The tiger she rode in on was the most vivid orange that Hank had ever seen. The black in its stripes like the darkness of empty space. He was so struck by the animal that he found it hard to move away from its jaws when she tied it to the hitching post at his elbow and climbed down. The warm breath from its open mouth was like a rainforest whispering at his cheek.
“Where do you get one of these?” He tore his eyes away to look at the rider.
“Imported from Earth,” she said. She was a tall woman with a waist too thin to support her.
“From Earth.” He repeated the words absently and glanced back at the tiger.
“Can I get a drink here?” she asked.
“No other place but here.”
She left him on the porch. He lifted a hand and rested it on the animal’s forehead. The hair of its coat was stiff and bristled. The animal purred or growled in the back of its throat. The noise rumbled up his arm.
He moved away from the tiger with reluctance, into the dim flickering lights of the bar. Tables of brushed metal and hollow chairs. A constant ringing echo of movement from every corner of the room. The rider sat at a central table and held a hand of cards in front of her. She took a drink and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Her fingernails were painted black and orange like the stripes of her mount.
“An ace and a club to hit,” she said. She put two cards down with deliberate care, her nails leaving small crescent marks in the soft paper.
The man across from her shifted in his seat. His heavy workman’s boots knocked against the legs of the table and the cards shivered.
“You’re a cheat,” he said.
“The Hanovers of Nebula Minim do not cheat.” She placed a finger softly on one card and then the other. “Is not this an ace? Is not this a club?”
The man’s face was gray from the air of the mines where he worked. The gray was fringed with red in his anger. He looked like a fire smoldering, banked and waiting. He stood up and threw his cards down so that they scattered. The faces of the kings and queens grinned up at Hank.
“I won’t play with a cheat.”
She smiled, her lips pinched closely together. She had a narrow face with high cheekbones. Her hair was cut close to the scalp. She would be almost without presence, thin as she was, almost lost between the cracks of the wall, if she didn’t wear such bright colors. If she didn’t ride tigers.
“Won’t you pay what you owe?”
He brought his fists down on the table with his full weight behind them. It rocked crazily. Her winning set flipped and flew and fell to the floor.
“I hope you don’t mean to threaten me.” She pushed her chair back and stood up. In her hand, she held a small gun. It fit almost between her thumb and index finger.
He looked like he was searching out words, his head angled so that it looked fitted to his neck awkwardly, his lips moving but quiet. He reached out a hand toward the rider, and Hank was unsure what the gesture meant—to threaten, to placate.
After she had fired the gun, he heard the small metallic sound like a coin dropping that accompanied the shot. The miner had already fallen, a blackened hole, less than a centimeter in a diameter, over his left eyebrow. She tucked the gun back into the hollow of her wide sleeve.
The rider had brought nothing else in with her, so she took nothing when she left. Hank trailed behind her. The tiger yawned, his mouth unfurling into tongue and teeth and furling into teeth and tongue. He was afraid to say anything, afraid of tiny lasers.
She looked at him as if she saw some question lingering in his fingers curled around the hitching post.
“On principle,” she said, sitting atop the tiger. She looked down at him. He released his hold on the reins and she gathered them up in her own hands.
The tiger’s tail twitched as the rider retreated toward the artificial horizon, where the lights of the docking stations blinked with the cold green light of dreizin gas mined from the planet’s core. The horizon glowed almost blue where it met the ground. The tiger, though, was the color of a real sunset, blazing orange, hints of red and gold beneath the top coat, the black stripes like fleeting shadows against the ripple of the sky.
E. K. Wagner is an assistant professor in the SUNY system. She lives in the Catskills, inspired by Rip Van Winkle’s game of nine-pins. Her speculative fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Apex, Perihelion, and The Colored Lens. She was a finalist in the 2015 Omnidawn Fabulist Fiction Chapbook contest, and she is a member of the SFWA. You can check out her website at: https://erinkwagner.wordpress.com/.