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The coffee’s always bad aboard the Abimat. The autodispenser finished its job and I palmed the cheap organi-foam cup. I brought the cup of scalding liquid to my lips. Bad as ever, but the stuff back in port is too bitter, and those fancy latte’s and frape’s are all sugar. Hard on the teeth. Gotta keep the choppers in good shape since they pulled Dental from our insurance. Guess prison guards don’t need pretty smiles anyway. I tossed a couple of creamers in and called it good.

The ship banked sharply starboard. Some of the forty weight spilled on my frag vest. Sensing the droplets as projectiles, the nano-fiber rushed to strengthen the area against the offending liquid before my eyes even registered the stain, making a mesh strong enough to stop a high-velocity slug point blank. Yeah, well they could have at least made them comfortable to wear.

I glanced up at the readout clock above the bulkhead. It was almost time. The hover ship’s sudden bank tells me that we’re nearing the end of the canyon run, the last stretch had a couple of twists as the high walls followed the river’s winding path below. I remembered that from the last time we made this flight. We were about 350 clicks from the prison where our cargo were to disembark. At this speed we’d be there in under ten minutes.

I walked over to the manifest display for our human cargo stored in the belly of this flying junk pile. The readout had us carrying only two prisoners, but from the full detail of armed guards and the three grav-bikes flying escort, you wold have thought that we had every scumbag from Trip Max stuffed in our brig. My gut tells me that this is some sort of black bag job, but I don’t like to ask too many questions. Whether it’s two or twenty, the pay is the same, so I keep my mouth shut.

I check my weapons just in case. Standard issue pulse stunner; Bauntech slug thrower with cabin pressure safe shatter rounds; and Betsy. Betsy and I are old friends.

My second year on Narc, my unit busted a kingpin who’d owned her at the time. Guy by the name of Desai McCaffrey. We’d been sitting on McCaffrey for weeks, waiting for him to slip up and give us something we could use to nail him. Halfway through the third week some two-bit corner pharmacists decide that they didn’t need to take orders from McCaffrey anymore.

Being the old pro, McCaffrey let’s the thugs grab the cash and the drugs without even saying a word. As they were speeding away with their score McCaffrey calmly walks out in the middle of the street, pulls out a heavily modified howdah pistol from a loose leather holster at his side. Before we could stop him he flared the hammers back, leveled the cannon and squeezed both triggers. The gun roared. The dark polished steel bucked in his hands belching twin black clouds in the direction of the escaping speeder. An eye blink later, as they banked their craft sharply to the right, two melon sized holes appeared in the speeder’s hood. For a sickening second you could see a few of the midday clouds drifting lazily by, framed by the punctured speeder. As if in answer to the cannon’s call, the craft erupted. Drugs, bills, and wet gore rained down on the streets below like a dirty cloudburst.

We were able to scrape some of the perp’s DNA from the wreckage. Just enough to put Desai away for good. I kept the modified flintlock as a souvenir. Named her after a barmaid with a bum leg on Ives Ceti who would always exhale cigar smoke through both nostrils. I keep her strapped to my right leg.

Proximity alarms. Urgent klaxons scream from every direction. Several violent thuds outside of the hull join the noise. The prison ship falters sharply, bringing me to my knees. I let the half drunk coffee cup slip to the floor, its contents forming a tan colored lake. Fingers of steam leap eagerly from its surface. The sentry AI popped up in my HUD. Her artificial voice calm despite the surrounding chaos. I didn’t need her to tell me that our flight-bike sentries were dead.

“Sir. One hostile detected. Flight-bike escorts down. The intruder is inside the ship. Exact location unknown.”

“Seal off the brig level,” I barked. “All hands to the prisoners.”

“Understood.” Her translucent form faded out. I blinked the after-image out of my eyes and steadied myself.

Movement just ahead, down the hallway. A shadow passed by the bulkhead door as it swung shut after being jarred open from the attack. I unholstered Betsy and made for the hatch. In the hall, the siren calls from the rest of the ship careened off the walls like tortured banshees. Bathed in the sound, I let it temper me, carry me down the hall to where I saw the shadow.

A cold feeling in my gut as I near the corner. I pull both of Betsy’s hammers back, her triggers go rigid, ready for t he kill. I round the corner, Betsy leading. More movement, but not the shadow this time. Her cromata stealth armor made a soft rippling of her body’s shape against the gray steel wall. A heat mirage of coiled death. I tried to give her a double dose of fire, courtesy of the Barmaid, but I knew it was too late even before my finger started to pull the trigger. Tech that classy, I was as good as dead the moment my alarm clock sounded this morning.

Seconds fracture into thousands of tiny shards. Each one drifts past my eyes like a slide show, the only sound the adrenaline let through was that of my thundering heart.
Click. First frame.
I see Betsy move to where I last saw the assassin’s shape.
Click.
By the time my hands move the gun, the bead at the end of the barrel sighted only the bare bulkhead.
Click.
The woman moves easily, like a philharmonic ballet prodigy in shrapnel-proof sneak tech. She’s in the air, unencumbered by the limitations of normal human movement speed.
Click.
A pulse-katana materializes in her hands. She pulled it from its sheath faster than my eyes could visualize the movement. Still flying toward me, tense arms craving the killing blow.
Click.
Whether it’s good luck or the adrenaline, I’m not sure, but I’m able to pull both of Betsy’s triggers before the assassin reaches me. She leaps in my hands. Her report is deafening. The nano slugs fly harmlessly by the girl with the katana, passing each other in midflight like some sort of sick rendetion of Swan Lake. They punch two melon-sized holes through the hull, the canyon walls scream by in an earthen colored blur.
Click.
The sword comes down. Mercifully my nerves don’t have time to register the pain before it severs my spine. I watch as she brings it to my neck just below my right ear. She lands on my chest with both feet as the blade finally leaves my body just below the left side of my ribcage. The nanofibers in my vest part readily for the razor’s edge. It feels nice to finally have it off of me.
Click.
I’m on the ground now. I know I shouldn’t be able to feel it, but my legs get very cold. My own blood is quite warm as it pools around my face. It steams in the mild air like the bad coffee in the lounge. A coppery scent fills the hall. The assassin is gone now. Klaxons drown out her footsteps. In the fall, Betsy landed facing my head. I stare down both barrels of the howdah gun, the dark smoke wafting from each black depth. I think of the barmaid’s slow smile as the last drops of life slip from my ragged body.

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