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Jon Moore

The possession of massive amounts of computing power is not the only advantage Lobo gains from having his armor composed of a mixture of biological and nanomachine components. He also can modify, within limits, his external shape, create and open hatches as necessary, and change his outer appearance. We took advantage of all of these capabilities to disguise him as a gourmet food supply ship. A little before noon, we touched down in a private landing zone that served a lot of businesses not far from the SleepSafe. The company whose logo we sported used the landing site frequently, so no one gave us a second look.

The challenging part came next: I had to obtain a truck that wouldn’t appear too odd parked next to Lobo.

“If only the SleepSafe would let us land on its roof,” I said as I dressed in faded gray overalls and an equally plain gray cap, an outfit we hoped would help convince anyone who noticed me that I was just another guy working deliveries.

“If only we hadn’t started this mission with such a bad plan,” Lobo said.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “It’s going to work.”

“So go make it happen,” he said. “I’ve done my part.”

I finished dressing. “Let’s go,” I said.

Lobo opened a hatch in his side.

I walked out and headed immediately for a crowd of men unloading a fish transport about thirty meters away. As I walked, I talked softly and nodded my head. Ten meters away from the men, I stopped, listened to nothing for a few seconds, and said, “Fine. It’s your money.” I turned left and made for the nearest exit from the landing zone.

Once I was outside, I turned right, in the opposite direction from the SleepSafe and toward a bustling commercial district that ran down to the ocean. Pre-fab permacrete office buildings filled the first block. The structures transitioned to wood as the area morphed into a tourist zone. The street widened and added a tree-lined center lane. Restaurants, bars, and a few shops selling local art lined both sides of the road. Not a lot of tourists came to Studio, but proximity to the ocean drew those from the desert, and people who came to see any of the giant art exhibits anywhere nearby needed places to sleep, eat, and shop. As near as I can tell, the desire to acquire objects is almost as common in most humans as the cravings for food and sex.

At the first intersection, I turned left and then left again into the alleyway that served the shops and restaurants via their rear entrances. Customers never want to see the goods arriving or the trash departing. Ideally, I would have arrived for the early morning deliveries that are common at restaurants on every planet, but the stories about the events at Privus hadn’t lost their number one status until late in the morning.

I scanned the alley. From where I stood to the end of this block, it was devoid of vehicles.

I reversed direction, crossed the street, and checked again. Nothing.

I returned to the main road, crossed it, and looked down the alley to my right. A taxi was dropping off two workers, but otherwise, no vehicles were in sight. I couldn’t afford to use taxis; they logged everything in them in real time to both their owners and local police servers.

Down the alley on the other side, though, I finally got lucky. A faded white transport with “Derrick’s Seafood” in red on its side sat behind a restaurant four buildings down. If there was a Derrick, he was a brave man, because you had to do a lot of tricky processing to make the local fish safe to eat. Maybe he imported what he sold. A single man watched delivery carts roll out of the transport and into the back of the building.

I walked over to him.

“Got a minute?” I said.

He glanced at me and went back to watching the carts. “Do I look like I’m pressed for time?”

I laughed. “No, but,” I paused until he looked my way again, “you do look like a man who wouldn’t mind making a little extra money.”

Now he stared at me and left the carts to their own devices. “I’ve got a job,” he said, waving his arm to take in the transport and the food containers, “as you can see.”

“Oh, I don’t want to hire you,” I said. “I want to rent your vehicle.”

“It’s not mine,” he said. He pointed at the writing on the side of it. “As you can also see.”

“I understand,” I said, “but it’s yours right now. I need it for no more than two, three hours, and I’ll bring it back here or call you with its location; your choice.”

He shook his head. “Can’t do it. See the owners if you want; maybe they’ll help you.”

I took out my wallet, thumbed it open, and stepped closer to him. “I’m in a bit of a rush. I need it for a surprise—” I held up my hands as he started to speak “—nothing illegal, just a surprise my boss told me to arrange, and I’m behind schedule.”

“I told you,” he said, “it’s not mine to rent.”

I pushed my wallet closer to him, its display clearly visible. On it was what Lobo assured me was half a year’s pay for a typical Dardan worker. “My boss is very private,” I said, “but he can also be very generous. This is yours; I just need the transport—not the carts, you stay with them—for a few hours at most.”

His eyes widened when he saw the number, but then his face tightened. “What’s your deal, buddy? Did old man Derrick send you to test me? Why would he do that?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know who Derrick is, and I don’t care. All I care about is making my boss happy and not losing my job. To do that, I need a transport like yours for a few hours. I should have started on this job earlier, but—” I shrugged “—I blew it.”

He said nothing.

I closed my wallet and put it back in my pocket. “Your call. Sorry to bother you.”

I turned and walked away.

When I’d gone four steps, he said, “I’d need some ID, something I can give the cops if you’re not back here in three hours.”

We’d expected that, so I had a fake ID ready. Lobo had made it, so it would pass at least a few levels of checking and in the process misdirect the police should the guy turn me in. “No problem,” I said.

The man’s face softened as he stared at me. “Give me your word you won’t do anything wrong with it.”

Back on Pinkelponker, before my sister, Jennie, healed me, when I was still mentally challenged, one of the lessons my mother and father had drilled into me was that you never gave your word lightly and you always kept it. I liked the lack of guile in the man and his attempt to believe that others would do as they said. It would probably get him in trouble, but not with me.

I stared into his eyes and stuck out my hand. “You have my word.”

We shook hands. I pulled out my wallet and handed him the ID.

“Then I suppose no one will really be hurt by me loaning it to you for a few hours. If old man Derrick complains, I’ll tell him I was helping a guy in need.”

I opened my wallet. “I’ll transfer to yours when you’re ready.”

He shook his head. “Tell your boss not everyone’s for sale,” he said. “Maybe even think about getting a new boss when this is over.”

I’ve spent so much time dealing with criminals, government officials, and corporate executives on the make, people who manipulate and hurt others every day, that I don’t often run into men or women like this man, people who don’t see the worlds as the same use-or-be-used, kill-or-be-killed battlegrounds that those people do. Part of me pitied the man for his naiveté; con men with far less practice or skill than I have would have taken him for all he was worth. A greater part of me, though, admired his sincerity and his good heart.

Before Jennie fixed my brain, she used to tell me that I might not have a smart head, but I had a smart heart. I wondered, not for the first time, if any of that boy with a smart heart still remained inside me.

I hated myself for lying to him about the cover story, but I had to do it to protect both the boys and myself. I would, though, return the transport.

“I will,” I said. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

A cart walked out of the transport.

“That’s the last one,” he said. He handed me the transport’s controls. “See you in three hours.”

“Maybe sooner,” I said.

He nodded.

I walked into the transport and told it to take me to the landing zone.

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