Arrow hasn’t spoken to me in about ninety-five hours, since we left Enasa. It doesn’t help that I’m a little behind on her pay, one-tenth a crate of untainted slimewine behind to be precise. My total fortunes at this moment couldn’t buy a bottle of Montaigne Melancholy, but my body’s producing a reasonable facsimile.
I have a destination, though, goddamn it. Remi can be useful when she’s not actively – and so very literally – fucking me over a barrel, and she sent me a message after leaving that recommends we try selling the slimewine at the Playhouse. This is Remi’s idea of a joke, but it’s also a good tip; I didn’t know the Playhouse was nearby, and they’ll buy anything.
“These coordinates you sent don’t make any sense. There’s nothing there.”
A year or so after I picked her up, I learned that there’s a level of perceived stupidity Arrow isn’t willing to take from me without comment. Having calculated it, I trot it out whenever she tries to ignore me. This makes me incredibly smug.
“Usually you would be correct, my sweet Earthling child,” I intone, steepling my fingers. “But this time, or rather, in two hours, we will be at those coordinates, and I promise you, we will not be alone.”
She stares at me. I can see her weighing the cost of extracting further information. A toss of curls informs me of her decision and she storms off toward the bridge.
It takes a little under two hours, in fact. Arrow’s a damn good navigator, but she’s also familiar with the ship’s little quirks, and Heloise doesn’t fight her like she does me. Arrow can cross a galaxy in the time it takes me to chivvy the bitch into a hangar. The next person she works for will pay her twice what I do and it still won’t be what she’s worth. She’ll be mad at me then, I’m sure, but what’s youth for if not getting cheated by your elders?
Arrow brings us to a vague armpit of space near the edge of Enasa’s sister system. She’s correct, there’s nothing here in the sense of permanent or semi-permanent celestial features. But there’s a great deal of activity here today, because the Playhouse is passing through.
We encounter their Knights first. There’s nothing on the screen when Heloise picks them up behind us. She says they’re not armed, but that’s because she was programmed before the Playhouse improved their cloaking tech, and she cries every time I try to update her. I mean it, she actually cries. Have you ever heard an AI cry? It’s noisy; they don’t have to pause for breath.
In point of fact, Knights are heavily armed; I would say they’re almost nothing BUT arms. “The arms of the Playhouse,” I quip to Arrow, who squints at me dubiously.
“So will they be turning us into a fine mist anytime soon? I’d like to not be anywhere near you when that happens, so your mist doesn’t get all over my mist.”
“The Knights don’t want to fight. Well, they do, but they won’t if we don’t. They’re just here to protect and escort the Playhouse.”
I grin and sling an arm around her shoulder. “When I was a kid, they would have called it a freak show, and I would’ve gotten beat blue after I snuck out to see it. But for you, lucky girl, I will buy a ticket to what is perhaps the largest, most poorly regulated collection of mutants and degenerates in the galaxy!”
“Can’t wait,” she murmurs, distracted by the growing swarm onscreen.
The Playhouse staggers into view in a less-than-appropriately-cinematic fashion, preceded and trailed by an infestation of loosely connected enterprises that shelter in its shadow. Once upon a time – before I was born, long before, when Earth was freshly abandoned – it was a single station. You can still see the bones of it at the center, encrusted with parasites and adorned with aftermarket improvements of no one culture or origin. It crawls through space, throwing out pseudopodia and lurching from system to system, bringing its wonders, blandishments, and poorly-organized crime to a new planet each month.
“Way back in the day, it started out as a circus, or an arena. Sort of both.”
“A very nasty circus,” Arrow interjects, and I nod.
“It was never the kind of place you’d bring your mother, but as it got bigger and more successful, lesser lowlifes started to congregate around it.”
“So why don’t you live here?” she asks, baby blues wide with innocence.
“Because I occasionally do legitimate business, as my sweet and well-behaved assistant should know, and an address in the Playhouse puts you emphatically on some lists and strikes you just as emphatically from a lot of others.” I squint down at her and give her shoulder a little shake, turning her toward me. “Listen. You’re jokin’, but I’m not. This place is not safe. The main decks aren’t too bad, but I’m gonna ask you to stick by me and not toddle off after the first shiny thing you see, got it?”
I get one of her very best looks for my trouble. “Don’t give me that, Captain; if you see a tit in there you’ll forget your own name.”
“All the better. While we’re inside, I want you to refer to me as Captain… uh… Ming. Let’s just keep my name off their books entirely if we can.”
“Captain Umming, got it. I should let them know we’re close.”
“Arrow, I’m ser – ” She’s gone. “Dammit.”