The last of the bodies lay sprawled on the pavement; the smell of the dead only adding to the persistent stench of Brimstone. Even by Brimstone standards, it has been a hell of a day…
The sign on the door read CLOSED.
Dead tired, Vane stopped in his tracks and looked at Doc, both men shrugging in unison. Roxy’s place is never closed. With a ‘what now’ groan, Vane raised his fist and thumped it on the heavy metal door.
“Are you two idiots done stirring up trouble?” Though tinny over the intercom, the voice was clearly Roxy.
Vane looked left at Doc. “You done?”
Doc appeared thoughtful for a moment, then replied with a nod. “Yeah, pretty much.”
Vane looked up at the camera, too exhausted to draw out the joke. “Open up Rox.”
The only reply was the clack of electric bolts slugging back inside the door. Vane pushed and the two men walked in, dog in tow. They stopped just a few paces inside, eyes adjusting to the low light as the door banged shut behind them, bolts slamming back into place.
The saloon area looked like a tornado had run through it. Broken furniture, smashed mirrors, pieces of art showing off new bullet holes. The surge of alarm that hit Vane quickly subsided when he saw Roxy perched in her throne chair, drink in hand. A heavy caliber subgun lay on the armtable next to her, smoke slowly curling up from the muzzle. Spent brass and empty powercells were littered everywhere.
Roxy met the men with a withering gaze that she couldn’t seem to maintain, breaking at last into a slow shake of her head.
“One thing you can say about this town,” she offered with a sweeping gesture. “It’s never dull.”
Payback noticed the bodies first, sniffing her way along a blood trail to the corpses piled behind the Faro table. Nug was among them, a smoking cavity burned through his face. Thorvald sat next to him, still bleeding from a couple wounds but very much alive, drinking Johnnie Walker from the bottle.
Four of the corpses were pinks, decked out in various levels of body armor. More goddamn bounty hunters. One had a hole blown through his chest you could reach your arm through.
“Gort has a new toy.” Roxy motioned with the bottle towards the cratered chest before taking another long sip. “He was here talking to Ed when Benny the Twitch led these clowns to my door.”
Doc looked up from the pile, concern evident on his face. “Ed? Is he OK?”
Roxy arched an eyebrow. “Is Ed OK?” She snorted, pointing at the pile of human remains with a measure of distaste. “Ed did most of… that.”
Tangled as they were, damage to individuals in the heap wasn’t immediately obvious. It took a longer look to realize that the blond-haired head staring face-up was attached to the body that lay face-down. Another looked to have the handle of a croupier’s rake sticking out from his eye socket. It was a study in carnage wrought with on-hand objects.
Roxy’s tone carried a droll note when she added “They caught him in one of his moods.”
“Hey Doc.” Vane spoke from across the room, pouring himself a drink behind the bar. He pointed at the floor where Benny the Twitch lay in a crumpled heap behind an overturned table. The line of bullet holes through the tabletop looked to match the ones that meandered down Benny’s throat, chest and hip.
Doc didn’t shed a tear. Much like payback, karma was a bitch as well.
The irony struck a note and he looked around, then ambled back in the kitchen, rummaging for a couple minutes before coming out with a hefty raw T-bone. He waved the hunk of meat and said “Bill me” before tossing it to the tail-wagging dog. Payback trotted off to a quiet corner and began to munch noisily.
“So let’s play ‘How was your day,” Roxy prompted. “ I’m having a normal afternoon when these clowns come into town, along with a bunch of others, looking to serve a high-payoff warrant on Lazlo. Benny knows Gort is here, figures Lazlo must be upstairs. Things get unsavory, Ed goes unhinged and now he and Gort are hauling bodies out to the incinerator.”
At the last word, Doc and Vane exchanged a fleeting glance like two schoolkids caught cheating.
“I saw that,” Roxy scolded. “So let me guess, since Lazlo wasn’t here and none of the off-world rent-a-cops can find him, am I safe to assume that Lazlo won’t be surfacing any time soon?”
Doc answered with a taciturn expression. “It would take an act of God.”
As if going down a checklist, Roxy turned her attention to Vane. “And you!” The pirate looked up from the beer, his real eye flashing wide. Roxy pointed at one of the TVs on the wall where an INN newsfeed played, sound off. But the image showed a Merchantman disintegrating as it plummeted into a blue sun under the banner TREASURES LOST.
“The news won’t stop with this story of a crime that went all to hell; everybody dies, everybody loses.”
Vane seemed to consider his drink for a moment before looking up, a ‘cat ate the canary’ grin on his face. “Well I wouldn’t say that everybody lost.”
Doc began to jump in with questions of his own when a Mobi rang and Vane triggered a response. “Yeah,” he answered, holding a finger up for silence. “Yeah, real good. Come on home.”
Vane dropped the call and fished a strip of holo from his vest. His grin may have been suppressed but his flesh and blood eye shined as bright as the prosthetic one as he rotated it to face Doc and Roxy. The amount of three-point-five million UEC gleamed beneath the words AVAILABLE BALANCE. He winked at Roxy and said “I think I can cover this mess.”
“So how?” Doc asked. “I get that the statues on the TV were the fakes Petrov made, but where the hell did the real ones go?”
“I threw ‘em in the trash,” Vane muttered, dodging the wad of paper Roxy threw at him. “OK, well I threw them in a trash hauler, how about that?”
Doc’s brow knit and he looked about, although it was clear his mind was elsewhere. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered. “The designs for square shipping containers we just burned. That night in the rain…” He looked up, pieces coming together. “You put the statues in crates dressed up like cubes of compressed scrap metal.”
Vane nodded, saying “Which Jake just delivered to Idris, as per our client’s instructions.” He let that sink in before adding. “The scrap you saw us shredding gave us the base cubes, and disposed of incriminating little items like the wings cut off an Avenger. Jake told me he could get ‘em through the blockade, and it looks like he delivered.”
“Pretty fucking brainy for a pirate.” The voice came from the back of the bar where Ed and Gort lumbered in, splattered in blood. They dropped wearily into chairs.
Ed looked at Doc, waving at the remaining corpses. “I did my part, those are yours.”
Before Doc could protest, Vane cut in. “Not so fast.” His gaze snapped back and forth between Doc and Ed. “Since we’re one little happy family airing our secrets here, what the hell is going on in the Nek?”
Doc froze like a deer in the headlights. He remembered Ed’s warning about secrecy and given the conditions of the bodies on the floor, that concern stepped up a notch.
“Change of plans,” Ed said to Doc with a dismissive backhanded motion, “we’re gonna need their help.” He turned and addressed the entire circle. “The Bomb wasn’t a bomb, it was a test of a technology designed to open an artificial wormhole, something that you could just walk thru, drive through. Maybe big enough for ships, we don’t know.”
Ed looked around the circle, recognizing in every face the obvious question. “Yeah, it’s Vanduul. Leir makes perfect sense for a test. There is an existing natural wormhole from here to Vanguard so they’d have something to compare readings almost one for one. If it worked, really worked, they’da likely rolled in here and seized this sector to control both ends of their little science experiment. The rest of the galaxy would have taken it for a simple territory grab and nobody would have been the wiser.”
Roxy was the first to respond. “So what happens now?”
Ed sighed. “The Xi’An are working it, they’ve been scratching at the problem since they got here but Doc came up with the key. We figured out how to open the door, on a very limited scale, which we’re pretty sure caught the Vanduul by surprise.”
“So why not open da fuckin door, toss in a nuke and shut it?” Gort offered the straight-line response. “Give those scaley fucks a taste of their own medicine.”
“I’d love to,” Ed chuffed, “but we have no idea what that would do. The rips left by the first event stretch a long way through this town. It could be bad. Egon Spengler sort of bad.”
Looking at the blank stares, Ed realized that nobody got the ancient reference. He closed his eyes, accessed the EdBank and said “Uh, Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.”
Ed tried not to laugh when Gort thoughtfully responded with “That’s bad.”
“So you’re gonna study it,” Doc said firmly, “figure out how to detect it, shut it down, stuff like that.”
“Precisely,” Ed replied. “That’s the plan anyway. The Xi’An don’t trust anybody, UEE included, but they are working the problem jointly, positioned as an experimental theory they came up with. So nobody on the outside knows what we have in the basement. If they did, every government in the galaxy would fight to control it, even if just to keep it out of other hands. It would be chaos.”
“So we just live here with this thing?” Vane spoke at last.
Ed shrugged. “Not much choice; transit restrictions are still in place; that isn’t about to change. But keep in mind, this one didn’t work, at least not the way it was intended. We don’t think there’s much chance of it stabilizing enough to hold open for more than a few seconds, but we’re also pretty sure that the damage to the fabric of space makes this an unsuitable place for another detonation.”
Ed sighed, the closed. “The big question is where will they try next, and you can be sure they will. The ability to open wormholes on demand, when and where you want, is a strategic game-changer. The Xi’An want to monitor this thing and will provide continued support to see this place keep operational. So for the forseeable future, we, all of us here, need to keep Brimstone running business as usual.”
Ed leaned back “As improbable as it sounds, our motley group of pirates and thieves just ended up being the biggest secret on the front line of the war.”