Author's Note: More draft pieces of the Space Hunter X-37 story, following more or less directly onward from the last one.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"This is Bonded Gunship Kiyel requesting permission to dock."
The ship hung in space, its movements exactly mirroring that of the ring-shaped space station. Docking protocols kept it lined up with the hangar bay doors, doors which should have opened automatically as soon as the protocols were initiated.
They had not.
"This is Space Hunter X-37 on BGS Kiyel, requesting docking permission," X said. "Again."
"Space Hunter, you must have a sufficient balance or a current credit sequence on file to access docking facilities," a voice said, smooth enough to be a robot but rough enough to possibly be an expensive robot. "Please update your payment information to continue docking or exit the docking area."
"But I have... never mind."
The ship's engines pulsed lightly and the wedge-shaped craft moved aside for the next ship in the queue as Space Hunter X-37 signed into her bank account.
"Why is the balance so low?" she said. "I turned in three bounties yesterday."
At the tone in her voice, the contextual query software opened up the pending transactions and highlighted the ones relating to bounty contracts. The payment for the Winslow contract had cleared, but she'd already spent most of that to pay down the marker on her ship. She had three incoming payments since then -- Vasilly had been true to his word on finding softer jobs for her --but they were all marked held.
Her credit sequence was also marked as frozen.
"You have an incoming cast," a soft voice said, seeming to come from every surface of the flight deck.
"Not now," X said.
"From the timing I believe it was triggered by you viewing the holds."
"That's alarming," X said. There was no point in arguing it was impossible, if Kiyel said it had happened. Someone had set a flag on her accounts in order to make sure they reached her after she realized her funds were frozen. There could be an explanation. There could not be a good one. "Put the call through."
Her financial statement dissolved and resolved itself into an image she recognized easily: the seedy countenance of "Marshal" Leroy Destyles 121, the blue frog-king of a backwoods plague rock she had visited once in pursuit of a bounty.
"Space Hunter," he said. "I have a job for you."
"Unfreeze my credit sequence and release my bounties," X said.
"You are in no position to..."
"If you're using these tactics to get my attention then you need me," X said. "So you can't be in much position to negotiate."
"Oh, but that's where you're wrong. You see, I want you, Space Hunter. I don't need you. If you're not inclined to have a reasonable conversation with me, I can turn off the cast and go back to my business while you starve and die, for all I know or care. I don't need you to do what I want you to do, but you need to do it for me."
"What legal basis do you have for interfering in my commerce?"
"There have been complaints," he said.
"There are always complaints."
"Yes," he said. "Your methods aren't exactly popular, though they are undeniably effective. I can sympathize. People don't like the way I do business, either. But I get the job done. As do you, in your own, rough fashion. That's why I am willing to give you a chance to prove yourself, even as the complaints against you are quite serious. I noticed you have a higher than average kill rate."
"My last three jobs killed no one."
"They didn't involve dead-or-alive warrants."
"So we've established I only kill when it is quite literally warranted," X said. "I just went over this with my Galpax contact two days ago. He's started routing me more detain or serve bounties."
"Most hunters still make the effort, even on lethal warrants," he said. "Out of simple human feeling."
"There's nothing simple about human feeling," she said. "It's a complication, and one I don't suffer from."
"Tch... that kind of talk won't weigh in your favor if your license goes to review for the extensive collection of complaints you've amassed," he said. "I don't see how you could hope to keep your license, under the circumstances."
"Yes, well, good luck with that," she said. "The council have a need for me, even if you don't."
"Ah, yes, I've read up on your little arrangement," he said. "I was curious about you, you know, after you teleported into the midst of my little world without so much as a filtration mask. Anyone human would have been wracked with intense stomach cramps within minutes, barring the sort of extensive modifications you showed no signs of."
"My lack of humanity is not some dark secret you can blackmail me with."
"No, but it's also not something that would stand in your favor," he said. "So I was curious what gene mods you had, and I quickly discovered... well, as you said, it's no secret. Nor is it exactly secret that the Galpax keeps you around to hunt your siblings and other exotics when they start causing problems. But here's the thing: your deal requires you to do specific jobs when called upon. It doesn't require you to be employed in a general sense."
"And how am I supposed to live, in your scenario?"
"That is not my problem."
"I will rephrase: how am I supposed to serve the peace when they call on me, if I can't make a living in between?"
"That is also not my problem," he said. "Oh, I'm sure if you kick up a big enough fuss you can get someone, somewhere to overturn the decision and reinstate you for the good of interstellar whateverness, but in the meantime? You'll lose contracts, you'll lose contacts, you'll lose money, you'll lose your ship..."
"I've lost ships before."
"Indeed... but you've hung onto this one a bit longer than your previous jalopies. Perhaps you've put a little bit more into it."
"Perhaps. Enough preamble," X said. "None of this matters. You want something from me and I'll either provide it or I won't. Tell me what it is and I'll tell you my answer."
"You are to bring me the illegal ship of the outlaw Matthew Varda," Destyles said. "I have a confiscation order for it, but given your checkered track record, I will need to inspect the ship personally in order to verify the contract. You understand? It comes to me and me alone."
"Matthew Varda who?"
"The outlaw," Destyles said. "That's what he calls himself. Oh, officially he's Matthew Varda 7853 but since he started tagging 'the outlaw' on his casts he's dropped the branch identifier from his global designation. His occupation is deep space miner and scavenger, but he has something of a passion for cybernetic engineering and weapon design. After an attack by raiders destroyed his ship and a good portion of his body, he designed a new vessel, the Spiny Sea Star, with a new weapon that he calls the trident. It's three oscillating pulse cannons on flexible mounts, designed to strike the same spot simultaneously."
"Sounds like a pointless gimmick."
"That's what the clerks who rubber-stamped his forms thought," Destyles said. "But Varda left out two key details. One is that he had determined a sequence of pulses that would disrupt any shielding, making his trident effectively a one-hit kill weapon. The other is that he intended to cover his ship with them, pointing in every direction."
"Is any of this a crime?"
"Well, re-designating himself without notice is, technically speaking, a violation of the sovereign world pact," Destyles said. "As far as his hardware goes, the argument has been made that he falsified his applications for the ship registration and the weapon designs. The main charge, though, is brandishing with intent."
"You said his ship is covered in guns. Why would he need to brandish anything?"
"Arguably he's brandishing them everywhere he goes. It's not just the ship itself, which any reasonable person would find threatening. Mainly, though, it's his buoys. Any time he sets up a mining operation, he deploys message repeaters to 'stake his claim'."
"Standard practice. Don't your mining ships do the same?"
"They do, but his are anything but standard. They consist of repeated warnings that any ship that approaches within visual range will be destroyed on sight. Our finest legal minds have agreed that is a violation of interstellar law."
"Is he doing this in major slow drive shipping lanes? In the middle of crowded mining belts?"
"No, Mr. Varda appears to prefer solitude," Destyles said. "Since his near-death experience, he has been seeking his fortune further and further from civilized space."
"Then I have yet to see the problem."
"Well, you can see why that message being broadcast in all directions would lead to complaints."
"I can believe that people will complain for frivolous reasons, certainly," X said. "You said this Varda was robbed and nearly killed. I can see his point of view."
"Nevertheless, he represents a breach of the peace," Destyles said. "He can't be allowed to zoom around in his doomsday craft, threatening everybody in earshot. Each time he disappears, the Galpax is prepared to assume he's gotten it out of his system, but then a freighter or a survey ship picks up his warning. It's very disruptive to legitimate commerce and traffic. And that's where you come in."
"Do you think someone that independent-minded is going to just give up?"
"Oh, no, not at all," Destyles said. "You wouldn't be the first hunter to go after him. Several have tried. A few have died. He's not bluffing, Space Hunter. He really will try to destroy any ship that comes after him, and he doesn't do warning shots. No one will touch the contract anymore. That's why it came to me, and that's why I've come to you."
"Do you imagine my survival instincts are any less than those of my colleagues?"
"No, I think your survival instincts are stronger," he said. "You're like the hardy bacterium that makes my world so unique: no one meant for it to exist, but it has no intention of going anywhere any time soon. And since your survival instincts are so strong, when you're forced into a position where you have no choice but to take his ship, I believe you will find a way to take the ship. As I said before: you get things done."
"You realize that taking on jobs like this is how I got so many complaints."
"Yes, there is a recent note attached to your file to that effect, in fact. It seems we have a friend in common," Destyles said. "So I will certainly be able to close the book quite definitively on those pesky complaints once I have seen the results of your extreme methods for myself."
"I'll take the contract, but first you need to unfreeze my credit and release my contracts," X said.
"This is not a negotiation."
"You are correct," X said. "I was in line for refueling and refitting when your I stumbled across your calling card. You can choose to believe whatever you want about my capabilities under pressure, but if it is true that I could find my way to Varda and bring his ship in without a functional vessel of my own, it would take longer and be more difficult compared to simply putting fuel in my ship, fixing it up, and then devoting my full capabilities to the chase and capture of the Spiny Sea Star. There's no advantage to making me hitchhike after my quarry. Not when you've already demonstrated your power."
"Very well. I will release the holds," Destyles said. "But you are enjoined from taking any further contracts pending a review of the complaints against you, said review being suspended pending the completion of this task of profound civic importance. If you can succeed where others have failed, that will be considered against the other evidence, and I predict a favorable outcome of the review. Do we have an understanding?"
"I understand you," X said. "For the most part."
"What part is not clear?"
"You have such faith in my abilities," she said. "You expect me to do the impossible for you. I think you'd be afraid of making an enemy of me."
"Are you threatening the duly appointed representative of a sovereign world to the Galactic Council for Peace?"
"No. And legally, I wasn't threatening your nephew when I came to your sovereign world," X said. "He still ran for it."
"And if he'd stood his ground, you couldn't have touched him," Destyles said. "He was a fool, and if I resent your interference in my sphere, I am not sorry to be rid of him. We'll never be friends, Space Hunter, but it's a big galaxy. There's no reason for us to be enemies. There's no reason for us to be anything. You're not sentimental. If you were human, you would have told me to fuck off when I put you into an impossible situation, just because I'm the bastard who put you there. But you? You don't care. You'll find your way out, and once you're out, you'll have no more interest in me."
"You're sure about that?"
"You're trying to bluff me because if I back down now, that's the easiest path out," he said. "But I won't. I'm sure. You didn't hold a grudge last time."
"Maybe you didn't matter to me."
"Of course I didn't. We could both have lived long and happy lives without crossing paths again if I hadn't thought of you and reached out. And once I'm no longer standing in the way of your continued employment, I won't matter to you again. You have no legal recourse against me, and if you were willing to burn your career to the ground for spite's sake, you'd block me now and be done with it. You'll be reasonable. Just as I'm reasonable. See, I never carried a grudge, either. All these years and I never sought you out, until now, when I have a once-in-a-lifetime use for your talents. Now, you may be irritated at being hemmed in, but the bounty is legitimate, and it's potentially quite profitable besides. Whatever income you're losing out on by not being free to pursue other contracts will be more than made up for when you take down Varda."
"When I bring in his ship, you mean. It's a confiscation order. There's no bounty on the man."
"No, but I'm sure when you study his file you'll agree he's not a man who will part with his property willingly, and you don't even have to be a Space Hunter to kill in self-defense against the threat of lethal force. Incidentally, there is no bounty on him, but the payout is higher if he's dead. If he's alive, he'll be entitled to compensation for his ship, less the various fines and fees. Vagaries of galactic law... just because something is illegal doesn't mean the Galpax can just take it away. But with the man dead and no heirs, salvage rules apply. Dangerous materials have to be turned in, but you'd be paid their value."
"So you do want Varda dead."
"It's not a question of what I want. I am simply demonstrating that I am not your enemy," Destyles said. "This is a good contract and one I believe you are uniquely suited to handle. A menace to the peace is killed, a dangerous weapon removed from circulation, you get a payday, and my superiors in the Galactic Peacekeepers are happy that I solved an intractable problem. There are no losers here."
"Except the outlaw Matthew Varda."
"Who chose to be an outlaw," Destyles said. "I mean, he started putting that in his signal beacons after receiving the first desist orders. No one wanted to haul him before a magistrate for going a little persnickety, not after what he went through. But he just became more flagrant about it, and then he started firing on our ships. He's backed us into a corner."
"Has he? You gave me the impression he's gone to ground."
"Only because the heat is on. And still, note that we only want to remove the threat."
"But you don't mind if he winds up dead."
"Well, I can't say the galaxy wouldn't be safer," he said. "But that's not up to me. It's up to you. And so I'll leave you to it. Good luck, Space Hunter... and happy hunting."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Give me a four-dimensional map of galactic space cross-referencing these reports," X said.
The surface of the oblong table in the middle of the room shimmered, and then a view of the galactic wheel appeared. The stars all faded out, and then specific areas lit up, circled with rings magnifying specific star systems with color coding for date. Each one shimmered briefly in a sequence, with many lengthy gaps.
The sites of Varda's mining camps were spread on all sides of the galactic disk, well too far apart to have been accomplished by slow FTL. X had already put out searches for money transfers, commerce reports, and docking records for both Matthew Varda's legal designation and his colorful affectation, with few hits and none recent. Even with over half of his body visibly replaced with distinctive hardware, visual sightings seemed few and far between. Normal skiptracing techniques were not going to avail her here.
"Kiyel, I'm going to need your processing power for this," X said. "Tie everything available into the main visualizer."
"Online," Kiyel said.
"Extrapolate the the most likely known hyperway routes that would result in this sequence of destinations."
There was a longer pause then she liked, before long loops of ribbon began to connect the sites.
"What's your degree of confidence in this projection?"
"Very low," Kiyel's soft voice said. "The amount of time between his known appearances cannot be accounted for by any reasonable hyperdrive route."
"Well, he can't just pop out right next to a conveniently unclaimed asteroid with a lode of ore to harvest, and he wouldn't post beacons until he's mining a claim. Assume time for trawling and prospecting at low speeds. Does the timeframe seem reasonable?"
"According to available data about asteroid mining: no."
X sighed. "An unreconstructed cyborg who broadcasts death threats in every direction should be easier to find."
"It is a big galaxy," Kiyel said. "From what information is available about Matthew Varda, it must be assumed he chooses isolated locations where no one is likely to encounter his warnings. His ideal outcome is that the warnings are unneeded. At the point they are received, something has already gone wrong with his plans."
"Despite his calculated air of menace, he really is going out of his way to avoid trouble," X said. "If only that were good enough for the council. So we should assume we're missing more of his digs than not, and this data is useless for extrapolating a pattern. There's also nothing solid in the files about what he's doing with all that ore. The theory that he's selling it on the New Frontier's black markets is a good one, but they don't have their own currency and he's not making any deposits we can trace."
"Crypto on hard media?" Kiyel suggested.
"That's my working theory for now," X said. "It would still leave a record when he buys something in a connected port, but if he's keeping all his business within the New Frontier, unaffiliated worlds, free ports, and pirate bays, that wouldn't matter."
"Your tone implies a low degree of confidence," Kiyel noted.
"He redesigned his body and his ship because he was victimized by pirates," X said. "And while his ship may be invincible in open space, it's a sitting duck in port. I can't imagine him going to such extremes and then strolling nonchalantly into a gang of cutthroat raiders. He's too conspicuous and his ship would be too big a prize for anyone to let it just undock and fly away."
"But he's not taking his ship to any legitimate ports, either," Kiyel said. "Is it possible he has another ship?
"Traded a load of ore for some beat-up freighter? It's possible. It's also possible he has a confederate who acts as a front, handling all the buying and selling," X said. "But I don't think anyone this paranoid would be comfortable leaving his profits in someone else's hands. So either he's got a central base with a lot more storage than a mining ship -- which is possible, since space is abundant in space -- or he's bartering raw ore for whatever he needs and then trading the rest for something compact and valuable. There aren't a lot of things that fit that description that would be relatively fungible and liquid, so he's losing money on every transaction, for the dubious privilege of remaining off the grid and on the run."
"I know people who have made more lopsided bargains for their freedom," Kiyel said.
"I wanted your help analyzing Varda, not... anyone else. Judging by the reports, he's started pulling up stakes as another ship comes along," X said. "And he was just spotted three days ago. There's an average time of five and a half weeks between encounters, but it's been as long as one hundred and thirty-two days. We can't afford to sit around waiting for a lead."
"It would be cheaper to drift," Kiyel suggested.
"Cheap isn't free," X said. "Even without using the hyperdrive, you'll be burning fuel just to keep me alive, and we're going to have a cash flow problem until we catch up to Varda. Hmm. Cash is limited, but my credit is excellent. For the moment."
"Do you wish to remain in dock? The fees will accumulate quickly."
"No. Let's compose a bounce cast to the outlaw Mathew Varda," X said. "'This is Space Hunter X-37. I'm supposed to find you, but I'd rather look you in the eye than bump into you in some asteroid field. I will be on the planet... X2-J7-77 Paradiso... for the next standard month. Come and see me if you'd like to get a drink and tell me your side of the story.' Attach my credentials, but replace the ID photo with something from me practicing facial expressions in the screen. Something that registers as 'alluring smirk' or 'come hither glance'."
"You don't record yourself practicing facial expressions."
"Yes, well, that's not the same thing as there being no recording of me doing it, is it, Kiyel?"
"Searching," Kiyel said. "Searching. A month on a resort world? I thought we were trying to save money."
"You're cheaper to keep on land than you are in space, and parking space is cheaper on a sparsely inhabited planet than on a space station. The dock fees will be comped with my room at a decent hotel, and my room will be on credit. I should be able to float it for up to a month without any problems."
"That sounds expensive, credit or no."
"Just because I can't work as a Space Hunter doesn't mean I can't earn money. If he bites, then I'll have made contact with him faster than it would take to get a hit, statistically. If he doesn't... I'll have learned something about him worth knowing. He still might surface in the meantime, either way."
"Do you think he will bite?"
"Impossible to say," X said. "I suspect he may be lonely, after years of being a hermit. I suspect someone as careful and clever as he is could find a way to a place like Paradiso to blow off steam but that out of an abundance of caution he wouldn't unless someone or something prompted him to. I suspect I will pique his curiosity, and he'll want a chance to size me up as much as I want one to size him up."
"You can't take him in on a planet," Kiyel said. "Still searching for a come-hither glance."
"It shouldn't take that long to find one picture."
"Facial expressions can be difficult to process."
"Is that a comment on me or on you?"
"Anyway, I know I can't operate on Paradiso, but like I said: just because I can't be a Space Hunter doesn't mean I can't work. I can work him. Learn something about him, maybe. If he can't be talked into surrendering I still may be able to introduce some doubt, which could lead to hesitation when it matters. He may say something unintentionally revealing about his plans or methods. We may be able to follow him when he leaves. I don't have an exact plan, Kiyel. I just know that I can't do anything until I find him, and that once I do, I may be able to do something. I just don't know what it is."
"Photograph located. Uploading."
"Wait, let me see it," X said. An image of her, her hair slightly tousled and one eyebrow quirked, replaced the galactic map. Her mouth was doing a thing she wasn't sure how to quantify. "That's alluring?"
"Statistically, yes," Kiyel said.
"Okay. What's your best estimate for how long it will take the bounce to find him?"
"My best estimate is that there's not enough data," Kiyel said. "It could reach him in minutes, weeks or days."
"Don't send it until we arrive planetside, Just in case it works too well, I want to maximize my time to get the lay of the land. What's our status?"
"Refueling complete. Repairs complete. Recharging complete. Resupplying... mostly complete."
"There were only two teleport charges available for sale on the station. You currently have seven charges available."
"...how much and how long to get back up to ten?"
"It would require an additional 60% per charge and take seven days to route them here."
"Seven charges is more than you've ever used at once. As long as you have one in reserve to get back to me, you'll be fine. Why do you need ten hops in the tank at all time?"
"Because they're expensive and hard to come by," X said, very quickly and very firmly. "I never know when there will be a supply snag or how long it will take to sort out. Okay, start monitoring the markets for charges on or near Paradiso. I'll take as many as five but we're not going more than 20% over my normal price."
"I don't think your normal price has been normal for a while now."
"Just do it. And go ahead and handle the departure protocol and lay in the course yourself. I need all the time I can get to get ready to play human."