“Come on, what’s a few more?” Weavel complained. “Hey, they can share my room.”
Meron stood staring at the pleasure clones with a deep, furrowed brow. The three vacant-faced girls hung off the crook’s shoulder, one twisting her hair in her spindly fingers. “No. We’re in enough trouble without attracting any more attention.”
“Come on, just one!” Weavel pleaded.
Her eyes narrowed dangerously, “Any more from you and we’ll leave you here and take the clones with us instead.”
He groaned theatrically. “Come on Gayle, help me out here!”
Gayle shrugged, “Don’t look at me.”
Ty, taunted Weavel with a look of contempt, “So what’s the plan anyway?”
Gayle and Ty had just returned from moving Arega to the infirmary. They had left the drug-maker sedated with some of his own concoctions. Now Gayle’s mind drifted to the future, they still needed a power source for the new drive. Briefly he’d considered the power-core from Arega’s ship. Although it was brand new he had quickly dismissed it as an option as it was even smaller than that in Achilles. It could not produce the massive amount of energy required by the NLS drive.
An idea had begun to form in his head: Arega had a stockpile of merchandise – drugs, not a huge amount but good enough to make some decent money. If they sold the drugs they might make enough to buy a second-hand power core. He pointed out of the window towards Jupiter.
“Juno City?” Meron spoke her mind.
“Juno?” Ty asked. “I thought we wanted to avoid that place – it will be crawling with Meyconte’s people?”
“True. But they will be looking for Achilles, not Arega’s ship.” Gayle replied.
“I don’t understand.” Saran asked, she looked bewildered.
“We need a power core for Achilles, without it we wont last long on our own. Juno shipyards are the perfect place to find a suitable one. There are a dozen scrap merchants and as many drug dealers.”
“Going in there is suicide!” Weavel argued.
“Not entirely. The shipyard is a big place – we could go in undetected with Arega’s ship he has some access codes that open quite a few doors – looks like Arega has some influential friends.”
Meron ignored the complaint, “And how are we going to pay for the core?”
With a cheeky grin Gayle pulled a small zip-lock bag out of his pocket, he held it up for inspection.“Courtesy of Arega’s lab. Dorphine.”
“I don’t know…that would make us drug dealers.“ Meron squirmed uncomfortably.
“So we sell the stuff to Meyconte’s people.” Ty nodded. “I don’t know anybody in Juno.”
“I know plenty of people but most are tied up with Meyconte,” Weavel fretted.
“Most?” Meron asked.
Weavel twisted up his mouth, “There are a few distributors there who are non-aligned, Meyconte tolerates them as they provide useful intel from time to time or have access to unique resources. I would have knocked them off if I’d been in charge.”
“And that’s why you such a small-time gangster.” Ty sneered. “Intel is as important as a whole legion of troopers. You can bet those distributors are in the pocket of more than one warlord.”
“That may mean they are not aware of us then. Meyconte wouldn’t want anyone else to know about his business and that includes us and the NLS drive. Remember he wants it for himself.”
“This kind of deal wont stay silent for long.”
“No, but by the time Meyconte finds out about it we will have the core installed and be on our way.” Meron shrugged.
Arega’s Minotaur class ship was called The Trojan Prince. The inside was decorated in a French Napoleonic style with a false-perspective formal garden painted on the walls that created a sense of space, the deck-space however was actually half that of Achilles. It was designed to carry no more than five crew so it was decided Norton, Saran and Beetle would stay behind to guard Arega and Achilles. In Arega’s private room they discovered among other valuables a small stash of hard currency, colonial credits still accepted in most parts of the system – no one wanted an electronic trail.
In the narrow cockpit Meron cracked elbows with Gayle who looked with trepidation at the approaching Juno Shipyards: a gigantic ring of hollow tubular bays surrounded by a central hub – Juno city. This was one of the largest ports of call in the system and while Gayle knew Meyconte had much influence it was not controlled by any one warlord – it was an important neutral trading zone and was nominally run by a board of elders, company executives in the pocket of one or other of the warlords.
Gayle jumped as the comm cracked to life with a droning voice, “Minotaur class, this is Juno control, please identify. State your business and transmit codes.”
Meron pressed the transmit button. Her voice was husky and dry, “This is the shuttle Trojan Prince – err, we’re here on holiday. Transmitting codes now.”
Gayle grinned at the idea of a holiday, images of Meron clad in a skimpy swimsuit filled his mind – she was lying on a virtual beach as a wave machine sent a surge of surf washing over her arced body. Her expression invited him to join her.
“Gayle! Transmit the codes.” Meron voice interrupted his fantasy.
“Oh, yeah, right.” He fiddled with the touch-screen, attached the coded file and pressed the ‘send’ button.
A few seconds later the disinterested control officer replied, “Thank you, please hold position.” After another short pause they added, “You are cleared to land, please proceed to bay 42, where a customs official will greet you.”
“Roger Juno control.” Meron clicked off.
“Well that’s the first hurdle, now for the real trick – getting our cargo through customs.” Gayle laughed nervously.
Meron deftly manipulated the controls taking the Prince in a slow sweep over Juno City towards the landing bays on the opposite side of the gigantic ring structure. Below, through a translucent membrane that protected the city from the cold, dead of space, they could make out gravCars and bikes zipping around like darts aimed at unknown targets. Gayle watched a silent shuttleTrain rocket by as they swung over the far side of the city and down into bay 42 illuminated in bright neon numerals. The scale of the bay was incredible to Gayle it could have accommodated fifty vessels the size of Achilles – though there were less than a dozen at this time.
Setting the ship down gently on one of the many numerous pads Meron flicked off the main engines which powered down with a high-pitched whistle. Around them were a hodge-podge of vessels, most looked battered with signs of battle-damage, all with signs of decay.
Gayle watched the docking arm swing out from the wall of the circular bay. Moments later they were jolted as a it clunked against the airlock of the ship, just behind where they were seated. A hiss of air followed as it sealed against the airlock.
“Ah, civilisation!” Weavel bent over and stretched his scrawny arms.
“I don’t know if there is anything civilised about Juno, at least not the last time I was here.” Gayle replied picking up his pack.
“What’cha talking about! Juno’s got everything a citizen could want for – dancing girls, dancing boys, every imaginable pleasure!”
Gayle pulled the release leaver to disarm the airlock hatch and swung it open. On the other side a steady stream of new arrival passed along the main thoroughfare. Blocking their way forward was a trio of shabbily-dressed officials, two of which swung blaster-rifles lazily against their legs.
A bell-shaped man with sunken eyes and a badge that looked like a child’s toy waddled forward, “I am Custom’s officer Calens.” With a curt nod he added,“Good-day to you. Welcome to Juno City!” The lack of inspiration in the man’s voice spoke volumes about his level of job satisfaction.
“Before you may enjoy the wonders of our beautiful city I’m afraid there are a few formalities that we must go through.”
Meron slipped past Gayle, and extended a lady-like hand, “of course, we are more than happy to cooperate with you officer.” Her tone was suggestive.
The man ignoring Meron’s hand sighed and, reading off an over-sized commDev, reiterated what they had told Juno control. “So if you please, complete these forms while my men search your vessel.” The two other customs officers casually pushed Gayle and Weavel aside with their rifles.
Meron leaned closer to the man, “Sir, my friends and I are …anxious to enjoy the delights of this fine city.” She threw a theatrical wave at the imagined magnificence.”Perhaps we can speed this along, you already know the answers to these questions. It wouldn’t be wrong if I offered a small donation to your social club then as a thankyou for your kindness?”
Gayle grinned, it was a slick performance he had not known Meron capable of. Compliment the city, compliment the target, offer a bribe.
The man did not seem particularly surprised as Meron slipped a small quantity of Arega’s colonial credits, by the colour of them Gayle knew their denomination would buy the ‘social club’ more than a few nights of pleasure. Gayle tensed.
The man pursed his lips as if considering something profound then smiled – but it came out as more of a sneer. “Of course ma’am we would be happy to assist you with your difficulties in completing this documentation, dyslexia is a terrible, terrible disability.” He stepped aside, as did his two men, allowing them to pass. “Oh and thank you for your kind donation.”
Entering the passing stream of human traffic they were jostled along a concourse and Gayle found himself pressed on one side against Meron, who avoided his gaze, and on the other by Weavel who was busy ogling a girl wearing a hat and not much else. Gayle glanced back when he head a sharp shout and saw over the heads of the crowd a young man staggering away from Ty clutching his eye. Catching his look Ty shrugged, Gayle didn’t need to guess what had just happened.
The concourse opened onto a monorail station, a shiny, clean and modern space with several broad platforms dressed in marble, gold and glass. An equally opulent train pulled into the leftmost platform while they watched and disgorged its human cargo.
“The train on platform 1 goes to city central via New Soho and Risestone Park.” A pre-recorded message announced.
“New Soho, that’s our train; we’ll find the folk we need down there.” Weavel said. He was hopping from one foot to the other and looking from side to side, Gayle couldn’t tell if this was nervous excitement or fear. They all had marks on their heads and appearing so brazenly in public was a big risk for sure.
The train ride was breath-taking and fast, it zipped silently above the perfectly laid out grid lines, no inch of space was wasted. The other passengers, all well-dressed, kept to themselves for the most part, accept one or two who eyed the four of them with a disapproving eye. Gayle experimentally sniffed his armpit; compared to these people he felt a little scruffy in his threadbare clothes. He shrugged, it’s taken a long time to get them this comfortable – I ain’t giving them up.
Out of the curved plexiGlass the neighbourhood became notably dingy and dilapidated, this was New Soho. He’d been here before. It was not like any other slums in the system, the streets were well enough appointed and clean, they gave no indication of the underbelly, the dirty back-door enterprises that went on within their walls.
The train pulled into a dilapidated station nothing like that of the spaceport. As the doors opened air was sucked out of the carriage in a rush. Apart from the four of them only a couple of other passengers alighted at this stop and rapidly exited the station. On the stairs leading down to the street a gang of young hoodlums were gathered around chatting and laughing. Sensing they were newcomers one approach the group.
“Hey, mister spare a few credits?”
“Do I look like I’m rich?” Gayle replied, it was an honest response. The youth had a tattoo of a bird on his twitching hand. A gun for hire, he thought. The kid didn’t look older than sixteen and Gayle watched his reddened eyes which couldn’t hold his gaze for more than a second. Nerve damage, he knew the tell-tale signs of ‘Ramshot’ anywhere, it was a dirty, cheap drug and he’d seen it abused during the war.
The boy threw his head back as if it were a great joke, “Na, guess not. You spacers?”
“Yeah, just visiting.” He eyed the kid warily. “Listen, do you know where can we score?”
“Score?” The boy sniggered, “Yeah, I know where you can get anything you want.” Out of his jacket he revealed a large zipper bag which he opened up to show the group. There was a collection of narcotics, “I got everything, old school stuff too: amphs, coke, cannabis. Synthetics too – this is the shit!”
Weavel stepped in and sneered, “We need more.”
The boy looked over his shoulder and rubbed the back of his neck, “this is all I got but I can get more in a few days.”
Weavel shook his head, “We’ll be gone by then. Come on, this joker is small time.”
“Hang on a minute, I know someone, a big-time dealer.” The kid shuffled through his pockets and withdrew a battered commDev. “Nebis can help I’m sure.”
Weavel nodded to the team, “maybe this is not a waste, take us to to them.”
The boy held his commDev away from his ear, “Wait, how do I know you guys are for real?”
Meron sighed and tossed him a sample of the Dorphine. “Go buy yourself a popsicle.”
“It’s good shit, how much you got?” Nebis asked handling the package of off-white powder. To Gayle she was a facsimile of Weavel except for being female and 40kg heavier. The same gaudy taste in jewellery, bleached bone-white cropped hair and an insincere grin. Two stooges of an equal weight to their master hovered behind each shoulder.
Gayle mentally weighed them up, “About 200kg.”
“Hesu!” The dealer swore. She was sweating and dabbed at her forehead with a handkerchief. “Where’d you get it?”
“Arega.” Meron said.
“That old coot. He’s as mad as a cut snake!” She laughed but her eyes flared with respect, “but he does make good shit, I’ll give him that. He doesn’t usually sell this much though.”
Meron folded her arms. “He owed us money.” Gayle felt the muscles in the back of his neck tense. He hope Meron wasn’t about to have a ‘moral’ moment.
“I find that hard to believe… people owe him money.” Nebis glared back with eyes that said: who the hell do you think you are?
Meron shrugged, “I guess he had a cash flow problem.”
Weavel rocked forward, “Look, we thought we’d give you the change to buy this gear first.”
Nebis switched her gaze to Meyconte’s man, her eyes narrowed. “I know you, you’re one of Meyconte’s boys.”
“Yeah that’s right, what of it?” Weavel tried to make it sound like a threat.
“I would’ve thought you’d have your own ways to dispose of this stuff …unless you’re going out on your own.”
Weavel shook his head, “Too much trouble for my master to ship it off Juno, he instructed me to find a good dealer here and dispose of it. So do you want it or not? No skin off my nose, but we are gonna sell this to someone on Juno, might as well be you yeah?”
Nebis rocked back and placed a finger to her lips. Gayle could see the mental calculations going on in her head.
“You can flood the market, maybe even kill off some of your competitors,” Meron added.
The woman considered this then laughed, “They will be wanting to kill me off I think. I’ll give you two hundred credits per kilo.”
“You’re wasting our time.” Meron groaned. “Five hundred or we walk away.”
Weavel glanced nervously at the bouncers and licked his lips. One of the stooges began to move forward but the dealer held up a hand.
“You’re a pushy bitch,” she grinned then waved magnanimously. ”…but I think I like you – reminds me of myself. I tell you what, I’ll give you four hundred. I’m feeling generous today, call me sentimental, but no more and if you’re lucky I won’t even put a burn through your head.”
“That’s eighty thousand.” Meron leaned forward and met the dealer face to face.
“You’ll get your money… when I have the whole shipment.” The dealer glared back. “Here’s a deposit, go buy yourself a nice frock.” She let out a deep cackle that gurgled in the back of her throat.
Meron took the proffered purse Meron, “Alright, where and when do we exchange?”
“My people will test this sample, if everything checks out we will do the deal at the Purifier – do you know it?” The woman replied.
“The old water plant, yeah I know it.” Weavel nodded gravely.
“You know it’s a trap.” Ty took the bag of the innocuous-looking powder from Gayle and passed it to Meron waiting by the gravSkiff. The landing bay around them was a hive of activity and to avoid unwanted attention they had discreetly manoeuvred it into the shadow of the Prince.
“Of course.” Meron snapped her a knowing look as she stacked the bag onto the mounting pile. “So we’ll go prepared.”
Ty grinned as Gayle passed another bag. “I got just the thing.”
When they had finished loading the Dorphine Gayle checked the ship’s cockpit. A light was flashing on the console. Picking up his arrival the ship’s Informer spoke in a sultry female voice, “There is one new message for Gayle Rangan.”
“Play.” He said.
Saran appeared on the holoVid, “I hope you’re well. Mr Arega has woken up and is none-well pleased and is demanding we release him.” She grinned sheepishly. “We are keeping him confined to a storeroom at the moment. Apart from that we are having some kind of interference, the bases systems went crazy a little while ago, we had a total power-out for a few minutes. Seems fine now though… but Beetle is keeping an eye on it. Ok, that’s all from me, take care and see you soon.” She gave a little wave and blew him a kiss.
He froze the last frame, rewound to the kiss and played it again. The bitter taste of guilt rose in his throat, he liked Saran but he wasn’t sure he loved her. What was love anyway? He knew he was not a good judge of that, he thought about some of his past companions.
Weavel appeared fidgeting in the doorway, “Oi! Come on, we got to go offload this stuff.”
Gayle snapped the video message closed and headed for the hatch, remembering at the last second to grab his pistol.
Unlike Sedna, Juno City imported every litre of water and so needed to preserve every ounce, consequently the most dominant feature of the city was the towering water recycling plants that ruined what would have otherwise been an idealistic future-city. Recently the city had commissioned a new plant to replace one of these towering hulks. It could return almost ninety eight percent of water from returned sewerage stored in a series of massive tanks. The old plant now lay derelict and temporarily abandoned until the Juno government decided what to do with the space; on Juno the only thing more valuable than water was living space. In the interim the plant made a perfect site for every seedy transaction in the city, and a perfect site for an ambush.
Approaching the loose-wire fence that surrounded the defunct plant Gayle surveyed the area. From his vantage to the right of the main gate he could make out a vehicle and several figures in the centrally-lit compound. Directly above this lay a tangle of rusted pipes and gantry-ways interlinking the three primary storage tanks.
Ideal place for snipers, Gayle thought clenching his teeth. He withdrew a set of binoculars from his pack and scanned for any activity. A glint of light caught his attention and he doubled back. A scrawny figure crouched on a high gantry in the shadow between two of the tanks; he would never have seen them had they not been so careless. “There!” He hissed, pointing with his free hand.
Ty took the binoculars from him. “Yep, it’s a sniper. Nice hardware too: blastCom laser rifle. Lucky they’re not looking this way. They must think we’ll be easy targets. No respect!”
That was something at least, he sucked in a breath. “So, what do we do now? We can’t go in there.”
Ty shrugged, “I can probably take them out.”
“Probably?” Gayle raised an eyebrow. “Err, I need a bit more assurance than that.”
“What? Do you want me to lie to you?”
“Frankly? Yeah I do.” He said as they scampered back to where Meron and Weavel were waiting with the gravSkiff in an alley behind a low wall.
“They got a sniper on the gantry above the plant.” Ty reported.
“Just the one?” Meron shifted uneasily.
Gayle nodded, “As far as we can tell. There’s a gravCar with several flunkies in the compound.”
“Hmm, ok. Ty I need you to take out the sniper – try not to kill them if you can avoid it, we don’t need any more long-term enemies. Gayle, you come round the left flank and cover as Weavel and I take the skiff in through the main gate – keep an eye out for any other snipers.”
The plan sounded good to Gayle but things for him never seemed to follow the plan; the words ‘pear-shaped’ came to mind. He shrugged, somehow he came out the end of most things still in one piece but usually with a few less credits or a scratch or two. They all nodded in agreement.
Gayle watched as Weavel and Meron rode the skiff through the open wire gate. He found a hole in the wire that someone had previously cut (probably for the same purpose) and slid through. He had to scuttle about twenty metres past a low building and into the shadow of one of the tanks. This was easy, he thought; Nebis was pretty small-time as far as he was concerned.
He drew his gun as he padded up a jagged-metal stairwell to get a better view of the compound, the stench of the sewerage made him gag and he had to cover his mouth to stop the sound – when they decommissioned the plant they clearly didn’t bother emptying out the tanks. He discovered a spot where hydraulic fluid had burst from a severed line leaving a bulging stench of congealed grease, this was strong enough to overpower the reek from the tanks and he was able to contain his gagging.
Gayle watch intently as the door to the gravCar, a beat-up old number, opened and Nebis squeezed out. Meron and Weavel brought the Skiff into the illuminated compound.
Nebis threw up her arms, “I half expected you wouldn’t show – but I’m pleasantly surprised.”
Even from this distance Gayle could see Meron’s scowl. “I keep my promises.” Her voice bounced and distorted off the tanks.
“Well then, shall we make the exchange?” Nebis approached. She was flanked by two rotund bodyguards who almost looked more qualified to be butchers had they not carried heavy blaster-rifles.
Gayle glanced over to where he knew the sniper was located, he detected a short scuffle and smiled. Ty had timed her attack well while Nebis was distracted.
Nebis waddled with a groan and examined the stack of white powder. She jabbed a barbed switch-blade into one bag and using it like a spoon she scooped up some of the powder. This she placed in a device one of her men had brought forward. She raised an eyebrow,“I hope you’re not offended, I need to analyse the purity of the goods against the sample you gave me earlier.”
“No offence taken.” Weavel bowed, his face pale. He gulped in anticipation.
Nebis looked up from the device with a grin. Before she could utter a word she was lit up in a
blinding flash. The whole compound illuminated as a flare burst.
“What the hell─” Nebis’s high-pitched voice rose milliseconds before laser fire erupted, pouring down on the exposed gathering. It ripped into one and winged the other of the dealers two bodyguards. With horror Gayle saw Meron go down just as a rocket screamed past. Behind her the gravCar exploded sending out a concussive wave that punched Gayle like a fist, blowing him back against the railing.
His eyes watering from the pain he turned to a low squat building – a pump-house. He hadn’t noticed it earlier. It now bristled with guns but by some miracle the attackers hadn’t targeted him, instead they continued to concentrate fire on the shipment. Though a broken window, amid a motley band, he caught sight of the kid who had led them to Nebis earlier. The little bastard’s a double dealer! he swore. He must have gone straight to a rival dealer!
He saw Weavel duck behind the skiff. Damn it, where was Ty? He swore to himself, but he knew even she was no match for this kind of assault, there were too many of them.
Between drifting clouds of smoke he could see Meron crumpled in the open, she wasn’t moving. His felt like stone. Gripping the rail he wanted to shout out to her to get up, but he knew it was useless – as useless as Phobos had been – the spectres of long-dead comrades rose in his mind. He flinched as a second rocket smashed into the shipment sending a plume of the white powder into the sky and obscuring the scene. He thought about dashing out there and trying to drag Meron clear but all he could see now was sporadic fire illuminating the widening cloud. It would be suicide.
Let’s face it, I ain’t a hero, he thought bitterly. The gunfight was over before it started. Anything he did now would be a stillborn gesture. He looked over his shoulder, maybe Ty has escaped?
He spun on his heels and leapt the railing, dropping into the space between the sewerage tanks and wall of the pump-house. away into the darkened city.