Radu Ghazi settled into the bunk, letting the mattress conform underneath him. He was impressed by the support. Most ship designers couldn’t care less about mattress strength. They seemed to spend all their time pouring credits and attention into the sexier aspects of the ships; the hull, the guns, the engines. The marketing points, he’d once heard them called. That was back on Prime, in some high class bar that he had no business being in. The thing these companies didn’t seem to grasp was that when you spend months on the drift, a comfortable mattress could save your life just as well as an armored hull.
The airlock lift hissed and opened. A short man in an expensive but ill-fitted flightsuit rose into view on the lift near the bunks. The man turned towards Radu.
Radu snapped off a shot with his pistol. The energy round punched through the small man’s faceplate and popped into his head. He dropped in a heap and was still. A thin strand of smoke rose from the wound.
Radu climbed out of the bunk, dragged the body off the lift and took an appraising look around the interior of the Constellation. He might have to buy one of these when he gets the credits.
He hit the descend button on the lift. The platform shook gently and began to descend.
Outside, the sun was just beginning to rise on Daymar. Swirls of dust danced in the predawn light. Radu crossed the landing platform, keeping an eye on the dark buildings dotted around the edge of the outpost complex.
Based on his recon, the target (learning their names just muddled his thinking) was always the first one up, so he wasn’t expecting any witnesses, but you had to be ready for anything. That type of flexibility had seen him through some pretty dicey situations.
Radu trudged towards the jagged peak behind which he’d parked his ship. Gravel crunched underneath his boots as he glanced back at the closest building. A faded logo for Rayari Inc. was barely visible under the weathered dirt. He’d heard the company mentioned on the spectrum from time to time, but had no idea what it really did, even less of what it would be doing all the way out here.
What do you gotta do to get sent out here? Radu wondered as he climbed the hill. Trying to figure out the stories that led people to where they were was one of his favorite hobbies. Six years in the Bremen militia watching people come and go provided a lot of opportunities for people watching. That was a long time ago, however.
He reached the top and did a thorough scan around the outpost to make sure no one had stirred. The light from Stanton’s star had now crept across the horizon. The moon was peaceful and quiet.
Radu glanced back at the Constellation waiting on the pad, wondered briefly about how long it would be before anyone discovered the body he left inside, then turned and walked down to his own ship. The old Gladius had been his father’s, the same model as the one his old man had flown back in the service. Radu and his dad had picked it up at a reclamation sale and spent two years fixing it up. When Radu joined the militia, his dad passed the ship onto him.
Moments later, after the flare of his thrusters had merged with the canopy of stars, the outpost was still again.
The credits hit his account by the time Radu entered the main sprawl of Grim HEX. The central hub of the dilapidated station was bathed in the flickering light of the massive community screen that loomed above. What had once been used by the station administration to post updates, job opportunities, ads, local events, et cetera, was now a wash of digital noise, fractured imagery and the occasional Nine Tails symbol.
He didn’t understand why the outlaw pack felt the need to take over the signs. It’s not like there was any confusion that they were running this place now. Looking around, he counted eight armored thugs bearing Nine Tails tags, fully loaded and looking for trouble.
A junkie raced out of a nearby abandoned storefront with that feverish excitement that comes right after scoring a hit. Radu weaved out of his way and watched him disappear down one of the winding back halls. Turns out Radu wasn’t the only one watching. He met the gaze of a pair of squatters dressed in ragged oil-stained clothes. Their hands twitched sporadically. They seemed to be waiting to see if Radu was going to move on the junkie. When Radu turned away, they skulked down the hall after their prey.
Ol’ 38 was pretty empty, so Radu could grab a seat by the end of the bar. The bitter old man wasn’t working the bar today, it was that kid, the one who looked like one bad day away from the junkie Radu just saw.
“Get you somethin’?” he asked as he polished up a dirty glass.
“Gin and Pips,” Radu responded.
The kid nodded and slowly started to make the drink. Radu couldn’t help but watch him check each and every bottle in the speed rail until he found whatever cheap gin they had. Then he checked three freezers before he could find a can of Pips. The mixture was even more baffling to him.
Finally, the kid put the glass of mostly gin in front of Radu.
“Let me know if that’s okay,” he said with a tinge of hope.
Radu took a sip and winced. It was a lot of gin.
“Yeah, sure. It’ll do.”
The kid bartender grinned, gave a thumbs up, then went back to “clean” more glasses.
Radu brought up his mobi and skimmed through the headlines on the spectrum, but it was just more of the same: fear and money — the two engines that seemed to drive all of Humanity.
“Hey there, chief.”
Radu looked up from his mobi. There was no mistaking that voice. Madrigal was a two-bit thug for the NovaRiders. Rumor was that Madrigal used to be CCS, the civilian division of Hurston’s corporate security, but was let go for being too violent. Collections were his specialty, which unfortunately put Radu on his radar. Two of his enforcers were waiting by the door, presumably there to keep Radu from making a break for it.
“Hey, Ayrs,” Madrigal said as he settled onto the seat next to Radu. “Lemme get a Rust.”
The kid behind the bar smiled and spent another protracted amount of time trying to identify the right bottle.
In the meantime, Madrigal let out a theatrical sigh and turned to face Radu, who simply stared ahead this whole time.
“I hear you might have something for me.”
“Yeah?” Radu replied and took a sip of his drink. The ice had cut down the potency of the gin. Or maybe it was the growing anger …
“I heard from a person who heard from a person that you just pulled off a ghost job.” Madrigal stared at Radu, a smug grin on his face. “I mean, you know what a social guy I am. All the friends I got.”
Radu didn’t say anything. Madrigal watched him.
“I’m waiting,” he finally said.
“The credits just transferred. I was gonna send ’em.” Radu brought up his mobi and sent the pay to whatever dummy account the NovaRiders had set up for collections. He watched his own account drop down to double-digits.
“Good, real good.” Ayrs delivered a glass of Rust. Madrigal immediately downed it and checked his mobi. He did not look impressed. “Looking a little short.”
“That’s what they were paying.” Radu took another sip. “You don’t like the rate, take it up with them.”
Madrigal grabbed Radu by the back of the neck and slammed his head to the bar. Everyone in the bar jumped at the sound, but nobody did anything. The kid bartender turned away to look for more glasses to clean.
“Let’s pause a sec and recap. You owe us, so we own you. You stop paying? You die. You try to run? You die. Don’t like it? Maybe you shouldn’t have done what you done. So mind the goddamn tone with me. You’re alive because you’re useful and believe me, that can change real quick.” Suddenly, the smug grin was back. “Alright. Good talk. You got two days left to pay us for this month. I’m sure you’ll work it out.”
Madrigal grabbed Radu’s glass and downed that too.
“Thanks for the drink.”
Madrigal left. No one looked at him as he strode out of the bar. The two lunks of muscle by the door followed him out.
Radu sat up. After a few moments, the kid bartender wandered over like nothing had happened.
Radu shook his head and hit the job board on his mobi instead. As he scanned through the random and anonymous jobs that populated the local servers, one headline jumped out at him.
“I messed up.”
The job seemed simple enough: retrieve a NavDrive from a wreck and drop it off to get wiped. The money was right too, but it was something more. The offer was written with a desperation Radu could relate to.
He took the job. Moments later, all the relevant data flooded to his mobi.
Radu stopped by his hab to pull his flight suit and guns. Speed grind music hammered through the walls on one side. The heavy distortion and propulsive beat almost covered the screaming argument that was raging on the other.
He pulled on the chestpiece of his armor and strapped it into place, when he suddenly stopped. Radu slumped down on the edge of the bed and looked at the tiny room around him that had become ‘home.’ He picked out all the tiny details; the days-old foodstuff bags piling up in the corner, the old blood stains on the walls, all of it, and looked at them like he was seeing them for the first time.
The weight of the past six months came pressing down on him. He barely recognized himself anymore. How could he have strayed so far from who he used to be?
All the guilt, frustration and anger swirled around his head until finally, a single thought pushed to the surface: it’s time to change.
He’d do this job. Whatever it took to get him a little breathing room until his next payment was due, but he’d use that time to escape, to find a way out of the noose that was slowly strangling him.
One way or another, Radu decided, he would be free.
Radu weaved his way through the halls of Grim HEX, past the squatters and Nine Tails killers, the broken doors with leaking atmo, and headed towards his ship.
Outside the airlock to his pad, Madrigal was shaking down some other poor sap for whatever creds she had kicking around. Radu hit the button for the airlock and waited. Madrigal finally noticed him.
“Safe flying,” Madrigal yelled with a smirk.
The airlock finished cycling and the door hissed open. Radu stepped inside and punched the button. The outer door finally opened, revealing his ship.
He stocked the rifles and climbed into the pilot’s seat. The canopy struggled to close while he powered on the various ship systems. The multi-displays flickered to life while the engines started to hum. He struck the thrusters and felt the first lurch of movement as the skids lifted off the deck. He checked for an open flight path. The space around Grim HEX was notorious for lazy outlaws trying to score easy kills from pilots who thought they were ‘safe.’
Lift fast, clear fast was the mantra. Radu spotted an empty route out of the asteroid cluster and flashed the engines. The G’s hit his chest as the ship punched out away from the station.
The light fighter effortlessly weaved through the massive asteroids, dancing slowly through the void. The scans were clear, but Radu did visual sweeps to see if any would-be ambushers were pulling low-sigs to get close. Satisfied he was alone, he input the coordinates for the retrieval job. It was still in the asteroids around Yela, but on the far side, so he’d need to quantum around the moon before he could get a straight shot.
The first orbital marker selected, the quantum drive spun up and kicked him into a blur. The surrounding Stanton system turned into a smear of light until the drive automatically dropped him out. He repositioned the ship to the next marker and quantumed again.
Minutes later, he descended into the asteroid belt towards his coordinates. The scans were clear, but Radu slowed anyway. No sense wandering into a trap in case the job had been shopped to other pilots. Sure enough, he started to see scattered pieces of debris, leading him to the decimated wreck of a Connie.
He began to a wide sweep around the wreckage to make sure he was truly alone.
That’s when he saw the ragged Buccaneer parked up outside with its power on, lights shining into the wreck, and no pilot to be seen.
Damn, he thought. I really didn’t want to have to kill anyone today.
TO BE CONTINUED …
It seems that our two main characters, Radu and Clara, are about to cross paths and we want your help in deciding what happens next. Take the survey below and let us know how you think the action should unfold. (If you need a refresher on what happened in Part One of Collision Course you can read it here.) The poll will close Friday, August 18th at 6:00pm PST.