Santorin was a damp, humid world, making my hair frizz despite all the product the beautician had smeared into it to keep it sleek and glossy. Half an hour, I told myself. It had to look respectable only half an hour longer. Then I’d have the license and it wouldn’t matter anymore.
Twenty thousand creds burned a hole in my pocket, but in a good way. The teller at the bank asked me if I wanted an escort, seeing as it was so much cash and I was a woman walking the traitorous streets alone. He didn’t say this out loud, of course, but I could see the worry in his eyes. Good. If my temporary respectable looks fooled him, they’d hopefully fool the authorities, too. Nevertheless, I declined the offer of an escort, since being shadowed by one was like having a sign pointing at me and proclaiming “she’s loaded”.
On the other hand, it might have helped my cover of the helpless flake, but Fang was a proud creature.
No man can protect us better than we are able to ourselves, she growled, offended at the teller’s offer. If only you’d let me look at them through your eyes, they would instantly know nothing can be stolen from us.
A lie, my dear, as you well know, I reminded her. We’d had everything taken from us. That was why we were here in the first place.
I spoke of objects not… values, she replied. As you well know. One look into my eyes, and they would run for the hills.
But they would also know my ID as a frivolous, carefree eccentric was fake and take a closer look. We can’t afford that.
Alright. Too bad pretending to be a serial killer won’t do. Anybody would buy that.
No they wouldn’t, I snapped. You’re heat and passion, not cold calculation.
She chuffed, amused. You keep telling yourself that.
I ignored her from then on, afraid she might be right.
On my way to the Registration Office, I passed by the spaceport and couldn’t help making a quick detour inside. My future stood in berth nine, shaped like a red-gold bullet, gleaming, sleek and fast, the newest Starstreak model in the Verse. I couldn’t get enough of the sight of her. Triple Palladium Drive with Hyper Boost for maximum speed, Quantum Swivel Jets for maximum agility, and enough firepower to hold off any scum of the rim who would try to board and steal my cargo. And they would try, especially once I went legit. My cargo would be all the more worth stealing.
I stepped closer and laid a hand on the hull beside the hatch. Only silence and emptiness greeted me. She was too new to have a soul yet; fresh out of the factory, she’d never had a crew that might imbue her with emotions, their fears and dreams, their quarrels and camaraderie. She’d never been through battle, through happiness or pain, had never been tested to her breaking point and had never been held in the air by nothing more than love and spit. But she was ready to experience it all, and I was ready to take her there, to make her wholly mine.
A man in a grey uniform approached, the expression on his youthful face hopeful. I’d paid him the deposit on the ship just yesterday.
“Miss Yale, good morning. You have the trader's license already?” he asked, shaking my hand.
“Not yet, John. I’m on my way to the registration now. I couldn’t resist getting another look at her.”
He nodded knowingly. “She is a beauty alright. She’ll do you proud. Figure out a name for her yet?”
“Lorelai,” I told him, then laughed at the pained look on his face. Trust a man to find that a sissy name. “After my sister.” Sort of.
The distaste cleared from his features. “Well, that’s nice. I’m sorry to give you the bum’s rush, but I have to get back to the office. Come and see me there when you’ve acquired the license.”
“Half an hour, tops,” I promised, hardly able to keep the silly grin off my face. With a last look at the beautiful ship, I hurried away, keeping to an agonizingly slow pace because running would have drawn unwanted attention, especially in these ridiculous skirts. Respectable ladies didn’t flash their ankles.
They didn’t often buy a ship and go on trade runs themselves, either, but I had a good cover for that. It wasn’t pure chance that I’d chosen the name ‘Yale’ for myself. I’d paid a thousand more creds to have it printed on the false documents, but it would be worth it. The Yales were a prominent family in the Federation, incredibly wealthy, undeniably powerful, extensively procreative and prone to eccentricities. Nobody would think twice to give me a license or run a thorough background check. They’d be too afraid that the news that one of his many family members wasn’t being accommodated immediately would get to the Headmaster, the patriarch of the Yale family. Nobody dared cross the Headmaster, especially not on these rim planets, where they were happy to run under the Federation’s radar in the first place. Santorin was considered a rim world, though it was one of the closest to the Core, the central planets of the Federation. This made it an outpost at which people from both sides could freely trade their wares - another reason I’d chosen Santorin to go legit. There was a great chance I would leave this humid dump with my first cargo on my new ship.
But first I needed the license.
The streets were busy with vendors, pedestrians and traders of all kind. Everyone was in a hurry. A horse-drawn carriage splattered by, mud flying from beneath the horse’s hooves. It was followed closely by a hover-pod whose air-pressured drive roused more mud as fine mist. I stepped to the other side of the wooden pedestrian walkway to avoid being showered and sprayed in brown sludge.
I rounded a corner and in front of me towered the registration building, one of the more imposing structures in these muddy streets and ramshackle houses. Federation buildings always were the sturdiest and prettiest ones on these backwater planets.
Until this day, I’d avoided them like the plague.
I was just about to cross the muddy street when a familiar, despised scent insulted my olfactory senses. Deep inside me, Fang bristled, instantly alert. I stopped short, and looked around.
To the right, Fang snarled.
My mind was screaming at me to ignore it and look straight ahead, to not ruin my chances at a life in which I need no longer run or hide. But my baser instincts commanded me to find the man who had ruined my life many years ago.
He stood in the shadow of a building to my right, half-hidden by a vendor’s cart, conversing with a man even taller than he. My heart sped up, my breathing grew harsh. I could only make out his silhouette, but I didn’t need to see his face. My nose never lied.
Moore. Moore the Pirate, the Brigand, the Coward. Moore the Slaver, the Slaughterer. The Murderer.
He is alone, Fang told me eagerly. I cast furtive glances around the area, looking for his ever-present shadows; two men who never strode far from him, his bodyguards and henchmen, completely dedicated to him. But I detected neither a small, short-legged figure who moved with a hitch in his step, nor a spindly gentleman with a nose like a vulture and a gleaming bald head. I drew in a long breath, but couldn’t smell them either, which meant they weren’t nearby. Tiny and Shiny had never been closely acquainted enough with soap and sponge, or even water, to manage slipping past my nose. And the tall stranger didn’t have that tense, flinty-eyed bodyguard vibe to him.
By some inexplicable chance, Moore was indeed as alone as I had ever come across him.
Fang fought for control. Let me out, she howled, I can eliminate his threat once and for all. Let me rend.
My hands clenched to fists as I wrestled her down and wrapped her up in mental chains. Fate was toying with me. There he stood, fifty yards away, his back to me, mine for the taking. Never had I been this close, nor he so unaware of me.
And never had I been this close to regaining a fraction of what he’d taken from me. But if I slew him now, in the street for everyone to see, my fake documents would get a thorough check after all - at the prison where they would lock me up. Better to avoid him now, get my license and find him again later. Follow him until a better opportunity presented itself for me to give him the payment he rightfully deserved.
Fang rebelled against the idea of letting her prey of many years escape so easily, but I forced her down. Patience is a virtue, I advised. We will see him crawl later.
Virtue sucks, Fang snapped. She tested my resolve with one last lunge against the chains before she reluctantly gave up the struggle. As if he sensed my gaze on his back or the danger to his person, Moore spun around as if stung. Our eyes locked. I narrowed mine at him, and his widened in astonishment. He cast glances left and right, panic flashing in his eyes. The fool. Tiny and Shiny truly weren’t near. Apparently, he’d felt completely safe on Santorin.
Never expected to see me here, did you?
His fear was a delicious tease in my nose. Fang smiled her toothy grin and I knew he could see her in my eyes. At least let me play with him, she bade. No use hiding from him now.
I let her smile rise to my lips. Play was fine.
I walked around the vendor’s wagon towards Moore, keeping my hands where he could see that I held no weapon. His companion was watching me, too, and something disappeared inside his brown duster with a flash of his hand. A bag of coins, by the smell of it. He’d done business with Moore, and I feared I knew what kind. I remembered a bag of coins changing hands just like that, in exchange for two crates that spelled death and doom to all who loaded them in their cargo bay.
Not today, if I could help it. Game over, Dreckface.
Moore’s right hand stroked the Stingray at his hip, ready to draw it should my hand so much as twitch for my own gun. His lips pinched in worried anticipation. I ignored him - for now - and instead focused on his companion. Shrewd, intelligent blue eyes sized me up as I stopped before them.
My my, Fang said. He’s a sharp one.
A bulge at his hip beneath the duster told me that this man was carrying a weapon, too, though he seemed confident that he either wouldn’t need it, or that he could reach it fast enough.
“Sir,” I said to him, “if you are thinking of doing business with this man, I highly recommend you back away from it. I’d bet my fortune that the crates you will load onto your ship hold nothing but concentrated arsine. It will be set free once you are a few parsecs away from Santorin, killing you and your crew and leaving your boat easy pickings for this… wretch!” I spat the last word at Moore, who stared at me, nonplussed. He’d expected me to try to kill him, as I had before. How I hated to disappoint.
“Wait right here,” I growled at him, obviously not expecting him to. “I’ll be back in a snap.”
I didn’t wait for an answer from either man, but turned and marched across the muddy street towards the Registration Office. If I didn’t go in there now, I would rip Moore’s head off with my bare hands and then I could kiss my long-laid plans about going legit goodbye.
Virtue sucked, indeed.
Read on at Chapter 2.
Read on at Chapter 2.