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EP373: Chandra’s Game

By Samantha Henderson
Read by Mur Lafferty
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Lone Star Stories (2009)
All stories by Samantha Henderson
All stories read by Mur Lafferty
Rated 13 and up

Chandra’s Game
by Samantha Henderson

Joey Straphos, Papa Joe, told me once that Chandra’s Game is a bitch of a city, fickle but generous when the mood strikes her.  But Papa Joe was a romantic.

Chandra’s Game roots in the side of a barren asteroid moon like a tick.  Over the years we’ve burrowed deeper into rock and ice until poor Chandra is mostly Game.  We loop the twin wormholes, Gehenna and Tartarus, roundabout in a figure eight, ready to catch the freighters as they escape from hell’s dark maw.  We strip them of goods and drink their heat, load them up and send them into another hell.  It’s a profitable game, Chandra’s.

My mother smuggled me into Chandra’s Game without patronage and compounded her error by dying without permission; I was Terra-born unless she was lying, which was likely enough.  I joined the other unregistereds down in the Warrens: ferals that lived off the Mayor’s Dole and by odd-jobs when that wasn’t enough.  Papa Joe fed us, and sometimes the tunnels were glorious with the smell of meat, and if you were smart or hungry enough you didn’t ask from what.  Where there’s humanity there are rats, and Joey wasn’t a rich man, not then.  But food is food, and he’d bunk you if he could, and if all he asked in return for the latest Warren scuttlebutt or a few sticks of ephedrine off a freighter’s load, what of it?  Saints are few and far between in Chandra’s Game.

Papa Joe always liked me: I stayed a bit feral, tomboy—nothing like his daughters.  He had them late in life, when he got rich, and they were elegant, lux level creatures.  Not like Joey, not like Mrs. Joe.  She was quiet and kind, and if she knew a nano of Joey’s business she never let on.  When Gregor Straphos died I died a little.  But Mrs. Joe died all the way.

I’d been legit for years.  I still snooped, but in an upright way.  Helped the Company Men find bits of their loads that went astray between Gehenna and Tartarus, passed on Warren talk to the prefects when some smart kid got out of hand, pointed the way to speedwell labs that weren’t circumspect about what went into their product.  Nothing that would disturb the delicate balance between the business of the Family, the Companies and the Mayor.

Joey had his own snoops, payroll loyal.  So when a grubby-faced feral knocked up my crib, saying Joey wanted a word, I had to wonder why.  I hadn’t seen him in years.  Not since Gregor was cremated.

Papa Joe never lived on the lux levels: too far away from his daily business.  His crib was in that middle span twixt Warren and lux, where the heavy, humid smell of humans going about their dailies pervaded.  Inset into the dull rough rock of Chandra’s tunnels, his entry was like mine but for the over-muscled toughs that bracketed it, giving me a once-over glare but no guff.  Past his door it was different.

Good living thickened him.  He gripped me by the shoulders, hard, and shook me, his heavy gold rings bruising my shoulders.

“It’s been a long time, Sarabet,” he rumbled.  “Too long.”

He pushed me into an overstuffed sofa, and I looked at the crib with a professional eye.  The room was luxurious, almost frivolous.  The walls had been polished smooth, and intricate patterns were visible in the surface that looked so dull in the tunnels.  The furniture, Terran-antique, could’ve kept me living high for years.  A thick Thantopian carpet covered the floor, cut from the surface of a place Joey and me would never see—it was the probably the most precious thing in the place, beautifully marbled in blue and green.  The warmth of it struck up through my thin corridor slippers.

There were ikons of people I didn’t recognize on tabletops and inset into the smooth walls.  Some I did: there was Mrs. Joe, looking mild and maybe slightly shocked at Joey’s extravagance.  And there was another: Gregor.   Nineteen he must’ve been, twenty.  The season of that particular sardonic look.  It still made my heart turn over.

Joey settled his bulk in the armchair opposite.  “So how’s the life legit?  What was wrong with working for old Papa Joe?”  He twinkled at me, and I had to stifle a smile.

“Family business isn’t for me, Joey,” I said, trying not to sound defensive.  “I make out OK.”

Joey made his bond with Family years ago and stuck to it.  He got his start in the Blueshirt riots, then managed speedwell runs and Catpacks.  He would’ve gladly stood my patron, but it wasn’t my style.  Not since Gregor.  I don’t have the stamina for the criminal life, or the talent.  My only attribute is nosiness.

Joey watched me, considering.  “It’s a waste of your talent, running errands for the prefects,” he said.  “But maybe it’s for the best.  I need a snoop, and I can’t trust one of mine.  Not this time.  Yes,”—this as I frowned at the door and the muscle behind it—”yes, but they’re conditioned.  Mighty useful in a fight, but not for delicate work.”

He was right.  Unwavering loyalty in thought and deed makes for lousy snoop work.  For one thing, it makes it near impossible to lie. Yes, I’m aware that conditioning for private use is a felony.  You think that bothers a Family man like Straphos?

“Joey.  You know I owe you.  But if it’s Family business…”

He held up a beefy hand.  “I won’t lie and say it ain’t.  But all aboveboard.  Nothing you couldn’t swear to before the bar.  I need some answers, and the prefects do squat.”

Which wasn’t surprising.  Family troubles are a low priority for prefects.  Family was supposed to be able to take care of its own, and for the most part it did.

He chewed his knuckle before he spoke. “You’ve heard about Mae Vostra?”

Everyone had.  A Council member deep in the heart of the Family bosom disappears; you’d be bland and deaf not to know.  Right before a Port election, too.  The Family got her elected with the freighthumper vote, and it was known she paid her debts.

I snorted.  “You’re phasing me, Papa.  She’s Council.  The prefects can’t ignore that.”

He shrugged.  “Mae’s a friend to freighthumpers and Blueshirts, never the prefects.”

He had a point.

“Your snoops clueless?”

Joey laughed, a dry bark.  “You could say.  Forget finding who snuffed her.  They say it couldn’t be done.  Helpful.”

“You sure she’s dead?”  I’d had the odd so-called stiff turn up breathing once or twice.  Unnerving.

“There’s only so long you can vanish.  She hasn’t touched any of her accounts, and she’d need scrip to go far.  Problem is, whoever offed her didn’t leave a trace.  No hair.  No  dandruff.”

I shrugged.  “Check the grinders?”

Chandra was pretty much a closed system, and it wasn’t likely that someone like Mae could sneak on a freighter or a tour-boat undetected.  The only was out was down, through the grinders that processed trash and anything you didn’t want seen in its original form.  Mae was probably feeding the flowers on the nutrient levels.

“We’re not amateurs.  Of course we did.”

“Swab for DNA?”

“Yes.  Nothing.”

It’s not that hard to get rid of a body, if you don’t want it ID’d right away or your favorite method documented.  The grinders grind exceeding small.  But eventually something’ll be found, a scrap of matter, blood, a cell—something to match the records.

“And your droogs say…”

“That it was impossible.”

“So don’t tease, tell.”

He scuffed at the carpet, and its patterns swirled around the toe of his slipper.  “Vostra holds—held—public chambers every cycle.”

“How civic minded.”

He grinned at me and my chest hurt.  It wasn’t fair he looked like Gregor.  Gregor grown old and prosperous, not dead in a speedwell deal gone sour.

Joey continued.  “Fours-hour solid fifty-odd citizens saw her in the flesh.”  Said flesh, I might add, was not inconsiderable.  “Her bodysect swears she never left her side until chamber hours were over.  Mae went to bed; the bodysect tucked her in, locked up digital and manual.  She sleeps in the outer crib and swears no one came in or out.”

“Alarms?”

“All over, and nothing sounded.”

“The bodysect.  Conditioned?”

“Better than legit.  They needled her anyway.  Nothing.”

So much for that.

Joey leaned forward, confidingly.  “But Mae ain’t the half of it.  This is the fourth time in three cycles that one of ours, Family, I’m talking about, I mean, has disappeared.”  He smiled at my expression.  “That interests you, doesn’t it, Sara the Clever?”

It did.

He counted on stubby fingers.  “Gabby Abu n’Har.  Manages—or used to—the speedwell runs to the Hawking Series.  My old run, in fact.  And Sammy Tolstoi.  A McHessian droog.  You know him?”

I nodded.  I knew Sammy professionally.  Hadn’t seen his ugly, tattle-tale face in some time, come to think of it.  Of course, maybe McHessian realized just how much Sammy was skimming off the bottom of the lux trade.

“And it’s not just here, Sara.  Terra…”

He gave me a dark look, and I kept my face carefully blank.  No one, but no one is supposed to know about the Family contacts Terra-side.  Joey decided to trust me, I guess.  Of course, I was easily removable if I got troublesome.  That’s why I try real hard not to be troublesome.

“One of the hereditaries.  Mostly decorative, but had pull with the local prefects.  He looked after certain interests of mine. Ours.”

So, a runner, a thug, a Terran, Vostra.  Was the whole Family itchy about it, or just Joey?

“Were they connected?  Besides being Family?”

“Not as far as we know.  Could be random hits, I suppose, but why?  And no bodies, not a scrap.  Mae in her crib.  Gabby was with a bit he had holed up in the upper decks.”

Joey watched me chew the inside of my lower lip.  “Sarabet, chick, I’m not asking you to do anything dirty.  Just do a little checking up for me, for old times’ sake.  See if you can find anything my snoops missed.  No more than you’d do for any other client.”

“Is this on the record?  With the Family, I mean?”

He shook his head.  “Just a little job between you and me.”

So he thought the Family was phasing him, and I would too.  Three, maybe four connections gone, and no one’s talking.  I didn’t want to do it.  I’m no vestal, but I did keep myself clean of mob work, and something about this case stunk of it.  I looked into Joey’s eyes, Gregor’s eyes, and sighed.

“OK, Papa Joe.  I’ll see what I can do.”

*     *     *
Step one was DuChamp at the prefects’ quad.  Yeah, I know anyone worth their O2 can hack their files.  But there’s a lot a good prefect never tells a file, or a Goldshirt, or a psychobab, either.

DuChamp was dubious.  “So you’re doing Family work now,” he said, snotty.

I was afraid of this.  I worked to steer clear of mob work, and now I smelled like Family.  “You know better than that, Champ.  I’m doing a favor for an old friend.  Not all of us were born of the Virgin, like you.”

He gave me a dirty look, but he came through.  Owed me, too, for some fast work during the O2 riots.  I could kiss that favor goodbye.

“If your pal’s snoops couldn’t track Vostra, it’s because there was nothing to find.  We have no leads, and that’s the truth.”

“Any pet theories?”

“Honestly, I’d say it was a Family job.  Who else could pull a stunt like that?  Or want to?”

“Your boys would.  She was working for Family.”

He was unperturbed.  “Sure, Mae’s not a favorite of ours.  We’ve got the motive, but not the opportunity.”

“What about the bodysect?”

“Conditioned.  Which you knew.  Better than was good for her.  I had a go at breaking her myself.”  He flexed his knuckles instinctively.  “We’ll investigate. We’ll find nothing, and the case’ll go cold.  In ten or twenty cycles, years, whatever, somebody’ll find her.”

He looked at me and laughed.  “They probably hired you to find out how watertight the whole thing is.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “So what about Gabby n’Har?  Or Sammy Tolstoi?”

“A runner and a punk.  One’s missing; one I haven’t seen lately and don’t care if I do.”

“I’ll give you something for nothing, Champ.  My client thinks they’re connected.”

“I’ll check it out.”

“The good citizens thank you, Champie.”

I squirmed out of the central prefect warren, nodding to the boys and girls who waved at me, faces I’d seen at witness cages and neon bars and bathed by the ghostly glow of corridor lights when someone found a body in the dead of dawn.  I wondered how far my stock would plummet when they found out I was working for Straphos.

*     *     *

At 2100 hours I was in my crib, contemplating food packs and losing my appetite.  I was just considering a scuttle downlevel for a soy wrap when the crib door beeped.  The spyscreen showed a polished hunk of manflesh.  I reached for the release, paused, then punched the scanner.  “No projectile weapons,” it remarked indifferently.  “Three blades.  Left forearm, waist, right ankle.”

I switched it off.  They could chop me anytime if they really wanted to.

“Come in,” I said, releasing the door.  He paused at the threshold, eying my miniscule crib.  Standard issue, five em by five by five.  Pisspot enclosure and everything tucked up nice and shipshape.  No bath, but the Greentoed Frog public lav is just round the corner and down a chute.  To get on the crib lottery I’d racked up public service and waited for enough people to die, living ’til then in the bunks with the rest of the proles.

“Mr. Straphos wondered if there was anything you needed,” said the droog, politely enough.  “Of a financial nature, I mean.”

“No, chick,” I said.  “Tell Joey I don’t take money from old friends.”

He didn’t know what to do with that one, glanced round the crib again.  You have three seconds, my precious (thought I), to wipe that smirk off your map.  Wonder of wonders, he read my face and did.  Gave a little bow and turned to go.

“Wait a sec, sweetheart.”  He paused.  “You know anything about a lady friend of Gabby’s, Gabby n’Har?  A bit he kept upstairs, lux level?”

He grimaced.  “Yeah, some old stock jet trash.  Not his usual taste.  Liz Pathe.”

“Where is she now?”

“Where he left her, in a lux crib upstairs.  ‘Til midcycle.  Then she’s out on her ass, I guess.  No Gabby, no juice.”

“You’re all heart.”

“Ma’am?”  His perfect forehead wrinkled.  I hated to see it do that.

“Nothing, chick.  Run along home.”

He nodded, still frowning, as I shut the door.  I watched the immaculate back of his head receding in the spyscreen.

*     *     *

Old stock or no, Miss Liz was no lady.  Neither am I, mind, but I never pretended.  She was an unfriendly little puss.  Of course, I should allow for her heartfelt grief at the loss of Gabby.  The pouty, well groomed figure in the spyscreen planted her hands on her hips and screeched.

“I told those scaggy prefects and the Fam snoops too.  I was in the lav, I didn’t hear a damn thing.  When I came out, he was gone.  The bastard’s hiding somewhere.”

So DuChamp followed up on my words of wisdom.  Interesting.

“You sure you heard nothing?”

“I’m not deaf,” she said.  “But I’m no Ear.  I didn’t hear anything.”

I tried another tack.  “How much do you know about Gabby’s business?”

She stared at the screen, nonplussed.  “He ran some speedwell runs.  Everyone knows that.  So?  I was never involved in that crap.”

I snorted; I couldn’t help it. Everyone, Council down to the innocent babe, is involved in that crap.  It’s the heartblood of Chandra’s Game.

Miners in the Hawking Series pits and elsewhere get paid by commission.  Common knowledge, right?  Speedwell is illegal, technically, but it’ll let a grunt work double shifts, double strength without damage.  Until later, but by then you’re supposed to have made your pile and sprung for a few compensatory implants.  If, of course, you haven’t blown it in the Company commissary.  Or the Company casino.  Or the Company cathouse, non-union.  All fair, right?  Except that some poor droogs go a little heavy on the speedwell when quota time comes.  Get a little burnt: the mind disconnects from its hardware and goes spinning where it will.  You’re left staring at your toes.  Some have Addison’s Reaction and become violent and unmanageable, and have to be sedated stupid the rest of their lives.  Some miners never touch the stuff, which doesn’t leave them any less dead or maimed when a teammate on speedwell doesn’t react the way he’s supposed to.

But overall it increases production, so the Company turns a blind eye.  Human damage is overhead like anything else.

Liz was still staring.  I continued. “Did anyone have a grudge?  Someone who got hurt?  Someone’s whose droog got burnt?  Come on, Liz.  You have to know.”

She broke the connection them, but I saw her expression.  Frightened.  Of me, Gabby, the prefects, the Family, something.

Not a stupid sentiment, considering.

*     *     *

I hate going top level.  The dark expanse overhead makes me feel like I could fall forever.  Distant stars hard and cold in the background, and the only other light beyond the dome the ominous dark glow of Gehenna or Tartarus, or a flash when a freighter went through.

The tunnels underground for me.  Topside the tourist traps and overpriced traders’ stalls that cater to the ignorant.  Docking grids and dens where the Blueshirts hang when they aren’t humping cargo or crewing.  Nothing like a Blueshirt on leave; they have money to spend, and they deserve it.  Usually freighters, well captained and crewed, navigate the wormholes just fine.  Sometimes they don’t.  No one asked our species to go prancing through wormholes.  It keeps insurance mavens in business, anyway, and exotic goods exotic.

Liz’s crib, however lux, was in the less prestigious sections of the upper decks, sandwiched between the richest traders and the honeycombs where tourists bunked.  I shouldered into a service crèche and settled in for a long wait.  But it was only an hour or so when she emerged from the crib.  I followed her up corridor, top deck, watched her enter the plexi-topped Blueshirts’ Paradise, ungodly amber in the topside light.  I paused: should I follow her or head back and search the crib?  Nothing there the Squad or Family snoops hadn’t found already.  Better to see who she was meeting in such a hurry.

I caught up with her at one of those glassed in jet trash troughs where they charge you triple for bad java.  I lost her at the door, found her again through the transparent wall.  She was sitting at a scrap of a table, her smooth blond head next to a smoother black head.  I froze as Blackhead turned to the door, stayed frozen when I saw her face.

Carri Straphos.  Joey’s youngest daughter, and the most  ambitious.  But maybe she knew Liz socially; maybe they were friends.  Maybe Liz needed a little girlfriend time.

But as I watched Carri turned suddenly back to Liz and grabbed her upper arm, sinking her nails in Liz’s pale flesh.  Miss Liz went white as Carri bent close, saying something I couldn’t decipher.  Liz shook her head, mouthing something, the same phrase, over and over, and Carri let her go.  Liz rubbed at her arm and didn’t dare do anything else.  I knew how she felt.  We’d all been on the receiving end of Carri’s wrath, all Joey’s little brats.  Even Gregor was afraid of her, a little.

Neither had seen me, and I didn’t want to get any closer, so I didn’t know what Carri said.  Whatever it was, Liz had enough.  She wrestled her way out of her seat and through the crowded café.  Behind her Carri stayed seated, her nails drumming the table fast and furious.

I almost lost Liz in the corridor.  Before she reached her crib I shouldered in front of her.  She wasn’t snotty now.  Frantically she grasped my arm.

“I told her,” she choked, her eyes wide and brimming.  “I don’t know anything.  She doesn’t believe me.  I saw—I couldn’t have seen it.  I don’t know.  Nobody knows.  Tell her…”

She stared at my face and I don’t know what she saw there, because she let me go and backed into her door.

“Tell her to leave me alone,” she said and vanished inside.

*     *     *

“What do you care?” said Shashki, proprietor of the Greentoed Frog.  Years of tending the baths had made him insubstantial, foggy around the edges.  A breath of cold air would’ve blown his tall, skinny figure away.  “Bunch of Family narks. Let them off each other if they want.”

“Old business, Sha.  Old bones to burn.”

“Don’t be melodramatic,” he said, and vanished into the mist, damply disapproving.  I leaned against the slick tiles of the cubicle and drew steam deep into my lungs.  Sha was right, who was I trying to impress?  Joey, I told myself.  For God’s sake, the man was kind to you once.  Probably saved your life.  And he has Gregor’s eyes.  Gregor, once your lover, dead ten years since a speedwell run went bad.

Funny thing was, Gregor hated the business.  He was going to go legit.  Agreed to manage one more run, as a favor to his father.

Sha materialized beside me, holding a towel fresh from the sanitizer.

“Time to go home, chick.  You’re thinking too much in all this heat.  Hose down and get some rest.  Don’t lose sleep over the doings of rich folk.”

I wrapped myself in the rough cloth.  “The rich may be ridiculous, but they pay for the food and O2.  And hot water and java.”

Sha grinned.  “Damnest things they’ll do.  There was a local provost on Nimbus who collected slime molds.”

“You lie.”

“The hell I do.  All sorts of colors and shapes.  They were dormant half the time, and then they’d just crawl around.  He kept them in an enormous garden.  Kept cats to guard them.  Some of those things were three, four meters long.  He married my third cousin twice removed, but she caught him…”

“Sha…”

“What?  Sarah, you’ve gone white.”

“Sha, I think I’m going to be sick.”

He helped me to the sink.  Leaning over the dull metal, I saw the blur that was my face.  It was dead white, like Liz Pathe’s.  That’s all we need in this damn hive, I thought.  More recycled ghosts.

“What is it, Sarah?” Sha’s voice came from a long way away.

“I have to be sure.”  I straightened up and scrubbed at my lips with the back of my hand.  “I have to be absolutely sure.”

*     *     *

I love going down to the merchant’s halls, even as a brat, even now, babysitting a shipload of tourists.  Chandra’s Game was always a trading port, always will be and here lies her true heart.  Wormside traders and some from Terra come here to bid on the wares of a hundred planets, legit or no: spices, fabrics, gemstones, animals, plants, both, neither.  No matter your game, here you can find a seller and a buyer if the price is right.

Mel Kikorian’s trade was not certified kosher, but nobody held it against him.  His license said textile, and a Thantopian looks like rug.  Acts like a rug.  Even if it is alive.

Because it is, you know.  They grow like the mats of algae in the nutrition chambers but they’re alive like any other animal.  We don’t know how long they live, but we love our heat here in the cold of space, far from our mother star.  We don’t argue about where it comes from.

Mel had a precious, illegal stack of them, piled under teaser silks and narrative weavings.  As a child I spent half my life in merchant’s dens, beneath stacks of waxy, sealed boxes marked by a cryptic code of ribbons, red, blue, black, dirty cream, tied in the knots that told dealers in a glance their contents, shipper, taxes paid and due.  Mel cultivated brats, used them for sending messages he didn’t want Eared.  He’d feed us caviar, dragon’s meat, sugar from Terra.  He used us, like everyone uses everyone else in this bitch city of a million souls, but so?  He made a living and never betrayed you, not even for the bounty the Mayor offered to finger unregistered brats.  He’d keep a few of us hanging around in back in case he needed a runner, and we lounged among the luxuries, dirty kids in ratty jumpers.  Some slept between the Thantopians, soft and warm and vibrating so gently.  I didn’t.  I didn’t like the things, maybe because persistent traces of alien dust from smugglers’ ships tickled my nose and made me sneeze.  The others didn’t seem to mind.

Malice Fife was my best friend for a few cycles and didn’t mind the dust.  One day we couldn’t find her.  We searched the trading floors and the Warrens and never found a trace.  What were we going to do, report it to the authorities?

In the warm air of the trading floors, I shivered.

I stood a while between the stacks of goods before Mel saw me.  When he saw me he beamed.

“Sarah the Clever!”

I was in his good graces, having recently snagged a sometime smuggler who’d decided to retire before delivery but after payment.

“You shall have mint tea, and sugar, and we shall talk,” he said, bustling about as if I were a top client.  Ignoring my protests, he pushed me down on a pile of knotted rugs.  I acquiesced and held the hot cup of tea between my cold palms.

“Mel,” I said, leaning into the fragrant steam.  “Mel, have you seen Sammy Tolstoi recently?”

*     *     *

“You’re nuts,” said DuChamp.  “Certifiable.  Brainburned.”

“I’m serious, Champ.”

“You can’t expect me to report this.”

“Then I will.”

“What?  That some two-bit thug was hanging around Kikorian’s before he disappeared?  You’ll be laughed out of your guild.”

“He was running for Mel.  And Mel’s main trade…”

“Is the illegal import and sale of an indigenous species from Thantos.  Tell me something I don’t know.”

“I’ll tell you this: humans live longer than a steam fly and shorter than a macaw.”

“A what?”

“A bird from Terra.  Listen to me.  The Thantopian is a non-sentient life form people find decorative.  They’re warm and pretty and flat and look great on the floor and you don’t even have to skin them. Sure they’re a protected species, but people want ‘em and so they’re going to get ‘em.  Like macaws. Like slime molds.  No,” I waved DuChamp to silence and he sat behind his desk, sullen.  “You’re going to listen to this.  Someone has to.”

“What if Thantopians just live a long, long time?  Ever heard of one dying and curling up?  I think they’re lazy.  I think they’re sentient.  I think they talk to each other somehow.  No listen—this is a cold ball of ice and rock, but we’re making it warmer with our breathing and trading and living.  Slowly, a degree at a time.  One day Chandra’ll melt apart at the seams and we’ll fall into Gehenna or Tartarus, but not for few hundred years so it’s not my problem.  But I think it’s warm enough for the Thantopians to wake up.

DuChamp had his elbows on the desk, and now he put his head in his hands.

“You’re telling me that a Council member, a runner, and a thug were eaten.  Eaten by…carpets.”

“They’re not carpets, they’re animals.  Maybe certain groups of them, family groups, hibernate at the same time.  Wake up at the same time.”

“Wait a minute.”  DuChamp tapped at his spyscreen.  “Here.  The snoop report on Liz Pathe’s crib.  No Thantopian.  We would’ve impounded it, checked it for traces of n’Har.”

“No way old stock like Liz would’ve settled for a bare floor in a lux crib.  She must’ve seen something.  Must’ve got rid of the thing.  Easy to sell it to a trader.  She told me she didn’t know what happened, but she was lying, Champ.  It scared her half to death.”

“Then why not say something?”

I laughed.  “You say I’m nuts.  You know me.  What would you do to Liz Pathe?” I paced the tiny office.  “Likely Mae Vostra had one.  Family present.  Sammy lurking in Mel’s shop.  Terra-side connection…” DuChamp started, and I laughed again, hollowly. “You want to bet he had a little illegal rug, too?”

“If you’re phasing me, Sarah…”

I stopped pacing.  “My God.  I know who else knows.  Carri Straphos.”

“Carri?”

“She was quizzing Liz pretty hard.  She’s no numbwit, Carri isn’t.  She knows what Liz saw.  Champ…”

I turned to him slowly.  “Carri Straphos is very, very ambitious…”

He shrugged.  “She’ll be a player, one day.  We know that.”

“Joey Straphos has the biggest, most beautiful Thantopian you ever saw.  On the floor of his crib.”

We looked at each other a long second.  I knew what DuChamp was thinking.

Better the Devil you know…

*     *     *

Corridor slippers are great for keeping you grounded, but lousy for running.  We scrambled along pretty good, though.  I’ve never seen DuChamp move so fast.  And all for Joey Straphos.

We were too late, of course.  Papa Joe was gone.

Carri leaned against the wall, pale but composed.  She smiled sweetly at me and at DuChamp, who was panting at my back.  Over Carri’s shoulder the icon of Gregor reproached me.

Two droogs were rolling up the Thantopian, their movements jerky, nervous.  “Such a waste, Carri,” I remarked, as the stunning pattern disappeared and was bundled away.  “It’s safe for a few years.  Why not keep it?  Maybe you can use it to assassinate someone else.”

Carri smiled again.  “Thank you for your work on the Family’s behalf,” she said, pleasantly.  “Have you been paid?”

“Yes,” I lied.

“Then get the hell out of my crib.”

*     *     *

Of course, everyone had their Thantopians removed when word got out.  Some had them returned to Thantos, the less scrupulous disposed of them in organic grinders.  I wondered if that was wise.  We don’t know how they reproduce.

Carri manages Family business with admirable competence.  Mel Kikorian, who helped me and other kids, is out of business.  The prefects think I’m Family-tainted.  And Chandra’s Game lives on because it’s profitable.

I told DuChamp Chandra would live hundreds of years more, but leaning against the polished wall of the Greentoed Frog I think of the veins of ice deep inside, ice becoming water, molecule by molecule.  Profit won’t link them back together or hold them quiescent.

Profit’s not everything that hatches out of mud; nor is love.  I sit in the steam and wait for Chandra to hatch.

 


Samantha Henderson lives in Covina, California by way of England, Johannesburg, Illinois, and Oregon. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, various podcasts and Year’s Best collections. She’s the author of two tie-in books from Wizards of the Coast, Heaven’s Bones and Dawnbringer, and her poetry collection, The House of Forever, is upcoming in 2012 from Raven Electrick, Ink.

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