“Well, you sought me out and here I am.” The Woman in Red sat in the booth, her outfit positively dripping with an otherworldly crimson, the reflected light giving all around her a notably pink glow. It might have been a trick of the light, but her eyes–clear and intelligent, if airy–seemed a darker crimson as well.

“Thank you for meeting with me,” said Harry. “It’s a great honor-”

“Please. I didn’t meet you for pleasantries,” the Woman said. “Tell me what’s on your mind. If it’s not boring, I’ll see what I can do. If it is…well, I’ll have to find some other way to make up for the time you’ve wasted, and I don’t think you’ll like it.”

“I have a favor to ask,” said Harry. “It’s about some of the other Hues.”

“Hmm? That’s asking a lot. They stay out of my business and I stay out of theirs. Why should I interfere?”

“The Couple in Green,” Harry said. “They took something very precious to me, and I want it back.”

The Woman leaned forward. “I. Do not. Care,” she said. “You have about thirty seconds to make me change my mind.”

“The Couple in Green took a friend’s soul,” said Harry. “She cares only for money now, and drowns herself in gambling and excess. I want to exchange hers for mine in their contract.”

“Oh, now, that is interesting,” the Lady said. “Release from a contract? That’s an everyday request, and I’ve eaten people for being presumptuous about it. But an exchange? That is delectable. I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you my calling card to take to them, on one condition.”

“Name it.”

“Your friend, what’s-her-name? I want her soul for one night. One crimson night, ichor-stained, to be my plaything.”

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The rusty nut splashed weakly into the puddle of garbage water, and Logona pulled it back with a length of transparent monofilament.

“Looks like it closed,” she said. “Doesn’t surprise me, the natural wormholes can be damn unpredictable.”

Ki shook his head. “How do I get back, then?”

“Well, there are plenty of permanent, or semi-permanent, wormholes,” Logona said. “But don’t just go jumping through them, or you’ll find yourself in a world of trouble. You need a tracer. I recommend Doctor Holey, mostly because I get a little somthin’-somethin’ from him if new customers mention my name.”

Ki stared at her.

“Oh hell,” Logona whined. “Didn’t I tell you this isn’t my usual gig? Fine. A tracer can tell you where you came from by giving you a once-over, yeah? Then you can make sure that you get to a wormhole that matches where you came from.”

“So this Doctor Holey can tell me where to find a way back?” Ki said. “I can go to him when I’ve found Chroma?”

“Hell no,” Logona said. “Doc Holey can tell you what you need to know, but you’ll need to hire somebody else to find one. A hunter, or maybe just a mapper if you’re tha hands-on type.”

Ki thought about this a moment. “If someone else had come through here,” he said, “perhaps meeting someone else, would they have gotten the same advice?”

“Most likely,” said Logona. “Mister Void, Doc Holey, and El-Lacunae are the only tracers near here, and no one who is combing is going to recommend the other two, on account of Void being a cheap-ass and El-Lacunae being missing and maybe dead.”

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“This is the cargo?” said Stella. “A computer drive?”

Whitaker hugged the transport case to him like a baby doll. “Not just any computer drive,” he said. “This has a complete set of updated teleporter keys, cryptographic ciphers, and routing information for the GesteCo Galactic Teleporter Network!”

“Email it,” Stella said flatly. “This ship has a cargo capacity of 75 metric tons. That thing weighs 7.5 metric kilograms, if that.”

“Coherent data streams go through the GTN,” Whitaker replied, owering his voice a note, as if the data might overhear, “and we’re worried about this information falling into the wrong hands. We’re using local FTL networks to do the update, but I need you to take me to Ultimata Thule so we can start the update from there too.”

“Sneakernet, huh?” Stella said. “Fine. But GesteCo is wasting its money.”

“GesteCo can’t waste its money,” Whitaker said, offended. “If it pays for something, that thing is worth paying for.”

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“This is Amai, of course.”

The blank look they got in return caused the woman to sigh. “Amai-of-the Wormholes? The Grease Trap of the Universe? The Super-Sargasso Sea?”

If anything, this made Ki look even more confused, and apparently it showed.

“Look, I’m no tour guide,” she said. “Give me something of value, something that’ll make it worth my while, and I’ll see what I can do. Otherwise you’ll have to sod off, you dig?”

Ki produced the 24k gold pin from Arik’s grenade and held it out, dangling, like an earring.

The woman greedily snatched it, bit it with teeth that looked like they had been filed to sharp points, and then tucked it away in one of a thousand tiny pockets. “Right, then. Name’s Logona, dig? I’m normally a comber, looking for fancy stuff on the Frontiers. Tell me what happened before you ended up here.”

“Aria had been killed, and the other bodyguards as well,” said Ki. “The kidnappers had taken Chroma. I killed all but one, and as he ran through the courtyard, he dove into the fountain there. I followed, and though it was only a few inches deep, I surfaced in that puddle over there.”

“Hooboy,” Logona said. “Sounds like you found a natural wormhole. Chances are your Chroma, whoever that is, has got herself taken into Amai. Did you try going back through the puddle?”

“No,” Ki said. “I am sworn to protect Chroma with my life and to bring her back if taken.”

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“What is the worst thing, Uncle?” said Takenaka Kenji.

Takenaka Chihiro’s normally bright face was dour and wan. “The worst thing, nephew, is that Nakamoto-sama will now make me doubt the sincerity of all who ask for help. Because of her selfishness, I will hesitate a moment longer before I assist anyone, be it with a good meal or a steady blade.”

Kenji took this in a moment. “Won’t it also mean that Nakamoto-sama will also start to think that all people who seem helpful are easily fooled?” he said.

Takenaka’s frown deepened. “It’s true,” he said. “Had I been a violent man, a bandit, I might have struck her down where she stood. I fear the road she is on has a violent end for her.”

The morning wind blew quietly around them as Takenaka and Kenji stook there a moment, quiet.

“Well, what will we do?” said Kenji.

“I think I will do some calisthenics, and you will make a fire,” said Takenaka. “Then we will make a fine supper for our own road ahead. I find that a bellyful of good food goes a long way toward brightening even the darkest of days.”

“Has this been the darkest of days?”

Takenaka smiled a little bit. “It will have to be a very good meal. Perhaps my best. And it’s just for you and I.”

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“What I am about to tell you does not leave this room,” said Whitaker. He slid another e-ink form across the table–the fifth of the conversation, for those keeping count. “Your signature to this GesteCo nondisclosure form will ensure that.”

Captain Estrada sighed and signed. “Tell me.”

“GesteCo LLC GmbH galactic teleporters have a…slight…rate of failure,” Whitaker said. “Less than .0001%, but still concerning enough for this cargo.”

“Worried about horrible transporter accidents? Mutant and meltings?” Stella laughed. “It’s still the safest way to travel, statistically speaking, isn’t it?”

“Sometimes cargo and people wind up in the wrong dimension,” Whitaker said. “And it’s recently come to our attention that some of those other dimensions’ counterparts to GesteCo might be…deliberately…slipping important things over.”

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Yoshioka Hayato sank to the ground, eyes wide. His sword clattered along with him, while Takenaka Chihiro instinctively wiped the Unmei no Fuguhiki to keep the blood from staining the blade or the handle.

“Curse you for making me do this,” said Takenaka. “To protect myself, I am willing to fight. But I abhor killing and yours is a senseless death, now. If we had just sat down to tea and sweets, like I had suggested, you would be alive and we would be solving this dispute as men do.”

Yoshioka took a few moments to bleed out, but there was nothing that anyone could do for him; the Unmei no Fuguhiki, sharp enough to make fugu sashimi and strong enough to cross blades with any katana, had done its work well. Takenaka’s practiced hands had turned the motion of gutting and preparing a fine cut of food into one of effective murder, as he had far too often in the past for his own liking.

Nakamoto Hona appeared not long after, but Takenaka was shocked by the change in her affect. She stood upright, projected confidence, and even jabbed Yoshioka several times with a small dagger that had been disguised as a fan to ensure that he was dead.

“You do not need to worry about him anymore, Nakamoto-sama,” Takenaka said. “As you predicted, he attacked recklessly and I was forced to defend myself. I must report this to the daikan.”

“Oh, that stuffy old magistrate won’t care. You acted in self-defense, and I will back you up as will anyone who was privy to the confrontation. And most importantly, Yoshioka is dead. Just as I planned.”

Takenaka looked up. “Planned?” he said.

“Think about it, cook,” said Nakamoto. “You, a wanderer, known by reputation but not personally. He, a known hothead and local ne’er-do-well. Now he is dead, and his new wife is both free to remarry with all of his assets coming to her.”

Standing, Takenaka regarded Nakamoto like a stone. “There never was any abuse,” he said flatly. “He was not starving you.”

“No one will blame you, and the daikan will see you on your way. My sob story has made it so no one has come out poorly.”

“No one but Yoshioka,” said Takenaka, sadly, looking down at the body.

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