Merilyn Ring Station was an oddity as ring stations went. At its core, it was designed to resemble an old city, made out of stone, irregular walls, streets too narrow for cars or convoys, windows bricked up, and staircases without end. Lash had tracked Dani Botswana up to a bastion where two guards in fine suits blocked his progress. There was a busy café opposite the entrance and a dark alley going to the right of the stronghold.
Lash stopped at a café for a refreshment and the alley for a rest. Incidentally, simply by keeping his ears and eyes open, he got a good idea about the nature of the bastion occupiers. Folks constantly went in and out of its big wooden gates that had to be manually opened and closed. Most of them made a stop at the cafe. They dressed in the same fine three-piece suits, completely inadequate for space travel. Their demeanor, sour faces, and pinched mouths gave them away.
Those are mafia muscles.
The architects of Merilyn had paved the alley with cobblestones, badly laid out, to give them a feel of authenticity. Twice, Lash hit the tip of his foot against a stone sticking out, almost falling down on both occasions.
Eventually, he stopped and rested his back against the stone wall of the bastion. Further up, a child poked a praying mantis with a stick. , blocking one of its hind legs, teasing it to wrap itself around the stick so that he could throw the stick and the mantis. Eventually, she gave in to the abuse, tried to fight back, clamped her limbs around the wooden stick, and went flying, landing at Lash’s feet.
The gunslinger jumped, unsettled by the green insect with sharp blades for arms. The mantis made a faint, high-pitched sound. The boy ran up as if the mantis had called him, but her squashed face and swollen eyes told a different story. Immediately, the boy thrust the stick back at her face.
“Stop that now!” Lash kicked the stick out of the boy’s hand with the back of his foot, sending the boy to the floor in tears, his small hand bruised. Instead of apologizing, Lash raged on. “Does that hurt? Did it? Then imagine how she feels?”
“She what, sir?”
“The mantis. It’s not a toy. It’s a living being.”
The praying mantis got on his hind legs and raised its arms at Lash, holding her stance.
Lash took a step back. “What did she do to you? Why do you hurt her?”
“Nothing. I don’t like them,” said the boy between heavy tears. “They scare me.”
“They scare me, too. It’s no reason to hurt them.”
“If I kill them, they won’t scare me no more.”
“That’s no way to think. What are your parents teaching you?” Lash said and scuttled around the mantis to help the boy up. The anger had left him, and he spoke to the boy with the patience and compassion a nurse shows for a patient. “Has no one ever told you there is a species of giant mantis living in the universe? They say they have ships and an army of spiders. They’re very intelligent too and very dangerous. I, personally, wouldn’t want them to come after me because I’ve hurt one of their kind.”
“Giant mantis? Space faring mantis? Wow.”
“Indeed. Now, let her go, and never hurt a mantis or a living being again out of fear or just because you can.”
Lash and the boy gave room for the mantis to feel safe again. It took a full minute for the mantis to relax and get to safety. Just as she moved, dragging her hind legs awkwardly, something fell off the bastion, crashing a meter away from Lash and the boy.
“Hey, what’s that?” The boy picked it up with both hands and chuckled. “Cool, it’s a hand. Look, sir, a black hand. It’s got all fingers and rings on it, too.”
As the boy showed up the hand to Lash, the gunslinger with the red breast plate felt the blood dropping from his head, and cold sweat icing his back. He recognized the hand instantly. It was a feminine hand, a black hand, the same hand he saw back on that saloon trying to pay her bill with dirty stones. It was Dani Botswana’s hand.
The air felt dry and smoky, leaving a rasping feeling in Dani Botswana’s throat. She ruminated and spat little germs of blood before opening her eyes. From the wagon seat, her ass could feel the low rumble of the space engines. Outside the window, the darkness was only lit by a few distant stars and the next ring station. Dani’s left wrist itched, moist and foul.
The woman opposite Dani jerked her head toward the man next to Dani. “Damaiso, it’s bleeding again.”
And while Dani’s seat neighbor repeated his “ma, ma, ma, ma,” he fixed the bandage on Dani’s stump. She watched with sleepy eyes as the blood drenched white bands were removed and fresh ones were applied, tightly tied up in a rough knot where her left hand should be. She watched her body being patched up with the curious eyes of a spectator whilst her mind painfully patched all the pieces of the recent events together.
Don Lino cut my hand. My left hand. He cut it off. I’m going to be called One-Hand Dani for the rest of my life.
“One-Hand Dani,” she mumbled.
“What’s that?” asked a man from a different train table farther up to the right. Dani realized he was speaking to her as the passengers in her vicinity looked to her.
“I’m missing a hand,” she said with a shaky voice. And all the passengers laughed. There were twenty, maybe thirty, all dressed in the same fine suits, wearing fedora hats for some, dark sunglasses for others.
These are all mafia goons. They must be Don Lino’s troops.
“What’s happening? Why am I on the train?” Dani asked while what she really wanted to ask was where her missing hand was.
The woman in front of Dani answered her. She was blonde with very pale skin and sharp features.
She looks like a snowy mountain.
“We’re going to war, Miss Botswana.”
“War? A war for what?”
“You’re telling me. The Don’s orders were to follow you to see this Ulagi individual. He told us you were in charge.” She laughed with such force and suddenness, it made Dani jump. “How’s that for a surprise? You, a stinky, no-good, two-bit gunslinger in charge of twenty-eight of Don Lino’s best people.”
Dani feigned impassibility while her confused mind worked its way to an understanding.
We’re out to hunt down and kill Ulagi because the Don thinks he has the box. Because I told him Ulagi has the box. I wonder if he has it. Either way, it’s the only reason I’m still alive. Isn’t it?
“Once we get Ulagi and the box back,” Dani asked the goon who mocked her, “what happens next?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, making theatrical head movements to call up the attention of all of her comrades. “Do you mean ‘do you die or not?’ Is this what you mean?”
Like a prisoner held for torture, the simple “yes” from Dani took a lot out of her.
As soon as Dani said it, the pale woman banged the table and once more gave Dani a fright. Then, she grinned like a demented person and shouted out for all to hear. “The Don said whether you live or die depended on how well you fought. How’s that for a miracolo? You kill well, you live. You don’t, you die. I certamente hope this Ulagi and whoever’s army is in his bags puts up a good fight. I’d love to see what a one-arm big mouth like you can do.”
She laughed, and the entire compartment laughed with her. Dani even tilted her head to see farther up the rows, hoping to find one person with enough empathy not to mock her. She did. Five rows up, a man with two hands folded over his mouth looked straight at her. He wasn’t laughing or curious. There was an intensity in his gaze as if he wanted to communicate with Dani. She held his gaze. He slowly hunched his head down. Then he dropped his hands and with his right finger he pointed at his left hand. His gesture was followed by a thumb to the chest, covered by red breast-plate armor, and a movement to his hips, where Dani guessed he had a satchel.
Is that what I think this is? This guy is telling me he’s got my hand? My left hand? I’m surrounded by thirty goons ready to wage war on an old friend, and this random guy just sits there with my hand on his lap.
Dani exhaled deeply, turning her eyes towards the infinity of space through the compartment window. The next ring station was coming up.
“I hate my life.”
End of Part 5
Continue to Part 6 on July 1st, 2023.