All the Stars Within Our Grasp (Chapter 6)

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Jennifer Shen was coming to question her sanity. It wasn't the first time - any person who pays their bills willingly walking into ambushes and chasing low-rent con artists through congested streets has to ask at some point if what they're doing makes sound sense. But as ridiculous as the Exterran bounty chase could get, it fell well short of the sheer madness that she was contemplating as the transport took them back to familiar surroundings.

"I don't suppose your bosses will be providing any navigators or technicians?" said Jennifer, staring down at her personal display.

"Sadly, there are few within the ranks of the Taiyang elite who are endowed with a spirit of exploration," said Yang Yizhen. "Credits can be provided, but not manpower."

"Stellar." Jennifer slid down in her seat and closed her eyes. It was only by blind chance that she knew a pilot loopy enough that he might take them into uncharted space - tracking down more space jocks would be a task nearly as hard as the one they were planning to undertake. "You know, setting this thing up might take a while. I can't promise that we'll be able to start the journey precisely on your schedule."

"I understand your predicament, but time is absolutely an element here. The longer the project is in the thief's hands, the greater the risk that he might misuse it." Yang Yizhen leaned over in his seat. "Shen Xiaojie, have you studied the old language?"

"No, Yang, I haven't." Jennifer certainly wasn't trying to sound annoyed, but hour after hour of the bureaucrat grilling her over knowledge of Taiyang protocol and history had trimmed her fuse short.

"Then you have only read the Classics in the modern Exterran tongue?" said Yang Yizhen, slightly disappointed.

"I don't even know what 'Classics' you're referring to."

Yang fell back into his seat in shock. "How have you misspent your time that you do not possess even the rudiments of an education?"

Jennifer counted off on her fingers. "Surveillance, network access, biometric masking, marksmanship, vehicle operations, self-defense...I can pass a bribe in five non-human languages. Practical skills, that's what keeps me fed, not ceremony."

The strained conversation was ended by the dull thump of the transport's landing apparatus touching down on the surface of Sagittarius Prime. When the hatch slid open, it wasn't to Jennifer's stamping grounds but a much more gray and active place. The air was tempered with the aroma of fuel and industrial chemicals and congested with steel transportation rails and tiny maintenance drones. Somewhere beneath them, Federation-contracted shipbuilders pressed out the endless fleets of transport and escort vessels demanded by the economic engine of the Stretch; above them, the finished products hung patiently in the air, awaiting news of their next destination. Sandwiched between the two, thousands of unlicensed shops and guilds crowded onto the poorly-kept suspension platforms, offering a variety of services to anyone who needed a task done in a hurry with few questions.

"Speaking of 'practical,' that probably wasn't the best thing to wear in this sector," said Jennifer as she exited the transport. "You couldn't have put on street clothes before heading out?"

"What do you mean?" Yang Yizhen hustled out behind Jennifer, tugging gingerly at his robes. "This is quite a humble garb, well-suited to public wear."

"In Taiyang territory, maybe." Jennifer turned to Yang Yizhen with a sigh. "...I suppose this contract requires that you come along?"

"It does, but..." Yang Yizhen's features drooped. "...You desire to leave me behind?"

Jennifer rubbed her face - it had been a mistake to broach the topic, but it was too late to take it back. "Two things. One, I'm not sure you're cut out for such a long voyage."

"But I have traveled into space," said Yang Yizhen, slightly indignant. "True first-hand experience with travel is necessary for anyone in the Taiyang bureaucracy."

"Well, there's taking a trip to one of your colonies and then there's flying sixty trillion miles away from home. And two..." Jennifer grit her teeth for a moment. "...Space is always a premium on any starship. We can really only afford to take people who can directly aid in the mission."

"Then I shall do so." Yang Yizhen dropped to one knee before Jennifer. "As I am the instrument of the glorious Taiyang Empire, so shall I be yours."

"That's not..." Jennifer bit her tongue - she would end up hauling this man across light-years of mostly uncharted space no matter what she said, so it was better to maintain civility. "Very well."

"Then we are in agreement," said Yang Yizhen as he regained his footing. "Now, shall we meet our captain?"

Jennifer waved for him to follow, leading them to a nondescript building - unmarked save a readily missable sign reading "Wyvern for Hire" - rudely sandwiched between a cluster questionable discount fabricators and a Druker tune-up shed. "In here."

"This is where our pilot dwells?" said Yang Yizhen. "If he is a skilled and cautious man, then why has he not a more elegant workplace?"

Jennifer rested a hand on the front door. "If you don't trust my pilot, then you are free to stay home."

Yang Yizhen stared at his feet for several seconds before responding. "I shall trust your judgment."

"Good. Oh, and let me talk to him, he's a bit of an odd duck."

The inside of "Wyvern for Hire" had an odd feel for the front office of a rogue piloting operation. The hum and clank and clatter of maintenance work were strangely absent, as were the layers of grime and the pall of shadows cast by inadequate lighting. There was little of anything in the front room, in fact, or even much of a front room - just a tiny, brightly-lit open space with a few unmatched seats and an empty counter behind which sat a charmless young woman who was likely only eighteen but had the bearing of a road-worn thirty year-old.

"You been in here before?" said the girl, picking idly at her throwback coveralls.

"That I have," said Jennifer, inching up to the counter. "Is Tommy in? I have a proposition for him."

"Yeah, the old man's in," said the girl, wrapping one hand around a sizable spanner until her knuckles blanched. "You here to take him home for the night? Give him a long, freaky weekend?"

"Is that really the first place your mind went when I said 'proposition'?" said Jennifer.

"Nah, not really. Just wishful thinking. Just that long, vain hope that some generous woman could loosen him up because he is driving me nuts!" The girl shot a rough look at Yang Yizhen. "Who the hell are you?"

"I am Yang Yizhen, fourth ring bureaucrat of the glorious Taiyang Empire. And I see from the name on your own garment that..." Yang Yizhen leaned in to examine the tag on the girl's coveralls. "...you are known as Annelise. It is a pleasure to meet you."

"Great, another one like Tommy. Listen, the name is Anna, if you call me Annelise then it'll get bloody. Got it?" Anna smacked the spanner down on the counter, then flicked an unseen switch to disengage the locks on an unseen door. "Through there. He's probably 'busy,' so just slap him in the back of the head if you need to get his attention."

Backing away slowly from the angry girl, Jennifer grabbed Yang Yizhen by the sleeve and headed through the door. The room behind was nearly as austere and neat as the front office - almost empty, in fact, save an old-fashioned desk and a sprinkling of chairs drawn from the same mismatched set as the ones in the front room. The draw of the room, though, was the large wooden object in the corner - a colorfully adorned man-sized cabinet which emitted a chaotic array of lights and sounds. A man leaned into the cabinet, his hands resting on an crude bank of controls, wincing and grinning in time to the flashing colors.

"Tommy Harkennian?" Jennifer approached the man, craning her head to get a glimpse of his face. "You busy?"

The man turned away from his diversion, the lights from the wooden case framing him from behind. Between the golden hair teased into some coyly antique style, the exaggerated smile on his smooth cheeks, and the replica bomber jacket that fit him a bit too snugly around the arms, he had the look of an overgrown ten year-old child. Only his impressive stature and muscle tone hinted at his true age and experience, with the singes and calluses on his fingertips speaking of his many years working with vehicles.

"Golly, I sure am sorry, friends, I can have some terrible manners sometimes. But take a look..." Tommy waved an arm at the wooden cabinet behind him. "You know what this is? 'Conquerors of Nekron.' Pretty keen, right? It's a real blast from the past - an actual arcade machine from the Cradle. For real! Ain't it keen? It's authentic and everything. Take a look!" He knelt by the base of the cabinet, gesturing to a set of scratches at the base. "'J. McMaster – 11/29/88.' 'D. Haverman – 4/22/17.' Why, a whole millennium ago these two mastered this machine. I mean, they were probably the first ones who ever did it! And it's not an easy game! Course, these days you can pump yourself full of brain boosters and pep juice and just play and play until the circuits burn out, so they had to put in a few tweaks, make the game a little hairier for us future men. Either one of you want to try it out?"

"Got a special job for you, Tom," said Jennifer. "High risk, high reward stuff."

Tommy snapped both fingers and pointed at Jennifer. "You hired me once, right? Bringing some bad guy back to the Stretch from the colonies. Wow, that sure was some fun." Spotting Yang Yizhen, he showed off even more of his teeth. "You got yourself a friend, or is this one special?"

"This job's from the Taiyang," said Jennifer. "Straight from the Empress. This one's here to keep us honest."

"Really?" Tommy crossed the room and dropped himself into a chair. "Gosh, that is a big deal, all right. Well, I've never done much imperial work, but if you got the credits, hey, I've got the time."

Yang Yizhen dropped to one knee. "I am here to task you with a quest of the utmost-"

"It's still a bounty hunt," said Jennifer, cutting Yang Yizhen off with a glance. "But it's a higher grade of criminal this time, and a longer trip. It'll be a hell of a payday, though, and I think it'll be right up your alley."

"Hey, I love all of those words!" said Tommy. "So where are we going? Agolgan colonies? Kro'dyl territory?"

Jennifer shook her head. "Farther."

"The Primordial Reaches? Hey, it's real pretty, but not the nicest place to fly. I'll do it, though." Tommy held his arms out, grinning like a mad fiend. "So, where are we going?"

Jennifer glanced back at Tommy's prized arcade cabinet, then back at the man. "The Cradle."

Tommy leaned forward, his face going blank, then applied a fresh smile. "For real? Hey, isn't that something. Wow, the Cradle." He heaved himself to his feet. "Say, why don't we take a stroll through the hanger? Talk a little about this mission, show our imperial friend how we fly."

"I would be most honored," said Yang Yizhen. "I hope you will accept our quest. Yes, the risks are very great but the rewards for victory are beyond reckoning for any who accept our noble offer."

"That's dynamite," said Tommy.

Another hidden door in Tommy's tiny office led into the main part of his operation - a sizable hangar with a fleet of mismatched aircraft and starcraft, all being minded by a small army of mechanics of varying species. At a glance, the ships had once been common civilian craft, but a number of visits to the area's black market modification outfits had turned them into wholly original vehicles, almost artistic in their treacherous construction. Tommy walked calmly between the ships with a cheerful grin, pointing out the features on each member of his steel flock.

"This little girl's the Songbird. Nice little two-seater, good to take you from planet to planet without cramping your style, but not big enough for your operation, obviously. Ooh! Here's the Raven. Pretty neat for a cargo vessel, huh? Armed to the teeth, too. But I know what you guys want..." Tommy stopped before a metallic football resting on spindly robotic legs, sensors and shielding crudely hammered into its surface. "This right here is Taleweaver. She's not the prettiest but gosh, what a powerhouse. Room for six passengers plus ample storage, FTL provided by a linear-dimensional driver that'll get her to the edge of the galaxy in no time at all. I've been waiting for an opportunity to take her into deep space for ages, and here you show up!"

"Then we'll be using the Taleweaver," said Jennifer. "I guess that only leaves the price."

Tommy waved his hands before him. "Hold on, cowgirl! We've got some other things to discuss first. Let's start with the elephant in the room - no one knows where the Cradle is!" He shot a sly glance at Yang Yizhen. "Unless the dragons know something I don't. Is that it?"

Jennifer rubbed the back of her head, glancing at Yang Yizhen out of the corner of her eye. "Sadly, that's still an issue. I'll level with you..." She leaned in closer, drawing her words down to a blunted whisper that she hoped the bureaucrat wouldn't hear. "I took this job before I knew the guy had already slipped away. I haven't decided yet if I'm crazy enough to actually chase him halfway across the galaxy, and this is an interest check as much as anything. Getting my ducks in a row, y'know."

"I appreciate your honesty." Tommy snapped his fingers. "And maybe I can help! There's a rumor - and it's only a rumor, as long as we're being honest - but there is a rumor that there's a fella around here who has the coordinates of the Cradle right in his noggin! Proprietary government information - the real thing!"

Yang Yizhen's face took on an unhealthy color. "Then...there is another empire whose knowledge of the stars exceeds out own?"

"Oh, it's not a human empire," said Tommy. "He's an Epochi!"

Jennifer ground her teeth together, swallowing back a groan. "That doesn't help us so much. You know how the Epochi like dealing with outsiders."

"This one might be open to it," said Tommy, turning back to the Taleweaver. "They have him locked up."

Jennifer let the groan out this time. "Even better."

"Yeah, they have him for heresy or something like that - you know how the Epochi are with their rules!" Tommy pulled a cloth from his pocket and set himself to cleaning the buildup from the sensor nodules. "But you could probably spring him with the right lies. I don't much like lying myself but golly, those Epochi aren't exactly wily!"

"I have little knowledge of this species," said Yang Yizhen. "Shall I summon aid from the Taiyang bureaucracy?"

"I doubt it would help with these guys," said Jennifer. "Hey, how do we even find this person? They're Epochi, it's not like we can give then a name."

"Actually, you're in luck, because this one has a name!" said Tommy. "He goes by 'Morgi.' Something he made up, but it'll make him easy to find. Bring him here, or hey - just get him to spill the beans, and we can take off. As soon as payment's made, of course! Hey, you mind if we talk about that real quick?"

"Might as well." Jennifer sidled up next to Tommy, leaning against the Taleweaver. "Deep pockets this time, you know."

"Well, I'm glad you brought that up," said Tommy. "See, I normally charge a base of ten thousand a day, plus extra surcharges for long-distance trips and necessary expenses - and those don't come cheap!"

"It might be better if you just give a quote up front," said Jennifer.

Tommy whistled a few stray notes. "Well, I could give you something silly, like a million a day-"

"It is done," said Yang Yizhen.

The cloth slipped from Tommy's hand as he spun to face the bureaucrat. "I could have given you a bigger number, couldn't I?"

"You would prefer two million?" said Yang Yizhen.

Tommy let out a sunny laugh. "This is going to be fun."