Ace slumped over the chipped formica of the counter and gripped another full glass of scotch in his scarred and meaty fist. He was a great bull of a man, swaying slightly in his drunken haze and running his hand through the thick beard and tangled locks of a man who’d spent a long time in space. His battered flight jacket had a faded RAF roundel on the back and his denim was worn thin from wear and stained with oil. Low on his hip hung an Eliminator pistol in a worn-smooth holster, but nobody in The Proxima Bar seemed to pay it any heed.
A gloved hand smacked down on Ace’s shoulder, starting him, making him spill a little of his scotch over the filthy bar.
“Mein Herr, you are Englisher, yes? I recognise zer badge on your jacket. Royal Marines, ya?”
Ace grunted and started licking the spilled whisky from his fingertips, giving the German a sidelong glance. The German, and his two friends behind him, grinning and muttering to each other. That was all the response he gave them, not a single word otherwise.
“Kriegsmarine.” The German said, pointing to himself and his friends. “Picked up your mess on Gelida, ja? When you broke and ran?”
Ace tossed back the scotch and span the squeaking stool around, setting his jaw, grinding his teeth until his jaw muscles bunched, staring deep into the German’s eyes with an unwavering stare. The big blonde man wilted slightly under Ace’s drunken glare, but couldn’t back down in front of his friends.
“Run and hide. Like little girls. While we fight and die, like men.”
Ace sized him up, ignoring his words and his fruity accent as the German regained some of his courage, puffing out his chest like a strutting cockatoo. Huffing and puffing as his friends laughed behind him her jabbered away like it meant anything. Ace ground his teeth harder and then with the power and speed of a tiger, he pounced, lashing out with the glass in his hand and ramming the base of it into the German’s big mouth.
Teeth crunched, glass shattered. The barman studiously ignored it all, turning away and intently polishing his glass. The man choked on blood, and shards and fell back, clutching his ruined mouth with both of his hands. His friends were stunned, standing there with their mouths open as the stream of invective has cut off in an instant.
Ace wasn’t above kicking a man while he was down and slipping from the stool, reared back his steel-toed boot and drove it with uncaring force deep into the bleeding man’s crotch. His eyes bulged near out of their sockets – at least he was distracted from the ruin of his mouth. He toppled with glacial slowness, sideways onto the ground as Ace jabbed a finger at the other two Kriegsmarine.
“Want some you crumbs?” Ace finally spoke, his voice like someone gargling gravel.
One of the Germans turned and ran, his tail between his legs, the other one grabbed a bottle and smashed it against the side of the table. Ace sighed and clenched his fist but before the two could join battle a burly, blond haired man smashed a stool over the top of the German’s head and he went down like a puppet with its strings cut.
“Could of handled him.” Muttered Ace, turning back to his drink.
The blond muscled up to Ace and offered his hand. “Damn Mister, but you can fight. Put ‘er there. I’m Bang Donnybrook. These are my friends, Gail and Professor Quartus.”
Ace didn’t take his hand, but he turned his head and gave all three of them the once over with his steely eyes.
The blond was a big, broad man but too clean shaven and picture-perfect to be a veteran, though he had a couple of scars here and there and clearly thought of himself as a capable man. He was grinning his perfect white teeth, hand still thrust out, trying not to look insulted that Ace hadn’t shook it, but he was.
The Professor was a mischievous imp of a man with strong Semitic features and a wicked, mirthful intelligence behind his eyes. A slide rule was tucked into the pocket of his patch-elbowed jacket and he managed to exude, all at once, the confident intellect of a genius and the louche arrogance of a hop-head. “Given your skills…” He said, smiling at Ace’s snubbing of his blond friend “…we have a proposition for you. If you might be interested.”
Ace considered, licking the taste of the scotch from his teeth as he turned his eyes on the last member of the trio. She was a raven-haired beauty with a great rack, hidden away though it was in a severe professional woman’s dress. Maybe a reporter or something? Nice gams too, skirt hugging them like a glove. She shifted a little uncomfortably under his eyes and it was clear by the wrinkle of her nose that his raggedy looks and brutal nature disgusted her.
“Say your piece.” Ace rumbled, setting his haunches back on the worn barstool and signalling the barkeep for another glass.
“We’ll need you sober.” The woman, Gail, sniffed, tugging her purse tighter to her body.
“If he says yes.” The professor remarked with a snort of laughter.
“Let’s hear it, once I say yes I’ll be sober on your time.” Ace grabbed the glass and held it, waiting to hear what they had to say.
“We need a pilot.” Said Bang, the blond giant.
“So hop a passenger ship. You don’t need me.”
“We’re going to Dyzan.” The professor said, leaning forward in an arch, conspiratorial whisper.
“In the post-war chaos and with the civil war going on there?” Ace stared at the trio like they were retarded. “Why the hell would you want to go there?”
“That’s our business.” Said Bang, trying to reassert his leadership and dominance over the Professor, who was clearly his intellectual superior. “We’ll pay you well.”
Gail opened her purse and stepped forward, showing its contents to Ace. Gold glittered inside, and more, the unmistakable lustre of Gelidan sapphires and the golden gleam of a Dyzan slave harness. Perhaps not a King’s random, but at least a Prince’s ransom, more than enough to risk the war-torn planet Dyzan, Earth’s hidden twin behind the sun, the exotic and deadly world that had invaded the Earth and brought an end to the war, until they were overthrown. The last thing Ace wanted to do was go back there, he’d killed enough of the Dyzanian people to last him a lifetime. Then again… money and even though Bang and Gail wore matching rings she wouldn’t be the first married woman he’d seduced away from her husband – if he managed it.
Ace stroked his stubbled chin and downed his glass. “I’ll do it. My ship’s in the dock. We can leave whenever you want.”
They were in a hurry and grabbed their bags, all but hustling Ace out of the bar and then letting him take the lead, barrelling down the crowded street in a drunken swagger and shoving people out of his way, swearing like a sailor as a jetpack swooshed little too close overhead.
Even drunk Ace could tell they were on edge and that put him on edge. He could tell they were being followed as they made their way to the off-shore private spaceport. It was a rusting hole, but Ace couldn’t land at Manhatten Spaceport any more. Not after that ‘incident’ with the customs patrol.
Paranoid as years of war and betrayal had made him, it didn’t take Ace long to spot the men who were following them. Trenchcoats and hats, they couldn’t look any more suspicious if they were trying to. Ace took a roundabout route and turning a corner, wheeled around. “Hide.” He grunted to the trio and turned back, peering his head around the corner.
The three men were walking abreast with grim intent. Ace wasn’t the type to take any chances and drew his eliminator, thumbing the safety. The sleek and deadly blaster hummed in his hand and he stepped out into the alley, levelling it at the man in the centre.
There was a whip-crack of annihilated air particles as he depressed the firing stud. The ravening beam lanced out and struck the man full in the chest, burning a glowing hole the size of a football through his chest and melting the bricks behind him.
To their credit the others didn’t scream, didn’t run, they drew their own weapons and sprang to the sides of the alley, their hats falling from their heads, revealing the polished domes and horseshoe moustaches typical of imperial warriors from Dyzan, some remnant of the Emperor’s guard intent on revenge perhaps. Their golden fist-guns cracked and sparked, invisible bolts of energy striking the wall behind Ace and exploding the brickwork into red-glowing fragments.
Ace calmly stood as the bolts struck around him, dialling the Eliminator’s emitter to maximum apeture and levelling it down the alleyway, thumbing the firing stud for a second time. There was no snap-crack this time, the dispersed energy was nowhere near as powerful. He kept the stud down as the air shimmered under the power of the beam. Scraps of paper burst into flame, paint peeled. The men from Dyzan screamed as their clothing smouldered and caught, lighting them up as human torches. Ace calmly paced towards them, narrowing the apeture as they screamed and rolled on the ground, playing it over them like a hose until they melted like candles thrust into a hearth. Finally the last, bubbling scream came to a halt and he took his finger off the stud.
Almost immediately he sprang to a ready stance again, a whirl of black robes ducking back around the corner out of sight, an enemy he had missed. A skilful one. All the more reason to get away and all too good an indicator that there was much more to this than the trio had told him. Wasn’t that just his luck?