Lash Larabie rolled his eyes and crumbled the piece of paper in his hand. "They're fucking insane," he muttered. The bird perched on the back of the chair next to him cocked its head. "What?" he asked it. It squawked at him. "Whatever. Tell them I got it covered, or whatever it is you do. You're not a pigeon, are you? I thought pigeons were used as messengers." Lash rubbed his face. "Look at me. Stressed out already and nothing's even happened yet. You tell them I want hazard pay for the toll this is taking on my health. Got it, birdie? Get the fuck out of here."
The bird took off. It was definitely too big to be a pigeon.
Lash looked at his watch. He had two hours, maybe more. The ships to and from Lyric ran notoriously slow, second only to the massive traffic on Walden City. He ordered another cup of coffee and went back to his newspaper. He hated newspapers. He wondered why he even bothered. The news was never good, and there was so much that no one piece got the attention it deserved. And the smell of the ink and paper made him cross eyed. He wasn't too fond of the black ink all over his fingers either, but for some reason, that little diner didn't sell electronic slates like everywhere else. Something about nostalgia or some bullshit like that. Every once in a while, though, he would come across something he might not have found in one of the more region specific slates. Little tidbits like the latest news from Junket that Vinny Vea had finally passed away after a long illness and the city of Crossgrove was turning into black goo as a result. It was true that Vinny was dead. But he hadn't been ill, and the city wasn't turning to goo. It had always been goo.
After two hours, and three more cups of coffee, Lash made his way down to the dock. A ship called Golden Sunrise was scheduled to pull into dock number twelve in the next fifteen minutes, but there was a delay. A junky little shuttle called Bladerunner couldn't get its engines going, and the pilot couldn't find a competent engineer. Eventually, a tug ship dragged Bladerunner out of the dock, and an hour behind schedule, Golden Sunrise pulled in. Lash took out the small electronic slate his employers had sent, via the bird, and studied the pictures of the two people he was looking for. The boy was about twenty-one with blonde hair and pretty, dark blue eyes. He looked amazingly like Valeska Falkenberg's husband, but Lash had been told the boy's name was Tsyplakov. Of course, he didn't think his employer was being altogether honest about everything, so he didn't believe that the kid wasn't a Falkenberg. He was being paid enough that it didn't matter. Then again, if the Falkenbergs ever decided they wanted to find their missing son, Lash was sure he had a good head start.
The woman looked to be somewhere in her mid-thirties. She had long dark hair and dark eyes. The only name Lash had for her was Kitsune. Lash had asked his employer if the two were lovers. His employer had been silent for a few minutes, and then answered, "They should be." He had asked around on Walden City about the two thieves and had gotten very little. They had been working together for about five years, and they were both very good at what they did. They hung out sometimes at a bar called High Spirits. The boy was a pool hustler as well and was good enough to have beaten Blackeye Hart, who had once been the best hustler in the universe until he mysteriously disappeared after a trip to Walden City. Lash thought that was suspicious but left it alone. It was easy enough to conclude that there had been a fight and that the kid had killed Hart. The bartender, Jack Roark, hadn't had much to say, and Lash had left Walden City feeling pretty hopeless. His employer was tightlipped about what was really going on, and Lash felt uncomfortable about the whole thing. He was a bounty hunter after all, and here he was being asked to make sure a couple of thieves got away with a big job. It didn't make sense. But then, there was the money again. And a lot of it.
Golden Sunrise was stuffed to the gills with tourists from Aria, most of whom were immediately heading towards the shuttle to Solo to tour the Museum of Antiquities. The crush of bodies was so thick that Lash was afraid he wouldn't notice his thieves disembark, but Tsyplakov stood out like a sore thumb. He was at least a head taller than anyone else in the crowd. While the rest of the people pushed and bumped and stumbled, he slid through the throng with grace, picking a few pockets as he went. Much to Lash's relief, Tsyplakov didn't head for the shuttle. Instead, he headed for the terminal. The only problems Lash could see were that Tsyplakov carried no luggage and he was alone.
Lash scanned the docks for Kitsune, but unlike her partner, she blended into the crowd. If she was even there at all. Fortunately, Lash had had the foresight to ask which of them he should be more concerned with. The answer, not surprisingly, had been Tsyplakov, so Lash headed towards the terminal.
The terminal was fairly empty compared to the docks outside. Most people bought their passage well in advance, as it was difficult, if not impossible, to book at the last second. There were mostly tourists asking for maps, pilots lounging while their ships refueled and maintenance people milling around. On the east end of the terminal were several rows of lockers, used mostly by pilots and the crews of the ships. Lash spotted Tsyplakov moving in that direction. He paused at a customer service desk and asked for a map of Solo. The transaction took less than a minute. Tsyplakov should have still been in sight, but when Lash turned away from the desk, Tsyplakov was gone.
"Shit," Lash muttered.
He headed for the lockers anyway, thinking maybe he had just mistimed things a little. If Tsyplakov had no luggage, he probably had had something stashed away. Unless of course, he was making Kitsune carry the bags. When he reached the lockers, there was one pilot stuffing a poorly packed duffle bag into a locker. Lash figured he'd ask.
"Excuse me," he said. "Have you seen a tall blonde man around here?"
The pilot stopped stuffing and looked over his shoulder at Lash. "Today?" he asked.
"Yeah, just a few minutes ago, actually."
"He looks like this." Lash showed the pilot the picture.
The pilot studied the picture. A slow grin spread across his face. "He's hot. Wish I had seen him. Sorry, pal. Guess it's not your lucky day." He gave the duffle bag one last shove. It finally went in, and he closed the locker.
"He was just here. I just saw him."
The pilot shrugged and walked away.
"Damn it, I knew this was gonna be harder than it needs to be." Lash sighed and turned to go back out to the dock. Tsyplakov was standing right in front of him. He stumbled back against the lockers and put his hand on his chest. "Don't do that! God, I need that hazard pay already. You damn near gave me a heart attack."
"Lay off the caffeine, Mr. Larabie. That might help," Tsyplakov said.
"What? How do you know who I am? I was following you. How the hell did you end up following me?"
Tsyplakov gave him such a charming smile that Lash was stunned into silence. Then he leaned towards Lash and said, "Don't ever try to tail a psychic. It doesn't work."
"Great. More things my employer didn't bother to tell me."
"If you'll excuse me, you're standing in front of the locker I need."
"Oh. Sorry." Lash moved a few feet to his right. As he watched, Tsyplakov opened the locker, pulled out a backpack and two duffle bags, and then he closed the locker and began to walk away. "Hey, wait a second."
"I'm on a timetable, Mr. Larabie. I don't have a second to wait."
"But - "
"If you wish to continue to follow me, please do so, but keep your distance. You might start to look strange after a while. Please tell your employer not to worry."
"So you know who my employer is."
"No more than you do. However, I can tell that he's quite concerned. He needn't be. I know what I'm doing. We'll be on the latest shuttle that runs to Solo. I'm sure I'll see you then. Have a good afternoon, Mr. Larabie."
Tsyplakov stepped out of the terminal and turned a corner before Lash could get a good sense of where he was headed. When Lash got to that corner, the kid was gone. He stood there, scanning the crowd and wondering if he should tell his employer about that incident. He felt someone standing behind him. He started to turn around, thinking it was Tsyplakov playing tricks on him again. Hands clamped down on his shoulders so hard that his teeth rattled.
"Aw, you lost the pretty."
"Get the hell off me," Lash said. He grabbed a wrist and yanked the hand away from his shoulder. The man moved around in front of him and stared him down with smoky green eyes and a wicked grin. "Who the fuck are you?"
"I'm a friend of Nick's."
"A real good friend. I don't want you to hurt my pretty friend. That's my job. And I don't want you getting in his way. So you can keep following him, but I'll be following you."
"I don't know what the hell you're talking about, creep, but you need to back out of my personal space. Four feet, all around, right? Got it?"
The spark in the smoky green eyes went flat with bewilderment.
"I don't think you're his friend anyway, much less a real good friend. So you might want to reconsider telling me to leave him alone."
"You're going to be a problem, I can tell. Good thing my job is taking care of problems."
The creep took a step and then was gone.
"Shit. A Slider," Lash muttered. He headed to the nearest police station to see if he could find out who the Slider was. He didn't think he would tell his employer about the Slider. That might make things harder. It would be nice to know anyway. Unfortunately, he came up empty. Sliders couldn't leave their home planet of Destiny without risking getting themselves torn apart by the chutes that made space travel possible. So when he asked the local law enforcement officials about any Sliders that might be on the wanted list, he got blank looks and a few laughs. The creep was trouble enough as it was. A Slider who managed to get off Destiny had to be really bad news.
Lash sighed and went back to the dock to check the shuttle schedule. He had roughly five hours before the last shuttle left for Solo. He headed back to the diner, picked up the newspaper again and ordered water.
"Where the hell have you been?" Kitsune blurted out as soon as Nick closed the door of the room Archer had reserved for them in what was supposed to be a romantic inn. There were roses in a pink vase on the bedside table and an assortment of body oils and massaging implements in the cabinet underneath that. Nick just stared at her and dropped the bags. "You were supposed to be here an hour ago."
"I made a slight detour," he said.
"What the fuck for? Didn't you think I'd be worried about you? Last time you took a slight detour, you were gone for two whole months."
"Everything's fine. I was being followed."
"It's nothing. A harmless bounty hunter."
"Bounty hunters are not harmless, Nikolai."
"It was Lash Larabie."
"Oh. He's ... he's one of the best in the business!"
"But he's harmless. And there's no bounty out on either of us. I checked. Someone hired him to keep an eye on us."
"I don't know. I could guess, but I honestly don't care."
"No. He's got Ghostshadow following us."
"I don't get it. Why would there be anyone else in the universe who wants to keep an eye on us? Oh wait. I forgot. You won't tell me all your secrets, so I bet it's got something to do with your family. You probably wrote a letter to your dad telling him you'd be away for a while and he probably freaked out and decided to have you followed."
"Not after I've been gone for seven years. It isn't my dad. I don't know how he'd explain that to my mother anyway. She probably still hasn't noticed that I ran away."
"So this doesn't concern you in the least little way?"
"Concern me, yes. Do I want to do anything about it? No. I could ask him, and he wouldn't know what to tell me. He met the man once. He would tell me it was an old blind man who said his name was Rowen. That means nothing to me. I don't know an old blind man named Rowen."
"He probably wasn't old and blind when you knew him."
"I don't know anyone named Rowen."
"Maybe we should tell Esterhazy."
"No. I'm sure he knows. If Ghostshadow was following me, he had to have noticed Larabie."
"If you say so."
Kitsune sat down on the bed. "Are we really sure we can get away with this?"
Nick sat down next to her. "Do you think we can't?"
"No one's ever tried to rob the museum before."
"That doesn't mean it can't be done."
"And what about Esterhazy? Should we trust him?"
"No, of course not. He'll have us killed as soon as we put the jewel in his hands."
"So we're not gonna put it in his hands, are we?"
"No. We can't."
"Then why are we doing this?"
"Because the jewel can help us both. I can't stray from this path now."
"But he'll have us hunted down until he gets it back."
"That's why I'm not worried about Larabie following us. If he's been hired to protect us, that's what he'll do."
"I'd still like to know how Esterhazy knew about our job on Brandenburg. And how he seemed to know who you really are."
"He employs at least one psychic, and I'm sure he has enough connections to cover what Seren can't see for him. And he may be bluffing about knowing who my family is. It's hard to read a dead man's eyes."
"We should start getting ready. We'll have to wait forever for that shuttle, and I'd hate to miss it."
The throng at the docks hadn't thinned out any by early evening. There was still a steady stream of people getting off ships and getting on ships. They poured towards the shuttle to Solo and oozed around the docks, meeting relatives and friends or scampering away to business meetings or political events or whatever it was that brought them to Lyric. Nick and Kitsune had waited for almost two hours to get on the last shuttle and were fortunate enough to be among the first to board. The security check getting on the shuttle was lax, as Archer's intelligence data had said. Two bored looking guards stood at the gate, eyeing everyone who passed, occasionally pulling someone to the side for a pat down and bag check, but only because that was part of the job description, not because any one of the passengers they marked looked in the least suspicious. The first handful of passengers got even less of a look. The guards had just gotten on their shifts and weren't ready to do much more than let people pass. A stewardess walked up and down the aisles with a tired smile, checking seatbelts and searching for suspicious looking handbags or bulging pockets. Everything was in order, and they launched.
The flight to the moon Solo took about two hours. Nick took the time to scan the flight for Lash and Ghostshadow, but neither of them were on board. No one else even remotely looked interesting, though he kept getting the sinking feeling that he was going to run into someone he used to know. On Walden City, that was less of a problem. As soon as they started to venture away from Walden City, the chance that he would be recognized sky rocketed. Of course, the last time anyone saw him, he was fourteen. He was quite a bit taller and a little more filled out. His voice had settled into itself, and he knew the look in his eyes wasn't the same. Still, anything could happen, though nobles didn't tend to tour with commoners. He was just being paranoid was all it was, but the feeling wouldn't go away. He could almost hear someone calling out his full name and waving cheerfully to a long lost friend.
To get his mind off that, he closed his eyes and mentally went over the blueprints of the Museum of Antiquities. The Shikkongou was off in its own little wing without much else around it. It was sealed in an airtight glass case, surrounded by a laser grid and watched by remote cameras. It was the most precious artifact in the museum. Archeologists weren't sure of the nature of the thing, though it was in some way linked to Talon and the Shaman star. They knew that because it was made out of the same strange metal as the shell casings from Talon's guns that had been found on Xebec and the two crosses out in a field on Xebec that marked two graves where unknown bodies lay.
The Shikkongou itself was a sphere about three inches in diameter with a hole in one surface that was a little over a half an inch wide, just big enough to press an eye to. There was nothing outwardly fancy about it aside from the swirling blue lines in the surface of the silvery metal. There were no inscriptions, no clues as to who made it or how or why. Inside the Shikkongou was what was called the jewel of blind vision. No one had actually seen a jewel of any kind, but upon looking into the small hole, people would see all manner of things, from their greatest desires to their worst fears. When the Shikkongou had first arrived at the Museum of Antiquities seven years ago, tourists had been allowed to look into it. That lasted until someone saw something that frightened him so badly he had a stroke and died instantly. So the curators had placed it in a glass case after setting it on a pedestal that was roughly at eye level for the average adult male human. Some people could catch glimpses of visions when they walked by, but not enough to cause strokes. The curators of the museum hadn't bothered to ask Talon anything about the Shikkongou, and those few curious people lucky enough to have a conversation with the reclusive hero were usually told something along the lines of, "I've never seen it." Which of course was true. Talon had been completely blind since long before the Shikkongou made its way to the Museum of Antiquities. Nick opened his eyes with a start as the beginnings of some thought stirred in his mind, but he dismissed it before it could form any more coherently. It didn't make sense, but that was probably why he could've been right. Either way, he had more pressing concerns.
The security check going into the Museum of Antiquities was a little more careful than the one at the docks. All bags went through a scanner and all passengers went through a metal detector. Kitsune watched the backpack they had brought nervously, but it went through fine. It had a special monofilament mesh sewn into the lining of the bag that distorted the scanner and made it look as if the bag contained only ordinary tourist items. She waited for someone to pick up on the fact that the scan looked a little fuzzier than the rest and to open the bag just to make sure, but no one seemed to notice. She plucked the bag off the conveyor belt and slung it over her shoulder. She turned around to wait for Nick.
Nick passed under the metal detector, and it beeped. Kitsune felt her heart leap into her mouth. He caught her eyes as he was pulled aside, telling her to go on without him. She dashed away to keep up with the tour group and tried not to look back over her shoulder.
The security guard who yanked Nick out of the line didn't look very happy to have to deal with someone who had set off the metal detector. Nick hoped the search wouldn't take long. He wasn't sure what had triggered the alarm. The guard patted him down first. "Anything in your pockets?" he asked.
"Yes. Identification papers. I have a light gem in my left pocket."
The guard pulled the papers from Nick's back pocket and looked through them. Nothing there seemed to catch his interest. He refolded the papers and put the back in Nick's pocket. "A light gem, you say?" he asked.
"Yes. It was a gift from my great grandmother. She gave it to me when she died. I've kept it with me ever since."
The guard reached into Nick's left pocket and pulled the light gem out, just enough so that he could see it and no one else could tell what he had found. "An uncut one, too. Very rare. No wonder you don't leave it anywhere."
"It means a lot to me."
The guard dropped the light gem back into Nick's pocket. "That shouldn't set off the metal detector. Anything else?"
"All right, go through again."
The line was stopped as the guard led Nick around the side of the metal detector. Nick passed through, and it went off again. The guard pulled him aside again, patted him down again and went over him with a hand held metal detector. It went off as the guard passed it over the back of Nick's neck. "Do you have any parts?" the guard asked. "Metal plates in the head, that kind of thing?"
"Come with me, please."
Nick tried to appear far more agitated than he was at the inconvenience of being pulled off the tour for what had to be a malfunctioning device. Any normal tourist had the right to be pissed, so he played the part. He complained bitterly while he was strip-searched. He refused to answer questions about the scars on his back, telling them that what he did in the privacy of his own bedroom was none of their business. That made them a little less eager to touch him, which made him just a tad bit less uncomfortable. A guard checked his naked body with a hand held detector, and it again went off at the back of his neck. He wondered if he had somehow been bugged, but there was nothing on the surface of his skin. They put in a call to the head security guard, who came with his bright-eyed assistant. The head security guard scrutinized the back of Nick's neck until he felt like he should be an exhibit in the museum. His only real worry was that Kitsune would end up having to pull the job by herself. Not that she couldn't. They had the right tools, and they had planned carefully. Not so carefully that they weren't prepared for mishaps, but carefully enough to cover all the contingencies.
Then the bright-eyed assistant said, "Have you been touched by a healer witch lately?"
The other guards looked at her as if she had grown a second head and that head was making faces at them.
"Yes," Nick said.
"Sometimes the static charge builds up where the worst part of the injury was. This looks like maybe you had a little whiplash, torn muscles, slipped disks, cracked vertebrae."
"You just need to discharge the build up. Here, let me." She pressed her fingers to the spot where the metal detector kept going off. Nick felt something prickle. He shivered, remembering Ghostshadow's touch. "That should do it. Check him again."
Nick was checked once more, and that time, the metal detector didn't go off. Nick rubbed the back of his neck as the guards filed out so he could dress in private.
By the time Nick rejoined the tour group, they had passed through the ancient life forms section and the antiquated technologies section and were just about to leave the section on the history of space travel. He lagged behind until Kitsune noticed him, and she waited for him while the tour went through the entertainment section. There were oohs and aahs over the high definition plasma television screens and the super fast computers that hooked up to a now useless library of information called the Internet.
"What was that all about?" Kitsune asked when the tour had left them far enough behind that no one would hear their conversation.
"Static electricity," Nick said.
"I had a build up of static electricity in the back of my neck from Ghostshadow healing me."
"So it wasn't anything to worry about?"
"No. They didn't ask a lot of questions. They just wanted the metal detector to stop going off so they could go back to not doing their jobs."
"Still, they know you were here. You'll be the first one they question in the morning."
"Change of plan, then."
"Don't make me do this alone."
"I won't leave you, but I need to be seen going back to Lyric. I'll take care of the cameras and the grid and keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. That way you can just worry about getting the Shikkongou out of the case and getting back out."
"We did bring the earpieces, didn't we?"
"We have new ones."
"Are we sure they're clean?"
"Esterhazy doesn't want to listen to us work. He just wants the fruits of our labor."
While the tour group was distracted by the guide's enthusiastic description of early twenty-first century special effects technology in the movie industry, Nick took a few things from the backpack and put the light gem and his identification papers in the bag. If for some reason, he got caught, it was wiser to not have those things on him. He put in the earpiece and handed a second one to Kitsune. He studied the things in his hands. One looked like a camera and was supposed to disable the security cameras and feed the monitoring stations still pictures of each area that would appear live enough that the guards in the control room shouldn't notice the difference. The second looked like a pack of chewing gum, but instead of sticks of gum, each wrapper contained a strip of the same mesh that lined the inside of the backpack. If he placed one on each of the walls around the Shikkongou, they would disrupt the laser grid without actually disrupting the device that generated the grid. It would look as if it were in perfect working order. In all, it seemed like good equipment, but he had learned long ago not to trust fancy devices to do his job for him. If he had to disable the cameras and the grid from the control room, he could. In fact, he planned on stopping by the control room just to make sure things worked the way they were supposed to.
After three more areas of general interest, the tour passed through the wing where the Shikkongou was on display. The tour guide stopped just outside of the wing where no one could actually see the Shikkongou and delivered her spiel in a slow, calculated manner that built up the anticipation and made the thing seem even more special than it was. Nick squeezed himself between a few people at the edge of the entrance, craning his neck to get a better look. He pressed his hand to the wall, and the disrupting mesh was in place. Fortunately, it didn't look like chewing gum.
A velvet rope cordoned off the area around the Shikkongou to keep people from getting too close to the glass case and the laser grid, but they still walked past it relatively closely. Nick managed to drop another strip of the mesh right in front of it as he passed. He tried to avoid looking at the eyehole. He couldn't quite see it anyway, but as he walked by, he saw a flash of blue and felt a chill stutter slowly up his spine. He paused, but the crowd shoved him forward. He held onto the wall as he moved away from the Shikkongou, as if he needed desperately to look a little longer. Part of him did, but in a few hours, he would have the whole thing in his hands and could look as long as he wanted. Another disrupting mesh was in place.
As soon as the last tourist had passed by the Shikkongou, Nick pressed the button on the camera device. It made a sound like a fuse shorting out. He didn't think it was supposed to make that kind of sound. He shoved it in his pocket and followed the rest of the herd to the gift shop. He bought a post card with a picture of the engine car of what had once been called the fastest train in the universe and sent it to his father.
Kitsune spotted the bathroom and headed towards it, letting her hand brush Nick's thigh as she passed by him. He didn't look at her, but she could feel the slight rise in his body temperature. She wondered if she could ever get him to admit that his feelings for her were more than just friendship. Sometimes, she wondered if that was even the case, but she was sure it was. He was too affectionate and too protective of her for it to be just friendship. Or maybe it was only because she felt that strongly about him that she wanted him to reciprocate. He had seen her completely naked on several occasion and didn't seem to notice, and she didn't like the conclusions she could draw from that. Then again, maybe he was right not to notice. It might change things too much.
She was alone in the bathroom. She went into a stall that was underneath an air vent. She pulled off her clothes, stripping down to the tight black cat suit she wore under her clothes. She stuffed the clothes into the backpack. Standing on the toilet, she moved the grate off the air vent then hoisted herself up into the shaft and waited. The shuttle would return to Lyric in half an hour. The tourists were already leaving the gift shop and heading to the dock to get good seats. In ten minutes, security would make a final physical sweep of the museum then lock it up for the night. After that, the cameras monitored everything.
Like Nick, she didn't quite trust the devices they had been given to help them out, so she had noted the positions of all the cameras in the Shikkongou wing so that she could hide in the blind spots. There weren't many. If she were going to get close enough to cut the glass, she would be on camera. She would wait until she heard from Nick before she moved.
It was an hour before she heard his voice in her ear. "You awake, Kit?" he asked.
She yawned. "Now that I think about it, just barely. Where are you?"
"Somewhere I shouldn't be. That camera thing didn't work. I had to disable the cameras some other way."
"Dare I ask what you've done?"
He paused. "I was very creative."
"You're all clear. Go."
"And the grid?"
"I can't tell from here. The output reads like it's up, but it shouldn't be. You'll have to test it the old fashioned way."
"Hurray for old fashioned ways."
Kitsune pulled the black mask down over her face, stuffing her hair under her collar. She slipped down out of the airshaft and made her way back to the Shikkongou wing, creeping along the wall to avoid the cameras just in case. She ducked under the velvet rope. "Still clear?" she asked.
"You're fine," Nick said.
"What about the alarms?"
"This place is about to suffer a major blackout during which nothing will work. It will appear that a sudden and very strong discharge of static electricity disrupted all operations, but no critical systems were damaged."
"That's a good one."
"Thank you. I'm rather fond of it myself."
Kitsune moved closer to the pedestal and took out a small vial of baby powder. She poured a little into her gloved hand and blew it towards the where the laser grid should be. The powder didn't catch any lights. "The grid's down," she said. "Time to free the prize."
"Careful. It'll probably explode."
"It's airtight. When you let all that air in, something's gotta give."
"If glass shatters in a museum and no one's around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
"It damn well better not."
Kitsune took the glasscutter from the bag and fixed the suction cup to the glass. She cut a hole about six inches around and pulled the glasscutter away slowly, letting air into the case little by little so it wouldn't explode. She put the glasscutter back in the bag when she was done. "Come to Mama," she said. She reached into the case and grabbed the Shikkongou. "This thing doesn't have any kind of weight detector, does it?"
"Good." She pulled the Shikkongou out of the case and nestled it in the bag among her clothes. "I got it."
"Time for the lights to go out. You'll be running blind. I'll tell you where to go. When you get outside, head to the dock."
"All right. I'm ready."
The lights went out, and the museum was pitch black, but Kitsune's eyes adjusted quickly. She followed the directions Nick gave her and soon found herself exiting the museum by an emergency exit near the curators' offices. She ran towards the docks just as several tired looking guards were making their way towards the museum to investigate the power outage. Nick was waiting for her by the shuttle that was docked there. They stowed themselves away in the small cargo hold and waited there until the shuttles began to run again the next morning.
Kitsune took a hot shower and rubbed the knots and crimps out of her muscles. The shuttle had left the dock on Solo two hours before sunrise and arrived back on Lyric just as the second shuttle was taking off. Sneaking off the empty shuttle hadn't been easy, but there were enough people waiting to get on and milling about anyway that their suspicious exit was overlooked. It hadn't been too long a wait. The pilot had flown into Lyric faster than he would have with a full boat, but Kitsune didn't like small spaces, even if she did get to spend that much time that close to Nick. It had been the only way to get off Solo. No private ships were allowed to dock there.
When Kitsune got out of the shower, Nick was lying on the bed holding the Shikkongou in his left hand and studying it but not looking into it.
"Have you looked yet?" she asked.
"No," he said. "I don't think I want to."
"There's nothing I want to see that I don't see by other means."
"Maybe it'll show you something special."
She shrugged. "Your destiny or something. I don't know. I wanna look."
"Well, here. Look."
Kitsune sat down on the bed and took the Shikkongou from his hand. She put her eye to the hole. At first, she saw nothing but black. The scene came up slowly. She saw a bed, a large four-poster bed with white silk sheets. Rose petals were strewn across the sheets. Candles burned throughout the room. She could almost smell them and the roses. It was all very romantic and beautiful. She saw herself lying down on the bed. She could tell by the way the shadows moved in the corners of the scene that she wasn't alone in the room. She watched herself stretch out on the bed. Rose petals dropped down on her. She held her breath, waiting to see who her lover was. She saw only his hands as he reached out and caressed her breasts, but that was all she needed to see.
Kitsune let the Shikkongou drop to her lap. "Whoa. That was ... okay. I guess you could say that's something I want. I've always wanted to be able to live like a spoiled princess," she said.
"You'd get bored," Nick said.
"Yeah, but at least I'd have the luxury of getting bored. Come on, your turn. Just a little peek before we take the damn thing apart."
"All right, fine."
Nick turned on his side and took the Shikkongou from her hand. When he put his eye to the hole, he saw bright white light, almost as if the Shikkongou was lit from within. The light seemed abnormally clear, although nothing was visible within the light. He had almost given up when a shape began to emerge from the light. It was a jewel shaped like a teardrop, and the light was coming from it. He thought about the dream he had had of someone else's vision where he had been holding that jewel in his hand. He lowered the Shikkongou and watched the blue lines snaking across its surface.
"What did you see?" Kitsune asked.
Nick looked up at her. "Nothing," he said.
"Nothing? How could you see nothing? That doesn't make sense."
"There was just light."
"You had to have seen something."
"Maybe it just didn't know what to show me."
"There was just light. And the ... the shape ... "
"You saw the jewel itself? No one's ever seen the jewel."
"Exactly. So it was nothing. How do we even know there's a jewel in there?"
"That's a good question. Let's find out."
Kitsune picked up the Shikkongou and stuck her fingers in the eyehole. She pulled, but it didn't budge. Nick took it from her and did the same. It came apart in his hands like an eggshell, spilling a thick blue gel onto the bed. In the middle of the gel was a clear, teardrop shaped jewel. Kitsune picked it up and held it between her thumb and index finger. Light danced across the facets, and she could feel some kind of energy coming from it. When she looked at Nick, his eyes were glowing.
Nick heard her, but she seemed miles away from him. He couldn't answer. He wasn't in the room any more. He was standing on a path on some dim landscape. The path led in several different directions. He didn't know which way he was supposed to go. He looked up. The sky above him was full of stars. One star stood out from the rest and seemed to be pointing him down a particular path. He followed the path for a few steps then stopped. He shook his head. "It can't be," he said to himself. "That makes no sense. It can't be right."
But it didn't feel wrong. He wanted to follow the path further. It would explain things; it would answer all those questions. He was afraid of the answers, but he had already taken those first few steps. He couldn't turn back. He had known that as soon as they left Walden City.
The star above him got a little brighter, and its light illuminated the path. He kept walking, and the vision slowly faded, leaving him with little blue sparks in his eyes that popped like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.
"Nick, are you okay?" Kitsune asked.
He rubbed his eyes. "I don't know," he said.
"What did you see?"
"A path. And a star."
Kitsune said nothing. She put the jewel in Nick's hand and folded his fingers over it. "We aren't giving this to Esterhazy."
"We already knew that."
"I mean really. No matter what happens."
"Kit ... "
"I trust you, Nick. With my life."
"We need to get to Teatree. We need to start moving now before Ghostshadow has a chance to figure out we're not going back to Aria."
"He'll hunt us down. You know he will."
"He can try. It'll be harder to do if we're not together and we don't go directly there."
"But - "
"If you trust me, don't argue with me. We'll meet on Walden City."
"I don't know. Whenever we get there."
"How will I know you're okay?"
"And what happens if you're not okay?"
"Go to Teatree without me and tell Talon what's happened."
"Oh, right, like I can just walk into the Falkenberg estate and have a meeting with him."
"He'll be expecting you if it comes to that."
"Nick ... " She stopped just short of telling him that she loved him, and he looked like he wanted to kiss her. Instead, he shoved the jewel in his pocket, grabbed the two duffel bags and left. She knew it was going to be a long time before she saw him again.
Golden Sunrise was scheduled to leave for Aria in three hours. Kitsune stood in the terminal watching the electronic board scroll through a list of earlier flights. The easiest way would have been to try to pay for passage on anything she could get, but she didn't have enough money. She had hocked the gadgets, but that hadn't gotten her enough money for a flight. She turned away from the board and scanned the terminal. She wasn't nearly as good at picking pockets as Nick was, but she had to try something. She spotted a man leaning against the wall near the door, watching the masses intently. On his left shoulder was a large bird, and in his pocket was a thick bulge that could only have been a lot of cash. As soon as she had marked him, he turned his head and looked her right in the eye. She sat down on a bench and watched the board again. She'd just have to pick one and stow away.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the man with the bird coming towards her. Great, she thought. A cop or one of Esterhazy's thugs. This is just so not what I need.
He stood in front of her. She kept pretending not to notice him. "Kitsune," he said.
She looked at him, startled to hear him say her name. His eyes were so black and so deep that she thought she was falling.
"You wanna get off this rock in the next ten minutes?" he asked.
"That'd be nice. Who are you? How do you know me?"
"I'll tell you when we see each other again. We don't have time for that now." He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and handed it to her. "I know it's more than you need, but you've got a lot of stops along the way. And you have a lot of work to do."
"We need to know as much about the man who hired you as possible. We know certain things, but we can't prove most of it."
"Can't you do that yourself?"
"I've got other things to worry about."
"Why? Are you a cop?"
He laughed. "Of all the things I've ever been, that's the one I seemed to have left off the resume. I wouldn't have passed the psychological tests. Just take the money and get the hell out of here."
"Do you work for Esterhazy?"
"Are you related to Nick?"
"Not by blood."
"If you've got the money to help us out, why are you just standing there watching?"
"It has to play out. Believe me, I'd rather just take you both to Teatree now and have it over with, but I can't. I can't interfere. Even if I still had the ability to do something that would make this easier. It's not an easy path. You both have to learn that. Not one of them ever got where they ended up with me pulling strings behind the scenes."
"What are you talking about?"
"Nothing. Never mind. Just go."
"Do you know where Nick is right now?"
"He hasn't left Lyric yet."
"If you see him, tell him ... tell him - "
"I think he knows."
The man turned away from her, looked around the terminal then walked back towards the lockers. She watched him for a while. When he had moved out of her line of sight, she went to the customer service desk.
"What's the next flight out to anywhere that's got room for one more?" she asked.
The woman behind the desk scanned a list. "Slingback is scheduled to leave for Destiny in fifteen minutes. It's actually running on time, it seems. But it's dock twenty. You'll be lucky to make it there in anything less than half an hour with these crowds."
"I'll take my chances."
"Passage is nonrefundable."
"It's not my money."
Kitsune paid for her passage and ran for dock twenty as fast as she could, dodging people and fully loaded baggage carts. She even managed to run about fifty feet on the railing that ringed the dock before someone shouted at her to get down. She reached dock twenty with five minutes to spare, just as the pilot was walking up the ramp. She handed over her ticket and was directed to the nearest empty seat. She sat down and clutched the backpack to her chest. She thought about what the man with the bird had told her. She had gotten the feeling that he wasn't all there, but his intentions seemed good enough. If it was evidence he wanted, she could do that. It would keep her mind off Nick for a little while anyway. But it also meant that Destiny was the wrong place to start. She would have to make her way back to Aria and break into Archer's offices. That might be just a little bit harder.
Lash looked down at the empty envelope that had been slapped down on the counter in front of him and the hand that held it in place. He was afraid to look up at the hand's owner. He tried to remain calm. "What's this?" he asked.
"An empty envelope."
"Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?"
"Your pay is going to good use, just not by you."
"I can make things very uncomfortable for you if I'm not paid."
"I'm used to being uncomfortable. There's nothing you can do to me that would bother me. I've been to hell; did you know that? I've been to heaven, too. And everywhere in between. I've endured pain that would kill you in two seconds. You ever had dry ice injected into you? Do you have any idea how much that fucking hurts?"
"So don't fucking threaten me."
"This job is over, isn't it?"
"Not by a long shot, kiddo. Just a little change of plans is all. They split up."
"Kiddo? You're not that much older than me. Are you?"
"Oh, you have no idea."
"So what do you want me to do?"
"Kitsune's already gone. She's headed to Destiny. Nick hasn't left yet. He might do something stupid like go back to Aria or at least pretending he's going back. Stick with him."
"They're being followed."
"I ran into him yesterday. I didn't catch his name. He's a Slider."
"All right. That's probably not good. And to think you weren't gonna share."
"It wasn't a problem yesterday. I think it is now. If they're not going back to Aria like they're supposed to, someone's bound to get upset about that and send that creep after one or both of them, and he'll probably kill them both."
"Stick with Nick."
"Which one of them has the jewel?"
"I don't know. I didn't ask."
"I do expect to get paid the next time you decide to show up like this."
"Don't worry. I got you covered. But I had to donate to a better cause this time. Better get to the docks. He's not gonna wait forever to start planning his escape, especially if he knows he's being followed, and I'm sure he knows."
"You didn't tell me he was psychic."
"We did kinda overlook that, didn't we?"
"Why wasn't I told?"
"There's a lot about that kid you weren't told, and most of it, he doesn't even know. He needs to find out on his own. We'll all learn as he does."
The hand lifted from the envelope, and the heavy presence that had been at Lash's side was gone. When he finally looked up, the man had already left the diner. Lash sighed. He was working for crazy people. He noticed that the envelope was sealed. It wasn't as empty as he had first thought. There seemed to be a letter inside it. He turned the envelope over. The name Duncan Kyle was written on the front in a tiny, angry looking handwriting. Lash was tempted to open it. Instead, he folded it in half and slipped it into his pocket. He didn't know who Duncan Kyle was. Probably some other crazy person he didn't want to meet, although he didn't think he would have been given a letter to deliver to Kyle if he wasn't going to run into the guy at some point.
Lash skimmed through the newspaper one more time, looking for news of the robbery at the Museum of Antiquities, but there wasn't even a peep. He paid for his coffee and headed to the docks.
The tourists were getting angry. They had been standing outside of the Museum of Antiquities for several hours and had not been let in. The shuttles had stopped running. The head of security had fired his assistant, although it wasn't really her fault, and the poor girl had sat in the office and cried for almost an hour before she could give the detectives a coherent story. The story she told didn't help much. The blackout was an accident. The theft of the Shikkongou was not, and the two events had to be connected. The two detectives didn't question the girl for long. They would get back to her. In the meantime, they had to get the head of security to do something other than yell and curse at the guards. The crowd hadn't paid all that money to get turned away at the door. But the head of security took one look at the mass of people and began to have an anxiety attack, leaving the two detectives to disperse the crowd themselves.
When they walked out the front door, the crowd went silent.
"Good morning, people," said Detective Gaston Richardson in as big a voice as he could muster.
The crowd murmured back.
"I'm Detective Gaston Richardson of the Bureau of Intergalactic Investigations." He pointed to a grey-haired man standing to his left. "This is my partner, Detective Aaron Kelly." Aaron lifted a hand to the crowd. "We regret to inform you that the museum will not be open today due to technical difficulties. The shuttle will begin to run again in ten minutes until everyone is back on Lyric. You will receive full refunds at the terminal. Thank you."
The crowd grumbled. They didn't like that explanation, refunds or not. Gaston and Aaron went back inside.
The curator of the museum, a fussy, rail thin woman named Lindsey Battaglia, was waiting for them. "Thank you for taking care of that," she said. "I only just got here myself. Is there anything I can do to help? Anything at all?"
"You don't keep passenger logs, do you?" Gaston asked.
"No, I'm sorry. There's never been any reason to. Perhaps we should start."
"Well, let's start simple. How 'bout we talk to the guards who were on duty last night when the last shuttle pulled in? And we need to talk to the girl again. If she can stop crying long enough to talk," Aaron said.
"I assure you that Susan had nothing to do with the robbery, detectives. She is a Brannagh, after all. They live for security work, and they're damn good at it. Pardon my language. I know she's just a child, but she's more competent than the rest of the morons I've got working here. I'll round up the guards and see if I can get Susan to calm down a little. Please, wait in my office."
Lindsey stalked off with a sour look on her face.
"The girl's not involved with this," Aaron said.
"You don't think?" Gaston asked. "She could be just a really good actor."
"No, that's real. I've been doing this long enough to know. I think she just ended up being a convenient way to fix something that didn't go as planned."
"So how many thieves do you think we have?"
"Two, maybe three."
"Why not one?"
"Feels like too big a job for one guy."
They waited for about ten minutes in Lindsey's office. Lindsey came in with five guards and Susan. They questioned the guards for a while without getting anywhere. Nothing had happened out of the ordinary. No one had appeared to be casing the museum or doing anything suspicious. No one on the shuttle had brought the tools that had been used to cut the glass casing.
"Wait a minute," one of the guards said. "That kid."
Gaston and Aaron exchanged a glance. That statement had potential. Susan rubbed her eyes and looked at the guard.
"The kid that set off the metal detector at dock," the guard said.
"Oh, yeah. I remember him now," another said. "He walked through, and it went off. I checked him out. He wasn't carrying anything but his i.d. and a light gem, but he kept setting the thing off. We strip-searched him and everything. And then Susan came in and - "
"Oh, oh! That kid!" Susan blurted. "Right. He'd been healed recently and had a static charge built up in the back of his neck. I touched him to disperse it. I guess I just transferred it to myself, and that's why the cameras and lights went all crazy when I was on duty last night."
"What did he do after that?" Aaron asked.
Susan shrugged. "Joined the tour group I guess."
"Did he leave with the tour group?" Gaston asked.
"I think so."
"He did," one of the guards said. "I saw him get on the shuttle. And yes, I'm sure about that. He stood out from the crowd. Tall, good-looking blonde kid. I thought he was a noble when I first saw him."
"Did anyone happen to catch this kid's name?" Gaston asked.
There was a long silence. Then the one who had stopped the boy at the gate said, "Tsyplakov. Nikolai Tsyplakov."
"Thank you all. That's it for now," Aaron said. "Miss Brannagh, we need you to stay a little longer. We have a few more questions about your shift last night."
When the guards had left, Susan detailed her shift in the control room, which had started as soon as the last tour had left the building. Everything had been fine until an hour into the shift. It was at that point that she had gotten the feeling that she wasn't alone in the control room, but when she looked around, she had seen nothing. It was just her and the monitors. Then she had started hearing noises from the electric closet. When she had opened the closet, one of the circuit breakers was in the wrong position. It was the one for the televisions in the entertainment wing. She had flipped the switch, and as soon as she touched it, everything died. It had sent a jolt through her arm that had shoved her back against the wall hard enough to stun her. It didn't quite knock her out, though her vision went white for just a second. And that was where she stopped and didn't seem to want to say any more. She chewed on her bottom lip and twisted her fingers together.
"Miss Brannagh, the more you tell us, the better," Gaston said. "We don't think you're an accomplice, but you were where the problem started. Did you see anything or hear anything else after the lights went out?"
"Well ... you'll think I'm crazy," Susan said.
"When everything was still white, I saw something. I felt someone walk by me, and then I saw ... a figure ... a ... it was blue and it glowed like moonlight, and it had wings, big glowing blue wings. It ... it was beautiful. But when the white went away, there was nothing there."
"Could you make out any facial features?" Aaron asked.
Susan shook her head. "It didn't have a face."
"Okay. I think we're done for now. Thank you, Miss Brannagh."
Susan got up and left the office in a hurry.
"A glowing blue thing with wings," Gaston said. "So one of our thieves isn't human."
"She only saw that when she wasn't fully conscious. And I can't think of any alien races that look like that or are only visible to knocked out people."
"Maybe we haven't met them yet."
"No, we're dealing with humans. Maybe they're genetically altered in some way. Maybe they're psychic. Maybe that was just the static she saw."
"Or an angel. Maybe she died for a second."
"Possibly. Does the name Tsyplakov ring any bells for you?"
"No. Should it?"
"I don't know. But we'll have to see if we can track him down."
"That sounds like a pretty elaborate plan, though. To have been touched by a healer long enough for a build up of static and to anticipate that Susan or anyone would touch him and then be on duty in the control room that night, that's an awful lot of foresight."
"Or some other sight."
"A psychic then. But if he was in the control room, who took the Shikkongou?"
"That might be harder to figure out. I'd say we could look at the security video, but I'm pretty sure we won't see anything."
They spent a few more hours going over the Shikkongou wing, eventually discovering the three strips of material that had disrupted the laser grid. There were traces of powder around the base of the pedestal. In the women's bathroom in the gift shop, they discovered that the grate over the air vent was a bit out of place. Inside the airshaft, they found a single strand of long dark hair. They checked the airshaft from outside, but it was obvious that the thief hadn't entered the museum that way. They checked the control room and found nothing. They checked everything over a few more times, and then went back to Lyric. They took their evidence to the forensics lab at the office of the Bureau of Intergalactic Investigations then put out an all points bulletin on Nikolai Tsyplakov. Even if he wasn't one of the thieves, it was a good place to start.
"I think all you did is piss him off," Lash said.
Golden Sunrise was taking off for Aria again. Nick had gotten on board. Ghostshadow had followed him. Before the ship launched, Nick got back off, and Ghostshadow noticed at the last minute that Nick was no longer on the ship. It was too late for Ghostshadow to get off, and he was stuck headed back to Aria and would have to tell Archer that both thieves had gotten away from him.
"That's not good," Nick said. "He's cruel enough when he's being nice. I don't think I'm looking forward to what he'll do to me next."
"He's going to kill you, kid. I've seen that look before."
"He can try. He'll have to catch up to me first. And as long as he wants to hurt me, he'll stay away from Kitsune."
"What about the rest of the goon squad?"
"She can take care of them."
"So where are we going?"
"Oh good god why?"
"There's someone there I want to see."
"Fine. Do we need to book passage?"
"I already did." Nick pulled two tickets from his pocket and handed one to Lash.
"How did you pay for these?"
"I didn't. You did. Oh, here's your change."
Lash stared dumbfounded at the ticket and the money Nick had put in his hands. "You picked my pocket," he muttered.
Nick smiled and began to walk to dock four where a small cruiser called Dexi's Midnight Runner was preparing to take off for Junket.
"You picked my pocket, you little bastard," Lash said. He had to run to catch up to Nick. "Don't do that any more. If you need money, just ask."
"I didn't have time to ask. They were about to close booking on that one because no one else wanted to get on it."
"Why? Is something wrong with it?"
"It's old and slow compared to some of the other cruisers. But that means it was cheaper."
"Still too damn expensive if you ask me."
"Do you have a better way to get where we want to go?"
"I don't want to go to Junket."
"I think your employer would be rather upset with you if you let me go alone."
"All right. You win. This time. Next time, I win."
Shortly after they had taken off, Lash remembered the envelope in his pocket. "Nick, do you know who Duncan Kyle is?" he asked.
Nick didn't answer. He gave Lash a perplexed looked.
"Everyone knows who Duncan Kyle is."
"He was Talon's engineer."
"Oh, that Duncan Kyle."
"Why are you asking?"
"I was given a letter to give to him."
"By your employer?"
"No, by his son-in-law."
Nick settled back in the seat and stared out the window as Dexi's Midnight Runner hurtled through space. None of the pieces of the puzzle were really fitting together yet, but the pictures on the pieces were getting sharper. He wasn't yet sure that that was a good thing.