So, Strange Horizons rejected Bad Beat without any commentary. Thus, I put my final draft out there for general consumption, as I love it enough to set it free. More followups to come.
By Sean Demory
“Buy me a drink, killer?”
The legionnaire had been watching the ground crew prepping a luxury rocket for takeoff through the lounge’s long, curving windows when the girl put her hand on his shoulder. He’d gotten used to launches being rapid, desperate things, with spears from the jungle and the roar of his Thompson drowning out the screams. This was a Martian launch: dry, cold, slow.
“Come on, killer. My feet are killin’ me and I just had a bad beat. Drink for a working girl?”
He looked at the girl. Young. Spacegirl hairdo, like all of them had… short enough to go from a bubble helmet to a cocktail gown. The haircut made her look young, but the set of her jaw and the oversized sunglasses hiding a hint of bruise told him that she’d added a few years since she’d gotten here.
“Killer? What’s that, Killer?” He motioned to the bartender, pointed to the girl and his badge.
The girl smiled. “Well, you’re too quiet to be a cop, you’re too big to fly and you’ve got that bite on your face so you didn’t fight here. Venus?”
“Yeah,” the legionnaire said, rubbing the old scar. “Froggy went a-courtin’. Didn’t work out for him.”
His hand shook as he took his drink, trying to forget the attack. It’d been early, before Venus had started making sense. One second he was on patrol, slogging through mud and wincing as the ever-present biting flies took their tithe. Next second, the Frog had leapt from the underbrush and was on him, biting and stabbing as he stabbed and shot and they rolled and twisted and bled and it died beneath him.
Once Venus started making sense, the legionnaire knew it was time to move on. He’d seen men who had made a home there, French planters who’d hunt the Frogs for sport and tear up singing “La Marseillaise” and the Pacific War vets who didn’t mind the constant shriek of Venusian bugs from the canopy, didn’t flinch at biting flies and didn’t bat an eye at spears from the tree line.
The legionnaire had stopped flinching, so he went to the driest place he could find and got a job where he could stare down drunks, warm a barstool and wear dry socks every day.
“I like to watch the rockets,” she said, watching him, looking at her drink. “Three years and I’m up and away. Might have to see how Luna suits me.”
“What about home?”
“Flagstaff?” She laughed. “I’ve gone too far to go back to Arizona.” The girl looked past him, smiled nervously and took her drink. She touched his shoulder again.
“Looks like you’re on the clock, killer. Maybe we can watch some rockets together later.”
The legionnaire stood as the cowboy handed him a long bundle.
“Time to saddle up, pard,” the cowboy said. “We’ve got a man to see.”
The cowboy had never left Cody until he signed up for the big push. He’d been on one of the slow boats that followed the Nazi space arks after they bugged out from Brandenburg. He’d shot some Nazis, marched in the victory parades and stuck after everything cleared up. He ended up working for RKO, like every other Mars vet the legionnaire had met, playing third soldier from the left or cowboy at the bar and spent the rest of his time marching in Howard Hughes’ army of goons and hustlers.
He was louder than the legionnaire liked, but he could kill a man and dig a hole in the desert, so he was good enough for this job.
The two men stepped into the elevator and the cowboy started in.
“Fella’s an egghead, some kinda scientist,” he said, pulling a pair of brass knuckles from his pocket. “Mr. Hughes don’t like what he’s up to. He’s got a party going in 316 with a couple fillies from the lobby, so you open the door, we pull him out and do what needs doin’. Comprende?”
The legionnaire hated the noise and closeness of the cowboy. He wanted to bear down on him in the elevator and stab him until his knife broke on bone. He wanted to draw down and hear the heavy, final thud of his .45 as bullets pounded into the man’s chest. He wanted to get out of the elevator and watch the rockets launch until dawn with the girl from the bar.
The legionnaire wanted lots of things. None of them were on the table.
“Right,” he said as the door opened and they walked down the red-carpeted hotel hallway to room 318. He could hear Dean Martin singing “Return to Me” through the door, loud enough for a noise complaint to make sense. The cowboy stepped to the side, holding both bundles as the legionnaire pounded on the door.
“Hotel detective,” he barked. “We’ve had complaints about the noise!” He pulled out the master key, rattling his keyring and giving the girls on the other side of the door enough time to get presentable and run when he came in.
The key stuck in the lock like it’d been welded in place. The legionnaire nodded to the cowboy, pulled his pistol and kicked it open, rushing into the room with the cowboy behind him.
There were no girls. The furniture had been piled up against one wall, and three men in black suits, black snap-brim hats and sunglasses stood around a body that had been laid out on the coffee table and held open with a sparking, hissing framework. The legionnaire could smell ozone and blood and hear a quiet groan.
“This is a. Government. Operation. Very sensitive,” the first one said before the legionnaire’s first bullet ripped his jaw off. Second and third put him down, seeping blue-green gel from the entry holes. The second man in black took off his sunglasses, staring at the legionnaire with dull black eyes.
“Stop now,” the man said as the third pulled the cowboy into the room, shutting the door. “You will shoot. This man you hate so. Very much. Then, you will. Bury the man and. This one. In the sand. Yes?”
The legionnaire answered with the heavy, final thud of his .45.
The cowboy had lost his hat and his accent in the fight. He called out on the hotel phone and a twitchy, dirty man in a janitor’s coveralls came in with a large laundry cart.
“Sirians,” the janitor said, like it should mean something.
He hummed and scratched and bopped as he took measurements, took pictures of the scene and rolled all of the bodies in tarps, pointing to the two men to help load them into the cart.
The janitor gave each man a tightly-folded wad of bills. He winked at the legionnaire.
“Nice job, soldier,” he said. “You ever feel like honest work, give us a call.”
The cowboy slouched past, smiling weakly at the legionnaire as he left.
The legionnaire sat in the room, smoking one cigarette after another, staring at the loops and arches of blue and red on the floor until the shakes stopped and he could unclench his teeth. Then he went back to watch the rockets launch.
A waitress brought the legionnaire a drink and pointed silently. He looked over, saw the girl smile from under her sunglasses.
She sat down next to him, watching the rocket’s first burn.
“You looked like you could use another one,” she said. “Bad beat?”
“Bad enough. You?”
“Been worse,” she said. The legionnaire slowly, carefully took the girl’s sunglasses off. A bruise flowered, purple and yellow, around dull, staring black eyes.
“No hard feelings,” she said. “Just let me walk.”
His head felt clear for the first time in hours. “Let’s watch the rockets,” he said. “Then we can go somewhere quiet and talk.”
“Three years and I’m done, they say.” She put a cigarette to her lips, tried to light it. The legionnaire steadied her hand, feeling calm and easy. He put her sunglasses back on.
“I might try Luna next,” she said as the rocket flared, streaking into the orange-red of a Martian sunset. “I hear Luna’s nice. Clean”
“That’s what I hear, too,” the legionnaire said, rubbing the scar along his jaw. “That’s what I hear.”