Rafael Dunbarger landed at Nexus Center Port as Genson Ratanvi, a staid, slightly paunchy middle-aged businessman in food service with a Cascadian identity. His tidy gray beard and gray-streaked hair, his padded cheeks and aged skin, his sober business suit with a few lines of Cascadian green through its subtle gray plaid all fit this image. Customs and Immigration passed him through, as his bioassays all matched his identityas well they should, Rafe thought. Short-acting DNA subs programmed with his alter's bioassays might give him a temporary headache, but that was a price he could pay. He had obtained this first false ID at Cascadia more than a decade before, and he'd used it here several times, on visits his family hadn't known about.
The trip from Cascadia had been no worse than usual; he had spent the twenty-nine days chatting with other business travelers, exercising in the business-class gym, reading in the business-class lounge, avoiding the gawking tourists and the family groups as his persona required, and carefully not thinking about Ky or Stella Vatta. Ky was beyond his reach, probably dead; he could not tease Stella now, not until she reached some equilibrium with her new identity.
Instead, he toyed with ISC's problems. How had so many ansibles gone bad all at once? Surely not chance . . . who had done it? Why was repair so slow? If he himself could restore function in a few hours, why weren't ISC's repair teams making more headway? How deeply had the pirates infiltrated ISC?
Landing on Nexus IIhe carefully did not let himself call it homeRafe pushed that puzzle aside. Genson Ratanvi needed to find a way to contact Rafe's family, discreetly.
First he headed for the Ambisor, a commercial hotel frequented by business travelers where he had stayed before; his minimal luggage trailed him on a rented hoverpad. Once installed in his room, he first dealt with the hotel's surveillance system and then installed his own unique gear. The hotel's system would now inform the hotel that Genson Ratanvi came in, bathed, slept, and went out, on a reasonable but not too rigid schedule; it would believe anything he sent it, including remotely from his implant. Pseudo-calls would be noted; pseudo-messages would be sent. Then Rafe called up the business directory on the room display, marking the sorts of businesses he should, in this persona, mark, then tapping the key to collapse the rest of the directory.
What he really wanted to know, he had noted in passing: ISC headquarters still had the same public access number. Not that Genson Ratanvi had any reason to call there.
After a mediocre meal at the hotel's cafe, Rafe headed out into the city. It was autumn in this location, just after midday, local time. He drew a deep breath, anticipating and then enjoying the familiar fragrance, childhood-deep in his memory. His favorite time of year, with apples ripe on the trees and the autumn mushrooms mingling their scent with that of fallen leaves, even here in the city's commercial district. Probably every world had its characteristic scents, but he spent nearly all his time on ships and stations. He felt a strange mix of nostalgia and fear: this was home, and home could be deadly.
The Number 161 tram still ran from the spaceport hotel district out to the northern suburbs; Rafe rode it to the last stop, seeing little change from the last time he'd been here except that the long-delayed northern extension of the freight monorail was finally in place. He got off in the bustling little market, now full of schoolchildren buying treats after school, and womenmostly employees, he knewbuying fresh produce and meat for dinner.
He headed for Luce's, sat down at an outside table, and ordered a slice of honeycake and tea with lime. The lime came partly pared, a curl of peel holding it to the rim of the glass. He stared at it a moment. Where was Ky by now? Off on that idiot attempt to build a fleet out of a bunch of untrained privateers? His shoulders twitched. Dead. She must be dead by now; he was not going to think about her.
Except that she had shipboard ansibles and intended to use them. That, he had to think about, and carefully, before he told his father. ISC must not decide she was an enemy. He owed her that much, just in case she was still alive.
His portable security system informed him thataside from the general surveillance designed to notice and focus on suspicious activityhe was not observed. Humans were inattentive witnesses anyway, and no one really cared about a middle-aged, slightly paunchy man quietly eating honeycake and drinking tea. Nor would they care if he appeared to be talking to himself; almost everyone had an implant, and most of those had skullphones.
He activated his own skullphone and called his father's private number. His father might be in a meeting, might not answer at once, but
"This number is no longer available. Please check the number you are calling and try again."
Rafe sat very still, then made himself breathe normally. It had been years; the number was in his implant files, but perhaps he had flicked the wrong one. That could happen. He entered it again.
"This number is no longer . . ."
He closed the connection and took a bite of honeycake. His father's number was no longer available? Had he changed it for some reason? That could be awkward; Rafe's business persona had no reason and no influence to get access to ISC's chief executive. Surely his father hadn't . . . died. Someone would have told him. His mother would have, surely . . .
He activated the table's local information file. His family's home number would not be listed in such a public place, but he remembered a lot of local numbers and he could see if there had been an overall change. No. He did not have his mother's private skullphone number, nor his sister's, and he had not wanted to call the house . . . all calls were recorded, and why would Genson Ratanvi be calling that number? Call ISC headquarters? Use one of his other names? One of the names known to ISC's internal security? Very dangerous if someone there was crooked.
He found a useful number only two digits off his homeFlasic's Bakery Suppliesand marked it on the table's list. Then he entered his own home's numbera simple mistake, if anyone asked.
"Please state your name and reason for calling." That was not a voice he knew, none of the household he recognized, though his parents could have hired new servants since his last visit home. But the hair rose on his arms. The link was hardbound, so that he could not simply cut off the call.
"This is Genson Ratanvi, just arrived from Cascadia," he said in Genson's voice, a prissy, plummy version of a Cascadian accent. "I'm trying to reach Flasic's Bakery Supplies . . . you are a purveyor of custom-designed commercial bakery equipment and specialized mixes, are you not?"
"You have the wrong number," the voice informed him. "Where are you calling from?"
It had to be official. Something was very wrong indeed. "From a place . . . er . . . Luce's? . . . they have honeycakes and lime tea."
"And when did you say you arrived?"
"A few hours ago; my ship from Cascadia docked at Nexus Station yesterday."
"Do not attempt to end this call. Just a moment." The connection hummed and hissed. Rafe finished his honeycake and sipped tea while he waited.
The voice came back, a little less strained. "You entered the wrong number, a seven instead of a five. We have confirmed your arrival today. You may end this call now."
"What is this about?" Rafe asked. "Is something wrong?" Genson would ask that.
"It is no affair of yours," the voice said; the connection broke.
"Would you like something else?" Luce's proprietor, whom Rafe had known since childhood, stood by the table, looking at him with suspicion but no recognition.
"It's very good," Rafe said, waving his hand at the crumbs on his plate. "But this is confusing. I need to contact Flasic's Bakery Supplies, and I entered the wrong number and someone was very rude to me."
"We aren't as formal as you Cascadians," Luce said, picking up the plate. "Don't assume we're rude if we're not all flowery."
"No offense intended," Rafe said. So Luce knew he was Cascadian? Who had told him? "I was just surprised. Do you know where Flasic's Bakery Supplies is? Perhaps I should walk there instead of trying to call. I don't want to make more mistakes."
Luce smiled. "I can take you there myself; I was going over to get the estimate on a new oven."
Rafe doubted that, but he was willing to let Luce walk with him the several blocks to Flasic's. Anything to convince the ants' nest he'd kicked that he was harmless and forgettable. On the way, he was able to convince Luce that he knew something about bakeries; Luce didn't seem to realize that it was mostly Luce's own knowledge that Rafe had picked up as a boy, being fed back to him in handy snippets.
Once in the store, he invented a problem with oven manufacturers on Cascadia, and inquired soberly about the possibility of importing high-volume, precise-temperature-control ovens from Nexus. He had shipping costs at his fingertips; he ran over the figures with the enthusiasm and thoroughness of any businessman, and finally shook his head. "I'm afraid not," he said to the sales representative who was talking with him. Luce, he noticed, was still hovering across the room, trying to pretend a serious conversation with another man. "It's simply too expensive, even if we went straight to your manufacturers. Perhaps we can hire some of your experts as consultants instead. I know ovens are supposed to be simple, mature technology, but every time we try to scale up bakery output, we end up with inferior product and unhappy customers." He smiled at his sales representative. "Thank you for your time; you were very helpful, and I'm terribly sorry I can't promise a sale. You will forgive me?"
The man blinked at him. "No need to apologize, sir; it's my joboh . . . you're from Cascadia, right?"
"Yes. I suppose we do seem overly formal to youbut that's not intended as an insult." Rafe had always enjoyed his Cascadian persona; overblown courtesy could be every bit as deadly as biting sarcasm, an art form with its lethal edges well concealed rather than exposed.
"Not at all," the man said. "We're a bit too direct sometimes, probably. It was a pleasure, sir."
"And to me, as well." Rafe stood up to leave, and was not surprised that Luce was also through, and coming toward him, smiling.
"Success?" he asked.
"Alas not," Rafe said. "Transportation is still too high. But don't let me detain you; you have a business to run."
Luce seemed willing enough, once outside, to turn back toward his own place. Rafe went to an information kiosk and looked up the manufacturers whose names he'd just learned, then called each one to inquire about offworld consultancy contracts. Since he could use the same spiel with each one, the rest of his mind was free to wonder how long it would take to bore the man watching him from the cafe across the street, and how soon he could evade his watchers.
By now it was late afternoon, time for workers to be coming home. Most people would be thinking of food or entertainment or both, and so might a businessman from offworld. He bustled across the street and interrupted a waiter at the cafe. "Where can a visitor get some . . . you know . . .?"
The waiter glared at him. "Food, drink, or sex?"
"I was thinking, dinner and a showmusic, dance, something like that. Anything but my hotel room."
"The Zedaiyah Dinner Theater's about six blocks that way" The waiter pointed with his elbow. "Please excuse me; I have customers . . ."
Rafe's watcher was easily close enough to overhear, even if he didn't have a spike-mike. Rafe turned away and headed "that way," stopping several times to ask passersby if he was going in the right direction. He'd been to the dinner theater once as a child, when they'd had a special children's holiday program: something with fairies and unicorns and a wicked witch flying through the air. They'd been given all the candy they could eat, and he had been heartily sick on the way home. The next year, he'd refused to go. He hoped dinner would be better this time.
On the way, he called his hotel on the skullphone and asked the concierge to arrange a ticket for him; it was waiting when he came to the ticket office. He went in, while his follower had to stop and buy a ticket, and looked around. Tables arranged in steeply pitched rows around the playing space, which looked much smaller now. Emergency exits there and there . . . restrooms male and female . . . a stairway to the balcony level. The bar to one side, where the early arrivals were gathered at small tables or standing by the polished bar. He headed that way, showed his ticket to the usher, and chose a tiny table in an alcove.
Two hours later, replete with a surprisingly good meal, he was eeling out the emergency exit without tripping its automatic alarm. The business suit and certain other elements of his disguise were stowed in the men's room, behind a ceiling tile over one of the stalls. Handy that Nexus society, founded on communication, still believed in privacy to the extent of having some completely enclosed stalls in every public restroom. He wore a camouflage skinsuit, and in the soft autumn mist that always came up after dark he had no trouble passing unseen through the town streets, then along the private road to his family's home.
He knew every centimeter of the road, every bush, every tree, every place someone could hide, every surveillance device and its range and sensitivity. He was prepared to confuse, to fox the scans, to disable some completely if he must.
He was not prepared to find the place uninhabited and unprotected except by its fence and hedge . . . and one very obvious police guard at the gate. He got in unnoticed, which he expected, and into the housethe empty house, with only a few dim lights on and all surveillance gear disconnected. The furniture was still there, the gleaming tiles of the kitchen, the long polished floor of the grand salon, though the leaves of the ornamental tigis drooped and the soil beneath it was dry. Tall bookcases in the library still held their books, both modern and antique. The music room still held the priceless grand piano, the concert harp, the cabinets full of music scores and recordings. A pale irregular area perhaps one by two meters marked the floor, visible even in the dim light.
He could not resist going upstairs to his old room, telling himself he might find some useful clue on the second floor. He had suspected his parents would clear it, turn it into a guest room, but instead it seemed unchanged, a wrenching time capsule. A crude model of an ansible platform, a school project for which he had won an award when he was nine, still stood on a shelf, the faded ribbon beside it. Textbooks still jammed the low bookcase. Even his clothesincluding the uniform of the hated boarding schoolwere still in the closet, carefully sealed in preservative packs.
For a moment, he leaned his head on the closet door frame, his breath coming fast and uneven. He could not have said, in that instant, if it was rage or pain that wrenched so powerfully. He had been prepared to have his life erased, removed utterly from his respectable family's awareness, but they had kept . . . someone had kept . . . so much. Evenand tears burned his eyesthe fateful display sword that had saved his life and caused him so much grief.