Aphelion Issue 255, Volume 24
October 2020
 
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Reunion


by Martin Lochman



I was sitting on a very uncomfortable metal stool and studying the drink on the bar counter in front of me. Its color wasn't the only thing that had raised my suspicion—to put it mildly; there were also tiny dark specks floating around in the liquid. I leaned closer and sniffed it carefully, my nose detecting a strong smell of not just alcohol but also the disinfectant, and something unidentifiable that reminded me of unwashed socks.

"Are you sure this is Liktonian wine?" I asked, making sure to sound as casual as possible.

The bartender, an older fellow with a thick gray moustache and a scar stretching from his right eyebrow all the way down to the jawline, simply nodded and pointed his thumb behind him at a bunch of crates neatly stacked in the corner of the little storage room: "Got a few bottles of it in the last shipment. Good quality."

I was going to say that he should perhaps check his merchandise more often because in this case he had most assuredly been ripped off but then thought better of it. There was no point in antagonizing the sole owner of the singular "establishment" on the station that served somewhat fresh food and beverages—especially when considering that the closest inhabited planet was an Ergosan colony and their cuisine wasn't exactly suitable for the human digestive tract.

So I nodded back, grabbed my balls and took a sip. It suffices to say that the alleged wine tasted worse than it looked and almost made me gag but in the end, using every last ounce of self-control, I managed to keep it in and even put on a nonchalant expression.

"Good stuff," I said.

This seemed to have satisfied the bartender—he grinned and scuttled off to service other customers.

Speaking of customers, the makeshift pub was surprisingly full. There were at least three dozen visitors, mostly humans, but I also clocked a few Liktonians and Takkans occupying the corner table. The last couple of times I had been here, I always stumbled upon maybe ten souls tops so it was fair to assume that the station was becoming increasingly more popular. That on its own wouldn't be shocking—the black market was booming and if you were someone interested in making a living the illegal way, you needed a suitable place to conduct business and meet like-minded individuals—if it weren't for its remote location.

The station was situated on the border between the Orion-Cygnus Union and the Ergosan Empire. It had been built as an advanced military outpost at the beginning of the war nearly sixty years ago but promptly decommissioned and abandoned shortly after the conflict was over to honor the peace treaty. For decades after, it was gathering dust until it had been discovered by a human-Liktonian transport vessel carrying contraband materials. Realizing the station's potential value, the crew had decided to set up shop here. They had done some refurbishment, updated the systems and over time turned it into a pretty decent base for nefarious elements. Still, since it was light-years away from the conventional trade routes and star systems, not many ships ventured here regularly—until now that is. Discounting my Arethusa and the shuttle belonging to the permanent inhabitants, four other ships were currently docked in the main bay, taking up nearly all of the available space.

As I sat there struggling with my drink, I caught sight of a gorgeous brunette who was standing at the other side of the bar counter and absentmindedly playing with her own glass. In a nice red dress, she seemed out of place, which made me wonder just where the hell she came from. I waited a few seconds for her to gaze around and when her eyes met mine, I smiled and lifted my glass in a silent toast.

She looked down, feigning shyness, before returning the smile. I got up from the stool, took my glass and headed over to her. I had to carefully walk around a trio of mechanics dressed in heavy duty overalls stained with oil and grease who definitely didn't have any problems with consuming local alcoholic beverages. They were propped against the counter, and with every subsequent shot of what I suspected was the cheapest available spirit mixed with some good old rocket fuel, resembled fellow human beings less and less.

"So what's a nice girl like you doing in this dump?" I said lightly, purposely choosing the cheesiest of lines.

She laughed, revealing perfect white teeth.

"How do you know I am nice?" she replied and I noted that her voice perfectly matched her beauty.

"Touché!"

That was as far as our conversation got because in the next moment an unfriendly-looking guy appeared by my side. He was a bit taller than me, leanly built and sported a military crew cut. He wore a black shirt with rolled up sleeves, revealing a small characteristic tattoo on his forearm which confirmed my initial suspicion—he was, or at least at one point, had been, a proud member of the Orion-Cygnus Armed Forces.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing, asshole?!" he growled threateningly.

"Toasting to the good health of Union pigs," I said calmly and pointed at my drink.

I saw the first punch coming so it wasn't difficult to avoid it by dipping my head down. The second, however, followed faster than I expected and connected with my right hand which I had put up merely a split second earlier to protect my head. The guy was quite strong and obviously knew how to fight—not a perfect candidate for your run-of-the-mill bar brawl.

I barely managed to block the next two punches, both vicious hooks, but the left uppercut afterward slipped clean through and caught me squarely under the chin. Unlike the hooks before, it wasn't thrown with enough power to knock me out but it still rattled the brain inside my skull and caused a myriad of sparks to explode in front of my eyes. I crashed into an empty bar stool behind me, narrowly missing one of the inebriated mechanics, and fell to the floor.

"Nailen, what are you doing?! Leave him alone!" the girl screamed and grabbed my attacker by his arm.

He ignored her, shrugging off her grip, and took a step forward just as I awkwardly scrambled to my feet. My vision had cleared but my head was pounding like a church bell and I felt a sharp pain in my mid-back where it collided with the metal stool. Still, my ego wouldn't let me simply run away.

"You want some more, bitch?!"

This was undoubtedly a rhetorical question since Nailen didn't wait for an answer and threw another big right hook. I ducked, surprising myself by how fast I'd reacted in spite of my current condition, grabbed his waist and tackled him to the ground.

We landed with a loud thud and it appeared that the impact stunned him a little bit. I took advantage of this by landing a swift punch of my own. I fully intended on delivering more and possibly even ending the fight but Nailen had a different idea. Snarling like a pit bull, he pushed his hips up and threw me off him. He promptly rolled over and a second later our positions were reversed—and I had my hands full protecting my face.

I attempted to replicate what he had done and push him off but wasn't nearly as successful—which meant that the main question of whether or not I'd come out of the scuffle victoriously quickly became whether or not I'd get to keep my teeth. Judging by how furiously he was pounding on me I had a feeling that he wouldn't be satisfied until my face was beaten to a bloody pulp. Fortunately, I didn't have to find out how far he was really going to take this because suddenly, something hissed sharply and a bright yellow-orange pulse whizzed past Nailen's head.

The entire bar fell quiet. My testosterone-infused counterpart sprang to his feet and with his arms up in a non-threatening manner took a step back. His previous fighting spirit was all but gone.

I glanced up to see the bartender holding a heavy pulse shotgun, its double barrel pointed directly at Nailen.

"That's enough!" he said sternly and nodded towards the door. "You're done causing trouble in my bar. Get the hell out of here!"

"Only me?" Nailen frowned. "What about him?" He carefully gestured at me.

"You threw the first punch."

And the second, third, fourth … Come to think of it, there hadn't been a whole lot of offense on my part, making the fight a pretty one-sided affair.

For a moment, it appeared that Nailen was going to argue but then he probably realized that arguing with someone wielding a weapon capable of turning your head and a considerable part of the upper torso into minced meat wasn't the brightest of ideas.

"Fine, whatever," he mumbled and glanced at the girl. "Come on, let's go."

She didn't move.

"You know what?" she said. "I think I'll stay."

"Are you serious? Just because I … "

He trailed off mid-sentence when the bartender waved the shotgun slightly. Giving me one last death stare, he backed out of the room step by step.

Well, that was something, I thought, and started getting up. The brunette stepped close to help me.

"Are you okay?" she asked softly.

"I've been worse," I grinned, ignoring the dull, pulsating pain in my jaw. "Luckily, your boyfriend hits like a girl. No offense."

"None taken," she laughed. "I am Catherine, by the way."

"Nice to meet you, Catherine. My name is Ray."

We went back to the bar counter and our drinks.

"So, what brings you to this neck of the woods?" I asked, picking up where I left off before I had been so rudely interrupted by Nailen.

"A little bit of business, a little bit of pleasure. I'm not staying long, actually, only until … "

Before she could finish the sentence, an unpleasant voice that sounded a lot like fingernails on a chalkboard spoke behind my back. Apparently, I couldn't catch a break today.

"Holler? Ray M. Holler?"

The voice sounded familiar but I couldn't quite place it. I turned around and saw a proud representative of one of the more exotic member species of the Orion-Cygnus Union. Their official name could be transcribed as 'Kntchngllwrbztshwcks'—very few humans (or humanoids for that matter) were able to pronounce it correctly which was why they were most commonly referred to as the 'insectoids' even though that wasn't exactly politically correct. On the other hand, it wasn't a completely unfair nickname as they, in fact, shared a large portion of their DNA with Earth's arthropods and to a certain degree resembled upright walking giant beetles.

The peculiar thing about them was how easy the individual insectoids could be told apart. Sure, there was no sexual dimorphism and their species didn't care much for clothing or accessories of any kind that would aid identification, but every individual had a unique pattern of black spots on their chest. That's how I was able to immediately tell that the specimen standing in front of me wasn't just any insectoid—it was the one I had met a couple weeks ago in a casino onboard another space station called Gemini 8. You could say that we had a bit of a history: It had attempted to win a high-stakes game of poker by cheating (using a state-of-the-art holographic technology) which I'd discovered at the last possible moment. Long story short, the management of the casino hadn't appreciated its efforts and promptly kicked it out of both the game and the establishment, and the winnings had ended up in my pocket.

Whatever it was now doing in this forgotten part of the universe, I had a strong feeling I wouldn't like it.

"It's you!" the insectoid croaked in surprise and the color of its exoskeleton changed from brown to dark red. Apparently, it'd recognized me as well.

"You are the human who caused me to lose everything in that casino!"

The dark red turned brighter—was it getting angry? There was a correlation between the color of the exoskeleton and a particular emotion but I wasn't sure which meant which.

I shrugged.

"No, your cheating caused you to lose. I was just trying to keep the game honest."

The truth was that me winning the game hadn't been entirely about luck either but, of course, it didn't need to know that. After all, it had been caught, not me.

"Listen, I would love to swap stories and catch up but I am kind of in the middle of something here, so … " I said, hoping to wrap the conversation up as soon as possible.

It was crystal clear that it wasn't here to exact some kind of vengeance for what had transpired between us in the past, considering that he hadn't had a clue what R. M. Holler looked like until he'd seen my face. No, there must have been another reason why he was throwing my name around.

"I don't want to catch up," it shook its head in an obvious attempt to mimic the human gesture. "I need your help."

There we go!

"I'm sorry but I don't think I can be of much help to you. See, I don't have a lot to work with right now … "

"You have a ship and you transport people and cargo for money. Your fellow humans—" it pointed at a group sitting at the table by the door with one of its crooked appendages, "—informed me of it. I need you to take me to Beta Orionis."

I made a quick mental note to begin telling people to stop recommending my services to everyone. Yes, I occasionally helped individuals to get from point A to point B—if they paid good and the intended destination offered more business opportunities—but that didn't mean that I was a damn space taxi. Beta Orionis—the home system of the insectoids—was on the other side of the OCU space, over three thousand light years away. The journey there would take weeks and cost thousands of credits worth of fuel, supplies, and tolls. I really doubted that he had deep enough pockets to cover everything.

"Beta Orionis isn't exactly on my way," I said. "Have you tried asking around if anyone else is heading in that direction?"

"Some won't talk to me because of who I am. Those who do aren't scheduled to leave for days. I need to be on my way now."

The account of the outright xenophobia and racism exhibited by my "fellow humans" wasn't that surprising; the last bit, however, caused a little red light to start blinking in the back of my head.

"What's the hurry? Are you running from something?"

The insectoid shuffled closer and leaned in, its antennae almost touching my face. Much like the clothes, personal space didn't mean anything to its kind.

"There is a very … malevolent human after me. I've been trying to evade him but he always finds me," it said, its voice barely above a whisper.

I could tell where this was headed. I pulled away slightly.

"Any particular reason why he's after you?"

It took a good five seconds to reply.

"I took something from him."

And there it was. I never knew that it was possible for the insectoids to look and sound guilty but it could be that I was simply subconsciously anthropomorphizing it.

"So you stole from him and now you want to drag me into it? Sorry, can't help you," I said dismissively.

"Please, he will torture me and kill me!" it pleaded.

"And that's supposed to motivate me? If he's as bad as you say, why did you steal from him in the first place? Surely, you must have considered the risks."

It disregarded my question—although I couldn't say I blamed it. There was hardly a good answer.

"I will pay you as much as you want!" it tried appealing to my materialistic side.

Taking into account that the insectoid had had to cheat and steal that sounded about as legitimate as a member of the Orion-Cygnus Parliament promising to lower their salary.

I shook my head.

"When he gets here, he will most likely kill everyone—not just me," it said then.

I shot a quick look at Catherine who had been silently listening to the entire conversation. She didn't appear outright startled by the last statement but I noticed that she'd tensed up somewhat.

"I think you're exaggerating," I remarked bluntly. "But for the sake of the argument, who is this evil human being?"

"I don't know his true name. However, he is widely known as Sawbones."

It felt like someone stuck a knife in my stomach and started slowly twisting. All the memories that I had been trying to bury for the past fifteen years came rushing right back.

Sawbones was my former employer. His real name, known to only a handful of people, was Robert Cantrell and he had used to be field operative for the OCID (Orion-Cygnus Intelligence Division) specializing in enhanced interrogation techniques. He possessed extensive knowledge of the physiology of various species which he wasn't shy to put to 'good' use. Sawbones' bosses apparently couldn't appreciate the enthusiasm and creativity enough—or it was simply too much even for their taste—so his prospective career was cut short. He didn't mind this at all and promptly went into business for himself, founding a ruthless criminal organization with a wide array of interests ranging from smuggling, black market trade, and acquisition of high-value items to kidnappings, blackmail, and contract killing.

I was in my early twenties when I'd crossed paths with Sawbones. I hadn't been earning much back then, hopping from one occasional gig to another, so getting involved with his company made sense for me from the financial standpoint and appealed to my adventurous spirit. Of course, at first I had no idea that I had started working for possibly the sickest and most sadistic individual in the Galaxy (in my defense, he hadn't been going by that nickname yet); I was too enthralled by the possibility to use my skills in an organized fashion. The revelation came later, as I learned more and more about the less attractive aspects of his business—the unnecessary violence and killings. I would never forget the exact moment when I had realized that I had to get out, get away as far as possible, no matter what.

# # #

I am on my way to the ship's sickbay where I have been summoned by Sawbones to discuss our upcoming job. I know that something is off, everyone on board is tense and jittery, even the mercs who usually can't shut up are as quiet as church mice. The mood is infectious and by the time I exit the elevator on E-Deck where the sickbay is located, I find myself mulling over catastrophic scenarios of what might have happened.

I am approximately five meters away from the door of the sickbay when I hear an inhuman scream from inside, a scream that sends chills running down my spine. It's filled with pain and despair and it lasts for a few long seconds during which my adrenals go into overdrive. Heart beating in my throat, I creep hesitantly forward. The door opens automatically, the motion sensor responding to my presence, and a horrifying scene unravels before me.

Wlasto, the Liktonian who handles the financial side of our "business" is strapped to the cot, his body completely naked. Sawbones is standing next to him holding a scalpel—not the standard plasma scalpel but one made of metal. Blood drips from the edge of the blade, falling down on the floor where several large puddles indicate that Wlasto has already lost plenty of the precious fluid. Despite the horrible wounds—numerous deep cuts on his arms, exposed flesh on his legs and abdomen where the skin has been peeled off, and a missing eye—he is wide awake. The remaining eye is staring at me, Wlasto's lips trembling as he whimpers something incomprehensible.

It's all I can do to stop myself from throwing up.

"You're late," Sawbones says without looking at me. His raspy voice is completely even, without so much as a trace of emotion in it.

"I am sorry, I was … " I start replying but before I can formulate a complete sentence, he gestures for me to shut up.

"Did you know that the pain receptors in Liktonians are almost three times more sensitive to the noxious stimuli than in humans?"

It's a rhetorical question since Sawbones immediately continues: "The trick is to keep the body from going into shock. Fortunately, with the right compound, you can do just that and prolong the pain as much as you want … "

He puts the scalpel down on the tray next to the cot and as if to demonstrate, picks up a syringe filled with a clear liquid. With a surprising gentleness, he injects it into Wlasto's shoulder. The Liktonian winces and lets out a low animalistic growl.

Sawbones then turns to me. It feels like I am looking at a stranger; there is coldness in his expression that I have never seen before.

"Is everything ready for tomorrow?" he asks.

"Yes," I say hesitantly. "The shuttle is fueled, transporter's already on board. Lucien has our identification chips, they should get us through the first two security checkpoints. Then I'll take it from there."

"Good," he nods. "Tell Brock and Michael that they'll be joining us."

Bringing the two former jarheads along wasn't part of the original plan, especially since we will need to be as inconspicuous as possible, but at the moment I find it hard to argue.

"Will do."

And that apparently concludes our conversation since Sawbones turns back to the tray and grabs a pair of pliers. Wlasto momentarily struggles against the straps but his attempt to break free goes in vain as they are too tightly fastened.

"You can go now," my boss says and I am out of there faster than the speed of light.

Later that evening I learn exactly why poor Wlasto ended up getting dismembered alive. It turns out that he skimmed a little bit of cash from the last couple of gigs—not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things but some say that he was planning on taking a bit more from the next one. Hardly a crime worth the punishment he received, but I don't think there is anyone on board who wants to go discuss that with Sawbones.

As I lie there on the bed in my quarters, staring at the ceiling I can't help but wonder how many people died by his hand. How many did he torture to the point where there was nothing left of their former selves? How many more will end up strapped down, minutes and hours filled with unimaginable pain?

And I realize that I have to go. Somehow, someway, I have to leave, otherwise one day it will be me on that table.

# # #

"Ray! Are you okay?"

Catherine's voice snapped me back to the present. I reached for my glass and took a hearty gulp of the wine, ignoring its god-awful flavor. I set it down and glanced at the insectoid.

"You have no idea what you've done," I said slowly.

It took a step back, visibly surprised by my sudden change of attitude.

"Do you know him?" it murmured, its exoskeleton rapidly turning yellow.

"More than I would like."

I turned to Catherine: "It's right. We need to get out of here now, because otherwise, we really are all dead."

# # #

My first instinct was to run immediately. Take Catherine and the insectoid (yes, he was an idiot for doing what he'd done to Sawbones but that didn't mean he deserved to be mutilated and killed), go straight to the docking bay, hop on Arethusa and fly as far away from here as possible. It would take probably less than fifteen minutes—fifteen minutes, and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

Then I thought of the thirty plus current residents of the station. Sawbones and his guys were nothing if not trigger happy and never bothered themselves too much about collateral damage. Even if the residents didn't offer any resistance, didn't get in the way, and gave up everything they knew in regards to the insectoid and his whereabouts, I couldn't imagine Sawbones leaving without dropping a few bodies. Not to mention that upon learning that his intended target eluded him once again, he'd be pissed.

Of course, convincing everybody that they should just get up and leave this instant was easier said than done. Some may have never heard of Sawbones and would, therefore, consider my warnings as overstated. Some weren't in a state to move their bodies, much less vacate the station, due to the sheer amount of alcohol in their systems. Some would probably rather punch me in the face than hear what I had to say.

I decided that the best course of action was to tell the bartender first, since he—as one of the few permanent inhabitants—undoubtedly knew how to evacuate the premises in a swift and efficient manner. Although he had never bumped into Sawbones himself, he was quite familiar with his reputation, which meant that I didn't have to go through all that effort to convince him about the seriousness of our situation.

"Go to your ship," he said calmly when I asked him what we should do. "I'll take care of it."

He didn't have to tell me twice. I gestured to the insectoid and Catherine, but before we could leave, the bartender added: "For future reference, make sure I don't see you or your bug-buddy here again. It's bad for business."

"It's not my buddy … " I started but stopped myself. Explaining my relationship with the insectoid—or, to be precise, the lack of it—was beside the point and would only waste time.

We were barely out of the bar when the station-wide PA system rumbled to life. For a few moments, there was only static and then the bartender's deep voice announced:

"Attention, everyone! There is an asteroid on a collision course with the station. Collect your things and make your way to the docking bay immediately! I repeat … "

That was a piss-poor idea but I had to admit that it was admittedly faster than having to explain that there were really bad people on the way but there was no way of knowing when exactly they'd show up.

"Didn't exactly give us a head start," the insectoid mumbled.

"Let's pick up the pace then," I retorted and pushed it forward.

Once the announcement was over, the sirens started blaring and the emergency light came on, flooding the corridor in red. We hurried onward towards the spiral metal staircase that connected most of the decks. There were also elevators but the last time they had been operational was probably during the war.

The docking bay was located in the uppermost section of the station. It consisted of a large landing platform equipped with magnetic anchors and a dome-like structure approximately thirty meters in diameter in the center with several airlocks on its periphery. Given the fact that it was at least eight decks away, climbing up was going to take time.

I was in the lead, taking stairs three at a time—it was a good thing that I hadn't had time to get drunk before because otherwise, the ascent would take me considerably longer. Catherine followed closely, keeping up with my pace, but the insectoid was falling behind despite using its forward limbs to help itself.

I was just entering the dome when the floor beneath my feet shook and the emergency lights flickered.

"Oh, shit!" I swore and rushed over to an old control terminal at the far wall.

One quick look at the screen confirmed my worst fears. A very large ship, easily four times the size of Arethusa, had just landed. There wasn't enough available space on the platform but whoever was piloting the behemoth evidently didn't give a crap, seeing as he'd set her down partially on top of some of the other parked spacecrafts, effectively immobilizing them.

I, of course, recognized the ship immediately, despite last seeing it over a decade ago. Based on the video feed and data collected by the station's sensors, she hadn't changed much although there were obvious upgrades—namely when it came to her tactical capabilities.

"He's here," the insectoid breathed out behind my back.

"Thanks for stating the obvious," I retorted bitterly while rummaging through my brain for options.

Making a run for it was out of the question. Even if Arethusa wasn't pinned down under Sawbones' vessel, we would have a couple of guided missiles on our ass before we could so much as fasten our seatbelts. Taking a stand in the docking bay was equally dumb—no one in their right mind would openly go up against a platoon of trained killers lead by the Galaxy's biggest psychopath.

"What do we do?" the insectoid whimpered.

With a few rapid keystrokes, I locked the airlocks. Naturally, this wasn't going to stop them but I figured it would at least take them couple extra minutes to blast through.

"I have no idea," I said and gestured towards the staircase. "But I suggest that we figure it out somewhere else."

# # #

Some fifteen minutes later we found ourselves on one of the middle decks which housed the crew quarters. Most of the cabins had been entirely cleaned out while the rest still offered more or less complete bunks, tables, chairs, and even an occasional small wardrobe.

It was fair to assume that getting through the airlock hadn't taken Sawbones as long as I had originally thought it would, since the sirens died off a minute or two ago. We couldn't hear anything afterward but I imagined that his forces started cutting through the station like a hot knife through butter.

"How many soldiers does he have with him?" the insectoid broke the silence just as we were passing yet another empty cabin.

"How the hell would I know?! You're the one running from him."

"Yes, but you said that you are very familiar with him."

"I used to be," I turned to face it. "I spent the last fifteen years of my life trying to forget that he exists. Do you have any idea what he's capable of? The things he's done? And you brought him to my doorstep."

"What happened between you two?" Catherine asked quietly before the insectoid could say anything.

"It's a long story. If we get out of this alive, I'll tell you everything."

I expected them to try prying more from me but surprisingly, they both understood.

"What did you steal from him anyway?" I asked, turning my attention back to the unsuccessful thief.

"Just this," the insectoid reached under its chest exoskeleton. I had no idea that its species could do that but it explained how they could carry stuff around when they didn't wear any clothes.

It withdrew a small memory card and handed it to me.

I flipped it over in my palm. "What's on it?"

"A copy of his entire database," he said. "His assets and names, locations, bank account information of everyone involved in his organization. It's worth a lot on an open market. I was planning on selling it to Ergosans but didn't really get the chance."

I'll be damned! I was actually kind of impressed—and at the same time painfully aware of the fact that since this wasn't something mundane, Sawbones truly wasn't going to leave before everyone who had anything to do with the insectoid was disemboweled.

"How did you manage to get your hands on it?" I asked, clearly recalling that my former boss kept things pretty close to the vest.

It seemed that my question cheered it up somewhat. The color of its exoskeleton almost turned to its natural, default brown and when it spoke, I was sure I heard a hint of pride in its voice.

"That wasn't difficult. I contacted him on Tau Ceti VI through an associate of mine and we met … "

"Shhh!" Catherine abruptly interrupted what was most likely going to be a lengthy vibrant story. "Someone's coming."

She was right. Faintly at first, but getting louder by the second, footsteps could be heard from around the corner ahead. They indicated a single person, slowly approaching our position. Initially, I thought it was one of Sawbones' mercenaries but the footsteps sounded soft, uncertain.

Still, we were unarmed, so I silently motioned to my companions to hide inside the nearest cabin. They moved to the dark corner of the room while I stayed just behind the door, ready to take advantage of the element of surprise.

The footsteps rounded the corner and stopped. Whoever was there was now lingering less than a meter away from the cabin. I instinctively balled my fist.

"Anyone here?" a quiet voice spoke up.

"Nailen?"

Slightly relieved, I stepped outside. My former adversary from the bar appeared far less confident than when I last saw him and he looked like he'd been through a lot.

"You?!" he said and suddenly I found myself staring into the barrel of a pulse pistol.

"Catherine?" he added when she and the insectoid joined me. "What are you doing here?"

"Having a tea party … what does it look like, genius?" I was fully aware that provoking him wasn't the best idea under the immediate circumstances but a dumb question deserved a dumb answer.

Sure enough, Nailen didn't quite appreciate my sarcastic comment as his face contorted in anger. The pistol moved even closer and its owner was already opening his mouth to indubitably make a threat to my physical well-being when Catherine stepped in: "Put the gun down, Nailen. We're all on the same side."

He reluctantly obeyed, lowering the weapon and stepping back.

"Do you know what the situation upstairs is?" I asked.

"Not good," he said gravely. "They are systematically searching the station, rounding everybody up. Whoever resists is shot on the spot. My crew ran into them on Deck 11—I was the only one to get away clean. The rest of the guys weren't so lucky."

"How many are there?" I asked.

"Hard to say," he shrugged. "Twenty, thirty, maybe more. But they are well armed and highly trained. Most of them are ex-OCAF, if I had to guess."

Takes one to know one, I almost said aloud. I guess the OCAF doesn't pay as well as they advertise.

"Any idea why they're here?" he asked.

I looked at the insectoid, Nailen's gaze following mine.

"This guy?" his eyebrows went up in surprise. "The hell did you do?"

"Long story," I said quickly because there was no point in the insectoid explaining everything from the beginning again. Besides, there was a good chance that the former crewcut would decide to shoot it himself upon hearing the details.

"What are we going to do?" the insectoid croaked. Its exoskeleton was yellow again, the antennae on his head quivering. "Can't we go around them to the docking bay?"

"Even if we could slip past them, they'll be guarding it. We don't have any weapons … well, except for that peashooter there," I nodded at the pistol that Nailen was tucking behind his belt. "I don't know about you, but I can't outrun a shot from an assault rifle."

"But if we stay, they'll find us and … "

"Well, seeing that we are kind of in the middle of nowhere and we can't use our ships, that's probably what will happen," I said.

"Maybe not," Nailen interjected. "If we can't escape, then the only thing we can do is fight … "

That sounded like a very one-dimensional line of thought but I didn't say anything, wanting to hear if there was actually more to it.

"… I am, of course, not suggesting that we take on them in an open battle—we wouldn't stand a chance. But if we manage to take the boss out of the equation, do you think the rest will want to stick around to find and kill us? Last time I checked, dead guys don't pay. So we take him out, wait for them to leave and we're good."

"That's a mighty big if," I said. "Sorry to rain down on your parade but how exactly are we supposed to do that?"

"We set up a trap. Get him wherever we want him and take him out. There are lots of corridors and passages on the station that are ideal for this. If he really wants it," he stabbed his finger at the insectoid, "he'll come to us."

"And then what? Are we supposed to beat him with our bare hands?"

I expected him to give me another of his pissed-off looks but instead, he smiled in a smug way.

"There is a weapons stash two decks down. It's the good stuff—rifles, explosives, armor; everything brand new and ready to use. I had a buyer lined up who was supposed to pick it up in two days but I'm sure he'll understand if we borrow a few pieces."

Nailen's plan appeared reasonable on paper but I knew that it was hardly going to be as easy as he described it. No matter what kind of weapons we'd have at our disposal, there were only four of us, out of which only one was a trained soldier—my own experiences would put me into the semi-pro category at best. On the other hand, the sole other alternative was to get captured and tortured, so taking a risk in an uneven fight sounded like an obvious choice to me. Plus, I had to admit that I really liked the idea of getting the upper hand over Sawbones.

"All right, let's have it your way," I said. "Lead the way!"

# # #

We had to use a system of built-in ladders to descend to the appropriate deck. This didn't pose an issue for the human members of our little band of misfits—although I was painfully reminded of my busted back—but proved to be exceptionally challenging for the insectoid. Despite the fact that it possessed two extra pairs of appendages, its anatomy didn't allow it to scale down the ladders in an easy and efficient manner. These small additional limbs also weren't strong enough to bear its full body weight which was something we got to witness firsthand.

I had just finished my descent when I heard a sickening snap above my head and in the next moment, the insectoid came tumbling down to the floor. I barely managed to jump away.

"Are you okay?" I asked. "What happened?"

The insectoid got up slowly, hissing in pain. One of its forward limbs was hanging loosely and there was a nasty tear below what corresponded with a human shoulder joint. The wound was oozing a thick milky liquid and for a second or two, I had to fight the urge to throw up.

"Jesus!"

Nailen and Catherine joined us by then, each reacting to the unappetizing sight in their own way.

"It's fine," the insectoid said between hisses. "I think it's only dislocated … I won't have to detach it and regenerate."

"You can regenerate?" Nailen looked at it sideways. "Why are you so afraid of those guys hunting you then?"

"My species can regrow limbs, but we aren't invulnerable. And we can feel pain, similar to other species."

"Let's leave the biology lecture for later," I said quickly because it seemed that Nailen would ask more questions we really didn't have time for.

"Do you need to reset it?" I turned to our injured compadre.

"No. It will heal on its own."

And with that out of the way, we continued towards Nailen's secret stash.

This particular section of the station looked vastly different from the rest of the decks—spacious hallways were replaced with narrow corridors and I saw heavy hatches in place of regular doors. Everything felt sort of cramped and congested—definitely not suited for anyone suffering from claustrophobia, but perfect for an ambush.

Nailen stopped by a hatch designated as D4-R17 SMALL ARMS STORAGE. There was a little control panel next to the hatch—or, to be more precise, there used to be, as now a good half of the keypad was missing entirely. A bunch of cut wires was sticking out from underneath it.

"Problem?" I asked.

"Not at all," Nailen said and fished out a tablet from his pocket. "Give me a second."

He lifted the broken keypad slightly and plugged the tablet in using a short universal cable.

"Will this take long?" the insectoid came up from behind me.

Nailen ignored it, tapping his fingers on the screen of the device in rapid succession. Seeing that its obnoxious inquiry would go unanswered, the insectoid mumbled something in its native language and leaned against the wall. I could tell it was tired—I felt exhausted myself, the events of the last hour having taken their toll both physically and mentally.

"If we survive, I am never getting involved with criminals again," it said.

That sounded about as probable as me becoming a monk. If the insectoid was to indeed live through this, I'd bet anything that it'd be knee-deep in some shady business again in no time.

Catherine thought the same thing since she asked with a mischievous grin: "Not even with your Liktonian associate from Tau Ceti VI?"

"And we are in!" Nailen called out victoriously and the heavy hatch swang open.

His positive, enthusiastic attitude lasted up until he stepped in—which was exactly two seconds.

"What the fuck?!"

I peered in from behind him and immediately saw the reason for his astonished reaction.

The storage room was empty. Maybe not completely—there were still shelves, wall-mounted holders and a couple of boxes strewn on the floor—but since none of them held any content even remotely resembling a weapon, it was painfully clear that Nailen's glorious plan wouldn't be happening.

Nailen himself was now furiously rummaging through the boxes in a desperate attempt to recover at least something. I knelt down to help him and in a few moments fished out a duo of mini-bombs from a metal container marked with the "Explosives" symbol. They were roughly the size of a box of playing cards, each equipped with a detachable remote detonator and a universal mechanism that allowed them to be firmly attached to any kind of surface.

The mini-bombs and a spare clip that Nailen had found somewhere in the corner seemed to be it.

"It's gone!" he hissed then and slapped the wall. "I had fifty grand worth of merchandise here and it's all fucking gone! Someone ripped me off! But who … ?"

"Seeing as we don't exactly have time to play detective, I don't think it matters," I said and stepped through the hatch into the corridor.

The insectoid was standing a few meters away, its entire body strangely contorted. The telltale yellow was spread across his exoskeleton.

"What's going on?"

"I never said that my associate was a Liktonian," it said.

Catherine had her hands in front of her body in a non-threatening posture.

"I think it is having a panic attack," she turned to us and then back to it, saying calmly: "Of course you did. Don't you remember?"

I tried recalling every exchange that we had since we'd met in the bar but I quickly realized that it was right. It'd never mentioned a Liktonian.

The insectoid was backing away slowly, Catherine equally slowly creeping towards it.

"Wait!" I said and she froze. "It's true. It didn't specify who or what its associate was."

She looked at me and it was as if she took off a mask. She smiled, but there was nothing genuine or friendly about it and I was taken aback by the sudden coldness in her stare.

"Damn! Aren't you perceptive?" she remarked and hurled herself at me.

Before I had a chance to react, she pushed me aside with an unexpected force, knocking me against the wall, and in two strides crossed the short distance to Nailen who had just exited the storage. Taking advantage of his bewilderment, she punched him in the throat, sidestepped him in an elegant motion and kicked the back of his knees. He dropped down and the next thing we knew, she had his pistol firmly pressed against his occiput.

"Everyone stay put," she said, her voice completely even, devoid of emotion.

"Who the hell are you?" I breathed out through the renewed pain in my back.

"I am Catherine Wilks," she grinned. "Or, to be precise, that's the name I use. Like you, I don't have a habit of giving people my real name because if they knew it, it would make it easier for them to dig into my past and find all those skeletons I worked so hard to bury. Am I right, Norman?"

Hearing my first legal name only confirmed what I'd already suspected.

"How long have you been working for him?" I gritted through my teeth.

"For him?" she laughed in a condescending manner. "A lot has changed since you ran away. He does things differently nowadays. Most of them, anyway. In regards to the rest—" she looked at the insectoid in much the same way a lion looks at its prey,"—let's just say that he's set in his ways."

"What, you're his partner? I find it hard to believe that the old man suddenly embraced democracy."

"You can believe whatever you want. He talked about you a lot, you know? Seeing you again will make him … happy."

Merely thinking how that reunion would look forced bile up my throat. I mean, I hadn't stolen anything or hurt anyone in his organization, but if Sawbones really took my abrupt disappearance personally, I was in a similar world of hurt as my buddy, the insectoid.

"I can't wait," I said and nodded over my shoulder at the sole reason of this entire shit-storm. "So how did you find it?"

"That wasn't difficult. I picked up his trail back in the Vega system where he hitched a ride with some Takkan smugglers. I followed him to M336 but missed him narrowly there. Fortunately, he was heading here so I found my own ride," she patted Nailen on the head with her free hand. "Then it was only a matter of making sure that he stays put until Sawbones arrives."

"You … used … me?" Nailen wheezed heavily.

"Sorry," she said without sincerity. "We were just not meant to be. Also, you have serious anger issues."

With that, I had to agree.

"So what now?" I asked. "Are you planning on dragging all three of us upstairs by yourself?"

"No, silly! They know exactly where we are," she showed us the bracelet on her free arm which must have contained a communicator. "But don't worry; I'm sure they'll be here soon enough. Now, does anyone have any more questions? We still have a bit of time, so why not use it to get to know each other better?"

Shit! It should have been obvious to me that she hadn't been keeping up the conversation just to rub our faces in how awesomely she'd played us. I stole a quick glance at the pistol resting on Nailen's head and tried to estimate our potential success with disarming Catherine.

"Don't even think about it," she said in a low voice. "You take a step—in any direction—and we'll see exactly how much functional gray matter he has in his skull."

"Go ahead," I said nonchalantly, causing Nailen to grunt in protest, and took a small step towards her. "He isn't exactly my friend, so why should I care?"

She watched me inquisitively for a moment.

"You're bluffing. You care what happens to other people and you hate unnecessary violence—that's why you left in the first place, isn't it? You couldn't bear it when things started to get messy?"

I didn't say anything, only shifted forward by another half-step. Her eyes flashed a warning and I could see her grip on the handle of the gun tighten. I raised my arms to the side.

Fortunately, it took Nailen only a split second more to understand what I was doing and react accordingly. He jerked his head to the left and, lightning fast, reached for the gun, grabbing it with both hands. He twisted the gun so it would point sideways and leaned back in an attempt to knock Catherine off balance with his body weight.

His initial success was short-lived. Catherine saw right through the disarming technique and promptly countered. She slapped his right ear with an open palm of her free hand, hard, causing him to let out a surprised, pained yelp and loosen his grip, and pulled back, using her knee as a lever against his traps.

The weapon torn from his grip, Nailen awkwardly fumbled to reacquire it but from his disadvantaged position, he had no chance in hell at succeeding. A shot hissed and he collapsed face-first on the floor akin to a puppet with its strings cut.

In that exact moment, I rammed into Catherine, sending her flying into the storage room. With a loud thud, her head impacted the far wall and she slumped down to the floor, unconscious.

"Goddammit!" I cursed and knelt down beside Nailen.

He was dead. The concentrated energy bolt from the pulse pistol burrowed its way straight through his head, leaving behind a small, fairly symmetrical hole with burnt skin and flesh on its edges.

"He's dead," the insectoid said in the same tone of voice people use when they want something to be less true.

Excellent observation. I swallowed the remark. I got up, walked over to Catherine's body and picked up the pistol that she'd dropped upon hitting the wall. For a long second, I was considering shooting her—something about balancing the scales, eye for an eye or whatever you want to call it—but she hadn't lied about me hating unnecessary violence and killing someone unconscious definitely constituted as such.

So I simply closed the hatch, noting that the lock automatically engaged.

"She just shot him … "

If I had to guess I'd say that the insectoid hadn't seen a lot of dead bodies in its lifetime.

"We have to move," I said loudly to get it to snap out of it. The last thing I wanted to deal with was an alien breakdown.

It didn't move. "But he's dead because of me!"

"And we'll be too if we stay here," I gripped its uninjured arm. "You can blame yourself later. Now, come on!"

# # #

There were only three decks below the one where we'd left Nailen's corpse and knocked out Catherine—or whatever her real name was—in the storage, and like that deck, they mostly consisted of a maze of narrow barren corridors, small rooms, and alcoves, stripped of all equipment, making it difficult to discern their original purpose. It didn't matter much anyway since I had zero hope that we'd find anything useful—if OCAF had been thorough enough to take most of the furniture out of crew quarters, they surely wouldn't have left behind working weaponry.

My mind felt just as empty. The truth was that I didn't really know what to do next except keep moving forward, putting more distance between us and Sawbones' goons. Some might say that it was a natural reaction but I knew that it was foolish. On the other hand, it kept me from thinking about what our already slim chances at coming out of this alive had been reduced to when we discovered that the guns were missing and Nailen ended up with a hole in his head.

As for my non-humanoid companion, its current emotional state wasn't any better. It was slowly overcoming the shock of witnessing Nailen's untimely demise which meant that the sweet silence I'd been enjoying—as much as you can enjoy it under these conditions—was over.

"What are we going to do?" it asked as we were descending to the last deck.

I ignored it.

The last deck was considerably smaller than the previous ones, consisting only of a circular observation area offering a scenic view of empty cosmos via several large rectangular windows and a short hallway leading up to a heavy door. I noticed that there was a spider's net of cracks spreading across one of the windows—undoubtedly a remnant of the half-century-old conflict—that no one had gotten around to fixing.

Ironically, the door at the end of the aforementioned hallway bore a designation MAINTENANCE EXIT and behind it was a small room with an airlock.

That was it.

The end of the line.

It finally fully dawned on me that now it was truly only a matter of time—a rather short amount of time—before we were face to face with our psychopathic pursuer. Despite the ugly certainty, however, I discovered that the crippling fear I felt ever since I had learned which particular chicken was coming home to roost was all but gone and what took its place was … anger. With utmost astonishment, I realized that I was actually pissed off—not at the insectoid for dragging me into this mess or myself for ever setting foot on the station, or even Catherine for her murder-betrayal, but at the big guy himself for making me run around like a rat in a sewer.

No, I was done running and being afraid.

"What are we going to do?" the insectoid whined again. Unlike me, it didn't seem to be experiencing the same kind of emotional revelation.

"We take a stand," I said simply and checked the power cell of the recently acquired pistol. It was showing 85 percent of the full capacity, plenty enough to get some solid shots off.

"But that was the old plan! We don't have the weapons and there are only two of us now. We need to hide!"

"Hide where?" I retorted and spread my arms wide to encompass the room. "In case you haven't noticed we kinda ran out of hiding places. Unless you want to take a walk outside."

Surprisingly enough, an orange spacesuit hung on the wall opposite to the airlock. It looked about a century old, and personally, I would think thrice before using it.

The insectoid appeared to have considered my suggestion before continuing its arguments.

"Maybe we could hide in the vents or the maintenance shafts."

"Right, because it would never occur to them to look there. Look," I said strongly just as it was opening its mouth to present yet another of its undoubtedly creative ideas. "We are going to die—there is no denying that. We are outnumbered, outgunned and out-equipped. The question is, how we will die—slowly tortured in Sawbones' dungeon or fighting back. It's no choice if you ask me."

"We are going to die," it repeated slowly and I didn't have to be a xenopsychologist to guess what kind of emotional turmoil was taking place behind its big compound eyes. It sat down—collapsed would be a better word—on the floor, folding its legs underneath it in a way that made me very uncomfortable.

I let it go through the five stages on its own, focusing my attention on our immediate surroundings. The small room was as ideal for our last stand as it could be—the narrow passageway leading here from the observation area ensured that we wouldn't be easily swarmed by Sawbones' forces. I figured we had a decent chance to keep them at bay for a little while, at least as long as we had something to shoot and throw in their direction.

Just as I was pondering how much time we had before they showed up, and if they would first bother with getting Catherine out of the storage, the PA system suddenly crackled and I heard an all too familiar voice.

A voice that I hadn't heard in over a decade.

"Ray … I know you are somewhere down there, listening to this. I want you to know that you have nothing to be afraid of—unlike the cockroach, you didn't do anything wrong. You can come and meet me; I promise that no one will lay a hand on you."

Sawbones sounded genuine and the majority of people would be inclined to simply trust every word of that statement but I was well aware that it was bullshit. Even if I didn't have a personal history with him, the man was a highly trained intelligence operative with years of experience in deception and subversion under his belt.

There was a good ten-second pause before he continued: "You can even do me a favor and bring the little thief to me yourself. Preferably alive—I wish to have a word with it—but if it gives you too much trouble, shoot it. The most important thing is to secure the memory card. You do that and you're free to go wherever you wish, I won't stop you."

The insectoid eyeballed me in alarm. It probably thought that I'd be seriously considering the offer although I saw it coming from miles away, just like what Sawbones was going to say next.

"Ray, be smart about this. You don't owe the cockroach anything."

The insectoid fidgeted around uncomfortably on the floor and brought its injured arm closer to its torso. The tear looked as insipid as before but at least it wasn't leaking anymore. Looking at it, an idea suddenly popped up somewhere at the back of my mind.

An idea that was certifiably insane.

But also one that might just save our asses.

I walked over to an intercom embedded in the wall next to the door and pressed the button.

"Okay, I'll take the deal," I said, making sure to sound convincing. "I'll bring it to you and I'll walk out of here."

There were a few seconds of silence, during which my companion's exoskeleton brightened to a degree I hadn't seen before.

"Good," Sawbones said on the other end of the line. "Like I said: you get me the memory card and you can go. Where are you now?"

"Last deck, observation area."

"See you soon, then."

The intercom went silent. In my mind's eye, I pictured Sawbones barking orders and gathering his underlings to close in on our location. There was no way in hell he'd bought my little Judas act but that didn't matter; he would come over-prepared either way.

For the insectoid, however, I had been too convincing.

"Relax," I said just as it was opening its mouth to protest, plead or whatever it had planned to do to change my mind. "I won't hand you over to that psychopath, not really."

"Then why did you say … ?"

"I have a plan. You're not going to like it, but if it works, we may live through this after all."

# # #

Sawbones stood in the middle of the observation area, directly in front of the large damaged window. He wore a brand new OCAF light combat suit and although his hands were empty, he was far from unarmed—I took note of a pulse pistol in his belt holster and a tactical knife next to it. Those were, of course, the visible weapons; I had no doubts that he had another firearm concealed somewhere, perhaps in an ankle holster or behind his back.

It wasn't like he currently needed any of them—surrounding him, there were half a dozen well-equipped mercenaries with fully automatic assault rifles, ready to start making holes the size of oranges in anything that even breathed funny.

Then there was Catherine. She was positioned by Sawbones' side and in her dress, and wielding only a single handgun, she appeared a little bit out of place amongst the group of heavily armed individuals. I wasn't really surprised to see her—whether Sawbones really cared about her (as much as she'd tried to convince us of earlier) or he simply needed to know what she'd managed to learn from us while undercover, he'd had to get her out of that storage.

The other side of the uneven stand-off—if you could call it that—was represented by little old me, standing just where the corridor met the observation room. I was holding the insectoid's severed arm in my hands, trying to appear as harmless and non-threatening as possible, lest to provoke one of the mercs to pull the trigger and blow my head off. My pulse pistol, safety on, was tucked under the belt, visible to everyone, which—I hoped—added to the overall tranquil impression.

"It's good to see you, boy," Sawbones said. "It's been a long time."

He looked older and thinner than the last time I'd seen him but the cold, emotionless, predatory look in his eyes hadn't changed at all.

"I wish I could say the same thing," I retorted, letting him know that I was in no mood for fake pleasantries.

A hint of a smile flashed over his features.

"Straight to the point then," he said. "Where is the roach?"

"It didn't really feel cooperative so I took your advice. The rest of its corpse is in there—" I nodded over my shoulder towards the maintenance exit on the other end of the passageway, "—but I have the most important part right here."

I lifted the detached limb in the air, careful to do so very slowly. "The card is in it."

"Is that so?" Sawbones laughed but there was no humor in it. He looked me in the eyes, drilling holes into the back of my skull with his glare and I felt that my resolve started melting away like butter in a microwave.

"Yes," I said but the word came out sounding much less confident than I wanted it to.

"You are lying," he shook his head. "Killing someone in cold blood … we both know that you don't have it in you."

"I am a survivor," I objected. "Me or it—that's no choice at all."

"Bullshit," Catherine scoffed, joining the conversation. "You were helping it the entire time; you wouldn't just shoot it after all that."

"It wasn't my idea, remember? I couldn't … "

"Enough!" Sawbones said sharply and I saw the merc closest to him twitch and shoot a quick glance at his boss. "You can drop the act, boy!"

I swallowed hard.

"Did you really think I didn't know that the roaches can regenerate? Tell me, what was your plan here? Take the arm, stuff it with explosives and hope that I'll be dumb enough not to notice?"

He raised his voice slightly with the last few words and I could see a vein pop up in the middle of his forehead, yet I knew it wasn't out of anger.

I didn't say anything.

"I am disappointed. That's a pretty pathetic plan," he summarized then and signaled one of the mercs.

The guy put the heavy assault rifle on his back and drew his sidearm before approaching me cautiously. He went for my pistol first, yanking it from my belt and sliding it away on the floor, and then grabbed hold of the insectoid's arm. He flipped it over and quickly located the memory card which was attached to the palm.

"The card is here but the explosives aren't, sir," he dutifully reported to Sawbones.

"Where are they?" Sawbones asked coldly.

"Not here," I replied, surprised at how steady my voice was. "You were right; sticking them inside of the arm would be a pretty bad plan. Even if you didn't notice and actually took the bait, my guess is that the combat suit would protect you from the explosion. But tell me this; can it protect you from the vacuum?"

I lifted my gaze above his head and he spun around, following my cue—Catherine and the majority of the mercs involuntarily doing the same thing. The mini-bombs were attached in the upper left corner on the outer side of the damaged window, the blinking red light indicating that they were armed and ready.

This would normally be the perfect opportunity to say something witty but the cheesy one-liners weren't really my thing (they worked only in movies, anyway); plus I didn't want to give them any time to react.

So I gripped the metal pipe protruding from the wall of the passageway with my left hand and reached into the trouser pocket with my right. My fingers instantly found the little detonator and pressed the button on it.

For a split second, I saw Sawbones open his mouth to say or yell something as he turned back, a whole different expression in his face—one that perfectly matched the severity of his situation—and then the mini-bombs went off in a spectacular fashion. The multiple layers of the reinforced glass shattered into thousands of pieces and Sawbones and his henchmen were violently swept off their feet and ventilated through the resulting opening into space along with their precious equipment.

The floor ripped from underneath my feet, I was yanked towards the hole too but managed to hang onto the pipe. Fortunately, I didn't have to test my grip strength for long because the emergency force field popped up maybe a second and a half later and efficiently sealed off the damaged window. Gotta love the military security systems!

As soon as everything felt stable again and the life support restored the atmosphere in the observation area, I let go of the pipe and rushed through the corridor to the maintenance exit.

The insectoid was already inside the airlock, waiting for the atmosphere to equalize.

"It worked!" I told it once it had removed the helmet of the space suit. I knew I was stating the obvious—if the plan hadn't worked I was less likely to be standing here—but at the moment I couldn't care less.

"So Sawbones … " it said, struggling to wiggle out of the suit (which was designed solely for humanoids possessing two arms and two legs).

"Yup! Sawbones, Catherine and some of their friends are now soaring through the vacuum."

"I can't believe it," it murmured, visibly pondering the particularities of what had transpired.

Now that I thought of the same thing, I couldn't quite believe it either. The whole plan was beyond insane and its success rested on so many things working out and falling in place just right—buying the insectoid enough time to get suited up, pass through the airlock and make its way across the outer hull of the station towards the observation platform, it securing the explosives without anyone on the inside noticing, me not getting shot the minute they had laid eyes on me or subdued subsequently … I'd never been much of a fan of the big man upstairs but this, at the moment, felt like nothing short of a miracle.

"It was a close call," I said, making a conscious effort to stop mulling the negative what-ifs over.

The insectoid was finally free of the cumbersome suit and for the first time today, its exoskeleton had the natural, brown color.

"Let's get out of here while the force field still holds. It's an old station—I wouldn't trust it that much," I motioned towards the door.

"And the rest of the mercenaries? There must be quite a lot of them still."

"Probably. But by now they've surely learned that their boss and the second-in-command went out on a spacewalk which means they will be less eager to continue this charade. Dead guys don't pay, remember?"

The insectoid seemed to ponder that for a moment and then, somewhat reluctantly, headed off into the hallway.

Following it, I caught myself thinking that I wouldn't mind a glass or two of that horrible Liktonian wine right about now.

THE END


Copyright 2018, Martin Lochman

Bio: I am a Czech emerging author currently living in Malta and working as a University librarian. My flash fiction and short stories appeared in Ikarie, a former Czech SF magazine, Theme of Absence, Aphelion, AntipodeanSF, 365tomorrows and in a bunch of Czech anthologies. You can find me at https://martinlochmanauthor.wordpress.com/

E-mail: Martin Lochman

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