To the naked eye it was pretty obvious that Grey Station was not so named for its appearance. Rather, it was black, brown and red with hints of almost every other colour imaginable, being fused together from spare parts and pre-fabricated station modules, looking more like a half-built Frisbee with extensions than an actual space station. The greyness came not so much from its structure as its occupants.
Situated on the edge of Darani territory with only uncharted space beyond, it was one of those places that people only visited if they had a good reason for going there – which was for the best as it wasn’t a good destination for sight-seers. Beneath a thin veil of merchants, engineers, traders and explorers lurked the station’s real economy – a hive of opportunism, petty crime and corruption.
Actually, Vaeyr thought, ‘hive’ probably wasn’t a fair term – it implied organisation and structure. Grey Station was more of a nest. A nest where rats, cockroaches and snakes lived together because it was slightly safer than trying to survive amongst honest folk.
“I hope you’re right about this,” Vaegyr said as he, Sarah and Larissa stepped out of Niobe’s airlock and into one of the station’s many docking gantries, which protruded from its rim like a really bad hair day.
Sarah glared at him from behind her short black bangs, “You think I suggested this place because it’d make for some nice shore leave?”
“It’s hard to tell with you,” Vaegyr said.
“Though now that I think of it, I’ve heard this place has a Black Light Lounge now, could be fun…”
Larissa grinned and rolled her eyes. Vaegyr just shook his head, “Those places will rot your brain. Come on,” he led them down the narrow gantry walk, with small dinner plate sized windows on either side showing glimpses of stars beyond, “We can’t afford to waste time here, we’re behind schedule as it is.”
“Hey,” Sarah said, “that’s not my fault!”
Vaegyr put on his best impression of an angry dad voice, “So when the ship breaks down it isn’t the engineer’s fault?” He didn’t really blame her, but she was such fun to tease.
Sarah gestured wildly with her arms as she marched down the gantry, “I’ve been telling you ever since Cristof left, I can’t be cybernetics expert, computer support and chief engineer all at the same time! I warned you that I’d end up missing things and the APF Regulator burning out is exactly what I was talking about.”
“She’s got a point,” Larissa said.
“Bah,” Vaegyr said, “I thought you were supposed to be a genius, Sarah. Don’t you have an IQ of six thousand or something?”
“It may seem that way to some,” she muttered.
“So you should be able to handle it,” Vaegyr was enjoying her frustration, he thought she might actually be about to hit him.
“Relax,” Larissa said, “We took your advice and have put out an advert for a full-time engineer. The captain’s just playing with you.”
“Hey!” Vaegyr said, “Who said you could spoil my fun?”
“You did honey, they’re called wedding vows.”
They came to the end of the gantry where they stepped onto the market ring. No customs or security checks, Vaegyr noticed, not even a standard weapons scanner, just a couple of large and heavily augmented men with guns, in case anyone tried something silly. The market ring was crowded and had a distinctly claustrophobic quality to it. Though it stretched for several hundred metres to the left and right, it was mostly obscured by merchandise, customers and makeshift stalls. Electronic music with a heavy bass pounded Vaegyr’s ears, nearly drowning out the shouting of merchants and customers trying to be heard over the noise. There was a heady mix of tobacco, incense and white-grass in the air.
“Alright, where is this place?” Vaegyr asked.
“Second level,” Sarah said, “this way.”
Sarah led them past several stalls selling obviously pirated vids and games, illicit augs and some very suspicious looking starmaps before they came to a lift. She pressed the button and the doors opened with a reluctant groan. They stepped inside and Sarah pressed the button for the second level.
“You seem familiar with this place,” Larissa said.
“I worked here for six months,” Sarah said, “tech support for the station AI.”
“This place has a dedicated AI?”
Sarah shrugged, “I’m pretty sure it was pirated. I think it enjoyed pissing me off, kept calling me sweetheart and darling.”
The lift doors opened onto the second level. It was broader, more spacious than below, with windows looking out onto the docked ships. It was mercifully quieter too, though still somewhat crowded.
“Okay,” Sarah said, “Shop 112 should be,” she looked left, and looked right, and looked left again, “this way.” She walked off to the right.
Vaegyr watched her go and Larissa leaned over and whispered to him, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think she’s setting us up.”
“She’d never do that,” Vaegyr said, “we’ve nothing worth stealing.”
They followed Sarah past several more shops, larger and less chaotic than those below. One was lined with cybernetic limbs, some of which must have had previous owners. There were a couple of adult stores offering a wide range of cyber-fantasy vids – apparently there was an augmentation for everything these days – and a cosmetic augmentation shop featuring glowing tribal designs.
Finally they came to shop 112, a small sliding door with ‘Scrap Land’, written on top with flaking red paint. A hand-painted sign beside the door said ‘Rare and used starship components, bought and sold. Reasonable prices.’
“Posh,” Vaegyr said, “nice.”
“Yeah,” Sarah said, “like anything Niobe needs is going to be found in a shiny, white Radiant Store.”
The door slid open silently and they stepped into a large space filled with an eclectic assortment of junk. Various metallic objects of every size and shape filled the walls, isles and floors – there were delicate pieces small enough to fit in the hand and hunks of metal taller than Vaegyr himself. It was all lit by a couple of harsh white floodlights which left long, dark shadows on the few clear patches of floor.
At the far end of the shop a man rested against the wall with a lance rifle in his arms. He was around Vaegyr’s height, with blond hair, a blue right eye and an augmented left eye.
“What the fuck do you want?” He said, glaring at Sarah. He didn’t raise the rifle, but he didn’t need to, his meaning was perfectly clear.
“Is this how you greet all your customers?” Sarah asked.
“Just the ones with concealed weapons,” he answered.
He was right, both Vaegyr and Larissa had come with pistols, knowing the station’s reputation.
“Impressive,” Vaegyr said, “ocular augs like that aren’t easy to come by. Not cheap either.”
“I’ll ask again. What the fuck do you want?”
Sarah looked at Vaegyr, “Hal and I had some disagreements while I worked here,” she looked back at him, “But you were in security back then, what happened to Grim?”
“Retired,” Hal said.
Vaegyr spread his arms amiably, “We’re just looking for some parts, one piece in particular. Sarah said this place was our best bet.”
Hal sniffed, “What piece?”
“An APF Regulator.”
“Yeah right, you can get those anywhere.”
“We need one that’s compatible with a Type-B flow interface.”
The man raised an eyebrow, “Seriously?”
Vaegyr nodded, “Seriously.”
“What the hell kind of ship are you flying?”
“An old one.”
He rolled his eyes. At least, Vaegyr assumed his left rolled with his right, “Piece of junk, you’d be better off getting one of the new Rhinelands – same basic concept, but they actually work.”
“Do you have the piece or not?”
Hal pushed himself away from the wall and rested his rife over his shoulder, “You got money?”
“Well let me take a look.” He walked over to a terminal against the wall and brought up an inventory interface. He scrolled through lists of components before finally saying, “Hmm, okay. I’ve got something but not here, it’s in the warehouse.”
“How much?” Vaegyr asked.
Hal scratched his chin, “Yeah, it’s the only one I have, and the logs say it’s the only one that’s come in since the shop opened,” He looked at Vaegyr, “I can’t let it go for anything less than twenty thousand.”
Vaegyr blinked “Twenty thousand?”
Sarah stepped forward and stood between Vaegyr and Hal, “Fuck that, the going price for a APF Regulator is three thousand.”
“Modern Regulators, sure, pumpkin, but this thing’s an antique.”
“Maybe,” Vaegyr jumped in before Sarah could verbally abuse Hal for calling her ‘pumpkin’, “maybe we can come to some kind of arrangement. We don’t have twenty thousand, but I’ll bet we’re the first people to come asking for this piece since the shop opened.”
“Not true,” Hal said, “there’ve been dozens of enquiries. Yours isn’t the only Tantalus class out there, you know.”
Sarah put her hand on her hips, “You’ve always been a bad liar Hal.”
“Captain,” Hal looked past Sarah to Vaegyr, “tell your bitch to back off. Or you can just walk away right…”
Suddenly there was a loud clunk and the lights in the shop went out. The only light source was the hallway outside which cast a soft orange glow across the shop, but left most of it in darkness.
“What the…” Hal raised his rifle and aimed it at Sarah, “What’d you do?”
“Nothing,” Vaegyr said, his hands raised.
“We’re not!” Sarah added.
“Stay still,” Hal said, “keep your hands where I can see them.”
“Paranoid much?” Larissa muttered to Vaegyr.
A male voice came from behind them, deep and rough, “With good cause, perhaps.”
They turned and saw two men standing outside the shop’s entrance. The man with the deep voice was tall, dark-haired and bearded with an ocular aug very similar to Hal’s; the second was shorter and bald, with metal interface plates grafted onto his scalp, middle-aged in appearance and also boasting an ocular aug. They wore black padded combat leathers and looked strong and fit. Both men carried shotguns, one aimed at Vaegyr, the other at Hal.
Vaegyr looked at the newcomers, then looked back at Hal, then at Sarah and Larissa, then back at the newcomers. Nobody said anything for at least thirty seconds.
“Well,” Vaegyr said to Hal, “we’re sorry to have bothered you sir, you obviously have more important things to deal with at the moment so we’ll be on our way now.”
“Stay still,” the dark, bearded man said, “who are you?”
“Innocent customers,” Vaegyr said, “wrong place, wrong time apparently.”
“You’re telling me,” Hal rose his voice, his rifle now squarely trained on the bearded man, “that these three weren’t scouting for you?”
“These idiots?” beardy said, “Give me some credit, Hal.”
Hal snorted, “Fine, so what’s it to be?”
“We have unfinished business, Hal, how about we go for a walk?”
“Or,” Hal said, “how about I splatter your brains across the bulkhead?”
A woman, also dressed in combat leathers, emerged from the darkness behind Hal and pressed a pistol against the back of his head. She also had ocular augs, but they covered both eyes like a visor, and her light brown hair was buzz-cut.
“I like my idea better,” Beardy said.
Hal glared furiously at him, but lowered his rifle. The woman snatched it from him with her left hand.
“Let’s move,” Beardy said, “You three,” he pointed at Vaegyr, “I so much as smell you coming after us and you’ll be crippled for life, get it?”
“Oh perfectly,” Vaegyr said. The woman started to escort Hal towards the door.
“Oh captain,” Hal called over his shoulder to Vaegyr, “do you really need that component that badly?”
“Pretty badly, yeah.”
“Shame that, because I was just about to offer you a great price, a steal in fact. Guess you’ll have to do without now.”
Vaegyr thought he saw Hal wink at him, but with the ocular aug over his left eye it may have just been a blink, “Guess so, see you later.”
The kidnappers left with Hal, and after thirty seconds or so Vaegyr breathed a sigh of relief.
“So,” Vaegyr said, “what’s our plan?”
“Plan?” Larissa asked.
Sarah shrugged her shoulders, “We could post a wanted ad on the public weave; someone might have a regulator to sell. Worst case scenario we find someone who can fabricate one for us, won’t be cheap though.”
Larissa narrowed her eyes as she looked at Vaegyr, “That’s not what you meant, was it?”
A sly grin crept across Vaegyr’s lips, “There’s a perfectly good regulator waiting for us somewhere on this station, for a bargain price too.”
Sarah’s eyes widened, “No way, no fucking way! I don’t know Hal well, but I know you do not want to get involved with the crowd he hangs out with.”
“Think of it as commissioned work. Twenty grand in danger money, that’s a pretty good rate for a single job.”
“If they don’t kill us,” Sarah said.
“They won’t be expecting us,” Vaegyr said, “we’re just innocent customers, remember?”
“This is a bad idea, Captain.” She rarely called him that.
“Frankly we don’t have much of a choice, without the Regulator the engines won’t last much longer, will they?”
Sarah sighed, “One week, maybe two.”
“So enough arguing, we need a plan and we need to move quickly.”
Sarah swore loudly and kicked a piece of scrap.
“Did that help?” Vaegyr asked.
“A little. Okay, okay, there might be a way to find them,” she walked over to Hal’s terminal and brought up a fresh interface. With blistering speed she navigated through obscure menus and lines of code until she let out a loud, “Hah!”
“What?” Larissa asked.
“Perfect,” Sarah said, “he’s still here.”
“Elroy, a ghost I threw together in my spare time while I was working here. I knew one day I’d need a backdoor into this system.”
Vaegyr frowned, “You haven’t put a backdoor into Niobe’s mainframe too, have you?”
Sarah looked at him with wide, innocent eyes, “Captain, I’d never dream of doing something so impolite.”
“Whatever,” Vaegyr said, “does… Elroy… know where they’ve taken Hal?”
Sarah nodded, “Hang on, I’ll bring up a map.” The terminal lit up with a top-down schematic showing the station’s concentric rings divided into dozens of sectors, each divided into dozens more rooms with corridors radiating out from the centre and around the edge of each ring. “A couple of levels down,” she said, “On one of the habitat rings. Looks like an empty apartment. One room, no internal surveillance, just the one door facing a low-traffic corridor.”
Larissa studied the map, “No doubt the door will be locked.”
Sarah frowned, “That’s the easy part, Elroy can handle that. But those ocular augs all looked military issue – I mean spec-ops grade, good stuff – and there’s no EM shielding in the doors or walls in the section. There’s every chance they’ll see us through the door before we even try to open it.”
“Any way we can counter that?”
“Supposedly a broad-spectrum pulse, but that’s probably just a myth.”
“You mean like an ECM flash?” Larissa asked.
“Yes, yes,” Sarah’s face started to brighten with excitement, she was in her element now, “you flood the room with as much electro-magnetic noise as possible. Ocular augs are designed to filter out stuff like that out, but it can take several seconds for the filters to adapt if there’s a lot coming through at once. The feedback will disorientate them, blur their vision, and if we’re lucky maybe even spin them around. It’ll be like a flashbang if we get it right.”
“You think you can pull it off?” Vaegyr asked.
Sarah scowled at him, “’Course I can.”
“Okay, let’s do it.”
“Wait,” Larissa said, “That’s how we get in, but what happens next?”
“Simple,” Vaegyr said, “we grab Hal and run like rabbits.”
“Nice plan,” Larissa said.
“It works because it’s achievable. Come on Sarah, lead us there.”
The corridor in question was quiet, narrow and filthy. The walls, floor and ceiling were all bare, unpainted metal, scratched and rusted. Half of the corridor’s lights were broken or flickering, and there was an unpleasant odour in the air, as though something had been left to rot. The apartment door was at the far end of the corridor.
“This is far enough,” Sarah said, “The penetrating range on those ocular augs shouldn’t be more than ten metres, but let’s not take any chances.”
“No terminal,” Vaegyr said as he looked around the corridor.
“No need,” Sarah said, “still linked to Elroy with the wireless.”
“Okay, pistols ready,” Vaegyr said as he took his pistol out from under his coat. Larissa did the same. “Sarah, how’ll we know when the flash hits?”
“I’ll get Elroy to throw in some audio noise with it, every little bit of weirdness will help.”
“As soon as the flash hits, we run in, grab Hal, and get out. If you can lock the door behind us on the way out, that’d be dandy.”
Sarah snorted and looked down the corridor, “After this, I may just consider galactic domination as a career move.”
“Tyrant or saint?” Larissa asked.
“Benevolent dictator,” Sarah answered, “people will fear me, but it’ll be for their own good.”
They stared at the corridor in silence for several seconds.
“Okay,” Vaegyr said, “do it.”
Sarah closed her eyes and stood silently for an agonising twenty seconds. When she opened them she spoke softly, “Ten… nine… eight… seven… door…” Vaegyr thought he heard a subtle click as the apartment door unlocked, “five… four… three.. two… go.”
From the apartment came a noise so loud that even protected by the door, Vaegyr felt it pound his head. It was the same music playing in the market ring, but at least twenty times louder.
He dashed down the corridor, with Larissa just behind. As the door loomed closer there was a terrifying moment as he thought he was about to crash into it headfirst, but Sarah’s timing was perfect and the door slid open just as he reached it and he burst into the apartment, pistol drawn, with Larissa to his right.
The apartment was small and dimly lit, with a couple of cheap metal chairs in the centre and an old lounge against the far wall. To the left there was a kitchenette and fold-out bathroom.
On the floor at the far side of the room were the three kidnappers, dazed and looking around the room like startled rabbits. The bald man’s shoulder was bloodstained and Beardy had a black eye. None of them were armed, their weapons were stacked against the wall on the other side of the room. In the centre of the room, doubled over in pain, his face bloodied and bruised, but still aiming his lance rifle at his former captors, was Hal. He swung at Vaegyr as they burst into the room.
“What. The. FUCK?!?”
Vaegyr stared at the unexpected vignette for several seconds before answering, “Hi. We’re here to rescue you.”
Hal stared back, mouth open.
“Shall we go now?” Vaegyr asked.
“Hey, HEY!” Larissa gestured with her pistol as the bearded man started to move. He settled settled back down at the threat.
Hal shook his head and turned back to his captives, “Well, they know how to make an entrance at least. You idiots get the message about what happens to the old crowd when they come after me, or am I going to have to shoot a few kneecaps?”
The bearded man spat and looked at Vaegyr, “Captain, this man is not worth protecting. He betrayed our unit on Houstar and left us to die. Blood calls for blood.”
“Really?” Hal fired his rifle at the bearded man’s kneecap, scattering blood and bone across the floor behind him. The man screamed. “That’s the bullshit story that Leana’s pushing now?”
“You could have signalled us,” Beardy rasped between agonised breaths, “you could have warned us, instead you just took the cash and left us surrounded by the enemy. Ryder, Natoli, Saegar, Kimmorley, Grant… they all died because of you.”
Hal turned to Vaegyr and rolled his eyes, “I sent the signal, called for reinforcements, even tried to make my own rescue attempt. If none of my messages got through it’s because someone higher up wanted us dead.”
“Liar!” Beardy barked.
Hal pointed his rifle at the other knee, “Shall we make you symmetrical?”
“Hey!” Vaegyr said, “You’ve made your point.”
Hal said, “Symmetry is beauty.”
“We need to go,” Larissa said, “the gunshot will have registered, security will be here soon.”
Hal looked at his captives again and for a moment Vaegyr thought he was going to pull the trigger out of spite.
“Alright, let’s blow.”
“Guns,” Vaegyr walked over and picked up the bearded man’s discarded shotgun, while Larissa took the pistols, then he stepped back into the corridor, followed by Larissa and Sarah. Hal stared furiously at the bearded man, but finally backed out through the door way. He hit the panel on the side and it slid shut. There was another click.
Sarah walked up to them, “Okay, it’s locked. Security will have to cut through the door. Follow me.”
She led them through corridors away from the apartment, bypassing any security teams sent to check out the disturbance.
“Bastards,” Hal said, “they’re just going to keep coming.”
“This has happened before?” Vaegyr asked.
“Couple of times.”
“And you’re still standing, that’s impressive.”
“I’m flattered captain.”
“Now we need to talk.”
Hal sighed, “Fine, fine, I’ll get you the regulator. No charge and we’ll call us even, alright?”
“Cool,” Vaegyr said, “but that’s not what I meant.”
Hal looked at him suspiciously, “What then?”
“You know your way around an engine room?”
“Yeah,” Hal said.
“Wait,” Sarah said, “What?”
Vaegyr ignored her, “And you’re obviously pretty handy in a fight.”
“Do you find the shopkeeping business particularly satisfying?”
Hal arched an eyebrow, “Why, can you suggest something better?”
“Bad idea,” Sarah said, “bad idea!”
Vaegyr kept focused on Hal, “How about privateer?”
Hal stopped, but the others kept walking. Sarah kept muttering “bad idea” under her breath until Larissa gave her a gentle whack on the head.
Hal caught up with Vaegyr again a minute later.
“Stipend of five thousand per month, plus an equal share in all prize money. To date we’ve taken an average of six thousand in prizes per month.”
“Plus,” Vaegyr said, “a home address of ‘no-fixed-abode’.”
“Tantalus class you say?”
“Well,” Hal slung his rifle over shoulder, “it’ll have to do.”