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.
“Where’d you like me to drop you off, sir?”
The wipers swished, clearing the wide pane of a burst of raindrops. Early autumn in Starry, and the rain threatened to turn into snow. The soft hiss of the heater and the driver’s aimless humming were the only sounds in the car. The passenger in the back said nothing during their journey, other than to name his destination.
“There. No, not under the light. Stop in front of that loading bay.”
The cab driver looked more closely in his rearview mirror. In the darkness, he saw only the brim of the tall man’s charcoal fedora, the pale hint of a clean straight profile, and broad shoulders under the fine wool of a navy double-breasted coat.
Still, the man had an aura that suggested he could take care of himself. If he wanted to be dropped in one of the darkest and most deserted areas of Starry on a cold autumn night, filled only with warehouses and tired grave-shift workers, it was clearly his business. The driver pulled to the curb obediently.
Jim Blunt watched the receding taillights for a moment as he put away his wallet. In their red glow, streaks of rain began to soften into something colder and whiter. He turned up the collar of his coat and stripped the glove from his right hand. He blew on his cold fingers and moved into the thin shelter of the overhang behind.
Approaching lights glared. A vehicle felt its way down the wet street. The car hesitated and then stopped under the streetlight. Rain obscured its opaque windows. The car was squat and low; its iridescent paint glittered like the chitin of a monstrous roach. Its engine pulsed like a heart, half-heard and half-felt.
The passenger door opened. A square-shouldered man in a black coat stood up behind it. He put both hands on the top of his open door and squinted into the darkness. The man had thick, graying brows, drawn as straight as the edge of a ruler, and a heavy, determined jaw shadowed with coming beard.
“Blunt!” he boomed in a basso profundo voice. “We’d like to talk!”
“Try room 412, Hotel Sol,” was the laconic reply. “I’m in now and then.”
The man bared his teeth. “I’ve got something to show you, Blunt. Something you should see. I’m walking over to you, slowly. I’ll keep my hands in the air, no tricks. All right?”
Blunt raised his hand — and what his hand held — just slightly. “Suit yourself.”
The square-shouldered man lifted his hands higher and showed his open palms. His polished Oxfords splashed in half-frozen puddles as he approached. His unbuttoned coat flapped loosely in the night wind. Wet flakes glimmered momentarily and vanished upon his iron-and-salt hair.
“That’s close enough.”
The man stopped obediently. “I’ll need to open my coat,” he said. “I’ll do it slowly, okay?”
Blunt shrugged. “It’s your funeral if you try something, mister.”
The square-shouldered man shook his head. “Not mister,” he said. “It’s agent, Agent Marlon Foster, Earth Extraterrestrial Intelligence Agency. That’s what I’ve got to show you, Blunt. My ident. You’ll want to talk, then. Smart men don’t say no to us.”
Blunt’s icy stare never wavered. “Let’s see that ident first.”
Foster lowered his left hand with exaggerated slowness. With the same care, he pulled wide his open coat and fished for the laminated rectangle inside the breast pocket. He held out the card mutely.
“Toss it right here at my feet,” Blunt said. “Then step back. Hoist that hand again. Higher. If you are who you say you are, I’d hate to accidentally drill you.”
Foster obeyed with sardonic resignation. “You’re a hard man to get to know,” he complained.
Blunt, never glancing away, knelt and retrieved the card.
“You’ve been dogging my steps since I landed on Astral. I don’t usually consider that friendly.” He gave the card one swift, encompassing glance, then slid the cylindrical object in his hand back inside his coat. He nodded curtly. “So you’re a genuine X-man. What do you want?”
“Mind if I lower my hands first?” Foster inquired mildly. “And put my ident up? I’m forty-four years old. My arms need a rest, at this advanced age.”
Blunt spun the card with a swift snap of his fingers. Foster snagged it with equal deftness and tucked it inside his coat.
“I suggest we continue our conversation in a more comfortable location.” The agent waved his hand to indicate the deserted setting. “Now that we don’t need to have a shoot-out in front of the Acme corral. That was what you were planning, weren’t you? What are you carrying there, son? Didn’t look like a gun to me.”
Blunt showed white teeth in a predatory smile. “It wasn’t.”
Foster’s pale gray eyes widened. “A tank-killer,” he murmured. “A grenade! I thought I recognized that shape. Yes, if you’ve got a good arm and a good aim, and I’d guess you do. You play rough, Captain. And you take chances. You like walking around with that much bomb shriveling your balls?”
Blunt shrugged. “I play to win. That’s the only way to play.”
The agent smiled as he turned to wave the waiting car forward. The smile was not a pleasant expression.
“Get in the back of the car, son,” he said. “There’s a man named Abel Verity who wants to meet you. He says you’re the man we need, yes, the very man we need. I guess I believe him now.”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker