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Valentina Barbaro and the Echoes of Empire — Part 6

November 13, 2021
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Part 6 — The Crucible

On her way to the Crucible, Valentina realized she hadn’t slept in days. She always had the strangest dreams when she visited this place anyway. The Ancients called it the Gallows of Time. Valentina never knew exactly what that meant, but to her it was the place where time goes to die. The FTL engines of the Asterius had worked hard over the last week. Valentina knew that her ship needed some serious attention, and she hoped that Mateo would have a hanger to spare at his home in the remote outlying star system whose name she couldn’t remember. Luckily, she still had its coordinates though after all these years.

Mateo’s place was ramshackle, or at least that’s how it was supposed to look to approaching ships. It was one of many bolt-holes maintained by the wider smuggling community in case one of their own needed to cool their heels. It was bigger (and more armed) than it looked.

Valentina knew Mateo well. They met when she first branched out into smuggling, just after she got ahold of the Asterias. He was a better than average forger, usually had reliable pass-codes, and kept a couple decent mechanics on staff. He had a lot of friends who knew a lot of things. If she was lucky, he may know something about her run gone sour.

Mateo was about as close as any decent smuggler came to a trusted friend. Valentina would go so far as to say she trusted him. “Trust is a dirty word. The dirtiest,” her mentor used to say. She was reasonably sure she wouldn’t be betrayed, but that didn’t stop her from keeping a close eye on her surroundings as the Asterius came in for landing.

Valentina set the Asterias down on one of Mateo’s many empty landing pads. Mateo didn’t entertain very often, and he didn’t like most people enough to let them use his personal landing pad. Still, she took the liberty of front parking, rather than the larger pad out back, the one reserved for clients.

“Still got that bottle of brandy I gave you?’ Valentina called in a teasing as she wandered into the house, knowing full well that he drank it long ago. Under the cover of its rough outsides, Mateo kept a tidy space. She wasn’t just being cute, she was announcing her identity in hopes that she could avoid getting blasted by a security bot. Mateo took his security very seriously. “Picked up heat and I don’t feel like fighting today.”

“Valentina Barbaro, running away from a fight? My goodness, is the End of Times on us already?”

Mateo’s rough, gravelly voice drifted out of his living space, so Valentina pushed the beaded curtain out of the way and stepped into the large kitchen where the man was waiting. He was a short, stocky old man with a wild beard and a nervous twitch to his hands.

“Little more heat than I like to tangle with,” Valentina chuckled as she stooped to kiss his whiskered cheek. She felt a strange tenseness in Mateo when she moved in close. “Something the matter?”

“This and that,” Mateo told her with a wave of his hand he was attempting to play off as casual. “Let me see what I have in the cooler. I know you like fresh fruit.”

He was dodging the question, and that wasn’t like him. Mateo liked the sound of his own voice too much to ever keep quiet. Once his back was turned, Valentina’s eyes took a quick attentive stroll over the table where he had been sitting. A lone data chip sat not far from Mateo’s data pad.

Without quite knowing why, Valentina snatched the chip. She knew it wasn’t the best idea, but curiosity got the better of her. She justified it as payback for their last encounter, when Mateo’s foolishness had cost her a handsome payout. No room for mistakes like that. She jammed the chip into her own data pad and downloaded the content quickly, then set it back exactly where it was just a moment before.

Glancing at her pad , she could make out coordinates of some kind, maybe something valuable even? Valentina promised herself a better look once she was back on the Asterias.

“So, tell me about the fight you don’t want to fight,” Mateo said when he came back from the kitchen, a plate of cut fruit in hand. “Anything that’s too much for Valentina Barbaro is my kind of story.”

“Thought it was a normal run,” Valentina told him, just a little bitter as she took a piece of fruit. “Last stop took me through Shepherd’s Void, and you know how they get about smugglers. I was hoping you maybe heard something?” The fruit was bitter too.

“Plenty of chatter in subspace but nothing about you, Valentina. I think you have the right of it, Garrison hates smugglers, nothing more, nothing less.”

“Well it’s good I got paid in advance then. I’ll be steering clear of House Space for a long while.”

And with that, Valentina has left the Ember’s Grace star cluster, meaning that claims there are no longer available until she returns. Perhaps the next chapter of her story will reveal her next destination.

Stay tuned for more of Valentina’s adventure, and the next cluster of the Celestial Claim Land Presale, from Echoes of Empire!