Enjoy another chapter of Edj of the Empire :)
Happy Friday. Because we love the weekend and our readers, here is the 3rd chapter of Edj of the Empire: Herrig’s World. The first 2 are available in earlier blog posts here (chapter 1 and chapter 2). The book launches on October 10th so you don’t have to wait long to read the rest! Join our mailing list to get in on a pre-launch special.
Mr. Tenew wasn't there yet, so I confronted Arll the bartender first.
“I need to know exactly what happened the last time I was in here.”
The bar was neither deserted nor especially quiet, but I was in no mood to care. Arll must have seen something of that in the set of my eyes, for he didn't even try to deflect me. After signaling for the other bartender to cover for him he told me to follow him to the back.
His office was a cramped affair, made more so by the fact that it serves double-duty as overflow stockroom. Cases of imported liquors were stacked to the ceiling, leaving just enough room for him to get to his paper-strewn desk. It had a door, though, which cut the noise down to an acceptable level as well as ensure our privacy.
He took a seat in the only chair and pointed to a corner of his desk for me. “Do you know who the woman you were talking to is?”
I don't know what I was expecting him to say, but that sure wasn't it. This conversation promised to get real interesting real fast. “She said her name was Nicolette.”
He nodded his scarred head. “It is. Nicolette Tar-Nevin.”
I was starting to get a tingle in my scalp, which often happens when I'm on the track of something big. “As in Tar-Nevin Mining?”
He nodded his head. “You were chatting up the owner's daughter.”
Talk about going straight to the top. Tar-Nevin Mining is the biggest and oldest of the locally owned companies, going back nearly 400 years to shortly after Herrig’s World was first discovered.
“So does everyone who talks to her get shot at?”
“A few have. Her father is not thrilled about her hobnobbing with the working class.”
Like there was anyone else for her to socialize with on this backwater rim world. “So it was one of her father's men who tried to zap me?”
“I didn’t say that.” His cybernetic arm came up to massage his bare head.
“I’m waiting,” I told him, drumming the fingers of my right hand on my quick-staff suggestively.
“As near as I can tell, the shooting was an accident. Seems a drunk miner drew his blaster and started waving it around and when somebody else was trying to wrestle it away from him it went off.”
“An accident, huh?” You might say I wasn't 100% convinced. “In my experience, ‘accidents’ usually turn out to have had some planning behind them.”
He let out a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, I know what you mean. And I didn't see it happen, you understand, but I'm thinking this really could be one of those rare, true accidents. The cowboy with the gun has never had anything to do with old man Weber - that's Nicolette's father - as far as I know. And he had just lost most of his pay, from what I hear.”
All right, I'm willing to admit that sometimes an accident doesn't have to actually have anything to do with me. It's unusual, but it can happen. But that still didn't account for what happened next. “And after that?”
Arll’s mech-tech arm hadn't stopped rubbing his head, and he was having trouble looking at me. Now, in my travels I've seen more obvious signs of nervousness, but not very often. This guy was really worried that I wasn't going to like what he had to say next but was too smart to try to lie about it.
I thought he was going to tell me that it was Nicolette's father's goons who had clubbed me and dumped me out back. I was already considering the idea that I might have to make an end run around the whole protective-father situation to be able to see her again. I've never revealed my true identity to a woman just to get her to go out with me - I'm not like that at all - but if it was the only way I could get her father to call off his hounds, she was worth it.
So I thought Arll’s hesitation was because he was waiting for me to ask how the thug knew to hit me precisely where he did.
Then he went and threw me a loop I didn't see coming at all. He said, “In the confusion, Mr. Tenew’s bodyguards hit you from behind.”
Those same bio-augments were once again sitting with Mr. Tenew when I approached his table. The voluptuous redhead was there as well, dressed this time in a form-fitting bodysuit that displayed an animated rainbow-hued ripple effect that was almost mesmerizing to watch. They had been joined by another flamboyantly attired man this time, and he and Tenew were chatting in hushed tones that quickly came to a halt when they saw me.
He looked me up and down and raised an eyebrow at me. “Ah, Mr. Ecnirp. How wonderful to see you again."
I stood a yard or so from the table and shot him a glaringly scathing look. “Save it. I’ll deal with you in a minute. But first, I have business with the ball-less buffoons who ambushed me the other night.”
Tenew’s mien of friendliness evaporated faster than water in an open airlock, and the two bruisers shot to their feet. One of them started to say something, but Tenew cut him off with a savage glare before turning his serpentine gaze back to me. “Your business is with me. Anything my employees may have done is for me to deal with, not you.”
My eyes never left the bodyguards, even though I spoke to Tenew. “I don't see it that way. In my book, every man is responsible for his own actions. Nobody gets off on the old ‘I was just following orders’ routine. If a man chooses to obey someone else, even though he knows what he's doing isn't right, that's on him and not his master.”
I'll give them credit. Both bio-augs knew what was coming next, even if their boss didn't. He was still trying to argue with me even as they started to separate and assume combat postures.
Now, I do believe there are times for so-called honorable combat where everyone plays nice and no one tries to win by, say, resorting to heavy weaponry when his opponent is unarmed. I really do believe there is a place and time for that. This was neither one of those times or places.
Both of my opponents were armed with blasters and were wired to the gills with all manner of augmentations besides. They were fast, too.
But I'm faster.
My quick-staff was a blur of motion. Its first target was the gun hand of the one on my left, which shattered with a loud crunch. This shouldn't have been possible, for his bones were all carbon-fiber reinforced - that's one of the most basic enhancements these combat types go for. But, then again, my staff isn't exactly unenhanced either. In a similar manner to the way Sam can shut his mass off into another dimension, my staff can, for a few seconds at a time, substantially increase the apparent mass of its end caps. So instead of the force generated by a couple of pounds being swung at such speed, it struck with that of a hundred pounds at speed.
His hand, and the hip behind it, didn't stand a chance.
His partner actually had time to draw his blaster. I didn't know if he was going to shoot me or not, but I always assume the worst when someone pulls a weapon on me. Call it a character flaw if you want, but I don't like being shot at. I shattered his forearm on my upswing, then for good measure took out one of his knees. I hadn't forgotten waking up in a garbage heap, and I wasn't in a particularly forgiving mood.
A sharp look was all it took to get rid of Tenew’s companion. When he was gone I collapsed my staff and let it attach to my left forearm, then got both bodyguards’ blasters and set them in the middle of the table before taking the vacated seat.
I deliberately turned my back on the two goons on the floor (Let me know if either of them goes for a weapon,) I told Sam, although I'm sure I didn't have to.
“Now then,” I said with a smile false enough to rival one of Tenew’s own. “I believe you and I have a flight schedule to discuss.”
He was sputtering mad. “You had no right to…”
“Didn’t I?” I stopped him cold.
“How did you… I paid top price for those…”
“Then you overpaid.”
Through it all, the redhead had kept her cool, and now she calmly said to Tenew, “I told you they were too big to be fast enough.”
The smile I gave her was genuine. “Spoken like a lady who knows her augmentations.” I stood up and reached right over Tenew to offer her my hand. “I don't believe we've been introduced. I’m Jed Ecnirp.”
She smiled up at me with enough wattage to melt a deep-frozen comet as she offered me her hand. Her touch sent a tingle up my arm and straight into my heart. “Melanada Tropess, but my friends call me Mela.” She accented the second syllable of her name. Me-LAN-a-da.
“Mela. What a wonderfully melodious name.”
Tenew, caught between us and most distinctly unhappy at being ignored, cleared his throat loudly.
I sat back down, not breaking eye contact with the beauty across from me. And just to irritate Tenew a little bit more, I said to her, “I would be honored if you would allow me to buy you dinner once I conclude my business here.”
That was too much for the man who thought he ran things. “You'll do no such thing,” he exploded. Pointing to the two men still writhing on the floor, he told Mela, “See to their injuries already.”
With that same calm confidence in which she'd spoken to Tenew a minute before, she said, “Medics are on the way.” I hadn't seen her make a call, but the way she spoke convinced me she had been the one to summon them. Interesting. There was certainly more to her than met the eye. Neuroware with a commlink, at least.
Reluctantly turning my attention back to Tenew, I told him, “You know, in a way you are responsible for what happened to them, don't you think?”
“What… what are you talking about”
“It was on your order that they waylaid me last week, wasn’t it?”
I could see him thinking about denying it. He wanted to, but after seeing how quickly I dropped his two thugs he was afraid of what I would do to him if and when I caught him. His thoughts played out on his face so clearly a blind man could have seen them. Finally, he swallowed and said, “Yeah, I did. That woman you was talking to is bad news. Don't no employee of mine need to have nothing to do with her.”
And why was that, I wondered. Was she competing for the same business? Perhaps Tenew wasn't my only lead after all. And Nicollette was certainly more pleasant to deal with. But first…
“So you already consider me one of your men? Good. And now that I have returned from my jungle safari, I'm ready to go to work. I trust you haven't forgotten about our arrangement?”
You know, I was half hoping he would try to weasel out of our deal. I just really wanted an excuse to mess him up. I suspect he thought the same thing, too, which is why he looked relieved to be actually talking business finally.
“Of course I haven't. I'm a man of my word, Mr. Ecnirp. In fact, I have a warehouse full of dino armor that is just waiting to be shipped.”
So that's how it was done. After my time with the Devil's Rejects, I should have figured that much out. Herrig’s World didn't have much of anything worth anything to the galaxy at large except minzite, but I could see where dino scales could at least be plausibly argued to be of interest to someone and thus worth exporting. A load of them would get me by the Trade Commission inspectors in orbit, anyway.
“Well now, that's mighty interesting. And whereabouts would the buyer be?”
He held up an index finger and wagged its side to side. “Ah, ah, ah. It doesn't work like that. I have certain procedures that I rigidly adhere to, and I make no exceptions for any man. You can agree to do things my way or we will not do business together. Is that clear?”
He was obviously relishing the feeling of being back in control, and I allowed him to hold on to that illusion while we watched a team of medics immobilize and load his two bio-augments onto floating structures and take them away.
When they were gone and the bar patrons had resumed their usual level of revelry, I burst his happy bubble by saying, “It’s too late to go trying to impose conditions now. I've already demonstrated my good faith by going on your little sightseeing trip. If you try to back out now, I can't say as I'd be very happy.”
He swallowed but managed not to look nervous. “All I'm saying is, in a business like this, I’ve found certain practices that make everything go smoother.”
I wasn't giving in an inch, and he knew it. “For one thing, until I have made use of a particular shipper’s service a number of times, I require that an observer of my choice accompany him. Surely you can see how a man in my position needs to keep an eye on his assets.”
I was liking this whole deal less and less, but since I'd already invested so much time in it, I figured I owed it to myself to try and see it through. “And who did you have in mind for this position?”
He actually looked like I'd caught him unprepared, like I'd asked a question he had no answer for. “Well, uh, normally it would be either Jifl or Marex, but you… uh… deprived me of their services for a time.”
I let that one pass; I didn't want him getting sidetracked again just then.
“The other employee I've used in the past is on a run right now. I suppose you can wait until he gets back or one of the others is recovered.”
I was about to tell him just how little I thought of that idea when Mela surprised us both by volunteering to go herself.
“I’ll do it, Foral.”
We both turned to look at her, although it's probably safe to say with different thoughts going through our heads.
“What? You told me yourself that the buyer is impatient,” she said to him very reasonably. “And after what Jed -” She used my first name, in all the intimacy that it implied. “- did to Marex and Jifl, do you think anyone else is going to want to ride herd on him? Face it, you've got no one else who stands a chance of keeping him under control.”
That statement bothered me for a couple of reasons. Why did she think I might need to be kept under control, and more importantly, how did she think she would do it? Her feminine wiles? I'm a ladies man, sure, but I'm my own man first.
Tenew’s next argument, though, suggested that there was more in her arsenal than just sex, however.
“And who is going to look out for my wellbeing during your absence?”
Wellbeing? Perhaps I'd been wrong about why he had her with him. I was starting to suspect Mela was much more than she appeared.
“Look at all these gunslingers. Don't tell me you can't have a few of them watch your back until I return.”
I could tell he didn't like the idea, but he seemed to settle on Mela going with me.
“Fine, have it your way. I assume you won't have a problem with her accompanying you, Mr. Ecnirp?”
I didn't. In fact, I found myself looking forward to finding out just what makes her tick. I didn't tell him that, though. What I said was, “Fair enough, I suppose, as long as I agree to the rest of your ‘procedures’.”
I had to remind him who was really in control, after all.
He was losing to both Mela and me, and it was leaving a bitter taste in his mouth that his expensive, foamy drink couldn't wash away. He downed it in a big gulp, anyway, before replying.
“There’s nothing much more to it. Mela will give you your destination once you are underway, and she will handle recognition protocols with the buyers once you arrive. And, of course, you will not be allowed to make any detours along the way. I can't have my shippers being tempted to call any of their friends and make, um, alternate arrangements. You understand, I'm sure.”
Oh, I understood, all right. He didn't want anyone stopping anywhere that had an ansible and placing an FTL call to any other buyers that might be interested in a shipload of tax-free minzite.
Of course, he had no way of knowing that I have my own ansible aboard the Wah. Expense is no barrier to keeping in touch with the Crown Prince, in the Emperor’s eyes.
I told Tenew that those all sounded reasonable enough. Then, just like any other profit-hungry smuggler, I broached the all-important subject of payment. He offered a ridiculously low amount, I countered with twice that, and we met in the middle just as we'd both known we would.
“You will return here, and when Mela assures me that all went as planned, I'll pay you. I'm sure you can see understanding my position in this.”
“Oh, I understand. I'm not crazy about it, though. I need to stock up on supplies, you know. How about half upfront?” Arguing, just like anyone worried about every credit would.
“No, I need to know you have a considerable incentive to return. And as for operating capital, that is one reason I sent you out with the clearing crew. Don't tell me you have already gambled all your pay away.”
That pretty much ended our meeting. We made arrangements to have my ship loaded the following morning and I told him I should be ready for departure by late afternoon. When I asked Mela about dinner she thanked me for offering but said she owed it to Tenew to remain with him that evening. I got the impression she did it more out of the obligation of a paid bodyguard than any desire for his company, though. A very interesting woman, that Mela.
As for myself, I was still tired enough from my last day of clearing work that I decided to limit the rest of my evening to a few rounds of cards with some of my fellow Rejects and call it an early night. I didn't even try to find any female companionship for the night. I'd be shipping out with Mela soon enough.