Episode 10: One big job. Easy money

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The Matilda is docked at Clarita Station, one busted nacelle and two angry corporations after them. Decker has retreated to his quarters, nether vaporizer in hand. Life in the Fringe wasn't supposed to be like this. All he wanted was a little freedom, and maybe a modicum of security. Now he's got neither. Oh well. Another drag off the nether should keep the worries away for a few hours more.

Decker lay in his bunk, datapad screen-down on his chest. His injured arm lay flat against his side while his other hand brought the small, cylindrical, nether vaporizer up to his mouth. He took a slow drag and let the vapor fill his lungs, savoring the metallic taste. He exhaled the invisible remnants, grinning as he felt the twist’s calming effects smooth out his thinking. The pain from the bolt wound on his shoulder seemed to lessen. That, or he just didn’t mind it  as much.

The Matilda had exited the two-day jump from Talius a few hours ago. When they’d arrived at one of the budget stations that orbited Clarita, Decker had told the crew to disembark and go enjoy some of the station’s amenities while they could. They’d been happy to oblige. After the second shouting-match and a threat to throw someone out an airlock, it was clear the crew needed a moment to decompress that didn’t involve hard vacuum. Food, drink, gambling and entertainment were just what they needed. Decker stayed behind. He needed some time to think. Alone.

He stared at the curved metal ceiling above him, taking another drag off the nether. The cabin lights glowed a dim orange, the original lighting elements having been replaced immediately after his first multi-week jump in the Matilda, when something as simple as lighting made all the difference. Full-spectrum white light was supposed to be better for the skin and eyes, helping you cope with the void of being in deep space by stimulating the biological reactions that were normally triggered by sunlight. But not for Decker. He had grown up under a blistering orange sun, and the white light felt cold to him, casting everything in what seemed like a shade of blue. Orange was comforting, restful on the eyes. And rest was what he needed right now.

Decker adjusted his position, wincing from the pain radiating from his shoulder. Sellivan had patched it up well enough, even if his bedside manner was nonexistent. The burn was painful, but it would heal. A physical injury was something real that could be dealt with. He’d been hit with a bolt before. And beaten up more than a few times. Stabbed once. Nearly suffocated to death in hard vacuum; he’d spent two weeks in a recovery chamber after that incident.

This was a different kind of pain he was feeling. No, maybe pain wasn’t the right word. It was dread, the feeling of being slowly pulled by gravity into a black-hole without the energy to counteract it. That was the feeling at the forefront of all his thoughts, the feeling that whatever was pulling him to this grim fate was inevitable.

He gripped the nether cartridge with his teeth and eased himself into a seated position, datapad falling to his lap. He let his gaze wander around the orange-tinged surroundings. There were no windows. All crew quarters were located along the centerline of the ship above the command bridge. He could have taken the larger captain’s quarters, which had thick, steel-glass windows and triple the space, but the constant view of the void made him feel too vulnerable. In his quarters, he could pretend that nothing outside the metal bulkheads existed. 

Life in space was unnatural. It was too easy to let it erode your sanity. The more that could be done to keep the mind in order when floating around the void, the better. But if his quarters matched his mind, he wasn’t doing a very good job at organizing the contents of either. Both were in a state of disarray, the hasty ascent off of Talius followed by the cutting of artificial gravity doing nothing to help. The nether wouldn’t make it any better, but it would help him not mind as much.

His thinking was if he was going to have his ship be his permanent residence, it should feel like a home. Acting as the centerpiece of the room was a thickly padded easy-chair, currently occupied by a stack of real paper books stuffed next to a pile of dirty clothes. There were pictures of places he’d visited stuck to the walls, some images he’d captured himself, others flimsy keepsakes sold in station gift-shops on simulated paper. There was an antique guitar with a sticker on it in a language he didn’t know, probably the name of a music group from a place he’d never heard of. He’d meant to learn to play it, but never seemed to get past a few chords. Along the wall opposite the bunk was a desk covered with broken electronics he was meaning to fix, some struggling houseplants that did not seem to appreciate the orange lighting, and a stale, half-eaten sandwich he’d made when he recovered from his jump sickness after giving the slip to the Talius Orbital Patrol. Thankfully, that was over with.

Decker picked up the datapad and activated the screen, still showing what he’d previously been looking at; his and Manu’s company bank accounts. He sighed, loud and forceful. “Damn it.”

Their balances were low. Lower than they had been in a while. He’d transferred what he could to Heavy so the ship’s engineer could buy some patch-and-go repair materials for the Matilda’s damaged stabilizer nacelle. The sorry state of the balances, though, he’d kept to himself. He was responsible for paying the crew, and they were responsible for meeting the obligations of their contracts. They’d done their part, Talius disaster aside. It was Decker who was perilously close to not doing his.

He’d taken the job from Fioli as a way to shore up some of his debts and get the Matilda some badly needed upgrades. It had been an old ship when he bought it, but now it was practically an antique. The datapad in his hand was the most impressive piece of tech on it, outside of whatever additional computers Sellivan had running in his quarters. The Matilda was purchased for its toughness, the freighter’s superstructure built to withstand punishment and a life in deep space. Their intent had been to fix it up, add modern tech—like the datapad—to replace the buttons, switches, and knobs. Maybe put some carpet down on the corrugated metal floors. So far, the biggest upgrade the Matilda had gotten was to the crew lounge entertainment center—the largest vidscreen that would fit. 

Decker tossed the datapad onto the bed. He hadn’t started this contracting business to get into bounty hunting. Snatching Jerith was supposed to be a one-time exception. Fioli had promised half up-front, and the work was supposed to be easy. Jerith wasn’t much of a threat and Talius was far enough from Decker’s normal areas of operation that upsetting IoCorp wouldn’t put too much of a damper on his freedom of movement. He’d even considered the idea that IoCorp might be impressed. It wouldn’t be the first time a mercenary had been hired by a former adversary after they’d seen a job well done. It was probably too late for that, and Decker wasn’t interested in finding out. 

Here they were. Wounded in both flesh and metal, with a pissed-off corporation behind them, a soon-to-be pissed off corporation in front of them, and the body of a failed art thief he didn’t know what to do with stuffed in a freeze-crate down in the cargo hold.

Fioli had wanted Jerith alive, and Decker wasn’t sure he could say, ‘Hey Fioli, we got your guy. He was alive when we grabbed him, less so now. We’re willing to offer a partial refund. Even have the body shipped to you, free of charge.’

One thing was certain, Fioli wouldn’t be paying the rest of the job’s contract. If he were feeling generous, he’d only want the advance back with interest. And probably a penalty. If he weren’t feeling generous, Decker was going to need a deep hole to hide in. Once he shared with Fioli that he couldn’t meet his end of the agreement, a CEO like that could go to great lengths to pursue a petty debt, and Decker would likely end up the target of another mercenary’s contract.

Of course, giving Fioli a refund was all contingent on still having the advance, the very money he’d already given to Heavy for the repairs, temporary repairs that weren’t even the start of what a permanent fix would cost. They were walking away from this job with nothing but a big hole in their ship, bigger debts, and the ire of a couple of bored, wealthy CEOs.

Decker stood and paced slowly across the cabin, inhaling then exhaling more of the nether. He smirked, remembering Jerith’s comment about gangsters. Right now, he’d rather be indebted to gangsters. Gangsters had a code, but they used emotion and gut-feeling to make decisions. Tell a good story and they may empathize and offer a second-chance. The corporations, to them everything was business. The contract was firm and pleas for empathy would not be entertained.

This was his ship and his responsibility. Well, three-quarters his. Technically Manu did own the other quarter, making the two of them business partners in this struggling mercenary outfit. Not that it mattered much since their debts outweighed the ship’s value and it was being used as collateral on three different loans—none of the lenders knew about the others. As long as he kept up the payments, the lenders wouldn’t be too concerned, but it wouldn’t be long before they would have a reason to become so.

He gripped the nether cartridge between his teeth and lifted the stack of books from the easy-chair, setting them carefully on the desk. They’d taken a tumble during the rough ascent. He had digital copies on his computer, but these were special. They weren’t replicas, and no matter how good the reproductions were, knowing they had no history made them feel cheap and meaningless. These books had carried their message through time, available to anyone who could read and had a few hours to spare. How many eyes had passed over these pages before they’d ended up in Decker’s possession?

The dirty clothes, however, weren’t given nearly that much respect. He swept them to the floor and kicked the pile up against the bed. Chores could wait. He flopped down into the easy-chair, his body sinking into the cushions. He picked up one of the books from the stack and opened it to a random page and smiled. It was one of his favorites, a fictional memoir about a young man in a magical place who lost his family and was forced into a life of thievery. Decker’s smile flattened into a wry frown. Maybe stories about money problems weren’t what he was in the mood for. He set the book back onto the desk, leaned back in the chair, and once again stared at the ceiling.

Decker ran his hand over the short beard that had grown in over the last week. Maybe a quick trim was in order? Personal grooming habits had been hard to maintain between the bounty hunting, gun battles, and fleeing for his life. He looked down at the derma-seal patch on his shoulder. It was starting to look a little maroon, probably time for a change. The beard could wait a few more days.

He pulled his shirt over his head, the bolt wound burning as he moved. Taking another drag from the nether, he set his jaw firm, gripped the edge of the derma-seal patch and peeled it back, revealing the ugly, hand-sized stretch of burned flesh beneath. He sighed, not because of the burn, but because of the ink that had been there. Starting near where his shoulders met his neck, Decker’s arm tattoos were a solid mosaic of art and color stretching down to the back of his hands. Each interlocking piece was done the old-fashioned way, with the buzzing needle. No painless pigment sublimation or genetic modifications for him. The pain is what made the visual story matter, and now part of that story involved it being vaporized away.

He tossed the used derma-seal into a waste container—one he should really empty out—and tore open a fresh one, using his teeth to remove the plastic sheet that covered the adhesive back. He lined it up over the wound and gently pressed on the sticky edges of the patch. The gel on the patch had a local anesthetic along with antibiotics and cell-regrowth accelerators. The numbness started spreading across his upper arm. Once it healed, the patch of scar tissue could be smoothed out and inked over once again, if he wanted. Yet another thing he couldn’t afford to fix. 

He sighed again, tossing the shirt onto the pile of clothes on the floor and settling back into the easy-chair, closing his eyes. He just needed time to think, that was all. Rest his eyes. One little breather and then he’d get back at it.

He took one, long, splendid drag off the nether cartridge, set it on the desk, and let his eyelids do what they may.

The chime from Decker’s computer sounded for the third time since first bringing him out of his slumber. His eyes slowly opened, grateful for the dim orange glow. He’d fallen asleep, and if the decidedly sober state his mind was in was any indicator, it had been long enough for the twist’s effects to wear off.

He pressed his palms against his eyes, rubbing the fatigue out of them. It was probably one of the crew trying to contact him. He stared at the ceiling; there were only so many reasons they would need to talk to him right now and all of them would have to do with money. He had no new answers for them. His nap had been very efficient at allowing him to avoid coming up with a solution, but it looked like that was all he would get.

Another chime. Decker grimaced. Maybe it was Fioli demanding to know where his package was. This was not a conversation Decker was looking forward to. But Fioli had to understand; Decker couldn’t be the first contractor to have a bounty hunt go bad. That was part of the risk when you tried to take someone against their will. It wasn’t Decker’s fault that Jerith wouldn’t just accept his fate and come along nicely. But explaining their failure wasn’t what Decker had an issue with; it was having to tell Fioli he couldn’t issue a refund. The money was gone

Another chime. Another chime? The Matilda’s communications would go through the intercom computers. The chime wasn’t connected to any system the crew or someone like Fioli would have used to reach him; he’d never given it to any of them. It had been so long since he’d heard it, he’d forgotten that this was his personal contact address chime. The important one. The one that would continue to chime once a minute until he attended to it.

He leaned forward, placing his hands on his knees and pushing himself out of the deep, well-worn cushions. He crossed to the desk and swept the stale sandwich out of the way.

“Stop, just stop,” he grumbled, jabbing at a few of the hard-plastic buttons on the computer. The curved glass screen came to life, showing his personal inbox. He went to dismiss the chiming notification, but stopped. He grunted, squinting at the screen, and reached over to turn the wall-mounted dial for the lights, letting orange flood the cramped space. 

Decker pulled the magnet-footed stool from beneath the desk and sat. No one used this contact. Well, almost no one. He only gave it to people who needed direct, secure, and secret communication with him.

Decker picked up the twist and tapped it on the desk. This was certainly unexpected, and it probably wasn’t good. There was still time to ignore it. Of all the reasons someone would be trying to reach him on this contact, he couldn’t think of any that were going to help him out of his current predicament.

Taking a slight puff off the twist—just enough to ease the tightening of his stomach—he pressed a key on the computer, navigated to the message, and opened it. It had no sender, no subject, no information other than the content and an encrypted return signature. He read the message silently to himself:

‘I have a job for you. Immediate. One-hundred thousand credits, all upfront. I need a pickup from Kestris and transport to a location in the Fringe to be shared after I am on board. Blind mission. No questions asked by either of us. Pickup, drop-off, light support. That’s it.’

 He leaned in close, face just inches away from the screen. There was no name with the message, but he didn’t need one. He could only think of one person with this information who would send such a terse, presumptive message with a payday they knew he wouldn’t ignore. She already presumed he’d accept. 

He tapped a few commands into the keyboard and selected the return signature, comparing it against the one in his personal contact list. The computer worked for a few seconds and then validated the source, exactly as Decker had known it would. 

His finger hovered over the delete button. The crew didn’t have to know about this. If he ignored the message, she would move on. Whatever she was into wasn’t his problem, but that was why she’d included such a healthy number. For that much, she assumed he’d make it his problem. One hundred thousand credits and no questions asked…

Decker stood and paced back to the easy-chair, sitting back into it and staring at the computer. His mind went to the Matilda’s damaged nacelle. Grabbing Jerith had been a fifteen-thousand credit job, only half of which they’d received as an advance, and it had caused three-times that amount in damage. One hundred thousand credits could fix all that with money to spare. Repair the ship, maybe even add a few upgrades. Get the crew paid. He could even smooth things out with Fioli. How had she known to offer just enough to solve all his problems?

He closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair, intrigue mixing with trepidation in his gut. It was almost as if she knew how desperate he was. Was he really that predictable? He should be insulted. How did she know he wasn’t out here in the Fringe running a successful contracting business just like he’d always said he would? Why had she presumed her offer would be taken so readily?

Decker growled, smacking his hand against the chair. He knew why, and so did she. This was her way of saying ‘I need something from you, here’s an enormous chunk of money to buy your services, your cooperation, and to convince you to ignore everything that happened between us.’ 

He wished he could say that he was above this, that he could turn down the seduction of ‘one big job’ that would solve all his problems. This was every mercenary’s dream, but these bail-out jobs could cloud judgement. You see those zeroes, and things you said you’d never  do turn into ‘well, maybe this once.’ When you’re on the edge, principles become fluid. Well, if someone could afford to pass on an offer like this, good for them. Not Decker, though. Principles were for people who weren’t broke.

He stood again in front of the computer. If the message had been from anyone else, he could give them the benefit of the doubt. Not with her. He knew to doubt the entire thing. ‘Suspect’ didn’t begin to describe it. He shouldn’t even consider it. Delete it. Whatever she wanted, she was more than capable of handling it herself. They could find other jobs. But, just think of what a hundred thou could pay for!

The timeless call of the siren played in his head, a conversation he knew had transpired in the minds of countless people like them with their backs against the wall, desperate to accept any offer no matter how ‘too good to be true’ it seemed. ‘One, big job. Easy money. We do this and we’re home free.’

Decker placed his fists knuckles-down on the desk. Fine. He grunted and pressed a button on the computer.

“Manu, can you meet me on the observation bridge? I’ve got something you’re going to want to hear in person.”

The observation bridge of the Matilda was quiet. Unlike the command bridge, it was up high on the ship’s bow, its wrap-around windows giving an overwhelming view of the stars and the planet below. Decker could see the long, terminal arms of Clarita station stretching around in a huge half-circle, dozens of ships attached to docking spurs. The planet was a busy hub between Imperium and Fringe space. One of the last stops into the frontier, or if you were heading the other direction, back into so-called civilized space.

Decker could hear the occasional groan of bulkheads flexing, or docking clamps shifting beneath the whir of life support and the soft beeps from computer systems. He sat in one of the forward-facing pilot seats, a schematic image of the Matilda pulled up on the main display screen, the damaged nacelle highlighted in red.

Poor ship. It had taken plenty of damage in its day, but it always hurt to know that the one thing he counted on to protect him and his crew was wounded. This was his home. There was nowhere else to retreat to if the Matilda was not available. He had to fix it.

Footsteps sounded at the far end of the bridge, boots clanging against the metal steps. “Okay Deck, what’s the big news?” Manu said, skepticism already coloring his voice.

Decker stared at the image of the Matilda on the display. “Heavy make any progress on finding some parts?”

Manu crossed the bridge and leaned against one of the consoles, folding his arms as he did. “He found enough to keep us afloat, but he says atmosphere is out of the question without a proper repair. We’re good for hard vacuum only. He says we’ll need to hit a dry-dock to do it right if we want to be able to set-down anywhere planetside.”

Decker nodded. “That’s gonna be expensive.”

Manu shrugged and waved his hand at nothing in particular. “Everything’s always falling apart around here. We fix one thing, two more things break. Just how it is.” He raised an eyebrow, pointing down at the image of the Matilda. “You call me up here just to ask about that?”

Decker looked up to his friend. “How long you think it would take to get to Kestris from here?”

Manu snorted a laugh, then lowered his brow. “Kestris?” He paused. “Why there, and why now?”

Decker grinned. “A job request came in over my private channel. A big one. I still need details on the job, but the pay is big. We could fix the nacelle and all the little things that have been adding up. Even cut everyone a nice bonus.”

Manu shook his head emphatically. “We’re down an engine, and I checked our business account; we are in worse shape than the ship. Everyone is dejected from having to eat the last job while almost getting blown apart, and you want to take the Matilda into the empire? To Kestris? I ain’t taking my ship—”

Decker raised a finger. “Our ship.”

“—anywhere until we figure out how we’re fixing this mess.”

Decker leaned forward, putting his hands together and lowering his voice despite the two of them being the only ones on the ship. He painted a grin on his face; it was time to project confidence.

“That’s what I’m talking about. One big job will cover it all, and more.”

Decker could see Manu’s eyes narrow a bit. ‘One big job,’ the three-word, siren call. Its seduction never failed. 

Manu grunted. “What’s the number?”

Decker did his best to look smooth. “A hundred thou.”

Manu uncrossed his arms, his head jutting forward. “A hundred thousand? They want us to do an air assault on the Imperium capitol?”

Decker shrugged. “Nope. Just want us to pick them up on Kestris, take them out into the Fringe, drop them off and give some light tactical support. Nothing to it,” he said, doing what he could to make it sound casual.

Manu was still shaking his head. “Yeah, and where exactly is this mystery customer needing us to take them?”

Decker winced. “Well, they didn’t say in the message. For that kind of money, they prefer no questions asked.”

Manu laughed and frowned at the same time. “Come on, Deck. No one is dropping a hundred thousand to charter a ship. Even if they’re hot, ten-thousand will get you almost anywhere in the sector that isn’t an active war zone.” Manu crossed his arms. “Who’s the customer?”

Decker held up a hand. “They aren’t paying for just the ride, they’re paying for the silence. And because they know we can be relied on.”

Manu’s voice was firm. “They? You’re stalling. Who’s the customer?”

Decker searched for the right words, leaning forward in the seat. “Now before you—”

Who?”

“All right.” Decker stood, leaning nonchalantly against the console. He exhaled through puffed cheeks. “It’s, uh, Samantha.”

Manu scoffed. “Wait, Samantha? You talked to her?”

“Not exactly; it was text only.”

“What did it say?” Manu pointed at Decker. “Exact words.”

Decker scratched at his beard. “Like I said, one-hundred thousand, pick her up on Kestris, then we’ll get the details from there.” 

Manu dropped his hands to his side and paced across the bridge. “She pops up after all this time wanting to buy our silence and cooperation, with no indication about what we’re supposed to do?”

Decker thought for a moment. “Yeah, that’s about right.”

Manu stared out the windows to the row of ships docked at the station. “Isn’t she working for, what, interstellar affairs? She’s got the whole Imperium backing her. Whatever reason she’d need an outfit like ours can’t be good.”

Decker crossed to stand next to Manu. He was reacting more favorably than Decker had assumed. “My info on her is as outdated as yours. Sometimes hiring outside help is easier, half our clients have been governments or corporations looking to outsource. Maybe she’s just trying to avoid formalities.”

“I don’t like it,” Manu said, a hint of a scowl bending the corners of his mouth.

“I know. Me neither. I haven’t responded yet. I got the message, read it, and called you here so we could decide what to do.”

Manu turned to face Decker. “Decide what to do? Decker, we ignore her and move on.”

Decker held up a hand. “Let’s think about this. We can find out what she’s asking and then evaluate our options.”

Manu raised an eyebrow. “You gonna let the rest of the crew in on this?”

“Not until you and I are in agreement. This is about our ship. This,” Decker patted his hand against the metal hull, “is our priority.”

Manu seemed to be considering their situation. His voice eased. “If she’s offering that amount of money, there’s something bigger going on. Nothing is ever upfront with her. Or simple.”

“Yeah, but she knows us, knows we can keep our mouths shut and business private. She wouldn’t hire us and risk failing if she didn’t feel we could meet the demands of the job. So she sent us a cryptic request and a big number and expects us to drop everything. We know she’s spending Imperium money, not her own, so what do we care if the empire wants to help us get out of this predicament? We get payment, do whatever she wants, then we find the nearest chop-shop to get Matilda here back in business.”

Manu sighed. The seduction was working. Decker pressed forward.

“Look, we’re in a bad way. We’re a floating cliché, a broke group of hired-help with a busted ship and a trail of creditors across the system.” Decker’s face sunk, genuine this time. “All my money is wrapped up in the ship, and you already said what we’ve got in the business account.”

“Not a lot,” Manu muttered.

“Right. And the crew is going to want to be paid. They’re dependable, but this isn’t a charity outfit. Do we even have enough to cover their share of the Talius job?”

Manu looked away briefly, then shook his head 

“What do we do if we’ve got no crew? If they have to find work elsewhere because we can’t pay them, how do we expect to get any jobs if it’s just the two of us trying to fly this thing alone?”

Manu shrugged, and without conviction said, “There’re other jobs. We can run down the list of regulars, see if someone can give an advance if we discount deeply. Maybe do some salvage runs.”

“Junk hauling? I’m tired of just getting by. We’ve become too good at the ‘one jump forward, two jumps back’ lifestyle. We bought this ship so we could gain freedom, even if it means we lost some security. Right now, we aren’t free from anything and far less secure than I ever thought we’d be.” Decker swallowed the guilt for what he was about to say. “I can handle Samantha. Things get crazy, we bail on her. What is she going to do? I’m probably one of the few people in the sector she won’t kill. She knows she can’t threaten me.” He could hear the siren again. “Manu. One big job. Easy money.”

Manu started to speak and Decker prepared another round of justifications.

“Okay. Let’s find out what we’re getting into,” Manu said.

Decker slapped the chair and whooped, shocked and jubilant at Manu’s response. “All right! We’re gonna make this happen.” Decker hopped into the pilot’s seat and pulled the message up on the computer. “I’ll tell her to send half before we even jump, operating costs to cover the temporary repairs.”

Decker entered their response, requesting the job specifics, the timeline, and the destination. “Good enough?”

Manu shrugged.

Decker nodded. “Good enough! And… sent,” he said triumphantly. “Now, we just wait. If she’s serious, I’m sure she’ll get right back to us.”

Manu shook his head. “Yeah, well I won’t feel too bad if she doesn’t.”

A few hours passed. Decker and Manu were still on the observation bridge, going over who they owed, who they would pay first, and how they wanted to handle Fioli and Jerith’s body. They concluded that they would offer Fioli a refund, plus something for his trouble, and give Jerith a ‘burial-at-sea.’ They’d do Samantha’s job and avoid contacting any creditors until they received the second half of the payment.

They were deep into a debate on the best way to legitimize their business once they had all of the money when a notification appeared on the computer’s screen.

“…and that’s why I think—Oh, there it is. Faster than I thought. Let’s see.” Decker squinted at the new message. “Hmm.”

“‘Hmm’ what?” Manu said.

“Well, there are no answers, but she’s sent the entire sum ready for instant transfer.”

Manu groaned. “Right from the start! Half a sector away and all she can give us is the ‘take it or leave it’ treatment.”

Decker looked at the message. There it was, one-hundred thousand credits. One press of a button and it was theirs. She knew he’d end up taking the offer and was apparently not interested in any back-and-forth. All he had to do was accept and they’d be set.

He looked to Manu. “Do you really think we’re going to talk ourselves out of accepting this transfer? Or that the crew will protest when we tell them?”

Manu scrunched his mouth, replying with a single shake of the head.

“Me neither. This is our way out.” Decker smiled. “Have some faith in us.”

Menu raised an eyebrow. “I’ve got plenty of faith in us.”

“Fair enough.” Decker entered his ‘gray-area’ account for the transfer. This account was kept at a bank in the Fringe that didn’t require a name. “I’ll tell her we need a place and time of arrival, and that we’ve got a malfunction that keeps us restricted to vacuum. Station pickups only.”

Decker gave his friend one last look, one more chance to protest. Manu said nothing. Decker puffed out his cheeks, exhaled, and accepted the credit transfer. The screen blinked, and just like that, Decker and Manu were no longer upside-down. A shiver coursed across his skin. Seeing the credits in his possession felt like the strongest hit off a twist he’d had in weeks. He raised his hands in victory.

“Just like that! Let’s call the crew together and let them know we’re going on a little trip to the center of the Imperium.”