Backworlds Book 3
Cover by: edhgraphics / Graphic Artist Erin Dameron-Hill
Edited by: Kelly Schaub
In the far future, humanity settles the stars, bioengineering its descendents to survive in a harsh universe.
To secure his future, Craze must propel his world into a more prosperous era. Only days away from the grand opening of his new and improved tavern, he is confronted by a loony Backworlder intent on mucking up his plans. Gaunt and trembling, she claims her spaceship is possessed. She also has a connection to the underworld that shakes loose the dark past of one of Craze’s closest friends. It all threatens to end Craze’s prosperity before it begins.
Meanwhile off world, Captain Talos works desperately to outwit the mercenary Jixes and lure them away from his and Craze’s budding prospects. The mind-control weapon Talos uses against them is wearing thin, and his next move may be his last.
Will Craze and Talos’s efforts bring about a grand new age of boom or damn them to forever struggle in the dust?
Paperback ($11.95) from:
Ebook ($2.99) from:
Craze fingered the stunner he kept under the bar, itching to blast the screwball standing in front of him. Her dripping annoyed him, so did her blue hair twisting in knots toward the heavens.
The Lepper — the portal in space connecting the worlds — had burst open and belched out her ship only ten minutes ago. She’d docked and made it to his bar in record time. The rush reeked of potential bothers, dispelling his good humor brought on by his prospects verging on a new golden age. He’d not let her spoil it.
The newcomer repeated her demand. “Buy my spaceship!” Pounding her aqua-tinted fist on the unblemished polymer of his new counter, she spat from every pore not just her mouth. Her gray eyes darted in different directions.
Shit. Did anything with reason travel the Edge anymore? The descendents of the fabled Earth, Backworlders had been genetically designed to take advantage of the less habitable worlds in the galaxy. The suped-up human genes didn’t seem to include sanity, however.
Craze wouldn’t allow this halfwit, or any other, ruin his plans. Five months ago opportunity had come docking. Sure, the unexpected visit by enemies had brought anguish and pain, but that had dwindled to immaterial with the potential windfalls that had dropped into his hands at the same time. With those he had begun to convert the dust heap of Pardeep Station into a prime destination among the Backworlds. He’d no longer scrape along in the dirt. His days of need and want would end.
Another chance at a decent future as good as this would never flit within Craze’s grasp again. At least, it was very unlikely. No way would he waste it. No way would he let the likes of this dripping gal or anyone else wrest it from him. No, he aimed to become a player on the Edge then all the Backworlds, enough of one to make his pa and kin bow and scrape for crumbs, enough to make them sorry they sent him off and treated him so poorly.
He’d heard of the aqua gal’s race, Sprinklers they were called, but he hadn’t met one before. Despite the obvious issues with her reason, she could be mighty useful on Pardeep — an arid moon orbiting the pale blue ice giant Azta. A Sprinkler could produce three gallons of water a day. Only a small dent on this dust ball of a Backworld, but maybe she’d attract more of her kind if she stayed, and Craze wouldn’t turn away a boon. As many as existed were welcome. However, this world had enough crackpots.
Big enough to fill a doorframe, his size hindered most folks from spitting on his day. This gal was different. He could tell from the nonsense falling from her lips. Hitching his hips and bracing his burly frame, he readied for trouble. His fingers moved from the stunner to graze across the handle of the revolver beside it.
“Spent my chips already, toots.” He shrugged a shoulder at the construction going on around him.
The visits by Pardeep’s enemies five months ago, the Jixes and the Fo’wo’s, Foreworlders — those designed to survive on more livable planets — had led to the discovery of some mind-control weapons Craze and his friends had used to survive the ordeal then take advantage. To rid themselves of the Jixes, who liked to steal whatever good came Pardeep’s way, Captain Talos had returned to the Jix homeworld with the pesky Gattar. She was the Jix who enjoyed torturing Craze most. With her thoughts under Talos’s control, she’d made some beneficial trades on Pardeep’s behalf with other Backworlds. One led to another and eventually the trades had afforded Craze a new and improved place, a destination closer to the one he’d dreamed of since being ostracized by his relatives. He’d bargained with Pauder — the planetlord of Pardeep Station — for an upgrade, moving his tavern from ground level up to the docks.
The Sprinkler studied the work and the lady laboring at it in the far corner, Wolney. The newest settler on Pardeep, Wolney had served in the war with Pauder, originating from the same world as he, and, it didn’t seem possible, but she was more deranged than the old man. Instead of seeing Fo’wo’s to gun down everywhere, she believed she was a Fo’wo, strutting around, telling Craze and his friends how inferior they were.
“I can hire on, if you so doing,” the Sprinkler said, shedding droplets on the recently epoxied floor. Despite her constant seeping, her skin and hair remained dry. Not her clothes, though. Her damp and faded jumper clung to her gaunt form.
She reflected in the high gloss of the steely blue walls and floor like a stick, and in the sheen Craze could also see shimmery images of the azure sky and the ships parked nearby. So far there was just the one she wanted to unload and the Sequi — the spaceboat that had landed him here.
He chuckled. “You want to hire on with me so I can buy your ship?” That had to be the most bizarre business proposition he’d ever heard.
Eagerly she nodded and stuck out her hand. She wiped it off on her fraying purplish jumper then held it out again. “It cost me a moonful of chips, and it’s almost new. I’ll sell it to you for a quarter of what I paid. Is it a deal?”
Craze backed up a step. “Shit no! Somethin’ isn’t right here. Why you want to get rid of it so bad?”
Long skeletal fingers ran through her tangle of blue tresses, messing her style into a worse nest. Her unsettled gaze latched onto Craze’s. “It’s possessed.”
He’d heard such claims of haunted vessels from other visitors, but they were just stories to share over a drink. Craze didn’t believe such phooey. “Your colony went belly up, huh?”
Folks coming in from failed worlds took awhile to shed their unhinged states. All the dying and decay wore their minds to nubs.
He moved his meaty hand away from the weapons, setting it on the shiny bar top. The new barstools hadn’t made it in yet, so there wasn’t any place for her trembling ass to sit. Her fingers shook like dust did on Pardeep every time a ship came in.
“No,” she said, syllables warbling. “It was stolen, ‘n I wish it never came back.”
Did she intend to tie his brain into knots? Bracing his hands on his hips, he took a deep breath. He shouldn’t ask, but he couldn’t help himself. “Let’s slow up here ‘n start over. OK?”
He gestured at a beige-coated table and chairs nearby, the only furniture in the tavern, temporarily dragged up here from his old place. The new stuff would be here within the month. Craze wouldn’t stake a chip on it, though. Things rarely arrived as promised. It didn’t matter if mercenaries or merchants did the dealing.
“Have a seat.” His living hair braided itself into three dark plaits which spilled down the middle of his back. He started to untie his apron then paused. “You want a drink?”
“You gotta pay for it.”
He’d been afraid of that, taking off the red apron and sliding out from behind the bar which snaked like a wave against the back wall. The gleaming silver shelves behind it were lined with bottles perfectly ordered and arranged. He took a seat where he could keep an eye on the two entrances. The one to the docks was a nice set of transparent doors without any scratches, and the other opposite led to the elevators. It was epoxied to match the walls and floor.
“What’s your name?” Craze asked.
The compressor for the air-powered tools started, and Wolney sprayed epoxy on a section of bare wall. The equipment hiccupped and drummed, whirred and whistled. Wolney, despite her very addled brain, moved the tool at a steady pace, expertly applying the coating. Besides a problem with sanity, she had rotten timing, too.
Craze rolled his eyes, shut his ear holes, and went over to grab a bullhorn from under the bar. It was the only way to get through the gristle mucking up her head. “Cut that shit out, Wolney! I’m tryin’ to conduct some business over here.”
After a rude two fingered cuss, Wolney dropped her arm then slapped the compressor. The unit cut as abruptly as it started.
Seeming way too quiet now, Craze rubbed at his ears. “You know what they say about findin’ good help. Don’t need any more hire-ons.”
“Not like her. I’m better. I’ll make you wish you could clone me.” Dialhi’s features held an expectant air, eyes bulging, brows arching. Her fingers tapped on the beige polymer tabletop like a loose bolt during launch. “And I can earn you the price of the ship. Honest I can.”
The elevator doors whooshed open, depositing Dactyl, a dock facilitator and one of Craze’s former shipmates. Made to withstand greater gravity on a world that no longer existed, Dactyl stood wide and barely four feet tall. He headed for the doors on the other end to get to the berths and bays, waving at Craze as he passed through.
Craze returned the gesture then went on speaking with Dialhi. “Why you so desperate to get rid of the ship?”
She lowered her voice. “It was stolen by Quasser.”
Only once before had Craze heard that name, three years ago when Dactyl saved Craze and Rainly from being beaten to death. It had something to do with Dactyl’s tattoo, and had instilled a terror deeper than fear into the thugs leaving their fist prints on Craze’s bones.
Dactyl skidded to a stop and whirled. He drew his revolver, pointing it straight between the Sprinkler’s eyes. “Fricken get off Pardeep. Now.”
CHAPTER 2 — DACTYL
Like the unmistakable click of a fuse igniting, the name Quasser sank into memories so well hidden, Dactyl had almost forgotten they existed. They slinked into his consciousness like smoke, black and staining, hijacking his usual measured response with one he thought he’d mastered. What a delusion.
Automatic and honed, the revolver drew, yearning to wreak havoc and cause harm, a yearning that had no business in his present. He had to remind himself, “I’m not him anymore.” That staid his finger from pulling the trigger, but not the words itching to leap off his tongue.
“Get the frick off Pardeep!” Whatever it took to keep his past from leaking into today and his future, he’d do. Craze couldn’t know. His beloved Rainly couldn’t know. Dactyl aimed the gun between the Sprinkler’s eyes.
If an associate of the infamous Mr. Q, she had to die, and he had no qualms about doing it. Not only would he kill her, the fact she’d ever arrived on Pardeep had to be erased. Unequivocally and without a trail.
Dactyl didn’t blink, inching closer to the pariah infesting Pardeep Station, meaning to pry her loose and scrape her every molecule from this place, his home. She couldn’t exist, not here, not if she knew Quasser.
Craze jumped to his feet, big and intimidating, but Dactyl knew the mountain of a Verkinn had nothing to back up that size. That race couldn’t breathe worth a lick on most Backworlds, and the thin atmosphere on this dust heap of a moon kept the barkeep weak as a ricklit. Without the special coveralls he wore, his legs and living hair floundered as useless as the insect’s limbs and antennae when flipped onto its back.
“Put the gun down. Jeez! I haven’t even opened yet. Let’s avoid a mess, huh?” Craze waved his hands around, taking up space.
He was good at that, and sometimes his thinking teetered on not completely screwy. Craze could never make up his mind as to what he was, though. A cold-hearted schemer, or a soft-hearted fool? Most times it didn’t bother Dactyl, but at this moment it did. Where Quasser was concerned, nothing wishy-washy could be allowed.
He scowled, ignoring the barkeep, poking at the Sprinkler with the barrel of his revolver. “Yous can’t stay here. Not yous. Not yous ship. Get the frick out. Now!” Dactyl grit his teeth and willed her gone. His thoughts felt as if they would blow out of his head.
The aqua gal with the crazy blue hair trembled worse than earlier. Fragile. She staggered, rising to her feet, holding up her hands. “Please! I can’t go back in there.”
Fear wafted off her in a stench. Dactyl inhaled deeply, rubbing the tattoo on his left arm. It represented an era when he had thrived on the stuff, when her vulnerability would’ve sent him into a frenzy from which he’d derive great pleasure. “Yous must. Yous tainted. Tainted by him.” He could tell by the dilation of her pupils she knew who he meant.
Her eyes rolled freely between her lids. “I understand the precautions, ‘n they necessary for him. But I don’t know him. Never came within my sights. Honest.”
No way did she fully understand how he itched to make her scream and cry, tearing her to bloody bits. No way did she understand the darkness he fought against. At least she didn’t appear to be a Minion of Dusk. Still, he didn’t want her here. She’d get his friends and gal asking questions. He didn’t want them to know, and he didn’t want to remember.
“Yous know of him, ‘n he had yous ship. That’s enough.” Plenty. Reason enough to blow her head to the next star system, reason enough to find a new world to call home.
Craze inched between Dactyl and the Sprinkler, blocking her from the revolver’s aim. His dark eyes narrowed, becoming mere slits in his wide brown face, almost disappearing amid the splay of his nose and cheeks.
Dactyl squeezed the grip of his gun, skipping one way then the other to get a clear shot. He’d not go back to what he’d been.
The tree of a bartender kept pace, keeping the dangerous gal protected, behaving as asinine as ever. He had no idea what evil he’d just partnered with. “Pauder rubbin’ off on you?” Craze asked.
What? Dactyl glowered at the off-base accusation. “Shut it or I’ll shoot yous, too. Move away from the space trash.” Wide and heavy as he was, Dactyl was still plenty agile. He quickly darted to the side and latched onto the Sprinkler’s sleeve. “Get moving, woman,” he barked at her.
Every shaky step she took threatened to topple her. “Don’t want no trouble.” Tears mixed with her drippings. “Just want to settle some place nice. Pardeep Station came up on the navigator like a dream. It looks so nice here.”
The fact Pardeep appeared on her navigation system without her tapping it in crawled down Dactyl’s spine like a warning. She must have been sent. Frick ‘n to bits!
He drove her toward the docks, sweeping his long brown waves over the front of his shoulder to keep them from dragging on the floor. “Too nice for anybody like yous.” He spat out the words and eyed her harshly.
The barkeep trotted after them, tugging at Dactyl’s shirt tail. “She seems kind of desperate. Let her at least tell her story.”
She’d sunk under Craze’s skin already. Dactyl suppressed the urge to kick the fool. “Yous something. Yous keep seeking love in all the wrong places.”
The tan coveralls covering most of Craze’s body squeezed in a rhythm to keep him breathing properly. Dactyl had never gotten used to the freaky, wheezing garment.
“Nah, nothin’ like that,” Craze said. “She’s got value. A Sprinkler. Fresh water for us all.”
Lepper bursts ‘n Fo’wo butts! “Three gallons a day isn’t enough for us all.” The crease between Dactyl’s brow deepened, threatening to give him a headache. “Nothing offsets her associations.” He prodded Dialhi. “Keep them legs churning. A little faster would please me greatly.”
Outside the tavern on the docking platform, metal sheeting covered the floors, walls, and ceiling. Craze and Talos’s latest get-rich schemes had put a fresh polish on the dark gray alloy, which reflected myriad images of lights and advertising screens. The monitors blared with Pardeep’s businesses: Rainly-Dactyl Premium Ship Repair and Upgrades, Craze’s Tavern, Talos’s Trading and Exports, Meelo Farms Fresh Produce, Pauder’s Fantastic Backworld Adventures, Pauder’s Realty, Pardeep is a World of Opportunity, Odd Jobs by Wolney.
Between the signs, sealed doors led to the berths. The Sequi was docked nearest to Craze’s place, he and Talos as close as a pistol nestled in its holster. Dactyl had to wonder at how spectacularly their latest scheme to control the mercenary Jixes would backfire. He didn’t doubt it would, nor did he doubt the pirate-like Jixes would make everyone on Pardeep more miserable when it did.
He edged the sodden Sprinkler toward the other occupied slip two doors over from the Sequi, the gate leading to her ship. The bridge connecting her vessel to Pardeep was a dimly lit corridor punctuated by soft green sconces. Down it, a shadow approached, blocking out lights, heading toward him.
If that was Quasser, this was new. Dactyl didn’t remember him casting much of a shadow or being very solid. It probably wasn’t him then. Most likely she ferried his Minions of Dusk — merciless soldiers who killed for the pleasure of it, every bit as bad as their master.
Dactyl cocked his revolver, sighting it on the entry. If a Minion stepped off that ship, he’d shoot without hesitation. He’d kill before everyone on Pardeep gasped their last breath. It’d be one or the other. No other options existed with the Minions. He knew and wished he didn’t. His finger hugged the trigger.
The shadowy figure became more solid. Dactyl tensed. Pink eyes lasered through the murky tunnel. He relaxed. Those eyes haunted him with beautiful dreams, the only beauty he knew. For his sanity, he clung to it and to her, his chrome-skinned love with the lovely pink eyes.
He lowered the gun and moved the barrel back to the Sprinkler’s head. When his beloved emerged into full view, he blew her a kiss. “That boat ready to fly, sweet one?”
“Sure.” Rainly’s chrome skin glowed like a beacon under the illumination of the brighter lights of the docks; his beacon, leading him away from what he never wanted to be again. She wiped her see-through hands off on a rag, leaving smears of engine lubricant and gear grease. So single-minded, she beamed at the newcomer and wet her supple chrome lips. “Your vessel is in good shape Dialhi…” Her pink irises latched onto Dactyl’s gaze, the easy smile falling off her comely mouth. “Babe? What you doing? What’d she do? Why do you have a gun on her?”
How could he explain without revealing what he’d been? He couldn’t tell her about the things he’d once done. Not her. She’d never understand, and he didn’t think he’d survive long with her to buoy him. “She’s got to go, sweet one. She can’t stay here. Her ‘n that ship is trouble. Huge trouble.”
Pink wires in Rainly’s see-through hands glowed when she flexed her fingers. The cybernetic limbs attached just below the elbow, and the strands of her white plastic-like hair swished when she shook her head. “Not that ship. You got it wrong, babe. That vessel is in great shape. Almost brand new. State-o’-the-art agro bay, too. Just needed a slight adjustment to the fuel core, nothing to worry over. ‘N she paid in advance. Put the gun down.”
Some of Craze’s dark hair pulled loose from its braids and coiled in soft waves, constantly rippling until a quick smirk tugged at his thick lips and sprang down to his feet. He jumped in front of Dactyl, reaching for the revolver. “Hold up now—”
Dactyl jerked away, scowling at his gal. Rainly would have to mention great value; an agro bay. Craze would never give up the ship now, not without a full explanation and a lot of proof. Proof Dactyl didn’t have and neither did he want to spell out every tiny reason for kicking out the Sprinkler and her spacecraft.
He cracked the barkeep across the shoulder, hoping it would help settle in some sense. “Yous thoughts not needed in this. Yous understand? Yous thinking will only get us all killed. Shit.” He spat and managed to put a smile on his face for Rainly. He didn’t want to spook her. “Remember all the bothers ‘n fear when the Water-breather came? When the Fo’wo’s took over Pardeep ‘n threatened to kill us all? Well, the trouble this gal can bring is worse than that shit storm, darling. Trust me.”
The charcoal smudged around Rainly’s eyes puckered. “Come on now. Dialhi can’t be that bad…” She peered deep into his desperate soul and after careful study gave into his urgency with a small nod. “If you think it’s best.”
Thank the cosmos and the Lepper she’d take his word for it. He pressed on the Sprinkler’s back, nudging her toward her ship. “Away with yous now.”
Despite the threat of being shot, Dialhi backed away from the tunnel, sobbing. “Don’t make me go in there. Please! Please don’t make me.” She wheeled and latched onto the sappy barkeep, hugging him tight. “I’ll be the best worker you’ll ever have. Don’t make me go.”
Her tears and the reported value of her vessel would cement Craze to the other side, the side that would see them all dead. Craze had never said no to chips or sob stories. Dactyl wanted to kick him.
“Now, now. Don’t fret yourself sick. I’ll look after you.” Craze held the Sprinkler snugly against his chest, a smile lighting up his dark eyes. “State-of-the-art agro bay? What ship model?”
The Sprinkler nodded, sniffling. “A slightly used Olvis Deluxe.
Before Dactyl could exhale, Craze shouted, “Sold!” As if a long-lost lover Craze stroked the aqua gal’s back and wacky blue hair.
Now he’d do what it took to keep her. Well, her ship, at least. Dactyl wanted to scream. The idiot barkeep predictably became blinded to a weepy woman and wealth, but Dactyl wouldn’t give up either.
He stomped over and brought his anvil of a foot down hard on top of Craze’s. “I’m not going to let yous condemn us for far-fetched dreams. Yous have no idea what we dealing with.”
The pain shone in Craze’s eyes, but he otherwise stood his ground, ready to defend his imagined profits, sneering. “Enlighten me.”
Shit. Dactyl couldn’t. “Sometimes yous just have to trust yous friends.”
Then his gal turned on him, too, inserting herself between him and Craze, holding out her tab — a thin, flexible data device the size of a card. “This ship has been here before. I thought it looked familiar, so I checked. We worked on it, gave it a thorough maintenance job ourselves, babe. Look. Outfitted with a new agro bay, sure, but it’s the vessel that was in port when Lepsi disappeared. The one we’ve been looking for ever since. It ‘n its captain can’t go.”
If a chance existed to find his old pal, Craze had to nab it. He grabbed for Rainly’s tab. “Let me see that.” If not for Lepsi and Talos, Craze would’ve been left floundering on Elstwhere four years ago scrounging and dining on trash. They’d taken him in on the Sequi, freed him from patroller custody when anybody else would’ve left him, and sacrificed their futures to save his life instead of running off with the absconded profits. Besides owing them, Craze had come to call them brothers.
Quick as a nanosecond flew through the Lepper, he scanned over the data. The Sprinkler’s ship was the vessel they’d been wanting to find again. It’d been in dock when Lepsi had disappeared eighteen months ago, but had taken off before anyone realized he was missing.
“I won’t lie about wantin’ that agro bay in the worst way, Dactyl,” he said, “but even without it, this spacecraft has to stay. We have to find out if it or it’s deranged captain has any information about Lepsi. Must.” The must rolled like sawdust in his mouth and soured his mood. If it messed up the coming boom he’d toiled for, schemed for, sent Talos to Jix for, it’d choke him lifeless or worse. Another opportunity to make such a grab at success wouldn’t come his way again, and he couldn’t casually toss it aside. The possibility of losing it made his chest ache, and he rubbed at it, testing the idea of letting go of every Backworlder’s ultimate dream — a forest of cacao trees, the most prized trade good in all the Backworlds.
His arms crossed over his wide chest, and Dactyl shook his brown head of hair. All of his clothes were brown, too. “No. Nope. No way. Not. How many ways do I have to say it? We can’t mess with that. It brings trouble on a scale where we’ll be wishing for a battle cruiser full of Fo’wo’s instead.”
Those words sounded so much like Pauder’s wacky-assed reasoning, Craze wondered if lunacy was contagious. “Maybe if you explain, we can be ready for what you think might happen. Regardless, we must investigate that ship ‘n its logs. Must. If Talos was here, he’d have a revolver pointed back at you. He’d die before lettin’ you send it off.”
“There’s no might. No might at all. Shit! Misfortune will happen, ‘n we’ll be wishing for it after a point. ‘N Talos ain’t so scary. He isn’t here either.”
A good two and a half feet taller and almost as wide, Craze poked at the short man’s chest. “But I’m here.”
Dactyl’s brown eyes narrowed, glinting with the flashing billboard advertising Craze’s Tavern. “I don’t see a gun.”
“A minor glitch. I’ll send Rainly for it.” Craze nodded at the chrome-skinned gal, flashing his most dimpled smile at her, wetting his thick lips, running a hand along a red suspender which held up his tan coveralls. “My bestest friend. Go ‘n get my weapons. Huh?”
Powerful, like a mining vessel tearing up a moon three times the size of Pardeep, Dactyl stomped a foot on Craze’s toes again. “Love comes before friendship, idiot. She ain’t helping yous. Don’t yous dare, sweet one.”
As if sucked by a swarm of thorn beetles, Craze’s toes throbbed. He drew in a sharp breath and grunted.
Pretending not to hear either one of them, Rainly grabbed her tab back from Craze and poked at it, engrossed in whatever InfoCy displayed on the screen. Her transparent finger flicked at winking colors and icons, dragging a green shield over a checkered circle.
Dammitall. Craze still had his new hire-on, though. It was time to put her to work. Her shaking didn’t bolster much confidence that she could do more than sputter, and she dripped like a soggy sponge when he pushed her toward the tavern. “You’ll find a revolver ‘n a stunner under the bar. Go ‘n get them for me.”
The blue hair quivered, and the rest of her quaked and spasmed, sending splashes spitting in all directions. After a few teetering steps that put Craze’s teeth on edge, Dialhi collapsed onto her knees and crawled. “OK. OK.”
A well-placed boot by Dactyl pressed down in her shoulder, effectively stopping her, stalling her as if he’d epoxied her into the composite. He scowled at Craze. “So yous aim to be a chapped-ass fool?”
For the agro bay, for Lepsi, yeah. A tussle with Dactyl would result in a lot of pain, but Craze would accept it to save his future and the aviarmens — the race of Backworlder Talos and Lepsi belonged to. “As much as you.”
Rainly cleared her throat until she had Dactyl’s attention. “We have to find out what happened to our missing aviarman, babe. I’ve worried all this time. Worse, I see it in Talos’s face everyday, ‘n it kills me. No matter what, we have to see what we can find out about Lepsi. It’s an obligation. Like a code among us. Isn’t it? What if it was me who went missing? Would you still send the vessel away?”
The brown sleeve swathing Dactyl’s arm had become so thin, it no longer concealed the tattoo on his left bicep, a depiction of death — dark portrayals of suffering people, writhing, sliced open, impaled, their guts spilling, and a river of blood. Skulls decorated the banks and a symbol involving entwined snakes repeated around the whole scene. The macabre brand twitched, and he lowered the revolver. “Of course not.”
Not wholly convinced he’d been swayed over to her way of seeing things, Rainly stuck out her lower lip and continued to press her point. “We can’t leave one o’ our own as a question mark. He marched into that bar on Wism, not caring if he got hurt or worse, to save me. He’s done great things for Craze ‘n Talos. He thought well o’ you, too. If it was you, he’d be tearing that ship apart looking for clues.”
She could always be counted on for taking the soft-hearted, moral side of an issue. Glad to be standing on that side of things, knowing he only had to keep her talking to win, Craze straightened the rolled up cuffs on his white, button-up shirt. His hair redid itself into a plain ponytail waving down his back. “Yeah, he would. You can put your rustin’ lawman skills to use here, too. Investigate.” Maybe an appeal to his talents would help Dactyl take the loss with some grace.
The revolver returned to its holster, and Dactyl took his foot off Dialhi’s shivering shoulders. “A galaxy of hurt’s coming our way. No doubt. I want yous to understand.”
“He’s one man Dactyl.”
“Quasser ain’t no man.”
Inside the half-built tavern, the newcomer, Craze, and his friends gathered around the beige-coated table. Craze sauntered over to the bar and poured malt from a keg into four crocks. He set one down before Dialhi, Dactyl, and Rainly before sitting and sipping at his. Damn, it tasted better than his father’s. With Dialhi and her never-ending water supply he could improve on it further and draw folks from all over the Backworlds to his tavern no matter the outcome of Talos’s dealings with the Jixes, or whether or not Craze could grow the chocolate trees.
It was a shame to see her wasting pure water by dripping on the floor. Craze would have to figure out how to capture it, a gift as wonderful as a ship with an agro bay that could grow the cocoa seeds that had fallen into his possession a few months ago. The Lepper had brought in a lot of good lately, and he’d make sure it didn’t rot.
“Well, Captain,” he said, “you’d better start tellin’ us what’s goin’ on with you ‘n that ship.”
Good thing crocks had lids or Craze’s finely, hand-crafted malt would have spilled everywhere but in Dialhi’s mouth. “You mean me?”
Jeez. How’d she ever get her spacecraft off the ground? “I know everybody else’s story here, but yours.”
She groaned and shifted in her seat as if swarmed upon by korvian ticks. “I bought the vessel two years ago ‘n took it to Mortua for a refit. I wanted that agro bay to start a traveling restaurant. I also have a one-person hopper, which I’m not selling. Anyway, I took it ‘n spent the wait time on Uyeb. Only one jump over in the Lepper, it was an easy commute. I’d fly back to Mortua every couple of weeks to check on the progress. Fourth time I showed up, my Olvis was gone. Just gone. Jorro apologized, offered me another ship.”
“Jorro is the six-armed dude in the paint?” Craze asked. Mortua had been the first stop way back when, after leaving Elstwhere, almost four years ago, chasing after weapons smugglers, maneuvering under Dactyl’s probationary eye, hoping to find a world to call home. That moon had been a worse pit than Pardeep.
The crock rocked between Dialhi’s hands, as if the pottery wanted to escape her clutches. “You’ve been there?”
Craze and Dactyl nodded. Neither spoke of that early adventure. To Craze, it all seemed a lifetime ago — leaving home, meeting Talos and Lepsi, scheming to get their hands on some chocolate, they were going to be so rich… Here they were still working for scraps. Everything pivoted on the verge of change, yet nothing had. Not yet. It made Craze itch to punch the walls, to rail at the skies, and demand his due. Instead he kicked out his legs and slouched in the chair.
“When exactly was your ship stolen?” he asked.
“Twenty months ago.” Malt splattered across Craze’s face when Dialhi choked on what she sipped. Her eyes grew brighter and her words could barely be heard. “Jorro couldn’t offer me anything close to an Olvis, not even a base model. Nor could he pay me enough to get another that could accommodate an agro bay. I ended up staying there a few weeks, hoping something as good would come in. The place reeks, as you know. I went back to Uyeb ‘n took a job skinning bwats. Not so bad if you stew them long enough.”
Best left on Uyeb, bwat was the stringiest, gamiest, most gristle-laden meat Craze had ever tasted. The only food available on Foradil, Craze would swear he chewed every meal for seven days. Rainly ended up spitting hers out. Thank goodness Craze had the foresight to bring some ricklits from his homeworld, Siegna. Some damn tasty bugs, their mouth-feel and flavor bested bwat by a galaxy.
With a scowl that could scare a shadow, Dactyl banged his fist on the table. All of the crocks jumped. “How do yous know he stole yous ship, ‘n how did yous get it back?”
The Sprinkler pushed her chair farther from the table and his reach. “My Olvis came back. Jorro called me on Uyeb. Said he had the agro bay in, ‘n I could come ‘n get it. I sped right over to Mortua. Oh, it was a sight. Beautiful. Shiny. Until I saw the icon stamped on the captain’s console on the bridge, the one claiming it as Quasser’s property. Jorro said he wouldn’t dare remove it, leaving it for me to deal with. Then I asked him how the ship came back.”
Rainly leaned in, her white bob bouncing, reaching for Dialhi’s hand. “What did he say?”
“A vessel came through the Lepper, the mark of Quasser painted all over it, towing my ship. Jorro said he prepared to kill himself if they insisted on docking. But they didn’t. They dropped off my Olvis ‘n left.”
The mellow burn of the malt down Craze’s throat hit like luxury, heavenly, warm, and soothing. “So what makes you think it’s haunted?”
“I didn’t tell it to come here. I plugged in Elstwhere, ‘n Jorro cleared me through the Lepper. I knew four days ago I was off course, but the Olvis wouldn’t respond. The power systems flashed, ‘n I heard a voice whispering. Singing. Gibberish. Sometimes I could make out it saying help.” Tensing, she gasped, sending a spray of water over everybody at the table. “I couldn’t find a malfunction in the systems. Nothing.” Extra droplets fell from her eyes, she blinked them back, gazing at Rainly. “You said you didn’t find anything wrong with it.”
Rainly squeezed the aqua hand in her see-through one. “I didn’t. But I wasn’t looking for those kind o’ troubles. I just ran basic diagnostics. I can—”
“Oh shit.” Dactyl leapt back from the table as if a plague had been dumped on top, his brown face paling. “I can’t stress this strong enough. The Olvis can’t stay here.”
Gathering her silver stilettos under her, Rainly rose and reached for her man. “Babe? What’s wrong?”
He pushed at her, drew his pistol and aimed it at all of them. “Yous all stay away from me.” His gaze darted around the tavern, settling momentarily on Dialhi. “I’ll go with yous.”
For now all Craze could do was gawk. It was as if Dactyl had swallowed Pauder and Wolney and became both of them at once.
“What you talking about?” Rainly took a step closer to her love.
Dactyl pushed the safety off and cocked the revolver, edging toward the doors leading out to the docks. “Not one step nearer. I’m not playing.”
Her pink eyes brightened, and her lower lip trembled. “What’s going on? You really going to shoot me?’
Craze grabbed her wrist and tugged Rainly over to him. “What shit is this, Dactyl? What the frick is your problem?” If he had to guess, he’d say a spring had broken in Dactyl’s head, the kind that kept delusions and nightmares at bay.
“It’s for yous own good. Just stay away from me.” The revolver quivered. “He sent a message for me.”
“Who? That Quasser bastard? What is he, the bogey man?”
Craze slid his hand over his chin, trying to picture what worse could possibly be. “How would he know you’s here?”
The lawman stood straighter, his gaze challenging anybody to blink wrong. “Wism. Those blokes would say if he stopped by there.”
What a screwy thing to say. Unless Quasser could appear out of thin air and follow them around like a shadow, that was impossible. “They don’t know where we went. We didn’t even know where we was goin’.”
Metal bracelets on Dactyl’s arm clinked, his hand sweeping over the stubble on his chin. “It’d not be hard to track the Sequi. He has the means. None of yous is safe with me. I’ll take the ship ‘n go.”
As unexpected as a slap, it took five seconds for Craze to process what was said and react. “Don’t be an idiot ass. You can’t run forever. Here’s as good of a place to confront him as any. Especially with Pauder ‘n his arsenal at your disposal.”
“Don’t let him go!” Rainly fell onto Craze’s chest, sobbing, clutching onto his suspenders. “Listen to him, babe. Please. You can’t go off alone. Here you isn’t alone.”
Her hold became tight enough to hinder his breathing, yet Craze drew her in, cradling her, trying to stroke the grief and strife out of her nerves. Glaring at Dactyl, his jaw stiffened until it ached. “You can’t take my ship. I bought it fair ‘n square.”
Dactyl’s face scrunched into a horrid expression then unfurled, the cheeks pinking. He kicked at the floor and glanced away from his sniffling love, lowering the gun. “Yous didn’t buy it. Yous haven’t paid her yet. Besides, Quasser owns it now. His mark is on it.”
Dialhi rose and came to stand beside Craze and Rainly. “I took it off. It’s my ship. I worked hard for it. It’s my dream.”
Aw jeez. That sounded an awful lot like she didn’t really want to sell it. Craze could kick Dactyl. “There has to be a way to get his taint off the ship ‘n settle all of this.”
“There is.” As if suddenly aware sanity existed, Dactyl holstered the revolver.
Craze had never seen him so jittery before. “Which is?’
“If that’s all…”
Hanging onto Craze as if a dust storm raged around them, Rainly sniffed and dabbed at her eyes. The black charcoal around them smudged onto her cheeks. “How old is he? Maybe we can just wait for him to die.”
Dactyl pursed his lips and shook his head. “He won’t die.”
Craze rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Everybody dies.”
“I already told yous, he’s not a man.”
Craze guided Rainly back to the table, patting her hand and speaking softly to her. Over his shoulder, he glowered at Dactyl. Getting a straight answer from him about that Quasser guy was like trying to figure out which way was up in a dust storm. “If he’s not a man, then what is he?”
Dactyl shuffled after them, coming to stand behind the chair he’d sat in moments earlier, neurotically running his hand over the beige-coated back. “I don’t know. Yous don’t want to know. The more we talk about Quasser, the more likely he is to come here. Or his low-life associates. So shut up. Don’t speak his name anymore, ‘n the ship has to go.”
Holding out a chair for the Sprinkler, Craze waved at her to have a seat. “Seems from what Dialhi said, he’s already been here. When Lepsi disappeared. He didn’t do anythin’ then.”
Dactyl sneered. “Taking Lepsi isn’t doing nothing.”
“OK, that’s somethin’, but it doesn’t make sense. If he’s after you, why take the aviarman?”
“But he didn’t leave one.”
“He did. He took one of ours.”
The circular words threatened to pound Craze’s mind into hours of pain and just when he thought he’d made progress. “Sounds like he marks stuff. He marked nothin’ on Pardeep, unless he did ‘n you never said.”
Dactyl shook his anvil of a head. “Not that I know of.”
Craze crossed his arms over his barrel chest and sank into his seat. “Well, there we have it.”
Eyes rolling toward the ceiling, Craze exhaled long and slow before answering. “The Olvis has nothin’ to do with you. You is imaginin’ stuff.”
“Maybe if you explain—”
Dactyl gripped Craze’s shoulder, hanging on like a sting beast. “I told yous more than once, the subject is off limits. Nothing changes that.”
Did the Quatten want a fight? Why couldn’t he just talk plain? The table bumped when Craze shook Dactyl’s hand off, and all the crocks rocked.
“Remember you talkin’ to friends. Jeez!” Craze said. “I’ll accept the fellow is dangerous, ‘n we need to set some precautions in place.”
None happier at winning the argument, Dactyl’s frown threatened to break his face. “The ship still has to go. We not safe here with that parked in the docks.”
Craze watched Rainly tap the colorful star that opened InfoCy on her tab. She touched a red bird and scrolled through the incoming data — what appeared to be images of Backworlders doing stupid things. He snapped his fingers at her. “We can put the Olvis in a stable orbit. Can’t we, Rains?”
For a moment longer, she stared at her tab, shaking with a silent laugh, then she nodded, her white hair swinging and swishing. “It’s very easy to do.”
Dactyl slapped the table top, rattling the crocks again. “No! Too close.”
Without engaging the Lepper, which Craze wouldn’t consider, there was only one other option. “What if we park it on one of our neighboring moons? Nitera?” The moon that didn’t constantly quake, didn’t have cryovolcanic eruptions and torrential ice storms coating everything under miles of ice would be best for keeping the agro bay and spacecraft intact. Putting it away for later was better than giving up his vision of a chocolate empire completely. One day he’d see those trees reach for the skies and bloom. One day their fruit would make him as powerful as the galactic center. One day was better than never.
Sitting down on the chair made Dactyl a little taller. “That could work.”
Finally, some progress in this damned situation. Craze tilted his head back and poured the remains of his crock into his mouth. He hummed at the pleasing sensation of a throat full of fire, and he eyed the Sprinkler. “Go get your ship ready to go, Captain.”
Dialhi leapt up as if bit by a Lletabooran viper, and backed up toward the wall. “I’m not going in there. I’m not. You can’t make me fly it.”
Rainly’s attention left her tab screen, eyes narrowing as she studied the dripping captain. “I’ll fly it,” she said. “I’ll take the Olvis.”
“That bad-ass dude towed it,” Craze said. “Why can’t we do the same? Then no one has to drive it. The Sequi is still here.”
Dactyl nodded. “Good call since Talos isn’t here, ‘n we is short on pilots.”
“I’d fly your ship,” Dialhi offered, inching back toward where they all sat, “just not my own.”
“That’ll do.” Craze pushed onto his feet and picked up the empty crocks. “You know how to hook the Olvis up for a tow?”
“Good. Then that’s your next job for me. You ‘n Rainly go park the Olvis.”
“I’ll help,” Dactyl said. “Make sure it’s well hidden.” He checked his revolver.
Craze harrumphed. “You can’t go usin’ bullets in space.”
“There might be trouble.”
“Take my stunner.” Craze tossed it over.
With quick reflexes, Dactyl snatched it out of the air. “Yous coming?”
With the crisis averted it was time to get back to business. Success wouldn’t pour into Craze’s accounts of its own accord. He hated to mar his shiny new bar top with dirty crocks, but he eventually set them down, moving behind the counter to the basin of disinfecting gel, a bright sunny yellow to go with the new digs. “Nah, you don’t need me. My hire-on will look after my interests.” He stared pointedly at the blue, dripping gal shaking in the middle of his floor. “Yes?”
She nodded and threw him a salute. “Aye, sir.”
Craze laughed. If she kept that up, he’d not regret taking on her and her misfortunes.
CHAPTER 6 — TALOS
Traveling to the Jixes’ homeworld, Jix, on one of their ships navigated by a Jix crew had been nerve-racking. Talos hated having to put his trust in a Fo’wo mind-control weapon. Under its influence, Gattar and her trigger-happy squad drooled and stared, hanging on his every word, which rattled him. Worse, they showed signs of free-will and their usual saucy personalities after only seven days. Normally quite unpredictable, Gatt always worried him and doubly so now that he used an enemy weapon on her. What would she do when she found out?
Actually arriving on the Jixes’ world evoked a more palpable feeling of danger. As if a beast, it waited, suspended in mid-strike, coiled to spring, tucked into every blade of grass, every drop of rain, and it rode on the constant wind.
Almost five months had passed since leaving Pardeep Station, and Talos had yet to find any sense of ease among the Jixes. They gawked and sneered at him, gnashing their teeth. On the verge of breaking free from his weapon-induced control, the Jixes jostled in shadows, lurking, skulking, slowly reverting back to their natural proclivity to buck at any authority other than their leader’s — Ingarsse. She was a Jix times one thousand, toying with Talos, dangling him, making him sweat and toil for every modicum of advantage he acquired. The last trader who had crossed her graced her parlor as a throw rug. Everyday she reminded Talos of it.
His only leverage over this shaky situation was his companion, Prezsha, the Backworlder found under the ash sea five months ago with the mind-controlling nanites. Of the Cytran race like Rainly, Prezsha had been built to be the nanites’ master and to obey hers. She’d been ordered to follow Talos’s instructions. Only she preferred the company of Ingarsse over him. The Jix leader doted on her, wooed her, treated her like a prized pet.
Partly cybernetic, Prezsha shouldn’t have had any thoughts or sentiments of her own, at least not this early in her sentience, but something slinked in her red eyes, something ready to break loose. Whether it was inborn or some dastardly subroutine programmed into her by the enemy Fo’wo’s Talos couldn’t determine. This much he knew, when she did assert her independence, she’d sell him out to the Jixes and help them turn him into a floor mat.
When he and Prezsha had first arrived, she’d left the ship before him, doling out tainted chocolate bars — the candies were how the nanites were delivered into the Jixes. Those who ate the treats had fallen at her feet, uttering adorations, swearing allegiance. The tiny machines lacing the chocolate embedded commands into the mind of the person who ingested them. Prezsha was the key to controlling the nanites. Talos’s job was to come up with the directives to give the nanites, thereby containing the Jixes and keeping them away from Pardeep and its future.
Day by day that goal slipped farther away. Prezsha showed no inclination to assist him in the endeavor. So, despite her resemblance to his friend, Rainly, Talos didn’t trust her. He eyed her warily when she saluted him, and he ran a slender hand through his shock of blue hair.
“What does the forecast say?” He believed the reiteration of simple facts kept her loyalty cemented to him.
“Rain mixed with snow throughout the day. Dew point, minus six degrees Celsius. Winds, three to five miles an hour out of the southeast. Precipitation in the last hour, zero. In the last twelve hours, half an inch. A full inch expected before nightfall. Current temperature is eleven degrees Celsius and falling like a meteor, sir.”
He checked what she said against what InfoCy reported on his tab. She made no deviation other than the flourish when commenting on the cooling air — a more flagrant sign that her protocols deteriorated, that she’d soon shed her yokes.
Tugging at the collar of his tan, threadbare shirt, Talos pivoted away from her and toward the window, nodding, staring out from the guest quarters he’d been assigned to share with her. She usually slept standing in the corner, but he wouldn’t call it sleeping, not in the human sense. Her silent vigil made him uneasy, making him wish for home.
He missed Pardeep Station. Not for the arid air or dusty vistas but for the company he could rely on when he needed it. Since Lepsi had disappeared, he sought out Craze more often to share a drink and a story. It never made him feel better though, it just reminded him that his best friend remained missing and probably dead.
Stretching to his full seven foot height, Talos clasped his hands behind his back and appreciated the view outside. Billows of gray gathered over Jix’s skies, and he wished for them to break open and pour down their bounty. He thrilled at watching the rain, thrilled at smelling it, and thrilled at the feel of it on his skin. The frequent showers made the landscape so lush.
The Jixes’ main city nestled in a valley ringed by snow-capped behemoths. Creeks tumbled down into the valley, branching into a hundred brooks which meandered in gentle curves through neighborhoods of crisp, white dwellings. Squared and domed, the buildings were carved from native stone that turned stark white the moment it touched the air.
Most afternoons Talos went and submerged himself in the frigid runoff, a treat that would never be known on Pardeep, that and rainfall. Whether a sprinkle or downpour, he’d skip outside and soak himself to the skin, letting the moisture seep into his thirsty bones. The scenery and those two things made Jix a pleasant world. The Jixes and the wind ruined it.
The incessant, whistling breeze wore on his nerves, and he figured it explained the Jixes’ partial madness. The grating warble never stopped, a constant irritating whine that couldn’t be shut out. It trickled into his music, his conversations, and his dreams. In the shower he could hear it murmuring under the rush of the water. When subjected to the flirtings of a Jix, it trilled with their seductive words, turning his stomach and thoughts sour.
He puckered his thin lips and his eyelids pinched against it, but it was no good. “Have you heard from the Jix leader, Ingarsse, today?” he asked Prezsha.
Almost a foot shorter than him and slightly stockier, she craned her head back to meet his gaze. She insisted on eye contact always, boring those flaming irises into his soul. “She is not satisfied plundering and conquering in this solar system alone. She covets her neighbors and dreams of controlling the Lepper.”
Some things never changed. The Jixes had always desired total dominion over the Edge, spreading themselves over the worlds like a plague. Tyranny wasn’t their aim, merely absconding every planet’s wealth. However, on most worlds that drained the people of their hope, and without hope the Edge would never flourish, and Pardeep would never become what Talos and his friends intended it to be. Here was his chance to get rid of his greatest obstacle to success, and he was getting nowhere.
One at a time, he shook out his long limbs and cracked his slender neck one way then the other. Before the Jixes completely broke their nanite bonds, he had to figure out someway to contain them and keep them out of his and Craze’s way. “Understood. Did she mention the proposed partnership at all?”
The Jixes had styled Prezsha’s hair into gentle waves to match their own and when she nodded, her tresses billowed in an artful manner. It was all so very Jix with the silver romper clothing her, and Talos took it as a not so subtle warning.
“She did voice what she would like in exchange,” Prezsha replied.
His eyes snapped wide. There had been no word from Ingarsse for three days, and now the Jix leader finally put something on the table. For the thousandth time he wished Prezsha would tell important bits of news like this without being wheedled into it, and he ended up barking. “What does Ingarsse want?”
She didn’t flinch, not even a blink. Her chrome cheeks and lips remained spiritless and twitch free. “Ingarsse demands the rest of the chocolates and me.”
And why not the rest of the galaxy while she was at it? Talos frowned. “That’s not an option. Did she make any counter proposal?”
“I need to collect more data, sir.”
Of course she did. His pinched eyes narrowed further. What else hadn’t she shared? “Tell me every place you went, everyone you spoke to, ‘n everything said since leaving our quarters this morning.”
She rattled on about which Jixes knelt before her and which ones scowled at her from the shadows. The ones lurking at the murky edges were Talos’s biggest problem. He wished Lepsi were here to talk it all over with. “Where is he?” he whispered under his breath.
“I can not hear you, sir. Will you repeat your question?” Prezsha said.
Talos glanced outside, watching Jixes strut around. Willowy with a purplish tint to their skin, they batted their huge, neon green eyes at one another and twitched their hips. Able to change gender at will, breasts grew and shrank at an alarming rate, like some vulgar back alley show played out in broad daylight. Tawdry was one thing, but the Jixes were also incredibly vain. Each one stood at the optimum angle for the annoying wind to catch their hair, fanning out their waves like sails. It all made for quite the spectacle and one at odds with the pristine beauty of their world.
When the sun shifted, reminding Talos of how time ran thin, he asked, “Does Ingarsse invite me to court this evening?”
“She did not say.”
“Then go back and tell her my presence at dinner will make you happy. And see what you can learn about those hanging around in the shadows.”
Prezsha bowed. “As you order, sir.”
She left their quarters, marching out among the Jixes, and he watched her pass a group huddled in Ingarsse’s doorway. They hoped for a crumb of their leader’s attention and hoped to warn her against the two visitors, whispering words that could rupture the tenuous hold Talos and Prezsha had on their leader’s mind. They couldn’t be let anywhere near Ingarsse.
The need to talk to a friend persisted. Talos decided to call Craze. He tapped the appropriate icon on his tab and waited for the ping to be picked up.
Craze’s wide, olive-toned face appeared on the screen. His thick lips spread into a grin. “I was just thinkin’ about you, Captain.”
The grand, genuine smile made Talos homesick. His fingers brushed over a pin on his coat; round with orange letters on a blue background, it read Carry On. “Greetings, mate. How’s things?’
“There’s some excitement today with the arrival of a Sprinkler. Seems we have a new resident.”
“Really? Only one?” Fresh water on Pardeep could help Talos create trade routes on worse off worlds. It’d not help his problem with the Jixes, however.
“Maybe she’ll attract more. She has blue hair like you.”
“You setting me up or telling me you love me like a gal?”
Craze’s head fell back, and he roared out a laugh, his coveralls expanding and contracting, working extra hard to compensate. “Nah. It’s not like that. She’s workin’ for me, ‘n I agreed to buy her ship. An Olvis Deluxe with a brand new, state-of-the-art agro bay.”
Shit! That Verkinn had all the luck. “If you can grow them cocoa seeds, the Jixes will become has-beens, ‘n our influence over them won’t matter.”
Craze’s dark brows rose over his dark eyes. “You sound a little desperate about that.”
“None of this is easy. If I don’t come up with a way to keep a thumb over them soon, we’ll lose the whole lot of them. Any ideas?”
“Some sort of partnership?”
How Talos wished Craze had more specifics than that. “Ingarsse wants the chocolate ‘n Prezsha to start negotiations.”
“Them Jixes is greedy bastards. No way. ‘N such a lopsided, one-time deal won’t keep us in their good graces. If you can make the Jixes excited over stupid new trade routes, maybe get them to really value somethin’ no one else cares about, that could work.”
Now that was a twist Talos hadn’t thought of, and if he found the right thing, it could succeed. “Interesting idea, mate. Thanks. I’ll give that a try.”
“I know you’ll pull it off. In the meantime, influence travelers goin’ through the Lepper, especially if they from worlds that matter or have a lot of Lepper traffic. Just give them some chocolate ‘n rave about how wonderful Pardeep is.”
Talos sat down upon a dark gray lounger and leaned back. “I’ll take that as a sign that you ready to open your new bar?”
“Almost. Still waiting on the new furniture.”
“You in your tavern now? Show me how it’s coming.”
Craze moved his tab around, revealing the smooth, ice blue surfaces, and the perfectly ordered shelves of alcohol. “The old yellow ‘n orange lighted sign is goin’ to go right here.” He pointed at a soffit running above the bar.
“Craze’s Tavern? You still calling it that? What you’ve created doesn’t look so much like a Backworld watering hole anymore.”
The big guy rubbed his meaty hands together and his shoulders shook with a silent laugh. “Yeah?” It was his dream to create a destination.
Talos wanted to see dreams realized on Pardeep, but not being there to share in it bothered him. He hitched his shoulders and tugged on his cuffs. “Yeah. A real sweet high-class harbor is what it is. Wish I could talk longer, but I have a tab conference in a few with some top traders on Pote and Kenzer. Ingarsse introduced me to them a few weeks back, ‘n we became quick friends. I’ll get them working on that buzz you want, ‘n I’ll see if they know of some unwanted resource to occupy our Jix friends.”
Eyes and lips smiling, Craze leaned in closer to the screen. “Hope you come back soon. You missed around here. All’s I got is loons to talk to.”
“Where’d Dactyl go?”
“Turns out he’s as bad as the rest, jabberin’ on about some dude named Quasser. Almost blew the Sprinkler’s head off for whisperin’ the name.”
That was news. Dactyl had always been wound a little tight, but Talos hadn’t pegged him for unspooling into a full-blown coot. Pardeep didn’t need anymore of those. “You sure? He’s always been kind of… irritable.”
“Not like this. He’s off the star charts in wack-a-doodle land, raving ‘n waving weapons around. Someone’s goin’ to end up with a bullet in them if he doesn’t stop. So please hurry back. You leave me with only Rainly to talk to, ‘n with her I rarely get to speak.”
Talos laughed. That gal could talk. “Tell her Prezsha sends her love.”
“Does she really?”
“Nah, she still needs orders to act most times. Although, she did add some flare to the weather report earlier. I think she’s about to bust beyond her programming and join up with the Jixes. Ingarsse treats her like a best friend, almost a lover sometimes.”
“That’s more than a little bothersome. Be careful, brother.”
The door chimed, and Talos glanced at the monitor to see who it was. Ingarsse stood out there with a huge blue flower. Its petals flopped down over her hand in a velvety drape. Either she came to continue her seduction of Prezsha, or she’d come to size up how good his skin would look in her entryway.
Talos gulped, knowing he’d have to set her on a path of his choosing. If he was going to survive this, he had to. Flirty as Jixes were, maybe he ought to be the one doing the seducing. “Some important business is at my door, mate. I have to go. Take my warnings about the Jixes seriously. Be prepared for retaliation if I can’t find a solution.”
“The nanites definitely won’t hold much longer?”
“No, but I’m about to see if I can’t buy us more time.” Talos cut the call, donned his best smile, and opened the door.