He bared his yellow teeth in a half-cocked grin, begging to have them knocked into the back of his burnt-out throat. The knife glinted in the dim lights over the bar and splintered the wooden top. A puff of dust rose into the thick air.
‘Your kind ain’t welcome here,’ the guy said hoarsely. Bracka scarring was an easy spot. The warble of scorched vocal chords. The smoke damaged gums. The smell.
Dedrick stared at his drink. The branded ‘M’ on the back of his hand glowing red in the neon that hung on the mirrored back wall. He sighed and reached for his glass, bringing it to his lips.
‘I said — your kind ain’t welcome here,’ he said again.
Dedrick’s eyes drifted from the junkie in the mirror to the bartender. He watched, jaw taught, polishing a tumbler, but made no move to intervene.
‘I heard what you said.’ Dedrick took another sip, his eyes drifting back to the junkie.
‘So get up.’ Flecks of saliva hit his face.
‘I’m not done with my drink.’
‘The hell you’re not.’ He knocked it out of his hand and the glass exploded on the top, spilling cheap Brown over Ded’s jeans. He didn’t react.
‘You non-humans don’t feel nothing, do you?’
‘More than you, jacked up on Bracka.’ He sniffed the air. ‘Bad Bracka.’
He grabbed Ded’s hand and pulled it into the air, twisting it towards him. ‘You see this ‘M’? That’s for us humans. For us to spot you. So we know what you are.’ His grip tightened. ‘Machine.’
Ded ground his teeth. The bartender eyed him. The polishing continued. Fine — if he wasn’t going to do anything.
‘You’d better leave,’ Ded breathed. He turned on his stool and rung out his free hand. The Brown speckled the cracked leather on the next seat, ‘before you make me get up.’
The Junkie’s nostrils flared. ‘Do it. Prove everyone right - that your kind is nothing but—’
A shotgun cocked and they turned to face the bartender. It was tight against his shoulder. ‘You,’ he said, waggling it at the Bracka-head. ‘Out.’
Ded was stone. The junkie measured him, lips twitching for a fix. He sneered, pulled the knife from the wood and dragged it across the beer-soaked veneer, heading for the door. The jagged port, cut out against the belt flashed in the frame and the stench of ripe Prolgae bled in before it snapped shut. Ded grimaced and looked at the bartender already scooping the broken glass and spilt Brown into a pan.
The bartender nodded.
‘Took your time, though.’ Ded pulled a napkin from a rusted dispenser and blotted his forearms.
The bartender smiled through his scruffy moustache. ‘Took me a while to decide.’
‘Which one of us to shoot?’
‘Who was most likely to say thanks. Speaking of which…’ He dropped the pan, and rolled up his sleeve to expose the black circle on his forearm, the raised disc visible under the skin. He held it out and grinned.
Ded tsked. ‘Figures.’ He rolled up his and held his own circle to the bartender’s. The subdermal credit-chips glowed white for a second before beeping and turning red.
‘Insufficient funds,’ the bartender shook his head. His moustache bristled. ‘So much for my tip.’
‘Yeah, work ain’t exactly easy to come by,’ Ded said gruffly. ‘Don’t suppose you’re in the business of extending lines of credit?’
‘You don’t suppose right.’
The bartender shrugged and slung a greasy rag over his shoulder. ‘I got a zero tolerance fighting in here, and strangely, you were the lesser of two evils. I’m no machine-lover, but the scuz wasn’t like to rack up a tab… Though, it’s not like you’re about to either.’ He shook his head.
Ded opened his mouth to reply when he stench of Prolgae flooded in again. He turned. It would have been a fair bet the junkie would gather his friends and come back. The pogroms never really ended, his kind just got harder to find.
But it wasn’t. It was a girl. Top to bottom Pink-Penny. Skinny, bruised knees, nails chewed short. Ded rolled his eyes. Bracka-head too, he guessed. That shit was everywhere. There wasn’t a drifter or Pink in the port not into it - dark eyes, hands shaking, turning tricks just to pay for her next block. Yeah, sounded about right.
‘I’ll get rid of her for a refill.’ Ded smirked at the bartender, nodding at her..
The bartender cocked an eyebrow. ‘Credit only. Didn’t the USC didn’t set you up with one of them nice Civil Pensions after they shit-canned you?’
‘Funny.’ Ded sucked his cheek.
‘I thought so.’ The bartender smiled.
Cheap perfume drowned him as the Pink slid onto the next stool, leather skirt groaning as she swung her leg over.
‘Credit only,’ the bartender said before she could ask.
‘Oh, I don’t want nothing to drink,’ she muttered in a Southern accent.
‘Earth?’ asked Ded, interest piqued in the absence of a glass.
‘Not drinking, not welcome,’ the bartender added.
‘Huh? Sorry. What?’ She was jittery. Business end of a come-down by the look of it.
‘I like Earth,’ Ded said idly. ‘None of this microgravity shit.’
‘You can’t come in here looking for Johns,’ the bartender cut in.
‘I’m not a Pink-Penny,’ she said defensively.
‘I hate microgravity,’ Ded went on, grimacing. ‘Turns my stomach everytime we thrust-correct after a sling.’
‘No? Then buy a drink,’ the bartender’s fingers curled over the bar edge. They all lied. Lied for a fix.
‘I won’t stay long. Just a minute, please.’
Ded cocked his head. ‘I think the worst thing though is never breathing fresh air. Prolgae leaves a sour taste in your mouth, like—’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ the girl span on her stool and looked Ded in the eye. Her’s shone in the half-light, pupils tight. She wasn’t high.
‘Ignore him,’ the bartender urged. ‘He’s just looking for someone to buy him a drink.’
The glasses clinked on the shelf as a freighter made the slingshot and hurled itself over the belt. A rumble echoed through the port.
She didn’t look away. Her eyes moved from Ded’s to the Molotov burn showing under the collar of his shirt, to the ‘M’ on the back of his hand.
He ran his tongue along the front of his teeth, weighing her. ‘Not for a lifetime now.’
‘But you were, right? A Civil Defense bot?’ She leaned in.
Ded shifted, his eyes scanning the vacant faces of the other drinkers in the steel-clad barrel-bottom rundown excuse for a bar, a thousand feet below the Greyline — where they keep the scum. If that got out, he’d probably not see the next solar cycle. ‘Keep your voice down. And, don’t call me that.’
She swallowed and cast a glance over his shoulder, at the door. Ded didn’t flinch.
‘I need protection.’
‘You can’t afford it.’
‘Please,’ she pleaded, her eyes wide. ‘I need help.’
‘Protection is one thing, help is another.’ He looked at her thin thighs, her greyed fingertips. She’d been choking down Prolgae to get by. Maybe not much, but enough to tell Ded she didn’t have a credit to her chip. No one but bums and Bracka-cookers resorted to that. Though she didn’t look like either.
‘I can pay.’
Ded said nothing.
The door opened.
‘Shit.’ She ducked behind him. ‘Please.’
He turned his arm out, showing her the black ring, the raised disk under the skin.
‘Clara!’ The voice rang through the bar, notes strained from the Bracka smoke.
A tear ran down her cheek and she jammed her forearm against his, chips beeping. His eyes stayed with her for a second as he listened to the footsteps.
‘Clara, I know you’re in here!’
Ded turned and stood, taking two steps. The guy, pale and high, wrapped up in gold chains and velveteen, a through and through Fleshmonger, looked from him to her and back. He didn’t think, leaned into his right knee, then swung.
His fist pinged off Ded’s cheek and glanced upwards. He swore and drew, silver barrel blinking in the red neon. Ded’s hand flew up and muzzle flash lit the room.
Smoke bled between his fingers locked around the nose of the pistol. Plasma residue dripped from the heel of his hand, flesh sizzling. He twisted the gun hard with his left, trapping the Flesher in the trigger ring, and found the his hair with his right. The Flesher’s forehead bounced off the bar top and the beer taps swayed. Ded lifted his hand, flexed his fingers and cursed, staring at the blackened hole in his palm, the damaged circuits and cables straining and pulling in the haemo-jelly. ‘Son of a bitch.’
The shotgun cocked again. ‘Out.’
Ded looked at the bartender’s iron gaze, the girl’s terrified shiver, and then the Flesher’s crumpled body. He hung his head for a second. ‘Shit. Alright. I never meant to—’ He cut himself off and sighed. His apology wasn’t worth a damn. ‘You coming?’
The girl stood on shaky legs, brushing a matted blonde strand from her forehead. ‘Me?’
‘You just hired me, didn’t you? For protection?’
She nodded and tottered around the stool. Ded stepped over the Flesher and led her to the door, the shotgun trained on him the whole way. He opened it, staring into the murky depths of SlotShot, the last call for any ship heading out of the system. He sucked in a lungful of Prolgae laced air and she stepped onto the catwalk outside the bar. He closed the door behind him and stared at the circle on his forearm. It blinked red. He ground his teeth and stared at her, face cut up and bruised from a stiff right hook, arms folded across her shivering body. He could see her ribs through her sweat-stained blouse.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
He lowered his arm. ‘Nothing.’ He thought for a second, then forced a smile and said, ‘Let’s go.’