Hellflower

Somebody had nailed Moke Rahone to his Desk. . . .

I pulled off my glove and yanked out the optional extra somebody’d left with Brother Rahone. What I got for my trouble was long and thin, pointed at one end and with feathers at the other. It was mostly red, but where it was dry it was a kind of blue animal bone with carving on it.

I’d seen bone like that before. Hellflower work!

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Somebody had nailed Moke Rahone to his Desk. . . .

Moke Rahone’d been human, and someone had butchered him open. It was dainty-like. Real bodysnatcher work, done with something sharp—something that didn’t burn like a pocket laser or chew up the meat like a vibro.

And there was one other thing. It was sticking up out of Rahone’s insides and it hadn’t been part of his original manifest. It might tell me who killed him, and who might be interested in taking over the cargo I had for him.

I pulled off my glove and yanked out the optional extra somebody’d left with Brother Rahone. What I got for my trouble was long and thin, pointed at one end and with feathers at the other. It was mostly red, but where it was dry it was a kind of blue animal bone with carving on it.

I’d seen bone like that before. Hellflower work!

I’d just shut the door on the inner room behind me when the outer door opened. The hellflower standing there wasn’t Tiggy, but he looked real pleased to see me anyway.

“Ea, higna,” the hellflower said. Then he went for his heat. . . .

Chapter 1: Hearts And Hellflowers

I was minding my own business in beautiful downside Wanderweb, having just managed to mislay my cargo for the right price. My nighttime man had talked me into booklegging again, and damsilly stuff it was too—either maintenance manuals or philosophy texts. I never did figure out which, even with sixty hours time in Firecat between Coldwater and Wanderweb to stare at them and Paladin to read them to me.

So I was making my way around wondertown; free, female, and a damn sight over the age of reason, when I saw this greenie right in front of me in the street.

He was definitely a toff, an’ no stardancer—you never saw such clothes outside of a hollycast. He was lit up like Dream Street at night and wearing enough heat to stock a good-sized Imperial Armory besides. And this being scenic Wanderweb, land of enchantment, there was six of K’Jarn’s werewolves and K’Jarn facing him. I was of the opinion—then—as he couldn’t do them before they opened him up, so, fancy-free, I opened my mouth and said:

“Good morning, thou nobly-born K’Jarn. Airt hiert out to do wetwork these days or just to roll glitterborn for kicks, hey?”

K’Jarn looked up from pricing Tiggy Stardust’s clothes and said, “N’portada je, S’Cyr. Purdu.”

K’Jarn and me has known each other ever since I started running cargoes into Wanderweb Free Port and he started trying to boost them. For once I should of took his advice. But hell, it was seven-on-one, and I’ve never liked K’Jarn. . . .

“Like Imperial Mercy I will. Yon babby’s my long-lost lover and maiden aunt, and I’m taking him home to Mother any day now. Fade.”

He might have, except for that just then one of K’Jarn’s wingmen got restless and took a swipe at the glitterborn with a vibroblade. Tiggy Stardust moved faster than anything human and swiped back and I burned K’Jarn before K’Jarn could mix in. K’Jarn dropped his blaster, him not having a hand to hold it with anymore, and left on urgent business. So did everyone else.

Business as usual in wondertown, and not enough fuss for the CityGuard to show up. Except for the deader Tiggy made and another I didn’t have time to get fancy with, me and him was alone and he wasn’t moving.

I went to see if there was anything left to salvage. He snaked around and then it was me down and staring up at an inert-blade knife as long as my thigh while he choodled at me unfriendly-like.

I can get along in flash, cant, and Trade, but I couldn’t make head nor hind out of his parley, and I thought at first I’d hit my head too hard. But then I knew that what actually I had gone and done was the stupidest thing of my whole entire life. I’d rescued a hellflower.

Of course, hair that light and skin that dark could come from spacing on a ship with poor shields, and he wasn’t even so bloodydamn tall—just too tall to be the kinchin-bai he looked. But no other human race in space has eyes the color a hellflower’s got. Hellflower blue.

And why I couldn’t of figured this all out one street corner brawl ago was beyond me.

He stared at me, I stared at him. I figured I was dead, which’d at least spare me hearing Paladin’s opinion of my brains when I got back to Firecat. Then the hellflower rolled off me, put away the knife, and got to his feet.

“Jadraya kinvraitau, chaudatu. I apologize in honor for my ill-use of you; I thought you were one of the others. I offer you the thanks of my House and—”

“Don’t wanna hear it!” I interrupted real quick. He talked Interphon real pretty, but with a heavy accent— alMayne, that kind of lilt—more proof, not that I needed it. “You kay, reet, am golden, hellflower, copacetic— but don’t you go being grateful.”

His face got real cold, and I thought I’d bought it for the second time that morning. Then he said, “As you desire, chaudatu,” and ankled off.

Hellflowers are crazy.

✽✽✽

Strictly speaking, when you’re talking patwa, which is what most people in my neighborhood do, a “hellflower” is any mercenary from the Azarine Coalition: Ghadri, Felix, Cardati, Kensey, alMayne—a prime collection of gung-ho races with bizarre customs and short tempers. Actually, say “hellflower” in the nightworld and everyone’ll figure it’s an alMayne that’s caught your fantasy. alMayne are crazier than the rest of the Coalition put together—they’ve got their own branch of the Mercenaries’ Guild with its own Grandmaster, and when they do sign out for work (as bodyguards mostly, because there ain’t no wars anymore, praise be to Imperial Mercy and the love of the TwiceBorn) you can follow them around by the blood-trail they leave behind. They’ll win any fight they start—or just kill you in the middle of a pleasant conversation for no reason your survivors can see.

It’s all to do with hellflower “honor.” They’re mad for it. They got their own precious code of dos and don’ts, and you don’t want one of them beholden to you for any money. If that happens, you can be chaffering with your buddy and the ’flower’ll cut him down and tell you he did it to purify your honor. There was a man once lost six business partners, his cook, his gardener, two borgs and a dozen tronics to his hellflower bodyguard before he figured out the hellflower liked him. . . .

Hellflowers are crazy.

✽✽✽

So I stopped thinking about hellflowers and went and had breakfast. Didn’t wonder about my particular ’flower; there wasn’t nothing about that boy going to make sense a-tall. And I had things to do.

My purpose in life for coming to Wanderweb—other than to make too little credit for too much work—was a little piece of illegal technology called a Remote Transponder Sensor. Not only does the Empire in its wisdom refuse to sell them to its citizens or even me, once you get one, you have to get it installed.

In a Free Port, nothing’s illegal and everything can be had for a price. Or an over-price. Remember that your friendly Free Port owner clears a profit after paying a tax to Grand Central about the size of his planetary mass, and you’ll get the general idea. Never shop Free Port if you don’t have to—but if something can’t be had for any credit, you can probably find it here. And every Free Port and most planets has its Azarine.

The Azarine is the mere district, named after the Coalition. It holds everything from sellsword to gallowglass with a short detour through contract assassin, and like all special interest ghettos, it’s home to the kiddies that service the players as well as the players themselves. Enter Vonjaa Beofox, high-nines cyberdoc living in the Azarine.

I heard tell of Beofox from an Indie who gave her the rep for being rough and nasty but good, which meant she was probably some legit bodysnatcher who took High Jump Leave from an Imp hellhouse to make a dishonest living in the Wanderweb Azarine. I saw her sign hung out over Mean Street. It had the Intersign glyphs for “fixer” and “bionics” on it, and the running hippocrene that was Beofox’s personal chop. Beofox was a bodywarp fixer specializing in bionics—add a leg or a laser, prehensile tail or whatever you want—and Mean Street is the beating heart of the Azarine. There was a number of characters about as big as my ship standing around the place, but sellswords don’t fight for free any more than I ship cubic out of charity. In the fullness of time I got past Beofox’s bouncer and in to see her.

Beofox was about my size—which means on the short side of average—with a saurian cast to her bones that made you wonder where her breeding population rated on the Chernovsky scale. Her hair was roached up in a fair way to conceal a decent hideout blaster and she had as much ring-money punched through her ears as I wore on my boots. The walls of her surgery was covered with charts showing her daily specials and the most popular forms of blackwork for cybers.

“Want a thing done, Beofox,” I said to open hostilities.

“I do no favors for stardancers, che-bai. What kind plastic you spinning?” she shot back.

The whistle in the nightworld was that Beofox had a soft-on for the rough-and-tumble kiddies, which made Gentry definitely persona-non-breathing in her shop. But stardancers don’t run to cyberdocs so it was Beofox or I’d just spent a lot of wasted money on something I shouldn’t own in the first place.

“Am golden, bodysnatcher; just dropped kick.”

“That’s ‘bonecrack’ to you, and speak Interphon. Why don’t you work your own side of the street, stardancer?”

“I want a Rotten C,” I said, real articulate-like.

Beofox regarded me with new respect. “A Remote Transponder Sensor—with the Colchis-Demarara shielding, irrational time processor, fully independent sub-micro broadcast power storage, and guaranteed full-fidelity sound reproduction? Do I look like an Imperial Armory?”

“Sure, che-bai. And I look like a Gentrymort with clearances, so get out your wishbook.” I already had the RTS, but it don’t do to tell everything you know.

We swapped insults for a while until Beofox came to the conclusion that while the hardboys might be fine and nice and real friendly, having friends in the transport union’ll keep you warm at night. We ended up with her agreeing to install it and me admitting I had it, and then we went around about price, which started out to be my left arm and all that adjoined it, and finally got down to the price of a complete legal biosculpt.

“We can fix that face of yours, too, you know,” she said when we’d closed the deal.

“Don’t scare kinchin-bai.”

“Sure. But someone’s going to top you for a dicty sometime from the nose alone. I just wish you damn Interdicted Colonists would either stay in the quarantine your ancestors paid for or realize that twenty generations of inbreeding stands out like a flag of truce when you try to leave. Where in Tahelangone are you from, homebody?”

Tahelangone Sector is where all the Interdicted Worlds are. Nobody goes in, nobody goes out, and the Tech Police are there to see it stays that way. Emigration is, like all the fun things in life, illegal.

“Fixer, you farcing me, surely. Born and raised on Grand Central, forbye.” Neither of us believed me.

“I’ll see what I can do if you want, for ten percent over what we’ve agreed. Just bring your play-pretty back here tonight at half-past Third. Shop guarantee is a one-third refund if you’re not combat-ready by thirty hours later.”

We went around a little more and settled on that too. I left as a Ghadri wolfpack was coming in to discuss armored augmentation.

✽✽✽

I spent the rest of the day hanging out in a place in wondertown called the Last Gasp Arcade. In between the hellflower and the cyberdoc in my busy social round I’d run into an old friend; a darktrader named Hani who’d just turned down a job for being too small and in the wrong direction. He remembered I ran a pocket cruiser, and if Firecat was hungry he’d pass word for a meet.

I did not at the time think it odd to pick up a job this way even in a Port with a perfectly legit Guild-board and Hiring Hall, and I agreed as maybe I might be around this particular dockside bar from meridies to horizonrise local time, with no promises made.

Three drinks post-meridies my maybe-employer showed up. He was a short furry exotic with a long pink nose, and except for the structural mods made by a big brain and bipedal gait he looked an awful lot like something we used to smoke out of the cornfields back home. Of course, to a Hamat or a Vey he might of looked like whatever. Your brain matches what you see to what you’ve seen, and files off the bits what don’t fit.

He sat down. “I am the Reikmark Arjilsox,” he almost said. Your brain plays tricks with sounds too—what was obviously a name just sounded like gibberish to me, but I wasn’t planning to remember it. “I understand you are a pilot-of-starships?”

We established that I was a pilot-of-starships, that I owned and could fly a ground-to-ground-rated freighter-licensed ship, and that my tickets were in order—Directorate clearances, Outfar clearances, inspection certs, et cetera, and tedious so forth. Forged, of course, but the information was correct—I’d have to be a fool to claim to be able to pilot something I couldn’t.

We also established that Gibberfur here was the Chief Dispatcher for the Outlands Freight Company, a reputable and highly-respected organization that chose to do its business in sleazy arcades. I ordered another round of tea and waited.

It took Gibberfur awhiles to make the Big Plunge, but when he did it was simple enough: In three days local time we’d both come back here and Gibberfur would hand me six densepaks of never-you-mind, which Firecat would take unbroached to a place called Kiffit that was nominally in the Crysoprase Directorate, where Yours Truly would hand them over unto one Moke Rahone and get paid in full.

This, I told him, was a lovely fantasy, and I had one to match: In three days we’d both come back here, and he would hand me six densepaks of never-you-mind and the full payment for the tik, and Firecat would then take the densepaks unbroached to Kiffit and one Moke Rahone.

Eventually we settled about halfway between—half from him up front, half from Moke Rahone on delivery, confidentiality of cargo to be guaranteed. I agreed to the job, thumbprinted the contract, took charge of my half of the paperwork, and that was that.

My second mistake of the day. And two more than I needed for this lifetime.

Chapter 2: A Little Night Music

It was just after dark meridies when I pulled my rented speeder up to the public docking in front of the Wanderweb Justiciary.

I wasn’t doing the pretty by this glitterborn, make few mistakes about it. In my business you do not make friends and be a angel of mercy—and I wasn’t grateful, not to Tiggy. I just wanted to see his face when I showed up. That’s all.

The top twelve floors of the Wanderweb Justiciary had closed at the end of First Shift and it was now almost the end of Second, but Det Admin and Detention itself never slept. I admired the pretty statues and the nice murals on the walls while I waited for the lift. Wanderweb, city of progress.

One level down it was a different story—looked like legitimate headquarters Empire-wide, with the small difference that the only uniforms in sight was the Guardsmen’s gaudy red-and-blue. I went to the Desk Officer and told him I was sure my First was in here an I’d come to bail him out. He asked me when my First’d been brought in and I said I didn’t know, only when I’d gone to lift ship he wasn’t around. Checked morgue, I said, and he wasn’t there.

Same old story: Idiot High Jump Captain and her rakehelly crew. And it would all check green across the board if they bothered. Paladin and me had spent the whole day going over plans for the Justiciary and pieceworking a false data file on Firecat—a.k.a. the Starlight Express out of Mikasa.

The Desk Officer sent me in-level to Fees & Records and told me to hurry because they was just about to shut down for the day, and if I got there after they closed I’d have to come back tomorrow at beginning of First Shift.

Ha.

I skipped over there, trying to look like nobody who was carrying a unscannable solenoid stunner under her jacket and grabbed some poor overworked bureaucrat who worked in Records. I spun him a tale about my missing First—Hamat, he was, because I knew Alcatote was being a good boy and there wasn’t another Hamat loose in twelve cubic light-years. Of course the poor cratty couldn’t find him in his listings and of course I couldn’t remember when he could of come in. The cratty kept swearing my First wasn’t here and looking at his chrono—it was almost end-of-shift, remember?—and I kept insisting and being just short of nasty enough that he’d call some Guardsmen and put me in gig too. Finally he grabbed me and dragged me around to his side of the display and pointed.

“I tell you, Captain, there are no Hamati in here!”

I looked. It was an intake list for the last three days, broken down by Breeding-Population-of-Origin. It had no Hamati, twenty-seven Fenshee, and one alMayne. I memorized his file number.

“But he’s gotta be in here!” I insisted, in my best wringing-her-pale-hands-and-moaning voice. “Look, check again—maybe you got his B-pop wrong. He don’t look much like a Hamat—”

“What does he look like?” said my good little straight sophont.

“Well,” I began, improvising, “He’s about a meter-fifty, striped—”

“There are no meter-and-a-half tall Hamati!” thundered my long-suffering soulmate.

“Well, he told me he was Hamat!” I whined. “How am I supposed to know?”

“Look, Captain, if you’ll just come back tomorrow—”

“But I’m lifting tonight! I need him back now! Look, don’t you keep holos or something? I could look, an—”

“One thousand and some very odd beings have been processed through here in the last three days!” my uncivil servant snapped.

“But I told you what he looks like! He’s striped, he has a long tail, and blue eyes—”

“Hamati do not have tails!” said my little buddy, who must of been a exobiologist in his free time.

“You just gotta look for him—”

“All right! We do keep hardcopy images of detainees. I’ll find you a list of all the fur-bearing sentients—”

“Striped. With a tail. And blue eyes.”

“—that have been processed in the last three days and then will you believe me that this— this person is not here? Will you go away?”

“Sure,” I said, and watched him disappear, a broken man, into the inner room.

Which was what I’d been angling for since I got here.

The astute student of human nature will notice I did not offer Junior the bribe that could of made things so much easier, as that would of made what was coming next unlikely to even the meanest intelligence.

As soon as the cratty was gone I punched up the retrieval codes for the alMayne file—it was Tiggy, all right, who else?—and found he was up for the chop when the Lord High Executioner came on duty later today. And I found out where my little alMayne lovestar was.

Restoring the terminal to its original state I lightfooted it over to a cabinet I’d cased as the most likely place to hide while I was stringing the button-pusher. I folded myself inside and shut the door just before he came back. I had my own reasons for thinking he wouldn’t look too hard for me.

“Captain, there are no— Where did she go?”

There was a moment of stricken silence. Then I heard furious muttering and sounds of grabbing-your-jacket-and-getting-ready-to-leave. I’d kept Junior a whole five minutes past quitting time with my damsilly tale, and that left him so mad he didn’t even stop to wonder where I’d got to.

In my business, it’s always a good idea to be a student of human nature. Now if I’d offered him that bribe, he’d sure and t’hell wonder why I’d vanished without getting what I paid for. This way I was just another exasperating space cadet.

I heard the door hiss shut behind him and started counting my heartbeats. After I’d done that for awhiles I figured all sentient life and most of the bureaucrats was gone from this section. The only thing out there’d be tronics, and I had a way to deal with them. I hoped.

I untucked my ears from between my knees and pulled a comlink out of my jacket pocket. The RTS let Pally and me talk to and hear each other and that was it; this’d let him hear things around me—like challenges from the securitronics patrolling the Det levels. It meant he could answer them in tronic, too, which would contribute to increased life expectancy for Yours Truly.

All this was assuming the comlink worked, and we wouldn’t know that until we tried it. But what’s life without a spirit of inquiry?

“It is not too late to change your mind,” Paladin said through the transponder in my head.

“Already paid rent on the speeder.” I eased the door open.

No alarms—just a dark empty office. I opened the door farther and stuck my head out. Still nothing.

Pally’d heard there was budget cuts for the civil services when he’d been cakewalking through the City Com­puter. Wanderweb justice being what it was, there wasn’t anything down here anybody could want to steal, but we’d still been expecting getting in to be harder than this. I started making plans for the rest of the evening at a bathhouse I knew and made to step out.

“Wait,” Paladin said. I waited. “There’s something there.” I froze.

“There is some form of security device in the room,” said Paladin.

I leaned farther out and saw it. It was about one meter across and less than half that high. It squatted malevolently in the middle of the floor glaring impersonal-like at everything in sight and didn’t seem to notice me.

Noticed or not, I couldn’t stay here all night. Maybe I could scramble its brains and have Paladin pick up the chat before anyone noticed.

“It is in contact with the Justiciary computer. It is likely that any interruption of that contact will constitute an alarm.”

And maybe I could just teleport to Security Detention.

I swung the door open the rest of the way. It crashed against the wall with a well-oiled thud that damn near made my heart stop.

“No change in status,” said Paladin. “Are you all right?”

“Terrific,” I said. If I couldn’t get past this thing, Tiggy was going to have to forget about being rescued and I’d have to start thinking seriously about a career of being dead.

What would set it off? Sound hadn’t, motion hadn’t, and with so many lizard-types in your Empire and mine it’d be pretty damn dumb to go with the old body-heat dodge.

So what did that leave?

Vibration. Spidey’d been interested when the door hit the wall but not very. If I set foot to floor how long until I was up to my absent blasters in Guardsmen? If that wasn’t it there wasn’t anything else I could think of.

Great. Now all I had to do was get out of here without walking across the floor—and me without my A-grav harness.

I looked up. What there was, was an air vent. The vent was just below the ceiling, a little to the left of the top of the cabinet and big enough to hold me on a skinny day if I gave up breathing. Three cheers and a tiger for impecunious bureaucrats and Free Port owners that want to save every credit. Even for the Outfar this was backward.

“Butterfly?” Paladin demanded in my ear. It gave me the weirdest feeling—no room for anyone to be standing behind me but he sure sounded like it.

“Securitronic sweet for the shaky, seeming. So I’m going through the air vents instead of over the floor.”

✽✽✽

We will pass lightly over me climbing to the top of the cabinet, leaning out into infinite space to get the grille off the vent, not dropping the bolts on the floor, and managing to get a handhold on the edge of the vent-shaft to pull myself in, and go directly to where I was jammed into the air vent with slightly less than no room to wiggle.

“Pally? How long’s it been?”

“One hour five. Butterfly, are you sure this is a good idea?”

“One helluva time to bring that up,” I told him, and started up the shaft. I could hear Paladin inside the vent, which augured well for our future deceiving securitronics together, but I’d lose him by time we got to Security Detention. By then it would be up to me and Tiggy Stardust.

I knew more or less where to go to pluck my hellflower, thanks to the mindless faxhandler who’d decreed all Justiciary levels be laid out to the same pattern. The floor plan for this level was classified—but the floor plan of the identical level two floors up wasn’t. The lift we wanted was just outside the main sentencing arena.

Six subjective eternities and the loss of my pantknees later, Pally and me came to a promising grille. It looked down from a good five meters into what looked like one of the sentencing arenas, and the room was full of tronics. I pushed the comlink up against the grille and waited for Pally to give me some glad news.

“Fortune is with you, Butterfly,” he told me a few minutes later. “This is the main sentencing arena—the housekeeping and security tronics use this for their central dispatch area during Third Shift. The lift to the Security Detention levels is just outside the door. You can walk right through.”

“Yeah?” I said. Leaving aside for the moment Paladin’s definition of luck, there was the minor matter of more rude mechanicals down below than I ever really hoped to meet. And securitronics tend to be irritable.

“ ‘Yeah.’ Housekeeping and Security are programmed to avoid each other—I will provide them with the proper code, and you will walk across the floor and out the other door. As long as they receive the proper codes, the tronics will not care who you are. Just move slowly, as if you were another machine.”

“If this is so easy, why don’t everyone come dancing in here? Think of the valuta they could save on fines.”

“In the first place, the recognition codes for the security devices are changed by the computer on a random sequence. In the second place, it is generally accepted that breaking into a prison is an unnecessary exertion.”

I ignored that. I also knew there wasn’t any other way in.

I got a pocket-laser out of my bag of tricks and took out the grille. I passed it over my back into the airshaft, eased out through the hole until I was hanging by my fingers, and dropped. I came up with the stunner ready, but I couldn’t see a thing. Heard the whine of servomotors as a securitronic waddled over to me. It was a handspan taller than me and much wider, with all its come-alongs and keep-aways and don’t-worrys arranged neatly on its chest and arms. Its optical sensors glowed red in the dark but most of its dull gray hide was a dull gray blur. I wished I’d brought some night-goggles, but they would of raised eyebrows at the front desk when I was scanned and the info Pally had said the Justiciary was kept lit at night on all levels. On the other hand, if I died right here I wouldn’t need to see anything.

The tronic turned and walked away.

“I told you so,” Paladin said smugly. “Machines are stupid.”

I was challenged twice more—once by another securitronic, once by a housekeeper—and each time Paladin answered for me. I carded the little access door set into the big “for-show” courtroom doors and slipped out.

The hall outside wasn’t dark. It was pitch black.

“Helluva time for the high-heat to start economizing,” I muttered, staring/not staring into the dark. “Now what?”

“Hm,” said Paladin, just to let me know he was still there.

I could tune my pocket-laser to a torch, which the manufacturer does not recommend you do. I was just about to see if I could do it by feel when I heard heavy tronic-steps coming toward me and the whine of a housekeeper’s treads coming up behind.

Paladin sang out in a flurry of musical notes as I scrambled the securitronic right between its little red eyes with my stunner and then whipped out another shot to about where its brain ought to be. The guard hit the floor with a clatter, and the housekeeper nuzzled up to my ankles and went around me.

The nice thing about a solenoid stunner is that it’s completely harmless to organics and death on tronic brains.

By the glow of my retuned laser I could see the housekeeper merrily disemboweling the ex-securitronic. The lift to Security Detention was a few meters away.

“Here’s where thee-an-me subdivide, Pally,” I said, trying to sound more confident than I felt.

“I will monitor all city-wide communications,” he said, not sounding really wild about all this either, “and brief you when you come out.”

When you come out. Thanks for vote of confidence, little buddy. “Won’t be long,” I said.

The lift door opened. I got in and stood there for a while feeling stupid, then it reopened on Detention level.

I was looking at a man in a CityGuard uniform standing in front of a console with a securitronic on either side of him. I scrambled both of them, and while he was still trying to figure out why they didn’t work he let me get close enough to him to hit him over the head with my stunner.

Never depend on your technology.

Then I was past the check-in point and running down a long corridor three tiers high and lined with doors. I’d borrowed the Guardsman’s blaster, so I used it to zap two more tronics. I wished I had Paladin with me to tell me about all the alarms and excursions being raised all over the place.

Tiggy’s cell was at the very end, but at least it was on the bottom. I switched the setting on my borrowed blaster from “annoy” to “leave no evidence” and blew the lock out. The cell door sprang right open, and there was my hellflower.

He was chained hand and foot for punishment drill, and spread out on the wall pretty as a holo. The Justiciary’d took his jewels and all his clothes in payment of fines, and he was wearing a pair of Det-ish pants that didn’t fit by a long shot.

And the look on his face was everything I could of hoped for.

“Chaudatu,” he finally said. “Not you again?”

“Yeah, me. I’m here to rescue you.”

Later, when Paladin got his, um, hands on an alMayne lexography, we found out that “chaudatu” means “outlander,” except that what it really means is “anyone who is not alMayne and therefore not a real person.” Unfortunately, even if I’d known that at the time it wouldn’t have made any difference.

I got out my picks and got to work on Tiggy’s shackles—feet first, then hands—and hoped that Time, Fate, and bureaucratic cock-up would give me the fistful of nanoseconds needed to get the ’flower loose and on his feet. After that, I figured my troubles were over. All we had to do was get us out of here alive, and Tiggy and me could go hide out. He could be grateful, and then I could bugout for Kiffit and write the next chapter of my memoirs.

He dropped to the floor when I got the last cuff off and stretched all over like a cat. Real pretty. I handed him the liberated blaster.

“Can use this-here?” I said in broad patwa.

He looked at it briefly. “Yes.”

“Reet. Now hear me, che-bai—thing rigged for ‘kill,’ okeydoke? Not to dust organics with it. Fragging people buys bad trouble. Shoot at wartoys. Right?”

While I was talking, I was looking out into the corridor. The quiet was spooky, and there should of been more guards, but I didn’t see any. I looked back and Tiggy was regarding me with the expression of a hellflower what hadn’t understood one word I’d said.

“Look, che-bai; shoot tronics, not organics. Zap-zap. Ch’habla— Understand?”

“Shoot only at security robots. Dzain’domere,” said Tiggy gravely.

“Je, reet. Just don’t shoot people.” I was nervous and didn’t have time to remember my Interphon.

He glared. I thought he was thinking of shooting me and to hell with freedom, but he nodded. We single-footed it out into the corridor. I wondered what jane-doh-meer meant in helltalk.

The wartoys on the tier above us started shooting.

I pulled Tiggy back against the wall and out of their line of fire. I remembered my plasma grenades and wondered if I should use them now. They were small, but still big enough so I didn’t want to risk it unless we were in real trouble.

Six heavy-duty securitronics came trundling down the corridor toward us. They were about the size of the Imperial Debt and all business. I could see riot-gas launchers extruding from the chest of the leader as it came on.

We were in real trouble. I rolled a grenade toward them, body-blocked the ’flower back into his cell, and prayed.

The grenade went off.

There was smoke. Tiggy burned the wartoys on the tier above as I was finishing the six-pack on the floor. Grenade’d gone off right behind the leader, and the blast had splash-backed to destroy the next two. The other three was confused enough with memory-purge and magnetic-bubble scramble for Tiggy to totally blow them away as we jogged past.

There was probably alarms going off from here to Grand Central, but they was all silent—at least I couldn’t hear them. I overrode the lift’s lock-command from the main board out front. It wasn’t that different than some Pally’d coached me on. Tiggy covered my back while I did it; his eyes was blazing like burning sapphires and he was grinning like he was enjoying himself. We picked up a couple rifles.

“Ten minutes, ninety seconds. Ten minutes, ninety-five seconds. Eleven minutes.” Paladin was counting off, on the chance I’d be back to hear.

The corridor was still dark when we got back up to Sentencing. Then the lift shut behind us and everything went really dark. I got out my much abused laser. We had to get out now before word of our presence spread.

“Here we are, boys and girls,” I said for Paladin’s benefit.

“Are you all right? No alarm has been raised: The city is quiet, the Justiciary is not calling up any reserves, there have been no transmissions from Security Detention.”

“C’mon,” I said, to my hellflower and my partner. “This way. We’re both fine for now—” that was for Paladin “—shoot any mechs you see, no matter what. And kid—”

“Do not shoot the people,” Tiggy finished. “I know, chaudatu, but I think you are a fool.”

There’s gratitude for you. Not having dusted anyone in our escape probably wouldn’t do us any good if we were caught, but I was feeling superstitious enough to think that virtue might be rewarded.

We made it out of Sentencing and back into Records. There was more light here. A quick riot-gas grenade would cover us on the way out of Receiving and—

—I looked around and Tiggy was halfway back down the corridor, stopped dead and sight-seeing. I turned back.

“Ain’t time to sightsee, ’flower. Grab sky!” I took him by his wrist and pulled. It was like trying to shift a neutronium statue.

“My arthame, chaudatu. I must have it.”

Just what I needed. More hellflower gibberish.

“My Knife,” Tiggy expanded. “I cannot leave without my Knife. They have taken it from me; do you know where it is?”

There wasn’t anybody around to see or hear but there would be soon. “Look: I’ll buy you a new one; c’mon!” I gave one last yank, which meant I was still holding on when Tiggy took off in the opposite direction. Ever been dragged down a empty hall by a hellflower oblivious to threats, comments, and reasonable objections? I don’t recommend it.

Paladin picked up on what was going on from listening to me and started doing a nice counterpoint; telling me to ditch the glitterborn and kyte.

“Hold it, hold it—hold it!” I yelled, stopping one and shutting up the other. “Look—goddammit, ’flower, will you slow down? Just hold it a minute, forbye.”

Tiggy Stardust stopped and glared glacially down at me from severalmany centimeters up.

“I will listen.”

“You telling me you gonna throw it all away and go charging back inside to get yourself totally dusted and iced at least twice—for a knife?”

“I will not leave without it. I cannot. It is not a ‘knife.’ It is my—”

“Don’t start. Won’t make any more sense’n anything else you ever said. Whatever it is, you’re going the wrong way. Your knife’s in Property with the rest of your kit. I’ll help you get it. Then we leave, je, che-bai?”

“Dzain’domere.” Right.

And they say hellflowers are crazy.

We dogged it back the other way and all of a sudden instead of empty the place was full of enough securitronics to reassure me that Wanderweb PortSec still had the good numbers. We had to blow them away before they could use gas, or ticklers, or anything else, and Paladin was so disgusted he didn’t say damn-all. Real Soon Now I figured City Central Computer’d change the securitronics’ programming from “Contain” to “Destroy.” I’d sort of intended to be gone before that happened, but you know how it gets. It’d been a while since I’d had this much homegrown fun, and only the fact that it was me and a hellflower doing the utterly unreasonable against a bunch of tronics saved our bones.

Chapter 3: Third Person Peculiar

Tiggy Stardust nee Valijon Starbringer looked at me. I looked at him. He showed me his teeth, and I remembered for how many human races a smile wasn’t a smile.

So I had a drink. Then I had another drink. Tiggy had a drink too, and said I should call him “Honored One.”

I wondered why t’hell he hadn’t mentioned his interesting family to Wander­web Justiciary when they’d brought him in, and said so. He said it was a matter of honor.

Honor. Hah. I knew for damn sure the alMayne would of fried Wanderweb to bare rock once they found Tiggy dead and I bet Tiggy would of thought the joke was worth it.

I took another hit off the box of burntwine and left it with him, since he seemed to appreciate the bennies of a fine vintage neurotoxin, and tottered back up to the mercy seat. When I lowered the cockpit through the hull again Wander­web was still down there, looking peaceful.

I could tell Pally was just waiting to have words with me, which was damn considerate since he could have any words he wanted and I couldn’t say no never-you-mind. I put my Best Girl’s extra ears on and started listening for ID beacons. Tiggy’d been downside in a shuttle, and it had to come from some­where. Maybe somewhere’d be glad to have him back.

“The authorities will call it kidnapping, you know,” Paladin said in my ear. Considerate of him not to use the bulkhead speakers. I looked around. Tiggy was sitting in the back of the hold with burntwine and blaster looking as stub­born and patient as a cat I’d used to have.

“What authorities?” I finally said. “Hellflowers?”

I didn’t find anything orbiting Wanderweb on my first pass and set up to try again. It was a damn shame I couldn’t ask Wanderweb Central what they had in their sky, but didn’t think they’d be real responsive somehow.

“Not kidnapping when you give it back, Pally.”

“And what do you expect the Port Authority to say when questioned? Some­one will have to be culpable in the matter of what has happened to Valijon Star­bringer. The alMayne will insist. And the penalty for interfering with a member of an Ambassadorial Delegation is . . . extreme, Butterfly.”

“So we send babby-bai across to Pledge in lifepak soon as we get near it. He’ll square his folks—or not. Hell, Pally, what’s one more warrant going to matter?”

“Kidnapping one of the TwiceBorn is a class-A offense. How many more can you afford? You have, as you are fully aware, three already: illegal emigration from an Interdicted World, nonpayment of chattel indenture, and . . . me.”

Paladin must be really torqued to mention the last bit. Usually we just pre­tend there ain’t no such thing as Class One High Book.

“Already know I’m dicty-barb, runaway slave, and . . . you know,” I pointed out. “Tell me new things, che-bai.”

“I will tell you that you cannot afford to attract attention. That you cannot af­ford another class-A warrant, especially one that will be so actively prosecuted. That if I had known who Valijon Starbringer was in the first place, I would—”

“You’d what?”

“I would have told you this earlier,” Paladin finished primly.

I went back to my sensor-sweeps.

If Pally said the penalty was extreme, I didn’t want to know what it was. Even if Tiggy did true-tell his da, I didn’t know what hellflower logic’d turn his story into.

“Then we just better hurry up and find Pledge so’s we can get t’hell out of here, j’keyn?”

“Ideally,” said Paladin. I groaned. All I needed was for my best buddy to have a case of the more-ascetic-than-thous the whole way to Kiffit.

Besides which, it was getting to be obvious there wasn’t any consular ship highbinding my ex-favorite Free Port.

“Oh, Paladin. Where is Pledge of Honor?”

“If you had not decided to meddle in the merciful and reasonable justice of the Empire,” Paladin said, sounding cross, “we would not be in this situation now, Butterfly.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said, trying to keep my voice low. “Never mind it’s Free Port profit, not Imp justice, and Tiggy wouldn’t of been up for the chop if he hadn’t saved my bones.”

“If you had not interfered in the first place, your alMayne nobleman would have murdered K’Jarn and been taken into custody over an offense less extortionately overpriced.”

So now Tiggy was my hellflower glitterborn, was he? I could think of only one real good reason for Pally to be that torqued.

“Bai, where’s Pledge of Honor?”

There was a real long silence if you consider how fast Paladin chopped logic.

“I cannot find it, Butterfly. It isn’t here.”

I didn’t ask him if he was sure. If anyone wanted to find the hellflower gar­den more than me, my silent partner did.

✽✽✽

I pulled the heads-up console farther down over my face and thought about Life, hellflowers, and scenic Wanderweb.

One, if I didn’t hit angeltown pretty soon, I’d miss my meet on Kiffit, which could be trouble.

Two, if my antisocial lovestar’s ticket out of my life wasn’t where he said it was, either it never had been there or it’d left. I didn’t think Tiggy knew how to farce, but if he was true-telling why wasn’t Pledge here?

Three, I had one sincere headache. It was composed of equal parts class-A warrants, Libraries, and the laws of physics. As follows:

A—I couldn’t take Tiggy back downside in Firecat. One, they’d cut off his head, two, I couldn’t get down and back alive, and three, it would make me even later to Kiffit if I tried.

B—I couldn’t take Tiggy with me. Firecat was a little ship, all engines, mar­ginal life-support, and an Old Federation Library under the mercy seat. Even if I wanted to chance Tiggy twigging Paladin, I couldn’t ship him all over the Empire in a ship the size of a Teaser’s conscience. For one thing, I wasn’t sure we’d both be alive when we got to Kiffit, air being what it was. Not to mention the fact that he was all tangled up in his honor by now and was probably going to try to purify the whirling fusion out of me soon as he figured out the best way.

And if I did take Tiggy to Kiffit, it’d be a real kidnapping for sure, and no way of talking myself out of the charge.

But if I didn’t either take the hellflower with me to Kiffit or put him back on the heavy side here at Wanderweb, that left only one thing to do with Tiggy Stardust—all of which made the evening’s fun not particularly funny, and never mind that if I hadn’t showed up he’d of been dead in a few hours anyway.

He’d been in the Last Gasp looking for me. And because he had been, I was alive now and he’d killed serious Guardsmen, for which Wanderweb wanted to chop him.

I sat there and thought about it, and punched up the numbers for the High Jump to Kiffit, and looked at my life-support inventories and counted on my fin­gers. Paladin knew what I was doing, but he didn’t say zip.

And when everything was done but making up my mind, I raised the cockpit back into the hull again and went back to talk to my passenger.

Firecat’s internal compensators weren’t good enough that she could of moved without him noticing, and after our takeoff Tiggy Stardust knew it. He put his knife away and stood up. Different cultures have different body language. On alMayne I bet this didn’t mean respect.

“Ea, chaudatu?”

“You ain’t going to like this, che-bai. Your ship ain’t there.”

I still wasn’t ready for way he moved.

“You are lying!” Tiggy snarled in my ear. He’d wrapped himself around all my bruises hard enough to hurt, and had his alMayne arthame snugged up to sev­eral of my important veins. If I flinched in the wrong direction I’d be non­fiction, but if I didn’t know people I would of sold my bones a long time ago.

Tiggy was scared.

“Hellflower, I am for-sure sorry your folks ain’t there. But it ain’t nice to pull heat on people for true-tell.” I talked real slow, trying to punch it across two lang­uages. I didn’t flinch neither, and eventually he let me go.

“They could not leave! How could they have left? It is not possible that they should leave; they—” Tiggy went off into helltongue, ramifying his position, which was pretty to listen to and told me precisely nothing. Paladin didn’t know it either, at least not well enough to translate.

“The Pledge of Honor was not listed at the Wanderweb ships-in-port direc­tory, thus we may infer that its stop here was not an official one. The most reason­able construction to place upon the matter of the ship’s absence from the area now is that the Pledge of Honor departed according to a predetermined schedule. If it were bound for Grand Central, a plausible hypothesis consider­ing its nature as a consular vessel, the captain would have had no other option. Whether the legation was aware of Valijon Starbringer’s absence from its midst at the time of departure is a matter for conjecture at this time,” said Paladin.

I rubbed my neck and counted my new bruises. Paladin still sounded just like a talkingbook, which meant he was still mad. I thought I’d share his facts with Tiggy.

“Was Da shopping cubic for Throne? He’d of had to kyte by mandated o’chrono no matter where you was,” I said. Tiggy stared at me, glazed and blank like a well-scrubbed palimpsest.

“Try Interphon,” suggested Paladin in my ear, which was fine for him but it’d been a long day and I was tired.

“Pledge is gone, j’ai?” I said to Tiggy. “Scanners don’t lie, not mine, if gardenship was highbinding—orbiting— it isn’t there now.”

Tiggy nodded, looking sulky.

“When Pledge tik’d to Wanderweb, was on way to Throne—Grand Cen­tral—ImpCourt, j’ai?”

Another nod. Communication was reliably established with the mentally underprivileged.

“So TwiceBorn jump salty if you’re late, see? So Pledge topped angels on sked, and you pick up ship on next downfall.” Wherever that was. I wasn’t paying for a long-distance call to Grand Central to find out, neither.

“But they do not know I’m gone! They cannot know—they would not have left if they had known! My father—”

Terrific. “Kyted downside on sly to rumble Gentryken?” I was beginning to wonder just how old Tiggy was.

“Maybe it would be better if you learned alMayne,” said my ever-helpful partner. “Or helltongue, if you prefer.” I looked at Tiggy’s blank expression and tried again.

“You went to planetary surface n’habla—” damn, what was the Interphon? “without—your parent’s knowledge?” I said careful, counting off the words on my fingers. It was like being back in Market Garden Acculturation class, and I hadn’t liked it then, either.

“I am not obligated to discuss these matters with you, chaudatu. There was no reason I should not visit Wanderweb. I am the Third Person of House Starborn—and he who says I may not go where I wish lives without walls!” Tiggy put his knife back in his waistband and tossed his hair back out of his eyes.

The words might be helltalk, but the tune was real familiar.

“How t’hell old are you anyway, Tiggy-che-bai?”

Tiggy goggled at me like he couldn’t figure where the question was coming from, but all of a sudden I thought it was real important.

“You will address me with respect as Honored One, she-captain.”

“J’ai; about the time you stop calling me she-captain, forbye. Now true-tell Mother Sincere facts.”

“What has this to do with the Pledge of Honor? If they have gone on to Royal you must follow them at once.”

“Why?” If Pledge’d gone on to Royal in the Tortuga Sector Firecat wasn’t following it for any credit. There was a rebellion going on in Tortuga against the Brightlaw Corporation, the family that ran the Tortuga Directorate, which meant Governor General his Nobly-Bornness Mallorum Archangel and his joy-boys’d be all over it, arguing Directorate jurisdiction against sector jurisdiction and making Tortuga cubic real unhealthy for my favorite dicty and other living things.

I sat down on a crate of rokeach and took off my jacket. I’d forgot about the bum on my arm; I scraped it and hissed. Tiggy tried to explain how I had to go chasing off into this free-fire zone full of Azarine mercs while I tried to get a biopak out of the medkit and over one helluva painful nuisance. Finally we both gave up.

“Hold still,” he said firmly. “You cannot do that yourself. I will bandage you, and you will explain why you are detaining a servant of the Gentle People.”

“That’s you, I suppose.” My baseline Interphon was finally coming back to me, but it still felt funny to the taste. “And what makes you think, glitterborn, you got any idea what to do with battle-dressings?”

“A warrior of the Gentle People must always be able to see to his comites, chaudatu. You are my responsibility, even if you are not very much of one. You have shed blood for me.”

“Like hell.” Bent out of shape or not, Tiggy had a glitterborn way of doing the pretty. Nasty.

“I do not see any painkillers here,” he said like it was my fault.

“You drank it. You may of noticed by now, o’nobly-born, that this is a freighter, not a high-ticket outhostel. And I want to keep it in one piece, not do a conversion to plasma on the Royal ecliptic.”

“House Starbringer will pay for my return, since ransom is what concerns you, chaudatu,” said Tiggy, once the dressing was in place. He took an eloquent look around my Best Girl’s hold and went over and sat on a crate.

I reminded myself that he was a homicidal lunatic.

“Butterfly, let me—” Paladin began.

“Ransom,” I said, flat. Tiggy looked up. “Tiggy Stardust, is time you got lesson in big-bad galaxy—which you should of got before you went off to play with the big kids in the never-never. You chaffer on about ransom like it meant something and people was going to play kiss-my-hand and wait around to collect it with glitterborn rules and all. Well, K’Jarn was going to kill you for what you was standing up in back on Wanderweb and probably sell you to a bodysnatcher before you got cold. That’s ransom in the never-never.”

Tiggy’s face was unreadable as a plaster saint’s. “What will you do, if you will not return me to my people?”

“If I put you back on the heavy side here, Justiciary’s going to chop you. If I chase into Royal, I’ll get blown up. So I’m taking you to Kiffit. Got cargo for there, people’re waiting.”

“No,” said Paladin. I ignored him.

Tiggy pulled out his knife again, which was a argument but not a good one. “I do not wish to go to this Kiffit. The Pledge of Honor is going to Royal, and—”

“Put that coke-gutter of yours away before I ram it down your glitterborn throat. Lesson Number One in the Real World: You can kill me but you can’t make me fly you anywhere.”

“Butterfly, will you please—”

“I can fly,” said Tiggy uneasily.

“Not this ship, che-bai. When I die, it blows up. I’m going to Kiffit, and so are you. Think Firecat’s maybe got enough air to get us both there, if we’re lucky. Better chance than you got otherways. I’ll take that risk.”

“Butterfly, you saw the figures. There is only a seventy percent chance you will both survive to reach Kiffit. It is not worth the risk.”

“I have thirty-four years,” Tiggy said.

“Por-ke?” I said. He didn’t savvy patwa, but he answered.

“You asked me how old I was, ch—Captain. I have thirty-four years.”

“Standard?” Hell, I have thirty-four years Standard; if Tiggy was my age I’d eat all five of Firecat’s goforths.

“No. Real years.”

“What’s the conversion?” I said, and after a long time it was Paladin that answered me.

“Thirty-four years alMayne is equal to fourteen Imperial Standard Years. Butterfly, there is one chance in four that you will die.”

I still ignored him. I already knew the numbers. I looked at Tiggy. He didn’t look fourteen, but different human races age differently. I was already halfway through my expectancy, assuming I lived long enough to die in bed.

Which didn’t look too likely just now. And it didn’t at this moment matter what the Hellflower Years of Discretion were, either.

“You’re fourteen. Terrific.” Under the Codex Imperador Tiggy had to be twenty to be a grown-up, and he wasn’t. So the rap for him was child-kidnap; worse than before, if that was possible.

“I am adult. I have my arthame. I am a legal Person of House Starborn—” He stopped. “And honor demands that I die now with honor; for allowing me that you have the gratitude of my House.” He looked around.

“And where t’hell you think you’re going, kinchin-bai?”

“I will go out your air lock, Captain—even a ship like this must have one. I cannot put you at risk in your journey. You have saved my life and served me well. I will not imperil you further.”

I’d been fourteen once. Fortunately it hadn’t been permanent.

“It is very nearly a reasonable solution,” said Paladin, helpfully. Real reasonable; I wouldn’t even have to coldcock the stupid brat and shove him out my lock; he’d do it himself.

Except it wasn’t his fault that his daddy’d kyted, or that nobody’d told Tiggy the galaxy had teeth big enough to chew hellflowers.

“Oh, give it a rest, willya? You and me is going to Kiffit and I’ll turn you in to the Azarine Guildhouse there. They send you home, I get shut of you, everything’s copacetic.”

Tiggy looked around in panic. “But you cannot do that.” He looked like he preferred microwave death to spending another hour on Firecat.

“Is my ship and I’ll freight what I want. Ain’t done rescuing you yet, so remember honor, Tiggy-bai.”

“Honor is better than bread,” agreed Tiggy darkly, which just showed how many meals he’d missed.

He slanted a interested glance at me, like he was thinking of unfinished honor-bashing session. But he’d back down for now, which was all I cared about. And maybe the kidnap charge wouldn’t stick.

Yeah, and maybe I wouldn’t run into Dominich Fenrir on Kiffit.

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