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Ten thousand UEC per day. That’s how much Zora needed to earn to keep her life on an even keel. Maintaining the Terrapin, her sole source of income, was her first priority. Having a roof over her head was second. More than a convenience, leasing an apartment helped eating cheap and eliminated renting storage compartments for the crates of equipment she’d amassed over the years. Sure, it was a tight fit squeezing it all in, and living in what amounted to a cramped one-room mini-warehouse, but it worked.

Zora had used the first few days after arriving on ArcCorp to settle into her new life based out of Area 18. Today it was time to earn real cash. Time to start making her daily quota before she ate up too much of her rainy-day stash. She was determined that by hook or crook she’d make a successful go of this.

Leaving the chaotic group, she’d been a member of the past three years was a painful decision. Ultimately, Zora decided she wanted to build an independent future. To her, it seemed contract work for general purpose teams was drying up in Stanton. At critical mass, the corporate-owned planets wanted you on their payroll and under their thumb, especially on Hurston. In Stanton, you either worked for a megacorp, earning slave wages you gave right back to them for housing and upkeep, or you eked out a living working for small contract brokers — or worse. While the private brokers shelled out higher pay and offered solo work with more flexibility, it was served with a side order of uncertainty. As a freelancer, no one owed you your next gig. Plus, some of the jobs were dubious at best. At least you decided on your own if you wanted to partake or not.

Zora was prepared to do whatever it took to make this venture successful. She was exhausted by group decisions, cliques, and in-fighting. Wanted more than being at the end of someone else’s leash. She had her morals, scruples, and whatnot. Nevertheless, she’d decided in advance, that they’d take second place if it came down to it.   

Lounging on her narrow and thinly padded bunk, Zora’s legs were slung across a box she used as a nightstand. She had her mother’s liquid brown eyes. Her father’s full lips, broad nose, and pecan colored skin. Dense auburn coils with hints of red were piled high on her head. She bit her lower lip. “Stop thinking about it,” she told herself. “Parting on bad terms was their fault, not mine.” Tapping on her mobiGlas, she grumbled, “I’ve got a right to leave if I wanna.” Although she tried to minimize it, having to sever contact with the only so-called friends she had in the area stung.

Zora sighed and returned to scanning through today’s job postings. She’d invested in a mobile Trade and Development Division account that allowed her to apply for contracts directly on her mobiGlas, a holographic tablet she wore on her wrist. There were many low-pay listings readily available for captains with hoopty ships. She’d have to string several of them together to make decent money, which wasn’t ideal. It would take longer and cost more in fuel. Besides, she had a capable ship to command. Her Anvil Terrapin, shaped and built as tough as its namesake, was in excellent condition. She’d purchased a bit above her capabilities not having experience in reconn or tactical exploration. For now, she’d use it for what she knew and grow into the rest.

“Hmm,” she muttered to herself continuing to flip through the listings that only required minimal experience, “these can be back-ups. Enough of ‘em that they’ll be around for a while. Let’s see if we can kick the dust off something better.”  Already dressed and ready to roll, Zora wound her way through her haphazardly stacked crates of gear and belongings to head out the door.

***

The sights and sounds of Area 18 assaulted her senses as she exited the building. Brightly colored neon signs flickered. Holographic billboards stood several stories high. Vendors selling from mobile carts, the exotic aromas mingling together made her stomach whine for a taste, as her mouth watered. Hover trams swooshing by at regular intervals. Chattering pedestrians darting in every direction. Zora blinked, took a deep breath, and luxuriated in the energy. She was used to living in the oppressing black of deep space. Walking scuffed gray passageways aboard aging utilitarian ships. Breathing dingy recycled air. While ArcCorp, as a company, wasn’t known for caring about the local environment of their cities or how their residents lived, they didn’t skimp on technology or easy access to services.  Sure, the buildings and residents were packed in like oiled sardines, but there were very few things you couldn’t lay your hands on, one way or another around here. For some, this was slumming it. For Zora, it was a definitive step up.

“I could get used to this.” She smiled to herself as she meandered her way toward Zone 1, her long confident gait, outpacing most others. Her eyes greedily scanned the storefronts she passed. Casaba’s fashionably dressed mannequins, in particular, caught her attention. Having civilian clothing wasn’t necessary, practical or a priority living aboard a ship fulltime. Now… She looked at her reflection in the oversized window pane.

She was decked out, head to toe, in her full set of Microid Desert gear.  Light and smooth as leather, the tan Microid fiber hugged Zora’s curves, fitting snuggly over the flight suit. For extra protection, she wore a light brown breastplate. A utility belt with extra ammunition and emergency supplies rested low on her hips. A khaki green scarf covering her head was wrapped crisscross around her necked and billowed out behind her. Her helmet, which would conceal her face entirely, was propped under her left arm. All combined, it was an odd outfit for walking around ArcCorp but perfect camouflage when doing illegal salvage on the dusty, windswept waste heaps of Hurston.

Zora tugged at the frayed edges of her neck scarf. Gazing at the color coordinated top and pant sets displayed in the window, she said, “Soon…” Turning away, “business first.”

On her first tour of the area, she’d noticed several small contract companies had offices along the passageway leading to Zone 1. She’d also made a few discrete inquiries about opportunities before deciding on ArcCorp as a home base. She already had a profile of her work experience, ship configuration and weapons expertise on a few message boards. She’d even parted with the extra coins and taken on the associated risk, of obtaining an account and security token to access the dark web, a hub of local black market activity. Doing the latter wasn’t the sort of work she was after, but a girl needed options in her hip pocket.

Just as Zora entered the passageway leading to Zone 1, an alert sounded on her mobi. It was a job posting from BIT, Buggly Independent Transport. She stopped to read the details. “Damn, this looks good,” she murmured, “but…” her voice trailed off.

During her search for possible clients, Zora had come across Reggie, the owner of Buggly Independent Transport. BIT offered short-hop conveyance work that required light combat experience. Reggie didn’t intend for there to be trouble, but he wanted couriers who could handle themselves in case it arrived. Pilots who can think on their feet was how he’d phrased it. Zora had the impression that while delivery was important, protecting the package was the priority.

She hesitated, torn between checking in with the brokers right here, who might not have anything versus racing off to BIT, who had a job for sure. Zora scanned the windows along the dimly lit area. She could see lights flickering in a couple of the brokers’ offices. “Shit.” She hadn’t planned on her first contract being with BIT, but this new listing alert was among the highest paying. Could she scoff at an 8K job offering sent out to a limited list of contractors? No, she couldn’t. At the very least, she should check it out. “Let’s see what’s up.” Zora made a U-turn and quickened her pace as she headed back toward Buggly’s spot.

Buggly didn’t have an office. He had spots. Places you could find him during certain times of the day. To know when and where, you had to have met him previously, and have been given a cipher to decode his location which he artfully buried in his job postings. Based on this one, Buggly was near the center of the Area 18 Plaza.

TO BE CONTINUED

Alysianah Noire  | Copyright 2019 All Rights Reserved