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.
Silence lay thick as she drove, broken only by the hum of its engine and the steady tick-tick of the wipers, battling the thickening snow.
Blunt looked out the window. Behind tall stone walls he glimpsed snow-shrouded, sprawling mansions, lit with faux seasonal cheer. Uniformed guards with unfriendly eyes kept away the mendicant child from the gate. Father Time spasmed, as men in black tuxedos and women with scarlet-slashed lips and the skins of dead animals making necrophilic love to their naked shoulders celebrated his dying.
Now was the last night of the year. Soon, the drunken revelers would clinch chest-to-chest in the climax of the dead hour, and corks ejaculate from the last feverishly consumed magnums of champagne.
The car slowed, and turned through an opening in massive walls. Beyond the high gate, Blunt saw a mighty steel and glass edifice, with multicolored lights cycling from its tall windows, and a blur of whirling shapes within. On the chill air a distant hoarse, incomprehensible voice shouted insane fury over the massive fugue-like chords of death metal music.
A guard with unblinking eyes beneath the visor of his peaked cap leaned down to extend a gloved hand through the lowered window of the car. The man wore the gun on his hip with negligent confidence.
“Let’s see your invite, ma’am!”
The woman produced a white card and handed it out the window. The guard detached a portable reader from his belt, and sliced the card through its slit with a practiced swiftness. He touched his cap as he stepped back.
“Park in the back,” he called, while the wide gate swung slowly and majestically open.
The woman did not respond. She drove forward and stopped before the wide steps of the house. “Go in,” she said, staring fixedly through her snow-smeared windshield. “He’ll find you — when he’s ready. Well? What are you waiting for? Go in, then!”
She turned her head suddenly. “He was my lover,” she continued in the same low remote voice. “Yes, the Denobian. Are you shocked? I’ll do to you what you did to him. You’ll be less of a man than I am, when I’m done with you!”
The captain touched two fingers to the brim of his battered hat in ironic salute as he stepped out. “Thanks for the lift, lady,” he said, as he closed the door.
“You,” growled a voice behind him. “You another of those stinking roadies? You’ll have to use the side entrance. This entrance is for Councilor Talley’s guests only!”
The captain turned. A bulky doorman in a heavy red wool coat frowned at him from the top of the shining glass steps.
“Around the side,” he commented, as he inspected the captain’s worn jeans, heavy boots, and aged leather jacket with sour disapproval. “Follow the walk.”
Blunt obeyed. The recently sanded path led him past the great glass front, where guests could be seen shaking their booties to the electronic fugue. Somewhere in the depths of the strobing lights, a shirtless young man with wildly thrashing hair howled rabidly into a microphone. The captain shook his head.
The side door was an organized madhouse of hectic comings and goings overseen by a harried man with a fluttering tic in his bloodshot left eye and the top two buttons of his livery torn askew. “Straight to the kitchen,” he rasped, as he leaned over a trolley cart of confections steered by a white-coated deliveryman. “They’ve been waiting for those extra desserts for hours. Move it, mister!”
He looked up from his electronic pad. “What are you delivering?” he demanded, surveying Blunt with a jaundiced eye. “Bringing those extra glasses finally, I hope?”
Blunt shook his head. “Not delivering anything,” he said. “Man told me to come around here.”
“You’re with the band, then, I suppose? Use your card through the doors and follow the damn noise. You can’t miss it.” The man lost interest. “You,” he said, pointing a stern finger to a red-faced young man trying to push his cart forward through the slush. “Be careful with that cart! You turn that over here, you don’t even want to know what I’ll do to you!”
Blunt skirted the chaos of hustling servitors, and passing through the swinging doors, found himself in a slick-floored service corridor. From his left came sounds of the kitchen, an organized frenzy of shouts and clinking dishes he could hear even over the muted percussive thump of the music. The right promised more success. He glanced through each open door he passed. First was an empty storeroom. The next door revealed a laundry, where a stocky woman with the deformed cauliflower nose of a mule stared back at him with emotionless eyes.
The third door opened of itself, along with a blast of sound. Blunt regarded the breathless young woman who lurched through it with jaundiced disapproval. “Lost?” he inquired. “Looking for a shepherd? Or maybe the wolf?”
She laughed as she fumbled inside the tiny silver purse that hung from her wrist. Only a thin rim of brown showed around her expanded pupils. She squinted at him as she lit the tube she withdrew. Acrid smoke blew toward the captain.
The girl sank on her heels with the impact of her first draw, and her head lolled back as she smiled up at him. Her long, shining black hair fanned over her bare arms. “Looking for a smoke,” she drawled. “Want a drag, wolfie?”
Blunt leaned down and, as he eased her boneless, willing limbs against the support of the wall, one quick flick of his strong fingers snapped the flimsy silver chain that looped her wrist. She did not seem to notice. The tiny silver purse dropped into his engulfing palm, and she did not seem to notice that, either.
“You’re higher than a rocket, baby,” the captain commented as he straightened. “Why don’t you stay home until you’re of age? Where’s your granny?”
“You’re a good-looking wolf,” she said, squinting up at him with the muzzy confidence of intoxication. “Bite me. I might like it!”
Blunt smiled as he extracted a small white card from the silver bag. “I’m not hunting lamb tonight.”
She took another drag at her tube. Her eyes lost focus, and her head fell forward against her raised knees.
“Screw you, then,” she mumbled from inside the swathe of hair. “Screw you, wolfie. See if I care!”
Blunt dropped the bag at her feet. She took another drag at the tube and regarded it without interest. When he looked down, as he fitted the card to the electronic reader of the door, her head moved restlessly from side to side, and the slender hand with its burning tube fell, like a drifting flower petal, to lie beside her on the floor.
The card let him into a curtained alcove. As he entered, squinting in the glare of the thousand glittering chandeliers, the howling frenzy of the band ceased. The assembly fell strangely, breathlessly still.
Blunt heard a single ominous tock in the unnatural quiet. As the crowd held its collective breath, the second tock sounded.
All eyes lifted to the great clock suspended above like the Damoclean sword. The clock twisted futilely on its silvery tether; its double hands, clasped at the mark, trembled under the blows of its mighty clapper. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven... the crowd groaned in anticipation... TWELVE!
Under the cheers, the shouts, the whistles, the wild claps, the firecracker pop of champagne corks and the band’s climactic thrashing, Blunt, standing sober and silent in the shadow of the alcove, heard a strange whisper. A numbing breath feathered his nape, a stir of air as chill as starless space. An unseen corruption threaded its teasing fingers through his cringing soul.
As he cast wildly about, his heart hammering in his breast, his fist clenched upon the butt of his useless gun, a shadow hand passed over his eyes, a dark miasma clouded his vision.
Then he saw the man and the woman before him, clasped chest-to-chest in a celebratory embrace, part, and as the man lifted his head, Blunt saw the skull shine nakedly beneath his skin, and the gash of red lipstick painted over the woman’s cadaverous smile.
And suddenly, all across the dance floor, skeletons and vampires and ghouls jiggled merrily to the clacking of the drummer’s knucklebones and the howl of the singing jackal. Black lilies nestled between fleshless dugs unfurled their waxen petals and perfumed the air with funereal sickness.
Then Blunt, looking down at his own hand, held trembling before his gaze, felt the sharp bite upon his fingers, and saw the white blind face of the nibbling worm.
The shadow beside him spoke in a dry cold whisper. “Come, now,” it said. A flickering crown of greenish light illuminated the cavern of its ghostly smile. “Are you so easily frightened, James? I have but touched you. No more than that!”
The man turned his head. His face was paler than usual beneath its tan, but his bright blue stare was level, long and unblinking. “Guess you’re Thanatos. What did you just do? Drug me? Hypnotize me?”
The ghostly king beside him laughed. At the rattling sound, the lilies that twined the breastbones of the nearest skeletons festered, and the bones of the dancers knocked and trembled as if in a wind. A knucklebone rolled across the marble to rest against Blunt’s boot.
“I am Death. Do you doubt it, man?”
“No,” said Blunt, and there was bleakness in his stare. “No, I don’t doubt that.”
“You dare interfere,” the specter chided. “Unwise, James. Do you think I don’t see the cards you think hidden in your hand? Do you think I don’t know of the wreck of the Nautilus and what you stole from me? You may deceive these pathetic fools, but never me. Only I have the secret of the magic dust, only I !”
Blunt squinted. But however he tried, however he strained his flinching eyes, the creature before him remained no more than a wavering wraith, dripping baleful phosphorescence from its corroded crown.
“Then I’ll tell you,” he replied, with a shrug of his powerful shoulders, and a thin gleam of white teeth in his tanned face. “There can be more like the Nautilus. How many nuked ships can you stand, Thanatos?”
“You entertain me,” the ghost yawned, dabbing its fleshless lips with cobwebbed gauze. “Go on!”
“We want in,” Blunt said. “In, Thanatos, all the way in. It can be war. You’ve already had a taste of what war looks like. Or it can be cooperation. Make your choice.”
“We?” sneered the ghost, languidly refolding its spidery cloth. “You are a rogue, a loner, a gambler, James Blunt! Do you think I did not have you investigated back to the instant of your squalling birth? You owe allegiance to no man, to no consortium of crime. You claim to have backers? Name them!”
The man’s icy stare never wavered. “You’ve got me there,” he drawled. “I owe allegiance to no man... Maybe that’s a good way of putting it.”
In the stretching silence the ghost drew a breath that sucked all the warmth from the air. Blunt shuddered.
“Ah,” the specter breathed. “I begin to see: you may just be more ruthless than I gave you credit for. Yes, it is possible they might have some interest in this matter. They might, indeed.” It suddenly grasped Blunt’s arm with its corrosive fingers and fixed him with its malignant eye. “But are you a traitor to your kind, James Blunt? Have you truly chosen to serve the poisonous cobra? How wicked of you!”
“Money’s a good enough kind for me,” Blunt said. “Don’t care who —or what — hands it out.”
The ghost laughed, and as it drew away, felt inside its hollow rib cage. It produced an elegant silver case. From the case it selected a long thin cheroot, lit it, and put it to its fleshless lips.
“I am not convinced,” it said, as smoke wreathed its yellow teeth. “I am not convinced you are not bluffing. But let us suppose — just suppose for the sake of discussion — that you are not. What does the prince of serpents have to offer me?”
The crowd roared its approval as the great clock swung in a hypnotic arc above their heads. Crystal goblets flew and broke in jagged tinkles; a grinning hyena swung a massive magnum of champagne at the bobbing clock and smashed its glass face. The doomed clock bonged in despair as the mob fell gleefully upon it. Blunt considered the scene soberly.
“What do you want?”
“I hunger,” whispered his companion. “Let me swallow; let me eat. I am the insatiable mouth of Death. You will know me, all of you, Earthmen, as master. For the glory of my dust you will sell the last shred of your souls. You will kiss my lips, for what you beg of me. You, yes even you, James Blunt, will bow, in the end. Will the cobra feed me? Tell me!”
Jim Blunt shook his head. “You’re crazier than a slavering raccoon,” he said. “But whatever yanks your chain, mister. I’m here to broker a deal. They want to meet you, and you’d best not decline, is my advice. Where do you want to do it?”
In the ruminative silence, the red eye of the cigar glowed within a white wreathing. In the depths of the smoke-filled skull, two sullen coals regarded the captain.
“Very well,” the specter said at last. “Out in the Rim is a planet without a star, a wanderer, a rogue planet. Do you know the world I speak of?”
Blunt nodded. “Britney’s Butt. A solitary gas giant that didn’t quite make a star.”
“A ship will wait there,” said the skeleton. “It will be unmanned. Its course will be secret and sealed. Board it and engage the autopilot. It will take you to another place; you, and your patron. I will agree to meet you both there... And there had better be both of you. I must have proof.”
Blunt’s stare narrowed. “If you’re planning a trick...”
“Then you will die.” The specter grinned as it faded. “But then you’re going to die anyway. Goodbye, James Blunt!”
Nothing but a smear of oily yellow smoke and a sweetish stench remained. Blunt spat on the marble floor.
“That’s Jim, not James,” he snarled to the empty air. “And I don’t care if my drinks are shaken or stirred. We’ll see who reaches hell first, then, Thanatos, me, or you!”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker