Hector and Nistrie boarded the shuttle with only four other passengers. Two had piles of art supplies, one was making a delivery, and one was dressed as a priest. The minister was an elderly alien; dressed in the bulky, but surprisingly stylish robes of the mysterious Precursorian Order.
"I should explain about Phobos," Hector said quietly. "It's an abandoned mining town, built underground. Those who live there now are mostly creative types who keep to themselves."
"And Arthur's brother?"
"He's creative with baking. Puff went to Phobos to perfect his cookie recipe and to cook for the others."
"Puff?" Nistrie asked.
"His name is Dracon. His food is so goodo, people call him Puff the magic dragon." Hector snickered.
Nistrie tried to imagine a gorilla named Puff, but was at a loss.
The shuttle landed and they followed the other passengers down a set of stairs to the exit. A few tough-looking aliens loitered around the edges of the terminal.
"Stumblers," mumbled Hector.
"How do you know?"
"They look like characters from a bad mob movie, legacy, maybe pre-1969. The rockabilly hair, gold chains, no armor. Pft!"
"They do look rather silly, in a scary way."
"Bah! A 5-year-old Terran child could take them out. Parents let their kids practice on these types. They wouldn't last an hour on Mars."
"Should we take them out now?"
"No, we'll wait for their return to Puff's restaurant. They're trying to strong arm him."
"I don't know what that means?"
"They want him to pay for protection."
"Are there dangers here?"
"Only the stumblers."
"You said they aren't dangerous."
"Puff could take care of those thieving scum, but he's busy and they can cause trouble for him and the others."
Two of the stumblers followed them into the main corridor and approached once they were alone.
"What have we here?" sneered the one in the bright yellow, button down shirt.
"A little bunny and his little girl," crowed the one in the pink silk shirt. "I guess they don't knows about the new tax, Manny."
"Yeah, Sal. So what you thinks we should do wif 'em?"
"We's could give 'em a beatin' or just take all their stuff."
They postured and did their best to look tough.
"Do you two idiots want to die today?" Hector laughed.
"He didn't get the message, Sal."
Sal pulled out his pistol and Hector did a roundhouse kick, knocking the weapon out of his hand. Nistrie calmly picked it up and aimed it at Manny. Hector pulled out his knife and put it against Sal's throat.
"Give the nice Lady your weapon, scum."
Manny tossed the weapon on the ground and it slid to her feet.
"Now walk away and you won't be harmed… for now. I am sure we'll meet again."
The two thugs backed away and then ran back toward the terminal.
"See what I mean, Lady?"
"I sure do, they are amazingly inept."
Hector laughed. "This should be fun. Let's go see Puff."
Lady Nistrie couldn't believe her eyes as they passed shops, homes, and restaurants; all abandoned and sitting empty.
"What happened?! It looks like a whole town just disappeared."
"This was built to house and support the mining community, but the mines ran out of ore before they had enough money to terraform. Once the industry died, everyone left."
They rounded a corner and Hector said, "We're here," pointing to what looked like a derelict restaurant. Cables and pieces of metal hung from the ceiling; chunks of debris littered the large corridor.
Hector pushed the door open to an elegant restaurant; soft light from chandeliers gleamed on sleek wooden tables. Each table held a single candle and large, potted plants sat in the corners.
The delivery man from the shuttle sat eating a large pie, filled with savory meats and vegetables. He looked up with juice running down his chin and winked.
"I never miss a chance to eat here when I have deliveries to make. Best food anywhere!"
"Just for that, you get some cake for dessert!" boomed the largest gorilla Nistrie had ever seen. He came out of the kitchen wearing a flour-covered jumpsuit and smiled wide at the newcomers.
"Hector!" The chandeliers rattled at his enthusiasm.
"Long time no see, Puff! This is my partner, Lady Nistrie."
"Partner! I thought you were a loner like me."
"Turns out the perfect partner can make life easier, and more interesting."
"Great to meet you Lady Nistrie. If Hector picked you as a partner you come highly recommended."
"What is it you're working on these days?" Hector asked.
I am creating the perfect Martian berry cookie. When you bite into it, it's almost like a souffle, but then melts in your mouth like cotton candy after a couple of chews. You two can be my taste testers while you're here."
He looked over at the delivery man and said, "Why don't you two have a seat and I'll go get Dennis' cake. Are you hungry?"
"We're always hungry," Nistrie laughed. "May we try what he's having?"
"Oh, yes! You'll love it!"
When Puff brought the meat pies to their table, they dug in with gusto.
"So good," declared Nistrie.
"Are you catching a cold?" Puff asked with concern.
"Her nose does that when something is especially delicious, like you might drool."
"Not me!" Puff laughed. "Nothing is that good!"
"Except this pie," Nistrie said, surreptitiously wiping her nose. Her ears turned blue and Hector smiled at her as he handed her his handkerchief.
Once Dennis left, Puff sat down at their table.
"Tell me about these stumblers," Hector said.
"I'm not sure how many there are, about a dozen I think. Apparently they thought there was an actual town here. I don't know why they don't just leave, but maybe they ran out of money."
"When was the last time you saw them?"
"Two came yesterday. They said accidents can happen and I didn't want my mixer to get broken or my restaurant to burn down. I can pay them 100 credits a month and they will protect me." He rolled his eyes.
"I'm afraid I lost my temper and roughed them up a little."
"A little?" One of Hector's ears rose in the air.
"Bruises, a few broken bones, maybe a concussion." Puff looked sheepish. "They were able to crawl away."
"Good. That means they'll be back and in force. Maybe we can get all of them at once. I certainly don't like the idea of scouring all of Phobos looking for these morons."
"Hector?" Nistrie tugged on his sleeve. "There's a ghost in here!"
The transparent humanoid form was dressed in a bulky work suit, and a second after she pointed at it, calmly phased inside the walls.
"Don't worry about them," Puff said. "They won't harm you. They're miners who died during the invasion."
"Benevolent vengeful ghosties," Hector nodded. "Maybe they’ll even help us?"
"Will you try some cookies while we wait?"
Nistrie grabbed the hanky.
Puff brought them four each, and they were gorilla-sized. Under each cookie he placed a piece of cake board with a letter on it.
"Try each cookie and put the letters in order, best to worst."
They each picked up cookie A; Nistrie smelled it first and her nose went wild.
"It smells so good, like perfectly ripened berries and cream." She took a bite and was rewarded by a crunch, then what seemed like a pudding. Two chews and it dissolved into a sweet mist.
She looked at Hector, who had just about inhaled his cookie and was trying to retrieve the crumbs.
"How will you compare them now?"
"Maybe I'll get another."
Nistrie laughed and took a second bite.
She took a drink of water and picked up the second cookie.
Cookie B smelled like berry pie and tasted like it too. The combination of the crust-like cookie and the fruit filling once again melted in her mouth, leaving her wanting more.
"The odd thing is if you break the cookie in half, there is no filling."
"It's there, I can taste it."
"But look," she showed Hector the inside of her cookie. "I wonder how he does that."
"Trade secret," rumbled Puff from behind her.
She jumped in her seat and whipped her head around.
"Try the third."
The third cookie, C, smelled like berry lifesavers. It had a stronger, sweeter smell that didn't appeal to her as much. When she bit into it, however; it reminded her of a jelly-filled doughnut.
"They are all so delicious! Hector, Where are your cookies?"
"I need more."
Puff laughed and went to get some replacements.
Nistrie picked up cookie D and smelled it. It smelled of sugar cookies. She took a bite and savored the cookie, but then bit into a juicy berry. It was like the berries found hidden in pancakes. The fourth cookie lasted four chews before it dissolved.
"I can't decide," she said finally.
Nistrie ate them all, in different orders and sat back thinking. She put her cards in order: A, D, B, C.
Hector put his into order too: D, B, A, C.
Puff nodded. "Why did you both put C last?"
"It was the smell," Nistrie said.
"I am not a fan of doughnuts," Hector added.
"Why did you pick the one you did for first place?" He looked at Nistrie.
"I loved the smell and the textures. The only thing I would change is the number of chews. I liked the extended time to enjoy D. Cookie A was gone so soon."
"I liked the squirt of the berries and the extra chews."
"What if you made A, but added the berry squirt in the custard and made it 3-4 chews?" asked Nistrie.
"I'll try it."
"Can we have more?" she asked.
He went into the kitchen and Hector's superior ears heard footsteps in the corridor.
"Hector, four angry-looking ghosts just came in."
"Come, we will meet our stumblers outside. I rather not risk trashing the restaurant."
The stumblers came from two directions, attempting stealth. Hector held up a paw for Nistrie to wait.
“Can I try out my new weapon?” she whispered.
“Okay, but wait for my signal and put in your earplugs. I don’t want to miss any,” he whispered back.
Nistrie noticed the ghosts had taken up positions behind the stumblers.
“Hector? Can my new gun shoot ghosts?”
“Of course not! This is a railgun, bullets will simply phase through. Only particle-beam weapons and others can hurt the immaterial.”
Ten men who looked much like Manny and Sal crowded into the corridor, keeping enough distance so Hector and Nistrie couldn’t physically reach them. The leader spoke up when he saw them:
“We aren’t here for you. Stand aside and you won’t get hurt!”
“Is this all of you? Do you have some reinforcements waiting in the rear?” Hector prudently inquired.
“Out of our way! We outnumber you six to one.”
“Actually, it’s five to one and not really fair for you. Where are Manny and Sal?”
“Wait a minute, it was you who attacked them?!”
“Well, we didn’t actually attack them. It was kind of the other way around.”
The leader frowned, not understanding how a bunny and a girl could have bested two of his men, but not really caring.
Hector nodded at Nistrie and she quickly grabbed her new railgun, switched it to automatic, and braced for the recoil.
Sweeping from right to left, there wasn’t a stumbler standing… or breathing.
Nistrie, ears ringing, pressed the unloading lever to release the power pack.
Puff walked out, holding Manny and Sal by the shirt collars. They took one look around and screamed.
“I was worried I missed all the fun,” said Puff.
Hector told Nistrie to collect whatever she wanted to salvage, then ordered Manny and Sal to show him to their hideout. Once they got there, Nistrie collected whatever else she could find and Hector dispatched the stumblers each with a bullet to the head, before returning to the restaurant.
“I guess we’re all done here, Puff. It was great seeing you again.”
“Thank you for the help, both with the stumblers and my cookies. Don’t worry about the bodies, I’ll take care of them.”
“Great to meet you Lady Nistrie.” He stuck out his hand. “You take care of this old warhorse.”
“I’ll try but he’s pretty stubborn.” She smiled and shook his hand. “It was great meeting you too.”
They picked up their packs and moved down the corridor toward the terminal.
“The ghosts are watching us leave.”
“They didn’t need to help after all.”
“That Colt snub gun is so amazing!”
“Yep! Next time Lady, please do haggle.”
I and @todolomejor have been planning and working for months. Mystery, spooky stuff Starshatter style, fishies, munchies, and, of course - aliens! This will be a series of stories following the adventures of two characters - the old submariner Hector and the Dzenta'rii, Lady Nistrie!
Episode eleven coming soon...