The sky has exhausted itself after a full rayspan of unrelenting rain and bluster. Of the two hundred and forty rayspans in a year or three hundred sixty standard days, Tencair finds itself under a truly clear sky maybe thrice. Sibyl’s skies are far too bright and fair for me to spend my time tossing about anxiously in my quarters, and I did sleep a good twelve hours after our last job was done. I know this weather won’t last long, so I work up the nerve to make an excursion outside in the mild air of the capital’s urban heat island.
It’s the second trine of the rayspan, and Astrild is a brilliantly burning, pale orange dot overhead, accompanied by Dowager’s ever-looming crescent on the horizon. To her side, far away and just behind the nearest mountain range, I catch an anamorphic glimpse of mass plumes of steam emanating from distant geothermal power stations. Their silhouette fades in the haze of a superior mirage—a Fey Morgane abetted by Sibyl’s many glaciers on a uniquely warm day—that seems to flip the arch-like reactors upside-down. If I can clearly make out the bulbous shapes of clouds of super-hot vapor emanating from the capital’s geothermal wells, then the weather on this rare temperate day really is superlative. Meteorologists must be excited to have something to talk about for once.
Sauntering about the streets of Tencair’s premiere upscale market district, the Halcyon Loop, is something I will do only when I can work the nerve to do so. And I do have to work up the nerve, because despite the open boulevards, it can get claustrophobic. I feel very noticed, and there are more opportunities to get verbally assaulted. It’s different from the leisurely alleyways of lower and middle class Tencair where no one pays you any mind should you leave them be as well. Almost no one who lives or works here is on Basic. Everyone here with means pretends they are sub-noble, and that they have less time and more important places to be than they really do. Whether someone just likes a taste of feeling important in a more broadly equitable society of commoners or they actually internalize and believe that is none of my business. But no one actually has more time to idle than an interdictor or other voidfarer remanded to the gravity well for their health and well-being.
All the maglev lines this side of the capital’s horizon-to-horizon nanoconcrete sprawl end up in a circular roundabout on account of some flatter topography here, and the interior made for a convenient place for hotels, eateries, and artisans to set up shop. Under an unnervingly clear indigo-blue sky, starshine glistens around the edges of the massive metal awnings that, on a more average day, are in place to protect patrons and amblers from more unfavorable elements. Below flowing waves of protective aluminum sheeting, families young and old mill about, stopping every so often to gaze into a storefront window showcasing the latest eccentric fashion or imported gizmos from our Novani friends. To my left, an artist hawks psychedelic depictions of the celestial neighborhood to confused but ensnared passersby. To my right, a bistro serves lamb and fish steaks to a patio full of diligently pretentious businesspeople, meticulously dressed in a woolen business casual.
Halcyon Loop is Tencair’s high street. You can buy anything if you know where to look, even the finest Leirean whiskies aged during their years of transit from the Feronians on the opposite side of The Bary. It’s the glitzier, less authentic part of town, one that blurs the Sibylean archetypes and caters to the sensibilities of visiting foreigners from other worlds more than to most of the locals, who enjoy nestling into obscure nooks and crannies as I do. Maybe we gain a lot from mingling with other nations, but we lose pieces of ourselves, too, and we don’t put on our honest face. A tourist will stop here and never see the Sibylean stewhouses, or get lost among mazes of colorful corrugated metals, buy the most beautiful traditional quilts and scarves, or be awed by the majesty of long-winged divers taking off in the morning mist.
But there’s also no better place to hear gossip relevant to my job. Cargo containers accumulate a cost upwards of a million crowns while traveling through the void. The wealthier among us have more access to deep space trade; that’s just the way it is. The Loop gives me a better sense of how that trade is affecting us, for better and worse. And, although rarer in occurrence than stationing on Port Arsalan, I could even find a useful lead. It would be prudent to work on some of those cultivated sources right now, as everything feels more disjointed, fractious, and needlessly competitive than ever before. I can hardly believe that two close shaves with death back to back on the job is a sign of normalcy.
In the end, that’s all just thin justification for walking tall here. Fletcher’s hospital is down this way, too, just outside of the Loop. I’m hoping to check in on him if he’s not resting. I got the message that the reconstructive surgery on his ankle was successful and that he won’t be in anywhere near as much pain. The bastard even forced a grin upon my face by sending a smiley to my dataslate. Nothing else in the message, just “:-)”. What a strange thing to send, instead of, you know, “I’m okay, don’t worry about it, it’s not your fault.”
I’m anxious about him. At that kind of impact speed, the bone is brittle, causing so much secondary tissue damage. His foot was very nearly blown clean off by a high-velocity rifle round, and time is crucial in trauma care. I’ve convinced myself, even with only rudimentary medical training, that I’ve ridden him with an extra several gyres of physical rehabilitation, minimum. I have been dreading that a lot this previous rayspan, wondering what I can possibly say to apologize for putting him in a far more inhospitable situation than he could have been. Tea claimed I wouldn’t need to, but how does she know? These incessant internal deliberations over how to approach someone you care for weigh upon him too, maybe, as he so often turns up out of the blue to check in on me.
The blur of the world outside my head comes back into focus as one red, stone-lined storefront is particularly familiar to me. There’s nothing peculiar about it: just another run-of-the-mill corner apothecary at a moderately busy intersection of expansive walking paths. But I can find a lot more than a dispensary inside.
Sorbi is nominally a legitimate pharmacist. He really does run a professional and licensed practice, employing several other people. I hear he’s even expanding that business to the other side of town. Good for him. It must feel great being able to wash away the knowledge you contributed to the misery and suffering of K addicts with newly found career success.
I take my shades off as I step inside the brightly lit little store, because I know that I’m safe here, no matter how I look.
Sorbi is a stout, graying middle-aged man with a face chiseled with pockmarks or possibly the dimples of age, and his outward facade is impressive. He exudes a warm serviceability with all of his customers. With more people out and about in the curiously warm air and fewer running errands, he’s chosen to work the counter alone today. My first sight of him is behind the counter, digillantly finishing up a transaction. The door chime sounds and he catches sight of me. He clearly isn’t pleased about it. He curses, loud enough for me to hear it, which provokes a curious glare from his pregnant customer, and from an elderly woman sitting on a bench, waiting for her prescription to be filled by one of Sorbi’s pharmacists in the backrooms. I fold my shades into a jacket pocket as he apologizes to the expectant woman he had been helping and hands her medication over. That same lady gives me the furrowed brow treatment as she passes me, exiting the shop.
“Can I help you, miss?” the shopkeep says, with as much politeness as he can fit into a more venomous association. I step forward and pretend I’m looking for help and am just a bit peeved. Passive-aggression in standard Sibylean style.
“It seems one of your chemists mistook my records and introduced an allergen into my prescription. Really horrible, made me break out in hives and look and feel like this.” I gesture over my face with a wave of the hand, like I’m scrubbing it down in a circular motion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with me.
“So let’s dispense with the normal routine of gatekeeping and protecting the person in charge, hmm? I want to speak to your manager, now,” I demand. I give him a wry look, letting him know I mean business.
“My good lady, I am the manager.”
“Oh,” I feign surprise as I step forward, “how fortunate it is to find someone accountable for once. The history of my condition is quite complicated, and I fear there may have been a mix-up between the clinic and yourselves. I’ve seen many doctors and specialists in the past, you see, and all of them have failed me. I’d hate to have to file for restitution.”
“We can sort it out. That’s why our service outlets exist. If you’ll just step on over to the consultation booth. Torj, I’ll be in consultation,” he calls to someone in the backroom.
I step over into the patient consultation booth, which is provided for medical privacy. It’s lined with acoustically absorbent panels made of metamaterials based on plastic resin. I’m not sure how it all works, but I know a few of them are used within the walls and engine housings of our voidcraft. A useful thing to have when you need to be vigilant against indiscreet vibrations.
Sorbi loses all his warmth, looking annoyed and rolling his eyes halfway.
“You know, you don’t need to come in with an act, Ash,” he says.
I lean against the wall of the booth and pretend to look at my nails.
“Nah,” I respond breezily, “I like watching you squirm in front of your customers.”
He scoffs, and folds his arms.
“We can deal without you scaring my patrons.”
“Without me, you wouldn’t have any patrons. Or a license to practice,” I remind him.
“You know, usually when you blackmail someone, you want to keep them in your favor and not test the limits of their capitulation.”
“Ah yes, but you see,” I say as I lean in a bit, “I have nothing to lose. Everyone out there already hates my guts, and doubly so because I happen to be a law-abiding interdictor who gets between people and their vices.
“Besides, my asking price is already way low,” I chirp, continuing. “Putting on a shtick to get your attention is amusing. And you can pretend to have serviced your frustrated customer with great respect. After all, we’re always right, and a business that never makes mistakes is too perfect to be trusted.”
“Merde,” he groans, “you’re so fucking annoying.”
“When I need to be. Now, what’s the latest chatter from on high?”
“You know I don’t work with runners anymore, Ash.”
“And I believe you, but you’re pegged into their network.”
“Bussing K from Maridea is easy. It sits in an orbital holding yard.”
“Getting it down to the surface is another matter, Sorbi. Kingpins are always looking for transit opportunities, and for those who will give them the slip for a cut.”
“I fail to see how this concerns me.”
“You were an intermediary for nobles.”
“Yeah, a long time ago.”
“And, as a pharmacist, you’re required to keep up to date on the latest techniques in overdose remediation. Which means you have to know the pharmacokinetics of the latest variations in street dope.”
“Information which comes from academia and doesn’t require me to know anything about the movement of contraband, only the newest sadistic shit they’re cutting it with.”
“How do you think academics come across that knowledge? A close and trustworthy working relationship with the Constabulary? Come on Sorbs, you know all kinds of crooks. I can hardly believe you end a day’s work and go home to your cat and eat frozen meals while watching cheesy Novani superhero flicks for the rest of the rayspan.”
“And I could hardly believe it when you dared to set foot in my shop. Since when have I ever handed you information that landed you a bounty?”
This verbal animosity is circular in nature and gets me nowhere. I have to give him something else. It could cost me a little, as I was hoping not to tell him the confidential details of a job. That said, fuck the Constabulary, and at this point, the Guild too. I’ll know who crossed me if they find out.
“We ran down a government charter flight loaded with K2,” I interrupt.
He’s genuinely surprised by this.
“You ran down a plane with government officials onboard?” he emphasizes for clarity.
“Poor thing didn’t have a transponder,” I add, to assure him that I’ve not taken up piracy. “Seems it was ripped out in a sophomoric attempt to redirect the flight.”
“That’s…” he pauses, looking for the right word, “...ludicrous.”
“Yeah, a real comedy of fucking errors,” I say, remembering the dead body of an innocent man we found inside.
Sorbi curls his lip and leans in toward me. He doesn’t need to, but it’s a social cue as much as anything, so I oblige and meet his face closer in.
“Look, I don’t have anything in the way of traffic timings for you. The best way for me to remain safe is to disconnect from the escrow business entirely. I couldn’t lead you to a single runner, and frankly, I’m kind of sorry about that. But I know that volume is up. And I know there’s something new out there that the rich and powerful are quite interested in. Rare and untested stuff.”
I raise my brow and challenge, “what kind of untested stuff?”
“They’re calling it K3. Just another number, right? But it makes sense. On top of the basic Compound K and Blue Ice, they juice it up with something else from across The Bary. Some kind of solvent. It’s rumored to give you a high with fewer side effects. Nothing too fantastical, but I heard it’s easier on the liver and kidneys.”
“That’s something nobles would pay top bill for…” I think aloud.
“You got that right. Everyone in the know wants to get their hands on this to see if it’s the real deal. In addition to a milder hangover, I imagine users could more easily conceal their addiction if they weren’t puking and shitting everywhere the next morning. That is, if this is all true. Take it with a mountain of salt, and keep it in confidence.”
I stand back and nod. Sorbi is still a bastard in my mind. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to forgive his past indiscretions, but I’m confident he doesn’t want a violent drug war between cartels to break out into the open.
“Takk, Sorbi,” I say with actual gratitude.
“Now, have I helped you to your satisfaction, m’lady?”
“That’s quite good for now.”
He nods, and in addition to knowing I won’t be exposing him, it seems from his posture that he’s gotten a burden off of his metaphorical shoulders, the way he’s now looking more relaxed. He tilts his head, gesturing for me to exit the booth. And I do, with a flourish.
“You have my deepest gratitude, sir. Do be a dear and send the updated prescription to the postal box you have on file,” I say, somewhat theatrically in my turn to leave. I leisurely put on the shades that will help mask my outcast visage from the larger world, passing, at a distance, a handful of customers that have accumulated in the meantime.
“Yes, ma’am. It will be waiting there,” I hear him reply with a practiced positive affect, just before I leave his shop.