(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.
This Coexistence visionary guy turned out to be a lunatic that lived in his bed and smelled like a toilet. According to the Guide-Prime, who warned me on the way there to be prepared, he took offence when they tried to mask his stench or clean his place. I took immediate offence to him. He was blind, crippled, thinner than a tall man on hunger strike and covered in weeping sores. Even if he wasn’t blind I would have had trouble stopping the look of disgust twisting my face when we stepped inside his cell. Right away he started laughing, a sound like someone shooting projectile bullets into tar.
‘My presence disgusts you?’ he asked. His voice was worse than his laugh.
I was in no mood to be polite. ‘You choose to live this way?’
‘I have no choices in life. It is my lot to receive and deliver the visions.’
I barked a short laugh, more a sound of dismissal than humour. ‘You have a choice to have your illnesses treated and your stink mopped up.’
He shook his head. ‘The more I pay attention to my humanity, the less clarity I receive in the visions. This is my blessing and my curse. I do endeavour not to inflict myself upon others, but I believe you wanted to see me.’
He had a point there. ‘These visions you’ve had of me. How does that shit work? You got the Sly gene?’
He laughed again. I wished he wouldn’t. ‘Not at all. The Sly gene, the Magickers, they are a mutation. A strange aspect of God’s will. I have no power over matter or the minds of others. I simply see possible futures and hear echoes of things yet to pass.’
It sounded like the Sly Gene to me, just wearing a religious robe. ‘Yeah, right. Enough of the poetic crap. I have no respect or faith in you or your kind. In any religious kind. But you seem to know a lot about me and I want to know everything about me that you know.’ That was about as clear as I could make my intentions. I didn’t want him rambling on in some hokey religious way. I just wanted facts. I should have known better.
‘The ways of God are strange. He moves in mysterious ways and his provenance and his intentions are unknowable.’
He had the look of someone about to deliver a sermon, so I cut him off. ‘Bullshit. You tell me in one breath that you see the future, then you say his intentions are unknowable. You contradict yourself and avoid my question. I don’t care about your god, or his intentions. What do you think you know about me?’
That shooting tar laugh again. ‘Irrational, difficult. The prophecies were accurate.’
‘I’m not above bashing the shit out of you, you know that?’
‘Oh, I do know that. But it is not necessary. You are a small part of our prophecies, but seemingly very important. What we know of you, however, is almost nothing. We are aware now of who you are. We are aware that you will be integral in the Plan. We know that whether we choose to help you or not will drastically affect the outcome of the Plan. Beyond that, we know nothing.’
‘That all sounds to me like nothing anyway. You don’t really know shit.’
‘We knew you were coming here. Your picture has been in our books for decades.’
I ground my teeth. What the hell was I doing here? What did I really want from this guy anyway? None of it was relevant to catching Gans. ‘What the fuck is this plan you keep on about?’
‘God’s Plan. The Lord’s intention for the universe and humanity.’ He struggled to sit himself more upright in his festering pit. ‘Everything runs to God’s Plan. We are all bit players in his theatre of life and he has the script. But he also gave all men free will. That means that we can rewrite his script with our arrogance or we can choose to follow his guidance and play along.’
I sneered. ‘I’ll take the free will thanks. I can’t believe how many people think they need to pay homage to some imaginary friend who’s never given them a shred of evidence to confirm his existence. It’s always been the religious people using the concept for their own gain.’
The rank visionary nodded. ‘You are perfectly entitled to hold that opinion.’
‘But it has absolutely no impact on God’s Plan.’
‘You better be getting to some kind of point.’
He nodded again, dabbing at the pus that dribbled from his forehead over his blank eyes. ‘The point is this,’ he said quietly. ‘Whatever you think is irrelevant. It’s what you do that matters.’
‘And what is it that you think I’m supposed to do?’
‘We don’t know.’
I stood there, my mouth half open, words caught behind my teeth like kids behind a fence, not big enough yet to jump over it. I had no idea what to say to that. Eventually I said, ‘So, in sum total, you knew who I was and that I was coming?’
‘And that’s it?’
‘You have no idea what I’m doing?’
‘And no idea what I’m supposed to do?’
‘Or what you want me to do?’
‘You fucking people are mad! Why am I standing here wasting my time?’
‘Why indeed. We wanted to meet you, that’s all. Point out that you have a part in Gods Plan.’
I was exasperated. ‘But you have no idea what that is!’
He laughed again. I didn’t think it was possible for me to get more annoyed with him, but I was wrong. ‘No ideas of your part, no. But we know that you will play a part.’
‘This is all complete and total bollocks.’ I turned around to leave. I had a job to get on with.
‘And we wanted to let you know our decision.’
I stopped halfway to the door, refusing to turn back to face him. ‘What decision?’
‘Do you remember Haliotep’s prophecy?’
‘Your Guide-Prime here mentioned it to me.’ I kept my back to him, still planning to simply walk away.
He quoted the thing again. ‘“A ghost, dangerous and unpredictable, prone to irrational behaviour. Integral to the Plan, he will need to be treated with respect and caution. A ghost that will cause turmoil and upset. He will pass through the Sanctuary and he can be aided or hindered by the People. Their choice in this matter will determine the future of the universe.” A ghost. That’s you. The People. That’s us. We’ve had to decide whether to help or hinder your progress, in whatever it is that you do.’
I turned back to face him, my expression one of fury. ‘If you try to hinder me, if you so much as stand in my way, I’ll shred every one of you.’ I turned to the Guide-Prime, silent and terrified beside me, and grabbed a handful of his robe. ‘I’ll probably start with you, you self-satisfied prick. Then I’ll use your body to bludgeon him to death so that I don’t have to touch his stinking flesh.’
The Guide-Prime raised both his hands. ‘Please, hear him out.’
The prophet was chuckling, a sound like someone vomiting slowly onto a tiled floor. ‘We anticipated your behaviour, Ghost. We decided that to hinder you would cause more strife for everyone. Which is why we’ve decided to help you. Now. How, exactly, can we help you?’
It goes completely against my nature to work with anyone, but I’m not above using people to achieve my ends. I told them that the first way they could help me was by feeding me. If nothing else it got me out of that stinking cell. Sitting back in the Guide-Prime’s massive office I tucked into a plate of fresh produce, fruit and meats, nothing reconstituted. It was actually pretty good.
‘We’ll do all we can to assist you,’ the Guide-Prime said while I ate. ‘What do you need?’
‘I need to get to Methesda,’ I said around a mouthful of cold roast blent. ‘Can you do that? I need to get there on the quiet.’
‘The Sanctuary has certain privileges,’ he said, obviously very pleased with himself. ‘We have priority travel allowances, for example, and can avoid some of the usual securities around ports.’
‘That’s a good start. But I ain’t Sanctuary.’
‘No. But you could travel in a Sanctuary vessel, unmentioned on the manifest.’
I looked up at him, my eyes narrowed in suspicion. ‘That’s illegal. Aren’t you people supposed to obey all the laws of any given jurisdiction? The law about declaring all passengers is pretty universal.’
He smiled like a naughty schoolboy. ‘We are aware that helping you may mean… bending some rules. We are prepared, within reason, to do that.’
I shook my head. ‘I have a lot of aliases. I can move around pretty freely as someone else, without the risk of a ship audit turning up an extra passenger.’ I’d already stowed away once recently and didn’t want to push my luck. A soul made his own luck. ‘If we can generally avoid port authorities I’m happy to rely on an alias if anyone does come asking. The real concern is whether or not you can get me out to Methesda.’
‘We have many vessels at our disposal. Travel should not be of any concern to you from now on.’
‘I don’t want a ship procured specifically for me.’ Incognito meant going with the flow as much as possible, letting the stream carry you along and simply hopping on and off where you wanted. ‘Do you have any ships that are going to Methesda anyway?’
The Guide-Prime shrugged slightly. ‘I don’t know. Methesda is a long way out, and I get the feeling that you’re in a hurry.’ He paused, obviously thinking. I carried on eating and let him think. He began tapping at his console and frowning. Eventually he looked up again. ‘There is nothing specific, to Methesda. However, it is a relatively new planet and still rather lawless and, therefore, Godless. It is quite normal for us to send out missionaries to such places. There is a missionary team there now. Perhaps we could decide to enhance their numbers and send a couple more Guides out there. And perhaps you could ride along with them?’
It really stuck in my craw to be considering the help of these people, people I really didn’t like. Then again, the proposal this guy had just made was a very quick and easy way of getting out to where I needed to be. ‘I don’t want Guides hanging around me all the time. When I get there, I want to be left alone.’
The Guide-Prime nodded. ‘That’s no problem at all. You can ride along with the missionaries and then be on your way. Of course, if you ever need any more of our help after that, you only have to ask.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘Is that right?’
‘Certainly. You are going to be integral to the Plan. We have made a decision to help you whenever you need it. It’s really as simple as that.’
A part of me felt like there had to be a catch in there somewhere. Something about all this made my scalp itch. But, for now, there was no obvious downside that I could put my finger on. ‘Fine. When can you get that ship moving with me on it?’
‘Whenever you are ready.’
I nodded. At least this was getting me to Methesda. It felt good to be back on the trail and taking care of business, however that was being achieved. ‘Good. Just let me finish this roast blent here, then I’m ready.’
The port security scanned my pass and my eyes. Both were faked and both passed the tests easily. Once on board the Sanctuary ship I saw that the opulence of self-satisfaction wasn’t restricted to their places of worship. This boat was like the spaceyacht of some super-rich young playboy, only religious icons were displayed where sports photos would normally be and the serving staff didn’t have their tits out.
They showed me to my cabin, which was also big and opulent. It was private too which was good. After I dumped my bag down I reprogrammed the room’s door lock to a personal code and then went directly into the bathrooms and removed the contacts from my eyes. It was a long and delicate process as biological contacts are fragile and tenacious. They do a good job of fooling security, when they’re coupled with the papers to back up who they say they are, but they’re damned uncomfortable things to keep in for long. Fortunately they could be put back in a lot quicker than they could be taken out if I needed to slip into my alias again in any kind of a hurry.
When I emerged from the bathrooms the doors were all closed up and the Guides were accepting fresh fruit from the serving girls. They offered me some so I took it and sat down.
‘It’s an absolute honour to be travelling with you,’ one of the Guides said, with a shit eating grin.
I just grunted, not trusting myself to say anything nice if I actually opened my mouth to speak. The Guide’s smile faded slowly, like ice cream melting down a wall. After a moment he looked away. Good. We’d set the tone for the trip early and I was happy with that.
There was a low whine and a tremor ran through the ship as we started up and shifted out. The serving girls came around and gathered up the loose plates and utensils, swift and practiced. Then they sat and we all belted in. You’d think that by now, with inertial dampeners, false gravity generation and all that stuff, that take off from port would be a more casual affair. But breaking atmo was as rough and ready now as it was hundreds of years ago. The ship powered up and G-force pressed us down, then acceleration gave suddenly to a moment’s weightlessness. Then everything sank back down to normal. The girls unbuckled and busied themselves again. Seriously, hostesses on a missionary ship? A ship with décor valuable enough to feed a Globe colony for a year? There was something so fucked up about this whole arrangement that it made me feel sick. Still, all I needed was a ride and then I could get back to work. I just hoped that the trail hadn’t gone cold in Methesda. I still had some serious catching up to do.
With that in mind I went up to the bridge in order to make myself known to the Captain. At first encounter he seemed like a nice enough guy.
‘You a Guide too?’ I asked him.
He laughed, like that was a crazy notion. ‘Nah, I just work for ‘em. It’s regular work and good pay to ferry these guys around. Simple as that.’
‘You been doing this for long?’
‘I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time, but I’m brand new to these guys. I just signed up with the Sanctuary last week.’
Something in the base of my spine sparked at his words, making my arse clench. That was a sign that I never ignored. I made a point of keeping my voice casual, friendly-like. ‘What made you decide to switch to these guys?’
He shrugged. ‘Money. Simple as that. All my life I’ve flown for charters and freelance. I get paid if I fly, I get squat if I don’t. That gets old really fast. With these guys I’m salaried. It’s not a huge retainer, but it’s regular whether I’m flying or not. I crunched the numbers and it works out on average to be a pretty good wage without the long spells of eating rice and living in a box!’
He laughed like this was the biggest joke. I knew a lot of people that had had to live in a box at one time or another. I was one of them. And I’d rather be living in a box than contracted to these bastards. Then again, I was using them now to get me around, so maybe I shouldn’t be so morally superior. I wished this Captain would turn around. I wanted a good look at his face. ‘How long is it to Methesda?’ I asked.
He shrugged again. ‘Course is in and plotted. We’ll be there in forty eight hours if all goes smoothly.’
I was surprised. ‘Forty eight hours? You know where Methesda is?’
He laughed, leaning back in his chair. ‘Yeah, I know. It’s a long way. But these Sanctuary ships are fast as hell. You could outrun a Dem cruiser in one of these if you wanted to.’
He looked around at me and winked, a big grin splitting his face like he’d been axed. I reached up as if to scratch my head and snapped a string of shots with the microcamera that was always there, looking just like a metal stud in my ear lobe. Something was wrong here. I felt like I’d just walked into a trap and there were people all around me, smiling and rubbing their hands together. I suddenly felt like a tiny fly in a big damn web.
I smiled through my discomfort, careful not to give away any misgivings. The surest way to escape a trap was to make sure that the people that had set the trap thought it was working. ‘Well, I’m glad about that. I’m in a hurry to get there.’
‘What’s the rush?’
‘Oh, nothing too spectacular. I just got work to do. Like you, I need a regular paycheque.’
He nodded sagely. ‘I hear that, my man.’
He turned back to his controls and I went back to my cabin to run the photos I’d just taken through my Reader.
I sat in my room, grinding my teeth and gripping my Reader like it was trying to run away. What the hell was I supposed to do now? Every Bounty Hunter has a sensitivity to their line of work, call it a professional sixth sense. The more sensitive you are, the better you are. Those people that aren’t don’t stay Bounty Hunters for long. A lot of them don’t stay living for long.
My professional sixth sense had picked up something as soon as I laid eyes on the guy on the bridge and it was right, as usual. This guy, this pilot, had a price on him. Now I felt professionally compromised.
His name is Gavin Bartellian and he’s wanted for a string of quite violent crimes. Various hold-ups, kidnappings and tappings on contract. He’s actually a very scummy guy. My sense of duty to my profession and my sense of moral correctness told me to wrap this guy up and hand in him. My bank balance would appreciate it too. But we were heading out to a Globe, so where was I going to hand in him?
Then it occurred to me that I actually had more serious things to worry about. Was this scumbag’s presence here a coincidence? There’s always room for coincidence, it’s important to remember that. It’s also important to remember that just because a soul is paranoid, that doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you. Was this Bartellian character hired to take me out? Or was it coincidence that he happened to be flying this boat now? What would he be doing as a salaried pilot unless it was part of a contract? I was pretty sure that he hadn’t decided to go straight after racking up the kind of record that he had. No, he must be working something, but was he working me?
I was surprised that he had managed to slip through the Sanctuary security profiling. I have greater resources on hand than most people when it comes to sourcing background intel on a bastard, but I’d found this guy’s most intimate details in a matter of hours. Surely the Sanctuary would have had access to enough information to find this stuff out, even if it had taken a few days.
Then a strange sensation slipped through me, percolating outwards from my soul. It was a white heat rage coupled with an ice cold dread and I suddenly felt like a nuclear fission engine in meltdown. Those bastards. Those scum-sucking, whore-fucking, worthless holy god bastards!
I felt like a complete blent, a total newb. I might just as well have walked straight out of school and pretended to be a Bounty Hunter. Why had I believed these arseholes when they said they wanted to help me rather than hinder me? They’d just sweetened me up and let me set my own trap by asking them for a ride. Now they obviously planned to hinder me quite considerably with the help of Gavin Bartellian. Fancy such a holy group hiring one of the scummiest dregs of humanity to do their dirty work. They were hardly keeping their own hands clean by hiring someone else. I would have had more respect if one of the Guides had tried to tap me himself. They probably felt like they were maintaining some kind of moral superiority by getting someone else to do the wetwork.
Then again, this raised more questions that it answered. I had to look at this from two directions. Firstly, if all that shit in their holy book was true, why had they decided to hinder me after all? Did they know more about my supposed part in this Plan they keep on about? God’s Plan. For fuck’s sake. You’d think that by now they’d have given up on some holy reason for everything, but blind faith was just that. Blind.
The other direction to approach this mess from was that all that stuff about me in their book was made up to sweet-talk me into this trap. If that was the case, why go to such elaborate lengths? Surely there was an easier way to trap me. And also, why do they want me whacked if it’s not to do with hindering my part in this Plan? Does Pietre Gans, this mutant that I’m hunting, have the Sanctuary in his pocket? Does whoever killed Darver Phelms and set me up there have the Sanctuary in their pocket? Was it Gans that killed Phelms? And, if so, how does he know it’s me that’s coming after him?
Man, I had more questions than a teenage boy after his first date. Then I thought of one way that I could maybe unravel some of this. It stuck in my craw to do it, but I felt like I had little choice. I set up my Reader to encrypt a message and sent it out to Mrs Jones. Remember her? The Dem bitch that set me off on this crazy ride in the first place. I asked her if anyone else knew that she’d hired me to catch Gans. Anyone at all, even within her own organisation. We both knew that we both knew it was a Dem job, but there was no need to talk about the fact and trigger pointless denials that would detract from the important question at hand.
Once the message was sent I double checked the locks on my room and set up a few proximity sensors for good measure. Then I laid down on my cot and waited for a response from Jones.
I was woken from a light doze by an insistent humming. My eyes snapped open but I forced myself not to move another muscle. It was the same sound that I’d heard that night on Rake’s clapped out old boat. None of my proximity sensors had sounded but I could feel and hear something in the room. I slowly let my eyes range around to the extent of my vision without moving. The humming sound seemed to be quite close, somewhere around the top of my head, but out of sight. That distant voice rose up again. ‘You’ll die. Go back.’ I drew a deep breath and then leapt up, spinning over onto my hands and knees on the cot at the same time as I whipped my knife out from under my pillow.
My knife point gently slid back and forth through empty air and the humming had receded somewhere. I couldn’t tell where. I looked around the room and wherever I looked the humming seemed to be behind me or above me. Never in front of me. I stepped off the bed and cancelled the proximity alarm that sounded without looking at the small unit. Like a hunter, I stalked around the room, listening, my eyes sweeping back and forth, the knife held up before me like a talisman against evil. I could hear the humming sound swim around me, like it was teasing me, but I could see nothing. And the voice. It just kept repeating, ‘You’ll die.’
Then a sharp, echoing beep sounded through the room making me jump. I spun around and the humming vanished at the same time as I realised that it was my Reader that had beeped. The sound and the sensation of presence had gone.
I picked up the Reader and checked it. A response from Jones.
“My employers are aware that I have engaged someone to catch Gans, but only I know that it is you. You and I are the only people in the ‘Verse that are aware of your mission. You sound paranoid. Should I be concerned? I hope to hear that you have caught Gans soon.”
I hoped to hear it too. Bitch. How can a soul sound paranoid in a typed message? Still, it did narrow down the questions a bit. I would have to take it on faith that she was telling the truth and, assuming that was the case, then no one could know that I was after Gans. That certainly didn’t help with the whole Darver Phelms scenario but it did maybe wrap up something of the Sanctuary scenario. Perhaps I could assume that they were simply acting on their own initiative with regard to their holy book and this was how they planned to hinder me. This was some freaky shit that I could well do without. What the hell did I do to deserve a mention in the holy texts of the Sanctuary?
A cold calm settled over me. It’s how I feel when I go into what I call ‘pro-mode’. There are times when there’s been enough research, enough questions asked whether they’ve been answered or not. Enough flying under the radar and playing a quiet hand. Sometimes it was necessary to get pro-active and that’s when I went into pro-mode.
I had no intention of sitting on this shiny ship waiting for these scum to move against me. Gavin Bartellian was a wanted man with a healthy price on his head. And his was an alive or dead contract, my favourite kind. Then there were two Guides on board and two hostesses that I’d seen. I checked the ship’s manifest through the console beside my bed and learned that there was no one else on board. No engineer, no other crew, nothing. This was one of those fancy ships that looks after itself. I don’t entirely trust the concept myself, but when you have Sanctuary money I guess you can afford the best kind of ship and the best kind of backup should it become necessary. Well, in this instance all that was going to work to my advantage. Two hostesses, two Sanctuary Guides and a scumbag. No problem. Time to get pro-active.
Continued in Volume 5 – Click Here
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(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.