Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Three Revolvers on Mars

by Kristen Lee Knapp


Jupiter sank beyond the horizon. The sky flared with red and gold colors, fading as a myriad of silver stars appeared above. Gulls circled in the sky, bleating as waves lapped at the small boat, juggling it from crest to crest.

A man and woman lay together inside. The man touched her hair and buried his fingers in her blue-black curls. The woman nestled in his chest, memorizing the scent of his musk and the contours of his arms.

"Before the planet sets," he said. He took a silver chain from his pocket. A small stone was fastened around it. He latched it around her neck.

She touched it and looked at him. "What is it?"

He kissed her forehead. "We'll never forget tonight."

They pressed their hands around the crystal. Their touch was warm, encompassing the cool stone in their heat. He released her. The grey crystal was pink, its cold surface now warm to the touch. She held it close and smiled. "Never," she said.

They made love as their boat seesawed in the surf. She whispered urgently in his ear. He lost himself in her, like ice held in an open flame.

He rowed them back to shore. He was sweaty and smiling, she was flushed and disheveled. She held the crystal close to her chest.

He knotted the rowboat at the dock and walked back together over the groaning wooden planks.

A stranger stood waiting. He was tall and broad shouldered with blonde hair and green eyes. He held a pistol in his right hand.

The couple stopped.

"Let her go," he said.

She looked at him. "Honey?"

"Sorry," said the stranger.

"Do you think you'll get away with this?"

"I'm not supposed to." He fired.

The man fell. Blood spurted from his gut. The woman screamed and cradled him.

The stranger walked over and put a bullet in his head. The woman looked up at him and held the crystal tight in her hand.

He shot her. The pink crystal rolled out of her hand and onto the deck. He knelt and picked it up, studying its pointed end and sharp edges. He felt its warmth and smiled.

Sirens interrupted the coming night. The robot police arrived.

The sky was grey, like cast-iron. Occasional rays of light filtered through. Ruins of buildings lay scattered like shards of a broken bottle. Lightning crackled. Bands of acid rain sizzled across the landscape.

Men wearing masks and goggles and rubber suits clambered over the hull of a ship. The vessel was a jumble of piecemeal scraps welded around an engine.

A man emerged from the ruins. His face was worn, like a ragged strip of leather. His skin hung from his flesh in tatters. Granite grey eyes stared unblinkingly. He held a pistol in his rotted hand.

"Been looking for you Brusk," he said, with a voice like fingernails against gravel.

The men turned and looked at him. One of the men slid down the side of the ship. "Stygg. Thought you would've learned by now."

Stygg pulled the trigger. A man on top of the ship fell face-first. The others looked at him.

"Take your guns off and get down," he said.

"How many rounds you have left?"

"Dead or alive," said Stygg. He smiled, his mouth a ruin of black teeth.

Brusk looked back at the ship. Something changed in his voice. "Please. You have to let me go. I can't stay here any more. We'll all die."

Stygg shot his men. One, two, three, four, five. They fell like stones, without firing a shot. Brusk was left. He turned and ran into the ship and shut the door behind him. The engine sputtered alive.

Stygg holstered his pistol and pulled a hand cannon from his coat.

The ship's thrusters fired and it lurched from the ground.

He pulled a phial from his sleeve and poured green powder into the barrel.

The ship built speed and hurtled away.

Stygg drew a tiny black grain from his coat. He tossed it into the barrel, aimed, and turned his head.

White light pierced the sky, parting the clouds and disintegrating the fleeing ship. No explosion, no wreckage, only a tiny puff of black smoke remained.

He took a breath and slung his cannon over his shoulder. He stopped to dismember the right hands of the men he shot and trudged away into the ruins.

Two coffins drifted away together over waves. An organ played. Voices sang. Jupiter set behind a veil of heavy black clouds. Thunder rippled across the sky and rain bucketed down.

The preacher spoke and when he finished the guests shook hands. The rain intensified. Most people fled for cover.

Gammel watched until the coffins floated away. He popped an umbrella and walked away, sloshing through puddles in the street. Vendors cleared the street, ducking indoors. He walked for a while, unsure of his destination.

A man in a heavy rain coat stood outside a corner coffee shop. Age dragged the flesh of his face down in drooping bags. "Gam," he said. "I waited for you after the ceremony."

"Bren. I didn't notice you."

"I left after an hour."

Gammel nodded. "I understand."

"I'll buy you a cup of coffee."

They walked inside and sat down. A robot waiter brought them two cups. Gammel poured sugar and cream in his cup. Bren drank his black.

"It's terrible," he said. "Is there anything I can do?"

Gammel shook his head. "You're a good friend."

"Just name it," said Bren. "I mean it."

He smiled. "How's your wife?"

"Good," he said. "Expecting our first."

"That's good."

"Shame he'll never get the chance to meet you." Bren opened his coat. Light flashed across gunmetal. "Did you think you could just leave?"

"After all the times I saved your skin," said Gammel. He picked up his mug and sipped.

"Spare me that."

"Did you kill them? Or did you find a patsy to confess?"

"No patsy. One of the boss's special guys. I'm just the janitor. Don't look at me like that Gam. You pulled the trigger as much as I did. Pulled it when you tried to bail."

"I never squealed."

"Doesn't make a difference. Galaxy's getting smaller. Can't afford any loose ends."

"My son wasn't a loose end. Neither was his wife."

"I've got a wife too."

He pulled the trigger under the table. Bren slumped over. A smoking hole lay where his guts had been.

Gammel stood from his seat and shoved his pistol in his belt. Sirens wailed in the street. He walked through the shop and out the back door.

Another brawl. Convicts shouted and fought like dogs, hurling fists. An alarm blared. Armed guards poured in with clubs and beat the prisoners until the melee stopped. They were herded back into their cells.

Moric slumped down on his cot. Blood streamed down his face. His cell spun in circles.

"Keep that up," said his codger of a cellmate. "They'll jettison you before we even get to Mars."

He put his fingers in his mouth and felt his teeth. He pulled out a molar and flicked it away.

"Three fights in one day." The codger shook his head and scratched the frayed tufts of his beard. "Man like that's gotta have a death wish. You got a death wish boy?"

He set his thumb against his broken nose and forced it back in place. Blood sluiced free. He blew his nose.

"Disgusting," said the codger. The old man looked out the porthole. "You know my family was rich? Back on Earth, before it happened. Yessir. Computer crystal matrix deciphering. Obsolete stuff now. Worse than what they give kids nowadays. But then, state of the art."

Moric pulled the crystal from his pocket and rubbed it in his palms. Warmth rushed through his arms. He felt his eyes water.

The feeling changed. The hair on his arms stood up. His spine crawled. Pain stabbed his body. He let the crystal go, dropping it to the floor.

The codger stared at him. "What's that you keep holding?"

He looked at him. "When the door opens, free the others."

The old man laughed. "You're a funny guy. I wish. I'm a lifer. Got nothing to lose."

Moric pulled the pistol from his jumpsuit.

The codger's mouth dropped. "You swipe that off the guards? No way you can escape with just that."

Moric tapped the laser bars. The white beams crackled and electrocuted him.

"Hey. You weren't serious, were you?"

Moric looked up. The cell's light flickered and went out. The laser bars vanished.

Stygg climbed atop a mound of garbage. Tall mountains loomed ahead, black shapes against a black sky. Tiny lights glowed far away, barely discernable, like dying candles. He went to them, scurrying over rocks and down trash heaps with animal ease. Six right hands dangled from his pack. He glanced at them and smiled.

A distant light appeared at the peak of a mountain. It launched down the craggy slope and up a huge ramp, into the sky. It pierced the thick plume of clouds and vanished.

He watched for a moment then continued. Robot turrets watched his approach from flanking hills.

He came to a huge grey bunker rising up through the wreckage. The structure had no windows, no visible doors. Gun barrels jutted from its surface like the quills of a porcupine.

Stygg walked up to the wall. He pulled a small steel case from his pocket and removed a human eye. He held it to a hidden scanner. The wall opened. White light flooded free. He covered his eyes and walked inside. The wall slammed shut.

He walked through the whitewashed halls. He passed a guard post. The seat was empty, the monitors blank. His hand went to his gun. He walked past several other posts, all empty.

He entered the station's dockyard. Guards labored about, moving crates and prepping a ship for takeoff.

A guard saw him and stopped. "Intruder!"

The others all stopped and drew weapons.

"Bounty," said Stygg. He dropped the hands to the floor.

A bald man with an angry set jaw strode forward. "Put your weapons down." He looked at him. "Never thought I'd see you again."

"Come to collect bounties," he said.

The bald man looked down at the hands and tapped them with his foot. "What? Only three?"

"All right hands. Seven."

"Only see six."

"Nothing left of seven."

The bald man raised his head and pursed his lips. "I believe you." He shrugged. "No point in paying you though."

Stygg waited.

"Not long now," the bald man said. "Unlucky really. Asteroid impact in a few hours. Not a few miles from here. Wipe out everything. We've got orders. We're headed to Mars."

"Take me with you then."

Some laughed. "No Earther's left the planet for two centuries," said the bald man.

"Then I'll be the first."

"No."

He drew his gun and pressed it to the man's chest.

"Start running," said the bald man. "Maybe you'll only be liquidized."

"You'll take me on," said Stygg. "And you'll pay me every last cent."

"You don't have the guts freak."

Stygg looked over his shoulder at the ship. He aimed at it. "Think you can repair it in time?"

The guards screamed, dropped their guns, begged.

"That's good," said the bald man. He smiled. "You bought yourself a ticket to Mars."

"Can I take your bag for you Mr. Smit?" offered the robot.

"No. Thank you." Gammel boarded the ship and found his seat. He set his bag down and sat. People filed down the aisle lugging suitcases and dragging children. Gammel drew a pipe and a folded square of plastic from his coat.

"News," he said, unfolding the plastic.

The plastic became white. Black text scrolled across. He lit his pipe and leaned back.

Colonials at war on Venus. Meteor showers on Earth. Unemployment rate thirty percent on Ganymede. Prison transport lost en route to Mars.

He stopped and reread. His fingers clenched the screen.

A broad shouldered woman sat in the seat across. She wore old police fatigues, a grey jacket and pants. A pistol was holstered at her side.

Gammel glanced over his screen. "What a coincidence."

"Give me one reason not to drag you to jail."

He tapped the bell of his pipe. "I haven't broken any laws."

"Fraud is a serious offense, Mr. Smit," she said. "And there's a smoking corpse at the diner on Fourth Street."

"Self defense."

"That's not for you to decide."

Gammel handed her the screen and pointed to a column.

"Prison transport lost. So what?"

"The man that killed my children."

She read it again. "Pretty thin. Could've been a communications error. Technical failure. And how could he break out on his own?"

"He couldn't. Unless he had help from the inside." He puffed sweet smoke from the pipe.

She put her hand to her head. "Conspiracy theories. Hard to believe really. Syndicates buying senate seats. Corruption in the robot police. Surreal even. And naïve. Naïve to think we'd evolved past it."

"Let me kill the man that killed my family."

"Jesus Gam. You're sixty years old. You were acquitted thirty years ago. Why throw away your life?"

"I already threw away my son's. High time I atone for my sins."

The ship lurched as the engine came alive.

"By making some new ones." She stood and straightened her coat. "Make sure I never see you again." She disembarked.

He smiled, puffed his pipe and returned to his news.

Bodies lay scattered through the hall. Blood dribbled along the white floors. Red light filtered in through the windows, shining dully against the puddles. Red rocks and vast deserts waited outside.

Moric worked at the communications. A pistol was set on the table beside him. His prisoner jumpsuit was splashed red. Blood crusted his fingers.

A vidscreen crackled and came alive. A shadowed face appeared. "What?" it said.

"I escaped. I need a ship off Mars."

"Word's around. Media is on top of it. Too high profile. The EMP malfunction was a mistake. And you shouldn't have freed the other prisoners."

"Their release was essential. Too many prison guards."

"Your existence is considered expendable. Chance of your death exceeds maximum survival probabilities. Implication threat is considerable. Your file is terminated." The screen went dark.

Moric stared. He tapped his foot, counting silently.

The codger stumbled into the doorway. "Welcome to Mars!" He drank from a dark bottle. Booze spilled into his beard. He wiped his lips. "What're you doing alone in the dark?"

He felt a pulse in his pocket. He pulled out the crystal. Warmth spiraled through his fingers and into his arm.

"Wanna tell me what that is?"

Tears fell from his eyes. He grit his teeth and put the crystal back.

"You crying?" The codger grinned and stumbled over. "Say. That's a Memoral." He laughed and drank. "So what's the memory of?"

"Love. A sunset."

"That sure sounds nice." He drank deep.

Moric stood and walked from the coms room into the control center. Convicts laughed and passed around bottles of booze. When they saw him they cheered.

"You're a damn hero to us," said the codger. "Go on. Tell us how you did it."

The others shouted in chorus.

Moric shook his head and raised his hands. The room fell silent. "So what do we do now?"

"We get off this planet," someone said. "Go our own ways. Hide out."

"How do we do that?" said Moric. "We don't have the fuel for a take off. Even if we could, a prison transport attracts a lot of attention. I say we stay on Mars."

Some nervous laughter. A huge man covered with scars and tattoos stood. "I know lobotomites with half a brain who make more sense than you. We can't stay here."

"Why not?" He leaned against a wall. "There's only a few thousand people on Mars. Maybe half are inmates. A few hundred settlers, terraformers, missionaries. A few hundred prison guards."

"You saying we run around freeing prisoners and killing guards? How long before they bring down a whole army on us?"

"Afraid?" said Moric.

"You son of a bitch." The man charged and swung a massive fist.

Moric caught his punch. He twisted, snapping the man's wrist. Bones splintered through his skin and he fell screaming. Moric knelt and crushed his throat with a squeeze of his hand.

They stared at him. "That's impossible," said the codger. "But. . . You're a humalus. Jesus. Eugenics. Eugenics have been banned a hundred years."

"I wouldn't expect any of you to preach to me of the sanctity of the law. I didn't choose to be what I am. I was created. Not born." He looked at all their faces. "Who can tell me what purpose Mars serves?"

"It's a planet," someone said.

"It's a prison," another said.

"It's a bank," said Moric. "What better place to keep money? Sure, there are banks all over the solar system. But the actual deposits still exist. And what better place to keep them than on a desert planet barely capable of sustaining life?" He smiled. "We rob them blind. We grab them where it hurts and don't let go until we get what we want. The nearest station is only three miles away. What do you say?"

The prisoners cheered. Moric smiled and raised his hand. His other he kept in his pocket, clutched around the pulsing crystal.

Stygg shed his skin in the ship's cargo hold. He scrubbed away the soft scraps of his grey flesh with a knife and flung the shriveled remains in the corner, pausing to clean away pus and trickles of black blood.

The door bolted open. A dark figure stood in the entry. Stygg went for his gun and aimed at him.

"Don't shoot!" The figure shouted. "I'm not armed."

He waved his pistol. "Come."

The man walked forward. "Let's get some light." He pressed a button. White lights ignited above and flooded the hold. Stygg shielded his eyes. "Oh. Sorry," the man said. His corpulent frame jiggled as he walked. Sweat soaked his balding pate. "I brought blankets. Food. Water."

Stygg looked at it. "You try," he said.

"Oh come now," said the man. "I doubt Captain Brega would go to such lengths to murder you."

"I've had no food or water in a week."

The fat man scratched his head. "Well. Yes." He smiled. "Miracle you're alive, really. Fascinating. Your name is Stygg right?" He wiped his hand on his white coat and offered it. They shook hands. "Good to meet you Stygg. I'm Wallack, medical and psychological consultant." He glanced at his hand and wiped it off again, frowning.

Stygg took the clothes first, climbing into a zipper lined grey jumpsuit.

"I'm. . . Uh, I wonder if you would be so kind as to. . . Erm. . . Allow me to analyze you," said Wallack. "I seldom have the opportunity to examine a real live Earther. Dead specimens tell me very little."

Stygg took one of the gray blankets and tore it with his teeth. He wrapped his arms, hands, neck and face, leaving only his eyes and his fingers exposed. He buckled on his belt over his jumpsuit and holstered his pistol. "I can't go out there," he said.

"There's no need," said Wallack. "I can do all the tests necessary from here. But you must be starving. And parched. Here."

Stygg sat. He drank little and ate less while Wallack waved a small wand at him, reading a monitor around his wrist.

"15 BPM. Weight 54.2 kilograms. Tiny metabolic rate. Incredible." Wallack shook his head. "Of course I've heard theories of potential human evolution and adaptation. But this surpasses every expectation." He set his wand down and rubbed his chin. "Exposure to atomic and solar radiation resulted in mutation in original subjects. That mutation becomes ingratiated in the genetic makeup of their children. Evolution by force."

Stygg cracked his knuckles. "What's happening on deck?"

Wallack glanced up. "What? Oh. Nothing I'm certain. We're nearing Mars, I think."

"Get me off this ship."

"Why? Brega won't be able to pay you."

"He'll kill me before we land."

"He may not be the pinnacle of moral virtue, but I assure you. . ." His eyes drifted to the pile of skin in the corner.

"No time," he said. "We have to get out of here."

The ship lurched.

Wallack looked around. "What's going on?"

"They've stopped." Stygg ran to the door. It did not open.

Alarms blared. The bay shuddered. Sounds of grinding machinery outside. Everything floated weightlessly into the air.

Stygg pulled himself to a porthole. Space spun outside in dizzying circles. He glimpsed the rest of the ship floating calmly away as they spiraled down.

Wallack flailed through the air and grabbed a bar, steadying himself. "What happened?!"

"He jettisoned us." Stygg grabbed a handle nearby and fastened his belt around it, steadying himself. "Watch your breath."

Wallack looked around. "What?"

"Watch your breathing. Conserve oxygen."

Wallack passed out within an hour. Stygg persisted much longer with slow, paced breaths. He slipped into a dark slumber.

"Attention passengers," said a voice.

Gammel tapped his pipe and looked out the porthole. A red hued light glowed ahead.

"We'll be making a slight detour. Scanners have located something adrift and we're receiving weak vital signs. By federal law we are required to investigate. We apologize for the delay."

The passengers muttered. The ship's crew buzzed through the ship, moving up and down the aisles in a rush.

Gammel watched out the window as the ship drew close to a floating object. It looked like a cargo container. The ship's arm extended from the hull and seized it in a vice grip.

"Medical team," the voice called.

The passengers gathered to the windows to watch. Gammel frowned and stood, walking down the aisle to the stern. Medics stood hovering over two figures. One was a large, flabby man in a white coat. The other was shrouded in torn grey blankets.

"How long do you think they were adrift without life support?" said a medic.

"Few hours maybe. We need to report this to the police," said the other.

"What police?"

The grey man jerked to his feet.

"Easy there, sit down and relax," said a medic.

The man's grey eyes glared around. They found Gammel's. He stared back, unflinching.

"What about the other?"

"Not sure. Let's take him to the medical chamber."

Gammel exhaled a plume of smoke from his pipe. "You're lucky to be alive."

The medics started and looked over at him.

"Where is this ship bound?" the grey man said.

"Mars." Gammel tapped tobacco into his pipe. "What's your name?"

He walked off. Gammel saw the gun in his belt and grabbed him by the arm. "Rude of you. My name's Gammel," he said. He lowered his voice. "Watch who sees that gun of yours."

The man ripped free and straightened his rags. "Stygg," he said and then walked away.

Gammel grinned and walked back to his seat.

Plasma bombs detonated in a splash of blue light. The vault door exploded. Convicts cheered and rushed into the vault, looting and ripping it apart.

Moric watched for a moment then left, walking outside. The arid wind dried him out at once. He drank from a canteen and poured water down his face and over his neck. He reached into his pocket and held the crystal.

Three dozen people knelt ahead of him in the red soil. Convicts kept watch, armed with looted rifles and pistols.

"Hey. Moric." The codger walked over. Coins jingled in his pockets as he walked. He pointed with a silver crested cane at the people. "What do we do with them?"

Tears rolled down the hard contours of Moric's face. He sobbed and clutched the crystal tight to his chest.

"Maybe you should quit with that thing boss," said the codger.

He wiped his face and dropped the crystal in his pocket. He sniffed. "Kill them," he said.

The codger nodded. He waved to the guards waiting over the kneeling terraformers. They sprayed fire. The bodies piled together in bloody heaps.

Moric watched, tapping his foot and chewing his nail, staring off to the horizon. His hand slipped back into his pocket and his fingers seized the crystal. He shuddered, exhaled and smiled. He turned to the codger. "We're leaving," he said.

The sky dulled as the sun set, fading into a mottled grey. The temperature dropped fast. He pulled on a thermal coat and stared.

Pain exploded in his temples and he collapsed to the ground. His muscles convulsed and his veins bulged. Wave after wave of pain surged through the crystal up into his arm and down through his body.

The convicts found him quivering in the sand. They brought him into the settlement. They checked him for wounds and found none. An argument exploded immediately among the convicts, one half urging to leave, the other to stay.

The old codger walked over to Moric and saw his right hand clenched around the crystal. He tried to pry open his fingers but couldn't.

Stygg stood over the bed, watching. Wallack breathed at a slow, steady pace. His vitals blipped and blooped on the monitors.

He glanced outside. Rust red rocks and deserts sprawled below as the ship clipped through the atmosphere. They passed tall mountains, canyons and impact craters, human settlements nestled inside.

"Where. . ." Wallack dragged himself up. "Where am I?"

The medics rushed over. "On board commercial flight Z-762," one said.

"I thought. . ." He looked over and saw Stygg. "You're alive."

The medic glanced back. "He was barely out. Woke up as soon as we brought him onboard."

Wallack frowned. "Extraordinary.

The medics glanced at one another. "I'll say," said one.

"We'll be landing at Mars station RX-78 within the hour and we'll run a few more tests there. Everything appears stable."

Wallack touched his temples. "Mars. Right."

The medic glanced at Stygg. "Both of you will likely be required to report to the police and explain what happened. What your port of origin was. Trajectory suggests Earth." He looked at Stygg again. "Call if you need anything." The medics left.

Stygg watched them go.

"How long was I out?" said Wallack, groaning and rising to his feet.

"Hours."

"I need a drink," he said.

Stygg grabbed him by the collar of his coat and dragged him close. "Where is Brega going?"

Wallack blinked heavily. "Brega. . ."

"He owes me. And I owe him. Where?"

Wallack winced. "We were bound for Mars. I. . . I never thought to look."

He grabbed him by the throat. "Lying."

"No," choked Wallack. "Just. Just a doctor." He pried Stygg's fingers from around his neck and gasped.

"You're going to help me."

Wallack nodded quickly.

"If anyone finds out about me, I'll be killed. But you first."

"I'll keep it secret. I sweat. Don't kill me."

The ship descended down into a crater. A settlement lay below, tall buildings and streets. The ship landed and the passengers disembarked. Stygg followed Wallack. "I need money. A transport."

They went into the settlement. Stygg felt people's eyes roving over him as they went, knew he attracted attention. Wallack led him over to the stables.

They passed many stalls. Huge, scaled animals with long faces were harnessed inside. "What are these?" said Stygg.

Wallack stopped in his steps. "Hmm? Oh. Equilitus. Quadruped. Engineered to survive on Mars. Survive with almost no water. Run for miles. Terrain vehicles don't last long on Mars. Carbon scoring, solar wind, temperature fluctuation. These things don't break down and leave you stranded when it gets twenty below outside."

The stable master walked over. "Yes. You two need rides?" He looked at Stygg. "What's with the Mujahideen?"

"What's your rate?" said Wallack.

"A hundred per hour. Two grand for a day."

"How much to buy one?" said Stygg.

The stable master stared at him. "Fifty thou. Minimum. You serious?"

"I don't have that much," Wallack whispered.

"Want to take a look at the lorses before you decide?" said the stable master.

Stygg looked at him. "Lorse?"

"Horse. Lizard." The stable master shrugged. "Made it up."

He walked through the tables, observing the creatures through the laser bars of their cages. He picked one with grey scales and long dangling spires of flesh jutting from its head. The stable master strapped on a saddle.

"Pay," said Stygg.

Wallack paid the stable master. Stygg snapped the reins and rode the creature out of the settlement, galloping into the street. Guards at a checkpoint tried to stop him at the settlement's edge. He stormed past, leaping over the gate and riding down the red slope into the desert.

"Thank you for seeing me. Good seeing you Eli." Gammel sat.

Eli propped his head on his hand. His facial hair was graying and wrinkles lined his face. "Good," he said. "What do you want?"

Gammel smiled and tapped tobacco into his pipe. "Information."

Eli shook his head and stood. He walked to the window. Tall clouds of dust reared on the horizon, blotting out the light. "I owe you nothing."

"I'm looking for the man that killed my family."

"What does that mean to me? I agreed to this post to get away from all that."

Gammel tapped his pipe. "I'm out of the syndicate."

"Not yet. And I wouldn't bet on your success."

He leaned forward. "How many times you take a bribe from us?"

Eli scratched his neck and sat back down. "You come forward and you'll take yourself down too."

Gammel grinned and exhaled a plume of sweet smoke.

Eli sighed. "Doesn't mean anything to you."

"I'd like some information," said Gammel.

"I've got nothing for you. I keep watch over the whole planet from here. And I'm telling you everything's normal."

He narrowed his eyes. "And the missing transport?"

Eli shrugged. "Read about it in the news. Could've crashed I guess. We'd never know it. Too many meteor strikes, too much debris."

"You mean you didn't search for it?"

Eli laughed. "With what? Maybe I have three transports here. Three more active ones on the whole planet." He looked around. "I look like Flash Gordon to you?"

Gammel nodded slowly. "Anything unusual then?"

"No. Civil issues, border disputes, that sort of thing. Dust storms this time of year." He pointed out the window. Outside was pitch black, no sky or sun or moons or stars. "Knocks out communications when it's bad. We lost contact with a few settlements but that's normal."

Gammel nodded and stood. "Thanks."

"Gam," said Eli. He tossed a paper onto his desk. "Europan police just issued a warrant. Homicide. Fraud. Evading arrest. They're gonna put you away this time."

"Maybe." Gammel smiled and left.

The injector punctured Moric's chest. He sat up on the operating table and screamed. Strength exploded through his body and he ripped the needle out of his heart.

"Hold him down!" someone shouted.

A dozen arms pinned him to the table. Moric kicked one away, punched another in the face and shattered his nose. He leapt to his feet. "Stay back!" he said. The mad blur on his vision subsided. He slowed his breath.

"Boss," someone said. "You okay?"

"Epinephrine," he said, wincing. He looked around. "Time. What time is it?"

The convicts looked at each other. "You been out a few hours there," said the codger.

He looked out the window. Outside was black, like someone had slopped tar against it. "Night," he said. "No. No, a storm. It's a storm." He looked around. "Where is everyone?"

"Ach." The codger spat. "The other idiots took off when you collapsed. Just us left. They took the money too."

Moric wiped sweat from his forehead. The crystal pulsed in his hand. He stared at it and sat back down on the table. "I require medical attention," he said.

The convicts glanced at one another. "Jesus boss," said one. "Can't you just tough it out?"

Moric grabbed him by the throat. "My heart is five times stronger than yours."

The man fell to his knees, wheezing for breath.

"I could fold you like paper." He tossed the man aside. "When I say I am sick, my illness is such that it would break you instantly. I require a doctor at once."

"How you propose we do that?" said the codger.

"Set the repair robots to fix the communications. Contact the nearest settlement and declare a medical emergency."

The convicts walked off.

Moric tapped his heel and stared out the window. "Numbers," he said, rubbing his temples. "We have lost our advantage. What to do." He looked down at the crystal in his palm.

"Sorry chief," said the codger. "Sure seems like that thing's what's making you sick."

"Why did he kill us?" Moric ran his finger over the pink crystal's surface. "Makes no sense. I don't. . ." He touched his temples.

"What are you saying?"

Moric looked at the old man. "The memory of that night. They don't understand. Never chose to be what I am. What I do. They blame me." He groaned and lay back against the table. "Lost," he said, curling into the fetal position and cradling the crystal.

He doused his grey flesh with water. A few flakes fell off, he would shed soon.

The wind screeched by outside. Sand barreled past in a dusty torrent. Stygg gnawed at some jerky and watched. He disrobed and poured water over his dry skin. A gold medallion hung from his neck. A laughing face was inscribed into the surface. He hung it on the wall by the iron chain.

He drew a bundle of wrinkled leaves and grass shoots from his pack and piled them before it. He smacked a flint. Sparks flew and a sinuous trail of smoke wound upward. He breathed deep and bowed down, pressing his face to the rock floor. Hours passed. Smoke billowed through the cave in a heady cloud. The cave wheeled around until all was black.

Grey shapes with grey eyes emerged. Their forms were shadowed, indistinct, shimmering like the air above a fire.

"You are far from the Glade," one said. Its voice was steady, like the beat of a drum.

"I have."

"Why have you not returned?" Another voice, a woman's.

"A man cheated me. Tried to murder me."

"Much danger," a voice said. "The Outers have influenced you already. Clouded your judgment. Taken you far from your home."

"Remember your mission. Live among the Outers. Discern any threats. Be certain they do not know of the Glade. Return safely."

"To return is not simple. I have traveled to the stars. And I will not return and shame myself."

"To die on your journey would be your greatest shame. To have been given the relic and to not return it is unforgivable."

Stygg's hand went to his gun. "The relic is safe."

"Remember," said the voice. "The People of the Glade are the foundation from which life will return to the world. We tend the Greens and await their return to the rest of the world. That is our purpose."

"I have not forgotten."

"Then go with our blessing."

Stygg woke with a start. He looked outside. The wind was calm. He rose and pulled the medallion over his neck and dressed in his robes. He walked outside. The sun had only just risen and the sky was tinged like faded cloth. The air was crisp and very cold. He inhaled deeply and smelled smoke. He looked south.

Gammel leaned against the alley wall and watched the street. Porters and drovers filed past, avoiding ruddy colored sand dunes as robots worked to clean the road.

Three men stumbled in through the settlement gate. Each was garbed in grey prison jumpsuits. Dust and sand choked their faces and hair. They staggered over to a hydrogenerator.

Gammel leaned off the wall and walked over to them. He smiled. "You boys get caught out in the storm?"

They didn't seem to notice him. They washed their faces and drank deep.

"Mighty foolish. Where you boys come in from?"

One of them turned. "Go bother someone else," he said.

Gammel stared at him. "Where is he?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You know what I'm talking about. You'd better talk. Before I get nasty." He threw back his coat and tapped his pistol.

"Son of a. . ." One of them pulled a gun.

Gammel drew and shot one, then one more for good measure. He shot the gun from the last one's hand, sending it flying. He grabbed him by the throat. "I want to know where Moric is."

"I don't know! Let me go you bastard!"

Gammel cocked the pistol and pressed the barrel to his throat. "Where?"

"Twelve kilos from here! Northeast. I don't know what the settlement's called. Don't shoot!"

Gammel nodded. "How many men does Moric have?"

"Most of us left. Left when he got sick. He's in a bad way. Let me go!"

"Sick." Gammel frowned. "He better not die before I find him."

"I told you everything. Please just let me go. So many of us died in the storm."

Gammel looked around. Many people had stopped to watch. He looked at the convict. He was a young man, maybe in his thirties. Stubble lined his narrow jaw and his blue eyes were huge and looked close to tears.

Gammel pulled the trigger. He dropped the lifeless body to the ground and wiped blood from his face with a kerchief. Sirens wailed in the distance. He walked back down the alleyway.

"So what is this medical emergency?" the fleshy man said as he entered.

The codger pressed the barrel of a rifle to his neck. "Don't you move doc."

The fat man dropped his medicine bag and put up his hands. "Oh God. Don't shoot."

"Enough," said Moric. He sat up on the table. "Put your hands down."

He lowered his hands. "Where. . . Why is this town deserted?"

"I killed everyone," said Moric. "I am your medical emergency. Where do you come from?"

The color drained from his face. "I. . . Please. Don't."

"Where?"

"Earth. I came from Earth. We left. There was an accident. I don't remember which quadrant. I landed at the settlement not far from here. RX-78. They reassigned me here."

"Bad luck. What's your name?"

"Wallack."

"Moric." Pain like a hundred needles thrusting into his ears stabbed him and he lay back against the table.

"It's that damn crystal Doc," said the old man. "In his hand. Bet anything that's what's doing it."

"Let me see." Wallack walked over. Moric opened his hand. The pink crystal was on his palm.

"He never lets it go," said the old man.

"And uh. . . What kind of stone is it exactly?"

"A memoral, I think," said the codger.

Wallack choked and coughed. "How long has he been holding it?"

"Two months," said Moric.

Wallack shook his head. "Impossible. You would be insensate. Brain dead."

A cold chill spiraled down Moric's spine. Whether from himself or the crystal he couldn't tell.

Wallack took a screen from his bag and magnified the crystal. "Couldn't be a memoral. They're a veritable zoo of psychotropic effects. Increases dopamine production exponentially, you know. Distorts memories, sense of being, feelings. . ."

"How do we fix it?" said Moric.

"Treat it, you mean. No cure." He frowned. "That is a memoral."

"Surgery," said Moric. Sweat soaked his face.

"With what? A sharp rock?" He shook his head. "Only robots have the precision for such a complicated surgery. And then there's no guarantee." He looked at the codger. "Why didn't you take the memoral from him?"

"We tried." He looked at the six other men in the room. "We couldn't."

"Seven men couldn't restrain one?" Wallack rolled his eyes and pulled a wand from his medical bag. He waved it over Moric's body. He frowned. "This can't be right. Two sets of lungs. Multiple heartbeats."

"Would it surprise you to learn I am the product of eugenics?"

Wallack choked a laugh. "Wouldn't be the strangest thing I've seen." He paused. "You're serious."

"Treat my symptoms then."

Wallack pulled an injector from his bag, fitted it with a clear phial and stabbed him in the neck.

"You realize I cannot let you leave," said Moric.

Wallack looked at the others. "What are you going to do?"

"Keep you alive. So long as you keep me alive."

"I don't seem to have a choice. Where are we going?"

"Off this planet."

One of the sentries ran in. "Somebody's coming!"

Stygg rode through the gate. He smelled death, a scent like rotten fruit flavoring the dry wind. The grey square buildings looked deserted, each laced with ruddy sand. He rode around a corner.

A man in a grey jumpsuit aimed a machine gun at him. "Down from there."

Another man emerged from a building and stood behind him.

Stygg glanced back and climbed down from the lorse.

"Search him."

One of them patted Stygg down and took the pistol from his belt and the cannon from his shoulder. "Some pretty heavy stuff there. Let's see that face." He yanked down his hood.

Flaps of skin hung from Stygg's grey face.

The man shouted and stumbled backwards, tripping and falling.

Stygg made to run. A rifle butt slugged him in the back of the head and he fell.

"Take him to Moric."

They dragged him away. Time blurred as waves of pain throbbed where he'd been hit. They dropped him on a cold floor.

"Who are you?" someone said.

He tried to open his eyes but they felt welded shut.

"Kill him," the voice said.

"Wait!" said a familiar voice. Stygg recognized Wallack. "Let him live. I'll help you."

"How?"

Stygg's eyes cleared. A tall, broad shouldered man with sandy blonde hair stood before him.

"This man is my friend," said Wallack.

"Touching," said the blonde man.

"I have prison clearances. I can access maps, shuttle schedules, launches, databases. But I won't do it unless you let him live Moric."

"I could torture you," he responded.

Wallack drew himself up. "I could give you an overdose of what's staving off your psychosis. Put you in a coma."

Moric smiled. "Fine. Then maybe later you and I can chat about what this thing is." He dropped his boot down on Stygg's neck.

Stygg grabbed his foot and twisted with all his strength. Moric laughed and dug his heel further down.

"Stop it! You'll kill him!"

He took his heel from his throat. Stygg's eyes went dark and he slipped unconscious.

Gammel walked into the cantina. Smells of sweat, smoke and booze haunted the air. He felt a hundred pairs of eyes look him over, study him inch by inch. He walked over to the bar.

"Your order sir?" said the robot bartender.

"Whisky." He leaned against the bar, pulled his pipe from his pocket and lit it. The robot returned with a squat glass filled with an amber fluid.

Gammel sipped his drink and scanned the patrons. Freighter pilots, fat men with beards and beer guts who flew through the solar system for months and got paid peanuts. A few locals, dusty looking, thin, pale-skinned settlers, most of them freed prisoners who couldn't afford a ticket off the planet.

Gammel exhaled a fog of smoke, dropped a handful of gold on the bar and waited.

Eyes fell on him like a hammer. A dozen men in military issue fatigues emerged from the crowd. A bald man with a heavy jaw walked up and stood beside him.

"Tell your boys to come on out," said Gammel. "Got a job. Interested?"

The bald man glanced back at his comrades. "What job?"

"What's your name?"

"Brega. Captain."

Gammel nodded and took the pipe from his lips. "Job's easy. You and your boys shuttle me around the planet."

"That all?" Brega grinned.

"If I run into any trouble, you boys would surely be able to assist me."

"That's extra."

Light flared across the white rows of Gammel's teeth. He pulled another handful of gold from his pocket and dropped it on the bar.

Brega looked at the gold. A vein bulged in his neck. "And what else? Who're you going after?"

"Escaped prisoner. Fugitive. The job you're paid for."

"And how do I know you'll make good?"

"You wouldn't want to disappoint my employers." Gammel grinned. Smoke sizzled from his nostrils.

Brega nodded and grabbed the gold.

The hover train emerged from the distance, a silver plated serpent floating above the red desert.

"Sure about this boss?" said the codger.

Moric nodded.

"What is it?"

"Supply train," said Wallack, pulling his coat closer around him. "They travel across Mars." He looked at Moric. "I still don't see how you plan to get off the planet."

Moric scratched his jaw. The crystal pulsed in his pocket but whatever the doctor had given him seemed to work. He felt the urge and simultaneously knew he shouldn't touch it. "Top speed should surpass escape velocity. Inertia should do the rest. All the way to wherever I want. Commandeer a new ship." He cleared his throat. "What kind of defenses do these things have? How many men are onboard?"

"Uh. . ." Wallack frowned. "No idea. Only a few. They're not intended for battle. They're meant for supply. Maybe six pilots onboard I guess. Will you let them live?"

"If I can. Hear that boys?"

The convicts grunted. Only eleven were left after the others had deserted, wandering into the desert, and those remaining were like the codger. Bent-back, grey haired, with sagging, milky eyes.

The train slowed to a stop and lowered to the ground. Pod legs emerged from its belly and it landed with a slight shudder. Cargo doors opened.

The grey-faced man lay tied up in the corner.

"Keep watch over him," said Moric. He didn't trust the light in his steely eyes. He walked onto the train and drew the pistol from his belt.

Wallack pulled off the blindfold and gag.

"Cut me loose," said Stygg.

The room shook.

"Where am I?"

"On a train." Wallack pulled a laser scalpel from his bag and cut the chains around Stygg.

"The relic. My guns. Where are they?"

"Moric has them. The blonde one."

Stygg took the scalpel from his hand and examined it.

"Was this your first trip off of Earth? It was. How else would you have left?"

"Do you have any more weapons?"

"Look through my bag if you like. Are there others like you? On Earth?"

Stygg clenched his jaw and searched through Wallack's medical bag.

"Life on Earth went on after it happened. But diseases cropped up and millions died. That's when colonization of the solar system began. There's no record of anything even remotely similar to you though."

Stygg drew a hyperinjector from the bag. He looked at Wallack.

"Amobarbital," said Wallack. "So, your people must have been in hiding. Subterranean refuges. Subway systems, caves, something of the sort. It shielded you from most of the averse affects of the disaster yet simultaneously subjected you to intense amounts of radioactivity, hence your extreme deviation from human development. Fascinating. Nonsense of course. A theory. Do you know of your origins?"

"Hey doc!" a voice shouted.

One of the convicts walked in. "Moric needs you. What are you doing back here?"

Stygg sliced the convict's throat. The man choked, gasped for air and collapsed."Look!" Wallack ran to a window. "We're picking up speed. I've never seen one of these things go this speed. I wonder if it can take it."

The Martian landscape of red deserts and tall mountains and gaping canyons blinked by. Suddenly the entire train lurched and the planet drifted away. Black space and distant stars appeared.

"The crazy bastard did it," Wallack muttered.

The train rocked violently. The lights flickered. Sirens screamed awake.

"What was that?" Stygg shouted.

"Something hit us!" Wallack climbed over downed machinery and crates to a window. "It's another ship!"

Convicts and prison guards lay dead across the ship's hull, their guns discarded everywhere. Gammel navigated through the bloody tangle of their bodies onto the supply train.

An old man rolled around a corner and sprayed fire. Gammel sidestepped behind a corner and drew the pistol from his waist.

The old man's gun jammed. "Moric! Help!"

Gammel spun and shot him in the head. The man collapsed back.

Another shot. The pistol flew from Gammel's hand. A tall, blonde haired man emerged from the shadows with a smoking pistol. He bled from a dozen wounds in his chest. "You're a persistent one," he said. He held a pink crystal in his left hand. Blood swirled down his arm and soaked the stone.

"Moric, is it?"

"Hands up."

Gammel raised his hands slowly. "You killed my family."

"I was following orders. We work for the same boss."

"Worked. I'm retired. And I'm no freak like you."

The veins in Moric's face bulged. "I didn't choose this. How many families did you kill before you ‘retired'?"

Gammel ground his teeth.

"Answer me. How many? Do you carry their memories with you?" Moric looked at the crystal in his hand. "I have spent a lot of time with your children. Your son hated you. In his last moment he blamed you. Did you enjoy coming out of retirement?"

"Revenge is all I got. And I killed dozens of families. Hundreds maybe. All dust in the wind. I lived that life and my children paid the price. And I mean to see you pay it too."

"And when will you pay?"

He narrowed his eyes. "You're my divine judgment? You're a murderer."

"I was trained to be, bred to be. Conditioned to obey. You chose."

A door groaned open. Moric looked. Gammel drew a pistol from his coat and shot him square in the chest then shot the door. A dull thud behind it.

Moric stumbled back, raised his pistol and shot.

A sensation of being hammered in the chest. Gammel realized he was flat on his back. He couldn't feel his legs and when he looked at his hands they were soaked in hot red blood. A tingling cold crept through his chest and into his arms, then up his neck and into his face. His eyes went black.

Moric watched Gammel die. He looked at the crystal in his hand. Blood poured down his arm and stained it. He tried to grasp it tight but his fingers refused to respond and it fell to the floor. He looked at the pistol in his hand. The metal was old, rusted, scarred. He'd taken it from the one Wallack called Stygg. It slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor.

He counted twelve times he'd been shot. At least three of his four hearts were stopped. His lungs wheezed when he breathed. A metal taste was in the back of his throat. He sighed and waited to die.

Shots exploded. One pierced the door and Wallack fell in a heap. More shots. Stygg dragged Wallack away to cover and looked at the wound. Blood frothed from the gaping hole in his gut and more drained out from the exit wound in his back.

Wallack looked up at him. His eyes spun. "Stygg. Oh God. Stygg." He swallowed.

Stygg stared down at him and cradled his head.

"I'm. . ." Wallack spat blood. "I'm dying. I'm dying. It hurts."

"My people live in the Glade. We tend the greens and they grow there."

"Greens." Wallack coughed. "Plants. You have plants? Real plants?"

"We tend them away from the Outers. If it was known, your people would destroy them. And us. I was sent to live. . ."

Wallack lay still and stared at him. Stygg set him down, rose and walked through the door.

An old man lay dead on the floor. Blood pooled beneath him. He looked familiar. Moric lay slumped against the wall. The Relic lay in a puddle of blood beside him. Stygg knelt, took the gun and stuffed it in his belt. He walked over piles of bodies and off the train onto the ship.

He wandered until he stumbled into the cockpit. He sat in the pilot's seat. The control panels sprawled impossibly before him. None of the blinking lights or flashing screens made any sense.

"Take me to Earth," he said.

"Unable to comply," the ship responded. "Damage to the ship is extensive. Recommend sealing off compartment A and D before departure."

"Do it."

"Acknowledged."

Someone pressed a gun to the back of Stygg's head. "Never thought I'd ever have to see that ugly face of yours again," said a voice.

"Brega," said Stygg.

"You learned my name. Nice to make your acquaintance. Sorry if I keep this brief." He cocked the pistol.

Stygg pressed his pistol to his own stomach and fired. The shot blasted through him, the chair and caught Brega in the chest. The big bald man fell in a heap on the cockpit floor.

Stygg winced and held his gut. Smoke sizzled from the wound. Thick, black blood bubbled up. Green pus sluiced down into the wound and frothed free. Stygg dabbed at it with his rags. New, pink flesh appeared where the wound had been.

The ship dislodged off the mangled, floating train and its thrusted pushed it free from orbit. Stygg leaned back in the pilot's seat. The sun and stars burned ahead, and somewhere, Earth.

THE END


© 2009 Kristen Lee Knapp

Bio: Kristen Lee Knapp is an author/student living in Florida, pursuing his bachelor's in English. He enjoys abusing his protagonists and their rate of survival is astonishingly low. He has fiction appearing soon at Silver Blade, Yellow Mama, Bewildering Stories and at Moon Drenched Fables. Mr. Knapp's story Shoo-Fly appeared in the June 2009 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Kris Knapp

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