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He hated the flat, migranous, colour-bleaching glare of New Ceres daylight. And New Ceres twilight was too like the normal mid-afternoon light of home. It foxed his circadian rhythm, got on his nerves, messed with his concentration, made him careless. Like today. The bought woman and her followers managed to catch him by surprise in a way no-one on New Ceres had done before.
Jacob Camm sat in the cover of an outcrop over the shingle beach where his landing-boat was drawn up, watching the last evening light turn the ocean a weird, depthless greenblack.
When the chimer at his belt vibrated, Jacob shot up as though scalded, almost overbalancing. Breathing hard, he pointed his rifle up the trail and there they were: three fuzzy orange silhouettes against the blue of the gunscope’s lowlight display, the dancing numbers of the ranging software making little halos over their heads. They were less than twenty metres away.
“Close enough,” he called to them. “Stand where you are, I have you covered. The one with the token, come forward, thank you.”
The slender middle figure said something to the others and picked its — her — way forward. He kept the gun up long enough to let the fact of the weapon register. Then, for courtesy, he lowered it and gave a little bow of the sort they liked here. There was a muted clink as she tossed his token to the ground in front of him.
“A sun badge, indeed. The gentleman who gave me that called you an impudent bastard, Mister Midnight.” Her voice was soft, its modulation formal. Jacob’s middleman had told him she was an offworlder, one of the imported brides the silvertails liked to bring home, but he could detect nothing save for New Ceres in her accent. “Not that I should ever be so gauche as to repeat him verbatim.”
“Of course not,” he said, picking the token up. The little iron sun was barely bigger than the farthing spot-welded to one face. The transmitter that had set off his chimer was on the reverse. “Got multiple designs.”
“All of them suns,” she replied as she followed him to where his wooden trunk sat on a grey plastic friction sled. “I cannot believe you chose the symbol of the Lumoscenti by chance. Or is it a play upon your name?”
That name got given me, I never took it, he almost said. He disliked dealing with aristocrats. They gave him the feeling he’d wandered into a game whose rules he didn’t know. He took refuge in gruffness, opening the trunk and activating the lamp clipped to his collar. Metal and glass gleamed among the straw wadding.
“That cylinder’s your main machine,” he said to the back of her head. Her hair was coppery, her skin a shade darker. “The amino churn. That’s what’ll produce your serum. The tap kit’s for the blood samples. My supplier was able to get a text on using the thing. It’s packed at the bottom. It shows you how to adjust the serum for your patient’s blood without killing him.”
“What will we need to keep it going?” Her voice was flatter, more businesslike now.
“Power supply’s self-contained. Should be good for … well, you won’t need to worry about it. But not quite silent. You couldn’t run it in a room right next to the street.”
“I understand. I’ll test it for noise before we…” She cut herself off and dropped the lid back down with one cinnamon-brown hand.
“Keep it in good order,” he told her, “and I’ll buy it back when you’re done for fifty-five percent.”
He was surprised when she nodded again. He’d been expecting to be haggled into returning at least three-quarters of what she was buying it for. Not everything about dealing with aristocrats was odious. “And on that note, ma’am, we did agree on a price…”
The taller of her men came forward at her call to drop a canvas bag by the trunk. Yanking it a few paces away from them, Jacob let the lamplight hit the notes and coins inside. A quick and dirty tally confirmed roughly the right amount. That and the assurances his middleman had given him, good enough.
“Buy y’self some proper-treated steak, then, Midnight?” asked the short man. “Or are you not yet fed up with twisting your guts around raw seaweed?” He sounded like he was expecting Jacob to laugh, but the woman cut him off.
“Quiet, Garratty. Toxic food is no subject for humour with me. You ought to know better.”
“Ma’am, if I may,” put in Jacob, who felt that the amount he’d just collected merited some extra service, “the churn is more of an antivenin. If you’re after a remedy for untreated food—”
“I’m not,” she snapped, stepping out of the light and becoming a shadow again. “It’s for poison. So frightfully fashionable among the locals, you know. Nobody can say for sure it wasn’t careless food preparation, even if everyone knows damn well it was murder.”
“My condolences,” Jacob said, flicking his lamp off. This was definitely not a usual sale.
“Not necessary,” she said. “Not yet. If we can prepare the serum correctly he’ll be months recovering, weak and bedridden for another half-year. What a lucky devil, hm?” She sighed, and then set Jacob’s every nerve twanging when she said, “We’d better move before they catch up.”
“We’ve got a bit of a journey, and this country’s slow going for a hired carriage—”
“You said ‘catch up’.” Shit shit shit. Her men exclaimed in alarm as he brought the rifle up.
“There were people watching us at New Switzerland. We’re pretty sure they followed us to Port Deeping, but we got a good gain on them by Ingot Wharf. Where are you going?”
Jacob was a dozen paces down toward the beach, towing the friction sled behind him. Idiots. Idiots!
“Midnight!” her voice came behind him. “What are you doing? Midnight!”
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