Fringe Space – Ovan Tertiary – Hab Block 4 – Uncomfortable corner – Quentin Kallard Tachryn
Kal could see the bounty’s heat signature two rooms away. Thanks to Qane’s modifications, his neural chip had been able to access the heat cameras in hab block 4, and was overlaying the information onto his vision.
Just behind the red and yellow heat marker was a blue one. Friend. Drake was giving chase, driving the bounty toward the trap.
Kal used his neural interface to pull up the contract they’d taken out, and checked the status. “Alive”. Good. No one needed to get hurt.
He closed the contract down and squeezed himself tighter into the corner he’d chosen as his hiding spot, the small cargo boxes huddled around him.
A door slammed open as the heat signature burst into the room next to his. Kal knew there was no other way out of that room, they’d barred the windows, and the floor and ceiling would require heavy explosives to breach. The bounty had to run into the trap, and if he did it with the same force that he’d used to open that door, then this would be the easiest bounty yet.
Kal flinched as the unmistakable sound of a gunshot rang out from the next room. The heat signature started moving away from Kal. And away from Drake.
Drake’s blue outline reached the room of the gunshot, and his voice came into Kal’s neural comms. ‘Window!’
That bounty must have had one hell of a gun to clear those windows! Kal reacted immediately by letting his instincts throw him over the cargo boxes, and ran for the other door, leading away from where the bounty escaped.
The door flew open as Kal burst outside and gave chase, the loud metallic clanging of the deck making it obvious for the bounty that they were still after him. Kal threw back his long-coat and pulled his las-pistol out of its holster, ready to take the shot.
The red blip had rounded a corner and was waiting there. Catching his breath no doubt, he’d been sprinting for far longer than he should have been able to. Probably drugs.
Pistol outstretched and set to stun, Kal skidded round the corner ready for an easy to handle, out-of-breath bounty.
The metal bar slammed into the side of Kal’s face, and he fell to the ground. He couldn’t open his eyes, but could feel the blood streaming from his nose. The back of his head tingled with static as his neural chip rebooted after the heavy impact. He groaned, but forced one eye open.
The bounty loomed over him, holding a gun pointed at the ground. Kal quickly realised that there hadn’t been a metal bar. It was just a House Phestus handcannon. An excellent blunt instrument that never failed – or your money back – as well as the kind of projectile weapon that explained how the guy took out those barred windows with a single shot. Kal didn’t think that getting shot by it could possibly hurt more than running straight into it like he had, but he didn’t really want to test that theory.
‘Where’s the other one?!’ the bounty shouted, looking around frantically.
Kal mumbled a few words before realising he wasn’t saying anything recognisable. He tried again. ‘I’d tell you, but something tells me that you’ll shoot me once I do.’
‘I’ll shoot you right now if you don’t tell me!’
His gun was still pointed at the floor. It may have been a single handed gun, but it was so solidly built that a normal human couldn’t keep it trained on a target for long without assistance.
‘I’ll be honest with you,’ Kal said. ‘I can barely even see you, let alone the other guy. It’s your own fault.’
Finally the chip finished rebooting, and Drake’s voice came over it. ‘Damn it, kid. Keep him busy but don’t piss him off! Gonna get yourself shot.’
How sweet, Kal thought to himself. The old man cared way too much for a veteran bounty hunter.
The visual overlay came online, and for a split second Kal’s eyes were flooded with light before the chip loaded up his preferences. He liked to keep things as uncluttered as possible. He didn’t need a constant heads-up display about which particular alloy composition the floors and walls around him were likely comprised of, or the make, model, and pin of every weapon he saw. With his vision returned to normal, there was just a faded blue “6” hanging in the hab’s skybox.
The bounty shrugged off Kal’s complaints of not being able to see. ‘You shouldn’t have been trying to kill me–’
Kal attempted to lift his las-pistol and wave it at the bounty, as he pointed out, ‘It’s set to stun. I don’t kill. Besides, our contract specified we take you alive.’ But it turned out that he’d dropped his pistol when he got hit, and was left just shaking a hand around.
‘I don’t give a Trok. Point a gun at my face, and you’re trying to kill me!’
‘In my defence, you clocked my chip before I could do that–’
‘Your partner sure as void did!’
Kal made a cutting motion across his neck. ‘It’s possible we’re getting slightly off track here. Look, we just want to bring you in and make enough money to keep our ship in space, and food in our bellies. We picked your contract because it said that you were on the list, not because you’re a criminal, but because they wanted to help you. We’re practically on a humanitarian mission here!’
With shaking hands, the bounty raised the handcannon as if to hit Kal again. Kal flinched away. ‘All right, all right, just saying…’
‘Look, I don’t want to kill you, but I don’t want their “help”. So tell me where this other guy is, I’ll tie you up, and we’re all good.’ He nodded meaningfully at the handcannon. ‘Otherwise…’
Kal slowly hauled himself up to his knees. ‘All right. I’m tracking him, he’s right…’ Kal looked around theatrically before spinning back to face the bounty. ‘Behind you!’
Kal flung himself to the side to avoid a stray shot if the bounty decided to get trigger happy. Sure enough the man spun to check behind him, realised no one was there, and opened fire. The handcannon ripped a hole in the floor where Kal had been, sending shrapnel ricocheting through the confined alley. Kal felt a chunk rip through his long-coat as it lagged behind. He braced his feet beneath him, and threw himself at the bounty.
There was just enough time to close his eyes, brace himself, and think, “That void forsaken weapon!” Then it hit him in the face again. The bounty shifted to the side, and Kal ended up slamming face first into the metal wall.
When he came back round, the back of his head tingling with static again as his chip tried to reboot itself again, he felt a painfully warm piece of metal held to the back of his head, joining the static. His one good eye opened, but all he could see was the dull metal of a hab block floor and its associated gloom.
‘Void take you!’ the bounty spat.
A gunshot rang out in the silence of the artificial night. A second gunshot sprayed hot metal from the deck into Kal’s face. Kal’s brain thought he was definitely dead, but his body had no hesitation as it instinctively threw itself to the side, away from the burning pain.
He heard the carefully paced clinks of Drake’s boots on the hab floor. ‘Void, kid. What did I tell you?’
Kal rolled his head to the side. The bounty lay next to him. Half of his head was missing. The chip finally booted back up. As information flooded his eyes once more, he picked out the most useless of it – a small note next to the bounty’s name. “Deceased”. Kal rolled his head to the other side to see Drake stood over him.
Tall, dark skinned, dressed all in black. It was only his grey hair that made him noticeable against the darkness around him. Another note annotated itself next to his head, and when Kal focused on it, the chip brought it into the foreground. “Drake Farland. Friend.”
Kal would have to downgrade that.
‘What in the Dominion’s giant spheres were you thinking?’ Kal said. ‘Why’d you kill him?!’
Drake rolled his eyes. ‘Total mystery, who knows?’
‘We needed him alive! And I’ve told you, no killing!’
Drake reached out to help Kal up, but Kal slapped his hand away.
‘Oh come on, kid. Not this again. He was going to blow your damn head off. He almost did.’ His voice was calm as always. Kal hated that Drake could kill and not care. ‘Look through my feed, your face is half missing. You’ll be needing the rest of our med supplies to come close to looking normal again, that’s for sure.’
Kal struggled to get into an upright position, leaning against the hab wall. ‘I don’t need to see it, I can feel it. And we’ll buy more medi-bots, don’t worry. From now on, we stick to smuggling. Captain’s orders.’
Drake crossed his arms and gave Kal a look that said he wasn’t budging. In Kal’s Heads Up Display he could see the invitation to Drake’s feed. He sighed and accepted. Half of his vision was taken up by Drake’s view.
‘Well throw a Trok in a void beacon, and you’ve got how messed up I look.’ Kal could see himself sitting on the floor, legs splayed out before him. It must have been more than a single piece of metal flooring that had torn through his coat, as it was half in tatters. And his face…
‘You can say that again. Oh, and you’re welcome, by the way,’ Drake said.
Kal winced as he saw himself. Gone were his sleek face and high cheekbones, his brown eyes and long hair, his carefully maintained stubble – the last vestiges of the nobility that he tried to hide. Turned out that a gun to the face fixed that. It was hard to see through the soot marks and blood all over his face, but the entire right side was flecked with metal shards.
‘Right. Thank you.’
‘No need to mention it, Captain.’ He shut off the feed, kicking Kal back into his own eyes. Drake offered his hand again. ‘And we’re still taking bounties. We need the creds.’
Kal took the hand, and for the sake of his pride pretended not to notice how much Drake had to muscle him into a standing position. ‘We’ll talk about the bounties later. Shockingly, I’m not feeling up to an argument right at this moment.’
Drake pulled out a small capsule and twisted the top and bottom apart.
Kal held up his hand. ‘Wait, wait. I don’t need it. We don’t have the creds.’
‘I’ve seen dead people that need this less than you. Put your arms down. Stay still.’
As Drake kneeled next to him, Kal said, ‘That’s because they’re dead. The dead don’t get much benefit.’
The medi-gel from the capsule dripped onto Kal’s face, and he could feel it expanding to fill all of his pores, nooks and crannies, and then his nose. Once it stopped and solidified, he peeled the gel over his nose off. It may have been attracted to damaged tissue, but he prioritised breathing over healing.
‘And stop your sulking. We’ll make enough to buy more. Saving your pretty boy looks is more important. Without those, you got nothing.’
‘You’re a real comfort. It’s just a shame I couldn’t have done the same for your huge facial disfigurement. Oh wait, no, that’s just how you were born.’
Drake chuckled and then said via his chip comm, ‘Come on over.’
Kal looked around and saw the second blue blip in the distance. Valco. The only Praltus on the crew, the alien had proven extremely useful in the three months since he came onboard along with Qane as his bodyguard. It had made Zara nervous at first – with two people to act as the ship’s muscle, she thought she’d be out of the job. No human could compete with a Praltus mercenary. But they’d made it work so far. Mainly because she was barely conscious enough to start a fight with him.
‘You know what you remind me of?’ Drake asked.
Kal shook his head limply.
‘A fried Slithol’s clutch.’
‘Void. That’s a bit dark. I dread to ask why you know what that looks like.’
‘Sil and Taz, long time ago, messy accident.’
Kal chuckled. Or tried to, but it was kind of hard with half his face on the verge of being officially “missing”. ‘Please never tell me that story.’ He looked around to see the blue outline of the Praltus closing in on them rapidly. ‘We should take that gun. It’ll sell.’
‘Oh sure. Anything Phestus will sell,’ Drake agreed. ‘You got a nice close up of it though, so I’ll take your word for it.’
‘Oh yeah. Great craftsmanship as you’d expect. Pretty sure they made the entire thing from a solid block of lead. Very sturdy’
‘Sure. If I had to guess, I’d say that you could smack a guy in the face at least twice, and still have it fire no problems.’
‘Quite the recommendation. Maybe you should use it yourself?’
That jogged Kal’s memory. ‘Hey, pass me my gun. Don’t want to forget that.’
‘Finally decide that losing it the first two times was enough? Don’t want to try again?’
‘How very droll of you. Just lean me here against the wall. I probably won’t fall.’
Drake unhooked himself from holding Kal, and picked the las-pistol up. He looked it over before handing it back. ‘Sure you don’t want to switch this to Eliminate sometime soon?’
‘Neutralise is a great setting, thank you very much.’
Before the old argument could start up again, a loud thwump of flesh hitting metal crashed next to them. The shadowy form was crouched from its landing, but drew itself up quickly. It stayed hunched over, relaxed. Like most Praltus, it had mottled brown, grey, and black skin stretched over its avian frame. Its short, stubby beak snapped open and shut a few times. A series of low screeches and chirps came from its vocal cords. The translator box around its throat lit up to indicate its wearer was the one talking.
Through his chip, Kal could hear the translation. The standard Praltus greeting about “good hunting, prey, heights, trees” etc. In fact, it was literally that. The Praltus weren’t much for flowery words.
‘Could have used you about two minutes earlier, Volco,’ Kal mumbled through his numb lips. ‘We’ll have to talk to Qane about letting you get your beak dirty, hey?’
‘I’m sure that’ll go great,’ Kal said. ‘Volco, would you mind doing the honours, you strapping young Praltus, you?’
Volco tilted his head quizzically.
‘Stop trying to be funny. You know you can’t talk to him that way if you want to get anything done,’ Drake said. ‘Volco, pick up the body.’
Volco moved forward, each limb moving further than Kal expected, reminding him that Praltus liked to hide their real size. It was some predator, showing off thing. He’d never spoken to one before Volco joined the crew. Sure, he’d seen them around before he’d… apprehended his current ship, but they weren’t common in House Tachryn’s line of work. Not that House Tachryn didn’t need all the bodyguards they could get, but Praltus were only mercenaries. So if the Dominion fleet decided to do a spot check, and you had a crew full of Praltus…
‘Kal!’ Drake shouted.
Kal lifted his head up and tried to focus on the blurry figures in front of him. ‘Sorry, I started drifting off. Head wounds, huh?’
Drake shook his head. ‘Let’s get you back to the ship before we hand this in. Before any permanent damage sets in. Who knew that all it would take to get through your thick skull was a handcannon.’
Kal waved Drake away, and pushed himself up off the hab wall. He stumbled around for a bit as his legs remembered how they were supposed to work. ‘See, I’m fine. Let’s turn it in. If they’ll even accept this.’ Kal looked at the body. The head was hanging at an unnatural angle. Probably because the bounty was exceptionally dead.
‘You don’t ask, you don’t get,’ Drake said, shrugging.
‘But there are limits.’
‘Good for a man to know his limits. Let’s go find them.’
Kal tuned inwards to his neural interface, and pulled up the path to the nearest bounty office, glad that he didn’t have to remember – he wasn’t sure he’d be able to. They were common enough in places like this where the Dominion wasn’t around to enforce order and people needed money. The knowledge that someone with nothing to live for would be hunting you down was a great motivator. No need for the Dominion. It just kind of worked itself out.
Once he’d selected the route for maximum privacy, the usual green arrows overlaid themselves onto hab walls and floors telling him where to go and how long it would take. With a sigh of relief that the walk should take them no more than ten minutes, Kal motioned to Volco to bring the dead body, and set off to lead the three of them to the main street.
After a few near misses with the ground, Kal got the hang of things. They walked in silence for a bit, partly because talking when your face was a third degree burn and embedded with more metal than seems polite was rather tricky, but also because Kal was still focusing on the fact that the bounty had died because of him. He may as well have pulled the trigger himself. Running round the corner like that. What was I thinking?! he chided himself.
But it was the constant reminder that was really grating on him. He turned to look at the weight over Volco’s shoulder. But it wasn’t over his shoulder like Kal had assumed. He was dragging it.
‘Void forsaken spire riot, pick him up!’ Kal snapped.
Volco stopped and looked at the body. Kal was more focused on the trail of blood they’d left behind them.
Volco shrugged, hauled the bounty up on to his shoulders, and they all kept walking.
As they neared the bounty office, they found themselves walking through the main street for hab block 6. Neon flashing lights with arrows invited them into everything from weapons stores and bars, to House recruitment centres. The Dominion didn’t recruit from places like this. Maybe from the capital of a world this far out, but not in this backwater here. The Houses however, were always looking to expand. If Kal remembered correctly, they were just on the edges of House Xeride’s territory. His memory was questionable right then though, as his chip flickered in and out. The visual overlay flashed off for a few seconds, all of the lights disappeared, no longer being projected into his chip’s augmented HUD. He knocked the chip that ran from behind his right ear to the top of his spine. It booted up again.
Drake had stopped walking. They must have arrived.
‘You got this, kid.’
‘Really? Looking like this? I guess I’m going to play the intimidation card instead of trying to sweet talk whoever’s in there.’
‘Play to your strengths.’ Drake shrugged and pointed to Kal’s face ‘And no pressure, but we need this for… that.’
Kal sighed. He looked at the tattered ruin of his long-coat. He was about to complain, but thought better of it. He hadn’t run away from his House just to fall into old habits like complaining about tailoring issues. He stepped forward and pulled on the door.
Then he pushed the door and it opened.
‘Great start, kid,’ he heard Drake laugh from behind as he followed him in. The awkward lope of Volco’s talons was unmistakable as he joined them. Didn’t even have to be told. He was getting better.
The inside was brightly lit compared to the night cycle outside. The room was more of the same boring, drab metal that the rest of the hab was made of. A panel of different coloured metal was built into one wall, and when Kal looked at it, all available contracts displayed for him to cycle through. He ignored them. A door at the back of the room led to something that Kal hoped was more interesting than this box room. A desk was in front of the door, with a Slithol sat behind it. The Slithol was prodding something mechanical. An engine maybe? Kal didn’t have the tech knowledge to know. The Slithol didn’t look up.
‘Got a bounty to turn–’ Kal began, but the Slithol held up a finger on one of its free hands, the other three still prodding industriously.
He looked back to Drake who was leaning against the rear wall looking as unconcerned as possible. Kal waited.They were at the mercy of this Slithol, so he had to play nice. Looking the Slithol over, he guessed it was male judging by the deep black at the end of its tail. He always had trouble telling Slithol apart, but since meeting Tazeel and Silaas on the ship, he’d at least learned male from female. The males were smaller than the females, and couldn’t control their colour shifting as well. This included the inability to match the tip of their tale to the rest of their bright green bodies.
After a minute, Kal decided he’d waited long enough and stepped forward to lean on the desk. ‘Hey. Turning in a bounty here.’
The Slithol croaked out a sigh, and slowly put down the tools it was holding. It looked over Kal, Drake, and Volco with its beady, lizard eyes. It’s high pitched, hissing voice squeaked out. ‘Where is it?’
Kal had to pause for a second. ‘The dead guy.’ He brought up the contract and sent it to the Slithol via his chip.
The Slithol looked over to the dead bounty and then back to Kal. He slowly blinked his inner eyelids, something that Kal now knew was voluntary. ‘It says “Alive”.’
Kal cleared his throat. ‘There were some complications.’
‘I can see.’ The Slithol finally turned away from his tinkering and faced Kal squarely. ‘I can’t pay you.’
Kal stood upright and gestured to the bounty. ‘Look, I’ll be the first to admit there’s some wear and tear, but we got him off the streets at least. There must be something you can give us?’
Drake coughed from behind him. Right, Kal thought, Bargain with strength. Asking a question is not strength. Unless it’s rhetorical and you’re making a point.
‘It’s missing half its face. The chip half. How am I supposed to ID it?’
‘The old fashioned way. Fingerprints, DNA, all that good stuff.’
The Slithol leaned back in his chair and narrowed his eyes, resting two of his arms behind his head, and the other two on his hips. Not that Slithol had hips. ‘Still, the contract says alive, and he’s very dead.’
‘Not just a little dead?’ Kal smirked.
‘Not just a little dead.’
‘Look at us,’ Kal gestured to his face. ‘Does it look like we don’t know what we’re doing?’
‘If you did, maybe you wouldn’t look like that, yeah.’
Kal heard Drake chuckle, but powered through. ‘Funny. We all agree that the guy is no longer a threat. This was a Dominion contract, not private, so they didn’t really need him alive. They’ll just tick a box at whichever facility he was meant to turn up at, and nobody at all will care. We can then guess that because this bounty was effectively a number counting exercise for the Dominion, that the vitality of the bounty is irrelevant, and there will be a standard clause that will allow the bounty office to release funds for a semi complete contract. So…’ Kal allowed himself a self-satisfied smile. He’d known all that studying would pay off. Well, Drake knew. Kal just tolerated it. Barely.
The Slithol smiled, flicking its tongue out between its sharp teeth. ‘The release of funds is actually an incentive to be given out before the contract if no one shows interest.’
Kal slowly threw back the good side of his long-coat, unholstered his las-pistol, and placed it carefully on the desk. ‘I think you’re missing the point.’
The Slithol lowered its arms, losing the grin on its face. ‘Let’s not do anything stupid.’ He raised his hands placatingly. ‘You don’t fulfill the requirements. I can’t give you creds.’
Kal picked the gun up a handspan and slammed it on the metal table making the Slithol jump and instantly start sweating. ‘Why are you lying to me? Do I look like I won’t leave you bleeding to death on the floor, you lizard-shit?’
Kal stood up, grabbing his pistol, but not aiming it at the terrified Slithol. With any other race, he’d have gotten closer, maybe smacked them around a bit. But not a Slithol. Their response to fear was to sweat profusely. A bit disgusting, sure, but it did two things. Fight or flight, it worked for both. Firstly, it was a strong lubricant, allowing them to escape from the tightest of grips. It also stopped their suction fingers from working so they couldn’t climb anymore – evolution sucked for Slithol when they got scared climbing a cliff. On the flip side, their sweat was poisonous, and when combined with their weapon of choice being their teeth, that meant bad things for Kal. Also, the open wound that was his face was ripe for poisoning even without being attacked.
‘Transfer the creds, we’ll leave the bounty, and we all walk away,’ Kal said. ‘Do the smart thing. It’s the Dominion. No one will notice, and even if they do, they won’t care.’
Luckily for Kal, this guy didn’t seem like much of a scrapper. He nodded shakily. ‘Yeah. Yeah okay. I’ll transfer the earmark.’
Kal saw the transfer of funds notification, and a small video that he couldn’t stop played for a few seconds. He raised his one remaining good eyebrow and made a mental note.
‘All right. See, we’re all good here.’ Kal smiled. He had meant it to be a relaxed, calming smile to defuse the tension, but from the way the Slithol shrunk back, his burned face must have made it horrifying.
He turned his back on the contract clerk and looked at Drake, who now held his gun at his side. Drake spoke just loud enough for Kal to hear. In this room that meant everyone could hear, and Kal wondered how long it would be before they upgraded chip tech to be able to send messages via thought instead of just being able to control basic HUD functions. ‘I got Qane checking, and he didn’t send out a distress call, but an enforcer patrol is in the area. Not close to get us on foot, but they’d catch up with the ship.’
Kal nodded and turned back around. The Slithol was backing up, pressing itself into a corner, naked fear in its eyes.
Kal raised his pistol and shot it. The small body spasmed and slumped to the floor.
‘Didn’t want to reassure him it was only on stun?’ Drake asked.
‘Oh, I thought about it,’ Kal said. ‘But ultimately it doesn’t matter. He’ll figure it out when he wakes up. No point keeping him in fear.’
Drake nodded approvingly. ‘Volco, leave that body here.’
Volco shrugged the body off, and it hit the floor with the thump only a dead weight could make.
‘One moment,’ Kal said, and walked over to the Slithol. He raised his hand to check for a pulse but pulled back at the last second. He didn’t dare to touch it, just in case some of the sweat got into his bloodstream, but once he saw the Slithol’s chest rise and fall, he was satisfied. ‘All right. Back to the ship.’
TO READ MORE, click here for the pdf for Chapters 1-4 Ferrik Dominion