The ship lurched, nearly pulling her bag from her arms before she found her center of gravity again. The cheap seats smelled kind of funny and didn’t offer much of a view, but even down here the flat wail of the alarm bell followed shortly by strobing lights were pretty strong indicators that they’d done something more serious than run afoul of a stray asteroid cluster. There were two men sitting with her; the man to her left looked like he’d just woken up, dressed plainly except for a small brass pin near his collar. His arms were folded over his chest, apparently unperturbed by the jolt. To his left was a man that seemed one tap on the shoulder away from actually wetting himself, though, and Amara had a moment where she considered warning the still sleep-worn man so he could switch seats.
“Let’s move, people!” The boom of the airlock door reverberated against the tiny metal cabin as the two security guards she’d passed as she entered filled the doorway, pointing towards the tiny escape hatch with their guns. They had their guns out. That’s not a good sign.
Amara and Mr. Sleepy were on their feet readily enough, but the male guard had to tap Mr. Piddles on the shoulder before he snapped back into reality. Within seconds they’d all been herded into the tiny hatch, buckled into their security seats with only the dim light provided by the flashing red bulb above to guide their hands. No one spoke.
It wasn’t often that the lower class seats had enough passengers to really ever have to worry about needing to use the emergency room. Most people who could afford the fare between Yakarta and its outlying moons wouldn’t need to scrimp on the seating. The cabin was usually full of passengers who waited too long to book their passage, and those could be moved to the more secure emergency spaces in the floors above engine level. It wasn’t busy today, meaning the three of them had just been that cheap. The fact that they were being sequestered down here meant there was a problem up above.
There was another boom outside. The ship shook, sending poorly stacked supplies tumbling about the tiny room.
“What’s going on?” Piddles squeaked, a sheen of sweat coating his forehead as he surreptitiously wiped his palms down his polyester slacks. “Why’d the alarm go off? Did we hit something?”
“I don’t know,” The female guard’s mouth formed a thin line. Amara had her pegged for ex military, something about the way she held herself and the way the other guard seemed to defer to her. She glanced down at the name patch on the guard’s jacket. It read “Dubashi.”
“Then why are we in here?” The panic in Piddles’ voice was palpable now. He wasn’t even trying to wipe the sweat off of his forehead anymore, letting it drip down his round head in rivulets.
“Alarm went off and the airlock between us and the upper levels sealed.” Dubashi shrugged. “Probably we just hit something that messed with some wires somewhere. We’ll just hunker down here ‘til we get an all clear order.”
Amara worried at her lower lip with her teeth a little. That admission officially launched her from cautious but calm straight into what her father fondly referred to as her “oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die” mode.
She tried to play it cool.
“Does this kind of thing happen often?” She was hoping it did. The last thing she needed was to end up stuck out here, stranded long enough to miss her first day. If it was something typical maybe they’d have a procedure in place, or at least be able to reassure her that they were going to land in one piece.
The guards exchanged a glance and she took the time to glance down at the male guard’s name tag. “Doãn.” She had no idea why it took her so long to look for it. Must be the panic.
“It’s my first time,” Doãn admitted, smiling a little, “But we went through training for these kinds of situations. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll be out of here in no time.”
“My bet’s at least five hours.” Amara jumped. She’d forgotten entirely about Mr. Sleepy. The voice beside her was low and rough, but when she glanced over the man was grinning, arms folded across his chest. He stretched, letting his neck roll languidly. He looked like a cat who’d just woken up to find himself presented with a nice bowl of cream. Fat chance. Amara finally realized where she’d seen that symbol on his jacket before. He was a Devil. It figured. She cast her eyes upward.
“What, Devils can count now?”
She’d only ever known one Devil. He’d been a boy from home who’d dreamed big; life as a big time market worker on Yakarta, maybe even his own trade ship to go between all the settlements. His own crew. It was dangerous but lucrative work, and it was certainly the kind of excitement that little boys dreamed of. Playing at being a hired mercenary was right up there with playing cops and robbers in the small patch of prairie land she’d grown up in, and when it came to specialized merc groups the Devils were the best money could buy. And they certainly didn’t come cheap.
To her surprise, he laughed. But before either of them could think of something smart to say there was another jolt, and the ship took a hard hit that pulled it backwards. They were at a dead stop. This wasn’t turbulence or some stray rocks. It sounded deliberate, like warning shots.
Piddles yelped and covered his head with his hands while Dubashi pressed her lips into a thin line, exchanging a meaningful glance with her partner.
It didn’t mean shit to Amara, and she was starting to feel a little more sympathy for Piddles.
“What’s going on?” Her voice was firmer, her gaze less questioning and more demanding. “This isn’t just some drill. Something’s happening.”
“You need to let us worry about that,” Dubashi’s steely gaze didn’t waver, and something in the determinant set of her jaw let Amara know that she wasn’t about to brook some attitude from a twenty-something student.
“Kind of hard to do when all we’ve got is a rent-a-cop and a few inches of metal between us and not breathing,” The Devil chimed in casually. He didn’t seem worried at all, and Amara couldn’t tell if it was bravado or stupidity that made him so sure that he’d skate through whatever this was unharmed.
Doãn’s face matched the color of the strobing lights above, jaw clenching and Dubashi reached a hand out to press against his chest, keeping him from jumping out of his seat. Her eyes never left Amara.
“This room has safety features built into it that let us--”
Whatever those safety features were Amara would apparently have to look them up when she got to Yakarta, because just then there was an explosion from the door to the cheap seats. This time Amara jumped. The sound echoed painfully against the metal siding, and she clapped one hand to the ear closest to the explosion.
“Open this door and hand over the fugitive and nobody else gets hurt!” A voice boomed from one room over.
She slid an accusatory glance at the Devil. It was easy to go from merc to fugitive; all you had to do was fail to complete a job and then “forget” to return payment. A contract between a Devil and their clients was legally binding, and if either side broke it there was usually jail time involved. And jail time on a crappy backwards settlement could be the same thing as a death sentence.
But it was Piddles who screamed, sweat flowing freely down his balding head, stubby fingers reaching into his pocket and scrambling around for something lumpy deep in his pockets.
“They take so much as one step in here, we’re all gonna blow outside a mite early!”
The lumpy thing turned out to be a rather expensive looking sticky bomb. You could peel off the back panel and it’d stick to any surface you needed it to, including another person. Piddles, either out of panic or suicidal deliberation, had stuck it to his own palm.
Maybe I looked as dumbfounded as I felt.
“One step and I blow us all to hell!” He added.
Before I had any real time to panic, the Devil was on his feet. Before the guards had a chance to train their guns on him, or more importantly before Piddles had a chance to react, the Devil’d swept his foot out and hooked it behind the stockier man’s ankles. He crashed against the ground and then the Devil was on top of him, pinning the hand with the sticky bomb on it to the floor to render it immobile.
“You are bound by law and contract,” The Devil began to recite, pulling out a set of bindings from his pocket. “You will be delivered to the owner of this contract without harm so long as you abide by the rules of transport. Should you fail to do so, I am authorized to use any and all measures of force necessary to complete my contract. Do you understand?”
They were too expensive for real law enforcement to have on the job even though they were far more effective than traditional handcuffs. The cold metal circlet unfolded, clasping around Piddles’ bound hand.
He plucked the sticky bomb out of his palm, deactivating it with rapid finger movements that spoke of practiced skill. A flexible material not unlike silicone stretched between each end as the Devil flipped him over on the ground, It glowed a vibrant purple as the other end clicked into place on the man’s wrist, activating the cuffs so any attempts to tamper with them by anyone besides their bio-registered owner -- the Devil -- would administer an immediate electric shock to the wearer. There were no keys here like the old locks; the things weren’t even fingerprint activated like the ones the police used now. They were actually registered to the owners DNA; there was no way to get them off without the owner pressing his or her living DNA against the small screen near the wrist bolts.
All the fight left Piddles the second the cuffs clapped over his wrists. He sunk to the floor, silent tears streaming from his face.
“They’ll kill me. You know they’ll kill me. That’s why they’re here.” He sounded as miserable as he looked.
The Devil raised his eyebrows. “That a fact?”
It was only then that she noticed the silence outside. Growing up Amara’d been a drifter; her father was a ship mechanic so the two of them didn’t have a home so much as a series of them, hopping from ship to ship, chasing jobs from freighters to high class cruisers, making the best of wherever they were and wherever they were going. That’s how she knew that the level of steady silence on board meant two things: whatever had been causing the explosions had stopped, and they were stuck in a gravitational pull that meant they’d been docked against a larger ship. She must’ve missed the telltale click of the docking hook in all the excitement.
Amara immediately raised a pair of questioning eyebrows at the Devil, and the Devil’s lips quirked ever so slightly to the side.
The guards had put down their guns as soon as they’d heard the Devil’s recitation; they had no power to stop a lawful warrant, and given that Piddles had been a hair from blowing them all to pieces they probably didn’t want to. But when the door slid open they swiveled to aim their guns at the entrance, lowering them immediately once they spotted that same badge on each of their collars.
The Devil gave them a little salute. “Took you long enough.”
The leader had short red hair and wore a grimace like it was a permanent part of her face. “Yeah, didn’t want to interrupt your nap.”
“Gotta get my beauty rest sometime.”
“Looks like you could’ve used a longer nap then,” She shoved her gun back in it’s holster and took a step forward.
The Devil rolled his eyes. “You gonna take this guy off me or am I just going to hold him here ‘til the contract expires?”
He heaved Piddles’ pillowy mass off the floor and pushed him forward. The redhead took him by the cuffs and nodded behind her. “Devils, back to the ship. We’re done here.”
As they shuffled out, the Devil turned back to Amara. “You kept a pretty cool head. Do I owe you some professional courtesy?”
He was asking if she was a merc too. Amara shook her head. “Drifter. I’ve spent a lot of time on ships.”
His face split into a grin and it was as if the space around him had been swallowed up by the whiteness of his crooked teeth. It was impossible to look anywhere else when he smiled like that. “Some pretty interesting ones, by the way you held yourself together. Ever thought of joining up?”
Something about the way he smiled had her ruffled. Like he’d seen a thousand of her in his line of work, world-weary students that only had predictable lives and non-interference to offer. Like he already had their entire conversation mapped out in his head and was just having a little fun before he jetted off to collect his big reward.
“Kinda looking for more out of my life than lifting weights and balancing books, thanks.”
He let out a breath, letting a half-laugh escape with it. Slipping his hand into his pocket he pulled out a small red bead and held it out for her. It was probably programmed to auto-dial the main recruitment line if she popped it into her phone; Devils got bonuses if they brought in skilled recruits. They were always looking for fresh talent.
“Just in case you change your mind. I’m Finn.”
She took the bead and reluctantly pocketed it. “Amara. You’d better get going, Finn, or you’re going to make me late.”
“Couldn’t have that.” His eyes twinkled and he turned, giving Doãn a heavy handed pat on the shoulder on his way out the door.
“Keep up the good work, guys.”
Doãn turned purple as the hatch closed. An audible click signaled the dock detaching, and in seconds we were back on course.
Here’s to hoping I’ve hit my annual quota for excitement.