|Author's Note: Millennium Potion will soon be getting a much-needed overhaul so I can send it to my agent. After the rewrite, I will be diving into writing Millennium Potion Book 2. For all of you interested in reading the second book as it is written, or to see a revised version of Millennium Potion, I will be starting a mailing list at my firstname.lastname@example.org account.
A Cure for Immortality
If the bar on Terra-9 had a real name, it wasn’t posted outside because it wasn’t supposed to exist. Everybody that patronized the place simply called it ‘The Shop.’
Due to the nature of its business, the Shop couldn't afford to own an A.I.--which could be hacked by government spies--so it had a live bartender serving drinks behind a barrier of dirty, energy-resistant glass. Patrons called him Giggles because he couldn’t crack a smile without breaking bones.
The beverages that Giggles created always got the job done. No one could ever claim The Shop stiffed them in that respect. In fact, most patrons left the bar so completely smashed that they couldn’t put up a fight when Giggles and Rabbit met them in the alley outside and relieved them of the rest of their cash.
Athenais loved The Shop. Her crew loved the cheap entertainment offered in the back rooms, but Athenais liked to drink, and The Shop was the only place on T-9 that the bartender would consistently forget a citizen could only buy two Alcoholic Units a night.
And, being childhood friends with The Shop's owner, the usual fees for Giggle's forgetfulness didn't empty out Athenais's bank account. She would regularly purchase eight to ten AU’s a night and still somehow manage to slip back off the planet as soon as Port Authority got wind of her arrival.
Not that she was an alcoholic. As much as Athenais tried, it would never happen.
Her father's insanity had long ago insured Athenais could never achieve even the slightest buzz.
Instead, she had to make do with the atmosphere. She loved the squalor and the ancient, rough-hewn tables that stank of years of malt and whiskey. She loved the dirty glasses, the weapons on every hip. She loved the battered, crusty-eyed spacers that looked ready to cough up a lung or die of the Plague.
Her father's Utopia had no place here.
Athenais took another drink, wishing someone would start a fight.
The fights at The Shop were always the best. They were not the civilized spectacles found elsewhere in the universe. They were ruthless, barbaric, crude exercises with the very scum of the human race.
Athenais thrived on them. Regardless of the cause, or the insult that had started it, she would dive in and swing at the first thing with two legs and balls.
Not that she would have spared a woman, had one been involved, but other than her, the last woman to visit The Shop had been a member of the Planetary Police during a bust three years back.
Needless to say, the Shop wasn’t exactly a good place to pick up chicks. Athenais had had a couple men hit on her before, even a couple respectable space captains, like herself, but the encounters always ended up with blood on the floor and Giggles going for his gun.
Most of the time, Athenais's tall, lean frame, short hair, and negligible mammary glands got her mistaken for a man—an ugly man—which was fine with her. Her ship was all the companionship she needed, and if the loneliness of space ever overwhelmed her, her crew was always willing to ease the burden.
Athenais was one of the few who enjoyed the dangers that remained in the quiet Utopian society her father had manipulated into being. She sought them out. Whether it was colonial rebellions or trafficking illicit goods, her name popped up on every wanted list from backwater T-9 to the Utopian capital of Eriad.
Several psychologists could probably tell her exactly what was wrong with her, but Athenais had always put a gun between their eyes before they could finish.
She didn't want them to ruin the surprise.
Athenais took another swig of beer and sighed. Her drinking partners had slumped under the table long before, and she'd let Giggles and Rabbit drag them off with only cursory complaints.
Now she was wishing she'd put up more of a fight. Rabbit would have found someone else to keep her entertained, or maybe would have taken a moment out of his busy schedule to sit down and reminisce with her about the old days.
Athenais hesitated, glancing down at her beer. She didn't want to leave. She scanned the room tiredly, looking for some reason to stay.
The front of the Shop was almost completely empty. Three spacers with laser pistols on their belts sat together at a table in the back, talking loudly over their drinks. Near the center, a bored-looking patron flipped a ceramic credit coin in the air in front of him. He didn’t look worried that somebody would take it from him, so the coin was probably fake. Two tables over, a vacant-eyed spacer was smoking tanga-weed, filling the entire room with its hallucinogenic brown smoke. Like the alcohol, Athenais was immune to the stuff, but it still made her eyes water.
Behind his glass shield, Giggles was yawning and checking his watch. No one had asked for a drink in over an hour.
Hoping The Shop would liven up was wishful thinking. At this time of night, with the curfew outside, the Shop wasn't going to get any more visitors.
Athenais was standing, leaving her ineffectual beer on the table behind her, when three large men stepped into the bar.
Athenais sat back down, a little stunned.
Immediately, she realized that the trio was what she'd been waiting for. The three men had an aura of danger about them that every soul in the bar could sense. Athenais wouldn't have been surprised to see prison barcodes under the collars of their heavy black spacers' jackets. Behind the glass, Giggles had dropped his rag and his hand was hovering over his gun.
All three of the men were huge—to expensively-modded proportions. Further, there was something familiar about the three that nagged at Athenais. While she was trying to place it, she realized that the leader's windburned face had startling, unnatural yellow eyes. Another expensive mod.
Since she was the only one openly staring at them, Athenais wasn’t surprised when the leader’s gaze fell on her. Checking herself, she winked at him and took another swig of beer, wondering when the festivities would start.
Instead of challenging her, the thug lead the other two over to the bar, where Athenais was able to get a better look at him. Pockmarks and scars riddled his sun-darkened skin. His hair was a matted black, cropped close to his skull in total disrespect of the current style. He was wearing a black spacer outfit with deep pockets and EverWarm lining. As he pulled out a stool and sat at the bar, she realized that he was missing the smallest finger of his left hand.
That surprised her. Athenais had seen a few Utopians who, like herself, saw their scars as badges of honor. A missing digit, however, wasn’t worth the inconvenience. Athenais had lost the biggest three toes on her right foot when she got them stuck in the air-lock of her ship, but she was relieved they grew back the next day because it threw off her balance. Enduring a disfigurement as awkward as a missing finger took a lot of dedication.
Or it was something else entirely.
Athenais squinted at the three men and the realization hit her like a fist to the gut. They were colonists.
Giggles seemed to recognize that fact, too, because he refused to serve them the three beers that they ordered.
“Sorry, mates,” the young man said, “Citizens only.”
The leader scowled at the barkeep through the inch-thick glass, his remaining fingers gripping the bar with white knuckles. Athenais’s butt hovered over her seat, prepared for a fight.
Instead, yellow-eye released the counter and reached into his pocket, pulling out a scratched and age-worn credit coin. “We can pay,” he said, sliding the coin under the glass.
“Sorry,” Giggles repeated, sliding the coin back to the colonist. “Citizens only. Owner’s rules.”
"We heard this place bends the rules some."
“We just wants a drink. No harm in it.”
“Can’t serve colonists,” Giggles insisted. “Rules. Sorry.”
“What the hell you care about the rules?” the yellow-eye demanded. He looked like he wanted to say more, but the bearded man shook his head once. Fuming, he turned away from the bar and once again scanned the room with a glare suggesting he was looking for someone to take his frustrations out on.
The other patrons of The Shop all tactfully ignored the three colonists, with the exception of Athenais and the tanga-weeder. The latter was staring at them with wide, glazed eyes, smiling. He was probably hallucinating.
The leader caught Athenais’s eye again and gave her a long look. Then he headed for the door. Athenais felt a pang of regret. She’d been looking forward to a fight. Two weeks of cramped ship quarters and she wasn’t even going to get bloody. She felt robbed.
Before the colonists reached the door, she bellowed, “Giggles, I want three more beers.” Her voice was naturally loud from commanding a shipful of selectively deaf space pirates, and it cut through the silence like a knife.
The three colonists stopped and eyed her. She got up and walked over to the bar. With a flourish, she presented her credit coin.
Giggles frowned at her, then back at the three colonists, who were still standing near the door, watching her. He made no move to take her coin. “Whatcha want ‘em for, Attie?”
“Why, that’s an odd question,” Athenais said. “What do you do with beer, Giggles?”
“Attie, I ain’t gonna serve them no booze.”
Athenais gave Giggles a baffled look, then glanced over her shoulder at the three men. The leader was watching her with his alien yellow eyes. Like her, he had a scar across his cheek, though it was on his right side instead of his left. She winked at him again.
Turning back to Giggles, Athenais said, “Them three? Did I ask you to serve them, Giggles? I said I want three beers. Are you gonna tell me I can’t buy three beers? Do I need to take this up with Rabbit?”
Giggles licked his lips. Athenais was good friends with the owner of The Shop, a quick little Utopian by the name of Rabbit. They'd been children together on Eriad before her father had inflicted his lunacy upon them both. She had been the first one to call him Rabbit, and to her delight, it had stuck.
“Naw,” Giggles finally said, “But Rabbit ain’t gonna like it.”
“What are you talking about?” Athenais said. “Rabbit loves to see me drunk. It’s the only way he can win at dice.” She waited as Giggles reluctantly scanned her credit coin, then grabbed the three tankards of beer he slid under the glass.
“Sit down, fellahs,” Athenais suggested as she went back to her table. She set the tankards down on the stained wooden table and returned to her seat. “What brings you to T-9?”
She caught the quick flicker of their eyes, as well as the leader’s slight nod. She pretended not to notice.
“We’re looking to join the Utopia,” the biggest one said as he sat beside her. Half of his face was smothered in a thick brown beard and his spacer outfit creaked from the strain his huge muscles were putting on it. Despite the roughness of his dress, however, he was clean and did not carry the overpowering stench of most males who worked in space. Not even his breath was very offensive. “I’m Morgan. The guy without his finger is Paul and the skinny one’s Stuart.”
The yellow-eye and the lean man took seats across from her. Whereas the yellow-eye looked like something belonging in an Erriatian Death Squad, the smallest of the three resembled some sort of fishing bird. He had a hooked nose attached to a perfectly spherical head. Combined with his long neck, he looked a lot like a stork on steroids. Though he was easily bigger than any other man in the room other than his two companions, he didn’t look like he belonged with the three colonists. He seemed somewhat out of place. Like an observer in someone else’s show.
Athenais examined each of them carefully. “Even if you were dumb enough to steal a Utopian vessel and joyride off-planet, you’re not that stupid. Colonists can’t join the Utopia. You three can get executed just for being here.”
“Oh yes.” The big, bearded man beside her gave a rumbling chuckle.
Athenais sipped her beer and waited.
Of the three of them, she was most intrigued by the man with the stark yellow eyes. She couldn't shake the feeling she knew him from somewhere, but she'd never forget eyes like that. And, though was easy for Utopians to change their eye color, colonists usually did not have that luxury.
“Stealing a ship was necessary,” Paul said. “It was the only way to get free.”
“So you are colonists. Walking around the Utopia. In broad daylight.” Athenais gave a throaty laugh. “You three have some brass balls, I’ll give you that. What colony you from?”
“Penoi,” the bearded man told her.
Athenais glanced from one to the other, trying not to let her surprise show. She had been born on Eriad, Penoi’s tropical moon. Though she’d never visited Penoi, she had seen its deep blue and green landscape every time she went out of doors in her childhood. What surprised her was that her father was the Overseer of Penoi and he had not let a colonist escape in over seven thousand years at his post.
She glanced at the yellow-eye. “And you?”
“Paul’s different,” the storkish one muttered into his beer. Beside her, Morgan stiffened, then covered it up by running a hand through his beard.
Athenais lifted a brow at the leader. “Different how?”
“What he means is—” Morgan began.
“What he means is this,” Paul said, holding up the hand that was missing his pinkie finger. He set it down on the table between them, shielding it from the rest of the tavern with his beer. Both Morgan and Stuart watched in silence, their eyes locked on the missing finger.
It took Athenais a moment to realize that the scarred stub was growing, stretching. In less than a minute, the finger was whole again.
Athenais swore and jumped backwards, her seat crashing to the floor in her haste. All eyes in the bar locked on her and from behind his glass, Giggles touched the rifle strapped to his side. Athenais ignored him and glanced back at Paul’s hand. The finger was gone again.
Tearing her eyes up from the stub, Athenais whispered, “You’re a shifter.”
Paul took a long swig of beer.
A wash of excitement flooded Athenais’s good sense. Almost all shifters had died in the last war. Three million credits were up for grabs for anyone who could provide information that led to a shifter’s extermination, but the prize had not been claimed for more than four hundred years. By showing her who he was, Paul had put his life into her hands…and potentially a lot of money.
Athenais picked up her chair and sat back down. “Thought you were all dead.”
“There’s still a few of us around.” Paul spoke Utopian without a hint of an accent, so perfectly that Athenais still couldn’t believe that the man sitting across from her was an alien. It made her wonder if she had unknowingly met and conversed with others of his type.
“On the colonies?” Why did she get the idea she knew him from somewhere?
Athenais leaned back. “I take it back, shifter. Coming here, telling me that… You got balls of goddamn titanium. But then again, you probably don’t have balls, do you? Come to think of it, how do you guys…you know…?”
“We’re off subject.”
Athenais frowned at him. “Why? You a male or female? Or are you guys like seahorses and grow your own? Come to think of it, how do seahorses do it?”
“Stop it,” Paul snapped. “If you’re stalling because you sent a neurogram back to your ship, this conversation is over.”
Athenais bristled. “It’s just small talk. I want to know.”
The shifter looked stressed and irritated and ready to leave. The bearded man put a steadying hand on his shoulder, visibly holding him in place. Paul scoffed and made a disgusted nod, then forcibly relaxed. When he failed to enlighten her on either the breeding habits of shifters or seahorses, Athenais said, “So how’d you meet your friends, here?”
“Downfall of the Utopia.”
“What a surprise.”
“Indeed,” Paul said, looking at his mug. He took a deep swig and set it down again, none too gently. “But we have better things to do than discuss the past.” He sounded strained, his words forced.
Athenais checked her watch. “I’ve got another ten hours until I need to go find out which half of my crew is sober for cast-off. As soon as we get underway, I’m looking at several weeks of playing cards and reading old newsbits. I’d gladly buy you another drink to hear your tale.”
“That would take all ten hours, plus some,” Paul said. “Besides, you probably know the story already.”
It struck Athenais that he sounded as if he were acting in a play. His tight, jerky conversation suddenly made the tiny hairs on her neck stand on end and she wondered if this were another bust. She glanced over her shoulder at Giggles, who was still watching her.
Athenais turned away and took a long moment to study her drinking companions. She couldn’t find a hint of Utopian on them anywhere. They were too rough, too…poor.
Not for the first time, instead of following her gut and ending the conversation, curiosity got the better of her.
“I know the gist,” Athenais admitted, “But how’d you survive all this time? They had extermination squads out for years.”
Paul smiled bitterly, but said nothing. She got the sudden, strong feeling that this man—alien, rather—hated her. Not just hated Utopians, but her. Coming from behind unreadable yellow eyes—alien eyes, now that she thought of it—made her skin prickle uncomfortably. She wondered again if she was walking into a trap.
She smiled at them, masking her unease. “Two colonists and a shifter and you’re gonna bring down the Utopia. Do you have any idea how many lunatics I’ve heard say the same thing? What kind of stupid stunt are you planning to pull? A planet-killer stored in the hull of some transport? An engineered plague? Exploding Eriad’s star?”
Paul’s topaz eyes glittered with challenge. “A few beers doesn’t buy a tale like that, Attie.”
Athenais prickled at the mention of her nickname, then realized that Giggles had used it when he warned her about Rabbit. She relaxed, wondering what was setting her nerves on edge. After all, most of her crew was in the back rooms and Giggles would gladly shoot all three of her drinking companions if she so much as gave him the nod.
“Fair enough,” Athenais said. “What does it buy?”
A malicious smile stretched Paul’s lips. “Spoken like a true pirate.”
Athenais grinned. “That’s what’s wrong with the Utopia these days,” she said. “A woman can’t keep an eye to her finances without being accused of piracy.”
“You know what you are just as well as we do.” The outright anger, the deep-rooted malevolence in his gaze left Athenais feeling uneasy.
She tried to laugh, but failed under the alien’s unwavering yellow gaze. “Giggles must have pissed in your drink. I’m no pirate.”
“Yes you are. You’re human scum. Wanted in all four quadrants and have death warrants on sixteen planets. The price on your head is double that of the next three bounties combined.”
Athenais beamed. “Still half what you’re worth, I’m sure.”
The shifter gave her a sly grin and raised his tankard.
Athenais felt herself liking the alien despite his animosity towards her. “Tell me,” she said. “Who are you, really? Why tell me about…that?” She indicated his missing pinkie finger.
“You bought us a drink.”
“Your life for a drink? I don’t buy that.”
Paul bristled. “I didn’t come here to exchange pleasantries with Utopian filth.”
“Damn it, Paul,” Morgan said, scowling. He forced his face into a smile for Athenais. “Ignore him. He’s had a bad time of the trip. We’re grateful for the beer. It was good.”
“It’s piss. Barely worth drinking.” Athenais had thought Paul was the one in charge, but the sulky manner in which he had withstood Morgan’s rebuke led her to believe the bearded man was somehow the leader of the trio.
Morgan gave her a charming smile. “In such good company, even piss seems glamorous.”
Athenais stared at him. She couldn’t quite remember the last time someone had hit on her. She wondered if he was being sarcastic.
“After all,” Paul continued, “It’s not every day that you get to meet a woman as lovely as you.”
Athenais scowled at the shifter.
Paul lowered his eyes at her glare, but his sulkiness remained. “Most Utopis don’t have scars.”
Unconsciously, Athenais traced the scar over her eye. They were fake, kept there artificially due to her condition, but they had been given to her in good faith. “Got them from my First Mate. He almost killed me.”
“No he didn't.”
Athenais glanced over at Morgan and Stuart, who both suddenly seemed intrigued with the foam at the top of their beer. Neither had taken much more than a sip. She gave Paul a long look, trying to determine just what he was after.
“He gouged out my eye and widened my mouth by about six inches when he tried to stab me in the neck. He almost killed me.”
"We both know he didn't."
Athenais narrowed her eyes. "What else do you know?"
“I know you’re the second oldest human after your insane father on Eriad.”
“I know you hate your father,” Paul continued. “Almost as much as I do.”
"You do realize I'm not going to let you leave here alive, right?"
"You will," Paul said, his yellow eyes full of challenge.
"I doubt that," she said softly.
Paul gave her a spiteful look. “Your original name was Marcella Tempest, after your father Marceau. You changed it to Athenais Owlborne, an obvious reference to the ancient human goddess Pallas-Athene and her rivalry with Mars, whose name your father bears.”
“Are you trying to blackmail me?” She got to her feet. “You’re goddamn fools. All of you.”
“Not fools,” Paul said. “Revolutionaries. Like you.”
“I haven’t flown for rebels since those bastards in the Water Rebellion gave me over to the Utopia to hoe cabbage for thirty years on Tercia.” Still, she was interested. She lowered herself back into her chair and leaned back, wondering what they had in mind. “So what do you want? Despite the cuteness with Giggles, you can’t make me believe you didn’t do your homework. You intended to have this talk. That means you also knew that I like my privacy, regardless of who I have to kill to keep it. You're not suicidal, so there's something you haven't told me yet.”
The three exchanged a glance. Athenais took another drink, pretending not to see.
“What do you know of the Millennium Potion?” Paul finally asked.
Athenais suddenly burst out laughing, spraying beer over half the table. Morgan had to pound her on the back before she could stop choking. She wiped her face and said, “You want to steal it? Oh my God, that’s classic.”
“What do you know of it?” Paul repeated, his voice dangerously low. He looked like he wanted to crush her face with his huge fist.
Athenais gave him a sweet smile, realizing that she might have her fight, after all. “It’s not a potion, for one.”
“It’s an injection,” Morgan agreed. “The secret remedy that keeps all Utopians young.”
“It’s a curse,” Athenais said. “The only person I’d ever wish it on is my father, and he made the damn thing.”
“You were one of his first test subjects,” Morgan said.
“Guinea pigs,” Athenais muttered. “And no, I’m not helping you get it. You ask me, we should destroy the thing.”
A slow smile spread across Morgan’s lips and he leaned back, giving the other two a satisfied glance.
Athenais gaped at them. “You’re kidding.”
The Millennium Potion was a well-guarded secret on Eriad, and for good reason. If her father was less discriminate with whom he dosed, the population would explode. As it was, Utopians couldn’t have children. If they did, and the Utopia found out about it—which they would—the Utopian responsible would have to choose between her life or her child’s life to keep the numbers steady.
Stealing the Millennium Potion was hard enough. Destroying it would take an act of God. As much as she’d like to see it disappear, Beetle and her crew of six were impotent against Eriad’s fleet. The little ball of tropical islands had a battalion of ships that could defend it against anything the rest of the universe could throw at it, and then some. Trying to slip past its defenses would a grueling, thankless project that would doubtless end up with Beetle getting confiscated and her finances seized. Again.
“Look, I appreciate all the preparation that went into this meeting,” Athenais said, “But you’re just three colonists, even if one of you’s a shifter. You’re out of your league. There’s nothing I’d like more than to blow up that whole damn planet, but Marceau isn’t going to let us do that. Go home and have babies, or whatever it is you colonists do. I’ll try to forget I saw you three.” She got up to leave.
“Please,” Paul said suddenly. His cockiness had vanished and there was real anguish in his face. “Please. We need your help.”
“No you don’t.”
Paul grabbed her wrist. Behind his glass, Giggles stiffened.
“Please,” Paul said, “We spent years tracking you across the Quadrant. We lost two friends trying to find you. You have to help us.”
“I don’t,” Athenais said, yanking her arm free. “If you’d really done your research, you’d know that I’ve already tried what you’re suggesting. Several times. As you can see, I failed.” She brushed past him toward the door.
“We’ve got a cure for the Potion,” Paul called at her back.
Athenais stopped and stared at the door in silence. After a moment, she said, “Come to Beetle tomorrow and we’ll talk. Have some sort of payment in mind.”