Angelus Station, near plane Toa in the Nuva system.
Room 2833, Jal-Hadin resort.
3 days until the drop.
Another morning waking up alone. Another cup of Slomnian brew gone cold sits on the nightstand as Tanner runs his hands through his hair, down his face, and finally rests them limply as elbows dig into the skin of his thighs—both legs grey in the dimly lit suite. He's still wearing the swim trunks from two days before, starkly floral against his paleness, and he finds the light-blue shirt lying bunched up in the corner like used napkins. The shape reminds him of a whimpering dog, and he wonders when the last time he'd even seen a dog was. He squints at the thin, white line on the wall, following it from that point back to where it starts between the thick, dark curtains. For a moment he sees sunlight, before remembering there's no sunlight here that isn’t simulated, which never feels the way the ads claim it will.
Your skin can't lie. Feel the warmth. SimuSol.
"What an absolute load," he says through yawns, standing up in a percussion of cracks and pops between his bones, a testament to the decade of physical abuse Tanner had endured in his profession. Smugglers tend to be physically fit in most regards, but the longer one smuggles, it seems, the more the gears and hinges start to need grease.
He spreads the curtains wide in a single pull, blinding himself to hell and knowing it was the only way to get out of his stupor. Slowly, he looks down at the false beach in the resort's center, all lit by the magic of SimuSol. Parents with their kids, women staring at themselves, and men pretending to stare at something else. He considers which of the dads might be the spice runners, which mothers the mercenaries, and he wonders whether it’s bad or good that he feels comfortable not being able to tell.
The bathroom mirror is unkind, but honest. Sensors kick the lights on and he's about to activate the shower when he sees it—the picture sitting on the little shelf beneath the mirror.
"Shower temp to 30, Jeeves," he says, hearing the hum of the heater in the walls as the suite AI summons it back to life.
"Right away, Sir."
He takes the photo in his hand, printed out just days ago.
Sarai lays gently in the sand, her silhouette beckoning, and every bit of her—from raven hair to perfect toes—complimented splendidly by the light. The photo crunches in his hand and falls into the sink. He's almost stepped into the shower when he sees the smudge of ink. "The hell is this?" He rushes back and pulls the crumpled plastic from the drain, turning it over. Sure enough, black marker. Her handwriting.
I swear this wasn't in the plan, but I have to go. Don't come looking for me.
Tanner swallows hard, knowing that he could not do what she asked. It wouldn't be the first time he had chased her down, but this time was different. When she'd disappeared in the past, he'd been freshly paid with a free schedule, but two days earlier he'd met a masked client at the bar lounge—A "blind date" with a dead drop—which Tanner accepted. If smugglers had laws, Tanner had broken the biggest three:
Know your client.
Know your cargo.
Know your hand-off.
He knew exactly none of those things, unfortunately, and fifteen-thousand Dak on the spot was the right way to reel him in, especially when he was with Sarai, when his guard was so far down. He'd never been late for a delivery thus far, but now she'd left him a day behind on borrowed time.
The air thickens with steam as Tanner thumbs the picture as flat as he can and hides it in a drawer. Sarai was beautiful and kind, and even more tenacious. He cursed the day he met her—a foul-mouthed, freelance OmniNet reporter being held prisoner by a scrapper gang on Chogga Prime.
The delivery went bad—from smiles, to lies, to blaster fire in what felt like record time and there she was in the thick of it. Tied up, thrown across the back of a hoverbike like so much baggage. Even then, the first thing he noticed was the scream in her eyes, framed perfectly by the falling onyx locks and he wondered how someone could be so pissed off and still so radiant. After that, it was him, Sarai, and Tev for a while—then him and Sarai, and now, inexplicably, just him again.
Three days to make a dead drop on the other side of the system—no co-pilot, no backup. Through the wall in suite 2834, someone heard Tanner let out a single furious scream.
Oroki Nebula, Nuva System.
Aboard the starship, Javelin
2 days until the drop
On the chrome console the photo lies pinned down beneath a hot cup of Slomnian brew, face down, the writing visible beneath a thin, wet ring. The drink feels good in Tanner's hand and even better in his throat. His thoughts were crisp and bright now, and though there were only forty-two hours on the clock, he knew he had to make a detour. A nearby jumpgate would save him time, but he needed to refuel when he emerged on the other side, in the Omni Cluster, and he had just the place in mind.
Most upstanding folk in the galaxy knew it by other names. The Buster Cluster, The Wasteland—but for Tanner, and more importantly, for his oldest friend, it was home. Flipping a switch, Tanner brings the Javelin comms array online. "Open a line to Tevyah Maro," Tanner said, giving the command. One affirmative beep later, a rectangular hologram appears on his left side. Bright blue and translucent, it displayed the word connecting until a second beep told Tanner the line request had been accepted. "How is the finest scummer in the 'verse today?" he asked, banking the Javelin portside around a small moon, dipping just enough into its gravity to slingshot for a free speed boost.
"You no-good ragger, it's about damn time!" The gruff drawl of Tevyah Maro rips through the cockpit, jarring, but also comforting to an old friend. "You better have a decent SimuSol tan after a month in that floating posh palace."
"Sim tans don't exist and besides, it's not like it was all R&R, I was working, too, you know!"
Tev let out a grunt. "I'll believe Sarai was working, not so sure 'bout you. Though, I do see on the boards that you've picked up a delivery—when's it due?"
Tanner ignored the comment aimed at his absent co-pilot and cursed under his breath hoping Tev would ignore it. With all the fun he and Sarai were having, Tanner forgot that Tev had his T-fob—instant updates on any jobs taken, warrants issued, or bounties placed. Vacation had gotten to him. She had gotten to him.
"Soon, real soon," he replied. " I thought I'd drop by for a drink and a chat before the drop."
"Yeah, right! You were thinking you need help, is what'" he replied, with a cough and a spit.
"Maybe some of that too, boss. See you soon." Closing the comms and engaging the secondary engines, he zoomed past another belt of space rock floating by just outside the jumpgate. The metal halo floated freely in place like a museum exhibit, shining against the endless black. He paid his toll in cash and fuel to open up the gate—a tidy, little rip in reality that turned the lightyears into seconds. The monochrome of slipspace was always a surprise, which made the familiar sight of the nebula a welcome release.
All that space gas making all that color—Tanner though it was one of a few things (maybe two) in the cosmos that ever made him feel like there was something out there bigger than himself or the next paycheck that might be important enough to try and find or understand.
Landing at Tev's, he knew the operation must be going along well. The hangar had more ships, pilots, and lowlifes than before which meant that business was good. Tanner powered down and hopped out of the Javelin with a blaster at his sider as he always did, the weight of it a familiar comfort. His unknown cargo was a metal orb about the size of a Gorrah melon—big enough to be held in both hands, but small enough to fit in Tanner's satchel. He estimated the weight at thirty pounds, but the crumpled photo in his jacket pocket was heavier, somehow, and he hated it, even as he rubbed it between his fingers. A small blue light turned on above the heavy blast doors of the main building and he knew that Tev could see and hear him.
"I thought you kept the door open for friends, Tev!" he said, tilting his face up towards the receiver. Through the speaker, metallic clangs could be heard along with some intelligible noise that might be speech. After a few crackles, he heard the familiar voice—gruff as ever, the way Tev sounded after the second drink of the day.
"That was before the third time some scuzzer tried to rob me and I felt it needful to adopt new policies."
Tanner couldn't help but smile. "This scuzzer, was he the dolt from Vanneril or the one that brought you flowers?"
The blast doors opened with a hiss to reveal a tall, heavy man in a white, sleeveless top with dark brown overalls hanging from one suspender. A turbo-wrench in his right hand, and a heavy plasma-pistol tucked into a holster slung across his abdomen.
"New guy, actually!" said Tev, smiling from behind a scruffy mustache. "I liked him more than the others, but I shot him just the same."
Tevyah poured Tanner a drink and kept the rest of the bottle. It was time for the third drink of the day, apparently, and Tanner chuckled, wondering if they might know each other a bit too well. When Tev asked Tanner if he'd brought a souvenir, he shook his head, and got the middle finger from Tev, just as he expected.
"Where'd you get the gizmo, anyway?" Tev asked, examining the dark steel of the orb in Tanner's satchel.
"Can't really say," he replied, exhaling at the whiskey's burn. "Anonymous client—hid his face with a whole... mask-helmet-apparatus. Looked surprisingly good with the shiny, loose-fitting robe too. Stylish bugger. Needs it taken to some place called Din-Shannar, I think." His tone rose at the end, making the statement into a question.
Tev makes a face and whistles a falling note which makes Tanner uncomfortable. He decides he's going to ask about that face and knows that he won't like the answer.
"Shove off," he began, rolling his eyes. "A blind date, boy?! a delivery that far out? That's in the outer arm—it's not oblivion proper, but it's pretty damn close." He looked at Tanner with a disappointed skepticism, twitching his mustache back and forth. "How much you bid for the job?" he asked, watching Tanner pull softly at the collar of his jacket, sweating through his smile.
"Fifteen thousand Dak, clean, up front," Tanner shouts, chasing a toothy grin with another swig. He watches Tev set down the orb and shake his head, mumbling. "Come on, Tev—what now?!" Tanner realized he was shouting now, something Tev— practically foaming at the mouth by now—was proficient with himself but did not appreciate from others.
"At least tell me it's not a dead drop," he whispered, staring daggers into Tanner's face.
Tanner choked on his drink.
Tev barked out an astonished, sarcastic laugh. "You know, you always were a weed, boy, but this is a brand-new stupid. I taught you better, mate," shouted Tev, pounding a fist on his workbench. "My guys make fifteen-K running the spice, scrap even! And they know who they're running for—you never take a blind op!"
Sliding off the workbench onto his feet, Tanner scoffed. "Taught me better, did you? That's funny, 'cause I recall it was me that got you smuggling in the first place."
"And it was me that taught you not to get ripped off—you know what else? It's time you—wait a minute, now." Tev looked Tanner up and down and glanced quickly around the room, his face darkening. "Where's the girl, Tanner?"
Tanner pulled the photo from his pocket, folded in his hand, saying nothing with his mouth and everything with his face.
Tev took a long breath in and out, soothing himself before picking up the Old Hoss bottle and pointing it at Tanner. "You need to make a choice, mate."
Maro Hangar, Omni Cluster
1 day until the drop
If Tanner had made a drinking game for every curse and name that Tev had called him, he'd miss his drop for being so hammered and get airlocked for it.
Turns out the orb was marked, microscopically engraved by laser with a manufacturer's code. Under great magnification, Tanner now saw text and numbers in a foreign script. System standard is Lorian, but a knowledge of dialects and scripts was handy in their line of work and though he was rusty, he made out the words: Wu, Rai, da-shi, da-nott— Domani for WR-2029. He straightened up, shooting a glance at a disgruntled Tev. "Are you sweating me for a serial number?"
"You don't remember, do you?" he asked, walking behind a desk and producing an old tablet. "It's the codesign of a federation warehouse out on Taurus. You did a drop for them once before."
Tanner recoiled. Engaging with Federation goons was suicide. He listened to Tev explain that they'd never dealt with Feds directly except one time. Breathing heavy now, Tanner knew it had to be the Rindarr job, his last run with Tev before he settled down into his current, more managerial role. It involved one other unfortunate delivery crew and though it hadn't gone bad like the one on Chogga Prime—In fact, the plan worked perfectly— except the part where the Rindarr Syndicate started shooting couriers. Most ended up shot, some were airlocked, and one got fed to a pack of Skrell-dogs—the sight was horrifying, the smell was even worse.
"Those Rindarr boys are thugs; muscle for the real top dog." On the tablet, Tev pointed at a breathtaking blonde who might have been a model if it weren't for the massive scar erupting from the corner of her mouth, a jagged fault line on a glacier's perfect face. "They call her 'The Brigadier.' Ex-Federal Military. Defected when they tried to pay her less than the men in her command. She runs half the Cluster and whoever paid you that fifteen-K? They stole that orb from her headquarters on Taurus V, and you can bet she's out there looking for it." Tevyah's tools popped the orb right open—a perfect cut along the top revealed a load of pure, military-grade Durinium—the power source behind all major Federation weapons. Tevyah cursed profusely.
Tanner pulled the picture from his pocket and turned to face his friend. It all made perfect sense now. "I know exactly where Sarai is."
On Course to Din-Shannar, Taurus V
3 Hours until the drop
Tanner listened to the systemwide Newslink and checked the Javelin's systems while below, Tev loaded and cleaned the weapons. The Omninet was the system's last remaining source of independent news. The Fed broadcasts were all about progress and success, and the expansion of sensible, traditional philosophies among the savage, extremist planets of the frontier—They said nothing of the forced conscriptions, aggressive urban development, or mining camps turned to the fabled "Slave Worlds" of the Federation.
When she found him on Chogga Prime, Sarai was already an expert on the Federation's crimes, but the Slave Worlds were her holy grail. "Sarai said all her leads went cold," Tanner explained. "All her informants caught, killed, or worse. It almost broke her."" They'd booked the suite at Jal-Hadin—to look for work, sure, but mostly for Sarai to grieve. To find her center again. "She must have heard somehow," he shouted. "Some message or a signal—something that couldn't be ignored." They were both addicts, he realized. He, to his personal freedom—her, to that of others.
"The Brigadier makes Feddie ammunition, and slaves make Feddie weapons," Tev exclaimed. "Yeah, that's where she is, alright. Let's hope we find her in one piece, because if not...we're gonna die today."
"Five-hundred Dak, if we live," Tanner said with a goofy grin across his face. Tev spat into a metal bin.
"I'll take those odds."
Taurus V was a warzone. The Rindarr goons were being attacked by monks in robes and high-tech helmets, while a group in armor was being attacked by cavemen and women with sticks. And there she was in the thick of it—a raven-haired goddess of war; a staff in one hand, a blaster in the other—the men and women in rags following her lead as the guards made a retreat into the maze of metal buildings beyond, amid explosions, smoke, and sirens.
As Tev opened fire, Tanner shouted. "Haven't I seen you here before?"
Turning towards the sound, Sarai's face exploded in a thousand different thoughts and questions. Her lips quiver, searching for the words to say before finally deciding. "I won't leave them, Tanner! I'm not leaving here without proof!"
He sprinted, blasters in each hand and smiled. "Bring them aboard," he screamed above the noise. "Maybe we smuggle something different? From now on." His tone was even at the end, answering the question with a promise.