If there was one truth Damian Riddle held sacred, it was that the seediest places in the galaxy could be one and the same with the most beautiful ones.
Take the Dragon’s Luck Orbiting Casino, as an example.
On approach, the monstrosity of a space station twinkled like a multicolored star. Damian always thought the fat, disk-like shape looked a bit too much like the coins his father expected patrons to start losing as soon as they’d disembarked from their private taxis and luxury cruisers, and even public shuttles like the one he was currently riding.
He stood by the viewport with the rest of the crowd, less because he wanted to see the casino than because he’d draw attention if he stayed in his seat when the rest of the passengers felt the need to press their hands to the glass in wondering admiration. The light of the nearby trade Current, which the shuttle had recently exited, bathed the entire station in a turquoise glow, increasing the carefully constructed impression of otherworldliness.
Damian leaned one shoulder against the frame, watching the other passengers idly and wishing he hadn’t left his duster behind on his last job. It was chilly on the shuttle and, to put it somewhat mildly, he hadn’t been feeling his best lately. Mostly, though, he felt wrong without the weight of the jacket around his shoulders, and the helpful ability to raise the collar and hide his face in shadow.
Though in this crowd, the duster would probably call attention rather than deflect it, and he definitely wanted to slip in and out of the hellhole of a casino without being seen. This crowd was packed with little kids calling out the colors as the casino shifted from purple to blue to pink, while their parents traded excited glances over their heads. This crowd had couples and giggling groups of friends. This crowd was moonbeams and candy shops, while Damian was leather and blood.
Of course, he wasn’t the only one who’d come here alone. The families and couples and gaggles of friends, they’d probably all been saving for a Center System year to afford this trip. The hotel, the food, the shows—and, of course, the gambling. If they wanted to hand their hard-earned tokens to his father, they could go right ahead.
They weren’t the ones that worried him.
The ones that worried him wore shabby suits, shirts with frayed button holes, and dresses with patches where the sequins had worn off. They haunted the edges of the crowd as Damian did, watching the casino draw nearer with hunger burning in their eyes, the kind that said they were here for that one lucky round at a card table, that single life-changing throw of the dice.
Once, Damian would have tried to dissuade them. Today, he forced himself to look away. He was just here to retrieve his spaceship. And his jacket. Nothing more.
The shuttle took its time docking, no doubt a calculated move to increase the crowd’s anticipation. Damian’s father was many things, but a poor businessman was not one of them; he would have tested every landing scenario multiple times.
By the time the transport doors huffed open, Damian was working hard to keep his hands relaxed. He stuck near the center of the crowd, shadowing a tall, grandfatherly looking fellow and doing what he could to mask his own noticeable height.
Sneaking into the den of iniquity owned by one’s father? Not the easiest feat. But if there was one thing Damian thrived on, it was the pursuit of the impossible.
At the moment, he wasn’t quite feeling up to ‘impossible.’ With that never-ending headache rapping at his temples and the constant prickles in his chest, was hoping to settle for ‘that was suspiciously easy.’
Which, so far, it had been.
Flashing banners named this level the ‘Winners Welcome Deck.’ Feather-capped drones bobbed through the crowd like deranged tropical birds, swooping to drop strings of beads around visitors’ necks and plop drinks into willing hands. Damian ducked to avoid a particularly aggressive glass of champagne, stooping his shoulders as he shuffled toward the nearest side stairwell. The casino did its best to obscure these exit points behind strings of lights and flashy holo-figure directories—Dad wanted everyone to pass through his preferred entrance funnel—but they also needed additional doors in case of security issues or emergencies. And Damian knew exactly where to find them.
He skirted behind a curtain of purple hanging lights, shoving aside a blinking pineapple, and exited into the stairwell, letting out a breath of relief. Crowds were terrible.
His father wouldn’t have hidden Damian’s ship up here near the guest docks. But though Damian didn’t quite know this place as well as some of the others in which he’d spent the various shards of his childhood—by the time his father established this place, he’d been old enough to be more interested in the wearers of sequined gowns than in finding secret passages—he knew it well enough.
He hurried down the stairs, leaving the excited chatter of the crowd in the distance, until he found the entrance to Level X.
Level X. So dramatic. Might as well post a neon sign: ‘Evil Doings Here.’
Subtlety. An art lost on so many. Damian pushed the door open, shivering at the breath of cold air that rushed at his face. Or maybe it was just that he was still a bit under the weather. Hard to say.
At least it was unlikely that Level X had any cameras. His father would not want to record the shady activities that went on down here. Damian pushed ahead, walking more quickly now. Most of the berths were shut fast, as if this were merely a storage level. Nothing to see here. No treasure. No card games. Certainly no crimes, not at all. Just boring corrugated metal doors.
Damian knew exactly where his father would be hiding the Quandary. And no doubt good old Dad, aka Archimedes Sol, knew that Damian knew. But Damian knew that Archie knew that he knew, so they were pretty much even on that score.
He’d slip in undetected, steal his ship back, and get the hell out of here, with Archie none the wiser.
Damian made his way to the end of the hall, where a single black door waited amid an ocean of silver. His stepsister, Ivy, had shown him how to bypass the control panels down here without being noticed, so all he had to do was jimmy the—
Before he could slice any wires or activate any magnets, the door whipped open with a deafening rumble.
“It’s about short-circuiting time.”
The bot that squatted before him had no arms to place on her hips—and no hips to place them on—but that didn’t stop her from looking like she might stick out one of her stumpy utility claws and rip his off so she could use them to demonstrate her disapproval. She wouldn’t, not Lex, though she definitely could.
“Hey, Lex.” Hiding his surprise, Damian ducked inside the berth, pulling the door down behind him. Not that it mattered if Lex picked up on his reaction to her sudden appearance; it was more habit than anything. “Almost took my head off there.”
“Don’t you ‘hey Lex’ me,” the bot said. “We’ve been worried about you, young man.”
Damian suspected that Lex had been a nanny module before she’d been repurposed. She was shaped like a stocky cone, and her middle was always stuffed with tools and supplies. Bandages, mostly. Tissues. The occasional peppermint candy.
Behind Lex, the Quandary waited. Damian let himself exhale his relief at the sight of her, safe and whole.
The ship’s design was one he’d obsessed over for years; shining black and fat through the middle, she had four claw-like landing props that gave the impression of an overlarge crab. In flight, the claws could retrieve lost items or salvage, and each was equipped with a pair of hidden plasma cannons. Very useful.
The Dragon’s Luck employed expensive atmo shields on all its docks so that clientele wouldn’t have to wait for the bays to pressurize before pouring out to have their fun. This berth was no different; the shine of the stars glinted outside, highlighting the Quandary’s every curve. He could even make out the pebble-like glow of a Torrent System planet out there. Scope, most likely. Prettier from space than it was on the ground, that was for sure.
In and out. No problem.
Damian headed up the gangplank, at the top of which a second bot was spinning in anxious circles. For some reason, its makers had fashioned it to look like a rodent, with skittering feet and a long tail. It also had the disposition of one. He didn’t have much excuse for keeping it around, except that it’d been an impulse buy. It was a tolerable engineering assistant, too.
“We waited and waited and waited!” the bot trilled. Its voice was half squeak, half clatter.
Damian stepped over it, taking care not to tread on its tail. “Meet anyone interesting, Mojo?”
“No! I was much too afraid to leave the ship!”
Probably for the best.
Quandary’s gangplank led to a single living-and-piloting area that gave the illusion of absolutely nothing to hide. Trap doors in the floor provided access to engineering, and there was no reason for any visitor, whether Fleet or Trade Federation or criminal cartel, to suspect the presence of hidden smuggling hatches below that.
Damian’s cot was situated to the right, his collection of mechanical clocks untouched on the circular shelf he’d installed to display them above the room like a crown. He’d been gone too long; the clocks sat silent, clearly in need of winding. He flexed his hands, resisting the urge to count them, to make sure none had gone missing, as he breathed a deep lungful of cedar and new carpet and the pine-scented oil he used to keep the seats from squeaking.
His own ship, finally. After months of pin-balling around the galaxy, he was home.
Mojo skittered around his feet, so close that Damian feared the bot might try to race up his leg. Again. “Are you back for good?” Mojo asked. “Are you? Are you?”
“Nah,” Damian said. “Just here for my jacket.”
Mojo let out a sob, and Lex extended an arm to place the quivering bot on her head. “He’s joking,” she soothed.
Damian dropped into the pilot’s seat. Every minute he lingered here was a minute his father might realize he’d come. Avoiding cameras was all well and good, but no doubt there’d been security goons lurking around up there. Who could say what old Archimedes would do if he learned his son had come to call? Another murder attempt, perhaps.
Or worse, he’d offer Damian a job.
“Where’s Bruce?” he asked.
“Why?” Mojo sounded petulant now. “Bruce is mean.”
Damian ran his hand along the dash, reveling in the smooth depressions of the controls. “I need him to help me reprogram the trade Currents.”
There was a brief silence. “That’s not a thing, dear,” Lex said.
“It’s true,” Mojo added. Damian wasn’t looking at the bots, but judging by the enthusiastic amount of clicking and clacking, he suspected Mojo might be jumping up and down on Lex’s head. “The parameters of the trade Currents are confined to this sector. In 7787, the Dhoman Science Group tried to investigate the possibility of extending the Current network, but the results were—”
“A disastrous failure, I know.” Damian initiated the startup sequence. “But they didn’t have me.”
“Did you hit your head, dear?” Lex asked. “I took the liberty of replenishing the nano-healer supply. Perhaps—”
“Where is Bruce?” Damian lifted his fingers from the controls and swiveled his chair around, giving the bots his best disapproving eyebrow. He liked bots for company; they were typically less complicated than humans. Sometimes, though, it took a firm hand.
Bruce might be sulking in the smuggling compartments, or in the cabinet where Damian kept his jacket; he did that, sometimes. Not that Damian would blame his third bot for needing a break from Lex and Mojo. But if that were the case, they’d simply point him out, and he’d emerge grumpy but curious about Damian’s assignment.
The bots weren’t wrong. The mysterious Currents that wound through the Parse Galaxy, allowing physics-defying travel speeds, had not as yet been reprogrammed. Not by anyone.
Damian, however, knew a fair number of facts about them that no one else did.
“Also!” Mojo squeaked, “Why won’t the ship start?!”
Damian swiveled back around, hoping the bot wasn’t just making a bid for a subject change.
But no, bots didn’t do that. Usually. Mojo was right; the dashboard remained dark. The startup sequence had paused.
“Investigate please, Mojo,” Damian said.
Mojo was already scurrying down from Lex’s head. It opened the engineering hatch and disappeared inside, reappearing after a few seconds. “Reactor’s disconnected,” it said.
Cursing himself for skipping diagnostics, Damian pushed up out of the chair with more energy than he felt. He wanted to get underway, to work on this experiment. Before it was too late.
But his father would not have left the Quandary sitting here without a failsafe. Not in a thousand years.
Too cozy, indeed. Damian stepped down the gangplank, then used one of Quandary’s under-hull handles to ease himself beneath the ship. He popped open the exterior control panel and dug his hands into the rainbow of wires. With no time bomb ticking down in his face, he’d happily spend a week fussing with wires and cords, merely for the fun of it. And the pretty colors.
Today, he needed to hurry.
Not least because the reactor wasn’t disconnected at all. It was being jammed. Damian’s fingers closed around the telltale box, its smooth, milk-white opalescence giving away its purpose. His father loved beautiful tech. With a quick pull, Damian wrenched the offending box out of the control panel.
“Should be good to go now,” he said.
Pain shot through his wrist, sudden and bright, and he looked down to see a set of beautifully manicured nails digging into his shirt. Sharp enough to pierce the fabric, they curled painfully into his skin, drawing little wells of blood around the claw-like tips. Lovely.
The wounds that laced up his arms had long-since healed, but they remained tender. As a general rule, he tried not to expose them to sharp objects.
He also kept them hidden beneath long sleeves whenever he could. Few people knew they existed at all.
Sharp red nails. Fingers curved with feminine grace. Knowledge of his scars. And a whiff of smoky-sweet perfume. Only one person it could be, unfortunately.
Damian swung out from under the ship before she could pull him, the jammer box clenched in his fist. So much for getting in and out without detection.
“Damian,” his latest stepmother said. “You didn’t tell us you’d be stopping by.”