Written by David Davis
Illustrations by David Davis and Allison Myers-Perry.
The early morning air on Phaelus was biting, and even Tavren, Furnesean that he was, with a thick and hairy hide for his species, found himself withdrawing further into his coat. He was on patrol around the warehouse where his mercenary band had just set up shop and he was accompanied by Jevna, a Repton, clad in a much lighter coat.
“How are you not frozen right now, Jev?”
“Cold don’t bother me much, I’m just glad it’s not a wet night. I couldn’t stand the moisture on my skin.”
They walked slowly around the outside of the warehouse. The building sat in the middle of a gated compound, surrounded by woods. Miles away were the lights of Berban, the key local colony of the planet and the closest thing to civilization in this section of the Neutrality’s minor holdings in wild space. Business was good out here, at least. There were plenty of good contracts for Squad 1600 and plenty of credits, which drove Tavren to them in the first place. The work wasn’t always easy, but it was very rewarding. He had his doubts though from time to time… particularly about this job.
On the surface, the task was to snag Syrien citizens from around Berban for some unknown-to-him purpose. Tavren assumed slaving was the main motivation. Slaving had made a big comeback as of late, with all of the interfactional military tension. Slaving was always a good source of money before the inevitable crackdowns. It helped that the Neutrality looked the other way as long as the credits flowed into the right accounts.
This job felt different from most slave-runs, though. Tavren noticed a number of Cyclopasians making their way in and out of the compound, always in a secretive fashion. He was taken aback by the restricted mobility he had around the compound. The buyers had a habit of not allowing mercs into the warehouse itself with the exception of a break room and a single bathroom. Any time there was a drop off, the mercs would be met by Cycs in crimson or drab green who would take the Syrien into the buildings. That would be odd enough on its own, but when they were taken into the compound, he never saw them come back out. Granted, he was not near the compound outside of his shifts, but from what he gathered, none of the mercs had seen any Syrien be moved out, either. Worst of all was the faint sound of crying that could be heard every once in a while. As he stood outside the compound, he could hear the occasional mournful sob escape the damaged glass windows of the warehouse.
He tried to put these things out of his mind as he scanned the grounds. Nothing of interest. Aside from the warehouse there was next to nothing on the grounds beside a few trees, some overgrown shrubs, and a utilities shack. The quiet nature of the area made the patrols very easy. By now, three hours into his shift, the rifle he carried over his shoulder was beginning to chafe, even under layers of fur and clothes. As he continued, he swapped it from one shoulder to another.
They made their way back to the front, where Ahj was sitting on a rusted plasteel crate. The Gaur was heavy, and the crate almost looked like it was being swallowed by his ample rear end. Ahj’s arms rested on his short legs, and he struggled to lift a couple of fingers at Tav and Jev in acknowledgement.
Jev crouched down in front of Ahj.
“Feelin’ any better there, Ahj?”
Ahj’s skin looked pale and his breathing was heavy and strained. A thick trail of mucus trailed down from his snout and the corners of his mouth.
Jev looked back at Tav, who was observing the surroundings. He turned back to Ahj and put a reassuring hand on the Gaur’s massive shoulder.
“Just go ahead and sit here, we’ll keep it between us. Next time watch what you eat, alright?”
Ahj wanted to speak, but he almost retched. He turned away from them for a moment to try to steady his stomach. By then, Tav and Jev had already started their next lap.
“I swear, Ahj’ll eat anything if you throw enough sauce on it,” Tav said.
“I didn’t trust those old rations. They were probably from the war.”
“What I can use is a little cloi at the moment, got any?”
Tav looked at Jev with wide, yearning eyes. Jev sighed and pulled out a small cylindrical cartridge from his chest coat pocket. He flicked it over to Tav. He caught it and bent the shaft, starting the chemical reaction that ignited it. He took a couple of puffs and handed it back over to Jev.
“You still owe me for the last two,” Jev said. “I’ve been counting.”
The two walked in silence around the warehouse a couple of times, sharing the cloi. When the cloi lost its potency, Tav flicked the cartridge to the ground. Jev was the first to speak after a while.
“Man. Do you ever, y’know… have doubts about what the 1600’s’ve been into lately?”
Tav looked over to Jev, eyes narrowed and face scowling.
“Sure, I mean, why do you think I go out on patrols?” He stared ahead for a moment, and then continued. “The crying–it gets to you. It’s gotta.” He peered up at a broken glass window as the pair passed below it. “Out here you don’t gotta hear it as much.”
“The sooner we get our deal with this freak show done, the better,” he said.
“I can’t believe the bosses even agreed to this deal, really. It feels fishy.”
They continued walking around the warehouse. The dingy, failing lights cast a pale yellow pallor over the area surrounding the location. Tav mused that the lights reflected some evil inside the warehouse.
Still, what did he care? He was getting paid.
The pair approached the corner to make their way back to the main door. Jev spoke all of a sudden.
“Normally I’d…uh, hear Ahj gurglin’ about now…”
They crossed the corner and saw Ahj lying face-down in the grass, half-way down the front of the building. Jev took off on a run towards Ahj.
Jev fell to the ground and tried to roll Ahj onto his back.
“Hurry up man, I don’t think he’s breathing! Gotta get him on his back…”
Tav fell to his knees and together they pushed Ahj over. At that moment, they noticed the large bloody gash in the fat folds of his neck. Tav and Jev leapt to their feet in unison and Ahj’s body returned to its original position.
Jev’s face was covered in sweat and his hands shook at his sides.
“The fark, man. The fark’s goin’ on…”
A gunshot. Tav held his mouth open as a shower of gore exploded forth and Jev fell dead to the hard ground. Tav whirled around, trying to remove the rifle from his shoulder. The last thing he saw was a Syrien woman, her hair shaved on one side of her head, and a gun pointed right at his face.
The ringing terminal had grown more distressing as Bieron Solus tore apart his apartment for his headset. With a busted terminal speaker he had to resort to a headset to talk with anyone. That also meant that he had to dig around his personal trash heap of an apartment each time someone made a call. He didn’t make a lot as a bartender, so he couldn’t hire a clean-droid to take care of his squalor. It all just seemed to grow more and more overwhelming. The ringtone from his terminal seemed to grow even more shrill. As he scanned a table, he knocked a stack of datachips with the tip of one of his wings. He grunted, took several large steps back to the terminal, and knocked over what was once a cup of soup. He grabbed a stack of paper from the desk, found a pen, and punched the answer key on the terminal.
Of course, it was his sister Meervah. He was delighted to see her, at least, but he could not hear a word she said. He held up a finger and she stopped whatever she was saying. He scribbled something on a sheet of paper and held it up to the camera.
speakers busted looking for headset
She seemed to laugh, picked up a tablet, and wrote back.
your headset is around your neck
Bieron blushed and his wings ruffled.
“There you go. Hey, brother.”
Bieron grimaced and flopped down into the desk-chair.
“Hey, sister. Where are you now?”
Meervah leaned in toward the camera.
“I’m actually back here on Phaelus, but on the other side of the freakin’ planet. Some issues rerouted us to the starport in Muval. It’s gonna take me at least 12 hours to get over to you. What time did you want to meet?”
“Hmm. I think that’d put us at 2100… and no, we won’t be going to the bar.”
“Come on, I wanna get free drinks! I thought that would be the big perk of being a bartender.”
“I’ll get something nice for you when you get here. I’m not that poor.”
“Alright. Fine. Where’s the place?”
Meervah Solus arrived in Berban’s global colonial transit station, gathered her claim ticket for her luggage, and found herself in line for one of the local buses that made a rotation around the city. The rail-line had been quicker than she had expected and she wondered if Phaelus was trying to catch up with the rest of the galaxy. Phaelus was far away from competing with Morivand, and even then Morivand was a quaint backwater compared to Teslovia. She found herself sitting with a dozen other distance-commuters and locals waiting for transport that seemed like ancient technology.
The bus arrived. It was a shuddering, massive machine with a faded-green paint scheme and wheels that seemed to wobble even as the bus was at a stop. The driver unlatched the door and held it opened as he leaned out and stared at the upcoming passengers. The rather haggard looking Gomben grimaced as he looked over the crowd and returned back inside the confines of the bus. Meervah felt that she had been weighed, measured, and been found uninteresting. He stood near his seat as a couple of haggard travelers made their way out. He followed after them and closed the door behind himself. He spoke as if he was reciting a script for the millionth time.
“My shift is over. Please wait a few minutes for the driver to arrive. If you need to make other arrangements, the Berban transit company will be happy to accommodate you.” He had already began to wander away from the bus. “Thank you for your patience.”
Meervah rolled her eyes. It was the same old Berban. She took a seat on a bench and dozed off for an hour. When she awoke, it was still twenty minutes until an update on the transit situation when the original driver came back. Now, he looked disheveled and twitchy. He forced a smile as he spoke.
“Sorry for the delay. It seems my replacement won’t make it, so they asked me to step in again. All aboard.”
Meervah tried not to think about the amount of booze that was coursing through his system. She noticed a spatter of translucent goo on the end of his proboscis. Some had dripped onto his chest, making her scratch at her own nose by reflex. By the time she took a seat around the middle row, he had still not wiped away whatever drink he had been ingesting. She fiddled with the luggage ticket in her coat-pocket and slid her small bag back and forth between her feet as she waited for other passengers to trudge on and their driver to get things going. She was already half an hour late and her mobile was dead from little to no charge over the past few hours.
As the bus left the terminal, she sunk into her seat. Soon enough, she’d be drunk and safe at her brother’s apartment. She stared off into the distance, her eyes surveying Berban as it passed by the window. Everything seemed dismal and dead. Was it just the contrast between her offworld travels versus the sights of her old home? She had not been home since accepting an art restoration internship on Morivand, in part out of financial need, but also out of an incredible fit of wanderlust. That was three years ago, and now she was back home. Instead of feeling nostalgia, she felt bored. She could recall all of the fantastic sights of three different worlds, two more than what most of her childhood friends would ever see. The Phaelus of today consisted of block upon block of decaying buildings connected by long, empty sidewalks, relics of the planet’s failed attempt at becoming a trade hub.
She stifled a yawn as she continued to stare outside. For a few minutes, unmaintained greenery interrupted the urban drudgery. Wild growths of trees and shrubs interrupted the rows of single story buildings with faded paint jobs. Just as soon as they arrived, the wild growths gave way to more urban sprawl that was just as faded as what came before. Over time, though, Meervah began to notice strange changes in the local aesthetics. This section of the city seemed darker and more unkempt. She noticed a creeping Cyclopasian architectural influence with gloomy, claustrophobic alleys and tooth-like awnings. The promise of colonial aid contributed a large Syrien population to start, but as the factions moved out and away, all of that promised aid dried up, leaving a lot of Syrien with little else to enjoy but warm weather.
There was a grassroots effort on the part of Meervah’s people to position Phaelus as a resort world. She wondered if they ever succeeded. All she got out of this marketing strategy were bars where she could drink herself numb and an itch to escape her homeworld. Her wanderlust was not unfounded; their parents had died while the siblings were teenagers, leaving behind nothing but a couple hundred credits that the siblings found stashed in a box on top of a refrigerator. This strained their finances, but Bieron, ever the handsome brother, had no problem finding regular work. With Bieron’s cash flow offsetting their overall desperation, the two made quite a pair.
She felt the bus begin to slow down. She steadied herself as it came to a jerky stop in front of a rather mediocre-looking shopping center. She stepped past the driver, his head rolling in a drunken stupor, and flashed her mobile at a small scanner to pay the fare. She stepped out of the bus into the cold and crisp air and watched it depart, heated water vapors billowing from some slots on the side. She studied her surroundings for a moment and began to make her way to the bar that Bieron had told her about.
She really had missed him.