Archer hung by his knees from a ladder rung, peering into one of the fuse consoles and fidgeting with the wires inside, the sparks that popped and crackled now and then reflected in the smoky lenses of his protective goggles. His gloved fingers froze mid-motion as he caught a series of clicking sounds in the vent ducts, and then the cooling units kicked on and cool air graced his sweaty, oil-coated skin. He let out a grateful sigh. There had been sounds between the clicks and the cooling units engaging, and he was fairly certain they were footsteps. He could feel the first wispy traces of another mind in the halls of his craft, and he attempted to clean the grease from his hands as he waited for his guest to make herself known.
She turned the corner and entered his sight as a humanoid shape in his goggles; within the instant it took her to cross the walkway he knew her intimately. She was uncomfortably warm in her jacket, she carried at least two knives and a handgun, she needed to get something to eat, she had been genemodded, she was frustrated – he could see it in her heart rate and blood pressure. The readings blinked and scrolled across the lenses. He observed her that way for a long moment while her eyes searched the maintenance corridor for him, stepping closer as she did so until he was only a few meters away, dangling from the ladder just above her.
She said, “Theon? Archer Theon?” His name sounded familiar on her tongue, as if she’d been repeating it; she'd probably searched each maintenance corridor looking for him, the poor thing.
He was careful to keep his voice pleasant – having a few too many scars from interactions with overly nervous visitors – when he asked “Is there something I can do for you?”
Her eyes moved to him instantly but there were no notable changes in her heart rate or temperature to indicate she’d been startled. Her voice was subdued and even when she spoke, “Yes, my name is Domino Flare. I am a bounty hunter, and I am in need of a pilot and a ship.”
A fair enough request, he thought, and swung himself down from the ladder to land on the grates of the walkway in a crouch. He’d heard that name before, he thought as he rose, and for a brief few seconds the source of the memory escaped him. Then, all at once, he remembered. “Astra Flare? The Astra Flare?”
She scowled faintly, her mouth shifting downward as she rolled her eyes. “Nobody calls me that.”
He knew otherwise, but he dropped it, catching the first indications of her displeasure. “I’m listening,” he said tugging off his gloves before flinging them onto his toolset. When his eyes shifted back to her he nearly lost his balance.
The woman standing before him was of a kind he had never seen. He’d heard the stories, of course, and he’d expected her to be a fierce creature – full of lithe stealth and a prowess that could stop a man’s heart. But she was so much more than that; she was grittier and hypnotic, dark and sinewy, with a kind of quiet lethality haunting her motions. He had met all sorts of women in his life; women that could swallow a man whole and spit out his bones, women from tropical paradises that danced like the breeze, women that could catch a man and keep him like a promise. But never in his life had he set eyes on a woman with such an unsteadying presence. It was not that she was beautiful – although she was, in her way, but it was not a kind of beauty he had ever seen up close – it was that she held herself as if she were invincible. Some ethereal brightness flitted about behind the onyx galaxies of her eyes; something alive and untamed and brutal. He thought nothing except that he wanted her, and how desperately, how causelessly, how suddenly that was so.
It was force of will alone that allowed him to refocus on what she was saying.
“I am hunting a government suspect wanted for a number of murders. The file says he is the most dangerous man on the planet, and while I’m disinclined to believe so, I do enjoy a challenge. I won’t lie to you, Captain Theon, the mission I am taking is a risky one and I can make no promises that no harm will come to you or your ship. I can promise that you will be cut your fair share of the reward, just like the rest of my team.” The implied ending rang clear. If you live.
“And with what faith am I to take that on, Miss Flare?”
“Captain, actually. I will have a contract drawn up if you’d prefer.”
He wasn’t able to detect a whiff of dishonesty, and it surprised him. He was beginning to recognize that behind her stoic exterior there was a vast mystery, and that mystery did not seem to want to discover his vast mystery. It was not the usual effect he had on women. He wondered what would make her nervous, and then he wanted to find out. He reigned himself in. “Are bounty hunters in the contract business?”
She turned wide obsidian eyes to him with mild indignance. “We are not all hooligans, Captain. Some of us are professionals.”
He blinked, cocking the side of his mouth into a smirk. How unexpected, he mused. He said, “My mistake. A contract will not be necessary, Captain Flare. What are the figures?”
“150,000 credits split four ways, maybe five.”
“So 30,000 at the least,” he mumbled, spinning the numbers in his head to calculate how long that would last him in addition to the rest he’d saved up. A few years at least, but he wondered, was it worth it?
She added, “40 each, five ways, if we bring him back alive.”
“And you think you can bring back this dangerous man?” He wasn’t really asking her; something in her presence told him everything he needed to know. He had deliberately avoided reading her mind, knowing what kind of invasion it could be, but he didn’t need to in order to know there was something spectacular about her – something unmatched.
She cracked an arrogant smile and said, “Yes.”