Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The St. Regis

by Frank Minogue


The dim street lights cast a yellow glow across the soot blackened bricks of the St. Regis hotel. The aging, crumbling structure stood on the corner of a street where most of the buildings had been burned out or abandoned. A rusted steel frame was all that was left of the green awning that once shrouded the entranceway.

Every few nights the police were at the St. Regis to investigate beatings, the odd rape and sometimes a shooting. Drug addicts found it an accommodating place to get their fix. The alley beside the hotel was a condom strewn, garbage ridden abyss: a place where hookers lured lonely men into the darkness and did their business.

Charlie jerked awake with the sound of a car stereo blaring outside his window. He had had a tough time getting to sleep, and now some asshole across the street was making it impossible. Though a regular at the St. Regis, he never got used to the screams, the sirens, the sudden blasts of music and the intermittent sound of gunfire.

He clicked on the light and stared at the naked form asleep beside him. She lay stretched out like a tired lioness satisfied from a kill. Shelley's strawberry blonde hair lay tangled above her head, and her hands were slipped prayer-like under the pillow. Charlie could just make out the delicious curve of her breasts. He ran his hand over her smooth, white bottom and circled the shark tattoo on her right cheek.

He jumped out of bed and walked over to the window. On the way, he picked up the virtual rifle. Charlie's face was half hidden under a thick beard and long matted hair. He stank of booze and sex, and his t-shirt had a large coffee stain across the chest.

The hot muggy air covered the city, making tempers short. Earlier, Charlie had listened to a guy in the room next to his beat the crap out of a hooker.

"Cheat me, will ya? Let's see how much business you get with a black eye and a swollen jaw!" It was a ferocious beating, from what Charlie could hear. The hooker dragged herself down the hallway crying and moaning.

Charlie stuck his head out the window and looked up and down the street. Across from him, some gangbangers were leaning against a black Oldsmobile decked out in chrome rims and with the fiery head of a red demon painted on the hood.

There was no one else around except a couple of hookers who had set up shop on the opposite street corner. Sirens wailed through the dark night.

"Hey, assholes, knock off with the music--if you want to call that shit music!" Charlie yelled. He turned to see if he had awakened Shelley, but the Wild Turkey kept her under.

After a barrage of fuck yous from the gangbangers, and a warning to get lost or get dead, Charlie shouldered the V-gun, hit a switch and watched as the green light near the trigger mechanism came on, indicating that it was charged and ready to fire.

He sighted in on the back of a bobbing and weaving head and squeezed off a round. The kid's head flew forward, sending a spray of fake blood and brain matter across the hood of the Olds. The others jumped down, took cover and screamed at him.

One stood up and yelled, "You're dead, motherfucker!"

Charlie popped him smack in the forehead with another round. The gangbanger flopped back and Charlie let out a giggle. He was able to take out another before they piled into the car. One stuck his head out the window and yelled "We're comin' back for you!" Charlie got one more shot off but missed as the Olds sped away.

Later, lying in bed, he felt somehow unsatisfied. He lit a smoke and stared up at the ceiling. Big deal, he thought. You start a ruckus, there's some shouting, you pick up your V-gun, you get a spray of fake blood on pavement and the "props" keel over, like trained fucking monkeys. Hell, maybe he was just plain tired of the St. Regis.

Charlie had heard people talk about the St. Regis in bars and bathhouses, but when he asked anyone, they'd say, "I don't know what the fuck you're talkin' about."

But Charlie finally connected with the right guy over a bottle of tarquella: a proconsul from Vega 5 had told him all about the St. Regis. "Forget those phony Wild West theme parks. This is shotgun-up-the-ass-duck-you-sucka-fire-in-the-hole shit," the guy said. "You grease my palm and I'll get you in the door. They won't take just anyone you know."

With the gangbangers in the Olds gone, Charlie finally fell asleep to the sound of some lonesome joe strumming his geetar on the fire escape.

Early the next morning, his watch light came on, shooting a beam from the dial. A holographic image of his second-in-command came into view.

"Good morning, sir. Just heard that the admiral is coming over to the ship in about an hour. Thought you'd want to know."

"Thanks, Brad. Get everything ship shape. I'll be there as soon as possible." The light beam collapsed, taking Stephens' head with it.

Charlie had hoped to eat at the Greasy Diner with Shelley before heading back to work, but with the admiral coming he wouldn't have time. He decided to let Shelley sleep in and slipped out the door after one more kiss on her backside.

At the check-out desk, Charlie handed his key to Lyle, an old black buzzard who sat on a stool and leafed through porn magazines. An empty bottle of cheap wine sat on the shelf behind him.

"See you next time, Lyle," Charlie said, half-heartedly. "Or maybe not. It's getting kinda boring."

"Sounds like you got the ketchup blues. There's a fix for that, chief."

"The ketchup blues?" Charlie asked, leaning on the desk.

"Yeah, bro. Maybe you're done with that fake red shit. Maybe you want somethin' more real. Maybe you wanna taste somethin' sweet--and I ain't talkin' pussy, although that's always available at the St. Regis."

"Well, what are you talking about?" Charlie asked.

"I'm talkin' about the real shit. You're tired of playtime, you want the fur to fly. Well, we can make the fur fly, my friend."

"You're saying real fights, with real weapons?"

"Now you're getting' it. Yes, the real thing with live ammo. That's if you want to do the shootout thing. Some want the real thing with a hooker and a long sharp blade. You wanna stick a blade in some flesh, bro? You do the rippin', we clean up the drippin'!"

"No, none of that shit."

"So what's your pleasure, stretch?"

"Those gangbangers last night. They still available?" Charlie asked, getting excited.

"You popped some of them, so they're real angry. They wanna waste you, bro. You might need a little more firepower tonight. Got anything in mind?"

"It's a weapon from old time Earth. You've probably never heard about it. I'm a buff of that vintage stuff."

"I'll bet you are, slick."

"It's called a Kalashnikov or AK-47. It's an assault rifle."

"Shit, man. Of course I know about the AK. That was a fine weapon. Used one myself a few times. Come on now, you thought we didn't have AKs? Hell, of course we got AKs. We got all kinds of shit." "So, you'll get me one for tonight?" Charlie asked.

"Now, hold on to your banana clips, dude. First it's gonna cost you, second there's a big question you gotta answer."

"What?"

"Do you want this to be a one-way firefight, or do you want the shit comin' at you?"

"You mean the gangbangers would be shooting live rounds, too?"

"If you want. You're the man in charge. You tell me. You can waste 'em with the AK--them duckin' and dyin' on you, or you can have them firin' back at you. Nothin' like a little lead flyin' your way to make the blood pump hard, believe you me."

"What if I was shot? I mean, what would you do?"

"You ask all the right questions, bro. Well, if a few stray rounds happen to enter your head or chest, there ain't much we can do for you. Just like when you pop them, they're gone; when they pop you, you're gone. Now if it's just, say, a light wound, we can do a little patch job, if someone's around that is. Because, you see, that's the other thing, if you're gonna kick some shit tonight, some of the folks, like myself, are gonna be gone. Hope you're getting' my drift: this is the real shit."

The more Charlie thought about it, the more he liked it. What a great way to spend his last night on the space station.

"Could you vidcam it for me?"

Lyle laughed. "You want somethin' to show the grandkids, right? Shit, yeah, man, we can set up some vids, and if you get wasted we'll erase everything."

"Exactly what happens if I do get wasted?"

"We got people who handle that shit. Don't you worry about it. If you're someone important, we'll cover your ass, so your little wifey and kids won't think daddy went zulu while out messin' in the jungle."

"Last question, Lyle? Who the fuck are those people out there on the street?"

"They're the throwaways, man. They're refuse collected from various planets and put to work here. Most everyone here is a badass.

"Sounds fair to me."

"By the way, slick, I could tell you wasn't the kinda guy to settle for the little game. You just gotta be in the big game."

Charlie smiled. Before he left the St. Regis, he signed on for "the real shit." He had a secret account that he kept for such diversions. He thanked Lyle and headed out the door.

While he was "Charlie" at the St. Regis, he was Commodore William Bander of the GFF (Galactic Fleet Force), and one of the most decorated officers in the starship service. His ship, the GFF Orion, was in the final preparations for departure from the Miramora Space Station in the Cygni Defense Belt.

Waiting for him to be piped aboard was Commander Brad Stephens, his second in command.

"Good to have you back, sir," Stephens said, with a salute.

"Excellent, Brad. Thanks. By the way have you heard from my wife?"

"Yes, sir. She sent a communication that she'll be arriving on the Red Shuttle tomorrow night. She said to tell you the kids can't wait to see their daddy."

"Thanks, Brad. I can't wait to see them. It's been a year."

An hour later the admiral arrived, and after a tour of the new propulsion system, the admiral and Bander lunched with the crew. White-clad workers of the robotic service corps bussed the tables as the admiral asked this and that person where they were from and what they did on the ship.

When the admiral departed, Bander returned to his room to catch up on administrivia. Later, he called Commander Stephens into his room.

"Brad, I've got some financial business to wrap up on the station tonight, so I won't be staying on the ship. If you can oversee the installation of the new software for the communications system on Deck Nine, I'd appreciate it."

"Will do, sir."

Bander worked through dinner and vidcammed some orders for his executive staff. He thought about what Lyle had said about him needing to be in the "big game."

Before the St. Regis, the "big game" had been hunting orlops in the Hunting Restricted Zone on Megaska Liri, and before that it had been a bourbon-induced commando raid on the diamond storage facility on Alqueb, aka The Unsolved Alqueb Diamond Heist. As he once told a friend, "I get bored easily."

The commodore finished his work, went to the flight deck and departed with the crew standing at attention.

He descended to the space station and made his way to a walk-in storage locker. There he put on his wig and beard, changed from his commodore's outfit into a stained t-shirt and jeans.

Bander slid into the bland orange overalls of the maintenance crew and made his way to the nearest service elevator. From there he was able to access a series of interconnected halls and elevators that took him to the bowels of the space station.

He stood before a gray door in a closet-sized room at the end of a nondescript hall, held the card in front of a scanner and the door slid open. He proceeded down a dank hallway to a set of blue double doors. He swung them open and found himself on the street again, a few blocks from the St. Regis. He ditched the orange duds in a dumpster and kicked at a rat feeding on a watermelon rind.

A gray lifeless rain fell on the garbage laden streets. Half the time he came to the St. Regis it was raining. He guessed that was part of the ambience. Off in the distance he saw smoke rising from a burning building. Two police cars with sirens and lights flashing rushed past him.

Charlie hunched over and starting walking, the rain pelting him. He decided to take the long way around to the St. Regis, heading down side streets.

"How about we get you out of the rain, sugar?" a tall black hooker asked as he passed. Charlie stopped and looked her over.

"Checkin' over the goods?" she asked, one hand on her mini-skirted hip. "Well, I can assure you I'm all woman. You wanna peek?" Charlie was tempted but shook his head and moved on.

He turned the corner and watched as a car parked in front of a liquor store sped off. The guy behind the wheel wore dark shades and drove with a gun in his right hand. The store owner lay on the sidewalk, blood pumping from a wound in his neck. Charlie walked over and took a closer look: the dude was real dead, not V-dead. It looked like the real shit was definitely on.

He continued on until he reached the lobby of the St. Regis. Except for an elderly woman knitting on a bench by the stairs, the place was deserted. A broken fan hung from the hammered tin ceiling and the wallpaper had faded.

At the desk, there was a sign "Get Your Own Fuckin' Key," which made Charlie laugh. He grabbed the key to his favorite room on the second floor overlooking the street and climbed the stairs, as the elevator had never worked. Most of the varnish had worn from the dark stained wood on the railing, and it wobbled as he ascended to his room.

He unlocked the door, opened it and noticed a large metal case on his bed. Sitting on top of the case was a note that said, "Happy huntin', bro."

Charlie flipped open the lid, and there nestled into a padded rack was his AK-47. He greedily yanked it up and took a close look at it. From the discoloring and scratches on the stock and barrel it was obviously a weapon that had seen some action. He felt its weight as he swung it into position. He tried to remember the stats on it: 600 rounds/minute, 7.62mm rounds, gas operated, rotating bolt action: the perfect killing machine of its time.

Inside the case was a stack of banana clips, and Lyle had thrown in another oldie: a Colt .45 semi-automatic. There were extra clips for that, too.

Charlie slapped a clip into the AK and leaned it against the bed. He stacked the remaining banana clips by the window and piled the extra .45 clips beside the night stand. He slid the metal box into a corner and sat down on the bed.

On a nearby table was a full bottle of Wild Turkey. As per his standing request, there were fat joints, filterless cigarettes and a stack of porn magazines. Slung over the bedpost was a hunting knife in its leather sheath and belt.

He snapped on the Buck knife and withdrew it. He held up the deadly blade and watched the light from the bedside lamp turn it a rich yellow color. Charlie wondered if he could wear it under his commodore's uniform. Who would notice it?

He imagined sneaking up on Chief Engineer Milana Destini while she slept, putting the knife to her throat and then awakening her with a slap. But maybe it was best not to play pretend rape with your senior staff. Although he did hope to resume his affair with her once the voyage got underway. Charlie lit a joint and cracked the Wild Turkey. Outside he heard two guys fighting over a drug deal gone bad. He waited to hear the gunfire, and he didn't have to wait long.

He lifted the .45 and stretched out his arm. "Die, you motherfucker!" he said, grinning. "So you've come back to waste me, eh? Looks like I got the gun and you don't, asshole. You're a dike. Time to spring a leak! Pow! Right in the fuckin' head."

Charlie test fired the .45 out the window. There were shouts of protest from the rooms above and beside him. He ignored them and fired again. God, the gun was as smooth a woman's hot thigh. He heard a rumble on the stairs as people exited the hotel.

"That's right! The shit's about to hit the fan so get your asses out of here!" he yelled.

After smoking the joint, he got the hungries and decided to head to the Greasy Diner for a bite before the action started.

Should he bring the AK? Naw, too fuckin' big. He slid the .45 into his belt, took another swig of Wild Turkey and got up to leave.

He walked to the window and looked out at the darkening city. To his right, far off in the distance, he thought he heard an explosion.

He crossed the room and locked the door behind him, heading down the steps with the hunting knife snug against his thigh.

Two hombres were leaning against a lamp post outside the St. Regis listening to heavy thumping music on a massive boom box.

"Hey, dick, can you spare $500?" one of them asked as Charlie walked past.

"Go fuck yourself," Charles said with a hint of glee in his voice.

"Whad you say? I didn't hear you." The one with the bandana around his head grabbed Charlie's arm and stopped him.

"Try getting your ears cleaned out, dickhead, and while you're at it, see if they'll flush out your half empty brain cavity."

Charlie noticed the dude had a .357 stuck in his jeans, the real deal. The banger went for his gun, but Charlie had his knife out faster. With a vicious thrust, he brought it up and into the man's heart. The other one went for his weapon, and Charlie wasted him with one shot from the Colt.

He stood looking at the fallen men. For a second, he wondered if he should have just wounded them, but then shook off his moment of introspection, wiped the bloodied blade on his pants and continued on his way.

He walked past the big windows of the Greasy Diner and pushed open the door. He had never seen it so busy and smell so good. Burgers on the grill, fries in the oil, milkshakes being slurped, hot coffee being refilled and cigarettes being smoked all added up to one hungry man with a .45.

Two fat cops sat at the counter eating their double cheeseburgers, while every booth in the place was taken by loud, slime-of-the-earth customers. Charlie recognized the usual band of hookers, druggies, deadbeats, poets and other lost souls.

One aged man with long gray hair and wearing dark sunglasses stood shaking in the corner holding half a donut. A couple in one of the booths were necking, and the girl flashed a bare leg with a dragon tattoo running all the way down to her heel.

Benny, the owner, growled out commands to the waitresses and made whiplike comments to his cooks. "You call that a fuckin' patty melt, you dumb shit!"

All four waitresses were on duty, including Shelley, who signaled for him to come over. She walked over to a booth with two stoned-out guys staring at their half-empty cups of coffee and told them to get their asses outside. They nodded, left a meager tip and exited.

Charlie had won Shelley's heart one night when he told her that she had the face of an angel and the body of an angel he'd like to bang.

He waited while she cleaned the table and then slid into the red leather booth. Shoved to the right on the window side was a napkin dispenser, salt & pepper shakers and a bottle of ketchup.

"Busy night," Shelley said, as she poured him a cup of coffee. Her pouty lips were still red from the previous night. She wore the yellow miniskirt and tight black top that Benny made the girls wear and that all the guys loved.

Charlie ran his hand up and down her right thigh and said, "Sorry to run out on you this morning, sexy."

"That's okay. Should I come over later?"

"Yeah, we can finish up some unfinished bed business."

"Hey, what's that you got strapped on your thigh, Charlie?" she asked, leaning over and letting her breasts spill forward from her low-cut top.

"Just a little personal protection. Do you want to see it?"

"Sure. Pull it out."

Charlie unsnapped the leather catch and withdrew the 10- inch hunting knife and ran the dull side of the blade up between her legs. She gasped slightly and said, "Thanks, Charlie, now what can I get you?"

Charlie ordered a steak and fries, to be followed by a big slice of the key lime pie. "And keep that coffee comin', babe."

Shelley nodded and headed to another table to pour more coffee. Charlie looked around the room and noticed that none of the weapons people had were the usual V-guns. Seemed like when you signed on for the real shit, you got the whole town in on it.

Outside it had grown dark and rain spattered on the diner window. Some young kids ran down the street opposite the Greasy Diner, and Charlie heard at least a dozen shots fired. One of the cops at the counter looked over his shoulder, but he didn't move.

A rockin' song came on the jukebox, and the guy behind Charlie started bouncing to the rhythm of the music. On every downbeat, he smashed into the back of Charlie's booth. Charlie let it slide for about 15 seconds, then got up and leaned down to talk to the offending asshole. He said, "You rock'n roll one more time, Elvass, and I'm gonna shove your face through that window."

It was a teen dressed in a leather jacket with his hair slicked back. He was sitting with his buddies, and they were eating banana splits. The kid was about to mouth back to him, but he saw the .45 and hunting knife and said nothing. As Charlie sat down in his booth, he realized that packing the real killer shit was the only way to go.

Finally, Shelley plunked his steak and fries down and hurried off. He was about to salt and ketchup the fries when he noticed something that made him miss a breath: the fries had been piled into the shape of a handgun.

Charlie called Shelley over and pointed to the fries. "What the fuck is this?"

"Looks like a gun," she replied.

"Did you do it?"

"No, but it was probably just a joke, Charlie. Relax."

He nodded and dug into the steak, which had been grilled in butter and cooked the way he liked it, next to raw.

The fries thing bothered him, but it wasn't like he could go into the kitchen and pistol whip the help. He realized he needed to be ready for anything and reached down and clicked off the safety on the .45.

"How's the steak?" Shelley asked, on her way to deliver another order. She pushed her naked leg against his. He put his fork down and wrapped his hand behind her knee. "The best, babe. I could eat this shit every day of my life."

"Wait'll you taste tonight's key lime pie. I think it's the best that Dolores has ever made."

"Can't fuckin' wait. A little more coffee, hon."

Charlie ate and watched. Maybe the gangbangers already had him sighted in. All he had for protection was his Colt and the hunting knife. What if they had automatic weapons? What if they let him have it when he walked outside? Then he caught himself. He was panicking. Relax. This was his game and only he could win it.

He caught sight of Shelley talking to one of the cops. He wondered if he could sneak her onboard the Orion. She could be part of the crew. He hated the thought of leaving her behind. Of course she had no idea he was a starship commodore. Maybe he, Milana and Shelley could get something going. He sat wondering if Milana would go for it.

Charlie finished his steak and fries and mopped up the remaining juices with a slice of white bread. Shelley, anticipating his every need, brought him his key lime pie, a clean fork, refilled his coffee and bent so low that her right breast rubbed against his shoulder.

Charlie took a bite of the pie and said, "Tell Dolores I'd fuck her just for her pie." Shelley laughed and headed back to the counter.

Outside, gunfire erupted and a t-shirt clad kid slammed against the plate glass window of the diner, leaving a smear of blood as he sank to his knees. There were more gunshots. The two cops jumped up, unholstering their weapons and rushed outside and down the street.

Charlie cut into his pie and was about to down another large chunk when he caught sight of the black Olds in his peripheral vision. He leaped from the table, caught Shelley by the waist and pulled her down. The tray she was carrying slammed into the back of someone's head.

A second later the first explosion of bullets hit, shattering the glass and cutting through the diner crowd.

Charlie rolled over just in time to see Benny get stitched across the chest and fall backward. He could hear nothing over the din of screams and cries for help. The bullets kept coming.

A few people tried to get up and run but were shot down. One guy fell face forward out of the diner and into the street, his left foot caught on a jagged piece of glass in the window frame.

Charlie pulled out his .45 and fired into the passing car, which had gangbangers hanging out the windows. He nailed one in the chest, and the kid slumped down like he'd been suddenly deinflated.

"What the fuck's going on, Charlie?" Shelley cried, trying to keep her head down as the lead flew past her.

"Gangbangers wanting my ass. You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm--Jesus Christ, someone's spilling blood on me.

It's in my hair!"

A middle-aged guy sat slumped back in his chair at the counter, blood pouring from a head wound right onto Shelley below.

Charlie got to his feet, ran to the doorway and fired at the car as it accelerated down the street. He turned to look at the carnage around him. Most of the people in the diner were dead. Blood made the floor slippery, and Charlie had to brace himself on the counter to haul Shelley to her feet.

"My outfit is ruined, Charlie. Christ!" Then she saw Benny lying dead and she screamed. Charlie held her tightly. He could feel her shaking.

"What are we going to do?" she asked in a scared voice.

"We have to get to the St. Regis. The gangbangers will be comin' back."

"Okay, okay."

With his Colt at the ready, he stepped into the rainy street. He saw movement in the alley across the way and fired. He heard a cry, and he and Shelley ran toward the St. Regis.

A building on their left was engulfed in flames, and they watched as a man leaped from a fourth floor window and landed with a crunch.

Charlie dragged a shocked Shelley behind him, expecting gangbangers to appear around every corner and from every rooftop, but they made it to the hotel without incident.

Once inside, Charlie moved cautiously expecting an ambush in the lobby. They hurried up the stairs and into his room. Shelley flung herself on the bed and curled up in a fetal position.

"Don't be afraid, babe," Charlie said.

"I just want this to end," she said with a whimper.

"It will, hon, and when it does there's somewhere I want you to go with me. Would you be willing to go on a long trip?"

"Sure, Charlie. I'd go anywhere with you."

"I mean, we couldn't see each other openly because of, um, my responsibilities, but you could be part of the . . . team that works for me. We're going on a very long voyage."

"I've haven't traveled much, Charlie. I would love to see some new places."

Charlie heard cars arriving outside. It had to be them. How could he take on the whole gang?

"Shelley, you ever fired an old time gun?" he asked.

She shook her head.

"They're lots of fun, babe. You'll really like it. Much better than those shit V-guns."

She hesitated but then rolled off the bed and snuggled over to Charlie, who showed her how to shoot the .45.

"You need to take some practice shots so you won't be scared when you really have to fire it."

With that he pointed to a stain on the wall and asked her to aim, steady and fire the Colt, which she did.

"Try it again, honey. It's really easy. Remember, squeeze the trigger, don't jerk it."

The sound of the Colt going off was drowned out by the sound of an assault rifle from outside being emptied of its clip. The bullets gouged large holes in the cheap wall of his room. And then more bullets flew. The fight was on.

In a short lull he heard footsteps outside his door. He waited, the AK-47 at the ready. The door handle creaked as someone gently turned it. Charlie flipped off the AK's safety and fired three bursts that went through the door. Someone slumped down on the other side, and Charlie heard him being dragged away.

"Shoot whatever tries to come through that door, Shelley," Charlie ordered. He got the extra .45 clips and showed her how to eject and load in a new one.

"I'll need to pack my bags if we're goin' on a long trip, Charlie," she said, grabbing his arm.

"There'll be no time, sugar. I'll get you new clothes.

"Okay, Charlie."

They kissed and he ran his hand through her bloodied hair before heading over to the window. Outside he could see gangbangers gathered around the Olds. He saw more of them on the roof opposite his building. Rain poured down, bouncing off the window sill.

He nodded to Shelley, who was looking at him apprehensively, and then leaned out the window firing the AK-47 on full automatic. When he released the trigger a half dozen dead bodies lay around the bullet-strewn Olds. Those who escaped his deadly fire now returned it. He pulled back inside to avoid the first stream of bullets that hit the far wall and ceiling.

On his knees he began firing at the gangbangers on the roof opposite the St. Regis. He hit one of them and the kid tumbled from the rooftop to the street below. He emptied another clip into a line of men going up the fire escape on the building diagonal to theirs.

Now a steady stream of bullets tore into the room. The air was filled with dust as bullets ground up the walls and ceiling.

Charlie looked over at her. She was holding the .45 with both hands and had it aimed at the door.

"Don't hold it up like that, hon. Your arms'll get tired. Just have it at the ready. You sure look good tonight, you know."

"So I'll get all new clothes for the trip, Charlie?" she asked.

"New hot clothes, just for you, babe."

He heard light footsteps on the fire escape outside his window and got into position. When the gangbanger suddenly jumped up to fire, Charlie nailed him. The shooter blossomed a crimson chest and fell without firing a shot.

Charlie took out a few more in the opposite building and felt a bullet graze his face. He could smell the heat from the passing lead. Blood oozed from the wound, dripping onto his torn t-shirt.

He was firing a burst at a banger shooting from a window in the opposite building when the door to his room burst open.

"Fire, Shelley!!"

She raised the .45 and caught two coming through the door. They fell face first. She emptied the clip into their prone bodies.

"Reload, hon--and go easy on the ammo."

Shelley ejected one clip and slapped another one in. She nodded that she was ready.

With the only illumination coming from the street lights, Charlie could barely make out Shelley across the room. There was a lull in the firing, so he crawled over to the two bodies, pulled them inside and closed the door. He grabbed a nearby chair and slid the back rest under the doorknob, creating a wedge.

He crawled over to Shelley and took her in his arms. The sound of sirens cascaded across the city. The street smell of rubber, cigarettes, urine, garbage, booze and food rot rose to meet the dusty air and cordite in Charlie's room.

Sweat poured from him. He wiped it from his eyes, reached for the Wild Turkey and both he and Shelley took swigs. They needed water, but the bathroom was down the hall and right now it would be too risky to chance it. The blood from his graze had dried, and for the first time, she noticed the red on his t-shirt.

"Charlie, you're hit!" she said.

"Naw, just a bullet graze."

"You the marryin' type, Charlie?" she asked, leaning against him.

"I don't believe in rushin' into it, that's for sure."

"But if we're gonna be on this long trip together, might be nice to get hitched."

"Yeah, baby, I think that might be a nice idea," he said, crawling back over to the window. The firing started as suddenly as it stopped, but this time a jet of tracers streamed past him, forcing him to roll for cover.

He heard Shelley cry out and the Colt thudded to the floor. Then, someone tried to shoulder the door in, and Charlie opened up. There were cries outside and more firing from the opposite rooftop. Charlie turned and fired back. He saw three gangbangers heading down the fire escape on the building opposite and let them have it. He fired more bursts outside his bullet-peppered door and rushed over to Shelley who was gasping for air. "What's wrong, babe?"

"I'm hit, Charlie." She guided his hand to her stomach, where her entrails had spilled onto the wood floor.

"Oh, god, oh god!!" he cried out. "This can't be happening. Shelley, don't die!! We'll get you out of here. My medical team on the Orion will be able to save you. Just hold on!"

"Charlie?" she asked feebly.

"What is it, hon?"

"Iím sorry you didn't get to finish your key lime pie."

"It's okay, babe. I'll have our cook fill an entire deck with key lime pie, just for you and me." And then she was dead.

Charlie heard a creak behind him and saw a figure coming through the window. He grabbed the .45 and fired half a clip at the gangbanger who fell dead on the floor. Another came through and Charlie sliced through him with a burst of the AK. Someone outside began firing bullets at the door, slowing chewing up the doorknob. Then it was kicked open, knocking over the chair, and Charlie fired blindly at the dark figures that came through. They formed a pile as he slapped a new clip in and kept firing.

He realized he had to get out of there. There was nothing he could do for Shelley. He stuffed an extra banana clip into the back of his pants, slipped another clip into the .45 and rushed for the door. A burst from outside the window spun him around, knocking him down. He was hit in the left thigh. He fired the AK to take out the next gangbanger coming through the window. Ignoring the searing pain, he got to his feet and headed out the door. He caught a glimpse of someone on the landing below him and fired, knocking him down. He limped down the hallway, taking out two more who tried to follow.

Charlie shouldered through the door of a room at the opposite end of the building and noticed an open window. He made his way to it, looked out and saw there was a fire escape. He heard people running in his direction and heaved himself out the window and made his way down. He expected to be stitched up the back by gunfire, but he hit the ground with no one around.

There was a lot of shouting and firing of weapons, but they didn't appear to know he had escaped the St. Regis. He dragged his bad leg down a narrow alley as the rain came in sheets, creating rivers on the bricks, and mini floods among the piles of garbage.

Charlie crossed two streets undetected and rested in another alley beside a dumpster. He could hear whooping and hollering as the gangbangers drove up and down looking for him.

He reached down and felt the blood flowing from his wound. He had to get to a doctor. He looked down at his watch. Should he do it?

All he had to do was tap the dial face twice and a red cone-shaped hologram would appear. If he then spoke the word "Reunion" at the hologram, it would immediately transmit a rescue alert to his starship.

Commander Stephens and a select team would receive the alert, go to Body Armor & Weapons, get outfitted and launch a rescue operation. They would home in on his distress signal and make their way to him with enough firepower to turn the St. Regis and the entire space station into a tiny pile of dust. But Charlie couldn't do it. He could not let Stephens see him in this place. Better to die.

"There's the motherfucker!" someone yelled. Bullets ricocheted off the dumpster. Charlie returned fire and continued down the alley. Then he saw muzzle flashes from above. They had him boxed in. He fired up in that direction and turned to fire at the figures chasing him.

He felt a sudden ripping pain in his shoulder where a bullet had passed through, but he kept on going as they were closing in on him.

He emptied another clip in the direction of the bangers behind him and slapped his last clip in--but it felt light. He had picked up a spent clip. He threw the AK-47 away, pulled out his .45 and started firing. Bodies were falling, but the intensity of the firing from above increased.

He kept moving, his shoulder hot with pain, firing blindly above and behind him, and then he saw a door partly open. He leaned into and it creaked open enough to allow him to enter. He couldn't see anything and then tripped over a concrete ledge, hitting his head on something blunt as he went down.

Charlie could feel the warm blood running down his face. He wiped it with a handful of his t-shirt, got up and kept going. Shouts behind him told him there was some confusion about where he had gone.

He saw a flight of stairs going down and took them. He almost tripped over a chain blocking the entrance to wherever the stairs led. Beyond the chain the stairs descended to waist-high water that smelled of fuel oil. He tripped again and the .45 went flying out of his hand and splashed into the water. He felt for the hunting knife and pulled it from its sheath.

The blood from the cut above his eye blurred his vision, but he pushed through until he came to another doorway and a stairway leading up. He took it and found himself limping down a corridor that smelled as though it was where rats came to die.

The smell gagged him and he threw up against the wall.

He turned a corner and continued. The sound of gunfire and shouting had now ceased. Except for the rain outside and the usual sirens he heard nothing. Weakened from loss of blood he dropped his knife and kept moving. Ahead he thought he saw a set of blue doors, but it was hard to tell in such poor light.

Charlie gave the door a push, but it wouldn't budge. He tried again and it gave a little. With whatever strength he had left, he rammed his shoulder into the doors, they swung open and he fell flat into a white hallway.

He dragged himself along the corridor, leaving a bloody smear, until he found a cleaning closet and washed up as best he could. He found a pair of overalls and put them on. Three wrong corridors later, Charlie got his bearings and managed to sneak aboard the Orion through a maintenance bay entrance and called for Commander Stephens.

"You're what, sir?" Stephens asked.

"I'm in subdeck 23, Brad. Follow the signal. I'm wounded and need medical attention, but the crew must not find out. I'll trust you to take care of the details."

"Yes, sir!" replied Stephens."

* * *

Commodore Bander stood on the flight deck flanked by his wife Barbara and his two children, Asia and Stuart. Also present for the birthday celebration was his executive staff, the watch crew and anyone else who could squeeze onto the flight deck.

On the large vidcam screen, the admiral was sending his best wishes and congratulating the crew on their first month on patrol. There had been but one encounter with an enemy ship, and, as the admiral pointed out, "Commodore Bander's brilliant leadership had won the day."

After the birthday cake was cut, family and crew mingled for another hour. Beyond the vast curve of the ship's forward shield, the endless expanse of space ranged before them.

Feeling tired from the long day, Bander excused himself, kissed his wife on the cheek and said he had a couple of things to finish up before retiring.

Milana Destini followed Bander down the hallway. She had had too much champagne and had to steady herself a couple of times. She caught a glimpse of herself as she passed an office window. She couldn't help but smile at how hot she looked.

Milana did look good in her tight blue engineer's uniform. Her long red hair and long legs made her a fantasy object for a good number of the male and female crew members.

She caught up with Bander near his office, and pressing a knee between his legs, said, "I'm having my own celebration of your birthday in my cabin later. Do you think you can come?" She emphasized the word "come."

He pushed her against the wall and kissed her.

"I've been missing you, baby. Bullet wounds take a lot out of a man."

"Hope it hasn't taken everything out of my man," she said, reaching down between his legs.

"Everything's still working. Ask my wife."

"Maybe I will. So are you done with your boy games now?"

"I'm done with that game for now, but you never know what'll come up. Right now the only game I'm interested in is you."

"I'll be waiting for you in my room. I've got a new outfit that'll help take your mind off your wounds," she said. She gave him a long kiss and walked away swaying her naughty ass.

He watched her and thought how lucky he was to have survived the firefight, to have his wife and kids by his side and to have a hot mistress eager to indulge his dark whims.

With confetti on his tunic from the birthday party, the commodore turned to the eye recognition scanner beside the office door, opened his eyes wide, waited for a second and the door slid open and the lights came on. He went inside to do some paperwork.

What a grand day it had been for him. Much better than a month earlier when Stephens had sneaked him into sick bay, and a surprised surgeon administered to the wounded, bedraggled and bloodied starship commodore.

No comments were made about removing a lead bullet from his thigh, or about a flesh wound to the shoulder, or about his general disheveled condition, including the smell of bourbon on his breath. Stephens and the surgeon had just looked at each other when, in his delirium, Bander cried out for a woman named Shelley, whom he professed to love.

When Bander's wife and children came aboard later that evening, Stephens had concocted a suitable excuse to explain her husband's absence.

"Charlie" had received a vidcam one week after the starship left port and headed into space. Lyle had kept his promise, and everything had been captured perfectly. He'd replayed the part where Shelley got wasted over and over again.

Bander swept the confetti off his tunic and limped over to his desk, where he saw something small and shiny sitting upright under the light.

He grabbed his chair and sat down, glad to have the weight off his bad leg. Then he took a closer look at what lay on his desk.

Bander let out a barely audible cry. It was a bullet, a .45 caliber slug sitting on a folded piece of paper. He picked up the slug and opened the note. It read "It ain't over yet, Charlie!"

THE END


© 2008 Frank Minogue

Bio: Frank Minogue has previously published in Aphelion, Bewildering Stories and Tiny Globule. His sci-fi novella "Figgy-Dowdy" is out on Amazon.

E-mail: Frank Minogue

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