“Now coming up on the New Cardiff spaceport,” said Zane, as they set down.
“I may be remembering wrong,” said Mari, scratching her head, “but I could have sworn that there was a New Cardiff on one of Raulin’s neighboring worlds.”
“Probably was,” said Jayna. “You’ll have to go pretty far to find a rock without a New Old City somewhere on it. Human nature, I guess.”
“So yeah, it seems pretty straight forward,” said Ash, looking over the plan. “It’s not like we have to steal the package or anything. It should be a breeze.”
“That’s what you said about the last job,” said Mari under her breath.
Ash ignored her. “We’ll rent a vehicle here and take it to New Morfran the person to pick up the package,” he said. “We’re supposed to meet the guy downtown in the grocery section of the retail sector. Pretty simple. Grab some bananas, head to the fish stands, and the guy will be waiting with a bushel of apples. The package will be with him. Retrieve it, and then drop the package off at the New Cardiff embassy into the designated drop room.”
He turned to look at Mari. “But I won’t blame you if you want to stay with the ship,” he said. “I mean, somebody has to.”
Mari shrugged. “I’ll come,” she said. “I came out here to broaden my horizons, right? Can’t really do that if I’m sitting on my ass.”
Ash smiled. “Sure. I’ll stay behind this time–there’s a part that’s giving us some trouble in the engine and I want to get it sussed out before we do any other runs across the quadrant,” Ash nodded.
“He won’t be satisfied until everything he owns has a fine layer of engine grease,” said Zane, as he kitted himself out.
Mari chuckled at that. “Gotta keep busy somehow on those long nights in space,” she said.
“Oh gross,” Ash groaned and got to his feet.
Jayna couldn’t stop herself from laughing out loud. Ash shoved her shoulder a little bit but said nothing else, his dark skin flushing.
Mari and Jayna watched him descend into the guts of the ship, then looked at each-other.
“Is he always that much fun to wind up?” said Mari.
“Oh, you have no idea,” replied Jayna.
The rental took some doing. They had to find a car that Jayna could comfortably fit in. They eventually settled on a mid-sized number painted in rather hideous jungle camo pattern.
“Are there even any jungles on this planet?” asked Mari, as they loaded up.
“None that I spotted,” said Zane, who was driving. The question that Mari had been afraid to ask is why Zane, who could not always be trusted to have a firm grasp of the world around him, was in charge of flying the ship. After all, it seemed to have been working for them up until now. But the answer became evident before long; the churning chaos that made up his thought patterns simply relaxed when he settled into the cockpit. When Zane was propelling them through the cosmos, all was right in his universe. It was like it was his calling, what he was meant to be doing.
Mari was less certain about how much that applied to driving a car, but she didn’t know how and Jayna couldn’t fit in the driver’s seat, so it was a moot point.
It was about a half hour drive between the two towns. Mari spent most of it listening to whatever music they could find on the radio, and listened as Jayna spat out small bits of trivia as they moved from small back roads to freeways and back.
“Yeah, looks like there is a local Poker station in this city, but they’re pretty small, shouldn’t be anything to worry about,” said Jayna.
“Mhm,” said Mari, her gaze fixed firmly out the window. She never had much cause to venture far outside the city limits back on Raulin. It was mostly scrubland on her side of the world. But this was… nice. There was green grass. There were trees. There was life beyond that which was sustained by concrete and metal.
Morfran was rather off the beaten path. There were few buildings that were taller than three or four stories, and there were actual houses in the residential sections. It was the kind of place where she could make herself believe that maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t get shot at this time.
They found parking quickly, and Jayna put on a pair of sunglasses, but made no other attempts to cloak herself. At her height, there was no point trying to disguise it. Careful nonchalance at how others looked at her was the best disguise she was going to get.
The oddly assorted trio made their way into the retail sector and started with the fruits. Mari was the one in charge of picking up the ‘burner’ item before they went to the drop point.
Food on long space trips generally consisted on things that had to be reconstituted. “It’s functional enough, and it’s not like it tastes bad,” Ash had told her. “But it’s just not the same. So every time we’re planetside, for any length of time, we get fresh produce.”
And so, bananas were purchased, at a real actual open-air marketplace, the kind that Mari had only ever seen in the realms of fiction. One set, of course, would be to be identified for the drop. The other Jayna bought and had sent to their ship, along with apples, oranges, tavanos, lenyeguts and a few other fruits.
After that, they headed towards the designated drop zone near the fish market. There was a small sushi bar, tucked inobtrusively between two larger stalls, and at the table in front of it was a small, pale, nervous-looking man with an apple basket. He was nibbling on a large apple, his eyes darting left and right.
Jayna looked at the other two. “he looks kinda spooked. I’ll go in, you guys just stay out here,” she said.
She crouched under the low doorway, and her settled down as gently as possible to the stool next to him. “Hello,” she said, setting the bananas down on the table. “Your apples look fantastic. Can I have one?” she said, gesturing to the basket.
He startled a bit when he noticed Jayna looming over him, but then nodded, sliding the basket over. That was what they had been told to say.
“You’re with the shipping crew?” he said, his voice low. Jayna nodded.
“So where’s this package?” said Jayna. “I doubt you called us down here to move apples.”
He looked left and right again. “You’re looking at it,,” he said. “I’m the package.”
Jayna looked at him for a second. “I’ve heard that joke about a thousand times. Where’s the package?” she said. “Did it get intercepted or something? Do we have to go get it?”
He shook his head. “Look, I.. I know i said there was a package for pickup, but that’s because I’m desperate–I need escort out of here before I get killed,” he said, his eyes still darting back and forth.
Jayna’s eyes narrowed. “Who’s after you?”
He hunched down a bit. “I don’t know if it’s safe to say…”
“We’re not a charter service,” Jayna interrupted. “If you’re looking for a ticket out of here because you pissed off a bookie or something…”
“No! I’m not a gambler! I work for Wae-Sun Technologies. It’s a terraforming company that deals with the creation of land masses. I’m a scientist!” He hissed. “And I think someone is trying to put me in the ground because I’ve made some big developments towards building landmasses in months and not years.”
Jayna blinked at him several times. “Seriously?” she said. “That sounds like the plot of a schlocky novel. You expect me to believe that?”
“Believe me or don’t, I need to get off this rock, quietly and fast,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a chit-stick. “There’s an extra five thousand chits on this if we get moving now.”
Jayna looked down at the little stick. They were not a charter service, but they were people who liked money.
Jayna sighed. “Bring the apples.” she said and looked to Zane as they started moving.
“So, new plan,” said Jayna. “This guy is the package. Keep a look out around the perimeters. He thinks someone’s after him.” She brought Zane and Mari up to speed as they started moving.
Mari took a look around and watched people. No one seemed to be paying them much attention, save for, of course, being unable to take their eyes off of Jayna for a few seconds. Which may have been a good thing, because no one seemed to be paying the little dude any attention.
Zane was quiet as he drove back, moreso than usual. His eyes darted around, not nervously, but warily, as if he was scanning for potential threats.
They made it out to the parking lot, and Zane seemed a bit more on edge than usual.
“Something up, Zane?” Jayna asked, pointing out the car to the new guy, whose name was Aaron.
“I’ve got that weird feeling,” said Zane. “Something’s wrong.”
“Let’s just get back to Songbird and get going,” said Jayna. “And try to focus.”
The drive between the space port and the rental car place couldn’t have been longer than five minutes, but as soon as they pulled up to the main road between the two, the drive got a lot… bumpier. In an instant the car began to rock back and forth and the wheel jerked out of Zane’s hand.
Zane started reacting before anyone else did, jerking the car off the road and steering it into a vacant lot, where it promptly impacted a wall. Fortunately, Jayna had the foresight to pick out a car with good shock-absorption, and the group was unhurt.
The same could not be said of the car, the front two meters of which resembled an accordion.
“What just happened?” said Mari, as she rubbed her head.
“Somebody disabled the engine core,” said Zane, as he stepped out and pulled out his gun. “Probably by means of some kind of ionic weapon.”
“Astute as always,” said a new voice. The lot went silent except for the sound of shoes on asphalt. A figure stepped into view, framed by the light of the setting sun.
He was tall. Not as tall as Jayna, but reasonably tall. He was handsome, too. You only had to take one look at him to get an idea of how long he spent grooming when he got up in the morning. His dark hair was impeccably styled, his fair skin was free of any marks or blemishes, and his teeth were so white they almost sparkled.
He was clad in the cleanest, sharpest white suit one could imagine, tailored to fit him perfectly. Small white gemstones glittered in his cuffs.
But the man’s most striking feature were his eyes. They were heterochromatic, like Zane’s — the left a dark, murky brown, the right a pale ice blue — but that was where the similarity with Zane’s eyes ended. In his more lucid moments, Zane’s eyes were full of warmth and kindness, even when he was sad. These eyes contained nothing of the sort.
These were the other kind.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” said the man, as he adjusted his collar. “I do hate to inconvenience you, but you have something I need to put a bullet into.”
Zane took a step back. Jayna’s features hardened.
“Of all the things that could have possibly gotten in our way,” said Jayna, “it just had to be him, didn’t it.”