Preacher Man, p.1
Secrets of the PREACHER MAN
r. a. Ben Miller
Originally written 1989
Copyright Ben Miller 2011
Cover art by Matthew Miller
Title: Secrets of The Preacher Man
Author: Ben Miller
This is a work of science fiction. All events are fictitious. All resemblance to animals that can speak or read minds is unintentional. Resemblance to any known empires is accidental.
The barman looked out the dusty window at the barren stretch of highway. For no apparent reason, this time, he looked further down the road at the landscape of the burning desert. Out of habit rather than conscious thought, he continued to wipe the glass he was holding as he looked right and then left from his lonely spot. For the thousandth time, he wished that he was anywhere but in this nearly deserted town, running this broken down way station. This spot had once been a thriving small mining town but these few remnants of buildings were all that was left of the town that used to serve the now played out mine that threatened every day to collapse and swallow his business and home. The largest building of the three is the fuel and food station. Behind are two small homes of the same vintage and condition.
Nowadays, these grimy, run down buildings were almost the only signs of life that broke the bleak vista. Any traveler who was following the black ribbon of highway that wound its way across the expanse of desert, through the toothy gap in the mountains south from Space Port City would probably be glad to see them appear out of the heat shimmering off the highway. A wise traveler would seek to stop at this tiny oasis for food and fuel before continuing their long haul to the next town.
Then, the bar man saw what had drawn his attention in the middle of this boring day. He focused on a far off glinting. As it drew closer, the swirling dust cloud pulled into his car park and came to a stop. The dust billowed around and blew away to become a traveler craft wheezing to a stop in front of the three dilapidated buildings.
The driver ran a practiced eye over the way station. In his mind, he assumed that the workers for this stop must live in the other two smaller edifices. Inside, though the window, he sees that there are two men inside the restaurant. One is noticeably older. He is standing behind a scarred wooden bar rubbing a glass with an old towel. The other is a slightly younger, gigantic man who looked like he may have spent some years as a professional fighter. He was kind of scary looking wearing a face ruined by years of being the recipient of too many punches.
Noticing movement outside, the man behind the bar said, "Jeeter... damn yer hide. Shake it, boy. We got customers..."
"Okay…okay…I see ‘em…”
“Well, move it then…”
“I’m goin…I’m goin’, " The twisted hulk of a creature unfolded himself from his third nap of the day and waddled toward the door.
The owner shook his head, continuing to talk to his brother-in-law even though the larger man had already reached the double doors, "Come on, ya lazy good fer nuthin'... they hain't got all day...why my sister married you is beyond me..."
The younger man ignored the ramblings of the older one, passing through the doors out into the heat, mumbling, "Work, work, work, dat’s all I do...damn, its hot," He kept moving, his scuffling feet throwing clouds of dust that spun away from him down the street blown by the midday winds. He rambled to a stop between the refuelling machine and the vehicle. Taking one hand out of his greasy overalls, he flicked a couple of switches to activate the fuel feeder system on the battered side of the console.
Watching his brother-in-law head work slowly outside the double doors, the old man spoke to himself, still drying the same glass and finally putting it on the edge of the bar, "At last, something to break the monotony... may be story or two… and credits to be made..."
While he was setting up the fuel lines, Jeeter looked the bus over. It was as long as six men and more than two men tall. It had six wheels and two sets of tracks on each side. It was running on the wheels here since there were paved roads. He saw that it could be set up to run on the trax for really rough terrain. “By the Master, I declare, this bus’ll go anywhere…” He also spoke out loud to no one, the curse of the terminally lonely.
The older man in the bar stared at the truck through the dirty front window. Being alone so long, he just talked out loud to no one in particular, "What does that there truck say?” He tipped his head, “I caint hardly read what's written on the side.” He tipped his head the other way, “Oh, I see… the Master’s people… maybe they’ll pray fer this place…I swear, being stuck out here between the Space port and Emeswan does keep my life interesting…"
He slapped the bar and looked around, but, of course, he was alone to hear the echo. He peered out the dirty window, "I haint never seen a truck like this one afore, though. Hope he comes in ta chat... I'll jist ask 'im… You just watch me…"
A moment before Jeeter walked up to the craft, a tall, broad shouldered male and a tiny female emerged from the craft. The man took a small plasto-card from an inner pocket and swiped it through a reader. Watching the recognizer go from red to green, he nodded slightly and headed inside. Because they both wore the burnoose and cowl common out here in the desert as cover against the baking twin suns’ heat and the dust, the bar man could not make out any of visitor’s features through the scratched windows. He smiled as he saw them head for the inside.
He began to give himself advice, "Ah, comp'ny’s a comin’. Better not act too nosey. They'll just scoot outa here if'n I do." No one answered him here in the echoes of his bar since all but a few of the local people had left for other mines cycles ago.
As she got closer, he exclaimed, “Look at her! She’s a Par Cat…I know what she wants.” He reached for a frozen fish and began to heat it. The smells of frying fish soon filled the bar.He watched his brother-in-law attached the first hose to an exo-nipple. This tube was designed to draw off the stored exhaust fumes created by the motor. These spent fuels were compressed and stored in holding tanks underneath the vehicle.
This process kept the air cleaner and saved tons of credits in the recycling process that followed. He heard the pumps come on down under his old building. He knew that by tomorrow new fuel would be made from these fumes by his cyclotron exhaust regenerator to create recycled fuel. This mixture was mixed further with new fuels and made ready to sell to tomorrow's customers. He wondered for the thousandth time how a few bits of Quallium could reenergize the spent liquid fuel. It was the secret that fuelled a galaxy wide economy.
Next, the old man watched Jeeter hook the second hose to a different fuel intake nipple. Fuel pumping into the bus began to cause the sweet sound of the accumulator to ding with each passing credit as it was drawn from the card that the driver had handed him on his way inside.
Just before entering, the woman grabbed the man and spun him around. Then she threw herself into his arms and held herself close clinging to the chest of the large man, "Lissen to me… I no like this place, Preacher Man. Why we stop here, Preacher man?” The woman’s voice held the last syllable and raised in tone. She knew whining would upset him the most, yet she persisted.
The man shrugged sadly and held her close. “Come on, Paris, baby… gimme a break… Can we na gae inside… It’s too much bloody effort ta even talk out here in this blast furnace…”
Tucking the tiny, kicking female under his arm as if she were a doll, he carried her through the dusty winds to the door of the bar. While crossing the open area between the pumps and the building, the man moves his head back and forth inside the hood. Following a lifetime habit of vigilance, the man’s lined, weather beaten face could scan the street to a
He had summed the town up that quickly. He had heard rumors of this place, a virtual ghost town out in the middle of the desert just hanging on to the high way traffic. There were abandoned, tumble down buildings all up and down the street. What must have once been a thriving community was now mostly deserted. This ramshackle restaurant with attached fuel dispensary was pretty much all that was left. He figured that only the trade from the long haulers had kept this one business going when the rest of the town left long ago.
He stopped at the door and, using the activity of putting his wife down gently in the shade of the doorway, looked up down the dusty street again, "Look at this, Par… It’s just another played out town. By the looks of things, this mine here must have quit some time ago. We'll just have to ask if we’re going the right way ta MS-1. I'm sure gettin' tired of hunting fer that town, though." The first set of doors opened. They moved inside and the door shut creating a windbreak between the two sets of doors. The old bar man watched them stop. The man moved his hood back and shook the dust out of his reddish gray hair. They hung their cloaks on hooks there between the doors.
She moved herself in close again molding her lithe body to the large man to whisper into his beard. His billowed clothing muffled her voice. "When we stops travel, travel, travel?"
He held her tight, loving the feel of her even when she was driving him crazy with questions, "Awww, Paris…I dinna wish ta fight here. We canna stop til we find Quallium ta buy our way off this backwater planet.”
She turned from him in the small space and crossed her arms,“I think you just likes travel all a time.”
He continued as if she were listening, “According to all the rumors, the best place fer that is a huge mining town called MS-1 or in local parlance, Emeswan. We’re to find it two days haul that a’ way. It’s the biggest mine in this sector of the galaxy, baby. Lucky fer us, the Guards have ta let us through, because that’s where the original Preacher man’s settlement orders were for…so, fer the five hundredth time, that’s where we’re goin’…Got it?"
He shook out his clothes again and went into the saloon. The female hurried in behind him just as the inner portal hissed closed. It was another world inside. It was cool and dark. The main sound was the air coolers humming in the ceiling.
She sniffed, “Oooh, fish…” then she hugged the large man and purred. “Paris likes fish… makes me hungry…” The barman pretended to watch a viddy program, trying to hide his excitement. He had seen no one for almost a week. Even the deliveries of reconstituted fuel were brought in by robot long haulers these days.
Hardly anyone stopped any more except for a refuel and a quick snack since the females left. Mostly, the long haulers rarely got out of their tractors. They just onload some more fuel and drive on, trying to closer to Space Port City. The ones heading into the desert were pushing on to Emeswan where they were going to get some fun.
He walked slowly over to the pair, order pad ready, "That’s quite a bus, Pops. Is that yours?"
"That is my home, good sir."
"You live in a traveling bus?"
"As are so many, I, too, am sent out as a humble Traveler for the Living Word. In this way, we spread the Word throughout the galaxy."
"Oh..? Yeah…I heard o' yas."
“Good things, Ihope.”
“Yeah…mostly… So, ye’r a padre?”
“No, a simple Brother is what you see before you. I have taken vows only to spread the Word. I hope to be elevated to Padre some day, though.”
"Whatcha drinkin', Pops?"
"Two brews… a meat pie fer meself and a water kooler and…” he looked at his mate.
Paris smells fish…you got fish?” she spoke in a hissy form of Standard.
“Yes ma’am…one freshly cooked fish fer me lady…"
“We’d like our drinks right away.”
“Comin’ right up…”
The bar man quickly returned with two mugs of brew. The two travelers sat and drank in quiet for a while. Then, Zeer walked over to the bar with his empty mug for a refill. The bar man was cooking their food with his back to them. So as not to be surprised, he had been watching them in the mirror behind the bar. He was excited that the man had come over to him. He dearly wanted to talk with the stranger. Trying to act nonchalant, Zeer began, "Not many people here abouts, eh?"
"Nope. This mine had been producing less and less for several cycles. When the big Quallium strike came in at Emeswan, all but a few minors and their people headed there. When the mine here finally gave out completely, the rest followed. ‘Cept me, my sister, her old man, Jeeter, there’s really only a few hard cases left."
"Emeswan,” he played dumb. “How would a poor traveler find such a place?"
"For a little Quallium, I could draw yas a map."
"I already have a map. It came with my orders to report to this forsaken world.”
The bar man made a huffing sound, “An off world map aint a gonna do ye no good.” He wiped the bar and looked coy. “Road signs is few and far between. A man what wanted ta git there would want ta find and foller the natural signs.”
“Also, most of the road signs were rigged by pirates to send off worlders ta a quick death.”
The bar man was looking him straight in the eye. His hands were flapping, "Look! You say that you’ve got a map, Padre... You might as well act as if there aint no signs... You'd never find the way without me fixin’ up yer map."
“So…I’m back to square one?”
“Not with me on yer team.”
“And you've been there..?”
“Sure... I use ta long haul right through there before I got this place."
The two men stared at each other like old gun fighters in a dusty street. The traveler’s gaze was steady. His eyes were a pale green. The bar man looked deeply into the eyes of the traveler. A strange fire burned deep within them. Although he had originally thought that the traveler was his age, he became less convinced as he stood there observing. This stranger was a powerful man on a lot of different levels. In those level burned the fire of a much younger man.
Zeer fingered a small stone in an inner pocket. He had been saving it. It had been a baptism gift from a miner who had had him baptize all seven of his children. He handed it to the barman. As the stone changed hands, the bar man felt a chill go deep down his spine. Trying to act nonchalant, the bar man held the stone up the light and hefted it in his palm. Suddenly, he was inspired to make sure that this would be the best map that he had ever made.
"This might do, eh?"
"Yep, that'd do it right nicely. Lemme see yer map, there Padre…" He took a small hand writer out from under the bar. In a cleatr hand, he began to draw on the map that the Brotherhood had placed in the order packet. Unknown roads appeared along with tiny neatly written notes at various points along the way.
When he was done, the older man handed it over. While the padre studied his changes to their map, the barman put his meat pie on the bar and took the fish over to Paris. She began to eat ravenously and watch the news viddies. For the next few ticks, the two men huddled over the map, Zeer made more notes. It was immediately evident that the old man’s knowledge of this area’s topography was immense.
When he was satisfied, Zeer straightened and took the old man’s hand, “You, Sir, are a true blessing from the Master’s own hand. Thank you!”
“The old man brightened, “A Blessing given is a blessing received sayeth the Word… and so sez I…”
“O main… and a Blessing on this place and all who enter in…”
“O main…” said the old man bowing his head. Zeer began to eat his nearly meal from his tray of food on the bar. The old man took another brew to where Paris was seated, “Enjoy…”
"In that bus, a day and a half."
"Thankee...” He returned to his table and he and Paris studied the map and rested up for the next leg of the trip. Their fast broken, they stepped out of the dark room into the blinding light of the street. The heat was like a slap in the face. Immediately, the man was covered by a blanket of sweat. He rubbed his fingers together feeling the greasy coating. He looked at the yellow sky, "Whooooeee..." and wiped his arm across his forehead, “Come on, Par…let’s get ta the cool truck afore we melt.” The portal sighed softly behind them resealing the air-conditioned bar against the daytime heat.
Paris hurried for the truck's air conditioning. He hurried after her, "Damn this humidity," he swore under his breath. The wind whipped the scarf of his open Chinook. The loose material of his pantaloons billowed and emptied in the stiff gusts. Sand devils whirred up and down the street blowing bits of refuse around a sleeping drunk. Blinded by the dust, he tripped over the figure of an old man.
Immediately, the form transformed into a crab like creature. On a thousand legs, it waddled across the street chuckling to itself, leaving a shiny smeared trail. Settling down in a shady spot, it reformed into the form a sleeping Teranast Nymph. The man stepped over the slime trail and headed for the traveler craft.
"Damn the fools that brought these things here."
"What is dis t'ing, Preacher Man? "
"That wee beastie is a Teranast Nymph. It’s a kind of Slugform, darlin'"
"People scattered these beasties all over the galaxy. As babies, they're small and cute like fuzzy spiders. If a picture were shown to one of them, they would make that shape for a food prize. What the vendors told no one was that well-fed slug forms continue to grow and grow as long as they are fed. When they got too big, people just abandoned them. Now, they live any way that they can, scavenging, living on garbage and sliming up the walkways."
"If yer Chinook was buttoned, ya'd see what yer steppin' on, silly buzgwump."
He turned to face the female moving behind him. "Veils are not worn by Emerish men, Par."
"Even to keep sand out of face, silly man..?"
He looked down at her. She was only shoulder high to him. Seeing her impish look, hand on hip, his anger softened toward her. He touched her cheek gently, “Thee…”
She smiled sweetly at him, “Yessss?”
With a huff, he turned on his toe sharply and headed for the truck, "Why do ya' egg me, lass."
"Parcats don’t egg. silly man..., chickens egg. Thee acts like fool..."
"Par... dinna get me Emrish up... Veils are NOT for MEN..."
"Ya just dinna understand, lassie..." Exasperated, he whirled in the sunlight. She loved that he looked like a lion when shook his shoulder length, coppery, red and gray hair and beard, which was growing out nicely. He was so glad that he did not have to wear a fake one any more in this filthy heat.
She grabbed his collar in both hands and put her face in his, "When're we gonna leave this beastly place... I hate it here... heat is bad for Parcats..." She was off on a tirade of her own.
Listening to her rave, the red of his face began spreading down his neck. "Woman... will ya kindly be quiet. I'm tryin' ta think..."
"Is no air for breathings here."
"Emrish women dinna speak to their men unless spoken to. Now, be still before someone hears you!"
She stopped talking and stood very straight. Still, she didn't reach his chest in height. "I am Paronese... PAR...O...NESE... you know… what you stupid hoomans call Par-CAT... not Emrish hooman.” She pulled open her robes in the street, rubbing her hands down her sides enticingly, and “Much better than hairless Earther woman..."
"Pretend it's a game..."
“Go along just for once, huh? "
"I do what I want!"
"No, lassie...This time, you'll do what I want." and he grabbed her by her silken coat collar and lifted her into the traveler.
She swung her arms, claws out, trying to reach him. "Paris not a bag of food to be tossed into truck." He tossed her onto the couch. She began to circle him with her claws out, hissing.
"Ah, mah wee kitten, we dinna have time for fun. So, put back in your claws. I dinna have time for sex games."
"I'll sex games you...you red headed buzz gwump..." Fast as lightning, she swiped at him with her claws and leaped back.
He dodged laughing, "Paris, ma sweet, you are wasting valuable time and energy. We are NOT going to play now."
Ducking a right cross, he reached behind her neck to that special place only he knew about. Grabbing firmly, he pulled her off balance. Unmindful of her wriggling; yet, careful of her flailing claws, he carried her to the sleep room.
Rubbing her neck and ears with his other hand, she began to respond. She ceased flailing and her claws retracted into her velvet soft paws. He kissed her roughly. Staying behind her to avoid her arms, he continued to snuggle her ears.
She began to purr. "Paris wan' keesss."
"Are ya gonna be good?"
"If you gimme keess."
When she was relaxed, he acted as if to kiss her, turned, flipped her onto the soft pillows of the king sized bed and jumped quickly out of the room. Before she could recover, he slammed door, locking her in.
"I said, we got no time, Missy. Now get thee calmed down. I gotta drive this thing. We have finally found the biggest, richest mine in the quadrant and I want to get there."
His mind turned to those blue stones of Quallium. The reason everyone wanted them was the veins of red that coursed through the stones. The more red was seen, the richer the quallite in your stone. Place that stone in a neutrino cooker and blazing energy came out. A handful of stones will run a small ship for a cycle. A carat of this fuel was equal to a year’s worth of credits he could earn as a jewel thief. This planet has huge veins of it. Billions of credits were pouring off it every day.
This plan had never included the intention to mine it. He had spent the better part of his life as a master thief. His plan, which had changed several times over the last two moons, had been simple. Disguised as a priest, he would steal some Quallium.
He laughed softly, “Hell, stealing is the easy part. Sneaking it off of this stinking hellhole is the toughest part of the plan.” He looked around. His only chance would be that a religious bus would not be searched too closely.
"One problem at a time, bucko," he heard his father's ghost say for the millionth time.
His father's ghost was with him all the time these days. He did not even turn to try and see him any more.
"Will ya, no look a' yer old poppo, lad?"
"I'm too smart to fall for that. You'll be gone before I got half turned...just off some where laughin' at me."
So, he concentrated on the reflector. He straightened his disguise. Undisguised, his face was well known. Every galacto-guard was looking for him. They did not expect him to arrive as a Preacher man with a ParCat wife.
Until now, Zeer had always worked alone. Lucky for him, the Preacher man had been red headed, too. He had been using brown stains on his hair for the last few cycles. No one was looking for a red haired man any longer.
The hardest part of the disguise had been that the identitags listed the old man at sixty cycles and he was but forty-two standard annual sun cycles old.
"Keep 'em guessin', bucko," said the ghost in the corner.
"Right, Dad..." He said absently. Only rarely did it seem strange to Zeer that his dad's ghost read his mind. The apparent ability to read minds and make things change had saved his dad many a time. It had amazed him often enough when he was younger. It still did.
Sometimes, he didn't bother to talk to him out loud. He just thought his answer and the old man knew what he was saying.