(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.
I sat in the bar, nursing a large whisky. I’d splashed out and bought the real stuff from New Scotland. I thought I deserved it. My brain had continued to spin all the way to the bar and all the way through my first two drinks. By the time I’d started sipping the third I was beginning to settle down. I had to think this through.
I’d followed a Dem job to pick up this Gans character. The one lead they gave me led me to this hotel, but Gans was long gone, left eleven days ago now. So far I’d discovered that he’d killed the manager after a dispute about his bill, but otherwise nothing seemed to make him stand out. I’d also learned, or at least I strongly suspected, that he’d had a roll in the hay with some stuck-up frock. Beyond that I knew nothing. Except one thing: some guy by the name of Darver Phelms was in the hotel at the same time as Gans. I had no reason just yet to even assume that Phelms and Gans had met, yet Phelms is dead and the police handed me a ‘slide from his room, addressed personally to me.
Well, there was only one way to find out more about this. I took out the ‘slide and pressed it onto my Reader. I watched the ‘slide soak in with trepidation. I don’t like this weird shit.
I accessed the data on the ‘slide. It popped up as a vid file, Darver Phelms’s smiling face. I knew it was him because I’d recently seen his corpse. Obviously he’d lost some weight now, but there was enough for me to recognise him in this vid.
He gave a cheesy thumbs up to the camera. ‘Hey buddy! How are you. I’m looking forward to catching up on Gallenin, even if it is a shitty planet. I’ll leave this ‘slide at reception so you get it when you check in, just in case I’m out. I’ll be on and off planet a little bit as I have business elsewhere in the system, but I’ll be back here on Gallenin regularly. Stick around if I’m out when you arrive, okay? See you soon.’
What in the deep, wide black was going on here? I took another long swig of whisky and calmed my mind. I needed to think about this rationally. That message could have been meant for anyone. Phelms didn’t identify who he was addressing. And he’d never got to leave it at reception either, so he must have been iced soon after recording it. The writing on the ‘slide case was the only thing that tied it to me and that could have been written by anyone. But why would they do that? I checked the data details to see when the recording had been made. It was eleven days ago. That was the day that Gans made spaghetti sauce out of the manager and jumped a Skiff off-planet. This was too weird.
So who was fucking with me? Perhaps the better thing to consider here is not who sent this ‘slide to me, but what I’m going to do about it. I didn’t fancy sticking around for the cops to find time to ask me more questions. It was kinda dumb of them to let me wander off in the first place. Regardless of the strange stink this case was starting to emanate, I had only one really solid lead and that was Methesda. It’s time I bought myself a ride out along the Arm.
I’d finished up my whisky in the bar and all my instincts were telling me to get the hell off Gallenin at the first opportunity. Then the stuck-up broad that was embarrassed about Gans walked in. I caught her eye accidentally, held it deliberately. She stared at me for a second, then seemed to deflate slightly. She walked over, sat down beside me.
‘Buy me a drink.’ There was a fire in her eyes.
‘Sure.’ She ordered and I told the barman to put it on my bill. I sat and waited. You learn a lot of tricks in my game and you learn a lot about people. One of the most valuable things about people is this; they don’t like silence. If you want someone to talk to you, don’t try talking them into it. Leave a big empty space in the air and most folks’ll feel obliged to fill it. Once her drink was served she took a long gulp then looked at me through that big gap hanging between us.
‘OK, I know who that guy in the picture is,’ she said resignedly.
See what I mean? People can’t help but talk. I just nodded.
‘I met him right here, in the bar,’ she went on. ‘He seemed like a decent guy, he was pretty cool and good looking. We got chatting and he kept buying me drinks. Anyway, we ended up back in my room and things were good.’ She blushed again. ‘But he was gone the next morning when I woke up and I never saw him again. I left it more than twenty four hours, thinking to make him sweat if I didn’t go looking for him. Eventually I got tired of waiting and went to reception to check up on him. Seems like he’d already left, and in a hurry. Bastard.’ She looked at me with one eyebrow raised. ‘Why the hell am I telling you all this anyway?’
I shrugged. ‘Maybe cos you want to tell someone, and I’m the only one askin’?’
She laughed, but it was a tired laugh. ‘Maybe. Anyway, that’s all there is to tell.’
‘Did you guys talk much that night or just…’ I knew the question was a dangerous one and her eyes flashed with that haughty affront again.
‘What do you mean exactly? Of course we talked!’
I stayed calm, letting her anger dissipate unfuelled. ‘What did you talk about? Did he tell you who he was or where he was going?’
She shook her head. ‘No. He said he was on a mission and he was going to change the ‘Verse. But he was one of those poetic kind of people that say things like that. Otherwise we talked about great writers and music, things like that. He’s an educated man.’ She stood up, finished her drink. It was as if she’d just realised she was talking to someone below her. Besides, she’d had the catharsis of her confession and she didn’t need me any more. ‘I have to go,’ she said stiffly. ‘Thanks for the drink.’ And with that she stalked off.
So Gans was an educated man even though he’d grown up on the Globes. He must have moved out and got some schooling somewhere more civilised. As I was thinking about what I’d just been told I saw the cop from Phelms’s room walk in and scan the bar. Acting on instinct I dropped off the stool and slipped into the shadows. Time to go. I managed to avoid the cop and get back to my room and my bag. It was already packed, ready to leave. It always was.
I got down to reception and waited behind a large potted palm until a cop talking to the receptionist headed back into the hotel lounge. When I asked to check out the receptionist looked up at me, surprised. ‘Oh, the police were looking for you. They want to talk to you some more or something.’
I nodded, keeping my expression perfectly calm. ‘I know. I just spoke to an officer in the bar. I need to check out now and then I’m going to go down to the station to help them out.’ I flashed her my most winning smile. Always a risk, but this time it seemed to work.
She nodded happily. ‘Oh, I’m glad they found you then.’ She took my money, checked me out and I started heading for the door. I got as far as one foot in the hotel and one foot out when I heard a yell. I didn’t even look, just bolted. I pulled my coat tight and headed into the most populated part of this town on Gallenin. It was a mess of narrow streets and poor businesses trying to scrape out a living. Garish neon signs, holographic ads reaching out for you, people with expressions that put a face to their struggles.
The cops were hot on my heels as I ducked and dived through alleys and buildings. Why the hell was I running from the police? I’d done nothing wrong. But something deep inside told me to keep moving. If the police got hold of me now, things would get worse. At the very least I’d be delayed and the Gans trail would get even colder. I learned a long time ago to listen closely to my gut.
I managed to put a couple of blocks between myself and the cops. I stay in good shape; it’s essential in my line of work. You never know when you might have to run or fight, but you know damn well that you will have to do one or the other every once in a while. Sometimes both. I spotted a tailor shop advertising second hand clothes. After a quick negotiation the shop keeper made a week’s profit in about one minute flat and I emerged with a new enviro-coat, this one dark green where my other one had been black, and different trousers, boots and a swanky Blent-wool hat pulled down over my eyebrows and ears. A crude disguise, but it would help a bit.
The cops would be watching for anyone coming and going through the port now, so I needed to secure myself an unofficial ride. I slowly made my way towards the port until I found a bar just grotty enough to hide me without being so crappy that it would threaten me. With any luck I’d find my self an unscrupulous Captain that would hide me on his ship. I bought a drink and sat in a shadowed corner to watch and learn.
There’s an old saying that goes, “You learn a lot more if you keep your mouth shut.” It’s something I try to keep in mind. Too many people love the sound of their own voice when they could learn a lot by simply shutting the fuck up. I sat in the shitty port bar and softened my anxiety with some more whisky. Not the good stuff now, of course, that would just draw attention to me, and that’s exactly what I didn’t need. But I sat and I sipped and I watched and I listened.
There was a group of guys that were drinking way too hard. That would be a brawl within the next half hour or so. I’d try to get out before that happened. There were a few working girls around, but my scowl kept them from approaching me. Another guy had the weight of more worlds than this one on his shoulders. He stared at the bottom of his glass, knowing full well that the answer wasn’t there. But he kept on looking anyhow. Sitting near the door was a guy that looked about greasy yet bright enough to be a ship’s engineer. His knuckles were grazed and there was black grime under his fingernails. He even had an oily rag stuffed in a pocket. He was drinking slow and watching the people come and go. He kept checking the time. I guessed he was enjoying the last few minutes of shore leave that he had remaining.
It’s strange what the dark can do to a soul. Personally, I like the isolation, like I mentioned before. But for most folk, too long in the dark can leave them disoriented. It’s like the old stories of sailors taking weeks to get back their land legs after months at sea. Except when you sail off-world, it’s not just the motion that’ll mess you up. Everything is artificial; the light, the air, the gravity. The only real thing is certain death if the hull breaches because of all that endless space in every direction. It’s enough to make even an ice ball like Gallenin seem inviting. But it’s a slow creep. At first it doesn’t bother you too much, especially if you have a talent for sailing, like being a good pilot or engineer. Even a good cook with a sense for adventure. But no matter who you are, eventually the dark becomes oppressive and you need some time on a real world, however shitty it might be. And then sometimes, the need to be on land becomes overwhelming and the dark becomes something a soul develops a phobia for. Deepfear, they call it.
Now this engineer by the door, he looked like he had the Deepfear. I could use that. He was watching the time like he had to leave soon. Perhaps I could leave with him. I picked up my drink and wandered casually over to his table.
He looked up at me, suspicious. ‘Hey.’
I decided to be up-front with him. I didn’t have a lot of time. ‘I need a ride, as soon as possible. You know where I might get a ship?’
His eyes narrowed. ‘Where to?’
I shrugged. ‘Kinda doesn’t matter at this point.’
‘You in trouble?’
‘No. Just sick of this ice ball.’ Then I decided to play my trump. ‘To be honest, I’m not much for travelling off-world. It kinda gets to me, you know. So I have to just get going before I have too much time to think about it. Besides, I have something to help with the Deepfear.’ I smiled at him, like I was a bit ashamed of myself for being so weak.
‘What is it you’ve got for the Deepfear?’ he asked. He was trying to sound all casual, but his eyes gave him away. People’s eyes always did. I know one dude that got his eyes replaced by cybernetics just so he could lie better.
‘You ain’t gonna report me, are you?’ I asked, trying to look a bit spooked.
‘No, man, really. What do you have?’
I sat down beside him, put my bag on my lap. Pulling open a side pocket I showed him a small plastic sack. I opened it just a bit and wafted the scent at him. ‘Top grade Fellonean Wow Weed,’ I said with a wink. ‘Good enough to calm the nerves, but not so whacky that it’ll stop a soul from functioning. It’s the best stuff against Deepfear. You ever heard of it before?’
The guy nodded. ‘Sure I have. But I never tried it. Does it really work?’
‘Oh yeah, it works. And it’s nice too, regardless of the ‘fear. It’s a good thing to just chill out with. Tell you what. You help me get a ride off-planet before I lose my nerve and I’ll share some of this with you.’
The guy was still looking at the Weed, like he was talking to it instead of me. ‘I still think maybe you’re in trouble.’
Smart guy. ‘Not enough to bother you. I just want a ride, man. Can you help me?’
He was still watching my bag, even though I’d closed up the pocket again. ‘I can help you,’ he said quietly.
Once again my little bag of tricks digs me out of a hole. I just hope I haven’t got myself hooked up on a pirate ship.
I was right about the engineer on just about every count. Except one. He’d swallowed the rest of his drink in one go and led me out of the bar. I guess he thought the Weed was going to be better than the booze, so he might as well get going. We didn’t go through the passenger terminal, but straight into the port’s commercial docks. Security on worlds like this one was lax at the best of times, especially if you found the right people to move with.
His ship was a pile of shit. There’s no other way to describe it. To be honest, I’m surprised it flies, but it appears to be one of those vessels that looks a lot worse on the outside than it is in its guts. I flattered him by asking if he was the Captain and he laughed that off.
‘Do I look like a Captain?’
‘I don’t know. What does a Captain look like?’
‘I keep this boat in the air. I fix things.’
I smiled. ‘That’s a fine trade. One to be proud of.’
He just shrugged. Once we were aboard he went to find the Captain. And this is where I was wrong about him. I’d thought he looked quite bright, but obviously I was very mistaken. The guy that came walking into the common room was rough as guts and mean as a thirsty bear. It was obvious from the second we met that we weren’t going to get along. ‘So you’re a friend of Ollie’s?’ he asked, sneering.
I nodded, quickly catching up to play along. ‘Yeah, that’s right.’
‘And Ollie said I’d give you a ride?’
‘Yes, sir. I greatly appreciate it.’
The Captain stared at me like I was boning his teenage daughter. ‘What kind of trouble you in?’
I decided that there might be a way to circumvent this line of questioning. ‘I can pay you for the ride, Captain. I don’t expect anything for free.’
‘That ain’t what I asked.’
We stared at each other in silence for about a full minute. Ollie had reappeared and was shifting from foot to foot like he needed a piss. All he was worried about was my bag of Wow Weed walking off the ship again. A ship that smelled of metal and oil and something that had burned itself into the galley a long time ago. The furniture was threadbare and broken. The Captain and Ollie wore little more than rags. I wondered if there were any other crew. Still, at least I hadn’t hooked up with pirates. No self-respecting pirate would be this poor.
The truth of it was that the Captain had a decision to make. It was obvious that I was in trouble. The decision was this: did he take a risk and carry me or not. The kind of trouble I was in was pretty irrelevant. And he could certainly use the money I was offering.
‘My name is Captain Rake. This is my ship. You work your passage, you pay your way and you do exactly what I say when I say it.’
Seems he’d made a decision. ‘Sure.’
‘What do I call you?’ he asked, the sneer returning.
I tried to smile at him. ‘You can call me whatever you like.’
He nodded and went back wherever he’d come from. Ollie grinned at me and came trotting over. ‘You’re gonna have to share my cabin, but there’s two bunks in there. This way.’
He led me down into the ship’s bowel where his cabin was little more than a cupboard beside the engine room. It was going to be hot and noisy in there. And I’d have to sleep with one eye open, seeing as how my soul is not in the least bit trusting. ‘Is there anyone else on board?’ I asked.
Ollie nodded. ‘There’s Sally, Cap’n Rake’s lady. And there’s Timmo. He’s kind of a mercenary, at least that’s what he likes to think, but he’s not a very good one.’
‘What exactly do you guys do?’
‘Anything going really.’
‘And where are you going today?’
‘We’re flying out to Cerunia. Cap’n Rake’s got a job lined up to ferry some cargo.’
I nodded. ‘How far to Cerunia?’
Ollie shrugged, shook his head. ‘Only about two days, I guess.’
There was a sudden roar and shuddering that nearly shook my teeth out. Ollie grinned sheepishly. The ship lurched and tilted and the motion of flight swept through us. The roar was deafening and I wondered if the ship would hold together through atmo. Then there was a stomach lifting moment of weightlessness before the gravity came on and everything quietened down again.
Ollie laughed. ‘I always worry about that bit!’
And this was the engineer talking? I rolled a smoke with the Weed, as promised. As we sat back with it I couldn’t help thinking about how quickly I wanted off this dodgy boat.
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(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.