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Loose Ends by Andrew Williams

LOOSE ENDS

by
Andrew Williams


The merchant ship Lions Pride downed itself on the only spaceport on the planet Assi-Arbed with little trouble. As the engines finished venting, maintenance technicians hurriedly hooked in a power umbilical to the small ship, while the crew within restored control from the local computer flight co-ordination.

"Thank you, ATC. Computer control is restored; external power established. Drive core is powering down to standby. Lions Pride out."

Merrick reached across his panels and flipped a series of switches, taking the ship’s whitestar accelerators off line. He then started on the tedious but necessary business of transmitting their manifest and permit details to ATC. Sitting next to Merrick, separated by a bank of hardware, Grath read off the status displays, confirming green on all systems.

"Life support holding at planetfall level," he reported. "They'll be pumping in the decontaminants in a minute, I suppose."

At that moment, Carson entered from one of the aft compartments. Grath wasn’t sure if the unpleasant odour he could detect was Carson or some of that decontam gas he‘d just been talking about.

Scratching at the stubble on his chin, Carson flicked a control switch. Thick blast shutters retracted at a snail’s pace. Watery sunlight shone in, giving the crew their first view of the surface of Assi-Arbed.

Heat-haze shimmered off the unimpressive fused plastarmac landing field, the unimpressive freighters squatting upon it, and the unimpressive port authority buildings surrounding it.

"I dunno why we come to these dingy holes," grouched Carson. "What a dump! And these Open Planet status places are always trouble."

Merrick craned around to face Carson, undoing his flight harness in the process. "You know why we're here, Carson. The Cartel has a top-priority project for a rather special client. It's to be a gunfighter, and while Muller is fabricating the new body, we have to make a reflex recording of a quick-shooter to program into it. According to the datalab back on Pharos, the best beamslinger in the sector was last seen here, and they've arranged for us to meet him."

"I still don't like it," muttered Carson, keying opening the arms locker.

"You‘re not here to like it," sneered Grath. "You‘re here to protect us!"

Standing, Merrick moved between the two men; the seated Professor of Cybernetics (B.Cyb, Belhangria), and the lean, unshaven Carson. He'd been separating the two the whole journey, which was one of the reasons it was Grath who had assisted with the landing. That, and the fact that Carson claimed he’d been incapacitated by warp-lag.

“Decontamination procedures completed,” said a voice over the comm channel. “Permit clearance has been granted. You are now free to leave the ship.”

Merrick thanked ATC and turned to the small balding man. "Now, Professor... The meeting is scheduled for midday, which is in about twenty minutes Standard, so we'd better get moving. I've got the local co-ords. Carson, got your gun sorted?"

Carson replied with a grunt as he clipped a large pistol to his belt and strapped the holster around his leg. He reached into the locker and handed the other two a small pistol each. "In case things get nasty," he leered. "Narrow beam blastingers. Not as powerful as a handcannon, but then I don't want you to be able to blow your own feet off... or mine."

It was a short flyer-cab ride to the only bar in town, the Gahara Arms. It was a large ramshackle bar that for want of competition was sure to attract all the wrong sort of people. Neat and shiny, Grath and Merrick stood out like sore thumbs, but Carson blended in without difficulty. “I'll be around,” he said, fading into the background.

They ordered drinks.

“This stuff must be all of a week old!” Professor Grath said to the bottom of his glass.

"Vintage, then," agreed Merrick. He drew a small visprint from his pocket and slid it across to one of the bartenders. "Have you seen this man? We heard he could help us."

The bartender regarded him with a suspicious expression. He plucked the print off the bar, handing it back with barely a glance. "Nah. He could have passed through, but you know, we get so many."

"Thanks anyway," said the pilot, pocketing the visprint.

They drifted away from the bar, and Carson appeared beside them. They didn't notice the bartender giving the bent eye to someone across the room.

"No luck," reported Merrick. "Too bad mercenaries don't make more definite appointments."

Carson sneered. "Not exactly in their interests, is it?"

"So what do we do now?" asked Grath.

"Leave?" suggested Carson, hopefully.

Grath eyed him with obvious distaste. "I reckon the Cartel assigned us the worst bodyguard they had so that we'd end up dead somewhere and they wouldn't have to pay us a pension!"

Suddenly there was something cold against Carson’s cheek. It was a gun, and it was pointed at Carson. The man holding the gun stayed behind Carson, his hand resting on Carson’s shoulder. With only a minor flick of the wrist the gun could just as easily be pointed at either of the other two.

Carson squinted at the gun, or at least, the part he could see. It was a wide-dispersal assault pistol, an L65 by the look of it; the type used by the old Lindor militia, back when they had one. It was old, but still nice to be on the other end of. Not at all nice to be on this end of. The flash suppression and thermo-baffles suggested a certain… reticence on the part of its owner.

"Who’s looking for Teth, the mercenary?" asked the man shielding himself behind Carson. It was the man from the visprint. He obviously didn’t see the three men from Pharos as any kind of threat, and, judging by the current situation, he was right.

"We are," answered Merrick evenly, his tone betrayed by the sweat beading on his forehead. "We contacted you - we're from the Robot Development Cartel of Pharos."

"What's the deal?"

"Like we said. You fire a few rounds; we beam-record it and program it into a robot... It's for a carnival shooting gallery model."

"That's it? Ten thousand credits for a few minutes work? How do I know you're for real?"

Merrick shrugged. "You don't; not really. But you're a mercenary. Anyone who tries to hire you could be out to get you."

"There must be some way to convince you," interrupted Grath, nervously. “Tell us how we can prove it! You must have some way of assessing the jobs you take on or you’d never do anything."

Teth glanced back and forth between the two men before him.

"So why me? Why not some other half-baked beamslinger?"

Carson cleared his throat, indicating he was about to speak; he didn't want to startle their new 'friend' by doing anything unexpected. He felt the gun press his cheek a little more insistently. "Because we don't want the clientele to be able to beat it, do we?" he growled. "Very bad for our bank balance."

Teth considered this. "Okay. I'll do it - where do we go?"

"To our ship," Grath answered with a hint of relief. "It's got all our equipment in it; you can check its registration if you like."

"Lions Pride, Pharos registry, pad twenty two," supplied Merrick. "Standard intrasystem job; Wessex class."

Over Carson’s shoulder, Grath and Merrick saw another man, a red-headed man, sidle up to the mercenary. He mumbled something in Teth’s ear, then vanished back into the crowd.

"I’ve already checked." said Teth, holstering his gun. "Lets go."

***


Once at the ship, Teth was escorted into the ship’s small cargo bay. Partitions had been put up to define a long narrow passageway terminating in a dead end. A freestanding console stood at the open end of the run and tangles of hardware could be seen poking from storage boxes sitting on a nearby bench.

"What wide corridors your ship has," sneered Teth.

"We'll just set up our equipment," explained Grath, ignoring the remark.

Stabbing a few buttons in quick succession, Grath started bringing the equipment to life, while Merrick taped several sensors to Teth's gun-arm and forehead. The ship was too small for specialists, so he had to double in a technical support role. Carson just slouched in the corner looking wary. Sensibly, he was keeping his hand away from his gun, but Merrick couldn’t help but notice that he seemed to have donned some body armour under his shirt since they got back to the ship.

Merrick affixed the last sensor. "The sensors are microwave linked; that way there aren't any trailing wires to get in your way."

"Just make sure you have the money ready," snapped Teth.

Carson scooped a satchel up from behind an instrument tower. He lifted the flap to reveal wads of notes crammed within, making an equal show of the pistol slung on his leg, just to keep any innovative ideas at bay.

"You get all this, and fame too." he mocked. "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

"Ready?" asked Grath. Getting the thumbs-up from Merrick, he flicked a switch and a target suddenly appeared at the far end of the room, disappearing with another flick of the switch.

"We'll put up a target on the back wall; as soon as you see it, you draw, fire, and then holster your gun. Don't worry about holing the ship; there's an energy-absorbing force wall in front of the target. The wall registers your shot from the remaining heat residue."

Executing a fancy draw, Teth twirled the pistol around on his trigger-finger and effortlessly dropped it back into his holster. "All right, I'm ready," he said.

"So am I, Teth," came a voice from behind.

They whirled around in unison, only to see a woman standing in the doorway. She was dressed in pale blue, and wore a gun. Her long blonde hair was tied at the back.

"How did she get aboard?" Grath thundered at the bewildered Carson.

"Soolin," acknowledged Teth.

"I don‘t suppose she‘s a friend of yours, is she?" asked Merrick.

"Oh yes, we‘re old friends. We go right back, don’t we Soolin? I taught you everything I know, right?"

Soolin only stared coldly at his humorless grin. "In addition to murdering my family.”

"So you finally found out."

"Haston told me, just before I shot him."

"So you shot Haston, did you?" It wasn't a question.

Soolin stepped into the room, assessing the others with clinical precision; identifying threats and targets, ranges and priorities. "I shot them all, Teth, except for one. And now it’s your turn. It would have been sooner, but you jumped GP too fast. But now I've found you, and you're dead."

Teth stepped backwards down the target-shooting tunnel. "I always could outgun you, Soolin. Prepare to be cremated."

"WAIT!" cried Grath. He turned to the pilot-technician. "Dual recording?"

Merrick considered this. "A live match would be better... adrenalin makes the draw faster... let's do it!"

Without thinking, Merrick snatched up a sensor-bundle and stepped towards the intruder. Lightning fast, there was a gun trained on him before he had even finished his first step.

"What do you think you're doing?" Soolin asked suspiciously.

"Er, I just want to record your draw-speed," Merrick answered, acutely aware of how unlikely it sounded.

"Afraid, Soolin?" baited Teth.

"I don't trust anyone. Not now. Especially not your thugs."

Teth answered with a snort. "They're not my geeks. They're scientists who want to make me into a carnival shooting robot. What did you think, we were all here waiting for you?"

"It's true," agreed Grath, desperately pulling out a sheaf of papers to show her. "We're from Pharos. We‘re with the Robot Development Cartel."

Soolin raised an eyebrow. "This meeting has been delayed long enough. All right, wire me up."

The two sharp shooters kept an intense eye on each other while Merrick rigged up Soolin the same way he had done Teth, once again receiving the okay from Grath. Merrick and Grath joined Carson, standing flat against the wall.

"What's to stop the ship being holed at this end?" wondered Merrick suddenly.

"Her body, hopefully," muttered Carson.

Teth was now at the very far end of the corridor, his back to the special wall. Soolin took a few steps in, holstering her gun.

"We'll do it the way I taught you," Teth said.

"When the coin hits the floor," agreed Soolin.

Teth's eyes narrowed to slits, his teeth bared in a lupine grin, left hand hovering over his gun. His right hand went slowly into a pocket, and withdrew a half-cred piece. Keeping it between thumb and forefinger, he slowly exhibited both sides a couple of times, then, balancing it on his thumb, he flicked it into the air.

Time slowed. The coin rose and fell as if moving through treacle. Suddenly, mere centimetres from the deck, time accelerated again and everything exploded at once.

The coin hit the deck with a bright chime. Soolin and Teth’s hands darted for their guns, Soolin’s pistol jumping into her hand with a blur of movement. Her gun flared, in time with the sudden shock registering on Teths face and the blood-circle blooming on his chest around a sucking puncture. He fell backwards with a gurgle, his gun only half-clear of his holster.

Soolin almost shot Grath as he leapt frantically towards the control panel.

"Deactivate the sensors!" he shouted, slapping switches like a mad man.

A sigh of relief went up as the sensor cut-out was activated. Teth’s body fell backwards into the force wall, reduced to a smouldering pile of charred flesh with a flash and an electric sizzle.

Soolin arched an eyebrow.

"Nice touch," she murmured, turning her gun toward the others. "Now get these sensors off me."

Merrick hurried to comply, explaining - somewhat incoherently - that if the sensors had been active when they passed through the force wall, the feedback would have wiped their recordings.

"That is the fastest draw I've ever seen!" he enthused. "Do you mind if we use our recording for our... er... fast shooter android?"

"We guarantee complete anonymity," said Grath.

"And money," added Carson, throwing her the satchel. Soolin caught it with her free hand; her gun never wavering.

"Ten thousand unmarked, used credits."

"All right. I didn't expect to get anything but revenge out of this, and I have to get back to Dorian anyway." She mused for a second. "He will be surprised."

Still keeping an eye on them, Soolin backed out of the hatchway, then stopped.

"Has it got a name?" she asked.

"What?"

"The android. Have you named it?"

Merrick and Grath looked at one another.

"Er... no."

Soolin indicated the remains of Teth with a nod of her head. "That man killed my family; he and his gang. I would like it if you named the android after my little brother. He was only ten."

"All right," agreed Grath softly. "What was his name?"

"His name? His name was Vinni."

Without a second glance, Soolin backed away and left the Lions Pride, trying to squeeze a picture of the boy she could no longer remember back into her mind. It wasn’t much of a memorial, but at least it was something.


"Soolin was taught by the best."
"The second best actually."
"Oh, of course you killed him didn't you?"

(Rescue)


***


Loose Ends was originally published in Chronicles No. 48 and is reproduced here with permission of the author

All original fan fiction hosted on Horizon is copyright to the individual authors. No attempt is being made to supersede any copyright held by the estate of Terry Nation, the BBC, B7 Media, Big Finish or any other licensees or holders of copyright on Blake's 7 material.

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