Chapter 15

Click. I strapped into my seat of the small space jumper. It had six seats, three on each side, facing towards each other. A'kai had introduced the pilot in the front seat, a gruff older man named Simon. He didn't talk much.

My stomach twisted into knots, as I stared at my hands in my lap, gripping and releasing them. The debrief had been short; get onto the smuggler's ship, obtain the disc of secret documents, then leave. The target was doing a pass off, except we were pretending to be the people they were passing the disc off too. The real businesspeople had already been compromised by another team.

What about weapons? What do we do if something goes wrong? We had asked. Raven. Raven is your weapon. Don't like it, don't mess up. Mrs. Lovin had sounded annoyed, like this was plainly obvious. My eyes flickered up to Raven, sitting across from me. She was mostly still, except for her left knee that bounced up and down. She was just as nervous.

"Docking now." The pilot called from the cockpit. Just breath. We can do this.

The ship creaked and whirred as it attached itself to the target ship. The four of us unbuckled, standing in the planned formation; Emil and I at the front wearing matching business suits, and Raven and Dušan stood behind us. Emil and I were to act as the business partners, while Raven and Dušan were our bodyguards.

The door hissed open, revealing a woman dressed similarly, her blonde hair tied back into a painfully tight ponytail. Her face was harsh, and her lips drawn tight. A large man stood behind her wearing a protective vest, both his hands gripping a large gun, the battery swarming with green light. Plasma gun, those aim to kill. I diverted my eyes away from the gun quickly, focusing on the woman.

The woman's eyes narrowed slightly, "Well? State your business."

My heart squeezed and I hesitated, does she already suspect we aren't her business partner?

"I think you know what we're here for." Emil jumped in; his voice smoother than I've ever hear it before. He smiled broadly at the woman, relaxing his stance to best play the role of a charismatic businessman.

"Do I?" The woman raised her eyebrow slightly, challenging.

"Well, I would hope so, we've already paid you." Emil's voice dropped for the last bit, mimicking her challenging tone.

I swallowed my nerves, time for some good cop, bad cop. "Are you denying us what we paid for? I don't have to the call boss, do I? She won't be pleased with this delay."

The woman pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, "Follow me." She turned, her heels echoing against the floor as she strode down the hallway.

The four of us followed after her, passing the guard as he stayed stationed by the ship's docking doors. My jaw clenched, and I resisted the urge to look back at the guard as the back of my neck tingled in response to his stare.

The ship's hallways narrowed, until we walked single file. Any open doors revealed small, crowded rooms half hidden beyond the bulking shoulders of suspected hired mercenaries. They stared with bored indifference as we strode past them. Three, four, five, I couldn't help but try to count them, unease slowly slithering up my spine with each additional guard.

Within minutes we reached the front of the small freight ship, where the hallway opened to the cockpit. The front window fit the curvature of ship's front, showing a speckle of distant stars. Middle of nowhere.

"They're here." The blonde woman's harsh voice cut through the silence of the mostly empty room. Only one other person was in the room with us, sat the central console: the pilot and the smuggler. The smuggler stood up, his height making up for his thin and lanky appearance.

"Welcome," he turned, holding open his arms in welcome gesture, "pleasure to be doing business with you." His voice dragged on the s, with an almost hiss.

"Pleasure's all ours," Emil smiled warmly, the corners of his eyes turning upwards.

"Do you have it?" I cut in, the quicker we get out of here, the less chance of messing up.

The man smiled and his tongue emerged, flickering the air quickly. The motion caused my shoulders to tense slightly. Nothing like doing business with an actual snake. The man motioned to the side, "Of course. Of course. I'm sure your boss is anxious."

"Quite."

The blonde woman responded to his signal, grabbing a small metallic cube from a drawer at the central console. She handed it to the smuggler, the passed behind him, before turning to the entrance at our backs and leaving the room. My eyes followed her until I couldn't see her without turning my head. My eyes returned to the smuggler's only to find them centred on my face. My heart skipped a beat. Stay focused Saskia. Don't act weird. It was hard not to stare back into his black beady eyes, getting caught in stalemate.

Emil stepped forward, redirecting the smuggler's attention. He mimicked the smuggler's body language, keeping his arms open, "You don't mind opening it do you? I hate to come across as untrusting but the boss, he demands certain level competence and care from us."

The smuggler's tongue flickered through the air, "Of course." He angled the box towards Emil as he opened the box, the seamless metal surface splitting easily to reveal a cushioned interior. The disc, a thin rectangular cartridge sat inside. It was labelled with an illegible, clearly hand-drawn, scribble.

Emil leaned forward, his eyes scanning the label. His eyebrows scrunched together slightly, his easy smile dropping from his face. He looked the smuggler in the eyes, "Where's the second part?"

The smuggler didn't respond at first, blinking both eyes slightly out of sync with each other. His tongue flickered. He withdrew the box, closing the lid and holding it close to his chest, "I'm not sure what you mean. There is only one disc."

"Our boss paid for the entirety of the project documents. The disc is clearly labelled part one of two." Emil's smooth voice dropped its friendly demeanour.

The smuggler's tongue flickered again; darting in and out a few times before he spoke, "Ah. You read Scarllarion, that is… unexpected." He spoke slow and deliberate.

I gave Emil a side-eye, pursing my lips, you read Scarllarion? I hadn't even heard of the language, there countless languages across the galaxy.

"Of course, I do. The boss wouldn't send someone who didn't to deal with the likes of you." Emil responded, taking a step closer to the smuggler. The smuggler took a small step backwards, his legs hitting the bench of the central console. Emil held out his hand, "The disc? The second part too while you're at it."

The smuggler's tongue flickered out, but didn't dart back in. He held his tongue between his lips and blew. A high pitch whistle pierced the ear. Pain exploded inside my ears. My hands clamped down on my ears trying to block the sound. My eyes squeezed shut. For a moment, there was nothing but pain.