(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.
So it’s another Magicker. Why the hell do they always send me after the mutants? Because I’m the bloody best there is, I suppose. Damned Dems, good for nothing but making the life of regular folk difficult. Until they need something back, then it’s fire and brimstone all around. Of course, they’ll never admit to being the ones doing the employing, but you can tell the stink of a Dem agent from a mile off. And they’re all called Mr or Mrs Jones. Not known for their imagination. Except maybe when it comes to galactic tax law.
The Democratic Alliance of Planets. Democratic, my arse. Favours for the old boys and fixed elections from one side of the ‘Verse to the other. But there’s nothing we can do about it. Damned Dems.
This Mrs Jones was just like all the others; uptight and insecure. She seemed nervous around me. I’d like to think it was because of my rugged good looks, but it was more likely fear. She probably thought I’d rape and murder her at the slightest opportunity. More fool her for believing the gossip. My reputation precedes me and it’s rarely accurate, but it helps me land work, so I let it go.
I got the wire right before I made planetfall to drop off the scumbag that skipped bail on Intensia Prime. All I wanted was a drink and a bath with real water, but the wire came through as soon we hit sat-range. Shame. I enjoy the peace of the deep black. Still, I need work so I answered and arranged a meeting. Managed to make her come to me, which gave me a couple of days R&R on Intensia while she did without water or fresh air.
When she arrived it was all business. She was pretty, in a stuck-up kind of way. ‘So, Mr Ghost,’ she said, trying to hide her nerves. ‘I hear you’re the best.’ She looked around the noisy, smoky, greasy bar. I’d picked our meeting place very carefully.
She looked surprised. ‘What?’
‘It’s just Ghost, not Mr Ghost. Or The Ghost, whichever you prefer. But I ain’t no Mr.’ I kinda like it when people call me The Ghost. It shows respect. But it’s usually just Ghost.
She nodded, perfectly shiny black hair dancing around her eyes. ‘I see. Why do they call you Ghost anyway?’
I shrugged. ‘There’s a lot of theories. Take your pick.’
She smiled, but it was the smile of a corpse. No humour in it at all. ‘I heard it was because when anybody actually met you, someone always ends up dead.’
‘You can believe that if you want.’
There was an uncomfortable silence. I let it grow. It was only uncomfortable for her. Eventually she made a show of taking a drink and clearing her throat. ‘I’d like to employ you, Ghost. There’s a very nasty man on the loose and we need him rounded up.’
‘That’s what I do. What Agency do you work for?’
She smiled that smile again. ‘No Agency as such, Mr… No Agency. I’m sub-contracted, but you don’t need to know who by. Here are all the particulars, including the DAP registered arrest warrant and authorisation of lethal force. But only if necessary, you understand. We’d prefer him alive.’ She held out a bioslide.
I took it and pressed it onto the entry pad of my Reader, let it soak in. I’d read it later. The details are always fairly irrelevant. If someone comes directly to me it’s because they need a real scumbag picked up and nobody else can get close to them. ‘Fine,’ I said, finishing my drink. ‘Anything else I should know?’
‘Well, this one’s a Grade-MA1 and highly unpredictable. All the details are on the ‘slide. I guess that’s all you need.’
MA1. Dangerous. This would be a first for me, but she didn’t need to know that. The Magickers I’d picked up the past were mostly mad and their skills were limited. MA1 was different. ‘What about the moolah?’ I asked, getting back to business.
She nodded, reaching into her bag. ‘You only take direct Cash-slides to your Chip, right?’
She handed me another ‘slide and I pressed that onto my DAP Chip. This one I did check, but it was all there. I have a standard fee. High and non-negotiable. ‘Same again when you deliver,’ she said. ‘Assuming you deliver.’
I chose to let that go. She was annoying me and it would be easier to just leave. ‘Your contact details are on the first ‘slide you gave me?’ I asked.
‘Of course. Contact me for any reason.’
‘I’ll contact you when I’ve got him.’
I walked out of the bar, part of me enjoying the juvenile thrill of leaving her among the dirtiest and meanest underbelly crims in Intensia’s biggest port. If she wants to send me after a Magicker, I’ll make her life difficult. She’d be armed anyway. Dem agents always are.
The details on the ‘slide that Mrs Jones gave me were pretty sketchy it turned out. This guy was wanted for any number of galactic felonies, but I think the thing that really pissed the Dems off was that he killed a bunch of their agents. It wasn’t like he hadn’t turned up on a homicide list before, but when he had the blood of Dems on his hands they got nasty. They sent me after him.
His name is Pietre Gans. What kind of goofy name is that? Seems he’d grown up on a Pioneer Globe somewhere shitty where the Dems didn’t have much of an eye. Probably somewhere out on the Edge. If he had grown up there then it must have been terraformed for a while, but some places wait a lot longer than the standard ten years to get their name. Anyway, he was born to some Pioneers and had the Sly gene, but there were no Dems to wrap him up. Usually that’s a situation that’ll kill a soul but this Gans guy was one of the rare ones that learned to control his mutation.
Seems like he’d grown up mean. Then again, most do out on the Globes. Even poor folk in among civilised planets can be as mean and ornery as an old dog that’s been kicked too many times. Poverty’ll do that to a soul.
Whatever. He was mean, he was powerful and he was killing his way to freedom it seemed. He’d jumped a shuttle while he was in transfer. They thought they had him drugged against using his talent, but it seems the drug must have worn off. As soon as the shuttle touched down he went off like a New Year firecracker and left five Dem agents dead. He would have been off-world again before the blood dried. MA1. Like I said, dangerous.
I had one lead from Mrs Jones and calling it a lead was generous. Apparently this Gans freak had made a bit of a mess in a spaceport hotel on Gallenin, a planet out a ways along the spiral arm. It was the only time since he’d jumped that he had turned up on any screens. And even that sighting was a week old. Seems like the Dems were their usual efficient selves in getting on this case. Something about an argument that started when he tried to pay with some fake gems instead of his Chip and the hotel didn’t like that. Neither did Gans and the hotel manager ended up as a stain on the wall. Dumb fuck should have used his Reader and made a Cash-slide. If you’re on the run, you don’t cause a scene. Still, I won’t let that mistake cause me to underestimate him. When Hunters start underestimating their quarry they start turning up dead.
So I’ve got myself a ride on a Merchant Transport, riding on a coach fare, but I have a cabin to myself. I don’t trust anyone enough to sleep near them. We should hit Gallenin in another thirty six hours or so.
Man, this side of Gallenin sure is crappy. I wonder if the whole planet is like this. We got delayed by a solar storm coming in, so the trail’s even colder than when I started. And the weather here is ridiculous. If you’re going to terraform a planet, you’d think to pick one nearer to the system’s sun. The snow storms and winds here make going outside almost impossible without an environment suit on. Apparently it’s worse in winter.
The hotel was really helpful when I got here and asked about Gans; they showed me the stain he’d left that used to be their manager. The new manager had only arrived about forty eight hours before me and he knew next to nothing. They gave me stills and vid from their security cams and a better description than Jones had given me. I decided to stay on for a night or two and scope the place out. See if I could turn up anything else or maybe talk to someone that may have had an interaction with Gans. The new manager had given me a list of all the people that were staying here while Gans was here. He hadn’t wanted to give me that list, but I’d reminded him about the stain and explained that it wasn’t something only a Magicker could do. Then I got him to mark all the people on the list that were still here. I’d start with them.
The first on the list was a guy by the name of Gyll Freeman, a suit, trawling the ‘Verse for business opportunities. Same way a leech trawls the swamp for blood. I knocked on his door and he took about half a lifetime to answer it. Probably saw me on his security cam and couldn’t figure out what to do. When the door eventually opened I didn’t waste any time.
‘I’m looking for a rogue Magicker, name of Gans. He was here a couple of days back.’
The suit looked nervous, but seemed happy that I wasn’t after him. ‘Why are you looking for him?’ he asked. Bastards, always on the lookout for an opportunity. Probably thought he could sell me something to help in my quest. Believe me, I’ve got all that I need.
‘This is all the explanation you need,’ I said and flashed him my Bounty Hunter licence.
His face screwed up a bit, like he’d tasted something bad. ‘You’re a Corpsecasher?’
See, that was only his first mistake, but it was a big one. The crunch his nose made under my fist was quite satisfying and he staggered back into his room. ‘What did you call me?’ I bellowed at him.
His hands were cupped over his face, blood between his fingers. ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to be so offended. It’s just a figure of speech.’
‘Yeah. So is “eat shit and die”, but that doesn’t mean you can say it to just anyone.’ I closed his door behind me and dragged him over to sit on the edge of his bed. I took a towel from the bathroom and handed it to him. He pressed it against his face. ‘So,’ I reminded him. ‘Pietre Gans.’
He sniffed back blood and winced in pain. That was quite satisfying too. ‘I know who you mean.’ His voice was muffled by the towel, but I could hear him fine. ‘I could tell when I saw him that he was nervous and in a hurry. I have contacts, so I thought maybe I could sell him a ride and skim a little profit off the top. When I approached him in the bar he was mean drunk. Said he already had a ride.’
‘Really? He tell you where he was going?’
‘No. But he did say that he was shipping out on a Pan-G Mining Skiff for next to nothing. He was rambling drunk and he already had a ride, so I left him to it. The next day he makes some big drama down in the lobby, but I was out. Then he’s gone.’
‘And when was that?’ I asked him.
He thought for a minute, counting in his head. ‘Ten days ago today he left.’
‘Yeah. I had business, I remember.’
‘And that’s all you know?’
The way his eyes flinched slightly as I asked the question told me that he was telling the truth. ‘Yeah, man, really. I spoke to him once for about two minutes and that was it.’
I nodded. ‘OK. Thanks.’ I stood up.
‘Sorry I offended you.’ He seemed genuinely contrite.
I shrugged slightly. ‘Sorry I broke your nose.’
His eyes smiled nervously behind the towel.
I let myself out and headed towards the bar for a well earned drink. I just scored a hit on my first line of enquiry. That never happens. Maybe Lady Luck will be with me on this little job.
I ended up enjoying more than a few drinks last night and woke up this morning feeling like someone had kicked me in the head. Hey, maybe they had; I’ve been known to start a fight when I get drunk. But I’m ninety nine per cent certain that I wasn’t that drunk last night.
After a big breakfast and a bucket of coffee I headed out to the spaceport information office. The weather certainly hadn’t improved. I tend to travel light, but I always have one big enviro-coat in my bag. It was barely enough to keep me alive as I crossed from the hotel to the spaceport entrance, frozen rain blowing sideways at the speed of sound.
I got to the information office feeling like a snowman. The lady behind the counter was bored but otherwise friendly enough, patient while I shook off my coat and hung it near a heat vent. I guess she was pretty used to this stuff. I flashed her my badge and told her that I needed some info.
‘Bounty Hunter or not, I can’t tell you any information from passenger manifests or cargo schedules. That’s all protected under privacy laws. Even Dems and their police need a warrant for that stuff.’
I waited out her little speech. ‘I know. I don’t want anything like that. How many Pan-G vessels you get through here?’
‘We’ve got a lot of mining here on Gallenin. Truth is, that’s pretty much all we got.’
‘So we get a lot of Pan-G ships passing through.’
I nodded. ‘Fair enough. Can you check your records for me? A Pan-G Skiff left here eleven days ago, carrying some fares. Can you tell me where it was headed?’
She tapped away on her console for a while, calling up records. ‘We had three Pan-G’s leave port that day. A tanker and a transporter, plus one Skiff taking working crews out that had finished their rosters.’
‘You have an itinerary for the Skiff?’
‘Yeah. This one was going to Methesda. Hmm, that’s a long way out.’ She looked up, smiled.
‘Just one stop?’ I asked. ‘Not going on anywhere from Methesda?’
She shook her head. ‘Nothing listed here. It’ll be going somewhere from there, I suppose. Or maybe it’ll come back here with new workers.’
I thanked her and headed back out. Looks like I’m going to Methesda. I better try to find out some more about it. And perhaps I can learn a little more about Gans before I leave. I wonder why he’s heading so far out.
I spent the rest of the day yesterday filling in as many blanks as I could. First off, I hit up my Reader and looked up all I could find on the planet Methesda. Not much to tell it turned out. It’s a long way out along the Arm, heading out towards the Edge and the Pioneer Globes. It was a Globe itself until less than twenty years ago. It got its name after a fifteen year wait, which isn’t bad compared to some. So there’s a lot of Pioneers out there and not much work yet, which is why a number of them come to places like Gallenin and take on mining contracts and the like. Life’s hard on the Globes, even after they’ve had a name for twenty years. I once heard someone say that it takes at least fifty years for a Globe to become a decent place to live.
I wonder where this Gans character is heading. It seems like he’s hopping as far away as he can get as quickly as he can, which is no surprise when the Dems want your arse. But why is he going in this particular direction? Is there something out there that he can use? Does he have allies out there? These were questions that I was unlikely to get answers to any time soon. What I could maybe learn was a bit more about the man himself. I went back to the list I got from the manager and went to look up a few more guests that had shared the hotel with Gans.
The next on the list was one Sharona Wilkins. My Sharona. Heh, man that’s an ancient song. Funny how some songs disappear overnight while others stick around for centuries. I knocked on her door just as it opened, which made us both jump.
‘Can I help you?’
She looked pretty shocked, but I guess I’m a rough looking guy, with my scars and my scowl and my lack of appropriate attire for a fancy hotel. I tried a smile, but I think that just scared her more. ‘I was wondering if I might ask you a few questions?’
She looked me up and down. Literally, her eyes sliding from my face to my feet and back again. She was quite a broad, good looking and lean, but she was stuck-up. ‘What about?’ she asked.
‘Well, I’m on the trail of this guy that stayed here. He left eleven days ago, but you were here then, right?’
‘Yes. How do you know that?’
I decided to slip past that question. ‘He was a guy called Pietre Gans. Made a mess in the lobby right before he left. You remember him?’ I held out one of the photos for her to see.
She looked at the picture like it might bite her, then quickly straightened up. ‘Yes, I saw him around, but I had absolutely nothing to do with him.’
Now, you see, a guy like me is trained in many ways. One of the skills we develop really early on is the ability to spot a liar. And this lady was lying so much that her neck went red. ‘Nothing at all, huh?’
‘That’s correct. Now, if you’ll excuse me.’ And with that she pushed by me, pulled her door closed behind her and walked quickly away.
It was easy enough for me to assume that maybe she wasn’t such a lady after all. I think this Gans character had talked the lady out of her one night and she was kinda sore about that. I got a kick out of the thought. I’d have to try to talk to her again soon. She might have some good intel on Gans, and good intel is worth more than diamonds in my line of work. But I’d let her cool off a bit first.
I headed on for the room of the next name on the list. I knocked on the door and it was answered almost immediately. By a Dem cop. ‘What do you want?’
I had to think quick. ‘I was planning to ask my man Darver if he wanted to go downstairs for a drink.’
The cop scowled. ‘What do you know about Darver Phelms?’
‘Not much, to be honest. He wired me that he was going to be here and gave me his room number to look him up.’
The cop scowled even more. ‘When did you arrive?’
‘Two days ago. I had some business to take care of first. Why, have I missed him?’
The cop stepped aside to let me see into the room. ‘You could say that,’ he said, revealing a blood stained corpse on the floor at the foot of the bed. It looked like it had been there a while; at least a week by my guess. The stink was obviously being masked, which was a mercy to every soul there.
The cop was on his comm checking out my alibi. ‘Name?’
I told him. After a minute he seemed satisfied that it couldn’t have been me that iced Phelms. He questioned me some more and I managed to convince him that I hardly knew the guy and we’d just made friends through business. This would only have been the second time we met. And I had to admit to him that I was a Bounty Hunter known as Ghost. That raised his suspicions, but there was nothing I could do about that.
Of course, everything except the bit about me being Ghost was a lie. I’d never met this Phelms guy in my life and had no reason to know anything about him, but I’ve learned to keep my business concealed by carefully constructed alternative realities. And then the damnedest thing happened. The cop handed me a ‘slide case and it had “Attn: The Ghost” written on it. ‘Well,’ the cop said as my brain spun in neutral. ‘You missed him, but you made it in time to get this. We’ve read the ‘slide and it’s irrelevant to us, so you can have it. If anything, it backs up your story. But you need to stay in the hotel. I’ll want to talk with you some more later.’
What the hell?
(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.