by Danielle L. Parker
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.
“It’s a cursed place,” said the man with the metal hand. “You’re a fool to even think of it. Ghosts. Demons. Whatever you want to call them. You’ll be the fifth one to find out. Only the other four never came back.”
Jim Blunt tipped his chair. The old wooden chair creaked. Some slats were cracked, and the captain was a big man. He pushed back his battered hat at a rakish angle and eyed the innkeeper.
“You don’t look like the sort of man who believes in ghosts.”
Amos Wettstein shrugged. The tattooed woman on his massive bicep wiggled suggestively as he wiped his counter. The innkeeper was deft with his artificial arm and hand; he picked up a second highball between his gleaming fingers with only the faintest clink of metal against glass. He polished the glass briskly, and set it aside for another.
“I’m a veteran,” he answered without visible emotion. “I don’t scare easy. Got this tin shaker at the Battle of Dupre when we stormed the Aspian flagship. Shot the balls off three snakeheads I surprised in a corridor.”
His gaze, flat and unblinking, went to the third occupant of the public room, drinking its glass of pulverized blood and meat with evident enjoyment. “The fourth bastard got me instead. Snagged my wrist with its claw. My squad leader amputated on the spot. Only thing saved my life.”
From the corner table came a thin, high-pitched whistle — an Aspian laugh. The voice was as hissing as a steam kettle.
“You were lucky,” it said.
Amos Wettstein reached underneath his counter and laid a massive and well-used gun atop his gleaming wood.
“I’ll serve your swill,” he replied flatly. “I don’t have to converse with you.”
The being in the corner made no response, other than to raise its glass. Its mouth was a lipless slash. Inside a double cowl of both rough cloth and its own loose, gray-scaled skin, two large, bloodshot eyes glowed. Its nose was like a skull’s: two stark holes.
Jim Blunt turned his head to view his fellow diner with the same speculative gleam.
“You believe in demons, snake?”
The Asp whistled again.
“Demons,” it said. “Yes, I believe in demons, monkey.”
“I see you’re going, Blunt,” Wettstein said. “You’re a fool, all the same. Four men have died in there since I took over this inn. But I see you won’t listen.”
Jim Blunt let down his chair with a thump. He pulled out the bulky power gun belted to his thigh and squinted at its charge before he replaced it.
“No,” he said. “I don’t believe in demons. I believe in what I can shoot-and-loot. That’s enough for me.”
“Young punk,” Amos Wettstein growled. “Die of testosterone, then!” He shook his grizzled head and put the gun beneath the counter once more. Then he moved to the far end and picked up another glass to polish, while he whistled tunelessly.
Jim Blunt got to his feet and stretched his tall frame. He laid down his money and picked up the leather vest draped over his chair. Out of the corner of his eye, as he donned his garment, he glimpsed his fellow diner fumble inside its lank gray robe and heard the clink of coinage in bony digits.
“Think I’ll have a smoke,” the captain said. “Thanks for the advice, old man.”
The innkeeper made no reply. Blunt straightened his hat on his pale blond head and strolled across the inn’s neatly polished permacrete floor.
Outside was dim lilac-blue dusk. The cool air had a faintly acrid undertone. Blunt stood on the stoop and felt for a cigarette in his vest pocket. The old wooden sign overhead creaked in the breeze. He looked up. The sky of this unfamiliar world was a deeper color — velvet purple shading to black, its stars hidden in high clouds twisted like taffy sticks.
To his left, he saw the ruins of the dead city. The mist that always blanketed it softened its perverse, eye-distorting silhouette. Shallalu! Its dread name whispered through history and myth. Humankind was a raw youngster to the stars. The beings who built and strode the streets of that city had passed on unimaginable eons ago, perhaps before only stalking raptors and their waddling prey populated a youthful Earth.
Yet the long-lost name of the corpse-city lived on, sung, like a requiem, to each new adventurer upon the highways of the stars. Only the name — and the whispers of its terrible end.
A footstep creaked on the step. Blunt heard the rustle of a loose long robe. The Aspian stood beside him, thin arms folded across its chest. He did not glance at it.
“I have heard of you, human,” it said, in the sibilant hissing of its native speech. “I know you understand and speak our tongue. Few humans do. You have a name among us. Do you know that?”
Blunt dropped his cigarette and crushed it with his boot.
“What do you want?” he demanded brusquely.
“Want?” the Asp repeated, once more in English. “Ah, the same thing you do, perhaps. To dare the forbidden — to risk the perilous for great reward. Why else are you here?” The wide sleeve of its robe fell back over its thin arm as it pointed toward the dark city. “We are two who do not fear demons. For we have our own, do we not? One rides me, and one rides you. Our demons have an insatiable hunger that will not let us rest. Do you dare name your demon, Captain Blunt? Do you dare face it?”
The man turned his head and subjected his companion to a cold-eyed appraisal. The Asp was no taller than he — short, then, for their long, sinewy species. Its lead-like scales were coarse and dull. Around its mouth, some had fallen out, and its naked grey skin was exposed. The alien looked unhealthy, aged and leprous. The poison sacs at its wrists were flabby and shriveled. It wore a shabby gray robe the same dull charcoal as its scales, and hung upon the belt circling its narrow hips was the usual accessory of a space faring traveler — a gun. Uncharacteristically for an Asp, it also wore a knife.
“Looks like you’ve lost your juice,” the captain said contemptuously. “You’re either old, or sick, or both. Never saw an Asp need a knife before. I said, what is it you want?”
The Asp spat, and bared its needle-thin fangs, and raked the air with its jutting claws.
“Yes!” It fixed him with its glowing, red-veined eyes. “I should be dead. I am an eunuch, it is true!” It shook the shriveled poison sacs at its wrists in fury. “Yet I live — I live, human, and I wish to live on. Thus, I propose a partnership. You have strength of arm — I have knowledge and cunning. Knowledge you will need to live, you fool, if you venture that cursed place!” And it pointed once more toward the dim hulk on the horizon.
Captain Blunt lit his second cigarette. He took his time smoking it. At last he threw its stub down and crushed it with his boot, while he considered his companion with half-lidded, speculative eyes.
“I’m listening,” he drawled.
“Shallalu.” The Asp spread its lipless mouth, showing snaggling fangs. “Ah, it is old, old even by the standards of my kind. Even we only hear whispers of what once walked in Shallalu. You would not like to meet those walkers, human! They can be awakened — and those who rouse the Sleepers, die. Yet a few have gained a great prize from Shallalu. I am willing to risk much for that prize.”
“Archeological artifacts? Gems? Precious metals? Technologies?” The captain’s stare was suddenly intent.
The Asp made an impatient gesture. “Yes, yes, if those are what you seek, they are no doubt found in Shallalu — but they are not what I seek. I yield all such trinkets to you, should we find them. And you, in turn, will agree to yield to me my sole prize.” It grinned like a skull. “We will aid each other, human, until such time as we both find our hearts’ desires — or die. If we live, human, you may go your way with your useless toys, and I, with what I value. Are we agreed?”
“What’s your prize, then?” the captain inquired, with a skeptical lift of his brow.
“I am dying,” the Aspian said. “Dying day-by-day, minute-by-minute. As are you. Life, human. Life is my prize. And in Shallalu, I, Hzuma the Cursed, Hzuma the Dying, may find it!”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker