The sheets were warm and seductively soft against his skin. He didn’t want to leave, but the first gray light of morning was prying its way past the heavy drapes and it was time for him to go. This morning wasn’t part of his contract.
The young man slid out of bed, careful not to wake his client. He dressed with practiced stealth then checked his handheld. The woman—he checked her name on the deposit: Richards, Captain Richards—had added a generous tip to his fee. Fasel smiled. He’d used some of his best tricks with Captain Richards, to make sure she’d remember him.
Fasel left his card on the nightstand: Fasel Inohiye, Personal Services. He left quietly, the door sliding shut behind him. As he rode the elevator down from the 150th floor, Fasel considered the previous night. Captain Richards was a handsome older woman, he mused. A little thick in the waist and the flesh under her jaw was starting to sag, but she’d had the vigor of someone much younger. She’d certainly gotten her credits’ worth out of him, he thought, twisting to stretch his back.
Cornucopia was famous for its mild climate, low tariffs, and beautiful people, so it got a lot of spaceship traffic. Fasel needed to build his client base and he liked spacers well enough. He didn’t have much trouble feigning interest in their stories, and he particularly liked their credits. If Richards recommended him to other starship officers in Port Laughlin, that brought him one step closer to starting his own house. House Inohiye. He liked the sound of that.
Fasel strode through the lobby, waved at the concierge, and stepped out into the early morning street. Not many people were up and about yet, so he didn’t have to queue at his favorite bakery. Clutching a bag of fragrant, gently steaming zatar bread and a dispo of coffee, Fasel decided to take the tube back to House Matthias. He didn’t mind it there. His room was comfortable, the house cut wasn’t too big, and House Matthias had a good reputation. He might even be able to get up a game of trifle in the common room, relieve his housemates of a few of their credits before the day got too old.
As he crossed the street, Fasel caught a young woman looking at him. He smiled his second-best smile, the one that curled the left side of his mouth. Carefully rumpled hair this early in the morning was always good advertising. He took another sip of coffee and turned into the narrow street that led to the tube station.
Halfway down the alley, an old man in an overcoat stepped from between two recyclers. “Excuse me, young man, can I have a minute of your time?”
Fasel sighed. He really wasn’t in the mood for a once-off contract, and it had been years since he’d been junior enough to have to find clients that way. “I don’t think so, Grandpa,” he said. “I’m off the clock and anyway, you couldn’t afford me.” He kept walking.
“Please,” the old man quavered. Fasel felt a tug on his sleeve, a quick sting, and turned to see the old man drop a doser into an overcoat pocket. Fasel’s knees buckled and he slid down the grimy wall. His coffee dispo fell from nerveless fingers. It exploded into a brown puddle that seeped into his trousers, scalding his legs. The old man crouched over him.
Fasel blinked rapidly, trying to figure out what was going on. He’d never been raped, although it still happened occasionally. With every citizen and registered guest required to place a DNA sample in the census registry, that crime had become very rare. It wasn’t like the old guy could rob him, either. Nobody carried credits anymore. The Associated Worlds economy had been all electronic since, well, forever. Maybe the geezer was old enough to remember when people carried actual currency and thought they still did? Even with diagnostic kiosks on practically every corner, some people still managed not to get treated for dementia. Fucking old people, Fasel thought.
“Hey, Pops,” he mumbled through numb lips, “what do you think you’re doing?”
The old man didn’t answer. Instead, he unfolded an odd-looking device and placed it over his own head. Fasel frowned. The thing looked like a giant silver spider trailing a braided thread of multicolored wires. The geezer clamped an identical spider over Fasel’s head. The sharp ends of the leg prongs bit painfully into Fasel’s scalp.
“Hey, wait!” he yelled. His voice, muffled by the recyclers on either side, fell like a dead bird in the middle of the alley. Fasel shouted louder, hoping somebody on the street outside would hear him. “Help! Somebody help me!”
The old man ignored Fasel’s cries and reached into his overcoat for a small control box. He plugged the wires from both spider devices into the box and waited, studying the readout.
“No!” Fasel screamed. The old man looked up from the screen, smiled at Fasel, and thumbed a command.
A jolt like lightning swept through Fasel’s body. He convulsed, his head slamming against the wall behind him. By the time Fasel’s eyes would focus again, the man was already tucking the folded apparatus back into his coat.
The man leaned close. “You have no idea how long it took me to afford you,” he whispered. He kissed Fasel on the cheek and stood. Fasel, confused, saw that the old man wasn’t really old after all. He looked young and healthy and handsome and…and he wasn’t just handsome. He was Fasel. The man was wearing Fasel’s face.
“So long, pretty boy,” he said, and winked. Fasel watched helplessly as the man walked away.
A week later, Fasel stood on the loading ramp of the freighter Prentiss, pleading earnestly with the intercom.
“Please, tell Captain Richards that I’m here to see her. My name’s Fasel, Fasel Inohiye. She’ll remember me.”
“Wait,” the intercom instructed.
Fasel stood by the closed door, hunched in his heaviest coat against the wind. He tried to ignore the ache in his back.
Finally, the intercom barked, “Who did you say you were?” It was Captain Richards’s voice.
“Fasel Inohiye,” Fasel said. “We had a contract, last Martyrsday.”
“If I’d had a contract, it wouldn’t have been with you,” came the terse reply.
“No, it was me, I swear. I know I don’t look the same, but it was me.” The intercom was silent. “You had a special request,” he tried. Leaning closer to the panel, he murmured the details.
“Follow the guide lights on the floor,” Richards finally barked. The ship’s door hissed open. Gratefully, Fasel hurried inside.
The lights led him through the ship’s corridors to the captain’s office. Richards stood on the other side of the room, scrolling through a report. Her back was turned, and Fasel admired the strong lines of her back, the curve of her hips. His body didn’t so much as stir.
“Sit down,” the captain said. “I’ll be with you in a second.”
Fasel lowered himself gratefully into a chair in front of her desk. Richards turned to sit behind the desk.
“Magda’s tits!” she swore, finally seeing Fasel. “What in the four hells happened to you?”
“I got mugged by an old man in an alley after I left your hotel,” Fasel explained. “The guy put some kind of machine with long silver clamps on my head, and on his head, and somehow, now he’s young and he’s got my face, and I’m…like this.” Fasel’s breath came in gasps as he relived the moment when he’d first seen his own face.
Richards leaned back in her chair, impassive. When Fasel recovered himself, she asked, “Then what?”
“I went to the police, naturally. They’d never seen anything like it. Took forever for them to believe my DNA scans, that it was me. They couldn’t find any evidence, either on me or at the scene, and none of the bio recognition cameras anywhere in the city has any record of the man, before he…before he stole my face, or after.”
Richards nodded. “These trade worlds always think their security is better than it really is. Whoever he was, he’s long gone by now.”
Fasel groaned. “I went to the hospital. They ran a bunch of tests but they couldn’t do anything. Finally, they amended my census register to ‘Apparent age: 72’ and kicked me out. I didn’t know what to do. I thought maybe you’d be able to tell me what happened to me, or, I don’t know, maybe your ship’s medical unit…” He trailed off as Richards shook her head.
“There’s nothing my medic can do for you that your world’s doctors can’t,” she said. “But…”
“But what?” Fasel hauled himself to the edge of his chair, his lined face eager. “What do you know?”
Richards shook her head again. “I don’t know anything. But I’ve heard rumors. It sounds like rejuv tech from Jubal, completely illegal. Jubal’s been embargoed for decades to keep their bio sci quarantined.”
“So, if I go to Jubal, maybe I can find out who this man was, where he might have gone.” Fasel felt the weight of desperation lift, slightly.
Richards was frowning at him. “I told you, Jubal’s under embargo. And it’s on the other side of the sector.”
“Can you take me there?” Fasal asked, hope in his eyes.
“This isn’t a passenger ship,” Richards told him, a twist of distaste on her mouth. “And even if it was, you couldn’t afford me.”
“Please. I don’t know what else to do. Please, help me.” Tears filmed his eyes. He didn’t care. He’d grovel if he had to. He was out of options. “Give me a job. I can work for my passage.”
Richards snorted. “I don’t think you’re suited for your former profession anymore. Can you do anything else?”
“I studied manifold engineering in uni,” Fasel said. Before I dropped out, he thought but didn’t say.
As if she could hear his thoughts, Richards barked a laugh. She regarded him coldly for a long moment. Finally, she looked down at her desk screen and tapped a quick sequence. “All right. Chief Yung has been pestering me for another set of hands in Maintenance. I’ll make you an engineering technician, fifth class. Report to the chief, do exactly what she tells you, and if you pass the fifth class proficiency exams by the time we get to M’tonge and if the chief gives you a good report, you can stay on with the Prentiss until we get to the far end of our sector run. If you want to go on to Jubal, you’ll have to find another berth from there.”
Fasel nodded. “Thank you. Can I ask you one more question?” Richards lifted an eyebrow. Fasel took this as permission, and rushed on. “How much do you think it would cost, to buy this tech?”
Richards looked away from him, her eyes unfocused. “It’s illegal,” she said, “so I wouldn’t know. But I’ve heard that if someone like me wanted to buy rejuv tech to use on myself, it would cost me my ship.”
Her eyes snapped back to Fasel. “One more thing. I’m the captain of my own starship. You are a scut tech, a provisional scut tech. I don’t expect to hear from you again. Do I make myself clear?”
Richards waited, eyes fixed on Fasel as he swallowed nervously. “Yes, ma’am,” he managed.
Captain Richards turned away. “Dismissed.”
Fasel paused in the hallway to study the wall map, looking for the way to Engineering. Before he started down the maze of corridors, he pulled out his handheld to check his credit balance. I’ve got a long way to go before I can get my face back, he thought. Or, he amended, if I can’t get my own face back, I’ll just have to find another one.