Authors: Peter Grant
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Adventure
Take The Star Road
By Peter Grant
Copyright © 2013 Peter Grant. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any semblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Cover art by Luca Oleastri - http://www.innovari.it/
Cover image supplied by Dreamstime - http://www.dreamstime.com
Cover design by Oleg Volk - http://www.olegvolk.net
This book is dedicated with love to my wife, Dorothy.
Part One: First Steps
Chapter 1: January 18th, 2837 GSC
Steve slotted the literstein into the last open space on the tray, slid it into the dishwasher, and closed and latched the door. As the machine rattled and shuddered into life and the hiss and rumble of pressurized water jets began again, he grabbed the next empty tray.
"What's the hold-up? Where's the next load?"
"Look at the clock!" Frank retorted tiredly, leaning against the wall. "It's just gone three-thirty. They're closing up."
Steve sighed, put down the tray and leaned against the wall next to his co-worker, shoulders slumping as he rubbed his burning eyes. "About time, too - I ache all over! Feels like I've been working non-stop for a week, not just this evening."
"Yeah." Frank pushed himself away from the wall, turning towards the racks where the rest of the service staff were returning their protective gear, tossing their sweat- and water-stained utility coveralls into the laundry chute, and retrieving their street clothes. "Your turn for the final cleanup out front, isn't it?" he asked over his shoulder.
"Yeah, it's my turn. See you next weekend."
His boss found him in the bar-room, returning tables, chairs and stools to their proper places as robotic sweepers and scrubbers maneuvered carefully between them. He looked at the young man for a moment, nodding in approval. Steve was about a hundred eighty centimeters, lithe and trim, dressed in a utility coverall that had seen better days, but had been scrupulously clean and pressed when he arrived for work the previous evening. His brown hair topped eyes of the same hue, set beneath heavy eyebrows in a lean, youthful face.
"Been a long night, hasn't it, Steve?"
"Yes, it has, Mr. Brackmann. Hope we made enough money to make it worthwhile."
"Yeah, we did. In fact, last night should show you just why operating a saloon up here is such a profitable business. Notice how many merchant spacers came in? There must be several new ships in orbit. Most spacers don't have time to visit the planet - they've got to get their drinking done quickly here at the Cargo Terminal, before their ships leave. They're always thirsty, and most of 'em pay in hard currency."
Steve's eyes brightened. "Maybe one of the ships will have an apprentice berth open! I'll have to check the job postings at the Exchange."
The older man sighed. "Don't get your hopes up too high. There are only so many entry-level berths available, and hundreds - no,
- of wannabe spacers chasing each one of 'em. A lot are already qualified - at least on paper - through vo-tech school. Most junior berths go to people who'll bribe the Bosun, either up front or with part of their salary for their first year of service. You won't do that, 'cause you're honest and you've got pride. I like that in a man - hell, it's why I hired you! - but it's gonna make finding an apprentice slot a lot more difficult for you."
"I guess it will, Sir; but this whole damn planet seems to revolve around bribery, dishonesty, and clawing your way up over other people to get what you want, no matter what that costs them. I don't ever want to become that kind of man, Sir."
Louie couldn't help a wry, cynical smile. "You never know. You might get lucky." He glanced around. "The others have already gone. Finish up as quick as you can, then I'll pay you and we can both get some sleep."
Louie busied himself at the bar computer, checking the night's liquor consumption and making sure that his automated system had already placed orders with the wholesalers to have replacement supplies delivered later that morning. Satisfied, he looked up to find Steve approaching the bar.
"Yes, Mr. Brackmann."
As they walked to the double batwing doors, the saloon-keeper glanced around at Steve's work, nodding in approval. He took out his wallet and counted out three hundred neodollars, hesitated, then added a hundred more. "You worked hard this weekend, and did a real good job. That's worth a bonus."
Steve accepted the money. "Thanks, Mr. Brackmann. I appreciate it."
The older man took an electronic key-tag from his pocket, and prepared to close the sliding security doors concealed within the frame of the saloon entrance. "See you next Friday."
"I'll be here, Boss."
Steve turned to walk towards the flophouse where he was staying. He glanced at a cleaning van on the far side of the broad passageway in front of the saloon, and frowned. Why was it here in the Terminal's Entertainment Alley during the small hours of a Monday morning, instead of in its proper parking place in the sanitation department's workspace?
He hadn't gone a dozen steps before the passage exploded into action. Six short, stocky, well-muscled men burst from inside the van. They all carried knives or swords. He heard Louie yell with surprise as four of them rushed towards him, while two others positioned themselves to block interference from either direction. The nearest spat at Steve's feet, hefting a long, single-edged backsword. "Get out of here, you! This is none of your affair!"
Time seemed to drop into slow motion as Steve responded instinctively, beyond thought. He grabbed one of the decorative fake lanterns hanging in front of the saloon, ripped it bodily from its mounting, spun around, and hurled it at the speaker. The man let out a startled squawk and tried to duck, but the hard-flung missile smashed into his ear, glass shattering, drawing instant blood. He yelped in pain, releasing his sword with one hand to clutch at his head.
Steve didn't give him time to recover. He followed his throw, moving in at top speed, and launched a violent whiplash frontal snap kick, his toes driving into the bladesman's groin. He felt something pop squishily beneath the hard cap of his work shoes. The man screamed, his weapon dropping unheeded to the floor as he clutched himself and began to fall. Steve followed up his kick with a punch to the man's jaw as he passed him. He didn't dare slow down, not against so many attackers. Speed and violence were his - and Louie's - only hope.
He raced towards his boss, heart pounding in his chest, breath rasping in his throat. Louie kicked out frantically as he reached beneath his waistcoat, felling one of his four attackers with a strike to the knee, but then the others were upon him. They slammed into him in a tight group, getting in each others' way in their eagerness, none of them able to launch a clean blow at their intended victim. Louie grunted with pain as he was shoved violently into the frame of the batwing doors, his head hitting a protruding hinge, blood spurting. He abandoned his attempt to reach beneath his waistcoat, using both hands to defend himself against the remaining three men.
One of them whirled to face Steve, launching a roundhouse slash with a thick, stubby knife. Steve tried to halt his forward rush, swinging to one side, but couldn't avoid the blow altogether. The tip of the blade sliced along his forearm, opening a long, shallow cut through his coverall into his flesh. His sleeve instantly turned red as blood began to flow. Steve swore at the sting of the blade. His opponent shouted triumphantly, reversed his stroke and slashed back in the other direction - but in doing so he over-extended himself. He was off-balance for a vital split-second.
Steve swayed back to evade the second blow, then lunged forward as the blade passed, grabbing the man's knife-arm with his left hand, pulling him forward to meet his right as he snapped it out in a
backfist strike. He turned his wrist, clenching his fist so that the base knuckle of his middle finger stood out prominently, and slammed it at full force into the attacker's upper lip. His opponent's head snapped back, a strangled, gargling gasp torn from his lips, face twisting in agony as Steve's blow crushed the nerve center beneath his nose. He collapsed to the floor as limply as if he'd been filleted.
While Steve dealt with the third man, Louie had seized the wrists of one of the two men confronting him, trying to prevent him stabbing or slashing with his long-bladed knife while using his body as a shield against the other attacker, who was carrying twin short, stubby
butterfly swords. He hissed in frustration as his blows were blocked, forcing him to pull them rather than impale his own man. He yelled to the sentinel on the far side of the fight, using a language Steve didn't understand, and the man whirled and ran towards them.
As he did so, the attacker Louie was holding managed to get his knife-hand free and struck wildly at the saloon-keeper, who dodged to one side. The blade scraped along the fake wood-grain paint scheme on the steel door-frame, leaving a scratch - but his sudden, violent evasive action made Louie lose his balance. He slipped and fell, and the bladesman screeched in triumph.
Now you - "
His words ended in a gurgle of pain as Steve kicked him viciously over the kidneys, slamming him bodily into the door-frame, his head bouncing off the steel with an audible
He staggered back and tried to turn, but was clearly dazed, and got tangled up in Louie's feet as he tottered unsteadily.
Steve dived to one side as the assailant with the
blades spun around and slashed at him. He rolled on one shoulder as he snatched up a long, thin stiletto dagger dropped by the man Louie had kicked, and rebounded to his feet. As he did so Louie thrust the stumbling attacker away from him. Steve lashed out at him with the hilt of the knife in his hand, its protruding ball pommel crunching into his skull, producing a vicious cracking sound and leaving a visible indentation. He dropped like a stone as Louie reached beneath his waistcoat once more, bringing out a small black pistol.
The attacker with the
swords yelled something, then whirled and fled down the passage. The approaching sentinel reversed direction and joined him, both dodging and twisting from side to side to present the most difficult target possible. Steve instinctively started after them.
NO! Come back here!"
The saloon-keeper's shouted command stopped him in his tracks as the two men vanished into a side alley. He looked back, panting, frowning in disbelief. "You're going to let them go?"