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by Merlee
Rated: 13+ · Sample · Sci-fi · #2167954
When a mercenary's simple escort turns into a heated dogfight in the depths of space.

Dogs of a Feather

By Merlee Tomlin



I



"I just have trouble believing a mercenary like yourself would only take jobs working for the IFTB. Don't you guys usually work under the radar?"

Luxfer scratched the front of his hairline that poked out from under his helmet. "You said it, Magna, we're mercenaries. Haver Mercenaries. We're paid by the people who run the government. I really don't think it would be in our best interest to do dealings under the table."

"I guess that's true. It's just you always see in the movies, you guys are despicable. All they want is money."

The mercenary strained an emotionless grin and looked out of the cockpit into the endless starry night. Always so peaceful in the depths of space. No matter which direction you would choose to drift in it would stretch on forever. So many worlds to explore and he was stuck escorting frigates from the most dimwitted one. He sighed. "Tell me, Magna. When was the last time you enjoyed yourself without having to pull out your wallet?"

"Huh? I mean." Silence commenced over the speaker.

Luxfer shifted to find a more comfortable position in his purple leather seat, pulling out a laser pointer to fiddle with. "Nothing is free. The galaxy runs on money, so if you're not making money you're not going anywhere. I'm out here to escort you for the money, same as you're out here to transport your class D energy capsules for money that your boss is selling for money. I could have easily picked another job for the same pay and my life would have stayed right on course. But I didn't, so here we are."

"Yeah, you said it. Hell, you gotta pay money just to breath these days."

"Being a mercenary is the same as being a waiter. Just a different line of work." He pressed his hands against the glass to stretch out as much as the ship would allow. His joints cracked releasing tension throughout his back and arms, however brief the relief. Conversation could be heard through the speaker of Magna Henkelson's crew members though the words were too muffled to make out what was being said.

Luxfer engaged the thrusters of his ship and eased down on the right pedal that sandwiched his foot for quick forward and reverse. The purple fighter increased in speed until he reached Magna's ship where he pulled up on the foot pedal to match the frigate's speed and disengaged the thrusters. "Hysteria" could be seen written in large green font across the starboard side of the transport frigate. This made the second time he'd escorted this ship, but the fourth time he'd traveled with Captain Magna.

Magna seemed an innocent soul. He was a stocky, cheerful fellow and always managed to make enough conversation to keep him alert without distracting him too much.

"So, how's the boss treating you?"

"Who?" He knew who Magna meant. Acton: the man working in the IFTB who approached him in the first place and asked him to do his first job for them. Young man but with the receding hairline that makes you wonder why they don't just cut every last hair off. From then on, the tips he got gave him enough money to retire by the time he hit eighty...on his world that says a lot.

"Acton. Who'd you think I meant?" There was no answer from Luxfer. "I'm just curious, this ain't a sting operation."

"Things are good."

Silence as Luxfer spun the laser pointer between his fingers.

"Man, you are a stunning conversationalist, Lux. Someday I gotta take you out to a bar, then you'll tell me your life story. Won't be able to hide anything from me."

"No thanks."

"Sorry, but you have invoked Magna the Magnum. I'm taking you to Chuck's Buck when we get to Veilar. Cheap drinks, cheaper dates. Hey, I'll wingman for you, wha'd'ya say?"

"Yeah, that's gonna be a hard pass." He could not help but smile in amusement. Perhaps it would be fun drinking with Magna.

"Sorry, I already noted it in my noggin'. One of these nights you and I are goin' out."

"Captain!" Lux heard a voice shout from across the bridge on the Hysteria.

A passing of words occurred through the speaker between Magna and one of his men. He could not hear the words but the anomalous tone tingled his spine. There were no blips on the radar, just the two indicators for the Amethyst and the Hysteria. Still, the silence that commenced did nothing to ease his concerns.

"Magna?" He called but got no response at first.

"Luxfer?" This was a different voice.

"Where's Magna?"

"Luxfer, we are receiving interference on our navigation systems. How are yours?"

The radar and navigation appeared unhindered. "I have no problems. What are the symptoms?" One of two things could be causing this. A mouse in the wires...or someone was jamming the signal. He prayed for the former but adjusted the frequency on his radar and engaged the thrusters again.

"It keeps glitching the more we increase the range."

Strange. "Bring the range down."

"But, we won't be able to see anything in the vicinity if we lo-"

"You won't be able to see anything at all if you keep it at that range. Lower to a point where it's not effected then tell me what range that's at."

"I...ok. Why can't you do it?"

"I have an older style navigator, the range is too small on my ship, now tell me where they are so I can go assess the threat."

"Yes, sorry."

Then silence. The stars in the sky appeared still even though the two ships were flying through space at a breakneck pace. Three hours into their trip and they had only just exited the militarized zone. How befitting. Most definitely pirates... but why would pirates be after the Hysteria? Class D energy capsules. What, were they trying to recharge a couple hundred phones?

"Lux!" Magna yelled, sitting back in his chair. "We're gonna have company. The interference started at a hundred and fifty and is continuing to drop. They'll be on us in a couple minutes tops."

"Dammit. Magna, get your guns manned. We are gonna need to work together on this."

"You got it bub. I'm patching you through to the guns so you can talk to them too. Hear that boys?"

"Loud and clear!" "Counting on you merc." "Let's finish this up, I'm hungry."

Luxfer felt his breathing deepen as his heart rate obliged the needs of his focus. He flew his ship back behind the Hysteria turning his lights off to remain obscure. Dead silence surrounded everything as he scanned the area. The Amethyst's old-style navigation system finally became scratchy and unreadable. They were close. Under previous circumstances Luxfer would have been distraught by this occurrence, but instead he accepted the limitation fervently. If he couldn't use his navigation, then neither could the enemy.

"Magna," he said with a grin.

"Yeah?"

"I'm coming back. When I say so, I want you to blast your lights as high as they can go in the direction I say."

"It will be done."

Luxfer flew under the Hysteria and turned the Amethyst back to face the coming threat. He took a deep breath, pointed his laser pointer and waved it back and forth into the pitch-black abyss. Now to wait. Three...the fingertips on his right hand cracked as he flexed them around the gunner handles. Two...suddenly a tiny flicker of red flashed not one hundred meters from behind them. "Five o'clock! Now!" He slammed down on the pedal and his ship burst to life.

"Light 'em up boys!" Magna yelled.

An intense blast of light appeared revealing three maintenance drones and two manned fighter ships. Luxfer strained for the pilots shining his own light and began firing at one grazing it a couple times before it veered off.

The drones remained on course and he decided to focus on those for the time being. The pilots would be recovering from the flare but the drones had to be programmed to attack the frigate making them easy targets.

"Hysteria!" Luxfer yelled. "Aim for the pilots, I got the smaller ones."

"You heard the man!" "Take out those pesky flies!" "On it!" "Got one rounding the bow." "Riggle me up one, the bastard's mine!"

Luxfer fired and blew up one of the drones then set his sights on the next only to find it going through evasive maneuvers. "Wait a minute."

"Talk to me Lux, what's going on?"

Luxfer tried to follow one but the agility caught him off guard. It flew down so he attempted a nose dive turn around trying to follow suit but lost all site of the drone. After a couple seconds he caught one going through a movement set he'd never seen before. Programmed drones had a set number of maneuvers and were generally quite predictable...these were not. "Magna. Hysteria! There's gotta be a mothership controlling the drones!"

"What!"

Luxfer pointed his ship up to find a dull brown metal plating in front of him. "Above us!"

The Hysteria pointed its lighting towards the magnificence of the newly revealed spacecraft carrier floating directly above them. It nearly quintupled the size of the Hysteria, not to mention make Luxfer's Amethyst look like an ant to a boot. Myrian Gulock had been scribbled across the starboard side.

A pirate vessel.

"Stars above!" Magna exclaimed. "How did it get so close so quickly?"

"There's no time for that! Look!"

Sure enough, an insurmountable number of drones exited from the bottom of the mammoth like an enraged wasp's nest and bee lined straight for the Hysteria.

"Gunners! Take out those drones, they're trying to board! Ah!"

The two manned fighters were back on Luxfer's tail forcing his attention away from the overwhelming threat. "Magna, I'll have to regroup with you, I got a couple tails I have to take care of!"

"Sorry, Lux. I don't know if we can afford that. On the plus side, it doesn't look like these guys are trying to shoot us down. If they board we might be able to take them when they get inside."

Luxfer gritted his teeth from the G forces as he rolled and weaved evading as many shots from the ships behind him. "Great, just try to blow up as many of those drones as you can!" Suddenly his ship bounced from a hit shaking his bearings to which he responded by pulling up on the foot pedal and yanking the steering module back sending him into a back flip. He held his breath as his head sunk into his shoulders and back into his seat. Blood pulsed through his head as he leveled off and found himself behind the two ships. It took a second but he squeezed on the trigger and the bullets flew directly at the pirate fighter he had hit before and managed to severely damage the guns. The victory was short lived though when they both went flying in different directions, the undamaged one beaming for the Hysteria.

"Lux! We got some on the hull of the ship! They're drilling through. We could use a hand."

"You're in luck, one of my pests decided to change targets, I'm coming your way."

The pirate fighter flew towards the Hysteria and began firing at the ship.

"The hell?" Luxfer pondered.

"Shit! They're aiming for the guns!"

"Dammit!" Luxfer lined up his sites with the fighter and started firing until the injured ship showed up again by cutting him off forcing him to change course before the two collided. He realigned himself with the Hysteria but the fighter still armed had been lost on the other side.

Once again, the weaponless ship flew a circle around him only triggering his nerves. "Dammit, where's my fly swatter." He flew away from the nuisance and spun around to face his foe but the pirate flew directly toward's Luxfer's ship where they both veered in opposite directions before the apotheosis. "Come on! He's toying with me."

"That guy's good, Lux," Magna said, suspiciously calm. "He's evasive. Reminds me of you in a dogfight."

"Go take a cold shower, this ain't the time." Luxfer looked around at the Hysteria. No more drones were coming out of the carrier making the threat more manageable, but these two pilots were a wrench in his style. He outmanned them but their tactics were unorthodox. As if their only beef was to keep him occupied...occupied. "Magna! Search the hull. Check your blind-spots. You may already have someone aboard."

"That's not possible, there were only two manned ships and we're currently fending off the one while you dance with the other."

"No, there must have been a third. He probably came out with the drone swarm." Luxfer fired on the pirate once more only to miss again.

"No way, we would have seen him."

"Did you see a pod go by your ship? Something that looked like a pile of junk they were throwing out?"

"I-I...I don't know."

"Sir!" A crew member of the Hysteria shouted. "Luxfer was right, we got one on the belly of the ship."

Luxfer growled. "Everything else was a distraction, dammit! I'm coming aboard, Magna, open your bay doors!"

"Open the-" Magna yelled before being cut off by an explosion that shook the entirety of the Hysteria, blowing a hole in the port side.

Luxfer's heart skipped a beat as his ship began to float idly by while he stared at the devastation. A silent gloom permeated through his veins as he watched the shipment begin to float out into space and the remaining drones flew over to lift it up towards the carrier.

Suddenly the pesky de-gunned pirate fighter flew past snapping him back into his body. He slammed on the pedal and chased after the fly spraying every last bullet he had on reserve ignoring the yelling and screaming aboard the Hysteria. "I'll kill you!"

"Lux!" Magna yelled. "It's over! We lost, let it go. You shoot those drones and you'll damage the whole shipment."

"But, this-"

"Lux. It's done. Just appreciate the fact that you and I are still breathing. Don't sully that by calling upon that carrier's full wrath over a bunch of batteries."

Luxfer lifted the pedal to the idle position then pulled back to stop his forward momentum. He closed his eyes and breathed in until his lungs could not hold anymore then kept breathing in to the point his body started shaking. Then he shot all the air out at once fogging up and spitting all over the glass.

"Lux, come on. Climb on board, no sense staying cooped up in that tiny ship the rest of the trip."

He did not say a word.

"Hysteria's fine, we sealed the breach off, and we'll send word to the IFTB of what happened when we arrive."

The hell did they want with class D energy cells? Luxfer had been bested by pirates who only wanted the lowest tier power source in the universe. Why expend all those resources and risk angering the IFTB for such a trivial item?

"Lux?"

Luxfer turned his ship around and bolted back towards Niaylec. Back towards the IFTB's planet of operations.

Magna chuckled. "Eh, guess I'll wingman for you some other time."





II





A chilling silence filled the room sprinkling goose pimples all over Acton's clammy flesh. A bead of sweat dribbled down his forehead, between his cheek and nose, and settled just above his lip, begging for a reaction. Unfortunately for the easily ousted branch manager, his trepidation of attracting any attention to himself kept his hand from wiping it.

Cut to the two dignitaries sitting across the room exuding different antipathies stagnating the air and freezing the small man in his flat plastic chair. Behind them was a large pane overlooking the city-scape from over one hundred stories, as if the two sets of daunting eyes weren't enough.

Suddenly itching. His lip itched. No... his mouth itched. Scratch that, his face itched, let alone his entire body. Don't scratch, he told himself. Remain cool. Professionalism is the key to success. His finger flinched.

"Tell me. Did I imagine speaking just now?"

Ack.

Ru'uk Nina, the decrepit old woman whose deep-set bags under her eyes followed the exact same parabola as the chain linked to her spectacles, lifted a pile of papers in front of her and tapped them on the table aligning them to her fancy. "I believe I stated, shipment order 'AE13442-359' succumbed to a fleet believed to be pirates under the spacecraft carrier's assumed name, Myrian Gulock. The information hailed from captain Henkelson of the Hysteria who exclaimed the altercation between the mercenary and the opposing parties as, and I quote, 'One hell of a dog fight'. Might you have any necessary input concerning the order, who handled the paperwork, and the parties involved in shipping?"

Dog fight. That sounds like Lux. He loves his altercations. He scratched his upper lip. Answer her! "The-there's no noise in space." He held his breath. Idiot!

"I beg your pardon?"

"Buh-uh. I just. You said altercation which implies a lot of noise, but there's no air for the vibrations and uh-"

"Mr. Garei," Ru'uko Somersa said, the middle-aged man sitting to Ru'uk Nina's left. He had thick slightly graying eyebrows and slicked black hair with a cynicism in his expression that looked like it was plastered on. "As much as we are pleased that you paid attention in elementary school, we are trying to aid in an investigation to mitigate the repercussions that this will have on the IFTB. Now if you cooperate we will see to it that you are compensated accordingly. If not then I'm afraid you will be of less use to us than a mung neid loatie, the frivolous creatures."

"Sorry."

"For wasting our time? It's too late for apologies, now tell us what you know before our carpet gets moldy from all your undesirable perspiration."

More sweat dripped off the tip of his nose before he wiped his face off with his sleeve.

"The ship," he started before taking a breath. "The Hysteria. It was taking a shipment to Veilar with a single escort. A trusted mercenary of the Haver-"

"A trusted mercenary?" Ru'uko Somersa said. "How oxymoronic."

Acton feigned a smile.

"The shipment," he continued, "contained ten tons of class D energy capsules." He paused to check for a reaction... nothing, so he continued. "It was set to leave port at second midnight and arrive at the destination in two day's-time. I had received the purchase order four days prior and set a team of eight men to secure the items and board them onto the Hysteria, captained by decorated employee, Magna Henkelson. The frigate is operated by ten men. Then there are eight senior engineers with twelve mechanics aboard the ship. Four cooks. Sixteen gunners.

"We lost seventeen men total in the, 'altercation': eight gunners, one engineer, seven mechanics, and one cook. As I stated, eight gunners died meaning we lost eight guns on the ship total. The hull was breeched by one man who placed charges on the inside and blew a hole in the side-"

"Allow me to stop you there Mr. Garei," said Ru'uk Nina flipping through her papers until she found what she sought. "What can you tell us about the mercenary."

"The mercenary," he repeated. "His name is Luxfer Bon Liis. He completed a five-year degree in law enforcement before joining the Haver Mercenaries. I found him when searching through their list of members three years ago when I needed someone to do a job for my department and his credentials stood out."

"To you."

"Yes." Acton peered between the two authorities waiting for one to say something. Nothing, so again he continued. "I commended him to his boss for doing a splendid job and he has been my go-to mercenary ever since." A smug little smirk appeared on his face as he was quite pleased with the way things were going. One little flub up at the start but he brought it home. Slam run! Dunk... home? Didn't matter. He folded his hands in his lap to congratulate himself on the major victory. Even the sweat on his brow dried up, and all it took was a little confidence.

Ru'uk Nina commenced scrawling on the pages in front of her while Ru'uko Somersa fixated his unwavering stare directly into Acton's pupils. Just a tactic to assert dominance and remain the most powerful figure in the room no doubt.

"Mr. Garei," Ru'uk Nina said. "Your input has been helpful. I apologize for any discomfort you may have endured. You may leave."

"Thank you kindly," Acton responded.

"Before you go," she began. "We must inform you that you will be required to seek other escorts."

"Sorry?"

"If this comes as a surprise to you then I fear we made a terrible mistake in promoting you to your position. This mercenary... Luxfer bon Liis... he will be held responsible for the destruction of the Hysteria and stealing our precious goods."





III





Six...seven...eight seconds and the phone once again clicked to voicemail. "Thank you for calling the IFTB, western branch, intergalactic relations division. Acton Gar-" The message stopped.

Acton stood a couple steps back from the window peering down over the city below. Congestion exhausted the streets as the cars breasted at speeds tantamount to that of a snail. Horns certainly honked vacuously back and forth, but up at the twenty-fourth floor, he was safeguarded from such nonsense.

Out in the office space, cubicles ran down in rows with an employee at each swivel chair assuring customers' satisfaction, and if not, seeking new customers to satisfy. A world Acton had already subjugated and proven his worth by being granted the position of branch manager. A hard-fought battle, but when it came down to his predecessor making the final decision, he made absolutely sure that it would be his signature inscribed on the documents.

Suddenly the phone rang again and Acton ignored it the same as the other three times. Luxfer's name and face appeared on the screen again filling his stomach with lead as he anticipated the answering. The man had done nothing wrong yet he would be the one behind bars. Specious, but that was what made Acton stand far above the rest. He knew the wrongs from the rights, but more importantly he knew when the wrongs were the rights. Luxfer and he had a good run, but it was time to cut ties and seek out a new partnership, perhaps someone with a little less of a reputation for being a rebel.

"Terribly sorry, Luxfer. I tried to talk them out of it." He cleared his throat. "I tried to inform them of our bond...I tried to tell them of your...dedication...to our principle. Ahem. Luxfer...I don't know how to break this to you-" He continued stammering through possible conversation starters.

Luxfer was a unique soul and if Acton was to have the man answer the accusations, he would need to be delicate. The mercenary hated every possible meaning of the phrase, "beating around the bush," but if he were to find out about the IFTB's plans and dealings then...

Acton threw that upshot away. The most important thing was to bring Luxfer in for questioning as soon as possible.

Suddenly, his phone rang, but it was not the phone sitting on his table. It was the one on his belt and he did not waste any time pulling it out of its holster to see who it was. Not Luxfer, but it couldn't have been. Instead the screen read, "RESTRICTED," and Acton's lungs sunk into his gut.

No, why would they be calling? Everything is fine. I have everything under control, dammit.

Acton took a deep breath and accepted the call. "Matsik!" he responded exasperatingly joyous but not without the sneer in his eyes.

"Acton," said the gruff distant voice of Matsik Eurenai, Acton's superior on all accounts except in title. "What is this I hear about our shipment being stolen?"

"We have been relieved of the capsules by a group of pirates and-"

"Relieved? You feel relieved?"

Acton ran a hand over his bald spot and into the remain hair that speckled the top and back head. It was common practice to look at upsets with the brightest possible comportment. "Pardon me for playing the role."

"Dammit Acton, just tell me the fallout. What do they know."

"They know nothing. The Hysteria survived the attack but the capsules were lost and every trace of evidence points to my mercenary." Acton struggled to hide the malevolence in his voice.

Matsik remained silent for a moment before saying, "good, but I fear we may have more problems than just this incident. Tell me, who else knew about the capsules?"

Acton took a step back with an increase in pace of his breathing. He knew all about the contingency plan, but there was no way they would suspect him of being a mole. "Matsik," he said. "The number of people involved were as minimal as we could plan. Now we have been in business together for a long time, don't tell me you don't trust me."

A moment of silence. "Answer the question."

Acton sighed and lowered his voice to whisper. "The four of us in the meeting, the two wastrels who sold us the catch, and that's it, but we paid them more than any pirate would be willing to hand out. As for the four of us, I know for a fact it could not be me, since-"

"Forgive me Acton for cutting you off."

Churlish prick.

"At this moment the entire foundation of our enterprise is at risk. We need to take every precaution necessary."

"Um, excuse me, how can we be sure you're not the mole. This whole thing was your idea in fact. Maybe your plan was to have-"

"Are you at the office right now?"

Eep.

Matsik cleared his throat lightly. "For your sake and mine, shut up. If you have any more illiteracies to spout, find a pillow and kindly smother yourself with it. If not, please come to the base so we can discuss this further. Oh! Before you come here, make sure your mercenary is silenced...for good."

Matsik ended the phone call leaving Acton standing in the same position he started in only now the pressure of the situation pulped his entrails. The redness in his face flushed down into his stomach leaving behind a white mask and churned disagreeably in his gut while a tasteless saliva splashed inside his mouth. His lips curled into a tight concave curve as he turned around to face the cubicles. He started at a composed stroll, but as urgency increased so did his speed. Refusing eye contact with any of the confused employees he bolted down the aisle, then under the sign that read, "RESTROOMS." The door swung open then bounced off the wall and slammed shut while Acton threw his head into the toilet bowl and retched. A few moments later he was wiping his mouth off. He then turned away from the mirror and stared through the wall.

First thing's first, I guess. Kill Luxfer Bon Liis.





IV





Luxfer stood stone faced on the customer side of the counter sneering at every feature the shapely cashier had on his contemptuous face. Pimples ready to burst covered his forehead, cheeks, and jaw line and his eyes sunk into his skull like potholes; attributed by either lack of sleep or questionable pharmaceuticals. Wouldn't have surprised Luxfer if it was both. The back of the collar of the man's work polo failed to be folded down fully and the string holding the top button had been stretched to accommodate the wide girth of his neck and his deadpan expression gave the whole new definition to the word homely.

Luxfer was clothed in underwhelming rags that resembled a hoodie and khakis with a thin Autumn coat. His short brown hair still suffered from helmet sickness: flat, greasy, and weaving every possible direction to the point it was impossible to tell where each strand started or ended. Not that he cared.

A medium sized bowl of vanilla ice cream and an empty gift card for Woodcawk Creamery rested between the two men in a heated staring contest.

"Look," Luxfer said breaking the silence, eyes flaring with determination. "You can't put that back in the tub. The money's been lost so why don't you just hand it over and you won't have to make a loyal customer very unhappy."

The cashier grabbed the bowl, hoisted it over his gut, picked up a spoonful, and popped it in his mouth. Luxfer, having lost most of his patience already, slammed both his hands down onto the counter; his left hand formed a fist while the right slapped the plastic marble design palm down. A quiet growl escaped Luxfer's throat while he tried to suppress the expanding rage deep within. He closed his eye, pressed his thumb and forefinger together, inhaled, exhaled, then repeated the process two more times before grabbing the gift card off the table and flinging it across the dining area with unbridled force. It struck a napkin dispenser cracking the fragile plastic and chipping a few pieces off the card itself. He shot a livid glance at the man then slumped over to the exit.

The cool, humid air struck his face as he opened the door, jingling the bell above. Countless cars inched along the roads, horns honking, light's flashing, smoke billowing while every passerby walked, congregated, and shouted about. Multiple air ships filling the sky high above the scrapers sang their melodic song, changing pitch when they passed overhead. The monotony as a whole numbed the senses creating a state of lethargy.

Luxfer's hand sluggishly reached into his coat pocket, pulled out his phone and turned it on. No messages or missed calls. Wouldn't hurt if I had a few more friends. He swept over to his outgoing calls and redialed the number for Acton. This would make his fifth attempt to get a hold of the man. Funny how dismissive the corporate leader could be whenever Luxfer had an important question to present.

The oscillating tone drowned in the sounds of the down town and almost made it appear as though time had stopped; that was until he heard a voice on the other end. His instincts told him to hang up, and he almost listened to that urge after being distracted by a man throwing his drink at the windshield of a car that tried to pass another by driving on the sidewalk.

He shook his head and paused before pushing the end call button when he noticed it wasn't a voicemail recording.

"Acton!" He blurted into the speaker.

"Lux! I'm surprised to hear from you. I thought you were heading to Veilar." Acton's voice sounded like a tin can had taught itself speech.

Luxfer dove through his mind to remember what it was he wanted to talk to him for. "I tried calling you like four times already." Hysteria. Explosion. Energy cells...conspiracy.

"You know that corporate life. Meeting after meeting. So, what can I help you with?"

"The en-" Luxfer quickly put a cork in that thought. It was unlikely, but the hunch had been eating at him ever since he saw the name Myrian Gulock. No pirate vessel would have considered wasting resources as valuable as they did on some stupid batteries. "Hey, Acton," he said instead.

"Yeah, Lux. Shoot."

"I need to talk to you."

"We're conversing right now."

"Don't be deft, I'm serious. I got a bad feeling. Can you come meet me?"

Silence commenced on the other end of the line until he heard Acton as if he was on the other side of the room as the phone. He was talking to someone but like when he spoke to Magna over the coms, Acton was too quiet to hear his words. Surely made a man feel insignificant.

"Act-"

"Hey! Yeah, Lux, that would be exquisite. I got a lunch break coming up in an hour. We can talk over whaleboats. What do you say?"

Coincidentally, Luxfer's stomach growled and he looked down feverishly. "West side, where the javol meets the hawk?"

Silence persisted again until Acton said, "I understand," then hung up.

Luxfer pulled the phone away form his ear, stuffed it back into his coat's breast pocket, and began pacing down the boisterous street. A heavy metal tune blasted out the window of a large truck stuck in traffic; the driver's fingers tapped the wheel to the beat set by the drums. Amongst the noise, he threw the hood of his sweatshirt over his greasy hair and obfuscated himself in the crowd of people, weaving between shoulders refusing to connect eyes with any of the repugnant residents.

This was atypical behavior for him despite his rather discernable loathing of the city life, but the atypical circumstances granted cause for caution. Something was going on and he felt a yearning to find out what. As if this occurrence had more to do with him than what showed on the surface.





V





Countless trivial conversations echoed throughout the diner sending choppy waves of monotony at the lowly merc who would sooner melt into the wallpaper than eavesdrop on any of the participants. His toes chafed inside the soggy boot recently dipped in a pothole after the rainstorm. Universe-4, Luxfer-0.

"Excuse me," said a man one table away from him to the waitress that only just walked past. He had a bald head, thin glasses, and traditional two-piece business attire. "My buishone eggs are cold, can I get them for free?"

"I'm terribly sorry sir. I can't give them to you for free, but I can replace them. Would that be ok?"

"Hmm. May I speak to your manager?"

No, shut the stupidity off! Luxfer pleaded. He pressed his forehead against the table and cupped his hands over the back of his skull creating a safe haven where no one could penetrate his psyche.

"Excuse me?"

He prayed the waitress was not talking to him.

"Is everything ok?" She asked again. "Would you like a refill on your water?"

He lifted his head out of its cocoon and looked at the striped red and white long sleeve button down shirt with a dark green apron.

"No," he finally responded after a moment of contemplation.

"Excuse me," badgered the man from one table down. "Are they cooking my new eggs yet?"

Luxfer looked up at the waitress; "Beah" was written on her nametag. An obvious sense of annoyance showed in her puckered lips and her eyes cried for help. Regrettably, all he could do was offer sympathy even though all he felt was pity. But for who? The girl? Or himself.

"I am going to tell them right now," she said to the schmuck.

The man harrumphed and went back to talking to whoever it was he traded banter with before his childish outburst.

Luxfer looked out the window he sat next to. Across the street sat the skyscraper which held the headquarters of the IFTB. The whole reason he ditched the Hysteria in the first place, and soon he would get a chance to talk to the man in the chair.

Suddenly a ship flew overhead just out of his view gusting wind about sending girl's skirts flying and men's ties whipping into their vexed faces. It levitated over to the aerial parking pad where Luxfer caught a brief glimpse at the back of it, but not a good enough look to tell what make it was. Just a circular thruster that seemed to chime in his mind.

Soon after a man leapt directly off the pad and performed a rather inelegant tactical roll when he hit the pavement. The pompous figure popped up and sashayed over to the doors in a cartoony fashion where he walked through, stopped, looked around like a celebrity on stage before millions of fans, and took off his sunglasses. The mannerisms struck a chord in the merc's memory banks.

"What repulsive waste," said the man behind Luxfer in reference to the peculiar man.

The figure wore a long brown trench coat with a popped collar, brown work pants, a blue denim button up and steel toed construction boots. He stood as tall as six feet (He had two inches on Luxfer) with a greasy, messy side swept hair style and the slightest hint of a five o'clock shadow on his dopey face.

Luxfer told himself to look away before he created an awkward situation, but for some reason the man's features felt so familiar. An actor? A politician? Somewhere, Luxfer could have sworn he had seen this man before and it ached deep in his throat like the name wanted to jump right out and slap him in the face for forgetting. But nothing of the sort happened. And thank the heavens for that.

That was when the man turned and their eyes met. He tried to look away but that face gnawed at his brain. Then the man's face lit up and that was all he needed. The lightbulb shined bright enough to burst and a fire ignited in his chest. He stepped out from the booth he sat in and walked briskly towards the man, his shoe squeezing water out each step, mouth beginning to gape.

"Snout?" The man called with a grin.

"Whiskers?" The smile on Luxfer's face could be contained no longer as he reached a hand out to shake the crazy geezer.

"Dude," said the man coldly, raising one eyebrow. He pushed Luxfer's hand aside and embraced him with both arms, to which Luxfer returned the gesture in kind.

"I..." Luxfer swallowed. "I can't believe it's you Dak."

Dak. The man who could be described as nothing short of eccentric, and this man Luxfer was honored be able to call his best friend when they were little...more or less. The duo gained a reputation as the "Stray Dogs", tearing up the streets at night and causing ruckuses around town. Trouble followed them everywhere they went, but they never tried to stop it. Luxfer maybe, but Dak always tackled danger head on.

"Believe it, my friend. I was in town just about to fly by when I see that purple hornet your old pappy used to fly and I just had to stop in."

A wave of memories flooded Luxfer's mind as he analyzed everything about the man that stood in front of him. So different, yet exactly the same.

"I'm glad you did! Come! Sit down, I got a booth right over here."

Luxfer led Dak over to the booth like a giddy child. He had a million questions for his friend, but he didn't know where to begin.

"This place is so typical of you, Lux. Eating cheap food, wearing ratty clothes, same hair. It's been over eight years and you literally have not changed a bit."

"You!" Luxfer awed. "You've changed completely. I barely recognized you when you came in here. What have you been up to? Where have you gone? You gotta tell me the stories."

"Excuse me," said the prick sitting behind Luxfer. "Do you think you could keep it down? I'm trying to have a civil conversation here."

The merc took a small breath and said, "Yeah, sure," trying to keep from sounding snide, then turned back to his old friend.

"Aw, there's not much to tell," Dak said finally. "Nothing you'd be interested in."

"You went off the planet and I don't hear from you at all. You owe me an explanation."

Dak chuckled with a devious grin then opened up his coat. What came next left Luxfer in a state of childish hypnosis as he hanged on every word the man had to say. Each sentence that flowed out of Dak's mouth Luxfer would take it and stuff it into a box in the back of his mind to collect dust. It was complete with the show and tell of all the trophies he'd earned, all small enough to fit in the coat over his shoulders. While he talked his hands conducted an orchestra, telling as much of the stories as his mouth did.

Adventure after adventure spewed, consisting of the wildest activities Luxfer could never have dreamed of. He spoke of the gambling, the drinking, the alien races all over the place. It made Niaylec look like a sepia tone photograph of a rock in comparison to a quadruple rainbow in front of an amazon waterfall. Niaylec was bland and boring, but safe, which was even more boring. No one ever felt alive hiding everything they owned in a box that they bought with the money they earned digging dirt for someone else. No. Living was what Dak had been doing the past eight years. Living at the barrel end of the gun and saying, "Please don't kill me." Street racing with alien races, running from cartels, drunken roulette with dukes, and Luxfer's personal favorite: the most dangerous game of laser tag.

"The trick is not to get hit," Dak said, his hands still holding the pretend rifle.

"So, in Layman's terms, don't die...good advice."

The two shared a hearty laugh and both sighed as they sat back in their chairs reveling in the disbelief.

"Your turn," Dak said as Luxfer reached for his glass. He merely shook his head and sipped a couple times before placing the glass back down. "Oh no. You don't get off that easily. Let's not forget that you left me before I chose to leave Niaylec.

Luxfer felt that jab to his chest. "I'm really sorry, but how was I supposed to pass up the grant. I had a chance to get into a prodigious college and make the real bucks." He refused to acknowledge the irony. "Yeah, it was a five-year commitment and-dammit, I'm not going through this again with you. Come on man."

"I'm kidding! Lighten up, Sally, I'm over it. I know it wasn't because you wanted to get away from me." Luxfer looked down at his hands. "Hell, I'm happy for you. God, I wished I could have got an education the old fashion way. So, what are you doin' now? That degree open any doors for you?" Lux smiled bitterly, to which Dak chuckled. "No offense dude, but I could kinda tell you didn't become an enforcer."

Luxfer's head shot up. "How so?" Dak's eyes said it all, trailing up and down Luxfer's figure. "Buzz off, I easily could have been, I just didn't want to."

"Hey, no judgement. I don't think I've ever met an enforcer I actually liked, so you really dodged a bullet there."

"Yeah, I'd have been one of those flashing lights chasing you down on one of those alien planets."

"Ha! Pretty sure it's the other way around buddy." Dak looked out the window.

Luxfer chortled at the statement then stared at his glass of water, so perfectly pristine. Much like the moment they were having right then. He looked up to his friend to see him still staring out the window. Curious how such an excitable personality could become so tranquil in an instant.

Then Dak spoke. "This planet sucks."

"You said it," Luxfer agreed.

"No, I'm serious." Luxfer only stared at him questioningly as he remained looking out onto the street. "Of all the planets I've been to, this is the worst."

"I mean, I don't know about that." Luxfer looked down at his barely touched rye bread. "There's security here. This place is safe."

"This place is a lie. I mean look outside. Everyone is running around trying to either get the fattest wallet or just get the fattest. They've all been brainwashed living in this toxic bubble. Leaving this planet was the best thing that ever happened to me. There is freedom out there. Here there are just words to reassure people that if they leave they'll die. I say the opposite. If you leave, you live." Luxfer remained silent. "Did you hear me? Lux, I'm saying you should leave. You should leave with me. Let's get out of here."

The prospect of leaving had constantly tugged at his mind as he stumbled through each day just to make it to the next one. Twenty-three years old, but he already felt he had waited too long. Like he too had become a mindless drone only doing what he was told. He believed he had the freedom to make his own choices in life, but the world had limited them down to diddly-squat. "You tried to get me to leave eight years ago. Back when I was free." He looked out the window at the building across the street. The one he came to see. "I got responsibilities now."

"Come on, man. Forget those. I bet you if you went to your boss right now and told him you quit, then that hundred pounds of lard you got on your back would just melt away with all those responsibilities you say you have. Cut loose. Say no. Remember all those years ago all the fun we used to have?"

Fun. Stress was more like it. All those years ago when his heart was pounding after a chase through the back yard as no good hooligans still flashed through his mind. The two of them had no friends but each other and Luxfer started to recall some of the bad times. Sure, the two of them laughed after it was over, but the nights Dak would spend in juvenile detention after covering Luxfer's ass filled his intestines with guilt and depression to say nothing of the fear of being alone.

"Look Dak, things have changed since you left."

"No, everything's the same, we're just a little bigger now."

"I can't do that stuff with you."

"Sure, you can, man! You just need to drop this can't attitude. That's what Niaylec does to people. It rids people of their dreams and forces them to conform to the way someone else says you should live. If you leave with me, you will experience freedom like you've never seen before. Come on, man. I saw your face as I was telling you about the prank on Veilar under the Norris gazebo."

Once again, the man sitting behind Luxfer turned around to face them. "Do you think you plebeians could take it outside?"

Luxfer's hands clenched into fists at the mere sound of the man's voice but he managed to contain the desire to unleash fury. "We'll keep it down," he said with a stiff jaw.

"Please see that you do. I'd rather not trouble myself to call the enforcers."

Luxfer placed his palms on the table and sucked on his lips. "Dak. I can't go back to that life anymore. It was fun while it lasted."

Dak sniveled and wiped his nostrils with the back of his hand. "Well, maybe you're right. On those planets you really gotta be tough and it looks like your prolonged exposure to this planet has made you too soft. I just gotta ask though." He bit down on the knuckle of his index finger, then let go. "Do you want to be stuck escorting frigates as a lowly mercenary for the rest of your life?"

Suddenly Luxfer's heart hiccupped and he froze for but a moment. He looked up at Dak in disbelief. "What?" Dak did not respond, instead he looked back at Luxfer in earnest. He meant what he said. Not once did Lux tell him what he had been doing, and the timing. The timing was too perfect. Back in town not twelve hours after the incident with the Hysteria.

"You," Luxfer furrowed his brow. "Son of a bitch."

"Excuse me," came the stabbing voice from one table down. "I warned you. I-"

"Shut up!" Luxfer aggressed. "You're not the only person in the world believe it or not." He kept his gaze fixated on Dak who only smirked.

"My goodness, where is my phone. That's right, I'm calling the enforcers, you hear me? You are disturbing the peace, and I've had just about enough of you."

Luxfer pushed himself out of the booth and stood up as Dak mused over what was unfolding before turning to the bald man and laughing. "Me? You've had enough of me? Just like the waitress? The waitress you so eagerly complained about for not giving you a free meal? What about that guy over there? Had enough of him too?" He pointed in a random direction without bothering to look. He could hear Dak chuckling in his booth.

"That's it mister, get out of my face." The woman sitting across from the man cowered in the corner of her seat lifting her purse to her lips. "I will make sure you spend the rest of your life behind bars."

Luxfer felt himself starting to hyperventilate but he forced air into his lungs and tried to exhale as calmly as he could, but it came out as a stuttered breath. Suddenly the man stood up face to face with him lifting his nose a good four inches above Luxfer's and Luxfer suddenly wondered what it would look like in black, blue, and red, so he clenched his right fist and drove it straight into the man's schnoz. He smiled as the man collapsed at his feet and the woman screamed. Next, he looked at Dak who clearly enjoyed the show with a big toothy smile and clapping to go along with it.

"You," Dak said standing up. "This is who you were always meant to be. Come with me an-"

Luxfer did not wait for him to finish his statement before performing the same delicate surgery as he did on the other man bleeding all over the floor. He then walked out of the diner, his foot squishing in the soggy boot every step.

Universe-5, Luxfer-1.



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