by Danielle L. Parker
Abel Verity was a tall, gaunt man with a broad cavernous chest and thick silver hair combed straight back to touch the frayed collar of his baggy gray sweater. His eyes were brown and shrewd. They considered Captain Blunt over the bowl of tobacco he held his match to.
“Astral,” he commented in his smoke-roughened burr, dropping his match into the overflowing receptacle on his desk. “The last outpost of human civilization before no-man’s-land. Out beyond, it’s rough, Captain. I don’t need to tell you that. Always Asp to reckon with. You’ve probably had more one-on-one dealings with them than any man still alive. That’ll be useful to us, I’m sure.” He puffed his pipe. “But there’s stranger than Asp out there. Humans get strange, on the Rim. And there are other things out there, horrors men haven’t ever imagined. Couldn’t imagine. You’ve seen some of them. I know that. Know quite a bit about you, actually.”
Jim Blunt stirred restlessly. The chair he sat in was too small for his six-foot-plus frame, and the springs poked uncomfortably through the worn leather cushion. He met Abel Verity’s placid gaze warily.
“This some kind of recruiting speech? Because I’ll pass. I don’t work for anyone but myself. I’m not interested in becoming a spook-for-hire.” He gestured to the third occupant of the room, drinking a mug of cold, thick-as-oil coffee without evidence of discomfort. “You’ve got Foster here and the rest of the gung-ho gang from the Ivy League. I don’t aspire to the pension.”
“Strange,” Verity said. “You did work for someone else once. Have you forgotten so soon? It-he or she, I don’t know which — since they change gender regularly, so we’ll use the neutral — paid you handsomely for the job you did. You seem to make a pretty good cat’s paw, Captain. At least, for the other side.”
Blunt’s tanned face whitened. “I’m no traitor,” he retorted bitterly. “It was just a job. I did it and I got paid for it. The war’s over. You got a problem with that?”
“Not I,” Verity said, adjusting the tobacco in the bowl of his pipe with his juice-stained fingertips. “Of course, certain people might, if it came to their attention you’d done something for an Asp. A highly placed one, at that: a royal, third or fourth from the throne. Kzirth, I think the name was? We have quite an intelligence file on that one. Yes, certain people would find your connections interesting. The Big War was before your time, Captain, but feelings still run high in certain quarters. Some folks just don’t forgive and forget. Shame, isn’t it?”
Foster, stirring his oily drink with a plastic spoon, spoke for the first time. “We’ve got you by the short hairs, son,” he remarked. “Take it with good grace. Though I’ve got to tell you, we don’t pay like the other side. We’re cheap. Get used to it. Some things have to be done for love and not larceny.”
Blunt gripped the arms of his chair with massive fists. “What do you want?”
Abel Verity picked up a book lying atop one of the unstable stacks on his cluttered desk. He opened the cover. “Spine’s broken,” the purported bookseller commented, setting the dusty tome aside. “Have to be discarded. Too bad. A little help and cooperation, Captain. That’s all. You’re an exceptionally bright boy; you aced every course you took at West Point, before that little incident on Earth led you to take off for parts unknown. You’ve done well for yourself since. Shouldn’t be too difficult for you. What we have in mind, I mean.”
“Get to the point!”
A small sound escaped Foster. It could have been a cough, and it might have been a choked-off laugh.
“The alternative,” the agent interposed, “is living like a true outlaw. You spend a lot of time on the Rim. But however long you spend out there, you have to come back to civilization eventually. You’ve got a pretty decent bank account here on Astral you’d miss; you seem to like to dress well. That’s a coat from New Sloane Street, if I’m not mistaken. Nice. And those shoes you’re wearing, I see they’re custom jobs. I can understand, you’re a large man. Must be hard to find a good fit.”
Foster rose to his feet and wandered to the coffee pot, speaking over his shoulder. “Nice ship, too. We’ll overlook the illegal weaponry for now. But in any event, if you don’t get it in for decent maintenance now and then... well, I guess you get the message, son. You don’t need every outpost of human civilization barred to you. Do you?”
“What the hell do you want?”
Abel Verity leaned back in his chair and puffed on his pipe. “We have an interest in a certain person. I can’t tell you whether this person is human or not; we suspect he isn’t, but that’s beside the point. We might describe him as a Moriarty of crime, the leader of an organization that has tripled the rate of drug addiction on Astral in just the last few years. I won’t go into his other lines of business. Drugs are the most destructive, but he does prostitution and protection, too, of course.
“He poses, at the moment, a bigger threat to our security on this frontier than the Aspian Empire. He’s even reaching out and infecting Earth: pixie dust, mostly. The most pernicious vice known to man. Its addictive qualities make heroin look like aspirin. You might be familiar with his name?”
Blunt rose to his feet. “Thanatos,” he breathed. “You want me to take down the Death King himself? Are you crazy?”
“Take down,” Abel Verity repeated. “Well, I guess that’s the right phrase. I’m not up on the latest jargon. Infiltrate his organization. Damage it. Destroy it. Destroy him. And most of all destroy those hidden labs. Yes, I guess that means you take him down. We’d really like you to take him down.”
Foster poured the last of the left-over coffee into his mug and squinted into the dark depths as if divining a dire future from the floating grounds. “It’s a dirty job, son,” he commented. “Too dirty for us, actually. We’re on the side of the law. But someone’s still got to do it. I guess I just heard you volunteer.”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker