The Hub is not the place to be. It is the only place to be on Hub-1, which means that finding anyone on it is a case of resources.
I’ve been to the Hub many times. And I know exactly where to go. I stop at a local store first and purchase a desert hoodie. They are, as the name suggests, based on a hoody of old except they are full body length coats with a hood, made out of a synth material that stops static, water and sand, in that order.
I also buy a new pair of desert boots. Heavy leather, buckles all the way to mid thigh. They armour your feet. The steel mesh surrounding them, just beneath the leather provides protection without adding too much weight. Where I am going now I am going to need them. A heavy pair of desert gloves, of similar design to the boots complete my purchase.
Kitted out I am now as invisible as it is possible for one person to be in the Hub. Eagle-eye cameras watch everything. Algorithms scan faces, clothes, height, gait. Catalogue everything. Flag up potential problems before they surface. Hub Regulators take care of the rest.
I am not keen to meet them now. I have work to do and time is against me.
I have no idea just how much of a headstart Tessa really has. She may not necessarily have been in a hurry. After all, she had got what she wanted and captured the Red Reaper in the process. Given the way she had been able to commandeer the lab rats at the now defunct scientific station my guess is she is no ordinary researcher. She has to be the leader of some corporate bio-weapons procurement program, which means she has means and clout.
The question is how much does she want to advertise her presence here, now? And mine.
My outfit is non-descript. Replicated by hundreds, maybe thousands of dwellers across the Hub. In plain sight, dressed like this, I can pass unnoticed. Just another stiff on some business in one of the Galaxy’s most heavily populated commercial centers.
Alrighty then. I choose to walk than take any transport. The crowds hide me better and by not having to provide ID of any kind I am off the grid. Tessa may have been thorough. My new biochip info may be, by now, on some Corporate database, awaiting processing. I want to trigger as few alarms as possible.
I melt through the crowds. Boots muting the contact with the ground, making my every step feel like I am invincible. Eventually I get to a place I know. I’ve been careful all this time. Doubling back and forth in what turned a mile-long journey into a distance that is several times that. No one’s really paying attention to me, or tailing me.
Snug’s shop is in an alley, just across from where I am standing. I careful check to make sure no one is really watching and then, casually, cross the street and melt in the alley at the side of it. Snug’s shop has a bio-reader. I palm it. It hums. The door slides open. I am in.
Now for the hard stuff.
“Snug”, I throw back my hood.
Snug is a leech. He leeches off the need of others. Sure he provides a service but he does so on a sliding scale. The greater your need, the more expensive the service gets. You get the picture.
“You!” he recognizes me instantly. His surprise telling me everything I need to know. I catch the nod he gives to the muscle goons sitting on either side of the door behind me and I roll into action.
I sidekick the first.
Feel the satisfying crunch of solid contact of steel on ribs as my boot hits his side. He cries out and falls back, momentarily stunned and I catch the second one, as he moves forward, with elbow strikes. Quick swipes, one, two, three. He throws up his arms, defending but it’s already too late for him. The steel-meshed gloves come into play.
His friend has recovered from the kick. I kick again. This time to the head.
He instinctively drops his arms, protecting his injured ribs. It leaves him wide open. His eyes roll back and he’s unconscious before his head hits the floor.
I am through playing nice.
“No, wait!” Snug begins but already I am reaching. I don’t put full force behind each punch. I want him to be awake. But clearly steel mesh gloves and human face flesh are not a good combination when any kind of force is involved.
After the third blow he goes limp. “Please,” he whimpers and I stop.
“Tell me why you thought I was dead,” I say and he stiffens with alarm. “Don’t lie.”
“Ok, Ok. Stop hitting me! That scientist woman. The one with the attitude, she’s been here to get the latest intel. She told me all about you. I didn’t believe her. Really I didn’t, especially when she said you’re called Sef. Like you would ever use that name. But then she had blood samples she needed coded fast and transmitted. Skin cells. I thought she was for real. I really did. I had no choice. She had Regulators with her.”
Snug stops talking and looks at me. There is blood leaking out his nose, the left eyebrow. His lip. And truth coming out his mouth.
“Ok,” I let him go. “What did she want?”
“To find a group. Two men and a girl.”
“Where are they?”
“Hanging around Hangar 9 as of three hours ago. Dock 17. Waiting.”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know.” I raise my right fist. “Don’t hit me! She’s at Corp HQ, Hub Central. She went there an hour ago. I checked out of curiosity,” he says by way of explanation.
“Ok,” I really don’t have a lot of time. “Here’s what I want you to do.” I want a one-way ticket to Eden. Tonight.
“Can’t be done,” he says, “tickets to Eden were closed. No explanation.”
Tessa, I think. “Find a way.”
He looks at me and reconsiders his options. “Ok, it’ll cost!”
I let him scan my implanted credit chip and his eyes nearly pop out of his sockets. “It’ll take most of that,” he warns.
“Just get it done!”
He nods. “Come back in an hour.”
I leave without another word. On my way out I bend down and strip a mini-blaster from the waistband of one of the fallen goons. I was unnecessarily harsh with Snug and his men but it was the only way to get his attention. Information peddlers, amongst other things, have no allegiance. I needed him to know that the stakes on this one are high. One wrong word and he will be joining Red Reaper stats.
Corporate HQ. Not the best place to loiter outside of. I merge with those passing across the street from them, use the vehicles and heavy traffic to disguise my movements. My hood is up. I look out from underneath it gauging activity.
The place is heavily defended. Not that this is something that stops me. I have successfully infiltrated military camps. I know that all the energy goes on the outside. Pierce the defense and get past their protocols and then, working from the inside makes you almost unstoppable.
From the level of activity on the forecourt outside I can see that for them it’s business as usual. My guess is that Tessa is not even there any more. A person who blocks flights to Eden out of precaution will have doubled guard security and put the place on alert as a matter of course. I know that this now sounds like I have an ego the size of a planet-sized moon, but I am actually that good. She would have taken every precaution, regardless.
From her perspective she may have bested me in the desert and locked me up at the scientific station to become her guinea pig but she had no way of knowing what kind of resources I could bring to bear.
The fact that everything looked normal argued that she was on the move again. And I knew where she was heading. Dock 17, was about to see more action than it had ever bargained for.
This time, I take the back streets. And I run to get there on time.
Docks are incredibly busy places. As the name suggests shuttles come and go all the time, so they have holding areas, for cargo, staging areas for passengers. Sales desks to tickets, stands for all sorts of merchandise imaginable. There are credit stations where you can buy and sell credit chips.
There are minor banks and major lending houses. There are soldiers of fortune waiting to get hired and freelance Regulators who can be had to escort VIPs around the Hub as they conduct their business.
In other words, passing inconspicuous in a Dock is easy, provided you don’t start a firefight or get into a face-off with the local law. My guess was that Leonidas, Ellie’s uncle, would be coming in with a personal shuttle service. Maybe his own security. A message from the Wired is enough to make anyone paranoid and Ellie’s family sounded like this was the kind of thing they took in their stride.
I get there with sweat dripping off me. It’s getting to be a thing with me this trip. I take the first elevator shaft I find and go up to the sky restaurants. I need a bird’s eye-view and have no recourse to any tech.
Restaurants have a foyer. Robo screeners scan each guest for attire, weapons and then, finally, creditworthiness, in that order. From the order you understand where their priorities lie. Looks are everything. I am not dressed for dining. This means I have just a minute or two before the Robo screener asks me to leave. I don’t dwell on the ignominy of not even being able to get a seat at a restaurant. The moment I get to the top I walk over to the glass wall on the far side, overlooking the Dock below and scan it fast.
Crates. Rob workers. Automated tracks. Regulator security. Security. Auto dump tracks. Ships in various stages of parking. Ships rolling out, readying for take-off. Ships coming in. People. Passengers. Security. Robots. Regulators. The images below break up into so many kaleidoscopic fragments, each laden with its own importance.
I scan each one looking for the anomaly. Regulators. Robo guards. Regulators. My eyes stop on a batch of Regulators standing absolutely still. Guns ready. They have their back to an alley created by several towering stacks of aluminium containers. From the 100-floor high observatory I cannot see more than that. The containers hide the passage way their bulks create. But the guards standing still is an anomaly.
Freight is valuable. Buildings. Tracks even - maybe. Ships. Not alleys or passageways. Unless something is going on inside them.
“Gotcha!” I say to myself. And turn to head back to the nearest elevator just as its doors are closing and a Robo screener is approaching me.
“I am sorry,” it says with its flat, modulated voice. “Steel meshed attire is not permitted in the dining area.”
“Too bad!” I can’t resist saying. I push past it, unbalancing it on purpose. Its whole attention, momentarily, is on regaining its balance and by then I am through a service door and looking down at 100 flights of stairs. Great! This side will get me nearest the Regulator guards I saw from above.
I have the choice of waiting for the elevator to come up and take it down or take one of the others ones and then re-orient myself to get to the Regulators and whatever is going on in the alley on time. I have no choice, really. The stairs it is. I start taking them two at a time, swearing under my breath.
I come out at the bottom of the restaurant with my now familiar sweaty face. It occurs to me that every time I see Tessa I am almost out of breath. I grin, but there’s no humor to it.
Using the cover of tracks and people moving I manage to get near the Regulators unnoticed. I am still a good 50m away from them and hiding behind a stack of what look like armored suitcases. Right now, I would give anything for my own large blaster, but I have to work with what I have. I take out the mini-blaster I liberated from Snug’s goon and sprint the other way, circling to get to the alley from the back.
I figure that really it is the action inside I should busy myself with and tackling the Regulator guards would alert Tessa and her cohorts. The other side is mostly blocked by containers placed in a haphazard way. I squeeze past them and suddenly I have a front-row seat to what’s unfolding inside.
Ellie is on the ground, holding her cheek. There is a redness there where she’s obviously been struck. Raynar is up against one of the containers. His back pressed against it. A mini-blaster aimed at his neck by a Regulator. It seems his past allegiances buy him no favors.
Reed is on his knees. Lips bleeding. He’s been roughed up. There are three bodies on the ground. Unmoving. Private security. Clearly not worth the money it cost. There are missing parts of them and the scattered red dust I can see around them tells me all I need to know. Mini-blasters have done their work.
There are two more Regulators there. Weapons drawn. But it’s the two people standing at the very center of all that which hold my attention. One is a man I don’t know. I assume it is Leonidas Ri, Ellie’s uncle. The other one, of course, is Tessa. She’s changed into a slick black uniform since I saw her in the desert. I have seen that before. It’s the same slick black non-regulation, Regulator uniform that Captain Jackal was wearing in his hologram, when he spoke to us.
In a tight corner, surprise is the biggest weapon. The next best thing is chaos. I step smoothly out of the shadows, bring up the mini-blaster in my hand and turn the head of the Regulator that had been holding Raynar pressed against the container into so much red dust.
The scene explodes into movement. The other two, surprised begin to raise their weapons, eyes looking for targets. They are trying to understand what happened. I give them no chance.
You can’t fire too many shots in contained situations like this. Chances are you’re going to hit a friendly and I have come to like Raynar and feel kinda responsible for Ellie.
A little. So, I shoulder roll to the first one. Kick him in the stomach as I get up.
Follow it up with another kick to the head as he doubles up in pain.
He goes down like he’s been poleaxed. I love my boots.
Raynar takes care of the other goon.
“You Ok?” I help Ellie to her feet. She nods.
As the action exploded, Reed darted on hands and knees to one side. Taking himself out of the target zone. Smart.
If Tessa is surprised to see me she doesn’t show it.
“We meet again,” I say, but there is no mirth in my voice.
“The Red Reaper alive and well,” says Tessa and I sense the change in the atmosphere in those around me. The tension in the air. Surprise? Shock? Fear? I really can’t tell.
“Looks like Captain Jackal shares your taste in clothes,” I say and she brushes it off with a shrug.
I am about to say something profound about justice and revenge but I don’t get the chance. A white flash zings just past my head, bounces off the metal wall of a contained behind me. The Regulators left guarding the entrance to this makeshift alley are running towards us. Guns firing.
Tessa takes the opportunity to pull out her own weapon. More flashes from the Regulators, thankfully badly aimed because they’re running. Tessa fires. I see everything in slow mo. Her aim is off. She’s more rattled than she lets on. She misses me by a good half foot. The Regulators are some distance off.
Leonidas Ri has Ellie in his arms. He whirls her about shielding her unnecessarily with his own body. It’s a stupid move. Blasters turn everything into red dust. You can’t really shield someone else that way. Reed is huddled against one of the metal walls, about as far away from me as he can get. He’s whimpering, his characteristic cool shattered by circumstances.
Raynar is off and moving. He knows he can’t tackle Regulators without a weapon, yet he’s stupid enough to try. Stupid, stupid, pride. Tessa brings her right arm back in line with me. Her left hand moves to cradle the right. Classic handgun pose. She’s providing a steadied firing platform for herself.
I breathe in. Slowly. Deeply. I have always been able to think clearly in a gunfight. I move my body just half a foot, spin sideways. My right foot stretched out. I catch Raynar on the ankle as he tries to run past.
He lets out a groan of surprise, loses his balance, arms windmilling, he sprawls. Twin beams of white flash over where his head would have been but a second before.
Tessa’s carefully aimed shot misses. The beam goes harmlessly past me. I shoot her first. I take no chances and she’s way too close. The mini-blaster in my hand sings. Nanoseconds before her head disappears in a cloud of red dust I register that she looks surprised.
Her death causes confusion. The Regulators running towards us momentarily stumble. They try to process the implication of what they’re seeing. I am counting on just that. Human psychology is terribly predictable. I drop to one knee presenting a smaller target. Take aim and fire.
The legs of one of the Regulators disappear. His torso falls face down. The systemic shock already killing him. His comrade knows he’s next. He fires off a wild shot missing us all completely. Tries to backtrack and too late seek cover. My next beam takes away his left arm. Then his left leg. He falls and doesn’t move.
I catch movement and turn. Leonidas Ri is on his feet pulling Ellie away. “Don’t kill us,” he implores me.
“Why should I? I risked my life to send you the message through the Wired.”
He looks confused.
“The Red Reaper?” Raynar spits out. He’s picking himself up. His ego bruised more than his hands and knees.
I shrug. There’s nothing to say to this, now.
“You butchered - “
“No one-” I cut him off abruptly and the tone of my voice stops him in his tracks. “I butchered Regulators who wiped out a mining colony using banned weapons. I just didn’t stay behind to control the narrative is all I did.”
Does he believe me? But then again, why should I lie?
“You could have told us sooner,” from Reed. Suddenly everyone’s ego is hurt.
“I don’t go around advertising my presence. Besides, I’m retired.”
“The Galaxy’s most famous assassin retired? You’re kidding?”
“No, I am not.” I try to explain it all to them quickly. “I was on my way to some place else when all this went down. I got sucked into it, just like you.”
Maybe they believe me. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I have a ticket to get and a shuttle to catch. “You’d better get some decent security,” I turn to Leonidas. “Xelium production is not something corporations take kindly being messed with. He nods. Places a protective arm around Ellie.
“You lied to us,” Raynar appears to take my deceit particularly hard.
“No, not lied. I just never completely told you who I was.”
“The Red Reaper?” he’s repeating himself. I guess he needs time to process this. They clearly don’t make Regulators the way they used to.
“Don’t stay here long,” I admonish Reed. I turn to go.
“Where are you going?” from Raynar.
“I have as flight to catch. This is where I am supposed to be. You guys should be OK now.” I nudge Tessa’s headless body with my foot. “This, won’t be bothering you anymore.”
“Just like that? You’re leaving?” Raynar persists.
“What’d you expect? Flowers?”
“Find a better outfit to join next time. Regulators are less and less palatable these days.” I say.
I leave without saying any more goodbyes. I find goodbyes ridiculous. Too much sentiment compressed in brief moments that cloud all judgement. On the way out to the far end of passageway, I stop to pick up one more blaster from the downed Regulators. You never know, I think to myself. I am not off this planet just yet.