The Acrobat in Black

The luggler's was packed. Sweat, smoke and alcohol saturated an atmosphere that was painfully humid even when the place was empty. Only, when it was empty, it was quiet. When it was empty, you could hold a conversation on the stage and expect it to be heard at the back of the room. When it was full, you could kill, slowly, at one of the central bar tables and no-one would notice unless you were unlucky enough to catch a spot reflected off the stage. So the deaths happened in the corners where the light never penetrated the fug. Those with something to hide sat at the edges, anonymous, watching. The rest filled the floor; humanity vied with semi-humanity for the attention of the bar-keeper. Or the pushers. Or the pimps.

The act on the stage lust wanted attention. Everyone's attention. If they were good enough, they got it.

The woman had been there since the place opened for the night, waiting. She sat in a corner with two walls at her back. The table in front of her was the only piece of genuine, solid furniture in the house. A hole-cube sat hidden behind a glass on the table-top projecting two images onto the benches beside her; male to her right, female to her left. The smoke wafted straight through them in swirling waves, but anyone coming close enough to see that was too close for safety. In the meantime, they kept the whores of both sexes at a safe distance and gave her an excuse not to join the crowd by the bar. Once an hour, she ordered a drink from the wheeled bar'droid tracking the room. In between, she kept her eyes on the stage, as one would on a convenient horizon - a place to look without having to engage while waiting.

On the first night, she had been watched, covertly, by the others on the edges of the room. They saw the holograms and saw through them sooner than most. They watched as the one on the right, the man, flickered occasionally and shifted, re-creating the build, dress and features of the latest male to pass the table. Once, late on the first evening, a round-faced man paused at the table and spoke briefly. He was dismissed with a shake of the head but his image stayed on the bench for a full half hour until the woman noticed and flicked an irritable finger at the cube. His replacement was the dark skinned Altarian with livid green eyes. Altogether more pleasing on the eye.

The image on the left, the woman, never altered. Nor was it meant to.

The week's act was good. They wouldn't have been commissioned if the management hadn't thought so and they wouldn't have stayed beyond the duration of the first drink if the critical mass of the audience hadn't agreed. Tumblers. Five of them. Humans, or very close replicas. Lithe, supple androgynous with short, skull-hugging hair cut to emphasise the high cheekbones of locals and dyed to match the second-skin body suits. Four wore scarlet. The fifth, for dramatic effect, was in black. All five had hands and faces chalked in brilliant white. The one to keep the grip firm on the sweat-dampened 'blade hilts, the other to make a good face for the crowd. Faces that blurred in the uneven light as they spun on the high wires above the bar, too fast to be readily recognised. Too well hidden behind the painted make-up to make an image for the holographs. If one needed to hide, it was not a bad place to pick.

They spun an act that kept the audience taut with anticipation. Their speciality was the tumbling fire. Live laser-blades spun in searing, juggling arcs that left the roof scorched black and added the crisp scent of burning to the clinging air.

For the regulars, they varied it slightly, adding different jokes and different high points, only the climax stayed the same - for safety. After an hour of tumbling frenzy, the central player, the one in black, spun out over the crowded heads of the audience, one leg hooked over a looping trapeze, a live laser blade in either hand, carving blazing arcs into the air less than a head's height above the punters.

Each night it was the same and each night, right at the apex of the loop, the leg slipped and the lethal are of the beam cut lower, singeing the hair of a red-headed man standing by the emergency exit. Twice a night, he screamed his terror and passed out as death cut him close and the newcomers in the audience screamed with him, fainting domino-like in his wake. The regulars waited in silent anticipation and loved it. The act retired to stunning applause and the bar'droid wheeled its way through the crush to resuscitate the fallen victim.

By the third evening, the watching eyes no longer watched the corner table. The woman sat unnoticed between her holograms and the bar'droid produced the drinks, on the hour, every hour, without the need for an order. She had neither friends nor business contacts and she kept her eyes on the stage.

Ten minutes before the second repeat of the finale, a figure slipped into the right hand holo-space. The image flickered briefly and then brightened for a second before settling into a perfect replica of the sharp-nosed, angular features and the high-cut shirt of the newcomer. He smiled, graciously, for the inert eyes of the cube and then turned his attention to the living

"Good evening. Mind if I loin you?"

"Yes."

"Pity" He stayed where he was. "Can I buy you a drink?"

"No."

"I think I should." He leaned fonuard to pick up her glass and sniffed at it curiously. "Softs? How remarkable. You are working, then. Are you sure this is wise, Morwen? There must be better ways to recuperate." His voice was study in solicitude.

"Get lost, Ket."

"Morwen. You shock me." He shook his head in gentle reproach and replaced the glass. "It wasn't the Empire who killed her you know.

"I know who did what." Her face was as blank as her voice.

"Excellent. Then I can rest safely at night." He ordered a single drink from a dead-pan 'droid and then leant back, his eyes on the stage. "it's the woman you want,' he said, conversationally, "the one in black. Katia Rast. They tell me her lover leads the local Terrorist faction. Nice isn't she?"

"I want for what, Ket?" There was a warning there, if you listened for it.

"Oh. I don't know. The possibilities are endless." He peered around her to the unwavering hole on her left. "The resemblance is really quite striking. From this distance, she could easily be Nika. I imagine you could do a great deal if you put your mind to it or... No you don't."

His hand snaked across the table, trapping her wrist, crushing skin whitely to bone. Her reaching fingers stopped a hand's length short of the cube. "Don't be more of a fool than you already are, Morwen."

His free hand flicked a remote on his wrist. A violent purple glow pulsed across the disc followed by the sunburst on white that was the emblem of the Imperial High Protectorate. Neither hand showed a blue triangle.

When he spoke, his voice was measured and low with just the right undercurrent of urgency "Today and for now I am Ressa Ket, Ambassador of His Imperial Majesty to the High Council of the Democratic Republic. I am protected by every version of diplomatic immunity you' have ever known. If you lift a finger in anger, you'll have the security police at your throat before you can move." He released his grip without moving his hand. "This isn't civilised territory, Morwen, they don't use drugs when they want answers to questions. And they don't like your - sponsors enough to want to let you live afterwards."

The tension between them was alerting others along the wall. The woman sat back i picked up a glass. Guesting eyes looked elsewhere.

"Why are you here?" She sounded quietly curious.

"Better." He nodded, satisfied and relaxed. "I want you to succeed. And I don't want to see you die at the whim of the Federation. You're too good to waste.

"I'm not dead yet, Ket.

"No. But you're close. Your pick-up won't be waiting at the meeting point. Cassiopoea pulled it out last night when you didn't show. It won't be back."

"Why?" She didn't ask how he knew. Some things are too obvious for words.

"You haven't done the hit. Why else?" He cast another deliberate glance to her left. "If stopped to think, you would have seen through this one. There are half a dozen under-cover ops of your grade who would have done this as soon as they were given the target. It was not given to you by accident. This was a test and you've failed. You're on an emotional roller-coaster and they don't know where you're going or what you're going to do when you get there. You're a professional Moruen. Would you leave an operative like that out on the loose?"

He looked as if he cared. And both of them knew that in this, at least, he was right. She played with her glass, considering. "What are you offering?"

"The opportunity of a lifetime. Several lifetimes." He smiled at her, mocking.'I thought you might like to play for our side for a change. We don't drop our workers on a whim. I'll make sure none of my people gets in your way and I'll see to it that there's an Imperial ship at your pick-up point an hour after midnight tonight. All you have to do is be there. Alone."

They watched the stage together, silently. All five of the tumblers juggled laser-blades to and fro in arcing waves before a matt black backdrop. The acrobat in black stood in the centre at the back, the fulcrum around which everything spun.

The woman shook her head once, in dismissal. "You're lying, Ket. You can't do it."

"He sighed heavily. "Morwen. just this once, use what you have left of a brain. You know me well enough. I can't lie. You know that." He looked down at the back of his hand, clear and unblemished. "Everything I have said is true. I swear it by that which I am."

That which I am. An android. And even after a millennium of technological development, still too ashamed to say it. Or too afraid. Here in a bar on the edge of space where to feign humanity is a crime and to walk the streets without the blue triangle of android identity clearly visible is to risk immediate and brutal destruction. Diplomatic protection is only worth so much.

On stage, the Finale started. The Imperial agent raised his glass in a mock toast to the red- head standing by the emergency exit. "The offer is real. If you want to switch to the Empire. I can see that you're taken on. If you want to throw it away, that's up to you. Just don't get caught, I'd have difficulty denying that I knew who you were." He drained his glass and stood up. "In the meantime, I've arranged a diversion to help you to make up your mind." A thousand years of robotic engineering tipped the wink and tightened the wry edge of the smile in an almost perfect replica of the original. "See you later.

His hologram stayed in place as he slipped out sideways and made his way towards the door.

"I can't lie. You know that." Truth. Absolute truth. And never mention the programmed mind that can twist language until what I mean is not what I say. But who is there who will notice that?

The acrobat in black swung out over the crowd, her laser-blade scything the air, picking the undercurrent of danger and making it real, giving those who felt fear a reason to be afraid. Insidious, lilting music soared up and out carrying the acrobat with it. For the second time that night, the regulars held their collective breath, willing her to slip. For the first time that night, the incomers stopped drinking to watch, willing it not to happen - and failed. At the apex of the arc, she slipped, the blade twisting in her sweat-sodden hand. Every eye in the house watched the lethal curve of the laser slice, uncontrolled, towards its destined target beneath the green light of the emergency exit. They watched, all of them, as it carved on down through the flaming red hair of the one standing there . Everyone of them saw him hit and watched him crumple, soundless, to the floor.

Perfect.

The roof lifted. The regulars gave it everything they had, covering the hysteria of those who believed they had just seen a man die amongst them. The bar'droid pushed its way lazily through the crowds, a large iced cocktail balanced on one outstretched limb, a restorative tonic for the 'victim'. Its head turned fractionally as it passed the woman's table searching out the hologram to her right. The bench was empty. The hole-cube sat inactive as the woman stood up and slipped out from behind the table. One hand scooped the cocktail from the proffered tray. "I'll take that," she said, "he needs a change of routine." Her eyes flickered pointedly in the direction taken by her lately departed drinking partner. "And I think he needs your help.

'Droid loyalty is legendary. The bar robot turned about on the spot and raced for the front entrance, scattering humans in its wake. The woman carried the cocktail close enough to be certain that the red-head was never going to need another drink then handed it to a passing punter before vaulting onto the stage and pushing her way out between the curtains and through to the warren of backstage rooms

Five laser blades lay in the hallway and she picked up two as she passed. Not of military design but accurate and lethal, which was all that was really necessary. Neither had much power left - the act had not been designed with the eco-friendly energy-savers in mind.

The men's changing rooms hummed with the chatter of post-show relief. Down-burn adrenaline with the prospect of a drink and a decent night's sleep. Beside it, the female room was silent, the occupant alone. The woman pushed open the door with the tip of a 'blade and stepped through. Inside, the acrobat paused in the process of drawing on a set of black coveralls, opened her mouth to shout, saw the lasers and bit back the sound, just too late.

Next door, the chatter stilled. Light footsteps traversed the room towards the connecting door The woman shook her head tightly and lifted the lasers. "If he sees me, he's dead. You with him."

The door handle rattled and a man's voice spoke a query.

The acrobat crossed the room in three strides and put her hand against the door. "It's alright, Sacha. I have a visitor." Her voice carried laughter. The footsteps receded, rebuffed.

"Very wise. Get dressed. We're leaving."

"With you? Why?" The arrogant confidence of youth.

"Because I say so. Your red-head's dead."

"No." Flat, certain denial.

"Yes. It wasn't you. They had someone in the back with a second 'blade. They followed your are down and took him through the head. I saw it. Nobody else did. They're not about to wait for a forensic report." The woman cocked her head towards the door. "Listen."

Downstairs in the bar, the shouting had started The noise of it carried over the chatter from the men's room next door. Not a satisfied crowd drinking itself into oblivion, more a mob baying for blood.

"If you stay, you're dead. And if you dent move, I'll do it before they get here." The lasers angled menacingly. "Let's go."

"Where to?"

"Down."

The woman led the way, out of the door, along the corridor and down a series of narrow stairs behind the main bar. The baying of the mob carried clearly through the walls, giving added urgency. Three flights down, they reached the basement. A place of damp and detritus, littered with crates and boxes, some less musty than others. Only the floor was clean. The pair threaded a route towards an apparently blank wall which wavered to nothing and vanished as they approached.

Beyond the hologram, a second room contrasted directly with the one they left behind. There was no litter. The crates lining the wall were heavy and carefully stacked. A view console stood on a well-ordered desk in the centre of the room. The door at the back was solid. And locked. The acrobat tried it twice. She put her shoulder to it and pushed. She swore and bent her head to try the lock.

"I wouldn't. There's a fairly sophisticated alarm. If you get it wrong, we're both dead."

"The acrobat turned. The stage chalk was almost gone from her face. Traces of it stayed in the creases beneath her eyes and the single line down the centre of her forehead. It made her look older than she might otherwise have done. And less angry. Only her eyes still blazed with the same intensity that had burned on stage. "Then we're trapped," she said, "which is as good as dead."

"No." The woman sat down on a crate. Her lasers lingered on the hole-wall. "The proprietor has a lot of good reasons not to let the authorities look in here. And she has friends in high enough places to see to it that the security police don't get too curious. For now, this is the safest place in the city"

"Safe from what? You?" The contempt was clear and cutting.

"That." The woman tilted her head upwards. The hunt ranged through the rooms above them. A man screamed suddenly, high and taut.

The acrobat stood abruptly "Sacha".

The woman put out a restraining hand. "Leave it. There's nothing you can do. Their best defence is to tell the truth. They have absolutely no idea where you are."

"They'll die.

"If they're lucky." agreed the woman, "it was always the risk." The screams became continuous. "Did they know who you were?"

The acrobat closed her eyes "No." As the noise went on, she opened them again and looked up. "Do you?"

"No. All I know is that the Federation and the Empire are both very desperate to see you dead all of a sudden. I have had more offers I couldn't refuse in the past three days than the whole of the rest of my life. Therefore you are not what you seem. I thought perhaps you might like to tell me?"

There was a polite pause. The acrobat made up her mind and changed it. "I'm a member of the Liberation Party. The Resistance."

"You mean the terrorist faction?"

"We're not." The vehemence was explosive. Her eyes sparked again.

"I know." The woman's smile was lazily inoffensive. The lasers circled inwards, their tips aimed at head height. "Still, you've kept the civil war going strong for the last six years. That's not a bad record for a political party."

"The fascists made the war. All we wanted was freedom to be who we are. But it's over. We have a truce. There's a negotiated truce.

"So there is. And if you die and the 'Democrats' can be proven responsible, how long do you think it will stand?"

"It will stand. It's the cause that matters, not me.

"You think so?" The woman smiled obliquely. "Vengeance is a powerful motivator."

"They wouldn't."

"I think they would. How many of your erstwhile colleagues really wanted the war to end?" The girl subsided, her face an array of indecision. "I don't know."

"Very few I imagine. Fighters tend to enjoy themselves too much to crave a lasting peace. And then the Empire and the Federation are both scared rigid that a stable Government might commit your system to the Independent Alliance.

"We would. It's the only sensible thing to do.

"Ouite. But not if you're operating out of Capitol or the Federation and your career depends on keeping a toe-hold in this sector. A war keeps the options open. Peace is fatal. And then of course, the Corporations are convinced that profitable trade will collapse in the absence of war They might even be right. With a war, everyone wins

"Except us. Except the people who live here." The white face had whitened further.

"Well quite. But who gives a toss about you?" This is all about power. The rest of you are expendable. All they needed was to find the weak link and zap," she snapped her fingers dramatically "one civil war back in full swing." The laser tips dropped. "You're the weak link." Her smile held gentle regret. "it's not a safe thing to be."

Realisation dawned in the space that followed. "You're an assassin.

"Very good." The smile this time, was genuine. "And you're still alive." A laser spun across the floor between them and came to rest at the acrobat's feet "Think about it."

There was a long, wordless pause. Upstairs the screaming stopped. The acrobat faced the woman across the floor. "What are we going to do?" she asked.

"Good." The relief, too, was real. "I have a pick-up booked for midnight. Depending on how far the android was bending the truth, it might still arrive. If we can get to the Mound in time, you have a lift off-planet. After that, all you have to do is stay alive long enough to come back when it's safe."

"The Mound's on the other side of the water.

"I know." The woman stood up. "Shall we go?"

The lock yielded to the correct combination of digits and rhythm. The door opened outwards into a poorly lit tunnel with condensation running down in rivulets from the street level three stories up. A humid wind reached in and blew through the hole-wall to stir the debris in the room beyond. Street noises filtered down faintly, overlaying the vanishing shouts of the mob.

The woman stepped out into the tunnel and sniffed the sour air. "When we reach the street, walk, fast. Don't make eye contact and don't talk to anyone. Only run if we're seen. When we get to the water, stay close." She jerked her head upwards. "Let's move."

The watchers began to follow as they reached the city limits. Too soon. Somebody, somewhere knew where the tunnel emerged and was waiting. They didn't shout and they didn't fire but they could be felt in the shadows, avoiding the lights, kicking up the odd piece of garbage in the darkness. They kept a good distance back.

"Do we run?"

"Not yet."

They walked on, briskly, towards the water.

At the edge of the urban zone, abandoned dwellings gave way to the water-meadows and the bog. The flora and fauna of the bog-lands are almost exclusively carnivorous. In daylight, the insects cloud the air black. At night, the leeches hunt in shoals. Both knew it. Both remembered as they walked. Neither spoke. The water oozed round their ankles and the phosphorescent algae glowed in bright, unforgiving trails behind them.

As it reached half-way to knee height, the woman bent down and released something into the mire. Two Small torpedo shapes dipped under the surface, adjusted their buoyancy and sped off silently into the blackness, their wakes glowing a brilliant luminescent green.

"Decoys," she said shortly.

"We're not going to swim?" Revulsion mixed evenly with fear.

'No. There's a path. But they might not know it. I left a beacon on the Mound to guide us up." The woman pulled the hole-cube from her inside pocket. "Here. When it glows green, we're on line. If it goes red, you're losing it. You go ahead."

The followers reached the edge of the water. Six glowing trails forged slowly through the water, aiming for the bright tracks of the decoys.

The girl took the cube. One surface glowed ruby red. She took a step to the right, felt firm ground at ankle depth and watched the face turn to a soft, translucent emerald. The pair trod carefully, slowly, ignoring the slithering forms that tugged at their ankles. Their trails glowed faintly compared to the decoys and the hunters drew steadily away, six bright trails following two.

After an infinity of walking, the ground began to rise out of the water. Within a dozen strides, they were on dry land, climbing straight up the mossed slopes of the Mound.

At five hundred feet, the slope flattened out. The top of the mound lay, flat and wide in front of them. Scorched grass showed where recent ships had been and gone. To one side, a handful of stones formed a make-shift cairn.

"Stop.

"What now?"

"We wait. It won't be long.

They sat, side by side against the cairn, picking leeches from the skin of their ankles. A raw wind blew up from the marsh drying the sweat and soothing the lacerations of the bog. Below them, four broad glowing bands crept across the fiat surface of the mire following the two, smaller and faster, that forged ahead. As they watched, one of the bands spread outward in a broad, irregular circle. The others paused and then moved faster at a different angle.

Beyond the bog, the lights of the city winked as star points against the oily blackness. Here and there, fires had started, flickering strangely in the humid air.

In the far distance, the vast beacons of the star-port shone like false moons, guiding the incessant flow of trade ships into the waiting maw of the hanger. As they watched, a single ship peeled off from the standard line of the flight path. It's lights blinked once, all red, and were dead.

The hole-cube flared scarlet and dulled, a firefly answering its mate.

The woman stood, her eyes on the advancing shadow. "Eleven o'clock," she said, "Time you were leaving.

"You're not coming?"

"No. There are some loose ends to clear up here. I have a booking on a later flight."

The woman reached under the top-most stone of the cairn and lifted out a smooth, featureless sphere. A twist split it in two revealing a shaped cuboidal space in the centre. She held out her hand. "Give me the cube."

"Here.

The hole-cube sank into its seating. Rainbow lights rippled across the exposed surface expanding into the mass of the hemisphere. When they stopped, the cube ejected and lay, lifeless, on the woman's palm, transparent except for a miniature human image standing in the centre. The two empty halves of the sphere fitted seamlessly together leaving it to glimmer gently with a life of its own.

Above them, a silhouette blackened the stars. The three banded stripes of the Independent Alliance showed clearly on the under-surface.

The woman slipped the cube into her pocket and held out the sphere. "Give this to the pilot."

"Why?"

"It carries a record of everything that's happened since I got here. If you use it sensibly, it's your passport back."

"No, I mean, why are you doing this? It won't stop the war."

"Of course not. The war's already started." Far below them, the fires in the city gathered strength. "But then stopping the war was never the point."

"Why then?"

The woman smiled, obliquely. "Vengeance," she said. "Why else?"

One hour after midnight that night, a ship of the Imperial Diplomatic mission made an unscheduled landing on a flat, grassed mound not far from the planet's only star port. The Ambassador to the Council of the Democratic Republic alighted, spoke briefly with the one waiting there and when he bearded again, be brought with him a passenger. The ship departed shortly thereafter, the scorch marks of its passing further blackened the freshly scarred grass of the hill top.

Two hours into the flight, the Ambassador was mid-way through the standard interrogation procedure when the hole-cube on his desk exploded destroying the main cabin and a large section of the ship's super structure. No surviving members of the crew were found.

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