by Brian K. Asbury
The bar was poorly lit, which was probably a mercy, as it spared the few patrons present at this hour the dubious privilege of having to look at the damp, mold-stained walls. The barman, a four-foot-tall, blue-skinned stocky Detax who had built up the floor level on his side of the bar in order to reach the same height as his customers, was polishing a glass with a none-too-clean rag, as barmen throughout the universe are wont to do. Over to his right, a pair of reddish-scaled Gargs were eyeing up a solitary drinker hunched over a bottle at a table that he had moved away from the one remaining intact window. They seemed to be discussing his heritage.
After a few minutes, one of the hulking reptoids unfolded himself from his reinforced stool and sashayed toward the solitary man. “Hey, you,” he said gruffly.
The drinker offered no reply. “I say ‘hey, you,’ humanoid,” repeated the Garg.
The man turned slowly to face him. He was a tall man, thin-featured and pale-skinned. If he had hair, it was concealed under a dark green skullcap that matched the rest of his all-covering outfit except for his belt and boots, which were both white. The Garg was no judge of humanoid age, so he was probably unaware that the man looked to be in his forties or thereabouts. “Do you want something?”
“Yah. You Rimborian?”
“No,” replied the lone man. He turned back toward his bottle and re-filled his glass.
The Garg grunted. “Huh. You lie. My partner Yih’pshwe and me, we say you Rimborian. Hate Rimborians. All Rimborians thieves. Not welcome here.”
“If you say so,” said the man without looking up. “But as I’m not Rimborian, why should I care?”
“We say you Rimborian. Hate Rimborians. Rimborians swindled Yih’pshwe’s brother. Yih’pshwe swear to kill Rimborians and I, Gah’shta, will help.”
The man disdained to reply, instead draining his glass in one swig.
“You no ignore Gah’shta,” growled the Garg. He clamped a heavy clawed hand on the humanoid’s shoulder. His scales flushed yellow.
There was a sudden blur of movement from the seated man. He twisted free with surprising agility and, in one fluid movement, slipped a hollow tube out of his sleeve. Before Gah’shta could react, the man had raised the tube to his lips and fired a dart into the Garg’s throat, where his scales were less thick.
Gah’shta roared. “What you do?” he demanded. “What…?” And he keeled over.
Across the room, the other Garg howled with rage. “You kill Gah’shta! Yih’pshwe kill you, Rimborian!” He picked up a table and managed to get it in front of him just in time to intercept a second dart heading in his direction. He stalked forward, still holding the table before him as a shield.
Suddenly, a second humanoid stepped from a bar stool and into his path. “You don’t want to do that, friend,” he said. “One, I doubt that your companion is dead — just sleeping. Second, that man over there is no Rimborian but, I suspect, a Nemrallian — and a Nemrallian assassin, at that.”
“Get out of my way!” roared the Garg. He swung the table at the man, who merely grinned and ducked easily out of the way.
“Not a good move, friend. Not a good move at all.” The newcomer, whose clothing was purple and gold and included a gold-colored helmet and curious round goggles, reached behind his back and drew a huge sword. “I strongly advise you to back off now, while you still can!”
“You not frighten Gah’shta with grink-sticker! Kill you, too! Kill all Rimborians!”
“You really do have a problem with Rimborians, don’t you?” said the swordsman. “Assuming you get out of this alive, I’d recommend you learn to distinguish between different humanoid races. I’m not from Rimbor, either!”
The Garg swung the table at him again. This time, the swordsman stood his ground and met the attack with his blade, which suddenly burst into brilliant light. It struck the table, which exploded into a million shards, the impact sending Yih’pshwe flying backward.
The humanoid laughed. Yih’pshwe howled again and started to rise, only to fall back as, like his companion, he was struck in the throat by a well-aimed dart.
The green-clad man came forward. “I thought it best to end this,” he said, eyeing the other’s sword. “I don’t want any deaths on my account.”
“Oh, don’t worry, friend, the Powersword can stun as easily as it can destroy. I have perfect control over it. My name’s Elvo Elvar, by the way. They call me Elvo the Swordsman.”
“Imaginative,” said the other, turning away back toward his own table.
“I think I know who you are, too,” said Elvo. “I was right about you, wasn’t I? You’re from the planet Nemral.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. I’ve been to your homeworld, and I’ve had some business with the Assassins’ Guild before. That blowpipe of yours is a specialist weapon that’s not used anywhere else in this part of the galaxy, so far as I know.”
“And the greatest exponent of that weapon is the man known as Dartalg — a man who resigned from the Guild in mysterious circumstances several years ago.”
The man in green turned back to face him. He raised his blowpipe and reached into the pouch at his belt. “All right — if you want a fight, let’s get it over with, shall we?”
Elvo sheathed his weapon and held up his gloved hands. “Hey, who said anything about wanting to fight? I’ve no argument with you.”
“Don’t lie to me. I know the Guild wants me back. You wouldn’t be the first to think you could convince me to return to them.”
Elvo grinned. “I don’t do the Guild’s dirty work, friend. I just came in here for a drink. I hadn’t even noticed you before you pulled the pipe on that Garg. That was very smart work — too smart. That sort of action screams here I am to anybody who’s heard of your reputation.”
The other snorted. “I thank you for your advice. Now go away and leave me alone.” He sat down and poured himself another drink.
“Too much of that stuff isn’t good for you, you know,” said Elvo.
“Your concern for my health is touching. However, you are starting to irritate me.”
Elvo ignored the warning and sat down beside him. “Sorry, but I’m the nosey, interfering sort, friend. And you look as if you’re going through a bad patch. Maybe I can help.”
Dartalg glared at him. “What makes you think that?”
“My guess is you’re short on funds, or you wouldn’t be drinking in a dump like this.”
“It doesn’t stop you drinking here, apparently.”
“They do say it takes one to know one,” said Elvo. “Times have been lean for me, too. I’m a mercenary — a damn good one — but there isn’t too much work for the likes of us on a backwater world like this.” He leaned closer. “I do know, though, of someone who is hiring — and paying big credits, no questions asked. I was on my way to see him myself — just stopped in here to wet my proverbial whistle first.”
“Has anybody ever told you that you talk too much?”
“Frequently,” said Elvo. “Are you interested?”
“I might be. Who, where, what, and how much?”
“Not here,” said Elvo. “I’ll tell you on the way — if you’re interested.”
Dartalg thought for a moment, then drained his glass. He corked the bottle and stuck it in his belt, then thought better of it and replaced it on the table. “Lead on,” he said.
The two men rose and made for the door. As they did so, however, a blaster shot zipped into the wall above their heads. “Not so fast, gentlebeings!”
They turned to see the barman leveling a blaster at them. He pointed at the remains of the table that Elvo had shattered. “Before you go, one of you better pay for the damage, boys. Us Detax might be short, but we ain’t stupid!”
After much wandering along dingy alleyways, Elvo called a halt outside a nondescript building that looked to be desperately in need of some maintenance. Above the peeling paint of the door was a faded sign on which could still barely be made out the outline of a three-breasted woman.
Dartalg shot his helmeted companion a look of disgust. “Do you realize what this place is?”
“Of course,” said Elvo with a smile. “We’re not here to indulge ourselves with the merchandise, though. Our man is just using this place as a recruiting office.”
“For what? Diseases?”
Elvo laughed. “So — you do have a sense of humor after all, friend.”
Dartalg grunted. “So what now? Do we knock three times and say Zharli sent us?”
“Something like that.” The swordsman rapped on the door.
A panel opened to reveal a scarred, sallow face. “Yes?”
“We’re here to fix the plumbing,” Elvo said.
“You can’t be serious!” Dartalg muttered.
The door opened, admitting the two men. “Hoy — no weapons!” growled the doorkeeper, fingering a blaster at his hip.
“It’s all right, Obluk,” a smooth voice called from above them. “They’re here to see the boss.”
Their eyes beginning to adjust to the interior gloom, they looked up to see a balcony overlooking the hallway into which they had entered. A man stood there, naked from the waist up, with an equally unclad girl clinging to his broad shoulders. “Elvo the Swordsman! They told me you were interested. Welcome!”
“Do I know you?” said Elvo, frowning.
“No — but I know you by reputation. Not much goes on in this town that my beautiful agents don’t tell me about.” He gently pried the girl from his arm, and she ran away, giggling. He began to descend the stairs toward the newcomers, who could now see that his only clothing was a loincloth, boots, and a headband. To call this man handsome was an understatement — he was so handsome it hurt, and he clearly knew it. The rippling muscles on his powerful body gleamed with oil.
“You’re the one who’s hiring?” asked an incredulous Dartalg.
“No — I’m just his agent,” replied the godlike man. “Call me Apollo. And you are?”
“I can vouch for him,” said Elvo.
“Call me Talon,” said Dartalg.
Apollo looked him up and down. “Fine, Talon. But names aren’t enough. As I said, Elvo, here, has a reputation — but what do you do?”
“How about this?” said Dartalg softly. In one lightning movement, he whipped out his blowpipe, fitted a dart, raised it to his lips, and fired.
“Very impressive,” said Apollo with a hint of sarcasm. “But even I could hit a wall with one of those things. What’s it supposed to prove?”
“I suggest you examine the dart, friend,” grinned Elvo, who seemed to be focused on the spot on the wall where it had hit. Apollo crossed to where he indicated and found that it was pinning a tiny gnat-like insect to the plasterwork by one wing.
“Oh, come on!” he scoffed. “You don’t expect me to believe that was deliberate?”
Even as he said it, a second dart whizzed past his ear. When he looked again, he saw that the insect’s other wing was now also pinned to the wall. “Great galaxy! How did you do that?!” he exclaimed.
“Years of practice and discipline,” said Dartalg dryly. “So — do I get to meet your employer now?”
“Upstairs!” said Apollo. He gestured, and the two men began to ascend.
Looking back, Elvo noticed that two more scantily clad women had appeared from somewhere and wrapped themselves around the bronzed beefcake. “What’s he got that I haven’t?” he muttered.
“You don’t seriously expect an answer to that, do you?” said Dartalg.
As they reached the balcony, the nearly nude girl who had been fawning over Apollo earlier reappeared. “This way, gentlemen,” she said. They followed into a room even more dark and dingy than the entranceway.
Elvo adjusted the lenses in his goggles, but they failed to penetrate the gloom. However, it was evident that they were not alone. “Hello?” he said. “Who’s there?”
“Never mind who I am,” a hoarse voice replied. Peering more intently, the two men could just about make out a seated figure on the other side of the room. It seemed to be cloaked and hooded, but they could make out no more details.
“You’re the one who’s looking for mercenaries?” asked Dartalg.
“I am. And you are Elvo the Swordsman and Dartalg of Nemral.”
“How did you know–?”
“Simple deduction. Apollo might be taken in by a false name, but I am not. I know your reputation, Dartalg, and I also know that your Guild wants you back. However, I am not interested in handing you in. I have a job that I require mercenaries for. If you are not interested, leave now.”
“What sort of job?” asked Elvo, still trying to penetrate the gloom.
“I require an object to be retrieved from a very secure location. Doing so will require specialist skills. I believe that you gentlemen have some of those skills, or I would not have allowed you to get this far.”
“I’m not a thief,” said Dartalg.
“Neither am I,” said Elvo. “I’m a fighter.”
“Bah! Fighters are ten a credit!” snapped the man in the darkness. “If I just wanted people who could fight, I’d hire a few brainless Khunds. What I want is people with thinking skills as well as brawn, because the object of this mission is guarded by a great many cunning traps as well as by living guards. As for your scruples, the item in question does not belong to the people who are holding it. It was acquired illegally. Therefore, think of this as merely recovering stolen property.”
“I’d like to know more about this object before I consider signing on,” said Elvo thoughtfully. “And about the place it’s being held.”
“Also, I prefer to know who I’m working for,” said Dartalg. “Who are you?”
A low growl issued from the man in the shadows. “You are not here to ask questions,” he said. “Choose now, and quickly. Do you want to sign on for this or not? The pay is half a million standard credits each, but continue to waste my time, and you can go now with nothing.”
“Half a million?” muttered Elvo. “That’s tempting…”
“Enough! Are you interested or not? Choose!”
“When will we get to know just what it is we’re recovering?” asked Dartalg.
“When you are en route to the planet where it is being held and not before. You will also meet the others I have hired at that time. Now, I will answer no more questions. Either accept the offer or leave. Now.”
“All right,” said Elvo. “I’m not all that happy about being kept in the dark, but it’s too much money to refuse. I’m in.”
“I also accept,” said Dartalg. “With some reservations, I admit — but as my companion here noted earlier today, I’m not exactly living the high life at the present time. If it will get me off this cesspool of a planet, I’ll take the job.”
“Good,” said the voice. “Then go and report to Apollo. He will find you temporary quarters and escort you to my ship tomorrow. In the meantime, the amenities of this house are yours to enjoy.”
“So long as you have something drinkable, that’s all I care,” said Dartalg. “You can keep the rest.”