-2-

“Jarvis!” Rayne hollered into her comm over the din of the Io station landing facility.
-Yes, Miss Torres?- Jarvis responded in her ear.
“The hell is taking so long? Cargo’s loaded and secured, and the ship is clear. We should have been skids-up ten minutes ago!”
-Refueling is taking longer than your timetable allowed, Miss Torres. Our exit from Hygea burned nearly half of our fuel and two of the four JATO rockets.-
“Are you insinuating that the delay is my fault for playing around?”
-No, Miss Torres. It was not my intention to insinuate anything. I am telling you that the delay is your doing.-

“Way to go with the subtlety there, super-genius.” She rolled her eyes.

-It isn’t my duty to be subtle, Miss Torres. It is my duty to assist you in the completion of your duties, and in the maintaining of your well-being. Your parents built a business based upon their ability to be serious when necessary, which always seemed to include any time during which they were carrying someone else’s property, and by ensuring that their timetables were properly padded where possible to insure they could complete tasks within quoted timeframes. Your stunt cost us time, and you money. Ergo, my comment.-
She nearly bit off her tongue restraining herself from snarling back to the computer. She couldn’t argue his point though. Even inasmuch as she truly wanted to.

“How much longer are we talking?” She did her best to not look put out as she leaned against the wall of the cargo hold, gazing down the ramp into the huge landing bay of Io station.
It was a truly impressive sight: a cavernous space with a few dozen large doors on either side. Each of the doors permitted access to ship-sized airlocks that vessels could enter and exit the station through. But more impressive were the mind-bogglingly complex and heavy-weight series of gantries, rails, articulated arms, and moving platforms that criss-crossed the space. The array of machinery allowed a vessel to land in a small, private airlock, then be transferred into the massive internal space. Once inside, they could be stacked wingtip to wingtip by computer-controlled manipulators, using every iota of space inside the cavernous station.
The design allowed vessels to be packed into the space, stacked two and three deep and one atop the next so that the ground crews could service them more efficiently than if they were in individual hangers, or on separate landing pads like so many other facilities in the Sol system. It also made for an impressive diversion for Rayne’s attention as she tried not to think about the delay in her schedule.
Technically, she wasn’t on any sort of official timetable, but in an effort to establish a name for herself, she had laid out her own personal itinerary to keep her on track and ensure delivery of her cargo in a timely fashion. And at that point, she was already almost twenty minutes behind, not counting the time it would take for the Neophyte’s Serendipity to be hauled out to an available air lock after refueling.
As she mulled over her deteriorating plans and tried to look unimpressed by the elaborate ballet of mechanical platforms, robotic arms, and moving vessels around her, she caught sight of a person looking her way from a nearby hatch. Shifting her focus, she keyed in on the figure to try to discern some distinguishing feature, or even just confirm that the person was indeed looking at her, or was it her ship? The latter was confirmed. Upon noticing her attention, the figure fixed a steady gaze on her, then looked at her cargo, strapped down to the deck of her hold, and quickly flipped up an oversized coat collar as they turned, slipping through the hatchway. She quirked a violet eyebrow at the action as Jarvis responded.
-At present rate of refueling, ten more minutes, plus five for buttoning up.-
“Okay,” she said. “Start buttoning her up now. I’m going to go check on something before we go.”
-Very well.- The moment her feet cleared the edge, the cargo ramp began swinging upward.
She trotted off the Serendipity’s pad, cutting across the narrow gantry a dozen paces before she could turn toward the hatchway in question, then jogged the hundred or so yards to where she’d seen the figure standing. Slipping through the hatchway, she found a flight of stairs that led up to a higher gantry for the next row of ships. She mounted the stairs three at a time, careful to keep her footfalls as quiet as possible. At the top of the stairs she came to another hatchway, through which she found the upper gantry spreading out away from her. The mysterious person was nowhere to be seen in the small groups of people there.
Casting her gaze around, she saw numerous station personnel. Techs working on ships or hauling gear. Computer-controlled lifters moving cargo to and from waiting vessels. Ship crews using the pedestrian gantries to access the portals that would give them access to the station proper. But nowhere did she see the — suddenly, she did. The figure was a dozen yards away, just emerging from behind a pallet of crates and quickly walking toward the living area of the station.
Hustling behind the body, Rayne dodged around a couple of techs and shouted after the person.

“Hey! What are you looking for? Why are you watching my ship?” she called.
The figure kept moving, pretending not to hear her words, or at least not aware that she was addressing him or her — she could not tell the gender. Although she suspected it was a man from the gait they were keeping.
Pouring on the speed, Rayne slipped through and around the people on the gantry, as she had learned to do growing up in such places. In her haste to catch up to them, however, caught her toe on a moving crate and, when she was an arm’s length from the person, staggered forward, slamming her hand into their shoulder. They both tumbled forward, the person in front of her landing on the gantry railing with a noisy grunt and a thud. The high collar and decidedly outdated fedora managed to somehow stay in place as the stranger listed, recovering his or her feet with a fluid grace and then spinning to face her.

It was a man, she could see that now that they were facing one another. “Hey! I’m talking to you!” she growled, recovering her balance and deciding it would be better to play out the scene as if she had meant to knock him over. It was likely one of those things that would look bad in hindsight, but in the heat of the moment, and with her mind reeling from the incident, she needed to keep her tough act up, or break down as an alternative.
The stranger’s reaction was instant. He spun around on his heels, turning to face her with military precision. She caught sight of the gun, as it emerged from the dark interior of the whirling jacket, and her years of practicing martial arts with her mother kicked in. Stepping forward and turning into her opponent’s body, she trapped the gun with her left hand as she raised her right arm, stabbing at his head with her elbow.
The man dodged under her attack, but just barely. Her elbow caught the brim of the old brown hat, tipping it off his head and revealing the rather handsome features of the person beneath. His dark eyes were locked on hers and his equally dark hair was perfectly trimmed in a sort of pseudo-military, no-nonsense, easy-maintenance style that made the whole of him a rather striking image to behold.

“Nice hat,” she said, piling on the sarcasm.

“Thanks,” he responded with a smooth tenor.

“It’s brave of you to go out spying in it. Very classic cloak-and-dagger,” she poured it on.

“If I was spying, you’d never have seen me. I’m just a concerned citizen,” he said.

“Like hell you are,” she frowned, trying not to get lost in his dark eyes and silky voice.
“Gun!” someone shouted from nearby and in an instant, the entire landing bay changed tone. The working people dove face-first to the deck, lying on the various gantries, landing pads, and stairs. The crews and passengers from other docked vessels looked around in surprise, trying to find the source of the disturbance. Some of them apparently knew the routine and either hit the deck themselves or drew weapons of their own, as if preparing for a war.
Rayne’s moment of inspection and the sudden change in atmosphere cost her, as the man twisted beneath her raised elbow and tugged at his trapped weapon. But her grip held, and as she refocused her mind, she moved into his stance again.

“C’mon. Don’t be like this. I just want to know why you’re checking out my cargo!” she bit off at him, twisting the handgun against his grip to pull it free and drop it to the ground.
With a grunt, he released the weapon, yanked his arm away, and somersaulted past her. Popping up to his feet and without a moment’s hesitation. In his hand a short double-edged knife had appeared.

“Really?” She quirked an eyebrow at him.

“Sorry, instinct,” he responded, eyes drifting to the blade for just a second, then sweeping over the gantry between them, passing over his gun before coming to rest on her. “I guess we can do it the old fashioned way, if you want.”

“I’m not looking for a fight,” Rayne held her hands up.

“Then why’d you hit me?” The knife vanished back beneath his coat, but his stance didn’t relax any as he spoke.

“It was an accident,” Raynes cheeks burned with embarrassment at the admission. “I was just trying to figure out why you were so interested in my cargo.”

“Maybe I was just checking you out,” he smirked.

“I know the difference,” she rolled her eyes.

“I’m sure you do,” he responded, reaching for his gun.

Rayne snaked her foot out ahead of his hand though, trapping the weapon under her boot and pulling it away from his grasp.

“I thought you weren’t looking for a fight,” He looked up at her doubtfully.

“That doesn’t mean I want to get shot in the back. Or the front. Or anywhere else, for that matter,” she said.

“Then stop that,” he reached for the gun again, but she dragged it further from him.

Grinning at him, she said, “not until you tell me what you’re up to.”

“Fine,” he nodded, lurching forward and upward from his low crouch. His hands pressed into her stomach and his strength and leverage lifted her off the gantry, pushing her back with significant force.

As she felt herself being forced away from him, she threw her arms over her head, arching her back and planting her hands on the gantry behind her, swinging her legs up off the ground and striking him in the torso with her feet and knocking his fedora off his head before completing the handspring and finding her balance again.

The man staggered away from her under the force of the blow, but quickly regained his balance and in seconds they were on one another again, the gun being kicked between them like a hockey puck as they traded punches and elbows, each blocking the other’s attacks more often than not.

“You’re good, I’ll grant you that,” he announced, kicking her foot away from his gun and stomping his foot down on the bottom of the handle, causing the weapon to hop up into the air.

Rayne saw the movement and looped her own toe under the falling gun, then hoisted it up into the air further and saying, “thank you. I’ve worked hard to become so.”

His hand snaked out and grabbed the gun now that it was near the level of their waists, but Rayne lifted her leg again, striking the underside of his hand with the top of her knee and knocking the gun out of his hand and further into the air.

Narrowing his eyes at her, his other hand snaked out to grab the gun, but Rayne pushed a foot into his stomach with a slower-than-usual side kick, meant more to keep him at bay than to harm him. With her right hand, she caught his gun out of the air and locked her eyes on him as she felt his fingers wrap around her booted foot.

“Fine,” he growled, giving her foot a harsh twist and a hard yank. Her loosely-tied boot came off as her body went face-first into the gantry with a heavy thud. Shaking his head, he tossed her boot over the rail then vaulted over the edge himself.
“Holy crap!” she shouted, crawling to the edge of the walkway and looking under the railing to watch him land on the gantry near the Serendipity, tuck into another somersault to absorb the force of the landing, and come up at a dead run toward the station proper.
Rayne took a moment to inspect the weapon, still in her hand, as she listened to his footsteps. It was a standard ten millimeter auto-pistol. Caseless, with an electronic firing mechanism and a series of hash marks, in groups of five, running down the exterior of the slide on the left side. Nothing fancy, but obviously the marks had some sort of meaning, as they were all the same length and the same distance apart, save for the one diagonal hash mark that crossed each group of four vertical lines.
Pulling herself to her feet, she hobbled on her one shoe over to the fallen hat, stooping to pick up the old brown thing, she looked over the rail again to see the man glaring up at her from a half-closed door that she recognized as heading into the habitable area of the station. Once he was through there, he would disappear into the crowd and she’d never find him. Their eyes met once more, and he gave her a curt nod before shouting up at her in a clear tenor voice, “I’ll be back for those.”

Then the door closed, cutting him off from any pursuit she might care to give.
“You’ll never see me — or your peashooter again,” she answered him under her breath, looking down to the objects in her hands.
Examining the inside of the hat, she found its satin lining in perfect condition and its felted exterior was obviously old, but well cared for.

“Although — ” she grinned, as she pinched the indentations in the front of the hat between her fingers and slipped it onto her head. It fit perfectly, and she felt a rush of childish mirth and deviousness roll through her — the same feeling she used to get whenever she did something that she knew she shouldn’t do, and knew she’d be caught doing.

She finished her thought. “I think that maybe on the right person, this could seriously work.”

Turning back toward the stairway, she took another look at her captured weapon. It, too, seemed older than she suspected at first glance but was also exceptionally well cared for. Ejecting the magazine, she slid it into her own pocket, then racked the slide, locking it open and inspecting the firing mechanism. It too, was extremely well cared-for.
Looking back toward the closed hatch he’d disappeared through, she shook her head. As the local security force trotted up to her, she held up her hands, the gun hanging on her finger by its trigger guard to show it was both unloaded, and that she did not intend to resist them. The questioning lasted only a few minutes, during which time she answered them dutifully.

Yes,  she’d started it, but it was a mistake. No, she wasn’t a terrorist trying to blow up the station. Yes, she knew the rules and understood she could be fined. She left out the bit about him drawing the gun and told them it had fallen from his person during their altercation and that she would very much like to return it to him, since everything else was technically legal. When asked, she showed them the magazine from her pocket, with its little oxygen-impregnated shaped-explosive caseless rounds. They were legal, frangible rounds. The kind that turned to metal dust upon impact with hard surfaces, instead of punching through them.

The security people went on to ask her fifty more questions about the situation before finally relenting. They couldn’t do much more than detain her for a while anyway, and they no doubt had more pressing matters to attend to than a non-brawl on the hangar deck.
“Who the hell are you?” she breathed, looking at the door the man had disappeared behind as the security people moved off and the landing bay began to return to its former buzz of activity around her.

———-

-The authorities have cleared us for launch,- Jarvis announced, as Rayne closed the side airlock behind her.
“Was there some kind of doubt that they would?” She raised an eyebrow at the nearest of Jarvis’s optical sensors.
-There was an altercation involving a firearm,- he responded. -You managed to stop deck operations for nearly five minutes.-
“And?” she dared him.
-Yes, Miss Torres. There was some doubt. However, since the weapon was not fired and no one appears to have been hurt, they are clearing us for departure.-
“How nice of them,” she groaned, as she stepped up to the locker in her cabin and pulled the door open. The Serendipity shook, and the automated platforms and manipulators began to haul her toward the nearest available lock. Rayne barely noticed the disturbance; having grown up aboard the vessel meant that her “sea legs” were as solid as the best career spacers out there. Instead, she merely ejected the magazine from her mysterious watcher’s weapon, cleared the chamber, and set the weapon and magazine in their appropriate places in her locker’s gun rack, next to her own handguns and the other gift her father had given her the day she left Hygea.
The boltcaster’s dull shine did little to detract from the truth of the weapon’s capabilities. He had handed it to her with a stern look, then pressed a small case filled with ammunition and a holster inside into her hands. She still remembered the seriousness of his words as he’d done so.
It’s a dangerous solar system out there, Rayne, he had said. I hope you never use this, but I’d prefer you have it and not need it.
Picking up the weapon from its cradle, she hefted its weight, slight though it was to her cybernetic strength — the same strength that had doubtless led to her accosting a stranger on Io station. Its relatively compact frame was less than a foot in length, with a comfortable hand grip and utilitarian design. It wasn’t much more than a linear accelerator, a trigger, and a catch that released the breach for loading, but its nearly three-inch-wide barrel added a level of menace that few other weapons of its size could muster. Running her fingers along the barrel, she clicked the breach release, and her eyes widened in surprise at the crisp action as the barrel tilted forward, revealing the rear stops that would cradle the shell once inserted.
She’d seen her father use the weapon a few times, usually with simple, solid projectiles or scatter loads, but at the back of the shelf, plugged into the ship’s power to maintain the relatively delicate containment fields within, she could see the outline of the half dozen anti-matter rounds she had discovered in the case. Those, she knew, were a thousand times more dangerous than what the Conglomerate feared someone might do with an armor-piercing bullet. If she was ever caught with that kind of ammunition aboard a public facility, she would probably be shot without hesitation.
Another rocking motion shook her out of her thoughts, and she had the weapon closed up and put back into the locker before Jarvis announced over the ship’s intercom, -We’re ready for launch, Miss. Torres. The airlock is cycling us out now.-
“Thanks, Jarvis,” she nodded to the empty room. “Cycle up the engines for me please. I’ll be right there.”
-Compliance.-
Rolling her eyes at the ship’s computer, she unzipped her jumpsuit and shrugged out of the upper half again, tying the sleeves around her waist, as she made her way to the bridge. Already, her first job had proven to be more interesting than she would have expected, but gunfights with crazy strangers who had questionable fashion sense aside, she was confident that the worst she’d have to contend with going forward was a snarky AI.

Sighing happily as the conforming material of the acceleration seat gripped her body, she turned to face the controls, grinning like the Cheshire Cat at the vast, open starfield revealed through the opening doors in front of her ship. She stretched out in her chair and leaned her head back, sinking into an optimistic confidence, oblivious to the tiny, flickering warning on the right side of the main console.

An unfamiliar ship was falling in behind her, its sensor image fading out under the effects of some kind of cloak.

-Miss Torres,- Jarvis announced, highlighting the spot where the unknown vessel had disappeared in her sensors. -I think we may have an issue.-