The sun was setting over the rocky wasteland into hues of red and orange that bled across the sky. The air was growing crisp and cool, as if the sun was stealing away all warmth with it. Rising in its place, a large, silvery orb the locals referred to as the First Moon cast its eerie pale light upon the face of the planet. There was no movement along the lifeless crust aside from a medium-sized, triangular glider, whose silver body reflected the light with a ghostly glow. Hovering one meter above the ground, it sped along toward a sudden outburst of vegetation that seemed to stop all at once, as if the angry red and brown rock had set a line of demarcation that life on the planet did not dare cross.
Set into the tropical forest, about twenty meters back from where the rock ends and the vegetation begins, a massive barrier had been erected. The wire mesh fence was buried twenty-five meters deep into the ground and rose up twice as high. It encircled the entire area controlled by the Terra Unit, which spanned over four-thousand square kilometers. Lights flashed along the top and slashed diagonally down the center of the gate. Next to the gate, a metal tower had been built into the barrier, and a strobe at the top suddenly cast its stark light that was barely visible amidst the vivid sunset onto the oncoming craft. From the glider, it was unclear as to how many guards occupied the tower, but standing near the gate there appeared to be five security officers carrying military-grade energy weapons, their eyes on the approaching craft.
Out of reflex, Jaydi checked the pistol resting on her hip, hidden under her jacket. She glanced sideways at Bo, but his face was masked as he drove on toward the security gate.
As they reached the line of trees, Bo slowed the glider to a casual speed and stopped a comfortable distance before the gate. He kept the glider running. Jaydi took a quick glance at the situation. Five young uniformed officers, each with military-grade energy rifles slung casually over their shoulders and a single pistol strapped around their right legs, lounged in front of the gate. On the other side were two uniformed women around the same age as the officers in front and armed with the same weapons, but were socializing next to an armed hovercraft with a cover thrown over its bulging backend. Jaydi assumed the bulge was an energy cannon mounted to the back of the hover. Up in the tower was another officer, young but seemingly more experienced than the others. He was looking down at them while talking into a communicator. She looked back to the two officers who were now approaching their vehicle, rifles still a forgotten accessory, slung over their shoulders. The first was carrying a clipboard and wearing an earpiece, and he seemed to be listening to what the man in the tower was saying. This must be the first place new recruits are required to stand post, as no experienced officer was going to hang out in a remote area where nothing was happening. Jaydi relaxed, moving her hand away from her pistol. These kids were certainly geared up for an important event, but judging by their relaxed poses they weren’t planning on any action.
Bo smiled and raised his hand in greeting. Jaydi followed his lead, smiling politely. The officer with the earpiece walked to the pilot side of the craft while the other circled them, taking a good mental inventory at what was inside.
“Good afternoon,” the officer with the earpiece said without smiling. He stopped next to the glider and stared down at them with his best attempt at sternness. “First time in Tab Kabelac?”
Their story was simple enough, and easily verified. “Nope,” Bo told them. “I run a small landing port about twenty clicks from here.” He motioned to Jaydi, sitting quietly next to him, “I’m just driving her to her hotel.”
The officer stared blankly at Bo for a second before switching his attention to Jaydi. “And you, miss?”
“Yes, this is my first time here. I’m on vacation for a couple of days,” she said.
“Ok.” He scribbled something on his clipboard. The second officer seemed satisfied with his cursory visual check on their vehicle and nodded his consent before walking back to the gate. The first officer nodded back at him, then turned his attention back to the clipboard. “Your animal – I mean your dog.” He looked at them, slightly embarrassed. “Is it vaccinated?”
“Yep,” Bo smiled casually.
“Uh, ok,” the officer said, looking down at his clipboard for more questions. He read the form verbatim. “Did you land outside of the umbrella, on another landing dock or just a random area?”
He’s really new, Jaydi thought. His uniform hasn’t even been broken in yet. She smiled disarmingly. “I tried to land inside at the main dock, but there was some sort of traffic jam and I couldn’t get clearance. Instead, I was directed to another port outside of the umbrella.” The officer looked down at her, blinking. That response obviously wasn’t listed on his clipboard. She decided to try for some information. “Do you have any ideas about what’s going on?”
“Uh…” He seemed unsure about divulging information to civilians but continued anyway, “I’m not really sure. If you’ve been redirected outside, you’re probably not the only one it’s happened to. Some VIP is visiting today and it’s got all the ports backed up. Security’s been reinforced at all gates and inside the umbrella. They don’t really tell us what’s going on, just that we’re on high alert. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about though.”
“Well, that’s reassuring,” her voice said sincerely. Oh, that’s fantastic, her mind said sarcastically.
“Ok, I just need to see your ID’s for a minute, and then you’ll be cleared to go.” Jaydi and Bo produced their expensive, bogus identification keys, handing them to the officer as if it were as natural as breathing. The officer nodded. “I’ll be right back.”
They watched him walk back to the gate where the other officers were hanging out. Tough job, she thought. The officer disappeared inside the tower. After a minute he re-emerged, talking on his communicator to the man in the tower. He was looking in the direction of the glider as he spoke. Jaydi tensed, her hand moving to her hip where she kept her pistol.
“Relax,” Bo murmured.
The officer began walking back to the glider, apparently listening to further instructions. When he reached them, he looked to Jaydi. “Miss, I’m going to need you to come with me for a minute.”
The ID key she gave him was a brand new cover, and her first thought was that it didn’t check out. She tried to act normal, but her voice sounded slightly strained. Her hand was still resting on her hip. “Is everything all right, Officer?” She asked.
He nodded. “Yeah, you’re new to the planet, so we need you to sign a couple of forms, that’s all. Standard procedure. It should only take a minute.”
Her smile was probably a little more relieved than it should have been. “Of course,” she breathed. New recruits usually followed procedure to the letter. She climbed out of the glider and followed him back to the tower.
As they neared the gate, she noticed a strange track in the ground that she had not seen on previous visits. It looked as if it had always been there, but from a glider it wouldn’t be as noticeable. There were two metal rims in the ground, about two inches thick, running along the outside of the fence for as far as she could see. Between the metal rims was a thick translucent track, about four inches thick. It looked like a shield of some sort. The officer saw her looking down and confirmed her thoughts. “It’s a storm shield,” he told her. “It circles the whole umbrella area on the outside of the gate, but they’re broken up into sections. Each security gate has one, and they span about a hundred miles for each gate.” They reached the tower and he opened the door. “We get sand storms from time to time, so we raise these to protect the populated areas, in case the storm blows too far in. It’s highly unlikely because the Terra Unit would control it, but the government insisted on it anyway.”
Inside the tower were sparse accommodations. In the dim light she could see a small table up against the wall with a few chairs and a small filing cabinet. He handed her a few forms that the officer had courteously filled out for her with her false information. She signed them, including one that acknowledged the local and interplanetary laws.
“Ok, that’s it,” the officer said, handing back their ID keys. “Enjoy your stay.”
Her smile was catlike. “Thank you. I will.”
As she left the tower, the gate unlocked with a loud clang, sweeping slowly alongside the fence. Bo pulled the glider a little closer and Jaydi climbed back in. She handed Bo his ID key. “Let’s go,” she said. Bo nodded, grinned, and hit the thrusters.
Little else was said for the rest of the drive into the inhabited area, giving Jaydi time to mentally prepare for the Exchange. She had never negotiated an Exchange before, although she had accompanied Dowlas Brak to a majority of them over the past three years. Not that she had a large role to play at the meetings; Brak handled all negotiations, leaving her to satisfy the part of the Heavy. As she was not required to say anything, silence only reinforced her deadly guise and that suited her just fine.
A small knot formed in her stomach but she ignored it. Everything was going to go smoothly and quickly, she told herself. If anyone in their organization was capable of handling business in Brak’s absence, it was Jaydi. However, it wasn’t the Exchange that was bothering her – it was everything else. The Skipwing Proto couldn’t have come at a better time. In fact, it was almost too perfect…
“We’re here,” Bo said. “Before we go in, let’s take a quick look around.”
The Exchange was to be held along a strip of shops and restaurants over the lake. Vehicles were not allowed on the strip, so they would have to leave the glider and walk. The areas nearest to the strip were packed with parked transports, and Bo didn’t look happy about leaving the glider too far away.
“Who picked this place?” he asked irritably.
“Brak and the Customer decided on the location because vehicles can’t get near it. The Customer felt that it was a bit more neutral.” She lowered her voice. “Some deals have gone bad just because vehicles were allowed near the meeting site.” She really didn’t need to tell him that. He knew just as well as she did, considering the weaponry he had concealed aboard the glider.
Bo frowned. “Yeah…” He didn’t have to continue that thought. She knew he felt safer knowing that their escape was a little more accessible, but there was nothing they could do about it now.
Jaydi nodded. “Okay, we don’t have a lot of time. This has to happen as quickly as possible and then we need to get out of here.”
Bo glanced at her. “Nervous?”
“No,” she said. “But we aren’t exactly in any position to take our sweet time.”
“Yeah, I hear that,” he said. “We’ll make it. Don’t worry.”
They found a spot near the lake to park the glider, somewhat hidden behind a shop. Bo appeared satisfied about the location and powered the hover down.
Jaydi reached into the backseat for her bag and stepped out of the glider. She held the door for Max, who jumped over the seat and clambered out after her, tail wagging. “Oh, you’re coming too, are you?” She asked him.
Bo chuckled. “I don’t think you could get him to stay put, anyway.”
“Probably not,” she agreed, and checked her pistol again. Stepping out from behind the building, she scanned the parking lot. People were everywhere, and among the crowd she could pick out four uniformed officers. Turning back to the glider she caught Bo kneeling on the ground, grabbing something out from under the vehicle. When he stood, he was fastening a utility belt around his waist. In his hand were two narrow black sticks with a rubber grip in the middle, both about the length of his forearm. He slipped one up his sleeve, and the other, he handed to Jaydi.
“You know what to do with this?” He asked her.
She accepted it with a wry smile and slipped it into a narrow pocket along the inside of her pant leg. “Let’s go look around. Do you want to split up?”
Bo cast his eyes around the area, thinking. “No. We’ve already been seen driving in together.” He looked down at Max, who was sniffing the ground excitedly. “Let’s just go take the dog for a stroll, shall we?”
At this hour in the day, most of the sky was still a dark blue, even though the sun was melting into the lake. When the sun was gone, the second moon, known as the Dead Moon, would rise. Streaks of red and violet along the horizon cast their reflection into the water. Along the lake, an array of shops and restaurants stood on the far side of a wide, white walkway that separated the lake from a bombardment of commercialism. At one point the walkway split and arced out over the water. The shops followed it, packed together tightly on both sides of the ramp, their garish colors blaring out against the sky. Tourists were everywhere, and among them, police officers in their pristine, white uniforms were clearly visible.
They reached the walkway and followed the ramp out over the lake. The amount of people lessened farther out, and once they reached the end of the path, they turned around and began making their way back. A bar on their right with an open storefront and outdoor seating had a holo mounted in the corner for its patrons. It projected a woman who was forecasting beautiful, sunny weather for the planet all throughout the week.
“I thought you said a sandstorm was coming?” Bo said as they passed.
Jaydi shrugged and looked around. “Everything looks clear,” she said softly, and as soon as the words left her mouth, the wind changed direction and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She glanced behind them just as Max stopped in his tracks and stuck his nose in the air. A low growl sounded from his throat, just loud enough for Jaydi and Bo to hear. The sound brought her back around and her eyes met Bo’s. She cleared her throat signaling to split up, and they broke in two different directions. Bo turned sharply to the right, grabbing a table at the bar with the open storefront. From his vantage point, he could see in both directions of the path. Jaydi immediately turned to the souvenir shop on the left and began browsing the overflowing tables of tacky merchandise set outside. Nonchalantly, she made her way around the far side of the table, near the corner of the shop. There was just enough room between the buildings for her to squeeze through. Dropping the trinkets she was holding back onto the table, she stepped sideways into the space between buildings and glanced across the walkway to Bo, who was looking down the path in the direction that they had just come from. His eyes swept casually over the scene and met hers. He relaxed back into his chair and turned his head back to the direction that they had come from, toward the end of the pier.
Jaydi took two steps back and grabbed her pistol from under her jacket. Walking crab-like through the space between buildings, she wondered if there would be enough pathway for her to walk behind the shops or if it just dropped off into the water. Reaching the end, she brought her pistol up, ready. Leaning out into the area behind the buildings, she pointed her pistol to the left, checking for unwanted company, then to the right. It was empty. To her luck, there was about a half meter of walkway between the buildings and the edge of the ramp. She eased herself out from between the buildings and followed along, stopping to check between each of the buildings for whoever was following them. At about the seventh shop, she eased herself into the space between the buildings and made her way to the main street. Poking her head out, she glanced down at Bo, who was still sitting at the bar with Max lying at his feet. He was casually taking in the scene, as any tourist would, but then lingered just a little too long in her direction. Following his gaze, she saw him – a dark haired young man in a green jacket was standing on the other side of the path, two shops down from her, looking back and forth from Bo and Max at the bar to the souvenir shop where Jaydi had been. His back was to her.
Scanning the strip again, it seemed even emptier than when they first arrived. A police officer was heading her way, stopping to talk to a trolley attendant who was pulling his cart of miscellaneous trinkets through the center strip. Checking her pistol, she concealed it again under her jacket and waited for the trolley to reach her. It was only a few seconds wait. She stepped onto the main path, deftly making her way to the side of the trolley, being careful to stay out of view from the police officer and cart owner. A small group of people was passing along the other side of the trolley, heading in the direction of Bo and the man in the green jacket. Ducking out from behind the cart, she mingled into the back of the group and made her way to the other side without being seen. Just before she stepped into the pathway she nodded to Bo, who signaled a waitress for his bill. Backing into the path, she pulled out her pistol and rounded the corner to the back of the shop. It was empty, and she could feel an invigorating breeze coming off of the water. Her pistol ready, she poked her head around the corner and got a good look at the man… What in the hell? Groaning inwardly, she put her pistol back under her jacket. Somehow she wasn’t surprised, but she still didn’t like being spied on. Between modder groups there were unwritten rules of cordiality, one of them being that they didn’t spy on each other. Of course everyone did it anyway, but it was the first time this had happened during one of her Exchanges. She had to find out what made this one so special. Somehow she didn’t want to know, but right now what she wanted was irrelevant.
From her inside pant leg pocket, she pulled out the black stick Bo had given her earlier. Grabbing the rubber hand grip in the middle, she crept slowly, sideways down the narrow space between the buildings. Near the end now but still out of sight, she stepped silently behind the man in the green jacket. Without extending the rod, she flicked it on with a click and a low vibrating sound emitted. Surprised, the man whirled around.
“Hi,” Jaydi said, and touched the Shock Stick to his right arm. His arm went limp and she grabbed it, pulling him into the path with her. “Keep quiet or I’ll use this on the rest of you,” she hissed. He began to struggle, and she tapped the stick on his leg, numbing it instantly, causing him to fall forward, his leg dragging.
“Let go of me,” the man groaned.
She threw his arm across her shoulder, and pulled him sideways through the path. When they reached the end, she pulled him out of view of the narrow alley between the buildings and threw him down on the ground. The Shock Stick extended with a snap under his chin. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
The sound of footsteps echoed behind her, and she grabbed her pistol out, pointing it in the direction of the sound. It was Bo and Max. “So, who do we have here?” Bo asked, examining their guest.
Replacing her pistol into her jacket, she turned back to the man on the ground, who was trying to rub his arm back into effect. “I don’t know his name,” she told him, “but he’s with Toraki’s group. He hasn’t said what he’s doing here, but I can take a guess.”
Bo bent over him. Even for his age, he was an intimidating figure. “Well?” He asked.
The man swallowed and looked up at Jaydi. “If you take that thing out of my face, I’ll tell you.”
She nodded. “Fair enough.” With a snap, the stick contracted back into its compact form and she slipped it into the inside of her pant leg pocket. “Although if you don’t mind,” she said, pulling out her pistol, “I’m going to keep this handy, just in case you decide to get cute.”
The man coughed, and sat up on one arm. “My name’s Radcove. I was on vacation here, and saw you walking your dog. I recognized you and thought you’d want to get a drink–”
Bo shook his head. “Wrong.” He snapped his fingers. Instantly, Max was standing over the man, growling. His teeth were bared and his jaw dripped with saliva and foam.
“Okay stop, please,” Radcove pleaded. “I’ll tell you what you want to know.” Max was still standing over him, teeth bared. Bo didn’t make a move, but kept staring at the man. Radcove continued, his voice frantic, “You guys are in a lot of trouble. Your boss, Dowlas Brak – he’s gotten himself into a huge mess with the government. He stole some plans from the military and some people say he killed a guy to get them –”
“No way,” Jaydi said. “Brak wouldn’t kill anyone. He’s a businessman, not a killer.”
The man shook his head, staring up at Max’s bared teeth, “No, it’s true – they found him standing over the body of some government spy or something, and he had taken some top secret plans off of him. Then he took off. Now everyone’s after him.”
“A spy?” Bo snorted. “And what are you doing here, trying to get the plans back?”
“No, we know you weren’t trading the plans. I was supposed to go and get a good look at your Customer – would you please get your dog off of me?”
Bo stood there, thinking about it. After a moment, he called Max back to him. “Ok, so why are you checking out our Customer? That’s frowned upon between groups, you know.”
Sniffing, he sat up and proceeded to rub his leg. “We received a transmission outside of the Sanctioned. It wasn’t for us, really…”
“You hacked into it,” Jaydi offered.
“Yeah,” Radcove nodded. “We believe it was from your Customer. Only our boss, Toraki, and one other person heard whatever it was so I couldn’t tell you exactly, but it made them think that there was something wrong with your Customer.”
Bo frowned. “‘Wrong’?”
“Listen,” he told them. “Sometimes signals can be tracked and it’s possible to figure out approximately where they’ve come from and how far they’ve traveled.” When Bo and Jaydi nodded, he continued. “We think that signal came from the people you’re doing business with, and it originated somewhere deep in space of unknown origin.”
Jaydi frowned. “So?”
Radcove took a deep breath. “We think the signal came from somewhere deep in space, outside of the Sanctioned, outside of known space.” He took a deep breath. “We think it came from the Forbidden Region.”
Bo and Jaydi stared at Radcove for a brief moment, and then they both burst out laughing. “From the Forbidden Region?” Bo repeated.
“Yes. And there’s more: Transmissions are usually coded, and you can tell the difference between Ierki and human codes. Both codes are generally based on some form of complex mathematics, and different codes are usually just complex deviations of each other.” Radcove looked serious. “The transmission we received was coded on a completely unknown foundation. We’ve never seen anything like it. It was completely impossible to crack into.”
Jaydi stopped laughing and shook her head. “That doesn’t mean anything – so they’ve been able to come up with something new. And the Forbidden Region is outside of charted space. Ierki don’t even go out there. It’s so distant that anyone who was out there would take months – years maybe – to travel back and forth between it and the Sanctioned Planets. So even if we were dealing with someone who lived out there, what would it matter to us? They live so remotely that whatever they’re up to couldn’t possibly bother anyone.”
She stared again at Radcove, thinking. His explanation wasn’t right… or at the least, it was incomplete. She raised her pistol and pointed it in the man’s face. “So what, your boss is feeling socially conscious and wants us to do the right thing by not making the Exchange? I don’t buy it. Give me the real reason, Radcove, or I’ll end this conversation in a very unpleasant manner.”
“No, I’m serious – that’s why I was sent here.”
Bo grabbed Radcove by the jacket collar and pulled him up to his eyelevel. “And he sent you out here to spy on us, all by yourself? Do you really expect us to believe that?”
Radcove swallowed hard. “There was no one else to go – everyone else is out looking for your boss. There’s a huge bounty on his head now, you know. I was just supposed to watch and see who you were meeting with… and see if you wouldn’t join us.”
Bo dropped Radcove in surprise. “What? Join you?”
Radcove swayed, trying to regain his balance. “Yeah, face it – your boss is in a lot of trouble. If he’s caught, your group will be disbanded and some of you could be sent to prison. My boss sent me here to see if I could find you – you are Jaydi Tarin, right? Ever since you joined Brak’s group, you guys have been the leading modder group in the galaxy. We know how much of a help you’ve been to Brak, and my boss, Toraki, wants you to join us. Whatever Brak’s paying you, he’ll pay more. And if there’s anyone from Brak’s group that you can bring with you, they can come too. Your boss is going down for what he’s done, and he’s going to take you all with him. That is, unless you want to join us.”
Jaydi still hadn’t lowered her weapon. “Oh, and you think you can offer us some sort of protection? That’s amusing.”
“It’s a better chance than you’ve got now,” Radcove retorted. “You haven’t done anything yet, but if they catch you with Dowlas Brak after he’s brought those plans back, you could be in serious trouble.”
“And our Customer?” Jaydi asked coolly. “There must be a reason you want to take a look, and I’m sure it’s not for humanitarian reasons.”
Radcove shifted uneasily. “We were hoping that if you did come with us, you could give us all of the information on your Customer and we could take over the deal.”
Jaydi’s face remained impassive although her eyes blazed. So the real reason was money. It figured. Jaydi finally lowered her weapon and slipped it back under her jacket. “Well, Radcove, you can tell your boss straight from me that I’m not interested, and neither is anyone else in our group. And tell him that next time, he’s going to have to make up a better story.”
Radcove’s jaw dropped. “B-but –” he stuttered.
Her dark eyes bore into him. “Get lost. I had better not see you anywhere near this lake when I come out of the Exchange.”
Bo grabbed him by the back of the neck. “You heard her; we’re not interested. Now get moving.” He shoved him toward the narrow opening between buildings.
Radcove stumbled, glanced back at them one more time, and disappeared. Bo turned to watch him go, and followed through the opening, watching him walk down the path, toward the parking area.
When he returned, Jaydi was staring out at the lake, scratching Max behind the ears. “So, what do you think?”
Bo stopped next to her, gazing out across the water toward the last sliver of sun above the horizon. “It’s quite a story, but I don’t think we can completely dismiss it all.”
She looked at him. “Brak?”
Bo shook his head. “No, you were right about that – Dowlas Brak isn’t a killer. He’s a businessman. Something must have gone wrong, but I’m sure he didn’t kill anyone. He’s in trouble though, that’s for certain.” Jaydi raised an eyebrow at him and he verbalized her thought. “When is Dowlas Brak not in trouble?” He asked.
Smirking, she gazed back out across the water, wondering they should finish the Exchange and go find Brak, or follow his last order about Tango. “And what do you make of all that talk about the Forbidden Region?”
Bo shook his head and chuckled, “I have no idea what to think about that one. I suppose it’s possible, although highly unlikely. Still, I wouldn’t put it past anyone to try it. Although, why would you want to buy a bunch of small speeder type ships if you were living that far out?” He shrugged. “I guess that’s not for us to decide. The Customer orders and we deliver.” Bo turned toward the narrow path between buildings, Max following at his heels. “Let’s go.”
They slipped back on to the dim path, lit up by lighting from the shops. The commotion of people had died down with the sinking sun. They made their way to a small, dark restaurant at the halfway point over the lake, where Bo loosely tied Max to a post out front. The sun was gone and the Dead Moon had begun to rise. It was time.