Meat.

The backwater region of space around Mikunn exhibits a few oddities. The Mikunn system itself an escape landing point for two exiled imperial brothers who formed a feudal government and then expanded and won an election in the neighboring HR 7327 system. Their latest territory, being arranged as I write this, is a new station commissioned via the peace treaty brokered by the folks in Kwatee. For all their efforts at establishing fiefdoms the old-fashioned way, hiring mercenaries to wage little wars and acquire more space, all of their successes came from peaceful and democratic processes.

No less bizarre is the neighboring Sukua system. On the current galactic map the system comes up as Federation territory. Inside the system, however, there are two mining and refinery stations. Forest Depot, run by the feudal Sukua Noblement, remains independent while the other, Wang Base, an unsanctioned outpost, has a Federation allegiance tag and charge over the system but flies a pirate flag.

After my trucking contract with the Dukes ran out I parked the Seven and brought the Vulture over to HR 7327 to spend a few days patrolling the system’s resource extraction sites. The Dukes wanted to continue building their reputation after the election that won them Hiraga Station, and overall control of HR 7327, and were paying well to keep pirating in the system low. I equipped the Vulture with a kill warrant scanner and a cargo rack, and went to work. The bounties paid well, and pirates being nothing more than traders who use intimidation instead of starting capital to acquire goods to sell are no less inclined to dump cargo and scoot when it looks like they’re about to lose their ship. A few trips out to the black market at Kadj Wen with scooped cargo from those that would dump-and-run provided a nice added bonus.

One morning I got a message from my Dukes liaison who’d been paying out my bounty vouchers, asking if I’d be interested in stopping by his office. A morning off sounded nice, so after breakfast I headed over to the location he indicated.

I stood standing in front of a little diner in a rundown section of the station just off the shipyard. The liaison’s office was nothing more than a table with a worn surface from too many plates hammering on it. I ordered a coffee and asked to have a sandwich packed up to-go in what I thought was the appropriate tongue, but the words that came out of the liaison’s mouth to the waiter were beyond comprehension, something like, “Yeh, yeh, gut duh yoosh fast fer meh, yeh, Joe?” The scruffy, tired looking man, ‘Joe’ embroidered on his grease spattered apron, nodded and spun around.

I stared at this guy across the table from me with a confused look on my face which he took for my desire to get right down to business, so he went at it in his weird dialect, “Yuh handle y’self, yeh? Takin care of the rates in the ahr-ee-essess, yeh?”

This, my first face-to-face meeting with this guy, I spent more time wondering where the hell he learned to talk like that than thinking about the work. Maybe some sort of covert training intended to act as a sort of code speak to keep eavesdroppers confused? Perhaps the weird, outback style of the Mikunn region spurred some sort of nostalgia, or maybe triggered a long dormant gene from his hillbilly ancestry back in Sol? Either way, I should have been paid just for trying to understand him.

“Yuh, gut luts uh thum big boys out der in Lugh, yeh?” He went on. I just nodded, not wanting to disrupt my attempt to comprehend what the hell he was saying. But before he could continue, his plate arrived with a hard clack against the table, and he attacked a pile of eggs, fried potatoes, and ham like he hadn’t eaten in days. Not another word was spoken between us until he’d finished forking his meal into his maw, leaving a wide, glossy ring around his mouth and chin. He finished by polishing the plate with a piece of bread, and sighing, “Yeh, hmmmm.”

With one hand he slapped up a napkin from beside his plate and wiped it across his face, while with the other he slid his tablet over to me, leaving greasy finger marks across the screen. “Yeh, yeh, we gut dis big boy grief’na lil.” he said. The tablet showed a contract for a pirate named Ahamad Cleaver, with a payout of a hundred and fifty thousand creds, last spotted in HR 7327, Sukua, and COL 285 Sector VG-I B24-4. A scan would easily double that, bringing the final turn to over three hundred thousand; albeit the extra would be spread out across the Empire, Federation, Alliance, or any other minor group this Cleaver had pissed on.

“Yeh, yeh, hims friends wit duh purple legals out der, yeh? So yuh got friends wit’em, get a lil angry, yeh?”

“I’ve got some good rep over there,” I said, sliding the tablet back across to him. “I think I can spare some for this guy.”

He spun the tablet around, tapped it a couple times, and then looked up at me and grinned. “Yeh, yeh, yuh got twunny for for duh job. Off duh table after, yeh?”

I nodded in agreement just as my sandwich was dropped onto the table by the surly Joe, so I got up and left. Twenty four hours to find and eliminate this Ahamad Cleaver, possibly hiding or harassing one of three systems. What really piqued my interest, though, was the mention of the Purple Legal Industry out of Sukua. They have charge over Wang Base. Since I received that strange message a couple weeks ago I’ve wanted to head over there to spend a little quality time; poke around some and see what might stir.

I set out straight away for the Vulture and checked in at a resource extraction site I’d been working recently. I asked about Cleaver with a few of the system authority pilots that I’d come to know during my recent bounty hunting expeditions. While they’d heard of him, they hadn’t seen him in weeks. I was warned, though, that he flew an Anaconda, something I suspected from what the liaison meant by “thum big boys.”

With HR 7327 so spread out I spent much of the afternoon and evening driving around the system, trying to exhaust all possibilities. I also checked out a few signal sources that popped up as I traversed the distances between the inner and outer RESes; nothing but a minor police skirmish with some small-time pirates, a few traders, some canisters of biological waste that someone had jettisoned, and a wedding barge. Still no Ahamad Cleaver. As it started getting late I popped a stim, ate my sandwich, and decided to leave HR 7327 and jump over to the B24-4 system to look around.

This is where my luck finally hit. Just off the nav beacon I picked up an unidentified signal source. When I dropped out of cruise this terrified kid in a Hauler opened comms straight away, pleading in a panicked voice, “Wait, don’t shoot, I don’t have anything left!”

“I’m not going to kill you,” I said, pulling up alongside. The Hauler had scorch lines across the hull from spinning through beams and the rear was riddled with the tell-tale blast signs of shots from a fragment cannon. I’m surprised it still had an atmosphere, but as I drifted from behind to overhead I saw the canopy still intact. The kid probably only had life support systems functioning at this point.

“What do you want?” he came back, now with anger and incredulity.

“Take it easy. I’m looking for someone and I picked up on your signal.”

There was silence. I glanced down at the clock. Having used up half of the contract time searching HR 7327 I started to doubt that I’d find Cleaver at all, so it was with a sinking feeling and a sigh I finally offered, “You want some help?”

The voice came back a little shaky, “I just barely jumped out, they took all my cargo, my ship’s a wreck.”

The kid was terrified, alone, in a wrecked ship and his cargo had just been pirated, so what came out of my mouth was from a place of empathy, really, even if it didn’t sound like it. “I don’t need to hear the sob story, kid, what do you need to get back to a station for repairs?”

“Oh, I put my FSD back together while they were scooping up my cargo, so I can get to Mikunn, but my engines are still out so I can’t get to the station when I get there.”

“Alright, I’m coming over,” I said, then gathered some spare parts, suited up, and went aboard the Hauler to lend a hand.

The kid wasn’t twenty, just out of flight school, and as we worked I had to listen to the whole story. He’d made a few creds working on the peace deal station for the Dukes and bought himself this new Hauler to really get into trading. Yadda, yadda, yadda. His first run was a gold shipment from the Dukes to Forrest Depot in Sukua for a nice, big payout, but he got interdicted by some asshole. Sob, complain, moan. He tried to run and jump but couldn’t get out of the anaconda’s mass-lock and ended up shot to hell so he dumped the cargo.

I pulled my head out of the engine compartment and looked at him, “Anaconda?”

“Yeah,” he stared back at me.

“You catch a name?”

“I never got a scan, I just tried to run. But he kept saying, ‘Feed the Cleaver, meat!’ So I dumped my cargo and he stopped shooting long enough for me to reboot my FSD and get away.”

I was already up, getting suited back up in a hurry, “How long ago was this?”

“Maybe an hour before you showed up?”

“I gotta go, kid.”

“Wait, I can’t fix this!” His voice quickly changing from relief back to abject terror.

I pointed at a spare power coupling unit I’d brought over, the last thing I had planned to install, “Put the coupling in, and route it through the FSD for now, it’ll get you to Spassky’s after you jump.”

“How do I route it through the FSD, I don’t know how to do that,” he pleaded, as I headed for the airlock.

“Check the FSD manual,” I waved at his tablet on the deck.

“Wait, where are you going?”

“To get you some payback, and get me a paycheck.”

The Hauler’s inner airlock slammed shut, the decompression sequence started, and I propped myself up. When the outer hatch opened, I kicked off hard, launching myself at the Vulture. With my heart pumping the stims kicked in and I found myself grinning madly as I drifted back to my ship.

Let’s see who’s meat, Cleaver.

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