Zane was painting.
It was something he was doing increasingly more of in his spare time. When he didn’t have piloting to do, he would be spending his free time either cleaning and maintaining his weapons or playing one of several simple matching games on his tablet. He found both activities to be extremely relaxing, and he didn’t get bored. But painting was different.
Creative pursuits were not things that tended to be encouraged back at the Project’s facility, and thus he had never given them much thought before, but now that Jayna had put the idea into his head, he found himself actually… engrossed. It was something he had to think about. Before departing from Isocrateia, he had purchased himself a set of watercolors, and he now found himself making frequent use of them. Most of his finished paintings, he simply scanned for posterity and then discarded; in his mind, the journey was more important than the destination. But some of them he kept, mounted on the wall of his bunk or, occasionally, one of the others’ bunks. He never knew if one was going to be a keeper or not until he finished them. But he had a pretty good feeling about this one.
His train of thought was interrupted when he heard someone trying to get his attention.
“Hey, Zane–wow, I like the colors on this one.”
Zane smiled at Jayna. “Thank you,”
Jayna smiled again, setting a hand on most of his shoulder. “Hey, you’ve got a call coming direct from Martens. Says he just wants to talk to you.”
Zane paused in mid brush-stroke. “Really?” he said. “That’s a new one.”
Jayna tilted her head. “What’s this one supposed to be anyway?”
Zane looked back. “It started out as a landscape,” he said. “But at this point your guess is as good as mine. I’ll be right up.”
He closed one eye, tilted his head a bit, and looked at the painting.
Time passed. Maybe minutes. Maybe seconds.
“Nope, no idea,” he said, and then headed out to the common area. He saw the communication console and noticed a flashing light. He tapped in quickly, and Martens flipped up into view.
“Zane,” said Martens, who was dressed in a fluffy pink bathrobe and holding a steaming mug.
“Sorry to see you up so early,” said Zane.
“You and me both,” said Martens, smiling. “I received an unusual service request, and I didn’t want to sit on it.”
“Well, we did just finish up that pair of jobs in Sinuta. I think the crew can handle something new,” Zane said.
“What’s interesting about it is Songbird was requested by name,” said Martens. “And that never happens. I do not tend to work like that. But this client had a lot of money to throw around.”
Zane tilted a bit in his chair. He normally didn’t like to work with the finances piece. Jayna and Ash were both way better than that. “Um… how much more does it pay than usual? There’s no wetwork, right?”
“Perish the thought,” he said. “No, it’s from some big-shot rock star touring the Aittisae system. The details of the job were vague, but it should be a cakewalk, honestly. Just… something doesn’t quite sit right. No hard feelings if you want to pass on this one.”
Zane blanched. “N… No. I think we can take the job. Lemme just get Jayna… the walls are starting to melt on me so I don’t want to get weaseled out of good money,” he made a mockery of a smile, and then got to his feet. “O-one second.”
Zane staggered into the common room and plopped down onto a sofa, trying to remain calm. It couldn’t be… it had to be a coincidence, right? Yeah. Just a coincidence.
“Zane? Are you alright?”
“Y… Yeah. It’s probably nothing. But…” Zane shook his head. “We gotta take this job, over in the Aittisae system… sounds like it might just be a security detail gig or something… but I dunno. I’ve got a feeling we’re supposed to be there.”
Jayna looked puzzled. “Did you take your meds this morning?” she said. “You seem a little out of sorts.”
Zane nodded. “I just… have a weird feeling about this one,” he said. “If I’m wrong, then we’ll have made some easy money. And I don’t want to worry you if I’m wrong. But…”
“But if you’re right?”
Zane looked down at his hands. “If I’m right, then this mission may not pay us well enough… and it might involve something… personal.”
Jayna groaned. “Personal ones are the worst.”
“You’re telling me,” said Zane. “I think Aittisae is over in Ishtar sector, we’re only a few sol-days away.”
“Well, I think we should take it. Easy money is easy money,” said Ash. “Hopefully it’ll just be a few overzealous preteens. I’ll go get Martens back on the phone, and then we’ll head a course thataway.”
“If he asks for me, tell him I’m spaced out,” said Zane, getting back up. “I’m going to go finish my painting.
“Of course. I’ll make sure to note down the details.”
Zane sighed as he went back. He really, really hoped that this wasn’t what he thought it would be.
But it probably was.
“Man, if this is the kind of place this job takes me on the regular, then I can get used to it,” Mari whistled, looking up as the hotel came into view. Obsidian and glass spiraled upwards to a fine point who knew how many floors up. “This is a hotel? It looks like a sculpture.”
The city of Hyacinth, much like Isocrateia, was a place that operated to draw in tourism. However, that was where the similarities ended. Loud and gaudy were the rule of law as far as design went, with every single structure trying to out-do the others in terms of gaudiness. Jayna hadn’t stopped scowling since they landed.
“Oh, c’mon Jay, this place has nothing on your little amazon island,” Ash said as they headed into the lobby. He stopped short when the glowing fountain began a synchronized dance to some classical music.
“Okay, that might be a little much,” said Ash, shaking his head. Almost as soon as they stepped into the lobby, a couple of sides of beef in expensive suits stepped in front of them.
The fact that Jayna could look down at them gave them a bit of breathing room. She smiled. “We’re here to see a… Mr. ‘Hanson’ in room 240-B. I’m guessing you’re our escort?”
The slabs looked at each-other. In perfect sync, they touched fingers to earpieces.
“You can go up,” rumbled one of them. “No loitering.”
She nodded, pulling the keycard from his breast pocket and the breezily strolling past them. The others hurried to catch up. They made their way to a group of elevator bays that sped them up to the top floor. Once they got off the ground floor, the darkened elevator car was filled with light, overlooking the whole city as they scaled up.
Zane looked over the city, deep in contemplation.
“Yeah,” he said. “This is the kind of place I’d expect…”
“I mean yeah, pop stars. They get the best stuff, mm?” Ash said, shaking my head. “I wish I could look hot while kind of doing some sort of talent. I’d kill at making money,” Ash said.
“Songbird won’t start working better if you put on some leather pants and wink at her,” said Mari, patting Ash on the back.
The elevator reached the top floor and opened up. Zane was the first to step out and make his way to the door of the penthouse.
The hallway was a short one–the whole top floor was dedicated to the one room, there was only a small area probably reserved for laundry and another room off to the side that held mechanical equipment for the elevator. The only other door simply had 240-B set into the wall to the left.
Jayna knocked politely. “Um, Mr. ‘Hanson’? You requested our presence? We have the codes.”
There was no response. Jayna shrugged, then opened up the door with the keycard.
It was just as gaudy and ostentatious as the exterior of the building, decorated in clashing colors and adorned with strange art pieces. It looked like there had been a party in the room some time ago, and the janitorial staff had yet to come by. The room was now empty, save for a single figure, splayed out on a chaise-lounge.
He was tall, tanned, and only wearing a banana hammock, but he definitely wasn’t asleep, which is what Mari had expected when seeing the sad state of affairs in this room.
He set down his tablet and Mari almost jumped out of her skin, eyes wide. “You… you’re…”
He gave a sheepish smile, but was clearly used to awestruck fans. “Ben Harris–” he started but she shook her head.
“Nuh uh!” yelped Mari, pushing forward. “Bradley Harper! I’d know your face anywhere! I had a poster up in my room of you!” she said, and then frowned. “Until your skiing accident…”
“You must be mistaken,” said the handsome figure, looking at his feet. “My name’s–“
That was when Zane stepped forward. “I knew it was you,” he said. “I was telling myself that it might not be, but somehow… I just knew it.”
“You know this guy?” Mari asked, her eyes widening.
“Zane, I’m so glad it’s you,” said Ben, or possibly Bradley? “I hate that I had to call you, but I didn’t know where else to go.”
Zane sighed. And then he smiled, and tapped his face, right under his eye.
“What?” he replied, coloring. “They know about–“
“Yeah, they know,” said Zane. “I trust them. Anything you can say to me, you can say in front of them.”
Ben/Bradley/Whoever nodded, then put a hand onto his face. Moments later, a pair of lenses were popped off of his eyes.
He looked up a moment later, revealing one eye the color of the oceans of Kanaloa and the other of molten gold.
“God dammit,” Ash muttered, kicking a nearby pizza box.
“He’s gone by more names than Troia has computers,” said Zane. “But we always called him Batch.”
“It’s a pleasure,” said Batch, giving a slightly theatrical bow. “Drink, anyone?”
Jayna tilted her head in fascination. “Huh. I just never thought I’d meet one of you guys that was this well put together.”
Batch laughed out loud. “We all have our idiosyncrasies,” he murmured, hopping up onto the counter in the kitchen and pulling a bottle up off the high shelves.
“You seem to have put together an interesting one this time,” said Zane, looking around the place. “But I thought you said you were done with leather after Brock Heartstone. Those pants can’t have been comfortable.”
“It was Brett Heartstone, and the leather breathes after a while,” he said, and then scratched at the back of his head. “So yeah… I ah. I was really hoping that you would come. Because something’s wrong.”
On that note, he hopped into his room. “Gimme a second to put on something more comfortable.”
“Wait, this doesn’t make any sense. I could have sworn you were…” Mari trailed off.
“Oh, I probably was,” came Batch’s voice from the other room. “A long time ago. If you’ve got any memorabilia, I’ll sign it for you. Probably make a nice chunk of change selling it.”
Mari’s face went carefully blank. “Zane,” she said. “Do the thing. With your words. Please.”
Zane smiled. “All of us are good at one thing or another. Batch’s specialty was… he was sort of… trained as a chameleon, kinda. He’s got one of those faces. So he works as a… well…”
“I’m mostly a spy. All you need is a really really fast ship and a really really famous alibi.”
He came back, dressed in a t-shirt for some band or another and a pair of old workout pants. And yet, somehow, he looked fantastic.
“At least, that was what they wanted me for,” said Batch. “But where’s the fun in being someone else if nobody appreciates the hard work you put into it?”
Batch leaned back. “So I pick up a couple of jobs here and there, when I feel like being nameless and faceless for a while. And when I don’t? I’m the biggest face in whichever galaxy I’m in. Pop stars can get big, but not intergalactic.”
Mari was staring agape at him. “So… you really were Bradley and Ben, and Brett, and who knows how many others?”
“I’ve lost count,” said Batch, shrugging. “Fame is fickle, and the hotter it burns, the quicker it gutters. Suits me just fine.”
“It must be difficult, keeping the personas up so much,” said Jayna, looking him over. “Where do you find time to be you?”
Batch tilted his head, eyebrow furrowed. “I’m not sure I get the question. Whoever I wake up as is me.”
Zane shook his head and made a don’t push it gesture. Jayna nodded and dropped it.
“You asked for me,” said Zane. “I’m here. What’s wrong?”
Batch looked about. “I need help disappearing,” Batch said. “Someone’s on my tail and I need to get out.”