Gateway, the red giant, hung in the sky. Pam Gilmour watched the starport through the heat haze, as 150 tonnes of Asp gently lowered itself onto its landing gear, its jetwash causing the Turner Space Combat Academy Hawk Airfighter on the adjacent pad to rock and move slightly. The roar of engines soon quietened as the pilot shut down the prime mover, and calm was restored to the Old Blackelk spaceport. Further up in the sky was a small speck, evidence of another ship waiting to land. The Port Authority was on its toes, and a small tug hurtled out of a hangar and started to attach itself to the Asp's main wheels. Gilmour picked up her binoculars, and zoomed in on the entrance ladder that was extending from the Asp, and watched the two occupants climb down. She then looked up, and zoomed in further on the ship that was waiting. It was a Viper Mk.2.
Four kilometers up, Jane Williams groaned with frustration. She had caught up with Winston's ship a couple of AU outside of Old Blackelk, and now she couldn't get landing clearance. "All bays full, please wait while we clear a pad," the controller had said. She used the ship's camera to zoom in on the activity below. She could see that a tug was getting ready to pull Winston's Asp into a hangar.
She desperately wanted to call him on the comm, but that wasn't possible. There was too much risk that she was being bugged. She had hoped to land in the adjacent pad, and just walk up to his ship. It looked like defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory, all because of a military trainer parked in the only other available landing pad. Winston and Albright would be long gone before she could touch down. She would just have to leave a note on their entry hatch and hoped they read it before taking whatever test was being set up for them.
James Winston extended the ladder, and stepped down into the stuffy heat, with Albright following behind. He put his sunglasses on, and watched the tug attach itself to the main wheels. He'd seen these autotugs foul up before and break the attachment points, and wanted to make sure his ship would remain in one piece. With a satisfied grunt, he saw that the tug had done its job correctly. Albright closed the hatch, and the tug started to pull the Asp to one of the hangars.
"James, I have just received two messages," said Jas's remote terminal.
Winston pulled the small device from his pocket.
"The first one is from your friend Pam Gilmour. She says meet her in the
bar adjacent to hangar four", said Jas.
The text message showed up on the terminal. It was once again brief.
James, nice you could get here. Meet me on the top floor of 2100 Arcola Avenue. Come alone, and that means leaving Jas behind as well as your copilot. Fail to comply and you'll be unhappy. We will see you tomorrow morning.
Vincent obviously was very secretive, not to mention rather rude. However, at least he had given Winston a night to get some decent rest. Winston continued in the direction of hangar four. It was a fairly short walk, and soon both he and Albright were walking in the doors of a dubious looking bar. "Tindy's", said the gaudy neon sign above the door.
"I think someone's recognised us," said Albright, pointing to a figure
on the other side of the large room, silhouetted against the window by the
daylight outside. The figure waved, obviously trying to attract their
It didn't take them long to cross the large room. The bar room was at least fifty metres in length. It was obviously set up for some serious partying as night drew in, there was a dance floor, a powerful sound system, and nearly every form of intoxicating substance legal in the system - everything from a good honest glass of brown to the deadly Janx Spirit (a rather potent form of vodka with some other substances banned in many systems). At this time of day, the bar wasn't very busy. It would be a couple of hours before things started picking up. At the moment, it was a good place to have a beer and talk to friends. Gilmour was sitting in an easy chair in front of a table that had many rings from the bottom of beerglasses.
"Good to see you again, James," said Gilmour as the two approached.
Gilmour got up and walked to the bar. Winston settled in a deep seat and let out a long sigh, whilst Albright took a bar stool on the other side of the table.
"Who is she?" asked Albright
Gilmour returned bearing the three half litre glasses of brown. The dark liquid was exactly as its name suggested: it was brown. No one was exactly sure who invented it or where it was made. However, it seemed to be available in almost any bar in the universe. Albright lifted the glass, eyeing the contents suspiciously, and took a sip. He winced slightly.
"It's an acquired taste," said Winston needlessly.
Winston lifted his glass and took a long draught of the beer. It tasted good to him. Gilmour did the same. Albright eyed them both as if they were slightly mad.
"You're supposed to quaff it, not sip it," Gilmour told Albright.
Albright eyed the glass suspiciously, and lifted it, taking a good long draught of the liquid. He didn't wince quite as much this time. On the principle that if it's good once, it's probably good again, he repeated the action. It didn't take him long to finish the glass off. Suddenly the name "Pam Gilmour" connected itself in his mind. He wondered why he hadn't made this association when they had just met.
"Ah, so you're the Pam Gilmour!" Albright suddenly said with a bright smile.
Winston groaned. He'd just gone through this himself a few weeks ago. He saw that Albright was already fishing in the depths of his leather jacket for W&G's guide. He held up the small data cartridge.
"Yes, I did work on the guide," said Gilmour, mildly amused.
Both Gilmour and Albright replied to the affirmative. Winston made his way to the bar, noticing quite a few more people had come in as the afternoon had drawn on.
Two hours after nightfall, Jane Williams walked up to the bar. The bar was packed, loud music was playing, and about eighty people were gyrating around the dance floor. The people out there were about as good at dancing as a brick was at flying. Brightly coloured flashing lights shone around the whole room. She had to shout at the bartender to be heard.
"A double scotch please," she yelled at the barman.
The small barman who couldn't have been more than 18 years old, went to the optics at the back of the bar, and expertly filled the shot glass with a double measure of scotch whisky. Williams had retrieved her computer from her pocket, and showed it to the barman as he returned with the drink.
"Have you seen this man?" she yelled, pointing at the picture.
The display showed a picture of James Winston and Pam Gilmour, with an Asp in the background. The bartender looked at the photograph. He remembered both a man and woman coming up to the bar who looked like the pair on the screen he was looking at.
"Yes, both of them are in here somewhere!" he yelled as a reply.
Williams paid for her drink, and downed it quickly. The fiery taste from the whisky spread from the back of her throat and down to her stomach. She felt she needed that after the day's stress. She began fighting her way through the packed bar, trying not to spill anyone's drink. After only a few minutes of searching, she saw Winston, Gilmour, and someone who she didn't recognise, presumably Albright. They were sitting at a table. The table had several empty beer glasses on it, and the three had just picked up bottles of something, probably alcoholic. She walked up to the table.
"James Winston!" she yelled over the table.
Winston looked up. He looked more than mildly sozzled.
"Hold on a moment!" he shouted back. Winston resumed giving instructions
to the other two.
Winston put a flexible drinking straw in the bottle of vodka mix. He bent it at the flexible point, so that the top end of the straw was held against the side of the bottle, pointing towards the bottle's bottom.
"This is to allow the air in," he yelled at his companions, who nodded.
They didn't look in great shape either.
Gilmour and Albright drunkenly inserted the straws into the bottles, and bent them just as Winston had. Williams watched in amused curiosity.
"Now after three, we race!" shouted Winston, and counted down.
As he reached zero, all three lifted their bottles and chugged the drinks. Williams was surprised at the rate that Winston could down the drink. The other two were having a little bit of trouble. Albright and Gilmour both stopped about halfway down, took a breath, then finished. Winston let out a contented belch.
"OK, that was your practise one, you've gotta try and beat me on this next one!" slurred Winston.
All three of them put the straws in fresh bottles. Winston counted down again. It was a tie break, as all three of them finished at about the same time.
"Splendid!" shouted Winston.
All three of them belched loudly. Winston noticed that the room had started doing that unsteady thing. He shut his eyes for a few seconds, and felt spatial disorientation setting in. He opened his eyes again before he fell out of the seat, to see a stranger standing in front of the table.
"Oh, hello, take a seat," he slurred at the woman standing at the table.
Williams sighed, and pulled a barstool over from the adjacent table. Winston looked at her, grinning slightly with rather glazed eyes. Albright just looked ill, and Gilmour was probably about to pass out.
"I'd offer you a beer, but I don't think I would make it to the bar," admitted Winston unsteadily.
Winston looked at the woman. It was terribly difficult to tell how old people were these days, what with the routine use of ageing retarding drugs. From her disapproving look, he guessed that she was probably a bit older than the thirty or so years old that she looked.
"Hello, my name is Jane Williams," the stranger said.
"Listen to me! You're in great danger, you must return home!" she
Williams growled. Here she was, trying to save their skins, and it was doing absolutely no good. She looked around the table at Winston's companions. Albright had passed out on the table, and Gilmour was trying to finish off the last few drops of brown in one of the glasses without spilling it everywhere. Williams decided that she should just try and explain as best as she could. Winston had other ideas though, and fixed her with a glassy stare briefly before joining Albright in the world of the drunkenly unconsious.
Williams got up, deciding that another double scotch might calm her down. It wasn't as if Winston, Gilmour and Albright would be going anywhere in a hurry. She turned her back on them to go to the bar, scant seconds before three bouncers dragged the unconscious Albright and Winston, and the still conscious but thorougly drunk Gilmour into the back room to sober up...
Winston finally woke up, as the rays of the bloated sun, Gateway, struggled over the horizon. His bed felt cold and wet, and was rather harder than normal. He wondered whether he should dare opening his eyes.
"Beer drinker's fault guide", he thought to himself. "Problem: Bed cold, hard and wet. Reason: You have spent a night in the gutter".
Finally, he struggled semi-upright. He really had spent the night in the gutter. He took in his new environment. It wasn't nice. Amongst the puddles that could only be described as "technicolour yawns", he saw about a dozen other people. One or two of them were groaning. He could recognise the back of the bar they'd spent the night in behind. Albright was lying in a rumpled heap, and Gilmour was struggling to stand up.
"Boy, my head...hurts", said Gilmour to Winston, seeing he had finally woken up.
Winston grunted in agreement. The world still looked a bit hazy. He tried to recall the previous night's activities, but it all sort of went blank after the sixth glass of brown. He had some recollection of talking to some other woman, but couldn't remember much about it. A groan beside him indicated that Albright was starting to regain consciousness. Winston decided it was about time to experiment with standing up. To his surprise, he managed to remain on two feet. Albright rolled over and looked up at his two freestanding companions.
"Urgh," he managed to say at last.
Albright finally struggled to his feet.
"Come on, let's leave this festering pit," said Winston.
The others agreed without enthusiasm, and the three staggered off in the general direction of their ships. Winston decided he'd get cleaned up then... then...he remembered. It was time to face Rafael Vincent, whoever he was.
"OK, I'm going to get cleaned up and see what this Rafael Vincent wants,"
Winston told the others.
Two hours later, James Winston climbed out of the autoshuttle.
"Thank you for using Old Blackelk Taxis, the cost is four point five credits",
said the small shuttle.
The shuttle smartly departed, no doubt to pick up another fare, leaving Winston standing at the bottom of a tall, glass building. The bloated red giant was reflected in the polished, continuous sheet of glass that made up the sides of the structure. Winston entered the building. He might have felt a good deal cleaner than when he woke up, but he still felt behind the power curve. So much for a good night's sleep. The building seemed deserted. It seemed very strange that a gleaming structure like this one was not occupied by the corporate offices of a huge, interstellar corporation. He entered the lift. It was also made of glass, and ran along the front of the building.
"Top floor, please", said Winston.
The elevator beeped in acknowledgement, and briskly began accelerating. Old Blackelk became panoramically spread out as it went up. Winston could see some activity at the spaceport. Soon, Old Blackelk appeared as a small island of human life surrounded by vast tracts of seething jungle. Distant clouds were building, getting ready to release their afternoon deluges. It looked intensely beautiful.
Finally, the elevator reached the top floor.
"Enjoy your visit," said the lift.
Winston wondered where to go next. He hadn't been told exactly where on the top floor Vincent would be waiting. On an impulse, he decided to turn right, and walk down the corridor to see if there was any obvious signs of someone waiting for him. The building was obviously designed for a rich corporate client. The carpets were deep and soft. Leather furniture sat, unused, in all the rooms. The building was well soundproofed. After walking about ten more meters, he finally came to the end of the corridor. Directly ahead was an office. The door was open, and a man's figure was sillhouetted by the daylight pouring in through the window behind him.
"James Winston, do come in," said the man.
Winston walked in, wordlessly. He didn't know what to make of it all. He was a little startled when the door closed behind him. The office was quite large, containing several of the leather seats he had seen in the offices he had just passed, along with a large table. He then saw why the door had closed. A large man was now standing behind him, standing at least half a meter taller than Winston. He had muscles that resembled dogfighting Sidewinders as his arms moved. "It's going to be THAT kind of meeting," thought Winston to himself, and groaned inwardly.
"Hello, my name is Rafael Vincent, as you may of expected. Would you like
a cup of tea?" asked the man.
He'd never had tea before, and didn't know what the difference would be. However, Riedquatian Ultra Coffee tasted quite good with milk, so on that principle, he decided that if it was an option with tea, he should try it.
Winston tried to appraise Vincent by first impressions. He certainly didn't appear rude and threatening, like his messages. Vincent was a slight man of about Winston's build, but with greying hair and an accent that could have only been from the Federation. He was well dressed, and looked like some kind of businessman. The huge gorilla of a man who had closed the door had now moved off to bring the drinks.
"I always find a nice mug of hot tea makes a meeting go so much smoother",
said Vincent pleasantly.
Winston didn't really know whether to take this as a complement or an insult. The large man soon finished fussing with the kettle, and brought two steaming mugs of tea to the table.
"Do take a seat," said Vincent.
Vincent pulled one of the leather chairs out from the table, and sat down, the large window to his back. Winston settled in a seat on the opposite side of the table. The seat was deep and sumptuous. The leather must have cost thousands of credits. He took a sip of the tea, and found it had a pleasant taste.
"My favorite, Earl Grey," said Vincent. "It was named after an English
Winston wasn't sure what to make of all of this. There was no way that Vincent had dragged him halfway across the galaxy to discuss hot beverages and English noblemen. Vincent's attitude was very disarming. Winston didn't know whether he should feel nervous or relaxed. It was almost as if Vincent was about to try and sell him a used Anaconda. Winston took another sip of the tea. It certainly helped his head feel a bit better after the previous night's alcoholic assault.
"I take it you didn't invite me here to talk about tea", stated Winston.
Vincent took another sip of his tea, and made an indication to the large man. The man took up position by the door. Winston didn't really take this to be a good sign.
"Don't worry about Guido, he won't hurt you" said Vincent.
There was a basso rumbling from the general direction of the door. Winston decided that this must have been the big man, now known as Guido, laughing. It didn't sound very pleasant. Guido had to be at least twice Winston's weight, and pure muscle to boot.
"Well, I suppose we better get down to business. Now you're an Elite
combateer, yes?" asked Vincent.
The warning bells went off in Winston's head. Most people with well-paid propositions didn't need to have their clients disarmed and a gorilla of a man guarding the door. Winston felt like it was going to be one of those no choice types of propositions.
"Well, this won't take long. We need someone to be eliminated since he is almost certainly going to harm our plans", began Vincent.
Vincent picked up a small computer from the table, and slid it over to Winston. It showed a still image of a man, obviously a politician of some type.
"This man is Kevin Mazzetti. He is an Alliance politician, who has a good
chance at becoming the AIS president. He has also amassed a great deal
of irrefutable and highly embarrassing
evidence against the Federation," said Vincent.
It could only be a small nuclear device. Winston had heard of these being used in assassinations. One or two bounty hunters he had known tried them. They were extremely illegal, and both acquantances who had dabbled with them got caught and subsequently executed.
"I don't do assassinations," replied Winston.
Winston tried to think quickly. There had to be some way he could stall Vincent. Firstly, he didn't do assasinations any more...not after the fall-out from the Johnson saga. Secondly, he had decided long ago that he liked the Alliance, and what it stood for. He certainly wasn't about to do the Federation's dirty work. They could get another Elite combateer to do the job. He felt for his secure communicator. He had concealed it well inside his leather jacket. He decided to try and get them to give him extra time before calling in Albright and Gilmour.
"OK, but this is a dangerous mission. I want better pay than that, plus a night to think about it and make plans," said Winston.
Vincent looked at him across the table. Winston could feel the bulk of Guido hovering behind him, and suspected that some type of beating was on its way. However, it wasn't to happen. Vincent made a gesture at Guido, who moved aside.
"OK, I will talk to my superiors and see what I can do. But be warned, James.
If you try and leave, there will be several military ships waiting for you.
You might be an Elite combateer, but you won't survive if you try and run.
And don't even think of putting fuel in your ship", said Vincent, rather
Winston left the room. He'd have to find some nice quiet spot to discuss this with Gilmour and Albright. There was no way he was doing the dirty work of any Fed...not in a million years. He'd rather take his chances with the supposedly waiting battleships.
© 2000 Dylan Smith.