Kappa Fornacis: Harvestport
The intelligence package provided to me by Laure did not prove to be especially illuminating. Other than brief dossiers about Stenberg and Zeta, along with the latest known specifications for their respective ships, there was very little in the way of firm information for me to go on. After Stenberg's Dropship had been sighted by an informant at the Kappa Fornacis nav point, the report had been fast-tracked to Zeta's handler, who immediately dispatched the agent to take the Federation Admiral into custody or destroy him in the effort. Zeta had successfully interdicted Stenberg's ship while it was in transit to Harvestport, but here was where things had started to go awry. Instead of following orders and engaging Stenberg in combat, Zeta had instead warned the Federation Admiral that he was heading into a trap, and they had fled together in the direction of Federal space.
The data trail would have ended there, given that Zeta had disabled the location tracker on their Imperial Clipper after interdicting Admiral Stenberg, had it not been for a local freebooter that had spotted the interception of Stenberg's ship and diverted their own course to investigate. With no other leads, I had flown to Harvestport myself to track down the commander who was the last known person to have had a confirmed sighting of Zeta and Stenberg in the sector.
Having safely docked my Courier, I exchanged my flight suit for a plain, utilitarian outfit in black cotton, with a padded leather doublet worn over the top of my shirt. The lining of the doublet was inlaid with a nanotube weave to provide lightweight, but effective protection against blades and projectile weapons. Kappa Fornacis was an independent system, meaning that I was exposed to double the risk of hostility from not just the locals, but also any visiting Federation citizens. While my clothing lacked the usual ostentatious flair of Imperial tailoring, its high-quality finish would still mark me as an outsider and inevitably draw suspicion from the locals. Wary of taking chances, I strapped on my belt, complete with a high-powered flechette pistol tucked securely away in a bespoke black canvass friction holster. I settled the dart gun on my left hip, feeling its reassuring weight balanced out by the three spare 10 round magazines held in pouches on the opposite side of my waist. I hoped that the mere sight of the long-barrelled weapon would put off the kind of casual thugs that filtered through a third-rate system on the fringes of Empire and Federation space, as I was sure to encounter a multitude of them tonight.
A discreet inquiry, accompanied by an impressively large bribe, had convinced the harbourmaster to divulge the identity of the pilot that had intruded upon Zeta and Stenberg's collusion. With the incentive of an extra two thousand credits, she gave me the name of the establishment where he was most likely to be found. Inevitably, it was a bar. I already knew Feehan's well-earned reputation from previous visits to Harvestport. It was a place where all manner of business, both legitimate and clandestine, was carried out and I had always found its bartenders remarkably well-informed, even if their information was somewhat pricey. I was sure that a quick visit would be able to glean some information of value, but even if it didn't, it was worth the trip if only for the quality of the only genuine Irish stout available in the sector.
By local timekeeping, it was only mid-afternoon when I arrived at the bar, but the atmosphere was already raucous. An especially rowdy bunch of privateers dominated one corner of the bar, drinking Lavian Brandy direct from the bottle and singing the lyrics of obscene shanties, out of tune, at the top of their collective lungs. The sound-dampening privacy fields surrounding the drinking booths contained the worst of it, but occasionally their drunken yelling could be heard over the top of the ambient synth music that permeated the rest of the tavern. I ignored them as I made my way from the entrance to the bar, trying not to react as I noticed that my uncommonly neat and expensive clothing had attracted attention from some of the scruffier independent pilots seated at tables around the edges of the room. While not exactly hostile, none of the pilots gave me a look as welcoming as the tall, lithe and freckled redhead behind the bar did.
"Why, why! Aemon Roche! I've not seen that face in a long time... what can I get ya, darlin'?"
"A jar of the black stuff, thank you Mara."
"Comin' right up. Are ya here for business or pleasure, darlin'?"
"Shame." Feehan's niece shook her head sadly, her green eyes undressing me as she slid a tall, thick glass of jet black stout across the scored and stained mahogany bar top.
"Mostly business." I replied, smiling when I noticed the starburst pattern Mara had traced in the unctuous white foam head of the beer. I took a long draw of the cold, incomparably rich liquid, smacking my lips to suck in a mouthful of air to allow the complex aftertaste of the stout to develop on my tongue. "I swear you could live on this stuff."
"Only if ya had a second liver implanted. What ails ya, Aemon? Waddaya need?" Mara's flirtatious manner evaporated, switching mode from airheaded barmaid to savvy information broker in an instant.
"I need to find someone. I'm told they're a regular here."
"You know a guy called Ol Clark? Is he around?"
"Oh, yeah. Poor Ollie. He's drowning his sorrows over there." Mara pointed with her sharp chin to a dimly lit table tucked away in a corner of the tavern. The bearded man sitting slumped over the table looked thoroughly drunk and thoroughly miserable. "Got his cargo shot out from under him four days ago, poor bastard. Now he can't afford his repairs, or the load for his next run."
"It was one of your guys, too. Imperial Clipper." Mara warned. "Don't expect him to chit-chat."
"Got anything that might loosen his tongue?"
"I might have something." Mara reached under the and placed two small paper packets emblazoned with luminous green circles next to my glass.
"A user as well as a runner, huh?"
"Only a casual one. Looks like he could do with a pick-me-up, the poor dear." Mara selected a one litre bottle of 3281 vintage Leestian Evil Juice from the rack of bottles behind her and set it down in front of me, along with a pair of sturdy shot glasses. The viscous crimson liquor seethed in the bottle from the vibration, almost as if the drink was possessed. "This might help, too."
"Cheers, Mara." I tapped the bar twice with my credit chip to settle my bill. The screen inlaid on the chip briefly displayed a cost running nearly into four figures. I was being charged tourist, Imperial rates, but I didn't even flinch. The information Mara had given me was worth the money and was a veritable bargain compared to the bribe the harbourmaster had required. I stashed the packets of Onion Head into a pocket and drained the remaining two-thirds of my pint of stout in a single gulp. It was almost criminal to rush drinking the divine black nectar, but knew I would need a good layer to protect my stomach from the impending assault by the potent Leestian spirit. I took the bottle of Evil Juice in one hand and the shot glasses in the other before striding quickly across the bar and sitting opposite the forlorn freebooter who was the unwitting keystone for my entire mission.
"Fuck orf." Ol drawled, his head still flat on the table, his eyes closed as he wheezed labouredly, sucking in air to try and repel the effects of a monstrously large hangover. "Lemme alone."
"That's no way to talk to your new best friend." I poured us both a measure of the cloying Leestian spirit and nudged a glass across the table, leaving the rim beneath the tip of his nose to let him sniff the potent vapours evaporating from the liquid.
Ol snorted audibly, partially lifting his head from the table and opening one eye to regard me quizzically before slurping the liquid offering I had given him. "This is good stuff."
"I take good care of my friends, Ol." I assured him, taking a delicate sip from my own glass before topping them both up. The grizzled pilot levered himself upright to take a proper look at me and it didn't take long for an ugly sneer to distort his features as he recognised the origin of my tailoring.
"Imperial." he hissed, recoiling slightly, but still taking another slug of liquor. "Tell me why shouldn't I tell you to pike off right now? Especially after what your friend in the Clipper did to my ship..."
"The commander of the Clipper that relieved you of your cargo is no friend of mine, I assure you." I replied, soothingly. "Anyway, if I go, so does the free booze you're currently pouring down your neck."
"Good point." Ol conceded, rubbing his eyes and temples to ward off a headache. "What do you want, Imperial?"
"I'm interested in this Clipper that ripped you off. Tell me what happened."
"Why are you so interested?" Ol's eyes narrowed, suspicious, before his thoughts returned back to his immediate predicament. "And what's in it for me?"
"Other than this fine bottle of Evil Juice?" I saw that he would need something more substantial than a night's alcoholic oblivion to tempt him into revealing the information I wanted. "Answer a few questions for me and the holes in the hull of your Cobra will miraculously disappear."
"Who the hell are you, man? Imperial Black Ops? INRA?"
"I just need to find that Clipper. You don't need to know any more than that. You've got a choice here. If you don't talk, I walk. And you don't get to run your next load of Onion Head into the Federation." I stared Ol down, my voice quiet and cold. "What's it going to be? Are you going to tell me what I want and get flying again, or are you going to sit there getting drunk until you run out of money and the bar owns what's left of your ship?"
“Gimme that fucking bottle.” Ol spat as he snatched the Evil Juice from across the table. “Ask your bloody questions.”
“We can start with you telling me how your ship got shot up.”
“By being stupid, that's how.”
“Come on, Ol. I'm going to need more than that.”
“Okay, okay. I'd just dropped out of hypo at the nav beacon, on a normal run, nothing illegal. Land enrichment systems.”
“To help grow the Onion Head better.” I interjected, making Ol bristle with annoyance.
“I was just about to kick in the FSD when I noticed something odd in my contact list.”
“Right. Not exactly a common ship 'round these parts. So I give it a minute's head start and follow it into supercruise. That's when I see what it's after: a goddamn Federal Dropship.” Ol downed another shot of juice and grimaced. “I keep my distance as the Clipper interdicts the Dropship. The Fed doesn't put up any resistance at all, drops straight out of SC, and I figure this is going to be a short fight. I wait around a while before I lock in on their FSD wake, hoping for a little something precious I might be able to salvage out of the wreckage.”
“But there wasn't any wreckage.”
“Nope. Just the two ships, nose to nose. Hanging there, hardpoints stowed.”
“What do you think they were up to?”
“Talking, I 'spect.”
“Did you overhear any chatter?”
“Not a peep. Must've been sending text on a tight beam.”
“What happened next?”
“I don't think they appreciated being disturbed. As soon as they clocked me the Dropship turned tail and jumped out. The Clipper kicked my ass. One mean ship. Not some fucking amateur with turrets, neither. Gimballed beams and cannons. Melted my shields in five seconds flat and then took out my thrusters. Then I got hit with this.” Ol pried a cuboid as long and wide as his palm and only a couple of centimetres thick out from a leg pouch and slid it across the table toward me.
“Cargo hatch limpet. Top of the line quality, too. Not many people can afford these.” I inspected the surprisingly heavy composite and metal prism closely. The power cell still had enough energy left in it to crack two more hatches. Multi-use limpets were illegal throughout the Empire and Federation, making them rare enough to be able to trace their origin and sale. Ol didn't object when I slid the limpet into my pocket: he was too busy refilling his glass.
“Like I said, not an amateur. A real pro. Emptied my cargo racks and then shot the canisters right in front of me.” Ol lamented, still drinking steadily. “I'd sunk all my capital into that run. 180k. Now I'm fucking cleaned out. Dead in the water.”
“You were lucky not to get your power plant popped.”
“I don't feel very fucking lucky, Imperial.”
“What happened next?”
“The Clipper followed the Dropship into hyper while I was putting out the fires and doing a system reboot to get some thruster capacity back.”
“Did you get an ID on either or the ships, or where they went?”
“The ship and commander ID codes were scrambled, but I did clock their hyperspace vector. LHS-1163.”
“Federation territory.” I frowned. It now looked increasingly likely that Zeta was trying to defect. It would be difficult to intervene, given that Zeta had a four day head start, but I had no option other than to try.
“If you're going to go after them, try Hunziker Terminal. It's the only station in the system large enough to dock a Clipper.” Ol advised.
“Thanks, Ol. I think you just earned yourself an extra bonus.” I palmed him the two packets of Onion Head. Ol looked at them, and then at me, stunned.
“You know, you're alright, man. For an Imperial.” The look on his face was almost one of affection. Almost. “Anything else? Or are you going to fix up my ship now?”
I stood, tucking away my seat under the table. “Don't worry. You'll be ready to fly by the time you come down.”
“Come down?” Ol replied, momentarily confused. He fiddled with one of his packets of the psychedelic Onion Head seeds for a few seconds before the joke sank in. “Oh, yeah. Right. Very good.”
“See you around, Ol. Watch yourself out there.”
“Watch out yourself, Imperial.” The smuggler raised a full glass unsteadily in a grudging salute.
I made the necessary arrangements with the harbourmaster to have the major damage to Ol's ship repaired and was just leaving the harbourmaster's office to return to my ship when I saw a flash of movement in the edges of my peripheral vision. I felt a hand grab at the handle of my dart gun, only for it to be recalled with a loud yelp, as the fingerprint scanner on the pistol grip delivered a 50,000 volt shock, having identified that the person trying to take the weapon wasn't the authorised owner. Instinctively, I ducked a large, meaty fist that was aimed towards my face at high velocity by a second thug on the opposite site of the door. I span and kicked the man who had tried to take my gun in the centre of the chest, simultaneously catching the wrist of the pugilist with one hand, the fingers of my other hand clamping over his fist, twisting hard to dislocate the wrist and lever him onto his back. I let go of the extended arm with one hand, keeping the elbow and wrist locked, dropping to one knee to thrust forward with the heel of my free palm, smashing the would-be boxer's elbow with a sickening crack, his arm bending with a geometry never intended by nature. Before his friend could recover his feet and get back in the fight, I drew my dart pistol and shot both men through the kneecaps, two darts each. The thugs both screamed in agony, clutching at their legs, trying to staunch the bleeding. As I paused to catch my breath and get my bearings – the whole fracas had taken less than 5 seconds – I became aware of the sound of enthusiastic applause from the corridor behind me.
“Oh, bravo! Well done!” The connoisseur of violence continued clapping as I aimed my dart gun towards the source of the sound. An attractive, willowy brunette with straight, chin-length hair, wearing a battered leather flight suit emblazoned with pirate markings I didn't recognise leant casually against the wall, laughing with glee as she saw the other men, also wearing similarly-marked flight suits, continue to writhe on the floor behind me. “Zenith and Sharky were so sure they could take you, too.”
“Were they really?” I kept my dart gun aimed at the woman, even though she appeared unarmed and non-hostile. Appearances could be deceptive. Now that I had been able to take a good look at their faces, I remembered them as being part of the large group I had seen in Feehan's earlier, with the questionable taste in bawdy songs. “They should have stuck to singing. They have more talent at it.”
“Ha-ha-ha! Oh, I like you, Roche. It's going to be a shame to have to kill you if you keep sticking your nose in where it's not wanted.” The woman crossed her arms, her tone a mix of admiration, annoyance and melancholy.
“How do you know who I am? Who are you working for?”
“I'm only going to warn you once. Don't go after Zeta. Not if you value your life.”
“Brave talk for someone on the wrong end of a gun. Who are you, pirate?”
“You can call me Suzie. My associates call me Thunda.”
The barrel of my gun wavered uncertainly. “You're Thunda Sue?”
“Ah-huh.” Her brown eyes sparkled wickedly as she smiled, eyeing me hungrily, like a wolf would regard a lame deer. “Weren't expecting that, were you, sugar?”
“I should kill you where you stand.” The Thunda Crew was the single-most notorious pirate gang in the sector, with a fearsome reputation for ruthlessness and barbarity. The bounty on the group's leader, Thunda Sue, stood at nearly a million credits. I steadied the dart gun, aiming directly for her heart.
“You won't though, will you?” The pirate queen smiled, walking towards me slowly with a confident, sensuous sway of her hips. “Far too dishonourable for an agent of the Imperial Navy to murder an unarmed woman isn't it, sweetie?”
Thunda Sue extended a slender finger and placed it on the end of the barrel of my dart gun, lowering it slowly to the floor, pressing it downwards into my friction holster. My heart raced, partly in fear and partly in excitement. It wasn't every day you got to meet one of the most wanted people in the galaxy. She put one hand over mine and teased my fingers away from the grip of the dart gun, leaving it secure in the canvass sheath on my left hip.
“That's better, isn't it, sugar?” Her icy gaze met my eyes and I found that I couldn't move when she gently caressed my cheek with surprisingly soft fingertips. “Pray that we'll never meet again, Roche. Because if we do, it'll be in space. And you will need God to help you.”
“We'll see.” I replied, trying not to show how intimidating I found it being so close to her. Thankfully, my voice didn't tremble.
“I guess we will.” Thunda shook her head, frowning, saddened that she hadn't been able to dissuade me from my quest. She shrugged, grabbed the armscyes of my doublet with both hands, pulling me to her by the shoulders, and kissed me directly on the mouth. I tasted the Lavian Brandy on her breath and was taken aback by just how good a kisser a multi-murderess pirate gang leader could be. Eventually, she released her hold on me and gave me a push in the direction of the docking bay. “I'll have this mess cleaned up. Get out of here, Roche. Before I change my mind.”
I didn't need to be told twice.