The Price of the Elite

(c) 2000 Simon Challands

Chapter 4 - Qudira Coriolis

     The station was a confusing complex. Apprehension once again assailed Sura. To her mind it was cold and mostly gloomy, the artificial lighting that shone from thousands of lamps casting shadows in unnatural places. Once she had eventually found her way into the open the vast size of the station's interior was overwhelming. Walls, covered in splotches of light, rose on all sides and curved around to meet in the ceiling half a mile overhead, and the whole was covered in moving specks of life. And this was only a minor station orbiting an unimportant world. Here, at last, the influence of the famous Galactic Cooperative of Worlds finally had meaning, instead of just being a name to the planet-bound.
     Close up, shorn of the mantle of distance, the view was far less impressive. The port area was heavily used, by all sorts of people, and their constant passage had taken off whatever sheen may have been present when the station had been commissioned. Rubbish lay where it had been discarded and the buildings were dirty and unwelcoming. Many of them were simply warehouses, blank, characterless walls lining the streets.
     Packed between and around the warehouses and extending out into town were bars, bazaars, brothels, fighting dens, and all the other establishments that arose in places that valued the exploitation of vice over restraint and decency. Some were garishly lit with neon signs, others skulked behind dark doorways.
     People, and a huge variety of them, were everywhere. And such a variety of people as Sura had never seen before, from hundreds of worlds, some striding along confidently, some standing around talking loudly and openly, and some trying to keep themselves to themselves as much as possible and hurrying to their destinations as quickly as they could.
     At many corners armed police stood, watching the scene impassively. The Cooperative nominally controlled the station, and GalCop kept the peace in this part of town. In such a system as Qudira their jurisdiction extended little further than the docking facilities and immediate surround.
     All this Sura tried to take in without staring about mawkishly like the newcomer she was. Don't draw attention to yourself. This place was a free-for-all. It was not home, don't expect anyone to give a damn about you.
     She edged herself carefully through the milling masses towards a row of waiting taxis. Her contact on the station was based somewhere near the port, but she did not want to try to find her way through on foot. The streets and closely-packed buildings had the feeling of a maze, populated with all sorts of dangers.
     The small, automated car took the address she gave it without question, flashing up the fare above the payment slot. Once she slid her credit slip into the slot the taxi rose gently and pirouetted around and away from the towering hangars and control centres of the docks. As she glided over buildings Sura watched the people below disperse, spreading themselves thinner over the city. When it set her down, the taxi landed on a quiet road. Only a few people were walking along it, but out of sight of the police many were openly carrying sidearms.
     Sura hurried glanced along the rows of buildings, looking for a familiar number. When she found it it was on a nondescript door with "Ardith Trade" written above it in faint letters. The door opened to her touch, and led into a short, narrow corridor ending in a steep stairway, covered in threadbare carpet.
     At the top of the stairs a tiny landing and another door were all to be seen. The door was lettered with the same text as the one from the street, and was nearly as faded. There was no sign of an intercom, and Sura paused for a moment, wondering whether or not to knock, before shrugging and pushing the door open.
     Parts of the office were familiar, seen on the screen of a commlink, but the perspective was different, and opened up by the surroundings. It was as devoid of trappings as most things were in Qudira, but unlike much of what she had so far seen of orbital life it was tidy, papers neatly filed and computer equipment arranged in an orderly fashion on clean desks.
     She was also greeted by a startled exclamation from a man whose back was turned to her. When he had heard her come in he snapped something unpleasant at the intrusion, span around in his seat, and bit of a further rebuke in surprise.
     "How are you doing?" Sura asked before he could recover himself. She saw him groping for something to reply with, and moved on, preventing him from voicing his surprise.
     "Thought I'd better look you up." It was surprisingly rewarding, seeing the man speechless, robbed of the voice he usually used to work through tedious details at tedious length.
     "Great to see you," he managed to say eventually. Sura caught herself. She had been expecting a more predictable "what" or "why", but despite the surprise, which had clearly had an effect, he wasn't going to be hit by it for too long. She hadn't had much of an opportunity to know anything about any side of the man that wasn't directly connected to the business they had together. Yet in her judgement, as far as she was in any position to judge, he was the most trustworthy of the people she dealt with.
     When he stood her control of the situation slid a little further; he was significantly taller than her, and bulkier, and appeared tense and almost poised for action. Don't back away Sura told herself. The man relaxed, placing a small gun on the desk. She hadn't even noticed he had been holding it.
     "People bursting in can mean danger here," he pointed out. It sounded more like a warning than an admittance of a fright.
     "Lock your door, then," Sura said lightly.
     "Because trouble might walk through it." There was a flicker of curiosity on the man's face. Did he know she was bringing possible trouble? He was surely wondering why she was here, but perhaps he thought she was just trying to use a bit of surprise to put him off-balance for negotiating the transaction of a Juice delivery. It did not matter what he thought, since there was no cause for them to be playing around each other.
     "Let's get to the point, Alex," she said. "I might be right about trouble. Here." She pulled the disc out of a pocket, and held it clenched in her fist. Alex Ardith was watching and waiting curiously, but letting her move this along at the pace she wanted.
     Sura was watching Alex's face closely as she unfurled her fingers, revealing the small gold or brass coloured pendant. His expression twitched involuntarily at the sight.
     "It turned up, more or less, on my doorstep," Sura explained tersely.
     "I don't want to know why!" Alex exclaimed, suddenly frightened. She knew he was more familiar with the ebb and flow of life in space, and therefore his reaction was alarming, suggesting that what she had dismissed as paranoid worries may not have been so unfounded after all.
     "Steady on!" Sura said, partially to herself; Alex's fright had reached her and made her react in kind.
     "Whatever it's ended up with you for, I'm not having anything to do with it," he stated. Sura noticed his hands twitching, fiddling nervously and aimlessly.
     "Too dangerous?" she asked, trying to sound calm, and failing slightly. Alex seemed oblivious of that. "That's why I haven't given it up, or thrown it away. Shall I leave it here?"
     The twitching hands had, in their seemingly random movement, wandered over to the desk and grasped the pistol. They jerked upwards, pointing.
     "Just get out, now."
     Shoot me, and your left with two burdens, Sura thought, but the reality of having the weapon pointed at her kicked her feet into action, and she started to back away.
     "Alex!" she exclaimed, still edging towards the door.
     "I've said go, and that's it." He waved the gun, shooing her out.
     "What the hell am I supposed to do?" Sura said. Frustration, desperation. No other leads, and no other contacts she would go within a mile of with the pendant. "I don't know what to do with it!" she cried at last, pleading, abandoning the pose of control.
     Alex grimaced and he gripped the gun harder, knuckles clenched around it. Finally, he broke. "Ask someone who knows!"
     "I don't understand!"
     "A pilot, independent combateer, someone like that. Now get out!" He started moving towards her, quickly, and she fled from him.
     Outside, the street was still quiet. Sura leant against a wall, shaking slightly after her unsuccessful encounter with Alex Ardith. She was tempted, oh so tempted, to fling the pendant down the street and return to the surface as quickly as possible, but the fear gnawing at her mind had been increased tenfold by the meeting. She was scared of keeping it, and scared of letting it go. Whatever was to be done, it couldn't be done here. Almost unconsciously she tucked the disc into an inside pocket and ambled down the street in the hopeful direction of the spaceport or a taxi.
     There was a taxi call point at the end of the road, and within minutes one of the small autovehicles had landed by her. The journey back to the port area was short, too short. The immediate situation of sitting down, simply moving from one place to another, and not having to decide anything now was relative bliss, and the docks looming up ahead were viewed with the enthusiasm of the approach to a black hole. She told the taxi to abandon its present destination and take a tour around the station instead.
     Buildings slipped idly by. Sura half-watched them, submerged in her thoughts. One struck her all of a sudden - she had been intending to see if Alex could do anything about the unpleasant shuttle pilot. It seemed to her now an almost harmless incident, but it set her to cursing herself, the pilot, the world where people could get away with doing what the hell they wanted to whoever they wanted to.
     The taxi was passing over sparsely lit streets now. Many of the buildings were battered, and carried the marks of temporary repairs. The significance of this passed her by for a minute, until she suddenly realised that there was no weather here, and it would take more than simple neglect to disfigure constructions to that extent. She turned away from the depressing sight as the taxi moved away from them
     Below the ground was brighter, shining green under arrays of lamps where neatly marked fields grew crops for the station. Now Sura looked, seeing a fertility she had never witnessed on her native world, yet present here in an artificial construction floating in inhospitability of the vacuum. In truth the view was dull, neat lines of plants with humans and machinery scattered amongst them, and using space that in more prosperous stations would probably be occupied by recreational areas.
     In a short time the taxi was back over the depressed accommodation quarters, and Sura ordered it back to the port. As it flew slowly over one street, near the docks, there was a sudden flash of light and a bang, and a glimpse of running figures, but the cause was hidden from view as the vehicle drifted over the buildings on the side. She shuddered.
     The taxi set her down in the same place she had boarded one before meeting Alex Ardith. She ambled back towards the docks, hoping to find, and quickly, a transport to take her back to the surface. The pendant would be left in some corner on the station, hidden in a pile of litter; abandoning it would probably be less dangerous than hanging onto it.
     Near the entrance to the docks a bar fronted the street, but unlike most of the other ones in the vicinity it didn't suffer from loud, unpleasant music pouring out of the door and windows. Sura changed her course and went in, desiring to relax before trying to find a journey home.
     The bar's interior was filled with simple tables scattered randomly across the floor, and a plain counter at the back. People of all sorts of species were sitting, drinking or talking quietly, with none of the rowdiness that might be expected in such a place. Sura picked her way through the tables across the dirty floor to buy a drink, then found an empty table to sit at.
     The nearest customers glanced without much interest at her when she sat down, the rest ignored her. She glumly slipped at her glass, paying as little attention to everyone else as they had to her. Her foray to the station had, she realised, been a pointless spur of the moment waste of time. She had no idea what she had hoped to accomplish, other than a vague idea that the situation would be easier to resolve in space. It would have been, she decided, had she any idea of where to go.
     A sound opposite her brought her back to the present - a chair being pulled back. Sura looked up to see a man in his late twenties, unshaven, with ragged hair, about to sit down.
     "Go away," she snapped. The man grunted and sat down anyway, depositing a glass on the table with a heavy blow.
     "I said go away," Sura repeated.
     "This is the least busy table in here," he pointed out. "So I'll sit here. I'll sit where I like, in any case."
     The bag Sura had brought with her was sitting under the table, by her feet. She carefully reached into it and felt around until she found the gun. The man didn't appear to notice.
     "What's up with you, anyway?" he asked her.
     "Mind your own business," she snarled.
     "Charming, like the rest of this hell-hole of system," he grumbled. He picked up his glass, drained it, and stomped back to the bar.
     The encounter left Sura in a worse mood than before. The intrusion of a lout was the last thing she wanted now, and she quickly set about finishing her drink. Before she reached the end, though, he was back with a new, full glass.
     "Can't you take a hint and get lost?" she said.
     "Probably not, otherwise I would have taken the hints not to come anywhere near this pathetic excuse of a world."
     "My world, thankyou," she said angrily. Her right hand was still holding onto the gun, and there was a bit of a temptation to pull the trigger and blast this nuisance out of the way. Such murder was not something she would really stoop to, but the thought that the man was easily removable was comforting and frightening. Frightening that she would even consider it. To her surprise the man drew back a little at the revelation she was native to Qudira. He drunk off half of his new glass.
     Sura barked a sneering laugh at him. "What's your problem with that?"
     Considering his reaction to her previous statement she didn't expect a reply, but perhaps the extra shot of alcohol had changed his mind.
     "It's nearly killed me, and cost me most of what I had, so sorry if I don't think much of anyone who lives here," he stated. The glass went back down on the table, and the man was staring straight at Sura as he spoke.
     She shook her head at him. "What are you talking about?" she replied.
     "All those bastard pirates who live in places like this," he retorted. He spat on the table, towards Sura. She pulled a face and leaned back out of the way. It occurred to her that he was regarding everyone here as another potential pirate, and that for whatever reason he was either too annoyed or drunk to care about insulting them to their face. The implication itself was insulting to Sura.
     "You've not a clue about Qudira," she snarled at him.
     "You what?" he said scornfully. "I've a clue about the realities. I lost my ship, and nearly my life, here. That says all that needs to be said. Just enough credits left to get myself a second-hand wreck to get out of here as soon as possible, and I've no intention of coming back. This place and everyone in it can go to hell. You included."
     Sura was staring past the man during his rant, her attention caught by a movement in the street outside. There was a group of half a dozen people, peering into every door of every building, working their way towards them. They reminded her of something seen in a casual glance earlier. The bang she had witnessed from the taxi. Suddenly she saw something she had missed earlier, that the explosion had taken place in the same road as Ardith's office. She started shaking, her hand gripping the gun tighter than before.
     "You said you've got a ship?" she said nervously.
     The man caught her change in mood. "A second hand wreck," he replied. His scornful expression seemed to have vanished, and he was watching her curiously. That lasted a brief second before being replaced by astonishment. Sura was resting a small gun on the table, pointing straight at him.
     "Get up and take me to it. Out of here by the back door, and quiet," she ordered. She was shaking badly, and so was her voice, but the man with the ship was in no mood to call her bluff either.
     "You're crazy!" he pointed out as he slowly stood up. "All right, follow me," he said, moving towards the back of the bar.
     Sura slung her bag onto her shoulder with her spare hand, and hid her pistol between it and her body, still pointing outwards. Still no-one else in the bar appeared to be watching. The group outside were walking across the street, towards them.
     There was a shout outside and two of the group barged in, yelling at everyone to stay put. A beam of laser light flashed across the room, scoring a deep mark in the wall at the back. There was little reaction from most of the occupants, but Sura and her prisoner were right by the back door. She pushed him towards it and stumbled through herself.
     They were in a small storeroom, with crates of bottles and barrels stacked randomly around it. Sura's prisoner took one look at her, then shoved a pile of drinks over so they clattered down and blocked the door they had just entered through.
     "Get a move on!" Sura screamed at him as the door moved then jammed against the debris piled in front of it. The man looked around the store. At its back there was another door with an electronic control panel embedded in the wall. He hit the panel and the exit slid open.
     They were in the main port complex, thronging with people. The man tried to sprint away into the crowd, but Sura stayed with him. He glanced over his shoulder at her and swore.
     "You're not loosing me!" she yelled back to him.
     "That's not your only problem. Your friends are back there!"
     They both ran. The disorganised station allowed them into the ship berths without much of an effort to stop them - just a brief "Wait!" from a customs officer who shrugged and turned back to his job when they ignored him. Their was a distant commotion from some of the police in the area, but they were too far away to interfere.
     The man led Sura through to a wall with dozens of lift shafts in it, heading up to the various docking levels. Both of them ran to the nearest. Inside the man paused.
     "Hurry up!" Sura ordered him.
     "Look, I've only just got this ship, I'm not even sure where it's berthed," he shouted back in her face. "You'll have to be patient!" He dug into his pocket and removed a card, glanced at it, then hammered the lift's panel. Seen through the glass-fronted lift car, six people shoved themselves clear of the crowd and sprinted towards them. A couple of laser shots flew out, one hitting the lift and melting a hole in its wall. Sura yelled at the pilot. He yelled back. The lift started to move.
     More shots. The glass exploded, showing the two occupants with sparkling shards, but then it passed through an opening in the ceiling into temporary safety.
     They came to a halt on a walkway that encircled a large, open hangar, criss-crossed with other walkways stretching across the void. In some of the gaps between these passages ships hung motionless in the space. Sura looked at them in fascination, but her hand was still holding her gun, and it was still pointed at her pilot. He looked scornfully at it.
     "You could have tried firing back," he suggested. "It never even occurred to you, did it? You had me for an idiot." He turned his back on Sura and walked away, ignoring Sura as she followed him.
     She knew he was right, and her chances of escape this way were vanishing as a result. She pointed the gun, but her natural self-control restrained her from pulling the trigger - she had not done that when there was immediate panic and danger, and she certainly couldn't now. The cold metal world around her, everything strange, and her stood in it, uncertain, unknowing, and useless.
     "Bastard!" she screamed at the man, and shot him. He crashed to the floor with a yelp of surprise and pain, a smoking hole in his jacket.
     "It's not going on enough power to kill, but I can keep hurting you," Sura shouted back, waving the gun at him, "so get up!"
     The man climbed back to his feet, wincing in pain and feeling around his back to the point where he had been burned. As he turned his head to see Sura his look was venomous.
     "I was right about the people here," he growled through gritted teeth, then turned back and carried on walking.
     They continued along the walkway bordering the hanger to the nearest corner. So far there was no sign of pursuit - the people chasing them would need to check every hangar and every floor, which gave them some time. Nobody suspicious could be seen on the walkway levels above or below them.
     Around the corner they took the second passage stretching out into the main hangar void. There were numerous exit points along its length, airlocks that sometimes had short tubes attached between them and a docked ship. The pilot stopped outside one that connected to a small wedge-shaped vessel, laser scars marking its surface and corrosion pitting some parts of its hull.
     "What a piece of junk!" Sura exclaimed. Its owner just grunted in reply and slid the card into a slot next to the airlock. It opened.
     The ship appeared to be orientated vertically to them - the tube attached to a hatch on its top surface. With Sura watching him the pilot stepped into the ship, caught hold of a bar, and swung himself through ninety degrees. Sura watched in amazement at his manoeuvres in the suddenly zero gravity environment just a few feet away from her. The appearance of the battered vessel was disquieting, and the prospect of entering its dark and weightless interior even more so. She hesitated, once again on the verge of running away, when out of the corner of her eye she saw a distant lift door open, spilling figures into the hanger. She darted forward into the waiting Gecko fighter.

Chapter 5 - Spaceborne
Story index