“If you walk this way sir I will show you to your table.”
I watched as the waiter took a few steps, he had a strange gait so I decided I did not want to walk that way and followed him with my normal walking style to the table. Sitting there was Charity Nascimento, that wasn’t surprising as I was on Chorel Survey in Crom and it had been her that had requested I pop on over to Crom for this business meeting. The waiter nodded and walked back toward the entrance, strange gait and all.
Chorel was of the modular design for outposts. You could refuel, rearm, repair any damage and trade a little. There was also a thriving black market, no surprise. The small mineral extraction industry that existed within the system was really a front for the Silver Boys to operate their crime empire. As I was finding out, they were involved in nearly every illegal operation in the bubble and probably beyond. Without a shipyard or a ship outfitter, one of the modules had been given over to commercial operators, clothing store, gun shop and the like and of course a restaurant. As I had walked to the table I had taken in the decor. It was based on what they called Ancient Earth Italy, this ancient Earth stuff was all the rage at the moment. I had seen Vipers and Cobras adorned with old Earth nation flags, just another fashion fad, meh, I gave a small shrug. Thanks to my Fathers interest in ancient history I appreciated some of it and found the rest just down right funny.
“Hello Aitken, please.” Charity looked up from a datapad she had been working on and indicated the only other chair at the table. I stood for a few seconds more looking at the tri-colour flags and pictures of old buildings, probably no longer on Earth. The ones that made me smile were of men in white shorts and blue tops with either a ball at their feet or arms upraised, strange times indeed.
“Well Charity to what do I owe this invitation out to Chorel?” I asked, taking my seat at the table.
“A review and to see where we are going with you, as I said when we first met, this organisation is run like family.”
I took a look around the restaurant and let the word “family” rattle around in my head for second, remembering the stories my father and I had read about the old Earth mafia, it all seemed to fit.
“Just to remind you of what I said when we first met, I am independent and mean to stay that way.”
“I remember Aitken and you can do as much or as little for the Silver Boys as you wish, that remains a constant in out dealings.” Charity gave me a smile and I actually believe she meant what she said. I nodded back to show I was happy with the arrangement.
“Since the smuggling sting we have scaled back that particular part of our operations, I am sure you have noticed?” It was a question not a statement, I was about to reply when the waiter appeared.
“If you have bread sticks that will be fine for me and coffee.” I replied. Italian coffee was some of the finest around and there was no way I was missing out on it.
“Mozzarelline fritte and a glass of the house red please.” Charity made her choices.
“Thank you, sir, madam, we’ll have them to you shortly.” and then he was gone. I turned back to Charity.
“Yes I have noticed the dwindling supply of smuggling jobs. As you will know I’ve been doing mostly assassinations and bounty hunting missions.” Not that I was to thrilled to be doing those type of jobs. Payment was good sure but the lay out cut into the profit. Ammunition and damage repairs and with the type of jobs I had been getting damage repair was going to happen. That could be expensive. I had no problem taking out the low life’s that were the targets, heck I wasn’t that far above them if at all, I just wasn’t some psycho that enjoyed snuffing out human life.
“I understand your disdain Aitken but these jobs are important to us and to our clients.” Charity was trying to be nice and I truly appreciated the sentiment. “But I can’t see that changing within the bubble anytime soon.” She paused and looked at the data pad. “I am happy to see that you have been doing some work out of Robigo, at the present time The Cartel are an important customer.”
Just then our Antipasto and drinks arrived. With an “enjoy” the waiters vanished back to where ever they had come from. As we ate I took the opportunity to view our fellow diners. The room held about ten or so tables of varying sizes and the restaurant was at least half full. Most were couples but the odd table of men in dark suits made me a little uneasy. Gangsters in their most dapper finest. I gave my head at little shake as I remembered I did work for their like, oh well it paid and they made excellent coffee, so perhaps they were not that bad.
“Tell me how the last few jobs panned out?” Charity asked between mouthfuls of fried mozzarella cheese.
The quizzical look I shot her had the desired effect.
“Ok, sorry the last three?” She replied glancing once more at the data pad. I finished my second bread stick and took another sip of the espresso before I answered.
“The last three were assassinations, one escaped prisoner and two terrorists. The prisoner, Ronald Catersels was in an Eagle, with another as an escort. They went down without much difficulty.” I paused and took a the last sip of the coffee to gather my thoughts. “ The first terrorists Gillian was in a Python with an Eagle and Sidewinder escort. I hit the Python first and I hit it hard, taking out the power plant. Once it was drifting I dealt with the escorts and then finished off the Python.” Here Charity interrupted my train of thought.
“What ship were you using? I can’t imagine you would put an Asp through this?”
“Nope, I have, well had a Federal Assault Ship, I have the Asp stored away.” I replied and continued on with my mission debrief. “Moose the second terrorists was also in a Python but with a better escort. DBX and a couple of Eagles, once the Python was out of the fight the escort bugged out and as they were not part of the mission brief I let them.” I looked at Charity hoping she would disagree with my charitable action but my guilt would not be purged with the argument that might ensue.
“Good call. Why waste resources when you are not being paid for their expenditure.” Even I could not argue with that clinical assessment.
The waiter reappeared as if from no where.
“Would you like to order your main course now, ma’am, sir?”
“Yes thank you GianLuca, I’ll have the Pesce all’acqua pazza.” Charity relied with a smile. GianLuca nodded and pressed his finger to a data pad. Turning his attention to me next.
“Well, sorry to be boring when the menu looks impressive but I’ll have the Spaghetti with meatballs please.”
A smile crossed the waiters face, “Excellent choice sir, that is our chef’s specialty and so few order it anymore.” Then he was gone.
“Everything seems in order Aitken. I am going to advise you to continue with what you are doing or take a break as I know assassination missions can be wearing on those completing the contracts.” She paused and a small resigned smile graced her face. “While you are an independent contractor and I know your feelings on that, we still want to help look after your welfare. You’ve proved your worth to us over and over again, we want to keep you around for whats on the horizons.”
A second cup of coffee had been delivered along with the waiter, no espresso this time, I took my time as I added cream and sugar. Took a sip after stirring the brown blend together.
“Thanks, I think. I try not to make long range plans so we’ll see how this goes once I get back out there.” I was interrupted by the swirl of bodies around us as the wait staff put plates and dishes on the table before us. With another “Enjoy.” the whirlwind was over as quickly as it had started.
“Your fish looks good.” I remarked to Charity. Indeed it did, it was in description a simple dish of poached fish but description and preparation could often be two worlds apart. The chef in this case appeared to know his trade. The spaghetti and meatballs that had been laid before only reinforced my belief.
The conversation slowed as we both began savouring our respective dishes. Seemingly the review or interview or whatever this had been was over and I just had to ask.
“So that’s it, you got me to come all the way out here to Crom for, well this?” I really didn’t mean it to sound brutal or that I felt she was wasting my time but that’s kind of the way it sounded. Charity had just put more food into her mouth so she continued to chew, finished and took a sip of her wine before answering.
“Yes and no.” she cryptically replied. I added a touch more Parmesan cheese to my meatball and twirled a little more spaghetti onto my fork and remained silent.
“Yes the review was for us and you so we know where we stand with each other. From what we have just spoken about I think both parties are happy with each other, or at least willing to continue the relationship.” I nodded. “No, because it isn’t the only reason we asked you here. As well as reviewing your work for us, we’d like to know you.”
Again I remained silent, allowing her to expand on her last statement. She was a bright kid and took the unsaid cue.
“What makes you tick, what makes you do the things you do and why?”
I stopped. I put the fork down and cleaned the sauce from around my mouth with the napkin I had in my lap.
“I can answer all three questions with one answer. Credits, cold hard cash. You pay and I’ll deliver. If that be drugs, weapons or death, you’ll get your goods if you pay enough.”
“Aitken I like you. Professionally and personally so drop the mask. You may have the look of a hard nosed bounty hunter and you can even sound like a emotionless killer but that’s not you. Other actions that you perform tell me you have a heart and that you care.”
I gave a shrug, replaced the napkin in my lap, scooped up the fork and speared another meatball.
“You’re going to make me spell this out, aren’t you?” The young brunette said to me. I finished the meatball and looked into her eyes.
“Damn right sister. If you want to play psychologist and probe my motives, you ain’t getting help from me.” I wasn’t angry, in fact I found this amusing, I just didn’t appreciate anyone asking these type of questions.
“Ok. On one hand you smuggle, kill and work on the wrong side of the law. On the other, you give to charities, let targets go if you do not see them wanted in the system you are in and most importantly you are a Fuel Rat.”
More spaghetti, another wipe of the mouth and a shrug.
“I’ll play your game I guess. I smuggle cos it pays well, you’ve seen the money they are throwing at those willing to risk it at Robigo. I kill those that the law has deemed to be threat, if they are not wanted in a system I am in, who am I to be judge and executioner in those cases? Rather arrogant for me to assume that mantle. Sure I work in that gray area that is just on the edge of the law, again because it pays well and people ask for those services.” I took another sip of the excellent coffee and allowed what I had just said to sink in.
“On to the “good” me. I donate to charities to increase my standing to those particular people, you know how this works, heck it’s similar in a way as to why I have access to Crom. I already explained the wanted stuff so onto the Fuel Rats.” I put the napkin I still had in my hand onto the plate, I was done eating and gathered my thoughts on to why I Ratted and gave her the only answer I could think of.
“Because it needs to be done.”
“That’s it. You’ve traveled 19,000 light years to give a guy fuel. You’ve diverted from time sensitive missions to fire limpets at someone and risked going into hostile situations just to give fuel to others. Because it needs to be done?” I detected the sarcasm and nodded to each point.
“Yes.” A smile and a shrug. I looked into her eyes once again. “Maybe it eases my conscience to rescue those that are in need. Maybe in my mind it balances the death I deal to save those that can be saved. I don’t know, I just know it needs to be done.”
“Ah, the mask cracks a little.” A sip of wine, a slow smile creeps on to her lips. “You care. Under that gruff exterior that all you frontier pilots have, you actually care.”
“So?” A simple word that carried a lot of meaning in this context. As I spoke I picked up the cup and signaled the wait staff I would like more coffee. Silence hung in the air as the cup was refilled. “Thanks” a nod, a smile and I dressed it to my taste.
“It’s good to know Aitken. Nothing dark or sinister, just something that is good to know.” She glanced at her data pad once more. “You like to work alone, why?” I shook my head.
“Wow you really do want to play amateur shrink. Alright, I prefer to work alone, smuggling, hunting, killing and ratting, true. It’s an easy question to answer.” I raised the cup and took a deep sniff of the aroma it gave off. “Beautiful. If things go wrong, and sometimes they do, I know who to blame. Saves having to review two actions and perhaps trust is also in there.”
“Kavinsky?” Charity said the name while looking at her pad.
“What about Paul?” I answered in turn. “I’ve worked with him on a few projects. I don’t trust him if that’s what you are asking even if he is a Rat. He could go rogue or help others at the drop of a hat. He’s even more unstable than I am. Nice guy though.”
“You do seem to attract that type of personality.”
“Present company included?” I could not resist asking.
“A little perhaps, as with you Aitken we work in the shadows. Providing services that certain people don’t want to advertise. You, and others like you carry out these services. No questions asked and no answers given. Trust, as you know is a valuable commodity, and one that has to be hard earned. One that you and I are hopefully starting to build.”
“Perhaps.” I took another look around me, I had little idea that this is what Italy on Earth looked like, I hoped one day to visit and find out but not today. A slug of coffee. “I like being nobody, I was once described as a petty criminal and that is still to high on the monitor list for me but I’ll take it. I don’t want to be remembered, I want people when talking about a situation to say, “yeah there was this guy, average looking, just another pilot.” Just another shadow that slips away unnoticed.”
“Then we are on the same page Aitken. But being a Fuel Rat seems to be the complete opposite of that. So the question remains, why?” I stood up and looked at Charity.
“Thank you for the meal, my mother would be happy to know I eat good food occasionally.” I turned to the wait staff and addressed GianLuca. “The food and coffee were excellent, my complements to the chef.” He smiled and gave me a curt nod.
I took Charity in to my arms and kissed her on the cheek and took the opportunity to answer her question and whispered it into her ear.
“It’s what we do.”