Episode 26: What would Samantha do

Click to see catch-up summary

Decker has arrived on the Mentaryd surface under the guise of meeting old friends. He's meeting and old friend, but not in the way he portrayed. It's time for Decker to do a little spy-stuff of his own.

Decker squinted against the glare of Mentaryd’s midday sun. The city around him was bustling with activity; crowded streets, crowded skies, crowded walkways. The trip to the surface had been easy, the shuttle ride down landing him at a depot just short of a walk from his destination. For the first time in several weeks, Decker was alone somewhere that wasn’t his ship. It felt good to be out.

He zig-zagged his way through the crowd of pedestrians, stopping at the curb as ground vehicles sped past. An opening presented itself and he double-timed it across, joined by several other foot-bound folk seizing the same opportunity. 

Like most of the laws on Mentaryd, pedestrians followed the same ‘make it up as you go’ mindset. Shuffling forward to avoid a ground vehicle that seemed determined to make good use of the flexible legal system, Decker made a final hop onto the curb and smiled up at the entrance of his destination: the Hellfire Cafe.

Decker strode forward, keeping his movements casual as he approached the entrance like any other patron would. Even from the street, the sound of thumping music could be heard. In a place like Mentaryd, showing up in the middle of the day at a bar was nothing strange. And it was a bar, despite the ‘cafe’ name. He wasn’t sure why the owner and the person Decker hoped to find here, Braithwaite Kattan, had named it that. It had food, and there were sit-down tables and booths, but there was no denying that the Hellfire Cafe was a place people went to get drunk, talk business, and take in the night-life, no matter what time of day it was. Braithwaite was from off-world, so maybe he had hoped to add a touch of class to his establishment.

On either side of the wide entrance were the Hellfire’s doormen—burly, dirty-looking bouncers with fancy suit jackets and vests, irritable expressions on both of their faces. The bouncers did not speak, their eyes simply following each patron who approached the sensor arch in the Hellfire’s entrance. Decker wasn’t armed, but even if he were, the sensor arch would have let him through. Restricting weapons inside the Hellfire would have cut their business in half. They weren’t concerned with preventing weapons from entering the establishment; they were only concerned about weapons entering without them knowing.

Decker did his best to maintain his nonchalant look of ease as he walked through the sensors, but the red scarves tied loosely around each of the bouncers’ necks reminded him why he was the one who should be concerned, not them. The Red Kestrels may be provoking a fight with the Imperium, but out here in the Fringe, those red scarves were widely brandished and supported.

The sensor arch made no sound, and the bouncers paid no mind as Decker passed through, unarmed. Having recently had his fill of situations that required a weapon to get out of, he hoped to rely on words alone this time. This was just a friendly chat with an old associate, nothing more. That Decker’s arrival was just days after an attack allegedly carried out by the group that the bar’s owner was a chapter boss of, that was all just a startling coincidence.

As Decker walked cooly through the automatic doors, the dark interior of the Hellfire replaced the brilliant light of day as the doors shut behind him. He stepped to the side, allowing a few patrons to move past him as his eyes adjusted to the sudden, artificial light. However, he didn’t think there would be much of a chance his ears would adjust to the blaring music. 

The large, main room of the Hellfire was an open dancefloor surrounded by tables, alcove-like booths lining two of the four sides. Directly across from the entrance was a stage, currently occupied by the composer of the thumping beat filling the air, rays of multicolored lights moving along with the rhythm driving the people jostling about on the floor. The wall to the left held the bar running the length of the room, the daytime patrons crowded against it, with row after row of bottles on mirrored shelves catching the spinning, colorful lights. 

Decker reached for the nether cartridge in his jacket pocket—the comforting din of the Matilda had never felt so far away—but forced himself to leave the nether where it was. This conversation required a clear mind. He’d reward himself later. For now, he needed to blend in, act natural, not look like an easy target, and especially not look like a haphazard investigator of a sector-wide terror conspiracy.

Eyes finally adjusted to the darkness, Decker weaved his way through the crowd, careful to neither avoid nor force any eye-contact. The Hellfire had all the amenities of a place meant to entertain, but more than that, it was a place to make illicit deals, broker uneven trades, and conduct questionable transactions best done under the cover of the thumping music and nightclub-like shadows. Decker had no room to judge anyone else’s business. After all, he was here to meddle in something he most definitely should not be.

He reached the bar and chose a stretch that was less crowded than the rest, willing his expression into one of street-hardened grit, subdued impatience, and smoldering intimidation. That’s what he hoped, at least.

The bartender finished pouring a drink and slung a rag over his shoulder, making his way toward Decker. He was a squat man with a thick, red mustache that looped to his sideburns, but was accompanied by no hair or beard. He stopped in front of Decker, turning an ear and squinted-eye toward him.

“Yeah?”

Decker leaned across the bar. “I’m looking for Braithwaite. He here?”

The bartender scoffed. “Braith? Maybe. I dunno. Depends on who’s asking. I ain’t exactly his receptionist.”

Decker forced himself to smile. “Look, I’m an old family friend from Dradari, okay? You know Braith’s family, right?” Decker motioned to his neck where a scarf would be.

The bartender set his hands wide on the bar, the wrinkles around his eyes and forehead deepening as he scowled. “What do you want?”

Decker grinned. Looks like he still had some pull. He leaned forward, speaking with a knowing tone. “I’m a friend from off-world. Name’s Decker. He’s not expecting me, but he’ll want to know I’m here. It’s about my father’s business, so if you could just tell him.”

The bartender frowned, accentuated by the overflowing mustache that hung from his face. “I meant ‘what do you want’ to drink?”

Decker’s mouth snapped into a friendly grimace. Of course; everyone wants a cut. He scanned the bottles lining the mirror-backed counter behind the bar. He wasn’t in the mood for a drink, especially considering that his body’s clock still felt like it was early morning. He saw something he recognized from the Matilda’s galley. 

“Okay, give me a uh… what is that? Mr. B’s Rocket Fuel? Yeah, give me a Rocket Fuel. On ice. Lots of ice.”

The bartender tucked his rag into his apron and pulled the bottle from the rack. The green liquid sloshed around the glass as he poured, melting the ice much faster than seemed right. The bartender slid the drink toward Decker, along with a payment datapad; one drink, and one healthy tip already loaded. The bartender nodded at Decker, an expectant eyebrow raised.

Decker maintained his bitter smile, tapping his comm and sending a payment that would have covered the entire bottle of Rocket Fuel. Without acknowledgment, the bartender went to a panel behind the bar and tapped the lighted display, muttering something beneath the music into the panel’s communication grill. He shot Decker a look and shrugged, returning to his other customers.

“I guess that’s the signal,” Decker murmured as he went to take a sip from his glass. Before the drink reached his tongue, his arm jerked it away, his eyes and nostrils stinging from the vapor. Why did they have a bottle of this back on the ship? Had to be one of Eliza’s. Not even Heavy would go near anything like this unless he needed to strip corrosion off the ship’s hull.

Decker placed the untouched drink back onto the bar, careful to keep any of the caustic green poison from spilling onto his hand. He shifted his attention to the stairs that lead to the offices he knew were on the second level. He’d never been up there before, but he’d been to the Hellfire enough to know where the real business took place.

A figure emerged from the darkness at the top of the stairs, and descended casually. Braithwaite Kattan, owner and operator of the Hellfire Cafe, made his way through the crowd of people talking, laughing, and drinking. On his head was a round, thin-brimmed hat with a small feather in the band, and he had a short beard tracing his jawline. He wore a white suit coat on top of a black vest, but no shirt, just a red scarf wrapped around his neck, the ends dangling over a bare chest. 

Decker straightened his posture and waved, reminding himself why he was here. He was a friend of the Kestrels. He was here to help. He was not here with Samantha. Samantha who? Never heard of her.

Braithwaite stopped a few paces away, smiling cheerfully as he opened his arms in mock surprise. “Decker. When Satch called back saying there was an old family friend here, I thought I heard him wrong. And if not, then it was something I had to see for myself.”

Braithwaite’s voice was refined and educated, completely out of place on somewhere like Mentaryd. He extended a hand in greeting. Decker’s hand slid past it and clasped Braithwaite’s forearm, recognizing the test; Red Kestrels don’t shake hands. This was Braithwaite’s way of seeing how Decker would approach the conversation. Friend, or family.

“Braith, thanks,” Decker said as he gripped his forearm firmly. “Place looks busy as ever.”

“Yes, indeed. Not a bad time to be among the free folk. You look…” Braithwaite eyed Decker’s appearance, frowning at the scuffed jacket and well-worn pants. “Well, looks aren’t always what’s important. What brings you to the Hellfire?”

A friendly insult and invitation to state his intentions; an encouraging enough opening. Decker leaned close. “I’m in the middle of a job that brought me out this way, and some old family business came up that I think might interest you.” He nodded toward the crowd. “Things that should stay just between family.”

Braithwaite brought a thoughtful hand to his chin. “Family business, you say?” He looked to the side, appearing to deliberate, taking a long moment. Decker felt his grin begin to falter just as Braithwaite shrugged and clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, if that’s the case, let’s step into my office.”

Braithwaite motioned toward the stairs. Step one of Decker’s undetermined-step plan was complete. Decker started toward the stairs, but Braithwaite’s hand caught him by the arm. He reached back to the bar and picked up Decker’s abandoned glass of Rocket Fuel. “Your drink.”

Decker smiled and took the glass, suppressing a grimace and holding the glass like an incendiary charge. “Nearly forgot.”

Braithwaite led the way, everyone in the crowd parting in recognition as he approached. Decker followed, careful to keep from spilling his drink as he ascended the stairs. Employees passed, some wearing red scarves around their necks. Decker kept his expression firm; no backing down now. Stay focused—evasive but not suspicious, calm but not weak. Braithwaite was a dangerous man, but he wasn’t unreasonable. Everything will be fine. 

They crested the steps, and soon came to the end of a hallway, the thumping music having faded the further into the Hellfire they went. They arrived at a wide door where Braithwaite pressed his hand against a panel and the door slid aside, allowing him to step through. Decker hurried to follow. As the door shut behind him, he resisted turning to look at the wall panel to see if it had locked, already knowing it would have.

Decker smiled, doing his best to casually take in his surroundings without looking like he was casing the place, which he was. The line between appearing curious and cautious was one he had no idea if he was crossing. Maybe a small hit from the nether cartridge would have been okay.

Braithwaite’s office was not what he had expected. There were no windows. The office was lit by a pair of overhead lamps that glowed a soft orange. Most of the furnishings were dark; browns, blacks, deep reds. This was a telling contrast with the cafe’s metal, glass, and colored lights. The walls had to be soundproofed; Decker could only hear the faintest hint of thumping music from the dance floor. A refuge from the sensory chaos. 

Braithwaite proceeded to his expansive desk, patting one of the guest chairs as he passed. “Please, sit. Enjoy your drink.”

He walked around the desk, dragging his fingers along the surface.  There was a closed computer pushed off to one side, a few datapads stacked next to it, a pad of paper and two pens, and a few gold-edged coasters were spaced evenly in front of it all. Rounding out the rustic elegance was the centerpiece of the room, the high-backed, tufted chair behind the desk.

Braithwaite pulled it out and settled himself gracefully into his throne in the belly of the Hellfire. Decker followed his lead, pulling out one of the guest chairs—which were noticeably lower than Braithwaite’s—and placing his drink carefully on one of the gold-edged coasters. He didn’t want any to spill and possibly burn its way through the wood, the floor, and maybe right to the center of the planet.

Braithwaite held up his hands. “I must say, Decker, I was surprised when Satch notified me of your presence. Not that you yourself are surprising, only that it took me a moment to conjure who he might be referring to.” Braithwaite tipped the brim of his hat upward. “No offense.”

Braithwaite’s voice had an erudite coloring that made it difficult for Decker to tell if he’d just been slighted, ‘no offense’ or not. He chose to believe he hadn’t been. “No, of course not. None taken. This is a surprise visit for me too. I am glad I jumped somewhere with friendlies.”

Braithwaite smiled and waved off the comment. “Think nothing of it. I’m glad the Hellfire can be a place of refuge.”  A new thought seemed to catch his attention. He snapped his fingers as he spoke. “You still running with…?” 

Decker nodded, crossing a leg over his knee. “Manu? Yeah, still with me. Got a new crew we’ve been with the last few years. Good bunch. They’re up in orbit, having some routine maintenance done.” Decker puffed his cheeks and exhaled loudly, setting the foundation for step three. “Been going through a bit of a rough patch, Braith. I ain’t gonna lie.”

“Well, Decker, If you or yours are in this part of the sector, you’re always welcome to stop by the Hellfire.” Braithwaite pointed at Decker. “You say this is a surprise visit, yeah? Did you just randomly pick some exit coords and hope you pop out somewhere good?”

Decker forced a smile. Braithwaite was giving him a chance to get to the real reason he was here. Time for step four.

“That’s a lot closer to the truth than I want to admit. I was under a little stress when I chose Mentaryd.” Decker found somewhere else to look, furrowing his brow with just a hint of angst. “Been in jump blackout the last four days. Ship’s got a busted transmitter. And when we dropped here, guess what I see on every feed?”

Braithwaite shook his head in affected remorse. “Mmm. Yes, I would presume there were many who were surprised to hear about the recent, ‘political incident.’” Braithwaite shot him a look of mild bemusement. “You really must invest in a transmitter for your ship.”

“Yeah, it’s top of my list.” Decker chuckled politely, then cleared his throat. Time to press forward. “But that’s sorta why I’m here. The events over Kestris, I know the Kestrels are being blamed, but so far there’s been no statement. I would have figured Reed would want to have it known if they struck that deep into the empire. But nothing. Just speculation, rumors of damning evidence that points to the Kestrels.”

Braithwaite shifted in his chair, his air of congeniality fading. “It was quite an incident, yes. Some might call it impressive. To reach right into the heart of the empire? The Imperium plays with the lives and fates of so many, well,” Braithwaite raised his hands nonchalantly, “someone was bound to reach their limit. You know, Decker, you can’t always believe everything you hear on the newsvids.”

Decker tilted his head; time to make the jump he couldn’t un-jump. “Yeah, but I wasn’t surprised to see Starview Station and the Kestrels on the newsvids when I landed here. See, I already knew what had really happened before almost anyone else in the sector.”

Braithwaite’s eyes narrowed, grin fading. “No, Decker. I don’t see.” Braithwaite’s words crackled like a low-burning fire. “I thought this was a friendly catch-up. What is your purpose here?”

 This was the Braithwaite Decker was here to negotiate with—not the amiable proprietor of the bustling Hellfire, but the cold, calculating man Reed had chosen to be his Mentaryd chapter boss. Decker leaned forward, squeezing his hands together in consternation. Time for step five. He thought back to Starview Station, the chaos, the faces of the stranded travelers. Samantha’s face as she had pulled the red scarf out and shoved it in his face. Decker spoke, the edge in his voice authentic.

“My purpose. Right. Like I was saying, I’ve been going through a rough patch when it comes to finances, so agreeing to things I normally wouldn’t is becoming a habit. See, the job I’m on, it took me into the empire.” Decker paused, giving Braithwaite a moment to speculate. “I was there, on Starview Station. I saw the ‘political incident’ with my own eyes, and the people who carried it out.”

It was risky; he didn’t want to slip up and hint at Samantha’s involvement. From what he saw before the Matilda jumped away, it wasn’t likely any of the Kestrels on Starview had survived to talk.

Braithwaite’s hand pat lightly against the armrest. “Quite a tale, and one that many people who were on that station are likely to tell in bars and sitting-rooms for the rest of their lives. What’s your point?” he said, voice smoldering with not-so-subtle warning.

Decker pressed his lips together, letting his self-hatred over his inaction on Starview Station serve as a reminder of why he was willing to risk this conversation. The conversation of half-truths and double-talk might be a game, but what the Kestrels were facilitating for the Imperium was not.

“This is my point.” Decker raised his left hand, palm forward, and reached his right hand into his jacket. His fingers gripped the item he’d taken from Samantha’s quarters, slowly pulling out the scarf she’d taken from the dead Kestrel on Starview. He held it aloft, the red fabric streaked black with bloodstains, then let it fall into a crumpled heap on the desk.

Braithwaite’s arm relaxed and he eased back into his chair, making a show of getting comfortable. He eyed the scarf with a bitter grin, pointing casually at it. “I thought you turned that in a long time ago.”

Decker sat back. “This isn’t mine.”

Braithwaite sat forward. “That so?”

Decker shrugged. “Yes. Don’t get the wrong idea. I didn’t kill its owner. Station security and the Kestrels were in a firefight. I was trying to evacuate like everyone else. Place was in chaos. But, I saw this Kestrel go down, bolt to the chest. Security kept pushing forward, distracted by more bolt fire. I saw the chance to grab it and, well… it didn’t feel right to leave it behind.”

Braithwaite reached forward, picking up the scarf and examining it for a moment. He sighed, letting it fall back to the desk. “That’s a lot of blood for a bolt wound.”

Decker raised an eyebrow; he hadn’t asked Samantha how she had dispatched this particular opponent. “I was more concerned with making it to my ship, not committing every detail to memory.”

Braithwaite seemed to accept Decker’s dodge. That, or he just didn’t care. “You know, having something like this that doesn’t belong to you could anger a lot of people.”

“That’s something I’m used to.” Decker let his shoulders fall, his expression softening. This part of his story he didn’t have to fabricate. “I know I went my own way. My father’s shadow, it’s long. Hard to get out from under.  But I’ve been minding my own business. Never meddled in Kestrel affairs. Shit, Braith, I didn’t even go near Dradari, and there’s still people there I care about.”

Braithwaite looked around, perplexed. “And yet, here you are, with that.” He pointed at the scarf. “I think this counts as crossing paths. Don’t you?”

Decker held up a hand to slow the conversation down. He wanted to pull Braithwaite along, but not so much that they both tripped into each other. On to step… six? He wished he’d thought this through a little more.

“You’re right. I’m crossing paths on purpose. I’m tired of freelancer life, bouncing from job to job. There’s no sense of purpose. No stability. I know I swore off the Kestrels, but that was before I saw what the sector was really like, what the Imperium has done to it. Then I saw the attack on Starview.” Decker sighed. “I’ve got no love for the empire, and if the Kestrels are making a move against it, I want to see if Reed will… well, consider letting me come back. I want to know if you’ll help me reach him.”

Braithwaite reared back in surprise. “Decker,  I seem to recall you wished to renounce your affiliation with us in exchange for exile. You were granted an exemption because of your father’s contributions to our group. Without him, none of us would have this family that spans the sector. But you know how this works better than anyone. Hell, you even enlisted in the Imperium Navy. Did you think we wouldn’t notice?”

Decker gulped. “A great way to build up a resentment toward an establishment is to experience it from the inside. And, if you were noticing, you’d also notice I also deserted the Navy.”

Braithwaite shrugged. “Be that as it may, you’re tainted. Reed granted you release from your heritage, and he keeps his word. However, I don’t see any reason why I would vouch for you, and certainly no reason for Reed to bring you back into the fold.”

Decker huffed. Despite the act, the surge of resentment at being denied felt real enough. “So, that’s it?”

“Yes, Decker. That’s it. You can be a friend to the Kestrels, free to return to minding your own business.” Braithwaite pointed at Decker again. “But not family.”

The office settled into silence, the distant thump of the music aggravating Decker’s anxiety with each new beat. Braithwaite wasn’t buying the down-on-his-luck, family-heritage angle, and the revelation of the red scarf hadn’t been the punch Decker had been hoping for. He’d come here without a plan and was going to leave with nothing. Less than nothing; now the Kestrels knew he was back around, asking questions.

Decker scowled, mostly at himself. He shouldn’t have come, these kinds of games were Samantha’s thing, not his. Decker kept things straightforward, head-on. Say what you mean and mean what you say. He had no business playing with this spy stuff. If Samantha were in his position, she’d have a backup plan, something unexpected to hit Braithwaite with she’d thought of hours in advance, silently manipulating the conversation to this point before hitting him with something he couldn’t deny. Just like she had with him.

Decker rifled through his mind, searching through the nether-clouded memories of the last four days. What did he have that could push this negotiation over to his side? What was something unexpected that would demand Reed’s attention? What would Samantha do?

Decker winced at his revelation.

Of course. That would get Reed’s attention.

Sorry, Samantha.

He looked down at the untouched glass of green Rocket Fuel on the desk and—with a stifled sigh—picked it up and downed it all at once. The liquid burned as it flowed down his throat, his neck muscles spasming in protest. He half-coughed, half-cleared his throat, and choked out the next words through the burn of the Rocket Fuel.

“I know the Imperium helped set it all up,” Decker said, his mouth outrunning his mind. “And that the Red Kestrels are being used.”

Braithwaite laughed, snorted, then laughed again. “Is that right? What a remarkable accusation, but you’ve reached the end of how long I’ll entertain–”

“The Dauntless,” Decked blurted. “It was hijacked by the Red Kestrels three or four weeks ago, using information provided by an Imperium insider. This is not public knowledge. You were right about my stint in the Imperium Navy, and I still have contacts there. I also know that these same insiders employed the Kestrels to attack Starview Station in order to set the stage for some sort of insurrection.” Decker held up a hand. “I tried being gentle with this, Braith, but I’m not playing around—I need to talk to Reed.”

Decker did his best to look completely at ease with his blatant reveal. He didn’t actually know if Braithwaite knew about the Dauntless and how it went down. Samantha hadn’t clarified if the Kestrel’s and Imperium cooperation was known to the entire group, or just Reed and whoever he used to execute the attacks. Maybe he didn’t know. But, if Decker had to rate every time he’d witnessed someone try to hide a flash of shock, Braithwaite’s almost-perfectly masked body-stiffening and eye-flaring would be near the top. The top reaction, he was sure, would have been Samantha’s had she heard what he’d just revealed.

Braithwaite scoffed, a tinge of approval in his tone. “You said you wanted to mind your own business. This is about the worst attempt at that I’ve ever seen.”

Decker shrugged a shoulder, glancing nonchalantly around the office. “That enough verification to let you know I’m serious? I’m not saying another word about it, except to Reed. I could have shared what I know with anyone, but I brought it to you, safe and sound. All I’m asking for is the chance to talk to Reed so I can…” Decker swallowed the lump in his throat. He’d come this far, might as well take the final step. “So I can show him that I can be trusted to help the Kestrels in the war against the Imperium.”

Braithwaite clicked his tongue. “Is that what you think we’re doing?”

Decker nodded. At least this part he didn’t have to improvise. “Hitting a target like Starview, it’s already sent the empire into a panic. They’ve got ships around all their systems and I am sure they’ll be moving plenty more into the Fringe. Even if these supposed insiders are assisting the Kestrels now, when they look to sacrifice their scapegoat, the Kestrels are going to need all the help they can get.”

Braithwaite pursed his lips, bringing up a hand to adjust his hat. “I can get a message to Reed that you’d like to speak to him. After that, it’s up to him. But… I think your father would have been proud you’re thinking of coming back home.”

Decker suppressed a shudder at the notion. It had been many years since someone had done him a favor simply because of who his father was. It wasn’t something he missed. “Good enough for me.”

Braithwaite opened the computer on his desk, tapping in a command, and then turning it to Decker. Decker raised his comm, accessing his one-way, private contact address, the same one Samantha had used to drag him into this. He tapped a command, and now, Reed had the contact address too.

Braithwaite stood, walked around his desk and gestured to the door. Decker stood as well, now feeling the effects of the Rocket Fuel on both his balance and sense of judgement. He’d gotten more out of this conversation than he had intended, which wasn’t saying much since he had no end-game in mind. But now he might have a chance to make contact with Reed Casto. What he did with that was a problem for future-Decker to figure out.

Braithwaite extended his arm and Decker clasped it once again. “One more thing.”

Decker narrowed his eyes. “Yeah?”

Braithwaite nodded his head towards the desk. “Don’t forget your glass.”

Decker picked up the glass and gave it a little toss in his hand. “Least I can do.” His eyes lingered on the scarf. Hopefully he could find something red on the Matilda to try to make a replica before Samantha realized it was gone. Because if she did…

Oh well. One thing at a time.

The metal tore into Decker’s skin again and again. His teeth clamped together, jaw quivering, but he would not give the man standing over him the satisfaction. He could endure this. He had become accustomed to pain, knowing to focus on other things and to separate the sensation from conscious thought. The pain could exist, but it didn’t have to control him.

“Just say the word and this can all be over,” the large, sweating man said. 

Decker wouldn’t be intimidated. His eyes shifted to meet the tormentor’s. “Not a chance,” he growled through clenched teeth.

The tormentor laughed and resumed his work. The machine in his hand had spilled much blood over the years, and Decker was just another victim succumbing to its buzz.

The torture continued. Decker kept his mind elsewhere. 

The buzzing stopped. The man wiped down Decker’s chest with an antiseptic, soaking up the blood and sweat.

“That’s it. All done.”

The man known only as Nails swiveled away on his wheeled stool and started cleaning and putting his tattoo machine away. Decker let out a long breath of relief. This was the sole reason he had walked into the parlor; to get some relief from thinking about his sister, his father, the empire. All of it. 

Decker slowly eased himself up into a sitting position and looked down to his chest. It was remarkable work. Just a few hours ago, the space beneath his right collarbone had been an untouched canvas of blank skin. Now, it was covered in the same patchwork of artistry as his arms and shoulders, all done by Nails’ needle. Today, he’d added a multicolored spiral galaxy, its arms reaching across Decker’s chest in a sweeping, star-filled embrace.

“Beautiful piece by a beautiful artist,” Decker said, taking in the upside-down image of the tattoo. Nails had talent, that was certain, even if he wasn’t much to look at himself. Built like a concrete block covered in graffiti, Nails had left behind his life as a hired thug, shifting from getting paid to inflict pain on the unwilling to getting paid to inflict it on the willing.

“Hey, Nails, you mind?” Decker said, holding up the metal nether cartridge he’d picked up on the way to the tattoo shop. It was stronger than his usual selection, and he needed that strength now more than ever.

Nails turned and laughed once. “Do what you need, as long as you can walk out of here.”

Decker placed the Mentaryd nether between his lips and managed a smile. “No guarantees,” he said, taking a slow drag from the metal cylinder. His body absorbed the drug greedily and Decker felt the pain clear from his mind.

Nails swiveled back on his stool and brought a can of derma-seal spray forward.

“Let me spray that or you’ll bleed through your clothes,” Nails said, turning a beady eye towards the still-healing bolt burn on Decker’s opposite shoulder. “I can hit that side too if you want. No charge.”

Decker shrugged, offering the shoulder to Nails. “I’ll have to see how much of the ink survives the scarring. Felt like it took out a whole chunk of me.”

“Eh. I seen worse. Swing back through in a few weeks if you want it fixed. You ain’t the first work of art that is in need of a restoration!” Nails laugh-grunted as he sprayed the sealer over Decker’s pulverized skin, both chest and shoulder. “You know, every day I do this, I get fewer people wanting to hit the needles. You’re one of the few who seem to actually enjoy it. We can switch to a sublimator any time. Takes half as long with none of the agony.”

“The agony is the whole point,” Decker said, nether cartridge bobbing from his lips. Nails gave the tattoo one last spray, and Decker felt the derma-seal’s mild anesthetic ease the worst of the pain as it soaked in.

“Well, that agony cost you two-hundred credits,” Nails said, passing Decker a datapad. Decker chuckled and tapped out the amount plus a healthy tip and transferred the funds.

“Money well-spent.”

Nails snorted. “You’d hate to see the refund process.” He pointed to what appeared to be a framed square of—what Decker hoped was fake—tattooed skin on the wall.

Decker grimaced and hopped down from the padded table, pulled on his shirt, and promised Nails he’d be back for more work his next time through the system. Every time he was near Mentaryd, Decker made it a priority to get more tattoo work done at this shop. With the Matilda still in dry-dock, this trip was no exception.

He exited the shop into the Mentaryd evening, the sun having set while he’d be on the business end of the needle. Manu had checked-in with nothing to report other than nothing to report. Decker supposed that was good news. Samantha and Eliza hadn’t been heard from, but that was no surprise. They could take care of themselves; a little too well. That’s what worried him.

Nothing he could do about that from here. It was just Decker, the bustling Mentaryd streets, and the extra-strong nether he was finding to be exactly what he needed. Finding a spring in his step, he made his way into the city streets. All he had to do was meet back up with Samantha and Eliza and wait for the Matilda to make planetfall. It was not like Reed was around on Mentaryd, there was no telling when, or if, he would decide to take Decker up on the invitation to talk. At this point, whatever happened was out of Decker’s control.

He turned the corner and slammed into a pair of bodies blocking his way, nether cartridge falling from his mouth. In the darkness, he could make out the loose-fitting, red scarves slung around each of their necks.

“This Sagan’s kid?” one of the figures said.

“Yeah, that’s him,” his companion replied.

The first figure grunted. “Older than I thought he’d be.”

Decker stopped. He held up his hands. “Hey, fellas, if Braithwaite–”

He tried to back up, only to run into another pair of bodies. One of the men pulled something out from behind his back while another grabbed Decker’s arms, slipping a cable-tie around his wrists and roughly yanking it tight with a zip. Decker tried to resist, but found his nether-relaxed muscles had different ideas.

One of the abductors pulled a black bag down over Decker’s head, drawstring tightening around his neck. “It’s not Braithwaite we work for.”

Decker grimaced at the implication from underneath the bag. Looked like he’d gotten Reed’s attention faster than expected.

“Ah, shit.”