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>> Beneath the sterile illumination of a single overhead striplight a woman lay dying. Sprawling face down upon the cracked, cold tiles of an abattoir floor, fading sight observes as her lifeblood scrolls like an ornate ribbon toward a grated drain in the centre of the cavernous room. All about her, just beyond the frayed edge of the pool of light, the carcasses of cultivated meat animals hang suspended from ceiling hooks. Skinned and eviscerated, they are already dead. <<
Palisade City, Halcyon, Devil's Spindle (trailing)
Brunel didn't trust statics; especially those do-gooders at the kitchens, who handed out platitudes along with hot food. His people were the rail gypsies who rode the locomotives, offspring of the construction engineers who'd filigreed the planet with twin induction rails and concrete depots; provided the pathways between the mineral beds, industrial zones and space yards… and were discarded when the work was done and it was time to make a profit. Oh, they'd been offered the pick of the 'sustainable housing', but what was good for the planet wasn't necessarily good for the man; especially for men used to open space and changing horizons. Brunel hated the cities, but in Halcyon’s bitterly cold winters places like Palisades’ streets were a refuge.
He paused, spoon halfway to mouth, when the stranger walked in. The man wasn't tall, compact was a better description, skin weathered by the radiations that crept through even the strongest of shields; ship or orbital. Brunel's eyes alighted, in turn, on the three weapons strapped about the other's body in a military-style gunrig, each well used, like the rest of his gear and clothes. The BioSec implants embedded into the man's left temple and either side of the dark, deep-set eyes reassured him that this was no raider. Brunel considered himself a good judge of both character and personal history and the stranger carried a heavy load of the latter.
Reaching an empty table, the man shed his substantial pack and sat heavily upon the much-scarred plastic bench. Melting snow formed small, clear pools on the floor around him. Voices murmured from beyond a half-door, suddenly drowned beneath the rattling of cooking pans.
Hesitantly the old priest appeared from within the steam-filled kitchen, no doubt prompted by the nuns, a bowl of soup and a hunk of bread held out like a sacrificial offering; alms to keep the war god from running amok. Brunel smiled behind his spoon; let's see Preacher serve a sermon to this one!
Sykes watched the priest approach, caught the hint of amusement from the derelict sitting in the corner watching the door. That would have been his place to rest, but he was too bone-weary to contest the vantage point. He just wanted some time and whatever food was on offer.
Placing the battered bowl before Sykes, the priest opened his mouth as if to speak, but then retreated in silence, to observe over the half-door to the kitchen.
Brunel chuckled, amused at Preacher’s loss of words, maybe hiding amongst the women and praying for the barbarian to leave the gates. Brunel's gaze swung back to the stranger, momentarily perturbed to realise the man was staring straight at him. He paused, raised his spoon in silent salute and went back to eating, fishing for rice noodles and small chunks of vegetable in the thin, cloudy soup.
Sykes ate in greedy mouthfuls, cleaning the emptied bowl with the bread. Though watery the soup at least tasted good and put some warmth in his stomach. He glanced over his shoulder at the falling snow, visible beyond the shelter's large windows. Only late afternoon, but the street was already devoid of traffic; this block of the city far from the prosperous commercial district, surrounded as it was by the maglev rail yards and the skeletons of long-abandoned rolling-stock.
Holding a pack strap in one hand and the bowl and spoon in the other, Sykes walked over to the kitchen. The priest had vanished, replaced by a young novitiate, her status indicated by a white wimple rather than a black. She took the bowl from Sykes and, despite the set of her jaw, flinched when he spoke. 'Do you have a spare bed?'
The dormitory was above the kitchen, suffused by cooking aromas and warmed by the heat seeping through air vents in the scuffed plastic floor. Sykes walked to the far end of the loft, taking an empty cot near a paper-covered window, the glass beneath a web-work of fine cracks. He unrolled the mattress and sat, pushing his pack into the space beneath the creaking bed frame. He wasn't surprised when the derelict from the dining area appeared and sat on the next bed.
The old man sat quietly for a moment, then held out an arthritic hand, 'I'm Brunel.' Sykes just stared at the empty hand. Brunel had mentally conceded the awkwardness of the situation and decided to withdraw the invitation when Sykes reached out and returned the greeting. 'Sykes.'
Hand once again free, Brunel gestured at the embedded technology, ‘Not thought to see one of the Directorate laid so low.’
A grunt of amusement, ‘Disagreements with those in authority.’
Brunel smiled. ‘Amen, brother!’ He made himself comfortable on the bed. He tried a few crumbs of inconsequential chatter, but Sykes proved reticent. For his part, Sykes re-assessed the man seated opposite. No derelict, he looked hale, showed no symptoms of alcohol or drug addiction.
Gathering his thoughts, Brunel prepared his ground. Briefly he spoke of his days working on the final phase of the rail system; how he tried city-living when the time came. Being packed in so dense didn’t sit well with his nature, so he took to wandering and the cold winds blew him here. Along with some associates, and that brings him to asking a question.
‘I noticed that some of my associates, some of the rail people, are going missing, just vanishing. But we're non-people so the authorities don't want to know. Doubt they care neither.’ He scratched at the iron-grey stubble on his jowls. He made eye-contact. ‘But you track things… and people. Or used to. And I'm betting they don't cut all that stuff back out of you.' his vague gesture encompassed Sykes and his implied past.
Sykes’ face framed a little-used smile, ‘They were dissuaded from resorting to surgery.’
>> ‘To strip the mechanisms from him would reduce his potential effectiveness.’
‘No particular loss; he’s ineffective in his current state anyway!’
‘But if we carve away part of his mind, he is unlikely to return to us in future.’
‘You think that likely? The prodigal returns?’
‘He lost his partner. He blames himself for her death. Given time to reflect, I’m confident he’ll return voluntarily.’
‘Then perhaps he’d return all the sooner if we let him know she isn’t dead! <<
‘Well, by choice or not you’re down here among us and I’m wondering whether you’re willing to help? Not saying this is where you belong, nothing like that, but friends are friends wherever you find them, and if you lay a helping hand on the problem you’ll be owed.’ Brunel wasn’t sure his plea had reached Sykes, the man’s expression hadn’t changed.
For his part Sykes thought on the weapons he carried; relived memories of past violence.
The stronger winds had abated and taken the heavier snowfall with them. Now a faint dust of white billowed slowly amongst the scattered buildings and abandoned freight wagons, brightening the dusk, reflecting the starlight.
Halcyon was the second world opened for colonisation by the UN Colonisation Directorate. It was seasonal, had a generally favourable climate, slightly less oxygen in its atmosphere and only simple plant and animal life. When the single-celled aquatic fauna that crowded the shallow seas was found to be edible the corporations began bidding for the exploitation rights. Shaker-Jorge Combine won the contract. After a very short while they also began extracting the mineral wealth scattered across the planet.
It took time and effort to open the planet, mistakes were made and lessons learned; promise of profit kept the Combine interested. Earth was still the centre of the human universe and its need for resources hadn’t abated. Despite prodigious leaps forward in renewable energy and waste recycling it still sucked down all the offerings brought forth from the asteroids and minor planetoids that inhabited the Oort Cloud. The mineral resources of Halcyon were ripped from the ground to flow Earthward even as the workers hammered the induction rails and poured the concrete. Towns sprang up around the depots and larger industrial works. Cities for the colonists, and the agricultural matrix to support them, grew at junctions between rails and beneficial topography. Palisade City sprawled across gently rolling hills surrounding a shallow bay; the stain of industry kept at arm’s length to the east, where the maglev lines reached into a spaceport dominated by freighters.
Though only stirred by a light breeze, the chilled air still sucked the warmth from Sykes, exhaled breath dragged away as a thin, colourless stream. Clad only in the mismatched body armour and jacket he’d accrued on his travels, with the gunrig belted about that, Sykes stalked silently through the outer fringes of the rail yards. His target was an old maintenance shed where Brunel told him a group of gypsies had once lived. He’d seen strangers in the area and then the gypsies were gone. He’d didn’t think the men were private security, it’d been a long time since anything of value had resided in any of the neglected buildings. Even the Palisades police no longer patrolled the yards.
Letting instinct guide his feet, Sykes found himself a vantage point, high on the maintenance gantry of an old, non-functioning stanchion floodlight. Squeezed into a gap that offered some respite from the breeze he relaxed, stared out at the snow-swathed landscape and remembered elsewhere. The maglev yards at Palisades reminded him of those encompassing the shipyards of Compton, half-way around the planet but no warmer. He also remembered other shipyards on other planets, the stars they revolved around, the ragged scattering of those stars across the night sky from the far side of the galaxy.
Once again it came to him that he had no roots, no specific world to call home. No hearth. But then he had no family and, since his disagreement with the Biological Security Directorate, no true purpose. They’d taken his vocation along with his Directorate-sanctioned weapons, left him with a body full of semi-active, restricted technology. The firearms he’d replaced easily enough, there were always weapon merchants when you went looking, though his purpose had become nothing but movement; the beating of his heart, the rhythmic rise and fall of his ribs; his booted feet treading the soil of whichever planet fate deposited him upon.
He wasn’t the kind to wallow in past misery, though a bone-deep weariness caught at the breath in his throat.
Several hours had passed before he finally saw movement, dark shapes against the snowfall; figures walking with intent between the rail sheds. They disappeared into a warehouse not far from the building Brunel had indicated. Heart rate beginning to rise, Sykes extracted himself from his perch and made his cautious way down and toward the warehouse.
A half-rusted, ice-rimed fire-escape offered access to an upper floor which, in turn, allowed Sykes into the structure. The switch-back metal ladder ended at a grated landing set before two single doors. Hearing nothing at either, he chose the left-hand and opened it slowly, only far enough until he could slip inside. The small office space was dark, boards covered the windows and blocked out what little light existed outside. Well-rehearsed mental exercises altered the settings in his eyes; colours bleached to monochrome hues, brightness increased. Without resorting to the black-light system built into the handgun he now carried, Sykes navigated, carefully, among the old desks, chairs and other detritus that littered the room. An inner door opened to a corridor. Windows in the corridor looked down on a scene of clandestine industry. Sykes re-adjusted his eyesight.
Men and women moved among a cluster of dull metals cylinders, portable generators and shipping containers. Off to one side an open-topped dumpster contained a selection of discarded clothing, boots, blankets. Sykes couldn’t determine the full range of items, but he could tell nothing looked new. Climbing through an open window gave him access to gantries that criss-crossed the space below; the support structure for a series of now-disused cranes. Without hesitation, he stepped lightly on to the nearest beam and headed out above the activity below. Certain of their isolation, none for the group paid any attention to their surroundings – none looked up.
The shouting and curses told Sykes that this rough group weren’t friends, maybe brought together for a purpose, but not a sociable cluster. Cocked-and-locked he carried the Borchardt needlegun in his left hand, his right out-stretched for balance. Reaching a central pillar, he relaxed and watched what was happening below.
One of the women, the source of most of the noise, was stripping a body, an emaciated man with unkempt hair and beard. Using a knife, she slit the shirt from his back and the trousers from his thin legs. From the discolouration across much of the man’s body and the pale hue to his skin, it was evident he was long dead. Once the corpse was naked, she checked fingers, wrists, neck, perhaps searching for any hidden valuables. Then a flat-nosed, broad-shouldered man came across to the metal table, hefted the corpse and carried it to an open cylinder, at which a second man fiddled with a control box. Unceremoniously, the body went head first into the container. Top closed, the second man activated the device then, satisfied with some unseen readout, stepped away from the controls, turned on his heel and walked across to the main group. Behind him the machine began a low thrumming. They’d been joined by the loud woman, who continued to vociferously complain that she wasn’t being ‘paid enough to actually touch the bastards’.
Now all together, pressed close around another table, this one littered with discarded beer cans and small piles of metallic objects, one pile before each member of the group and one in the centre, they spoke in friendlier terms, voices quieter. Five of them; two women, three men, all with the look of violence in their clothes, posture and attitude. Once they’d collected their spoils, the group retired to a second area; a cluster of old furniture. One man took it upon himself to act as host, passing out fresh beers. A card game quickly started on a low table, while a single woman wandered off, a shotgun in the crook of her arm.
Having witnessed enough, Sykes retreated across the support beam, began looking for a quiet way to the factory floor.
He shot the woman in the back. The Borchardt made a faint hiss, spat a needle into the base of her spine. The toxin on the dart had her folding before the pain registered. Having fired at point-blank, Sykes caught her as she slumped, crushed her arm against her side to keep the shotgun from falling. Laying her carefully on the stained concrete floor, he checked for a pulse, took the shotgun, disappeared among the machines. His motions were fluid, his heart-rate raised only slightly. She seemed to be their only guard.
Raucous laughter sounded among the card players, quickly followed by a curse; no doubt, someone had lost the hand and a hefty pot. There were four seated about the table, some armed, but none were expecting trouble. Regardless of his advantage, Sykes fired from cover, one needle into each. Only the last, the well-muscled corpse-carrier, had chance to react. He started to stand, hand to an auto-shotgun, even as the sedative flooded his system. Sykes put a second fletchette into the man’s neck, then stepped backward from his firing position. With a deafening roar the ugly gun cycled three shots, ripped holes and sparked from the old machinery. Ears ringing, Sykes didn’t hear the man drop. He made his cautious way around the old machine and came upon the group from a different angle. All were unconscious, three still seated, the fourth an untidy heap on the floor.
>> Faint echo of a scream. Copper tang of spilt blood. <<
It punched him between the shoulderblades as the sound reached his ears; small-calibre firearm, his saving grace. Fool! Idiot! What had he missed? The impact shoved him forward; he let the energy push him, offered no resistance, turned it into a roll that put him beside the card table. A second shot went wide, scoring a red line across the shoulder of one of the sleepers.
Though it didn’t match the quality of the armour he’d once worn, Sykes had deliberately chosen a heavier grade of ballistic cloth. That it slowed his movements was a trade he willingly made. Despite the protection, the pain in his back told him he’d be badly bruised at the least, maybe a fracture to the left scapula, or worse, the thoracic vertebrae. He gave thanks that he couldn’t feel the icy grind of broken bone. A third shot drew him back into the moment.
As he rose from his knees he saw another woman, stepping toward the card table, reaching for a shotgun propped beside a chair. She’d seen him go down, realised she needed heavier firepower and was looking to rectify the situation.
For the length of a heartbeat, Sykes considered letting her take the gun. His present, a void filled with regret, missed opportunities – his future, uncertain, pointless, maybe even worthless. Why struggle? Everyone dies in the end…
The woman had lifted the gun.
…but within the technology sunk into his skull, dormant response routines still resided. His thoughts may have slowed to a crawl, the Directorate programming hadn’t. The Borchardt rose of its own volition, two needles went through her left eye. Details registered - light-brown hair cropped close to the scalp, an untidy scattering of freckles softening the harsh planes of her face. She wore no makeup. Her eyes were green.
Opening a can of beer, the cheap plastic container buckling in his grip, Sykes emptied the contents over the first woman he’d shot. The toxin would already be diminishing in her bloodstream, but he wasn’t prepared to wait.
She came too, muttering and moaning, struggling against the rubber tubing he’d used to tie her hands and feet. The others, the survivors, were still asleep, one man snoring heavily, each bound using whatever materials Sykes had been able to scavenge from around the old factory. The dead woman he’d wrapped in a tarpaulin and laid behind a piece of old machinery; out of sight, but a heavy weight sitting cold in his chest.
Their weapons were piled on the card table – two shotguns, three pistols and an assortment of knives.
When he was certain she was wide awake, Sykes lifted a long-bladed knife, crouched beside her head. Her blue eyes followed the blade.
‘I’m not in a patient mood. Answer my questions or I’ll gut you and wake up one of your friends.’ He tapped the point of the knife against her forehead. ‘Question one…’
A quiet suburb of the city, rows of spacious but prefabricated dwellings, most now given homely touches by their occupants. One such building boasted a colourful, walled garden. At this time of year only a few, hardy imported plants still supported their greenery and a smattering of flowers; all fragrance had been banished until the spring thaw. Marcus Grant, Chief Constable in charge of the Palisades commercial district, sat on his heated veranda and enjoyed a beer. His home wasn’t opulent, but then he saw no reason to waste cash, when buying his way off this dismal rock was top of the agenda. Inside the house, his wife was clattering post-meal dishes, loading dirty crockery and cutlery into the dishwasher. Second item on his revised agenda – she’d be staying here while he moved on.
From behind one of the taller shrubs that filled the garden corner, a dark shadow materialised. Grant surged to his feet, hand going to the hip where his holster habitually rode. Being off-duty, it wasn’t there. Then the man was before him, aiming a vicious-looking pistol at his chest.
‘Stay very quiet or your wife gets involved.’ The voice was barely above a whisper.
In the faint light thrown out from the house, Grant studied the man’s face, the professional in him noting the tanned skin of a spacer, the well-worn equipment, the Directorate technology. The man’s empty hand gestured toward the side of the house.
When Rebecca Grant finished her chores, walked out into the garden carrying her own drink and a re-fill for her husband, he was gone. Despite the warmth radiated by the heater, she felt suddenly cold.
Grant looked into dark eyes and tried to bluff it out. ‘They’ll be cruisers here within minutes. If you surrender to me, I’ll see about dropping the charges – threatening an officer, kidnap.’ His demand lost some of its power when he couldn’t keep the tremor from his voice. It’d been some years since he walked a beat, piloted a cruiser or faced-down the threat of violence. He was growing chill, his fingers numb from the cords that bound him to an old office chair.
‘I don’t doubt your people will find the stolen car. I didn’t hide it.’ It was parked in plain view just outside the building. ‘It’s just how long it takes them. So…’ Sykes pointed across to where the five were still tied, now quiescent once again, each hit with a further needle. ‘Your friends told me an interesting story. Nasty, but interesting. Want to tell me your version?’ He pressed against Grant’s chest with the assault shotgun.
‘I’m not admitting to anything. All you have is the word of six degenerates. They won’t survive a night in the cells!’ Vehemence had returned to Grant’s voice, fear fuelling his words.
Sykes rubbed a finger on the dull metal that marred the side of his head. ‘You forget who I work for. It’s hard to go undercover with a head full of restricted tech’. So, we don’t, we just play ‘little boy lost’ and dress down. Seems to work on the locals.’
Stepping forward, Sykes brought the shotgun butt down on Grant’s left knee. The crack of bone was audible. For a second Grant just stared, at the strange twist his left leg had taken on. Teeth clenched, he awaited the pain.
Squatting next to the man, Sykes showed Grant the content of his other hand; a needle, unloaded from the Borchardt. ‘Hit by one of these you get a full dose and down you go. Hopefully!’. He dextrously turned the slim piece of metal in his fingers. ‘Quick jab acts as a good anaesthetic. Won’t last long, so I suggest you talk quickly.’
Even partially sedated, Grant could sense the bite that had entered the man’s voice.
‘This used to be a good city; prosperous. But it’s just a crossroads and newer cargo vessels can land on smaller fields. The money’s going elsewhere and the conglomerates don’t give a shit!’ Sweat beaded Grant’s forehead, he could feel the numbness in his knee fading. ‘I’ve got another five years to a pension that won’t be worth shit. I didn’t work for twenty years to be stuck on this fuckball with the rest of the scum that floats here.’ He spat to clear his throat.
‘One thing we don’t lack is human garbage. Thanks to the Church and their policy of ‘assistance to the needy’, every scumbag without a means of support ends up here. We’ve got more hostels and soup kitchens than we’ve got working industry. I’m all for charity, but these bastards are taking the piss!’
>> Blood. Screams of the injured, whimpers of the dying…<<
Grant saw the man shake free of an inner vision, saw the pain that crossed his face. He thought he’d spotted a weakness. ‘So, we’ve cleared the streets a few vagrants. So, what? The bastards just consume, they don't contribute. This city isn’t cheap to run and we can’t just raise taxes. If the winters were colder, maybe more would just die off! This way at least they contribute something!’
>> A corpse in Directorate armour. Too late…<<
The shotgun stock struck Grant in the cheek, cracked bone, chipped teeth; spun him and the chair to a tangled mass across the floor. This time there was no drug to stifle the agony. Grant wailed in pain, tried to reach a bound hand to his broken face.
Hauling both man and chair upright, Sykes all but screamed in Grant’s terror-stricken face. ‘What makes them worth any less than you?’ He turned to look at the rendering vat. Then back at Grant. His voice had dropped to a flat monotone. ‘And what makes you worth any more than them?’
Sirens, lights, the thudding of aerofans; police cruisers dropped beside the stolen car, armoured figures stormed the old building. The authorities took five into custody, shipped the corpse to the Coroner’s Office, awaited forensic evidence to support the anonymous charges against them – the killing of derelicts and the disposal of the bodies by rendering them for their meat, bone meal and fats; sold on to a less-than-scrupulous food processing company. And fed back to the population as cut-price ready-meals.
During close examination of one cylinder, stopped mid-cycle containing a half-shredded corpse, the investigators found a dented and buckled shield, bearing the inscription 'Grant – Palisade City District Two Chief Constable'. DNA polymorphic analysis confirmed the identity of the last victim.
It would take many months for the full story to emerge. It didn’t reach as high as any Shaker-Jorge employee, so no share prices suffered. The investigation achieved little, but the destruction of a few on-planet reputations and a footnote in the yearly colonisation record. UNCD filed the details.
Palisade South-west Rail Spur, Halcyon, Devil's Spindle (trailing)
A white wall swirled, twisted, fragmented, reformed as the maglev flew across the winter landscape, suspended by invisible forces two metres from the induction rail it followed. Predominantly freight, fifty-three carriages, over a kilometre of train, were linked between the front and rear drive pods. The three-man crew kept themselves in the warm front cockpit, playing dice and cards as the maglev bore south, toward the equatorial freight depots, processing plants and ship fields of Port Havelock.
The rear cabin had been cold, until Sykes easily opened a locked panel and flipped one switch. Now he and Brunel rode in warmth and some comfort, each stretched out on a crew bunk, food and drink liberated from the crew’s personal store.
The older man’s voice floated up to, comfortable on the upper bunk.
‘I’d just like it warmer, so I guess I’ll head for Bright. It’s a little-ways west of Havelock, all agricultural, so might get some work picking vegetables.’ He noisily sucked the last flesh from a peach-stone. ‘How about you?’
‘Think I’ve out-stayed my welcome. Hopefully I can find scut-work on a freighter and work passage.’ He crossed his hands behind his head, working against the pillow to find a more comfortable position, ease the ache in his shoulders. ‘Heading spinward. Born on Heligan Orbital, so might try for home.’
‘That’s a-long-ways to travel, brother!’
‘Aren’t they all…’
© John Henson Webb 2018
micheledutcher - John Henson Webb always tells a great story. Thanks for letting us read this.
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