Calista cast her gaze over the cargo bill. "Libertinus, huh? I've heard you can buy just about anything there, provided you've got credits to burn." The pleasure planet was a preferred vacation destination for the debauched and infamous. And anyone willing to blow more credits on a night's accommodation than she could hope to earn in ten lifetimes.
"So they say." The beefy warehouse dispatcher rummaged about in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled packet of nics.
It was only then that Calista noticed he had six fingers on each hand. Pretty tame as genetic enhancements went, as were his purple eyes with the deep green irises and his perfect, golden-hued skin. He probably imagined the combo would help him pull the babes.
His enhancements had the opposite effect on Calista, who couldn't help the nausea bubbling in her stomach at the thought of what some humans were prepared to do to themselves. The skin and eyes she could handle, but the extra fingers? Ick.
"Mind if I light up?" he asked, fumbling with the pack's closure.
"Yes, actually," she said without thinking.
His too-smooth-to-be-natural forehead creased into a frown.
Crap! Curse her quick tongue. "I'm allergic to the smoke," she lied, taking care to make her tone apologetic. "Gives me such a killer headache that I have to pop a handful of sleepies and go lie down somewhere dark and quiet for a few hours."
To his credit, he got the not-so-subtle implication that she might miss her launch window because of his addiction and tossed the pack back onto his desk. He contented himself with fidgeting and shifting his weight from one foot to the other and eyeing Calista up while she completed her checks.
The cargo she had been contracted to courier appeared innocuous enough. A stock standard, maxi-sized plasteel crate, reinforced so that if some idiot skimped on cargo webbing and it bounced all over the hold during transport, its contents would survive the trip intact. Nor did the Property of the Imperium seals emblazoned in indelible crimson ink on its surfaces worry her. She'd couriered enough Imperium cargo to know the ins and outs of dealing with "Imp" lackeys. Even pretty-boys like this one.
Calista ran her scanner over the crate, performing what appeared to be a routine check for residual nasties that might have contaminated the casing in transit. Her scan was anything but routine. She'd bastardized a medi-scanner and disguised it inside the housing of a basic TPS--trace particle scanner. Surprises didn't thrill her at all. These days she didn't trust anyone except herself, and she preferred to know exactly what she was transporting.
Her scanner emitted a series of short beeps, similar to an "all clear" contaminant scan, but in this case alerting her to the presence of a shielding device that had been designed to emit a fake reading. Calista forced herself to relax and show no reaction at all.
Agraria, a self-proclaimed agricultural paradise, was renowned for the low contamination levels of its crops. The entire planet was ultra-clean, achingly green, and so picturesque that a first glimpse of its rolling hills brought tears to the eyes of even jaded tourists. And a sniff of its air produced tears for an entirely different reason. Agraria stank. The entire planet reeked of the excrement and other waste products used to fertilize the crops, and after three days here, twiddling her thumbs as she waited for another courier run, Calista's sinuses still ached.
What the heck could this boring little outpost offer the denizens of a pleasure planet drowning in credits? Certainly not "dried foodstuffs", whatever the documentation might claim. Nor anything else that Libertines couldn't source from somewhere a heap closer and far more fragrant.
The shipment had to be something that illegals would covet. Which meant that there was a bloody good chance someone, somewhere, would already have figured out what was really in this crate. And already lined their pockets by on-selling the information.
Shit. She should have known the terms of this contract were too freaking good to be true. She might as well have painted a target right across the ass-end of her ship. She would have to watch her back.
"Everything check out?" the dispatcher asked.
His neutral expression heightened Calista's suspicions still more. She would bet her next bowl of cocoa mousse that he was on the take and siphoning credits into his own pocket, but she couldn't call him on it--not if she wanted to stay under the Imp radar.
"Yep. Everything checks out." She peeled the protective cover from the cargo bill's sig-pad and pressed the ball of her thumb into the perma-gel. Then she shoved the pad under his scanner, and they played the obligatory waiting game.
Agraria's DNA-print tech was nowhere near as sophisticated as the ret-scanners some of the other outposts used, but it still did the trick. And there was no messing with it unless you'd had your prints lasered and re-etched, and all your medical records altered by one of the best hackers in the business. Calista had also had her eyes done so that she wouldn't throw up a flag during a ret-scan. Hideously expensive and somewhat painful procedures, but given her less-than-stellar parentage, a necessity.
The imprint glowed, and the hiss of spray sealant announced that Calista's ID had been officially recorded and accepted, and the cargo transferred to her tender care. Along with the first installment owed her. Which she verified by swiping her card through the warehouse's CreditTech unit and confirming her account balance.
"Is there a problem?" The dispatcher's tone hinted at a challenge as if he expected her to balk and try to wriggle out of the contract.
"Nope. Everything's peachy."
"Peachy?" His brows knotted into a perplexed frown.
"Fuzzy-skinned fruit that's rumored to have grown on the human home-world," she said, still mulling possible reasons why an Imperium outpost would contract a freelancer to courier shielded cargo rather than using one of their own transporters. Sure, a freelancer could deliver the cargo more quickly, but not even the most badass illegals fucked with an Imperium transporter.
The fine hairs on the back of her neck rose a split second before her brain registered the ominous silence. She glanced up at the dispatcher and met with a scowl.
"You're one of those." The bleakness of his disapproval iced her skin.
It was a deeply ingrained habit for Calista to guard her tongue around Imperium employees. Slipping up like this was so uncharacteristic that her lapse worried her more than his reaction.
She pulled herself together and favored him with a shrug and self-deprecating toothy grin. "I spent my formative years with a half-mad old woman who was obsessed with Earther legends. She filled my head with all sorts of nonsense." He could even check if he decided to be a suspicious bastard. Calista's fake history was tighter than a synth-pet's furry asshole.
She fine-tuned her smile to a cutesy pursing of her lips. "I've tried to break myself of the habit of blurting these silly sayings, but sometimes they just slip out. I'll have to try a bit harder, I guess." Cue appropriate batting of eyelashes. "Wouldn't want anyone getting the wrong idea."
He didn't recoil or run screaming from the warehouse, so she figured all that practice in front of the mirror had paid off. Instead, his purple eyes darkened. His gaze turned speculative, almost predatory, but whether his interest was sexual or financial she couldn't yet discern.
She would prefer sexual. That she could deal with. But with her luck, his brain was even now churning with visions of extracting as many credits as he could from her in return for his silence. Earthers were barely tolerated by the Imperium, and many were routinely hauled in on trumped-up charges, incarcerated and left to rot. The last thing Calista needed was to be lumped in with those fanatics.
"You wouldn't want certain people getting the wrong impression about your loyalties," he finally said, holding her gaze for a long moment.
"Absolutely!" Calista gushed, pretending that she was too damned thick to understand the implied threat. "Why, I would be mortified if anyone suspected me of being one of those brain-fried dreamers. I mean to say, believing that a utopia like Earth is reputed to be, even exists? Puhlease!" Cue ceiling-ward eye-roll. Followed by a gasp and a dramatic, wide-eyed expression of horror. "Gosh, you couldn't be thinking that I'm one of them?" She punctuated that statement with an inane giggle. "No. Of course you couldn't. How silly of me."
One more giggle as she folded her arms beneath her boobs to draw attention to her cleavage ought to do it.
The dispatcher's gaze licked down her body, then back up, lingering on her breasts.
Excellent. Lust was far easier to deal with than blackmail. And if he went so far as to feel her up, then Calista would have him right where she wanted him.
She worked hard at hiding the true extent of her capabilities and projecting a harmless public face so that people would underestimate her. The predominately male courier fraternity treated her like an oldest child would treat a naive younger sibling. She was tolerated and even cosseted--when she wasn't being slammed for trying to play hardball with the big boys. Her peers assumed she eked out a meager living and that as soon as the novelty wore off, she would hook a suitable guy and give up her nomadic lifestyle.
Those chauvinistic bastards honestly believed Calista's entire reason for existing was to decorate some man's bed. Oh, and devote her life to making him happy.
She stifled a snort. Get real.
She had enough credits squirreled away to get by and it suited her to pretend to be barely competent. But as much as she loathed people copping one look at her and automatically slashing her IQ in half, it did come in handy. Like now, dealing with an Imp who was acting like he hadn't gotten laid by anything resembling a human being in months. "Wait till the other couriers hear I've scored a run to Libertinus," she cooed, and then sucked in a deep breath to better display her assets. "They're gonna be sooo envious that I was selected for this! Someone must have realized I'm pretty good at my job, huh? Even though I'm a girl?"
Ick. It nauseated her how well she could assume this bimbo persona. And lately, Calista had found herself slipping into the role far too often. Maybe it was time to find a nice planet, buy up some property and settle down. Yeah. Riiight.
She reached up to flick the hoist switch, and the man's gaze slid over her again, hot and wanting as he lingered on the swell of her breasts beneath her form-fitting shipsuit. He practically drooled.
Double ick. She could almost feel those extra digits of his touching her bare skin. But gross-factor aside, he was playing right into her hands and she would be daft not to take advantage. Calista moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue as she manipulated the hoist controls.
Come on, lover. Make my day.
A craft passed overhead and the shrill whine of its laboring engines scoured her eardrums. It needed servicing pronto. The dispatcher winced, and the speculative lust faded from his gaze.
Damn. There went Calista's last real chance to rid herself of this cargo without attracting unwanted speculation. None of her colleagues would have batted an eyelid at her bailing on the contract if this guy had tried it on. Heck, all she would have to do was sniffle and shed a few artful tears while she described being pawed by the big bad six-fingered cargo dispatcher, and they would even deal with him on her behalf. And then fight over who got to take over the run.
"Let me do that for you." The dispatcher strode forward to nudge her aside with his hip and take over loading the crate onto her grav sled.
What a freaking jerk-off. Calista ground her jaw. If she was so dumb that she couldn't be trusted to load a frigging sled without assistance, then why the heck had she been picked for this run in the first place? Why had she been contracted to transport something so rare or expensive that it warranted a state-of-the-art shielding device halfway across the galaxy? Why not choose one of her supposedly far more capable male counterparts--one of those guys still slouched over the bar, numbing his abused nostrils with copious amounts of alcohol?
Why choose her?
Unless someone had specifically requested an inexperienced courier to do the run.
Calista didn't like the implications of that idea at all.
She cast one last vacuous smile at the dispatcher. "Thanks so much for your help. I couldn't have done it without you." Then, all on her own, without any assistance whatsoever from a man, she leashed the grav-sled to her belt.
With her cargo bobbing weightlessly behind her, she headed for the exit. As she passed granaries and reeking fertilizer warehouses, she chewed over possible scenarios. And by the time she'd reached the docking bay, she was considering ditching the cargo and launching without it.
Gosh, I'm very sorry, Mr. Imp, sir, but I was suddenly overcome by the most dreadful cramps! Before I could load my cargo aboard I simply had to rush to the san. And when I got back, the crate was gone. Stolen! Horrors! What's the universe coming to when a law-abiding citizen can't leave their belongings unattended for five minutes?
Yeah. Like they'd believe that. Even defacing Imperium property got you a transfer to some hellish prison planet until some terminally bored assistant got around to scheduling your case.
Calista contemplated the possible penalty for careless misplacement of said property, and despite the muggy heat, cold sweat prickled her spine. Sure, she could turn illegal, on-sell the cargo--whatever it turned out to be, there would be someone willing to part with credits to possess it--and make herself scarce for the next umpteen decades. But she'd had a taste of that lifestyle and didn't much appreciate the constant stress of looking over her shoulder.
Bottom line? She couldn't afford to get caught selling Imperium property. And neither could she afford to lose Imperium property consigned to her care. Even if she could prove beyond a doubt that she'd been robbed by a whole fleet of marauding illegals, her fake history could only withstand so much official investigation. Her best recourse was to play the game, deliver the bloody cargo, and hope to get out in one piece.
Of course, there was always the remote possibility that prolonged exposure to the stench of shit could have affected her brain and she was suffering from paranoia. This could all be a storm in a caff cup, nothing to worry about. And as she leaned in to whisper the access code to her ship's hatch, Calista hoped that her well-honed instincts were way off.
Just this once.
Three shampoos and a week's ration of bathing gel later, Calista could still detect the faint odor of fertilizer on her skin. A radiant fluid bath would do the trick, but her departure window was looming, and she had no desire to miss it and stick around on Agraria any longer than necessary. Besides, it wasn't like she had some hot guy aboard that she was desperate to impress. She inserted her whiffy self into a clean shipsuit, left the san and headed for the bridge.
Calista's ship had been designed for a crew of three, two at a pinch. But the illegal who'd appropriated Doppelganger and given her to Calista had rerouted nav, scan and targ to the captain's comptroller. He'd also taught her how to override the computer safeguards and incorporate a few other little improvements, which allowed her to fly solo with a minimum of effort. That illegal had also been her biological father.
Calista had to hand it to the man whose sperm had helped create her. Once he'd been made aware of his offspring's talents, he'd done his fatherly duty. And, once the Imperium realized his talents, they'd blasted him to smithereens. No warning shot. No opportunity to surrender. The battle cruiser materialized from hyperspace with its matter cannon already charged, locked onto its target and fired.
Instant obliteration. Such was the fate of any illegal who made a habit of thumbing his nose at the Imperium regime.
"Docking Bay, this is Doppelganger. Ready to launch."
"Doppelganger, you're good to go in five. Four. Three. Two. One."
With the Docking Bay's "Safe journey!" echoing in her ears, Calista launched and got the hell out of the sector.
Her booze-swilling counterparts back on Agraria might call back-to-back hyperspace jumps reckless. Given her suspicions that someone was going to attempt to relieve her of the cargo, Calista called it being prudent, even if the jump effects were cumulative and by the third jump she was mainlining stim to remain functional. She would get some sleep after she'd cleared another sector and put enough distance between herself and any would-be pursuers.
And after she found out what was inside that damned crate.
If she had even a modicum of sense left, she would remain blissfully ignorant. Continue her headlong flight to Libertinus, hand over the cargo, collect her fee and take an extended holiday. But she couldn't get the damned thing out of her mind.
Curiosity consumed her. The desire to eyeball the cargo skittered through her mind. It was like some persistent song or phrase buzzing in her head, irritating as all heck but too compelling to ignore. If she hadn't known better, she might have thought the bloody thing had possessed her.
She injected another hypo of stim into her veins and dragged her still protesting body down to the cargo hold.
The crate sat secure and snug in its protective webbing, taunting her with its unprepossessing appearance. Appearances were so often deceiving--fatal, even--that Calista chose not to ignore her gut instincts and allowed paranoia to rule. She maneuvered a loading platform beneath the crate, retracted the webbing, and lowered the crate to the ground. Then she took her time to scan the crate's exterior for snoopers.
Righto. On to phase two.
But phase two was risky, downright perilous to her ongoing health. If she was caught out, she wouldn't be able to plead ignorance. Should she risk it? Did she need to know that much?
She scanned the crate's locking mechanism. Standard Imp issue. According to popular doctrine, unbreakable. And more often than not, booby-trapped.
Lock-picking happened to be another of her many and varied skills, but her instincts were shrieking at her that time was of the essence. Picking the lock and by-passing the booby-traps would take time she could ill afford. And far quicker than lock-picking was crate-cutting.
The beauty of this little scheme was that she wouldn't have to get creative to cover up what she'd done. She had a range of Imperium-stamped crate blanks stashed in a hidden compartment of her cargo hold, along with a selection of Imp locking devices for those rare situations that she stuffed up and ruined a lock. Calista had learned to be prepared for anything.
Once she discovered what the secretive nonsense was about, all she had to do was repackage the contents in a new crate, complete with the shielding device and replicated crate IDs. Easy peasy for a skilled forger like herself. No one would ever suspect that she'd tampered with the cargo. Sometimes she was so fucking smart that she scared herself.
She affixed a set of suckers to the side of the crate. One of her augmented las-cutters sliced through the tough plasteel like a hot knife through cocoa mousse. She gave the suckers one sharp yank and the side popped neatly out.
Calista expected the crate to vomit packing beads. Instead, she was treated to a quivering mass of opaque gel cushioning.
Delicate cargo. Curiouser and curiouser.
She grabbed a heat-vac and set to work. When she'd melted and sucked up half the gel, she was treated to a good view of what it had been protecting.
An egg. A fricking large egg, about six inches long and nearly as wide, and the largest egg she'd ever seen.