It was late afternoon on the Esplanade.
An entirely artificial concept of course, Ring thought, that a deep space station should have a twenty-four hour time cycle, almost as artificial as the station itself. But it meant that shops had set opening and closing times and Ring would be able to head home soon.
He stood out the front of his shop, leaning against one of the supporting columns, which ran the length of the Esplanade like the buttresses of a cathedral. Through the huge windows which ran outside the Esplanade, Ring saw the R.S. Okinawa drift lazily past the outer docking pylons. The Tempest class battleship, bathed in purple and red from the Pyrsidian Nebula, had been engaged in almost continuous patrols since a Cirin extremist had crashed a freighter loaded with a torpedo warhead into one of the primary pylons a few months ago.
Business was slow today, as it had been every day since what had become known as “The Ophelia Incident”. Not disastrously slow, there was still profit to be made, but civilian traffic to the border stations had dropped noticeably and Ring knew of some shop-owners who had packed up and moved to more secure stations deeper in Republic territory. The war, formerly something that other people had fought, had finally hit home and people no longer felt safe, even on the most heavily fortified station in Darani space.
But business had always been somewhat slow for Ring. Specialty augs were a niche market at the best of times.
He watched a pair of teenage girls walk past, gushing over some matching cosmetic augs they must have just purchased from “Sleek”, a store several shops down the Esplenade which specialised in over-priced class-A augs of no practical use. The girls’ arms and hands were covered with tribal patterns, which glowed gold. Ring grinned. In a few days the kids would return to have the colour changed, or the pattern altered, or removed entirely.
It was time to close.
Ring entered his shop and started packing up. There wasn’t much to do, little more than securing a handful of display items before arming the alarm and locking up. As he placed a wireless neural relay node in a draw under the counter he noticed a shadow fall across his shop. Someone was standing in the doorway, watching him. He decided to ignore them for now – let them think that their awesome ninja skills were working for the time being.
“Are you Ring?” a female voice asked.
He carried on packing, “I am.”
“May I come in?”
“I’m just closing shop, but if you’re looking for something specific I may be able to help.”
“I’m not a customer.”
Ring stopped and looked at her. She was tall, well over six feet, with long straight black hair and ridiculously pale skin, wearing a jacket and trousers of white silk which had an air of elegance about them without seeming impractical. Her eyes were as black as obsidian – even the so-called whites. Ring knew of several models of ocular augs which gave that obsidian gaze, some commercial, some military, none of them cheap. Her pale skin was probably the result of extensive Class C augmentation, though there were no other outward signs. Either she was vain enough to pay for a near-perfect dermal simulacrum, or she hoped to keep her augs incognito, or someone else had paid for her augs.
If, as she claimed, she wasn’t a customer, then that left very few possibilities about whom she could be.
“D-Sec?” Ring asked.
She raised an eyebrow, “Impressive,” she stepped into the shop, all long legs and smooth moves. It was a studied motion, reminiscent of lingerie models on catwalks, but subtler, more refined. Ring was certain that she was well aware of the affect it would have on the typical male. “Agent Ralitov. In my experience, people who expect a visit from D-Sec have something to hide.”
“Or are looking for help,” Ring said. “Does this mean there’s been a break-through on the death-threats?”
“Ahh,” she smiled, “no, I’m not here about your complaints against the Human Purity Movement.”
Ring frowned and leaned back against the wall, “Of course you’re not.”
“You’re aware, Mr Ring…”
“Just ‘Ring’,” he interrupted.
She looked at him for a moment, her brow furrowed. She nodded curtly and continued, “You’re aware, Ring, of the Niobids?”
“I heard something about them on the news.”
“You know one of them.”
“Do I? How exciting.”
“The fugitive known as Whisper.”
“Why yes, I do believe I’ve met her.”
She stared at him for several seconds, her face expressionless. Suddenly she shook her head and smiled with such charm and sweetness that it set off alarms in Ring’s head. “Mr… Ring… I understand your caution. I know the reputation that D-Sec has, but you have no need to worry. I’m not investigating you, I’m just looking for any information I can find on a dangerous criminal.”
If she noted his sarcasm, she didn’t show it, “All I ask is a few minutes of your time, then you’ll be rid of me.”
He sighed, “Very well, ask away.”
“How well do you know Whisper?”
“Well enough to know her name?”
“Her name is Whisper.”
“Her real name.”
“Her real name is Whisper.”
Her smile lost some of its warmth, “I think we both know that that isn’t true.”
Ring folded his arms, “Agent Ralitov, there are names which are given to us, and names we choose for ourselves. Which do you think is more real?”
She studied him in silent contemplation.
“It’s curious,” she said eventually, “that there is so little information available about you.”
“I thought you weren’t investigating me.”
She cocked her head to one side, “Two years ago a man calling himself ‘Ring’, with Darani citizenship papers, arrived on Espenson Station. He bought an ailing shop specialising in cosmetic augmentation and turned it into a specialty store. He has always paid his rent on time, has had no arguments with the law, and frequents Sally’s Diner on the Esplanade where he usually orders a bowl of nachos and a beer.”
“I take bacon sandwiches when I can.”
“During your stay here one of your regular customers has been another nameless citizen who calls herself ‘Whisper’ and is now a wanted fugitive for piracy and conspiracy against the state. And that’s all we know about you. Prior to your arrival on this station, you did not exist.”
Ring chuckled, “Bureaucrat’s logic if ever I heard it.”
She nodded, “Perhaps I should say there is no record of your existence.”
“Agent Ralitov,” Ring said, “are you interested in Whisper, or myself?”
“At D-Sec, we are interested in everything.”
“Then why aren’t you looking into the death-threats I’ve been receiving?” Ring stepped away from the wall and walked around to the counter, which he leant forward on, “After the assassination attempt on Professor Chen last month, I’d have thought you people would have started taking the Human Purity Movement seriously at last.”
“We do, and I’m sure someone is, but that’s not my job today. I need to ask again, do you know Whisper’s real name?”
“Has she ever spoken to you about where she came from?”
“Has she ever revealed how she paid for her augmentations?”
“Has she said anything which may have, in light of recent events, indicated displeasure with the Darani Parliament or the Republic Armed Space Forces?”
Ring shook his head and laughed, “Agent, you’re doing this all wrong.”
She raised an eyebrow, “Excuse me?”
He looked at her, “You’ve taken an adversarial approach.”
“By questioning my history you have strongly implied that you don’t trust me, which inevitably leads to my concluding that I cannot trust you. Your level of research is impressive enough, the nachos were a nice touch, but you should have held onto that information until you could use it to put me off-guard. Even better, you should have started by implying that Whisper is our common enemy, and that you’re here to help me. Never play your best cards at the top of the game, you want to lull me into a state of complacency where I betray my friend without even being aware that I’ve done so until it’s too late.”
“You’re young,” he said, “don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.”
“Has Whisper,” her smile had vanished entirely and her voice had dropped several degrees in temperature, “said anything which may, in light of recent events, indicated displeasure with the Darani Parliament or the Republic Armed Space Forces?”
“Maybe,” Ring said slowly and with exaggerated diction, “half the time I have no idea what that girl is saying.”
“Very well,” she said at last, “rest assured that I will return with more questions in the future.”
“Be still my beating heart.”
She turned to leave, “Would I be wrong in guessing that you have had dealings with D-Sec in the past?”
“Maybe I just read too many political thrillers.”
“Have you ever been questioned by an Agent before?”
Ring smiled and spread his arms, “Agent Ralitov, I can honestly say that this is the first time I have ever been interrogated by a D-Sec agent. It has been an honour.”
She stared at him intently, before smiling again, “This may surprise you, but I do understand what you mean about the names we are given and the names we choose. D-Sec agents are given new names when they enlist to protect their families.”
Ring nodded, “I had heard that.”
“Some then choose new names for themselves after they leave the agency.”
Ring’s heart started to race, “Why would they do that?”
“It’s a hard job, Ring, it leaves people with enemies.”
“I imagine it would also leave people with scars – memories they’d like to erase.”
She looked away for a moment and nodded thoughtfully, “As you say.” She looked at him and they locked gazes for several seconds. She nodded again, and Ring knew that she understood him. She turned to leave once more, “Goodbye Ring, please do not attempt to leave the station for the next few weeks, and be sure to notify D-Sec if any of the Niobids try to contact you.”
Ring leaned back against the wall and sighed deeply. He hadn’t noticed how much tension he had built up during the conversation. He rubbed his hands over his face. When he joined D-Sec he had thought it a force for good, but years of service had left him deeply disillusioned. Things had only gotten worse since the war began, with patriotism and security turning into deadly weapons in D-Sec’s arsenal. It pained him to realise that the Republic was not what it used to be.
He resumed closing his shop. It was time for nachos and beer.
Maybe two beers.