The wrong hands slapped the plate on the blasted hull bar. Two pre-fab eggs stared at Vance with the wide-eyed wonder underlined by a slim bacon pile, stacked with a toss. A hot sauce dollop completed the face, decorating a plate that'd seen too many tours through a dishwasher. After acknowledging his new edible friend, Vance threw a quizzing eye towards its mother, a woman whose real name and appearance had simmered down to 'Cook'.
"You look like you need it," Cook answered the look, returning to her griddle and its vast tracts coated with dough, potatoes, and yet more eggs.
Cook's diner, a grease-fried joint she'd dubbed Over Easy, matched the brightening screen skies with hisses, pops, and salivating smells. Its usual pre-shift crowd represented at the bar and scrap metal tables, looming over coffee mugs as if looking for life's messy secrets deep inside the murky depths. Vance would've joined'em in the search if his own mug, thrice filled already, didn't sit stone empty at his left elbow.
"She's not wrong," came a grumbled agreement from the scowling mountain on the stool to Vance's right.
Gray curls cascaded down a huge head, rolling onto a leather jacket that'd seen more years than Vance. Follow the jacket's sleeves and you'd wind up at hands bedecked with ink layered so thick that to anyone without a clue, it looked like Damon had let the artist cut loose. Between his hands now sat a perfect crane, folded with delicate precision from a grease-stained napkin.
"It's an asset," Vance said, digging into the dish. "I want to see you try squeezing through all these people."
"Don't need to."
Damon probably had that right. The man had all the bulk and reputation necessary to clear the corridors simply by being in them. A trait Vance coulda used himself, but that'd take a few more decades and a lot more murders.
As the bacon made its salty slide through his teeth and down his coffee-lubricated throat, Vance surfed his eyes behind the bar for another go-round, as if Nema would crop up this time, having been crouching beneath the dishes thus far.
"She's not here," Cook said without turning around, further convincing Vance that the woman had, through some grill-based ritual, achieved fantastic powers. "Didn't show. Didn't answer when I called."
"So you called," Vance replied.
Cook loaded up another plate and delivered it counterside, hollering someone's name that Vance filed away. Any diner at Over Easy could be a potential customer: more than once, Vance had used fried eggs as an introduction.
"Courtesy," Cook said, voice flatlining out as the chef realized Vance's true motive. "No more than that."
"She's good help."
"So sweet of you to say that, Cook."
Cook huffed, Damon chuckled, and Vance turned back to his eggs, looking for answers in the runny yolks. When their cheery demise failed to spark much intuition, Vance fished in his loose sweater pocket for his phone. The palm-sized glass sheet had a rubber barrier running around it, one Vance had to pop open with a keyed in nail.
"Little old for one of those, aren't you?" Damon said. The man had another napkin now, folding this one into a frog. "Afraid it'll crack?"
"Hazard of the job," Vance said, swiping away at his treasure. "Too much running."
The phone delivered a statistical blizzard on start-up. Flashing icons demanded responses to requests, jobs flowing in for a day that looked to burn whatever meager calories Cook had offered up. Word-of-mouth marketing doing its job.
To the phone's great disappointment, Vance blew by its notifications for the little-used app that had, far too many centuries ago, been the whole point of the thing's existence. A tap there, a tap at Nema's face—straight up in Vance's top five favorites—and the phone went to work, patching through the station's network to find his quarry.
Digital tech's millennia of miracles culminated to stick Vance with Nema's sweet, perfunctory voicemail, requesting a message and promising a callback should some future opportunity present itself. Vance didn't bother investing in that chance.
Nema ignoring a come-to-work missive from Cook might make some sense if the girl had decided she'd handled one too many oiled up potatoes, but ducking Vance's call didn't come with immediate upsides. At least, not any Vance could see. They didn't have any relationship entanglements, no bets owed to either party, only the casual support one person could offer another in this damned Dyson sphere.
Vance, slopping through his last egg, pitched his stance towards Damon, prepping to query about Nema's quandary to one who might know who might have an interest in seeing young working women vanish.
The question never made it from Vance's lungs to his lips to the air, because Over Easy's squealing doors peeled apart to let in a confounding crew.
Done up like dancehall rejects, the trio took their overdone, loose clothing and associated bangles to the counter alongside Vance. The diner's other patrons adopted a funeral's silence, nursing coffees and sending worried stares at the newcomers. Damon studied his newest fold. Vance scooted to his right, till his elbow touched the origami killer's own.
The Troupe earned its reputation in the way law-skirting groups tended to, taking in the lost and turning them into the fiercely found. They'd staked out this region of Fibbonacci and nobody bothered to contest, seeing as the most valuable property in this dump cradle of spaceward civilization was probably Cook's decaying diner.
Sasha, a lustrous lady whose heels could drive a spike through Vance's skull, led this particular party in a five beverage request for Cook, complemented with the usual eggs, greens, and fried collections. The order came and went with a breezy certainty, as if Sasha, whom Vance knew for a fact had grown up begging for scraps along avenues with the rest of them, had never seen a no in her life.
"On it," Cook replied, smoothing out her gruff years without a hitch.
"Need a hand?" Vance used a job's prospect to cancel out the Troupe's potential dangers. "I've got two."
Sasha, with maybe a year or two on Vance, appraised him with a cold eye. In any other scenario, getting appraised so cleanly by someone dialed so far up the beauty scale as Sasha would send Vance into a dizzy spell, but this here wasn't a date. Sasha hunted for ink, for badges and brooches that might classify the street hustler as aligned with someone Sasha should either hate or love.
Finding neither—Vance stuck to strict neutrality like Cook to her frying pan—Sasha shrugged, "Five marks?"
Enough for a breakfast, and Vance figured, with those heels, Sasha's destination wouldn't be far away. His phone promised more valuable jobs, but if something had happened to Nema, the Troupe would know.
"Congratulations, you just hired yourself the best carrier in the quadrant," Vance said, snapping up his last bacon bit while Damon chuckled behind him.
"I'll keep that in mind," Sasha replied.
If he'd actually been interviewing for the job, Vance could've backed up his boast with raw statistics. Fibbonacci's efficiency board cut the times and satisfaction from every app-based delivery Vance ran, putting his efforts up against anyone else running packages, errands, and anything else people wanted. As of this morning, Vance still claimed the top spot, though his slow start to the day might have him dropping off soon.
Not that it mattered: any decline could get made up with some more caffeine, his top-class running shoes, and a willingness to get in and out of anywhere.
Cook made good on her promise, filling out Sasha's crew with drinks and packed-up plates in record time. Sasha had Vance take on the meals, leaving her with a free hand for her own steaming cuppa somethin', while her attendant v-necked goons had to pull double duty with their own. Without a hitch, Sasha led the now-quartet out of the Over Easy and into a Fibbonacci morning.
Some centuries ago, Fibbonacci's planners had found the white dwarf star and decided to turn it into an energy mine. Wrapping up the burning sphere like a present, the star's constant burn sank its heat right into a shell that absorbed it, spun it into batteries, and sent all those glorious tanks out into the galaxy for some other thing to use. Running all those processes took a lotta people, which in turn required more people to grow food, to teach their kids, to distill the ever-present vices making living above a billion year-old fusion bomb possible.
Vance figured the whole plan had worked out well thus far, seeing as Fibbonacci kept growing, expanding out and away from the white dwarf with one new module after another. That left the old quadrants, the patches directly above the star like his own, to moulder. Leaving the Over Easy, Vance and the others stopped to watch a cleaning drone squad roll along the green floor before them.
The little things, baked together in batches with a big bin following a half-dozen cleaning balls, would swerve all around the quadrant keeping it, if not spotless, then livable. The robots were about the only investment that still came this way, everything else flowing to the vast condo palaces, luxury entertainment venues, and big cruiser docking bays spearing out and away.
Not that Vance, following Sasha, could see any of that growth from here. The ceiling today held a cloudy gray, snowflake projections drifting down before vanishing as they touched the ground, the walls, anywhere. Though the air never changed from its steady t-shirts and nothing else temp, the falling flakes at least tricked you that winter might be happening somewhere, sometime.
Sasha led the batch along the avenue, passed processing shops, the occasional lab and food processing center, and a single toy store run by a swell lady with a passion for turning scrap metal into silly things. True to their name, the Troupe's local headquarters sat inside a combined movie and stage theater. The thing held a single auditorium, enough to seat a few hundred, though Vance had never see it with more than fifty.
Reneau's Revue continued its scrappy existence despite nobody remember who the hell Reneau actually was. Vance, his arms started to ache from the sheer weight of those five full plates, went on through into an entry hall bedecked with old style popcorn machines and screens insisting he buy a ticket to whatever the hell was on offer today. Some cheery tune from a world far away ragtimed its notes.
"You can leave'em there," Sasha said, gesturing to the snacks counter, a glass case Vance guessed had last been scrubbed out a decade ago.
"Another mark, and I'll bring'em all the way down," Vance offered. "Think of all the steps you'll save."
Sasha gave Vance another narrow stare, the straight suspicion ruining the magic in those wonderfully huge eyes. She followed the inspection with a similar glance at the twin beverage carriers standing with her and, again, shrugged.
"Just stay quiet then," Sasha said.
"You know me, Sasha," Vance replied. "I never say a word."
Sasha's rolling eyes led them behind the counter and through a back door. A short stair series led to the theater's basement, and once more Vance found himself stunned at Sasha's ability to navigate the descent with nary a lurch. She even drank the coffee while she walked, a show of coordination force that had Vance, a true devotee of balance under any condition, whistling.
"That better not be what I think it is," said one of the goons as Vance's lips betrayed him.
"Are you not seeing what I'm seeing?" Vance replied. "Any normal—"
"Quiet," Sasha cut the words as she hit the base.
Opening the door, Sasha and the goons led the way into a room cluttered with back-up parts for the theater's machinery. Old costumes stuffed in boxes from various plays, along with sets that hadn't been dismantled, stacked on one another. Only in the center, where a table that looked set for a reading, did the junk give way to civilized order.
Two more Troupe members, including one that had Vance's caffeinated heart burst into double time, stood near the table. The special one, a rickety gent who went by the name France, leaned over the table, staring at the occupant stuffed into a skin-and-bones chair.
Nema had her arms and legs tied, had her face stuffed into a frown, though her left eye looked puffy and bruises littered her caramel neck. She saw Vance, and the meal-carrier had his mouth halfway open before he saw Sasha's expectant stare, saw her long nails positioned just so near her neck.
It wasn't even eight, man.