The insurance business is a scam.
Back when they took a part of my paycheck and contributed it to my CorSec health insurance plan, I didn’t really think about it and used it slightly less. In the greater galaxy, there is little actual insurance though some slick bankers will try to tell you otherwise. Just save your money for a rainy day, that’s what Uncle Sal says.
I’d spent the better part of a cycle kicking around the Mid and Outer Rims trying to scrape together enough work to keep the Servant flying. The results were mixed. We were grounded a few times when something or other broke, but we always made do. As I’ve often said, someone somewhere needs help getting rid of their extra credits.
Once we had Erana safely off world, we shored things up with the Hutts and the Brotherhood, exposing Carson Black as an Imperial Agent responsible for the deaths of hundreds of wealthy families. After something like that, you tend to want to disappear. Me and H1R0 split up: me to try and track down some more intel on Carson Black and he to … well, I don’t know what he was up to, honestly. He didn’t like the idea of digging any further into Black’s operations but I wanted a little extra insurance in case it came to a fight.
I made it to a couple backwoods planets and managed to lift enough data to figure out some of Black’s safehouses. Between that and the intel we stored in the droid on Nar Shadaa, I felt safe. Black could come after me, if revenge was his thing, but I had enough information to take him down if he did, and no interest whatsoever in tussling with anyone having to do with Imperial Special Forces every again.
I was feeling uncharacteristically lonely out in the black by myself and, my pockets recently gilded by a small smuggling job, I made berth on Kallenko, a mid-rim planet famous for it’s spiraling coral towers. There wasn’t much to do but see the sites, and for once, it felt good to be among people. After resolving things with Erana and putting Black in his place, I had barely touched a drink. Freedom was mine again, so it was with a sense of relief that I breathed deep the salt air of Kallenko from my hotel bar’s balcony. A voice behind me snapped me back to reality:
“Are you Mr. Xero?”
I turned. A blue, perhaps amphibian bi-ped stood there, his glass-bead black eyes blinking dumbly in his craggy skull. “Who told you that?”
“The concierge droid informed me that you checked in under that name … using an IPKC license.”
My kingdom for a droid with discretion. “Mr. Xero is the father of an ungrateful brat. Call me Sal.”
He seemed confused. “So you are not Mr. Xero?”
Lickspittle, who was this guy? “I’m Sal. Sal Xero.”
“Oh, I see. You’ll have to forgive me. I am Selkath, from Manaan. My people don’t leave our home planet very often.”
“Pleased to meet you Selkath.” I took a drink and returned to the view.
“Ahh, sorry again. Selkath is my species. My name is Unruuda.”
“So we’ve learned that cross-species confusion works both ways. Imagine that.”
“I have something I’d like to discuss with you.”
“Sorry,” I said, “I’m already busy discussing something with this tumbler.”
“Perhaps I could refill you drink in exchange for a minute of your time?”
“Say, a minute will cost you more than a refill – it’s going to be at least a double.”
“As you wish.”
The Selkath motioned for me to follow. We moved inside. I gave the ocean view slashed with those Coral Towers one last longing glance, and added this moment to the long list of those times I wished I was born without a conscience.
At the bar Unruuda, true to his word, bought me a double Doshan Heater. Trandoshans may be ugly and degenerate, but they knew how to make a botanical spirit that eased life’s troubles. I made slow pulls on the drink, still not used to drinking in earnest again, while the Selkath spilt his story.
“I’ve been asking around the various hotels for a bounty hunter – the system police are no help at all. The droid up front mentioned your name so I sought you out. I have an unusual problem.”
“Having problems isn’t unusual. Now, someone solving their own instead of coming to me …”
“Of course you are busy, Sal Xero, but I would ask that you please hear me out.”
Again, I was being mean. That soft spot I have for folks who need help was pretty hard to mask. The drink helped and anyway, he meant well. I think it was a “he.”
“As I said, my people do not often travel far from home. Our own Oceanic world is quite accommodating enough, and we have no interest in galactic politics. We have remained neutral, even in the face of the Empire’s brief occupation and partial enslavement of our species. Our planet contains a unique resource called Kolto – perhaps you’ve heard of it? It processes marvelous healing qualities?”
“Nonetheless it is this Kolto which has made my world wealthy and peaceful. Recently, a bacteriophage has begun attacking the organisms which reside in the digestive tract of the large fish, who are responsible for kolto production.”
“Let’s talk a little bit less about fish guts and a bit more about the job.”
“Right. Our scientists believed that the bacteriophage was not native and was, in fact, brought to Manaan by visiting ships. Since the phage can only exist in certain oceanic conditions, we began to investigate worlds with similar profiles to Manaan. Although Kallenko has land masses, it’s size, distance from solar-center, and material make-up is nearly identical to my homeworld.”
“So you came here to find a cure for your fishes’ tummy ache?”
“Affirmative. My ship was s systems-patrol shuttle, equipped as all our craft are for underwater excursions. Upon arrival, I docked near the water-line of this very Tower. I left to visit with some local scientist who I hoped could shed light on where I could begin my search. When I returned to the docking bay, eager to begin my voyage, my ship was gone.”
So I was looking for a ship-jacker. “Your ship’s long gone, pal.”
The Selkath blinked. Unable to read his emotions, I went on. “Ship-jackers don’t hang around after a job. Chances are they blasted their way through customs and made a quick jump bound for a chop shop. If the local police don’t have any leads, what makes you think I will?”
“Because you are a bounty hunter, not a cop. Your methods are different. As are your rules.”
“Even if I agreed with you – I’ve already told you, the ship jumped system.”
“Impossible – the ship has no hyperdrive. I docked with a freighter on Manaan who dropped me off here. Moreover, it is an unorthodox make – crafted specifically for Selkath physiology. Piloting the ship would be very difficult for another being.”
“The interior is flooded with salt water upon take off.”
Piloting a ship in an underwater suit wouldn’t be easy, never mind how to address reading instruments through a wall of water. That basically ruled out a thief in a SCUBA suit. So Selkath (and whoever stole the ship) can breath underwater. That narrowed things down a bit. Still, in a galaxy of 20,000,000 sapient species it wasn’t an unheard of trait.
“Not to be pushy, but let’s say I can find your ship. What can I expect in terms of compensation?”
“The knowledge that you will have saved millions of beings through the cultivation of kolto is not enough?”
The Selkath made a hacking motion like he was coughing. I stood up, but he waved one of his hands in a dismissing gesture.
“A little more humor for you, Sal Xero.”
“Actually, that was pretty good. Especially for a scientist.”
“Will 12,000 credits be sufficient?”
“That’ll do just fine.”
Carrying a blaster wasn’t illegal on Kallenko, but the authorities would still arrest you if they found you in the company of a lady like Black Rosie.
Rosie was a Corellian Arms C1-31s heavy blaster pistol, originally CorSec issued, partially made of black semi-metal carbon parts to reduce her weight (women are so sensitive about these things). I had made that addition back on the force and the lack of weight through some folks who had handled her off their game. For me, it meant I could get her out of the holster in half the time it took another shooter with a stock pistol. The overload switch concealed in what would normally be the safety switch (left “off”) would cause Rosie to detonate like a grenade if it every came to that. But the clincher, the one that a real sleuth would see and dock me for was the trigger.
A true hair trigger was the mark of a real gunslinger. The tiny sliver was ergonomic, peppered with micro-weave to prevent the finger from slipping. No assistance was necessary – this was purely mechanical. A light tap of the finger sent Rosie to work making bolts. You didn’t pull the trigger, you just squeezed her a little.
I had, out of courtesy to myself and my desire to forget my recent troubles, left Black Rosie on the ship. I travelled back to the bay and gave the Servant the once over. The red-and-white hull of the YT-1300p represented all I needed in the universe – the freedom to roam. As I approached, proximity detectors near the ramp responded to the code cylinder in my shirt pocket. A panel revealed itself and I punched in my six-digit code.
The ramp lowered and I headed up the ramp and into my room. I took the gunman’s rig from the hook on the wall and strapped it on, buckling the leg-strap just as a banging noise came from the longue.
I flipped Rosie into my hand with a snap and crept down the hallway. My CorSec training, as ever, kicked in on its own. Heel-toe, and careful to control my breath, I came into the room with my blaster point forming a triangle with my shoulders. An impossibly-thin and intimately familiar droid stood with his hands in the dummy solid-waste disposal panel.
“Can I help you, Hero?”
H1-R0 turned, his head doing 180 degrees before his body rotated to match.
“Heya, Sal. Just looking for something I left in the “trash can”, you know?”
“It’ll only take me a second. Sheesh, where is it?” Bits of things I couldn’t find a place for elsewhere were tumbling out of the little smuggling compartment and onto the floor.
“You look good, Sal. And you don’t smell like booze.”
“HERO.” The droid stopped and looked back.
“I haven’t seen you in five months, then you show up on Kallenko – the planet I happen to be vacationing on – break into my ship and start digging through my hidden compartments?”
H1-R0 tossed Sal a flask that had appeared from behind the dummy panel. “Have a drink, Sal. That always calmed you down before. Don’t be mad.”
“Okay, look. I’m not mad at you and I don’t want a drink.” I put the bottle of whiskey down on the table and slumped into the booth. “I’m just curious what you’re doing here, that’s all.”
H1-R0 launched into his story. About five minutes in I found that, inexplicably, the whiskey cap had removed itself and, quite of its own volition, begun to pour itself into a tumbler that I was draining.
Really, I had nothing to do with it.
“I’m not going to bore you with the details, Sal,” I told him, his meaty fist wrapped around the tumbler. “I know you would become anxious and irritable within the first three-hundred seconds of my story, so I’ll be brief.”
“Gee, Hiro, you know me so well,” Sal mumbled over the drink.
“I do, and better than you know yourself, I would wager,” I sat in the booth across from Sal, and knitted my durasteel fingers in a complex latticework. “While you ran off into the galaxy at large, searching for adventure, asking for trouble, I was shoring our bets. Covering your tracks, erasing our histories and ensuring that Carson Black or any of his compatriots could not find us.”
“Hey, buddy, now listen here—“ Sal raised his voice. I knew he wouldn’t like this part, but he needed to hear it.
“I told you not to be mad,” I shook my head and leaned back in the booth. “I told you I knew you better than you knew yourself. Now drink up, we’re just beginning.”
Sal grimaced, his lips pursing into a line so tight that they disappeared altogether. He leaned back, feigning relaxation, but took my advice and drained the tumbler. I poured him another, and continued.
“We got in over our heads, Sal. Nothing more to say about that. It was a mess, and I did a little bit of cleaning. End of that story,” I slipped a cigarette from a recess in my arm, and lit it with an arc wielder that was laying on the table.
“Since when did you start, uh, smoking?” Sal asked, his mood suddenly swinging from angry to incredulous. That was good.
“Not too long after we split, I find it helps sooth my nerves.”
“You don’t have any nerves!”
“I have feelings, so I’d thank you for not treating me like some common appliance, Sal.” I didn’t mind, not really, but the change in conversation helped to alleviate the situation. He gave me one of his looks, then drained the glass. “I can’t find my brother, Sal.”
“Your brother? You mean—“
“My duplicate, yes. H1-M3 is his designation, and he’s completely disappeared.”
“Wasn’t that the plan? For him to lose himself in the galaxy?”
“Yes, well, that was your plan. Hymie and I had—“
“Yes, Hymie. It’s his name. Based off of the serial designation he was granted upon his creation, much like my own name—“
“Yes, yes, I get it.” Sal refilled the tumbler and was sipping at it with a purpose.
“Then stop interrupting me with questions you already know the answers to,” I replied, and knocked some ash from the cigarette I still gripped. “Hymie and I had set up a series of scenarios that were supposed to be enacted under very specific circumstances. According to the events that transpired in the order they did, events r3, y12, and f9 were flagged, indicating that we were to meet on a planet named Gallidion IV exactly one month, four days and twelve hours after we left Nar Shadaa. If one of us were held up, we were to wait for one-hundred and forty-two hours, and if the other did not appear, we were to leave and fall back to several back-up rendezvous points.”
Sal stared at me, and began to rub his temple. Perhaps I was presenting too many details. “So your brother-bot never showed?”
“That’s right. I even set up shop for a little while, waiting longer than I was supposed to, I admit. Not my smartest move, either. I almost got blasted more than once. But that’s not important.”
“What’d you end up doing?”
I stood up, and returned to the “garbage” receptacle, and resumed my search. “I visited each of the rendezvous points in sequence, as planned. Sigma Dragolis, Erol, Tattooine. Never saw him again.”
“Hiro, I’m sorry. But what are you looking for here, then?”
I could feel the alcohol hitting my system in full effect now. I raised the tumbler but put it down before taking another drink. All this talk of insurance sent a chill down my spine, and I admit the alcohol was helping ease that pain. The thought of running into Black and his cronies again was something I had hoped to stave off for at least another lifetime. But this was a time for clarity and sobriety, not running into a bottle like my old man.
“Alright, Hiro, I’ll bite: you’re saying that when we left that data dump in your, ahem, brother back on Nar Shadaa along with a complicated algorithm for checking in with it, you programmed additional security layers – without my knowing I’ll add – and have been monitoring transmission to and from Hymie since?”
Hiro turned long enough to nod rapidly a few times, clearly proud of himself.
“Just so we’re clear – and I really have to stress this – you didn’t think the added communication might tip someone off to Hymie’s location?”
“Oh, Sal,” Hiro said not turning, “I used a 1,152-bit encrypted tunnel just to get to the three-tiered wave pipe that connected to a reinforced secure sub host on a concealed local sharenet that only Hymie and I can access. I swear, it’s like you don’t even have a basic programming package, sometimes.”
“So this thing you’re looking for. What is it?”
Hiro pondered this, considering my reaction to his last diatribe. I have never considered myself dumb, except in the company of beautiful women and Hiro. “A flaregun.”
“Something Hymie could track you with and vis versa?”
“And this ‘flaregun,’ it wouldn’t happen to be a synthetic plant about this big, would it?” I made rough dimensions.
“That’s it exactly! Do you know where it is?” Hiro ran over and put his hands on my shoulders.
“Sure do, buddy.”
“Sal, you’re alright for a human, you know that? Can I have it?”
“Nope,” I said, looking like the cat who ate the canary.
“Sal. Give it to me.”
“Sorry, Hiro but you gotta play to win.”
“Please don’t play on my gambling addiction, Sal, it’s not fair.”
“About as not fair as playing on my drinking problem?”
“Alright, Sal, let’s say I go along with this. What do I have to do to get my flare (which I remind you is actually mine)?”
“I’m working a case right now and I could use some help. A Selkath landed on world with a pretty unique little ship, which was promptly stolen out from under him. I’ll fill you in on the details as we head to the Bay, but it should pay well.”
Hiro mulled this over. “This is unlike you. Pouring over our past experiences and the psychological profile I’ve constructed of you, you’re a loner. You push people away when you’re after money. You don’t like trusting people and you certainly aren’t a fan of tit-for-tat. No, you’re more of a cash-on-the-barrelhead kind of gumshoe.”
If I had been honest, I would have told him that months spent kicking from place to place had cleared up my head. I remembered what it was like to help folks. Like my old sign used to say, I liked to think of myself as working in “Freelance Investigations.” It was time to get back to what I was good at – and being reasonably sober, I should be better than ever. With Hiro in tow, things would be just like they used to be. Back to normal.
“Anything to get one over on you, tin can.”
Hiro laughed and slapped my back. “Alright, It’s a deal.”
I laughed too, realizing that my definition of “normal” was now half-drunk, heading out into an unfamiliar planet with a gambling-addicted droid (with a newly found smoking problem!), illegally modified blaster on my hip, helping a total stranger because the credits sounded good and cops weren’t picking up the slack.
Xero Investigations was back in business.