I walked into a bar that I espied on the way. It was a little place tucked away in a corner. When I walked in, I realised it was one of these dingy places. Still, I’ve seen worse. I sat myself down on the bar stool. Before I could even order, a woman walked right up to me. She had a lined face and grey hair but still looked strong as if she was used to a life of physical labour. And she had the skin tone to show it too. She had on well-worn but good quality work clothes. “Excuse me…”
I moved a little out of the way to make room for her, thinking that’s what she’s asking.
“Um… no, I mean, umm, do you have a moment?” She looked nervous.
I looked at her and wondered what she could be wanting. “I guess.” I finally said.
“If I’m not mistaken… you look like a soldier or at least someone who knows their way around a tough spot. I mean, everyone else here is like me, a rancher or farmer. We don’t see rougher types like you very often. Am I right about that?”
“Yes, are you hiring?”
“Well, um, yes. You see, me, and well, a few others, could use some help, and we’d all pitch in to pay.”
“The job is? I will consider it after I hear about it.”
“Well… um, let me order you another drink” and she signaled to the bartender. “You see, a lot of us have been having problems. Machinery broken, animals slaughtered, crops poisoned, but we don’t seem to be able to find out whoever is behind it all. Our bosses are getting nervous and we’re getting nervous ourselves. A few have been injured by the busted machinery, and our bosses don’t have endless money to keep pouring into this place. But it’s home to the rest of us, and we want to keep building something here”
“Hmm…” I drummed my fingers against the table top, “a bigger job that I expected. How much are you paying?”
“I guess it depends on what you can do for us. None of us are rich, so not a lot. At least finding out who’s responsible. I don’t know about taking them on or anything, but if we knew what was going on, maybe we could take care of it. But I also think it’s a dangerous job. These are people willing to do very bad things.”
“I’m not alone, I have a crew, so let me take this back to the others. If we make a decision, do I come back here for you or?”
“Yeah, I’ll either be here or just tell Sammy over there,” she pointed at the bartender, “and he’ll know how to get hold of me.”
“All right.” Sometimes things just fall into your lap. For good or ill. I could really use a drink to drown the worries with the Old Boy, though, as least for a while. So I ordered my drink and then a couple more after that.
At some point, Aurora walked in. “How’s the local brew? Next rounds on me.”
Estella nodded to me, “Guppy here is a real natural at driving, makes me wonder if she might not be able to take our old girl out for a space jaunt someday too.” That excited Guppy no end.
“Light refreshments only.” I answered Aurora, pointing to the glass in my hand. “I have a potential job, Sammy here will act as our messenger if we agree to take it on.” I indicated the bartender.
“You’ve been busy it seems,” Aurora smiled wider, “What needs doing?”
“Sure,” Estella ordered a light mixed drink and 2 slices of pie. “We could use the extra cash, so long as it isn’t too seedy.”
“Well, it’s a bit like the converter job, except on a larger scale. Someone tampering with machinery and crops alike. Local workers are gonna chip in and pay us to do what we can.” I told them.
“So they want us to find the people responsible. and then what? Run’em out of the area?” Aurora tilted her head as if in thought.
“I wonder if the incidents are related? Whoever’s putting the squeeze on the miner might be doing the same to every independent business on the frontier here, trying to drive them all under so a corporation can set up shop.” Estella contributed her thoughts.
“Find out who did it, at least. The rest is up in the airs. We might not get paid for anything after that. I doubt they can afford it.”
“Investigating whoever it is might also lead us to find out more about who else might have the pull to hire mercs,” Aurora nodded at that prospect.
“Sounds like an easy enough job, did they say how much they were willing to pay?” Estella asked me.
“Not directly, I told the woman we will chat again after I discuss it with you all. I’m not expecting much, something to tie us over for the short term.”
“Sounds good,” Estella glanced over at the bar tender. “We might be able to get a better deal in local goods and services rather than straight up credits as well, if there’s anything we need for the ship or our crew still?”
“Depends what they have to offer, but credits are useful beyond today, let’s hear their full offer first, also we can ask them about that black building you mentioned, I’m sure they know something, it’s not as if it sprang up over night, someone had to buy the land, build it, they probably know what services it offers at least.” Aurora suggested.
“Something hush-hush or uppity-uppity, I’m guessing.” I shrugged.
“Yeah, probably, either way feel free to let them know we’re interested in the job.”
“You heard all of that.” I told the bartender as a way of officially accepting the job offer. He told us that the woman, Julie apparently, would be back soon.
“In the meantime, what’s the deal with the black spire building in town?” Aurora leaned forward towards him.
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, them. Bunch of annoying types from the Inner Worlds. Came out here to do surveys or some crap. Bunch of scientists in lab coats running around being useless. Each and every one with a stick rammed up their asses and looking down on the rest of us.”
“How long after they showed up did your problems start?” Estella asked him.
He blinked and went silent as if he didn’t understand what was being asked.
“I’m pretty sure they’ve already ruled out the obvious suspect.” Aurora said so quietly it was almost a whisper.
“Umm… let’s see. They were here before that. Maybe a year or more? I’m not really sure, come to think of it”
“Thanks, that’s helpful.” Estella shrugged. “No harm in being thorough.”
“True that. The pie will be here soon.”
“Anyone see where Guppy ran off to?” Aurora asked us, out of the blue. Then I realised the kiddo was gone.
Estella looked down, into her pockets. “”Out for a joy ride would be my guess.” She shook her head and concluded.
“I’d be mad, but given none of us told her not to.” Aurora chuckled, “So long as she brings it back in one piece and the fuel cost comes out of her cut of the job I won’t make a fuss.”
“You’re way too soft on her, she needs to learn she can’t just run off without telling anyone.” Estella gave me a mock glare, as if I had rubbed off on the kiddo. “Can’t imagine where she might of learned that little stunt.”
“I’ll speak to her, don’t worry, let’s get this job sorted first.” Aurora assured Estella.
Julie came up. “Hi. Sammy said you’re ready to talk about the job?”
The gals and her made the necessary intro, and we went through the job again. She was under the impression that it could be a dangerous job and did not want us unaware.
Estella grinned while looking over at me. “I half expected that’s the reason you were hiring people like us rather than more.. Respectable sorts.”
She blushed and looked down. “Well, you look like you can take care of yourself if it comes to it…”
Aurora admitted that we were no strangers to violence. “Though we prefer to keep on the side of law and justice, when there’s a way to.”
“We also don’t have much money. We can get together 4, maybe 5 thousand, but that’s it. Better to give you what little we have though than to be driven out of our homes.”
Aurora nodded in understanding, “Two thousand sounds pretty fair to put a name to your hostiles.” Then she looked over at me and Estella.
“Closer to 2500 was my thought, we do need some more fuel for the ship and some spare parts for the buggy.”
I shrugged. I can live pretty lean if I needed to.
“That’s a deal,” she said. “Do you need anything from me before you begin? I’ve got a list here of some of the places that were hit and what happened.”
“I was just about to ask that,” Aurora looked over at Estella, “Also my companion here was wondering about the sciencey types at that shiny building in town, have any of the locals had any unpleasant dealings with them of late? Or ever really.”
She half smiled. “Define ‘unpleasant’.”
“Anything beyond the usual haughty attitude and coldness.” Estella complied.
“They’d rather run us over than admit we exist. Keep to themselves. Far as we can tell they work in wilderness areas that haven’t been settled so we don’t really see what they do. Everything they got is as shiny as that building. New looking, fancy, high-tech. But the bosses say they’re ‘surveying’, whatever that actually means.”
“I doubt they’d bother pestering the locals then, no profit in it.” Estella took the list from Julie and looked it over, reading out loud the highlights to me and Aurora. It seemingly covered a wide range. Sabotaged machinery, poisoned crops and livestock, a few injuries…
“Wait, what was that last you just said?” I asked.
“Was it an Atherium converter that was sabotaged?” Estella tried to confirm with Julie.
“Oh, yeah, that was a bad one. I thought ol’ Frank was dead for sure. That doc sure patched him up but good.”
“He’s lucky to be alive.” Estella commented.
“That doc, would her name be Jessica by chance?” Aurora asked her.
“Sounds familiar, maybe. I didn’t meet her though.”
“I don’t suppose you know where we can get a map of the local area?”
“I can bring you one early tomorrow. Or they got some at the shop down the street.”
“I’m also wondering, has your local sheriff looked into this?” Estella started a different thread.
Julie rolled her eyes. “Yeah, he’s looked at every single one of them. Just shuffles his feet, says he can’t find a single clue, and just wanders off. I think inept is the word I’m looking for.”
“Inept, or bought off. Either way, we’ll do our own investigation, kick over some rocks, see what crawls out,” Aurora promised her.
She thanked us and shook all of our hands.
“We’ll get to the bottom of this, and provide you with all the proof you need to take further action.” Estella promised her as she returned the handshake.
“Or have us take it for you.” Aurora added. “Vigilante locals on a lynching party can get out of hand in a real hurry, hurt a lot of innocent folks, and that’s no good for anyone.”
Her face went blank. “I suppose it will depend on what you find.” I didn’t have a good feeling about that but didn’t comment.
“Fair enough, we’ll keep you in the loop.” Aurora said. She nodded and left us.
Estella suggested we go back to the Xing, except that we were short of transport. But Guppy had a com band from the ship so we called her. Or Aurora tried. All we heard was static and other background noise.
“You know Sam, I get the real impression some days Aurora has a lot more in common with Guppy than she lets on, the way she never seems surprised or upset by that girl’s antics.” Estella commented to me.
“Help Aurora!” came through in a high-pitched squeal, and then silence.
“And like any good drama, the too adventurous kid now needs rescue.” I commented.
Aurora sighed. “We’re coming kid, but we need to know where you are first, can you describe your surroundings?”