The first thought in my head was Aw, crap. Guess I'm going with the eel.

The second thought was, Rrota found me. Rrota found me. Rrota found me. RROTA FOUND ME. How in the hell did he find me? I haven't left a paper trail since...since...Shit, I don't know, but I haven't left one! HOW IN THE CRAP DID HE FIND ME?

The first thing I actually said was a series of the loudest, foulest curse words that I knew. One of the Zoannoth looked up from his philosophy discussion and said, "Yes! That's the idea!"

I realized that my swearing had somehow managed to drown out the noise in the bar. There was ten seconds of the most awkward silence I could imagine before everyone started laughing. I exhaled. This was going to suck.

Rrota M'meh. How in the world did I get mixed up with him? I finished the rest of my shift trying and failing to not remember exactly how I came to owe the little hircine bastard 8.8 million trade units...

I had just earned my third doctorate. It was the summer of '29, and I was sitting up watching the Martian sunrise. I was full of the joy of learning, my mind just brimming with future possibilities when my handcomp chimed. Very shortly therafter, a string of creative curses rang out across the mostly-empty Martian plain.

I remember thinking something truly foul about the bankers who had cut off my student loans, and then scrambling to find a way to pay for the next set of very, very expensive classes I had signed up for earlier that day. All of the other banks turned me down, my family was dead broke, so that was out of the question, and I apparently had something of a reputation with any of the other student loan firms around the University. I spent a few hours frantically denying the two paths before me: either get out of college now, or turn to a loan shark.

Rrota was reasonable, at first. He invited me into his house, had me sit down, and made me tea. We talked about what I wanted to do with my life, my childhood on Earth, and then on to why I needed the money. He generously offered to buy my debt from the First Bank of Venus and give me more student loans at what he assured me were reasonable rates. I finished my tea and then suddenly Rrota tackled me out of my chair and had a knife to my throat. He stared at me with those sideways, beady little eyes of his and calmly warned me that if I ever tried to narx him, he'd kill me. Painfully. I didn't even know what "narxing" was, but doing it was very, very far from my thoughts.

Then I graduated in 2439 and was repeatedly told how absolutely useless every single one of my degrees were and watched any hope of paying back Rrota and his Vanvo buddies evaporate before my eyes. Right about then, I realized that I needed to hide, and I did so. Very efficiently. Every time he got wind of my datanet address, I'd pay most of what I'd managed to scrounge to get a new one as legally as possible. I've done that seven times, and for the last four years, I've been here, on Snow, tending bar for an absentee boss and a know-it-all AI.

I didn't notice Roger, the third-shift bartender, coming in until he was handing me my backpack. Roger was a nice guy. Big as a house, friendly, smart, and patient enough to deal with the swarm of drunks he usually had to deal with on his shift. I nodded my thanks to Roger and checked my knapsack. Yep, it was all there: two changes of clothes, multitool, breath mask, survival bag, passport, and holdout stunner. Standard items if one is constantly afraid of being savaged by the goat-mafia. I said a mumbled goodbye to Roger, who gave me a friendly wave back, and walked out the front door.

God I'm stupid sometimes. I should have gone out the back door and into the alley. Then I might have had a chance to avoid the two musclebound goons who were waiting for me right outside of the door. The first one said, "Mister Rrota wants to see you, ape!" I was already moving. The goon punched a patch of air that used to have my head in it. He went, "Whuh?" and I had already rolled through the space between him and his comrade.

Thug Number Two spun around and kicked at my legs. I was already moving, but the kick got me just enough to make me stumble and drop my holdout stunner. I dove after it, barely escaping Thug Number One's diving tackle at my ankles. He was just close enough for me to kick him in his highly sensitive nose. I felt something go crunch through my shoes and heard Thug Number One shriek obscenities at me. Thug Two leapt gracefully onto my back as I scrabbled in the snow for my stunner. I jerked left out of the way of his first punch but caught the second one right in the back of the head. My forehead bounced off of the frozen ground, and my head swam. I could feel Thug Number Two drawing back for another punch and flinched reflexively, but my scrabbling hands finally found the stunner. I flicked it on in an instant and flung it over my shoulder in an act of mad desperation. It missed the palooka on my back by a mile. However, it did fly in a graceful arc over Two's shoulder and right into the face of his bleeding buddy. The noise and smell distracted Thug Number Two long enough for me to throw him off of my back, get to my feet in two painful steps, and start running. I didn't even look back.

I ran straight to the Landing Bays as fast as my legs would carry me. I've got good stamina and I'm fast on my feet; those thugs didn't have a chance in hell to catch up with me. Imagine my surprise, then, when I was suddenly confronted with a dead end.

"Shit."

"Dack's righ', ape," said a very, very angry voice from behind me. I turned around and saw Thugs Number One and Two prowling towards me. They radiated pure rage. I had read somewhere that the Vanvo code of honor, the "M'kek," considers leaving an opponent beaten, bleeding, yet still alive to be the ultimate insult.

Apparently the book was correct. I could tell that by the size of the knife that Thug Number One produced from apparently nowhere, and the extremely large laser pistol that Two pulled out of his waistband. "You want this one, T'moz?" asked Two.

"Fucker doesn't pay his bills, does that flippy-jumpy shit instead of fighting like he's got a narx, crunches my beautiful nose, then zaps me in the face and runs like a female. What do you think, Z'daf?"

"I think you want some playtime with the monkey-bastard," said the second thug, apparently named Z'daf.

"You know it," said T'moz, brandishing the knife in what he no doubt thought was a menacing way. I was too focused on the lack of exits in the alley, the fact that for some reason, I couldn't find my holdout stunner, and the fact that there were two angry Zorba advancing upon me in a very scary way with the very obvious intention of dealing pain to my person. For an instant, I thought I heard a small, metallic, click.

All of a sudden, there was a sharp crack. Z'daf yelped, spun around halfway, and fell to the ground with with a wierd, clear fluid splattered across his neck and left shoulder. T'moz looked up to the nearest rooftop and had time to mutter "Who the nar--" before there was another sharp crack and suddenly there was that same clear fluid across his face. T'moz fell flat on his back and twitched spasmodically for a few seconds, then fell still.

As I stood there, gazing at their unconscious bodies, a slender Thek female slid down a drainpipe to my left. She was dressed warmly, and had a huge (compared to her) gauss rifle slung along her back. I turned around slowly, trying my best to look like I wasn't a threat, but she ignored me and padded over to T'moz's knocked-out, slightly whimpering form and peered at him intently.

"Out cold. So's the other one," she said, turning to me. Thek naturally have voices that sound raspy and harsh to most Terrans. This one sounded like a six-pack-a-day smoker on top of that. She gave me a curt salute and said, "Lomnish Tuvwol voar-Ucal, former Za-ou-Draan. You're Ethel Gao?"

"N-er-Yes. Yes I am," I said, realizing how unwise it would be to lie to somebody trained in how to very efficiently kill people. She nodded and beckoned me to follow her. I did so, gingerly stepping over T'moz and kicking Z'daf in the ribs for good measure.

"Quickly," said Tuvwol, "Stunner rounds won't work for long on Zorba. The water-snake's been waiting for you."

"What, you mean Ick?" I said, increasing my pace to keep up with the Thek commando who was scurrying through the snowy street ahead of me. I thought I heard footsteps behind me--padded, goatlike footsteps. I sped up a little more.

The Thek trilled slightly. "Yes," she said, and the exasperation was clear even through her accent, "Ick. He knew you'd reconsider, and I was tasked to make sure that you arrived safely. This planet is not...orderly."

Somehow it got even colder out here. I managed to not look behind me when I heard a very loud, angry bleat and broke into a run. Bay Six was the third on the right. I overtook Tuvwol in a few seconds and bolted into the open bay. I skidded to a halt in the frost as soon as I saw Ick's ship. It was chrome. All of it, and every milimeter was polished to a mirror shine. The ventral surface, slightly aft of the two folded-in atmospheric wings, rippled slightly and folded downwards to reveal a gently-curving ramp into the interior of the ship. Water, no deeper than the soles of my boots, ran down the ramp and melted the very thin layer of ice on the landing pad. The ship was all whorls and curvy protrusions, with no external ports or hard edges of any kind. I thought I could recognize engine pods in the back, and a few more maneuvering fins that had folded into the main body.

Tuvwol caught up to me and grabbed me by my coat.

"Close your mouth. It attracts bullets when it's open like that," she said, dragging me along. I half-ran, half-tripped up into a blinding white light, into a ship that smelled of fish and adventure.

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