By Patrick Hester
© 2010 All Rights Reserved
Cord Cahill’s eyes widened when the image of the solar system he was navigating through was replaced by his sister’s face. Katie looked older than he remembered her; dark auburn hair, pulled back from her narrow face by a pair of faded blue ribbons, had lightened in the ten years since he’d seen her last, there were a few lines around her dark eyes and thin lips and her cheeks had sunk in and hollowed. He knew as well as anyone that life on the frontier was hard and took its toll, still, it surprised him to see how much his little sister had aged.
“Cord,” she said. Her voice sounded weary. “If you’re seeing this message, it means that I have died. I’m sorry to be so abrupt about it, but you were never one to linger over the difficult things.” His breath caught in his throat. Dead. Their mother had always said Katie would outlive them all. Cord always assumed that would be the case. “I had a feeling this day might come sooner rather than late, so I took the precaution of making this video for you. With Uncle Bobby gone, and you and Matt off world, I put all of momma and poppa’s things in storage with Mister Bogg and paid for near on two years just in case you can’t get here anytime soon. Or you can have him ship them wherever you might be. Choice is yours, of course. As the oldest, I expect you’ll see to Matt once in awhile and make sure he isn’t getting himself into too much trouble. I always understood why you had to leave, Cord. I don’t blame you one bit. I love you.”
The image faded. Cord stared out into empty space feeling cold.
Another image filled his screen, this one of a young man with Katie’s eyes, nose and mouth but lighter hair and a wicked smile currently turned up in a snarl. Matt’s face was wider, fuller than Katie’s had ever been and he had the broad shoulders to go with it.
“Cord, I just-”
“I know,” Cord cut his little brother off. “I got one too.”
“What are we going to do about it?”
Cord did not look his brother in the eye. “About what?”
“She knew she was going to die!” Matt said hotly. “She knew! She prepared!”
“You think something happened to her,” Cord said softly.
“Damn right, I do. And I want to know what we’re going to do about it?!”
Cord squeezed his eyes closed, rested his head against the bulkhead of his ship. It was a good little snubnose ship; X-30 with the modified skip drive, twin cannons on the fore and aft plus torpedo tubes port and starboard and rocket launchers nestled up against the tail fins. He could easily outmaneuver the Republic PD13’s which were comparable in size, but also take on anything twice his size without breaking a sweat. He’d done that more times than he cared to remember. He was tired of it, to tell the truth. Tired of constantly looking over his shoulder because he took the wrong contract or pissed off the wrong warlord. He’d been considering settling somewhere.
Now this happens.
“I suggest we start with that piece of work she married,” Matt grinned that wicked grin that meant they were about to get into trouble, then his image flickered and he seemed to be concentrating on something else.
“Trouble, little brother?” Cord asked.
“Nothing I can’t handle. Republic ships trying to expand, absorb a planet that wants to stay free. Hired me out to discourage the Republic from sticking around. The Republic ships aren’t taking the hint. I can be home in…” he looked away. “Five days. Maybe six.”
Cord checked his nav system. “I can be there in four.”
“Don’t start the fun without me,” Matt said before his image vanished.
“No,” Cord sighed. “Wouldn’t want to do that.” He stared out at the empty space again, then shook his head. “Mother? I need a plot for Home. Warmup the skip drive.”
“Of course,” said a female voice. He’d set the AI for the computer to female because it felt right to him, and there was no one who could ever tell him what to do except for his mother, so giving it that name felt right too. “Calculating. Twenty-two jumps to reach Alpha Pyranti. Checking on local warrants.”
“Thank you,” he said, surprised. He’d completely forgotten to request that.
“No local warrants for ‘Cord Cahill’.”
“Good to know,” he said. “Make the first jump as soon as the skip drive is ready. Cycle up a sleep mode for me. While I’m out, look into any news coming from Home. Specifically search for any unexplained deaths. I also want to know who’s in charge and who wants to be. Download to my chip so I can dream it.”
“Understood,” said mother. “Sweet dreams.”
Cord rested his head against the back of his chair, sleep coming on quickly as the chemicals entered his blood stream via the various tubes running from the ships systems to his flight suit. The last thing he saw before his dreams began was the explosion of light coalescing at the tip of his ship, about to pull it into the first jump.
# # #
Alpha Pyranti was a border world twenty years ago. Today, the border extended another few thousand light years out. The Republic expansion machine was swallowing worlds faster than Cord could keep up with it. He grudgingly admitted to himself, if not to anyone else, that the Republic had its good side; medicine, technology, law and order. But they had their bad side as well; taxes, bureaucracy, loss of freedoms, conscription. These are the things that drove him out into the frontier.
The planet itself was fairly indistinguishable from any other life planet; blue seas lapping against brown shores, thick, green forests sprawled across the continents with settlements, farms and ranches dotted here and there. From space, gray and white clouds swirled and ebbed through the atmosphere.
That image vanished, replaced by a man late in his years, his dirty gray hair cut close and short, military style. He wore a uniform of drab green and the rank ribbon of a Chief on his chest.
“Incoming vessel, identify; Citizen or Foe?”
“Citizen,” Cord said evenly. “Born and raised here.”
“Transmit papers,” said the Chief. Cord did. “Mister Cahill, welcome home. What’s your reason for visiting Alpha Pyranti today?”
“Funeral,” Cord answered. “My sister died.”
The Chief frowned but nodded. “I am sorry for your loss. Things have changed since your last visit. More Republic presence, more Marshals. We do not tolerate trouble. Your ship is cleared to land but not for planetary use due to its weapons compliment, therefore it will be peace bonded upon touch down. Do you understand?”
“I do,” Cord replied. It was standard on Republic planets to peace bond a ship. No one wanted a rogue ship that could take out a city running around unchecked. He’d have to rent a horse once he landed. “What about personal weapons?”
“The Republic supports your right to defend yourself in the event someone of unscrupulous morals should accost you.”
Another bad thing about the Republic, no one ever answered you straight on certain things.
“Follow the vector down, enjoy your stay,” said the Chief before his image vanished.
“You heard the man, Mother, take us down.”
# # #
Tobias Jorgensen sliced a thin piece off his fillet, taking a moment to drag it through the blood and juices on his plate before sliding it into his mouth and closing his eyes to chew. It was cooked perfectly, and by perfectly, that meant rare on the inside, seared on the outside.
“We have a problem,” said a deep voice. Sighing, Tobias opened his eyes. Prescott Quincannon was a well built man. His shoulders were wide, arms and legs thick to match his neck and his face had a hodge-podge of scars that he never cared to explain. He wore dark boots, brown pants and shirt with a dark vest and jacket over it. Two gun belts crisscrossed his waist and he usually had a few knives hidden on his person along with a grenade or two. In his hands he carried two things; his narrow brimmed brown hat and a holocube. From head to toe he was covered in the red dust that was so thick in this area.
Tobias took a moment to slice another thin piece of filet, chewing it slowly, before nodding to the other man to sit down. Prescott set the holocube down between them on the table and touched the side to activate it. The image of an older man appeared, perhaps fifty years old given how the dark hair at the top of his head steadily became more and more silver as it came down the sides and blended into the sideburns that framed his full face. A single scar ran lengthwise across his forehead, disappearing into his hairline. No, he thought, you could still see it running through his hair. How a man could survive a cut that ran across his skull that way was a mystery to him, even with the exceptional doctors around these days.
The man in the image wore simple enough clothes except for the gray and black vest and the long, gray coat; both marked him as a gun for hire, a member of the Gray Council.
“Hit the spaceport about an hour ago,” said Prescott. “Obviously someone talked. They’ve hired this guy to run interference for them.”
Tobias laughed, waving the holocube off and returning to his steak. The image faded. “You are too excitable, Mister Quincannon. Far too excitable.”
“Excitable? A hired gun shows up now and you think I’m excitable?”
“Cord Cahill,” said Tobias as he sliced his filet. “His name is Cord Cahill. No one hired him. As a matter of fact, he and I went to school together. This is his home.”
Prescott leaned back in his chair looking comical in his surprise. “Then why is he here now?”
“Because his sister died,” Tobias replied over a mouth full of steak. His steak, from his cattle, raised on his land. Life was good.
“Sister?” asked Prescott. Tobias grunted. “So, he isn’t here for us?”
Tobias laughed. “Oh, now, I didn’t say that, Mister Quincannon. Just that no one hired him.” He wiped his mouth with the napkin, folded it and set it atop the plate, his appetite waning. “You see, his sister was Katie Rose.”
Prescott’s face soured. He knew Katie Rose all too well. “The League-”
Tobias cut the air with his knife. “This is not a League world, not yet. You cannot expect their protection here.”
“You hired us.”
“I did. That’s why we’ll have to prepare for his arrival. Spread the word around town. I don’t want anyone talking to him, that way, he’ll have to come to me for his answers.”
“And then we kill him?” Prescott grinned.
“No. When you’re done, I want you to head out to the ranch and stay there while I speak with my old friend Cord. If he cannot see reason… Katie Rose stood in the path of progress. Cord is a business man, far removed of the young man who left us so very long ago. He’ll understand.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Then I suppose there will be one more incident between the League and the Gray Council.”