The gray buildings rose around dingy streets, far up, until their tops blended with the sky that was much the same color. Splashes of color broke the monochromatic scene in the form of graffiti and the occasional laundry hung out a window to dry. Piles of garbage crudely decorated the corners and alleys, while the urchins that populated those streets played in them, unaware and uncaring about their playthings.
Down one of those streets walked a lone hooded figure, walking confidently despite the decrepit surroundings. It came to a set of stone stairs which descended to an even lower lever, and paused in front of them for a moment. She lowered her hood and started down them, finding battered steel doors leading to a dimly lit bar, with low music playing through the smoke-filled room. It was crowded for the mid-afternoon, but she had expected that. She knew who her contact was, even if he had tried to hide his identity. She stepped in, pushing what trepidation she had down inside. She had dealt with organized criminals before.
She walked to the bar without sparing a glance for the gazes that followed her. The bartender came over, a giant Mustophian with gray-blue skin and four arms.
“What’s a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?” His think lips split into an evil grin as his yellow eyes flickered with cruel mirth.
“I have an appointment,” she replied evenly, gently placing the token she had been given on the bar. “I believe I am expected.”
The yellow eyes went wide and he ran one of his hands through the tentacles that hung like hair from his head. “Of course you are. Through there.” He nodded at a hallway across the bar. “Watch your step, miss.”
“I always do.” She picked up the token with a wry smile. Laurie Mack strode confidently through the patrons of the mob bar, token in one hand while the other was ready to go to the pistol on her belt. Most would be wary of anyone who was on there to see the boss, but one could never be too sure. Her single brown eye ran over the crowd, well aware all were watching her, at least out of the corner of their eyes. The patch that covered her other eye, metal, with a suite of sensors built into it told her much more. Curious gazes followed her, she saw in infared shades. Some were simply puzzled, wondering what her business was. Others were predatory, excitement at the fresh female striding through their midst.
She walked into the dark hallway, the door which stood at the end offering the only flickers of light around its frame. It opened at she approached, revealing an office, lit in various shades of red. The Boss was inside, with a few of his higher-ranking flunkies.
The Boss- Kurll Knoff, toad-like with wide lips and wider, sat behind a desk and spoke as she entered. “Captain Mack, welcome. Thank you for coming.”
She inclined her head slightly. “You’re welcome. What can I do for you?”
He chuckled and his fat eyes sparkled like those of a child. “Right to business, I like it.” He clapped webbed hands in front of him. “Sit, sit.” He gestured her into a chair in front of him.
“I prefer to stand, thank you.”
“Can I offer you some refreshment? No? A pity, I just had a shipment of the best brandy.” He rose and waddled to a sideboard and poured himself a glass. “Are you sure you won’t have any?”
She crossed her arms and waited. She spared a glance for the figure lurking in the corner. He was as opposite as could be in relation to Knoff, very tall and impossibly thin. He had a hatchet-shaped face and thin eyes nearly hidden under a black hat. She didn’t have to check the wanted posters to recognize Knoff’s chief assassin.
Knoff sipped his brandy and crossed back to the desk. “I’ll come to it then, my dear. I need something delivered.”
She found his idea of coming to a point and hers differed fairly radically. “That is my general occupation,” she said as evenly as possible. “But it seems you have plenty of idle labor at your disposal-” she nodded toward the full bar- “So why do you need me?”
“I have been told you are a person of some discretion-” he paused and looked askance at her.
“If you’re waiting for me to produce a list of references, I’m afraid that would be at odds with the discretion I promise my clients.”
He chuckled. “Quite so. And so discretion is what I require. The lot out there would chatter endlessly, if only to each other. No, this must be quite discreet.”
She nodded slowly. “You can be assured of getting your monies worth.”
“Ah, you are the forward one.”
“I thought we were conducting business? Or was I mistaken?”
He chuckled even more mirthfully, this time with a glance to his lieutenant. “I do like her. We should bring her on the payroll.” The assassin offered nothing in the way of reaction, and Knoff waved him off with a webbed hand. “Ah, he understands nothing of business, my dear. Come now, what is your standard rate?”
“Where is it going?”
“Ten thousand, half up front.”
“It’s a deal then,” he said, and opened a drawer in the desk. Laurie did her best to suppress her surprise; she had given him an astronomical price with the expectation of being haggled down. Knoff accepting it out of hand was unheard of, and concerning.
He extended his webbed hand, card in it. “Five thousand. You’ll get the rest after you deliver it.” He nodded to the angular assassin, who stood and handed her a small case. His narrow eyes bore through her, but she held her gaze fast.
“I suppose I should know who it’s going to.”
“Of course, my dear. Of course. You’ve heard of Ang Yoss?” She shook her head. “No? He won’t be hard to find. He owns a bar, Ang’s Place. He’ll be expecting you.”
She nodded and exited without another word, back through the dim bar and exited to the dirty streets. She made he way back to the spaceport, turning the encounter over in her head. Ten thousand would certainly give her and her crew a leg up, but anyone willing to pay that amount for a simple handoff, even a quiet one, was suspicious. Nevertheless, there was half of it in her hand, and if Knoff was willing to spend, why question it?
A couple turns later and it was obvious she was being followed. She tightened her grip on the package, glancing over her shoulder with her patched right eye. Some hulk of a man from the bar walked several paces behind her, but it was too much to be coincidence. She turned down an alley, which ended in the back of a building, reeking piles of garbage strewn about. She went a few paces down and turned around.
He was human, anyway, if he didn’t particularly look it. His right arm was clearly cybernetic, and his face was heavily scarred. He laughed cruelly as he turned down the alley. “Wrong turn, little girl.”
“Far from it,” she said. “What do you want?”
His laugh deepened. “Boss has a new pet, eh? Thought he usually liked ’em whole.” He advanced slowly toward her, and she took a slow step back.
“Not exactly. But I don’t think he’ll be too pleased to know you’re doing this.” She kept her voice level and relaxed her grip on the package.
“He’ll never know.” His massive hands were outstretched, almost on her. She planted her back foot and flipped the case on its side and put all her weight behind it. She may have been half his size, but the impact was enough to flatten his already damaged nose. Blood sprayed from it, and she deftly ducked around him as he clutched his face.
Her pistol cleared its holster in a second, and two reports echoed in the dank alley as she placed charges in the back of both his knees. He crumbled there, howling in pain and cursing.
“You’re right,” she said, crouching next to him and placing the barrel on his temple. “Your boss probably won’t find out.”
* * *
There was no further incident on the way to the spaceport. She made her way to platform seventeen, and there rested her ship, the Venturess, sat. It was painted a deep gray and trimmed in a dark red. It rested on the two extended nacelles, with the sleek hull set above and between them. There was room for a person to walk under it, and a ramp extended from the rear.
A large, armored figure was striding down. “Any trouble, Cap?”
“Nothing too bad, Scorch.” She looked up at the automaton, towering a full two heads above her. “We might have some before too long though.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Let’s get inside. I don’t like talking in the open like this.” As soon as they were inside, she closed that ramp and sighed, releasing tension she wasn’t aware she was carrying around.
She spoke into the ships intercomm: “Chip, get us in orbit.”
“You got it.” The ship shuddered as it strained against gravity and ascended. Laurie, in turn, passed through the cargo area and up to the main deck. It featured a oblong dining and common area, with crew quarters arranged around it.
“I see you’ve made good use of your time,” she said to Chip as he came in from the cockpit.
The young man grinned. His hair had been shaved, save for a strip down the center. He wore a short black beard that was neatly trimmed. “You were taking your time, and you told me to wait.”
“Did you at least do something about those inverters?”
“New ones are installed.”
“Good. We have some business.” She set the case on the table and stepped back. “This is going to Fuesilla. We’re being well paid by one crime lord to deliver it to another.”
“What’s well paid?” asked Chip, leaning against a wall and regarding the case out of the corner of his eye.
“Ten thousand. I deposited five on the way here.” Chip spat with surprise. “Exactly,” Laurie continued. “And he didn’t even try to negotiate, which tells me it comes with trouble. That’s not new to any of us, so I’m not too worried about it.”
“Going to Fuesilla is usually dangerous anyway,” remarked Scorch. He looked like an oversize set of ancient knights armor, but could move swiftly when the situation demanded it. To most, he was a simple loader, but Laurie had come to appreciate there was much more beneath the metal skin.
“Indeed. Our course is clear, but we all need to stay on our toes. Any questions?” The others shook their heads. “Good. Chip, lay in a course for Fuesilla.”
The Venturess rose out of orbit, toward the massive three-pronged hyperspace gate. She heard the chatter between Chip and the tower.
“Venturess, you are clear to depart.” She climbed the the cockpit and took the seat next to her mowhawked pilot.
“Ready, Cap?” he asked with a grin.
“Always am,” she replied as she buckled her restraints. “Let’s see what they have for us.”
The arms of the massive gate enveloped the ship as she taxied into place. There was a flash of blue, and they were catapulted forward and the stars became a blur.
Once the gee forces lessened, Chip made a few small adjustments and unbuckled. “Should be about half a day, Cap. We’ll get there late evening local time.”
She nodded thoughtfully and unstrapped. “Wonder what the hell it is,” she said absently.
“Now, Cap, you know better than to wonder things like that.”
She looked up at him. He was young; in his early twenties, dark eyes matching what he had left of his dark hair. He only seemed to have a change of clothes or two, for he was always wearing multi-pocketed pants and a flight vest with a tight shirt underneath. “I suppose you’re right. Guns are charged?”
He paused at the top of the ladder. “This really has you rattled, doesn’t it?”
“Not rattled.” She stood and followed him down. “Just want to play it safe. I think Knoff would have paid any figure I cared to name. Why?”
He shrugged. “Let’s hope we never find out.”
“You’re probably right again.” She went to her quarters and laid in her bunk with a book, trying to pass the time and distract herself.
* * *
“Cap.” She batted her eyes open. “Captain…” Chip shook her gently.
“Wha… Aw, man.”
Chip laughed. “You are human, remember? You do need to sleep sometime.”
“Yeah, yeah. Did you at least make coffee?”
He handed her the steaming cup as she sat up. “We’re almost there. Thought you might want to be awake for the drop.”
“Good call.” She sipped the hot liquid and stood stiffly. “We are spending part of that money on new beds.”
“Let’s go deliver it and really get paid.”
“Good call.” She followed him to the cockpit and strapped in. She leaned over the console and activated the guns. Chip raised an eyebrow. “Just in case. Let’s drop.”
He saluted with two fingers and pulled back on the throttle, and reality formed around them. Fuesilla glowed ahead of them, a blue-orange sphere, with a glowing halo of satellites, stations and debris.
Chip glanced over the console. “All systems nominal.” He paused. “But we are being scanned.”
“From where? By who?”
“Probably the two ships headed straight for us.”
Laurie swore. “Authorities? Or private?” She craned her neck to see the scanner.
“Well, we can probably guess what they want. And they’re not calling us.”
She could see them now, two small fighters headed straight for them from high orbit. She grabbed the joystick and turned the safety off, taking aim at the nearest craft…
(Voting is closed! Check back on 10.31.2014 for the next installment!)