“Just ignore ’em and get the stuff, Jack,” Audrey’s pissed shriek screeches through my comm-link, “You got fifteen minutes, ‘n we’re pullin’ out”
I grimace in frustration. Damned hag always tryna to butt in on how I do my job. Like no shit I’m here for the stuff, but I can’t just ignore these loners of I’ll get hit in the back. ‘Sides, why should me and me boys do all the heavy liftin’?
“Alright you filthy loners, you got ten minutes. If I don’t see two loads of usable ore in my hold by the time this alarm sounds,” I tighten my arms grip around the woman’s neck, as I nod at Ned’s timepiece, “I shoot her.”
They get right to it, I reckon they been robbed like this before, they seem to know exactly how it all plays out. Our scans showed five loners on the ship, three of ’em were awake, other two were sleepers, why they got anyone in cryo for a trip like this is beyond me. but whatever, it’s less chance we’ll find an idiot willin’ to play hero. This ships one o’ the contract miners that deliver to the core, they’re loaded up tight, our little ‘tax’ won’t hardly dent what they got, ‘n that’s the smart way to do it. Every few years you get some eejit crew of wide eyed saps thinking they’re the first to get the idea of taxin’ loners, ‘n them that don’t get stomped out for poachin’ on vets like me’n Aud’s territory get greedy ‘n provoke the ‘ristocrats into contracting exteminators. Me’n Aud been workin this stretch of space for nigh on twenty years now, we seen our fair share of big shots and we ain’t never had exterminators called on us. It was good honest work, without taxmen like us there’d be no livin’ to be had for entire systems. Folk this far out couldn’t afford to compete with the core for the price of resources, and as Aud’s pa used t’say “A need arises an empty market”.
“Hey Jack, loadin’s done,” Ned interjects, tapping his watch and with an impressed tone adds, “They had 3 minutes to spare”
“Hear that?” I laugh, relaxin’ my arm and pushin’ the woman back t’her fellows, “We’re all ahead of schedule. It has been a pleasure doing business with y’all and as a reward for your genteel cooperation, I got a warnin’ for y’all”
“Jack, what’re you doin, it ain’t none of our business!” I head Aud’s voice crackle over the comm before I cut her off,
“Last ship we taxed goin’ your way home hasn’t come back. Now we ain’t sure why exactly, maybe they just retired and got fat on their earnings, but somehow I doubt it. The political climate between the top-hats has taken a turn for the uncertain in recent months and suffice t’say, any visitors y’all might get closer to the core won’t be as polite as us. Safe travels, with luck we’ll meet you again”
I whistled and the boys and I retreated into the shuttle and strapped in as Ned took us back to the ship. Booting up my comms again, Aud’s mic cut in again her tone taking the calm scolding tone I’m used to when she’s annoyed at me but thinks I did the right thing, “What was that all about Jack?”
“Jeez, Aud, you know as well as I do what it was all about”
“Christ Jack, when’d you get all soft hearted? You know loners go missing all the time on the cargo hauls, we don’t know it’s got anything to do with anything, and besides, what if it is to do with the fightin’? If they can’t get what they need from the loners who’s t’say they won’t come after us?”
“Who’s t’say they will! Aud, they was a family, I reckon. Girl I had a gun to couldna been more’n Ned’s age, I couldn’t just send ’em off without even a word of warnin’. Besides, if they die that’s another loner we can’t tax again”
I hear Audrey’s long tired sigh, I ain’t never felt old, but I can hear it in her voice now and something about hearing my fiery old partner soundin’ so old reminds me just how long I been out here.
“Yer right Jack, look, I’ll talk to you about it when you’n Ned are back on board”
The quiet electric crackle of the line clicks out and she’s gone. I unbuckle my belt and walk over to Ned’s seat at the helm and lean over him, I can see the Benjamin Franklin waiting for us. Audrey named it, some kind of historical reference, said it was fitting for our line of work. I watch silently as Ned expertly pulls us in to dock, the satisfying hiss as atmosphere seals around us and we’re home once again.
We disembark and I leave Ned to handle unloading, one of the perks of seniority. I swing by the bridge. The door hisses open just in time for me to see Audrey closing that video she’s always watchin’. I reckon as to it bein’ her family and I respect her enough that I ain’t never gonna ask ‘less she offers. I cross to where she’s sittin, the screen now displayin’ the news, apparently the fighting is continuing to worsen.
Aud notices what I’m readin’ an’ asks, “You reckon it’ll make it out this far?”
I shrug, aiming for a calmer aloofness than I felt, “I dunno, Aud, never had two Corps this size come to blows.”
“What do you think’ll happen?”
“Who knows,” I state simply, “Whoever wins, it’ll be us out in the systems who lose”