Naru Station shouldn’t have been a destination of any particular note. The chance for coincidental meetings should have approached zero. It was a Class 13 space habitat, approved for short terms layovers by the standard variety of sapient species in the Crystal Empire. Its orbital position around the star Sensina Prime placed it close to the system’s natural warp points, but several newer stations had drained away most of the trans-galactic business that once flowed through Naru’s docks. In short, it was nothing special and a perfect spot to be overlooked.
In the absence of official (aka legitimate) commerce, other sorts of “entrepreneurs” had settled in and made Naru Station their home.
“This is not the place for us,” Willock said, eyes narrowing at the grime and seedy lighting of the bar they were heading towards.
“This is exactly the place for us,” Zax said. “We’ve run five jobs in the last five months and you know what we got to show for it? Five credits between the two of us.”
“Five credits and neither of us is doing time or has a bounty on our head,” Willock said.
“That’s not good enough for me,” Zax said, not entirely thinking through his words.
“We might need to consider getting into a more legitimate line of work,” Willock said. “Galaxy’s not like it used to be. Everywhere you go you’ve got Crystal Guardians and Imperial Overseers keeping things on the straight and narrow.”
“That’s propaganda,” Zax said.
“Five jobs, five busts,” Willock said. “Hard to argue with the numbers there.”
“That wasn’t the grand and mighty Crystal Empire,” Zax said. “Each one of those failures is on us.”
“If each one’s on us then why aren’t we looking for a new line of work?” Willock asked.
“Because this is what we’re good at,” Zax said.
“Our history seems to suggest otherwise,” Willock said.
“Never look to the past for a guarantee of the future,” Zax said. “We had some bad luck and made a few dumb calls. The important thing is, we learned from those.”
“And that’s why we’re here?” Willock said.
“Exactly,” Zax said. “We kept trying to work the micro-smuggling routine with the wrong sort of people.”
“I thought we were playing it safe,” Willock said.
“We were,” Zax said. “Too safe. Every one of those idiots we hooked up with was too risk adverse go through with the whole deal.”
“So we’re looking for a better class of idiot then?” Willock asked.
“We’re looking for people who know what they want, and who aren’t afraid to do what it takes to get it,” Zax said.
“Aren’t those the kind of people the Imperials locked up first though?” Willock’s asked.
Zax shook his head and sighed.
“Do you know how big the Empire is?” he asked.
“Sure, they run the whole galaxy don’t they?” Willock said.
“Nope. Official records put it at about 68% of star systems are under Imperial rule. The rest is unclaimed or unexplored.” Zax said.
“So that’s still the ‘Million Worlds’ right?” Willock asked.
“People say a ‘Million Worlds’ because they don’t understand big numbers,” Zax said. “You look at the stars out there and with just the ones in our galaxy, you’re talking over one hundred billion systems. Do you really think the Crystal Empire is tracking down players like us when they’ve got sixty eight billion solar systems worth of problems to worry about?”
“Maybe not, but they say the Empress has some kind of crazy powers,” Willock said.
“I’m sure she does,” Zax said. “It’s ridiculous to even think she took over as much of the galaxy as she has, but as far as I can see that just means she’s got ridiculous problems that she needs to fix with all those powers.”
“What about her Guardians?” Willock asked. “They’re supposed to be everywhere, taking care of everything aren’t they?”
“Are you even listening to me?” Zax asked. “Sixty eight billion systems. How are you going to police sixty eight billion systems?”
“With a lot of cops?” Willock said.
“In twenty years?” Zax asked. “You think they found enough people to trust with that kind of power in twenty years?”
“They found some they could,” Willock said. “I heard one just took down some old Warlord named the Karr Khan last week.”
“That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about,” Zax said. “That happened like fifteen systems away from here, but you’ve already heard about it.”
“It was kind of big news,” Willock said. “A whole city got wiped out from what they were saying.”
“And I rest my case,” Zax said.
“I don’t get what you’re saying.” Willock said.
“I’m saying that one little thing a Crystal Guardian does and a week later it’s all over the news out to a fifteen system radius with everyone talking about what a badass they were,” Zax said. “Only if they were really so powerful, why didn’t they stop the city from getting wiped out in the first place?”
“The Karr Khan guy was supposed to be pretty tough too,” Willock said.
“Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t, but the point is it’s all propaganda,” Zax said. “The Crystal Empire set itself up as the problem solvers of the galaxy but it’s all a smoke screen. They’re so big picture they can’t possibly deal with little guys like us.”
“I thought the whole point of coming to a broken down place like this was to hide from them?” Willock asked.
“Hide from them?” Zax said. “We could light the biggest flare you could imagine and we’d never even get them to notice us. No, we’re here because this is where you find people who are willing to take chances. People who are down on their luck and who’ve got nothing more to lose.”
“So, people like us then?” Willock said.
“We’re only passing through,” Zax said.
“Looks like that’s what everyone here is doing,” Willock said as they stepped into the bar.
Since it was located on a station, the bar was necessarily cramped for space. To help with that, the owners had taken the liberty of knocking out a few of the walls to “borrow” space from the adjacent shops after those businesses closed. Patches on the exterior walls showed that safety regulations were followed only as loose guidelines for the most part. Between the dim lighting and the thick, smoky haze that the air purification spells struggled fruitlessly to keep up with it was easy to overlook the signs of an impending hull breach, and for most of the people in the bar it was likely to happen on someone else’s shift anyways so it didn’t need to interfere with their quest to blot out their ability to form coherent thoughts.
“Is our contact here?” Willock asked.
Zax scanned around the bar, looking for any sign of the Rhidian small arms merchant they were supposed to meet.
“Not yet,” he said. “We’re early though, so that’s good.”
They took a table without looking at the bar tender. She’d get over to them when she had a free moment, but until then they didn’t owe her any credits which was fine with both Willock and Zax.
“This is one of the things we couldn’t do before. A nice face to face meeting. None of this mental projection stuff,” Zax said. “We all see each other’s faces, and we’re all on the hook to make the deal go through.”
“What if the law sees our faces too?” Willock asked. “Push comes to shove, I’d like us to be able to say we had six jobs we walked away from successfully not five and then we got sloppy and caught on the next one.”
“There’s no one here who’s going to bust us,” Zax said. “The long arm of the law doesn’t reach this far.”
A rod cracked down into the small table between them with a loud enough bang that it sounded like someone had been shot. Naturally, the rest of the bar looked at everything but Zax, Willock and their table. No one was going to see anything about what went on next if they had a choice about it.
“Mr. Hargriss and Mr. Rais?” asked the elderly woman who had slammed down the rod.
For a moment the two criminals were too stunned to process anything, but Zax, being the quicker witted of the two, managed to recognize the voice and manner of their new guest in under a second.
“Sister Marilith!” Zax whispered the name and felt a childhood of guilt reach out from the years he’d left behind and pull him back into the place he’d been when he was five.
“Good, it is you,” she said and sat down at the table beside them.
“Sister, what are you doing here?” Zax asked, trying to force his voice back to an audible level. That was better than Willock was managing. The taller of the two men had gone rigid as a board and silent as a corpse at the Sister’s arrival.
“I thought I saw you slinking in here,” Sister Marilith said. “Probably waiting to meet with some other criminal aren’t you?”
“We’re just here for a drink,” Zax said. “Sister what brings you to Naru Station? Is there going to be a Temple of Water opening up here?”
Zax’s felt like time had turned back somehow and that he was once again the little orphan boy who’d been taken in by the Sisters of Water’s Mercy.
“I’m here because I’ve got a job for you two,” she said.
“We’re not looking for work Sister,” Zax said. He knew, on some level, that it was insane to be as afraid of this woman as he was when he was nine and got caught stealing the last slice of pie out of kitchen. Somehow though that feeling had never actually left him and the fear at being caught for his wrong doing was always embodied in a scene exactly like this one.
“Tell me about what you’re doing now then boys,” Sister Marilith said.
“We’re in the transportation business,” Zax said.
“Good, you’re smugglers then, just as I thought,” Sister Marilith said.
“Smugglers? No, that’s crazy…” Zax started to say.
Sister Marilith’s rod ground into the table producing sparks and a thick crunching sound against the old metal.
“You were here to meet the Rhidian weren’t you?” she asked.
“The Rhidian?” Zax asked. Trying to play dumb had never worked for him in the past, under any circumstances, but between fear and surprise it was the only strategy Zax could come up with under the circumstances.
“Yes,” Sister Marilith said. “He won’t be coming. Sister Terizi is escorting him to Station Security.”
“Why?” Zax asked, feeling like his terror was perhaps not as misplaced as he first imagined. Rhidians were neither a small, nor a peaceful race. Zax couldn’t imagine that the arms dealer had gone along quietly or without protest, but the fact remained that he wasn’t here and Sister Marilith was.
“He was trying to unload Pledian Crystals,” she said. “Those are illegal in this system and every adjacent one as well.”
For some reason Zax couldn’t fathom, people had an issue with weapon power enhancers which drove the user into a murderous rage. From Zax’s point of view if you were going to fire a bolt caster at someone being in a murderous rage seemed like a foregone conclusion.
“What happened to the crystals?” Zax asked, a small and wholly irrational hope of completing their original transaction still flickering in his heart.
“We kept them,” Sister Marilith said.
“Oh, that’s…that’s good I suppose.”
Zax could think of no worse people in the entire galaxy to have Pledian Cyrstals and no one he would have less interest in trying to steal them from.
“Yes, it is,” Sister Marilith said. “Now since you’re out of your intended employment, you’ll listen to offer that I am extending to you.”
Zax considered trying to deny their involvement with the Pledian Crystals again, but experience finally won out and he stayed quiet, which was the one winning strategy he’d ever discovered when dealing with the Sisters.
“We have a group of children in our care,” Sister Marilith began. Nothing about that surprised Zax. The Sisters ran orphanages. Of course they had children to look after.
“They are being pursued.” she said. Which was unusual, but not entirely unbelievable. The Sister did take in all kinds of problem cases, as Zax and Willock were proof of.
“And you’re going to help them escape the remnants of the Karr Khan’s forces, who will be here in about ten minutes.”