Part One of the story can be read here.
Alex leaned over the railing to look down at the sprawling plaza below. Streams of Banu flowed in and around the stalls and shops that crowded the marketplace. The near deafening noise was a constant presence. Sellers shouted proudly about their wares, shrewd traders loudly haggled over sips of sloma, while young runners darted about trying to lure potential customers back to their Souli’s Merchantman where the finest fuel cyclers or crog berries or whatever it was they happened to be selling was waiting for just the right buyer.
And even over all that noise Alex could still hear her stomach rumble.
It seemed the one thing that wasn’t for sale on the Bacchus flotilla was a decent breakfast. After a harrowing experience with a ‘Human Breakfast Special’ that had resulted in a shallow dish filled with sliced hot dogs and popcorn covered in what she could only describe as very thick orange juice, Alex had sworn off eating till she could get back to the few ready meals still safely tucked away inside the Belligerent Duck’s stores.
That would have to wait though. Pushing her hunger aside, Alex searched the crowds below for anything suspicious. Which, when you’re inside a Banu flotilla, is sort of like looking for uptight swegs when on Earth. More specifically, she was looking for any undercover Advocacy Agents or bounty hunters who had the gall to follow them into Banu territory.
Typically, the Advocacy would pursue a thief for a system, maybe two, before they called back their resources and left it to the Bounty Hunting Guild to chase the culprit down. It wasn’t that the Advocacy weren’t eager to see justice done, they just had more important things to spend their time and efforts on (like vicious outlaw gangs and crazed serial killers). It was why the Empire relied so heavily on the bounty system in the first place. Doubly so when the jurisdiction crossed into the Banu Protectorate. With a high enough price, you could have hundreds of bounty hunters searching for free and only have to pay the person who collected. It saved time and credits.
The Advocacy’s focus was on big fish, and Alex had worked hard at staying a medium fish at best.
Yet, her and Mas’ escape from Terra had proven to be anything but typical. Instead of having to deal with the normal gaggle of cocksure guilders fumbling all over themselves to get paid, the Advocacy had mobilized dozens of Agents across multiple systems in one of the biggest dragnets she had ever seen. Every jump point had been swarming. Plus, there had been the daily dispatches encouraging citizens to share information with the authorities. Why was it that law-abiding types were always so bored they couldn’t just mind their own damn business?
The Duck could barely stop to refuel without some good Samaritan recognizing them from the wanted posters plastered all over the spec. Mas had to work overtime blocking or delaying comms until they were away, and even then, they still had to fight their way free more times than was healthy. They had always pulled through, but only by the slimmest of margins. Their Mercury had the scars to prove it.
On top of that, Alex had been forced to call in just about every outstanding favor she had. In Pyro, a crew that owed them for a records wipe had agreed to tangle with the bounty hunters who had cornered them there. Though, to be honest, she suspected they would have done it for free with the amount of joy they seemed to take in the fight. In Tram, Alex not only had to wipe Old Mac’s debt clear to get him to help distract the Advos tailing them, but now they owed him a favor. And knowing the gummer, he was likely to milk it for all its worth. A problem for another day.
All in all, they had been pursued across seven systems and hadn’t been able to rest for a moment. Well, Mas barely slept on a good day so he seemed relatively unperturbed by the whole experience. In fact, having the chance to coordinate an intrusion on the Meridian Transit network in Garron had the hacker humming louder than she had ever heard him. And admittingly, Alex had laughed herself watching the hacked starliner routes stymy their pursuers. But that had been days ago. Now, here she was in Bacchus, tired, hungry, surrounded by a hive of Banu, and she could tell that her brain was far from firing with all thrusters.
Something about this job wasn’t adding up. Being paid to delete files at Behring instead of stealing them was strange enough, but now with the way the law had been after them? Even with a big player like Behring involved the response had been above and beyond. Alex felt like she was staring at a big red warning sign, but she was so exhausted she couldn’t read it.
What she really needed was about a month on Cassel with nothing to do but float, drink, flirt with Navy, and spend all her hard-earned credits.
Speaking of which, Alex brought up her mobi to check the time. Only a half hour until they met with Mr. Grouse and received the rest of their payment. Pushing herself up from the rail, she turned and headed towards the docking tube that connected Donosi Souli to the rest of the flotilla structure. Hopefully, Mas had been able to make progress on untangling the project data they had secretly downloaded from the lab.
A few steps behind, Mr. Grouse quietly followed.
To say that Donosi was Mas’ old Souli was a bit misleading, but it was easier for Alex to think of it that way. A programming guild, Donosi had been formed when the previous guild leader, Essosouli Olosso has died. Mas had used the turnover to buy his freedom, while most of the other guild members had joined Olosso’s heir Donosi when she established her ‘new’ Souli. So basically, all the same people working out of the same place, doing the same thing.
Fortunately, while Mas was no longer considered family, Essosouli Donosi was inclined to temporarily hire them both whenever they needed a place to lay low for a while. In exchange for Mas doing some work for them, he and Alex received the protection that being part of a powerful Souli brought, keeping would-be Bounty Hunters at bay thanks to the intricacies of Banu politics.
Alex arrived through the old airlock that marked where the Donosi’s ship connected to the flotilla. Not that it was much of a ship anymore. The thing hadn’t flown in decades and was so hemmed in on all side by other structures it was unclear if it could take off even if it had wanted to. Carefully stepping over thick cable bundles, she made her way inside. It was cluttered for sure, but compared to some of the other Souli she had visited, Donosi was neat and organized. Rather than the usual overflowing collection of odds and ends that most Banu seemed drawn to, the computer guild’s wealth was all in data. Racks and racks of drives of various makes and models lined the walls, some of them older than her. In the center of the room, several Banu half-reclined at terminals pouring over lines of code. Over the sound of typing, she could hear Mas happily humming to himself.
“Any luck, Mas?” asked Alex.
“Oh, yes. Much,” replied Mas with a wide smile. “We have confirmed that Project Stargazer is particularly worthless.”
Alex turned to see Essouli Donosi enter the room. You could always tell when Donosi was approaching because the dozens of mobiGlas that she wore clacked together as she walked. “Oh, yes,” said Donosi. “Complete garbage.”
That red warning sign in Alex’s head started flashing a little faster. “What do you mean? We got paid a fortune to wipe this stuff.”
Mas walked over to Alex with a datapad and gestured to the screen. “This is Project Stargazer.”
“Looks like a targeting reticule.”
“It is a targeting reticule. Part of a design that was supposed to help gunners recalibrate their weapons if the sighting was off during combat. The project was shelved last year when it was proven in tests to only be slightly more efficient than not using it.”
“The datapod you stored it on is worth more than this terrible information,” said Donosi. “Total refuse. Utter trash. No one would ever pay anything for such a thing as what you have brought.”
Alex’s stomach sank when she realized that Donosi was repeating herself. A sure sign that the Essosouli was negotiating. Part of the agreed upon price for the Souli’s protection had been the info they’d stolen and now it seemed that Donosi was no longer satisfied with that deal. This was not good news considering that both her and Mas were technically indentured to the guild currently.
“You can keep the datapod then,” replied Alex. “Let’s go, Mas.” She pulled on his arm, trying to get him to follow her.
“Mas, stay where you are,” said Donosi in a firm voice. “Your debt has not been cleared.”
Mas stopped and Alex found herself uselessly pulling on what might as well have been a brick wall.
“What are you doing? Let’s go.”
“I am sorry, Alex,” said Mas. “I cannot leave until Essosouli Donosi approves.”
“Are you serious?”
“I will not break a given bond. I am not like a Human.” With that, Mas winked at her.
Alex had been the one to teach Mas to wink and it had quickly proven to be a terrible idea. More than a few deals had gone south thanks to him winking when Alex was attempting to stretch the truth a bit. However, since none of the other Banu knew what winking meant, the skill might finally have payed off. Mas wanted her to find a way out of this.
“And what do you think our debt is?” asked Alex.
“A month of labor. Mas will gain access to some difficult locked drives we have acquired and you will clean.”
Even if they hadn’t needed to make their rendezvous, there was no universe that existed where Alex would have taken those terms. A headache began to grow behind her eyes. Like she didn’t have enough on her plate without becoming a Banu slave for a month. Actually, Alex thought, why am I having to deal with this?
“And I say there is no debt. You agreed to take the info on the datapod and that’s what you got. A deal’s a deal.”
“Information that is worthless.”
“Yeah, that sucks for you. Next time negotiate better.”
A smile broke across Donosi’s face. “Very well. You are free to go.”
“Oh,” Alex responded a bit taken aback by the sudden shift. Even though she lived with a Banu, she still could be surprised by how alien the aliens sometimes felt. “Thanks.”
“Come on, Alex,” said Mas, getting up from the terminal. “We don’t want to be late.”
Mas worked the star runner’s scanner as Alex guided the ship towards the rendezvous coordinates the courier had delivered to her a few days earlier.
The relative quiet of the Duck proved to be unnerving rather than the relief she had expected. And even though she should have been able to take a break from looking over her shoulder now that she was back aboard her own ship, Alex still felt on edge. Nothing about this job was sitting right. Why would Grouse want them to purge useless data? Why would the Advocacy be treating them like the Empire’s most wanted? Why did Grouse want to meet again rather than just sending the credits. Why couldn’t she figure out what the hell was going on?
“This is a trap, yes?” asked Mas, having similar thoughts.
“Yeah,” agreed Alex. “You want to forget the credits and bail?”
“It is a lot of credits.”
“It is so many credits.”
Mas thought for a beat. “We can always get more credits. I am a very good hacker and you are also good at things.”
“Yeah.” Though she was sad to be losing the money, a huge sense of relief came over her now that the decision had been made. “Where do you want to go? Spider? Maybe finally check out Kayfa?”
“Neither, I’m afraid,” said Mr. Grouse from behind them, the energy pistol in his hand trained at Mas’ head. “You will maintain your current course.”
Alex, cursing herself, swore that from now on she and Mas were going to search all the berths for stowaways before taking off.
“Let me guess, Advocacy are waiting for us at the rendezvous?” asked Alex.
“Correct, Ms. Dougan. You will be arrested, tried and convicted. Of course, there is a chance I will be forced to kill you both before then, but I would prefer not to.”
“You know we’ll tell them about you, right?”
“That has always been the plan. The only surprise was you managing to evade capture this long. I was certain they had you at the Davien jump point. It was most impressive when your Mercury gave them the slip once again.”
“Wait,” said Mas. “If you wanted the thieves arrested, then why did you hire us? Why not hire bad thieves?”
“The job needed to be successful. A lesser team would have been caught before deleting the project.”
“But the files were worthless!” protested Alex.
“Enough, Ms. Dougan. We should be arriving at the ambush any moment now.”
“What about Prairie Lightning Delta?
A moment after she had uttered the phrase-key, the EMP rigged under the main console went off.
With a sickening lurch, the ship powered completely down.
Mr. Grouse, unprepared, tripped forward off balance. Mas, very prepared, slipped his knife from its sheath and slashed at their captor’s arm. The pistol dropped to the floor and Alex dove, recovering the weapon before Grouse could.
“An EMP. Clever,” said Grouse, breathing hard, the deep gouge on his arm dripping blood onto the floor.
“Mas’ gets full credit,” said Alex. “Now, if you don’t mind, why don’t you start explaining what in hell it is you’re up to.”
Before Grouse could respond, bright headlights suddenly shone into the cockpit. An Advocacy Vanguard flanked by two Banu Defenders was quickly approaching their ship. The Agents must have negotiated their way in with the Security Souli in this sector.
“I am afraid it’s too late,” said Grouse.
“Comm them and tell them we’ll kill you if you don’t stand down.”
“Why would they care about a corpse?” asked Grouse, reaching his fingers inside the wound on his arm.
“Mas! Stop him!” shouted Alex.
Mas reached out, but not fast enough.
“Your Empire thanks you for your service,” said Grouse as he used his fingers to sever his brachial artery. The trickle of blood turned into a gushing flood. Grouse collapsed to the floor unconscious.
Alex was certain that the memory of what Grouse had just done would hold the top spot for the most terrifying thing she’s ever seen for a long time to come. “Crap! Do you know first aid?”
“No.” said Mas, looking down at the body and its widening pool of blood. “Did we ever buy more medpens?”
“Crap. Crap. Crap. Help me get some pressure on him or something.”
It was then that the ship’s power kicked back on.
“—gent Duck. This is the UEE Advocacy. Prepare to be boarded.”
It seemed Alex and Mas had a choice. Either tend to Grouse before he died, or try to avoid capture. It was a very easy choice. “Mas, dump his body in the lock and strap in!”
Alex threw herself into the pilot seat and opened up the throttles to max. The Mercury burst to life and hurtled towards the Vanguard, rolling to bring their port side to the Advocacy’s ventral. The shields flared as the twin Sawbucks on the Vanguard’s turret scored a direct hit. They held for now, but a few more hits like that and the Duck would be done for.
A head to head fight wasn’t an option here. They were outclassed. Emergency escape maneuvers were the order of the day.
Gaining a bit of distance from the pursuers as they rushed to turn around and give chase, Alex quickly opened up the rear ramp and turned off the cargo grid.
“Mas, special delivery!”
Alex pulled hard on the controls and Mercury flew straight up, leaving the ten crates in their hold floating behind them. She grabbed the blackout helmet she kept nearby for just this moment and quickly slipped it on, giving all new meaning to the phrase ‘flying blind.’
Mas began counting down, “Three… two… one… “
Alex heart skipped a beat before she remembered that Banu counted down to zero.
Behind them, a small new sun burst to life as the crates exploded. Or at least that’s what it looked like. Or would have looked like if Alex could see anything.
Each of the crates had contained the equivalent of a hundred flares. The ten crates combined was enough to overload any nearby sensors long enough for them to clear range. And forget trying to track them visually. Those poor pilots would be lucky if they got their vision back any time soon.
Alex pulled off the helmet and lined up a QT towards the Bacchus asteroid belt.
“If we are going to be on the run again,” said Mas. “I think I would like to go visit Leir.”
“Sure, Mas.” said Alex. “It’s your turn to pick anyway.”
Alex let out a deep sigh and for the moment tried to ignore the pool of blood at her feet by concentrating on flying.
No answers. No money. But for now at least, they had their freedom.