Swing Low Sweet Chariot

By Jim Peters

My head hurt. I don't mean a little headache that you take a pill or a hit of gas for, I mean it hurt. It hurt like my brain had been set on fire then stomped out by size 13 steel-toed boots. I'm talking hurt. It was the after-effect of the Psigourmand's attack; that bastard had hit me a good one. But with the help of the Bluesman's song, I was able to dispose of the vile creature and save my friend's daughter. Now it was time to pay back the Bluesman for his help.

We took a shuttle to the Mare Inebrium, this time we steered clear of Max and his bar. He was probably still sore about me bringing a minor in there yesterday and I didn't have the energy to calm his brain waves. Besides, good mercenaries were what we were looking for, men unafraid to strike a Grinkun mine and break free some slaves, and they wouldn't be found in his bar. They'd be found in the Military Room.

The Bluesman amazed me, walking through the crowded passages to the bar. Although he was completely blind, he never walked into a wall or another being. Somehow, he knew his surroundings and moved smoothly among them. I watched him as he walked, his pure white eyes stood out in contrast against his dark skin, he carried his world strapped across his back: a handmade wooden guitar.

As we stepped inside the Military room, my head pounded even more. We walked past old generals telling lies of conquests, young marines flexing their muscles, and privateers looking for work. We found a seat in the corner and a red-headed voluptuous waitress came by to take our order. She wore a loose fitting silk shirt unbuttoned half-way down, as she cleared our table she leaned over more than necessary. This waitress knew how to make tips from the human male patrons, that was sure.

"Whisky, Green Eyes for me." I said. "What would you like? It's on me." I asked the Bluesman.

"Whisky is fine." He replied.

"Coming right up!" The waitress said as she jiggled her breasts and began to walk away.

"One more thing." I said before she left, "We're looking to hire some mercenaries. Any help would be appreciated."

"Sure thing, sweety." She smiled and walked away. A few moments later, she returned with our drinks. She leaned forward again and made sure I got a good look at her breasts. I smiled, tipped her handsomely and sipped the good whisky. A few moments later, a goddess approached.

I called this woman a goddess because she was absolutely stunning, she had long dark hair that curled to frame a beautiful face, her nose turned up just a touch and her lips were full and very kissable. Her eyes were gray and mysterious, as I stared into them I felt my heart pound. The pounding became worse when I glanced down at her body. She wore a tight fitting sock-dress, what I call those one-piece tube thingies that just barely cover the good parts, and those good parts were exceptionally good, I'm telling you.

"Are you looking for help?" She said in a voice so sweet it could send a Drocknar into a sugar coma.

I smiled and poured on the charm. "I think you've already helped me."

The woman rolled her eyes. "I mean mercenary help. I'm looking for work."

"Well, then that's a different story." I raised my hand to take hers, "My name is Devion Mull, it's a pleasure to meet you. This is the Bluesman."

"Paigan Ranzt. Nice to meet you both." She sat down.

In my mind I heard the thoughts of the Bluesman. "She's trouble."

"I like this kind of trouble." I thought to him.

"You sure you can handle her?" He thought to me.

"To die trying would be a worthy death." I thought back, then I realized that there had been an awkward pause in the verbal communication. "Paigan, what is your specialty?"

"I can fly any craft ever built. Human, Grinkun, even D'rrish.  I'm good with a blaster and I've never been beaten."

"A rookie can make the same claim."  I replied as I wondered how she could fly a D'rrish ship - built for someone nearly eight meters long and with arms that reach as much five meters from claw to claw, yet for some reason I believed her.

"A rookie hasn't pirated a Cloustian transport, a rookie hasn't stolen platinum from the Grinkun outpost at Sri-Jorbum, a rookie..."

I interrupted her, "Good enough. I can pay 2000 credits for the job, it should take no more than a few hundred hours."

"Tell me about the job." Paigan said as she made a finger motion to the waitress, ordering a drink.

"My friend here was a slave on a Grinkun mine. We're going to bust out his parents."

"And any other slaves we find." The Bluesman added.

"Sure, whatever." I said.

"Grinkun mines are typically heavily guarded." Paigan said, "I have two friends that would be perfect for this job, they hate Grinkuns with a passion. It will cost you 3000 credits."

"2000 credits." I said, resisting the temptation to touch her mind. Besides, my head hurt and I could pay 5000 if I had to.

"3000 and I guarantee success." She smiled as the waitress delivered a tall Zombie to her, she sipped the drink as she watched me.

"3000. If we fail, you get nothing." I said, "That's fair. You and your friends meet us at launch bay 37b at 0700 local time. The ship's called the Auriga."

"We'll be there." Paigan smiled at me, I returned the smile and forced myself to keep looking at her in the face. She walked away as the Bluesman spoke to me in my mind.

"I don't trust her." He thought to me.

"Good, I don't either. But this isn't a marriage, it's just one job. If she tries anything, I can keep her in control."

"But what of her friends?"

"Probably just like her. Relax, my friend. Who knows? One of them might take a liking to you."

"I have enough troubles, thank you." He thought to me.

"Women are only trouble if you let them be." I thought as we finished our drinks and left.

The next morning, the Bluesman and I approached my ship when I saw Paigan wearing a skin-tight jumpsuit, she was speaking with a D'rrish, they were looking over my ship. The huge scorpion seemed to be inspecting the cargo area as we walked up. "Is there a problem?" I asked, assuming the D'rrish was with customs.

"No." Paigan replied. "Vrak-Nayk was making sure the cargo hold could contain his environmental tent. He hates to sleep with a tube in his mouth."

I looked at the D'rrish, he carried a portable canister of his "air" with him, a tube went from the canister to his mouth, carrying what would be a deadly combination of radiation and gases to me. "So this is one of your friends?" I asked.

"Yes, didn't I mention it?" Paigan smiled a broad smile. I didn't tell you about my friends?"

"Not specifically." I replied, as I thought: what's next?

"This is Vrak-Nayk, he's an expert at hand-to-hand, er..." she received a nasty look from the D'rrish. "Hand-to-claw-and-stinger combat."

"Pleasure to meet you. I'm Devion Mull, this gentleman is called the Bluesman." I said as I thought that I've got to give him a nickname.

"Good to meet anyone planning a raid on the Grinkuns." He replied through a translator.

Paigan called around the ship, "Rwondus, please come here." From the other side of the ship came a figure, humanoid in shape but wearing an environmental suit with a reflective facemask. This thing could have been any of a dozen or more species. "Rwondus is an expert on Grinkun tactics, ship-to-ship battle techniques and communication."

"You're acquaintance is an honor, Devion Mull and Mr. Bluesman." The thing said in a perfectly spoken mechanical voice, clearly an electronic communicator.

I didn't like not knowing what species I was dealing with. Paigan hadn't lied about her friends, I just assumed they were human. I reached out with my mind to feel this Rwondus's thoughts. I strained, but I felt nothing. The thought crossed my mind: could he be mechanical? A robot would be invisible to my psionic touch, or could it just be the suit he (it?) wears. I felt a sense of discomfort as I stared.

"It's like there's nothing there." The Bluesman thought to me.

"Yes, I feel nothing at all. What do you think?" I thought back to him.

"I don't like it, I don't like any of this. That Paigan woman is dangerous, the D'rrish doesn't make sense: why would he be a mercenary? Why an enviro-tent?  I know that they keep their city hot enough to boil water and slightly radioactive, but they seem to have adapted to cooler temperatures and breathe most atmospheres just fine. And this other thing here has no emotions. I don't care for this, Devion."

"Don't worry, I've got this under control." I thought back. "We'll get your parents out before you know it." I fought back the uneasiness of my own thoughts, but I'm sure he felt them.

"Well then, we've got a job to do." I said as I motioned for all to board the Auriga. "The sooner we're done, the sooner you three get paid." And the sooner I can get rid of you all, I thought.

We launched as soon as everyone was fastened in. The three humans and the humanoid strapped in the cockpit, I can't say exactly how that giant scorpion in the cargo hold lashed himself down. But then again, with an exoskeleton, perhaps he didn't need to protect against G-forces. Who knows these things, and why do I think them? I cleared my thoughts as Paigan turned toward me.

"Where is the Grinkun mine?" She asked.

"Capella system. It's on one of the moons around the fourth planet, the planet is called 'Brounus'". I said.

"The mine is affectionately called inferno." The Bluesman said.

"Sounds nice." Paigan replied, "What do they mine?"

"Platinum mostly, some gold, they'll collect silver when the piles get in the way." The Bluesman replied.

Paigan smiled, "Platinum is very valuable, so is gold and even silver."

"Don't get any ideas." I said. "Our plan is to get the slaves out, not raid their mine for valuables."

"Who said raid?" Paigan gave me a seductive smile, then rested her hand on mine. "They wouldn't miss a few kilos, that is if we happened to trip over some on the way."

I knew she'd be trouble. As her hand worked its way up my arm and onto my shoulders I knew that I had to resist her. I knew that she'd seduce me to get her way and I knew that after this mission was over she'd be gone, and if she had a chance she'd roll me for any credits she could get. I knew all these things. But knowing and doing something about it is two different things.

As she kissed on my neck and ear she whispered, "Is there somewhere we can be alone?"

I knew to resist, and with all the strength I could muster I said "Stop this, leave me alone. I'm not taken by your sensual charms." Well, that's what I should have said. But for some reason, the words came out, "Mmmm, follow me to my cabin." I flipped the ship's computer to automatic mode, said a quick goodbye to the Bluesman and led Paigan to my cabin.

Now I'm not one to brag, nor kiss and tell. But I will say that the stories you've heard about Psionics being the best lovers are based on fact. Imagine two minds interlaced together during the moment of ecstasy, sharing one another's climaxes as one. That and the fact that Paigan was a freaking contortionist didn't hurt.

When our desires were spent, we lay together, side by side. "What are you thinking?" I asked her.

"Not much. I was wondering what the heck an Auriga is."

"It's an ancient word. It means chariot." I told her. "It seemed a little ironic for a spaceship to be called a chariot, I suppose."

"I like it." She said, "It's classy. Like you." She smiled and my heart melted. "What are you thinking?"

"I was wondering about your friends. It seems unusual for a D'rrish to be a mercenary, and the other one. What is he?"

"Well, Vrak-Nayk turned to mercenary work after he lost his name in the royal registry."

"What happened?" I asked.

"He and his mate were piloting a royal transport, an ambassador and his entourage from Bethdish to Klauken. A band of Grinkun pirates raided his ship and killed everyone on board, except him, of course."

"How did he stay alive?"

"They made him watch each D'rrish die, one at a time. They forced them out the airlock." Paigan's eyes watered.

"At least it was a quick death." I tried to calm her down.

"No, not for a D'rrish. They don't explode from the pressure change like we do. Their exoskeletons keep them alive, to freeze and suffocate to death. It takes hours - sometimes days. For a D'rrish, it's the ultimate torture."

"I'm sorry. How did he stay alive?"

"The Grinkuns killed the ambassador first, then his staff. Nein-Frey was his mate, she died last. Once they killed her, they let him go, to tell his tale to all D'rrish."

"So how did he lose him name and honor? It wasn't his fault." I asked.

"The ship's computer recorded everything. During the battle, he missed the Grinkun ship with his plasma cannons. Had his shots been on target, he'd have won the battle." Tears dripped from Paigan's eyes. I wiped them with my finger and kissed her gently.

"I'm so sorry. Surely they realize that he wasn't a warrior pilot. Shots miss all the time."

"The D'rrish don't think that way. They see a pilot come back alone after a pirate attack and they wonder if he wasn't in on it. They had valuable cargo on that ship. Enough to keep a D'rrish wealthy for a long time. Then there's the other thing..."

"What other thing?"

"Nein-Frey was attracted to another D'rrish. Vrak-Nayk had fought with her and Thaig-Rahn, he was her love-interest, just before they launched. Rumors flew that he wanted his mate dead."

"I see." I said, "What about the other one? What is he?"

"I don't know, to be truthful." Paigan replied. "Rwondus showed up with Vrak-Nayk one time. He seems to hate the Grinkuns as strongly as Vrak-Nayk. He's without fear and has never let us down, and he can fight like a whirlwind."

"I see. Your friends will remember that this mission is to retrieve slaves and not slaughter Grinkuns, won't they?"

"I believe so." I felt Paigan's mind. I didn't like what I felt. She knew something, she was trying to hide it from me, but I could feel it.

"What do you know?" I asked, "You aren't telling me something."

"Vrak-Nayk hates Grinkuns passionately. Someday I'm afraid he'll go too far."

"I hope it's not on this trip." I said as the ship's computer announced that we were approaching our destination.

I grabbed an assortment of weapons from the ship's armory: a hand blaster, a pain-prod, a heavy plasma rifle with grenade launcher, I even stuffed a slicer into a scabbard for close encounters. Paigan fancied a pair of hand blasters, The Bluesman didn't want any weapons, neither did the D'rrish. Rwondus had his own pair of slicers and wanted nothing more. I started to tell him the advantages of missile weapons then decided to let him make his own choices.

"I'll lead us to the slaves." The Bluesman said. "If our luck is bad we may encounter a Grinkun thrasher, but most likely we'll encounter Grinkun guards, they carry hand blasters and stingers."

"My stinger bites harder than an electronic prod." Vrak-Nayk said. "I will delight in stinging Grinkuns, I'll only inject enough poison to kill them slowly."

"You can control that?" I asked.

"Yes, it's difficult but with training we can limit our venom."

"I had no idea." I replied, wondering what else I didn't know about these giant scorpions. I continued. "The Auriga has stealth capabilities. We can land without being detected, but as soon as we enter the mine they'll know that they have company. We get in, we get our targets and we get out. I'm not waiting on any of you to load up with platinum. Who wants the point?"

Rwondus stepped forward, "It would be my honor."

"Fine. I'll take the right flank, Vrak-Nayk will take the left. Paigan will cover our tails. The Bluesman is unarmed, he'll stay at the center of our group. Any problems with that?"

No answer was heard. In my mind I felt the Bluesman's thoughts. He was scared but anxious too. I thought to him, "If things get ugly, stay close to me."

"I planned on it." He thought back.

I said aloud, "We're doing a good thing today. The Gods will look after us." I led the way to the cockpit, the D'rrish went to the cargo hold. "Prepare to land."

The landing was fast and hard, and before the dust settled we were scrambling out. The air here was foul and dry, but it had enough oxygen to keep us humans alive. I felt the low rumbling of a Grinkun reactor under my feet, sending vibrations up to the surface from the moon's core. >From the mine entrance I saw three Grinkun guards. For those of you that have never seen a Grinkun, think of a biped possum: beady eyes, long hairy snout, small ears that stick straight out of the top of their heads, and a long ugly tail that sticks out the back of their pants. Did I mention that these possums had teeth? Big fangs that hung over a drool-covered lower lip. I raised a blaster when Rwondus charged them, a slicer in each hand. I was certain we'd be dragging his body back with us.

I swear that if I blinked I'd have missed the whole thing. Rwondus moved so fast I couldn't see his arms. In a brutal tornado of death, three Grinkun guards fell flat to the ground. He wiped the slicer blades off on one of their shirts and he returned. I shook my head.

We worked our way downward, into the caves through passages that dripped water on our heads and smelled of filth and that Grinkun smell, something like a real stinky wet dog. We found more resistance when we entered an opened area, a dozen or more Grinkuns charged us. I blasted two, Rwondus hacked another three to death with the slicers as Paigan picked one off with a precision blast. I turned toward Vrak-Nayk to see him stinging one to death while his pinchers held two others by the throats. The bodies fell and the heads remained atop his pinchers. I felt a sick sensation in my stomach. There were a few Grinkuns left, Paigan blasted two of them, I got the other one.

We moved past piles of platinum and gold, Paigan ran and filled her pockets as we moved on. I grabbed her arm to make her move on. The Bluesman knew his way around these mines well, before long we were in a group sleeping area where we found slaves.

"Momma!" The Bluesman yelled.

"Baby! You've come back." I heard the woman call, she was old and bent over, her eyes tired her hair white.

"We've come to get you. We have a ship."

"Oh the sweet Lord has sent us chariot." She cried, her statement sent a chill down my spine.

"Son? Is that you?" I heard a booming voice from behind. The man was a big man, his body was scarred but his eyes remained clear. "I always knew you'd come back."

"We've got to be moving." I said, "We'll have company soon." Just then more Grinkuns showed up. The battle was short, there were only a few, but it was clear that our presence was known. "We move now!" I shouted to the slaves, "If you want your freedom, come with us!" There were about twenty slaves, all of them joined our party.

In the confusion I lost track of the D'rrish. I searched the room as we started to leave and found him with Rwondus at an air exchanger plate. What I saw next surprised the hell out of me.

Rwondus opened his envirosuit and plucked a canister from his chest area. It looked like a standard vacuum sealed container I've seen a thousand times. But this one was different. He held it with reverence, Vrak-Nayk looked at it with anticipation. Through the mob of slaves I made my way toward them. I had to know what they were up to.

I was too late. Rwondus released the seal and the contents were expelled. "What the hell was that?" I asked.

"Our work is done." Vrak-Nayk said, a satisfied look on his face.

"What do you mean? Tell me what you did."

"It's done now, so you can't stop us. We released a killing agent, it's a genetically engineered virus that targets Grinkuns only." Vrak-Nayk said, "Revenge is ours."

"Damn you!" I shouted, "This job was to save some slaves, not kill Grinkuns. Stop the virus now."

"Nothing can stop it. That's the beauty of this virus. It stays dormant for months, long enough to spread through the Grinkun Empire. Then it will strike. The universe will be free of the scourge called Grinkuns."

"You're talking genocide! You're insane."

From behind me I heard Paigan scream. "Devion!" I turned to see a huge Grinkun charging her, he was a thrasher, wearing body armor and carrying a pole-arm with a razor-honed edge. Slaves scattered running to hide, blocking my path for a shot with my blaster. This mission was seriously turning to shit. I opened my mind, searching for the thrasher's thoughts. His brain was primal, his thoughts simply brutal. I struck with a mind-blast that would kill a man. The thrasher stumbled for a second then continued his charge.

I raced to her side, squeezing a blaster-shot off as I approached. The shot hit him high in the chest, but his armor was strong and absorbed most of the energy. I drew my slicer from it's scabbard and focused another mind-blast against him. He stumbled, I sliced a deep cut into his belly as a deafening roar erupted from his mouth. I sliced again, this attack separated his arm from his shoulder. The thrasher fell to the hard stone floor.

Vrak-Nayk and Rwondus were now behind me. I shouted, "Lead the slaves to the ship and I'll let you live. You too Paigan, take them there, if I'm not on the ship in ten minutes launch without me."

"What are you doing?" Paigan asked.

"I've got something to take care of." Then I realized that the Bluesman was beside me.

"You need my help." He said as the others scurried away.

"Nonsense. Get to the ship."

"I can lead you. What's your plan?"

"I've got to prevent genocide of the entire Grinkun race. The D'rrish and Rwondus released a virus that will destroy them all. I'm going to blow the reactor cooling tower. Grinkun reactors are unstable at best, this whole moon should go up in a massive explosion."

"I'll lead you. This way."

I went with the Bluesman, not understanding why he'd help me. He had every reason to hate the Grinkuns, wouldn't their ultimate destruction be welcome to him? He felt my thoughts.

"I will not be a part of genocide." He thought back to me. "I've felt too much hate, too much pain."

"I understand." I thought back as we ran into two guards. I blasted them quickly, we were moving again before their bodies hit the floor.

When we made it to the cooling tower, I linked all the grenades I'd brought together and set a network timer to ten minutes. We ran back toward the Auriga to find her loaded up and ready to launch. We jumped insider her and I ran to the cockpit. I yelled "Hold on!" as I pushed her thrusters to maximum.

The explosion was blinding, rock and debris peppered the Auriga and shook us violently. I sighed a breath of relief until I looked at the ship's scanners. Another ship had launched just before we had.

I targeted the ship and pushed the Auriga to her limits; I had to assume that ship was infected with the virus. We closed in quickly as the communicator came alive. An image of a female Grinkun filled my screen. "Please don't destroy us." She begged, "We mean you no harm. We are a simple family, my litter and I were just visiting the mine. Please." Her ship moved toward open space. If she got clear of the gravity interference she'd go FTL in a heartbeat and I'd never catch her.

"Play your guitar." I said to the Bluesman as I locked my plasma cannons on the ship.

"What?" He replied.

"Play your damned guitar. I want the D'rrish to feel this, and if that Rwondus has any emotions he'll feel it too."

He strummed his guitar as I felt the minds on the ship tune into his rhythm. I recognized the song as a sad ancient song: Swing Low Sweet Chariot, another cold chill ran down my spine. I felt the D'rrish and a strange presence I didn't recognize, it was Rwondus. I felt primal fear coming from the Grinkun ship as I toggled my weapons to the arm position. The fear and pain was overbearing as I pressed my thumb against the contact.

I emptied the entire batteries of plasma energy into that ship. I didn't leave a fragment larger than an atom out there in the cold of space. I felt more pain and guilt and anguish than I've ever felt in my life at that moment. But I had to do it.


That's how it happened. I still fight the nightmares and battle the self-loathing for shooting down that ship. I murdered thousands of Grinkuns that day by blowing the reactor, and I murdered an innocent Grinkun family. I'm not proud of what I did, but I'd have to say I'd do it again if I had to. I made a judgement that day to kill a few to save an entire race- even a race as evil and despised as the Grinkuns. Someday, when I'm judged by my maker I hope he can have pity on my soul.

I dropped off the slaves at Bethdish customs. I turned Vrak-Nayk and Rwondus over to the authorities. The Reever himself showed up with a squad to take them in. It turned out that Rwondus was a Churonian in a mech-suit, he hated the Grinkuns for a raid upon his homeland a dozen years prior. He'd spent everything he had to create the virus, including his sanity. What Paigan had told me about the D'rrish turned out to be true too. He'd been involved in some kind of ceremonial vendetta against the Grinkuns since his loss of status.

I said goodbye to the Bluesman and his family and thought that I'd lost Paigan in the confusion. I deposited 3000 credits into her account at the bank of Bethdish, thinking that a deal is a deal no matter what. A few days later I heard rumor that the Grinkuns had put a bounty on me, but I've faced bounty hunters before and I surely will again.

I was about to leave Bethdish when I found myself in the Mare Inebrium, drinking a Green Eyes whisky and flirting with Trixie when Paigan walked in. She gave me a sad look and placed a piece of paper in my hand before she left, to disappear from my life. The paper was a receipt for a deposit of three kilos of platinum and 3000 credits into the slave refugee fund set up to care for those slaves. The back of the paper had a handwritten note. It read:

Devion. I'm so sorry. I hope that someday you can forgive me. I'll never forget the man that saved an entire race. Goodbye, Paigan.

I tossed my glass back and returned to my ship. I set the course for nowhere and went there at maximum speed.

The End

© 1999 by Jim Peters

Jim Peters, 33 year old father of 2, living in central Indiana. Unpublished as yet, currently working on a novel as well as the ever-present short story that demands to be written.

E-mail: Rothkra@aol.com

Jim's webpage is Rothkra_Pit

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