Characters: Tomás Darquin
Darquin had tapped the shoulders of several people in-the-know on Abbai 4, and now they were finally ready to prove what they really knew. They wanted it kept low-key, so he decided to mingle his way down to the planet: board a shuttle on its way to drop off supplies and slip out of sight while everyone was busy moving crates, losing himself in crowds, using them like waypoints on his journey.
His directions took him to Korvan-Otolgi, an Abbai farming village that had managed to keep itself together through the Shadow War and the raiding parties months that followed, all from its place on the banks of the Korvan River. For some reason he expected to see burned grass huts. The area was marshland after all, populated by tall reeds, moist earth, and the scent of fresh water. So the bulb-shaped houses and cylindrical shelters were quite a surprise.
Abbai workers were carting around tall mixing tanks with long corrugated tubes, in the process of pumping a thick grey compound into the flaking tears in the convex faces of each house. A tangy industrial smell wandered into the busy street.
Within the parallel flows of foot traffic down the center of the village, he followed the acrid shapes of houses and shacks in progress till he reached his destination. The sign said “Arenn’s” in Drazi, Centauri, Interlac, and squiggly Abbai script. The building was a pair of wide adobe cylinders stacked over each other, one of the few two-story structures in the place. There was a steady stream of traffic in and out, spacers of every stripe, some locals.
Darquin slid in behind a pack of spacers heading inside, trying not to be noticed as he navigated the maze of tables, booths, and rent-a-minute data-net kiosks.
He was saddling up to the bar, scooping up the tails of his dark Anla’shok duster, to join his contacts as the Abbai innkeeper brought him a cup of ale.
The Drazi nodded with approval. “Good choice.”
“Food and water supplies as they are.” The short-haired Centauri moved to take a drink from his own cup when he added quickly, “Not to impugn your establishment, Arenn.”
“Good, remember.” The Abbai innkeeper wore a rueful grin. “No one ever gets banta flu from my food.”
“It’s been a problem everywhere else, though.” A dark-skinned human took the bar stool next to Darquin. “Ian Zaremba, Universe Today. You’re–”
“Arenn’s friend,” Darquin said.
Darquin greeted the Centauri with a nod. “I guess you’re Fiddo?”
Fiddo raised his cup to him in response.
The Drazi simply grunted, “Yn’gol,” before he bit into something that looked like a tan falafel.
“So banta flu’s been getting around?” Darquin said.
Arenn nodded vigorously. “And zorder fever. And Blisshoss.”
“Your people haven’t had this problem before, have they?”
“Not for centuries.”
“Where’s it all coming from?”
Zaremba jumped in quickly. “Human food and non-human food gets mixed together–”
“And it ferments for a while, then someone eats it,” Darquin chimed in, “I know that. But that only happens when lurkers start rummaging through garbage for food.”
“There’ve been all kinds of sanitation trouble. Waste reclamation, wrecked irrigation lines, contaminated food supplies.”
“Great War.” Yn’gol waved slowly with an open hand. “Raiders.”
Fiddo nodded in agreement. “Anyone who approached the planet– especially if they had cargo –was either attacked or, as you say, ‘shaken down’ for money. What money?” he mumbled, scowling. “With them and all my other expenses….”
“But what it comes down to,” Zaremba said to Darquin, “is the staples of life in very short supply.”
“Poverty and disease for the first time in centuries. And a buyer’s market for everyone else.” Darquin turned a sympathetic eye to Arenn. “I hear it isn’t that bad in the rest of the system, at least.”
“The Abbai fleet was split up into a few groups to defend all the populated planets,” Zaremba said.
“Right, they’re betting they can whittle down an attack force and tie ’em up around here. By then, it wouldn’t be worth it to go all the way to Abbai 2.”
“Except their homeworld takes the brunt.”
Yn’gol nodded in agreement and pointed at Zaremba to emphasize. “Not enough Abbai ships, defenses planetside too weak.”
Darquin glanced up at Arenn who was moving farther down, wiping the bar down, pretending not to hear anything. This disaster area they were dissecting was her home. But she obviously decided not to take it personally, choosing to retain some dignity as if she had the only supply on the planet left. Without meaning to, Darquin sighed on her behalf.
He instantly went back to the discussion. “And the data nets? A few of the big ones are up now, but no one seems to be using ’em.”
“Not secure,” Yn’gol said. “Criminals and net spies always watching.”
“To hear you guys tell it, the Alliance isn’t making a difference at all.”
“This is the way things are,” the Drazi grumbled.
Zaremba raised a hand to placate the Drazi and the Ranger. “It is getting better, I won’t deny that. Health problems are going down, and the villages are rebuilding. But the Phoenix hasn’t been here for that long. And it’s a big planet.”
“The Abbai are better, but crime has control like never before,” Yn’gol said.
Arenn was returning to the discussion, wearily nodding her head. “Everyone is frightened.”
“There have been always been criminals here,” Fiddo said, “but their presence was almost invisible. Like the Thieves’ Guild. But now it’s rampant, in the open! I could go out to the next village or Qbru’kiwis City now and buy slaves, drugs, or hire assassins if I wanted!”
“Many of our young ones are slaves offworld now. Some are still here.”
“That’s why I wanted to talk to you especially,” Darquin said quietly. “If crime organizations are starting to overpower local government, the Rangers have to intervene now. And you got connections, right? Smart guy like you.”
Fiddo smiled for a moment, turning his back to hide his satisfaction from Arenn. “Shipping cargo is what I do. With all these criminals demanding money, all those blockades, you learn quickly how to make sure your cargo doesn’t get ‘re-routed.'”
“So who were the biggest obstacles?”
“First, the raiders. But I think you’ve seen them rather thoroughly,” Fiddo said, relishing the thought.
Darquin answered with only a clandestine smile.
“But two others.” Fiddo raised his smallest finger. “The Zhardatu Chadi….”
The Drazi grimaced in disgust and Zaremba nodded as they recognized the name. Confused, Arenn looked to Darquin. “The Zhardatu must be one of the Brakiri crime syndicates,” he said.
“They focus mainly on the cities and the surrounding villages,” Zaremba said.
Darquin tried to acknowledge what he said, his mind quickly turning back to the knife that Carlacci had brought to the mission briefing on the Phoenix. On the hilt, he had seen a small Brakiri logo in a conglomeration of symbols for criminal organizations. Banded together.
Fiddo unfolded his ring finger. “And Lord Cheys.”
Darquin tried to repeat it, but the subtle “sh” sound at the end or beginning of the name was clearly eluding him. It was a Centauri thing. He shrugged and nodded at Fiddo to continue.
“He calls himself ‘Lord’ Rasabo Cheys. A title that doesn’t truly belong to him. His family doesn’t rank very highly among the nobles of Centauri Prime, but he has money and is using it to gain status back home.” Fiddo angrily tapped his chest with a finger. “A chief competitor of mine.”
“He’s a free trader?”
Fiddo chuckled. “At least.”
“How long has been working in this system?”
“As far as I know,” Zaremba said, “ever since the war. He’s been here at least as long as I have.”
“Protection rackets hit up every freighter for a cut. The Centauri ducat isn’t as popular anymore. And he makes a good living here.” Darquin smirked, shaking his head. “He’s in this up to his neck.”
“And swims too well for my taste,” Fiddo grumbled.
“I want to see him.”
“No.” Fiddo clapped his cup down on the counter, getting up to leave as he pointed an accusing finger at Darquin. “I’ve had enough of this. You can find him yourself, Ranger–”
Everyone at the bar fell silent, even Fiddo, as they realized that Darquin’s hand was wrapped around the Centauri’s finger. None of them had seen it happen. Darquin guided Fiddo around to the next empty seat at the bar, then set his finger free. “No need to get excited, friend. Getcha ‘nother drink?”
Fiddo shook his head gently, watching him.
“You don’t like this guy, fine,” Darquin said. “I’ll reach him myself, just tell me how. But he’s connected with somebody. Or a lot of somebodies. Even if he isn’t, he must know how. We need to find out.”
“Why involve us?” the Drazi said.
Darquin leaned over the bar to glare at him. “To break up the crime syndicates and get them off Abbai.” He turned to Fiddo. “To get more info so we can nail the scum that’re exploiting this planet.” He directed the rest of it to Arenn. “If we can find out who’s running slaves offworld, we can trace ’em back to their so-called owners and bring those kids back. Someone’s peddling smack, we get the proof and tell everyone where they live. If someone’s making a hit, we can stop ’em and save some lives. Maybe with all this garbage outta the way, you can rebuild, heal your wounds, and take back what’s yours.”
Arenn slowly nodded. Darquin watched the others as they realized she was flattening her mango-colored hands on the bar to keep them from shaking with emotion. The others exchanged looks before braving Arenn’s eyes. Now they understood exactly who had the most at stake and what those stakes were.
“All I’m saying is that we exchange information,” Darquin said. “You hear something–or if I do–we share it and pass it on. Info, connections as we need them, and that’s it. My people can do the rest.”
Darquin left shortly afterward, the meeting resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. At the very least, he was able to convince them that the situation wasn’t hopeless, just rotten. Arenn showed him another way out, sounding almost energized when she bid him farewell. That alone, he thought, was worth the effort.
He slipped into the nearest of the Phoenix’s supply drops and volunteered to fly the next shuttle out. Once the shuttle had finally broken from Abbai 4’s atmosphere, he checked the comm-channel encryption and called in over his headset.
“Darquin to Station House, do you copy. Who’s got station duty… Tianmun, isn’t it?”
“Quite correct,” she answered. “What is your status?”
“Not bad. I can fill you in while I’m working on my report. How about you?”
“Two items of interest, on board and planetside.” Tianmun paused. “A Brakiri delegation is asking the Abbai government to temporary buy some land and adjoining airspace for an upcoming festival. It appears legitimate.”
Darquin pursed his lips. She skipped the first thing and she was normally too methodical for that. It was ironic, considering this was the sort of thing that got them to meet in the first place, but he was too tired and suspicious to relish it. “What’s happening on board.”
“The…medical staff privately asked permission to perform… security drills within their own department.”
“And what’s that mean in languages that I know?”
“Nurses Carter and Travis are attacking Doctor Trassano to keep her in shape.”
Darquin brought his hand up to his eyes before he realized he was still piloting a shuttle in low orbit. He hadn’t even docked yet. “On my way.”
Copyright © 2000 Joe R. Medina. All rights reserved.