Robert Appleton

Adventures in Science Fiction

Sparks in Cosmic Dust Excerpt #2

 
 

Chapter Two


Leaving Pure Shores

 

Downing shots of Buddy Holly whisky at the least visible corner of the bar at the quietest hour of the night was just fine for Clay. Few had looked up when he’d entered Pure Shores by its side entrance, everything he owned tucked under his arm in an expensive shrink-carrier hidden under a dirty brown plastic bag. He didn’t eye the other barflies and they didn’t bother him. The most he’d said to a soul in three weeks was “How much for a room for the night?” or his most-repeated line in the streets of Kappa Max, “Paw me again, you die.”


Like most stragglers on the asteroid, Clay was engaged in a waiting game that sapped hope and self-esteem. Ever since the Interstellar Planetary Administration had announced it was shrinking its frontier to one hundred light-years—a measure taken for ISPA to efficiently police and therefore tax the deep-space traders who’d enjoyed free rein beyond the government’s eyes and ears for too long—the distant outposts like Kappa Max had begun their steady disassemblies. In six months, trading of any kind past 100z carried serious legal reprisals.


Clay gripped the grimy brass rail circumferencing the bar, steadying himself on his stool, while the latest exodus shuttle blasted off the asteroid.


Once a thriving oasis for haulers, prospectors, privateers, fugitives, miners and border aliens, the settlement had spun, quite literally, out of control. A passing super-comet had nudged the nearest gas giant, F. Mulanslightly off its orbit, and the knock-on effect on the planet’s moons had in turn affected the Kappa asteroid belt, of which Kappa Max was the biggest. This new rotation, wild though it was, hadn’t really affected the settlement beyond an increase in natural gravity, actually saving the financiers a little in artificial-grav costs. The real catastrophe had been wrought the day after ISPA’s decree, when razor-like government sanctions had shorn the settlement of all investors, threatening audits, baring this nefarious enterprise to its naked parts.


Pencil-neck pricks.


Clay needed a shuttle back to 100z, to one of the official border colonies. But he couldn’t afford the exorbitant fares charged by profiteering pilots. Like most of the stragglers here, he’d have to work odd jobs, scrape together food money, and wait for the government transports—the clear-out boats—to take him back in six months’ time. Packed in like squared-away syntho-meat. He shuddered, shifted position on his stool. Six months to wait for that? He cocked his ear to the unlikely lilt of gentleman jazz coming from the jukebox. Far too cultured for a suck-bait dive like Pure Shores. The notion intrigued him.


He scanned the room for signs of intelligent life. Who in here had taste? He hadn’t heard Glenn Miller’s jazz since…before the nightmares.


A young woman caught his eye right off the bat. Too tall but nicely stacked in a very old-fashioned sort of way. Roundish face with pretty Eurasian features, freckles, large breasts with tantalizing white cleavage. And Clay had always liked wide hips on a woman, despite—or perhaps because of—the modern trend for slender figures. She would never make a Selene model but she lit the room nonetheless. Her fidgeting glance tugged nervously at him, as though she wanted him to make the first move but knew she’d have to do the honors herself.


First impression? She was sweet and out of her element, a little desperate.


Clay almost got up to walk over, put her out of her misery, ask to buy her a drink, but he hadn’t had a conversation in so long, let alone sweet-talked a girl. He thumbed his tab button for an auto-refill instead, waited for the spout to spit Buddy Holly, then downed another shot.


Oh, Christ. He fingered his unkempt fringe down over his face and jammed her into his peripheral vision while she approached him. Here we go. Hers was an awkward stride, graceless despite her best efforts. A tin man roused in his seat when she passed, while a trio of gobshites near the main entrance huddled together across their table, nodding in her direction. They’d better just be ogling.


“E-excuse me,” she began, her neck, cheeks and the tips of her ears flushing bright red.


Clay brushed his fringe away from his eyes. “Hi.”


A snatched breath, which she held, seemed to steel the poor girl a little. “Hi. I was just wondering…can I sit with you?”


“Um, sure. Have a seat.”


Too much makeup and a choppy tide of nerves trembling her hands and goosing her skin seemed to confirm his suspicion. She was after snagging a man for the big exodus, and this was all a desperate act to get him back to her room. A young single girl in lawless deep space had few options. Most of them involved selling her body in one enterprise or another. Her biggest concern was protection—under whose would she be safest, and what did she have to do to ensure it?


Clay shivered warmly. Of all the dregs on Kappa Max, she’d chosen him. Perhaps he looked a little kinder, a little less screwed than the sleaze-heavers around him.


But still screwed nonetheless.


“Clayton Barry. Clay,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”


She smiled, her wide mouth remaining conspicuously tight-lipped. What didn’t she want him to see? “I’m Lyssa Foaloak.”


“Nice name. Nice…everything.”


Again she smiled, this time parting her quivering, glazed red lips. Not bad teeth. But this exchange was clearly agony for her, and she’d summoned so much courage to walk over here.


“What music do you like?” he asked. Maybe that would set her at ease.


“I…you’re listening to it.”


“You like early jazz?” He arched an eyebrow, looked her up and down.


Lyssa nodded. “It’s like fingertips dancing over my body. It always makes me want to undress.”


Such a fake, rehearsed line, yet it fit the repartee perfectly and made him want to offer her his coat and smuggle her off Kappa Max immediately. Under the slutty veneer, there was something so sweet and pathetic and guileless about this girl, he found himself looking forward to being lured, to how she’d go about luring him, and to how long he could draw out this back and forth.


“You make an impression, Lyssa. Buy you a drink?”


“Thank you. I’ll have a Snake Mountain.” Single Arinto liqueur poured on cream ice—the optical effect resembling coffee pythons slithering down through the cubes—was a teenager’s drink.


“I used to have those when I was your age,” he lied.


“How old do you think I am?”


“Nineteen? Twenty?” He secretly guessed at twenty-seven. Her palms were rough, and even copious eye-shadow couldn’t hide the beginnings of wrinkles fanning from the edges of her eyes, the cumulative effect of years of insufficient sleep and long hours of hard manual work.


She didn’t answer, instead twitched another smile and held him in a twinkling, appreciative stare.


“Thirty-three, in case you’re wondering,” he said.


“Where you from, Clay?”


“Jag…” He checked himself, remembering his new identity. “Borodin. Haven’t seen it since I was little. You?”


“I was born nebula,” she said, meaning her mother had given birth to her in transit, in the nebulousness of deep space. “So returning to my roots involves a warp engine and a window that never needs cleaning from outside. But at least I never feel homesick. All I need to do is look up.”


Clay liked her immediately. Now that she’d settled her nerves, this promised to be a fun acquaintance. Until she showed her dark side, that was, the broken parts that everyone drawn to deep space invariably had.


“You here on your own?” he asked.


“Hmm?”


He downed another Buddy Holly. “On this rock, I mean. You…you know…with anybody?”


“Would I be sitting here if I was?”


He shrugged. “Sorry, just thought I’d check. You know how it is.” Her blink confirmed that she didn’t. “All right, so what now, Lyssa Foaloak?”


“That depends.”


“On what?”


“On how good you are in bed.”


Wow, he had to hand it to her. From pigtails to dominatrix with one Snake Mountain. Whatever next? He stroked his stubble. 

“After you.” Flirting had never been this easy before, not without money on the table.


Clay glimpsed the three gobshites standing backs to the bar at the entrance. One of them turned, dropped something on purpose, studying Clay and Lyssa as he picked it up, then beckoned the others to leave. Red flag. During his months on the lam in gutter colonies, Clay had grown accustomed to situations like this. Sneak thieves and gang rapists, even press gangs for illegal mining syndicates tended to scout for their prey in bars, then wait outside. About as original as a shack-sheik with a harem.


His instinct told him he’d been right about Lyssa the first time—she just wanted a guarantor, a protector to take her safely off-world and back to civilization. But what if she was in cahoots with them? What if she’d been forced into seducing him? That would also explain her nerves and her desperation. In times like these, money could persuade anyone to do anything. Would the bastards be waiting for him in her hotel room?


“What do you want from me?” he snapped.


Startled, she managed, “What do you mean? I—”


“Cut the shit, lady. You want something from me. What is it? A ticket off this rock? The shrapnel in my wallet? What?”


She glared, blinked and dropped her shoulders. Her lip trembled and she looked ready to sob. Clay was about to apologize when she whipped her right hand up and slapped him across the face. The impact knocked him off his stool.


“Fuck you,” she spat.


His cheek smarted like hell, but he knew he deserved it. The filly was a viper with pride. He held out his hand, hoping she’d help him up. His contrite nod did the trick, and she supported him to his feet.


“I’m sorry, Lyssa. I just had to make sure, that’s all.”


“’S okay.” She stretched her skin-tight tank top to cover her navel. “I guess I did come on rather strong. It’s not every day a cute guy breezes through here. Seemed wrong not to at least try.”


“But you are after a partner, right? To get away from here? Minimum obligations?”


She shrugged, then flicked him a hopeful glance. “I guess. Wouldn’t be upfront to say otherwise.”


“You got anything saved up? For the ticket?”


“Some. Nothing like enough. You?”


Clay inched away from her, tightened his biceps against the package under his arm. “Same here. Not near the bullshit they’re asking.” Her despondent shrug ignited in him the same protective urge he’d felt during her pigtails entrance. He wanted to wrap her in his warmest coat. Instead, he reached out and clasped her small but calloused hands in his. “I have an idea, though.”


“Oh?”


“It might be dangerous.”


The corner of her mouth curled wryly. “Show me something here that isn’t.”


Clay didn’t have a plan beyond getting her back to his hotel room, see where things went from there. He plucked a full octagonal credit disc from his pocket and fed it into the tab slot. A few seconds later, the machine spat out a hot quadrangle half the size—the same disc but clipped, his change, the only petty cash he had left. “Shall we?” He offered Lyssa his arm and escorted her out.


The musty green street was slick with runoff moisture from the smashed greenhouse farther up the road. Moss now spread from every groove and aperture at street level. Three parallel gouges in the asphalt made by the dragging of something massive across town—most likely an old shuttle fuselage—had all but ruined the lane as a throughway for traffic. Further signs that Kappa Max was entering its final stages of decrepitude.


A gang of trench-coat traders loitered outside the burned-out pawn shop a few doors up, their collars upturned to hide their unsavory transactions. One of them turned to scowl at Clay.


Not that way.


“How about my place?” Lyssa whispered in his ear. “Might be safer.”


He patted her hand in agreement, secretly glad he wouldn’t have to show her the shit-cube he was living in. And downtown, where she seemed to be leading him, had a marginally better reputation than his neighborhood.


They dodged a roly-poly courier accelerating down Mayfair, its cargo of three crates amazingly steady inside its organic wheel posture. From planet Rurapenti in the Jaguar system, roly-polys were the quickest, safest couriers anywhere, but damned expensive. They were also hard to tame and tended to develop cabin fever easily in the cramped lanes of asteroid colonies. Invaluable for pioneer settlers, though, or so he’d heard.


“Bugger. Elevator’s out again,” Lyssa groaned at the LED message scrolling over mangled, scorched steel doors. She grabbed two toboggans from a communal rack for the steep downtown slope instead. The cliff face had been perfectly smoothed and veneered, but it wasn’t a slide for the weak of stomach.


Clay gripped the low ceiling, tested its solidity. Seemed secure. There was no more than four feet between the wood-finished slope and the silver ceiling. The slide appeared to be over a quarter kilometer wide. He copied her, crouching low, sitting in his own light metal sled with his knees tucked up.


“Last one down eats shit,” she announced on her way down, her echo already an avalanche.


He shoved his package inside his jacket and teetered over the near-vertical drop. This was insane. Another couple fell away to his left, one of them sporting a maniacal grin. He pulled himself forward by the square ground hooks on either side, said a last defiant expletive, felt his stomach knot and…leaned forward…


Hmmpf!


He was halfway down before he could gather a thought. Equidistant blue light strips on the ceiling zapped by so quickly they flickered as a single illumination. A wiry woodwind note perched high in his hearing, the only sound he heard during the descent. Warm gusts nudged his head this way and that until he leaned forward, hid his face behind his knees and loved the fleeting sensation of absolute privacy.


His mind buzzed for minutes after. Not even Lyssa’s cool downshift in demeanor dampened his spirits. Every time he glanced up, the exterior glass roof of the lower tier seemed closer and closer, the stars all within his reach.


“Through this last alley.” She guided him down the side of a nude modeling salon.


So much for Little Miss Innocent.


Two filthy-looking men wearing mining vests and knuckledusters darted out from behind a pile of discarded refuse-bots, blocking the path. A sickly laugh from behind cut short Clay’s urge to turn and run in that direction.


He back-stepped to the dented metal wall, held Lyssa to one side. His shoulders and chest rose, tautened, filled with something flammable. He didn’t have a traditional weapon to fend them off with, but if they tried anything, he wouldn’t be responsible.


“Paw either of us, you die.” He threatened to rip open his carrier.


They inched closer. One of them scraped knuckledusters along the stained metal wall. A distant steam whistle hit its crescendo and then died.


Lyssa stole out of his grip and spun away, her pale voluptuous figure so vulnerable in the hostile matrix of shadows and wire fencing.


“Stay with me. What are you doing?” He offered her his outstretched hand. “Stay close to me. If they come near us, I’ll—”


Click.


She turned and pointed a snub-nosed Webley at Clay’s chest. A short-range but powerful magno-pistol, a lethal little something she’d hidden in her smalls.


Cold shock, a jab of shame, sank him back onto his heels. Her whole bashful-virgin routine in Pure Shores, a calculated, rehearsed performance, right down to the shaking hands and twitching lips, shot molten rage through his arms.


He’d play along, pick his moment, then rip the bitch apart.


“Nothing you could have done,” she explained. “We marked you days ago, soon as we saw your tattoo.”


Clay clasped his right forearm, rubbed the sleeve’s fabric up and down, fuming at his stupidity. But what could they know about it? His escape? Surely the APB hadn’t trickled this far from the inner colonies.


“Oh, yeah? Saw a tattoo, did you? Well worth mugging a guy for, I’ve gotta say. Genius. Tell me again why you’re broke-dick.” He had to see what they knew.


Lyssa lifted her hand, stayed her goons’ angry advance. “You’re not fooling anyone, Clayton.” Her piercing hazel eyes settled on his package. “You’re carrying a Kuiper Wells tattoo, and the only Kuiper Wells operatives out this far are agents. Moles and assholes. Killers doing corporate dirty work so those Kuiper pricks can destabilize the entire frontier. So which are you? A mole or an asshole?”


“An asshole.”


She grinned and kicked an open can of soda at his shins. The pink liquid fizzed out, frothed on his boots. “We know from experience…all Kuiper assholes carry travel money.” She raised her aim to his forehead. “Where’s your lockbox, asshole?”


“Giving your dad a roof for the night.”


“Funny man. I won’t ask again.”


Clay fingered the magno-clasp inside his plastic bag, ready to fling the contents open.


“It was the flattery that did it,” she said.


“Huh?”


“Yes, you said you liked my name. I’ve always thought Lyssa Foaloak was a dumb name, like something you say when you’re drunk and puking behind a tree, but you liked it.”


He couldn’t reply. The broad wasn’t making a lick of sense.


“And that’s why I have to shoot,” she went on. “Much as I hate to do it…well, not really.” With lightning pivots she aimed and 

blasted bolts into all three goons, exploding their chests. Then she tucked her Webley back into her panty holster and said to 

Clay, “Thank you. You were great.”


Light-headed, he sank to the ground and let out the gasp he’d been holding. One long, vital sigh of relief lasted him until Lyssa reached two of the goons. When he saw her rummaging through their pockets and orifices, he yelled, “Who the fuck are you?”

She ignored him, instead collected a handful of partial credits and mineral fragments from the corpses. One goon had a gold tooth—she snatched a shard from a broken bottle and dug that out, too. When she returned, her reply sent shivers down Clay’s spine: “I’m the girl you’ve made a promise to. Don’t let me down.”


“N-no. Wouldn’t dream of it.”


“Follow me. We’re getting off this rock.”


After scrubbing his sweaty palms on his jacket, he got up and quick-walked ahead of her to the final corpse. Until he could get a handle on who this crazy broad was, he’d have to play along. If this was to be some kind of business enterprise, he’d better start pulling his weight. He checked the gobshite head to toe but found only a room key and a token for a free case of Bolshoi brandy. “Next one’s on me,” he said.


Lyssa narrowed her eyes at him, then gave an enigmatic nod. “I won’t ask you why you’re on the run. You don’t try and run out on me, ever. Clear?”


“All right. But tell me something first—what convinced you I wasn’t a Kuiper spy?”


“That’s easy.”


“How?”


“You’re not an asshole.” She took his arm, gave him a peck on the lips. “And whatever happens, fella, keep it that way.”