Episode 16: Deadlines

Carmen paced around the bench, keeping her eye on the antiquated holoclock that on the face of the tree in the park. The effect was caused by one of the artificial rocks in the tiny patch of greenery that added to this corner of Beta Street in an attempt to give Helix some color. Time was advancing too quickly for her, which was a change of pace that she didn’t like.

“And to think you called me paranoid when I pointed out this space on the way in,” said Zack from behind the bench. Carmen spun around and almost threw a punch at Zack before stopping herself.

“Don’t sneak up like that,” she said. “I’ve been jumpy ever since I lost track of you at Zeta’s.”
“Sorry,” said Zack. “I’ve been going through back alleys and other places where it looked like there wouldn’t be many ways to spot me. Tricky in a city like this.”

“I’ll grant that it was a good idea to have a meeting place,” said Carmen, “but I still say that we could use phones. You know how I hate waiting for news, especially when it might not come. Seriously, I can afford some disposable phones right now just in case something like this happens again.”

“We probably could,” said Zack. “I’m not taking chances, though. Especially now that at least two people in the DMA know that we know each other. Your purchases might be tracked, especially if you use credits instead of hard currency.”

They walked along the path that led away from the miniature park, one that would send them toward the personal hangar where Carmen’s vehicle was parked. Closer to the street than Zack might have liked, the park was just close enough to their route that it would serve as a suitable location between the upscale area where Zeta had set up shop and the more run-down location where they had parked, due to the lack of public parking available in the finer parts of Helix.

“Any idea who else is going to be after you?” asked Carmen.

“It depends who’s on Veskid and who’s got more important things to worry about,” said Zack.

“Vox chasing me makes sense… I’m probably right at his level of preferred difficulty and he’s got a good lead on me.”

“Man, I didn’t like that guy,” said Carmen. “Smug creep needs to be taken down a peg. No offense, but if someone offs you I hope it’s not him.”

“Thanks,” said Zack, checking for incoming traffic before running across a street. Carmen managed to outpace him, which made sense in his head but still bothered him with his headstart. “Fletch is more of a surprise. When I was getting out of the elevator that she was going to use I was worried that she would vaporize me then and there. I’d hoped that I wouldn’t be a high enough priority for her to bother with, but… they must be offering a lot more for me than I’d guessed.”

“Any chance that this might all just be a misunderstanding?” asked Carmen.

“No,” said Zack, looking grim. “I can’t remember it ever being a mistake. It just means that I can’t remember what I did, or didn’t realize what secret I saw.”

“You oughtta take up racing,” said Carmen. “When work kills one of us, it’s quick. Well… usually.”

“A job that has hundreds of cameras following me all the time sounds perfect right now, let me tell you,” said Zack.

They finally reached the private hangar. Carmen tapped her preselected code into the door and it slid open to reveal a short boy with his back to them and his hands inside a maintenance panel on Carmen’s aero-car. He froze, his hands visibly near the car’s identification node, illuminated by the red work lights inside the panel.

“Hey!” shouted Carmen. “Hands off my car!”

The boy spun, revealing a goblin-like face. His wide mouth contained far too many angular teeth. His tiny, black eyes quickly zipped over Zack and Carmen and seemed to settle on Zack as the more reasonable of the two.

“Sorry, mister,” he said. “Sorry miss. I saw a light on in your compartment, thought I should try to turn it off for you. I think I just got it, too.”

Carmen jumped at the boy who tried to dodge. He yelped at the discovery that he wasn’t quite as maneuverable as she was. Carmen lifted him up and held him against the car.

“So, what, you’d break into a person’s house if their living room lights were on? How’d you even get in here?”

“Loose vent grating behind the money-changer,” said Hobbar, tilting his head toward the dusty machine in the far corner of the small hangar. “It never gets checked for maintenance because it’s never used so it doesn’t break down. Helix ain’t ever gone to space, so there’s not been much call for aliens to switch their money for what we use here. Most places here just use Veskid credits anyway. I hole up in here sometimes, couldn’t believe it that there was an actual car here. Never happened before.”

“Let the little car thief go,” said Zack, looking into the maintenance panel. “I don’t see anything taken.”

“What, so we just let him off to do it again to someone else?” asked Carmen.

“I’d say so,” said Zack. “Based on the panel he opened… probably only after identification nodes. Completely non-essential for the car’s operation but worth a lot on the right market. If he’s done it enough… he’s probably got a record. Anyone flying in this area will likely be warned and told how to get a new one, and blank nodes are cheap enough. He’s causing micro-fines whenever he does it, and just adding to his own record for when he finally gets caught.”

“Gee, thanks mister!” said Hobbar.

“Oh, don’t try that,” said Zack. “You’re not nearly as young as you look. What are you… sixteen? It’s hard to tell with Crinlians.”

Hobbar’s black eyes somehow narrowed even more, looking over Zack.

“Quite a hat you’ve got there,” he said. “Saw one earlier today, actually. Sixteen’s about right. Well… on my homeworld I’d be a little over five.”

“Keep this up, you’re gonna get caught,” said Zack. “Carmen, drop him or else the same’ll be true for us. We’ve gotta get out of Helix. Schedule to keep.”

Carmen looked over Hobbar, obviously going through a serious internal debate before unceremoniously dropping him onto the ground.

“Beat it,” she said.

“Will do, miss,” he said skittering to the money-changing machine. He paused before stepping behind it to look back at Carmen. “By the way… big fan.”

He lifted the grating’s loose cover and vanished into the hole. Carmen turned back to Zack.

“You’re seriously saying that it’s better to have that guy on the run?”

“No,” said Zack. “Especially since he recognized you. We’ve gotta get you a wig… but we didn’t have the time to do anything else. I mean, we could’ve dropped him off at the police, but we’re trying to avoid them right now. Come on, let’s start prepping this thing to leave.”

***

Hobbar removed the phone from his coat. He had three calls to make now that he was out of the hangar, three calls in decreasing importance. He hadn’t recognized the two humans at first, but a good look at the out of date green hat with its stupid looking antenna made him realize that the man was the one he’d been shown by the owner of the first car he’d taken a node from earlier that day. Which, of course, meant that the woman was Carmen Shift, something that seemed obvious once he knew it. He’d dismissed the question as irrelevant earlier in the day, but a lot of people in the wrong circles had been talking about Zack Gamma since then.

The first call he had to make used two extra symbols, apparently an out of date transfer code used in Helix that fewer than a dozen people alive truly understood. After two rings, an impatient sounding man answered.

“Yes? Who is this?”

“Chip, right?” said Hobbar. “Chip Creep? This is Hobbar.”

“Who?” said the voice. After a few moments, however, a gasp of recognition came from the other end. “Hobbar! Yes. I’m sorry, it’s just been a while since we’ve had a chance to talk. I also don’t keep an eye on the police scanners like I used to. I’d love to chat, but it’s kind of a busy day right now.”

“I know,” said Hobbar. “Look, I’ve been hearing that a lot of people are interested in someone named Zack Gamma. He’ll be leaving a hangar on Beta Street in just a few minutes, and if the right people want to get to him before he leaves Helix then they don’t have much time.”

A momentary silence came across on the other end of the line.

“Right,” said Chip. “You win. What do you want for the location of the hangar?”

“Don’t play me that way,” said Hobbar. “You’ve already got my position since I used that special number you have, right? It’s the hangar I’m walking away from. Just make sure that if this comes in useful, I get paid a lot. Figure out a fair price, then add half.”

“Done,” said Chip. “And worth it. I’ll be in touch.”

The line went dead. The bounty on Gamma’s head placed by Murk was as handled as it could be. Chip would claim most of it, of course, but from the very brief exposure that Hobbar had had to Chip, he knew that the hacker was practical enough not to burn bridges. He dialed the next number, one that he’d been called from but never called before.

“Yes?” said a sonorous voice on the other end. “Is this Hobbar? I don’t have any need of your services. I have not yet made arrangements that would require your assistance in Helix. The races have yet to begin. I will contact you when the time is right, you know this.”

“Right, I know,” said Hobbar. “I just thought that you should know, Carmen Shift is in Helix. Reading between the lines, you’re interested in her, right?”

“She is the best at what she does,” said the voice. “There has never been a racer like her. It goes beyond sport and becomes an art form when she stands upon an asteroid.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Hobbar. “Anyway, I don’t know if you’re interested, but she’s about to leave Helix. There’s some folk out there who might not want her to leave, though. I think she’ll be safe, but in case she sees too much she might need a daring person to show up in the nick of time, you get me?”

“I understand perfectly, Hobbar,” said the voice. “I highly doubt there is any situation she could find herself in from which she could not extricate herself. However… in the event that my meager skills could lend aid, I will be more than willing to begin the voyage to Helix. I will contact you when I arrive to learn what you know. Stay near your phone, and keep an eye on the situation. Do not call me again.”

The line went dead. The Phantom Matador enjoyed his aloof, mysterious persona, but Hobbar could tell that the man was interested in the information. Previously, the Matador had contacted him to ask for some quick information about the security measures that the racing federation was establishing around Helix since so many of their short-term offices had taken advantage of Helix’s cheap rental rates. The Matador hadn’t needed his services often since most of his work was outside of the city, but the relationship might prove lucrative in the near future. He could discuss what the Matador would pay him when he called back, assuming his information would be worth anything then. It was time to make the final phone call, the only call that had a perfectly normal, perfectly traceable and completely public number. After three rings, it was answered.

“Yes?” came a gravelly, grumpy voice.

“Igneous?” said Hobbar. “Yeah, this is Hobbar. I’ve got a lead on a DMA bounty in Helix. Interested in taking out a guy named Zack Gamma?”

“I’m on my way,” said Igneous, terse as usual.

The line went dead.

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