(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.
A lot of people will tell you that the best form of defence is a good offence. That’s true to some degree. After all, if you think someone is about to punch you in the face, haul off and smash the bastard first before he gets a chance and you’ve just defended yourself perfectly. But the best form of defence is actually a good offence with planning and backups in place.
I pulled out a pair of shades that cost more than a month’s rent and were one of my most prized possessions. They wirelessly linked to my reader and gave me a Head Up Display of any number of things. I set the HUD to show me heat signatures. Then I hooked into the console in my room and used some very cheeky software on my Reader to access the ship’s mainframe. I got it to identify all the people on board and track them, then uploaded that information to my HUD as well. It was quite surprising how much information you could stay aware of at one time if it was presented well.
Then I delved a bit deeper and started the more complicated stuff. I set all outgoing communications from the ship to be redirected to me. It would appear to whoever initiated them that they were still being sent, but they actually wouldn’t go anywhere at all. And I’d get a notification of them in my ever-busier HUD.
Then I did the hardest part and locked down both the ship’s lifepods and its override mechanism. Now no one would be able to blow the ship up or escape it without reversing my work. I didn’t plan on anyone having time to do that.
I slipped my knife into a sheath in my trouser leg where it was out of sight yet very quick and easy to draw, then slipped from my room, locking the door behind me. I kept an eye on the HUD to see where everyone was. The hostesses were in the galley just off the main communal area. They were probably preparing a meal of some sort. The Guides were both in the communal area. Being holy or some shit. Bartellian was on the bridge. I needed to get to him first.
Using my continued remote access to the ships mainframe I pulled up blueprints and found a route. I had to go to the back of the ship, down into the engine bay and along through the cargo hold. Then I could come up into the bridge from the other side of the communal area without having to go directly through it. It was fortunate that this ship was big enough to have multiple access points. It made my job easier.
Using the mainframe to switch off sensors and cameras for a few moments as I passed by them, I made my way down and through the engine bay. It was the cleanest engine I’d ever seen, like a showroom display model. There was something slightly untrustworthy about a clean engine, I decided. The cargo bay was empty and equally clean. Almost sterile. I wondered if this was the maiden voyage of this particular boat.
I checked everybody’s location again, but no one had moved. Carefully I made my way back up to the main deck, behind the communal area. Then I made my way even more carefully up the steps to the bridge. I was hoping to find Bartellian in his pilot’s chair with his back to me and that would have made everything just fine.
He was in his pilot’s chair when I cleared the top of the stairs, but not with his back to me. He was facing me, grinning like a cat and pointing something at me that definitely ended with a barrel. Judging by the size of the barrel I was in deep shit.
Well, the best laid plans and all that. How the hell did he know I was coming?
‘I suppose you’re wondering how I knew to expect you?’ he said, still grinning.
Insightful bastard. I didn’t move, carefully weighing my options. Let him speak. This wasn’t the first time I’d been on the wrong end of a gun barrel, but it was something I never seemed to get used to.
‘The moment I got on this boat,’ Bartellian went on, ‘I rigged the mainframe to tell me if anyone else fucked with the mainframe. I’ve watched your circuitous approach and been expecting you. In some ways it’s a shame you didn’t just walk directly here through the lounge.’
His grin broadened. Simple really, but how was I to know he was as paranoid and thorough as I was. I couldn’t help respecting the scumbag just a little because of that. But not enough to change my mind about what I had planned for him. I just needed a bit more time to figure out how I was going to do it. ‘Why are you here?’ I asked. ‘Who hired you?’ It occurred to me that there were no obvious plans presenting themselves.
He laughed. ‘I’m not telling you that. I have a simple task. Kill you. That’s it. I don’t need to do any more or any less and you don’t need to know jack shit about it.’
When you’ve been in as many sticky situations as I have you know when someone is going to ramble on and when someone isn’t. You know when someone really is prepared to blow you away with the weapon they’re pointing at you and when they’re not. This bastard was both very willing to pull the trigger and completely done with talking.
I released all my coiled power and leapt forward and down at exactly the same moment as his gun barrel exploded in a cloud of light and sound. The concussive crack of the discharge made my ears whine into silence. The light flared and vanished as I rolled forward, up onto my knees and let my knife go, end over end, directly towards Bartellian’s face.
As the knife sailed through the strangely silent air, Bartellian was already on his feet, swinging the weapon around to me again, tracking my movement with expert speed and skill. He was good, this guy. But he wasn’t good enough to withstand a knife in the face. It was never meant to actually kill him. Had my thrown knife actually dropped him I would have lost all respect for the scumbag. It was supposed to distract him.
And distract him it did. To his credit he still fired again as one hand shot up to cover his face. The discharge was like a distant peal of thunder this time, my ears still silenced by the first blast, and the round melted a long, elliptical crater into the floor of the bridge right beside my knee as I rolled forward and closed the last of the distance between us.
He grunted as my blade bounced obliquely across his forearm and I was pleased to notice that it drew a small line of blood. He was already bringing his other hand around, meaning to pistol-whip me as I came up under his guard, but I’m fast. My palm shot forward, inside his sweeping arm, and the heel of my hand cracked up under his chin with very satisfying solidity. He went up and over backwards, tipping over his pilot’s chair, legs swinging wildly up into the air. The hand without the weapon grabbed hold of me as he went and the bastard pulled me over the chair with him.
He hit the ground on his upper back and I landed on him. He was a tough bastard, taking that palm strike in his stride, and he rolled over as we landed and got on top of me, his knees pressing down into my chest. There was blood pooling in his mouth as he snarled down at me and swung his weapon around, point blank, right in front of my nose.
As we’d come to rest I’d felt something hard and cold under my right arm and I twisted now to grab it, wrenching my head to one side as I did so. This time the blast from the weapon was intense, right where my face had been a second before. I felt as though my right ear had exploded and my vision swam. The heat of the blast singed my hair and I felt as though my ear, cheek and the side of my neck were melted. My hand closed around the hilt of my knife, lying on the floor where it had fallen and I swung it up in a broad, powerful arc and planted it right in the side of Bartellian’s neck, just under his left ear, and drove it up with all the force I could muster. His eyes rolled up and he went over like a log, stone dead.
Then the burns I could feel all down the right side of my face and neck started to sear and I could feel blood dribbling from my ear. I pushed Bartellian off me and sat up, hearing nothing but a rush of wind inside my head as my vision swam in circles.
That really didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.
I was really hoping to have had a chance to pin Bartellian down and talk to him, but there was no chance of that now. I sat with my back to the console, watching the entrance to the bridge, and pulled out the first aid kit from beside the pilot’s chair. Ships like this are pretty well soundproofed, but that weapon that Bartellian had used was big and loud. I didn’t know if the Guides had heard anything and, if they had, whether or not they would come to investigate. But I figured that they had and they would.
Bartellian’s gun sat on the deck beside me, the huge barrel still smoking slightly. What the hell was he doing with a cannon like that on such a small ship. Compensating for something, I presumed. I let it sit there while I watched the door and used medipacks on my burnt face and neck. Using a mirror in the first aid kit I could see that the burns weren’t as bad as they felt and the gel and anaesthetic in the medipacks started to work right away. Hopefully they’d heal well. I didn’t really want an ugly burn scar on my face. Chicks dig scars, but not burn scars. I was more worried about my ear. It was still trickling blood and whining. The hearing in my left ear was coming back after the enclosed blasts, but my right ear just whistled deep inside. I must at least have a burst eardrum, if not something more serious, and it hurt like hell. I used a small ampule of medigel, squeezed down my ear canal, and hoped that would do the trick. The anaesthetic seemed to work at least.
Still no one had come to investigate. I was finding this strange. I couldn’t believe that those three shots had gone unnoticed. Fortunately my shades were undamaged by the fight and I called up the whereabouts of the other people on board again. They were still exactly where they had been before. Exactly. That made me uneasy.
The way these things worked was that the computer on board regularly logged the movement of everyone around a ship with various biometric parametres. Information was gathered every few seconds rather than constantly and that saved enormous amounts of processing time and data storage. The net result, however, was that anyone on a ship was traceable to within a few seconds of their last location. Why had these four, the two Guides and the two hostesses, not moved an inch in all this time? A cold sensation settled over me as I checked the parametres for this ship’s crew tracking. It was based entirely on a combination of mass and facial recognition. I switched those things off and traced the crew purely by heat signature. They were there, but the readings seemed faint. I switched the parametres to read only cardiac signatures. Good ships, especially ones this small, could read things like that. All four readings vanished from the HUD.
I climbed gingerly to my feet, giddy from the fight and my ruined right ear. I suddenly felt very alone. I pulled Bartellian away from the console and checked that the ship was set on course and running smooth. All seemed to be in order. Then I took a deep breath and headed downstairs to the communal area that I had so carefully avoided on my way up to the bridge.
The two Guides were sitting in easy chairs and each had a large, scarlet bloom in the middle of his chest, with a ragged, black hole at its centre. Their eyes were open and staring at the ceiling. In the galley I found the two hostesses equally dead, sat at a small table with a meal half-prepared in front of them. One had a similar bullet wound to the Guides while the other had her throat slit from ear to ear. He’d obviously shot the first three with a silencer and then enjoyed the last one a little more up close and personal. Fucking scum. All this while I dozed waiting for an answer from Jones. No wonder he’d been so blasé about using that huge cannon up on the bridge. And no wonder he’d lamented the fact that I hadn’t come through here on my way up. The arrogant bastard had wanted me to see this on the way to him.
Now I had no one to ask about anything. Maybe I’d got it wrong about the Sanctuary and they really were trying to help me, only this Bartellian arsehole had wrangled his way aboard with his own agenda in hand. That agenda being Ghost-slaying. And if that was the case, who was he working for and why? And how did they know to find me here? Once again I had a bunch of new questions and once again I’d gathered them without answering any of the old ones. And now I was on a Sanctuary boat full of corpses, on my own, still a good forty hours or more out from Methesda. This whole job was pissing me off more and more.
I stood in the cargo hold staring down at the five wrapped corpses, thinking over what had happened in the last few days. It seemed like a half a lifetime ago that I’d been amused by a stuck up broad that had lifted her skirt for my bounty, then got remorseful for having done so. I was at a real loss for what to do now. I could easily bring this ship in to the nearest populated planet and report to the Dem outpost there. There would be one, as there was on pretty much every planet except the newest Pioneer Globes. But that would create its own complications. I’d run out on the law back on Gallenin, after all. It seemed a long time ago to me, but would still be fresh in Dem memories.
I’d checked the ship’s logs and Bartellian hadn’t turned off the internal recording sensors. Collating the last few hours worth of footage I’d put together a short film of carnage that began with Bartellian putting the ship on auto while I slept and stalking down into the lounge and finished with me planting my blade in his head. It made for pretty compelling viewing and I made sure I transferred a copy to my Reader. Not for vanity, of course. If I was that vain I’d save footage of a fight that hadn’t cost me an ear. But I was cautious of evidence like this disappearing. The Dems, and anyone else with any kind of clout, could easily remove evidence and I didn’t want this event to come back and bite me in the arse some day.
So I had the evidence that I was an innocent victim of this psychopath and that I’d acted in self-defence. But even if that particular detail was in my favour, I still had a lot against me; running from Gallenin, refusing to be questioned more about Darver Phelms, stowing away to Cerunia. It was all a bit too complicated and would delay me in finding this Gans character, which had to remain my priority. A decision formed in my mind. There was a big bounty to be had for Bartellian and I was loathe to let that go. It was a matter of pride and professionalism. But I wasn’t about to risk taking him in personally and giving the Dems a chance to pin me down and question me for days.
This ship had a few escape pods. Pretty much all ships did these days and a ship as flash as this one had flash escape pods. They were almost mini shuttles. I loaded all the corpses into one of the pods and uploaded a copy of my short film of mayhem onto its onboard console. I set the footage to play in continuous repeat to make sure it wouldn’t go unnoticed. Then I added my bounty hunter tag to Bartellian’s body. If they played by the rules, they’d still credit me with the catch. Then I set the pod’s emergency beacon off and fired it out into the black. We were a long way out here, but not so far that no one would pass by. And those beacons had a hell of a boosted range. Someone would hear it and swing by to collect. And by the time they did, I’d be long gone.
Moments later I was in the pilot’s seat, checking the flight plans. All of a sudden I had a ship to myself. The Sanctuary said they wanted to help me, so I figured that helping myself to their ship, under the circumstances, was no great imposition. Besides, it was already expected at Methesda. But now I intended to change the plans just a little. I reset the controls to alert me when I was just a couple of hours from planetfall. Then I closed off all communications, incoming and outgoing, and set all sensors to silent running. Now the ship was my namesake. You’d have to fly right by and see it with your own eyes through a porthole to know it was there. I planned to arrive at Methesda unannounced while the Guides of Sanctuary still wondered what had happened to their ship. With any luck I’d be on Methesda and well back onto the trail of Gans before the lifepod full of corpses was picked up. I’d had enough of travelling with other people and letting people help me. It always ended badly. I worked alone for a reason and it felt good to be working alone again. In around twenty four hours I would sneak onto Methesda and get on with business. No more distractions.
In the twenty fours hours that I’d had to kill while running silent to Methesda, I’d looked up a bit more that might help me track down Gans when I got there. He had grabbed a paid fare on a Pan-G skiff. I had the point of origin and the point of destination and that was about it, but with a bit of digging around and some common sense problem solving I’d deduced that the skiff was headed for the Methesda port of Eisen. At least I had somewhere to start looking when I arrived.
Once the ship’s sensors alerted me that we were close I took manual control and quietly surfed in under the satellites. On a planet this far out, barely more than a Globe, it was pretty easy to circumnavigate its minimal security. From recent logs I looked up where Eisen was and did some quick calculations. Then I checked the ship’s manifest for ground transport. I was pleased to discover that it carried a skimmer on board. I could cover a lot of miles in a skimmer and ground surface wouldn’t be an issue.
Using charts and the ship’s own nav-computers I flew down to the surface in the middle of a pretty inhospitable nowhere, about two hundred miles from Eisen. A little careful manoeuvring and the Sanctuary ship was tucked away nicely in a small valley, rocks and scrub obscuring it pretty well. I powered down everything and had to hope it would go unnoticed. I figured I’d probably be wanting to use this ship again pretty soon as something told me that Gans wouldn’t have stayed on this planet for long. I don’t know why, call it professional intuition, but I was pretty convinced that Gans was moving as far away as possible as quickly as possible and this wasn’t the end of the line. I’d been playing catch-up all along here and it felt like I still had some game left to play.
I backed the skimmer out and sealed the ship up tight behind me. As I sat there in the skimmer with the ship’s remote an inch from my pocket, a certain prescient concern swept over me. I hopped out of the skimmer and hid the ship’s remote in a makeshift grave of stones under an overhang of rock, hopefully protected from any inclement weather. That remote was something that I could do without losing if I ran into any trouble at Eisen. Then I jumped back into the skimmer and headed for the port town, the cushion of air between the craft and the ground making the journey as smooth as a dream.
I didn’t want to attract any attention to myself, so once I arrived at Eisen I cruised casually into the quiet side of town and parked up the skimmer in an urban area, in a large parking area of other skimmers and various types of surface transport. Hidden in plain view. Then I pulled up the hood of my enviro-coat and trudged on foot across town, past blocks of communal living towers and flickering billboards, to the actual port complex. Time to find out what I could about Gans’s arrival and subsequent activity.
Continued in Volume 6 – Click Here
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(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.