Darius Arnold liked to think that he was respectable. He was a businessman, and he had been involved from time to time with certain practices that weren't entirely above board - but he had done far less in that line that most of his colleagues. He had trodden on toes here and there - he had made a few enemies. He had taken tips from friends when he should have turned a deaf ear - but he was respectable. His name was clean; his reputation was clean. He moved in polite circles, and got invited to the right parties. His face was known to the right people. There was a certain satisfaction that came with being the sort of man that people wanted to know - at least to him. It was an accolade that he had no desire to lose.
So it came as something of an inconvenience to have to involve himself with bounty hunters. The right kind of person didn't deal with such types. The right kind of person spoke to businessmen and contractors; politicians, and high ranking law enforcers. They might, if pushed, hire others to deal with bounty hunters on their behalf; but they never - almost never - handled such things themselves. Or so Darius Arnold liked to think. And yet here he was now, sitting at a small metal table in the middle of a crowded concourse in Syn City on Io - a place he would never have dreamed of visiting in the past - waiting to be contacted by bounty hunters. It was demeaning, somehow, even though he had no choice. He needed them, and there was nobody else that he trusted to do this for him. He just hated the idea of having to get his hands dirty in this way.
A tall, clean cut man in his early fifties, Darius Arnold was clearly a businessman. He stood out from the majority of people in Syn City the way that a peacock would stand out from a flock of sparrows. His suit was custom tailored, his shoes handmade, his greying hair immaculate. He looked exactly like what he was - a man from the privileged community of Mars, with money enough for all his wants and needs, and absolutely nothing in common with the small time traders, gun runners, smugglers and prostitutes who currently thronged around him. Syn City unnerved him greatly, and it showed in the sweat that glinted on his forehead, and the restless darting of his eyes. When two figures slid out of the faceless mass, and took the two seats opposite him, he didn't know whether to be relieved that he was no longer alone, or afraid of who they might be. What if they weren't the bounty hunters he was waiting for? What if they were, and they were everything he had ever expected such people to be? He swallowed hard, and wished that he hadn't drunk his synth whisky quite so quickly. His suspicions about the hygiene of the place had rather discouraged him from buying a second.
"Mr Arnold?" It was a woman speaking - a tough, athletic, distinctly attractive woman, with hard, bright eyes, and long black hair. Although she was dressed with real style, her clothes were mostly designed for practicality, creating an overall effect that he decided he rather liked. Not that he would have dared say so. Beautiful though she was, there was something more about her than mere grace and appearance. There was strength there too, and the clear presence of taut, powerful muscles beneath the perfect skin. He gulped, and didn't try speaking. He just nodded his head.
"Callista Larkadia," she announced curtly. He recognised the name when she said it, but didn't question her. If she was one of those Larkadias, then he didn't want to ask her about it. The Larkadia family was one of the richest and most respected in the whole of the Mars territories, and he would dearly have loved to make it into their much admired sphere - but somehow he didn't think that prying into the unusual career choice of one of their number would do anything to give him that necessary life into the world of the social highflyers. Instead he merely smiled, and wondered if he was supposed to offer to shake her hand. She didn't offer hers, so possibly not.
"And this is my associate, Travis Montana." She was gesturing at the man sitting next to her, and Arnold nodded his head at the second bounty hunter. If Callista Larkadia had disconcerted him, with her beauty and her air of barely restrained deadly force, then Travis Montana all but terrified him. He was in his late thirties perhaps; a man dressed from head to toe in black, matching the black of his hair and the shadow of stubble on his jawline; matching the darkness that seemed to seep out of every inch of his lazily powerful frame. Travis Montana was most definitely not a man to annoy, decided Arnold. He looked as though he could easily snap a man's neck, and probably would do so without a second thought. Probably had already done so, and likely more than once. He was smiling now though, and his very bright, very blue eyes showed a flash of easy courtesy. Unlike his associate, Montana offered Arnold his hand, and Arnold shook it nervously. He was almost afraid not to.
"Um... hello." Rather conscious now that they had him at a distinct disadvantage, he tried not to look as though he suspected them of having lured him into a trap. "You're um... you're bounty hunters?"
"Yes." Montana's smile had gone, and in its place was a look of cool professionalism. For some reason everything about him suggested darkness to Darius Arnold. It was as though there were shadows constantly accompanying him; wraiths hiding a part of him far from the eyes of the world. "Are you happy to talk here?"
"Yes." He tried to make it sound as though it wasn't an outright lie. Arnold wasn't happy to do anything here, and would much rather be safely back on Mars - but the feelers he had put out had informed him that, if he wanted bounty hunters, these were the people to go with; and this particular team preferred to steer well clear of Mars. There was little enough for their kind to do there, he supposed. The massive security budget awarded to protect the rich citizens made bounty hunters a rare requirement. At least here, he told himself by way of compensation, they were less likely to be overheard. In a place like Syn City, where everything was always on the move, there was less time to sit and watch others, or to be suspicious over what deals might be in progress. His face was too well known on Mars. Here people might look at him, thanks to his clothes and his obvious wealth - but they wouldn't have any idea who he was. At least that meant that his reputation wouldn't suffer.
"Well if you're happy to talk, good." Callista Larkadia folded her arms, and fixed him with a sharp gaze. "So talk."
"Yes. Of course." He should appreciate her directness, he supposed. He wanted this over and done with, after all. "I want you to find somebody for me."
"That is what we do." Montana smiled faintly, and his eyes again held that warmth - but the darkness still lingered. Secrets, decided Arnold. This was a man of secrets and depths. He wondered what the secrets were, and decided that if he found out he would only regret it. This man was no privileged citizen of Mars, after all. There was no telling where he came from or what things he had seen.
"Quite." Arnold managed a tight smile of his own, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a data flimsy and a chip to go with it. The flimsy was a police report, and the chip held pictures and more detailed information. He pushed both of them across the table, and noted that it was Larkadia who scooped them up. She glanced through the flimsy, then handed it across to Montana.
"Stefan Frears." Montana frowned at a name on the flimsy. "Is he the man that you want us to find?"
"Yes." The mention of Frears' name brought a rush of heat through Arnold's otherwise cold frame. "I need you to find him as soon as possible. There are details of some of his favourite haunts included on the chip, as well as the names of some of the people I know of that he's associated with. As soon as possible, Mr Montana, Miss Larkadia. It's very important."
"It usually is." Montana was watching him with coolly shrewd eyes, his expression unreadable. "What has he done?"
"I don't know. Not exactly. There's a company based on Mars called Zemtan. They're a chemical company, specialising in medical supplies, and experimental drug therapies."
"I've heard of them," put in Larkadia. Arnold nodded shortly. He had expected as much. Zemtan was better known than most drug companies; a fast expanding conglomerate with tentacles spreading throughout the Solar System. "They've been in trouble lately. Illegal drug manufacture, I think."
"You're very well informed," Arnold told her. She eyed him coldly.
"I catch the news," she shot back. He glanced away, suddenly flustered, worrying that he might have appeared patronising. Travis slid into the conversation, lightening the atmosphere slightly with a well placed question.
"What kind of illegal drug manufacture?"
"The made up kind. I know Zemtan. I've been a shareholder for years, and I know exactly what to expect from them from year to year. They're the perfect investment company, because day after day, and month after month, they never change. Now I stand to lose everything, because somebody says that the company have been producing illegal drugs for distribution on the streets. I don't believe it. I'm not sure that anybody does, at least within the business community; but there's evidence, supposedly. Frears is involved somehow, though I'm not clear on how. I need him back on Mars, to prove that Zemtan are clean, or all of the company's investors could go bankrupt. Myself included."
"Fair enough." Montana nodded slowly. "If Frears is involved with the drugs trade somehow, it shouldn't be hard to get a lead on him. Alright, Mr Arnold. We'll get you your man."
"Good. And if you don't mind me saying so, the sooner the better. Mud sticks, as I'm sure you both appreciate, and the last thing we need is for the company to lose the trust of the rest of the business community. Mars is a place with an extremely active grapevine, and rumour can ruin a company just as effectively as false evidence. Find me Stefan Frears, and I'll pay you fifty thousand credits. Zemtan's board of directors will double that if you can help to clear their collective name."
"One hundred thousand credits." Travis smiled faintly, and raised an eyebrow at his companion. "Should please Rudolpho."
"Well it's always nice to break even once in a while." She smiled back, and for a moment Arnold was surprised to catch a glimpse of the chemistry between them. He hadn't expected such humanity from bounty hunters, which left him wondering if his view of the world wasn't perhaps a little warped. He smiled uneasily.
"It'll be worth the money," he told them. "If Zemtan can't get back its good name, then a lot of money goes down the drain. A lot of people will lose their jobs, too; and not all of them can afford it."
"Workers, security guards, technicians..." Callista Larkadia nodded her oddly dramatic head. "There's a lot of people who make up a successful business, and the ones who stand to lose most are rarely the ones who get noticed. Zemtan's board of directors may be the ones who are worried about their company's good name, but most of them will find positions elsewhere, whatever the initial scandal. Mars is a white collar world, though, and it can pick and choose its blue collar employees. Many of them won't find new jobs."
"I appreciate your perspective, Miss Larkadia." Arnold found himself putting a slight emphasis on her surname, just to indicate to her that he had recognised it, and had guessed who she must be. There had never been any shortages in the Larkadia household, after all. She bristled slightly, and he guessed that he had struck home. "But it's not just the 'blue collar workers', as you call them, who'll be lost. As I said, there are investors too. They're not all hugely rich. Believe it or not, Mars doesn't have quite as much money as most people assume it to have."
"Yes it does," she told him bluntly. He winced.
"Well, yes alright. It does. But it's mostly in the hands of just a few people." The Larkadias, for instance. "The rest of us do alright, admittedly. I'm no blue collar worker who won't be able to feed his family if Zemtan goes under - but I will be left pretty high and dry. Investments are like dominoes. Businesses are like dominoes. It all adds up. If Zemtan goes under, it takes a lot of people with it. And, yes, the employees will be the ones to suffer the most. But the rest of us don't have the connections and the privileges that the top tier do." He stopped, wondering if perhaps he had gone too far. He really did need to employ these people, after all. She smiled though, and nodded.
"I have a slight bias, where Mars and its money is concerned."
"I did think that you might, yes." He managed a slight smile in return, though his nervousness was still getting in the way. "So, er... will you take the job?"
"I rather think that we already have." Travis smirked as he said it, then glanced across at his companion when he noticed her surprised expression. "Well are you telling me that you're going to turn him down? After all that talk about downtrodden workers and the unfairness of Mars society?"
"No." She glowered at him. "And I didn't say anything about downtrodden workers, or unfair societies."
"You didn't need to." Montana stood up, his movements confident, bold, and casual - as was the smile he flashed at both Arnold and Callista. "The glower that we all get exposed to, every time Mars comes up in a conversation says it all."
"The problem with you, Montana-" began his associate. He cheerfully cut her off.
"The problem with me is that I'm very pushed for time. We can pick this up when we're back on the Tulip." He held out his hand to Arnold. "You have a deal, Mr Arnold. We'll contact you as soon as we've got Frears, and we'll get him back to Mars as soon as we can. Is it just him that you want, or does he have any files, or data chips that you might need as well?"
"I only need him. Um... a-as far as I know I only need him." Arnold shrugged. "I suppose asking him if he has any hard evidence stashed anywhere wouldn't be any use?"
"We can try." Montana flashed him a cursory smile, then nodded a farewell. Not a man to stand on ceremonies, thought Arnold. Already the bounty hunter was striding away, his long black leather coat an easy focal point to watch as he headed off into the crowd. Arnold breathed a sigh of relief.
"You needn't worry, Mr Arnold." He had almost forgotten about Larkadia, and his eyes snapped over to her now. She was standing up, watching him with an expression halfway between amusement and dislike. "He's never yet shot a client."
"I wasn't afraid." It was a bad lie, and he knew it. She chose to ignore it though, and shrugged.
"At least, I don't think he's ever shot a client. I can only speak for the time we've worked together."
"Something tells me that it's you I have to worry about anyway, Miss Larkadia." He was surprised at his courage at speaking up like that. She just smiled in response, and her dark eyes glittered with coolness and the flints of sarcasm.
"Depends on the sort of thing that frightens you, doesn't it. I'll see you in a day or two, Mr Arnold."
"You hope," she corrected. "I care about the fee, but I can live without it. I can definitely live without a trip to Mars. I'd remember that if I were you."
"Remember what?" he asked, beginning to feel nervous all over again. Her smile grew colder, and decidedly more clipped.
"That Mars does not bring out the best in me. Good day, Mr Arnold." And she was gone, striding away after Montana. Darius Arnold watched after her for several moments, until she vanished into a crowd of passengers recently disembarked from one of Syn City's many pleasure cruisers, then he stood up. He wanted out of here. He wanted to be far, far away from Syn City, and from Jupiter, and from cheap, metallic bars, with their minimalist decoration and inescapable reminders of the all too thin barriers between himself and an unbreathable atmosphere. He wanted to be home, where the colours were soft, and the air untainted by cheap synth beer. Most of all he wanted for all of this to be over. When it was, he told himself for reassurance, he would never leave the comforts of Mars again.
"I hoped I'd never have to go near Mars ever again." Finally catching up with Travis just as he was boarding the Tulip, Callista spat the words out in a dissatisfied growl. Montana smiled slightly, but didn't bother to answer. She liked to have her moments of public rage - he had learnt that early in their association. Beneath the anger she would be perfectly happy to get the job done.
"Mars?" Meeting them at the door, Rudolpho DeLuna, another member of their mismatched crew, perked up immediately. "There's good money on Mars, and neither of you has any particular friends there. So that means that this isn't another of our bloody pro bono ventures. Right?"
"Right." Travis was not one for long sentences or elaborations, but he filled in the details for his companion. "One hundred thousand, provided we get the job done."
"Not bad." Rudolpho's broad face brightened in a grin. "So what is the job? Nice little recovery? No complications?"
"Sounded simple enough," Callista told him. Travis raised an eyebrow, and gave a little wince.
"Yeah..." he muttered, his voice only just audible. Rudolpho groaned.
"Travis, if this bloke we're being sent to find has anything to do with your murkier than murky past, spit it out now. If I'm going to get vital parts of my anatomy shot at by angry Raiders, I want to know why."
"No, he's not a Raider." Montana was already walking away down the corridor, heading towards the bridge. If there were explanations to be made, he only wanted to have to make them the once. It was best for the whole crew to be together. Callista sighed.
"It's never simple."
"Not with him it's not." Rudolpho managed a hopeful smile. "Still, he did say it had nothing to do with the Raiders."
"Which just leaves the rest of the population of the solar system," she pointed out. "At least half of which, as far as I can see, are up to something that the authorities would rather they weren't. And any that Travis knows are unlikely to be the kind that just fiddle their taxes, or leave fines unpaid."
"True." Rudolpho still clung to optimism. "Might be nothing though, hey. Might be something perfectly innocent and unremarkable."
"You believe that?"
"No." He folded his huge arms across his massive chest, and heaved a resigned sigh that was only in part meant for dramatic effect. "Just hoping really."
"Yeah, well carry on hoping." She started off down the corridor after Travis, her cat-like tread a sharp contrast to the heavy, pounding feet of Rudolpho just behind her. "I'm a realist."
"So am I." Abandoning thoughts of easy money and an uneventful trip, DeLuna quickened his pace as he followed her towards the bridge. "I just don't want to be."
"Car?" Striding onto the bridge, stripping off his leather coat as he went, Travis addressed the ship's resident AI unit much as he would address any human. Caravaggio might be artificial, but at times he could seem remarkably lifelike.
"Travis." Caravaggio had a pleasant voice, and an oddly superior manner. He took orders readily enough, and was always happy to please, but sometimes he seemed of the definite opinion that the ship would run a lot better if it didn't have any humans cluttering up its decks. "Welcome back aboard."
"Thankyou. Where are Percy and Marcus?"
"Prowling around inside one of the service tubes if memory serves. Percy wanted to see if she could make life support more efficient by bypassing one of the servers, and crosspatching the-"
"Percy is fiddling with life support?" Travis sighed, and threw his coat over the back of a nearby chair. "Get her up here. Marcus too. The last time she tried improving something on a whim she nearly got us all killed."
"She does enjoy her 'fiddling', as you call it." There was a second's silence, then the holographic form of the AI unit flickered into being beside the command chair. "I have summoned them." The human head, with its receding hairline and coolly appraising eyes, smiled its polite half-smile. "Do I take it that we're off on yet another grand adventure?"
"We have another mission, yes. Contact docking control and ask for permission to leave, then begin the countdown." Travis turned around as Callista and Rudolpho followed him onto the bridge. "Oh, and lay in a course for Ganymede."
"As you wish." Caravaggio's image rippled and vanished, and several instruments positioned around the bridge hummed into life as he went about his business. Travis began pulling off his shoulder holster.
"Well?" asked Callista.
"All in good time." Montana threw himself into the command chair, spinning it slightly back and forth as he stared into space. Rudolpho rolled his eyes.
"I knew that promise of being more up front and open wouldn't last."
"Hmm?" Travis looked up, clearly having only half heard. He had a habit of disappearing into himself; of thinking long and hard, and rather tending to lose contact with the world around him in the process. Rudolpho sighed, making a point of doing it loudly.
"Never mind," he growled. A naturally loud and gregarious person, Rudolpho could never quite understand Montana's predilection for solitude and silence. Travis smiled faintly at him now though, a part of his attention apparently still in the present.
"I'm just waiting for the others," he said quietly, then frowned, and pulled Arnold's data chip from his pocket. "Did you trust our employer, Cally?"
"Trust him?" Callista unbuckled her own holster, then hung it and Travis's up in the nearby armaments locker. "What's not to trust? Mars is full of his type. They want to be multimillionaires, but they can't quite make it. Men like Darius Arnold are just rich enough to be at least one step removed from real life, and to be left panicking when they have to deal with the rest of us. He was so afraid of Syn City, he thought that everybody there was a murderer or a thief."
"In Syn City everybody is a murderer or a thief," opined Rudolpho. Travis smiled faintly, but Callista chose to ignore the interruption.
"You have some reason not to trust him?" she asked. Travis shrugged, but if he had been about to say more they did not get to hear it, for it was at that moment that the final members of the crew came onto the deck. Dressed in their habitual work clothes of baggy trousers and grease-stained singlets, Percy Montana and Marcus Fagen could never really be mistaken for anything other than what they were - cheerfully devoted mechanics who liked nothing better than to tinker with the inner workings of their ship. That they were so wildly different - the neurotic Percy could make even her solitary cousin seem sociable, whilst Marcus was definitely a people person - only seemed to make them work better together. What it didn't do was make their working relationship particularly smooth.
"Hey Travis." Marcus sat down in the nearest chair, and spun in it playfully. "Syn City still as beautiful as ever?"
"It hasn't changed much, if that's what you mean." Travis threw him the data chip. "New case."
"A big firm on Mars has been accused of involvement in the illegal drugs trade, and they want us to bring in some guy who can prove their innocence," filled in Callista. Rudolpho winced.
"You didn't say anything before about drugs," he complained. Travis fixed him with a steady blue stare.
"One hundred thousand credits," he reminded the other man. His answer was an acknowledging shrug.
"So what's the problem then?" Typically confrontational, Percy snapped the question in her usual curt manner. "Or do we have a full meeting to debate each case before we take it on now?"
"We've already taken the case." Travis stared thoughtfully at the viewscreen for several moments, listening to the various procedures for take off that were going on around him. Caravaggio was perfectly capable of taking the ship out of dock without any human input, but Travis much preferred to do such things himself. Percy, arms folded, drummed her fingers on her upper arms.
"So...?" she pressed. Callista sat down nearby.
"The bounty is for somebody that Travis knows," she filled in. "And given that he recently promised to stop keeping everything to himself, and being an uncommunicative, moody son of a you know what, he's called us all together to hear the full story. Right?"
"Right." Travis's mind was clearly elsewhere, but they were all used to that by now. Eventually he sighed, turning the command chair so that his view was no longer one of space, but instead was of the group of unlikely people he had come to consider his friends. For a second he singled out Marcus, the one he had known the longest, and shared the most with. "The bounty we're after is for a man named Stefan Frears."
"Stefan Frears?" Marcus's buoyant to-and-fro spinning in his chair ceased abruptly. "Stefan Frears? You're kidding?"
"You know him too?" Callista's sharp tone rather betrayed her law enforcement beginnings. She must have been good in the interrogation room, thought Travis somewhat ruefully. Marcus looked hesitant.
"Sort of." His eyes sought out Travis's, but Montana's expression was giving nothing away. As usual. "He er... We met some time back, on Ganymede Station. We were still in hiding, more or less. Travis was still recovering after getting shot by the Raiders, and we didn't have so much as a credit between us. I was trying to get us a room, so we'd be less exposed."
"Frears mugged Marcus," continued Travis, taking over the story when his friend seemed to have lapsed into silence. "I can't imagine why. He looked like a proper little street urchin in those days."
"Hey!" objected Marcus, only partly in earnest. Travis flashed him a faintly mocking half smile.
"Would you have robbed you?" he asked. Marcus grinned.
"Not likely. And I'd have lifted just about anything that wasn't nailed down back in those days." He caught Cally's look of faint disapproval, and bridled. "Times were rough! It was steal or starve. I was homeless for a long time before the Raiders took me in, and I had to get by the best I could. Those early days with Travis weren't any different."
"I know." She turned her dark eyes back to Travis. "Go on."
"We'd gone to Ganymede to keep a low profile. The Raiders thought that I was dead, and I didn't especially want them to find out otherwise. Marcus had put me back together as best he could, but things were getting too difficult for us where we were. They say that Ganymede is the place to go if you don't want to be seen." Montana shrugged his black-clad shoulders, and glanced away for a moment. "Anyway, we got a little room on the station underside, and one day when Marcus was on his way back there to me, Frears attacked him. I heard the noise and came to see what the problem was."
"There was a fight," filled in Marcus, then shrugged rather sheepishly. "If you can call it that."
"I pretty much killed him." Travis was speaking matter-of-factly now, detached from the story almost completely. "Probably would have gone all the way if a patrol hadn't come by. Frears swore blind that he'd kill me. He tried a few weeks later, and got a couple of civilians instead. Blew them apart with a massive blast from a laser gun."
"Charming." Cally eyed him sourly, her gaze managing to take in Marcus as well. "So you think he's still after revenge? He might not even remember you."
"Oh, he'll remember me." Travis smiled, one of his charming, broad smiles; the kind that highlighted the reckless look in his eyes that so frequently told her she was about to hear something she would rather not. "We met again a few weeks later on Juno IV."
"You never told me that," piped up Marcus. Travis shrugged.
"Things were complicated," he said, clearly unrepentant. "The place was blowing up, and we were trying to get out before that happened."
"Yeah." Marcus smiled faintly. The destruction of the old space station had been quite a sight. He had rather enjoyed it at the time. Cally's frown deepened into one of impressive proportions, but it was Percy who asked the question that was clearly on her shipmate's mind.
"You blow it up?" She sounded as though she didn't care much either way, which certainly wasn't how Cally had been intending to present the question. Travis shook his head.
"Neither did Frears," he put in, before Callista could ask. "As far as I know it was just what the authorities said it was - something going wrong with an old armaments store everybody had pretty much forgotten about. Anyway, Marcus was off scouting around when the emergency sirens went off. I went to see if I could find him, and I ran into Frears. We had a hell of a fight. He was trying to make sure that I couldn't make it to the evacuation ships. In the end some officials doing a last check round the place found us, and took him off in handcuffs. I guess they recognised him and not me. Last I heard he'd got ten years for attempted murder, but I suppose he must have got out."
"Not legally. Not this soon." Cally turned to the console behind her, and began to tap out a few commands. "I'll see if there's a warrant out for him. He must have escaped."
"That might put the bounty up." Rudolpho sounded delighted. "Maybe when our client has finished with him, we can hand him over to the authorities somewhere else as well."
"I doubt Mars Fed will let him go." Travis looked around at everybody. "Anyway - now you all know as much as I do."
"And a great experience it was." Percy checked her watch. "I ought to finish up downstairs."
"You've finished," Travis told her. She started to protest, but he held up his hands for silence. "I don't want you fiddling with life support. I can't believe you let her loose down there, Marcus."
"Why do you think I went with her?" asked his young friend. "With the way that she keeps poking around, I don't want to let her out of my sight."
"It's my ship." Bridling, Percy stood up straight. "If I want to 'poke around', then I will. I'll do what I like. I know this ship better than anyone, and-"
"It's your ship, but it's our oxygen." Rudolpho flashed her a cheery smile. "Go and fiddle with something a little less vital, hey Perce?"
"One of these days I'll stop 'fiddling' altogether. Let the engines pack up, and the whole damn ship go dead in space. See how you like it then." She spun on one heel, marching out of the door with her boots echoing in the metal corridor. "I give you two days without my 'fiddling'. Max. Then you'd be easy pickings for whoever found you first."
"Thankyou Percy. We appreciate you hugely." Rudolpho shouted the words after her with all of the honesty he could muster, but it didn't seem to have any effect. Somewhere a door banged closed, and he sighed. "She's getting worse. I thought you were a moody sod, Travis, but you've got nothing on her. Does sulking run in the family?"
"I wouldn't know." Travis eyed him sourly, although he didn't intend the sharpness for real. "You'd know better than me."
"Yeah." Chastened - though such a state was never likely to last long where Rudolpho was concerned - the big man shrugged awkwardly. "So, er... is anybody hungry?"
"Yeah." Marcus, for whom hunger was a permanent state, bounced happily to his feet. "How long till we get where we're going?"
"We shall arrive at Ganymede in approximately six hours," announced Caravaggio, snapping back into visibility in their midst. "Do I take it that we're heading for Ganymede Station?"
"Yes." Travis was looking thoughtful again. Callista frowned.
"You think he'll be there? If he's on the run - a prisoner escaped from a correctional facility - then why would he go back where he's known?"
"Because he's that sort of bloke," piped up Marcus, halfway to the galley. Travis nodded slowly.
"That's about it. Frears isn't stupid, by any stretch of the imagination; but he is a creature of habit. He has friends on Ganymede, and it's his favourite old haunt. Whatever he got from Zemtan when he was on Mars, and whatever he's doing mixed up with the drugs trade, that's bound to be where he's gone. Maybe there are people there who'll hide him, or pay him for whatever he's got."
"Fair enough." Cally had learnt to trust Travis's instincts and information, and she was willing to go along with him now. "Going to have a problem after that, though, aren't we."
"Are we?" Travis frowned, trying to find whatever stumbling block she had discovered. She rolled her eyes.
"He knows you," she pointed out.
"Ah. Yeah." He smiled, and she saw lights shining in his eyes. Damn him, he knew exactly how to wind her up. "Well that's only a problem if he sees me - and if he's feeling vengeful. Otherwise we can grab him quick and stick him in the brig before he has time to object."
"And if we're not that quick? Or if he is 'feeling vengeful'?"
The black-clad shoulders shrugged, with a teasing lack of concern. "Then he'll probably do his best to blow my head off with whatever weapon he can lay his hands on first. But I'm not worried."
"I'm glad to hear it. Any particular reason why you're feeling so indestructible today?"
"It's five against one. And Frears may have a lot of friends and associates, but I'd doubt that there's many of them who'd be willing to risk their lives defending him. That's the way it goes in those kinds of circles."
"Alright." She wasn't entirely happy. Cally was former Special Ops - she liked things by the book; precise; well planned. Most of the time this operation was altogether too haphazard for her liking. Somehow it worked though, and she hadn't gone hungry yet. Not all that often, anyway. "Stick that data chip in a reader, Marcus. We'd best see what this guy looks like."
"Ratty," commented the young mechanic. "Unless he's had a hell of a makeover since we last met."
"He's probably changed his appearance to some degree." Travis got to his feet and followed Marcus and Rudolpho out to the galley, Callista at their heels. "Only a complete idiot would overlook that, with the authorities hunting for them."
"Only a complete idiot would do half of the things Frears has done." Marcus slipped the data chip into the nearest waiting slot, and hit the read button. "But I suppose he can't be all that useless, or he wouldn't have made it out of prison."
"You think there's a link between him escaping, and him being involved in some drug operation on Mars?" Callista's mind was working hard, imagining conspiracies and complicated connections. Travis sat on the edge of the galley table, and eyed her thoughtfully.
"Could be. Depends on what he's mixed up in. I shouldn't think he could have made it out of prison on his own, but you know what the security is like in those places better than I do."
"They're not easy to break out of, that's for sure." Escapes were not unheard of, but they happened only rarely. Once in a while a gang of Raiders would attack one of the correctional facilities, but since such establishments now tended to be in orbit, attacks risked killing everybody on board. It was hit and miss as to whether the Raiders successfully rescued their captured associates, or accidentally spaced them. Individual escapes were almost impossible, since a ship was a vital requirement in getting away. Cally found that she was smiling. "Are you sure I know more about prison than you do?"
"I've never been there." He flashed her a lazy grin. "I never got caught."
"Show off." A holographic head had appeared in the air between them, and she nodded towards it. "So is that him?"
"Yes." Travis eyed the larger than life representation of his former enemy with distaste. "Time hasn't improved his looks any, has it Marcus."
"Hasn't been enough time for that kind of development." The younger man scowled at the projected image. "And he probably doesn't have the money for that kind of surgery."
"Ouch." Rather amused at his vitriol, Cally couldn't help a quiet laugh. "You really don't like the guy, do you."
"What's to like." Marcus turned away, his attention now upon food. Callista switched her own thoughts back to Stefan Frears. He had a thin face, with sallow skin and almost invisible eyebrows. Brown hair, fuzzy as though recently shaven, grey-brown eyes that stared out at the world with defiance and irritability. There was data scrolling past on a loop, giving his height as roughly six feet, and his build as athletic. It mentioned favoured hang-outs, known associates, and the crime for which he had been given his ten year prison sentence: the attempted murder of an unidentified man on Juno IV. Travis clicked the display off.
"He used to have lighter hair," he commented, without displaying much interest. "Other than that he looks exactly the same."
"And by the look of this information, Zemtan knew that he was an escaped prisoner. What did they do? Employ him for something?"
"Not our job to know that, is it." Rudolpho brought over a tray of mugs, and set it down on the table. "We just have to bring the guy in, not find out what he and Zemtan have been up to."
"I know. I just think it's weird, that's all. He has something that can supposedly prove that they're innocent of being involved in the drugs trade. Well how has he got that? What's his connection with them? Our friend Darius Arnold didn't mention a prison break, did he, but the data chip he gave us certainly mentions the sentence."
"Always the bloody investigator." Rudolpho all but threw her mug at her. "Look, every time we get given a nice simple bounty to chase, we wind up investigating crimes, or winkling out corrupt officials, or getting mixed up in every bloody thing going. It's dangerous, it's unnecessary, and I'm tired of getting my backside shot off in every port. Let's just take this guy back to Mars, and then forget about him. I don't care how he got out of jail."
"So you're volunteering to be the one to do the investigating then, Rudy!" Travis smirked at his companion, receiving a withering glare in response. Cally just sighed.
"I don't like unanswered questions," she said in her own defence. "I don't like not knowing these things. Consider it our civic duty, Rudolpho. What if somebody did help Frears to escape? Somebody connected with Zemtan, or with some rival company of theirs on Mars. Surely it's our duty as citizens to-"
"Citizens?" Rudolpho was not remotely impressed with her line of reasoning. "You're the only one of us who has anything to do with Mars. I couldn't give a fig for what goes on there, and the rest of the crew don't owe the place any loyalty. Or any other place for that matter. Right Travis?"
"I..." Travis was smiling, amused by the glittering of Callista's eyes, as well as by Rudolpho's furious arguing. In the end he merely shrugged, and tried not to look too amused. "I just want to get Frears," he said in the end. "The man belongs in prison, and frankly I enjoy the thought of pissing him off."
"So does that mean you agree with me or her?" Rudolpho looked confused. Marcus banged down a tray, holding several bowls of noodles and a pile of chopsticks that proceeded to leap all over the table.
"It means that we worry about Frears first," he said, oblivious to his shipmates in their struggle to contain the chopsticks. "Personally I don't care who got him out of prison, unless it turns out that they broke him out for some special reason."
"Which is exactly my point," growled Callista. "We don't know why he was broken out of prison. For all we know, it was so that we'd get employed to catch him again. This could all be part of a trap."
"Oh who'd want to trap us." Rudolpho leaned back in his chair, preparing to assault his bowl of noodles with some recaptured chopsticks, happy that he had won the argument through sheer logic. Cally raised an eyebrow.
"People we've captured; the relatives, friends and associates of people we've captured; certain crooked politicians we've exposed; the Orchard; various shadowy organisations we've crossed; and let's not forget that one of us is still wanted by his former associates, who'd move heaven, Earth, and all the moons and planets in between in order to get him back again." She shot Travis a faintly apologetic glance, as though sorry for dragging him in to the middle of her argument. "The list is endless, Rudolpho. Face it - we're not wildly popular."
"Yeah. Well." Rudolpho shifted awkwardly, deciding not to mention the many people he had double-crossed in his time, who could probably also be added to Cally's list. "I suppose you're right. I reckon the chances of this being anything to do with us are tiny though."
"You're right. They are. I was just trying to illustrate that we have a responsibility to find out what's going on." She looked over to Travis, clearly appealing to him to mediate. "Well? Don't we?"
"I..." Again he stopped before coming down on either side of the argument. "Look, knowing our luck we'll wind up in the middle of it all anyway, whatever 'it' happens to be this time. I'll talk to Frears when we get him. He'll probably be all too happy to crow about it all, especially if he really is in the middle of something big."
"You really think he'll talk to you?" Rudolpho was incredulous. "I thought you said he hated you?"
"He does. But if there's really something peculiar going on with Zemtan, then the chances are he's running scared. He might be glad to talk." Travis smiled. "He hates me right enough, but he also knows me - at least in passing. That gives me an opening, at least of sorts."
"Then we're investigating it after all." Rudolpho scowled in obvious disgust. "Well if there's any gunplay, you can stick yourself in front of it. And tell them to point their torpedoes at somebody else's ship when they come after us. I don't like the Tulip getting all battle-scarred."
"I don't think any of us especially enjoys being shot at," observed Caravaggio, appearing suddenly nearby. Rudolpho glared at him. Marcus laughed lightly.
"It'll be alright, Rudolpho. Frears is a pushover. Yeah, okay - he can hit hard, and he's a devious sod when he puts his mind to it. But he's still a pushover. Travis could take him with one hand tied behind his back. Right Travis?"
"Maybe." Travis was smiling faintly, showing that, whether or not he would really find the capture easy, he was looking forward to being a part of it anyway. Travis Montana liked a challenge, and he liked to be active. Rudolpho glowered. One of the first things he had learnt about Montana was that, when he got that look in his eyes, there was no chance of dissuading him from a course of action. The fool seemed to enjoy being in danger. Turning his attention to his food instead, the big man twirled reconstituted noodles around his chopsticks and settled back to eat. Let them have their fun - so long as he wasn't the one being shot at. He just wished that his sixth sense wasn't tingling quite so powerfully. It meant trouble; it almost always did. It meant danger for somebody. It meant something was sure to go wrong.
And besides, it was ruining his meal.
Callista didn't like to jump to conclusions about places any more than she liked to do so with people. She liked to spend time forming an opinion; to explore a place fully and see its good side and its bad, before finally deciding what she thought of it. With Ganymede Station, though, she couldn't help sticking with the impression she had formed within little more than a millisecond of leaving the Tulip. She didn't like the place. No, she corrected herself as she pressed on through its bustling walkways. She hated the place. There was just no escaping that fact. And with every hour that passed, and every walkway that she patrolled along, she only came to hate it more. It was like Syn City, but with every vice multiplied a thousand-fold. It was like Europa, only without the ordinary citizens to provide some relief from all the organised crime and gangland violence. There was nothing that was good about Ganymede Station. Nothing at all. She was beginning to understand why Travis had been so eager to get there.
It was typical, really. They were different; she knew that. It was impossible to ignore it. She had been raised on Mars, born to rich parents, given every luxury, opportunity and advantage. She had rebelled against it, and all of the privileges it had given her, but her career in law enforcement hadn't really been such a very big break from her parents' world. It had still been about convention. About maintaining the status quo, and protecting the safe, clean colonies of Mars. That had even been a part of why she had left, after seeing the corruption that she had found at the heart of her unit. She liked it when people kept to the law, behaved themselves and did the right thing; even if there were times when she hated to admit it to herself. Really it stood to reason that she was going to dislike the sort of places where Travis Montana felt more or less at home. Travis Montana was Ganymede Station - and Syn City, and Europa, and all of the other places she disapproved of. That was why she had been so surprised when she realised she had fallen in love; or thought that she had. That was why everything was so confoundedly complicated nowadays. It was probably also a part of the reason why she had decided so quickly that she hated Ganymede Station. It mocked her with its corruption and its illegalities. It flaunted them, and taunted her, and made her ill at ease. Damn it, she hated places like this. She always had.
Travis, needless to say, was perfectly at home, striding through the streets as though he had been born and raised amongst them, sliding into conversations with drug pushers, pimps and who knew what else, all without causing the slightest suspicion. In his scuffed black leather trousers and coat, his worn boots and several days worth of stubble, he looked like one of them. With his confident half-swagger, and the way that his hand never moved far from the gun on his belt, he moved like one of them. His restless eyes and dark, ferocious glare might have belonged to any of them. It stood to reason, probably. Kidnap a small boy, raise him to be a killer and a thief, and the result wasn't likely to be anything remotely resembling the inhabitants of the world that Cally had grown up in. She had given up being frustrated by their differences - most of the time. Right now, with her in-built desire to be the best, she settled for just being annoyed that she couldn't fit in the way he did; and for being annoyed that she was glad that she didn't.
They hooked up at a grim watering hole halfway along one of the metal walkways of the sprawling city. It was an open place, with no wall to separate it from the thoroughfare outside; a place of hard metal stools at a hard metal bar, with hookers standing openly in almost every piece of available floor space. When Cally entered, Travis was already sitting down, drinking synth beer from a metal mug and talking to one of the hookers. He looked like he was flirting with her, smiling lazily and using body language to suggest a close attraction. If it hadn't been for the fact that Travis Montana was more closed about his emotions than anybody she had ever met, and that she knew he would never have behaved in that way if he really liked the hooker, Callista could almost have been jealous. That made her annoyed, too. Ganymede Station, she decided, really was not good for her blood pressure. She crossed to the bar, and ordered a shot of something that she hoped would taste approximately like whisky.
"Hello. Buy that for you?" Travis was looming over her; a tall, black shadow effectively cutting off the light. So they were playing the part of strangers then. She looked him up and down.
"I think I can manage to pick up my own tab."
"Suit yourself." He slid onto the stool next to her, and pushed his mug back across the bar. "Refill."
"She a friend of yours?" Cally nodded at the hooker who had just been endeavouring to drape herself across his lap. Travis smiled his lazy smile.
"Maybe. She's certainly very friendly."
"So is that what you do? You look after the, er... 'local' girls?"
"No." He sounded regretful. "No, I'm just passing through. I like to meet as many people as I can, though, when I'm in a new place."
"How very... sociable."
"I think so." He leaned close to her, in order to pick up his replenished beer, and she elbowed him sharply in the ribs. He winced, and then grinned lasciviously.
"Want to get a room?"
"I don't even know your name." She drank down her alleged whisky and stood up. "And I'm not sure that I want to. Why don't you go back and talk to your 'friend'? She's looking lonely."
"She's not my type." His voice lowered, to a level that only she could hear. "She knows Frears. She's going to take me to him. Follow us."
"She's not your type? She was all over you, and you were enjoying it. What she's got is on offer. What I've got isn't." His eyes trailed over her, and the bartender laughed. Callista could cheerfully have punched the pair of them.
"If you want to offer what you've got," suggested the bartender, "I'd be happy to give you a spot here. There's always room for somebody else."
"No doubt." She paid for the drink, then got up to leave. "But I have better things to do. Goodbye."
"Goodbye." Travis sounded regretful, like a man who enjoyed the challenge of a woman who played hard to get. If only that were true, she thought to herself as she left the characterless establishment. He had taken more notice of her in that pretence at lechery than he had in most of their honest encounters together. Flirting as part of a cover story for an assignment might come easily to him, but that was about as far as he seemed prepared to go. She glanced at her chronometer, then slipped into position behind a support pillar - dark coloured metal, like everything else in the place - and waited to see what happened.
Travis left the bar a few minutes later, his arm around the hooker she had seen him with before. She was a tall girl, with long blonde hair and an obvious fondness for PVC, with body language that suggested she at least was not entirely faking the flirtation. Cally smiled sardonically. If the girl thought that she had any chance of getting anywhere with Travis Montana, she had another think coming - unless she was especially hoping for a relationship that never went any further than smiling, and the occasional awkward compliment.
They walked slowly through the streets of Ganymede Station, occasionally laughing at something that the other said, stopping once or twice so that the girl could share a few words with a colleague. Cally kept as far back as she could without running the risk of losing them in the crowd, but she soon narrowed the gap. They were nearing a residential area - a place where there were fewer people, fewer health-law-defying eating establishments, and more dark metal doors set into the walls. There were numbers on the doors, and a series of heavily vandalised security cameras set into the ceiling. They didn't look as though they'd worked in years. Travis and his PVC-clad tour guide stopped at door number twelve.
"He in?" asked Travis, his voice just carrying back to Cally. The girl nodded, then leaned in to whisper something that, by the expression on Montana's face, was probably extremely suggestive. He smiled, swiped a credit chip through the scanner on her belt, and then sent her on her way. She went, walking as though the eyes of every man in the galaxy were fixed passionately upon her. Cally ducked into a doorway, and tried to look inconspicuous.
"Now what?" she asked, mostly to the ether. Travis was out of earshot, and she considered repeating the question over the comlink, but apparently it was unnecessary. Clearly she was the only one feeling indecisive. Stepping with great confidence up to the door, Travis closed his fist and knocked sharply. A second later a man's voice, muted by the tough metal door, raised itself to be heard. Cally was too far away to hear the words, but she could guess what they were.
"Special delivery." Travis's back was to Cally, but she could hear the smile in his voice. She knew just which smile it was, too; that infernal one, that made his eyes shine, and suggested that danger was the thing he loved most in the world. She rolled her eyes. Great. They were here to collect a bounty, the target hated Travis, and Travis was clearly having fun with the situation. One of these days she was going to suggest that she take command, in the hope that every once in a while events would then have a chance of running smoothly. Even nearly smoothly, on occasions, would be an improvement. Somehow she was sure her words would fall on deaf ears.
"Hang on." A pause. Cally could imagine footsteps, a man reaching for the door remote, or possibly coming to open it manually. Heard the hiss of the pneumatics that powered the door mechanism. Reached for her gun. There was bound to be gunfire. Fortunately just at the moment there were not many civilians about. When the door opened, though, there was no sudden exclamation; no snatching for weapons or punches thrown. The face of the man that she had seen as a holo-image back on the Tulip blinked in surprise; the eyes looked Travis up and down; then a thin-lipped smile took over. Travis nodded his head, and Cally heard his deep, half-growled 'hello'. Frears' smile became a sardonic smirk.
"Hello." His eyes spoke of sarcasm and hatred and amusement; of suspicion and an odd kind of welcome. Maybe it was lonely, hiding out and on the run. Maybe any familiar face was an agreeable one, when you didn't know who might be coming for you and when. At any rate Frears stepped aside, and with a swing of one arm, welcomed Travis inside his room. Cally froze. Don't go in, her mind muttered to itself. Don't go in, don't go in... Surely he wasn't going to- But he was, and she groaned aloud. Smiling pleasantly, dark head nodding an oddly polite acknowledgement, Travis stepped over the threshold and disappeared into room twelve, the darkness inside swallowing him up straight away. For a second Frears stood on the doorstep, looking up and down the walkway as though for spectators; then he too disappeared into the room. Pneumatics hissed. The door closed. Cally muttered a word that she had been raised never to say.
"Everything going alright down there?" Rudolpho's cheery voice was such a surprise that she almost jumped. She had all but forgotten that he was waiting up on the ship, expecting to hear a report from her that was now some time overdue. She pressed the place on her jawbone, just below her right ear, where a tiny transponder was implanted. It relayed messages picked up by the transmitter-receiver that she wore on her wrist, ensuring that communications could be private on one side at least.
"Alright?" she echoed, a bitter kind of sarcasm in her voice. "Not the word I'd use."
"What's going on then?" Rudolpho had an at times annoying tendency not to take things very seriously - at least when he wasn't directly involved in them himself. As usual, therefore, he spoke with great good cheer. Sometimes she found that reassuring. Even encouraging or heartening. Today it made her want to hit him. Travis first, she told herself with a glower. Then Rudolpho. She just had to decide which bones to break first.
"Just Travis being Travis. He's playing best buddies with Frears, and I'm worried. Be on standby. We might be coming in in a hurry."
"Gotcha." For a second he did sound concerned, and her feelings towards him softened. He might be hard-headed and conniving and frequently untrustworthy, but she knew that he genuinely cared both for her and for Travis. Their relationship might have begun awkwardly - if that wasn't too much of an understatement, given that Rudolpho had tried selling Travis to a bounty hunter - but it was warm enough now. She smiled slightly, and wished that she didn't feel so worried. Anger was a much easier emotion to deal with.
"He'll be alright, Cally." Rudolpho's voice was oddly soft. He knew exactly how she felt about Travis, she realised, and wasn't sure whether or not to be embarrassed. She settled on annoyed. If a man as thick-skinned as Rudolpho DeLuna could read the signs, why the hell couldn't Travis!
"Yeah, I know." She didn't sound remotely convinced. Back on the Tulip, Rudolpho smiled gently at the communications console, and wondered for the hundredth time about the relationship between his two colleagues.
"He can take care of himself," he reiterated, knowing full well that he ought to be saying something much more meaningful and reassuring, and knowing also that he would be far, far out of his depth if he even tried. He had at least spoken the truth, though. Travis had learnt fighting and survival the way that other kids learnt reading and writing. Back on Ganymede Station Callista just nodded pointlessly, and stared on at the closed door of room number twelve.
"Yeah," she said, in a mixture of agreement, frustration and worry. "I suppose. I'll speak to you later, Tulip. Larkadia out."
Frears' room was all grey metal, just like the rest of Ganymede Station. A bar-kitchenette stood at one end, stained from years of messy housekeeping, and inefficient or non-existent cleaning between occupancies. There were a number of chairs, mostly bolted to the floor, and a series of shelves built into one wall, that were evidently bunks. Bedding was thrown into one, in a mess of iron grey sheets and blankets. Luxury it wasn't.
"Nice place you have here," commented Travis. Frears glared at him.
"Yeah, right. Cut the crap, Montana. What the hell do you want?"
"To know why you invited me in?" Travis smiled slightly, his eyes gleaming with open mockery. Frears looked him up and down.
"You've got a gun. I haven't. Maybe I'd rather invite you in than have you try blasting your way in here instead?"
"If I believed that you weren't armed I'd be a bigger fool than you look." Montana folded his arms. "I expected you to try blowing my head off, or break my jaw at the least. This is practically homely."
"Yeah." Frears shrugged, and wandered over to the nearest chair, sitting down with a scowl and a slump. "I'd dearly love to blow your head off, Montana. You've made me look a fool, you've stolen from me, and you got me locked up. I've got every right to want to kill you."
"You made yourself look a fool, I only stole from you because you were trying to steal from my friend, and you got yourself locked up for trying to kill me. And yourself in the process, which isn't only unfriendly, it's bloody stupid." Travis also sat down. "Blaming me is like blaming whoever made murder illegal in the first place."
"I was angry." Frears sounded sulky, but chastened. "Angry and drunk. And besides, I paid for it. You ever spent any time in prison, Montana? Some people hate places like this; all metal and recycled air. Believe me, the prisons are a hundred times worse. I guess if you've spent any time living on space ships it's probably not so bad, but for those of us who like to keep our feet on the ground, it's hell. All you ever see is metal. There are almost no windows, and if you do get near one all you see is the planet you want to be on, all those miles beneath you. It's the worst kind of place."
"And rather noticeably you're not there anymore."
"No. Got tired of the view, and the food."
"Got sprung by somebody from Zemtan?" It was a stab in the dark, and quite likely a dangerous one, but he decided that he might as well see what it threw up. Frears shot him a strange look, then smiled an oddly spontaneous, genuine smile.
"You heard about that? The rumours about you say that you're more than you appear to be, Montana. I never realised that you had tentacles that went that far, though. What are you? Really, I mean? The rumours I heard around Ganymede when we met the first time, put you as some intergalactic crimelord hiding out after an assassination attempt."
"Not exactly." Although he had to admit, to himself at least, that in a way it wasn't nearly as far from the truth as he might like to think. "So it was Zemtan who broke you out?"
"They didn't break me out. They took me out, and I chose not to go back."
"They wanted your drug connections?"
"You want to tell me why you want to know?"
"I don't know why I want to know." Montana shrugged indecisively, then pushed himself to his feet and headed over to the bar. There was a bottle of synth whisky there, and he poured some into two of the least dirty glasses.
"It probably doesn't matter." Frears accepted the drink. "Yeah, they wanted my drug connections, and then when I'd passed on all the information, instead of the pay off and the cut in my sentence that they'd promised me, I realised that they were planning to double-cross me. I should have expected as much, but I wanted out of prison. I wanted a million credits. It seemed like a good deal. Next thing I knew I was running for my life." He knocked the synth whisky back in one gulp. "So did they send you to kill me?"
"No." He sat down, and sipped his own drink thoughtfully. "Actually they sent me to bring you in. I'm a bounty hunter. They're claiming that you've got information that can clear them of certain drug-related charges."
"You're a bounty hunter?" Frears' brain seemed to have stopped at that bit of information, and not assimilated the following piece at all. His eyes trailed to the gun that hung in a holster on the back of the door. It was a deliberate attempt at distraction; Travis had already noticed the smaller gun in the ankle holster that Frears' trousers did not quite hide.
"Disappointed?" he asked, and let his hand rest on the butt of his own gun. Frears got the message, but he didn't look happy. His devious mind was almost certainly already thinking of plans and escape routes, and planning how best to attack. "Doesn't pay as well as being a crimelord would, but I find it rests easier on the conscience."
"It going to rest easy on your conscience taking me in, Montana? After what I just told you?"
"Depends on who I hand you over to, doesn't it. The bounty was from one of Zemtan's investors. He probably doesn't know anything about this. Chances are he was doing just what he said he was doing - trying to protect money he can't afford to lose."
"That doesn't mean that Zemtan won't be directly involved. If you take me back to Mars, I'm a dead man Montana. You must see that?"
"Yeah. Maybe." Montana finished his synth whisky, then carefully set the glass on a nearby table. It was a low, metal affair, stained by the marks of many earlier glasses, and scuffed from cigarette ends. Cigarettes were banned on most colonies and space stations, since the air was constantly being recycled, and pollutants of any kind risked the eventual saturation of the air supply - but people still smoked them, when they thought that no one would know. "Question is, do I care? Neither of us has ever made any secret of the fact that we hate each other. You'd kill me first chance you got. The only reason you let me in here was to find out how close Zemtan are to getting at you. You don't want me to leave this room alive."
"True." Frears changed position slightly, so that the gun at his ankle would be easier to get to. "What did you want? A friendly welcome? You ever think that you might have been hired just so that you could lead them to me?"
"I've been wondering it, yeah. Now that you've told me a few things, I'm thinking it all the more." Travis knew that he had been followed to this place only by Cally, but that didn't mean that there weren't people wandering about the station now, asking questions, and offering money in exchange for answers. He believed Frears' claims; the man had no real reason to lie about something like that, and Montana had had his suspicions about the firm all along anyway. He didn't trust big businesses, and he didn't trust the powerful, moneyed types back on Mars. He had seen corruption, in his days as a Raider, and he knew that the people who claimed to be the most respectable were often the ones who had the most to hide. "But I'm taking you in all the same, Frears. The prison you broke out of will pay to get you back. Every day you're free, they're looking like idiots."
"And you think that Zemtan can't get at me in there? You think they won't come after me, to shut me up? If you hand me over to the authorities, I'm as dead as I would be if you handed me straight to the Board of Directors at Zemtan. They're a powerful company, Montana. If they want me, they'll get me. People die all the time in prisons, and nobody blinks an eye."
"Maybe you should have thought about that before you got involved."
"Oh, right. And you wouldn't have jumped at the chance? Look me in the eye and tell me you've never broken the law, Montana. Tell me you've never been mixed up in things you shouldn't have been? Oh, I might not have your brains, but I'm not the fool you seem to think I am. You might be a bounty hunter now, but I'd bet whatever price you're hoping to get for me, that that's not what you always were. So what gives you the right to judge me now, and get me killed? You hate me that much? You think I deserve to die, just because I tried to mug your little friend that night? I paid for that when you beat me up and stole the currency I was carrying - which incidentally wasn't my money. The people who had trusted me with it put out a contract on me when I lost it, and I only managed to talk them out of it by the skin of my teeth. You owe me."
"I don't know how you figure that."
"Try a broken jaw, three broken ribs and a shattered wrist. You worked me over that night, Montana. I was nearly dead when the medics got to me."
"Marcus would have been dead, if I hadn't done what I did."
"Maybe." Frears shrugged. "Damn it, come on Montana. You can't hand me over. You do, I'm dead. I don't deserve that."
"I'm sure there's a whole lot of people around the galaxy who'd disagree with you there - not least the families of the people you killed trying to get at me on this very station. Tell the authorities what you've told me. If Zemtan are already facing an inquiry because of their involvement with you, somebody might just listen. Take Zemtan down, and they won't kill you."
"Yes they will. Knowing my luck I'd wind up in the same cell as the President of the Board."
"That's your look out. Forget it, Frears. I need the money, and the solar system needs you in a cell. If you weren't a peddler in every kind of illegal muck that gets churned out by the black market pharmacies, Zemtan wouldn't have looked at you twice to begin with."
"That reason enough to let me die?"
"I don't know." Travis stood up, then in one easy moment slapped Frears' hand aside, pulled the hidden gun from the convict's ankle holster, and seized the other man by the collar. "At any rate, you're coming with me right now. We'll worry about the details later."
"You get me on a ship, Zemtan will blow it to pieces. You think they care about keeping you alive? You, your crew, anybody else you've got on board - you're not worth a single credit to Zemtan. They won't let you hand me over to the authorities, and if they see that you're not heading for Mars you're even more certain to be a dead man. Listen to me, Montana."
"Yeah. Whatever." Travis hauled him to his feet, sticking the spare gun into his belt and not yet bothering to draw his own weapon. He could handle Frears well enough. "Just keep talking, Frears. By the law of averages you've got to say something interesting some time."
"You're killing me, damn it. You're killing me, and any friends you've got. Are you listening to me?" Realising that his words were falling on deaf ears, Frears raised his voice and began to struggle. "Damn it Montana, I-" He broke off at the sound of a fist banging heavily against the door. "Who's that?"
"Oddly enough, I don't have my X-Ray vision turned on today." Travis put his hand up to his implanted transponder. "Cally?"
"Yes!" She sounded delighted to hear him, as though she had been imagining all kinds of terrible fates. Her voice returned to normal immediately though, and he smiled. She growled at him for not showing his emotions, and not opening up properly, but she could be almost as good at hiding her own feelings as he was. "What's going on, Travis?"
"Search me. I don't suppose that was you just knocking at the door?"
"No. There's three men outside. They're wearing uniforms, but they're not station security. The guns are wrong. Security don't carry weapons like that. You got any ideas?"
"Yeah. Looks like they're probably from Zemtan. Stefan here swears that they're out to kill him, because of what he knows."
"So the big Mars company isn't on the level. What a surprise." He could almost hear her scowling. "So what do we do now? If they're worried about what he knows, they won't let you go now. They can't. They don't know what he might have told you."
"Yeah." Travis cast a dour look at Frears. "Rudy will blow a gasket when he hears that we've lost another bounty. I don't see how we can turn this waste of space over to anybody just now though."
"You going to let him go?" She sounded unhappy with that suggestion. Turning Frears over to the authorities might be unfair, but letting him go was against her principles. He was an escaped prisoner, and she had once been sworn to uphold the law. She still didn't break it easily.
"I don't know." Another round of knocking reverberated around the metallic room, and Frears twitched nervously. Travis glared at him. The man was trouble. He would sell anybody out for a quick profit, and he deserved to stew in a prison cell, at least for a while yet. He had tried to slit Marcus's throat for a bag containing nothing more than a few days worth of dried food rations; had tried to beat Travis's head against the floor of an exploding space station, in the hope that he would be left in no fit state to escape before the place blew up - and that was undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg. Letting him go was against Montana's every instinct. Unfortunately for his instincts, so was sending him to his certain death.
"It's them, Montana." Frears was trying to pull back, but couldn't quite break the grip on his collar. Not without risking making a noise that would certainly be heard by the men outside the door. "They've come for me. You led them right here."
"Looks like it."
"So what do we do? They'll have the back covered. They'll probably break in soon enough."
"Probably." Travis wanted time to think, and Frears wasn't making that easy. "You still there, Cally?"
"Where the hell else would I be?" She sounded annoyed now. He had a habit of winding her up like that, and he had realised it some time ago. Something to do with his laid-back attitude, at least as far as he knew, but right now he had more important things to worry about than whether or not he was ever going to be able to win her over. "You've got to get out of there, Travis."
"Yeah." He tried not to sound too sarcastic at this highlighting of the already obvious. "Can you blow the lights?"
"In this sector?" She fell silent for a moment, obviously looking around. "Yes, I think so. Shoot out the main box and it ought to take out all non-essential power, lights included. I don't know what kind of emergency generators there might be, though. Could be that the lights will only be out for a second or two."
"In this place? Unlikely. The doors might be set up to lock in a power cut, to help keep the rooms airtight in case of a shell breach, but that's the only provision that's likely to have been made." He didn't bother adding that if the doors locked then he could be stuck in room twelve for good or ill. "Just deal with the lights. We're going out of the back window." A thought struck him, and he looked over at Frears. "There is a back window?"
"Yeah." Frears' head bobbed up and down, slightly hampered by the hand gripping his collar. He pointed with his left hand, and Travis pushed him in the corresponding direction. "They'll be out there, though."
"Yeah." Travis turned his attention back to Cally. "How are you doing?"
"I've found the box. Give me a second." She had no idea what range to shoot from. Too close and the shot would ricochet off, and she would find herself in serious danger of being hit with part of her own laser blast. Too far away, and the gun wouldn't make a mark. "You want some kind of countdown?"
"Just give it to me on ten." Travis turned his attention back to Frears, and their hurried run for the back window, which turned out to be in the bathroom. Not an ideal position; there was little room to move, and the window wasn't nearly as big as he would have liked. It was, nonetheless, at least an exit. Wary of people outside, he pushed Frears onto the floor, and carried on a rhythmic counting under his breath. Frears heard him, and tried not to freeze. Five, four - it was like waiting to receive a sentence, and not knowing how severe or how lenient that sentence might be. The sentence was coming - there was no longer a chance of avoiding one at all. It was just a question of whether it would be something he could handle, or something that would kill him. Outside Cally was also counting, choosing her range at last, and levelling her gun at the power box. She was still running a serious risk of shooting herself, or one of the few civilians present, but she couldn't do nothing. Breathing deeply, she steadied her wrists and fired.
The blast took out the whole box, sending sparks fountaining across the floor and plunging the entire corridor into darkness. Somebody shouted in annoyance, but no emergency generator came into play, and the annoyed shouting fell away into fractious muttering. One of the three men outside the door of room twelve let out a shout of warning, and two of the three peeled away and ran for the back. Cally changed the setting of her gun, and fired one clean blue shot at the single man left behind. He crumpled immediately, drifting off into the painful world of electrical unconsciousness. She smiled in cold satisfaction.
"Come on, Travis." He would be leaping out of the window by now, she reasoned. Fighting the men waiting there, hopefully getting on the move before the two reinforcements arrived. She wanted to go to help out, but the last thing that Travis needed was her walking into the middle of an ambush. She held back therefore, and listened, and waited, and wondered why she wasn't hearing any gunfire. What the hell was going on?
What was going on was Frears - which was probably predictable enough. When the lights went out he went limp, hoping and failing to break Travis's hold on his collar. Montana made a grab for his prisoner's arm, and Frears, determined not to be taken into custody, summoned up an almighty punch that would have taken Travis out of the fight had it connected properly. Travis, however, was expecting it, and twisting aside he took nothing more than a glancing blow on his shoulder, which made him curse softly and lash out with his own fists in return. It was an automatic response; an unleashing of a part of his impressive temper; but it backfired spectacularly. Frears collapsed to the floor in an unconscious heap, and lay resolutely still.
"Oh hell." Travis went to the window, peering out. Now that there was darkness on both sides of the glass, he could see two men outside. Both held guns; thick-barrelled, squat weapons that he knew from experience could blow a hole in almost anything. Certainly a human body wouldn't put up much resistance against that kind of blast. At his feet Frears stirred, but seemed inclined only to moan. He didn't seem about to get up and move around. Travis considered kicking him, largely just for the hell of it, but had to conclude that to do so would be unfair. He wasn't supposed to behave like that nowadays.
"Consider yourself lucky I'm a reformed character," he told the comatose form, then with little alternative, he scooped his old enemy up, heaved him over one shoulder, and drew his laser blaster. It would not be comfortable making a landing with Frears' weight to add to his own, but since the only other option was to wait until the inconsiderate sod woke up, there was very little choice. Trying to fix in his mind the positions of the people outside, he fired a quick burst to blow out the toughened glass in the window, then leapt into mid air.
"There they are!" The voice came from somewhere beneath him, but whatever advantages his assailants thought that they had, in terms of number and position, Travis knew that there was something they hadn't considered. He had been trained for situations like this since he was a child barely old enough to fire the gun he now held. Twisting as he fell, still far from solid ground, he fired a sustained burst in the direction of the voice, and heard the grunt that told him he had made a hit. He didn't have time to celebrate, for it was at that moment that the floor came up to hit him, hard, and for a moment the whole of the station seemed upside down. He rolled, losing his grip necessarily upon Frears, but locating him again in an instant. Somebody shouted, and again he fired in the direction of the voice. Footsteps echoed nearby then, and he knew instinctively that reinforcements were coming. Great; probably the people from the front door. How many had Cally said that there were? Had she said at all? He cursed under his breath, then grabbed Frears by the nearest available appendage - which happened to be the outstretched left leg, and dragged him at speed to the nearest cover. Waste bins. Typical of Ganymede Station, there were no nice clean waste vaporisers or recyclers here - just old fashioned bins that nobody ever remembered to empty. Travis decided not to think too much about what mess he had just dragged Frears through, but reminded himself to smile about it later, when he had the time to appreciate it a little more.
"Give it up, Montana!" The usual warning. Somebody with more brawn than brains, trying to make it sound as if they were prepared to play fair. As though, if he handed Frears over, he would be allowed to go free. He fired a shot at the source of the voice, but was rewarded only with the sound of a ricochet. They had learnt, then. Damn.
"Turn him over! It's not going to do you any good trying to keep hold of him. We'll still give you your bounty."
"Who the bloody hell are you trying to kid?" Travis crawled a few feet away from Frears, and peered around the side of the bins. A bright orange laser blast burnt a path through something stuck to the side of the bin just above his head, and he flinched instinctively and ducked back down. As far as he knew, he had shot two people, which presumably had taken them out of the fight. He had now heard two voices. It seemed unlikely that there would be that many people sent here against them; mob-handed was not the way to go when you were trying to maintain some degree of secrecy. He nodded to himself in the darkness, and checked the charge in his gun. He had to assume that these two were the only ones left to fight; otherwise he was going to be hiding here for hours, looking for unknown menaces in the darkness. Two wasn't so bad, anyway; he had fought considerably worse odds than that, on more occasions than he really cared to remember. Time to make a move, then. He had a ship to get back to.
He jumped to his feet before he had time to think the manoeuvre through again, running low and firing, ducking, rolling, coming up, all without any real loss of forward momentum. A blast hit the ground by his foot and he dived, turning in the air in a perfectly executed roll, firing a non-stop fusillade towards the dark shadow that he could see hurling itself into the cover of somebody's darkened back doorway. For a second the black figure was lit with a glow of pure, bright blue, then it twisted and jerked, and crashed without grace to the ground. Travis landed immediately after, taking the impact on his left arm and rolling with it, flattening himself against the cold metal beneath him. He could hear the blood pounding in his ears, and his heightened senses buzzed with the thrill of the moment.
"Leave now and I won't shoot you!" he shouted into the darkness. Feet scratched somewhere, but it was not enough of a noise to be sure of the position. He didn't fire. "You don't stand a chance and you know it!"
"You think?" He heard running feet, and rolled, seeing a figure very briefly as it ran for better cover. He fired off one shot, but he knew that he was running low on power now. He would need to change the charge clip if he was going to go wasting fire on ghosts, and right now was not the time to mess about with ammunition. Not when the attack could come at any time. He swung himself up on one knee, heard a sound, and threw himself into a forward roll that carried him into the shadows at the edge of the alley. Orange sparks rained down on him from a shot that had very nearly hit its mark, and he took that as his cue. The next shot would likely only come closer; better to pre-empt it than hope to ride it out. Leaping to his feet, all too aware that he was an easy target now, he broke into a swift, determined run. A figure loomed out of the darkness; a gun lifted itself to point at the running man. Travis ducked, dodged, zig-zagged - leapt. He flew through the air in a perfect dive, feeling the heat of a laser blast near to his head, drawing up his own gun as he flew, firing off one, two shots. The first hit the other man's gun, knocking it to the ground in a twisted, melted chunk of metal and plastic. The second hit a heavily booted foot, and sent the man tumbling, writhing, after his gun. Travis landed on top of him, and pressed his - likely now empty - gun against an extremely vulnerable neck. The body beneath him hissed and gasped in a mixture of fear and pain.
"Who sent you?" asked Travis. There was no answer, and he pressed the gun a little harder into the man's throat. The muzzle of a gun, hard and unyielding, and frequently still hot from use, could be extremely painful when positioned just right; Travis had learnt that the hard way, and had used it to his advantage more than once. "Who sent you?"
"Go to hell."
"Really. Would that be Go To Hell Incorporated, a division of Zemtan?" The name of the drugs corporation brought the faintest of changes to the rhythm of his prisoner's breathing, and Montana smiled in grim satisfaction. "Well you can tell Zemtan that Frears in my prisoner, and I'm not handing him over to anybody I don't trust. And I don't trust Zemtan. Understand?"
"Yeah." The shadowy, barely seen head nodded in a mixture of anger and fear. Travis nodded back.
"Good." He reversed the gun. "Don't let me see you again."
"You won't get very far," the man told him. Travis smiled.
"Far enough." The smile turned harder. "Further than you. Goodnight." And he slammed the gun against his prisoner's skull. The body beneath him went limp.
"What's going on?" Frears sounded ill and tired when Travis went back to fetch him. He didn't bother to answer, and instead just hauled the insufferable crook to his feet, slinging an arm around his shoulder to better pilot him to the end of the alley. It was impossible not to expect a gunshot to take them both out at any moment, but it seemed that his gamble had paid off. There really had been just the four people behind the house.
"Travis!" Callista swung into view right in front of him, and he snapped up the gun to point straight at her head. She jumped. "Hey!"
"Sorry." He wasn't. She should know better than surprising him like that. Lowering the gun again, he looked about. "There any more of them?"
"Just one more, by the front door. I shot him."
"Great. If I'd known that I needn't have used the bloody window."
"Sorry." She sounded about as contrite as he had just done. He scowled at her.
"We have to get out of here before security turns up. If security turns up. Somebody will have reported the power cut out and the gunfire."
"I know. And the last thing we need is to be arrested just now." She went around to Frears' other side, and lifted his other arm up around her shoulders. "What happened to him?"
"He head-butted my fist." Travis began to lead the way back to the docking bay where the Tulip awaited them. "It wasn't planned."
"You hit him? That's helpful."
"It wasn't meant to be helpful. Look, you try spending five minutes with him. You'd punch his lights out too." Trying to get a better grip on the stumbling, disorientated prisoner, Travis quickened his step. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. We've got him."
"Yeah. We just can't hand him in. We've got him, but what are we going to do with him!"
"I don't know." Why was he always the one supposed to come up with answers? An hour ago this had all seemed so simple. Now he had custody of - and responsibility for - a man he couldn't stand. A man whose life depended upon him working all of this out. He swore softly under his breath. It could, probably, be worse. There were probably people whose enforced company he would like less than that of Frears. His old clan mates from the Raiders, for example, who yearned for his painful death at their hands. That would be less enjoyable than getting stuck with Frears. Possibly.
But very probably not.
"You got him!" Marcus, operating the door, greeted Callista and Travis with a characteristically cheerful smile, then peered out into the corridor. "And with no trouble? I'm impressed."
"Hardly no trouble. Get that door shut." Travis purposely abandoned his grip upon Frears so that the prisoner slumped sharply and almost collapsed. He scowled, and glared at Montana.
"Watch what you're doing. I'm injured."
"You're a time-waster. Cally, Marcus, get him to the brig."
"Marcus?" Frears glanced up, seeing the young mechanic and grinning broadly. "Well look who it is. The little rat that started all my troubles. We've got unfinished business, you and me."
"Us? How the hell do you work that out? We've hardly even met." Marcus was too incensed to be properly annoyed. Travis just rolled his eyes.
"Shut up, Frears. Now be a good boy and go and be locked up. I'm going to get up to the bridge and get us out of here."
"Zemtan will blow this ship up before you make it away from Ganymede." Frears seemed almost to be crowing, as though suddenly his own death was not so great a thing - at least if it meant taking a few irritations along with him. Travis shrugged.
"Then we'll at least be spared the sound of your voice. Get him out of here."
"Yeah. Sure." Marcus drew his gun, and Callista pushed Frears' arm off her shoulder, forcing him to walk unaided again at last. "He looks a mess. Did you punch him? Because if you did I think I should get the chance too."
"Marcus..." Montana rolled his eyes, amused. "Just lock him up. I need you and Percy to get us as much speed as you can."
"Sure." Marcus gave Frears a hefty push, obviously planning to enjoy the next few minutes. "Any particular reason why Zemtan are going to blow us up?"
"Not especially." Travis was already disappearing down the corridor, his long, powerful strides taking him around a corner and out of sight in seconds. He felt bad leaving the others to take care of his prisoner, but he had had enough of Frears for now, and wanted some time to himself. Some time without an insufferable idiot who either didn't know, or didn't care, when to shut up. Besides; they had to get away from Ganymede. Quickening his pace still further, therefore, he headed for the bridge. All he had to do now was decide where they were going to go.
"Hey Travis." There was a figure seated in the command chair, idly spinning to-and-fro. A large, heavily built figure, with receding hair. Travis glared at it. Rudolpho, as usual, was insufferably cheerful.
"Hello." Montana crossed to the nearest scanner, and checked over the ever-ready readings. Nobody had any weapons trained on them as yet, but that was hardly a surprise. Not even Zemtan would shoot at them whilst in dock. Meanwhile Rudolpho prised himself up out of the chair, relinquishing it with a certain regret. He still considered it to be his ship, even though legally ownership had now passed to Percy. Like her, he considered the command chair to be his by rights - and like her he had come to accept, with some remorse, that it belonged far more naturally to Travis.
"Something wrong?" he asked. His natural tendency towards gregariousness and good cheer prevented him from correctly interpreting Montana's state of mind. Or possibly he was just so used to Travis being taciturn and moody that he didn't notice any particular difference now.
"Wrong? No." Travis turned to study one of the star charts, looking for inspiration. There had to be somewhere they could go. He had friends on Io and Titan, but nobody that he wanted to get involved in this; and nobody, if he was one hundred percent honest with himself, that he entirely trusted anyway. Certainly not with Zemtan's name in the equation. "Except that our clients want to kill us, and our bounty just disappeared. Other than that..."
"Our bounty disappeared?" That was one of the few sentences guaranteed to wipe the smile from Rudolpho's face. He gaped. "What happened? Where did he go?"
"Into the brig. The prisoner's safe. It's just the bounty that's gone." Travis sat down in the command chair, and leaned back to glower at the ceiling. "Zemtan are crooked."
"Now there's a surprise." Rudolpho tapped his fingers restlessly on the nearest console. "But then we're not exactly straight ourselves, are we. Can't we deal with them anyway?"
"Not when they want us dead, no." Travis raised his voice. "Car?"
"Yes, Travis?" The holographic projection of the computer's in-built personality popped into being just beside him. As ever he was polite, sounded slightly harried, and showed a respect for Montana that he rarely displayed towards the rest of the crew. Travis nodded a rough approximation of a greeting.
"We need to get out of here, Car. Do you have any information on Zemtan? The places where it has particular influence?"
"Zemtan's primary influence is of course centred upon Mars," the computer told him, in clipped tones faintly reminiscent of a schoolteacher's. "But it has further offices on Titan, Ganymede and Callisto. It's a large firm, Travis. Its secondary influences are spreading far and wide. Any number of people are employed by it either directly or indirectly. If you're asking me where we can go to avoid it, the answer is that one can never be entirely sure."
"We could go to ground," offered Rudolpho. "There's any number of places on Io where people are always ready to shelter us."
"Yeah." Travis nodded slowly. "But the problem with your friends - and mine, what there is of them - is that if somebody from Zemtan offers them a bribe for information, we can't be sure that they won't take it. In fact we can be pretty damn certain that they will."
"True." Rudolpho also nodded. "Fair point, actually. I wouldn't trust most of my friends."
"What we need is somewhere where nobody can tip off Zemtan - so preferably somewhere where nobody knows who we are. I'd suggest heading further out, to Neptune maybe, but I don't know if it'd be safe. Zemtan will probably want to talk to us before they kill us, to find out who we might have spoken to... but the trip to Neptune is hardly a busy shipping route. I wouldn't like to chance it."
"If you want anonymity, that rules out most of Jupiter's moons," mused Rudolpho. "Saturn's too, probably. We've had too many clients on too many moons."
"Then might I suggest Terra?" asked Caravaggio. "Most of the larger companies don't bother opening branches there anymore, since the money has for the most part moved to other sections of the Solar System."
"Earth?" Rudolpho seemed almost amused by the suggestion. "Nobody goes to Earth. The air's practically unbreathable, the climate's gone nuts, and the only people left there are the ones who can't afford to leave."
Caravaggio arched an eyebrow. "Exactly," he intoned, with his usual air of faint superiority. Travis smiled.
"Earth. I don't know, Car. It's a long way to Earth. Hardly a quick trip."
"Until we get those hyperspace engines working, nothing's a quick trip," pointed out Rudolpho. Travis nodded.
"I know." Hyperspace would always be a sore point. "But Earth? The closest I've ever been is the Lunar colony, and I won't be showing my face there again any time soon."
"Oh yeah?" Rudolpho was grinning; one man with a dodgy past showing solidarity towards another, even if his own past misdemeanours didn't nearly compare with those of Travis. "Rape, pillage and murder, or just your bog standard robbery with violence?" Montana glared at him, though only in part through real irritation. Rudolpho's gloves-off approach was infinitely preferable to the approach of others, who tried to pretend that his murky past had never happened.
"Something like that," he conceded in the end. "Earth, though?"
"It is bigger than any of the moons." Caravaggio seemed sold on the idea at least. "There are far more places in which to hide. Open places, which remain undeveloped. Furthermore, even though very few people go to Earth nowadays, there is a lot of space traffic between Mars and the Lunar colonies, so you wouldn't be too exposed. I might also point out that the law enforcement agencies there remain uncorrupted by the big corporations that exist elsewhere. Zemtan and its fellows have no reason to bother bribing the police and judiciaries on Terra."
"We could dump your mate Frears there," suggested Rudolpho. "If it's him you're worried about Zemtan getting to, he'd be safe there. Then maybe we could see about blowing the whistle on them. They've got enough rivals who'd help with that. Companies who are probably just as crooked in their own way, sure - but they stand to gain from taking down Zemtan, so they'd help us."
"You have any companies in mind?" asked Travis. Rudolpho made a face.
"There's Pharmatex. Originally based on Titan. It's run by a smarmy git who needs a personality transplant, but they've got no reason to love Zemtan, and I'd trust them to help. Zemtan pulled some pretty dirty tricks a while back, and did Pharmatex a lot of harm. Put a couple of smaller companies out of business. Their reputation may be good, but you don't need to look very deep to see what they're really like. The black marks that their nice veneer can't hide, if you get my drift. Yeah. I'd reckon Pharmatex would be only to willing to listen, if we told them that we've got something on Zemtan."
"And you can personally vouch for the man who runs it?"
"Laurence DeLuna." Rudolpho scowled. "Yeah, I can vouch for him. I forget how we're related, although I'm sure he could probably tell you. Second cousins or something. Needless to say, he's from the more savoury part of the family."
"I didn't realise your family had a more savoury side, Rudy." Travis grinned. "Okay. That's settle then. We head for Earth, and then speak to Pharmatex. Car?"
"Course laid in, Captain." There was a satisfied smile on the hologram's face. "We can be there in thirty-four hours."
"Er... we can be where in thirty-four hours?" Slouching onto the bridge in her usual, half-swaggering, half-withdrawn way, Percy glared at Caravaggio as though his plans for flight were some kind of personal insult. He smiled politely and disappeared. Rudolpho rather envied him.
"Anyone for coffee?" he asked, and headed promptly for the galley without waiting for answers. The Montana family were a weird bunch, and whilst he had come to enjoy his times spent with Travis, Percy was a different matter altogether. Let her cousin handle her, and her unpredictable moods. He would rather have his nasal hairs plucked out by scorpions. Thoroughly pissed off scorpions, handpicked by his ex-wife.
"Well?" Percy folded her arms, and glared at Travis. He smiled back; a lazy, largely good-natured smile that spoke of the gentle tolerance with which he had come to regard the temperamental mechanic. "Where are we going? It's nice to be included occasionally in the running of my ship."
"Earth." He leaned back in the command chair, and spun it around to face her fully. "And it's your ship that I'm thinking of; or the people in it, anyway. I'm trying to stop us all from being killed."
"Killed?" She rolled her eyes heavenward, then flounced into the room like a stroppy teen, throwing herself into the nearest chair. "Come on, Travis! Ever since you came on board, we've had people shooting at us, and people trying to board us, and people trying to confiscate the whole damn ship. We've been threatened all over the Solar System, and I'm getting sick of it. I'm tired off having to patch up all the blast holes in the hull."
"It's not my fault!" He realised that he sounded almost like her, and scowled. "Percy, I don't want bad things to happen. Why would I? I don't ask people to shoot at us."
"No. You just piss them off so they come after us. Life was weird with Dante at times, but compared to life with you, it was like a gentle stroll in a garden somewhere."
"Percy, have you ever been for a gentle stroll in a garden?"
"That's beside the point." She stood up and began to pace, clearly in a huff; then sat down again in a chair on the opposite side of the bridge. Slowly he spun his own chair to face her again. "What do we want to go to Earth for? It's horrible there. There's no ozone layer anymore. Half the population seems to have cancer. The air is like breathing poisoned soup."
"That's an over-exaggeration and you know it. And besides, when do you ever leave the ship?"
"I don't have to leave the ship. Earth's atmosphere is like acid. It seeps out into space. It'll probably eat through the hull while we're in orbit."
"Then you can have fun patching it up."
She scowled. "You're not going to change your mind, are you."
"Not in a hurry, no. What's the problem? You once told me that you'd been to Earth before, with Dante. That he'd saved it. So is it bad memories that mean you don't want to go back?"
"I don't have any bad memories of Dante." That wasn't strictly true and she knew it - it was just a good way to twist the knife. Percy liked Travis, at least as much as she tended to like anybody who wasn't made of metal and electrical components, and wasn't hundreds of metres long and designed for space flight. She just resented his increasing tendency to make arbitrary decisions without consulting her. It was her ship. She had been on it for most of her life, had flown with its previous owner. It was all that she had; the only real constant that there had ever been in her life, especially since losing fifteen years thanks to an ill considered voyage close to light speed. Everything had changed in those fifteen years. Dante was gone, Travis had come back. Everybody that she knew had aged; some had died; others had moved away to places and moons unknown. All that she had left was the Tulip; and here now was this interloper, gradually taking control, and acting almost as if he had been here all along. She scowled, and shuffled backwards and forwards in a semicircle on the revolving chair. Travis wasn't looking at her anymore, and she felt faintly guilty about that. He always got that distant look in his eyes when she spoke of Dante, but somehow she couldn't quite bring herself to be all that sympathetic. Marcus and Cally always looked at Travis when Dante arose in conversation. They felt sorry for him, because Dante was his father. Dante was missing. Dante was thought dead, and oh poor Travis. But it wasn't Travis who remembered him. It wasn't Travis who had travelled the length and breadth of the Solar System with him, sharing good times and bad; sharing jokes and sad tales; sharing meals in the galley, and drinks in the observation lounge. It wasn't Travis who saw his face in every mirrored surface, and heard his voice in every quiet corridor. She scowled. Dante would hardly want her to resent his son. Travis's eyes met hers, and she lessened the depth of her scowl.
"Earth," she said, without enthusiasm. "It really has to be Earth? It's so damn depressing there. The cradle of civilisation, they call it, but nobody can be bothered to clean it up. Nobody cares, now that all the businesses have moved off-world."
"Which is why we have to go there. It's not like everywhere else. It's safer there."
"Safer? A poisonous atmosphere is safer? What have you got us into this time, Travis?"
"Trouble." He flashed her a smile that she couldn't help but return, even if her eyes remained as detached as always. "Bear with me, Percy. I know what I'm doing."
"How nice for you." She stood up. "I'll be down below. You'll want breathing equipment if you're going down to the surface, and the units haven't been used in a while. They'll want checking."
"Yeah. Whatever." She went past him, pausing only when she reached the door. "Be careful, Travis. The people on Earth are just like the people everywhere else."
"You just don't trust people," he told her. She flashed him a proper smile then, if a slightly inappropriate one.
"And you do?" she asked. He flinched slightly, and she nodded in satisfaction. Match point to her. "Just be careful," she told him, after a moment's pause. "Stay alert."
"I always do." He watched her as she left, disappearing off down the corridor with her usual edgy speed. She had a point, he knew. They could no more guarantee their safety on Earth than they could on any of the colonies. They could never be sure that the danger was gone. They just didn't have any other choice. Earth or nowhere, he thought sourly, as he went out to join Rudolpho in the galley. Bloody terrific. Earth or death. And with the way their luck had been just lately, it would probably turn out to be both.
It seemed a strange sight to a crew weaned on space stations and space ships; on domed colonies built on dead worlds; on recycled air, metal surroundings, artificial gravity and all the other realities of their day to day life. Even Callista, raised on Mars with its partially reclaimed atmosphere; who was used to a sky, and a natural breeze of sorts; was not used to hanging in orbit above a world that looked like this. Where were the space stations? Where were the domed cities? They had all seen pictures of the Earth, but to see it now; a swirl of blue, green and white; seemed unreal. Mars was red and dry; Saturn and Jupiter a mass of gaseous swirls. But this? This was water. Real water, in its liquid form, existing naturally and in plentiful supply. This was the green of natural, native vegetation. The white of clouds, doing as clouds do - but as clouds never did beneath domes, or on space stations. This was beautiful. Or at least it was from up in orbit, where the scars of a ruined world were not visible. Marcus whistled cheerily.
"Looks nice, doesn't it."
"From up here, yeah." Percy was not impressed. She had been to Earth - had walked on its surface, where the signs of abuse were not blurred by distance. Up close it was haggard, like a diseased man, old before his time and damaged by his sickness. By the sickness of others, in all honesty, since the Earth had not brought its problems upon itself.
"Well I've always wanted to come here. Land of the forefathers, isn't it." Marcus seemed even more enthusiastic than normal, which was quite a feat. Travis smirked to himself. It looked as if leaving his young friend behind was not an option this time.
"We should get down there," he said, although he didn't make any moves, or even order Caravaggio to check the shuttle. "Probably best to get going as soon as possible."
"Maybe there's no rush," muttered Percy. It had been, after all, an almost boringly uneventful journey. Callista shook her head.
"Don't you believe it. Just because it was quiet on the way here doesn't mean anything."
"Yeah, but why was it so quiet? Is Frears not as important to these people as we thought?" Rudolpho was beginning to worry that the big bounty he had hoped for would not materialise, if it turned out that Frears wasn't as important as he had seemed to be. "Maybe he was lying to you, Travis."
"He wasn't lying." Travis was sure of that without quite knowing why. "And besides, what were those people doing at his room back at Ganymede Station if he's not important? They wanted the pair of us dead. Like I said before, they'd rather talk to us before killing us. Blowing us up, ship and all, would only be a last resort."
"I suppose." Rudolpho shrugged. "Regrouping now then, aren't they. Planning their next move. Looking to see what we're doing."
"And now that they've seen we've come here, instead of going to Mars like we're supposed to be doing, they're going to have to make a move sooner or later." Cally nodded. "Great. They could drop out of nowhere at any moment."
"Not quite out of nowhere. If Zemtan had hyperspace engines, we'd know all about it. They'd be using the technology to corner the market in drugs with a short active lifespan, and so far that's something they haven't touched. With all the money that's in that sort of product, they'd be there if they could." Rudolpho frowned at the faces turned towards him. "What? I do know a thing or two about business, you know."
"Yeah, we know. We're just suspicious of the kinds of business you tend to know about." Travis grinned at him, and clapped him on the shoulder. "You coming down?"
"Earth has never been my favourite place. Just the reputation is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat." The big would-be entrepreneur nodded his head, aware that his support was required. "Yeah. Count me in. You joining the party, Cally?"
"No." Cally's expression was guarded, as though there was much that she didn't want to say aloud. Rudolpho caught the momentary direction of her eyes, though, and guessed what she wasn't saying. There was nothing on this planet, nor any other, that would coax Percy into going planetside. If she was going to stay behind on the Tulip, then somebody else needed to stay behind as well. Somebody who could fight if necessary, and knew their way around the ship's weaponry. Percy might have rebuilt most of the consoles on the bridge at some point, but that didn't mean that she was properly skilled at using them all in the way that the manufacturers had intended. She was no fighter, either. Determined, yes, and stubborn certainly; but that was all.
"You expecting trouble here?" asked Marcus. Travis shook his head.
"No. They'll assume we're down on the surface. They might try to take the ship as leverage, but I don't think they'll cause any trouble." He met Cally's gaze for a moment, and nodded his appreciation for her decision to remain behind. There was no sense in taking chances, and he wanted the ship, and his cousin, in good hands. Having Cally stay behind was nearly as good as remaining behind himself.
"I'd feel better if I was going long with you," she told him, and he nodded his understanding.
"The fewer that go down, the better I think. Anyway, you can't come. This is ultimately about putting Zemtan out of business - and you're the one who didn't want that. All those blue collar workers who'll find it hard to find jobs elsewhere, remember? You seemed pretty enthusiastic about that earlier."
"Screw that," she told him. "That was before they started shooting. You hit Zemtan where it hurts."
"Glad to. So we're off then?" Marcus was practically bouncing. Travis had to smile.
"It's just a planet, Marcus," he told the younger man. "We're not going sight-seeing."
"See some of it, though, won't we. Come on, Travis. This is Earth. This is where our ancestors come from. We might both have relatives still here, for all we know."
"True." It was a sobering thought to two men who had grown up with no relatives at all. "But we're not going looking for any of them."
"That's okay." Marcus shrugged. "Got this far without reams of cousins and uncles, haven't we. But you're not telling me that you're not wondering..."
"Not really." Travis offered him an apologetic smile. "Sorry." From where he was standing, a family meeting would be far too complicated. Rudolpho just sighed.
"Marcus, if you're going to be this bloody hyper all the way down to the surface, I'm going to chuck you out of the airlock before we enter the atmosphere. Just so you know."
"I'd like to see you try." Heading for the weapons locker, Marcus pulled out five holstered guns, and handed them around. "Anyway, come on. We'd better go and prise Stefan out of his cage. Meet you at the shuttle, Travis."
"Yeah. Thanks Marcus." Travis watched Marcus and Rudolpho leave, although he didn't seem to be seeing much. Buckling his holster around his waist with the actions of a man whose mind was far, far away, he carried on staring at the doorway even after the door had hissed shut.
"Lot of use you're going to be, with your brain back on Ganymede," muttered Percy. He blinked, frowning at her as though having barely heard.
"The word 'preoccupation' mean anything to you?" She rolled her eyes. "They could shoot you, and you wouldn't even notice."
"Sorry." He checked the load in the pistol. "Just trying to work out what they're up to. Where they've gone. Despite what I said, I really was half expecting to get blown up before getting this far."
"Shame you were disappointed then." She shook her head, exasperated. "Go to Earth. Get the job done. Don't get blown up. We'll try to do the same. To not do the same. Whatever. Just go, and try to stay focused, alright?"
"Yeah." He smiled at her, and nodded his acceptance of her words. "See you then." His eyes swivelled, and he gave a nod. "Cally." It was a brief acknowledgement; a farewell that was not really even a farewell at all. She might have liked a kinder word; a less preoccupied smile; maybe even a hug. She was learning not to think about it too much. This was Travis Montana, and that meant certain limits to any relationship. Any not-quite-yet-a-relationship. She still hoped, though. Still wished for the breakthrough that might yet come. In the meantime she was left hoping just that he'd come back from this new mission alive. She wasn't used to not going along as well, to help out, to give covering fire, to provide back up. She wasn't used to not being at his side, where she could see all the time that he was alright. Somehow she felt that the next few hours were going to be the hardest she had endured in some time. The sooner they were away from Earth the better. This latest task couldn't be over quickly enough.
They landed the shuttle near to a suspiciously scented river, in what might have been a picturesque glade, had not the trees been stunted, and the greenery scarred by acid rain. Travis handed around the breathers before they left the safety of the vehicle, fixing one in place for Frears, who was in handcuffs and couldn't do it for himself. They were a recent design, bought with a bounty early on in the partnership; small, highly portable units that fixed themselves to the skin, and sent clean air directly into the system, bypassing the usual preliminary breathing apparatus. They served as a small, temporary air tank, or as a filtering system when air was available, but not really breathable. Usually they were worn on the neck against the carotid artery, but on Earth, where such things were likely to cause suspicion and resentment amongst the natives, it was necessary to site them rather differently, hidden to a degree beneath clothing. Rudolpho tugged irritably at his, not appreciating the feel of it against his skin.
"Still excited?" he asked Marcus. The younger man grinned.
"Yeah! This is history, Rudolpho. We're seeing the planet we all came from."
"I'm from Io," muttered the bigger man, with definite feeling. Travis slapped him on the back.
"Cheer up, Rudy. It could be worse. We could have landed at one of the poles, or in the middle of a desert. This is a temperate climate."
"I suppose." Rudolpho, who like all of them had grown up in a controlled climate, without seasons, rain or wind, was rather of the view that it was too damp here. It felt strange to feel the ground depress slightly beneath his feet, and smell wet earth when his shoes moved through the grass. "Lead the bloody way, anyhow. No sense in staying down here longer than we have to."
"Yeah. Where are we going, anyway?" Frears made no objection when he was manhandled away from the shuttle, and started on his way with a hefty push. They seemed to be heading south, which meant nothing to him. He knew the Earth about as well as did the others.
"London. Nearest big city. Oldest police force on the planet." Travis shrugged. "Or what we'd recognise as a police force, anyway. Seemed the place to head for."
"I didn't know you were a history buff," teased Marcus. It was common knowledge amongst the group that Travis had odd holes in his education, never having attended school. Montana glared at him.
"Caravaggio gave me a rundown. I asked for a likely destination, and he suggested London. Apparently he likes the sound of the place. Something to do with its cultural history, I think."
"Caravaggio gets weirder every time he accesses another of his data banks." Rudolpho sighed. "Okay. London. So what's it like then?"
"You're asking me?" Travis pointed at the horizon, where a grey haze partially masked the black stain of distant buildings. "It's over there. We should go there and find out."
"Looks dirty. Dirty and smelly." Rudolpho scowled. "I think I'm wishing I'd stayed on the ship."
"Oh, where's your sense of adventure." Marcus was already quickening his pace, heading off for the city with all the enthusiasm of a treasure hunter. "Say Travis, once we get there - and hand Steffie here over - can we take some time to look around before we contact Rudolpho's cousin?"
"Look around at what? If you mean can we look at the bars and casinos, what's the point? We see enough of them off-world."
"Yeah, but these would be bars and casinos on Earth." Marcus really did seem inordinately excited. "With girls from Earth. Natives, not spacers. Might be different."
"Yeah." Rudolpho gestured around them, at the scarred flora - and more particularly at the cloud of smog hanging above the city. "Sick. Deformed. Old at thirty. Their bones are weak, you know. The ones who don't have skin cancer rarely go outdoors, so they look all pale and wasted. You must have seen the news footage, whenever the Terra First activists make another set of demands?"
"Yeah. I suppose." Marcus lapsed momentarily into silence, his natural verve diminished with a genuine regret. It was hard not to feel some measure of solidarity for a planet ruined by its people - his ancestors. He felt truly sorry whenever he heard of the hardships faced by the people too poor now to leave the Earth and find newer, cleaner homes elsewhere. No wonder so many of the natives resented colonists.
"Look, are we going to wander around out here all day, or are we going to find me somewhere safe?" Frears sounded irritated, but with a distinct note of unease. Travis sighed.
"He's right. Come on." Quickening his pace, and giving Frears a push just to make a point, Travis led the way onward. He set a killing pace for Rudolpho, who struggled to even nearly keep up. Marcus didn't seem too fazed; but then Marcus, thought Rudolpho with a glower, was young and lithe - and had had plenty of experience of Montana's annoying predilection for speed. Soon it was Rudolpho rather than Marcus who was pointing out the distant sights with apparent enthusiasm, if only for the chance to catch his breath.
Marcus took the lead after a while, hurrying ahead like a puppy let off its lead, and thoroughly enjoying this rare chance of experiencing the open air. He was glad of the filter that kept who knew what pollutants and poisons out of his lungs, but the tiny piece of equipment was so unobtrusive that he was easily able to forget that it was even there. It was nice to think that it was the real, unadulterated air of Earth that he was breathing, and nice to pretend that there wasn't a strict limit on the amount of time that any of them could spend out in the sun. Since the depletion of the ozone layer had reached the critical point, time out of doors was virtually rationed. He remembered reading up on the phenomenon when the crew of the Tulip had encountered some Terra First terrorists a short time before, when he had first discovered his fascination with all things involving Earth. He hadn't thought then that he might get a chance to walk on the planet's surface himself so soon; and now that he was doing so, he wanted to make the most of it. He was almost tempted to take the breather off, just to see what the air was truly like.
It was with real energy that he approached the slight valley that marked the last real obstacle between him and London, a city he suddenly felt that he wanted to see more than any other. He had heard of London. It was a place with history. A place with buildings built centuries before even the earliest days of space flight. A place with- His thoughts, joyful and largely carefree, came to a sudden, jolting stop.
"Something wrong with Marcus?" Plodding gamely along in the rear, Rudolpho looked up at the sudden, frantic gesticulating of the blob up ahead. "He looks shaken up."
"Could be anything." Increasing his speed still further, much to Rudolpho's disgust, Travis hurried to meet his friend. Marcus ran over, meeting him halfway, pointing back the way he had come as though incapable of speech. He was still catching his breath when Rudolpho finally caught up.
"What's wrong?" asked the big man, pounding Marcus on the back, apparently in the belief that it might help him to breathe more easily. Marcus choked.
"Back there," he managed in the end, pulling irritably away from Rudolpho. "We wondered what Zemtan were up to? Something tells me they've been making plans."
"What?" Breaking into a run, pulling the objecting Frears along with him, Travis reached the top of the downward slope in almost record time. When he got there, though, he found himself staring down at the last thing he had wanted to see. Although the slope was by no means large, it had been enough, at a distance, to mask the way ahead. Enough to make them think that they were safe. They were not. Three shuttles, not big but big enough, awaited them now, and at least twenty uniformed men were gathered together in a neat, ordered square. Black uniforms, computerised visors, large, powerful laser rifles. Travis pulled Frears down flat against the ground.
"Trouble?" asked Rudolpho, crawling over to meet them. Travis thanked the heavens that his companion had had the sense to get down as well. With his great size he would have been too likely to show up had he remained standing.
"You could say that. We'll never make it to London this way." Travis swore under his breath. "They could probably arrest us under the noses of the local cops, and nobody would object in the slightest. They look like a proper bloody army."
"They certainly look more official than we do, with all those shiny uniforms." Rudolpho peered down the slope. "You want to get back to the shuttle? Head back to the Tulip?"
"No. They'll see us take off, and they'd probably rather shoot us down than let us get away. I'll bet they saw us land, too, so they must have a pretty good idea where we are right now." He punched the ground, in a burst of temper. Rudolpho nodded.
"Bloody brilliant. You really know how to organise a good outing, Travis."
"It's hardly his fault!" Marcus shot a fierce glare at Frears, and seriously considered kicking him. "So what do we do? Try to work our way around, and come at London from a different angle?"
"I suppose we don't really have any choice. It's not a domed city, so we can enter from anywhere around its perimeter. We just have to get far enough ahead of that lot down there, so that their scanners don't pick us up. Last thing we need is to have them ready and waiting for us." Travis led the way at a rough crawl, until they were far enough away to be able to stand once again. "Sorry Rudolpho. It's full speed from now on."
"Terrific." He made no real objection though, and when they broke into a run, he managed well enough to keep up. Despite his size, Rudolpho was not in bad physical shape, and although he huffed and puffed, and wished for a let up to the pace, he didn't cave in. It was Frears who seemed more likely to hold them up, stumbling along, cursing them all for having brought him almost into the embrace of his enemy, and for dragging him around the countryside in handcuffs. Travis thought about freeing the man's hands - it seemed only fair, since they were running - but he soon rethought his moment of unexpected charity. Free Frears and they would all be in trouble. Besides - if there was any possibility of being paid for this hardship, and exchanging their prisoner for a bounty from somebody, he wasn't going to risk losing it. The handcuffs stayed on. Frears snarled and swore at him, but Travis was under no illusions. Frears was not as helpless as he wanted them to think. Take off the cuffs and he would probably try to cut somebody's throat.
"Any sign of pursuit?" asked Marcus in the end. It was a puffed question, directed at Caravaggio back on the Tulip; a request for him to check the scanners and see if any of the shiny-uniformed enemy were heading their way. Caravaggio's answer was somewhat vague, which was hardly encouraging. Cally's voice cut in as soon as his had faded away.
"How's everything going down there?" she asked. Travis smiled faintly. Cally wanted to be with them; it showed in every crisp syllable of her official-sounding voice.
"Okay," he told her. If you could say that running for your life over unfamiliar territory, with no real way to be sure where the enemy was, was 'okay'. Percy's familiar laugh rang in his ears.
"Which means they're in real trouble. Can't cope without us, see? Told you."
"We're managing just fine!" Incensed, Marcus seemed almost to have forgotten that they were barely managing at all. So far this trip had hardly been an unqualified success. Travis glared at him.
"Just keep an eye on the scanners, Cally. You've got a visual on us, yes?"
"You're not the problem, Travis. You've got your transponders." That much was true. The tiny implanted units that allowed them to speak to each other also functioned as locating devices. All three of the Tulip crew members currently on the Earth were represented on one of the viewing screens as bright, shining dots moving over a simulated estimate of the local terrain. Anybody who was not wearing such a device, however, could merely be guessed at, based on heat and similar signals. Caravaggio had tried scanning for powered weaponry, but clearly the Zemtan team had guns as shiny and new as their uniforms, and none of them showed any sign of energy leakage. He wasn't sure that he would be able to pinpoint them unless they were fired - which would be cutting things a little fine to put it mildly. That much Rudolpho was quick to point out, at the top of his voice, leading to copious polite apologising from Caravaggio. Now, all too aware that there was no real way of being sure what their enemies were doing, the threesome and their prisoner were merely running. Travis said goodbye to Cally, and hoped that she had the sense not to come down to the surface too. No matter how much she might be hating her inactivity just now, he felt a lot better knowing that she was safe up there. He just hadn't yet quite worked out why.
They took a break in a village - or what had once been a village. It was a deserted place now, with roofs fallen in, and ivy growing thickly over the walls. Abandoned for a good hundred years at least, guessed Rudolpho, muttering something about farming communities dying out when the land grew too poisoned from emissions and acid rain. There was a small river nearby, its scummy surface showing signs of blue-green algae; a weeping willow tree hanging over the water, and trailing its pale, unhealthy looking leaves. It was deformed; misshapen; and by the lumps upon it, apparently in the grip of some disease.
"Same story all over," said Rudolpho, in his usual matter of fact voice. He spoke largely for the benefit of Travis, never entirely sure where the holes in his knowledge were. An intelligent man without any schooling could be a difficult thing to judge. "Everywhere's poisoned of course; in degrees anyway. Near the cities, though, and near factories, everything is much worse. Rivers often carry the pollutants from the factories, and anywhere along their length gets a bigger dose of whatever's going. Little place like this was a goner the moment the poisons got out of the river and into the water table. They probably saw the fish dying and thought what a shame it was; but didn't think at all beyond that. Next they'd have known, the crops were dying too. Anybody who got their water from a local well or spring, rather than from the mains supply, would have got sick. Local kids probably started getting cancer. Same story all over the damn place. Bloody factories."
"Probably wouldn't take much to clear it up," commented Marcus, wandering into one of the nearby buildings. There were a few possessions lying around, but nothing of any value. That sort of thing would have been taken by the original inhabitants, or looted in the years following their departure. A few pots and pans remained, and a cooker was still fixed to one wall.
"Not much, no." Travis loomed in the doorway, faintly intrigued by this image of broken family life. "Just money."
"Yeah." Marcus smiled sadly. It all came down to money. The unwillingness to spend any more than necessary had been what had caused all of this pollution to begin with. Nobody wanted to spend any to fix things, either. It was companies like Zemtan who would have to get involved; big companies, with lots of money and influence - but companies like Zemtan had other things to worry about. Like making more money, by hiring drug pushers and dangling their feet in the undercurrent of the inter-colonial illegal drugs trade. Ecology didn't tend to be high on their list of priorities.
"This is one hell of a miserable place," pronounced Frears, pushing past Travis and wandering listlessly around the room. "Who do you reckon lived here?"
"Somebody who got sick, and probably got their medication from one of Zemtan's predecessors," suggested Marcus. "I wonder if it did them any good?"
"Hardly did anybody any good. Still doesn't do anybody any good. There's more sick people on Earth than there are on all of the colonies put together." Rudolpho's voice filtered in from outside. "How long do you want to stay here for?"
"Not long." Travis left the building, going over to stand beside his colleague in the weak glow of the sun. "Just wanted to take stock. Not a place you want to stay a long time in, is it."
"You're telling me. And this is better than some of the places on this godforsaken planet. You should see some of the tropical regions, where the weather changes really hit hard. The poorer regions, where companies looking to cut costs set up cheap factories. That's where the pollution was worst. Northern Europe and North America, where the acid rain has been really bad. And you know London's half the size it used to be? Flooding, from the melting of the polar caps. What's left is a mess, although the people there still make a pretty good go of it. There's still more money there than there is in a lot of places."
"You're quite the expert," observed Travis, climbing on top of a wall, and swinging himself up onto the rafters of the nearest roofless cottage. Rudolpho watched this display of athleticism with a sour grimace. Some people had more energy than was good for them.
"Yeah, well." He shrugged. "The old homeland, isn't it. I may have been born on Io, but my father was born on Earth. In London, actually. He got out when he was sixteen. Had enough, I suppose. That's just about all I know about my dad - and trust me, it's enough - but every so often I feel a sort of kinship. Not with my father, I hasten to add. Just with the planet he was born on. It is where we all originate from, you know. In one way or another."
"Yeah." Travis stood up on the rafters, shading his eyes with one hand in a vain attempt to see if he could spot any uniformed pursuers. "Nobody. I guess that means we've stayed out of reach of their scanners. They don't know where we are."
"Yeah, but like you said, they must have seen us land. We didn't see them come down, so they had to have landed first. They just haven't pinpointed us yet."
"Must be obvious where we're heading for." Travis jumped down. "What are the chances they'll contact the local police, and spin some story for their benefit? Tell them that we're criminals or something?"
"I'm a cynical bastard, Travis. I'd believe anything of anybody. But if you're right about corruption being less of an issue down here than it is out there, we'll have to hope that the local police ask for some serious proof before believing any stories Zemtan tell them. We'd be in custody, but theoretically we'd be safe there. You want to take your chances and throw yourself on the mercy of the nearest policeman?"
"Not really. I was hoping for a magistrate. Somebody who can take Frears off our hands, and pay us a bounty if one's due." Travis smiled crookedly. "Still got to eat, haven't we."
"At times you're a man after my own heart, Montana."
"And at others?"
"You're a pain in the neck with an unhealthy tendency towards heroics." Rudolpho clapped him on the back. "But nobody's perfect. Except me."
"Yeah, well if you're so perfect, you can start trying to think of a way out of this for us. I wasn't reckoning on Zemtan beating us down here, and maybe getting to the authorities first. I suppose after a while it must have been obvious where we were heading, and we hardly made it difficult to guess which country we were planning to land in. Stationary orbit was a stupid idea."
"A necessary one, if you want to make use of Caravaggio's scanning capabilities. Can't have everything, can we." Rudolpho's hand on his shoulder changed from a comradely pressure to a gentle, encouraging squeeze. "Don't knock yourself, Travis. Just concentrate on knocking six bells out of Zemtan."
"Yeah." Travis smiled, somewhat ruefully. "It's getting dark. We should probably be moving on."
"It's not getting dark." Rudolpho looked down at his chronometer. "Or it shouldn't be. Not at this time of day, and this time of year."
"Sun's gone." Travis looked up. Grey clouds were gathering overhead, and he smiled, faintly pleased. "It's going to rain. Grey clouds, look."
"It's only..." Travis trailed off. "I was going to say 'It's only water.' But it isn't, is it."
"No. Exactly. Anybody who's grown up on stations and space ships wants to see real rain someday, but this isn't real rain. Not like it used to be. It's acid. And in case you hadn't noticed, we're not overly stocked with roofs just now." Rudolpho sighed. "Great. Just great. Remind me never to leave the ship in your company again, okay?"
"You said it was in Northern Europe and North America that the acid rain was worst?"
"Yeah. Scandinavia especially. Prevailing wind direction means it gets everybody else's pollution. It won't be so bad here, but I know that I don't want to get caught out in it. How do you think the trees got all those scars on their bark? Some days it's probably worse than others, but none of it's your nice old-fashioned briny downpour. Not these days."
"We could try to outrun it?"
"Maybe. Rain can fall over several miles at a time though. It's not like the controlled stuff they have in the garden areas on Mars. This is natural, which makes it unpredictable. There's no way of telling where it's going to fall, or how long for."
"And I'm willing to bet that those Zemtan troops have got acid-proof uniforms." Travis turned away, clearly thinking. "Alright. So perhaps we can't outrun it. In that case we'd better get searching what's left of these houses. See what kind of shelter we can find."
"You really want to stay here? We'd look proper charlies if Zemtan get here, with us all trapped and ready for collection."
"True." Travis's face was impassive, his blue eyes narrowed as he turned his head to scan the horizon. "Got to make the choice, though, haven't we. You think it'll rain soon?"
"Who knows? They say in the old days people could tell when the rain was going to fall. They could sense a change in the air, or something. Terrans probably still can, but the rest of us... well." He shrugged. "No way of knowing, have we."
"I suppose it takes experience." Travis stared up at the sky. He loved the vastness of it, he decided. Even on Mars, where there was sky, it was visible only through the domes that covered the cities. They limited the view; contained it in spheres. Here the sky was just a great expanse, that stretched out all around. He could get used to this - if it wasn't for the poisons in the air, and in the ground beneath his feet. In the drinking water, in the food - and even in the sunlight itself.
"You've got that look," observed Rudolpho. Travis frowned.
"Like every colonist gets when they see nature for the first time. Real nature, with no domes. We can't stay here, Travis."
"I know." He smiled, looking faintly embarrassed. It was just that he wasn't used to all of this space. Except out in space, of course. And that was something very different indeed. "Come on." He shook himself free of his thoughts, of his wonderings, and of the spell of the unaccustomed view. "Start searching the houses, Rudy. You never know. We might get lucky."
"Have you forgotten who we are?" Rudolpho headed off nonetheless, disappearing into one of the nearby houses. Travis passed on the instructions to Marcus - who seemed to delight in the prospect of forcibly dragging Frears along with him on his search - then himself struck off for the far end of town. It was easier to think, further from the others. The silence might have seemed oppressive to some, but to Travis it was welcome. The deserted village; a place of ghosts; seemed somehow to speak to his psyche. He almost enjoyed searching the ramshackle ruins of the long-abandoned homes. He saw old pieces of furniture, ruined by the weather coming through the fallen roofs, so different to the metal and plastic of spaceship furniture, or the practicalities of the chairs and stools in a place like Syn City. It was like an alien world; which, in effect, it was. He learnt new things about life as it had been - but he saw nothing that could be used to give effective shelter against a possibly dangerous cloudburst; certainly not whilst on the move. In the end he gave up, and rejoined his friends outside.
"Nothing," said Marcus, looking annoyed. "Next time, how about we land closer to the city?"
"You don't want too many locals knowing we're colonists," pointed out Rudolpho. "Not when we don't know how many of them might be involved in the terrorist movement. That shuttle would stick out like a sore thumb."
"Yeah, I know." Marcus still looked annoyed. "But it made a lot more sense before anybody mentioned the acid rain."
"Never made any sense to me," grumbled Frears. "You should have just let me go. Now I get to be blow up by pissed off Terrans, or dissolved in acid, instead of being shot by Zemtan."
"You won't get dissolved. If the acid was that bad, there'd be nothing alive. It'll just sting, that's all." Marcus smirked. "But if it bothers you, I'm sure we could come up with some other fate instead. Right Travis?"
"Not until I hear whether or not we'll still get a bounty for him dead." Travis scanned the skies once again. The clouds were still gathering, building into stacks, and it created an air of foreboding. "We'd better just get going. Can't stay here, can we."
"Yeah. We might get lucky and reach London in time." Rudolpho grabbed Frears by the collar, and pushed him hard. "Come on, you. Shift."
"Don't sodding push." Frears tried to stand up to Rudolpho, but wilted quickly. DeLuna was a big man, and he knew how to used his size to good effect. The prisoner scowled, in a moody attempt to look as though he wasn't really capitulating. "Just don't push."
"Just don't be a prat." Rudolpho struck out for the city, still so far away. "We ought to-"
"Get down!" Travis's cry made Marcus jump out of his skin, and Rudolpho spun around in utter shock. He was hit low by his fellow bounty hunter, in an impressive tackle that knocked him flat against the ground just a shuttle dropped out of the sky, guns blazing. A laser bolt took a chunk out of the ground mere feet away, and singed earth and grass rained down on the pair of them. Frears let out a cry and ran.
"Get down! Down!" Stumbling to his feet, covered in hot, crackling mud, Travis ran after the terrified man, even as the shuttle was coming around for a second pass. Frears heard him shouting and turned, looking up in horror to see that he had run straight into even greater danger. He froze, with no idea what to do with himself, as the craft roared overhead. Marcus was running towards them too, Travis yelling at him to stay back, Rudolpho bellowing at them all to be careful. A massive burst of laser fire erupted from the underside of the shuttle, knocking Marcus from his feet with the concussion, and melting the soles of Frears' boots as he ran at last for cover. He screamed at the sudden heat, and Travis, at a loss, knocked him down with an almighty punch. Frears collapsed instantly, and Montana dragged him into the shade of the nearest building, hoping against hope that he would then be invisible to the shuttle's gunner. He turned his attention back to Marcus then, staggering uncertainly to his feet with Rudolpho's help. The shuttle was coming back, the air currents screaming, the engines buzzing with deafening volume. Travis pulled out his gun, firing at the huge machine as it flew straight towards him and his friends. He could see the pilot's face now, and fired at it even though he felt sure that his shots would just bounce off the tough glass. Rudolpho pulled his own gun from his belt then; a huge, double-barrelled laser pistol that had seen them out of more than one dangerous situation in the past. The shuttle pilot veered away, but Rudolpho was too fast, firing a volley that took out a chunk of the underside of the craft, and caused a cloud of black smoke to erupt from one engine. An answering volley came from the shuttle, but it was flying erratically now, and the laser fire went wild. Rudolpho grinned triumphantly, though his eyes were hard. Engine beginning to stutter, the shuttle limped away. Travis ran back to the others.
"Nice shooting, Rudy."
"No." Rudolpho smiled at him. "There's a time for nice shooting. That was just plain brute force." He patted the huge gun almost as though it were a pet. "You can't beat it."
"Never mind the semantics." Marcus was brushing the dirt from his clothes, looking somewhat shaky. "Let's just get the hell out of here. Where there's one shuttle there could be two."
"Yeah. And they probably radioed our position to those soldier types we saw earlier." Rudolpho stared after the trail of smoke. "There's not much cover on the way to that city. Until we can get there, and hide out in the streets, we're going to be sitting ducks."
"Er... guys." Marcus was staring past them both, looking at something that neither of them could see. "I think we're already sitting ducks."
"You what?" Seeing the direction of Marcus's gaze. Rudolpho started to turn around - then stopped. "If I look around right now, am I going to like what I see?"
"No." Marcus reached slowly for his own gun. "Not a bit."
"All of them?" Travis did not bother turning around. His every muscle was tense and ready for movement, but he had no intention of wasting time by turning to see what was behind him. Marcus nodded very slowly.
"Every single one of them - that we saw, anyway. Shiny uniforms and all. What do you want to do?"
"Scatter. I'll cover you both. Head for the ruins but don't go inside. It might not be safe." Almost imperceptibly, his grip on his gun changed. "Ready?"
"Don't move!" The voice was massively loud, amplified until it seemed to make the ground shake. "You are all under arrest."
"Screw that," muttered Rudolpho. Travis grinned.
"My sentiments exactly. Ready?"
"I doubt it." The big man shrugged. "But yeah, I guess."
"Good. Then run." Travis spun in that moment, gun lifting to fire in the approximate direction that Marcus had seemed to be looking in before. He was firing before he even saw what he was firing at, his mind registering the brigade of uniformed men only as they began to scatter in the face of his laser fire. Nearby Rudolpho and Marcus ran for cover, adding their own fire to his to give him time to run as well. The Zemtan guards recovered quickly, their powerful laser rifles adding to the noise, to the heat, and filling the air with the scent of scorched earth and burning brick. Travis could feel his own hair beginning to burn, and he brushed the fragments of hot mud and glass from it, from his clothes, as he stumbled and ran into the cover of one of the buildings. Rudolpho was just visible off to his left, blasting furiously at anything that moved with his massive gun. One, maybe two of the Zemtan guards fell and didn't get up, but there were so many of them; so many rifles pouring out their sizzling yellow flames. Marcus looked shell-shocked, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people ranged against them, although he managed to give a good enough account of himself nonetheless. The three bursts of blue in the midst of all the yellow looked pathetically small; hopelessly outnumbered; but none of the little band of bounty hunters was seriously discouraged. There was no point in giving up - they didn't believe that it would help. This wasn't about the possibility of being captured; this was about death now, and nothing else. Death in impossibly hot bursts of fire, and concussive blasts that made everything vibrate. Rudolpho's coat caught fire, and he beat it out frantically with his hands. Marcus, showered with smouldering fragments of dust from the wall providing his cover, had been turned white by the plaster and the paint, smudged black by the smoke, streaked and smeared and singed. He was coughing, his eyes tearing up, fumbling desperately to change the cartridge in his gun. Travis tried to get to him, but was pinned down by enemy fire, trapped behind a wall that was beginning to look disturbingly unstable. He had no choice but to press himself against it as the gunfire came closer, even when, right above his head, a massive chunk of masonry was blasted out of place. He could barely duck for fear of putting himself into the line of fire, so narrow now was his margin of safety as the enemy advanced. The lumps of brick bounced off his shoulders, glanced off his head, and he fired back at impossible targets. There was no sound now but gunfire - the hissing and fizzing and exploding of criss-crossing laser blasts. So much yellow ranged against so little blue; so much noise, so much heat, so much dust in the air and debris raining down, and no obvious way out for any of them. Marcus managed to reload his gun at last, firing with a fraction of his usually infectious enthusiasm, at an enemy force that refused to be diminished. Everything seemed inevitable now; hopelessly so; and in the middle of it Frears raised his trembling head, mumbling in his terror as the world seemed to explode around him. When the sound of a pair of shuttles roared above the noise of the guns, even Rudolpho's massive shoulders sagged. By all the gods that was unfair. Shuttles as well as all the guns? The universe was against them today it seemed.
"Throw down your guns." The voice was loud and crisp. Travis looked up, seeing two identical shuttles, liveried in white and blue. Blue lights flashed urgently on each undercarriage, and he saw the attached guns swivel to point at their chosen targets. If he moved now; if he fired his own gun; he knew that he would be killed instantly. Rebellion flared within him. They were going to kill him anyway, sooner or later. His jaw tensed, and hate burned in his bright blue eyes. The shuttle was so close now that the backdraft from its engines ruffled his hair, and he could see straight into the eyes of the pilot - a big man, dressed in a uniform, as white and as blue as the shuttle he controlled. Travis let the man have the full force of his blue stare - the full rage learnt and shaped in the mad, furious world of the Raiders. He raised his gun, and pointed it straight up at the engine that was closest to him, and the shuttle's many lasers hummed with the imminence of their firing.
"This is the police. Thrown down your weapons and step out into the open." The massively amplified voice came from the second shuttle, and only then did Travis realise that it was hovering above the Zemtan troops, its guns focused upon them. He frowned, and for a second his concentration wavered. He looked over at the other shuttle, and saw several of the Zemtan guards throwing down their guns then looked back up at the shuttle above him. Blue and white, not black and grey like the one that had fired on them earlier. Flashing blue lights, the pilot in a uniform that did not even nearly resemble the ones worn by the Zemtan lot. Nearby Rudolpho threw down his gun.
"They're the police," he shouted, raising his hands into the air. "I think this is on the level."
"You'd better be right, Rudolpho." Travis didn't bother shouting the words back, or even looking at his friend. He merely muttered to himself as he kept his eyes locked upon those of the man at the controls of the shuttle. Eventually, slowly, he lowered his gun and dropped it to the ground. The shuttle remained there in front of him, lasers humming, for several seconds; then suddenly rose up and moved away.
It did not take long after that for the police to surround them - many of them, coming from the city on foot or in ground vehicles, all white and blue. The Zemtan guards were yelling about their authority; about their right to bear arms and their mission to capture escaped criminals wanted by Mars Fed, but the police officers didn't seem to care. They gathered all of their prisoners up into one big group near to the abandoned buildings, and ignored the incensed cries from Zemtan men desperate to cling to their cover story.
"My name is Sergeant Craig, Metropolitan Police." Travis recognised the big man - the pilot of the shuttle that had so nearly shot him. He seemed to be the man in charge here, the three blue stripes on each arms of his white shirt marking him out from the rest of his colleagues. "Now I don't care what or who any of you people are. I don't care what authority you have. I will not have this kind of weapons fire. I don't give a damn what you lot get away with on whatever colony you come from, and I don't care what you think you have the right to do. Weapons are not allowed here, and you've all broken the law. This is Britain, not Europa." He stopped dead in front of Travis, and stared at him just as he had stared at him before, through the front window of the shuttle. "Just who the hell are you people?"
"Travis Montana." Travis indicated his companions with a movement of his head. "Marcus Fagen, Rudolpho DeLuna. We're bounty hunters. Our prisoner has information that can destroy a pharmaceutical company called Zemtan, and they want to shut him up."
"They do, huh." If the sergeant believed the story, he didn't seem to care about it. "And which one is... ah." His eyes alighted upon the one person who was in handcuffs. "This is him, I suppose."
"Yeah." Frears seemed to have shurnk during the course of the firefight, turned from a posturing would-be hard man into a trembling, terrified shadow with the fight knocked out of him completely. "What he... what Montana said is true. You can't let Zemtan get hold of me. You can't."
"He's only saying that because he doesn't want to go back to prison." The apparent leader of the Zemtan force stepped forward, looking every inch the man he claimed to be - a real soldier, on a real mission. Sergeant Craig, however, remained completely unmoved. Perhaps it was his indifference to the authority of an off-world conglomerate; perhaps it was his Terran distrust of anything to do with the colonies; or perhaps it was just the pathetic, beaten figure of Stefan Frears; but clearly the sergeant was not going to listen. He nodded slowly, assimilating the information that he was hearing, then called his men to order.
"You're all under arrest," he told his assembled prisoners. "You could be Mars nobility for all I care. Here you're answerable to my authority, and I'm not letting anybody take anyone off to Mars until I get official notification. So you all get to come to the station and sample our hospitality for a while."
"You'll never get us back there," growled somebody in a pristine black uniform. The sergeant smiled sardonically.
"Want a bet?" He spoke into a radio mic in his collar, and a massive blue and white ground vehicle grumbled into view, blue lights flashing on its roof. It was not difficult to herd all of the prisoners into its back, along with a sizeable escort, Frears stumbling and struggling all the while to get as far away as he could from anybody in a uniform. Rudolpho smiled ruefully.
"Well, we wanted to get in touch with the police," he pointed out. Travis glared at him.
"This isn't exactly what I had in mind."
"Beats being killed by Zemtan," shot back Marcus.
"Yeah." Travis turned his head to look out of the windows at the back of the vehicle. "I guess it does," For a second his eyes locked, once again, with those of the big, dour sergeant - then the vehicle roared into life, and they began to rumble away across the uneven terrain. It was when they were moving away that the skies at last burst open, and the promised rain began to fall. Travis saw the police officers running for the cover of their vehicles, with all too practised speed and care, and saw the surface of the river fizz where the droplets struck it. He was glad that he was not caught out in that rainstorm, and he was surprised at how sad he was to see it fall. Rain shouldn't be like that, some part of him knew - but it was the only rain he had ever seen. The only real rain that anybody saw these days. That was all that was left of nature now.
They were allowed a single transmission each at the police station. Rudolpho used his to call his cousin at Pharmatex, and Travis called Cally's father on Mars. It wasn't a pleasant experience, to ask for help from a man that he barely knew, and whom he knew Callista herself was only just learning to tolerate - but a rich, famous and respected man from Mars could easily discredit the claim of the Zemtan troops to be acting on the authority of Mars Fed. Larkadia did more than that, in his gratitude towards Montana and his colleagues, singing their praises to the police for having once saved his daughter's life. It was embarrassing, but it was enough to convince Sergeant Craig that the bounty hunters were on the level. He seemed almost pleased to be given an excuse to keep the arrogant Zemtan troops in custody, and when the rains had abated he sent out his men to recover the Tulip crew's weapons, surrendered out by the ruined houses. He even gave Travis a room where he could make undisturbed called to Earth Gov, and to the distant orbiting prison originally meant to have custody of Stefan Frears. Craig was a good man, Travis realised; an honest man; which was an unfamiliar combination amongst law men in his experience. He didn't like to think how close they have come to killing each other, in that ethereal stand-off of man against shuttle back by the river - but Craig himself seemed to take it all in his stride. Apparently he liked the idea of being a part - however small - in the collapse and likely prosecution of a famous corporation, and by the time they were ready to leave, they felt that they were almost friends with the Terran. It wasn't what any of them might have expected.
He came to see them off when they left, and took custody of Frears as though following some official ritual. "To think that this is the hero of the hour." The sergeant looked the prisoner up and down, clearly unimpressed. "In a manner of speaking, anyway. He doesn't look like much."
"He isn't much," shot back Marcus, with real feeling. Travis smirked slightly.
"That's as may be. Earth Gov has confirmed that they're good for the same bounty that Zemtan offered us for him, so he's worth a fair bit to us. Plus several organisations are likely to want to speak to him as the truth comes out about Zemtan."
"Yeah." Craig still didn't look at all impressed. "Just doesn't look the type to bring down a sizeable conglomerate, does he."
"I don't care what he looks like, so long as Earth Gov pays us that hundred thousand." Rudolpho retrieved their handcuffs from the glowering prisoner, and stuffed them away in one of many pockets. "Although I think I'd be glad to take just half that amount if it meant we got rid of the waste of space."
"Yeah, well don't say that too loud. Somebody might take you at your word." Travis reached out to shake hands with the sergeant. "Thankyou. We appreciate your assistance in this."
"It's the job." The big man smiled cheerfully. "Although my job isn't usually anything like this. I deal with burglars, pickpockets - the usual attractions of city life. I've never been involved in the collapse of a major corporation before. Actually I've never dealt with anything involving the colonies. You lot don't come to Earth very often."
"Yeah." Travis offered him a gently, half-apologetic smile. "Nobody wants to be reminded of where they come from, I suppose."
"Tell me about it." The sergeant pushed Frears towards one of his colleagues. "His paperwork is starting to come through already. Shows how important somebody thinks all of this is. As I understand it, he's to finish his sentence on Earth, for security reasons. And we have to keep him available to visiting interrogators." He scowled. "Not hard to see who's getting the better part of this deal, Montana."
"We've earned that hundred thousand." Rudolpho spoke with deep, genuine feeling. The sergeant laughed.
"From the look of you that's true. Looks like you tried entering the atmosphere without a heat shield."
"Funny." Rudolpho pulled his computer from his belt, and handed it over to Craig. "Just sign here. And try not to lose him. I'm not going to have gone through all of this just for Zemtan to get away scot-free by blasting him before he can give evidence."
"We'll do our best, " the sergeant told him, tone halfway between droll humour and unamused sarcasm. He signed the little screen with a flourish. "There you are. That ought to get you your bounty. Just transmit the signed code to the Earth Gov servers."
"We'll do that." Rudolpho stowed the computer away. "And now we're done."
"Don't take it personally." Marcus couldn't help grinning at the sergeant. "He's like this with everybody. Real charmer, aren't you Rudolpho."
"Get knotted, Marcus." The big man took the smaller one by the shoulders, and steered him towards the door. "No offence, sergeant, but I want off this planet. So my friends and I are going now, before we end up staying the night." He pushed Marcus out of the door, then looked meaningfully back at Travis. "Right?"
"Right." Travis nodded an impatient confirmation, then looked over at Frears. "Be seeing you, Stefan."
"Yeah. In your dreams. You always were bad news, Montana." Frears moved back a step, into the restraining grip of his guard. "Stay away from me in future. Do us both a favour."
"I'll do my best." For a second Travis's expression softened, and he almost smiled. Frears seemed almost more pathetic than ill-intentioned now. Any bad feelings that the bounty hunter had been carrying for the man who had tried to kill him - who had tried to kill Marcus, and had killed at least two other people - had all but evaporated in the realisation that Frears was just a sorry weakling who liked to act tough. A typical bully, perhaps. It didn't really matter anymore.
"Good luck," Craig told him as he headed for the door. "Zemtan aren't gone yet."
"I know." He smiled ruefully. "But their ships will have been recalled, if the investigation has already started. Rudolpho's cousin should get things moving pretty quickly. Some kind of business rival of Zemtan's apparently."
"Hopefully a more principled one?"
"Yeah." Travis shrugged. "Though if his cousin is anything to by..." He smiled. "And speaking of which, I have a shuttle to catch. Otherwise he's likely to go without me."
"The difficulties of finding a good deputy, huh."
"Something like that." And with a last look around the station, Travis went after his friends.
It was a long walk back to the shuttle, but none of them minded. It was a last chance to look at the scenery of Earth - at a rather more leisurely place than the previous time. They saw the diseased plants, the deformed animals, the rivers clogged and lifeless. The smog of London followed them even after they had left the city far behind, hanging in the air as a thick yellow-black cloud that challenged even their advanced breathing units. It was impossible not to cough; not to smell the death scent of the noxious mist. Long after they had outpaced it, they could all still taste the stuff, and smell it, and feel its waxy touch against their skin.
"Why do I feel like a rat escaping a sinking ship?" asked Marcus, as he slid into the co-pilot's seat. Travis smiled grimly.
"Because that's exactly what we are?" he suggested. "The people on this planet manage to live here, with all of this, every day. We're giving up and leaving."
"Yeah. Back to clean air." Rudolpho sat down heavily in his seat further back. "Well don't tell me you'll be sorry? Clean air, no dangerous UV levels. No acid rain, no poisoned rivers..."
"No rain," pointed out Travis. "No rivers."
"No pollution, no pollution-related diseases," shot back Rudolpho. "Look, I take your point. That sergeant seemed like a good bloke, and he and his men have to stay here. But they're from Earth. They were born here. We weren't. We're not running out. We're going home."
"Doesn't feel like that." Marcus strapped himself in, then looked across at Travis. "Ready for take-off?"
"Yeah." Travis gunned the engines, and took hold of the controls. Marcus was right; it didn't feel as though they were just going home. It really did feel as though they were running away. Leaving Earth and its people - their people really - to their sad and lonely fate. They were all dying here - some slowly, some fast - but all just as surely. Animals, plants, and even the planet itself. All dying. And here he was leaving them to it.
"There isn't anything we can do." Rudolpho's voice had changed, losing its hard edge. He sounded more gentle now; more understanding. "What do you want? To join Terra First? Start blowing up colonial interests, try to make other people notice what's going on? Staying wouldn't make any difference. You might be keeping a few Terrans company, but even with the breathers, you'd be sharing their fate in the end. People don't live long lives here. Sooner or later the UV gets you. That's if something else doesn't first."
"Yeah." Taking the shuttle up into the air, Travis flew one short pass over part of the stretch of countryside they had just crossed. From above the scarring of the trees didn't look so severe. It was harder to see that the river was dead. The planet looked almost normal. Almost. "I still feel like I'm bailing out."
"We're all doing that. Every human on every colony, every day of our lives. Every day we don't bother to think about the planet that spawned us all." Rudolpho turned his eyes away from the window, choosing to look out at the Earth no longer. They were flying higher and higher all the time, and the damning evidence of the damaged world was fading further away with every moment. "We all bailed out a long time ago, Travis. Us and our ancestors. There's no sense in you carrying all the guilt."
"Maybe." Travis too turned his eyes away from Earth, focusing now upon the journey back to the Tulip. He was no stranger to guilt, but it felt strange to feel it merely for being healthy and strong. For having been born on Titan, instead of on Earth. Strange or not, though, the guilt was real. He couldn't help it. And he couldn't help. Not this time. Just as it had been before he had ever seen it, the Earth was on its own.
It was a short hop back to the Tulip. A quick voyage out of orbit afterwards. Not a difficult decision over where to go next. Marcus, Travis and Rudolpho wanted to be back in the familiar surroundings of Io, where there was nothing to remind them of the Earth, and where there was nothing to remind them of the people they had seen, and met, and spoken with. The people dying their slow deaths. The planet where only an incarcerated criminal like Stefan Frears was safe from the poisonous atmosphere. They wanted to get drunk. Under the circumstances it seemed almost compulsory.
"What did you think of Earth?" asked Cally, as they laid in a course for Io, and began their voyage away from the world of their forefathers. Marcus didn't answer. He just went off to bury himself in the never-ending work amongst the circuits and valves of the ship. Rudolpho didn't answer. He just went in search of a synth-beer from the dwindling supply in the galley. Only Travis remained on the bridge, staring at the viewscreen that showed open space. Cally wondered if she should repeat her question, but didn't. If he was going to answer, she imagined that he would do so in time. And he did, with a brief smile and a faraway look in his eyes.
"Never mind all that," he said decisively. "Over now, isn't it. There's other things to worry about."
"It really got to you, didn't it." She was amazed. "All of you. Are you okay?"
"Yeah." He smiled sheepishly. "That's rather the point. We are."
"Oh." She nodded, understanding and not understanding all at once. "Not such a great snap decision then, was it. Maybe next time we should stick with the colonies."
"Maybe. Or maybe we were meant to see it, I don't know. I'm going to get some sleep, anyway. See you later."
"Yeah." She watched him leave, as she always seemed to do, wanting to stop him and knowing that she wouldn't; wishing that she knew what to say, and having to accept that she didn't. He was a mystery to her, just as always.
"So I assume that another mission is over?" asked Caravaggio, appearing suddenly at her side. She nodded.
"Yeah. Contact the Earth Gov servers would you? We have some details to finalise before they authorise our bounty payment."
"Certainly." She imagined his many printed circuits making the request happen. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Unravel the mysteries of the human soul?"
"I detect subtext." He smiled gently. "Go after him, Cally."
"I don't have the faintest idea what to say. I don't even begin to understand what's going through that screwed up brain of his. Half the time I don't think he does either."
"That's not really the point, though, is it." He blinked patiently. "Go after him. Even if neither one of you says a word."
"When did you get to be such a philosopher?" She hesitated, not really knowing what to do. Taking advice from Caravaggio was a whole new experience. She had to do something, though; that much was obvious. Do something or always wonder why not. Caravaggio just watched her, impassive as always, and undoubtedly not caring what she did. It made no difference to him.
"Damn you, Montana." She didn't really know why she was blaming him, save that he was the main reason why her life was so much more complicated these days. She might just as well have blamed the universe; or maybe it was the Earth that was at fault today. Maybe. Or maybe nobody was. And maybe she was thinking too much. Hurrying after Travis, she followed him towards his cabin, still without a clue as to what she should say. Caravaggio's words returned to her as she walked. Maybe it didn't matter; maybe words weren't the point; and if she could get Travis to relax just a little in her presence, then frankly who the hell cared. She could stand to be a little mercenary. Given the company, it was probably the best way to be.