The suspended black ceiling of the Mracan Arkhos caravansary reverberated with the sound of clattering plates and rambunctious conversation from hundreds of ship-born colonists and itinerant offworlders; atmosphere miners, asteroid haulers, junk-peddlers, tourists, and white-clad colony soldiers, distinguished by coriaceous bodysuits ensconced in white synthetic chitin plate bearing the star-anchor ensignia of Kryos Industries.
Colored lights bathed a stage set far right of the room, occupied by a firm jawed man playing an ominous energetic bassline on a knulute, a backup singer with dichromatic eyes and mismatching attire, danced beside him, and a sable haired woman in a tight revealing outfit, enrapt in aural passion at the fore. Near translucent soundpieces curved around the mouths of the trio and they sang in unison.
There’s a crash
There’s a pang
There’s a thrill of mo-tion
When lights go out
Over heartless seas
But I know in my soul
Our slipper will ford them
Striving on together
With the will to please.
All moved to the pulsating music, save Rhiner, who sat a bar composed of carbon-fiber at the left corner of the chamber, far from stage and dancefloor. His visage ashen, lean, party to the mild puffiness of protracted microgravity. He rubbed his face and dropped protein cubes into the cup of coffee on the counter before him and bent to the schematics of the lunar drone Kryos’ secretary had afforded, scratching notes in his black book with intermittent regularity. After the third culinary block melted, the crowd to the right of the studious reclaimer parted as fowl before buffalo to reveal a pack of men in mangy garb, their faces smeared with grime, led by a tar-maned bruiser with a wide mouth, crooked nose and sloping forehead. The bruiser’s beady eyes narrowed as they alighted on Rhiner. “Thought we’d find you here, poacher.”
“Isn’t poaching, Taureg. Just bidding lower. Upshot of going without a crew.”
Taureg ordered a drink and sat beside Rhiner. “Downshot is, no one to watch your back.” The intruder’s men formed a perimeter. The barmaid tensed and shifted away.
“Suppose so.” Rhiner ignored the rival reclaimer’s display of power and lifted one of the cubes. “Sugar?”
The bruiser smiled like a baboon. “Sure.” Rhiner dropped the condament into Taureg’s cup and leaned back, sipping his own with expectant sidelong glances. Some of the colony guards took notice of the peculiar affair and cut toward the bar. Taureg half-gulped the liquid, face disgust riddled, and spat on the floor. He stared hard at Rhiner. “What is this shit?”
Rhiner tittered and burst into laughter. Barmaid’s mouth parted in fear as Taureg snarled and brought the half-empty cup into Rhiner’s skull, carving a ruddy gash at left temple. Rhiner instinctively raised hand to wound, jerked back and fell as the stage-wafted music reached a cresendo. Taureg howled, flying from his seat, poised to strike the recovering salvager.
Before the broil could escalate, a detatchment of colony soldiers broke upon the scene. Taureg’s crew was scattered and Taureg was restrained by two corporals and pulled from the bar, dispelling spittle, fouling the air with curses. Only those at the bar or directly adjacent noticed the disruption, the other patrons sat or twirled, enrapt in the band’s dynamic performance or their own private conversations.
A voice crested the violence, charming and steady. “You’re ruining the atmosphere.” Rhiner swiveled his leaking head and discerned the source of the statement, a man of comperable age to his own, with short wavy brown hair, spurcely combed, casually dressed, standing before the soldiers, distinguished from all present by an unfastened assidously worn monochrome coat of the kind maintenance couriers wore in the reclaimer’s homeland. Rhiner knew the figure well. Ryard Vancing, colonel of Arkhos security, second highest authority on the ship. His presence alone chilled the passions of the men. The Colonel helped the injured reclaimer from the floor, looked to his men and gestured to the rowdys. “Get them out of here.” Before Taureg or his men could protest, the soldiers whisked them from the bar to the neighboring lounge and formed a transient cordon to keep them thus.
When the mood had settled, Vancing took a seat and glanced to the barmaid. “Sorry about that, Dory.” The woman shrugged as she cleaned up the mess brought about by the scuffle. “Wasn’t your fault.” Her posture taunt, scornful, narrowed eyes set on Rhiner. “He’s the one making trouble.”
The libationist’s remark prompted a retalitory scoff. “Pettiness is easily found. But to make an art of pettiness, it takes a woman.”
Dory shook her head and left to attend other patrons.
Vancing smiled. “She still irked at you for telling her the dress makes her look,” he drew a circle in the air.
“Didn’t want to know, she shouldn’t have asked.” Rhiner grunted and, in lieu of a bandage, reached for a kelp waffer and pressed it to his head. He looked to the lounge. Taureg’s seething face visible behind the shifting crowd.
“You’re not expelling them?”
“Everyone has a part to play.”
“If you’re so chummy with the oafs, why not send them instead?”
Vancing gestured to the cut on the reclaimer’s head. “That’s why. They’re only suited for rough dives. This requires finesse. What are you doing with that waffer? Downright unsanitary. Here.” Vancing withdrew a re-gel band from an inner coat pocket and handed it to the reclaimer. Rhiner discarded the bloody waffer, took the packet and pressed it to the wound, sucking air through his teeth as he felt the familiar astringence of the material sealing the abrasion.
“When do I meet my partner?”
Vancing was silent a moment. “In a few minutes. She’ll be done with her set soon.”
The Colonel pointed to the stage where the band was winding down from the third act of their song. The lead singer swayed, sable locks lashing a round, mischevious face, voice falling to a hush, her blue eyes momentarily meeting Rhiner’s own.
When lights go out
Over heartless seas
I know in my soul
You’re the one to ford them
I know in my soul
You’re the one for me.
“Her name’s Sidra. She’ll be your tech support.” Vancing bobbed his head to the last beats of the tune. “She’s pretty good don’t you think? You look grim. Not your kind of music?” The music fell away and the crowd erupted in applause.
“I hate you.”