Zane looked puzzled. “Since when do you need help disappearing?” he asked. “And who would be on the tail of a pop star?”
Batch sighed. “I’m not always a pop star. And I don’t normally need help disappearing.” He shook his head. “They’re on my next cover already. I don’t know how, I don’t even know who that cover is yet.”
“Start from the beginning,” said Ash, picking up a still-capped bottle off the floor and examining it. “What’s going on here?”
“Please, everyone sit,” he said, and plopped down. Well, he probably thought he was plopping down. Ash tilted his head.
“How are you so graceful?”
Batch shrugged. “I guess that’s my secret. I’m always attractive.”
Zane shook his head. “You haven’t changed,” he said, as he took his own seat. But he was smiling when he said it.
Batch smiled back. “It is really good to see you doing well.”
After a momentary pause, he shook his head. “Um, so just like Zane is good with piloting and… you said you’d met Troia, right Mari?”
“How did you know my name?” Mari all but squeaked.
“Zane and I use to be pretty close, a long time ago,” said Batch. “Some of us keep in touch. We do try to look after our own, just… far enough away from each other not to cause suspicion. Troia generally keeps tabs on us. She told me about you.” He gave her a warm smile. “Apparently she likes you. That doesn’t happen often.”
He shook his head. “Sorry, we’re getting off topic. Anyway. I was born to disappear and blend into the background. The perfect spy. I’m really good at it. I’m better at covering my tracks and cutting ties than anyone. But someone got into my paperwork and pushed through a renewal of my contract. If it was just that, I’d have waved it off–stupid stuff happens all the time in this business. But someone has outbid me on my last two ships, and someone else has bought and then demolished where I was going to live. It’s too neat.”
“Any one or two of those could be written off as a coincidence,” said Ash. “But that does seem a little too neat.”
“Troia handles all of my money transfers,” said Batch. “I can pay you well enough. But… I just need to get offworld in a hurry. And quietly. Can you help me?”
“Who do you think is after you?” Ash asked. “It’s important that we know what we could be up against,” he said.
“I have no idea, and that’s the truth,” said Batch, shaking his head. “I cover my tracks like you would not believe. There are redundancies on my redundancies.”
“And it’s not any of us?” Zane asked.
Batch shook his head. “I haven’t even told anyone but Troia about this identity, and she only gets pissed off if the circus I sometimes bring around me makes it to her neck of the woods.”
“We’re no detectives,” said Ash. “But we are suspicious bastards. Mind if we poke through your records?”
Batch nodded. “By all means, and if you guys are hungry or anything, I’ve got a contact in room service.”
“I could eat,” said Mari, who was clearly trying not to look like a star-struck teenager. “By all means.”
Mari, Jayna and Ash shuffled off, leaving Zane and Batch standing face-to-face.
“It really is good to see you,” said Zane, shuffling his feet. “I just… y’know how it is.”
Batch smiled. “My life is loud. I know. It’s hard to live in. Trust me, Zane, I don’t blame you.”
Zane nodded. “C’mere,” he said, opening his arms. Batch came in for the hug.
“This is different,” said Batch. “”You used to be really techy about the whole physical contact thing.”
“I’ve had a lot going on,” Zane replied. “Most of it good.”
“I noticed,” said Batch. “They seem to be keeping you on a more even keel.” As they parted, he rubbed his temples and groaned. “I really stepped in it this time.”
“Probably,” said Zane, nodding. “Hopefully we’ll be able to help.”
Batch nodded back, and started heading towards his bedroom. “Come this way, I’ll show you my files.”
Zane was led over to a cabinet that contained a number of triple-encrypted data tablets. He had to hand it to Batch; he was nothing if not meticulous.
“So, the first thing I do when I feel like I need to shift identities is start setting up my new face,” he said, settling one of the tablets down. “Sometimes I get a new set of contacts, but someone dismantled one of the network of companies that I go through to get them. That was before I knew what was happening, but it might be the first clue.”
“Is it really that hard to get decent-looking contacts?” said Zane, looking at the tablet.
“It is when they have to look natural in front of dozens of cameras, or not interfere with a retinal scanner,” said Batch.
“Fair enough,” said Zane. “Let’s see… Okulo Granda Specialty Lenses, is this it?”
“Yeah,” he said, settling back. “They’d got bought out from under, and so I started researching others while I started looking for a new ship.”
“And you had complications there too,” said Zane. “Have you had Troia look into it?”
“Troia’s been incommunicado,” said Batch. “You know how she gets when she’s into a really big project. She’ll be off the grid for at least a sol-month.”
Zane blanched. He hoped that everything was okay. With a sigh, Zane followed the trail back. “Have you been able to track anything?”
Batch shook his head. “I’m normally good at spotting the shell companies, following the dummy companies until you get to a person, but I haven’t found this one yet.”
“Well, we’ll keep looking,” said Zane. “Maybe we’ll spot something you missed. Fresh pair of eyes and all that.”
There was a buzz from outside the room. Zane perked up.
“Room service?” he asked.
Batch nodded. “I told your crew they could order whatever they wanted, remember?” he asked, getting to his feet. Then he paused. “Wait… how long has it been…”
“Maybe fifteen minutes?” said Zane, making for the door. “This place really is swanky. Guess they don’t like keeping their VIPs waiting.”
Batch’s eyes narrowed. “Last time I wanted a plate of chocolate covered strawberries it took half an hour and the chocolate was hard as a rock. And that was the bellman who likes me. No… something’s up,” he murmured, grabbing a sleek black weapon from the night stand.
Zane’s eyes widened. “Oh…those electric lancers are really hard to control.”
“I’ve never had your aim, Zane,” Batch replied, slipping past him and into the foyer.
Zane held him back as he approached the door. “Hold on a tic,” he said. Batch kept his grip on the lancer tight, but relented all the same. Carefully, Zane pulled the door open.
There was a rather nervous looking bellhop waiting outside, carrying a laden tray of… covered platters. “Um, Room service? Have quite a lot of food here, I’d like to set it down…”
Zane blinked. “Thanks,” he said, pulling out his chit stick and giving it a swipe on the tray. “We’ll take it from here.”
“Um… I was told to see to this one personally, sir,” he said, and Zane noted the way his eyes darted around the room.
Zane narrowed his eyes, taking a close look at the bellhop. Nothing set off his internal alarm bells… yet.
“Mr. Harris is in a bit of a delicate state at the moment,” he said. “I insist.”
The bellboy frowned and let Zane take the tray. “We are supposed to be taking expert care of him, the manager of the hotel has insisted that marked improvements are made to the–”
“That’s nice,” said Zane. “Take care now.”
With that, he shut the door.
“Ash?” he called out. “Come take a look at this.”
Ash moved into the living room. “Wow, I didn’t know they could cook a burger that fast–”
“I doubt there is any food on that plate,” Batch sighed. “My only hope is that it’s too small to fit an assassin under,”
Ash motioned for Ash to place it down on the coffee table. “Let’s see why they were so adamant about bringing it in themselves, mm?” he said, and ran his hands over the outsides of the tray, checking for anything specific. After a moment, he stopped, running his hands over the bottom lip and retrieving a small vial of… something.
“…do I want to know what that is?” said Mari, looking at the little vial, which was full of something silvery. Ash uncapped it and gave a little sniff. His nose wrinkled and he recapped it.
“Probably something to add to the dish. He’d ask who got what, and when Batch called out his, this probably would’ve been added to the plate. Would have been way more suspicious if the lot of us were hospitalized. If I had to guess–it’s probably time sensitive. Too early and Batch’d be able to tell or somesuch.”
Batch went white as a sheet. Zane looked curiously over the laden trays. “This means the rest of the food is fine, right?” he said.
“Probably?” he said, looking at the plates. “I mean… I’m definitely not going to eat any… but–“
Ash looked on as Jayna reached around him and grabbed her platter of tacos.
“Can’t protect a man on an empty stomach,” said Zane, shrugging as he took a platter. Batch sighed.
“This was a softball attempt,” said Ash. “Way too easy to spot. Somebody’s testing the waters.”
“Testing us,” Jayna corrected. “Someone’s got their eyes on us,” she said through a mouthful of taco.
Zane and Batch shared a look.
“This just got interesting in a hurry,” said Zane.
“I could do with a little less interesting,” grumbled Batch, folding his arms.