Copyright 2019 Charles F. Millhouse
“I said, no…” Serena Darkwood stood in the center of the room and tightened her arm as she leveled her Old Galactic Equalizer in front of her. Killing someone in the saloon was bad for business, and shooting a potential client gave her a frosty reputation that kept other business prospects from approaching.
“No… no…?” Don Jonor, stuttered. He stood several paces away from Serena, frozen in place – his eyes scanning the spectators lining the walls. He licked his trembling lips and drew an anxious breath. Jonor was a Timmoson, a cowardly race of people who liked to hire others to do their dirty work. Assassination, smuggling, warmongering, it didn’t matter as long as they weren’t seen getting involved. For a Timmoson, money was no object, and everyone had a price. Everyone except Serena Darkwood.
No one in the crowded saloon said a word, silence replaced the laughter and only the clatter of the gambling wheel at the back of the saloon was heard clicking to a slow stop. The anticipation of death put everyone on edge.
Those in the saloon, knew Serena’s reputation as a smuggler and kept their distance from her. Outsiders like Don Jonor learned a hard lesson when confronting her.
“I don’t think I understand,” Jonor said licking his lips again. His long alabaster ears glistened with sweat. His ashen eyes staring helplessly into the end of the pistol.
Serena’s gun didn’t waver. Her eyes ablaze, she said flatly, “I don’t know what you heard about me, Timmoson, but I’m not an assassin. I haul cargo and I get paid, that’s it.”
Downtrodden, Jonor’s eyes glistened, and he said in an uneven tone, “I… I don’t want any trouble, I was told you were reliable… and… and… you came highly recommended.”
Don’s lower lip trembled, but he offered no reply, except in saying, “Please, this was a mistake. I meant no harm… can’t we pretend, act like, this – never happened?”
Serena flipped her thumb on the weapons handle and the Equalizer powered down. She holstered it on her hip and turned toward the table at the back of the bar.
“Wait,” Don said.
Someone in the room let out a low gasp.
Serena paused, but didn’t turned back toward the Timmoson.
“That’s it… nothing else…?”
Serena fisted her hands to prevent her loose fingers from snatching the pistol back from its holster. She would enjoy killing Don Jonor, for any reason, even her own satisfaction. She noticed the glares coming from the saloon’s patrons, scrutinizing her every move. So instead, Serena returned to her table at the back of the room and the tension in the saloon lightened. From the corner of her eye, Serena caught sight of several uniformed officers from the planet Rygail, as Don Jonor slithered past them on his way out of the room.
An inundation of Rygailian officers and troops arrived on the outpost several days ago, and although they hadn’t been causing trouble, they had been searching for something, though Serena didn’t know what.
The gambling wheel at the back of the saloon began to turn again. Music from a sound synthesizer blared and drowned out the mixed voices in the room. Serena could only imagine what they were saying. But she didn’t pay them any mind. The saloon was her second home, she’d spent a lot of her life in the establishment. Grew up learning to play cards with the rough-cut men who also taught her how to drink, how to swear and how to know who to trust, and not to trust.
She lost her virginity under the gaming table to a guy she lost a card game to. Kissed her first woman at eighteen and killed her first man just outside the saloon’s door. And although Serena never considered herself a happy person, she was content. What more could you ask from life, than to be free. Live by your own rules and to make things up as you go along. Yes, Serena was content – it was more than most wealthy, happy people would ever be.
Serena sat back in her seat, and surveyed the room, Broker Rodune had the reputation of being an outpost for some of the roughest beings in the star system. Card players, swindlers, outlaws and smugglers from the outer planets congregated to the mining platform in the middle of the Galveron Cluster. Some people came for work, others came to the outpost because they weren’t welcome any place else in the galaxy.
The Dobien beer Serena ordered before her altercation with the Timmoson was flat when she took a drink. She wiped a dribble from her chin with the sleeve of her tunic. Another mug came to the table without order and the pretty Dolphian waitress who served it, pointed at the Rygailian officer at the bar.
The officer was humanoid, in his mid-forties. Tall, his body well-defined. His muscles conformed to his crisp clean uniform in every detail and looked like an extension of his skin. The officer’s long onyx hair hung to his shoulders framing out the sharp lines of his face. Serena regarded him with interest and bit her tongue in the corner of her mouth. The sharp pain reminded her, that with every gesture, even small ones, like a glass of beer, came with a price. She nodded in recognition, thanking him for the new drink and he saluted back to her with a tip of his own mug.
Serena nodded toward him, calling him over to her table. As he crossed the floor and neared her, she noticed his dull gray – lifeless eyes, as if his soul had been stripped from him. His features were less-defined and callous. A dark shade of stubble pricked his unshaven face and conveyed a lack of discipline. Rygailians were a mysterious race, rarely leaving the confines of their world. Many of the rumors about them, were that the Rygailian Royal Family kept their people enslaved. Of all the planets that Serena had hauled cargo to, Rygail wasn’t one of them.
“I was hoping you’d allow me to come over,” the officer said in a clear charming, yet hollow voice. He spoke in the common language, the intergalactic idiom that hundreds of worlds in the galaxy shared. Though each planet had their own indigenous tongue, the common language helped many species communicate with each other.
Serena studied the officer curiously, she prided herself in reading facial cues from many different races and knowing what to expect when meeting them. Humans were the easiest of the races to interpret. Maybe because she was human, or maybe humans weren’t as good at lying as they believed themselves to be. But the more Serena scrutinized the Rygailian – the less she knew about him.
“May I sit?” the Rygailian said brushing his dark mane away from his face.
Serena nodded toward the chair opposite her and noticed a whelp of flesh on the man’s neck, partially hidden by the shirt collar. When he turned his head upon sitting, she got a better look. It was a brand. A circle surrounding the royal crest of the Rygailian monarchy. Serena tried to look as if she hadn’t seen it and she took a drink of her beer and waited for the officer to speak.
The officer looked at her, sizing her up. Serena hauled cargo through the systems since she was nineteen. In that time, she’d gained a reputation and since striking out on her own, she knew when someone sat across from her, they were looking to hire.
Before the officer had time to speak, Serena spelled out her terms, and said, “I don’t assassinate – I’m not a killer for money. I haul cargo and from time to time I procure special items for people. My rate is two-hundred Old Galactic coin a day. If I have to go into a restriction zone it’s five hundred.”
“Precise and to the point,” the officer said, his lips turned up into a thin forced smile. “You’re taking a chance giving me that information, since I’m an officer in the Rygailian military. How do you know I won’t turn you in?”
Serena took a thin petite green cigar from the inside of her beige flight jacket and clamped it between her teeth. “To who? Broker Rodune is neutral territory and has been for twenty-five years, you know that,” or maybe he doesn’t, Serena thought and enlightened him, “Since the System Civil War that returned sovereignty to each individual planet, Broker Rodune, along with all the Galveron Cluster became neutral. There’s no law here, none of consequence anyway, besides the small contingent of men who are on the take from the local crime boss. It’s the only way the mining can get done. The systems need their Travivic Ore mined here, and without it everything comes to a standstill.”
The expression on the officer’s face didn’t change, he said, “It seems you live up to your reputation.”
“How so?” Serena asked, lighting the end of her cigar and taking a long draw into her lungs.
The officers voice deepened, and he said, “It’s said, you are as smart as you are beautiful, and I believe that. Common knowledge is you don’t get along well with others. Your display a few minutes ago, with the Timmoson, proved that. It’s also said that you’re a loner and no one would miss you if you disappeared.”
Serena slid her left hand down to her Equalizer, her voice business like, she said, “Why don’t you tell me why you’re here… and why there are so many Rygailian officers and troopers on Broker Rodune?”
The officer’s emotionless eyes darkened, he leaned in and lowered his voice, said, “We’re looking for something and we believe it to be here. There are parts of Broker Rodune my troopers cannot go without drawing attention. You blend in, you know the locals. If anyone can get information from the miners, the drug dealers and the scum that live here. It would be you.”
Serena might not be able to read his facial emotions, but the lilt of the officer’s voice was laced with half-truths. “Why don’t you tell me what you’re looking for,” she said flicking the ashes of her cigar into a tray on the table.
“I can’t tell you, unless you agree to work for us,” the officer said.
“I live by one rule Officer… officer…?” Serena fished for a name.
But the officer ignored the attempt and asked, “What rule would that be?”
Serena hooked a grin, and continued, “I don’t take a job unless I know what I’m getting into. I live longer that way.”
Stone faced, the officer didn’t offer a reply. Serena thought him as ruthless a card player as any she’d sat at a table with. The truth was, she could use the money, and by the way this was shaping up, she could have a lot of it once she completed searching for… for whatever it was the Rygailian had lost. Serena cleared her throat and decided to gamble, and said plainly, “I can’t help you officer, unless I know everything… it’s how I work. So, unless you have someone else you’re thinking of hiring–”
Someone at the back of the room shouted with laughter and applause followed from around the gambling wheel. Serena ignored it, keeping her emotions tight. The officer leaned in, his lifeless eyes narrowed, and he said, “What I’m about to tell you is sensitive… I could be shot for giving it to you, before your agreement to work for us. But you’ve left me no choice.”
Apathetic, Serena waved her hand toward the officer, said, “It’s your decision, tell me if you want, either way I don’t give a damn.”
Don’t overplay your hand, Serena. Think about the money.
The officer drew a hesitant breath, as if to speak, but before he had a chance, Serena heard a familiar voice ask, “Is everything alright here, drinks to your liking…?”
The officer jerked up from his chair so fast it fell backward and made a hard slap on the floor. Eyes turned toward Serena, as if the people in the bar were waiting for another quarrel on her behalf. She ignored them. The officer bolted from the saloon in a mad rush without another word, sidestepping other patrons on his dash to get out of the establishment. Serena sat back in her seat, she felt like a hunter that lost a prey. “You did that on purpose,” she snapped eyeing Alvic DeVry.
Alvic DeVry, was the saloon’s proprietor. A native from the planet Nygron, an aquatic species that lived both in and out of water. Bipedal, the lanky indigo-skinned man dressed in a fine silk suit, a darker blue than his skin. The rich pupils in the center of his large oval eyes stared at Serena, the gills along the crook of his neck fanned open and close.
“Stop looking at me like that,” Serena pushed herself away from the table and headed toward the long bar in the center of the room; the cigar clenched in her teeth. She skirted around a crop of tables that were scattered around the bar.
Alvic followed Serena and stopped at the bar as she crossed behind it. His puffy lips pursed, and he asked, “How should I look at you then? You were about ready to break a promise.”
Serena poured herself a glass of Cyprus juice, her eyes fixed on the orange liquid and she replied, “I was not…” she glanced up at Alvic and assured him, “I can do more than one job at a time. I could have made a lot of money working for that Rygailian.”
“I’m paying you a lot myself, for you to slip into Dragoon territory and get me a shipment of Star Steel Brandy. You’ll be well-compensated. Rygailians are well-known for buying loyalty. If you would have agreed to work for them, only the Great Maker himself would know when you’d get to my business – and I’ve already paid you.”
Serena crossed to the patron side of the bar and hiked her dark boot up onto the brass railing that circled it and said, “You’re just not seeing the bigger picture Alvic. I haven’t worked a lot in the last year, and my ship’s engines need an overhaul. Every galactic coin helps. Even from the Rygailian military.”
Alvic grabbed a bottle of green liquid from the end of the bar and poured it into the Cyprus juice and said, “My dear woman, that last time you worked with an army, you got half of Broker Rodune shot up, and nearly got yourself killed. I did you a favor. Besides, there’s word coming in from the back channels. Rygail has been going through some internal conflicts the past several weeks. I heard the royal family has lost control of their kingdom. All hell is breaking loose.”
Serena smelled the mixed drink and rolled her nose at the sour odor but swallowed it down anyway. Sweet, it went down her throat smooth. Then, a fireball burned in the pit of her stomach and exploded a moment later, she belched – tears flooded her eyes and after a long quiet moment she was able to talk. Her throat on fire she asked, “What did you put in that?”
“Isn’t that what they embalm the miners with when they die deep in the caverns?” Serena said and pushed the remainder of the drink away from her.
“It’s something new, I’m trying… what do you think?” Alvic asked. His blink-less eyes waiting for a reply.
Serena shook her head and said with a sore throat, “I’d have to vote no.” She placed the palm of her hand on her chest, volcanic lava bubbling up her throat. Alvic broke into a laugh and Serena chuckled along with him.
When Alvic placed his webbed hand on Serena’s gun arm his face went slack, and he said, “You might not like it, hell I know you’re not the kind of person to acknowledge it, but I care what happens to you.”
Serena pulled her arm away and didn’t offer a reply. She and Alvic’s relationship had always been marred by business – ever since her father died and she worked to pay off his debt to Alvic. She crushed her cigar into an ashtray and said, “Tell me more about this Rygailian conflict.”
Alvic sighed, drummed his fingers on top of the bar and said, “There’s not much to tell. There’s been a lot of ships coming and going on the planet. More than usual.”
“I’ve never been able to get a parsec near the planet before being warned away,” Serena said. “If there is an insurgence of activity to and from the planet, plus the sign of all those troops here, I’d say something is amiss. Maybe you’re right, I shouldn’t have taken the job. The last thing I need is to get involved with an internal conflict.”
“Now you’re talking sense,” Alvic said with a dry grin. “When are you going after my brandy?”
Serena stepped away from the bar and slapped Alvic on the back as she passed and paused to say, “Alvic, you’ve got a one-track mind. I’ve set the rendezvous for tomorrow – is that soon enough for you?”
“No,” Alvic looked over his shoulder and added, “but I’ve learned to be disappointed.”
“I’ll see you in a couple days,” Serena said as she exited the saloon.
If the saloon was her second home, Serena’s first home was her ship. The Caspian Star. The Old Galactic troop transport – a star racer class vessel – was used in heavy combat areas during the Galactic Civil War. Sleek and fast, the ship’s engines were modified to go faster than originally intended, Serena’s father, Quint saw to that.
The Caspian Star got Serena in and out of tight situations when many ships would have faltered. The vessel was large, it’s silver hull scored with dull black markings, caused either by objects in space, or weapons fire. Besides running guns during the Galactic Civil War, her father flew the ship into some sticky situations and Serena did have the tendency to take questionable contracts that sometimes put her under the gun. It wasn’t the best way to make a living, but it was the only way she knew.
The ship had its flaws, she was old and in constant need of repair and upgrades, but, it was the only thing Serena had to remind her of her father.
The Caspian Star’s hanger was dirty and cold. A smell of engine oil hung on the air. The floor was stacked with crates of disused engine parts, along with some of Alvic DeVry’s fruitless entrepreneurial ideas that Serena risked her life and ship to procure. The hanger’s lighting was dim, there were a lot of dark spots throughout the bay – shadows of mechanics working on other vessels kept her attention sharp. If Serena would have been anyone else, she might be afraid to venture through the hanger by herself. It was difficult to tell who she might encounter.
She slowed the approach to her ship and listened – her ebony skin pricked alive, a wave of apprehension raced across her flesh. Out of instinct, Serena’s hand went to her pistol. She stepped up to the Caspian Star’s gangplank. An unexplained tension hung in the air. Serena drew a breath and called out, “REVO?”
“REVO?” Serena said, and tightened her hand on the gun’s handle, but relaxed when she heard–
“Here… here… here…” REVO called from inside the ship. Her android co-pilot wheeled out of the vessel, gliding along on a single metallic ball at his base. A dull orange, he was slender with a pointed head that turned three-hundred and sixty degrees. REVO’s eyes flickered a bright yellow and his mouth flashed in the same radiance when he spoke.
“Why aren’t you out here working on the lift thrusters like I told you?” Serena asked.
REVO unfolded his long arms outward – the seven digits on each hand extended, gesturing as he spoke, “Yes… well it’s been a trying, trying day. If I told you the kind of day I’m having – well, I scarcely think you’d believe it.”
REVO was always condescending, Serena had grown use to it over the years. And in all those years she knew when something was out of sorts with him. She pulled her pistol, but before the gun could clear the holster she heard a voice from inside her ship say…
“I wouldn’t do that.”
The skin on Serena’s arm pricked alive. She gently slid the pistol back into its holster when several armed men appeared from the hanger’s shadows and encircled her. She drew her hands up and away from her body, eyeing the men – scrutinizing their every movement. She knew them in an instant. Not military, or off-worlders, but hired guns for Tobias Gray.
Serena rolled her eyes toward The Caspian Star’s gangplank watching him appear from her ship. Tobias’ eyes sharp and assiduous.
“I have a business proposition for you, Serena. I daresay it is in your interest to consider it, considering it might be the last job offer you’ll ever get.”
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