Gayle ran the quite street. Behind him a column of smoke billowed as he paused for his mind to breath. He could hear voices, loud and alarmed as police vehicles scrambled, sirens blaring. He pulled the hood of his jacket down low over his head and rammed his hands deep into his pockets. Walk slowly, he admonished himself, don’t draw attention to yourself.
Up ahead, where the street narrowed, a police vehicle swung across the road and blocked it off, illuminating the street in a blue and red light show. He paused to watch as two helmeted officers in riot gear stepped out and began interrogating passers-by. Desperately he looked about for an escape option and ducked between a line of over-moded gravBikes. He couldn’t stand these pretentious kinds of bikes with their glistening chrome and mirrors, it was really about the ‘show’ rather than the machinery.
“Hey you, away from the bikes!” Gayle peered over a set of handle-bars to see a bouncer standing with folded arms outside a plexiGlass bar. “Hey, I’m talking to you! You here for the show or what?”
Gayle glanced up to read the digital ticker that scrolled above the doorway. “The Blister Bar, live music every nite!” and “Tonight: The Fatal Brethren: one night only!”
He went to duck into the bar when the bouncer stopped him, “There’s a line friend.” The burly man indicated the small queue with a casual hand. The people in the queue, all tattoos and peroxide, looked at him with disdain.
Gayle reached into his pocket and withdrew a blue credit chip which he pushed into the man’s hand. “Here, that should cover it,” he said. Glancing down the street he could see two officers moving towards the queue. The bouncer narrowed his eyes at Gayle, warning him against being a trouble maker but then cocked his head over his shoulder. Gayle slipped inside just as the music began.
Strobbing lights and pounding music pushed back at him as he stepped down into the bar. Laser lights scanned up off the sunken dance floor, momentarily blinding him. Out of the dark he became aware of faces watching him. Pierced noses, toxic-coloured hairdos and torn clothing everywhere. It irritated him to see these young upwardly-mobile folk with their sombre drugged out looks. He didn’t feel completely out of place with his tattered clothes and dreadlocks but he was somehow too real and stood out. He eased into the bar putting on a surly expression to ward off interest and chose a dimly-lit corner to seat himself.
“What can I get’cha?” A girl dressed in a punkish miniskirt and torn fishnet stockings hovered over him, a tray in her hand. Her features were outline in florescent make-up and made her look ghoulish yet she swayed her hips child-like. Tilted on her head, like a cake decoration, rested an old-fashioned black-bowler hat.
“Oh, err, just a whiskey thanks.” he yelled over the music.
“Sure hon, we only got synth ok?” He nodded and she spun on her heels, her pink and green side-ponytail swishing over her studded ear. The other side of her head was shaved to a fine blond stubble.
He spared a glance to the stage, a 4-piece unit were strutting around the stage to the rhythm they were building albeit a discordant one. Gayle’s couldn’t follow it but the group seemed to have a loyal following who were building on the dance floor. The lead signer had his eyes closed as if possessed and didn’t sing so much as make a lot of guttural roars and screams.
Out of a dry-ice fog two girls arm-in-arm sauntered in his direction. For a second he thought one of them was Meron until they came closer and realised his mind was playing tricks. Good-time girls, no time for that. He scared them off with a manic glare. In the doorway he spotted the officers lingering, they were conversing with the bouncer who shrugged holding up the blue credit chip and pointing vaguely within the bar.
Damn gave him too much! Gayle swore as the girl returned from the bar. He jumped to his feet and tossed a grey credit chip on her tray. In the same fluid motion he took the shot-glass directly to his lips and slammed it to the back of his throat. “Is there a back-door to this place?”
Her eyebrows twisted in query, but she nodded across the room, past the dancers. He squinted into the dimness and caught in the flickering strobe lights the outline of a narrow hallway, “fire-door’s at the end.” He was already moving and partway across the dance-floor as she called after him, “Hey, your change?”
“Keep it peach!” He replied, dodging a gyrating dancer but bumping into another. The band was now in full swing pumping out an industrial blend of sounds and base rhythms.
He glanced to the doorway; one of the officer’s opened his mouth in a shout pointing to him. Gayle followed his eyes to the other officer. He was circling from the far side of the room and nodded at his partner. Knowing his chances of escape were rapidly diminishing Gayle bolted for it, barging through the crowd. He reached the hallway in a few lopping strides, but it was jammed with girls waiting to access the amenities.
“Excuse me, excuse me!” he forced his way through the throng. He could see the exit glowing at the end.
He got too close to one girl with a nose ring and a shaved head, who shoved him back. “Hey, wait in line like the rest of us buddy!”
He spared a glance behind him. The officers, now only ten metres behind him, were savagely beating people out of the way on the dance-floor.
“I don’t need the can, I need to get outside.” He shouted to her as he thumbed over his shoulder.
The woman looked past him and frowned; her eyes hardened understanding the situation. She grabbed him by the shoulder and propelled him past her. “Ok buddy, I’ll delay them for you – we got no love for these guys here.”
“Thanks!” He yelled and stepped over a pair of entwined revellers.
He pushed against the exit doors which opened onto an alleyway. As the doors swung shut behind him he heard the melee increase in intensity.
Gayle zigzagged along a series of alleyways, avoiding two other roadblocks, until he passed under a busy roadway. He strode slowly this time, not wanting to give any of the grubby, hollow-eyed citizens a reason to remember him. He need to be invisible. This was the edge of the entertainment district bordered by an amusement park and lit up like a murder scene. Perfect, he thought, he could get lost among the revellers and let the noise in his head subside; the guilt of leaving Meron and the others bore down on him like a thousand ton of steel.
A boy wearing red lens and his reedy girlfriend, not paying any attention to the world around them, collided into Gayle.
“Shit, watch where you’re going!” Gayle growled. He shoved the boy back in frustration.
“Oh, sorry,” The boy was maybe fifteen, with a chin of downy hair and cheeks flushed the colour of first love. He puffed up his chest to impress his girl, “Take it easy mister!”
The girl however stepped back in revulsion, and sucked in a fearful breath.
Gayle winced, it wasn’t like him to be like this; he barrelled away from the pair to escape the primal urge to fight. The one thing he really wanted was a drink, he needed a drink. Instead he found a games centre, lit up with lights. There was an electronic maelstrom emanating from within, strangely it attracted him in a way he could put his finger on.
He stepped though the neon-framed doorway and staggered inside. His eyes and ears screamed from the sensory assault; in one corner an alien invasion was being held at bay by a squadron of thirteen year old kids, in another a virtual 18th century ball was in full swing in a holo-suite the size of a tanning booth. Behind a sealed booth, a capped attendant, who seemed strangely familiar, shot him a dubious look. Evading him Gayle fled deeper into the space finding an abandoned corner populated with old arcade machines.
He slid into the cockpit of a racing game that looked familiar. The sounds of the machine calmed his nerves, taking him back to the mining station where he’d misspent his youth. He loved those games, playing them for hours on end. Back then those games were the only escape from the drudgery of the mining station. He lay his head against the headrest watching the flickering light on the game display, before he knew it sleep descended on him like a cloud.
Gayle cupped his ears against the bombardment of the base above, it had been continuous for the last few hours. He didn’t know which was worse, the continuous pounding or the stale urine-soaked air. His stomach churned, he didn’t want to die – not before his birthday – he was eighteen in a few days. He hadn’t even had a chance to screw anyone, especially Dana Hammel who was now bundled against him in the corner of the sweaty bunker. He tried to comprehend why she had chosen him in this desperate hour when every man on the station wanted her. Despite his best efforts she’d not paid him the slightest attention, until now.
“I don’t want to die.” Dana sobbed, putting voice to his thoughts. Her eyes were wild and her hair, usually so prim and proper, had come undone and lay like a dishevelled river of brown over her shoulders. Her lip quivered under her tear-soaked cheek, “Command will rescue us won’t they? They will come?”
Gayle didn’t want to tell her the truth, but he was too young to hold a good lie. He stroked her head, “Shhhh.”
He looked to the pale faces of the rest of the engineering crew, they looked as sick as he felt. Like him they had joined up in a patriotic fervour to ‘defend the colonies against the slave-driving Earthers’, only none of them had expected to be in the front line of the fighting. He sighed, it was only a matter of minutes now before it was all over, before they came to annihilate the last few of them as an example of what happens to those that stand against Earth Government.
One of the old hands, a gristly veteran called Ben Yullman stood up, “Now listen, the bombardment is thinning, they’ll be sending in marines shortly to clean us out, so check your weapons.” The old man made a point of looking at Gayle and Dana, “You can stay here if you want but the way I see it we are as good as dead anyhow, I for one ain’t goin’ down without a fight.”
This raise a subdued cheer but sent a fresh round of sobbing through the girl, “don’t leave me!”
Gayle pulled out his sidearm, a piss-weak standard-issue blaster that would’ve had a hard time killing a rat. He tried to hold it steady as he checked the power cell but it shook uncontrollably in his hand. A cramp ran through his gut and he felt an urgent need to shit, but there were going to be no bathroom visits.
The attack on the shipyards had come suddenly and without warning. The Colonial fleet, already weakened by years of fighting, had been drawn away from its safe harbour when an intercepted communique suggested an attack on Portsmith base, on the Martian surface, was imminent. The ruse had been perfectly calculated. By the time Command realised what was going on the communications satellites had been destroyed and they were effectively on their own.
Gayle relived those first few minutes as he watched the dockyards, which had hung majestically from the airless moon like fronds, silently destroyed. They had been a thing of beauty, an engineering marvel. The last few fighting craft left to defend were quickly destroyed too and then the bombardment had begun.
That was when Dana had spoken to him for the first time, after a year of ignoring him. He’d thought about that for a long time wondered why she had chosen him as her confidant at that dark hour? Watching the hopeless ruin of the docks she had asked him why they were fighting? Why all the destruction? All he could do was shake his head. He couldn’t speak then, but he knew that answer – greed. It was a war for resources.
When the initial onslaught was over, they were ordered to the bunkers by Rear Admiral Greely. They stood in the marshalling area, only a few hundred, waiting for the rest of the crew that would never come. Eventually someone thought to organised them into platoons of twenty or so under the command of the remaining senior hands.
Dana latched onto his arm as the others filed out to their certain doom, amongst them good friends – Dale, Roberto and Kyla – they had been the closest thing he’d had to brothers and sisters.
Dale placed a hand on his shoulder, his eyes reddened by his own turmoil, “come on, we’ll go together. Leave her.”
“We all got to go our own way.” Kyla said.
Roberto grinned, trying to make light of the situation.“She ain’t right for you anyway bro.”
Dana, now desperate, spat primal syllables. She dug her nails into his forearm, “Don’t…leave…me.”
He couldn’t look at her. She is already dead, he told himself. I am already dead. He yanked his arm away but felt nothing as her fingernails left their mark, like a piece of his humanity had evaporated. There would be a scar.
They positioned themselves behind makeshift barricades constructed from crates and cots from the bunkers. The assault began with a shock wave as the blast doors sealing the bunker complex were blown apart. Ben Yullman was the first up, screaming something primeval, he charged into the smoking breach. Following, Gayle managed only a few steps before he was blown back. When he looked up Yullman was no more – all that was left was blood splattered in an arc and a pair of bone shards sticking out of his standard-issue boots. His gut lurched and he turned away and spotted Dale and Roberto behind a curtain of laser fire pouring from the breach. They had their backs to the bunker wall, creeping forward till they were within reach of the enemy. With horror he realised a few seconds too late what they intended.
Roberto took just one step and tossed a grenade before his head was cracked open like an egg. Dale, directly behind him, was showered in their friend’s brains. He screamed for a couple of seconds, looking at his hands like they were aliens before the enemy fire silenced him too.
The next thing he remembered was being dragged from behind, tears dripping on his face – but not his own tears. It was Kyla gibbering like an infant. He rolled his head and met her gaze. Her moist eyes flickered wide for an instant as if she had been startled then her grip on him faltered. They fell backward together.
“Kyla?” He said in rising dread. “Hey! Kyla?!” A pool of blood began spreading around them. He checked himself and found that he was uninjured.
He didn’t want to look. He couldn’t look. But there was little choice, he had to move or die where he lay. He sucked in a breath and rolled over, into the widening pool of blood. At first he saw Kyla laying there quiet, as if sleeping peacefully, but when he went to shake her, that was when the illusion was fractured. Her body opened up like wet newspaper.
“Hey! Hey, wake up ya bum!” Gayle woke to a heavy hand on his shoulder. It was the amusement attendant.
“Wha?” Gayle stammered the vivid dream evaporating.
“Ya can’t sleep here-” The attendant stopped short. “Hey, I know you…”
Gayle tried to focus on the face as the man took off his cap. “Milla?”
“Man, Gayle Rangan! I heard you died on that rock.” Milla Jocic threw up his arms. “How long’s it been?” The man escorted him into a run-down coffee house. The orange curtains cast a sickly yellow light over the table.
Gayle spread his arms on the table feeling it’s scratched surface. It reminded him of the scar on his forearm. “Twenty years or so.”
“Twenty years!” Milla shouted. “By Hesu really?”
Gayle shrugged, he was not exactly in the mood for reminiscing but half-smiled as he took the cup of joe proffered by a stick-like waitress. Milla had been an engineer on Hellenic and they had been drinking buddies from his first day, but when he got transferred to Phobos they lost contact.
“I was going to ask you what you’ve been up to…” The man looked at him sympathetically.”…but I think I get the picture.”
“You don’t wanna hear about me.” Gayle replied. “How about you? How long have you worked as an attendant here?”
“Yeah, well it’s not quite the service right? But it pays the bills, I got two kids to feed and a wife.”
A goofy smile spread across his face, “yeah, Marla’s my star.”
“Marla? You mean ‘Mercury’ Marla?”
“Hesu! She was our best pilot during the war.”
The man nodded proudly, “seventy six confirmed kills.”
“And now she’s your wife?” He laughed,”how the hell did you manage that?”
“I guess I got a winning personality.” Milla grinned through broken teeth. In truth the match didn’t surprise him, Milla was one of the nicest guys he’d known and nothing ever seemed to faze him. “And she keeps me straight.”
“I bet she does.” They both laughed.
Milla eyed him seriously, “So how the hell did you survive Phobos? The Earthers totally nuked it.”
Gayle sighed, “I wish I could tell you a big heroic story but it wasn’t like that. I jumped into the trash.”
“The trash. I sealed myself in a waste pod and jettisoned myself. When I started to faint from lack of oxygen I set off the emergency transponder and was picked up by an enemy patrol. I’d ditched my uniform and replaced them with some old dungarees I found in the pod. It wasn’t hard to pass myself off as a miner who had gotten drunk and woke up in a waste pod. A cruel joke by his drinking buddies.”
Milla nodded with awe, “Shit, I’ve heard that happens for real in the asteroid belt.”
“Yeah, I guess cause it sounded so far-fetched they actually believed me.”
“So what happened next?”
“I feigned amnesia from lack off oxygen when they grilled me at their local base. Eventually they must have worked out that I really was a dumb schmuck and they transferred me to a hulk carrying refugees who’d escaped the war. Nearly went made there – overcrowded rust bucket.”
Milla eyed him seriously, “So how did you end up on Juno? ”
Gayle shook him head, “How long have you got?”
“So that’s how I ended up in your pocket.” Gayle said finishing his story.
Milla looked at him with a mixture of concern and awe, “Geez, I thought I had it tough. Don’t mess with a dealer like Sol Kieler.”
“Yeah, thanks for that, I hadn’t planned to,” he replied. “Who’s Sol Kieler anyway?”
Milla’s face turned dark, “The nastiest piece of shit on Juno, he’s been making a name for himself – but not in a good way. When someone crosses him they soon find themselves in a block of concrete or something worse.”
Gayle looked down into his coffee, the faces of the past swirled around, Meron’s face among them.
“Listen, don’t blame yourself I woulda done the same – sounds to me like the battle was over before it started. Just like Phobos huh?”
Gayle shook his head, “I shoulda stuck around, I panicked.”
“If it makes you feel any better I’ll take you back to the site, just don’t tell Marla – she’ll kill me if she knew I got involved in something.”
The Plant was quiet and darkened when Gayle and Milla approached through the hole in the fence. In the centre of the compound it appeared at first as though nothing had even happened. To the careful eye however, the signs of battle were still evident, a blast mark here and there and thin a residue of the white powder marking where the gravSkiff had been.
“This is the spot,” Gayle nodded. A few meters away there was a sticky patch of smeared blood, most probably where Meron had fallen.
“Nothing much here now, but this was definitely Sol’s crew.” Milla held up a spent power cell as evidence. It had a double band of blue tape wrapped around it.
Gayle sighed, “so that’s it then.”
“What? What do you mean?” Milla’s eyes widened as he realised Gayle’s intent, “you’re not thinking of going after them?”
“I’ve been a chicken shit too long Mils.”
“Gayle, you ain’t no coward, you saved my ass on Phobos remember?”
Gayle shrugged. He hadn’t done anything really, it had been simply a reaction when he’d knocked Milla out of the way of an incoming rocket. “Anyone would’ve done the same.”
Milla continued, “Sol may not be the smartest dealer in the system but he has a lot of clout here on Juno and his place is a fucking fortress.”
“Where is it?”
“Nup, not gonna tell you–” Milla shook his head.
“–Mils!” Gayle growled grabbing his friend by the shirt.
“Hey, let me go!”
Gayle release him, “Listen Mils, I’m thirty-six and I never put my neck out. It hasn’t worked out for me, I’m alone. I don’t want to die alone.”
“What do ya mean? You’ve got friends like me.”
He put a hand on Milla’s shoulder, “You might be the only one.”
Milla shook his head then gave him a crooked smile,“alright, what have you got planned?”
Gayle smiled, “well, if any of my friends are still alive I’m going to get them out and I think I know someone who can get me in.”