Episode 24: No funny business

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The Matilda is in dry-dock over Mentaryd, the crew ready to take care of their unplanned rest-stop and get back to business. Decker has an agenda. So does Samantha. The crew? They're just along for the ride.

“Ship is secure. Powering down the plant and switching to station power,” Heavy’s voice called out through the intercom. “Heading up.”

The ever-present humming, beeping, oscillating sounds that normally filled the interior of the Matilda went quiet. Decker’s stomach tightened at the strange silence as the lighting in the crew lounge dimmed, the Matilda now powered only by the umbilical tether that connected it to the Blacksky Station dry-dock. The Matilda was quietly rudderless for the first time in… Decker couldn’t actually remember the last time the Matilda was shut down.

He adjusted the collar of his jacket. He didn’t wear it for warmth; it was supposed to be his lucky jacket. He hadn’t worn it on Talius; the still-healing bolt wound on his shoulder a painful reminder of that blunder. But, he had worn it onto Starview Station and narrowly avoided being sucked into the vacuum of space. The notion of wearing it all the time—in bed, while exercising, during showers—had crossed his mind.

Decker and the rest of the crew were gathered in the lounge, each making their final preparations for the stop. Samantha stood to the side, silent, as the rest of the crew bantered idly amongst themselves. She seemed to have laundered her clothes, but was wearing one of Eliza’s more conservative jackets; dark blue with silver scallops on the shoulders. It was… strange to see her like this. She looked too casual, too normal. Not in a bad way, but showing personality was not something Samantha was known for. It was odd.

The sound of Heavy’s boots echoed up from the central corridor, the big man finally emerging into the lounge with a full-sized bag of tools hanging from his fist.

“Deck, the patient is ready for surgery,” Heavy said, holding up the bag like it was a lunch box. 

Decker exhaled forcibly. “Well, okay. Manu, where did we end up on the estimate from… who leases this dock?”

Manu grimaced. “J.R. Junior’s Just-Repairs.”

Eliza snorted at the name; Manu shook his head and continued. “Hey, I was shopping for a place that would take anonymous credits and would be willing to bump other appointments to make us first in line. For what he’s charging us, buying an entirely new nacelle would have been the same price, if anything that old was still manufactured. Best we get now is access to a two-person crew for Heavy to boss around, and priority access to any salvaged parts on-hand.”

Eliza squinted an eye. “But did you talk to J.R. senior? Or just junior?”

Manu’s grimace deepened. “I didn’t ask.”

Eliza shook her head in dismay. “Manu, you gotta haggle with these people!”

Heavy grinned, stepping forward to rescue Manu from the tangent. “This place might be a little unsophisticated up front, but I talked to their technician. They’ve got what we need. This is one of those times when Matilda’s simplicity and reliance on mass-produced materials is to our benefit. Now, it’s not going to be pretty, and the nacelle will need to be replaced sooner than later, but we’ll be able to fly straight and set down on solid ground.”

The crew seemed to be in good spirits, though Samantha remained quiet. Decker had noticed her eyes shift to each person as they spoke, but he didn’t get the impression she was analyzing them. Standing there, arms hanging loosely at her sides, vibrant blue jacket just slightly too big, she looked like someone trying to join a friendly conversation but didn’t know how. If basic socialization was a skill she’d let atrophy, this was the crew to learn from.

Decker clapped his hands together. “Matilda is a tough ship. Someday, we’ll get her back into like-new shape. She deserves a better life than one of slow disrepair.” He raised an eyebrow to Manu. “They ask any funny questions, want more documentation, check out registration, anything?”

Manu shook his head. “Nothing so far. J.R.—I presume the junior—saw the anonymous transfer and had no problem keeping it documentation free.”

Decker looked to Sellivan, seated in his spot at the dining table. “Selli. Sorry, Sellivan, anything we should know coming in over the feeds? Civil unrest, incoming flotilla of Imperium destroyers, the star here going to go supernova before we’re gone?”

Sellivan glanced up from his computer. “Nothing of interest. Local system commentators have already moved on to discussing how to best maximize profit from the Imperium’s predicament. Business as usual.”

Decker nodded. He turned to his away-team, Eliza and Samantha. “Okay. You two have a plan?”

“Yes, sir.” Eliza gave a salute. “Get our feet on the ground, load up on the required ordnance, snacks, and stock for the bar, then wait patiently for this bird to get its wing fixed. Simple as can be.”

Decker shifted his attention to Samantha. She shrugged. “Eliza is the guide on the ground. I’m just the financier of this operation.”

Something felt off about the two of them. Considering their normal state of unpredictability, that had to mean something. Eliza was back into her public persona. The chromatic red hair was slicked to the side and hung over her right eye, leaving the ear implant and head scarring exposed. Her eye makeup was a dark red outlined in black, completely covering her eyelids and the bridge of her nose like a mask, stretching back to her temples in a wide band. She wore a matching bright red jacket with yellow stripes and baggy black cargo pants. All normal enough for Eliza. But it was something about the way Samantha was just… standing around so normal that bothered him.

Decker forced the concern to the back of his mind; he couldn’t exactly accuse her of acting too normal. “Then I guess that does it. Sellivan, ship is yours while we’re out. Me, Manu, and Hev will get the work underway, and you two,” he waved his finger back and forth between Samantha and Eliza, “stay out of trouble down there. This is just a rest-stop between Kestris and Senali. No funny business.”

Eliza’s face contorted into confusion. Her hand came to her chest in shock. “Funny business? When have I ever gotten into funny business? Anyway, you know that warning us not to almost assures that we will.”

Decker folded his arms. “Yeah? Well if that’s the case I’ll try something else. While you’re on the surface, be sure to try to kill a few people, maybe cause a planet-wide incident. If you are able to drag the trouble up here to the station, even better. During every interaction you have, think to yourself: ‘how can I make this planet the last place I ever visit?’.”

Decker’s stomach tightened at the genuine flash of excitement on Eliza’s face.

“There you go,” she said, reaching out to pat him on the shoulder. “No matter what happens now, you’ll be happy that we didn’t surpass that.”

Decker managed a tight-lipped smile. “Yep.”

Eliza laughed and rolled her eyes, swinging her backpack filled with untold tools of the trade over her shoulder as she sauntered toward the Matilda’s docking port. Samantha gave Decker a shrug and followed after her. Heavy was next, whistling as he swung the tool bag like he was off to school. Sellivan remained in his seat at the dining table, focused on his computer, seemingly unconcerned with any of them.

Decker started forward, then suddenly stopped, raising his hand to his head as if he had just remembered something. “Hev, we’ll catch up in a minute, I just remembered I need both my and Manu’s approval on a credit transfer from a company account. We’ll be right out.”

Heavy shrugged and ducked through the exit. Decker watched until his shadow disappeared, then nodded toward the opposite corridor that led up to the observation bridge.

“Hey Man, come here a minute,” Decker said. Manu followed him halfway up the metal stairs before Decker stopped and checked to be sure they were alone.

“Closed-door captains’ meeting?” Manu said, hands on his hips. “You remember a time when we weren’t always busy hiding things from people?”

Decker smiled ruefully. “I do, and let me tell you, I can’t wait until we can get back to that.” He lowered his voice. “About the dry dock—I won’t be going with you and Hev. After Eliza and Samantha are in-transit, I’m going to catch a different shuttle down to the surface. I think there’s someone down there I can talk to about recent events. Braithwaite.”

Manu’s eyes narrowed. “No Deck, come on. After what the Kestrels are being blamed for, what you know they did? You’re going to try and talk to one of them?”

Decker raised an eyebrow. “Hey, I’m not real excited about the idea, but think about it; I might be the only person in the sector who is the bridge between the two sides of the story. I’ve already heard Samantha’s version of what the Imperium is into. Samantha can’t just waltz in and talk to some Kestrels, but I can. I can get their version of the story, things Samantha wouldn’t know, and compare the two.”

Manu tilted his head at the suggestion. “Why do you think Braithwaite would share anything with you? His group is in deep shit, they’re going to be on the lookout for, like you said, funny business.”

Decker grinned. “That’s right, but that’s where it works in our favor. There’s nothing strange about me checking-in while I’m in the neighborhood. I show up, talk about how I’m hard-up for money, looking to warm some old connections.”

Manu looked away for a moment. He was considering the idea; a good sign. “What about Samantha? You’re sneaking around talking to the very people she’d be interested in.”

“And if I find out something worth sharing, I am sure I’ll find a way to do so. She’s got her crosshairs on that Kestrel on Senali. Plus, Braithwaite doesn’t know Samantha; she’s a nobody here. Kestrels operate as cells. The chapter on Mentaryd has nothing to do with the one on Senali, other than that they all report to Reed. There’s no way this can get back to her. I’ll be undercover, working on my own little side mission, gathering some intel that can maybe give us the edge for a change.” Decker clapped Manu on the shoulder, a wicked grin on his lips. “You know; spy stuff.”

Manu groaned. “Even if that’s the case, Braithwaite doesn’t operate in a moral or legal gray-area; he’s comfortably in the black. And like you just said, the Kestrels are up to their necks in shit now. Are you sure you want us getting that close to a group we know is inviting the wrath of the Imperium?”

Decker smiled. “Don’t know. That’s what I want to find out.”

Manu glared back. “And if you find out the hard way? What then?”

Decker shrugged. “Don’t know that either. If there was an easy way, I’d take it.”

Manu raised his arms wide. “Well, what do you know?”

Decker thought about the question. “I know that tracking down Braithwaite is foolish. But, there’s a part of me that is eager to do something other than just slowly descend into debt and dismay. Seems like information is worth more than credits now, so I’m gonna get us some.”

Manu sighed. “You want me to go with you, then?”

“No. I’ll need to put on a bit of a show.” 

Manu’s face sunk; Decker waved his hand. “It’ll be fine. Don’t forget who I am to the Kestrels. If they think I’m part of some legacy, might as well make that count for something. I’ll be careful. In and out. No funny business.”

Manu tutted and shook his head. “And after what you said to Eliza.”

The rented car thunked down onto its landing skids, settling into the parking stall Eliza had chosen along one of the crowded Mentaryd city streets. It was mid-day on this side of the planet, the system’s sun high in the dingy-yellow sky. Everything on the planet had a muted, amber tinge; Samantha had not adapted mentally to filtering out the hue. Kestris and its pale lavender was what she considered a ‘natural’ tone. Mentaryd’s made everything feel faded and worn, as if the entire planet had been left out in the sun too long on a dry summer day.

“See that building there?” Eliza said, pointing at a long row of freight loading bays. “That’s where we’ll be exiting from.”

Samantha leaned across the center console, ducking her head to get a better look. It was a dingy, nondescript cube of concrete with transport vehicles backed up to ramps, guards never more than a few paces away.

“Is that not our destination?” Samantha asked.

Eliza nodded, then shook her head, then nodded. “It is, but that’s the back. We’re going to circle around the block to the front. They don’t like people entering and exiting in the same spot. You never know what someone will be leaving with. This way, we walk out with our purchases and slip into our car with goods-in-hand and just,” Eliza made a whooshing sound and used her natural hand to mimic the car flying away, “disappear.”

 “Just disappear; that I know how to do.” Samantha leaned back into her chair, checking the karambit tucked against her hip, and the borrowed rail pistol in the hidden holster sewn into the also-borrowed jacket. She also checked that the scrap of paper with the names and locations she’d written down before departing from the Matilda was still stuffed next to the rail pistol. No visor and tacsuit for this. Not even a datapad. She hadn’t wanted to invite questions from Decker as to why she would need one.

Eliza smiled, pressing the control that opened the door. The sound of the ground- and air-traffic blended with the din of pedestrians crowding the street. She stepped out of the car and motioned for Samantha to follow. Samantha checked her makeshift gear load-out one more time, then exited the car onto the Mentaryd city street.

She did a quick scan of the area, though the number of variables and contingencies on a planet like this was far too many to account for. There were hundreds of people on this block alone, vehicles of every sort hovering across the ground-lanes and whizzing past in the sky-lanes overhead. Before leaving the Matilda, she had scanned Julian’s database and the latest public files about the planet after her computer access had been restored. 

Mentaryd was a prosperous planet, conveniently located toward the center of the Fringe, while also residing comfortably central on the continuum of law and order. Mentaryd had a robust economy that attracted criminal enterprises interested in doing business, and business enterprises that were interested in committing crimes. The Red Kestrels had a small presence here, but compared to the rest of the planet’s thousands of corporations—both legitimate and not—the Kestrels were just another glorified street-gang carving out their place among the hundreds of other Fringe groups all hoping to make a name for themselves.

Samantha walked around to the front of the car. Eliza had backed it into a spot beneath the shadow of a building opposite where they were heading, surrounded by vehicles all showing the same, well-used wear and tear that everything on Mentaryd seemed to be scarred with. It felt like a culture that wanted to appear prosperous and sophisticated, but was a little too banged-up and second-hand for anyone to believe them.

Eliza surveyed the area, a satisfied grin on her face. “Just like I remember it.” She turned to Samantha, waving her cybernetic arm at the surrounding space. “Your work ever bring you here?”

Samantha took in the view of the crammed city street, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun.

“No. I’ve been all across the sector, every unified planet, dozens of Fringe planets. Even crossed the gulf and touched-down inside the confederation. But not here.” She dropped her hand and turned to Eliza. “My experience with most of these places involved jumping into orbit, being dropped into a landing zone, carrying out my objective, then exfiltrating away without seeing anything that wasn’t directly in the path of the mission.” She took another look at the crowds of people, all going about their business, no one paying any attention to either her or Eliza. “Sometimes, I wasn’t even sure what planet I had been on until I read the debrief days later.”

Eliza nodded sagely. “I’ve had nights like those. Let’s get moving. This place is fun, and we’ll have plenty of time to look around while the Matilda is under the knife.”

Eliza waited for a minuscule gap in street traffic to open and sauntered across the street, Samantha following close behind. On these Fringe planets, the cavalier nature of the populace was what kept the lawlessness in-check, with no Imperium watching over their shoulder dictating what they must do. What would it be like to permanently operate like this, with no 5E to bail her out? In a way, the thought of her and Eliza being on their own was surprisingly freeing, even if she missed Julian’s wit.

They arrived on the other side of the street, and Eliza led them toward an alley that ran along the side of their monolithic destination. Samantha quickened her pace, aligning herself shoulder to shoulder with her escort as they crossed into the shade between buildings, the din from the street muting around them. They weaved between scattered groups of pedestrians, some of whom gave Eliza’s appearance some healthy competition for most flamboyant.

“You seem familiar with this place, this actual street even,” Samantha said, visually inspecting each individual they passed. “Did you previous career bring you here often?”

Eliza nodded, her gaze wandering around their surroundings as she whimsically recounted her story. “This is a popular place for work, both pre- and post-accident. Post-accident is a lot more fun. I used to wonder if I’d be recognized by someone that she hauled in, well, ‘before.’ After a while I realized that no one remembered that girl. Not even sure I remember.” Eliza looked over her shoulder at Samantha, eyes widening in glee. “You know what? I first ran into Decker here. He was looking to hire someone who wasn’t squeamish about pulling a trigger. I guess you and I have that in common. I don’t think Deck is really made out of whatever people like you and me are. He’s one of the good guys.”

Samantha’s step hesitated as she processed the statement, quickly double-timing to catch back up. She caught herself stifling an incredulous huff; she couldn’t entirely dispute Eliza’s claim. If Decker was one of the good guys, what did that make her?

Eliza jerked her head toward the building, prompting them forward. The alley was narrowing with people. Samantha moved to walk directly behind Eliza, single-file being the only way to make it through the crowd of people. After a minute more of swimming through the crowd, they emerged from the alley onto a street almost identical to the one they’d come from.

Samantha was glad Eliza felt so comfortable with the local culture and habits. Without a tacsuit, a visor overlaying her route, and Julian feeding information into her ear, Samantha was no more than a tourist. The pre-mission routine of location scouting and compiling cultural dossiers was an atrophied skill she might need to strengthen, should this become her new normal.

They took a hard right turn and walked into a business plaza, this side of the building obviously the entrance with its row of mirrored-glass doors lining the ground level. People crowded the plaza, the commotion from the pedestrians and vehicles returning like a fog.

“This city is active. I am guessing this is evidence of the Fringe’s economic flexibility,” Samantha said, forcing herself to speak at a natural volume instead of the normal murmur suited for the sensitive 5E comms.

Eliza waved at the buildings and people, no one giving her more than a casual, disinterested glance. “Easy to get rich when killing the competition can mean literally killing the competition. We’ve just crossed into a financial district. These are all banks, commodity traders, firms of all sorts.” 

“Hardware like we want is in a financial district?” Samantha pursed her lips. “Let me guess, you’re going to tell me money is the most powerful weapon.”

Eliza’s head reared back and her lids went so wide sunlight glinted off the synthetic white of her cybernetic eye. “Uncanny. Why… sometimes I don’t know if I said something aloud or not. But… yes! Money is the most powerful weapon. Though sometimes the bankers, CEOs, and other fancy-folks still want to buy the stuff that goes pop and bang, too.”

Eliza led them to a set of mirrored-glass doors at the front of the building, pulling them open and striding inside. Samantha caught one of the doors with her hand, pausing to look back onto the street before entering. Vehicles sped by and people rushed past. No one seemed interested in her. She wasn’t in a black tacsuit covered in gadgets; there was no Julian in orbit watching the sensor readouts and camera feeds. In this place, Samantha was truly invisible.

The inner lobby of their destination was a long room, split by a row of automated turnstile archways entrants had to pass through. Samantha thought back to the disabled sensor arches on Starview Station; these ones looked to be in proper working order. On the other side of the turnstiles was a row of windowed service kiosks, each with a closed door next to it. A few of the kiosks had patrons standing at them, hunched over to speak through the intercom grills to whoever was on the other side. The automated turnstile archways had access panels next to them on raised stands. Eliza approached one of the panels with confidence, striding across the room like she owned the place.

Samantha shuffled to keep up and arrived next to Eliza. There were no instructions on the panel, just a screen and scanner.

“What’s your experience with this place? Does it have a name?” Samantha asked, finally able to return to hushed tones in the relative quiet of the lobby. While on-mission, speaking loudly enough that others nearby could eavesdrop was something she may never get used to.

Eliza raised a shoulder, squinting an eye at the question. “Ehh, the place itself doesn’t,” she said, seemingly unconcerned if the people in the kiosks could hear. “You sort of have to just know it’s here and have a contact inside.”

Samantha leaned closer. “And you’ve got a contact?”

Eliza grimaced with satisfaction. “I do. Slick guy named Morgan. Friend of a friend of a friend type of thing. In my old line of work, you learned both sides of how the law functions. After I changed careers,” she winked, “it wasn’t difficult to tap into the networks that I’d once been working against. That’s what’s nice about Mentaryd. Here, there’s no real difference between an ‘illegal-weapons’ dealer and an illegal ‘weapons-dealer’ since there aren’t any local laws regulating what can be sold. I think the only laws that anyone really follows here are laws that regulate regulation.”

Samantha nodded toward the scanner. “You have something for that?”

Eliza raised her cybernetic hand and spread the fingers. “It wants an ID chip, normally they’d be on some sort of card or token, but I’ve got a load of them in here.” She wiggled the pinkie finger.

Samantha gave the room a quick scan, assessing the threat level of each patron and visualizing a potential attack pattern to disable each. No one here was worthy of concern. The people behind the kiosks, though, were still an unknown. “What about what we’re carrying? Are they going to search us or ask us to disarm?”

Eliza laughed. “If anything, we should be afraid of them. They’ve got the guns, and, well they’ve also got the numbers.” She held her cybernetic pinky up to the scanner. A series of messages scrolled up the screen, followed by a light on the turnstile pulsing to life as the mechanism inside clunked. Eliza walked through the turnstile and turned around triumphantly. “It’ll be fine!” she said, waving Samantha through.

Samantha followed, the turnstile clunking again. Eliza made a direct path for one of the many kiosk windows. Samantha couldn’t tell if Eliza was choosing one at random or not.

“Place doesn’t seem very busy,” Samantha said, keeping her attention on the scattered patrons she could see. Some were dressed in formal business attire, some looked like they were fresh off a battlefield, and some, just like Eliza, looked to have spent their night in a dance club.

Eliza put her hands in her pockets, balancing on the balls of her feet. “Well, it’s supposed to be by appointment only. I’m hoping my guy Morgan can make an exception.”

Samantha caught her protest before her mouth could utter it; this would have been a good piece of information to have had before they left. Instead, she pulled her jacket down into place, making certain it would not obstruct the handle of her karambit if she needed it.

Eliza approached the glass—presumably impact resistant—and leaned forward, waving to the person on the other side. Samantha stood a few paces back. She could see the attendant standing at the counter on the other side of the glass. He was dressed in a semi-formal matching jacket-and-pants combo, the outfit a peculiar contrast to his rough, choppy beard and leathery face. He leaned forward, speaking through the intercom.

“What’s your business today?”

Eliza projected her voice toward the grill. “I’m a customer of Morgan’s and I’ve got an unscheduled purchase to make. I was hoping to get in and buy from whatever is in stock today. We’re not picky.”

There was a pause as the attendant checked something on, what Samantha presumed was, a computer just out of sight. “Morgan, you say? For both of you?” his voice croaked over the speaker.

Eliza’s head tilted. “Yeah. Some sort of problem? Morgan knows me.”

The man looked back over his shoulder, speaking to someone out of view behind the wall, no sound transmitted through the intercom. A moment passed, neither Eliza nor Samantha taking their eyes off the window.

The attendant stepped out of view. The security door next to the kiosk buzzed and opened with a clunk just like the turnstiles in the archway had. The attendant appeared in the opening, bored expression on his face. “No problems. Follow me.”

Eliza turned and smiled at Samantha, then proceeded through the door. They followed the attendant down a short, dimly lit hallway with multiple closed doors on either side, their guide leading them with a brisk, businesslike pace. They reached the end and a final set of double-doors.

The attendant placed a hand onto a scanner and the doors slid open, revealing an enormous, high-ceilinged warehouse floor, the cavernous space separated by thick mobile partitions that formed large individual bays. It was a private bazaar, hidden from the passersby on the streets outside. Scattered groups of people were gathered in front of the bays, inspecting weapons, hardware, specialty tools, even small vehicles. There was a ruckus of voices, the bang and flash of weapons being test-fired, crates being pulled down from high inventory shelves by hydraulic drone-lifts. At the furthest end of the warehouse, Samantha saw squares of sunlight—the same loading bays she had seen from the street. 

The attendant gestured toward an open bay at the end of one of the oversized aisles of towering metal shelves. A sales counter was located at the front of the bay.

“Bay thirteen, that one’s for you,” the attendant said. He pointed a lazy finger and walked away. A pair of large, unpleasant-looking men were seated behind the counter, watching their new customers approach.

Eliza led the way toward the counter. In the bay behind it there were rows of weapons lined up on the racks; rifles, carbines, pistols, exploding projectiles, explosives that were planted with adhesive, satchels with bits of gadgetry sticking out, and assorted technical contraptions that could not be identified without asking. Beneath the racks were metal drawers with illuminated lock screens. At the rear of the bay were stacks of corrugated equipment crates, each marked with numbers, three-letter acronyms, and various manufacturing company logos.

The two men behind the counter seemed to become more irritable with each step Samantha and Eliza took. They were dressed in expensive-looking, yet ill-fitting suits. They looked related, each having the same blunt face; the same round, smushed noses; the same thin-lipped frowns above overflowing neck-rolls spilling out of the collars of the dress shirts. The main difference between the two seemed to be the amount of wrinkles around the eyes, and the bald head of the elder compared to the slicked-back hair of the younger. 

Eliza took a few steps toward the counter, hands in pockets, voice cheerful. “I was expecting Morgan.”

“We know,” the seated, older man said as he tapped a finger against the computer screen. “It’s on the computer.”

 Eliza scrunched her face. “Well… is he here?”

The older man laid an arm across the counter and leaned into it. His eyes were narrowed with suspicion. He looked at Samantha for a moment, then shifted his eyes back to Eliza.

“Morgan hasn’t been here for a while. He managed to take a, uh,” the man looked to his partner and grinned, “early retirement. With that ear of yours, ain’t you heard?” Both men chuckled at the little joke.

“Ooooo-kay. Guess I haven’t been to Mentaryd as recently as I thought,” Eliza muttered. She turned to Samantha, adding softly, “Maybe I should have called ahead.” She turned back to the men and laid an elbow on the counter, mimicking the older man’s pose. “Look, I’ve bought from here before. I’m in the system. We’ve got credits, so I assume you’re still open for business?”

The younger man snickered. The older man smirked and tapped out some commands on the computer. “Eh, Morgan may have had you cleared, but we like to make sure we feel… good about who we do business with. As you can see,” he pointed with one of his chins toward the busy warehouse floor, “we’ve got no shortage of customers, what with the recent turmoil in the sector. Ain’t you heard the news from Kestris?”

Samantha’s stance shifted. Feet apart, staggered, a spring in her knees. She felt the rail pistol and karambit pressed against her hip and wondered how many of those weapons on the racks were charged for use. “Yeah. We heard.”

Eliza brought her hands up in an appeasing, palms-out gesture. Each of the men’s eyes focused on the white-and-black cybernetic hand. “No problems from us,” she said, “We’ve got standard credits from Fringe banks, all anonymous. No transfer nonsense for you to worry about.”

The younger man in the chair clicked his tongue and shook his head with feigned disappointment. “The half-cooked cy-job here looks about right for our usual customer.” He pointed a thick finger at Samantha. “But she looks too clean. Too… polite. You got any identification we can verify?”

Samantha scoffed. She was the one raising suspicion? If only these two knew who they were dealing with. She scowled, taking a confident step to the counter. If Eliza was going to smile and play the congenial one, Samantha could try giving back a little attitude. 

“Yeah, I got identification. Not sure I want you to have it on your computer. This is a business; you sell things, we buy things, and we pay a premium to keep it all nameless and faceless.” Samantha glared. “So do you want to conduct some business or should we go elsewhere? It’s a big planet. Lots of people willing to make deals.”

The older man snorted a laugh as the younger glowered. Samantha turned to look at Eliza for agreement and saw the smile had vanished. 

Eliza’s eyes narrowed on the duo behind the counter. “I ain’t no cy-job. You think I did this on purpose? We can’t all have the looks and charm that the six of you have. I counted each of you as three people, what with the tents you’re wearing as suits.”

She pushed back her jacket sleeves, revealing the smooth, contoured cybernetic forearm. She put both hands on the edge of the counter, the cybernetic one squeezing closed with a whine as the metal surface crunched like paper beneath her grip. She released her grip, the shape of her closed hand now permanently part of the counter.

“Sorry about that, mind of its own. Add it to our bill. Anyway, now that you have me all excited, can we please be done with this foreplay? We’ve got places to be, people to kill, maybe not in that order.” Eliza tossed her head to the side, flinging her hair and saying, “Morgan was never this rude.”

 It appeared Eliza wanted to play ‘bad-cop, bad-cop.’ Samantha eased back and hooked her thumbs in her pants’ pockets. She felt a tingle of excitement in her chest, a new and unfamiliar feeling of having no agency looking over her shoulder, no one in her ear telling her what to do, but most of all, no one that would follow-up on whatever she did decide to do, should action become necessary.

The older man glared at them, then laughed, a wheezing chortle that made his suit bounce. “Fine, fine. I’m gonna need a little credit verification, though. That ain’t something I’m letting slide. You two don’t look like you’re exactly the highest of rollers.”

Samantha shrugged, accessing the account she’d prepared for this transaction. “Not a problem,” she said. Just more of the Imperium’s money being spent on a worthy cause.

She entered what she wanted to spend and held it up to the computer. The data traveled faster than light through countless jumpspace data repeaters, returning the results in seconds. The older man looked to the younger, grunted in approval, and turned back to his newest customers.

“Okay. What’ll it be?”

The rear gate on the rented car swung shut, the crate of weapons and military-grade hardware locked inside, including several rugged field-use datapads Samantha could link to her computer and an upgraded tactical-comm better suited for mercenary life. After they’d finished their shopping, all of their new gear had gone into a crate with handles running down each side, which they then carried right out the back of the warehouse to the car. 

Samantha ducked into the car’s passenger door and settled into the seat. Eliza hopped into the driver’s seat, hands raised in victory. “See, nothing to it! I knew those two cretins would come around, though I am a bit worried about Morgan’s early retirement.” Eliza’s expression sunk, then returned just as fast. “I gotta say, I liked your style back there. I was wondering if I’d get to see you come alive.”

Samantha shrugged. “You know the old joke, right? A rogue black-ops assassin and a hired mercenary walk into a weapons warehouse…”

Eliza cackled, clapping her hands together. “I hear the punchline is to die for.”

Samantha looked at her comm; no messages from Decker or any of the Matilda crew and the Mentaryd day was only half over. “Are we due anywhere else?”

Eliza shrugged. “Nowhere we don’t wanna be. Probably should stop somewhere and get you more than one set of clothes, and, of course, somewhere we can replenish the galley bar. And food, we did agree to get actual, solid food.”

Samantha turned her body toward Eliza. “Good. Because now that we’ve taken care of the equipment list, I’ve got a list of my own I want your help with. It might violate Decker’s request about ‘funny business’, though.”

Eliza gave Samantha an appraising stare, tipping her chin up and staring down her nose. “I’m listening.”

“We can’t get to Senali for our primary objective until the Matilda is ready, so if we’re stuck on the surface for a while longer, I want to use that time to add a secondary objective.” Samantha pulled the folded paper from her jacket pocket, holding it up for Eliza to see. “This is a list of a few, high-value Red Kestrel associates I pulled off my Imperium database, all cataloged before the attack on Starview Station and getting more stale by the minute. I’ve got names, last known locations, and movement patterns. We can load it into one of the datapads and new comms we just bought. I want to do some investigating while we’re here. Hands-off, nothing to cause a stir or tip-off the Kestrels. Just observe and report.”

Eliza’s eyes narrowed at the list, then turned to Samantha. “So… cop stuff?”

Samantha nodded.

Eliza scrunched her lips to the side and brought her hands in front of her face, slowly tapping her fingertips together. “Well, we did promise Decker no funny business, so… I think that means: I’m in.”