The second moon crested the horizon as McGrath approached the border town of New Hope. He shifted uneasily on the sauropod’s back. Its scaled hide had worn rashes on his thighs during his journey across the Badlands. The cheap saddle did little to alleviate his discomfort; he’d have to get a new one soon.
First things first, he thought, scanning the town. Pinpoint the local watering hole. If anyone knew where Donner had run to, he’d find them there.
McGrath dismounted outside a Colonial-era prefab building with cracked photovoltaic tiles on its roof and a flickering holosign above the door that spelled out “Broken Jaw” in the local language, which his chip translated into Standard. He pushed his way into the bar, rubbing at a sore patch on the inside of his right leg, and felt two dozen eyes lock on to him. Clearly an off-worlder, despite his effort to blend in. The wide-brimmed hat he’d purchased at the spaceport’s duty-free shop hadn’t done him any favors.
He nodded to the locals and ambled over to the bar, settling on a stool in front of the weathered countertop. The place reeked of booze, sweat, and animal shit. Come to think of it, the whole town smelled that way. It reminded him of why he hated planets, and how he couldn’t wait to find Donner so he could get off this rock and back to civilization. Not for him, the rugged living of the Outer Colonies.
“What’ll ya have?” asked the bar tender, a rough-looking man with a milky eye and a patchwork of scar tissue on the left half of his face.
McGrath didn’t bother checking the menu. “Whisky.”
The bar tender laughed. “Yeah, I wish. Keep dreamin, pal. Ya clearly ain’t from around here.”
He furrowed his brow and stared up at the wall, where someone had scrawled a list of drinks in the same ancient language as the sign out front. He didn’t recognize most of the words. Even his chip had trouble translating. He decided to play it safe. He ordered a pint of the local draught. Surely they couldn’t fuck that up?
“So what brings ya here, off-worlder?”
McGrath swallowed the beer in three gulps. It was the first liquid he’d tasted that wasn’t recycled water since he’d crossed the Badlands. It was glorious. “I’m looking for someone.”
“Ain’t we all. Care for another?”
He nodded. “Man named Donner. Off-worlder. Landed here a couple of days ago.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Probably using an alias,” McGrath said. He reached into his duster and removed a small device, which he placed on the bar between them. The bar tender’s eyes widened. Like a cave man seeing a computer for the first time, McGrath thought.
He tapped the device and an image resolved in the air above it, forming the ugly likeness of Donner. From the looks of him, the man had lived a hard life. But he wore his scars with pride. A twinge of steely determination glinted in his dark eyes. From the moment McGrath saw his image, he knew capturing him would not be easy.
The bar tender glanced at the hologram, then fumbled with a glass under the counter. “Nope, don’t recognize him.” Something in his voice said otherwise.
McGrath leaned forward, the metal stool creaking under his weight. “You’re sure?”
“Uh-huh.” The man kept his eyes on the bar top.
“How can you be certain? You barely looked at him.”
“Sorry, buddy. Can’t help you.” He filled the glass to the brim and slammed it on the counter. Foam sloshed onto McGrath’s sleeve. “On the house.”
McGrath lifted the glass to his lips and was about to take his first sip when he noticed an abrupt shift in the air around him, like the pressure change before a storm. The chatter petered out, and he felt he was now the focus of unwanted attention. As if they were waiting for him to make a move.
Almost subconsciously, his hand dropped toward his weapon, fingers brushing the edge of its holster. He turned slowly and saw the other patrons staring at him. A large man with a scruff of beard and cheap cybernetic hand watched him intently.
“Can I help you?” McGrath asked.
The man leapt from his chair. In a blur of motion, his hand snatched a weapon from inside his coat and aimed it at McGrath. McGrath ducked as the weapon discharged. A violet bolt exploded across the room, blasting a fist-sized hole in the bar behind him. The smell of ozone and burnt timber clawed at the back of his throat.
McGrath drew his own gun and took a shot at the man. Bullets whizzed through the air, chewing holes in the wall.
The attacker unleashed a second shot. It crackled toward him like ball lightning.
He spun out of the line of fire and dropped into a crouch. A targeting grid flashed across his field of vision, framing the man in the center. McGrath fired.
Before the man could get another shot off, the bullets struck his chest and abdomen, punching through muscle and bone and trailing blood across the wood-paneled floor. He collapsed with a grunt, knees splitting the cheap boards, before toppling forward onto his face. The blaster slipped from his fingers and clattered against a table leg.
McGrath stooped to examine it. The weapon resembled an antique revolver, augmented with off-world tech. Someone was supplying the locals with alien hardware. From the design, it didn’t appear to have integrated DNA or palm print identification, which meant he could touch it without being zapped, or worse. Before he could inspect it further, someone grabbed him from behind and threw him into a nearby support beam.
He whirled and rammed the heel of his hand into his assailant’s gut, but their body armor absorbed the blow. A fist struck him in the face and he reeled back, blood geysering from his smashed nose. He hit the beam and slid to the floor. Blinking rapidly, he stared up at his attacker through a haze of tears and sweat.
A stone-faced woman stood over him, fists clenched in carefully calibrated rage. A nasty scar jagged down her right cheek, and one of her eyes glinted unnaturally. Dreadlocks interwoven with jewels and metal chains sprouted from the back of her otherwise shaved scalp.
She spat a wad of something on the floor beside him and drew a pair of restraints. “Get up,” she said. “The Magistrate wants to speak with you.”
Part 2 is now available for free here.
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