by Shannon H
Taryn Ballin has to keep her ship flying and her crew paid in the new frontier
See You, Space Cowboy
“Looks like you’ll be owing me that drink then.”
“I know how you love to tell me I told you so,” Taryn Bellin said with a sideways glance to her First Mate who like her, had his hands raised above his head. Their other companion mimicked their pose but kept his mouth shut for the time being. Taryn was thankful for small mercies.
“Doesn’t give me any pleasure,” Herron replied. “Well…not this time at least.” In his mid-thirties Herron was only a couple of years older than Taryn but it could easily have passed for ten; his face was bloated, permanently red and his nose and cheeks were a mess of broken capillaries. 'Too much sun.' She had heard him declare on more than one occasion. For someone who spent ninety five percent of his time living on a spaceship it was a weak explanation.
“I don’t suppose there’s any way to settle this like reasonable people,” Taryn asked, turning her attention from her First Mate to the man with the shotgun pointed directly at her chest.
“Seems to me it’s already been settled,” he replied with a brown-toothed grin. Fat and rank with the smell of unwashed body odour, Captain Morris Hagen was not a man blessed with an overabundance of redeeming qualities.
“I meant to the satisfaction of both parties,” Taryn said. Among their peers Hagen was not a well liked, nor more importantly, a well respected man. He had a reputation as a shyster and a swindler and his crew was made up of bullies, thieves and layabouts. Taryn had been stumped as to how Hagen had somehow lucked into a job from a source like Lyman Hoddell. She had worried it likely meant trouble for her and her crew from the moment she accepted the job. So far Hagen was exceeding her wildest expectations.
Hagen’s ugly smile grew wider, “It’ll be good for you Bellin. Might move you off that pedestal you look down on everyone from.”
“That’s it, is it? You’re teaching me a lesson?” Taryn allowed herself a frustrated sigh, determined not to lose her cool. “We both stand to make out on this deal, why mess with it?” While she had no intention of getting screwed, gunplay was the last thing she wanted, particularly as Hagen had four men to her two. All but one had their weapons pointed at either her, or her two shipmates and none of them looked like they would have any qualms about shooting them down.
“Way I see it, I take the credits that were coming my way and keep the shipment. Shift it on my own and earn myself two paydays. Easy decision all in all.”
“And the part where you shaft me and Hoddell?” Taryn glanced down at the revolver holstered on her right hip. She was fast on the draw but she wasn't so overconfident to believe she could outpace a shotgun blast.
“Hoddell might be a big man on the Providence docks but he don’t have any reach outside of it.”
'Are you really that dense?' Bellin thought sourly. The fact that Hagen had suddenly found his balls was a surprise to her but his brains were as usual, lacking. Half of the Freebooter crews in the galaxy used Providence to recruit, refit and refuel. Hoddell and those like him might not drift far from Ares but his influence reached wherever the crews from Providence travelled.
“As for the Zenith crew,” Hagen continued, “Well, the day I start fearing the likes of you and yours is the day I need to hang it up for good.”
She bristled at the last remark in spite of herself and Hagen could see it had hit home. He laughed, enjoying himself now, “I mean what are you?” He asked with a sneer. Despite being of similar height to Taryn, Hagen still managed to look down his nose at her. “A hero from the war? A Captain of great re…re….”
“Repute?” Herron offered.
Hagen spat, “Aye, that’s it. Great repute? You think you copy the attitude and show your scars and that makes you something in our world?”
“I earned my scars fighting Hagen, not something you’d know much about from what I hear.” Inspite of herself Taryn could feel familiar sensation of the red mist descending. Her temper had been landing her in trouble for as long as she could remember; from scraping a living on the streets on Britannic as a teenager, to a Lieutenant in the war and now as a Captain with her own crew. “Hell, why don’t I make it familiar for you and just turn my back now. Word goes that’s how most of your enemies get it.”
A silence hung over their little valley. Taryn looked down the barrel of Hagen’s shotgun and wondered if she’d finally pushed her luck just a little too far. She knew gunplay was not what Hagen wanted. In his mind he had the advantage but if it came to violence he knew that she and her crew would not go down without a fight.
He laughed at her and shook his head. “Just some little girl playing at space cowboy.”
“Better than some fuckdog flappin’ his gums.” Taryn’s second companion had evidently decided that it was time to break his silence and he had done so in typical Donovan DeWitt fashion.
Taryn heard Herron suppress a bark of laughter and got the feeling that the diplomatic route was beginning to falter. “What did you say to me?” Hagen demanded as he turned his attention to DeWitt.
Taryn noted that Hagen, despite his many faults, was at least smart enough to keep his distance, even while armed with a shotgun. She had to give him some measure of credit for that. Donovan stood not far off six foot five and was an intimidating presence at the best of times. His arms and chest were thick with muscle and he put them to good use. He had been breaking heads for Taryn for the better part of a year and while she might not have fully trusted the man and likely never would, he had become a valuable asset to her crew, when he could be controlled.
Taryn looked back over her shoulder and caught his gaze. Chips of flint in a scowling, dark-skinned face looked back at her. She gave a quick shake of her head and whatever retort DeWitt had been conjuring stopped dead.
“I thought you were smarter than this,” Taryn lied, turning back to Hagen. “You’re not thinking of the long game, just the quick profit. You screw Hoddell on this deal and you’ll be blacklisted on Providence for good.” That was a bluff and Hagen likely knew it. Lyman Hoddell was just one of a number of people who offered employment to both Freebooters and the more legitimate crews working out of Providence. Breaking a job agreement was frowned upon in their line of work but there was no guarantee someone else would turn away Hagen and his crew just because they had once inconvenienced one of their rivals. Taryn knew it was a good possibility that someone else could be paying him to do just that.
“Hoddell ain’t the only man with sway on those docks and Providence ain’t the only port where a crew can make a living.”
'He’s not wrong,' Taryn admitted to herself. Lyman Hoddell was no longer the lone big shot on the Providence Docks as he once had been. He would almost certainly send someone after Hagen if the Captain followed through on his current course but if Hagen had no qualms about looking over his shoulder for the next few years, he could make a living using a dozen other ports Freebooters and their ilk called home without setting foot on Ares.
She again thought about the revolver at her hip and wondered if she and her crew had let Hagen get the jump on them too easily. The other Captain had his mind made up about his own course of action and no amount of talking would dissuade him. He hadn’t ordered her and her crew shot down yet but there was only so long she could defy him.
The sun had begun to set in the valley where their meeting was taking place. It flashed through Taryn’s mind that it served as an appropriate metaphor for how their talk was going.
Both her and Hagen had agreed on the location; Lenonov was a remote moon, far from any Coalition patrols and their meeting place was miles from the nearest settlement. It was a drop point Taryn had used many times before and was perfect for this exhange. The gulch had two points to allow both crews to enter and exit separately while the steep gradients either side of the valley afforded some natural concealment in the unlikely event of some local happening by on their meeting. Several hills rising over the gulch dotted the nearby landscape. The nearest one would be a perfect position for a sniper. Taryn had reflected after scouting the location.
She ran her eye over the men of Hagen’s crew once more. The man closest to him was a bone-breaker, as tall as Donovan with close cropped blonde hair and a muscular frame barely concealed by a t-shirt at least two sizes too small. A rat faced man in a tattered wool knit cap and wielding an assault rifle covered Taryn with Mister Tee-Too-Tight. Ratface held his weapon casually, pointed away from her as if he expected no trouble.
A youngster in a leather duster with long, greasy hair stood guard by Donovan while Herron was watched over by an older man. His hair and beard were grey, the left side of his face was a criss-cross of angry scars and his nose looked the sort to have been broken and never properly reset. He caught Taryn looking at him and favoured her with a wink. She did her best to ignore the sudden rolling of her stomach.
These men are here to rob us, at best. There’s going to be no negotiation here. Taryn thought wearily.
Hagen seemed to take her lapse into silence as an admission of defeat. “ Enough stalling Bellin. I’ll be taking that money now.” He said, motioning with his shotgun.
Taryn looked past him to the two dull grey boxes stacked on the back of a four wheeled off-roader. Should have been a simple matter. Check the goods, hand over the money and everyone could walk away happy and slightly richer. She had allowed Hagen the benefit of the doubt before his crew pulled their guns.
“What do you think?” She asked, inclining her heard to look at Herron and DeWitt.
“I think I’d tell him to go fuck himself,” DeWitt replied without hesitation.
“But then you’re not the one he’s pointing his shotgun at,” Herron added. Taryn wasn’t sure if he was reminding her or DeWitt.
“Don’t play the tough with me,” Hagen warned, wary of anyone encouraging some last ditch defiance. “You don’t think I’d shoot a woman?”
Taryn scoffed, “Oh, I’m plenty sure you would.”
His mouth took a hard edge as he raised his shotgun to his shoulder. “Last chance.”
“Captain…” Herron urged, ever the voice of reason.
Taryn sighed, her shoulders sagging in defeat. She knew there was only so long she could stall Hagen. Shooting down another Freebooter crew was obviously not his preferred course of action but when it was a matter of that weighed up against a nice pay day there was only ever going to be one path a man like him would choose.
“Alright.” She reached slowly into the inside of her duster and pulled out the pouch of credits held there. It wasn’t a paltry amount; more than enough to keep a ship flying and a crew paid and fed for at least a couple of months. Taryn held the pouch in the palm of her hand as if weighing it. “I didn’t want this,” she said looking from the pouch to Hagen.
“Yeah, well life’s full of disappointments or so they say. You want to survive in this life of ours best get used to it.”
“I guess so,” Taryn replied with a nod before lobbing the pouch in Hagen’s direction. It hit the ground at his feet. Hagen tutted his annoyance but ignored the gesture, seemingly content to grant her one last piece of insolence. She watched as he slowly bent down to scoop up the pouch.
Hagen looked up as his hand reached the pouch meeting Taryn’s steely blue glaze as if only noticing it for the first time. His eyes widened in surprise as he realised what was happening but it was too late. The shouted curse died on his lips as the sound of a single gunshot reverberated in the valley. The back of Hagen’s head exploded in a shower of brain matter and fine red mist.
Taryn reached for her revolver taking advantage of the momentary shock of Hagen’s crew as the body of their Captain fell limply to the ground. With one fluid motion she brought the gun from its holster, raised it and fired a bullet directly into the forehead Mister Tee-Too-Tight. The man stumbled for a moment before collapsing into the dirt.
She swore as Ratface brought his rifle to bear on her. She dived as the weapon fired and rolled as the bullets stitched the ground after her. A blast from DeWhitt’s shotgun took a bloody chunk out of the man’s side and flung him backwards. 'Too close Taryn, too close.'
She saw the fourth man in Hagen’s team; the young man in the leather duster go down courtesy of her hidden marksman; the bullet taking him on the shoulder as he spun to the ground with a pained shout.
“Day’s been lost friend, maybe you should hand over your shooter.” Taryn jumped to her feet as Herron did his best to talk down Greybeard Winker.
“To hell with you!” He spluttered, clutching at a bloody arm.
“Don’t…” Herron warned him as the man raised his gun. He was too slow. Herron fired first, his bullet striking the man in the centre of his chest. He toppled over wordlessly. “Damn fool.”
“Everyone ok?” Taryn asked as she picked herself up from the ground, quickly brushing the dirt from her duster.
“Dandy,” Herron muttered.
“Better now Captain Hagen stopped his gloatin’,” said DeWitt. “Don’t think I coulda took to listenin’ much longer.”
“How about you shooter?”
“All good Captain,” Came the static-tinged reply from the discrete comms unit tucked into her ear.
“Get down here.”
“Roger, on my way.”
Taryn turned toward the sole surviving member of Hagen’s crew who had propped him himself up against a large rock as he pressed his hand over the bloody wound on his shoulder. She gestured to him with her revolver. He shook his head and took his bloodied hand away from his shoulder long enough to raise it in a gesture of surrender.
“Donovan,” Taryn said as she holstered her gun. “See if you can find the key and get that four wheeler ready. Make sure the cargo is secure and we’ll haul the gear onto the Zenith.” DeWitt nodded and walked to the nearest body, quickly rifling through the dead man’s pockets. Even if he didn’t find the key he’d take the opportunity to relieve the dead man of any valuables Taryn was sure.
“No point putting our backs out,” Herron said, watching DeWitt at his work. “Guns are heavy.”
“Yeah.” Taryn agreed, running a hand through her dark blonde hair.
“You tried to talk him out of it Captain. Man didn’t want to do business,” said Herron as he fished into the pocket of his faded military issue jacket and came up with a hipflask. He offered it to her and Taryn waved it away. He shrugged before taking a swig himself, “Rather it was you?”
“No I do not.”
“Then I don’t see the issue.”
'I don’t expect you do.' Taryn had been expecting Hagen to try something. She had every right to be suspicious, the man was a known thief, a backstabber and when it suited, a murderer. Even so she could only wonder if she would have been as concerned if she had been someone with more experience. 'Would you have pushed you luck then Captain Hagen?'
“Martin, get on the line to the Zenith.” She said to Herron. “Tell Sunny we need pick-up.”
Taryn glanced over to where Hagen lay. Empty, starting eyes looked up at the early evening sky, seeing nothing. The look of utter surprise was still etched onto his face. “Suck on that you bastard,” she said softly.
Taryn turned at the sound of approaching footsteps as Raimo Porter jogged up to her, his worn sniper rifle cradled close to his chest. “Cappy.” He was the only person in her crew to address her with that honorific.
Raimo was in his late twenties but most people would have probably pegged him for a few years younger. He was of a similar height to the Captain but while Taryn was slim and athletic, Raimo was stout with broad shoulders and large arms. He wore a few days worth of a trimmed beard that didn't quite hide the long scar that ran down his left jawline. His dark blonde hair was showing the first signs of receding at the front. A fact which he hated to be reminded of and was therefore, naturally, reminded of at every single opportunity.
“Raimo. Good shooting.”
“Cheers," he replied cheerily. "Only managed to wing the second fella but it did the job.”
“Speaking of which,” said Donovan as he came striding over, “What are we doin’ with him.” The three of them looked over to where the man rested, propped up against a rock, hand still pressed against a bloody shoulder.
“Fights done Lunk, won't be causing us any trouble,” Raimo said, his casualness slightly forced. Once the heat of a fight had died down Raimo was the forgive, forget and move on type.
“Quick enough to pull a gun on us,” said Donovan, his blood still up.
“And I put a bullet in his shoulder for that trouble,” Raimo reminded him. “Didn’t just explode and start gushing red on its own accord. I’d say his lesson’s been learned." Raimo turned to look at the injured man, "Hey!" he called, "Has your lesson been learned?"
“I don’t like it.” said Donovan as Herron joined the three of them.
“You don’t have to like it,” Taryn replied cooly. “We’re not pirates. We don’t kill wounded men.” She turned her gaze onto Donovan, fixing him with her steel blue eyes as she had with Hagen. More than a few men had wilted under that look and Donovan was no exception, the big man turned away, muttering a curse.
“Doubt he’ll make it far though,” said Raimo. “Won’t last long with the amount of blood he’s losing neither. Sad...."
Taryn rolled her eyes. “Once we’re aboard I’ll send a line to his crew. Let them know what happened and that one of their one needs urgent pick-up. Good enough?”
“Above and beyond Cappy.” She punched him on the arm affectionately. And hard.
“More than they’d do for us.” Herron noted as Raimo rubbed his arm.
“Probably,” Taryn agreed with a nod. “But I’m in a good mood all of a sudden.”
“Sounds like our pick-up.” Raimo said. Taryn heard it too. She turned to see the Zenith crest the peak of the hills to their West and watched as her ship came into view.
She smiled. “Let’s go get paid.”