The Bounty Huntress
As Kestrel, imperial officer on the run from mysterious bounty hunters, is hiding at Bolden's, a CCN pilot is trying to uncover the truth about the aforementioned bounty hunters. Her quest has led her to the lush planet of Kinesi.
Isi's Krait Mark 2 slowly retracted its sensors and darkened its cockpit as the ship started entering the atmosphere of the ringed earth-like world of the Kinesi system.
ATMOSPHERIC ENTRY SEQUENCE INITIATED said the COVAS' text box on the side of the ship's display. The shields hummed as the ships entered the upper ionosphere of the planet, changing color from a shade of blue to bright yellow as their switched to atmospheric penetration mode, switching from protecting the ship from impacts to draining heat away from the hull. Isi closed the helmet of her Remlok suit.
DEPLOYING HEAT SHIELD said the displays as the cockpit completely blackened, transitioning to a live feed of the descent transmitted via the external hull cameras. Kinesi's atmosphere was rather thin - merely 0.7 standard Earth atmospheres, with the vast majority of it made of nitrogen and oxygen, as it was fitting for such a verdant world. Isi gave a passing glance to the external temperature of the hull. A Krait Mark 2 was a rather aerodynamically sound ship, and didn't require too much attention when re-entering a planet's atmosphere, compared to a T9 or an Anaconda that needed to have its engines on at all times to avoid falling like a meteorite through the atmosphere. A Krait was better at sliding through the air, though it wasn't exactly an airplane.
In theory, the Earth-like world of the Kinesi system was off-limits to everyone. Much like all similar ELWs in Colonia, Kinesi had been preserved from the disruptive effects of human colonisation that had ravaged so many planets in the Bubble. That being said, it as not very easy to completely control the orbit and the access to an earth-sized planet. The Societas Eruditorum de Civitas Dei, the faction that controlled the system, did not have the resources nor the actual capacity to enforce strict orbital control. It would have been unthinkable for a megaship, or a real colonization venture, to get through their screening, but small independent ships had no trouble landing and taking off from the planet. It was, in fact, barely monitored. Isi felt crosswinds shake the ship through her flying stick as Battle Butterfly entered the denser parts of the atmosphere. Kinesi was a hot world, despite its relatively thin atmosphere, with lots of energy recieved from its star that translated into swirling storms capable of engulfing an entire hemisphere for months.
ATMOSPHERIC ENTRY SEQUENCE ONGOING - ENTERING TROPOSPHERE.
The cockpit became transparent again. Isi switched to a higher density atmosphere flight model, controlling the ship with the stick only while the on-board COVAS managed the throttle to accomodate for the winds carrying the Krait. The engines of the ship had switched to full atmospheric flight. Its fusion engines had stopped working, switching to scramjet mode during the first phase of the descent, then to regular jet mode as the Krait now travelled at three times the speed of the sound. Isi caught a glance of a vast cloud stretching from one side of the horizon to the other under Kinesi's F-class sun, then the Krait found itself surrounded in a violent rainstorm. Raindrops crashed on the windshield, creating transparent rivers under the constant deceleration of the ship. Powerful crosswinds fought with the COVAS for the control of the Krait. From time to time, lightning struck Battle Butterfly, creating golden auras on the shield enveloppe. A few minutes later the Krait emerged from the rainstorm a few hundred meters above a thick, dense jungle made of tree-like vegetation that overgrew limestone cliffs carved by the eternal storms of Kinesi.
ATMOSPHERIC ENTRY SEQUENCE COMPLETE - SWITCHING TO FULL ATMOSPHERIC FLIGHT.
There was a strange structure on the horizon. Some kind of derelict metal building overtaken by trees, green sponges and lichen, barely visible through the jungle. Two unresolved blips blinked on the sensors : two ships parked on the ground that the COVAS' radar was unable to clearly identify.
Battle Butterfly deployed its VTOL engines and landed in semi-automatic mode in a clearing by a pond, a few dozen meters away from the ancient building. Isi waited for a few seconds, letting the Krait perform a full 360 scan of its surroundings, searching for drones or people hidden in the greenery - the sensors returned nothing. Isi left the ship. Kinesi's atmosphere was breathable, but barely. It was saturated with moisture, extremely hot and damp, comparable to the surroundings of a station's life support systems but planet-wide and with much more greenery. Hostile greenery, even : animal life was extremely rare and limited to insects on Kinesi. Plants had won the evolutionary race. They had choked everything else. The only reason why there was a clearing next to this building was because half a decade before, someone had dropped a chemical bomb on the jungle, whose compounds had embedded themselves within the very bedrock, preventing most plants from growing back. But the effect was fading, and the jungle growing closer with each passing year. The building was made of standard pre-assembled structures, often used for colonization projects, and bore the almost completely faded emblem of a Bubble-bound company. Five years before, in the very early days of Colonia, someone had tried to start colonizing Kinesi. The project, like many other things on this world, had been choked to death by the slow advance of the jungle, and had then been summarily executed by the Colonia Council's decision to halt all ELW colonization endeavours. Two ships were parked on the ancient landing pad by the outpost. An Imperial Eagle without any markings, its paint worn off by a very long journey, and a grey Fer-De-Lance, whose heavily engineered hardpoints gleamed under the occasional lightning strikes. Two bodyguards in heavily armored Remlok suits were guarding the building, assult rifles in hand. Both of them wore a patch signalling their allegiance to the Likedeeler of Colonia. Isi gestured towards them, signalling that she wasn't armed, yet the soldiers didn't really look more at ease. Isi was pretty much a nobody in Colonia at large, but she had taken part in many a skirmish in the strange conflict between the Likedeeler of Colonia and the Colonia Citizens Network. Many a Likedeeler knew her as a rather good pilot - not a flashy one, not a great pilot, but a good one, efficient and to the point, and very good at knowing when to bail out, a quality that was in somewhat short supply in Colonia. A select few Likedeeler - mostly people having been once part of a boarding party - knew her under a rather different light. Isi wore a series of discreet biological implants in her nerve, bone and blood system. Most of them had been placed to repair the damage caused by cosmic radiations after a failed rescue operation, but a few others were more than that. Though much less impressive than mechanical augmentations, these ones made her quite the opponent in hand to hand combat, and at least one of the Likedeeler soldiers guarding the compound had experimented the slightly problematic situation of fighting a bio-modified pilot in a tight corridor in zero-g, which probably explained the palpable hostility.
That or perhaps the fact that Battle Butterfly had its multicannons deployed, ready to fire if someone made a move.
"It's alright." finally said Isi. "I am expected."
"Yes, you are. Eider is expecting you, but don't do anything funny."
"Come on, when was the last time I did something funny?"
"About two weeks ago."
Lightning struck again and filled the main hall of the derelict building with purple shadows. A strange, contorted tree grew in the middle of it, strangling the corporate emblem that was painted on the walls. Two people stood around a table in the hall. One of them was clearly an imperial man, wearing a beautiful suit with siver markings alongside the cut lines, which glittered in unison with lightning strikes. His face was strangely blank and neutral : Isi knew this expression. So many imperial officers had it, and she assumed it was a mix of training, alienation and an act they liked to pull off in front of lowly strangers. And for the Empire, the concept of lowly stranger engulfed the vast majority of the known galaxy. The other person was a woman whose skin was as dark as Isi's, but who also rocked long blonde hair - this strange combination was rather unusual in Colonia, but more common in the core parts of the Bubble where ethnicities had time to blend and merge in humanity's great melting-pot. Isi knew her almost by hear, for they had danced in the skies often, and usually Isi had been on the losing side. Her name was Eider, mercenary, bounty hunter and explorer on Likedeeler's payroll. Her remlok suit was covered in grey camouflage - it came from plundered federal supplies.
"Hello, Isi. This charming visitor comes from the Empire and..."
The imperial interrupted her with a gesture. His glance went over Isi like a surveillance camera. It was obvious he didn't care about people, as was often the case with people like this, yet Isi noticed that something was amiss. She knew imperial officers from her time in the Bubble. This one was too cold, too indifferent - he was missing the hint of haughtiness and irony that most imperials had when on foreign worlds. In short, he did not enjoy himself enough in the role of the coloniser peeking upon the soon-to-be colonised to see how they were leading their miserable life. Much like Kestrel, he seemed bored to tears by his job, but without Kestrel's hindsight. In other words, the empire had sent them a depressed state servant.
"My name is August Ferengi, I am sent by the Imperial Flight Regulations Bureau. Are you fluent in imperial, pilot?"
"You may call me Isi, and yes." Answered Isi in a perfect imperial, with a slight Achenar accent. "I was born in the core worlds. I guess you are here about the man named Kestrel, right?"
"Indeed. Eider told me that you have a lead about this man, is this correct?"
"It is." Isi gave a passing glance at Eider, who nodded almost imperceptibly. Eider and Isi had a complex history, and the CCN pilot knew when the Likedeeler mercenary was about to pull something off at the expense of a fool, and the only fool she could see in that hall was the imperial officer...unless it was her, of course. "Though Eider did not give me a lot of details. I was told that I could meet someone here I could do business with, so I assume you are interested in Kestrel one way or another. Is he a deserter?"
"To a certain extent, yes, however there are many ways of deserting and not all of those involve straight out leaving. Sometimes people just...gradually slip, and desert without even noticing it themselves. Do you understand that?"
Isi's response was completely neutral.
"Yes, I think I do."
"Great. Where does this man hide?"
"Hold on a second." Isi gave Eider another glance and the mercenary nodded again. Go ahead with the flow, she seemed to say to Isi with a gesture. "Why do you want him?"
"I see no reason to lie to you, it is not like you have any way of doing anything about it. The empire has put a rather hefty bounty on Kestrel's head. Let's just say that he has outlived his purpose."
"Outliving one's purpose in the empire is generally the herald of a nice retirement on Achenar, not a death sentence."
"This is true, in most cases. Not in this one. Kestrel has...shall we say that he has displeased several important people in the inner circle of the Emperor. Something having to do with his ideals about slavery. Do I care? I do not think so, but an order is an order."
"So you have given him an assignment to Colonia about book weirdos the empire does not care about in the slightest, just so that he can find a timely end in a backwaters independent colony, 22,000 lightyears away from anyone who could investigate his death seriously. Am I correct?"
"You might be. I also assume you have met the man in person, if you know all of that. A true wreck of a man, isn't it? Half of the bounty is yours if you can lead me to him. And it is a very high bounty, otherwise your friend here would not be here."
Lightning struck in the hall. The imperial courier parked on the landing pad gleamed briefly.
Eider gave Isi a smile. A Likedeeler smile.
"There are three things our friend Isi does not tell you. One, she is the mysterious pilot who drove off the shitty bounty hunters you first sent after Kestrel. Two, she belongs to the aforementioned book weirdos. And three, I have approximatively zero intent of taking over this bounty partially because I have other things to do, and mostly because I am afraid the validity of this bounty is going to decrease in an impressive manner."
The imperial officer hesitated.
"I am not sure I..."
Eider sighed and reached for her sidearm. The barrel of the gun connected with the imperial officer's temple in a split-second and she pulled the trigger. The officer collapsed in a cloud of molten bone and vapourized blood. Isi's eyes did not move away from the empty space where the imperial officer's head had been less than a second before. The bounty hunter looked at her gun, then at the officer's corpse, then at Isi, then sat down again.
"That was expeditive." commented Isi, whose hands were slightly shaking even if she was trying to hide it from Eider.
"I am sorry, love, I have never been able to suffer imperials. You're the exception to the rule. And seriously, what the hell was this guy expecting? The bounty was ten million credits, I do not work for less than twenty. The way you described Kestrel made him sound like a nice guy, too. And I utterly hate it when the central powers use Colonia, and especially the Likedeeler, to settle their personal scores behind the curtains. Well. I'll keep the Courier if you don't mind."
"You do not fear repercussions for...well, murdering an imperial officer on duty?"
"No. What do you think is going to happen? We are 22,000 lightyears away from Achenar. Nothing, that's what is going to happen. They'll write these two idiots as a loss, end of story."
"Hmmm. It hurts me to say that, but you've got my thanks."
"Aw, anything for you, dear...and for the Librarians...and for the Unseen Republic."
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