JENNIFER

Hel's Market, Hel, Asgard System, Neutral space

Darya Solinas proved to be a hard man to find.

Not, Jennifer would reflect in hindsight after finally catching up with the changeling, that that was an undesirable ability for a con man.

Her prospective crew member had left her a text-only reply on her comms in response to her unanswered initial call, directing her to meet him at The Whore and Whisky, one of the Strip's more notorious establishments. It was a good choice for a neutral meeting, in point of fact one of Jen's preferred locales for handling her more legally dubious enterprises. Between the relentless bass thunder of the electronic dance rhythms pounding from the speakers, the din of a hundred bellowed conversations, and the notoriously deaf, blind, and dumb staff, it was an easy place in which to be inconspicuous. For an astronomical price, there were also private show booths for hire. Ostensibly to permit the indulgence of more exotic tastes than the public stage or the regular personal stalls could allow, the rooms were guaranteed to be soundproofed, bug-proofed, and free from any form of surveillance, and more often than not the cream of Hel's Market's underworld could be found inside, fully dressed, stone-cold sober and attending to their more sensitive transactions. Jen was too low-level a player to be able to afford such luxuries for her meetings, so she got herself a beer, found a corner to lurk in and watched the crowd watching the dancers.

Half an hour drifted by, and no one made contact. While Jen had a holograph of Solinas to refer to, it was only useful if he was going to show up in his native form. He hadn't specified, which meant he could literally be anybody. Feeling the first stirrings of irritation, she drained her beer and decided she'd have one more. If he still hadn't shown up by the time she was done, she'd call Shan and look for an alternative.

She headed back to the bar and the cyborg bartender now on duty beckoned her closer so he could bawl in her ear when he took her thumbprint for payment. "There's a private booth set aside for you, Miss. Third floor, number three-sixteen. It's pre-paid till tomorrow, full service." He handed her a key card. "Enjoy the show."

Jen looked down at the card, pressing her thumb against the sensor pad. The holographic window lit up with her formal ID picture, ruling out the chance of a mistake. Instincts prickling, she rolled her shoulders inside her coat as she worked her way across the floor of the bar, feeling the reassuring shift of weight of the blaster holstered against her ribs. Resisting the temptation to start looking around for a tail, she took the stairs to the third floor rather than the elevator, and as she approached the door to the booth, she hitched her right coat sleeve back a little and tapped the power switch on the hold-out bracelet she customarily wore to when she had to go lightly armed. It was a single-shot weapon, and far too underpowered to muster up a lethal charge, but an accurate shot could kill, and the element of surprise it afforded more than compensated for its lack of muscle.

Taking a steadying breath, she tapped the keycard against the sensor. The door cycled open, and she stepped through to find a changeling sitting on the small performance dais, looking unutterably fed up. He or she (it was nearly impossible to tell a changeling's sex just by looking at them—their anatomy lacked any obvious hints) looked Jen up and down appraisingly, then sighed and stood up with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "What's your pleasure?"

"Excuse me?"

"What's your pleasure?" the changeling repeated in the same bored tone. "I can be human, neomorph, ercinean, or changeling, male or female. You're the client, you get to choose your flavour."

"Oh, right, I get it." Jen dropped onto the comfortable couch in the centre of the room and set her beer on the small table before it. "Sorry, I, uh… wasn't really expecting to have this service laid on for me, so I haven't given it any thought."

"I get paid either way," the changeling replied indifferently, sitting back down on the dais, "so you can just let me know when you've overcome your paralysing indecision."

"Do you talk to all your johns this way?" Jen asked, fighting the beginnings of a grin and getting a long-suffering sigh for her trouble.

"Now what business of yours is that?"

"None at all, I'm just curious."

"It's your money," the changeling shrugged. "If you want to waste it talking, sure, why not, I can do that. No, I don't speak to all my clients this way. I'm making a special effort for you, baby. I like you more than any other customer who's ever walked through that door."

Jen smirked. She had a good idea of what was going on, but the diversion was amusing, for the moment. "Should I be flattered?"

"If you are, I'd say your life is even sorrier than mine."

"Aw. Aren't you happy in your work?"

"Oh, sure," the changeling drawled, waving a pincer at the spartanly decorated chamber they were sitting in. "This is the career I dreamed of as a child, can't you tell?"

Jen took a pull from her beer. "So, I have to ask—do you really get much call for being an ercinean?"

"Well, from our ercinean clients, sure."

Jen shook her head to try and dislodge the sudden mental image the conversation was conjuring. "I guess I never really think of ercineans that way. Any time you meet one they're always so… otherworldly. Serene."

"Well, lucky you. Anytime I meet one they're always desperate for sex."

"You're ruining my preconceptions about the universe, you know," Jen accused mildly.

"You're the one who wanted to talk instead of fuck." The changeling tossed their head in a gesture Jen recognized as impatience. "So, are you any closer to a decision?"

Jen shrugged carelessly. "Nope. Truth to tell, I'm not really in the mood, and I'm not particularly a fan of using prostitutes. Call me conceited, but I do pretty well getting laid without needing to pay money for my fun. And, to be completely honest, I'd like you to get to the point and stop wasting my fucking time. Not that I don't appreciate the trouble you've gone to keep this meeting discreet, but it's a little overdone, isn't it?"

The changeling laughed at that, and shifted appearance slightly, the colors of his beak becoming more vibrant and the dark ruff of feathers around his neck becoming more pronounced until he resembled the holograph from Shan's files. "My apologies, Captain Bronwen. I've found over the years that there's no such thing as too careful in my line of work."

"That's understandable, but why the charade? These rooms are supposedly secure."

"They are indeed, but two reasons. One, you got a little taster of my skills."

"And I'm impressed. If I hadn't been looking for you, you would have fooled me. You sure sounded like a whore."

"And two, I like to know a little something about the people I undertake to work with," Solinas replied, ignoring the barbed critique. "How you responded to a free pass to this establishment's facilities told me a great deal about you."

Jen regarded him sourly. "Really? I have to pass a morality test to hire you?"

Solinas shrugged. "As I said already. No such thing as too careful."

"So… did I pass?"

"You did." Solinas offered his pincer, human style. "Darya Solinas, at your service."

"Jennifer Bronwen. And next time you want to know something about me, just damn well ask."

"I'll keep that in mind." Solinas rose to his feet, crossed to the couch and sat down beside her. "So, Jennifer Bronwen. Let's talk a little more about this job of yours."

"What do you want to know? You'll understand, I'm sure, that for security reasons I'm not going to disclose details here." She smiled humourlessly. "Since there's no such thing as too careful."

"Indeed. The material I received from Shan'Chael and your initial message were more or less enough to make a decision. I'm interested. I only have one or two further queries."

"Shoot."

"Are you expecting me to undertake any seduction during the job?"

"Maybe a little flirting, for the sake of a diversion, but not more than that," Jen answered, shifting her weight uncomfortably. "I wouldn't ask you to do that."

"Oh, I don't mind if it's necessary," Solinas clarified. "It's just best to make sure that I prepare my appearance appropriately for the work you want me to do." He clicked his beak in amusement. "And you never know, I might meet someone I like. My only other concern is for our exit strategy. Shan'Chael indicated you would have that taken care of."

"We're taking my ship to Modeus," Jen clarified. "We'll dock at Ganymede, catch a commercial transport and transfer down to Hong Kong, then catch a sub-orb to Berlin from there. Extraction will be by the same route, and I'll drop you off at Ice Serpent or back here, whichever you prefer. Or you can remain on Earth—I know you have more options for a discreet exit than the rest of us."

"I've no particular desire to stay on Earth after the job," Solinas shrugged. "I like humans, but not that much." He cocked his head to one side. "Well, that's all I really needed to know, I think. I'm in. When do we leave?"

Jen polished off her beer in two quick gulps. "Tomorrow. I have one more guy to meet here, then we'll need to make a run to Korxonthos to make a pickup, and we'll meet the other two members of the team in Modeus." Wai-Mei Xox had contacted Jen that morning to confirm her participation, and arranged to meet up with them in Hong Kong.

"What time and where should I meet you?"

"Oh eight hundred, Orbital kappa four, K deck, berth seventy-five."

Solinas nodded as he rose to his feet. "Got it. All right then, I'll see you tomorrow."

"Right." Jen stood, and the changeling held up one pincer.

"Just a second." He tugged open her collar slightly, ruffled her hair, and pinched her cheeks to bring a flush to them. "Try to look like you had a good time on the way out, won't you? I'd hate for people to think you'd wasted my money."

Timo Honold turned out to be far easier to pick out of a crowd. Still somewhat nonplussed by her encounter with Solinas, Jen caught up with the former Terran commando in one of the merc bars at the Lowmarket end of the strip. He was propping up the bar, studying his liquor with an attentiveness that spoke eloquently of a desire not to be disturbed, and as a result there was a small island of clear space around him. Taking the seat next to him, Jen signalled the barkeep and gestured to his glass. "I'll have what he's having, and he'll have the same again," she ordered.

Honold gave her a sidelong glance, his expression brightening as he took in her appearance. "You must be desperate," he remarked, draining his glass.

"How d'you figure?"

"Nice-looking girl like you buying a loser like me a drink? Either you're desperate or you're Mother fuckin' Teresa. And you don't look too much like a nun."

Jen snorted a laugh. "Sorry to disappoint you Honold, but I'm neither." She held out a hand. "Jennifer Bronwen."

"Oh, right." Honold sat up a little. "I wasn't expecting you till later. Pleased to meet you."

"You too."

The bartender set two glasses of rust-coloured liquor down in front of them, and the mercenary lifted his in a little salute as Jen thumbed the payment sensor. "To honour," he offered cryptically.

Jen chuckled as she raised her own drink. Another test, but this one she knew the answer to. "To getting honour, and staying honour."

Honold laughed in delight, clapping her on the back with his free hand. "Shit, you're ex-forces too?"

"Not yours, leatherneck, sorry. Marauder Marines, but that one goes way back."

"Yeah, before you lot took to your thieving pirate ways," Honold grinned. "The old ones are the best, though. Classic." He chugged half his drink. "So, this job's back home?"

"Yep. Is that gonna be a problem for you?"

"Hell, no. I wouldn't be here if it were." He shrugged. "I can't afford to be that delicate."

"I hear that." Jen took a swallow of her own drink and coughed, spitting the acrid liquid back into the glass. Honold pounded her on the back, laughing. "What… the fuck… are we drinking?" Jen wheezed as she tried to catch her breath.

"It's Nomian rum." Honold took another slug without so much as a wince. "Sort of, anyway," he amended, jerking his head toward the back of the bar. "There's a guy that runs a moonshine operation round the back, keeps this place stocked up with generic liquor."

Jen coughed, picked up the glass and took a determined swallow, better prepared for the burn at the second attempt. It didn't taste any better. "That looks nothing like Nomian rum, and tastes nothing like Nomian Rum. More like piss and vinegar."

Honold shrugged. "I wouldn't know. I've never tried the real stuff. This job goes well, maybe I'll treat myself to a bottle."

"This job goes well, I'll buy you one," Jen offered, pushing her glass away. "Meantime, life's too short to drink that shit."

Honold took her abandoned glass and tipped the remains into his own drink. "Waste not, want not. And I accept that generous offer, Skipper, thanks."

"So, you're on board?" Jen arched an eyebrow at him. "Nothing else you need to know?"

Honold shook his head. "I got your measure, I think, and I always was a sucker for a pretty girl. You seem to have your shit together, and the less I know, the healthier for me in the long run. Least, that's how it usually works out." He cocked an eyebrow at her. "How's my interview technique holding up?"

"Pretty well," Jen allowed. The merc was easy-going, and appeared to be level-headed and practical, just as his dossier had said. "Shan'Chael says you're dependable, which is solid credit for me, and I hear the same thing on the vine, so I'm happy with you if you're happy with me."

"You got it. Looking forward to working with you, Skipper. Let me know when and where, and I'll be there."

With all the recruitment work she could do on the ground completed, Jen paid off her bill at the Busted Flush and caught the mass transit to the orbital dock shuttle. She always liked to spend the last night before leaving port aboard the Fortune, starting to run system checks and take inventory, making sure she had her ear in to the noises of the hull and the systems. For someone who flew solo as often as she did, knowing the ship's every behavioural tic, every little quirk, every dissatisfied grumble, could be the difference between life and death. And if she had no pressing business onshore, it was cheaper—a particularly strong argument given the current state of her finances.

The sight of the Fortune never failed to make her smile, and she found herself grinning as she walked down the dock ramp toward the heavily modified twin-deck frigate. Her home, her livelihood, her refuge: the ship was so central to her lifestyle and to her sense of self that she couldn't honestly imagine what she would do without it. She ran a loving eye over the long, clean lines of the hull, mournfully noting every nick and scratch on the brightwork, every dent and depression, every scrape and scar on the hull that she couldn't currently afford to have dealt with. "Soon, baby," she promised in a whisper as she reached the airlock and stretched out her arm to run her fingers lightly across the cool, smooth surface of the hull. "Soon I'll have enough credits to get you all fixed up and pretty. And maybe get you some of those cute new shield emitters the ercineans put on the market last month."

Jen smiled to herself as she waited the customary half-second for the ship to fail to reply, then punched her access code into the airlock control panel. The door needed both the code and her biometric signature to open; she wasn't really inclined towards trusting in the better angels of people's natures when it came to her ship. Or anything else, for that matter. "Ready to get back out there?" she enquired rhetorically as the pressurisation indicator flashed to green and the hatch irised open with a hiss of pressurised air and a squeal of metal on metal that she didn't like the sound of.

She stepped over the hatch lip and pulled in a deep breath, inhaling the mixed scents of metal, leather, and polymers overlying the faint ozone tang of the processed atmosphere. It was a comforting smell, more homely to her than fresh bread or sea air. Dropping her luggage and her coat at the foot of the ladder up to her private cabin, she headed forward through the crew wardroom to the cockpit and settled into the worn and threadbare cushioning of the pilot's seat, warming up the central computer and bringing the ship's internal systems online. One by one the status glyphs flicked reluctantly from red to green as the startup protocols ran, each system listing a number of complaints but, she was relieved to see, nothing that would necessitate remaining in dock to effect repairs. The gravity generator had been cutting out sporadically on the way back from her last run, but apparently the maintenance computer, Sprocket, had recalibrated it during its scheduled systems check. One less repair to make for now. Hopefully the adjustment would see them through the round trip, and then she could use her payout from Orden to get a full overhaul. Jen called up Sprocket's report interface (double-checking that the irritatingly cutesy VI "helper" was disabled before she began) and read through the results, satisfying herself that everything was in working order, or at least working well enough not to present any risks. Reassured, she switched to the environmental systems menu and ran the commands to prepare both the forward and aft cargo holds for refrigerated transport. Then, with that done, she opened up her comms and placed a call to one of her more grisly employers, an undertaker's service that specialized in discreetly clearing up the excesses of Hel's Market's more morally questionable forms of entertainment. She couldn't afford to run with an empty hold, having received no advance from Orden, and for a trip to Korxonthos there was an obvious, if somewhat distasteful, way to maximise her income.

The call connected. "Mortalis Inhumations, Repatriation division. How can we help you?"

"Captain Jennifer Bronwen here, hi. I'm on your registry of approved hauliers."

There was a brief pause as the clerk at the other end checked his records. "Yes, Captain, good to hear from you. Are you perhaps looking for a cargo?"

"I am, as it happens. Do you have any consignments for delivery to Korxonthos? I'm heading out there tomorrow and I have capacity."

"One moment… yes. We have a standing deal with the Legislature of the Synergy, as I'm sure you're aware, and there's quite a backlog—for some reason we have difficulty finding freighters to haul for us."

"I can't imagine why," Jen retorted dryly. The first time she'd signed on for freighting this kind of cargo, she hadn't been able to sleep for the entire trip.

The clerk was unperturbed by her sarcasm. "You should be grateful for the shortage, Captain, as it means that not only do I have a cargo for immediate dispatch, I can offer you a bonus if you can take more than five hundred units. Let's see, I have your lading and tonnage capacity on file, are we talking about a full hold?"

"Yeah. Call it nine hundred units—from experience that's about as much as I can manage."

"Excellent. All right, nine hundred units for delivery to Korxonthos, for that we can pay you… twelve thousand credits. Do we have a deal?"

Jen frowned. The standard price for a full hold shipment was ten thousand. "That's not much of a bonus, is it? Considering I also have to be one of the fastest boats on your books and you get incentives from the cyborgs if the meat is fresh. I want fifteen thousand."

"Thirteen. I can't go higher than that."

"I can't help you, then. How much are you going to lose in profit for every day those caskets sit in your storeroom and putrefy? Fifteen."

"Fourteen," the clerk parried.

"Done."

"Excellent. I'll set up the contract and you can sign it when you receive the cargo. If you let me know your dock registration, I'll make arrangements for delivery and loading."

"Orbital kappa four, K deck, berth seventy-five."

"Got it. Thank you, Captain, I'll get that sorted for you. Have a lovely evening."

Jen hung up the call and settled back in the seat with a contented sigh. Cargo secured, a good start made on the crew, and the run to Korxonthos would give her a good few hours to think and plan. It was all starting to come together.