Chapter 23:

The Bounty Hunter

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

“I’ll take the bottle.”

The barkeep shrugged, checked my tokens, then passed the dusty bottle across the bar. I took a swig directly from the mouth, then stumbled into a corner table. I poured another glass and looked over the rim of my cup at the crowd and felt a sudden kinship with the hardened faces around the room. We were all outcasts from polite society who wanted to forget our troubles.

Except perhaps that grizzly fellow in the corner opposite mine. He looked like a predator surveying his next catch as his lone eye swept over the room. Probably a scummy bounty hunter.

I turned back to my drink and downed another cup. I sipped my next cup slowly, trying to calm myself down. My anger was beginning to ebb as the alcohol washed away my troubles.

After over a decaclik in the bar, I noticed the bounty hunter kept eyeing me. The attention twisted my insides with discomfort. I picked up my bottle and stumbled out of the bar before I turned to head back to the ship. Isul would probably be worried about me.

The evening was just beginning here on Ceres, and people were going back inside. It wasn’t safe to linger long out of doors in the settlements here.

My brain numbly registered a rough hand grasping my arm and spinning me around. The world spun as I came face to face with the bounty hunter.

“Are you lost, little prince?” he asked with a grin that revealed a row of yellow teeth.

Fear clenched my stomach and his grip tightened on my arm. “I’m no prince,” I growled as I tried to pull away from him.

He gave a bitter laugh. “Of course not. You’re that clone what everyone’s been buzzing their ears about. Nice try disguising yourself with the tattoo and the shaved head, but you’d need more than that to fool someone who knows all the disguise tricks.” His putrid breath threatened to make me vomit.

“Let go of me, or you’ll regret it,” I practically yelled.

He pulled out a pair of electro-manacles and snapped one side around my wrist. “I’m so scared, little prince. Clone or not, the Republic will pay a good price for you. I’m sure they can think of something fun to do with you.”

I tried to remember my Alokir movements, tried to fight back, but the booze made me slow and clumsy, and the bounty hunter drove his fist into my gut, sending me to my knees and sending the contents of my stomach back up onto the dusty ground. I was dimly aware as he jerked my hands behind me and connected the electro-manacles.

It was then that I noticed a dim shape step out from an alleyway. The darkness resolved itself into a tall form with dark antlers coming out of its head. “Let him go right now, or you really will regret it,” Isul said, with more darkness and force in his voice than I had ever heard.

The bounty hunter laughed again. “A Bio-droid?”

“I’ll tell you once to step away from him,” Isul said as he inched forward.

The bounty hunter pulled out a laser pistol and drove the barrel into the side of my head. “He’s not worth as much money to me dead, but I can guarantee they’ll still pay.”

I was dimly aware of Isul stopping his advance. I knew in that positronic brain he was calculating percentages and probabilities. Like the probability of both of us walking away from this situation in one piece.

But the bounty hunter didn’t idly wait for Isul’s calculations to finish. He whipped a small silver disk out of his belt pouch and chucked it at Isul. I yelled a warning, but it was too late. The disk attached itself to Isul’s chest and gave a localized electromagnetic pulse. I saw Isul’s eyes darken as he dropped to the dusty ground.

Then the bounty hunter whipped his laser pistol across the side of my head, and everything went black

*  *  *

I was woken by a rough jab from the bounty hunter’s long-nosed laser rife.

“Up, clone, and put these on,” he barked as he tossed a pair of electro-manacles into my cell. It was humiliating to don them, but it would have been far worse for him to blow a hole in me. I snapped the cuffs shut and stood up as much as I could in the cramped space.

“Where are you taking us?” I demanded.

The bounty hunter flashed a yellow-toothed grin at me. “You’ll see soon enough, clone.” He turned and went to Isul’s cage, deactivated the bars, and adjusted a few settings on the silver disk still attached to Isul’s torso. Isul’s eyes opened like he was functional, but he spoke no words, only stared ahead blankly.

“What have you done to him?” I asked, anger coloring my words.

The bounty hunter waved a hand and scoffed. “You don’t have restraining bolts for non-organics in the Empire, huh?”

Restraining bolts? Who would need to restrain a Bio-droid? Their programming prevented them from harming humans, and besides, they would come to the end of their cycle before anything untoward usually happened.

The bounty hunter continued, “You’ll no doubt find more than a few things different here from where you came from.”

“And where exactly is ‘here’?” I asked.

“You’ll see soon enough, brat,” he responded as he pressed a button the silver disk. Isul got up and began walking, though his eyes did not track his path. The bounty hunter deactivated the electro-bars on my cell, and pressed the laser rifle into my back. I followed Isul obediently.

The aft entrance to the cargo hold dropped down, and I shielded my eyes from the sudden explosion of light. Warm air drifted in. Air that smelled not of recyclers and cleansers.

Air that smelled like…plants. And dirt.

The nozzle of the rifle pressed into my back, and I stepped down the gangplank and into the bright light of the sun. It took my eyes a moment to adjust, but once they did, I saw that we were surrounded by red hills, red dirt.

Mars. By Jove, the bounty hunter was going to sell us to the Martian Republic.

All around were the clean, silver buildings of a commercial spaceport. Flights came in and took off overhead, jetting into the beige sky.

Ahead, two silver doors spread open, and a line of troops spread out and circled us. At the end of their column walked two figures. One was a tall man in a billowing red cape, and the other was a tall silver and red robot in the shape of a female.

The bounty hunter stepped forward. “I see my message was received by Republic Defense Forces,” he said with an obsequious bow.

“Ferra, check the DNA scan, verify if this is really who our slimy friend says he is,” the man said. His jaw was set in a firm line.

The robot woman moved as if gliding on her feet. Her eyes were cool, but her voice was warm. “This will only be a quick poke,” she said, as her fingernail bent back to reveal a sharp needle. It pricked my finger, then absorbed a drop of blood before spraying a skin sealant.

The woman’s eyes glowed as she processed the sample. “Ninety-eight percent match to known recorded genetic sample,” she replied.

The man scratched his chin. “Ninety-eight percent? That’s in the cloning margin of error.” His stormy eyes turned back on the bounty hunter. “Trying to pass off a clone as the real thing?”

The bounty hunter refused to be cowed. “Clone or not, he’s still a match for the Emperor. I’m sure there are plenty of things you could do with that. I did choose you over the Empire’s offer for this one.”

My gut clenched, but the Martian man looked nonplussed. “I will pay you two-thirds.”

The bounty hunter’s face twisted in anger. “Two-thirds! That’s a cheat!”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “That two-thirds comes with your life, which is likely more than the Empire would have offered. Do not make me reconsider adopting their methods.”

The bounty hunter’s face blanched, and he swallowed. “Point taken sir. The boy and the Bio-droid are yours.”

Ferra glided forward and her hand bent backward to dispense a disk. “Take this Republic credit disk to any approved bank and redeem it for your reward. Thank you for doing business with us, and have a pleasant day.”

The bounty hunter huffed and pulled out the disk before he stomped back to his ship. I looked back at the beat-up old freighter, and wondered what had happened to the Princeps.

But as I looked at the masked faces of the troops surrounding Isul and me, I thought perhaps I had more to worry about than my ship.

Steward McOy
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Miao Miao
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☆Veronica☆
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