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Saturday, 11 August 2012
Swallower of Ghosts
Topic: Mercator Arc

Swallower of Ghosts


Rain was bad. The sea, worse. The wet unavoidable. Even in searag slickers and oiled bucket hats, the cold damp reached skin, chilled bones. And in these forever months when breath plumed thick as fog from covered mouths, the frigid wet gave death. From the open boat, three fishermen worried about the fate of the distance stranger floundering on the white-capped leaden waves blown high and angry by the oncoming storm, the captain more so as he turned his face to the east, marking the cleft in the crater wall where the sea drained as a river into the plain beyond, a landmark he was wrung to pass.

Dgord returned his squinting eyes to the drowning man, strained to see beyond the dripping brim of his hat where slanting lines of rain robbed the eyes. The man had stopped thrashing, was likely dead, his weak pings autonomous, nothing more than a beacon. The captain's thick gloved hands clamped the edge of the vaka, the deep hull where the men hunched in the wet. Pulling the dead from the sea was never pleasant; corpses were pregnant with worms, even for the newly dead.

Verca had been the first to receive the beacon as he hauled in the writhing net full of pale sponge-eel from between the leeward akas that stretched to the outrigger. He had shouted alarm, and soon he, Dgord, and Jeiu, had linked and triangulated the source. They argued; Dgord hesitant, for the man floated just beyond the Never Go. Verca stressed their duty to retrieve the seamen before it was too late to give his soul to the sky. The captain knew the lore of monsters was no excuse not to give succor. The dying stranger was a mariner, and a mariner found was a mariner returned, whether Atuka kept his ghost or not.

They tacked the fishing proa toward it, the wind battering their faces.

They saw the body. Learned the man's name was Savan in the data pulse of his implant's ping. But where was his boat? Had it sank? Had the man been pushed from another? Neither of the fishermen saw evidence of any other craft. The rain and mist hid the coastline. Hid other boats. No flashing mast beacons anywhere to be seen. Dgord thrust a hand into the drier inner pocket of his greatcoat and removed the spyglass. He held the clear plank up across his eyes, its corner clips worn and broken so he couldn't affix it to the hanging brim of his dripping hat. The scratched and scuffed surface came alive, and though he cycled through increasing magnifications, he saw nothing but the dark, foamy sea. He lowered his arms and returned the glass. There should be a boat. A wreck at least. Could the fishing acoustic array painted on the bottom of the hull have the power to find the man's vessel? They could only try.

Jeiu also twisted around, anxious eyes scanning the choppy horizon as the bow lifted and fell, erupting spray that joined the cold rain. When no evidence of Savan's boat could be found, the young man turned a nervous face to Dgord, looking for explanation and comfort. Verca also turned to his captain. Nothing needed be said. What happened to the man's boat could happen to them. They too would become home to worms. Or worse.

Jeiu rigged the lines to turn the sail out of the wind, slowing the proa and bringing the outrigger close to the man; he would be out of reach over the high walls of the vaka. He wound the ropes tight around the capstans as Verca stepped around him, pulled free the aid kit from aft stowage, and removed the fast-hot in the urgent hope the man wasn't dead. He shoved the silvered folded square into his pocket. In the spraying swells, Dgord and Verca climbed out of the longhull and inched across the forward crossbeam, gripping the rope against the swaying craft. They stepped onto the tightly meshed net drawn taunt across the akas along the edge of the outrigger. Frantic but skilled hands snug in waterproofed gloves clipped tethers from their harnesses to rings screwed along the ama at the net's edge. The men reached down into the icy black-green water and heaved Savan aboard.

Dgord and Verca brushed away disgusting worms seeking to burrow into the man's exposed skin. Savan was alive. Barely. Verca steadied himself on the net and shook the blanket out. He and Dgord wrapped Savan, the heat from the foil seeping through their heavy gloves. Savan's wet face was a pale as dying sponge-eel, his lips blue. Wet dark curls clung to his forehead. His body shivered under the men's hands. He had no hat. His coat was not a mariner's. Or a dockman's. It didn't even appear weatherproof, its style strangely foreign-vintage. He had no business being out here. Dgord felt a shameful stab of anger. The barter he would lose because of this fool!

Dgord looked toward the main hull, wondering how or if they could get Savan over to it. He saw Jeiu's head pivoting, looking for what was not there. Perhaps Savan would tell them what happened to his boat. All three of the men were tuned to the acoustic array; the presence of a sinking boat was not felt. The craft must have sunk deeper than the reach of the nets. Dgord wanted to probe the ill-fated craft for clues. Had it sunk through neglect as he hoped? Or had it submerged from attack as he feared? There were things in the deep water of this loathsome world.

There was no way to move Savan into the vaka. They couldn't carry him across the thin crossbeams. There was no crane, the proa too small. They could net him and pull him aboard the longhull, but the man would slip into the cold water again. The fishermen sided against the risk.

"I will stay here with him," Dgord said, taking his own measure of welcome heat from the blanket and placing his large hat over the man's face. He pulled the deep hood of his slicker over his head.

Verca and Jeiu pulled the lines to swing the sail, shunting the small boat back toward the camp.

Minutes later, warmed, Savan stirred. Dgord felt the man's electronic queries and answered. Savan tried to sit up but the captain hushed him, leaned over and lifted the brim of his hat so he could see the man's eyes, his center of gravity swirling, jostled as the proa cut through rough waves. "I thought Atuka had taken you," Dgord said to him.

Savan wondered at the words but caught the meaning riding on the old man's narrowcast, a glimmer of horrors in the water. "You have no idea." They spoke different languages, but universal concepts flowed between them. On the net near the narrow outrigger, they rose and fell hard, drenched in cold rain and sea spray, water as dark as night.

"What happened to your boat?" Dgord's words were short and clipped, like the choppy waves.

The old mariner's language protocols shuffled through Savan's mind, a dialect old even when the Calisenne were at the height of their empire. He sent Dgord his language in return. They would speak their own tongues, yet understand each other. "There is no boat." He sat up then, the old man holding him firmly, setting the slipping fast-hot about his shoulders. Savan adjusted the hat, rain curtained off the brim. He found the world around him drained of blues, the muddy sulfurous sky almost black where the smear of dark clouds occasionally thinned. The bottom of the clouds roiled, all around them the gray steel of rain. The boat headed toward a distance huddle of dim lights, amber speckled with blue, buildings beyond the shore.

"No boat," Dgord coughed. "You fall from the sky?" Frowning. Ludicrous. A passing plane would be obvious under the low cloud deck. Perhaps it was simple confusion from the cold.

Savan looked back from whence they came, from where they pulled him aboard. "I need to go back."

"No, no." Dgord soothed. "It is the shock of the ordeal." He squeezed Savan's shoulder. "There is warmth and dryness at camp. That is where we go. That is where you need to go. To get out of these wet clothes."

"I dropped something."

Dgord smiled pleasantly at the insanity. "When you fell from the sky?" He noticed Verca and Jeiu watching intensely.

Savan shook his head. "I didn't fall from the sky."

The man's mind was coming back. "So there was a boat," Dgord said, nearly clinging to the rescued man. "What happened? Where you attacked? Was it Atuka?"

The fishing captain's transmitted fears stole into Savan. He hung for a moment parsing the old man's context. "As I said, there was no boat." His hand stumbled along his outer thigh, to the hard stone in his pocket. "And yes, it was Atuka." Tired and thirsty he closed his eyes in surrender, the blanket too hot.

Dgord trembled and looked to his crew for support. They concentrated on the sonar but felt nothing around them except the sporadic cluster of eel.



The storm encroached as all storms do. The rain slew sideways hard as needles. The proa rode nauseous waves, cresting and falling, its bow slapping and thudding. The outrigger lent its stability. Verca and Jeiu sat huddled behind the deep walls of the vaka, occasionally stealing glances at their captain and the stranger, exposed on the net.

Dgord kneeled over Savan as water collided against them, through the net from below as well as above and around. There was no difference between the spume and the rain. All was freezing water everywhere. The old mariner worried about the fast-hot. It wouldn't hold its temperature forever. Already he could feel the heat growing cooler. The ever-present storms were never a concern, but they must get the man to shore, out of the rain, and out of his wet clothes, or the hypothermia would not be abated.

Distant thunder. A hollow single boom. It took more peals before Dgord realized something was not quite right about the sound. It came not from the west, from the heart of the storm, but from the south, from the coast. From the settlement, the shanties of Cratertown. He looked over his shoulder towards the sound. There! A pinpoint of blue-white in a corona of fire burned through the rain and mist. A sound like cannon volley followed.

That was no thunder.

The captain yelled to Verca, "See if you can raise someone! Find out what is happening!"

Verca reached into a pocket and pulled out the radio booster. The red flat bar came alive in his hand. He pressed the soft raised icon for the Dock Master and waited for the call to be answered. He linked the broadcast to Dgord and Jeiu. The Dock Master's panicked voice erupted in their ears. Verca asked what was going on.

"Bright flashes of light are sucking everything up. Houses. Trucks. People," the unseen man shouted, distressed by the confusing loss he witnessed.

Death. Settlers. Neighbors . . . friends. A cold shroud settled over their hearts.

Verca's nervous thumb pressed an icon shaped like a simple eye. The Master's vision pulled from his implants bloomed on the booster's glass face. "Show us," Verca implored.

"Don't ask me to watch," the man cried out. New thunder boomed.

"We must know," Verca shouted back. "Perhaps we can do something."

The spyglass in Dgord's pocket shuddered and he fished it free. Rain dappled its surface as it showed a view down the dock from the window of the Master's shack. He could see panic among the people. No one knew where to go to seek safety and shelter. Trucks sped here and there, their drivers equally confused. The Dock Master whimpered. A sudden flash appeared near the great iron smelter and the signal burned out in a wash of white noise. Thunder sounded. Fast heartbeats later, the Dock Master's optic captures streamed over. It was as if great gales were pushing things to that one speck of brilliance. Shanties were pulled from their foundations, the flying metal glowing red, orange, and white as it vanished into nothing. The boom followed when the millisecond spark snuffed out. Dgord replayed the terrible scene slower; he had to understand what was happening. He saw running people snatched up into debris and sent into oblivion. There! The red poncho so bright among the drab coats and slickers . . . was that Ondrey's niece? One moment running for her life, the next ripped away into-nowhere. His heart nearly stopped. The ache was real in his chest. He put a hand to it. He looked away from the horror on the spyglass and saw Savan sitting up, staring at him with the weight of the world across his shoulders.

"It's my fault," Savan said. "I must stop it."

"What is killing them," the captain shouted sudden rage and fear casting his soul into turbulent waters.

"A teleported quantum state," Savan answered knowing the fisherman was likely not to understand. The puzzled old man winced at the next call of thunder. Savan stared at the water beaded and caught in the seaman's wiry beard. "The fabric of spacetime is folded upon itself," he explained. "Like a cloth clenched in the fist. A hypernodal weapon, it pulls everything to it."

Dgord grabbed the man's lapels and jerked him forward. "Who does this? Why?"

Before the saved man could answer, Jeiu's alarmed shout froze Dgord's blood. "Atuka!" The young man pointed aft from whence they came. The captain shut off his reception of the Dock Master's dizzying visual feed and thrust the spyglass above his nose. He saw the gray hump breaking the choppy surface of the water. A mass of tentacles. A bundle of serpents.

"There's your answer," Savan said.


To disbelieve was a mercy. Some things could not have happened as they were thought to have happened. The heart seeks alternative answers and the mind relents. But it could not relent now. Questing tendrils sniffed the air and they were not sponge-eels.

Atuka. All the great mysteries in the dark depths were Atuka. Some-probably most-were the great eels daring to feed at the surface. Wild stories were told inside tents around the fire ring, mugs of bock splashing hands and wetting mouths. Wetting brains. Stories of Atuka, the great eel capsizing small boats, trying to feed on the overboard fishermen. Strange mouths boring strange holes into flesh not meant for strange stomachs, or what passed for stomachs in such strange creatures. They were called Atuka, but they were not Atuka.

They were not the sleeping god. They were not the sleeping god roused from troubled slumber rising to exact chaos in the wake of its anger. Few had met this Atuka, and survived.

Dgord's one hand hung onto Savan as if the man were a life-ring. The life-ring hadn't done Haidren any good. His younger cousin. . . .

His wizened father and the elder fishermen had told Dgord that it couldn't have been the old god, for he had come back and the old god took all. Was this not true? They convinced Dgord that he had been mistaken. Easy for a boy to do.

Smooth and calm the sea had been that day. Long bands of cloud had torn apart. Through the wide gap, sunlight came in as if escaping through the open door of a blast furnace. It lent the world an eerie rose tint, the sky gray and black around the edge of the sun, wonderfully different from the oppressive dripping iron clouds. The boys, Dgord and Haidren, stopped their fishing to watch what they had never seen before, the long shimmering reflection of the sun playing back and forth across the tops of the windblown waves. They had seen lights on the proas at dusk do this, but never the sun. The pure majesty of it. Dgord never felt more alive in his life experiencing the spectacle before him.

Watch all of it, it wouldn't last long. The winds carried the clouds and they would soon close, and the sun sank fast and would hide behind those clouds once again. The boys laughed in their delight, their nets forgotten.

Their position drifting.

It was fast, unlike a sponge-eel. The evening had been pure magic, a heartbeat later, pure hell.

Dgord only knew that the front of the boat had lifted with tremendous force, as if a hand full of blasting caps had gone off underneath it. Haidren wind-milled through the air, his surprised face comical. The boat settled with such a jolt that Dgord was thrown forward, hitting his head on the cross span plank that served as a seat or a step. The sun forgotten. A hand to the sudden pounding ache. Fingers slick with blood. Haidren yelling. Screaming.

A creaking. Then a pop-crack of wood. A black tentacle pulled the ama apart, shattered it. The proa listed, the crossbeams dipping, the vaka tipping onto its side.

His cousin screaming.

Dgord scrambled for aid kit, slippery fingers worrying the lid. The life-ring inflated as it spun through the air. The water was turbulent. Things moved in it. Dark things. The sail had caught the water. The weight of the mast pulled the boat over. Dgord saw the cleft where the great sea drained out into a great river. Never go past it. Never go past it.

Never go past it.

Dark worms crawled in the bottom of the hull. They grew longer. They were coming through the hull. Questing wriggling things boring through the composite hull as it were made of smoke. Dgord scampered up, a foot on the leaning mast, seeking refuge on the exposed sidewall of the vaka. There could be no refuge. He had been screaming for some time. His throat hurt.

Haidren was silent. Red clouded the water near the life-ring.


Serpents uncoiled and coiled through the red spreading cloud. They had opened Haidren. Questing wriggling things. They opened and opened until there was nothing left to open. A lifeless-ring bobbing on the churned water.

Nothing left to return home. Nothing to left to honor on the pyre. No means for a spirit to rise to the heavens through sputtering rain on the defiant column of smoke and ash.

The spyglass slipped from the captain's fingers, disappearing into the water. The old man's knees unhinged. To disbelieve had been a mercy, the truth now a curse devouring him from the heart outward. Dgord's eyes were locked across the waves, to the erupting thrashing mass. "Your fault," he barked. He could not bring his eyes to Savan's face for fear he would see a man responsible for his cousin's death, though he was far too young to be held accountable. "Tell me how!"

Savan shivered under the failing fast-hot, his hand fumbling around a pocket against his drenched thigh. "What I say, you must believe me." He paused to catch his breath. The captain let his chin fall, his rain speckled face holding the terrible ire of an ancient sea god. Savan spoke again as an applause of thunder reached them. "Underwater, there is a portal . . . a hatch to . . . a vessel of some sort. I came through it. I thought I could go through it undetected, but the . . . carapace failed. The gravimetric tensor was too-"

"What are you talking about!" Dgord's eyes pleaded for sanity. The flashing and pealing of the terrible hypernodal weapons increased tempo.

"I escaped to close it," Savan stammered against the growing chill. The blanket was fast becoming another useless wet thing. "I dropped the . . . key, when the carapace failed. It will close the hatch. And keep the Atuka inside."

Dgord sank into himself. The key lay at bottom of the Crater Sea. Useless while horrible creatures rendered horrible death. When will the flash come near them and take them away, swallowing them into the netherworld beyond? The old man felt the weary cost of his long life and wanted to slip beneath the waves, to fill his hurting chest with icy water. No pyres for any of them. This was truly an evil world.

Savan's words shook him back. "I can get the key with the carapace," he said, pale naked fingers struggling with the flap of the pocket.

"How," Dgord asked, eyes wide, hope fighting against the cringe of distant thunder. "Did you not drop the carapace too?" His eyes agreed with his memory; there was no shell enclosing Savan by any stretch of the imagination.

"Pocket," the man stammered between clattering teeth. "Dormant in my pocket." The fisherman's eyes went to his hand. "Take it out. Or we all die this day."

Dgord stripped a hand free of its glove, the cold biting across his skin. He unsecured the flap and reached into the damp pocket. His fingers closed on a curiosity. A ball the size of a hen's egg. He withdrew the mystery. It lay in his hand pale as an egg, rain sliding off its surface. The captain squeezed it with gnarled fingers fearful it would slip away in the rocking and crashing of the proa.

"Give it to me."

Dgord pressed the egg into Savan's waiting palm. The man closed his trembling fingers around it. A whiteness began to seep out from between the man's fingers as if the egg had ruptured and its pale ichor burst forth. The new liquid spread and thinned over Savan's skin, over his clothes, lumpy as the material bunched under the contracting milky carapace until it smoothed. Heat baked from bleached flowing matter as it raced up his arm. Wisps of steam rose in the cold air. The envelopment spread lightning fast and soon the sea captain blinked at a man dipped in white chocolate. His eyes and ears were featureless blisters. His nose and mouth finely meshed, gauzy.

Savan slipped the cooling fast-hot away from his shoulders, handing the bunched blanket to the mariner. The carapace heated him, lent him a renewed power. Yet, he could feel the sickness in the covering, waxing faults incurred by damage at the portal's spherical opening. The Stranger could only spare so much of the exotic matter from his own carapace. Savan had been told it would be enough to escape.

Dgord's mouth moved, to express the astonishment pressed into his face. Savan cut him off, pointing toward Jeiu's sighting. "I need to get closer. The carapace is damaged-"

The captain shook his head and winced at another volley of thunder. Haidren had been opened. "No. I cannot do that. You'll have to jump in here. Swim back." He glanced over to the vaka, to the men with waiting faces. No harm should come to them from his hands. "The wind carries east and that is where we will go." His tone warned heavy with finality.

Savan grabbed the man by the shoulders. "The carapace is damaged! I will not survive the swim, even under its motive power. We must get closer. To near where you pulled me aboard."

Dgord's head swung to and fro. "The Atuka!" There was more to say, but his throat tightened, choked on the unspoken words, leaving him gasping.

"Everyone will die-including us- if we don't stop them," Savan shouted, the carapace amplifying his voice.

Dgord recoiled, from the loudness; and from the truth. He knew these things. Yet his mind mired in the horror and pain. Of red water and wriggling things. Of the guilt of being left alone to carry the testament back to shore. He saw the bright reflection of the hypernodal weapon in the glossy white carapace. Stood rigid against the following peal. Perhaps they would all die this day to stop many more deaths . . . how many had it been? Perhaps that was why he had been spared and Haidren not, to be here to save this man with his incredible though impaired technology, to deliver him into evil so that he may battle it by his own means, to shut a hatch, a door, a conduit of death. Dgord knew that if he died here, he had done his life's duty.

It would be worth it.

The captain turned to his men. They waited with anxious faces. Jeiu uncertain, fearful. Verca resolved, ready for action. Ready to help. Always trustworthy and dependable. Verca nodded under his dripping bucket hat.

Dgord sighed, the weight pouring out of his soul. "Shunt around," he called. "To the Atuka!" Verca and Jeiu exploded into activity pulling the lines and setting the sail.


The squall mustered the sea into an angry froth. Under normal conditions, the sail would be furled and the cover stretched over the top of the long hull, the men huddled inside bathed in dim light as the proa rocked and lurched, waiting out the worst of the storm. Instead, all three fought the sail to keep the defiant little boat on course to the sea monsters hidden behind tall waves. Hats and overcoats became useless weights in the torrent. The idea of dryness was folly. The wet came in. Chests were soaked. Buttocks clammy. Irritable and sore, they fought the lines, the wind, and the wrath of the weather that tried to push them away from certain death. Frenetic lightning branched across the sky, billowing clouds burst with demonic light. It was like being inside a bell when the thunder called.

Questions of why Cratertown was being assaulted resounded in the back of Dgord's mind. He had had no time for them. His throat burned raw from shouting repeated commands over the din of heavy rain. The overhead cannonade drowned out the attack on the settlement, the bombardment seemed to wane, each following burst coming longer after the preceding one. Turning, he found Savan through the sheets of water, "Are they stopping! Is it over!"

"No," the man shouted back over his shoulder as he assisted Jeiu. "They are assessing a response."

"From who," the old man wondered aloud. Certainly not from the settlement. The rope slipped in his gloves, he held it tighter, feeling the strain in his wrists, the ache in his elbows.

Savan hesitated as the proa shifted, the outrigger lifting from the waves, streaming white foam. The men leaned, groaned against the tension in the lines that threatened to pull them elsewhere. "From an enemy they wish to rouse." It was all he was willing to divulge.

Verca fought with the captain to keep the sail in the wind. "What's that have to do with us," the man shouted, sharing Dgord's concerns.

Savan helped Jeiu wind a line around a capstan. "One respects human life, the other has no regard for it. The Atuka are using your people to bait their enemy into a confrontation."

"Who is this enemy?" Jeiu said, his rain washed face pale.

Savan was spared surrendering an answer. A brilliant flash popped several meters to port, wind and water screamed into the distortion, the clap deafening. Another imploded behind them farther away.

We're done for, Dgord thought. Atuka would find them and they would be sucked into oblivion.

"Press on," Savan shouted to the huddled men. "We're almost close enough."

"They're gonna kill us," Jeiu screamed, his hands frozen around the line he held.

"The carapace is denying them an accurate target fix," Savan assured. "They can't hit us."

"And when you go under," Dgord asked, letting the question hang.

Savan looked the old mariner in the eye. "Then they'll be coming for me."

Hypernodal discharges popped all around them, the shoreline settlement forgotten in the face of immediate threat. Inner ears felt fat and numb, rang their droning tones under the assault of whip-crashing thunder. They neared the place they had pulled Savan aboard. Even without visual landmarks, they could feel the position in their linked geospatial awareness.

In the distance, dark questing forms writhed, bursting forth from the surface of the sea, and crashing again. The storm raged, its malevolent heart passing overhead. Savan stepped out onto the rising and falling aka, gripping the hand line and swaying. The key to closing the portal was down there somewhere. He had a vague feeling of its position. If the carapace wasn't damaged, he would know where with certainly. If the carapace wasn't damaged he could call the key to him.

But fate wouldn't have it that way, and he must surrender to fate's arms.

Fate reached in the form of a violent serpent exploding through the bottom of the hull, a blur of dark motion. Jeiu saw it out of the corner of his eye, as it sprung up between himself and Verca. It wound around Verca's left leg and opened it. The fisherman screamed and toppled. Dgord jumped to his aid as blood mixed with the sea water burbling up through the clean hole in the bottom of the vaka.

The flash of the implosion came from above. Dgord felt lifted from his feet. His hat disappeared from his head. The rustling sail screamed in fury. The thunderclap seemed to release him. The top of the mast and much of the sail was gone, its devoured edge a trail of smoking embers.

Savan's eerie white form bent over Verca. The man clutched below his left knee with both hands, arms trembling, his breath hissing through his teeth. The serpent had released him and drew back, it upper body bursting open into a hydra. Savan grabbed the beast as Jeiu and Dgord dragged Verca abaft in the limited space. Someone yelled about a tourniquet.

Savan was aware of the quiet war being waged between the exotic matter of the carapace and the hydra form that lashed out. The minor Atuka was nothing more than a scout, pin-pointing their location for the hypernodal weapon and a distraction to keep him busy. The carapace disrupted its biological bonds and the creature fell apart into millions of tiny wriggling disassociated worms. His chest heaved. The victory was not solely his. The carapace suffered further corruption. He had to act now.

He threw a leg up over the railing of the vaka as Jeiu pushed by to fight the gushing leak in the hull with an adaptive plug.

Dgord was at his face. "Do you know what Atuka means," the sea captain yelled. Savan hung on the edge, ready to plunge, the carapace mask emotionless, glistening in the wet. "It means swallower of ghosts."

Savan shuddered and slipped over the edge.

And sank. Fast. Deep portions of the carapace shaped spacetime, built a lattice of mass.

The immediate undersea world brightened in color-corrected infrared and microwave. The depths of the sea remained dark, darker yet. Occasionally there came the flitter of a sponge-eel darting by, or the languid flag-like mat of searag. And everywhere the floating tiny bodies of creatures that pursued or provided food. There in the murky distance, the sinusoidal motions of Atuka racing toward him.

Not Atuka. Leviathan. The inhabitants of galactic nebula, veils of light impenetrable dust spanning hundreds of light-years. The star makers. World movers. The old ones.

Still he sank, the oxygen filter labored, corrupted. Faulted. Savan's chest grew tight, his breath shallow, quick, his mind dizzy. The carapace collected the breath of his exhaling, not allowing a single bubble to escape, finding a use for the raw material of his body. He sank and sank, the enemy drew nearer.

A brilliant flash of light and he was pulled in the rapid current of sea water toward the short lived and utterly destructive puncture in reality. The carapace disturbed the leviathan senses, but for how long? More flashes, like underwater lightning. A hit and miss strategy. The pressure waves jostled him violently.

The key lay below him in perpetual gloom. He could feel it across his whole body like a lover's pulse at his lips. He was close enough to register the device, its cloistered mind tentatively uncoiling in Savan's. He beckoned it to come, felt it lift from its sediment tomb.

The suit budded jets off his calves to propel him toward the surface. Responding to the key, the carapace bent his arm back, opened his fingers. It slipped into his hand, a simple cylinder of dark, dull matter, one end cupped as if to hold a small ball, one no larger than the suit when condensed. The portal . . . the device would draw the strange hatch to itself, closing it, holding it closed. Savan thought only of the surface of the water and breaking it. He shot upward, his world spinning.

The leviathan swarmed near. The ghost swallowers. The sea around him exploded with their questing bodies. The carapace put forth great effort to repel the creatures. His chest burned for air as tendrils dark as oil coiled around his ascending form. Determined filaments exploited growing weaknesses in the gleaming carapace, penetrated, and sought his flesh. They would open him from inside the protective shell. Savan's only relief was that the portal was coming, called to the mysterious doorknob in his hand, and the key that would lock it shut. The carapace at his hand flowed around it, enclosing so that only its cupped aperture remained exposed.

Atuka stole into his mind, a frost laden logic. A mind that touched him before on the small planetoid whipping around Rhaul Nine Idolta, where he and Captain Hershanien Mercator found the portal, the leviathan bursting forth and enveloping him, pulling him into the nightmare surrealism beyond. A mind whose thoughts were terrible quakes of fury. I will destroy you all. It gives the Interloper great pain. . . .

Savan struggled against the weight of the leviathan. The surface was a shimmering verdigris silver beyond reach. Beyond sanctuary. He thought of the interloper, The Stranger, the one on the other side of the portal that helped him escape, the one that had stolen the vessel.

Thief! Usurper! Meddler! I will vanquish him. I will vanquish you. . . . The leviathan's mind consumed Savan; its domain fell away into indeterminate depths, as wide and vast as the empty cosmos, as timeless as eternity. The enormity of it left Savan on the beach of screaming insanity. I will vanquish the apaxan. They cannot hide forever. I will stop them. And the Interloper-

Its hate resounded through Savan; his stomach tightening as he groaned anguish, a flow of bubbles erupted from the carapace's filter. He felt water at his mouth. Let it be quick when it comes.

The leviathan's agitation mounted. Savan screamed through the pain of its invasion into his body. He felt it's sense of urgency, its hope against doubt of its battle. It knew the portal came. Like the opening door to a cage. Through the murky distance it plowed. Two meters in diameter, the density of the water would not slow it.

He and the Atuka felt the pressure wave of the portal as it moved to intercept them. Savan could feel it below and to the side of him, covering great distance in seconds. The sea rumbled. He saw it visually now. The surface of the portal was a folded layer of spacetime, gravitationally destructive. It pulled water apart into plasma. The sea boiled across its surface. The carapace and the entwined serpents of the leviathan wouldn't let him feel the scald. Only the suit and the similar technology woven into the leviathan's bodies were able to cross that threshold, repelling the forces and letting matter pass.

Pass into what he would never understand.

The portal shrank as it raced toward them, a ball of hot glowing gases at odds with the cold dark water around it. Savan and the leviathan fought for control of the key. The man's lungs burned for oxygen, his body wasted, manipulated by the carapace that itself wound down. The vertiginous surface seemed so far away, impossible to reach. The tentacles of the beast had clogged his jets. No longer rising, no longer drifting, but sinking again.

Savan wanted to rest in the peaceful void that called, a siren's whisper against his ear. Into sweet surrender where his troubles would vanish like sunburned morning mists. His oxygen starved brain reeled. Parts of the carapace began to slough off; his skin broiled in the superheated water. The pain flared distant, an old spark from a dying fire.

Pin-pricks of brilliance danced across his vision. He thought it was his own gasping eyes for a moment, but the leviathan occupying his mind churned in surprised annoyance, in some semblance of pain, a mere warning that something was wrong. The battle had been enjoined. The Stranger from beyond the portal opened tiny hypernodals, expertly manifest across and inside the twining serpent bodies of the Atuka. They went off like strobe flashes, a twinkling eruptive froth. The leviathan roiled under the assault, and for a moment, the key held open the portal, a globe that would fit in the hand.

The Atuka released him as they fragmented, withdrawing the worms from his body. Savan scrambled upward to the promise of air, into the cooler water. The carapace pulled what was left of itself to his head, his face, where its only need would be to supply him oxygen.

The leviathan seemed to war with the portal. Hypernodal flashes illuminated the cloudy veils of their remains. A few tendrils disappeared into the spherical shape of the doorway. Atuka gone, it shrank and sped upward toward Savan, toward the controller.

Savan loitered in the water, gasping fresh oxygen through the gauzy mask. Felt some of his strength return. The portal shrank further, a toy ball, a fruit, an egg. It connected to the key, and the device swallowed it whole.

He'd done it!

Now if he could get the key to the hidden apaxan his duty would be complete. The surface of the sea shimmered above him like dark glass. The shadow of the proa undulated. He kicked toward it, the carapace mask hot against his face. Outstretched fingers broke the surface. His face pushed up into the brightness of the day. The carapace dissolved, spent. Savan filled his lungs through a burning throat. Then he was pulled under again.

A leviathan had held back in reserve. The edges of its whips razor sharp, thrashing, slashing. Opening.

Dgord's head wrenched around to the sound of splashing water. He saw Savan succumbing to the beast, the water carrying pink foam, his carapace nowhere to be seen. An arm denied the attack, held high, the blanched hand gripping the device.

The old sea captain grabbed the edge of the boat. He turned to Jeiu, who watched the events mouth agape, eyes wide. "Tell her I'm sorry," he said, hoping she still lived. It was almost a whisper, but the young man gazed back at him in wonder. Before Jeiu could move the old man was over the edge, into the water, hearing Verca cry out.

Dgord swam into the red sea, toward the sinking hand. Savan's mouth hung open, a horrible maw flooding with vile water. Dead eyes studied the rolling clouds above. The face submerged and the hand sank, the tip of the device disappearing beneath the waves. The fisherman struggled out of his useless raincoat and dove. Dark tendrils whipped at him, drawing lines of pain and blood across his arms. What was left of Savan was a pale beacon. He pressed on, ignoring the agony, rising above it. Fingers opened, two were cleaved at the middle knuckle. He wouldn't need them anymore. He grabbed the device. It hummed in his hand.

Kissed his mind.

Allow me to open just once, just a crack, to finish this menace.

Dgord scrambled to the surface. Legs kicking frenetically. Atuka thrashed him. He broke the water. Jeiu had managed to get the old damn proa closer. The young man's body folded over the edge, his hand reached out to pull the old man up and aboard. But the Atuka opened the sea captain as his pleading eyes fell into Jeiu's, and the device passed into the young man's hand.

Atuka swarmed. Dgord disappeared in chunks. A scream lodged in Jeiu's throat like a boulder in plumbing. He fell back into the hull, sprawling against Verca. The composite wall of the hull exploded as an angry serpent pushed through, its end a saw-blade of teeth. The device dropped from Jeiu's hand, rolled into the water filling the bottom of the vaka.

The angry mouth snapped as Jeiu screamed and scrambled up the back of the hull. Verca's hand roamed in the water finding the device. The Atuka pushed in. Tentacles reached over the edge of the hull and pulled down, tipping the boat, arcing the mast. Jeiu hung onto the boom, his frantic feet kicking at the Atuka with all his might.

Verca slipped toward the submerged edge of the hull, banging his leg and yelling in agony. He fell out, into the rolling sea. He fought to keep his head above water. The Atuka turned their attention away from the boat. He had the key. Verca shook his head to clear the alien thoughts burning inside his mind. It wanted to open the portal. It said it could finish the Atuka. The promise, sweet. He let it. Tired, he sank.

Atuka followed. Serpents reached out, wriggling filaments like boneless fingers. The monster followed the trail of bubbles escaping Verca's mouth. The fisherman noticed the dark water brighten, felt the sudden heat at the end of the rod where a small ball glowed with terrible power. The Atuka noticed it too, and tried to reverse. But the sea creature's hide sparkled from a million tiny flares, its body disassociated, disintegrated, in a black lacey veil. Then that too was gone, dispersed by the water, and the glowing hot ball retreated. Verca, too tired and bled out to move, watched the surface of the sea grow darker and darker.


The sun slipped to the broken peaks of the western crater wall, pulling the shade of night. Nothing moved on the surface of the water but the rain, the never ending rain. Jeiu screamed at the waves as he perched on the side of vaka, the akas angling to the sky. They were all gone, all swallowed by the horrible water.


Pronunciation guide.

Dgord • D-joard

Jeiu • Jee-ew

Verca • Ver-kuh

Savan • Sa-van

 Atuka • ah-Two-ka

Posted by Paul Cargile at 2:25 AM EDT
Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Topic: Notes

An idea can be like a bush, it can grow so much foliage as to hide the trunk. Since the summer of 2008, I've idea upon idea, each one evolving toward something new, secondary characters becoming primary characters, new adventures replacing old ones, until it becomes so convoluted, it becomes a thick tangle difficult to navigate. It's time to break out the pruning shears, snip off some wild tangent branches, and get back to the core of the story.

The story . . . which is what?

The Temperance Well is about free will and theological determinism, and if the two are diametric or can be reconciled. The original idea had a godlike being that could travel through time as we travel through space, and having entered our dimensions froze time since the history of the universe was "his" past. The whole idea was that if someone from the distant future visited the distant past, then everything between those two events was certain to happen, if we make the premise that the past is immutable. It very may be, and this is the common sense on the matter, though there are some scientist that speculate that the past may be as chaotic as the future, in that if we were able to travel back in time, we would find events have played out not as we remembered.

To truly get a grasp of this, one has to consider a world-line, a physical interpretation of an object as it moves through space, like a pinhead leaving a trail of thread. In an universe with an immutable past, such world-lines are static and unmoving in the past, and wriggling about like worms in the future—if we assume that world-lines extend into the future, as they would in a predestined universe. In an universe with a chaotic past, the world-lines in both past and future wriggle about, which was the condition the old character Kha wanted—a condition that set up the stakes whereby such a state might create pasts where other intelligent species never came to be. That's one considered possibility of the true nature of the universe. But from our limited experience, the past has happened and the present is a temporal horizon in which the only paths to follow are ones that build the future; we cannot cross that horizon back into the past, and the future remains as nonexistent possibilities. That seems to be our intuitive experience with time.

But in a predestined universe, a person's whole life exists as this odd temporal world-line, from the merger of world-lines of ovum and sperm, to the unraveling world-lines of decomposition. But from birth to death, there is a four dimensional object that represents a person whose three dimensional shape is naught but a cross-section. If the world-line is not being built as the person move through time, then what is it exactly that moves along the world-line as the person experiences time?

And what is memory? Is memory what we experience when we turn out inner eye to peer down the world-line? If so, what prevents us from peering up the world-line into the future? Or do we? In a nonpredestined universe, perhaps with no set futures, our imaginations are linked to possible future outcomes. But in a predestined universe, should we not be able to "premember" the future? Or is the Present a temporal horizon we can’t see over? These are the questions that lace the concepts of this fictional universe. (As a side note, I believe that predestined or not, world-lines can oxbow or maybe intersect themselves. I'll leave you to contemplate what that means.)

And so the actual physical Temperance Well was going to be the result of the merger of the four Shards of the Wellstone, that mighty artifact built by an elder race from a prior universe made to draw together the two branes and thus create the Big Bang. And Kha's meddling in our affairs froze time and created a predestined universe . . . but I had no plans to make "him" the actual God. And if Kha's actions were like a being from the future visiting the past, then why not throw out the whole idea of Kha and the Shards and make the Temperance Well a physical object that actually has something to do with back-in-time travel?  This solves a lot of bothersome problems.

Kha: a godlike being has the problem that its inhibitions and inabilities are purely by the hand of the author and do not arise naturally from the rules of the fictional universe. It would be difficult to craft such rules that in turn ruled out the godlike being. Kha, then should not exist.

The Last Shard itself is merely a McGuffin, a plot device the characters are after. In this case, the alien species Jautoc and Apaxan are made aware of Kha's goals through the Elders. Both conspire to hide the shard in the Earth so that Kha cannot get it—why can't he get it, because I said so. If Kha can pluck hearts out of chests without reaching into the body, he should be able to pluck out the Shard from the core of the Earth. But I decided that he couldn't do that on the weak premise the Elders made the Drawingstone that way. And so Kha needed humans to destroy the Earth to get at the Shard, but the Jautoc and the Apaxan knew that humans would be loath to destroy their own world, especially since the Apaxan dispersed them helter-skelter into the galaxy and no one lives there anymore, but O! the fond memories that have since evolved into humorous myths no one takes seriously. If you see the problem with that plot as I do, then you understand why the Shard has to go.

No more Kha, and no more Shard. And the hell with it, let's toss out the Jautoc too.

So, what becomes the Temperance Well now? It has to be physical thing . . . a construction . . . a powerful machine. And one not rooted in some hyperdimensional flight of fancy, but in real science speculation.

It has to be a time machine.

It has to be the very thing that has been created to invoke predestination.

It is based on the Tipler Cylinder, a hypothetical device (of infinite length) that once spun up to near light-speed will twist up spacetime near it as to allow time travel back to the time when it was first spun up to near light-speed. That the niggling thing about back-in-time travel, if you use a super dense spinning cylinder or a wormhole, you can't travel back to a time prior to the use of the device as a time machine. I first saw the cylinder on a Science Channel show about time travel, but the cylinder or tube they were speculating about was of finite length. I don't recall the specific length, but the diameter was six miles. My question of why six miles is what stuck in my head.

For most of the universe—or at least the time span of concern to humans—to be predetermined by a person or being from the remote future traveling to the past, the machine has to built and engaged in the remote past. This would be more likely a machine of the Elders. And the caveat is that the gravitational stresses are so severe that any spacecraft the humans or the apaxan were to use would be destroyed. That means a special vehicle must be used. It's this Elder vehicle that replaces the Shard. The vehicle can transverse the Temperance Well and return to the past. The assumption is that the cylinder was built, and the vehicle was sent out at incredible speed to invoke time dilation so that it traveled to the remote future rather swiftly from its points of view, and like molasses running uphill for the point of view of the rest of universe (although like a black hole, it would probably be hidden by an event horizon). But wait! It's two of them. Because the Temperance Well Universe operates in a predestined mode, it has completed its mission. As soon as the strange Elder craft leaves the Well, it emerges from the Well. The younger version of it moves off into the distant future, while the older version has the job of defending its younger self from those forces that plan to stop it. History is caught in a temporal causal loop, and someone (perhaps Raum, as I need a singular villain) plans to break it. Or maybe he wants to prevent it from being broken by those who think it should.

This change to the change to the change means no useless plot-hole destruction of the Earth's environment or the need for the apaxan to save us. In this revamp, we head out for the stars and the apaxan find us. I never liked making we humans the beneficiaries to apaxan altruism, even though it was a selfish ploy to hide the Shard. I think giving them an ulterior motive to manipulate us was a good idea, the premise it was based upon was flawed. Now the relationship is new territory.

The Mercator stories were shots in the dark. Talk about convolutions. There is too much going on, enough for a season or two of a one hour television series on The Cargile Network. The only thing those stories had to connect it to the Shard was that Raum would do something to make Kariden chase him into the time dilated future. Sad to say, its mostly back story, with even more past back story planned! I enjoyed writing the stories, but in the back of my mind I kept asking what it had to do with The Story. I still want things to happen on Mercator. I still want things to happen between Raum and Kariden. But do I need the Ravens? Do I need Raum to be a warlord? Perhaps not.

The new structure revamps "Signpost"—I did have larger plans for this whereby in the sequel "Unsouled", Kha cleverly recruits someone to thwart Kariden's endeavors during his pursuit of Raum—so that the Elder vehicle is discovered (which version?) on the Cross planetoid. Which leads to Raum's eventual arrival at Mercator.

Lots of changes, I know, but my goal is to whittle the story down to its essentials, get rid of unnecessary characters, maybe meld some together. Do I need Codus Cosundi? Or Wisty? Or even the Rector. There are lots of aspects for me to contemplate and consider.

But first there is this damned spaghetti western, which might actually have something to do with this Temperance Well thing after all. If not for this side track, I wouldn’t have found the means to do away with the Shard.


You might say it's predestination.


Posted by Paul Cargile at 5:11 AM EST
Thursday, 3 November 2011
Rough Cuts: commentary on the original passes of the SFSW

Rough cuts

Introductions are the most difficult to write. They have the most important job in the story. It’s a greeting. A welcome. A sales pitch. It has to impress and intrigue. It has to set up the story. It has to set the tone. Sometimes it's good—and far easier—to plunge right into the action. I did not want to do that with this yet to be titled science fiction western. Inspired by Sergio Leone's classics, I wanted something more cinematic.

My vision was to open on a bleak landscape, a hybrid of Mars and Peru, under a bright cold sun. I saw the camera panning across this place with only the sound of the wind, eventually falling to the metal orb. Then we hear the sounds of another machine and see the mechanical horse and its rider descending the rocky slope.

It works great for movies and graphic novels, but for a written story, the reader should be removed from the narrator to get the full impression of being there. The reader should be parked behind a set of eyeballs and be in the character's perception.

I continuously edit, so unfortunately I do not have the very first rough draft of the opening sequence. However, I did save the other passes. I spent hours on three short paragraphs, and could spend more. But when I get to the end of the story, I might have a better idea of the beginning, and I'll tinker some more until it does its job.

Here are those prior passes, in order of production:

 At zenith, a bleaching white sun glared out from a shield of pale blue. Boulders, gravel, sand, and dust stretched away to an uneven horizon of faint mountain peaks ripping into a silver unforgiving empty sky. Wind whistled and moaned around thrust up ledges of dark jagged rock. Across the open plain streamers of grit flowed around a large spherical obstruction sunk in a shallow, damp depression.

The canister sat cracked and split like a burst pressure vessel where it had come to rest, the violence of its passage strewn with the detritus of bright alloys and dark composites: torn sheets with sharp twisted edges, or small clumps of fragmented machinery. The otherwise wind-smoothed surface of gravel and sand had been gouged and channeled where the metal ball had rolled and bounced, pointing back several hundred meters to the impact crater, a gash splashed into the dust and sand scorched black and glassy.

Another sound met the pained moans of wind . . .


Above an infinite stretch of boulders, sand, and dust, a bleaching white sun glared from a shield of pale blue. Across the horizon faint mountain peaks ripped into the unforgiving empty silver sky. Bleak. Desolate. The wind seemed the only living thing as it whistled and moaned around thrust up ledges of dark jagged rock. Across an open plain streamers of grit flowed around a large spherical obstruction sunk in a shallow, damp depression. . . .

The wind seemed the only living thing as it whistled and moaned around thrust up ledges of dark jagged rock, islands in an ocean of boulders, sand, and dust. Across the horizon faint mountain peaks ripped into the unforgiving empty sky bleached silver by a white sun glaring out from a dome of pale blue. Bleak. Desolate. Near a cap of bedrock streamers of grit flowed around a large spherical obstruction sunk in a depression of  shallow, damp sand. . . .


Serpents of sand and dust rippled here and there across the wasteland like hunters on the prowl. Grains rasped against scattered boulders and wind moaned around up-thrust ledges of dark jagged rock, sighing a haunted lament across desolation, the voice of the world. Faint mountain peaks in the deep west ripped into the unforgiving silver sky. The noon white sun glared from a smear of pale blue. Near a cap of bedrock, the streamers of dust flowed around a large spherical obstruction sunk in a depression of shallow, damp sand. . . .


All horrible, horrible, horrible. Not too far removed from a tongue twister.

After having written much of the first scene, I had a moment of doubt whereby I realized I could increase the action and tempo by not having the gunman come across the cargo orb, but by having the damn thing coming down upon him as he crossed the desert. Man would that be awesome!

I was seriously thinking of a rewrite but I talked myself out of this action scene because I felt it was a little too much, more comic-bookish than what I had envisioned. I strive for a little more realism, a lot more science in the fiction. I mean seriously, what are the odds of a jettisoned cargo globe actually coming down on a lone rider in a world sparsely populated? I feel this requires the reader to suspend disbelief to a greater magnitude than what I'm aiming for, and thus you the reader will expect more improbable acts to follow. It also sets a tone vastly different than what I have planned. This is a story of discovery: We discover the orb in the desert, we discover the pod and the lockbox, we discover the villain is looking for the lockbox and the "key" inside, we will discover what that key "opens". This is more of a hunt than a chase. No need to gallop out from under certain death, no matter how great it might look on an anamorphic screen with thundering surround sound.

Originally, the gunman fills his water bins first then has the showdown with the harriers, poor bastards that show us the desperation for water the people of Ureys have, and what a bad-ass the gunman is. In this order, the harriers are merely an obstacle to his leaving alive and unrobbed. That's not much fun. Conflict is added and enhanced by having the water the trophy to defeating these greedy men. Oh, yeah. On the very first pass, as soon as they draw guns, he drops 'em without so much as a word. But it's not supposed to be that easy. If your characters are having an easy time, you're doing it wrong.

Then I wanted to slow things up before we get to the escape pod with this bit of business:

By evening the gunman had reached the impact site of another water globe. This one had smashed into rock. There was nothing but small flotsam of debris and fresh broken rock. The wind had begun drifting toward the south, long streamers of dust pointing the way. The rambler snorted and whined nervously; oxygen levels were falling.

The rider slipped his hat back and pulled a breather mask up from the console between the control levers. He secured it over his mouth and twirled the flow valve at his right knee open. Oxygen sighed.

In the distance, the sea of sand crept up onto bedrock. He unhooked goggles from the console and slipped them on, tapped into the sensor feeds from the rambler. After adjusting his hat back on his head, the rider shifted a lever to set the machine from walk to drive mode. The rambler crouched, tucking its legs and extending its tracks into place


The weirdness with the oxygen will be explained, so hold your ramblers, but here I get into dealing with the oxygen problem too soon where it can't be used as a . . . (sigh) plot device. I just wanted to get to the rambler's drive mode so bad. It walks, it rolls, it’s like a small truck sized ATV with legs and tank treads! I was also going to have him camp out for the night, setting up a tent, and cooking a meal, all to show how things are done on the trail without wood. Maybe time for that later in scenes that actually move the story along.

Originally, this is what happened in the pod:

The arm fell and swung, the hand like a claw. The pilot moved no more. The gunman’s breath plumed and dispersed.


The gunman looked around at the cargo boxes. They were numbered in serious stencils. He moved to the one appropriately marked and unlatched it from the wall. He wrestled the cargo bin to the hatch and let it fall out. He climbed down and tugged the box out from under the craft. The rambler snorted and whinnied. He would need his oxygen mask soon.

The cargo bin was not locked and he undid the latches that circled its lid. He pulled the lid up and set it aside. A small trunk lay in wait, a box within a box. The gunman lifted it up seeing all he needed to see. The lockplate had the distinct characteristics of a biolock. This personal trunk would not open unless the owner was physically touching it . . . and alive.

“Hmm.” The gunman frowned.


Seriously, that was it, then on to Cavan Brovorchi's despicable self. Well, gosh that was easy, just get the cargo bin and look into it. Frank, when I said I needed to add conflict to a scene, that was the one. So instead of needing the breather mask soon, I decided it would be best if he needed the breather now. Yeah, he could have gone outside, got his oxygen supply, and went back for the bin, but I did some quick internet research on oxygen deprivation and decided that when it becomes difficult to think, you're liable to make poor decisions. Plus it’s a great way to show how dangerous Ureys is. The planet will freaking kill you, even if you are careful.

Scene Two: The Brovorchi Situation did not go through a lot of changes. It pretty much stands as original material.

On the other hand, The Weslock scene had the most changes.

In the first pass, ol' Sarko was giving the business to Clovovac while Gorro held Dusana. The idea was that the Good Captain Weslock had a crew and had hired Sarko and Gorro to intercept Clovo and Dusana at the escape pod.

“Where is it!”

The man holding Clovovac was a filthy straggler, a man who reeked of sweat-soaked coats and an unwashed mouth of food bits gone to spoil in the gaps of his teeth—what he had left. Wild, large eyes rolled beneath a knit cap of dust speckled dark green. Sunlight gleamed off his greasy face, at odds with the coating of grime and grit.

Again, he clouted Clovo against the side of his head in a hand wrapped in a dirty make-shift glove of swatches. “You spoke with him,” the man shouted and pointed at the escape pod leaning on its side in the bright morning sun with Clovo’s jumper parked behind it. Cloth around the man’s hand hung like a loose bandage. “Tell me where it is!” Clouds of his breath hung on the air.

Clovo shivered. His coat had been stripped off. “Dead, when we arrived. I told you.”

“You tell me lies,” the tramp said and back-handed Clovo, letting him fall sideways into the rough sand. A heavy boot toe slammed into his ribs, emptying his lungs in a torrent of molten pain. That dirty swathed hand grabbed his hair, pulled his face up from the sand. Clovo’s eyes and mouth scrunched in pain and fear. He choked to get his lungs restarted.

“But maybe she won’t, no?”

Clovo focused across the sand to the blurry figure of Dusana. She screamed and tried to buck away from the captor that held both her upper arms. She too had been stripped of her coat. Bastards. He coughed and drew a ragged breath. “Don’t hurt her.”

The vagabond laughed. Clovo heard the whine of a power pack charging. No! He pulled trembling arms underneath him and struggled to get to his feet. Laughter assailed him and a boot heel pushed him over. Sand splashed into his mouth. Clovo rolled onto his back, his heels and palms digging into the sand as he attempted to get away.

Dusana watched in horror as the desert harrier pulled his pistol from its place inside his ragged coat and leveled it at Clovovac’s face. A hot pulse of plasma left a smoking ruin in its path. She screamed until her throat became a hoarse wreck and sparkles danced in gray vision.

Dusana sagged in her captor’s arms, her long hair flowing like a tattered flag in the cold wind.

Sarko opened his coat and tucked his pistol into the net of wide strips sewn into the lining. With the toe of his boot he turned the body over. The back of the head was a burnt funnel large enough for his fist. “Your lies are gone like your life, preeta.” He chuckled and walked away to cross the several meters where Gorro stood near their truck holding the fainted woman . . . the screamer. How he could make her scream. And would.

And thus with the Captain knowing Sarko, their exchange went like this:

“My good Sarko,” the Captain said with a hint of a smile under his drooping mustache. “What you lack in sagacity, you make up in lassitude.”

The meaning was lost to Sarko, but the tone sounded friendly. “Thank you Captain Weslock.” He beamed, thinking of the hectoliters he would receive for this bit of work.

Weslock stepped nearer and slapped a naked hand on Sarko’s shoulder, sending up puffs of dust. “Seems like you have gotten a head start.”

Sarko turned halfway, putting his back to the wind, and opened a palm to the dead man. “You said you was gonna question ‘em, so I figured, why wait.” Sarko shrugged. “He didn’t want to talk. But the girl. I think she will, no?” His muddy eyes gleamed in hopes of appraisal.

Weslock left Sarko’s side and walked to the corpse. He reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a white elastic glove. He heard the moans of the waking woman and knew without looking his men were tending to her. Dusana and Clovovac. Sand had begun to pile up around the corpse. He kneeled at the body and tugged his right hand into the glove. He probed the devastating wound with the gloved fingers. Sarko came to stand near him.

Weslock motioned the man to squat. Sarko did, grinning and nodding like a fool. Proud of his kill. “What I actually said,” the captain intoned, “was that I was going to ‘extract their knowledge’”. Sarko continued to grin and nod. Weslock grinned back. He put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I don’t have time to waste with questions and torture.”

Sarko waited expectantly.

Weslock rolled his gloved hand around the gaping hole in Clovo’s head. “What I had planned to do, my vacuous dear Sarko, was to pull information directly from the visual cortex. To see what they saw.”

“Ah,” Sarko nodded. “Is a good plan.”

“Yes,” Weslock rejoined. “From this area here that you have so expertly eliminated.”

Sarko’s ears heard only praise. He chucked like a man over a cold pint. “I am a good shot. No time for lies, eh? No time wasted with more questions, like you said, no?”

“Ah, my good Sarko, my time has been wasted in profligacy.” Weslock’s naked hand crept toward Sarko’s neck . . .

And the glove/knife scene is pretty much the same. Then I had a bit of business between Weslock and his first officer over the hiring of such idiots that are doing more harm than good.

Standing, he noticed his first officer standing meters away, back to the wind, worry on his face. “Who hired these men? Was it you Tofuld?”

Tofuld seemed to stand a little taller, more rigid. “Yes captain.”

“Apparently, competent men to too much to ask for.”

Tofuld swallowed. “Ureys doesn’t exactly have the best pool to pull from.”

Captain Weslock shrugged as he began to advance on his officer. “Buy cheap, get cheap, eh? This moon does seem to have a problem with ubiquitous idiocy.”

“That it does,” Tofuld breathed. The fog of his exhalation blew away as Weslock stopped before him. Their eyes locked, but Tofuld lost against the impulse to look away.

“Your sidearm, mister Tofuld, if you please.”

Tofuld knew better than to question the order. With a nervous hand he pulled aside his long coat from the lower button at his groin and unsnapped the strap that secured his pulser in its holster. To die in this frigid desert. He would be a man and not snivel for his life. He withdrew the gun and handed it over.

“Thank you mister Tofuld.” Weslock threw the charging switch. The gun began to hum. He looked around at his waiting men.

“Is there anyone amongst you who thinks himself deserving of promotion?” They returned blank stares, refusing to acknowledge the first officer. “No one,” Weslock queried. He waited several breaths gauging the men before throwing his hard gaze back to Tofuld. “Seems no one is ready for the challenges of command.”

“No sir,” Tofuld forced out of his mouth.

“Extend your hand,” Weslock ordered.

Confusion washed over the officer’s face. “Sir?”

“Extend your hand.” Slow. Deliberate.

The officer stammered, “Sir, this isn’t necessary. I’ve—”

Weslock raised the pulser to the man’s forehead. “Your hand or your life mister Tofuld!”

Tofuld started to raise his right hand but thought better of it and stripped the glove from his left. No need to ruin a good glove. He held the hand out like a benediction and tried to clamp his scream behind gnashing teeth as light and plasma scored a coin sized hole through his flesh. He drew his arm to his body, his right hand clutching the wrist in a death grip. His injured hand was a useless claw at the end of his arm.

“You’ve a debilitating wound, mister Tofuld. Go tend to it.”

The first officer staggered back to the lighter.

Nothing wrong with this, other than the fact that it does not move the story along. So I replaced it with this bit:

The captain pulled a flask from inside his coat and mouthed the cap free leaving it to dangle on a lanyard. He poured water over the gory blade, washing the blood into the sand and gravel. The blade flowed back into a glove and Weslock wriggled his fingers. He stood, noticing his men standing in a spaced arc, one holding Dusana up on her feet, her coat caped around her shoulders. Gorro stood away from them like a statue, as if there was no one inside that thick coat or behind those goggles. Weslock took a swallow of water, capped the spout, and tossed the canteen to Gorro.

The bundled man snatched the flask out of the air with casual dexterity. Instead of drinking, he tucked the canteen into a cargo pocket on the thigh of his pants. Weslock smiled thinly. Not a desperate and greedy man, this Gorro.

“Pay him his water,”  Weslock enjoined, “Sarko’s included.” One of the men stepped over to Gorro to make arrangements. To the men with Dusana: “Take her aboard. Start the process. We’ll see what’s in that pulchritudinous head of hers.” His men escorted the submissive girl to the back of the lighter where the aft cargo door had been raised and the ramp deployed and extended. . . .

Weslock goes into the escape pod, looks around, cuts of Laanid's head (who was initially Waanid) and returns.

As he walked back to the Filthy Tramp’s lighter, Gorro stood over the dead Sarko, flask in hand, scarf looped loose around his neck exposing his mouth. Weslock grew wary over this man having thoughts over his dead partner. “Are we going to have a problem,” he asked as he neared with his grisly cargo.

Gorro never moved to look at him. “Ufeth clup sovek.” He was a stupid man.

Weslock clapped him on the shoulder as he passed. “Don’t forget it, preeta.”

His first officer, Tofuld, waited at the bottom of the ramp when Weslock rounded the port engine’s thruster channels. He stood rigid as a regimental officer, his dark blue duster clasped tight against his form. “I’ve ran a comprehensive scan. She doesn’t know anything more than we already know.”

Captain Weslock shrugged. He hadn’t expected much from Dusana, but there could be surprises. He lifted the head. “Maybe you can get something out of this.”

Tofuld frowned and extended a leather gloved hand to receive the postmortem decapitation. “The synapses might not have deteriorated too bad. Triggering memory might be a problem though.”

“I’m sure you can coax something out of it.” Weslock moved up the ramp into the cargo bay of the lighter. . . .

Then he and Tofuld are in the hold looking at Laanid's memory scan. Again, it's a pretty solid piece of work, but should Wessy have a crew? I began to think not. He's after something very powerful and the less people that know about, the better for him. He wouldn't put himself into a position where an underling could betray him. While that would certainly add entertaining conflict, the story is about three characters on this search. Too many clutter the story.

So I got rid of the crew and had these scenes:

The bundled man snatched the flask out of the air with casual dexterity. Instead of drinking, he tucked the canteen into a cargo pocket on the thigh of his pants. Weslock smiled thinly. Not a desperate and greedy man, this Gorro.

“I owe you water,”  Weslock adjured, “Sarko’s included.”

Gorro’s aim never wavered. Weslock could blade the glove and wrist-flick it through the air before Gorro could register the motion as an attack. “Are we going to have a problem?”

The hired gun stood motionless, his eyes hidden behind the dark goggles. His voice came muffled under the scarf, “Ufeth clup sovek.” He was a stupid man. He tucked his gun away.

“Don’t forget it, preeta.” Weslock reached into trouser pocket and clasped fingers around a small remote transmitter. He thumbed a button. “You’re water is in the back,” he said as the lighter’s rear cargo door began to lift.

Gorro hesitated and pointed at Dusana. Weslock shrugged. “Where is she going to go,” he called. Gorro turned away and went to the truck to pull it around to the back of the lighter. . . .

He gets the head out of the pod . . .

As he walked back to the Filthy Tramp’s lighter, Dusana paled upon seeing his grisly cargo. “Let’s go,” he said as he neared her. He passed and she got to her feet, thrusting her arms into the sleeves of her jacket.

Gorro waited at the bottom of the ramp when Weslock rounded the port engine’s thruster channels. His wide truck idled nearby, the stowage bay loaded with cases of water bins. He had lowered his scarf so that it exposed his mouth and chin and hung in loose coils around his throat. “Where’s the rest?” He did nothing to hide the threat in his tone.

Weslock passed him with Dusana in submissive tow, his boots clanging on the metal ramp plates. “You’ll get that when I find what I’m looking for.” Weslock turned his head to his shoulder. “And maybe more.”

“More,” Gorro pondered watching the captain step onto the deck of the cargo bay. “More work?”

Weslock stopped and turned halfway around, eying the smoky lenses of Gorro’s goggles. “More if I get a good look inside that head of yours.” He waved his gloved hand around the back of his head.


But would he hire Sarko and Gorro? I don't see that either, but I needed Sarko to disrupt his plans. And while none of this is bad, it leaves too many loose threads. I left myself with two people wronged: Gorro and Dusana, who could likely find an alliance and seek revenge against Weslock. I didn’t want that notion floating around in the reader's mind, that these people might resurface. I honestly didn't know quite what to do with them, except get rid of them, leaving me with Sarko using Dusana to force Clovo to talk. And while it is a cold act, it makes sense for Sarko to kill both of them, he doesn't want them hampering his efforts. He's removing obstacles and as an obstacle himself, gets removed by Weslock.


“Ah, my good Sarko, my time has been wasted in profligacy.”

I enjoyed this line so much as it really nailed the Weslock personality, but each time the scene changed, the line didn't quite work. It works if Sarko is a hired hand. It doesn't if Weslock is meeting Sarko for the first time. So I tried to force it in by having Sarko say something that warranted such a response. This is called: The author reaching into the story. It's a no-no. As much as I liked that phrase, it needed to go so that something more fluid and natural take its place.

A note of the foreign language: its derived from Eastern Europe languages thanks to the internet translator sites. Most of it is a phonetic interpretation while some are direct current spelling.

Posted by Paul Cargile at 2:23 PM EDT
Thursday, 27 October 2011
The Sci-fi Spaghetti Western
Topic: Other

It's been some time since I've posted. I needed a break from the world of Mercator and was struggling with some "prequel" material. Then one night at Wal-Mart I chanced upon two double feature DVD: Sergio Leone's classics "A Fistful of Dollars", "For A Few Dollars More," and "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly", plus "Hang 'Em High." Having seen these movies with my dad on television as a boy, I decided to buy them. What struck me was the dynamic character introductions. You knew who these guys were and stood for immediately. Here was a lesson to learn.

So I thought I would do something different for a change and do something a little funner as an exercise, a sci-fi spaghetti western, and admittingly a rip off of Leone's archetypical characters and story lines.

It hasn't been as easy as I hoped. I open on three characters and I've been beating and shaping these introductions for a few weeks--I haven't completed the third character's intro, but I think I've got the first two worked out well enough for public veiwing.

And because it's science fiction, its really a four character introduction, the fourth character being the planet. It's just as important to let the reader know the environment and the culture shaped by it.

In Leone's westerns, the plots center around gaining a fortune, usually money or gold. That wouldn't work too well in a sci-fi setting, so the fortune is something other than bags of gold coins, but of something the characters believe will bring them wealth. And so the hunt and the chase is on.

The story is yet to be titled.


The rider stared at the object along his path. Here was fortune, for good or for ill.

The globular canister sat cracked and split like a burst pressure vessel where it had come to rest near a cap of bedrock, sunk in a depression of shallow damp sand. Thin wary eyes followed the gouged channel of gravel and sand where the metal ball had rolled and bounced, the violence of its passage strewn with the detritus of bright alloys and dark composites: torn sheets with sharp twisted edges, or small clumps of fragmented machinery. Several hundred meters back he saw the edge of the impact crater, a gash splashed into sand scorched black and glassy.

Serpents of sand and dust rasped against the surface of the canister. Wind moaned its lonely haunt across up-thrust ledges of dark jagged rock scattered across the boulder-littered landscape.

Another sound met the pained moans of wind: the whine of servomotors and bangs of hydraulic pistons. The rider's rambler made its careful four legged gait down from the blunt ridge of an escarpment, twisting its ovoid sensor-laden head to map the terrain. The rider sat tall and sure, his hands resting around the button studded control levers as he swayed in the saddle-seat mounted between the spars of the machine-beast's broad shoulders and hips. A wide brim hat threw faint shadow across the man's wind-burned face. Pale eyes squinted against the glare. All this brightness and yet the air carried a biting chill. A tattered and faded poncho kept him warm and hid the instrument of his business: a pulse revolver strapped to his right thigh.

The rambler stopped at the edge of the rock. One diffident foot tested the sand. Loose. The machine bleated a status tone and lifted each foot, drawing its mechanical toes to form a single hoof, one after the other. Guided by limited intelligence, the mechanical beast stepped out in a slow gait toward the broken house-sized globe.

As he neared, the rider wondered at the dampness around the split sphere. He eased back in the levers, halting the rambler. He looked behind him and out along an indistinct horizon, looking for motion against the cloudless silver sky. Signs of life.


The rider dropped a foot into the top rung of the short ladder and dismounted, sinking to the tops of his grit-scuffed boots. He stepped out from between the legs of the rambler, laying an affectionate leather gloved hand on the plates of the retracted drive tracks attached at the forelegs. The rambler sniffed and whinnied an oxygen level report. Higher than expected. The man lifted his face to the white sun; it glared from a shield of pale blue.

At the edge of the dampness, the rider lowered to his haunches and scooped up wet sand. He brought it to his nose. Flinty. Nothing but sand. No oils. No chemicals. No hydrocarbon soups. He dropped the sample and peeled off a glove. He reached into the dampness again, rolling clumps of wet grit between finger and thumb. Water dampness.

He studied the canister.

Ice water.

The rider stood and looked up past the broken globe into the western sky. There a magnificent pale gibbous disc bright as marble hung over horizon with a throw of glinting jewels arcing away and fading in the sunlight. Rings of ice.

Here was the cargo of an ice harvester. A jettisoned load. The rider looked to the titled apex of the globe. Three of the disc-shaped grav-trappers had snapped off, but a fourth remained pinned to the side, never deployed.

The man craned his neck to look into the sky as if he could see the harvester that dropped this cargo, or any other searching craft. Here was wealth not to be lost. Yet the cloudless vault of the sky faded from blue to silver-white without mar. No vapor trails. No signs of activity. He was alone.

And here was water! He moved around the busted metal sphere, wet sand and grit sucking at his boots. He came to a large rent in the side where the plating had torn free of its support rib. Above his head, the swirling Calisenne numeral five seemed to climb out the scorched bottom of the globe. He reached a gloved hand out to the blackened, pitted twisted plating. Warm but not hot; it had had time to cool. Most of the water had gushed out but there was still some left in the shallow bowl of the bottom of the sphere. The man slipped off his hat, letting it hang at his back, and ducked under the jagged edge of twisted metal being careful not to cut himself. He stepped into the pool finding it warm. Sand swirled from his dirty boots. The reflective interior smeared his reflection as he tugged his gloves off and kneeled. He cupped water. He sucked the refreshing liquid into his mouth. So much water!

Drops and splashes dappled his dusty trousers. He did not care. He cupped up more, drenched his face in it. Clean, clear water. The bit of sand from his hands and clothes did not matter.


He stood and turned about, looking around the mirrored finish, seeing dew drops of condensation everywhere. The throat of the inlet canted about fifty degrees from the top and the main pump inlet protruded above the newly established waterline. Spacious, there was enough room in the sphere even for the rambler. It had lost uncountable liters, but liters remained. The man ducked out to get water jugs. He had filling to do.

He had stepped out of the busted orb and was crossing to the rambler when he heard the roar and whine of hovercraft. He looked toward the sound, southward where a dust cloud like talcum rolled away from a boulder strewn island of bedrock. Three hovercraft came into view, two small one-man vehicles escorting a larger third coming fast to the remains of the harvester globe. The man stopped between the canister and the rambler, the machine-beast grunted a late proximity warning. He whipped the poncho's right side up across his left shoulder, exposing his gun and let his right hand hang loose and ready. He stood easy, casual.

The hovercraft slowed, came to a stop many paces away. Dust swirled and drifted. The gunman suppressed a cough.

The drivers wore long coats, tight dust caps of leather, and dark lens goggles. They disembarked their craft and approached with caution, the tails of their coats flapping against their legs. The man in the middle lifted his goggles and wiped his face clean with the end of the scarf wrapped around his neck. The other two put wide space between them and stood ready for violence. They disappeared into the rider's peripheral vision when he focused on the man in the center.

The driver of the larger hovercraft clipped his doffed goggles to his belt, pulling the open edge of his coat back to reveal a short-barrel caliver holstered across his waist over his left thigh, the power cable looped around his right hip to the energy pack clipped at the back of his belt. He pulled off his dust cap, dark sweaty hair sprang out in disarray. The cap he fastened to his belt as well. The man snorted and spat, then grinned wide and devious.

"And here I was thinking I had all day to get here," the leader said throwing his jaunty voice into the air. "No rush." He eyed the rider with distrust. "After all, no one else is out here on the edge of the plume."

He was met with silence.

"No one else out here to take my claim," the man warned, holding his hard gaze on the rider. "What am I to do?"

After a pause of a few breaths, the rider did a quick sideways nod to the cargo globe. "There's plenty. Let me fill my casks and ride out."

The leader shook his head slowly. "We need all that water." The leader dropped a palm on the butt of his caliver. "You know how it is." Motion. The other men swept their coats aside revealing their weapons, the one on the left owned a large caliber ballistico, the one on the right a pulse hand-cannon.

The rider of the rambler said nothing. There was nothing to plead. He saw the larger hovercraft outfitted with a tank and pumping equipment.

"We are going to take things slow and easy," the leader said easing his caliver out of its holster and activated the charging circuit. The gun began to hum.

The rider threw quick sideways glances at the others. The two escorts leveled their guns at him, the barrels like blank dark eyes peering with deadly intent. Not likely he could put them all down spaced as they were.

The leader leveled his weapon at the rider. "Now use your left hand and remove your gun . . . slowly. And toss it this way."

The rider complied, his awareness open to all motion from the three harriers. His gun lay in dusty sand between him and the leader.

"Put your hands on the back of your head and turn around."

The rider did so, his ears attuned to the sounds of the men behind him.

"Now get on your belly . . . and don't take your hands from your head."

The man sank his knees into the soft sand. He bent over and twisted so that his left elbow met the ground. He lowered himself, stretched flat. Dust billowed around his nose and mouth.

"Go stun his hands," the leader barked to one of his men. The sounds of crunching, sighing sand came from right: the gunman with the ballistico. His shadow fell across the rider.

The henchmen reached into his coat and removed the thick cylinder of the stunner. He switched it on and reached down to make contact with the rider's wrists to numb them into uselessness.

Yet the rider rolled quickly into the man's ankles, nearly toppling him, and swung his left arm high slamming his fist into the man's soft groin. The harrier coughed a yelp and buckled over as the leader was shouting for his man to move. The rider reached his right hand around and pulled the ballistico from the holster. A fine mechanical weapon, he discharged it into the man's chest taking the brunt of blood spray in the process, the blast a hard clap slapping the air.

The man flew back, and before his body came to rest the rider rolled to his right, a near blinding flare of heat zapped over his shoulder sizzling into the sand, a whip crack following its dash through the air. Once on his back, he fired two shots, his hand a blur, the din rebounding off rock and ringing in his ears. The harriers were thrown back, their coats like demon wings. Dark blood arcing across the sky. They fell to heaps, throwing fine grains of dust into the wind. The leader's leg twitched. Fell calm. His gun still humming in his dead hand. The other had lost his useless hand cannon. It lay partially buried in loose sand, a big gun for such a slow hand.

Dust coated the rider's tongue. Blood sprinkled his lips. He spat and eased himself up onto his feet. The rider tucked the ballistico into the back of his waistband. He fetched his own weapon and returned it to its holster. He looted the bodies of stamped coins and water tokens.

In the leader's overcoat, his fingers brushed against the smooth surface of a projection disc. He removed it, turned it over in his hands. The back of its silver finish was inscribed in superfluous Calisenne script: "to my darling Henvor." The gunman turned it over and pressed the emission stud. A young woman's face loomed out at him accompanied by a tinkling refrain. Pretty girl. Poor choice in men. They could have walked away water rich and alive. The rider dropped the disc onto the blood-soaked shirt.

He went to the rambler, opened a cargo bin and removed a container of water to wash his face and to clean as much blood as he could from his poncho and trousers. He stowed the ballistico.

He filled his own water casks from the pool at the bottom of the globe. After he had his casks stored, he walked the rambler across the loose sand to the hovercraft. The gunman checked the unlocked cargo bins of each vehicle, finding rations and power cells. He shoved as much as he could into his own cargo bins, replacing rations he thought he would have to purchase in the town of Branlin. Climbing aboard the rambler, he paused only to cast an inspective eye across the black surfaces of the solar energy collectors open across the back of the machine. The large rectangles shadowed the empty cargo rack. It wouldn't be empty by tomorrow.


Uraeda, The gas giant, had long slipped behind the horizon when the silver coin of the sun dipped into the ochre shroud of dust. To the northwest a wide band of stars laced with veils of coal-black dust stretched low over the southern sky. The rambler moaned a warning. It detected something ahead. The gunman raised his field scope. The enhanced image zoomed to another object along his route. It was not an ice water cargo globe.

The rambler had made good time across the sand in drive mode and he had passed only one other canister. That globe had smashed upon rock and disintegrated into nothing of interest or use. Kiloms back that had been, and the thing ahead was a speck against the horizon. The sun would be down by the time he reached it.

It was dark and bitter cold when the rambler's shoulder mounted spotlights played curious bright circles across the object: an escape vehicle. There must have been some problems with the descent devices; the craft lay on its side, pulled over by emergency parachutes. The gunman could hear them out in the darkness flapping in the gusts against the sand. The module appeared archaic, a broad peakless cone with mechanical components forming a squat cylinder partially buried in a trough of sand. The base was mounted to a much wider crumbled and dented heat shield whose ledge was ringed with grav-traps. Small, it couldn't fit more than a few people.

The rambler snorted and gave a worried whinny. The wind was driving more southward, the oxygen levels dropping this close to the plume's edge. A strung gust of wind tugged at his hat and poncho. Such gusts indicated that a dust storm was fast approaching. He did not want to be in the squall for as long as he could help it. The rider thought to move on toward the canyon kiloms to the southwest to camp—he wouldn't reach Branlin until tomorrow—as there were rocks along his route where he could shelter through the blinding thick of the sandstorm. That was provided he forgot this escape pod and the possible tradables it held. But salvaging shouldn't take long. And it did not look as if anyone had come out the downed craft, the hatch was shut and there were no eroded vehicle or foot tracks around.

And not likely anyone would be coming out. The spotlights found a hole thick as his arm punched through the capsule. Particle beam perhaps.

He edged the rambler closer and dismounted. The closed hatch faced the ground. The gunman ducked under the pod. He searched around the seal, found a small panel on the hatch's surface and popped its flush latches. The little door opened revealing a pumping lever inside its depths. The man reached in and yanked the lever back and forth until the seal popped. He uncorked the hatch and swung it open.

He slipped off his hat and slipped on his night goggles. He poked his head up into the darkness. The particle beam had pierced some of the control consoles. Some of the panels had exploded. The motionless pilot hung in his harness upside-down, the angle and rotation of the craft turning the floor of the command chair into the ceiling. The overhead panel directly under the pilot's body was coated in blood. The gunman's breath fogged out. No fog came from the pilot's head. The other four seats arranged along the curving wall were empty. Cargo boxes as big as man's torso were secured along the wall behind the seats.

There may be something worth having here. He moved to the closest box and popped the latches to the thin metal arms that held it in place. A ragged moan filled the cabin. The gunman jerked toward the sound above him, his hand racing to his gun, throwing aside the hem of the poncho. He stepped under the pilot to see the man's face.

The pilot wheezed and trembled violently in his harness. Dim spot lamps began to glow a weary orange light. His eyes fell to the pitted and scratched surface of the gunman's goggles. Desperate frantic eyes. His mouth moved. Blood dribbled out. Drops splashed on the gunman's shoulder. "Thr-uh," he attempted, something thick gargled in his throat. An arm pinned in the seat fell free. The pilot managed to curl his thumb and little finger together and tried to speak again. The sound was horrible.

"Three," the gunman acknowledged.

The pilot nodded. His eyes rolled around and then stopped on the gunman's right hand resting on the butt of the revolver. The pilot's mouth curled in a near grin. His arm flinched and jerked up, wrist flailing and fingers doing their best to point at the back of his head. The limb trembled with the effort. "Shoo . . . shoo . . ."

The arm fell and swung, the hand like a claw. The pilot moved no more. The gunman's breath plumed and dispersed.

The gunman looked around at the cargo boxes. They were numbered in serious stencils. He sighed. Number three was behind the pilot's chair. He studied the empty crew seats and climbed atop the nearest. A strong gust of wind rocked the pod and the gunman held onto the chair above him as he regained his footing on the angled shoulders of the other. The storm neared. If he could climb up onto the higher chair, he might be able to reach the cargo box and be done here quickly.

The rambler whinnied with uncanny nervousness. He would have to act immediately.

As he scrambled up using the edge of the closest bin as a foot hold, another hard gust pushed the heat shield of the craft like a sail. He swayed with dizziness in the offset perch of the chair, looking around at the false colors of the interior presented by the goggles. The seal irritated his skin and he thought to remove the eyewear but the orange glow was fading. His breath blew out in chugs. The walls of the pod seemed to close in. His gaze wandered, searching for an anchor, found the number three stenciled on a cargo box latched to the ceiling.

A dead hand hung near his face. He looked at the white claw. Another desperate whinny. The pod rocked like a boat on water and he almost fell. He breathed as if he had run a marathon. It seemed to clear his mind. "Three," he muttered. He reached for the cargo bin, outstretched fingers struggling against the closed latch. His gloved fingers could find no purchase. He drew his arm back and fought his own body to get his fingertips into his mouth. With his teeth he pulled off the glove, his nails bluish. His breath exploded from his dry mouth. His lungs sucked dead, dusty air.

The gunman reached for the latch, his fingertips brushing under the cold metal edge of the flat tab. Groaning, he managed to spring it free. Another latched band held the bin. His arm dropped, so tired. He raised it, head swimming, bright spots popping around him. His fingers found the other latch, struggled to move it. He thought of shooting it, but it popped free. The band swung open and the cargo box fell to the deck with a loud clang.

The gunman followed it, landing on his left shoulder and hip. He rolled over and pushed himself up on hand and knees. He shouldered against the cargo bin, sliding it closer to the lip of the hatch. A stretch of centimeters, then another and the shifted weight of the box carried it over the edge of the opening.

The rambler snorted and whinnied. The rider slipped out of the hatch as if the craft were birthing him. He lay in sand beside the box, looking up into the craft. He wanted to sleep. His fast breathing did nothing. He pulled himself up, staggered to the rambler. The northern gale blew away the oxygen saturated air. He used the rambler's front leg to support himself and reached for the breathing mask hanging near the steering levers. He held it to his face, not caring about a tight seal, and opened the release valve.

He drank in oxygen.

Later, with the mask sealed to his face and the portable tank at his side, the rider found the cargo bin unlocked as he sat near the crumpled heat shield in eddies of dust. Wind howled. He undid the latches that circled its lid and pulled the lid up, set it aside. A small trunk lay in wait, a box within a box. The gunman lifted it up seeing all he needed to see. The lockplate had the distinct characteristics of a biolock. This personal trunk would not open unless the owner was physically touching it . . . and alive.

"Hmm." The gunman frowned as a wall of airborne dust swept over the pod. The rambler's twin shoulder mounted spotlights became merging cones of bright swirling chaos.




The woman laughed near the man's ear as she bent over, straddling him on the bed. Loose strands of pinned hair tickled his face. His hands rested on her sides against the soft fabric of her corset. Her hands sank into the mattress near his armpits having unbuttoned his shirt and exposing his chest. She smelled sweet, a medley of sugared fruit. Her lips parted against his earlobe. He felt the wet tip of her tongue, a gentle scrape of teeth.

She had laughed at something he had said, but what that had been had fled his mind as someone banged on the room's plastic door, a frenetic clapping of desperation. "What . . . what!" the man yelled at the door. The woman sent an exploring tongue into his ear.

A muffled voice came from behind the door. "You said to tell you if anybody is come for . . ." The man's voice was cut off by a sudden ruckus and the sounds of his body being slammed against the wall. An ornate framed cameo fell from its nail.

The man sat up, pulling away from his woman and looking across the small bedchamber to the narrow round table where his gun belt sat folded. The grip of his ballistico pointed at him.

The plastic door caved in from a sudden onslaught and popped its hinges. A wide pillar of clothed meat burst in snorting anger. Beady black eyes under a shelf of tangled brows glared at the man on the bed. "Brovorchi! You spend what you owe me on a whore?" the brute yelled, moving to the foot of the bed.

Cavan Brovorchi rolled the woman over to his left side. "This is nothing. She's cheap."

The whore back-handed him in the chest. "I'm worth twenty liters to the ounce!" The hulking man did a double take on her.

Brovorchi rolled off the bed, his booted feet thudding against the pour-stone floor. He leapt toward the narrow table. The big man saw his goal, moved to block him. The men collided. Brovorchi found his throat caught in a powerful grip in the crook of the Ovi's arm. He couldn't breathe. The whore screamed and pulled herself against the headboard, her eyes searching for an escape route.

Cavan beat at the man's arm, his face reddening and his body weakening. Ovi smelled of weak horrible cologne and pungent sweat, like a man who hadn't bathed in months. Cavan's back ached forced along the man's rotund girth. His heels kicked against the floor as Ovi walked him backward. He felt some pressure come off his throat and squeezed in a draft of air. Cavan's heart hammered at the near death. He felt giddy for being alive.

"All I want is my water," Ovi breathed hotly in Brovorchi's ear. "I get it. You get out of Branlin and never come back."

Brovorchi squirmed his right arm around and planted a quick elbow into Ovi's lower ribs. The big man groaned and stumbled backward. Brovorchi stumbled forward, colliding into the narrow table. His hand fell around the pistol's grip and, still in the holster, he swung the ballistico up and around toward Ovi, knocking the little table over.

The hulking man grimaced staring down that evil barrel wrapped in a cave of leather. He put his hands out. "We make arrangements, eh? A deal?" He allowed himself a large friendly grin.

Brovorchi held the gun steady. The whore's breathing was fast and loud.

Ovi's grin began to wilt as he recognized the madness in Brovorchi's eyes. "Brovo," he whispered. "We make a deal." His hand shook as if they hoped to wave off Brovorchi's threat. "This is nothing but misunderstanding." His face pleaded for reason. "Misunderstanding," whispered.

"You say that now," Brovorchi said. The whore jumped and screamed at the gunshot.

Ovi's back exploded, showering the battered door and walls in a spray of hot blood. The body thumped to a heap.

Brovorchi gathered the gun belt around his waist and bunched his hanging duster in a fist. He crawled over the bed. The whore stared at nothing, trembling, hyperventilating. He sat near her, buttoned his shirt. He looked over at her, a terrified little creature not so interesting in poking his ears with her feverish little tongue now. He cupped her chin and turned her face to his. "I had to." He leaned over and pressed his mouth to hers. He forced her chin down, prying her mouth open and thrust his tongue against hers. She moaned a long wail expecting something worst than intimacy. Brovorchi pulled back. "No one comes after me." She withdrew into the pillows, eyes denying him. Brovorchi stood and slipped into the duster. "Understand?"

Her fearful eyes said she did.

Frantic footsteps in the hall. He drew the ballistico and shot the man that filled the doorway. Another ducked into the open space and he fell dead. Blood splattered and dripped down the corridor wall. His ears rang like mad bells. He heard another man just outside the empty frame of the door, breathing heavily, boots scratching at the floor.

"We'll get you, jobojack," the unseen man called.

Brovorchi kept his gun trained on the doorway and closed his free hand around the cold metal neck of a slender oil lamp. He smothered the flame against his duster and poured the oil onto the floor. He broke the large pane window behind him, smashing at the ledge as best he could while watching the door. The man out there didn't risk getting killed and bolted down the hall to the staircase.

Brovorchi sheathed his ballistico and slipped over the edge of the window into the darkness of midnight. Glass cut into his left hand as he hung and dropped to the roof of the porch. He staggered and tumbled on the slick metal, catching himself at the edge, his legs dangling. He dropped to the dusty ground at the feet of his sprinter.

Gas burning lamps lit the town in the canyon and two wall mounted lanterns threw a sick flickering yellow light into the space of the saloon's porch. Men shouted from inside, barking orders. The sprinter's encasement split open at Brovorchi's proximity and he mounted the cushioned saddle. He sent full power into the sprinter's systems and the encasement closed around him. He leaned forward, gripping the control bars, and using foot pedals, backed the sprinter from the porch were men spilled out of the door raising long calivers.

Brovorchi shifted his weight to the left, rolling the drive pod to direct the sprinter. The legged vehicle lurched sideways, and he twisted the control grips, bolting away. The sprinter's four legs thundered at full run, kicking up a cloud of dust that scattered the high-power laser bursts from the calivers.




"What are you hiding!"

The man holding Dusana was a filthy straggler who reeked of sweat-soaked coats and an unwashed mouth of food bits gone to spoil in the gaps of his teeth—what he had left. Wild, large eyes rolled beneath a knit cap of dust speckled dark green. Late morning sunlight gleamed off his greasy face, at odds with the coating of grime and grit.

Again, he clouted Dusana against the side of her head with a hand wrapped in a dirty make-shift glove of swatches. "You come to take something," the man shouted and pointed at the escape pod leaning on its side with Clovovac's jumper parked behind it. Cloth around the man's hand hung like a loose bandage. "Tell me what it is!" Clouds of his breath hung on the air.

Dusana shivered. Her coat had been stripped off. "Nothing," she cried, tears of anger and pain hot on her eyes and cheeks. "Just come for our friend."

"You tell me lies," the tramp said and back-handed Dusana, letting her fall sideways into the rough sand. A heavy boot toe pressed onto her arm. That dirty swathed hand grabbed her hair, pulled her face up from the grit. Dusana's eyes and mouth scrunched in pain and fear.

"But maybe he won't." He held her head up so she could see across several meters to two other struggling figures. "No?"

Clovo focused across the sand to the tear blurry figure of Dusana. A powerful arm locked across his throat like an iron bar. The flinty sting of dust on the thick quilted sleeve burned his nostrils. His blood smeared that sleeve from palms abraded against the sand and grit as they had scuffled. It was said the desert drank the blood of many.

Dusana screamed and tried to wrench away from the captor that stood on her arm. Bastards! He coughed and drew a ragged breath. "Don't hurt her."

The vagabond laughed. Clovo watched in horror as the desert harrier pulled his pistol from its place inside his ragged coat and leveled it at Dusana's head. He heard the whine of a power pack charging. No! He tried to free himself but his captor was too strong and his ribs were molten pain whenever he moved.

The dirty man reached down and lifted Dusana up by the armpit and thrust the barrel of his pulser against her head, her long hair flowing like a tattered flag in the cold wind. "A girl," the man called to Clovo, " she might not be told everything. She knows nothing, right?"

Clovovac breathed heavily. Dusana's face pleaded with him. He ached for her. "Just let her go." His tired voice carried no conviction.

"What are you here for," the straggler shouted. Dusana startled against him. "And don't tell me for dead friend!" His pistol was at full charge and he pressed it harder behind Dusana's ear. She trembled and moaned. The man reached a grimy hand to her breast and clutched it. "I will take her and kill her!"

Clovo labored for breath, the ugly man's hand on Dusana's body burned in his mind. "A key!" The word came wrenched from him.

The man laughed. "A key? A key to what? To what Laanid found?"

They knew. Somehow these hateful men knew. Clovovac's eyes fell to the sand. "Something you'll never understand." Defiance.

For a moment there was only the sound of the wind sighing around the escape pod and slapping the parachutes.

"And Laanid has this key? In the pod?"

Clovo said nothing. The arm of his goggled captor squeezed against his throat. "Ne budt clup," he growled at his ear. Don't be stupid.

Clovovac managed a sigh. "Yes."

Dusana's captor shoved her away. She stumbled. The man aimed the gun at her and fired a pulse into the back of her head. Clovo strained against the arm holding him screaming rage and denial. Dusana sprawled into the dust, kicking up a talcum fine cloud that caught on the wind.

Clovo thrashed his arms and body and won his freedom. He stumbled forward, caught his balance and began to sprint to Dusana's unmoving form. Clouds of breath steamed from his mouth. He had no idea what he was yelling. He barely registered the tramp bringing his gun to bear. Then nothing as a plasma wreathed laser burst bored through his skull.

Sarko opened his coat and tucked his pistol into the net of wide strips sewn into the lining. Sand began to collect against the woman's form. "Less trouble in our lives, eh Gorro?" He laughed. It was a dead sound on the air.

A pulsing thrum from high above caught both men's attention. Sarko tilted his head back, shading his eyes from the glare of the sky. A dark speck threw a hard glint of sunlight, growing as it drifted down.

"Ah, the Good Captain, no?" He grinned at Gorro. "Soon, we will be rich enough to bathe." As soon as he got what he needed from this meddlesome out-worlder. His face cracked under his smile. His partner's expression hid behind dark lensed goggles and a dust scarf wrapped around his face. He said nothing.

The lighter was made of three component littered cylinders joined by a thick, wide, angled cross spars: a central crew module hung slightly beneath the two mammoth engines. Grav-trap blisters near the bottom of the engines let it drift down like a balloon. Close to the ground, doors sprang open from the spars and legs uncurled, banging as they stretched open and locked into place. The craft settled on broad landing pads. Dust swirled in vortices. Metal hull plates ticked and popped. Purge vents shot geysers of billowing gas. It was like a beast settling down to felled prey.

A hatch under the crew module dropped open. A sliding ladder extended, stopping knee-high from the ground. The Good Captain descended, his dark duster buttoned tight, defying the wind and airborne grit. Once upon the ground, he retracted the ladder and closed the hatch.

Sarko stood a little straighter and proud. The captain approached with a casual gait, thoughtful eyes moving from the escape pod, to the bodies, drifting to Gorro, and coming to rest on Sarko just as he halted a good meter or so in front of the vagrant. Wind lifted the captain's brown hair into waving streamers.

The corners of the captain's lips curled with a hint of a smile under his drooping mustache. He pointed a lazy hand at the bodies. "What you lack in sagacity, you make up in lassitude."

The meaning was lost to Sarko, but the tone sounded friendly. "Captain Weslock, you honor me."

 The captain frowned. "You know who I am." It came more of a statement than question.

Sarko grinned like a devil, large eyes straining at their lids. "Ah, there is much information in the air," he opened his mummy-wrapped palms to the sky. "Ripe for the taking." He gave a quick introduction.

Weslock stepped near to Sarko and snorted dust from his nose. "What happened here?"

Sarko threw a sanguine glance at each body. "Oh these? They come for Laanid." Sarko shrugged and was about to speak their names when Weslock interrupted with a hand in the air.

"I know who they are. I was expecting them."

The smile dropped from Sarko's face. He gave a nervous look around, pausing at Gorro as if for support. He turned back to Captain Weslock and found his broad grin again. "Fortune favors the bold, eh preeta?" he said by way of explaining his presence.

"I'm not your friend," Weslock said and moved toward the body of Clovovac.

Sarko squeezed his hands together. "Perhaps that is too soon. But partners . . ." His voice hung on hope.

Weslock stared hard at the man. "I have no need for partners."

Sarko wet his lower lip. "The water barons keep us thirsty and dirty. It is told that Laanid found a sea of fortune."

"Too much is told." Weslock stood over the corpse staring at the burnt hole in the forehead, the entry wound. He toed the body over.

"We know this moon very well," Sarko implored, "from plume to plume. You know everything up there." He pointed to the heavens. "We cover the ground, you the sky, and we find this fortune. Partners." Grease and dirt cracked in the creases of his face from the leer that suggested the plan was the best damn one ever had.

Weslock locked eyes, then broke contact to hunker down to the corpse. The path of the expanding pulse burst had vaporized a fist-sized cavern in the skull. Most of the brain was gone. He reached into a coat pocket and pulled out a white elastic glove. Sand drifted over the corpse, settled in the bloodless hole. He tugged his right hand into the glove and probed the devastating wound with his protected fingers. Sarko came to stand near him.

Weslock motioned the outlaw to squat. He did. The captain rolled his gloved hand around the gaping hole in Clovo's head. "Do you know, my vacuous dear Sarko, what the visual cortex is?"

Sarko frowned and with a shake of the head guessed, "Part of the brain?"

"Yes," Weslock rejoined. "Specifically this area here that you have so expertly eliminated."

Sarko's ears heard only praise. He chuckled like a man over a cold pint. "A good shot, yes? "

Weslock sighed. "There is much information in the visual cortex," He leaned over to Sarko. "Ripe for the picking." He watched Sarko look down into the empty skull, his eyes widening as he began to understand.

Sarko began to chuckle as if he had one over on Weslock. "You don't need Clovo's brain."

"And why is that," Weslock goaded. "Since we are partners and all."

Sarko chuckled through exposed yellowed teeth. "Partners. Yes. Now you see the advantage." He pointed to the left of him to the escape pod. "Laanid has the key."

Weslock rubbed the straggle of hair at his chin with his ungloved hand. "You know about the key?"

"Aye," Sarko nodded, his face in serious conspiracy. "Clovo said it's in the pod."

Weslock cast his gaze back to the escape pod, then to Gorro standing silent as a statue as if there was no one inside that thick coat or behind those goggles, and again to muddy eyed Sarko, a bum spewing horrid breath. The captain curled his mouth and raised his shoulders in a half shrug. "Yes. And I suppose well hidden."

Sarko unconsciously mimicked the half shrug. "It is a small pod. Should not be that hard to find."

Weslock slapped Sarko's shoulder, let his hand rest there good-naturedly. "Ah, it is not so much the difficulty that bothers me, it's the urgency." A key was no good if it unlocked nothing. He brought his gloved fingers together, and with a press of his thumb against the knuckle of his first finger, the mechoid glove flowed and fused over his hand, growing outward into a milk-white blade. The Good Captain grabbed Sarko by the neck and thrust his bladed hand into the sternum. The man's eyes bulged in surprise. Blood bubbled on his tongue, disgorged over his stubbled chin. Weslock yanked his hand free of the gripping bone and pushed the dying man over.

Gorro jerked into alertness, his hand sweeping for his pulser.

Weslock cocked and flung his arm forward, flicking his wrist and sending the blooded blade through the air in an upward arc where it caught the heavy coated harrier in the throat. The man's hands went to the blade as his feet stumbled out from under him. He hit the ground in a spew of dust. Gorro gurgled. Fell quiet.

Adrenalin fueled breaths raced. Weslock calmed. The wind pushed against him. Parachutes snapped. He watched their folds and twists lift and collapse.

Captain Weslock stood and stepped to Gorro. He pulled out a flask from inside his coat and twisted the cap free leaving it to dangle on a lanyard. Bending, he liberated the stiff blade from the corps's throat and poured water over the gore. The cleansed milk-white knife flowed back into a glove and Weslock wriggled his fingers into it.

The key lay somewhere in the derelict craft. He had no time to search every cargo bin and nook and cranny. It would be hidden, and Laanid knew where. The pilot may be dead, but Weslock could probably coax something out of that brain.

He crossed the sand to the escape pod. Weslock admired the work of his particle cannon, the exotic energies that ate into the craft. "Did you think you could get away, Laanid?" he asked aloud. Perhaps the spirit of Laanid lingered to haunt this place among scattered boulders. He glanced at the jumper sitting several meters away behind the pod, an aircraft with tilted engines and an aerospike genny used to hop from plume to plume. "Clovo come to help you?"

The hatch hung open. The sand lay disturbed under the pod. Sarko interrupting Clovo's inspection. The captain pulled a beam from his belt and ducked under the pod. He lifted his head in the hatch and threw the beam's spot of white light around the cabin. Laanid hung upside down in his seat, an arm hanging loose. All the storage bins were accounted for and secured against the wall. Sand and grit had been tracked in, no doubt by Clovovac or even Sarko.

Weslock climbed aboard and made careful advance down the inclined wall, stepping on a control box splashed with dried blood and the grated surface of a dark lighting panel. The particle beam had lanced through Laanid's leg. The flightsuit bunched above the wound, having formed a reactive tourniquet that released when the suit ran down on power. Shrapnel from exploding panels punctured the pilot's chest. There didn't seem to be an easy way to get to or release Laanid's body without righting the escape pod onto its heat shield.

But Weslock had no use for the whole body. He climbed up on angled seats and perched himself precariously near the dead pilot. The glove became a blade again. Serrated.


The images on flickering in his vision were murky indistinct blobs. A makeshift lounge had been set up amongst the equipment and bins inside the cargo bay of his lighter. Laanid's head rested in a nest of exotic thin coils, like a wicker basket woven from dark shiny cable. Nanomachines had been flushed into the brain to replace deterioration. Weslock wore the receiver headband, his thoughts directing the scanning system's searches. A flat hand-held device helped control the process.

The corpse's disturbing eyes remained rolled upward. What had Laanid been looking up at? Weslock mused. Or rather, what had he been looking down at? What had gathered his attention? Had he been reaching for something? Had he been reaching for that which he had secreted? The key or that which it unlocked?

The captain's visual field flashed in a motley of shapes. Weslock focused his mind. Parts of the images seemed focused, other blurry. Then . . .

"A control panel," Weslock muttered. His brows furrowed, "Of the harvester, not the pod." He used the tablet, fingers wriggling against the control field.

The images jerked and sputtered. A flash of dim orange and a man shape. He tried to refine the image. While the background of the escape pod came into better clarity, the figure did not. "Laanid didn't know you, did he?" Weslock refined the memory, his fingers moving on the tablet. The form and face were not recognized. But the goggles were. They clarified.

Of course such goggles were everywhere on Ureys. Weslock thought of Gorro. He intensified the gain to drop the contrast of the shadows. As more memory was pulled from the dead brain, other items came into clarity. Not Gorro, the indistinct figure wore a poncho and not a heavy quilted coat. There a darkness behind his neck. Something like a wide brimmed hat, common head gear to shade the eyes.

Something dropped into view. Laanid's arm. Fingers curling to show three extended digits. Weslock cast aside the pilot's captured simulated memories from his vision and turned his head toward the heavy cargo winch mounted to the deck at the back of the bay.


Weslock stood in the upright escape pod holding the empty stowage bin in his hands. One corner had been dented, a flake of paint chipped off. Fine bits of sand lay inside. His eye ticked in a surge of anger. The stranger had taken the key. He was certain of it. The contents of the other bins lay scattered at the captain's feet. And none of them held the thing the key would open; he found no container shielded with a layer picotech—exotic matter—or anything directing him to where it might be. "You sons of bitches," he shouted, flinging the metal box out of the hatch.

He backed out of the opening and dropped to the grated walkway across the ledge of the battered heat shield. Weslock shaded his eyes with his hand and looked about as if hope beyond hope he would see some clue that would point him toward the stranger. Nothing. But what could he honestly expect? A miracle?

He stormed off the downed craft thinking that he did not have enough fuel in the lighter to go flitting around the moon searching; he had only enough to reach orbit and rendezvous with the Filthy Tramp. He couldn't very well leave it here where vagabonds would likely steal the metal from its hull. Weslock could gather supplies and send the lighter up. The truck of Sarko and Gorro sat parked nearby. It would be better than the jumper. The suborbital craft would be locked into a predestination and was practically useless as an aircraft. Besides, where Clovovac and Dusana had come from was no secret.

The truck would do.

But go where?

Was the stranger a native of Branlin, or a vagabond prospector who happened to see the escape pod come down? That made more sense than if the stranger had come down from the nearest plume hundreds of kiloms to the northeast. There were faster ways to get from town to town than an overland trek across the choking ground. And safer. Perhaps the stranger had also seen the water globes come down. Who could resist the possibility of free water?

But then again if the stranger had been coming from the northeast and making his way to Branlin, he wouldn't be far into the canyon leading to the town. Weslock could catch him provided the lighter's launch window was relatively soon.

After programming the lighter, that turned out not to be the case. The captain had a four hour wait. He should have brought the Tramp down into a closer orbit, but he would have lost her scanner's wide coverage vantage point. The wait seemed interminable, and in the end it didn't matter; wasted time was wasted time. He decided to check the crash sites of the water globes.



Captain Weslock had reached them by the time the sun was sinking toward the ringed gas giant. It would be an early ecliptic sunset. He parked the truck several paces away from the sprawled corpses, keeping the two closest ones in the twin beams of the forward lamps. Grabbing the large bin that stored the probing gear, he climbed out of the truck, throwing only a casual glance at the derelict water container behind him.

Wind blew his hair around his face as Weslock put his back to it, regarding the three hovercraft resting on their skirts several meters away before peering at the dead. From the lay of the men, he had an idea about what had happened. He kneeled at the taller, better dressed corpse. Maybe one brain of these dead remained viable enough to coax the image of their killer. Maybe. They were layered in a day's worth of dust and sand.

The captain opened his gear and removed the thick, metal syringe filled with nano-matter and stabbed the needle into the skull. As the fluid poured in and laced the brain, Weslock wrapped the coiled headpiece around the body's head. He decided against sensorium immersion as the remains were old enough for someone to miss the men and he did not chance to be surprised by a search party. Instead, he directed the output to the hand-held unit.

By the time he found anything substantial, the sky had become a dark vault of brilliant stars with curtains of red and green shimmering in the north. Bent for too long, his knees hurt, and he couldn't wait to return to the warmth of the cab. On the tiny screen, the gun fight played out as indistinct objects. He guided the lace to capture, copy, and replace neural structures until the scene clarified and he was able to fast-reverse time. There was the killer.

The dead man hadn't known the stranger either, but he had spent his last living moments intently studying him. There was the poncho. There was the wide brim hat. And in the glare of the sky and sand, there was the face unobscured by goggles, the chin the same as Laanid had seen.

There was the stranger that took the key.

Weslock looked up across the darkness where the stranger had stood near the edge of the escarpment . His fine rambler had been facing the busted globe. The killer had come out of the north after all, out across the choking ground. "Resourceful hard bastard," the captain muttered. He had been making for Branlin. He wouldn't enter unnoticed.

Weslock captured the best image and neural imprint as he could manage with a dead brain, recalled the nano-matter, and stowed the probing equipment back into the bin.

Standing his eye caught the glimmer of a keepsake laying on the bloody chest of the corpse. Having seen it earlier, he saw it for it was: something the killer had not deemed worthy enough to steal. Or perhaps a calling card of sorts, something left behind for the search parties, provided these men had comrades that cared. Weslock lifted it and scrubbed the dried blood away on the coat of the dead man. He pressed the projector's emission stud and heard the tinkling jingle.

Perhaps the stranger would remember it just before he died.


Posted by Paul Cargile at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Friday, 28 October 2011 3:14 PM EDT
Friday, 12 August 2011
Post Its
Now Playing: warrior soul
Topic: Notes


Sometimes I need a little help and the Post-Its are right there.



Mauhager's and the bazaar from The Raven.


And the Sea Breeze from Retribution.




Posted by Paul Cargile at 3:00 AM EDT

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