The Price of the Elite

(c) 2000 Simon Challands

Chapter 3 - Uncertainty

    The disc had been tucked away in a draw, and although out of sight was certainly not out of mind. Sura had examined it closely for signs of ownership, but had found none. She was certain that there were electronics inside it, and the pair of holes was probably a socket of some description, but she owned nothing that fitted them.
     What to do with it? Whenever she had heard of Elite rated pilots they were spoken of as legends, invincible cruisers in Witchspace, but she was not naïve enough to take the stories at face value. They were still bound by the same laws of nature as everyone else, after all.
     More certain were the rumours that nothing happened to them by chance, or at least any throw of the dice that could possibly be under their control. Those who lived the same dangerous life in any other fashion did not live long enough to make it that high. Yet something had clearly gone wrong for one of them, somehow. And if that was due to deliberate action on someone else's part then they were powerful, and dangerous.
     Why not forget about it? Throw it away, in the desert, in the lake, and that would be the end of the story? Unless some of the electronics in it enabled it to be tracked. Paranoid, Sura thought. Why hasn't anyone come for it yet, then? Perhaps they didn't know how to track it, at the moment. Even if they could, why not just leave it somewhere where it could be picked up and taken away without bothering her?
     That would all depend on who might want it, and why. If anyone did. All the Elite rating measured was someone's talent at killing, in the depths of space, irrespective of why. The passing of those whose business was death was seldom mourned, but were the most likely ones to have a high combat rating. Was the previous owner of the pendant such a person, and their obvious downfall a cause of celebration?
     Pirates seldom lived long enough achieve the greatest of fighting accolades. Several bounty hunters had. You needed to have an experienced hand on the laser trigger in that business. A number of trader- combateers, those in search of high profit with high risk were known to be Elite. And others, too. Space was too dangerous a place for those who strayed away from the very narrow safe routes to live long without some battle skill.
     A noise nagged at the edge of Sura's mind. In her reverie she at first ignored it, but it sounded again, and jerked her back to her room. The door chime. With a head full of her worried musings she stiffened in alarm, then shook the thought of someone unpleasant being at the door out of her head. She was working herself into a panic, and there was no need. Not yet?
     Fighting off her irrational reluctance she answered the door, letting loose a relieved laugh at the sight of Janice Yvre, a friend who usually came round several times a week.
     Janice looked curiously at Sura. "Something up?" she asked.
     "No! Why do you ask?" Sura replied, trying to calm down a little, and succeeding with the reality of talking to a friend instead of wondering about legendary killers.
     "You just look like you've seen a ghost, or something," Janice shrugged. "Never mind," she added, seeing Sura glare at her. "Are you going to let me in?"
     "Sorry. Of course, come in."
     Janice made her own way into the lounge, with Sura going into the kitchen to find some drinks.
     "What do you want?" she called through to her friend.
     "Oh, just some fruit juice, whatever you've got."
     Easily done. Sura poured herself one, too. She picked them up to carry them through to the other room, but on a sudden thought put them back down, looking thoughtfully at a small bottle on a shelf. Taking the bottle, she pulled its stopper free and added a couple of drops of the Qudiran "nasty juice" to her drink. It tasted foul, and was potently alcoholic, and drinking it was probably completely pointless.
     As she was carrying the drinks through Sura started talking, everyday nattering of little importance. Yet she must have sounded a bit too eager to gossip, for Janice suddenly interrupted their conversation.
     "You seem to be unusually excited by all of this," she noted curiously. She sniffed the air, then her hand whipped out and grabbed Sura's glass. "Thought so!" she exclaimed, ignoring the protests coming from her friend as she took a sip of the remaining drink. "Why are you drinking that stuff?"
     "It's been a stressful day, that's all."
     Janice looked pointedly at the wall clock. "Day? Early afternoon. Anyway, I thought you were going to be taking the whole day easy."
     "I was, but a couple of Gerijkls showed up."
     "Nothing of much importance."
     "It doesn't sound like it," Janice replied sarcastically, rolling Sura's glass between her fingers meaningfully. Sura snatched it back off her.
     "A little supply problem, that's all," she lied. "There's less of this coming in." To emphasise her point she drained the glass empty.
     "Suit yourself," Janice replied, abandoning her quest to probe the cause of her friend's ill ease. "You know where to find me if you need someone to talk to, though."
     "Thanks," Sura muttered. Now she was certain that she could not go on doing nothing, not if it kept her distracted like this. And neither could she go on making excuses and lies without quickly having to make more to cover up the earlier lies. The town's people worked together in most things, and keeping things quiet in such a community was impossible. They helped each other out because they helped themselves that way, but there were some who would abandon that principle if they saw a large chance of personal gain. Normally there wasn't anything in the town worth such a betrayal.
     "Look," she said, quickly. "I'll be gone for a little while. Can you get Geoff to cover for me?"
     "Wait a second!" Janice exclaimed, looking at Sura in astonishment. "Going where?"
     "To the station. There's a person I need to see about the lack of 'juice." There. Said and done, and committed now. Her hurried explanation seemed weak, and she was not surprised when Janice looked even more confused.
     "I didn't think you've ever been off-world," she pointed out to Sura.
     "I haven't, and I've been putting it off. It's about time I met one or two people in the flesh."
     It was not much longer before she managed to persuade Janice to leave, answering the rest of her queries with "I'll tell you when I get back." Now what? By Qudiran standards Sura was fairly wealthy, making money from organising some planet to orbit trade. Life in her home town offered little to spend money on, and it could build up with a bit of care. The cost of a shuttle to the single orbiting Coriolis station would not set her back much. There were no ships landed in the town, but one could be called from the station easily enough.
     How long would she be there? It was true that she had contacts in orbit, and it was her hope that they might be able to provide her with the information she needed to pass the burden into the right hands, at the very least. One night away at the most, with any luck. She gathered together a few things and chucked them into a bag, then reluctantly took out a small hand weapon from a locked and hidden draw. Sura ordered the shuttle, and tried to wait for its arrival.
     Transport craft weren't plentiful in the Qudira system, and it would be a few impatient hours before one arrived. During that time Sura realised that the Council would want to know why the Gerijkls had visited; she left the same story she had told Janice with them, mildly surprised that they hadn't already contacted her about it. If they were busy, and typically disorganised, they might not have found the time yet. She hoped to be away before anyone started becoming too curious.
     The town's landing pad was simply a bare concrete area with a few decrepit warehouses on its perimeter. Sura had been automatically notified of the shuttle's approach, and was waiting at the pad when it landed. Squinting into the sky, she eventually noticed the sun reflecting off a small object, gradually growing clearer as it descended.
     The Worm class landing craft touched down in a puff of dust, and sat there, skulking in the heat. With a shrug Sura walked towards it, trying to disguise her mild nervousness at leaving the ground for the first time in her life.
     When she was within fifteen feet of the small vessel a door near the front of the small craft slid open, although it still left her with quite a step up into it. Placing her left foot onto the edge of the step, she drew a breath and pushed herself into the craft.
     Inside it was cool, cold to her way of feeling. Ahead of her a window with a slot beneath it looked into the cockpit. Inside was a mess. One of the two seats was unoccupied by anything other than discarded food and drink containers, in the other slouched a fat, scaly creature, watching her with apparent dull disinterest.
     "You Sura Elleran?" it slurred at her.
     "Yes," she replied, tentatively.
     "Got any ID?"
     "None of your business," Sura announced firmly.
     "Can't take you without ID."
     "No offence meant, but as first impressions go yours isn't one to inspire trust. Look outside. There's no- one else waiting. You'll get paid."
     The creature grunted. "Pay up front, then."
     "Then get out."
     "No. And if I do you're guaranteed to get nothing."
     The pilot mumbled to itself for several minutes. Sura could not catch the words, or was even certain that there was any coherent meaning in the noises it was making. She was instinctively distrustful of anything she didn't know well. That was what life on Qudira taught you to be, and the anxiety brought on by what she was about to do added to it. If the pilot was pragmatic enough to see that she posed no danger, and satisfied that it would get its money, then she would soon be on her way into orbit. She expected it would be.
     At last the pilot seemed to reach a decision. "OK," it grumbled. "But I'm not letting you off my ship until I've got my money. And don't expect me to help you if there's any trouble. If someone's after you they can have you."
     Suspicious bastard. Then again, she hadn't helped to make the pilot have any other view about her. Another door, to her right, opened, providing access to a small cabin.
     The cabin was claustrophobic, with no external windows and a slightly unpleasant smell. The only furniture were two rows of three bare seats, belts dangling from them, and the ever-present mess. Faded posters decorated the walls, advertising this or that or announcing unread lists of regulations. A blank screen was set flush with the front wall, a row of buttons beneath it. Hints of lettering were present on the buttons, but they had long ago been rubbed away past legibility.
     The pilot's voice came tinny through a speaker somewhere near the ceiling. "Strap yourself in," it ordered her. Without waiting for any sign of compliance the ship began to vibrate. Sura quickly brushed the rubbish off the cleanest-looking seat and pulled the belts over her. They locked at her front, just in time as the Worm left the ground with a sickening lurch.
     The first few minutes of the flight were disquieting, the ship vibrating and rocking about unpredictably. Desire of the ground assailed her, or at least desire of not being locked in a shaking box with no view of anything outside. The acceleration pulled the belts against her, digging into her side and shoulder.
     "Pilot!" she yelled. There was no reply.
     Gradually the bucking passage of the ship ceased. Sura fumbled with the catch on the seat belts. It remained locked down.
     "No..." she breathed, the fright of the initial flight being replaced by a new panic. A deliberate retaliation for her unpleasant manner with the pilot? The belt catch appeared to contain purely mechanical components; the pilot could hardly have deliberately locked it from the cockpit. Other facts and rumours crept insidiously into her mind. People went missing in systems such as Qudira. The security of her home had sheltered her from the worst of the place, and the worst was often found in space. Step into a ship, find yourself captured in it, without any effort from your captor. Then what? Whatever fate anyone foolish enough to step into such a trap deserved, she thought. Slavery, or worse.
     Once again she yanked at the catch, and this time it gave. She nearly sobbed in relief as she shook the belts free from her body. Just a stiff mechanism, hardly surprising considering the general state of the vessel. For some moments Sura did nothing, only breathed deeply, calming herself down, trying to refrain from listening to the quiet voice telling her that she was still trapped, on the spacecraft.
     With the movement eased she stood, massaging the shoulder where the belt had bit her with her opposite hand. There was little to explore in the unkempt cabin. The faded and tattered posters were uninteresting, and if the monitor worked then there were no instructions on how to coax it into life. Sura tried a few of the buttons, at random.
     To her surprise the screen came lit up. The camera appeared to be mounted on the hull - part of it occupied the bottom of the picture, although where on the ship this was was unclear. Apart from a piece of duralium the view was empty, dark space. They had left the atmosphere, at least.
     More random button pressing revealed a rear-facing vista. Sura watched it in awe. The ship had angled away from the vertical relative to its take-off point, and the vast curve of the planet, edged by an atmospheric blur, stook out starkly from the inkiness behind. The sweep of continents was, in places, partially obscured by dust storms and weak cloud formations. A darker smudge may have been the sign of the rare areas of forest.
     Sura had, of course, seen pictures and videos of her home world, but knowing the view was taken from the point where you were standing was a different matter altogether. Her concerns faded away slightly, replaced by a different one. That of a window from which to view the planet with her own eyes, without electronics intervening.
     Gradually the view changed. The edge of the disc started to curve more sharply, and to sink off the bottom of the camera's view. Whatever buttons she pressed she was unable to find anything other than the fore and aft scenes, and now these provided nothing of interest.
     The ship flew on, and Sura waited impatiently. She had brought nothing with her with which to pass the time; that had not been foremost on her mind when she had gathered together a few things for the excursion off world.
     The artificial gravity systems of the Worm were, at best, rudimentary - that had already been proven by the rough ascent, unless the pilot had been deliberately discomforting her, and could not completely disguise course and speed changes. When the ship suddenly swung through ninety degrees she felt it, and the floor of the cabin seemed to have changed angle from flat to slightly inclined. The monitor was sitting on rear view, and the stars were gently spinning. She changed it to the forward view.
     Ahead was a massive metal wall, a square facet over half a mile wide with a yawning metal opening in front of it. Small lights and flashes winked nearby from external mooring buoys and a couple of other small shuttles. Passing in and out of the corners of the screen was a battered hulk of a freighter with a utilitarian Orbit Shuttle docked to it, for whatever reason performing some task outside the Coriolis station.
     The vast, yawning entrance drew closer. Why bother staying aligned with it? It was easily big enough to swallow the Worm many times over, and judging by the way the angle constantly wobbled it was not an easy task for the slovenly pilot and its battered ship.
     Closer to the docking bay. The space station now filled the entire screen, vast, and solid. The lack of anything outside the field of view made it appear like the surface of weird planet, covered in artificial constructions, and Sura's ground-born mind could not dispel the feeling that they were poised over such a surface, and at any moment they would loose control and plummet towards it. Yet of course they did not. Massive as it was for an artificial construction the station's own natural gravitational field was still insignificant.
     With a sudden, unpleasant shudder the Worm was grasped by something and wrenched around into a perfectly match with the station. Only a second or two later the screen distorted into a break pattern as the front of the ship hit the station's protective field and passed through.
     Inside the movement was smooth, now it had been perfectly adjusted by the station's traffic guidance systems. Not far past the ingress point huge clamps descended from the floor and ceiling and took hold of the small ship, pulling it further in. They carried the vessel through a massive doorway and eased it towards the floor, touching them down next to a transparent tube that disappeared out of sight through a wall.
     Secured in the station, the cabin door slid open. Eager to leave the squalid vessel, Sura jumped to her feet and left the room. The outer door was still shut fast.
     "Time to pay," sneered the pilot.
     Sura dug out her credit confirmation slip and keyed in the figures for the payment. She slid it through the slot into the cockpit.
     The pilot picked up the thin card and stared on it, mumbling nothing at it.
     "Come on," Sura snapped.
     The pilot slowly pushed the slip back through to Sura. "Be nice and add another fifty credits to that," it said, gurgling unpleasantly in poor humour.
     She was not surprised. There was no way off the ship without the pilot opening the door, and she was cynical enough to guess the pilot would probably not be averse to dumping her in space to rid itself of her. Threaten the creature? No. Pay, and deal with it later. With a show of bad grace she added the fifty credits and handed the slip back.
     To her relief the pilot slotted it into his computer and returned it. The door slid open.
     "It's been a pleasure," it mocked as she stepped out into the tunnel.
     "It will be," she replied without looking back.

Chapter 4 - Qudira Coriolis
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