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  1. Playing with Fire 12 JUN 2388 (Just before the Pakled Plant-Eaters Convention and the Great Blip of Aegis.) Ethan leaned on the table, the lung-battering pulse of EDM chiseling at his brain. Heads undulated like a rough sea on the dance floor below. The engineering that went into isolating the compartment, preventing the bass from bleeding across the station's frame, must have cost a penny or two. He could barely hear himself talk, much less think. Lifting his tumbler for a sip, he scanned the nearby faces. At the very least, the other patrons were too deafened or engrossed to eavesdrop. "Who is this snitch?" "I told you: private investigator," Gage answered irritably, hunched over and looking uptight as hell. The more he tried to avoid notice, the more people noticed him. Telling the guy to relax was about as helpful as pissing on a supernova. Gage could barely muster more than a vague “play it cool" before dragging Ethan to the club. Mercifully, Ethan's natural personality lent a bit of a my-angry-buddy-is-in-a-rough-patch vibe. It warded off most patrons, who only cared to rubberneck. He smiled casually, lifting his drink at yet another pair of curious passersby. "Yeah, no. What's his name?" "Jackie." "Just Jackie?" "Yeah. Not everyone has a last-name, you know," Gage retorted, only to crumble under Ethan's subtle frown. "Ok, so I didn't ask. ******* sue me." Ethan grunted scoffingly, cringing as he swallowed another mouthful of synthehol. He disliked it as much as alcohol. But when in Rome, you compromise a bit. "We're meeting him here: why?" "Her" — Gage hesitated — "sounded like a girl, I think. And this is where she said she’d be. She ‘likes the ‘atmosphere’ or some ****.” Ethan heard implications in that story. "What're we looking for?" Gage shrugged. "Beats me. She said she'd find us." "You didn't hire her," he fished. It was that, or he had just craigslisted the whole thing. "No. Your parents did." That surprised him, raising his brow a bit. Ethan knew they had paid a few investigators over the last year and a half to look for Rebecca. But this one's peculiar behavior would have provoked second thoughts about hiring. Maybe they didn't know. He glanced from the crowd to his watch. The time for their meeting had come and gone unmet. Plenty of theories why but little to ground or narrow them down. He mused whether she was a paranoiac, given the lack of information she volunteered. Maybe she wanted to observe from afar before she decided to approach. He glanced at Gage, puzzling over which of them would intimidate her more. “You have a way to track her down if she's a no-show?" Gage hesitated, a cringe betraying that he hadn't considered it. "Nope." Ethan hummed short of commenting on his cousin's haphazard way of doing things. Always charging like a blind linebacker. No changing it mid-play. Tossing back the last swig, Ethan spotted her in the crowd over the rim of the glass. She wiggled her fingers in a wave at him. He just about choked. “Hey, look. It’s your favorite rapist," Gage quipped. "Oh, and she has a friend.” The so-called friend had just lip-locked a ring of five guests before wrapping an unearthly arm around the Bajoran. Freely sharing saliva was unremarkable these days. Evolve enough humanoid species in an ever-expanding universe, and eventually, someone's culture would hello or goodbye you on the mouth without hesitation. A bit like the French and their old-world cheek-kissing. Or that resort-planet, Risa: because hedonism loves company — or just a lot of bodies. But the intimate way the Bajoran's companion held her as they bussed and whispered in each other's ears definitely went beyond a new-age Faire la bise. Abruptly, the pair aimed at them, wearing giant smiles. Gage's expression fell, echoing his dread. “****, that can’t be good," Gage said. "You're gonna have to tell them off." Ethan blinked. "What?" "After I told Jackie you were coming, she said she'd back out if anyone else showed up." He remarked dryly, "Should tell me these things before they happen." "I just did," Gage snarked incredulously. "Doesn't count." "Come on, cuz! Don't hang me out." "I'm not. You tell them off." He clapped Gage's shoulder. "I've got your back." "I can't. People like me. But look at you: you're cold as ******* ice right now. Born-*******-natural at being unfriendly. And I don't want to ruin my chances later." Gage mumbled the last part, but Ethan heard it. He couldn't help the flat stare that drove Gage to shift uncomfortably. "What? I can shop the market. I'm divorced." More accurately, devour all the sample trays at the grocer. Now it made sense: why it took him all this time to track his daughter and her mother of a kidnapper. That was the unkind thought Ethan had to shove down, at any rate. He focused on the pair of approaching women instead. Or possibly a man and a woman. "Is that a dude?" Gage blurted. So he saw it, too, the way the companion's facial structure seemed to morph between masculine and feminine beneath the assorted lighting. The hips swayed exaggeratedly as s/he walked. Otherwise, s/he presented a curveless, spindly figure in a skintight black gown and towered like someone who had matured under a fraction of Earth's gravity. The big gray and pink irises, achromic complexion, and cropped hair — not just hair: feathers or scales — popped in the blacklights. Contrasted by pitch-dark sclera and body tattoos etched in the blackest ink that gave the illusion nothing held the bright parts together. "Oh, that's creepy as ****," Gage drawled a bit too close to earshot for comfort. The Brobdingnagian pulled up at their table across from Ethan and took stock of the men, vacant chairs, and surroundings. "I assume this is where you want us to sit? With our backs to the door?" Cynicism shaded the question, despite the attempt at maintaining a practiced urbanity. She spoke Standard, accented by a native tongue with fewer phonemes, in a high-pitched and delicate timbre by human standards. Or he or however they wanted to identify. But Ethan understood why Gage had thought it sounded effeminate. It was easier for him to follow in his head that way, at any rate. "Yes." It took a second for Gage to glare at him the inevitable: what the **** are you doing?! "I suppose it can't be helped. Hello, Gage." She flummoxed him with a pat on his cheek and took a seat next to him. "Well, it seems that one of you is smart, and one of you is — mmm — passably handsome." Ethan paid little to the remark, glancing narrowly at the Bajoran as she slipped into the remaining chair between him and her companion. He had tensed for a moment, expecting to fend off another round of molesting. But the woman who accosted him yesterday just sat there. Uncharacteristically quiet, almost demure, and content to drape from her companion's taller shoulder. As much for closeness as balance, given her unsteadiness and the smell of fruity cocktails. While he appreciated the lack of attention—aside from her leering—it felt off. Ethan slouched back, hanging his left arm over the back of the chair. The gears in Gage's brain clicked. "Wait. You're Jackie?" "Yes. I am," Jackie confirmed and looked at Ethan. "Before we get to business, why don't you tell me how you made me?" "Why the **** does that mat—" Jackie held her palm to Gage's face. "Quid pro quo. From one professional to another. Please, regale me." The seconds ticked by as they stared at each other. Gage twitched. He never had the patience to sit out these silent spells. "Dude, tell her so we can ******* get on with this ****." Ethan's gaze dropped to the neon drink in her hand. He tipped his empty tumbler on the tabletop in her direction. "Don't smell like alcohol." Bit of irony in the history of synthehol. Invented by Ferengi, who used it to dupe clientele drink-for-drink into making deals while drunk. One day, corporate spies busted the secret, and an entire galaxy of potential business victims fell in love with it, opening an unintended and far more lucrative market. Ferengi got over that injury pretty fast. Until Bajoran synthale entered the scene, which lit off a bit of a rivalry. He remembered one who considered it near-unholy for religious people to invent non-alcoholic drinks solely for promoting sobriety. Sacrilegious in the face of profits, maybe. All synthetic ethanol benefited from the taste, smell, and feel of the real thing without the inebriating effect. Most humanoids could overindulge and never reach a buzz. The appeal baffled Ethan. Some thought it milder than ethanol, but he found the stuff just as unpleasant. Overwhelmingly bitter and often accompanied by a burn that flooded the nose like chlorinated water after a bad dive. Friends would ask if he could taste the spice in this or the sweetness in that. It all fell flat behind the alcoholic or vomitus sapor. Over the years, he had come to appreciate that inability to "savor the bouquet." It likely saved him from developing an alcoholic habit common to his profession. More than he could say for the Bajoran at the table. He wondered whether she knew what her situation suggested — what Jackie had in store for her. Gage boldly sniffed Jackie's glass. "Smells like it to me." "Her breath." "Whatever," Gage tossed back, eyes rolling and folding his arms. A few humanoids in any species, people blessed with those uncommon receptors, could tell synthehol and alcohol apart. But it didn't take an evolutionary superpower. While both left a temporary scent in the mouth, synthetics and ethanol metabolized divergently. Drinking the real stuff faster than the body could process it allowed some unmetabolized excess to enter the blood. Ethanol circulating to the lungs meant most humanoids exhaled it, producing that distinct, mildly sweet breath no mint could hide. Jackie's smelled untainted. Maybe a bit onion-like. Assuming she didn't have some rare gene, either the glass contained something synthetic, or she had a motive to nurse that drink fiercely. He had a fifty-fifty chance at guessing that part correctly, but the crux rested in her desire to stay sober. It also took one to know one, and both could spot a poser. Sorry — rookie. She tended to paint her target with body language and gaze, among other things. But something about her made him reluctant to give her pointers. Their mutual scrutiny had grown severe the longer they stared. For only tenths of a second, the skin of Jackie's face rippled upward into a few hundred feather-like scales, revealing depthless black underneath, and smoothed back to seamlessness. Probably the most patent microexpression he had ever seen. It reminded Ethan of a startled bird. "What the ****?" Gage breathed in recoil, drawing glances from both. Ethan glimpsed the server trolling the seated area in his periphery as he stopped and surveyed the tables. Then, with the rapidity of a shark that smelled blood, the server stood next to him. "Need a refill?" "Uh, yeah. Water, thanks." After the others shook their heads, the server smiled and withdrew with the tumbler. Jackie revealed a mouthful of perfect teeth as she gushed velvety laughter. "It seems we think alike: you and I." He smirked wryly. Gage slapped the table. "Ok, spy hard convention's over. Where's my daughter?" "That's not the first order of business," she replied smoothly. "First, we will discuss my fee—" "The **** we will. You were already paid." "I'm afraid your case has cost me more than I anticipated. I need passage off Aegis." "Passage is free," Ethan interjected. "For citizens." She glared at him, a yellow sheen in her eyes. "And those who don't care about leaving a record." Ethan scoffed under a half-smirk. “How much?” “One bar of latinum.” "The ****?!" Gage’s fist slammed the tabletop, the vein throbbing in his forehead. “We’re talking about my kid!” "You're not the only client who wants results," she shot back. "The people who took your daughter are very difficult and dangerous to track down. Some of us can't operate off charity." Distain curled the corner of her lips. "You *****—" Gage lept to his feet, toppling the chair behind him. The impact of Ethan's shoulder to Gage's mouth muffled whatever else came next. "Hey!" Ethan barked, pressing backward from the table. "Cool it." The upturned chair nearly tripped Gage. He wrestled against the grip Ethan had on his shirt. Struggled to regain his footing and counter. Gage's half-drunken state made it easier to manhandle him. Ethan had pushed him several tables away before Gage could dig in enough to break free. Patrons looked on with wide eyes, but none attempted to intervene. "******* stop!" Gage dabbed his lower lip, a film of blood on the end of his finger, thumping Ethan's. "What the ***, Ethan?" "Not going to work this way, Gage," he cautioned, sidestepping to block Gage from going back with opened hands in the air. "******* rich," Gage laughed as he spun in agitation, jabbing toward Jackie. "That ***** is holding Rebecca hostage for more ******* money, and I'm starting to get the impression you still don't give a ****." "Wouldn't be here if I didn't care," Ethan said flatly, cutting any chance to air old grudges about the last time Gage asked for help. "Listen, fighting with her isn't going to get you answers. You can't save Rebecca from jail." His cousin deflated, tension giving way to anxiety. He chafed at his face and head. "Where am I going to get a ******* bar of latinum? I don't have a hundred thousand ******* credits. Emptied my bank just to fuel up. I'm ******* broke!" "I know. I'll take care of it. Just do me a favor and go get your ship ready." He flashed a small but confident smile. "No, I'm her dad," Gage stabbed a finger at his own chest, hissing through his teeth as his eyes glistened. "I should be the one—" "You will be. You will be," Ethan assured, squeezing his shoulder. "This is just the pregame. Get the ship ready. We need to leave sooner rather than later." Gage mulled it over for a second before heaving a sigh. "What are you gonna do?" "Whatever I have to," he promised. "But that's going to be a lot harder with you here." "****," Gage spat, cuffing the crown of his head. "Don't worry." He squeezed again. "I've got your back." After tossed a grudging, "******* better," Gage left without causing more of a scene. In his wake, Ethan took a moment to breathe and collect his thoughts. Someone had uprighted the chair, and the Bajoran had disappeared by the time he returned to his seat. "What happened to your friend?" "Her name is Sovana," Jackie stressed, "and she went to the toilet." The straw from her drink swayed near the corner of her mouth. She held it pinched between her fingers like a cigarette while she assessed him with an amused expression. "Quite the feat you performed over there. The server brought your drink while you were gone. I told them you had everything under control. I see I wasn't wrong." Ethan glanced at the glass and decided he felt unthirsty. "He's lucky you're here to temper him. He's a very angry man," she said of Gage. It struck Ethan as off-hand and unwelcome. "I suppose that's reasonable in his situation. But no one in my profession wants to work with him after the last contact." She caught the rise in Ethan's brow, adding: "Ah, so he didn't tell you. Well, let's just say that one of my colleagues is a coward—" "You accept credits?" He held up a PADD, and her countenance flattened like he had dropped a bomb. She fished out hers—who knew from where in that fitted gown—and swiped upward with the straw still in hand. A request for mobile payment blipped on his screen. "Send it there." "Five grand," he said flatly. "The rest after we verify your intel." "That's fair." Not as desperate as she claimed. She agreed to it too quickly. That she could keep clients or earn decent reviews with extortion sounded improbable. He wondered what had inspired her to shakedown a grieving father and felt her stare boring a hole in his head while he typed. "You know what they say about Jack?" she asked. "No, who's Jack?" "All work and no play?" Her simpering soured at his indifference. "The Shining?" "What's that?" "You do watch Human movies, don't you?" He preferred reading and didn't feel like discussing his hobbies. "No." Her device chimed at the completed transfer, and she scrolled as she mused aloud. "I watched a lot of your movies when I was learning Standard. I particularly enjoyed psychological horror." She paused to grin at him. Good to know, he mused ironically. "There," she said, "I've sent you a copy of everything I have on Rebecca." He stuffed the PADD in his pocket. "Thanks. Check it later." His plan to leave then derailed as he caught sight of the Bajoran, plodding a (mostly) straight route to the table. He inclined his head, drawing Jackie's gaze over her shoulder. "What's Sovana on?" "On? Ah. She said that she wanted to have an extra good time when we make love tonight. So I let her try some of my stash before we came here. Q, what I would give for one of my smokes right now!" A shiver ruffled her scales, and she blew dramatically out of the corner of her mouth. "But, of course, your Federation doesn't allow smoking in public spaces." Ethan stared blankly, and Jackie pointed at him with an underscoring chuckle. "I saw how she abused you yesterday. You should thank me for taking her off you. I like her." She added with a shrug, "It's a shame that she has a bounty." "Bounty?" She frowned. "Allegedly, she slept with some alien matriarch's fifth husband and failed to appear for the trial. His story starts a bit like yours, actually. But, as they say, 'innocent before guilty.'" She smiled to herself. "Who knows, this could be the beginning of a charming relationship." Ethan said nothing, resting a hand over his mouth and jaw. She spoke so openly that he began to doubt his suspicions, but that quiet feeling persisted. Bounty hunting skipped bails was legal in the Federation, he reasoned. Sovana, the Bajoran, managed to reach the table on her feet and nuzzled Jackie. "Let's leave now, Quee." "Yes, ja'ahkayah." She patted Sovana's hand with a faint grin and looked at Ethan. "We're done here, right?" Ethan briefly lifted the hand from his face in agreement. He couldn't say he felt sad to see them leave. Sovana had other ideas and pitched across the table, sending the tumbler of water in a slide he barely stopped. "You can come, too, Lieutenant," she purred, caressing his chest. Fortunately, her condition had her too awkward to do much else. "Sovana, you promised it would be just the two of us tonight." Jackie pried her up, looping an arm around her. Stronger than she looked, given how easily she supported the more buxom Bajoran. "Ok," Sovana bobbed sloppily. "But I want him to come tomorrow." Jackie pressed her lips to suppress the laugh that puffed her cheeks. "I'm sure he'd love to," she said, the patronizing tone lost on the drunk. She winked at Ethan as if to say: Look, I saved you again. It irritated him. She steered the pair for the exit, twisting a few steps into it and contorting in a swipe at her PADD. "Here. Something extra for your trouble. From one professional to another." Then she carried on, moving quickly despite the deadweight hanging off her side. He watched them merge down the short staircase into the crowd on the dance floor. His skin crawled at what had unfolded. The product of a hundred and fifty planets and a half-million diverse cultures in the most hedonistic and sexually liberal century to date. Trillions of law-abiding citizens freely living their lives how they wanted. Not the first time he had run into someone with values that didn't mirror his. He defended basic freedom. He didn't have to like everything they did with it. The PADD in his pocket shuddered a second time, finally rousing him to fish it out. The last message Jackie sent contained a single black playing card. Ethan recognized the metallic logo of a syndicate called the Band of Blackout Brothers. Nearly impossible to track, almost fabled, and most certainly at odds with the Federation. He felt a chill. No one could get ahold of these cards without trading blood for their trust. That she possessed one painted Jackie in a dubious light at best. He flipped it over. Aces. Highest priority and risk: biggest payout. Several million credits worth that devalued with time to up the ante. He blinked, but his face was still there, staring back in holographic definition. Bold white letters flashed his name across the bottom, underscored by a warning in red: Former Special Forces. Wanted: dead. Ethan's jaw flexed, the temperature dropping around him further as he read the timestamp near the countdown. Just hours after he requested leave. It hit him all at once. Not Jackie. A misquote of Jah Quee. That elusive Chameloid from the Deck of 52. She weighed a five among the most wanted when they added her in 2244. Never climbed or dropped in the reshuffle. Higher targets got all the task forces, and lesser ones practically stumbled into cuffs daily. Everyone joked she was so average that she couldn't even get out of the deck after she had likely died of old age. They couldn't have gone far. Ethan half-vaulted the table, gave the crowd a hasty scan before he sprinted onto the dance floor. He forced his way through a dozen patrons. Ignored the shouts and brushed off the few who got pushy. He hadn't thought to ask from where Sovana had skipped bond. But the Blackouts operated in places far outside the Federation, and he could think of one staunchly matriarchal society that would want her head shipped on ice. They would mount her on a stake as an example. No fair trial awaited, not even the sham of one. Say by some anomaly the male half of the affair had consented: he didn't possess the rights to defend her. No doubt, given her behavior, she had brought it on herself through hubris or folly. But Ethan couldn't let someone just abduct and murder her. The idea went against everything he believed, the fundamental right he had fought and sacrificed harder than ever to preserve in the last year. He rushed through the lobby into the passageway, threading between clusters of people to the nearest junction. Then he backtracked to the opposite side. "Scheiße," he gritted, panting as he propped a hand against the joint of the bulkheads. He lost them.