Chapter Three: Quinn

“New here, honey?” The golden skinned brunette slid towards me from the doorway, somehow managing to drape herself on the edge of the half wall in a manner that wasn’t just suggestive, it was downright declamatory.

“Just passing through, looking for a friend,” I answered, shifting my small bag higher on my shoulder.

“Oh. I can be real friendly,” she purred, stretching to display her curves, her long black hair cascading down her back.

I shook my head, amused, if not aroused. “I have no doubts about that.” I paused, thinking. “I expect you see a far number of visitors to Rondi as they pass through, correct?”

“Honey, everyone comes down the Boulevard when they first arrive. They wouldn’t miss the view for the world.” She adjusted the neckline of her catsuit.

“My friend, he looks a little bit like me, same general height and build, darker hair.”

At least it had been last time I remembered seeing Torik.

“Oh no, honey,” she ran her fingertips down one shoulder, cuvred herself around my back to emerge on my other side. “I’d remember if I saw someone as fine as you recently.”

“It might’ve been a little further back than recently,” I admitted. “More like two or three years ago.”

She stepped back and laughed, honest amusement ringing clear in her voice. “Honey, you don’t imagine anybody remembers anything two years ago around here, do you?” She shook her head, the silverly bells braided into her hair tinkling with every movement. “Remembering is not what people come to Rondi for.”

I slipped her a credit chip, more than enough to make up for her time, and continued my way down the crowded street.

I’d been sent on missions on some of the wilder aspects of the Fringe, and the Under of Orem station was certain no chaste playground.

But the city of Rondi, the only large population center on the entire planet, appeared to be dedicated to pleasure.

It made a sort of sense. In a sector devoted to business, there had to be somewhere devoted to play.

And they took it very, very seriously.

Streets upon streets of filled with stores, beautiful holographic forms modeling high end fashion and scanty sleepwear, next to tiny shops filled with exquisite art. Musicians and magicians performed on every corner.

Barkers stood outside gambling halls and arcades, coaxing passersby to try their luck.

And the more carnal forms of pleasure were on full, unabashed display as well.

Restaurants from which enticing odors wafted out were sandwiched between storefronts promising the ultimate in relaxation or unheard of titillation.

And by the position of the bright suns overhead, it would be hours yet until night fell, and the serious games started.

Well, if Torik had to be stranded somewhere, he probably could’ve chosen a worse place to spend a few years.

I stepped into yet another bar, pausing in the doorway to let my eyes shift to the low light, glancing over the darkened room.

The space was long and narrow, with a small rectangular stage taking up the center of the front half of the bar.

A young woman gyrated on the stage to a low thumping beat, her every movement the focus of a crowd of surprisingly well-behaved admirers.

Three runners brought drinks out, took orders on small commtabs.

Nothing but another bar.

Nothing here I needed to investigate further.

As I was turning to leave, another young woman hustling by with a tray called over her shoulder as she passed. “Haven’t see you for a while! I’ll get your regular order started.”

That was interesting. And worth staying for.

“I appreciate it, Miss, but I don’t think I have a regular order. I just got on planet.”

She spun towards me, hazel eyes wide, short curly hair flying around her face.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” she exclaimed. “Standing there in the doorway, I would have sworn you were someone else. He hasn’t been in for a while. Can’t imagine what I was thinking.”

I glanced around the room again. It stretched back, broken into sections that grew ever darker.

“If you can find me a seat away from the music,” I waved at the stage, “why don’t I see with my regular would’ve been?”

She smiled, shook her head. “I’m not sure if you want to do that. It’s not exactly our most popular drink. Most people find it pretty bitter.”

I swung my bag off my shoulder, stretched a bit. “That’s alright. I’m not big on most sweets. It runs in the family.

She gave an exaggerated shudder. “Alright then, but I warned you.”

She started to lead me to a table to the side of the stage, but I stepped back.

“Any chance of finding a quieter corner?”

Her head tilted, eyes narrowed and appraising. “Are you sure? Most of our guests appreciate the show.”

I glanced again at the woman dancing.

Certainly attractive enough, and obviously very limber.

But not particularly interesting. Not nearly as fascinating as the woman standing before me.

“That’s all right. I’m not big on loud noises, or crowds, really.”

She nodded. “We do have a quieter section; it’s almost empty right now. Would that do?”

“Sounds perfect.”

She brushed my upper arm to guide me back and I stiffened.

Her touch, her scent, lit a slow fuse in the back of my brain. Something deep in my blood stirred, hungry and possessive.

Apparently being in a city full of raging pheromones was having an effect on me after all.

Quickly I shook it off and followed her into the depths of the building. We passed a long bar, it’s U shape jetting into the room dividing the front, louder section from the back.

A large bald burly man watched me carefully as I followed my hostess.

“Is your bartender always so friendly?” I asked.

“Russar? He’s the owner, so he takes a reasonable interest in everyone new who comes in.” She glanced back over her shoulder at me and raked her eyes over my body. “Especially ones that look like they could do some damage to the place.”

I guess I couldn’t argue with that.

“But he’s a sweetie, really. He must’ve just been trying to figure out if he’d seen you before, same as me.”

Sure.

“Nope, first time to town, first time on the planet at all.”

“I don’t have to ask if you’re going to have a good time.” She pulled out a chair at a table off to the side of the back room, her smile  easy. “Everyone does here. That’s the point.”

“I’ve noticed that,” I agreed.

“I’ll be right back with your drink.”

She walked away and I watched her get into a short exchange with the man behind the bar.  One hand on her hip, I didn’t have to have enhanced hearing to know she wasn’t putting up with his concerns.

“You always say customers are our guests, until they screw up. He hasn’t done anything for you to be in such a fuss over,” she insisted.

“Yet,” he grumbled, but poured out the drink anyway.

Russar might be the owner, but he seemed to take his staff’s opinions into some account. Still, I didn’t think he was a sweetheart, no matter what she said.

This section was mostly empty, the majority of the bar’s patrons choosing to watch the show.

The only other occupied table and held a young man with brown hair in what was probably meant to be artful disarray, but to my eye looked sloppy, slouched in his chair, stained tan coat half on the floor.

He nursed a drink, eyes fixed on my curly haired waitress.

And while she was charming, something about his expression bothered me.

As if he was waiting for something. Expectant.

And that’s where I was being just the same as anyone else, I chided myself.

Pull it together, Quinn, and get down to business.

She came back with my drink, a short wide glass filled half way with a dark brown liquid.

“If you hate it, I’ll get you something else,” she promised.

I tasted it warily.

Took another sip. Then another.

Her eyes widened.

“Or I’ll just bring you another one of those,” she said.

“No need, but I wanted to ask you—”

A shout from the bar cut me off.

“Trini!”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ll be back in a second, hold on.”

I took another sip of the glass, letting the sharp taste roll over my tongue.

It wasn’t bad, different, couldn’t quite place it.

But I could imagine Torik drinking something like this.

After heated discussion of the bar, Trini stomped off to the front of the room.

A moment later, Russar headed my way until he stopped, looming over the table.

“What outfit are you with?” he barked out. “None of the corps use my place for recruiting, and you’re not wearing any one’s badge.”

“I’m not with any of the corps,” I said evenly. “Not looking to join up, either. Not looking for a hard time, not looking to cause trouble. Just passing through.”

“That’s what they all say,” he muttered.

“Really, I’m looking for an old friend who I heard was in the neighborhood, and maybe a room for the night.”

“I don’t know anything about a friend of yours,” he finally said. He paused again, doing some sort of silent evaluation. “But Trini likes you. She doesn’t like most people. We’ve got a room. Nothing fancy, and the lift doesn’t work half the time.”

“My legs carry me just fine,” I said. “I can use the stairs.”

I reached my pocket for a credit chip, stopped again at his narrowed eyes.

“Easy there,” he rumbled.

“Just trying to settle my bill, since I hadn’t had a chance with Trini,” I nodded towards my drink. “And figured you’d want the room paid for up front.”

Bushy eyebrows came together as he frowned. “You can thumb for it same as everything else.”

As Trini had led me to the back of the room, I’d noticed some of the other waitresses holding commtabs towards the patrons. I’d thought it was just for ordering, but now it clicked.

Our research on the Areitis Sector had been rushed, and apparently something had slipped through. Hopefully nothing vital.

“Afraid I can’t. My thumbprint won’t be connected to any bank account here,” I explained.

“Everyone has an account linked to their print,” he insisted.

“We can try if you like.” A thought struck me. “Maybe if it comes up zero you’ll know I’m not actually registered with one of the corps. If I was, they’d want to be able to pay me, right?”

“Maybe,” he said, torn between wanting to get paid, and still wanting to toss me out.

I couldn’t blame him.

“Look, run the chip first, and then you’ll know you’re covered either way,” I offered. “We’ll make it into a bet. If an account shows up for me, I’ll leave, and you can keep the money.”

Now to hope that Nixie hadn’t decided to be ‘helpful.’

Russar slipped the chip into a small opening in the side of the commtab and frowned again.

“Credits are good, but this isn’t a local encryption.”

I nodded. “Like I said, I’m not from around here.”

He nodded. “All right, now pay for it like normal.”

After a moments hesitation I pressed my thumb to the square black surface set into the front of the tablet.

As long as it was just a print reader, I’d be fine. If it was a DNA reader, well, a lot of people got a little enhanced these days. But it seemed unlikely they’d have something quite that sophisticated on every server’s table.

The icons spun. And spun. And spun some more.

And finally stopped, flashing a warning. No entry found. Please seek alternate payment.

Russar scowled at the device, then shrugged. “Strange, but not unheard of, I suppose. When you finish that,” he nodded to the drink, “come up to the bar and I’ll have the card ready for your room.” He turned to walk away, then stopped. “You said you’re not looking for trouble. Whatever your looking for, keep it out of my place.”

By the time I finished my drink Trini still hadn’t returned, but her admirer had finally left, slipping out a side door.

For what it was worth, I was glad that Roger seemed to keep such a tight eye on the place. He didn’t seem the sort that would let one of his staff get hassled.

As he warned me, the lift was broken. Three easy flights up found me in the room.

It was basic enough. A layered foam bed pulled out from the wall, a short dresser for clothing, a simple shower and drying tube.

Good.

Basic made it easier to scan for bugs.

Satisfied I was truly alone, I unpacked quickly, setting up a secure channel for the comm cube.

“Reporting in,” I spoke softly. The room might be clean of bugs, but now telling yet how thin the walls were.

“No sign of Torik yet, but I have a possible lead.”

“A possible possibility?” Mack scoffed, his voice tinny over the line. “Doesn’t sound like much.”

“Yeah, but it’s what we’ve got. I’ll see what I can do about making a little stronger. Nixie still pouting?”

I’m not pouting. I’m angry with you, she chirped. You could’ve taken one of my extensions with you just as easily as the comm cube.

Nope,” I answered her. “You haven’t learned much about discretion yet. And there’s a whole world of new servers for you to want to play in.”

I have so learned discretion! she squealed. I haven’t told anyone about things in other peoples medical record for weeks and weeks!

“Nixie, if Granny Z wanted a surprise party, she would have told someone her birthday herself,” I explained. Again.

Over the silence came a soft sniffle and I rolled my eyes. Someone was going to have to find a way to control our little AI’s appetite for teledramas, apparently.

“Nixie, if you’re good, I’ll make sure to bring some files home for you, alright?” I finally conceded.

Encrypted ones? Came the soft reply.

“The hardest codes I can find, I promise.”
I clicked off, tapped one finger against the cube, tucked it away still thinking.

It would have been useful to bring Nixie, but it wasn’t just that she was reckless, possibly bringing attention to the mission when we didn’t want it.

She was our ace in the hole, and unless absolutely necessary, I didn’t want the megacorps to know she existed.

There was something here, a trail just waiting to be uncovered.

I could feel it.

And somehow the woman Trini was the key.

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