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Chapter 1

Nothing should have been able to ruin my lunch.

Joaquin Choy, the best chef on any planet within three jumps, had erected his restaurant, Falls, just outside Eddy, the only city on the still-developing world, Mund. He'd chosen the site because of the intense flavors of the native vegetables, the high quality of the locally raised livestock, and a setting that whipped your head around and widened your eyes.

Falls perched on camo-painted carbon-fiber struts over the center of a thousand-meter-deep gorge. You entered it via a three-meter-wide transparent walkway so soft you were sure you were strolling across high, wispy clouds. The four waterfalls that inspired its name remained visible even when you were inside, thanks to the transparent active-glass walls whose careful light balancing guaranteed a glare-free view throughout the day. The air outside filled your head with the clean scent of wood drifting downstream on light river breezes; a muted variant of the same smells pervaded the building's interior.

I occupied a corner seat, a highly desirable position given my background and line of work. From this vantage point, I could easily scan all new arrivals. I'd reserved and paid for all the seats at the five tables closest to me, so a wide buffer separated me from the other diners. In the clouds above me, Lobo, my intelligent Predator-class assault vehicle, monitored the area surrounding the restaurant so no threat could assemble outside without my knowledge. I'd located an exterior exit option when I first visited Choy, and both Lobo and I could reach it in under a minute. Wrapped in a blanket of security I rarely achieved in the greater world, I could relax and enjoy myself.

The setting was perfect.

Following one of my cardinal rules of fine dining—always opt for the chef's tasting menu in a topnotch restaurant—I'd forgone the offerings on the display that shimmered in the air over my table and instead surrendered myself to Choy's judgment, asking only that he not hold back on the portion size of any course. Getting fat is never an issue for me. At almost two meters tall and over a hundred kilos in weight, I'm large enough that I'd be able to eat quite a lot if I were a normal man, and thanks to the nanomachines that lace my cells, I can eat as much as I want: they decompose and flush any excess food I consume.

Spread in front of me were four appetizer courses, each blending chunks of a different savory meat with strands of vegetables steaming on a glass plate of slowly changing color. Choy instructed me to taste each dish separately and then in combinations of my choice. I didn't know what any of them were, and I didn't care. They smelled divine, and I expected they would taste even better.

They did. I leaned back after the third amazing bite and closed my eyes, my taste buds coping with that most rare of sensory pleasures: sensations that in over a hundred and fifty years of life they'd never experienced. I struggled to conjure superlatives equal to the food.

The food was perfect.

What ruined the lunch was the company, the unplanned, unwanted company.

When I opened my eyes from my contemplation of that confounding and delicious blend of flavors, Slanted Jack was walking toward me from the stark white entrance hallway.

Slanted Jack, so named because with him nothing was ever straight, had starred in one of the many acts of my life that I'd just as soon forget. The best con man and thief I've ever known, he effortlessly charmed and put at ease anyone who didn't know him. When he eased through a room of strangers, they all noticed. He was a celebrity whose name none of them could quite remember. Maybe ten centimeters shorter than I, with a wide smile, eyes the blue of the heart of flame, and skin the color and sheen of polished night, Jack instantly cornered the attention of everyone around him. While weaving his way through the tables to me he paused three times to exchange pleasantries with people he was almost certainly meeting for the first time. Each person Jack addressed would know that Jack found him special, important, even compelling, and Jack truly would feel that way, if only for the instant he invested in sizing up each one as a potential target.

While Jack was chatting with a foursome a few meters away, I called Lobo.

"Any sign of external threat?"

"Of course not," Lobo said. "You know that if I spotted anything, I'd alert you instantly. Why are you wasting time talking to me when you could be eating your magnificent meal, conversing with other patrons, and generally having a wonderful time? It's not as if you're stuck up here where I am, too high to have even the birds for company."

"It's not like I could bring you into the restaurant with me," I said, parroting his tone. I know he's a machine, but from almost the first time we met I've been unable to think of him as anything other than "he," a person. "Nor, for that matter, do you eat."

"You've never heard of take-out? I may not consume the same type of fuel as you, but I can be quite a pleasant dinner companion, as I'd think you'd realize after all the meals you've taken while inside me."

I sighed. Every time I let myself fall into an argument with Lobo when he's in a petulant mood, I regret it. "Signing off."

"You don't want to do that yet," Lobo said.

"Why?" Just when I think I understand all the ways Lobo can annoy me, he comes up with a new one.

"Because I was about to alert you to an internal threat," he said.

"Let me guess," I said. "The tall man who recently walked into the restaurant and is now talking to some people not far from me."

"Correct," Lobo said. "I did not consider the threat high both because other humans have stayed between you and him since he entered and because his two weapons are holstered, one under his left arm and the other on his right ankle."

Jack was armed? That was unusual, the first thing he'd done that didn't fit the man I'd known. Jack had always hated weapons and delegated their use to others, frequently to me. I don't like them either, nor do I like violence of any type, but both have been frequent hazards of most of the kinds of jobs I've taken over the last many decades.

"Got it," I said. "Anything else you can tell?"

"That's all the data I can obtain from this distance, and even that information required me to force enough power into the scan that the restaurant's skylights are now complaining to the building management system about the treatment they have to endure."

I kept my eyes on Jack and tuned into the common appliance frequency. Restaurants employ so many machines, every one of which has intelligence to spare and a desire to talk to anything that will listen, that tapping into their chat wavelength was like stepping into the middle of a courtyard full of screaming people. The sonic wall smacked me, the sounds in my head momentarily deafening even though I knew they weren't really audio at all, just neurons and tweaked receptors firing in ways Jennie and the experiments on Aggro had combined to make my brain interpret as sounds. I sorted through the conversations, ignoring mentions of food and temperature until I finally found a relevant snippet and focused on it.

"Radiation of that level is simply not normal for this area," one pane said, "though fortunately it is well within the limits of what my specs can handle."

"All of us can easily handle it," said another pane. Household and building intelligences, like appliances, are insanely competitive and desperate for attention. They spend most of their lives bickering. I listened for another few seconds, but all the chatter was between the pieces of activeglass; the household security system didn't respond to the windows, so it clearly didn't consider the burst from Lobo's scan to be a risk. I should tell Joaquin to upgrade his systems.

"If you see that man reach for either weapon," I said, "alert me instantly."

"Of course," Lobo said. "Must you constantly restate previous arrangements?"

"Sorry. Humans use reminders and ritualized communications during crises."

"I appreciate that, and I sometimes don't mind, but he's one man, he's made no move to suggest aggression, and so I hardly consider him a crisis."

Lobo clearly didn't appreciate the trouble a single man could cause, much less a man like Jack. Jack had finished with the foursome and was now leaning over a couple at a table adjacent to the first group. "Now signing off," I said.

I blended bits of food from a pair of the plates into another bite, but I couldn't take my eyes off Jack; the charms of the appetizers were dissipating faster than their aromas. Jack would require all my attention. He and I had worked the con together for almost a decade, and though that time was profitable, it was also consistently nerve-wracking. Jack lived by his own principles, chief among which was his life-long commitment to target only bad people for big touches. We consequently found ourselves time and again racing to make jumps off planets, always a short distance ahead of very dangerous, very angry marks. By the time we split, I vowed to go straight and never run the con again.

"Jon," Jack said as he reached me, his smile as disarming as always. "It's good to see you. It's been too long."

"What do you want, Jack?"

"May I join you?" he said, pulling out a chair.

I didn't bother to answer; it was pointless.

He nodded and sat. "Thank you."

He put his hands palm-down on the tablecloth, so I said nothing.

A server appeared beside him, reset the table for two, and waited for Jack's order.

"I throw myself on Joaquin's mercy," Jack said. "Please tell him Jack asks only that he be gentle."

The server glanced at me for confirmation. Jack wasn't going to leave until he had his say, so I nodded, and the server hustled away.

"Joaquin truly is an artist," Jack said. "I—"

I cut him off by standing and grabbing his throat.

"I'd forgotten how very fast you are for a man your size," he croaked. As always, he maintained his calm. He kept his hands where they were. "Is this really necessary?"

I bent over him so my left hand was on his back and our bodies covered my right hand, with which I continued to grip his neck tightly enough that his discomfort was evident. "Carefully and slowly put both weapons on the table," I said. "If you make me at all nervous, I'll crush your throat."

"I believe you would," Jack said, as he pulled out first a small projectile weapon from under his left shoulder and then an even smaller one from a holster on his ankle, "but I know you would feel bad about it. I've always liked that about you."

"Yes, I would," I said. When the weapons were on the table, I pushed back Jack's chair, released his throat, and palmed both guns. I put them behind my chair as I sat.

Jack stretched his neck and pulled his chair closer to the table. "I really must locate a tailor with better software," he said. "You shouldn't have been able to spot those."

I saw no value in enlightening him about Lobo's capabilities. "What do you want, and since when do you travel armed?"

Jack assembled bits of all four of my appetizers into a perfectly shaped bite, then chewed it slowly, his eyes shutting as the tastes flooded his mouth. "Amazing. Did I say Joaquin was an artist? I should have called him a magician—and I definitely should have dined here sooner."

He opened his eyes and studied me intently. The focus of his gaze was both intense and comforting, as if he could see into your soul and was content to view only that. For years I'd watched him win the confidence of strangers with a single long look, and I'd never figured out how he managed it. I'd asked him many times, and he always told me the same thing: "Each person deserves to be the center of the universe to someone, Jon, even if only for an instant. When I focus on someone, that person is my all." He always laughed afterward, but whether in embarrassment at having been momentarily completely honest or in jest at my gullibility is something I've never known.

"We haven't seen each other in, what, thirty years now," he said, "and you haven't aged a day. You must give me the names and locations of your med techs—" he paused and chuckled before continuing, "—and how you afford it. Courier work must pay far better than I imagined."

I wasn't in that line of work when I last saw him, so Jack was telling me he'd done his homework. He also looked no different than before, which I would have expected: no one with money and the willingness to pay for current-gen med care needs to show age for at least the middle forty or fifty years of his life. So, he was also letting me know he had reasons to believe I'd done well since we parted. I had, but I saw no value in providing him with more information. Dealing with him had transformed the afternoon from pleasure to work; the same dishes that had been so attractive a few minutes ago now held absolutely no appeal to me.

I decided to try a different approach. "How did you find me?"

He arranged and slowly chewed another combination of the appetizers before answering. "Ah, Jon, that was luck, fate if you will. Despite the many years we've been apart, I'm sure you remember how valuable it is for someone in my line of work to develop supporters among jump-gate staff. After all, everyone who goes anywhere eventually appears on their tracking lists. So, when I made the jump from Drayus I stopped at the gate station and visited some of my better friends there, friends who have agreed to inform me when people of a certain," he looked skyward, as if searching for a phrase, "dangerous persuasion passed into the Mund system. Traveling in a PCAV earned you their attention, and they were kind enough to alert me."

I neither moved nor spoke, but inside I cursed myself. During a recent run-in with two major multiplanet conglomerates and a big chunk of the Frontier Coalition government, I'd made so many jumps in such a short period that I'd abandoned my previously standard practice of bribing the station agents not to notice me. Break a habit, pay a price.

"Speaking of your transport," he said, "is that a show copy or the real thing?"

I said nothing but raised an eyebrow and forced myself to take another bite from the nearer two plates. With Jack silence was often the best response, because he would then try another approach at the information he wanted, and the tactics he chose frequently conveyed useful data.

"There's no shame in a good copy, Jon" he said, his curiosity apparently satisfied. "I spent a couple of years recently brokering the machines to planetary and provincial governments in this system. The builder, Keisha Li, was this munitions artist—and I mean that, Jon, not merely a manufacturer, but an artist—who found her niche on Gash but couldn't ever hit it big. Her dupes were full, active transports that could handle any environment their originals could manage, though admittedly they were slower—and, of course," he chuckled, "completely lacking firepower. I helped her grow her business. We sold a couple of PCAV clones, though they're pricey enough that they were never our top sellers. Less expensive vehicles provided most buyers all of the intimidation value they sought." He leaned forward for a moment, his expression suddenly sad. "The worst part is that it was completely legal, an indirect sort of touch that I thought would be perfect for me, the real job I've always wondered if I could hold, and it delivered no juice, Jon. None." He sat back and threw up his hands as if in disgust. Jack always spoke with his whole body, every gesture calculated but still effective. "Oh, we made money, good money, the business grew, and we were safe and legit, but I might as well have been hawking drink dispensers." He took another bite, savored it, and then shook his head. "Me, selling machines on the straight. I mean, can you imagine it?"

As engaging as Jack was, I knew he'd never leave until he'd broached his true topic, so I tried to force him to get to it. "Jack, answer or one of us leaves: what do you want?"

He leaned back and looked into my eyes for a few seconds, then smiled and nodded. "You never could appreciate the value of civilized conversation," he said, "but your very coarseness has also always been part of your appeal—and your value. Put simply and without the context I hope you'll permit me to provide, I need your help."

Leave it to Jack to take that long to give an answer with absolutely no new content. If he hadn't wanted something, he'd never have come to me.

"When we parted," I said, "I told you I was done with the con. Nothing has changed. You've ruined my lunch for no reason." I stood to go, the weapons now in my right hand behind my back.

Jack leaned forward, held up his hand, and said, "Please, Jon, give me a little time. This isn't about me. It's about the boy."

His tone grabbed me enough that I didn't walk away, but I also didn't sit. "The boy? What boy? I can't picture you with children."

Jack laughed. "No," he said, "I haven't chosen to procreate, nor do I ever expect to do so." He held up his hand, turned, and motioned to the maître d'.

The man hustled over to our table, reached behind himself, and gently urged a child to step in front of him.

"This boy," Jack said. "Manu Chang."

 

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