Ad Astra Chapter 8: The Rusty Bucket

25Mar14

ad astraOur story started here.

The Rusty Bucket sat under the boardwalk that led from Gremlin to the Old Town. Opposite it were corrupted old engine parts and various discarded elements of scrap too expensive to recycle in a system so rich in minerals. Already rusting, the blood red sky from the refineries cast its russet pall over everything enhancing the vision of hell Dale had seen from above. But she guessed the site was aptly named, lending its inspiration as it did to the drink-house that she now sought.

It was much the same as she remembered it as a girl. It had the same corrugated panels patching holes in the once temporary breeze blocks and the same twisted column of corroded steel tubing that served as a kind of sign for establishment.

On it someone had written ‘free beer tomorrow,’ so long ago now that the paint was chipped and faded, but not as obscured as the faint tariff board that could still be seen under it.

On her first trip here as a girl she had been taken for a tavern wench and dragged out back for a good rogering. She had actually liked the look of the vulgar tough who had ‘kidnapped’ her and had surrendered to her fate with only a token protest. What a slut she had been back then.

Then he had rescued her.

Dale sighed and stood before the door as if it led to another world. She had often pondered on her fate if she hadn’t met him that day, but what good did it do? There was nothing for it now anyway so she went in.

*

The bar was as rough as she remembered too, but this time no one looked up as she entered. No one would take Dale Hanson as totty these days, not because she didn’t still have ‘it,’ but because there was now a lived-in hardness behind her eyes and she carried herself like one of them.

There were perhaps a dozen men and a few less women huddled in dark corners. Many looked like off-worlders and Dale even spotted another cyborg from Gant and thought of Dane. It irritated her that even here he intruded in her thoughts and she shook off her annoyance.

“Dale Hanson,” said a slow dry voice, she knew it at once and every fibre in her tensed.

He was almost as big as she remembered, although age had begun to catch-up with him. For some reason she found herself comparing him to Dane. Damn, there he is again, she cursed inwardly.

“Not pleased to see me?” the man leered.

He leaned forward now so that his steel grey eyes caught the light and drilled right into her. She could never forget those eyes, or those hands. That thought came unbidden and she hated herself for it.

“Hello Marcus,” she sighed, “You’re looking good as ever.”

“Liar,” he laughed and shoved a pot of ale at her.

“So soap my mouth,” she threw back.

“Like I used to?” he replied and she blushed. “Don’t worry, I did worse than that too didn’t I?” he continued.

To cover her discomfort Dale took up the pot and gulped down its rancid malty contents. It had been mixed with too much ullage and water to be even passable. She pulled a face.

Marcus Roland wore light tatty space armour with the sleeve component removed. His hair was grey now, although she remembered it when it was still a dark mane to catch the eye. It was long still, but it had a stringy look and was held in place by a filthy red bandana.

He too seemed to be appraising her and liking what he saw, wondered for a moment if she were the prize that he had let slip through his fingers.

“What brings you here,” he asked with a shrug.

Dale suddenly wished she hadn’t come and looked at the door.

“Business is it?” he prompted.

“Of course it is business,” she snapped angrily, “Why else?”

He made a slow expansive gesture with his arm and shrugged.

“I have two million credits worth of leather goods,” she told him.

Several customers shifted in their seats and every one of them was suddenly listening.

“Not on me of course,” she added unnecessarily.

“You want them stolen for the insurance?” he chuckled.

That was a thought, Dale considered, and averted her eyes for a beat. But no, that was too dangerous for everyone.

Seeing her frown he coughed in bad humour and responded with the lie, “I was joking.”

“I want you to find a buyer,” she replied at last.

Marcus began to laugh now, a humourless laugh that went on too long until some others back in the shadows joined him it.

“They can be had for half-a-million with a 10 percent commission going to you out of my end,” she told him.

The laughter stopped.

“And why would you sell two million credits worth of leather goods for just a quarter of their value?” Marcus asked; his voice gathering charm now and becoming more silky than dry.

“That is my business, but it’s legal and profitable and you stand to make on the deal,” Dale said sharply. “I am interested in a quick sale but I have other options: Maelstrom for one.”

Marcus tossed the situation around in his head, although outwardly he put on a bored expression. If he could arrange storage then he could afford to wait for a profit, he decided, but could Dale? He guessed not. Anyway, just then he was more interested in Maelstrom; that suggested other possibilities.

“I might be able to do something in time,” he said reluctantly as he made a see-saw motion with his hand, “But tell me about Maelstrom, your next port of call is it?”

*

Outside in the bleak orange gloom of the growing night Captain Dane sat in the shadows outside scanning the drinking-house with his optics. The overlay showed the positions of everyone in the bar, which complete with an analytical data feed in a virtual heads-up display, gave him a solid idea what was going on. The only drawback was that he couldn’t hear all of the conversation but it was clear that some kind of deal was being struck and it concerned Maelstrom and a payment of half a million credits; no small chunk of change.

According to the display, which could decipher crude mood swings, Dale was tense, but the other target was well-pleased it would seem. The man was known to him as a secondary target, one Marcus Roland, a smuggler and a one-time pirate who had eluded the authorities both here and on Little Sister. There were great big holes in the security files concerning this man and his connection with Dale Hanson. However information from an informant and three different historical ship’s manifests confirmed that Roland had once been a senior crew member of the Ad Astra and had served with Dale back in the bad old days.

As Dane watched Marcus Roland handed Dale an encrypted data chip and they shook hands. Suddenly the captain felt sick, until then he had allowed himself to assume that Dale Hanson had put the bad old days behind her. Although intelligence had estimated that she might make contact with her old allies at a pinch, Dane had hoped that she would trust him and that that aspect of the operation would be a dead end. Well now damn the woman, she had made her bed, he cursed silently. Why did it bother him so?

*

Dale didn’t bother with the rest of her drink and tucked the cylindrical thumb-sized data chip into her pocket and made to leave.

“So soon,” Marcus rasped, but he didn’t hold her as he laughed. Nevertheless there was a hint of sadness in his eyes, a vulnerability Dale had never seen before, not in all those years.

“Goodbye Marcus,” she said quietly.

“Dale,” Marcus rasped as she turned to go, “How is she?”

“All the better without you,” Dale replied softly. It was a deep sigh of disappointment.

Marcus frowned for a second and then allowed himself a great guffaw, “I bet she is,” he said humourlessly.

The way back was harder in the full dark and several times she climbed into blind alleys until she wished she had used the stairs onto the Boardwalk and gone the long way around via Gremlin proper. But finally she gained the heights where she paused to take in the fire red sky. Sometimes it had a rough beauty of its own. Sometimes, but not tonight, she snorted and turned away.

To be continued



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