Dimestore Wuxia

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Chapter One

Balthazar rose a glass of gulping whiskey to his pudgy lips and threw it back. As the anti-septic taste of the Hole’s liquor washed over his tongue and burned its way down his throat, he couldn’t help but smile.

Nothing, not even ‘the hole’s’ broken air conditioner could bring him down today. Today he stopped being Balthazar the petty hood in a two-horse town on a barely terraformed rock and became Balthazar Rosario, criminal kingpin.

 

He brought the glass down to the table and bellowed for another. The robot barkeeper poured some more swill into a glass and handed it to one of the regulars to bring to the boss. ‘The Hole’ or ‘The Drinking Hole’ if you were high falutin’ could only better live up to its name if it had actually been built into a pit in the ground. A disused hangar in a corner of the Starport would have to do.

Nothing in the Hole had originally been built for the purpose it now served. Tables, chairs and even the bar were made out of wood pallets, milk crates and other detritus. The chair holding up Balthazar’s extensive weight had been pieced together from the remains of five other chairs from all over the starport.

The regulars weren’t much better. The specimen that brought Balthazar his drink smiled nervously as he placed it on the table before him, revealing the three teeth he’d lost in a disagreement with another regular last week. At the bar the lowest rung on the pecking order was repeatedly spilling water in front of the robot barkeep, watching as it rushed out to wipe it up after him. This far out on the periphery the options for company were as limited as they were for air conditioning. The broken unit above Balthazar’s head allowed the atmosphere in the bar to bloat with humidity. The settlement wasn’t big enough to have its own dome so they couldn’t even open a window to let some air in.
Balthazar took his new drink in his hand and raised it from the table. He wouldn’t have to endure this place much longer. But rather than take the money and split like some amateur, Balthazar planned to pour the profits from today’s score back into his enterprises, expand out to the other settlements on this world. He planned to build up some real capital before he aimed his backside at the whole damn planet and took off for the stars. Maybe after a while, when he could no longer stand this hole but still didn’t have enough money he might hire someone to act as an intermediary, insulate himself a little from the filth.

But all of that would have to wait.

The light above the door flashed red, someone was passing through decontamination. Balthazar cast his eyes about the room and accounted for all of the regulars. Either someone’s partner had come to coax them back home or his buyer had finally arrived. The light stopped flashing and the doors parted, emitting the stranger into the room. Balthazar’s heart rate picked up, it was definitely his buyer, but he may have got more than he bargained for.

The stranger strode into the suddenly silent room, protected from the bar’s oppressive heat by a suit of Ranger combat armour. The Stranger stopped two steps in and scanned its gaze across the room.

 

The room scanned back, a dozen pairs of eyes looked over every bit of the Stranger’s armour, from the six-barrelled pistol on its thigh to its short, slim stature. The larger members of the bar smirked, if that armour was legit and the newcomer really was a Federation Ranger, then they must be a kid. Some bright-eyed green horn who thought they could clean up the periphery with a badge and an attitude.

 

Balthazar cleared his throat from the back of the bar and the Stranger brought its chin up to see him. “I believe you’re looking for me.”

“That depends.” The Stranger said as she approached. Her voice was firm, assured. “Y’all know anything about an SC-210 Deep Strike Fighter that found it’s little way onto the second-hand market?”
Balthazar took an angry set to his jaw and downed his drink. She had that annoying tone in her voice that said she wasn’t going to be cooperative.

“I do.” He said.
The Stranger reached Balthazar’s table and loomed over him. “Then you can help me find the man I am looking for honey. And in return I can take that craft off your hands and not charge you with possession of Federal Property.”

Balthazar pretended to inspect his empty glass. “That Star Fighter cost me a lot of money, why would I give it over to you for nothing?”

The Stranger bore her gaze into Balthazar’s eyes and said “A get-out-of-jail-free card ain’t nothin’.”

Balthazar smiled, turned his glass upside-down and set it on the table, the signal all the regulars were waiting for. “It is when compared to two Deep Strike Fighters.”

All around them the inhabitants of the bar left their ramshackle chairs and stood up. Earning Balthazar’s favour just as he was about to come into a lot of coin wasn’t a chance to let slip through your fingers.

The Stranger sighed. “This was a mistake.”
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