Episode 37: Maybe take a breather here

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Samantha, Decker, and Eliza are on the trail of Kat Basara.

The Senali sky was a purple-blue twilight as evening approached. Manu and Heavy sat on the edge of the Matilda’s main loading ramp, the extended metal surface acting as a free-floating bench just a few feet off the ground, jutting out from the enormous lowered bay. Running up the middle of the enormous ramp were the retractable rollers that would allow Heavy to attach the nano-fiber winch cable to whatever cargo was on its way.

They sat and watched the shipfield activity, the approaching evening doing nothing to slow the steady flow of ships setting down and taking off from the countless, well-lit landing pads spaced in large intervals across the shipfield, with ground vehicles zipping past on the grid-like pattern of surface roads. Heavy had been pointing out the different ship-classes as they ascended or descended, commenting on how they compared to the Matilda, their various benefits and drawbacks. He always seemed to have a reason why, despite its advancing age, the Matilda was still the better choice.

Manu glanced at his comm. The shipment they were expecting was due any moment. IDAP’s reputation for timeliness was well-known throughout the Fringe. The whole sector, really. And they certainly had a better track record of delivery than the Matilda as of late. Manu’s mind had drifted as he imagined what it would be like to pilot the sleek commercial cruiser three landing pads down when Heavy’s elbow bumped.

“Look, here they come,” Heavy said, hopping down off the ramp. The large man’s sudden departure bounced Manu like a child on a springboard. Not wanting to be anywhere near the ramp’s edge when Heavy lowered it to the tarmac, Manu used the momentum to propel himself forward and landed gracefully on his booted feet.

“Is that what we’re loading? Looks… well, not sure what I was expecting,” Manu said, squinting down the paved access lane where a small utility cart towed a massive, corrugated-metal storage container.

“Yep, but that’s just the shipping crate. What we want is inside,” Heavy said, gallivanting past Manu with the end of one of the Matilda’s nano-fiber winch cables slung over his shoulder.

The cart and its enormous payload crossed the remaining distance and gradually slowed to a crawl, making a last-moment turn away from the Matilda’s ramp and slowly backing the crate up until it was just a few feet away.

From around the side of the container, an IDAP representative dressed in maroon coveralls approached the Matilda with a datapad in hand. Manu looked at his comm; IDAP had given Samantha a time when they would arrive—not a window of time, but an exact time—and they had arrived right on the dot.

“Greetings, I’m Tom, your delivery specialist. I trust you are the representatives Ms. Hammond authorized to receive her shipment?”

Manu took a step forward, Heavy right behind him. “That’s right. Ms. Hammond left a drop-off validation here,” Manu said, tapping his comm and sending the authorization to the IDAP datapad. Whatever Tom saw on his screen seemed to satisfy him; he nodded and looked to Manu and Heavy with a wide smile.

“Very good. That’s all in order. Can’t be too careful.” Tom raised his hand to his ear and spoke into his cuff. “Truck one-one-seven, we have clearance to deliver shipment two-two-nine-dash-four-one-alpha-six.” He listened to a response only he could hear, then looked to the Matilda, face souring slightly. “That winch double flam-pressed?” he asked.

Heavy stepped forward, both hands wrapped around the black nano-fiber cable. “Triple, actually. And, we’ve got reinforced spurv bearings on both ends of the waneshaft’s reciprocators.” Heavy clicked his tongue at Tom, literally looking down his nose at the shorter man. “It’ll pull.”

Tom raised his eyebrows, a low whistle on his lips. “Both ends of the waneshaft? Well, okay then.” He spoke back into his cuff mic. “We’re good!”

The cart began creeping backward toward the Matilda’s ramp, the sound of crunching asphalt beneath its tires.

“Tires? No hover generators? Seems… old fashioned,” Manu said.

Tom nodded enthusiastically, proudly watching the container approach. “Oh yes. There’s no telling the weight of what we could be dragging along and hover gens use energy and maintenances. Those tires are nano-assembled in reverse-inverse gravity chambers. You could load your whole ship there on the flatbed and they wouldn’t deform an atom, even when the tarmac beneath buckled. And the cart, it’s got the torque to pull it.”

Heavy chuckled. “The Matilda up on that cart. That’d be a sight to see.”

Tom took a confident breath. “We’ve delivered bigger. Much bigger.”

Heavy narrowed his eyes. “Oh yeah? How much bigger?”

Manu shook his head, watching Heavy and Tom stare each other down.

“Well, IDAP policy prevents me from sharing any actual details. But, I can share that there is a planet somewhere that once had six moons.” Tom looked over each shoulder before continuing. “Now it has five.”

Heavy reared back, a look of shock on his face, apparently too stunned to speak.

Manu snorted, stepping between the two men. “Okay, you two, I think we can focus on what we’re doing, which is unloading whatever is in there. I’m sure that both of you have many feats of engineering you can share at a later time. Much later.”

“Okay, yeah,” Heavy said, seeming to break himself out of his reverie as he pulled the cable forward. “But you know, with enough quantum displacement, moving a moon…” Heavy eyed Tom skeptically, “a small moon, is possible. Theoretically.”

Manu sighed, loud and with gusto. Heavy sheepishly wrinkled his nose and shrugged. “Cable’s ready!” The Matilda’s over-sized engineer bellowed, coming to a stop in front of the container’s lowered rear gate.

Tom gestured up to the container. “Whole thing is on rollers in there. The shipment priority of this one means we can’t go inside, you’ll have to hook it up yourself. This also means that we aren’t responsible once that hook is attached.”

“Nothing to worry about, we load and unload all the time,” Heavy said, eyes hungry for whatever was waiting for him in the container. He pulled the cable forward and disappeared inside, the dimness of twilight covering his movements in shadow.

Manu folded his arms, giving Tom an awkward, pressed-lip smile. Tom nodded up toward the Matilda.

“That really a XJ-45 heavy industry transport?”

Manu shrugged. “It really is.”

Tom nodded in approval. “They’re built to last, though can be a little rough on fast ascents.”

Manu raised an eyebrow. “You know, I have run into that a few times.”

Heavy emerged from the container, rescuing Manu from further smalltalk. “We’re hooked up at the anchor point that Sam–er, Ms. Hammond gave us. We’ll just pull it up the rollers here and strap it in place on the far side of the bay. Nothing to worry about.”

Heavy jogged back up the ramp and bent down to wiggle one of the large roller tracks. The Matilda had not carried something so large in quite some time, most of their jobs turning from freight to mercenary contracts. Manu forgot the entire procedure of actually loading anything of significance. Luckily, Heavy hadn’t. The big man jogged back up the ramp and then back and forth between various stations in the cargo bay, flipping switches, pulling levers, making adjustments to various linkages, a gleeful grin on his face.

“All clear, engaging winch!” Heavy shouted. A series of pulsing orange lights illuminated around the bay along with a short pair of excruciatingly loud buzzes from an overhead loudspeaker.

Manu and Tom both took a step back as the container’s contents slowly emerged. Even Manu found his curiosity piqued, a feeling that was quickly dashed. There wasn’t much to see. It looked like the Matilda was just dragging in a long, narrow object that was completely wrapped in an enormous dark tarp, the nano-fiber cable routed through a grommet in the front. Nothing about what he saw indicated that beneath the tarp was a piece of spacefaring technology that likely dwarfed the cost of any other ship in the shipfield. 

The winch dutifully wound up the nano-fiber cable and pulled. The tarp-wrapped Nighthawk cleared the container and made its way up the creaking metal rollers. Finally cresting the end of the ramp and tipping gently forward onto the cargo bay floor, the last bit of tarp-covered mystery cleared the bay’s edge and was finally enclosed in the Matilda. The winch shut down, the flashing lights turned off, and the echoey din of the bay returned.

Tom scampered forward, datapad under his arm. “Excellent work gentlemen. You’d make excellent IDAP team members should you ever wish to change careers.”

Heavy was casually brushing his hands together, gazing up at his new cargo. “Well, you know what they say, ‘do what you like, like what you do.’”

“Indeed, sirs. Did you find this delivery to be satisfactory?” Tom said.

Manu shrugged. “It’s here in one piece, on schedule, and paid for by someone else. That’s more than we could ask for. Enjoy your night,” Manu said with a casual salute. Tom bowed and bade them farewell, trotting over to rejoin his partner on the little cart, the tiny vehicle speeding away at a considerably faster speed than when it had arrived, shipping container now empty.

Manu turned to Heavy, nodding back to the shipfield. “I don’t like being open like this. Let’s close up and get this thing secured,” Manu said, hitting the button on the outer doors, orange warning lights coming to life as they started to shut.

“Sure thing,” Heavy said, dragging an armful of nanofiber strapping toward the Nighthawk. “What if Samantha wants to, you know, fly it?”

“We were told to receive it and secure it. The Matilda isn’t a carrier. The only way this little thing is leaving here is on zero-grav, or if she wants to push it back out by hand.” Manu watched the cargo doors slam shut. “Either way, we can’t leave it rolling around back here.”

“Right. Right.” Heavy folded his arms, staring up at the wrapped ship. He lowered his voice. “You, uh… you think we should, you know, pull this tarp off and get a look at it? I mean, easier to secure it and make sure we’re not going to bust anything off, right? I think it’s the only responsible thing to do.”

Manu took a moment to consider, feeling Heavy’s impish curiosity influencing him. Samantha would probably want to keep it covered until she could personally inspect it. That was enough for Manu to decide. “Yeah, let’s pull it off. It’s the only responsible thing to do.”

The two men circled the Nighthawk, loosening the straps that held the tarp around it and tossing them into a pile in the corner of the bay. The tarp hung loosely over its contents like a sheet draped over some museum piece. Manu grabbed a length of the fabric and pulled, barely dragging it more than a few inches.

Heavy strode over confidently and snatched it from Manu’s hands. “Allow me.”

Heavy’s hands closed into tight fists. He pulled up the slack of the tarp, then burst into a sprint. The tarp pulled away, a whoosh of fabric and wind echoing against the walls, the tarp billowing as it crumpled to the floor of the cargo bay, revealing the Nighthawk underneath.

“That is…” Manu said, unsure of how to continue. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. It resembled a small ascent-descent shuttle—long and narrow fuselage, forward-facing cockpit with segmented windows, what looked like a tiny rear habitation cabin, and stabilizer thrusters not unlike the Matilda’s attached to each corner of the craft. At the back was a cylindrical housing of what was certainly the jump drive, but no weapons that Manu could see, and nothing that indicated it would be very much fun in atmospheric flight, with the lack of any wings or aerodynamics.

“I’m not sure what I expected. It just looks like some utility shuttle. Like something used for touching down on asteroid mines,” Manu said, turning to Heavy. The big man was staring in awe.

“No, that’s a ship built for a purpose. Transmission shielded, almost no sensor profile, probably full of tech that you’d only read about in science fiction stories. It’s meant to appear nondescript, to infiltrate, hide, and disappear just as easy.” Heavy murmured. He turned to face Manu. “The pinnacle of spy stuff.”

Manu groaned. “Okay, don’t let Matilda hear you rave too hard. Let’s get it strapped down. I don’t want to know what would happen if we had to make another bumpy getaway without practically welding this thing into place.”

“I don’t think it’s metal, anyway,” Heavy said as he began looking for anchor points. “Uh, I think we need the diagrams again. I can’t find anywhere to hook these straps.”

Manu sighed. Samantha had shown them a diagram, but had kept it on her own datapad. “Okay.” Manu pulled out his comm. He’d never actually contacted Samantha before and wasn’t about to start. “Deck, come in.”

A moment passed before the familiar voice squawked back. “Go ahead, Captain.”

“Tell our friend that her package is securely in the bay, but we need the, uh, instructions on how to strap it down if she wants it to stay in the bay.”

“Copy that.” There was another moment of pause. “Okay, instructions incoming to the Matilda. Out.”

Manu sent the instructions to a datapad on one of the cargo bay’s utility shelves, retrieving it and handing it over to Heavy.

“Well Hev, there you are. We’re now the proud stewards of a… whatever this is.”

Heavy was staring at the Nighthawk with a level of affection and admiration Manu only ever seen him reserve for the Matilda. He sighed. “A work of art, that’s what.”

The investment district of Senali was bustling as evening turned the sky dark. Interstellar trade never slept, and everyone who worked in the district was either still working, or out experiencing the nightlife. Fancy vehicles passed on both ground- and sky-lanes, and pedestrians wearing the latest Senali fashions animated the walkways with their movements. It was a sophisticated planet. For the Fringe, at least. 

Seated in the middle seat of the rented hover van, Eliza looked down at her mostly-black, tactical attire. She could have really given her wardrobe a workout on Senali, but Samantha had insisted that they were to be as inconspicuous and functional as possible. So, instead of the red and silver getup she’d wanted to wear, she was back in the makeshift operations outfit they’d purchased on Mentaryd. At least Samantha had her fancy tacsuit underneath.

Backed into a parking stall near the edge of a dark alley, the hover van sat idle, anti-grav generators off, window tint activated. Decker was in the driver’s seat, Samantha in the passenger’s. For the past few hours, they’d been focused on the glass front of the skyscraper that, according to the Senali public feeds, Kat Basara’s investors meeting was supposed to be taking place in. Countless people had come and gone, though none matched Basara’s Red Kestrel’s photo visible on a datapad leaned between the two front seats. It was a stakeout, and just like the many stakeouts of Eliza’s past life, this one was just as uneventful and boring, so far. That’s sort of how they went. Ninety-five percent? Mind-numbing boredom. Five-percent? The chance for chaos and activity. She hoped they’d get to that part soon.

Decker half-sighed, half-grunted. “Was there any information on when this thing would end?”

Samantha exhaled with audible impatience. She glanced at Decker, then back out the front window. “No. This is the place. We wait for Basara to exit the building.”

Decker matched the audible exhale with one of his own. “Right… and if she doesn’t? At some point we may have to admit that maybe she’s not in there, or if she is, she’s not coming out.”

Eliza leaned forward slightly, not enough that either of the two other passengers would notice, pleased with the small amount of entertainment.

“Then we look for a new opportunity,” Samantha finally said, voice steady and unconcerned. “She’s a popular person. And arrogant. She has every reason to believe that on Senali, she’s untouchable.”

Decker opened his mouth slightly, seemed to think better of it, then returned his focus to the building’s entrance. Eliza knew the type of patience required for this type of work, and she presumed Samantha must have plenty of experience in slow and patient hunts. Decker, he was probably wishing he could tap into the nether cartridge Eliza knew was in his jacket pocket. She sort of wished she could too. Maybe she could offer an alternative.

“You know, we could always try going inside, do a quick visual assessment. No one knows what we look like. Well, me and Deck anyway,” Eliza chimed in from between the seats.

Decker glanced down at the dark jacket he was wearing, hand coming up to scratch at what looked like a four-day beard. “We don’t exactly look the part of people who would be wandering around the financial district. This place is a lot fancier than our last stop,” he said.

Eliza flopped back into her seat. Decker had a point. Samantha was wearing the same dark jacket as Eliza over the fancy tacsuit, and Decker looked exactly the part of a drifter starship captain who had no business strolling around these brightly-lit skyscrapers. Eliza sighed; nothing to do but wait.

The van went silent again. Eliza had felt tension from Decker and Samantha when they’d left the Matilda earlier that day. Not that these two weren’t always full of tension, with Samantha holding in whatever she was holding in, and Decker oscillating between fretting about their circumstances and zoning out in his cabin with his nether cartridges. But this felt different. Each of them seemed to be independently on edge about something they weren’t sharing. Eliza and Samantha had learned something new about the Kestrels while posing as the IUP officers—maybe it was that. It made Eliza wonder, though. What had Decker learned on Mentaryd that he wasn’t sharing?

From the driver’s seat, Decker pointed to his ear and tilted his head, speaking in a hushed tone.

“Go ahead, Captain.”

Decker nodded as he listened to Manu through the comm.

“Copy that.” Decker muted the comm and tapped Samantha on the shoulder. “Hey, your surprise package has arrived and our porters need to know where they can attach straps without breaking anything.”

Samantha huffed. “I already showed them the schematics.”

A sour smile crossed Decker’s face. “Well, they forgot. It’s not like they are going to get in and take it for a joyride. They’re just trying to take care of your stolen Imperium property.”

Samantha again exhaled through her nose—she did that a lot—and pulled a datapad out of her backpack on the floor. The sound of overly loud, annoyance-fueled taps echoed in the van she entered a few commands. A final, emphatic click signaled the end, and she slipped the datapad back into the backpack without comment, returning her gaze to the skyscraper’s entrance. 

Decker shook his head, then looked down at his comm. “Okay, instructions incoming to the Matilda. Out.”

The van returned to silence. Eliza’s eyes went back and forth between Decker and Samantha. Each was leaned away from each other, both of their shoulders resting against the opposing side windows. 

These two had some sort of history, but Decker had balked at the notion of it being romantic. And yet, they were too familiar, too willing to push each other’s buttons. It reminded Eliza of old cop partners she’d seen in her past life, the ones who’d spent too many years together on stakeouts like this. Stuck with someone they trusted, but didn’t really agree with. Someone they respected, but didn’t really like. Someone they were concerned about, but also disapproved of almost everything they did. 

Eliza chuckled. Decker might deny that they’d ever shared a cabin bunk, but she couldn’t help thinking that they resembled a bitter old married couple. She’d save that one for later, already imagining Heavy’s roaring laughter.

The hour grew late and the street traffic thinned out. Eliza found herself lulled into silence, her eyes—both cybernetic and natural alike—trained on the skyscraper’s entrance. The enhanced vision of the former caught someone exiting, and the instincts from her past career flared to life as she interpreted the artificially magnified image her brain never could quite reconcile with the one from her organic eye.

“Hey, look alive, folks. I’m seeing a positive ID on our target exiting the building,” she said, thrusting her upper body forward between the seats. Samantha and Decker both righted their posture and joined her.

“Here, look,” Eliza said as she pulled out a handheld datapad from her jacket’s inner pocket, showing a grainy, still image of Kat Basara exiting the front of the building they were parked across from, taken seconds ago.

Decker looked at the datapad, then up to Eliza. “That’s from your eye?” he asked, scoffing in—what Eliza presumed was—envy. “How… how did I not know you could do this?”

Eliza clicked her tongue. “Deck, there’s a lot you don’t know about me. But you need to focus. Samantha?”

Samantha examined the image of a partially obscured woman coming through the glass-enclosed lobby. It wasn’t a perfect image, but it was enough to go on. Long, dark hair cascading off her shoulders, wide eyes, elegant lips, tailored jacket and flared pants. Kat Basara might be a corrupt Red Kestrel chapter boss, but she was remarkably beautiful. The perfect image of a public figure who could get anyone to like her.

“Yes,” Samantha said, nodding vigorously. “That’s her.”

“All right!” Eliza said, clapping both her partners on the shoulders. “Looks like the Matilda Detective Agency is in business.”

The three watched as Kat Basara continued down the street with a group of similarly fashionable men and women, walking and talking, broad smiles on their faces, the occasional head thrown back with laughter, side-hugs and hands gently placed on arms. They were all dressed in sharp, expensive looking clothes, the small crowd of onlookers looking at them as if they were local celebrities.

Eliza whistled. “Some life. Crime certainly pays in the Fringe,” she muttered.

“Well, only if you’re good at it. Remember the dead guy we launched out the back of our ship a week ago? He thought the same thing,” Decker said.

Eliza hummed. “Oh, yeah. Right.” 

“Focus. She’s moving toward a car,” Samantha said, a confident edge to her voice Eliza hadn’t heard since their little jaunt on Mentaryd as officers Annabelle and Merriwether. Being in the middle of an active mission must be the only place she really felt comfortable. 

Basara made a few more goodbyes and then ducked into the rear seats of a shiny black sedan with two of her associates. 

“Okay, we’re on the move” Decker said, turning on the van and activating the hover generators, lifting their vehicle slightly off the ground.

Samantha’s body tensed, coming forward off the seat. “Eliza, you keep your attention focused on everything that isn’t Basara. Watch for anything that could be a threat. Decker, she’s got no reason to suspect a tail, so stay close as long as we’ve got traffic around us.”

Basara’s sedan lifted off the ground and merged into a ground lane, smooth and easy, typical of an autonomous vehicle. Decker drove the van into the street, keeping manual control. “I can do that, but then what? Follow her until she stops somewhere and watch her again?”

Samantha’s eyes were fixed on the car in front of them. “As soon as an opening presents itself, we take it. We don’t need a lot of space to keep things quiet.” 

“And I’ve got the bag right here if you need it,” Eliza said, producing a black cloth bag from her backpack and dangling it between the seats. Decker eyed the abduction sack, but Samantha did not seem to notice. Eliza shrugged and stuffed it into her jacket pocket, just in case.

“There’s no room for any mistakes. If we spook her and mess this up, she’s gone and we’ll have nothing. We won’t be making a second attempt. We get Basara tonight,” Samantha said.

Eliza’s eyes narrowed at the comment. “That sounds like a declaration of fact.”

Samantha did not respond. Decker raised a hand, drawing their attention to the sedan. “She’s gone airborne. Going to be harder to follow at those speeds if they get into the upper lanes.”

Samantha leaned forward, resting a hand on the dash. “Just concentrate on keeping her in visual range. It’s fine. Stay focused,” Samantha said, repeating softly, “stay focused.”

The van eased into a smooth upward arc behind the sedan, entering the sky lanes and accelerating. They passed over city streets, skyscrapers, and other mid-level sky lanes. Basara’s sedan took a very high altitude lane that headed out of the city center and towards the outskirts where the skyscrapers gave way to spread out buildings, homes, and large expanses of undeveloped land still lush with the Senali vegetation that gave the planet its signature green hue.

“We’re putting a lot of distance between us and the Matilda, heading out this far,” Decker said, caution thick in his voice.

“The Matilda is our ride off Senali once we’re successful. They’re not an extraction team,” Samantha said, her eyes still locked onto the sedan several dozen vehicle-lengths in front of them. “I go after Basara, you two wait for me to accomplish the objective and return, and we egress together.”

Decker scoffed at the curt demand. “Well, I’m calling in anyway.” Decker tapped his comm and waited. “Manu, we’ve got eyes on Basara and are on her tail. She’s taking an upper skylane to outside the city.” A pause. “Yeah, tell Selli to track us.” Another pause. “Yeah. Okay.”

Decker pressed a button on his comm and then another on the van’s control console. The interior speakers came to life and the subtle background noise of the Matilda’s interior could be heard.

“Okay Manu, you’re on,” Decker said.

Manu’s voice sounded over the speakers. “Copy. Sellivan’s got your location. We’ll keep track as long as the ship’s sensors allow. We’re not exactly equipped for this sort of thing.” Manu seemed irritated, which Eliza found comforting. Someone had to be the skeptic here.

“Do your best. In fact, keep the comms open, and I want you and Sellivan on the bridge monitoring everything. You hear what we hear, all one big conversation. Got it?”

“Got it.”

The van continued to speed through the sky-lanes and the city lights below became sporadic dots. Decker kept his distance, eyes glancing back and forth between the van’s navigation display and the sedan ahead. Eliza watched him from the rear seat. He seemed to be mouthing words silently. Probably all the complaints he wished he could say but was keeping to himself. That was also comforting. It meant Decker was thinking and staying cautious. 

Eliza shifted her attention to Samantha. The rogue operative was nearly motionless, but Eliza’s cybernetic eye could see that her jaw was clenching and releasing rhythmically, the muscles along the side of her face shifting beneath her skin. Probably from the pills that Eliza had noticed on their last mission. Uppers of some sort, probably medical grade. It wouldn’t have surprised Eliza if they’d been given to Samantha as a part of her job. After all, she was just a weapon. The Imperium would have needed her sharp when it mattered. Consequences? Not the government’s problem.

“Hey, her car is dropping altitude. It’s angling for this lane—” Decker pointed to a route on the van’s navigation console, “—here.” He eased the van over to follow. “Looking a little suspect here without any other vehicles to blend in with.” He turned to Samantha and raised his eyebrows, pushing his lips together in anticipation of an answer. Samantha audibly exhaled through her nose; again.

“Damn it. Drop back.” Samantha said, fidgeting in her seat. “But stay on her. Drive casual.”

Decker grunted. “Okay. Maintain distance, but ‘drive casual.’ Real easy.”

Basara’s car arced downward, leveling out and shifting into ground mode. Decker followed. The road wound through a dark industrial district of large buildings, some abandoned, some in good repair, some with activity still happening in the early night. The occasional vehicle pulled in between the van and Basara’s car, providing more cover, but there was nowhere to divert their route to try and blend in.

“Eliza, seeing anything on that eye?” Decker asked.

Eliza wriggled up between the seats. “Looks like a fancy car driving down an empty road, only bigger. A boring, slow-speed chase if I ever saw one.”

“I suspect you won’t allow that reprieve to last,” Sellivan muttered over the comms. Eliza snorted; it felt good to hear that Sellivan was also his usual self.

“Next time, no vans. I am tired of vans,” Decker muttered.

Basara’s car turned at an intersection and moved deeper into the industrial district. It slowed slightly, making Decker slow down as well to maintain the distance.

Decker’s voice was low. “Matilda, the target is slowing down. Might be reaching a destination. Selli, you still have our route and location?”

“Indeed,” Sellivan said.

“And the cargo is secure?”

“All good, Deck,” Heavy added, probably listening from the power plant.

Decker nodded. “Okay. Change of plans. I want the Matilda’s engines brought online. Flight-ready. The three of you, get to your stations and keep the comms open”

Manu’s voice came through the speakers. “Deck, we planning an early exit?”

Samantha’s head turned abruptly. “No. Maintain your position at the shipfield. Take no actions without my express orders,” she said curtly.

“Deck?” Manu said, his tone conveying the ‘I don’t take orders from her’ message loud and clear.

Eliza’s eyes widened gleefully at the exchange. Looks like they were exiting the ninety-five-percent boredom part of their night and into the five-percent chaos.

Decker glared at Samantha, maintaining fierce eye contact as he replied to the crew. “No early exits, but keep our ship ready for any requests from me.”

The comms went silent. Decker kept driving, Eliza sat back in her seat, and Samantha continued to stare at the vehicle in front of them. Everything was dark. The streets were dark, the van’s interior was dark. Kat Basara’s car turned another corner and weaved between a crowded cluster of buildings, a series of mid-rise commercial office complexes from the looks of them, names of companies affixed to their rooflines, random windows lit up. Basara’s car turned down a narrow one-way street between two buildings and into an attached parking garage. Decker slowed the van and stopped it just in front of the next turn required to follow.

“Samantha, we’ve got no way to keep following. I think we need an alternative strategy. We can come snoop around this area tomorrow, blend in when people return to work here,” Decker said.

“No,” Samantha said abruptly. “We stay with her until she gets out. We have to be ready when a chance presents itself.” Samantha pointed at the van’s navigation display. “Take this street around where she’ll exit. We’ve got her.”

Decker gestured broadly at the street ahead. “Samantha, we’ve sort of lost our cover. We can’t go into that garage and there’s no telling if, or when, she’s coming out. She’s going to see a van creeping around following her, and I’m not about to get into a gunfight down here.”

Samantha grimaced. “Decker, we need to get this van moving or we’ll lose her. Don’t be paranoid.”

Decker reared back, sputtering. “Paranoid? Me paranoid? Are you—,” Decker laughed. “We’re following a Red Kestrel on her home planet out in the middle of nowhere, with who-knows-what waiting for us. I’m not paranoid. This is crazy! You are crazy!”

Samantha’s head snapped to Decker. “This is all we have!” she shouted, eyes wide with fury. “We stay on mission. No running away from this. She’s right there. We’re not backing out. Keep driving.”

Decker laughed again, a sad and angry laugh. “You want to do this yourself? Fine, go.” He pressed a button on the van’s driving controls and it lowered to the ground with a sudden jolt. “She’ll never see you coming since you’ll be walking in alone.”

Eliza leaned forward; mom and dad were fighting. “Heeey, let’s all just maybe take a breather here, huh? Let’s just stop and think. We don’t want to go rushing into something without—,”

Samantha exhaled—audibly, nasally—and opened the passenger side door before Eliza or Decker could react. “Stay here,” she said, closing the door behind her and stalking off into the darkness. It was the kind of order that sounded more like a reprimand than a suggestion. Eliza grimaced; maybe these two weren’t quite the old married couple she had presumed.

“What—have you lost it? What are you doing?” Decker shouted from inside the van. He raised his comm to his mouth. “Samantha, stop. What are you doing?” No response. “Samantha, come in. Keep your comm on. Samantha. Shit!”

“You did tell her to leave, Deck,” Eliza said, wriggling between the seats to take the one Samantha had just vacated.

“Decker, Samantha’s comm is not active,” Sellivan’s voice said.

“She turned off her comm,” Decker growled. “I can’t believe it.”

“It went dark moments ago, presumably after she exited the vehicle,” Sellivan replied, a touch of ‘you should have expected this’ coloring his tone.

Eliza clicked her tongue. “Come on, Deck. At this point, would you have expected anything else? I may be a little crazy, but her? Well, she’s something special.”

Decker groaned and rubbed his hands against his legs. “Okay, okay. Shit. Let me think.”

“Deck, if she’s abandoned the plan, she’s on her own. Breach of contract,” Manu said over the comm channel. Eliza tipped her head toward Decker.

“He has a point,” she said.

Decker held up his hand, face scrunched. He rubbed the space between his eyebrows with a finger, mumbling something to himself, seemingly engrossed in both halves of a conversation only he could hear. More time passed than Eliza was comfortable with, but what could she do? And as much as she wanted to follow Samantha and get into whatever hijinks the unstable former agent was sure to find, she worked for Decker.

Finally, he said something. “You geared up?”

Eliza nodded emphatically. “We got rifles, handhelds, various grenades, and an incendiary charge I packed just in case. But, we’ve been ordered to stay put, sooooo…”

Decker pulled his bolt pistol from the shoulder holster under his jacket, checking its charge. “Uh huh.” He shoved it back into the holster. “We’re going after her. She can’t just do this and expect us to wait for whatever happens to happen. We’re being proactive.”

Eliza smiled and nodded, pulling her backpack over her shoulders. She reached back to the stack of bolt rifles they had prepped and laid on the floor of the van. “Charged and ready.”

Manu’s voice cut in over the speakers. “Deck, it’s bad enough having her run off. We have no way to back you up, please consider that you have no exit plan.”

Decker zipped his jacket halfway up. “I know. Believe me, I know.”

“You are going out. I can hear you handling weapons,” Manu said back, making no attempt to hide his disapproval.

“Yes, we are.” Decker jabbed his finger against the van’s navigation display, then against the comm around his wrist. “Selli, plot a course into orbit and a jump entry point to the Gaph system and prep a course to be ready to hit it. That’s one place I know we can use as a hideout. No surprises this time. Manu and Hev, I’ve sent you the building’s location. Get the Matilda in the air and be ready to set down nearby for an extraction should we need it.”

“Acknowledged,” Manu said through a groan. “You’re going to need to scout a landing site once we’re overhead, the ship can’t exactly put down anywhere.”

Eliza slipped a bolt pistol into her jacket and behind the small of her back before activating one of the bolt rifles and pulling its retention sling it over her shoulder. She grinned, ready for that final five-percent of the stakeout. “Don’t worry Deck, we’ve handled worse. This is going to be fiiiiiine.”

Decker sighed, slow and deep. Eliza winked, and the two exited the van into the night.