“Who are you really Mr. Book?” The waitress asked.
He smiled, showing well cared for teeth. “I can neither confirm nor deny my identity.”
“So you’re a closed book then?”
He chuckled and ran a hand through his dark hair, with just the slightest hint of gray. “You might say that.”
“Why did you take me with you?”
He fiddled with a couple of switches on the panel. “You killed a man back there.”
“An evil man.”
“Yes but just because he was a very bad man doesn’t change the fact that you shot him in the face in front of a room full of people who know you.”
Pei frowned, she hadn’t ever killed anything other than flies, the reality of her situation came crashing down and pressed on her shoulders. “Why… why did you get me involved?”
Book put the ship on autopilot and unlocked his chair, swiveling it toward her. “I am sorry, but you were the one who decided to liberate the man’s head from his shoulders.” He sighed, “Had you not killed him you could have returned to your job and…”
Pei slapped him. He saw it was coming but did nothing to stop her ineffective attack even if it stung a bit.
“No you Goram assassin! When you decided to kill those bun tyen-shung in my restaurant, you put me in the front row seat. You made me deliver that bomb!”
Book smiled which infuriated her more. “Yes I gave you a front row seat, but you were the one who decided to climb up on stage. I’m sorry this happened to you, but we all chose our paths. I did not make you pull those triggers. You wanted Slim dead, why else would you give him both barrels.”
Pei knew he spoke the truth; she buried her head in her hands and sobbed. Book put a hand on her shoulder and she shrugged him away. “Touch me not!”
The assassin turned back to his console and fiddled with the navigation computer for a while. He wondered what he had been thinking bringing the waitress along, he should have left her to sort out her own problems. She would complicate things. Perhaps he could get rid of her on Persephone.
He pulled out the specimen sample vial he had filled with a bit of Slims brains. His employers required proof of each hit. If he killed someone halfway important on a core world he wouldn’t normally have to do anything. The news feeds would provide the required proof. But on a hole of a world like Regina something a bit more substantial would be required.
According to the files provided by his handlers, this Slim Tony had once been a Federal officer. The Alliance didn’t like its soldiers going AWOL and becoming brigands. Once he had been located it was only a matter of time before Book or one of his fellow operatives would be sent to eliminate the offender.
This hadn’t been a large job, but it wasn’t ever really about the pay. Book thrived on the pursuit. He felt the most alive when he was tracking down his prey.
He glanced over at his passenger; she had quit crying and was staring out at the stars. “Beautiful aren’t they?”
She said nothing, but had to admit the stars were breathtaking against the black. For a brief moment she forgot about her precarious situation. After a while Ju figured she could continue wallowing in self pity or find a way out of it.
“So, Mr. Book where are we going?”
“I have business in Persephone. You’ll be able to find work there fairly quickly.”
“What kind of business?”
“None of yours.”
Pei didn’t feel like playing his little games. “Oh I see. You need to report back to your boss about your job. And you’re just going to dump me as soon as we make landfall.”
“If you’d rather get off before landfall, the airlock is that way.”
“Is that some kind of threat?”
Book shrugged, “I don’t make threats. Pei, I have the latitude to cause a certain amount of… collateral damage when required. I could shoot you, discard your lifeless corpse and sleep like a baby afterwards.” He flipped a red switch on the control panel. “You helped me eliminate Slim and his gang I appreciate it, that’s why I didn’t leave you to rot in a work camp, or some dank cell, where you’d have to fend off the advances of Big Bertha.”
Before this moment Pei never thought her life was in danger; had she been a fool to follow this man out the door? He seemed like he had some sort of code of honor, but who was she fooling he was a cold blooded killer, thinning the herd indeed. She had to get away from the bridge the little two seat room full of switches, displays and knobs was alien to her. She didn’t want to be next to the Book anymore.
“Where’s the head?” She asked.
Book opened the hatch between the bridge and the living quarters. The SERC Scout Extended Range Centurion class was a small ship. Some of its detractors called them outdated overgrown shuttles. Its accommodations were cramped and sparse but that didn’t bother Book.
Book liked his ship, it had served in the Alliance Navy for years until it had been deemed obsolete, its weapons de-milled and the whole thing sold as-is at auction for a pittance. It had been designed to house a crew of four during extended scouting and probe maintenance missions, lasting from weeks to months at a time. With the invention of the deep signal stations, the SERC’s were slowly retired. Thousands of them were sold to help finance the construction of newer ships.
He led the passenger through the tiny galley crammed floor to ceiling with modular storage compartments, and into the dormitory. Two small bunks covered by simple navy curtains lined either side of the cramped room. Personal space was a precious commodity onboard a scout ship. Book made a note that he would have to clean off one of the bunks for Pei to use. The three unoccupied beds were being used to house all kinds of gear; tools, spare parts and odds and ends that wouldn’t fit in the diminutive cargo bay.
At the end of the dorm was the shared head. He opened the door and flipped on the light. It was your typical small craft hygiene facility, complete with the fold out sink and toilet.
“Thanks, I think I can figure it out from here.” She said as she closed the door.
Book doubted why he had brought her onboard. She didn’t seem grateful. Had she stayed, the local sheriff would be stringing her up on murder charges. He shook his head and pulled the curtain back on the bottom bunk across from his and began pulling boxes out.
Pei looked in the dirty mirror. Her black and gray hair was a mess. All she had were the simple clothes on her back, a stained apron, a pocket full of measly tips, and her little order pad. How was she going to start a new life on some world she’d never even seen? Pei looked down at her hands, and realized she was trembling. She had killed a defenseless man, in cold blood.
She pulled off her apron and looked at it. Amid the stains of noodle sauce were dark red droplets of Slims blood.
She looked in the mirror again and noticed she had his blood on her face. Pei could faintly smell the gunpowder, egg noodles, and blood. She shoved the apron into the dirty sink and turned on a trickle of water. Ships had notoriously low water pressure. She scrubbed furiously at the blood stains, but they had already begun to set into the white fabric.
When the futility of her work hit her she dropped the soaking apron in the sink and sat down on the toilet. With her head in her hands, she sobbed softly. Pei tried to muffle her anguish; because she didn’t want the death dealer to hear her cry.
“So that’s where I put that spare compression coil.” He said to himself. Muffled sobs penetrated the door, so he looked up from cleaning the bunk. He listened to the woman crying quietly in the head for a few moments. Listening to her cry brought back memories of the first time he had killed a man.
He had been jumped in an alley behind a bar on Sihnon. He had been fresh out of Alliance entry combat training when three thugs beat him about the head, in the struggle Book managed to wrap his fingers around the throat of the leader. As the lackeys ran off into the shadows he watched the man die as he crushed his trachea. His eyes were wide with fear and horror, when the thug realized he couldn’t breathe. The thug fought with all his failing strength as he struggled to live. When it was over, Book walked out of that alley a changed man. He had taken the life of another with his bare hands. When the adrenaline rush subsided he had felt just like the poor woman sobbing in the head.
After the first the killings became easier. He carried all of them with him, but none of them had bothered Book as much as the first. Slims gang wouldn’t hardly cause him any pain. They were some of the worst scum the ‘verse had to offer. The worlds would be better off without them.
The door opened and Ju Pei stepped out into the dorm, he glanced up at her face. She had cleaned off the blood but her olive shaped eyes were red. “Well I’ve cleared out this bunk for you, it will be about a week before we make landfall in Persephone.”
“A whole week? What will I do for clothes?”
Book shrugged, “Well I might have a few things that may fit you.”
“How?” she looked up at the man, “You’re much bigger than I.”
He opened a drawer underneath Pei’s new bunk revealing a few items of random clothing. “I occasionally take on passengers who need to… disappear. Since they are usually in a hurry they don’t always remember to take everything when they leave. I figured I could keep them for rags. But now that you’re here…”
Pei pulled out a purple silk shirt embroidered with intricate patterns that looked like it might fit her. It looked like something a companion might wear. “Are you sure they were all just passengers?”
Book rubbed his brown beard, “I should get back up to the bridge to check on the nav.”
Back up on the bridge the assassin sat watching the stars. He had traded his brown duster and boots for simple black clothes and shoes he found comfortable. There was no reason to be stomping around his ship in clothes meant for harsh terrain.
As he let his thoughts wander out across the black his communications console beeped in its typical annoying way. It was Samid on an incoming wave.
“What?” Book said as he answered.
“Is that anyway to greet your good friend Samid?” The scrawny rat faced little man replied.
“Samid, you don’t have friends, just people who you sometimes find useful.”
He paused for a moment. “Well I suppose that’s true. Anyway did you accomplish your objective yet?”
“Good! I’ll have your payment wired to the usual account when you deliver the proof. But I have a small favor to ask before you get here.”
Book always got a horrible headache when his handler asked for favors. “What kind of favor?”
“I need you to take a little detour, and pick up a package for me.”
“Let me guess this isn’t coming down from our employers is it? Is this a side job?” Book asked with a groan.
“If you want to put it that way… yes.”
Book closed his eyes not even trying to hide the disdain on his face from the man on the other end of the wave. The Alliance bureau that they worked for didn’t officially exist. Samid wasn’t on the payroll, because some of the tasks they did required a bit of “insulation” from the inner circles of the government. The filthy bureaucrats wanted to get their dirty deeds done but be able to say “our agency was not involved.” Technically they would be telling the truth.
“Samid do you even remember what happened last time you pulled a stunt like this? You’re lucky you still have a goram head.”
“Book, easy easy. Nobody is gonna lose their heads. It’s a simple courier deal; it’s completely shiny.”
With Samid’s twisted worlds view “shiny” could mean half a dozen things, most of them illegal. “I need to know more about this little ‘courier job’ before…”
“Say no more! I’ve already attached an encrypted document to the wave with the details.”
“This had better be on the level and not some piece of go se. Dong ma?”
“Yeah, I dong ma. Send me a wave back when you’ve decided to take the job.” Samid said before his video feed cut out.
Book shook his head, he had no idea why top officials in the Alliance government trusted Samid, Book sure as dee-yure didn’t. He pulled up the files using a pre arranged decryption key, and scanned through the details on the job. It actually looked like a legitimate job, just a couple cases of rare minerals to be dropped at the docks in Persephone. He sent an encrypted reply back to Samid, accepting the job.
Book got up from the bridge after altering the ships course and headed back to the dormitory. The door was closed so he knocked.
“Qing jin.” Came her reply.
Book opened the door and saw the former humble waitress had been replaced with a beautiful purple silk clad doll. He didn’t hide the shock on his face very well.
“What?” Pei asked.
Book blinked, “Nothing, sorry you look… I mean I hadn’t…”
“Didn’t expect me to look like a biao-tze?”
Book coughed, “No Pei, you don’t look like a whore. I just… was surprised that’s all.”
“So where are we going? I felt the ship change course.”
“Santo, it’s a little backwater world near Persephone, so it won’t be much of a detour.”
Pei shrugged, “So I guess I don’t have much of a choice.”
“No not really, unless you count the airlock…”
“So what do you have to eat around here?” She asked changing the subject.
Book shrugged, “Well I did pick up a few provisions on the last rock. I’m sure you’re a better cook than I.”
“How do you know I won’t poison you?” She asked while shutting a drawer, the retaining clips clicking into place.
“Since you don’t know how to land a ship and would like to end up on the ground in one piece I suggest you skip the poison.”
“I wasn’t always a waitress.” She said with a smirk.