In the absurdly cosmopolitan society of Capital Mind, the unusual is extremely difficult to notice. Gent Strojen, Lord and Master of Strojen’s Foodhole, most popular eatery in the miles-high Burtok-Omn-Strojen Building, was more difficult to shock than most. He had last batted an eyelid, as far as his recollection served, some twenty-five years previously, and he wasn’t planning on doing it again any time soon. When Class Four criminal Spider Merdokk washed up out of the perpetual crowds at the Foodhole doorway, Strojen cleared a table and pulled two fresh seats into place. When he saw that the Spider had brought a guest, he added a third chair without hesitation.
In doing so, he had taken stock of the wide-eyed newcomer, its size and build, species and pelvic alignment, and selected the right chair – all by instinct. By the time Merdokk and his associate had waded through the bustle and seated themselves, Gent Strojen had already waved over a waiter with a small tray. Three tall glasses of blue-black liquid sat on the tray, and the Molran waiter arrayed these on the table with two deft motions of his lower arms before disappearing back into the masses.
Spider showed his large hairy colleague into its chair, then seated himself opposite his old friend. He was carrying a bulky black Merdokk Industries carryall, and he set this on the floor by his left ankle.
“Gent, I’d like to introduce you to Volun Embyri Qiie – you can call him Volun – of the Fliei investigative task force. Volun, this is my good friend Gent Strojen, and that is a drink we call zolo. It is perfectly safe for you to drink, but I wouldn’t recommend putting any stim or sweetener in it,” he leaned close to Gent and lowered his voice. “They’re a bit nervy,” he explained. “It comes from living in a world where sharks can fly.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Volun,” Gent said, extending his lower right hand. Volun enveloped it promptly in his own massive shaggy paw, gripping firmly but not uncomfortably, a great pleased smile cracking his face. “I take it you’re a visitor from that planet Spider went to visit.”
“Any friend to pecha-Merdokk is a friend to me,” Volun said. Only the hesitant way he dipped his head and spoke into his translator with unnecessary directness gave him away as a newcomer to the Quin Cities. “I was selected to travel with him to the centre of the universe – pardon, the urverse – to verify his tales and confirm my people’s faith in him,” he let go of Gent’s hand and picked up the glass. “And to sample new things,” he declared, taking a long draught of zolo. He swirled it around in his mouth in a way that Strojen had never really seen anybody do with zolo, and finally nodded. “It is very good.”
“So,” Gent thumbed a few stim-cubes into his own zolo and took a mouthful while they were still dissolving, “pecha-Merdokk. I take it you had quite an adventure out there.”
“It was actually quite calm, from my viewpoint,” Spider demurred. “The Tanturians went out looking for the Fliei as soon as our well-intentioned Corporate friends let things slip, but didn’t have much luck in finding them. I may have forgotten to mention, but the Fliei have designed some truly impressive masking technology. I doubt even a combing team could have found them, if they wanted to stay hidden. But the Tanturians knew more or less where to look, unfortunately. They hadn’t bothered before, because they hadn’t realised their landbound brothers and sisters had retained quite so much civilisation. Imagine their surprise when they launched an attack, only to come up against Merdokk Industries metaflux shielding.”
“And had their cowardly attack answered by Merdokk Industries heavy laser artillery,” Volun added enthusiastically.
Gent glanced at the Spider with amusement. Merdokk had the grace to look mildly embarrassed.
“It should buy them the visibility they need to file for independent species status,” the arch-criminal said defensively, “and if the High Council happens to take one or two hundred years to get down to their case, then at least they’ll be in a position to defend themselves in the meantime. So when the Council does get down to them, they’ll still be there.”
“That was very charitable of you,” Gent commented. “I didn’t have you pegged as a save-the-world type.”
“It’s business, Gent. If the Corporation doesn’t want the benefits of an alliance with the Fliei, then Merdokk Industries will step in. I can think of better uses for their stealth technology than hiding from piskies.”
Gent turned his amused glance from the Spider, back to the smiling Fliei. “And it’s your job to come along with this guy and make sure he’s doing the right thing for your people, and find out whether or not he lied to you about the way the High Council runs things?” he asked. Volun grinned, took another drink, and nodded. “How are you going to do that, with just one pair of eyes and one pair of hands?”
“Gent, please,” Spider protested mildly. “I brought my young friend here for zolo and outlandish Quin Cities delicacies, not political rhetoric.”
“Very well,” Strojen shook his head in helpless fondness. “I’ll get a selection platter sent over to you. And I’ll add it to your tab,” he added warningly. “Lesson number one, my friend,” he added, turning to the Fliei. “In Capital Mind, nothing is free.”
“If I can breathe without a tube, and walk without fearing current or shadow, then I am free,” Volun said with simple dignity.
“True enough,” Gent grinned, “but everything else will cost you. Now Spider,” he said seriously, “I hope you didn’t go all that way and back without bringing me a present.”
“How could I?” Merdokk beamed, and reached down with both left hands to grab the bag he’d arrived with. “I had a pair of trousers made especially.”