2948-05-12 - Tales from the Service: The Interrupted Retirement

Blinking her eyes in the stinging sunlight, Elaine Ziskind stepped out onto the rear deck of her hydroskimmer as it rocked back and forth in the gentle surf. The only sound besides the crump and hiss of surf was the keening cries of rockdivers circling above the cliffs and crowding the water-sculpted outcrops among which the watercraft sat at anchor.

As her eyes adjusted to the harsh blue-white light of the local star, Elaine gawked at the stunning scenery which dusk arrival had hidden from her the previous day. The sheltered cove looked simply too vivid to be real – the green surf crashing on red-brown rocks, lemon-yellow grasses marching down narrow black sand beaches in dozens of sheer canyons. Over everything, the infinte bowl of a turquoise sky devoid of clouds offered no veil to hide the graceful crescent of the planet’s huge moon.

“It’s prettier than anywhere else we’ve gone on the job, isn’t it?” Firmino Bellini hopped down from the roof of the cabin, where he’d been lounging. Firmi, an early riser by nature no matter where he went, had probably watched sunrise over the rim of a cup of synthetic coffee.

He didn’t need to tell Elaine how beautiful and peaceful the first part of the day had been – his serenely smug expression said enough. She tossed her head and pointed at a, boxy silhouette at the top of one of the cliffs. “That’s it, then?” It was the only sign of human presence in view, except for the hydroskimmer itself. “I was expecting…”

“Bigger?” Firmi walked up beside her and handed over a maglens, which she held up to her eye. The structure on the hill, composed of local stones held together into four stout walls with off-white plaster, wasn’t much bigger than the cramped cabin of the skimmer itself.

“Comfortable.” Elaine increased magnification and saw that the gray-blue door and window-shutters were  obviously polymer objects spun by a fabricator. Perhaps the place was not as primitive as it was obviously meant to look. “Any movement?”

Firmi shook his head. “If he’s there, he knows we’re here, but nothing has moved up there since sunrise.”

“Let’s get this over with.” Elaine tossed the maglens back and headed for the bow, where a hoversled lay lashed to the deck. After so many months in space, she ached to spend a few hours enjoying the scenery and sunlight, but with a war on and the company on contract, leisure wouldn’t pay.

Firmi disappeared into the cabin to remove their heavy weapons from the crates. They had hoped their distasteful task could be accomplished without shooting, but no mercenary ever bet their life on things going to plan. If the occupant of the cabin on the clifftop proved uncooperative, Elaine wasn’t about to let politeness dig her an unmarked grave.

Elaine had finished untying the cables holding the hoversled in place and installing its microreactor when Firmi returned and dropped a heavy crate into the latch-point on the rear of the sled. She looked up from its control column only long enough to take her carbine from his hands and sling it over her shoulder, then returned to watching over the sled’s start-up diagnostics.

Once the sled’s power-up cycle completed, Elaine eased it a few inches off the hydroskimmer’s deck on manual control, then slipped to one side to get clear of the watercraft’s antenna masts and protruding cabin in case of sudden swells. Firmi waited on the fantail until Elaine brought the sled around to pick him up, his heavy bolt rifle and its powerpack hanging conspicuously from his broad shoulders, and his light-duty combat armor hidden imperfectly under his uniform.

As the sled carried the pair toward the crashing surf in one of the canyons of the shore, Elaine noticed that her partner’s eyes were on the circling rockdivers high above, their golden-brown wings outstretched to catch late-morning updrafts. She didn’t blame him for being enchanted with the scenery, but there was a job to do. “Mind the op, not the birds.”

“Yeah, yeah.” His polarized lenses flashed as he turned his attention forward. “Sort of seems unfair, you know? Kirke-Moore went through all the trouble of finding a place like this, and we’re-”

“We’re doing our part.” Elaine interrupted. “Hang on.”

As she eased the hovering craft up to the loose slope of a damp rockslide, Elaine kicked in the sled’s A-grav thrusters at full power. With a distressed whine, the vehicle bounded up the slope in several elastic leaps, skidding in all directions as she wrestled with the controls to keep it level. The coast being sheer cliffs and high-walled coves for many kilometers, the sled was hardly the ideal vehicle to approach Kirke-Moore’s cabin, but it was the only way available to make the ascent short of cable and pitons. An airborne approach would have been preferred, except that the world’s tiny population had few aircraft, none of which were available for rental by heavily armed mercenary visitors. Instead, they had made the three-day journey from spaceport to the beautiful cove by the only vehicle available to them – the hydroskimmer.

When Elaine wrestled the sled onto the lip of the ravine, she caught her breath. Inland from the cliffs, rolling meadows of glittering crystalline flora marched to the far horizon, broken only by tufts of the same vivid yellow grass which dominated the cliff-edge. Shaking her head, she pulled the craft in a wide arc around the seaside cabin while Firmi watched for signs of movement. They had not come to harm Bozsi Kirke-Moore, but with all the trouble he’d taken to disappear, he would certainly not be pleased to see them.

With no sign of movement, Elaine brought the sled down in a clearing a few hundred meters away. As soon as it touched down, Firmi leapt off and vanished into the chest-high crystalline scrub, his size not hindering him in the slightest when it came to stealth and speed. Elaine stayed aboard only long enough to put it into safe idle mode, then stepped off herself, heading straight for the cabin.

“I’m in position.” Fermi’s voice, low and grim, filtered in through Elaine’s comm earpiece as she pushed her way through a stand of sturdy emerald-green bushes that seemed more mineral than vegetable. “Still no movement.”

“Copy.” She didn’t want to say more – the swaying rock-crystal garden of the local biosphere under the hard light of the local star seemed almost too peaceful for human speech, even though she was only fifty meters from Kirke-Moore’s front door.

At last, she pushed her way into the cleared area around the cliff-side cottage, where the yellow grass, regularly cut back, stood only ankle-high. The structure’s shuttered windows offered no hint that anyone waited within. Squaring her shoulders, Elaine circled the house and stood in front of the door, knowing that Firmi’s bolt-rifle was aimed precisely over her shoulder. Taking a deep breath and a single glance down at the stunning cove and the tiny-looking hydroskimmer anchored there, she knocked.

“It’s come to this, has it?”

The softly hoarse voice, barely audible over the hiss of the wind in the grass, took Elaine by surprise. She whirled to see a thin, white-haired man lying on a mat in the grass by the side of the house, head propped up on a rock. Though age had weathered the features that once most of the mercenaries and lawmen in the Reach had known well, Bozsi Kirke-Moore was still an unmistakable figure.

Though the old deep-space pirate’s only visible weapon, a chemical-propellant hunting rifle, sat idly against a nearby rock, his nonchalance and choice of sunning-spot set off alarm bells in Elaine’s head. Though visible from where she stood, and easily able to observe the hydroskimmer, he was entirely out of Firmi’s line of fire, demonstrating that he knew precisely where the big mercenary had stationed himself.

Firmi, listening in at a distance and watching Elaine in his bolt rifle’s scope, realized where their mark was as well. “Damn. I don’t have a shot, Elaine. Watch yourself.”

“Come now, mercenary. What brings you to my humble retirement home on such a fine day?” Kirke-Moore rolled his shoulders and sat more fully upright, leaning back against the rough wall of the cottage.

Elaine swallowed, deliberately keeping her hands away from the carbine slung at her back. Even in his advanced age, the most notorious pirate of the previous century was certainly faster on the draw than she was. “I’m under orders to escort you to Maribel, sir.”

“That really is a shame. I will not be going to Maribel.”

“Our employer thought you might say that, sir.” Elaine stepped away from the door and toward Kirke-Moore. “He gave me something to give you.” She motioned to a pocket of her jumpsuit, knowing not to reach for any concealed items without his leave.

The man nodded, and Elaine slowly reached into her pocket and withdrew the token Admiral Zahariev had given her. She tossed it across the intervening three meters. Kirke-Moore’s thin, heavily-veined hand snatched it out of the air, and he held it up to the sun. The dark metal of the half-moon shape seemed to darken the day’s brilliant sunlight, as if drawing the whole of the local primary’s radiance into itself.

“Supposing I handed this back, and said that I was still not going to Maribel.” Kirke-Moore said at length, his voice soft and his words deliberately slow. “What does your contract instruct you to do?”

Elaine hesitated. “Your… Remains are to be returned to Maribel in that event, sir.”

The old pirate chuckled, as if daring her to try. “And Reneer only sent the two of you to do the job? That’s almost insulting.”

Elaine said nothing. Firmi had packed enough heavy weapons to level the cottage from a distance if he holed up inside, but she doubted that would come as a surprise, just as the presence of her partner in overwatch had not escaped his notice.

Evidently, no answer proved to be the correct one. “Very well, mercenary. I have always honored my debts.” Kirke-Moore pocketed Admiral Zahariev’s token and stood. “I have only one condition.”

Elaine could hear Firmi’s sigh of relief over the comms. Kirke-Moore was taller than she expected, standing head and shoulders over her. “And that is?”

The old pirate smiled, his notoriously uneven teeth flashing against his sun-bronzed face. “For the rest of this day, I am still retired. It’s too perfect to spoil, don’t you agree?”

Elaine couldn’t help but nod her agreement, her gaze wandering once again to the bright, sparkling water of the cove below.

For the younger members of this audience, the name of Boszi Kirke-Moore may not inspire the same dread that it does for the older members of the interstellar community. Kirke-Moore was perhaps the most effective and terrifying pirate of ever to prowl the Coreward Frontier. Almost twenty years ago, his name was nearly a curse in this region. That he retired peacefully to a garden world is a quirk of fate which has much to do with that reputation - and for the long list of Navy captains who lost their lives and ships chasing him. When he'd had his fill of piracy, Kirke-Moore simply picked a planet to retire on, parked his ship Samarkand empty in orbit, and took a shuttle down to the pleasant spot of his choosing. His violent reputation ensured few visitors, and a strict set of security protocols on all space travel facilities on the planet has discouraged him from coming out of retirement voluntarily after the Navy towed away Samarkand.

One of the many Navy captains who pursued Kirke-Moore through the last years of his career of crimes and outrages was Reneer Zahariev - the very same who now commands Fifth Fleet. Kirke-Moore's oddly amicable retirement has always been rumored to have been arranged with the Navy, and Kirke-Moore's appearance at Fifth Fleet headquarters recently has for many confirmed these decades-old suspicions.

Kirke-Moore showing up to advise the same lawmen who he once evaded or murdered has been a public relations spectacle for the fleet - and Naval Intelligence has allowed the mercenaries Admiral Zahariev sent to retrieve him to describe the situation in which they found this old pirate enjoying his retirement.