BVC Announces Win, Lose, Draw by Sara Stamey

Win, Lose, Draw by Sara Stamey

Win, Lose, Draw
Cybers Wild Card 2
by Sara Stamey

The Cybers that control a peaceful but static galaxy have calculated all the odds. Except they’ve just unleashed a wild-card rebel spy.

KurtisP385XL47Ruth: Game Changer. Prodigal daughter. Spy.

The Resistance coil is heating up on the primitive forest-world Andura, where human rebels fight the Cyber entities that control the peaceful but static galaxy according to strict WorldPlans. The Cybers send Agent Kurtis to investigate, unaware that she’s now a double agent for the Resistance. Still grieving and nursing betrayals from a Homeworld visit to her estranged family, Ruth arrives on Andura to find a gang of hoodlums destroying the ancient forests to sell rare resources.

Escaping both the Cybers and the corrupt rebels, Ruth joins the reclusive natives in the towering branches of the sacred Mother Tree, hoping to enlist their help in exposing a plot that threatens their world and all humans. The digital dictators will have to face more than a band of human Changers. The Cybers can go suck circuits — when the Wild Card is in play, all bets are off.

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Prologue

DARK, ROUGH-BARKED TRUNKS climbed straight to an impossibly high mesh of branches against flat gray clouds. Massive roots echoed the interwoven web of sky and limb, spreading deep beneath the wet earth. Every mound of dirt, every fallen twig, every rock glistened with moisture, cloaked in moss and lichen and fern. The thick, swimming air damped even sound to a muffled hush. Green dimness engulfed endless columns of the giant trees.

They counted their lives in tens of centuries, breathed to a rhythm that reduced human generations to brief flickers. Yet even the oldest had germinated and thrust skyward within a timeless, endless cycle of forest. Even the memory of change slumbered at the heart of the world. There was only the forest, the slow repeating of seasons. It was the Way.

Then through the silence came a breath of wind, stirring leaf and needle, shaking drops to shiver and splash. It carried a ghost of sound—a cry, then a ground-shaking thud. A russet-furred creature darted up one massive trunk, peering with startled amber eyes.

Quick russet scurried away into shadow, and a deep hush swallowed the wind’s voice. Forest muffled the distant cry. It was not in the Plan.

One

WORLDPLAN.

It hovered inside dark, domed space, an agoraphobic’s nightmare in chrome, smoked plasmeld, and blue neon. It was blatantly mechanical, a ridiculous throwback to low-tech, garish and vulgar.

Everybody loved it.

So far. Inside the glittering caverns of Casino, you could count on only two things—it would always be night, and even the luckiest run would die.

“…but you do still trust your own eyes, Kurtis? You want to see something beautiful, take a look down there. Even the leasers are lining up for a go. The Fast Chance is pulling in the best take ever, and you’re telling me I shouldn’t ride it? Kurtis?”

I blinked, then swiveled away from the bird’s-eye view of casino floor and game dome beyond the transluce wall, started to rub my eyes, remembered the fancy makeup job. I drummed my fingers on the armrest. “Do I have to spell it out, Marrick? It’s making too much for you.”

The fat man behind the desk console swiveled from the view to face me. “For us. Don’t forget your exorbitant percentage.” He laughed, his eyes nearly lost in the creases of colored highlighting.

“Don’t get greedy. They’ll burn out on it if we don’t lower the odds. I’m working on a player rating to even things out.”

He started to fling up his arms, thought better of the energy expenditure, and reached with a grunt to hit a desk button. I leaned back in my chair, fingers still drumming, writing off hopes for a quick exit as the ritual began. Suck of air and whisk of the service trap. Gilt servo extending embossed tray. Steam and sickly-sweet aroma. Green liquid in convoluted glass and a gooey mound of confections. Marrick’s thick, gem-implanted hands hovering over the selections, swooping down. Moist sucking and chewing noises.

He was breathing quickly, sweat springing out on his forehead. He looked up, mouth full, gesturing. “At least have a drink or a smoke.”

I shook my head.

He shrugged, crammed in another candy, and talked around it. “All right, my plan. Expand into the cavern next door. Bought it years ago, haven’t done anything with it, nothing but some arcades, steady flow, but I can tear it out easy enough. Connect up with the main floor here, maybe some fancy ramps, anti-grav, whatever—you come up with the bells and whistles. Another big game. Mechanicals, flashy lights, whatever’s gaudy enough to take their fancy.” He wiggled his fingers toward the wall behind him. “All that low-tech paraphernalia, they’re eating it up. Even the leasers.” He swallowed and gave me a broad smile. “And I want big. Even bigger than our pretty baby down there. Same concept, different wrapping. You know. And we’ll have to move fast on it, while they’re—”

“No.”

He coughed, took a hasty drink. “What?”

I briefly met the dark eyes, grotesquely quick in their puffy, painted skin folds. I swiveled to stare out the wall again. “No. It’s too obvious, throwing a copy at them. I thought you were smarter than that. If you want me to design another one, it’s going to be something new.” What, I didn’t know yet. Didn’t really care. Unheard beyond the transluce, the distant gamers milled, waving their number chits, calling out wagers for the recorders, craning and pushing for a view of the ungainly contraption whirling its flashing rods inside the dome. Tiny bright-dressed dolls dancing to silent music. Straw puppets jerking to the cybers’ strings. A remote, meaningless play sealed in a plasmeld sense-cube….

“…always find another designer. Which is probably the best idea I’ve had all day.” A chuckle. “Wouldn’t have to put up with your moods.”

And the little dolls were smiling, laughing. Happy to be at the hub of the ordered universe, nestled in the tinseled womb of the hollow world. They didn’t know or care that we were all misfits to one degree or another, inside Casino. The games allowed them at least the illusion of chance, a shot at change or ruin—things the cybers’ tidy worldplans didn’t allow. Casino was a release valve, but there were always limits. Even here. Maybe especially here. Even in Casino the notion of freedom was just—

“…a joke! Don’t forget, my friend, you’re still only an outie. Beyond me why you kissed off your shot at a lease, but just because you’re on a lucky run doesn’t give you all the cards. Take it from me, get smart. I’ve seen it all, leasers to rim touries, and the name of the game is get it while….”

The game below me was building to a crisis. Too much riding on nerves, lights flaring randomly inside the dome, gamers crowding closer outside, rods spinning and twirling to a blur in the darkness of simulated stars.

Whirling. That shock of windless velocity, immense distances, thrown giddy into referenceless space, flying. Fleeing. Eyes glazing blind with speed, spinning through measureless black, the sharp stars closing in. Demon whispers, burning spook fingers clutching. Sealed within the dark uncharted spaces in my skull, the fiery points of the cybernetic Incorporeals pursuing me into horror, into nothingness. Loneliness, searing pain, loss. Emptiness.

“Kurtis?”

I blinked and jerked away from the wall. Marrick was staring at me, another sweet poised in his fingers, eyes puzzled, almost alarmed. Then, a switch making the right connection: concern.

I shook my head and thrust my face forward before Marrick could go on. “Okay, then. Find another designer. I can always take my next game to another casino. There are plenty of owners willing to pay a dumb outie.”

Now there was a glint of anger in the eyes. Better. I started to push out of the chair, then hesitated. Marrick could give me a bad name here.

So who cared? I didn’t need this. But I had responsibilities now, I couldn’t just go off half-cocked the way I always—

“Hold on.” He cleared his throat. “Don’t get all excited.” He pursed his lips and blew out a breath. “All right. You come up with something, and I’ll look at it.” He shrugged. “But if I were you, I wouldn’t feel so superior. I just had my yearly review, and the cybers passed me with flying colors. The stim sessions keep my heart going like a sixteen-year-old’s, so the weight’s no problem. They know I’m happy with my little vices.”

He picked up his refilled glass and smirked at me over it. “Don’t try to tell me you’re at optimum. Look at you. Skin and bones. All that huffing and puffing and sweating when anyone normal would just take their sessions and be happy. Know what I think? I think you like doing things the hard way. If I were you, I’d have a good talk with my console persona. Couldn’t hurt.” He waved me down. “Seriously, Kurtis. Ever since you came back from that homeworld renewal visit, you—”

I jerked to my feet this time. “That’s none of your damn business.” I plucked my fashionable beaded wig from his desk and jammed it over my head. “I came here to check out a player rating.” I turned for the door.

“All right, but—” Pulsing amber on the desktop cut him off. He made a face and punched it up.

I paused as the screen scrolled up from the desk and his console persona’s calm tenor filled the room. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt, Fra Marrick, but I knew you would wish to be informed of a disturbance in one of your gaming rooms.”

Colors coalesced on the screen. One of Marrick’s luxury suites, expensive textures, light gleaming from polished curves. Wealthy leasers in the latest body makeup gathered around a Hit or Miss table. Practiced smiles, subdued laughter. Hands lifting glasses, wafting dope sticks, casually rearranging toppling credit stacks. And the shiny alloy figure of a mechman reaching to gently grasp the arm of a shouting, struggling man.

The persona crooned, “Naturally, we’re taking steps to ensure the least possible unhappiness. Your presence would help reassure your guests.”

Marrick heaved himself to his feet. “Stupid blasted nuisance….” He tugged flowing silk straight over the shelf of his hips.

The man on the screen was yelling. “You’re all a bunch of fakes! And you don’t even know it!” He waved wildly around the gaming room. “None of this is real! I’m just dreaming it! Maybe the cybers are dreaming me!” Shrill laughter.

A tall woman in a purple shape-shifting robe turned to him and started to say something. She abruptly closed her mouth, and her face was a perfect blank canvas for ornate makeup. She leaned over the table to select a marker.

The man pushed closer to her, intent. “You don’t even care if—” The mechman pressed the palm of its hand carefully against the hysterical man’s neck, and he went silent.

Two dark-skinned Devrans in pilgrim turbans—what pilgrimage would bring them to Casino was beyond me—moved politely to put their backs to the man. His eyes closed as his knees slowly folded. The mechman caught him and lifted him very gently in its arms, legs marching stiffly to the door. A smooth voice accompanied by a bare hint of soothing mood music apologized for the man’s rulebreaking and upsetting behavior. It assured the other guests that the cybers would help him recover from his illness. But the comforting words weren’t necessary. The only guest rude enough to watch as the mechman carried its burden out quickly averted his eyes and turned back to the game progressing at the table. A man with fake feathers down his bare arms tossed three markers onto the table and laughed.

Marrick bustled past me, panting. “That’s that, then, but I guess I’d better drop in.” The quick little eyes shot me a concerned look. “Of course he’ll be happier Healed.” A slight emphasis, another glance as he waddled out.

I was still watching the screen as it blanked out. It wasn’t my business. I couldn’t start worrying about everybody’s problems. It wouldn’t do any good. He’d be happier Healed.

o0o

I’d paid my player’s fee along with the rest of the crowd. I eased past glittering mesh sleeves, a meter-wide plumed wig, implanted biolumes, legs in gold slicks, legs in mock lizard, a jeweled mask, smiles laid on with coats of paint. A cluster of high-fashion leasers with stim bracelets, looking down their noses at the touries and transients. Designs shaved on smooth scalp and a fresh young face bobbing before mine. “Hey, looker! Run me?” It was this year’s lingo. The cybers would eventually put the dampers on it for the sake of word purity. I sidestepped the grin and the invitation, pushing on to the gate.

The lights inside the oversized dome flashed a brief, brave show, wavered, and died. Chromed rods gleamed and retracted.

I handed over my ticket and stepped up to the gate, reaching to my throat for my IDisc. Out of habit I touched my lucky necklace where I hung it, running the red-gold serpent scales through my fingers, one complete circuit. I plucked loose my IDisc and was about to insert it into the gate when I registered the doubled thickness. I glanced quickly behind me, deactivated the cling tab of my IDisc, and freed the attached, contraplan blank data disc. I hastily palmed it. It wasn’t for games I carried such a risky wild card.

The gate acknowledged my code, and I retrieved my IDisc, clipping both discs back together onto the necklace.I hurried up the tunnel, ignoring the hokey spectacle offered by its stressplex “viewing ports”—asteroid belts and galaxies creaking through space via primitive resistance-bulb patterns, not even bothering to approach the realism of a holo. Shaking my head, I stepped through the upper gate.

I stopped short.

Despite myself, I took in a quick breath at the size of the thing hovering over me in the darkness. I couldn’t see the walls of the tinted dome now, only distant sparks of light that did suddenly look like stars and galaxies. The blackness pulsed with the feel of an almost-heard, vast heartbeat echoing inside my ears. Cold air gusted with the suck and whoosh of the breath of the thing. It lowered over me, waving, twirling, extending and retracting blue-flickered rods in the darkness, spinning smoked plasmeld tips and gleaming its central orb like a demented, spacegoing pincushion.

Not that anybody watching beyond the dome was likely to know what a pincushion was. Only a dumb Poindran outie.

The contraption lowered. The orb opened with a gratuitous flicker of ghostly blue light and the deeply reverberating clang I’d finally achieved with acoustic baffles. Mech arms with pincer claws snatched me up with just the right precarious thrill as they stalled for a second and nearly dropped me.

Then the arms yanked me up, the doors sealed, and I was deposited on woven mesh. I hooked in, and the pod rose with a whoosh of air. The rods extended, spun, snapped closed into the orb. There was a shaking roar. Beyond the window, the fake galaxies spun and rushed closer, streaming past in a blur as the dome presented a cybernetically censored version of what human passengers might see from a space transport if we weren’t so cozily shielded in our blind passages during the shifts.

I was floating. Mesh held me against the anti-grav field as the control panel locked its ring around me.

I yanked off the itchy wig, giving it a kick as it drifted by. The hair I’d concealed beneath it tumbled free in an annoying cloud across my face. I pulled the helmet down on its cords and crammed my dark red strands into it.

Handheld joysticks regulated orientation and gimballed spin. I nudged them into a quick test, whirling sideways and upside down and resettling into vertical. The jokes comparing the low-tech manual controls to the sleek, voice-activated games didn’t explain why everyone kept coming back. Maybe it was their one chance to be like the cybers, to sit for a few minutes at the controls and watch a world blossom to their plan.

But if that was it, the psych profilers would’ve shut the game down. The Great Guardian Cybers couldn’t allow their pet humans to get too many high-falutin’ ideas. Our puny little brains couldn’t handle them. I shrugged and punched coordinates. Maybe the cybers were right. They had all the bets covered, and sometimes resistance seemed like it just wasn’t worth it.

The console lit up, waiting patiently for me. I slapped the panel key and answered questions about my credit account. It recorded my wager. I gripped the joysticks that were about to become my only up and down.

A powerful hum built up inside the helmet, broke over me in sense and image enhancement. I caught a quick breath and it took me. I was out there, riding one of those winking plasmeld orbs spinning on its extensor rod, only now it was a planet whirling through space.

No. I was the world. Massive, rolling through infinity.

I told myself it was all lights and razzle-dazzle and cyber-tailored psychologicals. I was the one who’d specified the programs. Outside the domed darkness spectators would be crowding closer as the sizable wager lighted up its display and the ponderous system of irised ports in the orb extruded and intruded the neon-striped, chromed rods and lighted planets at their tips to match the configuration of the solar system I’d selected. They’d be leaning forward as colored lights shot from the selected planet and occasionally connected with a world or two, rarely spinning the shifting web that would win WorldPlan. From outside it was an absurd, mechanical anomaly, a contorted puzzle of spin and rotation, unwieldy and ridiculous as the Zinn puppet shows where you always saw the strings.

But none of that mattered.

Because I was immense and ageless, a frozen rock rolling through airless space, orbiting and rotating as the stars and planets whirled around me. I sent my thin beams of light to harness their energy. Only when the web was complete would its matrix spark my germination. Only then would I be blessed by the power of the Founders and their guardian cybers, holding barren disorder in their hands and shaping worlds from the primordial chaos of War. Burgeoning life would flow through and around me, bringing sound and scent and scurrying creatures to follow the perfect Plan. The world and I would be one.

Maybe this time I’d finally understand that harmony the cybers kept dangling like a tempting sweet, poisoned with dreams.

I could almost feel it, there in the midst of the silly game, could almost feel its air whispering through my head, a barely-heard song, a distant wind over endless kliks of rolling, shivering ripe wheat beneath azure sky, could almost touch the silver-blue wings rising through it and carrying me up….

I hardly registered my fingers twitching on the joysticks, directing my shooting lights, shifting the balance, adjusting my viewers as I claimed first one planet, then another, and the glowing, floating matrix grew around me like the cybers’ awareness net. The crowd outside would be pressing closer to the dome, drawn by that intricate colored pattern, breathing a little quicker even without the stims, thinking maybe they’d try it one more time. I didn’t read the credit numbers melting higher on my scoreboard.

I was far away.

Suspended in the center of the great, shining web as it buoyed me over the ground. Hot blue sky domed above me, a dry, sweet air rushing past, endless fields of copper and green waving wheat stretching below as the great sapphire-silver windsails spun and bore me up again. The voice of the wind tugging, whispering with her voice—

“Alert! Emergency condition. Game aborted. Please remain in your safety harness while—”

“Bloody hell!” I tore off the helmet and blinked in the blind shock of sensory shift. I stabbed override as the orb whirled and the viewscreens faded to transparent. “Control program: Safety systems check out fine! What’s going on?”

The grill produced a barely inflected voice. “An unauthorized intruder has penetrated the dome, presenting a hazard. Remain in your seat.”

I froze with my hand on the controls. I could see her now through the window. She was clinging to the sphere at the end of one of the rods, her flat, round face terrified as it sucked her in toward the clanking doors of the orb.

“Damn it!” I punched in codes to bypass the oblivious interrupt program that was pulling the extensor rods back into the central orb. The rods jarred to a stop. She craned around in confusion.

She? It was hard to tell across the dome, but then with Andurans it was sometimes a guess close up. Somehow, though, the russet “fur” of thick body hair and the drab shirtdress, the thin, hunched shoulders, and the bidigit flesh mittens clutching the rod spelled a woman in trouble.

And I sat staring through the orb at her. Amber eyes. They stared back at me, wide with fright. Damn. Forgetting the makeup, I scrubbed my face with one hand. I didn’t need this. I already had enough balls in the air—

A swath of light dazzled the dark as the entrance gate below whisked open. Two mechmen rolled through. They sped around the floor and raised blinking sensor eyes. Flat, tinny voices echoed around the dome. “Descend immediately. You are committing violations. This is your last warning. Descend immediately.”

The Anduran stayed where she was, panting and gripping the rod. I sat frozen as one of the mechmen lifted a jointed arm. The hand swiveled to reveal a hollow tube. Memory and fear jolted me.

“No! Wait!” I tore at the emergency catches on the pod window and scrambled out. “Wait!” The mechmen pivoted to turn their faces unnervingly to me. I swallowed. “Listen. If you hit her with a neural dart, she’ll fall!” I took a deep breath. The mechmen kept staring at me with their blank metal faces. I seized on a welcome spasm of irritation. “What’s wrong with you, anyway? Burned out a chip and forgot your benevolence directives?” I edged out the rod toward the cringing Anduran.

The mech faces followed me. “Return to the control pod at once. We must apprehend the intruder.”

“Go suck circuits!” I leaned down to grasp the rod and kick off my boots for a better grip with my toes. As I straightened, something shot past my head in the dark, pinging against the rod behind me. “What—?”

Another dart whined past. “Hey!” I lunged down the rod, skidding behind the cover of an extensor angling between me and the mechmen. I peered over it, furious. “Are you crazy? You could’ve hurt us!”

Another dart shot past.

I ducked, an icy sliver of fear chilling my anger. The cybers and their peacekeeping mechmen didn’t make mistakes like this. They were perfect. They were here to help and protect us. And lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of War, the cybers are with me and I will fear no evil. I shook my head. That was the old Way, the old days when we could all believe. Cold dread crept through me, too familiar.

“Ahh!” The Anduran woman bit off a terrified squeal. She barreled down the rod toward me, chased by a narrow, sizzling beam of light from below.

I jumped reflexively and rolled down the rod. I slipped but caught a grip as another burst of light hissed past. The Anduran made an unbelievable fling across dark air to another rod. I remembered those shoulders and arms were Planned for swinging through the trees of a forest world. She leaped and skittered through the dark toward the control pod. I vaulted wildly to another rod. A dart pinged into the spot I’d just left. The inner chill became a frozen fist clenching my stomach.

Hissing light, hot. Another tight beam flared off chrome. I rolled and tumbled down the rod, flinging myself into the pod after the Anduran. “What in hell’s going on here?”

She cringed back from me.

I took a deep breath, brought the volume down. “Just tell me what’s wrong. I’ll talk to the cybers.”

I peered at the small, hunched form, at the face ducked away from me. She almost looked like the same woman I’d encountered on a space transport months earlier. They both had the same deep amber eyes. That Anduran mother had given me a strangely penetrating look as she’d hugged the little boy I’d rescued from violation report, and I’d gone my way in oblivious possession of a gift whose value I couldn’t have guessed. Now I touched the wild card disc at my throat as this Anduran watched me warily.

I shook my head again. “Take it easy, all right? We’ll get it straightened out.” I reached out a reassuring hand.

She flinched silently, locked in her world’s speech taboos. She shrank back, shaking. Then she suddenly leaped and scrambled over me. Bare, flexible toes scrabbled up my chest and chin. They skittered over the control console, and she sprang back outside.

“Wait!” The controls flashed, flinging me back as the orb spun into motion again. Outside, extensor rods shot in and out, the spheres at the tips blinking lights and lancing colored beams  around the dome. “Come back! We can work it out with the cybers!”

I hit override. It was jammed. None of the controls would respond. “Damn!”

The small shape bounded through a confusion of light, whirling rods, and grinding gears. She swung from rod to rod as the orb spun and carried them up, down, around. The mechmen rolled around the dome below, trying for another shot. More lights jabbed crazily through the dark.

The orb lurched. I grabbed at the control ring as I was flung sideways. It was too much. It was out of control, out of my hands. The orb dipped again and galaxies spun dizzily around me, spheres shooting lights. Let the cybers figure it out, that’s what they were here for. The pod lurched once more and I gripped tighter. A rod tip bathed me in a wash of green, strobing hypnotically. I could almost hear my console persona’s voice chanting in rhythm with it, “That’s right. Just relax and let us—”

“No!”

It hit me then. Smashing up through confusion and fear and the careful layers of indifference. A surge of fury and exhilaration ripping through me on a hot wave of adrenaline.

And I was up on my bare feet, vaulting out of the orb to grip an extensor rod, shaking my head, grinning in the fierce high of it. I’d gone soft inside Casino. I’d almost forgotten the thrill of the chase, the wild clarity of the timbra trance I’d learned on Sethar, the dance of hunter and hunted. Its heightened reflexes took me past thought, and I was running, swinging, tucking and rolling, meshed with the spinning courtship of lights and rods. Lips pulled back over teeth, I drew in deep, hard breaths, climbed up bright-splashed chaos and flung myself through the whirling game after the Anduran.

Kaleidoscope bits of sight, sound, place tumbled and recrystallized around me. Poindros. Beneath and around me our family fields of rolling copper wheat, the bright blue sky, wheeling on my pivot. Riding once more a whirling sail arm of the windtower. Broad silver-blue wings dipping and spinning around me. Clinging, running, plunging with them. A wild game of tag through the wind-whipped cycle. The tower wings rising and spinning as he laughed back at me through the whirlwind and sun struck amber from his eyes. Jason—

I missed my footing, stumbled off balance.

I blinked. Poindros dissolved. The dome dropped its darkness over me, ripped it with shards of snapping light. Another tight burst from the mechmen flashed past me toward the fleeing Anduran. I ducked instinctively. Sparks flared down my sleeve. I slipped on the spinning rod, fell sideways, just managed to grab another rod as it extended and rose. It dipped me down, fast. Through the dark and blinding flares, I caught a darker shadow swooping, a glint of amber eyes. She dropped, scurrying in an awkward lope around the base of the dome.

“Wait!” My hands slipped. I fell, clawing at empty air.

I tumbled and the lighted rods whipped past but I couldn’t catch them. I was falling, grabbing at nothingness, opening my mouth to scream—

“Ooph!” Something caught me. I was set abruptly on my feet.

The mechman’s face flashed its lights. “You must remain here. You have committed violations—” so what else was new? “—in obstruction of our duties.” It zipped off after its partner and the Anduran, shooting another flare of light.

“Stop, damn you! You’re violating the directives! You can’t be doing this!” I gasped air, shaking off the dizzy chill creeping in on me. Not again. I ran after them, dragging in ragged breaths, but their wheels were faster than my legs. “Hell!” I tore across the dome to the blinking light of the opened emergency exit.

They were gone. By the time I pounded down the back tunnel into the utility area of the casino, past the blind and mute service mechs and out into the guidelumed and holo-lit cavern street of slowbelts and refreshment pavilions, there was no trace of berserk mechmen or panicked Anduran.

“Excuse me….” I fought for breath as I tugged at the trailing sleeve of a belt passenger. “Did you see an Anduran woman run by? You know, a little strange—short, hairy, long arms?”

The woman looked queasy when I mentioned the Anduran. They were at the extreme of acceptable human variety.

“Please. She would’ve looked scared?”

She edged away, and a man beside her yanked my hand from her sleeve. He gave me a disdainful look. “You outies should learn to handle your mood alters. Disgusting!” His companions turned to glare as I backed from the belt and it carried them off.

The other passengers were staring now, some laughing. I looked down at myself and couldn’t really blame them. If a tall, barefoot woman in charred, torn slicks, an uncoiffed reddish tangle of real hair, and makeup smeared over a scar the cybers would have been more than happy to surgirase had grabbed me, demanding the whereabouts of someone a little strange, I might have laughed, too.

o0o

I didn’t feel like laughing when I returned to the Fast Chance and discovered there were no witnesses. The malfunctioning mechmen had vanished into vacuum. The customers and on-duty mechmen told me the dome’s translucite had suddenly opaqued, and the entrance and exit gates had sealed. So I shut the game down, sent Marrick’s persona a memo, and beat a fast path to the nearest public service console.

I did what anyone would do—called the cybers to make it all better. But I used a very special channel to Central Interlock. The first thing the synthesized voice did was helpfully reprimand me for using a public console.

I cut in impatiently. “So what’s the story on those blasted mechmen? You know Andurans—so timid they wilt if you look at them—and here you’ve got your units shooting laser bursts at that woman! And those neural darts were too damn risky. Aren’t you stretching the directive limits a little thin this time? What kind of violations has she got going, anyway? And what about me? I’m not exactly wild about—”

“We’ll take care of it, Ruth.” The voice from CI had picked up a calming cadence. “The incomplete data from your station indicate considerable emotional distress. Please take three deep breaths. Now, let’s explore the nature of your problem. Let your muscles relax.” Almost-silent mood music swelled from the speaker and tugged at me like cool, soothing waves. “There’s really no need for alarm, but your—”

“Turn that stuff off! Just lis—”

“—elevated vital signs may indicate an overdose of mood alterators. I cannot pinpoint a compound with these inexact readings. I will summon a med unit and—”

“Damn it, will you listen?” I took a deep breath and laid out the facts as patiently as I could for the cyber sub-loop. “Why would those mechmen act like that?”

The voice became brisk. “No pertinent data loops register a female Anduran among present tourists in Casino. You should be well aware that the behavior you describe on the part of mechmen would represent an impossible violation of their operating directives. You have suffered sensory disorientation. Please proceed immediately to your CI agency contact for complete evaluation.”

Damn! “What?” I shouted into the grill. “Can’t hear you. Some problem with the speaker—I’ll call you back from home.” I hit the disconnect, took another deep breath as the console ejected my IDisc, and collected it with shaking hands. Something was definitely wrong. And it looked like I was caught in the middle. Again.

I groped for my necklace and clipped the IDisc back on it, turning to go. It didn’t make sense. There had to be a record of the Anduran. But the cybers couldn’t lie.

I stopped and slowly turned back. Sometimes they had a tricky definition of the truth, though. I’d learned that the hard way. Maybe if I went through the back door to CI’s higher-coded data loops…. I reactivated the console and felt along my necklace for the blank disc.

I managed a smile for the irony of it. Most people would never see even a single reclusive Anduran. This was my second encounter, and the first had brought me my wild card.

It had happened on board the space transport taking me to Poindros for the option-renewal homeworld visit the cybers had coerced me into “for my own good,” threatening me with Healing. The mischievous Anduran kid must have pilfered the disc from the mechmen on board. Of course I hadn’t known that at the time. I’d gotten the frightened little boy calmed down and back to his mother before the cybers could catch him out in another silly violation. I’d pocketed the disc with a smile, thinking it was only the kid’s impulsive gift of a useless bit of plasmeld.

The smooth gold scales slid through my fingers as I felt for the blank disc. It made its circuit of my neck and the snake-head clasp winked its tiny emerald eyes at me, mocking. The wild card wasn’t on it.

I tore the necklace free and looked again. The disc was gone.

I stared as dread clutched me again. But this was finally too much. Fury sizzled through me, and I yanked the chain over my head. It was a setup. The Anduran woman. Her convincing terror as she leaped over me to escape. Those dextrous toes scrambling up my chest, around my neck. I’d been right, she was the same woman, the kid’s mother. “Damn it!”

There had to be someone behind her. Someone—or something—who knew I wasn’t just an occasionally rule-breaking game designer. Now that they had the blank disc, I could only be in the way.

I tore out of the console station, raced across lanes of slowbelts onto a quickbelt, leaped past startled tourists and over the changing lanes onto an express. I pounded through the lobby of my residence. Any of the bewildered or irritated faces turning as I pushed past them to the tubes could have been one of them, waiting for me. I had to do a data search, and fast.

I barreled through the line, crammed myself into an empty tube, punched in my coordinates with a shaking hand. When it whisked open again, I jumped out and ran for my door. With my security system, I’d be safe inside. I threw a look over my shoulder as I slapped my palm against the scanner and whispered the voiceprint code. The door irised open in a whoosh of air.

The plates resealed behind me, and I sagged against the door frame. I closed my eyes and let out a long breath.

They grabbed me as I turned from the door.

“No! Wait—”

Something was crammed against my mouth, gagging me as I struggled. The long, metal arms were everywhere, snatching me up off the floor and whipping my breath from me, shaking me upside down and ripping off my slicks. A gust of hot air hit me as something rough scraped my skin. My hair was yanked back to the dance of pain stars. Tight bands snapped around me, pinning my arms.

I hung gasping and choking, kicking against the bonds as blood rushed into my head. I couldn’t see past the metal arms gripping me. I lunged futilely, swinging. Finally I scraped the gag free, caught a lungful of air, and opened my mouth for a furious bellow.

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