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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”