Caught off guard, Sparr struggled to understand. “How do you know they’re looking for me?”

“These,” she said, pressing a scrap of paper into his hand. “Very good drawings of you!”

For a moment Sparr thought the paper really was hand drawn. Four images, each unmistakably him, had been printed on the page. In one he was shown bald, in one heavily bearded, in the others he was depicted with a more conventional haircut like the one he had worn before the mission launched. It was his Odysseus badge photo, treated with a digital filter to make it appear as a charcoal drawing. Calista and Kevin were hunting him once more.


“Do you know who they are?”

“No,” he said, “but I know who sent them. What do you mean ‘foreigners’?”

“Very strong accents,” she replied. “From across the sea. Yurr.”

Yurr, Sparr was fairly certain, was the planet’s other continent. “What did they say? Offer a reward?”

“Yes!” Cee replied. She gripped Sparr’s arm emphatically. “One hundred tokens!”

Sparr cursed inwardly. For one hundred tokens the residents of Santi, with few exceptions, would happily point his way. Like Cee, he edged as deeply into the shadow as possible, scrambling to come up with a plan.

“You said your cottage was nearby?”

She eyed him. “Alain, yes, but now is hardly the time…”

Despite the fraught situation Sparr had to stifle a laugh. “I mean, if we go there, could you point out the foreigners?”

“I don’t want to lose my best customer,” she said. “It’s there, let’s go.”

Cee ambled across the plaza, trying to look casual. At the opposite side, just across a rutted path was a row of cramped cottages. Cee ducked into one with a white door. After a moment, Sparr followed, hanging his head and pretending to rub at his face. Anything to avoid being identified.

Inside, the cottage was much as he had expected. Only dim light reached in, even at mid-day. A bed, assembled part from timber and part from salvage, occupied one corner, giving shelter to several of the liquor crates. A single, long table occupied the other side of the room, acting both as kitchen and storage. Neatly stacked or rolled garments were stuffed into cubby holes beneath. Bogg sniffed at the bed, but wisely chose to curl up on the floor.

“Here.” Cee pulled up a stool while Sparr stood behind her, both of them looking through the cracked door.

“When did they get here?”

Cee didn’t tear her gaze from the plaza. “The ship arrived mid-morning.”

“And you’re sure there’s just four of them?”

“Ahhh,” she said, distracted, “I think so. Those four got off together before they split up.”

“You were looking?”

“Of course. The ships from Yurr are rare. Everyone notices. Plus,” she said, turning her eyes briefly toward Sparr, “sailors are my second best customers.”

To Sparr, the plaza now seemed a place filled with menace. Cee at least knew who she was looking for. To Sparr everyone was a potential threat. In his head he turned over his conversation with the artist. Had the man shown any sign of recognition? Had the foreigners already handed him the drawing? Had he seen Cee and Sparr together?

Cee broke his tormented reverie. “There!” She drew a sharp breath. “Yes, that’s one of them. One of the men.”

A man of early years was walking through the plaza in the general direction of the docks. He was just over average height, lean of build, with close-cut brown hair. He swept his eyes over the plaza. If Sparr hadn’t been studying him, the man would have escaped notice entirely. At the far side, but shy of the docks, he settled himself on a stack of crates. He was no one Sparr recognized.

“He was one of them,” Cee repeated. “The two men talked to some of us in the square while the women went into town. The men followed after fifteen minutes or so.”

“And that was about an hour ago?”

Cee nodded. The assassins, if that’s what they were, had made a quick sweep of the town. With any luck, they would now rendezvous in the plaza for Sparr to identify them.

“You know who sent them?”

“Yes.” Sparr still burned with Calista’s betrayal. “I once thought she was a friend.”

“Oh?” Cee asked, once again tearing her eyes from the plaza. A shade of a smile flickered across her face. “Maybe you didn’t fuck her right.”

“Hey, I thought I fucked her plenty good,” he said. Like Cee, Sparr found room for a smile.

“Well then,” Cee said, returning to her surveillance, “maybe someone else- wait! Another! One of the women.”

Sparr peered out the door. An unfamiliar woman of modest stature, but with swift, sure movements, crossed the plaza. Like the man before her, she was of early years, perhaps late twenties. She carried a staff, bladed and barbed on one end, with a stout shaft. He recognized the style of the weapon from the Vonde gladiator pit.

The pair spoke. The woman, who like her friend, had close-cropped brown hair, jabbed her thumb over her shoulder, back toward the center of town. With seeming reluctance the man rose to follow her.

“She found something,” Cee said.

He wouldn’t have a better opportunity. “I’m going to follow them.”

Cee looked alarmed. “Wait until nightfall,” she implored him. “You can stay here, please!”

“Right now I know where two of them are. I don’t think they know the town, which means they probably agreed to meet back up here. I can follow those two. When the others come back they’ll wait here at least a while before they go looking.”

Nodding somberly, Cee stepped aside. “I’ll go back to my stand. Please, come back at nightfall. I’ll tell you what I saw.”

Sparr hugged her, an impulsive show of affection for someone he barely knew, strangers pulled together by their shared humanity. Cee hugged him back, her grip equally fierce.”

“Please be careful,” she whispered in his ear.

Though he had no particular talent as a spy, Sparr did have some advantages trying to shadow the pair. Having seen them in person he knew their attire, their gait, and what they were carrying. The woman’s staff, in particular, made her easy to spot at a distance. In addition, he knew Santi. More than once, when the pair threatened to get too far ahead, Sparr sprinted down an alley or parallel street to close the distance. Bogg huffed, but kept up.

He had, at first, been concerned that they had already discovered his hideout at the fabricator. A single lookout stationed there could wait for him, then signal the others. To Sparr’s relief, the pair didn’t head in that direction, rather heading deeper into the warren of claustrophobic alleys that made up the most desperate of the city’s neighborhoods.

His relief didn’t last. Rounding a corner, Sparr was forced to scramble back, urging Bogg to hold his position. He peeked around the corner from his alley into a small, stone square. The assassins were speaking to three men no more than twenty meters away. Sparr immediately recognized them.

“…I said. I can show you, but it’ll cost you more than one hundred tokens.”

The man speaking was Imon, the criminal who had purchased Sparr’s illicit goods weeks earlier. As before, he was shadowed by the same two thugs. The scene appeared to be a negotiation, with Imon leaning against the wall, feigning disinterest while his bodyguards tried to look menacing. The assassins eyed them warily, but showed no interest in backing down.

“We agreed on one hundred,” the woman said. She stood at a wary distance, close enough to make eye contact with Imon, but far enough from the brutes to block any attack with her staff.

“Yes, yes,” Imon said, “but the man you seek is a business partner of mine.” He rubbed his hands against his eyes as if fatigued. “If he owes you a debt perhaps I can help.”

“We settle our own debts,” the woman said. “And we’ll find him, with or without your help. Now, will you show us to him, or shall we move on?” She spoke with confidence, meeting Imon’s eyes while holding her staff steady, ignoring the brutes’ stares.

Imon sighed dramatically, then stretched. “Okay, look,” he said, still affecting boredom. “You’ve come all the way from Yurr, right? You want to get back there?”

The woman said nothing.

“So,” Imon continued, “there’s a ship leaving tomorrow. Maybe it’s the same ship you came in on?” Still not receiving any reaction, he continued. “Next one’s in a week. Now, maybe you can find this guy in time to catch that ship. Or, maybe not? I can save you a week. My guys can take you there right now. For one hundred fifty tokens.”

The two assassins conferred. Sparr noticed that the man was wearing a sort of pouch strapped to his right thigh. The materials were appropriately crude for something hand-fashioned on Kaybe, but the design was unlike anything he could remember seeing on the planet. Calista, or more likely Kevin, had equipped them with something.

“One hundred,” the woman said. “Another fifty if, as you say, we can conclude our business today.”

Imon muttered something too soft for Sparr to make out, but which seemed to signal acceptance. The male assassin handed over a pouch, presumably weighted with tokens.

“This way.” One of the thugs, the wiry man, inclined his head back toward the center of town. The three left the square.

Sparr doubled back, hoping to parallel the trio. Desperation clawed at him. His problem had grown from four hunters to seven. Worse, he now had almost no chance to isolate one of them to find out why they were seeking him. Not that he was optimistic about their motives. The pair stank of the gladiator pit. They hadn’t been selected for their ability to rescue or negotiate. With what he guessed of Calista’s motives, it was almost certain they had been sent to kill him.

He took a shortcut toward the vendor courtyard. His stall, with its back to the fabricator site, was his home for several hours a day. Imon or one of his crew had almost certainly connected Sparr to the site at some point. The thug was likely taking the hunters there now. Sparr scrambled, hoping to get there first.

He did. Dashing along the parallel street which bordered the back of the fabrication site, Sparr squeezed between buildings and dropped to the roof. He just had time to crouch between two of the solar panels before the three entered the courtyard.

At just after noon, the courtyard was crawling with activity. The butcher was trying to manage multiple customers, each vying to get his attention before the others. The woman who sold vegetables had set out stacks of produce with what she hoped was a catchy way to attract customers. Everything’s one token! she would say. Another occupant of the little courtyard, a woman selling quickly-woven baskets, did a brisk business with those who had purchased too much to carry.

The din overpowered their conversation, but the thug’s body language was clear. He pointed to Sparr’s stand then mouthed what was almost certainly some version of He’s usually here. The woman was clearly unhappy, jabbing her staff at the thug while unleashing some unheard torrent of invective. After a moment, her accomplice tapped her. The two hunters spoke while the thug nodded in agreement. Shortly, the wiry thug went back the way he had come, followed by the still-fuming woman. The man with the thigh pouch stayed behind, observing the courtyard from across the street.

It was just the opportunity that Sparr had hoped for. He wriggled back from his vantage point, signaled to Bogg, then dropped over the side of the fabricator building. He snuck inside. If he had read the scene correctly, the female assassin would return to Imon, demanding he repay the tokens. The criminal certainly wouldn’t, but he might take his other brute and return to the courtyard. Either way, Sparr had at least fifteen minutes.

Urging Bogg to stay in the building, Sparr crawled back out, and went to his stand. He stood in sight of the male assassin, fussing with a few pipes and bottles of liquor, and smiling blandly at potential customers. After he was certain that the man had spotted him, he made a show of closing up shop, putting the worthless pipes behind the stand, and returning the liquor bottles to one of the small crates that Cee used. Carrying the crate, he casually rounded the corner and out of sight. Once back inside, he estimated that the ruse had taken no more than five minutes.

He would wait at most five more. If his guess was correct, the man would worry that Sparr might slip free. He wouldn’t want to confess to his accomplice and Imon’s thugs that he had stood there while their quarry simply walked away. At the very least, he would come to inspect the little alley.

It worked. After no more than two minutes Sparr heard the telltale sound of boots crunching on gravel. In another thirty seconds the same set of boots appeared, just the other side of the eroded gap which led into the facility. Sparr lunged, grabbing an ankle and yanking as hard as he could. The assassin grunted in pain, falling sideways. He yanked again, pulling the man’s leg through the opening. The man thrashed and kicked with his other leg, landing a foot against Sparr’s elbow. A burst of pain erupted, but now Sparr had him by both legs. With a surge of adrenaline-fueled energy he dragged the man through the opening.

“Bastard,” the man grunted. Scrambling for some advantage, he lurched sideways, clutching at the knife at his hip. He was quick, but Sparr was already looming over him. Sparr punched the man once to knock his arm away from the blade, once hard in the jaw, then once again. The assassin fell back, groaning weakly.

“Why are you hunting me?” Sparr demanded.

The man gazed up at Sparr, desperation in his eyes. “I… please,” he said. “He paid us.”

“Who paid you?”

“I don’t know his name,” the man said, still recovering from Sparr’s flurry of punches. “Someone from the new town. They have plenty of tokens.”

“Where? Where is the new town?” Sparr had only a few minutes to interrogate his captive before his friends might come looking.

“Near Neeva,” the man said. He was starting to rally, reaching out covertly for his blade.

Sparr noticed. He flung the blade away and slapped the man hard. “This man near Neeva. He paid you to do what?”

“What? Ah…” the man said groggily, grasping for any response that might prolong his life. “Just to give you a message, yes!”

“What?” Sparr asked. The man gave every sign of lying, but any scrap of information he could gather might be helpful.

“Not, not to come to Neeva,” the man blurted. “Yes, ah, just don’t go there.”

“Where? Don’t go where? To Neeva or the new town? Why not? What are they hiding?” Sparr’s questions came in a rush, the mysteries of the past several months pushing themselves out.

“Don’t, uh-” Suddenly, the man’s right hand flashed with movement. He had, without Sparr noticing, pulled something from his thigh pouch, something which he now drove forward.

Sparr twisted away, frantically raising his left arm to deflect the blow. Doing so loosened his grip on his captive. For a desperate moment his foe had the advantage, turning his body weight against Sparr, pushing whatever it was he held forward. But the man was smaller than Sparr, and had already absorbed numerous punches and blows. Slowly, Sparr regained control, and after gripping the man’s arm more surely, reversed the path of the object. He plunged it against the man’s chest.

“No, please!” the man gasped, but it was too late. The device emitted a flash of light then hissed. “Fuuuuuck!”

Sparr rolled free, drawing his blade. Adrenaline surged within him, but the crisis had already passed. The assassin writhed on the floor, clutching uselessly at his chest where the device had touched him. After a moment he stopped moving, only breathing heavily.

The device clearly was Alliance technology. It was constructed from a transparent material, roughly ten centimeters long, with two interior compartments. Both were empty, having presumably been injected into the assassin. One of the fluids appeared to have been yellow, one an almost glittery silver. Sparr discarded it before more closely inspecting the fallen man. He wasn’t dead, but showed every sign of having been heavily sedated.

Time was short. The man might eventually waken, but Sparr could hardly wait for him. In less than five minutes the others might return to the courtyard. When they didn’t see their accomplice they would almost certainly investigate his stall. They would find the entrance to the fabricator and Sparr would be cornered and outnumbered.

But neither could he simply flee. The assassin, when he recovered, would confirm where he had found Sparr. The party would once again stake out the courtyard, this time with more force. He had to take the man with him.

He moved quickly, grabbing one of the bottles of brown liquor. He poured some into the assassin’s mouth, eliciting a cough. He repeated twice more, each time watching as the man swallowed a bit, before coughing up the rest. Once satisfied, Sparr dragged the man through the opening. Bogg followed, curiously.

With a grunt, Sparr hoisted the man, looping his arm around him. Half dragging, half guiding the man, he lurched into the courtyard. He began to sing.

What will we do with a drunken sailor?

What will we do with a drunken sailor?

What will we do with a drunken sailor?

Early in the morning!

Way hay and up she rises

Way hay and up she rises

Way hay and up she rises

Early in the morning!

The distracted patrons hardly bothered to look. They went about their business, mostly ignoring Sparr as he dragged the man through the throng, and out into the street. Still singing the ditty, he turned into the first alley he could find. He staggered half a block before he had to sit the man on the rutted soil. He was heavier than he looked. Leaving him, Sparr went on to the end of the alley. It split left and right, but both were dead ends. He cursed. Leaving the man here would be little better than leaving him in the fabricator site, but doubling back would take time and lead him once more into the busy street. Regardless, there was nothing to do about it. He turned back.

“Wait, I see something! Here!”

Sparr froze, then peered around the corner. The woman with the staff, Imon, and both of his bodyguards were standing at the far end of the alley. He was trapped.

“I think that’s him.” The woman walked warily into the alley, followed by the others. “Fuck,” she said, kneeling by her unconscious friend. “Wait, he’s alive.”

“He stinks,” Imon said, waving his hand as if to chase away a bad smell. “He’s been drinking.”

“Yeah, it’s all over him,” agreed the wiry thug.

Sparr watched, fearful to poke more than the side of his face around the corner. He noticed the woman exploring the man’s thigh pouch. When she came away empty, the assassin snapped her head up.

“He didn’t get here on his own,” she said, rising. Flanked by both bodyguards, she began to advance down the alley in Sparr’s direction.

“Shiiit, shit shit shit,” he whispered. He would have to make a stand. He pulled his saber and crouched. Whoever rounded the corner first would go down. If he was lucky, the element of surprise might give him the advantage over the other two.

Then he heard it, the whine of a drone hovering no more than twenty meters overhead. In an instant his situation had gone from perilous to dire. Sparr hung his head, hopeful that the drone wouldn’t identify him, but his prospects were rapidly worsening. Surely in the coming fight he would have to face both human and automated foes. The whining sound grew louder as the drone descended, but not toward him. It was dropping into the alley where the assassin had found her unconscious friend.

“What the fuck!” one of the men cried out, alarm rising in his voice.

“Omm!” cried another, then, “fuck this!” The sound of swift footsteps echoed in the narrow walls. The men were fleeing.

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