Authors: Susan Sizemore
“Don’t you dare!”
Pyr had no idea how the scrawny woman put herself between him and his target just as he depressed the needler’s trigger. He had less idea how he managed to jerk his hand up as the weapon fired. The ceiling disappeared, as did the deck above that. The energy wave spread out in a bright flash, lighting the scene in stark white and crisp black shadows for a half dozen heartbeats, while the three of them stared at each other in the fading glow.
“Good thing the battery’s low on that thing,” the koltiri commented, with fearless, irritating sarcasm. “Or we might be breathing space right now.”
GATES OF HELL
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional. Any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.
Copyright 2000 by Susan Sizemore
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Speculation Press Original.
P.O. Box 543
DeKalb, IL 60015
Cover art by Judith Huey
Cover design by Terry Tindill
Editing and layout by Marguerite Krause
First printing January 2000
“Cold night,” Kacina said in passing.
Pyr absently nodded agreement, and the large woman went on her way, going up the creaking stairs just behind where he sat. Pyr kept his attention on what little was going on around him. The bar wasn’t crowded; hadn’t been in weeks. The only people in the cavernous room were the command crew from the
, and several outcast native women. Pyr discounted the Orlinian natives.
It was his own men he studied carefully from beneath the wide, flat brim of his hat while waiting for Dosin’s messenger. The four of them had been together for many years, but lately they had good reason to keep watch on each other.
Linen was seated at the bar. Silver- and brown-streaked hair obscured his thin face as he bent over a pretty fortune-teller’s cards, moving them into patterns he preferred. Pilsane was alone at a table in the center of the room, seated under a half-lit chandelier. Its candles cast gold light on his fair hair and white shirt as he stared at the pieces on a game board. Every now and then he moved one, though there was no partner playing against him on the opposite side of the table. Mik, the heavily-muscled engineer, held a small silver box in one hand, his plain features fixed with utter concentration on the object. He had long, elegant hands for such a big man, capable of the most delicate work. Mik also had two girls vying with the silver box for his attention. Pyr knew the engineer would get around to both women eventually, but would tease them with his intense interest in his work for a while longer.
Pyr shook his head, not sure if he was feeling indulgent or bored by his men’s habits. It was a typical downport night. Pilsane, immersed as he was in the Bucon pirate mindset, could almost play a game with himself and lose. Linch consulted the cards as a joke, possibly even as a kindness to the girl reading them. They were on a backward world where the natives feared the future and sought to protect themselves from it.
Pyr could find no unpredictable behavior from any of his crew. He supposed he should be relieved.
Pyr admitted that his tense impatience was typical as well. Patience was almost as much an affectation with him as Pilsane’s studied cool was for the navigator. Pyr was known more for his hot temper and ruthlessness. It wasn’t a cultivated habit; he was simply not a nice man. He was feeling less nice with every passing moment.
, he told himself. “Cold night,” he murmured.
He looked down at the untouched glass of wine before him, allowing his men the privacy to pretend not to study him. As he inspected the facets of the cut-crystal goblet he made himself enjoy the texture of the material beneath his fingers, appreciate the primitive style. He kept his longing to crush it to sand in check. Then he took a deep breath, and counted the black-work stitches of embroidery on the hand-woven white tablecloth instead of the passing minutes.
He folded his hands before him and tried to be patient. When he was younger, he had attempted to learn something about meditation from a border-world monk; an elderly warrior who had retired to seek peace in the wilderness. The lessons hadn’t taken. So Pyr eventually ran off to be a pirate. It had seemed more useful than the other occupations he’d tried. Though the Bucon pirate guild hadn’t been particularly happy with his appearance in the border territory.
After watching his knuckles turn white from the pressure of being patient for a while, he noticed the red skirt of one of the girls as she came toward him. Pyr caught a trace of spicy perfume, carried to him on the cool air. He’d brought the fragrance for the girls a few months ago. It blended well with the underlying scents of candle wax and wood smoke. Simple gifts like perfume pleased Kacina’s girls in the days before the plague. Now the only gift they wanted was life. Death was easier to obtain, but he’d done what he could for the women. It at least gave them a false sense of safety, so they could sit in a bar with his men and pretend all was well.
The girl did not stop beside him, just paused hopefully for an instant before she continued on toward the stairway. His sharp ears caught a whispered comment about his lack of interest from the girl to Kacina as she passed the bar owner on the stairs. Pyr ducked his head, hiding an ironic smile beneath the rim of his black hat.
The room was lit only by many candles, and a deep fireplace set in the wall farthest from his table. It was not summer on this world, and Pyr liked warmth. He especially liked the steady warmth of the controlled environment of his ship. On planets, he donned the obligatory pirate garb, and froze more often than not. Mik agreed with him, and wore a heavily fringed suede jacket to combat the chill. Pilsane probably had thermals as well as body armor beneath his flowing-sleeved white shirt. Linch ignored the winter air, wearing no shirt at all. His chest was covered by a worn leather vest, but his corded-muscled arms were bare except for the thick gold bracelet worn by each member of the
command crew. Pyr didn’t know why or how the pilot stood the chill. Pyr had no use for discomfort, and besides the wide-brimmed hat decorated with a heavy silver band, he wore a long black leather overcoat to keep out the cold.
Thinking of coping with natural discomfort did nothing to take his mind off the growing ache that plagued them all. Only one thing helped the relentless hunger in his body and mind. His mind he could control, but the body made its own demands. The dependency did nothing for his temper. He gave a silent snarl as he dug into the deep pocket of his coat and fished out a clear, cylindrical bottle. He placed it on the center of the table, and looked at it with utter hatred. Then Pyr lifted his head to watch his men casually drift away from their pursuits and toward the drug that called them all. Pride and pretense was about all they had to fight with. Linch lingered the longest over the cards, then kissed the fortune teller and joined Mik and Pilsane, who had already taken seats on either side of Pyr.
Once seated opposite his captain, Linch said quietly, “I thought we were going to wait fifty hours this time.”
“I don’t plan to die today,” Pyr answered, his gaze locking with the pilot’s. He flicked the top off the bottle while the others watched. He was surrounded by their hunger, as sharp as knives. “You could wait another two hours,” he suggested.
Linch’s thin lips creased in a smile. “I don’t plan to die today either, Dha-lrm.”
Pyr lifted one eyebrow in question at the affection in the pilot’s voice. Sometimes he forgot the friendship between them. “I’m happy to hear it,” Pyr said, and got a slight nod in reply.
He doled out a capsule apiece to himself and his crew. They had an adequate supply of Rust, but had come to a mutual decision to limit themselves to a minimum dosage. Drugs were for fools. Dependence on drug dealers was for slaves.
“How fortunate one of Persey’s ships happened to be passing when we raided Nadere,” Pilsane commented after he popped his capsule into his mouth.
Mik laughed coldly, and downed the clear orange drug. “How silly of Persey’s people to think they could negotiate a price with us.”
“How fatal,” Linch added.
Pyr didn’t join in the wry conversation. He held his capsule carefully between thumb and forefinger, waiting for Linch. The pilot cupped his dose of life in his palm for a few seconds longer, then finally tossed into his mouth. He swallowed it with a gulp of Pyr’s wine. Linch set the half-empty glass down next to the Rust bottle. Pyr frowned at both, and swallowed his own capsule before Mik or Pilsane decided to make a comment. With the ritual over, Pyr put the bottle in his pocket and sat back in his chair.
“I hate waiting for anything,” he informed his men.
“We know,” Pilsane answered for them all. Pyr managed not to sneer at the trio, just because they were expecting it.
“How much longer are we going to wait?” Mik questioned, glancing over his shoulder to where his girls waited. One of them was poking nervously at his silver box. He shook his head. “Good thing it’s not a weapon. Siiti, hands off!” The girl gasped, and jumped out of her chair. Her companion laughed stridently. Mik gestured toward the stairway. “Upstairs, you two.” He looked at Pyr.
The big man stood, and followed the sound of anticipatory giggling as the girls ran up to a bedroom.
“At least he knows how to relieve the boredom,” Pilsane said, and went back to his one-man game.
Linch finished off the wine. “How long do we wait?”
Pyr rubbed his cold hands together. He wore large, heavy rings on both hands. The jewels in them set off sparks of red and purple and black in the candlelight. “Dosin said tonight.”
“If it isn’t tonight?”
“I’ll break his neck when I see him, good news or bad.”
“That will teach him to keep you waiting.”
“Teach the other datarats to be prompt,” Pyr explained. “Discipline, my brother.”
“The first and most important lesson of all.” Linch mouthed the rest of the old saying with disdain. It mattered little what he really thought. Attitude was the important thing in the border worlds.
The door to the tavern opened as Linch stood. It let in a blast of outside air, a small man, and a slender girl dressed only in a thin white shift. Dosin. With a most unexpected companion. Pyr shivered, not sure if it was from the cold or the scars covering the girl’s face and pale arms.
Kacina moved from her chosen spot by the hearth to block the girl’s way. “What are you doing here, Sister?” She spoke in a reverent whisper, very unlike Kacina’s normally gruff manner.
The girl shrank away from the big woman. She stood with her hands clasped before her, gaze on the polished wood of the floor. She was barely as substantial as a bad thought, but her presence riveted everyone’s wary attention.
“This is unholy ground,” Kacina continued.
Pyr loathed the respect he heard in the woman’s tone. He didn’t like the way the other women drew suddenly into the room’s heavy shadows. Shame and tension radiated from the Orlinians as strongly as the scent of spice perfume.
“All here are outworlders and heretics,” Kacina said, gesturing at her patrons. “Soiled beyond conversion.”