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“How’s Tyler?” I asked. “Is he…I don’t know. Is he happy?”

“Yeah, he’s happy,” said Dale. “We have our ups and downs like any couple, but we work at it. Lately he’s frustrated with the Electricians’ Guild.”

I snickered. “He’s always hated those fuckers. Is he still non-guild?”

“Oh, of course. He’ll never join. He’s a very good electrician. Why would he go out of his way to get paid less?”

“Are they squeezing him?” I asked. One of the downsides of having almost no laws: monopolies and pressure tactics.

Dale seesawed his hand. “A little. Some rumormongering and deliberate price undercutting. Nothing he can’t handle.”

“If they go too far let me know,” I said.

“What would you do?”

“Dunno. But I don’t want anyone fucking with him.”

Dale held up his glass. “Then I pity anyone who fucks with him.”

I clinked my glass against his and we both took a sip.

“Keep him happy,” I said.

“I’ll sure as hell try.”

My Harpreet Gizmo buzzed. I pulled it out to take a look. It was a message from Svoboda: “This ZAFO shit is amazing. Meet me at my lab.”

“Just a sec,” I said to Dale. I typed out a response.

“What did you find out?”

“It’d take too long to type. Besides, I want to show you what it can do.”

“Hmm,” I said.

“Problem?” Dale asked.

“A friend wants to meet. But last time I met someone it was an ambush.”

“Need backup?”

I shook my head and typed on my Gizmo. “Honey, I know what you’re after, but I’m too tired for sex right now.”

“What are you talking about?” Svoboda responded. “Oh, I see. You’re being weird to find out if I’m being coerced. No, Jazz, I’m not setting you up.”

“Just being cautious. I have an obligation at the moment. Meet at your lab tomorrow morning?”

“Sounds good. Oh and if I am being coerced in the future, I’ll work the word ‘dolphin’ into the conversation. Okay?”

“Copy,” I responded. I put the Gizmo back in my pocket.

Dale pursed his lips. “Jazz…how bad is it?”

“Well, people want to kill me, so…pretty bad.”

“Who are these people? Why do they want you dead?”

I wiped dew off my beer glass. “They’re a Brazilian crime syndicate called O Palácio. They own Sanchez Aluminum and they know I did the Sanchez harvester sabotage.”

“Shit,” Dale said. “You need a place to hide out?”

“I’m good,” I said. Then, after a few seconds, I added, “But if I need help I’ll remember your offer.”

He smiled. “Well, that’s a start, anyway.”

“Shut up and drink your beer.” I emptied my glass. “You’re two pints behind.”

“Oh, I see how it is.” He gestured to Billy. “Barkeep! Some little girl thinks she can outdrink me. We’ll need six pints—three for the gay and three for the goy.”

I awoke in my hidey-hole sore, groggy, and hungover. Probably hadn’t been a good idea to get wasted in the middle of all this shit, but as I’ve established, I make poor life choices.

I spent a few minutes praying for death, then I drank as much water as I could stomach and emerged from the compartment like a slug.

I ate some dry Gunk for breakfast (you taste it less that way) and wandered off to the public bathhouse on Bean Up 16. I spent the rest of the morning there soaking in a tub.

Then it was off to a middle-class clothing store on Bean Up 18. I’d been wearing my jumpsuit for three straight days. It could almost stand up on its own at this point.

Finally I was sort of human again.

I walked along the narrow corridors of Armstrong until I reached the ESA lab’s main entrance. A few scientists wandered the halls on the way to work.

Svoboda opened the door before I even had a chance to knock. “Jazz! Wait’ll you see—whoa, you look like shit.”


He produced a package of mints and poured a few into my hand. “No time to mock your alcoholism. I gotta show you this ZAFO shit. Come on!”

He led me through the entryway and into his lab. The whole place looked different. He’d dedicated the main table to ZAFO analysis and shoved everything else to the walls to make room. Various pieces of equipment (most of it a mystery to me) covered the table.

He bounced from one foot to another. “This is so awesome!”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “What’s got you in such a tizzy?”

He sat on a stool and cracked his knuckles. “First thing I did was visual examination.”

“You looked at it,” I said. “You can just say ‘I looked at it.’?”

“By all accounts it’s a normal, single-mode fiber-optic line. The jacket, buffer, and cladding are all routine. The core fiber is eight microns across—totally normal. But I figured there’d be something special about the core, so I cut up some samples and—”

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