DON’T FEAR THE REAPER: CHAPTER 5 – …AND INFLUENCING PEOPLE

Dear Tanith,

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.”

corridor

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.

148…149…150…

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.

152…153…154…

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.

156…157…158

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.

“Fuck!”

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

“What does?”

“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.

“They’re cops?”

“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-

“Oh shit!”

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.

“Yeah. So?”

“So if it isn’t that busy here, why is it taking Jethro so long to get it fixed?”

“Jethro?”

 

“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?”

ntjizb

Advertisements

DON’T FEAR THE REAPER: CHAPTER 4 – MAKING FRIENDS…

Fernandez Co-Operative, huh? What’s a nice girl like you doing in a shithole like this?

The Coriolis station loomed before me as I steered the Inevitable Betrayal towards its cavernous docking tube. The station controller duly and boredly granted my request to dock and confirmed my assigned landing pad. As I approached, I shifted in my seat, grimacing with memories of my guts twisting with the knock-out juice.

Of course, “nice” is a pretty damn relative term for Tanith.

I set down the Betrayal and hit the controls to lower her into the docking bay, unbuckling myself and standing up even as the bay doors were sliding shut over me. It was time for a shower and a change of clothes. I couldn’t know if the she was still here on Fernandez, but it was almost certain that she would have gone poking around for Vex. And in a place like this, no one can go anywhere without being seen, heard, and remembered.

I emerged from the Betrayal half an hour later in my usual getup: slacks, leather jacket, and flight boots. Out of precaution, I had elected to go cowboy this mission, my blaster secured firmly to my side. There weren’t any station regs that prohibited its wear, and I might need a little extra persuasion to get Tanith to divulge whatever info she’d managed to dig up on Vex.

If we pilots are anything at all, we’re creatures of habit. A pilot docked, saw to business, and headed to the bar for a drink and a bite to eat. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from- that was SOP for anyone with Pilot’s Fed wings, even in times of crisis. Especially in times of crisis.

I stepped into the main corridor from the hangar bay, eyeing it up and down and reading the color-coded directions to the pilot’s area. The station didn’t seem to have too much foot traffic, so finding her in one of the bars close to the hangars probably wouldn’t be too hard.

Relatively. It was still a needle-in-haystack situation, but at least the needle was in a specific part of the haystack.

Probably.

It turned out that the area around Fernandez was long on commodity merchants and short on watering holes. That made sense. If you were going to set up shop in a place where damn near anything was legal, why waste time with booze and food? As I made my way closer to the pilot’s hub, the corridors became busier and busier: pilots, crew, technicians, on-station merchants, and even the odd dock-knocker all became common sights around me.  

The pilots’ lounge itself was… less than impressive. Fernandez was a station built for making deals and then making high-wakes, not for sightseeing. The lounge itself was a drab, metal courtyard of sorts, flickering holo-advirts on the walls with both manned and automated vendors of different foods and piloting gear. One of the sub-corridors led to what looked like the only bar in the place. I shook my head as I headed towards it.

The Rock Bottom. Cute.

The bar sign had a neon-picture of a crashed Cobra, a self-depreciating joke at the expense of whoever was in a rough enough spot in life to actually frequent the bar and this particular space station in general. Still- dive bars have their charms, and a young lady like Tanith would probably hide out in one for as long as it took to get her bearings and move on.

The Rock Bottom was bigger than it looked. The bar itself was a large, horseshoe-style “U” shape, constructed from molded composites and lit by cheap neon beer logos and sometimes- flickering industrial lighting. It made for a lot of shadows, especially in the periphery of the place where the booths and tables were. On the upper level was a surrounding walkway, with a few more tables and hallways that led to…

Rooms. Probably the kind you rent by the hour, not the night.

The place wasn’t deserted, but it wasn’t packed, either. I was able to find a seat at the bar without any trouble, even as a few women not far away looked my way and smiled coquettishly. They weren’t wearing anything that stood a chance of keeping them warm in the drafty place, and while their bodies screamed “twenties”, their eyes suggested “fifties”. Giving them a polite smile back, I turned back to the bar and shook my head.

Definitely rented by the hour.

A swarthy, bored-looking bartender sauntered up, placing his hands on the stained bartop and smacking his lips a few times.

“What’ll it be, stranger?”

I took a look to either side. No one was talking much, even the people who were seated together. I leaned forward, making careful eye contact.

“Depends. Anything come through here that’s dark, fresh, and sweet-looking?”

The man glanced around as a weary look crossed his face. Weathered-faced pilots quietly nursed their drinks, and the pair of rejected dock knockers kept to themselves, smiles gone and not paying the least amount of attention to me since being coolly rejected.

“Ain’t a lot around here that stays fresh or sweet.”

I smiled. “Got better places to be than ‘rock bottom’, huh?”

The bartender let out a short, sarcastic laugh. “That’s the owner’s gig, not mine. We serve a drink for the miners called the Rock Bottom. It’s got a chunk of ore at the bottom of the glass, you see? Combine that with the fact that we’re all stuck on Fernandez, and you’ve got yourself a bar name.”

I nodded. “Sounds like a real smartass, this guy. And unoriginal. That drink is called a ‘Miner’s Delight’ anywhere else.”

A sour look crossed the man’s features. “He’s a son of a bitch is what he is. See those girls over there? Skims the top off of whatever credits they spread for. In return they get access to a steady stream of clients- and a little extra powder if they service his withered old prick on the side.”

“And they say that good help is hard to come by.”

We both glanced to the two dock knockers, already chatting up a pilot who had sat down on the other end of the bar. The man let out a short sigh, and turned back to me.

“Anyway, sorry to yap your ear off. What’ll it be?”

I looked back over to him. “Same as before. Rare vintage, would have passed through here not too long ago. Dark, sweet, and easy on the eyes.”

Our eyes locked as I slow slid the credit chip his way. He glanced down, subtly pocketed the chip and lifted his chin upwards.

“I, uh- I think I might have that in stock. Tats, dreads, and not very aged, right?”

I nodded slowly, our understanding deepening. “And a set of nicely filled-out cargo pants. All I need is a location. She could be anywhere by now. I’d appreciate anything you can tell me about any plans of hers that she’s blabbed.”

The man let out a short chuckle, looking around to make sure that no one was in earshot. He leaned in close, his voice dropping.

“Well, you don’t have to go far to find her. She’s here, and has been for days. I don’t know the details, but I guess her ship’s taken a shit.”

I narrowed my eyes and looked at the man sideways. “And she’s holed up here?”

“Stays in one of the rooms for the most part. Buys some drinks, chats a little, and heads back.”

“That’s it? Nothing else you can tell me? And which room, exactly?”

A mercenary gleam crossed the man’s eyes as he smiled, his mouth hanging open. “Hard to say. My mind just ain’t what it used to be.”

Fucking hell. I slid another credit chip his way, leaning in closer. “Think harder.”

The bartender glanced at the three-digit number on the chip and made it disappear as quickly as the first one.

“Oh yeah. I remember now. End of the upstairs hall, last door on the left. And she ain’t alone, either. Bought up just about every minute of poor Nikki’s time since she walked in, ain’t been sharing her with anyone.”

I screwed up my face. “Who’s Nikki?”

The man stood back up and lifted his chin to gesture above us. “Knock and see for yourself. Just, uh- they might be busy, you know?”

I nodded and rose from the bar stool, straightening my jacket. “Right. I’ll take my chances.”

A look of concern crossed the man’s face as his eyes drifted to my holstered blaster.

“Just keep it civil, whatever you do. Fernandez may be a freeport, but it ain’t that free.”

shady-entrance

I stepped carefully down the upper corridor. Half the lights in it were burned out, and my hand had drifted instinctually to the grip of my holstered blaster. There wasn’t anyone else around, and nothing of note except a few flickering holo-adverts along the wall and assorted trash on the deck.

Damn, Tanith. Way to keep it classy.

Following the bartender’s directions, I crept to the last door on the left and gingerly help an ear against the bulkhead door. Coming from the other side was a rhythmic moaning that was usually only heard in cut-rate holoporn.

I exhaled and shook my head. No prizes for guessing how she’s been passing her time, I guess.

The door’s controls weren’t set up for a private room. They looked to be for a generic storage closet, with simple open/close buttons instead of a comm or a locking mechanism. Whoever this Nikki was, she was coasting on whatever honor system Fernandez Co-Op had in place.

I took a step back and unholstered my pistol. Whatever was going on in there, I would need to be ready.

Well, let’s go ruin Tanith’s day.

I punched the door controls, watching it slide open to reveal an almost totally dark room, the moans getting louder as the door opened. Taking a step inside and closing the door behind me, I turned to see what there was to see. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, and-

On the bed was a nude, sweating Tanith. She was bare down to her hips, over which was a simple white sheet with the twin peaks of her knees forming a pair of rounded, off-white peaks. Her eyes were only starting to open at the sound and sudden influx of light, her moans still on her lips and the telltale shape of another person under the sheets turning around.

Emerging from beneath the sheets was a pale-faced, dark-haired young woman scrambling to face me. Her mouth was open, her face a look of fear and shock at the sight of a strange man with a gun drawn. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what I’d just interrupted, but I could tell that a gun in her face was a hell of switch from, well-

Her scream filled the room as she grabbed the sheet and pulled it up to her and Tanith, who was still looking at me with disbelief. Her legs pinwheeled in place as she tried to get away and back up.

“Shut up!”

The women promptly cut off her scream and stared at me with shallow, ragged breaths. Tanith opened her mouth and leaned forward, oblivious of her nudity. Her eyes were a combination of drugged wonder and traces of fear.

Matt?”

I grinned and help up my pistol. “This ain’t a bad time, is it?”

The dark-skinned woman opened and closed her mouth, her hands gripping her head as she took deep breaths. The pale dock knocker beside her- Nikki, I guess- drew the sheet up to her neck, the look of terror still in her face. Beside the bed was a mess- clothes, empty ration containers, crumpled up beer cans, and blankets that had been tossed aside. A small day pack that had been left unzipped was resting to the side of the room.

Been makin’ yourself at home, darlin’?

On the night stand was a small assortment of needles, powdery substances, and a few half-smoked joints. I raised my eyes in amusement at the other object beside them. Their little party had clearly been a “no boys allowed” affair, but had still included a large, purple-

“You- you’re supposed to fucking stranded.”

Tanith was struggling to string her words together. She wasn’t scared, not exactly. In her  drugged, spaced-out state, detached wonder was the best she could summon at the sudden sight of me. I grinned and took a step closer, keeping the pistol pointed at her exposed chest.

“I was. And you’re supposed to be partnered up with your buddy Vex by now. Guess things didn’t work out for either of us, huh?”

Instead of answering, Tanith just stared dumbly at me, taking a few cautious deep breaths.

“So- what now?”

I cocked my head to the side. “You mean, do I waste you for fucking with me and my ship?”

Some semblance of sobriety was returning to her eyes as she answered. “Something like that.”

I lowered the blaster and gestured to her clothes. “Nah. You’re my only link to Vex. Bad for business to blast that through the tits.”

A look of disgust crossed Tanith’s face as she pulled the sheet up a little higher. “Never mind my tits – what makes you think I’d help you, anyway?”

I smiled and gestured around the room. “Because neither of us got we wanted out of ol’ Vex. That’s why we’re both here, ain’t it? You want to track him down. So do I.”

The young woman started to protest, but I cut her off. “And in my book, that makes us partners.”

A look of shock and disbelief crossed Tanith’s face as she let go of the sheet, too stunned to pull it up again. She looked at a still-petrified Nikki, the pile of drugs, around the room, and finally back at me before burying her face in her hands.

“I am far too fucked up for this right now!”

Slowly, hesitantly, the young women slid out of bed and started getting dressed, eyeing me warily. She turned towards her day pack, and I swiftly held up my gun.

“Nice and easy.”

The expression on her face hardened, and she looked over her shoulder, her hands up. “Just getting out some credits. Relax, reaper man.”

Tanith’s hand disappeared into her bag, emerging with a pair of chips. Wearily, she gave them to Nikki, the faintest of smiles crossing her lips.

“I’ve got to go now. Thanks for everything.”

Nikki nodded her head rapidly as she accepted the chips, glancing at me as she did so. Tanith shoved a few things from across the room into her daypack, stumbling a few times from the leftover high. Finally, she shouldered the daypack and looked up at me defiantly. I opened the door and gestured outside with the blaster.

“C’mon. We ain’t got much time.”

Tanith’s spice-green eyes flashed as she strode by me. “Whatever you say, partner.

I glanced one last time back into the trashed room. Nikki was still in the bed, looking at me with wide eyes. Hardening my mouth and shaking my head, I dug into my pocket and tossed a credit chip her way. It landed on the sheet between her thighs. She looked down at it, and then up to me. I shrugged at the petrified dock knocker and exited the room, looking back at her with a smirk as I hit the door controls.

“For your trouble.”

corridor

“I already told you, I don’t know where Vex is!”

Tanith glanced angrily behind her shoulder as I shoved her ahead of me. We were walking down one of the sub-corridors of Fernandez, making our way to the hangars. My pistol was holstered, and as long as she played it cool, it would stay that way. The walk had just about sobered Tanith up, but she was still stumbling and giving me attitude.

“Well, I don’t either- and that’s a problem for a fella like me.”

We stepped into a lift, me hitting the button to take us to the hangar level. Tanith again glanced over her shoulder, eyeing me distrustfully.

“Well, don’t make it my problem. You’re wasting your time. Or are you taking that little cocktail from earlier personally?”

I narrowed my eyes and glanced at the dark-skinned woman at an angle, cocking my head to the side.

“You’re goddamn right I am, but that ain’t why I’m here. Word is, you’ve been shacked up with that moaner for days- which means that you ain’t been with Vex. And if you ain’t been with Vex, shit didn’t go according to plan for you, either.”

Tanith didn’t reply immediately, only biting her lip and looking at her feet. Finally, she spoke up as the lift neared its destination.

“It’s my ship.  I fucked up a scoop and fried the heat conduction. It’s not going anywhere for awhile.”

In an Asp?

I shook my head and exhaled slowly. “I hate to break this to you, but that’s a hold of bullshit. It takes a hell of a lot more than a botched scoop to ground a Lakon.”

That got Tanith to spin around, her still-glazed-over eyes annoyed.

“I am well aware of that thank you! I’ve fixed ships with worse abuse than that.  But the mechanic said he was busy and I know better than to get pushy with a busy dock crew.”

“Does it strike you that this place is particularly busy?  And it’s not like he couldn’t get parts – there tends to be a lot of derelicts floating around a place like this.”

“What exactly are you saying here?”

The elevator began to slow as I shook my head. “I’m sayin’ that someone ain’t been straight with you.”

The lift doors slid open, revealing a group of four four-looking men in grubby dockworker coveralls. One with layers of head bandages step forward, tapping a giant industrial wrench against his palm. He looked us over, his gaze fixated on Tanith.

“Hello again, love.” His eyes flicked over to me, and then back to her. “Got yourself a boyfriend?”

Tanith and I both took a step back, our backs pressed against the lift capsule wall. I tilted my head towards her as the other three men pulled out crude mechanical tools and held them up menacingly.

“Friends of yours, darlin’?”

The young woman’s face soured as she pushed against both myself and the lift bulkhead.

“Oh, you know me. I’m a real people person.”

DON’T FEAR THE REAPER:CHAPTER 3 – NEVER MEET YOUR HEROES

I have GOT to stop trusting attractive strangers.

I weakly rolled onto my back and stared up from the deck plating of the Inevitable Betrayal’s bridge. My head was spinning, and I was still pretty weak- but I was breathing, and all four limbs were checking in like normal. Slowly, I sat up and buried my head in my hands.

At least Kyndi gave it a few days before she made her move. This Tanith chick went straight for the jugular.

My eyes focused, and I looked around. It was almost night on the planet, but that shouldn’t have made a difference. The bridge, too, was dark- which meant that-

Oh shit.

I reached up to the instrument panel I had fallen by, gripping it for support as I hoisted myself up. Unsteady on my feet, I looked around the bridge. The computer stations were all functional, but displaying emergency alerts, illuminating the darkness in red instead of aqua blue like normal.

With shaking fingers, I activated the terminal in front of me. The basic menu functionality was there, but it wasn’t letting me access anything. Strangely, I was recognized as the owner of the ship, but not a valid user.

I shook my head. She wiped the database and did something to the power, but didn’t have enough time for anything else.

Leaning against the bulkhead wall for support, I made my way to the commander’s quarters. Crouching down beside the bed, I punched in both the numeric and genetic combo to open the concealed safe. It popped open, and stashed among piles of credit chips was a high-density disk with the Zorgon-Peterson logo on it. I reached inside and retrieved it, stuffing it inside my jacket pocket.

My strength was slowly returning, but it was still a struggle just to make it back to the bridge. I collapsed into the pilot’s seat and opened the concealed drive access, inserting the disk and letting the program override. The <reactor critical> message was replaced with <master key detected. Reboot/Restore/Cancel>

I selected <restore> and sat back, inputting my password and letting the system reload from the master disk. The process took awhile but it was worth it. My ship once again recognized me, but that was only one of several problems to fix.

<lockdown override>

Good. Now let’s get airborne.

<running full diagnostics>

A few minutes passed.

<warning: unknown reactor failure>

<warning: unauthorized file deletion>

<warning: emergency power engaged>

Goddamnit. This is just what I need.

I swung to my right and navigated the menu until I arrived at the <repair/reboot> command. I had only ever had to use it a few times over the course of my career, but it had saved me.

<rebooting… please wait>

The lights temporarily powered off as the ship’s systems shut down. Almost immediately, a warning message flashed:

<warning: reactor fault>

<coolant system failure>

<emergency power activated>

I shook my head. Ok, so it’s not kidding around. Got it.

<contact nearest Zorgon-Peterson service center?>

Routing power to the comm array, I frowned as I hit <Y>. Looks like it’s time to whistle in some help.

***

 

“Well, there’s your problem.”

The white and gold-coveralled Zorgon-Peterson technician was crouching in front of the reactor accessway. He hadn’t been down there for longer than thirty seconds, and I was both relieved and disturbed that he had found the problem so quickly. I hunkered down next to him.

“What is it?”

He gestured inside, shrugging. “The master coolant governor.”

I peered inside, curious. “Fried?”

“Non-existent.”

“Oh.”

The man pointed inside the compartment, doing his best to hide his annoyance. “See this empty spot in-between these auxiliary regulators? That’s where the module should be. But it’s been removed. Your ship can’t manage the coolant flow without it, and the failsafes put the reactor into lockdown. Ain’t jack shit you can do about it.”

I nodded. That fucking woman. “Right. You got a spare?”

The man nodded. “I do, and it’s a snap to install.”

“Well, that’s all you had to say. Let’s do it.”

***

The lights shut down, and then then came back on–all the way back on–a minute later. Around me, systems rebooted and the low hum of the reactor resonated throughout the ship. I got up from the pilot’s seat and looked around. Once again, the bridge terminals were a calming blue instead of dire red.

Thank God for roadside assistance. I walked down to the reactor access level just as the man was replacing the panel.

“All done?”

He was packing up his toolbag, giving me a curious look. “Yeah. You’ve got full power, and everything’s in the green. That’s the good news.”

I lifted my chin, leaning against the bulkhead wall and folding my arms. “Yeah? So what’s the bad news?’

The man didn’t answer right away, only crossing his own arms and looking straight at me. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the fix isn’t covered by either Pilot’s Fed or the Zorgon-Peterson warrantee.”

My jaw dropped. “Say what now? I seem to recall reading that remote assistance is fully cov-”

The man interrupted, both worry and annoyance in his face. “You did. Provided that you didn’t violate the terms of the warrantee.”

“The hell are you talking about?”

The man looked around the cramped reactor gantry, his eyes moving from one module to the next. “Listen, pal- I don’t personally care what a pilot does with his own ship. But that reactor is putting out way more juice than factory spec, and there’s some real funny stuff going on with your distributor. I’ve worked on a lot of these ‘Lances, and there’s a plethora of non-Zorgon gear that’s been hooked up. Any idea where all that came from?”

My eyes narrowed. “Fuck you, that’s where.”

The man held up his hands and looked at me cautiously. “Like I said- what a man does with his own rig ain’t my business. But the repair info’s been transmitted, and the claim’s been denied. You can pay me now or you can charge it. But either way, Zorgon’s getting what it’s owed.”

I looked down at my feet, sighed, and then back up to the man. “Fine. What’s the damage?”

A relieved look crossed his face. “For the part? Two thousand credits. For the flight and my time? Another forty-eight.”

Jesus fuck. That’s half the advance already gone.

Grumbling, I pulled out a credit chip and programmed it for the exact amount. Placing it in his outstretched hand, I stood aside to let him out, walking behind him all the way to the Betrayal’s entry ramp. He shook my hand and started back to his company Adder. Pausing, he turned around, an almost mischievous look in his eye.

“By the way- I found a long, black hair in the reactor access. Thought you’d like to know.”

***

Well, if I can track a shitty wake signal, I can damn well track a fresh one.

The Betrayal’s systems had been fully restored, and I was hunched over the same terminal as before, letting the equipment reconstruct all the wake trails that it could. Fortunately, the one that I had determined to most likely be Vex’s was matched by a new one that led to the same destination.

Then that’s the next step. HM Bootis.  

Satisfied, I walked to the commander’s chair and strapped in, plotting the course and trying to make sense of the last day.

Who the hell is this Tanith chick, and what’s Vex to her? Lover? Friend? Relative?

The systems finished activating and I powered up the thrusters, lifting off from the world and watching the horizon drop. I pulled back on the joystick and hit the boost, watching the dull night atmosphere transition into a starfield.

Whoever she is, one thing’s for certain: I’ll bring her ass down for free.

 shady-coriolis

“A week!?  You have got to be shitting me!”

The fat man in the grease covered vest shrugged.

“Well ya see, y’all went an’ fried the heat conduction wiring.  Ain’t nothin’ to be done ‘cept strip the hull platin’ and re-place it all – else ya’ll cook yourself, second you try an’ charge that FSD”

I knew this – it was the most likely cause of the issues I’d had since I fucked up a simple fuel scoop when I’d entered the system;  but I had really been hoping that another set of eyes would find something different.  Something that could be more easily repaired.

“Fuck!”  I yelled, kicking an empty toolbox across the floor.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

I looked around for something else to kick.  The only thing close enough was the mechanic – who wisely took a step back, holding up his oily hands.

“Now look, darlin’ –  I ain’t saying you gotta be pleased with this, but if ya’ll start smashing up mah workshop you and I is gonna have a problem – ya hear?”

I took a deep breath.  Getting in this guy’s face was not going to help things – not least of which because I needed him to fix my ship; stripping the hull plating not being a thing you can do with a multitool and a smile.

By the way Tannith, a smile could go a long way here to getting this grease bag to fix the Redhead ASAP.

I smiled up at the dude.

“I’m really sorry Jethro.  I just…”

How much do you tell a stranger?

Well little honesty couldn’t hurt, could it?

“…I’ve been looking for an old friend of mine for a very long time.  I know I’m right behind him – and now you’re telling me there’s a week of work in my ship before I can follow him.”

The man put his hands into his sides and looked glumly at me. “A week if ever’thing else goes smooth. We fix the ships as they come in, and yers is last in line.  Now how about you quit worrying that prrdy young head of yours and take a tour planetside? Ain’t nothing to do up here ‘cept drink and whore.”

I let my lip quiver artistically – it wasn’t hard, now the anger was under control there was a very real risk of tears. A woman pulling out a sob or two in front of a man was normally a tactic that I despised – but this was an emergency.

“Please…”

Don’t overdo it, dear. Try to appear brave. But not too brave. Men love being the hero.

I took a deep breath, looking down at my feet and then up to the grubby mechanic. “Please help me. You don’t know what it means for me to get back out there. If something happens to my friend…”

Spinning around, I buried my face in my hands and willed a few tears out of my eyes. And if my shoulders were shaking in rhythm with my sobs, then who was I to help that?

As I had hoped, I felt a rough hand on my shoulder. Behind my hands, my mouth curled into a smile.

That’s right, Jethro. Help the poor young lady out. Be the nice guy.  

“Well, uh – I guess I could maybe bump you up a few places. Most of these guys’r just company men anyway, just as happy to sit their asses down on a barstool as in a command’rs chair. I can start on her in a few days. Deal?”

I spun around and threw my arms around the burly man’s neck, giving him the most sincere fake hug of both our lives. Happily, he didn’t smell as bad as I’d imagined.

“Oh, thank you! You don’t know what this means!”

I felt Jethro give me a rough pat on my back, and then pushed me away. He looked embarrassed at the unexpected show of gratitude, looking around and smacking his lips like he didn’t know what to say. Eventually he screwed up his face and gestured towards the repair bay exit.

“Alright, alright, you’re welcome. Just keep it between us, okay? Now g’won! I’ve got ships to fix.”

Hanger Asp

I kept the grateful smile on my face right up until I left the workshop, then let it slide from my face.  I was still going to be stuck here for days; with Vex getting farther away, and – more worryingly, an almost certainly pissed off Matt Lehman closing the gap.

Still,  it didn’t mean that I had nothing to do.  I casually lifted a safety jacket from pegs at the door to Jethro’s workshop and wandered down towards the main docking bay floor.  People make a big deal out of clever disguises – masking their most notable features under hats, behind glasses and in extreme cases, with fake prosthetics.  However if you want to move around a major ship dock without being noticed you don’t need any of that, just put on a safety jacket and boom – instant invisibility.

I followed the arrows that led me up to the main transit floor, nodding at the other loaders and techs as they wandered past me.  At the top of one of the access hatch I paused and took a moment to enjoy the sight of the kilometer-wide cylinder sloping up and away from me – ships flying above me to their designated landing pads. Fernandez Co-Operative wasn’t a big port by any stretch, which was probably why Vex came here in the first place – no one was going to be asking too many questions.  Despite it’s small size though there was a Type-9 coming in to land above me, it’s enormous bulk slowly rotating to line up with the docking pad.

“Ya gonna stand there gawping all day?”

I looked down to find a loader crew standing at the bottom of the ladder, waiting for me to clear the way.

“Sorry – I was just enjoying the view”

One of the loaders – a short fat man with a  sour complexion, smirked at me.  “So were we luv, but we’ve got places to be – and we can’t stand around staring at your arse all day.”

The other loaders laughed and I scowled at them, which only made them laugh harder.  I turned my back on them and pulled myself up through the hatchway – to a chorus of wolf whistles.  The first loader started to come up through behind me and was met with the hatchway door closing in his face.

“Ooops!  Clumsy me.”

I could hear the guy at the top of the ladder shouting for one of his friends to open the hatch from the controls at the bottom of the ladder – but I was already pulling a nearby cargo container over the top of the hatchway, grunting with the effort.

Drag

“Clumsy…”

Drag

“…clumsy…”

Drag

“…me.”

I took a moment to enjoy the angry thumping from the other side of the now immobile hatch and then – with a self satisfied smile, headed over to the nearest control tower and keyed the intercom on the door.

“Yeah?”

“Hello, maintainence.  Apparently you’ve been having some issues with your terminal?”

“What?  No!  The terminal here’s working just fine.”  

Damn!

“Bloody miracle too,” the disembodied voice continued.  “These things never work right.”

Don’t I know it!  In point of fact I was rather counting on it.

“Well I’ve got an open docket to repair your terminal – you mind if I just come up and run a quick diagnostic?  That way I can close the docket and be done with it.”

“Sure,  whatever makes you happy.  Come on up.”

There was a series of clicks as the locking mechanism disengaged and the door swung open.

In the control booth at the top of the stairs there a was a thin man about my age sitting at a terminal, surrounded by dirty coffee mugs and fast food wrappers.  He smiled at me apologetically.

“Sorry about the mess – I umm… wasn’t expecting company.”

I grinned back at him.

“Don’t worry. I’ve seen worse.”

He stood up and made a vain effort to clear his desk.  Arms bristling with the assorted detritus he bustled off to the other door in the control booth – which I assumed contained the kitchenette.

He paused in the doorway.

“I’ll just make myself a coffee while you do your thing.  Can I get you anything?”

Dear god – there are few things worse than dock coffee.  Maybe dock coffee in one of those mugs would set a new standard – but I doubted it.

“That would be lovely.”  I found myself saying.

He smiled shyly, looking pleased with himself and disappeared through the door.

With him out of the way I plonked myself downing the chair and jacked my dataslate into the terminal on the desk.  A few taps and the terminal was searching for every ship that had come through Fernandez in the last four weeks – along with their corresponding owners registration.

A voice from the kitchen reminded me that I wasn’t alone.

“How do you like your coffee?”

In a clean mug?

“Strong and black, please.”

In case he came back in and wondered what I was doing I opened a standard diagnostics tool and set it running a perfunctory scan – hopefully Mr. Tall, Thin and Messy wouldn’t notice the difference.

The man himself pottered back in with 2 steaming mugs, put one on the desk next to me and went and stood by the main window – looking out at the ships coming into land.  I took a sip, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the key ingredient was actually honest-to-god coffee.

“This is great,  how’d you manage to get real coffee in this shithole?”

Tall and thin turned around and smiled.

“There was a trader came through last week with a haul of it, and he gave me a kick back to get the cargo unloaded fast.”

“Well thanks for sharing your windfall – this is just what I need.”

I took another sip, savouring the flavour.  I realised I didn’t even know this angel of mercy’s name.  I stood up, wandered over to the window and stuck out my hand.

“Tanith.”

He took my hand like it might give him and electric shock.

“Daiten.”  He said quietly.

Don’t talk to girls much, do you Daiten?

“Nice to meet you.  And seriously – thank you for the coffee.  You don’t know how much I needed this.”

“No worries.”

We stood there chatting for a little while longer while my slate ran the ‘diagnostic’ – watching the traffic come and go.  He was actually really sweet.  Painfully shy, but quick witted and capable of interesting conversation once he relaxed.  I was almost disappointed when the slate beeped to tell me it had finished.

As I downed the last of my coffee and collected my slate I could see Daiten working himself up to say something.

“Umm…Tanith?  I was…umm…wondering if maybe you’d like to…ummm…”

I took pity on him.

“Daiten,  you are really sweet.  And I have enjoyed chatting.  And the coffee was a really lovely gesture.  But I think I know where this is going, and I can tell you right now that it isn’t going to happen.”

Tanith!  That was harsh – look at him.  Be nice to him,  Now!

Daiten stood there looking crestfallen.  I smiled at him and patted him on the cheek.

“Oh sweetie, don’t look like that.  It’s nothing personal.  It’s just that…well…I think it’s safe to say I like tits as much as you do.”

Daiten burst out laughing, and I gave him a quick hug.

“Don’t worry dude.  Besides – trust me when I tell you,” I pointed to myself with my thumb. “You dodged a bullet with this one.”

Daiten shrugged,  “Ah well – lucky me I guess.  Take care of yourself Tanith.  See you around.”

No you won’t Daiten, but never mind.

“Yeah, you too.  See you around.”

 

***

 

Even a station like Fernandez gets a lot of traffic in a month- and since I couldn’t sit in the Redhead  and sort through my options, I did the next best thing:

bar

I went to sort them in a bar.

This place was only modestly scummy.  The floor was clearly cleaned once a week whether the owner thought it needed it or not – and the glasses were at least washed.

I was still on the coffee though, and the quality had declined somewhat since I left the control tower.  As had my mood.

Matt had said that Vex was flying a Python, and that he had probably put in here for repairs.  It shouldn’t have been that hard to track him down, but everyone seems to fly a Python.  I have no idea why, they’re not even that nice a ship.  Middle-aged men seem to like them – they’re ‘practical’ and ‘efficient’.

I just think they’re dull.

Finding a quiet corner on the pilot’s bar wasn’t normally something a girl could just do, but local station time was too early for the after-work rush. I set the slate to filter all the results for Faulcon DeLacy Pythons, with a registration starting D-E-X.

Now that’s a more manageable list, isn’t it?

Six names scrolled across the slate’s surface and I started reading.

The fourth ship was called Vindicta and there I hit the jackpot – or so I thought.  Not only was this ship registered to Dexter Vex, it was still in dock.

I opened a high priority comms channel with the Vindicta – and too my surprise was answered almost immediately.

In the holoscreen was the face from my childhood.  Bald head, sharp features, piercing gaze, the lot – though he was dressed a lot better than I remembered, the simple shirt and waist coat fit him far too well to be anything other than hand tailored.  He looked to have been resting in the pilot’s bunk, and had needed a moment to focus at the sight of his unexpected caller.

“Tanith Low?  Is that really you?”

Same voice too.  Surprisingly deep for such a small man.

I smiled.  I’d found him!

“Yes, it’s really me.”

“Prove it.”

What?

“You don’t recognise me?”

“Obviously not.”

“Well, I don’t really know how I can…”

“How’s your mother?  Still the same lovely person I knew all those years ago?”

This conversation was not going how I had envisioned.

Tanith, what exactly were you expecting here?  He hasn’t seen you since you were a child.  Of course he doesn’t recognise you.  You’ll need to show that you know things that only you would know.

“Well, no.  My mother’s still a complete cow, to be honest.”

The briefest flicker of what may have been a smile passed across Vex’s face – but it was gone so quickly I couldn’t be sure.

“And here I was hoping that the last six years had mellowed her”

Another test – wow, this guy’s just a touch paranoid, isn’t he?

“Not really, no.  She hasn’t really changed in the fifteen since you saw her last either.”

“Uh-huh.  And your father’s well?”

This is just getting silly now!

“Oh for crying out loud, Vex!  Anyone who’s done enough background on you to dig out your connection to me certainly knows about your relationship with my father – and the fact that he died fifteen years ago, and that you avenged his death, and that you came to see my mother and I to tell us that you’d ‘taken care of things’!”

I took a deep breath to calm myself.

“They may even know that my mother kicked you out of the house when you started trying to tell me what you’d actually done.  What the hell are you trying to prove here?”

The image on the slate scowled at me.

“Well, little girl – I’m trying to work out if you are who I think you are.  Or if you’re one of a long list of people who suddenly seem to want me dead.”

The ‘little girl’ made me blush to the roots of my dreads.  How dare he be so flippant?  Did he have any idea how hard it had been to track him down even this far?  Bastard!

“I’m not on that list Vex – though I have to say I’m starting to see why it’s such a long one.  In fact, the main thing I’m trying to do at the moment is warn you that there is someone who is on that list following you.  I met him a few days ago – drugged him, disabled his ship and headed after his last lead.  Does that sound like something a ‘little girl’ could do?”

Vex looked at me, irritated.

“Well, he wouldn’t be the first. You didn’t kill him then?”

“What!  No!”

Vex shook his head contemptuously.

“Then yes: that is exactly what I would expect from a little girl.  At most you’ve bought me a couple of days head start – not long enough to cover my trail or change my ship or registration.  You’ve just led him straight to me.  Do you at least have a name?  Or were you too busy being impressed with your own cleverness to get that?”

I bristled.  What the fuck was with this guy?

“His name’s Matt Lehman.  He’s tall, with a medium build and stubbled face.”

Vex scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Who the hell isn’t?”

Gritting my teeth, I pressed on: “Dark hair, blue eyes, wears a dark leather jacket.  He’s flying a black Saud-Kruger FDL with custom fucking everything.  The ship’s registration is Inevitable Betrayal.  Do you want his fucking shoe size too?”

His eyes narrowed and he leant back, adjusting the cufflinks on his shirt.  “Listen, girly: he either finds me or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, I get away. If he does, I vapourise him – just like the last four. Then I get away anyway.  I don’t need your help.”

His face hardened and he looked down for a moment, like he was trying to decide what to say. After a moment, he looked back up.

“Now be a good little girl and run home to mummy.”

The image went blank.  I swore at it and tried to reconnect but the slate immediately came back with <Recipient is not accepting calls at this time>.

Dear Tanith,

That was not the unbridled success you imagined it would be, was it?  We did warn you about chasing down a known sociopath.  All things considered, you probably got off lightly.

Sincerely

Past, Present and Future Tanith

I sat there feeling numb, absentmindedly setting down my slate and taking stock of my situation.  I had no ship – and even if I did, the man I had wanted to meet clearly didn’t want to meet me. I was stuck at this hole of a station for at least three or four more days. What the fuck was I going to do?

Jethro’s voice interjected itself into my inner monologue.

“Ain’t nothing to do up here ‘cept drink and whore.”

I chuckled bitterly to myself as I looked up, noticing–really noticing–my surrounding for the first time from my booth. Milling around the bar were several pilots, some clustered around tables and others keeping to themselves. There were men and women alike, of various ages and moods. Then, there were the locals mixing it up, too. Some were just here for a drink, but others…

I looked speculatively at the young, curvy woman sitting at the bar in a pair of skin-tight shorts and low cut top who had been saddling up next to every pilot who came in. Looking her up and down, I felt a familiar flash of heat inside me as a new set of priorities took hold.

Maybe Jethro was on to something. What’s that old saying? “When in Rome…?”

I walked over, settling down on the stool next to her. I signalled the barkeep for a pair of shots with one hand, while the other settled on her thigh. Her attention piqued, I was treated to a sultry look that made all the day’s frustrations melt away.

dock-knocker

Our drinks appeared, and we wordlessly downed them. The woman set down her glass and took my hand, leading me up and out of the bar. We ascended a rickety metal staircase and started down a bare-metal, dimly-lit hallway. I stumbled forward down the unfamiliar corridor, her hand still leading mine and her eyes shooting naughty glances over her shoulder.

She hit the controls to the furthest door down, revealing a storage unit that had been converted into something resembling a bedroom. With one last smile, she dug her fingers into the front of my trousers and playfully pulled me inside, shutting the door and pressing her lips against mine.

As her hands began to unclasp my belt buckle, the second half of the saying hit me:

Do as the Romans do, Tanith. Do as the Romans do.

CMDR SOUVARINE: REVENANT

LONG SIGHT BASE

<private server communique>

Sender: Flight Control
Recipient: E. Martuuk
Subject: Wrecked Anaconda

 

Ms Martuuk

A pilot has requested to see you. It’s not one of the normal lot.

We got an unresolved contact at around 02:30 GST. We pinged a hail and received a garbled response.

The contact resolved at around 8km – Sierra Oscar Uniform, a Faulcon DeLacy Anaconda class ship. Again, partial transmission. We flagged the vessel and issued a standard caution.

The ship continued to intermittently broadcast garbled comms, bearing towards the base. Assuming the vessel intended a landing, we allocated a large pad and set turrets to ‘alert’.

When the ship came into visual range we saw that it was a wreck. Most of the starboard side was ripped open; hull panels visibly hanging off. Most of the inner decks were obviously depressurised. The damage wasn’t fresh, either – the ruined bulkheads had signs of embedded hyperspace burn, and solar corrosion was evident on the blackened, exposed innards of the ship.

The landing thrusters were clearly only semi-operational, and the landing gear took nearly a full minute to deploy. It was obvious that they hadn’t been used in months.

We scrambled a med team to the bay immediately and brought the broken ship down into the hangar.

The pilot has been under induced unconsciousness since the arrival. There were no other crew. It’s not obvious whether there were more before whatever accident befell the vessel – the pilot was barely coherent and deeply malnourished. He was garbling about space beyond some ‘rift’ place, and shipwrecks and the like.

Our technicians guess that the ship hasn’t seen dock for several months, and that it’s been limping along like this for much of that time. It’s a miracle that the jump drives and fuel coupling aren’t more badly damaged.

We’ll hold the ship here until the pilot wakes up. We await further direction.

 

<message ends>

CMDR AL-POCALYPSE: THE LONG WAY HOME

+++BEGIN LOG-CMDR AL-POCALYPSE ABOARD CROWN AND ANCHOR-10.08.3302+++

Still not a peep out of Submarine. He must have gone a long way out, or so I hope; or so I guess I hope. Either way, I must head home. I’ve almost drunk this ship dry and there is nothing I can do from out here.

However, getting home is proving difficult. You see, I had planned to come back by Bernard’s Loop, Orion, The Horsehead and the Spirograph nebulas. But I cannot get into any of them! They’re all totally shut down, as is any system near them. My navigation box thingy won’t even try to plot a route, bloody thing!

What is going on there? I’m sure Sub would have an idea if he were around – this is definitely his sort of caper. I’ve left a few calling cards around these systems, in case he comes back this way and picks them up and can take a look for himself. All a bit odd really.

Also, it’s really messed up my way home. I need to make a thousand light-year detour to get around that mess, and I used to think it was a long walk from the bar to the hangar at Candysticks!

I’ve taken some really good photos though, even if setting up the tripod on little moons is not my idea of fun! Do you know how long it takes to get the bloody thing stable? However, it’s worth it for pictures like this!

Screenshot_0030

I cannot wait to get back to civilisation and a well stocked bar. Here goes nothing!

I wonder if Dex will be back yet with that drink he owes me?

+++END LOG-CMDR AL-POCALYPSE ABOARD CROWN AND ANCHOR-10.08.3302+++

THE TEN FATES: REWARD

Fire.

Everywhere was dark – broken by lights flashing, voices screaming orders. The feeling of the icy fingers wrapping him up. The Valkyries clutching him to take him to the great halls…

Images, memories of before. Was it his time? He didn’t know, but it was hurting. Fire again, swinging its sword at the Valkyries. What is this?

Her face, fighting for breath through the blood welling up in her throat. Why? Why was she first?

Ice again. Please just take him to Valhalla, he doesn’t want this any more. More screaming – what are they saying?

More images, an explosion, blood and pain, feeling like floating. The fire comes back. He can hear them now. The kid, the kid’s pleading – he thought the poor bastard hated him? 

No, he can’t go now – too much unfinished. This isn’t glorious. It’s pathetic.  Fight, Jester, you pathetic maggot. He’d fought harder than this pushing a shit out.

Pain again… The right memories flooded through this time. Damn bitches shot him after he won.

Light breaks through. Come on, only a little more.

Heathen’s eyes opened. Letting light flood into him, he gasped for air. Taking in his surroundings, he realised he was in the medical faculty in Leopold. He turned to see the worried face of Muninn, his dark, lank hair falling across his face, obviously not having been washed since the fight as there was still blood in it. The kid’s face softened, realising his boss was awake.

“How did we get here? Where’s the armour? Huginn? Were you shot?!?!” 

Heathen frantically sat up and was met by a wall of pain as his stitches pulled. Bullet through the back. Fuckers.

“Woah boss, easy.  You nearly died twice on that table. You don’t need to hop straight into battle.” 

The teenager placed a hand on Heathens chest, gently pushing him down on to the bed. 

“Besides, I don’t speak whatever you speak. I don’t know what you just said.”

Heathen looked in disbelief at the kid. How did he manage to get them out of that shit? He coughed, concentrating on remembering his learned second language. 

“I’m sorry. Um, how am I here?”
Muninn sat down, looking drained. 

“I dragged you into the fighter and flew us out – how else? I mean, I had to make some quick adjustments because the frame shift drive wasn’t working and I did my best to patch you up, but you needed professional help.”

Heathen lifted up his shirt to reveal a red and purple patch neatly surrounding a line of staples. Another tattoo ruined. 

“Sorry kid, forgot where I was.”

Muninn frowned, pissed off. 

“Why do you call me ‘kid’? You’re only eight years older than me, yet you treat me like I’m a baby.”

Heathen caught the look on the teenager’s face and weighed up his response. He decided on diplomacy. 

“I call you ‘boy’ and ‘kid’ partly ’cause ‘Muninn’ in my language means ‘mind’, but it’s also the name of one of the crows that are the All Father’s spies on the battlefield. I felt like you haven’t earned that right to use that name, just as I haven’t earned the right to use mine and use the titles others give me.”

Muninn looked daunted and a little insulted by this. 

“However, your resourcefulness in previous situations has… enlightened me,” Heathen continued quickly. 

“In my room is a pot of ink, a needle and a lighter. Be a good lad and fetch them for me? I want to give you something.”

Muninn gave a puzzled look but disappeared all the same. 

Heathen tried to think of something appropriate to give the growing man. His thoughts were broken by the nurse, come to administer painkillers.

“That young man stayed with you for nine hours after you left surgery. I think he was crying for most of it. Think he felt almost responsible for you getting hurt,” the pretty woman said as she injected the drugs into his arm. 

“But all you need to know is: never give up. Not on the boy, the mark or the mission. When you’re done, wait for Pandora.”

Heathen glanced at the woman, startled. 

“What did you say?”  

But she was already gone, and Heathen couldn’t follow. 

A few moments later Muninn back came into the room, his hands full of the requested items.

“Ah, good, the stuff,” Heathen said breezily. “Now give me your arm.” 

The teenager looked shocked, realising what was about to transpire. 

“Oh get off,” Heathen berated him. “It’s a needle, no need to be scared.”

Holding Muninn’s thin wrist Heathen started his work. He ignited the lighter and slowly moved the needle through the flame, sterilising it. He then dipped the red-hot point into the pot of ink, instantly cooling it and allowing the needle to absorb the dark coloured liquid. Muninn flinched as Heathen then started to poke the inked needle into his skin.

“These runes are precious to our people, a blessing. For an outsider to have a marking that blesses, rather than curse, is a high honour. You’ve earned this honour.” 

Heathen paused as he worked the ink into the skin, and began to speak softly:

“This day I pray to the Aesir, the tribe of gods who are gods of men and war, to allow this young one to be troubled not by their blessing. For, I do not wish for his life to centred ‘round this.

“Instead I ask the rival tribe, the Vanir of Vanaheim, the tribe of magic and peace, the ones we ask for blessings of luck and wealth, to look upon this one with favour. So I give you, The Mind Of Odin, the rune of hope and happiness.”

Muninn slowly pulled his arm away in awe. He inspected the lines on his skin, still raw and wet. 

“Thank you, Jester.” 

He went in for an embrace, but Heathen smiled and placed his hand on the young man’s forehead.

“One, don’t hug a man who’s only just about alive,” he said, pushing Muninn away. 

“Two, I’m still your boss. Now fuck off – go see your damn family, we’ve been gone months. Think of ya poor Mam. She’d kill me if she knew you were here and I was preventing you from seeing her.”

Heathen watched as the smile spread across Muninn’s face, the first one since Clare dock. 

“Yes boss.” 

With that Muninn disappeared, rushing to the civilian quarter.

“Pandora…” Heathen mused.

* * * * *

Muninn rushed through the door, which had barely slid shut behind him when he reached the kitchen. 

“Mum!!! Where are you?” 

He started wandering the rooms, searching for his family. He reached his brother’s bedroom last. 

Jacob was unpacking his uniform. 

“It’s been that long?! Since when did you finish basic, Jake?” 

His brother glanced up and smiled. He stood straight, towering over Muninn and pulled him into an embrace, squeezing tight as his warmth radiated into him.

“Not everyone can bypass training and go straight to working for the 9th. I passed last week,” he began, letting go. 

“Tell you what, they don’t fuck around in Facece. Glad to have some downtime before I head out to join the crew of the Cap. ship. Took a while to get here in a Cutter.” 

He realised what Muninn wanted, and grinned. 

“If you want Mum and Dad, they’re up in the hangar, trying to get Rust Bucket’s main console to work.”

“Thanks. It’s good to see you again.” 

A look of concern flashed across Jacob’s face as Muninn spoke, as if hearing the new, strained tone in his brother’s voice.

“What happened?” 

But before he could get an answer Muninn was already out the door and making his way to the elevators.

Hurrying, Muninn walked into the box and entered the code for the hangars way above him. As the elevator made its way slowly up Muninn impatiently paced the cube. 

The doors opened to reveal the working floor of the hangars. Metal frames of all descriptions sparked, and engineers stood around examining data consoles.

Muninn came to a stop at an old Python. Space dust still coated the matte-black hull. Some panels hung loose from the frame, but most of the hull seemed to be made up of replacement panels. How this thing once got off the ground, no one knew. 

Looks better than it did before I left, yet it still looks like shit.

He ducked under the the nose of the beast and ran his hand along its belly. 

Be good to me, you demon.

He pulled a latch and a platform lowered to meet the floor. Sliding his finger along the holo-keypad, he entered the authorisation code, prompting the Python to lift him into its belly.

As Muninn rose out of the ship’s floor he noticed the mess of cables and missing wall panels exposing the inner workings of the beast. He walked down the main aisle of the ship, looking down each corridor in turn. A glance into the cockpit revealed the lower half of his dad, under the main control panel, swearing and flailing his legs. His mum stood above, clutching tools. Behind them, Ollie was plugged into the router set behind the pilots’ seats.

Ollie looked up and grinned. 

“Hey! I heard you and Heathen were back. Look what they gave me.” 

He held his jacket up to reveal the brand new flight leader’s epilette. 

“When Heathen was promoted they decided to push me up.”

Muninn chuckled. 

“You? How many times have you had to pay off insurance companies because you couldn’t just stay in formation?”

Ollie made a play at looking hurt, but couldn’t keep it up for long. 

“I’m just helping your parents start this up and upload B.E.C.K.A and R.O.V.Er.”

Muninn frowned. 

“Right – I understand B.E.C.K.A, because of all the long route calculations. But fucking R.O.V.Er? Last I heard that was highly experimental. Last time you used it, you nearly flew a test Sidewinder into a mountainside.”

Ollie smiled. 

“So?”

Looking nonplussed, Muninn walked up to the panels and started to adjust the collaborations. 

“Soooo. If it did that to a small, dainty spacecraft, just imagine what it’s going to do to this hulking beast.”

Ollie sighed theatrically and looked down at his tablet, fiddling with the code. 

“Fine, I’ll allow the pilot to override the system in case of emergencies.”

Muninn’s father slid out from under the panel. 

“She’s ready, he said excitedly. “Go on, power her up – she’s yours.”

Muninn smiled and reached to the controls. He felt the thrusters scream through his fingers as the beast roared to life. 

“What’re you going to call her, son?” 

Muninn looked at his father, then over his shoulder to his mother. Jacob was standing in the doorway, holding up the frame. 

It’s been so long since the family was whole. 

He glanced down at his arm at the new tattoo, thinking for a moment. Then, eyes bright and full of hope, he said softly:

“I’ll call her Skjöldr.”

DON’T FEAR THE REAPER: CHAPTER 2 – THE REAPER MAN

Dexter Vex. You’ve been a very naughty boy.

I was reading the dossier on the man, his long list of crimes and offenses scrolling down the display of the holo-tablet. Murder. Assault. Piracy. Destruction of property. Theft. And plenty of counts of each to go around.

“So, you’ll take the contract?”

I looked up to the shadowy figure across the table from me. He hadn’t given me a name, which wasn’t exactly unusual in the reaping business – but he was even more uptight than the normal self-important corporate types. We were a study in contrasts – me in my slacks and leather jacket, and him in an immaculate, pressed business suit.

I took a sip of my Old Sol on the rocks and narrowed my eyes. “I ain’t decided yet. You say that this guy is headed into Kumo space?”

The man nodded, his clean-shaven features so smooth and flawless to the point of almost looking artificial. I tried not to stare, but…

Hittin’ the progenitor cells already, pal?

“Based on our last confirmed sighting, there was a trend in his fight pattern towards the Pegasi sector. Our psychoanalysts suggests a seventy-four percent possibility of him attempting to join the Kumo Crew.”

I flipped off the holo and looked to the side, letting out a long, frustrated exhale. Across the room, a bored-looking woman danced and gyrated on a brass pole. Just beneath her, a small group of thirsty scrubs had congregated, interested enough to watch her perform- but not interested enough to throw any credit chips onto the stage.

I must be hard up for work, meeting at a strip joint at ten in the morning.

I turned back to the suit and leaned forward. “So the job is to find a criminal in a den of other criminals. That’s a real trick, ain’t it? And it’ll cost you extra. A hundred thousand. Up-front.”

“Done.”

Jesus, that was quick. Should have asked for more.

I narrowed my eyes and held up the holo-tablet. “And if the trail’s cold, I call it a day. I ain’t going door-to-door all over Pegasi just to find the guy. And I keep the advance.”

The man only nodded and produced a credit chip with a glowing 100,000 on it, not breaking his slightly unnerving eye contact the entire time. “Of course. If he disappears, he disappears. We only wish to be reasonable.”

I looked around, and eyed the chip suspiciously. “A little too reasonable. What’s the part you ain’t tellin’ me?”

The man regarded me for a moment, and his plastic smile returned. “Only that you aren’t the first bounty hunter sent after him. Dexter Vex was one himself for many years before he turned to criminal activity. He knows all the tricks of the trade – an unfortunate fact for the many hunters before you.”

My eyes narrowed at the detail. “Yeah? How many?”

The credit chip was pushed across the table in front of me. “The number is irrelevant. Just know that the trail to Dexter Vex is one blazed by dead men. It will take the best to bring down the best.”

Well, that’s real smooth of you, working my ego like that.

I exhaled slowly as I stared down at the credit chip. “You’re good, you know that? And your pitch is pretty polished. Must have had this conversation several times already, huh?”

The man’s flawless, unblinking eyes bored into me. “The past is irrelevant. Now is all that matters. And for what my organization is offering to bring Dexter Vex to justice-” he gestured to the sullen-faced stripper pulling down one side of her g-string, “even she would take the contract!”

* * * * *

All that talk about about dead reapers, and you still took the job.

Inevitable Betrayal

The Inevitable Betrayal streaked through witch space, stars shooting past the canopy glass like tiny fireflies. The plastic-faced man had provided the coordinates of Vex’s flight path and the latest suspected position before he disappeared.

How many other hunters have been sent after this guy? And who the hell is even behind this?

I flipped the credit chip in my fingers and held up up. And who the hell just tosses out six figure sums like that?

Sighing, I pocketed the chip and focused on my destination. The waypoint was coming up, a seemingly random coordinate on a partially terraformed planet. According to the info on the system map, walking the planet’s surface could be done without special gear, but one would feel light-headed after a half an hour or so.

‘So I’ll make it real quick-like,’ I thought.

The planet itself wasn’t anything special – endless tundra under a sickly greenish star, a few isolated settlements, and no significant industry to speak of. It was a good stop for someone on the run. I touched down and put the Betrayal on standby, getting up and heading to the equipment lockers to don a utility belt. There wasn’t anyone else around, so I lowered the entry hatch and walked out to inspect my surroundings.

Sure enough, a ship had been here. The dirt was blackened with telltale blastoff scorches, and large imprints from the landing gear could still be seen. In the distance, I heard a sound so routine that I at first didn’t think anything of it. A stronger-than-usual breeze drifted across the blast marks, causing me to look up. Sure enough, a ship was approaching in the distance. I put my hand over my eyes to shield the from the sun as the dot in the horizon drew nearer and larger.

The hell is an Asp doing all the way out here? And at this exact spot?

My pulse quickened at the thought that I might have been in trouble – but even that didn’t make sense. No one else knew that I was even here, and the ship’s hardpoints weren’t deployed. The Asp was coming in as straight and simple as a rookie’s first landing, descending in a nice, slow line and gently settling on the dirt, kicking up a huge cloud.

Redhead Landing

I coughed and turned away from the windy storm of dust. The deafening whine of the Asp’s engines started to lessen as the pilot shut down the engines. For a moment, nothing happened as the wind died down and I looked back up. The entry ramp of the Asp opened with a slow whine, lowering into the dirt. For a moment, I felt a pang of regret for not at strapping a gun to my side – but how the hell could I have known that I’d have company out here?

Well, whoever it is, they mean business. I guess I’ll just have to see what’s going on.

In the distance, I could hear the sounds of boot heels on ship deck. A pair of legs became visible, and…

Oh, hello.

A slim, young, dark-complected woman strode down the ramp and made a beeline for me. Like myself, she was dressed ruggedly, eschewing a flight suit in favor of comfort. She didn’t say anything as she walked up, just eyeing me as warily as I was sure to be eyeing her. Finally, she stopped, pausing to size me up.

Tanith

Well, at least she’s easy on the eyes.

I hooked my thumbs into my pant pocket and tightened my mouth. One of us would have to say something.

“Howdy.”

A look of weary amusement crossed the woman’s eyes as she looked up at me. “Funny place to be poking around, stranger.”

I shrugged at looked at her ship, and then back at her. “Funny to land just to tell a stranger that.”

She looked over my shoulder and looked for a moment at the sleek, black Fer-de-Lance. Pursing her lips, she looked back at me.

“You a bounty hunter?”

I looked over my shoulder at the Betrayal and then back to her. “Maybe. Maybe I just like pretty ships. You an explorer?”

The young woman put her hands on her hips and looked up at me like a smartass. “Maybe. Maybe I just like ugly ships.”

We regarded each other for a moment longer. I gave her another look, checking for any telltale lumps on her person that might indicate a hidden weapon.

“Well, like you said, I’ve got some pokin’ around to do. Have a nice day, ma’am.”

I turned to leave, and I immediately heard her footsteps as she began to follow me. Her voice had taken on an edge.

“You’re looking for him, aren’t you? For Vex.”

I stopped and spun around, almost coming face to face with her. “Now why would a sweet young thing like yourself go and ask a question like that?”

Her eyes narrowed as her face hardened. “So you are a bloody bounty hunter. There’s no other reason you’d be here. And nobody but hunters fly ships like that, anyway.”

I folded my arms and looked down at her. “Sounds like you’ve been less than forthcoming, too. What’s your game?”

A look of distrust crossed her face. “No game. Just trying to find him.”

“Well, we’ve got that in common, at least. Sounds like this Vex is a popular guy.”

She didn’t say anything, so I turned and walk back to the dust-off site. There wasn’t much, just the charring and impressions in the soil. I stood around, seeing her walk up beside me in my peripheral vision.

“So what good does it do to even be here? We don’t have jack shit.”

I crouched down, examining a dusty brown cube that had been partially buried. It wasn’t large, being no more than a square foot – but it made me smile.

“Actually, jack shit is exactly what we have.”

She stepped beside me and crouched down. I unhooked a pouch from my belt and pulled out a small, handheld device. I used a small lab knife to cut off a sample of the cube and inserted it into the device’s chamber, pressing a few controls and then waiting.

The woman’s face screwed up as she watched me. “Is that – is that what I think it is?”

I nodded. “Standard biowaste disposal. It dehydrates, sterilizes, and packages human waste and turns it into a neat little cube. Most stations’ services take care of them for free and use the waste in their hydroponic farms – but sometimes they auto-eject when they’re too full.”

Her black eyebrows raised. “You gotta go when you gotta go, huh?”

I shrugged. “Something like that. And since you asked – yeah, I’m a bounty hunter. If you know Vex, you probably don’t need me to tell you why I’m on his trail.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed defensively. “I know was kind of man Vex is.”

A minute or so passed in silence, and the young woman nodded towards the device in my hand, a sour look on her face.

“So – you’re rooting through human shit? Seriously?”

I looked up, giving the device time to analyse the sample. “It’s a part of bounty hunting that the holovids never show. Standard practice is for the client to pass along as much info about the target as possible, including DNA readout.”

“So?”

I held up the device, its readout still cycling. “So that’s what I’m doing here. If it’s his, the intel was good and I’m on the right track. If not…” I shrugged “…then I learn about what other pilots are eating, I guess.”

The dark-complected young woman put her hands on her hips and looked at me skeptically. “Even if it is his – what good does it do you? It’s not like you’ve got a nice, neat wake trail to follow.”

I looked up at the darkening sky, and then back down to her. “You’re right on that one. But I will have a selection of shitty ones. It’s just a matter of narrowing down which one to follow.”

The handheld bio-analyser finished with a pair of staccato beeps. I looked down, waited for the results to pull up – and smiled. Tanith walked over to me, her eyes curious. Chuckling, I ejected the sample and magnified the results.

“I knew a man who had a dog-” I held up the scanner for her to see, Vex’s face all over it. “-and Bingo was his name-o!”

The woman rolled her eyes and turned around, walking away from both myself and the open container of biowaste. I purged the results and held out my hands.

“Where you going? Sick of me already?”

The young woman turned around, mild disdain in her face. “I’ve known you for five minutes, and I already need a drink. Just hold on. I’ll be back in a minute.”

I shrugged and turned back to the Inevitable Betrayal. I had to scoot, but if the young lady wanted a drink, what harm could it do?

Glancing over my shoulder, I caught a glimpse of a pleasingly-shaped pair of lumps under her dungarees as she ascended the ramp into her Asp.

No harm at all, I thought. No harm at all.

* * * * *

Shit!

I’d known I wasn’t going to be the only one looking for Vex. After my conversations with Caia and the Inquisitor it was obvious that Vex was likely to be popular – even if he was unlikely to be well liked.

What I hadn’t expected was to bump into a bona fide, motherfucking bounty hunter, way out in the arse end of nowhere. I mean – seriously, what were the chances?

Dear Past Tanith,

The Inquisitor did warn you there were going to be other people looking for Vex – weren’t you paying attention?

Sincerely
Future Tanith

P.S. Moron!

As I walked back up the ramp and into the Redhead I was seriously considering just dusting off there and then. But what good would that do? Until I left atmo and could jump, that great, black penis extension was going to have the legs on me. And if he thought I was running there was a very real possibility he’d give chase.

No, I was going to have to be a bit smarter than that.

Plus, I was going to need to know what he knew. An experienced hunter like that would have been tracking Vex for a while and, hopefully, would have more information than me. He’d already shown me that Vex had been here – it never would have occurred to me to literally root through shit.

I was at least partially curious what other little tidbits he might divulge while he still thought I was a complete idiot with a pretty face.

I smiled to myself. This should be fun!

I grabbed a hip flask – well I had said I was going for a drink – and headed back down the ramp; pausing briefly at the top to engage the security system I’d rigged. The standard biometric locks on ships are far too easy to crack, so one of the first things I’d retrofitted to the Redhead’s network was a secondary sensor that detected if someone was trying to override the primary and, if they were, delivered enough current to make a grown man impotent for a week.

The hunter was prowling around the scorch marks where Vex’s ship had landed. He looked up as he heard me clumping down the ramp, and grinned at me.

“And here was me thinking you were just using that whole ‘I need a drink’ excuse to deprive me of your company.”

I shook my head. He obviously thought he was really amusing, and I knew that the worst thing I could do was show that I actually was amused.

“I was going to, but then I realised there’s no one else to drink with on this rock. And drinking alone is for anti social loners.”

I paused, and shrugged. “Then again, so’s drinking with strangers.” I stuck out my hand, “Tanith,” I said. “Tanith Low.”

He tucked his scanner under his arm. “Matt Lehman,” he replied, shaking my hand.

What the hell kind of a name is that?

I smiled at him. “Nice to meet you, Matt. I’ll be honest – I was pretty relieved to find that the person already down here wasn’t just going to kill me and steal my ship.”

Matty smiled back, “I’ve only stolen one ship in my entire life, and that was for a very noble cause. Besides, what would you have done if I’d tried?”

I pretended to give it some serious thought. “Well, I expect I’d have panicked pretty hard, maybe cried and begged a little. You know, the usual.”

Yeah. You’re just a helpless little girl, aren’t you Tanith? I paused. “Do you think I should get a gun?”

“Do you know how to shoot?”

“Not really.”

“Then don’t. There’s no point having a weapon if you don’t know how to use it. It’d be as much a danger to you as it is to them.”

I nodded. “Good advice, thank you.”

Matt shrugged. “No charge.”

He looked at me for a moment longer, a look on his face like he was trying to decide something, and then went back to his circuit of the old landing site. He walked to each of the scorch marks, tapping a data slate at each one. Then, he bent down and took a small sample of the burnt earth to pop in his analyser. After watching him for a few minutes I broke the silence.

“What are you doing, if you don’t mind my asking?”

I already had a pretty good idea, but nothing makes people open up as much a feigning ignorance. And Matt clearly liked the sound of his own voice.

“I’m plotting the thruster layout of Vex’s ship. He’s obviously flying something pretty big, and I’d rather it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when we finally meet.”

I nodded and adopted the look of someone who was impressed, and trying to hide it.

“Uh-huh. I can see why that’d be important.” I said, but Matty was already ploughing ahead with his explanation. He scooped up a small lump of blackened dirt in his hand and sniffed it.

“Still smells like fuel. Smart money says he’s running on dirty drives.”

I raised my eyebrows, “Dirty drives?”

He dumped the dirt onto the ground and wiped his hand on his pant leg, looking up at me. “Yeah. Some pilots rig the maneuvering thrusters with black market afterburners. The ship turns faster, but doesn’t use the fuel as efficiently as main thrusters. A little always fails to burn and sprays out. Hence the name.”

He looked in-between the thruster marks and frowned. Walking the distance to where the center of the ship would roughly have been, he kicked the dirt a few times with the toe of his boot. Narrowing his eyes, he shook his head.

“Looks like that wasn’t the only fluid that this guy was losing. This might be easier than I thought.”

My eyebrows raised. Easy? Nothing is ever easy with Vex.

Out of both feigned ignorance and genuine curiosity, I walked up to Matt. For the first time, I could see the meter-long, dark greenish stain in the dirt.

“What’s that?”

He nudged the discolored soil with his boot. “Reactor coolant. A whole goddamn pisspot full.  You can’t run for long with a leak like that- hell, he probably had to override some serious safety coding just to take off.  He needs a full-service repair bay, and soon.”

A satisfied look spread over his face as he turned to face me. I put my hands on my hips and tried my best stupid-but-cute-girl face. “That’s good, right? It means we can catch up.”

The reaper nodded, the satisfied look giving way to bravado. “Looks like he landed for an emergency patch job, but couldn’t hide his little secret.”

OK Tanith, he’s clearly rather pleased with himself.  Time to turn on the innocent charm.

I gestured back at his ship.  “And what about you? Is that ship of yours hiding any secrets?”

Matt didn’t answer right away, just smiling knowingly and glancing at the black Fer-de-Lance behind him. “Fighting fair is for Authority.  Let’s just keep it at that.”

“Ohhh, that’s kind of edgy,” I gushed, looked up at him through my eyelashes.

Tanith Sweetie,  there is such a thing as laying it on a bit thick.  Just so you know.

Matt looked at me suspiciously – trying to gauge if I was mocking him, but all he saw in my face was wide-eyed innocence. He shook his head.

“It’s fairly standard, actually.  No reaper wants to engage their target with second-rate gear. Finding them doesn’t do you any good if they turn around and atomise you.”

I looked at him, genuinely puzzled this time. “‘Reaper’?” I asked.

He looked at me, surprised. “Bounty hunter,” he explained. “In most systems they call us reapers.  It’s a little romanticised, but whatever helps the image, I guess.”

Dear Tanith

You could have worked that out for yourself you know.

The wind started to pick up, kicking up dust and swirling it around.  The sand stung as it hit my face and after a few moments I lowered my goggles against the unrelenting barrage.  Matt looked up at me.

“I’ve got everything I need here.  But I’ve got a few more scans to run from inside the ship.” He grinned at me. “If you’re still worried about drinking alone, you’re welcome to join me.”

* * * * *

Holy shit!

Tanith’s eyes bulged as the entryway door to my Fer-de-Lance slid open.  The flowing, sculpted interior lines of the ship had become an everyday thing to me- but they were a sight to behold for the uninitiated.

I turned to her, holding out my arm and smiling. “Welcome aboard the Inevitable Betrayal.”

The young woman regained her composure, walking casually ahead of me, though her head was still on a swivel.

“Inevitable Betrayal? What kind of a name is that? Doesn’t seem very auspicious.”

I hesitated, lifting an eyebrow. “You want to hear the story?”

Tanith ran her hand along the cream-colored wall, finding her own way into the main living quarters.  She took a look around the room and smiled sweetly back at me.

“Not really.  Watching a real bounty hunter work is a treat, though.”

Her eyes were full of admiration and just a trace of flirtiness, so I smiled and jerked my thumb up towards the bridge.

“Well, we ain’t going to find this guy by blabbing.  C’mon.”

* * * * *

“So, how does this work?”

I was hunched over one of the bridge’s auxiliary terminals, typing in commands.  Tanith was a few feet behind, a quizzical look on her face.

“Remember when I told you about finding the shitty wake signals?  That’s what I’m doing. Scanning upper atmo for anything that could be be one, and seeing if it lines up with a probable course towards a station where you could fix a reactor coolant leak without drawing too much attention.”

She peered over to the display, shaking her head. “That – that’s not anything I’ve ever heard of.”

I shrugged, letting the scans do their work. “No, and you can’t exactly buy it off a shelf either. Custom setup, you see. Some parts from a surface mapper get added to a wake shift scanner, some interesting code changes are made to the firmware – and whole new worlds open up in terms of what all you can track.”

Tanith took a step back, her eyes narrowing.  “And just how did you get that set up?”

Again, I shrugged, grinning over my shoulder at her. “I know a guy who knows a guy…”

She settled into a chair, the leather of her jacket creaking.  “…who knows a guy, sure.”

For a minute or so, she didn’t say anything, just slouching in the co-pilot’s seat and staring out the bridge at the desolate tundra ahead of us.  Eventually, she looked down, and ran her hand over the black leather of the chair’s arm.

“This really is a nice ship, commander,” she said softly.

I glanced over at her, hesitated a moment, and nodded.  “Thanks.  She’s the culmination of about a decade of effort.”

She lookup up.  “And that’s how long you’ve been a bounty hunter? A decade?”

I chuckled and continued scanning the atmo for signs of a recent high wake.  “That’s how long I’ve been a pilot, period.”

“Oh.  What about before then?”

I looked down at her, still lounging in the co-pilot’s chair. “Are you always this curious about the pasts of strange men you just met?”

“I’m a people person.”

“Right. Before then, I was in the Imperial navy. Nothing glamorous, just a bored kid who wanted to get away from home.”

A distant look crossed Tanith’s face as she looked away. “And how did that work out?”

I shrugged. “Went from bored at home to bored in a space station. I was a dock technician for six years and hated every second of it. The only thing I got out of it was the realization that I wanted to be a pilot. So I enrolled in Pilot’s Fed academy the second I got out.”

The young woman looked back towards me, her gaze slightly intensifying. “And the reaping? Was that by choice, too?”

I hesitated, unsure of how much I should reveal to a stranger. “Yes and no.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning you can’t always choose what you’re good at. But you can choose what you do with it.”

“And it turns out that you’re good at killing?”

I chuckled bitterly. “No. I’m lousy at killing. But lining up another ship in my sights and pulling the trigger? Turns out I’m a pro at that.”

An amused look crossed her eyes. “So, you’re bad at killing but good at blowing up spaceships? Isn’t that a bit of a paradox for a bounty hunter?”

I didn’t answer immediately as I checked the scanner sweep progress. C’mon, you piece of junk. There’s got to be something up there. Quit making me look bad in front of the lady.

“Maybe I misspoke. I just-” I turned to face her, my brow furrowing. “-well, I reckon there ain’t any rule that says you have to like what you’re good at.”

Tanith nodded her understanding, her eyes momentarily appearing much older than they were. She reached into her jacket pocket and produced a flask with a faded rodent logo on it. Rising from the chair, she walked over and extended her arm, offering it to me.

“Well, that’s something I think we can agree on. Drink?”

I looked at the silver flask, and then at her. Shrugging, I accepted the flask and took a swig. The liquor inside was – different. It tasted vaguely like tequila, if tequila was made with piss instead of agave. It settled into my stomach as a warm feeling spread inside me. Despite myself, my face twisted into a grimace.

“What the hell is this?”

A peculiar look spread over Tanith’s face, her eyes boring into me. “Just a little something I made myself. I never travel without some on me. Sorry if it isn’t the top-shelf Achenar Blue you’re probably used to.”

The feeling of warmth inside me intensified. Something about that drink was off. My stomach was clenching a little, but-

I tried to smile as dashingly as I could even as the aftertaste turned sour. “Well, it’s a real kick in the ass. You always offer a drink to strange men you just met?”

She took a step closer, a smile curling her lips and a piercing look deepening in her eyes. “Only the cute ones.”

Well, if that shit of yours wasn’t messing with my guts so damn bad, I’d be mighty pleased where this is headed. “Well that’s real-”

The strength in my legs gave out and I had to clutch the terminal for support. The warmth from the drink became a numb, tingly feeling that spread to my throat and legs. I tried to speak, but my words came out as gibberish. My arms gave way, and I collapsed onto the bridge deck.

Oh, Jesus. Oh, fuck no.

A cunning look crossed Tanith’s face as she stood over me. “Like I said: cute- but not terribly bright. Never accept a drink from a stranger. If you were a woman, you’d know that.”

She hunched down and mockingly pinched my cheek. “But you’re not, are you? You’re a big, strong, invincible man so there’s no need to be careful. Especially around a little lady like me, right?”

Tanith stood up and put her jacket on. Outside the canopy, the dust storm was really kicking up, and the young woman pulled her hood over head and lowered her goggles again. My vision was darkening, and my breath was coming in short, hard gasps. It was all I could do to look up at her.

The young woman looked back down at me, a mocking grin playing over what I could see of her features. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing permanent. Just a mixture of Tarach Spice, MEJ, and a few muscle relaxers to help you stay put. Chemistry is a fascinating subject, don’t you think? You’ll pass out in a minute and wake up with a stiff neck. If your lungs don’t quit from the muscle relaxers, that is. I’m always a little sloppy on the ratios.”

The grin widened, and she reach down to pat me on the cheek. “Unfortunately for you, I’ll be long gone by then.”

With a supreme effort of will, I was able to regain some control of my lips and tongue.

“Fu… yuuu…”

A look of mocking concern crossed Tanith’s featured. “Sorry sweetie- not going to happen. You’re not exactly my type.”

She stood up and put her hands on her hips. “And since guys like you are also professional stalkers, I guess I’ll have to make sure you’re staying put for awhile.”

My eyes widened. Jesus fuck, it’s that time with Kyndi all over again.

Tanith turned to the scanner terminal and inserted a data disk that she had produced. “And there it is. The only wake your little toy was able to put together. Thanks for that.”

She silently downloaded the data and turned to leave, pausing to look over her shoulder. “It’s nothing personal, you know. You want Vex dead. I want him alive. You chose the wrong job, reaper man. Sorry about your bad luck.”

With that, she walked out. I sunk all the way down to the bridge deck, the last of my strength gone. Before everything faded to black, I allowed myself one last thought:

Bad luck? This ain’t my first rodeo, kid. But if we cross paths again, it’ll damn well be yours.

* * * * *

I strolled back through the Fer-De-Lance’s main corridor, humming a little tune to myself.

‘Well, that went about as well as could be expected’ I thought to myself.

The FDL really was a beautiful piece of engineering. I’d worked on a few of the stock Zorgon Peterson ones back at Johan’s, but this was one of the Saud Kruger custom jobs and it was stunning. I loved my Asp, but if there’s one word to describe the interior, that word would be “functional”. This was not functional – this was an interior designer’s wet dream. Leather and polished composites gleamed at me under the tastefully warm interior lighting.

I had been intending to wreck the main drive coupling; stop Matt being able to take off until he could get someone to bring him a replacement part. But the more I looked at this gorgeous piece of engineering the less inclined I was to do anything that permanent to it.

Dear Past Tanith,

You will seriously regret this decision. Trust me.

Sincerely
Future Tanith.

I still needed some information before I did anything, though. The scanner terminal on the bridge hadn’t been connected to the main computer – smart precaution. If someone knows what they’re doing they can leave data in their wake that disables a following ship’s FSD. Most ships that have been retrofitted since 3296 have the wake scanner installed as an isolated module.

I stopped amid ships and accessed one of the main data terminals. The master computer made a few bleats about ‘unauthorised access’ but the Betrayal’s security system was mostly stock and after a few minutes of industrious tapping I’d installed myself with admin privileges. First thing I did was download all of the information about Vex that Matty had on him. He obviously hadn’t been kidding when he’d told me that it was important to know your prey; there was a lot of data there. I downloaded it all to my slate to look through later, then deleted it from the Betrayal’s data storage. He almost certainly had a back up, but I couldn’t spare the time to go looking for it and on the off chance he didn’t this would really piss him off.

There was also a file that was simply called ‘Kyndi’ which Matt seemed to access a lot. Out of curiosity I opened it myself and had a look.

Kyndi

Well hello there!

Now that was a woman who could make you do all kinds of stupid.

Out of curiosity, I downloaded the rest of the file. If it was worth knowing your prey, it was probably worth knowing the predator too.

Next, I removed Matt’s biometric records from the security system. I couldn’t change the registry – the pilots fed uses some seriously hard crypto on that; so Matt Lehman was still the registered owner. The computer just wouldn’t recognise that he was Matt Lehman. Petty, and he’d fix it soon enough- but nevertheless it would be profoundly annoying for him.

And finally, because I couldn’t help myself, I left him a little surprise.

Now how was I going to disable this ship without turning it into scrap?

I took the access corridor down to the main engineering level. The power plant sat there, humming away. Now, you do not play around with the power plant on an interstellar class ship while it’s live. Period. The very best you can hope for is that it will irradiate you into infertility. The worst case is that you accidentally short something and all they find is a pair of gently smoking shoes.

What you can do though is play with the cooling system. Take out the governing module for the cooling system and the ship will think that the plant isn’t getting enough coolant. The emergency systems kick in and the ship refuses to power up any of the main systems. It’s a small enough component, and it’s easy enough to bypass, but it takes a while to work out exactly what’s causing the problem.

I pulled out the multitool that I had stuffed in my belt and removed the access panel to the coolant control. Everything was in the same place as on a stock Fer-de-Lance. Saud-Kruger may have overhauled the interior, but the guts were still all Zorgon-Peterson. Not bothering with the mini-terminal, I carefully detached the coolant governor, watching the warnings flash on the terminal screen as the reactor dropped itself down to trickle output. The lights around me dimmed as the emergency systems came online.

I tossed the compact white module in my hand and caught it, smiling in satisfaction to myself as I pocketed it and replaced the panel.

Chuckling to myself, I pocketed my multitool and headed for the access ramp. As I walked back through the dust storm towards the Leggy Redhead, a little internal voice piped up.

Dear Tanith:

Is it perhaps a mistake to backstab a man who hunts people down and destroy’s them for a living? Vex probably would’ve just killed him and been done with it. That’s part of why he’s still alive, and a lot of other people aren’t.

Concerned about your decisions,

Future Tanith

Scowling, I dusted myself off and walked into the bridge of the Leggy Redhead. Even as I was warming up the engines, the voice wouldn’t go away. Matt’s Fer-de-Lance sat in front of me like an ominous black sliver of death. It would be so easy to just deploy hardpoints and destroy it…

Dear Future Tanith:

We’ve had this talk before. You’re not a killer; we both know you’re not going to kill a defenseless, unconscious man. Now quiet down and let me work.

Love,

Present Tanith

Redhead Jumping