The Morbche Abyss: Chapter 1
The woman’s expensive attire and pale, buttery skin marked her as wabipu, an outsider, and Peyton Kalagho figured she’d never dropped onto a backwater planet like Woris in her life. Those two things, along with the fact she was evidently talking business with three of Bloortcha’s thugs, was probably going to get her killed tonight.
Unless he did something about it. Helping her out of a bad spot, which she was definitely in even though she didn’t realize it, could net him an unexpected payday. The salvage crews on the planet curried the favor of offworlders. Grabbing unreported tech to sell to corp buyers provided a semi-lucrative black market—provided an independent salvager didn’t get caught. If he or she did, all equipment—including the dive boat—was confiscated by the Harbor Watch.
As Peyton watched them talking with the woman, he played the angles in his mind, figuring it all in like he would a dive in dangerous waters. If he could shake her loose from Bloortcha’s people, there could be a few credits in it for him. However, the resolutions weren’t coming up in any encouraging fashion.
He cursed and bided his time, hoping an opportunity would afford itself. He’d learned to do that while trolling the alien spacecraft wrecks on the sea floor. Waiting didn’t always work, but it was safer. A man who got desperate on the ocean floor got dead pretty quick.
He hadn’t had much luck lately. One of Kasiv’s main engines had caught fire a week ago and almost stranded him and his crew at crush depth while he was diving in the Chakal Seamount. For the last five days, he’d worked to rebuild the engine, but—reluctantly—he’d been forced to admit the unit was worn out. He didn’t have the credits for a new one.
So he sipped his beer and watched the woman with almost the same predatory intentions as her companions. There was a difference, though. He wasn’t going to take her life, and if she was looking for a dive boat, he was going to try to sell his services to her. Her companions were cold-hearted killers on a good day. He was just desperate. Kasiv was his world and his future. He would not lose her.
Medium tall for a Terran and well-built, tending toward athletic rather than voluptuous, the woman captured the attention of the males in the bar and a few of the females. Tonight’s crowd was a shadow of what it would be like on the weekend when the dive crews took time off from their salvaging, but over twenty beings watched the woman talking animatedly to Bloortcha’s people.
A few of them observed the exchange with the same predatory zeal Peyton was feeling. But they weren’t going to act on their need or desperation. Bloortcha’s enforcers were paid killers, dangerous beings who didn’t mind dropping a body into the shadows of the sea for the iagee fingerlings to feast on.
“Zah, zah,” one of the thugs told the woman reassuringly. His scaled head soared at the end of a long neck. The sinewy length glinted magenta here and there among the dark ochre. When standing, he was almost two-point-five meters tall, but a lot of that was neck. A smile almost formed on his lipless slash of a mouth. “What you wish, tibuda, we can do for you. We can reach the ocean floor if needs must.”
The speaker possessed a grasp of Terran Basic, but other languages and accents mixed in with it. Tibuda was a Worisan honorific that translated more or less into “high lady.”
Bloortcha was Lojokan and he hired only family. Lojokans had large families and an intricate pecking order Peyton still hadn’t managed to crack after years of being around them. Lojoka was a hot house world covered with swamps. Not quite like the deep oceans that occupied ninety percent of Woris. Lojokans looked like slightly larger than human-sized snakes with arms and legs. Some Terrans Peyton had talked to claimed the Lojokans resembled lizards, but lizards weren’t as bendy as a Lojokan was.
“At the spacedock, I was given Bloortcha’s name,” the woman said.
When the woman spoke, Peyton sensed the doubt in her words. She was getting wiser about her situation, wasn’t trusting her entourage or the promises she’d been made, but it was already too late. Bloortcha’s thugs wouldn’t let her go now. They knew she had credits, at least enough to pay them for a few minutes of their time, long enough to rob—and maybe kill--her.
And taking the credits without working for them, from a wabipu, was a total profit and something for them to take pride in. She was probably buying the beer they were drinking.
Whatever she was after, she was in a hurry to get it. And that was a third strike against her, and it would work against Peyton if his hand was forced too early. Woris punished beings who hurried, and the Ris’ira Depths drank down many amateurs and those who pressed their luck, and those crews were never seen again. Marine predators took the bits and pieces that were left of them.
“I was told Bloortcha could take me where I needed to go,” the woman said. The dim light in the bar made her short-cropped black hair shine. A few weeks out on the seas would dry it out and turn it brittle.
“He can take you where you need to go,” the thug said. “Zah, he will.” He tried the smile again, and this time the hunter’s instinctive hunger showed in his large, ebony eyes. He slid over a three-fingered hand, probably intending to pat her arm to soothe her.
The woman leaned back a little and pulled out of easy reach. She glanced around the bar and Peyton ducked her gaze. If she noticed him, the Lojokans might as well, and that would take away whatever small edge his anonymity provided. If the Lojokans saw him, he would have to kill them all. Not even the hungry iagee could dispose of three bodies before morning. The Watch would find them, and the hunt would begin.
Everyone would remember the woman. Peyton’s heart beat a little faster because he knew he couldn’t let them simply take her.
“Why isn’t Bloortcha here?” the woman asked in a decidedly sharper tone.
“Bloortcha manages many enterprises.” The thug actually tried to sound placating, but the effort was unpracticed and she evidently could see through smokescreens. She frowned. “His time is valuable, tibuda. He has sent us to meet with you.”
“I’m paying a lot of credits for his time, not yours.”
The thug waved nonchalantly at the bar. “Not for his time in this place. This is merely xileza.” He blinked his round eyes, searching for something outside his native language. “You would say, getting-to-know-you.”
The statement that Bloortcha managed many enterprises was the truth. In addition to being a boat’s captain and a diver, Lojokan was a loan shark, a smuggler, a thief, and a murderer. The last was merely a byproduct of the other three illegal businesses gone bad. Not all of his operatives were capable, or even interested in, finesse.
Seated comfortably in his customary booth at the back of the small bar, Peyton restlessly twirled his empty drink bulb between his fingers and knew he was teetering toward feeling too good to do what he intended to do. He liked the Sapitwa Club because of its low-key atmosphere and its ties to Malawi, a country he’d never seen on a planet he couldn’t remember.
Air plants grew in pots on a rail above the long bar, and there were even some other exotic, offworld plants in dirt, an expensive commodity in itself. Peyton’s grandfather had told him about the original Sapitwa, had related all the old tales about how the kingdom in Malawi on Terra was home to spirits and gods and goddesses.
Long shields of woven plastic extruded to look like wood framed the bar’s mirror. Images of obsidian warriors dressed in loincloths and carrying long, thin spears fought with ferocious lions in a veldt of tall grass. Every time Peyton had looked at those images, he couldn’t help feeling that his ancestors had fought against the dangers of their own depths. Not all of them had won. Life came with fangs and claws, and there was no mercy.
This Sapitwa had a good micro-brewery and could make beer and liquor out of many Woris life-forms, plant and fish, and even some of the veess, the monsters that lived and hunted each other in the depths. But this Sapitwa also allowed questionable and illegal business dealings to take place.
Like Bloortcha’s blood trade.
The Lojokans got up and guided the woman to the door. From the slight apprehension showing on her face, she wasn’t happy about going, but whatever had pushed her to come to Woris was stronger than her fears. She was desperate too. Woris had a way of trapping that kind of person in its merciless oceans.
Desperation was never a good thing. Fear was hardwired into a species to ensure survival. Greed had gotten layered in later, and it had short-circuited the initial programming like a sensie-chip that had been overwritten too many times.
But nothing drove a person with imagination, hopes, and dreams like desperation. It was a sickness. Peyton lived with that himself.
Once the door shut and the group—predators and prey—disappeared, Peyton got up from the booth and strode toward the bar where Felicity Banda stood watch over her small kingdom. She had inherited the bar from her father, and he had gotten it from his father. Before the Banda family had scraped up enough raw resources from salvage work to build the bar, they’d mined the fallen shipwrecks too.
“What foolishness has entered your mind?” Felicity Banda stood irresolute behind the counter with her arms folded over her large breasts. Supposedly there were images somewhere of Felicity when she had a svelte figure and turned men’s heads with more than her sharp tongue, but Peyton had never seen them.
She stood a head shorter than his one-point-eight meters and weighed almost twice as much as he did. Dark, rebellious hair shot through with gray framed her brown face. Her hazel eyes, both of them cybered, glinted. She wore a smock that featured brightly colored geometric shapes.
Peyton halted at the bar. “You saw Bloortcha’s men with that woman.”
“I did, and I know she’s trouble.”
“She’s in trouble,” Peyton said.
The seconds since the group had gone out ticked through his mind. There weren’t many alleys close by, and the walk to the marina where the boats sat anchored was a couple hundred meters away. Bloortcha’s thugs would want a nice, quiet place to conduct their homicide.
Felicity showed him a thin smile. “Which is it got your head turned, quav? The woman herself, because she is a looker? Or maybe it’s the promise of credits that hangs around her like taif algae?”
Both terms were thin insults. Quav was a term for a youngling who thought with his or her hormones, not his or her brain. Taif algae carried a low-grade toxin that made the skin break out in itchy hives for days.
Peyton put steel in his voice. “It’s none of your business.”
“If it was none of my business, you wouldn’t be in my face right now.”
“I want to borrow the stun rod you keep behind the bar.” Over the years Peyton had visited the bar, he’d sometimes seen Felicity use it on troublemakers, criminals, and people who sometimes only irritated her.
The Watch didn’t permit energy weapons in the city proper. Against three Lojokans more than willing to kill to protect a prey they had chosen, Peyton knew he need more than the long blade he carried in his boot.
Felicity snorted in displeasure. “If I let you borrow my stun rod, I’m going to watch you chase that siren to your death. And what would your father, may he sleep in peace, think about that if he were here.”
“My father was del’tin’eun,” Peyton said quietly. “A chance-taker. I am my father’s son, and you know I need a new engine. Maybe this is my path to getting one.”
“Does anyone hold your oradu?”
Asking if someone held Peyton’s “death-price” was just mean and bordered on vicious. Felicity was worried about him.
“Are you just going to stand there and let those metyn take that woman somewhere and murder her?” Peyton demanded.
Metyn wasn’t Worisan, but Peyton didn’t know which culture on the planet it had come from. He wasn’t sure what it meant, exactly, but he knew it wasn’t cordial or appreciative.
“I don’t know her,” Felicity said. “I’ll never know her.” She fixed him with her gaze. “But you I know, and I promised your father I would help you after he died.”
“Then help me. Give me that stun rod.”
Felicity shook her head. “I can’t.”
Peyton vaulted the bar and landed on the other side. His head swam only slightly from the drinking he’d been doing. He searched quickly through the shelves built into the space behind the bar and found the stun rod.
The Garoest Model 3 stun rod was fully a meter long, nine centimeters in diameter, and made of dense, dull gray plasteel. It was ugly and brutal looking, but the business end threw off a healthy discharge of blue sparks when Peyton tried it.
Before he could leap back over the bar, Felicity seized the stun rod’s barrel and held it.
“Felicity,” Peyton pleaded. Visions of losing Kasiv and being stuck working with another salvage crew, of never being free again, had run rampant through his mind since he’d admitted the engine was blown. “I’ll go after them bare-handed if I have to.”
In the corner, Onani, the big man who served as Felicity’s bouncer and private bodyguard pushed himself to his feet. He was broad and powerful, marked with gray scars from past battles in the bar and other places he never talked about no matter how many drinks he had downed. He drew the plasteel baton from inside his sleeve.
Felicity held up her free hand. Onani halted, then, when she waved him away, he hesitated, but he returned to his seat.
“If you borrow my stun rod,” Felicity stated in an even voice, “you will pay me for its use.”
Peyton gaped at her, not believing what she had said, but he knew Felicity. She didn’t do anything without making a profit.
“For the loan of a stun rod? To save someone?”
“Someone who means nothing to either of us,” she insisted.
“She’s a woman.”
“She’s a stranger. An offworlder. You’re viewing her as a meal ticket. Don’t you dare fault me.”
Peyton cursed but kept the words to him. Felicity wouldn’t release the weapon until a bargain was struck. And he didn’t blame her. No one on Woris did anything for free.
Especially if that person had to put his or her life was on the line.
“How much?” he asked.
“Ten percent,” Felicity told him. “And I’ll want an accounting.”
Felicity released the stun rod. “Be careful, Peyton. The world would hold less joy if you were not in it.”
Peyton nodded and leaped back over the bar. Luckily, there weren’t many people in the bar, and none of them were friends of Bloortcha’s. He hoped none of them would tell of his involvement in what he was about to attempt.
Of course, if Bloortcha’s thugs killed him, it wouldn’t matter. Except that Kasiv would be lost and his crew, which was his only family, would be scattered.
He paused at his booth, pulled on his thick jacket, and zipped it up. It was going to be cold outside with the wind coming in off the sea. He pulled a watch cap from his coat pocket, stretched it over his head, and matched up the eyeholes so his vision was mostly clear.
Then he headed through the door and his heart beat loudly in his ears.
(c) 2018 Mel Odom