**This is the first chapter of my as yet untitled novel. It's a sci-fi western. Enjoy!**
A small ship landed at the spaceport on Gbona, a planet on the frontier. Gbona was hot and dirty. The ship was dirtier. Stellar dust was caked on the hull from stem to stern and the whole thing looked like it had not been washed in months. The ramp lowered with a squealing whine, sputtering to a stop before reaching the platform. A booted foot stepped out onto the stalled ramp, thumping heavily against the metal. It pushed and stomped, but the ramp did not move. The man attached to the boot grumbled, then ducked through the hatch. When he reached the midpoint of the ramp, it gave way, the bottom clanging heavily against the platform as the hydrolics finally released with a whiff of air. The man slipped at the sudden drop and his feet went out from under him. Growling, he stood up and made his way to the platform before turning to kick the ramp.
"The ol' bucket still givin' ya problems, eh there, Jesse?"
An old man with a bushy white beard was limping up to the derelict ship, leaning heavily on a wooden cane. The younger man growled and kicked the ship again.
"Now, now, young man. That ain't necessary. She don't mean you no harm." He walked over to the ship and ran a hand along her side lovingly. Frowning at the big streak in the dust, he hobbled over to Jesse and wiped his hand off on the man's tattered green overcoat.
Jesse pulled away, brushing the dust from his coat. "Hey now! That's not necessary!"
The old man laughed. "I'm surprised you came back here, after what happened last time."
Jesse shrugged. "They were assholes. They got what they deserved. No one should hold it against me."
"True. Still, watch yer back. Ricky's still mad as a wet hen about the whole thing and he may take offense at you comin' back."
"I'll be fine, Dilo." He patted the pistol at his side to accentuate his point.
The old man shook and held out his hand.
"Still? But you know me!"
"Rules is rules, kid. Hand 'em over."
Jesse sighed and dug through his coat. After several moments, he produced a small book and a box wrapped in brown paper. Dilo's whiskers bounced as a grin spread across his face.
"Aaah. Now that's a good lad." He took the box in his hands, bringing it to his nose for a big whiff. "Cacao, in its most pure form. Doesn't get any better'n that."
Jesse shook his head, baffled at the old man's palette. The young man loved synthetic hot chocolate, sweetened with sugar, whipped cream, and milk, but he couldn't stomach the pure chocolate that Dilo made from the beans Jesse brought him.
"Bah!" the old man scoffed. "You have no taste!"
He ripped the book from Jesse's hand and began to flip through the pages. "Been to Rija, eh? Tough place."
"Yeah." Jesse fidgeted and looked around. He'd been lots of places lately, most of them tough. Gbona was no better. The spaceport bustled with activity, not all of it legal. A large ship to their left was being loaded up with wooden crates, most of which moved and screamed as they were being shifted. Jesse hated Gbona as a matter of principle. He disliked the slave trade and the planet was one of the leading exporters of slaves. Criminals weren't sent to prison on Gbona; they were usually sent to slave camps or sold off to other planets. Jesse had narrowly escaped that fate more than once. He shuddered and shook the thought from his mind. When he turned his attention back to the Dilo, the old man was chuckling.
Jesse frowned. "What's so funny?"
"What? Oh, uh, nothing. I just, I guess I just never paid attention to your full name before. Lina Philip Jesse? Is that really your name?"
Jesse ripped the book from the old man's wrinkled hands. "Shut up. It's a family name."
"A family name? Who's? Your grandmother's?" Dilo was laughing so hard he was having trouble breathing and had to lean on his cane.
Jesse mumbled an affirmative and glared at Dilo as he slipped the book back in his pocket. "Know of any decent jobs?" he asked, changing the subject.
"Eh, not to many your tiny ship can handle. Let's see." Dilo pulled an electronic clipboard from his pocket. "Hmm, maybe... no, not that one. Won't fit. Not that one either. Hmm..." He touched the screen a couple times before stopping. "Maybe... Yeah, this'll do it. Janilla Beial needs a package delivered to a planet on the outskirts of the frontier. Looks like it's... Oh my. Dunno if you want this one, kid."
"What is it?"
"Well, this'n is a bit of a on-the-side job, if ya know what I mean. She don't want no one interferin' or knowin' too much. Special circumstances and all that. She came to my assistant a couple months ago and we put her on the list but haven't found the right courier yet. Dangerous job. The package is a bit, uh, volatile."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"If yer takin' this job, the less you know, the better."
"Fine, whatever. What does it pay?"
"Heh, it'd buy that ship o' yours."
"Hey, don't be mean to Bessy. She's a great ship."
"Yeah, if you like livin' in a tin can." Dilo grinned at Jesse's glare. "Anyhoo, you takin' the job or what?"
"Yeah, sure, why not? Worst that could happen is I die."
"Eh, no, it could be worse than that. But I'll let her know you want it. She'll need to set up a time to transfer the package to ya. Let me get in touch with her, then I'll give ya a call."
"Alright, sounds good."
Jesse locked up his ship and followed Dilo out of the spaceport. When he reached the avenue, he turned left and walked toward the market. He needed to stock up on supplies before he made the month-long trip to the outskirts. He'd be able to resupply at several stops along the way, but he was running low on almost everything, especially medical supplies and alcohol, and if the trip was going to be as rough as Dilo suggested, he would need both desperately.
He walked to the end of the block and took a left. The store he sought lay on the far side of town, past the arena. Gbona was known for its arena. Slaves were trained as warriors and competed against each other. Warriors were given many incentives to succeed, not all of them involving death and physical punishment. Warriors who won regularly and won over the crowds were given better lodging, minor freedoms, and material wealth. On occasion, the crowd fell in love with a warrior so much, they would demand freedom for him. Such a scenario would often end badly, as the freed warrior had few skills aside from fighting and had a hard time adjusting to the free world. Jesse had seen such an outcome only years before, when a warrior took his newly gained freedom and used it to hunt and slaughter the members of his former slaver's household. Jesse was working on commission at the time for the hunted man and narrowly escaped from the clutches of the irate warrior.
On occasion, lesser warriors would be pitted against a handful of tougher criminals who had been held for the occasion. If the criminals beat the warriors, they would win their freedom. If they lost, well, it wouldn't matter. They were dead one way or another anyway. Jesse had lost a friend in the arena, and since that day, he avoided partaking in the sport. He could hear the cheers and jeers coming from inside the arena, the screams of pain from a wounded combatant, and the gloating shouts of the victor. Jesse paused outside the gates, tempted to go in as he always was. He hated the fights, hated the vile abuses inflicted upon the warriors, but like all humanity, he was secretly drawn to the sport. There was something invigorating about watching two men or women battle for their lives. Some sick joy came from watching fellow human beings in peril. He thought briefly about the large movie collection he had on his ship. More than half of them included some form of violence, and he loved them all. Shaking his head at the depravity of man, he forced himself to walk away from the arena.
Jesse took a right past the arena, then another left down a short alley. He stopped at the third door on the right and pushed the metal barrier open. A tiny bell hanging above his head jingled merrily, echoing in the stillness. The room beyond was small, cut in two by a counter that ran the entire width of the room. Like all stores catering to spacemen, there was no obvious way to get behind the counter aside from jumping over it. The walls behind the counter were lined with boxes of all shapes and sizes, but very few items were visible on the side closest to Jesse. Jesse glanced around. The only things on this side of the counter were the bell above the door, a wooden crate in the corner, and two stools in front of the counter. He walked up to the stools and took a seat.
Not long after he plopped down, a girl no older than fifteen came through a door in the back wall. He didn't recognize her. She must be new.
"Hello sir. How can I help you?"
"Heya. I need to get some stuff."
"Yes sir. Do you already have an account with us?" She pulled out a pad, ready to look up his information.
"Yeah. The name's Jesse."
She raised her eyebrows. "And your last name?"
"That is my last name."
"Oh, right." Her eyebrows dropped as she lost some of her snark. She tapped the pad a couple times. "We have two Jesses. I assume you're Albert."
"No? But the only other Jesse we have is Lina." She looked at him quizzically. As the color rose on his cheeks, she began to laugh. She set the pad down on the counter, clutching her sides. "Oh my. That's good. I've seen a lot of strange names, but that's a first."
"Shut up and take my order, would ya?"
"Yeah yeah, alright. Don't get nasty." She picked up the pad and began marking items as he listed them. When he finished, she tallied it up. "That'll be 3,126. You picking up or need it delivered?"
Jesse frowned. That seemed much higher than normal. Sighing inwardly, he told her it would need to be delivered.
"Ok, what ship?"
"It's the BumbleBee on deck 8."
"A BumbleBee? You can't be serious!" The girl was overtaken with another fit of laughter and Jesse stood up, about to leave and find another shop.
As he was walking toward the door, a man pushed open a panel to his left and walked in. Jesse stopped and glared at the man, who was taken aback by the sudden hostility.
"Hey now, what's going on here?"
"Your girl needs better training. First, she picks on my name, then she overcharges me, and now she's laughing at my ship! I'll go buy my shit elsewhere."
"Now now, Jesse. No need for that. Becka, why are you being rude? Jesse is one of our best customers." The girl bowed her head, her cheeks turning a bright red as she mumbled an apology. "That's better. Come sit down, Jesse."
Jesse returned to his stool while the older man took the pad from Becka and seated himself beside Jesse. "Now let's see what we have."
He clicked through the list for awhile before frowning. "First off, Becka, you didn't look at Jesse's file to see if he had a discount. He gets fifteen percent. So that'll bring the total down to... 2,657. We'll make it an even 2,500 to make up for Becka's rudeness. Then we don't charge Jesse for shipping, either. Got it, girl?"
"If you want to work here, you need to be checking these things. I'm not going to lose my customers because of your attitude." The girl pouted at her father and went into the back.
The man turned to Jesse. "I'm sorry about the trouble. She was doing so poorly in school, we decided to try her hand at the family business. So far, she's been fine as far as the work itself goes, but she sucks at customer service. I've already had to win back two of my other regular customers." He shook his head. "Kids these days."
"Ah, it's alright, Roggy. I'm sure she'll come around. If she doesn't, though, some spaceman is going to get mad enough at her comments to do more than just walk out."
"Yeah, that's what worries me the most. Anyway, will you be at your ship later today? Say, four-ish?"
"Sounds good. I'll be there."
"Alrighty. I'll bring it myself. No Becka."
"Good. I don't think I can handle too much of her."
"Bah. She's a good kid, but she has a mouth that gets her in trouble."
Jesse laughed. "Don't we all?"
"Heh, I guess we do. Alright Jesse. See you later."
Jesse shook Roggy's hand before making his way from the store.