(Title lovingly lifted from Jethro Tull. This is a reworking of a story from about three years ago, only the main character is now named after one of my friends from middle school and she is even more bad ass than before.)
It was just past midnight. Liza-Ennui Bangstar didn’t flinch or even look up from her drink when an errant elbow smashed against her right arm. She’d spent a generous portion of her drinking time fighting back the urge to simply kill the three sumpsuckers crowded around the bar to her right. She had a strong suspicion that no one would miss them; in fact their ignominious demise, which she had plotted out in eighteen different but all equally delightful scenarios, would be a benefit to the city of Dharma. Based on the comments she couldn’t help but overhearing, some of which had been directed at her, the synthetic hooch and stimsticks they’d been sucking down all night were merely a prelude to an evening of violence and rape.
She was a walking arsenal of lethality. Yet she hadn’t come to The Bitch’s Crystal looking for murder. It was always on the menu, of course, but trouble had been riding her for so long she couldn’t remember the last time she wasn’t thigh deep in swirling drama. Tonight was supposed to be the balm for all that, just her and a bottle of actual vodka, smuggled from Old Earth. It was hideously expensive, of course, but she could afford to buy the Crystal, throw everyone out, lock the door and drink herself to death—if that was her desire.
The pub had long been a favorite haunt, a drinking person’s utopia, unsavory and unclean; where reputations meant nothing and the Local Defense Force was more likely to be knocking back in a corner booth than pushing people around. If there was trouble you were expected to be able to handle it on your own; otherwise, you wouldn’t have walked through the doors in the first place.
Liza finished what was left in her glass and nodded to the bartender. Conray had her bottle on ice, and when he pulled it out of the cooler it seemed to glow in the purplish black light that illuminated the bottom of the bar. He held it up so she could see how much was left—or how much she’d drank—she nodded and pushed her glass closer to him.
“What’s that then?” The erstwhile rapist to her right noticed the bottle and saw it as an opportunity to introduce himself—or at least that’s what Liza imagined he was doing. It was difficult to tell what he actually meant.
Liza shook her head and closed the protective shield over her cybernetic eyes for a moment. When she opened them again and turned her head to the right, she saw that the other two were staring at her as well, and not in the friendly “I’d like to know more about you because you seem nice” kind of way.
“Conray…” Liza growled.
Part of the job description to be a bartender in a place like The Bitch’s Crystal was the ability to look like you could crack apart bones and snort the marrow. Buck Conray was that and more, a genetically enhanced slab of walking muscle with the kind of face that made normal people suspect he had recently massacred a whole planet of puppies. And while this fearsome aspect was not a front—Liza had seen him in unabashed, blood splattering action—she also knew that when he wasn’t serving up toxic mouthwash he painted surprisingly delicate portraits and enjoyed a strong cup of tea. At that moment, however, as he took a step towards the drunks, he was every inch the bringer of mayhem he appeared.
“She doesn’t want to talk to you,” he rumbled. “She wants to be left alone.” He held up one massive hand before they could answer. Liza smiled when she noticed a tiny patch of cerulean paint just on the side of his palm, somehow missed when he cleaned up from painting. “Keep it up and you won’t be able to fuck, talk, or walk—in that order.”
“Oh really? And who’s going to do that, eh?”
Liza knew this type. Before she’d turned mercenary, she’d spent years in the military division of Tricaricom, one of several corporate behemoths that wrestled for control over the extra-Solar planetary systems. Life in the military division brought her into contact with some of the best people she’d ever met, but also some of the worst: people who saw their job as an opportunity to indulge their worst instincts. Coarse, unreliable, and brutal to anyone they considered weak, they were often the epitome of what gave humans such a bad reputation.
Conray grunted and jabbed a thumb like appendage toward her. “She will.”
“She? You call that a she?” The guy scoffed. “There’s more metal than meat on them bones.”
Conray shrugged. “Well, I tried.” He filled her glass with vodka. “No blood on the bar, if you don’t mind—it’s a bitch to clean and disinfect.”
Liza downed the drink. It was easy to be ultra-violent. There was a switch in her brain—imaginary, of course—and all she had to do was flick it. How many people had died because of her? How many more would be killed under her hands? She’d shot, stabbed, drowned, or exploded a cattle call of enemies. She’d pushed launch command buttons and sent a barrage of Damnation missiles shrieking into the sky and she’d choked the life out of a soldier, eye to eye with him as he died. She may have even bored one person to death. Nothing about any of that was pleasant. It was a chore and all those dead bodies weighed her down somewhere deep inside, in places she couldn’t look into for long without getting grumpy.
It was like she didn’t have other talents. She totally did. One of the reasons she’d been marked for advanced tactical training was her utter mastery of the silly aptitude tests Tricaricom insisted on giving all new employees. She spoke multiple languages, she could play piano, and she had a flair for programming. But Tricaricom wasn’t interested in her ability to do anything other than kill and destroy. That was fine with her when she was first recruited from the ranks of the Tricaricom Home for War Orphans. Unlike many of her peers, she hadn’t been associated with any of the corporate-sponsored local street gangs—like the Tricaricom Cardinals and Amking Apollos who fought endless battles for control of her old neighborhood—but her time at the Home hinted at a future in the fine art of blowing up shit on this resource rich planet circling a binary star system on the edge of the galactic spiral, a year of slow-space travel from the nearest Tannhauser Gate and a billion zuleks away from a trip through it to Earth.
Her corporate military career had ended in flames, but not before she’d been promoted to Manager-Captain and commanded her own battle pod. When she walked away from Tricaricom, her desertion and the subsequent legal entanglements were enough to keep her from being eligible to return to Earth. She did what many other people did who had been trained and groomed as killing machines: she became an independent mercenary or indie-merk.
She turned to her right and stared at the three men. . They had the corded, heavily muscled look of anabolic junkies, a look she associated with the dumbest soldier-workers she’d commanded. The people around them, sensing someone was about to be unattached to their limbs, backed up and created a small pocket of space around them. The three were armed; she could see pistol grips and knife hilts and the bulges of piecemeal battle armor beneath their garish but functional clothing. She wasn’t unarmed: Liza pushed back her jacket; her twin energy pistols, Prince and Princess, were within easy reach.
The one who had questioned her gender was right about one thing: she hadn’t made it out of Tricaricom’s Military Division without leaving bits and pieces of herself—bloody, burnt, blown up bits and pieces—either on the battlefield or the floors of the Organic Maintenance Division. The corporation looked upon those injuries as opportunities to increase their return on investing in her. Her missing body parts were replaced with military-grade prostheses constructed from layers of carbon and steel fiber polymers; she opted to leave them uncovered by artificial skin, a raw machine quality she quite enjoyed. She regretted none of it, except perhaps the loss of her eyes; she had always liked her eyes, but they had been badly burned and were replaced along with half her face, from the bridge of her nose and up. She was still classified as human, though the balance between cyborg and organic couldn’t tilt too much more toward the mechanical if she wanted to stay that way.
The one piece they hadn’t modified was her brain, unless you counted the endless hours of training and conditioning she’d endured. Neural net implants and whatever might be all the rage but she would rather die than have them mucking around in her head. Once you let that happen, you lost that essential quality that made you human. She didn’t believe she had a soul, not exactly, but she wasn’t going to take the chance of corrupting whatever it was that made her her; not for the sake of a faster metabolism or a constant uplink. As far as she was concerned, it just wasn’t worth it.
She wondered if these three were hard-wired. They didn’t look like they could afford it, but there were back-alley surgeons who were willing to stick anything into the brains of the idiots who came to them. Not that it would help them in these particular fight; she didn’t have to be fast, just smart, and in that they could never hope to match her.
Liza didn’t turn or even glance behind her. She recognized the voice, an unmistakable rasp from a throat roughened by endless stimsticks. In the eyes of the three in front of her, she saw a splash of fear mixed with drunken befuddlement as Susy Bansíde led her brother Charles into the bar.
Susy’s mere presence made people uncomfortable. In point of fact she was affable and generous with her friends, though in public she maintained an air of barely restrained psychosis. She dressed like she’d gone to war with the closet of a space pirate and lost. She was tall and lean, in peak physical condition, and she’d never backed down from a fight. She was a natural chaotic force and even without her creepy brother by her side she oozed deadly intimidation. Charles Bansíde was not like her in the least; slight and unassuming, his eyes always covered by lenses built into his face, he radiated cold malice and anyone near him felt the subtle tickling inside their head from his latent psychic power. Together they were as lethal as any war beast roaming the wastelands and twice as unpredictable.
They were also one of the few friends Liza had in this city.
Liza crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow as Susy and Charles stood next to her.
“This ain’t got nothing to do with her and… that thing!” one of the men shouted.
“You mean doesn’t have anything, don’t you?” Charles had the annoying hobby of correcting grammar, a full time occupation given the company his sister kept.
“What?” The three looked at each other and back to Liza, Susy, and Charles. Odds were silently weighed. Booze driven bravado ebbed slightly in the face of two well-armed indie-merks and the weird boy who liked correcting people.
“We ain’t got time for it,” the leader declared. “We got… things we gots to do. I mean… we don’t have time. And we have things… to do. Somewhere else, even.” They pushed through the crowd toward the door.
Under his breath, Charles continued to correct and everyone nearby let out a collective breath. Bar chatter went back to normal volume, and Liza turned back to her bottle.
“You ruined my fun,” Liza pouted.
“I thought you didn’t like to fight on dranknight,” Susy pointed out as she took the recently vacated and still warm seat next to her friend.
“I don’t. I was hoping to scare them into submission with subtle but meaningful glances and veiled hints of violence.”
“She also wanted to pee on them,” Charles offered.
“Charles, I’m thinking right now about what to do to you if you don’t stay out of my head,” Liza snarled.
Charles gasped and took a step back. “Beer, please!” he motioned to Conray.
“Good thing we showed up when we did then,” Susy laughed, then waved her hands in front of her. “No, no, I didn’t mean you couldn’t handle them. But we saved you the trouble of worrying about getting blood on Conray’s bar.”
“It’s really hard to get out of the grooves,” Conray said as he slid a beer over to Charles. “The usual, Susy?”
“Not tonight, I’m not drinking.”
A shocked silence, a collective gasp from everyone in earshot.
Susy shook her head. “Oh come on, is it that surprising?” Heads bobbed all around the bar. “I mean I’m not drinking yet, there’s other things I gotta do first.”
“Have to do,” Charles said, and winced when she punched him.
Conray closed his wide open mouth and blinked. “Well that’s a mercy, I thought the universe had turned itself inside out.”
Liza filled her own glass. “Tell me these other things don’t have anything to do with me.”
“You don’t want to hear about this sweet job?”
“The last time you uttered the words sweet job to me, we ended up blowing up a half a moon and altering the gravity well around Hyde’s Planet, not to mention being chased halfway across the sector by an army of murder-bots.”
“And it was totally worth it! We saved the galaxy!”
“No, we didn’t. I don’t remember it that way at all. I know we saved our own asses. And I lost a finger, pushing me even further down the road to android status.”
“I did pay for the prosthesis, Liza.”
“That’s hardly the point. Well, maybe it is. I don’t know.”
“Do you want to hear about this job or not? It’s so easy. I mean, nothing to it.”
Liza groaned. “Against all better judgement, I’ll give you a strong maybe.”
Susy grinned. “As in, maybe you’ll do it?”
“No, maybe I’ll listen.”
“It’ll have to be good enough, then.. Here’s the deal: a week from now, Durgen Sparkle is going to make an appearance—in person—at the Tricaricom Home for War Orphans. All the way from Earth! And besides the usual security detail, his people want a couple of local indie-merks to supplement them. Somehow my name came up…”
Susy ignored Liza and keep going. “…and they told me I could hire whoever I wanted. Naturally, the first person I thought of was you.”
“Come on, weren’t you raised in that place? You must know everything tactical it’s possible to know about it.”
“Of course I do. That’s why I want to stay as far away from it as possible. As far as working security goes, you’ve got to be kidding, right? Ever tried to secure a building filled with extremely dangerous children being trained by sociopaths to be extremely dangerous adults?”
“Not exactly, no.”
Liza shook her head and frowned. “I don’t think you thought this all the way through. What the fuck is a Durgen Sparkle, anyway?”
Charles scoffed but said nothing. Liza finally turned and looked at Susy, who couldn’t keep a look of rolling surprise from her face.
“Seriously? I mean, he’s the biggest thing right now. Like, supertzar. An entertainment comet. The greatest thing since—since Slow Pump!”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Do you pay no attention to popular culture? How can you call yourself a member of the human species and not know these things?”
Liza sighed. “Okay, fine, so he’s some sort of what,entertainer or something? And why in the hell would he be coming all the way out here?”
“It’s good press. And he needs good press right now. People love it when their stars get in scandals but he’s one more pregnant wife of someone else from getting kicked out of pop idol orbit. So he’s going to come out here, do a show, thrill some orphans, and by the time he gets back he’ll be riding a new wave of fame for his grand charitable contributions, so to speak.”
Charles leaned over and broke in. “Of course the whole thing is being filmed and will be marketed as the greatest adventure a pop star has ever had. It should take him to an unprecedented level of fame and stardom.”
“Sounds awful.” As Liza said this, she had one eye on the door, where some sort of ruckus had started. “Count me the hell out.”
“But you said maybe!” Susy groused. She noticed her friend was no longer paying attention to her. “Liza, what’re you looking… oh. Ah, crap.”
The three lads from earlier had returned and from the determined glare in their eyes—and the Tricaricom Mk III Plasma Personnel Suppressor they lugged through the door—they intended to have the last word. It was well designed to reduce large amounts of matter to component atoms, if that was your objective; not a subtle weapon but an effective one.
“You sure you know how to use that?” Liza slowly drawled. She watched his eyes, not the narrow opening at the end of the weapon where the bolt of compressed and superheated hydrogen would eject. It was all in the eyes. She could hear the whine of the electromagnetic containment field, ready to discharge. She’d never really liked them; they had a tendency to overheat while recharging or they would simply explode when the containment field failed. When it worked, however, it was as terrifying to those who saw it in operation as it was deadly to those caught in the hissing, spitting blue beam of deadly plasma. She had to wonder how they’d gotten hold of one; it wasn’t the kind of thing Tricaricom Military Division wanted out on the streets and in the hands of miscreants filled with synthetic booze and murderous intent. She could hear Charles behind her, muttering something that sounded like “there will be time”. It seemed an odd thing to say at that exact moment; if she wasn’t reduced to gaseous bits in the next few seconds, Liza made a note to ask him what that was all about.
The crowd, which had earlier pulled back to watch a potential bit of free-to-see bloodletting, was in the process of energetically being somewhere else as quickly as possible. Conray picked up a towel and began to polish a glass.
“You’re gonna burn real good!” the man howled.
“Very well,” Charles corrected.
“Shut the fuck up! What’s wrong with you?” The nozzle flicked in Charles’s direction and Liza saw the man’s eyes begin to tighten. She might be able to get off a shot but if his hand convulsed on the trigger it might not make any difference. She felt Susy next to her and felt the pressure of her arm around her as the taller woman gave her a hug. That was odd, why would she…
A deafening roar exploded next to her left ear and her eyes shuttered automatically to protect them from the muzzle flash. Liza dropped to one knee and forced her eyes open; her own hand cannon was in her hand though she wasn’t even aware she’d reached for it.
The wielder of the Plasma Personnel Suppressor no longer possessed a head. His body tottered a bit; Liza’s eyes zeroed in on the hand still wrapped around the handle and the finger threaded through the trigger guard. The knuckle whitened as the finger, independent of brain driven impulse, squeezed the trigger. Susy unleashed another shot, the mass reactive shell punched into the chest and exploded, the force driving the body backward as if shoved by a giant hand.
The finger twitched. There was a crackle of discharging energy and a large portion of the wall behind them was vaporized as the beam cut through the air, arcing up to impact the ceiling. Liza watched with morbid fascination as it cut through into the rooms above the bar, then began to slide sideways as the body holding it lost integrity. The beam sliced down the wall toward the bar and finally fizzled out, the charge expended. Conray hadn’t flinched and gave the glass in his hand one final swipe before setting it down.
Liza and Susy were moving, guns trained on the two still holding the tanks of compressed hydrogen, faces spattered with the remains of their friend. Liza expected them to continue the attack but they were frozen, as if what they’d seen in the last few seconds had robbed them of initiative. Liza reached them first and powered down the weapon before either one snapped to and remembered why they’d come back to the Bitch’s Crystal.
“I guess we’ll be closing early tonight,” Conray sighed. He reached under the bar and came up with a fire suppression canister which he directed at the smoldering path of destruction.
The two women restrained the hapless lads with plastic ties. Liza was only hearing out of one side; the other ear was washed out. Susy grinned and said something; Liza shook her head and turned so that she could hear her.
“What?” Her ear rang like a carillon gone mad.
“I said, I think you owe me one,” Susy repeated.
“Yeah, it might snow,” Liza shouted, then put a hand to her ear. “Fuck, I think you busted something in there,” she said, trying to modulate her volume.
“Come on, what do you say? I think that’s worth one day of working a security detail.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you arranged everything already.”
Susy grinned. “I wish I was that devious. I’m just being horribly opportunistic.”
Liza shook her head and walked to the bar, a little unsteady. Conray snagged the vodka bottle from the ice, wrapped it in a towel, and handed it to her. She nodded her thanks and surveyed the damage before walking to the door. Sirens were closing in from multiple directions. She didn’t want to be around when they arrived. She stopped in the entrance and shook her head. When she turned around, Susy was still standing there. Liza hated that smile.
“Fine, whatever,” she muttered and walked into the night.
“Yes!” Susy shouted. “This is going to be so much fun! Can you feel the locomotion?”
In the background, Charles grinned and murmured, “There will be time…”
Susy glared at him. “I told you about that. Don’t bring me down, Charles. There’s too much revolution around here already. Remember, when the going gets weird…”
“…the weird turn pro,” he said.