The Gun and Grave banked sharply around a Glesian transport, the huge turbine engines shimmering the fabric of space with fatal radiation just visible on the Human spectrum.
When that thing got to even a half civilized stardock, warning flags would halt her, and warships would threaten to blast her out of heaven if she made atmo. That meant skyhook, fines and citations; repairs that the dozens inside her couldn’t afford.
Oh look, another one.
My lips sneered involuntarily.
The space around Hellhaven was thick with metal and fission core; the lamps of a thousand engines shimmering against the pale star scape, and blotching the huge window of the planet before us.
I switched on the datanet coms to try and get a feel for the ragged gypsy fleet that clung to Hellhaven like the bodies around Endor.
The comms exploded. Thousands of voices in hundreds of languages, begging and pleaded access. Some chanting to their faraway gods, some offering coin or flesh, or simply begging Harlan Mavrick for his favor.
Fat lot of fucking good that would do them.
I banked again, threading my way gently through the throng.
’Gun and Grave, this is control.’ Came a familiar voice. ‘You are in breach of Hellhaven Protocol and Haraln’s Law; cease your trajectory immediately, or the automated system will fire on you; I repeat you will be fired upon.’
By now, the herd was thinning and I was coming to the front of the pack; a veritable wall, like the shields over Nar Shaddaa, where no ship dared cross without permission. Arcing wide around a huge Latnee construct, likely the home of several hundreds guests, Hellhaven stretched it’s way undimmed across my view.
It wasn’t called Hellhaven when it was discovered now some 40 years back. Republic variance scouts had first mapped her, and I tried with little success, to imagine how they felt when they saw this jewel for this first time.
She wasn’t necessarily different from any other blue green world; deep oceans, white clouds here adn there lightning stained and green, green landmasses. Her poles were ice, her equator jungle, and her skies-
Her skies were something else.
Lingering above the atmosphere of the pristine sphere were the massive shapes of flat, white discs; at this distance no more threatening than a biscuit or a caked ration. Extending from the round surfaces, more than ten on this hemisphere, two sharp booms glided gently into the black forming twin spears at the ends.
The teeth of Hellhaven, the open jaws of the promised land.
’Gun and Grave, this will be your last warning, please deviate from present course. Suicide is strictly prohibited, and you will be fired upon.’
I smiled despite myself.
Did the first scouts who saw this world know that? I slowed the ship slightly, feeling the eyes of the homeless fleet gape at me as I crossed the no mans land. The platforms didn’t really look like guns, but something in the psyche (the human psyche, anyway) tugged a warning, like a child tugs his mothers skirt. A vague fear lurking in the dark that these beautiful things were not something we could control; something that instead guided us. Whatever they were, even if I hadn’t know, and I certainly did, I would always know that they weren’t for us; that they were end of the world insofar as a galaxy could have and end. A cap that said ‘You’ve gone far enough.’
We shouldn’t be here.
‘Very well, Gun and Grave, Maker bless you on your-’
‘Oh ‘cmon, Lynk; you’re really going to kill me?’ I thrust open the channel as easy as switching on a light and hoped I wasn’t too late.
Stupid, but I like an entrance.
‘Quinn? Maker! What in the verse is this thing you are flying? The sensors are all over it; and why do you always have to be so close? And why don’t you come more often?’
Imperceptible movements in the dark, something wheeling around, and energy gathering.
‘Um, Lynk you want to-’
‘Yes yes, you’re tagged now. Proceed to the palace, I will open a tower dock for you, so you’ll have to repulser, but we of course have power. It’s good to see you again, Quinn.’
‘You too, bucket head.’
The movement stopped, and I closed the comms, knowing that in the next several seconds, as my ship was not blown away, a wave of guilt, fear, jealously and rage would flood those transmissions, and that was the last thing I wanted to hear.
I burned fuel, and the guns stayed still as the night they lived in.
The platforms around Hellhaven, named Hundin IX on discovery, are one of the great mysteries of the celestial civilization. There are theories as to their origins, their age and their purpose. Some have speculated that Hundin was their great capitol, or that all their worlds possessed such defenses.
No one knows. No living being has been to one in the last 50 or 60 thousand years. Maybe longer.
When the republic explorers mapped Hundin, they saw temples and cities and lush, green pastures; a paradise, devoid of sentient life, just waiting to be seized.
The shock they must have gotten would have sent Jedi around the galaxy reeling. I had never seen the platforms fire in person, but he had seen the holo’s; brilliant blue light that blew open even the strongest military grade shielding the way a child blows out a flame. It ruptures the hull of the most advanced starships known, and in the blink of an eye, decimates vessels the way stars evaporate water.
Boiled away in the dark.
They fired at everyone, no one could come near. Wave after wave tried with mad fervor, first the Republic Army, then Madolorians. After that, everyone tried, knowing, just knowing their were riches to be found. It was the promised land, something we didn’t know why but we just had to possess; the ultimate sirens song that called out not to individuals but to an entire species, and entire civilization all at once; come to me it said, and we did.
One by one they lined up to die.
A few people made it; abandon ship and piloted escape pods down to the planet, ducking and weaving the infinite fire. But most didn’t, and those who had were stuck there forever.
Scientists speculated that the weapons opened a hole in hyperspace, and sucked needle thin lines of annihilation into a world of matter and carbon where such chaos didn’t belong. It was all anyone could do; look through the scans, talk, theories and hope.
Then came Harlan Mavrick.
No one, not even I knew how he did it, but Harlan dropped off the face of the black and when he showed up again, he was on world with marginal control of the cannons.
He couldn’t turn them off, couldn’t turn them on; but somehow the old fool and found a way to tag ships and keep them safe, in or out.
‘Please proceed on direct path.’ The female AI more demanded than asked, and I obliged. There were narrow lanes that opened for ships when Mav let them in, but they couldn’t deviate, and they couldn’t land on the platforms.
I watched, as I always did, the dark shapes of humanoid beings move on the great weapons. A dozen feel tall, and thought to be droid-like, they lined the rim of the white carapace, eyes on every vessel that moved past their sacred screen.
No one knew who they were.
The Gun and Grave fell through the sky, and bellow, paradise rose to great him. The main city, Harlan’s Landing, was soft white marble and open aired dwellings, all capped by the cavernous crown of an Imperial looking palace, long unused but undimmed by time.
Mav set up shop, let the eggheads in, and then built his little world.
I moved the Grave with ease, docking with a 50 meter high landing hook, and the Droids went out to connect power to the word; long strands of juice hanging like sea creatures in the morning light.
Striding along the windswept catwalk, I drank in the view like good, old whisky and let it warm me somewhere deep down.
All of us, all of Mav’s guys; we had a certain sense of being better than everyone else. Some of that was the training, and most of the rest was that we were all head fucked narcissists. But some part, even a little piece had to be this right here; no one, not Kings or senators, not the rich or the political, not even Darth Vader himself couldn’t get into Hellhaven without sacrificing a large part of the Imperial fleet to do it; and guys like us just walked through the front door.
I rode the spiral of tangled durasteel down and watched the land rise up. When the door flung themselves open, he was there.
‘Quinn. Good to see you, sir.’
Lynk was Mav’s droid, but these days he was so much more. He had downloaded his artificial consciousness into the main computer for the planet itself; he ran everything since Mav’s… problems started, and there were more than one hundred bodies of the droid managing everything that happened on world.
Including who made it past the ghostly web of the defensive cannons.
We walked up a short rise to the splendor of the palace. It was ancient looking, indeed it was ancient, but time had done nothing to dim it’s beauty. Every home, every storefront on world had been found to match the other scant celestial settlements and artifacts pried from the depths of history, only here everything still worked.
Mavhines cleaned the streets, hospitals produced medicines and curatives hundreds of years advanced to the rest of the galaxy. It was as if Mav had commissioned the place, and then the celestials delivered it to him.
‘Hell of an operation you’ve got running here.’ I said as we passed beneath the arches that flanked the massive building. Inside, sentients shuffled about a makeshift marketplace, hundreds and hundreds buying and selling off world goods. Half the ships that came to Hellhaven were cargo transport piloted by Lynk himself, brining the galaxy at large into the verdant microcosm of sentient achievement.
‘Thank you, Quinn. Master Harlan was able to write some very specific instructions regarding placement of refugees and admittance on world, as well as an extremely lengthy list of those forbidden.’
A smile slowly built itself as the droid told me all about the old man’s hate list, and we stepped from under the alien architecture and into the palace gardens. The sun ripped through tatered shreds of cloud that drifted on orange currents in the dying light, touching the soft green leaves of a dozen tall trees ripe with fruit. A few beings sat on the stone benches or played in the deep, clear pools and fountains. A stiff breeze brought the smell of the sea from not too far off, like a memory of something better, if such a thing was possible, and a clean feeling of warmth and health soaked my skin and crept into my eyes. Above it all, the silent guns hung milky white, their presence omnipotent on Hellhaven, scratching through the blue heavens like bones of the sky.
‘- and at any rate, I don’t think something like that would be a problem, would you?’ Lynk stopped and servoed his bulbous, black head to face me, the rough approximation of eyes whirling and focusing on a thousand other tasks, but still somehow managing to make it seem like I was the only one he was speaking to.
‘Er, ugh. No I guess not.’
The mechanical head cocked itself gently. ‘Ahh, it has been some time since you have been to our little home. It does have a tendency to captivate the minds of sentient beings, ensnaring loyalties and quelling the kinds of concerns that plague artificial minds. I imagine that is why a planetary computer existed in the first place.’
‘Hmm?’ I looked away from a coppery river of flame rushing into the setting sun and somewhere beyond, out to sea.
‘Nevermind. Would you like your room? I have had it prepared, and stocked with that vile poison you so like to drink. If you are so inclined, I could introduce you to a couple of recent refugees who statistically fit within your known sexual perimeters-’
‘Not just yet.’ I interrupted. ‘I kind of have to get back soon-ish. I have been working with the rebellion of late, and they just won a major victory. I should probably see about getting paid.’ I stitched together a broken smile.
But if my face lit up, Lynk’s somehow darkened. ‘I hope,’ the droid dolled with measured calm and careful enunciation, ‘that you have not brought your political or personal struggles to Hellhaven, Quinn. Harlan’s Law is quite clear on the consequences.’
Exile, and an untagged ship; just call it a death sentence. That was the Jewel of Hellhaven; wondrous technology, somehow made to be forever trapped on the world on which it was born, a home, a life; a respite from the droning worry that permeated the galaxy at large like lust and fear and hope alike. The citizens were called ‘refugees,’ like they came from a warzone.
Everything outside of Hellhaven was the war.
Harlan Mavrick offered those whom he chose a rest from sentient existence, and he vowed not to give it to the wealthy but to those he deemed worthy.
Bring any of that damage to Hellhaven’s atmo, and it didn’t matter who you were, Harlan’s Law had you.
‘I didn’t, Lynk. Maker I’m not stupid.’
‘I’m simply reminding you that a sentient Harlan Mavrick no longer controls this world; it is his protocols and his law. I am bound by it, Quinn.’
‘Yes!’ I stopped my intrusion into the lush garden and faced the droid. ‘I know, I get it I slipped away and I’ll be gone at daybreak. Good enough for you?’
‘Indeed it is. So. You wish to see him?’
‘Who’s running the show?’
‘Mostly Garen Keen these days, or the Old Women.’
Gareen Keen was a pirate who had cultivated a sort of legend around stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. He made a tidy sum of money doing it, but people seemed to lik him non the less, and having met the guy more than once, I had no fear of him.
The Old Women, who’s name no one knew had come from Corellia ages ago, before I knew Mav. She was something of a mystic who had run an information network that baffled CorSec for more than a year. When Mav got what he wanted, she disappeared. Strange that she should come back all these years later.
‘Huh. Anyone new I should know about?’ The sun was sinking swiftly, and Mav would want to go to bed sooner rather than later.
‘No one of consequences. Marvin comes and goes.’
Marvin Franks was a gambler who conned Methias Peppron out of his stake in his own casino, then turned around and sold it to Black Sun, making the syndicate the major shareholder. They muscled everyone else out and ran counterfeit and money laundering operations through the resort for more than five years. Eventually, Peppron got dead, but Marvin got rich.
‘Did you hear about Deng?’ The droid asked, a little sadly if that was possible.
I let my features relax and got ready for the bad news.
‘Syler Blackthorn shot and killed him not half a year past.’
‘I thought Blackthorn was dead?’ Anger speckled the words like morning dew. I shouldn’t have been mad at Lynk but like he said; Mav didn’t run the show anymore.
‘It was my fault.’ Steady, artificial calm. Got to love it. ‘Everyone was permitted weapons just in case, Syler got in somehow and took Deng’s blaster. We had standard security but…’
‘Yeah. I know. Syler.’
Syler Blackthorn, the core world assassin for hire. He had IIS training, plus some sealed filed that said he didn’t even exist before ten years ago. Whoever Syler was, only one thing was certain; he was one of the more dangerous sentients alive.
‘What about Kix?’
‘Kix is dead. Well, as dead can be; Syler too, we think. The facilities here are quite remarkable.’
‘Years, more than three. Although I haven’t spoken so Mav in nine months.’
‘Longer and longer, huh?’ the question was sad, wet with regret and Staci nagged at my conscious.
‘Indeed. We should go; sundowns are always hard for him, and he’ll be asleep soon.’
Wordlessly, we wound out way through the palatial gardens and tall, trimmed hedges. The grounds fell away to the fast moving river, black obsidian in the failing light, and before long, the cliffs that plunged into the ocean made their jagged appearance.
There, on a small bench against a purple sky sat Harlan Mavrick. As I approached, the sea greeted me with savage waves, the ocean churning with the movement of Hellhaven’s orbital defenses. From here, I could see Mav wearing a thick cardigan in the rapidly chilling night air, and his once long hair was cropped short, now white as the Reliance’s interior. Next to him stood another Lynk, only this one was leaner, and had more hydraulic gyros, and hard, tense arcamuscular fluid arms. Top of the line in artificial combat. Before I could approach, a black-stealth suited being stopped me. I couldn’t see his face, but his movements said ‘special operations.’
He patted me down, and took my blaster. As a courtesy, my Lynk planted the weapon in the spring loaded compartment of the supped up nanny Lynk, so it wouldn’t be far. Then the Lynk that brought me nodded and started back up the hill, while the other, same voice, same conscious; same Lynk took me to Mav.
His face was impassive as ever, hard durasteel that seemed to catch the spray of the waves far bellow, staring out at blackening sky as starts winked into existence.
‘Quinn Corvin. What the fuck do you want?’
‘Hey Marv, came to talk to Harlan. How have you been?’
Mav grunted. ‘Crowded, as ever. Did you hear about Deng?’
‘Yeah. Fucking Syler.’
‘Careful,’ said the gambler wearing Mav’s skin, ‘He can hear you.’
‘Lynk says he dead.’ I sat, staring out across the dark water.
Another guttural laugh and a stony grin. ‘Celestial bacta tech; some fuid inhibitors; you think that could kill Syler? Or Kix for that matter? Na, he’s down there, they both are. Trust me.’
We sat in silence for a while.
I broke it when the sun vanished, and the sky lit up with a dozen celestial bodies built eons past. ‘Any chance I can talk to Mav?’
Marvin shrugged. ‘Maybe, who knows? He doesn’t come out much anymore. I take the nights because I like sunset, but then I go back to sleep.’
Back to sleep.
Harlan Mavrick was, in his day the best con man in the galaxy, hands down. I was regarded by some as his star pupil, and I wasn’t half the liar Mav had been. He knew the secret to the craft; that you aren’t every lying to any one person. Small movements, a curled lip, and falling strand of hair. That ghostly look that opens a persons soul; thats what you were trying to fool when you lied. People always thought they could spot a lie, and those were the easiest ones to grift; they didn’t realize that it wasn’t them we were trying to put one over on, or that their arrogant perception that they had some special gift is what we used against them. When Harlan lied, he knew he was going up against millions of years of evolution, a civilization of deceit; that very first bluff made in a cave on old Caoruscant or Corellia or wherever. It was in out blood to spot lies, and when Harlan turned the lock, those self righteous pricks started up like a zeltron on glitterstem.
Guys like us, the real pros were lying against every human who had ever been lied to.
In the end, it had been too much for Mav. Some said it was whatever he had done to get past the orbitals, some said it was before that. But all those lies he had conceived, all those pasts and futures that bobbed in his broken mind spilled over at some point, and took up lives of their own. Harlan had 27 known personalities that could bubble up at any second, and inside this vacant ghost were some of the most dangerous lives that god’s or the universe hadn’t seen fit to give a body of their own.
Mav had them all.
We sat in silence a while longer, and at some point, Marvin left. Mav’s shoulders got weak, and he dipped his head, sniffing about the night air before he tossed me a wide eyes stare that meted into a suspicious grin.
‘Ahhh, Quinny my boy.’ Came the rasping cough of a voice. ‘What are you doing on my little home?’
‘It’s Mav’s home, old women.’
Her cackle was not unlike Banis Vyr’s mechanical mocking, and the memory of the crash on Onderon shot ice through my veins.
Lock it down, Corvin; don’t tempt the sharks.
‘You know that for true then, do you? I seem to recall that when he opened the door for Deng and the rest, Syler killed half the crew on their landfall. Maybe it was Syler all along?’
I held firm my hook on the horizon and tried not to blink. The old women just stared.
‘Come all this way, Quinny and no conversation?’
‘I don’t talk to fictional characters.’
‘You wound me.’ She pulled some wire yarn and thread from the inside of Mav’s jacket and continued a garment of some kind in its infancy. ‘I grew up on Tarsis. My father was magistrate and I given to the Oracles Hand at a young age. I wandered this galaxy and learned much, brining my wisdom to others, before Harlan Mavrick swallowed me.’
I shifted uneasily on the bench, obdurately refusing to meet the woman’s gaze. This was the worst part, the personalities fleeting theories and religious zeal. Whatever they were, I knew Mav had made them up. But they didn’t believe that, and when they changed, morphing right before my eyes, I didn’t either.
‘Come now, tell this old crone what you want to see the old man about.’ She gently moved the wire from needled to needle.
A sigh snuck past my lips. ‘I pulled a job a few months back, gave some tech to my employer.’
‘Who?’ Their was a urgency in the question that Mav’s body didn’t display.
‘Doesn’t matter.’ I pushed on. ‘Anyway, I took on a role, got in deep and then..’ My voice trailed off with the strengthening winds, the waves still lamenting the cliff face and doing all they could to destroy it.
‘Ahh. It did something.’ She stopped her work.
‘Maybe.’ Flashes of memory exploded in my mind like frag, the blade sinking into Madine’s eye, and the thrill that shuddered through me when I saw the blood.
You ready for this?
Something cold tangled around my guts, and only the clarity of being stone sober stopped whatever it was from pooling behind my eyes.
Look what they make you give.
‘So.’ The old women continued. ‘You want to know if Harlan’s affliction is affecting you?’
‘No.’ I said absentmindedly, lost to the brilliant sky and its bleached bones. ‘I just want to know what it’s like. I just want to be ready.’
‘Like Deng was?’ came the cold.
The old women had gone, and Mav shifted into unmistakable combat orientation, stretching his arms and laying them gently across the back of the bench. He cracked his neck, and I found myself staring deep into two dead eyes.
‘Quinn. Corvin. I have killed four of the old man’s little mentees. You come to make it an even five?’
None of the ten or fifteen of us who Mav had taken under his wing for a spell were particularly engaged to him. He was something of a father figure to a few, but more just a friend, someone who helped them find a footing and then let them go free, knowing that experience and real life pass or fail danger was the best teacher of them all.
None but me. Mav was like a second father to me, sure; but that was because of Staci. The old man let us be… well, us.
It made me kind of uncomfortable knowing his daughter made me his favorite.
I sorted out a generic smile.
Lynk moved up and stood just out of reach, combat servos chiming, and the black op’s operative leveled a heavy stunner.
‘Things go south, this will get you too Quinn; just so you know.’
Somewhere in the palace, alarms were going off.
27 people. Eleven of them combatants. Two of those cruel. One of them Syler.
‘Don’t be stupid, Sy. They aren’t going to let it happen again. I just want to see Mav.’
‘And I want my own fucking body.’ Saliva leaped from the words that trailed hate. Either he wanted me to see or he was just too tired to care, but it was getting to him, this life.
‘For what it’s worth, I wish you had one, Sy.’ I more sighed than said, shifting my body to look at the killer. ‘That way I could put a blaster against your head and pull the trigger. Where is Mav?’
He ignored the question. ‘Little man,’ came the cold again ‘you wouldn’t last five seconds. You should have seen me on Hadrian a few clicks back. I made those fucking rebels scream before I sent them to hell. Don’t you dare threaten. Me.’ Measure, control, mechanical clarity.
Mav was a good fighter, but whatever Syler had been doing tucked away in his mind, it was beyond this life; Syler knew thing’s, real things that Mav never had or could. Scientist joked about AI and the ghost in the machine.
As far as I was concerned, this was the only ghost that needed worrying.
‘Where you been then, Sy?’
His smile was savage. ‘Down, deep. How is Staci?’
Lock it down, don’t let it show.
‘You two got any kids?’
‘Because the second I get out of here, I am going to pay her a visit. She always had such a pretty face; maybe I could mark it up? How about that Quinn? Daddy comes home to fuck up his little girl. Maybe even fuck her.’
A frozen well of laughter, hollow and deep.
‘Then again, shame to ruin that face. She got any scars inside? I bet you I could give her some.’
I blinked and the flash almost surprised him. The gun flew past his head and he would have grabbed it, impossible speed; but Mav’s aging form couldn’t keep up. I snatched it microseconds before he did and his surprise at the response of his body put him off. I sent the plaster into his face, cracking his nose and falling him to the ground.
He gave up, and let that laugh intensify. I placed the barrel to his temple.
‘If you think I am above killing Mav, you’re right; he helped make me who I am. If you think I would hesitate to end anyone who threatens Staci, you are a stupid pile of slag, Syler.’
His smile was a red ruin, the laughter fading but not dying; storing away for later use.
His speed, even slowed by Mav was amazing. My side aches and a well placed Kin-hutza move crumpled me, and he had the blaster before I hit the ground.
‘Quinn makes five.’ He pulled the trigger.
It was my turn to smile when nothing happened. He shifter the weapon, already knowing the power pack would be empty.
The control evaporated, and he raised the poly-steel high.
I heard the stunner twung and I was out.
Interlude III, Part II: Quinn Corvin
Bones of the Sky