The Cantina of Sameena is dreary and dimly lit with two dozen tables around the edges, many of which are set into recesses in the walls. At the centre sits the bar bathed in harsh blue light. The bartenders are scantily clad and writhe about as they prepare the drinks that are claimed by a couple service droids. The droids are identical with two wheels, a thin stick like body from which sits a horizontal bar of lights, that serve as the droids eyes and head, a tray mounted to the body above which is the single arm.

Marek casts his gaze across the room from the shadowy corner of the alcove that serves as the entranceway. He can’t see Sameena, but he knows that doesn’t mean she isn’t here. He’s spotted the cameras and expects she’s in one of the back offices, if the layout of the rest of this place is the same that is. Not that it matters. Either Sameena will see him on the cameras herself or someone will let her know a bounty hunter is here.

Marek steps from the shadows and into the open area of the cantina, the patrons all look his way as he slowly moves over to the bar. Many seem surprised, a few shuffle out expecting trouble. Others quickly avert their gazes and hunch their shoulders as they return to their conversations, while the music continues to boom loudly.

“What can I get ya?” One of the scantily clad bartenders, a woman, asks as she continues to writhe to the music suggestively.

“Looking for someone.” Marek calls over the music, his helmet amplifying his voice as he leans toward the woman. It is only now that he notices she and the other bartender, an equally scantily clad male, are chained to the floor. Their chains are fed through twin runners that allow them to circumnavigate the space behind the bar, but no further than that.

It realisation doesn’t surprise Marek. Sameena always had been the possessive type, but she’d definitely gone much deeper into criminality in the last fourteen years since his last visit.

“I just serve drinks.” The bartender assures, convinced Marek is after something she isn’t allowed to offer.

“No. Not that. I’m looking for…” Marek begins but never finishes.

“Marek!” Sameena thunders loudly cutting the bounty hunter off as the music grinds to a halt. The bartender backs away with fear in her eyes, as the diminutive woman with deep wrinkles, deep eyes and white shoulder length curly hair stands with her stomach hanging past her waist.

Marek winces as he glances at Sameena sideways. She hasn’t aged well, he thinks as she waddles forward, flanked on either side by tall muscular women. He knows they’re battle slaves. Their shaved heads and spears give that away. He guesses Sameena must have won an arena bet, likely fixed knowing Corin. Plus the fact that Sameena had never been a successful gambler.

“Sameena. Long time.” Marek responds as he pulls away from the bar and turns to face her head on.

“Still a looker I see.” Sameena offers as she comes to stand right under his nose. The battle slaves stop a little ways back to give them room. Both eye Marek clearly ready to strike as soon as a command is given. He doesn’t like these odds, he has to admit.

“Says you.” Marek retorts trying to be charming. It doesn’t suit him and he knows it.

“Give me one reason I shouldn’t gut you right now?” Sameena asks looking up at the much taller bounty hunter. Her face is serious and angry, while her eyes are filled with contempt.

“And don’t you dare go asking why? You know damn well why. You left me, Yasha and our whole crew to deal with that shitstorm of yours.” Sameena grumbles before spitting on the stained stone floor.

Marek hates to think what other fluids have created the stains, but it doesn’t sicken him like it should. It just reminds him of how much he doesn’t miss the filth of Corin, in all its forms.

“I’m here for a job.” Marek says ignoring Sameena’s attempts to rile him. He knows exactly what she’s talking about, even if she is apportioning all the blame on him when the truth is the job was her idea.

“I don’t work with hunters.” Sameena replies baring her heavily yellowed crooked teeth, several of which are missing or black.

“I’m here to meet someone.” Marek says succinctly.

“You’re trying to take a contract in my house?” Sameena thunders as she begins to work herself into a rage. She knows she’ll enjoy torturing and killing Marek, slowly. If only Yasha was here, she thinks as she spits again. This time it’s in disgust; previously it had been out of habit.

“I have the job. My contact is here.” Marek corrects.

“Really? You think anyone in Corin would do business with you. Traitor!” Sameena snarls as she tries to get in Marek’s face. But the bounty hunter is too tall and Sameena’s threats don’t frighten him, even if they do frighten everyone else in the cantina. He can hear every patron holding their breathes.

“Iris. That’s the contacts name.” Marek declares without rising to Sameena’s taunts.

“Ha. Really? Iris. Well I’m afraid you’re a little late. That little fishy got her tongue cut. Hahaha.” Sameena roars, sure that Marek is joking.

Marek simply sighs, which wipes the smile off Sameena’s face immediately. She realises now Marek isn’t kidding and that worries her as the colour drains from her wrinkled face.

“You’re not kidding?” Sameena asks her eyes wide as she stares up at Marek.

“When have you ever known me to joke, Meena?” Marek fires back.

“I didn’t know. She was snooping. Digging round in places other people don’t like. She had to be cut. It wasn’t my choice. I swear.” Sameena’s brutal front is now gone and in its place is a scared old woman. Marek has to admit he’s never seen her like this and wonders if this is an act. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d done something like this. His gut is telling him it is, but he just doesn’t know.

“I don’t want trouble with the Union, Marek. I don’t.” Sameena continues, her hands held high now.

Marek decides his gut is right as he knows Sameena would never surrender. That means this is all part of some trap. He doubts Sameena knew who would be walking into her place. She just knew someone would, sooner or later.

“Damnit Meena.” Marek curses as he raises his arms and fires off a taser shot from each of his wrist mounted launchers. Both hit their marks square in the foreheads and deliver body crippling shocks to the battle slaves who painfully scream as they crumple to the ground. They try to fight the convulsions but their bodies are too overloaded with electrical discharge for them to succeed. Sameena launches herself at Marek. He steps back evading her swing, she spins round, her own weight throwing her off balance long enough for Marek to deliver solid kick to her back. Sameena falls forward, her face slamming into the polycrete floor seconds before she lifts her head to howl in pain. Blood pours from her mouth as many of her decaying teeth are now shattered and jagged.

None of the patrons try a thing. Instead they force themselves harder into their seats, their eyes glued on Marek, filled with fear and panic. But the bounty hunter pays them no mind as he grabs Sameena by her white hair and hauls her back to her feet and finally up into the air. She screams and cries as her hair is painfully being wrenched from her head by her own weight, as well as the planets gravity. She flails trying to break his grip, but she can’t.

“Truth Meena. Now!” Marek thunders. He isn’t angry but it doesn’t hurt to sound it, especially when your face is covered with a helmet as menacing looking as his is.

“Fuck you!” Meena spits back as she tries to kick furiously at him, to no avail. Her legs are too short and his reach too long.

“Fine. Then I’ll burn this place down.” Marek offers with a shrug before throwing her against the side of the bar. Her head slams into the glass side of the bar cracking it, leaving a mixture of hair, skin and blood behind as Sameena rolls on the floor holding her head snivelling.

Marek rolls his eyes. He knows Sameena is still playing a game. She’d never snivel or cower. Instead she’s simply waiting for her opening; sure that Marek won’t actually burn her cantina down.

He reaches across the bar and grabs one of the spirit bottles. He reads the section of the label that identifies it as highly flammable and smiles.

Sameena is nothing if not predictable in her alcohol choices, he thinks. They’re always concoctions of cheap ingredients, which is why they’re so highly flammable. Only in cities like Corin would such swill be sold, Marek notes as he uncorks the bottle. If not for the filters in his helmet he’s sure he’d be able to smell the liquid. He’s thankful he can’t. His days of knocking back cheap booze are long behind him.

“What are you doing?” Sameena asks her eyes wide. She, until this very moment, had been sure Marek was bluffing. He’d never been a cruel man. At least that had been true when he’d last been on Corin. Maybe he’s changed? She thinks. No, he wouldn’t change. He’d always been dangerous, but never cruel. He wouldn’t take her cantina away from her. Contract or not. But that was a long time ago, a voice in Sameena’s head reasons. I’ve changed, so why can’t he? The voice continues, and as it does Sameena becomes less sure of the actions she thinks the man before her would commit.

“Last chance. Tell me the truth.” Marek says as he rips some cloth of one of the unconscious battle slaves’ sleeves and begins to stuff it into the narrow opening of the bottle.

Marek knows it’s a primitive tool he’s forging, but sometimes the most primitive can be the most effective. Especially when the walls of the cantina are draped in tatty stained old tapestries and the mouldy ceiling is hidden beneath canopies of cloth.

“You wouldn’t.” Sameena says hoping to call his bluff. Though, she has to admit she isn’t sure he is bluffing. He if had been he’d have never gone this far, she thinks to herself. He really has changed then, Sameena thinks having now decided that he really isn’t bluffing. She watches him set the bottle down and then begin scraping his armour bracers together trying to make a spark, her eyes wide with terror.

“Ok. Ok. Ok. Just stop. Don’t burn my cantina down. It’s all I’ve got.” Sameena pleads.

This time Marek is sure she isn’t acting. The fear in her eyes is too real. He smirks beneath his helmets faceplate surprised that she’d fall for such an obviously corny scam.

There’s no way he’d be able to cause a spark to light the cloth he’s just stuffed into this bottle of highly flammable booze. Even if he did, he doubts the cloth would burn at a rate that would allow him to throw it and start a cantina fire, but apparently fear has got the better of Sameena. This place really does mean everything to her, he thinks as he folds his arms across his chest waiting for her to talk. The bottle with the cloth sticking out the neck still sat on the bar within arm’s reach.

“Iris is fine. She’s still got her tongue.” Sameena assures.

“You can have her. Just don’t do anything rash Marek, please.”

Marek realises it’s the first time he’s ever heard Sameena be polite. It makes him chuckle to himself, though he still doesn’t trust her, not one bit.

“Where is she?” Marek asks without a hint of emotion.

“Out back.” Sameena says pointing toward the old back office space of the cantina.

“Why should I trust you Meena?” Marek queries honestly.

“This could be a trap.” He quickly adds.

“I…I wouldn’t do that. We go way back. We’re old friends.” Sameena says pleading as she looks up at him from the floor, where she is on her knees now.

“And you said if you ever saw me again you’d rend my flesh from my bones and then feed it to me.” Marek recalls as he looks down at the pathetic old fat diminutive woman before him.

“No. No. I would never say anything like that about an old friend.” Sameena offers as her glance flicks off to the side where the entrance alcove to the cantina is. It’s filled with members of her gang now. She’d been hoping they’d arrive sooner, but all that matters is that they are here now.

Marek will pay for threatening to burn her cantina down, she promises. He should never have come back here.

But Marek already knows about Sameena’s thugs who as they try and step into the open bar area are hit by arcing electrical strikes that overwhelm their nervous systems. Each and every one of them collapses, forming a pile in the alcove, as they twitch and writhe in agony.

“You were never as smart as you thought Meena.” Marek offers with a smile she can’t see, but that she can definitely hear in his voice.

“I hate you.” Sameena says with a snarl, but she never gets to say anything else as Marek drives his armour plated knee into her right temple. Her head snaps left violently and silently before Marek begins to cross the bar.

Suddenly he stops and then spins round and roars: “Get out!”

The patrons, who have remained paralysed in fear this entire time, jump at Marek’s roar before erupting into a frenzy of activity. They climb over one another as well as the still spasming thugs trying to escape. Marek shakes his head twice slowly, turns on his heels and heads the rest of the way across the open bar and through the doorway into the cantinas back office spaces.

Marek passes through a couple of the offices deciding that they look near enough as he remembers them, albeit more mistreated and filthy.

None of them hold who he is looking for and many of them seem to simply be filled with furniture that is old and broken. Marek wonders why Sameena has been keeping it all, but as he enters the office which has been hers through all these years, he decides it doesn’t matter.

Her office certainly has changed. The furniture is bigger and more expensive looking now than the cheap flaking items that used to fill the space. The once blank walls are now painted a deep red which is broken up by forged copies of priceless art works. None of it surprises Marek, but he has to admit it certainly proves Sameena has no taste. None of the items gel and mix well together. Instead, they come across as a hodgepodge. Like Sameena is trying to look like a collector, but Marek doubts that it fools anyone, except maybe her goons.

Things certainly have changed in Corin, Marek thinks as he looks around. He knows this is the last room in the back section of the cantina but is sure the space used to be larger. He doesn’t think it’s his memory getting the better of him or the abundance of mismatched furniture, but he knows he could be wrong. That is until he spots a door. There was never a door there, he tells himself as he edges closer, cautiously. It could easily be a trap, he knows even as he flicks the archaic switch on the wall section to the left of the sealed door. It slides open with a loud hiss to reveal a tiny space inside that is little more than a cupboard. Except the walls are solid metal and there is a figure hutched up in one of the far corners.

“Iris?” Marek asks.

The figure somehow manages to shrink to an even small size as their breathing becomes panicked and audible.

“I’m not going to hurt you.” Marek assures as he drops into a squat and offers his hand.

“Stay away.” The figure, a woman, says fearfully.

“Come on. Take my hand. We’ll get you out of here.” Marek says with as reassuring a tone as he can manage.

“No. I can’t.” The woman says sniffing loudly.

Marek is sure this is Iris and wonders what Sameena has done as he leans forward trying to reach the woman.

“Stay away!” The woman screams as she presses her back against the cold metal walls at her back trying to get away, but she’s cornered and she knows she can’t. Though that doesn’t stop her from begging to whoever will listen to allow her to.

“Boron sent me.” Marek offers.

“Bastard!” The woman roars as she suddenly feels a burst of uncontrollable rage and tries to throw herself at Marek. But she hasn’t got the energy and falls short. Her back and arms exposed to the light.

Marek, who leaned back in response to the woman’s lunge though it wasn’t necessary for him to do so as she would have fell short anyway, stares in shock at the marks across her skin.

“Meena you sick…” Marek mumbles to himself before trailing off. He shakes his head sickened at the sight of the cuts and burns to the woman’s skin.

“Just kill me, please.” The woman begs as she pulls herself onto her knees.

It is at this point that Marek realises that she’s pregnant. His eyes close beneath his helmet as he wonders what he’s got himself into. He curses Sameena and Boron for their parts in this and for pulling Iris in as well. No one deserves treatment like this, he thinks, doubly so if they’re pregnant.

“You are Iris aren’t you?” Marek asks after a while.

“Yes. But if Boron sent you I’d rather die.” Iris confirms as her head hangs in shame. Her face masked by her long brown hair, tangled, dirty and matted.

“What happened?” Marek asks.

“I had to escape, so I went to Boron who offered me passage here for a price. Then the bastard sold me out. Sameena and her thugs grabbed me and…and…” Iris explains until she can’t explain anymore because the painful memories are just too much for her to bare to think about. But even as she screws her eyes shut in hopes of stopping the memories they still come flooding back, flashing across her mind, painfully, as tears well up in her eyes.

“Come on. Let’s get you out of there.” Marek says as he offers his hand.

Iris lifts her head just enough to peer through a gap in her long hair without revealing her face.

“I won’t go back. You can’t make me.” Iris promises.

“Forget the contract for now. Just let me help you.”

“You’re a hunter, you only fulfil contracts. You don’t care about me. That’s why Boron sent you. He knew this would happen. That’s why he agreed to help me. This way he gets double the pay.” Iris manages between sobs. Tears drip from her hidden face to the solid grey polycrete floor, staining the surface.

“You’re the package aren’t you?” Marek asks. How though he doesn’t understand as Boron had gestured that the package is three feet long and a foot wide. He could easily have lied, Marek thinks, it wouldn’t surprise him.

“No. But I carry it.” Iris says as she rubs her belly.

“The child?” Marek exclaims in surprise.

Iris simply nods, her hair bobbing up and down as she does.

“Who’s the father?” Marek asks expecting her to say Boron.

“There isn’t one.” Iris answers honestly.

“How…can that be?” Marek queries.

“The baby belongs to another.” Iris says raising her head to reveal her face.

Marek winces as he looks at her scarred and burned face. Her nose is missing, her lips have been cut numerous times and her eyelids have been removed. He curses Sameena silently for her barbarism, but is glad Iris can’t see his face even as she stares back at him frightened.

Marek knows it’s his appearance which is instilling fear in her now and nothing else. He’s seen the look a thousand times and he’s sure he’ll see it a thousand more. It doesn’t bother him. He’s used to it. Hell, if he’s honest with himself, he even plays to it. It makes for a great poker face and no one can ever be sure whether he’s bluffing or not. Usually it’s not, and quite a few have learned that the hard way. Often targets for his contracts.

“Is it Boron’s?” Marek asks after a time. He can’t peel his eyes away from the mess that is Iris’ face, but he is sure that before the mutilation she had been pretty.

“No. That rat just sold me out. He’s not the client.” Iris manages through gritted teeth as her eyes begin to roll back into her head.

Marek’s eyes search her expression as he sees blood pooling and reaches out to catch her upright torso before it topples over. He knows she’s passing out from blood loss but from where he doesn’t know as she tries to scoop her up into his arms. As he does so he finds her toes on one foot have been amputated, badly. Blood from the amputations has been pooling in the shadows of the tiny space and she’s close to death now as a result.

Marek curses to himself as he lifts Iris out of the small space and onto Sameena’s desk, clearing the items from its surface as he lays her down and stretches her out.

“Iris, stay with me.” Marek begs as he pulls a field kit from about his waist.

“It’s no use.” Iris manages with a smile, her eyes still lost in her head. She’s slipping away and Marek knows it. He curses again as he tries to stem the flow of blood and dress the wounds. He has nothing to clean them with and knows they’ll become infected. She won’t last long enough for that, a voice in his head adds. He knows that, but he has to try.

“Save the baby.” Iris pleads as she grabs his arm, loosely and tries to squeeze. She has no energy left and so her all she manages is simply resting her hand atop Marek’s forearm.

“What? How?” Marek asks.

“I’m a living flask. The baby…was put inside me. I was never meant to give birth.” Iris manages through laboured breathing and pauses, both of which are becoming more prevalent.

“But it’ll die!” Marek exclaims, though his voice sounds calm.

“Cylinder…over there.” Iris manages as she points limply and vaguely into the tiny space she’d been locked in.

Marek quickly dives back inside, avoiding the pool of dark crimson as his visor illuminates the space and he spies in the opposite corner at the rear of the space a three foot long, one foot wide cylinder. Its curved surface is transparent while the top and base are both white, though the top has a handle built into it. Marek grabs the cylinder and hauls it out of the cupboard sized box and up onto the desk. This is what Boron had been referring to Marek realises now. But this is not bounty hunter work.

“You’ll….have…to…cut me open.” Iris informs barely conscious now.

“That’ll kill you.” Marek assures.

“I’m already dead. Save the baby. Please. Save my baby.” Iris manages before finally losing her battle.

“Iris. Iris?” Marek calls as he checks her pulse to find that she’s gone. He curses loudly several times as he searches Sameena’s office for a knife. He, unsurprisingly, finds one in the first desk draw he opens. He checks the blade, which is sharp, then opens the cylinder.

Marek hesitates for a few moments, during which he ponders who the real client is. He has no idea, but what he does know is that the contract is void. Bounty hunters don’t do human trafficking. Boron knows that. Everyone knows that. There are countless other avenues for trafficking and hunters are not one of them. He’s out of pocket as a result, but he doesn’t care. There’s a wrong to right here. Bounty hunters aren’t known for their morality, but they have codes and standards. Boron and whoever his client is have breached them, severely. Marek won’t let it lie, he swears as he begins to cut Iris open.

Blood oozes through the wound as he slices open her abdomen. It isn’t pretty, but he knows it doesn’t have to be. She’s dead and Marek is sure Boron knew it would play out this way. He curses the fat crime lord again as he dives deeper until he reaches her uterus. He knows he has to be careful as he cuts the wall open, fluids flooding out as he takes hold of the baby and lifts it clear.

Marek studies the baby to make sure they are still in one piece, but he knows nothing about kids. Instead, he simply eases the baby into the cylinder and seals it. With the seal activated the cylinder begins to fill with embryonic fluid. It will effectively keep the baby in stasis until this affair is settled. After that he’ll have to sort out what he’ll do with the child, who he has to admit looks fully developed, and wonders why the baby was still in Iris’ womb. He doesn’t know. This whole job has presented him with more questions than answers. Except that Sameena has become a monster, he’ll actually burn her precious cantina down for her actions, plus Boron has to die for his part in this.

Marek won’t kill Sameena. He knows her cantina is everything to her. So if he takes it away, she’ll understand the pain she’s caused. What happens to her after that, he couldn’t care less. She’d made her bed a long time ago and lied about it ever since. First he’d have to move her and the baby, he decides as he checks the cylinder and then lifts it free from the desk, leaving Sameena’s backroom office as he heads back toward the open bar area of the cantina. His face is carved with anger, but as ever it is hidden by his helmet.

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