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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Action/Adventure · #2265300
A bounty hunter's opportunity has finally come - is it worth the price?
Written for "Other Worlds Contest [NPL], prompt #1. Word count at most recent edit: 3717

Lara raised a hand to rub her aching eyes. It was six hours after midnight, and even piloting sims were failing to keep her alert. She forced down a twinge of worry over the delay. Across the room, Roger still sat at his workstation, checking inventories and optimizing accounts - whatever it was her older brother did when he was "working."

She sighed, and the Neuravisor lowered itself in front of her right eye, re-establishing her heads-up display. "Find those extra zeroes yet?"

Roger grunted. "Yeah, fixed them an hour back. I'm just checking to see if the Bounty was scheduled to pick up anything new on the way. There are some crates of that hot new alloy on-station if she's got the room for them. I bet the factories in Riga could use some, and it seems Alice forgot to check."

Lara rolled her eyes. She loved her brother, but she swore she'd never get that boring. She lifted both arms overhead to stretch, then stifled a yawn. Roger smiled back at her, sympathy in his eyes. Freya's Bounty was roughly ten hours overdue to complete its inaugural run, but that wasn't uncommon for a trading ship. The Bounty was ten times the size of her parents' older in-system haulers, and they would be anxious to squeeze every dime out of their new warp-capable investment. In fact -

Alice's crisp synthetic voice interrupted her thoughts. "Contact inbound: courier boat Charlie Delta Zero-Niner with an urgent message."

"Go ahead, Alice," Roger replied.

The AI's voice continued with mechanical unconcern. "Playing Xersis Trade Union Bulletin: We regret to inform you that Freya's Bounty has been lost with all hands. Responsibility has been attributed to the pirate Xavier Blackhand: it should be assumed he will remain active in Xersis Starleague territory. The Starleague's northwestern arm's security status level has been downgraded to level 6. The active bounty on Blackhand within Starleague territory has been raised to 2.1 megacredits. Our sympathies go to the crew's family and loved ones. Applicable piracy insurance clauses have been activated, and our legal representatives have been instructed to expedite all claims. Be assured our agents are working overtime to make the Starways safer for you. To those affected, we are deeply sorry for your loss."

Lara felt more than heard herself scream. Her eyes turned to water and her stomach to lead. Within seconds, Roger's arms were around her, trying to hold her world together. But she knew even then that nothing would ever be the same - and she knew who would have to pay.


Lara raised the glass to her lips, her eyes unfocused and not quite alighting on two men in the booth across the room. They were dressed in Zipsuits, blue and khaki respectively, the kind spacers preferred for quick stops in stations. The popular body flight suits let pilots throw on a helmet and get back to work in small crafts with limited life support or no place to change. But bounty hunters (and pirates) liked them because the better versions were ten times tougher than Kevlar. With the Starleague’s legal restrictions on heavy armor on civilian areas, Zipsuits were what anyone who wanted to look badass wore. She felt nearly naked in her skirt and blouse, but there were times when it was best to be underestimated.

Lara was startled by a baritone voice. "Is this seat taken?"

Standing beside her table was a sandy-blonde bearded man of middling height and a broad build, currently sporting a confident grin. Of course, he was wearing a deep green Zipsuit. Across the room, the two men in flight suits had turned their heads her way. One of them reached down to touch a small shopping bag that had been sitting between them, as if to be sure it was still there. Damn. She forced a half-hearted smile. "Hello, Jeff. No, feel free."

Jeff raised an eyebrow, but then slid into the booth across from her. "Have you tried the wings, Longshot?"

Lara raised her own eyebrows at having her bounty hunter callsign announced out loud. But even now, objecting would draw more attention than it was worth. Whatever damage had been done was done. "What brings you here, Last Chance?"

Jeff shrugged. "A bit of this, a bit of that. Maybe I've come to ask you to dance."

He was working, then. "You and I work for the same contract agent. You know I never mix business with pleasure."

He gave her a wink, and a Waiterbot arrived with a lager. "No wonder you always look so unhappy."

Lara shook her head, though she was careful not to raise her voice. "You might not want to tell your co-worker to smile more when she's as well-armed as I am."

Last Chance raise his hands defensively. "I would never, of course. I'm just offering some free advice. In our line of work, it's hard to make friends outside the business. I could use some company, and it looks like you could too."

He reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a physical chip - unnecessary, but still a more secure method of data transfer in public than an electronic broadcast. "We should grab a drink sometime, as colleagues - or whatever. If you want to reach me directly, you can use this."

Lara hesitated, then nodded and touched the chip to her Neuravisor at her forehead to download its contents. "I might just use this, Jeff. But right now, I need you to excuse me for a moment. I might have had one glass of wine too many."

She stood, using a hand on the table to right herself, then walked slowly across the room past the two men in Zipsuits, just a bit more deliberately than full sobriety should require. As she passed them, her foot slipped out and caught on the shopping bag, and Lara crumpled to the floor. She cursed, apologized to the two men, then climbed slowly to her feet as they visibly fumed. Her hand was planted on, perhaps within, the bag as she pushed herself up.

"Switch," Lara murmured as her Neurovisor kicked in, and the electronic swap was done. She apologized loudly to the two men, who seemed caught between anger, irritation, and a certain physical appreciation for the physical beauty of the apparently intoxicated woman sprawled at their feet in her loose-fitting blouse.

One spoke, eyeing her from above. "You should watch yourself, young lady. Not everyone in a spacer bar is quite the gentleman I am."

"I am so sorry," she stammered, brushing back a lock of sandy blonde hair, but failing to correct the disheveled mess. "I didn't mean to disturb you. But don't worry about me, won't let it happen 'gain. Just need a minute in the ladies' room and I'll be fine - swear."

True to her word, when Lara returned from the Ladies' room a few short minutes later, her hair was in place, and her blouse neat and spotless. She brushed by the suited men this time with the haughty expression and stiff poise of a high-powered executive whose weekend bender had just come to a sudden (stimulated-aided) ending. She hesitated only a moment at the sight of her empty booth: Jeff was nowhere to be seen. The only evidence he had been there was a few credits left on the table for his beer. Whatever he had come here to do, it was probably done.


Lara clenched her jaw. It was time. "Jerry, release."

The AI complied, walls shuddered, and her stomach threatened to climb into her chest as her drop pod separated from her beloved Sparrow, plummeting toward the remote warehouse below. The visor display indicated that ground radar wouldn't be able to penetrate the drop pod's stealth materials - yet. Within seconds, the pod hit terminal velocity, and Longshot had two minutes remaining to contemplate the cracked, dried plains rushing toward her. The pale blue pod, designed for camouflage against the sky, had fins that allowed Jerry to steer her toward the warehouse far below. Her Neurovisor display showed the lights on and fifteen human heat signatures. This was promising: the weapons exchange was still on, though it wouldn't be quite what her prey had planned. She continued to scan the display for vulnerabilities. There! That was her entry point. The trace indicating her drop trajectory adjusted itself accordingly. Touchdown in forty seconds.

"Jerry, release the Sparrow: insertion point alpha."

Her visor display lit up like a Christmas tree, and the heat signatures arranged themselves in a crescent, facing the open hangar door. The drop pod's landing thrusters blackened the surrounding landscape over the course of little more than three seconds, executing a 3G drop, then separated. Longshot exploded from its wreckage, a lithe figure in skintight battle armor wielding an arm cannon the size of Old Texas. With a Neurovisor and modern weaponry, you didn't even have to squeeze the trigger: she grunted from the recoil as she fired the shaped charge at hangar wall, obliterating it. She charged through the rough new entryway a breath later - just as the gunship Sparrow touched down in the hangar, drones like fireflies filling the air from each of its munition ports.

The arms dealers were ready. Dozens on dozens of hostile drones filled the hangar, answering her own. In an instant, the air was thick with acrid smoke and tracer fire. Hostile and friendly drones were near-indistinguishable, but that didn't keep the armored humanoids from firing at them. For many seconds, the Sparrow itself was untouched, the mistress of the battlefield, its point-defense laser turrets perfectly suited for picking drones out of the air and its armor too thick on which to waste rifle fire. Longshot discarded her single-use BZ-47 and replaced it with the heavy assault rifle that had been pinned to her thigh. The arms dealers were falling back, right into her field of fire, but their attention was still on the gunship in the hangar. Her less-than-lethal assault rifle flashed, and the first hostile humanoid toppled, encased in fast-hardening webbing. The muzzle flashed again and again, in quick succession. The hostile drones were thinning fast. She was winning.

That was when the first salvo from within the hangar. The Sparrow had a single gimballed spinal-mount cannon for dealing with hostile space fighters. At least, it used to. A half-dozen Strix Peacekeeper tanks, each more than a match for her Sparrow in ground combat, opened fire, shredding the stealth fabric that had kept them from her sensors and disabling the only weapon that could have challenged them. The Sparrow's engines flared; within two breaths, it had retreated, leaving its drones behind. Its armor was pockmarked by the tanks' second salvo, but it was operational. Damn. If Longshot could make it back through the crumbling warehouse wall, she could still abort the op. If she were lucky. Her drones would keep the dealers pinned down while they lasted, and the tanks would be slow to leave the hangar.

With a high-pitched whine, a second aircraft shot through the hangar door, and a strobe of blinding light filled her sensors, darkening the polarized display of her battle helmet. Within, her visor display flickered but held. The host of drones suddenly crashed to the floor, and the tanks fell silent. An EMP cone! By God, if she had been inside its arc! But she hadn't been - she was still to the side of the cone, behind and to the side of the arms dealers, and so her systems remained online. A dark shape emerged from the assault ship, a heavily-armored bounty hunter with the callsign Last Chance emblazoned on his chest.

Longshot gritted her teeth, and her rifle's muzzle flashed again, then again, webbing one hostile and then another as light rounds embedded themselves in her armor, each with the impact of a punch to the gut. Or to the shoulder, leg, or helmet, as the case might be.

Suddenly a guttural voice called out from one of the armored humanoids, "Hold your fire! We surrender."

Just like that, the battle was over, and a new conflict had begun.


Lara finally had a moment to reflect on what she’d gotten herself into. The arms dealers, it seemed, were goblins from the Planet Strix, where a century ago an experiment had gone (mostly) wrong during the Gene Wars. They operated largely outside human society, but their skills as hackers and weapons manufacturers ensured bounty hunters were more than familiar with their exploits - and hesitant to offend any goblins influential with Strix society. It was unclear how important these particular dealers were, but a bounty was a bounty. A bounty hunter was but a tool of the justice system, and Strix would be unlikely to blame the messenger or even the Bounty Hunter's Guild - every bounty was subject to a scrupulous pre-trial. But the sponsor of a bounty was a different matter. The Guild tried to keep them anonymous, but it was not unknown for a sponsor to suffer retaliation if they were discovered submitting a bounty to the Guild. Judging by the words of anger she'd heard from the recently humiliated goblins, someone powerful was going to be extremely pissed, and Lara was just as happy their anger wasn't going to be directed at her.

Lara found herself shaking her head. She leaned against a pillar, one arm crossing her chest and the other holding the leash of the two goblins who had been in charge of this outfit. Each was virtually naked, ignominiously stripped of their armor, and held by collars around their necks. A tank loomed behind her. It might have made quite the picture, but Lara turned her thoughts to the next challenge before her: Jeff.

Jeff stood before her in his bulky battle armor, arms crossed, waiting for her to speak. And so, after a long moment, she did. "You stole my bounty, Jeff. How in Hell did you even find this place?"

His broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "I gave you a physical chip, and you kept it? Sloppy, Lara, sloppy. But you should be grateful I followed you. You really should do more research before crashing a weapons deal, and maybe next time you'll know what you're up against. Happily for me, those kind fellows you sent my way were willing to share details. I have to admit, it was clever of you to steal the goblins' contact information in the bar. But giving them my number might not have been your best move, even if it worked out for - well, both of us."

Lara gritted her teeth. "You're not taking my bounty."

Jeff's voice was gentle, for all its resonant volume. "I just sent notice to the guild that this bounty has been collected. This time, the sponsor wants our quarry delivered directly to him. His name is Xavier Blackhand. You have a reputation, Lara: he's not going to let you anywhere near him - a problem I don't have. On the other hand, there's a lot of material here ripe for confiscation. You've more than earned the lion's share of it."

Lara's eyes widened for a moment, and then her own shoulders slumped as she thought over what the bastard had said. "You tracked me and stole my bounty: how can I trust you? But, oh God, I wish I could. Jeff, you have to take me with you. I've waited half my life for this moment. I'll give you anything. Do you understand? Anything."

Jeff shook his head. "This from the woman who gave my personal number to insurgents. I've always liked you, Lara, even if you never returned the favor. You can trust me with your life, if not your money. But what will you do if I let you have your way? Kill him? The Starleague made Blackhand a naval auxiliary a few years back when war broke out with the Xingua Empire. As far as they're concerned, he's gone clean. He's untouchable. You do anything to harm him, your life is over - and if I help you, so is mine. Think about the long game, Lara. Is this what you want?"

Was it? Lara asked herself. A life on the run, with her skills useful for little but piracy or defection to the Xingua? Could she tell Roger and Sundri that their kids were never going to see Auntie Lara again? Her own mother was a navy veteran and a patriot; she'd have been horrified by the thought. And her father...

"He has to pay," Longshot whispered.

Jeff crossed his arms. "I must be insane even to listen to this, and I'm not promising anything, but what's your plan?"


"Bounty vessel Reckoner, your identity checks out. You have the goods?"

Jeff's voice replied, cool confidence in every syllable. "I've got two goblins onboard, and they're willing to talk. If you've got the credits, I'm ready to deal."

The cruiser's comms officer responded a moment later. "Red Devil acknowledges your encryption codes, and we see you have three life signs on board. Submit to automatic guidance: we'll take you to docking pad Two. Follow the lighting strips in on foot with the bounty, and don't deviate. And hey, it's your lucky day: the captain is free for an audience."

The Reckoner glided in on autopilot, and a few minutes later a figure emerged in broad black body armor, face still obscured by a helmet. Two goblins trailed behind in restraints - fully clothed, this time. The armored figure traveled the walkway silently, unchallenged by the security guards at either side. In only a few minutes, the bounty hunter reached the end of the trail of lights and the door to a briefing room.

"I'm here," Jeff's voice announced.

The door opened with the smooth swish of well-oiled machinery. Inside the briefing room was Xavier Blackhand, himself. He was also wearing body armor, though his helmet sat on the table. Two guards stood motionless behind him, one at each shoulder. The guards motioned for the goblins to sit in chairs by the entryway, which they did while hissing their frustration. The bounty hunter paused a moment, then removed her helmet, and her sandy-blonde hair fell about either shoulder of Jeff's poorly-fitting armor.

Blackhand's eyes widened. "You!"

His guards raised their rifles, pointing them directly at her face. Lara laughed aloud. "I wouldn't do that. There's a deadman switch connected to a 20 megaton explosive in the {Reckoner. It's not stationed right by the fusion's mag bottle, but I figure it's close enough. And if that somehow doesn't do the job for you personally, the smaller explosive in the armor I've borrowed will."

Xavier hissed. "Lara Starbow. Your life is over. You know that, right? You'll never get away with this."

Lara shrugged. "That really depends on you, doesn't it? A deadman's switch should tell you I'm willing to die if I have to. The fact that we're still speaking should tell you I'd prefer to live."

Xavier nodded, then took a deep breath. His guards did not lower their guns. "Then we are at an impasse. If you wish to talk business, by all means, begin."

Lara spoke a single word, one that ripped from her lips like hot lead. "Why?"

Xavier placed his hands on the table between them, seeming to understand the question. "Your parents, you mean? The answer is simple: it was an accident. There is no profit in destroying a ship, but since ship acceleration is limited by what a human body can stand, it's very hard to catch one. In piracy, the solution is simple: you have to disable the ship you're pursuing, preferably before they can see you. Then you can take their cargo. They call for help, and eventually, someone picks them up and takes them home. I've done this over a dozen times, and every other time it's gone smoothly. Piracy is a considerably less messy profession than, say, bounty hunting. But the technician we found to load the flechette torpedo packed the wrong one in the tube. We discovered later that it was mislabeled, as a result of a typo. And so dozens of people paid the price. For what it's worth, I'm sorry."

“A typo?!”

Xavier cleared his throat. “Neuravisors aren’t cheap.”

Lara couldn't help it: a tear streaked down her cheek, and her voice failed. Was this what she had waited half her life for? This! She cleared her throat, then began again. "Transfer the money to the account number my visor just sent, and we're done."

Xavier nodded. "Very well. The money has been transferred. Thank you for your professionalism. Let me know if I can help you again."

Longshot picked up her helmet and placed it on her head. Then she turned on her heels to make the short walk back to the ship.

Jeff was waiting for her at the head of Reckoner's boarding ramp, wearing a light flight suit swathed in stealth materials. "I still can't believe you let him go."

Lara brushed away the remnant of a tear. "It was the right thing to do. I think. Besides, karma has a way of repaying us all, even Blackhand."

Jeff cocked his head, his voice taking on a tone of suspicion. "What do you mean?"

Lara brushed past Jeff and leaned against the wall as the ramp closed. "I heard a rumor that an anonymous source told certain contacts on Strix who's been sponsoring bounties on their operatives. I also heard this source passed along a bank account number to go with it. Blackhand has really poor operational security, you see. He seems like the kind of guy who would order a bank transfer wirelessly from his business account, using only weak encryption. Hypothetically."

Jeff whistled. "I don't think I'd want you upset with me, Lara."

Lara turned and placed a hand on his chest. It was a good chest. Strong. Dependable. Not a little sexy. "That's because you are a sensible man. You know, Jeff, you really should ask me to dance sometime."

Jeff's smile was warm, and after today's events, Lara could really use some warmth. "You know, Lara, I just might do that."
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