The Cobra touched down, kicking up dust as its bottom thrusters imparted over a hundred tons of thrust. The ship settled on its landing gear, and the scream of the engines quickly died down. The red giant star, Gateway, hung overhead making Old Blackelk's air broil with heat and jungle humidity.
"Thank you for using Old Blackelk Spaceport. The landing fee of three credits has been deducted," came the synthesised voice over the comm.
Pam Gilmour unclipped her harness, hoping that she had arrived in time. She expected she had. It was fortunate that she got her old friend's message when she was preparing to leave Argent Station, Titican, less than five light years away. It was an easy decision to divert to Gateway instead of going to her intended destination of Vequex. It would be good to see James Winston again. Maybe there would be an interesting mission in store. She missed bounty hunting, but the realities were that she needed better equipment, and so she had resorted to making deliveries, trade runs, and anything else she could do that could earn her enough to build up the equipment to make an iron ass.
She decided to flick through the bulletin board listings. At last, the Alliance was offering contracted military missions, just like the Federation and Empire had done for years. There was a money booster. And then there was the usual run of the mill assasinations. Some of them paid quite well, too, but those kind of missions required either suicidal tendencies or an iron ass, and she had neither of those at present. The rest of the bulletin board was fairly mundane. "Information requested on Joe Blow from Titican", yada yada yada. She idly wondered if anyone actually bothered with those information wanted ads; they all paid far too little to be even worth a look.
A few minutes later, a tug arrived to pull her Cobra Mk.3 into a hangar to free up the landing pads. She decided to leave before the tug had attached itself to the nosewheel. No point in waiting to be dragged to the hangar, she thought.
Winston's Asp hurtled out of the hyperspace entry cloud. Gateway at last. Albright set the navigation computer to take them to Old Blackelk, whilst Winston searched the long range scan for hostiles. It looked like they would get an easy ride this time.
"Care for some lunch?" asked Winston.
The Asp had a full complement of food and drink synthesisers to provide the crew's needs in their cramped quarters, but synthesised food always left something to be desired. Real bounty hunters prefered chunks of meat in sauce. After all, they didn't get to Elite just to become a vegitarian.
Winston fished around in the refrigerator, pulling out the meat and setting it and some other ingredients in the autochef. It wasn't long before lumps of succulent steak and rich sauce were prepared. Winston and Albright sat at the small table and wolfed down the food like it was their first meal in weeks.
"OK, Chuck, I've got a few questions for you," said Winston. The tone of his
voice was subtly inquisitive.
Winston knew there was no doubting that. It had even got a little bit irritating at times. Fortunately, it seemed that Albright had got over the initial excitement at meeting someone as "famous" as James Winston. He went over to the fridge. Since there was no risk of attack, the autopilot could be trusted to handle the long hours of space travel. He opened the door and pulled out a beer.
"Would you like one?" asked Winston, holding up a bottle of Shiner Bock.
James Winston's penetrating look had returned, as he sat down at the opposite end of the table. However, not for long. Winston poured his beer into a pint glass and took a long pull of the beer.
"You know you can't beat this stuff," said Winston, suddenly changing the subject, and leaning back in his chair. He looked across the table to see how Albright had responded to his earlier question.
"What do you plan to do to the Federal military?" replied Albright at last.
Right answer, thought Winston. He was expecting his copilot to deny all knowledge - not suspicious in itself, but certainly betraying a guilty conscience.
"Oh, nothing right now," said Winston quietly, with a slight smile.
Albright wasn't sure what to make of this questioning. Winston was suspicious alright. He was told to expect this, after all, bounty hunters don't survive this long in space without a good dose of fox like cunning and a mistrust of anything that seemed too good to be true. When he had got the assignment, he was told not to give anything away. Do not confirm or deny anything. Deflect questions with questions. This training seemed to serve well. Winston was now contentedly drinking his beer and flicking though Random Intergalactic Gossip. Maybe stories of one of Duval's cronies getting hitched with a supermodel would keep his mind off it until they landed. He realised that he had made a mistake showing off during the last battle. There was no doubting Winston was suspicious. But there was no way he could allow James Winston to know the extent of the correctness of his suspicions. He did feel a little guilty at times about what he was doing - he genuinely did enjoy the W&G guidebooks. What a tangled web we weave. No doubt his loyalty to his commander, sitting across the table, and his military, made up of thousands of personnel all thousands of km away, would be tested. Whether this would lead to a conflict of interest was yet to be seen.
Winston looked up from the flat display of the magazine reader.
"Well, keep the autopilot company, I'm going to get some sleep," he told Albright, and left the room.
With some relief, Albright went back up to the flight deck. He was expecting the questioning to resume. Winston had probed almost like a tongue probing around a rotten tooth - gingerly seeking out the painful bit before having the dentist attack it with a drill. An experience usually unpleasant for both participants...
Winston ensured that the door was closed and locked. He turned on the monitoring system to ensure a certain person didn't have his ear up to the door.
"OK, Jas. What do you reckon?" Winston asked his computer.
Winston sat back in his bunk, chewing on the end of a drinking straw. He tried to think about what was coming next. He just hoped that Jas's research was correct. Good copilots were hard to come by...and he'd been shafted in the past.
"You know, I think you owe him an apology," said Jas unexpectedly.
What sort of role model, am I? he thought to himself. OK, he'd made Elite, but he was always just one step ahead of the law and a Viper's sting, like many other bounty hunters. Groundlings always thought bounty hunting was such a romantic life, led by the good crusading against evil pirates. The reality was far different. Smuggling was rife to pay for the astronomical cost of equipment. Most bounty hunters were assassins, not an exactly noble profession, and they had no morals as far as political causes, assasinating the good as often as the bad. Rivalries were common and fights often broke out over bounty hunting "turf". Space psychosis tore about quarter of them apart after a few years. Sometimes this life was almost indistinguishable from that of pirates. Winston had seen the inside of far too many police cells, and had escaped from a public flogging in some godforsaken Imperial system by the skin of his teeth and a CR 2,000 bribe. If Albright had any sense, he'd get out of it now. If he wanted to fly combat missions, he could always join the military. At least they supply the ship. Winston rubbed the scar running down his right forearm and wrist. That had been another up close and personal close call. He'd come face to face with some pirates wanting to get revenge that day, and they had tortured him. It was just a lucky shot when they hadn't done the bindings correctly and he'd managed to kick the torturer in the groin before escaping, leaving a trail of blood.
Eventually, he fell into a restless sleep on his bunk, no doubt aided by a second Shiner Bock.
Winston awoke with a start, feeling the edge of his bed. The room lights were on in his small cabin, and there was a terrible racket going on outside.
"James, wake up for god's sake!" shouted a voice from outside. It sounded like Albright.
Finally, Winston worked out where he was, and got up. He opened his cabin door and looked at Albright, who was just about to resume banging the door again. His brain still wasn't working at full speed, and he almost lost his balance as he opened the door. Albright was looking concerned.
"James, there's been a ship trailing us for about half an AU, you've got
to take a look, it's started to pull a little closer", said Albright. Winston
noticed the genuine concern in his voice, and the lack of self-assuredness
that he had shown earlier.
An unmarked Viper Mk.2 just had to be the police. He couldn't remember ever committing a crime in an Alliance system, but of course the Federation weren't unknown for working with the Alliance to go after people. He still had a warrant out for his arrest from that whole messy incident at Barnard's Star.
But a single police ship? They normally operated in packs.
They both arrived on the flight deck, and got strapped out. Winston examined the scanner briefly, and swung the ship's gimballed camera around to look at the following craft.
"Well, we'll watch it for a while. The ship is no threat at the moment,"
Winston adjusted the autopilot settings, and the ship increased thrust to the retros. The red giant star, Gateway, burned brightly ahead. Old Blackelk wasn't far ahead now.
"My bets is that the ship is something to do with Rafael Vincent," said
Winston after a short pause. The Viper had indeed slowed to hold position
relative to their Asp.
They cruised on in silence. Winston watched the ship. Although it was obviously following, there was evidently no intention of attack as yet. With a few commands, Winston had the computer pull the ship's track from the long range scanner logs. It showed the Viper coming from a hyperspace entry cloud from Tiethay. That was at least the general direction of the Federation. Maybe this whole thing was a Federation sting operation? But it didn't seem likely. If the Feds wanted him that badly, they'd have just come to Tionisla instead of starting this wild goose chase halfway across the inhabited galaxy.
"Aren't you forgetting something," said Jas unexpectedly.
"Look, Chuck, I owe you an apology for my interrogation a few hours ago.
But you have to understand, I have to be suspicious to stay alive"
But loyal to whom?
That would depend on the results of the test. And the Viper was genuinely worrying...it wasn't any part of the test that Albright knew about.
© 2000 Dylan Smith.