Chapter Twenty One

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He sat and waited, near their designated Spot One. Up above loomed the administrative section of the station, connected to the rest of it only through an elevator. Security cameras kept an eye on things, quite pointedly brightly coloured and visible, as did a team of guards.

The guards looked bored and had a bit of a reputation for causing scenes for the sake of having something to do, so Gaylen just stayed on an out-of-the way bench, neither moving nor interacting with anyone.

He'd turned his coat inside-out and bought a baggy hat for the sake of a quick change of appearance. It was no master disguise, but then Eldin wasn't a master detective.

Jaquan was the first to show up, and noticed Gaylen after a few seconds of subtle waving. The man still had his backpack on, though it had a much different shape than earlier. He was probably finished with all of his sales and purchases.

"So... trouble?" his friend said.

Gaylen had made his call to the crew brief and short on details.

"Yes. Eldin is here, along with some of his men and a few extra."

"And they know we're here?"

Jaquan sat down next to him.

"They sure do," Gaylen sighed. "Almost had me too. But I, ah... ran into an old acquaintance."

"So we're off?"

"We'd better," Gaylen told him. "I don't know what we're transporting, and I don't care. But Eldin really wants it."

"It can't have taken a small price to convince those pirates to hand over an entire ship and everything inside of it," Jaquan observed.

"Quite."

Jaquan looked about, scanning the traffic. Then he shrugged rather helplessly.

"I'm not going to lie; I was hoping for a longer break."

"So was I."

"And a longer break for the engine."

Jaquan gave him a meaningful look, reminding him of the strain they'd been putting on the ship ever since the pirate attack.

"We don't have to leap far," Gaylen said. "Just somewhere unpredictable. As long as they don't know we've made it to the Addax. And the Browns are no pirates. They've no skill for space robberies."

"If Eldin is as determined as you say, there's nothing stopping him from hiring more pirates."

Jaquan looked around again.

"Right here," he added.

"Yeah... but this is the situation, and we've got to deal with it."

"I know. I just hope the crew sees it that way."

"Yeah," Gaylen repeated, staring stiffly ahead. "Let's hope."

None of this was proving a good start. And he'd truly been hoping for a good start. Word got around among freelancer spacers. And crew that had proved capable were worth holding on to.

Kiris was the second to show up. She was still dressed as plainly as ever, but smelled of quality soap after her time at that bathhouse. The Chanei spent a moment in silence, just taking him in. Gaylen wondered what she saw, and why in all of space someone had engineered a subtype of people to read you like this.

"So, what is it?" she asked.

"Let's... discuss things when the rest come," Gaylen said.

Next came Bers, even more cringe-inducingly noticeable than before. His already jerky body language was now enhanced by obvious drunkenness. And he'd bought himself a big, bright red hat.

"Bers," Gaylen said as the man got close enough for him to smell that awful liqueur. "Have you been enjoying yourself?"

"Mm!" the man vocalised and nodded, then lost his balance slightly for a moment. Somehow his eyes looked even bigger than usual.

Gaylen restrained himself from any kind of criticism. This was supposed to be a two-day break, after all.

"Sit down, why don't you?"

The fringer slammed himself backwards into the seat.

"Did you enjoy yourself, Kiris?" Gaylen asked for the sake of saying something.

"I did, yes," the Chanei said neutrally. "That bathhouse is awfully nice."

This was followed by little more than silence until Ayna joined them, followed only seconds later by Herdis. Ayna had spicy meat on her breath, while Herdis looked flushed and sweaty, and had clearly hurried over.

"So," Ayna said. "Trouble."

"It's the Brecke Browns," Gaylen told the assembled crew. "At least a few of them, backed up by some local riff raff. And apparently they're having the Inner Ring watched."

"So, fight," Bers said simply. "No men, no problem."

He hadn't brought his axe along. But under his coat was a pistol and a large knife, and he stroked the latter in its sheath.

"I don't know how many men he has," Gaylen said. "I'd rather just circumvent the problem entirely."

"How?" Kiris asked.

"Literally. There are spots where one can exit the station on foot. You aren't really supposed to, but security isn't exactly tight there. Kiris can break a lock open for us, we take a stroll outside along the Outer Ring, and stop near our docking spot. There will be a maintenance hatch that Kiris can open as well, and we'll slip up into the Inner Ring. Then we'll just make our way to our dock, pay the departure fee, and fly off."

"Hold on, what about the atmosphere?" Herdis said. "We don't have air masks."

"The fumes vary in intensity," Gaylen told them. "I checked, and they're pretty gentle today. I mean, we shouldn't take any naps out there, and it won't be pleasant, but a brisk stroll won't do us any real harm."

Herdis smiled and shrugged, and Gaylen got the feeling it was at her own expense.

"Well... I wanted an adventure!"

"You can't say I haven't been giving you one so far," Gaylen said with a raised eyebrow, glad for a little bit of levity at the situation.

"Can we..." Bers hiccuped. "Can we walk outside? On... vada hi... structure?"

"People do do it," Herdis said. "For extra illicit meetings, and the like."

"And it's not just the support and maintenance structure out there," Gaylen said. "There used to be a habitat on a good portion of the Outer Ring. It was the original pauper town around here. But there was a systemic failure, the fumes got in, and no one ever put in the effort to rebuild. So it's all entirely traversable."

He looked them all over.

"And, look, if anyone has any better ideas, I'll hear them."

They all looked at one another. Bers looked a bit miffed over his earlier suggestion being shot down, but no one had anything to say.

Gaylen got up.

"Alright then. Follow me."

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