Volume II

“Holy hell!” Vin spat as the body of the woman spilled out on the deck of the cargo hold.

Immediately he knelt down beside her and touched his fingers to her neck, checking for a pulse. As he touched her, she rolled over onto her back and Vin reflexively shrank back from her as she came into full view.

“What the frig?!”

As the light streamed down on the form before him he curled up the edge of his lip in distaste. The body was not that of a young woman after all, at least not completely. Most of the left side of the figure bore the soft, shapely curves of a young woman with athletic, toned muscles and the appearance of a strong youth about her. Half of her face was very attractive, with high cheek bones and delicate features, including a long ear that tapered to a thin point, long inches from her head. The left side of her chest looked to bear a firm, shapely breast, although it was difficult to tell through the dirty coveralls and smudged T-shirt, and the left hip and thigh were also that of an athletic young woman.

The person’s right side however, was an entirely different person. The right side of the figure was that of a skinny, but seemingly well muscled man. His face was thin and gaunt, and appeared perfectly at home in the dirty, tattered coveralls and ugly T-shirt. The female half of the figure’s head bore a long, thick shock of icy blue hair while the male half bore a wispy halo of thin grey/white hairs. The dividing line between the two very different halves of the figure looked like an open, festering wound that ran from the upper left thigh, through the center of the body and directly between the eyes, almost perfectly bisecting them. Looking closer at the wound he saw a thick, transparent fluid that seemed to flow around the wound like a river in constant motion, although it never splashed out of the wound or even dripped away on the underside of the body.

“What the hell have you gotten me into here Lou?!” He cursed under his breath as he stepped back from the figure and looked at his portable scanner again. Quickly he st the device to check for airborne pathogens and chemicals. The device ran through a testing cycle and then chirped the all clear, which allowed him to breathe a sigh of relief. Again he bent down toward the figure on the deck and pointed the scanner at them, keying a few more controls and starting another scan. Finally the device chirped again and he inspected the display.

“Nanites…” His voice trailed off as he lowered the device to his side and inspected the long, vertical wound on the figure’s body. “What they hell are they doing?”

After poking at his scanner for a few more minutes he finally decided on a course of action. Pulling some bedding from his cabin he set up a palette on the floor and gently rolled the figure over onto it, grunting at the unexpected weight of the person and paying careful attention to not touching the open wound with its river of nanites.

Finally he slipped back out of the cargo hold, locking the door securely behind him and made his way back to the cockpit where he quickly keyed up Lou’s comm.. The lights in the cockpit dimmed slightly as a holographic image of Lou’s head appeared in mid-air over the main console. It was a fat, round, slightly balding head with a well-manicured beard and moustache and sharp, intelligent, hazel eyes.

“Vin my boy! What can I do for you?” Lou’s steady tenor voice filled the room.

“You can tell me what the hell you have me hauling here Lou. You know I’ll do just about anything for you but hauling bodies is more than a little over the line.”

Lou’s face wrinkled up as Vin spoke to him, clearly his words struck strangely. “Wait a sec there Vin, who’s hauling bodies? That crate is supposed to have a dozen cases of Jovian brandy in it.”

“Brandy?! Lou you sent me half way across the system to deal with Axel of all people for a crate of brandy?!” Vin slumped back in his chair and ran his fingers through his blond hair with a heavy sigh.

“You’re damn right I did! That’s the best brandy in the system and the damn feds have Jupiter tied up in more red tape than I can get through on my best day. I’m having a little sware here next weekend and I need that brandy to set the mood if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t believe this crap. You told me this was a milk run Lou. You told me there wouldn’t be any more like Mercury, ever again.” Vin was talking into his hands now, holding them over his face in exasperation.

“Calm down Vin, what’s going on?” Lou’s voice managed to sound almost interested in the answer.

“What’s going on?” Vin slapped his hands down on the armrests of his chair and pushed himself upright in the contoured fixture. “What’s going on is that there is an unconscious, nanite-infected, mutant in my cargo hold Lou! And it came in your crate instead of your damn Jovian brandy!”

“A nanite-infected mutant? Vin you’re talking crazy man. What the frig is going on up there?”

“What’s…?” Vincent stopped himself half-way through the statement and decided instead to punch a couple of buttons on his holographic control panel, sending an image from the cargo hold cameras across the net to Lou’s terminal. “There. THAT’S what’s going on. You explain it to me!”

Lou’s face contorted a bit as he inspected the video stream from the camera. “What the frig is THAT?” he finally managed.

“I don’t know Lou. That’s why I’m calling. THAT, came out of your crate.”

Lou quirked an eyebrow as he inspected the image with a deeper scrutiny. Finally his look turned angry and his voice rose several octaves. “Hey! Where’s the rest of my brandy?! There’s only four cases in there!”

Vin slapped himself in the face suddenly, dragging his hand down his reddened cheek in dismay. “Lou. There is a strange, mutant, PERSON on my SHIP. This strange, mutant, PERSON, came out of a crate that I picked up for YOU. To hell with your friggin BRANDY!! What am I supposed to do with this… person?”

Lou’s expression softened a bit as he looked over his own console for something or other. “Look Vin, I’m sorry about that, it’s just that I was counting on… well never mind that anyway. I don’t know what’s going on. There wasn’t supposed to be anything in that crate except the brandy. If I didn’t know any better I would think maybe Axel is trying to get back at you for that last run-in you two had.”

“That’s all well and good Lou, but Axel didn’t know I was coming until I was there. Unless you told him.”

Lou’s face turned guilty for the briefest of instants, then apologetic. “Well, I may have… I mean…”

“Oh Lou, tell me you didn’t tell him before hand…” Vin swore silently to himself as his friend’s face turned even more guilty. “Dammit Lou, how could you do that? No names Lou. It’s the first friggin rule, NO NAMES!!”

Lou started stammering, clearly he was sorry for the slip up. “I’m sorry Vin… I just… No one else would take the job. He’s fragged relations with every other runner in the system and he knows it. When we arranged the pick-up he mentioned you by name and I just agreed with him. I swear I didn’t do it on purpose.”

Vin grimaced at the disembodied head before pressing his lips into a thin line and looking at the camera feed from the cargo hold. The person was still laying quietly on the palette of blankets he had set up.

“Forget it Lou. Damage done. But now you are in this with me. I need you to run this persons… eh… faces through the system. Find out whatever you can and get back to me. I am going to divert to the dregs and see if I can find a hidey hole to set down in for a while until we can figure out what Axel dumped on me.”

Lou’s face changed again, this time he was all professional. He nodded agreement and tapped a few controls on his console. “Doing it now, as messed up as it is though, it is going to take a while. Do you have anything else I can work with? How about an RFID?”

Vincent shook his head. “None. At least not that my scanners can pick up at any rate. Could be a runner, or maybe a merc? But what the hell is happening to them?”

“Wish I could be more help there. You said something about nanites?”

“Yeah. Here.” Vincent tapped a few controls and sent the information from his portable scanner across the comm. link. “I’m not sure what exactly is going on here but that ugly open wound seems to be filed with nanites, and they are very busy doing something, although I am not at all sure what.”

“Ok, I’ll look into it. Contact me again when you touch down in the dregs, hopefully I’ll have something by then.”

Vincent sighed again as he punched a new course into the Neophyte’s auto-pilot and pushed the throttle up a bit. The sooner he got under cover the better off he would be. “I will, I am putting the heat on so I should be in the dregs in… “ he glanced at his HUD briefly, “twenty-two hours and change.”

“Alright, I’ll talk to you again then, stay safe Vin.” Lou’s head turned away as if he were walking out of a room, then suddenly whirled around again, “And Vin?”

Vincent looked up from his controls back to the disembodied head once more. “Yeah?”

Lou frowned slightly before he spoke. “For what’ it’s worth. I’m sorry about this. I didn’t mean to et you in any trouble.” He sounded genuinely concerned for Vin’s well being.

Vincent grinned mischievously at the image. “I know. That’s why we can still be friends. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Lou’s face went back to its business-like appearance then and he nodded. “Stay safe friend, and good journey.”

Vincent waved his hand through the image of his friend’s head and it instantly winked out of existence, returning the cockpit lights to their normal level. He tapped away at his holographic controls for a few moments before leaning back into his chair and stretching himself out languidly and looking out the view-port into the open space surrounding the Neophyte’s Serendipity.

He almost began to relax before his eyes caught sight of the video feed from the cargo hold and he noticed that the palette was now devoid of the strange figure from the crate.