My father was a stereotypical bar owner. Gruff, but lovable. Simple, but fiercely intelligent. He had an eye for squeezing profit, but not so his customers lost on the deal.
Once, when a rich businessman had gotten lost and ended up at the Golden Horde, my father struck up a conversation with him. I can still see him leaning against the bar, cleaning glasses with a rag, a sparkle in his eye.
Every time the rich customer, a man from Terra with upgraded eyes glowing with a faint phosphorus, even took a drink from his top-shelf Centaurian vodka, my father filled the rest of the glass with great ceremony, not once adding the drink to the man’s charges.
My father laughed at the businessman’s jokes, rubbed his chin while the man blathered endlessly about socio-primal derivatives — a topic I know my father knew nothing about — and in general ignored every other customer in the Golden Horde.
Later, when I asked my father why he’d doted on that customer and charged him for only a fourth of the drinks, when the bottle of vodka had been worth twenty times a normal bottle, he gave me his patented wait-and-see smile and went back to wiping down the bar.
Two months later, other similarly dressed businessmen showed up and spent a small fortune. When he was tallying up the receipts for the night, he winked at me, and asked if I learned anything.
“Everybody wants something, even when it looks like they want nothing.”
I was mad at my father for about a week after that. But I was young, and the mechanics of business really hadn’t meant anything to me then — that everything was a transaction, everything came at a cost.
I thought about this lesson as I modified the drive based on the instructions that Dario sent me. Even if I didn’t go through the jump point, the extra speed was valuable and gave me more options.
The crux of my decision was this: either the whole business with the files on the MobiGlas had gotten out of hand and Dario was trying to eliminate the source of the problem, or he was actually trying to get them back (and perhaps help me in the process).
I had no delusions that he had any interest in my welfare. Otherwise, he’d never have used me as a mule to sneak the files through Oya Station security.
Sitting in the pilot’s chair with my feet propped up on the control panel, sucking on a water pouch and munching on a tasteless food bar, I watched the little blue and brown marble grow larger, while the red dots on the sensor screen blinked closer.
In the end, I decided to hit the jump point as Dario instructed. However, I was going to make a few changes to his plan. The jump point went to Gurzil. Normal protocol was to enter the jump point at a reasonably low speed to avoid collisions with inbound traffic or nearby control stations.
Instead, I was going to go through at near max speed, with full shields, in case Dario had second thoughts about helping me. I knew my plan was haphazard and without basis in any actual technical ship knowledge, but I hated trusting to fate while doing nothing.
When the Night Stalker finally approached the jump point, I’d consumed all the food and water in the emergency kit, had a good night’s rest, and was strapped into the pilot’s chair with my backpack at my feet.
On the way into the jump point, the computer tried three times to get me to reduce speed, but I overrode it each time. After a frightening journey through Interspace, I blew out the other side of the jump and immediately my shields absorbed heavy hits from a trio of Avengers laying their distortion cannons into me . . . good call on maxing the shields.
I put the Night Stalker through evasive maneuvers, which in this case just meant slamming the controls to one side and the other and hoping for the best. Every alarm on the control panel went off as the contortional physics put more strain on the damaged sections of the ship.
Somehow, Dario’s voice came through my ship speakers: “Stand down! Stand down!”
“What in space are you talking about, I’m getting blasted here!” I shouted back.
“They’ve backed off, they’ve backed off!” he replied.
My pulse was booming through my head, and it took me a moment to find the right panel, but I could see the Avengers were no longer in pursuit. That was a positive, but the Night Stalker had taken additional damage and the maneuvering drive was operating at only fifteen percent. I was mostly drifting now.
“I’m coming to get you, Sorri,” said Dario’s voice, “get your stuff and go to full stop so that I can align for docking with you.”
Looking out the viewscreen, I could see what I assumed was the Fardancer. It looked like a heavily customized Freelancer, or some other model I wasn’t familiar with.
The two ships docked and I made my way through the airlocks into Dario’s ship. He greeted me in his living quarters, wearing a light gray, open-collared shirt and utility pants. He cocked a smile, and his gray-green eyes sparkled at me.
I noticed movement in a cage next to the table.
“Hey, the lynx!”
I crossed my arms. “I guess you want the MobiGlas.”
“It would help.”
I threw it to him, and he snatched it out of the air. “Thanks, that makes things a lot easier. I can take you back home later, but for now I have a business deal to conclude.”
I joined Dario in the cockpit, and though on a technical level it wasn’t much different than Burnett’s, there were little differences everywhere that showcased Dario’s personality. Hanging from strings on the ceiling were little trinkets: a primitive bone carving, an ancient Banu circle coin, a Vanduul hunting dart. The pilot seats had hand-stitched cushions on them rather than hard metal backings.
“So Juliet,” Dario said to his ship, “what’s the status?”
As he pulled up the scanner reports on the display panel, I imagined the ship’s reply as a raspy woman’s voice. The Silent Sons have positioned themselves in a focus-fire array. They are not patiently waiting, darling.
“Those Avengers, they’re the Silent Sons?” I asked. Dario nodded absentmindedly in reply.
He crossed his leg over his knee and tapped on the hand rest. “Open communication channels with Pushkin, voice only.”
A weasel-faced man with black, greasy hair and bat-like ears appeared on the screen.
“Dario, no visual? This is not like you.”
Dario winked at me. “I’m not looking my best today, I’d prefer not to subject you to such atrocities. Shall we get down to business? This has taken far too long already.”
“You have the weapon designs now?” asked Pushkin, face pinched with thought.
Dario held the MobiGlas up, even though there were no visuals. “Right here.”
“Then I am prepared to offer you one-third of the originally discussed price,” replied Pushkin.
Dario put both his feet down and sat up. “One-third? Are you crazy? Complications and delays, yes, but nothing to justify major discounts.”
Pushkin leaned back into his chair and put his hands behind his head. “We could just disable your ship and board you and take the plans. One-third is a good offer.”
“I thought we had a deal.”
Pushkin showed his teeth. “You missed the deal. Change in plan has cost the Silent Sons and puts us at risk. Next time do your homework.”
Rubbing his temples with his fingertips, Dario closed his eyes and nodded. It looked like he was going to agree to the revised terms, which was fine by me. I just wanted to get to safety. And the faster we gave up the files, the faster we could be leaving.
Dario gave me a half-hearted shrug and opened his mouth when a host of proximity alarms went off. Pushkin winked off the viewscreen.
Suddenly, the area around the jump point was filled with ships. Stardevil ships.
And the worst part was that the Fardancer was smack in the middle, between the array of Silent Sons and Stardevils.
My pulse set to racing immediately, but I didn’t really start to panic until Dario began frantically strapping into the pilot’s chair, his normally swept back hair falling into his face while he muttered, “Not good, not good, not good.”
to be continued …
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