Daedalus’s stomach turned. His neck prickled. He glanced over his shoulder. Slow. He hadn’t noticed the danger with the alcohol cloying his thoughts. The closest building was an expensive-looking tourist bar, so Daedalus made his way over to it, trying to look unperturbed. His stalker followed the line he cut through the crowd, stopping when he stopped and picking up again when he did. The bar wasn’t busy, but it was full enough to deter an attack: fat, wealthy traders filled squashy, well-lit booths with their bodyguards and grinder assistants, sipping from cocktail glasses and playing knife games with their slaves. A group of merchants jangling with ornaments and sporting the Brand sigil on their sleeves spoke in hushed voices over a huge map, while a couple of scaly, stick-thin builder-caste petradons played chess one table over. Daedalus went unnoticed as usual, managing not to stumble too much. Some people were staring straight over his shoulder, suggesting his tail wasn’t being quite so innocuous. Daedalus picked a booth near the back, away from the windows and tucked out of sight of the counter. He sank into the green leather seat and waited.
The beggar in rags slid into the booth, bumping clumsily into the table, and sat down opposite him. The stares turned elsewhere; she was obviously just his poorly-dressed attendant.
Daedalus tapped his fingers on the table, observing. The rags were a torn-up slave toga, hastily repurposed to cover the face. She hunched over unnaturally low, and he could only tell her gender by the glint of her eyes under the filthy makeshift hood. Wide-set and bulbous. There were plenty of species in the Collective with green skin, but not so many with eyes like that. Big black eyes. The lower arms were well-hidden, tucked around her belly, but a keen observer wouldn’t be fooled.
“You don’t see many entari in the trade lanes,” he said, “only the crazies and the exiles.”
The entari flinched.
“You’re a long way from home. Why are you following me?”
Daedalus tried to judge her age. Tricky. Her skin and what little he could see of her face gave no clues. Entari didn’t age as reliably as other species, and making any kind of identifying judgement was difficult for people unfamiliar with their deliberately-refined features. Her nose was slightly squashed, and her crest lay flat and still under the hood. He wasn’t sure, but it looked like some of the spines might have been bent inwards by a blow.
“You have a ship,” she said. Her voice was weak – the words scraped on the way out – but certain.
“How do you-” he started, before reaching into his pocket. “My keys. Clever.”
“I need to get to Taxos.” She was nervous, drumming her fingers on her knee.
“There are plenty of sober couriers you could ask.”
“I’m asking you.”
Daedalus groaned. He set his face flat on the table-top with a soft thud. “I’m not working today,” he said, muffled.
The entari tossed a card out onto the table. Daedalus looked up.
“Where did you get that?”
“Right.” He picked it up and looked closely. Two hundred bits. It seemed genuine. “That’ll get you to Highdust, but Taxos is a busy station. Docking fees add twenty.”
“I’ve got more.”
“Still, I don’t struggle to find work,” he lied. “Maybe I’m not interested.”
“I can pay whatever,” she hissed, “I need to leave now.”
“Why not get a taxi?”
“I don’t know this place. I haven’t got time to go exploring.”
“Could you pay sixteen hundred?”
“I... no. Sorry.”
“Right.” Daedalus leaned back in his seat, a complete plan having formed. He kept his mouth thin and his eyes impassive. “Tell you what, buy me a drink and I’ll fly you there for the two hundred.”
“Wait, really?” The hood slipped a little as she leant forward.
“Sure. I’m a sucker for a charity case.”
She sank backwards in clear relief. “Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me. Just a whiskey.” He flagged down the polished grinder waiting tables. “Best make it a single, I’m flying.”
The waiter cocked its head with a rusty scritch. Its lidless yellow eyes were bright orbs set into a rectangular face, and the speaker beneath its square nose let out a buzz. The machine-slaves were very good at hiding their resentment.
“Single,” she said. “He’s flying.”
The grinder gave a shuddering bow and jerked away.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“No names.” Daedalus shrugged the coat from his shoulders and set it down on the seat next to him. “I don’t ask those questions. You should do me the same courtesy.”
“Oh,” she shrank back. “My name’s Erin.”
Daedalus rubbed his forehead. The grinder returned and set down a short glass, half-empty. He waved a hand in thanks.
“She’s got the cash,” he said. It held out a hand and took a card from her, then began the traditional dawdle to allow time for a tip.
Daedalus noticed Erin was staring at it like she’d never seen one before.
Erin withdrew another card of a smaller denomination.
“Do you get the tip, or does it go to the boss?” she asked.
The grinder didn’t respond immediately. When it did, it did so in a measured tone, with a lot of distortion. “Property is a privilege,” it said, “by order of the Coalition. I have no needs, and so need not be assigned property.”
“Could you keep this if you chose to?”
“…It is not my choice to make.”
“But could you?”
A bartender appeared at Erin’s shoulder and snatched the card. He pointed sharply to his left, and the grinder turned around and trundled away.
“No philosophising with the robots,” he said, then left. Erin stared after him.
Daedalus took a sip. These places near the docks always had better stuff: cold drinks in actual glasses, rather than warm fluids in paper cups. “Right. Two hundred up front. Another twenty if you decide to set down on Taxos, but there are smaller stations I could put you down on for free.”
“Taxos,” said Erin, returning her gaze to him, “I’ve got business there.”
“Two-twenty, then. Plus fifty for hospitality.”
“That’s... that's funny.”
Daedalus laughed, despite himself. “Alright, two-twenty. Hand it over.”
She rummaged in her rags and slid another twenty-bit card across the table. Daedalus took it and pocketed them both.
“When do we leave?” She asked.
Daedalus checked his watch. “Soon. My ship’s in the shop and I can’t leave until it’s fixed. Relax. No-one’s going to come looking for you in here.”
She looked at him.
“Escaped slave. Don’t panic, I don’t care. Your money is as good as anyone else’s.”
“I’m not a slave.”
“Funny, how you only hear slaves say that.” He took another, longer sip. “So. What business has a slave got in the entari capital?”
There was a pause.
“I’m looking for someone,” she said.
Silence. Someone in the corner gave a shrill, brief laugh, before falling back into the general hubbub.
“Alright,” Daedalus said, “you don’t want to talk about it, fine. Space travel’s boring, though. If you’re this quiet for the whole trip it won’t be much fun at all.”
“Well you’ll have to excuse me for that. I’ve had kind of a rough day.”
“Yeah, you and me both.”
They were silent for a while after that. Daedalus slowly drained his glass until only a sliver of yellow remained at the bottom.
“I don’t get it,” she said finally, peering at it suspiciously from under her hood. “How can people drink that stuff? It smells like an engine room.”
“Noses can be deceiving,” he held out the glass. She sniffed, and recoiled.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he inhaled deeply from the glass. “You have to look deeper. Get past the bitterness on top and there’s all kinds of good stuff beneath. Smoke, caramel, vanilla...”
“What’s vanilla?” She asked, resting an arm on the table. In the warm light of the bar Daedalus noticed it was actually a rather vivid shade of green, besides the faint yellow spots he recognised as starlight deficiency.
“Oh... it’s... you don’t get it anymore. It was an old flavouring thing from Earth. A plant. Came in pods, with little black seeds.” He struggled to remember, now. “It died out there when the long summer hit, and there was only so much in the colonies. The last of it went about... ten years ago, I think? You can get synthetic, obviously, but it’s got a bad aftertaste. Costs a lot, too.”
“...You don’t know what smoke is?”
“No, I mean- what’s lovely about it?”
“Ah. Right. I don’t know. It’s kind of... rich. Rich and full, and it adds character.”
She gave a short, sharp laugh. Daedalus jumped. Then Erin put a hand to her mouth, as if surprised.
“It’s... I’m sorry, it’s just the way you said it.” She placed two hands on the table and took a deep breath. “I haven’t slept.”
“I can imagine.” He settled back down into his seat, trying not to think. Erin’s laugh rattled around in his head.
“And you’re not really selling me on whickey.”
“Whiskey,” he corrected.
Daedalus glanced at his watch. It was almost time. There was a weight in his stomach and he didn’t know why. He rubbed his pendant.