I stare into the endless dark, watching, waiting. It’s like all those years ago, when I was a kid on Christmas Eve. Me, lying in bed, wide-eyed with anticipation, listening for the clatter of eight tiny reindeer landing overhead. Only this time, it’s not jolly old Saint Nick I’m expecting. Nor is it sugar plums that dance inside my head, keeping sleep at bay.
The silent night drags on, one moment melding seamlessly into the next until I think the world must have stopped. Only the stars show me different, each glance out my window revealing their gradual progress across the sky. Then, at long last, it’s over. The dull gleam of first light crests the horizon, and once more, the world begins to move.
“Well,” I say to myself, “Suppose I might as well get ready.”
Heart fluttering with a giddy tingle, I throw back the covers and sit up. Immediately, my poor old bones creak in protest, reminding me to slow down. “Easy, girl. Easy!” I chide, quelling the urge to spring from my bed like some youngster, “No sense in falling and breaking a hip. ‘Specially not today of all days.” I release my impatience with a huff and bob my head in a reluctant nod. Then I plant my feet firmly on the floor, reach for my cane, and carefully hoist myself up.
“This is the real thing? None of that synth-sludge?”
“Yes, sir. Direct from Earth.”
“And it’s the best you’ve got?” Quincy eyed the glass on the robowaiter’s tray. He should have ordered a bottle. He would need more to help unravel the stress of his turbulent negotiations with the Wattlars, who had rejected yet another contract. At least this outpost had an overpriced restaurant where he could run up his company’s expense account.
“Highest quality and price, I assure you. You may access my Integriport–”
“Yeah, yeah…” Quincy waved his hand, the gesture cue enough for the robowaiter to spit out a coaster which landed on the table with a soft plop. In a ballet of hydraulics, the robowaiter plucked the glass off the tray and set it before Quincy with the exaggerated grace of a suitor presenting a rose.
“Will that be all, sir?”
“You know, on Earth, they pop the cork in front of the patron, so it can be inspected for dryness, and they show the bottle so that–”
“You requested a glass, not an entire bottle,” the robowaiter spun its upper torso away from Quincy and sped off. Quincy held up the glass by the stem, examining its deep burgundy contents by the overhead light. He brought it down below his nose and inhaled.
That word, that accent, the derisive tone — Quincy knew it referred to him.
Old James McGrath was widely held to be the orneriest man on the frontier. They say he glared down a rattler so bad the critter’s great-great grandkids were afeared of venturing onto his land. They say that, once, a real big twister, one of them mean old suckers only found in the frontier lands, was sent packing straight back into its girlfriend’s arms by his bilious vitriol. They even say that tricky Coyote tried to swindle him out of his ranch, but ended up walking away missing thirty acres of prime real estate. It came as no surprise, then, that when Death came for McGrath in the shape of a late spring cold, he sent Old Boney packing with pant bottoms full of lead.