His shipmates’ eyes grew with wonder as he pulled more coin, credit, and valuable currency from every pocket in his layered garb. Besides the time they had accidentally commandeered an unmarked shuttle carrying tithes for the Union of Mandated Peace, this was the biggest pile of dust the band of rogues had ever seen.
“I thought you were going to gamble, did you clear all the pots or just rob the place,” Linder exclaimed, reaching to push his hands through the pile of riches. The small band crowded around the table examining the valuables and calling out the planets and systems of origin. Mixed in were precious jewels and discs - small bars of metals whose value they could only guess at. Linder turned back to look at Graxton, their leader, and the one who had returned with this veritable fortune from the seedy gambling parlors of this edge-world outpost. Contrasting the ebullient mood around the table, Graxton carried an air of quiet. His eyes, Linder noted, were aimed at the treasure that would feed, fuel, and sustain them for months, but seemed to be peering through it and the table and down through the single room hovel that all six of them had scraped their creds together to afford.
“Boss,” Linder asked, a pit forming in his stomach. Graxton shook his head and looked over at his crewmate. “I didn’t rob the parlor…well at least not really,” he whispered and then, his voice finding its strength, “but I did steal it from the game I was in.” At this, the chatter around the loot subsided and a single silver coin clattered and then spun like a top on the floor where it fell. When Farge’s three-fingered paw slapped down on it, clapping it flat to the metal floor, the sound seemed to shake Graxton back to the present.
He shook his head and turned to hang his heavy top jacket on a peg by the door. “Have you ever heard of a Gate Keeper,” he asked, to the now quiet room. Farge straightened, leaving the silver coin flat on the ground. “Keepers is just an old story mate,” he blurted in Graxton’s direction. “My elder nan would tell us stories of ‘em when we was kids. Secret people with secret ways living on some brutal and deadly planet. If you asked too many questions they’d be summoned to take you away for their diabolical rights or some such dosh. Just like the Boogiemage and Moonvamps; stories to spook the young and keep ‘em in line.”
Linder, his solitary good eye darting between his boss, his crewmates, and the pile of plunder on the table sensed that something was off. “Grax, where did you get all this dust from?”
Graxton pulled a warm bottle of the cheap ferment they had stashed and usually only dipped into sparingly when there was something to celebrate or wounds to numb. Cracking the top he took a long pull and then wiped the drips from his beard with his sleeve.
“Boogiemage, Moonvamps, and Keepers. I thought they were all just stories too…until today.” Linder slid back against the side wall and down onto his sleeping mat. Farge and the others drew the squat boxes and bins they used as stools at the table and sat in a half moon at Graxton’s feet.
“I took my cut of our last boost down to the parlor below the ring-deck, you know the one, out by the edges where they process the dross from the outpost and recycle what they can before the rest gets dumped outside.” They nodded. This was the low class kind of place they frequented, avoiding the eyes of the factions and the quarrels that often broke out between those disparate groups.
“The place was mostly dead except for this giant slug of a man who was holding court at the card table overseeing a crowded game of 5 Hand Quint. I mean just about everybody in there had splashed their dust down for a seat and this guy was jestering the whole crowd while dealing and playing at the same time. The amazing thing was the mix of players he had drawn into his orbit. There were other scaff pickers like me but one guy carried himself like a Syndicate thug and another was a Venenum who you could spot because he kept one hand pressed over the open top of his drink. There was even a young Singularity priest who was trying to cover his robes with a big canvas coat. As I watched, not sure I wanted to elbow my way into the game, I noticed that the dealer’s patter and jive were all an act. While the gamers were all focused on the cards, watching his face, I could see his smile was a put on and that after every movement, every toss of a card or a token, his eyes would dart over into the deep shadows of the room.” Graxton paused to take another long pull from the ferment. Farge and the seated crew inched forward on their crates and Linder twisted so that he was facing Grax head on. “What was he lookin’ at,” he asked as his mind ran through all the faction heavies or Empire law that could’ve found their way down to their levels of society.
“From my vantage by the taps it looked like a man; big for sure, but just a man,” Graxton answered. “He was at a small table hidden in an alcove, but when one of the paygamers hit a buyout or a drinksbotto rolled by, the flashing lights cast enough to see he was a hulking figure in a thin robe. It didn’t seem heavy enough for the cold of space and in itself didn’t make him look like a threat of any kind. Hell, in a scrap it looked like something you could grab onto or wrap around a mark to use it against himself. But somehow, that oversized, flowing coverlet seemed to hint at the size and strength it iced even more than if he hadn’t been wearing it. After a few moments of watching the dealer shoot glances after every movement, I bought another drink and sat down to watch what seemed like the real show in that rathole.”
Even in the thin air the undersized scrubbers and overstuffed room created, the tension filled all the spaces. Linder licked his lips and felt sweat forming in the clammy valleys of his body. This wasn’t the normal carefree chatter Graxton usually spewed. Most of his stories were whittled down to the core facts and bolstered with lies that made him the hero and the center of the universe. The fact that he was speaking in a measured way made Linder hold his breath. Farge’s words knifed through the air, “so it was the Boogiemage,” he bellowed, slapping his nearest mate on the back, almost sending him scuttling to the floor. The pointed glares from around the room made him choke on his laugh and fall silent.
“No,” Graxton sighed, “it wasn’t the Boogiemage you combustible gas cloud, it was a Keeper.” For some reason, this seemed even less likely to Linder who interjected. “No, not a Keeper, not here. Even if they were real, my elder nan said they live on Oblivion or at the bottom of some great sea somewhere on a forgotten moon. They don’t travel the galaxy and they definitely don’t sit around gambling parlors all day,” he exclaimed. But even as the words came out, Graxton’s look made the confidence in them fade as quickly as they hit the air.
Graxton tilted the bottle up to his lips and finished the last of the ferment in one great gulp. Leaning over to toss the bottle in the recycler, he also grabbed a second from their scant supplies. Linder started to protest, but Graxton cracked the seal and mooted the point before he could speak. In a show of frustration, Linder turned back, perpendicular to Graxton and leaned against the wall again as if he was only half listening now. “Okay, how do you know it was a Keeper and how did you end up with all this dust!”
Graxton continued. “So as I watch this quivering mass deal out tokens and jibe the players into higher bets, I can also see the truth of his smile run out of him like his water hold has been pierced and opened to the vacuum. His eyes stop focusing on the players when they dart back from the shadowed figure in the corner and only seem to come alive when he peeks back that way. Up to now he’s mostly just been calling out bets and razzing the skinflints who are gripping their dust stacks and betting and folding on the minimums. But his rhythms start to change and now he’s asking the players where they are from and he’s working in these side hand comments about how everyone must have such interesting stories to tell. His glances to the shadows quicken and his voice becomes almost frantic. The players don’t notice as he’s still peeling out hands and pressing winnings around the table after each game. I can’t help but follow his eyes now and I start to look at the hulk in the corner each time he does and suddenly my throat starts to chafe and I can’t finish my draught.”
Unconsciously, Linder has slid down to the end of his mat again and, aligned with the other crew, he’s now sitting almost at Graxton’s feet as the details spill out faster now.
“Of a sudden, right after he scrapes away the last of the Singularity boy’s dust and presses a pile of winnings towards a player at the other side of the table, he finally turns his head fully towards the mysterious watcher. He’s holding up the game tokens now and the gang around him realizes that there’s a pause in the action. Before the grumbling starts, and without any previous mention of the topic, he suddenly starts talking about the Wormhole. Or asking I guess. He’s not looking away from the man in the shadows now but is still speaking to the throng of gamblers. He starts asking them if they’ve ever wondered where the Wormhole came from or why all of them were here on this end of it. Just nonsense stuff that has no answers. He spins a few of these out into the air and then BANG,” Graxton exclaimed, clapping his hands together in punctuation. His crewmates, to a man, flinched in their seats. “The big clod in the corner bolts out of his chair practically flipping the small table as his great trunked legs leap out from under it. ‘Brother’ he says in a deep, sonorous vibrotone voice, like a sympathetic vibration on your hull when you skate too deep into a gravity well. The combination of his sudden movement and impact of his voice makes it feel like all the gravity in the outpost has shifted, pulling everything towards that shadowed alcove where he was standing. I don’t think anybody but the dealer was aware of him before that, but now the rest of the table is sat stock straight and twisted to look at him full on.”
Graxton finished the 2nd bottle of ferment and reached for a third. This would have been untenable normally, but none of the listeners objected or even seemed to notice. His voice had a softer edge to it now that the drink was having its intended effect.
“The dealer pushed his quivering mass back from the table and stood to his full height. I was shocked at how big he was and yet was still able to stand. I had expected he’d have a handiskiff or at least a cane to support himself when he needed to move. But he rose, deliberately, and turned to face the stranger. ‘Brother’ he answered back to the first man in a defeated exhale. The robed figure stepped out into the full space of the gaming table and his true figure and girth again seemed to draw the focus of all existence in on himself like he was emitting some kind of strong field. Hands slipped down from the table, leaving piles of creds unprotected. Even the Venenum let his hand come off of his open topped drink and slid it down to where some poisoned dart or blade surely hid. The robed figure crossed behind the table and stood in front of the dealer who didn’t shrink back at his approach. ‘Brother, I must’ve transgressed greatly for the brethren to send a Muut F’Arj agent this far out to discipline me.’ He painted his statement with another false smile, but those around the table were onto his charade now and the danger level ticked up another notch. Gamblers all shifted as their minds calculated the odds between fight and flight. The Singularity boy was the first to finish his computation and, screeching his seat back and flinging his false topcoat aside, he bolted from the parlor. Hands twitched to weapons at the sudden burst of movement, but nobody turned to watch him go.”
Graxton pantomimed the scene, shifting his weight forward and hovering his hand above the holster on his hip.
“The robed man replied calmly, ‘I’ve come from the brethren to offer you the Open Hand. The Burden and the Bond cannot be set aside so I ask you to return brother and be reconciled.’ The dealer relaxed a bit, weighing what he’d heard. Whatever the robed man was offering seemed at first to appeal to him. He glanced down, opening and closing his thick, swollen fingers and then twisted to take in his audience who were rapt by the scene. I could see the moment the scales tipped in his mind. I thought he was going to strike out at the robed figure who seemed to expect the same. He closed the remaining space and came to stand within arms reach of the dealer. The former host stood up to his full height, facing the shrouded man head on. Then he spoke, his cocksure, showman’s voice back in full form. ‘I’ve outpaced the Muut F’arj before brother, you are not the first Open Hand the brethren have sent. You know this rabble is unaware of who we really are’ he hissed gesturing with his head towards all us gamblers and wastrels in the parlor. ‘My time away from the Sea may have softened me,’ here he swept his hand down gesturing to his glutinous form, ‘but my resolve is still tempered enough for violence and you know our danger will drag them into the fight. I may be easy for you to overcome, but would you risk the attention it would bring and the eyes that would turn towards your hermetic homeworld full of zealots,’ he spat, trying to will his words into truth. ‘You and I could turn this outpost into a whirlwind of fury and you know that would bring attention that even the Eclesiar himself can’t smoothe over so easily.”
Even Farge was engrossed in the story now, his black, lidless eyes staring wide at Graxton. Grax took another breath, raised the bottle of ferment to his lips and then continued before taking a drink.
“There was a long beat where the whole parlor froze, waiting for the robed man to react. Instead of answering, he slowly raised his hands up and pulled back his hood to reveal a huge, round head atop a mound of muscles and bulging shoulders that didn’t seem to include a neck. Script or runes of some kind ran in lines from front to back in narrow lines almost obscuring his features. ‘Bukld’ the dealer choked out, as he seemed to recognize the face. A single tear dripped from his left eye as he deflated before the face of the stranger. Another beat passed and he seemed to compose himself, standing back to his full height. When he spoke, his voice still quavered. ‘So not a F’Arj agent after all, but the Justiciar himself has come to discipline the Castaway.’ They were standing almost face to face now and even though one seemed soft and nebulous and the other hard and cold as if chipped from stone, there were similarities in their build and carriage. The dealer seemed more like the man he called Bukld than to the other figures gathered around his game.”
“Appearing defeated in the presence of this Justiciar, the dealer raised his arm, the one nearest to the table, and placed it on the other man’s shoulder. ‘I thought I could carry the yoke but it was too much. I knew I should throw myself down to Oblivion, but I was too cowardly for that as well. I have avoided the Open Hand these short years, but I knew my time must run out.’ Mirroring his movement, the Justiciar raised his opposite arm and placed it on the dealer’s other shoulder. As the weight of his hand came to rest, the dealer seemed to wince under the contact, the facade of his confidence melting even more. ‘We have seen you brother through all of these years. You were never hidden from our gaze. The brethren merely waited, hoping the Truth would bring you back to us, back to your oath, and that the propitiation would be unnecessary. But the Eclesiar has spoken to the Waters and he knew your fate just as he shared it with me. Frivolity may have made your eyes shallow brother, but drops of truth still swim inside you. If you will not come home, then I must take them back with me.’”
“The dealer sagged even more after these words. All the fire from his previous threats had evaporated completely now. The Justiciar was in full control. ‘Fortify yourself brother,’ he commanded, his grip tightening on the dealer’s shoulder. The mood in the parlor had frozen. All eyes were fixed on the scene with the inane tunes of the gaming machines fading into the background. Even the old tap minder stood stock still, only his hands, as if on their own, hypnotically wiping a filthy rag around and around the inside of a glass. Finally composing himself, the dealer faced the other full on. Meeting his flinty gaze eye to eye, he spoke, but it seemed more like the words of an incantation than an actual question. ‘What is my fate brother?’ ‘Your fate is our fate Keeper, the Burden and the Bond demand that the Waters and its Truth go into the sea.’ As he spoke, the Justiciar’s free hand slid down and disappeared into a hidden fold or pocket in his robe.”
“Who will ferry the truth I can no longer bear back to our mother, to the place of all truth,” the dealer asked, his voice regaining some measure of strength. ‘Give these drops to me, I will carry them for you,” the Justiciar answered. ‘I will take them home to the Sanctum Salainen where they can merge once more with the Deep Secrets.’ This seemed to be the end of their ritual. The dealer’s eyes sparkled, wet in the dancing colored lights of the gaming parlor. The robed man began to pull his free hand up out of its hidden place, but the dealer sucked in his breath sharply, as if choking back a cry and, in a more frantic voice cried out, ‘but what of me brother, am I to be forgotten, excised forever from the brethren and branded a Castaway?’ The Justiciar paused and then answered in a voice that was calm, but still authoritative. ‘Your place is as secure as ours. Your name and all of our names will find its place, etched in the Membing Stone when bearing is complete. It shall stay until Oblivion herself devours it from the cliffs and draws us all down into her all knowing deep.’ While the rest of us couldn’t understand the meaning, this final assurance seemed to soothe the dealer. He sniffed again and shook his face, waggling his jowls, as he tried to clear his eyes without raising his hand from the other man’s shoulder.”
“Sensing the change, the Justiciar spoke again in that reassuring tone. ‘Shall I take the burden now brother,’ he said but his words again were more like a ritual or incantation than a true question. Here the dealer’s smile returned but authentically for the first time in my sight and his face seemed truly filled with joy. With glittering eyes he raised his face upward, looking beyond the robed figure he clasped. ‘Brother, this would be the greatest gift.’”
“The robed man’s free hand came out from its hiding place like a bolt and I could barely make out the shape of a needle-thin blade, impossibly long for its structure, and jutting from an onyx stone handle. As quickly as it appeared it was swallowed by the dealer’s chest as the robed man drove it into his heart and then pulled their bodies close, almost pressing together. He loosed the handle and wrapped both of his massive arms around the dealer’s shuddering frame, embracing him and also forcing the blade deeper into his chest. Their faces pressed together, both began murmuring in a language I couldn’t hear or couldn’t understand. Around the table, as the shock of the sudden violence dissipated, chairs slid cautiously backwards and bodies turned towards the door. I could see hands on weapons, but nobody stood or made any movement to intervene. The robed man murmured on and on as the dealer’s eyes dimmed and his smile widened. The strength in his half of the embrace melted away. The other man lowered his body back into the dealing seat, his massive hand gliding gently down over the face to close the eyes. He pulled the thin blade from the body and turned to face the silent crowd. Looking towards us but as if through us to some far off place, his mountainous voice erupted. “This is the water and the truth of Skeem Haddas. For the Burden and the Bond, I will carry it for him.’ With that, he turned the knife in front of his face and then, opening his mouth, slid the blade between his pursed lips, drawing the man’s blood into himself. Without any further care for the massive corpse he left or attempt at explanation, he turned and began walking towards the exit, leaving the rest of us dumbfounded in his wake.”
Graxton’s crew sat with looks of confusion and awe scribbled across their faces as their jaws hung slack in the low grav environment of their compartment.
“As he neared the door, I heard the distinct sound of an Empire long gun being racked behind me. Turning back to the tap minder, I saw now that he held a high gauge rifle, an artifact from some previous war, aimed at the exiting figure. ‘Keeper,’ he belched, forcing the word out and trying to fill his voice with confidence. The Justiciar paused but didn’t turn. ‘Don’t let me catch you in here ever again.’ He finally moved, raising his hands from his sides as more weapons suddenly materialized from among the gamblers around the table. His hands continued up to his face and slowly drew the hood back over his tattooed head and then he just walked out into the bustling hallway. The tap minder stayed frozen, his rifle still aimed at the empty space where the Keeper had been. Others finally eased away from the table and skulked towards the door to make sure he had really left. Eventually all of the players stood and braved the walk to the door, glancing up and down the hall looking for the interloper or to make sure he was really gone.”
Graxton’s hand reached absentmindedly to the shelf for another bottle but came back empty. “Jinx, we’re out of ferment,” he muttered, breaking the spell of his story and reanimating his crewmates.
“Wait, so ‘ow did you get out of there and where the frack did this mound of dust come from,” Farge blurted, spreading his hands out to gesture at the table.
A wry smile slid across Graxton’s face and he beamed to his shipmates as he exclaimed, “while all those sharps and fiends were huddled by the door making sure that Boogiemage didn’t burst back into the parlor, I boosted all their dust and creds off the table and skitched out through the back! Even that old geezer with the long gun couldn’t tear his eyes away long enough to catch me doing it!”
There was a silent beat and then the entire group erupted in a joyful celebration of their boss’s quick thinking. Farge shook with laughter so strong that he tumbled off his crate and onto the floor, continuing to bellow with merriment. Linder stood and twirled with delight, the dread from the story having been flushed out of the compartment by their new-found wealth and the captain’s jubilant energy.
“We need to celebrate,” Farge declared, finally composing himself. “The boss finished off the last of that bottom bin ferment anyway, let’s go splash some dust and get us some high class drink!” The small compartment, intended for one or two residents but stuffed full with these six crew members echoed with their cheer of agreement.
Graxton raised his hand for silence and the crew dampered the excitement enough to give him their attention. “I’m all for gripping us some fun tonight, but not here. Once those marks figure out they've been wiped out, you know they will come hunting. I wouldn’t trust a drink served on this station for the next three cycles with that Venenum assassin lurking on the fringes. Let's jump over to another system and we’ll plonk down for a real place with racks to sleep on and a recycler and private evacuator.”
The crew quickly agreed and packed up their sparse belongings, divvying out the dust among them, and hustling down to the docking bay to board their ship. Graxton monitored the loading of their gear and verified the fuel he had ordered was topped up. Linder straggled aboard, last as always, as Grax surveyed the other slips with ships waiting to take off. At the other end of the curving launch bay he saw a small, single pilot ship with a hull made of some cladding he couldn’t name. As a service drone flew over it, casting it’s guide light over the prow and down along its side, he noticed faint markings that his brain couldn’t comprehend immediately. Somewhere deeper, in his most primal psychic space, they were recognized, with alarm, as the same mysterious script that the Justiciar had over his head and face. Frozen by the realization, Graxton stared across the open space as other crafts and crew eased out from port. A movement from beyond the ship at that far end drew his focus and the robed man himself appeared, crossing the gangway to the small, strange ship. Graxton’s mind screamed for him to press the button that would seal the cargo door and pressurize the ship for takeoff. Held fast by the slow moving figure, he couldn’t tear his eyes away. Just before the robed pilot climbed into his craft he paused. A slight tilt of his head, not quite a glance, but with a turning implied, made Graxton’s heart shudder and know that somehow he was the focus of the man’s attention. Just as before, when he leapt up from his shadowed table, all gravity seemed to shift and pull towards where he now stood. And yet it also felt to Graxton as if a strong invisible force was leaping across the open slips and through the launch bay towards him like a shockwave. Whether real or imagined, the wave rolled into his chest, pushing him fully into the storage cabin of his ship. Thawed immediately, he slammed his palm down hard on the wide flat button and the doors and seals squished tightly closed. He turned away quickly and climbed the ladder up to the flight deck. Risking a look at each porthole as he rose, he watched the singular ship slide out of its dock and move out among the backdrop of stars. Finding his command seat he calmly directed the crew, “take us out Farge, we are clear for launch.” Feeling the ship move under him, he flipped on all of his monitors and long range viewers leaning in to inspect each screen as it came alive.
As his own crew busied themselves for their hasty exit, guiding the ship out into the open flight channel and turning towards the burning star at the center of this system, his rear monitor showed the faintly marked ship rotating away and firing boosters to send it on an opposite trajectory.
“What the frack is out in that dead end of space,” he mumbled, not meaning to speak.
“What’s that boss,” Farge asked over his shoulder as he steered the ship clear of the docking guides and marking drones.
“Nothing boys, nothing at all. Strap in and put us on a hard burn Farge. I want to put some distance between us and this rat's nest before we plot towards our next port.”
“Yes sir,” the crew bellowed, already filled with the expectation of pleasures their looted dust would bring at the next outpost.
Graxton felt the force of acceleration press him back in his seat. It was strengthened by the weight of the other creds, metals, and dust that he had kept hidden for himself and not split with his crew. Unlike the pressure he felt in the parlor or just now in the launch bay, this pressure was as familiar to him as a mother’s hug. He sank into his seat, closing his eyes and letting the speculative anticipation of the debauchery to come wash the anxiety from his bones. The wry smile returned to his lips. Deeper though, even as he tried to ignore it, a muted voice asked again and again, “what the frack is out in that dead end of space.”