Have you considered finding a different way of making new friends? The current method doesn’t seem to be doing you any favours.
I pushed farther back into Matt in a vain attempt to put some more distance between dockers and me. As I did I felt something hard digging into the small of my back.
I looked over my shoulder at Matt and frowned. This seemed like an odd response to our current predicament.
“Don’t get your hopes up, darlin’. I ain’t that pleased to see you.”
He reached down and the pressure was relieved. The dockers, who by this point had started to edge forward, stopped dead as Matt leveled a handgun at them over my shoulder. It was your standard low yield energy weapon – favoured by spacers because projectile weapons had a nasty tendency to ricochet inside confined spaces like ships. And stations.
And station elevators.
Matt looked between the dockers, then settled on the one who was obviously the ring leader.
“What’s your name, son?” He asked, almost conversationally.
“Nickoli,” came the slightly confused reply.
“Howdy, Nick. I’d love to stay and chat, but gettin’ chummy with the locals ain’t my style. So if you could just-”
The bounty hunter motioned to the side with his pistol, causing the looks of anger and tension to escalate on the docker’s faces. Nickoli took half a step forward, swallowing and pointing at me with the wrench.
“Not without her, we aren’t. Little cunt did this to me.”
The man gestured towards his battered face, the bandages telling the story of our earlier encounter. Despite the danger, I felt a smirk creep up the side of my mouth as I locked eyes with the docker.
“I’d say it’s an improvement.”
Nickoli started towards me, halting as Matt leveled his pistol at him. He looked the bounty hunter warily in the eye, alternating between glancing at his mates and us.
“You can’t take us all, even with that shooter.”
Matt kept his pistol leveled at the man as he grabbed the back of my jacket and started to maneuver us around the elevator, keeping the thugs in front of us.
“Sure can’t. But whoever makes the first move for damn sure ain’t making the last.”
He swept the pistol around, causing the dockers to take a cautious step back. “So who’s it gonna be? Who likes ol’ Nick here enough to eat a plasma slug?”
The men looked at each other, and then back at us. No one said anything, and the impasse became clear. Matt and I couldn’t take the four men if they rushed us, and whoever came at us first was almost certainly going to die. Of the six of us, nobody liked those odds enough to make a move.
Nickoli stepped forward as we inched out of the elevator. “You can’t trust her. She’ll backstab you the first chance she gets. I know a lying whore when I see one, and it’ll be lights-out for you, Mister Handsome.”
Matt and I took another step back, inching our way towards the main corridor access. A few more paces, and we’d be in the station commons…
I felt Matt’s other hand push against the access controls, the blast door slowly sliding open. His backwater drawl took on an edge of cockiness as he pulled us through.
“Tell me something I don’t know, Nicky boy.”
Thank God that’s over.
Matt and I were speed-walking along the station commons, making our way towards the hangars. Even though we’d left Nickoli and his mugs behind, I still caught myself making cautious glances over my shoulder.
“Looks like you’ve been making friends all over the damn place.”
The bounty hunter grabbed arm and led my down a sub-corridor to the repair bays. His voice was hurried and not a little annoyed. To be honest, I’d almost forgotten about my encounter with Nickoli. Who could have known that he’d take our little scrap that personally?
I looked defiantly up at Matt as I tried to remember the location of the foreman’s office. Since I’d landed, there hadn’t been any word from him despite his agreeing to prioritize the Leggy Redhead.
“What can I say? I’ve got a way with people. It’s not my fault that they’re always wrong about me.”
Matt shoved me inside a lift, and set the controls to reach the repair bays. “Yeah, except that he wasn’t.”
I rolled my eyes as the elevator started to ascend. “He called me a whore and you handsome. I’d say that he’s zero-for-two so far.”
Matt shot me look but declined to comment and continued to herd me towards repair bays. We got to the entrance to the shop where I’d left the Redhead but instead of heading inside we continued farther down the corridor.
“Ummm, Matt sweetie – where abouts are we going? My ships back there.”
Matt pulled me to one side as a repair crew came hurrying the other way pulling a power inverter behind them. I turned away so they wouldn’t see my face – I didn’t fancy meeting any of Nicky’s friends.
Matt pulled a data slate out of his jacket and thumbed it awake.
“Well you see darlin’, I’ve been thinking…” he began, absorbed in the screen.
“Dangerous move that, you’re not well equipped for it.”
He looked up from the slate gave me a tight grin. “There’s a saying about people in glass houses that seems mighty appropriate right about now,” he said, passing it to me.
I glanced at the screen, then looked again.
Ship Registration: Vindicta. Class: Python. Docking Bay Allocation: 162.
I looked back at Matt in surprise.
“He’s still here?”
Matts smirked. “Sure is. If you’d spent the last few days doing something more productive than wallowing in self pity and pussy you’d know that.”
The retort died on my lips. He was right. I’d just assumed that Vex had scarpered after our conversation. It never occurred to me that he’d have stuck around and I’d been too absorbed in my various diversions to even bother to check.
Matt took my arm and stared me back down the corridor again.
“What d’ya say we go pay your friend a visit, huh?”
I let him lead me down the corridor, my still fuzzy brain working overtime.
Well done Tanith! How are you gonna fix this? You’re about to lead a fully armed bounty hunter straight to a man who already thinks you’re a dangerous liability.
I’m going to have to try and get a warning to him aren’t I.
How do you plan to do that Tanith.
Maybe overpower Matt?
Oh come off it – he weighs almost twice as much as you, he’s armed and he clearly knows how to handle himself.
Maybe steal the slate and send Vex a message?
Doubt it. You’ve already tricked him once, he’s far to wary around you to let his guard down now.
Do you anything useful to add, or are you just going to piss on my cornflakes?
Face it Tanith, you screwed this. The best you can hope for is that Vex kills Matt and then hangs around long enough to listen to you.
We’d reached the door to Vex’s bay. Matt stopped and looked at me.
“I’m sorry about this darlin’” he said, pulling out his blaster again, “but I need Vex to stop and think before he comes out guns blazing.”
He pointed the gun at me.
“Now just you open up that door and do exactly what I tell you. I don’t want to have to hurt you, but I won’t lose any sleep over it if I do.”
There was nothing I could do – with a sick feeling in my gut I turned to the door and keyed the controls.
The repair bay was completely empty. No work crews, no tools, no umbilicales running to the ship.
No Vex though either.
Matt followed me through, keeping a professional distance behind me. Once through the door he stopped and looked around.
“Seem a little quiet to you?”
I shrugged noncommittally but he was right. A repair bay in use always has something happening in it. Fast turn around it key. If there aren’t human workers there are bots and if there aren’t bots there are usually power conduits and diagnostics tools running on screens.
And if none of that’s happening you can usually guarantee there’s a shouting match happening between a pissed off pilot and an overworked docker.
What you don’t find is an eerie silence and a beaten up spaceship.
Sitting in it’s docking clamps in the middle of the bay was Vex’s ship – its hull peppered with deep gouges from laser fire and impact craters from explosive munitions. In two or three places entire sections of the ship’s superstructure were open to the elements.
Matt gestured at the battle scarred Python with his gun.
“Your friend ain’t such a bad pilot is he? I wouldn’t have wanted to try and land this.”
He gestured at the ship again.
“Let’s see if anyone’s home shall we?”
The main ramp into the ship was already lowered so we were able to just walk straight up it and into the main cargo bay. From there a short walk took us up and along the gantry towards the hatch into the bridge and living quarters.
I stopped and turned to look at Matt who was still following a few paces behind me.
“What do you want me to do now?”
“Whadda ya think I want you to do? Open the door.”
I looked at the door then back at him. “It’s locked.”
Matt gave me a steady look. “I know it’s locked. But not that long ago you broke into my ship – hacked the main computer and wiped the core. I reckon you can probably manage a locked hatchway.”
“I did not break in. You invited me.”
Matt grimaced. “Don’t remind me. You gonna open that door?”
I shook my head in resignation. “I’m going to need my gear.”
The reaper tossed me the roll of tools from my bag. “Get going.”
Matt had been right – even on the come down I was on, opening an interior hatch was child’s play. A few minutes of fiddling and poking at the controls yielded a satisfying hiss and the door slid open.
Cautiously, we made our way down the main corridor, taking care to muffle our steps. Vex was a wiley sod and in the confines of his own ship there was a hundred ways that he could ambush us. Worst of all, I couldn’t be certain that he would spare me. After all- here I was, ostensibly working alongside yet another bounty hunter out for Vex’s hide. What would that look like?
“Crew commons,” Matt whispered, gesturing with his pistol towards the door to our left. Without a word I nodded, popped off the access panel and began to plug in my bypass gear- until I saw the faint green glow next to the door controls. It was unlocked.
We smelled it before we saw it- the metallic tang of dried blood, stinging our nostrils as the door slid open. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, a hand went involuntarily to my mouth. What greeted us on the other side was like something out of a horror movie. At first glance it seemed like you couldn’t look anywhere without seeing a bloody corpse. Two men were slumped over the table on one side of the room – in the zero-G couches on the other a woman lay on her side, her throat cut.
It was the fourth that drew my eyes though. Every time I tried looked away my gaze was dragged, inexorably back to it.
He was sat in a chair in the middle of the room, his wrists tied to the arms. The fingers on his right hand were clearly broken and those on his left were missing their nails. Blood had soaked into his shirt from a head wound, which turned out upon closer inspection to be a missing ear and three of his teeth had been removed.
The sights and smells were too much. I dropped to my knees and wretched, emptying the contents of my stomach on the deck. It seemed like the only appropriate response.
“Charming fella this Vex.”
I looked up. Matt was standing in front of me, offering a greasy kitchen rag that he’d found . I took it gratefully and wiped my mouth.
“I can see why you’re so keen on meeting him.”
I shook my head, not daring to speak.
Matt didn’t push the point. His eyes roamed over the carnage in the room, and even he looked a little pale when confronted with the aftermath of my father’s “friend”. He frowned and walked over to one of the two men on the table.
“What is it?” I asked pulling myself back to my feet.
“Just seems odd.” He said, starting to sort through the pockets of the corpse, his face
“Well, reapers don’t usually work in groups.” He replied, still continuing with his grisly search. “Sharing the work means sharing the payout – so if it’s a single target we tend to go it solo.”
He paused and moved to the other body on the table.
“So either four reapers found Vex all at the same time or…” he pulled an ID tag out of the corpse’s pocket and examined it, but I’d worked out where this was going.
“Imperial Internal Security Service, to be precise. Dressed in civvies. Which raises the question of just what your friend has done. They don’t operate this far out of their jurisdiction unless it’s really fucking serious.”
“He’s not my friend.” I muttered.
Matt looked at me and cocked an eyebrow.
“What was that you said?”
“He’s not my friend,” I said, louder this time. “We’ve met, like, twice in my entire life. And the second time he was not exactly warm and fuzzy about the reunion.”
I looked dejectedly around the room. What the hell had I got myself into? I had known that Vex was a bit unbalanced when I’d started looking for him, but what I saw here was the work of a sociopath.
I looked up to find Matt watching me. I braced myself for some sort of sarcastic comment, telling me what a stupid little girl I’d been.
It never came. Instead he walked over and put his hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry.” He said simply.
Damn it Matt, now is not the time to suddenly become the good guy.
My vision blurred and I blinked away the tears. If I started crying now I wouldn’t be able to stop it.
“Yeah, me too.”
He reached out to touch my shoulder again, stopped, and awkwardly retracted his hand, looking down at his boots, uncertainty in his face.
We stood there in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes, neither of us really sure what to say to the other. For want of something better to do I pulled a packet of smokes out of my pocket and offered Matt one. He shook his head so I took one for myself and started hunting through my pockets for a lighter.
That broke the spell. Matt took a deep breath -brave of him, given the stench- and started searching the adjacent living quarters. Not knowing how to help, I concentrated on my cigarette. At least the tobacco would overpower the rot.
I found a lighter, applied the bunsen flame to the cigarette and took a deep drag, calming my nerves. Matt hadn’t said anything since he’d started to rummage through the bunks. Now, he was in the captain’s cabin, swearing under his breath.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
Dear Tanith: you’re standing in the middle of a pile of stinking corpses, helping the man who wants to kill Vex and possibly you. What the hell kind of question is that?
Matt emerged from the private quarters, frustration in his face.
“It just don’t make any goddamn sense. None of it.”
I pursed my lips as I took a step back, taking another drag. “What do you mean?”
“Your fr- Vex ain’t here, and he ain’t been since he set down. Even if he could stand sleeping next to a room full of rotting stiffs, there’s nothing in the captain’s cabin or any of the crew lockers. He packed his bags and abandoned ship the moment he landed.”
I looked around us, again taking in the ghastly sights. “Can you blame him?”
“Sure can’t, but it does raise the question of where the hell he’s been this whole time.”
Something was niggling at the back of my brain. Vomiting out three days worth of assorted narcotics, coupled with the familiar taste of the cigarette was starting to clear my mind from the week long bender.
Matt was still muttering to himself, trying to put together a plausible explanation for where his prey could have been hiding. He turned to me and and gestured around him.
“Think he might have hopped into a passenger liner, paid another pilot to take him someplace?”
I considered the idea, and shook my head. “Unlikely. He hates the idea of not being in control, and who would take him-”
Matt nodded, cutting me off. “- with half the reapers and security agents in the bubble lookin’ for him? Right. So where else could he be?”
“Laying low? Getting lost in the crowd? It worked for me.”
“Just being here is laying low. Besides, there ain’t much of a crowd to get lost in. It’s not that busy here.”
Something about his last statement turned the wheels in my mind. Not that busy. Not busy enough to fill a bar, and for sure not busy enough for repairs to take-
Matt looked at me in surprise. “What?”
I was already heading for the door. “Come on! I know what he’s trying to do.”
Matt caught up with me as I was sprinting down the ramp, his long legs giving him a turn of speed I couldn’t match.
“You want to tell me where we’re going?”
“Remember when I told you it was going to take a few weeks to fix the Redhead?” I panted.
“So if it isn’t that busy here, why is it taking Jethro so long to get it fixed?”
“One of the mechanics – he’s the one who works this bay, too. I reckon Vex is strong-arming him, getting him to make it look like Vex is still here, and getting him to delay me and keep me out of the Redhead so he can hack the security.”
We reached to repair bay door. I went through fast and collided with the wall of the corridor on the other side. Pushing off, I headed back up towards the repair bay that I’d been assigned when I’d landed. Matt followed me through and once again drew level.
“So you reckon…?” He wasn’t even breathing hard, despite spending most of his time in space he clearly kept in shape – I was starting to get decidedly winded.
“I reckon the bastard’s trying to steal my fucking ship!”
We reached the door to the Redhead’s Hanger – on the other side I could hear the turbine whine of the thrusters powering up.
I thumped the door control and dived through just as my beloved Redhead lifted off the launch pad. The jetwash and scorching heat from the maneuvering thrusters hit me full in the face as the bulk of the ship swung around – the landing gear folded away, the main drives fired up, and I rose to my feet just as the Asp began to shrink, heading towards Fernandez’s mailslot.
“Bastard!” I yelled at the retreating ship. “Fucking bastard!”
I grabbed a wrench from a nearby toolbox and hurled it into the dissipating thruster trail.
“Goddamn, fucking, whore!”
I turned around to find Matt grinning at me. Cleary he was enjoying watching me be manipulated into losing my ship, so soon after I’d pulled a similar trick on him.
I glared at him, “Don’t you dare say a fucking word, Matthew!”
Matt’s grin just got wider.
“Say, darlin’,” he drawled. “You need a lift?”