He didn’t kick open the batwing doors and burst into the saloon bristling with lasers and attitude. Didn’t saunter up to her green neonglass bar, tip his hat and growl, “Whiskey, ma’am”, in his rough and rusty badlands drawl.
But Allie Fivestars knew he was the one.
The way he strode in, lean and tight like a snake. His dusty metal armor with flashscars burned deep, the worn grips of his old-fashioned photon pistols. The hard set of his mouth, his unshaven chin, the tension in his thighs as he sat on a tall barstool. How he catalogued everyone in the crowded saloon—drunken barflies, card sharks, whores—with one sweep of his hard eyes.
No electric enhancements in those space-dark depths. No glint of laser-sharpened accusight.
Just shadows, and death.
Woodenly, Allie polished another glass and added it to her stack. At the bar, a dirty space-mad hustler puffed acrid smoke from a plastic stim cigarillo, squinting at her with a single metal eye. In the corner, old Sheb banged out some long-forgotten tune on the piano, his artificial hand clanking on the keys. A couple danced a drunken tango. Some were already passed out under the cracked plastic tables, and by the open-shuttered window, a black-shelled Arctinian gurgled contentedly and waved its antennae, sucking whiskey into its bristly mouth through a straw. Arcies drank here, and smoked stim. Anything else—those vile alien appetites the girls whispered about—was illegal.
Like that mattered a damn around here.
In the centre, a trio of dusty freight jockeys played cards. Halfway up the stairs, another one fumbled with a whore’s ruffled blue skirts. The girl—her friend Susie Threeways, sixteen years old and already half-mad from cheap stim—swigged Arctinian moonshine from the bottle, her eyes dull and bloodshot. The feathers in her fascinator hung limp, her synthetic blue corset crumbling.
Just another night at the Starshine Saloon.
The stranger’s gaze locked with Allie’s. Dark. Knowing.
Her pulse quickened, the laces on her red velvet bodice suddenly too tight.
Automatically, the chipset in her brain activated, and her blood cooled. The chip didn’t permit excitement of any kind. No arousal. No violence. It was how the Syndicate punished her, made sure memories of her past were erased. How they controlled her, like they controlled everything else on Retribution Station, from slavers to gunrunners to the lucrative stim trade.
They’d made her no good for anything but bartending and whoring, and precious little good for that last. Oh, she had her regulars; enough to keep her fed, vaccinated against disease, her threadbare velvet skirts laundered. Dirtbags all. Syndicate, for the most. Johnny Lee Cade, for one, pirate, slave trader, dead-eye gunslinger, with his cold hands and bitter mouth. He passed for the law in these parts and claimed her exclusively whenever his ship docked. Lately, Johnny Lee’s patience with her had grown brittle. She wasn’t making him enough money. Hell, they didn’t call her Allie Fivestars as a compliment.
She couldn’t feel pleasure, or passion. Faked it, like every other five-credit fuck on the station. Couldn’t even get drunk or high to wash the shame away, if she’d felt any, which she didn’t. Just disgust, and a tarnished ache in her heart.
But this long, lean stranger’s glance did things to her insides she thought she’d forgotten forever. Warm, secret, womanly things.
Definitely the one she’d been waiting for.
“What’ll it be?” Eyes down, she wiped the bar with a wet rag. She kept her voice neutral, but urgency tightened her throat. Do something, Allie. Before he walks out. Before Johnny Lee comes back. Please, let him not ask for a whore.
The stranger’s stare—so close now—warmed her skin all over again. Even through the tart stimsmoke, she could smell him, warm steel and fire, and her mouth watered. A fine smell for a man.
A muscle jumped along his jaw. A single sweat drop glistened on his temple. At last, he reached up two fingers and tipped his hat. A stray lock of chestnut hair escaped, and fell to his chin. “Whiskey, ma’am.”
Allie stared, the need for breath forgotten. That rough badlands drawl… In her mind, distant firecrackers popped, flames licking the torn edges of her memory like burning paper. Blindly, she fumbled for the bottle, and splashed whiskey into a glass. The stranger reached for it with his big flashscarred hand. Scars, the shape of sickles, smooth and warm on her tongue…
Impulsively, she folded her fingers over his, stopping his retreat.
Whiskey spilled. His dark eyes flashed, and he tensed, watchful, only a snap of reflex from… what? Hitting her? Drawing down and melting her brains?
Allie’s pulse danced, and she fought to keep control, to thwart the chip for just a few moments more. She knew him. She didn’t know him. It didn’t matter.
“I don’t know who you are, mister,” she whispered, “and I don’t care. Just get me out of here.”