Screaming Metal (Part 027)
The tavern seems a bust, until...
And that was the evening.
After no one else approached her table, Priyanka joined Deshel and Suen in smooth-talking the patrons with refilled steins and foodstuffs.
Yet the locals were ultimately ignorant about and unconcerned with anything beyond the fields and shops they worked.
Eventually the crowd dwindled, and the laughter and energy of the scene diminished like a steady sunset.
The theme for the entire evening had been radio tunes more than a century old. Nothing was new on Shake Hands. Not even the music.
And as if the radio knew Priyanka had been listening in, it played uninterrupted; sans the noise Deshel had spoken of.
Returning to the table, Deshel let out a long, hard breath. "These people are clueless."
Suen rubbed her temples. "Did you recognize anyone?"
Deshel shrugged, "Maybe one or two people. But, no one really stood out the first time. Just dullard faces on a dullard planet."
Suen nodded. Her research had discovered the same.
Priyanka closed her eyes for a moment in thought. "How many nights did you come here before the radio started making noise?"
"Couple nights after Suen ditched."
The weapons woman shook her head. "I don't want to be coming in her night after night waiting for the radio to squawk."
Deshel shrugged. "I don't think there's a method to the madness. It was completely random. You heard it. Can't predict something like that."
Suen's eyes narrowed. "You said it broadcast every 100 hours."
"109," he corrected.
"So when will it broadcast next?" She pressed.
"I stopped keeping exact track. I see the point. Could be in the next minute, could be a couple days from now."
Deshel ignored the insinuation. "The locals just shook their heads and turned it off, so I decided to, too."
"Turned it off… Like they were used to it." Priyanka's voice was soft and quiet; contemplative.
Deshel shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so."
Priyanka had come to a different conclusion; one that was eating at her gut. "Because the broadcasts are being faked."
Deshel hunched his shoulders and shook his head, not understanding. "Faked, why?"
Priyanka didn't really have an answer. It was late and her earlier resolve had been stripped away by the long day.
"A trap. Lure in off-worlders. Take them for what they got."
Suen looked incredulous. "Are you saying this was a setup from the beginning?"
Priyanka continued. "Why not?"
Deshel scoffed. "How is that possible? What about the deliveries we made? Those were real."
"Maybe they really need the supplies."
Suen's face grew dark and disturbed. "But why roll out an old warship to fire on us?"
"Maybe they're bored. Nothing better to do on a Fifth night."
Deshel was unconvinced. "You don't believe that, Pree."
Lost in the funk of the fruitless night, the junk-merc leader let her aimless thoughts carry her. "Maybe I don't. Maybe I do. Maybe…"
Maybe her earlier conviction to get to the bottom of this was just foolhardy pride talking.
The trio could spend a week here buying the locals drinks and still come up empty-handed.
How long before their money ran out? How long before the locals got tired of them? Tired of toying with them, perhaps?
They had seemed fairly tolerant and friendly this evening, but that could quickly dissipate and the trio could find themselves in jail or worse.
Suen and Deshel picked up their drinks in Priyanka's brooding silence.
By this time, the tavern was all but empty, the Tender thanking a pair of guests as they paid and left.
The man's eyes momentarily caught Priyanka's as he returned to drying steins. She took it as a sign.
"Evening's over." She stood.
Suen was less than enthusiastic. "Oh c'mon, Pree, tell me we aren't going to do this all over again tomorrow night..."
Before Priyanka could answer, a pair of boisterous men threw open the door and ordered in voices too loud for the now-quiet tavern.
"It's a damned fool's hunt! There's nothing out there." The first man, dressed in grubby mechanic's overalls argued.
"Well, Wells said there was a Metal." The second held his hands up in a placating gesture. "He reckoned the info from the historical banks."
"The banks? Oh hell. There's nothing but wives' tales and fables in them blasted memchips!"
"Wells has been selling the information out of them for years. That's how he's got all his money."
"The only thing he's digging out of those old computers is outdated star charts. Worthless."
In an instant the three junk-mercs were all business, jumping into a faux conversation amongst themselves regarding their delivery run.
They kept it low-key, so as not to attract attention, and deflect any idea that they might listening in on the men's conversation.
The second man retorted. "Not worthless at all. That's how he's paying us."
"Only if he finds something." The first man reminded him.
"Yeah, but all you gotta do is man a gun turret and blast the pirates." The second man laughed, raising his drink.
"Bah! And what makes you think them pirates won't just blast back?"
"That ship was pretty small, yeah?" But the reply lacked conviction.
"And the warship is old! I wouldn't be surprised if that cruiser was packing more firepower than two warships of the caliber we're in."
"What a hunk of junk! We're lucky to be alive." Grabbing his drink, the first man took a long pull off of it.
His friend's face blanched. The consequences of firing on another ship hadn't even occurred to him before.
So the locals had them pegged as pirates. Priyanka sat, closed her eyes and took a breath.
Suen leaned in, her voice a whisper, her eyes never leaving the two men at the counter. "Now what?"
Deshel joined her. "Back to square one?"
A very bad, cold thought crawled up out of Priyanka's gut, slithered up her spine and nested in her brain.
Not more than minutes earlier, she had tried to convince herself that the situation was just a bunch of faked transmissions.
Now that the locals knew the Metal was out there, they'd have to wait out the warship.
This day had gone from bad to worse. And she thought she might have an idea why…