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ONE TAKILDV DRIFT. 30Z AFC
"We can do this one of two ways. There's the hard way, which involves hours of discussion, tons of negotiation, half a dozen bribes, and no guarantee of success."
"What's the easy way?"
"Liberally placed high explosives."
--MAJE AND KLIMNOS, ON THE SUN, EPISODE 97:
"GO WEST, OLD MAN," 287 AFC
It was a quiet day at Takilov Drift Impound Lot.
Teena Harwall preferred quiet days.
She and her partner, a Than named Song of the Ocean, had opened the Impound Lot seven years earlier when the previous company that provided impounding services to Drift Security had met with an unfortunate accident involving a landrover laced with explosives that had somehow been missed by Security's scans. Harwall and Ocean had bid for the rights to pick up the contract. Though their competition consisted of three multi-system companies, the pair of them, with much lower overhead than their huge corporate competition were able to lowball the offer and win the contract.
They had operated in the red for the first four years, but that had been part of the business plan. They had come into money after a successful series of grifts on San-Ska-Re, then left while they were flush and before the Than Hegemony's assorted law-enforcement branches caught wind of them. They had just enough to bribe six members of the Drift Security Contracts Appropriations Committee and plant the explosives in that land-rover. Once they got the contract, they were eligible for a loan to actually set up shop. When they paid that off--which they did two years ahead of their projections--it was all profit.
Harwall had relieved Ocean an hour earlier while the other one went to sleep. Although they had support staff, of course, they always made sure that one of them was present at the lot at all times--each taking a fifteen-hour shift per thirty-hour day. After all, this was Takilov Drift. You never knew which of your employees was plotting your downfall.
After all, if Harwall or Ocean were one of those workers, it was what they would be doing.
Calling up the manifest, Harwall saw that only three items had been added during Ocean's shift.
One was a planet-hopper that Sergeant Hong had brought in, supposedly belonging to a flash dealer who'd been arrested on half-a-dozen counts of possession, distribution of an illegal substance, loitering, and adultery. Harwall smiled in amusement at the last charge, and suspected that Hong's wife was cheating on him. Again. And this time, it's either with a flash dealer, she thought, or with somebody Hong could easily set up as a flash dealer. Why he just doesn't divorce that woman is beyond me.
The second was a taxi that had been left abandoned for two weeks in a casino parking bay, and the third, a cargo ship that had been put up as bail for a suspected grifter. According to the file he was attempting the old Neidermeyer con--by himself. Harwall shook her head in disbelief. Any idiot knew that Neidermeyer was a two-person job.
The official paperwork wasn't nearly as important to Harwall as the numerical designation that Ocean had entered. The cargo ship had a I next to it, which meant that it had come along with a top-level bribe, which was Security's way of telling them, Don't sell this one, we really need it. That meant that the case against the failed grifter wasn't especially strong, or Security needed the ship as a negotiating bargain chip. Or maybe they already had their own buyer for it.
The planet-hopper had a 2, indicating a mid-level bribe: Don't
go out of your way to sell it, but if a good offer comes along, knock yourself out, just make sure I get a cut. As it happened, Harwall knew a
Perseid who was after a planet-hopper. She put in a call to him. If she recalled the conversation right, ten percent of the price he was willing to pay for the planet-hopper would be more than Hong's bribe, so the poor cuckolded bastard would come out ahead in the whole deal. This made Harwall happy--she had always liked Hong.
The taxi had a 3, which meant no bribe at all. Ocean had
already set the wheels in motion to sell that one for parts.
She called up the full scan data for the cargo ship. It didn't look
like much on the outside, but whoever ran the engine room had done a fine job. The ship had almost none of its original parts, but every change was an upgrade. Pity this was a number-one bribe--we could get a bundle for this one.
The'com beeped. Harwall slapped at the button. "Yeah?"
A Than face appeared on the viewscreen. This was Ocean's deadbeat cousin--or podmate or egg-brother or whatever it was Than called their relations; Harwall had never been able to figure it out-whom they had hired last year out of pity. Or, rather, out of Ocean's pity and only after she had spent two days pleading with Harwall to take her in.
"Hey chief, there's a Nightsider on the line for you. Says he's interested in the luxury yacht."
Harwall winced. "What luxury yacht?"
"Y'know, the one in Bay Nine. I figure--&r
"What did you tell him?" Harwall asked angrily.
"I told him we had a yacht, but he'd have to talk to the chief."
Harwall put her head in her hands. I swear, Ocean, I'm going to kill her. I'm going to kill her until she is very, very dead. "That yacht isn't for sale."
"No." They had gotten three separate number-one bribes on that one. It belonged to a businessman who had literally been caught with his pants down. It was a political hot potato of massive proportions. Accusations, payoffs, and lawsuits were flying back and forth, but if anything happened to that yacht while it was in Security custody, Harwall and Ocean would be shut down faster than a Slip skimmer pilot on flash. "Tell the Nightsider--" She hesitated. "Never mind, put him through."
The insectoid face of the Than was replaced with the rodentian features of a Nightsider. Harwall put on her public face and smiled sweetly. "Greetings. This is Teena Harwall, I'm the proprietor of this establishment. How may I be of service?"
"I wish to purchase a yacht."
Harwall pursed her lips and frowned. "I'm sorry?"
"Are you deaf, human? I said I wish to purchase a yacht."
Yes, sir. I heard you the first time." She added a touch of confused outrage to her tone. "What I'm afraid I'm unclear on is why you've come to us. We're an impound lot, sir--simply a holding facility. For us to sell items in our care would be highly illegal, not to mention unethical." Tossing in a dollop of aghastness, she went on: "I'm frankly appalled that you would think us capable of such a vile act. We are a public service, sir. I'm sure you've heard stories about the poor quality of service and the dubious behavior found here on Takilov Drift, but I can assure you that those rumors did not get their start here. Nor are they based on any foundation of--"
"Madam, you're trying my patience. Please don't pretend that you are anything but a scam artist like everyone else on this damn drift. Now do you have a yacht for sale or don't you?"
"Sir, if you're going to make such public accusations, I'm going to have to cut you off."
The Nightsider got the hint. She didn't want to discuss such things on an open channel. " Perhaps we can arrange a meeting, so you can convince me of your ethical purity in person?" He smiled, a facial expression that had no business on a Nightsider, and it made Har-wall's skin crawl.
She was about to dismiss him out of hand--there was simply no way that yacht was going anywhere--but just because he said he wanted a yacht didn't mean he wouldn't settle for something else. Maybe he can outbid the Perseid for the planet-hopper. "If you insist, sir, I can give you an appointment at thirteen this afternoon."
" Excellent. I look forward to seeing further examples of your law-abiding operation. Farewell."
The screen faded to black. Harwall sighed. Potential for profit there, certainly, but not without possible costs. She opened a com channel to Ocean's cousin and spent the next twenty minutes informing her, at great length and at a very loud volume, to never speak to anyone who didn't actually work there ever again.
It was just when she got to the part about letting someone else answer any calls that came in when the explosion rocked the lot.
Several more explosions followed, accompanied by the insistent wail of an automated alert klaxon. Harwall grabbed her desk to steady herself, only to find she couldn't get her footing. She tried to get her feet settled under her, but they wouldn't gain purchase. That, combined with a sudden queasiness could only mean one thing: The AG field's been knocked out. Great--just great. Zero gravity always made Harwall nauseous.
Swallowing down the digested remains of her breakfast, she held tightly onto the side of her desk with one hand, and called up the visuals from the security cameras on her screen with the other. Over half the cameras were out, but enough were working for her to see that robots were taking care of the fires and the staff was evacuating. An uncharitable part of Harwall hoped that Ocean's cousin was caught in one of the explosions, but she saw her, as well as the nine others, heading for the exits.
The Impound Lot was located on the outer portion of the drift, with a portal to space on the north wall. It was through there that the assorted vehicles were brought in, then put in their respective bays. Thankfully, none of the explosions were in that area, but were instead on interior bulkheads, or walls between bays. No danger of exposure to the vacuum of space, and no apparent loss of cargo that way.
Still plenty of damage to cargo, though, she thought angrily. Even if everything was accounted for, that didn't mean it was unscathed. Most of the damage was concentrated in Bays 1-4. Fear clenching her spine--right around where she kept her money pouch--she checked Bay 9, and was relieved to see the area near the luxury yacht had also remained untouched. The first obvious suspect of any kind of attack on the lot would have been someone wanting to complicate that particular situation even more than it already was. But that didn't seem to be the case here.
The AG field restored itself, sending Harwall stumbling to the floor in a heap. This time, she was unable to keep her breakfast down, and she spent several seconds on all fours, vomiting on the carpet.
Her first thought when her stomach was done heaving was, It's going to cost a fortune to clean up this mess. Should've thrown up on the metal floor.
Common sense reasserted itself. After what just happened, cleaning the carpet is going to be the least of our expenses.
The klaxon, which had been blaring a loud honking noise every second, had, with the restoration of the AG field, cut back to a not-so-loud beeping noise every two seconds, which meant that the crisis was being dealt with, but people should be on alert and avoid any part of the drift that might be compromised. Technically, that meant that Harwall should leave the lot immediately, but she wasn't going anywhere until she knew the precise nature and extent of the damage to her property. This is Ocean s and my livelihood, dammit!
She tried not to think about the fact that the previous holder of the Security impound lot contract had had its term ended by an explosion.
The direct line to Security beeped urgently, the sound clashing with the alert klaxon. Harwall quickly tapped the red button as much to stave off the impending headache as anything. The face of Lieutenant Jrinto appeared on her screen. Harwall resisted a new urge to throw up. Jrinto was a half-breed--human mother, Nietzschean father--who spent far more time than Harwall was comfortable with flirting with her. His flirting might have been more successful had he been a full-blooded Nietzschean, and therefore had the mole on his cheek, the blackheads on his nose, and the greasy hair bred out of him. "Teena, what the hell just happened?"
"I wish I knew. Somebody's trying to blow up the lot."
"Bay Nine is secure."
A look of relief spread over his unfortunate face. "What's the rest of the damage?"
"I'm still trying to figure it out." She started comparing the current scan to the manifest. There were some incomplete matches, which she chalked up to damage from the explosions. "So far, everything's--" Her face fell. "Oh, crap."
"What is it?"
Harwall muttered a series of Than curses that Ocean had taught her.
The cargo ship was gone.
She turned on external cameras, but they just gave her gray nothingness. Since they were on the space side of the bulkhead and nowhere near the explosions, they had obviously been taken out independently. She also noted that the arresting officer whose name was attached to the manifest entry for the cargo ship was Jrinto himself.
"We've got a breakout," she told the lieutenant. "Manifest #63904B."
"That little tinkerer I busted last night? His friends didn't have enough cash, so they put the ship up for bail."
Harwall resisted the urge to point out to Jrinto that she knew that already. "I'd say his friends are making a getaway."
"Damn, I should've expected something like this. But I didn't think they'd be bright enough. I mean, c'mon, who tries to pull off the Nieder-meyer con as a single?'" He shook his head, causing a lock of greasy hair to fall over his eyes. "I want a full damage list within half an hour, Teena. We need to account for this."
Right, Harwall thought, so we know who to pay off to keep the lot running. "You'll have it."
"Meanwhile, I'm getting that ship back. That's my collar, dammit, they aren't getting away that easily."
The screen went blank. Harwall continued her scan, to make sure no one else was taking advantage of this confusion to make off with any merchandise.
This, she thought with a deep sigh, is why I prefer quiet days.
* * *
Having changed into his specially modified spacesuit, Malthazar Jrinto climbed into his Banshee and started the countdown sequence. Around him in the Drift Security Port, four officers did likewise, all wearing more standard-issue spacesuits, since they didn't have to have the sleeves adjusted for Nietzschean forearm spikes. His spikes were smaller than that of the average male Nietzschean--the price for his half-breed status--but luckily, most tailors were used to accounting for them in their designs.
That con artist's cargo ship already had a several-minute head start on them, so Jrinto and his people needed to move quickly. Luckily, the ship hasn't been built that can outfly one of these babies, much less five of them.
Invented by a particularly clever Chichin (or, at least, that's what the Chichin who sold them to Drift Security claimed), Banshees were small, compact one-person craft that were as small as possible and still able to accommodate a Slipstream drive. They were faster and more maneuverable than anything else out there, and had been worth three times what they paid for them, given the hundreds of occasions on which they'd proven useful. Their success rate in chasing down suspects had increased a thousandfold since buying these babies.
Certainly no way some clapped-out old wreck will stand a chance, Jrinto thought with glee. They'd bring these bastards in and return them to Teena and that Than partner of hers. And then maybe--maybe--Teena will finally agree to go out with me.
Jrinto didn't understand it. He had Nietzschean blood--the spikes on his forearms were a testament to that--so he should have been a superior specimen in the eyes of any woman. His mother had never talked about Jrinto's father. Given that his mother had grown up on Avilan, it was as likely as not that she didn't know who the father was among the dozens of Drago-Kazov men who had raped her when they took the planet.
The computer indicated that the checklist was done. His status board showed that the same held true for the other four. "Let's move," he said into the intercom. "Base, this is Jrinto. Have the sensor drones found anything yet?"
"Aye, Lieutenant," said whoever was on duty at Base Command. "Transmitting coordinates. They're about two LMs out."
Jrinto grinned. At full speed, they'd make up the two light-minutes in no time at all. He adjusted his spacesuit's cooling unit to maximum--Banshee engines tended to burn hot, and the cockpit was only half a meter from the engine housing.
"All units, set course, maximum speed. Let's bring them in."
"Make it fast, Lieutenant," Base said. "They'll be able to Slipstream in twenty minutes."
"Fast is what we do." Jrinto settled his hands into the pilot's grips and moved out. The force of the acceleration pushed him back into his heavily cushioned chair--basically an oversized pillow--as the five Banshees screamed out of the hatch.
Based on the sensor drones' report of the cargo ship's location, Jrinto and the other four would arrive at the appropriate spot on the ship's projected course in ten minutes. And won't they be in for a shock, he thought happily. That little twerp had been nothing but a pain in Jrinto's backside since his arrest. It wouldn't have been so bad if he had just gone quietly. Most grifters knew how the game was played--if you get caught, you pay the price. This guy, though, seemed to think he was entitled to special treatment. As if being able to talk a mile-a-minute actually works on Security. Did he think I'd let him go just to shut him up? He wasn't that annoying.
Though he was pretty close.
When nine minutes had elapsed, his console beeped, and Jrinto immediately pulled on the grips. At die speed they were going, they'd need to dump velocity at a great rate to slow down enough to come alongside the cargo ship. The already oppressive heat got worse as the ship's engines had to almost literally work against themselves to slow the ship down. Instinctively, Jrinto checked to make sure his suit's cooling unit was on maximum--and was disappointed to see that it was, and he was still sweating like a pig.
Wishing he could wipe his forehead, but unable to do so through his helmet, he checked the Banshee's viewscreen, to find--
"Where the hell's the ship?"
"I don't see it anywhere."
The other two Banshees had similar reports.
"Base, this is Jrinto, what happened to the ship?"
There was a two-second lag before Base answered. "Damn, they must've seen you coming and gone evasive. Hang on, I'll relaunch the drones."
Jrinto gritted his teeth. "Why the hell were the drones recalled?"
Two seconds. "That, ah--that's SOP, sir. Those things are expensive, we don't like to leave them out any longer than necessary."
The biggest problem with the cramped confines of the Banshee cockpit, Jrinto decided, was that there wasn't room to throw a proper tantrum. The best he could do was shift slightly in his seat, and feel his face turn even redder. "If I lose this ship because of the damn budget, I swear I'm going to find the nearest--"
"Got 'em! Sending fresh coordinates."
The coordinates came in two seconds later--right near a Slip point.
The drones' images also finally arrived, showing the ship heading for a Slip point--the area proximate to the Drift that was also far enough from the nearest star's or planet's gravity well to safely go into Slipstream. The coordinates were a hundred light-seconds away, which meant the image he was seeing was almost two minutes old.
Gripping the pilot controls, Jrinto slammed the engines forward, propelling the Banshee toward the Slip point at top speed and propelling Jrinto deep into the cushion.
You're not getting away from me, oh, no. I need you back so I can look heroic in front of Teena. If I get the ship back then maybe she can stay in business--hell, maybe that's the way to get her to go out with me. I'll be the big hero who kept her from losing her livelihood. Yeah, that's it. Perfect.
Besides, it's my collar….
"All units, prepare for Slipstream."
"Uh, can we do that?" one of the units asked.
Snidely, Jrinto asked, "Did you uninstall your Slipstream Drive when I wasn't looking, Officer?"
"No, sir, it's just--well, if they go to Slip, that's kinda out of our jurisdiction, isn't it?"
Technically, the officer was correct, but Jrinto was in no mood for legal niceties. Such things were mutable on Takilov in any case. "We're in hot pursuit--our jurisdiction extends to wherever that ship goes until that pursuit is ended." He had no idea if that was legally true, but enough greasing of palms could probably make it so.
Sure enough, the cargo ship entered Slipstream just as the Banshees approached. "Go in after them!" Jrinto said as he activated his Slip engines and gave chase.
The jerking of the Banshee's acceleration felt natural--the expected effect of inertia. On the other hand, the shifting of reality Jrinto experienced when entering Slipstream was the most unnatural thing he could imagine. It felt as if someone pulled his stomach out through his belly button.
Once someone had tried to explain what the Slipstream actually was to Jrinto, and it just gave him a headache. Supposedly, it was some kind of other dimension that intertwined with the real world, whatever that meant. All Jrinto cared about was that the place worked--when he went in, his engines harnessed the energy of the strings that made up the 'stream, and he came out the other side where he wanted to be, most of the time. Without the Slipstream, there would be little practical interstellar travel and no practical intergalactic travel.
The only part of the process Jrinto didn't like was the actual piloting. It was akin to someone taking his already-removed stomach and tap-dancing on it.
Jrinto and the other four doggedly followed the cargo ship as it went through the 'stream. It was a rough ride--Banshees were tough to handle in the 'stream generally, being so small and fragile, but the fact that they had a point of reference in the cargo ship made things easier.
Or, rather, it would have if that ship's pilot wasn't zipping around the 'stream like a crazy person.
They finally transited back to normal space--about three seconds behind the cargo ship, and not a second too soon, as far as Jrinto was concerned. He felt his stomach at last being put back in place, via his right ear.
Three seconds can be an eternity.
Most of the time in space, things took a very long time because space was just so big. While the discovery of the Slipstream made the distances between solar systems, between sectors, between galaxies all but irrelevant, the actual distances between things in normal space was still of a scale that made three seconds a paltry amount of time. After all, even with the Slipstream, messages and transit times were sometimes measured in months and years rather
than seconds and minutes.
As a result, Jrinto didn't think of the three-second lag time between the cargo ship exiting Slipstream and the five Banshees doing likewise to be all that significant.
One second after he transited into normal space, he was reminded that it doesn't take very long to drop a missile or three right behind you as you exit Slipstream.
As Jrinto watched two of the Banshees he came with get dotted with explosions, he realized what the cargo ship had done. They had primed the missiles to be dropped out of their cargo bay, then gone into Slipstream. As soon as they came out, knowing that Jrinto and his people were only three seconds behind, they dropped the missiles--effectively mining the 'stream exit point--and got out of range.
The two Banshees that were hit were still in one piece. Jrinto's status board indicated that the vital signs of both officers were not optimum, but they were still alive. Their engines, however, had to be shut down.
All right, that does it. Now I'm pissed. "Remaining units, acquire target and pursue."
"Sir, what about Anzen and Limnos?"
"We'll come back for them them," Jrinto said. "And now we can add assault on an officer to the charges. But we can only do that if we catch them."
"Got 'em!" the other officer said. "They're just a few LS away."
The coordinates came up on Jrinto's board. Gritting his teeth, blinking away the sweat that was now pouring into his eyes, he clutched the pilot grips and fired up the engines.
Jrinto's ship's computer had also found a nearby sun and examined its spectro reading--it appeared to be Mudwat's Star, the home of Caldonia, an independent world, and one with which Takilov Drift had many dealings. For one thing, they exported a fruit that fermented into the best wine Jrinto had ever had. His dream date with Teena Harwall had included several bottles of the stuff, in fact. Perfect. I can take them here with no problems, and the Caldonians will at worst look the other way, and at best testify that they fired deadly weapons in their space.
A beeping sound indicated that the engines were starting to overheat. Jrinto ignored it. "Arm missiles." Any chances of this ending peacefully were now gone. Jrinto was determined to get these guys no matter what.
They were at four light-seconds and closing. Optimum firing range for the Banshees was two LS. "Prepare to fire."
"They're firing up their Slipstream, drive!" one of the officers cried out.
Jrinto blinked. "Are they nuts?"
The cargo ship then opened a Slip portal and was gone.
His mind working faster than he was accustomed to making it work, Jrinto said, "Remaining units stay here, prep to escort--" what the hell are their names? "--Anzen and Limnos back to Takilov. I'm going after them."
"Sir, I don't think--"
The rest of the officer's sentence was lost as Jrinto activated his own Slipstream Drive. He ignored the computer's protestations that activating the Slip engines so soon was ill-advised and went against the specifications of the Banshee vessels.
This time, Jrinto's stomach was wrested from his body through his nose with a very sharp, very rusty metal object. He'd never felt so sick in his life. The Banshee slammed against the stray strings of the 'stream as he desperately clutched to the string that the cargo ship was on, barely keeping up.
Some people had what was called the Slipstream touch. Jrinto had never really had it, though he'd always had adequate enough skills to pilot the 'stream without incident. Well, without major incident, in any case.
Whoever it was piloting that cargo ship didn't just have the Slipstream touch, but the Slipstream taste, smell, sight, and hearing as well. By the time they transited back into normal space, Jrinto was mentally exhausted, his Banshee beeping more alarms than he had known the thing was equipped with, and he was physically incapable of summoning the strength to fire the missiles he'd armed.
This time, he caught up to the cargo ship. In the back of his head, he noticed that they were near a red dwarf star. There wasn't one near Takilov that he was aware of, so they must have Slipped rather far. Once he was close enough for real-time communication, he activated ship-to-ship. "This--this is Takilov Drift--Drift Security. You will heave to and--and prepare to be boarded."
"Sorry, Officer," a pleasant female voice said, "but we've got to see a man about a dog."
"It's 'Lieutenant,' actually," Jrinto said. His anger at her misstatement of his rank gave him strength. "You're in violation of several laws of Takilov Drift, and the longer you stay out of my custody, the higher the number of those laws will be. I have missiles armed and ready, and I will use them if you don't stand down."
"So you want me to heave to and stand down, huh? Well, sorry, Lieutenant, but I'd rather just Slip away."
The computer told Jrinto that the cargo ship was preparing to go into Slipstream again. The same computer also told him that he was about six seconds from overheating his engines. If he even tried to put the Slip engine back online again, the safeties would kick in and shut the whole ship down.
She's insane. That has to be it. Only a madwoman would go into three straight Slips like that. Especially to go this far.
Jrinto watched as the cargo ship went into Slipstream.
Rationalizations immediately started filling his sweat-drenched head. I hate dealing with crazy people. They're always a problem in lockup. And they almost never plea-bargain properly because they're too busy following instructions from the invisible one-inch-tall Vedran resting on their shoulders transmitting data directly into their neckports.
He started the cooldown procedure on the engines. He'd need to wait at least another hour before he'd be able to Slip back to Caldonia to retrieve the others.
I can tell them they were destroyed. They refused to surrender and I was forced to fire missiles on them. To make a good show of it, Jrinto fired the missiles and detonated them at roughtly the same spot where the cargo ship had been. No survivors. The captain would be pissed, of course, since he had lined up a good buyer for the cargo ship, but that was life in the drift for you. The worst that would happen would be that the cost of repairs on the Banshees--not to mention replacing the missiles--
would come out of his salary, but he had enough savings to
Besides, these people had done considerable damage to the Impound Lot. They had to be treated as armed and dangerous.
Confident in his ability to sell the story, Jrinto sat back, waited for his engines to cool down, and once again envisioned his dream date with Teena Harwall.
* * *
Aboard the erstwhile object of Jrinto's pursuit, the pilot took the ship out of Slipstream into space near Olivares Trust. As soon as they settled into normal space, the pilot leaned back and exhaled. Engaging the autopilot and pushing the seat back to its standby position--a move accompanied by a loud squeaking noise--she turned around and looked at her engineer, who at least had the good graces to look abashed.
"Next time, Harper," Captain Beka Valentine of the Eureka Maru said, "you can post your own damn bail."
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