The Dream Miners
by Danielle L. Parker
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Jim Blunt, Captain of the starship Pig’s Eye, earns a living the hard way at the raw edge of human space. Caught between Earth’s long arm and the unwelcome attentions of humanity’s alien rivals, the Asp, the captain sometimes finds himself in more trouble than even an outlaw trader can handle.
“Blub... blunb... Blunt...”
James Sherman Blunt, Captain of the ship Pig’s Eye, paused in his stride. His bright blue eyes, startlingly cold beneath his space-bleached brows, picked through the shadows around him. Had he actually heard his name? It was as if water, unable to form a true mouth, struggled to form syllables out of burbling liquidity. Who, in the name of the beer he had christened his ship with, knew his name on this backwater excuse for a trading town?
Yet there it came again, gasping as if every sound were drawn painfully from the liquid of its veins. Letting his hand fall to the gun at his belt, Blunt turned.
He was in a narrow garbage-strewn alley, typical of Blessington’s ramshackle, homespun construction. That faded gray door, leaning askew on its hinges, opened into the dim greenish glow of a fungi-globe. Blunt glimpsed a cloaked patron hunched over a long bar.
This was a drinking establishment of some kind, one of the poorest of this armpit of the Rim. No name or sign hung on that worn door. The bartender behind the counter was one of those despised hybrids of the multi-species Rim, his dreadfully recognizable human face deformed by flat triple nostrils and unevenly set reddish eyes.
Yet the voice had originated from that unwelcoming interior, and now it came clearer and stronger.
Captain Blunt placed his boot upon the uneven step. The wood creaked beneath his weight. The proprietor looked up with weary contempt, feeling — automatically it seemed — for a club beneath his counter. The creature hunched at the far end of the counter gathered its ragged cloak about its thin shoulders. It vanished swiftly through a curtained door in the back of the room. Blunt bent his head beneath the worn low lintel and entered.
“Who called my name?” he demanded brusquely.
No one answered. But a heap of rags at a filthy, food-encrusted table in the back lifted a trembling hand. This was the only customer now left in the shabby room. Blunt frowned. Out of the ragged oval of a hood, a bony human face, emaciated almost beyond recognition, grinned at him like a skull. A hank of brittle dry hair, bleached almost white, hung raggedly over its brow.
Blunt drew in his breath.
“Sly Thomas!” he burst out. “What happened to you, man? You’re nothing but a skeleton!”
“Aye,” Thomas said, in that same strange, bubbling voice. He raised his hand to his mouth and coughed into his knobby fist for a while, leaning over the stabbed wooden table. Blunt drew up the chair before him.
“I thought I recognized you,” Thomas gasped, when he could speak again — his lungs worked like bellows, sucking stale air noisily in and out. “I’m dying, Blunt. You can see that. But I’m glad...” And he grinned, showing the long yellow teeth of a death’s-head. “I’m glad to see you. I don’t want that fellow to turn my corpse into a fungus farm when I go. You’ll see to that, won’t you?”
“I’ll do that,” Blunt promised grimly. The proprietor sidled up, cringing like a mistreated dog, to inquire his wishes. Thomas raised a quivering fist in answer, and the proprietor withdrew sullenly, a feral glow in his reddish eyes.
“It’s all as foul as sewer swill here,” Thomas said to Blunt. “But I ran out of chips two days ago. That mangle-face lets me stay only because he’s thinking how I’ll help that fungus garden in his kitchen when I die.” Thomas laughed, hacked into his fist again, and wiped the bloody sputum with the edge of his hood. The hood had a blood-rusted edge.
“Rot-water,” he gasped. Blunt surveyed him silently, remembering the vigorous man he had met only three months before in the gambling saloons of Cameltown. “It’s rot-water. Ate my stomach out eight days ago. It’s in my lungs now. Won’t be long.” His putrid breath wafted across the table, causing Blunt to lean back.
“Remember that Denobian First Mate I had? The ape doped me with it six weeks ago.” Thomas spat on the table. The ejection was dark with blood. “He wanted to see me die slow. But I’ll have the last laugh now! He should have shot me instead.” And Thomas grinned evilly.
Beneath the concealment of half-closed lids, Blunt’s bright blue eyes examined his companion with renewed shrewdness. “Don’t see as how you’ve got much of a laugh left. Marooned you here, didn’t he? I didn’t see Finnegan’s Bucket in orbit. Nor any other ship, for that matter.”
Thomas Finnegan’s face darkened in instant rage. His tumultuous emotion almost overcame him; he burst into another fit of furious coughing, cupping his foul spittle in his hands.
Captain Blunt signaled the proprietor. “A bottle of Earth whiskey, if you have such in this cesspit,” he growled, dropping three of the tough plastic chips that passed for coinage in the Rim upon the tabletop. “And the bottle better be unopened. Don’t try to pass off your home-brewed swill on us, or I’ll shoot another hole in your face. Make it fast!”
A hand deformed by a double-jointed thumb snaked forth in an eye-blink and scooped up the coins; the proprietor, bowing and backing in a parody of servility, vanished behind the curtain into his unseen kitchen. As Thomas wiped his palms upon his grimy sleeves, the barman returned with a squat glass bottle and a pair of stained plastic glasses. He placed them on the table.
Two bony, spit-slimed hands stretched forth. With unexpected strength, Thomas Finnegan seized the bottle and twisted its top. He raised the vessel to his lips. The golden liquid rushed past his nakedly thrusting Adam’s apple. It seemed the man would not cease drinking even to breathe.
Captain Blunt watched with growing concern. “Slower, man!” he cautioned at last. “That bottle would fell a healthy man, let alone a sick one!”
Finnegan lowered the bottle waveringly to the tabletop. He hugged it tenderly against his chest. Half the liquid was gone, and he panted like a racing engine. But his eye, regarding Blunt with sudden affection, was brighter and clearer than before.
“Whiskey!” he gasped. “No bot’l of... whiskey... ever killed an I... I’shman. I n... never liked you, B... Blun...” For an instant, the maudlin gleam dimmed, and something sly and malicious peeped forth from his blinking eyes instead. “But we’ll let... b’gones be b’gones for the sake of the... spir’t, eh?”
He raised the decanter again, but the bottle, wavering like a wandering worm, could not find his mouth. “You’d... like to know too, w... wouldn... wouldn’t you? Where... ’tis?” Once more he endeavored to put the bottle to his lips, this time with more success. He hiccupped as he lowered it. He glared at Blunt with the weak fury of a drunken man. “Kill me for it, too, you... you would,” he gasped, “if you k... knew!”
Blunt said dispassionately, “You’re dying, Finnegan. If you have anything to tell me, you’d better do it now.”
Thomas Finnegan slumped dejectedly over his bottle. In the pause filled by the dying man’s labored wheezes, Blunt felt an atavistic tingle on his nape. The bartender could no longer be seen, but... yes, that hanging curtain at the end of the bar counter had just twitched.
Blunt glimpsed, out of the corner of his downcast gaze, the tips of three fingers gripping the edge of the cloth-long, thin fingers with curving insectile claws. Above was the gleam of a single-faceted eye. The captain shifted in his seat, and eased his gun upward on his thigh.
“Speak, Thomas,” he urged. “It’s now or never, man!”
The dying man rallied at those words. Thomas raised his head, resting his chin atop the whiskey bottle as if it were his last true friend. Captain Blunt, muscles knotted in horrid anticipation, observed the tremble of the hanging curtain from the corner of his unblinking eye.
“Thoth took the charts,” his companion whispered in his hoarse, bubbling voice. “But I memor... mem’rized... the coordinates. Wrote ’em... Follow Thoth to... this star...” One hand separated from the neck of the bottle and groped within his garments. It seemed to take forever to find what it fumbled for. At last the trembling hand returned, gripping a folded scrap of paper. Then the hand fell limply, as if Thomas Finnegan had made his last effort in life and knew it.
“Kill the ape and see to it I have a... Chris... Christian burial,” he croaked. “I’ll have to do withou... without... a pries’. I always knew... bound for hell anyway. That’s all I ask, Blunt, that you kill the—”
At that instant, the room exploded like a bomb. Captain Blunt fell sideways in his chair; a jagged bolt of red lightning dazzled his vision. Thomas Finnegan, expiring with a foul curse on his lips, fell face down on the table, snakes of vermilion flames streaming from his blackened head.
Blunt, twisting to his elbows beneath the protection of the table, returned fire. The deafening crack of Old Eliminator was met by a high-pitched scream from an inhuman throat, and a chitin-clad form, the same cloaked patron that had vanished before, fell with the flaming curtain entangled around the burning shards of its person.
Coming to his feet like a cat with his red-hot weapon in his fist, Blunt wasted no time. Thomas Finnegan’s lax figure slipped loosely off the chair. His scalp was furred with curls of smoking ash, and his blackened face warped like melted plastic. But his bony fingers still clutched his secret in a death-grip that delayed the man for precious milliseconds.
Blunt could afford no such delay; through the now briskly burning doorway rushed the raging proprietor, an ugly club borne aloft in his hands. Blunt lifted his weapon menacingly.
“Stand back, mule,” he warned, “or I’ll shoot!”
“Mule!” the host shrieked. “Mule!,” There was no time for Blunt to regret his imprudent choice of words. Others of the same mismatched ilk crowded behind the maddened proprietor. Of one accord, infuriated beyond reason at his inflammatory slur, the newly formed mob rushed toward him.
Captain Blunt turned and ran for his life. Out into Blessington’s dark night he rushed. His steel-shod boot, landing with all of the weight of his considerable centimeters behind it, crunched through the faulty step outside. He staggered free, hearing a hurled object whistle past his ear, and in a few giant strides gained the corner of the dark alley.
“You’ve no call for a Christian burial, Sly Thomas,” he panted as he sprinted with all the speed his long legs could muster, “but you’ll have a fine funeral pyre, all the same!” For behind him now were cries of alarm and the satanic silhouette of a rising inferno.
“Spacer scum!” a voice screamed.
“Earth dung!” another howled.
But the captain, moving with unwavering caution and purposeful speed through one nameless alley after another, paid those salutations no heed. Soon the clamor grew distant behind him.
At last the crudely framed wooden structures gave way to the ugly permacrete of the ramshackle port. Blunt, pausing to appraise his situation in the protection of a shuttered customs post, was relieved to see the silvery wedge of his own shuttle standing undisturbed. The scarred dirt field surrounding it seemed as deserted as he could wish for.
Lingering a moment, the captain raised the crumpled paper clutched in his fist to the wan light of the moon. Three penciled lines of multiple numbers — star coordinates in the system commonly used in the Rim — were visible in the gibbous glow. Captain Blunt’s eyes glittered like the stars overhead as he folded the scrap once more.
“The lost route through the Dark Inversion,” he whispered. “The Dream Mines! The Dream Mines!”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker