by Christian R. Bonawandt
Stendhal Macross hadn't worked in months. The monotony was driving nails into his skull. Not to mention, his money was dwindling. Not that Stendhal didn't have plenty of money to live on for several more months, but everything runs out eventually. Really, he was more concerned about becoming complacent, lazy, and sloppy. Sloppy means mistakes, and for a mercenary, mistakes mean death.
Since coming to Lavender, Stendhal had done only two jobs in six months. The first was to bodyguard a senator during a campaign dinner. That turned out to be interesting, but not a single bullet flew the entire time; the whole thing seemed to be a waste. The other was to track a corporate executive to find out if he was fooling around on his wife, and if so, murder him. Cheating wasn't the case, but the man was living a double life -- as a cross-dressing lounge singer. In the end, his wife asked Stendhal to kill him anyway. She was probably just looking for justification to have him bumped and take his fortune.
Both jobs came from a contractor that Brunty knew. Stendhal assumed they were tests, and was probably correct. However, they didn't result in any more jobs. Brunty liked to work alone or on freelance contracts, so he wasn't any more help.
That was three months ago.
Stendhal couldn't rationalize whether his reputation from Arbok was preceding him or not. And if so, whether or not that was the reason he wasn't getting work. Stendhal hated working with anyone other than Smyther, his tech-and-chem expert. At this point, however, he'd do anything just to be on a payroll.
"This one time, I had to rough up one of those ULF fighters," one Human sitting two bar stools down from Stendhal blabbed. The Ornery Aardvark was a good bar with a purposely retarded name to keep normal patrons out. It was a place where hitmen, assassins, and mercenaries came to meet and do business. Stendhal had been issued his two jobs while sitting in one of the booths. Those were prearranged meetings. Stendhal was hoping to be approached or hear some news. To do that, he reluctantly planted his ass at the bar.
The Wolfram tending the bar nodded absently while he poured someone else's beer. "You claim you beat up an Ultimate Fighters League champion?" he asked the Human.
"Fucked that bitch up," the Human said, slamming his flesh fist on the pseudo-oak bar. He couldn't have been more than twenty-five-years old. His skin had a light, natural tan. The dark hair on his face was sparse and youthful, as were his greenish eyes. "He couldn't control himself around women, and the ULF corporates wanted him to settle down before he got into real trouble."
This Human was under six feet tall and probably weighted a buck-sixty without the bionic arm. Normally Stendhal let those kind of people brag. Tonight he was both irritable and drunk. "Let me guess, you fucked up two-time UFL tournament champion Ron Ruckus," Stendhal said. "Or was it Hia Udia, the current reigning champion?"
"Don't believe me?" the Human asked.
"It was some Katala. Leugala, or something like that," the Human responded. Pointing to his mechanical left arm, he added, "I have a special surprise built in for 'tough guys.'"
Stendhal laughed again. "Everybody's a big shot when they own a stun blaster," he said to himself.
"I don't see one on you," the Human taunted. "Got something to prove?"
The Human slid onto a stool closer to Stendhal, then leaned in real close as though whispering a secret. Stendhal dropped the red-laser targeting beam directly between the braggart's eyes.
"How tough does this make you?"
The Human went back to his stool. A 9mm that close to someone's forehead could have that effect. It wasn't the most powerful of calibers, but it was reliable. Besides, there's something about having that red beam on your skin that makes a person's bowels loose, and his balls shrink.
"Got any stories to share?" the Wolfram asked Stendhal.
Stendhal waved his empty glass. The Wolfram filled it up.
"I once had to rig this guy's car to explode," started some Elffan who had just walked in. He sat between Stendhal and the Human and ordered a bourbon and soda.
"Nothing fancy about that," scoffed an older-looking Carkhan on the other side of Stendhal.
"Didn't finish," the Elffan said. "The guy was planning to leave town after embezzling a good chunk of change. But he was paranoid and cautious and my contractor told me following him would be no good. He had to get to Twin City in three days to extract the money from an account before the credits could be traced. In order to do that, I figured he couldn't afford to stop more than once. Since he'd probably have his someone start the car for him before he left, I made sure the bomb was set to go off, not the first time but the second. Sure enough, the money was never extracted and his flaming remains were found a couple of hours after the money was tracked and retrieved. Ten percent had magically disappeared, of course, and ended up in my personal account."
The old Carkhan's laugh was like a death rattle. His two-inch claws growing out of the top of his fingers slid up and down his stubby glass. The sound made Stendhal twitch. "An interesting story," the Carkhan said. "You ever taken a man out one-on-one, or are you the 'from a distance' type?"
The Elffan sipped his drink. "Messy isn't my style."
"I've killed over three dozen men in my time," the Carkhan said.
"Nothing to brag about for a washout like you," the Human said.
"Don't interrupt someone while their talking," the Carkhan hissed. "I was saying, I've killed nearly forty men in my time with my bare hands alone."
Between puffs of a cigarette stuffed with something illegal, the Elffan said, "Uncivilized and brutish."
Pointing to his sharp, yellow-tinted eyes, the Carkhan said, "I can and have sniped targets from over five-hundred yards."
"Easy, with the right tools," the Elffan returned.
"Technology is only as useful and the person implementing it," the Carkhan said.
The stench of the Elffan's smoke was making Stendhal more drunk. Not interested in being both stoned and hammered, he slipped off the stool and headed for a booth.
"No longer interested in stories?" the bartender asked.
"Stories are fine, but philosophy is for the educated, and the educated are my source of income," Stendhal said. He turned back around, not totally sure why, and nearly spilled his beer. "So unless someone has a job I'm done with the standup routines."
"Don't have anything to brag about?" the Wolfram said. "You never know what might come up."
That was why those people bragged, of course. It was the underground equivalent of posting one's resume on the Infonet. Problem was, all the clowns in the Ornery Aardvark tonight were a bunch of boys and washouts. No contractor's lackey would have stayed long, seeing the lineup.
"I have something to brag about," threw in a Laramian -- a double-jointed biped with vestigial tentacles on its head that would bioluminesce according to its mood. Laramians were a scarce race, and generally kept to themselves. They were also brutal anarchists.
"So talk," the Carkhan said.
Stendhal was hardly aware that he had frozen in his spot. He was suddenly interested by this newcomer's mood, which showed as a dark, dark red in his head-tacles. The Laramian treaded gradually toward the bar. He didn't sit, opting instead to stand as though uttering a soliloquy in a play, and the bar was his audience.
"Any fool in the underground knows about Yttrium Ytterby," the Laramian began. He paused as though awaiting confirmation. Or for building suspense.
"Of course," Stendhal said. "Get on with it."
The Laramian grinned. "As I said, even the most novice of underground runners knows that Yttrium Ytterby has his hands in nearly all illegal activity on the Continent. Smuggling is his specialty, and he's particularly protective of his activities."
He paused again. This time he legitimately had turned the bar into his audience. The underground respected Yttrium, but there wasn't a merc alive who wouldn't perk up an ear for someone who claimed to have gotten the better of him. Half the underground in Lavender alone worked for Yttrium on one level or another. The closer you were to him, the more you were worth. The closer you were to a rival, the larger the reputation.
"Last year alone I pulled four billion credits worth of smuggling into Lavender. One-hundred percent went right under Yttrium's nose. Three quarters came out of his pocket. My team is comprised of the best hijackers on the Continent. We're untouchable."
"Nice resume," Stendhal said. He was disappointed. The Laramian was building toward a great story, and ended up posting an advertisement.
Gliding toward Stendhal, the Laramian said, "Are you going to make the Wolfram ask if you have something to contribute, or are you just going to stand there and boo us for our performance?"
Stendhal considered gunning the guy down out of drunken antagonism. If the Laramian's "team" was hanging out, though
All eyes were on Stendhal now. His bleach-white skin seemed to glow in the dim light like the Laramian's head-tacles. His dull-green hair was plastered to his skin, damp from his sweat and the dankness of the bar area. Stendhal pushed his hair behind his bat-like ears, letting the sound of the strands against his cybernetic hearing enhancers bring him into focus.
"I have something to contribute," he said. "But it ain't a story."
"Tell it," the Wolfram said.
"My name is Lieutenant Stendhal Macross," he said.
The whole bar seemed to shuffle at once. The Wolfram glanced at something behind the bar, out of sight from the patrons -- probably a large gun, or button that would activate a force field. Shifting his eyes from one side to the next, the Elffan quenched his cigarette and threw down the last of his drink. Someone in a booth near the door slipped out before Stendhal could get a good look at him.
"Stendhal Macross from Arbok?" the Human said.
"Lieutenant Stendhal Macross," Stendhal said, "from the Kilmount Confederacy. I used to work in Arbok."
"Until Dwem happened," the Wolfram said, partly under his breath. He said, this time louder, "You were the sole survivor of an attempted underground takeover in Arbok. Dwem, a mad semi-borg had aced and run out all the other mercs in the city."
"Including my contractor," Stendhal added. "But I got the last laugh. Then decided I was done with that place."
The Carkhan sat up straight. "You could have owned the underground in that city."
"Then who would pay me?" Stendhal said. Standing for so long was starting to sober him up. The semi-silent awe was making Stendhal trigger-happy. Either someone should try and kill him or they should go back to minding their own business.
"I know someone who'd like to pay you," the Human said, getting up off his stool. He seemed a lot older, all of a sudden. "My boss." He tossed a look at the Laramian. "You might know him."
The Laramian didn't wait for the Human to drop the name. He bounded clear over Stendhal's head. Landing on his forearm, the Laramian rolled on his back twice before standing into a run and reaching for the door.
A flash of blue-green zipped by Stendhal's head. The Laramian was fast, and weaved out of the way before being struck in the back. The Human hit the button to charge the stun blaster that had projected from his metal palm. By the time that happened, Stendhal reasoned, the Laramian would be on the street and in his vehicle.
Too drunk to aim, Stendhal switched his 9mm pistol on automatic. He sprayed six of twelve rounds in an arc. The Laramian arched backward to avoid the red laser-targeting beam that gave away the pistol's path. Now at the door, the Laramian paused long enough to pull the pin on a small explosive.
Stendhal didn't pause at all, and finished off his clip into the Laramian's crotch.
The dramatic little punk went down, crying like a fat, angry schoolgirl. The Human was fast enough to boot the bomb out the door. The explosion rocked the walls of the tavern and set off four vehicle alarms. The asynchronous tumult was both ominous and comical.
"Yttrium will be glad to know I ran into you today, Sclik," the Human said. He blasted Sclik with his stun gun just to shut him up. Then he cuffed the Laramian, turned to Stendhal. "And I happen to know my boss has a fat wad of both cash and jobs with your name on it, Lt. Macross."
Story © 2004 by Christian R. Bonawandt WordDude79@aol.com
Illustration © 2004 by Patrick Stacy firstname.lastname@example.org
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