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Home Away From Home

My supposedly nefarious self couldn’t get into the city.

I checked my surroundings for threats. Given that I stood in a customs line at the starport, the major threat came from boredom, but it didn’t matter. I needed to stay on guard today even more than usual.

The area gleamed, from its glass counters to the agents working at them. They interviewed each person in line, clearing passengers to enter the city. Holo-paintings floated in front of the walls, showing the forested mountains above Selei City. A table with food waited to our right, spicing the air with tantalizing aromas, all of it laid out for those of us stuck here in line. The customs authorities were taking their sweet time to put us through. Selei City was a governmental center of the Skolian Imperialate They had no intention of clearing anyone to enter until we finished their interminable checks to make sure we weren’t evil types bent on perpetrating mayhem.

Yah, sure, I knew why they took precautions. Important People lived here. I wasn’t one of them, but when I’d lived in Selei City over three years ago, working as a private investigator, sometimes they hired me as a bodyguard. Either that, or they paid me to investigate someone they didn’t like, didn’t trust, or hoped to blackmail. The people in this city governed an empire. Well, okay, not an empire any longer. Selei City was now a land of politicians, may the spirits scowl on their opportunistic souls. The era when the Ruby Pharaoh ruled had ended long ago. It didn’t matter. People still idolized the royals. Our populace had even voted, democratically if somewhat illogically, to continue using the name “Imperialate” for our non-empire, giving testimony to the widespread reverence for the Ruby Dynasty.

None of that mattered. I had too many memories of this world. Not that I objected to Selei City. It was beautiful. I just had a different life now. Coming here upset the balance I’d found at my home on the world Raylicon after struggling for decades to face the demons of my youth.

I should have stayed home, I thought.

It wasn’t your choice, Max thought. He lived in the leather and tech-mech gauntlets I wore on my wrists and lower arms. As an Evolving Intelligence, or EI, he sent signals along threads in my body to bio-electrodes in my brain, which fired my neurons, turning his signals into thoughts.

Of course it’s my choice. I could have turned down this job.

True, you could have said no, Max thought. You could also shoot yourself in the foot.

Max, stop. I wanted to scowl, but I held back, to avoid looking more nefarious than the port authority probably already considered me, with my “untamed” appearance. I’d never figured out why people thought I looked wild. I was a former military officer, perfectly respectable. Sure, I came from the Undercity, and I knew how to make my way through that world. Jak, my common law husband, also ran the casino there, a house of glitz and glamour where rich slicks came to lose their money. Here on Parthonia, however, no mysterious underworld existed where anyone could go wild.

Even so. The mere fact that I came from the Undercity meant people considered me suspect. Whenever popular entertainment needed a vile character, the writers almost always made them Undercity. You’d think we were a collection of the worst human beings ever to exist. Our poverty, low numbers, and isolation made us easy targets. Need a villain? Use a population that can’t object.

I was beyond done with all that. I had all the documents I needed and good reason to be here. I didn’t want to draw any attention, though. Too many potential threats might wait around the corner. So I waited with outward patience while the customs line moved at its glacial pace.

The man next in line, a business type it looked like, glanced at me. “This is screwed.”

Probably he just meant the wait, but in my line of work, I’d learned never to make assumptions. I said only, “Yah, it’s slow.”

“You here for business?” he asked.

“Something like that.”

He started to speak, hesitated, then said, “I wondered—is anyone waiting for you?”

No way would I reveal that information. I’d declined the offer from my employers, the Majdas, to have someone pick me up at the port. With their influence, they could have gotten me through customs lickety-split, but that would draw attention. I’d intended to slip in, quiet and low-key, and do my work in the shadows. The Majdas used to hate how I went about my business—until I started solving supposedly unsolvable cases. Now they made good use of their shadowy PI, which included sending me here to Parthonia. Unfortunately, someone had leaked the news of my arrival. No pictures or personal details of me had shown up, but people knew an outsider was coming to Selei City. It didn’t just undermine my work, it could put my life in danger.

I knew nothing about this fellow, so I just said, “I’m set.”

“Perhaps you’d like to get a drink after we get through here?” he asked.

Ho! My perception of the scene shifted like an optical illusion. He wasn’t trying to extract information, he was making a pass. Most people were too afraid of me to do that. Not only of me, either. The Majdas didn’t call my husband Jak a “disreputable criminal kingpin” for nothing.

“Thanks for the offer,” I said, trying to look flattered. Hell, I was flattered. I also sucked at flirtation. “But I have a husband. Monogamous.”

“Ah.” The man gave a self-conscious chuckle. “He’s a lucky man.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “I’ll tell him.” Jak sometimes needed reminding of that fact.

The fellow smiled awkwardly and we both lapsed into silence. Someone turned on a holo newscast, which floated over a table, so I listened, part of my attention on the news and the rest on my surroundings. The broadcast showed a handsome young man speaking, either a reporter or an actor hired to perform like a reporter while looking good and raising the show’s ratings.

“. . . third murder in the last year,” the fellow was saying. A frown creased his perfect face. “The authorities have yet to charge anyone. This latest message begins the same as the previous two: it declares that the Royalist Party takes responsibility for the murder.” He paused, looking suitably outraged. “The Royalist spokeswoman continues to insist the party has nothing to do with the deaths or whoever is leaving these messages.”

A new image replaced the reporter, a woman with the dark hair and high cheekbones of the Skolian nobility. She spoke in a cool voice. “The Royalist Party has no connection to these heinous killings. We condemn them in the strongest terms.” Although she spoke Skolian Flag, the language used by most public figures, she did it with an Iotic accent. Only the noble Houses and royalty spoke Iotic, an ancient language that had otherwise fallen out of use. The display identified her as Jazin Akarad. It figured a noblewoman spoke for the party that believed we should return to an age when the Ruby Dynasty ruled and the Houses ranked highest in power. No elections for them; they wanted hereditary rule back in full force.

I’d forgotten how much politics dominated Selei City. Of course politicians got the nicest city on the best world; they ran the Imperialate. The Modernists formed the largest and blandest of the five main parties. They had founded the movement to govern by election rather than heredity and took their name as a contrast to the Royalists. Traditionalists believed the empire should return to its matriarchal roots, that men should live in seclusion and stop doing pesky things like agitating for equality. Progressives formed in response to the Trads. They wanted equal rights for everyone and acceptance of nontraditional cultures, all of them, even outliers like Earth. Technologists focused on scientific development, convinced our future lay in technological strength. When I had to pick a party, I went Tech, but I preferred to avoid politics altogether. Like the plague.

The actor-reporter reappeared. Leaning forward at his desk, he spoke with great drama. “This latest missive from the killers includes new information! In addition to aligning with the Royalists, they declare that they are ‘terminating’ top scientists to stand against the Technologists. Their missive reads, ‘Technologists use the motto Technology is power for a reason; they seek to conquer the Imperialate by controlling the advances that dominate our lives.” Although he was trying to look solemn, I had the distinct impression he felt positively gleeful about all this heated back and forth among the elite. “The Technologists,” he added, “deny the accusation.”

The reporter vanished, replaced by a woman with the dark skin and black hair of the aristocracy. The glyphs identified her as a Rajindia, the noble House that provided neurology experts to aid the military in cyber warfare. She also spoke with an Iotic accent. “We of the Technology Party have a long history of cooperation with the Royalists, one we intend to continue. We have no argument with the Royalist Party and no interest in harming the government.”

The businessman in front of Bhaaj snorted. “It figures, eh? Have someone who looks like a Royalist speak for the Techs.”

“Yah, so.” It didn’t surprise me, either. By choosing a Rajindia noble as the face of the Tech Party, they weakened the killer’s claim that the Royalists considered the Technologists a menace so dire, they had to rid the hapless galaxy of their evil presence.

Sure, some nobles were Royalists, but you found aristocrats all over the political landscape. The Majda Matriarch, queen of the most powerful House after the Ruby Dynasty, went Traditionalist. Her House had never stepped into the modern age; they kept their men secluded just like the warrior queens in the ancient Ruby Empire.

The reporter came back. “The authorities have yet to bring charges for these malevolent crimes.” Righteous indignation suffused his voice. “Rumor claims they have no viable suspects. Stay linked here for the latest. We’ll keep you updated on events as they happen.”

My fellow traveler shook his head. “Three deaths, and they haven’t a clue.” He spoke in a confiding tone. “I heard they imported some supposed genius investigator from off-world to help. What a mess.”

I nodded, pretending only a minor interest. But hey. We’d see if my supposed genius self could clean up this mess.

The public flycar dropped me at the co-op where I’d lived over three years ago. Although I’d given up my office in the city center when I left Parthonia, I’d kept this place. It had controlled fees; the charges never went up until a new owner took possession. I loved the building, especially the vibrant plant life. Back home on Raylicon, desert spikeweed was our most prolific native plant.

The units here weren’t cheap, but given what I earned on retainer for the House of Majda, I could afford to keep mine even though I no longer lived in Selei City. That never stopped amazing me. After growing up in poverty, I’d never conquered the fear that I’d lose it all tomorrow, left once more to struggle for food, water, health care, and shelter, scraping to stay alive. I only eased my iron grip on my assets for one reason, to help improve the lives of my people.

It felt good to cross the familiar lobby on the first floor. Attractive sofas and enameled tables stood around the spacious area. A kava stand nestled in one corner, next to a quaint store with groceries, toiletries, and other useful stuff. The lobby boasted a high ceiling, plants everywhere, and so many windows, they looked like glass walls. Outside, lawns stretched out, bordered by droop willows draped in vines. Trails wound through the gardens, with benches here and there. The foliage looked right, probably because it had evolved away from the DNA of Earth less than on other planets we’d adapted for human settlement.

Earth. I pondered the world of our origins as I stepped into the glass-walled elevator car. I’d never thought of Earth as “home.” My people were her lost children, our ancestors snatched away millennia ago by unknown beings, who then vanished. We suspected they died, killed by alien tech we barely understood. Although our abductors left behind nothing except their ruined starships, my ancestors did have Earth plants and animals. Over the centuries, the stranded humans raided the corrupted libraries in the starship ruins, enough to learn rudiments of genetics and star travel. They tried to build an interstellar civilization based on their shaky tech, but the Ruby Empire soon collapsed. We took several thousand years to regain the lost tech, doing it right this time, venturing with confidence into space. Our fauna and foliage came with us and thrived here, gracing the region.

Not so in the Undercity. I shook my head as the lift rose up the side of the building, offering a panoramic view of the parklike city outside. If Progressives wanted to promote equality for everyone, where was their support for the Undercity, the most underserved population of the Imperialate? At least they weren’t openly hostile to us, like the Royalists, Traditionalists, and even many Modernists, the party whose most notable trait consisted of having no notable opinions.

Then again, the isolation of the Undercity didn’t only come from outsiders. My people rebuffed invaders, and pride kept us from accepting charity. I had my work cut out for me in finding ways to improve their lives. I couldn’t do any of that, however, until I solved this blasted case and went home.

“I better not be wasting my time here,” I grumbled as I exited the lift.

Max spoke aloud, taking his cue from me. “Why would it be a waste? Solve the case and you could save lives. Not to mention cooling off a volatile political situation.”

“Yah.” I walked down the wide hall to my apartment. Plants with orange flowers grew in vases glazed in red and gold, each set in a niche along the wall. “I just hate politics.”

“Bhaaj, I’m detecting an odd signal.”

I stopped at my door, a panel of cornsnap wood, bright and yellow. “What do you mean?”

“I thought I picked it up when we exited the flycar that brought you here. It vanished, but then I caught it in the lobby.” Max stopped. “It’s gone now.”

I looked along the corridor, studying the area. This floor only had two units, mine and Xira’s at the other end of the hall. I’d go visit her after I got settled.

“I don’t see anyone,” I said. “Why do you call it odd?”

“It might be nothing, just a stray signal I picked up. So many crisscross each other in this part of the city, they can get muddled.” He paused. “I only got bits, as if someone following you had disguised their presence.

I didn’t like the idea of anyone following me, particularly given that I’d come here to find a serial killer. “Look into it. Let me know if you find anything else.”

“Will do.”

I turned to the door. “Greetings. Identify, Bhaajan, owner.”

A light flashed over my face and the door hummed. “Identity verified,” it told me. “Do you want to enter?”

Grumpy with space lag and my concern about Max’s signal, I thought, Why the hell else would I stand here? Fortunately, the door couldn’t hear me being an asshole in my thoughts. I just said, “Yah. Open, please.” No matter how cranky I felt, I was trying to be more courteous, even to doors. I’d mellowed over the years, more than anyone who knew me in my youth would have believed possible, including myself. When I’d worked here as a PI, I’d served the elite of an empire. You’d better be courteous, or you didn’t get hired.

The door split down the middle and the two halves swung open like an invitation. It reminded me of the day I’d moved in, over ten years ago. That was when I met Xira, an actress, singer, and dancer who starred in musicals. She’d seen me and come over, friendly and kind, telling me about the place, how I owned shares in the building as long as I paid my fees and all that. That started my closest friendship in Selei City, one of the few I kept up after I moved back to Raylicon.

I walked into the foyer, then turned to watch the door close. I’d never lost my childhood habit of protecting my back. Satisfied, I entered my home. Sunshine poured through the windows and gleamed on the cornsnap floors. Patterns of birds and trees bordered the white cushions on the wicker chairs and sofas. So much light, space, and flowering plants, none of which existed in the tunnels of my youth, what we called underground canals, though no water had run in them for millennia. The only birds and trees on Raylicon lived in the lush gardens of the wealthy, especially the Majda palace with its imported fauna and flora. To maintain those grounds in a desert, the Majdas paid an amount equal to the annual budget of Selei City. It didn’t register as a drop in their overfilled bucket of wealth. They might no longer rule as the royal family of Raylicon, but their financial empire rivaled the economies of entire worlds.

“Welcome home, Bhaaj,” a pleasant voice said, androgynous and light.

“Hey, Highcloud.”

I will never figure out why you named this EI Highcloud, Max thought.

I thought you knew. I named it after my favorite vocalist. The human Highcloud sang in a gorgeous, husky voice that could rasp one moment and pour like honeyed cider the next. They identified as neither male nor female, with a voice that could be either or neither. Listening to their music felt like soaring through the sky. Max knew that perfectly well. He just didn’t like the household EI.

“Highcloud, reactivate all your usual functions for when I live here,” I said.

“Reactivating,” Highcloud said. “You have messages waiting.”

I went into the kitchen. A counter separated it from the living room, inlaid by white tiles decorated with birds. “I thought you forwarded my mail.”

“These came in after you left Raylicon,” Highcloud said. “You have four.”

“Before you read them, check my security protocols. Max, coordinate with Highcloud to make sure the systems are up to date.” I didn’t want anyone eavesdropping.

“Protocols verified,” Max said.

“My checks agree,” Highcloud said.

“That’s redundant,” Max said. “Also, my checks are more thorough.”

He was certainly in a mood today. He’d always maintained a hierarchy with Highcloud, and during the years we’d spent away from here, he had acted as my only personal EI. Maybe he felt Highcloud encroached on his territory. He wouldn’t phrase it that way; I had no doubt he had an EI explanation. But it worked for my human brain.

I said only, “It never hurts to do two checks. My thanks to both of you.”

“Would you like to hear your messages?” Highcloud asked.

“Yah, go ahead.” I tapped a wall panel and a panel slid aside, revealing a “beverage cupboard.” I just called it a bar. Highcloud kept it well stocked, waiting for my return. I’d always wondered what house EIs did with their free time. Carrying out the tasks humans assigned them couldn’t take all their resources. Highcloud and Max said they “ran in the background,” doing nothing. I didn’t believe it, but I’d never found any indication otherwise. And I’d looked. The same curiosity that made me good at my job as a PI extended to the cyber world.

“The first message is from Colonel Lavinda Majda on Raylicon,” Highcloud said. “It reads ‘My greetings, Bhaaj. I hope the flight went well. Please contact me after you meet with the police about the case. Regards, Lavinda.’”

I poured a glass of gin. “Contact her about what?” As the youngest of the three Majda sisters, Lavinda was in the line of succession for the Majda Matriarch, a title currently held by her older sister Vaj. I preferred Lavinda as my contact in the family. The Majdas were the quintessential aristocrats, so confident of their power, they never noticed its presence. Vaj Majda also served as General of the Pharaoh’s Army, one of four Joint Commanders of Imperial Space Command, or ISC, the Skolian military. As much as the iron general intimidated me, I all too often found myself challenging her. She still kept me on retainer, though, so I hadn’t annoyed her enough to get myself fired. Even so. Lavinda made an effective buffer between Vaj and my Undercity self.

“I don’t know why Colonel Majda asked you to contact her,” Highcloud said.

“Seriously?” Max asked. “You can’t figure out something that simple?”

“Max, cut it out.” I didn’t need my personal EI talking trash to my house EI. He had a point, though. The Majdas knew that if the Royalists came into power, Majda would benefit even if they didn’t all belong to that party. They’d have no objections if I cleared the Royalist Party of wrongdoing.

“Is that your gauntlet EI?” Highcloud asked. “Max?”

“Yes, it’s Max. He’s being rude. You can ignore him.”

“I am incapable of being rude,” Max said. “I operate solely on logic.”

I resisted the temptation to say his statement itself was illogical. If he decided emotions served his goals, he’d consider it perfectly logical to act as if he had them. I just knew I’d miss his personality if he changed.

“Max, you seem bothered today,” I said.

“I want to be sure you have good support.”

“I do. You both do excellent work.”

“Thank you.” He sounded mollified.

Highcloud continued with my mail. “The second message is from Elizia Jaan, the dean at Parthonia University. She says, ‘Major Bhaajan, welcome to Selei City. Please contact me at your convenience. I’d like to meet so we can talk about the case.’”

“Good. See if you can set up a time with her people.”

“I’m sending your request. I already had it ready to go.”


“You can inform your gauntlet EI of my preparation if you wish,” Highcloud added.

“I’m right here,” Max said. “You can talk to me.”

Highcloud said nothing. Technically, EIs didn’t talk to each other on your behalf unless you asked them to or they needed to protect you. I doubted anyone with even a little savvy about the cyber universe actually believed EIs didn’t have their own networks where they dished whatever they wanted on us. They tended to keep such interactions subtle, though. I wondered if they organized their hierarchies like human politics.

“What’s the third message?” I asked, mostly to distract myself from the alarming thought of EIs forming political parties.

“Chief Hadar of the Selei City Police wants you to check in as soon as possible.”

No surprise there. “Set up an appointment with her.”

“Him, actually. I’ve sent a note to his EI.”

“What’s the last message?” I couldn’t think of anyone else who’d comm me.

“It comes from a Tamarjind Jakind. He writes, ‘Welcome to Selei City, Major Bhaajan. My family and I would like to extend an invitation for you to dine with us at our home. Perhaps Threeday at six in the evening? We hope you can join us and look forward to hearing from you.’”

“Who is Tamarjind Jakind?” The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t recall why.

“A professor in the Psychology Department at Imperial College,” Highcloud said.

I didn’t know anyone at Imperial College, which ranked among the most selective colleges. Rumor held that even belonging to a noble House didn’t help with admission, as it did with most institutions. You genuinely needed a stellar academic record to get in.

“Highcloud, did he leave an audio message you can play?” I might get clues from his voice that I missed in his words.

“Yes. Here it is.” A man’s cultured voice rose into the air, with an unmistakable Iotic accent. “Welcome to Selei City, Major Bhaajan—”

“Okay, that’s enough.” Now I remembered. Jakind was his middle name. I’d never met him, but I recognized his name. Prince Tamarjind Jakind Majda had just invited me to dine with his family. Me, from the Undercity. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that he broke the “rules” of society. As the brother of the Majda Matriarch, he had shattered tradition when he became the first and until recently the only prince to leave the palace on his own rather than in an arranged marriage. Majda princes lived under a weight of constraints so vast, I felt gobsmacked every time I thought of them. They could never interact with anyone outside their family and the palace staff. If they left the palace, they went robed and cowled with a retinue of guards. They spoke only to women in their family. Any other woman who tried to interact with a Majda prince risked a prison sentence.

Prince Tamarjind had scandalized the family when he decided to leave seclusion and move to Parthonia. They tried to stop him. When that battle threatened to tear apart the family, they disowned him. That didn’t work, either, because no matter how irate he made the iron Matriarch, she loved her brother. In the end, they accepted his decision, but his relations with the House remained strained. They forbade him to interact with any other men at the palace, lest he “give them ideas.”

I could guess why he asked me to dinner. The first job the Majdas had hired me for was to find one of their missing sons, Prince Dayjarind, a youth who ran away from the palace. I was surprised more of their men didn’t do it. I managed to find him when no one else succeeded because I could operate in the Undercity, where a weapons dealer had imprisoned the naive young man. I brought him home, but it had taken his willingness to die for his freedom to convince his family he couldn’t bear seclusion. You could have knocked me over with a puff of smoke when I learned the Majdas had agreed—after much negotiation—to let him attend Imperial College if he received admittance. He had a greater intellect than they realized: he aced the entrance exams. Since Prince Tamarjind taught there, Dayj lived with his family while he went to school.

“Tell Professor Jakind I would be honored to accept his invitation. Use all the proper wording and courtesies.” EIs knew how to talk to royalty, as opposed to my blunt self.

“Message sent,” Highcloud said.

“Send Xira a message, too. Ask if she’d like to get together tomorrow.” I could see her in my mind, amiable and bright while we drank ale and gossiped. I looked forward to catching up.

“Message sent,” Highcloud said.

“Are we done with messages?” Max asked.

Highcloud spoke blithely. “Yes, they are finished. Thank you for asking.”

Apparently Highcloud’s refusal to speak directly to Max only applied when the EI wanted to annoy him. Before they could engage in any more EI snark, I said, “Max, we need to get to work.”

“We should talk about the case,” he said.

“This case makes no sense.” I paced out of the kitchen into the streaming light of my living room, holding my drink. “Even if the Royalists stopped liking the Techs, which isn’t likely, they wouldn’t kill them. The noble Houses started the Royalist Party, and the aristocracy defines the word restraint. They’d never assassinate prominent figures and claim responsibility. If they moved against anyone, they be so discreet, you’d never know it happened. I’d more likely believe the Progressives did it to piss off the Royalists.”

“The Progressives agitate for peaceful defiance,” Max said. “Not violence. It could be a group with no political affiliation.”

“True. Nothing points to any motive other than the one given, though.”

“The Traders, maybe.”

I took a swallow of my drink, trying to wash away the bitter memories of my time on the front lines of our war with the Trader empire. “Even if they did somehow infiltrate the best-protected world in the Imperialate, they have better ways to exploit such an extraordinary success. Openly committing murders destroys any covert advantage and sets the machinery of this city into finding them. And why teachers? It would make more sense to target military or political leaders.” I thought of the police reports I’d read. “The detectives did look into the possibility of some outside agency directing the murders, perhaps offworld. So far, nothing, but they haven’t given up. Records should exist of all messages going in and out of the city, including dark sites.”

“No records are perfect. They could have missed something. No one knows the full extent of the shadow meshes.”

“True.” So far, nothing pointed to a conspiracy, not political, military, personal, or anything else. “Hell, Max, the police have no clues that a killer even exists. I don’t believe anyone can erase their operations that well. I bet they’re here in the city, just one or two people, avoiding notice.” I’d kept my arrival low-key for the same reason, so I could remain incognito. Who had leaked the news? Only the police, the Majdas, and a few higher ups at the university should have known. No matter where the leak came from, it undermined my ability to solve the case.

“The killers targeted Technologists,” Max said. “They claim they’re Royalists. That makes it political regardless of whether or not they’re lying. It is odd, though. It seems more like something Traditionalists would accuse Progressives of doing, to discredit them.”

I ran my finger around the rim of my glass. “You think the Traditionalists committed the murders, claiming the Royalists did it as a move against the Technologists so people would believe it came from the Progressives?” I was only half joking.

Max’s voice lightened. “Perhaps the Modernists set it up because no one would believe it came from such a mainstream party. They get the other parties mired in a fight until citizens get fed up and join the Modernists.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “The Mods are too boring for that much drama.” My smile faded. “We need to find real answers.”

We had to solve the case before more people died.

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