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Chapter 1

"Someone stole my drink."

In the interests of having a peaceful night and going home sooner, I ignored the slurred words and string of swear words that followed, and continued to replenish the stock of beverages for mix into the cooler. 

"Hey, you hear me?"

Eddie’s was crowded tonight— a whole four patrons occupied seats in the place, and all of them at the bar. The music was too loud, the lights too dim, the air too musty. But none of that had anything to do with our lack of customers. It was this city— this entire planet, really. Ever since the war ended, there was a dive like this on every corner. 

At the other end of the long counter my boss was sweet-talking a pair of night ladies. He was either trying to convince them to bring their clientele around more often or else he was trying to bring them on his payroll so he could benefit from the flow of customers who liked their drinks poured by a good-looking lady. Likely the latter. Eddie had seen the advantage of hiring me, and I had to sleep sometimes. 

I hoped I could pretend I hadn’t heard this guy, but Eddie nodded his head, indicating I had to respond to the meathead. 

With a sigh, I put down the empty crate and went over to the drunk. A wide bartop of the latest polymer resin was between him and me, but at that moment it could have been the width of Saturn's rings and still not wide enough for my liking. 

"You finished that drink twenty minutes ago," I said. I was supposed to smile and be friendly and wave my breasts to get the scumbag customers to buy more drinks. Supposed to. The reality was, I wasn't very good at friendly or breast-waving. 

Something about this guy gave me the creeps. The pockmark-scars on his bloated, pink face, maybe, but not likely. We all have our scars. It was more likely the piercing eyes behind lower lids or the sneer about to erupt on his fat lips, but it also could have been that I knew him from before I took a blow to my head and lost my memories. 

I glanced over at Eddie again. These ladies were probably good at both friendly and breast-waving. 

“Well? Where's my drink?" Scarface said. 

I pointed at the empty glass in front of him. He looked down at it. 

"Oh," he said. "I did that?"

"Yes," I said. "Do you want another, or what?"

"Ask me nicely," he said. 

Something in his voice suggested perhaps he wasn't as drunk as he was seeming to be, but when I turned my head and looked at him, I found him sleepy-eyed and swaying in his seat.

"Excuse me?"

"Nobody got good manners anymore," he said with a shrug.

He fumbled his wallet out of his pocket and put his bank's scan card on the endlessly black bartop. 

I reminded myself this wasn't such a bad job; there were plenty of worse things I could be doing-- the jail was certainly full of such work. This was a means to an end; and really, this job wasn't even difficult. All I had to do was punch the drink order into the computer, a machine measured and poured, and then scan the card. No measuring, no tallies. Just make sure the right glass went into the right hand.  

I took a deep breath. 

"So what'll it be?" I asked. "More of the same?"

I reached for the scan card. He slapped his hand down on top of mine. 

"Ask me nicely." His voice was deep, his words articulated, and his personality full of asshole. 

The sleeve of my shirt pulled tight, exposing the edge of the tattoo scrawled on my right wrist. It caught his attention. Damn. That’s what this was about. He'd probably caught sight of it when I was putting away the bottles. 

"Show some respect. Call me 'sir'," he said with his lips curled back in a sneer. He jerked his jacket sleeve just enough to show me his similar tattoo. I tugged at my hand but he was strong and not as drunk as I’d thought.

Okay. I officially hated this job. Drunken assholes every night. And every one of them lonely or with something to prove. The work itself was easy. The people? Not so much.

"Hey. Let her go." The man two stools over had noticed the commotion and decided to get involved. 

Great. Now I was a damsel in distress. I think I hated that more than I hated the drunks.

I yanked at my hand again. His grip tightened. This whole thing was causing more disruption than I wanted. I needed this job. I snuck a glance over my shoulder. Eddie was disengaging himself from the ladies. 

Wonderful. I’d probably blown his business deal. Or maybe he was coming over to make sure I didn't reach for the shotgun that was strapped under the bar. Probably the latter.

Wannabe-hero sidled up behind Scarface, chin jutting, eyes wary. Hero looked like he could put the drunk on his ass single-handedly. If it wasn't for this bar between us, I could too. 

"Thanks, but I'm fine," I said to the concerned citizen. He hesitated, eyes flicking to the red marks spreading across my skin. 

"Really," I insisted. 

The drunk sneered. "Yeah, you heard her."

I waited until Hero returned to his seat and refocussed his attention on the game playing on the vid-screen. 

"Now, where were we," Scarface cooed. 

I counted to ten to get my calm back. I made a sharp and quick twist of his arm. He hadn't been expecting it and all the torque went right into his elbow. A hiss escaped between his crooked and stained teeth, and he released his grip. I grit my teeth, and pulled back my hand, palming his scan card. "What'll it be, sir?"

I glanced over at the hero. I might as well be gloating, but I couldn't help it. I wanted him to know I meant it when I said I could take care of myself. Hero nodded and smiled, and there was something about that smile that made my heart skip a beat. Then my stomach knotted and I wondered if I used to know him, too. 

Scarface curled up his lip, as if to say the game wasn't over.

"The same. Make it a double," he said. He waited until my back was turned and I was punching in his order before he added, "Pussies like you are the reason we lost the war.”

I froze. There was little interest in gender, race, religion or other label ever since the aliens invaded. The only thing anyone cared about was if you were human or not. The former made you an automatic friend, the latter made you dead. 

"Pussy don't belong on the battlefield," he said. “Unless she’s naked in a calendar on the bunker wall.”

I walked away to enter the drink order into the computer, though I was really walking away before I punched him in the face. Fortunately for me, this kind of talk wasn't allowed at Eddie's bar, and Eddie, who’d finally decided to join me, had heard every word. 

"Sir, it's time for you to leave," Eddie said. 

"Why? It's a free galaxy," the asshole said. 

"That kind of talk isn't allowed in my establishment," Eddie said. "Now you can either leave or I can have you arrested."

"Don't see why this is my fault," the asshole said.

I returned to stand beside Eddie, set down the freshly filled glass, and slid the scan card across the bartop. Scarface pocketed the card and pointed a finger at me. 

"She's the reason we lost the war, y'know," he said. 

"Last I checked we weren't all assimilated to aliens." Eddie shrugged a shoulder. "Clearly, we didn't lose the war."

Scarface narrowed his eyes and levelled his gaze with Eddie's. "I guess it depends who you ask." He swirled his drink and tossed it back. He slid off his stool and stumbled across the bar and out the door. 

My shoulders suddenly felt a little lighter. 

"Sorry you had to deal with that, Sasha," Eddie said. 

I knew he meant it. Though Eddie wanted me for my looks and we both knew there were jerks on this world same as any other, he'd promised to always deal with the drunks I couldn't handle. I'd promised to always handle them.

I shrugged. "Could have been worse," I said. "At least I charged him double for his drink."

No need to mention it took me two tries to do it because my hands were shaking so much.

Eddie grinned. "I knew there was a reason I hired you, Sasha."

"And I thought you hired me because I’m pretty.” 

"That too, Sasha. That too." Eddie dropped the smile. "But no more fights with the customers, okay?"

"The guy was a creep."

"You're right, and I get that." Eddie sighed. "Him I don't mind tossing. But look around, Sash."

Everybody was gone-- the drunk, the hero and the ladies of the night. They'd all cleared out when being here became uncomfortable. It wasn't as though there weren't better options. With a watering hole on every corner of this spaceport, this dive was hardly noticeable, and according to Eddie, his place had been fashionable for a while after it first opened, but the crowd had since moved on. 

"Have I ever mentioned how much I appreciate this job, sir?" If anyone deserved the accolades, it was Eddie. I scooped up the crate and turned to put it away, but Eddie stilled me with a gentle hand on my arm.

“You,” he said, “never have to call me that. Do we have an understanding?”

I met his eyes and nodded. 

With his black hair, silver-blue eyes and carved features, Eddie was certainly attractive and would have had no trouble filling his bar with female clientele, if not for his mangled arm, pronounced limp, and air of pride and depression. He'd been hit by a plasma blast during a battle, and considered it a life-ending disaster, even though he was the only one of his crew to survive. 

Though he didn't know it, I had similar, though internal, battle scars; I believed we recognized that about each other. 

Eddie released me and I went to put the bottle crate away in the back room. 

My problem wasn't with using a salutation to show respect for the commission. I could do that. Hell, I'd spent five years doing that very thing every single day whether I felt the person deserved it or not. My problem was the drunk's attitude of entitlement, that he demanded respect he had no intention of showing to anyone else unless they outranked him. I’d seen first-hand how jerks like him had little regard for the mission, the government, or the lives of the troops he was leading. A guy like him only cared about himself, advancing his own career, saving his own behind. After five years of duty, I could spot one of his ilk a spaceport away. 

Back in the day I would have done what I was told and carried on, for the good of the war, no matter how much I hated the jerk calling the shots. These days I was having a much harder time with that. Like I said, we all have our scars.

 

*

When my shift ended, I changed into my street clothes— a pair of cargo pants, t-shirt, sweatshirt, and combat boots, all purchased at the thrift store. I stuffed my work clothes into my bag, shut my locker, and headed out to the wild streets of Beacon Spaceport. Not that the streets were crawling with feral animals, but a girl still had to be careful. 

The city was always busy. Here it was, approaching dawn, with yellow windows dotting the dull, grey skyscrapers, evidence of early "rise and shine" routines being performed, as the sun started to lighten the sky from inky black to hazy grey. Groundcars zoomed through the streets, and more folks ambled the sidewalks. No one paid me a second glance. A girl could be anonymous in the city. Which was good, because having recently broken out of prison a few weeks ago, I still had to scrape together enough cash to get off this rock, and I had to do it before being recognized.

I was close. Every shift I put in at Eddie’s brought me closer. A couple more and I was out of here. I would have felt bad about that, but since my boss was chatting up night ladies tonight, it looked like it wouldn’t be long before he replaced me. 

Tonight when I stepped outside, the air felt different. I barely got out the door before I spotted a figure leaning against the building next door. I recognized him. It was Mr. Concerned Citizen. He had his arms crossed over his jacket, and appeared bored with the passing street traffic. I had a sudden and unenjoyable feeling like he was waiting for me.  

I swallowed down a spike of panic and looked for exits. I could cross the street— that is, if I could dodge the traffic that was currently alternating between bumper-to-bumper and accelerating to beat the next light. Eddie was still out back putting out the garbage, but Concerned Citizen would notice if I turned around and went back the way I came. I could stare straight ahead and make like I didn't see him. Maybe I could put a few of these pedestrians between us… 

Okay. Deep breath. He was probably still trying to be a hero. Wanting to make sure I got home okay. 

I hitched the strap of my bag up my shoulder and went for option three. But I was keeping my bag ready to use for self-defence, just in case. 

"Thanks for your concern," I said, "but I'm fine. I can walk myself home."

He fell into step beside me. 

"There's something you need to know," he said. "Maybe we can go somewhere to talk?" 

Damn. No chance this was coincidence then. 

"If you don't mind, I'm coming off a long shift. Maybe another time," I said, and picked up my pace. 

"How about I buy you a cup of coffee?" he said. "And maybe a sandwich. You look like you could eat."

I took immediate offence to his assessment, while at the same time my stomach growled and the gnawing emptiness reminded me I hadn't eaten since I left the shelter. 

“No, thanks," I said. "And I don’t need an escort to see me home.”

I hurried my pace again, but he kept up. 

"Well, see, I’d really like to talk to you, Brittany Scorpio."

Shit. 

He knew my real name. 

That spike of fear surged through me again. 

"That man at the bar, the one who grabbed your wrist," he said, "works for a very bad man. You're in danger."

"Oh, and you're my hero?" I whirled around to face him.

He held up his hands. "I just want to talk."

Yeah. Right.

"He probably works for you," I muttered. 

The man snorted. His eyes darted to the sides, checking the streets. 

I was considering how fast I'd have to run to get beyond his reach, and if I could get a pedestrian between us so I could make a clean getaway, when he warned me not to run. 

“There’s no need for that," he said. "Besides, I have a stun pistol pointed at you."

His left hand was in his jacket pocket, and by the shape of it, he was telling the truth. 

Non-lethal force meant he wanted me alive. I swallowed. “What do you want?"

"As I said. Just talk. Keep walking. Turn right at the next alley."

How stupid did he believe me to be?

The man was a head and shoulders taller than me, and easily twice my weight. Where both Eddie and the drunk at the bar were strong but slim at the shoulders, this man's silhouette denoted an upper body strength I wasn't certain I could beat. 

He smiled same as before, but this time, instead of my heart skipping a beat, I went cold with fear. 

He had me trapped and he knew it. 

What choice did I have but to do what he said?

With my every instinct screaming at me to avoid getting captured, to avoid going to jail, I followed his directions to the alley. When I turned the corner, I swung around, letting my bag have all the momentum. I'd intended to hit the stun pistol, but he was closer than I'd judged. I got him in the stomach. Hard enough he stumbled to the side. 

I ran for it. 

Eddie lived in a tiny room at the back of the bar. I could still get back there and get help. Maybe. If he heard me pounding on the door he might answer. Or he might dismiss the noise as that from a drunk or crazy schmuck. But at this hour, in this part of the city, with Eddie my only ally, it was my only hope.

I'd just reached Eddie's front doors, when the other man from the bar leapt out from the doorway of the place next door. Scarface slammed me into the doors so thick, they didn't move, didn't rattle under our combined weight of at least a hundred kilograms. So much for Eddie hearing the commotion. Scarface wrenched my arm up behind me, mashing my face into the peeling black paint. 

Dammit. Concerned Citizen was right. Scarface had grabbed my wrist to get a look at the number. To confirm my identity. Shit. 

There were no windows at the front of Eddie's, which until this moment I'd considered an asset. All the better for privacy. Assaults like this were common in the city, so there would be no help from passersby. 

"You crossed my employer," Scarface said. "Cost him a very big deal. Now you're going to pay."

"I don't see how killing me will help," I said. 

"Oh, we don't want you dead, sweetheart. We plan to use you first."

He pushed against my arm before I could respond. Pain exploded from my elbow. I whimpered and fought a losing battle to keep from crying. I struggled, trying to get my arm down. I kicked, blindly trying to connect with his shin, but he'd planted his legs out of range, and every time I moved, he pushed harder on my arm. For the amount of alcohol this guy had consumed, he was awfully coordinated. 

"Let her go," a voice said. The hero. He'd followed.

At first I was elated that he was bothering to help me, especially in this city where people only help themselves, but then I realized now I really was a damsel in distress now. I'd wanted to get out of this mess myself. 

Scarface growled. "Keep walking, pal."

"Okay," Hero said. 

Wait. He was leaving? When he could be putting those broad shoulders to work pommeling this guy? Or better yet-- the stun gun? What about that line he was trying to sell me about how he just wanted to talk? Now he was just letting this guy have me? They were probably in this together. Terrific. 

"Now where were we?" Scarface said.

I felt sick. My body flashed hot and cold with fear. Bile churned in my stomach. 

"Time to go. I'm going to ease up on your arm, but I advise you not to try anything. Feel this?" A cylinder of solid metal jabbed into my ribs hard enough to make me whimper. "You were in the military. You're familiar with a Jones 3000. You've seen what it can do."

The Jones 3000 was a laser pistol. Lethal. 

"I thought you wanted me alive," I said. 

"Oh, we do," he said. "That's why I've narrowed the beam to the smallest setting. Burn a hole right through you. Small enough it shouldn't kill you. At least not right away. Still be painful."

The scary thing wasn't knowing he was speaking the truth. The scary thing was the glee in his voice, especially for that last part. 

Scarface eased back from my arm. It fell awkwardly at my side, throbbing from the elbow and shoulder, numb and useless. He yanked on my jacket, pulling me away from the door. I quickly tried to get my bearings, figure out where he was behind me. I clutched my bag in my good hand, wondering if I could swing it and knock the pistol from his hand or if I would miscalculate as I had with the hero. All I knew for sure was that I had to do something. I couldn't let him take me. 

I whirled. 

The bag crashed into the pistol. He fired. The laser shot out and struck the building, burning into the cement and composite and metal, leaving a black, smoking scar along its path. I'd apologize to Eddie later, offer to pay for the damages. Assuming I lived. 

Scarface was quick to recover. He swung the pistol up, aiming for me.

Movement stirred in the receding shadows. The hero lunged out, and right when I was sure I was a goner, I heard a zapping noise and Scarface crumpled into a pile. 

"Do you believe me now?" Hero said. 

I looked up into his eyes. Yes, I believed him. This was a bad man with an even badder boss. But this was all playing out a little to much like one of those ancient tales of "bad cop vs good cop." 

I leapt forward, pushing the hero out of the way. He fired. The electrical pulse hit me, razzing my muscles. My legs buckled and I crashed to the sidewalk.

***

End of Excerpt