Backwater Queen Chapter 1
by cady austin, 2022
Three people scurried past me when I yanked open my favorite bar’s door. Two more hurried through when I turned my head to stare at the first group.
I stepped into the bar, waiting for a knife to hit the wall beside me, a knuckle fight in the corner—Dareax liked to wear these huge metal knives for rings, like brass knuckles but far deadlier—maybe a sewage leak. I found nothing except the creepy droid behind the bar, which was business as usual.
It was a locals’ only bar this close to the palace. The royal guards avoided this place because the beer was worse than usual on the poor planet of Eralis. I brushed my hair out of my face and tugged down my mask, the air quality immediately better inside and away from the brewing dust storm. My senses were still on edge, searching for what had emptied out half the bar upon my entrance, but everything seemed normal except for the empty tables.
Then again, it was the wrong time of day. Usually I came in late at night, and right now the suns were still sinking below the horizon. Maybe they had wives to chivvy inside before curfew, I decided, and lowered my guard.
Too soon—I realized with another sweep of the place that my initial gut feeling wasn’t off. Something was wrong. There was only one man sitting at the bar. It was usually packed first, the stools being of better quality than the sometimes broken chairs at the tables scattered around the wooden floor. And the people who were at those tables were as far away as they could get from the bar, doing the thing innocent bystanders always did here, where they pretended not to watch right before a fight broke out.
Well fuck. I needed to drink. I need a distraction. I needed a fucking break.
It would cost too much to try to get to another bar. Transport pods were a luxury here on the planet, and those who acted as taxis liked to remind you of it with their fees. A couple of miles could run a big tab.
I steeled myself. I wasn’t going to be scared away by this stranger. I’d been coming to this bar for months now, and this was my watering hole. Besides, I didn’t have the money to go somewhere else.
I strode across the room, weaving between tables of Dareax staring nervously at their drinks and food. Even their knuckle knives seemed less shiny, dulling their sheen to avoid his gaze. There were only a few women in the room, unmarried Dareax who couldn’t be forced inside at curfew.
I slid onto a barstool one away from the stranger. Curiosity and the cat, as my dad used to say while he pounded down the pints. The stranger didn’t immediately kill me, which was a comforting thought. I relaxed, shoulders loosening and a sigh escaping me.
A furtive glance showed he didn’t look too terrifying. More like a loner trying to get through his day, and to that I could relate.
I tapped the shiny glass of the bar and caught the bartender’s attention. The other good thing about this bar: the droid didn’t ask for tips.
“The usual, Mistress?” It didn’t have the emotion upgrades, so its voice was a tinny robotic cadence. I nodded and it returned with my beer seconds later.
Brown and gross, half a year ago I might turn my nose up at it. Now I barely grimaced at it’s sourness when I brought the glass to my lips. The house specialty. Cheap and not too bitter.
My eyes flicked to the stranger. He wasn’t looking at me, but I had the feeling he was when I wasn’t looking. Maybe surprised by the audacity of the human woman who would sit near him when the rest of his race edged away.
He wasn’t as brutish looking as the rest of the Dareax. Nor was he as big. Scrawny by their standards. On Earth, he’d be a prime candidate, an all-star athlete at around two hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle. Here, he was on the smaller end of the spectrum, though impressive to me.
“What are you here for?”
The only reason I heard his quiet voice was because I was primed for danger, and that was what it sounded like. Dangerous, silky, but not threatening—not yet, I could tell. He still wasn’t looking at me. His wide, offset green eyes were staring at the glass cradled between his large hands, knuckles bristling with silver blades. Those must have cost a fortune, and he was in this bar?
I could smell the aroma of Redden Beer coming from his glass. Expensive and potent enough to knock down a horse. He lifted it to his mouth as I watched and took a huge swig, his throat bobbing.
I turned back to my glass of the decidedly not good stuff. “I wanted to drink, didn’t I?”
He grunted. I turned my eyes back to my drink. Talkative guy. Real fun. With buzzkill here, I probably wouldn’t be able to get to sleep at all tonight. My foot tapped on the edge of my barstool. If I tried to find another bar, I might get lucky—or I might waste my last paycheck for nothing. And it would be my last paycheck. All the signs were there. Swallowing my sigh, I decided I’d wait out the guy and see what my pickings were when he left. A quick glance said no one would be approaching me tonight; in fact, more tables had emptied while I was distracted. Needles of need buzzed under my skin, crawling there. It itched enough I wished I could peel off my skin and scrub it with soap. I needed something to go to sleep.
“What about you?” I asked, turning back to the stranger, my voice hard with irritation. I hardly ever got the chance to slip out and now he was ruining it for me.
He looked at me now. I wished he hadn’t. His eyes were like a snake’s, cold and alien like him. Any emotion was stripped back and hidden deep. His gaze swept over my face and down my chest, lingering on my bare skin, noting my sleeveless top and display of cleavage with his passionless eyes. My skin prickled and my fingers curled reflexively around my glass. I was on the hunt. I didn’t need his judgment.
“I wanted a drink, didn’t I?” he said softly.
Swallowing, I looked away. Maybe there was a legitimate reason people were scared shitless by the guy. But after a second’s wariness, my knee started hopping again. I was exhausted, beyond exhausted. These were the final days, the end racing across the desert plains. I wouldn’t get much sleep after the event. I needed something, I needed something now.
This beer wouldn’t be enough. Two or three beers wouldn’t do anything but make me sick to my stomach and miserable for the next few days. I took a drink of it, making a face at its sourness.
The stranger tapped the bar and the droid instantly came over. “Get the woman a better draft,” he said. “None of that swill you serve normally.”
The android turned on his heel and he strode to a different tap on the back wall. The mug he poured was a blisteringly clear liquid, the bubbles on top sparkling white and rouge. The glass clinked as he set it in front of me, and I smelled something smoky and bitter. It didn’t smell like my normal brew at all which smelled like horse piss on good days.
I took a drink and my eyes closed. Pure water. The concentrated stuff, fresh from some overflowing spring. It tasted as if I had just opened the tap of a waterfall, and I made a noise as I swallowed it. It was delicious—and not entirely water.
Potent alcohol barely tastes like alcohol, my dad once said. He was a drunk, so I believed him. It was even more true with alien liquor.
Warily, I asked, “What’s the alcohol content of this?”
The stranger shrugged one shoulder. “A guess? About two percent. Did you want something stronger?” He glanced down at my more petite frame as if wondering if I would even be able to handle it. Considering my normal beer had a one percent alcohol content and it could leave me woozy, I believed him. The alien stuff was a lot more refined and potent than the pitiful human stuff on Earth. I shook my head.
“I can’t afford this.” My eyes narrowed. “What do you want?”
“You sat down beside me. What do you want?”
I looked him up and down. Less brutish looking than the other Dareax I’d met. A kind of otherness made him hard to look away from, a degree of fragility to his sharp cheekbones lacking in others of his kind. But his hard green eyes would make anyone think twice of calling him effeminate.
Water was rare on Eralis. Only one freshwater lake streamed it to the planet, and the stuff that we used was all boiled and recycled until it tasted like a hot soup of chemicals. The richest among us could afford to open their wallets to import from the nearby planets, and he’d just bought it for a stranger in a roomful of people climbing up the walls afraid of him.
What did I want? I took another long look at him.
“Do you have a room here?”
The Dareax pushed away from the bar, knuckle blades gleaming. He paused for a moment, studying me, the bar full of scared people watching him. Finally, he shrugged.
“I do. Coming?”