In Mike Brooks’ debut space epic Dark Run, a crew of thieves and con artists take on a job that could pay off a lot of debts in a corrupt galaxy where life is cheap and criminals are the best people in it. Available May 24th from Saga Press.
The Keiko is a ship of smugglers, soldiers of fortune, and adventurers traveling Earth’s colony planets searching for the next job. And they never talk about their past—until now. Captain Ichabod Drift is being blackmailed. He has to deliver a special cargo to Earth, and no one can know they’re there. It’s what they call a dark run… And it may be their last.
Randall’s Bar was at least a mile beneath the rocky surface of Carmella II and had all the inviting ambience of an open sewer; the sign over the door was simple neon tubes rather than a holo-projection, the lightpool table inside was glitching, and the air had the thin, sour quality that suggested it had already passed through too many lungs. It was populated by a dozen men and half as many women sharing little but the lean, dangerous look of overworked and underfed Undersiders in various stages of inebriation, but all seemingly determined to get deeper into their cups. He’d known better than to even think of asking Randall for a beer, and so was instead nursing a smeared glass tumbler containing a clear liquid that could have passed for paint stripper had its taste been a little more refined.
He had been in less inviting premises of his own volition, but right now he was struggling to recall more than one or two.
The thin, reedy voice was that of a kid.
There was no indication he was being addressed. He didn’t turn around, just kept his head low and his concentration on the glass of spirits in his hand. Then, inevitably, there was a tugging on the back of his armavest.
“Hey, mister! Are you Ichabod Drift?”
Drift sighed and looked up at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar: sharp-boned features, shoulder-length hair dyed a shocking violet and kept out of his eyes with a black bandana, skin a golden brown that had everything to do with parentage and nothing to do with the minimal amount of time it had ever been exposed to a star’s ultraviolet radiation. He rotated on his stool and absentmindedly reached up a hand to scratch at the skin around his mechanical right eye as it focused on the kid with a whirring of lenses.
Overlarge mining goggles stared blankly back at him over a dirty face topped by blondish stubble, which, combined with the pitch of the voice and a near-shapeless one-piece overall—probably a castoff from an older sibling—meant Drift wasn’t entirely sure whether it was male or female. He essayed a grin, the same winning smile that had worked him into beds and out of trouble more times than he could count (and when money was as large a part of your life as it was for Ichabod Drift, you had to be able to count pretty damn high).
“Sí, soy yo,” he said agreeably,“but who might you be? Kinda young for a Justice, ain’t you?” Not that the Justices would be looking for him right now; apart from anything else, Ichabod Drift wasn’t an outlaw… exactly. He was, as old Kelsier used to say,“of interest.” Exactly how much interest, and to whom, rather depended on what had happened recently and if he had a suitable alibi for where he’d been at the time.
“You the guy what killed Gideon Xanth?” the kid asked. Drift felt the gloom of the bar take on a sudden watchful flavor. Xanth’s Wild Spiders gang had been a menace for the last eighteen standard months over three sectors of the semilawless honeycomb of underground passages, caverns, and former mineshafts that made up the so-called Underside of the moon named Carmella II by the United States of North America. Drift had personally heard three different variants of the tale of how he and his partner had taken the Spiders down, then dragged Gideon’s corpse back to the Justices’ office in High Under to collect the handsome bounty posted on his scarred (and partially missing) head.
“That was a way from here,” he said, casually adjusting his weight so he was facing not only his youthful interrogator but the door as well, and letting his right hand idly drop into the general region of the holstered pistol at his hip. “I’m amazed word has spread so far, so soon. Where’d you hear that piece of news from?”
“There’s a gang o’ men just come into town,” the kid piped, “and they was asking about if anyone had seen Ichabod Drift, the Mexican what killed Gideon Xanth. Said they’d give ten bucks for whoever told ’em where he was.”
“I see,” Drift said, a grim sense of foreboding stirring in his gut. Not that he hadn’t been expecting this, but nonetheless… Something must have shown on his face, because the kid suddenly darted back out of arm’s length and scuttled for the door, as though worried that he (or possibly she) was about to be forcibly restrained from collecting the promised reward.
“Hey!” Drift shouted after the retreating shape. “Did you get a name from any of ’em?”
“Only from the big guy” came the reply, nothing but a begoggled head now visible poking back around the doorjamb. Drift raised his eyebrows and motioned with his hand to suggest that maybe the kid should quit stalling.
“He said his name was Gideon Xanth.”
Then the head disappeared, leaving nothing behind but the swinging saloon door and a sudden atmosphere of expectation so tense Drift could practically taste it. Unless that was the bile.
“Well, shit,” he remarked to no one in particular, and slid off his stool to land his booted feet on the dusty floor. With the entire bar’s eyes on him, he ostentatiously straightened his armavest, adjusted his bandana, checked his pistols, and then strode toward the door. Bruiser, the aging but still massive bouncer, nodded to him on his way past.
“You sure you wanna go out there, Drifty?”
“Just a simple misunderstanding, I’m sure,” Drift replied with a confidence he didn’t feel. Bruiser’s forehead added some wrinkles to the lines already weathered into it as he regarded the scene outside.
“Don’t look too simple from where I’m standing.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the Weasel piped up from next to him. Weasel was short and scrawny, and his job at Randall’s Bar was to look after anything Bruiser confiscated from customers—which basically boiled down to any firearm larger than a pistol, as only a fool would enter a Carmellan drinking den completely unarmed—and then return it to them as they left, guided by his perfect memory. “I’d say Gideon not actually being dead is pretty simple, really.”
“Depends on your point of view,” Drift replied, and sauntered out into what passed for Drowning Bend’s town square. The chemical tang of the leak in the nearby industrial outflow lingered in the air, burrowing into his nasal passages again now he was what passed for outside once more, while far above in the solid rock of the curved habdome roof the lights were churning out steady, reliable illumination. Which was a little unfortunate in some respects; a few shadows to hide in would be rather convenient right about now.
The Wild Spiders were in the square. And sitting in his personal, custom-made, six-legged mechanical walker, the padded seat upholstered in what was rumored to be genuine cowhide, was the imposing shape of Gideon Xanth.
Ichabod Drift had a momentary thought that maybe he’d just turn and head the other way, but then a shout went up. He’d been seen.
“Drift!” Xanth bellowed, his voice a basso roar. He flicked something large and shiny off his thumb, and Drift caught sight of the juvie diving to catch the promised ten-buck piece before fleeing into a side alley.
“Hola, Gideon!” Drift called back, settling his hands just over his guns. Two of them, at least; his backup was tucked in the small of his back under his belt.“You’re looking well!”
“Looking well for a dead man, you mean?” the gang leader snarled. “Boys, cover Mr. Drift for me, would you?”
At least a dozen weapons of varying caliber and roughly equal deadliness snapped up to point straight at Drift, which did nothing positive for his levels of either calmness or perspiration.
“That’s better,” Xanth said, doing something with the controls in front of him and sending his walker clanking forward whilst the Wild Spiders advanced on either side, their guns still trained and disappointingly steady. “Boys, we all know that Mr. Drift is a fast draw and a fine shot, so if he starts looking twitchy, then feel free to ventilate him for me before he gets any ideas into his head. Now, Drift.” The big gang leader’s scarred visage frowned as he looked down from his elevated seat. “I’m sitting there in a bar in Low Under, minding my own business, when I hear me some surprising news. Seems that I’m dead, and that you’re to blame.”
“Opinions vary on whether it was me who pulled the trigger on you,” Drift replied, trying not to let his eyes stray around too much.
“Ah yes.” Xanth nodded.“Your partner. It must have taken some balls to front up to the lawmen in High and claim you’d killed me, knowing that if your lie were found out, then they’d string you up. Even bigger balls actually, given that you surely knew I’d hear and would want to disabuse people of the notion o’ my demise. And given I know that deep down you’re a cowardly lickspittle, Drift, it must’ve been your partner what came up with the plan.” The theatrically conversational tone in his voice, pitched to carry to the observers behind doorjambs and peeking out through curtains all around, abruptly disappeared. What was left was the verbal equivalent of a knife, bare and sharp and about as friendly. “Where’s the bitch, Drift?”
“That’s no way to talk about a lady.” Drift shrugged.
He didn’t even see the blow coming. He was simply aware of Xanth doing something with his hand, and then one of the spider-walker’s metal legs lashed up and knocked him backward some six feet, leaving him sprawling in the dirt.
“Not talking about a lady, Drift,” Xanth growled. “I know ladies. I’ve met ’em, dined ’em, and bedded ’em. Even loved one, once upon a time. I’m talking about that bitch you run with, who ain’t no more of a lady than I am. Where’s Tamara Rourke?”
There were a few seconds of uneasy silence, while Drift tried to get his breath back and disguise the fact that by propping himself up on one elbow his right hand was once more straying close to the butt of a pistol. However, he was saved having to answer by the appearance of a small red dot on Xanth’s left temple.
Drift risked a look to his right. There, Saracen 920 rifle raised to her shoulder and trained on Gideon Xanth as she walked steadily forward, was Rourke. She was shorter than Drift and slight, dressed in a dark green bodysuit that would have merely emphasized the boyish nature of her figure had it not been drowned in the billowing depths of a long coat. Her hat was pulled low, and her eyes glinted in her dark-skinned face as she flicked her gaze along the length of the Wild Spiders’ line. Half of them switched their aim to cover her, but they weren’t fool enough to start firing when she had a bead on their boss. Tamara Rourke’s reputation as a deadshot was well earned.
“Rourke, you shouldn’t be as loyal as you are,” Xanth snarled. The gang leader wasn’t even pretending to be conversational now there was a weapon pointing at his head, which Drift couldn’t really fault him for. “Might be you could’ve got outta this hole while we were busy with this worm, but you had to come sticking your nose in again.”
“You’d only have chased me down anyway,” Rourke retorted, somehow managing to shrug without losing her aim. “Could say the same about you, though. You were reported as dead to the authorities. You could have given up terrorizing war widows and extorting merchants and crawled off to a retirement somewhere with the money you stole. You wouldn’t have been the first.”
“And maybe I woulda done that,” Xanth growled, “gone off and laughed up my sleeve at the Justices while I was spending my money, but there’s some things you don’t let lie. One thing would be the two of you claiming that you killed me.” His scarred face set into an expression of murderous hatred.“The other is that you needed a body to claim that bounty, and there was only one man this side of the surface who was as big as me. You bastards killed my boy Abe and dragged his corpse to those scum suckers in High Under.”
“Told you we should’ve shaved a dead bear and put it in a coat,” Drift remarked, looking sidelong at his partner.
“The import costs would’ve swallowed the bounty,” Rourke replied evenly.
“Shut up, you!” one of the Spiders snapped at her, trying to aim his shotgun even more emphatically. Drift attempted to match him against the descriptions circulated of Xanth’s known associates and failed. Either a relatively new recruit then, or simply someone no one had ever bothered to identify.
“Or you’ll do what?” Rourke demanded. “One of you so much as sneezes, Gideon here’s missing his head.”
“You think I care about that?” Xanth roared. “You killed my boy! You can shoot me, but the two of you ain’t leaving here alive!”
Had it been Ichabod Drift on the other end of that firearm, he would have said something snappy. Something memorable. Something that anyone who’d heard it would have been forced to repeat so the story would have grown in the telling, and listeners would have been astounded at his wit in a dangerous situation.
Of course, that would have given the Spiders a second or so of warning, and Tamara Rourke had never been a gambler. As a result, the moment the last syllable signing their death warrant had left Gideon Xanth’s lips, the Saracen barked once and half of the big man’s skull exploded sideways in a shower of blood, bone, and displaced neurons.
The Wild Spiders, crucially, hesitated for half a second. They were gang fighters and used to bullying barkeeps, extorting tolls from travelers, or engaging in piecemeal shootouts with others like themselves, preferably when they had a numerical advantage. The notion of a lone woman casually shooting their leader dead was completely alien to them.
As a result, none of them reacted in time.
Drift hauled his pistols out and started blazing away; he saw two Spiders drop from hits of some sort, but then he had to roll desperately aside as Xanth’s bulk slumped forward onto the controls of his walker and sent the gyroscopically stabilized machine stamping forward, directly toward him. His weren’t the only shots to ring out, however; a hailstorm of fire exploded from the buildings around them with the suddenly exposed Spiders at its center. Several of the gang started shooting back, but their misguided attempt at making a stand came to an abrupt end when a whistling noise heralded the arrival of a shell that detonated on the back of one of their number. Virulent orange flames licked up instantly, and the splash from the blast set alight the clothing and flesh of two more.
Some spatters of volatile gel landed mere inches from Drift, and he scrambled away from them, cursing Micah as he did so. The immolation cannon carried by the former soldier was far from a precise weapon: It was, however, a devastatingly effective one. As the attempt at flight by the howling gang member hit by the shell was cut short by a merciful bullet to the head from someone somewhere, the surviving gang members not currently flailing at flames on their own bodies hurriedly threw down their guns and thrust their hands determinedly into the air.
The shooting stopped. Drift got back to his feet, holstered his guns, and dusted himself down. He caught sight of one of the Spiders glowering at him.
“Everyone said your crew’d left you!” the man accused, his tone that of a six-year-old being told that there was no pudding after all. “You was meant to have stiffed them on a share of the bounty!” Figures were emerging from the buildings around them, Micah still covering the cowed gangers with the intimidating mouth of his weapon, Apirana’s rifle looking like a toy in his huge hands, the Chang siblings carrying pistols like they might even know how to use them, and, alongside them, the half dozen black-clad and mirror-visored Justices with whom they’d planned this whole sting.
“Well,” Drift sighed,“I guess that’s what you get for listening to rumors.”
Excerpted from Dark Run © Mike Brooks, 2016