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Hardcore

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 27

Slouching at one of the back tables, former Space Commander Travis nursed his vitazade while looking over the clientele of Moriarity's Redoubt.  He'd obtained the name of this bar through judicious use of bribes and intimidation.  Supposedly its owner was well-informed about Lucan's operations although not actually involved with his organization.  Now all he had to do was prevail on the owner to tell him what he wanted to know without getting his throat cut in the process.  An especially challenging task since this was the sixth bar he'd hit tonight trolling for that information and even the supposedly non-alcoholic vitazade was beginning to take its toll.

He stared at the glass blearily, wondering if the Kyrenian bartender actually washed the glasses between rounds or simply relied on the sterilizing properties of the so-called alcohol to kill any virulent organisms.  Considering that most of what was being consumed by the free-lance pilots, burnt out nova addicts, and other bottom-feeding scum that hung out here was at least 180 proof, the barkeep probably didn't have to worry about his clients succumbing to anything except alcohol poisoning.

Travis rolled the glass between his palms as he covertly studied the bartender's scarred features. Though he wasn't a serious student of alien cultures, he knew something of Kyrenians from exposure to his gunner Phrath.  It was a combative culture that frequently dueled over mating rights, matters of status and sometimes it seemed just for the sheer hell of it.  Battle scars were worn as badges of honor, but the bartender appeared to have been deliberately maimed, with a crippled leg, shrunken arm and claw marks that raked down his muzzle blinding one eye and leaving him with twisted sneer.
 
Taking a last gulp of the cloying vitazade, Travis decided call it a night.  Questioning a Kyrenian was a dodgy business because of their touchy pride and combative nature.  Best to attempt to prise the information he needed out of the owner tomorrow when his wits were sharper and there weren't as many witnesses around.

But before he could leave, one of the free-lancers called for another round of drinks.  "Hey, Cub-Killer, get your mangy hide over here with a bottle of that premium stuff you save for your regulars . . . and don't serve us any more of this rat piss."

Travis's fist clenched in shock at the spacer's casual use of the worst of Kyrenian insults. Watching in dour anticipation like a cat at a mousehole, he wondered whether the bartender would pull out a blaster and blow the fool away or make the effort to drag himself over to rip out his guts personally.

To his surprise, the barkeep limped over to the table, crippled foot dragging as he responded in a surprisingly mild tone of voice.  "Hard cash on table, before served any drinks at all, Spalden, Engineer First.  No more credit has crew of Vixen in this establishment. Cash in hand show or leave now."

"Listen, you fur-faced penny-pincher, we've got an inside track to Governor Lucan . . .  and that new version of nova everyone's buzzing about. Just one run and Vixen will be rolling in credits."

The bartender's contemptuous shrug clearly indicated his opinion of Spalden's chances for having any part of Governor Lucan's high-powered illicit dealings.  A frustrated snarl distorted the Engineer's radiation-scarred features as he groped for his weapon, but Cub-Killer was faster, pulling out an ugly three-pronged hook that looked like it could rip a man's face off in one sweep, as he hissed, "Credit no more, Engineer First. Unwelcome is Vixen's crew this night. Closed to you are Redoubt's doors until hard cash be seen in greasy paws. Leave now."

For a moment, Travis thought that Vixen's shabby looking crew might balk at that contemptuous dismissal and take out their anger on bartender and establishment.  He eased slowly to his feet, ready to back the Kyrenian's words with blaster fire, if necessary.  Though he normally avoided getting involved in other people's brawls, he needed to get on the bartender's good side.  Besides he was curious if this scarred Kyrenian was actually the villain from the sordid history associated with that name.

Muttering to themselves, Spalden's crewmates pushed away from table, warily eyeing Cub Killer's hook and the heavy duty blaster strapped to Travis's hip before they shoved their way towards the door, deliberately spilling drinks and knocking other customers aside.  Luckily most of the Redoubt's remaining clientele were too drunk or stoned to react violently, even when provoked.  Cub-Killer hissed an oath after the departing troublemakers, before turning a speculative look on Travis as he slumped back in the chair and held up his glass for a refill.  He'd wait a just little longer to try for some useful information before calling it a night.

With the serious drinkers gone, there were only a few "working girls" present, cadging drinks off the regulars and trying to dicker for an all-nighter that would give them a place to catch a little sleep. The high-end trade frequented Lucan's Palace of Delights where the big spenders were, while the Redoubt was mostly home to down-on-their-luck spacers looking for a two credit grope-and-grab.

To Travis's surprise, considering the lateness of the hour, two unescorted females entered and seated themselves at a table in the corner opposite him.  One of them was a typical freelance pilot, wearing blood-red leathers, with jacket sleeves slashed to show crystal etched star maps scarring both arms from wrist to shoulder.  Her dark hair was streaked to match her leathers and like most independents, she wore enough gold rings on wrist, finger, brow, and nose to refuel her ship in an emergency or bribe a local official to falsify papers.  She had high cheekbones, a truculent chin, and eyes as dark as space, complemented by a commanding presence that she made good use of, getting drinks delivered to their table in record time.

Her companion was shrouded in one of the all-encompassing robes worn by women from one of the extremely conservative Amagon worlds - though no respectable Amagon female would have been caught dead in an establishment like the Redoubt, which not only served alcohol but allowed females to consort with males in an unseemly fashion. Whoever was concealed under the capacious folds of the burqua moved with a lack of grace that set off alarms in Travis's head, causing him to watch intently while nursing the virtually undrinkable vitazade.

He was not the only one interested in the unusual pair as an obscenely fat Scanthi trader wearing the swirling serpentine tattoos of a slaver oozed over to the women's table with two muscular bodyguards swaggering in his wake.

"Oh Fairest of the Fair, your beauty assaults these unworthy eyes.  How is it that no man has claimed you for his own?  Or perhaps it is that all the men upon this benighted world are struck mute by the blinding brilliance of your face.  Of course, that's why your companion is veiled, so that men are not turned to stone by her sublime. . ."

"Cut the crap, snakeboy," the free lancer sneered. "I know what those tattoos mean and we're not fooled by your flesh-peddling spiel.  Neither of us is interested in becoming a 'joy girl' in the local hareems, no matter how much you prattle on about 'untold wealth awaiting us and the handsome aristos pining for the merest touch of our jasmine scented fingers'."

The slaver shook his head in mock dismay, setting his jewel studded earrings to tinkling as he made a moue of distaste, "I'm crushed by your disdain . . . bitch."

His expression hardened into one of utter contempt. 

"As beautiful and well-informed female as yourself should know better than to visit this end of the docks so late in the evening.  Especially since your crew roster is a matter of public record, Captain ChandraI'm well aware that there is no one to come looking for you.  That gives me more than sufficient time to break you to the whip . . .  while teaching you a female's proper place is subservient to her lord and master.  Afterwards, I'm certain you'll bring a good price on the open market . . . as will your suitably modest companion."

As the Scanthi bowed unctuously in the direction of the veiled one, reassured by her seeming timidity, she snapped up her booted foot and kicked him in the crotch, taking his guards totally by surprise.  The slaver gave a throttled scream and collapsed writhing to the floor.  Meanwhile Chandra grabbed up a chair from under their table and smashed it over the head of the first bodyguard who dropped to his knees with his shaven head streaming blood.


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