Jutoro Outpost was a dingy sort of place. It was located in a particularly dingy sector, if space can be described as dingy, far enough from any planet to make it essential but not appealing enough that anyone stayed long. No-one was really sure of its origins; it had existed under various guises for as long as anyone could remember. At some point in the last fifty years it had transitioned from major hub to minor waypoint and shifting regional politics along with better, newer options elsewhere meant Jutoro had gradually morphed into a rather unglamorous feature of back sector space. There had been several systems that were generously referred to as ‘management’ during that time; from pirate lords to military cabals and back again, but currently it was considered ‘between owners’ or, by those who didn’t visit, ‘out of control’.
Despite it’s disreputable status, Jutoro managed to be relatively stable and secure. There was an unspoken agreement that, although in person fights were perfectly acceptable ways to solve a dispute, the outpost was off limits for anything on a grander scale. Remarkably, it was in a good state of repair, for the most part. Sure, there were zones you couldn’t enter without an oxygen suit, and one entire section didn’t have an outer wall, but that was more due to neglect by former inhabitants than anything else. Jutoro was popular amongst those unaffiliated with the Interplanetary Association as this made for more relaxed requirements – both in trade and in personal conduct. There was definitely a criminal element, but the outpost was largely a ‘live and let live’ environment. Safe, by independent outpost standards.
It was often said that if you couldn’t buy it at Jutoro, it was probably a legitimate purchase. That said, there wasn’t much you couldn’t find – in one form or another. Between the market concourse, the vessel hangars and the back alley deals there was a buzzing atmosphere. Goods, services and information; all available for the right price and, crucially, with few questions. Usually.
“Do you really need…”
An eyebrow crept up. “I don’t sell to strangers. Name?”
The trader was a dingy sort of person, smudgy and crumpled in a cheap outfit trying to look expensive; a common occurrence among the fixed stores as they tried to create an air of legitimacy. Her oily hair was scraped into a too-tight bun at the back of her head and she had somehow wedged a large pen behind her small ear. A faded name badge on her chest read ‘VERO I A’ and she drummed long fingernails on the desk, oversized rings glinting under the lights, studying the man before her. He seemed a little on edge.
“Orion Bennet.” He cast a quick glance at the monitor over the desk. It showed a wide angle of the main concourse of the small outpost; busy, as usual. Thronging crowds flowing between stalls, stores and sustenance. A fight had broken out beside an eatery. Nothing out of the ordinary so far.
Veronica looked up from her keyboard, two immaculate eyebrows raised this time. “Not the Orion Bennet?”
“Oh, you’ve heard of me?” Bennet tried to look nonchalant but it didn’t really translate. He switched his weight from foot to foot and ran a hand through his hair, brushing away the sweat that beaded on his forehead.
“Hmmm.” There was an unimpressed pause as Veronica tapped some information into the form. “Always thought it was an alias.”
“No, my mother just likes stars.” On the monitor he could make out a group of men, forcing its way through the crowd. They didn’t seem to mind that they were causing a scene. He wasn’t surprised.
“Yeah,” Bennet flicked his eyes back to the screen. The men had disappeared. Why didn’t this store have more than one camera?
“Earth-borns always have these romantic ideas.” Veronica slid a file from her console to a hand held pad and proffered it for Bennet’s inspection. “Price at the top.”
He gave it a quick scan and winced. The data pad showed a vessel that was definitely not new. The nameplate read RENEGADE RISING in a font that was, at best, dated but while the hull was no longer shiny it didn’t have any visible holes. Scuff marks crisscrossed the surface plating and the previous owners had attempted to hide this with various mismatched shades of paint. It had not been successful. There was a huge dent in one wing.
“That ship has got to be sixty years old!”
“Only on the outside.” Veronica did an excellent impression of someone earnest. “She’s had a lot of work done.”
“The outside is the only thing keeping me from dying in the cold vacuum of space, so it’s pretty important.”
To her credit, the woman managed to pull together an almost genuinely affronted expression. “Are you suggesting I might be selling a ship that isn’t space-worthy?”
Yes. “No, of course not. It’s just that I’d really prefer not to die out there.” Or in here.
“Judging by your face, it seems you’ve got more pressing concerns.” She eyed the data pad. “Have a scan through that and let me know. She’s not going to hang around forever, I’ve got several interested parties lined up.”
I’m sure you have. I’ll bet theres a never ending stream of people trekking out to this back belt trading post to buy junkyard ships.
Orion flicked through the images. “What happened to it?”
“She’s got character.”
“Yes, but what actually happened to give her that specific character?”
The trader gave a barely concealed eye roll. “She’s just a bit dinged up. Do you want her or not? You’ll need to fill this out.” A form slid across the desk.
“What? Are you kidding? Can’t I just transfer funds and get the keys?”
“It usually takes a few days to process the paperwork.”
“What?! I don’t supposed there’s any way I can make this go any faster?”
“In a rush, are we?” A hand reached out the pull the form back. “Not sure I’m keen on dealing with troubled sorts…”
“You’re troubled sorts! Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean that… I just… have somewhere to be.”
“And that is?”
“Not here. As soon as possible.” From the concourse beyond the doors came a crashing, violent sort of noise, followed by a lot of shouting. “Do you have a door camera?”
“That for you? You’ve gone very pale.”
“No? No. I’d lock the doors though, just to be safe.”
Veronica examined a nail, pointedly, in a manner that clearly suggested beggars could not be choosers. The commotion in the hallway grew louder and, worryingly, nearer. A gaggle of what passed for security on Jutoro was making its way across the screen above her, though with no real sense of urgency.
“They seem unhappy. What did you do?”
Orion looked around the room. “I shot someone. On Ishibara.”
Veronica made a face. “Oh, that was you? I heard about that. If it helps, people are saying it was self defence.”
“It was not. He was a complete bastard, he absolutely deserved it.” Though this predicament should be a good indicator that it was still a poor choice.
A shrug. “He shot at you, you shot at him. I suppose it doesn’t make much difference to the guy who ends up dead. Or his friends.”
“You’d be surprised. Some people get very hung up on the details.”
There was an uncomfortable pause.
“Don’t bring your charm in here, Mr Bennet, it’ll only get you a smack in the mouth.” You’d never have known she was smiling if you weren’t looking at her face.
Fair enough. “Look, I…” Something shattered just beyond the door. “I’ll give you ten percent extra if we can do this now.”
“Fifteen.” Veronica dropped the key fob onto the desk, tantalisingly close.
They looked at each other for a minute, neither one blinking, sizing each other up. Bennet broke first.
“Ok, yes, look, I’ll take her, ok? Can you lock the door?” There was a faint hiss and click as the mechanism slid into place. “Ok, good, thank you.”
“Done.” There was a hammering on the door, accompanied by a lot of shouting which was, thankfully, muffled by the thick metal. “Fingerprint.” For a woman who’d just sold a spaceship for a frankly ridiculous price Veronica seemed remarkably unmoved.
“Can I give you a credit card?”
Veronica visibly brightened. “Sure, makes life easier for me.”
I’ll bet it does. Untraceable funds will do that. Bennet pulled a couple of small, black cards from one inside pocket and a card reader from another. He held each card to the reader in turn and checked the contents, then passed two across the desk into Veronica’s outstretched hand. In return, she held out the keycard. Bennet grabbed it like a drowning man reaching for a rope and clutched it to his chest. The hammering on the door had become a series of determined thuds. He could picture the shoulders hitting the panel.
“I don’t suppose there’s a back door to the hangar?”
Veronica was occupied with the credit cards but gestured over her shoulder to a well concealed exit that slid open with barely a sound. Bennet jogged round the desk and stopped in the doorway.
“She’s got fuel, right?”
“She has. You’ve got yourself a bargain there, Mr Bennet.”
“Sorry about those guys,” Bennet nodded at the front door. “I’m sure they’ll be ok with you – it’s me they want.”
“Not a problem.” From behind the desk, the rack of guns was visible. “Nice doing business with you.”
Bennet slid through the door as it swished shut and leant against it for a moment, eyes closed, breathing deeply. There was a faint hiss and click as it locked behind him. He opened his eyes and took in the junkyard dealership’s hangar. There was an array of shuttles and small ships from a variety of origins and classes. If he’d had more time, the appreciator in him would have loved to look around but as it was he focussed on locating the Renegade Rising. He spotted her quickly, some distance away but thankfully near the space side doors and not blocked in. She wasn’t the biggest in the hangar, but she stood out by style alone. Everything else in there was much, much newer. Still, Veronica was right, she did have character. An unfamiliar sensation bloomed in Orion’s chest. What was that? Optimism? Feeling like this could easily be a triumph of hope over experience, he crossed the hangar at a pace that tried to convey, should anyone be watching, that he wasn’t in a rush – while still rushing – and held the keycard to the hull. The entry port slid open several metres above his head and a ladder descended, which he skipped up with practised speed. Outposts were fine, being on a ship was better. Pausing on the top rung, Orion gave the small docking port nameplate a gentle polish with his sleeve. “Nice to meet you, I’m Orion. If you can get me out of here alive, we stand every chance of becoming good friends.”
Back in the office, Veronica unlocked and opened the dealership door; coincidentally in time with the thudding. Two men collapsed in a heap on the floor with a shout. Another, smaller man, with angry eyes and a lot of facial scars stepped over their prone bodies and approached the desk.
“I’m looking for a man I suspect you just had in here. Orion Bennet.”
Veronica looked up from her keyboard, eyeing the men picking themselves off the floor and the cold face in front of her. The credit card in her hand beeped as the transfer to her console completed.
“Never heard of him.”