The Bloody Fingers of the King

PART I

IN AN ULTERIOR LODGE huddled beside a nameless pass through the Barbarian Mountains on Outer Pell, waiting for a brutal spring blizzard to pass, I was dozing by the fire and half-dreaming of Emily when the outer door slid open and a figure all in ragged furs staggered inside, dragging an ill-tempered limb of the blizzard thrashing in with him. The other patrons, there were four, and the innkeeper scowled at the sudden intrusion but the door slid shut behind the figure immediately, amputating the blizzard’s thrashing claw so that it exploded into a puff of feeble, harmless snowflakes.

The figure removed his furs and hung them on the rack. His clothes were as distressed as his furs but still serviceable and warm. He seemed human, or thereabouts, slightly shorter than average but also more sturdy. His wild beard and wilder hair were a deep almost blood red and his eyes sparkled in the firelight. It is hard to guess a man’s age now that we can all live forever, but in those sparkling eyes I divined a youth belying the careworn cicatrice scored into his leathery, midnight blue face. 

The innkeeper, a bipedal hairy mammal with a silicon shell and talons on his knees and elbows, bowed to the man and handed him a bowl of hot broth. I was intrigued, and more than a little peeved, to note that the innkeeper did not ask the ragged man for payment. Payment was the only topic upon which the innkeeper and I had touched, and then extensively so. Payment for broth. Payment for drink. Payment for a room. Payment for heating said room. Payment for hire of linens. Payment for sundries. Payment for parking my little explorer ship in the lee of a sheltered escarpment half a mile away. Payment for local taxes. Payment for Imperial taxes. Payment for the blizzard tax. Payment for hire of the comfortable armchair by the fire. 

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Gods are Patient but Monsters Endure

PART I

BEYOND THE FABLED EDGE, where the stars are lonesome and the planets fall by inches into shadow and frore, I found myself amongst people after too long a time wandering the dead worlds of the Dhar-Ah-Sum Wastes in search of forgotten things. My mind, even accustomed to such solitary expeditions, was still numb and leaden, weighted down by memories and discoveries, by logical extrapolations and dark fantasies. My little explorer ship, the S.S. Ess, creaked and groaned as I nursed her, finally, into a docking bay at Dhar-Ah-Zhul Station, a small but busy Imperial outpost servicing the transport and distribution needs of a remote and small, but busy, province of the Empire with stars in its soul. She came down with a thump, external sensors all out of whack, and clicked and moaned and sighed as I shut her down. A deck-tech team advanced on the S.S. Ess with umbilical feeds and refuelling pods but I waved them away, having a better plan. I grabbed my Civilization Tag and disembarked.

The cavernous landing bay was about half full, with naval, civil and commercial ships coming and going at irregular intervals. Most of them, like my own beloved S.S. Ess, were of standard Imperial designs and manufacture but a few sprang from different minds; a Ziffrosian mining claw, a Zorth Imperium star-shaver, freighters from Ath, Koh-Lajr, The Span and Ziffros, private yachts from Cartella and Luxok, and at least seven A.I. Alliance drones huddled in a belligerent knot near the space doors. 

Lifters and gravs flitted between the ships with cargo, fuel pods, spare parts, robots, repair crews and passengers. Radioed instructions, sirens, buzzers, bells, hollered communications, power tools, engines and the occasional bursts of laughter rang around the place, a mere cacophony to me but an exquisite running commentary for the experienced crew, a symphony of organization. The ships smelled of space, ionisation and rot, as I strolled past them. The bay was overloaded with the fumes from spilled fuels, lubricants and coolants, the confusing, nauseating fug of spilled foodstuffs from disparate cultures, the stench of leaking waste systems, and a thousand other things my nose had no clue about. After so long breathing the dusty drab air of dead worlds, though, my nose cared not and strove, in its own way, to grasp the concept of orgasm.

Outside the docking bay, in a wide and colourful carpeted hallway, the sound was far less; dull and enveloping like sluggish summer breezes. I shouldered my bag and made my way to one of the pilots’ bars at the station’s port side. The corridors were busy, teeming with people from all over the galaxy, a dizzying parade of body shapes, colours, twitters and growls, and further aromas for my nose to embrace like lovers. A few people knew me, and I they, sometimes acknowledged with a wave or a rushed statement of regret at having no time to talk and sometimes having so much to say and so much time in which to say it that the excuse of fictional impending deadlines spilled from my lips.

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