“May I join you?”
Alberon, who was nursing his second whiskey with his head resting in a propped hand, looked up at the young lady and snapped to attention, spilling his drink. She had a pale, softly triangular face, accented with scarlet lipstick, and framed by curly dark hair that fell around the thin straps of her blue dress, leading down to a pair of knee-length boots.
She laughed at the long pause. “So may I?”
“Why, yes. Yes. Of course. Please.”
He went to move his things out of her way to sit, realised that he had no things to move, and ended by holding his arms in the air in an awkward welcome. She put down her drink and a small coin purse that crinkled softly, and sat.
“Thank you. My name’s Chelsea.”
He smiled at her, forcing his eyes into a squint under his thick eyebrows. “Well, pleased to meet you Chelsea. Chelsea. Now, that’s a nice name. I once knew a lady named Chelsea. She was real kind to me, took me in when no one else would. Had this pleasant laugh that would brighten up the darkest room. Lady like that is one in a million. One in a million.”
“And you are?”
Without taking his eyes off her, he took her hand in both of his and continued shaking it as he spoke. “Of course, of course. I’m sorry. My name is Alberon. My family was always terrible at this. Just terrible. We’d have long conversations with strangers and, only when the conversation was over, would we say ‘Oh, I forgot to introduce myself. My name’s so-and-so.’ Right at the end, there. I don’t know why we did it like that but that’s just the way we did it.”
Chelsea gently wrestled her hand back. “I think that’s very sweet. I take it from that accent that you’re not from around here? First time on Clarke Six?”
“Very observant of you, miss. Very observant. Yes, ma’am, first time here. Originally from Tolkien Eight, over in the Perseus Arm.”
She thought about this for a moment. “That’s a mining colony, right? Big iron deposits? Isn’t one half a prison?”
Alberon nodded his approval. “Now…that is very good. I am impressed. You are entirely right. My father, rest his soul, worked in the mines. Chief robotics operator at his prime. Not the prison side, I should add.”
“You don’t look like you followed in his footsteps.”
Alberon looked down at his ill-fitting crumpled grey suit, thin tie and black trench coat, then smiled at her. “No, I guess not,” he chuckled. “What about you? You look like the kind of girl that would have a very glamorous job.”
She let out a short, surprisingly loud laugh. “Ha! No, I’m in hospitality. I look after tourists.” Then she glanced around before leaning in conspiratorially. He could smell a mix of her subtle perfume and fruity shampoo. “Actually, between you and me, I’m not sure I’m supposed to be here, but it’s one of the few places open this late.” She leaned back and looked away. “I’m not ready to go home.”
Alberon turned and took in the room. The walls were bare steel and there were a few metal tables covered in empty glasses and bottles. The large bar where they sat took up one side and was lit with blue neon lights. Repetitive electronic music played quietly and a smell of stale beer and body odour hung in the air. The floors were covered with stains; he couldn’t tell if they were from drinks or blood.
In a small alcove at the back, under a purple fluorescent light, there was a pool table where a couple of scrawny teenagers played game after game. One of them carried a large knife in a holster around his waist. The stocky barman sat at the far end of the bar, eyeing them both warily and chewing on a toothpick.
“I suppose you’re right,” Alberon said. “Come to think of it, it’s not much of a place for someone like me, either. I don’t usually do well in bars, truth be told.” There was a pause. “May I ask you a personal question? What does a lovely girl like you have at home that she needs to avoid?”
“My boyfriend, mostly. He’s an asshole. I wanna get out but, right now, I’m between assignments and it’s his place so I’m kind of stuck. Next few days, though. Next few days.”
Alberon nodded. They both stared at their drinks.
“You married?” She asked brightly.
He ran his fingers through his thick unruly hair, flecked with grey, and blew out his cheeks. “Nope. No, ma’am. Could never make it work.”
“You surprise me. You seem like such a gentleman. There’s less and less of those around these days.”
“I don’t know about that,” he waved his half-closed hand around his temple as he spoke. “I get these very strange ideas about people. They get into my head and I just can’t shake them. They gnaw away at me for so long that after a while I guess they eventually just drive folks away.”
She nodded, then pulled out a cigarette. Alberon patted down his coat pockets, eventually pulling out an old scratched and dented Zippo lighter. It took a few attempts for the flame to catch. “Thanks,” she blew out a stream of smoke. “Don’t mind, do you?”
“Me? No. He might, though.“ He pointed his thumb in the barman’s direction.
She looked up, held the cigarette like a miniature white chimney and pointed at it. The barman nodded. “Nah, he’s fine.”
“One time I was in a bar and this guy next to me lit up. Out of nowhere, pulled out a cigarette—much like you just did—lit up and started puffing away. He was an old man, patch on his right eye, scar on his cheek. I thought for sure the Forces were going to burst in and drag him away. Never did, though. Guess he scared everyone!” He chuckled.
“So, you’ve been to other planets then?”
“Yeah, a few. Work takes me around.”
“Then you have your own ship?”
He nodded, then sighed. “Had. It’s why I’m here. Emergency landing not four hours ago totalled the frontal energy diffusers out there in the desert.” He looked at her carefully. For a split second, her eyes narrowed. “Probably going to be a few weeks till she’s ready again.”
Alberon’s ship, the Henson, was an old N-class cargo hopper, used to transport goods from the freighters to the planet surface. His had been retrofitted with an Alcubierre drive which was technically illegal but was a practice that was generally overlooked by the Protectorate Forces patrolling the regions away from the major destinations. They recognised that these modified hoppers—the drives enabling them to travel the immense distances between worlds—were the backbone to the economies of many small planets, supplying them while the huge freighters ignored them for being too far off the more profitable major shipping routes.
Chelsea stubbed out her cigarette on the bar. “That sucks. Does mean you’re going to be around for a while though, right? Maybe we could hang out sometime? I’ll show you the sights. Probably take, like, five minutes.”
“That sounds lovely,” he smiled. “Now look at me. Earlier I thought it was the worst thing, crashing my ship like that. Such an expensive job. Gonna take everything I have.” He glanced at her again. “But then I come here and meet you and suddenly things don’t look nearly so bad.”
“You’re very sweet. Truth is, we don’t get many good men like you come here and I’ve seen my fair share of bad ones.”
“That’s very kind of you to say. Sometimes someone who seems nice turns out not to be and other times someone who looks like they’re the worst person in the world has a heart of gold. Reminds me of this time I was seeing this nurse. Oh, she was fabulous and I loved to go and visit her at the hospital. Anyway, one time she was on duty when this big fella came in, covered in blood. He had a shaven head, tattoos on his face, the works. He was bawlin’ and yellin’ and it was a sight.
“Anyhow, security was called and they wanted to use that new drug on him to get him to calm down. Now what was it? Kentanine, Kemalite, Ke…Ke-something. Some tranquilliser.”
“Ketanalime?” Offered Chelsea.
“Ketanalime. Thank you. Yes. So this doc came along ready to stick him with this, this Ketanalime. The whole place was tense and everyone thought this guy was gonna be trouble and so they were approaching him like he was a wild animal. My nurse friend, well, she just walked up to him bold as brass, put a gentle hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eye and told him to take a deep breath. So he stops yelling, looks at her, then just breaks down weeping. Turns out he had witnessed an accident a few blocks away. Lifted up a hover cycle single handedly and pulled this lady out from under it, then waited for the ambulance only to find out that it was too late for her. Was only after the ambulance left that he’d realised he was in a lot of pain and had dragged himself to the hospital and that was how they found him—some poor guy in the depths of grief and pain.”
There was a long silence.
Suddenly Alberon put his hands on the bar. “Anyway, I must be getting on. Lots to do tomorrow. It’s been a pleasure, miss.”
She lowered her head, then looked up at him with a bashful smile. “I was actually hoping we could have breakfast together.”
“I would love to but I really have to get an early start. I mean, if you were staying where I was too then….oh. Oh! I see. I, er, that would…I mean. Yes. Absolutely. That would be wonderful.” He paused. “Can I ask you something, though? Can you please leave your sedatives and the boot knife here?”
She kept the smile, but the sweetness dissolved from her face like sugar in hot tea.
“Why, Alberon. Whatever do you mean?”
He pressed his forefinger to his lips for a second. “A beautiful young lady approaches me in a place like this. She claims not to belong in such a place but nevertheless lights an illegal cigarette without thinking, only asking permission from the proprietor as an afterthought. Even without this, it would be far too dangerous for her to be here on her own, pretty as she is, unless she were here in a professional capacity and had some protection. She probably keeps a concealed knife somewhere, and, with her outfit, the only suitable place would be her boots. But given the casual ease between them, I suspect that she also has the protection of the gentleman behind the bar.”
Chelsea glanced up at the burly bald man, who moved towards them. Without looking at him, Alberon raised his left hand from under his coat towards him. He was holding a pistol. The man stopped dead. Alberon continued to stare at Chelsea. “Now, I’ve never yet had to fire this thing and I would absolutely hate for there to be a first time and for this to be it.”
There was a brief pause, then she sagged, looked at the bartender and nodded. The bartender took a step back and Alberon lowered his weapon.
Alberon continued: “Usually, you charge a high price but that wasn’t enough for you tonight. You needed all of my credit and a good amount of time before I’d notice. You don’t seem the murdering kind so the unusual sound that your purse made when you first laid it down and your ability to quickly recall the obscure name of a potent tranquilliser at hand confirmed my suspicions.
“The story about the boyfriend had a ring of truth about it, however. Although, I don’t think you need to get away from your boyfriend as much as you need to get away from…the person who takes care of your business affairs.”
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye and noted the brief expression of anger that flew across her face.
“You earn a good amount, you don’t drink or do drugs to excess, and you have no dependencies. Yet you still you needed a large amount of cash quickly. I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing everything that this town has to offer, but from my initial impression the only thing that you couldn’t easily afford with a few weeks work is passage on a ship, at least not without putting yourself in some serious danger. Of course, stealing my ship would have been easier than raising the money, but you’ll settle for either.”
He drained his glass, then nodded at the barman who glared at him before tapping a small tablet. Alberon waved a credit chip over the receiver on the bar, which beeped an acknowledgement. “I like you, Chelsea. I can tell you’re a nice girl wrapped up in some bad business. I hope it works out for you, I really do. The sad thing is that, if you’d have just asked, I would have been happy to have you aboard. Now, I’m afraid, I just don’t trust you.”
He stood up and smiled a thin smile through squinted eyes. “Good night, miss.”
He walked out, leaving her staring at her empty glass. She cursed under her breath, finished her drink and, as she went to stand, noticed a black credit chip sitting on the bar.