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Jennifer Andress is a a high-school senior who lives in Alabama.

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

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The Third Way

by Jennifer Andress

     The sun felt good. Real good.
     So good that I almost forgot about the shock-bracelets manacling my wrists. So good that I almost forgot about the dog-faced prison guard walking a half-step behind me, just waiting for me to trip or stumble so he could shove his pulse rifle up my ass.
     But, then, being locked up in a concrete pit for fifteen years will make something as simple as sunshine feel like a personal blessing from God. The sun dazzled my eyes, even behind the cheap mirrored shades, but I welcomed the burn. Pain meant I wasn't dreaming it. And after fifteen years trapped in Hell -- better known as Severance Three -- a little pain didn't mean jack shit. Not when freedom was tickling the tips of my fingers, begging me to reach out and grab it.
     Freedom. Never thought I'd see that again. Never even expected to hear the word.
     There are three ways out of Severance Three.
     Death is the most common. Hell is where the bad boys go, and there are plenty of bad boys in that jungle of electrified iron bars and barbed wire. Not all of them are behind bars, either. It takes all kinds, and a lot of those kinds wear jailers' uniforms. For them, the pay is a side perk. It's the work they enjoy. Punishment is the name of the game, and the guards in Hell love their games.
     Of course, none of the inmates are choir boys. Hell's got its fair share of resident demons. The weak are prey for the strong, the strong are prey for the stronger. The strongest of all end up twisted beyond any semblance of humanity. Nobody gets out of Hell without a few scars. Not many get out without a casket.
     A few manage to escape. There's no parole in Hell. Once you're in, you're in for life -- for "the good of society." They don't let monsters out of their cages, but sometimes the monsters break out, and when they do, they don't want to go back. Usually they get caught. Sometimes dead, sometimes alive, sometimes somewhere in between. The guards get a little excited when they're hunting. When they get excited, they get rough. It's not a pretty way to go.
     There's another way out. The Third Way.
     People disappear from Severance Three. They get called out by the doctor-jailers, the same way everyone gets called out for routine physicals, but they never show up again. Lots of legends and rumors surround these disappearances -- it's said to be anything from a clandestine war program to bizarre medical experiments. Nobody knows the truth, not even the doctor-jailers. It's just one more colorful story in a place that has more colors than a prizefighter's bruised face after thirteen rounds in the ring.
     So when my name was called for the monthly physical, and I was escorted to a small side door instead of the doctor-jailers' sterile lab, I figured I was going down the Third Way.
     I didn't know who, or why, but I didn't care. I wanted out, and there wasn't too much I'd refuse if it meant getting my ass out of there. And if I was going to die, well, fifteen years is more than most survive in that pit. Whatever the Third Way was, it sure as hell had to be better than spending another day in there.

     "Romaur, Michael, alias Jake Raurome, alias Slade Rome. Age thirty-four, prison identification D10112-118. Crimes include two counts of first-degree murder, extortion, bribery, kidnapping, and information-running. Sentence is life imprisonment on Severance Three."
     The woman set her papers down on the desk, looking up at me. "That is what the official files have to say about you. I have reviewed your murder case, and it seems that the evidence against you was quite convincing. I cannot find any grounds for a legal appeal. In short, Mr. Romaur, the system has decided that Severance Three is where you belong."
     Before I could ask what her point was, she motioned to the two guards, who saluted expressionlessly and left the room. The door shut behind them; I could hear a hissing whirr, followed by the click of the automatic lock.
     What was going on? Nobody went unguarded here. By definition, only the meanest scum in the quadrant went to this pit -- not the kind of boys you'd leave in a room with an unarmed woman. And yet the guards had walked out without lifting an eyebrow?
     Nonplussed, I swung my gaze back to the woman. She wasn't beautiful, but there was a certain, striking look to her that caught the eye and demanded attention -- something indefinable, a barely-hidden fierceness beneath an assured, businesslike facade.
     She wore a butter-tan business suit, obviously a custom-tailored job. Her chestnut-black hair was swept up into an elegant coiffure, reminiscent of the geisha girls I'd seen in yellowed copies of National Geographic. Salon work, maybe, but who had the money to waste on crap like that? Good salon work was expensive. Much more expensive than any rank lawyer should be able to afford.
     A big part of my work, before coming to Hell, had involved judging marks. You have to know where the money is to know where to operate, and my instincts had always been the best in the business. And there was money here. More money than I'd sniffed in a long time.
     "However, Mr. Romaur, I am not interested in the system," she said, breaking into my thoughts. Her voice was robotic; pleasant-sounding but completely uncaring. "I am interested in getting you out of Severance Three. That is ... if you are willing to negotiate."
     I fought to keep the excitement off my face. Willing to negotiate? I'd be willing to sell my soul! Desperately, I made a show of looking around before answering, trying to buy time to force myself back into a semblance of disinterest.
     The room was spare, empty except for the beaten-up desk, cheap plastic showing where the artificial wood veneer had been knocked off, and a couple of fake-looking potted plants. A folding metal chair stood across from the desk. Dead flies dotted the lone windowsill, their tiny black legs sticking up through a thick drift of gray dust. The woman might have money, but this place was definitely Hell-bait.
     "What's the offer?" I asked cautiously, taking a seat in the uncomfortable chair.
     She smiled and ruffled through the papers before answering. There was something coldly cynical about that smile, like winter sunlight on a tombstone. "You have my admiration, Mr. Raurome. Convicted of all those things before you turned twenty. You must have had a very busy childhood."
     "Yeah, well, I was always talented."
     "Perhaps more than talented," she suggested delicately, tapping one of the sheets. Her nails were medium-long, filed to ovals and painted copper. "Your list of contacts and corruptions is quite impressive... and this includes only the charges that could be proven. I am certain there was a great deal more that they could not find sufficient evidence to convict you for. By all appearances, you were remarkably good at what you did."
     "So good I ended up here?" The words came out more bitterly than I'd intended.
     "You were betrayed." It was a simple sentence, stating a fact, but it still stung. I'd trusted Neal, trusted him completely, and the bastard had burned me as soon as he'd been sure he could make it into the clear. Bought me a one-way ticket to the worst penal colony around. Fifteen years, and I hadn't forgotten a thing.
     The woman must've read something of my thoughts in my face, because her icy little smile deepened into an amused expression. "It was very long ago, but perhaps you might be curious. Neal Pendron was sentenced to seven years in Harmanis Correctional Facility, and was to have been put on guarded probation for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, Mr. Pendron was found one morning in his cell, dangling from a length of rope he'd somehow managed to smuggle in. I understand it was ruled a suicide."
     "It wasn't a suicide, was it?" I said. It wasn't really a question. Neal was always a weak-willed coward, and I doubted he'd have had the nerve to take himself out.
     "Most certainly not," she agreed, pleasantly, as if discussing something as trivial as the weather forecast for Juno. "But that is not important. Neal Pendron would have been a distraction to you if he still lived. Therefore, he was removed." She leaned over the desk, resting her elbows on the woodgrained plastic and steepling her fingers. "Because, Mr. Raurome, if you accept my offer, there will be no distractions."
     "You haven't told me what the offer is yet."
     Her laughter was surprisingly caustic. "You're very direct."
     "I know what I want." I took off the cheap shades and folded them in one hand, casually, and pushed back my chair. "I think you do, too. So whenever you're ready to stop bullshitting around, call me up. Then we can discuss your offer."
     "Very well." She sighed, vexed at being forced to drop her little game. "You want to leave Severance Three."
     "Alive," I cut in. "With money and a new identity. I don't want to be traced back here, legally or illegally. No ties. No 'getting rid of an unfortunate inconvenience.' I can keep my mouth shut about whatever shit you're planning, but I make arrangements for people who try to burn me." A bitter smile touched my face. I thought she'd appreciate it. "Neal taught me that."
     "Oh, very yes. Of course alive. Whatever made you think I had anything illegal in mind?" Her dark eyes widened with wounded innocence. It was almost childlike, her expression of hurt ingenousness -- one of the best shams I'd seen.
     "You had Neal killed on the off chance that I might care enough about his sorry ass to go out of my way for it. Not a friendly thing to do. I don't think you're working for the Girl Scouts. So what do you want? What do you want so bad that you're breaking a con out of Hell for it?"
     The woman didn't answer for a long time. Her dark eyes held mine, measuring, calculating, considering. Then she shrugged. Just a tiny shrug, but enough for me to know I'd won.
     "I want a man killed."
     I'd been waiting for the words, but it was still a shock to hear them so bluntly spoken. "That's it?" I burst out before I could stop myself. "You can get half a dozen assassins dirtside for less than it takes to cop a squat. What do you need me for?"
     "It is not quite so simple. The man in question is one Senator Robert J. Aldsworth, a noted member of the Cyrithian Parliament and their currently designated ambassador to the -- "
     "-- the Intergalactic Federation," I finished for her. I knew the name. Everyone did. You couldn't escape all news of the outside world, even locked away for fifteen years. It was a standing joke that Severance Three was the only place you could find hermits in this age of galaxy-spanning communications, but even we had heard of the Cyrithians' golden boy. The greatest diplomat-politician ever to come from a planet of diplomats. "You're either crazy or stupid or both. Aldsworth is one of the most protected men alive. I'm good, but I'm not that good. There's no way I'd be able to get close to the man."
     "There, you are wrong." She stood up and paced behind the desk, restlessly, her hands clasped behind her back like a professor's. "Senator Aldsworth will be aboard a passenger ship known as the Queen Anne. The ship will leave this quadrant in less than two weeks' time. From there, it will take him to Red Star Station, where he will board a connecting ship and re-enter his security net. After that, it will be exceedingly difficult to have him removed. But while docked at that station -- for three days -- Aldsworth will not be quite so protected as he normally is. In those three days, you may find him vulnerable."
     "Freedom in exchange for offing this senator?" My mind was buzzing, trying to figure out how to do it, what to use, where to hide the body. "I won't be able to get weapons in that short a time. Or tickets. Hyperspeed passenger carriers are expensive, andI figure a guy like him wouldn't take a bargain line. That's gonna cost..."
     "The expenses have been covered. You will be given first-class tickets and a passenger ID, registered under the name of Slade Rom. I doubt anyone will recognize it, after all this time. If necessary, weapons can be provided as well."
     I stared at her in disbelief.
     What had I gotten myself into? How did she know so much about me -- about Neal -- about ordering the tickets and arranging all this, down to my favorite alias, before I'd set eyes on her? "Who are you?"
     The smile was mocking now, enigmatic and catlike. "Lady Metrice, my dear assassin. A lie, of course, but... aren't all things in our lives?"

     Ice clinked against glass. Splintered crystal floating in a sea of liquid brown. Perfectly symmetrical, perfectly identical, down to the crazed pattern of cracks marring their smoothness. The crystals came into slow focus. Three cubes.
     Three days.
     I set the glass of whiskey down on the chrome counter. Three days.
     The words echoed through my mind. Dull, hollow, insistent. A never-ending litany. Three days to carry out my end of the bargain and leave this life behind. Three days until every dream I'd ever cherished -- every battered, ragged dream that I held up as some meager protection in that pit -- came to life, glorious and true as any painter's vision of God.
     Three days to kill Richard Aldsworth.
     It was going to be one of the hardest things I'd ever done.
     A quiet hiss penetrated my whiskey-numbed brain as the automated doors slid open, admitting a tall man into the lounge. In the chatter and smoke that swirled through the bar, the sound was barely perceptible. If I hadn't been listening for it, I'd never have glanced up.
     I almost wish I hadn't.
     Richard Aldsworth was just over six feet tall, a distinguished-looking man with a grandfather's smile and a professor's air of benevolent intelligence. He handed his coat to the attendant and strolled into the lounge. A few patrons offered greetings or cordial nods as he passed; he stopped here and there to exchange a few friendly words. Aldsworth seemed to know everyone, and to be known and liked by them in return.
     That'd make my job harder. Not impossible, but harder.
     I sat at my stool as I had for the last two weeks, never conspicuous, never obvious, always blending in perfectly. I still had the knack for the work. Once, Aldsworth had glanced in my direction and nodded at me, recognizing my face from his previous visits. I didn't flinch, didn't even blink -- just returned the gesture, a polite stranger in the bar, nameless, faceless, not a threat at all. And I watched him, observing what I could, learning the rest through idle conversations and discreet questions in the right places.
     He wasn't alone tonight. There were three blue-tusked Khurra that kept an unobtrusive eye on the diplomat. Every evening, they sat at a table and pretended to play Khurran daj'shemza, circumspectly ensuring that no one disturbed Aldsworth. The Khurra were his temporary bodyguard, assigned by the Republic of Iseti to protect him while he was under their jurisdiction.
     The Queen Anne was expected to reach Red Star Station in about five hours; it would leave Sunday morning. Just over three days. As soon as the liner was safely docked, the Khurra mercenaries would leave, because the Republic's obligation to Aldsworth ended at Red Star Station.
     The replacement set of bodyguards would arrive Sunday -- whoever was footing the bill for his next assignment must've been a real skinflint. Until then, he'd only have his personal bodyguards, a set of cybernetically enhanced twins dubbed Jake and Blake. What their real names might've been was anyone's guess.
     Jake and Blake were huge men, hyped with artificial reflexes and muscle-grafted until they looked scarcely human. But for all their impassive bulk, it would've been a mistake to think of them as mere beefcakes; behind those twin pairs of muddy, homicidal eyes was a gleam of hidden intelligence. They would have been a formidable obstacle to deal with, except that Aldsworth seemed to dislike them heartily. I didn't blame him. The twins might be smarter than they appeared -- they could hardly be stupider -- but they didn't look like great company.
     So Aldsworth didn't allow them to accompany him on his visits to the lounge. Stupid of him. I guess he thought nobody would dare touch him, or maybe nobody would have a reason to do it. Doubly stupid, then. Someone always has a reason.
     "Thinking, Slade?" The question was whispered directly into my ear, jolting me alert. My hand jostled the glass on the counter. Whiskey sloshed over the bright chrome. I grimaced. It wasn't like me to have dropped my guard; I must've been drunker than I thought.
     "Thanks," I said dryly, indicating the spilled drink. The subtle, spicy scent of wildflowers and musk emanated from the whisperer behind me; I knew who it was before I turned around.
     Chayla just smiled, shrugging in half-hearted apology and stepping back. She wore the same glittery halter top and short skirt as all the lounge's personnel, but her smile alone would've been provocative enough to drive a man crazy. In her work uniform, she was a killer. Chayla was a half-breed Eredhel; though she favored her mother's side with her otherworldly, delicate features and wide silver eyes, her attitude was all human. Pragmatic and unscrupulous, and completely irresistable. That was Chayla. She was the best contact I could ask for -- and the one thing that might make this job possible after all. I owed a hell of a lot to her.
     And she knew it, too. "I'll buy you one to make up for it, then."
     Her too-playful smile turned into an infectious grin as she swung into a stool beside me. I couldn't help but return the grin, feeling more than a little foolish for my earlier irritation.
     "I've picked up some info, if you're interested," she murmured. "Same price." The bartender slid a couple of glasses in our direction, and Chayla made a little shooing-off motion. He nodded discreetly, moving to the other end of the bar to give her room.Employees at the Queen Anne's Lounge knew shady business when they saw it.
     "I'm always interested in what you have to offer, babe," I leered theatrically. Chayla laughed prettily and rested one of her slender hands on my wrist, a casually flirtatious gesture.
     I gently retrieved my hand from beneath hers, adroitly palming the microcylinder she'd been holding and dropping it into a pocket. "So what've you got to deliver tonight?"
     "Whatever you want ... or can pay for," Chayla winked. She scooted her stool over, close enough to speak without being overheard. I slipped an arm around her shoulders to keep up the pretense of two ordinary people flirting -- not that Chayla could be considered "ordinary" -- and also because it was an opportunity too good to miss. "That cylinder's got the stuff you wanted about Aldsworth's past assignments. Last fifteen of 'em, anyway. The rest were outdated or irrelevant."
     "Nothing's irrelevant. I don't even know what I'm supposed to be looking for."
     "Yeah, well, somehow I kinda doubt this mysterious lady of yours wants to bump off our dear buddy Aldsworth 'cause he negotiated a trade agreement on the value of rice versus Hardellian wall-eyed fish. Please pardonÚ moi, Mr. Great Expert Who Knows So Much, but I use my own judgment on these things, and my judgment's pretty good."
     "You're so childish. Name one instance where your judgment was good."
     "I haven't slept with you yet." She smirked. "Back to the point. Skim through those fifteen assignments when you get a chance. Odds are pretty good you'll find whatever motive you're looking for in there. Now, on the other stuff you asked for... it's gonna cost you, Slade."
     "Not me. Metrice. She's the one paying for all this." I dug out a thin plastic card and handed it to her, making no effort to disguise the gesture. Chayla clapped her hands delightedly and grabbed it, then bussed me an enthusiastic kiss. Anyone who was watching could draw their own conclusions. It was a common enough transaction. The bartender rolled his eyes at our antics before going back to polishing his bar. He wasn't fooled.
     "Whoever, as long as I get the creds." Chayla pocketed the card and tossed her long, rainbow-dyed ponytail behind her shoulder. "You, Metrice, the king of New Prussia, makes no diff to me. Money's money, and good as long as it's mine."
     "Damn straight. You know you love me for it. And a whole lot of other things, too."
     "That mean you changed your mind about sleeping with me?" I waggled my eyebrows at her.
     "Y'never know. I might, if you were convincing enough." The girl dropped a wicked, long-lashed wink, shifting just enough to send the silver sequins glittering and sparkling on her revealing outfit. My mouth went dry. "If I did, though, that'd cost you too."
     "Back to business?" It was almost a plea.
     "Rightcha. Okay, let's see. Aldsworth is gonna be hard to hit. You don't want to make your move in here. Too many witnesses. Not that most of 'em would care about another stuffed-shirt politico, but you don't wanna be traced. So we're gonna have to get him out of here."
     "You have any suggestions?"
     "I was getting to that. He might be a stuffed-shirt politico, but he's still a guy. And guys are suckers for a smile and a wink. I can get him out of the lounge." She buffed her nails on her skirt and blew on them. "No problem."
     "I'm going to be billed for that too, huh?"
     "You're such a smart boy." Chayla clapped sardonically. "I knew there was a reason I liked you. Besides your money, I mean."
     "And here I was hoping it was my masculine charisma."
     "Uh ... that too," she added hastily. "One last thing, and then I really gotta get going. This Metrice person. Don't trust her."
     "I never did."
     "I'm not kidding, Slade." Chayla sounded unusually somber, and her expressive silver eyes were serious. "There's something... wrong about her. I looked up her name in the databanks, and made a few inquiries."
     "How could you do that? She gave me an alias. Metrice isn't her real name."
     "Yeah, well, I thought it was worth a try." She looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Came up with a few things, too. Your girl Metrice has more fake names than a dog's got fleas. And that name -- 'Metrice' -- Boz thinks it's taken from the word 'meretrice.' That's something like a courtesan. A tumble-chick, y'know, a prostitute."
     "Not something I'd choose to call myself."
     "Me neither." Chayla lifted a feathery, rainbow-dyed eyebrow. "Makes you wonder why she picked it. Anyway, me an' Boz were looking up records of this chicky, and they go way back. Like, almost a century. Might not be the same person, since some of the descriptions don't sound anything like the person you saw, but the name's the same."
     "Coincidence?" I sipped from my forgotten glass of whiskey. Most of the ice had melted, leaving three crescents of fragile crystal.
     "Maybe. Not that common a nick, though. One thing Boz noticed. I didn't think it was worth mentioning, but you wanted to know everything we found, so... one of the earliest records we dug up had Metrice on the planet of Nhiavhyrr about fifteen years after it was first discovered."
     "So? There's nothing on that place except some primitive tribes. Not even a real civilization, much less any kind of culture."
     "Yeah, but Aldsworth's been interested in Nhiavhyrr for the last three years. Working on some sort of criminal case, if you listen to the rumblings."
     "Think Metrice's got something she wants to hide on Nhiavhyrr?" I set the glass down, considering the possibilities. She probably wanted me to bump off Aldsworth to avoid a messy trial. But a trial about what?
     "Maybe." Chayla pushed her own glass aside, leaving a beaded streak of condensation on the chrome. She hadn't touched the drink. "The records we found were almost a hundred years old. If it's even the same person, after all that time... what could she possibly want to hide after a whole century?"
     "I don't know." I got up to go, brushing off my jeans.
     "Who would?" Chayla stood up too, watching me. The low, multicolored lights of the bar twinkled and spun off the sequins as she moved.
     I pushed a credstick to the bartender, who quickly tabbed off the amount of our drinks and returned it. "Aldsworth."

     The Khurra bodyguards got off at Red Star Station. I slouched against the wall by the 'porter pad, watching them go. Aldsworth was there too, flanked by Jake and Blake. When the last of the blue-tusked mercenaries had vanished into a hazy cloud of dissolved molecules, the senator turned on his heel and left.
     I followed him, keeping a discreet distance behind. Before I could tail him to his quarters, I caught a glimpse of a familiar, aristocratic profile amidst the crowds coming aboard the Queen Anne. Metrice. Smoothly, I moved to intercept her.
     To her credit, she didn't seem at all surprised to see me. She wore a dark green kimono and carried a bamboo-flower fan in one hand. The unusual outfit gave her an Oriental air -- or maybe I hadn't noticed it before. "Good evening, Mr. Rom. I trust your trip has been enjoyable?"
     "It's been great." I wasn't in the mood to exchange polite nothings. "What the hell are you doing here?"
     "Looking after my business interests, of course. I'm sure your own business here has been successful? The Queen Anne does cater to a wide variety of interests."
     "Interests that might range as far afield as Nhiavhyrr?" I was guessing blindly, stabbing in the dark and hoping for a reaction.
     I got one. Her eyes narrowed a fraction, subtly; I'd have missed the signal if I hadn't been watching for it. "Perhaps, although I might think it safer to keep one's attention closer to home. There are many unusual things to catch one's attention, here on the liner -- everything from Khurra to half-breed Eredhel. Sometimes, if we spend too much time thinking about faraway things, the gifts of our everyday lives wither away beneath our hands."
     Was that a threat? How did she know about Chayla's role in all this? I gritted my teeth, suddenly aware of the thin ice beneath my feet. "Maybe," I agreed, trying to sound disinterested. "The most interesting person of all would have to be Senator Aldsworth, though."
     "Oh, very yes." Metrice glanced up at me from beneath her lashes, an oddly calculating look. "It's rare that one sees such a distinguished personage aboard a place like this. Certainly we won't be seeing him for long; I hear his business will carry him to another quadrant in a few days. Regrettable." She sighed and fanned herself, then folded the fan away. "I must be going, my dear Slade. There is a meeting of the Nihai Urasagi this afternoon, and I have been honored by an invitation to watch the proceedings. I do, however, have a small gift for you. Perhaps you'll find the time to enjoy it in the next few days."
     Wordlessly, she handed me a black-lacquered box, then melted back into the crowd. I slid the box open, shielding it with my body to prevent passerby from glimpsing the contents. The box was full of neatly-rolled cigars, stamped and sealed with an elaborate insignia I didn't recognize. The scent of well-aged tobacco tickled my nose. I pulled out the topmost cigar and inspected it curiously.
     A small, deadly black hole greeted me. Numbly, I set the box down and snapped the "cigar" in half, where the seal bisected it. It clicked open soundlessly, and a tiny cartridge fell out. Berlitzer exploding ammunition, top quality. Very, very expensive toys.
     Dangerous. Deceptive. And utterly inexplicable. Why go to such lengths for such a simple job? I didn't need any fancy fake cigars; a simple knife in the back would work as well. That seal... I'd seen it before. Somewhere important. Where?
     It was a coat of arms; I remembered that much. Whose?
     What game was Metrice playing?
     I was still puzzling over that when evening came around.
     The lounge was crowded and cheerful, the conversations carrying the forced lightheartedness that comes at the end of a vacation, when people are grimly determined to wring every last drop of fun out of their remaining time. Glasses clinked against glasses, creating a discordant counterpoint to the synthetic music that blared out of the bar's antiquated jukebox. Metrice's box of cigars hung heavy in my pocket, a dead weight. Aldsworth hadn't come in yet.
     Chayla tapped my back lightly as she swayed past, a tray of tall glasses balanced precariously on her shoulder. "I need to talk," she mouthed; then she was swallowed up by the eddies of the room, a vanished apparition in a world of colored smoke and lights. Somewhere in the room, an impatient customer called out for his drinks; Chayla's musical voice rose above the clamor to soothe him.
     A few minutes later, she reappeared, minus tray and drinks. Her rainbow-dyed ponytail was a little mussed, but the loose halo of multicolored hair only made her look even more unearthly.
     "Damn customers," Chayla groused, leaning an elbow against the bar. "Always thinking they have a right to be served or something. What's wrong with them?" Her sardonic grin faded as she noticed my preoccupation. "What's the matter, Slade?"
     I handed her the box of cigars, silently. Chayla tapped it open expertly and snapped the same cigar in half, then let out a low whistle. "Nice."
     "They're not mine." I motioned for the bartender to bring me a glass of whiskey; he slid the glass along the counter and went back to the other end. I didn't resume speaking until he was well out of earshot. "Metrice gave those to me this morning."
     "For Aldsworth?"
     "Who else? She wants me to hurry on this one, looks like. Mentioned something about a meeting of the Nihai Urasagi. Know anything about them?"
     "Not much. They're a family-based operation of slave traders. Specialized in 'exotics.' Demi-illegal, but that kind of thing is permitted in some zones, so..." She shrugged, feigning an indifference she obviously didn't feel. "If you've got a taste for it, the Urasagi are reputed to be the best in the business. I don't think they have much to do with the Aldsworth thing."
     "You don't approve?"
     "Whether I approve or not has nothing to do with it." Chayla's voice was sharper than I'd ever heard it before, and she realized it too. She sighed heavily and sank into a nearby stool. "Sorry. Didn't mean to snap at you. It's just that... oh, the hell with it. Never mind. It's not important. It's gotnothing to do with your job, anyway."
     "If you say so." I sipped the whiskey, unconcerned. "I'll trust your word."
     "Thanks. When do you plan to introduce yourself to the Senator?"
     It was a clear evasion, but I was willing to let the subject slip. Everyone has their secrets. Best to respect Chayla's privacy -- besides, there wasn't anything to be gained by prying, and a hell of a lot to be lost. "Probably tomorrow night. He's swamped tonight. Seems like all the civvies are trying to get a photoclip of themselves with the big celebrity, to impress their relatives. Most of them should be docked off by tomorrow. He won't be as busy then."
     "That works. Where do you want to do it?"
     "Can you get him out of the lounge?" That was more than I'd expected. I knew Chayla was good, but -- in spite of all her casual bragging -- I'd never really believed she'd be able to seduce him.
     "I can do better than that." She lowered her long lashes and gave me a slow, seductive smile. A sudden dryness in my throat made me realize how helpless any male would have been against that dangerously sinful smile. "I can get him in a nice, secluded, witness-less place."
     "But not until tomorrow night...?" Dammit, why did it always sound like I was begging her?
     If possible, her smile became even more tempting. "It'll cost you."
     "I'd happily throw a fortune into the fire for a minute with you... especially since I'm not the one footing the bill."
     Chayla slipped a slender hand over my wrist, linking our arms. The curve of her breast brushed my arm, warm sequins grazing my skin for a fraction of a second. "In Eredhel culture, we always celebrate life before a day of death." Her silver eyes were strange, almost wistful, above that enchantingly hedonistic smile ... but perhaps that was only a trick of the flickering lights.
     Or maybe I didn't want to see it.

     Morning dawned bright and clear. The recorded simulation of a holosun on my "window" rose in a splendor of bloody gold, punctuated only by the faint hiss of static. My room wasn't expensive enough to merit a viewport into space, so the thoughtful designer of the Queen Anne had put a cheap hologram in its place. Probably to make planetside visitors feel "more at home." He was probably one of those people who wore ties with smiley faces, too. Asshole.
     Chayla was gone when I woke up. Faint perfume lingered on the thin cotton sheets, reminiscent of musk and wildflowers and an indefinable something that was uniquely Chayla. Ruddy false-dawn light glinted on a few lost strands of multicolored hair, clinging to her pillow like the memory of a kiss.
     Her side of the bed was cold. She'd been gone for a while. I didn't care. Better that she wasn't here. I had work to do, and she was a distraction... a lovely and enjoyable distraction, true, but one I really didn't need right now.
     I shoved the curtains over the holo-window, blocking out the fake sunrise. The box of cigars was on a lamp table, where I had left it. A quick inspection showed that it hadn't been tampered with. Good.
     Five of the cigars were loaded with Berlitzer cartridges. The other fifteen were real cigars, identical to the weapons except for a subtle difference in the seal. These showed a mounted hunter holding a handful of tobacco leaves; the loaded smokes had a picture of the same hunter, with an additional leaf tucked into the band of his hat. It was almost impossible to tell the difference -- so tiny was the picture -- but it was there. I arranged them carefully, putting all the loaded cigars on the top row.
     Then it was time to get cleaned up and dressed. Faded jeans, a casual white shirt, slightly-scuffed black shoes. Just another working man, taking a few minutes out of his busy schedule to sip a cold beer, share a few jokes, and blow away his friendly neighborhood senator. Yeah. I smiled at my reflection in the mirror, and the familiar-yet-alien face smiled back at me from beneath a mask of shaving cream. I was almost there. After tonight, I'd be done. Free.
     Free. I'd have walked the Third Way and come out the other side. The razor stilled in my hand.
     Strange. It'd been just over two weeks since I'd met Metrice. Barely half a month since I'd left Hell... and it felt like an eternity. How long had it been since I'd thought about that place? Two weeks away from the stale iron stink and the cries of bestial misery -- more like two hundred years. Severance Three had faded to one more stain on my past, one more black incident to be passed over and ignored like all the others.
     Yeah. And as long as I could keep believing that, I'd be fine. As long as I could stay busy enough to avoid being forced to think, I was a happy guy.
     I didn't want to think about it. Didn't want to remember all the horrors that I'd left behind. It was enough that I had left them behind. No need to dwell on that. I had more important things to worry about.
     Like how to kill Richard Aldsworth.
     The razor resumed its smooth motion. My hand trembled slightly -- whether from repressed anxiety or nervous excitement, I couldn't tell -- and the tremor jolted it sideways. A thin line of red trickled down my cheek, diffusing into moist pink when it hit thestiff foam. Damn.
     Something wasn't right.
     But... what?
     Metrice. It all led back to her. Why the elaborate setup?
     Why go to all the trouble of breaking a fifteen-year con out of Severance Three for something as simple as a hit? There were hundreds of dirtside assassins who'd love to make a reputation by offing the Cyrithian's prize diplomat. There were probably hundreds on this liner who'd take the job, for a helluva lot less than it was costing her to pay me.
     Why kill Neal Pendron? Damn, I hated the traitorous little bastard, but not enough to risk my own neck trying to strangle his. Not nearly enough. So why take him out? Chayla'd checked the records for me, and she'd verified what Metrice had said. Neal Pendron had died of asphyxiation from a bungled hanging, according to the coroner's official report. It was ruled a suicide. No foul play suspected... which meant, of course, that there was foul play involved, and the officials were covering it up. Why?
     Why the box of cigars? Those were expensive toys. Too expensive for this job, and too damn impractical. Better to use a handheld blaster -- something quiet and clean. No mess, no fuss. Not Berlitzer-equipped toys out of some kid's spy vid.
     But I'd gotten the impression that Metrice knew exactly what she was doing. Not just that she was smart enough to take obvious precautions, but that she was deliberately dropping clues that didn't add up, because she wanted me to puzzle over it. Almost as if she were a spider in a web, laughing at some fly's pitiful attempts to figure out exactly what the hell he was caught in.
     Not a reassuring image.
     The shaving cream was beginning to itch as it dried on my face. Damn, again. My lips thinned in determination. Fine. I'd walk the Third Way. I'd play Metrice's little game. I'd come too far and done too much to see my freedom snatched away again. But I'd watch my back.

     Chayla was as good as her word.
     By the time the last lights were being dimmed and the tender was putting the stools up on the bar, she had Aldsworth wrapped around her little finger. They were among the last stragglers to leave the lounge; it was obvious that the senator didn't want the night to end. As they passed my seat near the door, he drew her aside into a shadowed booth. I couldn't see them; I could barely make out their whispered words.
     "Are you... do you have plans tonight?" he asked, sounding surprisingly uncertain, almost like a nervous teenager asking for a kiss at the end of his first date. Not at all what I'd have expected from a slick, womanizing politician -- and weren't they all?
     "Not if you have something more interesting than sleep in mind," Chayla purred. It was all too easy to imagine the suggestive smile on her lips; for a feverish instant, I thought I could see the silvery glitter of her eyes in the darkness.
     I didn't catch Aldsworth's response, but in a few minutes the two of them strolled out of the lounge, Chayla draped over one of the senator's arms. On her way out, she turned her head and gave me a significant look, jerking her head in Aldsworth's direction. I rose silently and followed them into the half-lit corridor.
     Her quarters, like all the employees', were within easy walking distance of the lounge. Almost as soon as they'd entered the wide hall, Chayla directed him toward a smaller side passage that led to her rooms. This passage was nearly empty -- designed for privacy, it was a near-perfect place to makea hit. Best of all, the security monitors had been disabled long ago. Practically every employee of the Queen Anne had a shady sideline to augment their pay, and the security guards were no exception. A few discreet bribes ensured that the monitors were turned off to protect the identity of fellow employees' clients.
     And their killers.
     Chayla pressed her fingertips to the flat, silvery panel that served as a doorlock. There was a soft hum as her prints were scanned and checked, then the door swung open. My cue. She stepped inside -- out of sight, so she couldn't be forced to provide eyewitness identification of the killer; technically, she'd never see me commit the deed -- and I closed the distance to Aldsworth with a few rapid strides.
     He whirled to face me, his initial surprise immediately replaced by pale, mute resignation. Not fear, but courageous despair -- the look of a man about to give his life for some idealized cause. The resolution etched on his features was so profound that it stopped me in my tracks. I stood stock-still, hardly more than an arm's-reach away from the senator.
     I'd expected surprise, yes, and perhaps some sort of chagrined sheepishness. Perhaps even fear. After all, I'd interrupted the guy on his way to an illicit assignation, and he might be afraid of a career-wrecking scandal. Worse yet, I might ruin his chances of scoring with Chayla. But I hadn't done anything threatening... not enough to elicit this kind of grim finality.
     "Morgan?" he asked, quietly. There was no terror in that dignified voice; nothing at all, beyond simple acceptance.
     Morgan? The name was a blank to me. Not one of my aliases. Who was 'Morgan'? Was it something important? Or was it a last-ditch ploy to distract me long enough for him to call help? Was Aldsworth trying to bluff his way out?
     The hell with it. I had a job to do.
     I pulled the box of cigars out of my pocket and snapped it open, leveling one of the loaded smokes at Aldsworth. "Care for a cigar?" I figured the absurdity of the question would knock him offstride for the split second it'd take to blow him away.
     I was right. And wrong.
     Aldsworth didn't yell for help or try to run away or do anything else that a sane, sensible man would have done. He simply stared at the cigar, offering no resistance. The incongruity of being threatened with a smoke didn't seem to puzzle him at all. It was... unreal.
     "Why are you doing this?"
     Something in his voice made me stop. It might have been his stoicism; I respect a man who doesn't flinch in the face of death. Or maybe it was my curiosity over 'Morgan.'
     I lowered the weapon, still keeping a steady bead on him. "Because I was hired to. Man's gotta make a living. We can't all be doctors and diplomats, you know."
     "Isn't your family wealthy enough for you, Morgan?" He sounded tired, like a loving father disappointed by his rebellious son. "Can't you find another way of bringing some excitement into your life? You don't know what you're doing."
     Too late, I glimpsed a small black box on his belt. It was beeping quietly; a little red light in the center blinked on and off. I hadn't noticed the box before. Stupid me. Aldsworth followed my startled glance to the box, and smiled, almost sadly.
     "Yes. Jake and Blake will be here soon. It's not too late, Morgan. I'm sure we can make some kind of arrangements to get you out of trouble. Maybe you'd like to come with me on my next assignment? It's a lot safer than running around and playing assassin." He held out his hands, palms up. What the hell did he expect? For me to drop the weapon, accept a fatherly hug, and sobbingly trust him to make everything all better?
     Fuck that. The hell of it was, for a split second, I almost wanted to do it.
     I gritted my teeth. "I'm not Morgan."
     A flicker of surprise crossed that smooth diplomat's facade; then the heavy, disciplined sound of booted footsteps resonated in the hallway. Someone was coming. Someone had heard his alarm. Aldsworth heard it too; his startlement vanished and he held out one hand.
     "Give me the weapon. I'll tell them that it was all a misunderstanding, and -- "
     I still don't know exactly what happened. One finger slipped -- just the slightest pressure on that hair-sensitive trigger -- and pushed down the tiny seal.
     There were two low clicks -- so close together that the simultaneous sounds blended into one -- echoing too loudly in the stillness of the empty corridor, and then a silent explosion.
     Aldsworth's mouth opened; his lips moved weirdly, straining to voice some protest. A red burst blossomed in the middle of his chest, tiny at first, then suddenly erupting outward in petals of hot blood and torn flesh. Fragments of gristle were visible inthe hollow of his chest; the Berlitzer ammo had practically vaporized most of his ribcage. He jerked spastically, almost ripped in half by the force of the tightly controlled explosion, and crumpled like a ruptured balloon. The motion was eerily graceful, the slow, ritualized ending of an ages-old dance.
     The cigar fell from my numb fingers. Its impact on the smoothly tiled floor was soundless, but I winced anyway. A thin wisp of gray smoke rose from the cigar. Black, charred powder fell out of the opening -- probably some kind of residue from the firing mechanism.
     Then the alarm sounded -- or, rather, didn't sound. The Queen Anne wouldn't interrupt its customers' sleep, even for the murder of the most prominent VIP aboard. Red lights blinked in the center of the ceiling, a thin line stretching into oblivion. Somewhere on the ship, sleepy-eyed guards would be buckling on blasters and fumbling to their stations. No doubt Red Star's law enforcement agents had been alerted as well. A murder had been committed, and it was their duty to hunt for the culprit. Once the security net closed, there wouldn't be any escape.
     I had to get away. Even if, by some fluke, the authorities couldn't convict me of the murder, they'd find out about my escape from Severance Three. It wasn't too likely that Metrice would intervene on my behalf, now that she'd gotten what she wanted.
     Chayla's head poked out of the doorway. She was composed except for a strained tightness at the corners of her eyes. In one glance, she seemed to take in the whole situation.
     "Damn," she whispered, echoing my thoughts. "Damn. Come on, Slade. We've got to get outta here."
     "Where? There's nowhere to go." I forced a bitter laugh. "I can't get onto Red Star. They'll catch me and ship me back to Hell -- or somewhere worse. Might as well go out fighting in a blaze of glory. I've got four shots left. Three for them and one for me."
     She grabbed my arm and half-dragged me out of the hall. "Shut up, dammit. Don't think about it. Just go, before they come here. You have to get off the ship." I stumbled after her, then broke into a dead run as her words sank in.
     She was right. There was no point in dying here. There was a point in getting the hell out of here. I had to get away. Just... run.
     I don't remember much of that desperate race. I followed Chayla through a labyrinth of mazelike passages and corridors, each one smaller and more obscure than the last. Her ponytail of rainbow-hued hair became a banner of freedom, whipping in front of meand goading me to follow.
     It wasn't long before I was hopelessly disoriented.
     Our pursuers didn't seem fazed, though; they kept coming, always just out of sight. There's something unnerving about being chased by a faceless, nameless enemy. I almost wished I could've seen them, maybe taken a shot or two to slow them down -- but Chayla kept running, and I had to follow her or be lost.
     Chayla turned a sharp corner and stopped at a coffee-vending machine on the way down the hall. Before I could ask what she was doing, she tapped in a rapid-fire sequence on the keypad, and the entire facade of the machine swung outward. The entrance of atiny, cramped tunnel was revealed behind the vending machine, framed by loose wires and bits of foamy insulation. Deeper into the softly illumined tunnel, I could make out the vague shapes of piping and more wires, bulky silhouettes against a backdrop ofpink insulation and industrial paneling.
     "Little secret of us employees," she confided breathlessly, pushing her multicolored hair back behind her ears. "Sometimes we need to get offship, fast. Not many know about this one, except me, Boz, and the techies who put it in."
     "Where does it go?" I asked, tentatively putting one foot into the makeshift tunnel. It felt solid enough, although the stiff insulation foam squished under my feet.
     "Out to the low-grav cargo bay. It's one of the last places security will look, but they will look there, so you'd better hide your ass before they show up. From there, you should be able to smuggle yourself onto Red Star, and maybe find yourself a way off on another ship. Y'know, the old-fashioned stowaway thing." She attempted a weak smile; it didn't reach her silvery eyes. "I'll try to find a way to meet you there. Somehow I don't think I'm gonna be able to keep this job, once word gets out that I was the last one seen with Aldsworth before... before this."
     "Can't you come with me?" I knew she'd refuse, but I had to ask. Had to make the gesture. It wouldn't do shit to placate my conscience later... but I needed to hear her say no. Needed to know that I'd tried to do something.
     She knew it, too. "No. I'm sorry, Slade. Hurry up and get your ass in there! They'll be here soon. Better if we go separate ways. Throw 'em off the trail... make it harder to catch us both."
     For a long heartbeat, she struggled with the answer. I watched, waiting, afraid to say anything. I could hear the footsteps coming, growing steadily louder. Chayla's head jerked up as she heard the guards approaching. She shoved me into the tunnel and slammed the vending-machine door behind me. I was left in a floating netherworld of hazily glowing keypads, humming wires, and softly enveloping darkness. And silence.
     She never answered my question.

     It's been a month since I left the Queen Anne.
     Chayla was right. The tunnel went out to the low-grav bay. It wasn't too hard to boost a ride on an outgoing Dalusian freighter. By the time the crew found me, it was too late to turn around, and Dalusians are known for their pacifistic natures. They didn't throw me out the airlock.
     They probably should have.
     Later I caught a newsflick about Aldsworth's killing. Some poor sod named Morgan Tandover was convicted for the murder. The reporter seemed suitably shocked that a scion of the famously wealthy Tandover family would be involved in such a sordid affair, but it was obvious that underneath her politely feigned shock, she was reveling in the circus.
     They showed a picture of Morgan Tandover, on his way to the sentencing. He looks like me. In fact, he's a dead ringer for me. Or... I'm a dead ringer for him.
     None of the Dalusians seem to have picked up on the resemblance -- to them, all humans pretty much look the same, and the Tandovers aren't that famous in this quadrant anyway -- but the likeness between an escaped con from an obscure penal colony and the heir to a galaxy-spanning trading empire is incredible.
     I've heard that Tandover's going to get life in a penal colony. The evidence is incontrovertible; they have eyewitness testimony from the bartender and several lounge patrons, and footage from those "disabled" security cameras that show a man shooting Aldsworth.
     A man who looks remarkably like Morgan Tandover, using a weapon that looks remarkably like one of the custom-crafted Berlitzer cigars that he commissioned last year. There are only twenty of those loaded smokes in existence; the Berlitzer factory made them specially for Tandover. And five of those twenty are missing from his vaults... because they're in the Queen Anne.
     I wonder how Metrice got her copper-nailed hands on them.
     Anyway, Tandover's fucked. Every news story I've seen has remarked on the political case that Aldsworth was involved in -- a case that would have cost the Tandovers billions, if it went through. The senator's death means that the case will have to be scrapped, but the scandal will ruin the Tandovers anyway. The judge has been quoted as saying that "this needs to be a reminder to the rich and powerful that they are not above the law." So he's going to make an example out of Morgan Tandover.
     Only question is, which colony is he going to be sent to?
     Probably Severance Three, if I know Metrice. Someone's bound to remember me as the con who tried to get away, and assume that Tandover is me using another alias. He won't last a month in Hell... and she won't have any loose ends to tie up. How convenient for her.
     Nobody's mentioned that Aldsworth was working on another case -- a case centered on an obscure little planet called Nhiavhyrr. Nobody's mentioned that the Tandovers were known to be rivals to the Nihai Urasagi, or that the Urasagi are known to be partners with a minor noblewoman who goes by the assumed name of Lady Alencia Metrice.
     So many pretty, tangled strands in this little web of deception.
     I'm surprised no one has tried to kill me yet. Either Metrice doesn't think I'm worth bothering with, or else she's waiting for me to relax and lower my guard. I doubt she's simply lost track of me.
     I don't know what happened to Chayla. I want to hope that she escaped, but some small part of me knows that she died in there. It hasn't been covered on any of the newsflicks I've seen.
     Jake and Blake are dead; that much was mentioned in passing. They were killed in a mysterious explosion that took out part of the Queen Anne... the part that Chayla would probably have tried to hide in. The only reason the reporters bothered to cover their deaths was because it was suspected that the perp had committed suicide in the explosion.
     I think she killed herself, and took them out with her. To buy me time.
     And I think she knew she was going to die, long before it happened. It wasn't love, and it wasn't a martyr's sacrifice. No. She knew she was dying, somehow, someway, and she was waiting for a chance to do something with her death. It would have happened anyway.
     Or ... that's what I'm telling myself. Because it's easier to believe.
     It doesn't matter, anyway. Can't change the past. You have to keep going, have to keep working, have to keep too busy to have time to think about how bad you've fucked up your life.
     And right now, I'm going to Nhiavhyrr. To find the rest of my answers.