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I watched Remy and Vitton die at Robinson Station under the icy glare of a Martian sunset. Not the clean, relatively antiseptic death of a bullet in the brain, but a disemboweling death that screamed in a wave of fleshettes. I vidded their faces as their blood flash froze, spattered like rubies over the rusty soil; as their mouths gaped for oxygen behind shattered masks; as the life sank from their eyes. For this Reuters paid my medical bills and gave me a six-month leave. And I gave myself a two-liter bottle of Jack D, a handful of crystal, and a bullet crease in my skull.
I sat orbiting a boilermaker in the officers’ lounge of the EPV Peaceful Spirit, wondering if the gravity well of alcohol would suck me into its black hole. Again. I’d just been released from rehab a couple of weeks earlier, vows of abstinence permeating my breath, self-affirmations and fake happy drugs chugging through my circulatory system. Occupational hazard, the round-faced shrink had told me. Adrenaline junkies like me had to have something to break their fall when the action stopped and the shakes began. At least I didn’t favor some of the more lethal designer chemicals making the rounds. Those you didn’t walk away from with only the DT’s and a badly placed temple shot. I was lucky. Or so he said.
I wasn’t feeling so lucky as I watched bubbles achieve escape velocity in the glass of beer through the lenses of my vidglasses. As a matter of fact I was feeling rotten. Gut wrenching, soul eating, cellular degenerating rotten. I’d ordered the drink just to prove to myself that I didn’t need it, but I was edging near the Schwartzchild radius of its influence, trying to decide if resisting its pull was worth the effort.
“You look like one of the garbage containers we just spaced.” Lieutenant Khanna clapped me on the back and eased into the chair beside me, her whites glowing in the overheads like the last exhalations of a dying star. In contrast her hair hung over her forehead in an imitation of anti-light. She passed me a ‘haler. “Try this instead of that crap.”
The neon blue tube rested in my palm, the bird footprint on its side denoting canned bliss. I wove it through my fingers. “I thought the Navy sanctioned grog, not drugs.”
“Naw. You’ve got your eras confused. That went out with copper clad hulls and topsails.” She produced another tube from a cargo pocket on her left thigh. Holding it beneath her nose, she depressed the button on the bottom and inhaled. I could almost see peace flood her eyes, jealously gnawing at the bone of my addiction.
Slumping back she gazed at me, hands resting limply on the table. “Go on. It’ll make you feel better.”
I slid the tube back across the table to her. “Thanks, but I’m on the wagon.”
A raven’s wing of an eyebrow arched at the beer and shot. “And that is?”
“A test of courage.”
“Have you passed?”
“It’s a minute to minute thing. So far so good.” As if to prove my point, I pushed the boilermaker to the far side of the table.
She shrugged. “Have it your way. What’s so eating your cookies that you feel the need to have a showdown?”
Resting chin in palms, I sighed. Khanna was a good egg, not the usual boson’s whistle up your ass officer I’d come to hate on these tubs. She’d not divulge whatever I told her to the brass -- or the psych. But the hell of it was I didn’t know what exactly was wrong. At least I didn’t have the words to adequately dissect the suppurating beast inside me. Fine state for a so-called journalist, but then visuals were my stock and trade, not words. I sighed again.
“Come on, Pete. Spit it out.” Her dark eyes glistened beneath ebony lashes, begging for confession. If I’d wanted one, she’d be my chosen priest. Priest, confessor, concubine, any of the above. Navy regs didn’t care what you did off duty, as long as it wasn’t with another sailor. Or at least with one beneath your rank. As a civvy, I was fair game. So far this jump, I’d relieved the tensions of more than one or two crew members, not to mention my own. But not Khanna, not that I hadn’t tried. She just smiled at my propositions and begged off, citing impending duty shifts, or other responsibilities. Though she’d never hinted at it, and I’d heard no rumors, I wondered if I wasn’t her preferred gender.
“I’m bored,” I said at last. “You have duty rotations and responsibilities. I’ve got nothing to do except shoot gigapixels of sailors swabbing the proverbial decks, or servicing suits. ‘Life on a space carrier in times of unrest.’ Not the most exciting of assignments.” But an assignment, I reassured myself. In rehab I’d promised the shrinks that I’d give up chasing death with my vidglasses, but that meant trudging around shooting the mundane. At least they hadn’t been able to talk me out of vidding, not that they didn’t try. And I was giving the promise my best shot, though at times I wondered if it was worth the effort.
She patted my elbow. “Poor old Pete. No bombs, no bullets, no death to record. Who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and we’ll run into some of the rebels around Mars. I have it on good authority they hijacked a couple of TriWorlds vessels and outfitted them with lasers. Could even have a firefight.” She grinned at me and winked.
Action. Sudden death. Yeah. Like Remy. Like Vitton. I balled my fists and refused to reach for the drink.
I’d met the duo in
I was doing crystal and Jack D. at a gallery
opening of war vids on the
I slid behind them quietly. They both looked familiar in a back of the brain kind of way. I’d seen them, somewhere, some time, I was certain. If I could listen to them for a while, maybe I could figure it out.
“What a piece of shit,” Remy said in that thready, breathless voice of hers. “I can’t believe they actually vid this kind of crap.”
“It’s for the violence voyeurs.” Vitton tilted his head toward another non-descript couple watching a vid of the crucification of a 14 year-old boy in Madrid. “The ones who can’t feel anymore.”
“Ah. The dead of heart.”
“Or soul,” Vitton amended.
I sucked a breath, anger igniting despite the drugs in my system. Sputtering, I shouldered my way between them. “Crap,” I shouted. “This is reality. I mean, real reality.” I stood in front of the vid glaring at them, detesting their cool superiority. “This is what goes on beyond your safe little cubies, where only fake violence plays on your tubes. This is what the rest of the world sees, feels, lives. This is their life.”
Remy arched a brow and stared down her nose at me. Vitton snorted. “Are you implying that this is educational?”
I opened my mouth to retort something cold and biting, but stopped. What was I implying? What did the blood bath on the screen at my back really mean? The crystal had hijacked my higher functioning, and, for the moment, I couldn’t remember why I had shot this particular scene. “Yeah,” I finally managed.
Vitton rolled his eyes and grabbed Remy’s arm. “Let’s go.”
“No, wait.” I stumbled after them. “You don’t understand.”
Remy turned and said something. I didn’t hear it as I was in the process of blacking out. The last thing I remembered seeing as I hit the floor was the tattoo on her ankle. It was a snake, eating its tail.
She was still there when I opened my eyes again. Vitton at her side. They were sitting by a cot and I was flat on my back, staring up at them. Her eyes were gray. His flaked blue and green. Something this side of compassion radiated from them both. At least I assumed it was compassion; I hadn’t had a lot of experience in that area. Not that I hadn’t gone looking for it on occasion. But the search too often resulted in clutching arms and my need mirrored in empty eyes.
“Not education, empathy,” I croaked, raising myself to my elbows, then puked.
They say some people are drawn to each other, like two particles caught in each other’s gravitational field. Pulled together by physics as yet uncharted. For reasons I still don’t understand, Remy and Vitton drew me into their system and I went, gladly, eagerly. We hung around together, laughed, fought, grew into a unit. But though they called me family, I was a comet circling their binary. They both worked for Amnesty Interplanetary and they’d been doing their thing in a couple of the same places where I was vidding. That was where I’d seen them. But while I was slashing through jungles and dodging bullets for a decent shot, they’d been charting human rights violations, and lobbying the local big shots for decent treatment for their people.
They extended the same efforts toward me. I should say they tried to get me to treat me with a little more respect and caring. Vitton hated what I did. Remy hated what it did to me. We’d have these long battles before I jetted out on assignment, two against one.
“You’re going to get killed one of these days,” Remy would bluster. “What you do is too dangerous.”
“And what is the point of taking all those bloody pictures anyway,” Vitton added. “There is enough exploitation of the world’s carnage. Work to change it, not titillate with it. Take off those vidglasses for a change and get your hands dirty.”
“My glasses are all I’ve got,” I’d shout back. “Somebody’s got to show the world what’s going on out there. And if it means I get shot in the process, so be it.”
But it wasn’t the glasses I couldn’t live without; they were only a means to an end. It was the action, the excitement, the thrill of tempting death. It gave meaning to my life and pumped blood through my veins and arteries more efficiently than any heart. The glasses were my talisman that, combined with the voice behind my ear, kept me whole while the bullets screamed and my blood pressure danced. As long as I vidded I was safe, protected by the gods who watch the watchers.
Inevitably when I came back to New York, I’d indulge in a five-day binge just to reacclimatize myself. Then the creeping ennui would set in. After a few days I’d begin to medicate that as well. It seemed the only way I could stay sober was to don my glasses and walk the edge.
Both Remy and Vitton tried to get me into rehab. Over and over. But just about the time I’d sunk so low I’d consider it, another job would wander down the pike and their point would be moot. But I loved them, nonetheless. Like a brother and sister, like a mother and father, like soul mates. And I think they loved me. And it killed them.
Khanna stood and grabbed my elbow. “Come on, Pete. Get off your ass and leave your friends. If you stay here any longer you’ll drink them, or they’ll drink you. Either way, it isn’t going to be a pretty sight.”
I let her pull me to my feet. “So what do you suggest? A little horizontal mambo?” I wrapped my arm around her waist and patted her butt.
She slapped my hand away. “No. I vote we go to the gym and sweat off some of your funk. And take off those glasses.”
“The other would make us sweat too,” I protested. “And I could get some great shots. Make a wonderful promo for navy life.”
“Hah!” She tossed her head. “It’d just feed your vid voyeurism. When are you going to drop the barrier and really see life?”
“I’ve seen enough of life,” I grumbled.
“Not a chance, Pete, old buddy. All you see are reflections.” She made a grab for the glasses, but I danced back.
“Pays the bills,” I muttered, her comment boring its way toward a truth I didn’t want to confront.
“As does prostitution and assassination.”
“Will you get off my case, Khanna? I’m not in the mood.” The boilermaker was singing its siren song and I could feel its pull increasing. I glanced at the table, the sheen of the beer glass reflecting off the polished surface of the table.
Khanna laughed and threaded her arm through mine. “Whatever you say. Keep the glasses, but let’s get out of here. You can vid me doing pushups.”
I let her drag me out the door, irritation melting against my will. Good old Khanna. Always trying to nurture my higher being. Why did I attract would-be saviors? Better yet, why was I attracted to them? The shrinks had an opinion on that one too, though I never bought into their brand of psychobabble. Khanna thought the whole premise was bullshit after I’d told her about Remy and Vitton, their efforts to save me, and how they died. The whole twisted story. She maintained I didn’t need a savior; I just needed to get laid, then cheerfully refused to cooperate in the venture. Good old Khanna.
The nav comps on the EPV Peaceful Spirit neatly spun us around Mars and out the other side, a little gravity boost for the continuing trip to Jupiter. I knew the new line of Earth Protectorate Vessels were supposed to be good, yet I was impressed as I watched Phoebus zip past us through my lenses. Hell of a lot better than the last trip. Remy had hid in her cabin on the way to Mars, begging space sickness, while Vitton and I played rummy and speculated on the future of the rebellion. He believed they’d make a difference. I maintained that they’d be toast before another year was out. We were both wrong.
The rebellion was one of those dirty little warlets that seem to plague humankind no matter where we go, and stuff my account with creds. This time it was the Mars colonists who’d decided they’d had enough of Earth’s control of their export of raw materials and restrictions on offworld manufactured goods. Remy, Vitton and I had ventured to Mars to scope round one and engage in a little recon of human rights violations. At least, that’s what they were doing. I was along to try and grab enough pixels to support my less savory habits.
Robinson Station, late afternoon – or what constituted late afternoon on that half-frozen dust ball. Remy and Vitton had arranged a meeting with some mucky mucks in the rebel organization. I was there as witness, vid harness and all. We’d done this before: they’d talk, I’d vid, then they’d file the report with the UN, and heads would roll. Well, not really. But I have to admit they gave it their best shot no matter what the vested interests did after the raw facts collided with their desks. And I usually made enough off my feed to Reuters to make the trip worthwhile.
It seemed like more of the same rag as I circled the room. The big guys beat up on the small guys, who go screaming to bigger guys – who just happened to be us. Or that’s what they hoped. I suspected that the lines of influence that ran through the UN had less to do with the actual plight of the little guys than which corp was going to have to bite it, and by how much. Generally, the bigger the corp, the smaller the bite.
These guys were after the biggest of the big – TriWorlds. Seems the miners didn’t appreciate their ore being taxed as soon as it hit oxygen, then tarriffed all to hell if it came within spitting distance of Earth’s gravity. And heaven forebid they should actually make something out of the metal and try to peddle it back to the homeworld. That was the biggest no-no of all. So they were bitching to us and swearing they were all starving to death what with the import fees they had to pay. Granted they were a skinny, scruffy looking lot, but starving? I wouldn’t have laid a cred on that one. Nevertheless, they had lasers and a few cobbled together atomics and swore they’d use them if the big guys pushed.
Remy did her touchy-feely thing, which got one of the older colonists to blubbering. She had a knack. Vitton concentrated on facts, dates, figures, any hard evidence they could produce. With my vids, it made for a tidy package. Didn’t take all that long to wrap things up. Didn’t take any less time for Mercom, the gun-toting subsidiary of TriWorlds, to set up their ambush either.
The nose of the Peaceful Spirit pointed toward Jupiter, and I sighed. Looked like Khanna’s intel about the rebels lurking around Mars was wrong. I almost wished we’d run into them; I was long overdue for a little excitement.
I navigated my external vid cams toward the aft lock to retrieve them, feeling depressed. The shot of Phoebus was about as exciting as watching your friend’s vacation vids. And the sad part was, it was the best thing I’d shot all trip. At the rate things were going, Reuters was going to delete my fee and then demand I cough up my own creds for expenses. At least I didn’t have a bar bill to cover, but not for lack of desire.
I watched the air lock expand to fill the view on my glasses as I played with my remote. Next to the inside lock, some poor swab stood looking bored. The captain obviously didn’t trust me to retrieve my equipment without evacuating the ship’s atmospherics. I swung the cams around into position when a glimmer off to the left caught my attention. Just then sirens blasted and the call to battle stations bounced off the walls.
The swab stiffened and glanced nervously from side to side. He grimaced and raised an eyebrow at me. “Go on, go,” I shouted over the din. “I’m going back up.”
As he raced down the corridor, I flung the cams twelve o’clock high, then scoped left, looking for my glimmer. Sure enough, one of TriWorld’s ships hove into view. The old adrenaline rush zinged me as I zoomed to 350x and shot up a kilometer. My heart performed back flips in anticipation. I was back in the action.
The rumors about the lasers seemed to be right. The cargo ship looked like a porcupine having a bad hair day. It had us in its crosshairs, and didn’t look like it wasn’t going to waste time with evasive maneuvers. Gutsy, but generally dumb. Especially against the big boy’s navy. At least I should get some good vid of them being cremated. Could probably sell it to the propaganda channel. “Now, pay attention, boys and girls. This is what happens if you don’t play by the rules.” Remy would have shot me. Vitton too, come to think of it.
I’d been complaining, as I packed up after the colonists left, that it was the same old rap. Remy turned on me, her dark eyes spewing vitriol, hair practically throwing sparks.
“I’d have thought you’d have learned something by now. This isn’t some sort of cheap vidcom. These people are suffering. Didn’t you listen to what they said?”
“Yeah, I listened.” I jerked my pressure suit from the back of a chair, her anger igniting my own. It had been a long session and I wasn’t in the mood.
“Listened but didn’t hear.” Vitton laid a hand on my arm.
I shook it off. “You going to rag on me too?”
He took a step back, but held me with his eyes. “Look, brother, don’t you see the pattern? They are just trying to feed their kids, even if it means starving themselves. Just like the Aborigines in the Outback. Just like the -- ”
“I get it,” I shouted too loudly for the small room. My words lanced back at me in a metallic echo. They had a point but I wasn’t ready to concede.
“Peter, you have a good heart. Why do you insist on burying it?”
I whirled on him. “If I bled for every sob story that I shot, I’d be drained dry. It’s called survival.”
“No, it’s called callousness.” Remy clutched her thin arms across her chest.
Her words sliced through me. “Why do you think I drown all those memories of bloody corpses with liberal amounts of Jack D?” I shouted at her. “Why do I pace the floor after the two of you have hit the sack? Just for yucks? No, it’s because I can’t face another night of nightmares. You make love and sleep the sleep of the just and I relive each death I’ve catalogued, jealous. Who’s callous?” I slammed a chair against the wall, but I was already regretting my rant. The words hung like eviscerated corpses in the silence of the room.
“Or maybe you can’t sleep because of the lack of thrills back home,” Remy hissed.
“What the hell would you know about it?” I shot back. “You don’t inhabit my head.”
She shook her head and sighed, one hand reaching out for me. “You’re locked in a decaying orbit with death.” Her eyes softened. “And it’s going to burn you up.”
I turned my back to her. I hated it when she went all clinical then reached inside me and tugged out some broken piece of my soul. I didn’t need this. Not today. Not ever, I told myself, though deep inside I yearned for her to mend my heart and release me from this torment. I pulled the p-suit jacket over my head. “I’m going to get a drink.”
“Pete, don’t do this. Turn around, take off the vidglasses, and let’s talk.”
I sneered at her. “What, don’t want me to pixilize you being all understanding? It’d be great for your image.”
Vitton growled. “There’s no reason to get snide here. We just don’t want you to get hurt. And in your current mood, that’s exactly what’s going to happen if you start to drink.”
“That’s what’s going to happen if I don’t drink. I don’t need your help. Why don’t you two just leave me alone?” I grabbed another chair. “Get the fuck away from me.”
Remy threw up her hands and backed off a step. “If that’s what you want. We’ll leave. You can stay here and brood. I’m sure you’ve got something to zone you out in that pack of yours.” She snatched her pressure suit from a table and wrestled it on. “Come on, Vitton. Let him vid an empty room.”
I slumped into a chair as they fastened their face masks. Before they left, Remy turned and faced me. “Call when you’re ready to leave. We’ll send the rover back.” Even the muffling of the mask couldn’t strain the concern out of her voice. That was the last thing I wanted to hear.
I grunted as they opened the airlock and stepped into darkness. I didn’t move, even though my little early warning system was screaming in my ear. Right then, I didn’t care. Instead I grabbed a capsule of crystal I’d stuck in the side pocket of my pack, and broke it under my nose.
The rebel’s first salvo took me by surprise. The Peaceful Spirit shuddered and I was thrown against the bulkhead. Through my glasses I could see lasers play across the bow of the ship, vaporizing what appeared to be the officers’ lounge. Damn. Where’d they get the firepower? The rebels must have some powerful connections to obtain armaments that could trash a fleet vessel.
Khanna raced toward me, face flushed and breathless. She grabbed my arm as she passed and dragged me in her wake. “Didn’t you hear the vox?” she demanded. “All civilians are supposed to be in quarters.”
I jerked my arm free. “And miss all the action? Come on, Khanna, don’t get all brass on me now. I can’t nav my equipment from the belly of the ship.”
“You won’t be able to nav your equipment if you’re dead.” She reached for me, but I skittered away.
“I’ve been in tighter spots than this. I can take care of myself. Go punch your buttons, or whatever you do in battle. I’ll lie low and stay out of the way. I promise.”
She glared at me. “If you get killed I’m going to lose my commission.”
“I’ll keep your rank intact. Come on, let me stay.” I punctuated my words with a grin.
Crossing her arms, she screwed up her mouth and squinted at me with wavering resolve. “Okay. But if you get your ass vaporized, I’ll never forgive you. It’ll be a long, lonely trip back home.”
“Why, Khanna, I didn’t think you cared.”
She scowled. “Don’t get any ideas. I just favor lively conversation.”
“As do I.” I flashed my most innocent smile.
Huffing, she backed up a step. “Keep your back to the bulkhead and stay low. And that’s an order.”
I gave her a mock salute as she turned down the corridor.
She’d just cleared a lock as another explosion shook the vessel. The force of the blast picked me up like a toy, threw me back against the bulkhead and dropped me to the floor. I slumped there, my head ringing, sparks spangling my vision. Something didn’t feel right in my legs. I shook my head to clear it and blinked, trying to bring the world into focus. Then I realized my glasses had been knocked from my face. The world was no longer a doubled vision of inside and outside the ship. I felt naked.
Extending a hand, I reached for my glasses. Stomach wrenching pain seared through my lower body and I gasped. For a moment I fought back the darkness that crept around the edges of my vision, sucking air and willing away the pain. Finally, steeling myself, I reached out again. At the farthest extension of my hand, shards of glass and empty rims lay spattered across the floor. The remote rested in pieces against the far wall. With quivering fingers, I pulled the remnants of the glasses to my chest.
Something screamed inside me and an icy hand wormed through my innards as I stared at what was left of them. I felt my chest tighten, as if all the air had been forced out of it and my muscles wouldn’t allow another breath to enter. My voice had deserted me and my glasses were broken. This time I was going to die. In my head a part of me began to laugh hysterically.
A strangled cry knifed through the howling in my brain. Khanna stretched across the floor down the corridor from me, blood streaking her forehead, her fingers wrapped around the edge of the lock. As I watched, pinpricks of night peppered the bulkhead. A cold breeze plucked at my back. She moaned and dragged herself over the lip of the door -- chest, hips, thighs. Behind her, threads of darkness sewed the dots on the bulkhead together. The lock’s warning siren blatted. It was going to close. Khanna’s leg in its path.
A wave of bliss was slowly drowning my anger at Remy and Vitton when I heard the scream of flying metal over the whine of the airlock. It seemed like forever before the sound registered as more than just a lock malfunction, or the like. Then it clicked in my brain, like the tumbler of a revolver rotating into place. Ambush. As if trapped on a world with 5g’s, I fought my way to the table holding my mask. I clapped it over my glasses, fingers fumbling. With trembling legs, I staggered to the lock, adrenaline fueling a sick dread in the pit of my stomach.
Air whispered in the lock. It took an eternity to cycle through. I pounded on the metal door, cursing. Why did I let them leave? Why hadn’t I listened to my voice? Why hadn’t I taken off my glasses and sat with Remy? Why, why, why? The door sighed open and I shot into it. Another eternity as the cycle repeated itself.
When my feet hit the soil, Remy, Vitton and the colonists were already sliced and diced and bleeding to death on the Martian surface. In the distance I could see the black suited figures of Mercom scuttling away like cockroaches.
A breathless croak issued from the mangled body at my feet. Remy. Eyes glazed, blood spattered around her like a bad Dadaist painting, she reached up to me with clawed fingers. I fell to my knees. Her voice whispered over the speaker in my helmet like a banner furling in a dying breeze. “Vid them, Pete. Show the world.”
I grabbed her hand and pressed it to my chest. “No! Don’t do this to me, Remy.”
Her eyes dulled, but the shadow of a smile played across her paling lips. “Make their deaths count. You can do it.” And then she sighed. Her hand lay heavy in mine, motionless.
I wanted to puke. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to run away. I wanted to kill someone. But instead I placed her hand carefully on her chest and struggled to my feet. Some automatic part of me, honed over the years to pick the best shot, the angle that would grab your gut and not let go, inhabited my body and walked me around the corpses of the only people I had ever really called my friends. I knew I’d killed them with my anger, my rejection, my self-indulgence. If only I’d gone with them, my vidglasses might have picked up the glint of weaponry before it was too late. If only I’d listened to my voice, I would never have let them leave and called for security. A thousand ‘if onlys’ ran through my head, but in the end I’d been the one to slap them away. To tell them to leave. And they walked out that door to please me, to placate me, to give me the space I’d demanded. And it cost them their lives.
It didn’t matter that the shrinks in rehab had analyzed my guilt and found it unwarranted. They’d challenged me to stop crucifying myself for a mistake. They’d made me pretend to be Remy and Vitton and forgive myself. They’d attacked my beliefs with logic, and dissected them until they resembled only ghosts. They’d twisted my words and traced my feelings back to my mother and father. And when none of that pulled the spear from my heart, they’d pumped me full of drugs and called me cured.
The door of the lock sliced shut with a guillotine snick. The breeze instantly died as if strangled. Khanna screamed and stiffened, her body contorted in pain. Red sprayed across the bulkhead and her spotless whites. She shuddered once, then slumped into silence. But the blood didn’t stop.
“Khanna!” I yelled, reaching toward her. I was at least a body length away and her life was repainting the deck. Rolling onto my stomach, I used my elbows to drag myself forward. My left leg hurt like hell, and refused to work but I edged forward. I finally reached her, lightening edging my vision, my breath hissing through clenched teeth.
Her fingers felt cold as I tried to feel for a pulse, but couldn’t find one. Looking up, I glanced at her leg, or rather where most of it had once been. Bile climbed my throat. I knew if I didn’t do something fast, she would be nothing more than meat in uniform. Sucking a breath, I forced myself to the bulkhead and grabbed her bleeding stump. From my shirt I tore a strip of material and wound it around her thigh. I pulled it as tight as I could, but the blood still pulsed from her leg. I just couldn’t seem to get enough purchase on the blood soaked material to tighten it enough. It was then that I noticed my glasses still clutched in my hand.
I stared at them, the twisted metal thrusting from between my fingers now white with desperation. One titanium arm hung across my knuckles. Reluctantly I released my makeshift tourniquet, then tore the arm from what remained of the glasses and dropped the rest on the deck. Thrusting it through the knot in the material, I used it as a lever to wind the material tighter and tighter. Her blood oozed to a trickle, then a stop.
Gasping, I held the knot tight with one hand and tried to push myself into a sitting position. The pain in my leg exploded through my hips and up my back. I thought I was going to either faint or throw up. I leaned back against the bulkhead door and closed my eyes, as if by doing so I could blot out the throbbing in my back and leg. Beneath me I felt the ship shudder and the gravity cut out. Khanna moaned and shifted against my leg. I stifled the scream that bubbled to my lips. Her motion sent us into free fall, and we floated from the floor. Reflexively I grabbed her with my free hand and pulled her to my chest. We hit the bulkhead, the metal colliding with my leg. Everything went red, then incandescent, then faded to black.
South Texas in spring. Not a bad place if you’re into flowering everything. I wasn’t. Khanna was. Besides, she was on leave at the station in Houston, and I’d decided she needed to see me for old time’s sake.
The sun played peek-a-boo with an army of cumulus clouds, alternately showering the sidewalk café where we sat with sunshine and shade. Khanna clutched her coffee cup, as if it was going to fly away. She looked good in her dress whites, though I would have liked to see her in civvies. She would have been a knock out, even with the scar that bisected her forehead, a thread of beige weaving across her caramel colored skin. And if I hadn’t laid my fingers all over her leg, I wouldn’t have known which one was the fake. She certainly looked better than I felt. My leg still ached even after almost a year of assorted therapies.
We stared at each other over crumb encrusted lunch plates, the seemingly mandatory conversational lull hanging heavy in the air. We’d covered the easy topics: how the Spirit was still out trashing rebel ships like the one that had attacked us, Khanna’s promotion, my operations and ongoing sobriety. The harder subjects seemed to be orbiting around us, just out of reach. I was considering reaching out and grabbing one when Khanna cleared her throat.
“I never thanked you for saving my life.”
“You didn’t need to,” I demurred, feeling embarrassed. While I’d often thought about that day, I couldn’t remember having made a conscious decision to save her. “I just did what needed doing.”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “Well, I owe you my life. I just want you to know I’m grateful.”
“Gratitude noted.” I nodded, then touched my forehead. “When you going to get that thing fixed?”
She rubbed it with her index finger. “I don’t know that I will. Kind of adds character, don’t you think?”
“Sure. That’s what you need – more character.”
She smiled, then sipped her drink. “I heard you quit Reuters and went to work for Amnesty Interplanetary.” Her smile faded into disapproval.
I shrugged. “Couldn’t seem to pay the bills anymore. Besides, this way I still get to travel and do a little vidding.”
“I also heard you were working with the Martian rebels.” Her frown deepened. “How could you, after what they did to you? To us? They’re nothing more than criminals and murderers.”
I stirred my coffee, not daring to meet her eyes. What was I to say? That I’d seen the light, or gotten Jesus, or some other silly excuse? Truth was I’d gotten used to seeing the world without vidglasses while I was lumbering around in my succession of casts. And the thought of skulking around seeking a brush with death didn’t appeal as much as it once did. After turning down six successive assignments, Reuters canned me. I couldn’t blame them. With creds disappearing faster than an asteroid in atmosphere, I sought out the only other thing I’d ever done – working with AI, like I did with Remy and Vitton. And it felt good, in a blunted, non-zinging kind of way. I guess I’d outgrown my need for the rush.
“It’s because of them, isn’t it?” Khanna snapped.
I shook my head. “Because of whom?”
“Because of your friends, Remy and Vitton. You’re still trying to save them with this bleeding heart routine, aren’t you? That’s why you’re supporting those thugs.”
I thought of the still of Remy and Vitton I had sitting on my dresser at home. I’d taken it at the port, before we left for Mars. They had their arms wrapped around each other, smiling at the camera and waving at me. Lifting my cup, I peered at Khanna over the rim. She glared at me the same way Remy had when she was angry. It made me smile.
“You’re probably right,” I replied with a nod. “I guess I’ll always be trying to save them. But there are worse things to do with a life.”
She didn’t seem mollified. As a matter of fact, she looked like she was reloading for another salvo. Just then the waiter arrived with the check, and I snatched it from beneath her fingers.
“My treat. You can pay me back another time.” I grinned. “Like maybe tonight -- at my hotel.”
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Space_Moose - Good enough story, ways to improve it could be having more dialog between the characters describing events. Very interesting main protagonist. Possibly you could make it better with more detailed(still short) descriptions of the hardware involved. Would be a good idea to put raised voices in CAPS and would be better if you had put even more detail in to the crash on Mars by making it a bit longer, it is a great time for giving the reader a thrill, like a fight scene, and it takes a long time to fall out of space to a planet, so no need to feel guilty about making it longer then a fight scene as well. Well done, keep up the good work.
micheledutcher - I loved the first sentence. Not only did it set up the location but it gave the motivation for the rest of this entertaining story. Love it!
RossK- I think the second commenter is way off the mark. Dont mix a beginning that mentions gore with a belief the whole piece is like that. It's a mature, enthralling, clever and rivetting story. It has an excellent morality and plenty of laughs. Bloody perfect!
Ironspider - First off I'll admit to bias - I like anti-heroes! Good use of language; some great descriptive work. Good flow, had no problem following the different time sequences. Great story.
I only read the first three sentences. That was enough to see that the writer gets pleasure from being disgusting. Who needs it? There are many writers who don't need to conceal their lack of writing skill with gore.
That was one hell of a story!
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