Book leaned back into the pilots chair and closed his eyes. He wasn’t sure if closing his eyes made the pounding worse but he was sure it didn’t really help. He felt like all the cattle in the ‘verse were stampeding through his brain with no way out. He opened his eyes and looked over at the strange woman that for some strange reason he had invited on board his ship. It must have been some kind of fate. Had he not brought her on he might still be lying on the floor amid the stains of his blood. She had patched his head up stopping the bleeding. Book knew how much head wounds bled, he’d given people a fair heaping portion of head wounds over the years. He might have bled out while unconscious had he been piloting alone like he usually did.
Pei’s attention was fixed to the small screen as she piloted his expensive unmanned craft toward the wreckage. The assassin almost forgot the pain as he studied her face. She had a few years on him, but not too many. Her skin was a light shade of olive, and while abused from too many hours working amid the grease and grime of the dump he had pulled her out of she still held onto her beauty. Not a fake manufactured beauty like the doxy girls with racy clothes and makeup, she wasn’t one of those women who fret over every eyelash and curl, but he didn’t care, he preferred them that way. Many people in the ‘verse were all too concerned with how they looked and what others thought of them.
She glanced at him from the display for a heartbeat or two and went back to business. Book could see the pain and weight she was carrying. It would be weeks before she wouldn’t see her victims bloody face every time she closed her eyes. Derrial had been in that place before. Long ago when he had taken his first life it took him a long time to shake the face of the thug he had choked to death. He sometimes saw his victims in dreams but he had too much blood on his hands now to feel much remorse. Especially for the gorram filth that were Slim and his gang. There were many people among the worlds who needed to be put down. The majority of the sheep couldn’t defend themselves and Book tried to see his work as a way to make the ‘verse better.
He was a sheepdog, protecting the lambs from the wolves thirsting for their blood. Unfortunately too many of the sheep saw no difference between him and the wolves. He sighed as he pushed those thoughts out of his mind and leaned over to watch Pei pilot the UVV.
She knew what she was doing. Too many rookie pilots seemed to think one needed to constantly fire the thrusters to maneuver. All that did though was burn through the CO2 fast and make driving more difficult.
She moved the Z axis lever up for a split second sending the UVV below a piece of charred floating metal of indeterminate origin. Moments later the little unmanned craft was positioned outside the hole in the InterPlanetary Container (IPC), matching it’s rotation perfectly so it appeared to be stationary.
The black and white image from the stereo cameras brightened as she keyed the high intensity observation lights. Moments later the craft entered the container. Inside were stacks of regular vac safe crates most of them looked intact. A few in the path of whatever had punched the hole had ruptured. She still couldn’t tell what was in the container since most of the debris had been knocked out of the hole.
“Pei change to the thermal camera.”
“I don’t know, I just have a strange feeling.”
She hit a toggle switch and the video feed went to infrared. “See nothing, it’s all the same temp…” she stopped as she panned the camera around. In the view there was a much lighter blob. “Something’s generating heat, what could it be? Why would only one vac container…”
“I don’t know, but I have a feeling it has something to do with why this freighter was attacked.”
Pei began using the vehicles rescue arm to pull the containers and shove them out of the hole. In a few moments she found the box that was emanating heat. It looked just like the other containers. As the pincher got purchase on the vac safe container she exclaimed, “Gao Guhn!”
“I’d say, but don’t bring it in until we can get an accurate rad reading.”
Pei backed the little craft out of the IPC and brought it back to the airlock of the Lelantos. Along the way she scanned it with the onboard Geiger counter. “I’m reading thirty five CPM, so that’s not much above background stellar radiation. So I don’t think whatever’s in the box is hot.”
“Don’t forget the lining on the vac box. It’s still sealed, so something inside could be radioactive.”
Pei shrugged, “Well if it is we can close it right back up and toss it out the airlock.”
Book nodded which brought his pounding headache back from a dull roar to a rutting drumbeat.
They went down to the cargo bay and cycled the airlock. Pei was about to grab the box when Book put a hand on her arm.
“Let me do it. We don’t know what’s in it do we?”
Pei was slightly annoyed, but if he wanted to play the brave samurai why should she stop him. She waved her hand out pointing at the box. “Why my noble protector please SAVE me from the evils of this here box ‘o Pandora.”
Book rolled his eyes at her melodrama and knelt down in front of the vac safe container. A few knobs later the seal broke and a quiet hiss of atmosphere escaped from the box as the pressure equalized.
He hesitated a moment before lifting the lid. Inside was a rack of cylinders suspended in high density foam.
“What are they?” Pei asked as she scanned for radiation. The Geiger counter clicked a little but nothing dangerous.
Book picked up one of the cylinders and felt a liquid slosh back and forth in the aluminum container. “I’m not sure.” The cylinder was unadorned, he turned it around until he found a label affixed to the side.
“What’s it say?”
Book peered at the label, “It says X-21 Paxilon Hydrochlorate.”
“Paxilon, hydra what? But why is the box warm?”
In the center of the container one of the cylinders was different from the rest. Book pulled it out, it felt warm to the touch. “Whatever this X-21 is they didn’t want it to get cold.”
Book got a bad feeling as he knelt in his diminutive cargo bay. He stuffed the aluminum vials back into the box and shut it.
“What’s wrong?” Pei asked.
Book cranked the locking tabs shut. “We need to put it back.”
“What why? This stuff looks expensive; someone might pay a good deal of scratch for it.”
“Or kill for it.”
“What are you saying?”
Book shuddered, “If you hadn’t noticed someone punched a few holes in the freighter that was carrying this. Someone already killed to stop it. This must be high level Alliance…”
“Alliance? But why isn’t it marked? Aren’t all Alliance goods marked, and coded? Nothing here is marked at all.”
“That’s what’s wrong. No chem company, or med markings on it. If this was a normal shipment of goods the company that made it would have their makers marks all over it.”
Now it was Pei’s turn to shudder. “Wait a moment, are you sayin’ that we’ve stumbled upon some sort of ‘black’ operation? And someone wanted to stop this stuff from making it to its destination while there are others that want to see it go through?”
“Pei fire up the UVV and…”
“It’s too late, we’ve broken the seals if someone comes looking, they’ll know we tampered with it.”
Book got a feeling similar to the night he first took a man’s life. “You’re right. Gorammit we’re humped!”
Pei looked at the airlock’s rusty door. “Let’s just space it.”
He shook his head, “Which will drift in our particle wake, allowing a scavenge team to follow my ship.”
“What do we do?” Pei asked, “That box probably has a tracking beacon in it.”
“Mo dai wo.” He swore, “I don’t know, ditch it planet side. But first things first let’s get this ship as far from here as possible.”
Pei climbed back into the pilot’s seat and set a course back to Santo. Book buckled himself into the co-pilots seat and struggled to keep the cattle stampeding through his frontal lobe under control.
Pei sat brooding, why had she opened Pandora’s box? Maybe Captain Kovaleski had been wise to avoid any floating space junk in his travels. What was that chemical and why had someone killed the freighter crew to keep it from its destination? She wanted that box off their little ship now. Their ship? When had it become their ship perhaps after she had become more than just a passenger?
They had a bit less than a week to go before making landfall. After putting the ship on course and programming a full burn sequence to get the ship up to full speed they would be free to roam about the ship.
Pei kept an eye on the deep space sensors checking for anyone tailing their little boat. No ships, probes or anything else for that matter appeared. The next few days passed with little to excite the senses. They took shifts monitoring the ship and doing the regular tasks required of a deep space crew.
On the fifth day Pei managed to get Book to play Tall Card with her. The bets were questions.
“The tall card is Peach.”
Book furrowed his brow a bit, “No tall cards here, I’ll take two.”
Pei wanted to smile as she passed Book two cards, “Dealer forced to take the tall.” She was holding two Peach suited cards; they would now be wild making it easier for her to win. “Dealer takes three cards.” One more peach and two bananas.
Book put his cards on the table, “Two pair.”
Pei let her smile show, “Well that’s too bad Derrial, Full House.”
“Wo Bu Shin Wo Dah yan jing!” He exclaimed
“Well you better believe your eyes Mr. Book. That’s another question you owe me.” Pei thought about it for a moment as she studied his face. He was handsome for a non Sino man, but despite what he said to the contrary his eyes held a heavy weight behind them.
“Alright Pei, you win what’s your question.” He said as he looked up from the cards.
She looked away then back at the cards as she tossed them in a pile, “Do you have anyone in your life?”
He looked surprised; her previous questions had been mundane and less personal. “No… not currently.”
“Currently? So your heart can do more than kill. What was she like?”
Book wagged a finger at her, “Ah, one question per win remember?”
Now she was even more determined to win Tall Card hands. The cards were dealt but she had nothing to work with. Thankfully the tall card came up orange. And she was able to sneak out a win.
“So Book, what was she like?”
The man across from her sighed; she could see pain on his face for a moment as he searched his memories. “Xing Shu was beautiful, but she wasn’t one who cared for the acclaim of the verse.”
Pei was intrigued she hadn’t expected a Sino girl in his past.
Book continued, “She was so full of love, and life. I still don’t know why she took a liking to me.”
Pei looked into his dark eyes and found sadness behind them, “I’m sorry Book… I.”
“No it’s fine. She’s a part of my life I’ve left behind, to never have again.” He set the cards down and stood up from the tiny table. “Excuse me.”
An odd thought came to her as she shuffled the warn cards and slipped them back in their case. Perhaps she might have a few pages in his book.