The mercenaries stood in a half circle in the cargo hold of the Ward's Ferry. Ida had only been a few minutes behind them, and when the hatch opened, the trio turned to face her, eager for details about the job.
"Out of my way," Ida said, waving a hand, intent as an arrow for the solitude of her bunk. Pilvi walked between her and the mercs, acting as a barrier, though Ida hardly noticed the gesture. She went into her room, wishing away the eyes on her back, and twisted the bolt shut.
Curling onto the pillow covered bench, Ida gave herself a half hour, no more no less, to shake the crowds of Luminesce Post from her shoulders. Martinque, the shoppe, the hoards of people, shoving into her, spouting nonsense about black market goods, about violence, about the Guardians... She drove the day into the hole in her heart one memory at a time, long deep breaths shoving it all away.
When she emerged, the mercs had already begun to make themselves at home. The carbon-alloy crates that Ida kept in the cargo bay to store supplies had been repurposed as a set of chairs and a table. The men, apparently accustomed to downtime, had made a friendly looking circle with the boxes, and were playing a game of cards. Their quiet chatter dissipated once Ida made her presence known. The cards vanished and the lads stood, sizing her up.
"Thank you all for coming," she said, as if it were on their own good will that they were here. Ida nodded her head towards the corner where the mysterious box loomed, awaiting her. "Come see this."
"You aren't going to introduce us?" Pilvi whispered as Ida stood next to the mysterious package. "It'll feel better if you just broke the ice, my friend."
She didn't answer. She stood next to the mysterious package, hands folded over her chest.
The small squad arrived, gathering around it with wary looks, unsure of what it was that they were supposed to be looking at. One of the mercs gave Ida a very incredulous look. Two of the mercenaries were men, one was a woman. She was a vision to behold: tall and strong, partially robotic. She had a cybernetic eye, and her implant stuck a little bit out of her forehead. The men were the usual gruff and unshaven types, one was a veritable mountain of meat, and looked strong as an ox. The other was smaller, with an inquisitive spark in his eyes and a large, deep scar on his head. It disfigured his otherwise nice hair very badly, and Ida wondered why he kept the scar. It wasn't as if restorative technologies didn't exist.
Before Ida could explain about the package, the red light on top of it flashed. One of the mercs, the large fellow, snapped his sidearm from his thigh, pointing it at the box with flaming vitriol.
"It's just a box," Ida gestured.
The merc with the scar hadn't moved save for his eyebrows, which nearly touched the ceiling of his groomed hair. "You might want to take your box to the box doctor," he smiled.
"Shut up," the gun-toting merc snapped.
"Wait, listen," Ida raised a hand in a universal symbol of shut-the-hell-up.
The crimson face once again emerged from the swirling lights like a wizard about to deliver the next portion of the quest. The situation was starting to feel a little formulaic in Ida's opinion. If fairly-tale were really the case, they'd be massively triumphant, and also defeat a dragon or two on the way to a cache of secret gold. That would be interesting.
All in all, it could have been worse, for the angry merc lowered his gun. The crimson head spoke, as lethargic as he was mysterious.
"I see you've gathered some manpower. Like I said, you'll need it. Stand back, please give the box three feet of breathing space."
Everyone backed up, and the brown surface grew seams like water running down stone. The flaps opened to reveal dark complex looking guns. One of the mercs went "oooh" and raised his hands in excitement.
"This should be sufficient firepower for a successful raid." The crimson face melted away and a star map appeared. It wasn't a very good one, in Ida's opinion, as it lacked her trademark detail and intuitive data flow. But it'd do.
"As you can see the target location is a space station between the twin suns of system E-Z23-II. It's a Systems Commonwealth holding facility, where confiscated goods are temporarily held before being destroyed, dispersed to permanent holding areas, or sold at auction. The item we wish you to obtain is a two-piece cloud hub, a hard drive with certain information. You must obtain both halves of the cloud, or else you will not be paid."
"The Commonwealth?" The lady mercenary clenched her fists. "All the better!"
"You have 20 hours remaining to reach the facility. The target package will arrive in eight, but be held for two days before being transferred to the Commonwealth capitol world. This is the only window to obtain the item."
The woman and the meat-mountain looked at each other, obviously formulating plans given a deadline. The third, however, the man with the scar, had taken a seat on a crate, and was scribbling furiously in what appeared to be a notebook. A paper notebook, made of actual paper, written upon by a pencil with real graphite. He seemed very intent on his work, lips moving in silent conversation with himself. It was then Ida noticed the road map of scars that laid upon his chin and jaw. How curious, indeed.
The crimson face spoke again: "The details of the raid will remain on this screen until the item is obtained, by the way, so please take the time to scan with neural implants in capture mode once I've finished. Captain North, your ship AI can take of the mapping duties. The data is now in a local mist and it should be accessible."
"I already have it, Captain."
"We are aware of the disparity in dates and times across the fabric of space, so we'll be using Commonwealth quantum time for the operation. This box will have a digital display that will compensate for the warping in the shipping lanes. When you have the package, place it on top of the box. The next instructions will appear then."
The voice faded away, leaving the lane map hovering ethereally. It occasionally flickered a blueprint of the facility, with a large bright marker in the center.
"Captain," Pilvi said quietly, "Are you sure about this? It's not too late to call it off."
"They're holding an axe over my neck. And if I go down, you know how the guild will react... Even I admit I don't really have a choice. Come on, we'll be fine," she whispered back.
The lady mercenary cleared her throat. Ida swallowed: enhanced ears. She'd heard everything. She pointed at the box and glared at Ida, nose wrinkled. "Did this really just happen? Did you hire us to run a job that you were totally in the dark about?"
Ida set her jaw and crossed her arms.
"What's wrong? Someone cut out your tongue? Come on, you haven't said but two things to us since we arrived aboard. You didn't even walk out with us at the recruitment office. Damned rude, if you ask me, right boys?"
The trigger happy one nodded, but the other just blinked, looking up from his notebook. He seemed satisfied that he had nothing to add to the argument, so he resumed doodling.
Still, Ida said nothing. She didn't see why she had to explain anything to the hired help. The lady mercenary, frowning like how an angry cat raises its haunches at a mouse, slid a hand to the tactical knife strapped to her side. "Are you that much better than us, is that what it is? Did you even think to ask our names, eh? Did you even look when you paid us for our lives?"
"Astor, relax," the drawing mercenary chime in. He mumbled, as if to himself, "It might be fun."
"Shut up, Mack. Aren't you sick of this shit?"
His pencil paused on the paper, he seemed to be either stuck in thought, or just not listening. Eventually, he shrugged.
Astor blew some steam from her nose and crossed her arms tightly. "Explain what's going on, North, or we're out of here."
Ida thought for a moment and decided to just speak her mind. "I didn't think it would matter."
"I may be out of the service, but I don't run ops blindfolded," Astor snapped.
Where had this come from? Of all the mercenaries in the galaxy, Ida had hired the ones with authority problems. Exasperated, she snapped back. "I had assumed that you people never get told about the details in the first place."
Astor unraveled her arms and balled her fists. It seemed like the only thing stopped her from wringing Ida's neck was the promise of payment. "Maybe you assumed wrong."
"You know, she's got a point," Mack still hadn't looked up, and had begun to doodle again. "We usually get much less."
"It's a matter of principle," there was a weakness growing in the lady mercenary's voice, an unsure cancer multiplying. Perhaps she realized just how full of hot air she was. "Who's side are you on, anyways?"
"Listen," the jumpy merc who hadn't spoken much since he'd pulled a gun on an inanimate box. "If you two kids are going to fight, I'm just going to shack up for the night. Seems to me from this mystery box, we have ample time to rest before all hell breaks loose. Captain North, would you be so kind as to show us where we can catch some shut-eye? Wouldn't want to get crankier than we already are, yes?"
"Are they usually like this?" Ida asked him.
He swallowed a laugh, neck muscles bulging a smidge. "Worse."
"James," Astor threatened.
Ida ignored the tall woman, pretending she wasn't as physically intimidating as she was. "Pilvi, please she them to the guest bunks."
"Yes, Captain. This way, my friends."
Mack slowly stretched his arms upward, pencil in one hand, papers in the other. He stuffed his belongings into a faded, pink duffel... the color a little out of character for a typical hired thug. Ida hoped he wasn't space-mad. Eccentricities only took one so far when there was nothing left reality to give them foundation. The little voice of her social training screamed in her head: now was not the time to be Typical Ida. Talk to them. Know them. You might need this later.
"Wait," Ida said. "Sorry. What are your names?"
Astor smirked. Predatory birds snatch eggs from nests, cracking them open as the mother birds watch on, helpless. If said predatory birds could smirk, they'd have had Astor's face. "Astor Yoxall, eight years in Commonwealth, ten in the private industry. Long range specialist with third generation sniper optics," she tapped her robotic eye.
"James Sherry," the jumpy merc said. "Same career specs as Astor, though I'm more of a close combat guy. I've had carbon-steel plating implanted over my knuckles. Shooting people works just fine on ground, but in space, too many holes is bad for everyone."
Ida nodded. "Ida North, captain of the Ward's Ferry, president of the Ward's Ferry Cartography, former president of the Ward's Ferry Express."
"Former?" James prompted.
"I haven't done this in a while. Um, acquisition and delivery things. You know."
"That was made fairly obvious. Astor here might be an ox, but I'm sensitive to the moods of others. You were nervous."
"I apologize. I try to stick to map making."
"Well, Captain North," James smiled with a charming roughness, the scars on his nose pinching open and shut. "You've hired the right team. We're a self-run machine, we know each other's combat methods and can communicate through our implants."
"Mostly," Astor said, giving a sideways glance to Mack. Suddenly, the man stood out like a child outside the principal's office. He looked up for the first time since the meeting had begun, blank innocence in his eyes.
"What?" He said.
"You haven't introduced yourself," Ida said.
"Carmack. Not 'Mack,' I'm not a fish. I like long walks on the beach, small arms, and close calls." He pointed to the scar that sliced across his skull like a bald, fleshy mohawk. "I cut myself shaving, but you should see the other guy. I can't parallel park, and I return my library books early. Now, if we're done with the meet and greet, I'll be taking that bunk time, thanks."
Ida clamped her jaw shut. That was not what she'd expected. She'd be keeping a close eye on that one.
"Hey, was your name Pilvi?" Carmack addressed the robot with warm familiarity that one would usually reserve to conversation with a fellow organic.
"Give me the nickel tour."
"Happy to assist, Carmack."
Carmack hoisted his pink bag over his shoulder and left the room, hiking up the grated walkway that led up to the crew deck. The sound of a hatch shutting, the familiar whine of a lock turning. Usually Ida only heard that sound from inside the bunk. She hoped Pilvi hadn't led Carmack to her room. That would be awful, having someone poking around in her belongings. But Pilvi wouldn't do such a thing, the thought left her like a bad dream. Silly notion.
"Is he all right?" Ida asked Astor.
"I'll vouch for his skills right here and now, before you say anything," Astor raised a finger. "He's touchy about the no implants thing, it's sort of an issue with him. But it doesn't effect his performance, the man's exceptionally skilled (I love to daydream what he could do with a little bit of the old cybernetics in him, but that will never happen, I suppose)."
Astor shrugged. "Best you ask him."
"Oh," Ida said. "I suppose what I meant was, is he okay okay?"
"What, that scar?"
"Yes. I don't think he cut himself shaving."
"Points for being astute," Astor snorted. She leaned in as Ida leaned back, shrinking at the presence of the soldier-for-hire. "Like I said, I can vouch for his skills. Sometimes, lass, scars are just scars."
"But he has so many."
Astor shrugged. "Don't we all, but some we don't carry quite so... ostentatiously as Carmack."
Pilvi reappeared on the cargo deck. "Captain? A word with you on the bridge, please."
Ida blinked. "Yes, okay."
She followed Pilvi towards the bridge, past the ramp for the crew deck. She turned back to the robot, a quickly formed thought on the tip of her tongue. "Show the others to where they can sleep for a while, make sure they stay out of my area. I'll meet you on the bridge, okay?"
"Sure thing," Pilvi said.
The Ward's Ferry bridge was amongst the least spectacular of bridge types, it was small, older than Ida herself, and had just one chair. To be fair though, the chair was very nice. An gift from a grateful A'saayut cartography guild Ida had once shared techniques with, it was plush and had magnetic wheels. It was linked to Ida's neural implant, so she could lock it in place with a simple thought. Or unlock it.
Ida plopped herself in the chair, raised both feet, and pushed off from one side of the bridge to the other. The Ward's Ferry had originally been designed as a ship to be run by a small crew, but the modern ship computing systems could make it so a single being could pilot the ship basically anywhere. Ida used the communications and navigation consoles because of their proximity to her lounge, not because of necessity.
It was funny, she realized, for her to think about those sorts of things now, of all times. It was because there were people aboard her ship again. It shed unwanted light on what she was now sure were glaring eccentricities.
"I'm here," Pilvi said. "Are you all right?"
"Peachy," Ida said.
"You seemed a little nervous in there. Is the ship feeling a bit tight?"
"Come on," Ida waved her hand and spun away from Pilvi. "What do you think?"
"I think you've shunned your fellow meat-machines for the better part of two years, drowned yourself in your work, and established a me-only zone that rivals the Commonwealth's anti-aircraft zero tolerance zone."
Ida turned back, a certain glitter in her eyes. "Well, aren't you a little closet therapist."
"Me and the therapy kittens."
"I admire that you can drop the dumb robot act like it's a hot kettle. You had those mercs fooled, I bet they think you're nothing more than an exceptionally ugly steward bot."
"Throwing jabs at me won't change the fact they're here. But think of it this way, at least they underestimate me that much more. It's better that way, don't you think?" Pilvi's simple cartoonish eye winked at 5 frames per second.
"Now you're being creepy," Ida smiled. "And I admit, I'm a little nervous. It's not just having people aboard... it's having them aboard. God, someone should teach that Astor woman to not get so close to others, right? She smelled like blueberries and discharged firearms."
"But the point is, we trust them, right?"
Ida spun in the chair. "Hey, Pilvi, turn on video. I want to see what they're doing."
"You didn't answer the question,"
"Pfft," Ida spun in the chair. "I don't see why not. They're not my favorite group I've hired, but money does wonder in smoothing over some doubts. The point is, the vacation's over."
"Ah, the admission strikes."
"Sooner or later someone was going to waltz on my ship again," Ida resigned, if only to stop Pilvi's wannabe-therapist subroutines. "Whatever, it's not worth wasting air on."
"Shall we go?"
"Yes. Map it in, please. And I was serious about seeing what they were up to." Ida pushed off a console again, this time aiming herself towards a screen. She locked the chair to the floor via a thought, and tapped the screen on. "Lock the door while you're at it."
When did it become that a machine, wires and plastics, was capable of such subtle sarcasm? The screen flickered to life, and Ida pulled the up the feeds one by one.