Doublecross: Part 1
Ger lay at the edge of a high bluff in the cold frigid snow. His thick winter clothing keeping the chill away from his skin. A balaclava kept his head and face warm, and a pair of gloves took care of his hands. His eyes were concealed beneath a pair of high-tech goggles. A respirator, designed to prevent his breath from clouding, covered his mouth. Perched on a substantial bipod in front of him was a long rifle. Its dull, grey colouring almost absorbing the light that managed to penetrate through the heavy cloud cover. He carefully lifted his head and peered into the distance, the goggles keeping focus as he swept his eyes over terrain a kilometre and more distant.
He could make out the rest of his teammates, ready for the exchange to come. Duren, standing tall and solid, a pillar of confidence. A little behind his right shoulder, looking lazy and relaxed, was Lucy. A short distance behind them, sitting on several closed cases, sat Emrah, Talaal, and Lars. Each a picture of boredom.
A flicker of movement grabbed Ger’s attention. A heavy duty, large wheeled, all terrain vehicle slowly made its way towards Duren and the rest of the team.
“Incoming.” Ger whispered into his throat mike. “One truck, no escorts, two minutes.”
“I see it.” Duren muttered over the radio, as he drew his pistol and chambered a round. “We’re ready.”
Behind him, Duren heard the three men heave themselves to their feet. He gave no words of caution or advice, none were needed. A moment later, he heard the growl of the approaching truck and turned to face it.
The truck slid to a halt, several metres away, and the driver’s door popped open. A huge lump of a man in ballistic armour dropped down to the ground, displayed his empty hands for a moment, then proceeded to the rear passenger door. On the other side of the truck, another huge man, dressed identically to the first, also leapt to the ground. This one made a point of taking his time to walk around the front of the truck. The first man opened the rear passenger door and slid it open, allowing the sole occupant to clamber out.
Kaldi Hovda was nobody’s idea of a prize specimen. He was below average height, balding, and overweight. He had acne scars on his face and even in the cold, he seemed to be sweating. He straightened his expensive looking jacket and smiled at Duren as he waddled forward.
“My friend!” He enthused, his arms spread. “Welcome, welcome. It’s good to see you back on beautiful Scarab.”
Duren quirked a smile. “Beautiful?”
“A small joke my friend, to elevate the mood, as they say.” Hovda replied, with a bark of laughter, as he stretched out a hand for Duren to shake.
Duren took the offered hand and returned a firm shake. “Why would the mood need elevating? I have your order. You have my money. Correct?”
“Money?” Hovda replied. “Of course, of course. Kaldi Hovda is, as you know, a man of his word. May I open a crate?”
Duren turned and gestured to the crates. “Be my guest.”
Kaldi made his way to the nearest crate with a surprising burst of speed and undid the clasps. He threw open the lid and peered inside.
“Excellent, excellent.” He purred and glanced back at Duren. “They’re all of this quality?”
Duren shrugged. “Of course. Feel free to check them if you like.”
Kaldi shut the lid on the crate and spread his arms, smiling. “Nonsense, my friend. We have done too much business together for me to doubt you.”
“And the money?” Duren pressed.
Kaldi placed is hands over the place his greedy, little heart resided, as though wounded. “Where is the trust my friend?”
Duren smiled grimly. “Trust but verify, Kaldi.”
“What a sad world we live in.” He lamented, as he nodded to one of his men. “My associate is transferring the money now.”
One of Kaldi’s goons took out a little data pad that almost disappeared in his hands and started tapping on the screen.
The little bud in Duren’s ear buzzed.
“There’s a second truck approaching.” Ger reported. “It’s taking its time and not trying to hide. It’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
Duren glared at Kaldi, his hand lowered to hover near his pistol in its thigh holster. Behind him, Lucy had adopted a more ready stance while Emrah, Talaal, and Lars had lost their relaxed poses. Their hands near their own weapons. Sensing the change, Kaldi’s goons had drawn their pistols, but they kept them pointed at the ground. Ready for action, but not wanting to provoke it too much.
Kaldi looked around him and waved his hands in a vaguely pacifying way.
“Some reason there’s another truck coming in, Kaldi?” Duren asked, calmly.
“Uh.” Kaldi replied. “It’s just a small matter. Nothing serious, you understand.”
“Nothing serious?” Duren asked, coldly. “There’s another truck approaching you haven’t warned me about, and you say it’s nothing serious.”
“Honest word.” Kaldi protested, as he tugged a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow.
“Spit it out.” Duren ordered. “Before everyone starts getting itchy trigger fingers.”
“An off-world business associate asked me to recommend someone who could deliver a package for him. I suggested you. He offered a fair price, less my fee of course.”
“Of course.” Duren agreed, rolling his eyes. “And you didn’t think to ask if we’d be interested in the contract?”
“I was about to.” Kaldi protested. “I assure you, I meant no harm. The truck is a little early is all.”
With a low hum, the truck pulled up beside Kaldi’s truck and the engine switched off.
“Where’s the drop and what’s the pay?” Duren asked, his hand still held close to his pistol.
“Shade.” Kaldi answered. “For eighty thousand credits.”
“Forget it.” Duren responded, shaking his head. “One hundred even for the run, or nothing.”
Kaldi looked annoyed and frustrated.
“One hundred? My friend, my business associate is not someone you negotiate with. He sets the price and you either take it or leave it.”
Duren snorted. “If your associate wants us to deliver the package, then it’ll cost him one hundred, and not a credit less. You know what Shade is like.”
Kaldi shook his head and sighed. “Alright. Alright. For you, my friend, I will enquire, but you are asking much.”
Duren shrugged a shoulder and took on a look of casual disinterest as Kaldi stepped aside to place the call.
“He wants one hundred.” Kaldi spoke into his phone. “Says he won’t do it for less.”
Kaldi nodded a few times as he listened to the voice on the other end of the call.
“And my cut?” He asked after a moment.
Kaldi placed the little phone back in his pocket and mopped his brow again. He coughed as though to clear his throat as he glanced about him. He nodded to the goon with the data pad, who began typing again with a single thick finger.
“Good news.” Kaldi informed Duren. “He’ll pay one hundred. On delivery.”
Duren nodded and smiled. “What’s the package?”
“Several mercenaries. I’m assured that they are quite civilised.”
Duren grunted. “If they’re not going to be happy with being disarmed, then we won’t be carrying them.”
Again, Kaldi looked a little unsettled. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“Maybe you should ask them.” Duren suggested.
Kaldi nodded, and then gestured to one of his goons, who hurried off towards the second truck. Duren relaxed a little as he waited, while Kaldi seemed to get more and more wound up. Moments later the goon returned, followed by six mercenaries. They were all large men, heavily muscled and dressed in almost identical body armour.
“Problem?” Asked the lead mercenary, a scarred, heavily muscled man, with a voice like gravel.
“Any issue with being disarmed for the duration of the journey?” Duren asked.
The mercenary leader shook his head. “None. We’re leaving our weapons here, so you have nothing to fear.”
“Is this all of you? Any problems with stasis?”
“This is all of us, and no, no problems.”
Duren nodded to Kaldi. “Alright. We’ll do it.”
The small man looked relieved. “I didn’t doubt that you would.”
“I’ll let my associate know.” The small man continued.
“Talaal!” Duren called.
One of the three who had been sitting around by the crates stood up. He was about an inch shy of seven feet tall, with crude, industrial looking, robotic arms and legs. One of his eyes had been replaced by a cybernetic implant sometime in the past, and the skin around it was puckered and scarred.
“Boss?” He rumbled.
“Check the mercs for any weaponry and then guide them back to the ship. Take Lars with you.”
“Gotcha boss.” Talaal replied curtly. “Get off your ass Lars.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Lars answered, casually, standing up.
“And let Li know to expect guests.” Duren added.
They led the mercenaries off to one side and started checking them over.
“Do you have the coordinates for the handover?” Duren asked Kaldi.
He nodded, holding out a hand. The goon with the data pad placed the device in Kaldi’s hand and the small man tapped on it a few times, muttering to himself.
“There.” Kaldi announced, flicking his finger on the screen in Duren’s direction.
Duren checked his data pad.
“Next time, Kaldi, ask first. This could have gone a lot smoother. I don’t like surprises.”
“Of course, of course.” Kaldi assured. “Surprises are to be avoided. Bad for the health.”
The little man held out a hand and Duren grasped it.
“A pleasure, as always, my friend.”
“Any other jobs come up.” Duren told Kaldi. “You know how to contact us.”
“Absolutely, my friend. Fly safe.”
The Tarnished Rose, a blocky, old transport, sat heavily on her landing gear. Talaal led the group up the waiting ramp and into the hold.
“Big ship for a bunch of smugglers.” The mercenary leader commented to Duren.
Duren smiled and slapped the door frame affectionately. “Business is good, and she almost pays for herself.”
“What else do you do? Besides smuggling?” The mercenary leader asked, curious.
“A little of this and a little of that.” Duren replied, shrugging as he looked around. “Nothing you need to worry about.”
The mercenary leader grunted. “Fair enough.”
“Talaal, Emrah, Lucy!” Duren called. “Secure the ship and get us ready for lift off.”
The group split up, as the three headed off to their assigned tasks, leaving Duren and Lars with the mercenaries. Duren motioned to Lars, and the big, blonde haired man led them all out of the hold, into a tight corridor.
“It’s an impressive ship, for sure.” The mercenary leader commented. “Looks like a retired naval transport. What is she? Fifty years old?”
Duren grinned. “Closer to seventy. I liberated her from a scrap yard before she could be taken apart and haven’t yet had a reason to regret the decision.”
“Not exactly the fastest though.”
“No.” Duren allowed, as he ducked through a hatch. “But she doesn’t need to be. We carry enough legitimate cargo to hide the extra, and we stay off the main shipping lanes as much as possible.”
“It’s worked for us, so far.”
Lars stopped outside a hatch and pressed a button beside the door. The door slid a few centimetres, groaned and stopped moving. Lars sighed and kicked it a few times before the door creaked back to life, sliding open fully. He ducked through the hatch, gesturing for the rest to follow. The other mercenaries followed the blonde man into the compartment.
Inside, ten cryogenic pods, five to a side, lined the long, low ceilinged compartment. Duren checked the console in the centre of the compartment, making sure all the pods were online. He gestured for the mercenary leader to look for himself.
“Gentlemen.” Duren announced. “Your accommodations for the next two weeks or so. Pick a pod and get yourselves hooked in. We’ll check your connections before we leave. Our engineer and pilot monitor all systems while we transit the void, so if there are any issues, they’ll pop you right out. Any questions?”
“Two weeks?” The mercenary leader asked.
“Give or take.” Duren answered. “We may not be the fastest ship flying, but we get there.”
“You only operate with two crew?”
“Sure. Saves on resources.”
“Sensible.” The mercenary leader approved.
The other mercenaries had begun stripping off their armour and clothes, placing them in lockers beside their selected pods, while Duren and their leader spoke. The first mercenary stepped into his selected pod, making himself comfortable. He took two lines filled with blue fluid, that were connected to the inside of the pod, and inserted each into a shunt implanted in his arm. The shunts were very low-profile implants carried by everyone who sailed the stars. Cryogenic pods were a fact of life for space travel. One by one, the other mercenaries followed until finally their leader was left. He inspected his men, bumping fists with each one and then climbed into his own pod.
“Two weeks?” He asked again.
Duren nodded. “Give or take a day or two. Ready?”
The mercenary leader nodded and inserted the two lines into his own shunts.
Duren crossed to the center console and scanned the readouts. He nodded and pressed several buttons. One by one, the pods hissed closed. He waited for a few minutes, then scanned the readouts again.
“All good?” Lars asked.
“Looks like. Everything’s green.”
“So.” Lars sighed, as the two men left the compartment. “Shade?”
“Yeah.” Duren replied. “A little luck and it’ll be fine.”
The door to the passenger stasis room hissed closed smoothly behind them.
“Another step up.” Lars observed.
Duren nodded. “Hopefully. Get yourself some food.”
The cockpit of the Tarnished Rose was a cramped compartment. Two consoles sat on either side, with a narrow aisle down the middle, leading to another hatch in the forward bulkhead. Li Padua was sitting at her station, monitoring her readouts as Duren entered the cockpit through the aft hatch.
Li looked over her shoulder.
“Are our guests settled?” She asked.
“Sleeping soundly.” Duren confirmed. “You get the coordinates for the meet?”
“Yeah. I hope we’re being paid well. You know what Shade is like.”
Duren handed her his data pad and she looked it over before whistling.
“That much.” She commented.
“Uh huh.” Duren grunted.
“That’ll help, if I have to get creative.”
Duren nodded. “Let’s hope you won’t have to.”
Li smiled. “Because that’s never happened before, right?”
Duren snorted. “Make sure Theo is awake. I want a final check on the primary systems before we leave. He mentioned one of the stabilisers needs attention soon and I don’t want it failing when we get to Shade.”
“He’s awake. I was talking to him before you came up.” She replied, handing back the data pad.
“I’m going to grab a coffee. As soon as Ger is onboard, get us underway.”
“Will do.” Li confirmed, her eyes returning to her screens.
Duren left the cockpit and took the ladder to the next deck up. Entering the mess he passed the table and went straight to one of the battered storage lockers. He pulled out a large mug, with a rubberised lid, and filled it up from the stained coffee maker. He sat on one of the swivel chairs, tossing his data pad on to the scarred table. Running a hand over his smooth scalp, Duren leaned back on the chair and yawned. It had been a long day already and it wasn’t even half over. He took a sip of coffee and started reviewing documents on his pad.
Some ten or fifteen minutes later he stopped. He thought for a moment, then opened a document on their next destination, Shade. If he had hoped for good news, he found none. As he expected, security in Shade’s airspace was tight. Not insurmountable, he wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise, but difficult.
The mess’s intercom buzzed and Duren leaned over and hit the answer button.
“Yeah?” He asked.
“Ger’s back onboard. I’m securing the external hatches now and starting pre-flight. Gear up in five minutes.” Li reported.
“Be down in a minute.” Duren replied and switched off the intercom.
He threw the little remaining coffee in his mug into the disposal unit and put the cup into the cleaner as he left. He slid down the ladder to the second deck and ducked into the cockpit.
“Airspace is clear, so far.” Li reported, without looking up.
Duren sat at the other console in the cockpit and belted in. He flipped a few switches and his screens came to life.
“Nothing but a few local civilian transports on the screens.” Duren confirmed. “Ready when you are.”
Li toggled a few switches on her console, while monitoring her own readouts. “Nearly ready here. Better let the kids know.”
Duren smiled as he slipped on his headset. “One day Ger or Lucy will hear you and be seriously offended.”
Li smiled back.
Duren flipped a switch and spoke into his headset. “Get to your stations. Lift-off in a few minutes.”
Seconds later, he heard two sets of feet racing along the corridor towards the cockpit hatch. Emrah ducked in first, speeding through the hatch on his way to the forward cockpit section, where the sensors and weapons stations were. He was quickly followed by Talaal hauling his larger frame though the hatch and throwing a quick nod to Li as he passed.
Duren gave it another minute or so, and as Li nodded to him, he got back on the intercom.
“Everyone better be ready and strapped in, we’re out of here!”
In the box canyon that hid her from prying eyes, the Tarnished Rose’s large thrusters whined to life. Spinning up slowly, their power built lumpily. The thrusters took the weight of the ship and she seemed to hover for a moment, before rising slowly, her sides just feet from the cliffs on either side. As the ship cleared the edges of the canyon her thrusters began pushing her forward, quickly gaining speed. The Tarnished Rose shuddered, as she gained both altitude and speed. A few minutes later, the sky began to darken.
Back in the cockpit, Duren monitored the ship while Li flew.
“No sign of pursuit.” He muttered, quietly.
Li nodded in reply, busy now punching commands into her navigation computer. She sat back after a moment and stretched before tightening her own seat harness.
“We’ll be coming up on the jump point in ten minutes.” She reported.
“Link engine readings look good. System’s charged and waiting. Everything is green.”
The two sat in silence for the duration, keeping an eye on their respective screens. Finally, Li nodded to Duren.
“One minute.” She reported.
Duren got back on the intercom. “Standby for insystem jump. All viewports are sealed. Internal hatches are locked. Engines are throttling down. Thrust gravity will cease momentarily. Expected travel time is about three hours.”
Li throttled down the engines and they both felt gravity releasing its grip on them. Li took a breath and glanced at Duren. He nodded and she typed a command into her console.
“Link Engine is active. Jumping in three. Two. One.”
As the Tarnished Rose continued her forward rush away from the planet, now without thrust, space before her bow was suddenly, and violently, ripped apart. A tear in the fabric of reality spread open, uneven and ragged. Inside the tear, every imaginable colour spun and twisted in a mind shattering display of chaos. The tear widened further, until it was large enough to accommodate the Tarnished Rose. The ship slipped into the tear without any noticeable change in her velocity. Moments after her stern entered, the tear closed, leaving no trace of the ship’s passing.