The Fury of the Gun Fencer
By Daniel G. Woodward
Brent Felstar sat in the cockpit of his Mercury-class light freighter running various diagnostics. Four switches flipped up and a button pressed, all in rapid succession revealed to him on a screen imbedded within the console that his fuel lines were running at maximum efficiency.
Just then, his co-pilot, Dub, entered the cockpit carrying a large data-pad. Without even turning his attention away from his diagnostics, Brent asked, "so what's your report on the cargo?"
Dub MacLennan scratched at his eye patch and replied in his Scottish brogue, "we've got two hundred liters of biosynthetic petroleum, a crate of EVO, seventy cases of titanium ball bearings, five crates of Ankaanan brandy, a shipment of various periodicals, and sixteen tons of tungsten alloy, all bound for Avaris in the Procyon System."
"All very legal, and all very boring," mused Brent. "That's the problem with legit shipments. We're perfectly safe from any authorities while transporting them, but on the other hand, there's no sense of excitement in it."
"Yeah," replied Dub, "but I think we're due for a little less excitement after the last few runs. I'm sure that encounter with the Vedulan Star-runners shaved a few years off my life. This shipment should earn us ten thousand credits give or take. That should buy us a week or two of R&R."
"Ah, yes. I'd love to sit at that old bar at Rana 8 and watch the light shows with a good drink in my hand. Damn, now I feel the urge to crack open that case of brandy."
"Don't tempt me, Brent. Those colonists in the Ankaa system can brew up a good batch."
"Sadly, we have our reputation to maintain," said Brent with a tone of mock virtuosity. "We're a couple of trustable, honest businessmen. The fact that we just happen to be the best smuggling team in the galaxy is pure coincidence."
"I'd go as far as to call it slander," laughed Dub. After a few quick chuckles he took a more businesslike tone. "Okay, so now that I've taken care of business on my end, how goes the diagnostic check?"
"Oh," replied Brent who had stopped working at the console as the conversation drifted of into mirthful musings. "Um, sub-stellar engines on-line. Warp engines on-line. Weapon systems: check. Life support fully operational. Navigation systems are go. Nominal systems are fine. Redundant systems are on standby. And." Brent flipped a few more switches on the piloting console then checked the screen once more. "...Flight controls are ready."
"Well then," said Dub, sitting down at the other piloting station, "let's head off, shall we?"
The gargantuan star Betelgeuse hung in space like a giant coal dying in the coldness of the void. Long ago, on ancient Terra, the Arabs had mapped their night sky and named this star the "hand of the central one". Later on, Europeans, emerging from centuries of church-sanctioned ignorance, mistranslated "hand" as "armpit". Now, a millennia in the future, their mistranslation was perhaps the most accurate. The bloated astral body had long ago devoured any planets that may had held life or anything else of interest, and all that remained were a few small chunks of rock suitable for a couple mining camps.
Still, there was one place of interest in this system, though not a natural one. By a strange twist of fate, descendents of the humans who had originally dubbed this place an "armpit" had constructed a good-sized space station to orbit the red giant, and named it "Gerald's Hope" for whatever reason. Dozens of ships could be found berthed here at any one time. From desperate miners looking to work at one of the planets here, to those passing through this way point between the Terran Core and more distant worlds, to Gultharian attack ships soon to be set on fire, to aimless wanderers of the cosmos, to those looking for a place to find skilled smugglers — all could be found here.
This base, forever bathed in red by its stellar host, spun slowly in its orbit. At this moment, the Xerxes, Brent Felstar's ship, disconnected from the docking ring and slowly drifted away on it's sub-stellar engines from the floating hunk of metal that some called a refuge. The small freighter looked like a lost, malformed electric razor, drifting through the inky blackness for a few moments before its warp engines kicked in and it slid into warp space. Unnoticed and a fair bit behind it, another ship did the same. This ship however, was constructed with many cruel angles, like a Kalnathan dagger piercing the blackness of space with its even darker hull. Luckily for Brent, this ship was headed in another direction. Unluckily for him, it had already finished business with him.
The Xerxes catapulted through warp space at over a thousand times the speed of light. Its occupants however felt little more than a slight vibration inside the ship's protective Messner Field. Brent fiddled with the innards of a cylindrical machine a meter and a half tall, frowning as he soldered wires together with his multi-tool. Dub marched into the maintenance room, seeing his friend crouched over the machine.
"Screwing around with the mechanic bot again, I see," stated the Scotsman, rather matter-of-factly.
"Huh, yeah," replied Brent. "I'm trying to even out the kinks in this thing's system. It's made a few too many mistakes for my liking. If this bastard screws up one more re-wiring, we could find ourselves flying backwards into a supernova."
"Yeah," agreed Dub, who was now leaning against a bulkhead. "I'm surprised you haven't tossed him out of the damned airlock by now. You should have sold him for scrap so we could get something more useful, like a doorstop. As if that isn't that thing's only use anyway."
"Now, now," replied Brent, as he continued his soldering. "There's no need in upgrading to a more expensive piece of hardware if you can't fix it yourself, as I am doing now."
"Yes, but as we've seen from your previous five dozen attempts or so, you can't fix it yourself."
"What, are you degrading my mechanical aptitude now?"
"I'm just saying that perhaps it's time to give up and put the little guy out to pasture."
"Aw, hell, Dub," said Brent, still tinkering with the bot's wiring. "Like I said, why waste money on new machinery if you can still get by with the old stuff. That's my philosophy, you know that."
"Yeah, and that philosophy explains why we're still flying around in this relic of a vessel."
Brent stopped his maintenance to sit up and scowl incredulously at his shipmate. "What do you mean? Are you saying that the Xerxes isn't good anymore? This 'relic of a vessel' has been through every scrape, tussle, and caper we've been in and it still runs like a thoroughbred racing cat. How dare you insinuate that my baby (who I've personally maintained and enhanced all these years, I might add) is sub-par? In fact, how dare you even imply that she's anything less than excellent."
"Whoa there," defended Dub. "I'm not saying this ship doesn't run like a beauty. I'm just saying that it's a little on the, well, Spartan side. Frankly, it's like living below-decks in a Serdatian slave ship. Well, maybe not so bad, but you get what I'm saying."
"Come now, Dub," said Brent, returning to his work. "Didn't you ever learn that beauty is only skin deep and all that stuff? For instance, you may look like an ugly bastard cyclops, but I know that deep down you're a kind, sensitive man."
"You know," growled Dub, "I could kick your arse so hard that your yarbles would be on Europa a week before we could dream of getting there. I'd make your death so drawn-out and painful that you'd wish you were a slug on a journey across the edge of a straight razor. I was a marine, you Space Corps punk."
"Har har, Thumper," responded Brent to his friend's joke, "but you know us fighter-jockeys have to have the kind of mental capacity you grunts couldn't wrap your frontal lobes around, and reflexes so quick that you wouldn't even see us move before you felt the jab to your thick skull."
"More like a light slap to the face, you girly wanker. Besides, you're forgetting I was in the Armored Corps. We were the best the marines had, the toughest damn fighters in the entire galaxy. We had to be smarter and quicker than the normal grunts or we'd be dead."
"Semantic nonsense. 'Best' becomes a relative term when put in the context of marines or invertebrates. The giant octopus might be the strongest and most intelligent mollusk, but it's still just a step away from escargot and kalamari."
"Look, do I have to pay for this abuse by the hour, or is there a flat rate? I've got better things to do."
"Hang on," said Brent, taking a more serious tone. "You don't want to miss our little bot's resurrection: part fifty-odd something. It will just be one moment. There." Brent closed up the maintenance panel on the DH-34 and stood up, opening up the panel that concealed the bot's power switch.
"It's just going to break again," sighed Dub.
"Oh ye of little faith," spoke Felstar as he pressed the button.
"Greetings! This DH-34 unit is now on-line to serve your needs," shouted the robot in its synthesized voice. Brent grinned slyly at Dub as the service bot rattled on. "Please direct your maintenance concerns to—"
Suddenly, the robot's voice devolved into a fizzle, followed by a fountain of sparks spraying from a panel directly at Brent.
"Ow! You sparky bastard!" the smuggler yelled. He then quickly hit the still-exposed power button on the bot, shutting it off.
"Good thing you were there to save us from the horrible maintenance bot with your special Space Corps speed-jab," mused Dub. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have some pressing business in the galley with a pot of coffee."
With that, Dub walked off, leaving Brent peppered in burn marks from the sparks, though his pride was hurt more than his skin. However, Brent has a reputation for being more stubborn than prideful and he soon returned to his work on the bot.
"Alright, you little bastard," he said, opening the maintenance panel once again. "This time you're going to be fixed and if you do the thing with the sparks again, I'm following Dub's advice and we'll have ourselves a little trip to the airlock."
After a few more minutes of splicing and soldering wires, Brent closed the panel, seemingly satisfied with his work. Again he pressed the power button and took several quick steps to the other side of the room.
"Greetings," chirped the bot once more, "This DH-34 unit is now on-line to serve your needs! Please direct your maintenance concerns to this unit so that your problem may be fixed right away!"
Brent furrowed his brow, not because there was something wrong with the bot's activation pitch (that had been performed perfectly), but rather because the DH-34 was punctuating every other word by running itself into the wall of the cabin. Brent sighed and began walking briskly over to the bot so he could once again hit the power button and resume maintenance, but just then the sound of pulse fire erupted from the direction of the cargo bay.
"Brent!" came the shout of his co-pilot. Brent pulled his pulse pistol from its holster and charged down the hall.
Dub fled down the halls of the ship, with pulse fire in both figurative and literal hot pursuit. As he flung himself around a corner, he nearly slammed headfirst into Brent, who was rushing to his comrade's rescue.
"Dub!" yelled Brent, "what the…"
Dub cut him off. "Gun fencer! Behind me! Run!" he exclaimed between breaths.
Brent didn't know what to make of this at first. Gun fencers are the last kind of people you'd want to meet in person-to-person combat if you were looking to keep your life. Just to enter the gun fencer academy, one must be quick of thought and posses lightning reflexes. Those who wished to graduate have to master at least three forms of martial arts and become expert marksman. Most join the Terran military as mercenaries, while others go freelance and become the most highly paid bounty hunters in the galaxy. To Brent, the fact that he had such a person on his very own ship was both mind-boggling and terrifying. He stood there, numb and trying to comprehend his situation.
Suddenly he was being pulled roughly down the hallway by his shoulder. "Come on," shouted Dub. I don't know how we're going to get out of this one, but we might have a chance if we were better armed."
Brent finally snapped to and began to run on his own power, and Dub released his grip in response. Brent glanced behind him and saw a lithe form somersault into view from the bend in the corner. Even before they righted themselves, pulse fire erupted from the figure's gun barrels, arcing towards the two smugglers. Brent returned his friend's favor and grabbed the Scot by his leather jacket and pulled him into the ship's galley. Shots from the pulsers hit the walls around them, scorching deep marks into the plasteel.
"Right," said Brent, a hint of trepidation in his voice, "here's the plan: you go grab whatever heavy gear you're thinking of from your armory. I'm getting my boomstick."
"Right," agreed Dub. Then the two sped off in opposite directions. When their assailant walked through the galley's doorway, the two were gone. The bounty hunter didn't even stop to check, though, for a well-trained gun fencer knows when their prey is in the area, and when it isn't.
Brent hustled into the room in the ship he felt the most comfortable in: the cockpit. Without even looking, his hands closed around his target: his A-310 Weylan automatic shotgun. He gently lifted it from its rack on the wall and held it before him. The A-310 is a showpiece, but a very functional and effective one. Though functionally a modern automatic shotgun, stylistically it resembled an archaic double-barreled model. Brent ran his hands along its shiny black steel exterior. Not the plasteel shell of modern weaponry, but true ripped-from-the-ground-and-smelted steel. This was his get-the-hell-out-of-my-cockpit gun he used in emergencies, and his current situation was a get-the-hell-off-my ship emergency that the weapon could be quickly adapted to handle.
With grim determination, Brent checked that the magazine port was full then grabbed a couple shell-clips from a nearby shelf and stuffed them into his coat pocket. He brought the gun up to his chest and stared out into the shifting nether of warp space that was whizzing by the windows. He stood next to the doorway, back against the wall and counted down silently from ten. A moment of meditation before going out the door and stalking into combat. This could be his last bit of respite in his life.
Dub stared into his personal weapons locker, where at least a dozen weapons of various shapes and sizes (mostly large sizes) rested perfectly in their racks like a line of marines standing at attention. He spent a few seconds looking them over, determining which one best suited the occasion. The X7 heavy pulser? Too small. The Turring PRB? Big, but you need a two person team to fire it. The Helner H-10 carbine? Nah, even a small plasma weapon such as that could blow a hole in the hull, and he didn't feel like dying from decompression. The Weylan Whirlwind? An old style mini-gun was tempting, and he almost took it, but then the Ubik MU-9 pulse rifle caught his eye. Yes, that would do nicely.
He hoisted the weapon into his arms, checking the power pack. Slamming the button to close the locker back up, he marched out of his room. The sound of metal pinging against metal echoed down the hall, but he was unsure of what direction. He checked left and saw nothing, then quickly whirled around, checking the hall to the left of his door. He saw nothing and turned back around once more. Was that just a sound the ship made? Was it just in his mind? As he was pondering this, he heard the distinctive sound of a boot scuffing against the deck of the ship.
Dub spun around once more, this time seeing the bounty hunter lurking in the shadows not ten feet from him. "Die!" he screamed from the bottom of his lungs, squeezing the trigger of his rifle. Bolts of energy flew from the barrel in rapid succession, zooming toward his target. He grimaced and closed his one remaining eye, for he knew one doesn't survive a fight with a gun fencer at such close range unless they want you alive. Sure, he could stare death in the face, but he had done that once before and ended up with plasma in his eye. He silently prayed that the gods would let him into Valhalla anyway, or whatever the hell his ancestors believed in. Sadly, he didn't know what this was, and thought for a second that it was a shame he never learned that.
Suddenly he was brought back to the tangible world as his gun ceased firing and he felt a vibration run through the grip, telling him that his rifle had run out of energy and was going through the recharge cycle. Dub opened his eye and looked around. Surprisingly, he wasn't dead, and even more surprisingly his enemy was nowhere to be seen. Had he vaporized the gun fencer? He began looking down the hallway in confusion, then suddenly felt a tap on his shoulder. He nearly jumped out of his skin, spinning around and came face to face with the assassin. Before he could register anything else though, he felt a knee to his groin and he crumpled to the ground in pain.
The gun fencer aimed their gun for the killing blow, but just then heard the distinctive sound of a shotgun shell being chambered. The bounty hunter turned and was now staring down a pair of gun barrels.
Brent Felding stood there, shotgun aimed at the shadowy figure that was hunched over his friend. "Alright, this is how we're going to do it," he began, but before he had time to react, a booted foot connected with his face and his world began spinning. For good measure, the deck of his own ship gave him a good, hard thump to the back of his head. Now it was he staring down the gun barrel of his attacker.
Fortunately, Dub's rifle had recharged enough to fire off several rounds, and he did so at that moment from he fetal position on the ground. Once again, no shots connected, and the gun dancer jumped up into the pipe works near the ceiling and disappeared into a nearby air duct.
Dub had recovered enough now to stand up and make his way over to his friend. He extended his arm, and Brent took it, standing up shakily. "Thanks for the help back there," said the Scotsman.
"Likewise," replied Brent, "but we have more pressing concerns at the moment, such as the gun fencer crawling around in my air ducts. Seriously, those things are harder to get rid of than space voles." Dub nodded in agreement.
The two picked up their weapons and stumbled down the corridor, hands over their respective blunt force traumas. Soon enough, and not surprisingly, the bounty hunter dropped down quietly at the end of the hall ahead of them. The two trained military men raised their guns to the assassin, but before they could fire, rounds from the barrel of the gun dancer's weapons hit them. Brent took a round to his right shoulder. His arm immediately went limp as a nerve cluster was destroyed, and his shotgun dropped to the ground. Dub's rifle took a round in its power cell, causing it to explode, burning his arm and stomach. The two were bent over in pain so they did not see what came next, but they heard it.
The first sound was a tinny robotic voice yelling, "intruder alert! Activating defenses!"
The second sound was the sharp gasp of a female.
Then came a large metallic clunk.
Finally, there was the sound of a body hitting the deck of the ship.
The two looked up to see the limp form of the gun fencer laying on the floor and beyond that the maintenance bot, doing a pirouette on the shiny plasteel deck. "Threat eliminated," it cried, "sector secure! Resuming normal functions. Please direct your maintenance concerns to this unit so that your problem may be fixed right away!"
"What the buggery hell," queried Dub, "just happened?"
Brent walked over, hand on his shoulder. He looked down at the gun dancer. His attacker was female, with a small frame and deep auburn hair. Upon her forehead was a crimson gash that blood slowly dripped from. At her side were her guns and the discorporated adjustment arm of the maintainace bot.
"It seems," observed Brent, "that the robot, for whatever reason it found in its addled innards, correctly divined that she was a threat, and well," Brent nudged the metal part with his foot, "shot this at her."
"You mean," gasped Dub, still in pain, "that it just lobbed that spanner at her? Where the bloody hell in a maintenance bot's programming does that fit in?"
"Well, whoever owned the poor thing before me installed security boards in it. That's probably one of the dumbest things I've ever seen, but that's the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to tell which bits are which, and I think that's what's been screwing up his normal programming. It looks like it saved our lives in this instance, though."
"Well I'll be damned," mumbled Dub, limping over. "So this woman is our much maligned attacker then? This little thing? I should just crack her skull right here."
"Not so fast, Dub," replied Brent. "This attack raises many questions. I think it would be in our best interest to keep her alive." The adrenaline began to wear off and he winced in agony. "Right now, though, I think we're due for a trip to the medical bay. All of us."
As the two smugglers dragged the bounty hunter off, the maintenance bot attempted to drive through a bulkhead.
Only silence permeated the ship now as the two parties sized each other up. Dub sat with his back to the wall, staring into the brig. Pain still shot through his lower extremities, though his burns were now under check. Brent stood there, scratching the healing wound on his shoulder. He eyed their new prisoner as he futilely attempted to make a fist. On the one bench in the ships single cell sat a paradox. The gun dancer's features were soft, yet she gave Brent a hard and stern stare with only murder in her eyes. She sat in a Zen-like meditative stance, and yet looked ready to leap up and make a killing blow. Her auburn hair and her deep blue eyes (with a matching duster) provided a final striking feature to the puzzle of herself. So beautiful, yet so deadly.
"So," began Brent, breaking the silence, "you stow away on my ship, ambush my friend here, then unleash unholy hell upon everything living and inert within shooting distance. Why are you here?"
His question was only met with silence and a continued stare.
"Alright then, let me put it this way. You stow away in a crate deceptively marked as containing Ankaanan brandy, which instead contains scanner-scrambling inner walls, a small life-support system and one small bounty hunter. After a while, you jump out of your hidey-hole, hear my friend here coming," he intuited, indicating Dub with his good arm, "then find another crate to hide behind and ambush him when he walks into the cargo bay. A firefight ensues. I think we know the rest of the story. Obviously you are a bounty hunter and you were targeting me, as you would have killed my co-pilot on the several chances you had. Instead, you decided to use him as bait. Am I correct?"
The woman still only stared hard back into Brent's eyes. Dub frowned at the insinuation that he was bait.
"Okay", attempted Brent once again, "I'll try again. We can turn you into the nearest authority. I'm sure you have a rap sheet a mile long. Now who sent you and why?"
Her only response was a quick smirk in the corner of her mouth. Brent would have to try this another way. If only he could get her to talk.
"You know most people, civilized people, use words instead of gunshots to communicate when they first meet people. For instance, you could have said to my friend upon meeting him, 'hello my name is…'" Brent paused here and offered the girl a chance to chime in but she didn't take it, "'…whatever, and I've come to kill you and your friend'. Then my partner would have replied by saying 'not on my life you crazy psychotic bitch.' Then comes the time for gunfire to be exchanged, get my drift?"
The bounty hunter was still mute and apparently not amused.
"You see, you caused quite a lot of pain, both physical and emotional for my partner and I. You gave my head and nose a good crack, and you attempted to render my friend unable to spawn a progeny. Now that's a low blow even for one in such a career as yourself. Again we have an example of you being uncivilized. Not only that, but you nearly rendered me unable to pilot my ship. Good thing I could drive this thing blindfolded, backwards, and left-handed. Finally you destroyed my friend's favorite weapon, his prized pulse rifle."
"The MU-10 has a shielded energy cell," responded the bounty hunter, breaking her silence. "If your friend were any kind of real gun expert, he'd know that."
Dub responded with a growl, but Brent smiled and added an enthusiastic tone to his voice. "Ah, so you do have a tongue after all. I was beginning to worry that there was no pretty voice to match such a pretty face, but it turns out I was wrong. So very wrong indeed."
"Flattery will get you nowhere," responded the woman. "You'll still get nothing from me."
"Indeed," continued Brent with his interrogation. "We discovered the rather impressive arsenal that you were carrying around with you."
"Two Zephyr pulser pistols," intoned Dub, "the ones you had in your hands when you dropped, normally kept in your belt holsters I surmise. Four C-33 concussion pistols strapped to your sides. Two Mercer Falcons kept in your boots — I see you're a fan of even the old projectile weapons. An impressive eight side arms on one person, all with custom modifications. It's a wonder you're able to dance around as you do with all that metal and plasteel strapped to you. Eight bloody weapons."
"Nine," said the gun fencer calmly. She reached behind her, came out with a gun and leapt to her feet all in one fluid motion. Her small pistol was aimed straight at Brent, but he didn't even flinch, for the force field on the doorway to the cell was up.
"Damn," said Brent, frowning.
"A Zeph E1," chuckled Dub derisively. "A security weapon isn't the kind of thing a trained bounty hunter should be carrying around. The E1 only incapacitates a target long enough for you to slap cuffs on them."
"Maybe," the woman replied. "Or maybe, like the rest of my gear, I've customized it. Maybe I've modified it to punch through force fields and take down sarcastic rogues and half-wit jarheads in one shot." After the other two didn't so much as flinch at her obvious bluff, she calmly holstered her gun and sat back down.
"Indeed," stated Brent once more. "Still, there is one immediate concern I have. The other four crates. Dub here tried to get into them, but they're rather tightly sealed. Now what is in them? Another four lovely bounty hunters such as yourself? Perhaps I can start myself a harem."
Brent had hoped this last comment would instill anger in his prisoner, but instead he saw a flash of confusion and worry on her face. "What other crates?" she queried in a slightly more rushed tone than she had previously spoken in. "What are you talking about?"
Brent was rather surprised himself, as her confusion seemed genuine. "I mean the four others that were brought aboard in the same shipment. The other four labeled as Ankaanan brandy that we took aboard along with your own crate. Those ones."
"I have no idea what you're talking about. They must just be decoys to lower suspicion."
The fact that she was spilling so much information worried Brent. "No, that would be unnecessary. Shipments of single crates aren't too rare. I don't se why…"
Just then a shudder ran through the ship. "The warp drive!" cried Dub.
"We've dropped out of warp space," stated Brent, confused. "Why the hell have we dropped out of warp space?"
Brent ran into the cockpit and saw the star field outside. One large yellow star hung in space like a colossal flashlight, illuminating the cockpit. Brent quickly checked all his controls to determine what had gone wrong. Everything seemed fine with the controls for the most part, but he couldn’t get the warp engines to respond at all. It's as if all those systems had been cut out. Brent then realized that the cockpit was starting to dim and at that moment a proximity warning sounded from the console. Brent raised his gaze to see the hull of a massive ship eclipsing the sun.
"Oh bloody hell," said a voice from behind. Brent turned and noticed Dub was standing there in the doorway, staring out into space at the new arrival. "A damned battle cruiser. Just when I thought my day couldn't get any worse. You don't think they have a hypermass drive do you?"
"No, at least I doubt it," Brent replied. "Those things are still just in the hypothetical stage, I'm fairly sure. They could never get such a device to work without imploding the ship it was installed in, and even then it couldn't pull anything from warp space. Plus, our ascent from warp space would have been much more violent. At least, theoretically speaking. Anyway, it looks like the problem comes from within."
"What are you saying?" asked Dub, already knowing the answer.
"Looks like sabotage."
"That bitch," replied Dub, his suspicion confirmed. Brent fiddled with the controls some more as Dub stomped down the corridor toward the brig. He came to their prisoner and lowered his gun at her.
"What?" she stated plainly, revealing not even a mote of fear?
"You know damn well what," replied Dub. "You sabotaged the ship so our warp drive would fail."
"What are you talking about?" the woman questioned.
"I'm talking about how you sabotaged our warp drive so we'd be dead in space and easy pickings for the Feds," Dub growled angrily.
"Yeah," said the gun fencer, her voice dripping with sarcasm, "I rigged it so your little junk heap would bob up from warp space right after I killed you so that I could be stranded in the middle of nowhere and rot here for eternity."
Dub furrowed his brow, "no, uh, you rigged it to come up from warp so the Feds who hired you could pick you up."
"Yes, because obviously I have no idea how to steer a small junk freighter to the nearest port, seeing as how I'm just an ignorant hick girl from a rim world," the bounty hunter continued, still piling the sarcasm on thick. "Besides, who says I'm working for the Federation?"
"So says the big old Terran battle cruiser slowly coming this way."
The girl just narrowed her eyes in response. Dub assumed it was in anger over her being discovered, but secretly she was trying to mask her further confusion.
At that moment, up in the cockpit, Brent noticed the communications system open up an incoming transmission without his authorization. The heads-up com screen lit up and a face Brent knew all too well appeared on it. It was the face of a stern-jawed, overly handsome man with a military cut.
"Helner," he growled, sinking into the pilot's chair.
"Ah, Felstar," came Helner's unwelcome voice over the ship's intercom system, "you're alive. It seems that my little gun fencer has failed me. What a shame, she seemed like such a capable and deadly little creature. Looks as though I erred once more."
Back in the brig, the bounty hunter scowled, for she could now hear the Terran captain's smug, stern voice which was being broadcasted all over the ship.
"Helner," repeated Brent, "I should have known you were behind this."
"Why, because only I could come up with something so crafty and malicious?" replied Helner, smirking.
"No," replied the smuggler, "because only you could come up with something so dreadfully stupid and full of holes. You expect me to just sit here and let myself be captured by you?"
"Of course not, Felstar, I expect you to die," laughed Helner.
"Indeed," stated Brent, "the old blast-the-criminal-from-space routine then, eh? Just another report filed away under your name. Well you're forgetting one thing from our last encounter. I'm one badass pilot that can outmaneuver that bloated jumble of plasteel that you call a ship. You can just take your best shot."
With that, Brent kicked on the sub-drive and began some evasive maneuvers. Almost as suddenly has he begun though, the engine kicked off and he began to drift. Helner's laughter came in over the intercom.
"Now, Brent," said the Captain. "Stop right there," at that, several attitude thrusters kicked in, locking the ship into place in the cold depths of the void. "You don't think I'd fail to learn from my previous misjudgments, do you? The bounty hunter was only the first part of the plan. Part one: I send the girl in to kill you. Part two: I hack into your ship's systems and override the controls. Part three: well, I'll just let you see for yourself. I've left a present for you in your cargo bay. Go ahead, you can open those crates now."
Brent leapt to his feet and started down the corridor. "Dub," he called.
"I heard," the Scot said, stepping out of the brig. The two of them hustled down the corridor into the cargo bay. Dub pushed ahead of Brent when as they neared the crates. "Stand back," he said to his friend. Dub easily unsealed the top of the crate and looked inside. He gasped and stumbled backwards.
"What is it?" queried Brent, hurrying forward to check the crate himself. What he saw inside was some sort of canister, sprouting wires that lead into a mass of electronics. Brent didn't catch on and repeated to Dub, "what is it?"
"I…" began Dub, his voice shaking, "when I was in the Armored Corps we handled — very carefully — a couple of these. It's an A-16 Harbinger th-thermonuclear w-warhead."
"A…what?" replied Brent, fear beginning to wash over him.
"It's a…it's a…a nuke," stammered Dub. His fear began to solidify into rage. "A bloody nuke on our ship…four even, if all these crates are likewise stocked."
"That bastard lacks subtlety as much as he lacks wit!" cried Brent. He marched on over to the intercom and hit the talk switch. "Helner, you bastard! What kind of barmy psycho are you?"
Laughter came over the intercom once again, confirming to Brent that Helner was indeed hacked straight into the intercom system. "Oh Felstar, how the fly struggles as it seeks to escape the spider's web. It seems you've discovered step three of my plan: watch as you get vaporized out of existence and out of my life. The warheads are on a timer, but I won't reveal how long you've got left. I'll just let you spend the last few minutes of your life in panicked desperation, and I'll sit back here and watch. Now good day."
Brent glared at the intercom system. For once in his life, he felt defeated. "The bastard pins us down and blows us up," he said. "The coward can't stand a fair fight because he knows I'd win, just like last time."
"So what's the plan, mate?" said Dub, with an uncharacteristic quiet and doubtful tone in his voice.
"Plan?" said Brent, a spark of hope igniting itself deep inside him. The wheels of machinations began turning in his head.
"Yeah," said Dub. "You've always got a plan."
"Plan, plan... Yes… Yes, this may not work but we have to give it a go: Helner thinks he's smart — and he is to a degree. But his overconfidence and arrogance bestow upon him many lapses of reason. He has disabled our flight systems because he knows I can out-pilot him. He has hacked into our intercom system because he wants to gloat. However, I see no reason for him to disable the airlocks." A smile crept on to his face. "Dub, help me start clearing out the cargo in the main hold. Everything except Helner's presents. We're gonna space that junk. No, scratch that. You start on the cargo; I'll go attempt to recruit our prisoner. I'm sure she's as pleased about these current events as we are."
The gun fencer sat in her cell, planning and waiting. She had only heard what had come over the intercom, but she had surmised the situation. Helner had set her up; most likely for botching the last job she had, attempting to kill a drug lord on Menkent III. It turned out that that was a setup as well. The crime boss found out the Feds were after him and staged an ambush to send the head of his would-be killer back to the Terran government as a warning to stay away. Luckily she dodged that grisly fate, but she didn't get her target either. Helner, who had given her the job, seemed forgiving. Obviously, that wasn't so. Helner was killing two birds with one stone with this stunt, and she resented being one of those birds. If she could only find a way out of this situation, she'd track him down and kill him herself.
Just then, she heard footsteps rushing down the hall and presently Brent came into view. "What's all this about 'warheads' and vaporizing'?" queried the bounty hunter.
"Helner smuggled some nukes right along side you into my cargo bay," replied Brent. "It's damned overkill but he's done it nonetheless. Luckily I've got a plan and I'm going to let you free so you can help me with it, but… you're going to have to tell me your name first."
The girl only gave a quick grunt and a dismissive smile as she crossed her arms over he chest and slumped against the wall a little.
"Listen, sweetheart, where I come from people introduce themselves when they meet. I only ask this one little thing of you. A little courtesy on your part isn't going to hinder anyone."
"No," began the woman, "but this kind of arrogant jackassery is probably hindering the hell out of your special little plan, if it's even liable to work anyway. Do things like that ever occur to you within that vacuous, lead-lined case that you call your skull? And if you call me sweetheart one more time, I'll put a hole in your chest a meter wide."
With an air of menace, Brent leaned in close enough that he could feel a slight tingle from the field across the cell entrance. "Alright, my honey sugar-plum dumpling-pie pumpkin-flower, you can just sit in that cell for all I care. Spend the last few minutes of your life in that little alcove. Hell, if my 'special little' plan works, you're still out of luck because I know a whole lot of shady ports where I could find someone willing to pay for your head. I'm sure a deadly little minx like you has drawn the wrath of many a Kumicho."
Just then, the welcome voice of Dub came over the intercom. "Hey, Brent. I decided that we should, you know, check to see if he hasn't locked us out of the airlock already. So I went to the control panel to check, and…"
"And?" questioned Brent who had made his way to the nearby intercom station.
"Well," came the reply, "I got as far as activating it, but before I could do anything it shut off itself. Looks like he'd headed us off here as well."
Just then there was a slight crackle as Helner's rather unwelcome laughter butted in to their conversation once more. "Yes, go ahead try to get out of this one. In fact we could make it into a sort of game. Unfortunately for you, I'm going to be one step ahead of you at all times."
"Bastard," muttered Brent as he slumped against the wall and slid down into a sitting position. "It looks like he's in our surveillance system too. I should have known. If we attempt anything, he's going to circumvent it. If only I knew a good code jockey."
"Oh, but you do," came a voice from above. Brent looked up to see the gun fencer now standing in the doorway of her cell.
"You can hack?" asked Brent, a hint of hope squeaking into his voice.
"You're damned right I can. I was deep into the code before I was even a gun fencer. Now are you gonna let me out of here, or do I still need to conform to your standards of protocol?"
"Well, "said Brent, rising to his feet, "as much as I'd rather a certain measure of politeness be present on my vessel at all times, I think you've just bought your ticket out of that cell. That is, of course, if you're not just hustling me."
"I most assuredly am not," replied the girl. "Do you not see this grin slowly spreading across my face? Am I not grinning? Do you think I do I not see the opportunity here to simultaneously get revenge on the man who set me up and hold my advantage over the head of the man who has been taunting me for the last couple hours? Oh, I most assuredly do."
"Well, you convinced me," replied Brent flatly with tone of a man who is begrudgingly admitting defeat. "Could just you find it in your heart to make one little attempt to connect though?"
"I can start." continued Brent, entering a code into the force field's controls. "Hello, I'm Brent Felstar, and welcome to the Xerxes." There was a shimmer in the brig's doorway as the field went down and Brent extended his arm to the girl. She merely walked past him, roughly brushing him aside. When she got a couple meters down the hall from him, she sighed and turned towards him.
"Fine, you can call me Cobalt, but that's the last bit of information you're getting out of me. Now, to business. Did you notice any kind of disruption in your communications as he contacted you?"
"Cobalt, eh? That sounds more like the street name of some punk kid than a hired killer. Were all the good names taken?"
"You don't ever shut up, do you?" she shot back angrily. "We could all be dead in a few seconds and yet you continue to blabber on inanely about whatever subject that strokes your ego. Now shut up and answer my questions. Did you see any disruption?"
"No," replied Brent, subdued. "No, I did not."
"Then he must have not used a piggyback signal. That's the only way he could have hacked in over such a long distance (and he'd be a few kilometers away to be out of the blast radius). The only way he could have gotten into your systems is through a hive."
"A hive?" Brent asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Yes, it's a device with a hard drive that's loaded with all kinds of bugs that make it easy to jack in to your system. Since it's nigh impossible to do serious hacking in a wireless system at a distance of more than a few hundred meters, a hive is necessary in such a situation. That means it's in one of the crates he sent along, which means there are only three nukes. That's only slightly reassuring. Now where's your central terminal?"
"Huh, now who's stroking their ego?" retorted Brent. Then quickly returning to the flow of the conversation he added, "it's right down the hall here."
The two hurried over to a monitor mounted in the wall, underneath which was a console. Cobalt rushed to the console and quickly got into the system shell.
"Right," she said. "Do you just want me to take control of all the systems?"
"No," replied Brent "That's too obvious. I just want control of the cockpit and the cargo bay airlock. Oh, and environmental controls for the cargo bay. I've got something special planned."
"Easy enough," replied Cobalt.
"Also, is there a way you can mask your progress at all? I want it to be obvious you're attempting to regain control but I don't want him to know you're succeeding."
"What do you think I am, some sort of miracle worker? You're asking me to squeeze coal into diamonds here."
"Look," stated Brent bluntly. "I'm fairly sure Helner can remotely set those bombs off. He's the kind of coward egomaniac who hates to lose. If he gets a hint that we're beginning to get the upper hand, he'll vaporize us. Trust me, I know him. He and I go way back."
"Noted," Cobalt replied, her fingers working furiously at the console's controls. Commands were scrolling quickly up the monitor's screen. "I'll see what I can do. I think that perhaps if I create some dummy routines and redirect the main access into them I can create a diversion. Oh, and by the way I took the liberty of taking a peek at the devices strapped to the warheads. They're too secure to hack into without risk of setting them off accidentally, but it looks like we got a little under nineteen minutes left until we're reduced to our base elements."
"That should be enough time," said Brent, barely comprehending the technobabble. "I think I'll take care of the surveillance systems."
"Don't you want me to handle that?"
"Oh, I think my way is much more efficient." With that, Brent opened a nearby panel on the wall, reached in, tore a module out, and tossed it on to the deck. "You can't enter a system if it ain't there. Besides, I never used that anyway. Right, I've got to get down to the cargo bay to help Dub."
On board the star cruiser Napoleon, the monitors Kreegan Helner was watching went to static. "Felstar, that cretin. There he goes again, spoiling my fun. Lieutenant Jaden, do a full scan of the ship and transfer the data to my personal monitors. I want to know the second that weasely jerk's life-force snuffs out."
"Aye, sir," came a reply from somewhere else on the bridge.
"So, he's finally got that little bitch on his side. I wish I had known she was a code jockey. Lieutenant West, how are you doing over there?"
"Fine, sir," replied a young officer, typing quickly at a nearby console. Lines of code scrolled up the screen. "Though, I find something odd here. She seems very capable, but I'm easily nullifying her attempts to get into the ship's systems."
"You're besting her aren't you?"
"Well that's all that really matters, isn't it?" Helner moved his attention back to the monitors near the captain's chair. He studied the readouts: three life forms on board, all human, all with accelerated heart rates. He sat back in his comfortable, leather-bound chair and smiled, sipping gently on a mug of kander-spice coffee. Only fifteen or so minutes until his career's biggest annoyance was nothing more than a cloud of irradiated vapor floating through the cosmos. Life was good.
Brent and Dub moved the last of their crates into the hallway; both exhausted from working against the clock.
"Bloody hell, Brent" Dub panted. "You could have gotten here sooner. I've nearly busted my back moving all those crates by myself."
"Hey," Brent snapped back. "I wasn't much help anyway seeing as how I've only got one arm in use right now. I think I'm gonna slap our new friend with the hospital bill. Speaking of which, I need to pay her a visit. Now I need you to seal the cargo bay and mess with the environmental controls. Set the pressure in there to about 5,000psi."
"Five thousand? Are you sure the crates can handle that kind of pressure?"
"They seemed sturdy enough for me. I'm sure they'll hold. They'd better if we want this to work,"
Brent ran up the stairs, headed toward the central terminal. Cobalt was still there, deep in the code, seemingly not blinking.
"How are you doing? Have you got me my systems back?" asked Brent hastily.
"We're doing just fine", replied Cobalt, the glare of the screen obscuring the blue of her eyes. "I got you environmental controls back in your hands, I just got the flight controls fully ready, I'm nearly done with that airlock, and I don’t think they suspect a thing. Whoever Helner's got hacking for him is pretty good, but I'm running circles around him. We've got another eight minutes, by the way."
"Good, great, keep doing what you're doing." Brent continued his race down the corridor, finally coming to the cockpit. He settled himself into the pilot's chair and started working at the controls. He avoided turning on the sub-drive and instead played around with the attitude jets, causing the ship to rock slowly side to side in space.
Not surprisingly to Brent, Helner's face appeared once again on the heads-up screen. Brent pretended to frenetically grasp at the controls. "Brent, Brent, Brent. You poor, sad creature. Here you are spending the last few minutes of your life flailing around like some sort of desperate animal trying to tear itself from a hunter's trap. If I were you, I'd try to go out with that last shred of dignity, if you've even got that."
"When you die, Helner," growled Brent doing a good job at acting enraged and desperate, "I'm going to drag you into the pits of Hades myself."
"You do that," laughed Helner. "It's a shame you're going out on such a sour note. Oh well. You'll die as you've lived, I suppose. Goodbye, Brent. Goodbye forever."
With that the communications screen went black once again and Brent let a grin spread across his face, eventually giving into a hearty chuckle.
Back on the bridge of the Napoleon, Helner sat back and watched the Xerxes spinning about in space like a lost toy. At this point, it was doing a slow, sad spin. Helner chuckled and took another sip of his coffee. "Ah, the poor bastard is trying to get his flight controls to work. He's got his attitude jets going, but he seems to have little control over them and I bet he won't be able to get either drive on line before time is up. What do you say, West?"
"Well, sir," replied West. "I'm surprised he's moving his ship around at all. I've still reading the controls as locked down."
"Hmm," mused Helner, "perhaps his attitude controls are on a different sub-system. He tinkers with his ship so much that it must be a huge jumble of parts beneath its hull." The Mercury-class ship was now flailing around wildly, but soon stopped dead in space, tail end pointed directly at Helner in his ship.
"There," said Helner, matter-of-factly. "It looks like his controls are down once more. Get ready to watch the light show, men. There are only five minutes left at this point" With this he took a long sip of his coffee and smacked his loudly in satisfaction.
Cobalt strode into the cockpit with Dub close behind her.
"The ship's in position now," said Brent. "Are you two all done?"
"I've got some routines kicking around to keep the other guy occupied," said Cobalt with a smile. "He probably still thinks I'm making a go at it. The airlock is ready whenever you are. I transferred data from the nuclear clocks up here so you can monitor the time left."
Brent switched on a screen in the console, which showed the clock at just over three minutes. "Excellent," he said. "How about you, Dub?"
"The cargo bay is compressed more than a lump of coal in a carbon compression machine at the point where it becomes a diamond," replied the Scot.
"Great," said Brent, rubbing his hands together in excitement. "Now exactly what kind of radius do those nukes have?"
"The Harbinger is a tactical nuke, used for taking out small military installations. They're great things because you can put them in a delivery system or sneak them into a place… such as… our situation here." Dub coughed a little. "To answer your question, however they are about 3 kilotons, so they have a blast radius of one and a half kilometers give or take since we don’t have to worry about the shock wave."
"Hmm," mused Brent, deep in thought, "One-five kilometers, Helner's ship about two-five away, five thousand psi. Right!" he said, leaping to his feet. "We've got about 2 minutes left. Dub, you take the controls here and open the airlock when the countdown timer hits one… wait, make than one minute and five seconds to be on the safe side. I'm going up to the observation deck. I've got to see this bastard go down once and for all." With that he sprinted out the door.
Cobalt shouted after him, "hey! I'm coming too!"
Brent clambered up the ladder into the small observation lounge atop the ship, where he had a complete view around him, including the Napoleon directly to his ship's aft. A thousand lights illuminated the large ship as it floated silently through the void. He ran to the aft window and stood there, staring at his old rival, a mile away in space. The bounty hunter came up and stood beside him, staring with as much anticipation as he did.
Suddenly, they felt the ship shudder and a large boom sounded as the cargo bay imploded slightly from the sudden decompression. He saw the cargo zip towards the star cruiser at a blazing speed. This was going to be fun.
Aboard the Napoleon, Helner started to slowly count down from thirty seconds. It wouldn't be long now.
"Captain!" shouted Lieutenant Jaden. "There's something coming towards us at a very high rate of speed on a collision course!"
"On screen," ordered Captain Helner. The main view screen magnified and centered on a small group of objects rushing towards them from Felstar's ship.
"Sweet Siddartha," cried one helmsman, "those things are coming at us at one hell of a clip!"
Helner rose to his feet, fear welling up inside of him. "It's the nukes! Somehow he's launched them at us! Get us out of here!"
"We have no time to get out of the way!" yelled the Lieutenant helmsman.
"Then get us into warp!" Helner screamed back.
A split second before the blast, Brent saw the battle cruiser shimmer as it went into warp. Damn, he got away, he thought as the fireball suddenly lit up space. He was glad for the auto-shading windows in the lounge here, or else he would have been completely blinded. A few moments later, an aurora engulfed the ship as tiny particles from the explosion bounced off the electro-magnetic shields of the ship. Now he was glad he had EMP shielding installed in the ship's hull, or else he would have been dead in space at this point.
"Well," said Cobalt, "that, as they say, is that."
"So, are you still going to finish the job and off me?" asked Brent, half-jokingly.
"I don’t do jobs that I know I'm not going to get paid for," the bounty hunter replied.
"Well that's a relief, I guess. We're headed for Procyon. Where do you want to be dropped off?"
The bounty hunter turned heel and quickly made her way back towards the rest of the ship. Brent spent a few more moments watching the colors and lights weave around his vessel. He had come very close to dying several times today. There was going to be a very long vacation after this.
Several days later, Dub and Brent were standing just outside the market quarter in Raccoon Valley Colony, on Sirrush. Brent had decided not to go to Avaris since the Feds probably knew he was on his way there, instead going to its more remote (but nearly as arid) cousin in the same system.
"Twelve thousand, nine hundred credits", laughed Brent, looking at his data pad which was currently displaying the funds they had just acquired after their selling their remaining cargo. "I told you it was worth the time to move all the stuff out of the way before ejecting the nukes. We just made more than our projected amount."
"Yeah," admitted Dub, "that shipment of periodicals made us more than I ever figured such things could sell."
"Well, you know, these poor Sirrushans hardly get any pornography, what with this being such a godforsaken lump of rock and all."
"True, but that was just a small bit of that shipment. You'd have thought it was made of gold, it sold for so much."
"Supply and demand, Dub," replied Brent. "In our profession that's all that matters and you just don't question it. Frankly, I'm just glad we made it back in one piece. I think we should high tail it to the Rim so we can avoid the Feds for a while. Helner is probably pissed and out for blood. And I'm glad we got rid of that damn bounty hunter."
"What was wrong with her, Brent?" asked Dub light-heartedly. "She was a rather classy woman. I figured she was your type."
"Hardly. I don’t think I'd describe her as classy either, though another c-word comes to mind."
"Ah, come now, Brent."
"Look, she had the manners of a Silepsian ice salesman. Silent as a winter's day and twice as cold. I just hope I never run into her kind as long as I live."
"Well," replied Dub with a chuckle, "you’re out of luck: looks who's walking this way."
Dub pointed to Cobalt, who strolled confidently down the busy road, her dark red hair and dark blue coat flowing in the breeze with a stern look on her face. She didn't so much as glance their way.
"Come to bother us again?" heckled Brent as she came nearer.
"Hardly," she scoffed, finally acknowledging them. "I'm merely passing through. I've got a ride to Terra lined up, on a proper ship this time. Not some old junk heap. I'm going to gather some information on this Helner friend of yours. Only six people have ever double-crossed me, and only two are still alive, Helner inclusive."
"Oh no you don't," said Brent with a scowl. "I've already got dibs on ending that one's life."
"Yeah, well you're going to have to get to him first." With that she walked off, Brent shooting daggers with his eyes at her.
"Brent," said Dub trying to divert his attention, "let's go get us a drink. That place across the street looks pretty good."
"Yeah," replied Brent, coming back to reality, "sounds good. I've got a couple things to buy though. I need to find a real doctor to get this damn wound patched up. The autodoc is just a temporary solution and I felt like I was running on only half my cylinders when I was coming into port. The hands are a pilot's most important tools and you don’t often realize that until you've got one half-dead. I think I need to look for some parts for that damned bot too."
"I've got a thing or two to take care of as well. I think I'll get me a MU-10. Think I'm also gonna find me a documentary on Scottish mythology if I can find any. I've suddenly developed an interest."
"Alright, I'll meet you at that pub when I'm done."
"I just hope they have some Ankaanan brandy," finished Dub wistfully as he walked off in search of a weapons dealer.