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Almighty Dollar

Arim kicked the offending console and the screen fuzzed back into clarity. Lately the Scorpio had taken a few really rough knocks and he was beginning to worry about the amount he was having to spend simply keeping her spaceworthy.

The dull glow of the landing halos scrolled in waves across the rear bulkhead as Tyro gently nosed her into the secluded hangar. Arim glanced out to starboard as they crossed the threshold - he could just make out the tiny red pinpoints of the control tower and the repair buildings through the tangle of wreckage, cabling and joists.

He hated Senechaux City. Not that this was an unusual emotion to be associated with one of the most feared pirate enclaves in the federation, it was just that the whole scene was so cliched. The system government of Barthui had basically forsaken an entire southern continent of Three, their imaginatively named third planet. since the last rebellion twenty or so years ago, pockets of inhabited Barthui planets had become so infested with organized crime that the administration had simply given up on them, and as long as their criminal denizens operated out-system and caused the locals no grief they were prepared to ignore the sprawling "pirate cities" that sprung up to cater for the industry.

Arim stretched back in his seat with his arms crossed behind him and sighed. It would be totally predictable - he would leave the Scorpio, probably encountering one of his many enemies straight off the boarding ramp. He would have to talk or shoot his way out of that one, then he would head over to Rosie's with the crew for a drink (Arim didn't even drink, but his crew took it upon themselves to ensure that any alcohol that would otherwise have remained unconsumed was taken good care of in his absence).

No doubt he would be accosted at the bar by another enemy before he had even bought the first round. Another fight, another argument. then when his crew had finally found a decent table and settled in, without fail yet more long-time foes would stalk over to them and challenge them to yet another fight or yet another argument.

He's had this dispute with the crew since they first started running the Foyeri mainline. They wanted to hang out in what they considered to be appropriate piratey circles. To drink in bars where to walk out at last orders with all your limbs intact was considered "a good night". Although Arim was unquestionably a black-hearted scoundrel the likes of which made god-fearing men whisper his name, he had never seen the need to act like a neanderthal about it. He would much rather have berthed on a civilized world with some nice roman restaurants and perhaps some places of historic interest to visit.

Still. the only way he was going to be able to enjoy the finer of life's offerings was to make a shitload of money, and piracy was sure as hell a fun way to do that.

The Scorpio made the final approach and began her turning maneuvers in order to meet the clamps descending from the starport ceiling. Warm terracotta sunlight drifted over the bridge for a moment before the clamps blotted out the skyline, and with a huge muffled clang the ship was docked.

Tyro locked his grips and turned to Arim. "Sorted," he said, winking. The big man climbed out of the pilot's rig and stretched himself, cat-like. He looked around at the other bridge crew. "Rosie's then? Sia?" Sia the comms chick had just finished shutting down her terminal. She yawned, pulled her hair forward over her head and yanked the jack from the back of her neck. "First shit first sweetheart. I'm sure the boss doesn't want us sitting here deadclamped with a hold full of hot muffins."

Hot Muffins was the charming term used to describe whatever contraband or stolen property was currently occupying their heavily shielded cargo bay. In this particular instance they had intercepted a barge stacked with commercial-grade ship CPU's. It had been an easy haul, the timid agency captain easily frightened into submitting his wares without a single shot being fired. Of course Arim's crew had wanted to pillage, but he'd managed to persuade them that the CPU's were enough, and had probably saved the lives of several of the barges crewmen, and certainly preserved the honor of the crewwomen.

Arim tapped up the fake manifest and hit the Upload button. "The lady isn't wrong. Gimme a sec Ty"... a moment passed and a standard loading invoice appeared, awaiting his signature. Arim dashed off his flamboyant tag with the stylus and smacked the "PROCEED" icon. The screen was replaced with a detailed Auto-Load receipt documenting the automatic freight transit status of 38 crates of "SOFT TOYS AND STATIONARY ITEMS" from the hold of the Scorpio to the underground freight vaults of the Senechaux port complex, where they would be kept until retrieved by the owner or buyer. The description was a local tradition since the whole performance was only for the benefit of the aging automated cargo handling system, and no records were ever kept. They waited. Sia lit a cigarette. After 20 or so seconds, more muffled metallic noises signaled the unloading process had begun. Arim shut down his station and stood, retrieving the master key from the command terminal and slipping it in his pocket. "Ok gang. Rosie's"

There were no fights on the way to the bar. In fact the whole atmosphere of Senechaux was eerily quiet. The usual scenes were present, bodies on the streets, some of them days old. Beggars looting the bodies. Sinister gangs of darkly clothed individuals hanging around the myriad scrutty street cafes eying the other gangs of darkly clothed individuals.

But something wasn't right. None of the criminals appeared to be actually doing anything...well... criminal. Just kicking the dust and looking over their shoulders. The crew of the Scorpio trudged through the dry sunset street in silence. The fifteen men and women had followed Arim for just over six months and they were feeling pretty good about the arrangement. Theyd all found their new boss to be pleasant and easy going, they got good shares and they were fed well. Of course there were the more ambitious amongst them who fancied Arim's job for themselves. There always were - mercs are not known for their undying loyalty.

However if there were any in the current line-up they were being wise not to reveal themselves. Not after what happened to Reeko. They'd learned very graphically that day that Arim's patience went a long way but there was nothing beyond that but cold black steel.

"Sia," Arim's tone was urgent but his voice was soft and measured. "What's with the ghost town routine?" "Maybe they've all gone to church" she quipped, risking a glance around the rooftops. At the end of the street rose the giant neon slur of Rosie's Bar And Stopover, Famous Throughout The Galaxy. Several A's and an H were intermittently absenting themselves from this boast, accompanied by an audible electric fizz.

"If I lived in this shit'ole I'd need'n'oliday n'all." This was Hein, a stocky engineer. The man scratched at his cheeks in consternation. "I never seen the chaw this quiet man. I don' like it neiver". Arim noticed the man's hand playing over his holstered Aeger S8.

He considered the matter. The prospect of enjoying a quiet evening with a hookah and a good book was enticing. "Don't let it worry you. Prolly some kind of local trouble got the natives keeping their heads down. They aren't gonna mess with us."

The crew piled into the bar through the large porchway, and immediately stopped in their tracks. Instead of the usual room full of drunks and soon-to-be drunks doing all the plethora of fun things one does whilst being drunk, there stood before them a squad of extremely sober and very well armed soldiers with their long heavy rifles leveled calmly at the door.

Arim stopped and looked about, momentarily surprised beyond speech. The room was silent. These guys were ULA - but they didn't look like grunts. Lots of tech, faces obscured with balaclavas under the helmets. Arim couldn't make out any unit insignia on their armor. He leaned back without taking his eyes off the soldiers. "Uh... outside?" Tyro, closest to the door, swallowed hard and peeked back over his shoulder through the open door. He flinched and turned his face back to Arim, apology in his eyes. "Yeah. Bout another twenty of em just turned up." Arim sighed. Shit, he thought. "Shit" he said.

Very slowly moving his hands palm outwards above his head, he raised his voice a little to address his crew, never turning from the unmoving soldiers. "Nobody make any moves. Lets see where this goes" There was movement from behind the blue-grey wall of authority. Two of the soldiers stepped aside and a tall thin officer stepped slowly and deliberately into the center of the room. "Arim Sekh-Arim, I presume?" Arim said nothing. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Colonel Aaron Shift of the ILSF" "I am honored to make your extremely well armed acquaintance," Arim drawled "I was aware that the league was pushing temperance in the outer sectors but surely this is overkill..."

The officer chuckled and gestured to a table on his left, the occupants of which were unceremoniously removed by a pair of the unmarked soldiers. "Please, I've no wish to stop you taking your medicinals - sit, drink. Bartender!" he pivoted and waved at the nervous looking man behind the main bar, who scurried over as Arim and his company grudgingly stepped down from the porch and drew chairs at the table.

The league officer spoke a few quiet words to one of his sergeants. The troops lowered their weapons and changed their positions, Arim eyeing them carefully. Both exits were well guarded and the soldiers didnt look easy to get past. The Barkeep took table orders in a trembling hand, the crew selecting their drinks tersely and with many sideways glances. Would they try anything stupid? He toyed with the probabilities in his mind whilst he watched the Colonel saunter over to the jukebox and download a track. Arim was surprised to hear the soulful strains and mellow rhythm of a genre he hadn't expected. He couldn't place the century but this one was a proper oldie, pre-exodus. It was a comment on the human race that much of what had survived the great ancient spaceward expansion had been art, not science. the essential knowledge about life support systems and hydroponic techniques had been preserved with care, but paled into significance compared to the trillions upon trillions of gigabytes of personal data that mankind took with him to the stars.

Life may be impossible without art, Arim reflected as the Colonel made his way back to the table. He pulled up a chair and sat down with an energetic huff. "Phew. I'll say this Sekh-Arim - you're a hard man to keep track of." the bartender had made his way to their end of the long table and the Colonel turned his head to order. "Clancy's Patriot please, full measure. I'm buying by the way - here you go. Arim, what's your poison?" He threw an expectant glance at the bemused pirate as he fished out a small black credit chip and absently handed it to the barkeeper.

Arim's mind was firing on all cylinders trying to figure out what was going on. He knew the league had a price on his head, but these guys were mil. They wouldn't be paid extra for bringing him in but they had plenty of reasons for wanting his ass anyway. The military procedure would have either been to destroy his vessel, or failing that to simply kill his crew and take him in, not buy them a drink. Someone somewhere obviously wanted something out of him and needed his outfit functioning.

He snapped out of his reverie. "Uh, water. Please. With ice". Shift screwed up his face and made a sucking noise "I didn't actually mean poison - I hear a lot of bad stories about borderland catering" he grinned. Arim smiled thinly back, "funny man, I hear the same about league galleys" Shift spread his hands wide and rolled his eyes "Same shit different gravity well. Anyway, for all intensive purposes, you're in a big shitload of trouble, right?" Arim nodded. "You have an offense log which took me a whole day to read, you know that? Christ, over eighty something counts of assault-on-vessel, two hundred of fraud, major and minor, If I was arresting you I'd have to read those charges out and we might have had to take a rest break in the middle."