There was no middle ground — only do or die. And for Captain Bartholomew Quasar, it was never a good day to die.

“Orders, sir?” Chief of security Gruber stood back to back with the captain, faced by a gang of grubby, lizard-like space pirates in an equally grimy bar. Most of the regulars had cleared out at the first signs of trouble, but the rest, numbering close to a dozen, had surrounded the two humans and slowly closed in like a serpent constricting around its prey.

“We fight.” Quasar’s fists rotated in a classic boxer’s stance.

Gruber did his best to match the confident posturing. “Right.” He swallowed, eyeing the alien buccaneer closest to him. An old incinerator burn had left the swarthy green fellow with only half a head and one eye, but he carried twice the muscle mass of Quasar and Gruber combined. “Shouldn’t we notify the ship, sir?”

“And have Commander Wan spoil our fun? I don’t think so.” Quasar’s first officer was a stickler when it came to inter-species relations, always siding with the United World Space Command’s strict noninterference regulations. Engaging these unsightly privateers in a boisterous round of fisticuffs would not earn Wan’s favor.

“No way a human could win at Terillian Dize,” growled Half-Head, the leader of the pack. “Your minds aren’t equipped to handle the variables.”

In any other situation, Quasar would have argued that he was indeed well-equipped; but since he intended to bash in what remained of this brute’s head, he let the comment slide.

“Is he insinuating you cheated, Captain?” Gruber glanced over his shoulder.

Quasar narrowed his gaze. “I believe so.”

“Did you?”

“The game is simple enough for a child.” He raised his chin, liking the effect his words had on the seething, glowering pirate. “A child without a brain, no less. Abandoned by its parents and raised in the wilderness by Xenodian hornbeasts.”

As if on cue, all ten of the aliens growled and drew their jagged blades, each unique in its vicious homemade design.

“Uh…” Quasar’s fists froze in midair.

“Looks like we brought our knuckles to a knife fight,” Gruber whispered.

The sordid degenerates chuckled, chortled, and guffawed — all but one, who sounded more like a large cat coughing up an extra-large hairball.

“I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding,” Quasar said. “We were planning on hand-to-hand combat. As you can plainly see, we’re unarmed.”

Gruber nodded, glancing at the flickering neon sign on the wall above the batwing entrance doors: NO FIREARMS OF ANY KIND. Begrudgingly, he and the captain had handed over their plasma pistols to the bartender upon arrival, to be returned when they departed from the only establishment on this desolate moon.

“You don’t see a gun in my hand, do you?” The pirate chuckled. “If I had my incinerator, your shoulders would be lamenting the loss of your sweet little head right now.”

“I see.” Disappointment sank heavily into Captain Quasar’s gut. Not only was this uncouth buccaneer devoid of honor, but it was starting to look like there would be no rip-roaring bar fight after all — at least not the kind he had envisioned, with fists flying and tables flipping as he and Gruber bested their foul foes in spite of the odds.

“Of course, if you’d rather turn tail and run, be my guest. But we’ll let it be known far and wide that you Earth men are nothing but cowards.”

Quasar uncurled one of his fingers to point at the data cube in the pirate’s grasp. “I won that fairly, despite your attempt to besmirch my sportsmanship. But it appears I’ll have to take it from you.”

“You can try.” The alien snorted.

Quasar stood with every muscle at attention, straining against the seams of his uniform. “Then let it be a match between you and me. There is no need to involve our subordinates.”

“Thanks, Captain,” Gruber said with relief, returning to his table and neglected drink.

Half-Head laughed out loud. “That won’t do, Human. My subordinates anticipate skinning you alive — after we beat you to bloody pulps.”

Sometimes Quasar truly hated his collar’s translation device. It didn’t decipher alien speech word for word, but it always carried the speaker’s full intent.

“Sorry to disappoint you.” Quasar gestured sharply for Gruber to rejoin him. The chief downed his glass with cheeks bulging and jogged back. “But I must insist that you put your daggers away.”

Without a signal of any kind, the gruesome band charged, growling with fangs flashing. Captain Quasar and Chief Gruber threw powerful punches and kicks, landing more blows than not, twisting and ducking to avoid the jagged blades and gnarled fists. Tables and chairs flipped across the floor. Blood sprayed into the air. The two humans held their ground, outmatched but valiant.

So engrossed were they in the battle that no one noticed the tall woman in uniform enter through the batwing doors and survey the scene. Then she drew her sidearm and fired a burst of energy that flooded the room. The combatants dropped limply to the floor.

Holstering her weapon, Commander Wan stepped over the bodies until she reached the captain, sprawled out with his uniform slashed and gory. She pinched the side of his neck.

“Wan.” He sat up, wiping blood from his nose across his sleeve. “I don’t recall summoning you.”

“You didn’t, sir.”

Leaning on his first officer as she helped him to his feet, Quasar tugged the data cube from Half-Head’s grasp. As an afterthought, he also grabbed hold of Gruber and slung the chief over one shoulder.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” Wan raised an eyebrow at Quasar’s wounds.

He glanced at the data cube — containing the coordinates to a planet rich in precious quartz deposits — then at the bodies strewn about. “Mission accomplished, Number Wan. Never let it be said that Captain Bartholomew Quasar runs from a fight!”

Half-Head snarled as he came to.

Quasar limped out of the bar as fast as he could.

Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a writer by night. When he’s not grading papers, he’s imagining what the world might be like in a few dozen alternate realities. His novella Immaterial Evidence is now available from Musa Publishing.

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