Taken: Chapter Two

I sat at the table, ignoring the noise and distracting lights, focusing instead on the triangular cards spread in front of the dealer.

Value and color of each one must be added and then squared, and then divided by the number of blue symbols on four of them. And then the wagering began against the dealer’s hidden hand.

Six cards now, and four cards with blue symbols, but the yellow symbols meant they were not in play.

Whatever. It really didn’t matter.

I wasn’t here for the game. At least, not this one.

Looking around at the other players, a stunning woman caught my eye. On impulse I tossed another five hundred credits onto my stack, and gave the first number that popped into my head.

“Forty-two,” I said, amused with myself, but, the game must be played.

The dealer looked at me with disgust, and several other players tossed their cards down onto the table. One of them poured his drink onto it.

The dealer frowned at the drunken fool, who was promptly escorted from the premises by two surly security men.

I shrugged, taking my winnings.

Games of chance, even balanced with serious math, were banned in the heart of the Empire. Here on Outlander Terminal? No one gave a damn.

I sipped a small glass of wine, my senses not detecting anything problematic in it, except for the fact that I could clearly see some red lipstick on the glass.

Not the most sanitary, but I’ve had worse.

The Outer Limits was a seedy, unlikely dive for a gentleman of my supposed stature to frequent, but exactly where one would expect investors or conmen would guide non-locals to meet.

It was one of the more predictable elements of this type of job – everyone wanted to meet in places like this, because they were public, and, better yet, offered the opportunity to get drunk on some other fool’s credits.

I flipped a credit in the air and caught it, passing the time. I’d become bored, waiting for my contact to appear.

Maybe the job was blown. Maybe I could get home to Orem earlier than planned this trip. I’d been away too much lately, and there was a certain corner of the Under I liked to keep my eye on…

Too early to call the meeting a bust. What I’d like to do, and what I’d do while I was on an assignment were two very different things.

Doc called it a work ethic. I called it a pain in the ass.

I scooped up the pile, stuffing most of it into my pouch, and tossed a credit to the dealer.

“Congratulations, sir, come again,” he recited grimly.

“Hey, win some, lose some, you know?” I grinned.

A server bot went by, its screen flashing, and a metallic voice asked me if I wished to order a drink.

“No, thanks,” I said, swerving around it, and wandered over to where the brunette sipped on some fruity concoction that made my nose twitch.

She yawned, deliberately ignoring the beefcake morons vying for her attention.  Something about her had my senses on alert, and not in the usual way.

My gaze followed her curves, not just for weapons, but appreciating the way she filled out her tight dress. And that was odd.

That wasn’t like me. That wasn’t the job. That was… something different.  If I was going to be wasting time waiting for my contact to show, figuring out what the hell her game was would be as good a plan as any.

One of the idiots pressing around her stepped in front of me, face twisted into a leer. “We don’t need you here, pretty boy.”

That was a first. I’ve been called lots of things. Pretty, not so much.

He reached for a beamer under the edge of his jacket, and I grabbed his wrist.

Squeezed.

Hard.

Only when he crumpled with a whimper at my feet did I snap out of it.

Void. That wasn’t exactly in character.

One of his friends grabbed him, and they all backed away, eyes wary.

“Mind if I join this lovely lady, gentlemen?”

Not surprisingly, there was no answer.

She lit a syntherette as I sat across from her at the grimy table. The smell of real dried plant leaves wafted across my nostrils, aromatic, pleasant. Warnings flashed in my mind, but I waved them aside, focusing on this pretty puzzle.

Her lips were full and luscious, reminding me of Cyntha’s.

Wait, what?

I shut down those thoughts and concentrated on the job at hand.

This stranger smelled completely different, anyway.

And Cyntha was back on Orem, damn near the other side of the universe.

While I shook off the disturbing thoughts, a man walked over to us, sitting next to my new friend. She scooted, making enough room for him to plant his own ass down next to hers.

I recognized him from mission prep, but probably the “new me” wouldn’t know that.

She took another drag on the synth, and this time, blew a perfect smoke ring at me. Her lips puckered, the movement catching my gaze.

“And you are?”

“Durl,” he clipped out. “We’ve talked.”

I took his extended hand and shook it exactly twice, looking him over. Definitely packing, probably two needlers, at least. I could see the outline of a blade, slung low beneath his left armpit. Good leatherwork.

Barely noticeable to me and I’d wager no one else in the place would notice it.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, finally,” I said.

He nodded, giving me a professional appraisal. My clothes and hygiene implied a large amount of breeding and wealth. He’d have done his own scans, as deep as he’d like. Unless this crew had their own Nixie working for them, they wouldn’t break the carefully constructed persona.

Whatever curiosity he had satisfied, he ordered a stiff drink from one of the serving bots, tapping his fingers as it beeped and whirred.

A door opened, and Durl’s drink appeared. The bot rolled off, and he sat, sipping the drink while the woman watched me, her eyes focused on my pouch with the credits.

“You’re pretty good at Psroka,” she remarked.

“You wouldn’t believe how I came up with that number,” I grinned, sliding back into my role. I leered at her cleavage, and she looked startled, then flushed deep red.

Durl looked at me, then her, and laughed. “Good call.” he chortled, sucking at his drink.

The woman looked a bit unhappy, but it was only a momentary facial tic before she leaned towards me, making sure her breasts pushed down on the table, practically spilling from her dress.

“Do you see something you like, Mister…?” she prompted.

“Trent. Vicon Trent,” I replied. I took her hand, and brought it to my lips, testing at her scent.

Heady, intriguing…

Pheromone enhancers? As she leaned away, she arched her back and stretched out her arms over her head, giving the illusion that she was almost about to have a slightly revealing incident.

Illusion only, and the reality was far more interesting.

The lines of two holsters ran underneath and slightly behind her slim form.

Beamers, nicely concealed. The distractions of her body would serve to weaken any red-blooded man’s defenses.

I was impressed. Somebody was thinking ahead.

“You chose good people to protect you, Mr. Durl,” I said, nodding at the woman.

“It’s just Durl, Mr. Trent,” he said. “This is Takar.” The woman nodded in acknowledgement.

“According to your comms, you’re looking for some extra labor.” He sipped his drink, let his eyes roam the room while the woman stayed close.
“I’ve heard that your company’s  automated systems have the best results for the lowest cost,” I agreed. “But it’s difficult to find any details about the process itself.”
Durl shrugged. “Surely you can’t blame us. Our system is very profitable, and very exclusive. However it is open for licensing to, shall we say, appropriately motivated individuals.” He tilted his head to the side slightly.


This time it wasn’t just for show. The frustration I let slip was real as I leaned back in my seat. “I’m not sure how much more motivation I need to show you.” I rested my hand on the table, ready to push away. “I have spent months in negotiations with your principal, or someone in your company posing as your principal. I have sent schematics, financials, and at the end a sizable down payment just to secure this meeting.”

I stood. It was make or break time.

“If you’re not interested in doing business, I wish someone had told me before I came to this charming spot.”
Takar slid out of her seat, wrapped her hand around my arm. I fought the urge to push her away.
“Don’t be like that,” she purred. “Surely you understand we have to be careful in how we select our partners.” She pressed herself into my side. “You do want to be partners with us, don’t you?”
The heady feeling edged at my mind again. “That had been the plan, but maybe somebody should let your boss know.”
Dural stood up. “No reason to get upset, Mr. Trent. Just need one last round of checking you out in person, remote comms are quite the same, wouldn’t you agree?”

He reached over and slapped my shoulder, eyes widening slightly when he realized just how much taller I was.
“But I can see you’re a man of your word, a man of business,” he smiled, and it wasn’t a pleasant sight. “Let’s skip the rest of the formalities and get this deal going.”

Takar stayed at my side as we left the Outer Limits. A few flicks of her wrist comm, and a small, grey unmanned vehicle curved around to greet us.

“You’ll understand that our principal doesn’t leave the business unattended,” Durl said as he stood by the open door. “If you want to do business with him, it will have to be at his facility.”

I frowned,tapping my foot. “I’m a busy man as well,” I tried to shove a bit of petulance into my tone. “I hadn’t planned on an extended trip.”

Takar tugged my hand as she slid into the transport. “You’ll have full access to comms at our facility, I assure you.” She flashed a bit more thigh. “Think of it as a little holiday.”

I let the show of reluctance drag on, but not too long before I slide in beside her and turned my attention back to my two companions.

“My factories and mines are primarily robotically managed,” I explained. “Recently, spare parts and raw material prices have escalated, as I’m sure you are aware,” I added, and he nodded agreement.

The woman watched me, observing my inflection, my facial expressions, my body language. Durl reached for her, casually,  but she pushed his hands away from her and shifted away from him, annoyed.

He laughed, and looked out at the passing scenery.

Takar pivoted in the seet to face me, a tiny smile quirking the corner of her lips. An unbidden memory of her in the bar rose to my notice. I felt that stirring again.

My nostrils filled with her musky attraction, and I was certain she wore little or nothing under her dress, save the sheaths for her beamers.

Possibly a long, thin dagger secreted along her thigh, but if so, it was extremely well hidden.

Her bright eyes beckoned and her tongue protruded, just for an instant, from between those plump and inviting lips.

Void.

We’d just dealt with Stanton and his mind-control nanovirus. Had another variant slipped into the wild?

I did a quick check, but everything except my wildly inappropriate thoughts and reactions seemed in order.

Fine. I could work around this.

“I’ve tried everything, salvage crews, miners, you name it. But they can’t produce the quantity of materials needed to hit my quarterly goals. can’t get us the proper quantities on my world.” The cover story filled the fuzzy gaps in my mind, gave me something to focus on. “Surveys reveal substantial deposits underneath the poles, but my current systems won’t allow me to take advantage of them,” I said.

Durl frowned slightly, just a flash. Considering I hadn’t said anything different from my endless comms on the subject the source of his irritation was a mystery.

Unless it was because I was still talking about the ‘business’ and not Takar.

Or something he ate disagreed with him, and I was paranoid.

At the moment, both options seemed equally valid.

“Do you mind if we open the viewscreens?”

The two exchanged a glance, so quickly, it would be easy to miss it. But I didn’t.

He flicked a control, and the screen opened partially, fresh air – well, as fresh as it was going to get on Outlander Terminal – filled the vehicle.

Force-screen projectors lined the windows. Smart, and very expensive.

As safe as babies in a lab, as least from external enemies.

We pulled into the docks and Durl led the way to an old Xarven-class shuttle. It’s seen better days, but looks serviceable. Solid.

Not a bad choice.

As we board, Takar makes her way to the pilot’s chair.

Interesting.

In moments, Outlander Terminal is behind us.

Finally I was getting somewhere.

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