I'd never understood that phrase--what it really meant-- until two days ago,
when I sat in the coach section of a space transport being guided into the
colony's space ring. The captain in his artificially polite way reminded us
that looking at the slow rotation of the space ring would cause a slight motion
sickness, but it would be over soon.
For some of the passengers, anyway. I'd felt sick ever since I'd boarded the
transport. Even before then. The proper term for it is "acute
paranoia," I think. I had worn dark glasses at the spaceport, but took
them off, because I didnt want people wondering why I was wearing them.
The same with my hands. My sweaty, shaky, guilty hands. I walked around with
them in my pockets but kept taking them out when I was afraid walking around
with my hands in my pockets made me look suspicious.
No, now that I think about it, "acute paranoia" wasn't the term for
what was wrong with me. Paranoids imagine threats against their life. I had
reason to be scared.
My name is Esteban Marco, and people DO want to kill me. I've been thinking
about that every step of the way since I left Sycorax colony in the middle of
the night. I hadn't slept since then. I was constantly tense and my hands, when
I allow them to slip into those pockets closed around the nugget of the
It was a tetrahedron, clear, like a diamond but really just very refined glass.
A data storage crystal. A special kind too, manufactured to order, 1000 credits
from Materiopticon Services.
I know. I held the bill for in my hands four days ago. Now I held the crystal
in the palm of my hand. Because what was recorded on the crystal was priceless.
I had seen what was on there once and nearly gone mad with fear. And now here I
was, carrying the eight-sided message of doom in my pocket.
They shuffled us out like the chattel we were--opulence is unheard of on Earth
transports; you want comfort and style, fly Rigellian. The attendant gave me a
pat on the back as I disembarked; her smile became more and more forced as she
shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Pretending to care was so hard.
In some ways the pretense took more effort than sincerity.
I didnt have that problem. If anything, I cared too much. That's why I was
here, after all.
I stepped off onto the main concourse, obeying the injunction voiced over the
public address system to take small steps and compensate for the low gravity. I
made my way briskly but not overly to the colony elevator. I had never been to
Kuran Colony. It was one of the newer colonies Earth had built on its way to a
Frontier full of promise, feeling invincible until we got here and found out
there was nothing for us.
It didnt look very new that's for sure. Then again it's hard to tell.
Large-scale colonies are pretty much all the same--a big cylinder with a space
ring at one end and big solar panels at the other. Beer cans with angel halos.
There was hard science behind it all--it was an efficient design, centripetal
force inside the cylinder simulated gravity. But they looked dull and ugly all
the same to my eyes. As a boy I'd looked up at the starts from a dozen planets.
As an adult I hated to think this was what we were littering the cosmos with.
I looked at the city sprawls as the elevator descended. The solar panels were
closed because it was the colony's night cycle, but some of the city blocks
still blazed with color. From this high it looked like an elaborate train set,
I could even see the monorail lines shoot above the streets.
It looked like a city all right but it didn't feel like one if you'd seen the
real thing. I've seen plenty of those--Ganymede, Axanar, Io, hell I've even
been to Luna. Laugh if you want, but it means more if the city streets you walk
home on every night have actual dirt on them. Things feel more real somehow.
Inside a colony like this, I felt like I was inside a big toy. In one of these
toys I always felt stared at. Like a kid's snow globe, I was always waiting for
some high power to grab the thing and shake it to see if snowflakes would fall.
I realized as the elevator came to a halt that my hands were back in my
pockets, turning the data crystal in my fingers. I felt my blood run cold.
Someone could be tracking me now. He could have got on at the various stops and
I wouldn't have noticed.
I slid my hand into my jacket pocket and let my fingers trace the butt of the
Idance pistol that was in there. It was, as weapons go, a bad joke--reinforced
ceramic designed more to thwart detection at security checkpoints than to kill
someone, but it was all I had.
I wasn't a hired gun, after all. I kept records. What did I know about guns? I
just wanted something I could use if I had no choice to defend myself until I
could get this crystal to the man who needed to see it.
It's an odd thing--it's hard to push buttons on a vid phone when youre scared.
Your hands shake so bad your fingers seem drawn to the other buttons like metal
to a magnet.
Somehow I managed to dial the proper number and shut the video link off while I
held the receiver against my ear and looked around, pacing back and forth on
the deserted street. I got a message, like I'd been expecting to. I left a
message, balancing the receiver between my chin and my shoulder, one hand on
the crystal, one hand on the pistol. Just in case. With great reluctance I
managed to get my hands off the crystal and hang up the receiver.
The air was cold, as it always was in colonies like this. The solar panels
could give you daylight and depending on what the plants needed they could
occasionally give you warmth, but nights were usually hellishly cold and dark,
except for the blue-white glow of streetlights.
I leaned against the phone kiosk and waited for it to ring. Just like every
other time I'd dared to close my eyes the events of the past two days flashed
I wasn't lying when I said I kept records. I was good at it too. I chalked it
up to something my mother had told me--"People always need secretaries,
son. And nowadays you can get that kind of job without being a woman."
As you can tell, my mother held high hopes for me. The Marco family was born
dirt poor and for the century and a half we could trace our roots back, we
always had been. Like most people we'd come to the stars to get away from an
earth become more unified, or to be blunt, more "white." As Earth
drove on to space it drove out nearly every race not called Caucasian. Most of
us were happy to be away from them, but there was always the feeling of
displacement, of being far from home and having no way of getting back. Just an
aching feeling of "this is not where I belong"
My mother was a maid for the United Earth's embassy on a planet named Khalis, a
colony of the Khephren. As aliens go they were more accepting of us than the
Earth we'd left behind. I liked them quite a bit. The Khephren loved the good
life. I suppose that's easy to do if you're rich. And the Khephren as the
galaxy's moneymakers were nothing if not rich.
Khalis was a huge colony, one of the first Earth set up with the Khephren. And
like any good ambassador we brought the best and the worst of our culture with
us--specifically the crime.
Pick pocketing and lock picking was my game. I was good at it, too. Both took
concentration, a skill I had in abundance and would serve me well when I got
into records keeping. In fact, the pick pocketing was what led to that job.
I had stolen the wallet of a Khephren named Selket. I didnt know who he was at
the time, but someone else did. They tracked me through his credits--the
Khephren kept track of their finances quite meticulously.
They nabbed me when I paid of an expensive dinner at a sidewalk café. Only it
wasn't the Khephren. It was a group of solidly built Chinese gentlemen. To a
young man in his early teens they loomed like mountains before me.
I was dragged out of the café, taken to a nearby alley and knocked out. When I
came to again I was face to face with another Chinese man. I couldn't have been
more than sixteen at the time but I knew I was as good as dead.
They let me stew in my fear for while. Then, after what felt like hours, the
man asked me if I still had Selket's identity card. I handed it to him and he
smiled. He explained to me that I had done him a great service. Selket was one
of his enemies, apparently.
He repeated it because I looked like I was nearly ready to pass out. I had been
too scared to breathe. He smiled and asked me my name. He told me his was Mao
Xai Jan, and from now on he was going to make sure I was taken care of.
That was when I started work for the mob. I never found out what he did to
Selket, but I'm sure whatever it was, it wasn't very nice.
The vidphone beeped at me and made me jump. For some reason my hand went to the
crystal before the gun. I tried to remember how to breathe as my shaky hand
reached for the receiver.
I answered, then listened, my hand turning the crystal in my pocket.
More waiting, at a bar this time. Bars weren't my favorite place in the world,
mostly because the taste of liquor made me sick for some reason I'd never been
able to correctly identify. So I drank water and waited.
The Last House on the Left was, I think, where people went to die. It was like
a sepulchre with neon lights. I grew to hate the place quickly. If the city
outside was fake, the bar was all too real. Cigarette smoke was soaked into
everything, and the place smelled like sweat and spilled liquor so powerfully
it made my nostrils burn and left a taste on my tongue like battery acid and vinegar.
I drank my water and thought about Mao Xai Jan. The man who'd been closer to me
than my own father. He'd paid for my basic education and kept my mother from
dying in the streets of Khalis when arthritis made it impossible for her to
clean the embassy anymore.
It didn't matter to either of us that it was mob money. The Blue Dragon Tong
may have been criminals according to the law, but they lived by a rigid code
and never pretended to be anything else. Besides, there were plenty of crooks
on Earth that would never be that honest with you. In fact, they smiled while
they patted you on the back they were surely putting the knife in.
Like when they drive you from your home planet and push you further and further
into space in the name of "progress," for instance.
The Blue Dragons were a crime syndicate all right . . .I never lied to myself
about that. But they were built on a foundation of honor and loyalty, like a
family. They wanted to keep their culture alive. And they wanted to make money
in the pursuit of that. And as long as you honored them, they took care of you.
Sensible enough arrangement.
Don't get any romantic notions. I wasn't a shooter or a thief. No, I just kept
records and balanced books. A numbers man. I served Mao for years. Until he moved
to Kuran. He made sure I still kept my job when the new guy came in. His
cousin. Mao Sai Fong. Nice guy, but more distant than Mao. Older, more haunted.
Mao Sai Fong had died two months ago and his son, Wong Sai Sci had taken over.
If I had disliked Mao Sai Fong a little, I outright hated Wong. Certainly
didn't trust him. He was like the people from Earth I'd known. Every smile
concealed a knife as surely if it were held in their teeth. At first I chalked
it up to my own suspicions but the crystal in my pocket proved I was right.
I took a sip of water and looked down at the ring it left on the bar. I thought
it was kind of funny. My life was a circle. Mao gave me a lease on life and
that was what I was here to do for him. Coming back to where I'd began, even
though I'd never been here.
It was all very Zen. It's hard to work for the Chinese and not pick up a
I set the glass on the bar and looked at the door. A shadow fell over the front
of the bar and gradually moved into the smoky light. I blinked and took another
sip of water.
The man they'd sent either didnt know the first thing about looking
inconspicuous or didn't care. He was dressed in a suit so white it looked like
a divine relic in this dive. It seemed to glow, it was that clean. The patrons
cleared a path. Maybe they were shrinking from the brightness of the suit in
the same way a vampire shrinks from a cross.
He was a young man, maybe three years younger than I was, His eyes were a deep
green and his skin was a burnished gold. I'd have thought he was a Spaniard
like me, were it not for the soft features and the long brown braid that snaked
from the base of his neck nearly to the floor.
I recognized the style, if not the length. It was an old Chinese affectation, a
sign of loyalty to those in power. Most of the old line soldiers still wore
"You know," I said, finishing off the last of the water as he took
the barstool next to me. "They say fire is not a very good game." And
old code, a quote from another Mao.
"I'd heard that," he replied, raising two fingers to the barkeep. His
voice had an accent, but I couldnt place it for the life of me. And despite
the years I had on him, for some reason I felt very afraid of him. Maybe it was
the coldness in his manner, the clinical way in which he eyed everything with
such dull hatred. It made me forget all about the discomfort I'd felt from the
bar. It had been replaced with a new discomfort. Or to be more blunt, mounting
It was like sitting next to a hurricane. It was a spectacular thing to behold,
but at any moment it could kill you. If anything, it made it harder to relax
"I was sent. They said you had a message."
I looked down at the ring from my water glass. The circle was breaking up.
"Who sent you?" I asked.
"You know better than to ask that," the man replied.
"I guess I do," I said. "Still, seeing as how I'm on the run
you'll forgive me for being a little suspicious."
"You admit it?"
"I dont see any reason to hide it," I replied with a sigh. "I'm
a dead man on leave. If our mutual friends hadn't known what I was up to, I'm
sure I connected the dots for them by calling."
"Supposing youre right," the man replied. "Suppose someone said
to me "youre to meet a man named Esteban Marco. He claims to have a message.
Kill him and get it back." How can you trust that I'd talk first?"
I stood up from the barstool. "I figured we knew the same people," I
said. "I looked at him. You know . . .what the things all about don't
He shook his head.
"Honor and obedience," I said. "You obey them, they honor you.
That's how it used to be. But now . . ." I trailed off, tumbling the data
crystal in my pocket. "Maybe things are changing. And not for the better,
"Life is change," he said. He lit a cigarette and I grimaced.
"Maybe some things shouldn't," I said. "I liked honor and
obedience just fine. Of course, I broke all those rules to get here. I guess
that makes me a marked man."
"Guess it does."
I couldnt read him, but the bulge under the white jacket told me what he was
here for, and it wasn't talk. Sitting on the barstool for so long my legs began
to fall asleep. They itched and tingled. I wanted to run, but I couldn't just
yet. And I had no idea if I was getting through to this guy or not.
"Mind if I ask you a question?" I asked, deciding to lay my cards on
the table, at least long enough to buy me time to run.
"Sure," he said indifferently.
"Say youre part of something that entails you living by a code," I
began. "And you do. You spend years respecting that code, living by it,
and gradually deciding that it's a decent way to live. Like your own version of
the golden rule."
"That's not much of a question," he said.
"I'm not at that part yet," I said, my hand slipping into my jacket.
"Say one day you come across something that totally destroys that code.
The people above you have broken every rule. It would be like being a priest
and finding out that God is insane, or worse yet, an illusion."
He watched me like a hawk. Did he know what I was planning? Was he giving me
the rope to hang myself with? And if all he was sent to do was kill me, why was
he bothering to hear me out?
"So you tell me," I said, putting my foot against the rungs of the
barstool. "If our leaders aren't following the old codes anymore, then who
has betrayed whom?"
I kicked the barstool at him and ran, drawing my pistol and shooting at him. My
aim was just as bad as Id feared. I hit my water glass as he went for his own
gun, spraying broken glass on the bar and into his hair. I slipped on some
spilled beer as I made my way to the side exit, wrenching my knee. Pain shot up
the sides of my leg as I ran, barely feeling it as I kicked the door open
The door opened and the cold air outside hit me like a wave of ice water. I
looked frantically for a place to run. To my left, a dead-end, to my right the
street beyond, which was probably being surrounded even now.
Above me was a fire escape ladder. I leapt for it and dragged myself up, my
body protesting the whole way. Record keepers dont make very skilled gymnasts
or climbers. Still, it's amazing what one can accomplish when death is on your
I made my way up to the platform and got my feet underneath me, huffing and
puffing with exhaustion and fear. The side door blew outward, kicked with such
force I was sure it was going to fly off its hinges. It threw a slash of light
into the alley as the man burst forth, guns drawn. He swept his pistols around
the alley. I drew a bead on him. My Idance was no match for his machine pistols,
but one bullet to the head would kill him. He hadn't seen me yet. If I could
just tag him . . .
Then I thought about what I told him. I thought about that broken circle on the
bar top. Things were coming apart. I had gone too far, seen too much. I couldn't
un-see it and I couldn't live with what I'd seen.
That left only one option.
"HEY!" I yelled, holding the data crystal in my palm as I kept the
gun on him. He drew both his guns on me. I swallowed hard and stood my ground.
"It's all here," I said. "The Blue Dragons will be--"
To his credit, it was over so fast I didnt feel any pain.
He fired twice. The first bullet destroyed my shoulder in a font of blood and
torn bone and muscle that caused my hand to clench and squeeze the trigger,
firing impotently at his feet. The second bullet blasted through my chest and
my ribcage and tore my spine on the way out. I felt my legs go dead as my heart
It was somehow appropriate. Heartbreak (in the most awful sense of the word)
was what caused me to die. I tumbled forward off the railing of the fire escape
to the alley below. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the crystal, falling
through the night and glittering as it fell to the street and shattered in a
million pieces, a little glittering galaxy before my dying eyes.
He'd never know and neither would Mao. Never know what was recorded on that
crystal. The unthinkable compromise. The unholy alliance. The betrayal. The end
of the traditions that I'd been honored to be a part of and he'd instilled in
I knew what it meant. And as my life ebbed away and things became darker and
colder I welcomed it. The fear I'd felt as I ran was gone. Bad as things would
become, I wouldn't have to see it.
The shards of the crystal glittered in front of my eyes and then darkness took