“Wolfran haunch… git yer fresh wolfran haunch right ere! Five trills a kilo… Goin fast! You won’t find no better deal this side of Kantar!” The man’s booming voice made Lorne cringe, as he made his way through the bustling market place on Amari 4. He’d always hated market day. The heaving mass of sweating bodies crammed inside a sweltering space — fit for around only half their number — made his skin crawl and his head ache fiercely.
If only Eddie would move with the times and get himself a decent relocator! But then, Eddie was a Vulg, and Vulg’s were a notoriously skittish species; technology really wasn’t in their wheelhouse. Even something as low tech as a simple cell regenerator, was looked on with an overwhelming degree of suspicion and distrust. Lorne had even brought up the idea of moving into the relocation racket on a couple of occasions, but Eddie had just shut him down cold, saying that he had no intention of handing himself to the enforcers on a silver platter. It was ridiculous! Everyone and their cousin, from Amari 4 to Iridion, knew that, although the enforcers monitored all on-world transportation signals, relocators worked on a completely different principle. They were nigh on untraceable — even if you somehow managed to get your hands on the source machine.
“Damned Vulgs!” Lorne muttered to himself, rolling his eyes as he squeezed his way past yet another overflowing cart — fresh fish this time… at least that’s what the badly scrawled and misspelt sign claimed. Personally, Lorne had his doubts. The ripe smell made his stomach churn, as the day-old bagel, which had the audacity to try and call itself ‘breakfast,’ threatened to make a final curtain call. He bit it back, the acidic taste in his mouth only adding fuel to the fire of his irritation.
“To hell with Eddie! If I had any sense, I’d just cut ties with the odious little scum-sucker once and for all!” The words should have made him feel better, but they fell short… mainly because they rang about as hollow as an Urok’s skull.
Eddie was a lot of things – most of which would turn a man’s stomach more so than invite a closer acquaintance – but there was one thing that Eddie was not… and that was a liar. Ignorant and repulsive, yes, but if he said he would hook a guy up, then the little sack of black-hearted bile would do just that… so long as there was enough ready trill in the exchange to make it worth his time, of course.
He needed Eddie… or, rather, he needed what Eddie had. That didn’t mean that he couldn’t curse the stars above, that the repulsive little Vulg just happened to be the one person on this godforsaken rock who’d manage to get his grubby little claws on one!
It was sheer luck alone, which saved his ass as he ducked into the alleyway entrance to Eddie’s black-market dive… well, that and the superior might of the renegade bagel, which chose that same moment to forcefully insist that they part company.
With a groan, Lorne staggered over to the stack of broken crates, which littered one side of the narrow, cobbled walkway and noisily launched his partially digested breakfast into the overflowing refuse channel which ran sluggishly along its length. The barely moving wastewater disappeared into a storm-drain just outside of the doorway to Eddie’s shop — a doorway which was, at that very moment, belching out what seemed like an endless stream of hard-faced, chorium-plated enforcers.
Lorne would have tried to slip back out into the crowd, which was still jammed together like red-faced sardines in the main drag, but apparently the bagel wasn’t quite done with him yet.
“What do we have here then?” One of the men said, walking over to where Lorne was leaning miserably against the slime-covered wall. “Just anuva ‘skaghead’, Sir. Damned place is crawling wiv em. Magister needs reportin ta the top brass if yer ask me…”
“…but I didn’t ask you, did I, Oiler?” The commanding officer’s words were somewhat refined, hinting at a high-born past perhaps — in Lorne’s experience, those ones were the worst; sadistic devils to a man. He also kept his tone smooth and low, but there was no missing the underlying threat in them. He had witnessed the reality of that threat one more time than he’d ever wished to. The man called Oiler gulped audibly and fell silent.
Lorne kept his head firmly lowered; he couldn’t chance being recognised by one of the men. He had sworn to himself more than a decade ago that he’d never surrender to what the enforcers termed ‘justice’ ever again — not while he still had breath left in his body. The enforcers liked to pretend that they were ‘guardians of the allied planets,’ but all they really were, were a group of corrupt mercenaries. These days, it wasn’t even all that clear if the powers that be had hired these crooks, or if the enforcers had just amassed enough dirt on them, to keep them firmly in their place and not asking any questions. Lorne was betting on the latter.
“Is Oiler right?” The commanding officer grabbed his shoulder and forced Lorne round to face him.
“Sorry, sir, I… I’m just sick.” The man clearly wasn’t buying his show of humility, and he reached a gauntleted hand down to grasp Lorne’s chin, clearly intending to force his head up so he could get a proper look at him. He had to act fast! Only he had no idea what to do. He was outnumbered by at least six to one, and that was if there were no more of the hulking psychopaths still inside.
“Sir… please, I… I…” He stuttered, stalling for time and trying to play into Oiler’s insulting assessment of him being just another skag-addled waster. The commanding officer growled under his breath, patience nearly at an end when the gods decided to smile down on Lorne for the second time that day. The tepid breeze changed direction, bringing the foul stench of fermenting fish along with it. Within moments it had engulfed them.
Several things happened at once; Oiler bent over double, coughing and choking. The commanding officer dropped his chin and raised his hand to his face to try and ward off the terrible smell. And Lorne, stomach heaving once again, bent double and found to his surprise that there was still some contents left in his stomach, even after his earlier argument with the stale bagel. The fact that said contents was now colourfully adorning the commanding officer’s shiny black boots was less of a blessing. It earned him a metal-fisted punch to the gut and left him lying, gasping like a beached plovak, in an unidentifiable puddle of filth on the ground.
“I think we’ve seen all we need to see here. Oiler!”
“Yessir?” Oiler smothered yet another wheezing cough, trying his best to stand to attention.
“Gather the men. I want the whole squadron back at the citadel and ready for debriefing before noon; tardiness will be met with an hour in the stockade!”
“Sir! Yessir!” Oiler choked out between another bout of uncontrollable coughing.
The commanding officer wiped his soiled boots on Lorne’s shirt, then gave him one final kick to the stomach before stomping off into the hastily departing crowd. No one gets in the way of the enforcers, not unless they want to pay with their freedom — or, in quite a few cases, their lives.
Oiler barked orders to the rest of the squadron, and they all marched from the alley without giving Lorne so much as another glance. He’d been lucky. A few moments later, he was alone again.
Clutching his abused stomach, he pushed himself painfully to his feet. If a couple of bruised ribs and a sore gut were the only take-aways from an encounter with the enforcers, then a man could count himself truly blessed. He’d never complain to the fish vendor again, that was for sure! The man’s less than hygienic practices had miraculously saved the day… or, at least, they had done so for Lorne. As he staggered through the open doorway, he couldn’t miss the fact that Eddie and his goons hadn’t been quite so lucky.
The place was absolutely coated with the distinctive blue-black sheen of oily Vulg blood. Eddie must have had guests too as there was definitely some dark purple in the mix as well — Andurian perhaps. It was impossible to tell, though. Whatever had been unleashed in here had pretty much obliterated anything it hit. A long string of stinking slime dripped down from the ceiling and landed on his shoulder. Lorne shuddered. That the enforcers had got their hands on a weapon powerful enough to do this level of ground zero damage left a sour taste in his mouth, and it sure as heck wasn’t the bile this time.
He picked his way across the gore covered floor to where the battered remnants of Eddie’s desk lay. Three of its legs were in splinters, and half of the top had gone, but one of the drawers was still intact, and Lorne held his breath as he carefully pried it open.
It contained some coffee-stained pages, a number 2 pencil, and an assortment of rather unappealing looking candies; clearly, Eddie had a sweet tooth. Other than that, the drawer was empty. Lorne’s heart sank. It wasn’t there. He’d come all this way, had his ribs kicked in, and it was all for nothing!
“Damn!” He kicked the broken desk, smiling grimly as the last remaining leg snapped off, and the whole heap crashed to the ground. It felt good to release some of his pent-up rage, so he kicked it again, harder this time.
“Damn! Damn! Damn!” The impact hurt his foot, sending pain shooting up his leg, but Lorne didn’t care. Eddie was gone. The enforcers were gone. There was no one, and nothing else left for him to take his ire out on; so, the desk was going to take his abuse for no other reason than that, other than him, it was the last thing still standing.
It could have been the fifteenth kick, or maybe the twentieth that did it — Lorne had long since lost count, focused only on the desk’s complete and utter annihilation — but suddenly there was a loud clicking sound, and something fell down from under the desk to land in the sticky mire on the floor.
Levering the desk over onto what little was left of its scarred surface, he could see that there had been some sort of hidden compartment in its underside. The small, well-concealed door was now hanging open, but still wedged inside, was a fat roll of notes and a small, velvet pouch.
Lorne’s heart skipped a beat in his chest as he carefully extracted the roll and the pouch from their hiding place. He stuffed the notes into his pocket without bothering to count them — he knew by sight alone that there had to be at least ten thousand trills there, but he had much more important things to focus on. Gingerly he undid the cord on the pouch and peered inside.
“Thank the gods,” his voice was barely an awed whisper as he reached in and plucked the unassuming, silver device from within its protective folds. He stared down at the ionic breather, feeling moisture well in his eyes. Such a tiny little thing, but it was the final key in securing his family’s freedom from this god-forsaken hell hole. Talia’s weak lungs had tied them all to this place, and to the costly medicine, which he and her mother had basically had to sell themselves into slavery in order to procure. With this little device, their savings, and Eddie’s little nest egg, he, his wife, and daughter could finally afford to leave. It looked like the slimy little Vulg had come through for him after all.
Thinking of Eddie reminded him that something else had fallen from that hidden compartment. Trying not to think about what he was sifting his hand through, he searched around in the puddle of slime until his fingers located the small cylindrical tube. Wiping it off on his already filth-stained trousers, Lorne squinted down at the writing etched on its side;
‘Dr Orris’ patented cell regeneration wand’ the small silver letters read. Lorne couldn’t suppress a grim chuckle.
“Why Eddie, you progressive, dark horse of a Vulg.” He shook his head and grinned. “I’ll just hang on to this if you don’t mind, old chap. It’s not like it would do you much good in your current state, after all.” He pocketed the device and the pouch containing the breather and walked back out into the stinking alley. Elbowing his way back out into the crush on the main street, he turned in the direction of the shipyard to book passage for his family on the first passenger ship he could find, which was heading to the outer planets.
As Lorne walked, he felt his spirits lift, and he began to whistle an upbeat tune. Perhaps market day wasn’t all that bad after all.
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