The Year’s Best Military SF & Space Opera

The Year’s Best Military SF & Space Opera by David Afsharirad Page B

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Authors: David Afsharirad
indicate the whole shop. But his froggy eyes didn’t budge from mine. It was as though he expected me to walk off with a whole bundle of toadstool two-by-fours the minute his back was turned.
    “I’d like some . . . some, ah, fancy trim work,” I said, naming something I didn’t see that he might plausibly carry. “You know, detail molding. Like you might find in a nice house.”
    “Nothing in stock. But we’ve got a catalog. Special order.”
    “Can I see it?”
    He gave me a long, hard look, then muttered, “Yeah, sure,” and ducked behind the counter. I heard the office door croak, which was interesting. I took advantage of his absence to peek a little more nosily into and behind his stock, but when the door croaked again, warning me of his return, I had learned nothing new.
    Nor did I learn anything from perusing the catalog, other than the difference between an architrave and a dentil crown. I excused myself as quickly as I plausibly could. Ugulma seemed happy to see the back of me.
    The door croaked at me again as I left. “Same to you, pal,” I sneered to it under my breath.
    I looked around, all casual like, before I hailed a cab back to my hotel. But though I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, I still couldn’t shake the feeling I was being watched.

    Even though the sun barely peeps through Venus’s perpetual clouds, for some reason the natives are strongly diurnal. So when I returned to Ugulma’s shop after dark, creeping through the moonless, starless blackness between the widely-spaced wormlights, I could be pretty sure I wouldn’t encounter anyone. But I still brought my gat, plus a few other things.
    The alley behind the shop was completely black, so I risked a quick flash of my cigarette lighter to make sure I was where I wanted to be before proceeding.
    Was that movement? In the murk beyond the lighter’s reach?
    I doused the flame immediately and crouched stock-still—holding my breath, gun in hand, ready for any attack. But the Venusian night stayed silent as ever, and after several long minutes I decided that what I thought I’d seen had been just a trick of the lighter’s flickering flame.
    My hotel was pretty cheap—cheaper than my expense report to Grossman would indicate, anyway—but in this case that worked in my favor because the rough woolen blanket they’d provided worked just fine to cover the broken glass at the top of the wall. Even if it got torn, I figured no one would ever notice. Who uses a blanket on Venus, anyway?
    I scampered up and over the rough greenbrick just as quick as if it were a wall on the Marines’ obstacle course, then dropped to the ground on the other side without a sound.
    From my jacket pocket I pulled a little gizmo like a perfume atomizer and squirted it at the door as I approached. The door relaxed, making no sound as I pushed it open a crack and squeezed inside. One of the many useful tricks I’d picked up during my sojourn as the only mostly-honest cop in Cooksport. The office door got the same treatment.
    The croak I’d heard from that door on my earlier visit had been a significant clue. Living doors provided security as well as a polite greeting, and they weren’t cheap, so the froggies generally only had them as outside doors. For Ugulma to install one of them as his interior office door indicated that there was something more than usually valuable inside.
    The office had no windows, so I used my lighter to take a good look around. It had the usual sort of things you’d expect to find in a fungus dealer’s office—papers, ashtray, spore casings—plus a large and very sophisticated safe.
    Bingo.
    The safe’s nameplate read “Schlosserei Döttling GmbH” in that almost illegible black-letter type the Krauts are so fond of. It was a name I knew—quality German engineering, nearly impossible to crack. And, given the cost of shipping from Earth, far more expensive than any mere fungus dealer could possibly justify.
    But even a

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