The Bounty Hunter
by J. C. D. Kerwin
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“Don’t worry, Jacky,” she said, tightening the strap across her chest. “Just a regular job.” She smiled.
She must have noticed my facial expression. We’d done missions like that a dozen times, but I couldn’t help thinking that was no ordinary search-and-rescue.
I nodded. “Just doesn’t feel right.”
She cocked her head. “You wussing out, lieutenant?”
I shouldered my own pack and eyed her. She pushed me playfully.
If anybody would wuss out, it would be me. Mickey never wussed out. Some soldiers wanted to kill; some wanted to prove themselves; Mickey was another breed. She wanted to save people. It kept her running toward the fires, toward the lasers, toward the explosions. When she first joined my squad, I thought she just couldn’t cut it on the front lines and thought the SAR/Medic crew would be easier. She proved me wrong. She was tough and knew how to take control.
She had kept calm when someone’s arm was practically torn off by a Zaurid alien during a scouting mission. She coolly ripped the backs off some fiber patches and had me hold the guy’s arm in place while she stuck the strong fabric over his skin. I thought I’d throw up, but she didn’t even blink.
I staggered forward as someone smacked me on the back.
Clarence gave a toothy grin. “Ready, folks?” he asked. “This one’s a doozy. Passenger ship caught in the crossfire.”
“We read the brief,” Mickey answered. She didn’t care for my buddy of five years.
He raised and lowered his eyebrows in excitement. “The ship’s going down. I bet it’ll explode any second.”
“You’re exaggerating,” I offered.
“Kablooey!” he said, motioning with his hands. Mickey frowned.
“Well then, we better get there fast so we can help the civilians,” she said.
Clarence rolled his eyes. “Yeah.” He turned to me. “Anyway,” he whispered, “I bet it’ll be quite the light show.”
He grinned wildly before slinking off. Over the years, I’d grown wary of him.
“Hey,” Mickey said, poking me in the arm.
I turned my attention to her. Two braids hung from under her cap. She tilted her head to the side.
“It’ll be okay,” she reassured. “In and out. Just like every other time. People are counting on us.”
I nodded, but didn’t feel reassured. I wanted us to run away. She read my mind.
“We signed up for this, remember?”
“I know,” I said. “I just wish we were out. I want us to get away. I don’t know, just fly around for a while and then go find some rock somewhere and set up house.”
She laughed. “You want to plant vegetable gardens in the afternoons and wish on stars every night?”
I scowled. “I’m serious.”
She frowned. “I know, I’m sorry.” She glanced around. “It’s just that I feel like we still got a job to do, y’know? I’m supposed to finish what I started.”
I absently nodded. “But what about us?”
She caught my stare, then wrapped her arms around me. “There is you and me, and there will always be you and me. Everything we do is together.”
I hugged her back. “I know... Just do me a favor, okay?”
She lifted her head to look at me.
“Stick by me,” I said.
“Jacky Boy, you worry too much.”
“Okay. I promise.”
I held her there, but I still felt uneasy.
* * *
Dirken narrowed his largest eyes at me. He crossed two arms and hung the other two over the sides of his chair. One of his shoulders had a large bandage wrapped around it.
“What do you want?” he asked.
A few of his pals hung around suspiciously. I glanced around his “throne room.” It was just a chair in the back room of an industrial building. Crates and whatever junk he ended up spending his payouts on littered the place. His warehouse was in the slums of Altera, just at the edge of Sirius Nine.
“George says you know where to find someone,” I said, leaning against the wall. I put my hands in my pockets.
I rolled my eyes to the ceiling. “It’s a bounty.”
He leaned forward. “Really?”
“Pretty big one, too. Just came in.”
“Who is it?”
“You damn well know who it is,” I retorted.
He titled his head. “That Shadow Man?”
“You’re quick today,” I mocked.
He ignored me. “Maybe I do know where to find him.”
“By the looks of that arm of yours, I’d say so,” I said.
He must’ve been trying to forget about the incident. He went to shield the wraps, but then decided it was pointless. “You heard about that,” he mumbled.
“Ain’t a secret. Sorry, Dirken.”
“You oughtta learn to keep your mouth shut,” I suggested.
He glared at me. “Or maybe I don’t know where that guy is after all.”
I took my hands out of my pockets and held them up. “All right, all right. Easy.” I crossed my arms. “Just thought maybe you had an idea is all.”
“George oughtta learn to keep his mouth shut.”
Dirken scratched at his chair. He chewed on one of his longest fingers.
I was growing impatient. “Enough of this. What do you want?”
He shrugged two of his shoulders. “I don’t want nothin’ at all.”
That was a lie. I stared. I figured I knew the answer.
“I’ll give you ten percent,” I tried.
He shook his head.
“Look, George already slimed his way into getting way more than he should. I’m not giving you—”
“I’m not interested.”
I sighed. “I don’t believe you.”
His large mouth stretched into a grin. “I want something much more valuable than money.”
I didn’t respond. I wondered what he could possibly mean.
“If I help you, you have to help me,” he said.
“I didn’t say I needed your help, Dirken,” I muttered. “I can find the Shadow Man perfectly fine without you. I figured this is a shortcut.”
He scowled. “I’ll be willing to bet you aren’t going to find him if I tell what I know to someone else. You’d be out of a lot of money, then, huh?”
I eyed his pals and thought about the bounty. “Fine. What is that you really want?”
His grin returned. “I tell you where to find the Shadow Man, and from now on you let me in on all the bounties you get. I want to know everything: tips, whereabouts, everything. I don’t want to be last in line anymore.”
I let him finish and then pushed off the wall. “Well, thanks for your time, Dirken,” I said, turning to go.
I looked over my shoulder.
Dirken was standing, an arm outstretched toward me. “How ’bout just for a year?”
I spun around. “You’re kidding, right?”
He looked around for guidance. “Just for your next twenty heads?”
“Let’s try two,” I put in.
He dropped all four of his shoulders and studied me. “All right. Deal,” he conceded. He must’ve really been tired of getting the short end of the stick.
I went back to him and stuck out my hand. “Shake on it.”
Much like George’s, Dirken’s larger alien paw enveloped my puny human appendage in a vigorous shake.
“Now where can I find the Shadow Man?” I asked when we stood apart again.
He glanced to his left. “Word around the joints is he’s got himself a spot out on Tannin.”
“Whereabouts? Tannin’s just a desert planet.”
“Yeah, he’s got a place ’bout twenty units from the landing station,” Dirken explained. He scratched his head and shrugged a couple shoulders. “That’s all I know.”
I nodded. It was enough. “All right. Thanks, Dirken.” I headed for the exit.
He called after me. “Hey! Don’t forget about our deal! I’m holding you to it.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you will,” I said, waving a hand over my head.
* * *
I ushered evacuees through the corridor and onto the waiting transport ships. I frantically looked over the tops of the civilians’ heads for a cap and two braids bobbing in and out of the crowd. Alarms rang around my ears. Lights flickered so that after every few seconds darkness enveloped us, and people found new strength to scream.
“Lieutenant, it’s all clear. We’ve got to go,” my subordinate informed me.
I nodded absently and followed him to an evac ship. “Mickey,” I called into my earpiece, “where are you? Mickey, get to a ship!”
I stood amongst smoldering fire and sparking electrical cords. A fellow soldier yanked on my uniform.
“Clarence?” I tried. “Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” came his voice.
“Where are you guys?”
“I’m okay,” Clarence answered. “I’m off the mess.”
“I saw her a few minutes ago. I think she’s off, too,” he said.
“She is?” A wave of relief rushed through me. “All right, stay put. I’m trying to connect with her.”
I spun around. Two fellow SAR soldiers were motioning for me to cross from the docking bay into the awaiting transporter. Despite the pit in my stomach, I crossed the threshold. The doors shut with a suction sound. Engines whirred, and we soared away from the collapsing passenger liner.
“Clarence, which evac did she—”
“Jacky?” It was her voice.
“Mickey? Mickey, where are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. It’s going to be okay,” she said. I didn’t like the sound of her voice.
“Where are you?” No answer. “Where are you?”
“I’m still onboard,” she said.
“What?!” I flung myself at the window.
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about me,” she said. “Jacky, I want you to promise me something, okay?”
“We gotta go back!” I screamed into the crowd around me. SAR members looked at me with horrified expressions upon their faces. “Mickey, we’re coming back!” I said into my earpiece.
“No, there’s no time. It’s okay,” she said. “Just promise me something.”
“Jacky, I’m not gonna ask you again,” she scolded.
My heart beat fast. I planted my palms against the windows and stared at the collapsing passenger vessel. Fires burst here and there; pieces broke off and floated, ballet-like, into the cosmos.
I heard the smile in her voice. “You have to go find a good rock and set up house, okay?”
“Promise you’ll plant a garden for me and grow tomatoes.”
“Mickey, wait, I’m coming back for you.”
“I love you, Jacky Boy.”
The cruise liner exploded in a spectacular pyrotechnic display. Gasps, and a few shouts rushed through the crowd around me. I jumped, and then stared as ship debris slowly began scattering into the blackness.
Clarence’s voice pierced through my skull. “Sorry, man, I thought she got off.”
The tears rolled.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by J. C. D. Kerwin