Weekend Wind Down – Hell’s Breath

From Trust A Few by E.M. Swift-Hook

Jazatar Baldrik sat at a table beside the cairn of stones in the Last Hope, his back against the solid rock wall, a plate of cut fruit on the table in front of him, watching the doorway and thinking about trust.
Hell’s Breath had been named by some unknown explorer, who Jaz thought must have been a real joker. Perhaps wanting to prove they somehow survived the freezing surface conditions and the spectacular plumes of burning gases released as the rock decayed, that first visitor left his or her anonymous mark in the form of a small cairn of stones. It got kept, like some historical monument, behind protective screening in the bar of The Last Hope.
The Hope happened to be the best hotel on Hell’s Breath, which didn’t mean so much anymore as it also happened to be the one hotel still left open on Hell’s Breath. Built, like much of the settlement, with most all of its rooms in and under the rock.
It was hard to believe today, but beneath the small complex of geodesic domes which trapped the thin atmosphere and allowed it to be conditioned, enriched and made breathable, there had once been a wealthy and thriving community.
Jaz read a brief history on the public link saying how Hell’s Breath made its name as a stop-over on the first long-haul treks from Central to the Middle Worlds, way back in the days when that still took years. It had, according to the same source, been in its time, a naval base, a luxury resort and a ‘bohemian escape for the literati’, whatever that meant. But history long since passed it by and FTL changed it from prime location to pointless backwater.
Nowadays it survived as a tourist destination and the final resort for those like Jaz himself, who wanted to go somewhere other than where they came from and weren’t too bothered where that might be. Little more than a lump of rock, twirling through space, with a civilian port facility used by the most shady and least wealthy of the freetraders who needed a no-questions-asked fix or conversion done. As a place to hide it suited Jaz: close enough to civilisation to allow him to keep tabs on events and far enough out of the minds of civilised people to let him keep a low profile.
He had known Vel at the Hope since his earliest mercenary days and she hadn’t even blinked when he showed up, penniless and exhausted, fifteen years – more – after he last walked out of her bar. A clean up, sleep and meal later, though it had been different.
“Word has it you settled down in the ‘City years back. I’d not expected to see you around here again.”
Jaz, still nursing a pounding headache he gained from travelling the previous few days in the poorly pressurised cargo store of a ship with no proper passenger accommodation, didn’t reply. But, as he suspected that silence wouldn’t be a problem for Vel.
“So what happened, presh? She throw you out on your useless, no-good backside? Wake up to the fact she could do a whole lot better for herself? Or are you just running from a little ‘misunderstanding’ with the authorities?”
“All the above,” Jaz admitted, his voice glum and Vel’s face softened as he knew it would.
“I don’t do charity here, Jaz.”
“I know. I’ll get work. Trust me”
She gave him a thin smile, marred by the scar pulling down though her left cheek and eating into the corner of her mouth. Her hand came out in a brief gesture and touched his, as it curled around his drink.
“I know you will, presh.”
The promise meant taking whatever he got offered and Jaz found himself running crates with a small time smuggling outfit. So small-time, the ship, the best part of which belonged to Vel’s cousin, did smuggling on a very part-time basis, when it wasn’t being hired out to the occasional tourist who came to Hell’s Breath on a Pioneer Trail Adventure. They all wanted to gawp at the famous flares, which were best viewed from low orbit.
The smuggling runs were not frequent and always without incident. Jaz sometimes wondered why Vel’s cousin even bothered to hire him as muscle. The nearest he came to needing to use violence happened one time when a small group of wiped out tourists stumbled into the dock just as the two of them were unloading a cargo, demanding a sight-seeing trip out and refusing to leave until Jaz persuaded them to come back the next day.
In between runs, he lent a hand with the maintenance of the aging ship, took tourists out to see the flares, helped out in the Hope, battled with the accounts and taught Vel’s cousin’s little girl how to pull scary faces.
In his free time he worked out or sat at a table in the bar of the Last Hope, accessing the news or entertainment channels through Vel’s remote link and wondering if it would ever be safe for him to return to the ‘City. He often thought about sending a secure message to Shame Cullen to see if there was any word on how the land lay, But that would have meant betraying his location and he knew from experience no matter how secure a secure link was supposed to be, someone could always unsecure it. And right now, he liked no one knew where he had gone. It made him safe from the CSF and whoever else in the ‘City might have felt the galaxy would be a better place without him being a part of it.

E.M. Swift-Hook

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