The Bounty Hunter
by J. C. D. Kerwin
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
I run across the wasteland, my shadow elongated like a skeletal finger reaching from the grave.
My blaster gun bangs against my hip. It is useless: out of charge. The laser rifle slung across my back offers no sympathy as it beats against my spine. I feel sweat forming across my brow. I pant like a dog beneath the high sun. It has been three days. Three days I’ve been tracking him.
He had disappeared into the Severed Mountains of Tannin. We’d traded shots around his outpost and scared away the more simple-minded alien creatures with the resounding echoes from our blasters. By nightfall, the real threat of Tannin will show themselves: the Lilocks. I don’t want to still be here when the blood-red moons appear.
I run a hand across my chin, wipe away the sweat and dirt, remember I haven’t shaved in four days, and frown. When I was a kid, all I ever wanted was to be a space cowboy. I’m no cowboy though; I’m the bottom of the barrel in every worn-out bar this side of the Milky Way. Alien Killer, Scuz Cleaner, Rocket Boy Chaser; however you dice it, it comes out the same: Bounty Hunter.
* * *
Ralph poured straight whiskey from behind the bar. I nodded in appreciation and pulled the glass toward me. A Chung Dragon turned two of its three mouths into scowls when I smiled at it. They weren’t the friendliest aliens in the galaxy; great to have on your side during a fight, but terrible drinking companions.
“Who you chasing?” Ralph asked, eyeing a table of humans and aliens getting a little too loud over their game of cards.
“One million bits. Double bounty,” I said. I thumbed the condensation on the tumbler.
Ralph let out a long whistle and wiggled his nose. The white whiskers below his nostrils moved left and right. He was something plucked from the history books, and I always swore he smelled like what a book must have smelled like, too.
“Gotta be a big one to get a price like that,” the old bartender said.
“Yeah. He’s all mysterious and stuff. No one’s really come into contact with him; his name’s just been floating around. But he stole some confiscated cargo a while back. Petty stuff, mostly: knock-off weapons and cheap drugs, really.”
I shook my head. “No, he sold all that fast enough,” I said, sipping my medicine. “His head’s really on the hook because he nearly murdered the king of this rinky-dink little planet and stole their energy source. Guy’s barely alive.”
“What’s the energy source?”
“Borlon crystals,” I said.
The green glass supported life on several small planets in the Andromeda Galaxy, but it also fetched a high price on several black markets. Just one crystal was enough to power an entire Ironian Empire cruiser ship.
Ralph raised a fuzzy eyebrow. “The I.P. must really want him, then.”
I nodded. The Intergalactic Law Enforcement Agency — I.P. for short — did, indeed, want him, preferably alive. “They want this Shadow Man on a platter. I’m just the person to deliver him.”
“That’s what they’re calling him. I told you: he’s mysterious, sticks to the shadows.”
“Then good luck finding him before someone else does,” Ralph said, looking over the rims of his glasses.
“No one’s guns are as good as mine this side of Sirius Nine, Ralphie,” I said, holding out my arms. I grinned.
* * *
“You worry too much, Jacky Boy,” she said, turning to me. Her brown hair flowed against her shoulders, making mock waves against the sheets.
“Don’t call me that,” I said, “I hate that.”
“I know,” she said with a smile, “but I like it.”
I turned to face her. She was like stardust among the ashes of humanity. I wanted to kiss her, embrace her again until both of us faded far away from that place. She smiled. Cruiser ships and aerocars zoomed past the drawn windows. Outside the electric city buzzed; inside, my heart buzzed electric.
“It’s Jackson,” I said. But she knew my name.
“My name’s Michaela. You can call me Mickey,” she said playfully.
I smiled, and my gaze moved to the ceiling. “Let’s run away.”
She leaned on her elbows. “What do you mean?”
“Get away from this god-forsaken planet. Get away from it all.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I just want us to be together.”
“But we are,” she said, putting her arm around me.
“I just don’t want anything to screw it up,” I said turning to face her.
“You worry too much, Jacky Boy” She said, moving on top of me. I smiled, accepting her kisses...
I woke into darkness. Mickey was gone. She had been gone for three years. After her, it was smog I wrapped around me when I slept.
I opened the window and let the city explode inside.
I tried not to notice the aerocars whizzing past my unit, or the humming of whatever new device the 3D ads were trying to sell. Instead, I strained to listen to something far away, like a fading song through the metropolis’s chatter. I caught myself whispering her name.
It was four a.m. on Halo Seven, Earth’s most — and only — successful off-world space colony. I caught a glimpse of the holographic numbers on my left wrist. They were counting down: I had been given three days to hunt the Shadow Man. He had become my newest obsession.
I grabbed my jacket and headed for the docks. If anybody knew where to find him, it was George.
George was not happy to see me. The overgrown frog of a creature stared me down as I crossed the way-station terminal for his bar. The ships turned upwind around the expansive docking area. They had stopped to refuel before taking off again or had finally come to rest after a long journey across the cosmos.
“Well, hiya there, George!” I greeted, shouting above the roar of space vehicles.
George scowled from the doorway. He waddled back inside while his two human cronies greeted me with crossed arms and blank expressions.
“Fellas,” I said, tipping an invisible hat and slinking past. They followed.
George poured himself into a seat at the far end of the establishment, by the empty stage. The place was still closed. Usually, it saw a good number of travelers stopping in for a quick bite, and on Friday and Saturday nights, a slow crooner or upbeat funk band would have the place packed full of so many different species you’d be afraid the place would bust right open.
“Miterorg eg,” he grumbled as I sat down across from him. His boys stood a few feet away.
“Got a new job,” I answered. “I was hoping you could steer me in the right direction.”
“Gork. And why should I help you?” He croaked. He reached out three suction-cup fingers to his drink.
I held out my hands. “Have I ever steered you wrong, George?”
His gullet inflated and deflated quickly. “Gork. You ran away with half my supplies the last time I helped you, you insolent... Gork.”
I had hoped he’d forgotten. The last time I asked for George’s help, he lent me a half-dozen cases of Z98 blasters to bring to a meet-up with this target I was after. The only way I could get a hold of the alien was to pretend I was interested in a trade: drugs for guns. I ended up in a chase through the Zardan Space Station, I accidentally killed my bounty, and I lost all George’s inventory to the Zardan Station Police. George was none too thrilled. And evidently, he was still sore about it.
I smiled. “Aw, George, but we’re such good friends. We go way back.”
George opened his large mouth and dumped the liquor inside. His gullet rippled and then remained still. The films closed partway over his eyeballs, and he narrowed his gaze. He studied me: the small human peon.
“Gork. You owe me guns or money,” he said. “At this point I’ll take money.”
I bit my lip. One of his boys shifted his weight. I looked back at George. “I’ll give you ten percent on this one,” I said.
He laughed: a loud, rolling croak of a laugh, like a smoker gargling a mouthful of water. “How much is it?”
Dammit, I thought. George was too smart for an overgrown amphibian. “One million,” I answered, leaving out the double part.
His eyes grew large. “Gork. Well, now I think we can come to an agreement.”
I looked at the ceiling. “Ten percent, George.”
He growled. “Fifty.”
I slapped a hand on the table. “Fifty! Are you crazy?”
“Gork. Menock dorbenorg!” He roared. His men inched closer.
I put up my hands in defeat. “Okay, okay,” I said. “You’re right. I guess I do owe you for always sticking your neck out for me.” I glanced at the muscle. “But fifty is a little steep... twenty.”
He narrowed his eyes again. “Forty.”
“George. I’m doing all the work, y’know,” I said. “You haven’t even given me any info yet.” He didn’t answer. I weighed my options. “Thirty-five. And that’s as high as I’ll go.”
He eyed me, then rolled one eyeball to the closest man. The man tilted his head to the side. “Gork. Deal,” George said.
He held out his suction cups and enveloped my hand in a hearty shake.
“Now then,” I started, “what have you heard about a guy they’re calling the Shadow Man?”
George seemed to lean back in his chair. “Gork. I’ve heard of that one, yes,” he said. “He’s made a lot of enemies.”
“You know where he hangs out?”
“Gork. Heard he likes to show off his gun skills. Likes to pick fights.”
I frowned and tapped a finger on the tabletop. “You know anybody who might know where he is?”
George nodded his bulbous head. He croaked out an alien name that in the English language could only be compared to “Dirken.”
I’d run into Dirken a few times before. He was a bounty hunter, too, but his mouth was too loud, and his fingers — or what have you — were too anxious on his gun to ever land him any big payoffs. We didn’t much care for each other. Truth was, bounty hunters typically stayed out of each other’s way. Dirken kind of broke that rule a lot, though. He piggy-backed on whatever tip he eavesdropped from other hunters and always ended up making a mess of things. He was a chump in the circuit; an annoying little brother that thought he could hang with the big boys.
“Dirken was on the wrong side of his blaster not a week ago. Gork.”
“Figures,” I mumbled.
“Gork. He’ll tell you where to find the Shadow Man, all right.”
I half-nodded. “Thanks,” I said, standing up. I added, sarcastically, “That was worth 350,000 bits.” I took a step but stopped as he let out another rumble of laughter.
He shook his head. “Gork. You think I’m stupid, eh?” He asked, leaning forward. “I said I heard of that Shadow Man...”
I waited for the follow-up.
He giggled. “I know he’s worth more alive!”
I frowned. “Yeah, you’re right; he’s got a double bounty on his head.”
“You thought you could hide that extra million from me?” George posed. “That’s double the price then, boy. Gork.”
I waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah,” I muttered, making my way out of the restaurant.
George’s laughter rolled on behind me. “He thinks he’s smarter than me!” He croaked to his boys. “Gork. You humans make me laugh!”
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by J. C. D. Kerwin