the crime in progress”
“Got it in one – except the theft doesn’t get past the mark falling asleep, drunk out of their skull. The cops are debating whether to move in when some new players arrive on the scene. Turns out the mark’s previous colleagues have caught up too, and a shouting match begins as each bunch tries to lay claim and scare off the other.
The cops aren’t paid enough to break it up so figure they’ll round up whoever is left lying on the ground afterwards and charge them accordingly, leaving the others for later. The arguments get louder and louder until punches are being thrown, and of course Boris and co are in no condition to be fighting. Every time they get knocked down they bounce back up, too drunk to feel the bruises. And by now the police are laughing so much they give away the fact they’re there and anyone who is able to makes a run for it. Boris and his mate get picked up and thrown in the slammer overnight to sober up, and the would-be mark is loaded into his sleeper unit to wake up in a couple of hundred years’ time with a hangover. Because the mark fell asleep rather than being mugged, there’s only public order charges can be pointed at them, so the police let them go, figuring the beating’ll be punishment enough…” Annis shook hir head.
Efhans stretched and made appropriate sounds of almost sympathy and laughter and moved on away from the bar, indicating the toilets. He eyed Boris, who flinched as he
passed, and left the room.