Chapter 1 excerpt
Midnight execution, all welcome, the sign outside the Half Angel Tavern proclaimed. The inn was located in an industrial suburb of Dredge City, the capital of planet Kaznac. Heavy with pollution, the air left a metallic tang on the back of the throat.
To Brell Sturlach, environmental concerns were the least of her worries. Since landing on the chaotic Non-Association planet, survival was a more pressing issue.
Wearing a full-length religious robe, she yanked at the edges of the hood as she waited to be searched for weapons. A male grunted at her as she reached the front of the queue. Indelicate hands groped her body as she pressed her knees together. A chance to search a woman did not offer itself often to door security staff. She concentrated on her breath while maintaining a calm, serene expression. The guard failed to discover the jolter, a mini stun gun, attached to the inside of her thigh.
She walked passed the weapon depository, entered the main bar, and waited for her colleague, Lottie, a robotic assistant.
She studied the other visitors, the building exits, and internal spaces. This was going to be tricky.
With limited options, her Police Corps experience would be invaluable. Having worked her way up to a senior rank in the Corps, she destroyed her career a few years ago, due to an addiction to psychotic drugs and intoxicants. She was also sent to prison.
Of similar height to many of the men, with a round face and oval brown eyes, tonight she felt her forty-one years. She had shaved off her usually short black hair for the sake of her religious identity as a nun of the order of Jayzan. A course of tablets changed her normal light blue skin to shades of white and grey.
Lottie arrived inside the bar. Ignoring the murmurs and crude comments from the drinkers, she stood next to Brell.
“Okay?” Brell said, keeping her eye on the crowd.
“They found nothing,” Lottie said in a deep male voice. The complex outer skin of her hardened shell allowed her to change identity. Someone once described it as appearing like body paint. With the pockmarked face of a fifty-year-old, she had stooped her shoulders to play the part. She checked the tightness of the white cord tied around her waist.
“Good, let’s find our prisoner,” Brell said.
Sounds of loud talking pervaded the large room, together with the odour of stale beer and cooked food. There was a distinct atmosphere of expectation at the imminent executions. A bar on one side served basic types of ales, and at the other end, female dancers gyrated on a small stage. Brell knew it was part of a pre-execution build-up. Men stood nearby, leering at the women dressed in brief undergarments.
Good, it kept their eyes off the only two people wearing religious robes.
Brell stepped through a set of double doors propped open by beer barrels. She entered the tavern’s rear yard, a large square area. At least it wasn’t raining.
Placed against the far outer wall were four metal cages, each containing a prisoner. One of them, Brell hoped, would be the person who had asked for help two weeks ago. A surprise, considering the hostility that existed between them. This was also the person who could lead them to a hidden stash of Locardum, a rare ore used in weapon making.
The bloody Locardum. The search for it had already cost the life of her partner, a Police Corps captain. Murdered after a conception ceremony, he would never see their son. Junior was growing safe and secure in a surrogate womb set within a hotel on a pleasure planet.
She knew her partner’s killer, a man with the nickname of Smiler, was also after the Locardum. Though he did not know its exact location, the bastard would not be far away.
Two armed guards stood by the cages. Their stance, Brell calculated, was attentive and observant. That said, they were allowing people to insult the prisoners or throw beer over them.
A low platform, the execution stage, was positioned against a wall next to the cages. Two men were building a lethal apparatus. Four rough wooden coffins lay in a pile on the ground by a rear access gate.
Brell stroked her chin as she assessed the environment. What she wouldn’t give for drones, cams, stunners, and zappers from her Police Corps days. With a small team, they could be in and out in five minutes. Equivalent equipment was expensive or too risky to buy. She needed to rely on copious helpings of grit and determination.
“Brother,” Brell said, “we must visit the prisoners to offer them comfort.”
“A virtuous manner is needed, sister, remember?” Lottie said, glancing at her.
“Quite right, brother,” Brell said. She interlocked her fingers, pursed her lips, and nodded back.
A small group of men clutching mugs of beer congregated by a pudgy, sweaty man wearing an apron. He smoked and conversed loudly with the men. One man, who had been pissing over the prisoners, returned to claps and cheers.
As she approached, Brell saw them nudge each other and turn to examine her. Two of the men swayed with the effects of the rough ale.
“A nun? A woman in here?”
“Do you drink, sister?”
“I do not partake in intoxicating liquors. It is forbidden.”
“You’re supposed to be hairless, aren’t you?”
A hand reached forward and pulled Brell’s hood backwards.
Her bald head shone in the dim lights. A male gasped at the long scar running across her scalp.
“Get in a fight?”
“An accident, during work activity.”
“Who’s this, your minder?” A male pointed at Lottie.
One male stepped towards her, his chest almost touching hers. His breath was hot and stale.
“Gentlemen. I am a follower of Jayzan. We come in peace,” Brell said, squeezing her fingers together to prevent herself from reacting.
“Oh, really? But you are a woman, are you not? What you got on underneath the robe, eh, sister?” The male said.
The others sniggered.
“I am here to visit the prisoners,” she said, raising her voice.
“Lads, lads, come on,” the pudgy man said, interjecting. “I am the landlord at your service. Drunk men, sister, they mean you no harm.” His fat face creased in a smile.
Brell watched the men wander off back inside the main bar to ogle the dancers.
“Don’t often see religious types here.” The innkeeper said, his gaze moving in a suspicious sweep between Brell and Lottie.
“Kaznac provides us new pastures in which to spread the word of Jayzan. For people to follow a path of peace.”
“You won’t find much peace here, sister. Are you here for the executions?”
“Yes, we saw your advertisement. This is a fine establishment, landlord. What is that?” Brell said, pointing to a wooden notice board that she hadn’t previously noticed.
“We’re taking bets on whether our caged convicts squeal, piss their pants, stay silent, or shout for their mother at the moment of their demise.”
Grinning, he wiped his fat lips and belched. His eyes stared at Brell’s chest.
“What is your choice?” Brell said.
“Silence. One of them doesn’t squeal, that’s for sure.”
Retaining her demeanour despite her inner revulsion, Brell smiled. “Landlord, I would like to give succour to the prisoners in their last hour of need.”
“You can succour me if you like, sister.”
Ignoring his comment, Brell continued, aware the innkeeper appeared keen to talk. “How does this execution take place?”
“My brother, the local judge, will arrive soon to witness proceedings. The executioner, my cousin, hooks up their neckbands, overloads it, and off comes the head. It’s good for business. Here.” He reached inside his shirt and pulled out a key secured on a chain round his neck. “This is a key to the cages. I have the important job of unlocking the doors. You should see the look on their faces when they see me. They shit themselves.”
“Well, sir, may I speak in private to the unfortunate prisoners? Offer a prayer, for them to reflect on their misdeeds. I presume there is a fee? Is this enough?” Brell passed over a few credit notes and plastic chips.
The landlord grunted and spoke to the guards before handing them a note each. Brell checked that the hood of her robe was covering her head.
A guard raised his laser rifle. “Just one of you.”
Brell put up a hand, motioning Lottie to stay behind. “Silent prayer, brother,” she said.
Lottie gave a single low nod.
She stood still and waited for the inevitable groping. Once finished, she placed her palms together and approached the cages. A pungent smell of stale beer, piss, unwashed clothes, and sweat filled the air. She examined the faces of each prisoner.
It was as she expected. Exhausted, dirt-streaked, they were a picture of hopelessness. She passed by each cell, saying, “Peace be with you.”
She stopped at the last cell.
The figure inside did not move. Sitting with arms folded around knees, the prisoner’s head was bowed. Nevertheless, Brell knew this was the right person. She let out a breath and knelt by the bars.
“Brother, I want to pray with you, to help repent your sins.” She spoke in what she considered a clear, saintly voice, for the benefit of the guards.
“I need no god,” the prisoner said, in a male-sounding voice.
“Brother, please join me, kneel in prayer. Clasp your hands together. Let us pray.” Brell lowered her voice and moved a hand to cover her lips. “Katey, it's me Brell. Don’t say anything.” She continued in her nun’s voice, “Child, won't you say one last penance?”
Lifting her head, Katey’s eyes widened.
“Join me in prayer. Kneel with me, let us pray together.”
Katey slumped onto her knees to face Brell.
This was not the young, fit woman whom Brell had fought with a few months ago. In fact, until the change of events, she would have left her to her fate.
Katey’s jacket, shirt, and trousers were imbued with layers of grease ground into the fibres. In her mid-twenties, her appearance as a male was very passable, a disguise she had assumed since landing on the planet weeks ago.
Katey brought up her hands and pressed her palms together. Her eyes locked onto Brell’s. It was a difficult expression to translate, Brell considered.A moment of understanding passed between them.
Copyright Stuart F. Dodds