Camelot Station had a proud history as one of the oldest structures in space; it was well known that much of the Station was a legacy from the First Empire, partially destroyed during the Fall, and popular legend had it that parts were actually older still, from that dimly remembered time before even the Empire. The space station was the size of a small moon, mostly spherical but littered with communications and sensor antennas, weapons placements, landing pads and observation bubbles; there were literally hundreds of hangars scattered about it like cavernous sinkholes, their magnetic fields glowing dimly against the dull gray metal of the station. Camelot had an ever fluctuating population thanks to the large quantities of transients on their way through to other systems or taking advantage of the central location to conduct business that might otherwise be frowned on either (or both) the Union and the Empire, but it was widely held to be somewhere in the region of ten million. A large number, it was true, but still barely a fraction of what the mammoth station could hold, and there were regions that had been closed to the general public quite literally for generations, sections damaged in combat or by natural (or unnatural) catastrophes that it had simply never been seen as worthwhile to repair. Despite the abundance of room inside, there were still those - as there were at most Independent, and even some Union, space stations - who preferred to live outside the walls, and they had clamped their ships into small communities near maintenance hatches and other entries into the station, like gypsies circling their wagons outside the city walls. The crew of the Lonesome Road, no novices to the ways of the underground, had learned to avoid these makeshift shantytowns, not just because their inhabitants often held only the most tenuous grasp on their sanity - though that was generally plenty of reason in and of itself - but because there was little to gain, versus the risks involved. Though not as dangerous as popular cinema would have one believe, these gypsy caravans were subject to meteor strikes from space debris, or fairly frequent power failures that sometimes dislodged a ship spiraling off into the void unless its current inhabitants could quickly bring its engines online. Considering many of the ships no longer even had engines...
So it was that the Lonesome Road made for Landing Pad Seven. Somebody at some point in the past had taken the time and trouble to spray paint "Lucky" in front of the numeral seven for the landing dock, but for all that it had overseen a large percentage of the Lonesome's wheeling and dealing, there was little luck to be found there. Seven was a working dock, a tradesman's dock, and ships without cargo or the means to transport it were unwelcome. Hawke stood on the bridge and observed the docks as they entered, noticing an unusual bustle of activity, even for the trader's docks; cargo lighters moved in squadrons and platoons, the exoskeletons bustling with pallets and crates. Forklifts rolled in and out of the larger ships in an intricate dance, offloading some and loading others seemingly at random; even from this distance, he could see racks of missiles being loaded into military cargo ships, some bearing the blue and white of the Union and others the Imperial crimson and black.
"Huh," Kate said, taking note. "Appears you were right about that military campaign, Captain. That's a hell of a lot of hardware loading up out there, for both sides."
Hawke frowned, taking in the level of preparations. "That is a hell of a lot hardware," He agreed. "Looks like more than just a pirate hunt... I haven't seen anything like this since before Angelsfall." There was a brief silence at the mention of humanity's finest hour, where the united navies of the Union and the Empire had beaten back the devouring Swarm.
Glenn poked his head onto the bridge. "Hey, our visitors are tucked away back in their bunkroom. Seem to be taking everything well enough, they know that we're coming into port but not where. I told them that once we're done here we'll cut them loose. You figure Rigeling will keep an eye on them until we're safely out of range?"
"Assuming he doesn't have us all bloodily murdered when we show up without his goods, yeah, we should be able to arrange something." Hawke replied, still watching the activity on the docks as they cruised closer to their assigned landing dock. "I'm not too willing to push the issue on that one."
"Understandable," Glenn said, ducking back down below. Kate turned to Hawke curiously, her hands moving automatically on the controls to bring them in.
"You think he's going to have us whacked, sir?"
"Could be," Hawke rubbed his stubbly cheek in thought. "Thing is, Rigeling is first and foremost a business man. We come in apologetically enough, and if he accepts what we took off the wreck, then we might just walk away with our skins intact. The trick is making it obvious that we're not trying to screw him, that we're not disrespecting him in any way."
"We are doomed," Ozymandias said blandly. Kate fought a giggle.
"The brain bucket here has a point, Captain." she said with a smile. "No offense, but diplomacy is hardly your strong point."
Hawke sniffed. "I can be diplomatic."
"Like a train wreck, sir."
"Or a Swarm Brood," Oz added helpfully. Hawke rolled his eyes.
"Who programmed you to be a comedian?"
Tommy checked the magazines on his pistols and slid them into their holsters, one after the other. Camelot had a long standing prohibition on longarms that was often ignored, but going to Deckard Rigeling's fourth level mansion toting a shotgun was a strict no-no. Still, it was a rough path between here and there, and every experienced spacer carried something to keep the dogs at bay - literally and metaphorically.
Not that Tommy went anywhere without his beloved pistols.
The crew was gathered in the cargo bay for a last meeting before they went their separate ways to take care of business - John, Glenn, and Tommy to deal with Rigeling, while the other three restocked the ship and put out feelers for employment opportunities. The Lonesome Road’s credit was running thin, but they had friends in Camelot, especially Cynthia, and Hawke had hopes that they might get enough of an advance payoff on whatever their next cargo was to at least get some fresh food.
Given their luck lately, though, he would be satisfied if they could just keep from being run off Camelot one step ahead of a raging mob.
Glenn finished loading his pistols and jammed them into his belt with a disgruntled mutter. “I miss my machinegun,” he told Cynthia. She leaned over and kissed him on the lips, handing him a loaded backpack.
“I’ll buy you a new one,” she said with a smile. Hawke was finishing giving his last minute orders to Kate, who was obviously eager to be off and about.
“Enough,” she said at last, waving her arms in the air. “You’ve got more important things to be worrying about, boss, like the Bloody Handed Dealer.”
"I don't think that'll be much of a worry," Hawke said with a strange smile. Kate paused, puzzled by the sudden flash of anger in his eyes, when they were interrupted.
“Yeah, about that.” A strange voice called from the foot of the cargo ramp. The crew spun, guns leaping to hand with almost frightening speed. The thin dapper man they called the Voice smirked as he took in the startled crew, his brace of bodyguards frightening in their black leather tunics. The two were giants among men, standing seven feet tall and absolutely identical beneath their masks. Lurid tribal tattoos covered every inch of exposed skin, and both carried huge sawed off assault rifles capable of cutting an unarmored man in half in a single burst - a hard suited man in two.
Hawke twitched his fingers, signaling Tommy and the others to stand down. Glenn and Cynthia lowered their pistols only grudgingly, Tommy not at all.
“I don’t like people sneaking up on me, boss.” he said shortly. “It’s bad for my reputation.”
“Yeah, I hear getting killed can be pretty bad for that too, Tommy.” Hawke hissed out of the side of his mouth. “So put that gun down before you do grievous harm to all of our reputations. You can’t shoot them all, Tommy.”
“Bets?” Tommy kept his gun trained on the Voice for a long moment, as if to tell the man in plain terms that he was unafraid, and then flipped it around and jammed it back into its holster. Hawke turned a placid smile towards the courier.
The Dealer’s Voice had been Deckard Rigeling’s right hand man for almost twenty years now, following the criminal mastermind up from the mean streets of Throne and into the halls of power. There had been rumors that he was supposed to be Rigeling’s heir apparent, but the Voice had chosen to follow his master into retirement to Camelot station. Now, he smirked as he gave Tommy Two-Guns a pitying look, then turned his attention back to Hawke. “Yeah, about the boss. See, he’s been real eager to speak with you. Something about being a week late with a quite valuable cargo.” He looked around the bay and quirked his lips slightly. “Hey, nice ship. Lots of room in here.” He looked back at Hawke, his voice going flat. “Not much cargo.”
“We ran into a little snag,” Hawke said calmly. “Which we’ll be happy to explain to Mr. Rigeling.”
“What makes you think Mr. Rigeling wants to listen to your explanations, Captain Hawke?” The Voice cocked his head sideways, like a bird staring at a particularly juicy worm. “Seeing as how you’re here late, and lacking your cargo and all. I’m sure it must be quite the interesting story, but Mr. Rigeling isn’t too fond of stories. Especially not ones that might upset him.” He popped his neck with a series of harsh cracks that echoed through the bay and smiled like a shark. “See, that’s what he pays me for. I make sure nothing upsets him. Occasionally, I don’t do so well. Then I have to expunge my failures by making sure they don’t upset him again.”
“I don’t think he’ll be as upset as you think,” Hawke said. He returned the Voice’s smile with a cold, flat grin of his own. “But then, we could let him decide that.” He flicked his eyes towards Tommy as the gunslinger’s hand crept towards his pistol again. “Or we could just settle things here, now, and all over the place.” He flicked his eyes back to the Voice, and his voice was openly contemptuous. “Of course, that doesn’t help me much. You’re dead, and Mr. Rigeling is twice as pissed off at me. I don’t see a winner either way. So, how about you do your job and take us to Mr. Rigeling, and I’ll just have to see if we can’t come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement?”
Hawke and the Voice locked gazes, and nobody moved for a tense minute. The two mooks shifted uneasily, for the first time realizing that the balance of power was against them. The Voice smiled after a minute.
“All right, Hawke. Mr. Rigeling always did say he admired your balls.” He turned, signaling for his mooks to follow, then paused. “’course, he often said he expected they’d end up bronzed, on his mantle, one of these days.”
“Well,” Hawke said, signaling Glenn and Tommy to follow him. “I’m sure that’s something we can all look forward to.”
“Aren’t you nervous?” Kate asked Cynthia curiously. “I mean, the Dealer has a hell of a reputation. The guys might be in trouble.”
“The guys are always in trouble,” Elise said with a mocking roll of her brows. “Oz, is that tracking device working okay?”
“It is for the moment,” the AI said. “I will remind you, though, Mr. Rigeling has a habit of employing jammers around his hiding spaces. I would not be surprised if our tracker is cut off before too much longer.”
“Well, at least we’ll have the general location down,” Cynthia said with a shrug. “And Rigeling has always been a tad obvious about his hidey holes, anyway. Very fond of Italian restaurants for some reason.”
“Some people define themselves by their cliches,” Oz said sanctimoniously. Cynthia shrugged.
“Whatever it may be,” she said, turning to where the Wild Cat was parked. “I’m sure they’ll be eating better than we will be. C’mon, ladies, we’ve got supplies to pick up, and I’m in dire need of a beer. Watch the ship, Oz.”
“Yes ma’am,” Oz said agreeably. He waited until Elise hopped off the ramp before bringing it up, checking his external cameras. There were more blind spots than he liked, places where the cameras had burned off during fights or merely violent reentries, but for the most part he had a good view of the ship’s environs.
Out of curiosity, he flicked his internal viewpoint back to where the two Imperials were being held in their bunkroom. They were still there; for a moment, he entertained the suspicion that they were spoofing his camera with recycled footage, for they were still in much the same position he’d left them last; the taller one was sprawled out on the upper bunk, his ankles hanging over the foot, the shorter below him on the floor doing an odd, dance-like movement with his eyes closed. He swayed back and forth, sometimes balancing on one leg, then the other, swirling his arms around him slowly as though swimming in an invisible stream.
Humans were such peculiar creatures.
He noticed the taller man, the one alternately referred to as "Garth" or "Frosty" was speaking, and turned on the local microphone out of curiosity.
"-they're going to have us killed?" he asked Cutter, rolling over on the bed. The mattress was lumpy and hard, but more spacious than his coffin rack back on the Hildagarde.
"Doubt it," Cutter said calmly, moving through the intricate motions from High Pat On Horse to Cross Wave of Water Lily Kick. "I don't think they'd have brought us this far just for the extra labor, and their captain strikes me as a man of honor."
"We know their names now, though. No matter where they turn us loose at, the Empire is going to be looking for them as soon as we report in."
"Who says we know their names?" Cutter stepped into the next form effortlessly, flowing through the katas with the ease of lifelong practice. His martial arts were the only thing his parents, refugees from Neo Edo after the Scourge had scoured the planet, had left him. "We've been kept locked away. We've had no interaction with the crew. They obviously feared the Emperor's wrath, so they dumped us as soon as they could and took off."
Garth froze. "You're saying we should lie."
"I'm saying there are some things that don't need to go on reports."
"We have a duty to the Empire," Garth said, a little unnerved at how their usual positions had reversed.
"For fuck's sake, Frosty, these people aren't hurting anyone." Toshiro paused through Step Up To Form Seven Stars, to turn and stare at his copilot. "I don't know what they found on that shell of a planet, but it wasn't worth the hell that's going to fall on them if we report in. I joined the Empire to help people, not persecute them."
Garth sat upright. "I'm not trying to persecute anyone, dammit," he said hotly. "But we took an oath to serve the Emperor with everything we have, and we can't go picking and choosing our duties the moment we have a moral dilemma. We're honor bound to report what we know to the first Imperial garrison or ship we come across, and everyone on this ship knows that. Hell, that Glenn guy looks like he's been around the Empire a time or two; I wouldn't be surprised if he's former Fleet himself.
"Army, I think." Toshiro said, continuing his exercise. "He doesn't move quite right for a spacer."
"Whatever." Garth rubbed his temples, then his eyes. "This whole thing is topsy turvy. It was a hell of a lot easier when they were just some ship we were shooting at."
"Yeah, well that's the problem with knowing one's enemy too well," Cutter said. "They stop being enemies."
Garth closed his eyes tightly. "Maybe they should kill us."
"Maybe." Cutter shrugged, not knowing or caring that his roommate couldn't see him. "But if the situations were reversed, could you?"
"That's because you're a good man, Garth." Cutter chuckled softly, moving into the next form. "And so are they."
"Could you?" Frosty opened his eyes, keeping them fixed on the ceiling rather than looking down at the other man.
"Yes. If I was ordered to." Cutter didn't hesitate, didn't pause, continuing his kata as though it were the only thing in the galaxy. "But then, I never claimed to be a good man."
"Thirteen steps to my grave, no more the black flag will I wave." As Hawke and his merry band stepped into the bustling Market district, they found themselves awash in a sea of noise and music, the thick scents of cooking food barely drowning out the less pleasant odors of unwashed bodies, the musky scent of animals, the thick smells of oil and machinery. The air was smoky, a clear sign that the environmental system was hard pressed to keep up with the levels of pollution. Not far from the passage to the docks, a pair of female musicians had set up an impromptu stage, playing the banjo and fiddle while a small boy beat his drum smartly, a battered hat set out in front of them to attract donations. "Preacher tells me I've been saved - and calling me Sue Mundy."
"Huh," Hawke said conversationally to the Voice. "Haven't heard this one for a while."
The Voice hawked and spat. "I don't listen to this Border Planet rubbish," He said dismissively, starting to push on through the crowd. Hawke grabbed his sleeve, gave him a slight smile as he spun around.
"Think I'll listen for a minute. They sound pretty good."
The Voice started to open his mouth, closed it as Hawke's grip on his arm tightened. There was no love lost between the two, and the courier knew better than to push the ex-Union captain further than necessary.
"Suit yourself," He shook his arm loose. "You should know better than to keep Mr. Rigeling waiting, though." Hawke ignored him, turning to watch the two singers.
Marcellus Clarke is my true name,
Simpson County's pride and shame
Raising horses, hemp and slaves;
A son of old Kentucky.
"John," Glenn whispered in his ear, barely audible over the noise of the Market. "Is testing the guy's patience wise? We're in enough trouble as it is, hey?"
The orphan gray I did put on
Captured at Fort Donaldson
With my pardon I walked home,
Just a poor civilian-
"They're good singers," Hawke said again. "And what the Voice didn't bother to notice is that the one on the left there is Rigeling's niece, Anna." He patted Glenn on the shoulder as the man did a double take. "Keep it down, she doesn't like to advertise the fact. But the Dealer worries about his family, and if Anna's out in the Market like this it probably means they've had another fight. News like that, well, might just come in handy."
But Bainbridge called in martial law
For every Federal dead now he'd hang four
Whispering behind their doors - there goes a Rebel soldier.
"Nice song," Glenn murmured, only half sarcastically. The song was ancient, predating even the first Diaspora, its origin lost somewhere in the mists of time - but the themes were still current, and would be as long as man fought man.
"Oldie but goody," Hawke agreed. "Used to sing it back before the War." He stopped abruptly, unwilling to say more - Glenn nodded, letting the subject drop. Even amongst friends, there were some things that weren't discussed. The War, and what happened before, were subjects generally verboten - some things were simply too painful.
So I took to murder then
Stealing horses, robbing men
Burning wagons, bending rails
We were always hungry
Lord give me corn and give me beans
Faster horses and the means
To kill the Yankees as I please - and take back my good country
"Let's go," Hawke said abruptly to the Voice. The courier was in the middle of talking with one of his mooks, and was taken aback as the captain pushed past him deeper into the Market, Tommy and Glenn close on his heels.
"Well it's about frigging time," he muttered, moving to keep up. "Damned if I spent twenty years earning respect on the street to end up playing tour guide to every tin god starship captain that comes through here."
Tommy turned and fixed the man with a flat stare. "Your mouth is moving. You should look to that."
One of the bodyguards started to bristle and push forward, but the Voice caught his arm. "Not here, for God's sake." The lanky man was sweating in the crowded heat, and his eyes flicked back and forth nervously. "Hawke, muzzle your dog. We start fighting here, and Old Nick'll be on us before you can blink."
Hawke frowned slightly, though he didn't bother to turn or slow his pace. Last time the Lonesome Road had been through, Rigeling had an informal truce going with the Moderators, the heavy handed station police who served as law enforcement on Camelot Station. If Deckard's right hand man was sweating being picked up for a mere public brawling charge, things really had changed while they'd been gone - and that made him nervous. Desperate men did desperate things, and if the Dealer, officially retired, was being pressed by the law then Hawke couldn't make any guesses as to which way he might jump if pushed.
The heavy clatter of gunshots rang above the noise of the crowd, and people began screaming and pushing, diving for cover. In moments, the corridor was clear, revealing a pitched battle raging between two groups of men in oddly colored soft suits - enemy gangs, perhaps, or rival ship's crews.
"Want me to drop them, sir?" Tommy's voice was soft in Hawke's ear, but his eyes were bright and his grip on his pistol was firm and steady. He made a settle back gesture as the Voice guerrilla crawled over to them, keeping his head low with the same survival instincts instinctive to lower life forms like snakes and street thugs.
"We need to get out of here," the Dealer's Voice hissed. "The Peelers will be on these berks in no time flat, and if we get caught up in the scoop it could be all of our asses."
"Things have changed," Hawke shot back. "I remember a time when it wasn't illegal to be an innocent bystander at a gunfight."
"Yeah, well that was before the Union and the Empire got permission to put a garrison of their own troops in here to protect their trading ships." The Voice cringed as a bullet whizzed by his head, taking a healthy chunk out of one of the wooden stalls. "The Moderators have been cracking down on anything that smacks of civil disturbance, in case one or the other of the big guys decides to try annexing the station in the name of public safety."
Hawke was momentarily dumbfounded. "They can't do that! It would be an act of war to whoever didn't get the station - not to mention what the Independents would say about usurping the station's sovereign rights."
"Yeah, like the Big Two give half a shit about sovereign rights other than their own," the Voice snapped, ducking again. Hawke nodded to Tommy, and the gunslinger popped up and fired, twice. The amount of bullets coming their way abruptly dropped. "We've got to get out of here now, Hawke. See if your man can clear us a path to that maintenance tunnel across the passageway; we can take the back ways to the Dealer."
"Sounds like a plan," Hawke agreed. "What happened to those muscle bound bully boys of yours?" A quick glance around revealed no sign of the Voice's escort, and the herald cursed inventively. "Never mind, it doesn't matter. Glenn, you're with me." He gestured across the corridor towards the maintenance hatch the Voice had indicated. "Tommy, cover us, then follow with the Mouth here."
"Voice!" The Voice protested, but Hawke and Glenn were already on the move, ducking out from behind their makeshift cover and sprinting across the way. A couple of shots were fired in their direction as the shooters reacted to the movement, but Tommy was on the ball and let loose with a hail of gunfire before grabbing the Voice by the scruff of his neck and bodily dragging him along behind. While Glenn worked to pick the magnetic lock on the maintenance hatch, Hawke ducked out to provide cover for Tommy and his unwilling charge.
"Man, these guys just love to cause trouble," he mumbled as Tommy and the Voice squeezed in next to him. The little alcove had been crowded with just he and Glenn in it - even as lean as they were, the two extra bodies made it downright cramped.
Tommy laughed, eyes bright and exhilarated as he finished off the magazine, mostly with warning shots that forced both sides to keep their heads down. An odd, ululating siren filled the air, signaling the arrival of the Moderators; faceless behind mirrored black visors, they simply seemed to drop out of the sky, using special hatches in the overhead that had been installed for just such emergency purposes. The crackle of stun blasters began to replace the roar of gunfire, and the combatants forged a temporary truce as they struggled to escape.
“Got it!” Glenn snarled, snapping the lock free of the hatch and kicking it open. Just in the nick of time; loud shouts to halt followed the four of them as they piled into the maintenance corridor, and Hawke took a moment of schadenfreudistic pleasure as he slammed the door quite literally in one Moderator’s face. The banging of rifle butts on the hatch followed them as they raced down the corridor, moving quickly for all that they knew it would take the Moderators several minutes to get the door open. Slowly, the sound faded behind them and they entered a much shabbier area, the outskirts of Dog Town.
The maintenance hatches here were propped open more often than not, providing access for the seamier Camelot underworld to move about the station as they pleased. Maintenance didn’t often come down this way; it wasn’t that things didn’t break down in Dog Town, it was just that when they did, less people cared. Most of the overhead lights were out, and illumination came from trash can fires that filled the air with a thick, harsh smoke the air filters were hard pressed to disperse. The Voice led the way now, moving with assurance now that they were safe from the immediate danger of arrest and imprisonment; now and then, one of the lurking shadows made as if to accost the party, only to fall back as they took notice of the spacer’s firearms, or the sword strapped to Hawke’s back. After half an hour of brisk walking through the Dog Town corridors, the Voice brought them to a service elevator; the lift was out of service, but a rickety rope ladder dangled in the empty shaft, swaying slightly in the breeze that arose from the depths of the station.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Hawke said flatly.
“Deckard’s restaurant is three decks up,” the Voice replied without turning around. He picked up a hooked pole that had apparently been left there for this very purpose and snagged the ladder as it swayed close to the edge, pulling it within reach. “We can go this way and be there in under an hour, or we can go back to the other side of Dog Town and see if the other lifts are working. Or we could go back to the Market and hope that the Moderators have already moved on rather than lingering to scour out any other strays. You’re welcome to decide as you like, but I-” and here he stepped onto the ladder, pushing off from the edge and beginning to clamber up with the natural agility of a monkey “-am going up.”
“Generi meno figlio de una capra,” Tommy swore in his native tongue, giving the ladder an incredulous look. The Voice was almost out of sight already, his legs vanishing into the shadows further up the shaft.
“Not much choice in the matter,” Glenn said neutrally. Hawke quirked his lips as he looked at the younger man; such a challenge was nothing to the former Imperial Ranger, who could probably have climbed the shaft barehanded.
“I’ll go first,” Hawke said. “Then Tommy, then you.”
“You honor me,” Glenn quipped, studying the gunslinger. “Try not to slip, hey? You’re looking a little heavy, I’m not sure I could hang onto you if I caught you.” Tommy gave him the finger with his cybernetic arm, the golden digit gleaming in the faint light. Hawke picked up the pole and snagged the ladder, swinging it close enough to clamber up on.
“Well, here goes everything.” he said as Tommy and Glenn held it steady, and started his long ascent.
The climb wasn’t too bad, though there was a hairy moment when Glenn boarded the ladder and it swung back out towards the middle of the shaft. None of the spacers were adverse to physical labor when the situation required it, and while tedious the climb wasn’t particularly arduous - especially not in the .9 standard gravities Camelot Station maintained, a number low enough to make them feel light on their feet without making their movements awkward and off balance. Clambering off when they reached their destination proved somewhat awkward until they managed to swing together to bring the ladder within safe distance of the landing, at which point Glenn hopped off and used the boathook to drag the ladder close enough for the rest of them.
Shortly after, they stood in the dining room of a rundown Italian parlor, stretching their sore muscles and trying not let their mouths water too much at the smell of tomato sauce and pasta. The Voice had vanished into the back a few minutes before with a terse instruction to them to wait, and the three were uneasily aware of dozens of eyes on them as they stood shuffling their feet.
After about five minutes, the Voice reappeared and gestured them on to the back room. Deckard Rigeling stood as they entered; a fit man in his early fifties, Rigeling had a shock of gray hair worn long in a loose pony tail and twinkling blue eyes behind antique rimless spectacles. He didn’t look like a mob boss, but Hawke had dealt with him enough to be wary; the man had reputedly single handedly wiped out a rival gang while still working the small time turf wars, and he’d been successful enough in his (alleged) life of crime to retire young. The presence of a half dozen armed men went a long way to make up for any lack of menace on Rigeling’s side, and the trio were careful to keep their hands away from their guns.
“You’re late,” Rigeling commented conversationally. Hawke didn’t let the apparent easy-going nature of the remark slide by him, though he refused to react.
“Ran into a few snags,” he replied.
“Where’s my cargo?” Rigeling pushed his spectacles higher up on his nose and folded his arms across his chest, a friendly smile on his bony face. Hawke held out his hand, and Glenn unslung his pack and passed it over.
“Lost it, I’m afraid.” Hawke said casually, unzipping the pack. One of the bodyguards went stiff as the captain reached inside, but Deckard waved him back irritably.
“Lost it? Now that’s a crying shame, Captain Hawke. I was looking forward to that, I was.” He unfolded his arms, put his hands in his trouser pockets. “Well, being the man of honor you are, I imagine you have the money to cover my loss?”
“’fraid not,” Hawke said. “Did manage to recover this, though. Funny thing, my ship’s engineer found it stuck in one of those thruster-sculptures of yours. Must have fallen in. Hope you like it.” Hawke pulled his hand free of the pack, cradling the tiny rag doll as though it would explode if jostled, and held it out. The room went still.
“Very nice. Hopi work, isn’t it? Incredibly illegal to transport outside of Hopi space, and a death sentence if the tribe gets wind of it - but very pretty. ‘course, a man would have to be an absolute berk to take one knowingly aboard his ship, and a man would have to be a right bastard to try to smuggle one in a cargo of other materials. That’s how I know it was only by accident that it fell in amongst your cargo, seeing as how we weren‘t paid nearly enough to transport something like this. Anyway, I figure a priceless Hopi kachina doll, looks like it might just be a First Earth relic, well, might be a man like you could be merciful enough to accept it as a peace offering between us. For losing your cargo and all.”
Deckard took his hands out of his pocket slowly and accepted the doll, holding it as he might a newborn infant. “Oh, aye. I think that‘s mighty generous of you Captain Hawke, turning over a find like this.” He beckoned the Voice over with a sharp jerk of his head, passed the doll on to him. “Find a place for that, Marcus. Some place nice.”
His eyes were smiling as he turned back to Hawke, though his face was serious. “Well Captain, I think it would be only polite to keep word of this buttoned up. I’d hate to ruin your reputation undeservedly, by saying you failed to deliver your contracted cargo and all. I‘ll make sure my bank delivers the rest of your payment to your account. For any future deliveries I might have for you.”
Hawke nodded. “Seems fair enough.” he said, reaching into the backpack again. “I’ve got a business proposition of my own for you, think you might find it interesting.” He tugged out the metal casket they’d found aboard the crashed ship, holding it out at arm’s length. Deckard paused, taken aback for a moment, then shook his head.
“Ah, Hawke... you always bring me the most interesting things. Come, have a seat.” He gestured to the table behind him. The two sat down, Tommy and Glenn careful to stay to either side of their captain, trading scowls with Deckard’s muscle boys.
“Interesting. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was First Empire,” Deckard said. “Where ever did you find it?”
“On a First Imperial ship,” Hawke said, smiling inwardly at Deckard’s cool blink of surprise.
“Really? How curious. I take it this is why you were delayed?”
“A little more to it than that, but this is the end result.” Hawke leaned forward, prodding the casket with one finger. “Do you know what it is?”
“Do you?” Deckard leaned back, smiling enigmatically. Hawke shook his head, careful to keep his face clear of curiosity or irritation. “It’s a message capsule, not too different from the type used today. You seldom see them, of course; most things can be sent by cortex, properly encrypted. For especially large bank transfers, the type corporations are bought with, or for important military and political messages...” he tapped the casket lightly. “That’s where you want one of these beauties. Independently powered, it’ll last as long as a sun. Totally secure, almost indestructible. And without the proper key, well, you haven’t a hope of getting into it.”
“Damn,” Hawke muttered, letting his weariness and frustration show for the first time. “Where the hell are we supposed to get the key for a message a thousand years old?”
“Why Hawke,” Deckard said with mock surprise, smiling his enigmatic smile. “Didn’t you know? You already have it.”
...now God knows that war's a sin,
Sanctifying killing men
And no one's righteous in the end -
A song of old Sue Mundy.
The trio finished their song with a sad wail from the fiddle and took their bows to the enthusiastic applause of the few people who stopped to watch on their way through the busy Market. Cynthia shook her head. “C’mon, Elise,” she said irritably. “We don’t have time for you to stand around watching musicians.”
“But they’re pretty,” Elise protested. “And so is their music. Please, Cyn, throw them some credits.” She pouted at the older woman until she relented, digging out a handful of the gold sticks that functioned as solid currency throughout most of civilized space. Most transactions took place with simple account transfers, facilitated by the identification bracelets worn by citizens of both the Union and the Empire, but on the Border and Independent worlds, such things were a silly luxury... especially on a station like Camelot, where much of the business conducted was under the table, and financial trails were muddled as heavily as possible.
No matter how far humanity advanced, there would always be places where it was cash and carry only.
“Thank you, misses.” The banjo player bowed low, and the fiddler played a few quick notes in thanks before they swung onto their next song. The drummer boy stared at Elise with open surprise until a quick kick in the backside turned his mind back to his task.
The three ladies of the Lonesome Road turned deeper into the Market district, their minds on their assigned task but their mood light, happy to be out and about once again. It had been a long road for them, for even before the wreck on Darkon they had been hopping from port to port, barely spending more than a day before leaving for their next destination; their last extended period of shore leave was almost four months prior, on a backwards moon out in the Border planets, laying low to avoid the authorities.
It was a typical life for tramp freighters, but it made these rare occasions - 'working vacations', Cynthia called them - that much sweeter. Camelot Station was the closest thing the Lonesome Road had to a home port, and as they passed through the crowded Market district they were greeted by vendors and passersby, old friends and rivals both.
Shopping was a tricky thing, requiring all of Cynthia's diplomatic expertise. Despite having many friends in the area, the Lonesome was still fairly cash poor, most of her funds immediately turned into parts and supplies for the ship, or pay for the crew. Usually gearing up was saved for after the cargo was offloaded and payment had been delivered; unfortunately, in this case, there was no cargo to offload and likely no payment to be delivered. Worse, fuel was difficult to come by in the Camelot system; with no habitable planets, supplies of fresh water had to be imported, most commonly as ice from the asteroid belts. That raised the price from something negligible to somewhat significant; she winced as she walked away from the hydro booth to rejoin her companions at a noodle stand.
"Well," she said gloomily, taking the bowl of ramen Kate offered. "That's going to put a dent in our food for the month, and no mistake." She grabbed a pair of chopsticks from the container on the counter and dug into her meal hungrily, knowing it might well be the last decent food she would get for the foreseeable future.
"That bad?" Kate winced and returned to her own meal with gusto, seeing a return to ration packs. Elise finished slurping down hers and handed the bowl back to the counterman for a refill. "I was hoping we could get some meals that actually resembled food again. Be a nice change of pace."
"Not likely," Cynthia sighed, gesturing to the counterman as he handed Elise's bowl back to her. "Beer all around, brother. Might as well enjoy it while we can." She twirled a bundle of noodles around one stick and ate them hungrily, continuing to speak even though her mouth was full. "Bad luck having to come to Camelot Station in the first place," she said. "Food prices are higher, fuel prices are higher - everything grown on the station is either out of alley pots or hydroponics gardens, and that means the good stuff is imported. There were rumors of livestock die offs the last time we were here; I hope they got that under control." They looked down at their ramen bowls simultaneously as the question dawned as to what, exactly, they were eating - Elise and Cynthia both shrugged after a moment and resumed their dinner, while Kate pushed her mostly empty bowl away and picked up her beer enthusiastically.
"Speaking of hydroponics gardens, we'll need to get the Lonesome's overhauled soon," Kate said, taking a swig and making a face. "If this stuff was any thicker, you'd need a fork to drink it."
"Bah," Cynthia lifted her own and drank deeply. "You Core Worlders never did understand what a good beer was. That fizzy water you all guzzle just makes me have to piss."
"Delicate," Elise said with a muffled burp, covering her mouth with a hand. "You're always such a lady, Cyn." Kate stifled a giggle as Cynthia posed, holding her beer mug as though it were a tea cup, one pinky sticking out to the side.
"La, madam, a lady is a lady and is proper no matter what she does." She grinned and killed the rest of her beer, sliding it back across the counter for a refill. She dug a handful of credit sticks out of her pocket and jingled them speculatively. "Enough here for another round or two, I imagine. Who's up?"
"Not I," Kate raised her mug with an amused smile. "This one will be more than enough to keep me occupied for a while."
"Me neither," Elise licked foam from her whiskers and blinked drowsily. "You know how that stuff goes to my head."
"Pansies." Cyn took her refilled mug and lifted it to her lips, then paused and put it back down. "Well, look what's coming up the pike. I do believe that's the prettiest man I've ever seen."
The others turned to look, then to stare, and had to agree with her. The man coming down the passageway was tall, and slender enough that he looked like a strong breeze might break him in two. His long brown coat hung on him like a tent, and his thin, delicate features were almost girlishly pretty under a mane of long, wild hair. Behind a pair of rectangular spectacles, his silver eyes returned their regard with interest, and he smiled at the three as he stepped up to the counter.
"[SAYING HELLO AND ORDERING RAMEN IN CHINESE]," he told the counterman, disdaining the stools and leaning on the counter. Elise snickered around her mug at Kate's poleaxed expression, and nudged the girl in the back.
"Well? Aren't you going to buy the boy a drink?" She whispered sotto voice. Kate blushed and punched her lightly.
"That won't be necessary," the stranger said without looking at them. His voice was almost melodic, a faint accent coating the words with liquid tones. "I wouldn't mind your company, though, if I might ask to share this stretch of counter with you."
Kate's blush deepened as Cynthia laughed and gestured to the open seats next to them. "Help yourself, there's plenty of room." She raised a brow as she took notice of the ship patch on the man's shoulder. "No offense, but you don't look much like a spacer."
"None taken," he said easily, sliding into the stool down from hers and snagging his mug as it was slid across the counter at him. "It takes all kinds, after all." He turned and offered his hand, smiling crookedly at her. "Daniel Sharde, off the Heart's Repose."
"Cynthia Rho, Lonesome Road." she said, shaking it, then cocked a thumb at her companions. "The red one's Kate, the furry one's Elise. We all ship together."
"Lonesome Road?" he said with some surprise. "You're that Clydesdale that was having pirate trouble."
Cynthia stiffened slightly, but kept her voice congenial even as her free hand slipped towards her pistol. "Now, where'd you hear about that?"
"I'm the guy that saved your bacon." Daniel cocked a thumb and jabbed at his chest, grinning cockily. "No offense, of course. I'm sure you could have taken 'em."
"No doubt," Cynthia smiled in return, letting her hand fall away from her pistol. "Still, we appreciate your help. Sure we can't buy you another beer?"
He waved expressively, scooping up his ramen bowl and a pair of chopsticks as the counterman set it down. "Not a problem," he said easily. "We free traders have to stick together." He dug into his meal hungrily, and Cynthia had to admit to herself she was amazed at how quickly the skinny man could eat. They made small talk while they dined, and by the time they had finished their meals it seemed only natural to invite the man along - after all, they were headed for many of the same places, for Daniel also had shopping to do.
Ages later, Cynthia would look back and wonder at the hand of fate in the whole mess; but that was later, when things that seemed circumstantial, coincidental, and serendipitous had shown a somewhat more ominous face.
"What do you mean by that?" Hawke asked slowly, looking at Deckard as if the man across the table had gone insane. With Deckard Rigeling, that was all too distinct a possibility.
Deckard sighed. "Ah, Hawke. It's sad to see how little they teach at that famous Union Space Academy of yours, it really is." Hawke let the comment roll off of him without reply; Deckard, who grew up in a poor family on the streets of Camelot Station and had educated himself on a variety of subjects, was often digging at him about his fleet education... and anything else he could come up with, come to think about it.
Deckard leaned back in his chair and indicated the sword that jutted over Hawke's shoulder like a watching sentinel. "I'm guessing you got that marvelous pigsticker from the same place you did this message capsule - maybe even the same room, eh?"
"That would be a good guess," Hawke said guardedly, touching the hilt of the sword absent mindedly. Deckard smiled, ignoring the uneasy stirring of his bodyguards. "I'd be curious as to how you knew that, of course."
"Tell me, Hawke, did you ever hear stories of the Vanadir Knights?"
"Can't say that I have," Hawke said truthfully. "I'm guessing either they've got something to do with my sword, here, or else you've come up with an entirely annoying habit of dropping non sequiturs into your conversations."
"That would be a good guess," Deckard said evenly, ignoring the veiled slam. "The Vanadir Knights were the guardians of the First Empire, the most loyal forces the Emperor had. Most of them vanished along with him, of course, and those that remained were wiped out in the chaos of the Fall - took a lot of blame from the populace at large for the way things turned out, and found themselves on the wrong end of a lot of upset people. They were never a very large group to begin with, and towards the end... well. I digress.
"The Vanadir Knights were a mysterious organization, and there were some say they had powers beyond the ken of mere mortals. As it was, they were incredible warriors; there used to be a proverb along the lines of 'one Knight, one battle'. They were responsible for keeping peace throughout the Galaxy, a sort of super police force, called in when all else failed - and they were entirely sworn to the Emperor, body and soul. Naturally, when he had a cargo valuable enough to be shipped by message capsule like this, who else would he call upon to deliver it?
"The sword of a Vanadir Knight was a precious object; incredibly rare and valuable even then, by today's standards it would be beyond priceless. I could buy the better part of a battle fleet for that sharp stick you've got slung over your shoulder, Hawke, assuming I could find a buyer who could afford it." Rigeling smiled thinly, raising a hand as Hawke opened his mouth. "Relax, I'm not making a hint. I couldn't even come close to matching its true worth, and anyway, such things prove to be more trouble than value to those what carry them. Just a word of advice."
He leaned forward in his chair. "Anyway, amongst the powers entrusted to the Vanadir's sword was this; it served as a key to all Imperial locks. After all, these were men who had the absolute authority of the Emperor; when they spoke, it was the Emperor's voice that spoke through them, and their demands were his. An Imperial courier was the only person who had the key to the cargo he carried; and woe betide anyone who try to take it from him.
"That key was his sword." Rigeling leaned back in his chair, satisfied. "So, what say you draw that thing, Hawke, and we take a look at what's inside our little prize here?"
Hawke stood uneasily and slid the sword free of its sheath. "So, what precisely do I need to do?"
Deckard fiddled with the casket for a moment until a concealed panel slid open, revealing a curious mark. "There we go. Just tap your sword's pommel against this."
Hawke reversed the blade and rested the pommel lightly against the mark. The casket sprang open with a loud click, making both men spring back in alarm, then lean forward interestedly. Rather than being a hollow container, as Hawke had expected, the top of the casket curved away from a flat, glassy surface, broken only by a pair of buttons; one red, one green. Deckard hummed in thought, then leaned over and pushed the green button before Hawke could stop him.
The glassy surface sprang to life with a brilliant white light, and both men leaned back again. Whirls of sparkling light danced above the casket for a moment, finally coalescing into a series of numbers, then a hologram of a man in dusky white robes. Hawke fought the urge to gasp in surprise; the resolution was higher than any he'd seen before, the clarity making the image appear lifelike; as though a miniature man stood on the desk before them. The image began speaking without warning, his voice clipped and flat.
"This is the consular authority of Imperial colony 90135 "Danaan", regular progress report for the third quarter, 2695." He cleared his throat and continued. "Listening Post 21 Alpha continues to report disturbing noises coming from the Gamma Theta Ro Sector, but are still unable to determine what's been causing our ships to disappear around the system rim. I'm sending this message on the Oberon, as she's due for regular rotation back to the Fleet and is in dire need of upkeep and repair, and keeping the frigate Goodfellow on station here; our insystem garrison has been reduced to unacceptable levels with the casualties over the last two standard years, and I must repeat my plea for additional Fleet and Army resources. The indigenous population continues to be unrelentingly hostile, and it's only with the aid of the Special Guard and Vanadir Knights at the New Erico research facility that we've been able to withstand their assaults. I believe the last campaign exhausted their resources, but the rebels are more difficult to exterminate than cockroaches, and we require more troops to put an end to this uprising.
"The New Erico research facility has reported some new successes in surveying the quantum singularity that makes subspace communication from our system impossible, but otherwise no new progress on any of their projects. This lack is not surprising given the difficult conditions the scientists are working under; we haven't received any of our normal supply ships lately, and the civilian merchants that have ventured into the area have been skittish and unwilling to part with their goods for prices less than highway robbery. I've had to hang one captain outright for profiteering, but it doesn't seem to have served as an example for the rest of them.
"The imperium mines continue to have outputs of higher than normal yield, but because of the difficulties with our supply ships our stockpiles have grown almost unmanageable; I'm stuck with the unenviable position of having a surplus of ore, but no way to transport it back to the Empire proper. I've taken the liberty of removing the Oberon's shuttles and fighters and filling her holds with raw ore, but that still leaves us with our warehouses nearly full. If this keeps up, I'll have no choice but to close the mines.
"I've asked Knight Sergeant Donaldson to deliver this message to you. He's served this colony and the Empire well, and needs time to recover from wounds received during the latest incursion by rebel forces. It is my recommendation that he be given time sufficient to fully recuperate from the injuries he's suffered in the service of the Empire, as well as the care and aid of trained psychological professionals. I hesitate to speak ill of any honored servant of the Emperor, but the Knight Sergeant's behavior lately has led me to suspect some measure of psychological trauma, and this may make him a danger to himself and others. I'm also sending along a dozen of the 'Templar' model robotic sentinels, as the model has proven to be unreliable, and its programming buggy. My engineers have been unable to isolate the problem, and they're causing as many casualties among my own soldiers as they are of the enemy.
"In conclusion, I must again stress the colony's need for additional support from the Core. We have not yet reached a point of self sufficiency, nor are we likely to before the end of the decade; still, we've done well considering the hurdles we have faced and how rough our beginning was. It is my opinion that, given the proper nurturing, 90135 will be prepared for member status soon, and between the Imperial facilities and imperium mining, can support itself in trade.
"This is the Imperial consul, Colony 90135 "Danaan", out."
The image flickered and went out, the casket quickly dulling back to empty gray glass. They sat in silence for several minutes, the only sound the uneasy rustling as Rigeling's bodyguards shifted back and forth on their feet, uncomfortable in the quiet.
"Well," Rigeling said finally, breaking the stillness. "I think it's safe to say that I've never heard of a planet, or a system, called Danaan."
Hawke shook his head. "Me neither. Sounds like things weren't all paradisical there, though."
"2965," Deckard said musingly. "Not long before the Fall. Times were rough everywhere in the Empire; I can just imagine how one difficult it might have been on one little border colony. Still, their loss is someone's gain, Captain Hawke, and I think you and I might just be able to come to an arrangement after all."
"What do you mean?" Hawke asked cautiously.
"Think about it, Captain. You're an intelligent man. From the sounds of things, this colony had an extremely productive imperium mine, enough where they could fill a warship's holds and still have enough left over to push their storage capacity to max. You've no doubt noticed the Union and Empire's preparations for conflict; even in peacetime, imperium is worth more ten times its weight in gold. What we have here, Captain Hawke, is a genuine Lost Colony - treasure and all."
Hawke refused to let Deckard's enthusiasm brush off on him. "Yeah, the report says they filled the Oberon with ore. I can tell you Glenn and I didn't find a trace of the stuff on there, though."
Deckard shrugged. "There's plenty of explanations for that. Pirates, or other scavengers could have looted the ship; perhaps these Templar robots looted the cargo themselves to facilitate their repairs and upkeep. A thousand years is a long time, captain, and cargos disappear. Mines? Not so much." Deckard stood up, closing the casket with one long finger as he did so. "I have a good feeling about this, John. After all, in chaos there is profit; and there is so very, very much chaos in the galaxy today."
"Yeah, well I don't." Hawke stood up as well, swinging his sword back over his shoulder and sheathing it. "This sounds too much like those barroom stories the asteroid miners love to tell, about how there's a mother lode of ore out there just waiting for someone to stumble over. Nice story, but not something I'm looking to waste my life pursuing. Tell you what, though, I'll trade you the box for a tank of fuel and a box of cigars. Maybe you can get a point of origin for this 'Danaan Colony' from the routing codes."
"Well now John," Deckard's tone was one Hawke had always particularly hated, a smug 'I know something you don't know' voice that always drove him up a wall. "I would have thought you'd relish the chance to get out of the way for a while, keep away from the eyes of authority."
"Considering we've been 'out of the way' for the last six months, I'm curious to know why you'd think such a thing... Deckard." Hawke said, struggling to keep the irritation out of his voice.
"Not out of the way enough, I suppose." Deckard held out a hand, and the Voice stepped forward to pass him a flimsy. The transparent piece of plastic was covered with softly glowing characters that moved in accordance with the holder's point of vision, 'smart paper' that virtually read itself. "There's an APB out on a free trader, a heavily modified Clydesdale, for plundering and destroying a First Empire wreck and attacking Imperial vessels. Looks like they've already put a lifting restriction on the Lonesome Road to keep her docked until they can get a confirmation on her identity - good thing I control the docks, eh John?"
"Are you blackmailing me, Deckard?" Hawke's voice had gone cold and flat, and Tommy and Glenn glanced at each other nervously. Both had been with the man long enough to learn the danger signs, and this one was neon red and three meters high.
"Consider it the classic analogy of the carrot and the stick, John." Deckard folded his arms across his chest, staring the taller man in the eyes without so much as the trace of a flinch. "You find this lost colony, we're all rich beyond our wildest dreams. I swear to you, I'll do everything I can to set you and your crew up in style - new identities, new lives, whatever it takes. The stick, of course, is that if you don't do what I ask, you're stuck on this station until the Imperials decide to arrest you, try you, and probably hang you. And if you go for that sword, John, I swear to Allah they'll never find your body - but they'll all be wondering why the tomatoes are growing so fat and ripe this year."
Hawke bared his teeth, but kept his hands in the open. "It's always such a pleasure doing business with you, Deckard."
The Bloody Handed Dealer threw his head back and laughed. "That's what I like about you, Hawke. You know how to take these things in stride. Now," he resumed his seat, leaning back and opening his arms expressively. "What can I do to get you ready for this little trip you're about to take?"
Elise's personal handy-phone system rang as they were walking from the ramen stand to their next stop, a junk dealer two levels down who could usually be trusted to have some decent items hidden around his cavernous store. The others waited, some more patiently than others, while she argued for a moment with the person on the other end, finally hanging up with a huff.
"Captain wants me to go back to the ship," she told Cynthia with a scowl. "Apparently, the dealer man has arranged to take care of our passengers for us." She didn't glance at Daniel as she spoke, but it was clear that his presence was the reason for her circumspection. "Anyway, he wants me there when their handlers show up."
"What about the shuttle?"
"That's one of the reasons he wants me there. Apparently, it's due for a new paint job." She rolled her eyes. Anyway, he said it'll be a couple of hours, but we've got lines of credit at Pharsii's and Tallywhackers for any parts or supplies we need. Also, it's officially payday."
"Woo!" Kate said, punching the air with a fist. "Payday!"
"Ah, the life of a tramp freighter," Daniel said with good humor. "Wish it was payday for us."
"Don't worry about it," Cynthia said with a smile. "The least we can do for a nice boy like you is buy you dinner."
Daniel rubbed the back of his head. "I'm twenty three, ma'am."
"Tell you what, you don't call me ma'am, and I won't call you boy. Deal?"
Kate leaned over to Elise while Cynthia was talking. "How much of a line of credit are we talking, here? Enough where we can look at getting some fresh food again? Maybe even flush the hydroponics garden and get some new seed stock?"
"He said to keep it within reason," Elise said with a shrug. "You know Hawke, pinch every millicred until it squeals twice and then ask for change. Still," She grinned abruptly, flashing her needle teeth in amusement. "Within reason better include a couple of boxes of brownies for me. After all, I shared!"
"I thought chocolate was deadly to cats," Kate called over her shoulder as they separated.
"You want to see deadly, just try coming back without my brownies!" Elise waved and dashed off through the crowd, moving with the nimbleness that only a cat could muster. She was gone from sight within seconds.
"Nice lass," Daniel said with his hands in his coat pockets. "She's your ship's engineer? You're lucky, we're stuck with a standard issue cranky Scotsman from New Glasgow."
Cynthia laughed . "Elise is a genius. I don't think anyone else could keep the Lonesome running the way she does." She looked towards the lift down, then further down the market district to where Pharsii's lay. "Well, I guess a change of plans is in order. Still up for accompanying us?"
"Wouldn't miss it," Daniel said breezily. "Can't say I'm on much in the way of a schedule; we're still waiting to see what kind of cargo we'll be taking on. How about you guys? I wouldn't imagine you'll have to wait too long, seeing how most of the freighters in port are tied up with the military traffic."
"Certainly a lot of that lately," Cyn agreed. "Any idea what's going on?" She changed the subject smoothly enough where it took Kate a moment to realize just how thoroughly she'd dodged the question, and the younger girl shot her an amused glance.
"Bug hunt," Daniel shrugged, looking up at the low overhead speculatively. "Those pirates we ran into are apparently part of some big renegade fleet. Ex-Union commodore who hooked up with a bunch of Imperial deserters and run of the mill freebooters, made himself something of an armada. From what I hear, they overran a couple of small colonies and mining outposts, then mopped up a Union strike group that tangled with them out near Cormorant. They've been closing in on Camelot for the last couple of months, so the Empire and the Union decided on a joint venture to stop them in their tracks."
"So this whole system's about to turn into a war zone?" Cynthia stopped in her tracks, dumbfounded. "How is it we haven't heard anything about this? I mean, we've been out in the sticks for a while, but..."
"Hushed up, of course." Daniel gave her a crooked smile, but his eyes were dark and brooding. "Can you imagine what it would do to the government, on either side, if it got out that someone was thumbing his nose at them? Even the Independents walk wary around the Big Two. It would be an upset, a total paradigm shift of inconceivable proportions." He gestured expressively as he spoke, his entire demeanor changed from the laid back persona he'd worn just a few moments before. He looked, thought Cynthia, like a preacher at the pulpit.
"Why, Daniel," She said teasingly. "You're a revolutionary."
Daniel froze. "Wh- what do you mean by that?" he stammered.
She shook her head, laughing. "Listen to you. You're delighted that someone could give the Gruesome Twosome a run for their money, even if it is some piss-ant pirate skipper." She smiled, somewhat ironically. "Not that I blame you, of course. It's nice to see those hypocritical tyrants taken down a peg or two."
The man blushed, for a moment looking much younger than the twenty-three years he claimed. In the renewed swirl of music from the roaming minstrels, Kate companionably linked her arms through Cynthia and Daniel's.
"Come on, slowpokes," she teased. "We've still got errands to run."
They had no trouble passing back through Dog Town to the Market, though they took the more roundabout route rather than risk the maintenance tunnels again. Rigeling offered them the use of a coach, but Hawke had refused, quipping that the walk would do them some good - in truth, he needed the time to work off some steam, and Glenn and Tommy listened quietly as he ran through his entire vocabulary of swear words in three different languages. It was only when he started to repeat himself that the first mate stepped in.
"Looks like we're over a barrel, then." He said calmly. Hawke shot him a murderous look.
"That's one way to put it," he said thinly. "Another way is that we're bloody up shit creek without a goddamn motor." He managed to keep his voice down, but it was a near thing; for all that he was sure one of Rigeling's bully-boys would be following them, his temper made his throat tight. "We're committed to a wild goose chase."
"So, what's the big deal?" Tommy asked with a raised brow. "It's all on the Dealer's decicredit. We go out, we float around in the black for a month or two, we send him a beam saying we couldn't find the place. So sorry, just the way these things go."
Hawke caught himself before he snarled at the gunslinger. "Rigeling expects results. He'd hardly send us off on our own without some form of insurance - probably a tracking device planted somewhere on the Lonesome. Maybe something a little more serious, like a bomb. He decides we're dragging our heels..." he shrugged. "Or maybe he just puts out the word that anyone dealing with a certain Clydesdale gets the axe, starves us out. One way or the other, he's got us doing what he wants. And when we can't find this lost colony of his, he starts putting the screws in."
"So, we find it. How hard can it be?"
"Well, it's either somehow escaped humanity's attempts to recolonize it over the last two thousand years, meaning it's in the ass-end of nowhere or got glassed during the Fall, or else it's been rediscovered and renamed at some point. That would be just our luck, wouldn't it? Deckard's 'lost' mine is sitting fine and dandy under a Union fleet depot, or an Imperial Penitent Colony."
Glenn shuddered despite himself. "Can we not talk about that?"
"Sorry. Anyway, where the hell are we supposed to start looking? Pull into the nearest survey station and ask them if they've found any planets with impressive unclaimed imperium mines lately?"
Tommy scratched his head with his golden arm. "Why not check the routing codes, like you told Deckard? There has to be some star data there, right? Point of origin, all that milocky?"
"I was talking out my ass to Deckard. There's no reason for there to be any routing codes if the frigging thing was being hand-delivered. I hoped he'd buy it and let us out, but it looks like I managed to shoot myself in the foot."
"As usual," Glenn murmured innocently, ducking out of the way of Hawke's absent-minded smack.
"Anyway, our best bet would have been the astrogation computer on that wreck. Unfortunately..."
"Unfortunately, the damn thing went sky-high." Tommy winced. "There's nothing left of the Oberon but dust and atoms. Real dead end there, boss."
"No kidding." Hawke shook his head. "I figure we've got about a month before Deckard begins to lose patience, feels like flexing his muscles. We'll have to work hard and run fast to find some sort of lead on this thing so we'll have something to offer him before that happens."
Glenn spoke up suddenly. "Hey, what about the Library?"
Hawke shot him a despairing look. "Tell me you're not about to suggest what I think you're about to suggest."
Tommy was already nodding. "Yeah, the Memorial Library. Millions of First Empire files, enough data to choke a planetary supercomputer, every survey ever published and every book ever written. Could do worse for a start."
Hawke through his hands in the air. "People have spent lifetimes pouring over that data, and they haven't found a single strike worth the trouble from it yet. What makes us so different?"
"Oz." Glenn waggled his brows conspiratorially. "I can't think of too many other would-be fortune hunters who have their own AI to help them with data compilation."
"You've got to be joking. Turn Oz loose on the Library? God only knows what he'd do."
"Yeah, well, unless you've got a better idea on where to start..."
Hawke sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between a thumb and forefinger. "I wasn't saying no. Just that this is the craziest, dumbest idea you've come up with since I've met you."
Tommy chuckled. "Now, that's saying something."
Glenn laughed. "Would have thought you'd be used to it by now, skipper." He shrugged. "But like I said, it's a start."
"Yeah. C'mon, let's see if we can't catch up with Kate and your wife before they shop Rigeling into bankruptcy."
Cynthia was taking a much needed break in the Marketplace when Kate and Daniel caught up to her again, identical worried looks on their faces.
"We've got trouble," Kate said shortly.
"Imperial troops are sweeping the docks," Daniel reported grimly. "Probably looking for pirates, but Kate tells me you've had some nasty run ins with them over the last couple of weeks and would prefer to avoid any... misunderstandings."
"That's an understatement," she said with a wince. "Anybody got a handy-phone?" The other two shook their heads, and she swore under her breath. The PHS phones were only usable inside their station or city of issue, and Cyn had always found them more or less useless - Elise was the only person she knew off-hand to own one, although Hawke could somehow lay his hands on one at need. Still, they were a hell of a lot more private than radio comlinks, and with the Imperials sweeping the docks she was hesitant to go broadcasting their presence in the market.
"We'd best get back to the Lonesome," she said firmly, standing up. "We've got the necessities; we'll pick up anything else we need when we hit our next port. We can call Hawke and the others when we get to the ship, get everything loaded, and take off as soon as they get back."
"If the Imperials are looking for you, they've probably put lifting restraints on every Clydesdale on the station," Sharde said quietly, his hands in his pockets. He looked forlorn, though whether it was because he couldn't help or because he was soon to be left behind Cyn couldn't tell.
"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it," she said confidently. With any luck, Rigeling had already taken care of any problems in that department.
Daniel nodded. "I guess this is so long, then." He grinned wryly. "Merry meet, and merry part..."
"And merry meet again," Cynthia had to laugh. The young man from the Heart's Repose had astounding depths to him.
"Oh!" he said as she turned away. "I almost forgot..." She turned back, and saw him holding out a wrapped package. "For Elise," he said with a smile.
Her brownies. Cynthia shook her head and smiled again as she took it. "I'll tell her. Thanks a lot!"
"No need to call the skipper," Kate said suddenly. "Here they come."
"Oh, good." Cynthia turned, scanning the crowd. "Daniel, we don't really have time for extended introductions, but I'd like you to meet-"
Sharde had gone stiff as he saw the three men approaching them, and his hand slipped into his coat.
"[(Latin)THE BLOOD OF TEN THOUSAND VANADIRI CRY OUT FOR VENGEANCE,]" he snarled in a voice almost inhuman. Then he drew his sword and charged.