Cold wind lashed my face; cold rain dribbled down my back. My fingers throbbed like I’d slammed them in a door, my toes squished in my waterlogged boots, my throat felt as rough and red as rusty iron and my nose was both stuffed up and dripping, but I kept playing my beat-up silver stringsynth and singing the best I could. My hat barely held enough soggy cash for a mug of bean stew, much less a bed in Fat Sloan’s flophouse, and I didn’t fancy a night on the streets in this weather.
But the few people who splashed by me on their way into the tube station had eyes only for the dry warmth promised by its flickering blue holosign, not for a skinny, ragged streetkid.
That did it. I broke off in the middle of a soulful, wailing note—it was threatening to turn into a cough, anyway—and flicked off the stringsynth. If I’d sunk to feeling sorry for myself it was time to lift. Feeling sorry for yourself is just another way of saying you think somebody else ought to be taking care of you. First thing I’d learned after I escaped the orphanage seven years before was that Iwas the only person I could trust to take care of me.
I fished the thin, dripping handful of feds out of my hat, counted them, and shook my head. Sometimes I couldn’t even trust myself. Unless I could talk Sloan into a discount, it looked like I’d have to settle for a mug of stew and a night of shivering.
Lightning flashed, thunder quick-marched across the sky, the rain beat down even harder, and I decided to give Sloan the chance to be generous. None of the nearby hidey-holes I knew would be any good at all in this kind of weather—they were mostly under bridges or in burned-out basements, and I knew from experience that if they weren’t flooded yet they soon would be. Besides, on a night like this the freespaces would be crawling with rats, both the kind that squeak and the kind that run around on two legs. I could wake up stripped naked and robbed blind—if I woke up at all. I knew that from experience, too.
I slapped on the shapeless mass my hat had become, then started down the street, but I stopped at the first corner and looked back, feeling a strange itch between my shoulder blades. Under the holosign stood a man in a long black weathercoat, the expensive kind that repels raindrops a full metre. “Couldn’t be a ‘forcer, not with that coat,” I muttered, ducking out of sight. That wasn’t a comfort. The Fistfight City police generally treated me all right; they’d only chase me away from a place when they got a complaint, and they wouldn’t say anything when I went back a couple of weeks later. But lots of other people took an interest in kids on their own. I had my music, but a lot of kids had nothing but themselves, and they still had to eat.
Some were on the next street over. They stood in purple-lit doorways, watching for the occasional slow-moving wheeler, or talking to shadowy figures uncomfortably like the man in the weathercoat. As I splashed past one of the doorways a girl a year or two younger than me burst out and clutched my arm. “Please, you’ve got to help me, he’ll kill me—”
I shrugged her off and walked faster. I had my own problems. Behind me I heard a man cursing, and the sound of a hand meeting flesh, then muffled sobs that broke off as a door slammed. Nobody else on the street took any notice.
They wouldn’t pay any more attention if that guy in the weathercoat grabbed me, I thought then, and broke into a run, ducking into the next alley. Several twists and turns later I arrived at Fat Sloan’s, out of breath and shivering. I pushed through the heavy front door into the sour-smelling warmth of the lobby. Only one man lay unconscious on the shiny lime-green couch; looked like a slow night.
Fat Sloan deserved his nickname. A mountainous bubble of bloated flesh, he must have moved off the stool behind the counter sometime, but I’d never seen it and found it hard to imagine. He smiled at me, yellowing teeth showing briefly between pendulous lips. “Young Kit! What a surprise.”
“You know I berth here when it’s hydrating, gladeye.”
“Busy night. You want a room, you’ll have to share it.”
I held up my money. “I’ve got feds for a single.” I didn’t even have feds for a double, but he didn’t have to know that yet. Maybe I could get him to knock down the price.
“Maybe, but I haven’t got a single to give you.”
“No flashman roomie for me, Sloan!”
“Kit!” Sloan looked shocked, and put one hand in the general vicinity of his heart. “Would I do that to you? This—fellow—is a perfectly respectable freespacer. He’s just between ships at the moment. And I know he’ll be happy to meet you.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “No street-trade, Sloan.”
“Would I even suggest such a thing? This is a legitimate establishment.”
Sure it was. “So what’s his interest?”
“He likes music, Kit. He said he wants to meet a musician.”
Huh. I still didn’t like it—but thunder rattled the door, and rain rattled against the window—and I’d always wanted to talk to a spacer, anyway. If I were ever going to escape this interstellar slimepit, I needed a space-friend. But I couldn’t let Sloan know any of that, or I’d never talk his price down. “Still comes down to economics, Sloan. Fewer feds for a double.”
He shrugged. “So sleep in the street.”
“Come on, Sloan, flexibilize for your old gladeye.”
He looked me over, then grunted. “All right. For you, ten percent off.”
“Kit, synchronize with reality. It’s raining. I’m a businessman—supply and demand. High demand right now, low supply. Fifteen percent.”
He shook his head. “No deal.”
“Nominal with me. I’ll REM in the street—and spread the data you’re defunct.” I turned toward the door.
Sloan laughed, a remarkably unpleasant sound. “All right, Kit. Tell you what—twenty-five percent off. Just for you.”
“Orbital, gladeye.” I turned back to the counter and paid him, then tossed a couple of extra feds his way. “And add a mealpac to the program.” With the discount, I could actually afford to eat.
“Sure.” Sloan passed a keychip and the mealpac across the stained countertop. “Room 206. Knock first. I told your roommate he’d probably be having company, but you don’t want to surprise a freespacer. He might cut you in two and regret it later.” He shrugged. “Or he might not even regret it.”
“Worthless data, gladeye.” As if I’d be stupid enough to burst in on any stranger. How did Sloan think I’d survived this long?
I turned to go, but Sloan wasn’t finished. “Oh, one other thing, Kit.”
“Someone was asking for you. Man in a weathercoat. Looked like a high-power meatman to me.” He grinned. “Sleep well.”
“Not after seeing those teeth,” I shot at him as I climbed the stairs, but my gut clenched. I’d been approached by street-level meatmen before; I told them “no,” and they lifted. But if one of the herd-owners had his eyes on me…and now that I thought about it, it seemed strange the guy in the weathercoat would be asking about me the same day this “spacer” came asking about musicians. I could almost feel the jaws of some hidden trap closing in on me as I reached the dim and grimy second-floor corridor.
I found room 206, then stopped, listening. There was plenty to hear: a man and a woman screaming obscenities from across the hall; the latest Sensation Single pounding from next door. I grimaced; I hated that pre-packaged fluff. But I could hear nothing from room 206. Was that a good sign or not?
For a moment I considered leaving Fat Sloan’s and sleeping in the street after all, even though Sloan would never refund my money—but then the wind shook the window at the end of the hall, and I took a deep breath. I was probably worrying about nothing. Just coincidence. I knocked.
“Enter,” said a voice. Strange; Sloan had said the spacer was a man, but this sounded almost like a woman. I grinned, suddenly feeling better. Now, thatwould be an interesting turn of events! I stuck the keychip into its slot and, as the door swung inward, stepped through—
—and jumped back out again, tripping over my own feet and falling backward with a crash that shook the whole floor. I scrambled back until my spine pressed against the wall.
Two purple eyes on moist reddish-orange tentacles slid around the edge of the door and focused on me. A third eye joined them. “Are you unhurt?” said the voice that had told me to enter.
I found my own voice. I also found I couldn’t do much with it. “I—I—”
“My name is…” He made a noise like tearing metal. “In your words…Water that Falls from the Sky?”
“Rain?” I croaked. I resolved to kill Sloan.
“Yes, Rain! Like what it is doing outside.” A fourth eye rounded the corner, and then the entire creature.
Picture a stalk like a plant’s, reddish-orange and dotted with irregular patches of silver and gold. Give it four insect-like legs, positioned equidistantly around the stalk, so it can move instantly in any direction. Top the stalk, about four feet up, with eight writhing tentacles. Put eyes on four of them and have the others end in four smaller tentacles each. Add a mouth at their base, and breathing slits in the stalk that slowly open and close with a wet sucking sound, and you have my roommate. “You’re a Hydra!”
“That is what your race calls us, yes.” The alien sounded slightly miffed. “We would prefer you to call us…” He shrieked something well above high C.
“Not since my voice changed,” I muttered.
“Uh—nothing.” I remembered I was sitting on the floor and scrambled to my feet. Fat Sloan’s floors are nothing you want to sit on for long. “I’m sorry I yelled. Fat Slo—uh, the man who runs this place told me I’d have a roommate, but he didn’t tell me he’d be—uh, one of you.”
“Ah. Well, certainly I have the advantage of you there, for I didexpect that my roommate would be human.” Although his voice had that odd almost-feminine pitch, his Fedspeech was easy to understand, perfectly unaccented. “Won’t you come in?”
“Uh—yeah. I mean, thanks.” Clutching my synth and my mealpac to my chest, I edged into the room. The Hydra made room for me, but not very much, and I dreaded the thought of bumping up against one of his—
I jumped as he laid a tentacle on my arm. His orange skin felt very warm and slightly moist. “Your pardon,” the Hydra said. “I believe it is a human custom to exchange names. I’ve told you mine; you are…?”
“I’m called Kit,” I said, a little breathlessly.
“Kit? Do not humans usually have two names or more?”
“I don’t.” I looked around the dingy little room. There was only one bed, but the Hydra wouldn’t use one, anyway…I hoped.
“Is that usual?”
I tossed the synth on the bed and sat down beside it, then undid the laces on my left boot, wriggling my toes and hearing squelchy sounds. “Most people have an individual name and a family name, but I don’t have a family. My parents ran off when I was a baby.” I pulled off the boot with rather more force than was necessary. “The orphanage didn’t give me a name, just an ID number. I was supposed to choose my own name when I was twelve, standard. In the meantime they called me by a ‘pre-name’—Kit.”
“But surely…I am not a good judge of human ages, but surely you are older than twelve now.”
I attacked the right boot. “Yeah, I’m fifteen, local—seventeen, standard—but I left the orphanage when I was ten, and I’ve had other things to worry about. Kit’s good enough.”
The Hydra—Rain—said nothing, though his tentacles continued to move slowly. They made me queasy, so I stood up and went to the wash basin in one corner of the room, where I dumped the water from my boots. The rough towel Fat Sloan provided wasn’t all that clean, but it was dry. I took off my coat, vest and two shirts; hesitated, then shrugged and stripped off the rest of my wet clothes and began rubbing myself dry. Rain spoke up again abruptly. “What is in this?” In the cracked mirror I saw him lay one tentacle on my synth.
“It’s a stringsynth,” I said. “A musical instrument.” I toweled my tangled hair furiously. “I’m a street musician.”
“A musician! A human musician!” All four of his eyes focused on me suddenly. “I have been hoping to meet one! I am honored!”
I wrapped the towel around my waist. “Well, that’s a first.” Great, I thought. I finally get a groupie, and he’s an alien.
“Musicians have great prestige in our society.” Rain caressed the synth’s strings. “And we admire human musicians especially. Your vocal apparatus is limited, but you create melodies we have never dreamed of—and your harmonies…! I am honored, indeed.”
I shook my head. “I’m just a streetkid with a beat-up old stringsynth. You’ve got nothing to learn from me.”
“You are wrong, Kit. I have already learned much from you. I will choose to keep much of it.”
Whatever thatmeant. “So, you know who I am. What about you? What are you doing in Fat Sloan’s flophouse?” I reached for the mealpac and pulled its tab; the rich, nose-stinging odor of peppered greenfish steamed out of it, making my mouth water.
“Flophouse?” His tentacles waved. “What is—?”
“Hotel.” I gestured at the yellowing walls. “This place.”
“It is as I told Mr. Sloan: I am a spacer, but I am between berths. I came here to enjoy new experiences.”
I almost choked on my first mouthful of stew. “You mean you’re here—in Fat Sloan’s—as a ‘tourist’?”
“I believe that would be an accurate—do you need assistance?”
I swallowed before I gagged on laughter and fish broth. “No, no, I’m fine. Rain, if you want new experiences, stick with me. I’ll show you a side of Fistfight City you can bet your—uh—bottom you’ve never seen before.”
“Thank you!” Rain crowed. “I am in your debt, Kit. Will you also play some of your music for me?”
“Count on it.” Thunder shook the room and the wind shrieked through a crack in the window, but I was warm, dry and eating. In my life, I’d learned not to ask for more than that.
Of course, as my roommate proved, sometimes we get things we don’t ask for.
Rain asked so many questions I thought he’d never let me sleep, but round midnight he suddenly shut up, in the middle of a sentence. That would have been great, except he didn’t exactly fall silent; instead, he began to make a faint keening sound, like the wind, only higher-pitched and more constant. “Orbital,” I muttered. If the pillow had smelled fresher, I’d have clamped it over my head. “Roomies with a snoring alien.”
The sound kept on. I opened my eyes and looked at Rain in the uncertain light that spilled from the flashing red holosign of the tavern across the road. He had pulled all his tentacles into a tight ball atop his stalk, which pulsed slowly. I swallowed. I’d seen just about everything on the streets of Fistfight City, and never had a nightmare, but sharing a room with thatjust might manage it. Especially if he kept up that awful noise…
He did. But nothing else happened, and you can get used to any kind of noise if you hear it long enough—something I always figured explained the success of the Sensation Singles. Anyway, it had been a long day, and the bed, even if not particularly clean, was comfortable. Sometime while I was telling myself I’d be lying awake all night, I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, sunlight on the puddle that had collected underneath the window cast rippling reflections on the walls. The rain was over—and Rain was gone.
I sat up and stared around the room. No sign he’d ever been there. Maybe I’d dreamed him.
Maybe I’d dreamed the man in the weathercoat, too. I hoped so.
My stomach growled and I picked up the empty mealpac. I should have saved half of it for breakfast…now I’d have to start the day hungry. Nothing new, but not my first choice…
The door banged open and I scrambled back into the corner, grabbing the pillow. The meatman? No, not unless he’d grown some more arms…”Rain? Is that you?” As soon as I asked the question I felt stupid; what other four-eyed tentacled orange monster would be barging into my room first thing in the morning?
“Affirmative, it is I!” he chortled in that peculiar male/female voice. “I bring food!”
“Food?” I tossed aside the pillow. “What kind of food?”
“I asked the tavern-woman across the street for food-which-you-eat-in-the-morning—”
“—breakfast, yes, and she gave me this.” From somewhere he produced a mealpac, twice the size of the one I’d gotten from Fat Sloan, and dropped it in my lap.
I tore it open, and mouthwatering steam filled the room. A redcheese and findel-egg omelet! I hadn’t eaten this good in—I couldn’t remember. It even came with a fork! I’d gulped half the contents before I remembered what passed for my manners. “Uh, Rain, did you want some?”
He made a choking noise that it took me a moment to recognize as laughter. “No, thank you. I ate only nine days ago.”
“Oh.” I didn’t try to change his mind. Within minutes I swallowed the last tangy bite and sat back with a sigh.
All four of Rain’s eyes watched me avidly. “Now will you go out on the street and sing?”
I sighed again. “What I’d really like to do is go back to sleep…but I won’t!” I added hurriedly as Rain’s tentacles writhed. “Fat Sloan will be kicking people out in a few minutes, anyway—except for the crashed-out flashmen. He’ll just charge them for a second night and leave them where they are.” I got up and padded to the sink. There was a shower down the hall but you never knew who you’d meet in there. I’d settle for a wet washrag and some of Fat Sloan’s gritty soap.
“I have heard of these ‘flashmen,’” said Rain. “They are humans who have become addicted to a chemical substance?”
I ran water on the rag, then wet the soap. “Yeah, flash.”
“And why do they take this substance?”
“Escape? Escape what?”
“Their lives. Places like this.” I sniffed at the washrag. Either it or the soap smelled rancid. I settled for splashing water over myself, then rubbing down with the towel.
“But even after they take it, they are still here.”
“Not in their heads. Up there, they’re somewhere else—even someone else. Plus it makes you feel really strong and fast, like you could do anything.”
“You have tried it?”
I tossed the towel aside and reached for my clothes—still wet, but all I had. “No. But I’ve heard.” And some nights, I’d been tempted. I forced my legs into my blackjeans.
“Where do these ‘flashmen’ get this substance?”
“Just about anywhere. There’s a dealer on every block. Fat Sloan, for example.”
“And where do theyget it?”
My shirts felt like sheets of ice on my back. “How should I know?” I snapped. “You sure do ask a lot of questions!”
“I wish to learn about your culture,” said Rain. “That is why I am here. These things I am learning from you were not included in the data on Murdoch IV contained in the ship’s computer.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t know much about the rest of the planet, but if you want data about its lovely capital city, I know stuff that will slag your hardware.” I put on my damp jacket and grabbed the stringsynth. “Let’s lift for the street, gladeye!”
I sighed. “That’s street slang for friend—you know, I see you, I feel glad, so ‘gladeye.’”
Rain’s eyes stacked up one above the other. “I have not heard this. My knowledge of your language is incomplete.”
“No,” I said. “You speak standard Fedspeech very well. But individual groups—like streetkids—speak variations of it.”
He sidled closer, staring so intently with all four purple eyes that I took a step back. You haven’t been stared at ‘til you’ve been stared at by a Hydra. “Your pattern of speech is inconsistant,” he said. “Sometimes you speak ‘standard’ speech and sometimes this ‘slang.’ I do not understand.”
“I don’t plan to be a streetslug all my life,” I said. “So whenever I’ve got a few extra feds I plug the self-teachers at Data Central.” I grinned at him and put on the clipped accent of the Planetary Governor. “I am perfectly capable of speaking standard Fedspeech; however, such a mode of communication would not serve me well among my peers in the underprivileged class.”
Rain wriggled his eyes. “Most intriguing! I will retain it.”
I laughed. “Orbital, gladeye. Let’s lift!”
“Slang,” he said joyfully. “Let’s lift!”
I intended to go back to the tube station—morning rush hour was usually good for a couple of feds—but Rain turned to the right when I turned left, then stopped, his eyes swiveling around to stare at me. “You are not going to the spaceport?”
“Why should I?” I asked suspiciously.
“A big passenger liner lands this morning. Tourists, I think you call them? Are not such people your ideal audience?”
He was right, but I hesitated. The Port was the Ice Boys’ orbit and the last time I’d hit it they’d half-strangled me with my own stringsynth strap. I gave Rain a measuring look. On the other hand, last time I hadn’t had an orange octopus sidekick. Besides, I could use the feds—and though I hated to admit it, the man in the weathercoat had spooked me. He wouldn’t look for me in the Port, because I hadn’t been there in months.
“Orbital, gladeye,” I said. “Program accepted. Let’s lift!”
At the Port, nobody tried to strangle me. Nobody threw money in my hat, either, because the tourists were fresh off some planet even less in the galactic cultural mainstream than Murdoch IV (which I should have guessed from the fact they’d come to Fistfight City to “see the sights,” since there weren’t any) and had ever seen an alien. Instead of listening to me, they all clustered around Rain, staring. He stared back, sometimes at four different people at once. For all his “I am honored” talk, he didn’t seem to be paying much attention to me, either. I broke off in the middle of a raunchy Belvederian folk song and glared at him. “You’re negativizing my audience, Rain.”
“Hey, it’s smooth, gladeye,” he said. “I’ll lift.”
Which he did. Trouble was, he took the people with him. After two hours I’d collected less than the price of even one of Fat Sloan’s measly mealpacs. I frowned at Rain and the crowd around him. Maybe I could hide him in the men’s room and charge admission. “See the incredible octoman! One fed a hed…”
“Hey, flashmates. Scan who’s back in our orbit.”
Uh-oh. Little problem I hadn’t considered with having Rain move off. I turned slowly. “What’s powering, Dry Ice?”
He and three other Ice Boys were leaning against two of the mirrored pillars that dotted the terminal lobby. Since they wore mirrorcloth themselves the effect was unsettling—as intended. Not that it took special effects to unsettle me. I hadn’t forgotten what Dry Ice had promised to do to me the next time he caught me in the Port. It involved the monomolecular-edged blades all the Ice Boys carried and the most sensitive parts of my anatomy. I hoped Dry Ice didn’t remember as well as I did.
No such luck. He twitched one silver-gloved finger and a faint whispering hum told me his blade, invisible from my distance, was out and active. I slung the stringsynth over my shoulder. “Power down, Dry Ice. It’s smooth. I’m lifting.”
“You missed the window, gladeye.” Dry Ice stepped toward me. The whites of his narrowed eyes showed blue-gray—the sign of a flash user.
Flash had one other side effect I hadn’t mentioned to Rain: it could turn even kind and gentle people into dangerous, violent psychopaths—and Dry Ice had never been kind and gentle. He showed his teeth. “You’ve crashed our orbit for the last time.” His flashmates fanned out, surrounding me. I looked back at Rain; not a single eye pointed in my direction. I tensed, ready to run, though I knew from bitter experience the Ice Boys were faster, but suddenly Dry Ice stopped, and his monoblade whispered back into its sheath. “Hey, it’s smooth, gladeye. It’s smooth!”
I turned, following his gaze. At the top of the escalator stood the man in the long black weathercoat. “Lift,” he told Dry Ice and his boys, and they lifted; I watched warily as he descended to my level “You’re Kit?” he said as he reached me.
“Information’s economic, gladeye. Freeware’s a myth.”
“Cut the slang. I know you can talk standard Fedspeech.”
“Yeah?” I didn’t like this at all. He knew too much about me, while I knew nothing about him—except that I had something he wanted. I was behind in the game and didn’t even know the stakes—or the rules.
“Yeah.” He glanced at Rain, who apparently hadn’t noticed the Ice Boys at all—or hadn’t cared. Just because we shared a room doesn’t make us friends, I reminded myself, or I’d have a lot more friends than I do. As if reading my thoughts, the stranger said, “Saw you come in with the Hydra. Friend of yours?”
“Interesting acquaintance for a streetslug.”
“He likes music.”
“That a fact?” The man’s teeth flashed white. “So do I.” He nodded toward Rain. “Let’s go see if he likes yours.”
“I’m lifting,” I said. “Ice Boys come back, I’m protein.”
“Ice Boys won’t bother you while you’re with me.”
That wasn’t reassuring. Who wasthis guy? Still, I took his unspoken point: the Ice Boys wouldn’t bother me while I was with him, but when I wasn’t with him any more… “So let’s go talk to my good friend Rain,” I said.
“Right,” said the man. He strode to where Rain held court. Nobody stared at Rain for long, not once he started staring back, but new people kept emerging from Customs. In the crowd I caught a glimpse of a kid I knew. He’d probably had a very profitable morning, what with all those tourists too interested in the alien to pay any attention to their pockets.
The man in the black coat held up a flat silver box and a nerve-grating screech assaulted my ears. Rain’s eyes whirled to face us. He screeched back.
The man bowedto him. “I regret I cannot further converse in your tongue. Only the greeting-of-one-for-a-stranger is programmed into my talksynth.”
“Regret nothing,” said Rain. “It was a pleasure to hear our language spoken unexpectedly. I shall retain it.”
“I am honored.” The man straightened. “I am called Qualls. You are Rain?”
“I am…” He shrieked. “But ‘Rain’ is acceptable.” His eyes rearranged themselves. “I have memory of you, Qualls. You were on the ship that brought me here five days ago.”
“I am honored my memory was retained.”
Rain aimed an eye at me. “You are a friend of my young gladeye Kit?”
“More of an admirer,” Qualls said. “I have been watching him since I arrived.”
“You’ve been what?” I exploded.
“Watching you. I’ve been very impressed.”
“I’m nobody’s meat!”
“I’m not a meatman.” He turned back toward Rain. “You are interested in human music, Rain. I would value your opinion.”
“Kit has great talent,” Rain said instantly. “Untrained and raw, but very promising. I will retain much of what I heard.”
Qualls bowed. “Thank you. You confirm my own opinion.”
I stared at both of them. “What’s going on?”
Qualls held out a glowing rectangle—a holocard. I glanced at it. Beside the three-dimensional image of his face floated six words that sparkled like diamonds: “Samuel Qualls. Talent Scout. Sensation Singles.”
I gaped at him. He smiled. “Kit,” he said, “I’m going to make you a star.”