Copyright © 2014 Toby Bain
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Her hands were shaking as she aimed the weapon.
As tempting as it seemed for Badga to dive for the gun, he knew the implications of failure. She had his vapour blaster on her side, and, having reluctantly used the weapon once in the past, he knew the bullets of scorching air could slice through a 2-inch thick piece of metal as if it wasn’t there. As for human bone, muscle tissue and fat, it dissolved them without as much as a pause for thought.
Heroics were all very well, but if this amateur managed to get a shot off, the pellet of air would pierce through the air cruiser as if it were invisible. The craft would plunge to the ground and they’d both be killed. That just wouldn’t be fair. His air cruiser. His livelihood. His life. He had too much at stake to gamble.
So Badga thrust his hands up in theatrical surrender. The air cruiser floated for a split second before it was seized by gravity. As it plummeted, the girl stumbled and regained her balance on a side rail. ‘Put your hands back on the steering controller,’ she snapped.
It was a nice try and the next cunning plan would soon percolate. Until then Badga let the autopilot guide the cruiser across the bright red sky and pretended to navigate. Usually he’d be happy at having a girl this close to him, one wearing a tiny green leaf skirt, flashing her tanned midriff in a matching cut-off top. Being held at gunpoint did little for the libido.
‘What’s your name today?’ he asked. ‘Last night, when you tried to seduce me, you gave your name as Pyro.’
She laughed scornfully. ‘If I was trying to seduce you you’d be well and truly seduced.’
The hold-up was perversely reassuring. If murder or theft was her intention she could’ve robbed and killed him last night. There had to be another reason she’d stolen aboard the ship, thought Badga. And it had to be linked to their first encounter last night.
He’d met Pyro in a bar in downtown Jedda – a cheap dive that sold alcoholic water straight out of the bottle and where even the smallest arguments were settled by fights that spread quicker than a sexual disease. People fought for no other reason other than a compulsion to join in.
That night there was a jovial atmosphere around the place; travellers from different lands and races had stopped by. Jedda, in the centre of Guraf, was a gateway to the other 6 lands of Guraf.
Badga chose a corner table – to view the festivities from afar and flee the place if fighting broke out. Not that he wasn’t up for a fight, but the four strikes rule meant any fighting in the next month and the King’s Police could strip him of his treasure hunter’s licence.
It was as he swigged the cheapest alcoholic water (a vile urine-coloured brew that tasted as it looked) that he noticed a girl around his age weaving in and out of the patrons, flirting especially with fellow treasure hunters and merchants. When she’d approached Badga’s table he waved her away.
He was brought back into the present by the sound of her voice directing him to navigate toward Kevra Forest.
‘Do you actually have a clue what you’re up to?’ Badga said, forcing a smile. ‘Thought not. Pretty inept at this aren’t you? I guess this must be your first time holding up a treasure hunter. That’s twenty years in a slave camp and for what? There’s nothing valuable on this ship.’
Pyro implored him to be quiet.
‘If you fire that gun the bullet will penetrate through me and this ship like I’m not even there. We’ll crash and die. And my guess is this little trick of yours isn’t a suicide mission.’
Pyro pointed at the transparent glass floor of the craft and said, ‘I want you to land down there.’ She seemed to be indicating the tops of the trees, their blue leaves fluttering and flapping like bird’s wings.
Badga laughed again; this time a nervous, incredulous laugh. ‘I know you don’t mean that,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing down there but certain death.’
That wasn’t strictly true. “Down there” was Kevra Forest – a thick band of dense vines and a fog of wispy blue leaves that seemed to beckon the craft into its eager tendrils. Death trap. Twilight zone. He’d heard enough negative stuff about Kevra Forest to plead with her to reconsider.
‘Either you set us down.’ She aimed at the transparent floor, finger tickling the trigger of the vapour blaster. ‘Or I’ll set us down.’
‘And to think I mistook you for a whore last night.’
It was the truth. Waving her away had nothing to do with her looks. She lit up the bar with her beauty. But he could ill afford to buy himself a drink let alone ladies of the night. Treasure hunting wasn’t as lucrative as it was made out to be by the celebrities. The drinking session was a pity party for one.
The girl responded to the dismissive gesture by lowering herself onto the seat next to him and holding out a bronzed hand. When he failed to offer his own, she said, ‘Name’s Pyro, I have something you’ll be interested in. It’s a gift of mine.’ She pointed at the king’s crest planted in the centre of his pink jacket. ‘You are a treasure hunter right?’
Badga lowered his eyes to the pink lapels and buttons on his suit jacket. A treasure hunter was obliged to wear the pink uniform throughout Guraf. The license and the suit afforded special privileges, meaning he had the king’s permission to take his air cruiser anywhere within the 7 lands of Guraf and dig for treasure.
Any landowner who saw him was obliged to let him be. Without the suit and license he was just another poacher destined for permanent residence in a shallow grave. In return for these freedoms, half of his bounty went to the king’s purse. The girl knew her uniforms. But everyone knew the uniform of a treasure hunter and their reputation for having vast wealth. Everyone was desperate to marry one. Even broke treasure hunters barely over the age of 20 were as eligible as a Guraf warrior.
‘You have a gift?’ Badga enquired. ‘Does your gift happen to reside somewhere below your waist and above your knees?’
Given the perilous situation he was now in, Badga had to admit he wished Pyro was a whore and that her gift lay where the sun didn’t shine. Then she wouldn’t be issuing a virtual death sentence with her demand to land in Kevra Forest.
‘You may as well shoot me in the head,’ he barked to the girl.
‘Don’t tempt me,’ she replied. Her fingers were steady on the weapon now. Bad news. She was getting into her role.
Pyro’s desperation and her mannerisms made him curious about her story, and, he had to admit, rather lustful. After all, with those piercing blue eyes and fine black hair, she was a good looking woman. Perhaps she was a little too much of the bronzed goddess type that every man lusted after. And perhaps she was too much of a liar. Last night she’d told the mother, father, sister and brother of them all.
‘I’m a healer,’ she had said, ‘and all good treasure hunters could use a healer, especially a good one like me. You know? In case someone tries to steal your bounty.’
Guraf’s 7 lands were separated by thousands of kilometres of varying terrain. People were regularly sick but they relied on herbal remedies, alcohol and death for salvation. No room for healers in that trinity because they didn’t exist.
And yet he rather liked the idea of having his own personal healer and wanted to believe her. More so given the scrapes he’d found himself in over the years. Yet even if he believed her, there was one problem: his inability to pay a wage. Unless she took buttons for payment the partnership was dead before it started.
Like any good salesperson Pyro didn’t let his inability to pay get in the way of a good pitch. She was apparently descended from an ancient order of healers that had encountered rough times. Badga decided he knew better. Bona fide healers were the stuff of myth, of tall tales told around camp fires after one too many strong drinks had taken hold of the senses.
‘There’s more chance,’ he said, ‘of seeing a goojo bird than a healer and they’ve both been extinct for years. It’s best you find another ear for your tall tales,’
The girl held her ground, locking fiery green eyes on the treasure hunter. ‘I can reverse the effects of poison,’ she said. ‘And I can bring the dead back to life.’
‘The only poison here is this liquor. And what, pray, makes you think the dead want to come back to life?’ She had no answer to this and in truth seemed visibly upset by his logic. Badga couldn’t stop the momentum of his words. ‘Death,’ he added, ‘isn’t always an enemy – for the ill it’s a timely companion.’ The girl began to sob. Badga was instant putty to emotional women. ‘Look I didn’t mean to upset you,’ he sighed. ‘I’ve had a bad day, month and year. If you must know, a competitor beat me to a treasure site. You see treasure hunting is no different to picking up whores. First come first served. Truth is I could use a victory to offset the defeats.’ Despite the analogy, Badga had no experience in the ways of women – only in hearing the tales of men that did.
‘Sorry to hear about your bad luck,’ Pyro said, wiping her eyes with the back of her dainty little hand. ‘There will be other treasure sites. Where are you off to next?’
‘Oh, the winter lands. That’s a long way to travel.’
‘Sure is.’ After a pause he left his seat. Still cradling the alcoholic water, he poured the dregs into a potted plant beside the chair. The plant’s luscious blue leaves drooped instantly. Badga turned to the girl ‘Well? How about a quick demonstration of your powers?’ Pyro eyed the thing as though it would heal itself. ‘Just as I thought,’ scoffed Badga. ‘You’re just like this bloody city. Full of promises you can’t keep.’
That night he’d slept off the alcohol in his air cruiser; unable to afford a room at an inn. When he woke up he bought a few supplies and checked the energy block was charged up enough to travel to Avro, where the lost treasure of an extinct mountain tribe was said to be stashed. The disappointments of the past faded and his spirits lifted when he thought about the last time he prospected in Avro. He’d found enough Elmstones to keep him in beetle beer and roast elk for a year. Elmstones were much sought after by the aristocracy and a myriad of spies were on hand to inform the king of his find, should he feel the need to sell them to anyone other than official merchants.
He was pleasantly indulging in thoughts of Elmstones when the rear security door of the air cruiser had opened and Pyro stood across from him, fingers on the trigger of his vapour blaster. And now she wanted to attempt suicide by landing in Kevra Forest. And it wasn’t the landing, perilous as that was, which presented a problem.
Kevra Forest was full of monsters that were currently thanking their god and licking their chops at the latest fast-food delivery. Many a treasure hunter’s ship had run out of fuel over Kevra Forest or developed mechanical problems, never to be seen again. But none had landed here on purpose.
As the craft descended toward the fluttering blue branches, what had at first looked like a curtain of blue resolved itself into a discreet parting, allowing the craft to lower unhindered towards a clearing. Badga imagined that from a distance it appeared as though the forest had swallowed up the craft.
He engaged the auto-land function and turned around. The girl had been silent for a while and now he knew why. Pyro was indulging in a weird form of meditation, standing with her head bowed and eyes closed.
‘This really isn’t a good idea,’ he said as the craft touched down. ‘Whatever your problems, I’m sure there’s a doctor somewhere on Avro that can help you. I hear they have some excellent brain transplant surgeons. They’ll fix that split personality of yours in no time. You can be a real healer or a real hijacker instead of pretending to be both.’
‘Silence.’ The girl held up a hand as if to emphasize the instruction.
‘Look,’ Badga whispered as he reached for a short knife stashed under his pilot’s seat, ‘there are much less painful ways of killing yourself. There’s Wasabi Lake just outside Avro, the water’s freezing this time of year so you’re guaranteed a quick death.’
Just as he wrapped his fingers around the short knife’s stubby handle, she said, ‘We must leave.’
‘After you,’ said Badga politely, gesturing to the exit door. He rose and made an extravagant bow, in the process tucking the short knife inside his pink jacket.
‘So you can fly off and leave me here,’ Pyro scoffed. She held up the gun to remind him of their respective roles. ‘I don’t think so. You can lead the way.’
THIS STORY IS AVAILABLE IN ITS ENTIRETY IN THE KINDLE E-BOOK ‘OUT OF THIS WORLD’.