Episode 5: Finally some payback

The Last Wayfinder – Episode 5: Finally some payback

Tess Davendry leaned her elbows on the table, glaring at me. Her dagger eyes told me she was still sore about our last encounter. Her crew fired on my ship and took Miri and Ryna hostage. That part she didn’t have an issue with. What she did take offense with was that I shot several of her men. Also that I bluffed her into thinking I was going to blow up her starcruiser if she didn’t let us go. The way I figured it, we were even.

A young lady in her mid-twenties walked up to our table, her short skirt hugging her legs. She set down a cup for me and one for Tess. Unstopping a cork, she poured both our glasses. The drink wasn’t the finest. But, then again, it was the best that this remote Bendune saloon could offer. The dim lighting and the muggy air allowed patrons to feel secluded. Bendune was a remote colony world with lots of moisture and not a lot of sunshine.

“You want me to leave the bottle?” she asked.

If this was going to be a fruitful conversation, quite a bit of lubrication would be needed. “Yes, please.” I dropped a few coins on the table. She snatched up the coins before leaving.

Tess ignored her cup. “You have a lot of gall to come crawling back to me.”

“How so?” I asked, not really wanting the answer.

“You deceived me!” she said, her face reddening.

I cocked my head to one side. “Well, you tried to sell me to Westward Galactic.”

“You threatened my ship.”

“You broke into mine.”

“You shot my men.”

“You kidnapped my passengers, intending to sell at least one of them.”

She pursed her lips. “I didn’t recognize it was you.”

“But you suspected,” I said.

“You never confirmed.”

I nodded. “…you’re right.”

She picked up her glass and took a drink. “You left me.”

I took a sip of mine. “That was a long time ago. Yan Davendry was going to sell me out to Westward Galactic.”

“My father would not have dared. A little posturing never scared you before, why did it then?”

I took another drink. “I hadn’t ever faced extermination before.”

She gulped down the contents of her glass. “Rence, you didn’t have to run. You could have worked the family business with me.”

I refilled her glass. “I would have had to renounce the vow I had made.”

She took another drink. “There wasn’t much chance of that, was there?”

I shook my head and drained my cup.

She relaxed in her chair and took another drink. “Why couldn’t things have been different between us?”

“I don’t rightly know,” I said, pouring myself another glass.

“Did you ever think about me?” she asked with sincerity in her voice.

My gaze dropped to the table. “I thought about you plenty. It haunted me enough to wish I would never see your face again.”

“In all the time since, did you ever replace me?”

I took a long drink. That question was difficult to answer. I fancied Miri but I also didn’t have any hopes of something more significant. Not while I was being hunted. The answer could go either way. But, then again, Tess may not have been asking a philosophical question. It was an indirect question that begged a direct answer.

She leaned forward with intense eyes. “You have!”

“Tess, I didn’t come here to discuss—”

“Oh no,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “If you want my help, then we are having this conversation.”

I set my glass down. “There have always been two ladies in my life, Tess. There always will be.”

“I’m not talking about your ship or your falcon, Rence, and you know it. Who is she?”

I couldn’t continue reasoning that I had two ladies in my life, not after Miri and Ryna came into it. Miri found the 10-year-old girl on the barren rock of Cosstere and simply wanted to return her to her parents. She knew she needed my help as a Wayfinder and that is what got me tangled up in this whole mess. That meant I now had four ladies in my life. Two of which drove me out of my comfort zone. Especially Ryna. She asked blunt questions that got me evaluating my life. In a way, I needed her as much as she needed me. Would Tess understand all this? Did I even understand it? It was best to just avoid the topic entirely.

I poured myself another glass. “Maybe it would be best if—”

“The woman on my ship,” she said triumphantly. “The one with the little girl.”

I slammed the bottle down on the table. “What, did you take up mind-reading?”

She smiled, rocking back on the legs of her chair. “So, what’s got you all sweet on her?”

And so the interrogation began. I sighed. Better to get it over with instead of wasting time fighting it. Tess had a way of getting what she wanted. I brought my glass to my lips but then set it back down. “I thought I knew,” I said. “I’ve known her for a few years. She would pay me to run passengers to Corbet IV. Somehow, she found out I fancied her when she wore her hair down. She would even wear her hair down whenever she really needed my help.”

“Smart woman,” Tess said, taking a drink.

“I thought that was why I was sweet on her. But when I lost her, I found myself missing the little things she did. The things that irritated me.” I shook my head. “But that doesn’t make much sense since a man shouldn’t want what irritates him. I don’t have the faintest idea why I fancy her. I have no reason to delude myself with thoughts about settling down with her.”

“Since when are you willing to settle down with anyone?” she asked, draining her glass.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said sullenly, drinking my whole glass. “My life is no good for her. She needs someone who isn’t hunted. Someone who can give her the life she deserves.”

“You’re more than sweet on her, are you?” she said, lowering the front legs of her chair to the floor. “You’ve fallen, haven’t you?”

“I wouldn’t jump to conclusions,” I said. “If you’d been listening—”

“I have been listening,” she said, setting her glass down. “You’ve fallen so far you can’t get up.”

She obviously hadn’t been listening to me. I was no good for Miri, that was the problem. And what did falling for Miri have to do with anything? This conversation needed to end. Either that or I was going to need another bottle. I rolled my eyes and opened my mouth to reply but she was quicker.

“When you were on my ship,” she asked. “Why didn’t you tell me it was you? Why did you try to hide your identity?”

I shrugged. “There are a lot of people that want to shoot me because of my name. I reckon I wasn’t sure if you had found yourself among them. We didn’t part ways on the best of terms.”

“I still might shoot you for that,” she replied.

“I’m hoping that won’t be necessary. You see, I didn’t come here as a beggar, but as an employer.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You have a job? I didn’t think your Wayfinder ethics would stoop to my level.”

“I never crossed the line, Tess. Westward Galactic had the line moved. I ain’t an outlaw because of what I done, but because of what I wouldn’t do.”

“And so you figure as long as you’re an outlaw, you might as well pull a job or two?”

I grimaced. “The job is yours. I got another goal while we’re there.”

“Which is?” she asked, refilling her glass.

I slid my glass over to Tess and she refilled it. “How much do you know about that little girl?”

“The Corporation has fifteen thousand on her head.”

“A big enough price to catch any eye,” I said.

“But it pales in comparison with yours,” she said with a grin, taking a drink.

“It’s only six thousand…unless it’s been increased.”

She took another gulp and set down her glass. “As of this morning, the price on your head is fifty-three thousand.”

I sat back in my chair, stunned. I saved up a lot of money to buy the Astral Princess and she cost eighteen thousand back in the day. At today’s price, I would have spent closer to twenty thousand. The price on my head was now large enough to buy the Princess two and a half times over and still have extra money. Someone wanted me real bad. And I had a pretty good idea of who. I had done a real number on Dr. Vik Lenish. The poor excuse for a human being wanted to dissect me because I was fascinating. He also expressed an interest in cutting open Ryna’s brain. I had given him a good thrashing in the hopes of changing his mind. Knocking sense into people, it appeared, also had a few side effects. A massive bounty being one of them.

“I reckon I ought to be flattered,” I finally said.

“And what’s to stop me from turning you in and collecting the bounty?” she said, eyeing me carefully. “This time, I know you don’t have a bomb on my starcruiser.”

I didn’t want to follow that line of conversation. Tess was more of a pragmatist than an idealist, so her motives would never be the same as mine. That was one reason I hadn’t gotten very close to her. Her life was one of business whereas mine was a life of trying to put things right.

“The bounty is a distraction, Tess,” I announced, shifting topics. “Westward Galactic took something from me and they’re scared I’ll come for it. Scare enough, it seems, to want every bounty hunter after me. And that’s why they’ll never see this coming.”

Tess stopped in the middle of taking a drink and instead put her glass back down. “What is it you’re planning?”

“I’m gonna pay Dentum Prime a visit.”

She stared at me, wide-eyed and mouth open. “You’re going to rob the most powerful bank in the sector?”

That, of course, wasn’t my main objective but that was an easy side-effect once I was inside. Besides financial records, the Corporation had a lot of other useful data. Ryna’s lab records would be among them. I needed to find out how they were tracking her. It would have been far easier to break into a laboratory computer on their lab ship. But that avenue had been foreclosed. This approach, at least, had the benefit of nobody considering it an option. That made them complacent. It also put me in a position to transfer funds from Westward Galactic to the Davendries. That should pay for their services and be more enticing than collecting the bounty on my head.

“As I said, Tess. The bounty is a diversion. Help me get into Dentum Prime. Then I’ll see to it the Corporation gives a generous donation to a Davendry hedge account. Fifty-three thousand ought to seem like beans in comparison.”

She sat there in thought long enough for me to finish my glass twice more. “What if it doesn’t work?” she finally asked.

“They mean business on Dentum. If it doesn’t work, you won’t have to worry about shooting me.”

“How do I know I can trust you? You are a very good liar.”

“You know you can trust me. If anything, I should be worried about you.”

She smiled, pouring the last of the bottle into her glass. “When do we start?”

“I have some recon I need to do. I’ll contact you tomorrow night.”

It would have been nice to have left that conversation confident this would all work. As it was, I was lucky she decided to go along with it. Only time would tell if my luck would hold out. I made my way back to the Princess. I had already resupplied her and finally got around to fixing that squeaky hatch. Miri had mentioned that squeak a time or two. I hoped she would be happy it was fixed when I got her back.

I had deposited Petre and Carol, Ryna’s ‘parents’, in a little village on Bendune. It was safe for them there and I needed them out of my hair while I was dealing with the Davendries. Petre and Carol were very smart but they asked a lot of questions. That curious nature may have made them smart, but it always kept me explaining why I do things the way I do them. This job would be a lot easier on my own. I would return for them once I had what I needed.

I flew the Princess to Velios Arcturos. Velios was a backwater data installation built on the surface of a dead rock hurdling around a cold star. The only amenities it had to offer was solid ground to stand on. Velios’s true value was in its position in the galactic arm. Its location extended the Corporation’s galactic network to the new frontier. That was good for them and excellent for me. It meant I had a miniature scale version of the computer systems I would encounter on Dentum Prime. Not to mention, the security systems and personnel training as well. It was ideal for a trial run.

It was too cold for Lady to be out in the low temperatures for long. I wouldn’t have that obstacle on Dentum but it was a tribulation at the present. I got out of my chair and picked up Lady from her perch. I stroked her feathered head. “I guess we get to test out that vest I made for you last year.”

Lady squawked.

I brought her over to the machining table and picked up a small bundle of cloth. It was made of Yatikan wool with a little poly-synth weave to make it stretchable. I fumbled with it for a few minutes until I successfully put it on Lady. She didn’t care much for it, it cramped her style. She would have to tolerate it, though; I couldn’t risk exposure. Not only did I need her, but with the loss of Miri and Ryna, she seemed like the last friend I had. It wasn’t true, of course, but that is how it felt.

“Come, Lady. Let’s see what we’re up against.”

Exiting the ship, I stepped into the still and frozen landscape. Lady took to the air and I snapped on my tactical mask. Lady loved reconnaissance. She seemed more at home during a recon flight than anywhere else. I pressed a button on my wristband, switching my eyesight to see Lady’s vision. The data facility was just over the next ridge. It was a fairly small structure with many satellite dishes and rectennae. Seven guards actively patrolled the perimeter with another guarding the door. That was a good sign. If the ratio held, Dentum’s perimeter guard force would outnumber their internal one. That made it tough to get inside, but it also meant, that once I was inside, I had less to deal with.

 I hiked through the frozen rocky terrain, thankful for the lack of a chilly breeze. The icy blue rocks and the dull blue sun overhead gave the landscape a picturesque mystery about it. It was about as removed from Cosstere as could be and yet it held a few similarities. Both worlds denied you of water as best they could and both hid their flora and fauna very well. Velios was an icy desert and Cosstere was a blistering one.

I crested the second ridge and peered into the valley beyond. There would be several perimeter guards in overlapping patrols. To time the approach, I was going to need a little help from Lady. I descended the frigid ground, careful not to send bits of icy rock tumbling to the valley floor. Once at the bottom, I switched my vision to electromagnetic and scanned the scene. In most high-security facilities I would see perimeter electronic security. But this place had none. Either it was too new to warrant the extra expense or the chilly environment made it unnecessary. Either way, that was good news for me.

I switched my eyesight to one eye with Lady’s vision and the other eye to my normal vision. With one eye in the sky, I could time my crossing. And that would be important here. The timing of their patrols made what I was attempting difficult without being seen. If they had doubled the number of guards, it might have been impossible. But, as with all budgeting decisions, it looked like they went with second-best.

Waiting for the opportune moment, I dashed across the perimeter and over to a nearby building. Pressing myself against the building, I peered around the corner. The lone guard stood by the outer door, shivering. I wouldn’t want that guy’s job. I tapped a button on my wristband and Lady swooped down to the ground, snatching up a rock in her talons. She flapped back up into the sky, soaring overhead. The chill of the rock in her talons would not be appreciated, so I intended to use it quickly.

I pressed a button on my wristband and Lady released the rock. It tumbled through the air and clattered against the frosty ground. The noise stole the guard’s attention. The moment he started walking toward the fallen rock, I rounded the corner with a casual stride. It was perfectly timed. I reached the door as his back was turned, still scanning the ground in front of him for what had made that sound. I switched my vision to infrared to see if any body heat was behind the door. Seeing no body heat signatures on the other side, I opened the door and stepped through.

The brightly lit data center was mostly automated. There were only a few computer stations for the necessary human work that the facility needed. I would make good use of them. I walked over to the farthest computer station. I chose the farthest because I wanted some reaction time in case of interruption. The computer was the standard Ballkean model but the software was much newer. This I didn’t like. It meant I would have a few surprises. And surprises were not the most helpful in this situation. I switched my eyesight back to normal; I would need all my concentration.

I cursed in my head as I fumbled around with the security login. My usual tricks didn’t work. And I only had a few remaining attempts before I would trigger a lockout, denying anyone access. I pulled out my decryptor from my coat pocket. It was a clunky little gadget that sometimes came in handy when my usual tricks failed. I couldn’t remember where I picked it up, but it cost me three months’ wages to get it. I touched it to the terminal box and listened to it hum. I didn’t like using it much because it involved a lot of waiting without much idea of what was happening. When the cycle was complete and it beeped, either you were in the system or you were again denied.

The decryptor beeped. I put it away, cursing. Their security was more than what I had prepared for. Needless to say, this was not a good sign. It meant Dentum would be anything but a walk in the park. All the hassle of getting inside the facility would be worthless if I couldn’t access the system. Unfortunately, I would have to try again another day. I was out of resources and Lady’s temperature would be dropping in the cold air.

I retreated to the door, switching my eyesight back to infrared. The guard had given up on Lady’s rock and returned to guarding the door. The simplest method for my retreat would be to open the door and knock out the guard. But, if I wanted to try this again, it would be best if my presence here was unnoticed. I tapped a button on my wristband and Lady picked up another rock. This time she dropped it a little closer. The guard drew his blast pistol and carefully approached the fallen rock.

I slipped out the door and back to the outer wall of the building. After slipping past the perimeter patrols, I made my way back to the Princess. Lady seemed happy to be back in the warm cockpit. I sat back in my chair, wondering how to defeat such an advanced security system. While it was true that I was handy with a computer, I was by no means an experienced hacker. I needed to think up another angle. I remembered an old saying from my mentor: Sometimes the best way in is from the side. It was a phrase he used often when he needed to think outside the box.

I would have to think more on that later; I needed to get back to Bendune to meet up with Tess. I put the Princess on autopilot while I got myself some shut-eye. I wanted to be well-rested before meeting up with Tess. She had a clever mind but she was also prone to looking for ways to get more of what she wanted out of a situation. It was part of what made her an effective pirate but it also caused trouble for me. I needed to be alert. I landed the Princess and refueled her before sending a message to Tess. This time we were to meet aboard her starcruiser.

The rendezvous was uneventful, her crew had already been informed of our partnership. Though, some of the men still looked at me with wary eyes. I didn’t blame them. Mauv gave me a wide berth. He was the one I didn’t shoot last time. I was escorted up to the bridge of the starcruiser and then off to a ready room at the side. Mauv showed me to a chair and I sat down.

“Long time, no see,” I said to him.

He looked at me nervously.

I chuckled. “You don’t gotta worry about me. We’re on the same side this time.”

“You…you a Wayfinder, ain’t you?”

“Well, what do you think?”

“You’re awful fast on the draw, mister. But I don’t know much else Wayfinder could do.”

I nodded. “Fair enough.”

“What did Wayfinders do?” he finally asked.

I smiled. “Well, there’s an old saying; Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You familiar with it?”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

“Well, I guess you could say that Wayfinders always have the will.”

Tess stepped into the room dressed as a Corporation security guard. I must have been staring because she burst out in laughter. “Well?” she asked.

“It fits like you had it custom tailored,” I replied. “The shoulder patch indicates you are from regional security. The collar pin suggests an investigational unit. And you cut your hair to chin length. I’m guessing there’s a reason for that?”

“Very good,” she appraised. “I would rather not have cut my hair. But this is what is allowed by the current regulations for the rank I’m posing as.”

“Extremely attentive to detail, as always,” I said, tipping my hat.

“What have you learned from your reconnaissance?” she asked.

I looked away from her. “…that their computer system is practically blast-proof.”

She frowned. “Well getting us inside will do no good if you can’t hack into the system.”

“You would be correct,” I said, leaning back in my chair.

“But you have a plan, right?”

I looked at her. “I have half a plan.”

“Half a plan?” she said, eyeing me disapprovingly.

I nodded. “I have figured out a way to get past the security,” I said.

Her eyes narrowed. “I hear a ‘but’ coming.”

“But it will need a lot more creativity.”

“We were only supposed to get you inside. Now you want us playing a much bigger role?” she complained.

“I admit it isn’t my first choice. But beggars can’t be choosers.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “That bounty on your head is looking a lot more appealing than bluffing our way through this.”

I forced a smile. “Now, now, Tess. There’s no need to go throwing insults. With your attention to detail and my way with words, we’ll have this job finished as quick as you can crack a whip.”

She pursed her lips. “I don’t like going off script.”

“You’re a careful one, I’ll give you that. But I don’t reckon you’ll need much worry. People are much more predictable than computers.”

“You had better be right about this,” she warned. “‘Cause if it backfires, I’m selling you out.”

“I aim to make that threat obsolete.”

Our discussion lasted a bit longer, discussing details of positioning and timing. Tess had a knack for precision. When she wanted something to go down a certain way, she made sure it only could go down that one way. That was her strength. Her weakness was in improvisation. Her perfectionism wasn’t very flexible in evolving a story to suit the circumstances. That was my specialty. My Wayfinder mentor had told me as much.

I stood to leave and Tess caught my arm. “We could have made such a great team, why couldn’t things have been different?”

I shrugged. “I reckon fate had other plans. Only time will tell if it was for the best or not.”

I left there wondering what my life would have been like had I never left. What if I hadn’t had to leave and had wanted to work alongside Tess? Several scenarios flashed across my mind. I could have been a robber baron and a powerful man within the Davendries. Or could I have been? That kind of life was not the way of a Wayfinder. The code I had sworn to didn’t allow much flexibility. And then my mind caught hold of Miri. I would never have met her. My heart grew heavy. I swallowed back a lump in my throat. My stomach felt empty. I would never have met Miri.

Miri was a good woman. Sure, she got us tangled up in this whole mess. But it was because her nurturing instincts were to help a lost, lonely ten-year-old girl. She had compassion and she wasn’t afraid to ask for help. My mind replayed the memory of her before we ran into that Kuda. She had flashed that playful smile of hers when she asked me if I wanted to come shopping with them. Everything about Miri was on the up and up. She was honest and playful without deceit. There was no question on whether I would have to lower my standards with her. If anything, I’d have to raise them. My mind could have played a thousand scenarios of what could have been with Tess. And they all would have paled in comparison to being with Miri.

I needed to get her back. I spent the rest of that night thinking up plans and counter-plans. Breaking into Dentum was the one way I had to get Miri back. And I was as sure as shooting going to do my very best.

We waited another three days to begin the job. Tess had said the timing would coincide with another reason for her to make their appearance. I didn’t pretend to understand what she was talking about. She was meticulous in everything she planned. So, I trusted her.

I arrived on Dentum Prime a day early. Lady needed the flight time to get used to the area and to get her jitters out. I didn’t have to tell her we were doing a mission, she seemed to sense from me when we were beginning a mission. She would get a little jittery and hyper-focused. We sat in a large Gulgam tree overlooking the jungle ridge and the massive data facility in the valley. The darned thing was as large as a big city. It had sections for worker housing and a commercial district. At least a dozen landing pads were scattered throughout the compound. Large satellite dishes and transmission towers rose above the steel and concrete buildings. The gentle rain made a partial rainbow arc through the grey cloudy sky.

The hot muggy air collected moisture around everything, including me. It was like stepping into a room after someone had just taken a shower. I wasn’t sure how people could stand the weather. I would much rather take the dry desert heat any day of the week. The humidity did make everything green but if I had to live on this planet, I’d be afraid of myself turning green.

I turned to Lady. “It’s showtime.”

She leaped from my arm like an arrow from a bow. She glided overhead and off into the distance. I fastened on my tactical mask and switched my eyesight to see what Lady saw. Hundreds of security personnel patrolled around the ten-foot-tall outer wall of the city. Four or five airships zoomed overhead, patrolling the air space. Carol was right about needing an army to break in. I hoped I was also right about only needing a really good diversion.

I didn’t have to wait long before I saw two large shuttles on the horizon. Tess was punctual. The airships diverted from their search patterns and moved to intercept the shuttles. Many security personnel abandoned their patrol routes. They swarmed to the east side where Tess’s shuttles were approaching. That thinned out the security line quite well.

I crept down close to the city wall, still a few paces from it. Hiding in all the thick foliage was probably the one redeeming factor to this damp planet. It sure offset my annoyance with those pesky insects buzzing around my ears. I should have brought my gloves. They would have kept me from needing to swat so many bugs that landed on my hands. Had I thought through a few more details, I might have looked into a local bug spray. The trouble with bug repellent was that you had to find some that were locally made. A spray might repel bugs on one planet but cause bugs on another planet to swarm. A part of me wished it would rain harder. Perhaps that would keep those insects at bay.

I waited for the next patrols to pass while also paying attention to what Lady could see on the other side of the wall. It was tricky timing it right to be clear on both sides. I had waited a good ten minutes before I found my window of opportunity. I jumped with my enhanced knees, soaring overhead the patrols, and clearing the wall. My aim was off a little. I landed on a tree on the other side. I had hoped to miss hitting that tree. The loud crack of the breaking branch echoed in the alley. I wasn’t worse for wear, but I practically announced my entrance. I dashed over to a nearby building and used my enhanced knees to leap to the top of the building.

I crouched low, keeping out of sight from the street. It also lowered the profile that could be seen from the airships above. Lady landed on the ledge beside me. “Good girl,” I said, stroking her feathered head. “Now let’s find the data center.”

She flew off, soaring around overhead all the buildings. The data center stood tall in the center of the city-sized compound. Large transmission towers and power generators loomed high, casting shadows over smaller buildings. The sprawling population cluttered the streets and most alleys. It was difficult to find an opening to jump to the next rooftop without attracting attention. So, instead, I let myself down to the ground and made my way as close to the data center as I could. The guards around the data center were sparser than outside the city. They stood watch over all the entrances.

It was time to see if I could get in the same way I had on Velios. The trouble here was that there weren’t a whole lot of rocks or debris. Mud and vegetation were the primary decorations nature had afforded it. On the bright side, this facility was like a large city, so it stood to reason that it had the same ailments as a major city. I pulled a coin from my pocket and tossed it to the ground. It clinked on the cobblestone street below.

The guard turned his head toward the sound but did not move from his post. I shook my head. These guards were disciplined. I hadn’t seen much of that in my time. Most guards were bored out of their minds and easily distracted. Which, admittedly, I was counting on. I couldn’t risk them raising the alarm and locking down the data center. That would make things a whole lot more complicated. I needed an easy way in. The trouble was that I was running out of options. It looked like the only way to avoid making a scene was to create one deliberately. I took out another coin from my pocket and casually strolled out across the damp sidewalk. As I passed by, I threw the coin. It nailed him in the forehead.

He glared at me with a shocked expression.

I smiled wide and offered him a rude hand gesture in return.

His discipline kept him at his post despite my behavior.

Whatever training those guards received was pretty good. But at least I was pushing the man’s buttons. He grew red in the face as I described to him what I thought of his mother, followed by another coin to the face. He bolted after me like a starved dog let off its chain. I ran back down the alley and around the first corner. I jumped with my enhanced knees, pulling myself up onto the roof. Dashing back across the roof, I headed toward the door the man was guarding. I dropped from the roof in front of the door and attempted to let myself in. The door was locked and required a keycard for the entrance. That was also something different from Velios.

I hadn’t brought anything with me to override the electronic lock. What I brought was to hack into the computer system. I also didn’t have time to go back to the Princess to get one. I never would have dived into something like this with so little preparation a few years ago. I must have been loosing my edge. I considered kicking in the door, but I decided against it. When the guard would return from chasing me he would notice a damaged door and raise the alarm. I needed a fast way inside. I jumped back onto the roof.

There was a roof access door that I could exploit. It had the telltale signs of being wired up to an alarm system, so I couldn’t simply break in. This would need more precision. At least with the airships occupied by Tess’s shuttles, I didn’t have to worry about being seen just yet. I tapped a button on my wristband, switching my eyesight to electromagnetic. The wiring ran deep through the concrete but was exposed at one small discreet spot.

I pulled out my boot knife and stabbed the cable. The electrical signal still ran to the door alarm. They must have a backup power line, I thought. After examining the electromagnetic signal a moment or two, I saw it. A wireless electrical receiver was built into the door alarm. That would require a little more ingenuity. The good news was that they employed both a wired power connection as well as a wireless one. That meant I could send a power surge through the wired cable to short out the wireless power receiver.

I hated monkeying with what made my heart tick. But desperate times called for desperate measures. I unbuttoned my shirt and opened up my chest panel. I extended the red and white wire and touched it to the exposed alarm wire I had cut.

Every muscle in my chest instantly tensed up and I lost my breath. It was like I had the wind knocked out of me. I dropped to the ground, gasping for breath and feeling my pulse. My heart was beating quickly but at least it was still ticking. Let’s not try that again, I thought. I was not much use to anyone dead. I closed my chest panel and buttoned up my shirt. Climbing to my feet I noticed the door alarm was dead. At least I succeeded in shorting it out. I switched my eyesight back to normal and proceeded to kick the door in.

Two solid kicks with my enhanced knees folded the door in on itself. I never did like metal doors. They didn’t break, they only bent. I slid past the damaged door and descended the stairs into the server room. That room was an engineering marvel. Rows upon rows of server computer hardware created a maze of walkways. They were lined with running cables and flashing lights. The steady cool and dry atmosphere was carefully controlled. It maximized the lifespan of the equipment. Redundant power generators lined a wall with four small computer stations. The labyrinth of computer servers was intimidating, but it would serve my purposes. The larger the equipment footprint, the longer it would take them to find my tampering.

I picked a server rack at random and patched in the compu-transceiver I prepared for the mission. It was able to send and receive massive amounts of data in a short time. It had a limited range, so I would have to do the dirty work before I left Dentum. All that was left, was getting past the security system to gain access. Once I had access, I would be able to transmit Ryna’s file to the Princess. I would also be able to transfer a lot of money to the Davenry’s hedge account that Tess had given me.

I made my way to the workstations and sat down. I pulled out my decryptor and attached it to the computer. It ran a few cycles and then beeped at me. It wasn’t a surprise that it had failed. It had failed back on Velios. My plan to beat the security system was a little juvenile but it was the only option I could think of.

The door to the back of the room burst open and seven armed guards swarmed in, surrounding me with guns drawn. One of the guards, who wore a gold rank pin, pointed his blast pistol in my direction. “Reach for the sky, Wayfinder scum.”

How did he know I was a Wayfinder? That hadn’t been common knowledge. As far as they should have known, I was just a common criminal that had come to steal data. Unless…unless Tess had told them. And if Tess told them, that would explain how they knew where I was. At least I could still keep my confidence in my alarm cutting skills. It would have been a real shame if I had almost electrocuted myself on the roof for nothing. I slowly raised my hands in the air.

Two guards confiscated my blast pistols and hauled me from the room. They wasted no time in dragging me to the security office. Once inside, they took my mask off. The security office had monitors along the walls and several computer stations. A blast rifle rack hung on the far wall. They sat me down at a circular table in the middle of the room.

Tess sat across the table from me. “Long time, no see, Rence,” she said in a triumphant voice.

“Not long enough, apparently,” I said.

She glanced over to the security guard with the gold pin. “Hanley, how far did he get into the system?”

Hanley gave a smug smile. “He was trying to cut into the system with this,” he said, tossing my decryptor onto the table.

“Please be careful with that,” I said. “It ain’t cheap.”

Hanley leaned in close to me. “You’re in a lot of trouble, mister. Westward Galactic doesn’t take kindly to people breaking and entering.”

“I’ll remember that next time,” I said.

“What makes you think there will be a next time?”

I forced a smile. “Well, I’ll tell you what,” I said. “Since I already got what I came for, I’ll give it back to you in exchange for letting me go.”

“You don’t have anything!”

“Are you sure he didn’t get inside the system?” Tess said with concern in her voice.

He shot a glance at her. “Yes! He was sitting at a terminal and caught at the login screen.”

“You idiot! He’s a Wayfinder, he doesn’t need to log in!”

Hanley rushed over to a computer screen and examined the statistics. “No suspicious transmission, no anomalous data processes. He didn’t get anything.”

He was right, of course. I hadn’t been able to get inside the system yet. But that wasn’t the point. The point was that he needed to believe that I had. So, I snickered. I snickered loud, hoping it would catch Hanley’s attention.

Hanley glanced at me, worry in his eyes.

“Log into the system and make sure,” Tess ordered.

Hanley punched his password into the computer and pulled up the database. He examined the screen a moment before sighing with relief and logging out. “No data has been extracted or modified to exceed normal baseline use.”

He turned around and looked at me with contempt in his eyes. “You’re a very good liar, but a poor hacker.”

“There will be no more tomorrows for you, Rence,” Tess said. She looked over to Hanley. “Assemble a firing squad.”

My eyes lit up. “What?”

Had she gone crazy? Was this her idea of improvising? Or was this her plan all along? My breathing became shallow and my heart raced.

“I’ll get one put together in twenty minutes,” Hanley replied, leaving the room.

“You are too dangerous to keep alive,” Tess explained. “Besides, the price on your head does not specify that you have to be alive.”

I looked around the room. The guard to the left of me was the one who had taken my blast pistols. He held them in one hand. The one to my right held my mask. Getting my guns and mask back would be easy if they didn’t have two more guards with blast pistols pointed at me. I would never be able to get out of my chair before they shot me, to say nothing about taking care of the guards. The timing wasn’t yet right. I needed to wait a little longer.

“That’s funny,” I said. “Being a Wayfinder was what always kept me alive.”

“Then it is a poetic irony that it should be the cause of your death,” Tess said.

I really needed to stop getting captured. It seemed everyone wanted me dead one way or another.

Hanley stepped back into the room. “The firing squad is being assembled as we speak.” He turned to me. “A fitting death for the last Wayfinder, don’t you think?”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said honestly. “I kinda fancied old age myself.”

“Second-rate filth such as yourself have no right to expect to live that long,” Hanley said with a sneer.

I rolled my eyes at him. “You obviously don’t know much about Wayfinders, do you?”

“I know all I need to know,” he snapped.

“For example,” I said. “A Wayfinder would never stoop to becoming rent-a-cop in a monkey suit.”

Hanley’s nostrils flared. He punched me square in the face. My head was thrown to the side and my cheek throbbed.

“We’re also fast on the draw,” I said, pretending to ignore his punch.

He punched me again. The force of the hit scooted my chair to the side. Blood ran down the corner of my mouth. My jaw throbbed as much as my cheek.

“Yeah, I’ve heard you guys are fast with a gun,” Hanley declared. “Well, you ain’t got your guns now, do you? So, you’re gonna have to take every hit I give you.”

“No, I don’t, actually.”

He feigned surprise. “Oh really? And why is that?”

“He’s taunting you,” Tess warned.

I shot a glance over to Tess. “I don’t have to taunt him. He already knows he’s chicken-hearted soldier-wanna-be playing dress-up.”

Hanley pulled me out of the chair and held me against the nearby wall. “What makes you think you can sit there, throwing insults at me? Without your guns, you’re just a measly punk.”

I smiled at him. “It doesn’t have to be my gun.”

He glanced down as I grabbed his gun and shoved him back into a guard. The guard dropped my mask and fell backward also. I spun, dropping to one knee, and fired at the guard behind me. His shot knocked my hat off and mine tore into his stomach. I fired another shot into the guard next to him. I dove toward him and ripped my pistols from his hands before he fell to the floor.

Hanley had rolled off the other guard and drew his blast pistol. They both opened fire on me. I dove to the ground like a baseball runner sliding into home plate; only I was sliding out the open door. As I slid out the doorway, I grabbed my hat and mask from off the floor. Once in the hallway, I glanced back through the door and saw Tess on the other end of the table. I took a shot at her but she ducked, letting my blast bolt sail over her head and blacken the wall behind her.

I scrambled to my feet and punched the button on the wall to close the door to the security office. After the door slid closed, I smashed the door controls with the butt of Hanley’s blast pistol. I felt really good about shutting them up in that room. There is one downside to locking them in the office, I thought. The overhead lights turned red and an alarm blared. And that would be the downside. I planted my hat on my head and clamped my mask in place.

I took off running back down the hallway that they had dragged me, making my way back to the server room. I slid around the corner only to see guards coming out of the server room. I needed a new exit strategy. Unfortunately, I had run so fast that I couldn’t stop myself in time. I slid toward the guards and landed on my backside as they started shooting. The blast bolts sailed over my head. I fired Thunder and Lightning, my twin blast pistols. I dropped three guards as the rest retreated down the hallway in panic. That wasn’t the most elegant of shootouts but it worked.

I scrambled into the server room and shut the door. I slid a computer desk in front of the door to block it off. For good measure, I tipped a metal cabinet onto the desk. That would hold them for a while. But with the alarm going off, I would soon have to worry about the airships outside. They would be descending upon the building.

I sat down at a computer station and typed in the password I saw Hanley use. It worked. I was in. I pulled up all files on project Osurious and started the upload to the Astral Princess’s computer. I then spend the next five minutes moving money around in their system. It was tempting to take some money for myself, but that would be dirty money. If I needed money I would fly passenger transport again. It was slow but it was honest work. Though, one might say what I was just doing was the opposite of honest work. I figured I would have time to justify it later when I wasn’t being shot at. Even though I didn’t know where all my activities fit into my standards, I at least had standards.

I was about to leave when a thought crossed my mind. What good would it do me to learn how they are tracking Ryna if they were still able to track her? Was there anything I could do about it? I checked the upload with the Princess. The records had finished uploading. There was something I could do about it. I hit the delete key. A warning message flashed up on the screen asking me if I was sure I wanted to erase the files on project Osurious. I hit “yes”. The computer system began purging the files from the database.

I ran up the stairs to the roof but stopped short of exiting the stairwell. An airship was hovering over the building and had extended a rope ladder. Armed guards were climbing down onto the roof. I pulled out a detonator from my coat pocket and pressed the center button. That gave me nine seconds before it blew. I waited five seconds before dashing out the door onto the roof. Guards from the hovering airship began shooting at me. I tossed the detonator into the air at them. It exploded in mid-air. The blast blew the ship back, causing several guards to fall off the rope ladder. I wasted no time diving off the edge of the building.

More airships descended on me like vultures, shooting their blast cannons at me. The blasts made potholes in the cobblestone streets. The explosions of the cannon fire into the street sent up dirt into the muggy humid air. Small pieces of rubble flew at me from behind, stinging my skin whenever I got struck. I dove for cover down an alley and the airships passed by overhead, turning around for another pass. I bolted back down the street toward the outer city wall.

People all around shouted and pointed at me and the ensuing ruckus. When I got near the city wall I jumped with my enhanced knees and cleared the wall, landing with a loud thud. My enhanced knees absorbed much of the shock, for which, I was grateful. But, I was not grateful for the muddy splash of water that my landing sent up into my face. I tore my mask off, feeling the sandy grit in my teeth. I continued running into the dense bug-infested forest. The airships continued shooting wildly, blasting trees and foliage into the air.

I pressed a button on my wristband to call Lady, in case she wasn’t already following me back to the Princess. It still took me a while to race back to the Princess even though I was sprinting most of the way. It wasn’t exactly how I had planned to leave Dentum, but at least I was alive. Once aboard, I started the launch sequence and lifted off without losing a moment.

Lady squawked at me from her perch beside my chair.

“Yeah, you’re tellin’ me,” I replied. “It hasn’t been this cray in years.”

I flew up into the atmosphere with several airships in pursuit. The airships would follow as far as they could, but they couldn’t leave the atmosphere. And, as it turned out, they didn’t have to. Three starcruisers started shooting their blast cannons at me once I left orbit. I hadn’t seen them when I arrived. They may have been patrolling on the other side of the planet.

I pushed the Princess’s throttle to maximum, steering erratically to dodge their fire. I took a couple of hits to the aft quarter of the ship but thankfully nothing was hit that hindered my escape. The Princess was fast and she was fast for a reason. That was one of the many things I loved about the Norgon-class transports. They chased me halfway across the solar system before I outran them.

I set the Princess to autopilot and leaned back in my chair, breathing heavily. My lungs felt like they were on fire and my leg muscles were sore. I reached over and stroked Lady’s feathered head. “I might be getting a bit old for this kind of thing.”

I laid my head back and darn near fell asleep before my console beeped at me. It was an incoming transmission. I pressed the button on the little screen. It blinked and then showed a video image of Tess.

She smiled. “Well done, Rence. My father is going to be pleased with the size of the donation Westward Galactic just gave us.”

I crossed my arms. “Firing squad?”

She gave me half a smile. “I had to make it convincing.”

“Convincing?” I said with dismay. “You already got him to type in his password, why did you need to be more convincing?”

“Oh come on,” she said winking. “You have to admit, it was convincing enough for you.”

“It looked to me like you decided to collect on my bounty instead of our agreement!” I said.

“If you thought I was double-crossing you, then why did you transfer the money?”

I paused a moment. I knew why. And somehow, I thought she would have known as well. “Because I always keep my word, Tess. Don’t you know that?”

She paused a moment. “Anyway, I’m glad I was right about you.”

I rubbed my forehead. “And what exactly were you right about?”

“You were born to do this kind of work,” she said with sincerity. “Come and work with me, Rence.”

I couldn’t think of a polite way to say that I’d sooner dance on my mother’s grave. I instead resorted to a slight change of the subject. “Tess, I gave my word to Miri that I would go back for her. And I always keep my word. I got people counting on me and a score to settle. Until then, I can’t set any other plans for the future.”

Her face was calm and collected. The kind of face that could hide a dozen emotions. But her eyes betrayed her. Her eyes hinted at a sense of rejection. The same look was in her eyes the day I left her years ago. This time, however, I was not leaving because I had to. This time I was leaving because I chose to. Every time I thought about what kind of life I could have had with Tess, my mind kept circling back to Miri. I didn’t know Miri as long as I had known Tess, but what I did know was that I wanted to be my best self when I was around Miri.

“Then I’ll see you around,” she said.

I tipped my hat. “See you around.”

Read earlier episodes on Wattpad

What do you think about the Rence’s history with Tess? Let me know in the comments below.

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