STARBOW'S END

By Luminator Thelms

(Tagline) Whatever happened to the blonde psychopath in The Vor Game, anyway?

Chapter 1

A lady with a past appears.

So on the day I'm talking about, it's three hours into my shift, my legs are giving me hell and I'm ready to kill someone.

I'm making another pass through the ship's Special Services Bower, past the starboard nine of the eighteen dimly lit and heavily upholstered oval alcoves along the curving corridor leading to the bar. I can barely hear the faint swoosh, swoosh of my maroon synthsilk hostess gown sliding against my hips and thighs's tawny skin, over the hum of the air circulators. There's also the flutter of the elaborate ruffles lining my gown's plunging neckline and obscuring the ample dimension of my bust, yet displaying my cleavage just the proper degree beyond good taste. The outfit looks sewn in place on me, but if I stroke the hidden releases I'll be ready for action in two seconds.

Business is slow this shift. Some of the girls, sitting idle on broad alcove couches, look up briefly as I pass. Joanne even offers a soft, "Good shift, Lady Sal?" with only the slightest of tremors in her voice. I like that bit of tremor. Strawberry Sherry is explaining to a perspiring ship fitter, as he refastens his tunic in her alcove, how to transfer a portion of his pay chit to an unregistered account without involving the Station's paymaster.

Another alcove has its privacy screen drawn. I pause and listen, and from the rhythmic thumping within, I deduce that Matilda has convinced another ramscoop ship's pilot to space the rulebook, here and now. 'Scoopers are risk-takers, right enough, or they wouldn't dive their gape-nosed ships into the turbulent muck of the gas giant Starbow's End is orbiting at present. I feel my full lips curve in a slight smile. Another credit in the kitty.

Just another day in the life of an ex-blonde ex-murderess. Well, so I'm not quite an ex-murderess. I'm working on it, okay? Give me a break.

Take that Special Services client about a month back. You know, my slow saunter is really something? I mean, clients in both Regular Services and Special Services keep turning their heads to watch when I pass by? So this Special Services client who's kind of tanked says it's a pity my name isn't Lady Shirley, 'cause then he could call me Slowly Butt Shirley. I could have Done Unto him, right then. He deserved it. But I didn't. Well, okay, I was also remembering we weren't in Jackson's Whole space, where you can outbid arrest warrants. The public safety wardens on Nuovo Brasil, seven AUs sunwards, might start getting all turby if clients visiting Starbow's End never come out again. I've already been through that hassle a couple of years back. Then there's Wichita Station Security. I'm paying them enough already. I mean, I want a very plump financial cushion tucked under me when Starbow's End makes its next Jump. Those air, water and food venders are murder on the ship's budget.

I continue into the bar on my aching legs, idly noting that this pansy Cetagandan is back, reeking of cologne and nursing some pink fruit-juice concoction in a tall glass. He's the only other person in sight besides Ser Gallagher, who's racking glasses behind the bar in anticipation of the evening crowd. The creep seems odd as hell, for a Ceta. He's checked out as a Ghem civilian, of all things, some minor Court functionary from the Cetagandan capital — the Celestial Garden, they call it — according to the best database I can afford. He sports the proper pacifistic cheek-decal and over-robes, too. Much preferable to a horde of Ghems in formal-sworn-revenge-hunt facepaint, you know?

Oh, Eternal Damnation, I have to walk right past him.I can't go around ordering everybody on Full Alert every time a Ceta comes wandering through the airlock, or they'll start wondering why. Not to mention the Cetas. It's not that I care what anybody thinks of me; I've just learned the hard way that ignoring that too much can make for problems. So I barely glance at the man as I pass through his cloud of cologne. He wants something here, but what? One of these shifts he'll get up his, ah, nerve, for whatever-it-is. I can tell he's just waiting for the right moment.

So as I saunter on into the corridor leading to Reception I'm remembering, once again, young "Doc" Felltu, the reason I needn't fear meeting occasional Cetagandi.

Felltu had warned me, sounding like a holovid drama's kindly old uncle, that my extended legs would ache if I walked for long periods. And that was before I'd decided to work on my back. Again. Well, it's worth it to be eleven centas higher. I'd told Felltu that messing with my spine was out, but I'd go for the hipbone enhancements and an expanded rib cage under my unaltered breasts. Now that was a masterstroke; who would expect a woman changing her body's contours to deliberately leave alone two of her most important assets? Okay, so he perked them up a tad, but he didn't add any mass at all. The plastic ribs push them out a little more, that's all. And he thickened my lips, flattened my nose, lengthened the back of my skull, turned my close-cropped silver-blonde hair into dark coils and tripled the melanin output of my skin cells.

"Hiding in plain sight," Felltu had called it, adding something about some Stolen Letter of a pre-space Terrain writer named Poe. Too bad he knew too much. Such a surprise his death must have been — to him, if not me. It's been too long since I've enjoyed that particular thrill.

By then I'm finishing pacing the corridor and reach the hatch to the Reception foyer. I enter, never breaking stride, between the blonde Amazon Twins flanking the hatch, as they chorus "Lady Sally." Former mercs, cashiered for deadly torture of surrendering prisoners, the rumors say. They'd snap to attention and salute, if I'd let them. But I don't dare. Because by habit I might respond, "As you were," and that wouldn't do at all. I'm not doing anything that might suggest I once had a military rank. Like, you know, Commander.

Instead I glance at the elegant lettering appliquéd to the bulkhead at my left, above and behind the wide counter facing the main docking airlock's vestibule: "Starbow's End / Orbital Rest and Recreation Facility / Lady Sally McGregor, Prop." Rather more enticing than Tri-System Bulk Transport Number Four, I must say Big Marva and Dead Alice, in their maroons, are seated behind the counter this shift, although no customers seem to be around. Alice makes me think of flesh stretched thin over a skull swaddled in pale straw. She holds up one boney finger for my attention, says, "Just got a signal. Shuttle-full of Wichita Admin types is due to dock here in an hour twenty."

I think about that a sec. With that many watching each other, I doubt they're going to call on my girls in Special Services. More likely at least a few of them intend to snoop out where their station workers' monies are going, or to look for new reasons to squeeze more of the money back into their own greasy palms. That's the problem with payoffs: Those paid off get greedy. Well, it's all part of doing business in this galaxy.

"Huh," I say, "Okay, we're strictly Regular Services for the duration. Pass the word."

Big Marva blinks, likely wondering about my possible hidden motives, then nods, verbally confirms, "R.S.," and does something under the countertop. The holo projection reading "Executive Club" above the rimless portal winks out; hidden servo arms silently slide a rectangle of bulkhead plate sideways then forward within the portal; in half a breath there's no sign the portal was ever there. The Amazon Twins step sideways to flank the outsize hatch to my right, leading to the game arcade, mini-gym, holovid viewing chambers, self-serve cantina — "No Newts! Guaranteed!" — and all the other innocent diversions I've managed to squeeze inside the various holds of this retired and refit Marilac freighter Well, okay, maybe a few of the listed diversions aren't so innocent. Some VR arcade games might, if the client chooses, involve monetary losses — and, occasionally, gains — beyond the standard per-game playing fee; certain holovid chambers feature programming that would raise eyebrows — and another anatomical item — almost anywhere outside of Jackson's Whole, and soft viewing couches that convert to sleep pallets for an additional fee. But holovid viewing partners are strictly Bring Your Own in Regular Services, no Starbow's End crew allowed. It's in the Ship's Regs.

No one doubts it. The first year out I spaced Freckled Frankie the second time I caught her entertaining a client in a Regular Services facility. Caught her before she'd quite finished entertaining, in fact, which rather upset the client. He got even more upset when I offered to let him join Frankie in the airlock, seeing as he cared for her so much.

Yeah, Frankie sure put on quite a show. The techs had already adjusted that lock's outer hatch to cycle ultra-slowly. And then I had to make sure the client stopped his whining, too. Look, it wasn't my fault he was so touchy about loosing Frankie. Or too cheap to pay the Special Services rate, which is why he got Frankie in trouble in the first place.

Anyway, I felt so good about Doing Unto twice in one shift. But you would not believe the hassles I had to go through with the local Security enforcers before I could get Starbow's End clear of that system. The bribes drained the slush fund and I had to short the payroll for a couple of months. I mean, give me a break.

I saved a recording of the airlock's monitor vid for my private files. I only play it on special occasions. I saw to it that another copy wound up in the crew's rec vid library, just before we Jumped to the next nexus. Maybe that was a mistake, 'cause the girls have never given me one single reason to repeat that lesson since.

Speaking of vid libraries, just because I don't want any rumors about holovid chamber partners bringing any unwanted attention from Public Safety enforcer types, the Bower doesn't have holovid chambers. But then, when my girls sashaying around it doesn't need any, know what I mean? Although it does have discrete signal lamps, blinking as I stand there, alerting the girls to finish whatever they're doing and have their clients looking presentable and in the Regular Services sections before that shuttle-load of Admin types arrives.

So I nod to no one in particular, turn and enter the Regular Services corridor. It's a slow shift here, too, hardy a client to be seen. A hundred paces, five bulkhead hatches and three turns later I'm approaching a certain corridor's dead end just as a bulkhead panel in front of me recedes and slides sideways.

From the passageway beyond comes Sherry's contralto voice: ". . . remember, you never met me. We never spent any time together. If you tell another living soul about what we've done, even someone you've seen in here, you'll never get into the Executive Club again 'cause we'll have to shut it down. But if you show me you can keep a secret I'll make things extra nice for you . . . next time. Bye." Yep, the standard line, perfect delivery. I've got to say Sherry knows her stuff.

The ship fitter and someone with "pilot" written all over him step into sight, soon followed by the pansy Ceta, who's looking disappointed. At his back, the bulkhead slides back into place. Then the tall Ceta spots me as the other two guys ease past me and his face brightens. He waits until the stationers vanish around the nearest corner.

That cologne is quite noticeable in this confined space, but it isn't so strong it knocks you down. It has a crisp, clean quality. It reminds me a bit of a grove of alleged genuine pine trees I'd passed by in some old station's arboretum, long ago. And maybe something else I can't place.

Then the Ceta says, "Ah, Lady Sally McGregor . . ." It isn't exactly a question, but he sounds skeptical, you know? "I wish a word with you. It will take but a few moments of your time."

A polite Cetagandan? How odd. Cetas usually march in and take what they please. Property or lives, it's no never mind to them. And this one's asking me to spare him some time? I've got to hear this pitch.

So I point at the panel behind him, saying "Open" to the audiopin hidden in my blouse's collar. Bloody Blondie in the listening post touches an icon or something like that and the panel recedes and slides away. I gesture for the tall Ceta to turn around and re-enter the Special Services area, and follow him through a short corridor. As a second bulkhead panel closes behind me I ask the Ceta to wait ten minutes. "I've got a few things to attend to first," I tell him. "Have another drink, on the house. The big blondes will walk you from the bar to my office." I'm sure Bloody Blondie is alerting the Amazon Twins as I speak. Soon as the Ceta is headed towards the bar I'm turning on one heel and fast-walking to the Special Services office.

Half a minute later I palm the hatch open and enter the extra-deep hatchway.

I like this cabin. It used to be the cargo hold crew's emergency pressure shelter/workstation. Still has its independent life-support system. One of the most private spots in the ship — although the Amazon Twins, waiting outside while I talk with the Ceta, can enter in less than two seconds if I gives the signal — it could keep me alive for a couple of weeks in the very unlikely event that something ever breeches the ship's multiple force screens and hull.

Once inside I slip into my custom-built reclining armchair, swiveling it to face the desk's comconsole holoplate, a decorative bowl of thick cut crystal and a utility chair latched in place beyond the holoplate. Nudge the bowl over the holoplate and I can burn holes through whoever's in the chair. With quick flicks of my fingers over the 'plate and on pressure sensors hidden in the outside padding of the recliner's left armrest, I set the inner hatch silently swinging closed on its power hinges, deactivate one alarm, put a couple more on standby, mask the feeds from hidden cams and sensors throughout the ship, and prime the disguised security cam overhead to start recording as the next warm body enters my office.

I call up the holo file containing what little I've gathered on the Ceta and lean back in my padded armchair to think over, not his words, but the tone of his words.

So, Mister Pacifistic Cetagandan, what, or who, makes you doubt that I'm Lady Sally McGregor? I'm asking the scanty data floating before me.

Give me a break. Really.

(C) 2007, Luminator Thelms.