A tendril of gray smoke curled up from a crack in the navicomputer screen. She released her safety harness and pushed the catches that should have released the small fighter plane's front top end. Nothing. Her eyes glinted red briefly in annoyance before they resumed their usual almost-hazel swirl of color. She twisted herself sideways, and allowed herself to feel no pain from her damaged rib cage. She edged her shoulders down so the backs of her arms were pushed flat against the pilot seat and her neck rested flat against it as well. Her hands were helping to balance her waist and lower half as she scrunched up in a fetal position briefly and shot her legs out straight with all the power behind them she could muster.
The mechanisms that had held her in the wreak gave and the top sprang off as it should have done when she had first pushed on the emergency catches. She didn't climb out just yet, but squirmed into the small storage compartment behind the pilot's space and dug out a bulky duffel bag. A predatory grin flashed briefly across her face and she climbed backwards out of the right side of her wreaked fighter. Before her feet touched the cracked, sun baked clay beneath her she was pulling the projectile launchers parts out of the duffel. The ground was hot beneath her feet even though heavy boots separated them from the ground and she quickly assembled the weapon's parts before her with an adeptness and speed that came from both experience and need. Wolf was acutely aware of the high pitched shriek of the two fighter ships that were gradually taking gradual form from small black specks in the evening sky above her.
Wolf locked the final piece into place and steadied it against her shoulder. She steadied the guns sights on the first bird-shaped ship and fired. She didn't need to watch to know what happened as she turned her aim to the other battleship gray pirate escort fighter. She knew that as the first projectile-highly condensed explosive material- would fire a short burst of a laser beam ahead of it to break a hole in the ship's shielding systems just long enough for it to get through and blow the target apart. She waited a few seconds longer before targeting the second ship, which was already firing lasers at her even though it was still out of range.
Shards of red-hot metal flew down in ragged chunks. It was a dangerous type of rain and Wolf reacted, dropping and rolling back into the small shelter made from the side of her wreaked fighter and where it ripped up the barren ground. The sun set a few minutes after the destruction was over and the dark haired woman didn't even bother to get up. She was exhausted and let her eyes fall shut to the dismal land about her.
The comm. unit crackled to life and Protector Aribak's face lit up the screen. How the senior Journeyman Protector had managed to stay at the Nevim base when he should have been clicks away from there on his appointed duty Jaster Mereel did not know, and had a feeling he wouldn't want to know. The older man's mask like face with the shrewd eyes wasn't something he really wanted to see this late at night. Truthfully, Jaster Mereel probably couldn't have been happier if he'd never have to see Protector Aribak's face again ever. Mereel loathed the man with an unmatched intensity, he seemed to become more corrupt every day. Mereel didn't bother do hide the distaste crossing his features as he leaned over and focused the image.
"I'm here," he said simply. He wouldn't let himself say anything more-he would have made some comment about Aribak's surroundings.
"Mereel, one of our satellites over the Vaelin's Waste picked up what looked like a YT-12 long range fighter. It went down in somewhat one piece here." An image of a charred and broken one-man fighter briefly replaced Aribak's visage on the screen. Coordinates scrolled across the bottom of the screen as the camera angle backed off a bit to show more of the surroundings.
"As you can see from the wreckage around it, there were other ships. We have it all on tape. It's downloading into your Vehicle's computer, as well as a constant feed of what's happening now." The evening background was replaced with a nightâs surroundings. The outlines were faint. Mereel silently cursed Aribak's negligence and determined to radio in a command for infra red viewing as soon as the idiot got off his computer.
"So you want me to check out the scene? If there are any survivors, do I bring them back as friends or hostiles?" Mereel asked impatiently. The time difference between the first feed of the scene and the second one was at least two hours. If they had wanted him to search for injured survivors, they should have sent a protector out before this.
"Friend. The ship was shot down so they aren't covered by illegal landings; Good Samaritan amendment and all. But we suggest caution. The survivor shot down two pirate fighters with a hand-held." The voice was silenced and some options came up on the screen.
Mereel punched in the ship's coordinates on the auto-pilot of his covered transport and opted to play the whole crash scene.
The sun was setting off in the upper left corner of the screen and Mereel was somewhat thankful there was no sound as the beaten ship plummeted down. It was, however, a recognizably controlled fall which meant there must have been someone alive in the ship at the time and still conscious enough to control the ship. He played with the controls of the screen and zoomed in on the cockpit area. There was some movement inside the V-shaped ship. He froze the frame and zoomed in more. The screen jumped into motion as the top flew off. The motion was intense and fast after that. Mereel stopped the tape and rewound it to the point in which the hatch opening up. Then he hit the slow motion toggle. A figure in a dark gray flight suit and black helmet climbed out of the ship with a brown bag-remarkably fast taking into account the slow motion of the tape- and assembled a projectile weapon on the ground. A shadow moved in front of the screen. Mereel's brow furrowed and then realized the shadow was another ship flying between the satellite and the fighter. Two bright flashes made the screen go bright white. Mereel panned the viewing angle out and turned off the slow motion. Nothing. He could see no one there.
Jaster Mereel pulled up the current feed file and sent in a request to Nevim for the infra red capabilities on the satellite. He waited a few seconds before the screen became green hued. The wastelands gave off residual heat and the fallen fighters' engines glowed. Mereel retracted the viewing angle even more to get a look at the area around the site crash. Nothing. Damn.
It was cold, and Wolf had instinctively backed up against the still warm engines of her ship for warmth in the dead wasteland's night. Her flight suit would have provided some warmth, except for the fact it was rather ripped from her escape into the stolen fighter and additionally by the rough landing. It was just her luck that she hadn't stolen a getaway ship with weapons powered up. Sometime before she'd taken her blaster from her hip holster and it now lay cradled on the crook of her left arm.
It was early morning and the sun shone brightly. The ground had started to heat up. There was a crunch of debris nearby as someone cautiously inspected the crash site. Wolf's eyes snapped open and she slowly rolled out from under the protruding edge of her ship. She held her blaster carefully in her right hand as she steadied herself into a crouching position. She realized she couldn't see anything with her dark flight helmet on so she pulled it free slowly. Still, she was briefly blinded.
Jaster Mereel edged around the side of the wreaked fighter with his blaster drawn. It never hurt to be cautious- besides, he thought he'd heard a scuffle on the bit-strewn dried wasteland floor just on the other side of the ship. He stepped as cautiously as he could with his hard soled brown Protector's boots, and stole a quick glance around the edge of a blackened wing.
Suddenly a force rammed itself into his back, knocking him flat to the ground and Mereel felt something cold press against the base of his spine while his left arm was twisted cruelly behind him. His own body pinned his right arm and blaster under him.
"Who sent you," a smooth, low, and infinitely threatening voice asked him. Mereel tested the hold his assailant had on him and, finding it more solid that he'd have liked, replied slowly in his broken Basic.
"I was asked to come out and see if there were any survivors to the crashes. I'm a protector," Mereel's teeth were clenched through this short explanation and that didn't make his speaking any clearer. He had never had an easy time learning or speaking other languages.
"Yes," Mereel hissed at her.
"I don't suppose you have any ID?" The disembodied voice queried with obvious sarcasm.
"Of course I do-it's in my front vest pocket." This was true; however, to get to his ID, he'd have to be moved. It was a slim chance he'd be able to bring up his own blaster in time.
"Uh huh. Then you won't mind if I check it." The vice-grip on his wrist eased up for a second and then twisted even more cruelly back. "I've just angled your arm against my shoulder so that all I need to do is lean forward to snap it. I'll check your identification now, if you are all you say you are you have nothing to worry about."
Jaster Mereel's got his first glance (well partial glance) of his assailant as first a black gloved hand and following arm sheathed in a gray insulated flight suit bore into his vision on itâs quest to confiscate his identification. The gray flight suit clicked in Mereel's mind and he decided not to try to incapacitate the being. For now.
The sentient withdrew Mereel's Protector identification from his pocket and the pressure on his twisted arm was mercifully eased a bit as the fallen pilot looked over the sliver.
"I can't understand much of this but I do get the gist," the voice told him apologetically. It wasn't low now and Mereel was surprised to notice it sounded feminine- if the being in question were human. The fighter pilot backed off Mereel fluidly and he twisted away before he got to his feet.
The sun was behind the pilot's back so it wasn't surprising that Mereel first mistook the pilot's long midnight hair, tied back into a braid starting at mid back that twisted in the wasteland winds like a serpent for the black helmet she had been wearing in the surveillance video. The helmet, he could see was on the ground a few meters away.
It is fair to say that Jaster Mereel was struck by the woman's appearance (the fact that it was in actuality a woman was nearly as surprising to him). She was tall, perhaps his height or a fingers breadth or two taller. She had light skin that appeared even paler in contrast to her black hair and large eyes whose shape made her look a bit like the pet felines some of the priests kept. To Jaster Mereel, the woman before him looked much more like an interstellar model or exotic dancer as opposed to a pilot who had just out flown pirate escorts and shot them down after surviving a crash landing. She leaned regally against the fallen ship reading (or trying to read) his identification sliver. Now she looked up at him coolly.
"This planet is... Concord Dawn?" She asked. Mereel nodded once. "You would be 'Journeyman Protector Jaster Mereel' then right?"
"And you're 19 standard turns?" She asked incredulously. Mereel bristled visibly at this. He didn't see what his age had to do with anything. She certainly couldn't have been much older. She smiled briefly at the reaction. "I'll take that as a 'yes'." She handed him back his ID. They watched each other for a moment.
"Well?" She asked finally.
"What?" Mereel shot back.
"Why are you out here? Am I under arrest for landing illegally?"
Mereel shook his head to clear it. "No. Normally you would be, but you were shot down. Under our laws we come out, and if there are any survivors we bring them back to the nearest spaceport where you can arrange for transportation off Concord Dawn," he explained.
"You have my thanks then." She said as she offered her hand. "I'm Wolf."
Protector Mereel grasped her hand briefly. "If you have anything in your fighter you need, get it. Soon the heat out here will be unbearable."
"It's not my ship. I borrowed it from a.. friend."
"Lucky for you. The owner will be charged for the cleanup and salvage."
"Really?" Wolf kept a straight face, but was grinning inside. "I'd be happy to give you his name."
Two hours in a speeder. Two hours of complete silence, just watching the same dry baked land go by. She stole a glance at Mereel and looked back out the window quickly so he wouldn't see the grin she choked back. She couldn't believe this kid was a Protector. Nineteen! When she was nineteen... well when she was nineteen she was running espionage operations and performing assassinations. But she hadn't had a normal childhood. The average kid was thinking about secondary education, not policing the streets. Wolf scraped some of the dried blood off her ribs. Mereel had offered her a med pack, but she had declined. The wound she'd received the day before had already healed whilst sheâd slept.
"Why were those two fighters after you?"
Wolf looked over at Mereel, surprised. Somehow she wouldn't have been surprised if he hadn't said another word to her the entire way back.
"They didn't appreciate having their boss kidnapped by a bounty hunter."
"You're a bounty hunter?" Mereel asked. He had figured she was in some business like that.
"Occasionally. If the job looks challenging or fun enough."
Mereel turned to look at her now. He didn't worry about the speeder's controls; he had had it on pilot for most of the ride. "Fun enough?" Mereel was incredulous.
Wolf shrugged. "Uh-huh. You're a protector, haven't you ever hunted down a criminal like that?"
"No," Mereel lied. He did understand slightly. Once he had gone after a serial killer that preyed on small children... Mereel feigned steering again and fell silent.
The bright hot day had turned to a mild one as the speeder left the wastelands and approached Nevim. By the time Mereel and his passenger reached the Nevim Protector base it was evening, and the sky shone red. Mereel motioned Wolf to follow him, 'come' it was the first word he had spoken since several hours before when Wolf had revealed her occupation.
Just before they left the garage, Mereel transmitted their location to the Central Intelligence Center in the building.
"CIC, Mereel here. I have the survivor, any orders?" Mereel spoke into a small com. unit on his wrist.
"Affirmative Journeyman Protector Mereel. Protector Aribak wants to question the survivor," the tiny speaker crackled back. Mereel turned his transmitter off before he allowed the groan to escape his lips.
"This way Wolf," Mereel told her as he keyed open a lift on the side of the building.
"Protector Mereel," Wolf started, "who is this Aribak?" She stepped lightly onto the durasteel grating as Mereel punched in a floor number. The elevator hummed as it accelerated upward for a marked time.
"You'll find out soon enough," he replied stiffly. And you'll probably wish you never had after, he added in his mind. Wolf, who was not facing him, softly replied.
"Wishing never helps anything."
Mereel stared hard at the back of her head. He was sure he hadn't spoken aloud... There was a hiss as the durasteel lift doors slid open. Mereel's train of though was interrupted as he led the tall woman down a set of corridors to the interviewing area where he was fairly sure he'd find Protector Aribak waiting.
Protector Aribak was middle aged and lean in feature and in frame. The leanness gave a look of stern authority, and while that appearance at least was valid pertaining to his nature, the way he carried himself, a just gait, was so far from the truth that Mereel was infuriated every time he saw him was definitely not. Aribak's hair was brown; a characteristic almost everyone on Concord Dawn shared. His protector's uniform was neat, unlike Mereel's. Mereel kept a clean appearance, but protectors who did their jobs correctly rarely had the luxury of such neatness. Even now his own navy uniform was grayed in places with dust and dirt from the roll heâd taken in the dirt next to the crash site. Mereel swallowed his loathing long enough to make introductions.
"Aribak, this is Wolf. She's the pilot of the downed fighter. There were no survivors from the other wreaks."
The senior protector looked over the bounty hunter shrewdly, then turned briefly to Mereel. "Is this a joke?"
"No," Mereel, calmly replied.
Protector Aribak looked at Wolf again. What were you doing over our airspace?"
"Outrunning Pirate fighters," Wolf replied simply. Aribak waited a moment before proceeding to see if she would say anything more, a standard interrogation procedure.
"How did those fighters happen to be after you?"
"They were seeking revenge for a bounty I'd recently collected."
"Their previous boss. You really should be better informed you know," she commented. "The ring was- hell, it still is operating from the asteroid field that surrounds the seventh planet from your sun." This was news to Mereel, but not apparently, to Aribak.
"Do you have a guild license?" Aribak shot.
"Yes. I can give it to you now if you want."
"I don't suppose Protector Mereel told you it is illegal for anyone besides Protectors to carry blasters on Concord Dawn?" Aribak said this with disdain as if he considered Mereel either too dim witted or incompetent to have performed such a small task as he motioned to the blaster in it's holster on Wolf's thigh.
"No, I don't think he thought it mattered since by Galactic Law bounty hunters are allowed to carry weapons on any planet. Not that my blaster is dangerous," She pointed out as she removed it and held it out to Protector Aribak grip first. "the power cell was drained before the crash." Mereel gritted his teeth as Aribak checked the blaster. He appreciated her covering for him, but the realization that he'd been had infuriated him to no end.
Mereel swallowed his emotion and addressed Aribak in their planet's native language of Ariish. "Don't you think you should tell her where she can find rooming until she can arrange transport off planet?"
"I was just about to get to that. I suggest you find rooms near the spaceport and arrange passage off this planet as soon as possible. I'm sure Protector Mereel will be happy to find you a place to stay."
"Wait for me outside, I'll be a minute," Mereel instructed Wolf. She raised an eyebrow in question, but somberly complied.
"What?" Aribak asked innocently in Ariish as Mereel locked stares with him.
"All that you 'had' to question her about would have been covered in my report! And what were you inferring a moment ago?"
"Oh no, it was something. If you have a problem Aribak, say it," Mereel hissed.
"Perhaps you should be more professional when handling that outside woman," Protector Aribak intoned. "I must admit she's very beautiful, but she's a foreigner, a bounty hunter at that and utterly immoral. You shouldn't let her twist you."
"Perhaps you're full of it," Mereel replied, mimicking Aribak's tone. "You don't need to tell me how to do my job. Maybe it would be a good idea to stop judging others by your own example. I'll be more relieved than you when she's gone; though I have no idea why you'd be relieved at all. I think I just might find out," Mereel commented lightly while his words were interlaced with dark threat.
Outside, Wolf stood leaning against the side of the industrial gray building. The blue-violet sky was turning an assortment of rich colors as the sun sank down towards the horizon. Wolf looked toward the sky because the things; the people on the ground were too depressing. She had already deduced that this was a theocracy, but to what extent the world was run by it's church she did not know. Most of the people who passed by averted their eyes or stared curiously. Their thoughts were gray. She couldn't wait to escape this world, deciding it was possible she could be executed for being a witch or some other reason before she was able to make a few calls and have her new backup ship Starfall delivered.
It had been a mistake to read Mereel's thoughts in the elevator, she knew. But he had been thinking directly at her, and her back had been turned so to her it had sounded as clear as if he had spoken. She doubted anyone with a psi factor of any type would be welcomed here. Not that 'normal' bounty hunters were either, apparently.
To her left the door slammed open and Journeyman Protector Mereel came out stiff-shouldered. She watched him warily for a moment.
"I think I could manage to find my way around. If I get to a booth before the sun sets I can have a ship here to pick me up in 48 hours," she offered.
"Get in the speeder."
Uh oh, Wolf thought as she climbed in the passenger side of the Government transport.
"Now Hunter Wolf, you're going to answer a few more questions, like why Protector Aribak is nervous about your presence here. Then you're going to explain how you read my mind back there." Mereel didn't look at her while he piloted the speeder down the roads.
"I don't know why Aribak is nervous around me. I picked that up too. All I can say is that the Pirate ring operating from that asteroid field has contacts here. He might be involved, he may not."
"And?" Mereel prompted.
"I know you read my mind in the lift," Mereel told her calmly.
"I'm mildly telepathic," Wolf lied. More like extremely telepathic, she amended inwardly. "I don't go into a beings mind without their permission generally, but when someone thinks a thought at me, like you did, I tend to hear them."
Mereel nodded in understanding. "Good. Stay out of my mind. Is there anything else I should know?"
"Probably, but nothing I'm about to tell you," Wolf replied truthfully. Mereel let his hand fall casually to his service blaster; just so she could see he wasn't going to play any games. It didn't work because she was as silent as before.
"Look," she sighed, "Is there anyplace close I could just grab a coverall or something? I feel both obvious and exposed in this," she waved at her shredded and disheveled flight suit.
"There's one at the hotel."
Mereel grunted something unintelligible in reply. He let her out at the nearest hotel and it didnât bother him a bit that in all likelihoods heâd never see the woman again.
"Tark. Do you like my new ship? I had it custom built. Designed it myself. It's a good think it was finished in time don't you think?" Wolf leaned casually in the doorway of the force field enclosed holding cell. "Aren't you going to say anything?" She smiled cruelly "Oh, I forgot, the paralysis drug I injected into your voice box won't wear off for weeks yet! You deserve it for having your cronies blow up my old ship."
"Now," she paused, pondering out loud, "Are you sulking because I caught you, stuffed you in a suitcase and sent you off planet for someone to watch while I escaped or because I'm not dead? Both?" She crouched to the floor so she was more level with the broken man sitting on the floor. "If you get out of this Tark, I suggest you stop thinking with your brain between your legs. You'll live longer." The hunter glared at her bounty. "And if you ever go into the slave trade again I'll peel your skin off and gut you." The bounty hunter rose and faded down the passageway into darkness.
Mereel searched through confiscated records of the late pirate Blevish Tark for any mentioning of Concord Down or lacking that, officials on the take. Many newly discovered documents had already become classified. Still, Mereel worked quickly at the computer terminal. Since the bounty hunter woman had left he had had a sure feeling that this incident would provide him with the information he would need to build a case against Aribak. If he couldn't build a strong enough one... well there were always ways to get rid of such corrupt characters. Heâd waited long enough.