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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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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
I’d met the duo in New York between assignments. I’d just
gotten back from the Outback after doing coverage of the Aboriginal
revolt. I’d almost gotten shot. Three members of the guerilla band
I’d hung with did end up dingo food. The little voice that lives
behind my right ear urged me to duck just in the nick of time and saved my skin
again. But the vids were great; heat shimmers distorting the seek and
destroy missions into a twisted commentary on ethnic violence. I’d sold
the downloads to the highest bidder. Got top Euro and was rolling in
I was doing crystal and Jack D. at a gallery
opening of war vids on the Upper East Side,
trying to take the edge off the inevitable adrenaline crash, when they walked
into the room. Remy, tall, slender, hair so platinum bright it could be
seen by satellite. Vitton, her reverse image, short, squat, a fun house
reflection of a man. They circled the gallery, finally pausing in front
of one of my pieces, the firebombing of a village just below Machu Picchu by resistance fighters.
Not my best work, but acceptable enough.
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.
piece of shit,” Remy said in that thready, breathless voice of hers. “I
can’t believe they actually vid this kind of crap.”
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.”
The dead of heart.”
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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
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
would make us sweat too,” I protested. “And I could get some great
shots. Make a wonderful promo for navy life.”
She tossed her head. “It’d just feed your vid voyeurism. When are
you going to drop the barrier and really see life?”
enough of life,” I grumbled.
chance, Pete, old buddy. All you see are reflections.” She made a
grab for the glasses, but I danced back.
bills,” I muttered, her comment boring its way toward a truth I didn’t want to
prostitution and assassination.”
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
you can’t sleep because of the lack of thrills back home,” Remy hissed.
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
“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
“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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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?”
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
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.
because of them, isn’t it?” Khanna snapped.
I shook my head. “Because of whom?”
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
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.
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
treat. You can pay me back another time.” I grinned. “Like maybe tonight -- at my
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