‘Just Business’ by Paul Stansbury

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“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.”

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