When the Night Stalker, Burnett’s ship, lurched into the docking station, the sounds of metal coupling together echoed through the ship. Immediately, faint music played against the outer steel.
Looking out the Night Stalker’s port view, the meteor-scarred haven of the Stardevils reflected in the reddish light from the gas giant. The base looked like two or three old Starfarers had been dragged out of mothballs and welded together.
“Home sweet home,” said Burnett from behind me.
He showed me all his teeth and I went back to staring at the Stardevil’s base.
“Why do you do this?” I asked.
“Why do I do what?”
A wrench or some other heavy device banged against the air lock. We were being allowed to enter.
Burnett moved to the door, so I stepped forward. “Why do you steal? Tell me this at least, before you sell me. You owe me that much.”
“No, I don’t,” he replied, gazing at me with half-lidded eyes.
“Well, it won’t cost you anything, either.”
Burnett made a grumbling noise in his throat. “Fine. It’s not like it’ll matter long. The UEE stinks of corruption, every damn corporation cheats, and if you try to do the right thing you get screwed. One day you just get sick of it and take what’s been owed.”
He placed his massive hands on the door panels, both of them, and briefly gripped so tight his knuckles cracked. He shook his head as if some memory was invading it.
When he glared back at me, I tried not to recoil.
“While we’re here, I expect nothing but silence from you. If you’re good, I’ll tell them you have some skills that they can use. If you piss me off, I’ll tell them you’re only good for one thing, and I think you can guess what that is. Got it?”
“Good,” he said and punched the code into the airlock.
Music flooded into the Night Stalker, if you were liberal with your definition of music. A strobing bass sounded like one note stuck on repeat and turned up to brain-melting levels. There were other screeching instruments overtop, but it was hard to distinguish between them. It sounded like the instruments were disintegrating as they were being played. The whole mess could have been mood music for a Robotic Underworld.
Burnett pushed me through first as I held my ears closed with my fingertips. The artificial gravity was set really high and my legs sagged with each step. Burnett seemed to enjoy it.
The innards of the base made the haphazard outside look planned. Tubes and other random shapes of metal had been welded to the walls. In the middle of the floor, a large phallic object made for a giant had been constructed.
I didn’t see the Stardevil greeting committee until the man stepped out of the shadows. He had hair like rubber tubes, an abnormally long face, and inky black streaks in his arms and neck — marks of a heavy WIDoW user.
“Gonna whicha broda sista,” said the tripped-out Stardevil with rubber tube hair, before he grabbed my arm and started dragging me down the hall. I struggled against him, but he was more used to the higher gravity and my boots slid along the metal grating in stunted clanks.
Burnett stepped forward and shoved the Stardevil in the back, making him release my arm.
“Keep your damn hands off,” said Burnett.
I rubbed my arm. “Thank you.”
“They haven’t paid for you, yet,” he said, looking away.
A woman’s voice called out over the music. “Well, Burnett, have you brought us more than a little decryption business?”
The woman was long and lithe, like a dancer, with black and white dreads, wearing a black leather jumpsuit. She wasn’t pretty, but had the confidence of a model.
“Fresh meat, Synthia, if you’d like it,” he said, shrugging. “But if not, I can sell it somewhere else. I just need this file opened. The girl’s a bonus.”
Synthia gave me a considering glance. “Follow me.”
The passage was more of the same, like the twisted dream of an insane artist. At least the music wasn’t as deafening in the next part of the ship.
Synthia brought us to what appeared to be a bar, if you enjoyed sitting on sharp objects. I eyed the stool made of bent rifles and remained standing. Burnett wisely leaned against the bar, while Synthia took position on a lumpy molded chair with sharp nails composing the backstop.
“Let’s see it,” said Synthia, picking at an ebony fingernail.
Burnett pulled the stolen MobiGlas from his breast pocket with two fingers and casually tossed it to Synthia. I must have made a noise in my throat, because Burnett narrowed his gaze in my direction, reminding me to keep my trap shut.
Licking her lips, Synthia expertly tapped on the device for a minute before glancing up.
“So?” he asked.
“It can be done,” she said and her lips curled out, “for double the normal price.”
The vein in Burnett’s neck pulsed to full standing. I’ll give him credit though, he swallowed it back and after stretching his neck gave his answer.
“One-fifty and you get her.” He nodded in my direction.
Synthia’s mouth pinched down to a point. “Her? You’re kidding me, right? She’d better be able to hot-wire an Avenger blindfolded to be worth that.”
The grumble started in Burnett’s chest. When his forehead slumped, I knew he was going to give in.
If you asked me later why I spoke up, I’d tell you it was quick thinking, but I’d be lying. Really it was pride and I didn’t even know how many credits they were talking.
“I’m worth double that,” I said, right as Burnett was about to speak.
Wide-eyed shock registered across Synthia’s face like a seismic event, which was probably the only thing that kept her from noticing Burnett about to reach over and choke me out.
“I’m a trained chemist,” I blurted out. “I can double the efficiency on your WIDoW making. And not cutting it with junk. High quality only. Less side effects and better sell rate.”
“Burnett?” asked Synthia. “Why’re you be so cagey? I’m as interested as a honey doll, but don’t chaw me. If she’s lying and wasting my time, then it’s two-fifty.”
If the vein on Burnett’s neck had burst at that moment, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
I spit the words out before he could ruin it: “My father owned a bar, and we brewed our own beer, and when times got tough, he brewed other stuff.”
“You could be lying, girl,” said Synthia, tapping her lower lip with her black fingernail.
“It’s on my MobiGlas, back on the ship. Brewers certifications, chemistry texts, the whole works. You’ll see. Let me go get it and I’ll show you.”
When I moved toward the door, Burnett grabbed my arm. His fingers dug into the muscle and I had to suppress a cry of pain.
“I’ll. Get. It.” intoning each word with such menace that I could feel my bones snapping already. He wasn’t going to just throw me out the airlock now, he was going to break me piece by piece.
“You stay,” and pointed his meaty finger to the matching stool across from Synthia.
After Burnett left, Synthia crossed her arms, tilted her head, and licked her lips in anticipation.
“You’re lying, aren’t you?”
I’d been making a spacer’s gamble without a plan in sight, but the way she looked at me, the way her eyes creased at the corners and sparkled with a mischievous light, made me realize I had to come up with something really fast.
Rubbing my temples, I tried to think of something. Whatever it was, it had to be quick. Burnett would be back with my MobiGlas soon and then I’d be dead.
“He kidnapped me,” I said. “I’m a courier. The courier that was carrying that MobiGlas. He was going to throw me out the airlock, but I told him about the beacon the company puts on us for safety. So he decided to stick me with you to cover his tracks from what’s on the other MobiGlas.”
“And why should I believe you?” asked Synthia.
“You don’t have to believe me. Believe him. I recorded everything he said.” Or at least I hope I did. “It’s on the MobiGlas. I’ll play it back for you when he gets back.”
Synthia stretched her neck and corralled her dreads to hang over her shoulder. Then she sub-vocalized some commands, I assumed to bring in reinforcements, and gave me a lazy wait-and-see glance.
When Burnett returned, he threw me the MobiGlas. His lips were flat and his nostrils flared in twitches.
“Show her your files.”
I tapped on the glass, silently cheering when I found it was still recording, and handed the MobiGlas over to Synthia. She set the other one onto the table and started watching the playback.
When a half-dozen other members of the Stardevils sauntered in with lead pipes and crowbars, each one looking successively more twisted than Synthia, Burnett backed against the bar and bared his teeth. His eyes flitted around the room. He knew something was going to happen.
“Leave us to the UEE?” asked Synthia. “Not a very nice thing to do to a business partner. Maybe once I get these files off, we’ll shove this MobiGlas up you wide-wise and throw you out the airlock.”
I backed away from Burnett as the others converged. He cracked his knuckles and looked ready for a fight. Despite being outnumbered, he didn’t look intimidated. In fact, he looked downright ready to sling fists.
“I was going to ghost your ass,” said Synthia, “but I decided I’d let the gang have a little fun first. They don’t get these opportunities that often.”
When Burnett made a desperate lunge towards Synthia, the others attacked. The fight quickly devolved into blunt weapons and fists, and Burnett, outnumbered and outarmed, was surprisingly holding his own. I used the distraction to grab the company MobiGlas and dart out of the room, my personal Glas unfortunately left behind.
I wasn’t sure if they saw me, but I kept running as if they had. Thankfully, each corridor was so unique that I easily found my way back to the Night Stalker.
With the airlock closed, I raced to the cockpit and started hammering buttons, hoping that Burnett hadn’t locked his system.
When I hit the right sequence and the Night Stalker disengaged from the Stardevil’s base, I set the ship to head towards Oya III, fast as possible. Locking myself into the harness, I prepared for acceleration, right as an explosion rocked the ship.