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.
“Make it a double. No ice.”
The bartender poured a bourbon shot without demur. He had seen that stark whiteness before: the blind stare of a man looking at an inward horror he can’t ever be rid of, nor yet endure. It happened to the toughest of them, here on the Rim. Some of them came into Cameltown with that look, and begged for a lover, as a man dying of thirst croaks for water. Others, like this one, emptied bottle after bottle from his shelf, and yet remained silent and stone cold sober, looking at the thing they couldn’t be rid of.
He never asked them what they saw. Some things a man couldn’t express in words. Some stories even a bartender couldn’t hear.
Jim Blunt laid another of the tough plastic-encased coins used in the Rim down on the counter. His fingers were almost steady.
“Sam,” he said. “Is old Dingle still around somewhere? Sam the demolitions guy?”
The bartender slipped the coin into the till and nodded.
“Bert Dingle? Yeah, still living at Ma Hunt’s place. Got that artificial leg; doesn’t get around much. But then, I guess you knew that.”
“Thanks.” The captain drank his last bourbon slowly. He placed the glass on the counter, rose to his feet, and hitched his belt and its heavy gun into position. Then he picked up his battered leather hat and settled it on his head, and walked, with some care, out the door.
The bartender picked up the empty glass and dropped it into the tray under his counter, shaking his head. It happened to the toughest of them, even this one. He had seen it before.
The sky held the first pinkish hint of dawn. Jim Blunt, shivering in the dusty, cool air, stepped over the recumbent, snoring form of one of the camel-faced natives that gave this nexus of the Rim its name. A sprig of intoxicating spearmint still protruded from the alien’s green-frothed muzzle.
He turned left. The narrow street ran downhill. He soon glimpsed, in the dawn, shacks built upon top of shacks; corrugated metal and plastic sheeted rooftops; balconies like pimples, and clouded windows like excrescences, some decorated with gaudy, tattered curtains. All the poor and desperate flotsam of Cameltown flowed, like a sewage-laden river, to the Sink.
Even he must walk carefully here. The captain kept to the center of the street, and rested one hand openly upon the butt of Old Eliminator. Overhead, from one of the leaning balconies that almost blocked the rising sun, something gurgled. A stream of slops narrowly missed his head as he ducked.
Two feral children with the misshapen half-human faces of mules crouched on their heels in a doorway, watching with fever-bright eyes that hoped he might provide, or become, prey. The captain tossed a coin at their feet. They did not move, but the coin, when he blinked, was gone.
Behind the flimsy walls of the makeshift structures Blunt heard slow stirrings, the cries of infants, quarrelling voices, low voices, lustful cries, drunken voices: some human, and some stranger. The inhabitants of the Sink prepared to greet a new day. Even here, life went on, and made itself anew.
Blunt stopped before a tall, higgledy-piggledy structure splashed with rainbows stripes of bright paint. Its door looked more solid than most: steel crossed with thick metal reinforcement. A tiny window of bulletproof glass at eye height reflected nothing back to him.
Blunt knocked, and waited, and when there was no answer, knocked again, in a more peremptory rhythm. At last a shadow clouded the peephole. An old woman’s eye peered out behind the distorting frames of old-fashioned glass spectacles.
“I’m here to see Bert Dingle, Mother Hunt,” he called.
Grumbling, the old woman threw back bolt after bolt with cracks like gunshots. Blunt respectfully removed his hat as he stepped across the threshold. The crone paid him no heed. Chewing her toothless gums, she slammed the door, worked bolts into position, and shuffled back down the hallway, twitching her shawl about her hunched shoulders.
Blunt replaced his hat. Stairs led up before him. He tested the steps. They creaked. He climbed, keeping to the wall, where the support seemed strongest.
He had passed the third floor when he heard a tiny metallic click from above. Blunt stopped instantly, and slowly raised his hands high.
“Dingle! It’s Jim Blunt. May I come up?”
A face peered over the edge of the floor above. Half of the face was human, that of a round-cheeked, red-faced, white-haired man in his early sixties. The other half of the face was sleekly silver. One eye was blue, and the other luminous metal, faceted like a fly’s. Both eyes stared at the visitor with equal coldness.
“Come up, then,” Sam Dingle grated.
The voice was oddly flat. This was not surprising, for as Blunt ascended, his hands still held aloft, he saw Dingle’s throat too was shining silver. The blast that had destroyed Bert Dingle’s body left him only half of his face, one leg, and a right arm. Blunt saw the left hand had not been reformed into a copy of its original. On that hand were six metallic fingers, one of which pointed straight at Blunt. That finger ended in a small dire hole.
“Thought you were on Astral, Blunt.”
“I was.” Jim Blunt slowly lowered his hands. He looked about. The view had not changed since his last visit years before. The room was furnished comfortably but simply. A narrow pull-down bed swayed overhead, its chain ing in a faint air current. A broad wooden table, spread, as always, with some delicate, deadly work-in-progress, held in addition a pot of steaming coffee and a mug. “I wish you’d stop aiming that finger at me, Dingle. It’s not friendly.”
The fleshly half of Dingle’s ruined face grinned. “I didn’t ask for a visitor at five in the morning. Sloshed, too, by the smell of you.” He grunted as he lurched toward the table, dragging his fleshly leg behind him. “Wish I’d had them replace both my pegs while they were at it. This meat is getting to be a bother. Sit. I’ll get another mug from the kitchen.”
Blunt obeyed. He made no sense of the intricate mechanism that formed Dingle’s current tabletop project, but he was relieved to find, as he examined the mysterious work-in-progress, no recognizable explosives attached to it, at least yet.
The veteran returned and shoved a mug toward his guest. “Pour yourself some.” Dingle seated himself, stretching his fleshly leg out before him with a gusty sigh. His mismatched eyes considered Blunt disapprovingly.
“You still hanging out with those snakeheads? They’ll rip out your guts with those poison claws one of these days, boy. Look what they did to me. You young punks are fools! You think you know what you’re dealing with. The only good snake is a dead snake. Wish you’d listen to an old man. We’ll be at war again with those vipers before I’m a dead man, mark my words!” Dingle lifted his mug and swallowed noisily. “Well, what do you want, Blunt? I don’t suppose this is a social visit.”
“Got something for you.” Dingle’s metallic hand, lying on the table, twitched, and the captain froze in the act of reaching inside his jacket.
“Lay it on the table, then!” Dingle grated, and his deadly finger slowly relaxed.
“Well,” he added, looking without expression at what Blunt fanned between them, “That’s a lot of money. Who you want killed for it? Or should I know?”
Blunt shook his head. “I need a Beirut special. That’s—”
“I know what a Beirut special is, boy. Don’t try to teach your grandfather to suck eggs. I just wonder why you want one. You sure never struck me as the type.” Dingle’s deadly finger tapped the tabletop. “You want an undetectable implant. A suicidal. The old fast track to Paradise. Range?”
Blunt shrugged. “Close proximity. Blow up a room.”
“Something that can’t be detected or easily removed. Carrier initiates explosion.”
“Internal for the trigger then, too. No metals, ceramics, or plastics. Vocal phrase activated, synaptic backup, so it won’t blow until you really mean it to. You don’t want much, boy. That’s top-end classified technology.” Dingle looked down at the money.
“Greed’s good,” he said at last. “But it’s not everything. I want to know the whole deal. If I don’t like it, you can stuff this cash up your ass and get the hell out of here, boy. I don’t pass out Beirut specials casually.”
Blunt leaned back with a twist of his lips. “Would you believe me if I told you?”
The veteran’s mismatched eyes considered his visitor with inhuman steadiness. “From you,” he said, “yes. I would.”
The captain nodded. “All right. I’ve got a plan. But if it should fail, I want to get this guy no matter what. He’s got to go. He’s long overdue for it.”
“Who’s got to go?”
“Thanatos,” Blunt said, with the same bitter twist to his lips. “We’ll go out holding hands, if it has to come to that. I’ll drag him down to hell in my tight embrace. Just be sure we get on the same elevator, Dingle. That’s all I ask.”
The demolitions expert whistled. “You got religion or an attack of morals, all of a sudden?”
“No,” said Blunt. “There was a little girl, but you don’t really need to know.”
Bert Dingle tapped his metal finger indecisively. “You’re not drunk?” he inquired at last. “This is on the level? You sure you want to do this?”
“I’m not drunk. I’m stone cold sober, Dingle. I know what I’m doing.”
“All right. Pick an arm and roll up your sleeve, then. We’ll get you prepped.” The old man got to his feet, feeling for a cane lying across another chair, and leaned heavily on its support. “This is going to hurt like the devil, by the way. And don’t make any sudden movements, when I tell you not to, or it’s going to hurt us both a lot worse than that.”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker