Authors: Michael Rubens
For Alicia and Minya
The Bad Men set out at dawn.
There had been a somewhat involved discussion over the appropriate time to depart, a debate ultimately settled with a firestick—a double-barreled Firestick 24, to be precise, the weapon of choice for those who want to decorate the landscape with bits and pieces of their opponent. At least that’s what the promo copy said, and in this case the description was fairly accurate.
The eleven remaining riders picked their way down the steep, rocky slope past what was left of the twelfth Bad Man, a process that continued for several hundred yards. One of them later discovered a lone digit from the twelfth Bad Man lodged in his bedroll. A few solemn words were said over the finger, and it was reverently lowered into the dog’s mouth.
The Bad Men were not all men, either by gender or species. But they were Bad Men just the same. The ones who had teeth had bad, blackened, rotten teeth. The one who had a sucker instead of a mouth had a bad, blackened, rotten sucker. There were many scars on their flesh, and much of that flesh was devoted to home- and prison-made tattoos. One of the Bad Men had a professionally crafted design, but the tattoo had long since malfunctioned, the animated image skipping in an endless loop just before the illustrated figure finished lifting her skirt. The Bad Men all stank of grime and sweat and desperation, and carried with them a cloud of menace and senseless violence.
The dog was mean, too.
They had a long ride ahead of them: down from the mountain
encampment to the brown, sandy dryness of the alluvial plains, hoping the wind didn’t kick up one of the choking, punishing sandstorms; then back up again, but not nearly as high, to a plateau, and then to hills thick with thorny scrub brush, and then up some more to the forest and the rolling fields beyond that. And then the town.
None of them wanted to make the journey, but Runk had sent them. Runk was the one who’d put an end to the impromptu morning discussion session with the Firestick 24. He was their leader. They didn’t fear much, but they feared him.
So they complained and grumbled and argued among themselves. They took out their aggression on the baiyos, the indigenous herd animals they used as mounts, whipping at their thick, brown hides until they raised welts. The baiyos, in turn, snapped and kicked and spat at them at every opportunity, their dispositions being as evil as those of their riders. On the second day one of the baiyos managed to plant its two rear hooves square in the midsection of one of the Bad Men, launching him in a high, graceful arc that ended in a deep ravine. Then there were ten Bad Men.
Although the incident provided a few moments of levity, the laughter died away when they realized that the recently deceased was the only one who knew how to start the Krager portable stove. Their collective mood darkened further.
They didn’t have to ride. They could have used the one functioning skimmer and flown. If they’d done that, they could have made it to the town in a few hours, instead of getting torn up and dried out by the country. But Runk told them no, he didn’t want to waste the fuel. What he didn’t tell them was the real reason: he
them in a vile state of mind when they arrived at the town.
When they did, all that knotted-up fury would explode on the unsuspecting townspeople. The guns would come out, the Bad Men would state their demands, and the terrified townsfolk would acquiesce without resistance, because they’d know that the Bad Men were just the messengers—there were a whole lot more from where they came.
The unsuspecting town was nestled in a peaceful valley, which narrowed into a pass and then opened up again into fertile farmland. The freestanding gate at the eastern end of the settlement had no door on it, just a sign that announced the name and existence of the village and welcomed visitors to it. It was a gate that seemed to suggest: Things Are Different Here.
Inside the gate, the streets and passageways radiated out in a cheerful, organic jumble from the wide Main Street. The buildings and domiciles were as varied as the townspeople, but they tended toward the modest and hand- or other prehensile-appendage-made. A river did not run through it, but it ran nearby, clear and fresh and full of fish.
The townspeople—or townscreatures, really; they were quite a mix—were refugees of a sort. They came from across the galaxy, drawn there by an ideal, even if they weren’t always in complete agreement over what, exactly, that ideal was. It was a wondrous, magical community, blessed with an abundance of artists and craftsmen and musicians and philosophers and poets.
Perhaps, some might say, a slight overabundance.
If one were, for instance, looking for a skilled sculptor, or a talented wordsmith, or a painter or ceramicist or bodyworker or someone knowledgeable in the finer points of macramé, one could hardly be in a better place. But if one instead required a person who could stand down a rancid, murderous horde of bandits, with violence if necessary, one would—to put it somewhat indelicately—be absolutely farged.
And while the townsfolk didn’t know it yet, they very much needed someone like that, and very soon—someone to organize and inspire them, someone to shake them up and help them defend themselves, someone bold and courageous and honest and forthright and capable.
They needed a sheriff.
A very different planet.
Cole, in the most dignified, reasonable tone that he could muster, said, “Kenneth, seriously, you don’t want to lay your eggs in my brain.”
Kenneth, who was dangling Cole upside down by one leg, said, “Stop squirming, Cole. You’re making this very difficult.”
Kenneth had a truly wonderful voice—cultured, warm, soothing.
“I don’t mean to be a scold, Cole,” he said in that voice, “but you shouldn’t gamble if you can’t pay your debts.”
“Kenneth, I can’t even begin to tell you how well I’ve learned that lesson,” said Cole. “In fact, I—
Is that your ovipositor?!”
“Mm-hmm. Oh, come now—you don’t have to make faces.”
“No, no, it looks fantastic—have you had work done?”
“Nope. Just clean living. Hold still, please.”
Kenneth’s voice did not match his appearance.
His appearance, while not precisely defying description, did manage to challenge it mightily. A casual observer would quickly note an overall design direction that leaned heavily on marine-inspired elements—tentacles, claws, tentacles with claws; a fin here and there, hints of bioluminescence; plus an overall squishi- and squidginess. Added to the mix were subtle insectoid influences: boldly colored patches of exoskeleton; clumps of coarse, rigid hair. And eyes. Many, many eyes.
Kenneth did, however, have a really sensational voice.
“You’ve got a really sensational voice,” said Cole.
“You’re too kind.”
Cole was in no way a casual observer. He was at the moment an exceedingly up-close and upside-down observer, face-to-face—or face-to-whatever—with Kenneth’s complex mouthparts and impressive array of eyeballs, swaying on their lengthy stalks.
Cole could see his own reflection in dozens of their shiny black surfaces.
overall design direction placed him squarely in the human category. His flight jacket was hanging around his ears, providing a backdrop for his dark hair and a face that rated a solid eight on the official Handsome Scale. Right now, however, his face merited about a 4.5, distorted as it was from gravity pulling it in the wrong direction, and from sheer terror.
The most immediate cause of that terror was Kenneth’s ovipositor, hovering just at the edge of Cole’s peripheral vision, the hairy appendage ready to posit Kenneth’s ovi where Cole very much did not want them posited.
“You know, Kenneth, have you ever considered doing any VO work? I could probably put you in touch with some people,” offered Cole.
“You remember the Xhat’s campaign? ‘Xhat’s Poog Sticks—’”
“‘—the poogiest sticks of all,’” finished Cole. “Of course! I
that one! I can’t believe I didn’t recognize it!”
“Really? That’s very gratifying to hear,” said Kenneth. “Anyhoo, where were we. Oh, right. My brood.”
“Kenneth, stop! I can get Karg’s money!”
“That’s what you told me on InVestCo Four, and InVestCo Seven, and FunWorld World.”
“No! I mean, yes! But this time I mean it—I can get it. I
getting it!” Cole gestured up, or rather down, at the assortment of coins and bills that lay strewn on the pavement of the alley.
A few of Kenneth’s eyeballs lazily extended down on their eye-stalks to examine the money.
“Wow. Four point three-seven percent of what you owe. I’m sorry I doubted you.”
They were alone in the alley. Just a few kilometers away were the towering buildings and broad, ordered streets of the Bourse, the largest of the Exchange Cities of InVestCo 3, the largest of the habitable planets of the Financial System system. Beings of all shapes and sizes were bustling about there, happily buying and selling and putting and calling and marketing and branding and shareholding
and producing and consuming and whatever else the more-or-less honest folks did.
High above the planet, above the branding campaigns that scrolled endlessly across the upper cloud layer, the advertsats patrolled the orbits, zooming up with aggressive cheerfulness to welcome visitors from other planets and systems across the galaxy, places where yet more folks were buying and selling and commercing and et cetera. Places where very few beings—if any—were being dangled by one leg by a creature like Kenneth, and desperately wishing they had a big gun.
Cole had a big gun. He’d pointed it at Kenneth when Kenneth grabbed him. Kenneth ate it.
“Kenneth, this money is just a down payment. I’ll get the rest.”
“How, Cole? More gambling? Another inept smuggling mission? Some complex scheme, doomed to failure from the start?” Kenneth sounded almost sorrowful. “You know, I think you should reflect on the life choices you’ve made. Some beings are just born to be itinerant space adventurers. Others aren’t. You know who’s really good at it?”