the earthbound

Published short fiction from EVE Online:

A Federation Security officer hits the mean streets of a backwater world hoping to bust a smuggling ring.

Permission to reprint courtesy of  EON Magazine.
Art by John Augar.

 

earthbound_01Boot heels clipped on the flagstones, crimson reflections of the setting sun casting the two men’s shadows onto the rain-slicked pavement. They passed through concrete canyons, coats flapping in the post-storm humidity; one was stocky and possessed the carefully-cultivated blank expression of hired muscle, the other tall and wiry with the disjointed movements of a junkie too far past his last fix. They looked an odd pair as they made their way up a narrow side-street which wound between buildings.

“Where are… we going?” the taller man asked breathlessly. He was Intaki; his shoulder-length blond hair was greasy and unkempt, his clothes fashionable and expensive but with the look of being lived in for several days in a row. Blood-shot green eyes stared hollowly from sockets bruised by innumerable sleepless nights, set in a face which had once been handsome but now bore the hollow-cheeked, haunted look of a man with a monkey on his back. His name didn’t matter.

It wasn’t the first time he’d asked this. His shorter companion merely grunted and led the way up the hill. He was Jin-Mei, dressed well but casually in dark shades of blue and brown and moved with an understated confidence, seeming for all the world to be an integral part of the city, as old as the stones.

He had never been there before in his life, but that meant little. He made his living by blending in.

+++++++++

e’Finn ra Sik waited patiently in the shabby little bar, slowly smoking a cigarette, an untouched glass of thin, filmy beer embedding a water-ring in the rough surface of the table before him. Dressed in a worn leather jacket and frayed jeans, his middle-aged face half-masked by a scruffy beard, he might have been any other low-wage worker just in for a drink or three after a long day. He worked absently with an aging pocket-sized computer, to all appearances reading the news.

The door of the dimly-lit establishment opened; the newcomer glanced around without much apparent interest, a big Mannar with too much flesh hanging on a thinner man’s frame. He headed straight for the bar, ordered a drink and carried it over to Finn’s table, where he dropped bonelessly and without preamble into the opposite chair. “They got it,” the newcomer grunted. He took a swig of beer and grimaced as the liquid hit his throat, forcing himself to swallow.

Finn barely glanced up as he tapped ash from the end of his cig. “Solid confirmation?”

“Yup,” the other man said. He spoke without looking at Finn, his eyes focused on a random spot on the surface of the table. “It’s the archaeology site on the south side. You know, I’m amazed they have the balls to charge that much for this watered-down piss.”

“It’s the best you’ll get down here. Enjoy going native,” Finn responded mildly. The Intaki’s long fingers deftly entered commands which shouldn’t have been possible on such an old piece of equipment.

“My hairy ass. I’m just glad this’ll be over soon.”

“Don’t jinx this, Kyn. Remember last time.”

Kynnan Vatrieux pulled a face and stopped attempting to drink his beer. “I’d rather not.”

+++++++++

Unerringly, the shorter man led his lanky charge through the shadowed, rotting heart of the city to where the buildings” cornerstones had faded from memory, towers built upon towers, true ground-level buried a mile or more beneath the slow crush of human development. Far above them, evening sky cast wan light which never reached the depths; walkways crisscrossed at various levels, forming a multilayered cobweb draped across the forgotten refuse of civilization.

Eventually they reached a gap in the mesh, a place where the city bulwarks fell away to expose the bleached bones of a ruined stone structure to the darkening sky, a relic of a more primitive age. Vine-wrapped arches curved like picked ribs above the rubble of collapsed walls and broken tiles, tropical plants slowly encroaching to reclaim the land.

The Intaki stopped at the edge, his hand pressed against the cold metal mesh of the three-metre fence containing the site. “What is this place?” he asked, staring at the ruined building.

His guide turned and gestured irritably for him to hurry up. “Keep it quiet, this place echoes.” The voice was a gruff but surprising tenor, the bane of his existence. He rarely spoke if he didn’t have to.

“They’re in there?” The taller man’s face took on a hungry look, his eyes gleaming in the gathering twilight as his gaze sharpened, probing the fallen stone as if seeing it anew. He hurried to catch up, renewed spirit putting a spring in his step, his movements suddenly more certain.

The Jin-Mei eyed him and muttered under his breath.

+++++++++

Finn moved confidently through the lower levels, subterranean caverns lit with a lichen of seedy neon signs advertising the best pleasures a worker’s wage could buy (for one night only, no refunds). Only those beggars with nothing left to lose dared approach him, to be brushed aside without a glance.  He had other concerns to focus upon.

For months, his team had been tasked with tracing the roots of one of the more cancerous Syndicate black market rings operating out of this scumhole on Reynire VI; the ring dealt almost exclusively in capsuleer-grade tech which was fenced by unscrupulous individuals in the Federal Navy. The military was conducting its own investigations; Finn’s only concern lay in cutting the business off at the knees.

As he walked, Kynnan drifting like a shadow at his shoulder, Finn coordinated with the rest of his agents through a subvocal comms unit. “Rosso, do we have confirmation on which package they’ve picked up?”

“Two-three-delta. I got a good view of the location, but I’m only seeing people…”

“Wait, you said two-three-delta?”

“Yessir.”

Finn had paused on the street, appearing to ponder a faded menu pasted inside the window of a nearby dive. “Two-three-delta is the biggest of the tags. Get ready to move, follow the marks, they won’t be staying there. You, too, Turik. Stay on them close. I want everyone else to rendezvous at Point Eight, repeat Point Eight, keep a low profile. Confirm,” he ordered.

Responses came in as Finn straightened and started moving quickly along a more westerly route.

“Point Eight,” Kyn muttered. “This could get interesting.”

“Contact security there, inform them we’ll be onsite in fifteen. No more holes in the net. I don’t want another incident like at Point Three.”

+++++++++

Tripping over loose rubble in his excitement, the Intaki didn’t seem capable of holding his tongue, babbling his gratitude. His guide finally had enough and stopped, planting a heavy hand on his chest.

“If you can’t shut it and save it, there are others whose money is just as good as yours.”

The taller man made an attempt at indignance, but his guide had already turned away. Glancing around nervously, he shivered in the damp chill which had begun to settle over the city as night came on, then followed his guide through a crumbling doorway into the heart of the ruin.

Five people were waiting for them in the long, narrow space open to the darkening sky, three men and two women. All five had the same blank, unimpressed look as the man who had led him to this place. As the Jin-Mei moved to join them, the taller man halted, staring wide-eyed at the reception, and nervously ran a hand back through his hair. “I… um…”

One of the women, a pretty brunette perhaps ten years his junior, stepped forward. “Etrin Linleu, yes?” Her eyes met his unwaveringly, and he muttered an affirmative. “We have what you requested. Did you bring the rest of the payment?”

Inhaling sharply, the worn-out man pulled himself to his full height; once, this might have made him look impressive, but now the effect was of a scarecrow flapping in a breeze. “Don’t think I’ll just give it to you! I don’t see your end being upheld,” he gritted in a sudden display of backbone.

A smile played about the woman’s mouth. “Does this look like the sort of place to store something like that? This is just a meeting-point to ensure you weren’t followed. There have been… security issues… in the last few months. I’m sure you understand.”

“Y-yes. Of course.” Etrin looked flustered. “I have the rest of the money.”

“Shall we, then?” The woman made a gesture towards the door, then led him out, preceded by one of her bodyguards.

+++++++++

“They’re moving,” Rosso reported. The lanky Brutor flipped open a small tracking-device linked to the bead she’d tucked into the undercarriage of the dealers” vehicle, slotting it into the waiting holder between the handlebars of her street-bike. “I think you called it right, boss, looks like they’re headed for Point Eight.” On the far side of the ruins, the beam from Turik’s bike headlights splashed across the shattered concrete as he prepared to follow her through the narrow streets.

+++++++++

Sliding in amongst the shadows, Finn eyed the entrance, willing himself to ignore the glare of security floodlights from the nearby service docks. Gantries arced away into the darkness far overhead, their mechanisms silenced and shut down for the night. Point Eight was the designation they used for the city spaceport, once a busy gateway to the stars, now little more than a repair facility and haven for local traders and asteroid miners since the new central port had opened near the capital. It hadn’t taken long for the city to fall on hard times, leaving fertile ground for less-than-legal business to take root.

Point Three, the local university campus, had been the site of an utter fiasco two weeks earlier involving several of the instructors. Underpaid and overworked, they had attempted a step into restricted technology dealing as an alternative to begging the educational council for more funds. Finn’s group had arrived too late to catch their source; with only a handful of inept middlemen to show for the effort, neither Finn’s superiors nor the university’s president had been exceptionally pleased. It was imperative that they not fail again.

The rest of Finn’s team and a detail of spaceport security had concealed themselves around the entry in the musty darkness below the overhanging roof. Rosso’s husky voice murmured through comms, “They’ve reached the bridge over. Get ready.”

+++++++++

earthbound_02Pressed like a wilted flower between two of the armoured heaves in the back of the vehicle, his one small piece of self-assurance digging into his spine beneath his jacket, Etrin focussed on stilling the nervous twitching of his fingers and carefully avoiding the gaze of the younger woman in the facing seat. The vehicle crested the rise onto the spaceport platform and came around to a halt in the courtyard, where everyone but the driver climbed out.

The Syndicate agent stepped up to him as he straightened his coat, and held up a laser-engraved card between her immaculately manicured fingers.

“Hangar 14. The payment?”

He started to reach into his pocket, then paused. “How do I know there’s anything in the hangar?” Etrin asked, looking suspicious. The deal had already cost him quite a lot of ISK, and he wasn’t about to risk what he had left.

The woman closed her eyes and smiled patiently. “Fine, we’ll go with you.” She started to walk towards the arched entry to the hangars. “You can see for yourself–”

Lights flared, along with the sound of many small arms being prepped to fire, pinning the group in the courtyard in the open. The Intaki half-ducked reflexively, looking for cover. A clear voice called, “Federation Internal Security! You are all under arrest! Drop your weapons, get out of the vehicle!”

Time seemed to stand still for one long, quivering heartbeat. Then the dealer and her entourage drew weapons and the firing started. Etrin flattened himself to the dirty, grease-stained floor in the vehicle’s shadow, wrapping his arms over his head.

The noise, in that cavernous, echoing space, was unbelievable. Most of it was from the Syndicate agents, however. The F.I.S. were judicious with their shots; the spaceport security force was armed with less lethal weaponry. Two new arrivals on street-bikes skidded into half-turn stops at the top of the bridge; one snapped off a lucky shot which punched through the vehicle’s window, taking half the driver’s hand off and melting part of the steering controls as he screamed.

In the midst of the chaos, Etrin was peering cautiously from below his arms, seeking a way out, when he spotted it. The woman had her back to him.

He glanced around. Nobody was paying him any attention.

+++++++++

“Sir, the collateral is starting to escalate.”

Finn looked up from under his eyebrows at the security chief. “Why can’t people just bloody cooperate,” he grunted, finishing what he was doing. “You have…” he checked the digital readout on the object in his hands “…ten seconds.” Swinging out from his cover, Finn tossed the object so that it skittered underneath the dealer’s vehicle. Security agents pulled back and tugged filter masks over their faces as a gout of mist rolled across the centre of the courtyard.

As the Syndicate agents scattered, two falling unconscious in the gas, Finn thought he saw one run down the passage towards the hangars. He slapped Kynnān on the shoulder.

“Take over here, clean the mess up. I’ll be right back.”

+++++++++

Hangar 14 was further back than he’d thought it might be, but since the spaceport had been designed to contain up to cruiser-class vessels, it wasn’t as far as it could have been: the individual hangar access tubes connected via a single main corridor wide enough for three of the massive loading trucks to pass abreast. The sounds of the fight behind faded as he ran into the emergency-lit gloom.

Etrin had been waiting for this day for the last five years. It had cost him nearly everything he’d had left, and to come this close now was an acute, incurable ache in his heart which threatened to consume him.

The hangar door was sealed, and looking at the intricate security terminal sent a jolt of fear through his core. It offered several different levels of security access; what if the dealer had set it to require genetic scans or a code number in addition to the basic-level card? Hands shaking, he dropped the card into the waiting slot.

For a long moment, nothing happened; then the light on the terminal changed from orange to green and the door opened, sinking into the floor. Almost sobbing with relief, Etrin dashed through the door and down the short tube to the hangar.

There she was.

He sank to his knees on the balcony overlooking the hangar, tears running unnoticed down his worn, weary face. The size of a mass-transport airlift, a Federal-issue, capsuleer-grade planetary shuttle sat gleaming under the blue-green hangar lamps. She wasn’t much, less than what he’d started with seven years before, but to the man he’d become since then, she was everything. She was hope.

Pulling himself to his feet, legs shaky from the rush of the last few minutes, Etrin staggered down the ramp and across the hangar floor. Reaching up, he ran his hand over the smooth, brushed-metal hide of her underbelly, marvelling at the tingling sensation of the protective shielding.

The clatter of boots on metal decking brought him around. An older Intaki burst from the access tube onto the balcony, barely out of breath. Despite his unremarkable appearance, something about him told Etrin this was what he should fear most. He backed towards the ship, arms outstretched as the F.I.S. agent brought his sidearm to bear, diodes near the grip changing colour ominously.

“Step away from the ship, sir.”

Eyes wide, Etrin shook his head slowly. “You don’t understand. This… it’s all I have left.”

The agent stared at him, then lowered his weapon and made his way down the ramp. He looked up at the shuttle, then turned his gaze on the other man. “This is a sting operation, sir. That’s tainted goods you’ve got there. Tagged. We’re here to repossess it.”

Etrin’s throat tightened with despair; he squeezed his eyes shut at the bitter irony.

The older man sighed and shook his head. “C’mon, man, let’s get you some coffee or something, have a sit-down. You look like you’ve had a rough time–”

“Hah.” Etrin snorted and rubbed his face with both hands. He felt so tired now. “I lost everything five years ago when I was grounded by the Navy. They said… I was told… after all they tried to do for me, that they couldn’t justify maintaining me as a captain.” He looked at the agent in desperation. “They don’t know anything! So what if I spent more days in my pod than in the station? I was a good pilot, not useless like the others! I loved what I did for the Navy! And to have that torn away… was almost more than I could bear.” He sagged, one hand blindly, unconsciously reaching out to touch the ship again as if seeking comfort. “It took everything I had… to find this. Please. It’s all I have left.”

Shaking his head, the older man stepped forward, his left hand held out. “Sir, I know why you feel that way, believe me. My brother was in the same situation, but he improved and got his license back. You don’t need a ship, you need help–”

“What the hell do you think you know!” Etrin reeled back, fumbling the small hold-out pistol from where it had been concealed beneath his jacket, all but two charges spent. “I’m not gonna let you take my life from me! Not again!”

+++++++++

Hustling up the accessway, Kynnān flinched as the reports of gunfire echoed down from the open hangar door. Cursing under his breath, the heavyset man hurried up the access ramp and stopped dead at the top, in time to see the younger man crumple to the floor, a small pistol skidding from his limp hand across the corrugated decking. His heavy features settled into a frown as he stalked down the ramp towards Finn, who was picking himself up off the floor where he’d rolled. “Well bugger me. What the bloody hell, Finn?”

The other agent held up his sidearm for Kyn to see the diodes indicating stun settings. “He’ll be fine. Or he should be. Put a call in, just in case; he doesn’t look too healthy.”

“Didn’t get you, did he?” Kyn retrieved a comm unit from his pocket, pressing a button to help their small medical team locate them.

Shaking his head, Finn tucked the gun away and moved to roll the capsuleer over, long fingers pressing gently to where a heartbeat fluttered at the younger man’s throat. “Panicked, fired wildly. We need to get an ID on this guy and get him in for questioning, find out what he knows.”

Snorting, the Mannar stooped to pick up the discharged hold-out, turning it over in his hand. “He’d better know something, or we’ve got ourselves another sodding dead end. Bugger shot the fixer in the back, point-blank.”

“Well, that’s just great.” Finn rested back on his heels and ran a hand over his short hair, holding up a tattered ID he’d found in the unconscious man’s pocket. “Yeah, we’re going to need Navy permission to question this guy.”

Official holographic seals shifted in the light as Kyn turned the voided pilot’s license over in his hand and cursed again. “Just what we needed, egger trouble.”

The older Intaki leaned over to roll the capsuleer over again and secure his bony wrists behind his back. “Podder or not, get a warrant to search wherever he’s staying. He may still be able to help us.”

“How’re we going to explain this one?”

With a sigh, Finn pushed himself upright. “Infighting among the targets. We still have the tag, this time, and the access logs backup should still be intact.” A smile creased his worn features. “I think we came out on top this time, in spite of this idiot. I’ll call it in.”

 

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