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Roberts Space Industries

Serialized Fiction

Short Stories

ID:

17836

Comments:

19

Date:

October 21st 2020

Drifters (Part Two)
By: Dave Haddock
Writer’s Note: Drifters: Part Two was published originally in Jump Point 5.2. You can read Part One here.

Maybe a Starliner . . .

Mags rolled onto her side and pieced together a scenario: pick up a new Starliner, deck it out real nice and make passenger runs from hotspot to hotspot, but — and this was the important thing — not open it up to every sucker that can pay the ticket. Keep it exclusive. Choice clientele who would keep it classy. Make it be the party experience of the universe.

Although . . . the more she thought about it. Partying every day sounded like it’d get kinda exhausting after a couple months.

She’d been at this for hours. Ever since they’d identified the eriesium from the lockbox, the potential payout kept overtaking their conversations. Everything was a joke now: the terrible food packs, the shitty condition of the Harlequin, all of it. Because now they could see a way out. Hard to think that hours before, they were arguing about whether to put a bullet in Mags.

They were right though. It was hard not to get excited. The strange, rare element wasn’t just a ‘nice payout’ kind of score. This was life-changing.

She couldn’t believe it herself. From a youth spent picking tourist pockets on nameless stations and breaking into cargo haulers to sleep among the pallets and crates, to growing up bouncing from hustle after hustle, scrape after scrape. All that was about to end. She was actually about to be able to take a breath and relax . . .

But not yet. She still needed to line up a buyer. Someone who could pay them what this beautiful lump of ore was worth. An amount that would wash away all the betrayal, murder and despair the crew had waded through to get to this point.

She flicked the safety off her pistol with her thumb while gripping the knife with her other hand and carefully opened the hatch to her sleeping berth. The door hissed slowly as it slid. Mags looked out. The hall was empty.

Mags gave it another second to be sure. Underneath the persistent hum of the power plant, she could hear the intermittent banging of the engine echo down the hall, but still nothing else. Trin wasn’t waiting with a shotgun.

She put the knife back in its hiding place, pulled on her boots and thudded down onto the floor. Still no ambush. Mags finally relaxed, confident in the knowledge that Trin wasn’t that patient. She safetied the pistol, tucked it in her waistband and pulled on a heavy sweater to hide it from sight.

The bridge of the Harlequin was quiet. Ozzy was up there alone, casually flying the massive ship through the seemingly endless void. He glanced over as Mags stepped onto the bridge. She couldn’t read what was behind that look. Maybe nothing. She had yet to really get a bead on the guy. Outside of his obvious loyalty to his sister, Trin, he seemed to speak the bare minimum. Even when they picked him up from Quarterdeck, he said nothing. After spending five years in that hellhole, he just walked onto the Harlequin and sat down.

“Anything exciting?” she asked.

“Nope,” he replied and cracked open a can of Smoltz.

“Need to take a break?”

“Nope.” Ozzy took a long swig from the beer and settled back.

A few moments of silence passed.

“Okay, cool. Give a shout if you do.” Mags moved over to one of the side terminals and slumped into the seat.

It was time to get to work.

“What kind of work do you do?” the gruff, friendly voice asked over the comm.

“Commercial hauling mostly,” Trevor responded. As captain of Veronica’s Dream, he’d received the distress comm from a downed hauler about a half hour after shoving off from Port Red Oak above Angeli in Croshaw system. Damn lucky too, he was just spinning up his quantum when the comm came through. They’d been talking ever since.

“Cool, cool. You work for one of those big name companies? Covalex or some such?”

“Used to, but got out as soon as I raised the creds for a rig of my own,” Trevor finally saw the faint beacon appear on his scans. “Just tired of working for other people, I guess.”

“I hear that,” the voice responded. It had a scratchy quality to it, reminded Trevor of the way his grandfather talked after a day in the mines. Reminded him of home. “Ain’t never been the type to take orders.”

“Finally caught your signal. Adjusting course now. Should be there real soon. How you holding up otherwise?”

“Oh been doing fine. Got plenty of air and tunes. All I need.”

“I hear that, brother.” Trevor kept sweeping with his scanners. Turns out the hauler he was looking for had busted down in a small cluster of asteroids. “You got yourself in quite the bind.”

“Yeah, like my mama always said, I ain’t got nothin’ if not a knack for finding trouble.”

“My uncle used to say the same thing.” Trevor brought his ship around to get a first look at the disabled hauler.

“I believe it,” the old voice over the comms said.

Trevor crested the final asteroid blocking his view, he finally got a look at . . .

Nothing.

A gap of space between several silently tumbling rocks. There was something small floating out there, blinking, but that was it. No ship.

Nothing.

His terminal pinged, pleasantly alerting him that the aft airlock had opened. Trevor reached over to see if it was an error, but it looked like someone had run a bypass. He didn’t see the incoming rocket launched from one of the asteroid clusters up ahead before it punched through the canopy of Veronica’s Dream. The explosion incinerated the entire cockpit in a flash. The ship hardly moved.

Blind Jack Sticha scratched his chin through his frazzled beard with a faulty cybernetic hand as he watched the damaged hauler slowly begin to pitch down.

“Alright Southers. Get to it.”

The rest of the Souther Titans emerged one by one from their hiding places. Slashes of bright colors criss-crossed their hulls in ritualistic marks. The lead breacher moved inside the wreck while two more leapt from airlocks towards the damaged ship to try and get it flyable again.

Blind Jack settled back and ripped open a pack of Ma’s Chicken Patty while his crew got to work.

Dr. Honan Yao woke up face down on a grate. He’d weirdly gotten used to waking up in strange places, but there was always that initial shock. It felt like that moment when you start to fall, a jolt goes through your body as if to right itself. Then two things would happen: the reality would set in, along with the dull ache in your veins after a long high. His professors in med school said it was the WiDoW burning the lining of the veins, contributing to the black marks that stained the body. He glanced down; the inky black lines had moved up to his wrist.

Yao rolled onto his back and looked around. As his eyes focused and his head settled, he could see he was in the engine room of the Harlequin, so, all in all, it could’ve been much worse. There was that one time he woke up in the airlock . . .

A wrench clattered to the ground. He looked over. Trin was working on the piping system. Her mobi was pulsing to the tune of whatever song she was pumping into her headphones.

Yao dragged himself to his feet. His head swam a little while he acclimated to the elevation change, but maintained his balance. None of these things surprised him. Although this morning was a little worse; his head a little heavier, the fog in his brain a little thicker . . . over the past year, this had more or less become a standard ritual of waking up.

He slowly shuffled through the ship. Kel was in the cargo hold, studying what looked like a rock . . .

That jogged a memory. Yao slowed down as he tried to sift through the cobwebs of his memories. Yeah . . . something had happened earlier. Something big . . .

That would explain why he was a little more sluggish. They’d been celebrating something.

“Hello, doctor!” Kel said cheerily. “Incredible, yes? Very exciting to be.”

Yao nodded and made his way toward the bridge. As he made his way to his sleeping berth for a change of clothes and a quick shower, memories of the eriesium and subsequent party made their way back to his consciousness. It was about halfway through the shower before Yao remembered what had nearly transpired before they found the wreck.

He found Mags on the bridge, entrenched with a bunch of business pages on her terminal while Ozzy was napping on the stick.

“Hey Mags.”

“Doc . . .” she said without looking up, and clicked through another page.

“Have any luck finding a buyer?”

“I’m barely finding anything at all.” She sat back in her seat and rubbed her eyes. “No one seems to know nothing. Every mining company I’ve found doesn’t even list it as something they’ll buy. TDD don’t even have it listed on their commodities. It’s like the stuff doesn’t even exist.”

Yao nodded and looked out the window at space as he searched for the words.

“I’m sorry.”

“About what?”

“The whole Trin thing. I should’ve been there.”

“Well, if you know someone I could talk to about eriesium, that’d make it up to me.” Mags chuckled and went back to scouring the spectrum.

Yao paused for a moment.

“Actually, I might.”

“Wait, really?”

“Ozzy!” Yao shouted, jolting Ozzy up from his nap. “Can you get us to Kallis?”

The Willoughby Housing Exchange had been extremely popular among miners cracking the Daedulus Cluster in Croshaw. That was over a hundred and fifty years ago now. Since the HEX shuttered in 2863, the station slowly decayed. Longterm residents, unable or unwilling to leave, eventually died off and the station fell silent, just another hulk drifting in the black.

That was until the Souther Titans moved in. Blind Jack couldn’t believe his luck, finding a perfectly good station that only needed updated parts to bring it back online . . . or at least functional. Seemed like as good a place as any to have the pack hole up. They’d fixed it up smart too. Put in dead man switches to automatically cut the power, gravity and airshields if anyone but the Titans tried to take control. After years on the move, he had to admit, it was nice to find a place to call home.

Blind Jack Sticha and the rest of the Souther Titans set down on the various landing pads and quickly moved their ships out of sight. It was best to keep up appearances that the place was abandoned. They slammed the wreck of the hauler onto one of the larger platforms. Skivner and Leedy weren’t able to retrieve the manifest from the blast, but did a quick check through the hold. Thing was packed to the gills. That was the great thing about indie operators, they had to make each run count. Sure they’d put up more of a fight, but Jack didn’t mind a little scrap for his rewards.

That was just half of the haul too. Once they offloaded the merch, they’d break down the ship. Blind Jack would pick through the parts, keep a portion for upkeep on their own fleet, then sell the rest. All in all, they stood to make a nice little cut.

Blind Jack flipped on his suit lights as he trudged towards the HEX’s airlock. All the timers had tripped, so he needed to power the station back up. About halfway through the startup routine . . .

“Blind Jack Sticha” came over the general comms.

Jack paused momentarily then continued the startup procedure. The hidden power plants chugged awake. The lights in the airlock pulsed to life and the systems came online. His knee ached as he got back to his feet.

As the airlock cycled, he drew his pistol, a custom Coda pistol with compensators, and flipped the safety off. Whoever had called to him must be close. Leedy jogged up, weapon ready. The other Southers had heard it too.

“There’s no need for that,” the voice said. “We’re here to talk.”

Jack looked up at the security cameras in the airlock. They must be in the system. Jack holstered the pistol and motioned for Leedy to sling the rifle.

The airlock hissed open. Music echoed through the halls. Blind Jack pulled off his helmet and tossed it on the ground.

“Eyes up, kid,” he muttered. He yanked his gloves off and threw them by the helmet. “Anything go sideways, you paint the walls, hear?”

They walked towards the living area to find their two guests waiting. They were Human. One male. One female. Real nice flight suits. Male was visibly armed. Female wasn’t, but definitely didn’t look skittish.

Blind Jack casually walked over to one of their cargo containers converted to a cooler and pulled out a can of Smoltz. He offered it to the duo.

“Drink?”

The woman didn’t move. The man smiled and shook his head. Blind Jack shrugged, popped the can and downed the whole thing in a long protracted drink. He crumpled the can and flung it into the darkness.

“So who the hell are you?”

“We’re listeners, really. Our employer sends us to ask questions and listen. We’re then entrusted to act accordingly.”

“Uh huh,” Blind Jack said with a glance to Leedy.

“But we aren’t bounty hunters or Advocacy if that’s what you’re worried about. Think of us more like professional colleagues.”

“So what do you want?”

“Not much. We’ve got two questions for you. The second is significantly more difficult than the first, but both need to be answered to our satisfaction or . . .” the man shrugged. “We will act accordingly.”

Blind Jack burst out laughing. His bellows echoed in the abandoned station. The man smiled. The woman didn’t move. The laughter finally died down.

“You walk into our den and make threats?” Blind Jack grabbed another can and popped it. “That’s a quick path to a short life, my friend.”

“I don’t do anything for myself,” the man stood and walked over to Leedy. The scrawny, tattooed outlaw stood tall and met the man’s gaze without flinching. “As I mentioned, we are representatives. All you need to know is that, for all intents and purposes, Damien Martel of the Four Points is asking the questions.”

Blind Jack Sticha coughed. Leedy looked over at his boss, whose demeanor had completely changed.

The Four Points were one of those syndicates that never seemed to die. They never dominated the criminal hierarchy, but somehow persevered for decades, maintaining a rep that was as calculating as they were ruthless. The leadership each represented a swath of territory, forming a council of Four that dictated orders down to their footsoldiers. Damien Martel was one of those Points.

“I see I require no further explanation,” the man said after one look at Blind Jack’s face. “Good.”

The man walked over to Jack and studied him for a moment.

“Were you responsible for the attack on Mr. Martel’s ship?”

“Huh?”

“Do you want me to repeat the question?”

“What? No.” Blind Jack glanced at the woman. She’d circled into Leedy’s blind spot. “I ain’t heard about any attack.”

“Are you lying to me?” The man said, never breaking his gaze. His voice was even, devoid of inflection.

“Hell no,” Blind Jack looked right back. “My people are all here. All accounted for and nobody would make a move like that without me knowing about it.”

The man watched Jack for a few moments. Processing him. Finally:

“You Titans have an interesting set of tattoos,” the man said as he brought up his mobi and began to cycle through menus. “I never quite understood the appeal myself, but more so, could never just settle on a design I was comfortable living with the rest of my life.”

The man found a picture and held it up for Jack to see. It was a surveillance grab.

“Second question,” he pointed to the surveillance grab. Some scrap yard that Blind Jack had used to offload scrap in the past. Wardlow Rec or something. The man pointed to a woman in the frame; it looked like she was sporting Titan ink. “Do you know who that is?”

It took Blind Jack a second to recognize her.

“I’ll be damned,” he said with a fond smile. “Name’s Trin Liska. Been a spell since we ran with her. What’d she do?”

“Took something of value.”

Blind Jack nodded, filing that little tidbit away for future deliberation. He took another drink from his can.

“Last I’d heard, she’d linked up with Reza Malcolm’s ship. Horrible piece of shit called the Harlequin.”

“I want that ship.”

Blind Jack took his time thinking it over. He stepped past the man and took a seat in his busted up leather chair.

“Sure, I can help,” he said with a satisfied grin.

Thirty minutes later, the two syndicate hitmen left without incident and fully loaded with the Harlequin’s multitude of reg tags and everything the Southers knew about Trin.

Blind Jack was halfway through the case of Liberty Lake, sitting quietly and humming to himself. The rest of the Titans watched their boss, perplexed. Leedy finally spoke up.

“What the hell, Jack?”

“Speak your mind, Leedy.”

“Trin was one of us.”

“Was, kid.” Blind Jack settled back in his seat and popped another can. “She walked away. I told you before, we got no loyalty for quitters and besides, you’re missing the big picture.”

“What’s that?”

“If she got the attention of the Four Points,” a grin spread behind Blind Jack’s beard, “we talking big money.”

The Titans looked at each other. The prospect of a payout sparked that familiar fire behind their eyes.

“Strip your ships and travel light,” Blind Jack said as he slammed the next can. “Let’s go get paid.”

The Harlequin dropped out of the Bremen-Kallis jump point near a cluster of cargo supply ships that were on their way out of the system. Recently installed CommRelays now floated near the jump point and the Army station charged with protecting this developing system.

The entire crew had gathered on the bridge of the ship. Mags and Trin were entirely focused on the Army base, looking for any sign that the military were paying them equal attention. Ozzy flew with his usual sullen indifference. Yao’s hand trembled as he chewed on a nail. To the others, it seemed like the usual byproduct of going for such a long stretch without some kind of chemical balance. They did not know that it was something else.

Kel was the only one paying attention to the view. Outside the front of the ship was a staggeringly beautiful display of destruction and creation. Kallis was the very definition of a developing system. Discovered while the planetary bodies were still in the process of forming, it had become a nexus for astronomers and scientists who were eager for this unique opportunity to observe a solar system in its infancy. The system had even attracted its fair share of philosophers and spiritualists, who came to witness and contemplate all sorts of questions about existence.

“Pretty . . .” was all Kel could muster.

“You really sure about this, doc?” Mags asked, her eyes still locked on the passing military station.

“Yeah . . . I think so,” Yao replied. He realized he was biting his nails and stopped himself. “No, we should be good.”

“So this guy is a doctor?” Trin asked while she chewed on some jerky.

“Buddy of mine from med school until he dropped out and shifted over to physics and geology. He’s cool, though.”

“Uh huh,” Trin replied and took another bite.

Yao made his way to one of the chairs and brought up the commlink. He isolated OB Station Gryphon and sent a comm. It took a few moments before a bleary-eyed administrator answered.

“Main Junction.”

“Yeah, hi, Lev Dennis, pleas-”

The administrator had already cut him off and transferred the comm. After a few seconds of waiting, the rest of the Harlequin crew staring at him, someone new picked up. Lev answered the comm without really looking. Based on the rapid tapping, he was still clearly more interested in typing something.

“Yeah?”

“What’s up, man? It’s Honan.”

Lev stopped typing and turned to look at the comm. His face brightened up.

“Holy shit,” he rubbed his eyes and looked closer. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Needed a bit of your expertise, actually.”

“Yeah, right.”

Yao shrugged and nodded.

“Really?” Lev sounded genuinely shocked. “Oh, damn, yeah, okay. Come on by. I’ll arrange a pad.”

Twenty minutes later, the Harlequin set down on the observation station. The landing bay door opened up as Lev Dennis burst into the bay.

“Yaooooo-” He stopped short at the sight of the rest of the Harlequin crew. Lev was around Yao’s age, but clearly living in near isolation away from civilization hadn’t done much for his personal hygiene. He backed towards the door.

“What’s up, man?” Yao quickly stepped forward and shook his hand. Lev froze mid-reach. Yao looked down to see the WiDoW marks peeking out from under his sleeve.

“What are you doing, man?” Lev said in a whisper. “That looks really bad.”

“No, it’s okay, man.”

“Shit don’t look okay.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Yao said, mustering up as much of a smile as he could, but realizing how much he’d probably changed since the last time he saw his friend. So much had happened . . . but he didn’t want to think about that now. “Come on, meet my crew.”

Lev forced a smile and looked past Yao. Although Trin and Ozzy weren’t (visibly) armed, they were more than intimidating for the scientist. Kel quickly approached.

“Hello, Lev Dennis. Pleasure to acquaint. I Kel.” He patted Lev on the forehead then hugged him. “Beautiful station here. Sound construction.”

“Hey . . .” Lev sheepishly replied. Yao could tell Lev was getting skittish, so he kept the ball rolling.

“You got somewhere private we could talk?” He pulled Lev towards the halls and got them walking. Lev seemed to calm down the further they got and soon began to explain the various research companies and non-profits that had come and gone over the years he’d been there to study various facets of the growing system.

By the time they got to his lab, he seemed to be relaxed with the group, even fielding some questions from Trin about the station’s security protocols. Inside, there were multiple scan arrays positioned around a massive floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked the swirl of flame and debris outside.

“So, what’d you wanna see me about?” Lev finally said.

Yao nodded over to Mags, who was carrying their lockbox. She set it on a table and opened it up, revealing the massive chunk of eriesium inside.

Lev glanced at Yao before looking in the box. At first, he didn’t really notice anything special. It was when he tried to get closer and the light caught the violet glints just under the surface of the ore that he paused and looked at the faces around him in disbelief.

“Is that . . .”

Yao grinned. Lev made a move toward the eriesium.

“Can I?”

“That’s why we’re here, man.”

Lev excitedly grabbed some gloves and picked up the ore. He shifted it between hands, testing its weight, then gave it a closer look.

“Where’d you find this?” he asked, never taking his eyes off the prized mineral.

“It’s a long story,” Mags replied as she watched him study it. “But it is eriesium, right?

“Yeah, I think so,” Lev put the ore underneath a table lamp to study it closer. “You gotta remember they’ve only found eriesium in the UEE like four or five times. Ever. And I don’t think any of them were the size of this. So it’s not like there’s a wealth of knowledge about the stuff.”

“You know anyone who’d buy it?” Trin chimed in from the back, obviously bored. Yao cut her a glance. She shrugged and picked up a small statue from a shelf. Lev slumped down on a nearby stool.

“Plenty, but they won’t touch it. The government’s oppressively regulated any kind of open market. Until they know more about it, all discoveries and sales have to be reported. You have to indicate where you found it, how it was extracted, provide dig permits. So it’s not as simple as walking into a TDD and offloading some ore.”

“Wait a second.” Trin tossed the statue back on the shelf and started to cross the room towards Lev. “You’re telling me, we’ve got the most valuable mineral in the universe and we can’t sell it?”

“Um . . . yes?” Lev said as he shrunk away from Trin. She stopped right in front of him and stared before shooting a glare at Mags and walking away. “I mean, you might be able to sell it to some Xi’an. They’d probably buy it, but that’d be treason . . .”

“What’d you say?” Mags perked up.

“That’d be treason?”

“Before that.”

“Apparently eriesium’s a little more common in the Xi’an Empire. They’ve worked with it a bit more.”

Mags turned to the group.

“I think I know a buyer.”

Searches for the Harlequin were coming up empty. For days, Arno Maas had been flooding his whole catalogue of snitches, corrupt Customs officials, local militia bruisers and general scumbags with the reg-tags, but so far, nothing. Blind Jack had been forthright and comprehensive with what he knew about Trin Liska, but Arno remained open to the possibility that the old outlaw would withhold some key fact to trip up their search.

He shut down his terminal and made his way to the cockpit where Osane was flying.

“Had any luck?” he asked as he approached.

“Waiting on word from Masterson. He’s checking the Advocacy archives for known associates of this Malcolm guy.”

Arno sat quietly for a few moments.

“I’m wondering if we should’ve killed a Titan or two. You know, punctuate our point.”

“Blind Jack’s old school.” Osane placed the ship on autopilot and turned back to face him. “It would’ve made us look desperate to intimidate him.”

An incoming comm chimed on both their terminals. Arno immediately activated the encryption protocols and answered it.

“Mr. Martel.”

It took a moment for the image to appear. A man in his late fifties with strong angular features flickered in. Encrypting the comm created some sync issues, so his face sometimes jumped to catch up with his words. Damien Martel looked into the comm with completely emotionless eyes.

“Status.” A sync jump made it look like his lips hadn’t even moved.

“We cleared out any evidence of the Echo Calling from that scrapyard, staged the thing to look like slavers, so that’s done. Just got a name and a ship for who’s got the item now, but we think the Titans might have edited their responses.” Arno double-checked his mobi to see if he’d received any incoming messages. “We’ve put the word out and are waiting to hear back.”

Martel stared at them silently, his expression inscrutable.

“We’ve got a fortune’s worth of Four Points property on the drift and you’re waiting for people to comm you back?”

Arno glanced at Osane.

“I don’t know what—”

“You kick down every door you have to. Raze cities to the ground. I don’t care. Find it or we’re all dead.”

Martel clicked off.

Arno and Osane exchanged a glance. She spun her seat back and flipped the ship off autopilot.

“Guess we should’ve killed a couple Titans.”

A comm message pinged on Arno’s mobiGlas. He glanced at it and exhaled.

“Well, that’s fun . . .”

Accessing the Bremen-Nyx jump point took forever. The Bremen Militia, paranoid on their best days, must have taken double their paranoia pill dosage today. Mags had sent an old reg-tag that they hadn’t used in a while reserved for ‘clean travel.’

The grilling from the militia almost made the tense flight through outlaw space more preferable. Mags was piloting the Harlequin while Ozzy ran escort in the P52. They passed the wreckage of a Hull. Mags couldn’t tell what model, the thing was blasted into hundreds of pieces. A group of outlaws, presumably the ones who did the blasting, were picking through the detritus. One of them, a heavily armed gunship, turned to watch the Harlequin pass.

Mags was pretty sure there was a private conversation going on, weighing whether they’d stolen enough cargo that day or if there was room to tangle for a little more.

She kept the speed even, didn’t accelerate or slow down, just flew on past and kept heading towards the Glaciem Ring and their destination: Levski.

Mags had spent some time there as a kid. She’d hooked up with Frank McGarr’s crew: running spec scams, short cons and the occasional heist. They’d based themselves out of the ‘burnout collective’ (as Frank liked to call the residents of Levski) simply because they left people alone under the auspices of respecting their privacy. For a bunch of liars and thieves, it was perfect.

The rest of the flight to Levski passed without incident. Ozzy redocked with the Harlequin before they made their final approach. By the time they set down, the rest of the group had already gathered in the cargo lift. Trin waited with her foot on the lockbox with the eriesium. Yao was leaning against the wall, absent-mindedly chewing on his nail again. Kel was wearing all his ‘Human clothes’: a mismatched collage of Sataball team swag, a UEE scarf and a sweatshirt of the popular gag quote (“I’m With Mom”) from a decade-old spec show.

Mags pulled on her coat and hopped down to join them.

“I’m thinking we should separate, my guy can be a little skittish.” Mags reached down for the lockbox, but Trin didn’t budge.

“It’s staying with me.”

“Yeah, okay,” Mags said as she hit the lift button. The platform shuddered and began to descend. She turned to Kel. “Remember what we talked about.”

“I am friend. Not slave.” He replied with a carefully practiced cadence.

The lift thudded to the ground. The group walked towards the airlock as the massive overhead hangar doors screeched closed. The air had a tangy taste to it, probably been years since they’d cleaned out the scrubbers in the hangars.

They passed a banner outlining the ‘rules’ of the People’s Alliance. One of these hung in each of the hangars, but this one had been stitched up multiple times, presumably from people throwing rocks or bottles through the sign.

Yao immediately darted away once they got inside and headed into the tunnels. Kel rushed to look at the crude map of the abandoned mining station and immediately struck up a (one-sided) conversation with a local who happened to be standing nearby. Mags, Trin and Ozzy took the elevator down to the main floor.

The Grand Barter was bustling, as usual. Transient hawkers shouted at anyone who happened to drift in their eyeline. If given the slightest acknowledgement, the hawker pounced.

The three of them stalked through the stalls, getting swarmed by wares from all corners of the UEE and beyond. Assurances of quality and rarity were laced into every sentence.

They finally cleared the other side. Ozzy shoved away a particularly persistent merchant and they all stepped towards the bar.

Cafe Musain was packed. A hauling team loudly celebrated in one of the side rooms, clearly blowing off steam after a big job. The rest of the place was filled with miners, locals wearing homemade clothes and transients who’d stopped off for a rest and a drink. Bartenders hustled to keep the glasses full.

Mags scanned the booths that ringed the room. She nudged Trin towards a secluded one in the corner where a Xi’an sat quietly.

“Ozzy, do you think you could hang back?” Mags asked with a little hesitancy. Ozzy glanced at Trin, who nodded. He broke away and headed for the bar.

Mags cut through the crowd towards the Xi’an while Trin followed.

“Nyasēng’s.uo S.oam,” Mags said as she approached.

The Xi’an looked up.

“xē’sueren, Thief Magdalena.” Soahm settled back and took a moment to appraise Trin and the lockbox. “.axyoa? I hope you are well.”

“You know, ups and downs.”

“I believe I know the expression.” Soahm kept his eyes locked on Trin. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m glad you asked.”

The two sat down.

As far as Ozzy could tell, although there were about a dozen people who were armed in the place, maybe three of them looked legit serious. Two were sitting by themselves at the bar, but the way they were scanning the room, they had the look of vultures. The last was perched up near a back room, trying not to look like he was guarding it.

It was a habit he had picked up on Quarterdeck. A habit everybody picked up. You needed to assess every room, every moment, to know who was a threat or not. Maybe it was valuable training. Certainly wasn’t worth being sent there to learn it.

He drained the glass and waved the bartender over for another.

“Ozzy Liska,” a voice said behind him. There was something familiar about it.

Ozzy glanced back as Blind Jack Sticha climbed onto the next stool.

“Hey, Jack, how ya been?”

“I’m too old to change, you know that.”

“Yeah.”

“Heard you got out,” Blind Jack said as he paid for both drinks. Probably off some dead man’s account.

“Yup.”

“And back running with Trin.”

“Yup.”

“Heard you two got a decent score going.”

Ozzy turned to face Jack, mentally priming himself to jam his stashed blade in Jack’s throat if need be.

“Where’d you hear that?”

“Whispers, son.” Blind Jack grinned and took a sip. “Whispers always find their way to me.”

“Then you know the answer.”

“I can help.” Blind Jack polished off the rest of his glass. “Help you move it.”

“I think we got it handled,” Ozzy glanced around to see if Jack had any more help lurking. There. Some tall lanky bastard posted up near the front.

“Fair enough.” Blind Jack ordered two more glasses. He set them both in front of Ozzy. “Surprising you’d be so eager to jump back in with Trin after you got out.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Blind Jack pushed himself out of his chair, careful to keep his hands in plain view and smiled.

“Well, she was the one who bailed on you to the Advocacy.”

“Uh huh,” Ozzy managed to muster between clenched teeth. The rage began to build. “So she called the shots for the Titans? Thought it was your crew, Jack.”

“Wasn’t my finest moment, Ozzy, but you know how she can get,” Blind Jack said with a shrug. “She’s got that temper that makes her real convincing. Offer’s still open to come back if you want it. Family’s one thing, but pack’s another. Think about it.”

Blind Jack motioned to the lanky stooge in the corner and they drifted.

Ozzy turned to look at the booth in the corner as Trin picked up the lockbox. She glanced around the bar before opening it. Her eyes met Ozzy’s. She grinned then looked back at the Xi’an.

Mags had never seen Soahm so impressed. A former cop in the Xi’an Empire, he now worked as a security consultant for whoever would pay his fee, but he prided himself on his poise.

“You have outdone yourself, Magdalena,” was all he kept repeating as he examined the eriesium.

“Funny . . .” a voice said behind them. Mags, Trin and Soahm turned back to see Arno and Osane step up to the table. “We were thinking the same thing.”

TO BE CONTINUED

End Transmission

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