Tessi walked towards me as I sent Table 4’s empty bottles and glasses to the kitchen. What did I do wrong this time? I ran through things as quickly as I could, but nothing came to mind.
Still, she had that look in her eyes…
“Payton, get to Table 3,” she snapped.
Then again, Tessi always had that look in her eyes. It was part of what made her so good at running the casino floor of the Fallen Star. That, and the fact that she was fairly tall with a strong figure and piercing eyes that threatened anyone who dared stand against her.
And the Vinduthi markings dancing down her cheek that proclaimed her Alkard’s mate didn’t hurt.
“Table 3?” I repeated. “But I’m scheduled for Table 7 next.”
“I’ll get someone else for it. Right now, there’s a Mondian on a winning streak, and I need someone to keep him playing.”
I rolled my eyes. That kind of evening again. “You sure he’s into humans?”
“I’m sure he’s into you,” she said. “He watched you while you were at the next table closely enough. So get going.”
I nodded. “All right, but he better keep his hands to himself.”
She snorted, her lips curling into a half-smile. “His eyes are more than enough to keep him distracted so that he loses some of his credits.”
Before I could say anything else, she spun on her heel and disappeared back among the crowd on the casino floor. This was going to be a long evening.
It wasn’t hard to spot the sentient Tessi was talking about. It was never hard to spot a Mondian. In addition to being big, often bigger than the Vinduthi, they have bright red scaly skin and enormous heads with bony ridges.
They looked a little like huge lizards and even more like dragons. My mother had a story file about dragons when I was a kid, and if you took one of them, got rid of the tail, and made them walk on two legs, it would be a Mondian.
Of course, if you were blind, you’d still have a pretty easy time finding that one because he laughed up a storm. I grabbed my tray, a bottle of champagne in a bottle holder, and some glasses and headed over.
There were three others at the table with him, two Fanaith and a Nazok. You didn’t see too many Nazoks around the Fallen Star, and when you did, they usually didn’t have much money to gamble with.
I saw from the careful way the one at the table hoarded his tiny pile that he was no exception.
I leaned over in between the Mondian and one of the Fanaith and set the bottle on the table. “Did somebody order champagne?”
The Mondian looked down at me and boomed out his loud laugh. “Can’t say I did, but I guess that’s just how lucky I am!”
He patted me on the back twice, and I did my best to keep my expression from going sour. I’d gotten into enough trouble with Tessi this week.
If I messed this up too, she might think about selling my contract to someone else, and I knew as well as anyone did that being a bottle girl was far from the worst of what a young, pretty girl with a contract could end up doing.
Some jerk in a suit had to read them all off to me when I signed.
It seemed like it went on for hours, but it was all pretty simple, really. Whoever owned your contract owned you. And you better be a good girl for them.
So, I smiled back. “Look but don’t touch, please!”
“Whatever you say,” the Mondian said. “Anything for my little good luck charm!”
“A new card?” the dealer said to the Mondian. He started, then quickly looked at the Fanaith and the Nazok on his left, trying to figure out what they picked. The Nazok passed while the Fanaith drew.
“Deal me!” he said. I couldn’t help seeing his hand as he glanced at the card. 20. Good place to stop. Then again, it wouldn’t be too hard for one of the other players to be
closer. Meanwhile, the dealer showed 15, with one card hidden.
It might have been the right choice, but even so, he should have thought about it a little. Apparently, I was already doing my job.
No one expected the girls, especially us human ones, to know anything about the games. Humans were supposed to spend all their time ogling things and being amazed by all the technology we didn’t understand. We weren’t supposed to understand a round of Halcian 24. That was an advantage we had.
“Pass,” the second Fanaith said.
The dealer nodded and turned over the hidden card. A 4. Just 19 showing. The lowest possible stop. “Does anyone challenge?”
The table turned over their hands. The Nazok only had a 16. The first Fanaith went over, and the second was at 18.
The Mondian was slow with his last card. He tilted it up towards himself, paused, then finally let it fall.
“Maybe I was wrong,” the Mondian said. “Maybe you’re not such a good luck charm after all. Or maybe, I just didn’t rub you right…”
With that, he slapped me square on the butt.
Before I could stop myself, I hit him square on the muzzle with the serving plate. It made a loud smack sound.
Talk about bad luck.
Because the look of sheer surprise on his face made me laugh.
Mistake number two.
I was still laughing when I saw Tessi barreling down at me.
“Let’s talk in private,” she said, then turned towards the angry Mondian. “I’m very sorry, sir. We’ll deal with her.”
I hurried quickly after her, as she walked off the floor and down one of the employee-only halls. “I’d like to point out that was just a reflex. Totally out of my
control. I was just startled, and if you want-”
“I don’t care about that,” Tessi said, stopping in front of an office door. “This is about something much more important.”
“More important than hitting a customer?”
“Today’s your lucky day,” she said, gesturing me closer. “You’re going to prison.”
I walked into Tessi’s office, which was small but well organized. I sat down in front of the desk, and she took her seat behind.
Before talking, she glanced quickly under the table, then felt around the edge. She was checking for listening devices, I realized.
Just what did I get myself involved in?
“Have you heard of Deathgate prison?” she asked finally.
I shook my head. “Doesn’t sound like a nice place.”
“It isn’t. It’s an asteroid prison. For dangerous criminals. The most secure one there is. And we’re sending you there.”
My gut turned cold, my brain freezing.
“You’ve probably heard about Havek. The technical expert for some of the family’s less… public business interests.”
I certainly did. Almost everyone had heard about Havek. He was one of the big names in the Vinduthi syndicate. The hacker who could build anything and break anything.
But I didn’t expect Tessi to just admit that the casino was affiliated with the Vinduthi crime family. Sure, everyone knew that, but I never heard anyone say it aloud before.
“I’ve seen him a couple of times here,” I admitted cautiously. I remembered one of the girls telling me a story about how the family once managed to get an enforcement officer from the Federation arrested by his own men. Havek played a big part, forging arrest warrants and getting them to the enforcers as if they came from the officer.
“You heard about the Shadow massacre?” Tessi asked, and I shuddered.
I didn’t think anyone on Thodos hadn’t heard about it.
I had to admit, I wasn’t a general fan of that clan of Maeux.
Their scion was known for causing trouble, feeling up girls, walking out on tabs, and letting his syndicate’s muscle ‘clean things up’ for him.
He was trash.
Yet it still didn’t sit right that someone had snuck into the T’zarti compound and slaughtered the entire family, from the matriarch down to the smallest hatchling.
“You’re not saying…” I couldn’t even finish the sentence.
“Of course Havek didn’t do it,” Tessi snapped. “He was set up by one of the other families. We’re going to get him out.”
“You want me to organize a prison break?” I said, too stunned to make sense of any of this.
Tessi rolled her eyes. “Of course not. Your only job is to be a point of contact. Havek’s being watched too closely to get anything outside the prison. But no one knows who you are.”
“And no one watches humans,” I finished. It was something I heard many times before.
“Exactly,” said Tessi. “You’ll have to stay in the dormitories assigned for advocates until the job is done. It’s not going to be a vacation.”
“This sounds dangerous,” I said.
“It’s our only option.” She sighed softly. “The only other humans in the Family are like me.” She gestured to the sigils down her face. “Not exactly discrete. You’ll have to be careful. If they figure out you’re working with Havek, they’ll have you killed, and if they don’t, there’s a solid chance you get killed anyway. That’s why I want you to have a choice. You can say no.”
“Well, then I say no,” I answered quickly. “I’m not going to some prison to save a stranger.”
“Before you make a decision, you should hear the rest of the deal,” Tessi continued as if I didn’t say anything. “If you do this successfully, and you live to tell the tale, Alkard is prepared to release you from your contract.”
I stared at her, almost unable to absorb the words.
“Are you serious?” I said, finally. “That’s a real promise? Like, you could put that in writing?”
She lifted a tablet off her desk. “It already is.”
I took the device and ran my eyes over it greedily. No catches. It was just what she said. A release form.
“And this could work, right?” I asked, looking up. “This isn’t some one-in-a-million suicide mission. This is actually the way you plan to rescue Havek?”
“At the moment, we have limited influence inside Deathgate prison,” Tessi said. “But anything we can do to ensure your safety and the success of your mission, we will. He’s part of the family. We want him back.”
I looked down at the contract, then back up at Tessi. On the one hand, a life of being a bottle girl in a casino, working until I was old to pay off a debt and then scraping by somehow or another, was straightforward. Simple.
But also, a lot of men would grope me and leer at me when I walked by. And the tips would only get worse with every passing year. I knew that.
On the other, a spy mission. An impossible escape from an asteroid prison for a tech genius I only knew from stories. And if I survived it, then freedom. Real freedom, in the stars, in the prime of my life.
Which would I pick? Safety? Or dignity?
“You can pick whichever you want,” Tessi repeated. “But I’m going to need a decision soon. And don’t try changing your mind. Just because you’re the first girl I’m picking doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty who could do it just as well.”
Well. It was good to know I wasn’t anything special.
But then why did she pick me?
“I’ll do it,” I said, handing the tablet back to her. “Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it.”
I didn’t exactly think the whole thing through. I just opened my mouth and let the first words that happened to reach it come out.
It was decided.
I was going to be a spy.
The key was to make an impression. In prison, the impression one makes on others quickly becomes their reputation. And reputation is everything. It’s the only thing that distinguishes one prisoner from the other.
One of the two guards accompanying me noticed I was scanning the hallway and chuckled. “Looking for a computer? I’ve got some bad news for you. Prisoners don’t get to play with toys around here.”
As for the guards, their goal was to stay in charge. They knew that there were more prisoners than there were of them, and that meant they could never slip up, even for a moment.
Which was why the Alliance scoured for the dregs of the galaxy to take this job.
Rapists and murderers all, the only reason they were the guards instead of the prisoners was that they’d made a deal.
Keep order here, in return for a ‘respectable’ life.
“Just getting used to the place,” I said, doing my best to keep up a steady pace despite the shackles on my hands and feet.
In truth, there wasn’t much to get used to. We walked down a long, straight hallway punctuated with doors that opened and closed behind us. The walls were perfectly smooth sheets of synthetic material, all colored a dull gray. The doors were heavy metal, without bars, and they could only be opened by whoever was watching through the cameras that hung from the ceilings. I counted three doors so far and assumed we had to be close to the last one.
Apparently, the guard didn’t like my attitude because I got a sharp jab in the back of the ribs for that one. “You’ll have plenty of time for that, space dust.” The way he spat the last words told me it was something they call the prisoners here. “What were the charges again? Robbery and mass murder, wasn’t it?”
“That’s what I was convicted of, yes,” I answered. Another jab in the ribs. I was going to need a while to learn how to sound humble. It was something I haven’t had to do for a while now.
We stopped in front of the last door. When it opened, it revealed a new, even heavier door barely a few steps in front. An airlock.
“Go ahead,” said the guard, apparently the talkative one out of the two. “When you’re ready.”
“You’re not gonna show me to my cell?” I said, slightly surprised.
“You’ll have to find a cell for yourself,” the other guard said. “We don’t bother with little details like that. As long as you’re on this barren piece of rock, our job is done.”
It made sense. No need to keep too close a watch when you’re this far away from anyone. The doors weren’t what I needed to worry about if I wanted to escape. The real problem was the vacuum of space that waited outside those bars.
I nodded and stepped forward into the airlock. The doors slid shut behind me, and a few seconds later, the door in front of me opened to reveal Deathgate prison.
The whole thing was one enormous, square room, all the same gray material. In one corner, a desk where a single guard sat, watching the prisoners. Large, metal cafeteria tables took up about half the space, with the rest of it filled with people talking in tight groups or milling around, seemingly aimlessly.
Along every wall were all the cell doors, mostly open but a few closed. There were two floors, with the second story of cells accessed by a catwalk running along them. Metal stairs led up to those cells on either side.
Prisoners looked at me. Some of them leaned closer into their groups and whispered about me.
Right now, I didn’t know anything about how things operated at this prison. If it was anything like other prisons, the prisoners would have far more rules for how you were supposed to act than the guards.
Time to get someone to tell me what those rules were.
I walked over to the emptiest of the rows of cafeteria tables and sat down. There wasn’t much risk in that, I decided. It would be nice to have a few moments to myself.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get them. Already, a very large and well-muscled Dargun approached me with about a dozen others following him, clearly his goons. Like most of his species, the leader was short and stocky, with pointed ears, two large fangs that stuck up out of their mouth and a grayish skin color.
“May I help you?” I asked as he took a stance that was very obviously meant to be threatening.
“Yes, you can,” said Dargun. “In fact, you’re going to be doing a lot of that while you’re here.”
“Is that so?”
He leaned closer. “The name’s Trovok. And you don’t know how things work in Deathgate, do you?”
“Let me guess,” I answered, meeting his gaze as coolly as I could manage. “You’re about to explain to me that something something something and in conclusion, if I want a chance at living, I have to join your little crew and do whatever it is you say, huh?”
“That’s about right,” he answered. “Only you missed one thing. I’m doing you a favor here. I’m giving you a way to be part of the Vipers. It’s the most powerful gang in this dump, and if you don’t have us for protection, it won’t be just me and my boys you have to worry about.”
Ah. So it was all the usual fun and games. I could work with that.
“I’ll make another guess. If I agree to do whatever you want, whichever of these nice fellows you’ve got following you gets promoted to a full time member and can recruit their own goons?”
“That’s the way things run here, space dust,” said Trovok. “I did my time for a senior Viper. Waded through twelve pieces of fresh meat before I even got started. Only way to climb a ladder is to start at the bottom.”
“And what happens if I say no?”
“Me and my friends teach you a lesson.”
I nodded. “And what happens if I beat up you and all of your guys?”
He looked surprised for a second and then started laughing, turning to his crew to get their reassurance.
Which meant he wasn’t looking at my arms. That was his last mistake.
I whipped my right arm around the back of his neck and slammed his head into the table before he even knew I attacked. Just as I hoped, the rest of the crew was startled enough that I was able to get to my feet before any of them thought about attacking me.
One fighter can’t beat twelve, if those twelve are coordinated, competent or even just dedicated. Fortunately, however, most random groups of twelve people, especially ones who have been bullied into service by someone they don’t care for, are none of those things.
By the time I even grabbed the one closest to me, four or five of the crew had retreated, and the rest were unsure what to do.
I swung him into three more of his friends, then threw a hard punch at the one to my left. The ones left were fighting now, but they were intimidated and disorganized. Easy pickings.
The real question for me was what the guard would do. Would he jump in to stop things, or would he wait for backup? Or was fighting just allowed here? Let the prisoners take care of beating each other down for once?
They were meant to keep order however they wanted. But would they give in to their more sadistic desires, or had the easy life here made them complacent, ready to let the prisoners keep order themselves?
No matter what the answer was, I needed the information. Information would be my key to getting out of this place.
A punch from one of the gang I hadn’t looked at narrowly sailed past my face. This wasn’t a time to think about things like that. I grabbed the outstretched arm and yanked him onto the ground, dodging another attack.
A few more punches and one well-placed knee in the face and it was all over. Four were on the ground. The others retreated.
Not bad for a first impression.
As I stood there, drinking in the looks from the other prisoners, the airlock door slid open and five guards stood there. They watched me carefully, but didn’t do anything as I walked further away into the crowd to look for another place to sit.
So the other guards would come, but only to keep things from building into a full riot. Good to know.
I sat down at another empty table. Hopefully the next person to talk to me would be a little friendlier.
I didn’t have to wait long.
“Are you Havek?” a piping voice called from beside me. I turned to see a small creature, barely up to my hips, had snuck up. He looked somewhat like a frog, complete with large staring eyes and a wide, anxious mouth. An Iknud.
“My name’s Braadi. Would you be willing to protect me? From the others?”
So now I had a reputation as someone who could deal with bullies. That was good. “I don’t like bullies. But do you have something you can offer?”
“I’ve been around for a while,” Braadi said, wringing his hands. “I know a lot of the people. What they have. What they want. I could give you advice, maybe.”
Narrowing my eyes, I looked around the room, noting the clusters of prisoners at the tables, all carefully not watching me. “Am I going to be dealing with reprisals from the rest of the Vipers for fighting Trovok or this guy?”
“Not unless you make overtures to one of the other gangs. No one likes Trovok, but if the Vipers think you’re going to join another group, they’ll use him as an excuse. Am I doing okay? Am I helpful?”
I nodded. “You asked for protection. Does that mean you’re not a member of any of the gangs?”
“None of them wanted me. I do my best, but it’s not easy.”
“Are there others who are like you? Who don’t have an affiliation?”
“Oh sure,” he answered. “Little guys like me. Weirdos. A few loners. And some people who joined a gang but got kicked out of it for some reason.”
“And where do you sleep?” I asked.
“Wherever there’s a cell open,” he said. “Once everyone else has picked a place. Usually up on the catwalk. The gangs don’t fight for those as much. Except one time,
when… Well, that doesn’t matter.”
Just how useful could this little guy be?
I never had much dealing with Iknuds. They weren’t strong or fast, and didn’t have much of a presence on Thodos III.
“So tell me–”
“You bastard!” A massive Fanaith charged me, a crudely-worked knife in his fist.
Fine. Apparently the room needed another demonstration.
But before I could knock this jerk into the wall, Braadi hopped in front of me, then barreled himself at the Fanaith’s knees, tripping him.
As the gray, bald head fell, I spun, kicking the side of his face in, crushing the jutting jaw.
With a howl, the Fanaith stumbled away.
Scanning the room, no one wanted to meet my eyes.
“You all right, boss?”
Braadi pushed himself up to his knees. I held out my hand to pull him the rest of the way up. “Well, I’d say you’ve more than earned my protection,” I told him, setting my hand on his shoulder. “From now on, if anyone gives you trouble, point them out to me. I’ll do my best to make sure they stop.”
“Really? You will?” He bounced up and down on his toes.
“That’s right. I’ve got plans.”
His lips repeated the word, soundlessly. But before I could say anything else, a guard pushed past the group of prisoners and stopped in front of me.
“Your advocate wants to talk to you.”
I didn’t know I had an advocate any more. The trial was already over, and even Alkard couldn’t do much for me now.
A sharp pang lanced my chest. Maybe it was stupid, but I missed my brothers.
What the hell were they going to do without me there to keep shit working?
I shoved the feeling away and stood up.
“Well, let’s not keep my advocate waiting.”