The beginning of a novel I am working on. A sort of space opera/horror mix.

Rain was a near-constant feature of Paradiso, the only city worth mentioning on the planet of the same name. It was a haphazard affair, buildings kludged together from the worthless scraps of old spacecraft and salvage shipped out from Terra, always looking to unload its garbage on the Rim. Bradley Hunter bundled himself tightly in his raincoat, shivering from the freezing deluge, his eyes searching the built up area south of the landing zone. As with most Rim worlds, the local bar wasn’t far from the spaceport, neon signage advertising the meager pleasures such a dive had to offer.

Inside, the bar was poorly lit, looking even less put together than the rest of the city. Rusted girders supported a roof that seemed to have more than a few leaks in it. Bradley reflected on that for a moment, before sitting down at a corner table, far away from the murmurs of miners and colonists. Before long, the waitress noticed him, her voluptuous figure and slender waist a welcome change from the otherwise dreary scenery.

“What’ll it be, mister?”

“Whiskey. Whatever’s good around here. On the rocks.” Bradley smiled, his eyes caught somewhere between her bosom and the racks of bottles on the far wall. Paradiso may not have been much, but the place wasn’t a total loss. She seemed to accept his impropriety with minimal fuss, returning quickly with his drink.

Other denizens of the bar paid little attention to him. Bradley knew his smooth, youthful features and clean clothing marked him as an Earth-born. And if such men were not hated in the Rim, neither were they loved. His hands were too smooth, lacking the years of grime and dirt frontier work usually entailed. Even the wealthy on the Rim looked worse for wear compared to their Terran counterparts. Earth was a remarkably sterile place compared to the untamed Rim worlds.

A shadow appeared over him, and he didn’t even bother to look up. Casually sipping his drink, he motioned for the other man to sit down.

“Still sneaking around, Gunther?” Bradley smirked momentarily as the older man shook the rain off his cloak and quietly sat down.

“The more I make, the less I like the public eye.” Gunther replied in sotto voice, barely audible over the din of the dive bar. “Anyway, you hang out on the Rim long enough, you’ll learn.”

Bradley regarded him for a moment. Gunther was in his late forties, now, and balding, his skin tanned and scarred in several places from a lifetime of scavenging on the frontier. Yet the older man maintained himself in peak physical condition. There was a hardness about him that no amount of nouveau riche status could completely erase. Bradley had seen it before in the bearings of powerful men on the Rim worlds, that combination of wealth, questionable morality and propensity for violence. For all of that, however, the traders of the Rim had a code of honor of their own, as mystifying as it might appear to an Earth-born.

“Cigar?” Bradley offered, opening his case and selecting one for himself.

Gunther pondered the case a moment. “Rim-grown?” He asked.

Bradley shook his head. “Nah. Genuine Earth product. Picked up a supply last time I hit Terran space.”

The older man smiled and clipped one. “Been awhile,” Gunther began, “Shipments don’t make it out here often.”

Bradley closed the case and struck up his lighter. For a moment he could almost imagine being on Earth again, with all the attendant luxuries Sol offered. A pleasant haze of Cuban tobacco wafted around him, almost disguising the haphazard nature of the bar. But when it cleared, there was only Paradiso.

“So I’m assuming,” Bradley began, “that you didn’t invite me to the ass-end of the universe for idle chit-chat. What’s going on?”

Gunther took a long pull from his cigar and cracked a half smile. It would have been imperceptible to anyone who did not know him. “Good tobacco.” The trader offered. “Anyway, you’re right, of course. I’ve got something that needs a civilized touch, ya know? A bit more education than my boys can manage. I need someone with brains to supervise a dig site for me.”

“Jesus, Gunther, I thought you were gonna try and pawn off some more artifacts on me or something.” Bradley was surprised. College had been good for him in at least one respect: his half-finished archeology degree had launched a semi-lucrative career in antiquities dealing on the Rim worlds. Far away from the home of humanity, people still wanted to connect with Earth history. Somebody had to provide the means, and Earth-born with even half an education were a boon to the antiques trade. Similarly, the citizens of Earth had a demand for the unknown, exotic artifacts of the ancient xeno ruins discovered on many Rim worlds. The combination made for a burgeoning trade for men like him.

The old trader laid back in his chair expansively. “Nope. Not into the small stuff so much, these days.” Bradley wondered for a moment if he should take offense at that, but shrugged it off as the older man continued. “Look, my cousin managed to get a homestead grant up here on Paradiso. Pretty big one, too. And he found something interesting.”

“By interesting, I’m sure you mean profitable.” Bradley interjected.

Gunther smiled, taking a long drag from his cigar. “That’s pretty much what ‘interesting’ means, you know. So we found some xeno ruins. The usual stuff. Some stonework, some bronze, you know. Small money for the museums, collectors and such. But my cousin, well, he thinks there’s more to it.”

Bradley puffed on the cigar for a moment, contemplating Gunther’s words.

“Why would he think that?”

Leaning forward, Gunther’s expression shifted into something almost predatory, like a vulture waiting for the last breath of an expiring beast before feasting. “Because, we found writing, a load of it, and the tiniest traces of gold. And, being the… businessmen that we are, we’d like to know what it says, and where the rest of it went. Of course, we’d like to keep this rather unofficial.” He waved his hands distractedly, as if the latter had been a mere trifling detail. Bradley knew better.

Swirling the melting ice cubes in his glass around, Bradley pondered the information. Only the tiniest fragments of alien writing had ever been recovered. It was assumed that most of the xeno writing had been stored in computers, long since degraded beyond recognition. The decision wasn’t difficult for him. There were tenured archaeologists who would give their eyeteeth for such an opportunity. But such men didn’t know how to keep their mouths shut, and he did.

“How much?”

Leaning back, the older man smiled genuinely. “Ten percent, plus costs. Within reason, of course.”

Bradley gulped a moment. “That is uncharacteristically generous of you.”

Gunther’s smile widened. “I’m in a generous mood.”

“Well, you’ll be needing a drink, old friend, if we’re going to toast to this.” Bradley flagged the waitress, mentally undressing her for a second time. It was going to be a good night, indeed, he thought wryly.

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