I was relieved when I could eventually see the lights from our destination below in the shaft.
The relief was premature.
As the cage slowed to a stop with a painful grating noise that can only be created by ancient and warn metal-on-metal, my senses were utterly assaulted. The smell was the first thing that hit me. I had not been prepared for the stomach churning blend of stale air, sweat, food cooking and rotting refuge. My stomach actually turned and I automatically put my hand up to cover my nose and mouth.
“You’ll acclimatise to the smell in no time,” said Oden, who had been here enough times to have mentally prepared himself.
“I’ll take your word for that,” I replied through my fingers, almost gagging.
Hearing was the next of my senses to be abused. The cacophony of noise was a combination of different music, people laughing, arguments and shouting. There was a confusing clamour resulting from numerous voices all speaking at once. It took a moment for my brain to adjust and separate the varying sounds and their origins.
I couldn’t quite see what was going on over in one of the dark corners but from what I could tell by the mass of people all shouting and pushing with the occasional cheer, it looked like a fight. Not our business, I told myself.
We had stepped out of the lift onto the crossroads of two large tunnels. Where Level 2 had been positively cavernous, Level 3 was dark, dank and claustrophobic. Each tunnel travelled further than I could make out. The lighting was much dimmer than it had been on Level 2 but it was vaguely adequate; as long as you didn’t want to see too far. The walls were clammy and partially covered in a festering green slime that started at floor level and crawled upwards. I’m sure the slime was probably the source of some of the rancid smell that seemed to cling to everything. I absentmindedly contemplated whether the smell would cling to me and I sniffed the sleeve of my t-shirt. I wondered whether I would ever get clean again.
The sides of each tunnel were crammed with colourful makeshift tables, covered with an assortment of goods and wares. Most of the stalls looked like they had been cobbled together with whatever material the trader could beg, borrow or steal. The merchandise being sold ranged from clothes and food to weaponry and explosives. The latter was totally illegal of course.
“This way,” Francis waved to the tunnel on our right, keen to move us on because, as before, we were attracting some attention. I guess that’s to be expected when the monks were wearing their full length, dark blue robes, tied around the waist with wide, detailed, black leather belts. Francis and Oden had the same sun and rune mark, adopted by the Brotherhood of the Virtuous Sun, emblazoned in silver on their chest. The only difference between their outfits was the silver medal fixed in the middle of each of their belts. These medals were awarded to the monks by the Primus and symbolised their ascent to a new Degree within the Brotherhood. Oden and Francis had different medals because Oden was Ninth Degree and Francis was Eighth Degree. They were both Warrior Cast. The Doctrinal Cast had a different set of medals and their robes were a lighter blue colour.
Although Oden and Francis’ robes were the same, physically they couldn’t have been more different. Oden was tall, strong and athletic looking. He had dark brown hair which he wore long in a strip over the middle of his head, tied into a ponytail with a leather thong at the nape of his neck. The sides of his head were shaved short. Francis, on the other hand, was about the same height as me, strong but stocky and he was completely bald. Both were attractive, in their own ways.
As we walked, I kept sweeping my gaze over the stalls and the sellers and I noticed Oden and Francis doing the same. Every so often we were approached by various Humans and Others who wanted to sell us their wares – both legal and illegal. On most occasions a wave-off from one of the monks was enough to turn them away.
One of the stalls further down the tunnel caught my eye.
From a distance the merchandise looked suspiciously like current military-grade hardware. As we got closer I noticed the small eagle head and wings emblem branded on each of the items and my fears were confirmed. These munitions were the property of the Royal Earth Force, R.E.F.; Fleet Division. They could only be here if they had been stolen or hijacked from Fleet. Either way, whoever had lost these items was going to be in serious trouble from their superiors when their absence was noticed.
Oden saw that my interest had been raised as I veered towards the table. “Not today,” he said taking my elbow and leading me away from the stall. The seller, a skinny guy with bright red hair, glanced up from the data-pad he was looking at, but after no more than a curious glance in our direction, he went back to whatever he had been doing.
“But Oden,” I wasn’t happy and I didn’t want to let the situation go.
“I know what you are going to say,” he said quickly and quietly before I had a chance to add anything else. I hated it when he did that. “We are here for a different purpose. It is most disturbing that Fleet weaponry has found its way here but we have another task at hand which is far more pressing. I will report what we have found to the Primus when we return to the monastery. He will decide if this issue can be addressed at a later time.” He looked at Francis for his opinion and Francis bowed his head slightly in acquiescence but he said nothing.
“Okay,” I said reluctantly. I was loath to admit it, but Oden was right, plus I also knew that he would encourage the Primus to allow an investigation into the black market sales we were witnessing today. It didn’t alter the fact though that uncomfortable alarm bells were going off in the back of my mind. I tried to mute the clanging and concentrate on our current mission.
“There,” pointed Francis as he indicated to one of the few actual structures on this level; a bar called Finnegans.
Stood in the doorway, taking up pretty much most of the space, was a Rhinorian; a humanoid species of Other. This guy was your typical example of the genus. Physically he had thick, deeply wrinkled skin; a round fat head with beady little eyes and a stubbed nose; no neck to speak of but a large body with limbs the size of tree trunks. Mentally speaking, Rhinorians are not the smartest kid in the class. In fact, most of them are as dumb as a box of rocks, but their impressive strength and their ability to follow simple orders make them perfect as thugs-for-hire or in this particular case, a bouncer at Finnegans.
“Stop,” the Rhinorian grunted holding one hand up in front of me. Just for a second I thought it was weird that his hand was actually bigger than my entire head. He jabbed a fat finger at a sign just to the right of the entrance which read ‘No Weapons Allowed’ in bold black writing and in several different languages. Underneath, in smaller letters was written ‘Failure to comply may result in death’. I reluctantly removed the hunting knife from my belt and handed it over. The Rhinorian took the blade and put it in a spare compartment in the rack to the side of him. He handed me a corresponding tag which I pocketed whilst mentally reminding myself to retrieve the knife when we left. I took a step towards the entrance. “Stop,” the Rhinorian grunted again giving me a visual body-check. He motioned for me to lift my arms.
“Come on!” I huffed indignantly. “You have got to be kidding me! Where am I going to hide a weapon?” I said turning in a full circle. I was wearing what I felt most comfortable in; a black t-shirt and leather waistcoat with dark green combat trousers and my favourite black leather military style boots that I have warn so many times they are comfortably moulded to the shape of my feet. Oden had strongly suggested that we didn’t bring our weapons with us as it would most likely encourage us, and by ‘us’ I knew he meant ‘me’, to get into trouble. He was probably right but I never felt completely comfortable without them so I had only agreed under extreme protest. I only had Smelly’s knife because it had been better than leaving it.
The Rhinorian grunted again and made a slightly bizarre flapping motion with his thick arms that almost made me laugh. I looked at Oden, but he just raised an eyebrow and smiled ever-so-slightly. “Fine,” I said, lifting my arms in compliance. The Bouncer patted me down with enough force to almost knock me off balance a couple of times. I’ve been patted down on numerous occasions by perverts who just want to cop a feel, but that wasn’t the Rhinorians purpose on this occasion. He had been told by his boss not to let anyone in carrying weapons and those were orders he was going to follow; without fail. As I said, Rhinorians follow orders extremely well.
The Bouncer followed the same ritual with the monks and, when he was satisfied that none of us were carrying, he stepped away from the door to allow us to enter. As I passed him, he grinned broadly and rumbled, “Enjoy.”
The bar was simple enough. It was a rectangular room with the entrance door on one of the shorter walls and the bar at the opposite end. High backed u-shaped booths ran down the long walls and the centre space was crammed with basic metal tables and chairs that had clearly seen better days. The lighting was gloomy and the decor was your basic grey and black. The furniture looked like it had been broken and repaired several times and the floor and walls like they had been scrubbed clean of blood and god-knows what else on numerous occasions. Music I had never heard before was being piped in through prehistoric loudspeakers in the four corners. A waitress was navigating the tables with a tray of drinks.
Finnegans was your typical crap-hole bar in a crap-hole place.
I could see both of the monks sweeping their gaze around the bar and I knew that they were assessing the threat level in the room. The bar wasn’t currently busy; there were a few groups of Humans occupying various booths and tables but none seemed to be overly interested in our arrival.
One of the back booths, to our left, seated four Santians. Like the Rhinorians, the Santians are a humanoid species however they are very different. Their home-world is a Category 3 planet; a rock world that has extremely high temperatures, little water sources and even less vegetation.
During their evolutionary path, the Santians physiology developed to help them survive the harsh conditions. Their skin pigmented in shades of light brown, beige and taupe to help them camouflage against predators and their skin became completely smooth. They have no body hair, not even eyelashes or eyebrows, so to protect their eyes from the sun and sand, their pupils developed as slits, like Earth cats have. And as well as normal eyelids, they also grew an extra membrane that covers the eye from side to side. An additional pouch formed next to their stomach to act as a water reservoir allowing them to go longer without drinking.
Their development is currently on a par with Earth in the late 22nd Century and although their technology has advanced far enough for them to be able to adapt their living conditions to protect them from their planets harsh environment, they still carry the same physiology.
Any Santian who travels away from the high temperatures of a Category 3 environment must wear a Med-Temp bracelet. Designed by Earth scientists, the bracelet regulates the internal temperature of Humans and some other humanoid species, including the Santians, regardless of what the ambient temperature is. They are very costly and not overly common outside the Human Race so I was curious as to why four Santians with bracelets were here in Angel Ridge. That little bell was tinkling in the back of my brain again. I would mull this one over later when I had more time.
Apart from the Humans and the Santians, there were a few random Others dotted around the bar but nothing to be too concerned about. However, I still had a nagging feeling that I just couldn’t shift about the Santians in the far corner.
I followed the monks to the bar which was located in the middle of the wall at the far end. I managed to navigate the tables and their associated occupants without too much trouble although I did have to threaten to break every twenty seven bones in some drunkards hand if he didn’t remove it from my arse immediately.
I picked a bar-stool that wasn’t quite as grimy as the others and sat. I had my back to everyone, but there was an aging mirror behind the liquor bottles which meant I could see most of the room, including the entrance, in the reflection. Oden stood leaning against the metal bar, facing the room. The only other exit was a door to the left signposted as ‘Toilets’ in several different languages. Francis disappeared through the door but it wasn’t because he needed to use the facilities; he was assessing an alternative way out should the need arise. This may seem fairly obvious, but you would be surprised at just how many people are killed or maimed each year because they’re not prepared. Morons.
The barman was a huge Human wearing dark utility trousers and a grey vest top and he introduced himself as Clyde. Apart from his face, every visible part of Clyde’s anatomy was covered in black tribal tattoos. He had a wide, rough scar that ran along his right jawbone and what looked like a plasma pistol wound on his left upper arm. He certainly didn’t look like anyone you would want to mess with out of choice.
“What can I get you?” he asked gruffly, and whilst I’m sure he was trying to be polite he was also eying us with suspicion.
“Three beers,” I replied, “bottled. None of that watered down Teki-piss you’ve got on tap,” I added just as he moved towards one of the pumps. “And open the bottles on the bar so I can see they haven’t been tampered with.”
Clyde immediately stopped what he was doing and in a split second he was lent right over the bar so his face was only a few inches from mine. I didn’t flinch, but I was regretting relinquishing Smelly’s knife at the door. I kind of felt naked without some kind of weapon.
He glared at me.
I glared back.
Oden turned to face him and, although his body language hadn’t change much, I knew that he had prepared himself to intervene; if the need arose.
After a moment Clyde bellowed, “What’s the matter little girl? You don’t trust me? Me? In my own bar?” A few of the customers looked in our direction, probably in anticipation of a fight. They might be in luck.
“Hell no I don’t trust you,” I replied honestly, but I was mentally preparing myself for the worst. Clyde stared into my eyes a moment longer as if he were trying to see something in them. Then his own eyes crinkled, his lips broke into a wide grin and he let out a booming laugh. I was slightly startled.
“Quite right too. I wouldn’t trust me either,” he said and clapped me hard on the shoulder. He bent down and retrieved three bottles of beer from under the bar, which he opened in full view. Oden relaxed and turned to face the seating area again.