Edward Willett

Read the first two chapters of Andy Nebula: Double Trouble

Chapter One

The beer bottle just missed my right ear before crashing into the brick wall at the back of the stage, spraying me and my battered old stringysnth with a fine, sticky mist. Glass shards skittered around my feet.

Nobody in the crowded Parisian bar paid the slightest attention. That didn’t really surprise me: they hadn’t paid attention to anything that had happened on stage since I had started playing half an hour before. Actually, I was kind of grateful to whoever had thrown the beer bottle—at least it proved he’d been listening.

I reached the end of the song, said, “Thank you very much” to empty air, clicked off my stringsynth, pressed the button on my belt that turned off the tiny mike-dot glued to my forehead, and stepped off the stage. Nobody noticed.

I picked my way between tables to the bar, and sat on one of the stools. “Icefizz,” I said. The bartender glowered at me and said something in French. “Sorry, gladeye,” I told him. “I only speak Fed.”

He looked even grumpier, if that were possible. “I cannot serve you. You are a minor.”

“I asked for icefizz, gladeye, not beer. Clue into chemistry.”

He muttered something that I knew enough French to know wasn’t complimentary, but slapped down a coaster, banged a glass down on top of it, hauled a hose down from the dispenser over the bar and squirted the glass full of a blue, fizzy liquid.

Blue. It figured. I hated blue icefizz. “Delete the blue, gladeye. Green is my preferred program.”

“I do not have green,” he said, in the same tone he might have used to tell me I’d insulted his mother. “I do not have red. I have only blue. “

I had a quick mental image of me washing that sneer of his face with his own blue icefizz, but then happened to glance up at the mirror behind the bar. A man in a bright red, baggy suit—the latest fashion in Paris, apparently, though to me he looked like a juggler I used to know back in Fistfight City on my home planet of Murdoch IV—picked a path through the tables, chatting with patrons along the way, but definitely headed toward me.

The owner. My employer. Who had almost certainly heard my last set…and could still see the critical response dribbling down the stage wall. Time to lift, I thought, gulping the icefizz and getting to my feet. He couldn’t fire me if he couldn’t catch me.

But he must have had one eye on me, because the moment I turned around, there he was. I plastered my best phony smile onto my lips. “Monsieur Chapdelaine! Orbital! Did you input my last set, boss-man?”

Chapdelaine did not smile back. His puffy face and bald head were almost as red as his pantsuit; he wiped sweat from his brow with a white kerchief decorated with enormous black polka dots. “Your music was passable,” he said in heavily accented Fedspeech. “But it is not working with my patrons.”

“Hey, boss-man, I’m fully programmable. I’ll shift algorithms. Anything from deep-space blues to waveslap, I can play. Your input is my output.”

Chapdelaine shook his head. “Non. It will not do. Your contract is cancelled.”

I kept my phony smile intact, but inwardly I swore. “Aw, come on, boss-man, flexibilize. Another set. Just one. Your program.”

Chapdelaine looked around the bar’s wood-and-brick interior, then back at me. His eyes narrowed, which made him look remarkably like an Earth creature I’d seen at the Paris Zoo…a wild pig, that was it. “Very well. You may play one more set. And you will play From the Street to the Stars.”

I stiffened.“No. I do not play that song.”

He shrugged. “Then your contract…” he fished a datachip out of his inside pocket… “is finis.” He slapped the chip on the bar, picked up my icefizz glass, and with evident relish brought the edge of its base down hard on the chip, which shattered into glittering dust. “Adieu, monsieur Murdoch.” He turned away and walked back into the crowd, taking my glass with him.

I turned back to the bar and ordered another icefizz, ignoring the bartender’s smug smile as he poured it. I sipped the fizzy blue liquid, no longer concerned about the sickly sweet taste. I just wished it were something stronger.

At least now I knew why Chapdelaine had hired me without an audition. He’d obviously recognized me from my Sensation Singles days, when I was “Andy Nebula,” and for six months the hottest thing in the galaxy…until it all went sour. Not only had my star faded, like all the one-hit, computer-generated Sensation Singles did, but Qualls, my manager, addicted to me to the illegal hallucinogenic drug flash and sold me to the alien Hydras, doomed to perform the same song over and over in a time bubble. If I hadn’t escaped, I’d still be there, aging at twenty times the normal rate, approaching middle age by now, and probably quite spectacularly crazy…

But I hadescaped. I wasn’t Andy Nebula any more, I was Kit. (Kit Murdoch, it said on my passport, but that was just because I’d had to have a last name to get one and since I’m from Murdoch IV, Murdoch was the first thing that came to mind.) With the money I’d made as Andy, I’d set out to create a new career for myself, writing and playing my own music…

And here I was, on Old Earth itself, in the ancient city of Paris, two blocks off the Champs-Elysées, not five blocks from the Eiffel Tower…and the only place I’d found to play had just cancelled my contract because I wouldn’t play Andy Nebula’s hit.

I heard the door open, but didn’t look up. More patrons who would never hear me play—and wouldn’t care.

But the bar hushed suddenly. I’d never heard it so quiet—certainly not while I was trying to perform. I looked up into the mirror over the bar, saw a flash of orange, a color I knew all too well, and whirled…

“Greetings, gladeye!” shrieked the tentacled, four-eyed, crab-legged creature that had just sidled through the door.

I stared. “Rain?” I couldn’t believe it. “Rain?”

“It is I, gladeye. And someone else has come to refresh memory of you…” He scuttled aside, causing a large bearded man at the nearest table to scramble to his feet so quickly his chair went over with a clattering crash.

But I hardly noticed. I was staring at the girl who had been hidden behind Rain until that moment, taller than I remembered, but unmistakably…

“Meta!” I leaped off the stool and hugged her, swinging her around as she laughed with delight. I let her go and turned to the alien. “Rain!” I didn’t hug him, but I gripped the nearest tentacle and gave it a friendly tug. “I can’t believe it! What…how…”

“Hi, Kit,” Meta said, grinning from ear to ear. “Surprise!”

Nuclearsurprise. Asteroid impactsurprise. What are you doing in Paris?”

“Looking for you, gladeye!” Rain shrieked. Only one of his purple eyes was focused on me; the other three swayed and darted avidly. I knew he was filing everything he saw into his short-term memory. Later, during the night, he would sort through the day’s memories and choose which to keep permanently and which to discard. From past experience, I knew he would likely consider his visit to this dump one of the high-points of his day. Rain liked to soak up local color—or, in this case, off-color.

“I’d rather not tell you here, Kit” Meta said, lowering her voice and looking conspiratorially about, although with Rain in the room she could have sung Le Marseillesat the top of her lungs while standing on her head and attracted not the slightest bit of attention. Rain had skittered over to the bar and was now examining the array of bottles behind it with great interest.

“Fine,” I said. “I’m done here anyway.” I joined Rain at the bar and held it out to the barman. He took it without looking at—all his attention was on Rain—and stuck it into the nearest payment slot. I offered my thumbprint, ignoring the option to add a tip, and took back the chip. The bartender still didn’t look at me; from his expression, I figured he was convinced Rain was going to start breaking his precious bottles at any moment. “Come on, Rain, let’s lift,” I said. “I’ll take you to a place that’s really worth remembering.”

Thatgot an angry glance from the bartender, which was what I’d hoped for. I deadpanned him in response.

“Orbital, gladeye!” Rain squealed. With Meta at my side, Rain at my heels, and my stringsynth slung over my shoulder, I exited the bar with all eyes focused on my back. It almost made me want to go back in and try playing “Moons of Jupiter” again.

Almost.

The streets outside glistened with moisture, and their glow had already been dimmed, leaving only a faint phosphorescence. “This way,” I said, turning left. A couple heading for the bar stopped, stared, then crossed the street to avoid us.

“Rude,” Meta commented.

“They don’t get a lot of Hydras in Paris,” I said. “And meeting one in person for the first time can be a bit of a shock… I just about jumped out of my skin when I found Rain in my room in Fat Sloan’s a year or so ago.” I gave Meta a sideways glance. “Or maybe they’re really reacting to you. I just about jumped out of my skin when I found you hiding under my bed in Andy Nebula’s dressing room, too.”

Meta laughed. “I’m through stowing away. And I haven’t gone to another Sensation Single concert since.” She hesitated. “Although…”

“Although what?”

“Never mind. I’ll tell you when we get where we’re going.” She looked up and down the street. “Which is where, exactly?”

“Here.” From the outside, it was only a blank door in a blank wall; no latch, knob or touchplate. But when I stepped toward it, it slid open, revealing a short corridor. “It’s a rental suite,” I said, leading them into the corridor. The door closed behind us. “Discreet. I don’t want the people I’m trying to get gigs with to see me living like this.”

The inner door slid open as I approached. “Keyed to my personal biometrics,” I explained, but Meta wasn’t listening to me; she was gaping at the garden revealed by the open door.

Flowers of every shape and color grew in exuberant profusion on either side of a winding path, lit by ankle-high lights every metre or so. The path led to a low white building. Its domed roof and fluted columns, lit from below, gave it the appearance of an ancient temple. Overhead, stars twinkled through a glass roof. In this garden, it only rained when programmed to do so.

“You rented this?”

“A most unexpected sight!” Rain chortled. “I will retain it.”

“Orbital. Follow me!” I led my friends along the path, Rain goggling around with all four eyes, Meta doing her best with just two. A door on the “temple” slid open as we approached, and lights came up inside.

I ushered Meta and Rain into a circular room five metres in diameter, with white marble walls and a floor of gold-flecked marble tile. Rain peered around. “Is it not small for one of your stature, gladeye Kit?”

I laughed. “This is only the lobby.” I placed my finger in a slight depression in the wall next to the door. The door closed, and the entire room began to descend. Meta started. “Sorry,” I said. “I should have warned you.”

“It’s all right.”

The room stopped. The door slid open again, and I led my guests into the main part of my Parisian apartment, an underground building as large as the garden up above, with bedrooms, kitchen, entertainment and communications rooms and bathrooms all opening off of a large circular central room, which surrounded the elevator shaft down which we had just come. The “Greek temple” motif continued throughout, with pillars, frescoes, tapestries, throw cushions, lights that looked like hanging oil lamps and a lot of naked statues making up the decoration. Rain skittered out first, then stopped suddenly and stared down at the floor. “Another delight!” he squealed. “The floor looks like stone, but is soft to walk on!”

“It’s something called ‘plush marble,’” I said. “The woman that rented me this place was very proud of it.”

Meta took a long hard look around. Her gaze lingered on some of the unclothed statuary, and when she looked back at me, her mouth quirked. “Reminds me of the first time I saw you,” she said.

I blushed. The first time Meta saw me, I was just barely wearing a towel—and nothing else. “I didn’t decorate the place, I just rented it.”

“And why, exactly, didn’t you want the people you’re trying to get gigs with to see you living like this? I thought you meant you were living in the local equivalent of Fat Sloan’s.”

“I don’t think there is a local equivalent to that slimepit,” I said. “Look, I rented it sight unseen, all right? I arranged my whole trip here through a travel agent. I said I wanted some place nice. Apparently she took me a little too literally.”

Meta laughed. “You let her access your credit chip, didn’t you?”

“Well, yeah…”

“And so she knew exactly how much money you have.”

“I guess so…”

“You should have asked me to help you.”

“I can look after myself!”

“On the street, sure, but when it comes to traveling first class…you need an expert. And you can’t find a better expert in first-class living than a girl from the Pleasure Planets.”

I looked around at my ‘apartment.’ “It really is awful, isn’t it?”

“I do not think so,” Rain said. He was running his tentacles over a tapestry covered with nude wrestlers. “I have not seen anything like it. I will retain much of it.”

I groaned. “It’s worse than I thought. That’s what he said about Fat Sloan’s. Well, come into the kitchen. I’ll get you something to drink.”

The kitchen was a much more human-sized room with ordinary appliances and a nice big brass-and-glass table. Meta pulled up a chair while I went to the food dispenser. Rain stood in the doorway so he could continue ogling the living room decor.

“What will you have?” I said. “This place is stocked with anything you could possibly imagine.”

“Icefizz will be fine. Green.”

“Good choice. All I could get at the bar was blue.”

Meta made a face. I keyed in the instructions for two glasses of icefizz; a moment later a panel slid aside and I pulled them out, cold in my hands and beaded with moisture. I pulled up another chair and took two or three big gulps. “Ah,” I said, and burped. Rain’s eyes swung around to look at me. “‘Scuse me,” I said.

Meta laughed and sipped her own icefizz. “So how has your Earth trip been working out?”

I sighed. “Badly. Nobody likes my songs. And singer/stringsynthers are ten to the deca-fed. Everybody wants spacethrash or fissionrip, and I don’t play that stuff.”

Meta ran a finger around the rim of her glass. “Maybe you should do a little Andy Nebula music.”

I groaned. “Not you, too. Look, Meta, I told you, I’m through with that Sensation Singles crap.”

Meta sipped more icefizz, and didn’t meet my eyes. A horrible suspicion dawned on me. I looked at Rain, who now had all four eyes pointed in my direction. “Wait a minute. Whyare you two here, again?”

“To see you, of course.” Meta smiled a smile of pure innocence. “My father had to come to Earth on business, and you’d told me you were coming, so I told Dad I’d come along. We’re staying in Tokyo, but WorldNet knew where you were, so I hopped on a sub-orbital flight.”

“Uh-huh. And Rain just happened to be in Paris when you arrived?”

“Oh, no. We met in Tokyo.”

I looked at Rain. “Where you were doing…what?”

“Vacationing, gladeye,” Rain said instantly.

“Awfully big coincidence, you two bumping into each other in a city of 50 million people.”

“Isn’t it?” Meta smiled again.

I looked from her to Rain. They both lookedinnocent (well, it was hard to tell with Rain, actually, since I’ve never figured out how to read emotions in a bright-orange upside-down octopus with crab legs), but I wasn’t buying it. “Whenever Rain turns up by ‘coincidence’ he’s got a very good reason for it. Why do I get the feeling I’m being set up?”

Meta tried to keep the innocent look a moment longer, but couldn’t hold it. “OK, OK,” she said, laughing, but turning red, too. “I knew Rain was on Earth, too, on ‘forcer business—he’d dropped me a message during a layover at Carstair’s Folly—and so I asked him if he’d meet me in Tokyo. I knew he’d want to see you. And I thought…he might be able to help.”

“Help?” Here it comes, I thought. “Help you do what?”

“Um…persuade you.”

“Persuade me to do…what?”

Meta bit her lip. “Come back to Carstair’s Folly with me.”

Huh? “Why? I wasn’t exactly a hit right after I got out of the hospital.”

“But that’s because…” Meta stopped.

“Because…” Light dawned. “Because I wouldn’t call myself Andy Nebula. You want me to come back as Andy Nebula.” I could feel myself flushing. “No.” I stood up.

“Kit, listen…”

“I’m not interested.” I drained my icefizz in one angry gulp.

“Please calm yourself, gladeye Kit!” Rain said. “Download Meta’s program!”

“I won’t call myself Andy Nebula,” I said. “I’m going to make it with my own music as Kit Murdoch, or I won’t make it at all.”

“This isn’t about you!” Meta said.

I turned away from her and stuffed my glass through the round rubber iris of the dishwasher. “No, it’s about you, isn’t it?” I spun back toward her. Her face looked as flushed as mine felt. “You want one more chance to show Bekka and Roo and all your other little spacehead friends that you’re friends with a big star.” The minute I said that, I regretted it, but it was too late.

“A big star? You?” Meta got to her feet and stamped toward me until we were nose to nose—and when did that happen, anyway? She used to be a head shorter! “You just got fired from a dingy bar where they threw beer at you! You haven’t had a gig longer than a week in the last year. Big star? If I wanted to be friends with a big star I’d stow away in Linda Lightning’s shuttle!”

Now that hurt. Linda Lightning had taken over as Sensation Single after my star faded, and against all odds was still going strong a full year later. There was even talk about giving her a second Single, which was unheard of. Of course, she didn’t have Qualls trying to ship her off as a drugged entertainment slave to Hydra…

I opened my mouth to say something, anything, as long as it was nasty, only to gag on an orange tentacle that had wrapped around my head and slapped across my mouth. A similar tentacle blocked Meta’s mouth. I rolled my eyes toward Rain. “Enough, gladeyes!” he said, his voice cold and hard as an asteroid. It was easy to forget, most of the time, that Rain was an undercover ‘forcer, but every now and then he let you know it. “You will both be quiet, and I will explain. Agreed?”

Since I couldn’t do more than grunt with a tentacle in my mouth, I nodded. So did Meta.

“Good.” He relaxed his grip, but didn’t ungag us. “First, I came to Earth on official business, but I had concluded my business when I heard from Meta. I was very glad to meet her in Tokyo. There she explained her plan.”

I tried to say something, but the tentacle tightened and I subsided.

“It is true, gladeye Kit, she would like you to come back to Carstair’s Folly and perform as Andy Nebula. But it is not for herself. It is for all the Sensation Singles that came before you.”

I blinked, my best non-verbal equivalent to “Huh?”

“My ‘official business’ has been tracking down the survivors of Qualls’s operation. More of them are alive than you might think, and they all need special treatment and care. It is Meta’s idea to hold a benefit concert to pay for that care on Carstair’s Folly.”

I blinked again, and looked at Meta. She looked away.

“Mmmph,” I said. “Mmmmmmmph!”

“Apologies, gladeye,” said Rain, and let go of both our heads. I kept my gaze on Meta.

“Why didn’t you say so?” I said.

“You weren’t listening.” Two angry red spots still flared on her cheeks. “You usually don’t.”

I bit my lip. She was probably right. In fact, I was sure she was. There was nothing for it. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it.

Oddly, her cheeks turned even redder, but, “Apology accepted,” she said, and then she grinned. “Does that mean you’ll do it?”

I grinned back. “When do we lift, gladeye?”

 

Chapter Two

That’s how I found myself riding back to Carstair’s Folly in a first-class cabin on the luxury spaceliner Empress Cassandra. The cabin was smaller than my Parisian apartment, but not by much, and waymore tasteful—not a naked statue in sight.

Meta’s father had the cabin next door; she had the cabin beyond his. He had arranged it that way, of course; the cabins had doors between them and I don’t think he quite trusted me with Meta—not surprising considering the first time we met I dragged her halfway around the galaxy and almost got her killed.

Rain had promised to meet us on Carstair’s Folly in a few days; first, he said, he had to check on something.

It took a week to get to Carstair’s Folly from Earth, and I had a wonderful time; spaceliners like the Empress Cassandrahave more ways to keep you entertained than a Fistfight City rat has fleas (having slept with Fistfight City rats, I can assure you they have a lot), and what with VR games and gill-swimming and a low-gravity gym where you could strap on ultralight wings and make like a bird, not to mention a dozen great places to eat and highly energetic (if overly chirpy) stage shows every night, the time passed quickly.

The trouble didn’t hit until a couple of hours before we were due to land. I’d found out that Meta’s birthday was just a couple of days away, and I wanted to get her a present. Decorated armbands were all the rage that year on Carstair’s Folly, and I’d seen one in the gift shop that I thought she’d like—synthetic mirror-gold set with a musical staff and notes made out of ebony.

Up until then, I hadn’t had any reason to use my credchip on board the ship. In fact, I hadn’t used it since I bought the icefizz at the bar back in Paris. My apartment had been paid for in advance, and Meta had somehow talked her father into paying my way to Carstair’s Folly, even though I told her that my cleverly invested (also with the help of her father) Andy Nebula accounts made money faster than I could spend it. “It’s all right,” she told me when I protested. “He can deduct it. He’s sponsoring the concert.”

So while I could have just charged the present to my cabin, I wasn’t about to make Meta’s father pay for my birthday present to her, even if it would help him on his taxes. I was feeling guilty enough as it was.

The ship’s gift shop was larger than any store I’d ever been in back in Fistfight City, and crowded with people buying last-minute duty-free souvenirs before landing. I had to stand in line for ten minutes to get to the counter. The clerk, dressed like everyone else on board in an immaculate white uniform with red and gold trim, smiled a professional smile, took my proffered credchip, slipped it into the slot—and stopped smiling.

He pulled it out and handed it back to me. “I’m sorry, sir, but this is an invalid chip.”

“What?” I stared at the chip. It looked the same as always—a thin, flat rectangle made of gold-colored ceramic. “But it’s the same chip I always use.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” He was already looking over my shoulder at the next customer. “May I help you, ma’am?”

So I got out of line and looked at the bracelet, then at my credchip. How could it not be working? These things never broke!

I still wanted the bracelet. I got back in line.

This time the professional smile wasn’t there and the clerk’s tone of voice was distinctly chilly. “Sir?”

“Look, try it again, will you?”

The clerk didn’t say anything; just stuck the chip in the slot, studied his screen for a moment, then handed it back. “Invalid, sir.”

Biowaste! “All right, then. Charge it to my cabin account.” I could always pay Meta’s father back later. “142A.”

The clerk keyed it in, then handed me the thumb pad. He still didn’t say anything, but I could tell he didn’t expect this to work, either.

It did, of course. I pressed my thumb against the pad and handed it back. He glanced at his screen, and gave me a very thin smile and the bracelet in a synthisilk bag. “Thank you, sir. Next?” I got out of there.

Feeling angry and embarrassed, I went back to my cabin to finish packing. By the time I’d closed my suitcase, I felt better. Obviously something had gone wrong with the credchip. Probably wasn’t too surprising, considering it was the same chip my murderous ex-manager, Qualls, gave me when I became Andy Nebula. Since then I’d been flown all over the galaxy, not to mention been drugged, chased, shot at, and bitten by a poisonous alien monster that made Earth’s scorpions look like fluffy kittens. I’d never heard of a credchip going bad, but no technology was perfect. Right?

The ship landed on schedule and the three of us disembarked, with only a cursory inspection by customs officials, all of whom seemed to know Meta’s father; they were all, “Welcome back, Mr. Prescott,” and “Did you have a nice trip, Mr. Prescott?” and “And how are you Miss Prescott?” I got the feeling that if I hadn’t been with the Prescotts I would have been strip-searched just on general principles, but as it was I soon found myself sitting on a very cozy sofa in a very private lounge with Meta, sipping icefizz (green, of course) while her father went on alone to arrange transportation to the Prescott estate.

It seemed like as good a time as any. Meta’s attention had been taken by the nearest vidscreen, which was showing Linda Lightning’s video. I opened my carry-on pack, pulled out the armband’s box, and slid it across the shiny black top of the low table in front of us. I snatched my hand back just as Meta turned around.

Her eyes went straight to the box. “What’s this?”

“Happy birthday!” I said.

“Oh, Kit, you shouldn’t have!” she said, even though her eyes and the big grin on her face said she was awfully glad I had. She opened the box and pulled out the armband. “Oh, Kit, it’s beautiful!”

She slipped it on her left arm, then did the last thing I expected: threw her arms around my neck and kissed me on the cheek.

Of course, her father chose that moment to come back into the lounge. He cleared his throat.

“Daddy!” Meta jumped up and hugged him, too, then stepped back, displaying her decorated arm. “Look what Kit bought me!”

“Very nice,” said Mr. Prescott. He was a big man with thinning brown hair and pale blue eyes whose gaze didn’t always make me feel comfortable. Like now, for instance. He raised an eyebrow at me. “It’s lovely.”

I realized, with a sinking sensation, that he had probably just cleared his account with the ship. Which meant he’d seen the bill from the gift shop. Which meant he knew darn well that he’d paid for that birthday present for Meta, not me.

To my relief, he didn’t tell Meta. “I’ve arranged for a floatcar,” he said instead. “Can we drop you at your hotel, Kit?”

Ah. Another problem with having a non-functioning credchip. “Actually…I was wondering if you would mind putting me up—” up went that eyebrow again “—just for tonight,” I added hastily. “My credchip seems to have quit working.” I gave Mr. Prescott my most dazzling Sensation Single big-star smile. At least now he’d know why mypresent to Meta had shown up on hisaccount.

Meta squealed, a sound I hadn’t heard her make since I first touched her hand back when I was Andy Nebula and she’d sneaked into my dressing room. “Of course you can! Of course he can, can’t he, Daddy?”

Mr. Prescott returned my smile, but with the wattage dialed way down. “Of course, Kit. And tomorrow I’ll take you to the bank to get your credchip replaced.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t mention it. Shall we?”

Meta and I followed him out of the lounge and through the crowded spaceport lobby to an elevator, which took us and a family consisting of a bald father, a tired-looking mother and a very small and very solemn little boy up to the floatcar landing floor. I smiled at the boy; he buried his face against his mother’s leg.

When the elevator door opened the little boy burst into tears for no discernible reason, and his mother glared at me as if it were my fault. To my relief, the unhappy family went off to the left, while the three of us went to the right, Meta somehow managing to avoid tripping on or bumping into anything as she tried to walk and examine the armband I’d given her at the same time.

We found our floatcar and waiting in Bay 4, complete with a driver in a blue-and-gold uniform. She held the door for Meta and me as we climbed into the back seat, while Mr. Prescott got in up front. The driver closed and sealed the doors and climbed into her own seat; a moment later the outside door of the bay opened, and out we went, into the night air above Edenville, capital city of Carstair’s Folly.

Rain streamed over the front windshield and traced long, windblown rivulets across the side windows. It surprised me; Edenville controlled its weather. I supposed they had to let it rain sometime, but it was a shame they’d chosen this particularly night, since Edenville is spectacular from the air. The city is arranged in concentric circles around the Performance Center, a vast conglomerate of permanent theaters and galleries, plus a few large empty spaces where acts too big for theatres—like Sensation Singles—could set up concert tents. I remembered the Performance Center well, all spidery columns, crystalline domes and soaring gold roofs, lit up at night so that from the air the city looks like a giant, jeweled wheel hung on a hub of gold, silver and diamonds.

Tonight, all I could see was a yellowish glow in the drizzling fog.

The driver turned down the interior lights as we took off, and Meta snuggled close in the darkness. I found myself pressed painfully against the door.

Look, I’d better make something clear right here. I liked Meta. I liked her a lot. We’d been through a lot together and she’d seen me at my worst, back when I was drugged with flash and pretty much out of my mind. In fact, she saved my life.

But I didn’t think of her thatway. I was almost three standard years older, for one thing. That’s a lot. Andwe’d grown up in completely different worlds. I ran away from an orphanage when I was ten and lived on my own on the street for years. She grew up…

Well, she grew up in that.

We had descended from the clouds and were approaching the roof of the Prescott family home. I’d done some sightseeing in Paris. Between the Prescott family home and that little shack the Parisians call Versailles, there wasn’t much to choose.

Versailles might have been a little smaller.

Searchlights on the roof speared us as we descended. A door opened, and three servants—actual humans, two men and one woman, not robots—emerged. They wore red belts, boots and gloves over black tights and tunics. They didn’t have to worry about getting their finery wet; a weather-repelling field hurled the raindrops into the gutters before they came anywhere near the gold-painted surface of the Prescott roof.

We landed, and a servant stepped forward to greet each of us. “Welcome home, Mr. Prescott,” said the woman.

“Thank you, Carrilda,” said Mr. Prescott.

“Welcome home, Meta,” said the man who had met her.

“Thanks, Jimi,” said Meta, as if having her own servant were the most natural thing in the world—which, for her, it probably was.

“Welcome, Mr. Murdoch,” said the man who had stepped up to me.

“Uh, thanks. Call me Kit…” I glanced at his nametag, just below the small Prescott coat of arms stitched in gold thread over his left breast, and finished, “Alphonse.”

“Of course,” said Alphonse. “Right this way, Kit.” When he turned around, I saw that coat of arms also appeared, much larger, on his back.

Meta might be used to having a personal servant. I felt like I’d been arrested.

We went through the doors from which the servants had emerged, and descended a marble staircase that curved around and deposited us in a lobby roughly the size of the Fistfight City spaceport, only a lot better decorated, from the marble floor to the oil paintings to the delicately carved and gilded hall tables, each topped with an exquisitely beautiful china vase holding a breathtaking explosion of fresh-cut flowers.

I didn’t get much chance to linger, though. The moment we reached the lobby, Mr. Prescott turned to Alphonse. “Alphonse, please show Kit to his room, thank you. Kit, dinner will be served in an hour.” He looked me up and down; I was wearing the all-black synthileather pants and snug-fitting black long-sleeved shirt I usually wore to travel in. “The closet in your room should be able to provide you with something a bit more suitable, if you have nothing in your own luggage.”

I opened my mouth to ask what was unsuitable about what I had on, then thought better of it. Meta flicked a quick smile in my direction, then immediately plunged back into the detailed account of everything she had done since she left she had been regaling Jimi with since we left the roof. I followed Alphonse through an archway and an endless series of corridors to a room only slightly smaller than the apartment in Paris.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But not much of one. My new room contained not only a bed big enough for six people, but a sunken bath you could almost swim lengths in, a wall-sized vidscreen, tables and chairs enough to host a crashball team to dinner, its own bathroom with both a regular shower and a sonic shower and a toilet that could have doubled as a work of art, and the aforementioned closet, whose door Alphonse opened to show me my own clothes already neatly hung (how’d they get them down there so fast?) and a control panel that would have looked at home on the bridge of a starship, emblazoned with the name “AutoTailor 4000.”

“Thanks,” I said, staring at it.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Murdoch. I’ll see you at dinner in fifty minutes.” Alphonse went out.

I leaned forward to read the labels on the control panel, and the AutoTailor 4000 came to such sudden life that I jumped back. “How can I assist you?” said a warm female voice.

“Uh…I need clothes appropriate for dinner.”

“Of course,” the voice purred. “Where will this dinner take place?”

“Here. I mean, in this house. The, uh, dining room, I guess.”

“I have several appropriate designs available. Would you care to view them?”

Ugh. Sounded like shopping. “No thanks. Just…pick one.”

“Very well.” A pause. “I have scanned your biometrics and cannot find you in my database. I will require measurements.” A panel in the unit suddenly slid aside, revealing a padded booth. “Please remove all clothing and step into the measurement room.”

“Uh…well, OK.” Telling myself it was just a machine, despite its sultry voice, but feeling self-conscious all the same, I stripped and stepped in. The door closed, leaving me in darkness. A blue-green band of light traveled up and down my body. It went out and the door opened.

“Thank you,” said the woman’s voice. “Your clothing will be ready in five minutes. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Uh…no. Thank you.”

The machine fell silent, except for faint clicking and rustling noises inside. I watched it for a moment, then turned and went back into the room. I looked around it. “Totally orbital,” I said out loud. “And I thought Iwas rich.” Apparently, there was rich and there was rich. “Well, might as well enjoy myself.”

I examined the controls for the bath, set the water temperature and the type of bath I wanted (whirlpool), and two minutes later was relaxing in steaming, swirling water.

Moving to a hotel is going to be a definite let-down, I thought, half-asleep.

And then, of course, the computer terminal chimed, announcing a message. Muttering to myself, I clambered out of the bath, grabbed a thick blue towel from the selection on a low shelf, and padded, drying myself, across the thick dark-blue carpet to the terminal. “Display,” I said.

The message was from Rain. What it said sent me scrambling for my clothes and running out the door in search of Meta.