“I said, I’m coming up on the perimeter,” Vel rasped into his com. He pressed it tightly to his ear.
“Go to .he .ollag .ate , I… bribe. .he ..ard to .et you in,” crackled the speaker.
“Basset, did you say the Mollag Gate?” Vel shouted over the wind. “Say again, can’t hear a damn thing with all this noise.” Static filled his ear.
Vel turned his collar up against the chill, surging wind that whipped through the crooked, crumbling streets leading to Nova Barataria. The smuggler he bribed to bring him there had landed his space junk in the deserted old Port of Barataria. The gusts raked across the uneven pavement and rough walls of the old town, sounding like the cough of a dying man. In the relative silence between bursts, he listened for the other sound that had plagued his journey across the galaxy. It had become increasingly faint since leaving Regla 7. Now that he could not hear it or feel its icy fingers tearing at his soul, he held some hope he was free of the withering assault.
As he worked his way through the crumbling buildings, he tugged at the strap of the heavy backpack, trying to find some relief from the dull pain that soaked into his shoulders. He hoped he had understood Basset’s message.
Ahead, the thin glow of street lights reflected off the transparent dome. There, he hoped to find some relief in the light and bustle of the city. The walled perimeter loomed ahead. He followed the pavement until it disappeared under the vast Mollag entrance gate. To his left was a security station and a pedestrian turnstile entrance. Vel presented the false identification he had purchased on Regla 7. After a cursory review, the guard sneered and moved a lever, rotating the rusty turnstile halfway open, the pivot emitting a hoarse squeal. Resigned, Vel squeezed into the narrow opening, the thick tines of the turnstile poking his ribs. Once inside, the guard moved the lever ever so slightly so the squeal turned into a long, shuddering groan. Once again it stopped, leaving a narrow gap for Vel to exit.
“At least put some lube on that damned thing,” he muttered, squeezing out into a dark alley. The lights of the city bled in at the far end. The groan of the turnstile was still ringing in his head as he stepped into the market square.
Nova Barataria had been a popular port of call for freebooters for over a millennium. It served as a safe haven for those who indiscriminately plundered the weaker planetary systems too insignificant for, or resistant to, the protection of the galactic trade alliance.
Every marketplace in the galaxy had its own distinct personality. Vel found Nova Barataria’s particularly offensive. As he entered, a Dushraki butcher sliced the neck of a yowling gurang hanging by its hind tentacles from the roof of an open air stall. The animal soon fell silent as its thick blood drained into a filthy carafe. An angry knot of anxious customers swelled in the congested pathway, drawn by the pungent aroma. They clamored, like a ravenous animal, for a drink of the intoxicating fluid. Their cries reminded Vel of Tholian jackals attacking their prey. Suddenly, he felt a tug at his backpack. Fearing a brazen thief was trying to steal its contents even while it was on his back, Vel pulled his dirk and whirled around to see the laughing face of a gaunt Clodian.
Vel studied the wrinkled face. “Axolo?” he asked.
“Vel Janders, I wouldn’t drink none of that juice,” he bellowed in a high pitched voice over the din of the crowd. “Your brains won’t work right for a cycle, not to mention your innards. Come on friend, let’s find a quiet spot and get a proper drink.”
“I’m not your friend. I’m looking for Jehr Basset.”
“He’s usually over at the Blue Slug. I can take you there.” Axolo leaned in close. “Best not leave that exposed friend,” he hissed through bright fuchsia gills, motioning to Vel’s backpack. “I could hold it for you.” His voice was barely audible in the noise of the crowd.
Vel shrugged his backpack off, holding it tight against his chest. “I told you, I’m not your friend. I’ll hang on to it, if you don’t mind.”
“Just trying to help,” soothed Axolo. Turning, he pushed into the throng.
Vel fell in behind his gaunt companion. They walked along makeshift streets lined by cobbled stalls where merchants hawked their wares to the desperate and displaced. Strange hands pushed back as he squeezed through the rabble. The odor of vomit and spice filled his nostrils. The cacophony of the market habitués was deafening, pounding inside Vel’s head until he thought his skull would burst.
Finally, they arrived at the grimy drinker at the far side of the square. Axolo stepped aside and motioned for Vel to go inside. Just then the door flew open, hinges squawking in protest, nearly knocking them to the ground. A squat Kroyn stumbled out. Axolo quickly grabbed the door with a bony hand and motioned Vel inside. The dimly lit room was packed with denizens in varying states of stupor. Many languished on the cushions that ringed the walls, while others teetered at the bar or slumped at tables. Music blared, almost drowning out the din of arguments and laughter. The cacophony jangled inside Vel’s head, torturing his already raw nerves.
“Back there,” Axolo said, pointing to an alcove at the far end.
Vel walked carefully through the jumble of tables, not wanting to provoke any of the revelers. Reaching the opening, he hesitated, wondering if Basset was there or Axolo had some mischief in mind. Vel lowered a hand to his dirk.
“Go on Janders. If I had wanted to do something, you’d be dead by now. Basset hasn’t got all night,” sneered Axolo, nudging Vel forward.
A door within slid open. Axolo shoved Vel in the back, causing him to stumble forward into the room. The door slapped shut behind. At an ornate desk in the corner of the sumptuously appointed room, sat Jehr Basset. An attractive young female, dressed only in jewelry, reclined next to him, holding the end of his golden chibouk. He took a puff.
“Come in, Vel,” said the pale lump of a man, exhaling a plume of blue smoke, “or should I call you by that name on the fake identification in your pocket? What is it? Gom Flant? Must be. That’s the name I gave to the guard. Not very friendly, is he?”
“And you can take your hand off that knife,” said Basset. “We fellow Earthers must look out for one another, wouldn’t you agree?” He motioned to the woman who took the chibouk and disappeared through a door behind Basset.
“Yes,” conceded Vel.
“Yes,” repeated Basset, “indeed.” For a moment, he studied the rangy freebooter, who displayed a barely perceptible, yet definite, haggard look around the eyes. “The name Vel Janders,” Basset continued, “used to belong to one of the best freebooters in the galaxy. Looks like things have changed. Fallen on hard times? Come sit down and tell me what’s going on. How about a glass of water? It’s real, from a glacier in the mountains high above the city, not like that reclaimed stuff they strain through an old sock and sell out on the street.” He filled a cup from a crystal pitcher and slid it across the table.
“Don’t put yourself out,” said Vel, releasing his grip on the dirk. He settled into a chair across the table, dropping his backpack to the floor. Reaching forward, he grabbed the cup and gulped the water down.
Basset leaned back in his chair. “How long has it been, Vel? Six or seven earth cycles? Let me see.” He paused as if in thought before continuing. “Oh yes, you were hightailing it out of Daglos 4, leaving me to face the Grand High Commissioner. I thought you and I had an agreement.”
“I felt the need to renegotiate. Just business, Jehr. You understand. From the look of things, you did okay. You’ve put on a few pounds, got some shiny things to keep you company. From the look of things, I’d wager you aren’t eating at any of those stalls in the Market.”
“You would be correct in that assumption. And yes, I suppose it was just business. But enough of reminiscing, I’m interested in current events. Arriving under the cover of darkness in a grimy space junk. What happened to the Kuró Maru? I loved that ship.” “Sold it and my name to the new Vel Janders on Regla 7. Got just enough to pay for new identification credentials and for passage here.”
“Too bad. Had you brought it here,” said Basset, “I would have surely paid you more.” He paused, eying Vel. “So what can I do for you? I know. Perhaps you are in the hunt for a lustomaton, the young lady who was just here is one of my new models. They’re cleaned and serviced regularly.”
“I didn’t come here for a galbot,” barked Vel.
“Basset, I need to get out of here.”
“So soon?” asked Basset, feigning surprise. “And we only just started to rekindle old friendships. Axolo will be disappointed.”
“I’m serious, Jehr.”
“I heard rumors of an incident on Hax. You weren’t mixed up in that, were you? One shouldn’t get at cross purposes with Haxans. As I understand it, they lean toward the occult. I hear they can be quite tenacious and nasty, resorting to maleficia, when it comes to retribution for transgressions.”
“I don’t have time for chit chat.”
“I do,” said Basset, leaning forward. His tone had turned serious. “I heard an important religious artifact was stolen. Know anything about that?”
“I was there to barter for some Galowi. As you well know, there are certain collectors across the galaxy who will pay handsomely for rare animals and Galowi are popular among them. While drinking joukjouk with my suppliers…”
“I believe the proper term is poachers,” Basset interrupted.
“…they began talking about the Śarīra.”
“The Śarīra. I thought that was a myth,” said Basset. “Isn’t it purported to be a crystalline sphere found among the cremated ashes of Tala, the first god-empress of Hax, endowed with…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah and so on. At first, I thought it was the joukjouk talking, but they swore it was real. So like any good freebooter, I dared them to show it to me.”
“I followed them through the jungle outside the city, wondering if they intended to kill me and divvy up the spoils. We arrived at a sheer rock face that towered at least 500 meters above the forest. A narrow set of carved stairs switchbacked upward into the dark. They refused to go any further so I continued alone.
“Aren’t you the brave one,” taunted Basset.
“About halfway up, the stairs flattened into a small ledge, leading to an entrance chiseled into the rock face. It wasn’t much more than a hole surrounded by a few crude carvings. I went in, feeling my way along the twisted passage until it opened into a large chamber. It was filled an undulating light emanating from an altar at the back.
“At once, I knew the Śarīra was the source. A mesmerizing chant breathed by a thousand unseen voices filled my head. In the flickering glow, the carved statues lining the walls seemed to sway in perfect unison.”
“So you snatched up the bauble?” asked Basset. “I thought you had better sense than that. I had you pegged as more of a genteel trader in the grey commodities market than an out-and-out tomb raider.”
“All that stuff in the cave had me thinking crazy,” Vel said, smiling. “I thought I could get away with it.”
“And how did that work out for you?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time. But here I am sitting here with you. What do you think?”
“You tell me,” said Basset.
“Something started dogging me after I left Hax. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it, I could feel it. A horrible voice wailing inside my head, sometimes faint, sometimes thundering. It made me feel like something was crushing my soul.”
“I didn’t think freebooters had souls,” said Basset.
“Well as for you, that could be entirely the case.”
“As I was saying, no matter how fast or how far I went, it was always screaming always squeezing.”
“Sounds to me, no pun intended, like the Haxans conjured up a haunter to sing your sins.”
“Whatever it was, I lost it on Regla 7 when I sold my name and the Kuró Maru. My guess is the haunter-thing followed the scent of the few Galowi I had left in the hold.”
“Plausible. And just what is it you want from me?” asked Basset.
“A new identity, passage to a free port and enough credits to get me back on my feet. All free from the scrutiny of the galactic trade alliance, of course.”
“You don’t want much, do you.”
“Should be easy for someone with your resources,” said Vel.
“A new identity? Didn’t you just buy one?”
“I don’t fancy embarking on a new career as Gom Flant. I need something a little more punch. I was thinking of something like Gunder Maks.”
“It’ll cost you.”
“Well, I’ve used up most of my credits…”
“Then it sounds like you’re out of luck. Maybe you can muck out some butcher stalls in the Market until you save up enough,” laughed Basset.
“… but, as I was going to say before you interrupted, I might have something…” Vel reached into his back pack and pulled out an object wrapped in cloth.
“Don’t pull anything smart,” warned Basset.
Vel set the object on the table, letting the cloth fall away. Immediately, the room was flooded in light. Basset drew in a deep breath as he gazed in wonder at the Śarīra.
“…left of value to trade,” finished Vel. “You interested?”
“So it’s true.”
“Of course. Now, how about it?”
“Why not put it on the market yourself?”
“This is all I have left,” Vel said, pointing to the Śarīra, “after spending all my credits getting here. As it was, I was running on fumes when I got to Regla 7. It took every credit I received from the sale of my old name and the Kuru Maru to buy a new identity and secure passage here on that space junk. I don’t have the resources to market it myself.”
“Why did you come here?” asked Basset.
“Thought I’d cut you in for old times sake.”
“More likely, this was the only place you could go where the galactic trade alliance wouldn’t arrest you on sight.”
“Does it matter?” asked Vel.
“Mighty risky, this Śarīra business. Wouldn’t want a haunter-thing, as you call it, singing in my ear.”
“I told you, I lost it on Regla 7. Haven’t heard the faintest trace of it here. With your connections, you’ll find a buyer and be counting your credits in no time. You should realize a tidy profit, if I am guessing right about what you are going to offer me.”
Basset leaned back in his chair, staring intently at the Śarīra. “I will make one non-negotiable offer. No conversation, take it or leave it.”
“In exchange for the Śarīra, I will provide passage on my private transport to a free port of my choosing. There, one hundred thousand credits, untraceable and accepted anywhere in the galaxy, as well as your new identity will be waiting. Do you accept?”
Vel sat silent for a few moments. Knowing Basset had him over a barrel, he muttered, “Yes.”
* * *
The transport was ready to lift off when Basset’s face appeared on the comscreen. “You’ll be pleased to know I’ve already found a taker for the Śarīra.”
“You’ll be lucky to be rid of it,” spat Vel. “Now can we get this tub on its way?”
“…and tell you there has been a slight change of plans. You’ll be sharing the ride with another passenger.”
“No! We had an agreement,” Vel growled.
“Of course we did, but I decided to renegotiate. You should understand that. Just business, you know.”
“You bastard,” hissed Vel, frantically searching the control console.
“Don’t waste your energy,” said Basset, “everything’s been preprogrammed. You can’t change anything. You’ll leave as soon as your trip companion arrives.”
“When will that be?” huffed Vel. “The sooner I’m rid of Nova Barataria, the better.”
“Just about now,” answered Bassett, as the airlock door hissed open. “Oh, by the way, the first stop is Hax.” A thin, spectral figure, clasping the Śarīra in its withered hands, stepped inside. The airlock slapped shut as the transport lurched upward
“No! You can’t do this,” screamed Vel, but his words were drowned out by the haunter’s shrieking.
Paul Stansbury is a life long native of Kentucky. He is the author of Inversion – Not your Ordinary Stories and Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections as well as a novelette: Little Green Men? His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Now retired, he lives in Danville, Kentucky.