A Hazy Shade of Winter

"197…198…just two more…"

Winter Jade felt the pain etch through her spine as she continued her leg curls on the floor of her ship. It was normal, the pain. It came with training so much and lately she hadn't been getting as many jobs as she hoped, so it was the only thing left to do as her ship made its way through space. She felt the sweat droplets from her body make small puddles on the cold metal ground and her muscles ached with a harsh tension. "199…200!"

She leapt up and jumped back to her feet. She felt her body shake with the change in posture and she forced herself to walk steadily back to the cockpit seat. She let out a sigh as she ran her fingertips over the control panel in front of her…the Kamikaze had been her ship for as long as she had taken the occupation of bounty hunting. It looked like scrap on the outside, but on the inside, it could get the job done.

The Kamikaze was older than Winter herself and it had cost her almost everything she had…including her life when she stole it from a ship trader on Rukon 6. She had gone all out and bought as many new parts as she could…an engine thruster, an enhanced duel laser cannon, radio blocking disc. It had taken months to make the piece of junk work at all. Even now sometimes she wished she had more money to get a new ship, but for now the Kamikaze did just fine.

The Kamikaze was her home…the only one she had ever actually known. She had no recollection of where she had actually come from, what her homeplanet actually was. Innerspace Mercenaries had killed both of her parents when she was only six standard years old. She had been abandoned in a small settlement on Rukon 6, but she took the opportunity to train and build herself up into a warrior. Finally one day she felt she was old enough (only at the age of ten actually) to steal a ship to fly away and make a place for herself somewhere in the galaxy…and to make those mercenaries pay for what they had done to her life.

Winter stopped for a moment to listen. The engines were but a dull hum in the background, and silence settled itself throughout the entire ship. Stars streaked in front of the bay window and she looked out, mesmerized by the sight. She had grown accustomed to the loneliness of space, so cold and desolate…like herself. She had always been alone and she'd probably die alone. And that was to her liking…no one would know she was ever there.

A small blinking light caught Winter's attention out of the corner of her eye. She flipped the switch on the autocam and a small screen began to crackle with a blue static as it came to life. Slowly a small picture formed in front of her of the hard, etched face of an older human man. He glared at the screen through dark, hollow eyes. After a moment, his voice came through the computer, deep and slow. "You are the journeyman, Winter Jade?"

Winter sat back…Ah, finally a job after all this time; I could use some enjoyment. But this was a new employer all the same and she had to take this chance to establish the upper hand on him. She nodded once and replied, "Who's asking?"

A smile touched the man's hard features. "Ah, Jade, you won't believe how hard it was to get in contact with you…you are quite a difficult person to get in touch with. I am Satta Towre, and I have a job for you."

Winter nodded again. "My services don't come free. And I don't work just any job. Explain your proposition and I'll consider it."

Towre continued. "I think you'll find the arrangements agreeable. I want you to find a renegade, a man by the name of Trak Senten. He stole something very valuable from my company and I want it back. And I want Senten himself, alive, to punish him for his crime personally." A small glint of something Winter thought might have been humor passed through the man's eyes, but disappeared as quickly as it shone.

Winter pushed her long, white hair out of her face. "Hmm…getting him alive will cost extra…what are you offering?"

"Twenty thousand alive, five thousand dead." He paused for a moment to allow her a moment to consider. "I believe those offerings are quite reasonable, don't you?"

The huntress closed her eyes for a moment in thought. Evidently he wanted this Senten bad enough that he would pay a good deal for him. Might as well get something out of it then. "Thirty…and I'll bring him in alive and undamaged."

Towre's eyes bulged for a moment and he edged a bit farther up toward the screen. His fist was clenched and he stared at her angrily. "I think you overestimate yourself, bounty hunter. I could get cheaper from any other…"

"That does not mean you would get quality work," she interrupted. She smirked and looked at him steadily. "I am the best there is to offer. Pay me what I deserve and I'll get the job done as best as it can. You couldn't get better from anyone…and I mean anyone.

Towre sat back for a moment. He was practically vibrating in anger Winter could see that. Most employers, despite their arrogance or stubbornness, would eventually give in to her demands, they always did. "Fine," he growled. "It's yours."

In a few moments, another hologram flashed from the screen. It was another man, this one younger and sharper looking than Towre. His scruffy mop of brown hair and torn face showed an air of crudeness and thievery about him. "This is your target…know his face."

Winter nodded once again and reached over to flip off the link. "Yes, consider the job done."

When he was alone again in the small office, Towre smiled knowingly to himself.

It was a large, vast world. Its blue and green tint gave it a friendly appearance in the dark area of space. It was the fourth planet of the Zarlon System. Winter had never even heard of the planet, let alone been to it throughout her entire career. She had had to study it on the way there, to get a feel for the culture and inhabitants. This was where she was told her target had retreated to. It didn't look or sound like the type of planet that she would enjoy either…too homey, too soft for her taste.

She had heard about the strange creatures that inhabited this world. They were humanoid for the most part, and they were very social and outgoing. They welcomed outlanders as friends and family, bringing them into their homes even without any knowledge of where they had come from or who they were. Such friendliness is not in a wise standing, Winter thought to herself as she read through the files.

Finally the ship came to a harsh stop as they finally reached the destination. The stars became aligned in their positions once more from their swirling oblivion they formed when moving in lightspeed. The planet looked just as it had in the pictures, large and bloated in front of the small ship. Winter felt a wave of queasiness suddenly as the planet became larger and larger before her. It was not airsickness she felt, but something else…something was not right about this place, she knew it for sure…

Winter's thoughts were interrupted as her ship shook and wracked in violent throes as it entered the gravity field. As soon as the ship adjusted to the change and once again flew smoothly down the landscape of the planet, Winter scanned for some place to land. There were mostly large fields and meadows on this world, and her ship would be open for the taking if she landed it out in the open.

Something small suddenly caught her eye a little distance away. It was barely noticeable, yet it was the only one around to be seen. Moving toward it, slowly it became clearer and clearer. It was a spaceport; Winter knew that for sure. There were a few large buildings, but mostly close to the ground refueling stations and shops. Ah, there it was…a shipyard. That's what she really needed.

Winter settled the small craft easily into the yard and stepped out to finally get a look at the planet. The air was so fresh it was almost sweet and the port was clean, not the dank filth she had seen on other planets. She could now also see small huts dot across the plains, and large fields of vegetation and farming ground.

But she didn't have time for sightseeing. No, she had to get information on her target. She walked in regular street clothes, her few weapons (a stun gun and rifle) hidden beneath a brown cloak. Eventually she came to a small shop…it was just a local bar, but she knew that many of the local sentient beings and offworlders would probably be inside.

Winter walked in calmly among the noisy crowds inside. A small band played a jazzy tune as bartenders hurried to accommodate the many different forms of creatures that came into the bar. The place was smelly and had a wet feeling…an air of drunkenness practically hung over the entire room. Winter felt a wave of nausea hit her so hard she almost fell over…how these aliens could stand the smell was beyond her. But she couldn't let it bother her. No, she had a job to do.

She walked slowly up to the front of the room near the bar and turned to face the whole crowd. They seemed to ignore her, the band playing on and business continuing. Winter did not prefer being ignored, so she decided to get the crowd's attention. She picked up a small wine bottle from the top of one of the table and turned with one fluent motion to heave it at full force toward one of the band members. It shattered into the wall with a loud crash, barely missing the man's head. But the noise got everyone's attention.

One of the bar tenders grabbed Winter's arm roughly. "What do you think you're doing?" he yelled at her.

Winter turned to look at him. Her eyes were cold and glaring. She didn't move or say anything at all, only stared straight into him, glancing every once in a few seconds at his hand on her arm. His eyes suddenly took a look of fright and Winter felt him begin to shake a bit. He turned away uneasily, letting her go, and slowly walked back into one of the back rooms, locking the door behind him.

Having that taken care of, she turned back to the onlookers. "I have questions that I know some of you have answers to. I am looking for Trak Senten. I was told he came here… I want to know where he is. Now."

There was a silence over the entire room. No one moved, no one breathed. A sudden flash of movement set off an almost chain reaction in Winter's mind. She drew her rifle and fired once in the direction of it. It was a short human man, and had the blast been mere centimeters more he would have had a new body opening. He backed up, his arms flailing, "I don't know nothin'…nothin' at all!" he gasped out.

Winter leveled the rifle at him. "I'm willing to bet you do," she growled, leveling her eyes.

The man broke out into a cold sweat and he fell to his knees on the floor. "Alright! Alright! The west corner of the port, down the street a block or two…he was staying in an old shack! That's all I know, please!"

Winter put away the rifle, much to the man's relief and turned without a sound to leave the bar. She felt someone follow behind her and she stopped to look. It was one of the pilots who had been sitting near the bar. He was tall and built, and he had a small black mustache. He kept walking by her, but whispered in her ear, "I have some information you may want. Follow me."

He left the bar and walked into a shadowed alley. He turned and smiled at Winter. "I am called Bryom. I watched what you did in there, trying to get information. Are you some sort of mercenary or something?"

Winter felt irritation rise inside her and she was tempted to just shoot this fool where he stood. "You could say that…now what about that information you said you had?"

Bryom ran his hand through his black, cropped hair. "Well the truth is," he began sheepishly, "I don't know anything about the guy you're searching for. I just wanted to know if I could join you. See, I'm becoming a bounty hunter myself and I could learn a lot from a professional like you."

Winter rolled her eyes and growled again. "I don't have time for amateurs…I have work to do which you have set me back from enough as it is. Be grateful I don't blast you where you stand for that either."

She turned to walk away. "Wait, but…" she could hear Bryom's voice pleading.

Winter kept walking, speaking as she went. "Go home, kid. This isn't your type of work trust me." She growled again as she turned a corner to head down the port. She thought sourly to herself, Maybe I'm getting too blasted soft for my own good…

Night was beginning to fall on the blue planet. Winter wrapped her cloak around tighter as the temperatures began to drop. It was amazing how soon darkness began to set in…she had only been here a few hours. It was not far from the shack now, if that man was telling the truth…

Luckily he was, and was he! The shack looked like it was about to cave in on anything that was inside it was such a wreck. No wonder it was abandoned. Winter drew her stun gun…she hasn't used it for a while, usually she preferred her rifle. Of course some of her other jobs also had a good reward for her targets dead and who was she to disappoint her employers?

Winter thought for a moment about how to get the man out. Any fight in the shed would probably result in a cave-in. Better to get him out first, then take him out where she could get a good shot. She removed the safety from her rifle and powered it to its highest rating. To shoot a human with it would be most…messy. But it should provide the fire needed to take down the shed. She pointed it high and fired it straight at the roof.

It took less than five seconds for the entire structure to come crashing down heavily. Winter waited for a moment to see what would happen. Everything was still and silent and dust hung in the air from the crash. There was a snapping sound and Winter had no way of suspecting the stun blast hitting her in the back.

Winter opened her eyes groggily. Her vision slowly cleared and she scoped out her new surroundings. She felt vice-like hands grip her arms as she felt her hands cuffed behind her. She was pulled up from her crouched position and stood on her knees. This was the first time she realized someone standing in front of her.

It took her a few moments to realize who he was…those dark, hollow eyes and dark face. "Satta Towre," she managed out. But how could this be? Why would she be her own employer's prisoner?

He smirked down at her. "Winter Jade…it took me years to finally find you. But now here you are, young huntress. I have watched your progress for a while now. You've really made a name for yourself, haven't you?"

She managed to glare up at him. "What do you care?"

"Now, now my young friend. Such an attitude is not fitting when I am about to give you a new proposition. How about you join my little band? I'll make you my right hand man…no one in the galaxy could come near us." His tone was almost friendly and something began to irk Winter again.

"And what 'band' would that be, Towre?"

"My Innerspace Mercenaries. I am their proud leader, you know."

Winter felt her mind twist in rage. Images of her parents' deaths rushed back to her. She remembered seeing them for their last moments of life. The loneliness that she was forced to grow up with. She felt her body's energy renew and she spat out, "Murdering scum!"

Winter jumped forward, ripping the cuffs actually apart in rage. She stood for a moment, boiling in anger. She had been stripped of her weapons and now she only had what was inside her, everything her training had prepared her for, to use on this scum who had killed her parents so long ago.

Towre continued grinning. "Do you really think you can fight me?" He took a moment to gesture to the guards who now had their guns cocked and ready to fire. "You'd be dead before you could land a single punch."

Winter stood her ground regardless of the suicide she was actually in. "Just like a coward like you to hide behind your precious guards…and murder innocent people."

Towre then began to laugh. It was a cruel sound, cold and unforgiving. "Well I am not coward enough to give the order to kill you…unless you join me. This is your last chance."

Winter stood up and closed her eyes. She could see her parents…not like they had been when they were attacked, but before. When they had been happy together, a family. She felt serene and peaceful, like she would get in deep meditation. Mother, Father…forgive me. I've failed.

She opened her eyes. "Never," she let out. "Never!"

Towre sneered, "Have it your way…Kill…"

A round of rifle fires going off near the back interrupted him. Winter strained her eyes to see. A few of the guards had been taken down, and others were trying to find where the blasts were coming from. Suddenly out a vent high in the ceiling a figure dropped.

"Bryom?" Winter asked incredulously.

"Winter!" Bryom called. "Come on! Your ship's this way! Follow me!"

Winter gave one last regard to Towre, almost drinking him in…remembering everything about him. "We'll finish this, I promise," she said to him. She then turned and ran down the hall after Bryom.

He threw her a gun. "Here! Fire!"

"Where are we anyway?" she demanded.

Bryom turned to look at her incredulously. "You don't know? You're in the mothership of course. I had to follow you in a transport ship. I thought you may need me."

She glanced back. The guards were starting to regroup and were now pursuing them. Winter turned to Bryom; "We can't take them all on. We have to find somewhere to hide until they pass."

Bryom scanned the hall. There was a small room full of small escape pods. "In here quick!"

Winter fired a few more shots into the crowd and jumped into the room. She turned to Bryom. "Why…why did you follow me? After what I told you?"

Bryom smiled at her roguishly. "I still wanted to learn from you…know what kind of a professional you were. Learn something from you, like I said. I thought you may even need me, I thought I could prove myself to you."

Winter scanned the young man, staring at him thoughtfully. He was much younger than she was and she thought of all the life he had before him. She wanted to take him as her partner, especially now that she owed him her life…but no. She had things to take care of. Things she could not risk him getting hurt for. And he had an entire life she could not let him throw away.

Without warning, Winter leapt across the room, forcing both of Bryom's arms behind him in a tight hold. "What are you doing?" he yelled suddenly. She ignored him, pushing him into one of the open pods.

"Set destination to the fourth planet of Zarlon," Winter commanded. She could hear Bryom pounding on the closed door, yelling and cursing at her. "Engage," she commanded.

Winter watched the pod disappear down the shaft and leave the ship. She turned away, a deep feeling in her gut. She knew she had done the right thing but why did she feel so bad? She glanced out the hallway. The guards were gone, and she walked calmly down and boarded her ship. The Kamikaze was never a more welcome sight.

Winter looked out again at the reaches of space, staring out through her front window. She had escaped the mothership easily; Bryom had blown open the bay doors coming in. She had easily outrun the bigger, bulkier ship, jumping into lightspeed quickly.

She stared out at the stars, picking out star systems and constellations. There were so many out there…so many…to see. Bounty hunting had lost its flare now, since the ordeal with Bryom. Perhaps it wasn't worth it now. She knew that she would have to face Towre again, sometime or another. He would be waiting and she had to finish what he had begun…sometime. But not now, no. Now she was going to do something. She was going to see the galaxy for what it was.

She knew somewhere out there were her parents, watching her and keeping a close eye on her. She knew somewhere Bryom was looking for her, perhaps in anger, perhaps in waiting, Winter could not tell which. Perhaps she would return to him someday. But not now.

Winter felt a tickling in her eyes. They were…tears. The first tears she had shed since her parents' death. Perhaps now it was just a bit harder to say good-bye to anyone. She reached up and touched them. They were so familiar. So warm, so welcome to her for some reason.

But now she would make something of herself. She would continue to train, continue to live. But perhaps now it would mean more. Perhaps now it would be more than just a hunt. There was a whole galaxy out there, and there was no better time to start than now. And there were people who she had to see again…people to pay back lost debts to. And revenge to seek out.

Winter reached forward and hit the lightspeed control. There was no better time to start than now.