RED EYE was a world made worthless.
Red Eye. That dirty port world. That criminal gateway. A bad place to be on any day that ends in y. Official port of entry to the Seven Sisters.
The Lizzaar had up and abandoned Red Eye in the mere days, an exodus that began bare hours after the desperate zhee raid against the navbeacon had killed the purpose of that world. That raid had also killed a left behind a SOG operator just trying to get his team off the x. The operator’s body remained, but the Lizzaar were gone and all that was left of that battlefield-of the entire operation-was smoke and char.
Nothing could be done for firestorms of that magnitude. Nothing. The air, in the days that followed… stank of smoke, char, burning, and of course the dead.
Which is a smell one never forgets.
Red Eye was just as dead. The Lizzaar had the credits, assets, and more importantly… the ships to abandon that dying world now that the H8 trade was busted. Without that incredibly valuable navbeacon, no Orion runner would dare thread the delicate jump this side of a dangerous tumbling asteroid field and insert through atmo turbulence and mist just to put down on jungle LZs where there was no more H8 to sell.
The H8… it all got burned up too. Bad news, everyone… fun’s over.
With the Lizzaar gone, all that was left on Red Eye were useless bots, stranded citizens without the credits or ships needed to depart… and a whole lot of very desperate criminals who’d first come to work as enforcers, soldiers, and killers for the Lizzaar crime lords back in the H8 heyday.
In the days since, Red Eye became a living nightmare. A dead body, murdered and robbed, on every block. Unattended and forgotten. Power was failing. And the bars and casinos became more like armed fortresses.
When it breaks down… it breaks down.
One would think, what with the end of the H8 trade, and the jungle a smoking ruin and the end of a whole lot of lives, people wouldn’t have time for casinos and bars. But you’d be wrong. There’s a fine line between desperate gambling for a better tomorrow and the religion of forgetting there is a tomorrow. The bars were for drinking because there wasn’t much else to do as the fall winds died on Red Eye and the air got cool and dry like the bones of the dead. The rains had come early, too late to douse the fire that had burned itself out, but still early enough that what counted as “Winter” on Red Eye had been ushered in.
Not cold. Wet.
But winter is winter, as everyone says on all the worlds except frozen Parminth where it’s always cold as hell itself. And winter had definitely arrived on Red Eye.
There was an older man there on Red Eye during that early winter after the destruction and the fire. He was not… old. Really… not that old at all. He was older. To those people stranded amid the Lizzaar after the events out in the Valley where the main navbeacon array had been destroyed… he seemed old. In their casino and bar-glutted desperation, he seemed one of them, perhaps-but unluckier. He moved slower. Seemed to be injured. Those stranded didn’t think much of him, except that maybe he was one of the jump jockey freighter pilots who had no freighter to navigate out of the dense asteroid field that surrounded that violent and fetid world where the H8 trade had once flourished so grandly.
The old man moved about the ruin of a star port that would no longer see incoming traffic. Departures only. If you were lucky.
The only people on the star port’s quiet, dark streets were furtive and frantic passersby about their desperate business, heads down, hunting after rumors of some starship that still hadn’t departed. Looking for some gamble to get off-world, somewhere better, or just somewhere else. And in fact, there were some still waiting to blast off as hoard and haul were loaded aboard with a feverish intensity befitting that of worlds that had once fallen to the Savage hordes.
So maybe, these people on the otherwise dead star port streets thought, there was a berth or even just standing room for the flight to the next world. A new start where more adequate services would be available.
The old man in rough clothes limped toward the secure docks where rumors abounded. Had all the Lizzaar left, or were some still on Red Eye and holding a few docks with heavy blaster teams and elite security forces? Word was there was no entrance allowed into those areas. None at all. No one who tried it came back.
For a couple of days the old man drifted closer and closer to these off-limits areas. The killers who clustered about the off-limits high-value areas watched the loser. They thought the old guy wouldn’t have much to steal. Nothing worth killing for.
Not worth the effort. Not with how hard it was to get a charge pack re-upped. Not with everyone leaving and systems down and charge cycles going for thirty times the normal rate.
You don’t waste resources on old bums whose lives were worth less than a blaster bolt. Thus the old limping wreck was allowed to wander and pass, whereas, had it been only a few weeks before, when Red Eye was whole again, he would have been left to die in the muddy streets.
It was a gang leader named Snook Muggahand who watched the alley that led to the massive ship’s stores facility that served the star port. That ship catered replenishment kitchens within the secure docks that lay just beyond the alley, where indeed Lizzaar remained and allowed no one to enter. It was Snook and his gang of three killers waiting there-hunting there really-when the old wreck of a dude came limping down the alley, more interested in the overturned garbage cans and scattered refuse than the dangerous trap he was walking into.
Such were the times. Such were the dead.
“Issss that’a one we been seein’ around,” said one of the killers. Connor Scott. Ex-stud lifetaker in the Hullbusters. Missing an eye from a battle at Crya VI. He’d once been proud of the medals on his chest. Now he was hungry, desperate, and mean.
“Ahhh… yeah… that’s Rent-a-Freighter Cash Stallion if there ever was a guy. Nothin’ to worry ’bout with that one,” said Big Brain Bry. That’s what the cargo loaders had been calling the ex-shuttle pilot who’d lost his ride to highjackers and been stuck on Red Eye. He’s had a mean H8 habit since. In truth, he had plans. Get off-world. Get cleaned up. Maybe see if the Repub Navy would take him back.
Rent-a-Freighter Cash Stallion.
That’s what the small crews robbing people near the Lizzaars’ secure docks, a tidy little trade, had taken to calling the old ruined merc when he’d wandered into their traps and killing fields. Or just about everywhere else at some point during the long mean days of those last days on Red Eye after the crash.
And why did they call him Rent-a-Freighter Cash Stallion?
Cash Stallion was the actor who played Mister Death on the hit series. Rent-a-Freighter was a discount transport service that offered very used starships from a holo-comedy way back, the kind down to their last runs. Only those most desperate would dare to fly those rust buckets. Standing in the rental office was a sure sign that you were completely out of options. Chances of survival down to less than thirty percent. So low you were willing to chance not coming out of jump space-ever. Or if you did, that the ancient or defective navicomputers would just jump you right into a star or a rock.
Either way, your run of bad luck was over.
Their slogan was literally, “Hey, maybe you’ll make it with Rent-a-Freighter!”
And then there was this picture of the hardest luck chungo in the world, giving a thumbs-up. The kind of guy who smiles and you can’t tell if he’s crying, or laughing, but there’s a sad desperation in his eyes and the lines around them tell you that life hasn’t worked out the way he planned. But hey… he’s trying. Sket… he’s trying. Even if it means plowing right into a moon in some dead system at orders of magnitude beyond light… he’s trying. Go, Rent-a-Freighter!
That holofilm and the Rent-a-Freighter gag was still in the minds of those jump jockeys who’d seen it once when life wasn’t as bleak as it was right now. They’d seen it and the name stuck in their heads for the times when the killers near the dock had taken to tagging their potential victims with cute little nicknames to mark and track their progress during the deadly desperate days after the navbeacon went killed Red Eye’s purpose for being, unless you were a plant waiting to get growing from the burnt out jungle ash.
Nicknames like, Sweet and Pretty, if you don’t look too close.
The Parroweasel was another.
Sir No Credits was a favorite for what was clearly some credit trader in a good suit who got stranded here doing a deal and couldn’t seem to get a ride off-world. Every day, his suit got a little more torn, a little more dirty… a little more bloody. Hey, them’s the breaks.
The Chungo was another.
And of course… Rent-a-Freighter Cash Stallion.
“Just tell him to shove off if he wants to go on with jes’ the one limp,” said the third. An ex-fighter pilot. Wedge Warford. Wedge had come out to fly merc for the Lizzaar, gambled so heavily that his hands were savagely broken to the point he could no longer fly. And hence was no longer useful to the Lizzaar.
He had plans too. They involved a full cybernetic rebuild. On another world because that kind of thing didn’t happen on this one. The plan now was just to get off Red Eye.
Snook, their leader-who’d sat well back in the alley, in the shadows, in the dark-was a Craw. Bird-like humanoid with a yellowish beak, black feathers and black appendages. Snook clucked and chittered as he stood to see the matter, his soulless black eyes watching from the shadows to see what his killing crew was seeing, reacting to, getting ready for.
“Crawww Craww…” he began in the way that all Craw spoke Standard. “Now there’s a one who keeps poppin’ up like a bad credit and it makes a Craw wonder. Crawh Crawh!”
Which is how Craw finish their sentences. There’s a distinction, and no one who isn’t Craw can really tell what it is, but that’s how Craw speak.
The three killers working for Snook remained silent. The boss had led them this far; perhaps he’d lead them a little further. They’d started as five, and now were four. One dead a week into the end of the world wasn’t bad odds when you considered how many dead were out there rotting in the streets.
“Craww Craww… I seen the watching of this oldstah,” barked Snook, gathering himself up. “He be casting about for seed all pretty-like and Snook be guessin’ this one a one who has a pretty to trade, methink. Crawh Crawh!”
No one said anything… but now, as the oldster shambled down the alley toward them, dragging one leg, they watched him even closer because perhaps there was something to be had today. Something for them all, and really, when you thought about it, and they all were thinking it… someone was going to end up with all their pile, what with the levels of death currently underway and rising like a stinking tide. All their take. One of them was going to get it. And the way things were looking, that was probably just enough to get off-world on one of the last ships… and maybe… maybe… something to start over with.
“How so, boss?” whispered one of the killers because it was Snook who made the decisions here in the alley. Decisions regarding who lived, who died, the usual in such dire circumstances. In the distance, there was a brief exchange of blaster fire somewhere close by within the inner districts of the star port. Violent and quick. Then nothing at all. Moments later someone was wailing, screaming in anguish over there, their cries reverberating out over the stone-gray jungle-vine cracked walls where the Lizzaar had carved demonic reliefs to leer at all travelers.
“Craw Craw… well, the way Snook hisself sees it, boys… Craw Craw… is this one’s been a’working himself closer and closer to the dock now. The big one where the star galleon is getting ready to depart. The Big Boss himself they say, though I think that one already got out on fast courier just to mix everything all sideways and all, but that’s his ship. The Jewel of… something. But I bet this one, the limper, he wants his ship, or at least a ride on it, so there’s that to all this to consider. So this is what we’re about to do this one… Craw Craw… this ain’t nothing to do with that and all. What you all call this one… Craw Craw… ?”
“Rent-a-Freighter Cash Stallion, boss.”
The crow man gave a dismissed cluck and flapped its oily black feathered arms as it got down from the crate it had been perched on in the shadows of the alley.
“Craww Crawwwwww… this one knows there’s a last ship off dis burnt rock and he want on it. No fool dis one, ’cause he not dead yet, see? So… Craw Craw… he knowin’ he not gettin’ a ride unless he’s got some pretty to trade. Jump or die they be sayin’, the jump jockeys, and they be right. No? So this one… Snook smell pretty to trade for ride off-world or else why he about skulking closer to close to the Jewel of whatever… eh… and avoiding the proper checkpoints, Craww Craww. They’ll take his pretty there. Pretty’s all he gots now. Pretty is for the ride, not the checkpoint. So… Craw Craw… we take pretty. I wants the pretty. Take for Sn- us. Boys. Take for us, boys, Crawh Crawh.”
The three killers agreed to the deep, and readied themselves for Rent-a-Freighter Cash Stallion.
None of them had a full charge pack between them. Maybe a couple of shots left in each cheap model blaster. These were also not the best, or smartest, killers, but they were alive when things were getting bleak and grim on a dying world. Still… they were survivors of a sort when so many were not. That must accounted for in the game of death that was life on Red Eye.
Dead though the planet was… there were many games.
Two of the killers faded to the walls and leaned there nonchalantly.
Another stood aside as Snook stepped forward to confront the limper coming down the dark alley. The place smelled of death; there were dead bodies in some of the bins and dumpsters.
“Craw Craw…” crowed the Craw. “Hold up there, old man, Craw Craw.”
Rent-a-Freighter Cash Stallion held up.
“Don’t want any trouble,” mumbled the old man, head down.
The Craw laughed dryly as it clicked the talons at the end of its fingers together. The laughter, slow and croaking, was for definite theatrical effect. The talons, known by anyone who’s ever encountered the murderous species called the Craw-and thankfully there weren’t many of them to meet-the talons clicking was a warning. Craw are fast and tend to slash throats with those deadly obsidian talons. Mind the cuts, as they say.
The Craw looked away in the beat of a heart, telegraphing his intentions to attack quickly, and the old man, the ruined soldier, the down-on-his-luck merc, or the jump jockey without a freighter, whatever and whoever he was, knew what was coming next.
Slicing feathery death.
The Craw dragged its dark feathered arm up in a wide slash where the limping man wasn’t anymore and sliced the air, surprised at the lightning-quick movement.
Incredulous, the Craw opened its yellowy beak in stunned amazement as its brain processed how the man, suddenly strong and virile, had spun away from the sudden attack, flinging up the leg he had dragged in his limps into a roundhouse that instantly broke the Craw’s neck.
It was a savage strike and there was nothing pretty about it. The broken neck, a weak point for most avian humanoids, snapped like a thousand little bones crumbling, and everyone, killers and Rent-a-Freighter Cash Stallion himself, heard it.
The Craw gurgled and tried to call out as it crumpled into a mass of black feathers, dead. The three killers hesitated, and that was bad for them as it allowed their victim to gain his feet from the savage spinning roundhouse.
The first one, who had stepped aside for Craw, reacted quicker than the pair still leaning stunned against the alley’s wall and surged forward with a spanner he’d used to crush all his most recent victims’ skulls. He swung the grimy spanner wildly but again, Rent-a-Freighter Cash Stallion wasn’t there. Using footwork like a pro, the old man gave ground and let the momentum of the heavy starship spanner drag the killer forward, exposing the thug to an attack.
By that point, one of the gang members leaning against the alley had decided to surge into the fight, picking exactly the wrong moment. The old man watched as the wild flailing spanner impacted directly with the man’s jaw, breaking it.
That guy went down.
Shocked at what he’d done to his ally, the spanner-swinger was jabbed right in the nose with a lightning bolt punch from the old man. Disbelieving eyes turned to fountains, and he was sure his nose was broken from the solid jab.
The one punch was effective, but it was the two punch from the combination that rung that guy’s bell and spun him into the wall like a sack of Mantatas, rotten and foul-stinking.
He stayed down as either a defense, or because he was out. The result was the same: Killer number three was the only one left in line for the beating.
A quiet fell over the sudden little battlefield and the old man, Rent-a-Freighter Cash Stallion, just stood there, breathing and waiting for the bad guy he hadn’t seen run off.
When that guy didn’t appear, he let his guard down and studied his bleeding attackers.
Tyrus Rechs stalks the alleys of Red Eye.
Tyrus Rechs stood there, barely panting. Normally a fight like that wouldn’t have winded him in the least. But the injuries sustained destroying the navbeacon, and carrying the dead SOG operator through the jungle only to bury him in a shallow grave beyond the star port limits, had him spent. He was still healing.
The Spanner guy was lights-out with a broken jaw. His partner was the same. The Craw was dead. Which was for the best. Craw were a nasty species.
Tyrus shook his hand, shaking off the dull ache from the punch and continued down the alley, no longer bothering to fake the limp he’d been using for days to seem less than what he was.
Any who’d seen him now-and the alleys had eyes that watched without resting-realized that the old man had been running a recon and was very dangerous.
Rechs’s armor was cached in an abandoned building, already falling into ruin and filled with the never-ending rain, out near the edge of the star port in districts deemed too dangerous, even by the desperate with few choices in the matter. Baldur guarded their “base.” The bounty hunter’s weapons, save the tiny holdout blaster in the small of his back, were also under the dog’s supervision.
Splattered mud over Rechs’s pants, jacket, and boots were all he had for the loser disguise. It was good thing they were old, out of fashion, making him look like a typical hard luck jump jockey. Maybe even a ship’s mech. The limp completed the helplessness.
Red Eye had descended into chaos. It was killer-thirty out there, and everyone was looking for trouble, measuring twice to cut once. Rechs thought it best to seem not worth the trouble.
For days now the bounty hunter had tried to get close to Zauro’s star galleon. Scouting, limping, mostly avoiding trouble other than a few small beatdowns he’d had to hand out to get clear of entanglements. Now he had found direct access to the docks, through the catering kitchens on the other side of the alley, to be exact.
That last hurtle cleared, Tyrus Rechs quickly started down the dank passage between the warehouses. His movements were stiff because of the lingering injures, but he needed to move now before other predators tried to fill up the void he’d just created.
Moments later, Rechs found the secure door he’d suspected was there after slicing into the star port layout. He was able to get the door open with a lot of brute force. It would have all been easier in his armor, but bringing it along into the star port was a good way to get all hands-on deck out to kill him immediately. The Lizzaar almost certainly had huge bounties running on anyone that even looked like him. Best not to wear full armor of any kind.
Beyond the now bent and bullied door to the catering kitchens lay the dark and rotten-smelling quiet that had once served the inbound freighters and luxury starships calling on Red Eye.
The place had been looted and re-secured to hold the Lizzaar-established perimeter along the docks. Two docks, really. And in one, Rechs had been able to gather enough information that convinced him the star galleon was still waiting to depart.
Yeah, Zauro was probably gone. But that galleon would go to wherever the crime lord was waiting, and it was important Rechs link up with the little Nubarian gunnery bot and make sure the machine was still able to re-board and follow Zauro wherever he went.
Rechs could follow after that. There was still a debt to settle for dead marines and legionnaires on Detron. That debt would be paid in full. Rechs had renewed his vows with every step across that hot stinking swampy jungle, rank and foul, as he carried Sergeant Spike Riggs’s body.
One more body, this of a SOG operator, added to the outstanding debt the crime lord owed.
And who could say how many others?
Zauro was a hard target. But Rechs had killed harder before. He was sure of it. It was just that he couldn’t always remember who, or when.
None of that mattered to Tyrus Rechs right now. He would find Zauro… and then he would kill him. Yes. But first he needed to get aboard the ship or contact the bot.
Then what, Tyrus? asked an old ghost as he threaded the silent kitchen like some unquiet ghost of chefs and diners past.
Beyond the high dirty windows in each kitchen, it was late day, and the hellish light of Red Eye’s burning sun filtered down through the grime on the windows, making a sickly atmosphere of shadows and smell everywhere.
A few kitchens later, Rechs spotted an armed Lizzaar patrolling the quiet. Checking doors. Its claws clicking. Its gear creaking.
A piece of wire Rechs fashioned back at his hiding spot, their base, was used to strangle the Lizzaar quickly. Once the reptile was dead, Rechs stashed the body and took its comm, blaster carbine, and charge packs. Three. There were no frags.
He moved through the kitchen and stashed the blaster carbine and charge packs in a dead freezer that had been cleaned out long before. The smell of rotten mean flesh still lingered.
Rechs was near the pavilion that served the two Lizzaar-guarded docks. He resumed his limp and opened the final door that led out onto the main pavilion between the docks. The light was dying by then, and Tyrus Rechs stepped out in the almost party-like atmosphere at the end of the desperate day, here, between the last two hulking ships rising from their walled berths. It was as though he’d stepped out into a strange type of festival… hopeful travelers and con artists waited for a possible ride. Rechs had seen such behaviors on other falling worlds. It was a strange denial of the reality of a very desperate and dangerous situation.
But perhaps there was reason for the celebration. These were the lucky few, when you thought about it. These had enough to bribe their way this close to the last ships. And sometimes… close was all you had to play for. One step at a time and you just might get to jump space again.
There was music and the smell of cooked street food in the air. Jasmine and string lights, local to this world, twisted through the jungle fauna and stiff trunks that had been allowed to grow here. Chittering ratmonks scurried through the trees… and there was laughter among the revelers.
The contrast to the rest of the star port, and probably all Red Eye itself, was stunning. Beyond these docks lay body-littered streets and small fortresses of the desperate doing their level best to kill their way to a better tomorrow.
Murder was common here.
Life was cheap now.
Expectations were not high.
Rechs ditched the limp, thinking it would draw more attention given who was here. No one unlucky had reached the inner circle of hope.
The bounty hunter spotted the rising aft engineering stack of Zauro’s star galleon. Engines howling, repulsors throbbing, the Jewel of Arryxx was departing.
She was powering up. Her immense repulsors throbbed, sending waves of unseen energy through the docks. Passersby and partygoers stopped to watch, and clearly some felt like a great opportunity was being lost as they watched her rising majestically above the dying jungle star port in the last of the daylight and the coming of the night. Rechs stood there, almost in the middle of the pavilion now, watching the Jewel of Arryxx lift off, trying to figure if there was a way he could still contact the little gunnery bot.
As long as the little bot was on board, he could track his target. And if he could track Zauro… he could hunt, and kill him. If.
The star galleon’s mains boosted, and the ship heaved skyward, clearing the star port’s high walls, casting off through the purple twilight and heading for upper atmo. Engines burning brightly now, the ship moved faster and faster by the second.
Strange jungle birds rising from the tangle that surrounded the port, or roosting in the bent and broken comm towers and ancient temples, surged in great waves off into the night.
“C’mon…” said Rechs, thinking of the murderous little bot on board. If he could get a proper comm array and jack in…
Nearby, Signica whistles and beeps rang out in sudden joy. Across the pavilion, pushing obnoxiously through the hopeful and despairing partygoers seeing their chances halve in the departing of the Jewel of Arryxx, rolled the little bot, ululating with joy at spotting its master.
“Master!” it exclaimed in bot code. “I managed to escape!” It repeated this over and over until it had rolled right up next to Tyrus Rechs, right there in the middle of the babbling throng.
The star galleon was gone now, disappearing in a bright flash up there in the outer night. Jumping beyond the system was no problem for them. Jumping in… without that navbeacon… well… big problem.
Rechs looked down and studied the bot staring up at him, its eye sensors wide and hopeful in a way that bothered Rechs.
The bot was going on and on about weapons and killing and problems that could be solved murderously. It practically hopped up and down on its one wheel now that it had found him.
“I asked you to stay on the ship,” grunted Rechs, realizing now that he had no way to find Zauro.
No easy way.
It’s never easy.
“Aces and Eights,” some old SMAJ had once told him. “Every day, Ranger.”
The bot went silent. It rolled around in a quick circle, uncertain of its status and doing something just to be doing something.
“Master…” it beeped, pleading. “Mission Complete?” it asked sadly.
Rechs shook his head and turned, walking back toward the kitchens he’d used to fade from the recon. He’d need to find another way to…
What first? There were so many problems…
Find another ship.
Find… his ship. Lyra. G232. Sammie.
And after that, Tyrus?
He knew the answer to the last one, at least. It was always the same. He just didn’t know the question, that was the problem.
Hang out on the edge. Wait.
Rechs turned. The little gunnery bot stood there, trembling, shaking its components all at once. Beeping over and over… “Mission Complete? Mission Complete? Mission Complete?”
Clearly it was having an algorithmic breakdown of some sort at having failed its master.
Bots were strange.
Rechs had a pretty good idea why, though. The thing practically… worshipped… him.
Rechs hated that.
He sighed. Shook his head. Then got down to the work of solving all the problems, one at a time. Surviving.
Rechs waved his hand at the little shuddering bot, trying not to attract too much attention now that the throng was back to milling about, refiguring its thin odds. Telling lies that sounded like hopes.
“C’mon now,” he mumbled to it. He’d take it back to his hiding spot. Their base. To the gear and supplies he’d barely managed to cobble together. To the dog.
He’d find a way.
He needed more supplies. More weapons. A ship. Credits.
Lyra, he thought. And didn’t finish. But he knew it anyway. She’d be frightened to death right now. Freaking out that she’d been captured. That he wasn’t… safe. That she couldn’t protect him.
Rechs made up his mind to kill whoever had highjacked her… a lot.
“C’mon now,” he mumbled again to the little shaking bot beeping Mission Complete? over and over again.
“Not yet,” Rechs softly told it. “But I need you now. So… c’mon. Secret mission.”
“For killing?” whistled the bot hopefully. “For death? For destruction, Master? Secret mission for destruction?”
The bot erupted and spun around wildly, whistling an electronic note of triumph that sounded the very essence of happiness. Of the hope no one here really had.
Which was… ironic.
“Secret Mission still active!” whooped the bot in code.
Rechs nodded, waved his hand in the common gesture that the bot should follow.
Immediately the bot rolled forward, passing Rechs quickly, having no idea where it was going, but excited to be going all the same.