Into The Maelstrom – Snippet 17
Hawthorn picked up the heavy laserrifle that he kept by the pad. He opened the flap on the counter and made for the door, automatically checking that the weapon was powered up before sloping it across his right shoulder. He held it by the pistol grip, forefinger alongside the trigger. These were habits that had kept him alive but then, life itself was just a habit these days. He had as little to die for as to live for. He just went on, clicking through the sub-routines of his existence like an automaton.
His trading post attracted a small shanty town of Riders as trading posts always did. He ignored the Rider’s hovels to search the skies. A low, grey cloud base made the sledge phasing in easy to spot. It maneuvered slowly giving him a good view of the occupants. The driver was a midget of a man but the spare passenger space in the front was more than taken up by the girth of his companion. He was large in every sense of the word. The lemon-yellow padded shell suit covering his ample frame multiplied the visual impact.
He looked like a barrage balloon advertising custard tarts.
“You’re early, Shrankin,” Hawthorn said to the trader when the sledge had landed.
“Yeah, well, you may have noticed that the weather is closing in early so I made Jeb’s Shop the first on my circuit this year. Don’t wannabe hauling goods through snow.”
“That’s what they call this world nowadays.”
“I’m flattered,” Hawthorn said.
Shrankin, the name of the man worn by the shell suit, jumped out of the vehicle.
“Buggers, get the stuff of the wagon and take it inside,” he said to the driver who climbed into the back without a word.
“Is he really called Buggers?” Hawthorn asked, mildly curious.
“No idea,” Shrankin replied. “It’s what I’ve always called him. I’ve never asked to see his birth certificate ’cause he probably ain’t got one. Does his name matter?”
“Suppose not,” Hawthorn replied, losing interest.
He took the trader into the backroom where he kept his purchases. They dickered over a price to be paid partly in trade goods and partly in Brasilian crowns. The negotiations were desultory as both men knew what price they would finally agree. It was simply a matter of honor to put up some show of bargaining even if they were both just going through the motions.
A loud bang of wood on wood sounded from the shop, followed by a yell and another slam. Hawthorn flew through the door, lips pressed close together. A young male Rider glared at him from the other side of the counter. The Rider insolently lifted the counter hatch and slammed it again so hard that it tore off its hinges. Two of his friends standing in the entrance laughed and said something in their secret clan language.
“Quiet beastspawn or I’ll gut you,” Hawthorn said in Kant, angling his laserrifle and caressing the trigger so that an orange sighting dot glowed on the Rider’s chest.
“Want tonk,” the Rider said. “Got tokens.”
The rider swayed slightly as he fumbled in a cloth bag tied to a greasy loin cloth. Hawthorn was amazed he could stand given the stench of stale tonk on his breath. The Rider extracted rectangular purple and grey trade tokens and tossed them on the counter.
Purple and grey were the Mark of the Stream Administration. Hawthorn picked up one of the tokens and ran a thumb along the edge. A pattern code identified which trading post issued the token. It was not one of Hawthorn’s but that didn’t matter. Hinterland traders had an agreement to honor each other’s credit.
“Shrankin, know anything about O’Zhang’s post?” Hawthorn asked, without taking his eyes off the Rider.
“Got burnt out, three, four months ago,” Shrankin said from behind him. “O’Zhang lost his hands.”
Riders collected hands from their victims as religious trophies. The term was used by people in the Hinterland as a euphemism for dying but in this case Hawthorn suspected that Shrankin meant it quite literally.
“Yeah, that’s what I heard,” Hawthorn replied, putting his laserrifle carefully under the counter.
He tossed the token back at the Rider. The man fumbled the catch and the plastic rattled on the stabilized earth floor. The Rider attempted the catch with his right hand, which was odd as Riders were invariably left handed. This Rider held his left hand behind his back.
“Token no good, maker dead so power gone. No tonk, feck off,” Hawthorn said.
There was a dead silence. The Rider stared at him slackly as if his booze-sodden brain had trouble understanding that he had just been dismissed.
“Women’s piss,” the Rider screamed and launched his body through the gap in the counter. He thrust upwards at Hawthorn’s lower torso with the flint knife that he had concealed behind his back.
It was a beautifully timed strike despite the Rider’s apparent intoxication. If Hawthorn had recoiled the blade would have eviscerated him all the way to the rib cage, possibly nicking his heart or aorta before stopping.
Hawthorn anticipated the attack and stepped forward.
He deflected the knife strike with is right arm and pivoted, rabbit punching the warrior in the back of the neck as the man flew past. The Rider smashed head first into a cupboard and went down. Hawthorn put the boot in before he could get up. He kicked the rider in the side of the head and twice in the ribs. Something broke with a sharp crack after the last blow.
Grabbing the Rider’s ankles, Hawthorn dragged the unconscious warrior back across the shop. His head left a trail of blood on the floor. Barging past the warriors at the entrance he dropped the wounded man in the dirt outside.
The warrior’s two friends looked uncertain. One fingered a hatchet looped to a belt around his waist.
Shrankin loomed like a bright yellow mountain behind them, waggling the discharge end of an ion pistol for emphasis.
“I don’t think so boys.”
Hawthorn ignored them. He stomped back into his shop followed by the trader. The Riders disappeared carrying their out-of-it mate.
“You took one hell of a chance,” Shrankin said, holding out a flask of plum brandy. “Why didn’t you just shoot him?”
“And start a Blood Feud,” Hawkins replied before taking a pull of the liquor.
It stung his tongue and burnt all the way down his throat and, reminding him that he was still alive. He took a slower slip, savoring the tangy fruit aftertaste.
Hawthorn grinned and handed back the flask.
“Besides, where would be the fun in shooting the bastard.”
Shrankin joined him by sinking a generous measure. Hawthorn found a couple of glasses and the trader filled them.
“There may be plenty of shooting soon enough,” Shrankin said.
“Really, why?” Hawthorn asked.
“The nobs are meeting at Paxton…”
“You know of another one?”
“No, just surprised at the choice of location. Why not meet at Manzanita or Trinity?” Hawthorn asked.
“How the hell do I know? Do you want to hear about this meeting or not?”
“Sorry, okay, continue.”
Shrankin looked mollified.
“As I said, the Nobs are meeting at Paxton to organize a joint response and give Brasilia an ultimatum over taxation.”
“Why, most of us don’t pay taxes?”
“The nobs do,” Shrankin replied, refilling the glasses. “I’ve a mate who knows some guys in the militia. They reckon there’s going to be a war.”
“I see,” Hawthorn said.
“The Colonel of Militia is going to Paxton,” Shrankin said, tapping his nose to convey his subtle grasp of colonial realpolitik.
Hawthorn started and put his glass down.
“This Colonel, your mate didn’t mention his name?”
Shrankin shook his head.
“Didn’t have to. Same colonel we’ve always had. The one who was a hero in the Terran War, Ballysin or something.”
“That’s the bastard.”
Hawthorn put his laserrifle over his shoulder and headed for the door.
“Oy, where you going?” Shrankin asked.
“Have you ever heard of amalgamated vertical business administration?”
“No,” Shrankin replied, clearly confused.
“Well, you have now. The trading post is all yours, an outlet for your distribution business. Just think, in a few years they could be calling this place Shrankin’s Shop or lemon-yellow land.”
“But what are you going to do?”
“I have,” Hawthorn said, “to see a man about a war.”