(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.
For once, since I first started tracking down this damned mutant magic user, I got a lucky break. Turns out that Pan-G skiffs are mighty slow boats. Cheap and nasty is another way of putting it. That’s why they were used to transport the workers around. When you paid these poor bastards next to nothing for travelling the galaxy doing all the labour that filled the company coffers, it didn’t pay to then spend too much of those profits on decent transport to get those same poor bastards home again. In the time I’d spent stowing away, getting mind-fucked by the Sanctuary and fighting mercenaries, Gans on his skiff had been virtually sailing along. From a lead of more than ten days, seems like I made up considerable ground and Gans had only arrived two days ago.
The port authority employee looked at me suspiciously. I was going to try one of my reassuring smiles, then decided against it. They were usually anything but reassuring. ‘That was the only skiff coming in from Gallenin recently?’
She nodded, her eyes still suspicious. No one trusts a Bounty Hunter, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. It’s like when you cruise along the street and you notice cops pull in behind you. They’re probably just going in the same direction and it’s a complete coincidence, but you’re suddenly paranoid, convinced they’re going to bust you for something. Seems we Bounty Hunters have a similar effect. ‘Why the interest?’ she asked, trying to sound casual but actually sounding anything but. It was weird hearing everything in mono, my right ear still nothing but a quiet whine. At least it didn’t hurt any more, but I worried if I’d ever hear through it again. I was pretty sure that some of my pay from this job, if I ever actually got my hands on it, would be paying for an aural implant of one kind or another.
‘Just following up a few lines of inquiry.’ It was a pretty standard reply that I used a lot to head off questions about what I was doing. ‘How many passengers on board?’ I asked. ‘Not mining employees returning home, but actual paying passengers.’
The woman made a wry face. ‘I shouldn’t really tell you stuff like that.’
I read her name badge. ‘I know, Molly, but you’d be doing me a real favour if you’d help me out.’
‘But you’re a Bounty Hunter. Any information that I give you might lead to you killing someone.’
I made a face of outrage, but kept it pleasant. ‘What do you mean, killing someone? You’ve been watching too many b-rated holocasts. More often than not we just get employed to serve writs and stuff like that.’
She didn’t look entirely convinced. ‘Really?’
I laughed, trying to seem as inoffensive as possible. I knew that was a bit of a stretch for me, but I had a brave stab at it. ‘Sure. You know, all these movies have us as these crazed and hardened loners, going out and getting in gunfights and fistfights and killing people and dragging their bodies in for the bounty.’ Or setting them out in life pods, I thought to myself. Listen to me, who was I kidding? ‘But it’s not really like that,’ I ploughed on regardless. ‘Right now I’ve been employed by the Dems to find this particular guy and pass on a legal writ. One of those things that are really old fashioned and have to be done by hand, hard copy and all that. This guy has just come into a fortune through the deceased estate of a family member and I need to identify him personally and pass on the papers so that he can go to the Dems and settle his claim.’ Molly cocked her head, intrigued and slightly less suspicious now. I decided to risk the smile and added, ‘I’m acting as a good guy this time!’
Molly still looked unconvinced. I decided to lay it on a bit more. ‘You see, this poor bastard is combing the galaxy looking for work. He has a young wife back home and she’s pregnant with their first kid. This whole thing could set them up.’
Molly laughed. She was a young girl, pretty, with a pretty laugh. Easily charmed too, it seemed. She would have grown up here and probably didn’t know this world without a name, even though it had only had one for twenty years. ‘Well, I suppose I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of someone’s family legacy. Though I can’t imagine why anyone would come out here looking for work.’
‘I guess he’s getting pretty desperate.’
Molly nodded. ‘He must be. Especially with a baby on the way.’ She paused, then nodded, almost to herself. ‘I’ll try to help you if I can.’
I smiled again, then quickly let the smile fade. I didn’t want to push my luck. ‘Good for you. Here’s what I need. I know the guy paid for passage on the skiff that arrived two days ago and I need to track him down. I can’t tell you who he is, as that would compromise the privacy of my contract, not to mention his right to privacy, but any information you can give me would really help.’
Molly looked at me long and hard. For a minute I thought I’d blown it and she was going to tell me to fuck off and stop asking her to break the rules. Then she said, ‘Tell you what. I’ll tell you what I know about each of the paying passengers on that skiff and you make of the information what you like. But you have to promise me that you’ll never let on that I gave you any information at all.’
‘Of course. My lips are sealed.’
Molly smiled again. ‘OK. There were only three paying passengers on that skiff. We don’t get many tourists out here!’ I chuckled as expected. Molly carried on, ‘There were two men and a woman. The woman is the wife of a settler here with a lot of old money. She travels back and forth a lot visiting family and stuff, she lives right here in Eisen. I know her and her husband, so there’s no point telling you any more about her.
‘The two men were named Gaven Parson and Peter Dans.’
My heart slammed an extra beat as she mentioned two names that didn’t include Pietre Gans. Then common sense came back. Of course he wouldn’t be travelling under his own name. His trail had been pretty easy to follow up until Gallenin, where he’d made the mistake of making a bit of a mess in that hotel lobby. It figured that he would try harder to travel incognito after that. I knew by association that he’d jumped this skiff to Methesda. And Peter Dans was a suspiciously lame alias. Obviously not particularly imaginative, this Magicker. ‘And what do you know about the two men?’ I asked.
Molly shrugged. ‘Not much. Parson checked in with local ID and Dans with off-world ID. Parson has an address here on Methesda, quite a way out from Eisen. Dans doesn’t have any address listed.’
I thought for a few moments, at a bit of a loss. To know he arrived but for the trail to go dead cold would be very frustrating. I decided to push my luck a bit more. ‘Molly, before I go off and try to track my man down, can you just confirm for me that he hasn’t left again?’
Molly’s suspicion returned slightly but she nodded. ‘Sure.’
‘Great. Can you just run those two names, Gaven Parson and Peter Dans, through your system and make sure they haven’t left planet again.’
Molly nodded as she tapped away. ‘Oh,’ she said, sounding surprised. ‘Parson hasn’t, but Dans is booked on a flight leaving in half an hour from Port D. A private charter.’
Shit. Was this too lucky or just a bit unlucky? Would I be able to catch up with him in time? ‘Where’s the flight going?’
Molly studied her console, her brows knitted together. ‘A long way out,’ she said quietly. ‘ME flight XB71 to Globe PXJ-41147. That’s a place they’re thinking of terraforming soon, I think.’
I quickly tapped the info into my Reader. ‘A potential new Pioneer Globe, eh?’ It certainly fit Gans’s MO so far. He definitely seemed to be skipping as far out as he could as quickly as he could. And now he’d had to charter a vessel to take him beyond the commercial space lanes. ‘How far is Port D?’ I asked Molly, slipping my Reader back into my pocket.
‘There’s a transit line that’ll get you there in about fifteen minutes. Leaves every ten minutes, right outside.’ She smiled. ‘Maybe you can catch him before launch and give him the good news?’
I smiled back. ‘I certainly hope so. Thanks very much, Molly, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your help.’
‘No problem.’ Then she looked up, over my shoulder, and said, ‘Oh. Can I help you?’
My blood ran slightly cold as I slowly turned my head. Right behind me were two large men in Dem uniforms. One was scowling menacingly, while the other smiled like the cat that got the cream. ‘Mr Ghost? You need to come with us right now.’
I ground my teeth. I really hate it when people call me Mr.
I slowly turned to face the two Dem gorillas, my mind racing. There were any number of things that I could do here, from going along quietly like they wanted to getting totally Old Testament on them both. The cause and effect of a dozen scenarios ran through my head. Trying to buy time, I said, ‘You know, I’m actually working for you guys right now and I really need to get on.’ Hey, it was worth a try.
One gorilla just stood there, still scowling, not even trying to conceal his boredom. The other was obviously in charge. His face split in a grin that promised violence at the slightest provocation. ‘Is that so?’
‘It is actually. I’m in a real hurry here.’ I had no name to give these guys or anything vaguely official. That was the trouble with working for the Mr and Mrs Joneses of the Democratic Alliance. They made sure they were far enough away that no shit could ever stick, even their own shit.
The gorilla put a hand on my arm. ‘Why don’t you just come along with us now and we’ll talk about it at HQ.’
Now, it was at around this point that I just lost my patience. I had been chasing this Gans arsehole halfway across the galaxy. Weird shit was happening left, right and centre and I was deaf in my right here because some fucker had sicked a merc onto me. Getting grabbed by a Dem cop, when I was so close to my quarry that I could almost smell him, was the last straw.
I circled my arm up and over, jamming my forearm under the cop’s elbow, against the way that it’s supposed to bend. I grabbed his hand and pushed down while I sharply reefed my forearm up and his elbow made a satisfying and lifetime guaranteed crack. As he howled and the other cop suddenly accelerated into action, I smashed the heel of my hand into the jaw of the cop with a broken arm and floored him. His scowling friend had launched a fist the size of my head directly for my nose and there was a deep, hot pain as I ducked and his knuckles raked my scalp. Molly, wide-eyed behind her desk, started screaming.
The scowling cop grimaced and shook his hand. I was briefly glad that my skull had at least caused some minor damage to his meat club, but I had no time to celebrate. I saw his other hand drop towards the baton on his belt as he swung a kick at my ducking face. I blocked the kick with a forearm and grabbed his heel with my other hand. Using all my strength, I wrenched his leg around, twisting against the knee and ankle. He had two choices, one of which involved a severely dislocated knee. He took option two and flipped over in the air, landing with a grunt on his belly and chest. Before he could do anything about it, I jumped in the air and landed with both feet square in the middle of his back. He made a noise like ancient air escaping a thousand year sealed tomb.
I grabbed the baton that he hadn’t been able to get to in time, pulled it free of his belt and cracked him across the back of the skull. It sounded like a plank of wood snapping. Suddenly he was a big, ugly rag doll. His friend was just starting to sit up groggily and I hefted the baton again and cracked him upside the head too. He toppled over backwards with only the whites of his eyes showing. My adrenaline was pumping and skulls were cracking and I was all about ready to just keep on going. Every once in a while the urge to get medieval on all of humanity was something I had trouble keeping control of, especially when people were trying to make me do things that I didn’t want to do. Why the hell couldn’t the Dem higher ups stop the Dem monkeys from harassing me? My head was throbbing from Dem knuckles and my job was about to fly and I had a god awful whine in both ears now.
I turned back to the desk and yelled, ‘Molly, will you stop fucking screaming! I’m gonna lose the one ear’s worth of hearing I have left!’
Molly’s scream wound down like a toy car running out of battery and she stared, wide eyed and open mouthed. She looked as scared as hell and I could hardly blame her. I held up a conciliatory palm. ‘Molly, I’m sorry…’
‘You said you were a good guy. You said you were delivering good news to someone.’ Her accusation actually cut me a little, the betrayal so apparent on her face.
‘I’m sorry. I really am a good guy. I couldn’t begin to explain to you what’s going on here.’ I hated myself as I gently slipped a hand into my pocket and palmed the small patch there. I had patches like this in all sorts of pockets and places. I stepped a little closer to the desk and Molly leaned back, looking like she was about to scream again. Her hands were flat on the desk on front of her. Striking like a snake, I snatched up one of her wrists with my free hand and pulled the other hand from my pocket, slapping the patch into place on her skin. She made a feral sound then and tried to claw my face. I grabbed her other wrist and held tight, as she thrashed and snarled, willing the drug to kick in as fast as possible. I pulled her up and over the desk, narrowly avoiding her kicking feet, and planted her down on the floor. Putting my weight against her body and one knee against her legs, I pinned her and held tight. ‘You didn’t hit the alarm did you, love,’ I said softly. It was more of a statement than a question.
Her eyes widened again and I knew I was right. Her anger became blatant fear as she realised that I had her and no help was coming. It was the best luck I could have hoped for in the circumstances. She still thrashed, trying to pull away, but her resistance weakened as the drug slowly circulated through her system. I let her go and showed her two palms. The poor kid didn’t deserve this. ‘I promise you’ll be okay. I won’t hurt you and you’ll be okay. I really am a good guy.’
She faded out. Why did I feel such a need to convince her that I really was a good guy? Was I even? I’d just severely assaulted two cops and pretty badly assaulted her. She had no reason to think of me as anything but scum, when it was supposed to be me hunting the scum to make the ‘Verse a better place.
This job was messing with my head. I set to work. I locked the office door and put up a closed sign and then dragged the three of them out of sight behind the desk. I really hoped I hadn’t seriously brain damaged either of the cops. They were both still alive, so that was something at least. I stripped them of all their radios, Readers, phones, glasses and weapons. Then I used their own cuffs and wire ties to secure all three of them back to back, sitting on the floor. I tied their feet to desks and made sure there was no slack for them to move around. With any luck they’d stay like that until someone finally turned them up, hopefully not for a few hours at least.
Checking on Molly’s console I saw that in all the time I’d been fighting and tying, the ship with Gans on it was about to launch. There was no way I’d make it to him in time. I was playing chase again. I had to get back to my skimmer, then back to my commandeered Sanctuary ship before these guys were discovered so that I could slip away and stay close on his tail.
Just about everything else didn’t matter to me any more. All I wanted was to pin this bastard that was giving me such a hard time. Molly’s console included an encrypted code of the ship’s ID beacon. By the time I got back and launched Gans would be well on his way, but I’d be able to track him now. And besides, I knew where he was going, even if I couldn’t figure out why.
It took me nearly three hours to get back to my ship. I was paranoid all the way back through the city to my skimmer, but it turned out to be an uneventful walk. The ship was where I’d left it and the remote was still there. A part of me had been convinced that it would all be gone. Or at least crawling with cops. As I’d thought about it heading back, I figured that perhaps the cops were checking all the port offices looking for me and those guys just got lucky. Or not. If they’d been tipped off, they must have expected me in town and not known how I’d make planetfall. Whatever the truth of it, I’d managed to get away for now.
I docked the skimmer inside and quickly fired up the ship’s startup routine. Fancy ships like this could be ready to launch within a minute from a cold start. I made sure all my stealth measures were still in effect and slipped up and away. My pilot skills weren’t all that, but fortunately this ship was designed to make that something of a non-issue. I could have let the ship do all the work, but it was a matter of principle to take some responsibility. The day we give everything over to computers is the day humanity dies as far as I’m concerned.
I slipped out of atmo and shot off into the black like a cloud passing through a dark sky. For a good fifteen minutes I sat and studied the sensors, slowly creeping out the range. There was nothing behind me. I set the course for Globe PXJ-41147 and then set the sensor to read the ID beacon of the ship that Gans had chartered. It was out there and on course. And it was travelling fast. He’d obviously booked himself one quick boat. I didn’t know if this flashy Sanctuary number had the power to keep up with him. Bartellian had said that this ship could outrun a Dem cruiser, but there would be ships out there that could still outrun me. Leaving the course set and pulling back all the incoming and outgoing sensors, I set the ship to silent running again and cranked up the juice. Flying as fast as I safely could with sensors off, leaving the proximity warnings as the only thing active, I had to hope that I could keep up. I’d just have to check in periodically and see if I was gaining or losing ground. Either way, I knew where he was going. If I could manage to keep my own tail clean now it was just a matter of time.
I decided to kill that time with a little more research. Something that had been on my mind for a while now that I hadn’t got around to checking. Just what exactly was written about me in the Sanctuary of Coexistance Book of God’s Word? Was there more than just that passage they’d shown me? There were extensive records in the onboard computers and I busied myself with a crash course in Sanctuary doctrine.
It turns out that the Guides I spoke to before were not entirely honest with me. Not that I was at all surprised by that revelation. Their books and prophecies were full of all sorts of things that made little or no sense to me, but there was something about my part that they hadn’t mentioned. I was still very freaked out that I had a part at all. The drawing from their prophet was definitely very similar looking to me and it was all talking about a ghost. It was freaky that I was the centre of something like that, but none of it made a case for a god. There were Magickers with the Sly Gene around and some of them had shown a propensity for visions of the future. Most Magickers didn’t claim to be touched by any god. Then again, any kid brought up being religiously indoctrinated by his parents might well consider his Magicker tendencies god-given rather than simply genetic. The point was moot in my mind.
However, this particular prophecy said that my part was to lead the People of Sanctuary to a Holy Warrior that would reveal the Face of God. That’s something the Guides didn’t tell me and it’s a pretty big fucking call. A fairly relevant part of the story to leave out, if you ask me. They must have known I’d find out with a little bit of reading. Perhaps they’d decided to let me find out myself rather than risk my wrath by telling me. I would probably have got a little ornery if they’d tried to tell me that I was about to lead them to their god.
So if I was this ghost in their prophecy, did that make Gans their Holy Warrior? About to reveal the Face of God? Was I actually going to be a part of one of the biggest religious event in the history of religious events?
Well, that’s as may be, but I still intended to drag this arsehole Gans in and get that bitch Mrs Jones to pay me and clear the slate. I’m a simple guy with simple goals and I had a job to do. I wasn’t going to get distracted by religious hysteria. How many times have various religious weirdos predicted the second coming or the end of the ‘Verse or whatever the hell else? I checked the sensors again briefly. Gans was gaining on me just fractionally but there was still no reading from behind. At this speed we had another twenty four hours before we reached Globe PXJ-41147. Twenty four hours until all this crap was done and dusted.
About two hours out from PXJ-41147 I checked the sensors again. I could read the Globe now and it seemed that Gans had reached it. No matter. I’d find him near his ship, for sure. An uninhabited, unterraformed Globe was something that a soul treated with respect or that soul died quick. The safest way to survive was to stay near your ship with all the supplies and meds you might need.
As I was confirming my own approach vector, that sense of presence, that insistent mental hum suddenly assaulted me again. This time it was louder and stronger than anything I’d experienced before, like a blow inside my head from a large rubber ball. I staggered away from the console, turning left and right, trying to get away from something that wasn’t really there. With a growl of annoyance I stopped moving and my fists balled into white knuckled rage. ‘Get out of my head!’ I bellowed.
The sense of presence swirled around me. I could hear that reedy, ghostly voice, like it was far away in a high wind. ‘Go back,’ it said. ‘Turn back, there’s danger here!’
Yeah? Well, I know that. I’m the fucking danger here. I still couldn’t be absolutely certain what it was that kept hitting me up like this, but I figured it had to be Gans. Gans and his mutant magic. I was going to be damned if I’d let it get in the way now. I was so close and this thing needed to end. ‘I’m coming in!’ I yelled at nothing, feeling like a fool. ‘You can back off, because I’m coming in!’
The presence pressed in insistently once more, like a wave breaking over me, then it was gone. With a sneer I went back over to the consoles and finished plotting my approach vector. I set the ship to make planetfall right beside the boat Gans had chartered. Then some blips caught my eye.
While I’d been staggering around like an idiot I’d left the sensors on creep out, slowly scanning further and further afield. They’d gone out to full long range and now they showed approaching vessels. Several of them. I ran the data, not bothering to hide myself now. If I was scanning them, then they were certainly scanning me. It was too late to hide.
There were six ships coming in. Two were Sanctuary ships just like this one. They’d obviously managed to track down their lost boat. The other four had me more concerned. They were all Dem ships, jam packed full of cops no doubt. One of them was a K-Class Cruiser, the kind they use for the real big wigs. I had to make sure I caught this Gans character and was in a position to explain the full story before they swooped in shooting first and not planning to ask questions at all.
My hiding was irrelevant now and I sent out a high priority message to Mrs Jones. I told her where Gans was and where I was and that I needed to be left alone to apprehend him and finish the job. I didn’t know when she’d get the message, but at least I’d sent it. I checked the approaching ships. They were a few hours back, maybe five or six hours behind me. I had plenty of time in hand. If I didn’t get a response from Jones before they were close I’d run off and hide again, taking Gans with me, until I did hear from her.
For once, time was on my side. I hoped.
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(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.