Midway was essentially the centre of the world. We had all sorts of trade running through and people besides. And people get bored. When people get bored, they head to the bars. Midway had a whole number of them. Oxygen deprivation for the cloud folk who wanted to feel a little more at home. Oxy-full for the grounders who had a hard time with the thin air. And regular bars for us middlings, when we wanted to get away. Some bars catered to all three. There was only one, though, that had its fingers on the pulse of everything that happened in Midway and beyond.
I went to Big Tim’s Bar.
Big Tim’s was located about two storeys up from Platform level, with enough of a view to be able to look over the edge. Not that the people inside cared about the view, but it was nice all the same. The decor was fairly plain: metal tables, chairs, floors. There was a bar on one wall, a collection of oxy-tanks on the other. Music was pumped through speakers and the lights were always kept at half-level, no matter the time of day. And, no matter the time of day, Big Tim’s was always hopping with people.
On this particular day, Big Tim’s was about half-full. Probably because it was just past breakfast and even bar-types had to eat at some point. Considering Big Tim’s didn’t offer much more than peanuts, crisps and fries, the people had to vacate at some point to get nosh. It was the only way of making certain people didn’t just stick round. I slunk in behind the post-breakfast crowds. Most people headed straight to a table or the bar, depending on whether or not they wanted booze of a seat first. I shuffled my way towards the tanks.
There were seven tanks in all, programable like, so you could have whatever you wanted. Based on the lights making the frosted glass glow, five were in use and three were being used by grounders. The distinctive bluish-purple of the other two told me that cloud folk were the ones in there. I hoped that it wasn’t the two changers, but you never did know. It seemed unlikely they would be taking time off in a bar, but as soon as you started thinking that way, the universe threw you for a loop.
I shoved my hands into my pockets and shuffled away from the tanks, figuring I’d get my questioning done quicker than otherwise. I didn’t want to be caught here when the changers got wind of what were missing from that body. I claimed an empty stool at the bar, closest to the window, and rapped my knuckles on the metal. Twice.
“Ah, twaddle. What’re you doing here, Rexx?” Big Tim asked, sidling my direction. Big Tim was the unfortunate result of a night between a grounder and a spacer. The man had big, bulging eyes, a solid build more like what you see in agrobusiness, a breather unit beneath his too-large nose to accomodate his modified lungs, and hair that stuck up in every direction like a wire brush. Big Tim had to be half-machine, cause he never seemed to need to sleep and he never seemed to be away from his bar. I don’t think he’d seen real sky since some three years before. His skin just seemed to be whatever colour was glowing from the tubes in the back, but he had the look of a spacer that had seen too much sun.
“Oh, you know, the usual,” I said, doing my best to keep my head down and my tone casual-like. I don’t think it worked, because Big Tim raised one crooked, bushy eyebrow and let out a laugh that echoed round the whole bar, even over the music.
“The usual? The usual with you could be anything from finding a lost dancer from one of the clubs, figuring out who moved a shipment of copper, rejiggering the electrics so as my bar don’t blow the whole level out, dealing diplomatic-like with up and down to keep things from going screwy. Oh! And remember that one time one of those researchers decided to engineer a mechanical bird-lizard thing? It were breathing fire all over the platform level, but couldn’t fly worth sky!” Big Tim laughed from the belly, holding his massive gut and shaking his head. He wiped a tear from his eye while I scowled at him.
Sometimes, I hated when people knew me.
“He called it a dra-gun or some such. And it weren’t my fault that it got loose. You can blame that researcher,” I said with a sniff that would have made Silver proud. Big Tim’s grin widened. I sighed and returned to my usual slouch. “Nah, it ain’t quite so… listen, you hear anything about a Mercurian down this way?”
Almost immediately, Big Tim sobered up. He poured three drinks in quick succession to the people clamouring for his attention. Then, with the bar cleared excepting me, Big Tim put his arms on the bar and leaned in close. “Don’t you go saying those words loud-like, you hear?” he whispered, voice harsh.
I nodded. “I hear. But I gots to find the information soon, or Silver’s gonna be in for it.”
“Silver? She’s not one to get into trouble. Not like you, that is,” Big Tim said, frowning. He, like everybody, seemed to have a soft-spot for the feisty maintenance worker. Silver could sniff and swagger her way through just about anything and come out the other side much like she went in. Me? I usually came out covered in muck. Still, to protect Silver, I just nodded and said nothing.
Big Tim took a deep breath. He let his eyes run over the bar, taking in who was there and who wasn’t. He rubbed his jaw. After a minute, he nodded. “Alright, but you didn’t hear this from me.”
“I never do,” I agreed.
“Not last night, but the night before, I had a whole party of cloud folk coming through here. There was a parcel of those uppity types who run the sky stations and think nothing of us down below. And a couple of those official, angry types. Changers, you call ‘em. Enforcers, us normal folks call ‘em. You know the type,” Big Tim said.
“I know the type,” I said. In fact, I probably knew the exact people he was talking about. “Any Mercurians?”
“Now, I don’t know about that,” Big Tim said, looking over his should scared-like. “Might’a been that a couple of those cloud folk looked mighty uppity. It’s hard to see the tats in this light. Part of the reason why I use it. I don’t need to know these things. But… for Silver? Yeah, one of the blokes had half his face tatted. He was celebrating right hard, too. Jumpin’ in and out of those oxy-tanks and then right to my bar for booze. A couple of dancers—the professionals, you know—from the upper-storey clubs was here, too. Keeping him company.”
I whistled, low. That guy must have been all sorts of stupid. You didn’t advertise your success like that unless you knew it could’t be taken from you. Well, his had been.
“Anyone look particular annoyed at him? Like he was doing something untoward?” I asked, keeping my voice as quiet as I could get it. Big Tim paused, pulling a beer open for a short gal who looked like she hadn’t seen sky for weeks. She grunted and sat at the bar two stools down, hunching her shoulders over the drink. I shifted away from as far as possible and leaned closer to Big Tim. Sure, it would look like we was exchanging secrets. And, well, we were. But I had bigger things to worry about than whether I looked secretive.
Big Tim hesitated. He glanced at the woman, but eventually gave in. He leaned in close enough to be whispering in my ear. “Them enforcers were none too pleased. I thought it was just general annoyance, you know, with their boss being particular wild. But if Silver’s in trouble…”
I nodded and leaned back. That was what I needed to know. And it wasn’t good news, either. “Thanks,” I said simply. Big Tim nodded and shuffled off towards the end of the bar, grabbing a cleaning rag along the way. He still looked a little nervous, but not a lot of people seemed to notice. They were too busy drinking their worries away or in the tanks. Not a lot of people cared about much when they were in the tanks.
I shuffled my way out of the bar and blinked when full daylight hit me. Things was as bad as they could get. A dead Mercurian—one of the ruling family of the sky stations—was found in the electrics duct. A mysterious metal alloy—sky mined, from the looks of it—was found on him. Changers were asking questions, making threats. And Silver, blast her, had up and taken the cube and run off to ask questions on her own because she thought I was too coward to keep asking questions myself. Now, it looked like those changers were the ones causing all the problems. I knew we shoulda let the cloud folk sort it out. They didn’t much like underlings interfering, no matter if it was our job. Things was going to get real difficult if I didn’t find Silver and that cube.
I took a deep breath, considering my options. As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered. My comm-pen buzzed a moment later, startling me near half-to-death. I pulled it out and clicked it open.
In my best, unconcerned drawl, I answered, “Slocum Rexx here.”
“You’re the Maintenance man?” an unfamiliar voice said. Well, it wasn’t quite unfamiliar. I would have given it to the woman changer, could I clear up the distortion.
“That’s me. Rexx with two x-ses,” I said. “Something I can do for you?”
“You can bring that cube up to the upper docking bay in an hour. Do that, or your friend here gets dropped off the side of Midway Station,” the woman said, her voice sounding far more like a sneer than I would have thought possible.
Silver. They had Silver. But no cube? She musta stashed it.
“Hmm… well, seeing as I need her and all for making sure the status quo keeps being the status quo, despite the inumerable circumstances that keep interfering in my dutifully carried out work—”
“Are you coming or not?” she snapped.
“Sure. Why not? I’ll see you then.” The comm pen clicked off and I slipped it back into its pocket. Well, twaddle. Now I had an hour to figure out where Silver stashed the cube, then get up to the upper storeys, during the busiest time of day. I shook my head and descended to Platform level. Better start with Silver’s quarters. If the cube wasn’t there, who knows where it could be.
Silver, like us other workers on Midway, had her quarters at Platform level. It was one of the few places that both cloud folk and grounders alike avoided, so that was where they stuck us. The cloud folk didn’t much like being that close to the ground and the grounders didn’t like being that far up in the air with open sides leading off into nothingness. It wasn’t too bad if you weren’t stupid enough to get caught at the edge. And since us middlings were hardly stupid, we didn’t mind. Platform level was the easiest way to get anyplace anyhow.
Seeing as I was Silver’s work partner, I had special permissions to enter her quarters, just like she had permissions to enter mine. It was so none of us could sleep in and miss any valuable work. If we did, our partner was punished, so they had access to keep us on our toes. Silver took great pleasure in traipsing in and out of my quarters whenever she pleased. I figured she saw the rooms as an extension of her own rooms. I, on the other hand, hadn’t figured I’d ever step into Silver’s quarters. She’d have my hide.
What I found, though, was something entirely bizarre. Silver’s quarters were the neatest thing I’d ever seen—which I did expect, given her cat-like ability to keep dirt off of her—excepting her bed, which was a mess of blankets and pillows, all piled together in some sort of nest. She had a few books in a shelf, a picture of her first day on the job as a Maintenance worker, and some supplies for tinkering with cybernetics units. Everything else was just basics: uniforms, a couple of outfits of non-uniform clothes, some toiletries, food. No jewellery, no valuables, no safe, no nothing. No cube.
I glanced at the clock on her wall. Half-an-hour. If I didn’t leave now, I’d never make it up to the docking bay in time. Well, it was time to see how well the old bluffing techniques went. I booked it out of her room, feeling bad for having intruded onto what wa the makings of a very sad existence, then went straight to a lift.
“Are you here to fix it?” a snappy man asked, taking sight of my maintenance uniform and expecting the obvious. Only, I wasn’t.
“Nope,” I said. I pushed the button to summon the lift, waited a few beats for it to chime confirmation, and got nothing. Figures. Grumbling, I dug into my pockets and pulled out a laser cutter and a screwdriver. I pulled the cover off the lift buttons, saw the offending wire, cut the charred bits off—really, what did they expect if they kept replacing the old copper with that crap synthetic stuff—and crimped it back together. I put the cover back on and then pushed the button again. There was the familiar chime and the doors opened.
“Oh, thank the stars!” the man said, rushing for the lift box. “I’m already late for a—what are you doing?!”
I had pushed past the man. Sure, it was possible he was going up, but I really didn’t have time for all of this. Fixing the lift had cost me ten minutes. I would have to really rush to save Silver’s hide. That is, if the changers hadn’t already gotten annoyed with my irascible partner. Pushing the sequence for the docking bay, I shrugged at the man. “Got more work to do up top,” I said. He nodded and the doors closed, leaving me in relative peace.
I huffed and leaned back against the wall of the lift box. I was going to catch serious flack for fixing that. It was the job of some other maintenance worker, not me. I had messed with the flow of things. Yes, it was in good cause. Yes, it would have been fixed anyways. But that didn’t matter much when dealing with the status quo.
The lift finally dropped me at the entrance to the upper docking bays. There were some security types lounging about, waiting for a ship to dock so they could secure it. I caught sight of a clock and winced. I was two minutes out. And I didn’t know which bay they were in. Only thing to do was ask around.
“Hey,” I said to one of the security types. “You seen a couple of cloud folk changers about?”
She snorted and shook her head. “You’re crazy. Ain’t nobody been up here since about two hours ago. Whole system’s out of whack, started in docking bay three. Noticed a glitch in the computers, next thing you know wham, bam, whole system’s shut down tight as a grounder in a space pod. You here to fix it.”
“Uh, yeah,” I said. She shrugged, shook her head, then turned away to talk to one of her compatriots. I took the cue and wandered in the direction of docking bay three. I tried to hurry, but I wasn’t too good on the speed scale. Too much meandering, wandering, shuffling in my life. I did hurry some for Silver, though. Still, I was a couple of minutes over time by the time I made my way into the bay and found the changers.
They were standing there with their gazes fixed firmly on Silver. She was, to her credit, holding up incredibly well. And by that I mean she was complaining up a storm.
“You just wait until I get my hands free, you’ll see precisely what’s coming to you. Changers my tailfeathers. You’re messing with the status quo and the status quo always wins. Who do you think you are, anyways, stupid cloud folk. Always lording it up in the clouds, thinking you’re so great and—”
“Hey, Silver,” I said, giving a wave. The changers spun to look at me. The man was looking a little amused, but the woman had the look of someone who was going to hit something right soon if things didn’t start going her way. Heck, she mighta hit something just for the fun of it. “How’s it going?”
“Could be better, you idiot. How do you think it’s going? I’m tied to a chair and these stupid wastes of air are trying to get some information from me that I don’t have! Think I’m holding the key or whatever to all their problems. Got to get it back before their masters find out it’s missing and —”
“Do you ever shut up?!” the woman screamed, rounding on Silver. Silver sniffed, lifted her nose, and harumphed.
“I see you’ve got yourself in a bit of a fix,” I said, though I wasn’t quite sure whether or not I was talking to Silver or the changers. All of them looked at me like I was insane for stating the obvious. The man stepped forwards and opened his hand.
“The cube, if you please,” he said.
I shrugged, putting my hands in my pocket. “What cube?”
The air suddenly seemed charged with some sort of electrics. Probably a circuit going offline from whatever finagling these fools did to my docking bay. Silver said nothing, despite the fact that the woman was glaring at her.
“The cube that was found with the dead man,” the male changer said flatly. I shrugged again. “We know you found it. Analytics put in a request for more information about an unusual alloy that had been found by one of their maintenance workers.”
“Wouldn’t know about that. I don’t work for analytics. They’s got their own team that works for them special, on account of them having all those big computers and servers and whatnot. Nah, I’m general maintenance, see?” I said. SIlver narrowed her eyes at me.
“You mean to tell me that you haven’t found the cube that the Mercurian was carrying?” the woman snapped. She took a menacing step towards me. I wrinkled my nose, pretended to consider.
“Why are you so interested in this cube thing anyways? Wasn’t the dead guy your boss? Surely he made all the arrangements,” I said. I looked around the docking bay, as if I had all the time in the world. There were a couple of personal liners there, nothing too fancy. None of them looked like they belonged to cloud folk, but I had a feeling that these people brought us here for a quick getaway.
The two bristled. I knew immediately that I had stepped over some sort of boundary. I cursed myself for my stupidity. I weren’t some changer to go asking personal questions like that. I was a maintenance worker. I needed to maintain the status quo. Actually, I needed to get these two off my station without anyone getting hurt. Still.
“You know what, never mind,” I said, holding up my hands. “Alls I know is that I ain’t got the cube, and it don’t look like Silver’s got it either. Your boss—or stooge—is dead and there’s going to be flack for it on all the stations. Dead Mercurians get noticed, even when their bodies get snatched.”
The woman narrowed her eyes at me, the lens blinking as she processed something on it. “You have a point?”
“How about you go back to Viterius? You can—”
“Not without that cube,” the man said. “If we don’t go back with that cube, we’re both dead.”
“Ah,” I said. Okay, that explained some things. “Your dead Mercurian wasn’t here on official business. That cube ain’t supposed to be out in the world, is it?”
The two changers said nothing, but given that both of their jaws tensed, I figured I’d hit the mark dead on. I sighed and rubbed the back of my neck. Right, then. This could be problematic.
Behind the changers, I saw that Silver was beginning to grasp the situation, too. At least, she started struggling harder against the ropes. This time, she did it silently. I could see her cybernetic eye swirling from here, the light flashing ever so slightly as it worked. Her jaw tensed. I tried to play distraction and figure out a solution to the problem at the same time. That was probably my undoing.
“So… what if you go back with the dead body? Explain that he didn’t have the cube on him?” I asked. The woman’s eyes narrowed further. The man shook his head.
“No can do. Either we get that cube now or we tear your station apart looking for it,” the man said. I flinched. That would not go over well with the Higher ups. “Besides, who’s to say that we won’t get in trouble for killing the guy? That cube is our leverage.”
“Ah,” I said again. This was getting worse and worse. These changers had actually killed the guy. Okay, so he wasn’t acting official like. But still, he was a Mercurian. Killing one came with serious repercussions, considering they were a ruling family and all. I raised my arms in surrender. “So no deal, then?”
“No deal,” the woman agreed. She grinned fiercely and I had a feeling that she was going to enjoy causing me a great deal of harm. “So where’s the cube?”
“I already told you,” I said, trying to sound reasonable. “I don’t have it.”
The changers looked as though they were about to do something unpleasant to me when Silver managed to escape her bonds. They really shouldn’t have tied her hands, given that one of them was full cybernetic and a primo piece at that. Still, some people never think. Silver threw the ropes to the ground and was out of the chair before I could sneeze. She leapt for the changer woman and tackled her to the ground, snatching the lens right off her face and crushing it in one squeeze. The woman screamed and started fighting back, even with impaired vision.
The changer man and I looked at each other. I didn’t really want to fight, but I would if I had to. He looked at Silver, fighting like a wildcat, claws and all. Then he looked at me. I held up my fists in a pugilist’s stance. The man considered, then put his hands into his pocket. He nodded to where Silver and the woman were tearing each other to pieces.
“I can wait,” he said. I lowered my hands in relief.
“Sounds fine to me,” I said.
We watched Silver and the changer woman fight. Silver had struck a debilitating blow when she took out the changer woman’s lens. Those things were wired direct into the retina and could be seriously damaging if you didn’t remove them right. Not to mention Silver had her cybernetics implants and could do a lot more with them than with regular flesh and bone. But the changer woman was obviously a trained fighter. She did impressive things with her arms and her legs, spinning Silver to the ground and doing her best to get the upper hand. Silver just snarled and fought harder.
Eventually, the sheer overwhelming anger my work partner had at being tied up and dragged into this situation won out over training. Silver was dangerous like that. The changer woman had her head hit one too many times and blacked out. Silver paused, waiting for the trick, but nothing happened. Then, my partner slumped in relief and exhaustion and practically fell to the floor where she stared up at me. “Ow.”
I strode over to her and helped her stand. “You’re going to need human resources for sure on this one.”
The changer man walked over to his own partner and looked down at her, shaking his head. “She never learns. Change is best wrought subtly. Otherwise people like you fight back.”
“As long as you get off my station, I don’t really care what sort of change you set on your station,” I said. “Take your partner and your body. Or don’t take the body. Whichever.”
The man lifted his partner into his arms as though it was no effort at all. I suddenly became really glad that I hadn’t fought him outright. Some things I just couldn’t do. He looked at me and shrugged. “You can have the body. It’s back where you found it.”
“Seriously?!” Silver snapped. “Do you know how long that took to fix?!”
The changer man said nothing and turned towards one of the transports. A few minutes later and he was inside, calling security types over to unsecure him and prepare for docking. I helped Silver limp over to the lift, ignoring the looks we were getting.
“You know we’re going to have to explain this to the higher ups,” she said after a moment.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “They ain’t gonna like it.”
“Changes are afoot.”
“And the status quo isn’t what it was,” I said. Silver snorted and shook her head, still leaning on me for support.
“You’re naive if you think this is about the status quo.”
I just smiled. “What’d you do with the cube?”
Silver looked at me, wincing as she stepped. “What cube?”