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“- Polder. First name: Hut. He would have come here under the alias ‘Yor Longhaul’. We have reason to believe he was involved in recent terrorist activity and consider him to be a threat to Navarach security.”
Agent Silas and Thurrol were sitting in a small office in the customs building, an edited-down version of Hut Polder’s dossier was displayed on the wall screen in front of them: nearly all of the information other than physical descriptions had been redacted.
“A reliable source has indicated that he was last seen here on Rendar Space Station, which has been confirmed by recent accounts from witnesses at the High Class Roadhouse,” Ret’hnar allowed a dramatic pause before going in for the kill, “The W’hoorn military is asking for your cooperation in this matter: docking and shipping manifests, testimonies from customs personnel, any information could be useful in this investigation.”
He was more than familiar with dealing with smarmy customs officers, especially those for commercial destinations like Rendar, but it didn’t mean he had to enjoy it. In fact, just the opposite. Sometimes they were eager to help authorities with matters like this out of sheer boredom, other times they felt the need to protect their visitors, no matter how unsavory, for fear of losing “safe haven” status among the rich and powerful.
He studied Thurrol and looked into his eyes.
Which are you? he wondered to himself.
Agent Silas > Thurrol (NPC)
Thurrol's face remained impassive as the officer talked, letting him say what he had to say. Ah, these official types. So amusing in their intensity: must find this person right away - of the highest importance - blah blah blah. He stifled a yawn.
"Look… Ret'hnar, is it?" he said, tolerantly. "I let you come in and talk to me out of courtesy, but - we really don't do that. If we gave out information about our visitors and residents, no one would come." He leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. "We are sovereign here. You will find that your governement has no jurisdiction over us, so do not attempt to force me.
"And don't bother offering a bribe, that won't do it either. It's not worth any amount you'd pay me - reputation is priceless." Thurrol let his gaze drift around the room, smiling at the comfortable atmosphere of his office.
He had the walls' color scheme currently set to a soft jade, with ivory accents. A large framed hologram on the wall behind him gave the impression of a window with a lovely view, city buildings giving way to mountains in the distance. Of course, if it were a real window, it would only show more customs buildings, repair bays, and the gritty street with scattered trash.
In the middle of the office was his holo display, the oval stand elegantly sculpted out of transteel. Another holo unit stood next to the wall, displaying the image that the two men were currently viewing.
His chair was comfortable and elegant, his kiosk accented with warm honey-colored synthwood. His Atarxis 350B databank made a fashionable centerpiece for the desk, dark smoke-colored metal with sleek jade plastic trim. Dark burgundy rugs carpeted the floor, matched with fabrisilk draperies which hung next to the hologram window.
It wasn't the height of luxury, per se, but for a customs officer in the middle of nowhere it was pretty darn nice. And how did he get it? Reputation. Rep-u-ta-tion. He drilled it into his employees. You treat people nice, they'll treat you nice. And that was the way it would stay, no exceptions.
As the silence lengthened, Thurrol returned his gaze to his visitor. "Rendar Spaceport is a unique place, Mr. Ret'hnar, as I'm sure you can appreciate." He rose from his chair and walked to the holo-window, posing with his hands behind his back as if gazing at the panoramic view. "So many people come and go, all with their different stories…" He gestured lazily with his fingers, and the view changed to show elegant city streets with people hurrying by. "And here, in Rendar Spaceport, they find a safe haven. Almost a home, you might say. A place to be safe and have a quiet, undisturbed rest."
A smile quirked at the corner of Thurrol's mouth. "And in here, I take care of the boring details for them. Small fees, passports, everything they need to get in and out smoothly, all with a touch of my fingers. They trust me to do that." He turned to face the military officer, his smile fading as he dropped his silky tone. "So - the information that comes into this room, STAYS in this room. Are we clear?"
Thurrol (npc) > Agent Silas
“No longer welcome, as in ever again? Just when I thought we’d gotten off to a bad start, you grace me with a greater gift than I could have ever imagined!” Agent Silas flashed a full set of pearl white teeth at Thurrol, ended the call, and headed to the customs office to retrieve the chip.
The darkness of artificial night had just crept into the station’s atmospheric dome when Ret’hnar returned to the ship. As much as he tried, he couldn’t suppress the smug sense of pride he felt as he fingered the data chip in his pocket. It was about time all that snooping around after drug lords paid off in some way or other.
He walked up the ramp to the ship and made his way to the galley, finding Djay Rom and Byflugur staring at him sourly. The place looked as if it had been ransacked. Then flipped upside down. And then turned inside out. He also noted the bandages on Byflugur’s shoulder.
“What did I miss?”
Ret’hnar assembled everyone around a large vid screen and cued up the information from the data chip.
The crew watched as surveillance footage came to life on the screen, revealing a small, dimly-lit alleyway. There was an old charge station squatting under a flickering street lamp, and Ret’hnar recognized it from his preliminary scout of the surrounding areas near the High Class Roadhouse. High Class had no security cameras, meaning this one must have been state-owned. Ret’hnar and the group watched in tense silence, their faces illuminated by the flickering light of the street lamp on the screen.
A weathered old microvan, slightly older and much more nondescript than the one Ret’hnar had used, pulled up to the station. Polder stepped out and swaggered over to the side of the van, pulling its extension cable over to the charge socket. He meandered a bit, looking both ways for any activity in the street, then began charging the van. Agent Silas leaned forward as he spoke, “Increase to two hundred percent, focus on the vehicle.”
The van had no markings of identification, no plate tag, or even a make or model. It was as if it had been built from the ground up to have no distinguishing characteristics.
No ID plate, Ret’hnar thought, what use is this footage? There must have been all kinds of street cameras that had caught Polder driving around, so why had Thurrol selected this one?
“Switch focus to the Nuzrisa. Increase to four hundred percent.”
The image zoomed in with hardly a trace of diminishing detail, not all that surprising for a surveillance device owned by a government whose primary trade was in collecting and trading information with unsavory parties. Ret’hnar scoffed at the thought, but thought again of the underhanded tactics he had used to get this very information from Thurrol. Well, he thought, playing fair is a luxury I can no longer afford to uphold. Not anymore.
His thoughts were interrupted by a small movement in the shadows next to Polder. Someone was there, talking to him. “Increase to five hundred percent. Focus on bottom-right quadrant and increase brightness.”
It seemed the camera’s image processor had reached its performance threshold and was starting to experience information loss at that focal length. There was just enough movement in the shadows that one could tell someone was standing there but, like the van, nothing noteworthy or helpful. Ret’hnar had MIM make a note of sending this video to Captain Thel for follow-up investigation, as well as sending surveillance to keep on top of Thurrol.
They all watched in silence as Polder unplugged the van and left without glancing toward his companion. The video winked off.
Then winked back on, this time with a daytime scene: a large mining freighter docked at one of the port bays. A slow stream of crew members trickled onto and off of the ship. Ret’hnar’s eyes hardened as he noticed the unmistakable swagger of Polder making his way onto the freighter. He opened his mouth to announce it, but the ship’s computer beat him to it, highlighting Hut’s figure and commencing facial and gait recognition software to ensure an exact match. “Pull up that freighter’s launch manifold and trajectory, then plot possible destinations.”
The screen switched to a stellar map, showing dozens of lines tracing outward from Rendar. He had the computer filter out any straight line trajectories on the basis that most commercial freighters used the gravity wells of nearby planets to help slingshot them along, with the added benefit of alleviating some of the stress off of their skip drives. This yielded three possibilities: a small uninhabited moon, a weighing station near an asteroid belt, and the planet Uuntas. The moon was obviously out. The weighing station would make sense, but Silas seriously doubted Polder would go anywhere near a security checkpoint. That left Uuntas, a little-known mining planet, but busy enough for someone wanting to remain anonymous to find it attractive.
“Djay Rom, let’s fire up the ship and plot a heading for Uuntas,” Ret’hnar turned to also address Byflugur, “I want you both to pull up as much information as you can and familiarize yourself with the planet. That’s where we are going to find Polder.”
Agent Silas > Djay Rom OR Byflugur
Ret’hnar felt the familiar sensation of the ship leaving atmosphere and unfastened his safety harness. He listened to the ramblings of his pilot just long enough to confirm that it was directed at no one in particular and that no answer was needed, then ignored the rest. Instead he turned to his Nath-el companion.
“Byflugur, try to get some rest. We have to assume Polder is aware of us, and men like him are most dangerous when they’re pinned against the wall. I want everyone at the top of their game.”
Agent Silas > Byflugur
"You're late," growled Polder, glaring at the uniformed guard who was lazily sauntering down the pebbled path towards him.
"So what if I am? It's only ten minutes past the hour," said the other, brushing an imaginary speck off of his white uniform. He stopped directly in front of Polder and snapped a salute that was so perfect it had to be cheeky. "Officer Baenes reporting for relief duty."
Polder returned the salute with resentment and stalked off to his room in the guard quarters. He sat down at the table, as was his habit, cleaned his PIECE, and then checked the doors carefully and running a thorough scan of the room. Satisfied, he instructed his mindsim to place a call.
Some minutes later, he ended the call with a frown. Three headed this way - a competent military officer, a rough and tough pilot, and a seasoned mercenary. This did not bode well.
Should he run? The problem was, he had spent most of his savings to obtain the "safe haven" and new identity he now had. If he had to do it all again, he'd be broke. And Hut Polder did not like to be broke.
Stay and fight? His mouth quirked in involuntary relish at the prospect of a good fight. It might be three to one, but he was prepared and could lay traps for his assailants. But what would it buy him? The W'hoorn still knew where he was and would just send another team, or do whatever they had to do. He clacked his beak in disgust.
No, he needed to go out with a flair. He needed to mess up his pursuers to the point that the W'hoorn would hesitate to send anyone else after him - while also making some real haul. That… now that was a plan.
Polder stood again at his post outside Governor Zafa's mansion. He was one of several guards posted around the perimeter. For show? Or did the Triumvirate really fear attacks from the people? Although the political climate on Uuntas was anything but serene, most of the people's hatred seemed to be directed toward the mining corporation rather than the puppet government.
He shifted uncomfortably. Blasted uniform. Blasted planet. He was about ready to take his chances rather than stay here any longer. He saw Baenes approaching, late as usual. The young Shen was a distant cousin of Governor Zafa and had been given the post as a favor.
But Baenes wasn't looking as flippant as usual. There was something pouty in his expression. "Governor Zafa wishes to see you immediately, Officer Ilona," he said with a decidedly put-out tone.
Polder was faintly amused. For the young man to be passed over for a newcomer, who was not even a Shen - such an insult to his exaggerated self importance. The Triumvirate were the descendants of the first Shen families to settle here, and although they held little real power, they cared very much about the appearance of it, and also about their bloodline. Most government jobs went to family, and if not family, then other Shen. If any Shen had applied for Polder's job, Polder would not have likely gotten it.
But his amusement quickly faded as he walked toward Governor Zafa's mansion, his PIECE resting on his shoulder. Zafa was the youngest and least influential of the three Triumvirate governors - but still, a governor. What could a governor want with a random security guard? This couldn't be good.
Byflugur > (Hut Polder) > Agent Silas or Djay-Rom
Polder stood in the doorway, feeling acutely uncomfortable without his PIECE. He still had a hidden vibroknife, which had been specially altered to be undetectable by standard security scanners, but he was certain that this meeting was not a normal commendation, and that made him feel very uneasy.
Governor Zafa stood behind his desk in the pleasantly lit office, alone, yet not really alone, for his office was discreetly equipped with mounted blasters around the room, disguised as part of the furnishing. "Ah," he said, in a businesslike tone. "Officer Ilona. Come in."
As Polder stepped in, the automatic door quietly slid shut behind him, as well as a second, soundproof door. Hut Polder did not beat around the bush. "What do you want?" he asked, his eyes scanning the room warily for some clue that would tell him what was going on.
Zafa smiled drily. "You don't think you are here so I can commend you for your exemplary service?"
"Impossible," snapped Polder. "I haven't been here that long and all I've done is stand around all day. And I'm not Shen."
"Too true," murmured Zafa. " And indeed, you are here for some very important business. I have a job for you… Yor Longhaul."
Polder stared at the governor defiantly, unwilling to betray his shock, and the brief feeling of fear that went through him.
The governor steadily held his gaze for a moment before speaking again. "You are angry, I am sure, that we have found out who you are. But that is beside the point. I don't care. The fact is, I have something I need someone like you to do. And if you don't do it… I hear there is a very big price on your head."
Polder continued glaring at the governor. "I came here to stay OUT of trouble."
"Well then, I am sure you will go to great lengths to make sure you don't mess up this job," replied the governor icily. "Now will you do it, or not?"
It took everything Polder had not to attack the governor. He knew he could kill him. He could possibly even manage to avoid the blaster shots from the automatic turrets. But he would never make it out of the building alive. So only for a second did he indulge in the happiness it would bring him to sink his vibroknife deep in the Shen's chest. "All right," he growled, at last.
"Very good," said Governor Zafa, matter of factly. "Now, as you know, the Triumvirate is not the real power on this planet. When the triiodite crystals were discovered in the mountains, mining became an extremely lucrative business, and overnight, the mining corporation seized control. The government was caught napping.
"The people of Uuntas are the ones who suffer in this situation. Before the Conglomerate was formed, they were slaves to the corporation and were kept at the point of starvation, with no hope of escape. Things are better now than they used to be, but I think they can be improved. The Conglomerate is not powerful enough by itself. But if we join forces - if the government joins our voice to theirs - we can be. The people need our help."
"You sound like a real philanthropist," Polder sneered, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
The Shen chuckled. "All right, I'll save my speeches for those who need to hear it. Here's what I need you to do."
The ship lurched as it struck the atmosphere of Uuntas, a far cry from the thin, synthetic atmosphere of Rendar. The windscreen glowed a phosphorous white as a bright fireball expanded around the vessel, slowly subsiding as Djay-Rom expertly angled the ship for a steady glide to their destination.
There were giant gashes in the landscape, manmade canyons created centuries ago in search of triiodite and other precious ores, with huge mining superstructures stretching to the horizon from the foot of a massive mountain range. Small patches of civilization seemed to grow more dense and closer together as the ship passed overhead, culminating into a sprawling shantytown that seemed to have no pattern or order to its structure.
The chatter of flight controllers exchanging information with Djay-Rom could be heard from the helm as he began their descent toward a ragged scratch of landing pads on the southern edge of the shantytown. The Krona’s grumbling could certainly have been mistaken for bad news, but at this point Agent Silas had been with him long enough to know better.
Ret’hnar glanced back at Byflugur, sensing her peculiar mix of nervous excitement and cool professionalism, something he’d grown to appreciate in his hired muscle. He could see her eyes darting in the direction of the traps they’d set to catch the troublesome compy onboard: her biggest worry for the past few days. She knew as well as he did that they were empty (their mindsims would have alerted them if any of them had been tripped), and so far Djay-Rom had sacrificed two bags of broks in attempting to catch it. He smiled to himself. He had to respect the clever little bastard.
His smile faded as another clever little bastard came to mind: Polder. He would certainly be waiting for them, if he was still on Uuntas at all.
No, he thought. He’s here.
He stared at the control towers, which were now looming overhead as the ship set itself on the landing pad.
“Everyone ready for a walk?” he quipped through a wicked smile, stretching his wings. He slung his holster over his shoulder and grabbed his P.I.E.C.E. from the workstation's magnetic table. He inserted a multi-ammo clip and chambered a round before switching it to safety. “Let’s finish this.”
Agent Silas > Djay-Rom OR Byflugur
The room was bare and severe. Drab syncrete floors and walls served their practical purposes without frill or flair. Cameras were mounted in the corners, the walls were reinforced and soundproof, and the door had a hidden passcode detector. Polder had been supplied with a temporary code that would be obsolete in 2 standard hours.
The men across from him were armed, and clearly were experienced with hostile situations - but they had let Polder keep his PIECE, and he had come on his own terms.
"This conversation does not continue unless I get payment," said Polder, eyeing the two representatives as they sized each other up.
"How do we know what you have is good? We won't pay you until you tell us everything. If it's good, we'll pay well," replied the older New Horizons man, a Human.
"I already showed you the first part of the vid," said Polder. "Seemed pretty obvious to me. The Triumvirate wants to screw you over, and I can tell you how."
"Supposing that is true, what's in it for you?" asked the man, his face betraying no emotion.
Polder snorted. "Money, of course. The Triumvirate doesn't want to pay well. I figure you can pay better. You have more money."
Polder set a cheap holo display device on the hard plasteel table and played the rest of the vid for the two men - he did not include, of course, the part where Zafa had talked about his identity. "The plan is to cause a horrific accident in the mines, making the people question current safety protocols. As you can see, if this job went well, the government would be in a fair position to consolidate power against New Horizons, taking control over certain mining regulations and perhaps even of the Conglomerate of People's Guilds."
"The government has also brokered a deal with the W'hoorn military for the muscle and funding they will need to kick the corporation out completely, starting with a crooked W'hoorn agent who will use the accident as an excuse to open an investigation into the New Horizons' records and discover 'evidence' that the mining corporation has been cheating the workers."
With savage delight, Polder pulled up the information that had been sent to him about Agent Silas and his companions, along with descriptions and photos, and some details that he had tweaked a little bit to corroborate his story. "Then they approached me, as you know, having heard that I have certain skills that they need. If they don't find out that I've talked to you, I can go ahead and do the job, but do it in such a way that it will be traced back to them and people will find out that they caused an explosion on purpose. That won't go over well. However, if they do find out, we can share this recording publicly and the same result will ensue."
Polder laid his head down on his pillow that night, a much happier man than he had been in months. His account was comfortably flush with money, more was promised, and it looked like he might even get a bit of a fight. Things were looking up.
“Let me do the talking,” Ret’hnar muttered to Byflugur as they converged with the approaching officials. He had only just opened his mouth when the trio pulled out their weapons.
“Agent Silas, you and your accomplices are hereby under arrest by order of New Horizons. Keep your hands where we can see them and disclose any weapons that you are carrying so that we may seize them.”
For several moments neither of them moved, Ret’hnar looking slightly more stunned than Byflugur. Slowly Ret’hnar complied, raising his hands above his head. He nodded to Byflugur to follow suit. This wasn’t the time to resist. Surely this was just some misunderstanding that could be worked out. Gods, was he thankful he hadn’t taken Djay-Rom up on those grenades...
In the distance he could see a small squad approach Djay-Rom’s ship, its engines still humming at the ready. Hopefully Djay-Rom had noticed the officials and would be able to make a quick getaway.
It just wouldn’t do to lose his only ride out of here.
Ret’hnar growled as a black cloth sack was torn from off his head. A similar grumble came from Byflugur, who sat a few meters away in an identical chair, her hands bound behind her back by restraining cuffs just as his were. He glanced around the room: it was completely dark, save for a few florescent floor tiles. A large Krona stood before them, underlit by the tiles, his black and magenta uniform ripped off at the arms. He tossed the sacks to the ground and cracked a set of knuckles the size of ping pong balls, glaring at them with a hunger for inflicting pain.
None of the events of the past hour had been expected. It had all sounded so official at the terminal, but that all had changed in a hurry. They had been roughly taken into custody, beaten a bit, transported to who-knows-where, beaten again, and finally they had wound up here in this room. He had a sneaking suspicion that they were about to be beaten again.
He ran his tongue along the back of his teeth, tasting the metallic bitterness of blood. He had been lucky enough to send a distress ping to headquarters just before the EMP taser hit him when they were taken into custody. Maybe Captain Thel could contact New Horizons and sort this mess out, but probably not in time. His instincts were humming at the moment, and all signs pointed to Polder: he had set this up. This org was either running on bogus information or were protecting the Nuzrisa. Either way, it seemed negotiation was off the table.
His tongue fished around in his mouth until it found its mark: a fake tooth just beside his bottom right canine. He pressed it forward on its hinge, releasing an adrenaline-inducing steroid into his bloodstream. He leaned back and allowed it to wash through him, feeling every hair on his body bristle. The Krona’s fist smashed into his face: once, twice, a third time. He felt none of it.
While his assailant was busy bashing in his head, he twisted his left wrist against the chair behind his back until the joints of his thumb and pinky finger popped out of socket, allowing him to slip a limp hand through the binds. The Krona had started to work on Byflugur and was on his third or fourth punch when Ret’hnar jumped him from behind.
Kronas are a sturdy bunch with a very wide stance and a very low center of gravity, making it very tough to throw this one off balance, and nearly impossible using only one working hand. There was an awkward few moments where they both teetered for a bit, Ret’hnar struggled to shift their weight in a direction of his choosing. The Krona threw himself backwards, crushing Ret’hnar between its massive shoulders and a synthcrete wall, repeating the process three times in an attempt to loosen the Whoorn’s grip. Ret’hnar flexed his wings, shoving the two of them forward toward Byflugur as he raked a clawed right hand across the Krona’s face, blinding him with his own blood. The hollow sound of elbows repeatedly striking a very hard skull filled the room, ultimately bringing the Krona down in an unconscious heap.
Exhausted, Ret’hnar rolled himself off of the Krona’s body. He cradled the mangled remains of his left hand, inspecting the damage: his pinky was definitely broken, and there were deep gashes around his wrists from being pulled through the restraints. He reset his finger and trembled as the adrenaline slowly wore off, replaced by the feeling of his wet wiring going to work on his hand. In a few minutes the bleeding would stop and the gashes would heal, but they needed to leave now. He pulled himself up and shuffled over to Byflugur. They stared at each other in silence for a beat, then he began pulling her bindings off.
Gods, if only he had taken Djay-Rom up on those grenades...
Agent Silas > Byflugur OR Djay-Rom
Ret’hnar led the way around yet another tight turn to the left, with Byflugur following closely with a lithe stealthiness he hadn’t seen up to this point. If it weren’t for the occasional shoulder tap, he would have no way of knowing she lurked behind him.
The hallways had the same illuminated flooring as the interrogation room, but beyond that were utterly featureless. With all the left turns and the barren halls he would have sworn they were going in circles - luckily he was leaving a trail of blood trickling from his left wrist and could easily see they hadn’t retread any ground. He steadied his haggard breathing and quickly consulted his mindsim: his hand and wrist were healing (he wouldn’t be able to rely on his blood trail for long), but it seemed he’d also sprained his whole left arm getting out of those restraints, not to mention shattering his right elbow on that damn Krona’s head.
Another quick shuffle through his mindsim’s menus confirmed that this place was actively jamming any communication he planned on doing. The winding hallways had been surprisingly quiet thus far, but he couldn’t shake his deeply-rooted cop instincts telling him that their luck would not last. What a fracking mess.
A tinge of claustrophobic discomfort gave him the feeling they were underground, but he had no way of knowing for sure.
Okay, so we’re underground. Even if we did get to the surface I’m sure they would trace any calls I tried placing to Djay-Rom - assuming there even is a Djay-Rom to call anymore -
His spiraling whirlwind of depressing thoughts were interrupted by an opening in the hallway ahead.
And, creeping closer, a sign on the wall: “Processing”... which might as well have said “Guns in here”.
He glanced back at Byflugur’s underlit face and motioned toward the doorway - just as a guard rounded the corner roughly three meters behind them. The human looked confused and frightened: the blood spattered tile-lights cast a murky crimson light on the walls and ceiling and he had no doubt been following the trail to its source. He glanced up with just enough time to raise his eyebrows in alarm - but Byflugur was already moving.
Agent Silas > Byflugur