open
Upgrade to a better browser, please.

Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books

Disappearing Act
Purchase this book from Amazon.com Purchase this book from Amazon.co.uk Purchase this book for Kindle

Added By: valashain
Last Updated: Administrator

Disappearing Act

Synopsis | Excerpt | Reviews | Images

Author: Margaret Ball
Publisher: Baen, 2004
Series:

This book does not appear to be part of a series. If this is incorrect, and you know the name of the series to which it belongs, please let us know.

Submit Series Details

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags:
Awards:  
Lists:  
Links:
Avg Member Rating:
(0 reads / 0 ratings)



Synopsis

TO ESCAPE PURSUIT, SHE TOOK ON ANOTHER'S IDENTITY -- AND FOUND HERSELF MARKED FOR DEATH!

Maris's work with the local underworld on the huge space station was anything but honest, but life was much more pleasant than it had been before the gang's leader had picked her up from the slums. Then her boss grabbed a visitor to the station who was asking too many questions, only to find out that she was a very important diplomat. Worse, his prisoner had apparently committed suicide by jumping through an airlock into hard vacuum.

To avoid dangerous questions from station security, he decided to let Maris's corpse be found with the diplomat's IDs; but Maris saw through his plot and used those IDs to escape to the planet the Diplomat was about to investigate. Unfortunatley she landed in a hornet's nest of corrupt officials conspiring with a local tyrant. Surrounded by people who wanted her eliminated, the only person she could trust was Gabrel, a young officer who set off with her on a cross-planet trek to get evidence that would expose the tangled web of corruption.

Maris was strongly attracted to Gabrel and the feeling seemed to be mutual. But then, he thought she was a high-ranking government agent. What would happen when he found that she was only a petty criminal on the run.


Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Maris idled along the broad walkway of Fourteen, admiring the window displays, admiring her own reflection in the windows, and keeping one eye on the target, several shops ahead of her. She really should have had all her attention on the target - but toplevel ladies never moved that fast, and it wasn't as if Maris had all that many chances to sashay along the shopping aisles of Fourteen as if she were a toppie herself, somebody who belonged there. Johnivans had fitted her out good for this expedition, too, and she just couldn't pass up the chance to see herself looking like a real toppie. Her bodysuit was used, of course, but at least it fit proper and she'd insisted on passing it through the sonic cleaners until only a few indelible stains bore witness to its previous owner's life. The turquoise and fuchsia spiral stripes still had plenty of glitter to them. And over that she had draped a sarong of real pseudosilk, purple with a border of gold sequins, whose artfully careless knot had cost her half an hour's sweating concentration. If it weren't for the unruly dark curls held back with a twist of bright orange silk, Maris thought, she wouldn't know herself - and even those weren't half bad for the current job, one of the toppies' current fads was for "natural" looking hair that they zapped with electrocurlers to get the effect of a careless mop. In fact, the target's hair looked very similar... though she probably shook the artificial curls out into sleek, shining folds at the end of the day instead of struggling through them with a comb. Maris glanced ahead to see if she could tell the difference between electrostimmed curls and her own messy hair, and saw only a gap where the target had been standing a moment ago.

Her insides sank; she felt as dizzy as if the gravity had failed and sent them all into free fall. Losing a target while she mooned over hairstyles and the clothes in the shop windows...Johnivans would never forgive her! Worse, she'd never forgive herself for having failed him like this. After all he'd done for her, to screw up on her very first real important toplevel assignment... .Maris moved forward as quickly as she dared, trying to look like a toppiegal in a hurry instead of a panicked scumsucker who was way, way above her proper depth, glancing into each shop in search of a short, slender woman with black curls over a shiny silver bodysuit. Not in the candied fruit stall, not trying on sandals, not... she could have disappeared into the fitting rooms behind this display of resort sarongs, but the instinct that made Maris such a good lookout told her no, not there, this target wasn't here to shop for fancy clothes any more than Maris herself. She had been idling along, looking in the shop windows but not really interested... meeting someone? But where - ah, a narrow walkway opened to the left between two shops, probably a service passage, and a thread of silver had snagged on the decorative stucco of one wall. She must have ducked through there, must have had an assignation behind the shops, something funny there, exactly what Johnivans would be interested in. Maybe Maris could redeem her moment's lapse of attention and do even better, get close enough to overhear what they were saying, Johnivans had taught her that once people got into a conversation they stopped really looking. She sidled flat along the shop wall, stepping as delicately as a moth in case some sound betrayed her presence. She couldn't see anybody in the gap at the far end of the service walkway, good, they weren't looking back for her - but something felt subtly wrong - and before she could figure out exactly what, she was flying through the air to land in the shadowy space beyond the walkway.

"I might consider letting you go," said a quiet, amused voice somewhere above the weight that pressed her face down into the gridded surface of the walkway, "if you tell me a sufficiently interesting story."

The fall had knocked the air out of her and the knee holding her down wouldn't let her get a decent breath, but Johnivans' patient training was there like internal steel to support her when all else failed. Stay in character, never stop watching for a break, don't waste energy kicking yourself over past mistakes. What would a real toppie think was happening?

"Don't be a fool," Maris gasped. It was hard to sound haughty and sarcastic when you could barely breathe, but she gave it her best shot. "You can't mug people this close to the shops. Let me up now and I'll give you a break, I won't call the guards until you've had a few seconds to get away."

The grinding pressure in the middle of her back eased. Could it be working? Small, strong hands gripped her shoulders and flipped her over. Maris stared up into a face eerily like hers - olive skin, black eyes, tangled mop of black curls - and worked on getting her first good breath of air in what seemed like forever. "You look as Sarossian as I am!" the woman exclaimed. "What- How...?" She bit her lip, considering. "Well, even Saros breeds its traitors, I suppose. Right, then. If you really want to call Security," she said, "this is your best chance. You do that, and we'll both show ID, and I'll apologize for the unfortunate misunderstanding, and...well? You're not calling for help. Funny, I thought not-"

Maris had used the unexpected breathing space to do something far more practical than calling for guards who would slap her into a holding cell just for being this far toplevel without proper ID. Working one foot flat on the floor for balance, one hand under her for propulsion, she shot upwards and sideways, banged her head into the other woman's nose, got extra leverage by planting an elbow in one of the soft curving breasts outlined by that slick silver bodysuit, and corkscrewed out of the target's hands. She was on her feet and headed for the maze of service tunnels behind the shops while the target was still cradling her aching breast, lost herself deeper in the tunnels than any toppie would venture, took long-unused maintenance ladders and dusty passages where the codes on the security doors hadn't been checked in years, and didn't stop to catch her breath until she was well down on Thirty, in a place nobody but Johnivans' people even knew about any more.

For all the sixteen-or-so years of Maris' memory this quarter of Thirty had been ignored by the toppies. Once, years ago, she'd been told that a chance meteorite strike smashed the loading dock beyond repair. These days, newbies credited Johnivans with personally bombing the dock to create a "useless" space inside Tasman for the Hideaway, but Maris had doubts she would never express. Not that it mattered, one way or the other. Whether or not Johnivans had caused the original destruction, who else would have been clever enough to take advantage of it the way he did? His hackercrackers had twiddled Tasman's database so that half the level was no longer on anybody's clean-and-check rota, changed a few security codes on the outer doors to discourage any body wandering by, and - within the space that was left, Johnivans had made a home for his people.

Most of Thirty had been left the way Maintenance abandoned it: comfortless bare stockrooms and loading stations, chill with the knowledge of the deep black infinite coldness that was just the other side of the airlocks and walls. Anybody doing a routine check would trip a dozen alarms in this outer area before they got to the chambers where Johnivans stashed the good stuff; they'd die in the traps he'd had set long before they could penetrate to the heart of the Hideaway, the long room where Johnivans housed and fed his people. Even dreading the confession of her failure, Maris felt her heart lift as she entered the Hideaway. Topside was new and exciting, but everything here spelled home: the cavernous spaces walled and floored in a patchwork of mats and carpeting and spoiled silks from rich men's baggage, the sharp motes of dreamdust floating like a blue cloud in the air, the rich scent of food being heated on the warmers that Johnivans had placed everywhere to ward off the chill of Outside.

The usual crowd was there: Herc and Little Makusu sharing a glowing tube of dreamdust, Nyx posing in yet another fantastic garment pieced from fragments of damaged brocade and velvet, Ice Eyes and Keito the Fingers playing with one of Keito's fantastic constructions of mirrors and holograms. The usual huddle of skeletal bodies, gang buddies who'd dreamdusted themselves to the point they no longer bothered to eat and would shortly die with those dreamy smiles on their thin faces, moved languidly on a pile of cushions in the far end of the space. Johnivans never stopped anybody killing himself with dreamdust or poptoys; he said those who chose to do that stuff weren't worth saving. But Johnivans himself wasn't there.

"Look at this, Maris!" Keito hailed her. "I fixed the glitch, now the Thief and the Lady orbit each other, like so." He pushed a movable panel and glass changed to mirror; hidden wires clanged together, and two figures sculpted of light appeared in the center of the ragged sphere and began a stately dance around each other.

"It's wonderful, Fingers," Maris said with sincere appreciation. "You could be a toppie artist - your pieces are better than anything I saw in those snobby stores on 14."

Ice Eyes raised his eyebrows. "I'm the artist here," he announced, "an artist of the Light Touch. This stuff of Keito's is just play. Here's your scarf back."

Maris put a hand to her head, then joined in the laughter as Ice Eyes bowed and handed the wisp of bright silk back to her with a flourish. "But, Ice, it's cheating to distract me with Keito's holotoys! You don't have those when you go collecting."

"Don't need 'em," Ice Eyes protested, "toppies are slow and stupid."

"Not all of them," Maris said, remembering what she'd come to report. "Where's Johnivans?"

"The question," said a slow, cold voice behind her, "is, where's the target you were supposed to be following? Did you lose her, or just decide to take a little vacation from your assignment?"

Maris turned and dropped to one knee. If groveling and contrition would save her from the worst of Johnivans' wrath, she didn't mind. She deserved it. "Worse," she admitted with her eyes fixed on the pointed red toes of his boots.

"There's something worse than disobeying me? You never cease to surprise me, girl."

Maris lowered her head until her forehead touched the top layers of carpet scraps. Dust tickled her nose, made her want to sneeze, and the acrid hint of Little Makusu's dreamdust tempted her with the promise of oblivion. "She tumbled to me following her."

"Get careless?"

"I must have - but I don't know how! I'm the best at follow-me-target, Johni, you know that, we've played it all my life, even you can't tell when I'm tracing you..."

"Hum. So that makes you the best?"

"Nobody else here could track you through from 24 to 21 when you tried us, could they?"

"So if you're so good, who persuaded you to be not so good at it this time? Hmm?" A foot on Maris' head underlined the question.

"Nobody! I swear it. She's just - better than anybody we tracked before - or maybe she's got better tech. You said she was asking Little Makusu about smuggling pro-tech onto Kalapriya - well, wouldn't it make sense that a tech smuggler would have the best equipment for herself?"

She could tell Johnivans was considering this point seriously when the weight of his foot quit grinding her face into the carpet. Maris dared a glance upwards and saw him frowning, but no longer angry. Not at her, anyway. She'd become expert at reading the signs.

"Nobody could pay me enough to dub on you, Johni," she insisted. "You know that. I owe you everything - do you think I've forgotten so easily? If I'm not one of Johnivans' people, I'm working the corridors, I'm nobody, I'm dead. You saved me from that and I'd never dub on you. Not to save my own life, certainly not for anything a damned toppie could wave at me!"

Johnivans' frown of concentration smoothed out into the broad smile that lit up her universe. "'Course you wouldn't, Maris. I know that - I was just testing you, see? Now stop rolling on the carpet, you'll get your nice outfit dirty!" Strong hands lifted her up. Maris felt safe and protected again inside the strength of those arms, the warmth of Johnivans' smile. If he forgave her, if she was still one of his mates, then nothing else mattered. Sure, she'd blown the assignment, and she'd do whatever dirty, boring job he gave her as penance - but it didn't really matter. The tech smuggler might have outsmarted her, but Johnivans would outsmart the smuggler in turn. He always did. * * *

"Do you think the target turned Maris?"

"No chance! Maris is yours. I think this woman outsmarted her, just like she admitted." But a slight frown lingered on Little Makusu's face.

"Maris," Johnivans remarked, apparently to the empty space in the middle of his private chambers, "is good. Bunu good; I trained her myself. So... either the toppie turned her, or... Maybe she's smarter than she looks."

"Maris?"

"No, moron, this wannabe tech smuggler. At first I thought she was bunu dumb, trying to start her own racket without paying her specs to me first, but now I'm wondering. Maybe she's got serious backing, just wants to ID who's running the game here so she can have us taken out. We need to know more."

"Want me to bring her here?"

"No. Take her to the Maus-hole. If you can."

"If I can!"

The warm smile lit up Johnivans' face. "Just kidding, Little M. But seriously now... take some help. Keito the Fingers, maybe Daeman if he's not too crazy today. Remember, she got round Maris. I don't want any of my people approaching her alone. And after you've stashed her," he added, "find out where she's bunking, and send Fingers to check out her quarters. I want as much background as we can get before I start questioning her. And one other thing..."

"Don't mention the op to Maris," Little Makusu said. "Just in case."

"Bunu right!" * * *

Calandra Vissi could hardly wait until she got back to her suite on Five to compose and code her message back. Strictly speaking she shouldn't be sending anything at all, since what she had at this point was hardly vital information - but it was something, after all these days of dropping hints and broadcasting suggestions until she began to doubt there actually was a smuggling organization on Tasman for her to check out. But logic said there had to be. Tasman was an artifact of FTL travel, a miniature artificial world created at a point where converging singularities in the geometry of space made it extremely inconvenient not to have a nearby world for docking and refueling and transshipping passengers and cargo. Hence, Tasman - expensive, with its twenty levels of living and working quarters, its inability to produce anything for itself beyond the most basic hydroponics required to keep the air healthy. Expensive beyond words, when you considered the cost of shipping every single component, foodstuff, and other necessity from some distant world.

The only thing more expensive would have been not having Tasman; being unable to use this marvelous area of converging singularities except by laboriously docking two ships together for cargo exchanges.

That debate had been argued out in Calandra's great-grandparents' time, and Tasman had paid for itself - with docking and toll charges that everybody complained about, but everybody paid - within a generation.

Almost everybody, anyway.

In the early, bare-bones days Tasman could not possibly have housed a smuggling operation (unless it was run by the officials in charge of customs and excise, Calandra noted, having been trained to consider all possibilities). Now, four generations after the world had first been placed here, it had been added onto and improved beyond recognition. The core levels, One through Three, comprised a luxury world with every comfort that could be imagined to keep staff happy and slow down turnover, because it was much more expensive to train new maintenance and customs staff and ship them out than it was to provide the existing workers with synthetic lobster dinners, the latest holos, virtual tours by the current holostars, and anything else that could amuse people stuck on a world with no open spaces. The levels immediately around the core were equally luxurious, resembling nothing so much as a huge shopping mall that radiated out from Four's top-level stores with plush carpeting and discreet fountains all the way down to the crowded walkways and mass-market chain stores of Fourteen. Nothing cheap, of course; it didn't pay to import cheap goods to Tasman; still, Fourteen didn't hold much to appeal to someone like Calandra. But it was nearly the lowest level open to the public - Fifteen and Sixteen were drab service areas frequented mostly by staff members bent on saving every penny of their salaries for the future, and from Seventeen down to the outer skin, the only comfortable areas were the lift tubes that led directly to the passenger bays, surrounded by dull and chilly storage and maintenance areas. So Fourteen was the best place, Calandra figured, for her to troll for contacts with the smugglers that had to be operating on Tasman by now.

Logic insisted they had to be there. In general: No place with so much wealth, tangible and intangible, pouring through it could be immune from crime; and history taught that excessive tolls and customs always generated smuggling. In particular: Kalapriya bacteriomats that didn't pass through the Federation's rationing and control system were coming from somewhere - and Tasman was at the only singularity point reachable from Kalapriya. However the black market bacteriomats were being distributed, they had to pass through Tasman, and somebody there had to know how it was done.

Somebody who was already unethical, or he wouldn't be distributing black market bacteriomats; somebody with the power to divert and conceal shipments of things that had to be moved in special climate-controlled, airtight containers; somebody who already had contacts on Kalapriya; somebody, in short, who could be expected to leap on the offer of a partnership smuggling prohibited technological luxuries onto Kalapriya.

The only trouble was, you couldn't look up "Smuggling - Tasman/Kalapriya" on the netbase and expect to find an informative entry; nor could you insert an offer of partnership into the ceaseless stream of public service announcements and commercial advertisements that clogged Tasman's main info channel. You had to be subtle, come at it sideways, think like a criminal. Drop hints, let it be known in the right quarters that she just might have certain devices which would be guaranteed to sell for a high price on Kalapriya if only she had a way of bypassing the Barents Trading Society's checks on all incoming cargos. And who knew what were the "right quarters"? Calandra had reasoned that there must be an underworld to Tasman and that the bacteriomats must be coming through that way, because all her boss's extremely discreet audits of Tasman's records showed no hint of any fiddling with the data. But in the last few days of bar-hopping and casual chatting and dropping hints Calandra had begun to wonder if Fru Silvan's delicate computer inquiries had missed something, if they should be checking out the highest levels of Tasman rather than the lowest.

And she really didn't want to go on to Kalapriya without the slightest hint of where to look.

So it had been a great relief when the girl started following her, some time that morning, and an even greater one when she passed up several perfectly good chances to steal Calandra's shopping bag. Even a credit chip left carelessly on the counter top while she turned her back and haggled with the jeweler hadn't attracted her shadowy follower. The girl had to be from the unknown gang she was trying to make contact with; there was simply no other logical explanation.

And she'd gotten away.

But that didn't matter, Calandra reassured herself. At last she had some progress to report! If her carefully casual inquiries had attracted somebody to investigate her, then logic was right and there was at least one strand of the web she was seeking here on Tasman. Pull on that strand, and she might find out enough to guide her investigation on Kalapriya itself...

Mulling over her next move, she forgot to check her proximity sensors - they were mostly a nuisance in a crowded public area anyway, she'd had to pay the closest attention to pick out the one faint blip that showed a repeated pattern behind her and gave that girl's presence away. And she hardly noticed when a sharp angle of joined corridors took her out of the main stream of foot traffic for a moment.

A sharp push between her shoulders made her stumble forward, putting her arms up to protect her head from hitting the tiled wall - but the wall fell open before her, and just before the world went black Calandra registered, too late, the red flashing lights of her sensors screaming attention, watch out, somebody's getting much too close. * * *

The first thing she knew was that it was cold; the second, that her head was exploding. No. It just wanted to explode, to get away from the pain, little shreds of Calandra flying out away from the aching center into the cold...

"She's awake," said someone. "I told you I din' hit her no harder'n I had to."

"Shouldn'a hit her at all," said a different voice in the same slurred accent Calandra had learned to associate with Tasman lifers, the ones who came and stayed and generally held the worst crew positions. Staffers had their leaves on their home worlds, their three- and five- and ten-year rotations, kept ties with home. Lifers... her brain was wandering.

"Doesn't matter, she'll be plenty awake for Johnivans to talk to." There was a nasty laughter behind that voice, a mocking accent on talk that made Calandra shiver despite her pretense of unconsciousness.

"You sure?"

"Yeah, watch this- " and a burst of pain flared up Calandra's right arm, coming from the hand, the middle finger bent impossibly far back until there was a snap and her stomach lurched. She moaned then, couldn't help it, and gave up the pretense of unconsciousness. Had to look, anyway, to see if her finger was still there - it was, but the angle made her feel sick again. Better not to look, then.

"Bright girl," said the man with the cold mocking voice. Calandra studied him through half-closed lids, pretending to be dazed from the blow. Maybe not pretending, I'm not functioning all that well. Dark golden skin, black eyes with a hint of an oriental fold, broad shoulders. Not too big to tackle, if he were alone. He wasn't; the owners of the other two voices were looking over his shoulder. "See, it's not a good idea to lie to us."

"Didn't- " Calandra managed in a voice whose wobble dismayed her. She sat up slowly, hissing with pain when she accidentally moved her right hand.

"Oh, yes. Pretending to be out when you're not, that's a lie, that's no bunu good. Don't need another lesson, do you? Thought not. Learn fast, do you?"

"Daeman, Johnivans said not to question her till he was ready," protested one of the others, a slender youth with bright green hair in a fashionable topknot.

"D'I ask her anything, Little M? I'm not bunu questioning her. Just getting her ready. Want her in the right mood, don't we?" The broad-shouldered man - Daeman? - smiled down at Calandra with a mad sweetness in his eyes that terrified her. Sane criminals I can maybe talk my way around. This one's not sane. "In case you're wond'ring, lady, the right mood is cooperative. Totally bunu cooperative. I gotta tell Johnivans you're a quick learner, don't I, that you don't need no more lessons in how to talk to the boss? Or do I?" he mused. "See, I like teaching, and seems like you'd be a good student. What do you think?"

"I think you started right, but you're making a mistake with the threats," Calandra said, looking at Daeman but pitching her voice towards the two behind him, who might possibly be sane. "Your boss and I have mutual interests. We need to talk."

Daeman giggled. "Oh, yes. You'll talk! You'll sing if we ask you real bunu nice, won't you, toppie lady? You know how nicely I c'n ask? You wanna demonstration?"

"Daeman." The boy with the green topknot touched the big man's arm. "Let her wait here, think it over. You scared her enough, Daeman. You're scared, aren't you, lady?" His eyes fixed on hers, sending some message. What? Never cower to bullies, it only encourages them. But did that hold for madmen? Probably not.

Calandra lowered her eyes and blinked rapidly, as if trying to blink away tears. "Y-yes," she said, and it wasn't hard to sound weak and scared. "Please don't hurt me again."

"Not before Johnivans gets here," Daeman said with that high-pitched, frightening giggle. "He likes to be sure, know what I mean? You think about that now, toppie slut. We'll have us a party when Johnivans is ready."

And on that, unbelievably, they left. The door hissed shut behind them and Calandra drew a long breath that shook with grateful relief. With those three watching her, the only advantage she could get over them was pretending to be weak and hurt and too scared to resist, waiting for them to relax so she could make a move. Alone, she had a lot more advantages. Start by getting out of this place? She briefly considered staying for the promised meeting with their boss, what had they called him? Johnivans? Not worth the risk. She did want to talk to him - but not on his territory, with him thinking she was his prisoner, and certainly not with that mad Daeman anywhere around. All right then. No telling how long she had, and there could be cameras hidden even in this barren, steel-walled cell. What was it, anyway - part of a corridor? Leaning against a cold wall, head lolling as if she were half unconscious, Calandra closed her eyes, thanked the land spirits of Saros for the Diplomatic Sector's tradition of thoroughness, and called up the implanted data base that held maps of Tasman. Using a recent implant like this always gave her a headache; spikes of pain flared between her eyes, vanished and recurred while she scanned sectional maps of the outer layers. Yes, a corridor leading to one of the disused loading docks, of course, an area neglected like that was a natural breeding ground for a criminal underclass. And the partition doors originally built in as barriers against accidental breaches of the skin still worked, she'd just seen Daeman and Little M and their friend leave through the one to her left. Probably a better idea to take the one to her right, then, assuming it didn't open on deep space. No, that was all right; the maps showed that none of the corridor partitions led directly to a loading dock. Two sets of double doors with an air space between, that was what she had to look out for - avoid those and she'd be all right. With the maps in her head, she didn't need to worry about being spaced - only about avoiding Johnivans and his friends. Especially his friends.

The other problem with new implants was their slowness to respond; it took time to grow the neuronal connections that let the hint of a thought of moving a small muscle trigger the right commands in the silicon part of her brain. Calandra had to blink twice, hard, to get the cross-sectional maps floating through her vision to change to a 3-D walkthrough beginning just where she thought she might be. And then it was a crummy threedie, jerky, lacking any of the detail that would allow her to select this particular corridor partition from any of the others in the dead area of Level Thirty. There was only one way to test her guess, and it would give her away if anyone was scanning. She would just have to hope that underworld criminals weren't as efficient as Diplomatic Authority. Standing wasn't quite as easy as it should have been; that knock on the head? No matter, a little sway and stumble was quite artistic really, should convince anybody watching the hypothetical hidden camera that she was merely moving aimlessly about. Three hesitant steps took her nearly to the right-hand partition door, the one Daeman and his friends hadn't used. Calandra leaned against the door as though the effort of moving had exhausted her. Hell - her body hid one hand from view, but it was the right hand, which she didn't particularly want to use just now. No help for it; turning in a circle to put her left hand between her body and the security keypad would definitely look purposeful and alert a watcher. What am I complaining about? I've still got four perfectly good fingers on that hand. Okay, so using even one finger awakened pain demons that flew up the nerves of her arm keening and wailing disaster. Tough. The pain wouldn't kill her, wouldn't maim her, couldn't even keep her from accessing her new implants. She couldn't be sure that would be true of whatever Johnivans and Daeman might be planning to do to her.

A roll of her eyes upward and a twitch of her right eyebrow got the damned threedie walkthrough unstuck, let her scan through codes until she spotted the list she wanted, the corridor codes for Level Thirty. Earthlady of Saros, if ever I poured wine from my cup for you, let it be the first one I try!

Third code out of ten; not enough to make her feel securely under the Earthlady's protection, but not bad. And knowing which code worked also told her exactly where on Thirty she had to be. Just two more corridor cells and an inconspicuous ladder door could get her to Twenty-Nine, then to Twenty-Eight and higher, where there would be legitimate crew. Could the smugglers actually have been careless enough to leave that way out unguarded? Probably - after all, they don't know I carry all Tasman's security codes in the top left corner of my forehead. Not that the new chip was literally there, but that was where the headache had centered.

Diplomatic School emphasized, over and over, that probably wasn't good enough if you had any way to improve your odds. Calandra wiggled her right foot and felt the comforting thickness of the very slightly raised heel. Slip the dazer out now, to have in her hand when she went through the door? Or take her chances on this door, and hope she had time on the other side to get her weapon out? She might be able to get at it now without alerting anybody. Calandra let herself slide down the wall, careful not to put any weight on the now unlocked door, and tucked her feet under her as she sat. The heel had been designed to let an agile woman casually finger the recessed print-pad and slip the dazer out with a single gesture that looked as if she was just easing a tight shoe.

An agile woman with a fully functioning right hand.

Oh well - in three seconds, when she went through that door, anybody watching her would already know something was off. Calandra wriggled to cross her legs in front of her, pressed her right thumb into the print-pad, and awkwardly slipped the catch and pulled out the dazer left-handed; stood up in a smooth flowing motion that she owed not to Diplo School but to Madame Petropolous' Dance Class For Pre-Teens; and pushed the door open with her right elbow, holding the tiny dazer in the palm of her left hand with the nozzle just peeking between two fingers and her thumb on the firing pad.

Another barren corridor section, this one with shipping crates piled along the inside wall. No shouts, no alarms - dared she take time to investigate even one of those tempting crates? By the time she got free and could come back with station authorities, any bacteriomats concealed in those crates could have been spaced - there to her right were the double doors leading to the defunct Loading Bay B7, plastered with faded stickers bearing the usual warnings. No Exit, Danger, Unsecured Area, Authorized Personnel Only, Vacuum-Rated Protective Gear Absolutely Required. All of which might or might not mean that the second, exterior set of doors to the loading bay had been damaged in the collision that wrecked B7; if Tasman Civil Authority was like any other set of bureaucrats Calandra had encountered, they would rather slap warning tapes all over the doors than actually test or fix anything. The one thing she felt sure of was that the smugglers would be well equipped to dump anything incriminating on a moment's warning.

If there was a sealed bacteriomat transport canister in one of those crates, and if she could get it to - not to Tasman Central Authority - they might be involved, unlikely as it seemed - back to her boss on Rezerval, then - she would have more than redeemed the carelessness that allowed the smugglers to trap her. Calandra squeezed the dazer, resetting it to separate metal from metal rather than neuronal connections, and cut a careful seam round the four sides of the topmost crate. She caught the toppling metal side with her right forearm, just managed to get it to the floor without a betraying clang, set her dazer on top of the crate and rummaged through the packing pearls one-handed. Little pink and green and blue packing pearls flew out with every motion and swirled around her head, too light to succumb to Tasman's artificial grav fields. Somebody was going to have fun cleaning those damned pearls up; she hoped, viciously, that Daeman would be given the chore of recapturing them. With his bare hands. One at a time.

Metal and plastic, square-edged shapes, recessed print-pads...a rounded shape under her palms that felt right, a short tube about three inches in diameter. Aha! She pulled it out, congratulating herself as she recognized the cool white outer insulation of a biosample freezetube... and stared in frustration at the black and white dot code in the address space. No name, no address, just a dot code. Calandra stared at the code until the dots swelled and shrank and spiraled before her eyes. No, she wasn't going to be able to memorize it, and yes, she was sorry now that she hadn't let "Doc" Ovsami at Diplo Central give her the latest in retinal camera implants, but so what? All she had to do was take the actual canister to any sorting and delivery substation to get the dot code translated into an address. And she needed to take the canister with her anyway, to a microbiology lab that could open it under approved protocols and identify the fragile cells in stasis within.

And with this information, it should be ten times easier to track down the source of the black-market bacteriomats. Calandra tucked the freezetube under her arm and headed confidently towards the next corridor partition door, the one that should lead to her way up-level.

The listed code didn't work. Could the list have been scrambled for some reason, so that the code for this partition didn't come immediately after the code for the previous? Not bloody likely. Try the one before, then, maybe she'd been reading the list in reverse order.

That one didn't work either.

And even as she was tapping in the other seven possibilities she knew they wouldn't work, either the damned smugglers had hacked into the system and recoded the doors or the list was out of date.

There was one other way out of this partition, though. They just might not have recoded the double airlock doors.

It wasn't a pretty exit, but anybody would think it beat hanging around to let Daeman torture her at his leisure.

Timing would be all-important.

Calandra took a deep breath of stale, recycled station air, appreciated it with every living cell of her body, and moved over to test the airlock doors leading to the absolute cold of space. * * *

"She's what? Don't give me that? Bunu Diplos travel in style - she'd have been staying right up on Two or Three, not in some Level Five transit cubicle!"

"Maybe she's a Diplo, maybe she isn't," Keito the Fingers said. "We found the cards tucked into the lining of her travel bag. Maybe she stole them. Maybe they're forged. Maybe..."

"Scanner!"

Nyx had the equipment ready before the word was out. Johnivans fanned out the cards and ran them through the scanner slot one at a time, barely pausing to read the information that flashed on the screen. He stopped when the screen showed a face. "Little Makusu! This look like her?"

"That's her," Little Makusu confirmed with a glum stare. Curly black hair, black eyes, olive skin - like Maris, almost, only a Maris who was cleaned up and older and more confident.

Johnivans sighed and let forth a string of expletives in Hongko, more chilling for being uttered without apparent expression. With the same dead-calm voice he summarized, "So you've kidnapped a Diplo and let Daeman torture her. Diplos don't just go missing; when this one doesn't report in there'll be an almighty stink. Got any bright ideas how to fix it?"

"If she's found dead," Little Makusu said slowly, watching Johnivans' face. The Man didn't seem to be getting any angrier, at least. "...dead of natural causes..."

"How much damage did Daeman do?"

"Only a broken finger," Little Makusu said proudly. "I kept him under control."

"Brilliant. Any suggestions on how we make a broken finger into a wholely unsuspicious natural death?"

"The woman was nosing around where she shouldn't have been. An accident. An accident in Engineering - something that mangles her hand - or Maintenance, any kind of conveyor system ought to do it - something around a loading dock, she was too damn interested in how stuff gets on and off Tasman," Little Makusu improvised, feeling happier as Johnivans seemed to relax. "We'll work out something."

"Ok, get on with it, make a plan, let me know when you're ready. And fast! I want her found before she's reported missing, get me?"

"Uh - where'll you be, boss?"

Johnivans rolled his eyes upwards. "Having a little chat with the lady. Now we really need to know what she's here for."

"Want Daeman?" Another roll of the eyes. "And to think you're one of my brighter people. This whole enterprise must be under the special care of the God of Minor Fuckups. No, I don't want Daeman, he has no self-control, we can't leave any more marks on her until you've figured out how to arrange her accidental death. I'll have to find other ways of persuading her to talk." * * *

God of Trouble sends by threes, Johnivans' grandmother used to say. So ok, they had a nosy stranger asking about smuggling pro-tech onto Kalapriya, that was one; after they'd shown their hand by kidnapping her, the woman turned out not to be a free-lance smuggler who could disappear but a bunu Diplo traveling incog, that was two. Johnivans refused to be superstitious; but when he found the cell where Daeman and Makusu had stashed the woman empty, and the parcels stored there cut open, somehow he was not surprised. . "I was wrong," he muttered. "We've been upgraded. We are getting the special attention of the God of Major Fucking Up."

How had she gotten out? Not the way she came, she'd have had to get past his people, and they weren't that incompetent. He didn't think. Then again, anybody stupid enough to leave their catch in a corridor section with the far partition door unlocked...

"It wasn't unlocked," Little Makusu protested.

Johnivans gave him a bone-chilling glance. "You checked, of course."

"It's never unlocked. Nobody goes that way. Look, it's closed now, isn't it?"

On inspection, the door was not only locked; it flashed red warnings every time Johnivans touched the key pad The door sensors reported vacuum on the other side; the airlock doors leading to the damaged loading bay must have been opened.

"It was left unlocked," Johnivans said flatly. "She went through into the next partition, but that door was locked. So... what exactly did you idiots do to her, that she preferred spacing herself to a little talk with me?"

It probably wouldn't be a good idea to point out that most people who knew Johnivans would make the same choice. Nor would it help to remind Johnivans that he'd wanted them to scare the woman before leaving her alone, for fear and imagination to weaken her defenses.

"Vacuum'll get Maintenance down here," Keito the Fingers said gloomily, and Makusu mentally blessed him for changing the subject.

"So? One thing's for sure, they won't find anything." Johnivans frowned and drummed his fingers on the door panel. "That gives me an idea...no, it wouldn't work...Get some of the boys to shift the rest of those crates, just in case Maintenance checks past the breach to look in here.... Not that it'll help. We need to get them off-station; when a Diplo's reported missing, they'll look everywhere."

"Not the Hideaway," Keito said. "Nyx took it off the data maps; the maint-bots don't even know it exists now."

Johnivans sighed. Deeply. Why were all his boys such fuckups? "For a missing Diplo," he said evenly, "it won't be maint-bots, it'll be human beings. And not all humans being as dumb as you lot, it's just remotely possible that one of them will notice some discrepancies between the space used in the database and the recorded volume of Tasman." He could see the work of years going down the drain; his organization scattered, no place to gather, no safe place to relax, nowhere to stash the goods he moved to and from Kalapriya. Ask the Consortium for help? Better not - they weren't the kind of people who responded well to a show of weakness.

"If the Diplo weren't missing they wouldn't search the whole station," Keito mused.

"If wishing were oxygen, I'd be able to breathe between the stars!"

"Maris looks a lot like that Diplo," Makusu commented, beginning to see a ray of hope.

"Yeah, but she'd never be able to pull it off. Diplos are schooled. They know everything there is to know - and all Maris knows is the underside of Tasman. They've got all those brain implants and mysterious powers, too," Keito pointed out.

"Oh yeah? That little lady didn't work no mysterious powers on yours truly," Makusu swaggered. "She was as scared of Daeman as anybody else would have been. You ask me, it's just a load of holocrap about the Diplos. They're just another kind of toppies, that's all, and Maris already passed for a toppie."

"Yeah? When?"

"When she was following this Diplo."

"Who caught her, may I point out!"

"Shurrup, both of you!" Johnivans growled. "A man can't think with your bickering going on - not that either of you would know anything about that. We might just pull it off. We've got the Diplo's cards; Nyx can change the prints and retina scans to match Maris, even put in Maris' picture. She's faked enough ID's for us, even a Diplo's can't be all that different."

"Yeah, but Maris can't possibly fool anybody that she's..." Keito's voice trailed off under Johnivans' withering stare.

"She is perfectly bunu qualified," Johnivans said slowly, "to pass for a dead Diplo. And that's all we really need - a corpse that matches the specs, to stop them searching."

"But Maris..."

"Failed us all, when she let that Diplo catch her. I don't have room in my organization for fuckups."

Makusu thought about the unchecked partition door and stopped protesting before Johnivans could think of some use for his corpse.

"But don't tell Nyx why we want the ID's faked. She likes Maris."

"So did I," said Keito, sadly, but accepting the inevitable. Better to lose one girl than to see the entire Organization go out the airlock. * * *

"I wish you'd stop hanging over my shoulder while I work," Nyx told Maris. "You're getting on my nerves."

"You asked me into your luxurious closet," Maris pointed out. The workroom was actually a little bigger than a closet, but the specialized - and highly illegal - equipment lining the walls left about enough free room for one woman and a can of cold fizz. "And you didn't even tell me why you wanted samples. Trying something new for Johnivans, are you?"

Nyx hunched over her console, tapping the screen here and there with a long platinum fingernail to adjust parameters that were invisible from Maris' angle of vision. "I'm not supposed to talk about it."

"C'mon. He can't expect that you'll take finger and palm prints, retina scans, hair and blood and skin samples, and I won't even notice. Do you have to go through with this for everybody in the Organization? Are we all getting proper ID's or what?" Maris didn't really want to give Nyx a hard time - but she was nervous, waiting to hear what Johnivans had done to her assigned target... and what he was going to do to her for screwing up. That there would be a punishment she accepted without question; she just wished she knew what it was.

And she hoped, without too much hope, that he wasn't hurting the other woman too much. Of course if she was a smuggler from some rival off-station gang, trying to muscle into the Organization's business, she deserved whatever she got... but... she hadn't seemed like that bad a sort.

And thinking about any of this was unprofitable. Johnivans would do what he had to do and she'd have to be crazy to question him. He'd befriended her when she was just a kid barely old enough to be recruited by a pimp and sent out to work the corridors. If she weren't part of the Organization that's where she'd be now, doing one crewman after another and handing over her credits to a boss who slapped her around if they weren't enough or if he was in a bad mood. Johnivans asked her to do some hard things sometimes, but nothing demeaning, and he was fair, and he looked after his people. She felt like a total jerk for even thinking of questioning whatever he had to do with that woman.

It was much, much less upsetting to hang over Nyx's work station and try to figure out her special top-secret project.

"If you have to get samples from everybody in the Organization, there'll be no way of keeping the project quiet," she pointed out. "You really think somebody like Little Makusu is going to give you scans and cell samples without asking questions? Or Daeman?"

"Fortunately," Nyx said while she tapped the screen in a rapid tattoo that brought up flashing arcs of colored lines in constantly changing patterns, "I don't have to sample Daeman or anybody else. Just you."

"Just me?" Maris could practically hear the sound of her teeth hitting the floor as her jaw dropped open. She knew her place - about the lowest form of life in the Organization, even before she'd failed Johnivans in this assignment. "Girl, there's too much monoxide in your air mix! No way am I important enough to justify this much of your work. Even before I screwed up."

Nyx's elaborately painted face showed a small, secretive smile under the mask-like decorations of green and platinum spirals. "Well, maybe you're not as much in disgrace as you thought. Listen, if anybody else finds out, I'll be the one in big trouble... but Johnivans can't have meant I can't tell you, seeing it's all for your benefit. Just don't let anybody else know, ok?"

Maris swore on the integrity of Tasman's outer hull, then spat on her hands and swore by the God of Minor Fuckups that she wouldn't reveal what Nyx told her to a living soul.

"Okay...I'm about done, anyway; just have to wait for all that data to process and print." Nyx pushed her stool away from the console and half-turned to look up at Maris. The smile was dancing in her eyes now. "Looks like Johnivans has a real special assignment in mind just for you, lady. Know what I've just been doing? Know who that woman is you were following, the one Daeman and Makusu had to snatch after she rumbled you?"

"Don't remind me," Maris pleaded. "Way I fucked that one up, there's no way Johnivans would trust me with any solo project again."

Nyx's lips curved. "She's a Diplo. Name of Calandra Vissi, originally from Saros, in transit to assignment on Kalapriya. And you may have noticed that she looks a lot like you.... You're going to take her place, Maris."

"Me! She doesn't look that much like me...I can't fake being a Diplo... the scans will show...arrghh. That's what you wanted all my data for." Maris gulped and shut up, her thoughts racing.

Nyx nodded. "First I had to set up the ID cards, then I hacked into the station records to make everything consistent. In a few minutes you'll have all of Calandra Vissi's ID - but with your picture, prints and cellular specs. And they'll match what Tasman Central Authority think they recorded when she came on-station."

"There'll be other records, won't there? From her home world, from Diplo Central. You can't hack into all those... can you?"

"I might, given time," Nyx said with a brief scowl. "Never say can't! But Johni didn't tell me to go that far. It's a rush job, and the data only has to be consistent on-station, that's all I know... so whatever he's got in mind for you to do, it must be here on Tasman. Maybe he wants you to impersonate her with Tasman Central Authority and find out what she's been sent here for."

"Maybe..." Maris agreed. She should feel excited. Instead of punishment, this looked like a promotion! Only...too many things didn't make sense. She sidled to the door. "Thanks a million, Nyx. And I promise I won't tell anybody. Only, I need to be alone for a bit now. Think. You know? It's a lot to absorb."

"Ok, but don't go far. Your new cards should be popping out any minute now....in fact, here they come. You want to take them up to Johnivans yourself?"

The path from Nyx's work station to the Hideout led through a series of narrow, unused maintenance corridors with partition doors rekeyed to codes only Johnivans' gang knew. Maris tapped out the codes automatically, her mind racing. Impersonating a Diplo? How could she ever pull it off?

"Johnivans?"

"What's the matter, Maris? You look upset."

"Nyx told me," she blurted out. "About--"

Johnivans' face became momentarily a cold and chilling mask, and Maris took a step backward, frightened of him as she'd never been before.

"What, exactly, did Nyx tell you?"

"That you want me to impersonate this Diplo, maybe even go to Kalapriya in her place. Don't be mad at Nyx?" Maris pleaded, "I, I kind of wormed it out of her, like."

Johnivans smiled and Maris thought she could actually feel her heart resume beating. If she'd known Nyx telling her would make him that kind of angry - but he wasn't angry now, he looked like an indulgent uncle who's had his surprise present given away. "I would have broken it to you more gently. Scared?"

"I can't do it," Maris said flatly.

"If I tell you to, you will." "I didn't mean - of course I'll do anything you want, Johnivans - but - a Diplo? How can I possibly pull it off? How could anybody?" Maris tried to collect her thoughts, to explain. Diplos were - they knew everything, and what they didn't know, they had magic chips implanted in their brains to tell them. They could kill people by looking at them and transport themselves without ships and, and...

"Easy, kid," Johnivans said with his slow, warm smile when Maris babbled out what was on her mind. "Most of that talk about Diplos is mushroom feed. Hey, if they were some kind of super-people, think we'd have been able to snatch this one so easy? They're just another kind of snob toppie, that's all. Trust me, you won't encounter any problems trying to pass for Calandra Vissi. Why don't you go up to her quarters now and try on some of her outfits? If they don't fit right we'll have to get them altered."

"Am I really going on to Kalapriya? That's her next assignment station."

Johnivans studied his fingernails. "Yeah. You're going exactly where she was going, Maris. And since the ID's done, I wish you'd get started. Know where her quarters are?"

Maris glanced at the handful of flimsies Nyx had handed her along with the cards. Level 5, corridor 67, room K. "Yes. But what if she shows up there?"

"I can personally guarantee you that will not happen."

"And can't you at least get me some Kalapriyan language plugs and an info-vid about the place? She'd be expected to know all that."

"You think you can fake a Diplo's language-learning implants with a few days cramming language plugs?"

"Can't hurt, might help," Maris said with more confidence than she felt. "And I can't be seen buying them, or order them off her account. It would look funny - she's supposed to already know that stuff. Please, Johnivans?"

"Sure, sure, I'll have Fingers get right on it."

That probably meant the plugs and vids would be gently lifted from store stock or from some legitimate traveler's baggage, which seemed to Maris a silly risk to take when it would be easy enough to buy them - but she'd pushed Johnivans far enough already, and after all it was his decision. "And I'll go try on some of the Diplo's clothes," she said cheerily. "Just have Keito bring the plugs to her quarters, ok?" * * *

Maris put on her "toppie" disguise just to make the journey up to Calandra's quarters. She'd never been this close to Center before - and from the looks the real toppies gave her in the public lift tube, the shiny bodysuit and pseudosilk sarong that had enabled her to pass on Fourteen were barely acceptable on Five. Maris couldn't exactly define the difference between her appearance and that of the toppies around her, but they looked somehow polished. As if somebody had put in long careful hours on arranging each strand of hair, buffing each gleaming nail, placing each beauty jewel in just the right place to bring out the best features of each smooth, confident face. She tried not to catch anybody's eyes as she hurried along the softly carpeted corridors of Five, glancing at tube and cross-corridor number out of the corner of her eye. Fifty, fifty-five, sixty, sixty-five, sixty-six, sixty-eight,, that couldn't be right, what happened to sixty-seven, mustn't look lost or somebody would for sure stop her and ask what she was doing here, oh, bunu remodelers, sixty-seven had been bent around a lift tube to come out on the wrong side of seventy. Letters now, A-J this way, L-M that way, oh lovely, where was K, didn't toppies use the same alphabet as normal folks or - oh. 67K was right in front of her, that was why there weren't any arrows pointing the way to it. With shaking fingers Maris inserted the key card Nyx had given her into the slot, placed her palm on the pad beside it. Now the alarms would go off, shrieking unauthorized access -

The door slid open so quietly Maris hardly heard the quiet swoosh of buffers across the deep-piled carpet. She took one wondering step inside, then another. And she'd thought Fourteen was luxurious - it was nothing to compare with this! How did you close the doors? She didn't want to risk a voice command. Oh, wave your hand over this sensor pad, the one with a picture of an oval door slit down the middle, and the iris closed. Wave again, and it opened. Maris waved a third time and told herself to stop playing with the room controls. Calandra Vissi wouldn't be fascinated by these controls, she'd be used to things like this or better - though what could be better was beyond Maris to imagine. In her head she started thinking how she'd describe the place to Nyx, how she'd convey the sense of luxury and safety conveyed in such an understated manner. Nothing like the bright patchwork of colors and textures in the Hideout; instead, soft blue-grey furnishings that seemed to grow naturally out of the soft grey-blue carpet. She dropped down on a sofa, half afraid her cheap sarong with its gaudy border of silver threads would stain or scratch the perfectly skin-soft upholstery. Chairs you could go to sleep in, she'd tell Nyx, the way they molded themselves to fit and support your body. Light that seemed to be everywhere and nowhere, somehow following the direction of your eyes so that whatever you looked at was gently illuminated and nothing glared. A full wall fitted with a flat screen viewer set to create the impression of a deep forest glade stretching out into the distance. And another room opening off this one - no, two of them! A flimsy notice on one door invited the traveler to take advantage of the amenities in the Personal Care Suite. Maris glanced through the door and saw a gleaming array of faucets and mirrors and cosmetic toys. No wonder toppies had that polished look! Now she knew where they kept the polishers. Those would be fun to play with. Perhaps she'd get Nyx up here and the two of them could experiment with everything until they made themselves up into proper toppies from head to toe.

But first, clothes, in case they needed alterations. Johnivans thought of everything! Maris investigated the third room, fitted with a bed and hanging rods, with a small travel bag carelessly tossed under the clothes draped on the rods. Swathes of polysilk and other fabrics she couldn't even begin to name. From the way they felt between her fingers, the subtle odors arising from them, she thought some of them were actual organics. All the colors were good ones for her, strong ambers and warm browns set off with splashes of turquoise and emerald. Well, of course, she and Calandra Vissi had the same coloring - what was it the woman had said? Maris looked Sarossian, like her? Maris gave a mental shrug. That kind of talk was for toppies, people with families and dirtside homes. Her family was Johnivans and the Organization, and her place was Tasman - and her job, right now, was to try on one of these bodysuits and make sure it fitted.

It's going to take more than fine feathers to make a fine bird out of you, jeered a voice in her head as Maris slipped into an amber-colored suit and pulled the bodysuit closures together. A little tight up top, but nothing to worry about... as long as she didn't take a real deep breath. Maris inhaled experimentally and felt the bodysuit fabric relaxing around her chest, then molding itself more accurately to her shape. Hah, so even Johnivans didn't know everything - toppie clothes were self-altering, at least some of them! There was a wrap with a design of turquoise and aqua diamonds on a dark amber background that looked perfect with this suit; nubbly texture, but incredibly soft against her skin. And not - she tested with an experimental tug - self-altering. Made sense, you didn't want your wraps to give under pressure, they'd fall off. And she'd bet this was some kind of real organic anyway, not a teachable polymer.

With a little experimentation she was able to reset the wall screen from "forest glade" to "mirror" and check out how she looked.

"From the neck down, very toppie," Maris concluded. Now she could see just how sleazy the "toppie" outfit Johnivans had provided had been, the crumpled bodysuit and the thin sarong with its stiff silver border, but at least the practice she'd had tying the sarong came in handy now as she adjusted the turquoise-and-amber overwrap. From collarbone to ankles she was perfect. She stepped into a pair of the light sandals on the bedroom floor and was relieved to find that these, too, were self-fitting. As the uppers molded themselves to her foot shape the soles stretched out a little, accommodating a slightly longer foot than they were used to. The spongy texture was comfortable to walk on but the sandals themselves weren't really at all like the flimsy things she'd seen some toppie women balancing on; they were more like running shoes disguised as gold-strapped sandals, with the self-teaching polymer straps gripping her foot and ankle firmly, the flat cushiony soles giving a good grip on the carpet. Shoes you could run and fight in, made to look like high fashion accessories... Like Diplos themselves: finely tuned diplomatic and military weapons disguised in a human skin. Maris might get the outside look right, but how was she ever going to fake the interior?

Well, for starters she could wipe that frightened look off her face, get her natural tumble of black curls restyled into a polished, artful tumble of curls like the toppie girls she'd seen on the way here, and... well, maybe she wasn't quite ready for that, to take the disguise out into the public areas of Five. Okay, there were things she could do right here in the suite first, like learning at least a few basic Kalapriyan greeting phrases, like hello and how are you and what's bunu happening today. The comdesk wasn't so different from the ones Johnivans had appropriated for use by the gang; of course their call-codes weren't in any list this comdesk had stored, but Maris knew Keito's code. She buzzed his personal clip, got voice contact but no picture. "Keito, haven't you got those plugs for me yet?"

"Plugs?" Keito sounded - what? Blank? Surprised?

"Kalapriyan language earplugs," Maris said patiently, "and some info vids on the planet. Didn't Johnivans tell you that I'm - " Well, maybe he hadn't told Keito all about her mission. Maris rearranged her sentence. "Didn't he tell you to get me those materials? Pronto? I'm sorry- " No. Little Maris, lowest-ranking member of Johnivans' gang, might apologize for asking Keito to do things for her instead of the other way around. Calandra Vissi probably never apologized. Besides, she needed those plugs. "I'm sorry you didn't get the order before I left the Hideaway. Now you'll have to send somebody up here with them. 5-67-K," she repeated the address in case Keito didn't have that either.

"Johnivans didn't tell me anything about getting you - Oh. Right. Of course. Um, Maris, I'll, um, I'll be up with the plugs myself. Right away." Keito cut the contact abruptly, leaving Maris staring into the mirror wall with a puzzled frown. She'd been some time finding the suite and then learning her way around it, trying on Calandra's clothes and all that. It wouldn't have taken Johnivans two seconds to com Keito and tell him what she needed in the way of support materials. And Keito didn't forget things. So what was going on, with him first sounding like he didn't know a thing about any language plugs for Maris and then promising to bring them up personally instead of sending a runner? Had Johnivans and everybody else gone crazy? Why was she the only person who seemed at all worried about how she was going to learn enough to impersonate a Diplo?

Trust me, you won't encounter any problems trying to pass for Calandra Vissi.

You're going wherever she was going.

--But what if she shows up there?" --I can personally guarantee you that will not happen.

And he hadn't even bothered to pass on her request for plugs to Keito.

The girl reflected in the mirror grew so pale that she seemed to fade out in contrast with the rich deep colors of her borrowed toppie wraps. She could only think of one way Johnivans could be so sure that she wouldn't give herself away.. There was only one reason he wouldn't even bother to keep his promise to have Keito get her the plugs and vids she would need to carry off the deception. Maris was too unskilled and uneducated to pass for a Diplo. But her DNA and retinal scans and fingerprints were all on Calandra's ID and in Tasman's data bases. On Johnivans' suggestion, she was wearing Calandra's clothes. Her dead body would pass for Calandra's without any problem.

Johnivans wouldn't do that. He'd held her life in his hands for the years since he plucked her out of the corridors and let her

into the shelter of the Hideaway.

Maybe he thought her life was his to throw away.

Maybe... With relief, Maris seized on the point that made nonsense of her wild imaginings. Makusu and Daeman had the real Calandra. If Johnivans wanted a corpse in the cabin, why wouldn't he just kill Calandra? Unless she'd escaped...Maris didn't think she'd escaped.

--But what if she shows up there?" --I can personally guarantee you that will not happen.

Daeman was a wild card, but Little Makusu was kind of sweet, if not terribly bright. Maris entered his com code and waited, twisting her fingers together, for him to answer.

"Yeah?"

"Hey, Little M, it's me, Maris. Listen, I need some info from that woman you snatched. You okay to go down to the holding partition and let me talk to her over your com?"

"Can't do that, Maris."

"Johnivans' orders? Because he wants me to talk to her, Little M."

"Naah. He didn't say that."

"How you know?"

"Cause you can't talk to the bunu cow now that she's spaced herself, can you, Maris? I mean - wait a minute - I don' think I was s'posed to tell you that, Maris."

"I won't tell anybody," Maris promised. If I don't move fast, I won't even have the chance.

And the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. Johnivans needed a body to pass for Calandra's. He didn't need anybody to pass for a living Diplo; that was why he could be so casual about Maris' ability to pull it off. Faith in her? Ha. Faith in her stupidly following orders without thinking about them until it was too late, more like it.

It might be too late now.

Maris stood in the center of the largest, most luxurious private space she'd encountered outside the Hideaway, shivering with deep chills that shook her from head to toe. The view of her own white face in the mirror didn't help; with a wave of her hand she reset the wall screen to a forest setting. All that luxury, and she couldn't even play with it. All she wanted was to walk into the illusory forest and disappear.

She'd known there would be a punishment for her failure in tracking Calandra.

She just hadn't expected it to be a death-penalty crime.

Johnivans.

He'd given her a home. A place to belong. Well, he could take all that away again, and her life too; in a sense it already belonged to him. She probably wouldn't be alive now if if weren't for Johnivans. Corridor happy-girls didn't last long. And she'd trusted him. She couldn't remember parents, knew Tasman Central Authority only as a distant threat, but Johnivans had been family and authority and home... and she'd felt happy and secure, knowing she had someplace she really belonged, people who accepted her...

People who were casually planning to kill her because her dead body fitted their schemes in a way her living self never could. The chills became waves of pain that crashed through her body. She almost cried out with the pain...it's not real. It's only feelings. Emotions. Don't feel. Think!

Maris imagined herself shutting down like a console going into sleep mode, all the displays dimming, only one blinking light that was the one little part of her brain that processed information; all the memories and love and pain temporarily shut down. And that light was blinking Alarm Red. Like the stupid, obedient little girl she was, she'd brought herself exactly where Johnivans wanted her! What better place for Calandra Vissi to be found dead of natural causes than right here, in her own suite? Any minute now they'd be coming to get her, to turn her into Calandra, she could be a good imitation of the Diplo if she were dead, alive she could never pull it off. She had to get out of here right now and go... where? Was there any place on Tasman that Johnivans couldn't find her? The com-chime jingled and Maris started convulsively. Too late - they'd found her - no. The forest glade was replaced with the image of a young man in Tasman Central Authority uniform. "Diplomat Vissi? With respect, Diplomat, we cannot hold your flight more than another ten minutes. If you do not respond to this last notification--"

Maris laid her palm on the com panel. It didn't flash alarms yelling "Impostor! Impostor!"

"Diplomat Vissi!" The uniformed boy wiped his forehead. "Why didn't you respond before?"

Because I'm dead. The real Calandra was dead and the fake Calandra would be, any minute - unless -

"Shall I notify the shuttle crew that you're on your way?"

"Yes," Maris said in a voice tight with strain. "No - wait!" Her head was whirling. "I, I've forgotten which exit bay to go to."

"30-283-B, ma'am. Shall I send someone to escort you?"

"Please." Maris thought she had managed an appropriate tone of hauteur; she moved her hand to close the display. Johnivans would find it hard to arrange her "natural" death if she were being escorted to the shuttle by someone from Central.

Or would he just consider the escort as one more witness to dispose of? Don't be silly, even Johnivans can't get away with leaving a trail of corpses all over Tasman.

She hoped.

And the escort was already at the door; that boy who commed her must have had someone waiting in the hall. Probably it wouldn't do his career any good to be the one on watch when a Diplo missed her connection. Well, she'd do him a favor as well as herself.

"One moment!" Maris swept Calandra's personal belongings off the long shelf and into the black travel bag, jammed a few of the hanging clothes in on top, picked it up and prepared to act the part Johnivans had prepared for her. Surely she could pull it off long enough to reach exit bay 283 - board the shuttle - and then? Well, at least she'd be off Tasman. And once they reached Kalapriya, she'd shed Calandra's identity and lose herself on that world. A whole world had to be easier to hide in than a space station, and Johnivans would have no reason to kill her anyway. Once she'd boarded the shuttle as "Calandra", his worries about a missing Diplo would be over.

He could have thought of that. He could have given me that chance. No! No thinking; no feeling; just get to the exit bay. Maris nodded to the escort, handed him the black travel case to carry for her - surely a Diplo didn't carry her own luggage? - and followed him through the corridors of Tasman to the exit bay.

Copyright © 2004 by Margaret Ball


Reviews

There are currently no reviews for this novel. Be the first to submit one! You must be logged in to submit a review in the BookTrackr section above.


Images

No alternate cover images currently exist for this novel. Be the first to submit one!