I poured myself a double, put it on my desk, and sat down. I stared at the amber liquid, watched it vanish a bit at a time.
It wasn't the blooders behind the box disappearing, or I'd be drip-drying. Instead, Dun wanted me to know he was on the hunt too.
Lucky break for me. The kinda luck I could do without having too often.
I checked my messages. Had one from Auvy: Gellique wasn't anyone's puppet, he really was just boring as a Caldari on a downer binge. Just a dock worker like a million others. Hell, he really did have a sickly mother in the Federation - round the clock care. It wasn't cheap.
More than he could afford, on the handful of ISK a month he was paid.
And then he ended up dead.
There were only a few ways a Gellique who didn't work for some bigger player would fit with what I knew. Like, maybe he was on the lookout for himself.
It took me a few hours, and a handful of favors, but I got a compartment number. I made a couple of calls, grabbed my stun-stick and the usual kit, and went for a walk.
The compartment number led me to an abandoned part of the station. The air had the slight metallic tang that comes from cycling through the scrubbers again and again without touching human lungs. The compartment door was big enough for industrial work. It wasn't locked.
The sounds: riveting, welding, grinding, hammering - echoed bizarrely inside, like the cackling of of one of the mad gods worshiped by the cults that infested the lower levels. Loud and disjointed. There was a short corridor, and then a sharp turn. Beyond that was the main room - a vast storage space.
My 500isk-a-day job was sitting in the middle of the room. About man-high, half as wide. Made out of some greyish metal - maybe the stuff Caldari are so fond of. Mostly featureless, aside from the small control panel and a viewport - both covered by panels.
Curved, triangular sections of something - a nuclear containment vessel, maybe - were piled nearby, like an out-sized drift of leaves. A half dozen figures were working to enshroud the box, fitting those pieces together around it, welding them in place.
Not a bad plan: it would hide whatever traces the Box's power plant threw off, and it wouldn't take much of a bribe to make sure no-one wanted to uncork a nuclear bottle.
One man was standing between me and the box, his back to me. Supervising. Even without seeing his face, I knew - the stance, the back of a recruitment-poster haircut, the smug look. Well, I couldn't see the look, but ISK to Syns he looked smug.
Bruve Ashte, of Ashte Security and Consulting. Sleazy rented shield for unwitting podders and general thug, and my employer Kaita's former local security contractor. The small fish that decided to try swallowing a shark. The man behind the shell company behind the shell company renting this place.
See, it'd probably all been Henri Gellique's idea. He had needed money, badly. With his primary employer - Kaita - leaving the station, he might not have even had enough to cover his own rent, much less pay for the care his mother needed. So he got desperate. Kaita might not have known that Ashte was a crook who happened to own a uniform, but Henri was a Syndicate lifer.
He went to Ashte, told him what the prize was, and offered to help for a piece of the action. Poor Henri must have thought it was perfect: he would have needed to deal with the security checkpoint at the hangar one way or another anyway; making them his only accomplices increased shares for everyone.
Ashte isn't the sort who likes sharing, though. Or maybe Ashte's plan was to frame the Blooders from the start - and Henri was a loose end.
So, Ashte offs him, and makes it messy.
Cue yours truly coming to talk with him, and he just has to point me at the blooders. He drives home the point - has some of his guys put on the face paint and try to shake me up.
Ashte just didn't count on Dun valuing his reputation enough to set me straight.
Ashte must have felt my eyes on his back. He turned and saw me. Smiled and walked closer. I sent a message on my neocom and got out my stun-stick.
"Thought you'd still be chasing Reds. Not that it matters." Gone was the terrified rent-a-cop I'd talked with in Ashte's office. He spoke with assurance - secure that he delayed me long enough, and that I had stupidly put myself in his power. That he knew the angles and had them covered. His next words confirmed it, "I hope you aren't counting on the good Sergeant coming with the cavalry. Eniver might be unreasonable, but his superiors are a different story. He's on a long assignment off the station."
He waved over some of his men, never getting close enough that I could take a swing at him. It was hard to tell, but I think one of them was the fake blooder.
They worked me over pretty good, but I took at least a couple of'em out of the fight before the others started practicing their dance steps on my ribs. Lost my stun-stick when I jabbed someone in the neck and one of them took a swing at my elbow with a length of pipe. I found myself curled up on the gound pretty quick after that.
Getting kicked in the head isn't generally a hilarious experience, but I couldn't help it anymore. I started laughing. Not the best thing to do, and with cracked ribs - but it just seemed so damn funny.
I was trying to cover my face - my nose's been broken plenty, I think it's got just the right touch of crookedness already - so I couldn't see Ashte, but I could hear him, "What's so damn funny, Tarva?"
His guys let off, so I rolled over, caught my breath, "Eniver isn't the one I called."
Speak of the demon. I heard noises behind me as I gracefully struggled into a sitting position. Saw Ashte and all his guys' sudden retreat. Managed to turn myself around, so I could see the door.
Aruvasa Dun, blooder high priest, looked a lot more natural in light body armor than brocade robes. In the flickering lashes of razor-edged shadow from welding torches and work lights, it looked a bit like his head was covered in black flames. That might have been the kicks to the old thinker again, though.
I couldn't afford to carry a pistol, and Ashte's crew had a couple of old local copies of Federation sporting rifles.
Every one of the couple dozen people with Dun was holding some kind of assault rifle. Looked like they knew how to use them, too. Two of them were in light powered armor.
Dun smiled, and he looked like something out of a nightmare. Not my nightmare, though.
I'd never been so happy to see blooders in my life, and I hope I'm never that happy to see them again.
I limped for the door. As I passed Dun he grinned wider and said, "I owe you Rordon."
I winced. Probably the cracked ribs. It didn't seem as funny anymore though.
I limped all the way back to my office, locked the door, washed a couple painkillers down with a lot of scotch, and went to bed.
In the morning I felt like a Nyx had fallen on me. I got a strong coffee and settled behind my desk before I noticed the box, sitting there in the middle of my office. Metal. 2m tall, by 1, by 1.
I mention the kicks to the head I took?
There was a note on my desk too. From Dun. It was sitting under the Stun-stick I'd left behind in that compartment:
Thanks for the help. I'm in your debt.
I sent a message off to Kaita, let her know she could pick it up, along with a bill for the balance - in ISK.
I sent Dun a bill for 500 Syns for my services. Some debts I can do without holding onto.
I sent Auvy a message, asking her when she'd be free for that dinner.
Found myself at a rare loss as to what to do. Stared at the box a while.
Curiosity is an occupational hazard.
It took me a minute to find and open the view-port on the box, and I looked inside.
Grey eyes looked back at me with a surprised expression. Lighter than I remembered them, but maybe it was just the cold. The Kaita in the box looked innocent. Maybe that's why the Kaita that was paying me wanted her back.
Or maybe not. Podders... there are some things you're better off not knowing, not if you wanted to sleep through the night. My line of work, the stuff you're paid to find out about is bad enough. I snapped the view-port shut.
Kaita's people came and picked up the box, and paid in full.
Noone ever saw Bruve Ashte or a number of his associates on the station again.
Dun sent the money.
Someone anonymously set up a trust to make sure Henri Gellique's mother got the care she needed.
Dinner with Auvy was great, until it got interrupted, but that's a story for a different time.