The tall man sitting in the chair opposite me looked up in surprise.
“I’m sorry, did you say you’ve traveled halfway across the bubble looking for Dexter, because he knew your father?” He asked, quizzically.
I sighed. I was getting really very tired of repeating myself.
“Yes, I’ve come a long way. Yes, Vex knew my father, and yes – that’s why I’m looking for him,” I said, my impatience and tiredness making me snappish,
Uh, Tanith Sweetie? This man’s an Imperial Inquisitor. If you piss him off he can make sure that you are never heard from again. Play nicely.
The Inquisitor slowly raised one eyebrow.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” he said.
I was confused. “Do you mean I shouldn’t talk to you like that?” I asked. “Or that I shouldn’t look for Vex?”
He smiled warmly. “Being impolite to an Imperial Inquisitor is never a particularly clever decision, young lady. However, being rude to me doesn’t carry the death penalty. Whereas people who go looking for Vex without his knowledge usually have a way of meeting their end.”
It was difficult to get a read on the Inquisitor. On the one hand he had an open countenance, and the kind of friendly face that made you want to confide in him. On the other hand, when we met he already knew my name, and he hadn’t given me his. That kind of thing can make a person nervous, especially when you’ve been invited to meet because you’ve been caught eavesdropping on the Imperial Command communications system.
We were sitting in the state rooms of his ship, a stunningly gorgeous Imperial Cutter. Say what you will about us Imperials, Gutayama know how to make a ship look pretty. Sweeping lines and glowing white composites were everywhere I looked. Both inside and out, the ship gave a sense of opulent gravitas – and of having been designed by someone who had once seen a straight line, and decided they didn’t care for it very much.
It was also big. Really, staggeringly big. It filled the large hanger it had been housed in with barely a meter of space to spare in any direction. Landing this thing must have been an experience and a half.
And, as if to demonstrate that the Inquisition do, in fact, have a sense of humour it was called The Great White Cow of Plenty. When the docking assistant told me that I thought he was taking the piss. He had to show me the official docking registration before I believed him.
It had taken me a while to work my way across to Malaikudi. Caia had pointed me in the direction of place called Candecama, an Imperial system on the border of federation space. According to Caia, Vex had moved there around six months ago – after having earned a small fortune helping build the station that was sent to Merope. Though of course what Vex actually did was hunt down anyone who wanted to stop that happening and blow them up.
Either way it looked like Candecama was to be my next stop, so it was back into the Overnight Millionaire and off I jumped.
I arrived at Candecama two days later, utterly shattered. The Cobra is a great ship, but the interior is sparse and cramped. Taking a few hours kip en-route is nearly impossible, and don’t even get me started about the toilet facilities. Yuk!
As I docked at Whelen Ring I was already checking my credit account. If I cashed in the Millionaire and sold the cargo of Motrona Experience Jelly I was hauling I could afford something a bit more spacious.
So after a good night’s sleep and a small amount of haggling with the guy who ran the black market I headed down to one of the shipyards on the station, run by a guy called Marco.
I’d chosen Marco’s very carefully, checking through his financial history, customer testimonials and criminal record. Every good outfitter has been under scrutiny from the fuzz at some point – though if they are really good they’ve never been arrested. Before I left home I spent a lot of time working at Johan’s outfitters and I know what I’m looking for in a ship supplier and outfitter. Judging by his credit records Marco knew how to walk that line between illegal and dishonest. He clearly didn’t cheat his customers, but he was also perfectly happy to bend the rules for them regarding ‘specialist’ equipment and creative ship registration. The type of man who would deal rather than just sell you the first ship in your price range, and would take a certain pride in matching the right ship with the right client.
I walked into Marco’s already with a pretty good impression of what I was going to find, and I wasn’t disappointed. The main show room was clean and well organised, but not flashy. The main entrance was flanked by two Faulcon Delacy Viper Mk3 interceptors. Sleek and attractive in their flame red paint jobs, but they weren’t expensive ships and it nicely set the tone of the whole yard. ‘You don’t have to empty your credit balance to get something you’ll like,’ it said; though the looming shape of the Anaconda in the background said ‘Of course, if you want to empty your credit balance that’s a possibility too.’
Dear Future Tanith,
One day, you are going to have to have a ‘Conda. Look at it. It beautiful. It’s majestic. It’s the size of palace. Please, please, please can we have one?
P.S. Pretty please!
A short, slightly rotund man in a well-cut shirt emerged from behind a Zorgon Peterson Adder with a tall man in a flight suit. He saw me and smiled warmly. Beckoning to someone I couldn’t see, he turned to his tall companion and said something I couldn’t quite hear. The tall man nodded and walked off towards the back of the showroom.
The short one turned and smiled at me again.
“Bella!” He exclaimed, walking over to me. “Always a pleasure to see such a beautiful woman in my establishment.”
I grinned at him. “Something tells me that you’re Marco?”.
Marco feigned surprise. “How could you possible know that, my dear? Does my reputation really proceed me so far?”
I chuckled. “Let’s just say I have a good instinct for this kind of thing.”
Marco shrugged, “Well, you are quite right, I am Marco Valasenti – owner of this establishment, and quite delighted to meet you, Miss…”
This, he appended with the most delicate of question marks, which slowly evaporated.
“Tanith Low. Though Tanith will do just fine.” I liked this guy already. A little corny sure, but you could tell it was all bluster, and good bluster at that.
Marco bowed deeply, “Well Tanith, what moves you to brighten my day by walking into my showroom?”
I explained about my issues with the Millionaire, and how I wanted to trade it in for something equally practical, but a little more spacious. Marco listened, nodding and saying nothing.
“Well, bella,” he said, taking my arm like a chaperone and leading me between the towering spacecraft. “There are a few options to look at, though if I’m honest there’s one that I think you’ll prefer.”
I was also pretty sure that I knew what I wanted too, but if he thought I was too eager I’d never get a decent price from him. Not that I thought he’d fleece me, but he wouldn’t try to sweeten the deal if he thought I’d already made my mind up.
“Well lead on then my good man,” I said, a touch theatrically. Marco laughed and led me over to a Diamondback Explorer.
“This is a wonderful ship,” he said expansively. “Good cargo capacity, excellent jump range, and a decent armament for what is basically a non-combat vessel. There are only two real downsides to it: it’s slow and…”
“…it’s really ugly!” I finished for him.
He nodded, “Yes, it’s not going to be winning any beauty pageants. Though, like my wife, you wouldn’t notice it once you were inside her.”
There was an indignant “Oi!” from somewhere above us and a pretty blond woman with dimples poked her head out from the top of the DBX. She shot Marco a look of mock indignation.
“Just you watch your mouth, Mr. Valasenti, or you’ll be taking matters into your own hands tonight.”
Marco winked at me. “My wife, Nicky.”
I waved up at the figure above us. “Lovely to meet you, Nicky,” I called.
She smiled back at me. “You too, love,” she shouted back. “I’d come down and chat but I need to finish removing this shield booster.” And with that she disappeared again.
Marco smiled. “Light of my life that woman – and she puts up with me, which must surely elevate her to sainthood.”
He looked back at the DBX then at me. “This is not the ship for you bella. There’s a fine line between practical and boring, and the Diamondback Explorer is on the wrong side of that line. Besides, if you’re used to the Cobra you’ve become accustomed to a certain amount of speed.”
He shrugged. “Ah well.”
Over the next twenty minutes he took me on a tour of a few ships. The Vulture was lovely, but rather too ‘kill-y’ and the jump range was appalling; the Keelback just had ‘pirate me’ written all over it, and, while I was tempted with the Viper MkIV, it wasn’t significantly different to the Millionaire.
Eventually though, we ended up where I think we both knew we would.
“You’re a tough woman to please, my girl,” said Marco, with playful weariness in his voice. “I’ve only got one more ship left that’s in your price range and fits your criteria.”
I just stood there looking up at the bulk of the Asp Explorer in front of me. I’ve always been rather fond of the Asp. While it’s not Gutayama it’s certainly not an ugly ship; it has a certain blunt-nosed practicality about it which I find quite appealing.
I looked back at Marco.
“Everyone flies an Asp!”
Marco sighed, “Of course they do Bella. If something is really good, lots of people want it. Come, let me show you around inside.”
He took me by the arm again and led me up the cargo ramp into the interior of the ship. We reached the main cargo bay and he stopped.
“Correctly configured, this baby can carry 80 cargo containers,” he said, his voice sounding hollow in the enormous space. “And that’s still with enough space for an SRV hanger, a large shield generator and all the plumbing for a fuel scoop.”
He threw his arms wide and turned slowly.
“You said you wanted something more spacious bella, will this do?”
It would, I knew it would – but I wasn’t going to let him know that just yet.
“Well, it might just, at that,” I said, sounding interested, but not certain. “Let’s have a look around, shall we?”
Marco led me on a tour of the inside of the Asp, and I made sure to make pleased noises at all the right points. I knew what the inside of an Asp looked like, the same way I’m familiar with most ships from the manufacturers’ standard ranges, but it was the first time I’d looked at one as a potential owner, rather than a mechanic. So I let Marco talk it up while I looked at the ship in a new light.
Lakons are great ships to work on. They’re designed to be easy to maintain and to repair, and they rely on older, more reliable equipment, rather than new, flashy but untested kit. They’re a bit spartan inside, but the living quarters are actually rather spacious, and this one had been fitted with a plush red carpet in the main social room and sleeping area. It all felt rather homely.
The Asp’s party piece however, is the cockpit. The flight seat and co pilots are split across two levels – both completely encompassed in a poly-acetate bubble. The layout gives you an almost completely uninterrupted 180 degree view out of the front of the ship; with the only exception being the floor between the two decks. It’s magnificent.
Three days later I was sitting in that magnificent cockpit, floating in deep space in an unpopulated system on the Imperial frontier – and quietly working my way around the security on the Imperial Command comms feed. The location I’d chosen was just good sense. In deep space there would be no Nav beacon to relay my location back to anyone who was looking for me. My signal would be seen to be coming from about 8 different beacons simultaneously.
Be honest. There are several ways you can avoid a trace, and this is by far the most convoluted. The main reason you are here is because you like the view.
I’m onto you.
I hadn’t been able to resist the Asp. Marco had known that I couldn’t, but he gave me a really good price on the Cobra – as well as a discount on some upgraded thruster and FSD for the Asp. He even offered to change the paintwork for free, but I love the orange stripe across the top. I’ve called her Leggy Redhead, after Caia. That woman won’t get out of my head – maybe because of that postcard of her I pocketed as I was leaving Pablo’s in Opila; the one that’s currently pinned to the control panel of of the Redhead.
A good price and some friendly banter weren’t the only things that Marco gave me. He also gave me my next lead.
He and Nicky had invited me to dinner one evening while the Redhead was still being fitted out. Nicky was just as lovely as she’d first seemed. We’d spent the day stripping down the Millionaire – I’d offered to help since I had nothing else to do while the Asp was being fitted out. After a genuine home cooked meal, a few glasses of very decent wine and some friendly conversation, I asked the question I’ve gotten in the habit of asking everyone I meet eventually.
“Have you heard of a bounty hunter called Dexter Vex?”
Marco looked at me surprised.
“What’s a nice girl like you want with a thug like that?” He asked.
“He’s an old friend of my family’s – my father knew him,” I summarised, glossing over a lot of the fine detail. “How do you know him?”
Marco shrugged. “He used to be one of my regulars here. Came in frequently – back when we were under the Emperor’s control.”
“There was always something slightly unnerving about him,” Nicky chimed in. “He was never rude, mind you, he was just…”
She petered off and shrugged, eloquently.
“Do you know much about him? Or where he may have gone?” I asked, hopefully. This was promising – I had thought the trail had dried up in Candecama.
Marco shook his head. “I’m afraid not. He left suddenly when all of Arissa’s pilots evacuated after she lost control of the sector.”
I was surprised. “You’re saying he worked for the Imperial auxiliaries?”
Nicky nodded. “He certainly hung out with a lot of them.”
I smiled. “Well, that’s useful to know. Thank you, both of you.”
Nicky shook her head. “You youngsters, always off looking for adventure and excitement.”
I grinned at her impishly.
“What can I say? I like to travel.”
Marco lifted his glass. “Well then – to safe travels.”
“TO SAFE TRAVELS!” We chorused.
* * * * * *
On the flight deck of the Redhead the comms panel bleeped at me. I’d had it scanning the Imperial comms traffic, looking for any mention of Vex for the better part of two days. I’d been floating in the flight deck, wrapped in a blanket, looking at the Milky Way spread in front of me.
I struggled out of the blanket, making myself spin and sending it floating away in the zeroG environment. I righted myself and pushed off towards the flight chair.
I pulled myself into the chair and opened the comms panel. Instead of a hit on my search terms, I had a message.
<What, precisely, are you hoping to find, Miss Low?>
I sat there, staring at the screen. Someone had traced me. This was very, very bad.
<Don’t worry, Miss Low. If I meant you harm I would not be sending you messages.>
Uh…Tanith? What the actual fuck is going on here?
<Miss Low? I know you are there. There really is no reason to be coy.>
I looked at the screen, then signed and pulled the keyboard towards me.
<Who are you?>
<Unimportant. Why are you looking for Dexter?>
There was no way I was going to get into that with some stranger sitting in front of a keyboard, god knows where.
<None of your business. I don’t mean him any harm, if that’s what you’re asking?>
<Well, I’m sure that will come as a relief to him, Miss Low. He’d be worried if he thought an eighteen year old who only left home 198 days ago wanted to cause him harm.>
A horrible little thought popped into my head.
Has it occurred to you that this person is keeping you chatting while they run a location search on your signal.
The Tanith that’s actually paying attention.
“Shit, shit, shit.” I muttered, and started powering up my systems again. Full boot on the FSD was going to take nearly twenty minutes but I’d have shields and thrusters inside of five. The comms panel binged again.
<There really is no need for that, Miss Low. As I said, I don’t mean you any harm.>
“Oh, you have got to be SHITTING me!” I shouted at the ceiling. This bastard, whoever they were, had installed some kind of monitoring device on my ship. I was going to have to wipe the whole computer and restore from backups. Everything I’d collected over the last few days hanging here was going to be lost.
<Well, really! How rude. What did you think was going to happen, Miss Low? I can’t let someone access our Command Channels and then keep the data. My organisation would frown on that.>
Curiosity got the better of me.
<What organisation would that be?’ I asked, not entirely sure I wanted the answer.
‘Why – the Chapterhouse Of Inquisition.>
“Oh fuck,” I muttered.
<‘Oh fuck’ indeed, Miss Low! I think you and I should have a chat face to face – you’ve managed to impress and intrigue me, and I’d rather like to meet you. You can find me in Malaikudi.>
I snorted derisively.
<Yeah, that’s not gonna happen!>
<One way or the other Miss Low, you and I are going to meet. You have my guarantee that you will walk out of our meeting completely unharmed. I may even be able to give you some answers to the questions you’ve been asking.>
* * * * * *
The Inquisitor had sat quietly while I explained in more detail why I wanted to find Vex. Now he laughed.
“Well Tanith, you may be part of a very small and exclusive club of people whom Dexter may actually be pleased to see when they track him down. Congratulations!”
The smile evaporated. “Are you sure you want to, though? There’s an old saying about never meeting your heroes. They only disappoint in the flesh.”
I nodded, though I was starting to get slightly unnerved by the reputation of the man I had taken it into my head to find.
The Inquisitor shrugged. “Ah well, they can’t say I didn’t warn you. The last I heard Dexter had headed off into Archon Delain’s space. Some kind of terribly hush-hush mission from a mutual friend of ours. From what I heard it didn’t go entirely according to plan and he had to set down for repairs on an underpopulated world in in 96 Aquarii.”
I nodded again. I didn’t bother to ask him how he knew all this – I knew he wouldn’t tell me, even if he wanted to.
“Thank you,” I said simply. “ I promise you won’t regret this.”
The inquisitor shook his head. “No, I won’t. But you might.”
I stood up and put my jacket on. “Maybe. But thank you anyway.”
I walked to the door that would take me to the main cargo access. As I reached the door the Inquisitor spoke up again.
“Please be careful, Miss Low,” he said seriously, genuine concern in his voice. “And remember – you won’t be the only person looking for Dexter.”