Performance Appraisal

by Kirisaki Nizuki (霧崎弐透)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/237354.html)

He was surrounded by a sea of faces. Every so often, anticipation would swell up slowly and then all of a sudden burst, in a wave of emotion. At the table to his left, a woman cried out with glee, jumping up and down with excitement and squealing like a piglet. At the table to his right, a man stared down at his hand, sweat dripping from his tightened brow. The highs and lows seemed exaggerated, like a caricature of day-to-day life.

To Connor, it was just another day at work. The regulars at the Black Stallion were some of the richest of the spacefaring elite, visiting Vega’s only station from their ships and colonies to try their hand at the latest games of chance; it was the only gambling establishment to achieve the coveted six-moon rating for hospitality. In the course of their stays, some would win and some would lose, and though the latter was more common, people kept coming back.

But Connor thought no more and no less of the deep-pocketed clientele than he did of the furniture. They were just part of his daily routine – like the cards and the dice, but more predictable. Connor was rather like an engineer; his job was simply to keep an eye on the cogs and apply a bit of grease when necessary to keep the money flowing smoothly.

The mechanical parts of his task could be done by any domestic A.I., but the facility was renowned for having only sentient dealers. Of course, some of the clientele felt this might be to their advantage. They might think again if they could see the facility’s financial records. The sheer volume of credits that passed through the station in a single day was the envy of any colony or consortium. His supervisor had once joked that the Black Stallion could buy out the entire planet below with a single month’s earnings.

Connor wouldn’t be surprised if it already had. The owners were especially secretive. Even the Chief of Operations rarely heard from them directly, and their motives for the profit remained unclear to this day. It made for some good conspiracy theories, but Connor wasn’t really one for speculation. He was just here to do his job.

For the time being, the first of three well-dressed patrons seated at Connor’s table was in the gleeful piglet category, and he planned to keep him that way. He put on what he called his ten-percent smile – an expression palpable enough to inspire confidence in a bet, yet subtle enough that it appeared professionally neutral to the casual observer – and leaned toward the jovial man.

“Might I remind you, sir, that since you show the highest hand, you control the next bet,” Connor said, putting extra attention into preventing the smile from reaching the twenty-percent mark as his ocular implant quickly tallied the fellow’s chips.

“That I do,” said the man, with a smug grin at his fellow players. “That I most definitely do. Fifty thousand.” His pudgy hand carefully and precisely measured out five chips from the heaping stack in front of him, then with practiced carelessness tossed them into the centre. To Connor’s practiced eye, that confidence appeared calculated. This man would be the big winner if these three kept it up. Or rather, he would lose the least.

Connor removed the smile for the next customer, a woman with a hat so enormous it obscured the line of sight of most of the overhead security drones. Fortunately, the house had other ways to detect cheating.

“Call,” she said sweetly, with a slight smirk, gingerly placing the requisite chips into the pile.

The last man looked more serious than the other two; he seemed like the only one in the room who wasn’t showing some kind of emotion, and in Connor’s experience, that was a dangerous sign. His huge frame sat still, but his eyes burned with an intense fury, like a degenerate star that could reignite and go nova at the slightest provocation.

Such simmering anger could cause problems, but if played just right, it could be channelled into determination to beat the house, which tended to net a tidy profit. It was risky, but Connor had to take risks from time to time if he ever hoped to be promoted.

If things went awry, Connor was confident in his reflexes. He’d disarmed and incapacitated his share of furious patrons in his six years here. And if that failed, there was always Plan B.

Just as the man opened his mouth to speak, Connor put on his librarian’s gaze, another ten-percent expression from his considerable repertoire. As expected, the man met his eyes just as he reached for some chips and his hand stopped. A more forceful, all-out glare worked in the “cheaper” rooms, but anything more than the ten-percent librarian’s gaze was too obvious for here in the Platinum Room. Connor waited a long second, then two, hoping he hadn’t hit twelve percent.

“On second thought,” said the tense man, looking back at his cards, “I’ll fold. He’s probably got the damn flush, and I don’t want to risk it.” The jovial man smiled, turning to face the wide-brimmed woman.

Close one, thought Connor. I can’t have him lose too much all at once. Connor exchanged the briefest of glances with his colleague at the next table over: the successful plan A glance. His colleague nodded knowingly. Every time they had to resort to plan B, a dealer’s pay was docked by an hour’s credits, though it sure beat losing half a day’s if they mishandled a patron.

“Let’s see what you’ve got,” the man said. The woman smiled back at him suggestively.

Connor would have rolled his eyes had he not been on duty. Paying little attention to the flirtation, the victory dance, and all the mock drama playing out at his table, he delivered his congratulations in a measured tone, twenty percent encouragement, and slid the chips over to the jovial man. As usual after a win, all eyes were on the chips, so Connor stole a quick glance around the establishment.

The Platinum Room was one of the nicest floors at the Stallion, richly decorated, but less gaudy than the Gold and Silver Rooms. The lighting was a little more on the warm side of the spectrum, supposedly to stimulate more risk-taking, though Connor still found it too bright.

He preferred the more tasteful and subdued tones of the Obsidian Room, where occasionally he was lucky enough to have a chance to fill in for the elite dealers. He hoped to work there full-time one day, though getting in permanently was proving difficult. Few patrons even knew of its existence, but those who did tended to be less pretentious, a bit more dangerous, and far more difficult to read. It was just the sort of stimulation that Connor needed.

Minimum bet in Platinum was ten thousand credits, a month’s salary for the average middle-class worker planetside. Connor made a healthy multiple of that here. Were it not for his aptitude for cognitive dissonance, though, he might still be disturbed to see chips with such amounts thrown around as if they were colourful bits of cereal.

Little blue lights danced across his pupils as he scanned the surrounding patrons’ Uplink broadcasts. While many were business-related, there was a surprising amount of sexual tension evident in the profiles and messages being exchanged. Usually, patrons couldn’t see the encrypted and private broadcasts passing through the room, but the Stallion was private property, and the owners were free to install whatever surveillance technology they deemed necessary to protect their operation. Connor had no doubt he was being surveyed too, but he had free reign to monitor the clientele.

“You’re very good with your hands,” said the woman, leaning toward him so obviously it was embarrassing.

Connor’s hands were already shuffling the deck for the next round. Thirty witty retorts came to his mind unbidden, but while he was on duty, he couldn’t say them aloud. Fortunately, the jovial man did.

“Weren’t you flirting with the bartender just a few hours ago?” he asked.

The woman laughed. “Yes, but this one’s more my type. I have a weakness for tall men.”

From the content of her messages to the other young men in the room, it was clear that that wasn’t really the case. She wasn’t here to win money, at any rate. This made Connor’s job easy, albeit a tad unpleasant.

“Madam’s face looks all the more lovely in the shadow of that splendid hat,” he said, with a flourish of the cards.

“Oh, you like it?” she said, smirking and touching her neck. “It’s one of my favourites.”

She was evidently probing his Uplink profile, attempting some kind of amateur hack. Not very subtle, he thought, opting for a ninety-percent suggestive grin. The grin was half-genuine, since he had just hacked her own profile – wealthy as she was, she wouldn’t be able to afford his prices.

The Uplink’s fee-for-service model had been introduced during Connor’s second year at the Academy. Originally it had been an opt-in application for adults only: for a small commission or a monthly fee, registered citizens could list items and services that they were willing to sell, and others could peruse those listings and make offers. Over the past decade, though, use of the system had become increasingly sexual, increasingly standardized, and increasingly common, to the point where even Academy students had prices listed for most ‘services.’

When someone made an offer for a service of this particular nature, there was a period of time before the transaction was finalized to allow for competing bids. After this time period, the highest offer would win the right to receive the service. Widespread use of this system had led to its eventual adoption into the Uplink’s standard profiles and integration into the contract law governing most colonies.

Of course, most people avoided unsolicited propositions by setting exorbitantly high minimum bids. Others opted to adjust their prices on the fly according to their mood and circumstances, and few gave it more than a second thought.

Connor was one of the ‘prudes’ who had resisted the peer pressure to drop his prices after graduating, however much flak he got for it. He knew that both men and women often found him attractive, but he had always been a bit of a romantic at heart, so he never really liked that system. Only a handful of the Obsidian Room patrons had ever propositioned him at his current prices, and while infrequent, those times he relented had provided him with enough money for a snazzy new ship and a vacation home on Vega Prime, so he didn’t feel so bad about it.

“Twenty,” said the tense man, dropping two chips in the pile. Connor must have dealt the cards while his mind wandered. Platinum really was that boring sometimes – it didn’t have the naïve fun of Silver, the personal eccentricity of Gold, or the serious challenge of Obsidian. It was just dull. Dull and pretentious.

“I’ll see your twenty thousand,” said the woman, “and raise you eighty more.”

The tense man’s head was now vibrating with suppressed anger. Connor thought they ought to set up some kind of course for new players. He sent an advance warning to Security that his table may need some assistance shortly. Three wall-mounted cameras turned slowly toward the angry man while two flying stealth units hovered closer.

But the man had stopped glaring at the woman, and now had an odd look on his face as he stared curiously over Connor’s shoulder. Unable to turn from the table with patrons present, Connor scanned the nearby profiles again and found the new one. With his eyes on the deck as he dealt the next round of cards, his attention observed the newcomer through the Uplink, using the feed from a security camera near the entrance.

He looked to be an Academy student, completely out of place amid all the ostentatious suits and flashy dresses. Even in Silver, people at least wore Moonlight Casual, but this kid was wearing a shoulder satchel and nanodenim. Connor glanced over his profile:

Name: Maxwell “Max” Lagrange
Date of Birth: 19/04/2361 (Age 20)
School: Elsworth Academy
Program of Study: Quantum Engineering

When he got down to the service prices, he did a double-take and almost dropped the cards he was dealing. Only 150k for a full night FFA? What was he thinking?!

Right before Connor’s eyes, an offer rolled in and the competing bid timer begin counting down. The bidding was anonymous, of course – but the tense man’s gaze made it clear enough who had entered it. He hadn’t so much as looked at his cards, and was staring straight at this Max kid.

Connor tried not to let on that anything was bothering him as he waited to see if someone else would outbid the man, but with so many attractive, well-dressed, and no doubt wealthy patrons around, few seemed to pay the skinny student much attention.

Whatever his intentions may have been, Connor was concerned. He’d been playing the man for two hours already, and keeping him on the edge of his temper the whole while. He might be looking to unwind. Connor had some idea of how rough a frustrated and emasculated patron could be, and if something were to happen to this student, he would have a hard time not feeling responsible.

Taking a little longer than usual to shuffle the cards, he watched the timer tick down and made his decision. With less than a minute to go, he whipped up a little bidding program and set it in motion.

Once he had it in place, Connor let out the breath he didn’t realize he had been holding and began to deal the cards slowly, watching the man out of the corner of his eye. The man was absently gathering the cards into his hand, but his eyes weren’t focused. He began to audibly huff and puff, his head twitching this way and that every time he reached for another card.

“What?!” boomed the man just as the last cards were dealt. Connor quickly hid his smile. With his eyes clearly focused on his heads-up display, the man’s face turned red with anger, giving him the appearance of having had far too much to drink.

That would be as good an excuse as any for Connor to have him removed. He signalled the nearest of the patrolling guards, who diverted course to intercept.

“Fuck!” cursed the man, trying in vain to win the auction, the price quickly growing past what some might consider a reasonable offer. But try as he might, he couldn’t outbid Connor’s auto-bid script.

Connor’s savings weren’t substantial, but he was full-time at the Stallion and was permitted an overdraft against his future salary as needed. The transactions would be reviewed by a panel before payday, but he wasn’t worried. The angrier the man got, the more reassured Connor felt that he was doing the right thing.

The security officer laid a strong arm on the patron’s shoulder. “Excuse me, sir, but you’ve had quite enough to drink for this evening.”

“Get your dirty hands off of me!” shouted the man, struggling against the guard’s hydraulic-enhanced grip. “Fucking cyborgs! Damn Imp-junkies make me sick!”

The guard exchanged a meaningful glance with Connor. There was no question Connor would have this guard’s backing if the man later disputed the grounds for his impending expulsion. Connor breathed a sigh of relief – unnecessary removal of paying customers was definitely frowned upon. But removal of those disrupting the other customers, that was a different story.

“You’re coming with me, sir.” The guard yanked the man off his stool, sending it clattering to the floor, and began pulling his half-slumped form across the room.

“Like hell I am!” the man shouted, as he was dragged out between the tables, drawing roars of laughter from the other guests. Only Connor knew the real reason for his fury; to everyone else, he simply looked drunk.

“Thank you,” came a voice to his left, as the man’s stool was set back upright.

“He’d had one too many, that’s for sure,” said the woman. “No wonder he was losing.”

“Maybe this lad will have better luck!” said the jovial man. “Pull up a seat, kid. We’ll show you how to play.”

It was then that Connor turned his attention back to his guests. That Max kid was righting the fallen chair and looking up at him expectantly with a hint of embarrassment.

Connor didn’t skip a beat, even if his heart did. He quickly signalled for his break. “You have my apologies, gentlemen, ma’am, but I’m afraid I must take my leave.”

“Is this your little brother?” asked the woman. “How cute. You two look adorable together.”

Connor again decided to bite his tongue, as Max stared intently at his feet. “Another dealer will be over in just a moment. While you wait, please enjoy a round of drinks on the house.”

Between the winning bid and the drinks, Connor had just consumed the next three weeks of his salary. He bowed, took Max by the arm, and led him gently away, smiling his warmest smiles back at his guests until they had passed through the Staff Only door in the back.

Max was looking around at everything as if it were his first time offworld. The corridors back here were more utilitarian; the stark metallic bulkheads would seem dull were it not for the fluorescent lights, pulsating ever so slightly with every hum of the station’s power generator. Back here, well-dressed floor staff mingled with mechanics in dusty coveralls and security guards in skin-tight nanofibre.

Few of the others took any notice of them; it was common enough for floor staff to bring wealthier clients on a bit of a tour or to take them to their private rooms for some not-quite-regulated gaming. Some of the younger hires looked a bit surprised to see a student back there, though others gave Connor a knowing look that made him feel more than a little self-conscious.

He’d learned long ago that it was better to keep business and pleasure separate, so rumours had started to circulate about what his pleasure actually was. Max’s embarrassing, naïve curiosity would not be something he’d live down anytime soon.

“Quit staring,” hissed Connor when the others were out of earshot. The frightened look on Max’s face immediately made him regret his harsh tone.

“I’m sorry,” said Max. “It’s just, I’ve never been to a place like this before.”

“Clearly,” said Connor. He turned down one of the docking tubes. It felt as if they were walking through a giant accordion. They walked in silence for a time.

“Um,” said Max, looking nervous, “Are you – kidnapping me?”

Connor laughed, loosening the tension in the air considerably. “Of course not. We’re just going to my craft. Many of us don’t get actual rooms on the station unless we live here permanently.”

“So you commute up from the surface?” asked Max. “That’s a long way!”

“No,” said Connor, “I only go home on the weekends.”

“Still,” said Max, his nose wrinkling indignantly, “they should at least give you a room.”

“Honestly, I’d rather they rent out the extra rooms to these well-paying clients. The more money they make, the better they can afford to pay us.” Seeing Max still fidgeting nervously, he gave him a wink. Max seemed to visibly relax at the gesture.

“At least they let you use a craft.”

“Actually, it’s mine. I just rent the docking space.”

Max’s eyes went wide. Even with financing, a spacecraft cost a healthy multiple of the bid price that had just brought them together, which itself must have been enormous from Max’s point of view. Connor had been saving up for a new ion drive, but he supposed his craft could do without it for a bit longer.

They came to a threshold with a shimmering door. When Connor touched it, sparkles danced across its surface; when they faded, they took the rest of the door along with them, leaving a clear passage into the ship.

“Whoa!” said Max. “Is that a matter simulacrum field?”

“Yeah, well,” grumbled Connor, “they’re actually a pain in the ass. More trouble than they’re worth. I couldn’t get this model with normal doors, unfortunately. It’s like the damn phones – no way to get one without holoprojection these days.”

“Why wouldn’t you want holoprojection?”

They crossed the threshold into what looked, for all intents and purposes, like a luxurious hotel room. It was nothing so fancy as the guest suites in the station proper, but Connor supposed one had to have an eye for materials to really notice the difference. He liked to keep it tidy, at any rate.

The portholes superimposed an image of a grassy field bordered by sparse trees over the surrounding starfield, making it look like they were simply sitting on a planet at night, rather than orbiting far above. A shelf full of old-fashioned paper books and a reclining chair sat to one side of the circular bed, while a low doorframe opposite led to another room.

“What’s back there?” Max asked.

“Oh, just the shower,” said Connor.

“They let you have a shower up here?” said Max. “Doesn’t that use a lot of water?”

“Most of it gets recycled,” said Connor. “It can go about ten weeks without a fresh supply.”

Connor took a seat in the recliner, his favourite reading chair. Max looked back and forth, from him to the bed, then swallowed.

“Oh, just sit down,” said Connor. “We don’t actually need to do anything. The owners make a 30% commission on these sorts of transactions, but they can’t monitor us in here. We can just sit and talk for a bit, and then I’ll write you a great review on your Uplink profile – no one will know the difference.”

Max looked puzzled, and perhaps a bit disappointed, as he sat at the foot of the bed.

“Now,” said Connor, “What the hell are you doing here? You stick out like a sore thumb.”

Max studied his shoes. “I… Well, you see…”

Connor waited patiently. Max looked overwhelmed enough as it was.

“It’s like this,” said Max awkwardly, kicking his feet on the side of the bed, then stopping with a gulp, realizing he might be getting it dirty. “Our probability prof gave us each five hundred credits and sent us here. He thinks it would teach us not to gamble or something. He’s a bit old-fashioned.”

“Five hundred?” said Connor. “Minimum bet in Platinum is ten thousand. Why weren’t you in Chrome or Leather?”

Max coughed away a brief flicker of a smile. “We were in Chrome for most of the morning, actually. I was pretty lucky and managed to make up to just over a thousand before I lost it. You see, my friends and I had a deal. We were gonna pool our winnings to make ten thousand and use it to buy a funky outfit for our prof. We had to make at least two thousand each, and then meet back at the end of the day. We were just trying to show off, we didn’t mean anything by it, it was just for fun – we’re not really gamblers.” Max was kicking the bed again. “But time was running out and I wasn’t going to make it at that rate, so I went up to Bronze and–”

“And made a bad bet,” said Connor. “You can’t win first-off at Bronze. It’s designed to discourage people who can’t afford to be there. But how’d you get past the background check?”

Max swallowed yet again. Connor went and got him a glass of water. “We hacked the background check earlier. We wouldn’t have gotten to come along at all otherwise. It’s a long story.”

“Well,” said Connor, “dumb as that idea was, it wasn’t nearly as dumb as leaving your bid prices at settler camp levels. Fuck, do you have any idea what could have happened to you? My god, do they not teach basic safety anymore at the Academy?”

Max looked scared. “I’m sorry!” His eyes were getting wet. “It’s not– They told us to set it to five mil, minimum. But I– I…”

Connor put a hand on Max’s head. His hair felt soft and springy. “You were hoping you might meet someone special.”

“Yeah, I guess,” said Max. “I kind of, I don’t know–”

“Well it’s not as glamourous a place as it looks,” said Connor. “Not by a long shot. It’s designed to be comfortable and welcoming, but it’s really not a good place to meet people. Trust me.”

Max looked up at him for the first time since they had entered his ship. “But I met you.”

“Well, at any rate, it could have been worse,” said Connor. “Just don’t do it again. There are better ways to meet people.”

Max nodded slowly. “I’m sorry.”

“Anyway, I’ve still got another fourteen hours in my shift, and this was my last break, so I’d better go clean up a bit and change. We’ll head back in a half hour or so. Just make yourself at home in the meanwhile.”

Max was still kicking the bed as he stared down at the floor. Connor was going to stop him, but then, what was the cost of cleaning the bedding again compared to the money he’d already spent today. At least he knew he’d outbid that awful man. That was worth every credit.

Going into the back, Connor began undressing, slipping his musky clothes into the purifier. The piping hot water in the shower stall felt great as it embraced his skin, washing away the stiffness in his muscles. He was used to standing all day, but still, thirty-two-hour shifts were pretty tiring for anyone.

The hum of the purifier and splash of the water hid Max’s presence until he had opened the stall door and stepped in.

“Hey–” started Connor, but surprise cut him short. Max had an admirable set of abs for an academy student. And an admirable–

“You said to make myself at home,” said Max with a smile as he pushed Connor against the back of the stall. With cool, goosebumped skin in front and the smooth, metallic wall behind him, Connor had nowhere to go. He couldn’t tell if he was shivering from the sudden chill or from the feel of Max’s skin rubbing flush up against him, but it was more likely the latter.

It had been quite some time since someone had been back here with him, perhaps too long. He had to admit, Max was rather attractive. Being in such close quarters with him made it hard to think straight, though.

Unbidden, his cock grew hard and pressed against Max’s abdomen. At this, Max grew bolder, grabbing Connor’s head between his hands and pulling him down for a kiss. It may have been a wet, clumsy, awkward, lip-licking, nose-bumping kiss, but it was hardly lacking in passion.

Max’s tongue explored what seemed like every corner of Connor’s mouth, as his hands groped over his body. The rushed desperation belied an expectation to be pushed away at any moment; it was as if he wanted to feel Connor’s skin down to every last freckle while he was still stunned. A part of him wanted to reassure Max that he could stay if he wanted, but he didn’t want to be taking advantage of the situation.

Unable to move his head any further back, Connor turned aside briefly, buying just enough time for a breath of steamy air. “You don’t have to do this. I just–” But the thrust of Max’s hips up against him shifted position slightly, sending a cascade of water down over his cock.

Fine, thought Connor. Have it your way. A light bite at the neck loosened Max’s hold enough for Connor to push him back against the stall door, giving enough room for Connor to finally grasp Max’s cock in his hand. He moaned through the splashing water as Connor squeezed it and began rubbing slowly down its length.

Although vague worries about running low on fresh water reserves mingled with concerns over reinforcing a bad decision, the hot water all but completely washed those thoughts away. Connor gave his ship a signal he hadn’t sent for a few years, and the ambient light darkened, not that Max could see it with his mouth open and eyes closed.

Little lights in the walls danced between green and purple and red as Connor stroked Max faster. He had to signal the stall door to lock tight as Max put his leg up against the wall for support pushing sporadically against the door as he writhed. To a dispassionate observer, he might have looked ridiculous. But to Connor, it looked hot.

Max’s every movement telegraphed his arousal loud and clear, allowing Connor to speed up and slow down to keep him going. Time was lost amidst the colourful refractions of the lights through the various fluids swirling and sliding around the stall in the dark.

When the purifier shut off, Connor restarted it via his Uplink, lest Max’s ever-louder moans leave too many people gossiping tomorrow. Max’s flailing arms and grasping hands kept pulling at every part of him as he flirted with orgasm, and he lived for each impending touch.

“You like it?” said Connor. Max might have answered yes, or it might have just been another, particularly-loud moan, but Connor grinned anyway. He stopped trying to time it and began to stroke hard and fast. Max’s warm skin, the goosebumps long gone, slid against every inch of him as he pressed himself forward into the squirming tangle of limbs, deftly finding Max’s mouth and kissing him deeply.

In one final spasm, all the movement stopped and everything – even the falling water droplets – seemed to stand still during the repeating eruption of fluid, glistening green, purple, and red as it caught the light, a bit landing on nearly every limb and every surface of the stall.

Max was lying in a heap on the floor of the stall, his back to the door, a particularly large string of semen splashed across his face, broken only over his lips. Connor signalled the ship again and a fragrant, fruity solvent was added to the mix, washing away all the non-water fluids.

So much for the water reclamation system. That would be another month’s salary. But as he bent down and kissed Max on the head, the glow in his eyes as he looked up at Connor was priceless.

For a time, they just sat looking into each other’s eyes as the steam floated around them. Connor couldn’t remember the last time he had felt like this, if he ever had. Eventually, he broke the silence.

“Much as I’d like to stay right here,” said Connor, “if we take any longer, you might very well get me fired.”

A grin pulled at the edge of Max’s mouth. “Somehow I doubt that. Anyway, I should be getting back to the others before they start to worry.”

“Oh–Of course. This feels so abrupt. I don’t want to give you the wrong idea, I’m not–”

“It’s alright, I understand,” said Max. “I’ve got more than enough money to surprise our teacher now, and you have to get back to work anyway.”

Connor nodded.

In a lower voice, Max added “I’m glad it was you.”

Connor couldn’t help but smile as he showed Max back to the casino floor.

An hour later, a jet-black stealth corvette was pulling out from the outer guest docks. Its pilot swung it around in one smooth motion and took off toward one of the outer colonies.

Inside, the bridge was as dark as the surrounding space. Indeed, the walls appeared practically transparent, displaying a projection of the surrounding starfield, a paramilitary feature used to improve reaction time compared to conventional screen-based displays.

The pilot was sitting on a sleek floating chair, using a modified Uplink to effortlessly guide the ship to and fro through an asteroid field at velocities that would make a veteran starfighter cling for dear life to the nearest bulkhead.

A notification signal crept into his consciousness in a subtle way, lest it distract him from the swirling mass of rocks and ice careening across the walls. He was loath to slow the ship down unnecessarily, lest he be late for his next mission. After all, the reason Syndicate Free Agents were so highly coveted was because they were always professional – and punctual.

Twenty seconds later, the ship had cleared the asteroid field. The pilot engaged the Auto-Nav before getting up from his chair. It seemed his clients from earlier this evening were on the line. It was his first time working for these particular clients, but he’d heard from a fellow Agent that they liked to hear their reports firsthand.

A real-time report hadn’t been part of the contract, but these clients had paid well for a relatively simple assignment, and he had a good four hours before he arrived at the designated coordinates, so he could spare some time to chat.

Walking over to a nearby table, he began putting away his supplies from the mission as he responded. A dark-suited being appeared on his heads-up display, difficult to see with an obnoxious backlight. It spoke in an alien tongue that sounded like a harsh, guttural language mixed with a resounding, multi-harmonic, glass-shattering screech.

“Yes sir,” replied the pilot, “Your suspicions were right – once you get past his indifferent exterior, he’s got a good heart, and he’s not afraid to bend the rules when it’s important. I think he’d make a great candidate. He has my full endorsement.”

The dark-suited being responded again, the screeching slightly higher in pitch and longer in duration this time.

When silence had returned, the pilot smiled. “Thank you, sir. If you ever need my services again, don’t hesitate to ask. And if it’s with today’s target again, I’ll give you a discount. Keep that in mind.”

The channel now closed, the pilot smiled to himself as he folded up the last article, a pair of nanodenim jeans, and carried it back toward his cabin. If only every mission could be as pleasurable as that one.

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