Jani Kilian shifted her attention from her aching stomach to the admissions clerk who held her MedRec card by the corner like a dirty dispo. The woman tapped her stylus against the data-entry grid that rested on the desk in front of her, the staccato impact of plastic on polycoat sounding its get on with it song.
“Shane Averill,” Jani replied, “just like it says in the card.” She snatched a peek at her reflection in the highly polished counter. Chilly, too-dark eyes. Jaw tensed with discomfort. She forced a smile.
The clerk ignored the attempt at sociability. “Date and place of birth?”
Jani heard her voice quiver as she recited the information she’d memorized in preparation for this encounter. The Earthbound accents that echoed through the cavernous lobby made her nervous.
Coming to Felix had made sense after fleeing Chicago. The closest colony to Earth, it was an easy burrow to hunker down in. So obvious a stopping place was it that the Service agents who had no doubt pursued her would have bypassed it for someplace less likely. The Channel Worlds. Or Pearl Way.
But the burrow had proved to be made of quicksand. Expensive but necessary equipment purchases had devoured her finances, forcing her to remain until she could earn enough money to leave. Then her dodgy health had taken a serious downturn.
The stomachaches, I can handle. But not the nausea, the vomiting, the pounding heart. She knew she risked exposure by coming to Neoclona-Felix, but it was the only place on the planet that could treat her properly, and she had grown sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.
It was a matter of minutes now. One blood study or encephaloscan, and she’d be blown.
They promised I had nothing to fear. Cal Montoya, the doctor who had saved her life in Chicago, and those he spoke for. Promises were made to be broken. Her stomach clenched, and she leaned into the counter.
“Parents’ names and worlds of origin?”
Jani looked around the Neoclona facility’s glass and stone lobby as she gave voice to more of the fictitious Ms. Averill’s invented history. Shades of purple—the company’s signature hue—shone from every surface, even the tinted glass that softened the battering Felician sun. Bathed in shafts of grape-colored sunlight, she felt as though she stood at the bottom of a filled punch bowl.
“I don’t suppose you can give me the first letter of your patient string?”
Jani took a steadying breath as the pain in her gut eased. “P-seven-eight-dot-one-two-dash-four-eight-zee—”
The tapping ceased abruptly. “You know your patient string by heart?”
Jani restrained the urge to turn on her heel, walk out of the lobby, and disappear into the Felix Majora crowds. “It’s just a series of encodes. GateWay nearest my birth planet, followed by world code, followed by sector—”
The clerk ran the card through a scanner, then watched the disgorged data as it scrolled down the grid screen. “Shipping administrator for Felix Cruiseways, huh? Figures you can memorize forty-two-character strings.” Her haggard features softened at this discovery of a kindred, data-crunching soul. She even cracked a smile. “Is Cruiseways a good place to work?”
Jani eyed the clerk’s bright purple shirt. Silver caducei, every detail of snake, wing and staff visible in the holoetching, sparkled from collar and cuffs. The knowledge of what lay behind the symbols made her shiver. Or maybe it was the subarctic temperature of the lobby. “It’s all right. I doubt it’s any more exciting than what you do here. Besides, with the way Earth-colony relations are headed, the shipping and travel businesses are bound to take a hit. You’re better off sticking with Neoclona.”
The woman sighed and tugged at her dark blond bangs. Earthbound, judging by the odd twang of her Felician Spanish, and younger than she initially appeared. Mid-twenties, but her attitude aged her. “It just didn’t turn out to be as exciting as I thought it would when I answered this posting. ‘See the colonies! Meet new people!’” She fingered an entry into the grid. “Check in with the outpatient nurse on thirty-seven. She’ll tell you where to go from there.”
Jani reclaimed her record card and offered a commiserating grin of farewell. Dear child, the last thing in the Commonwealth you want is an exciting life. She waded deeper into the bowl, toward the lift bank. Trust me.