Place: Habitat pod atop Lunette the Space Shark
The Brimstone was pinging but it wasn't Shaxy's ident code.
Benny stumbled to his consoles from his mat in the corner. He'd purposefully asked Lunette to steer out here into nothingville so he could get some sleep. No, he didn't need much these days but a couple hours uninterrupted went a long freaking way.
Grumbling, he authenticated the Brimstone first. Yep. That was her, standing off portside of Lunette. But this mess of encoded secret garbage of an ident? Either the ISE had finally seized her or something bad was happening here. His natural paranoia leaned toward the second. But there was a third possibility.
Fingers flying over the consoles, Benny unraveled tangles of encryption, teasing out the knots and snarls one by one while his pod started coffee brewing. It was equal parts triumph and annoyance when he had his answer.
"That little shit." He snagged his coffee without looking when it thunked in the slot. "Voice only. Recognition programs, highest resolution."
Because just being almost damn sure wasn't sure enough. This could still be a trap. He let the channel sit silent for a full minute, not that he thought this caller would break first. This predator liked games.
"Benny." The word came through with teasing curlicues in that molten purr of a voice. That, more than anything, convinced Benny his caller was authentic.
"I'm not doing any more ISE work. They were late on the fucking payment last time and stiffed me besides."
"This is a private commission." Julian's voice lost some of the purr in favor of a more businesslike tone. "Information."
"Ha!" Benny tried his best to sound tough. His damn voice squeaked. He'd dealt with Parallax before, sure, but he was an assassin. A successful assassin. That fact never left Benny's radar. "You're the spook. Find your own damn information."
"I certainly will be as I can. But you are the emperor of data, Benny. I need cross-checking and correlation." Something in the assassin's tone was far more Julian than Parallax suddenly. Benny had to wonder if that was manipulation, too. "I need far-flung bits that I suspect intersect and time is not a good friend right now."
"You sound desperate." Benny fidgeted with a light cube, watching the colors shift and jump. "No way you can pay me what this is worth, sounds like to me."
"I have funds."
Benny laughed. "I know what's in your account, Parallax. You probably have, you know, tangible assets stashed somewhere but not like you own a nice condo on Elistrus."
"I can get you things."
"What kinda things?"
"Anything you like," Parallax whispered. "Circuits. Contraband liquor. Real meat."
"I make my own circuits, you spook. You're not so good at your job as you think. That other stuff? Eh."
That stopped Benny cold. "For real? Not cheap knockoff shit?"
"Authentic Jarai." The purr was back, warm, seductive. "Anything you like. Creams. Caramels. Their wonderful turrón."
Benny gulped at his coffee to steady his voice. "Whaddya need?"
"I have a file."
"Open it there so I can see it."
Benny opened the vid channel and Parallax didn't hesitate. He knew how this went, that Benny had protocols before accepting unvetted data. Parallax folded his hands and waited as patiently as any cobra while Benny scanned through the requests.
"This is dangerous shit, you know," he finally admitted. "Dangerous as fuck."
"Yes. It is." Parallax leaned forward. "I don't think I've ever noticed what thick lashes you have."
"You can knock that shit right off." Benny muttered, still scanning. Trying to make him nervous, damn it. "I'll need three."
"Cases of Jarai. And my usual finder's fee."
What? No! That's not how this went. "Done?"
"No haggling this time, my dear little tech rodent. I have a need for information at speed. Can you do it?"
"Pfff. Can I do it, he asks? Of course. It's your head."
After Parallax cut the connection, Benny dove right into planning his data incursions with a huge sigh. "I really should've asked for four."
The pod rumbled under Benny's feet. Lunette was laughing at him.