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Toth Krag was the twelfth of his name.
Or rather, the twelfth to inherit the name and suit from the bounty hunter’s guild. The reputation came along with it, everyone his predecessors had hunted and killed, each trophy taken and reward collected. A name like that carried weight, dragged fear in its wake, and it usually meant there was no fight. Enemies heard the stories beforehand, so by the time he caught up with his quarry, they were sufficiently terrified to surrender at once. Since he donned the armor, nobody had spoken to him like a person, or attempted to connect with him.
Not until the Tiralan scientist here on Vaadla Station.
Her earnest determination to reach him still resonated because so many who came before believed him to be immune to such things as kindness or mercy. And he was supposed to be. He had been drilled until all the weakness bled out of him. Hunt. Find. Kill. But he loathed the killing, a bad soldier in this capitalist war. Yet until he paid for the cost of his training and equipment, he was bound to the armor and the name, indentured to the guild.
Thankfully, his next target scrolled across his helmet before he hurt either of the sentients who seemed ready to die for each other. Seldom had he seen such devotion. And it haunted him as he tracked the next quarry through the station. Borrower: VOLANT’S FABULOUS SPECTACLE. Responsible Party: YARA DUNCAN. PAYMENT DEFAULT. TO BE DELIVERED TO THE MARJAN COLLECTIVE. That was bad news for Yara Duncan. The collective generally didn’t bother with niceties, and most often chose to retrieve their credits via flesh or organ trade.
Krag came up from the sublevel in a freight lift and checked the station level by level. While it was likely that his target would be with the rest of the troupe, he preferred to be methodical. On the lower tiers, he found mainly maintenance droids and a few biological personnel who maintained them. None of them attempted to interfere with his mission.
He’d worked Vaadla Station before, and sentients gave him a wide berth. Only the plodding labor droids trundled at the same pace, despite laying visual receptors on him. While they might be able to scan and identify, they didn’t possess the capacity for fear. Eventually, he came to the top floor, the brightest and flashiest section full of entertainment options. Volant’s Fabulous Spectacle had rented a huge annex for their performances. The show was impressive, an entire luxury vessel devoted to curating unusual aliens and artifacts, and there were live performances as well. They seldom stayed in one place for long, so he needed to wrap this job up swiftly. Not that he’d be permitted to rest when he did. As soon as the guild registered successful completion, they’d send another task without delay.
Pausing, he scanned for his target. Nothing. Nothing but petty criminals with bounties not worth pursuing. Advertisements flashed in dizzying hues, trying to entice him to pause for leisure services while a fast-chatting sentient called out the virtues of his establishment personally. Vaadla wasn’t the seediest station he’d come across, more of a vacation spot for those who couldn’t afford better; that honor belonged the Marjan hideout, which was where he’d take Yara Duncan when he located her. This wasn’t a kill contract since they wanted her body intact to make use of all the parts and chemicals.
A brilliant scene flashed the name: VOLANT’S FABULOUS SPECTACLE on the other side of the promenade. Krag didn’t need to demand the crowd make way for him to approach; bodies naturally moved out of his path as he moved. Outside the venue, there was a queue waiting for admission, and they scattered when he approached as well. Nobody attempted to prevent him from entering the premises, another benefit of the armored suit and visible heavy weapons. His every step resonated with the whir of hydraulics. Inside, it was dim with lights flashing in various colors, a show already in progress. At once, the space erupted into chaos. Those who didn’t know who he was recognized that he posed a threat from the xerxax he carried.
They’re fleeing and screaming. Why do they always run?
Even without him moving or saying a word, the patrons started a mass exodus, nearly trampling one another to escape. Many would be wounded at this rate, and in the end, he would take the blame. Krag entered Volant’s and carnage ensued. And so the story grew.
He tapped the button to vocalize, aware that the suit made his voice deeper and much more intimidating, layered with reverb. “I have come for Yara Duncan. Immediate compliance will result in optimal results for all parties.”
Then Krag waited. Normally someone else dragged the target to him, whimpering, wailing, and occasionally evacuating their bio-waste systems, but delivery tended to be quick.
Rarely did he have to speak anything that resembled a threat. Yet this time, everyone blasting by him seemed more concerned about saving themselves than delivering his target to neutralize the threat. He waited a little longer and cursed silently.
We do this the hard way.
Heading for the private quarters attached to the public venue, he pushed through the thinning crowd. Data sticks and souvenirs had been dropped in the general melee, formerly precious personal possessions that crunched beneath his heavy boots. Some of the performers were hiding back here, because they had nowhere else to go on the station. Possibly they didn’t have the resources to seek refuge elsewhere either.
Not my problem.
“Yara Duncan,” he boomed as he smashed his xerxax into the door control panel. “If you have any regard for your comrades, present yourself immediately.”
The first room housed a pair of terrified Barathi, unique in their lack of head ruffs and lack of dorsal spines; their colors were odd too, but he wasn’t here to admire the unusual beings who made up Volant’s Fabulous Spectacle. Briefly he considered asking them where she was, but from their posture, he wouldn’t get any sensible answer out of them. They seemed to be frightened beyond the capacity for speech. Once, he’d been darkly amused by such reactions, especially when he’d done so little to merit it in his tenure as the fearsome Toth Krag. Now, he was numb to such reactions.
In the next room, he found a single Tiralan, and that made him think of the one he’d just let go, and the one who had pleaded for her life, who had been willing to die for her. You understand that, don’t you? a hauntingly familiar voice whispered. You tried to die for me, didn’t you?
But he’d failed, and his beloved died anyway. Sacrifice only resulted in pain and punishment. That was the lesson he’d learned.
Yet that uncomfortable sensation lingered, nettling him with the certainty that he’d been in the presence of something beautiful—that he’d found rare flora growing amid the cracks in the metal and that he’d chosen to step over it, not to crush it beneath his boots. If those two sentients spoke about what he’d done, the guild would silence them. Krag should have issued a warning to that effect before he moved on, but he’d only wanted to get away from the warmth and intimacy that reminded him of a time when he’d thought his life could be different.
I was wrong.
“Do you know where Yara Duncan is?” he asked the Tiralan.
“She did a live scene earlier. I’m not sure where she is now. Check her room.”
“Last one on the right. Please don’t kill me.” The last word broke on a quaver, and the Tiralan cowered away from him, head tendrils trembling violently.
I’m used to this response.
Not You want to let me go.
How had Qalu, the Tiralan from earlier, known? It ate at him, because he didn’t think he’d shown any signs of weakness. But it wasn’t the time to reflect on that perplexing encounter. If he didn’t grab Yara Duncan now, she might escape and the guild would deduct from his reward, resulting in less being cut from his indenture. At his current rate of work, it would take ten more cycles to earn his freedom, assuming he didn’t earn any additional penalties.
“Do not interfere,” he warned.
“I’m staying right here. There’s no way I’m getting between you and whatever issues you have with Yara.”
Part of Krag wished he had the liberty to explain that it was nothing personal. The guild registered the contracts, then the work was assigned. It truly was that simple. If he refused to hunt Yara Duncan, someone else would benefit, and this job seemed too simple to refuse. For once, he’d even been in the right place at the right time.
Before Krag did more than step out of the Tiralan’s room, however, a bipedal sentient stepped out into the open. “I’m Yara Duncan. Why are you looking for me?”
For Yara Duncan, things had been damn weird for a while.
She went to watch a meteor shower on her friend’s ranch, and that was her first mistake. Her second was not running when she saw the lights in the sky. But back then, she thought it was some elaborate prank set up for a reality show. She expected someone to say she was on Fear Antics, right up until the point when she got zapped, along with a bunch of cattle. She never did get to see the meteor shower, and she woke up in a cargo bay full of cows and aliens. The cows were valuable; humans, not so much.
She’d gotten dumped on the nearest station because they didn’t want to waste fuel bringing her back, and for a while she lived hand to mouth, unable to communicate. That…well, it was shit. Worse than Des Moines on a Thursday night. Eventually, she was “discovered” by the scout at Volant’s Fabulous Spectacle. First thing, they’d implanted her with a chip so she could accept their offer of employment formally, and then her life got way better.
She had no idea how long she’d been gone from Earth, but her new gig was awesome. A couple of times a day, she had to pretend not to know she was being watched while she did basic puzzles or ate food or wandered around. Aliens oohed and ahhed at her, and she got paid. She also got to see the galaxy on Volant’s dime. So far, it had been fun as hell. Easy work, and she liked being the center of attention anyway.
Until the robo-mech stomped in, shouting her name.
What’s that famous line? I have a bad feeling about this.
For half a second, she considered running. But that might get somebody hurt, and the folks at Volant had been good to her. If possible, she’d like that to continue working here. Who the hell did I piss off anyway? She was careful not to make any sudden moves. This dude was obviously armed, carrying a weapon like nothing she’d ever seen before, not even science fiction movies. There were other armaments on the suit, probably laser and maybe something that would disintegrate her into dust, just like Boba Fett.
The silence was lingering too long. Did he not understand me? Just as she was about to repeat the question, the mech said, “You will surrender.”
“Are you a cop? What am I being charged with?” There was no manual for space crime.
In fact, there was no how-to guide about any of this. In her first days on station, she’d nearly starved before a kindly alien took pity on her and started feeding her like a pet.
She didn’t move and neither did the mech.
Farfi the Incredible Annelid said, “You’re talking to Toth Krag.”
Out of the corner of her mouth, she answered, “I have no idea what that means.”
“I’m a bounty hunter,” Krag said. “You will surrender.”
“I deliver your body instead.”
Okay, she could see why everyone was running and screaming now. “I don’t want anybody to get hurt.” Especially me. “But can I ask a few questions? I’m not stalling or resisting, just trying to figure things out.”
“Ask,” said the bounty hunter. “Three questions. Beyond that, I will consider you hostile and proceed accordingly.”
A shiver went through her, weird because it wasn’t entirely bad. His voice was on the scary-deep end of the spectrum, sort of Vader-ish, but it was also giving her tingly ASMR feelings, like she could listen to him order her around for a while and—okay, no. This is not the time. Get your head on right.
“What’s the bounty for?” she asked.
She blinked. That made no sense whatsoever. “Can you check into that please? I’ve never received any credits. Technically, I don’t even have official status in the Coalition, so I can’t apply for a loan. They pay me under the table here; I’m an undocumented alien.” The grim humor of that almost made her break into nervous giggles.
She quelled the urge.
Toth Krag regarded her from behind the face plate, and it was so unnerving not to have any sense of what he was thinking. Finally he responded, “I didn’t understand all of that. Your translator chip must be malfunctioning.”
“It does that sometimes. Human idiom is confusing, apparently. But did you understand me asking you to check into the contract because I’ve never taken out a loan?”
“Affirmative. Querying the guild.”
“Thank you,” she said.
There, we can be civil. You don’t need to shoot me or dissolve my head.
Somehow she kept from fidgeting, though she could feel other performers watching her. A few slipped away while the bounty hunter was otherwise engaged, and soon, others followed. Eventually, it was just him and her, standing in the deserted annex.
Fuck, that bad feeling is getting worse. What’s going on here?
Even Farfi was gone now. The entire troupe had bailed on her.
They’re probably on the ship, ready to get the hell off Vaadla. I’m on my own. Again.
Then she eyed the bounty hunter. Not exactly true. She had Toth Krag, but he didn’t look like the soft and cuddly sort. Hard to tell with all the armor.
“Full details of the contract follow…” Toth Krag read a bunch of technical stuff, including the amount she’d borrowed as proprietor of Volant’s Fabulous Spectacle.
“Wait! The what now? I’m not the owner! I just work here. They feed me and pay a little bit, and I get to travel, but I’m not in charge of this traveling space circus! Something has gone completely wrong here. You need to talk to Tu-san. He—”
“Is not the debtor on record. You are.”
“Oh my God.” Her knees threatened to buckle. “I knew the show wasn’t doing great, but I never imagined they were borrowing from loan sharks. Or that they used my name to do it! Please, this is a big mistake.”
“I don’t know what a lending predator is, but it is applicable to the Marjan Collective. I have indulged your curiosity. My patience is at an end. Will you surrender, or do you prefer to escalate to violence?”
Yara steadied her nerves and reminded herself that she was an indomitable Midwestern farm girl, and she’d never liked Earth that much anyway. That was why she didn’t try to get back when she was first abducted, and just went where the galaxy carried her. Now, it seemed, the universe wanted her to go with Toth Krag. So be it.
“I surrender,” she said. “Take me to your leader.”
“I don’t understand.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “You’ll get used to it. That’s my way of saying, let’s go, cowboy. Saddle up, show me your shiny metal spaceship.”
“Though I’m unclear on what all the words mean, the overall composition sounds like enthusiastic compliance.”
“Yep! That’s me, enthusiastically compliant.” She took a step toward him, then added, “Wait, can I grab stuff from my room before we go?”
“You wish to…pack?” From his tone, he wasn’t used to this level of enthusiastic compliance.
“If there’s time. I mean, it’s everything I own.”
Yara expected him to say that she wouldn’t need personal belongings for what awaited her or something equally sinister, but instead, he said, “Go ahead. Be swift.”
Maybe he’s not as scary as he seems. And maybe Des Moines is a beach town.
Quickly, she grabbed her things, including all the prizes she’d won for puzzle-solving, and rushed back to him. “All set. So do you have your own ship? What about an awesome, ragtag bunch of motley rogues to assist with your adventures?”
“You’re a bounty hunter, right? That’s so cool. One of my favorite fictional characters is a bounty hunter, but he’s also kind of morally gray and sort of an ass. I have a soft spot for redeeming bad guys. I especially love the trope where they’re soft to the one person who’s unaccountably nice to them, and it really makes them gooey on the inside.”
“You speak a great deal of gibberish,” Krag said sternly.
Yara sighed. “You’ve probably never even heard of romance novels.”
“This way. My ship is docked on level three. Stay close or I will—”
“Consider me hostile,” she finished. “Yes, yes, I get it. I will not attempt to fight you, metal man. Instead, I’ll charm and amaze you with my verbal witticisms.”
“I don’t,” Krag said abruptly.
“Have a crew. I travel alone, apart from WU-T2.”
“Please tell me that’s a tiny, adorable droid who gets sassy with you.” She pressed a hand to her heart and beamed in Krag’s direction, though he was moving too fast to notice. Like a Chihuahua trying to keep up with a Great Dane, she raced after him.
“How do you know about WU-T2?” Krag demanded.
“Oh damn,” Yara said. “I thought this day had gone utterly to shit, but now I see that this is the start of an awesome quest. I’m so glad you found me, hero of my dreams!”