Their luxury berth on the J-class liner had cost an astounding amount. But Nickerson found it even more remarkable that the expenditure meant virtually nothing under their new circumstances. It barely registered, in fact. Their two palmchips, the rewards for triumphing over their Carnival foes, guaranteed them a wealth that would free them from worries for the rest of their lives.
Free of financial
worries anyway, Nickerson silently amended with a kind of pessimistic reflex. But he caught the thought and squeezed it into silence. Such thinking didn't belong on his honeymoon, after all.
He let himself smile at this thought as he busied himself around the cabin. Automated servitors would do anything he said, of course, but he preferred to do his own packing. Much of the gear he'd taken on this trip wasn't necessary. Certainly he never would've traveled this loaded down in the old days. Appearances mattered, though. He and his new husband had wealth. This voyage across the solar system had to look authentic.
. It deepened the smile on his face. He glanced and saw where BlaqJaq lay inside one of the room's sleep pods. Nickerson gazed at his naked form, at the youthful beauty. He still had his young lover's taste in his mouth.
They had married in the same city from which they'd embarked on this journey, a teeming Earth metropolis. All around, black towers had loomed; the cityscape had glittered and twinkled. Such places possessed a sort of sinister loveliness to them, he supposed. But Nickerson knew that beneath the veneer of modernity lay secret places, ugly depths. Earth hadn't conquered poverty or crime. It had simply learned to hide such unpleasantness.
They'd had to return to the civilized reaches of the planet. Their new palmchips, with those amazing stores of credit, wouldn't have done them much good out among the verdant wilderness. Even the floating city of New New Orleans, built over the original's drowned ruins, had no real use for the system-wide computerized monetary structure.
Nickerson, though, remembered feeling uneasy as they'd entered that black-towered modern city, truly testing their chips for the first time. His anxiety had come from something more than concern over the chips' functionality. He had survived the Hunt of Nine. His traitorous employers might know that. It wouldn't do for him to remain alive, in their eyes.
He had stayed watchful and alert, and he'd expected trouble at every moment. But it had never come, no assassins springing suddenly out of nothingness, no traps laid for him by the criminal cartels. He had eluded his hunters, and now they had no scent of his to follow.
He found himself still staring at BlaqJaq, at where he lay curled in his pod. With another smile, a self-deprecating one this time, he returned to packing their belongings, for their disembarkation in another hour or so. It thrilled and amazed him how the younger man could stir him so, both physically and emotionally. He didn't guess he would ever get tired of sex with BlaqJaq. But neither did it seem that the intensity of his love would ever diminish. In BlaqJaq he had found a perfect mate, a lover, a husband.
The simplicity, even the austerity, of that ceremony didn't reduce the profound solemnity of their marriage. They had recited the basic vows, and the clerks at the bureau had validated the rite and congratulated the two of them in a manner that hadn't seemed entirely perfunctory. Husband and husband. A formal bond.
Nickerson's gaze passed over the viewing window afforded by their deluxe accommodations. He paused here at the long oval and gave a moment of study to the stars beyond. They indeed made for quite a spectacle, though they were nothing new to him. He knew this panorama from years of traveling through the system, quietly and effectively doing the bidding of his superiors.
What had BlaqJaq said earlier about these same stars? How had he characterized this view? Peaceful. Like a good, clean rest.
Nickerson hoped this new phase of their lives would prove to be just that--peaceful. This system was fantastically enormous, on the human scale at least, if not compared to the dimensions that those stars represented. Surely enough room existed, among all this system's places, where he and his new husband could settle, to live peaceful lives. Surely.
He resumed packing, but his thoughts did not coax another smile from him.
* * *
The concourse fairly teemed, but without disorder, without anything like jostling or unnecessary hurrying. The two men had arrived at a travel hub, one of many strung throughout the system, allowing access to the numerous places made habitable for human life. Much Earth-forming had been undertaken in years past, during the age of real intersystem exploration and development. Once, space travel (how quaint a term--space travel
; one had to roll one's eyes) had served as a novelty, a folly, a means of keeping alive the desperate and mismanaged dreams of stargazers. Later, when environmental cataclysms had started to seriously wreck the planet, the Earth's inhabitants had suddenly found the motivation, the funding, and the willingness to commit wholly to a program of colonization.
What still amazed was how well it had worked. Or more to the point: how those who had colonized the new places had left behind, seemingly, all the barbarism and greed and self-destructiveness of their kind. New humans for new worlds! That sounded like a slogan, actually. Nickerson vaguely remembered reading it in a historical text...
“Where do we go now?” BlaqJaq asked.
They had stopped at a crossroads--literally. This artificial hub certainly qualified as a crossroads, and here, within it, the two men had halted on the concourse at an intersection of many passageways, all leading away toward embarkation points. A heady array of possibilities presented themselves.
Their baggage, having dutifully followed them, waited with a quiet, patient humming. The two men had chosen to walk rather than ride one of the ubiquitous carts. Both, though BlaqJaq especially, had needed a few moments to get used to the station's rotational gravity.
Nickerson saw the brightness in BlaqJaq's eyes. Even this station filled him with wonder, probably. Well, it was
impressive: A clean, orderly place with pleasing architecture and plots of yellow, feathery plants set here and there. The tiling gleamed. Staff members, automated and otherwise, stood by to assist any travelers needing aid. The air tasted good. The temperature felt crisply pleasant. Just a hub, just a way station, but typical of the off-rock experience, where one could enjoy the clean, safe places humans had made for themselves.
“Where do you want to go?” Nickerson asked, by way of finally responding to BlaqJaq's question.
The younger male shot him a look that was part exasperation, part wide-eyed excitement. “How the hell do I know?” He waved toward the holo signs wafting on the scrubbed air. They indicated potential destinations. Many vessels came and went from places like this one. “I don't know what any of those names mean. And I don't like looking like a moron standing here.”
This last comment sobered Nickerson. BlaqJaq had it right. Newlyweds they legitimately were, yes, but the credit recorded on their palmchips indicated the sort of sophistication all people of wealth had, or at least pretended to. Nickerson had traveled through places like this before. At one time or other he'd visited, on assignment, just about every destination depicted on those signs.
But this was BlaqJaq's first voyage off-planet. They had to make it seem like he belonged out here, like the two of them had only wed on Earth as a whim, as a caprice of the affluent.
After all, who knew who might be watching?
“Let's go this way.” Nickerson gave a curt nod, and they headed into a passage of glowing blue hexagons. Their luggage faithfully followed.
* * *
BlaqJaq looked good in his new clothes, a flowing drapery of lush silk shot through with metallic sparkles. Nickerson's apparel appeared equally as chic, a bronze-colored suit with just the right cut to the waist. He had never cared about fashion before. In his professional career, blending in had always served him best. Well, he was still
blending in; only now he didn't need to play the role of invisible assassin any longer.
The blue corridor had ended at a wide bay. An array of private transports were on display here, with merchants--again, some automated and some not--happy to show off their vehicles to the prospective buyers milling about. Nickerson and BlaqJaq fell in among these, casually appraising the models, taking care not to appear too interested. The timeless mercantile dance.
“Do any of these catch your eye?” Nickerson waved a hand.
BlaqJaq evidently caught his tone and responded in a similar haughty manner. “What's there to catch? One likes a little flair.”
One likes a little flair
? What next? BlaqJaq employing the royal third person? Nickerson let an appreciative smile tug an edge of his mouth.
He had already spotted the best transport among the lot. Wandering near, he remarked on the vehicle within the hearing field of the hoverdrone tending the display. The robot merchant hurried toward them, fussing and friendly. The two men deigned to pause, to listen to the spiel. They traded numerous skeptical looks. Finally Nickerson asked a few questions, which triggered enthusiastic responses from the well-programmed drone. Its faceplate lit cheerily.
In the end, they purchased the transport, a Phoenix 299 with some modifications, the sort of vessel an upscale prospector might take into the Belt. Nickerson had handled this same model in the past. A good ship. Fast, not especially conspicuous, but just extravagant enough. If anyone were tracking their movements, this purchase wouldn't seem out of the ordinary.
Nickerson put his right palm to the merchant's interface. His false identity registered, including confirmation of the appropriate piloting permits he had obtained while still on Earth. Another negligible, though nonetheless impressive, amount vanished from the store of credit. He didn't know who had finagled so astonishing a quantity of credit for the chips in the first place, but he understood that such deceptions were possible. Talented hackers could conjure wealth from nothing, simply by convincing the monetary net that a chip had worth.
Their baggage found its way aboard the new vessel. Provisions which Nickerson had arranged were also being loaded. BlaqJaq grinned as he looked the ship over. They might have stayed on that liner, might have voyaged through the system in extreme luxury, stopping only at the most obvious places, the heavily settled colonies. They might have gone from hotel to resort to spa to luxurious retreat. But Nickerson had an inkling that they would both get bored with that sooner rather than later. In many ways, these habitable places were paradisiacal, these worlds and worldlets; but one could still find adventure up here in the wide black. He saw no reason why their lives shouldn't have at least a little excitement. Nothing like the Hunt of Nine or Carnival, of course, but still...
He took BlaqJaq's hand and kissed it softly. “Do you like our new scoot, husband?”
BlaqJaq was still admiring the lines of the vessel. “I suppose you'll want to pilot it. Very well. But you must give me a chance with it at some point.”
This time Nickerson laughed out loud at the stately patrician manner of speech his younger lover had adopted. He kissed him again, this time on the lips. Then the two walked toward the Phoenix's entry ramp, to prepare their departure from the station's bay.
Eric Del Carlo