Deuces Wild: Beginners' Luck

by L. S. King

appearing in Ray Gun Revival

"Reluctant Allies, part one"


Raucous laughter, human and alien body odors combining in the heat, and the smell of stale liquor assaulted Slap's senses as he walked through the open door of the Rocket Wash Bar. Paint flaked from the adobe walls. Off-world aliens aside, it wasn't that different from home.

Pack over his shoulder, he picked his way through the crowd, looking for a table. The few empty chairs didn't seem good choices considering the glares from those seated nearby.

Slap muscled through to the bar and after calling twice to get the barkeep's attention, he banged a hand on the counter. Two eyestalks swiveled to stare at him. Slap gaped for a second before saying, "Something to eat. And a drink. Anything."

The bartender turned around, his mouth twisting as he spoke. "Ten quel. Cash. No credchits."

Cash! Slap gulped and fumbled in his vest. If a meal and drink cost that much, what would a room cost? He put the money on the bar and glanced around as the bartender turned to the wall tap. A motion on his right caught his attention but something told him not to move his head or look down. Cutting his eyes, he saw a hand sliding a thin stim-blade out of a sheath sewn cleverly into a black vest.

Brago's Bands, what was this guy up to? A glass thunked the counter in front of Slap, and he wrapped his hand around the handle, while keeping attuned to the man next to him. He felt a slight tug at the pack on his left shoulder—a thief trying to steal? Without thinking, Slap swung around, and his glass impacted with a face. The 'thief' hit the floor, a needlegun clattering out of his hand. What the—? He stared at the unconscious man for a split second, but the sounds of a fight behind him made him turn. The man in the black vest thrust his stim-blade into a man's gut. The attacker screamed in agony. Black Vest then kicked a second—right into Slap's chest.

Slap threw an arm around the man's throat and tightened. As he waited for the struggling man to pass out, he watched in awe as Black Vest continued to fight two more men. He looked like a dancer—leaping, spinning, kicking. Before long his opponents all lay on the floor.

Slap realized the man in his arms had gone limp and dropped him. Black Vest turned and regarded the two men at Slap's feet and gazed up with coal black eyes. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it."

People crowded closer, gawking at the bodies and muttering. Black Vest's gaze darted about as he sheathed the deadly knife. "I think we'd better leave."

Slap agreed and followed him outside. The night air felt fresh and cool. "Why were they all fighting you?"

"Quiet. We have to get away from here. Come on."

Slap shrugged his pack higher on his shoulder as he rolled his eyes, then followed Black Vest through the narrow streets. As hot as the days could get, the nights got cold, and Slap found himself shivering in his sleeveless vest as he peered ahead at the dark shape of his companion. Once he stumbled over a body in an alley and got a mumbled snarl as the person woke.

Finally they entered the gate of an inn. Slap blinked at the faux torches glowing at each side of the arch. Wouldn't real fire be cheaper? But then most of the lighting he'd seen hadn't been natural. He shrugged. City ways.

They took a flight of curved stairs to the left of the courtyard, barely illuminated by sconces dimly flickering with—yep, artificial light. Slap's hand ran along the rough-plastered wall to keep his bearings as they ascended. Once inside a small room, the man closed the door and turned the light on low. He faced Slap. "Now we can talk."

"Why were those men trying to kill you?"

"They were assassins." He ran a hand through his hair. "I think."

"Assassins? Who in the world are you that assassins would want to kill you?"

"Never mind." He walked to the bed and grabbed a small satchel from the foot of it. "By jumping in to help me you might have made yourself a target." He straightened and stared at Slap. "I'd advise you to get as far away from here as possible. Jump planet if you can."

"Jump planet? Brago's Bands, I don't even have money for a place to sleep, or food"—he thought with regret of the liquor lost when his glass hit the one assassin's face—"much less enough money to get a ticket off this rock."

The man eyed him for a few moments. "I can help with that. But right now, let's see if we can get something to eat." He rummaged in the bag and pulled out a small item. He pocketed it in his vest, but Slap didn't see what it was. The man headed for the door. "There's a boarding house not far away that has a decent cook."

"What's wrong with this one?"

"It's known I took a room here. Too dangerous. Let's go."

Slap wasn't going to argue at the mention of food.

#

His companion ate quietly and neatly. Slap had the chance to really look him over in the flicker of the torchlight—real fire this time. His hair was dark and his skin naturally olive although it had a space-pale tinge. He was average height, which meant Slap's size dwarfed him. His bare arms, although not bulky, boasted defined muscle. But his eyes were unforgettable. They pierced like black ice.

The man had chosen a table at the outside of the courtyard and sat with his back to the wall. Although he remained still, his eyes darted here and there, always alert.

Slap shoveled food in his mouth as fast as he could, wishing he could untangle all the questions he had. But he had the feeling the quiet man across from him wouldn't answer anyway.

He slurped the hot, rich drink—whatever it was. "Thanks for the meal."

Black Vest's only reply was to meet his eyes for a moment. Great. A real talkative type.

He thought about leaving the planet. Naw. He wanted to get far away from home, but not that far. As long as he was away from the Mordas, and the ruins of what used to be his homestead. He closed his eyes for a second as images of charred bodies and the smoking shell of his house flittered across his mind. He drank more of the hot brew, dashing the memories away with a large gulp.

The man stood. "I've paid your bill for the room tonight. I think you'll be safe." He tossed a small pouch on the table. "That will take care of getting you away from here—on planet or off. Thanks again for your help."

Black Vest strode out. Slap picked up the pouch and opened it to find more money than he'd ever seen. Well, whaddaya know.

#

Tristan wandered in the shadows, listening. Though new to the planet, and this port city, he knew the sorts of places to go to learn what he needed. Relief washed over him to find he merely had a bounty on his head from the leader of a local underworld faction called the Mordas. He smiled. He must have made a good impression when he hijacked both their incoming shipment and its payment.

At least it wasn't Dray's assassins. Yet. But Tristan's luck—and cunning—wouldn't last forever.

He wound his way through the back ways to a place he knew Mordas henchmen gathered to drink and brag. The bar had an old-style ducted heating/cooling system. It even had an outside entrance to the sublevel. Ancient architecture was so accommodating. He was soon inside and listening at one of the vents.

The drunken men vented their anger loudly both at their loss and that their boss blamed them for it. They were helpless and knew it. Tristan allowed himself a silent chuckle. These petty crooks were no worry. He started to rise when he heard a door slam and someone yell, "Get up, you lazy bums! We know where his partner is. Old boarding house near the shipyard gates."

Tristan ground his teeth. Complications irritated him. Granted, he owed that hick for stepping in, but why didn't he mind his own business in the first place? Now he owed that local his life. And Tristan always paid his debts. He had to get back before those men got there.

#

Slap yawned and stretched. The bed was comfortable and, surprisingly, clean. That off-worlder had good taste, that was certain. But was he crazy? Assassins, danger, having to leave—leave the planet? Yeah, Ol' Black Vest was loco all right.

He rolled up under the covers and tried to sleep. The creaks and groans of the old building kept making him jump awake. This was ridiculous. He rose with a grumble and snatched in the dark for his clothes. What he needed was a few stiff drinks to help him relax. He dressed, slid the sheath for his old-fashioned steel knife into the back of his vest, and donned his hat.

Halfway to the door, it slammed open and three men entered. Slap could see their outlines in the dim light of the hallway but knew they couldn't see him. He drew his knife and aimed—by the thunk and groan, he knew he hit his target. With a growl, he charged the other two and knocked them back. He picked one up by the neck and crotch and threw him across the room, then grabbed the other by the throat and squeezed before tossing him as well.

He felt along the floor with his foot until he found the body and retrieved his knife. Using the man's shirt, he wiped it clean, then straightened. He returned the knife to its sheath with a sigh. Black Vest might have been right.

"I see you did all right without my help."

Slap spun, hand on his knife, to see the slender silhouette in his doorway. Black Vest. He relaxed. "I guess so. These your friends again?"

"The local gangdom doesn't seem to like me. Or you, now that we are known to be acquaintances."

"The Mordas?"

"Yes."

Slap scowled. "I don't like them either. But I can take care of myself."

"So I see. But I think you're mistaken in your assessment. You're vastly outnumbered. Your best bet is to leave with me. My ship is docked on the southeast side of the port. We can be there and off this planet before dawn."

"And then what? I don't want to go anywhere else. This lousy rock is my home." Home—home was ashes, dead and desolate. No laughter, no life. Maybe another planet would be a fresh start.

But what did he know about this man? He had assassins after him, and the Mordas. He had money. And a ship. But—he'd come back to help when he thought Slap was in danger. That was enough. Slap grabbed his pack from the floor by the bed. He took a deep breath and gave a nonchalant shrug. "But who says folks can't leave home for an adventure or two? Let's go."

#

"This way," the local said when they got to the bottom of the stairs. Tristan followed him but stopped in the doorway and hissed, "The kitchen?"

"My breakfast is paid for and fighting makes me hungry."

Tristan sighed and leaned against the wall while the hick gulped down food. Young this one was, barely a man. He was very tall—a full head higher than Tristan—and muscular, broad-shouldered, but lean. Physical laborer, definitely. Probably a farmhand from his old-style denim pants and the felt, open crown cowboy hat. He certainly could throw bodies around. What planet could Tristan safely leave him on?

"Are you done yet?" Tristan asked as his unwanted companion wiped the plate with a piece of bread. "The Mordas could send more men."

Mouth full, the man stood. "Ready," he mumbled.

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Tristan headed for the back door.

"Hey, wait."

Tristan pivoted back around. "What now?"

"What's your name?"

He peered at the tall man in the glow from the niche-lights. It couldn't hurt to share the alias he used now. "Tristan."

The man nodded and stood, as if waiting for something. Tristan turned to leave and felt a touch on his shoulder. "Folks call me Slap."

Tristan stopped and twisted to look up into his face. "Slap? That's it?"

Slap shrugged. "It's all I need."

Tristan sighed and continued toward the back door. It could be worse. His name could be Lennie.

#

Slap followed quietly. He didn't try to talk, which relieved Tristan. They wound through the streets toward the space port, past open air markets, but the vendors were closed. Beggars slept in the street.

"Which one is yours?" Slap asked as they neared the gate for private ships.

Tristan pointed through the fence to a small craft at the far side of the dockyard. "Beyond the Falchion, between the two yachts." Not the best he'd ever owned, but it was a good ship.

Slap whistled through his teeth. "Cutlas class? Sweet."

Tristan nodded, but before he could say anything a flash made him close his eyes. An explosion thundered in his ears. A body knocked him to the ground, and he gasped for breath. More explosions shattered the air.

"Get off me, you lug!" Tristan shoved at Slap who rolled over and sat up.

"Just trying to protect you."

"I don't need it." Tristan brushed the dust off his clothes and rose.

"Brago's Bands," Slap said in a hush.

Tristan looked through the fence to where Slap gaped and bit back a groan. He stared at the flaming wreckage that had been his ship. All the supplies he'd stolen from the Mordas, and his way off this planet—gone. "You know,"—Tristan rubbed his forehead—"since I first laid eyes on you, it's been one thing or another."

Slap snorted. "If I hadn't wanted to stop and eat, we'da been aboard her." He turned, his eyes narrowed. "The Mordas really must want you bad."

Tristan gave him a grim smile. "Not as badly as I want them, now."

#

"So what are you going to do?" Slap asked as they hurried away from the gate.

"Never mind. Just follow me."

Slap hunched his pack higher onto his shoulder. "You know, that's getting irritating."

"What is?"

"You treating me like I'm a kid and don't know nothing. I'm in this with you, like it or not. Why can't you tell me what's going on?"

Tristan stopped and stared with those penetrating black eyes. Slap glared back, not willing to let this man get the best of him.

Finally Tristan turned and continued walking, saying over his shoulder, "When we get there. I want to move fast, and talking would slow us down."

Slap made sure his answering sigh was loud.

They left the spaceport and wove through the streets. The way grew dirtier—if one went by the reek of sewage—and, from what he could tell in the faint light of the nearly full moon, the buildings older.

Finally they arrived at the edge of a property that contained the burned-out remains of a factory. Several outbuildings still stood on the lot. They crept closer and hunkered behind a pile of charred timber.

"What's your plan?" Slap whispered, squinting over at his new friend.

"Since I stole that one shipment, they've gotten paranoid and moved their supplies out here." Tristan nodded toward a structure on their far left as he pulled on gloves and flexed the fingers. "I'm going to take care of the rest of their inventory. That should hamstring them long enough to suit me."

"So what are these supplies that are so all-fired important?"

"Munitions."

"Munitions?" Slap scratched his chin. "The Mordas are thugs, I know, but what would they need to stockpile munitions for?"

"They have buyers off-world. One of them is a nasty group of mercenaries. Makes the Mordas seem like peacemakers."

Slap frowned. "So what are you, some sort of space cop?"

Tristan stared at Slap for a moment with a look of astonishment and gave a silent chuckle. "No. I just don't like the buyers." Tristan rose slightly and peered over the top of the lumber. "Keep on the look-out. I'm going to sneak past the guards."

Slap lifted his eyebrows at the bold-but-insane plan. "That easy? What do you have, some invisibility screen?"

"Don't I wish." Tristan's eyes crinkled in a slight smile. "I have to use a more old-fashioned method. Stealth."

Slap watched in awe as his new buddy faded into the night, his dark clothes and hair making him almost unseen. He held his breath and chewed a ragged nail while waiting.

#

The few guards were easy to slip past. The property had enough piles of rubbish to cover much of Tristan's movement. If only that dratted moon would go behind clouds. He glanced up. Clear sky scattered with stars. Not even a wisp of haze. He crept around toward the back of the targeted outbuilding. Broken windows badly boarded up, the grate hanging by one hinge off an exhaust vent—they might be traps instead of easy entrances, but Tristan wasn't going in.

He lifted the vest to reveal the retooled ammo belt around his waist and set the timers for all the detonators. Fifteen minutes should be enough. He crept close to the wall. One through a crack between two boards at one window, another shoved past a broken pane of glass—on Tristan went, crouching and running from place to place, inserting his little devices.

Three to go.

A scrape—a boot on gravel. Tristan froze.

"Don't move," a voice from behind said.

The irony that Tristan had already stopped any motion faded into a chagrined grinding of teeth that so much kept going wrong. Was it bad luck? This planet? That yokel?

Fire bolted through Tristan's body—pain ripped through convulsing muscles. He dropped to the ground, unable to even scream. Then all went black.

#

His body thudded on a hard floor. Trembling. Nausea. Tristan opened his eyes. At the sight of Slap's face he closed them and shuddered. A nightmare.

A foot prodded his side.

"Is he awake?" asked a gravelly voice.

The detonators! Tristan's eyes flew open. How long had he been unconscious?

"Yeah," a second voice said.

"Get him up. The other one too. Search them for weapons and get something to tie them up with. You others, shoot them if they try anything."

Hands hauled Tristan to his feet, and he saw they were inside a dimly lit building. From the size, probably the ones where the munitions were stored. Great. More bad luck.

Slap stood, face pale, eyes unfocused. Tristan glanced down and saw the belt still around his waist. Not much time had passed, or no one would be here. What now?

Hands pawed him, removing his hidden stim-blade and the ammo belt.

Slap scowled as he was searched, and his steel knife taken away. He shook his head as if to clear it.

"Well, if it isn't our old friend, the homesteader. So, cowboy, we meet again."

Slap's head jerked up, and he spun to face a pale, slightly overweight man. "Lyssel! You murdering lizard! I'll kill you! I swear I'll kill you!"

Two men grabbed his arms but barely held him back. The ones holding weapons on him jabbed the air, yelling for him to be still as he lunged toward their boss.

Tristan took in the sneering man's sheened trousers and matching jacket—no standard pack-vest, the usual garb on this warm-climed planet. He watched Slap with interest, yet part of his brain tried frantically to figure out the time.

"Now, now, my oafish friend." Lyssel pulled a slender file from inside his jacket. He pointed it at Slap then began to clean under his nails. "You can't blame me that you lost your ranch and family. I offered you a chance to leave peaceably and you chose to stay."

"It was my home!" Slap yelled, tears streaming down his cheeks. "You burned it down. You made me watch them die, you murdering—"

One lackey punched Slap in the stomach with the butt of his weapon, doubling him over. Anger boiled up in Tristan. These men had taken everything from Slap. His own losses were nothing in comparison. If only he had a chance to break free—

A low growl grew into a roar and Slap straightened, fists smashing out to the sides. The men holding his arms hit the ground. He swung around and knocked one guard down—Tristan didn't wait to see more. He smashed the kneecap of the man to his right with his heel. His left arm snaked around his captor's, and he twisted to bring the elbow over his shoulder. He yanked downward and the man screamed.

Tristan dropped to a squat as a body flew overhead, then jumped into the air and shot a foot out to catch a guard aiming at Slap. The man tumbled, and Tristan scooped up the gun. He fired quickly, taking out the rest of the men.

His weapon and Slap's lay on the floor near an unconscious man. He sheathed his stim-blade and grabbed the steel knife, then took the ammo belt and slung it back toward stacks of boxes further inside.

Lyssel lay on the floor, trapped under a body, moaning in pain.

Slap stood, silent and shaking, face wet, gazing about him as if lost. Tristan had to get them away. If they didn't leave now, they'd be in orbit without a ship. He called the tall cowboy's name.

Slap turned, and Tristan pointed at the door. "Get out! Hurry!"

His friend grabbed his pack from the ground and joined him running for the exit.

"Don't stop," Tristan called.

They raced across the property, only able to distinguish outlines because of the moon. Tristan expected guards or the blast to knock them down, but nothing happened. Had Lyssel called all his men inside when he caught the trespassers, or did the dark cover their escape? A rover sat near a gate; Tristan veered toward it and jumped aboard. Slap dove inside as Tristan pressed the ignition.

The explosion rocked the rover as it rose, lighting up the sky. Tristan gripped the controls and fought to stabilize the craft. His lips thinned and his knuckles turned white. The vehicle responded and he sighed with relief. A glance at the navigation console almost made him chuckle. He looked over his shoulder to see Slap wiping his face on his sleeve. He held out the steel knife, hilt first. Slap took it with a nod.

"I found our way off the planet." Tristan pointed at the console. "This has an auto-direct to a private pad at the space port. I don't think we'll have much trouble acquiring Lyssel's yacht. What do you think?"

Slap gave a shaky sigh and a slight smile.

bar

continue to "Reluctant Allies, part two"

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