Raj can’t remember a time he felt so alive.
He’s having trouble describing the sensation. It’s like he hadn’t realized the edges of the world had gone gray until someone flipped a switch, and suddenly? Color, sound, scents. Like he’s been let out of a sensory deprivation chamber into a world of bright clothing, laughter, perfumes — all singing with possibility.
This is what he’s been missing.
Not this, this. Not the party he’s currently crashing, this soiree hosted by Parr Sumilang, Artemisian tech giant and two-martini lush. No. Raj has been missing a second chance at life, and this party is the perfect place to find it. He accepts a flute of sparkling wine from a passing server and pauses in the entryway, taking it all in.
Parr Sumilang’s home is a vast waste of space — triple-height entryway with spiraling staircases, every surface done in holographic marble and neodymium glass and gold flake. The faux-marble floors are polished to gleaming and the walls draped with green-and-gold curtains. Staircases and a gilded lift lead to generously sized balconies that appear to float — a strange illusion on a planet whose scant gravity has been artificially enhanced.
It’s an ostentatious display for a place like Artemis City, which is drilled deep into the heart of the dwarf planet Artemis. Raj doesn’t know anyone rich enough to afford more than a pod in the city’s deepest levels, let alone afford a view.
And what a view. Sumilang’s townhouse is in Artemis City’s Bell — the buzzy, neon, hundred-story open core — and the floor-to-ceiling windows overlook one of the Bell’s more picturesque parts: the park platforms. The townhouse is about a third of the way down the Bell, and if Raj cranes his neck he can make out Artemis City’s dome far above them, the lumbering ships docking in port beyond. The Bell’s floor is too far down, and shrouded in interwoven platforms and the swirling lights of traffic, to be visible.
Everyone who’s anyone on Artemis — and probably the rest of the chain of dwarf planets that constitute the Pearls in Durga’s Belt — is here tonight, servers dancing through the throng with trays of food and drink. The energy reminds Raj of the parties his parents threw back home in Arquelle. The mood sizzles with ambition and possibility, guests prowling the crowd in designer labels, armed with fine-edged wit. Young ones looking to impress their way into a job or sink their claws into a mate. Old ones trading parries with business rivals or hunting for new blood.
Used to be Raj found the pulsing, raw ambition of these kinds of parties exhausting. But back then, he’d been trying to live up to his father’s vision and follow in his footsteps: obedient son, model academy student, decorated officer in the Arquellian navy. Raj had almost managed to convince himself he wanted it, too — until his entire life washed out from beneath his feet like sand in the retreating surf.
Raj has spent the last three years tumbling in that surf, scraping by in the Pearls, living life as a dead man, running out of places he can breathe free. But tonight the air’s sparking electric with something more than second chances.
The feeling is hope.
Thanks in no small part to his business partner — sorry, former business partner — Ruby. Their last job went bad; he’s willing to admit now that it was his fault. He’d been getting sloppy and, honestly, he’d stopped caring if he walked out alive. Only, his increasing recklessness hadn’t just put himself in danger — it had endangered Ruby, too. He can hardly blame her for the “fuck off forever” note she sent him after. But he can thank her.
The message had been a wake-up call. It was time for a reset, to choose a new path. And this is the job that’s going to give him the opportunity.
Ruby’s still not returning his calls, but he managed to get himself a new identity and secure an invitation to this party even without her magic touch — there are other hackers and data techs in the system, even if Ruby’s really through through working with him.
He’ll make it up to her somehow. For now, he needs to get to work before he squanders this opportunity for his reset.
Raj spots Parr Sumilang on one of the balconies, unmissable in his gold jacquard suit, his round cheeks red with drink and mirth, his booming, barrel-chested laugh sounding through the crowd. Everyone’s keeping an eye on him — he’s the richest man in the Pearls — but he’s not the only mark tonight.
Tonight, everyone’s on the hunt. The man in the glossy suit, screwing up his courage at the bar. The cocktail server exchanging numbers with a woman whose face Raj recognizes from fashion advertisements. The woman in the blue evening gown, squaring her shoulders to approach a group of suits who hold themselves like investors.
Raj wishes them all luck. Combs a hand through his shoulder-length black hair, returns the coy smile of the woman who’s been eyeing him from her date’s arm, and heads straight for the person everyone’s trying to get close to tonight.
As Raj approaches, a pair of muscled suits turn his way with pointed threat. Raj ignores them — and he ignores the fact Sumilang is already having a conversation. Just like his father would have.
Can’t say Raj didn’t learn anything from his old man.
“Mr. Sumilang,” Raj says, dialing up his most charming smile. Sumilang’s brows pull in slightly, eyes glassy with vodxx and — ah, there’s the glint of a lens. Pulling in information about everyone at the party, recording it, processing it. A must-have networking tool. Raj holds out his hand. “Silvan Jordan. Thank you for having me.”
Sumilang’s expression flares bright at the name, the haze of vodxx burning away. “Mr. Jordan!” He pumps Raj’s hand enthusiastically. “It’s so good of you to come.” He turns to the person beside him — Raj recognizes the face from studying Sumilang’s company but can’t pull up a name. “This is Seo-yeon, she leads our research team.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Raj says. He’s gotten used to toning down his Arquellian accent out here in the Pearls; now he lets the drawl through in all its pompous glory. Gives the vowels their breathing room, softens his consonants; it’s like slipping into a comfortable sweater. He shakes Seo-yeon’s hand smoothly, then leans in to Sumilang, all apologetic. “Mr. Sumilang, I’m sorry to rush the pleasantries, especially at such an excellent party. But as I said, my shuttle leaves in a few hours. Do you have somewhere quiet we can talk?”
“Of course, of course.” Sumilang doesn’t have to wave back the bodyguards, they sank into the background as soon as it became clear Sumilang was expecting Raj — or Mr. Jordan, at least. “I have just the quiet place.”
Sumilang leads Raj out of the main room, angling towards a hall at the back of the townhouse. While the three-story entry is a semicircular bubble on the wall of the Bell, the rest of Sumilang’s home digs into the stone heart of Artemis. There may be no views from these rooms, but no expense has been spared. And for Raj, who grew up on a planet with atmosphere and horizons and plenty of room to spread out, it’s one of the first homes he’s been in since his exile to the Pearls that doesn’t feel subtly claustrophobic.
“This isn’t the usual place I discuss business,” Sumilang says with a sly smile. “But I think you’ll appreciate it.” He waves Raj through an open door draped with deep blue velvet curtains, watching Raj for his reaction.
A burst of professional pride warms Raj’s chest: His story worked.
Sumilang has brought him to his private museum hall, which could be called understated only in comparison with the rest of the distressingly lavish mansion. It’s at least ten times the size of the “luxury” one-room pod Raj is currently calling home on Dima, one rock over. The walls are hung with the same velvet curtains as the doorway, the floor interspersed with faux-marble columns in gold-shot white. Glass display cases on each column reverently display the objects within.
Sumilang waves Raj past him to admire the collection. “I heard you appreciate religious esoterica,” he says, which means Sumilang did his due diligence and found exactly what Raj wanted him to find.
A few faked news reports here, a falsified profile there — it wouldn’t have taken much digging for Sumilang to find that the mystery Arquellian investor who’d contacted him out of the blue was a collector. And given how much money Raj had hinted at investing, Sumilang would be dying to impress him. Seeding a backstory is the sort of thing Ruby normally handled for him, but he hadn’t done a bad job himself. And writing the articles on religious esoterica had been simple. He just tapped into everything he’d learned talking with Vash and Gracie — his clients for this job — over the years.
Now all he has to do is convince Sumilang that Silvan Jordan’s firm is about to invest a stomach-churning amount of money in the tech magnate’s new venture, then send the man off to the bar for some more celebratory vodxx, leaving Raj alone in the museum hall for two minutes.
Looks like the catering staff are using the museum as a shortcut to get to the kitchen; a woman with pale skin and dusky blond hair scraped back into a thick, utilitarian braid is passing through now with a tray full of empty glasses. There are other routes — Raj has studied them all — but this is the shortest, and of course the catering staff would cut through here and save a few steps.
Hadn’t thought of that.
The woman’s not hurrying, and Raj can’t blame her. Sumilang’s elite guest list is stacked with people who know how to dress, not how to treat the serving staff. Still, the staff using this hall as a shortcut will get in his way. He could call out the woman’s presence. Make a cutting offhand comment about how in an Arquellian home, the servants would stay out of sight; goad Sumilang into ordering the catering staff to take an alternate route.
Like his father would have done.
Raj’s stomach turns. He’ll have to make this work without slamming a hullbreaker through some poor woman’s night.
Raj steps to the closest plinth, studies a set of ornately carved prayer beads. “Cult of Saint Meiai, Bixian expansion period,” he says; he’s been paying attention to Gracie’s lectures on art and religious history. “I’ve never seen one in person. People say you’re a collector, but they’re understating.”
“A little hobby of mine,” Sumilang says with faux humility. “Ah. Here’s a piece of superstition that’s closer to home. A mixla.”
“Meeshla,” Raj says. Correcting people’s pronunciations is peak arrogant Arquellian.
“So you know these oddities? I hear they’re quite rare outside of Coruscan homes.”
“I had a Coruscan nanny.” Raj bends to examine the little figurine; the part about the Coruscan nanny is true, but until now, hers is the lone Coruscan house god he’s ever seen up close. Even before Indira’s moon made a bloody bid for independence from the Alliance, Arquellians hadn’t been welcome in most Coruscan homes.
This mixla is minimalist, a smooth figure that could nestle in the palm of a hand. It’s carved of white marble with a bright streak of turquoise cutting diagonally through the figure like a sash. Even with the stylized features, Raj gets the sense the little god is winking at him.
Someone else is watching him, too.
The caterer with the blond braid. The glare in her smoky brown eyes cuts like a knife, though it disappears into a neutral customer service smile so quickly he’s not sure he caught it right. Of course, the working class on Artemis probably hate the rich of Artemis City — and no one but rich tech giants likes Arquellians out here.
Raj gives her his most devastatingly entitled Arquellian grin and a wink; she snatches up the empty martini glass Sumilang left on top of a plinth and stalks towards the far entrance of the hall.
“Coruscans even travel with them,” Sumilang is saying. “They feed these little bits of rock, like pets, and they won’t make a damned decision without consulting them.” Raj nods along, but he’s watching the caterer’s back. She’s fit, with an athletic build and precise, controlled movements; her shoulders stiffen at Sumilang’s comment.
“Ridiculous,” Raj agrees. The caterer disappears around the corner. The way she carries herself says she doesn’t take shit from anyone, and there was something of a predator in the set of her mouth. If she’s really a caterer, she’ll be climbing her way up the food chain into management in no time.
But he’d bet anything she’s not. Whatever she’s really here for, though, he’ll let her have her game if she’ll let him have his.
Raj straightens, begins to stroll the room; he needs to distract Sumilang from the item-by-item tour of the museum and get eyes on the object he’s here for. “My firm is avidly searching for new connections with Artemis City,” he says. “Strong, successful connections. Why don’t you tell me more about your product?”
Sumilang smiles shrewdly and turns to another plinth, where a hardened leather pouch painted in geometric designs is slowly spinning. “A Teshan soul purse,” Sumilang says. “Of course you know Teshans believed they could capture the souls of the dying in these purses and so prolong life. My product actually does that.” He laughs. “Prolongs life, not captures souls.”
“It’s intriguing,” Raj says. “Implants, is that right?”
“Brain implants that stimulate neural regrowth,” Sumilang says. “Preliminary studies in patients with degenerative brain diseases have been promising.”
Raj smiles politely and tunes him out, meandering through the display of rosaries and relics and charm coins. He skimmed the schematics and marketing blurbs Sumilang’s company puts out, but he hasn’t retained much of it. Ruby would have understood it — and he needs to stop thinking about how she would have done things.
Where the hell is the totem?
“My partners will need proof, of course,” Raj says when Sumilang pauses for breath. “What you sent over is impressive, but do you have a market? You’re pretty far from — well. From people who can afford the treatment.”
“From Arquelle, you mean.” Sumilang doesn’t seem offended.
Raj shrugs. “Of course.”
“There’s wealth in Durga’s Belt,” Sumilang says. “And you’re wise to partner with a company in Artemis City. We Artemisians have an advantage. We can speak the cultured language of Arquelle, along with the language of the vast, untapped sleeper market of Durga’s Belt.”
Perhaps that’s true, though Artemis City is nothing like the rest of the settlements out here in the black. The rest of the belt appreciates being far enough outside the gravity wells of Indira and New Sarjun to choose their own path. Artemis City is still trying to be Arquelle; even the streets are self-cleaning, with microbes and nanites disinfecting and removing every blemish, every hint of poverty or failure swept out with the trash.
Either way, marketing a brain-regenerating device is none of his concern. He’s finally spotted what he came here for: a carved obsidian totem the length of his forearm, lying on a cream silk pillow.
“Believe me,” Raj says, turning away from the totem without seeming to notice it. “My partners and I understand what an advantage you have out here. Let’s drink to new opportunities. Perhaps — ”
“We must toast.” Sumilang grabs Raj’s arm and drags him towards the door. “Come, Mr. Jordan. The relics can wait.”
Raj curses and lets himself be swept out, leaving the totem — his second chance — behind him.
For the moment.