Chapter One – A Friendly Game of Cards
"Another round, boys?" Morgan Lanell leaned back casually in her chair and lifted her glass to take another swig of ale.
"Come on Lanell, you know your luck won't hold out forever," a burly man with a shaved head growled, placing a heavy fist on the card table.
Morgan set the glass down and shoved a pile of credits to the center of the table, a lopsided smile spreading itself across her face. "I think it's holding just fine."
"Don't get too cocky," the man said, pushing out his own stack of credits and dealing another hand of cards, "or you're going to find out that Paeke Vernam doesn't take too kindly to insolent women."
Morgan clucked her tongue, keeping the smile firmly in place, though now a flash of fire lit her green eyes. "S'that a threat, Paeke?"
Paeke rumbled something deep in his throat. "No." He finished dealing the cards, rubbed his stubbly chin, and pasted on a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Think of it as a friendly advisement."
Morgan held his gaze. "Thanks. I'll keep that in mind."
"So how 'bout you, Bray?" Paeke said after a moment of studying his own cards. "You're first. You in or what?"
The man called Bray—little more than a boy, really—twitched his fingers as he inspected his cards. Morgan feared he would melt the plastic cards with the intensity of his glare, as if he wished to change their value through sheer will power.
Finally he sighed and announced, "I'm out. I gotta feed my mamma with this money. Can't be gambling it away all the time."
Paeke laughed, setting his substantial belly bouncing. "S'what you say every day, kid. Alright, kid's out. What about you, Jakel?"
Jakel's near-black eyes surveyed his opponents, taking in Paeke, Morgan, and Bray in one cold assessment. "I'm in."
Morgan downed the rest of her glass and laughed. "Good. A real man who's not 'fraid to take chances. 'M impressed, Jakel. I didn't know snakes had backbones."
Jakel remained impassive.
"'Scuse me!" Morgan's slurred call directed the bartender's attention to their table. "Can a girl get a fresh drink 'round here or what? 'Nother ale, please."
Paeke chuckled into his own drink as the bartender set another glass in front of Morgan. "Y'know, Lanell, you're gonna really get it one of these rounds. You can't even see straight, I reckon, much less gamble reliably."
The fire leapt a little higher behind Morgan's eyes. "Yeah?" She laid her cards on the table, clicking them with a deliberate snap. "I'm in. What've y'got, Vermin?" Delicately she laid two fingers across her mouth and raised her eyebrows in faked surprise. "Oops. My mistake. Vernam."
Paeke's chair rattled backwards across the scarred floor as he rose to his feet, drawing his blaster in the same motion. "What was that last bit, Lanell?" his voice rasped as his bald head reddened in rage.
Morgan didn't move. "Y'heard me."
"If you weren't a woman I'd kill you where you sit." The barrel of his blaster never wavered.
She snorted. "That's a nice excuse, Paeke." She studied his eyes. "What'sa matter? You aren't scared just because I'm so delicate, are you? I won't break." Morgan rose to her feet with fluid grace that belied all the drained glasses of ale and suddenly her voice became deadly soft. "I promise."
Paeke's knuckles tightened imperceptibly on the worn grip of his blaster. The rest of the dimly lit, poorly cleaned bar had abruptly become very still. Customers sat motionless, glasses poised halfway to lips and conversations aborted. The presence of a drawn blaster settled a thick blanket of tension over everyone.
Morgan was just about to say something when the creak of the bar's door stilled her tongue. Natural light poured into the room for a brief second as a figure entered, swiftly closing the door behind him.
"Oh for the love of—" the figure cut himself off as he rested his face in his hand. "Morgan, can I leave you alone for five minutes without having you try to commit suicide?" Merick Walshe wove his way through tables of frozen customers and came to stand beside Morgan. His quick eyes watched Paeke for a moment before he took Morgan aside by the arm.
"What are you doing?" she demanded of him.
Merick's eyes widened in genuine amusement. "What am I doing? Morgan, you're about to get yourself killed. I was just going to ask you the same thing."
"Who's this?" Paeke's rough voice broke in. He moved around the table and held his blaster to Merick. "Who're you?"
"Captain Merick Walshe. And this is my co-pilot Morgan Lanell." Merick held out a hand.
Paeke determinedly ignored the proffered hand. "We've met."
"Ah, so I see. May I inquire as to the nature of this disturbance?" Merick asked, and Morgan knew he was doing his best to appear diplomatic.
"Damn girl needs to be showing a little proper respect to Paeke Vernam."
Merick's mind whirled as he tried to understand the situation. "And you would be Mr. Vernam?"
"Ah." Merick smiled tightly. "Might I have a word with my co-pilot?"
"So long as she doesn't go anywhere." Paeke's pistol was still raised and aimed at the two of them.
"Thank you, very generous of you." Merick turned back to Morgan and his calm composure turned to exasperation. "Morgan, how many?"
Morgan gave him her best doe-eyed, innocent expression. "How many what?"
Merick remained serious. "You know what. How many drinks have you gone through already tonight?"
She spread her hands. "Two, that's all."
Merick didn't so much as blink.
Morgan shifted. "Four." When Merick still didn't move, she sighed. "And a half."
Merick pressed his lips together and ran a hand through his brown hair. "We can't be doing this on every planet we stop at, Morg. Please. What'd you do?"
Morgan twisted her fingers together, hating how she suddenly felt childish in front of Merick's gaze. "Called him a vermin," she mumbled.
She could feel Merick's incredulous eyes on her as she stared at his boots. "You what?" he asked.
"I'll called him a name," she repeated, not feeling any better. She began to feel as if all the ale were catching up with her head and making it throb.
Merick closed his eyes for a moment and Morgan thought she saw the ghost of a smile twist his lip. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.
Merick turned to face Paeke. "Well, Mr. Vernam, it seems my associate has made a mistake, and she'd very much like the chance to rectify that." He ignored Morgan's sudden, fierce tugging on the back of his jacket. "If you could just put away your weapon."
Paeke hesitated a few seconds and slowly slid the blaster back into its fraying holster. A twisted smile of crooked, yellowed teeth appeared. "Sure. Anything for the lady."
Morgan twisted her neck close to Merick's ear. "I'm not going to apologize in front of all these people!" she hissed.
"Come on, Morg. They don't even know you."
"That's not the point!"
"You're right. The point is there's a very angry man in front of me and he's likely going to shoot us both if you don't apologize. We have business to finish on this planet, and we can't do that very well if we happen to be dead. So all vanity aside, an apology is looking pretty good right about now."
Morgan groaned. Merick was right; Merick was always right. She stepped between him and Paeke, folding her hands in front of her and meeting Paeke's darkly amused gaze.
"Mr. Vernam," she began, addressing him as Merick had, "I would like to extend to you my sincerest apology for having so grievously insulted you as I have." She could feel everyone's gaze on her as her cheeks heated, and she swallowed past the humiliation. She felt like a child. Itching to plant a fist in Paeke's now openly grinning face, she kept her hands still and her tongue silent, waiting for his response.
"Well, that was downright beautiful, Lanell. Didn't know a tongue s'rough as yours could spout such pretty garbage." He laughed at her, and she could feel him daring her to take a swipe.
She resisted his taunt, and the flames burned brighter than ever in her eyes, fed now by humiliation and anger. Stiffly, she turned to Merick. "We should go." The silence in the bar had reached an agonizing level.
He nodded. "That was nice, Morg," he murmured just loud enough for her to hear.
She didn't reply as she bent to gather her credits from the table. Paeke's thick hand wrapped itself around her wrist and wrenched her away from the pile of money.
"And just what do you suppose you're doing?" he asked, and she could tell his other hand was a twitch away from drawing his blaster again.
Trying to free her hand, she said, "I'm taking my money, Mr. Vernam. What's rightfully mine."
"Well that would be wrong." The same humorless smile was back again. "You see, you forfeited our little game the moment you insulted me. I'm afraid you slighted my honor. So," he drawled, clearly enjoying himself, "I'm taking the credits as compensation."
She set her jaw, ignoring Merick's murmured, calming words. "No, you're not. It's my money. We can do this peacefully and by the rules, or we can end with your blood." Her lips formed a tight, determined line. "Your choice."
"Morgan, please." Merick's voice was low.
Paeke laughed again, and Morgan's fingers knuckled themselves into a tight fist. Still chuckling, as if she were enormously funny, he grabbed the sizeable stack of credits and moved to stow them in a pocket.
That's when Morgan's itching fingers found their way squarely into the middle of Paeke's surprised face, smashing his nose.
As hell broke loose in the bar, Merick's words were lost in the roar.
"I always knew she had a certain way with men."