JENNIFER 999 ATA - Hel's Market, Hel, Asgard System, Neutral Space

I hate this place.

The coffee's terrible.

And the smell's worse.

Jennifer Bronwen, freelance entrepreneur, sometime mercenary, occasional criminal, and skipper of the independent merchant freighter Bronwen's Fortune wrapped her hands around her stained polymould mug of alleged coffee and tried not to breathe too deeply as she watched the other patrons of the all-day diner going about their daily lives.

It wasn't one of Jen's usual haunts; in fact, it was a long way out of her usual sphere of social and commercial interaction. Most of the people who frequented the grubby little back-alley dive were employed in desperately low-wage jobs in the Market. Cargo handlers, refuse collectors, cleaning and maintenance techs and the like, all of whom were too used to the squalor to pay it much mind. Normally, Jen would not have been caught dead within a quarter-click of the place, making an exception only on the rare occasions when a specific business associate called.

He had called this morning (rousing her with some reluctance from the sinfully soft bed of her local squeeze) and issued a summons, naming the location then ringing off without waiting for her agreement. The choice was hers: if she showed up, there would be work on offer, if not, he would call her another time. With no current contracts, a rapidly diminishing credit account, and a ship in increasingly desperate need of a number of repairs, she'd decided that hearing what he had to offer would cost her nothing more than a little time and a bit of a sulk from the pretty boy she'd have to leave in bed. And so it was that she found herself sitting with her crap coffee in an establishment that was a dive even by the Outskirts' barrel-scraping standards, waiting for her contact to make an appearance. As per fucking usual, he was late.

She drained the mug, grimacing at the mouthful of grit at the bottom, but was nonetheless contemplating ordering a second—bad as it was, it was still parsecs better than anything on the food menu—when a shadow fell across the stained, grease-smeared surface of the table. She looked up, nodded a curt greeting. "Took your own sweet time, didn't you?"

"Worth waiting for, Captain Jennifer, worth waiting for." Orden Snake-Eyes smiled winningly as he slid into the cheap polymould seat opposite hers. "How've you been?"

"Earning an honest, if modest, profit," Jennifer shrugged, keeping her tone noncommittal. None of your damn business.

"Oh, I doubt it was all honest, was it?" Orden grinned. "As a regular retainer of your services, I'm well aware of the truly, ah, eclectic range of your commercial interests."

Jennifer glowered at him: he was entirely too chipper for this god-forsaken hour of the morning. "Whatever. Listen, Orden, you called me. It's too early to be out of bed, this coffee tastes like shit, and I'm pretty sure I'm gonna catch something terminal just from breathing the air in here." The scrubbers bordering the ceiling were crusted with garishly coloured scabs of mould that was growing into a network and colonizing the condensation-streaked walls, and she didn't think the tickle at the back of her throat was her imagination. "Your bizarre affection for this cesspit is as irritating as it is incomprehensible, so do me and my life expectancy a favour and get to the point. What do you want?"

"All in good time, my dear Captain Jennifer. You may be a woman of discerning tastes, but I'm a simple, down-to-earth fellow and I'm starving."

"You're going to eat here? Seriously?"

"Why wouldn't I?"

Jennifer wrinkled her nose. "Well, leaving aside the fact I've seen cleaner field latrines, you should never eat anywhere where they show you 3D holos of the food." She leaned back in her chair with an expansive grin. "Bronwen's first law of survival."

"I'll take my chances," Orden decided. He banged a fist off the wobbly polymould table top, spattering the dregs of Jen's coffee over the surface as the mug toppled over with a dull clunk. "Hey, could I get some service over here, please?"

Jennifer studied her prospective employer as he entered into an extended barter with the apathetic waitress about changes to nearly every ingredient of one of the special orders. Orden was one of the numerous hybrids that seemed unique to Hel's Market, the unwanted offspring of whores and destitutes too poor to be able to afford contraceptive medication or forced by their owners and pimps to carry their unanticipated children to term to provide the seedier side of the Market with a cheap source of labour. Hybrids were often exotic in look, some commanding a fortune in the slave markets. Orden was one of the luckier ones—he'd been born ugly, a half-human, half-neomorph with fast wits and a faster tongue. His shock of golden-blonde hair was trained neatly between the scaled crests that swept back from his forehead, and tied into a short club at the base of his neck. His pale-green, over-large, lidless eyes were bright with inquisitive interest in everything going on around him; the vertical slits of his pupils lent his gaze a sinister quality even when he was smiling. His scales bore a faint, irregular pattern of golds and pale browns, thickening and darkening over his nose and forehead to give him a noticeably reptilian cast. Taller than most humans, he seemed to be built entirely of gangling limbs of ropey muscles. He was relatively young as humans went, but his neomorph father meant he had developed quickly, rendering him dangerously intelligent at a comparatively young age. He had already charmed the waitress into acquiescing to his numerous requests, and his attention had now returned to Jen. "I have a client who is a collector of… let's call them historical artefacts. He has a particular interest in items dating from the fall of the Psyonic Empire and the Hundred Years' War." Orden leaned back in his seat, crossing his legs at the ankles and lacing his fingers across his stomach. "Around eleven hundred years ago, in case you weren't up on your history."

"That much I knew," Jen returned dryly. "When the races of the galaxy rose up in righteous rebellion, threw off their persecutors, took back that which had been denied them by centuries of oppression and greed, and formed a new brotherhood of peoples in the Galactic Assembly of Sovereign Civilisations. New era of peace, liberty, fraternity, yada, yada, yada."

Orden chuckled, amusement mottling his skin more strongly with shades of gold and brown. "A textbook quotation, Captain Jennifer. Exactly so. My client has a specific interest in weapons from that period, and as you can imagine, such items are somewhat scarce."

"And well guarded, I would guess," Jennifer observed. Collectible artefacts and weaponry from the fallen Templar empire were worth an absolute fortune. They were seldom to be found on the black market, and private collectors had been known to stoop to murdering their rivals to obtain particularly rare or significant pieces. It was an incredibly lucrative and lethal trade, one that Jennifer hadn't been aware Orden dabbled in. One she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to get tangled up in herself. For sure it was well-paid, but the life expectancy of artefact dealers wasn't considered to be a perk of the job.

The hybrid tapped the scaled skin between his slitted nostrils with a sly smile. "In certain cases it's not so much that they're well guarded, rather that they're simply… inaccessible to honest entrepreneurs such as myself."

"Isn't that pretty much the same thing?"

"Not exactly, hence my interest in subcontracting the work to you."

Interest piqued, Jennifer raised one eyebrow. "Well, it certainly sounds pretty profitable. Must be, if you're willing to cut me in on the deal. So where exactly is this rare, historically relevant, poorly guarded yet curiously inaccessible trove of treasure, Orden?"

Orden shrugged nonchalantly. "In the Modeus system, of course. Thanks so much," he smiled at the waitress as she brought his meal. "Sure you don't want to order something?"

"No," Jen declined. "Thanks, but I prefer not to have to worry about someone having eaten my food before me." As the waitress retreated, she leaned forward, lowering her voice. "Modeus? You want me to go to Modeus to acquire a cache of archaic Templar weapons? Are you out of your half-lizard mind?"

"Not at all. Of all of my contacts, you're the one who's uniquely suited to this job." Orden paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. "Unless there's some ridiculous and nauseating residual loyalty to the old Terran culture lurking around in your psyche? Some genetically encoded morality check that your Marauder upbringing can't entirely erase, perhaps?"

"Hardly," Jen snorted. "It's more that I've got absolutely no desire to go to Modeus if I can avoid it. Frankly, it's fucking miserable as systems go, and I don't care for the company of all the po-faced, self-righteous, stiff-assed bastards that live there."

"Oh come on. You don't like the people? You're going to throw away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for that? Don't be such a child."

"Hey!" Jen protested, stung by the barb. "I'm not being childish, it's…" Orden cocked an expectant eyebrow as he watched her flounder, "experience. It's an opinion born from experience. And every time I go there, that opinion is reinforced."

"Your cut will be sixty percent," Orden announced with a thread of impatience weaving into his tone.

"Sixty?" Jen echoed in disbelief. For Orden to be happy with a minority take, that had to mean the total value added up to some serious credit. "What am I looking for, Ex-fucking-calibur?"

"Not quite, but surely that's enough of an incentive to make you suck it up and park your prejudices in holding for a few weeks? Besides, you can look upon it as your chance to shine. You do pride yourself on your professional skills, don't you?"

"Almost as much as on my tact and my manners," Jen drawled insouciantly.

Orden laughed. "Then what better stage on which to prove yourself? This job, done right, will live in infamy." He slid a piece of polyfilm across the table. "That's the market value, the location of the package, and the drop point. If you want the job, let me know by zero-hundred. Otherwise, I'll have to find an associate with a little more… oh, what's the word..."

"Balls?"

Orden smirked. "Chutzpah," he corrected. He put his fork in his mouth, chewed, then swallowed the mouthful with a grimace of utter disgust. "Christ and all the Universe, that's revolting."

"I warned you."

"Yes, you did. You're clearly smarter than you look." Dabbing at his mouth delicately with the paper napkin provided, he pushed his chair back and looked down at Jennifer. "Opportunity of a lifetime, Captain Jennifer. Don't pass it up." He pointed two fingers at her, pistol style, winked, and sauntered off.

Jennifer watched him go, waiting until the rest of the clientele had forgotten his passing before looking at the note. The pay was the best she'd ever seen for a job, and the location… She read it, shook her head, then read it again to be sure she hadn't imagined it. "Oh wow," she breathed. "You've gotta be fucking kidding me." She folded the film up, tucked it into a pocket, and rose to leave.

It was only then that she realized that Orden had left his bill for her to pick up.

Shit. I hate this place.

Having paid her bill and received an earful of angry chittering from the shrill Insectoid who ran the joint, presumably for not tipping, Jennifer made her way out into the Outskirts, the dank, grimy labyrinth of polymould stalls and cargo-crate workshops that ringed the central business district of Hel's Market. The diner was one of the few actual buildings in the area still sound enough to occupy—most of the premises in the Outskirts were cobbled together from whatever an enterprising soul could lay their hands or claws on. Even this early in the day, the shanty town that comprised about half of Hel's major mercantile metropolis was buzzing with activity. The smells from dozens of street-food stalls drifted tantalisingly in the smog-choked air, far more palatable than the sweaty, greasy, processed protein reek that had permeated everything in the diner. Jen stopped by a stall run by a twitchy Changeling to pick up a kebab that was at least identifiable as consisting of fresh meat and vegetables, and nibbled on the snack as she walked back toward the comparative grandeur of Lowmarket's squat metalloconcrete prefabs. She kept her eyes peeled for trouble and one hand free for her blaster, reminding herself that Hel's Market was no place to take your safety for granted as she cleared a path through the throngs by adopting a sullen scowl that was only half-faked.

The original city upon which the Market now stood, an ancient Templar settlement in the now-neutral Asgard system, had long since been forgotten by history. Little more than an archaeological carcass, long since picked over for anything of worth, the resplendent shell of the city centre had been resurrected to provide a home for a black-market trading and entertainment hub, the scale of which the galaxy had never before witnessed. Brothels had arisen in ancient government buildings, drug dens had flourished behind the sober façade of the law courts, casinos and gambling syndicates had come to inhabit libraries and institutes of learning. Architectural marvels commemorating long-lost glory and prosperity were given a new lease of life, decked out in the garish neon and chrome couture of a spaceport strip.

If Hel's Market could be said to have a motto, it was simply this: anything goes. You could source virtually any commercial product you could think of somewhere in the warrens of the Outskirts and Lowmarket, cheap at the price and no questions asked. You could rent a cargo-crate shop-front for an afternoon and fence even the hottest property in complete security. You could sell your own mother, quite literally—the slave trade was rife, and the demand for flesh of any provenance was nowhere higher than in Highmarket's elite clubs and brothels. Every taste, every fetish, every perversion imaginable could be catered to as the rich and shameless of every known civilization indulged in their favourite debaucheries, safe from risk of prosecution, their anonymity guaranteed by a complex web of mutually assured destruction. And not just the rich: the spectrum of activity in Hel's Market ranged all the way down to low-rent streetwalker whores, moonshine-fuelled whisky dens, and pit fighting. Whatever your budget, the cartel lords who ran the city declaimed, we have your pleasure.

In short, Hel's Market was a den of iniquity populated almost entirely by criminals, traders, bounty hunters, and mercenaries. The heavy, carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere was spiced with heady doses of pheromones, stimulants, and hallucinogens, and deeper down, the darker intoxications of profit, dominance, lust, and jealousy; lies, betrayal, and murder. And Jennifer absolutely loved it. There was a freedom to Hel's Market that no other city could quite match. Besides having plenty of legitimate work for an independent if you knew where to look, there were no regulations or statutes beyond the most basic enforcement of the cartels' will, none of the legal or financial straitjacketing that hobbled small-scale businesses in Assembly-controlled space. Sure, it was a dangerous place, but in the Outskirts and Lowmarket a good blaster worked wonders as a deterrent, no different to the ghettos and slums of cities all across the cosmos. In the higher-end areas of town, pissing off the wrong people meant you'd disappear into the bowels of some torture-fetish whorehouse, or—if you were very lucky—you'd simply wake up dead from a massive overdose, but for the average citizen or visitor, there was very little risk of actual physical harm. Those who'd built their fortunes on the pulsing bass rhythm of Hel's Market's entertainment industry had zero tolerance for anything that cut into their investments, and freelance thuggery of any kind was harshly discouraged.

Jennifer mulled over Orden's offer as she headed uptown, taking a roundabout route to check that she wasn't being followed. It was probably unnecessary—Snake-Eyes wasn't the type to have hired muscle waste their time or his credit—but it was a good habit to be in.

She needed the money. That was pretty much the whole of the argument. The jobs she'd managed to secure lately had been low margin, barely covering the Fortune's running costs. Her emergency repair layout in the last year had put a massive dent in her savings after she'd come under fire from raiders while running a supply convoy into Fenkart. As a result, she'd had to put off the maintenance servicing she couldn't afford, and that, in turn, had meant ever worsening wear and tear on the ship. In short, she was about one unlucky micrometeorite strike from financial disaster. If she had to sell her ship, she could kiss her livelihood and her freedom goodbye. So, that's a no-brainer, right Jen?

She pulled the polyfilm back out of her pocket, studied the details one more time, then dropped the note into a nearby trash incinerator. The location of the target meant there was no way she'd be able to do the job alone; she had most of the requisite skills, but it would be a delicate operation. At the very least she'd need a good datarat and some dependable back up.

As she crossed the boundary from the Outskirts to Lowmarket, she let her guard down fractionally and pulled her combat holo-visor from its resting place in her inner coat pocket. Activating the communications protocols only, she hooked the unit over her left ear and placed a call to another of her frequent associates.

"Good morning," a pleasant baritone voice greeted her. "Captain Bronwen, how perfectly delightful to hear from you. How may I assist you?" There was humour in the speaker's voice. "Are you buying or selling?"

"Hi, Shan'Chael. Buying. I'm in the market to recruit a couple of specialists for a contract. Is there any chance you have some time to see me today?"

"For you, my dear Captain, I'll make the time. Clients as charming as yourself are never a burden. Let me just check… ah, yes, good. Shall we say fifteen hundred hours, galactic standard?"

"That'd be great, thanks. I'll see you then."

"Looking forward to it, my dear. Do have a wonderful morning."

Jennifer disconnected the call with a wry smile. The recruitment broker was fussy, pedantic, effete, and a terrible snob, but he was undoubtedly the best in his field, and, more importantly, he would certainly have some decent coffee to offer when she arrived at his office. Smiling, she checked her chronometer. She had about six hours to kill. More than long enough to make some more use of that sinful bed, and its equally sinful occupant.