When Thrask's ship came out of star jump and back into normal space, it was in a region near a colourful nebula, and a nearby red giant. The usual blackness of space was now awash with many colours and hues. Belannos station orbited the star, and was unique among other stations throughout the galaxy.
Belannos was the main trade hub in this part of the galaxy, and as such was considered neutral ground by practically every faction, gang, and political enterprise. There was no politics on Belannos, only greed and trade. It was the place where pirates could buy weapons or fence stolen goods, and also where the Syndicate, the established government for most of the galaxy, could go to acquire any hard to find items that weren't available anywhere else.
The captain was in the command chair on the bridge, and adjusted their course to approach the station, which was bathed in the maroon light of the fat red star and looked like a giant chinese lantern. Once they were close enough, she opened communication channels and hailed the station.
“Thrask, you know that you've been permanently banned from trading with this station,” said the person on the other end, before the captain could even start. She raised a fascinated eyebrow at the thought of anyone getting banned from Belannos.
“Well I have some good news for you,” she said, “Thrask is dead. I'm coming in to sell his ship and collect his bounty.”
“I see,” replied the station rep. “Please identify yourself.”
“I'm the captain.”
“That's nice, but I need your name,” he said, he sounded peeved.
“That is my name. Trust me. Just look it up, you'll see it.”
She heard a sigh, followed by a moment of silence as he did as he was told. Apparently what he'd read was impressive, because he had a whole new attitude when he spoke again.
“I'm sorry for the confusion ma'am. Please make your way to docking cradle seven. Welcome to Belannos.”
“Thank you,” she said, and cut the line.
Several minutes later the ship was docked, and being processed for unloading. Jody and the captain waited at the airlock, standing on either side of a hovering anti-grav bed, which was carrying Thrask's covered corpse. He'd been kept in the ship's sick bay in stasis, and now he was the currency for the contract for his bounty. The two women were more than ready to leave, and stood staring up at the warning light at the top of the airlock hatch. It was shining red, but would turn green once the station gave the go-ahead for them to enter.
Jody had managed to scavenge some clothes from one of the sleeping quarters on the ship to replace the remains of what she'd had before the Mayflower had been shot down. She'd still used her old clothes to make another bandanna to tie back her hair, which was bunched behind her in a trail of long red dreadlocks. There had not been any women in Thrask's crew, so she looked a tomboy in the baggy pants and loose shirt that she wore, but Jody had never been one for women's fashion, and didn't really mind.
The captain had managed to salvage her favourite coat, which was a long dark brown duster that was just barely held up from the floor at her feet. The clothes she'd found to wear underneath didn't fit properly though, and the first thing on her to-do list was to buy some more suitable ones.
Finally, the light turned green, and the airlock hatch automatically slid open, letting the noise and grubby light of the station inside. They stepped out, pulling the floating bed between them, and were stopped by a station guard.
“No weapons beyond this point. Surrender any weapons you have on you, and prepare to be scanned. Your weapons will be returned to you when you leave the station.”
The guard droned his announcement, obviously used to saying those same words over and over again with each new arrival. Jody and the captain were ready for this, however, and both held up their arms ready for the scan. The guard activated a sleek armband he wore across his entire forearm. He waved it over their bodies, and also over Thrask's corpse in case there were any weapons stashed with him. The armband beeped its announcement of its findings, and at a glance the guard was satisfied that it had found no weapons.
“Move along,” he said, and waved them through. They walked on towards the bustling corridor, and merged with the human traffic.
Even though Thrask's corpse was covered up, it was obvious that the two of them were carting a human body between them. Anywhere else in the galaxy this would have been a cause for some concern, even outrage, but on Belannos it didn't even warrant more than a curious glance. The people here were jaded and had already seen more than most. Two people carrying a corpse was barely a conversation starter.
The market area of Belannos was a large grid of shops, stalls and kiosks manned by vendors and merchants. There were twenty levels of the same layout, and walking from one end of a level to another took a long time. Belannos was huge, and no two shops were alike. Anything and everything was for sale on Belannos, so long as the price was right.
Once Jody and the captain reached the market area, they parted ways on their own errands. Jody checked the directory to find the shipyards, so that she could sell Thrask's ship, and also browse for a new one of their own. As for the captain, she took Thrask along to the bounty office, which was one of the few places that had a large room to itself along the walls of the market floor. As well as the stalls that formed the large grid across the market floor, larger shops lined the walls of the large rooms. The door opened as she approached, and she went inside with the floating gurney in tow.
The bounty office an eerie place for first timers. The walls were covered with holographic displays, tiling the surfaces with many pictures, all of them mugshots of people with bounties on their heads. A large percentage of them were criminals, and looked the part, but there were some who looked like completely ordinary people, other than the enormous amount of money someone had paid to have them killed. Credit figures danced over each of their heads, advertising the possible reward for 'dealing' with them.
Standing at his counter was Kalan, the secretary that manned the office and managed the contracts and payments. Bounty hunters from every corner of space knew about Kalan. He was the broker that catalogued and managed every transaction, bounty payment and contract in the galaxy. He was a tall slim man with a shaved head and small round glasses perched on his nose. They reflected the light from his console, giving him the appearance of supernatural creature, or perhaps an oracle who could see into forever and beyond. He looked up when the captain came in, and he smiled a mirthless smile.
“Ah, captain. It's good to see you again,” he said.
“You're still a terrible liar, Kalan. But hey, I have something for you.”
With a flourish the captain pulled the cover off the gurney, and showed off her trophy. Kalan leaned over the counter to peer closely at Thrask's face.
“Ah, so you've killed Thrask,” he said casually. “It's about time somebody did. Although it's a shame; he still owes me money. It's been hard to collect considering he's been banned from the station.”
“Oh yeah, exactly how did he manage to do that, anyway? Belannos usually doesn't discriminate,” asked the captain while Kalan tapped at his console. A large holographic display appeared above the counter between them, displaying the contract for Thrask's bounty. It included Thrask's delightful mugshot, along with a dossier of known information about him along with, of course, the total bounty in big shiny holographic letters. Kalan peered over the top of his glasses at the captain.
“Can I assume from the point blank damage to his torso that you had the opportunity to meet him at least once?” he said. The captain shrugged.
“More or less. He threatened to kill me, and then seemed confused when I killed him instead.”
“Yeah, that was him alright. He tried to throw his weight around here a few years ago, trying to boss people around and run things. When nobody did what he told them he got confused, and killed a few people to teach them a lesson. Chief doesn't take kindly to people killing his clients and valued customers, so he banned him for life and added to his bounty.”
“Harsh. I didn't think that Chief could hold a grudge like that. I've never known him to pay from his own pocket before just because someone pissed him off.”
“Well, you don't know Chief very well then. He tends to add to a person's bounty when they irk him, or even just out of boredom when he's feeling vindictive. In fact he's added to your own bounty a few times.”
“Really? How much is it by now?”
Kalan tapped at his console again and brought up another bounty profile. This time it was the captain's picture rotating beside the dossier, highlighted by a price at the bottom.
“Congratulations,” said Kalan with another quick smile, “your own bounty is at just over a hundred thousand credits.”
“Neat. It's nice to feel validated, y'know?”
“I can imagine,” said Kalan dryly, and began to process the transaction.
“There,” he said after a few moment's work, and stepped out from behind the counter to reach for the gurney. “The bounty office has transferred ten thousand credits to your personal account, enjoy.”
“I want twenty,” said the captain immediately. Kalan didn't respond, or even blink, he just looked at her over the top of his glasses again.
“That's impossible. The bounty is ten. There's nothing more to give.”
He reached out again to pull the anti-grav gurney with him, but a rapid movement and the whisper of cloth meant that the captain now had a knife to his throat. They stood motionless, poised at the sudden change of circumstance, and silence filled the room.
“Weapons are not permitted on the station,” he said flatly, as though he didn't have a sharp blade pressed against his chin. “How did you manage to get that past the screening?”
“Quite easily, actually. All screening does is look for suspicious energy signatures or materials. If this were an ordinary knife they'd have found it. But it's not.”
“Well, it certainly feels like one,” said Kalan, as a small trace of blood appeared where the edge met his skin.
“Yeah it's really sharp. It's made out of obsidian glass. Can you believe it? I've never even had to sharpen it yet. I don't even think I'll ever need to! The funny thing is, if the guards had just pat me down they'd have found this thing right away.”
“Yes,” said Kalan. “I've already suggested that to the security officer on more than one occasion. However it doesn't change the fact that there's no way that I can pay you more than the set bounty for this body.”
“That sounds like a 'you' problem, because this guy has cost me more than his bounty pays, and I don't intend to come out of this at a loss.”
There was another extended moment of silence, and finally Kalan sighed.
“Very well,” he said, and with exaggerated care he reached into his jacket pocket and took out a digital pad. He turned it on and tapped at its screen while the captain held the black blade to his throat. She waited in silence as he swiped and tapped on it for a few moments.
“There,” he said when he was done. “As a personal favour I've added another ten thousand credits to Thrask's bounty. The money will be in your account shortly.”
“Thanks, Kal,” said the captain, and the knife disappeared without a trace. “It's not true what they say about you. You can add to my bounty if it'll make you feel better.”
“Please, it would only encourage you,” he said, and watched her leave. “Also, the next time you need a favour, I suggest you do without the theatrics.”
The captain tossed a wave over her shoulder without looking back, and then she was gone, leaving Kalan alone in the office wiping the small streak of blood from his neck in annoyance.
The life of a bounty hunter is a life of danger and conceit. Tracking down and hunting people for the price on their heads is a line of work that makes more enemies than friends. Out of spite or malice, a successful bounty hunter can end up with a bounty of their own, and it was such a regular occurrence that it was practically considered a work hazard. After enough experience in stalking and tailing people to last several lifetimes, the captain had developed very keen senses that warned her when she was being followed.
As she made her way through the marketplace, browsing casually at the combination of mundane and exotic things the vendors had to offer, those senses lined up and set off a warning bell inside her head, and she immediately knew that someone was following her.
Rather than react, the captain chose to continue ambling as though she were ignorant of her situation. Whoever was tailing her obviously didn't want her to know it, so since she did know, she had a bit of an edge. Complacency was her ally right now, and if her stalker felt safe then they were complacent, which meant they'd eventually slip up somewhere. She just had to stay one step ahead.
The crowd around her bustled with the heavy press of humanity, filled with shrieking vendors, muttering mercenaries and overlapping voices washing over everything. The captain didn't feel up to meeting anybody head on; she was ill-prepared after losing her ship and all of her equipment. In fact, other than her obsidian knife, she felt positively naked.
Still maintaining the nonchalant amble of the totally clueless, the captain made her way down several floors and through the markets in a circuitous route to her destination. She didn't want to get snuck up on, but she didn't want to lose whoever was tracking her either. Eventually, she went inside another shop along the wall of this lower floor, and she made sure the door was shut behind her before continuing inside.
The noise of the station was suddenly cut off, and the silence of the shop around her was surprisingly relaxing. The captain took a deep breath, and let herself relax. All around her were displays and shelves upon shelves of clothing. The shop was very small, but obviously a lot of thought had gone into utilising as much of the small space as possible. In one corner an entire column of shelves held pants in various sizes and lengths, folded neatly and tucked tightly into the shelves. Shirts, coats and jackets were hung along one wall, several tiers up toward the ceiling. Every piece of clothing was unique, and had its place in here, waiting to be found. This was a safe place.
“Hello?” said a voice from the back room. “Is someone there? Welcome!”
An old man dressed in a red woollen vest ambled in through a curtain onto the shop floor, and pattered over to the counter. He looked up and smiled at the captain, but he gasped with surprise and smiled even more when he recognised her.
“Captain!” he said, holding out his hands to her. “This is such a pleasant surprise.”
“Hello Christoph,” said the captain, who returned his smile. “I'm here for my usual, please. And I need it as quickly as possible, if it's not too much trouble.”
“Of course,” said Christoph, and hit the heel of his hand to his head as if he'd forgotten his manners, and shuffled his way back through the curtain. The faint sounds of his rummaging around was comforting and reassuring. After all the violence and adrenaline, the captain always enjoyed taking time to unwind in this little shop with this little man, who was one of the few people that she actually trusted.
“I actually have your things ready, right here,” he called out from the back. “You do seem to go through them fairly regularly. You know, I don't think it's ever been longer than a year that you're able to stay away before you come back through my door.”
“Oh, I'm just a sucker for your manly charms, Chris,” said the captain. She made herself comfortable on one of the soft chairs near the counter as she waited. “I keep coming back waiting for you to sweep me off my feet.”
Christoph cackled loudly as he rummaged, and came out carrying a small bundle wrapped in brown paper.
“Sweetie, I'm too old to do that kind of thing anymore,” he said with a sad smile. “But even so, without Beatrice it just wouldn't be the same.”
He glanced at the picture hanging up on the wall behind the counter, so quickly that most people would have missed it. But the captain caught it, and looked up at the picture that she had already seen, many times before. It was of an old couple, with their arms around each other and smiling the smiles of the stupidly in love. It was Christoph with his wife Beatrice, looking a little younger than he did now; he had a little more hair, and it hadn't quite turned white yet. His shaking hands unwrapped the brown paper on the counter, and the captain placed one of hers on his.
“I'm sorry I couldn't be there when it happened,” she said softly.
“Nothing would have changed if you had been,” he said with a shake of his head. “It helps when I keep busy, and focus on my work . . . our work. But a large piece of me died with her that day, and sometimes I wonder if it's even worth it to keep going.”
“Belannos wouldn't be the same without you.”
“Ha! Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere just yet. Besides, even though I cater to a very specific clientele, business is good, and you're my number one customer. I'm sure you'd have been killed a dozen times over if it weren't for me.”
“Christoph, you don't know the half of it.”
With a grin, Christoph reached into the unwrapped parcel, and pulled out a jumpsuit of a material so soft and black, it looked like it could have been made out of the night sky.
“This material is my own invention you know, it's impossible to find anywhere, and bloody difficult to make.”
“It never ceases to amaze me,” said the captain, taking the jumpsuit from him with reverence. “But I'm afraid I need to put it on right now. Can I use your bathroom?”
“Certainly, certainly,” said Christoph, and waved her through the curtain. “As usual, this one has already been paid for from last time. However, if you want another one for next time you drop by, you'll need to pay for it now. It takes time to properly combine the proper materials to make it, and longer still to weave the bloody thing together.”
The captain shut herself in the bathroom, and quickly started stripping off her clothes so she could put on her new jumpsuit. It was made of a unique material, and woven in such a particular way, that it was able to reflect any physical impact off of the captain's body. It was softer than silk, and yet harder than a neutron star. People who had thrown punches at it had cracked their knuckles, the sharpest blades went dull against it, and projectile bullets squashed themselves into little puddles of metal and fell to the floor. It was the perfect thing for a bounty hunter to have, and the sole reason why the captain had survived as long as she had. But as incredible as it was, there was only so much punishment it could take before it wore out, and crashing through the viewing window of the bridge of the Mayflower had been the final straw for her last one.
As she changed, she thought about the person waiting for her outside. She was certain that they knew she was inside, but they wouldn't be stupid enough to follow her in. They'd be watching the door patiently, waiting for her to come back out. Now that she was once again dressed in her special jumpsuit underneath her clothes though, she felt a lot more confident about facing whatever challenges awaited her.
Christoph was waiting for her by the counter, with a smaller parcel held out for her.
“Here's another one for your friend. Free of charge.”
“You know, just when I think I've seen the limit to your kindness, you go and do something like this,” said the captain with a warm smile. She took the bundle from him, and leaned down to give him a kiss on the cheek. Then she made her way to the door, pausing only to press her thumb to the scanner on the counter, authorising the transfer of credits from her account.
“A pleasure doing business with you,” said Christoph, waving her goodbye.
“The pleasure is all mine.”
again the captain merged with the crowded marketplace. She was
certain that she was still being followed, so when she left
Christoph's special little clothing store, she kept her coat buttoned
up to cover up the fact she was wearing the same clothes as before.
After spending as much time as she had inside, it would have been
suspicious to come out empty handed.
Now that she was actually dressed for the occasion, she felt it was time to make her move. She made her way down to the lowest floor of the markets, and kept going down to the residential area.
Despite it's sprawling and thriving trade legacy, Belannos was not a luxury station. The residential area was simply a network of corridors, with walls lined with doors leading to one room living spaces. At this time of the day people were out and about, and there wasn't a lot of activity in this area at all. It was the perfect place to deal with her little stalker friend without any fuss.
After a few random twists and turns through the hallways, the captain stopped about halfway down one particularly long stretch, and took the time to listen for any sound coming from behind her. Whoever was following her was obviously not good at it. They thought they were being quiet, but in actual fact the captain could hear the sound of the carefully placed footsteps. She sighed.
“I guess there could be a perfectly innocent reason why you've been following me,” she said out loud, without turning around. She turned around now, and faced the surprised man further down the corridor. “Unfortunately, none of them come to mind right now.”
The man before her was young, but looked older than he was. Life on a station like Belannos can do that to a person. He looked haggard, and more than a little desperate. He had something in his hand which the captain assumed at first to be a short yellow stick, but as he drew up the courage to step closer, she recognised it as a knife made of bone, aged like ivory.
“I saw you at the bounty office,” he said. “You're a sweet prize to just wander into a place like this. There's a lot of credits sitting on your head.”
The captain sighed again and craned her neck back, rolling her eyes.
“You're here to collect my bounty?” she asked, and stuffed her hands in her pockets. “And here I thought you were in one of the station's resident rape gangs. Personally, I would have found the latter more flattering.”
“You're funny,” he said without a trace of humour or a smile. He held up his ivory knife. “But I'm deadly serious. You're my ticket off this station, and I'm not going to let you slip away.”
“That's a nice knife you got there,” said the captain, as she deftly gripped the handle of her own. “Is that bone? Smart. It's nice to see other people exploiting the little loophole in the station's security system. But you should probably know that, as scary as a bone knife can be, it's not very effective as a weapon.”
“Shut up, bitch,” he snarled. The captain smiled. He was about as threatening to her as a puppy.
“I think there's something that you've left out of your little master plan. Let me explain it to you,” she said. Suddenly a gunshot boomed through the corridor, and parts of her would-be-attacker's skull and brains went flying into the wall beside him, and he fell lifeless to the ground.
“Or not,” she said. Then she looked up to her saviour, who had been in one of the living spaces right beside the body of her failed assassin. He emerged now, his pistol extended out before him as he looked down at the body oozing blood and brain matter. Then he looked up at the captain.
“Thanks for that,” she said. “Nice gun by the way. I'd love to know how you got that past the screening.”
“Shut up,” he snapped, and swung his arm to point the gun at her. The captain groaned in exasperation.
“Aw man, you too? You've gotta be kidding me!”
“Hold still and it'll be over instantly,” he said. He stepped closer but once again the captain wasn't budging. She'd faced worse that just one guy with a gun pointed at her head. For her that was practically an average Tuesday.
“Look! Even if you kill me, you wouldn't be able to collect the bounty. The guy who runs the station doesn't allow bounties to be collected on people killed on the station. It's called 'neutral ground' for a reason, dumbass!”
“You're lying,” said the guy, but he looked a little uncertain.
“You think I'm lying? You haven't been on Belannos for very long, have you?”
“Longer than I'd like. But that doesn't matter, I can't take that chance. I need to get off, and you're how I'm going to do it.”
“Is there an echo in here? Why is killing me suddenly so important for anybody to leave?”
As an experienced reader of people and their intentions, subtle hints in the guy's movements told the captain that he was about to pull the trigger. In an instant she closed the distance between them in one step, drew her black knife and slashed it across his face in one motion. In her experience, a knife to the face tended to end any and all arguments, but what she didn't expect was to hear a harsh scraping sound of her knife meeting metal. His head was knocked to the side from the force of her slice, but when he looked back at her, his face was completely unmarked. She gawped.
“Hey, that's a neat trick!” she said, right before he punched her in the gut with his free hand. She'd been expecting it, but even so it hurt, which was surprising. She was knocked back from the sheer force of the impact, but the jumpsuit had done its job, and she was mostly unharmed, albeit bruised more than she thought she'd be. Thank you, Christoph.
The other guy wasn't doing so well though. His hand had audibly broken when he'd struck her, and now it hung uselessly on the end of his arm. But what the captain noticed most of all was that he was flickering in and out of focus. After a moment of uncertainty, his appearance changed altogether, and the human visage melted away to reveal a sleek android body. The hand he'd punched her with was definitely not working properly. Its fingers were twisted and warped, and one or two of them were hanging off by a tiny scrap of moulded metal.
“A holographic disguise?” the captain said, scarcely able to believe it. “You're the Collective?!”
The humanoid artificial face of the android was the most sophisticated that the captain had ever seen. It snarled at her with very realistic humanistic emotion, and turned to run as it fired a few shots in her direction. The captain ducked out of the way in time, and at the same time she whipped out a small little device the size of a pebble from under her coat, and threw it at the androids receding feet. When it hit the ground it exploded with a small pop, and suddenly the android's legs were engulfed in a quickly expanding foam that hardened almost instantly, and it fell over unable to get free. The gun flew from its hand as it hit the ground, and clattered across the floor.
The device was one of the captain's little pride and joys. It was compact, easy to make, and most importantly, not technically a weapon, so it was safe from screenings and even pat-down searches.
“What the hell is a Collective drone doing on this station?” she demanded. She crouched on her haunches and nursed the bruise on her chest where the thing had hit her. If she hadn't stopped off at Christoph's store for his unique style of tailoring, she'd probably be picking shards of her own ribcage out of her lungs.
“I'm not in the Collective, you dumb bitch!” screeched the android. It was still struggling to get free, but the more it tried to pull its legs out of the hardened foam, they were actually starting to bend under the stress.
“That's hilarious,” said the captain. “You must some very sophisticated software in that tin head of yours for that kind of simulated emotional inflection.”
The captain chuckled as she bent over painfully to pick up the gun, and tuck it away under her belt.
“Whatever. Just go, alright? You better leave before I get unstuck from whatever this is, or else I'll come after you again for your bounty.”
“Ah, but you're mistaken. I'm going to take you with me.”
“Because the Syndicate has a long-standing reward to anyone who is able to bring them a functional Collective android,” said the captain, and smiled brightly at it. “That's right, I'm going to turn you in for money. Don't you just love how the tables can just turn like that?”
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