(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?
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.
I sat in the bar, nursing a large whisky. I’d splashed out and bought the real stuff from New Scotland. I thought I deserved it. My brain had continued to spin all the way to the bar and all the way through my first two drinks. By the time I’d started sipping the third I was beginning to settle down. I had to think this through.
I’d followed a Dem job to pick up this Gans character. The one lead they gave me led me to this hotel, but Gans was long gone, left eleven days ago now. So far I’d discovered that he’d killed the manager after a dispute about his bill, but otherwise nothing seemed to make him stand out. I’d also learned, or at least I strongly suspected, that he’d had a roll in the hay with some stuck-up frock. Beyond that I knew nothing. Except one thing: some guy by the name of Darver Phelms was in the hotel at the same time as Gans. I had no reason just yet to even assume that Phelms and Gans had met, yet Phelms is dead and the police handed me a ‘slide from his room, addressed personally to me.
Well, there was only one way to find out more about this. I took out the ‘slide and pressed it onto my Reader. I watched the ‘slide soak in with trepidation. I don’t like this weird shit.
I accessed the data on the ‘slide. It popped up as a vid file, Darver Phelms’s smiling face. I knew it was him because I’d recently seen his corpse. Obviously he’d lost some weight now, but there was enough for me to recognise him in this vid.
He gave a cheesy thumbs up to the camera. ‘Hey buddy! How are you. I’m looking forward to catching up on Gallenin, even if it is a shitty planet. I’ll leave this ‘slide at reception so you get it when you check in, just in case I’m out. I’ll be on and off planet a little bit as I have business elsewhere in the system, but I’ll be back here on Gallenin regularly. Stick around if I’m out when you arrive, okay? See you soon.’
What in the deep, wide black was going on here? I took another long swig of whisky and calmed my mind. I needed to think about this rationally. That message could have been meant for anyone. Phelms didn’t identify who he was addressing. And he’d never got to leave it at reception either, so he must have been iced soon after recording it. The writing on the ‘slide case was the only thing that tied it to me and that could have been written by anyone. But why would they do that? I checked the data details to see when the recording had been made. It was eleven days ago. That was the day that Gans made spaghetti sauce out of the manager and jumped a Skiff off-planet. This was too weird.
So who was fucking with me? Perhaps the better thing to consider here is not who sent this ‘slide to me, but what I’m going to do about it. I didn’t fancy sticking around for the cops to find time to ask me more questions. It was kinda dumb of them to let me wander off in the first place. Regardless of the strange stink this case was starting to emanate, I had only one really solid lead and that was Methesda. It’s time I bought myself a ride out along the Arm.
I’d finished up my whisky in the bar and all my instincts were telling me to get the hell off Gallenin at the first opportunity. Then the stuck-up broad that was embarrassed about Gans walked in. I caught her eye accidentally, held it deliberately. She stared at me for a second, then seemed to deflate slightly. She walked over, sat down beside me.
‘Buy me a drink.’ There was a fire in her eyes.
‘Sure.’ She ordered and I told the barman to put it on my bill. I sat and waited. You learn a lot of tricks in my game and you learn a lot about people. One of the most valuable things about people is this; they don’t like silence. If you want someone to talk to you, don’t try talking them into it. Leave a big empty space in the air and most folks’ll feel obliged to fill it. Once her drink was served she took a long gulp then looked at me through that big gap hanging between us.
‘OK, I know who that guy in the picture is,’ she said resignedly.
See what I mean? People can’t help but talk. I just nodded.
‘I met him right here, in the bar,’ she went on. ‘He seemed like a decent guy, he was pretty cool and good looking. We got chatting and he kept buying me drinks. Anyway, we ended up back in my room and things were good.’ She blushed again. ‘But he was gone the next morning when I woke up and I never saw him again. I left it more than twenty four hours, thinking to make him sweat if I didn’t go looking for him. Eventually I got tired of waiting and went to reception to check up on him. Seems like he’d already left, and in a hurry. Bastard.’ She looked at me with one eyebrow raised. ‘Why the hell am I telling you all this anyway?’
I shrugged. ‘Maybe cos you want to tell someone, and I’m the only one askin’?’
She laughed, but it was a tired laugh. ‘Maybe. Anyway, that’s all there is to tell.’
‘Did you guys talk much that night or just…’ I knew the question was a dangerous one and her eyes flashed with that haughty affront again.
‘What do you mean exactly? Of course we talked!’
I stayed calm, letting her anger dissipate unfuelled. ‘What did you talk about? Did he tell you who he was or where he was going?’
She shook her head. ‘No. He said he was on a mission and he was going to change the ‘Verse. But he was one of those poetic kind of people that say things like that. Otherwise we talked about great writers and music, things like that. He’s an educated man.’ She stood up, finished her drink. It was as if she’d just realised she was talking to someone below her. Besides, she’d had the catharsis of her confession and she didn’t need me any more. ‘I have to go,’ she said stiffly. ‘Thanks for the drink.’ And with that she stalked off.
So Gans was an educated man even though he’d grown up on the Globes. He must have moved out and got some schooling somewhere more civilised. As I was thinking about what I’d just been told I saw the cop from Phelms’s room walk in and scan the bar. Acting on instinct I dropped off the stool and slipped into the shadows. Time to go. I managed to avoid the cop and get back to my room and my bag. It was already packed, ready to leave. It always was.
I got down to reception and waited behind a large potted palm until a cop talking to the receptionist headed back into the hotel lounge. When I asked to check out the receptionist looked up at me, surprised. ‘Oh, the police were looking for you. They want to talk to you some more or something.’
I nodded, keeping my expression perfectly calm. ‘I know. I just spoke to an officer in the bar. I need to check out now and then I’m going to go down to the station to help them out.’ I flashed her my most winning smile. Always a risk, but this time it seemed to work.
She nodded happily. ‘Oh, I’m glad they found you then.’ She took my money, checked me out and I started heading for the door. I got as far as one foot in the hotel and one foot out when I heard a yell. I didn’t even look, just bolted. I pulled my coat tight and headed into the most populated part of this town on Gallenin. It was a mess of narrow streets and poor businesses trying to scrape out a living. Garish neon signs, holographic ads reaching out for you, people with expressions that put a face to their struggles.
The cops were hot on my heels as I ducked and dived through alleys and buildings. Why the hell was I running from the police? I’d done nothing wrong. But something deep inside told me to keep moving. If the police got hold of me now, things would get worse. At the very least I’d be delayed and the Gans trail would get even colder. I learned a long time ago to listen closely to my gut.
I managed to put a couple of blocks between myself and the cops. I stay in good shape; it’s essential in my line of work. You never know when you might have to run or fight, but you know damn well that you will have to do one or the other every once in a while. Sometimes both. I spotted a tailor shop advertising second hand clothes. After a quick negotiation the shop keeper made a week’s profit in about one minute flat and I emerged with a new enviro-coat, this one dark green where my other one had been black, and different trousers, boots and a swanky Blent-wool hat pulled down over my eyebrows and ears. A crude disguise, but it would help a bit.
The cops would be watching for anyone coming and going through the port now, so I needed to secure myself an unofficial ride. I slowly made my way towards the port until I found a bar just grotty enough to hide me without being so crappy that it would threaten me. With any luck I’d find my self an unscrupulous Captain that would hide me on his ship. I bought a drink and sat in a shadowed corner to watch and learn.
There’s an old saying that goes, “You learn a lot more if you keep your mouth shut.” It’s something I try to keep in mind. Too many people love the sound of their own voice when they could learn a lot by simply shutting the fuck up. I sat in the shitty port bar and softened my anxiety with some more whisky. Not the good stuff now, of course, that would just draw attention to me, and that’s exactly what I didn’t need. But I sat and I sipped and I watched and I listened.
There was a group of guys that were drinking way too hard. That would be a brawl within the next half hour or so. I’d try to get out before that happened. There were a few working girls around, but my scowl kept them from approaching me. Another guy had the weight of more worlds than this one on his shoulders. He stared at the bottom of his glass, knowing full well that the answer wasn’t there. But he kept on looking anyhow. Sitting near the door was a guy that looked about greasy yet bright enough to be a ship’s engineer. His knuckles were grazed and there was black grime under his fingernails. He even had an oily rag stuffed in a pocket. He was drinking slow and watching the people come and go. He kept checking the time. I guessed he was enjoying the last few minutes of shore leave that he had remaining.
It’s strange what the dark can do to a soul. Personally, I like the isolation, like I mentioned before. But for most folk, too long in the dark can leave them disoriented. It’s like the old stories of sailors taking weeks to get back their land legs after months at sea. Except when you sail off-world, it’s not just the motion that’ll mess you up. Everything is artificial; the light, the air, the gravity. The only real thing is certain death if the hull breaches because of all that endless space in every direction. It’s enough to make even an ice ball like Gallenin seem inviting. But it’s a slow creep. At first it doesn’t bother you too much, especially if you have a talent for sailing, like being a good pilot or engineer. Even a good cook with a sense for adventure. But no matter who you are, eventually the dark becomes oppressive and you need some time on a real world, however shitty it might be. And then sometimes, the need to be on land becomes overwhelming and the dark becomes something a soul develops a phobia for. Deepfear, they call it.
Now this engineer by the door, he looked like he had the Deepfear. I could use that. He was watching the time like he had to leave soon. Perhaps I could leave with him. I picked up my drink and wandered casually over to his table.
He looked up at me, suspicious. ‘Hey.’
I decided to be up-front with him. I didn’t have a lot of time. ‘I need a ride, as soon as possible. You know where I might get a ship?’
His eyes narrowed. ‘Where to?’
I shrugged. ‘Kinda doesn’t matter at this point.’
‘You in trouble?’
‘No. Just sick of this ice ball.’ Then I decided to play my trump. ‘To be honest, I’m not much for travelling off-world. It kinda gets to me, you know. So I have to just get going before I have too much time to think about it. Besides, I have something to help with the Deepfear.’ I smiled at him, like I was a bit ashamed of myself for being so weak.
‘What is it you’ve got for the Deepfear?’ he asked. He was trying to sound all casual, but his eyes gave him away. People’s eyes always did. I know one dude that got his eyes replaced by cybernetics just so he could lie better.
‘You ain’t gonna report me, are you?’ I asked, trying to look a bit spooked.
‘No, man, really. What do you have?’
I sat down beside him, put my bag on my lap. Pulling open a side pocket I showed him a small plastic sack. I opened it just a bit and wafted the scent at him. ‘Top grade Fellonean Wow Weed,’ I said with a wink. ‘Good enough to calm the nerves, but not so whacky that it’ll stop a soul from functioning. It’s the best stuff against Deepfear. You ever heard of it before?’
The guy nodded. ‘Sure I have. But I never tried it. Does it really work?’
‘Oh yeah, it works. And it’s nice too, regardless of the ‘fear. It’s a good thing to just chill out with. Tell you what. You help me get a ride off-planet before I lose my nerve and I’ll share some of this with you.’
The guy was still looking at the Weed, like he was talking to it instead of me. ‘I still think maybe you’re in trouble.’
Smart guy. ‘Not enough to bother you. I just want a ride, man. Can you help me?’
He was still watching my bag, even though I’d closed up the pocket again. ‘I can help you,’ he said quietly.
Once again my little bag of tricks digs me out of a hole. I just hope I haven’t got myself hooked up on a pirate ship.
I was right about the engineer on just about every count. Except one. He’d swallowed the rest of his drink in one go and led me out of the bar. I guess he thought the Weed was going to be better than the booze, so he might as well get going. We didn’t go through the passenger terminal, but straight into the port’s commercial docks. Security on worlds like this one was lax at the best of times, especially if you found the right people to move with.
His ship was a pile of shit. There’s no other way to describe it. To be honest, I’m surprised it flies, but it appears to be one of those vessels that looks a lot worse on the outside than it is in its guts. I flattered him by asking if he was the Captain and he laughed that off.
‘Do I look like a Captain?’
‘I don’t know. What does a Captain look like?’
‘I keep this boat in the air. I fix things.’
I smiled. ‘That’s a fine trade. One to be proud of.’
He just shrugged. Once we were aboard he went to find the Captain. And this is where I was wrong about him. I’d thought he looked quite bright, but obviously I was very mistaken. The guy that came walking into the common room was rough as guts and mean as a thirsty bear. It was obvious from the second we met that we weren’t going to get along. ‘So you’re a friend of Ollie’s?’ he asked, sneering.
I nodded, quickly catching up to play along. ‘Yeah, that’s right.’
‘And Ollie said I’d give you a ride?’
‘Yes, sir. I greatly appreciate it.’
The Captain stared at me like I was boning his teenage daughter. ‘What kind of trouble you in?’
I decided that there might be a way to circumvent this line of questioning. ‘I can pay you for the ride, Captain. I don’t expect anything for free.’
‘That ain’t what I asked.’
We stared at each other in silence for about a full minute. Ollie had reappeared and was shifting from foot to foot like he needed a piss. All he was worried about was my bag of Wow Weed walking off the ship again. A ship that smelled of metal and oil and something that had burned itself into the galley a long time ago. The furniture was threadbare and broken. The Captain and Ollie wore little more than rags. I wondered if there were any other crew. Still, at least I hadn’t hooked up with pirates. No self-respecting pirate would be this poor.
The truth of it was that the Captain had a decision to make. It was obvious that I was in trouble. The decision was this: did he take a risk and carry me or not. The kind of trouble I was in was pretty irrelevant. And he could certainly use the money I was offering.
‘My name is Captain Rake. This is my ship. You work your passage, you pay your way and you do exactly what I say when I say it.’
Seems he’d made a decision. ‘Sure.’
‘What do I call you?’ he asked, the sneer returning.
I tried to smile at him. ‘You can call me whatever you like.’
He nodded and went back wherever he’d come from. Ollie grinned at me and came trotting over. ‘You’re gonna have to share my cabin, but there’s two bunks in there. This way.’
He led me down into the ship’s bowel where his cabin was little more than a cupboard beside the engine room. It was going to be hot and noisy in there. And I’d have to sleep with one eye open, seeing as how my soul is not in the least bit trusting. ‘Is there anyone else on board?’ I asked.
Ollie nodded. ‘There’s Sally, Cap’n Rake’s lady. And there’s Timmo. He’s kind of a mercenary, at least that’s what he likes to think, but he’s not a very good one.’
‘What exactly do you guys do?’
‘Anything going really.’
‘And where are you going today?’
‘We’re flying out to Cerunia. Cap’n Rake’s got a job lined up to ferry some cargo.’
I nodded. ‘How far to Cerunia?’
Ollie shrugged, shook his head. ‘Only about two days, I guess.’
There was a sudden roar and shuddering that nearly shook my teeth out. Ollie grinned sheepishly. The ship lurched and tilted and the motion of flight swept through us. The roar was deafening and I wondered if the ship would hold together through atmo. Then there was a stomach lifting moment of weightlessness before the gravity came on and everything quietened down again.
Ollie laughed. ‘I always worry about that bit!’
And this was the engineer talking? I rolled a smoke with the Weed, as promised. As we sat back with it I couldn’t help thinking about how quickly I wanted off this dodgy boat.
(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.
So this Captain Rake character isn’t nearly as dangerous as he looks. To be honest, he’s an idiot. Somehow he managed to get himself this ship and he just about holds it together. Ollie stays with him because he’s self-flagellating; he hates being out in the dark, but claims to know nothing else. That makes him an idiot too. He could use his engineering skills worldbound as easily as he can in space. He’s obviously punishing himself for something. I don’t care what. A soul can’t be taking on all the woes of every sorry loser in the ‘Verse.
I still haven’t met this Timmo, the self-professed merc. Apparently he stays pretty much in his cabin. I guess I prefer it that way. This is a ship of psychos and the fewer of them I have to deal with, the better I like it. Rake’s lady, Sally, is the only one that seems relatively normal. But, of course, she’s with Rake, so how normal is that? But she cooks up a good feed and seems to cool Rake’s ire a little bit, so that makes her the most important one here as far as I’m concerned.
Seems like Rake meant it when he said I had to work my passage, even though I’d paid him well enough. Trouble was, he had nothing that really needed doing, so he got to making stuff up. I planned to leave this ship on Cerunia, so only two days of keeping my head down. And it’s even vaguely on my way towards Methesda, which is a bonus.
I’d checked my Reader and it seems like Cerunia is one of those religious worlds that started popping up after the Coexistence. I’d have to grit my teeth against the religion, but there should be plenty of pilgrimage ships coming and going for me to hop a ride out again.
Right now I’m more worried about what happened last night. I was sleeping off the day’s mopping when a strange noise woke me up. It was a kind of low humming, but really insistent and it seemed to be happening right by my ear. I sat up bolt upright and looked around, quickly shaking off the sleep. My hand was already closed around the hilt of my knife, but there was nothing there. I sat there in the dark for a long time, but nothing happened. Ollie was sleeping like a really ugly baby. So I laid down again. As soon as I closed my eyes the hum was in my ear again and there was a faint voice in it.
This time I jumped clean off the bunk and the humming seemed to recede from me, away through the door. It was hard to see in the gloom of artificial night on board. Knife in one had, torch in the other, I stalked out into the engine room. The hum of the engine was a very different pitch to the noise sliding away from me. I followed it, down a dirty corridor, up steps to the common room and back towards the stern. I could hear the voice more clearly as I went. It seemed to be saying, ‘Go back.’
This ship is a rear-docker. There was the airlock door right in front of me and atmo-suits racked up along one wall. Dead end. Now that insistent humming was all around me. It wasn’t a machine noise. It was like a bunch of people all humming under their breath. We used to drive one of our old teachers mad in school, when the whole class would start to hum real low. The teacher would look around and everyone he looked at would stop humming and smile while the rest of the class carried on. He’d walk around, but the people near him would never be humming while the rest did. It was a juvenile prank, but funny to a teenager. Now I was experiencing something just like it. It was as if all these invisible people around me were humming, but none of them close enough for me to reach out and punch. And periodically a single, distant voice said, ‘Go back.’ I had to admit, it was freaking me out.
I stood still and closed my eyes. Immediately the humming swept right up to my ears and the voice was quite loud. ‘Go back now!’ I yelled and snapped open my eyes, sweeping my knife around me. For a second, or a fraction of a second, I was sure I saw a pair of eyes, red and glowing, disappear into the shadows between the atmo-suits. I ran over and pulled the suits off the wall, knife held high, but there was nothing there.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’
I yelled again, spinning around. I quickly lowered the knife when I saw Rake standing there, holding a bottle of booze and wearing nothing but a raggedy pair of shorts. I realised that I was only wearing shorts too, but I had a knife in one hand, a torch in the other and I’d just scattered his property all over the deck in the middle of the night. I didn’t really have anything to say.
‘You hunting space rats?’ he asked.
‘Sorry. I’m kinda prone to sleep-walking.’ It was a lame lie, but better than trying to explain the truth.
His eyebrows raised. ‘Sleep-walking? With a knife? I smelled your weed, buddy. You wanna lay off that shit.’ There was an irony in that comment, given the bottle in his hand and the red in his eyes, but I chose not to mention it. ‘You’re off this ship as soon as we make planetfall on Cerunia.’
I just nodded and headed back to my bunk. I guess that’s something we’ll all be looking forward to now.
Man, religion drives me mad. When all the old religions admitted they were worshipping the same god and the Sanctuary of Coexistence was born it was supposed to solve everything. One of humanity’s defining moments, apparently. And, of course, it achieved nothing. A new religion was born, splinter groups formed and some people refused to combine at all, so Catholics and Muslims and all the others are still around and they’re all still fighting to try to prove who’s right. People desire power and, no matter how good a group’s intentions, organised religion is about the best way to seize it.
The way I see it, religion is anachronistic to our age anyway, but there seems be a persistent need for it. You’d think by now there would be some kind of proof if there really was a god. I tend think about god like I think about aliens. There’s a lot of people that believe in them too, but they still haven’t shown up. The further we travel and the longer and harder we look, the more the proof against them stacks up. The same applies to gods as far as I’m concerned. Of course, the Sanctuary, and most other religions for that matter, like to point out that the lack of aliens in the ‘Verse is actually further proof of their beliefs; humanity born on Old Earth but unique in the universe. Whatever. I don’t tend to lose sleep thinking about gods or aliens. I’m not really interested. But organised religion invariably pisses me off.
One thing that happened way back when was that the People of Sanctuary, as they like to call themselves, became incredibly wealthy due to the combined wealth of all the groups that joined together. They are the biggest religious group in the ‘Verse by far and they have whole planets as dedicated Sanctuaries. That’s what Cerunia is and that’s where I’ve found myself.
I’m glad to be off the junk that brought me here, no doubt about that, but I wish it had brought me somewhere else. I didn’t even say goodbye. Once the ship was down Ollie was tied up fixing a seal breach from the turbulence of planetfall. I left some of the Weed on his bunk and walked off the ship. I didn’t need to say goodbye to anyone and they certainly weren’t going to miss me.
As soon as I stepped through the gate of the port I knew I was going to hate it here. Religious icons were everywhere, the combined symbols of the cross, star and crescent moon adorning everything. Every wall was glaring with gold and bright, clean neon, people walked everywhere with the slow, measured pace of the self-righteously smug, all wearing flowing robes and carrying holy books. Imagine the editors job of writing the new holy text for the People, trying to combine all those old stories of fire and brimstone and cutting a swathe through the infidels with a sword of righteous vengeance. I have to be honest and admit that the old books seemed a lot more exciting than this new washed out, watered down faith for the masses. Still, quite a marketing ploy.
I slipped through arrivals control with some faked papers. I was hoping that word of my fleeing Gallenin hadn’t travelled further than me yet and I seemed to be right so far. I carry a number of fake ID’s and the ‘Verse is a pretty loose place. It’s hard to keep track of everything. Most often a guy travelling alone with a single bag can go pretty much anywhere without too much hassle. Flying under the radar is my natural disposition and you can do it in plain sight if you keep your cool and know the game.
I walked out of the main port and decided that I’d better get pretty much straight onto finding a way to Methesda. This Magicker mutant Gans was slipping out of my grasp a little every day and this was a paying job that I wasn’t going to let slide. Besides, I have a reputation to maintain. In a ‘Verse like this, sometimes a soul’s reputation is all that keeps them alive. And then there was my own personal pride.
So I headed for the busiest looking part of the town outside the port. This whole planet may be one big Sanctuary, but they still had business and commerce. In fact, they were some of the foremost experts at it. There’d be a travel agent somewhere nearby. I’d started thinking that I should travel as a tourist, use a fake ID and see if I couldn’t slip through the net all the way out to Methesda. If things got too risky I could always blag my way aboard a ship the same way I’d got here or even stow away. It wouldn’t be the first time and my own personal pride is a very flexible thing when it comes to getting the job done.
Then another damned weird thing happened. I’m starting to get very concerned about this freaky shit. A Guide walked up to me, holding his copy of God’s Word before him like it was a slice of pie for a starving man. ‘My son,’ he said, obsequious as all hell. ‘I’m glad you arrived safely.’ He looked kinda nervous and excited at the same time.
I looked over my shoulder to be sure he was talking to me. There was no one else behind me. ‘I’m not interested, thanks,’ I said and made to move past him.
‘Oh no, Mr Ghost,’ he said, white teeth flashing like the smile in a toothpaste ad. ‘I’m sure you are interested.’
My first instinct when the Guide said my name was to run, screaming like a little girl. I know this Gans scum I’m chasing is a mutant, a Magicker. We all know they exist. We all know that weird shit occurs all over the ‘Verse. There are numerous examples, too many to mention. Only recently on the wire was the story of that guy who tried to go beyond the Edge, further out than anyone had gone before. He turned up thousands of light years from where he’d started, raving about giant space blobs turning his ship inside out. He could have just been any other lunatic, but his ship was still being tracked by his support team on an outlying Globe. How had he suddenly turned up so far away, without his ship? Anyway, the point is, it’s a big ‘Verse out there and all kinds of freaky shit occurs. But not to me. That’s what has me bothered. This shit does not happen to me.
I managed to overcome the urge to bolt and even managed to maintain some level of dignity and calm. ‘What is it you think I’m interested in?’ I asked the Guide.
He smiled one of those smiles, the kind that were supposed to convey some greater level of knowledge combined with pity for a soul’s ignorance. ‘You are on something of a quest and that can be taxing. The Light of the Lord can ease the burden of your worry.’
I was annoyed. ‘I’m not burdened by anything but a holy man with an inflated sense of his own importance. How do you know my name?’ Not that he got it right anyway; what’s with all the Mr Ghost crap lately?
The Guide held his God’s Word out and for a moment I thought he wanted me to read some enlightening passage or other. Then I saw the image on the book’s screen. It was a picture of me. There was some text beneath it. I snatched the book from him and had a closer look. The text was concise:
“A ghost, dangerous and unpredictable, prone to irrational behaviour. Integral to the Plan, he will need to be treated with respect and caution.”
Nice. It made me smile a little bit to read that. Then something occurred to me. ‘You call your approach cautious?’ I snapped, throwing the Guide’s book back at him.
That damn smile again. ‘I have nothing to fear.’
My face darkened and my scowl must have exuded heat. Talk like that can kill a man; it’s a matter of principle. The Guide took an involuntary step backwards and that made me feel a little bit better. ‘I am just a messenger. You are expected.’
My voice was a low growl. ‘Who the fuck is expecting me? I didn’t even know I was coming here. Did one of those freaks on that creaky old boat call ahead?’
‘No, sir. We’ve known for years that you were coming.’
‘How many years?’ Disbelief and panic were racing each other for supremacy in my addled brain, but they were massively outpaced by my terror. The thought of the biggest religion in the ‘Verse having my face in their book and expecting my arrival was just plain wrong. What had I done to deserve this?
‘Since the visions of Haliotep, over a century ago. I should take you to the Guide-Prime.’
‘Is he the boss?’
‘The Guide-Prime of Cerunia is the most senior member of Sanctuary on the planet.’
That sounded like a plan to me. ‘Right, take me to him.’
The office of the Guide-Prime was a study of ostentation. If a rock star or businessman showed off this kind of opulence they would be reviled. But apparently it’s okay to waste millions if it’s glorifying your god. And this was just the ante-chamber. There was a huge, golden door with ornate bas-relief in front of me. ‘He in there?’
The Guide nodded really slowly and started to say something about requesting his audience. By the time the Guide was halfway through his nod I was halfway through the big, stupid door. ‘But wait, you must…’
I flipped him the bird over my shoulder without looking back. ‘Read your damn book. It says to expect irrational behaviour.’ Ironically, in my mind, this was the most rational course of action there was. I guess rationality is at least partially subject to perspective.
The room beyond the big door made the door itself look plain and understated. I didn’t take much of it in. There was an old guy sitting behind a massive desk and I approached him like I meant to eat him. He stiffened in his oversize gold chair. ‘Why, Ghost…’
At least he didn’t say Mr. ‘What the hell am I doing in your book?’
He raised a placating palm. ‘Please, calm down. Let me explain.’
I stood still. I was furious, but I didn’t really know what at. I suppose I was actually more scared, fearful from a complete lack of understanding about what was happening. And people often respond to fear with anger. I used that very principle against any number of scum on a regular basis; make a soul angry and they get sloppy. I forced a deep breath into my lungs and let my anger subside as much as possible. ‘Explain now. Make it concise and accurate.’
The Guide-Prime made a face like he respected my request. Good for him. ‘Our holy books have been regularly updated when members of Sanctuary have religious experiences. Visions, visitations and so on. Over a hundred years ago a monastic Guide named Haliotep had a series of powerful visions. One of those visions resulted in him scrawling an image on the floor of his room. The image was a face. It was the face of, to quote Haliotep, “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.” Are you with me so far?’
‘It’s not high literature. Go on.’
‘Well, it’s simple really. The face was yours.’
‘I was a lot of decades short of alive back then. How could it be me. And your monkey here has a photo in his book, not a drawing.’
The Guide-Prime nodded. ‘Well, yes. A number of years ago the Sanctuaries all simultaneously received an anonymous sat-feed. It contained that image, the photo of you, and the text from Haliotep’s vision. Along with it was a note that said, “This man is called Ghost. It is time to make the choice.” It was simply signed, “A Believer”. We compared the photo to Haliotep’s ancient drawing, but it was academic. Everyone that knew of Haliotep’s visions would easily recognise you in an instant. We asked our prophets what to do, whether we should track you down. They said that you would come to us in your own time, so we’ve waited.’
‘All this was years ago? How come no one has mentioned this to me before? How come no one has recognised me before?’
The Guide-Prime smiled. ‘I suppose you don’t spend much time with people that are familiar with God’s Word.’
I had a whole heap of thoughts running around in my head like chickens when the farmer comes along with his hatchet. I needed a few minutes to collate just what the hell was going on here. The Guide-Prime started to speak again and I held up one finger. The look on my face held promises for the finger that made the Guide-Prime wince and he sensibly closed his mouth again.
I walked over to the big stained-glass window behind him. Through a clear panel I could see the port laid out below, people milling around like ants, ships cruising in and out in the distance. It all seemed very surreal. I sucked a long, slow, deep breath in through my nose and started rounding up the chickens in my brain.
The Dems had given me a job to track down this Magicker goon named Pietre Gans. My leads so far had led me to Gallenin where I found one stuck-up broad that lost her grip on her panties for a moment, one entrepreneur that couldn’t seal a deal and one businessman that had ended up dead. Out of all this I had a lead to Methesda and the dead guy had prepared a ‘slide for me. The police had decided they wanted to talk to me some more about that, so I did the natural thing and legged it. I wanted to go to Methesda. But, on bolting, I randomly ended up on a crappy boat that dumped me here on Cerunia, religion central in the region. And it seems that I’ve been a star feature of Coexistence literature for a hundred years. What were the connections? Were there any connections? More importantly, what the fuck was I supposed to do now?
There were three specific threads to follow up on now. One was getting out to Methesda and trying to pick up the trail of Gans. That was a pretty straightforward proposal and my main priority.
Number two was trying to figure out why that dead guy, Darver Phelms, had left a message for me when we had no idea of each other’s existence. That was possibly connected to Gans. Had Gans set that up? If so, why? Just to fuck with me? Then a thought occurred to me. Maybe that was designed to trip me up. Maybe Gans knew that it was me that was after him and had arranged all that so that the police would at least hold me for a while and give him a chance to get away. But that didn’t add up. The recording had been made and Phelms killed before the Dems had even given me the job. So that little chapter in this whole thing was still a mystery.
So, what about thread number three, which was: What the hell am I doing in the prophecies of the Coexistence? Then a slightly profound thought occurred to me. Who cares?
In the grand scheme of things, everything important is connected to Gans and Phelms. This whole Coexistence thing was just a weird and irrelevant coincidence that had no relevance to the case I was working. At least, it seemed that way.
I decided to let my curiosity stretch its legs for a minute, then get back to business. I was intrigued, but not prepared to let this bizarre turn of events distract me from my work. I’ve got that reputation to maintain, remember?
I walked back around the desk and leaned on it. The Guide-Prime was still a couple of metres away from me where he sat behind it. Thoughts of Freudian compensation gusted briefly through my mind. ‘Show me the drawing.’
The Guide-Prime blinked. ‘What?’
‘This Halitosis guy…’
‘Whatever. He drew me on his floor, right? You must have a copy of the original drawing. Show me.’
The Guide-Prime nodded and turned a holo-screen to face me. Slipping his hand among the holograms on his desk, tapping at them, an image came up. It was a still of what looked like an old fashioned prison cell, concrete and stark. There was something on the floor. I reached into the screen and pulled the image up, zooming in on the floor. It looked like it was drawn in charcoal or something similar and it was definitely a face. And it did look a hell of a lot like me.
The Guide-Prime cleared his throat nervously while I stared at the image. I didn’t attack him so he decided to try talking again. ‘For nearly a hundred years we’ve used face recognition software through security cameras, scanned entertainment and news feeds, had Guides always on the lookout. But we never found you.’
I shrugged. ‘When I see a religious sort I tend to look the other way. And cameras are anathema to my line of work, so I never look at them either if I can help it. I’m more interested in other people that get seen on cameras.’ I was still staring at the image. It was giving me the creeps.
I saw the Guide-Prime nodding gently from the corner of my eye. ‘I suppose you eventually came up on someone’s camera,’ he said quietly. ‘Inevitable, really. And that someone knew our prophecies and anonymously sent out the word.’
A question had been bugging my hindbrain for a while, like a mosquito repeatedly buzzing by yours ears at night that you just can’t catch a hold of. Then it suddenly caught a hold all by itself. ‘You knew I was arriving here today. How?’
The Guide-Prime smiled that shit-eating smile they all seem to have. I could imagine them practising it in the mirror. ‘We have a visionary here among us,’ he said proudly. ‘He recently had a vision of you arriving here so we’ve had a Guide at the port for the last few days, waiting. And sure enough, here you are.’
I made a wry face. ‘Yeah. Here I are. I want to see this visionary of yours.’
I had pretty much decided to ignore this whole freaky business and get on with the job at hand, but I just wanted to learn a bit more first. I could just walk out and get on with business, but while I was here a bit more info on this whole prophecy thing might work out well for me at some point. Like I said before, in my line of work intel is worth more than diamonds. And, in the long run, there’s no such thing as irrelevant intel.
(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.
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.
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.
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.
As the ship I’d kind of stolen from the Sanctuary of Coexistance rattled with the inertia of planetfall, I tooled up. I had knives and Bartellian’s big cannon of a hand gun hanging off me in plain view. I had a reinforced shirt on under my enviro-coat and various other little surprises stashed in pockets. I knew that after all this running around, the hardest part of the job was at hand. I had to take down a Magicker. A Grade MA1 Magicker that had proven himself competent by making a smear of several Dems and at least one hotel manager. Still, I’d had messy fights before.
From orbit I’d scanned this inhospitable rock of a Globe and seen that Gans had set up what seemed to be a small camp about a kilometre from his ship. I could read two lifesigns down there, so it would seem that he was keeping his hired pilot close at hand. I wondered if the pilot had agreed to that or not. Zooming in the orbital camera I saw that the camp was little more than a survival shelter. The lifesigns were inside it, so I couldn’t make a visual on either of them.
I came in as silent as possible, but I knew that Gans already expected me. I was going to try to sneak up on him, but I was fairly convinced that this would end up as a face to face confrontation regardless of my plans. I was a little bit nervous of just how much magic this mutant had at his command. I suppose this is why the Dems keep such a tight rein on people that aren’t killed by their Sly Gene.
I parked my boat right beside his and set out at an easy jog for his camp. This Globe would certainly take some work to make it enticing to even the most desperate settlers. It had the basics, like air and gravity, but that was about it. The air was thin and the gravity just a bit too heavy. The terraformers would have their work cut out for them. Otherwise it was a bloody cold ball of jagged black rock and nearly frozen oceans. The wind howled and rain and hail seemed to be an almost permanent feature of the climate. As I jogged I got wet and cold and buffeted by the wind and I added another item to my long list of reasons to hate Pietre Gans.
As I got close to his camp I kept Bartellian’s cannon drawn in one hand and my Reader set up to scan in the other. I could read a variety of heat signatures ahead and two of them were definitely people. The others would be various items of survival gear. Treading carefully and slowly I made my way through the broken teeth of the landscape. I was a bit concerned that Gans wasn’t coming out to meet me or trying to get around behind me. Was it really possible that he didn’t know I was coming? Was it possible that he was so distracted? What the hell was he doing here anyway? I figured that this must be the end of his line, but why he wanted to be here was beyond me. Unless he knew that he was supposed to be finding this Face of God. Again I pushed all thoughts of theories and reasoning from my mind. Catch him and wait for an answer from Jones. That’s all that matters.
‘You are one persistent pain in my arse, Bounty Hunter.’
I spun around, trying to pinpoint exactly where behind me the voice was coming from. No one was there. ‘Just give it up, Gans!’ I yelled over the wind. How had I heard him so clearly?
Then the voice came from in front of me. ‘Do you really think you can do anything to hinder me? Admittedly, I’ve had enormous trouble trying to shake you off, but you really can’t do anything to me.’
‘It’s over, Gans. Just come in quietly.’
Laughter sounded all around me. ‘Over? Why, Ghost, you small-minded fool, it’s all just about to begin!’
I decided to ignore the voice, ignore the trickery, and head for the target that the reliable technology of my Reader was showing me. Sighting along the barrel of Bartellian’s oversized handgun, I rounded a large outcrop of rock and had Gans balanced perfectly in the centre of my sights. He was a big guy, dressed like a cross between an ancient Shaman and a modern techno-geek. His hired pilot was bound and gagged on the ground just inside his shelter and Gans himself grinned at me, mimicking my gun with his forefinger and thumb, aiming right back at me.
‘You gonna shoot me, Bounty Hunter?’ he asked, casual as all hell.
What in the big black gave him cause to be so casual anyway? I was the one with the gun, while he had his fingers pointed at me. My own fingers twitched on the trigger. I could hear the voice of Mrs Jones like it was only yesterday. 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. I wasn’t above deleting a scumbag like this. I’d done it before. Sometimes it was just safer if you had the clearance. But something stayed my hand.
Gans grinned and asked the same question again. ‘You gonna shoot me, huh?’
I grimaced. ‘I don’t want to. I just want to take you in.’
‘I’d rather you came and joined me and Saul here, all peaceful, like.’
‘Saul doesn’t look so peaceful. I’m guessing he didn’t choose to join you there.’
Gans laughed. ‘True. He wanted to drop me off and head back out. I insisted that he stay in case I needed a return ride.’
I rolled my head, trying to stop my neck from cramping as I kept the gun trained on the Magicker. ‘Tell you what,’ I suggested. ‘How about you let Saul there go and I’ll give you a ride. All the way back to a DAP holding cell.’
Gans shrugged. ‘Oh well. I can see that there’s no reasoning with you.’ He raised his other hand and blue light, like crackling electricity, gathered about it.
With the speed of a striking snake and a sizzling crack Gans cast his witch-fire right at me at exactly the same moment as my finger closed on the trigger and Bartellian’s handgun boomed.
Everything went really bright, then really hot, then really black.
Then I could hear a voice, a mumbling, distant sound, incoherent. Everything was still black. I tried to open my eyes and after a couple of false starts they slowly peeled apart. As my vision came back, the voice became clearer and I could hear the wind and the rain hammering against the side of Gans’s temporary shelter. My hands and feet were bound. ‘…tough bastard,’ the voice was saying.
I growled, furious that I hadn’t just shot him the moment I’d seen him. What was wrong with me? ‘What the fuck, Gans?’
The Magicker grinned down at me. ‘I said, you sure are a tough bastard.’
I noticed that his left shoulder was heavily bandaged, his arm in a sling. ‘Nearly got you, did I?’ The satisfaction in my voice was a bit misplaced, given that I was trussed up like a festive bird.
Gans grinned. ‘Yeah, nearly. But nearly ain’t good enough.’
‘So why am I still alive?’
‘I don’t want to kill you. I’ve never wanted to kill anyone.’
I took a deep breath. There was nothing I could do about my predicament at this particular moment and I knew that Sanctuary and Dem ships were on their way. I might as well learn something and drag this out. ‘What is it you’re doing?’
Gans narrowed his eyes. ‘You really want to know?’
I laughed. ‘Actually, yes I really do. You’d be amazed what people have been telling me about what’s going on here.’
‘You mean the Sanctuary prophecies? They fuck up a good message, as usual. No matter what truths they hear, they can’t avoid their own bias. They desperately try to shoehorn everything to fit their belief system, contrary to any amount of evidence. I have no respect for the wilfully ignorant.’
I found that a fairly familiar position. Perhaps this Gans and I had something in common after all. ‘So why don’t you tell me what is going on?’
Gans shrugged. ‘I’m following a power without trying to pre-suppose what it is. Ever since I was a child I’ve known I was different. I knew since well before puberty that I had the Sly Gene and I spent years training myself to control it. I hid from all the authorities and I kept a low profile because I knew I had a greater destiny than DAP mind control camps.’
I made a noise of derision. ‘Sounds a bit like the Sanctuary line of thought to me.’
Gans shook his head. ‘Not at all. I’ve never been so arrogant as to suggest that I knew what was going on. I just knew that something was calling to me from a very young age. I kept quiet, I kept training myself and I kept listening. Eventually, the time was right.’
‘The time for what?’
‘The time for me to fulfil my destiny. To meet the voice that had cajoled me all these years.’
‘That’s what the Sanctuary seem to assume is the Face of God.’
Gans nodded. ‘Yes. Assumes. I have no real idea, only some suspicions. Regardless, I’m prepared to wait to find out. It hasn’t been easy either. The Dems picked me up in a random search and nearly had me caged. Then I escaped but they put you on my tail. I’ve sensed your presence since before you even knew yourself that you were coming for me. I tried to block your way, but you are one persistent bastard.’
‘So all those obstacles in my way were your work?’
‘Certainly. It’s not easy to control a situation from so far away, but I set things up as best I could. I hoped the body of Darver Phelms would have you delayed, but you even slipped through that.’
‘Yeah. And I’ve been on the run from the DAP ever since. I’m supposed to be on their side!’
Gans laughed. ‘Ah, sides. There’s no such thing really, it’s all so fluid. Just a constant state of flux.’
‘And Bartellian,’ I asked, the constant whine in my otherwise deaf right ear a permanent reminder of how close he had come to finishing me.
Gans made a rueful face. ‘Yes, I’m sorry about the rather primitive approach there, but I was getting desperate. You were getting too close. I’d tried haunting you away, but you ignored that. I guess I’m not really that good at it, especially from such a distance. I kept trying though.’
‘Bartellian killed two Guides and two innocent hostesses before I took him down.’
Gans winced. He seemed to be genuinely pained by that. ‘I’m sorry to hear that. I really don’t want anyone to get hurt, especially innocents. There are few enough of those left in the ‘Verse as it is.’
‘You got that right.’
‘But this is too important. The absolutely essential part of this is that I was here and ready at this moment. I was chosen a long time ago and I had to be here. Even then, I only just made it.’
My eyes widened in surprise. ‘You think you’re successful? You think you’ve made it?’
Gans smiled. ‘Oh, yes, I have.’
I hated to break it to him. ‘There are two Sanctuary and, more importantly, four DAP ships on their way here right now.’
Gans was nodding, still smiling.
‘How long was I out?’ I asked suspiciously.
Gans shrugged. ‘Only about twenty minutes.’
I made a quick mental calculation. ‘Well, I’m guessing that those ships are only about three or four hours away. And they’ll have your ship and mine locked in sensors by now.’
Gans nodded. ‘I know. But that’s fine. With any luck they should be here just in time.’
‘Just in time for what?’ I didn’t like the way this was going. It seemed that Gans had it figured that he had succeeded in something. Was getting this far all he had intended to do?
Without bothering to answer my question, he dragged me from the shelter out into the wet, howling day and then set Saul next to me, the poor sap that had agreed to fly him here. From this position I noticed for the first time that his camp was set up on the edge of a large crater, smooth as glass in a shallow bowl about two hundred metres across.
Gans went and stood in front of us, right at the edge of the crater, and spread his arms wide. He seemed to be chanting something, his voice, whipped away by the wind, was too low for me to hear.
I twisted around to get a better look at Saul. ‘You all right, buddy?’
Saul’s face was a mask of hatred as he stared at Gans. ‘Yeah, I’m fine. Except that I’m sitting here tied up in the shittiest place in the black, with a complete fucking nutter acting like he’s on the verge of the greatest event in history.’
‘Has he talked to you much about it?’
‘He’s rattled on from time to time. Telling me how nothing will ever be the same again after today.’
I arched one eyebrow. ‘Today?’
Saul nodded. ‘Yep. It’s all been coming down to this. He had to get here by this time because “That’s when it’ll happen”, whatever that means.’
Gans turned around. ‘You two stop yapping and just watch. You’re to be the impartial witnesses to this event, along with any of the approaching People and Dems that make it on time.’
Saul rolled his eyes at me and made a ‘See what I mean’ kind of face. Then he slumped back down, huddling himself against the elements. I did the same, trying to ignore the icy rain blowing into my ear and making unfriendly puddles in my crotch. Gans turned back to face his crater and raised his arms again.
It seemed like hours that he stood there like that. I was convinced that Saul and I would succumb to hypothermia or drown before anything interesting happened. Then I heard a massive roar and whine behind us. The cavalry was here.
Without turning around Gans called out, ‘There’s a barrier of my power set up around us and this crater. I’ve spent the last few hours constructing it and no one will get in until I say they can. You two just sit tight.’
I found that a little hard to swallow. ‘You really expect us to believe that you have that kind of power?’ I yelled over the wind.
‘Believe what you like, Bounty Hunter.’
The sound of skimmer engines came up through the wind, and then voices raised in excitement. I craned around and saw dozens of vehicles racing up the rocky slope to the edge of the crater, bristling with Dem cops and Sanctuary Guides. It seemed that the government soldiers and the god soldiers had all arrived together.
The cops jumped from their skimmers, weapons drawn and trained on Gans as they sprinted across the rocks towards the camp. Guides ran wildly behind them, their robes whipping in the wind as they waved their holy book and demanded calm from the authorities. The whole thing was kinda comical.
Then the cops and Guides started tumbling this way and that, bouncing off some invisible wall a few metres from us. Other cops began circling around, trying to find a way through.
Then Gans’s voice boomed out, preternaturally loud over the weather. ‘Hold fast, all of you. It’s about to begin!’
Cops and Guides alike paused, stunned momentarily by the power of the voice that seemed to assail them from all around.
Then a blinding light burst into life at the centre of the crater and began to spread out, a small white orb slowly growing into something like a blazing sun, a hundred metres across.
The unmistakably superior voice of a Guide rang out. ‘Behold, the Face of God!’
I had to admit, I was a bit perturbed. A sufficiently devout person, in the right environment, can make a soul really wonder if their life choices have been the wisest ones after all. Tied up, at the mercy of this Magicker, facing a ball of blazing white fire that gave off no incinerating heat, I had to wonder, just briefly, if perhaps there was something to be said for religion after all.
Then another voice rang out. A stream of words that sounded like a question, but in a language unlike anything I’d ever heard. Then the voice of Pietre Gans rang out and he answered in the same musical, ethereal way. A couple more sentences were exchanged and then Gans said, ‘Please, use our tongue. There are many here that would like to understand.’
The musical voice of the other, whatever it was, sounded again. This time it spoke our language, but it made our language sound more beautiful than I ever imagined possible. ‘I come to you with love,’ it said. ‘And I come to you with hope.’
Voices rang out around the camp, some the voices of Dem cops arguing with each other or barking out orders, others the rapt voices of Guides, crying out their supplication, convinced they were faced with the actual presence of the one true God.
The perfect voice rang out again. ‘Please, becalm yourselves. Put aside your fears, your dreams, your expectations. Please do not expect too much of me.’
Those people stuck outside of Gans’s magical barrier, like fish on the wrong side of a fish-tank, gasping and thrashing to get in, suddenly fell silent. Gans raised his hands. ‘Would you appear to us?’ he asked. ‘I would talk with you face to face.’
There were some gasps from around the area. I noticed that I could hear them as the rain and wind seemed to have died away almost completely. Slowly a dark patch appeared in the centre of the blazing sphere and a figure seemed to grow out from it. I heard sobbing and looked around to see some Guides on their knees, openly weeping. Some cops too. Everyone was mesmerised. I was suddenly and pleasantly surprised to see my Mrs Jones standing among the gathered DAP representatives. She looked at me and nodded curtly, then quickly turned her attention back to the main show.
The figure, dwarfed by the massive ball of light, slowly drifted through the air, directly towards Gans. Its arms were open, palms up before it in a posture of supplication. As it neared Gans, neared me and Saul, more details were revealed. It was a man, tall and lean, muscular without being bulky. He smiled.
But something was slightly weird about it all. His head seemed as long as his body was tall. His eyes were large, larger than any man’s eyes I’d seen before. They had bright purple irises. As he smiled he had no teeth. Or rather one wide tooth, one smooth cartilaginous line, at the top and another at the bottom. His skin seemed pale, almost a soft powder blue, and looked to be completely hairless.
The figure alighted on the edge of the crater, standing before Gans and towering over him. He must have been close to eight feet tall. Suddenly this was just too funny. The faces of the gathered Guides appeared to me now like comic book characters, drawn with expressions of dismay and fear over-emphasised in caricature. I began to laugh like a madman.
The figure from the blazing orb looked around at the gathered people pressed up against Gans’s invisible barrier, then at me and Saul, bound on the floor. Then his gaze fell back onto Gans again. ‘What is happening here?’
Gans made a gesture of innocence. ‘There were people that were trying to prevent this meeting. Others with an agenda of their own. Certain measures had to be employed to ensure my meeting with you went as planned.’
The figure nodded. ‘And these men?’ He gestured to a gathering of Guides, quickly huddled together, casting glances over their shoulders and talking over each other animatedly, sounding desperate and lost.
Gans looked at them. ‘They thought that you were going to be their god.’
The figure’s eyes narrowed. ‘God? What is a god?’
I missed the next several minutes of conversation, paralysed with laughter.
‘I’d better still be getting paid,’ I said, my voice daring her to deny me.
‘Well, you didn’t exactly catch Gans, but you led us to him, which is essentially the same thing. You’ll get your money.’
‘And the various things I may have had to do to get here?’
‘Forget about them. Your slate is clean, your bank account is healthy and your reputation firmly intact. If anything, your reputation is likely to be enhanced by this day’s work.’
Maybe she was right there. ‘So what’s happening now?’ I asked, nodding back towards the rapidly growing village that had been nothing more than a tiny camp just hours before.
Mrs Jones shrugged. ‘Gans has a sort of protection. This whole ruse is because they don’t want to negotiate with any government body or authority. Apparently they’ve had skills like our Magickers for centuries and have mastered them to a degree we can’t imagine. They all have skills like that. So they will only deal with humans like themselves and are claiming Gans as a kind of ambassador.’
‘Don’t know. Apparently they’ve been watching us for years, waiting for someone powerful and balanced enough to be the bridge between us and them.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Balanced?’
‘Apparently. Ironic, no?’
‘I’ll say.’ But I had personal issues that were more pressing. ‘Any chance of a lift somewhere any time soon?’ Jones looked at me, one eyebrow arched. ‘Well, I sort of borrowed a Sanctuary ship to get here,’ I explained, ‘and I think they’re having a bad day. I don’t really want to run off with their ship or have to spend any time with them at the moment.’
Jones nodded. ‘Fair enough. There’s another DAP Cruiser on its way here now. It’ll drop off delegates and then be returning back to active duty. It can take you along and drop you off somewhere suitable. They’ll be here in about four or five hours and leaving again almost immediately.’
I nodded, smiling. ‘Cool. I might go and find somewhere quiet and out of the way to wait. If I could just get my payment…’
Jones nodded and produced a cash-slide for me. Suddenly things started to feel normal again, at least in my own small world. I took the slide and shook her hand and walked quickly away. I’d meant it when I said I’d find somewhere quiet to wait. I wanted to avoid all this commotion.
I went back to the Sanctuary ship I’d arrived on and retrieved my bag, then headed out to the newly organised landing area. A delegate of Dem cops had been charged with managing the inevitable influx of vessels that would soon be descending and a kind of makeshift spaceport was already taking shape, shelters and shuttles demarking a large area of otherwise barren rock. I found a quiet corner in a shelter and sat down to wait for the Cruiser that would take me off this ball.
I had to be honest, there was a part of me that was glad to have been here. This was certainly an event that was going to change the ‘Verse forever. But I didn’t need to be a part of it any more.
And I had couldn’t help feeling just a bit sorry for the Sanctuary. Still, it was all a matter of perspective. It wasn’t their god this time, but that didn’t mean they were necessarily out of work. They had a whole new non-human thing to factor into their dogma now, but they were nothing if not experts at moulding themselves to fit the times. Most people had given up on aliens, and now this. In some ways, that could be construed as reaffirming the possibility of a god. We were obviously still a long way from knowing all there was to know or see all there was to see.
But it all meant very little to me. I had the warm feeling of a big fat cash balance and the knowledge that whatever else might happen, I’d never be out of work or short of something to do. I had a reason to exist and a vocation to follow, and there would always be a ‘Verse full of scum out there.
So there you have it, all done for now. I hope you enjoyed the yarn. Feel free to drop me an email or leave a comment if there’s anything you’d like to say about what you’ve read here or anywhere else on the site.
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