FREELANCERS #10 - 07/17/23
(Sorry this is late. I got swamped by a teething baby, social obligations, and other interruptions. Hopefully, the longer, slightly spicy story makes for it.)
Quick letter from Dale Goldbrand because the rest of the staff are busy, on vacation or in rehab. So I guess the producer of the show will be a PA and dictate a bounty at three in the morning for his highness. I know he looks scary and once ripped the jaw of a borvawak, but you gotta wonder, is it that he refuses to work a holoterminal, or does he not know how? Think about it.
King Gorthrax the Hunter, Tyrant of Xaksaya, Slayer of Emperor Uchitzik, Wielder of Vishavra’s Eye, High Lord of the Hall of a Hundred Horns, comes with a message.
Urgent High Value Bounty
Posted by Havish Star Law out of the Nexus
15 Million Nu-Sovereigns
Chief Operating Officer of Delectable Delights
Well-fed Bosvin with coiffed hair, star-shaped birthmark on right buttock
Last seen in Sahalan space leaving Chatera IV on an interstellar shuttle
Imminent flight risk
Bring this one in quick before the Shadow Realm claims him.
Do not disappoint me, hunters.
Oh, shit. COO of Delectable Delights’s been naughty. Don’t hurt him too bad, y’all. They make steaks that are to die for. I’ll toss in a bonus for anyone who messages me with the inside scoop on what’s going on here.
Mara and Jack Spectre sailed across the pristine blue waters of Chatera III. Riding self-propelled water boards, they zipped around vegetation covered protrusions of gold speckled rock. Jack reached a cybernetic hand over to increase the volume on the music player strapped to his scarred and well-muscled chest. His even more athletic wife, Mara, tucked in a blue-beaded braid that came loose from her short dark brown hair and flashed her husband a big smile.
The two human lovebirds sped up and cheered as they rocked out alongside a pod of moa dolphins that joined the party.
They came to a fork in the resort’s course. A drone guided them to turn down the safer route to the right. It beeped a warning in several languages as Jack smirked and veered down the more dangerous path to the left.
He smacked her backside as he passed. “You’re it.”
Never one to refuse a challenge, Mara tucked low and followed him.
With only thin shafts of the sun rays peeking through from above lighting their way, they weaved through a gauntlet of jagged stone. They exchanged light smacks before rocketing forward off a jump, around a smooth half pipe or under a fallen stalactite. The path before them narrowed to a slit wide enough for only one daredevil to pass through at a time. Mara rushed forward and gave her husband a shove as she took the lead.
Playful victory first in her mind, she didn’t notice him lose his balance and veer toward a rocky wall.
She exited the other side, raised her hands, and cheered. The dark brown-skinned woman raised her hi-tech sunshades and circled around the wide grotto she’d discovered.
Rich green vines draped down the sides of the circular chamber as a healthy opening to the sky let in tons of sun.
She looked in awe at her gorgeous surroundings and said, “Wow. Have you ever seen anything like this? Jack?”
Mara turned around and noticed she was alone. Her smile faded. “Jack?!”
After a tense moment, she saw a disturbance in the water near where she entered the cave. Hugging the board to his chest so he could squeeze through a tight, hidden path underwater, Jack emerged and shook off some kelp that caught in his hair.
He stood up on the still moving board and turned down the volume of the rock music now echoing about the cave. “That’ll teach me to forget you play dirty, Mar.”
She laughed and reached out a hand to help him up. “All’s fair in love in war. I’ll make it up to you later, if you can keep up.”
He took her hands. The more casual, lyrical lilt of his speech contrasted with her more terse yet refined Faustian accent. “You bet your sweet arse you will, love.”
Jack and Mara held hands and slowly circled each other in the centre of the beautiful hidden grotto. They both wore matching rings on their left hands. Shaped like vines holding a precious gem, the surrounding skin was always redder than the rest of them.
The dark, unbreakable metal had microscopic thorns that made it uncomfortable to wear and problematic to remove.
Still circling in the centre of the chamber, the two lovebirds leaned in and kissed each other.
An hour later, their hands remained intertwined in the shower of their suite. The room steamed up extra from their throes of passion.
As she took some extra time to freshen up, Jack strolled into the bedroom with a towel over his head, drying his hair. He reached into a drawer on his side of the bed and the flashing light of his holopad caught his eye.
From the bathroom, Mara said, “This place is enchanting. Worth every rinn. I’m so glad we finally set aside time for this. It’s shameful we waited this long to take our honeymoon.”
Jack forced himself to step away, but kept looking back at the light buried in his underwear, signalling an urgent notification. “Yeah, definitely. You know what they say… all work and no play.”
She laughed and examined the cybernetics wired next to her blood vessels. “It’s cliché, but accurate. Life as a freelancer is something else, but this trip really brings into focus what my therapist has been saying for years. We’re doomed to fall apart if we don’t unplug, take a step away from it all and catch our breath once in a while. Remind ourselves what we’re working so hard for.”
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Jack spun his holopad around in his dexterous fingers. Lost in thought, he rubbed the stubble forming on his jaw and scratched around a small metal plate holding a scarred section of his cheekbone together.
His breath caught in his throat when she leaned out of the bathroom to say, “Jack? Hello?”
In one smooth motion, he secreted the holopad back into the drawer and closed it with his heel. “Hm?”
She asked, “Did you hear what I said?”
He put on his winning smile, nodded, and stood up. “Of course. We had to work hard to pay for a place like this.”
Her eye winced ever so slightly, then she surveyed their suite. She gave him a small smile and opted to leave it for now, returning to the bathroom to finish her makeup.
Jack kicked open the mini-fridge. He felt the siren song of expensive liquor calling his name. He flexed some jitters out of his cybernetic right hand and grabbed a bottle of water instead.
Clad only in a towel around his neck and his underwear, the freelancer moved to the balcony. He took the prescribed dose of mechloparen to quell his body’s reaction to the cybernetics.
Taking in the decadent atmosphere of the Pink Sands Resort, the lifelong gambler lowered his head and considered something risky.
He turned back inside and said, “Hey, love, let’s swing by the starport before dinner. I need to pick something up.”
The company that ran the Pink Sands Resort worked hard to maintain a standard of decorum and a rich aesthetic, even in the town that serviced it. At least the path from the starport to the resort.
Wearing a loose shirt, tank top and shorts, Jack stood just off the boardwalk, running a bare foot through the brilliant pink sand that gave the resort its name. He watched as genetically engineered crabs marched sideways nearby to smooth out the mess he made.
The freelancer narrowed his eyes and scanned the area outside the starport, searching for cracks in the bougie veneer.
“Hey, Jack! Come have a look at this.”
He turned, put his sandal back on, and sauntered over to his wife. Standing outside a jewellery shop, the athletic woman wore elegant shoes and a bright white, form-fitting dress that accentuated her figure.
She held up a necklace of lustrous opalescent pearls. “Aren’t they beautiful? They tailored the oysters unique to this region to produce them. Each pearl takes ten years to form. What do you think?”
Mara draped the necklace around her collar. Jack raised an eyebrow. “All the finest jewels in Aesteria pale in comparison to you, love. Bet they take ten years to pay off all the same. Wonder how much them fancy oysters cost. Does your shite sparkle if you eat them?”
The snake-like Sahalan vendor offered a polite smile that his eyes didn’t sell. Mara handed the item back and half-dragged her husband down the street.
She rubbed the back of her hand and whispered, “What’s gotten into you? We’re supposed to be enjoying our honeymoon.”
He sighed, held her close, and kissed her head. He wanted to nuzzle into her, but knew better than to risk ruining her hair. “Sorry, love. You’re right. I’m being an arsehole. I’m used to being the low-level help in a place half as nice as this. Having a hard time relaxing when my peers are suddenly… well…”
Jack gestured to a cabana by the beach. The couple regarded a group of blue-blooded Sahalan, the types who kept their snake-like lower halves, unlike the worker caste whom they bred to be bipedal. A servant brought in a massive egg that the noble swallowed whole to lavish in the delightfully slow digestion. Another lay flat on a table while two specialists with four arms each used hot stones to massage the guest’s thick tail. All while special lizards used wide leaf-shaped solar collectors to fan the nobles.
Mara gave him a look, then smacked his cybernetic arm. “Jack, come on. That’s all in your head. You charmed me, didn’t you?”
“You forget that took many years of arduous effort, love.”
They kissed as they reached the main intersection outside the starport.
Jack looked around and noticed a structure of vines in the centre of the courtyard. They formed a natural clock tower that shifted into bioluminescent nodes as the sun set.
He shook his head. “I tell you, these Sahalan blokes either really hate technology or they love showing off their genetic circus tricks.” He turned to Mara. “I’ve go make reservations for dinner. Be back soon.”
“I thought we were going to try the resort’s signature restaurant.”
He waved a hand. “Don’t worry, it’ll still be there tomorrow. This is a surprise. You’ll love it. In the meantime, why don’t you go that way and check out some more shops? See what kind of marital aids they have. Can you imagine? I’ll meet you back here in a bit.”
He winked and jogged off in the opposite direction.
Once he got far enough away, Jack veered behind a heavy beast of burden toward the starport. After checking if the coast was clear, he feigned dropping something, knelt down, then extended a hidden vibra-blade in his cybernetic arm to cut most of a rope near the water’s edge. Once he got close to the office, there was a loud snap and bystanders shouted for help as an antique airship almost got cut loose.
Fearing the wrath of their masters, security and nearby dock workers dropped what they were doing to go lash the tourist attraction back to the ground. In the commotion, a loose helmet and safety vest disappeared from a railing and a human man slipped into the building.
Up in the dockmaster’s office, Jack searched for a manifest. The freelancer was loathed to think of how long it would take to sift through hand-written notes, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what the snake-like bio-engineers used for holoterminals.
Before he could get too far, someone in a form-fitting white dress climbed in through the window.
The Faustian woman crossed her arms and tapped her feet, holding her elegant shoes in her hand. “I’m curious as to what kind of lügishein you’ll come up with to dig yourself out of this one.”
“Give me a minute and I’m confident I’ll have something that’ll knock your bloody socks off.”
She marched over and grabbed him by the shirt. “You really thought you could get away with working on our honeymoon?”
He held up his hands but didn’t shrink under her steely gaze. “See? Now you’ve gone and admitted that you saw the urgent bounty too.”
“That’s not the point! You lied, Jack. Do you think I’m stupid and blind? You’ve worked with me for years. You really thought I’d fall for a silly stunt like this? What were you thinking?”
He shrugged. “I honestly thought it’d be a pleasant surprise to recoup some of our losses for this trip. That’s all. I was just being adorable, like I always am.”
She let him go, closed her eyes, and rubbed her temples, following her therapist’s suggestions for how to calm down. “I just feel betrayed you tried to deceive me. This trip was supposed to be something special. Just for us. We’re not supposed to be thinking about money—“
“Of course you’d say that. You grew up rich as sin. Must’ve been nice popping by a place like this for a casual weekend getaway without working for it—“
At the mention of not having to work for it, Mara lost her cool. She shoved him into the wall and they verbally tore into each other.
The commotion outside reached a crescendo as Sahalan workers riding giant beetles flew in to rescue the antique airship before it floated away. The whipped up winds and deafening buzz of their wings drowned out the couple’s heated argument. It also hid the sound of a hidden door in the dockmaster’s office sliding open.
Jack and Mara paused and raised their eyebrows as an immense porcine-like Bosvin backed up into the room. His undersized shirt stretched to its limit around his bulk, but his shorts were too loose. The man needed both hands to clutch a few items to his chest, so the shorts fell around his ankles. As he bent over to pick them up, his underwear shifted to reveal a star-shaped birthmark on right buttock.
The Bosvin, Ballis Melki, flicked a wayward strand of coiffed hair out of his face and turned around. All three of them froze and stared at each other. Their eyes moved to the pistol Ballis held in front of the suitcase he held to his chest.
The mark backed up and his breath quickened as the couple put their game faces on. Mara cracked her neck and activated her cybernetics with a thought. Her eyes lit up with a targeting interface and the wiring throughout her veins and nervous system surged with power.
Jack held out a hand. “Easy there, chief. We’ve literally caught you with your pants down. Let’s not do anything foolish.”
As the door behind the couple opened and Ballis’s armed bodyguard entered the room, everyone sprung to action.
The panicked mark extended the gun and pulled the trigger. He fumbled with the safety after it refused to fire. Trusting her husband and partner to deal with the newcomer, Mara picked up a piece of furniture and hurled it at Ballis. Jack backed up against the wall next to the door to keep the bodyguard from seeing him. As the beefy Bosvin guard drew a pistol and aimed it at Mara, Jack extended his hidden vibra-blade and pinned his opponent’s arm to the wall.
Before Mara could rush in, Ballis flipped the safety off and started blasting. With her senses and adrenals kicked into overdrive, she dodged and dove into cover. Leveraging his smaller size, Jack tucked into and under the bodyguard to use him as a shield. A bullet still grazed Jack’s shoulder as a few more bit into the guard.
As the compact sidearm clicked empty, Mara rolled over the dockmaster’s desk and dashed toward her target. Ballis hurled the gun and his suitcase at her, then stumbled back through the hidden door. It slid shut just in time to stop her. The Bosvin whimpered and sprinted up the stairs behind him as she slammed on the metal door so hard it dented.
She heard a voice behind her. “A little help, love?”
Mara spun around and saw her husband struggling on the floor with the determined bodyguard. The large guard leveraged his mass and strength to pin Jack’s arm. The gun inched closer and closer to the freelancer’s face.
Kicking her augments into high gear, Mara surged across the room. Hearing her footsteps, the Bosvin bodyguard looked up just in time to receive a strike from her knee right between his eyes. It hit him with such force he crashed onto his back. Instant lights out.
Struggling to catch his breath, Jack picked up the hefty pistol and said, “By the Infernal, what do these blokes eat? Where’s the mark?”
Mara helped him to his feet. “Hidden passageway. Must be a landing pad on the roof.”
“Sounds about right. I’ll take the stairs. You go—“ He stopped as she dove out the window to grab onto a rope hanging off one of the giant flying beetles. Jack waved and kissed the air. “Okay, good luck, love. Be careful. See you soon.”
The pandemonium outside only intensified after people heard gunshots. The workers stopped what they were doing and watched as the human woman climbed up the flying beetle’s winch. Several floors up, a few more of Ballis’s bodyguards and smuggler goons appeared out of windows and pointed weapons in her direction.
As bullets and laser beams whizzed past her, she swung onto a nearby crane and maneuvered up through the metal frame without breaking her stride. Working his way up the building’s interior, Jack weaved through the chaotic scene, using stealth and guile to flank and ambush his foes. Whenever they shifted to search for him, he’d slip away.
Breathing heavily, Ballis shoved open the access door to the roof landing pad. He saw stars from the exertion, but the out of shape gourmand was so close to escape. As two of the smuggler crew dashed up to secure their passenger, he went to shout orders at them, but nothing came out. The large Bosvin snatched a weapon from one of them, then shoved the other one to start the ship. He pulled up his loose shorts and stumbled toward the light freighter on the pad.
Mara leaped off the crane and landed with a roll on the roof. She looked up and froze as Ballis and the armed smugglers noticed him. This all happened so fast with the overcharged adrenaline coursing through her veins, her mind forgot that she didn’t have her hi-tech suit or the lightning throwing gadgets inside.
She threw herself to the side, dodging most of the first volley of fire, but a laser still scorched her side. Out in the open and wounded with no cover, Ballis and the smuggler levelled their weapons and aimed for the follow-up kill shots. A high calibre shot pierced the air. The smuggler next to Ballis crumpled to the ground as Jack shot him in the back.
Still fearing for his Mara’s life, he aimed the large pistol at the mark they needed alive and pulled the trigger.
Click. The slide locked back, empty.
Realizing he had the upper hand, Ballis held his gun between them and pulled up his shorts with the other.
With the smuggler’s light freighter roaring to life, the Bosvin flicked some hair out of his face and bellowed, “Nice try, losers. Too bad you won’t get to spend the bounty on marriage counselling.” He pointed his gun back at Mara and said to Jack. “Say goodbye.”
Jack’s voice caught in his throat as he locked eyes with his beloved wife. Their entire life together flashed before his eyes.
Before he could pull the trigger, a shadow fell over Ballis. A tall humanoid figure, armoured head to toe with a jump pack installed into metal wings, crashed into him. The large Bosvin flattened into the floor with such force he cracked the plascrete.
A trio of smugglers who hadn’t received their fee yet rushed out to rescue their passenger. Two in the back opened fire with submachine guns while the larger third member rushed forward with a club.
A shield irised out of the figure’s forearm. The small calibre rounds clattered against the tough, light alloy, but failed to pierce through. As the third member roared and swung in to clobber the assailant off their paycheque, a sharp metal wing impaled the attacker and flung him off the roof. In one smooth motion, they drew a high-powered laser pistol and shot the other two smugglers.
As Jack and Mara inched closer, the figure pointed the pistol at one of them and extended an advanced sword at the other.
They stopped and held up their hands. Gritting her teeth against the pain in her side, Mara shouted, “Hold your fire! We’re freelancers!” Her eyes projected a hologram of her freelancer guild ID.
Jack showed the ID tucked into his pocket. “See? We’re all friends here. I’m definitely buying you a drink for the timely and fabulous entrance you made. But would you mind terribly stepping off of our mark, please? Guild rules and all.”
The figure scanned their IDs from behind the featureless helmet. They used the tip of their sword to lower Ballis’s underwear, revealing the birthmark.
He blinked away the stars floating around his head and gazed up at the blurry, dominating figure stepping on him. “Mmm, I’ve been a naughty boy, but I don’t remember scheduling a session outside.”
The pain snapped him back to reality. Looking between his three captors, the Bosvin growled. “This is nonsense! Do you have any idea how powerful I am? You think I’ll be stopped by some freelancer thugs? Let me up and tell me how much it’ll cost to let me board that ship. I’ll triple whatever piddling bounty they posted for—”
Everyone on the pad braced themselves as the smuggler’s light freighter lifted off. They spun around, smacked into the antique airship, then rocketed toward the ocean. They all watched as a tracking beam zeroed in on the freighter from above. Once the ship was a safe distance from the starport, the laser pulsed with enough force to sink the smuggler’s vessel in one shot.
Jack, Mara, and Ballis looked to the sky as the shadow of a large black warship descended from orbit.
The armoured figure took off their helmet. A striking elven woman with strawberry blonde hair looked down at Ballis and smiled. “You think you only have freelancers to deal with after what you’ve done, Mr. Melki?” She tutted. “Cloning sapient Kashtaur to turn into beef products is a clear violation of the Alvor Accords.”
Still on top of him, she knelt to bring her piercing fiery orange eyes close to his. “You’ve been a very naughty boy, indeed. I suspect you won’t enjoy the punishment this time.”
She stepped off of him as black shuttles marked with the shield of the Aether Authority landed on the pad.
As masked troopers rushed in to secure the prisoner, she strode toward Mara and Jack. “The Vigilant Shadows appreciate your assistance in this matter. I’ll let you sort this out with your guild, but you might have secured your quarry if you weren’t equipped like tourists.”
The freelancers frowned and noted their current state. Mara glared at her husband. “We were supposed to be on our honeymoon.”
The elf’s face softened. She reached out to squeeze their hands. “Awww, that’s so precious. Al hathari. Enjoy the rest of your vacation.” Before they could respond, she blew them a kiss, extended her wings, and rocketed into the sky after the shuttle.
Now alone on the platform, Jack put his hands on his hips and whistled. “Fuck me. Guess the Inquisition is still alive and scary.”
Not paying attention to him, Mara looked up with narrowed eyes and cursed. “Herbisht lubersig. Bloody elves acting so rudely polite.”
Holding a nasty burn in her side, she glowered at her husband.
Breathing heavily and spattered with blood, he said. “Think we can wave them down for a ride back to the resort? Don’t know about you, but I’d kill for a big juicy burger.”
She bumped his shoulder as she marched toward the stairs, cursing in her native tongue.
With the sun setting behind a smoldering wreck on the horizon, Jack called out, “This’ll be a great story we’ll tell our kids in ten years! Love? Mar?! Ah, shite.”
Hope you enjoyed that! There's more to this couple's story coming.
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Talk to you next month. Have a good one!