Recommend putting on the Cowboy Bebop OST for this one. Specifically, Digging My Potato, for atmosphere.
Down At The Crossroads
It was getting late, the second sun dipping towards the distant mountains, casting long, deep shadows across the open grassland. It was a pretty good place to meet up for a hand-off, with clear lines of sight off almost to the horizon in every direction. Certainly no way to sneak up on someone without being spotted, targeted and lit up like a Canopus whorehouse on pay-day.
Probably why Dink chose the place, but then again, maybe not. After all, he wasn't known for being the sharpest knife in the draw.
Local summer was just starting to give way to autumn, so it was still pleasantly warm, with just a hit of winter on the cool breeze wafting down off the mountains. Anywhere else in known space, and Hera would have been considered prime real estate, probably grabbed by some minor noble as a private retreat. But we were the ass-crack, so far off the beaten track that you couldn't even see it from here. Which made it all kinds of appealing to people looking to get lost. This, unfortunately, brought with it its own problems, as more than one, we'd found ourselves playing host to people who'd previously been on opposite sides in a conflict.
Hence the Compact, a series of rules that all newcomers agreed to abide by on pain of exile, enforced by an informal group of Lawkeeps, myself included.
It wasn't exactly hard work: we had maybe a a few hundred thousand people, on a planet that could probably sustain a couple of billion. But being so isolated kept immigration down, allowing everyone plenty of room to breath.
The closest thing we had to a capital, to a city of any kind, was Firstdown. Hardly original, I know, but to played host to our only spaceport, and it was usually where a Lawkeep would meet with someone looking to either join one of our scattered communities, our maybe found their own. As such, I was a little surprised when Dink reached out to me on behalf of a new arrival. Not too big of a surprise, as one of his main jobs was acting as a go-between, setting up meetings between people fresh off the boat and local authorities s they are, explaining customs and, if needed, acting as an interpreter. Dink may not be too smart, but he's a people person and has an ear for languages, which made him useful to have around.
Which is why, when he asked me to meet him and his latest client out at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, I'd agreed.
Not to say I wasn't taking any chances: leaving aside the heavy GyroJet on my right hip, the somewhat battered looking Rotunda I'd arrived in was actually in pretty good shape. At least, the weapons systems were ready to go and the armour wasn't patched together, like most military vehicles on Hera. We're somewhere people go to get away from fighting, after all. Pushing my old campaign hat back slightly, I looked down the road leading to Firstdown to the south, wondering what was keeping Dink and his new BFF?
The soft, mournful sound of an harmonica made my head snap round to the east, my right hand instinctively dropping to my holster. But I managed to stop myself just shy of drawing, when I saw the origin of the sound emerging from the gathering dusk. They were tall, their hight only enhanced by their slender build, hidden though it was beneath a old cloak and broad rimmed straw hat. A pack was slung across their back, a seemingly random assortment of items hanging from various straps and buckles, while their hands held the invisible harmonica in front of their still hidden face.
Something about the hauntingly melancholy tune they were planning was oddly familiar, but I couldn't place it.
They stopped just shy of the crossroads, holding the last note of the tune for a moment, then stopped. Hands still holding the harmonics in front of their mouth, they looked up for the first time, a single amber eye almost glowing in the dying light.
Suddenly I remembered where I'd heard the tune before: it had been in a bar over in Serenity Township, an couple of hours drive back down the way they'd came. I'd been catching up with another Lawkeep, and we'd been swapping 'war stories' for about an hour when I realised that the room had gone unusually quite. That had every hair on the back of my neck standing on end, but my colleague had assured me that it was all okay. And that's when I'd first heard it, a tune that seemed to cut to my very soul, speaking to me in a way that didn't need words. The room seemed to grow deathly quite, as if every ear was straining to hear every last note that came from the small, dimly lit stage in the corner. There she stood, half hidden in the shadows, hair the colour of spun copper pulled back into a loose ponytail that cascaded down over one shoulder. There had been nothing remarkable about the old shirt and denims she wore, and they certainly didn't do anything for her figure, but it was the damn music, and how she played it, that was so captivating.
Lot of people from a lot of places on Hera, so our culture is rather scatter-shot to say the least, but something about that melody just reached into my soul.
She finished playing, and I suddenly realised that I'd been holding my breath, not wanting to make even the slightest sound, and she turned to look out across the room.
Modern medicine and a good doctor can work minor miracles, and it was clear that she'd received the attention of the best of both... but there's only so much even the best can do. It was painful obvious that she'd been too close to either a fire of a laser blast, given the discolouration of her skin, as well as the lack of a left eye, ear and about a third of her hair. I've seen worse, a testament to just how good the surgeons had been, but Hera isn't exactly known for cosmetic surgery, so the chances were, she'd be stuck looking like that for the rest of her life.
"They say she's got other scars, not than anyone's had the chance to find out." my friend whispered in my ear, "Last guy who tried ended up looking worse than she does."
Back in the here-and-now, I found myself locking eyes with her, before she turned away, walking over to a makeshift shelter someone had put up by the side of the road. It wasn't much more than four walls, an open door and a roof, but it was better than getting rained on while waiting for someone to thumb a lift off. Placing her pack down in the doorway, she sat on a rough bench outside and started to play a soft melody on her harmonica.
The sound of grinding gears and a backfiring engine drew my attention back to the south, just in time to see Dink's much abused old truck rumble into view, the tired engine protesting. So, yeah, you can add bad driver and worse mechanic to the list of Dink's failures. I just leaned back against my car, arms crossed, and waited for it up pull up in a loud of dust and smoke, spluttering and coughing until it finally gave out with a wheezing hiss that spoke of significant time in the workshop in its near future.
The drivers door opened, and Dink stepped out into the evening air, a big, toothy grin framed by an unkempt beard. A shorter, nondescript man in what looked like a uniform that had had all of its badges and other identifying markings quickly removed stepped out of the passenger door, his rat-like eyes constantly darting about. He looked at me, then the woman still playing her harmonica, then back to me.
"Dink." I nodded in greeting, "This your client?"
"This is him." Dink sounded as unnecessarily cheerful as ever, "Mr Smith, meet Lawkeep Qu."
"Mr Smith." I nodded, ignoring the obviously made-up name. Seriously, has nobody any originality anymore?
"I'm to understand that you can get me to safety?" Smith managed to look down at me, despite being a good 5cm shorter.
And the accent. Unmistakable: Terran. Often emulated, but never quite matched. Not exactly unheard of on Hera, but not exactly common, either. Especially not now.
"I can see you to where you're going." I nodded, his obvious distain like water off a ducks back, "After that? So long as you keep to the Compact, ain't nothing to fear."
"With what I've been asked to pay, I'd expected more preferential treatment." Smith actually sneered at me. I didn't think that was something people actually did, "I have... enemies. Enemies who would very much like to see me dead."
"We don't allow Bounty Hunters on Hera." I assured him, "And, upon signing the Compact, anonymity is assured. We don't care what you did before you arrived, only what you do going forward."
"Very well." Smith seemed more resigned to the fact than genuinely happy.
He reached into the truck to get something from a bag, but my attention was drawn to the lady at the shelter: her previously tuneless melody had changed, and I felt a chill running down my spine. Smith obviously felt it too, as he suddenly stood rigidly strait, slowly turning to face her. I don't know if he'd intended to say something, because he didn't get a chance to say anything: the harmonica hit a particularly high note, and held it for a moment, and Smith slumped back against the side of the truck, a red stain over his heart.
The woman stood slowly, lifting her pack over one shoulder, then started to walk towards Smith, whose body was already starting to shut-down. She continued to play her tune until she was standing over him.
"Nemo me impune lacessit." she looked down at him, her voice strangely soft, yet her accent likewise unmistakably Terran, "It's a good death, General Peterson, far better than you deserve."
With that, she turned to walk away from the now clearly very dead man, but stopped and looked at Dink and I over one shoulder.
"House Cameron thanks you for your service."
With that, she returned her harmonica to her lips and walked off into the night.
"...the fuck?" Dink managed to sound both surprised, scared and indignant at the same time, which was quite the achievement, "You just gonna let her walk off like that?"
"Yeah." I nodded, looking down at the body, "I kinda think I am."
"But... The fucking Compact!" Dink complained, waving wildly in the general direction of where the woman had dissatisfied off into the darkness, "You can't just let her..."
"Wake up and smell the coffee, Dink!" I snapped at him, "You know damn well who 'Smith' was, which means even you should be able to guess who she" I gestured off into the same direction, "was, who she works for. And if you know that, then you know damn well that, Compact or not, they wouldn't just sit there and smile while he was walking around. And considering that, if they sent just one message off-world, we'd have an entire army dropping down upon us, I think we got off lightly. Unless you want people looking a little closer at just who live here, 'Dink'? You ain't the only one with a price on your head if you ever leave here."
"...shit." Dink muttered after the cogs had stopped turning, "Well what do we do with the body?"
"We grab a couple of shovels out the back of your truck, and we start digging." I suggested, unbuttoning my jacket, "And, if anyone asks, Mr Smith just walked off into the mountains to get some solitude. And we sure as shit didn't hear nothing about House Cameron, got it?"