A dull-grey transport-class ship landed on one of the many metal landing platforms that surrounded the outpost city of Old Red. The city, built mostly from the same dull-grey metal, sat in the midst of a sea of crimson rocks. The planet was almost entirely covered in rocks, with only a few freshwater springs breaking the lifeless monotony. These springs were the only reason an outpost existed on the planet in the first place; there were no other useful resources, unless you were a rock collector. Even so, Old Red was a fairly popular travel stop because it orbited in the Estus system, right at the doorway of Cumberland Exploration’s “exploitation zone,” as many locals called it.
The transport hissed as it cooled from the entry head, and it quickly lost all hints of red. A dock worker removed a hose from a compartment and doused the boarding ramp with water, filling the air with steam and cooling the metal. A gear whirred loudly as the ramp lowered, and dozens of people impatiently pushed their way out onto the platform.
At the back of the crowd stood a young man wearing dusty brown clothes and carrying a sack over his shoulder. He wasn’t particularly tall or short and was topped with unruly black hair. His face was clean shaven, revealing his bony cheeks and small frown. His eyes were a dull green, with a hint of brown, staring determinedly forward. Unlike the rest of the new arrivals, he was content to wait for the line to clear. He could see no prize or benefit to rushing. He contented himself with waiting and internally laughed at the people hurriedly scurrying towards the front. In a matter of minutes the line was clear, and his patience paid off. He casually and quickly walked off the ramp and through the customs office. A worker did a quick scan of him and his sack; then he was waved through.
Through the gate, the man entered the market district of Old Red. The established institution of Old Red had many laws regulating trade, but it was clear from the loud ruckus that local law enforcement had given up. Hundreds of people from hundreds of planets made the market district their home, competing against the shouting voices to sell their trinkets, contraband, and anything else they deemed trade-worthy. To a less-experienced traveler, the district would seem to be a wonderland of treasures, but the man saw it only as an annoyance. He had no intentions of lightening his pocketbook on this junk.
The horde of people moved through the district like water flowed through a river. Moving against the crowd was pointless; the man joined the flow and began a circular movement around the district. Voices and body odors flooded his senses; a mass of human flesh and fabric pressed him ever-clockwise. People rarely spoke amongst themselves, instead shouting to the crowd to try this or that. Charms blessed by the priests of Sol. Music recordings from the Lorkian slave camps. The latest fertility enhancers.
A building on the outer wall of the market district caught his eye. Mierow’s Bar and Grill. He edged his way to the outside of the crowd and escaped the flow at the door of the bar.
A bell rang as he entered, but no one inside looked up. The establishment was dimly lit, reminding him more of an erotic club he had visited in his teens than a sports bar. However, there were no flashy dancers or poles decorating the room. Instead, there was a sparsely-populated bar and a few unused tables. The bar was tended by a bearded man of roughly middle age, with tattoos covering his arms. A man and a woman sat engaged in conversation; the man provided all the talking and the woman faked interest. Another man sat at the far end of the bar silently sipping a beer. His forehead was slightly deformed, most likely from radiation exposure in one of Cumberland Exploration’s countless mines.
The man casually sat down two seats away from the conversing couple. The seat was hard, but he didn’t care.
“I’ll have an Old Red.”
The bartender grunted and began pouring some alcohol into a glass. When it was half-full, he uncorked a bottle and poured its contents into the glass. The concoction turned blood-red. He then took a pill-shaped object and dropped it into the drink. The pill dissolved and the Old Red began fizzing.
The man opened his sack and retrieved a coin. He handed it to the bartender, who handed him his drink. When the bartender’s arm was outstretched, he recognized a tattoo.
The bartender looked surprised. “Yep.”
The bartender raised an eyebrow.
“Lieutenant! Until this.” The man reached into his sack and produced a certificate that had the name “Bernard Freis” and then in bold “DISHONORABLE DISCHARGE.”
The bartender glanced at the paper then grunted a laugh. “Well, I guess we’re not too different, then.”
Freis nodded. He returned the paper to his sack then turned his attention to his beverage. He had tried a glass of Old Red’s signature liquor before. He didn’t much care for it, but it was cheap. He raised the glass to his lips and sipped. To his surprise, it tasted like honey. What he had tried earlier must have been a knock-off. This authentic Old Red was delicious, and he downed it in a few gulps. The liquid burned his throat, but soon he felt a warm numbing sensation in his stomach. He reached into his sack and grabbed a second coin.
“I’ll take another!”