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Alessandra was lost. That thought ran through her head over and over again as she stared at the young man. He was sitting in the dust of a City street, leaning against one of the buildings, and though pigeons thronged around him, he did not move. His hair fell around his face, his lips were curled in a slight smile, almost regretful. He must be one of the fixed points in the City, but Alessandra had never seen him before.

Seeing anybody else in the City by accident was rare. Everybody could walk the City organically, flickering in for a brief moment in their sleep then disappearing just as quickly. Most never remembered it, or discounted it. A few, very rare people could stay longer, exploring the City in a lucid dream. They were the models the ICA had used in creating the prototypes.

But this man, sitting stock still and eternal before Alessandra, couldn’t be here organically. Walking the City naturally was safe – do whatever you like and then you’d wake up and the City would forget you. To become stuck like this, he must have used the synthetic gateway. Judging by his clothes – they looked like a costume from an Earth epic – he was probably part of the ICA’s early experiments with the City. He’d been trapped there a very, very long time.

Alessandra looked around. She was much closer to the center of the City than she meant to be – the black tower rose above the buildings like the arm of a sun dial, visible and glinting in the sourceless light. Not once in a month of looking for the prototypes had she managed to recover once she’d become lost, and she didn’t have the time to leave and start again. She might as well study this mystery.

The pigeons scattered as Alessandra knelt down, examining the man more closely. She made mental notes about the cut of his clothes, looking for clues she could use to determine when he’d become trapped here. “Who are you?” Alessandra asked. What had become of his body, she wondered. Had it lain in a coma until it grew old and died? If so, was this man actually there, or was this just an image of him, imprinted permanently with the dusty streets and empty buildings?

Cautiously, Alessandra reached out to touch him. What would it mean if her hand passed through to the ground? She wasn’t sure, but it would be interesting. She stretched out her fingers and…

“Don’t, Commander.”

Alessandra snatched her hand away, and in the same instant she was standing again, her back turned to the man. There she was, long black hair hanging over her shoulders and a wry grin on her face. “You?” A month Alessandra’d been looking for the two youngest prototypes, and now she’d accidentally found the oldest.

“Be careful of what you touch, here. Some things don’t belong.” Then she was gone, vanished as quickly as if she’d been one of the dreamers.

“Shit,” Alessandra said. She turned back to the man, then checked out.

She was back fifteen minutes early, but she could use that time. A flick of the wrist brought up her visual interface and she started sorting through Camlagh’s report on Pavi Valshorn. A moment later he pinged her.

“Yes?” Alessandra asked.

“We got a hold of Captain Dessik of the Harper’s Cry, Commander. They’re waiting out of weft and are willing to speak to you. I told her not to expect you for another half an hour.”

“I’ll contact her now,” Alessandra replied.

“Yes, Commander,” the page replied.

Alessandra cut him off, then set up the connection to the Harper’s Cry. Official protocol said she should have these sorts of conversations on the bridge, or at least with her mate linked in. Hang official protocol. Doing things that way made it all too likely that the information would spread.

It took just a moment, and her visual interface showed a stocky woman with heavy ceramic earrings jangling next to her face.

“Captain Dessik? This is Commander Alessandra Jackson of the 25th brigade of the Interstellar Cartography Association’s tactical force. I’m wondering whether you’d consider it a conflict of interests to take a privateering contract with me.”

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