Monday, July 24, 2023

“For Better or Worse” • by Karl Dandenell

The repair shop’s big door slammed open, striking the bell like a ballpeen hammer. A moment later, a young man entered wearing an old leather duster and second-hand boots. His weapon, however, was new: a chrome-plated pulse pistol.

Even through her safety goggles, Diana could tell the gun was a knockoff of the P905 she’d carried in combat. Great power cell but shit for accuracy beyond five meters.

“Afternoon,” the man said, casually resting his hand on the sidearm. “I’m looking for Allister Bazell. Maybe you’ve seen him?”

Diana stood, her much-patched exoskeleton squeaking and clicking. “Afternoon. And who might you be?”

“I’m a bounty hunter.”

She pulled her googles down, revealing a left eye cloudy as winter. Her face was a mashup of frown and laugh lines, and her long gray hair was tied back with a thin length of nylon hose from a busted pump. Her overalls had permanent grease stains.

“Uh, huh. And what’s Mr. Bazell done?”


“Sounds like a dangerous man,” said Diana. “The kind my mama always warned me about.”

“Worth a lot of money to the right people.”

She focused her good eye on the hunter. His hands told his life story: pale with nary a flaw, the nails recently manicured. He’d graduated from some private academy or she’d eat her sun hat.

Diana had mechanic’s hands: rough and scarred, burned from engine housings and exhaust pipes, baked by the sun of a dozen worlds. She lumbered over to a cooler, her exo dragging a bit like a lazy shadow.

“What’d you say your name was?” She opened a can of sorghum beer and drank loudly.

“I didn’t. But it’s Jerry Benson.”

“Mrs. Diana Samuels. Pleased to know you.” She transferred the bottle to her left hand, stuck out her right.

Benson took it, wincing at her augmented grip. “I’ve got a picture.” He freed his hand and produced a datapad. “He’d be older now. Maybe fifty?”

She inspected the image. “Handsome enough.” Clean-shaved. Sharp nose. Mouth in a slight smile. Freckles on both cheeks. Diana brought the ‘pad close and sniffed. The aroma of burnt copper let her know it was freshly printed. Did this kid just get his allowance?

“Sorry. Don’t know him.”

“Well, anyone else I could ask? You’re pretty isolated out here.”

Diana fixed him with a disapproving scowl she normally saved for her scatterbrain nieces and nephews.

“I’ve been here twenty years, Mr. Benson. If I don’t know this Bazell fellow, nobody does.”

Benson tucked the ‘pad away. “And why is that?”

“Because I’m the best vehicle mechanic in the whole damn colony. Sooner or later everyone comes to my door.” She gestured to her tools, all racked and clean, the piles of parts and scrap metal, all neatly organized. “Doesn’t matter if it rolls on dirt or flies through vacuum, I can fix it. Sure as beer is cold.” She tossed her now-empty bottle into a zinc bucket, producing a satisfying clang. “Unless, of course, it’s got one of those opinionated AI systems.” She cinched her googles up and muttered. “Can’t abide ‘em much. Always arguing when you want to bypass some safety system, even for a quick test. Things were easier in the army.” She selected a titanium rod from a bin and set it under the table saw. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I promised Mrs. Khatri I’d have her tractor ready by end of day.”

“I think you should take another look.” He drummed fingers on his gun.

She sighed. “If it’ll make you happy. Give it here.”

The moment he reached for the ‘pad, her arm snapped up and over, servos screaming. In two quick moves she broke his wrist and punched him in the chest, knocking him hard against a box of heat tiles. He slid to the cement floor, gasping.

She brandished the titanium rod. “Nobody threatens me in my shop. ‘Specially not some jumped-up bounty hunter looking to disturb honest working folks. Now, what makes you think this fugitive is here?”

“I was playing cards at the pub,” he wheezed. “Farmer down the road said he might have seen Bazell coming out of your shop two months ago.”

Diana chuckled. “Was it Mr. Anjani?” When Benson nodded, she said, “That drunk bought the old Scoville place seven years back and planted rice. Rice. You couldn’t grow rice here if you watered it with angel tears and read it bedtime stories. But he keeps trying, the fool. I give him the occasional odd job, but he can’t keep himself from gambling away everything he earns.”

Benson pushed himself to a sitting position with his uninjured hand. “I should have known he was lying. He was too full of himself.”

“He wasn’t lying. Allister was here a few months ago. A good husband never forgets his wedding anniversary.” She cracked him across the skull, knocking him cold.

She found Benson’s fancy little ship behind the ridge, right where her perimeter sensors had tracked it. As she suspected, it was possessed of a very opinionated AI, but Benson apparently hadn’t bothered to memorize his command codes, hiding a paper reminder in his boot heel. Like he was some sort of hero in an old virt show.

It took Diana only an hour to override all the emergency systems and tape Benson into the pilot’s chair with a gag in case he woke. She did hesitate before programming the course, though, tempted by how much money she could earn salvaging a yacht like this. Then she chided herself. They didn’t really need the money. She and Allister got by on what the shop brought in. Besides, it was always better to leave no evidence.

 For better or worse, the preacher had said. Well, you didn’t abandon your spouse just because they killed somebody in self-defense years before you met them. Hell, she’d done much worse in the war.

She sent the bounty hunter to the sun, then went back to fix Mrs. Khatri’s tractor.


Karl Dandenell’s short science fiction and fantasy stories have appeared in numerous publications, websites, and podcasts in England, Canada, and the US. He and his family, plus their cat overlords, live on an island near San Francisco famous for its Victorian architecture, accessible beaches, and low-speed traffic. His preferred drinks are strong tea and single malt whiskey. You can find him online on his blog ( and lurking on Twitter (@kdandenell) and Mastodon (@karldandenell)

P.S. If you liked this one look for Karl’s story, “Krishna’s Gift,” in Stupefying Stories #24!


Karin Terebessy said...

Beautifully crafted! Fantastic character development through description.

Made in DNA said...

Alright! Most excellent. Gorgeous worldbuilding and characterization. Love a good smack around like this. It's always in the details. Details are EVERYTHING.