The late night scirocco winds lifted sand from the Algarven desert and skittered it across the landing pads of the planet’s spaceport. The dry gusts meant the dark-red sun would slide over the horizon soon.
Penn heard a straining propulsion unit’s complaining on the wind. The smell of fried electronics came and went with the wheezing motor sounds. He looked around but the only saw the Strange Nomads bonfire at the base of the Cliffs of Home. Against the yellow flames, there was an odd colored glow above a shadow that moved back and forth.
He dove back into thoughts of his next assignment and marched on—his eyes on the pathway that followed the spaceport’s wall. The tall adobe barrier kept out the desert and marked the edge of Star Trader territory. The Strange Nomad’s hide auction started at dawn. That meant picking up the pace.
Lost in his thoughts, time drifted by. The Grand Master hadn’t told him why he needed to report here. He’d been to this planet before. There was nothing much going on in this system. What could go wrong with nothing?
“Jump, dumb ass,” came a loud voice, from the dark.
Leaping to his right, Penn crashed into the wall.
A kid on a high-seat grav cycle swerved, and kept going. The rider gave a heartfelt apology by pumping and twisting the back of his tattooed fist up and down in contempt. The cycle bobbed and weaved a couple of times, but the kid kept the old contraption wobbling onward towards the neighboring village.
The hardscrabble businesses trading with the docked ships gave the town a tenuous reason for existence.
Glow in the dark banners hung from poles above the little twerp, advertising the Star Trader’s Rest inn and bar. The cheap bastard who owned the place still hadn’t put a headlight on the inn’s only vehicle. It wasn’t Penn’s first misadventure with one of the village’s conveyances. But it was the closest he’d come to being smashed to a pulp by one of them.
Penn remembered his struggles growing up on a backwater planet. He couldn’t get too upset with the kid. And his boss was friend. So just keep on keeping on, walking to the auction.
A few lights around the port would be good. They could keep a guy from getting killed at night. Not much chance of decent lighting though, Star Trader ports didn’t waste money on non-essentials.
The odor of space lizard meat drifted behind the kid’s passing. The smell spilled from jumbled stasis units, that rocked back and forth, strapped to the cycle.
Penn picked up a circular lid that had fallen off one of the units. “Hey, kid! Catch!” The Star Trader threw it with a spinning motion, and the pint-size rider caught it while his legs kept pumping full speed, supplying power to smoking worn-out anti-grav and propulsion units.
There was no way that Penn’d touch the packages that had fallen out. Torn open, the packets of space lizard meat smelled like rotten eggs mixed with skunk musk. The gods only knew why some people ate it.
He brushed himself off and headed towards the bonfire in the distance. The flames burned at the port’s edge, where the plascrete landing pads ran up against the tunneled Cliffs of Home, claimed by the Strange Nomads for their commerce and warehousing. Probably, a regular supply run for the kid.
Besides selling meat to the local chefs, the outer system’s Strange Nomads, held an annual space lizard hide auction, at dawn, on the anniversary of the fall of the Great empire. Penn still had time. The planet Pekoe’s sun, Teegarden lit the eastern sky with the dimmest glow.
He owed a friend on the system’s Star Station 1, a new suit. A hard-to-get space lizard skin might get Penn another favor if things fell that way. The glowing phosphorescent colors of the hide would make a suit that would please Reginald to a T.
A buzzing sound and a sudden slice to Penn’s ear caused him to spin and dive for the base of the wall again. Somebody’d shot at him. The wall would give him protection until he could do something about the sniper. The fletchette had hit the ground, in front of him, so the gun position had to be somewhere high on the other side of the wall. That meant the village palm trees. A strip of razor-sharp duranium ran along the top of the wall, so not much chance of a sniper nest there.
Sitting up, Penn brushed himself off as best he could and told his AI, “Fred turn on my force field.” His black canvas calvary pants would clean up, but his best white flannel shirt had tears in both arms. Hot breezes moved up his shoulders and onto his body through the new holes in the shirt’s auto-chill layer. He rolled up his sleeves, found a dried-out palm frond the wind had blown against the wall, and pulled the fletchette to him. He picked it up by the tail and laid it on a stone.
It was supposed to be a morning of trading with the Nomads, not ducking assassins before the sun came up. Someone knew more than he did. Everyone with evil intentions from his last trip here had been put in a cell by the Trade Defense Forces. Evidently, this backwater had deeper pools of trouble than he’d thought. And that deep water had killers in it. He needed to find out why he’d been sent here so he could put a stop to it.
He tapped the ansible implanted in the side of his neck, in a two-three-two beat. “Paper, you there?”
The darkness around him filled with his partner’s voice. “Yep. About to go tune the port engine. How about you?”
Penn shined the screen of his wrist comp on the spent fletchette. The ampule connected to the needle tip hadn’t discharged. “Still alive. Someone tried to kill me with a poison dart. I think whoever tried for me must be nested in the top of the palms outside the West gate. I’m hunkered down inside the wall.”
A few beats passed until Paper answered. “The Beadle just messaged. He, Ohk, and Rose expect us at the Trader’s Rest. Now.”
“Ah, jumping novas. It’s good to know that Okh’s still the same asshole he always was.” Penn reached for the fist-sized silver crucifix laying on his chest to calm down.
Paper laughed. “Yeah, wouldn’t want to let people know the schedule ahead of time so they could plan for it.”
“Dammit. I needed to get a lizard skin at the auction. And Ohk’s going to have to wait until you help me out with this sniper situation. I had one thing planned for this morning. How come things always fall apart in threes?”
“Don’t worry. It’ll all work out. In the meantime, I sent a couple of drones to scout out your assassin.” Paper’s keyboard clacking made a backbeat to his voice. “I let the Beadle know what was going on. He’s grabbing a couple of the Trader’s Rest’s guards, then heading your way.”
“Thanks. I’ll be in skulk mode, in case the sniper’s got something a little higher powered. See if I can get in place to back up the Beadle.”
Paper banging lockers open carried just fine over the comm system. “Ah, finally, found my rifle, haven’t needed it in a while. I’m walking out now. My guess is things will be over by the time I get there. Beadle’s got control of the drones.”
“I’ll be here. Penn out.” Penn stretched his legs and tucked the fletchette into a small case from the woolen pouch hanging on his scarlet waist sash. He tucked the case into an inside pocket of his vest. This wasn’t typical killer gear. Ohk better be telling why he and Paper had been summoned here. This was starting to piss him off.
Penn’s ansible buzzed. “Penn. Beadle here. We’re almost to you. Little Tom, the kitchen kid, said he saw an Assassin’s Guild priest jump from a palm and head out in a skimmer towards the Wyvern Wastes. The priest’s skimmer almost took out the inn’s grav cycle. The kid lost some of his lizard steaks. Which sucks, they’re damn near the only human food that tastes good since the last time my taste buds got recalibrated.”
“Thanks, Beadle. I’m going to make a run for the tree line and check things out, just in case. And cheap calibrations might explain how anyone could eat that stinking lizard meat.”
The Beadle chuckled. “At least, I can change what I like whenever I want. You’re stuck with whatever your body tells you. But, back to the present, we’re about a hundred meters from your position and moving towards you. I’ve got Paper’s drone feeds, and nothing warm-blooded is showing up in the palms in front of us. Why don’t you just follow the road into the village and meet me? I’ll have Radon’s guards check that the priest didn’t leave any anti-personnel traps around his sniper nest.”
“Check. We can wait for Paper. He should be here shortly.”