By Quill Bard
Synopsis – A century after a devastating war between humanity and AI, the link between Earth and her colonies on the other side of the galaxy has been broken. The wealthy and sophisticated Core worlds of the Inter-Planetary Union exist uneasily alongside other planets on the fringe of IPU’s sphere of influence, and those independent Outer worlds completely outside of it.
Zenobia Katamakis is a rookie bounty hunter, attempting to secure her first collar. Her target, Kal Sorensen, is a former military pilot turned smuggler and thief. Zenobia’s elation at her success in capturing the felon soon turns to despair as a series of events force the two women to work together in a tense partnership.
Disclaimers – this is a work of original fiction. The characters are my own. They may, on occasion, remind you of a warrior princess and her bardic sidekick, or more likely their 1940s descendants.
Sex – a few references, nothing explicit
Violence – some, not more than PG-13
Swearing – yes, from time to time
My third fanfic. I hope you enjoy it! Feedback gratefully received to firstname.lastname@example.org
The twin moons of Linnis IV were rising in the faint glow of the evening’s sunset. Kal put down her drink and gazed absentmindedly out of the tavern window, wondering if this would be one of the nights where the smaller moon crossed the path of its giant neighbour, creating a pleasing vista for those who were interested in that sort of thing. Snorting to herself, she returned her attention to the liquor in front of her and pulled a face. “Hey, Shotgun.”
The bearded bartender grunted on hearing his nickname and shuffled over. A large, muscular man, now turning to fat, he'd run this watering hole for a couple of decades. The reason he answered to the name of an ancient firearm was lost to history, as was his actual name. “What is it?”
“I was gonna ask you the same question. What the hell is this?”
Shotgun frowned. “It's a new spirit I'm trying out. Distilled locally. Reckon it might catch on.”
“Don't bet on it.” Kal pushed the glass towards him. “Gimme my usual. And some suds to follow.”
The barman grumbled, but dutifully served up a shot glass full of a pale green liquid along with a large mug of foaming beer. Kal nodded her thanks and inclined her head towards a table in the corner. “Who's the babe?”
The object of Kal’s attention was a young woman with long dark hair sat alone, studying a handheld device of some description. Shotgun looked over without much interest and shrugged his shoulders. “She's been in here the last few nights. Orders a meal and one drink, sits alone, doesn't talk much. Guess she's here on business. Probably feels out of place. She reeks of the Core.”
“Think she's looking for some company?”
Apparently aware she was being watched, the woman looked up and for a fraction of a second made eye contact with her observer. Kal smirked and winked, which caused the woman to drop her eyes and become very interested in the device in front of her.
Shotgun snorted. “You never give up, do ya?” He shook his head. “She's a classy lady, Kal. Probably on the lookout for a business person. A professional, ya know.”
“Saying I'm not a professional?”
“Doubt she's looking for a professional criminal.” Shotgun leaned in closer. “Speaking of which, I was kinda surprised to see ya here at all. I heard a rumour you got busted.”
Kal smirked again and took a long pull from her beer. “You shouldn't believe everything you hear. Reports of my incarceration have been greatly exaggerated.”
Zenobia took deep breaths in an attempt to conceal her excitement. Her intelligence and analysis had turned out to be flawless. She'd spent weeks poring over reports, official and otherwise, and calling in favours from her father’s old contacts. The resulting picture had led her here, to a grotty old bar in one of the Outer systems, on a planet notable only for its mineral deposits and twin moon skyscape. She'd assessed what was known of her target’s previous movements and had concluded that she would show up here at some point in the next few weeks. To her delight, Kalia Sorensen had put in an appearance on only her fourth night of surveillance. She cut a distinctive figure – shorter than the average with a muscular yet undeniably feminine build, she swaggered into the hostelry dressed in snugly fitting Flight Corps pants tucked into a pair of military boots, a pale shirt unfastened just enough to show the swell of her breasts, and a short flying jacket made of the hide of some unfortunate creature. Looped belts held a pair of blasters, one on each hip.
Zenobia glanced surreptitiously at her comp, keen to double check what she already knew. Her eyes rested on the picture which she’d stared at countless times before. Kal Sorensen in her official Flight Corps shot. Junior officer’s cap sat on short, shaggy blonde locks. A hint of a smile on her face. The flag of the Inter-Planetary Union as the backdrop. For the hundredth time Zenobia momentarily lost herself in sparkling green eyes.
Well. No question of the identity of the woman who’d just walked into the tavern. Indeed, she'd changed very little in the six or so standard years since the picture was taken. Zenobia reread the accompanying text, which she pretty much knew by heart. Sorensen was born on one of the fringe worlds, and had a difficult childhood. She spent her adolescence in and out of various institutions and looked bound for a life of petty crime until on reaching the age of majority she signed up for military service. To everyone's surprise, she proved to be a naturally talented pilot. She saw active service and was decorated for bravery for her part in a raid against insurgents on one of the Core planets. She also represented her unit in the service’s unarmed combat tournament, and for a while her future looked bright. Unfortunately, her talent coexisted with a serious disregard for authority and she was dishonourably discharged during her third year of service following a fracas in the officers’ mess.
On leaving the service Sorensen became involved in crime, quickly gaining a reputation as a smuggler and thief. She enjoyed considerable success until she was betrayed by a fellow criminal and arrested on Elettar V. Zenobia gazed at the second image of her target – this time in a prison uniform, staring blankly into the camera. A bruise was visible on her cheek and Zenobia suspected she hadn't surrendered easily.
Even in the prison mugshot, however, Zenobia thought she could detect a hint of defiance and even amusement in her expression. In any event, while awaiting trial she escaped from the local jail where she was being held. The precise circumstances of her escape remained unclear, but the report mentioned that a rookie guard had become infatuated with the inmate and was suspected of involvement.
Sorensen had surfaced a few standard months later, back to her smuggling. As she appeared to be confining her activities to the Outer planets, she was beyond the reach of official Core law enforcement. Which was where Zenobia came in.
The Core Ministry of Justice licensed bounty hunters to search for and apprehend wanted criminals in the Outer region. Legally, this was something of a grey area which was not addressed in any official treaty between the IPU and the various independent worlds. The legal twilight she was operating in made Zenobia a little uncomfortable and she knew that some planets objected to it as an infringement of their sovereignty. She comforted herself with the knowledge that the majority turned a blind eye, glad to be rid of someone else’s problem.
Zenobia had a sense of being watched and looked up to see Kal Sorensen staring right at her. She had a brief moment of panic that the fugitive was on to her, but instead the blonde woman just smirked and winked at her, a lascivious look on her face.
Embarrassed, Zenobia looked away. Kal Sorensen’s seductive charm was apparently considered such a risk that the official report from the Ministry warned of it. Shaking her head, she reread the report yet again. This was one aspect that the Ministry need not be concerned about in her case.
“Hey, Kal.” A waitress with red corkscrew hair and the facial artwork that marked her as a native of the planet’s eastern regions sashayed over, balancing a large tray of drinks and batting her eyelashes flirtatiously. “Long time, no see.”
“Good to see ya, Teri. And yeah, I was – ah - unavoidably detained.” The pilot took the offered drink and raised her glass in a toast. “Here's to second chances, eh?”
“Mmm.” The waitress put down her tray and moved closer to Kal. She reached out a finger and ran it along her jacket collar. “Whatcha doing later baby? I get off in a few hours…”
Spending a night in Teri’s bed was usually one of the highlights of a trip to this part of the galaxy. This time, though, Kal shook her head regretfully. “Sorry, babe. I've gotta complete my part of a deal. If I don't, that piece of crap I've been working with will take off with the damn ship.”
Teri pouted and moved to serve a nearby table. Shotgun looked surprised. “Workin’ with a partner now, Kal? Not like you.”
“Eh,” the blonde woman drained her beer. “I needed a co-pilot for this job. It's very much a one-off.” She glanced at the timepiece above the bar. “I really ought to be getting back to it. Mac’s gonna want paying.” She held up her shot glass. “One more for the road.”
Zenobia had flipped away from Sorensen’s bio and had returned to her academic text on the history of the Machine War. She'd always found the period fascinating. Humanity versus its creations. The scale of the carnage still seemed unimaginable. Billions of dead. Entire planets left uninhabitable for generations. And, crucially, the wormhole back to Earth, the home planet, destroyed. In the end, of course, humanity had prevailed. The machines were defeated and every government in the sector committed to a complete moratorium on the development and use of artificial intelligence. Over one hundred standard years later, there was still no appetite for the return of thinking machines.
Of course, the rejection of AI and the automation that went with it necessitated a lot of changes to human society. Jobs that had disappeared centuries earlier returned. Communications became more difficult, as the distrust of thinking machines included widespread rejection of more sophisticated networks. Computers still existed – they had important functions - but their purpose was now largely confined to information storage and basic communications.
Zenobia looked up to see her target flirting with a tiny waitress with a tattooed face. Sighing, she returned to her text and imagined that she was somewhere else entirely. Teaching history to eager students in one of the Core’s top universities. Not sat in a dive bar at the end of the galaxy, hoping to subdue and capture a heavily armed felon. Not for the first time, she questioned the judgement that had resulted in her ending up in such a deeply uncomfortable position.
Sorensen had signalled for another drink, which she downed in one before saying her goodbyes to the bartender and the waitress and heading for the exit. Zenobia tensed as she slipped the comp into her shoulder bag. This is it, she told herself. This is it. You can do this.
The washrooms for Shotgun’s pub were located outside, down a narrow corridor between the tavern and the neighbouring store. Kal entered, used the facilities and then stood for a moment by the sinks, staring at her reflection in the mirror. She spruced up her hair and nodded, pleased with the effect. “Not lookin’ too bad, Sorensen.” She leaned over a sink and splashed water on her face. Turning Teri down had been difficult. It had been weeks since her last roll in the sack, and she was feeling, frankly, horny. And the things that girl could do... Kal sighed and silently berated herself for her weakness. She reached into her inside jacket pocket and pulled out the two small, flat discs which represented the payout from her latest job. Bearer instruments, easily convertible into any Outer currency. “C’mon, Sorensen.” She spoke out loud. “Get back to the ship, give Mac his share and get the hell outta here.”
She toyed with the idea of returning to see if Teri was still free once she'd paid off her co-pilot, but for hours now she'd been unable to shake a curious sense of somehow being in danger. Kal had experienced the feeling before and had learned to act on it. Indeed, the last time she’d ignored it – because she was enjoying the booze and the card games in an Elettar drinking den – had ended up with that police bust and three months in the local lockup until she figured a way out of there.
No. Time to get out of here. Kal adjusted her jacket and exited the washroom, only to see a familiar face approaching. The businesswoman from the tavern, wearing what could only be described as a seductive smile on her beautiful face. She was even more attractive standing up, and much taller than Kal had been expecting. She felt her libido kick in and her previous worries about a potential danger vanish. Was this classy lady really looking for a quickie in an alleyway? Well, she thought to herself smugly, it wouldn't be the first time. Only one way to tell. Kal leaned against the wall and grinned. “Hey, sweetheart.”
The brunette came in close, and Kal felt herself sink into a pair of the bluest eyes she'd ever encountered. The dark woman moved in for a kiss and Kal puckered her lips to meet it.
And felt a sharp jab in her neck. Kal just had time to mouth a curse before her legs gave way and she collapsed into blackness.
Zenobia rested her hand on the wall and tried to take slow, deep breaths. Her heart was hammering somewhere up near her throat. It seemed impossible that her ruse had worked quite as perfectly as it had, but her sense of elation was tempered by the reality of transporting the comatose woman at her feet back to the bounty hunter’s ship and off the planet without being noticed. Whispering encouraging words to herself, she crouched down and with some difficulty pulled the shorter woman to her feet. By positioning the blonde with her arm over Zenobia’s shoulders, it was just about possible that, in the deepening twilight, she could be mistaken for a drunk being helped home by a friend. Staggering out into the sidestreet, she marvelled at the weight of the criminal she was carrying. “Guess it's all muscle,” she muttered to herself, giving thanks for the long hours spent in fitness training and even more thanks for the fact that her vehicle was parked in an adjoining street.
The tranq was supposed to last up to 8 hours, but Zenobia had no intention of risking the felon next to her waking early and jeopardising what was up to now an extremely successful mission. She drove straight to the space port and at the fastest speed that she dared. Having loaded her cargo into the ship, she abandoned the hire vehicle in a nearby parking lot before rushing back.
Sitting in the pilot’s chair, she paused for a moment to let her ragged breathing return to something approaching normal. Satisfied that she could speak relatively calmly, she keyed the comms device and hailed the control tower.
“Controller, come in. This is UB7714 seeking clearance for takeoff.”
“Roger that, UB7714. Stand by.”
Time ticked by and Zenobia drummed her fingers on the control deck, trying in vain to stem the rising panic. After what felt like an eternity, comms clicked again.
“You're cleared for takeoff UB7714. Have a great flight.”
Breathing an enormous sigh of relief, she thanked the controller and began the final pre-flight checks. As the ship blasted off the surface of Linnis IV she glanced at the twin moons and allowed a little squeak of excitement to escape her lips.
Target tracked down and apprehended without damage to persons or property.
Not bad for a first timer.
Kal prised open an eye and promptly closed it again, lying motionless for a few moments while she collected her thoughts. She hadn't felt this disoriented since that night on her first surface leave, when she and a couple of other cadets woke up in a cleaning crew’s vehicle after a night spent guzzling vintage liqueurs and a packet of experimental mood enhancers. Trying to piece together her most recent memories was a struggle. She could picture Teri, and Shotgun, and the two moons rising. Drinks, visiting the bathrooms, and a tall leggy brunette…
…who jabbed her in the neck with some sort of tranq. Suddenly the memory was crystal clear, and Kal cursed her stupidity.
Forcing both eyes open, she studied her surroundings. She was lying on a narrow platform in a semi-darkened and very small room. A glance down her own body confirmed that her guns were gone, along with her belts, her jacket and her boots. A dim light illuminated the tiny space, and Kal raised her eyebrows to see a lavatory and small sink bolted to the wall. There were no windows, but the sealed door to her prison boasted a semi-transparent piece of reinforced glass or plastic about two thirds of the way up. Kal swung her legs off the platform and stepped a couple of paces to the door, which she noted was equipped with a microphone.
“Hey! Hey!” She banged the palms of her hands on the door in front of her until the dark haired woman’s face appeared on the other side. “You crazy bitch! What the fuck do you think you're doing? Kidnapping me! What the – “
“Be quiet.” Zenobia spoke calmly and, in her mind at least, authoritatively. “Stop that banging.”
“Lady.” Kal had to stand on tiptoes to see properly through the glass. “I know I'm hard to resist, but this seems a little extreme.” She was grinning, to the intense annoyance of the other woman. “I mean, if ya wanted a roll in the sack with me, all ya had to do was ask.”
“You're disgusting.” Zenobia turned away.
Kal strained to see where the other woman was going, and saw to her dismay the controls of a starship. “Hey, what's this sweetheart? You're taking me on a trip somewhere?”
“Yes. Right back to where you belong.” Zenobia had returned to the cell door and held up her bounty hunter credentials to the glass. “It's over, Ms Sorensen. Now pipe down and let's make this journey as easy as possible for both of us. She returned to the control deck and attempted to look busy, desperate to hide her growing anxiety at the situation.
Kal continued to bang on the door. “Hey! Hey!”
“WHAT?” The taller woman roared in an attempt to appear authoritative.
“What's going on here? Where are you taking me?”
“I have a contract with the IPU Ministry of Justice to apprehend you and return you to serve your sentence.” Zenobia stayed at the controls for this conversation, pretending to be studying a particular instrument in detail. She was finding the discussion intensely awkward.
“My sentence? What? I haven't even had a trial!”
“You were tried and convicted in absentia. You were sentenced to ten standard years penal servitude.”
Kal slumped against the door. The news that the trial had proceeded without her was not entirely unexpected. The length of the sentence, however, was. Undeterred, she decided to press on with talking to the dark stranger. “Penal servitude. You know what that means?”
“Actually, I do. I have an aunt who worked in an off world correctional facility. She said the inmates were treated fairly and had access to educational and training opportunities.”
Kal ignored this and continued to warm up to her subject. “Being locked up in jail on some frontier world, spending every day mining, or quarrying, or something else to make money for some Core tycoon…”
“Well,” Zenobia snapped, “If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.” She cringed as she said it. Even to her ears it sounded unbearably priggish.
“Seriously? You're seriously saying a line like that?” Kal made a disgusted noise. “What the hell kinda bounty hunter are you anyway?”
Zenobia sat silently, chewing her lip. She had no idea why she was letting this criminal get under her skin. Her father had never told her how difficult this part of the job was. Maybe it just didn't bother him. She realised that her captive was speaking again.
“How long back to – well, wherever you're taking me - anyway?”
“About five days,” Zenobia heard herself say. She wondered why she was engaging with the blonde woman at all.
“No co-pilot? How we gonna travel for that long?”
“No. And we’ll stop. I've planned out some layover stops.”
“And what about me? I can't stay in here for that long! What about a shower? Clean clothes?” Kal’s voice was rising in indignation.
“I don't think you need to worry about looking your best where you're going.” Zenobia cringed again at her comment. She was also berating herself for failing to consider bringing along some spare clothes for her prisoner.
“What kinda fucken amateur operation –“ The remainder of Kal’s rant went unheard by her captor, who turned the mic off with a dramatic flourish. Realising that she was now quite literally talking to the wall, the smuggler collapsed on the narrow platform that was apparently her bed for the next five days. She stretched out and laced her fingers behind her head, looking at the reinforced metal ceiling above her.
The uptight brunette was right, in a way. Life in one of the off world prisons would be tough, but not unbearably harsh. Kal was well-used to institutional living and could cope with the hard labour as long as she got three squares a day and a warm bed for the night. No doubt she'd quickly build up a trade network in contraband and if she ran into any trouble she was well able to handle herself. Other prisoners might miss friends and family, but this wouldn't be a problem for Kal. Indeed, the worst thing about her coming incarceration would almost certainly be the boredom.
Turning onto her side, Kal pondered the history of criminal justice. Centuries now, of sending the guilty to institutions packed full of other criminals. Academies of crime. The institutions themselves don't seem to have changed much, either. Bars, and chains, and a bunch of people in one uniform shouting at another bunch of people in a different one. Interspersed, of course, with courses and therapy sessions organised by well-meaning idiots. Be tough or be kind. Doesn't matter. Both approaches equally ineffective.
Profound. “Maybe I'll use that time to write a book,” Kal said out loud to herself, and chuckled mirthlessly.
Zenobia, for her part, sat silently at her station in the cockpit. She felt foolish and out of her depth. An utter amateur. Ludicrously, she was also wracked with guilt at the plight of her captive. The blonde was annoying yet oddly engaging. Ten years did indeed seem a very long time. She was a smuggler, not a murderer. Zenobia rested her head in her hands and groaned. Moral ambiguity of this sort was a rare experience for her and not one she welcomed. She thought of her father again and felt a solitary tear leak from her right eye. Desperate for any distraction, she turned the cell mic back on but found to her surprise and faint disappointment that her prisoner had fallen silent.
The bounty hunter’s introspection was interrupted by a sudden lurch of the craft, followed in short order by an alarm. “Um,” she muttered as she reviewed the instruments in front of her. “Oh no.”
The banging from the lock up behind her had resumed. “What the hell is that?”
“Er.” Zenobia was flustered. “Erm. There's a malfunction of some sort…”
“No shit.” Kal was peering out the door window. “That's never a good noise.”
“I don't… I can't…”
“Let me outta here and I'll take a look.”
“Don't be ridiculous! Let you out and you'll attack me!”
Kal gave a tired sigh. “Look, lady. Whatever your name is. We’re stuck in a malfunctioning rustbucket hurtling through hyperspace at speeds the human brain cannot comprehend. I've got no interest in attacking you while we’re in that situation. Get it?”
“How can I trust you! You don't want to go to jail.”
The alarm continued to blare. Kal ground her teeth in frustration. “You're right. I don't want to go to jail. But I want to be torn apart in deep space even less. So let me out of this damn cell and let me take a look at the problem, okay?”
Zenobia hesitated for a moment more before pressing a button which unlocked the cell door. Kal pushed past her and settled herself in what would be the co-pilot’s chair. The dark haired woman stood up and backed away. Kal saw to her irritation that she was brandishing what was presumably the tranq which knocked her out earlier.
“I'm warning you, don't try anything!”
“Help, or shut up,” Kal growled, turning her attention to the controls and away from her annoying fellow traveller.
Zenobia clutched the tranq gun while she watched the blonde at work. Her (former?) captive was bent over the controls panel upon which she appeared entirely focused. Nimble hands ran over the keys and levers. Her brow was furrowed and from time to time she let out short, audible breaths. She was, Zenobia thought to herself, every inch the professional pilot, focused solely on returning the ship and all those in it safely to port. The cocky, foul mouthed convict seemed another person entirely.
At length, Kal looked up and locked her gaze on the bounty hunter. “Your hyperdrive mechanism is totally borked. I can't fix this. We have to drop out of hyperspace immediately. Find a settled planet that can sort this out. Now. We don't have much time.”
Zenobia opened her mouth to argue but something told her that the blonde was telling the truth. Edging closer, she flicked a switch that displayed a 3D star chart. She gestured at a part of it before closing her eyes in horrified resignation. “We’re here. There's nothing for ages. Hours.”
Kal screwed up her eyes and studied the chart before allowing a small triumphant smile to manifest itself. “Oh, there's somewhere.” She nodded to herself before tapping one of the instruments in front of her and punching in a set of co-ordinates to it. “Here we go.”
After perhaps five minutes the ship gave the characteristic shudder of a vehicle exiting hyperspace. The alarm finally cut out and the vessel hung, silently, in orbit around a small planet. Zenobia caught the breath she had been holding for longer than she cared to think and stared at the woman beside her. “What's happening? Where are we?” Her voice cracked and she winced, once again, at her own foolishness.
“In orbit around New Tortuga.”
“New… what? There's nothing on the chart.”
“Tortuga. And no, there won't be. This place is strictly unofficial. Off the grid.” Kal leaned back and waited for her breathing to return to normal. She was unsure if the clueless bounty hunter realised quite how close they had come to oblivion. And their troubles weren't over yet.
“I don't understand. Why isn't this planet on the chart? Is this some sort of a joke?” Zenobia’s voice rose in alarm. She had, she realised, completely lost control of the situation.
“Least funny joke I've come across.” Kal pointed at the relevant section of the star chart. “It is here. Look. It just doesn't have an official name. Just numbers.” As the brunette leaned in to study the chart further, Kal continued. “New Tortuga. You know. Like the old pirate hangout back on Earth ages ago. A thousand years or so before the Machine Wars.”
Zenobia looked blank. “Er… not my period,” she murmured finally, thinking to herself what an historian’s cliché that was. “Wait. Pirates?!”
“Well, not just pirates. Thieves. Outlaws. Smugglers like me.” Kal ran a hand through her hair. “It's a marketplace of sorts, and a meeting spot for the less respectable elements in this part of the galaxy. We can get the ship fixed there, but… it's risky.”
We. What? Zenobia bit her lip at the way Sorensen was talking. “Erm. Ms Sorensen. There's no ‘we’. I'm a lawfully authorised agent of the IPU and you are a convicted felon whom I am escorting to detention. Thank you for your help with the – technical problem here – but I must insist…”
Kal slammed her fist into the panel in front of her and growled in frustration. “You don't get it, do you? We’re trapped in deep space in a shockingly poorly maintained vessel. The only way either of us gets out of this alive is by having the engineers on New Tortuga fix this heap of junk. The people there are, by and large, a bunch of criminals and most of them are pretty ruthless. Luckily, they know me. They don't know you, and if they had any idea what you do for a living they'd kill you. Slowly and painfully, I’d guess. So quit it with the law enforcement manual and listen to what I've got to say. Right now, I'm your only chance.”
There was a silence in the ship as Zenobia pondered the current situation. A textbook collar had turned into a nightmare too bizarre to feature in any of the guidance notes she’s studied so avidly. She glanced over at Kal Sorensen who was gazing at her, a bored expression on her face. Collecting her thoughts, she finally spoke, with as much dignity as she could muster. “Well, I can see that these are exceptional circumstances, not covered by Ministry standing orders. Very well, Ms Sorensen. What do you need to know?”
Kal stood and began to pace around the small space. “Okay. First of all, the folks down there need to be convinced there's nothing dodgy going on. They need to believe you're with me and that we’re both on their side.”
Zenobia gave an involuntary shudder.
“Secondly, we need a convincing back story. Why you're travelling with me.” Kal frowned. “What's your name, anyway?”
The bounty hunter drew herself up to her full height. “My name is Zenobia Katamakis.”
“Um, okay.” Kal was doing her best not to laugh. “Zen… what?”
“Zenobia. She was a warrior queen in ancient times on Earth.” Zenobia squirmed. She'd always found her name faintly embarrassing. Having to explain it to this smart-ass convict was pushing her levels of embarrassment to never before seen heights.
Kal, to her credit, contented herself with a brief smirk before focusing on the issue at hand. “Too fancy. I'm gonna call you Zee. That work for you?”
“Do I have much choice?”
“Not really. So, Zee, what did you do for work? Before you took on this bounty hunter crap, I mean. Cos I'm guessing you haven't been doing that for too long.”
Zenobia opened her mouth to argue but thought better of it. There seemed little point at this juncture. Her lack of experience was clearly evident. She sighed. “I was a researcher in History at a university.”
Kal nodded. “Okay. We’ll say you're a teacher. And we met… hang on, I got it. You were a teacher visiting that jail I was in. Running courses. You fell for me and helped me escape. We took off in this heap of junk cos it was the only thing I could steal in time to get us off the surface.” She locked eyes with Zenobia. “Work for you?”
The bounty hunter looked at the other woman, appalled. “No. It doesn't work for me at all! Presenting me as some silly girl who ran off with an inmate… it's an insult!”
“Got any better ideas, sweetheart?”
Zenobia closed her eyes and did her best to breathe steadily. This was getting worse by the moment. “Maybe I could be… I don't know, your co-pilot?”
Kal shook her head. “Nah. These guys know I'm a solo. And if I do work a job with a co they'll be a professional. Not someone who would take to the skies in this deathtrap. We’re sticking with the teacher thing.”
Silently, Zenobia cursed her uncle for maintaining the craft after her father’s death and then assuring her it was in flightworthy condition. She decided not to share this detail with her companion at this stage. “Fine. Anything else?”
“I'm gonna need the rest of my clothes back. And this shirt stinks. I'm gonna need to borrow something of yours. You might wanna change as well. Something a bit more revealing, maybe.”
Zenobia made an irritated noise, but said nothing.
“Lock my blasters and any guns you have somewhere safe. No firearms allowed on New Tortuga, by order of Emperor Boris.”
Kal sniggered. “Yeah, pretty stupid isn't it. Delusions of grandeur. But he owns the place so we'd better do what he says.” She leaned forward and opened the comms channel. “New Tortuga, come in. This is Kal Sorensen requesting permission to dock. We have a damaged vessel needing immediate engineering attention.”
After much toing and froing with the New Tortuga dockmaster, the craft was finally given clearance to land and directed to a particular hangar bay. Zenobia objected to Kal continuing to pilot the vessel, but the smuggler insisted, saying that her contacts there would expect to see her at the controls, and in the end she decided that it wasn't worth continuing to argue the point. She sat back and watched the blonde woman handle the ship effortlessly, and felt a pang of jealously that her own flying skills, of which she’d always been so proud, paled in comparison to those of the criminal beside her. Sighing, she reminded herself that until the ship was repaired and they could leave the den of iniquity they were heading to, she had little choice but to follow Kal Sorensen’s lead
On the way in, Kal explained that the planet was not deemed suitable for colonisation due to the extremes of hot and cold experienced across its surface. “Emperor” Boris Blavatsky, a regional crime lord, had however seen the potential in the location, which cut across three galactic sectors and was within relatively easy reach of several independent systems as well as a number of fringe worlds. At great expense he commissioned an underground base of operations, ignoring the widespread ridicule from his peers. The Emperor had the last laugh as his thieves’ paradise quickly recouped the eye watering initial expenditure, and the facility had continued to grow over its fifteen standard years of operations. “It's an amazing feat of engineering,” Kal noted in an admiring tone. “Shame only the scum of the galaxy get to see it.”
Zenobia made a vague noise indicating her interest in the tale but her thoughts were elsewhere. What could she expect once they docked? There was a non-negligible chance that the convict currently piloting her ship was stringing her along and would denounce her to her criminal associates the moment they were on the ground. Even if this were not the case, and the blonde woman was true to her word, Zenobia doubted that they could convince as business partners let alone a couple. She glanced down at her clothes. She didn't really have anything suitable for the image Kal had in mind and had settled for undoing a couple of fasteners on her shirt to look more revealing. Finding something which might fit Kal had proved not much easier but the smuggler had eventually found a sleeveless vest which looked alright when tucked into her pants and with her jacket on top.
A hissing noise signalled a successful docking and both women allowed themselves a moment of relaxation before disembarking. Kal stood first and moved to the exit hatch. On the way she hissed at Zenobia. “Follow my lead. Whatever I say, just go with it. Even if it pisses you off. Oh, and make sure you lock up the cabin when we leave. I don't want these guys poking around inside while we’re gone.”
Zenobia glared at the other woman but said nothing. She watched the smuggler walk down the small set of steps before taking a deep breath and following.
Waiting for them in the cavernous hangar was a tall, heavily built man with dark skin and hair shaven at the sides but styled on top to form something resembling a plume. On seeing Kal he broke into a huge grin and gave a mock salute. “Well, well. If it isn't my favourite Flight Officer. Where ya been, trouble?”
Kal saluted back and sauntered over to their greeter. Zenobia noticed, with a flash of irritation, that the trademark swagger was back. There was a complicated looking handshake followed by much guffawing before the blonde woman stretched out her arm towards her former captor and turned her head to smile. “C’mon over here, sweet cheeks.”
Gritting her teeth, Zenobia put on her most charming smile and sashayed over to the smuggler. Kal wrapped an arm around the taller woman’s waist and grinned wolfishly. “Toller. Meet Zee. Zee, this is Toller. Chief of Engineering on this wretched bit of rock!”
“Chief of Engineering AND Security,” the man corrected as he took Zenobia’s hand and flashed her what appeared to be a genuine smile. “We’ve had a few… personnel issues recently. Lovely to meet you, Miss Zee.” He turned to Kal. “What did a rogue like you do to score yourself such a beauty?”
“Long story, Toller. Long story. Let's just say she helped me out of a jam.”
At that moment a tiny woman appeared from a door to the side and scurried across to where the three were chatting. “Kal Sorensen?”
Kal turned to the visitor, revelling in the unusual sensation of towering above someone. “That's me.”
“Please follow me. The Emperor has asked me to show you to your suite.”
Zenobia gave Kal a quizzical look, but stayed quiet when she saw the blonde woman’s expression. Kal smiled at the tiny woman and nodded. “Great. Please lead on.”
The woman looked at Zenobia and frowned. “The Emperor thought you were alone.”
“Well, I'm not.” Kal tightened her grip on the taller woman’s waist. “Tell him I'm with my girl.”
“Follow me, then.” The woman turned back in the direction she’d come from.
“Catch you later, then.” Toller slapped Kal on the shoulder and winked at Zenobia. At the same time, and as if by magic, three workers in overalls appeared and moved towards Zenobia’s ship. “It’ll be as good as new before you know it!”
“Later, T.” Kal turned and steered Zenobia towards their tiny guide, who moved with surprising speed.
After what felt like an eternity of traversing a labyrinth of passageways, the minute woman led the way into a suite which caused both guests to gasp in astonishment. A huge living area, decked out in luxurious furnishings and artworks from around the galaxy, opened out into an even larger bedroom. The biggest bed Kal had ever seen sat at the back of the room, and next to it a bottle of something expensive sat cooling in an ice bucket. The blonde whistled through her teeth. “Wow. This is… quite something.”
“The Emperor insisted on the best rooms available.” Their guide looked at Zenobia warily. “He said he knew how you liked to entertain…”
“Ah!” Kal moved in quickly to cut the woman off. “Very kind. But no ‘entertainment’ is necessary this time. I've already got company.”
“Well… the Emperor will dine with you this evening. Someone will collect you at 20.00 hours.” With that the tiny woman gave a slight bow and exited the suite.
Zenobia took that as her cue to explode. “What in the hell is happening here? I thought we were getting the ship fixed? Now there's this suite, and a dinner, and this stupid charade of me as your girlfriend…” She sat down heavily on the bed. Fear, frustration and a dozen other emotions boiled over and she choked back a sob.
“Woah, woah, woah.” Kal was holding up her hands in the universal gesture of truce. “Trust me, Zee, I'm as much in the dark as you are.” She paced across the room. “I've stayed here a few times. But never somewhere as flash as this place. And I've sure as hell never been asked to dinner by the big boss…” She groaned. “He wants something. No doubt about it, he wants something.”
Zenobia gave a little squeak of frustration and buried her head in her hands. “This is like a bad dream. I can't believe this! Ship out of action. Stuck in some underworld base that the IPU doesn't even know about! And now I have to have a meal with the chief gangster here. This can't be happening. I just –“
“Hey!” Kal stopped her pacing and stared in disbelief at the woman sitting in front of her. “Don't you think I'm the one who should be pissed off? After all, I'm the one who was drugged, kidnapped and flown half way round the galaxy in a heap of junk that shouldn't ever have been in the sky! I'm the one who’s lost her own ship because of your bullshit! And the only reason we ended up here is because you didn't take the time to make sure your craft was spaceworthy! And if we weren't here, you'd be dead already! So don't you dare make this all about you, you spoilt little Core brat!” Tirade complete, Kal turned on her heels and walked into the huge bathroom next door. “Fuck this. I'm having a shower.”
The bathroom door slammed. Zenobia looked up and gave a despairing groan. For the hundredth time in the last couple of hours, she cursed her decision to abandon her research and fly off chasing fugitives around the galaxy. She reached for the bottle in the ice bucket and poured a glass of the contents into a nearby goblet, which appeared to be carved out of a single piece of iridescent crystal. She admired the unusual piece for a moment before taking a long gulp from it. The liquor burned pleasantly on the way down and she gave a small sigh before unfastening her boots and kicking them off. She felt a wave of tiredness and stretched out on the bed. It felt wonderfully soft and she closed her eyes, just for a moment.
“Wake up. C’mon, Zee. We got a dinner to go to.”
Zenobia awoke with a start. Opening her eyes, she saw the blonde smuggler lounging on a nearby chair, smirking. She shot up as she cursed herself for letting her guard down to such an extent. “Um. I was just… resting my eyes.”
Kal’s smirk grew broader. “Mm. Sure.”
“I wasn't sleeping! I wouldn't dream of it under these appalling circumstances! I –“
Kal’s smirk grew broader. “Ya know, you're kinda cute when you're asleep.” On seeing the dark haired woman’s expression, she chuckled and raised a hand. “I'm only kidding. Take it easy, Zee.”
“Well.” Zenobia huffed as she did her best to recover a shred of dignity. “You seem much happier, Ms Sorensen.”
“Yeah…” Kal stretched and shrugged her shoulders. “A shower does wonders. And if the Emps wants a private dinner he's probably got a job for me. Who knows. New adventure, maybe. Guess it was time for a change. And my ship was a heap anyway. Hope Mac’s enjoying it. At least I got the cash.”
Zenobia had no idea what the blonde was raving on about, but she tried not to display her ignorance. Realistically it was, she thought to herself, increasingly unlikely she was going to be able to return the convict to the authorities. Perhaps she should just try to relax and go with whatever bizarre events were unfolding. The idea shocked her, so far was it outside of her usual thought processes. She wondered if some sort of shock was setting in.
“Hey, Zee? You okay?” Kal spoke with genuine concern as she observed the other woman’s glazed expression. “C’mon, snap out of it.”
“I'm fine,” Zenobia muttered with a sense of embarrassment, shaking her head.
“Dinner’s in ten minutes if ya wanna freshen up.”
A short while later both women were in a restaurant, taking their seats at what was clearly the best table in the house. Zenobia cast her eyes over the scene around her. The restaurant appeared fairly large, but its design – consisting of various alcoves and side rooms – made it difficult to gauge the size accurately. Of the tables in view, around half were occupied, by patrons in a wide range of dress and appearance. Their own table was set a little above the others, with a privacy screen extending half way across.
Kal nodded approvingly as they were seated. “Never been at the top table before.”
“The Emperor will be here shortly.” Their guide gave a small nod before disappearing.
“Nice place, huh?” Kal had leaned back and draped her arms over the chair back.
Zenobia said nothing, but fiddled with her cutlery, an anxious look on her face.
The awkwardness was broken by the arrival of a large man, dressed in colourful robes and sporting an impressive moustache.
“Kal Sorensen!” he announced loudly, raising his hand in greeting. “And this must be…”
“This is Zee, Emperor.” Kal jumped to her feet to greet Blavatsky but he shook his head and gestured for her to sit.
“Delighted to meet you, Zee.” The Emperor sat down and wedged his ample belly under the table. A server appeared as if by magic and nodded earnestly on hearing the order before scurrying off through a side door. Moments later, a bottle was presented to Blavatsky and then, on his expression of approval, poured into all three diners’ glasses.
“Nostrovia!” The Emperor raised his glass and let out a huge roar as he signalled for his guests to join him in the toast. Seeing Zenobia’s brow furrowed in confusion, he leaned forward with a smile. “Just something my ancestors would have said when they took a drink back in Mother Russia.” He took another gulp from his glass. “Back in the day when people spoke their own languages.” Shaking his head, he turned to Kal. “So! Kal Sorensen. It's been a while. I'd heard a rumour you were locked up somewhere.”
“Your sources were right, Emperor. I was indeed in the slammer for a little while.” Kal took a sip from her drink. “Luckily, I had Zee here to help me bust out.”
Zenobia took this as her cue to smile sweetly. Blavatsky nodded, an interested expression on his face. “Well. I look forward to hearing all about it. But first, let us eat. I took the liberty of requesting the special banquet…”
Several courses later, Zenobia looked down at her plate and gave a silent sigh. The latest plate consisted of an unidentifiable protein paired with an alarmingly bright blue grain of some description. It was tasty enough, but her inability to identify any of the ingredients was making her nervous. She had stayed prudently quiet while Kal regaled Blavatsky with an account of their escape and theft of the ship, silently marvelling at the woman’s ability to spin such convincing fiction out of thin air.
A loud snort from the Emperor interrupted her thoughts. “Teacher, eh? Bet that's a lot of use on a smuggling run! What you do, sweetheart, try and educate the cargo?”
“Ah, ah, ah.” Kal shook her finger. “Zee here's not just a brains! She's a pretty hot pilot on the side.”
Zenobia felt her jaw drop open and quickly closed it. A compliment from Kal Sorensen? Whatever next?
“Really.” Blavatsky had put down his fork and was now looking at Zenobia with renewed interest.
“Oh yeah!” Kal nodded vigorously as she chewed the last of her food. “This girl has many skills.” As she said it, the blonde cast a furtive glance at her companion. She could sense how uncomfortable the Core woman was, and against all odds she felt a pang of guilt about placing her in this position. The reference to her piloting skills was something of a desperate attempt to assuage said guilt.
A server arrived to clear the plates and returned a moment later to refresh their glasses. Yet another course arrived. Zenobia noted that this one appeared sweet and she hoped desperately that it would be the last.
She appeared to have got her wish. Blavatsky guzzled down the contents of his bowl before pushing it away and folding his napkin, signalling the end of the meal. Adopting a business-like air, he turned to Kal. “So. Toller reports that your ship was in quite a bad way.”
Kal made a non-committal noise. “Ah, whatever it is, I'm sure T can fix it!”
“Oh, he can.” The Emperor picked up the napkin and began dabbing at his lips with it. “But it's going to be expensive.”
“You gotta pay for the best, right?” Kal laughed nervously. “Hey, don't worry. You know I'm good for the money.”
“Not like you,” Blavatsky mused. “The Kal Sorensen I know always made sure her ships were in excellent order.”
“I told you what happened...” Kal began to rehearse her tale of escape and ship theft but the Emperor already had his hand raised for silence.
“There's something not right about this.” He steepled his hands and leaned forward. “You turn up like this, in a ship that wasn't safe to fly… you bring this ‘teacher’ with you who you say is a pilot on the side.” He shrugged. “For all I know, you took a deal after you got busted. A deal to lead Core agents to this place. Goodbye, New Tortuga.” He gestured at Zenobia. “She could be one of them. Scoping the place out.”
Zenobia’s stomach lurched and she felt the cold grip of fear take hold of her. Did he know? How could he? Had Sorensen sold her out somehow, perhaps while she was sleeping earlier? Hoping that her trembling hand wasn't too obvious, she reached for her glass and took a long drink to steady herself.
Meanwhile, Kal was pulling an incredulous face and shaking her head in disbelief. “Zee? A Core agent? What you been smokin’, Emps?” She reached across and squeezed a startled Zenobia’s hand. “C’mon, Emperor. We go back a long way. Have I ever stiffed you on anything? We’re in a real jam here.”
Blavatsky sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Okay. You got me. I don't really think you're working with those Core bastards. But, you knew the rules. No one new comes here without a double recommendation.”
“I know. But as I say we were in a jam. Ask Toller. The damned ship was falling apart.”
“Enough.” Blavatsky spoke quietly, but it was clear from his tone that he was not prepared to argue further. “You broke the rules. Now, if you want that rustbucket fixed you're going to do a job for me.”
“Okay.” Kal brightened somewhat. She'd expected that something of this nature was on the cards. “What do you need?”
The Emperor paused for a moment to refill all three glasses before continuing. “You remember my mother?”
Kal nodded. She did remember the Queen Mother, as she was known. An elderly but formidable lady who spent around half of her time in New Tortuga, and the remainder in a beach resort on one of the Outer worlds, the name of which Kal had forgotten. Blavatsky was close to his mother, whose background was unknown but who had apparently acted as a fixer in the planning and construction of the pirate base. “How is the old lady?”
“She contracted Fazriki Plague three months ago.”
Zenobia took an audible intake of breath and looked at the Emperor in shock. “Oh… I'm so sorry.”
“Yeah.” Kal pursed her lips. “That's a real bummer, Emps. Condolences.”
Blavatsky looked irritated. “Condolences my ass. She's still alive. She's right here, in fact.”
“Here?” Kal looked around nervously.
“Oh for the love of…” Blavatsky threw his arms up in exasperation. “Hysteria! My mother is in this base, in quarantine, being cared for by a team of expert medics.” His shoulders slumped in resignation. “But you're not the only one to react like this. I'm guessing Toller told you about the exodus?”
“Exodus? He mentioned some… personnel issues, was it?”
“Rats deserting a sinking ship.” The Emperor made a disgusted noise and pursed his lips. “I've given them a great living! Safety, somewhere to sell their ill-gotten gains… you'd expect some loyalty! But no. A whisper of plague and they're out of here.”
“Okay.” Kal took a breath. She could see where this was going. “You need some support? Some temporary cover? Some piloting, maybe a bit of muscle? I'm in. I'm sure Zee would help out as well. Wouldn't you, sweetheart?”
“Er.” Zenobia shook her head and tried to focus. “Well, yes. I suppose I could fly something…” She could barely believe what she was saying, but had given up trying to make sense of the situation.
“Thanks, but I'm not really looking for grunts here. Well, I am, but that's not what I'm asking of you, Sorensen. What I need is… elsewhere.”
Kal shrugged. “A trip somewhere? Sure. But if the ship’s not fixed, you need to supply the transport.”
“Not a problem.” Blavatsky was leaning forward again. “You'll get a decent ride and whatever supplies you want.”
Kal nodded. “Okay. And you will offer…?”
“Your ship repaired and brought up to a spaceworthy standard. And a decent payout as well. We can discuss the precise figures.”
“Let's do that.” Kal took a gulp from her drink. “So, what's the job?”
“My mother needs a miracle. One which I think you can deliver.”
Zenobia watched with a mix of fascination and alarm as Kal’s face visibly crumpled. The blonde woman shook her head vigorously whilst her repetition of “No, no, no!” built to a crescendo.
The bounty hunter decided it was time to step in. “Mr Blavatsky. You and your family have my deepest sympathies. But there is no known cure for Fazriki.”
Kal raised her head from its position resting on her forearms. “Oh, but there is, Zee. There is. But I have no intention of taking this job.”
“Oh, but you will. Or else you and your pretty girlfriend here will pay the price for breaking the rules of my little empire.” Blavatsky leaned his face in very close to Kal’s, hissing in an unpleasant fashion.
“Ah, come on, Emps. You've got a whole squad of people here. Why can't they go?” Kal had her head in her hands.
“You might have noticed I'm a little short on people at the moment.” The Emperor was now speaking quietly. “None of them will go, and I can't afford to lose anyone else from here. You of all people turning up when you did… it's fate.”
“I'll need a co-pilot at least. You know it's impossible to solo that landing.”
“But luckily, the lovely Zee here is a great pilot! You said so yourself. As I say, it's fate.” The Emperor stood and brushed crumbs onto the table and floor. “Hit the bazaar tomorrow and help yourself to whatever equipment and anything else you need. Tell them they can bill me. I'll have a ship ready for you to take out the morning after.” He turned to go. “Goodnight ladies. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
Zenobia barely registered the walk back to their lodgings. The conversation over dinner had been too much for her to process. She was vaguely aware that they were accompanied again by an anonymous flunky and so she refrained from asking any more about the incomprehensible discussion. She tried without complete success to ignore the rising sense of panic. She had no idea what she had been roped into but it was obvious from Kal Sorensen’s reaction that it wasn't anything good.
Back in the suite, Kal opened the drinks cabinet and poured a large measure of something before slumping heavily on a sofa. Zenobia hovered awkwardly near the doorway until the blonde looked up at her and gave a tired sigh. “Ah, get a drink and sit down won't ya? You're making me jumpy just standing there.”
With a strange sense of relief Zenobia followed her instructions and took up a seat on a separate couch, positioned at right angles to the other. The two women sipped their drinks in silence for a moment before Zenobia gathered up the courage to speak. “So…?”
“So?” Kal drained her drink and refilled it. “So. We've been roped into a suicide mission on the worst planet in the galaxy. You know that ten year stretch you were so determined to take me to? Well, if I had the option I'd do that in a heartbeat.”
“Er. I'm really struggling… I'm afraid I had no idea what that whole conversation was about. And where do I fit in?”
“What's… Where...’ Kal put her drink down and rubbed the back of her neck. “Ah, you've really got no clue, have you?” She shook her head. “Okay, where to start… you ever hear of a place called DS4-AA7?” Seeing Zenobia’s blank look, she continued. “Of course not. Hardly on the tourist trail. And that name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Maybe best to think of it as Green Hell. Or maybe Plantworld.”
“Plantworld?” Zenobia looked even more puzzled than she was feeling. “I don't…”
Kal gave a tired sigh. “Of course you don't. Well, let me fill you in. First, a little bit of history. You know much about the Machine Wars?”
“Know much?!” Zenobia was affronted. “I’ll have you know it is my specialism. My thesis on –“
“Yeah, okay.” Kal held up a hand. “I forgot you were our resident history buff. Well, you’ll no doubt be aware that you Core brats sat with your brains frying in the VR rooms while the robots took over, leaving it to us barbarians in the Fringe and on the Outer worlds to launch a defence…”
Zenobia opened her mouth to argue but quickly closed it again. The convict was right. The civilisation of the central planets had become decadent, weak, happy to live in virtual worlds while the machines provided a standard of living beyond the wildest dreams of even the wealthiest people alive today. To the shame of the IPU, it took the colonists and prospectors, living often lawless lives while scratching out a living on the edges of the settled parts of the galaxy to mount a defence. She stayed silent while Sorensen continued her rant. When it seemed to be over, she spoke quietly. “I'm not going to argue with you. But all of this happened over a century ago. What's your point?”
Kal reached for the bottle and refilled her drink. “Yeah. I'm just setting the scene. Anyway, quite early on in the conflict a military outpost in an Outer colony was attacked. They had to abandon the station pretty damn fast and they were looking for some place to hide out while they waited for reinforcements. They ended up in a neighbouring system which hadn't been properly surveyed but which seemed to have a breathable atmosphere and sensible gravity.”
“AA7. The one I was just telling you about. Lemme finish, will ya? So, these grunts get there and are pretty pleased with what they find. It's full of life and there's plenty of water and stuff. Getting down was a struggle though, and the ship was badly damaged in the crash landing. But they figure, well this place seems okay, and we can just send a signal and wait for our rescue, right?”
Zenobia gave a little nod but decided to say nothing for now.
“Anyway, fighting’s pretty fierce round about this time so it takes a little while for the rescue team to show. When they do, and finally manage to put down somewhere safely, they're in for a shock.”
“What happened?” Zenobia leaned forward. To her surprise she was finding the tale and its telling quite fascinating.
“Well, they found the crashed ship and an abandoned camp around it. No sign of the troopers though, but they did find a journal. It described some weird shit. Really, really weird.
“Over the weeks they were stranded, the party found themselves changing. Subtle things at first. Skin changing tone slightly. Strong cravings for sunlight. Strange growths appearing on their bodies.
“The journal became harder and harder to understand and then stopped. The whole thing would have stayed a mystery except, just before the rescuers left, they spotted something in the undergrowth.”
Zenobia was truly intrigued now. “What was it?”
“One of the grunts.”
“He was dead?”
“Nope. Might have been better if he was. But he was alive – after a fashion. The report describes a shambling mound, vaguely human shaped, covered in what looked like moss and vines. The insignia on his jacket was still visible under the greenery. So they knew it was one of their guys.” Kal finished her story and looked over at the bounty hunter, who was wearing a sceptical expression. “I know. Sounds like an old pilot’s yarn, right?”
“To be honest, I thought the same thing when I first heard it.” Kal took a gulp from her drink and laid down the glass before threading her fingers through the tassels hanging from the arms of the sofa. “You hear loadsa stories like that in the service. Here be monsters, ya know? But for some reason this one stuck with me. Probably cos of the weirdness. Anyway… after I got kicked out of the service I was looking for work, and I heard from a contact that Emps was hiring. Wanted pilots and crew for some expedition. Good money. So I signed up.”
“I'm guessing the mission was to this planet?”
“Yeah. Some of the stuff growing there apparently had uses in medicine and what have you. There'd been a few attempts to explore and harvest things, but they'd mostly failed when people found what they were up against. But this was a short term thing. Couple of days, three max. Some particular plant Emps was interested in - I learned later it can cure Fazriki. Drop down, get the greenery, get out. Simple, right?”
Zenobia shook her head. “I'm sensing a but…”
“Damn straight. Firstly, the place is a nightmare to land on. The weather systems in the upper atmosphere are mental. Then when we finally got down, there was none of us prepared for what came next.”
“Did you find the plant?”
“Oh yeah, we found the plant. No problems there. But what we weren't expecting was for the other plants to attack us.”
“Plants? Attacking?” Zenobia was finding the whole story increasingly unlikely. “I did a minor in galactic botany. And the tutor was quite insistent that no flora capable of such things had yet been discovered.”
Kal barked a short laugh. “Well, your tutor should take a trip to Green Hell then. And discover something. If they don't mulch him first.”
Zenobia decided to be quiet for now. “Go on.”
Kal sighed. “It wasn't… all of the plants. Just a few. But it seemed as though there was some low level intelligence there. Branches suddenly appearing to trip. Vines that choked. Fungi shooting out poisonous spores. Then the worst thing. Out of the jungle came these things. Roughly the size and shape of humans, but that's where the resemblance ended. They were quite slow, but strong. They would surround one of us and… consume them.”
“Well, I don't know how else to describe it. Cover them in some sort of gunk that dissolved them. Alive. Mulch, as I said. Then these things would… feed off what was left. I guess that, whatever these things were, they were descended from those troopers.”
Zenobia shuddered. “That's horrible!”
“Yeah, it was. Anyway, out of a crew of 25, only four of us made it out. I suppose the flip side was that the survivors made a ton of dough. Helped me buy my first ship. But I always said I'd never go back.”
A gloomy silence descended on the room. At length, Zenobia spoke. “What would happen if we refused?”
“If we refused? Well, you heard Emps in there. I broke the rules bringing you here. They'd leave us outside to die of exposure or heat stroke. Depending on the weather that day.”
“There must be another way…” Zenobia’s voice had taken on a plaintive tone.
“There isn't. We'd die without question out there. Painfully and slowly. At least with the plants we have a chance, even if it's not a great one.”
“I can't believe this! Why are we even here? This is all your fault!”
“Oh, don't start this again. You started this whole mountain of crap with your stunt on Linnis IV.” Kal drained her glass and stood up. “I need to sleep, and I'm taking the bed. You take the couch.”’
As the blonde woman retreated to the bedroom, Zenobia threw up her hands in frustration. “I hate you, Kalia Sorensen,” she muttered to herself before stretching her long legs out on the couch and contemplating the events of the last few days and the likely outcome of the next. To her surprise, given the danger she was in, not to mention her earlier nap, she found herself drifting off to sleep.
There was no such good fortune for Kal, who lay on her back gazing at the ornate ceiling. She couldn't decide who she was angrier with – Blavatsky for threatening her into a likely suicide mission or the klutzy bounty hunter who had got them both into the situation in the first place. On reflection she wondered whether either was really worthy of blame. The uptight brunette was, in truth, simply doing the job she'd been hired for and was guilty of no more than incompetence. The Emperor never pretended he was a nice guy, and on this occasion he was at least trying to save his mother. Kal turned onto her side as she concluded that the current situation was simply the latest manifestation of her own extraordinarily poor judgement. “Every single thing you do, Sorensen,” she mumbled, “turns inevitably to shit.”
On that note, she pulled the covers over her head and willed herself into sleep.
Zenobia awoke to a persistent knocking. Disoriented, it took her some time to remember where she was. On the realisation of her location, she groaned and buried her head in a cushion, determined to ignore the noise for a while longer.
Her plans were thrown into disarray by a new noise – this time an annoyed hissing from the bedroom. She groaned.
“Zee! Zee! Get in here.” The hissing had taken on an urgent tone. Reluctantly, the bounty hunter swung her legs off the couch and shuffled over to the bedroom door. As she arrived, it flew open and to her alarm she found herself grabbed roughly and pulled inside.
“What are you doing?”
“GET IN. And get into bed.” Kal was draped in a sheet but appeared naked underneath. Her short blonde hair was tousled and her green eyes had a slightly crazed quality to them.
Zenobia drew herself up to her full height and shook the blonde’s hand free from her arm. “Do you mind! I have no interest in this – this –“
“For fuck’s sake, I'm not trying to proposition you! But Blavatsky thinks we’re a couple and he's not gonna take kindly to one of his minions telling him he's been duped. So get into the bed and shut the hell up.” Kal went into the living area and unfastened the door. It was the tiny woman again, this time wheeling a small trolley laden down with food and drink.
“The Emperor sent some breakfast…”
“Yeah, great. Just put it over there.” Kal winked at the woman, who was craning her neck to see into the bedroom. “We've worked up quite an appetite, if you know what I mean.”
The woman gave a curt nod, positioned the trolley near a table, and left. Kal waited until she was satisfied she had gone, and returned to the bedroom. Zenobia was sitting bolt upright under the covers, an outraged look on her face. The smuggler sighed. “The coast is clear. Now c’mon. You may as well have some breakfast.”
They sat at the table in awkward silence, eating the food which was, in fairness, excellent. After a while Kal spoke. “Okay, we need to head to the bazaar and pick up some supplies. Fill your boots, cos it’s all on Emps’ tab.”
Some time later both women had left their lodging and were heading in the direction of the bazaar. Kal remembered its location well, having previously been a regular buyer and seller. On the way she gave Zenobia an idea of what to expect. A vast space given over to trading every imaginable good, from exotic pets to state of the art weaponry. No tariffs, no rules, no questions asked. Kal described a crowded and vibrant space where for the right price anyone could find whatsoever their heart desired, and in spite of herself Zenobia started to feel a rush of excitement.
It was therefore with a sense of disappointment that on reaching the fabled bazaar, she saw a mainly empty space with only a few shoppers milling about. Some stalls and shops appeared closed entirely, while the rest were staffed by bored-looking proprietors.
Kal gave a low whistle. “Guess that plague stuff really has got people running for the hills. No wonder Emps is worried. Ah well. No queues!”
Zenobia looked around then turned to her companion. “So, what now?”
“What now? First, I'm gonna pick up some civvies to replace the wardrobe I lost when you kidnapped me. Next, we both need to get kitted up in some heavy duty gear if we’re gonna have a fighting chance of getting off that hellhole in one piece.” Kal indicated the semi-deserted shopping area. “You go and check out the goods. Get what you want, it'll should all be on Emps’ tab. I'll meet you back here in a couple of hours.”
With that, the blonde was gone. Zenobia breathed deeply before taking stock of her surroundings. On closer inspection the majority of traders did in fact seem to be operating, if on a much more subdued basis than she’d been led to expect. She took in the stalls in her immediate vicinity and gasped at the variety. On her home planet there was no shortage of luxury and exotic goods shops. However she had never seen anything like the sheer range of curiosities on offer within a radius of perhaps twenty metres. Reminding herself that she had a reasonable amount of time to explore, she made a mental note of where she was standing and marched over to an interesting looking stall a short distance away.
It was so easy to lose track of time in a place like this, Zenobia thought to herself as she studied the tray of jewellery. Constructed from brightly coloured, unfamiliar metals and stones, each piece was incredibly detailed with unusual patterns and shaping that drew in the observer even from some distance away. She felt the bag she was holding in her left hand knock gently against her leg and silently berated herself for making so many frivolous purchases, especially given the possible life threatening situation she found herself in. However, shopping for curiosities had been a passion of hers for years, and the range of nicknacks to be found here – some from planets she’d never even heard of – had to be seen to be believed. News of their mission must have spread, because to Zenobia’s embarrassment none of the vendors would accept money for the items, citing the Emperor’s orders. She looked at the jewellery again and sighed. It was expensive and she felt uncomfortable acquiring it under those terms.
“Nice piece. Want me to buy it for you, gorgeous?”
The low voice broke through Zenobia’s thoughts and she spun round to see a guffawing Kal Sorensen. “Oh! You – you – you startled me.”
“Yeah? Well, you were meant to meet me over an hour ago. Oh man,” she snickered, “You shoulda seen your face there.”
“Oh! I'm sorry. I lost track of time.” Zenobia frowned, cross with herself for her lack of focus and irritated that the criminal standing beside her had the nerve to tell her off in roughly equal measure.
The blonde was still sniggering at her own joke. Zenobia took the opportunity to study her as she did so. Sorensen had acquired some fresh clothes. A loose pair of dark blue military pants was paired with a sleeveless top that sat snugly on her torso. For the first time Zenobia noted the smuggler’s powerful upper body, pert rounded breasts and the muscle definition on her biceps. A thought flashed into her head, unbidden, that the woman in front of her had a certain undeniable attractiveness.
The thought disappeared as quickly as it had reared its head, and Zenobia scolded herself for even contemplating it. At the same time she couldn't stop herself from noticing the change in the smuggler’s face when she laughed. The hard, sneering expression she seemed to wear perpetually was replaced with a joyful, almost girlish smile.
Kal had stopped giggling and adopted a more serious expression. “Anyway, if you're done here we need to get going. We've got quite a lot of supplies to sort out.”
With that she turned and led the way through the jumble of stalls to a small door situated in the far wall. Zenobia followed, intrigued as to what lay behind the door. She got her answer when it opened into a vast space crammed with protective clothing, scientific instruments and all sorts of equipment suitable, it seemed, for every environment imaginable.
Kal marched confidently up to a man Zenobia assumed was the proprietor and reeled off a long list of items. He nodded and disappeared for a short while before beckoning both women into a another, smaller, space to their left.
Laid out in the area he'd brought them to were two red envirosuits with matching boots. Kal gave the man a nod of thanks and waited for him to leave before turning to the taller woman. “Okay, we need to try these on and get used to ‘em.”
“Do they go over clothes?” Zenobia fingered the suit material curiously. It was soft but seemed inordinately tough. She wondered briefly how Sorensen had guessed the correct size for her boots, but decided not to ponder further.
“Eh – if you like but you might get hot. I'd take off the outer layer anyway.”
Zenobia squirmed with embarrassment as both women stripped to their underwear, but to her relief Sorensen averted her eyes and avoided her usual innuendo. Once suited up, she pulled the separate headpiece and visor over her face. It felt strange and she had a brief moment of panic at being enclosed in this way. She noticed it had an inbuilt comms system and signalled to her companion. “Is all this necessary? I thought you said the atmos was breathable.”
A besuited Kal turned and answered through the comms device. “It is, and we’d probably be okay, but I’d rather we were sealed inside and don't take the risk of spores etc. Plus the oxygen levels are higher than most planets. The suit will regulate that.”
Zenobia noted the return of the serious, professional officer who had taken charge of her stricken ship earlier. She briefly pondered the many layers of Kal Sorensen before the blonde moved on to describing further aspects of the suits. After a time she called in the proprietor and demanded a variety of caustic and noxious substances to test the resilience of the outfits. A seemingly interminable set of experiments later, she declared herself satisfied and announced that they would be spending a considerable time practising walking, running and stretching in the suits. The shopkeeper signalled his acquiescence and left the two women alone to their activities.
It was quite some time later before they finally took their leave of the shop. Before leaving Kal purchased some additional items – flares, ration packs, water purifying tablets - and gave instructions for everything to be delivered to the ship they were borrowing the following day. Zenobia queried what one particularly large item was. “Herbicide,” said the smuggler grimly, and that was the end of the discussion.
“Where now?” Zenobia enquired.
“Ah, you'll see. I've been saving the best till last.” Kal smirked and headed off in a different direction.
The next stop was behind another unremarkable door in a wall. This time, security was tight and both women were frisked by a grim faced guard before passing through a scanner of some description and, ultimately, through a locked door which opened into an armoury the likes of which Zenobia had never seen. She gazed in astonishment at the walls and shelves crammed with every death-dealing implement imaginable.
“Told ya I'd save the best till last, didn't I?” Kal was grinning as she studied the merchandise. “Murdo’s got the monopoly on weaponry in New Tortuga. The only place weapons are allowed on the whole base. He's got to have decent product to keep that commission.”
Murdo himself was nowhere to be seen, so Kal spoke with a serious-looking, ebony-skinned woman who enquired as to their requirements. “Hey Zee,” Kal called over. What model blaster ya got?”
It turned out that Zenobia’s existing weapon was dated and, in comparison to the hardware on offer in the store, extremely underpowered. Kal helped her pick out a newer model, at which point the unsmiling woman unlocked a door to the side of the counter and ushered her customers into a shooting range.
Zenobia spent a few minutes practising with her new shooter. Kal noted, to her surprise, that the brunette was a decent shot, and filed this information away for further enquiry later.
For Kal’s part, she declared herself content with her current pair of blasters, but did pick out a rifle for herself and machetes for both of them. The machetes were made of an alloy Zenobia had not previously come across, but the vendor assured them that the blade could cut through almost any substance.
Satisfied, Kal gave instructions for the weapons to be delivered to the hangar in a sealed crate. They exited the shop and stood somewhat awkwardly for a moment.
“So…” Zenobia touched her face self-consciously. “Are we finished here?”
Kal rubbed her neck. They were in fact finished here. Part of her wanted the bounty hunter to disappear for the rest of the day so that she could go and get drunk somewhere. Maybe even get laid – after all, it could be her last chance. Another part, though, inexplicably wanted to spend more time with this woman. Kal pondered where this impulse originated, and concluded that it was a desire to keep to the cover story. Satisfied, she turned to her companion. “Um… well, I was gonna go get a drink somewhere. Wanna come?” Seeing the brunette’s puzzled face, she added hastily, “Ya know, Emps thinks we’re a couple. So, we should act like it. Don't want him getting suspicious.”
“Oh!” Zenobia nodded. “Yes, of course. That makes sense. Do you know somewhere we can go?”
“I do, Zee. I do indeed.”
Zenobia followed Kal through a maze of corridors and walkways, finishing up after what felt like an eternity at a set of elevators. She opened her mouth to speak but decided against it and just to go with wherever the blonde woman’s latest whim was taking them.
The elevator shuddered and whirred on its lengthy journey before stopping with a jolt and opening its doors. Zenobia gasped as the two women stepped out into a large open space. Table, chairs and loungers nestled together with scattered flowers and small trees. A large pool of water was visible further inside, and a bar had been set up in the middle of the area, staffed by two cheery looking men. The whole place was bathed in a soft, warm light which was clearly filtered through the transparent ceiling, a long way up.
Kal smiled – a genuine, warm smile as opposed to her more usual smirk – and made her way towards a table at the other side of the area. The table provided a prime viewing spot near a vast window overlooking the surface of the planet. Zenobia looked in fascination at the mini-weather systems visible on the desolate world beneath them. “It's amazing,” she whispered.
“It's nice to watch from here. Wouldn't be quite so good out there, as I said.” Kal gazed up at the ceiling. “Refracts the rays so it doesn't damage your eyes or skin. Folk here would go crazy without this place. Natural light and warmth. Every human needs it.” She made eye contact with a passing waitress who made haste to their table.
Unsure what to choose from the vast drinks menu, Zenobia allowed her companion to order first and then indicated she'd have the same. The waitress nodded and headed to the bar.
The drinks arrived and the two women sat for a while in oddly companionable silence, sipping their drinks and enjoying the rays. At length, Kal spoke. “Ya know, Zee, you're not too bad when ya get to know ya.” She clinked her glass against the brunette’s and took a long draught. “Damn, that's good. We’re gonna need another round.” She flagged down the waitress again and repeated the order, along with a request for a plate of bar snacks.
Zenobia was unsure how to react to this. She paused before responding. “Well. I suppose I should be flattered?”
“Damn straight. How often do you think I have a beer with Core kidnappers?”
Zenobia looked around in alarm, but there was no one in hearing distance. She scowled. “It wasn't a kidnap! I was authorised to-“
“Yeah, yeah.” Kal drained her glass. “If we get out of this alive, you do know I'm not going back with you.”
Zenobia fell silent. In her heart she was well aware that there was now very little chance of her succeeding in her mission to recapture the smuggler. More to the point, she was no longer sure if she even wanted to. She looked up to see the drinks arrive, along with a plate of deep fried brightly coloured invertebrates of some description. Deciding not to enquire about the detail of the creatures’ origin, she gingerly took a bite of one, before being pleasantly surprised by its flavour and crunchy texture.
Kal was looking at her, an odd mixture of curiosity and amusement on her face. “So, Zee. How in the galaxy did you end up hunting crims like me? Let's hear the story.”
The dark haired woman reddened and looked down at the table. “I don't think that's any of your business.”
The smuggler leaned back in her chair and gave a snort. “Zee. Our life expectancy is probably gonna be measured in days. We need a distraction… I can think of better ones, but in the absence of them, a story will help!”
With a sigh of resignation, Zenobia spoke. “My father was a successful bounty hunter. All his life, right up till he retired. He was very proud of it. After he died… well, I thought I should carry on the family business.”
Kal looked sceptical. “I thought you said you were a researcher. Bit of a career change, no?”
Zenobia sniffed. “My father taught me how to shoot, and pilot, and lots of other things. And I always kept fit.”
“Yeah, you certainly do look after yourself.” The blonde shot the other woman an admiring glance. “But, c’mon. I'm not really buying this. What's the real story?”
There was a brief pause as Zenobia crunched on another one of the bugs and considered how much she should say. She decided that, given the circumstances, she may as well be honest. There was nothing to lose, after all. Quietly, she said, “I was engaged to another researcher at the university. The wedding… didn't happen, and I thought I needed a complete change. Taking over Dad’s business seemed like just the thing.”
Now it was Kal’s turn to feel awkward – an unusual sensation for her. “Ah, I'm sorry, Zee. That sucks.”
“Yes. It does.” There was a hint of bitterness in the bounty hunter’s voice. “I wasn't Core enough for him, as it turned out.”
“What do you mean?” Kal was genuinely puzzled.
Zenobia took a deep breath. “He was from an old Core family. Very well-known, very respectable. I thought I was too – after all my mother’s family is also well-known, and my father was a successful businessman.”
“But, my father’s family weren't so respectable. They weren't even proper Core. He was born on a fringe planet. And his successful business was bounty hunting.” She shook her head. “And the rest of his family worked in law enforcement in one form or another. His brother a cop. Sister a prison guard.”
“Well, c’mon.” Kal tried to inject some levity into the conversation. “Sure, I might not get on too well with your folks, for the obvious reasons. But they're perfectly respectable professions.”
“Not for the big fancy Core families. My mother scandalised society when she married him all those years ago.” Zenobia took a gulp from her drink. “And that wasn't the worst of it. He found out that I was a Natural.”
“Natural what?” Kal was now thoroughly confused.
“Natural born. As in, the old fashioned way. Not in a vat.”
“Lab babies? Does the Core still go in for that?” Kal creased her brow. “I thought it was banned decades ago. Worries about messing with the genome or something?”
“Not… quite that. But yes, there were serious ethical concerns, and the practice was largely discontinued. The really old Core families though… they still have a few tame doctors and labs who can make it happen.
“My fiancé… got a hold of some medical records which showed I used to be short sighted. It was fixed ages ago, but of course Labbies would never be grown with short sight. So he figured out the truth, and called it off.”
Kal was incredulous. “Seriously? He ditched you cos your ma carried you inside her rather than growing you in a tank? What a dick.” She shook her head. “You're well shot of him. Trust me!”
Zenobia looked down at the table and fiddled with a napkin. She felt a curious combination of embarrassment and relief at getting the truth behind her career change out in the open. Of course, she doubted that her drinking companion really understood, let alone cared about, the utter devastation that the break up had caused her. She traced a pattern on the table top. “The stupid thing is, I was actually a pretty decent researcher. And I jacked it all in to be the galaxy’s worst bounty hunter. Idiot.”
“Hey!” Kal gave the other woman a gentle slap on the arm. “Don't be so down on yourself. I actually thought it was pretty smooth the way you collared me. Your ship was a piece of crap, and you hadn't really thought through all the logistics, but forgetting those details for a moment… not bad for a first timer.”
Zenobia shrugged and gave a tiny smile. “Just details, huh?”
“Details. Just needs some better planning.” Kal laughed and reached for a crunchy bug. “Anyway. How come you came after me for your first collar?”
“Well,” Zenobia paused as she considered exactly how much to say. “The Ministry has a directory, you know. Wanted felons, their crimes, some background details to help you track them… I saw your entry and thought it looked like somewhere to start.”
Not quite the entire truth, of course. Browsing the directory, Zenobia had come across Kal’s mugshot and found herself strangely drawn to it. She considered a number of other fugitives, but kept coming back to the image of the defiant blonde woman. There was something oddly familiar about her and she had an inexplicable need to see her in the flesh.
“So how much was I going for?” Kal said with a hint of amusement. On hearing the answer she feigned outrage. “That all? They saw ya coming, Zee!”
Against the odds, Zenobia found herself laughing out loud. “Okay,” she said once she had composed herself. “That's quite enough about me! Your history seems more interesting than mine! Let's talk about you.”
Kal’s expression darkened and the lighthearted mood evaporated. Zenobia cursed herself for misjudging the situation. “Oh, look, I'm sorry. I didn’t mean to annoy you.”
Kal forced a smile – in truth more of a rictus grin – and shook her head. “Nah, that's okay Zee. What in particular d’ya wanna talk about? I mean, you've read my file. Didn't that tell you everything there was to know?”
Zenobia gave a small shrug of her shoulders. “Well, for starters I was hoping to hear a bit more about your piloting. You stayed pretty cool when we had that problem up there.”
“I love it,” said Kal, somewhat unexpectedly. “Flying ships. Any sort. It's just the best feeling ever.” An uncharacteristically dreamy expression crossed her face. “Those first couple of years in the service… best days of my life.” She gave a little sigh.
“What made you join the service?” Zenobia asked curiously. “Had you flown before?”
“Ha!” Kal gave a dismissive snort. “Flown before? I'd never been off the planet let alone had a try myself.” She ran a hand through her hair. “The service saved me. If you've read my file you’ll know I got into a bit of trouble as a kid. Ended up in detention. A couple of months before I got out, a guy from the military came to talk to us junior crims about possible careers. Thought it sounded interesting, and I had nowhere else to go. I got released on my eighteenth birthday and went straight down the recruiting office… anyway, the first training flight I did, I just couldn't believe it. The freedom, the… I dunno, sense of majesty of the stars I guess… it blew me away.”
“Your file says you received a commendation for bravery,” Zenobia ventured cautiously, not wanting the blonde’s mood to change again.
“Yeah. I could have had a great career.” Kal shook her head. “But I can't keep my fucking mouth shut. Never could. Our new commanding officer was a fool and I told him as much. Then I punched him. There it was. All over.”
Zenobia was aware of the bare bones of this story of course, but hearing the self-reproach and genuine sense of loss from Sorensen gave it a slightly different flavour. Wondering if she was pushing her luck a little, she raised the question which had been puzzling her since the first time she read the convict’s file. “Why did you go back to crime? Couldn't you have worked as a civilian pilot?”
A deep sigh from the blonde woman. “Could I? Yeah, probably, although my application wouldn't have looked too good. Graduated from youth jail then, for my next trick, dishonourable discharge from the military. But, yeah, I guess I could have found something. Truth is though, I didn't even really consider it. I just thought I'd go back to something I knew I could succeed at. Thieving. Smuggling. Fighting. And look where it's got me.” She laughed bitterly. Probable death in the next couple of days. Ten years hard labour if I win the jackpot! Ah, fuck it.” She laughed again, this time apparently genuinely. “Who knows! Let's get another round.”
The drinks arrived. Kal raised her glass in a toast. “C’mon. I know there's more questions just waiting to come out!”
Zenobia looked at the other woman in bafflement. Her mood swings were unpredictable and it was impossible to know how to react. She decided to take the latest comment at face value and ask something else. Racking her brain for a moment, she recalled something that was unclear in the file. “How did you break out of prison in the first place? Did you have help?”
Kal leaned back in her chair as she thought how to answer this. Part of her still felt a little guilt for her actions, even if she'd long ago filed them in the “end justifies the means” category. She thought back to the time. Elettar V was a minor planet, a small fringe world which was officially part of the IPU but in reality saw little of the Core or its people. Kal had thought she'd be safe there, in an underdeveloped corner of the galaxy with a population of maybe a couple of million. The planet’s second largest settlement, a small city with a frontier feel about it, seemed like a perfect place to do business, until the cops raided the bar she was drinking in and she realised she'd been set up.
The jail she found herself in had a similar frontier feel. A basic lock up with four tiers of single cells, barred fronts looking out on a central atrium. No work, activities or programmes of any sort. It was simply a facility for warehousing inmates awaiting trial or serving short sentences. Elettar apparently had a low crime rate, as the jail was half empty. Kal quickly found herself going insane with boredom. Day after day of tedium - interminable hours of lock down in her cell with only barely more tolerable periods of yard time and terrible food to look forward to.
So it had been a surprise when, a couple of weeks in, a guard noticed her leaning listlessly against the bars of her cell and asked whether she was alright. Conversation ensued and it turned out that prisoner and jailer had more in common than might have been expected. The guard, who introduced herself as Officer Hernandez, was a recent recruit who had only graduated from school a couple of years earlier. She'd been attracted to a career in corrections by promises of generous pay and, apparently, a vague idea of helping people turn their lives around. Her illusions had been quickly shattered as she found that her job consisted of little more than acting as a turnkey, and that the decent money was reserved for those working at off world facilities. In fact, she was almost as bored as the woman on the other side of the bars.
To Kal’s surprise the young guard returned again the next day, and they soon found themselves having long talks through the bars on a daily basis. Hernandez had vague ambitions to learn to fly and listened in fascination to the prisoner’s tales of her time in the military. It was quite clear that the young woman was captivated by the inmate.
Kal was flattered by the guard’s attention, but her focus was on finding a way to escape her current predicament. Over the following weeks she gradually teased out valuable information from the besotted woman. She learned that the jail’s security was extremely basic. Revulsion at machines had been taken to extremes on Elettar, and the prison had no electronic or biometric security systems, relying instead on old fashioned bars and manual locks. The perimeter consisted of a double set of fences, the outer one of which was electrified, but there were no walls or guard towers. The profile of the inmates held there, and their relatively short stays, meant that no escapes had even been attempted for years and the authorities had become complacent about the risks. Patrols, especially at night, were few and far between. Crucially, during one of Hernandez’s lengthy monologues about her co-workers’ forgetfulness and incompetence, Kal honed in on a throwaway remark about a spare set of master keys kept in the guards’ office on the bottom tier.
The smuggler bided her time, but in due course managed to steal the keys and hide them in her bedding. Her gamble, that their absence would not be noted immediately, paid off and a few nights later Kal Sorensen escaped the facility. Having cut the power on her way out, it was a simple matter to scale the twin fences and make her way to the airfield where she'd left her ship.
She wondered how to explain all that to Zee. Choosing her words carefully, at last she spoke. “There was this young guard. Twenty or so. She kinda had a crush on me. Gave me the idea for your cover story to Emps, actually. She'd find me in the yard and make excuses to have a conversation. When she was on night shift she'd come into my cell and…”
“Spare me the details.” Zenobia made a disapproving noise. “You seduced this poor young woman.”
“Actually,” said Kal, in a slightly self-satisfied tone. “I didn't. I think she would have welcomed it, mind you, but I didn't. We just talked. She tried to kiss me one time, but that was as far as it went.”
“How come?” Zenobia was more puzzled than ever. The smuggler was clearly rather more complex than the Ministry profile had indicated.
Kal thought back to that time as she considered how to answer the question. It had been quickly evident that the guard was infatuated with her. A roll in the sack with her would certainly have helped relieve the tedium of incarceration and the jailer/inmate aspect and risk of getting caught would no doubt have added some excitement to the situation. However – “I had plans to escape. Plans that I needed help with. I didn't want anything to jeopardise that.”
Not entirely true, of course. Whilst it had been a consideration, ultimately it had been Kal’s conscience that made her pull back. She knew she was using and manipulating the young woman and putting her at risk in pursuit of her escape plans. She didn't want to take advantage of her sexually as well.
“So,” said Zenobia. “She helped you escape, then.”
“Well. Not quite. It’s more that I using her for information. That, and there was maybe an element of her turning a blind eye to what I was doing. I still don't know how much she'd actually figured out. I'd gotten hold of a master key, you see. Did she realise that? I'm not sure, she was terribly naïve. She wasn't there when I actually broke out. I made sure it was a night she wasn't on.”
“Once I was clear of the prison, I stole an airbike and headed straight to the airfield I'd left the ship at. Someone must have been looking out for me, because it was still there. I was in hyperspace before they would even have done the headcount and realised I was missing.”
Silence for a moment, and then Kal spoke again. “I wonder what happened to that guard.”
Zenobia tutted. “There was some mention of a guard in the file. They suspected her. But they couldn't prove anything.”
“Good.” Kal visibly relaxed. “I didn't want her getting into trouble. Hopefully, she's found a new career.”
The two women finished their drinks in relative silence. There was an awkward feeling between them, that both had perhaps revealed too much. Even though it was only early evening, when the smuggler suggested that they should perhaps return to their quarters to rest Zenobia was all too happy to comply.
Back in the suite, Kal poured herself a large measure of something from the drinks cabinet before motioning towards the bedroom. “Go on. You have the bed tonight.”
Zenobia looked taken aback. “Really? But –“
“Go on. I'll be fine on the couch. You're longer than me and we both need to sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.”
The bounty hunter decided against arguing, and retreated into the bedroom, closing the door behind her. As she stretched out on the bed, she wondered briefly whether she ought to offer the other side of the mattress to Kal. The bed was, after all, quite vast and she was certain they could manage to avoid disturbing each other. However, her own feelings about the convict were starting to trouble her and on reflection she decided to leave the blonde to the couch.
Kal, for her part, spent the next few hours sipping her drink and developing a strategy for their mission to the place she would always think of as Green Hell. Her inherent will to survive was kicking in and it was, she told herself, quite possible that she could pull this off.
At first light the following morning, both women were already in the hangar preparing for departure. Zenobia noted the impressive turn out of New Tortugans who'd braved an early start to see them off – or, perhaps, she thought darkly, to gloat at their misfortune. She scolded herself for assuming the worst of the inhabitants and resolved to be less judgemental in future.
Toller the engineering and security chief was the first to greet them and show them the ship they would be taking. Kal seemed impressed with the craft, asking a range if detailed questions before climbing aboard to check out the interior. She returned with a pleased expression on her face and nodded at Zenobia. “Decent bird, this one, Zee. We should look into upgrading to something like that when we get back.”
Next the supplies and weaponry were loaded on board and carefully checked by Kal. At her request Zenobia had retrieved the smuggler’s blasters from the locked case on the ship, and the blonde woman positioned them in her gun belt’s holsters with a satisfied grunt.
Kal left Zenobia for a moment to talk to a thin man who was standing near the dockmaster’s office. She recognised him as Dr Danzig, a medic who’d treated her for a sprained wrist a couple of years earlier. “Hey, doc. How's it going?”
“We’re surviving. Just.” He smiled at her. “Sounds like you've got a pretty tough gig, huh?”
Kal acknowledged this with a slight incline of her head. “And what about the Queen Mother? How's she doing?”
The doctor grimaced. “Surviving. Just.” He dropped his voice. “Listen, Sorensen. If you can pull this off… I mean sure, we can save the old lady, but it could be so much more than that.”
“I know. But don't get your hopes up. You know how that place is.” Kal patted his arm. “But, yeah. You never know. There's just a chance it might work.”
Blavatsky’s voice interrupted them and Kal said goodbye to the medic, who wisely found that he had urgent business at the infirmary. The Emperor folded his arms and watched a pair of engineers complete their final checks. He turned to the smuggler. “Don't even think of trying to run. I've had the course plotted into the navigation system. The ship’s set to self destruct if it goes anywhere else.”
Kal said nothing. This was to be expected. She would do the same, she told herself, if the positions were reversed.
“Three days,” the Emperor muttered. “You need to be back here in three days. There's no time to lose.”
Kal simply nodded and walked over to the craft. “Okay Zee. It's time.”
The far door of the hangar opened as Kal manoeuvred the ship out of its bay. Gunning the engines, she turned and grinned at her co-pilot. “Okay. Here goes nothing!” The craft roared and seconds later they were out of New Tortuga and heading rapidly to escape velocity.
Zenobia gritted her teeth, as she always did during take-offs. She noticed how much faster and smoother the experience was compared to what she was used to, and said as much to Kal.
“Top of the line, sweetheart.” Kal jabbed at the mechanism that would take them into hyperspace. “No expense spared from the Emperor.”
The hyperspace jump completed successfully, Kal released her safety straps and wandered over to the small galley in the area behind the cockpit. To Zenobia’s surprise, the smuggler began brewing coffee. “How d’ya take it, Zee?”
Ten minutes later, they sat sipping their drinks and snacking on some small sweet cakes which Kal had apparently insisted were included in the supplies – along with, Zenobia noticed, a large bottle of an extremely expensive liquor. “If we do pull this off, we’re gonna want to celebrate,” the blonde had shrugged when asked for her reasoning.
“It's about six hours hyperspace to Green Hell.” Kal put down her cup and picked up a handheld comp which contained her detailed notes from the previous night. “If we’re gonna have a hope of getting out alive we’re going to have to do this perfectly. So here's what we need to do…”
Zenobia listened intently while the smuggler outlined her proposed course of action in great detail. The co-ordinates of both the landing site from the previous expedition and the location of the specific plants they needed had been acquired from logs still held in New Tortuga. Kal had however identified another landing site, much closer to their target. She recalled a very large flat rock which the team had passed on the earlier trip and was confident that the much smaller craft they were using this time could put down safely on it. This would, she explained, require only a couple of hours hiking rather than seven or eight from the original site.
“Frankly, the least time we have to spend on the surface, the better,” the blonde muttered, and her companion could only nod in agreement.
Based on the testing they had done in the supplies shop, Kal was comfortable that the envirosuits could protect them from the majority of the nasties they might find there. Her only uncertainty was whether they would provide an effective defence against the dissolving substance secreted by the plant/human hybrids. However, she hoped that the change of landing site might mean they avoided the things altogether.
Zenobia asked about the plants they were seeking to harvest. Kal explained that they were small flowering plants with distinctive bright blue blooms. Their medical potential, in particular in treating Fazriki, had been known of in research labs for over a decade but the difficulty in acquiring specimens meant that the serum derived from the plants remained highly experimental and the medical establishment as a whole was sceptical of its effectiveness. Attempts to cultivate the plants away from their home planet had been unsuccessful.
“It does work, though,” Kal insisted. “Emps wouldn't have made the fortune he did from what I brought back last time, otherwise. And he's certain it will fix the old lady.”
Zenobia frowned. “A cure for Fazriki Plague would be the biggest medical advance in forty years or more. Why isn't the IPU sending battalions down to this world to secure the supply of the plant?”
Kal shrugged. “When we try to put this bird down, you'll see why a troop carrier might struggle. So far it's been small private operations trying to get samples, and the majority don't make it back in one piece. As I said, this is highly experimental stuff mainly coming out of tiny little research places. There's just not enough evidence for the Core to risk it.”
Coffee finished, both women stared blankly at the instruments in front of them. After a while, Kal spoke. “So… this ex-fiancé of yours. You hear much from him?”
“No. Not at all.” Zenobia twisted her fingers and rolled her eyes upwards. “After he found out about my… origins and broke off the engagement, not a peep.”
“Told ya.” Kal reached for another cake. “He's a dick, clearly. Not worth your time. But you must be exploring some other options, eh?”
Zenobia looked affronted. “If you mean what I think you do… certainly not.”
Kal sighed. Yet again with the awkwardness. She'd been looking for some light hearted banter to take their minds off the dangers ahead, and it appeared she'd misjudged the situation badly. She noted that Zee never even mentioned her ex’s name, and realised with a start that perhaps even saying it was painful for her companion.
Zenobia spoke, interrupting Kal’s musings. “So, what about you, Ms hot shot smuggler heartbreaker? Anyone special in your life?”
“Ah, no. Nothing like that.” Kal scratched the back of her neck and did her best to look elsewhere. “I'm never in the same place for long, ya know how it is.”
“Girl in every port, eh?” Zenobia shook her head. “Well, I guess that's easier in some ways.”
“Yeah. Something like that.” The conversation was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Kal had always prized herself on being a solo. No ties. No family. No relationships. No real friends. She did, she supposed, have a girl in every port. If, that is, you counted casual liaisons with bartenders, waitresses and even the occasional “professional”. Pleasant distractions, certainly. Riotous fun, occasionally. Even faintly meaningful? No. Kal thought about her near death experience in the bounty hunter’s wreck of a ship, and her upcoming potential suicide mission. There was, she realised, no one in the galaxy who could be relied upon to mourn her.
This sort of thinking was deeply troubling, and Kal recognised that it was not conducive to a successful mission. She asked Zenobia to keep watch in the cockpit, and excused herself to prepare the kit and supplies they would take to the surface.
The next few hours passed in relative silence as both women took turns in monitoring the flight deck, resting and dealing with other matters. As they drew close to their destination, Kal called her companion who was resting in the cabin behind. “We’re about to drop hyperspace. Get yourself over here and strapped in.”
Zenobia followed the instructions and watched in anticipation as the craft dropped out of hyperspace and began a lazy orbit around the planet ahead of them. Even from this distance, it was extraordinarily green. She asked the question she already knew the answer to. “That it?”
“Yep.” Kal Sorensen was picking at her teeth with a small piece of metal. “There it is. Plant World, or Green Hell, or the Garden of Eden if you're some lame ass Preservist.”
The Preservists, as Zenobia was well aware, was the name given to an activist group dedicated to keeping newly discovered worlds in their virgin condition. The group enjoyed considerable support in the wealthier parts of the Core planets, but was hugely unpopular in the IPU fringe. Given this background, she suspected the smuggler’s views on the group would be unlikely to mesh with her own and decided not to initiate a conversation on it. Instead she continued to gaze at the world before them. “It reminds me of Earth.”
“Just the pictures. So green. So beautiful.” She turned to Kal. “I wonder how it looks now.”
Kal shrugged. “Depends on whether the folks down there beat the machines for good. If they didn't… well, maybe just as well the wormhole got trashed.”
Zenobia nodded her agreement. “I know. I just can't help thinking about how strange it is, that everyone in this whole part of the galaxy is separated from the place they come from, ultimately.” She looked wistful. “Maybe that's what got me interested in History in the first place.”
The subject was interesting, but Kal knew it was neither the time or the place to discuss matters further. She gestured at the planet below them. “Think Earth had more water on it. Would have been bluer. Anyway... ten minutes.” Kal flicked some switches. “We need to be in exactly the right place.” She gestured at the controls. “On my signal, you need to take control of the steering. Hold steady, whatever happens. Follow any instructions I give.” The blonde woman flexed her hands. “Okay, let's get ready…”
The “right place” duly reached, Kal pushed a button and turned to her companion. “Okay, now.”
Zenobia gripped the steering mechanism tightly as the craft began its entry into the planet’s upper atmosphere. Seconds later, she felt the ship buck violently before turning almost completely upside down. Giving silent thanks to the straps that held her in place, she pulled hard on the levers to steady the craft.
“That's it, that's it, keep her like that!” Next to her Kal’s hands were dancing frantically over the controls. The ship began to decelerate rapidly. Behind them, an alarm began to blare.
The knuckles of Zenobia’s hands whitened as she struggled to control the motion of the craft. She was vaguely aware of Sorensen’s encouraging shouts but for now, all she could focus on was her own desperate attempts to right the ship, which was being buffeted on all sides, presumably by the planet’s weather systems. In her peripheral vision she could see an electrical storm of some description and she wondered if the craft could survive an encounter with such a phenomenon.
The ship bucked again and this time spun a full 360 degree roll. Zenobia could feel the cakes she'd eaten earlier threaten to make a reappearance and swallowed hard. The likelihood of survival seemed to be dropping by the second, but she wrenched the levers again to further positive-sounding yells from the woman next to her. Suddenly, the ship’s unpredictable jerking ceased, to be replaced by the usual smooth motion of a space vehicle approaching a landing spot.
The bounty hunter realised they had broken through the clouds and surmised that touch down could not be far away. She glanced out of the forward window and gasped at the verdant vista in front of her. Zenobia wondered how they would pass through the forest canopy without damaging the ship, but her fears were allayed when a huge flat expanse of what looked to be rock appeared before them. Next to her, she heard Kal engage the landing jets and a few seconds later the ship came to a gentle halt on the natural landing pad.
“Alright!” The smuggler whooped in delight and reached across to high five her co-pilot. “We did it! We fucking did it!” She released her straps before spinning round in her chair. “Fucken awesome Zee! Fucken awesome piloting! Mad skills!”
Zenobia managed a weak smile. “That was terrible. I thought we were dead.”
“We’re not dead. We’re very much alive and that’s exactly where we want to be.” Kal was grinning from ear to ear. “Most pilots in the galaxy couldn't bring a bird down here. And look at us. We’re quite a combo, Zee.”
Zenobia didn't really know what to say, so she unhooked her straps before disappearing into the small head. “Excuse me. I need to get some water.” Closing the door, she leaned on the tiny washbasin and waited for her heart rate to return to normal. She envied the other woman's apparent calm, or was it just suicidal recklessness? Perhaps she just hid her nerves well.
By the time Zenobia returned to the main cabin, Kal had stripped down to shorts and a singlet and was pulling on her envirosuit. “Ah, there you are. Time to get kitted up, Zee. It's showtime.”
Once the brunette was in her suit, Kal went through the enhancements she'd made in painstaking detail. Looped belts contained holders for blasters, the machetes, and even the herbicide, which had been transferred to a spray gun of some description. Fresh water was accessible through a tube held within the facial hood. Both women had backpacks with sterile, vacuum-sealed compartments for transporting the samples. Kal checked their communicators for what felt like the hundredth time before unsealing the hatch. “Okay. Here goes nothing.”
Exiting the ship onto the rocky surface which served as their landing pad, Zenobia looked in wonder at the world around them. Everything seemed a vivid, vibrant green of a sort she'd never seen before. Interspersed within the green were flashes of reds, oranges and yellows, presumably flowers and all equally bright. “Wow,” she whispered. “It's so… beautiful.”
“It's pretty to look at, I'll grant ya that,” crackled a response through the comm. “Not so beautiful when ya see your crew getting mulched. Anyway, follow me.”
Zenobia had wondered how they would trek through the dense foliage, but she need not have worried. Kal led her down a gentle slope to arrive at a small brook. The waterway was extremely shallow, barely covering her feet. The smuggler pointed upstream. “Let's just follow this little creek. It's easy to walk along and it gets us pretty close to where we need to be.” She pulled a small handheld device from a pocket and showed Zenobia a basic map of the area. “Reconstructed it from my original notes. It's about a two hour hike, as I said. No messing. We get the plants, we come straight back. Ya just never know. This might work out just fine.”
They trekked in silence along the stream. It was an easy and relatively flat walk which passed without incident. After an hour they paused to take a drink and Zenobia took the opportunity to study their surroundings.
The greenery was everywhere, but closer inspection showed that a number of other shades were visible, from a pale almost-yellow to a an extremely rich deep and dark colour. A thought occurred to Zenobia and she spoke into the comm. “Are there any animals here? Or is it just plants?”
Kal grinned mischievously. “Oh, there's a few critters. In fact if you look to your left, you'll see a fine example.”
Zenobia turned as recommended and screamed in shock. Balanced on a low branch overhanging the stream was a creature that resembled one of the larger insect species on Earth, or perhaps an arthropod of some description. What made it remarkable was, firstly, the number of visible legs – she counted at least eight pairs – and, more importantly, the sheer size of the thing. She estimated it as almost a metre in length, and the thickness of her machete handle. Attempting to regain her composure, she addressed her giggling companion. “What – is that thing?”
“Relax, Zee. We’ve passed quite a few of them on the way. Once you get your eye in, they're everywhere. The oxygen levels here mean they grow pretty big, but as far as I'm aware they're harmless.”
The bounty hunter carefully stepped away from the branch. “Is that all there is here? Insect type things?”
“Who knows. There's some things in the water, but otherwise all I've seen here is bugs. Reckon this place is all about the plants. Anyway, shall we keep going?”
Zenobia answered in the affirmative, and determined not to ask what the “things in the water” might be or whether they were present in this particular channel. Halfway there, she told herself, halfway there. Just stay focused and you might get off this rock safely yet.
The trek along the waterway continued for some time. At length Kal held up her hand as a sign they should stop. The comm crackled to life. “Okay, this where we break for the goods.” She left the stream and began picking her way, laboriously, through the undergrowth.
Zenobia keyed her comm. “Um, shouldn't we just cut through this stuff? The machetes would make short work of it.”
“No way. Not yet. Don't want to clue them in that we’re here.”
Unsure what was meant by this comment, Zenobia nonetheless decided to follow her more experienced companion’s advice and simply followed her in extremely slow progress up the embankment.
On cresting the hill, Zenobia gasped in amazement. Stretched out in front of them was a vast carpet of electric blue. “Is this… what we came for?”
“Damn straight.” Kal was nodding approvingly. “There weren't nearly as many the last time I was here. Guess they're doing pretty well. Hopefully they won't miss a couple of bags’ worth.”
“But look at this.” Zenobia had bent down to get a better look at the sea of flowers. “This could cure hundreds of thousands of people! It could…”
“Steady on. We can only take what we can carry. And you know what they say about being greedy.” Kal had removed a small trowel from her backpack. “Okay, here goes nothing.”
Ten minutes later, and with both backpacks’ dedicated compartments full of the blue plants and sealed, the two adventurers turned to retrace their steps. Zenobia had a vague sense of anticlimax and was scolding herself for it when she saw Kal stumble and fall in front of her. Her surprise that the up to now sure-footed woman had tripped quickly turned to horror when she saw vines snake across the ground and trap the smuggler’s limbs.
Reacting quickly, Zenobia unhooked the herbicide bottle from its holster and squirted it frantically at the tendrils which were now stretching across Kal’s body. In response, the vines recoiled a little but did not let loose their grip. Dropping the bottle, Zenobia unsheathed her machete and began hacking at the plant’s appendages, surprised at how easily the slashing motion came to her. As the vines fell uselessly to the ground, she realised that the blade was every bit as good as the merchant had claimed.
At last the plant ceased its assault. Kal pulled herself to her feet. “Thanks.”
“Erm, no problem. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks to you. You're pretty handy with a blade.” Kal’s voice sounded shaky. “This is what I mean, though. We took those plants and somehow… the others know.”
This made no sense to Zenobia, but then nor did anything else on this planet. She decided not to enquire further for the time being. “So, what now? Do you need to rest?”
“Now we get the hell back to the ship. We can rest there. I'm hoping that's the only attack we get. If it is, we’ll have got off lightly.”
They began the trek back with rather more urgency than their outward journey. Zenobia sensed that her companion was badly shaken, and thought privately that it might have been better for her to take a short break before continuing. That said, the assault by the plant had been as terrifying as it was unexpected, and on balance she decided that it was probably better to press on.
After they had been walking for some time without experiencing any further incidents, Kal began to relax and slowed her pace slightly. Speaking through the comm, she did her best to sound upbeat. “I don't wanna jinx it, but you know that might be it.”
“Let's hope so.” Zenobia continued to keep her eyes fixed straight ahead lest she spot any more alarming critters in the bush. “This place is too weird.”
“You got that right.” Kal consulted the map device. “We’re making good time. Another 40 minutes and we should be back at the landing spot.”
Kal’s estimate turned out to be highly accurate and it was with considerable relief that both women saw the flat rock, with the ship perched on top of it, looming above them to the left. They had just turned up the slope back towards the rock when a thick cloud of something grey and unfamiliar exploded silently in their faces.
“Um?” Zenobia raised a gloved hand to wipe her face visor.
“Shit.” Kal had already drawn her blasters. “Spores. Lucky we brought the envirosuits.” She scanned the area ahead of them. “I'd get your weapon ready. “That wasn't a good sign. Stay low.”
Kal had stooped so that she was from a distance invisible behind the vegetation. Ducking down that low was more of a struggle for Zenobia, but she did her best and crept behind the shorter woman, blaster at the ready. “Can you see anything?”
“Hang on…” Kal continued to make her way up the slope before stopping suddenly and raising her hand to indicate that the other woman should do the same. “Damnit. They're waiting for us.” She dropped to the ground. “Look. Can you see them?”
Zenobia edged forward. Straight ahead, perhaps fifty metres in front of the ship, she could see some curious figures. Vaguely human sized and shaped, they were a greenish brown colour and looked solid, almost wooden. There was the outline of a head, but no facial features visible. The “bodies” were covered in what looked like moss. Zenobia counted six of them, shuffling together in a small group. She keyed the comm. “Is that…?”
“The things I was telling you about. Yeah. Half tree, half man.”
“They can't be the original troopers?”
“Probably not. But who knows?” Kal sighed. “If they're reproducing that's even scarier.”
Zenobia could think of nothing to say. She watched the strange entities shambling around. It was hard to tell whether there was any intention or design behind it. She thought of the smuggler’s description of her previous crew members being dissolved by them. It seemed fantastical. The things in front of her appeared slow and ponderous. At length she spoke. “What now?”
“What now,” Kal repeated. “What now.” Using her elbows, she crawled closer to the plant-men. So far there was no indication that they had sensed the humans’ presence, but she knew from bitter experience that this was no guarantee of anything. She assessed the entities’ position in relation to the ship, and considered how long it would take her to get there and open the hatch. “Now, we’re gonna burn up those things with as much blaster fire as we can. It won't stop them, but it’ll slow them. Once we've done that, we need to move faster than we ever have in our lives. On my count. One, two…”
On yelling, “Three!” Kal exploded from her hiding place and began firing her blasters indiscriminately at the things in front of her. Zenobia followed her lead, shooting at the plant-men, noting as she did so that they did seem to react whenever a shot hit home. Of much greater concern however was their movement, which was faster and fluid than she had imagined based on her original view of the things. She heard Kal scream through the comm in her ear to keep firing and put all other considerations to the back of her mind. It was simply her and the gun and she squeezed the trigger over and over until their enemy was lit up with red and orange blaster fire.
Abruptly, Kal stopped firing, yelled “Now!” into the comm and sprinted towards the ship. Her short legs had never allowed her to be much of a runner, but on this occasion she expected she could have outclassed the best athletes in the galaxy. She reached the ship and triggered the mechanism to release the hatch, jumping aboard as soon as it had lowered sufficiently for her to do so. A huge wave of relief washed over her and she turned to her companion…
…who wasn't there. Relief turned to dread and she looked out of the hatch to see the bounty hunter on the ground. Whether she'd simply tripped or been snagged by another one of the vines was unclear and frankly immaterial at this point as one of the plant-men was already looming over her.
“Ah, crap.” Kal looked in horror at the scene unfolding in front of her. Having seen how they killed their victims, the beings terrified her more than anything else in the galaxy. Any attempted rescue of Zee would almost certainly result in both of them reduced to mulch. Other, baser, considerations also flooded into her head. The mission was complete. A co-pilot was needed for landing here, but not take-off. She had Emps’ plants and the reward could be all hers, along with her former captor’s ship. The tall woman’s history and family connections with Core authorities made it unlikely that she would abandon her pursuit of a felon, and even if they'd bonded a little over drinks and piloting, there was every chance that Kal would find herself somehow tricked again and returned to serve her sentence. So maybe this was, after all, the best outcome.
All of these thoughts went through Kal’s head in the space of a few seconds, but even as they did do she was already picking up her new rifle and aiming it out of the hatch and at the lead plant-man’s head. Or, whatever that bit of trunk was, she thought to herself.
The shot hit home and she felt the kick against her shoulder as the thing paused for a moment, reeling. As it did so Kal grabbed the bottle of vintage spirit and vaulted out of the hatch. She hurled the bottle with all her strength at the plant-man and, as the glass shattered against its torso, drenching it in liquor, followed up the missile with an explosive flare.
Almost instantly the entity was engulfed in flames. It staggered away, before apparently blundering into the rest of the plant-men. The flames spread with terrifying speed and Kal screamed into the comm for Zenobia to move away, not knowing as she did so if the woman was conscious or even still alive.
A groggy Zenobia heard the earsplitting shout in her comm and reacted by rolling over and over away from where the thing had been. She was vaguely aware of Kal crouching beside her and positioning her arm so it was draped over the smaller woman’s shoulder. Trying desperately to respond to the increasingly shrill instructions in her ear, she half stumbled, was half dragged, across the twenty metres or so of rock and into the hatch.
Kal sealed the hatch and ripped off her face mask before turning to the prone woman in front of her. It was immediately apparent that her booze and flare attack had interrupted the mulching process. The bounty hunter’s envirosuit was partially dissolved along her left side. Cursing, Kal pulled off her companion’s backpack and began removing the suit. The substance the thing had emitted had left a long thin mark resembling a burn on Zenobia’s skin, but superficially at least there did not appear to be any more significant damage. Kal grabbed a medkit and used the sanitiser within it to clean and sterilise the wound. Sticking a large dressing over the whole area, she then touched the other woman’s cheek with a gentleness that surprised her. “Zee. Zee. Are you still there? Talk to me.”
The smuggler received only an incoherent groan in response. Kal sighed and stood up, before gazing out the cockpit window. The conflagration seemed to have consumed four of the plant-men, whose remains could be seen smouldering, with the others presumably vanished back into the bush. There was nothing keeping them here. She crouched down again and pulled Zenobia to her feet, before manoeuvring her with some difficulty to the co-pilot’s chair.
The bounty hunter groaned again as Kal strapped her into the seat. An eye opened. “I think I'm dying, Kalia.”
It was the first time Kal had heard the other woman use her first name. She took a breath, feeling an unfamiliar lump in her throat. “Nah, honey, you're not dying. We’re about to be off this shitty little rock and we’ll get ya some help. We’re rich now, remember? And call me Kal. Everyone else does.”
With that Kal pushed the boosters and the ship rocketed up into the planet’s upper atmosphere. The shaking and turbulence shortly gave way to a smooth orbiting cycle. Kal breathed a sigh of relief as she waited for the moment to activate the hyperspace jump. As it came, she gave a silent prayer to whoever or whatever had watched over her that day.
After what had felt like the longest six hours of her life, Kal exited hyperspace to find herself in orbit around New Tortuga. She immediately reached for the ship’s comms device. “Dockmaster, come in. This is Kal Sorensen. I need an immediate landing spot and an emergency medical team to meet us.”
“Now, for fuck’s sake.” Kal looked for the thousandth time at her companion in the chair next to her. Zenobia had spent the journey flitting in and out of consciousness. Her breathing was laboured and her skin had taken on a distinct greyish tinge. Kal wondered if she was too late, and the plant-being’s poison was already dissolving her co-pilot from the inside. She banged the controls panel in rage. “Dockmaster! What the fuck are you doing there?”
A different voice came across the comm. “Kal Sorensen! Do you have the goods?”
Blavatsky. Kal sighed. “Yes. Yes I've got your plants. Now get the dockmaster to give me a damned slot and a medical team.”
The dockmaster came back on the line. “You're cleared to land in bay H-7. Medical team standing by.”
“Thank you dockmaster.” Kal gripped the controls and set the landing sequence in motion. A few moments later the hangar entrance loomed into view and she manoeuvred the ship into its berth.
The craft had barely come to a halt before Kal had clicked off the straps and pressed the hatch’s opening mechanism. She'd taken the opportunity during the flight to change into her usual clothes. A semi-conscious Zenobia was still dressed in the shorts and damaged singlet she'd been wearing under the envirosuit, and Kal felt a sudden concern for the other woman’s modesty. She threw a thermal blanket over the seated woman just as Dr Danzig’s head appeared through the hatch. “This my patient?”
“Yeah. One of those things attacked her. The ones that mulched the crew the last time I was here.”
“Mmm.” The doctor was now fully on board, and was standing over Zenobia with a look of concern on his face. “We need to get her to the infirmary, quick.”
“No shit.” Kal looked to see that another man in a medical jacket had joined them. “Hello?”
“This is my colleague, Dr Wu.” Danzig gestured at the other man. “He's our pharma guy.”
Wu smiled nervously. “You have… the specimens?”
“Sure.” Kal tossed him Zenobia’s backpack. “You'll find what you need in there, doc.”
The medic nodded his thanks and disappeared out the hatch with the bag. Kal turned to Danzig. “You got a team standing by?”
“Yeah.” The doctor patted Kal on the arm. “We’ll do what we can. And Sorensen…” He gave a crooked smile. “Well done. You and your friend here are heroes.”
Kal didn't respond. She stood silently and watched the stretcher bearers carry their patient off the ship. After a few minutes she followed them out. Blavatsky was standing outside and he flung his arms around the blonde woman. “You did it! You did it! My mother will live!”
“Yeah, that's great, Emps.” Kal tried to wriggle out of his grasp but there seemed no way of doing so whilst retaining even the slightest hint of politeness, so she resigned herself to the full duration of his hug. When he finally released her she took a deep breath and stepped back. She saw that the Emperor had tears in his eyes.
“I owe you so much, Kal Sorensen. You'll get all the money I promised and more. Your ship is already repaired and the engine upgraded. You should stay as long as you wish! Take what you want, food, drink, weapons, girls!”
“Thanks, Emps, but I need to be somewhere.” Kal waved goodbye to Blavatsky and headed in the direction of the infirmary.
Kal stretched and then rubbed her legs in an attempt to combat the fatigue and numbness that had set in after what felt like an eternity sat on a hard waiting room chair. She reached for a small flask she'd concealed in a leg pocket of her pants, and took a deep swallow of the fiery liquid inside it. She glanced at the clock above the door to the isolation unit where the Queen Mother was presumably located.
How long had she been here now? She'd lost track of when she'd arrived. All medical staff appeared busy, and in fact she hadn't seen a single human soul for ages. Was Zee still alive? What about Emps’ mother? It occurred to her that they may have been too late for the old woman. Perhaps the entire mission had been a waste of time and Zee’s death entirely pointless. The old Kal would have taken comfort in the payoff she was about to receive, but now even that couldn't excite her. She took another swig from the flask and cursed silently.
An alarm sounded, signalling that the outer lock to the isolation unit was opening. Kal looked up to see a tired looking Danzig emerge. She leapt to her feet. “What…?”
The alarm fell silent as the isolation ward was sealed again. Danzig walked over and rested his hand on her shoulder. “The old lady’s going to be fine. The Emperor will be thrilled. Wu’s made a batch of that serum in case we get any other cases in future.”
“But what about-“
“Relax, Sorensen. Your girlfriend is also going to be fine. Whatever that substance was left her with a nasty wound and dehydrated her pretty badly. But you got to her in time, and I think her suit must have offered some protection.”
Kal sank back down into her chair and took another drink. The relief was overwhelming. She offered the flask to Danzig, who took it gratefully and drank deeply. He handed it back to her. “Thanks. I needed that. Now,” he said. “You want to see her?”
“Um.” Kal hadn't really considered this. Did she want to see the bounty hunter? Would she want to see her? The truth was, they weren't even really friends, let alone the romantic couple they'd pretended to be for Blavatsky's benefit. Once they were off New Tortuga and the charade could end, they were on opposite sides. A licensed Core private agent and an escaped convict. There was no outcome which could be happy for them both. Perhaps, Kal thought, she should just take Zee’s ship while the other woman was recovering. A grateful Emperor would surely arrange transport for Zee to a system of her choice, and she could return to a Core planet from there…
Danzig was still standing there. “Sorensen? You alright?”
“Ah… look, I'm very tired. I should probably get some rest.”
The medic looked puzzled. “You've been sat here for six hours. Don't you want to see your partner?”
“She might not want to see me… she’ll need to sleep… it’s been a traumatic time for her…” Kal knew she was babbling.
“She's asking for you.”
“Yes. Now come on.” Danzig led the way down another corridor. “She's just in there.”
The medic gestured towards a small room on the left. Kal swallowed heavily and entered. The doctor smiled. “I'll leave you to it.”
Zenobia was lying in an infirmary bed, dressed in a white disposable gown. Her arm was attached to a drip. She looked up at Kal and smiled weakly. “Thank you. Thank you for saving me. That was… so brave.”
“Ah.” Embarrassed, Kal gave a little dismissive wave. “The service, ya know. Never leave anyone behind, and all that.”
“They should never have kicked you out. You should get a medal.”
“Not much chance of that.” Kal reached across and gently brushed away some of the other woman’s dark hair, which had fallen onto her face. “You're gonna be okay. Try and rest now.”
“Alright.” Zenobia reached out, and much to the smuggler’s surprise, grasped her hand. “Kal?”
“Please would you stay here with me? Just until I fall asleep?”
Kal hesitated. Zee sounded plaintive and vulnerable, and what was for the smuggler a highly unusual protective instinct was surfacing. However, she was herself exhausted and desperately in need of sleep. She paused to kick off her boots and clambered onto the bed. “Here. Let’s just rest here together.”
Zenobia gave a relaxed sigh and rolled over to make room for the blonde woman. Kal lay next to her, taking care not to touch the other woman’s heavily bandaged side. Within moments, both were fast asleep.
Zenobia spun round in the pilot’s chair and gazed at the controls. Her ship was repaired, enhanced, and ready for action. As indeed was she. Her wounds healed, her confidence back and she was now the proud owner of bearer instruments worth five times what she would have received for the Sorensen collar. The same Sorensen who was easing herself into the seat next to her. Zenobia turned to her companion and smiled. “Comfortable?”
“Not sure I'll ever be comfortable in the co-pilot’s chair,” Kal grumbled. “You know where you're dropping me, yeah?”
“Talzen III, yes, you've said half a dozen times.” Zenobia started the pre-flight checks. “What will you do?”
“I can get a new ship there. Replace the one I lost!” Kal tried to sound angry, but in reality the money from Blavatsky, combined with the payoff from her previous job, would buy her a far better ship with plenty left over for some luxury R&R.
“After that, I mean.”
“Eh, who knows. Spend a bit of time getting drunk and getting laid. See what jobs there are around. Who wants illicit cargo taken somewhere. Anyone who needs something stolen to order.” Kal paused for a moment. “Ah, and there's my plant sample of course. Try and find a lab that can work on that. Try again to grow the damn flowers somewhere else. So the galaxy’s prepared for the next outbreak.”
“You know… you don't have to go back to crime. You could use this opportunity to go straight.”
“Forget it.” Kal shook her head. “I've told you, it's all I know. And even if you're not turning me in, I'm a wanted felon. This is what I do, until I get shot or get busted.”
“Well, on that note…” Having received clearance from the dockmaster, Zenobia was backing out of the bay. “I've prepared a message to send to the IPU Ministry of Justice as soon as I dock at a planet with a galactic comms facility.”
Kal’s blood ran cold. Were her worst fears about to be realised? The woman she'd risked her life to save was going to turn her in after all and perhaps send Core agents to New Tortuga? “Now just wait a minute…”
“A message,” Zenobia continued, “That states that after I had captured you we crash landed on a dangerous and uncharted planet. That you displayed extreme bravery in risking your life to save me from hazards on that planet, and are now missing, presumed dead. And, although I can't promise they'll listen, I have further recommended that, in the unlikely event you are found alive, you be granted a full pardon.”
Kal was dumbfounded. “Zee… that's… I don't know what to say.”
“You don't have to say anything. You saved me, when you didn't need to. This is the least I can do.”
The craft left the hangar, and began to climb, quickly reaching escape velocity. Neither woman spoke until they were in orbit, at which point Zenobia turned to her co-pilot. “So… I'll drop you at Talzen III if you want. But, I thought maybe you'd like to travel together for a while?”
Kal laughed. “You've joined the other side? You want to help me out with some smuggling and thieving ?”
“No. I thought we could both go into a new line of work. Helping people who need something or who've got themselves in a jam. Like we did with the Emperor.”
“Hmm.” Kal sounded unconvinced.
“C’mon. There's got to be loads of people out there who need something from somewhere.”
“Yeah, it's called smuggling!”
“We don't have to be on the wrong side of the law. Well, not constantly, anyway.” Zenobia turned to look seriously at Kal. “I know you don't want to admit it, but you're a bit of a hero. You saved me. You saved the Emperor’s mother and probably many more people. You just told me that you're giving the other plant sample to a lab. Not auctioning it to the highest bidder.”
“You've got me wrong, Zee. I'm no hero. I'm a criminal, and a jail breaker, and…” Kal’s voice trailed off as she considered the suggestion. “But… hell, I guess I am ready for a change. And, we make a good team. Ah, crap, let's give it a go. I can't promise I'm always going to be on the straight and narrow, though.”
“Understood.” A delighted Zenobia punched the control panel and the ship jumped into hyperspace. “This is going to be a whole heap of fun.”