The cool climate controlled environment of the hospital is a welcome respite from the blazing heat of the desert. I've been away too long. A decade ago the heat wouldn't have fazed me a bit. I pace in the sterile white halls waiting for an answer about either Henry or LaSaber's man.
"Hey, Wil," A tall blond man says as he walks toward me.
"Good to see you made it out alive. Piper would've had my ass if you died," I say chuckling.
"I'm fine. Just a few nasty burns. Like I said, I'm sure his blaster was malfunctioning otherwise, I wouldn't be talking to you now," He looks down. "I'm sorry, Wil. I really screwed things up out there."
What I want to do is ream a new asshole. Who in the hell leaves their key signature coded in? Why would he even think of going to that site alone? I take a few beats to breathe then I say, "It's not your fault. They don't equip anyone out here to deal with the likes of LaSaber's men. I'm just glad I was there to help."
He scoffs, "No shit there."
I start to respond, but I'm interrupted by a woman in scrubs. "Agent Barstow?"
She rubs the back of her neck. "We were able to stabilize him, but he's unresponsive."
"When do you think he'll wake up? We have some pretty time sensitive information we need to ask him?"
She cocks her head at me at says, "Oh hold on let me check on that, because it's such an exact science."
I close my eyes and curse myself when I realize what a dumbass question I just asked. "I'm sorry, Doc. I know you're doing the best you can. If I leave my chronotile signature with nurses’ station, can they send me a wave if there's any change? It's just that this is a really bad dude who's connected to an even badder dude. I need to ask him some questions."
She nods her head in understanding. "We can do that, Agent Barstow."
My body aches with all the trauma of the day. Nearly ready to call it a day, my chronotile buzzes at my wrist. I swipe and sigh.
"Looks like my new boss wants to have a word with me."
Henry pats me on the shoulder. "Good luck. Agent Graham is an okay guy. He should be pretty understanding, but let me know if you need me to vouch for anything you say."
Henry is inexperienced and probably will never be a good lawman, but I can't, as much as I want to, totally hate the guy. "Thanks, man. This has hands down been the weirdest day I've had in a long time."
As I stroll through the narrow streets of Bounty, the sense of déjà vu is overwhelming. This is a life, a world, that I thought that I left behind never to be seen again, but here I am. The town is more rundown than when I left a decade ago. Many of the buildings are dirty with siding chipping away and windows broken. It was always a rough here, but drug dealing and random vandalism seem to happen in broad daylight now. I notice many of the businesses that were once thriving are now gone replaced with bars, strip joints, pawn shops, and pay day loan businesses. As I pass a pawn shop, an emaciated woman covered head to toe in black ore dust emerges clutching a few baggies. She stops short of running into me and looks up at me with a toothless smile.
“Ya know, they trade directly for Elixir now. Thank the Maker, for Corliss. She has definitely changed this town.”
I give the woman a silent nod and she goes on her way.
I can’t pass a building without seeing a digital flyer for Corliss’ Elixir. The advertisements switch from miners giving short testimonials about how the Elixir cured all of their ills to Corliss’ bright cheery face declaring how a percentage of all her sales goes to researching ore sickness.
“Yeah that old bitch certainly changed this town,” I mutter under my breath.
I round another corner and see the Agency. When I lived on Bounty, I didn't have much cause to go into Agency headquarters. On the Inner Cluster Planets, the entrances of the Agency offices usually had at least two guards at the door and sensors scanning for any kind of weapons someone could have. So I'm taken aback by the fact that I can just walk right into the Agency office with a minor scan from a floating spherical drone.
The tiny squalid lobby is only inhabited by a splintered old desk with a glowing sign intermittently changing its wording: Agency offices to the right, Local Marshal Office to the left. I heft up my duffle bags glad to be only carrying them for a bit longer and head to the right.
Behind the door there are four desks crowded in an open office space. Straight ahead there is a conference room with a clear glass wall and door and an empty office with the same type of clear glass wall and door. I look around and there doesn’t seem to be anyone here.
I yell, “Uh, hello? Agent Barstow reporting for duty.”
From a hall to the side of the side of the conference room, a tall athletically built dark skinned woman emerges sipping a cup of coffee. I’m relieved to see that she’s not wearing the formal Agent uniform, but black leggings, an asymmetrically cut yellow tunic with a hood, and combat boots. She scans me up and down and says, “Hawk will be here soon. You can put your shit on that desk there. It was Agent Buckley’s I guess he won’t be needing it.”
I dump my bags on the desk. “So, formal Agent wear isn’t compulsory here?”
“Oh hell no. You wear what’s comfortable and cool. I find the only thing I’m comfortable in are these cooling tunics. It’s hotter than hell here, but you know that. Right? Heard you grew up here.”
She rolls her eyes. “Why don’t you go on and wait for Hawk. I got a shitload of reports to write before quittin’ time.”
“Will do and nice to meet you Agent?”
She holds out her hand and I shake it. “Madson, but just call me Rachel.”
“Nice to meet you Rachel.”
I make my way to the CO’s office and sit in a squeaky barely padded chair and assess my surroundings. This is nothing like the posh accommodations of Inner Cluster Agency offices. The climate control here barely keeps the heat at bay and the lights flicker as the air conditioner cycles on.
As I wait in the CO's office, I squirm in my seat trying like hell to stay awake. Outside, the sun is starting to set remind me that it's nearly been three days with just a few hours of sleep. Right as I start to get up to pace the office in a last attempt to stay awake, the door opens and an average sized swarthy skinned man with salt and pepper hair and tattoos in various geometric shapes on his face walks in. I recognize him as the man who recommended me to Agency years ago after a failed attempt at the Agency air runner trials.
I stand and start to salute him. He waves me off. "No need for that here." He walks around to sit at his desk. He silently swipes through his tablet and he sighs. "Not even a full day here and you're already shooting people. Huh?"
"Sir, look, I can explain."
He waves his hand for me to stop. He leans back in his chair, he looks about as tired as I feel. He points to the desks that sit outside his tiny office. "There's four of us on this unit and another ten at stationed at various Outer Cluster Planets. We go and help as needed, but mostly we're here on Bounty. For some unknown reason the Agency in their infinite wisdom has deemed me as oversight to all the units in the Outer Cluster. This means that I'm usually tired and pissed off because I don't get to see my family enough. Are you getting me?"
"Great. We're getting off to a wonderful start. So you got a guy? Great. Good for you. I'm going to assume you got this. Right?"
I narrow my eyes at him unsure how to answer. "Uh, yes."
He slams his desk. "Hot damn! I think you're gettin' me, son. So, I shouldn't hear anything about this case. Right? Nothing's gonna bite me in ass?"
"Good man. Alright. Follow me."
I follow him out of his cramped office to the open office area. He flourishes his hand at the desks and looks to the desk where I parked my bags. "See you made yourself at home already. Good. You won't be using your desk much. Just for writing reports and other bullshit bureaucratic form pushing." I nod. He points to Rachel. "This is …”
Rachel finishes his sentence, “We met, Hawk.”
“Great. You'll be working with her and Carl Henderson. He's not here. I don't know where he is."
Rachel pipes up, "His son's tenth birthday is today. Told him I'd cover for him."
"Good for Carl."
Hawk looks me up and down. "You look like shit."
"I feel like shit. I haven't slept in three days according to my chronotile."
"Time lags are the worst. Go get some sleep. We'll brief you on the active cases tomorrow."
"Thank you, Agent Graham."
"That's another thing. No formalities out here. Call me Hawk."
"Will do. Uh, where are Agent quarters?"
Hawk and Rachel both burst out into laughter. Hawk scratches his head. "Didn't they tell you that you needed to make your own living arrangements out here?"
My shoulders slump. "No, sir."
Hawk slaps me on the back. "It's okay. I'm sure Ms. Ada's got something for you at her boarding house. You remember her from back in the day. Right?"
I nod not really excited to be staying in a boarding house, but desperate to stay anywhere. "I do, sir." I pick up my duffel bags from the desk. "If anyone needs me, I'll be at Ms. Ada's."
Hawk calls after me, "Get some sleep. We'll hit it hard in the morning."