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FICTION: Dead Zeppelin by Kevin Bennett  

Posted by Scott Wilson

Prologue:



She didn’t stop to question his motives. The man gave her back the company ‘net terminal, released her, and she ran. He’d said to go and not look back.

She sprinted like a rabbit with a tiger breathing down its neck; the tattered remains of what had once been a wonderful evening gown dragging on cold steel behind her. Her eyes were wild, her hair was frazzled, her obese body jiggled like pudding.

Through an industrial grid she could see clear to the Martian surface, where hundreds of agricultural domes spotted an orange plain like a multitude of boils on tanned skin.

Over a clanging metal staircase, left across an anorexic catwalk of harsh aluminum, up another staircase—

And there, with majesty only a manufactured blimp orchard can muster, was the dockyard…the promise of freedom. The woman stopped and let a smile nearer relief than anything else split her lips. But the moment couldn’t last.

Shouts.

She ran toward the floating ships, heart pounding in terror. If they caught her this time, they’d kill her.





I

The zeppelins floated like so many grandiose beige and rouge schooners, moored by a suspended grid stretching to the horizon, where Sol glowed crimson through Mars’ terraformed atmosphere. A particular ray of sunshine adjusted its sights toward a departing skyboat as it cast off fueling and pressure lines, sounded a brief alarm indicating its mobility, and detached itself from the harbor matrix. Two or three other airships sounded automatically in response, a diversity of personalized alarms spreading about the departing dirigible.

The freight-blimp lifted slowly; her captain was an old man whose hurry had been worn out of him by years. Don Bannister pampered his lady zeppelin like a spoiled child-princess, lounging in the control cabin of The Little Wieczorek smoking a pipe and nursing a pint, humming to a nouveau-baroque piece named Renegade as it echoed over the intercom. He watched the sun sink lazily over the horizon.

Bannister was wrinkled and cantankerous—though few from Earth might have guessed just how old he really was. Had they known the decades Little Wieczorek had been his, the marriages he’d ridden that boat through, the heartaches, the joys, the laughs, the tears, the jobs—they simply wouldn’t have believed it. And in those decades, Don had developed a very specific mode of reverie, in which he always took time to watch the day bleed into night over the ruddy stones of Mars.

But good relaxation like that just can't last.

Through the strains of Styx and the clamor of disembarkation, a squeal sliced the air: “Wait!” It hollered. “Wait! Please Wait!”

The voice was female, and not terribly attractive given its high pitch. It took Bannister a moment to register that the woman was squealing at him and his cargo vessel, and when it did he took to muttering and swearing the likes of which would have offended any mother. He pulled his feet from the console, put the pint in a rounded depression suited for the obtuse mug, tapped out his pipe, paused the music, and pulled the reverse gear to stop the lighter-than-air pump.

The zeppelin halted its sluggish departure while the remainder of the crew ran to the miniature bridge, the Captain’s son/first officer sticking his head in: “What’s the holdup? We’ve got to be all the way over the canyon to New Quebec by sunup; we’re getting rush-delivery for these six-wheelers—”

“Hold your horses, Colt, could be somebody from the dock office.”

“Well what about the other ships?” Colt cocked an eyebrow

The shrill voice squealed again, “Oh thank Gosh, thank Gosh!”

“Can’t you hear that racket? I better go see what she’s on about.”

“Well… I don’t want to have to take a late percentage on these Rovers, I know—”

“Don’t teach your pappy how to suck eggs, you just want to see Jinny. We’ll get there in time for girls, don’t worry.” The Captain detached himself from the pilot’s chair and meandered in his aging way out of the cabin.

The other member of the crew—Greg—called after Bannister: “How’d you hear her through the departure racket?”

“Who?”

Greg glanced at the railing. “Whoever it is that’s yelling.”

“When you been flying as long as I have you’d hear a mouse fart, if it came from the direction of that head office.”

“Right, Dad,” Colt smirked.

“Why don’t you give Little Wieczorek another preflight while I see what this lady’s problem is.”

Greg grunted: “Had to open your mouth…”

They went aft.

Captain Bannister looked over the side of his cargo-yacht. A distraught and chubby middle-aged woman in a tattered evening gown clutched a worn ‘net terminal and seeped tears as she glanced around with composure a schizophrenic would find erratic. Oh hell, he thought. Aloud he said, “Who’s screamin’ at the Little Wieczorek?”

The tattered woman yelled up: “You heard me! Can you let me aboard? I need passage to New Quebec, and…‘Little Wizzorick’ is the only vessel I was able to...I saw it raising, and—”

“You’re not from the head office?”

“No!”

Bannister started to leave. Her voice was so shrill it stopped him cold, “WAIT! I need a ride! I have assets—”

The old man turned back over the railing, “Why don’t you take one of the Magnet-trains? They move on a twenty-minute rotation, you’d be there in a half-hour.”

“I’ll make it worth your while!”

“How well worth my while?”

“Let me aboard and I’ll show you!”

Bannister risked a glance across a digital schedule, decided he had a few minutes' leeway, then turned back over the railing. This had better be well worth his while. “Alright. Back up against the railing there, and mind you don’t tumble over. It’s a long way to the farm domes.”

She complied and he grumbled as he shifted the dirigible into “dock”. You had to do that so the ladder would unlock; some idiot had wired the gears so the exit ladder wouldn’t budge unless the ship were in the resting gear, the equivalent of “park” on a groundcar.

Like a silver tongue studded with uniform notches, the step-ladder rolled to the docking matrix and the fat woman hurriedly scrambled onto it, looking over her shoulder and shoving a ‘net terminal in Bannister’s hands as she pulled herself trippingly aboard. “You can’t begin to understand what you’ve done for me.” An awkward pause. “How long till we’re under way? Can it be soon?”

“Now, now. Slow down and let me look at this.” Bannister glanced at the screen and whistled low. “That much, eh?”

“Just slide your finger across the reader and it’s in your account.”

There was something dirtier than a big-city bureaucrat about all this. The old man stared at her suspiciously, then: “BOYS! To the port ladder!”

Out of nowhere the young men appeared, stumbling over gangly legs. “Yessa’ massa!” said Greg.

Colt slipped and caught himself on a railing, “What is it, Pop?”

“Take our distinguished guest to the crew lounge and see that she’s comfortable.”

“But Dad, we’re not supposed to take on passengers. The union’d—”

“To hell with the union.”

The woman grimaced at Bannister’s words.

“Hey! My Dad was in the union!” Greg exclaimed.

The old man glanced in Greg’s direction, then shook his head: “Colt, you’re setting a bad example for Greg. The Captain’s right, even when he’s wrong. Now get to the lounge!”

The old woman imposed herself, “It won’t be very long till we’re under way, will it Captain?”

“Eh? Ten minutes, if we don’t—”

“Could you make it five?” Something happened to the number on the ‘net terminal and Greg, looking over Bannister’s shoulder, whistled low.

Bannister snatched the 'net terminal out of his field of vision: “Alright, you heard the lady, make sure everything’s ready to cast off!”

“But it is, Dad, you just sent us to do another pre—”

“So I did! Strap yourselves in, I’m takin’ off.” Bannister paused suddenly, mid-stride: “One thing, lady. You look familiar. What’s your name?”

Her eyes found a spot among the deck-plates. “Uh. Dejah. Tennessee. Dejah Tennessee.”

Greg cocked an eyebrow without any recognition, and after reaching the same conclusion the old man said: “…well. Well, get to the lounge, Dejah! That goes for you too, Greg. Grab that no-good son of mine and strap him in.” The Captain hobbled through the cabin doors, strapped himself down, shifted gears to disembark, and mashed his foot against a lever in the floor that facilitated lift.

Again, the dirigible rose slowly from the zeppelin masses moored across the matrix. (Even if you rush an airship, takeoff is always slow.) But suddenly the Tennessee woman was in Don’s cabin: “Can’t you go any faster?”

“Didn’t I tell you to strap down? BOYS!”

She saw that Bannister didn’t have the gear all the way forward, erroneously assumed the mechanism was an acceleration lever, and reached for it. But in a moment of negative/positive Deus Ex Machina, a rifle shot burst through the starboard window and shattered a particularly hideous picture of Bannister and a slimy, multi-pronged fish. He stared in surprise and stricken disbelief, but Dejah was a woman of action. With her bulk she thrust him aside and pushed the lever all the way forward, in the process reactivating the nouveau-baroque album. Beware of the Queen of Spades echoed through the cabin for several moments before Don managed to shake his daze and turn it off.

It was mostly luck that the Wieczorek had by this time managed to rise above the other dirigibles; otherwise there’d have been a domino-series of monstrous collisions. But they were still in the restricted horizontal space of the matrix, and alarms went off all over the place.

Bannister was mildly stunned, but gaining his bearings he said: “What in hell are you doing? Get away from there!” Don pushed her back across the cabin and grabbed a joystick and the loudspeaker CB mike. Since his foot had depressed the pump-lever all the way, when Dejah pushed the gears forward, the dirigible had begun rushing to its cruise-max, and it was only Bannister’s years that saved them from crashing into the pinnacle across the matrix. Now he turned the airship around while yelling simultaneously over the loudspeaker and all open CB channels: “False alarm, folks! Keep your hats on. Gear slipped. Have a good night!”

Dozens of other calls fluctuated the LED on his radio, but for the moment he ignored them, turning the ship around and increasing his altitude.

Greg and Colt popped their heads in, “what’s—”

“Get back there and take this female luggage with you!” Bannister growled with the eloquence of a rabid barracuda. Greg and Colt moved to comply, but another shot burst another pane of glass, this time leaving a notch in the wooden furnishing above the door the boys had come through. “Wait a minute—”

“Yowza’ massa!” Said Greg.

“Not you—where the hell did that come from?” Something lethal nearly clipped them again. “Holy Harriet, somebody’s shooting at us! Get down.” The boys did, the airship turned. “Any idea why we’re a target, lady?”

“I told you to hurry up—”

“Let’s hope they don’t leak the cushion hard enough the auto-patch breaks up. And that sum? You’re doubling it or I’m pitching you overboard into an atmosphere generator and see how you hold up in the furnaces! They keep it warm enough to wear t-shirts at five kilometers in a dirigible, think what they’ll do to you at ground level! Colt, get the squirrel guns and shoot back at ‘em.”

“Wait, pop, they quit.”

Bannister squinted. A mirror outside the cabin decided to dance as a projectile tore it apart, and Don decided they hadn’t. “No dice. And I gotta hunch they’re after her.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, “get 'Dejah' back there and get one of those guns.” Neither Colt nor the woman moved. Bannister sighed, “Greg, take the stick.”

The young man almost had the sarcasm surprised out of him, “You’d let a union-man’s son drive Wieczorek?”

“Oh shut up and take the stick!” Bannister—old as he was—grabbed both Colt and the woman and herded them to the crew lounge behind the cockpit. He sat her down and grabbed from beneath a refrigerator three quaint rifles. One he threw to his son, one he took himself, and the other he held in reserve for Greg. He gave “Dejah Tennessee” a fisheye. “You stay here.”

She nodded.

The men headed out of the lounge, rifles ready, and back to the cabin. Bannister threw Greg a rifle and said, “Keep your head low, watch where the shots are coming from.”

But this time no more came. They waited, the airship puttered on toward New Quebec. Colt said, “What was that all about?”

“I don’t know,” the Captain searched for his pipe, “but I’ve a hunch bigger’n the Heinlein crater it has to do with her.”

“Should we pitch her?”

“No…you see how much money she threw in our account?”

Greg made a sour face, “how much?”

“Well, more than you boys’ve ever seen, that’s for sure. And more than any guy paying union dues’ll ever see.” Greg snorted and the Captain grinned. “Certainly more’n I’ve ever seen. People with that kind of money aren’t independent; we pitch her, somebody misses her enough to start an investigation. She stays.”

Colt exhaled, “So then what’s she running from?”

“Probably the people shooting at her,” Greg quipped.

“Well yeah, but who that rich is going to have people shooting at her?”

“They didn’t have that good aim,” Don scratched at stubble. “But that’s a good point. What is she running from? A broad with that kinda money oughta have her own secret service.”

“Maybe she’s a ‘net voyeur. She's fat enough—and she had the terminal.”

“Where would she steal it from?” Colt crossed his arms.

“Nobody around here has money like that; not even the unions—maybe at the home office, but not here,” Don glanced over his shoulder at the room, thinking he heard Dejah behind them. “I think we should ask Bobby Laumer about this in the Marineris,” he muttered. “Maybe he’ll know who’s after her.”

“Let’s hope they don’t start shooting again. These guns aren’t exactly lethal. I remember hitting rabbits and them bouncing back.”

“Probably because you can only hit their ears,” said Greg.

“I'll hit your ears—”

“Shaddup, boys. Doesn’t matter. They’ll kill a man from a kilometer, if you aim right. And if you can hit a rabbit, you can hit a face. But I’m thinkin’ about something else. Anything bother you boys about this lady? Besides the obvious.”

Colt said: “I’ve seen her before, she’s familiar.”

“Then I’m not crazy. Greg, keep Wieczorek headed to New Quebec, Colt an’ I are going back and figure this thing out—and I’m sorry, Colt, but Jinny’s going to—”

“Wait a minute! I had the stick last time!”

“Union-brat doesn’t like responsibility?”

Colt made a humble face, “Father, I can get us there faster anyway—for Jinny’s sake. If you insist—”

“None of your lip. Take it and keep an eye out. Probably pirates, if anything.”

“Right, Pop.”

Bannister smirked. “C’mon, Greg.”

They went aft to the crew lounge and sat across from the bedraggled woman, who by this time had produced some tobacco of her own and was smoking with a faraway look in her eyes.

“Alright, Dejah Tennessee—if that’s your real name—time to man up and tell daddy what’s going on.”

She looked hesitant to say anything.

Greg grew impatient, and several moments of the meandering silence baited him: “You got the family’s ship shot up good, Mrs. Tennessee. ‘Least, we assume it was you; nobody here has any reason for anybody to be shooting at them.”

“Cool it, Greg.”

The cigarette Dejah was smoking lost its cherry and she stamped it out. “Somebody’s trying to kill me! What’s it matter why? Isn’t that enough? I’m paying you more than you’ve made your whole career, so just help me to New Quebec, and everything will be alright.”

Greg’s upper lip curled, “I think we should just pitch you and keep the money.”

“Hey, what’d I say about settling down?” Bannister showed Greg the whites of his eyes then turned to Tennessee. “You’re right, ma’am, and Lord knows I’m not the type to leave a damsel in distress, even if she is on the plump side,” Dejah looked affronted. Bannister plowed ahead, “but I’m also not the type to get in trouble with local law over a little cash. You wanna help me out here?”

“I want to be left alone, is what I want.”

Things were silent again. Bannister sighed (he’d been sighing a lot that evening) and said, “Okay, let’s see what we can figure out about you from general deduction. Greg, tell me what you’re looking at.”

“She’s an Earthworm, clumsy as she is. Fat folks move better on Mars and it trips ‘em up. She’s got money, that’s obvious. So I think that narrows things down…”

“Go on.”

Dejah was having none of it, “I’ll tell you right now, boys, you’ll be safer the less you know.”

Greg continued, “I’d say she’s some kinda aristocrat; can’t be an immigrant with a little too much money. Wouldn’t be so sassy. And the fact she looks nauseous shows she doesn’t ride airships much. Earthworms don’t, ‘cause they’re too turbulent and the cushions look smaller than they should be, which scares most of ‘em. But Earthworms don’t understand Mars’ gravity too well, neither.”

The Captain chuckled. “So, you’re a rich Earth woman, you’ve come here and been roughed up by some men for some reason. Men who would rather kill a woman than see her jailed or prosecuted… Don’t sound like typical Marsmen to me. Unless you’re pretty important. That’s why it feels like I’ve seen you before, isn’t it?”
 Tennessee was quiet. She looked away, refusing to comment. Everyone kept their mouths clamped shut for several moments. Then she said, “Maybe. Maybe you’ve seen me in the newsplastics or over the ‘net. I work for Northern Hemisphere—”

“For the Union Of Free Airships?” Greg’s eyes got wide.

“Yes. For the Union Of Free Airships.”

Bannister clucked to himself. “I guess that explains the money—say, you wouldn’t be able to up the minimum for this ship after we drop you off, would you?”

“My Dad was in the UOFA before he died, you couldn’t get me a bereavement-stipend, could you?”

She glared at the both of them. Don smirked, “Well, I didn’t think so. Though, Miss Tennessee, I think you gotta concede we have a bit of an edge—”

Greg’s train of thought pulled into a station of mild epiphany: “Wait a minute, who’s trying to kill you? What men would be trying to kill a UOFA official?”

The old man snapped his fingers. “She’s headed to New Quebec. She’s got to tell the UOFA station what the Northern Hemisphere decided last month about the dirigibles—you know how tight they are about security, you can’t send a message over the sat-relays these days, so they do it personal. That’s why she’s a month late, probably caught a ship straight from Earth! Didn’t you, Dejah?”

Tennessee’s face crunched itself. “You know who I am and what I’m up to, leave me alone now. What kind of chivalry is this, give a woman ten minutes to collect herself—”

But the Captain wasn’t done: “That’s why you couldn’t take one of the Magnet-trains, or even a skycar. That’d be the most obvious place for somebody who didn’t like whatever decision you’re about to verify to find you, wouldn’t it? But nobody’d look in a freight-yacht.”

“Brilliant, Holmes.” She pulled out another of her slim cigarettes. Bannister felt for his pipe but couldn’t find it.

Greg said: “So what’s the decision? What’d the Northern Hemisphere decide about what?”

With the cigarette half-struck on her thigh, she stopped, looking at them with her mouth slightly ajar.

Suddenly something rocked the ship like Goshzilla back-handing a skyscraper. Dejah was thrown across the lounge where she landed in a heap against the ‘fridge, Greg and Bannister—used to such jolts—managed to grab one of the handholds near the divider between the pilot’s cabin and the small room.

Bannister yelled almost automatically: “Colt, what was that?”

Greg followed the old man through the divider.

Colt was sitting half on and half off his seat, with one hand pushing himself back into the chair and the other gripping the joystick as though if he dropped it he’d combust. “Something on the radar, coming quick, don’t know what it is.”

“Did you try the radio?” Bannister jumped to the CB, turned it up as loud as it would go (the volume had been all the way off) and began to scan frequencies.

“Didn’t think to—”

“Damnit, keep your mouth shut, let me hear this…”

Dejah yelled from the back: “What’s going on? Isn’t anybody going to help me?”

“Shut up!” Greg offered.

Sure enough, they were being hailed over the CB, “—doesn’t anybody teach these guys to pick up the radio? Pick up! Thor’s Hockey Stick to Little Wieczorek, over. Thor’s Hockey Stick to Little Wieczorek, come in, please. Don’t make me fire again—”

Bannister put the mic to his mouth and squeezed the button, “This is Little Wieczorek. Bill, what the hell have you done to my girl? Why’re you shooting at her?”

“You weren’t answering the radio, Don, I did what I had to.”

“Right.” Bannister took his finger off the button. “This is rich, it’s Billy Throxton, that weasel.”

Colt said: “Him? What’s he want with us?”

“He’s the Union rep for Ed Burroughs Harbor.”

“So?”

“So…So I must have had the radio turned down because I was listening to my music, and that’s why he had to shoot at me. The body shop is gonna bankrupt me.”

“Dad—”

“Anyway, he’s the union rep.”

“I still don’t know what that means!”

Bannister shook his head, “Greg, straighten my son out,” He squeezed the button again: “Listen, Jim, you could have hailed the ship's 'net. You didn’t have to slap her around. Now what do you want?”

“We’ll make it quick: we understand you’ve got a passenger aboard your cargo vessel, against union regulations. It’s our duty to bring her back to the matrix for identification.”

“What of it? I’m not part of UOFA,” (he said it ‘whoa-fa’) “I don’t have to conform to your stupid rules.”

“Now, Don, let’s not be obstinate. Cut your jets, let out the crossbridge, and we’ll be on our way in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

“Like spit you will. Listen, this is a free vessel who does free trade for herself and herself only, and I’m already half an hour late on a shipment to New Quebec. You know it’s another nine hours at least, full throttle. I slow down and go through this hooey, I lose a half hour and the guy I’m shipping for is very upset, understand? Military doesn’t take it light when their munitions are late.”

Greg’s eyes widened, “Munitions?”

“Not really; shut your yap!” This came through Colt’s clenched teeth as he backed Greg toward the lounge and glanced through the divider at Dejah, who by this time had collected herself and was typing furiously into her ‘net terminal. Colt wondered exactly what she was typing.

“The UOFA takes care of her own, Don.”

“And I’m not part of the UOFA! You need this passenger so bad, why don’t you let the processing take place in New Quebec? You’ve got a chapter there!”

The voice from Thor’s Hockey Stick sounded pained, and as Don Bannister looked out one of the cabin’s windows, he could see the lengthy and sleek dirigible sidled up next to the Wieczorek, about two hundred meters off her port navigation wing, maneuvering to match vectors and airspeed in the quickly receding twilight. “This is just routine, Don, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re part of the union. You take on a passenger you’ve both got to go through the proper channels. Frankly, the one you’ve got aboard hasn’t and we know it.”

“How do you know it? Have you talked to my passenger? Have you seen my passenger?”

“But Cap, he has a point—”

Bannister raised an arm and bugged his eyes out, Greg flinched in a depreciating way and shut up.

“There’s no record of any Last-Minutes in the logs, and she was seen boarding your vessel right before liftoff.”

“Seen by who, the AI’s on duty across the field, or the people who shot the holes in my ship and made it so the window I’m looking at you through is glassy splinters?”

“No one said anything about shooting anybody. This is peaceable. This is above the table. Now Don, let us on your ship.”

To this Don Bannister made a signal with both hands; one toward Thor’s Hockey Stick—who was so close by now that he could see Throxton’s goons in her cockpit—and the other for Greg’s benefit. Greg’s mouth opened a moment but his common sense reached a consensus with his morals, so he nodded and beat it for the lounge. Over the radio Don said: “Give us a minute. Why don’t you put a chew in.”

“Sixty seconds and counting, Don. And why don’t you keep that finger where it belongs?”

Bannister hung up the radio, turned to his son: “I want you to get the emergency pump, hook it to one of the reserve hydrogen tanks, and make it a missile.”

Colt was confused a second, then his eyes widened and his mouth made a grin, “Aye-Aye, Sir.”

“Wait! Wait for my signal. I’ll blow the departure horn when I want you to fire. But I’m not doing that till I know you’re ready, so signal me over the intercom as soon as you are, okay? And make sure you’re strapped in, somehow! I’m going to gun this puppy.”

“Roger that.” Colt ran out the cabin and across the deck to the rear.

“Good boy. Greg!” Don yelled over his shoulder. “Greg! Get miss fancy pants and yourself strapped in, there’s some turbulence coming up.”

A faint “Yowza!” answered him, followed by a “Turbulence—!? What about my ‘net connection—” and then several muffled exclamations which made the Captain smile.

Bannister picked up the radio again: “I’m willing to negotiate. You tell me who exactly it is I’ve got onboard and what you want with her, and maybe we’ll come to an agreement.”

When Dejah heard this, Greg barely managed to shut her up.

“You’ve got Marianna Kennedy with you, Don. It is important that we get a hold of her.”

“Marianna Kennedy, eh? Told us her name was Dejah Tennessee.” Don stared back at the divider. “Sure you got the right airship?”

“She goes by aliases. Don’t worry, we know it’s her. Now, you’ve got to hand her over.”

“Why, so you can keep her locked up until the New Quebec conference adjourns and delay things a year?” The old man grabbed one of the squirrel rifles and moved it to his side, hiding it in the shadow of his profile.

“What business is it of yours if we do?”

“Billy, you’re not that stupid. This is a free vessel doing free trade, which means outside the docks and cities she’s a sovereign state and you know it. I’ve got a passenger that is now part of the sovereign state of Little Wieczorek, and as a state I don’t believe she’ll be given up under duress. Why, such actions would be veritable declarations of war!”

“You’re making this hard on yourself, damnit! Do you know what she’s about to do, Don? DO you? Do you have any idea?”

“I know that you raising your voice isn’t going to do you any good.”

There was an unintelligible mumble over the radio, then: “Don, she’s kicking the union out of Mars’ southern territories! You want that?”

Bannister screwed up his face and again glanced back at the lounge, making sure Greg hadn’t heard Bill’s exclamation; then he said into the CB, “Why would she do that? She’s from the union.”

“Exactly! They’re not making any money over here, so they’re pulling out and we’re all leftover turkey. Soon as the union leaves, air-freighters are obsolete. The magnet trains’ll take our spots.”

“Now, you know that’s a load of crap. Dirigibles are like the radio, they’ll always be around. On Mars, at least. Third-gravity does wonders for airship travel; we can’t ship any freight by oceans because we ain’t got any, and those magnet trains won’t touch the dangerous stuff because if something goes wrong that high up the public loses faith; they can’t afford to make trains into dynamite ferries.”

“Like heck they can’t afford to! They will, Don! Now let us aboard!”

Don shook his head, looking through his shattered window as the chilly terraformed evening air of Mars whistled through glass-shards and ruffled his receding hair. “I never said I was part of any union. I’ve wanted ‘em out of here since I was fifty-two.”

And almost like confirming punctuation, Colt’s signal echoed through the vessel. Don gripped his rifle and readied himself to hit the departure alarm in response to his son.

Thor’s Hockey Stick had gotten decidedly closer; Bannister could see the stubble on Throxton’s face. Over the radio he heard: “It doesn’t matter if you like the UOFA or not, you’ll be out of work if they pull funding.”

“Hell I will. You’re the only one that’s going to be out of work, you and all your union cronies who spend half their income recruiting. You want anything, you’re going to have to take it, because I ain’t givin’ an inch.”

“Alright. I warned—”

Several things happened very quickly. First, Bannister hit the alarm and Colt, from the rear of the dirigible, released the pressure of a compressed hydrogen tank positioned such that the emptying of its contents propelled it horizontally at the other vessel. Second, Don Bannister hefted the squirrel rifle and snapped off several shots at the opposing vessel—which was too close for comfort at this point—and released pressure on Wieczorek’s elevation cushion while pushing the acceleration switch to maximum. (Don managed to spark instruments on the Hockey Stick’s control panel; he’d been a crack-shot in the military.) The ships were so close that when the Captain did this, he could actually see Billy’s goons in the other ship bringing their own weapons to bear, and had a strong hunch those firearms were intended for death rather than injury.

The effect of these happenings was thus: The tank impacted the other ship’s cushion near the rear, igniting itself and exploding with enough force to rend the steel holding the helium and over-tax any auto-patch phlegm inside. This caused the other ship to lose altitude, drifting slowly away from Wieczorek. At the same time, Don’s own shots made the armed goons across the way duck, and as their ship veered away Wieczorek lost altitude as well, but instead of going straight down made a sweeping starboard maneuver, finding itself almost vertical and racing toward Mars’ crimson surface.

Over the intercom: “Dad, what in hell are you doing up there?”

Bannister thumbed the switch on the joystick, yelled: “Just hold on tight, I’m seeing more blips on the radar. They’re not giving up without a fight. I’m going into the canyon.”

“Is it really worth it for this broad?”

Dejah chose that moment to break loose of whatever vocal restraints Greg had managed to confine her to and howl like a mashed cat, saying all kinds of unintelligible things. Don glanced back at the ruckus, made a sour expression, then said over the radio: “She’s getting the union out of here, son. And she’s paid us well. You’re damn right it’s worth it. But I’m not going easy on her when we drop her off.”

“Whatever you say, pop. Just as long as I see Jinny again…”

“Shut up and hold on; this goes right, we’ll make it to Laumer’s.”

Greg yelled, “Wait—we’re headed for Merc Haven?!”

“That goes for you too, Greg!”

And as the last rays of sunlight burned through the atmosphere, The Little Wieczorek plunged headlong into the Valles Marineris, a lengthy and jagged depression several times the size of Earth's own Grand Canyon and stretching across almost one third of Mars’ surface.

Dejah—or should he think of her as Marianna?—screamed louder, and Don hit a button with his free-hand that put music over the loudspeakers of the intercom. The program jumped automatically to the next track on the nouveau-baroque Pieces of Eight album, Blue Collar Man.



Give me a job, give me some purity—



All light from the sun disappeared and the airship’s floodlights came on automatically. With them Don heard the distant reports of projectile fire, and knew they were being fired upon. On the radar six blips that were substantially smaller than The Little Wieczorek closed the gap, and because the LED on the CB signaled no further contact, he knew they had death in their hearts.



Give me a chance to survive,



Bannister did probably one of the craziest things he’d done in his life: He turned off every light on the ship and pulled on an active-sonar headset. Active-Sonar was a standard airship component because of the sandstorms, but nobody used it for real-time navigation at low altitude. Don was betting his pursuers wouldn’t last until Merc Haven. If they did, he’d have to improvise something else—that place was lit up like a Christmas tree in New Vegas.

Don knew a dark target was ten times more difficult to hit than one painted with a floodlit bull’s-eye, and to combat him, their pursuers would have to use the same navigational technique. But they didn’t have thirty years’ experience over the dunes—he hoped.



I’m just a poor soul in the unemployment line,

My Gosh I’m hardly alive!



He was in the canyon now, and he could hear above the loudspeakers the screams of Marianna in the back.



My mother and father,

My wife and my friends,

You see them laugh in my face,



Valles Marineris is a deep canyon, several kilometers in some places, very jagged, very wide, very easy to get lost in. The blips followed, and using sonar navigation Don swept a ragged trail through the rocks and canyon walls, something that could only be accomplished by an old man who’d been flying a cargo airship for dozens of years.

Unfortunately, the range of the sonar only extended about three kilometers, and at top speed the airships could match two hundred kilometers an hour, which meant that at any given time Don couldn’t see exactly what was in front of him; he often barely had time to maneuver.

Behind him, the floodlights of his pursuers illuminated the canyon. They were closing in and they were almost certainly faster than his ship.



But I’ve got the power,

And I’ve got the will,

I’m not a charity case!



An outcropping stretched from the base of the canyon and nearly beyond the canyon walls directly before him. Don yanked the joystick to the left at the last moment, tilting the craft perilously and stressing the steel holding it together. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something orange streak past and impact the monolith. Belatedly he realized it was a missile, and from this illumination he could just see through a crack in his headset the vapor trail of the missile’s parent. A smaller airship indeed; and with a similar explosive burst, that airship was no more—though the monolith remained largely unmoved. One of the blips disappeared from the radar, and a burst of static made the light on the CB go crazy, signaling chatter.

One of the cronies had blown himself up!

The left corner of Don’s mouth turned up a little.



I’ll take those long nights, impossible odds,

Keeping my eye to the keyhole.

If it takes all that, be just what I am,

Well I’m gonna’ be a blue collar man…



Merc Haven was less than six kilometers ahead. Little Wieczorek was only a cargo freighter, she had no weapons; they’d have to barter. Maybe Don could pawn the vehicles off on Laumer to use one of his garage—or better yet; he’d use some of “Dejah’s” money. Bannister hit the alert beacon and hoped the response came in time.

He wasn’t going to be punctual with his cargo, he realized, but Mrs. Dejah/Marianna was entirely correct: her sum of money far outweighed his need to worry about any other customer.

Don swerved to the left as a cleft between the canyon walls forced the right face dangerously near, and simultaneously a rift in the base decreased the canyon’s depth.



Make me an offer, and I can’t refuse.

Make me respectable, man.



Five blips still on the radar, no way except good maneuvering to loose them. Don knew from experience that a kilometer ahead, the canyon floor lowered itself again. In response to this, he pulled back on the joystick and gave himself a precious little amount of altitude, readying to plunge at the given moment. Pursuers of The Little Wieczorek got perilously close, the larger ship losing speed as it climbed.



This is my last time in the unemployment line,

So like it or not—



Over the hump, Don pushed the stick down and the ship plummeted yet again, the other ships in hot pursuit. One or two were hesitant, and this gave him exactly the edge he needed. He was going twice as fast as Wieczorek had been designed to go, and at just the right moment he pulled back on the yoke and the craft leveled out meters above the canyon floor. Several more kilometers ahead, and he would be at Merc Haven.

Behind the Little Wieczorek, several more orange firecracker bursts illuminated the night; young blood didn’t know how to deal with an experienced pilot. Bannister laughed. Only three blips on the radar now…



—I’ll take those long nights, impossible odds,

keeping my back to the wall,

if it takes all night, be just what I am,

well I’m gonna be a blue collar man—



Don cut the music, Dejah/Marianna’s screaming mixed with the whine of over-taxed engines filled the cabin. He hit the intercom switch: “It’s gonna’ get even rougher, everybody. Hold on! Colt, good shot. And Greg would you shut her up!”

A brief static fuzz, Colt’s voice, “How much longer? I’m having trouble holding on back here and I can’t see a thing—whoa! Watch it, you nearly took out the whole canyon!”

“I can see fine, son. Hold out five more minutes.”
 “If I’m a dead sack of skin when you finally stop this puppy, you’ll know why.”

“Oh, hush up.” Over his shoulder: “Greg, everybody okay back there? Dejah’s quiet, what’d you do to her?”

He heard a sharp laugh, then: “Nothing, I think the darkness has shocked the sass out of her—” Greg’s comment was cut off. Something hit the ship, and it was all Don could do to maintain any kind of control. The Captain swore under his breath, looked on the radar screen and saw that one of the dots had merged with the point indicating Wieczorek’s position. He looked out the whistling window, moved the sonar-goggles with a frozen hand, and saw dodging through the valleys one of his pursuers. Whoever this jockey was, he’d figured out the darkness trick, which meant that the other two had to be almost there as well. This made Bannister’s heart flutter.

He surmised from this one illusively silhouetted craft that the other two were very similar, if not the same. These were the Harley Davidsons of the skies, ships that wouldn’t be called dirigibles anywhere but Mars, with weapons attached for good measure; little zeppelins who employed a mixture of aerial physics and helium lift, the combination only possible in the lessened gravity of the fourth planet from the Sun.

And as Bannister looked, to his horror he saw in one of the intact rearview mirrors the liquid rouge of licking flames, gripping the side of Wieczorek’s cushion. A glance at the altimeter revealed that his navigation wasn’t the only thing that was plummeting the ship to the ground.

Don checked his safety harness, threw the visor back on, and prepared to do the most clever maneuvering of his career.



II

In the rear of the craft, entirely exposed to the elements, freezing, and unable to alter his position due to the continuous maneuvering of Wieczorek, Colt held on for dear sweet crazy life. His stomach felt like a thousand leprechauns were drunk and square dancing. He was hyperventilating.

Then from nowhere, one of the missiles that’d been missing Wieczorek by the smallest of increments glanced off the cushion and ripped a fiery gash through the Transparasteel lining; a gash too steep for any auto-patch phlegm to seal. He could see the thick and viscous fluid streaming away, burning green in the flame. If Colt had had anything for dinner, it would have evacuated from his stomach at that point, with an admonition that he should do the same from Wieczorek.

The impact knocked the ship sideways into a canyon gale, and the spewing helium further threw the Wieczorek off her axis, both sinking it and diverting it at the same time. From the glowing flame Colt could see who had fired the shot: a small and sleek vessel whose very bearing seemed to eliminate “mercy” from potential vocabulary.

When asked later, he would say he hadn’t been thinking; he’d been on autopilot, doing the only thing he could think of to correct Wieczorek’s artificially skewed trajectory. In seconds, his mind registered that something had to be done, and soon, or the ship wouldn’t make it to Merc Haven, whose glow was even then catching Mars’ ever-prescient sand-fines in the distance. And so Colt did this: while gripping the railing that had only just kept him from flying into the Martian wilderness, he groped around in the shifting starlight until he found one of the hydrogen tanks. He then wedged it against one of the airship’s support beams and secured it with a cargo-chain so that the open end faced in the opposite direction of the gash in Wieczorek’s cushion. Next, after Don put the freighter through several seconds of breathtaking maneuvers that only increased his heart rate, Colt managed to brace himself against the railing and screw on the pump-cable. He then popped the same cable off the pump while the clip on the tank was in the “open” setting, venting hydrogen.

This action must have sparked the gas, for as soon as Colt did this a stream of flame spewed from the large canister, shooting across the rear deck of the Wieczorek and engulfing one of the pursuers that had been flanking the ship’s starboard side. This was an added bonus; Colt’s goal had only been to right the craft’s misalignment.

According to Newton’s law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction: Colt’s opening of that fiery tank prompted a propulsion that moved the Wieczorek’s rear quarter toward the airship who’d injured her in the first place. This happened so rapidly the smaller vessel didn’t have time to maneuver, and the end of the Wieczorek holding the spitting canister smashed into her, spiraling the little attacker into the depths of the canyon and knocking Colt to the other side of the walkway, where he grabbed on with both hands as his legs flew over the edge and his feet were licked by the jetting flame.

All this took place in seconds. From an engineering perspective, it couldn’t have been anything less than seconds, for the hydrogen tank would have quickly spent itself; possibly in an explosive manner. What saved Colt and Wieczorek from destruction was his rigging of the hydrogen container. The tank’s pressure was such that the jury-rigged holding spot—attached with that aged and grim cargo chain—was inadequate to contain such force for any length of time. The chain broke, and the tank moved like a possessed metal ferret across the deck and over the side, where it spun like a top in the Martian air before colliding with the other vessel (who had just recovered from dodging Wieczorek’s three-hundred and sixty degree maneuver) and bringing it to the ground in a roiling fireball.

Colt sighed in relief, and surprised himself by dry heaving until he did vomit. Only then did he notice that his heart had made its way to his throat and claimed that territory for its own.

***

From the cabin, Don suddenly lost control of the ship and it did a full turn-around, knocking one of the Harley Davidson airships and somehow managing to decommission another at the same time. Then he was facing the way he had been, barely a kilometer from Merc Haven, with only one blip on the radar. He activated the intercom, “Colt, are you alive back there?”

Several seconds went by, Don began to sweat. Then: “Yeah, I’m okay. We get outta’ this alive, I want to see Jinny first thing, and then I want a round when we get into New Quebec, you owe me.”

“Maybe when you’re of legal age.”

“I’ll show you ‘legal age’—!”

“That’s my boy! I’m gonna’ stop the ship. Get both hands on something.”

“But I just… Okay—”

Bannister reversed propulsion, feeling himself pressed stiffly against his harness. On the radar, the other blip didn’t have time to do the same thing and shot right past at a lower altitude. Wieczorek was already sinking, and fast. The little vessel hit its brakes as well in an attempt to turn around, but the pilot didn’t gauge his maneuver correctly. Wieczorek’s attacker had no time to get out of the way, and there were sparks and a flash as the airship's base sent the union goon spiraling into a field of boulders.

Over the intercom, Don heard a whoop and did the same himself, then yelled over the system, “We’re coming in for a landing. Repeat, we are coming in for a landing! And it’s going to be the roughest landing of all, but we’re alive! Hold tight.”

“Hold tight yourself!” Yelled Greg.

For the briefest of moments, Don activated all the lights on the craft, momentarily blinding himself. They had perhaps hours before another gang of union cronies came after them. Union boys had a tendency toward violence that rivaled mobs of the twentieth century. They would be sniffing around soon, Don needed to make it to one of Laumer’s garages, and quickly.

First things first: “Little Wieczorek to Buccaneer Waterhole, come in, Bobby.” No response. “Little Wieczorek to—”

“Don, is that you?” Crackled the radio.

“It sure is—listen, no time to talk: I’m six-hundred meters out and coming down fast. I need you to open your biggest garage—”

“Hold on, I’m not even in that part of the bar—”

“Hurry it up, Bobby, this thing’s coming in for a landing, whether or not you’ve got any doors open—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah—I see you out there, a well-lit fat girl sinking out of the sky—”

“Hey, this is my baby we’re talking about here, Bobby!”

“A child only a mother could love, with bumps like that. And she’s on fire. Don, what’ve you done?”

“Is the bay open? I can’t see anything—”

“Hold on….”

Little Wieczorek was passing over steep-hilled ranch-land peppered with docking ports for the blimps that came and went with goods from Merc Haven. There were thousands of them in a four hundred meter space; growing like moss up the walls of the canyon. Bobby Laumer’s Buccaneer Waterhole was only one of a dozen identical establishments. Don knew which was his because there was a great flickering holo whose projector was clogged with Martian dust fines. Above the establishment was a looped graphic showing a dozen swarthy individuals sucking amber fluid from a lake rippled by a beer waterfall coming from a tap with a busty-blonde working the valve. As they drank, the letters “The Buccaneer Waterhole” swam from the depths of the beer-pond.

To the right of the flickering holo were the zeppelin bays, and Don could just make out a sliver of light slowly rising from one of them. A klaxon was howling somewhere. “Bobby, it ain’t open enough—”

“Well whaddaya want? I’m going as fast as I can!”

Don felt the controls shudder in his hands: “I can’t buy us any time, Bobby; she’s coming down—”

“Can’t you put on any reverse-thrust?”

“You can see the smoke coming outta my cushion, can’t you? We’ll drop like a rock!”

“Right through the door—”

“Bobby, get out of the way!” The ship was close, now. Don could see a little silhouette sprinting away as he came in—ten meters off the ground, eight, five… The door was still sliding slowly upward; the cushion would barely clear the entrance—

“Holy shit, Don—”

The top of the cushion came so close to the receding door sparks glinted through the chamber. A screeching like a rabid she-cat the size of a starship made anyone in the immediate vicinity clamp hands over ears and make angry faces. Then the ship was through the door and skidding on the ground with an equally deafening clatter; wood and steel groaning and snapping as it slid across the zeppelin garage, turning from a straight trajectory to one of a horizontal nature; eventually coming to rest against a dark scaffolding that crumbled as Bobby reached the top of it and dove off; just managing to make the inset doorway that led to the bar as Weiczorek came to a final rest.

A piece of metal dislodged in the crash trembled and fell from the ceiling; it’s clatter marking the punctuation that ended Wieczorek’s journey.

Don opened his eyes—he’d clamped them shut after the top of the cushion had sparked on the still-rising door to the garage.

The Wieczorek was rocking slightly, and he could see sparks somewhere. He let his breath out—just then realizing he had been holding it—and stood on shaky legs in the cabin, looking out the windows at the swath of destruction they had caused. There was a circular depression punched in the top of the gargantuan garage door, and pieces of the Wieczorek trailed scuff marks all along the hundred meter length of the mooring station. An errant Mars-Jeep had been crushed in the episode and lay to the side, a reddish mangled heap.

“Atmospheric control, ON!” Screamed a shrill voice from far away. It was Bobby, leaning over what was left of his disembarkation scaffolding.

Suddenly water cascaded from the ceiling, and Don could hear embers sizzle as the system doused the top of his boat.

The next thing he heard was another irate scream: “Bannister!” Bobby yelled from the recessed doorway, looping an arm over a piece of scaffolding and making his way tenuously to the crashed zeppelin; “Bannister! What the hell have you done to my garage!”



III

“Seems our arrival hasn’t gone unnoticed,” Colt looked pale and was breathing hard, hands on knees-filled jeans, hair disheveled.

“What?” Bannister turned back from the controls to see his son leaning in from one of the doors that led to the aft decks.

“Look,” Colt pointed.

A dozen-or-so spectators had joined Bobby in the recessed doorway—though, by this time, Bobby had moved from that location and was making like a spider across the twisted metal to Don’s ship.

Don smiled at them and waved, receiving a few cheers and an “atta-boy!” or two.

“Dad—is that a good idea…?”

“This is Merc Haven, son. It’s named that for a reason. Met your mother here, y’know; when I was younger. Only in my second twenties—”

“Dad, you know I don’t like hearing about mom—”

“So what if she…but I gotta tell you, Colt, this woman could—”

“Dad!”

Greg peeked out from the lounge: “Well, I got the Earthworm down for the night, I don’t think she’ll be crying for baby formula. Now would somebody mind telling me why it felt like you were bashing into every rock in the canyon?”

“Greg, you’re coming with me,” said Don.

“What? Why?”

“Yeah, Dad, why?”

Don smiled. “I want you to stay with the ship, Colt, that’s why. I trust you to take care of Dejah…or Marianna…or whatever-her-name is. And Greg, I’m taking you because I’m not sure I trust you alone with my ship.”

“Aw, c’mon, Mr. Bannister. I’ve known you guys since before I could jack-off—”

“And that precise brusque sentiment makes me want to keep an eye on you, Greg. Now, follow me—”

“I want a week’s leave in New Quebec, Dad,” Colt was saying, looking dubiously into the lounge. “That’s not too unreasonable, is it?”

“We’ll see, Colt. Now I gotta deal with Bobby—here he comes.”

Just then the gangly proprietor of the Buccaneer Waterhole was looping a leather-booted foot over Wieczorek’s railing, an irate grimace on his face, and a determined tread to his step. “Bannister! I hope you can pay for all this—Bannister, where are you?”

“Over here!” Don called, walking out from the cockpit with Greg in tow. “Bobby Laumer, you raggedy old cuss, how are you?”

“Don’t ‘how are you’ me, you low-down dirty Earth-fart! What’s the big idea; ignoring me for twenty years, leaving without a even goodbye kiss, and then wrecking my garage?”

“Well I had to make an entrance, didn’t I?”

“That’s the biggest understatement of the night!” Bobby howled with laughter.

The men embraced and clapped each other on the back in the manner of old sailors, then held each other at shoulder length and made quick conversation for a few moments before Greg stepped forward and introduced himself: “Greg Redgruen…and you must be Bobby Laumer? We’ve heard all kinds of stories about you, sir.”

“I’ll bet you have,” Bobby grinned through his gray stubble. “This old guy and me have seen more o’ Mars than just about anybody out there. Why, we may even be the oldest residents! I remember when Merc Haven was nothing but a pre-fab module in a natural hollow filled with eight cots and a rotating maintenance guy; back before us Mars-dogs took it over.”

“As I remember it, there was a busted blimp that an old boy made into the first bar here,” Don scratched his chin.

“Well, however the place came to be, we remember it,” Bobby smiled. “Which reminds me: Donny, baby, pal, friend-of-mine—we’ve been through thick and thin. We’ve traded girlfriends back when it was fashionable, and neither you or me knew black from white. We’ve fought off dune-pirates and Feds, and any number of things—but I need to know, buddy—my garage; what are you going to do about—”

“Relax, Laumer, I got your insurance right here,” and Don was showing him the transaction he’d made earlier that morning with “Dejah Tennessee”.

Bobby whistled low and looked up at Bannister: “And you’re giving me half that, right?”

“I’ll give you two percent if you treat my zeppelin good; and if you’re lucky I won’t buy The Buccaneer Waterhole and sell it to Jacky Sallis across the canyon.”

“Oooh,” Bobby shook his head. “Your Dad’s a stiff customer—what-was-your-name?”

“Greg. And I ain’t his son; I’m just a friend of the family.”

“Oh, that’s right!” Said Bobby with a laugh. “Say, where is Colt?”

“He’s keeping an eye on our cargo,” Don replied, “which is a cargo I’d like to talk to you about, when we get a minute. But we don’t have time to jibber-jabber, Bobby. I need you to help me get this ship fixed, and I need you to get us to one of the natural caves down the canyon. We’ve got Union boys after us.”

“Those fellers, eh? You’ve got trouble indeed. Alright then, I’ll get my people on it; PEOPLE!” Bobby was yelling at the crowd standing in the inset doorway. They all looked up. Bobby continued: “A hundred chits to each of you if we can get this thing patched up and airborne in the next hour and a half!”

A chorus of sususurus rose from the doorway, and all the men and women whose day-jobs were spent in the other docking garages began climbing across the broken scaffolding like so many insects. Bobby Laumer turned back to Don and Greg: “Now won’t you come have a drink with me? I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” he smiled impishly.

“And I wouldn’t deny you that courtesy. We’ll get you a virgin something-or-other, Greg,” Don turned back to the lounge: “Colt, keep an eye on these ne’er-do-wells, will you?”

“Alright, pop,” Colt called back

“How you doin’, Colt?” Bobby Laumer waved.

Colt stuck his head out of the lounge: “I’m alive, Bobby. And I aim to stay that way. Yourself?”

“Just fine, Colt; Just fine.”

“Good seeing you,” Colt replied with a cordial smile, then disappeared back into the lounge.

“Still mad at me, ain’t he?” Bobby raised an eyebrow at Bannister.

Bannister shrugged. “He’ll get over it soon enough. I always knew what his mother was, and what she does…it’s for the best anyhow.”

“Listen, Don, I never meant to…”

“Don’t worry about it. She was one of your girls, and she left me. You had nothing to do with it. It was all her choice.”

“You’ve got to understand, she did the same thing to me, Don.”

“Of course she did. It’s her nature. At least she didn’t leave you an illegitimate son—but Gosh bless the kid, I love him like no other son I’ve had, Bobby. I really do.” Don sighed, glancing at the ship. “Almost as much as the Wieczorek. So you better take care of her, Bobby.”

“They all know what they’re doing,” he smiled.

“What about that drink you mentioned, Mr. Laumer?” Greg had his arms crossed.

“I guess we’d better get it,” Bobby replied; and the three made their way to the inset doorway.

Colt leant against the railing watching them go, then turned back to “Dejah Tennessee”, who snored fitfully on the divan. Greg had been kind enough to drape a quilt he’d dredged somewhere across her obese form. “Just what are you,” Colt muttered, and crossed his legs over a footstool with a rifle on his lap, keeping an eye on the men and women clambering up the cushion.

How could he have seen the man standing across the dirt-worn street, wearing a calf-length duster and a high-brimmed hat, and leaning against another garage, smoking; talking into a transmitter, and staring with undisguised reproach at the crashed zeppelin? The man hid in the shadows, and watched intently as the door to the garage—dented as it was—began to slowly lower itself. Soon the door hid the man from Colt; whose only immediate concern were the impromptu mechanics.

The dark figure turned and walked down the street, disappearing into the night.



IV

A skinny fellow found himself airborne, and it may have been his own profanity that propelled him across the barroom, over the bar, and to Martha’s feet; where he was swiftly kicked and manhandled by the matronly woman from behind the bar and out into the street. Before his body could rebound off the dusty ground, Martha turned back to Swarthy Steve, the seven foot black man who had thrown the skinny one across the bar: “Youse! Out!”

“I think I like it here,” Swarthy Steve sulked, sitting back down and resuming his beer.

“Fella, I been wit dis bar tirty years, und I ain’t ‘fraid to shootcha!”

“What’ll my pals say, grandma?” Swarthy Steve was accompanied by half-a-dozen drunk lunkheads.

“Won’t say much, Steve,” Laumer called out, walking down stairs from one of his garages, “ ‘Cause ya’ll gonna be dead, you keep it up. Now leave Martha be and get out, you’ve had your limit.”

“Limit? I ain’t even started, and you ain’t been in here for ten minutes—what you know about what’s—”

There was a flash and a bang, and suddenly Swarthy Steve choked and fell from his stool, gagging. Laumer twirled something on a finger and holstered it, saying: “That goes double for you punks. Now git!”

They got.

“What take you so long, dere, Bobby?” Martha was wiping the bar down in solemn reverence to the cliché all minds imagine when a barkeep is described.

“This guy, babe. You remember Donnie Bannister?”

“Sure, I remember heem. So what?”

“How are you, Martha,” Don smiled.

“Oooh! Donny!” Martha dropped the rag and came around from behind the bar, fixing Don with a bear hug that nearly crushed him. “You wait too long, dear. Years I’m waitin’ for ya’, and nobody here. Just arseholes like dat, and dem everyday.”

“You’re looking well-fed, I see,” Don made a pretense of looking her up and down.

Martha smiled and shook a finger: “You always were da flatterer, you were. Now: What’ll ye’ boyz be havin’ t'night?”

“You remember my usual, Martha?”

“Of carse I do!”

“Two of those, then,” Bobby broke in, grinning at Don.

“What about me?”

“And a virgin daiquiri,” Don said.

“Comin’ right up,” and Martha disappeared into a back room somewhere.

Greg took a seat by the old men as they reminisced on topics that held no interest for him. Instead, he found himself looking around the cavernous bar—once merely a garage like the one Wieczorek had crashed into. Faux-oak surrounded the space, and there were a dozen circular tables fit for ten people that stretched beyond the bar. A large dance-space peopled with scant revelers was accompanied by old-style tunes of a Western variety, and the stench of cigarettes and alcohol was nearly unbearable. In any number of corners, Greg could see people wrestling with one another, or yelling about something—it was a surprise to him the other gentlemen had been shown out; what about these beaus on the outskirts?

This was what you got when you took away a union. You got a bunch of dirty, rough-around-the edges individualists who couldn’t keep their hands from beating their fellow man. That’s what you got.

…and yet, the union folks had still tried to shoot them down…but what of it? Wasn’t “Dejah” theirs to deal with?

But then, Don had never turned Greg down a blind alley, or lied to him, or treated him in any way unjust…still, did that mean he was the grand moral arbiter of Mars? Hardly.

“Here y’go, sweety,” Martha said, thrusting a bright-red tropical conglomeration of ice and fruit in front of him. It looked like she’d poured the mix over un-crushed cubes.

“What’s this?” Greg said.

“Why, ‘t’s yer daiquiri, son,” Martha replied, and turned to the old men with a jiggle.

Fat women. Why were there always fat women around Don? Greg looked at his drink in repulsion, carefully taking a sip—

Well, it wasn’t bad.

***

“They made it through to Merc Haven, alright; holed up at The Buccaneer Waterhole. What do you want me to do?”

The line was silent a full minute before Billy Throxton's gravelly voice came through: “How many of our boys we got down there?”

The man with the finger to the transmitter in his ear exhaled and took out a cigarette, glancing around the alley before he lit it. “Cleatus is somewhere in the red-light district a kay-or-two farther down the canyon; beyond him, I don't know.”

“Hmph. Cleatus is unreliable.”

“I got an idea, boss.”

“Oh?”

He took a long drag, pushed the transmitter tighter in his ear: “Did a little research on these cats—Bannister, his kid, and the other one. Now Colt's a bit of a bastard; Bannister met his mum at Madison's Valley in the same red-light district I mentioned earlier. I thought he'd be susceptible, but the fact that he's kin to Bannister means to get that ball rolling would be a little difficult. Greg Redgruen, now...his daddy was a union boy, died in the service.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah—and I think he can be bought.”

“Why's that, Ron?”

Ron stamped out his cigarette at last. “Because I knew his daddy. And he's got a sister.”

***

Bannister had given Greg leave to wander the bar; and after a time when it was obvious the young man was restless, sent him to pick up a few pounds of auto-patch sealant. Greg took the stairs down from The Buccaneer Waterhole two at a time, crossing the graveled thoroughfare with one hand in his pocket and the other cradling a knife he always kept with him. Merc Haven answered to no government, provisional or otherwise, on Mars. Even if it was a third the size of Earth, it was still a big planet, and there was a lot of it that was entirely uninhabitable. As a result, those outspoken types with a distaste for lawfulness tended to congregate in areas where lands remained un-purchased. Merc Haven, like any number of identical settlements, conformed to no set-down law—except a kind of skewed golden rule that was unwritten. In short, protection was bought; and freedom wasn't free. Bannister had told Greg and Colt many stories of Merc Haven; some to make the boys laugh out loud, some to chill their bones. The upshot of all this storytelling resulted in a Greg cautious enough not to make eye-contact with any of the passerby up and down the dusty street, and to make his way straight across to the repair shop where Bannister had sent him. There was a niggling desire to take a lap around the block, maybe; or go into one of the stores with all the woman-boasting holos in the windows. But fear kept Greg at bay. It made him walk taller, and it made him more sensitive to fleeting motion as folks passed in periphery.

He made his way to the store and bartered the universal chits Marsmen in non-government territories used; all this without incident.

It was as he was walking back across the way that he heard a smooth voice calling his name, and stopped cold.

“Greg Redgruen. I haven't seen you in years,” said the voice.

Greg turned slow. As dark as it was, it took him a little while to see the canyon-faced fellow in the calf-length duster who smoked through a smirk: “Who are you?”

The man stepped under a flickering green neon sign that advertised used mooring parts: “Don't you remember your Dad's old buddy Ron Barnett?”

***

It was a full ninety minutes before Don and Bobby Laumer returned from the bar, Greg carrying a bag of sealant behind them.

“Well praise Gosh, I thought I'd be your age before you got back,” Colt said.

“How's our guest?” Don stood aside while Greg and Bobby boarded Wieczorek.

“Still out, believe it or not.”

“Emotion'll do that,” Don said.

The sounds of workers hammering and fixing things echoed through the garage. Weiczorek floated several meters off the scarred decking, now; secured by cables through various metal loops that hung from the walls at regular intervals. As Don finished climbing onto his ship, an oil-handed mechanic with a stubbly beard and short-cropped hair wiped at his eye and made tracks for Bobby Laumer: “Well, it took us a bit to get a patch worked up on that leakage; still a little wet, but I think it'll hold until we can put something a little stronger on 'er.”

“Where are you keeping the hard-patch materials?” Bobby asked.

The grease monkey nodded behind him: “Same compartment he keeps the lighter-than-air stuff in. Thing is, it'll be a while yet before we can get this puppy fixed up enough she won't betray you.”

Don was walking down a thin corridor that stretched around the outside of the main deck; sparsely railed. Atop the cushion were a number of semi-drunken men and women who bantered in profanity as they screwed plating over the soft auto-patch sealant that'd been spread over and under the gash. “Well, how long till we can get 'er out of the garage?” He asked.

The mechanic followed his eyes, then screwed up his forehead in thought. “Oh...I can probably get you out in an hour, if you like—”

“Bobby, you told 'em a hundred chits? Will you double it for me if we can get a move on in the next ten minutes? I don't trust them union folks I told you about will leave me be too much longer. I'm surprised we haven't been hassled yet, to be honest—”

“DON!” Bobby tackled him suddenly, and in rapid succession a staccato burst indicated gunfire.

“There he is!” Greg said, and had a gun out Don had never seen, and was firing at one of the techs below the airship. The man dropped his weapon and ran. “Coward!” Greg yelled.

“Holy crap, Greg,” Colt looked at him wide-eyed.

Don had regained his feet and was wiping grime away from himself. “Criminy. Nice shootin', Greg. I didn't know you had it in you.” He smiled at Redgruen with true warmth, then turned: “What about getting out of here, Bobby?”

The mechanic interrupted: “She still needs time—”

“I think what she's lacking I can fix up m'self,” Don cut him off.

Bobby said: “Yeah, we can get you out of here. Don't worry about the extra pay to these monkeys; I'll handle it. You gave me enough in the bar. Sorry I can’t come with you; but you’ve gotta understand I can’t be part of any union dispute…”

“But where do we go?” Colt asked.

“I know a few caves that're fairly unknown,” Bobby offered.

“My thoughts exactly.” Don had his pipe out and was stuffing it.

“OFF-SHIP!” Laumer yelled, and grease-monkey heads popped up like lemmings.

Greg watched the garage door open and the ensuing disembarkation procedures as if through a haze—Colt kept asking him where he'd got the zip gun, and why he hadn't used it earlier that afternoon, but Greg wasn't saying much.

In fact, he had a look in his eye that unnerved Colt enough to ask: “What's wrong?”

Greg had been staring at the scorched marks on the deck-plates where he had fired at the would-be assassin. “Nothin',” he said. “Let's help 'em cast off the lines.”

Twenty minutes later, Little Wieczorek was tucked away in a cave a few kilometers down an uninhabited branching canyon corridor, and from above the Marineris, where the stars were shining brightly, everything looked entirely pedestrian.



V

Martian day/night cycles add an extra forty minutes to the twenty-four hours Earthmen enjoy. To a born native this isn’t a discrepancy, but to Marianna it was sufficient to upset natural circadian rhythms and induce an untimely drowsiness. Having already gone through an ordeal at the dirigible matrices, and having flown into Mars acclimated to an androgynous ship-cycle that hardly estranged day and night, the new way of things wearied her middle-aged body to the breaking point, and during Wieczorek’s harrowing escape she passed out cold.



Lucid nightmares of REM sleep shook Marianna where she slept.

They were chasing her, and the bald man without any eyebrows threw her in a gutted office without any windows.

Then one of the walls turned into Captain Bannister, laughing while Styx’ Blue Collar Man played in the background. The notes from the music floated like oddly-shaped pixies. One grew fat and transformed into the countenance of one of Wieczorek’s youth… Greg? He was talking to somebody.

“You make sure nobody’s hurt, okay? I’ll do it, but you make sure nobody’s hurt. I love these people.”

She heard a muffled voice reply, but couldn’t understand it. Then Greg spoke again, “I know that. That’s why I’m doing this. She deserves a better life than any damned boarding school can give her. You’re right. And she’s flesh and blood. It’s only right, and you’ve gotta’ do what you think is right, no matter what people say, right?” The muffled voice again. “Don’t worry about it. Just check your wireless radar, that’ll show you where—yeah, they all saw what I did. After me shootin' at Barnett in grease-garb, I...I don't think they'll suspect me. Thanks for the gun...”

Greg turned around as he said this, and in Marianna’s mind he saw her.



Her eyes snapped open. For a moment the dream lingered, and she thought she heard footsteps. Blood rushed to her extremities, she threw her head in the direction of the navigation cabin—

Nobody there.

Calm down, girl, her mind whispered, just bring it all back to reality.

She had awoken to twilight, apparently alone and draped across one of the crew lounge’s smoking couches. A thin and scratchy sheet of uncomfortable fabric provided little warmth.

She stretched, found and used the lavatory, and then looked around in muddled confusion. Where was everybody? “Hello?” She went through the navigation cabin and to the anorexic deck that encircled the airship. Nobody.

The vessel was beneath a huge awning that stretched hundreds of meters above and before her. It was very dark, and she could barely make out the shadows beyond the awning that signaled where the canyon continued.

But those stars weren’t producing the twilight that had awoken her… Where was it coming from? She looked around.

There, in a corner of the alcove, a flickering campfire cast ghostly silhouettes around the cavern. The port ladder was already extended. Marianna tenderly made her way down it and to the ground, painfully aware of a general malaise about her entire body.

Ghostly voices echoed across the chamber. She heard the old man say something unintelligible, then one of the boys said, “But how is it you get a hold of those old albums? Don’t they cost anything?”

“No,” the old man said, “they haven’t cost anything for years. It’s amazing some of the stuff my grandparents used to listen too—”

“Huh. Maybe it's amazing if you’re an old fart.”

There was a smile in Bannister's voice: “Maybe you’ll understand when you’re an old fart yourself.”

When her feet hit the reddish dirt, two of her three transporters looked up. Don laughed openly, the two younger ones looked less jovial, one sleeping and the other smoking a pipe with the seriousness of youth. Marianna never registered that Don was laughing at her physical ineptitude under Mars’ gravitational pull.

“So the princess finally awakens! How you like a Martian night, eh?”

Groggily, the first thing Marianna thought to ask was: “What time is it?”

The smoking boy fielded that one: “Half past three, and almost an hour till sunup. I was about to wake you.” That was… Colt? Was that his name?

“Sun comes up at four-thirty?” She asked.

Don took a swig of something from a very personalized mug, shook his head and said, “Not Earthtime, Marstime. We’re on a twenty-hour day, but the hours aren’t sixty minutes, they’re seventy-four. That’s because the metric system runs in tens, and it’s more convenient and easier to teach. When I was a seventeen-year-old immigrant, I had a hell of a time figuring it out.”

“But Dad’s a Mars-dog through and through now, ain’t ya’ Dad?”

“That’s right, Colt. That is absolutely right.”

Colt exhaled rings from his father’s pipe, stretching his arms before resting them behind his head and further leaning against the rock face. Greg remained largely immobile, snoring slightly.

Marianna decided to sit down. “How long till we leave?”

Don snorted, “Well, at least you’re not one to mince words. Let’s talk about that particular one you just used, ‘leave’, shall we?”

“Now hold on—”

“Don’t interrupt. You caused almost irreparable damage to my ship and you nearly killed half my crew. It took the last two hours—Marstime, not Earthtime—to fix that gash those union boys gave my baby—in a way that'd hold, mind you. Laumer's boys did a good job, but it needed a little TLC from me. And it’ll be another forty minutes before the reciprocating helium tank finishes pumping the cushion up enough for us to use it—had to deflate 'er completely to put on the hard-patches. Anyway. You think money hops along like rabbits? Or you think us freighter pilots are rich? If we were, none of us would be in a union, certainly.”

Marianna looked pained. “What would you like me to do? I can’t afford much more than I gave you, and I did double your fee, just like you asked—”

Don shook his head, “Don’t worry about that. I’m just letting you know what we’ve gone through for you. I don’t want more payment. You’re getting rid of the union, that’s enough for me. Those boys are dishonest folk, and they’ve monopolized the market. It’s almost impossible to get a job if you don’t have a union card, and it’s almost impossible to get a card unless you’ve got a job. Those of us that still have a job only have one because we’ve been here longer than your dad-blasted union.”

“Wait a sec, pop. Didn’t you say that Throxton said the Northern Hemisphere wasn’t making any money off UOFA? And that’s why she was here, to axe ‘em?”

Don looked over at his son a moment, then stroked silver stubble. “That’s true. What of that, Dejah-Marianna?”

“You boys won’t leave a person alone, will you?”

“You don’t like our company, you’re welcome to get back in the ship until we leave.” Colt said, reloading the bowl on the wooden pipe.

“Now son, don’t be rude. Ma’am, he does have a point, but I won’t press the issue. Only… You are pulling out the union, right?”

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Good. Then we need hear nothing else of it.”

Middle-aged Marianna looked as though she were making up her mind, then finally she said: “Dues are as high as they’ve been able to raise them, only after taxes and everything, they still don’t come to enough that Northern Hemisphere makes a profit, so they are cutting off affiliation with branches like UOFA that don’t do anything for the parent company.”

“Figured as much. You can only make a working man pay so much in ‘dues’ that do nothin’ for him or anybody else.” Don buried his face in his mug, drained the remainder of the beer.

“About time.” Piped in Colt.

Don said: “So what’s your story, anyhow? You some type of courier? How is it you couldn’t find any better way to make it to New Quebec? Staying incognito?”

“They got my escort, your ‘union boys’ did. Or at least, I suspect that’s who it was. My ship came in a week ago and would have dropped me over New Quebec, only somebody destroyed the automated system on the shuttle, and the pilot had to make an emergency landing near your blimp dock—Ed Burroughs station, or whatever you call it. They killed him, killed my bodyguards, and took me prisoner. The only reason I’m alive right now is because they didn’t kill me then.”

Colt’s green eyes were fascinated. A story of adventure was always exciting. “How’d you escape?”

“Luck, I guess. One of the boys had a soft spot, left the door unlocked, and told me to run for it and never look back. I did; and you nearly gave me a heart attack, playing twenty-questions when I got on your ship.”

“If you don’t mind, that doesn’t make much sense to me, Mrs. Kennedy. Why go to the people who just kidnapped you? Why’d you come to my airship?” Don leaned forward and looked her in the eye.

“I wanted a dirigible because I thought that, when they came looking for me, they wouldn’t look in one of their own ships. I guess it was luck that yours isn’t a union ship.”

Don snorted. “Kind of. Union boys don’t run night shifts. They’ve got a clause. The rest of us hardworking gents don’t have a choice, but customers pay more for overnight delivery, so there’s kind of a black market for blokes like me.” He considered the suds in his stein. “I’d have known any better, I’d still say you planned it.”

“I didn’t! I would have gladly taken a...a 'magnet-train'. Though, I guess it’s good I didn’t, you said that was the first place they’d look…”

“Maybe. Colt, what do you think of all that?”

Colt had been enthralled by the story enough to forget his pipe. “Huh? Oh, it’s exciting, I guess. Does this kind of thing happen very often Mrs. Tennessee? I mean I figure you’d have quit pretty soon if it did.”

“No, this has never happened to me before—and the name’s Kennedy. Never thought it would, either. They sent me on one of management’s own interplanetary yachts—those boats can make the trip two weeks earlier than any commercial ship. They sent me with an attachment of bodyguards, and they gave me a lot of money in case I needed it. Of the three things, the budget has been the most useful… As far as I’m concerned, they should do these things digitally. No, this has never happened before, and it won’t happen again, because after I get to New Quebec I’m finished.”

Don thought for a moment. “Why not quit now?”

“ ‘Why not’ what?”

“What’re they going to do? It’d be a month before word got back to ‘em, and by then you could be safely hidden in a decent career or have your own place in one of the cities.”

“They’d find me. They always do. Find deserters of the company, I mean. Emperor takes it personal. Especially if I didn’t deliver the council’s deliberation on UOFA. When it’s delivered, if I pull out, they’ll leave me be. That’s probably why they haven’t sent help yet; I haven’t finished the job.”

Marianna hadn’t thought Colt’s eyes could get any bigger, but they did. “Northern Hemisphere has an ‘Emperor’?”

“No, it’s a figure of speech. He thinks he’s an emperor, but he’s not. Just a balding little old man with a superiority complex.”

Don laughed. “Sounds like a regular mob boss to me. But, I’m not surprised. The union’s a gang of unmentionables, they are. You said they haven’t come after you yet; you think they know where you are?”

“They should, I transmitted to New Quebec’s headquarters right after you picked me up—that was my only chance to—our office has an Earth-affiliated wing there that’s supposed to keep an eye on our members. I guess the transmission didn’t make it through.”

Bannister scratched his chin. “I am surprised somebody with as much common sense as you seem to have works for one of the offices of a bunch of guidos like that.”

Marianna preened. “Well, I didn’t start there. I used to work for a software company in Brazil, but Northern Hemisphere downsized and that company went bankrupt. The only people that made out were people like me, who had high creds and worked near the head office. The union division snatched me right up, and I’ve been climbing the ladder ever since. Only now, I don’t know.”

“Well listen, Mrs. Ten—Kennedy,” Colt said, “we’ll keep you safe until New Quebec. Any more of those union idiots come, and me and Greg’ll take ‘em out. Isn’t that right, Greg?” He kicked the sleeping young man in the side. Greg stirred briefly, scratched his nose, and went back to sleep. “Greg's a regular—what's that guy's name Dad? The cowboy from those old twodee movies you like to watch?”

“John Wayne.”

“John Wayne—Greg's a regular John Wayne—you shoulda' seen him in Merc Haven. But it got him jittery, I think—so don't be fooled by how knocked-out he looks. Not half an hour ago he was going to the Wieczorek’s bathroom every twenty minutes. But you ain't seen nothin'. If I'da' seen that guy shootin', I'da takin' him out so quick—”

Bannister said, “Now there’ll be none of that, son. We’re not in the business of ‘taking people out’. Don’t ever get that in your head. If you have to fight, you fight to survive and nothing else. I won’t raise up a hooligan like those union boys.”

Colt sank against the wall, “Well you said gui—”

“I said what?”

“…yes pop.”

“Good boy. But that does bring us back to the problem of you, Mrs. Kennedy. We will have to leave soon, and like clockwork those clowns are going to be out there. It’s going to be a dangerous morning.”

“Can’t you call for help?”

Don chuckled. “Who am I going to call, little green Martians? There’s no law between provinces. It’s still no-man’s land. Mars has only been settled two hundred years, it ain’t like the moon; it’s a big planet. We’re out of everybody’s jurisdiction, and there’s no law out here. This is the Old West, Mrs. Kennedy. Especially in this canyon where they can’t really grow anything except brothels. No, we’re going to have to rely on guts and luck.”

“But we’ve got a plan, Mrs. Kennedy.” Colt yawned. It was slowly getting light outside the alcove, dawn was approaching.

Marianna hesitated. “What plan is that?”



VI

The Little Wieczorek had been transporting all-terrain Rovers in her hold. They were new models, overdue at a dealership in New Quebec. There were four of them, and they were all of the same basic shade as the majority of Mars’ surface. A grim orange.

The six-wheeled convertible Rovers were solar powered, but with a little brain-sweat and elbow-grease, the boys and Bannister figured out a way to hotwire energy from Wieczorek’s ship battery into one of the vehicles. They then gutted the ship’s CB radio and opened it to all channels, attaching it to the charged Rover so that on the ground they could listen for zeppelins across the sky.

Between individual vehicles was a wireless transmitter that was used to send messages back and fourth. Don gutted two of these transmitters and mounted one on Wieczorek and the other inside their personalized Rover. The communicators would only be used for two or three quick instructions, but they would be well worth it.

Bannister patted the hull of his ship. “I love you, baby. Here’s hoping they don’t kill you...” The old man’s eyes were moist. “Greg! You and Colt ready to head out?

Greg came from around the other side of the ship, “Yessir!”

Colt said, “But Dad—”

“Never mind, son. I want you to take Mrs. Kennedy to New Quebec, and I’ll have no arguments about it.”

“Well...”

Don was halfway up the ladder already. “I’ll get a hold of you on the transmitter when I’m ready, alright?”

“Yeah, Dad. I understand. Be careful, ‘alright’?”

“Son, I was parachuting before you were an itch in—”

“I get the picture.” There was an awkward silence. “I’m getting in the Rover, with Marianna.”

“Don’t be that way, son. I want you with me, but this is pretty dangerous stuff, and I know how the Wieczorek runs better than anybody. I did this kind of thing for the Southern Air Force back in the forties, back when I was your age and they let me be a sniper every now and again. You, you’ve always been afraid to parachute. I’ll probably have to do it, y’know. If you go with me, same thing.”

“Well…”

“Is that the only word you know? Listen, son, I’m one hundred and forty-nine years old, and I’ve had a good run. Now get in that Rover and buckle up. That goes for you too, Greg.”

Greg headed to the Rover with a weird shuffle to his steps, but Colt hesitated. “Dad…?”

“Yes, son.”

“I...I love you anyhow.”

Bannister smiled. “Maybe when I get back I will get you that pint. Love you too, son. Now get out of here!”

The moment ended and Don turned back toward Wieczorek and finished the climb to the pilot’s cabin.

Colt and Greg got in the energized six-wheeler and buckled themselves in. Marianna was strapped tightly to one of the rear seats, and behind her all the valuables from Wieczorek had been gathered, leaving only the necessaries in the ship. There were blankets, first-aide and survival kits, moisture hats in case the vehicle broke down, and all manner of personal items.

The plan was this: Don in the Little Wieczorek would leave the alcove first and at full-speed, get out of the canyon, and climb to Wieczorek’s highest altitude while heading north; away from both New Quebec and the grid. For this venture he’d kept the only pieces of equipment that were relatively useless to the Rover: a parachute and a flight-suit with an oxygen rebreather for high Martian altitudes. His destination was Bobstown, a kind of trading outpost between Ed Burroughs Harbor and New Quebec. In Bobstown they hated the unions about as vehemently as he did, and he knew they’d put him up—if him and the Wieczorek made it in one piece, that was.

Meanwhile, Greg, Colt, and Marianna would leave the alcove and head toward New Quebec, where the Marineris canyon ended. The hope was that Don in the Wieczorek would divert the attention of the union boys long enough to get Marianna to that meeting in time. She’d told them earlier that it didn’t happen until the evening anyhow, that Northern Hemisphere had shipped her a week early to provide for unforeseen contingencies.

For the majority of the trip, they would be incommunicado. The only speaking would be done at the beginning, over the gutted communication systems of the Rovers. Anything else would show up to anyone looking for signal spikes.

Over the Rover communicator: “Greg and Colt, are you two ready?”

The boys said almost simultaneously: “Roger!” and “Yessir!”

“Good. I’m going to take Wieczorek out. Wait twenty minutes, then head down the canyon.”

“Good luck, Dad!”

“You too, son. And Greg. And Mrs. Kennedy. Gosh keep you all.”

The LED on the transmitter quit blinking, and all was silent.

***

Don had always had a sense of the macabre. Its manifestation came this time in the form of Days of Future Past, another nouveau-baroque album whose acclaim had been mild at best on its release. The first strains of Dawn: Dawn is a Feeling echoed throughout Wieczorek, and Don sighed to himself. If he died in this crazy venture… At least he died with those sounds in his mind and heart.



Dawn is a feeling, a beautiful ceiling,

The smell of grass just makes you pass—

Into a dream…



He hadn’t experienced the smell of “grass” in years.

Bannister idled the thrusters and retracted the anchor-cables, waiting for the reciprocating pump to light up on the center console. It did after several moments, and he let trace amounts of helium into the cushion. Little Wieczorek rose from the alcove floor, and Don slowly increased thruster RPMs. The airship meandered out of the cavernous overhang and into the morning sun.



You’re here today, no future fears,

This day wall last a thousand years,

If you want it to.



As soon as he was sure the entirety of the ship had cleared the cavern, he gunned the pump and pulled back on the yoke, Wieczorek rising at an almost alarming rate above the canyon walls and toward Mars’ stratosphere.

And like clockwork, the radar started beeping a terrible tune, and across all the ship’s still-hanging mirrors Don could see what looked like pieces of dust superimposed over the horizon.

The union boys.

***

“Looks like sunrise in Arizona,” said Marianna in relative joviality as the shadows slowly moved up the canyon walls.

“Where’s Arizona?” Colt was in the driver’s seat, looking nervously out the cavernous opening, waiting. It had almost been twenty minutes already.

“It’s in the southwest of the Northern United States—that’s in the North-Western Hemisphere, dear.”

“Right. Northern Hemisphere. I have no idea where that is, but I’ll take your word for it. If I’m ever homesick on Earth, I’ll head to Arizona.”

The older woman chuckled. “I doubt if it’ll make you feel much better. Arizona’s probably as hot as the sun. If I really wanted to loose weight, all I’d have to do is stand in the shade for a day. It’s one-fifteen Fahrenheit in the shade, sometimes.”

“Hm. That’s warm. Ain’t that warm Greg? Hey, are you alive over there?”

Greg had unbuckled his safety harness and lay with his head against the window of the Rover, looking sick to his stomach. “Yeah, I’m here. Arizona. Hot.”

“You nervous? Don’t worry, Dad’ll lead ‘em off—”

Suddenly the clock on the center-console started blinking in time to a high-pitched whine. Colt jerked in surprise, then clicked the ‘seek’ button next to the flashing green numbers, turning off the alarm. He put the Rover in gear and gunned it across the cavern.

“Here we go,” said Marianna. “Maybe I’ll get reception when we’re out from beneath this rock?”

“What do you need reception for, Mrs. Kennedy?” It was the first real bit of conversation Greg had added since they’d gotten in the rover. It sounded nervous.

“I’m just going to see what those boys in New Quebec are up to and why they haven’t gotten back to me yet.”

“You don’t need to do that.” Greg was turned around in his seat, looking at Marianna concernedly.

“Why? What’s wrong with the lady checking in with the home office?” Colt wiped a negligible something from his face.

Greg stumbled: “Well… Where do you think those boys that chased us down last night came from, space?”

“Oh, I forgot, you were sleepin’ last night. Listen, Marianna told us all about that. Didn’t you, Mrs. Kennedy?”

“They’ve separate affiliations. My office has stations in New Quebec that keep the union representatives in places like your—where are you from again?—anyway, they keep those men in check.”

Nodding, Greg turned back to the window, wiped his brow, said: “Ah…”

“Hey, buddy, there’s a sack in the glove box if you get sick. We can’t stop any time soon.” Colt was moving the six-wheeler at a steady one hundred and fifty kilometers an hour, now. The canyon hadn’t ever been cleared of rocky debris or the occasional four-foot overhang, but he’d driven through often enough to know the layout. Besides which, Rovers were designed for high speed on the rocky roads, they were the precursor to the Airships and had to be tough for travel purposes. “Sure you’re alright, Greg?”

“There’s nothing wrong, alright?”

“Okay, just asking. No need to snap.”

“Greg, I keep a bottle of antihistamines in my ‘net terminal, if you’d like one.” Marianna turned over the terminal, looking for the storage compartment's latch.

Greg replied: “How’d they let you keep that damned thing, anyway?”

“Yeesh, Greg, you’d think she was doing something heinous trying to help you out, the way you talk.”

Kennedy looked concerned, “The man who freed me gave it ba—hold the fort! I’ve got a signal!”

Greg wasn’t listening to Marianna. “Who says she isn’t doing something heinous? She’s gettin’ rid of the union! The union what's kept us fed since we were little!”

“Hold up. You, me, Dad—none of us are union boys. We’re free. We make our own decisions. Hell, that’s one of the reasons we took you in—I mean we like you around, but there aren’t many free workers outside the unions. You said you were with us.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m not. My Dad was in the union all his life, y’know.”

“You’ve told me before. Your Dad was broke all his life and blamed the world for everything he did wrong, too. If I remember right, you used to have to stay at our house because he would beat you with—”

“Shut the HELL up!”

Marianna interrupted: “I got through! They’re hailing me—Colt, they already sent somebody, I’ve just got—”

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Something in Greg’s head snapped. He wrestled the net terminal from the older woman, opened his door, and threw it out of the vehicle. Colt and Marianna were stunned.

Colt slammed on the brakes and began to swing the vehicle in a wide, tight turn. “What the hell are you doing?” Greg raged. “What in the name of all that is holy are you doing?”

Marianna was too stunned to speak.

Greg started fighting with Colt over the steering wheel, and the Rover twisted unnaturally. Colt hadn’t been paying enough attention to their path. There was a big outcropping in the uneven canyon conduit, and though the wheels flowed over it, it was too large and the vehicle began to tip. Colt tried to correct it as best he could, but Greg kept pushing against the steering wheel. Marianna was yelling “STOP!” from the back, and the boys could only respond in expletives.

The Rover rolled, metal crunching and snapping. The world inside the vehicle seemed to stop, everything tumbling around the cab in slow motion. Marianna’s hair stood on end, the blood from the punch Colt had given Greg’s nose spun in the same direction as a first-aide kit that had been upended from the back.

And suddenly it was all over.

The canyon was silent.

Moments passed, smoke curled up from the broken vehicle.

More moments passed.

The Rover was upside-down, and inside Marianna was the first to recover. “Is everyone alright? Colt, are you okay?”

The click of a safety belt was followed by a pronounced thump as Colt removed himself from his harness. “Yeah, I’m fine, where’s that crazy son of a...”

Greg was gone.





VII

I can see it all,

From this great height.

I can feel the sun,

Slipping out of sight;

And the world still goes on through the night.



It hadn’t taken long for the dust-flecks so distant in Wieczorek’s mirrors to close the gap. Days of Future Past was nearing its close, and Don was almost twelve kilometers above Mars’ surface, this forcing him to put on the rebreather. The music was muffled over the intercom, but that was only one of his worries.

There weren’t just small ships this time, there were bigger ones flanking him. But they hadn’t fired on Wieczorek yet, and as happy as this made him, it kept him on edge. Something wasn’t right; they should have been shooting long ago.

The LED on the radio kept blinking, but it would forever go unanswered. Don had left the cabin ten minutes ago, when he could make out details of his antagonists’ ships in the mirrors. Little Wieczorek had no weapons, and Don had resolved that he wouldn’t be found easily when they boarded his precious ship. He was hiding in the cargo bay, clutching one of the rifles near a hatch that led to open space and only met usage when a given freighter was loading or unloading. Don was also nestled near a compartment-eject button that would detach the entire cargo hold from Wieczorek—sometimes these things had to be done as a safety precaution when a dust-storm hit, so a ship had more maneuvering latitude.

The hold was full of Rovers, besides other multifarious cargos whose selling destinies would be forever in hiatus.

For the first time, Wieczorek would lose a piece of herself, but for good reason: Don planned on using the compartment as a shield against his antagonists. They hadn’t shot yet, but they most certainly would when half of the Wieczorek suddenly vacated airspace. When he’d fallen for thirty seconds, he would jump through the hatch and throw out his chute. That should give him enough time to hit the dirt and find cover before they caught him. The only problem he could see was that his old body might not be what it used to; it had been decades since he’d seen combat. Would he still be up to it?

But what is that saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men?

Suddenly a jolt of such magnitude that Don couldn’t keep his position rocked the Wieczorek. The music over the intercom skipped an entire section;



Beauty I’d always missed

With these eyes before,

Just what the truth is

I can’t say anymore.



Don had been knocked across the hold. He heard voices. Voices! That jolt had been the union boys docking his ship. The game was almost up.

Bannister could feel his pulse racing all through his old body.

Footsteps, echoing across the ship.

He didn’t want to eject the hold yet, he wanted to wait until they—

Oh no. That jolt had knocked him all the way across the hold—he’d have to make his way back to the point where he could eject it! But a man of one hundred and forty-nine can’t exactly sprint.

And then he realized they were already there. Too late.

He heard someone struggling with the hatch in the crew lounge that led down to the cargo bay.

No time.

There was just no way to make it across—!

Don jumped in one of the Rovers and hunched down in the back seat, hands over his head, hyperventilating. It had been the fastest movement he’d made in years.

What to do? Wait it out?

He heard the thump of suited boots hitting the metal deck plates.

“Where the hell is the old codger?” The sound came through the speaker of a rebreather.

A voice with a higher pitch and the same electronic dissonance answered, “Be careful, he’s got to be around here somewhere. We need to find him and coax him out, so he don’t kill us.”

“With what, one of those squirrel guns he fired at Throxton last night? I doubt it’d get through one of these suits.”

“Pride before a fall, Elsa.”

“Right. Well...radio the boss. See if he can figure out something to do.”

Over the intercom:



Gazing at people,

Some hand in hand,

Just what I’m going thru

They can’t understand.



***

Without his safety harness, he had been thrown from the rolling vehicle. Most victims of that sort die; they are crushed by whatever throws them. Greg was lucky.

His nose bled, his body ached. He picked himself up from the ground and immediately yelped in pain. Something was broken. His breath came in hot, ragged gasps, mist floating from his throat in the early morning chill.

But he barely had time to savor the pain when suddenly an artificial light silhouetted him against the still-reigning shadows of the canyon.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wait, it’s Redgruen’s kid. George is it? Or Greg?”

“Oh yeah. What do we do with him?”

“I don’t know, yell at Billy.”

The second voice did so. “Billy! We found that Greg kid Barnett was talking about!”

From a vehicle whose active camouflage matched the walls of the canyon almost perfectly, Billy Throxton stepped out, spitting a pile of liquid tobacco to the rocky Martian soil. “Leave him be. Let me look at him.”

“Shouldn’t we check the busted Rover?”

Throxton shook his head. “Give it a minute.”

***

That minute probably saved both Colt and Marianna’s lives. In the moments proceeding the crash, they had disentangled themselves; only Colt had the foresight to look at his surroundings before he left the vehicle. What he had seen chilled him to the bone and lent some understanding to their situation. All around the canyon, dozens of camouflaged Rovers had materialized; seemingly from nowhere.

He had shushed Marianna, helped her from her safety harness, pulled the both of them quietly through a window. They huddled on the other side of the overturned Rover now, and through one of the Rover’s broken panes Colt could see Greg in the middle of the canyon, pushing himself up on one elbow and gasping. A tall man—Colt recognized him as Throxton—walked over to Greg.

Marianna whispered, “What’s happening?”

“Shh! I think we been sold out.”

“What?”

“Quiet!”

The Throxton man crouched down next to Greg’s hyperventilating form.



VIII

‘Cause I love you,

Yes, I love you,

Oh, how I love you.

Oh, how I love you.



The two were walking back to Don’s hiding place, and he gripped his rifle with defensive intent. Then, the sound of the music cut off abruptly, and over the intercom he heard a tired and unfamiliar voice: “Don Bannister, we know you’re in here somewhere. We’ll find you soon. You’ve got no place to run. And if you’re thinking of jumping out of this ship, you’d better not. The game’s up, Don, and I want to go home to my wife and kids; I’m on my seven off. One of your boys radioed Throxton last night, and told him you were holed up somewhere in the canyon. I’ll admit he didn’t know exactly where, but the boys back home had a general idea. Throxton hid his men in the canyon all night, and it’s a sure bet they’ve found Kennedy by now. That kid—was his name Greg?—radioed your whole escape plan, and we humored you so we could find them. Now you come out, and nobody dies. You stay here, we look for you until we find you, and then who knows what’ll happen? I don’t like to be kept waiting, neither does Throxton. So just come out then, will you?”

Tears rolled down Bannister’s cheeks. He couldn’t—wouldn’t—believe it. All that talk about his father being in the union—just friendly banter! Wasn’t it? Greg had been friends with Colt since they were little. He was a good kid.

It had to be a ruse.

Something wasn’t right, it had to be a ruse, it could only be a ruse, it had to be a damned ruse!

The music came back on.



‘Cause I love you,

Yes, I love you,

Oh, how I love you.

Oh, how I love you.



Don loved Wieczorek. It embodied his life as a child, the love of his youth, his twilight years as an old Mars-dog. Most Earthmen checked out at around ninety, but Martian emigrants typically lived with an extra fifty years tacked onto their lifespan, something to do with lessened gravity. That’s a lot of time to reflect. Don hadn't loved a woman since his fourth wife died of the plagues thirty-eight years ago, instead throwing his life and tears into Wieczorek. And… And the Captain always goes down with his ship—

A head thrust itself down the hatchway, followed by a body, and then another body, and pretty soon there were six union people in his cargo hold. HIS cargo hold!

The female from the first duo said, “You’ve searched the top decks already?”

“Yes’m. He must be down here, somewhere.”

One of them yelled, “C’mon, Bannister! You’re just making this hard on yourself!”

Time was running out.

Bannister wasn’t going without a fight.

***

“Where are they, Greg?”

Greg shook his head, he didn’t know. He said: “In the Rover s-still...”

Throxton looked toward the wreckage. “In that? I don’t see anybody, Greg.”

“Well, I-I don’t know. Listen, I’m in a lot of pain here. I stopped ‘em, you found me...can somebody help me—” He coughed. Blood came out.

Throxton’s nose curled in disgust. “You’ll get help when you tell us where they are.”

Greg was losing his sanity, through the pain. “You’ll t-take care of my sister? Union takes care of it's own—” He began to vomit blood, and lost his voice in the convulsions.

***

Across the way, Colt nearly blew his and Marianna’s very limited cover. “Sister… That’s why—” Marianna nudged him in the ribs.

***

Pity on a man who isn’t used to the emotion just doesn’t fit. Throxton’s face screwed up again, this time in an expression of “near-pity” more repugnant than “disgust”. “Look at this, me negotiating with one of the men who sunk Thor’s Hockey Stick last night. What is the world coming to? Greg, you know I nearly died? You realize we'd have been through with all this nonsense a long time ago; but you bunch had to go knock me outta the sky. Took a while to regroup. Gave you a nice lead. Now, I know you want to help us out. I know you want to help your sister out. But you gotta work with me.”

One of the men from his encampment cleared his throat: “I haven’t seen anybody leave the Rover yet, boss. I can come get the kid; why don't we go check it.”

Throxton shook his head. “No, no. Looks to me like he won't make it. And I don't want to risk one of them looking dead but packing heat.”

Greg looked up, his glacier eyes imploring. “Pl-please—” Wracking coughs cut him off.

Throxton said, “No need to revive a traitor. It’s an old saying, boys. Once a traitor, always a traitor. A man that would sell out his friends for anything isn’t fit to live.”

From his belt Billy Throxton pulled a light-gun, and put it to Greg’s bleeding head.

There wasn't much adrenaline left in Greg's body; but what reserves there were marched through his blood the moment he saw that gun. Time met subjectivity, and the union of the two seemed to freeze the world. Every painful breath, sound, movement of wind and feeling came crystal clear. He could feel the jutting rocks cutting into him, the way his clothes stuck to bloodied flesh, how twisted his left arm was, lying beneath him—and a thought came. His arm, it was near the pocket...the pocket with the zip gun—

There was a click as Throxton turned the safety off his light-gun, and a scream seemed to come, if distantly—Throxton paused and looked to the overturned Rover. It was a split second, but in that second Greg had time to snatch out the zip-gun and fire at his tormentor. His aim was suspect, but he managed a square shot right into Throxton's knee; blood spurting everywhere like juice out of a crushed orange. Throxton wailed, stumbled, fell, and there was a loud barking sound, a flash of light—

The pain was gone.

***

Colt couldn't help himself. He saw Billy Throxton put a gun to Greg's head, and the cry that came out was involuntary. Throxton looked up sharply, and there was a sudden BANG!, and then Throxton screamed, and fell to the rocky canyon floor, and turned his gun on Greg—

Another sharp crack echoed across the canyon, and the dead body of the young man that had been Greg lay still.

Marianna had to clamp her hand over Colt’s mouth, or he would have screamed again, loud enough to wake the dead.

She whispered into his ear, “He sold us out. He got what’s coming to him. Don’t get us killed for that! Shhh, shh.”

Colt bit her hand and his body gave spasms of grief that were difficult for her to control. His eyes hadn’t moistened yet, he was in shock and anger.

She looked him in the eye. The men were coming.

Marianna whispered, “Listen Colt, you keep quiet. Two minutes, and we’ll live. Understand? Two minutes.”

Colt’s eyes started to hope. She slowly removed her hand, which now bled. He whispered, “Why?”

“Before Greg threw out the terminal, I got a message that the fellows from New Quebec are in the vicinity and they’ve been searching all night. They’ve got a lock on my signal, the terminal signal. They’ll be here any minute. We’ll be okay.”

Colt hugged her close, rested his head on her shoulder.

He brought her ear to his lips, “If we live through this, I vow to find his sister and keep her safe. I never knew, Marianna, I knew him for ten years and I never even knew… You’re my witness, okay?”

Colt’s eyes were serious as a mountain blizzard, and just as resolute.

The moment ended.

Men were scrambling over the canyon, now; seemingly from nowhere. More gunshots echoed in cadence as union goons made sure Greg was dead. Throxton was swearing and carrying on, and after a moment two of his company grabbed him and stood him up—

“AH! You blind-eyed bastard, that hurts!” He screamed.

“Sorry, boss—”

“I KNOW YOU'RE IN THERE, KENEDDY!” It was like rage had become liquid and dripped from the words. Throxton was a good twenty meters away, but he sounded close enough to spit on them.

***

It is advisable to beware of an old man, for he hasn’t gotten to be an old man without escaping situations of life-threatening magnitude.

And then the chorus repeated, and Don’s resolve crystallized.



‘Cause I love you,



He had noticed he was in a Rover near the large hatch at the end of the compartment. That hatch was made of steel, but wouldn’t hold the weight of a two-ton (Marswieght, not Earthweight) six-wheeled cross-country vehicle with ten meters to build speed.

Don disengaged the parking-brake.

“Not in this one! Check the next one.” The woman.

“Our luck, he’ll be in the last one we check.”

“Eh, that’s Murphy’s law.”

There were a dozen men and women going swiftly through the compartment now.



Yes I love you,



Don used the butt of his rifle to depress the driving brake while he switched the vehicle into reverse. On cross-country Rovers, one didn’t need the vehicle activated to do this.

One of the union boys was right in front of him.



Oh, how I love you.



A beat.

They were coming for him, but he’d noticed that none of them had a ‘chute.

He might take some of them down yet.

Don mouthed the last line of the chorus to himself, “Oh, how I love you. Little Wieczorek, I really love you. Gosh help me.”

He gathered himself for rapid movement. Bannister hadn’t been in strict control over his body since his days in the military, he was old, flexibility and speed only came with extreme concentration.

Don took a deep breath—

In a singular motion, he turned the key in the ignition and jumped into the driver’s seat, jamming his foot on the gas pedal and firing at the man immediately before him as he did so. He missed, but everybody in the compartment ducked.

Bannister had time to place one well-aimed shot at the red button by the man-hatch where he had been hiding earlier, this while the vehicle he was in squealed its tires against the deck-plates and started scooting quickly backward. And as luck would have it, his aim was dead on.

He felt the loud ka-chunk of the entire cargo-deck disengaging, and a terrible shock as the rear of the Rover crashed through the loading door.

Suddenly he was airborne.

The chill wind of that altitude and the speed at which Little Wieczorek had been moving slammed into the tumbling Rover, and Don entirely lost his bearings.

What he caught were vague impressions.

The ship spinning above him, surrounded by dozens of other ships, all larger than his.

The grey compartment tumbling after him overhead.

The staccato reports of gunfire coming from somewhere.

Rouge fingers of flame grasping at something, fingers attached to his beloved Wieczorek.

They had her on fire—

Only, he had no time to register sorrow. His aged mind had trouble controlling anything, just then. He was tumbling weightless in a vehicle quite noticeably out of its element, headed toward certain death if he couldn’t get out and pull his ‘chute.

The dotted union fleet, the red Martian soil, Wieczorek’s cargo compartment, red Martian soil, red sky, red—spinning, spinning, spinning, spinning—

Don worked the handle.

It was locked.

He unlocked the door, found that it hadn’t been locked and he’d just been working it the wrong way, hit the button again—

—and was flung from inside the tumbling vehicle, still gripping the door which remained extended. With a resolve that he still couldn’t understand, Don kicked his feet into the falling Rover and propelled his now weightless body away from the vehicle and out of the path of the falling piece of Wieczorek above.

The chill wind slapped him even harder without any protection.

He gasped in his rebreather, and recycled air quenched his lungs.

He was spinning with the Rover, even as he drifted slowly away from it.

The more-opaque “red” was getting awfully close.

His old body was hardly working as it should. Above him the compartment continued to fall, below him Mars continued to rise.

Remembering his training as a young man, Don streamlined his body, getting himself into a controllable position.

It took doing.

Soon he was there.

Don pulled his chute, and felt a sharp jerk as his body’s motion slowed.

Missing by bare increments, the cargo compartment fell past Don and the chute. He imagined he could hear screams coming from inside.

Was the man over the intercom correct? Had they found his son? Had Greg betrayed them?

Looking up, Don saw that indeed his ship was afire. And for the first time in years, he allowed himself to weep; fully and openly.

***

Colt saw them closing in, and closed his eyes.

Billy Throxton spit a great wad of tobacco, phlegm, and saliva on the Martian soil. He said, with a self-righteous anger: “Gonna’ run now, Kennedy? Gonna’ put hundreds of hard-working boys out of a job because your company isn’t making any money? Gonna’ make my family live off rations from Armstrong-dome? Is that what you’re gonna’ do?” He hefted the gun and hit the ‘charger. “Gonna make me a cripple? Make it so people got to carry me around?”

She was about to say something terribly unladylike, when suddenly a shadow darker than those of the canyon blanketed the scene. Throxton looked up in surprise, his mangled knee for the moment forgotten.

Colt followed Throxton's gaze, just like everybody else in the canyon. He didn’t realize what was going on. Throxton figured it out before he did: “Shoot 'em! SHOOT 'EM!”

Bullets rang and sparked off the overturned Rover; their aim wasn't good as the light had suddenly gone, but when Marianna screamed, Colt knew she'd been hit. Her arm was suddenly gushing blood.

An airship the size of a small city moved like a retreating cumulonimbus over the canyon, spreading shadow and raining several hired military battalions, all employed through the Northern Hemisphere Corporation of Earth, New Quebec Offices, Mars.

Then, from what looked like nowhere, a stream of translucent spherical fire bathed the canyon, a specific missile making Throxton and the men holding his arms its target. Suddenly all three were gone.

All that could be seen was a brief flash, and before the sonic boom of cannon ball-sized rail-gun rounds (aimed with impeccable precision) from kilometers away could knock Marianna Kennedy, Colt Bannister, and the remaining union boys to the ground, a battalion of military-armed vehicles flew through the canyon.

Then the fruits of sound-barrier breakage manifested, and Colt was thrown from his knees and over the upended Rover. Marianna was swished to the side like a persistent autumn leaf in a swift gale.

Colt remembered feeling like he supposed a flat stone skipped across a glass lake early in the morning would, and then everything went black.



IX

Agile defense aircraft flitted like so many jade humming birds through Titan’s civilian viewport. Said viewport consisted of a forcefield stretching thirty meters from floor to ceiling; a live painting for those dining in the Northern Hemisphere-funded lounge. The café lived on levels—three to be exact—and the viewport was at the farthest aft section of Titan.

Seated at a table on the mid-level of the café were Colt, Marianna, Don, and a skinny little pen-pusher with glasses and a nasal twang.

Colt and Marianna had both needed nanosurgery for their ears, the multiple sonic explosions of Titan’s rail-cannons had nearly deafened them permanently. Marianna sat with her arm in a sling from the bullet she'd taken, eyes tired.

Don had broken both ankles on landing near Bobstown, having had to cut his ‘chute ten meters up and hoof it on the ground—he’d seen his antagonists chasing after him, and closing the gap too quickly. He’d run on those ankles, crinkled them further, nearly given himself a heart-attack, and had been found by a dome-farmer in a valley not twenty meters from his crash-point. That man had radioed for help, and Titan—monitoring all frequencies for Marianna Kennedy—had intercepted the transmission. Don had been picked up and medicated aboard the gargantuan airship. He rested in a wheelchair, refusing to smoke his pipe anywhere but inside the vessel, despite the no-smoking signs.

The pen pusher had a nametag that blinked “Ukik” intermittently, and a suit as expensive as Little Wieczorek, before she’d been destroyed. He was decidedly pale, and looked as though he didn't like dealing with people. Sweat dripped to the table from his forehead.

Finally, after ten minutes of silence while they ate and Ukik stared, the pale man spoke: “Northern Hemisphere is prepared to extend its services toward covering some medical costs and property losses the three of you may have experienced. Mrs. Kennedy, our insurance policy surrounds you, as you’re well aware. There’ll be an added monthly stipend for your outstanding service.”

Still, no one spoke.

“Northern Hemisphere wishes to apologize for some of the actions of its union employees, and also wishes to settle away from any court or organized—”

Don cut him off: “What about my ship? Who's gonna replace my ship your boys destroyed?”

“Well, they weren’t technically affiliated with Northern Hemisphere as of last mon—”

“Don’t dance around the issue. What happens to me and my son, now we’re both out of work?”

“Mr. Bannister, Northern Hemisphere is happy to—”

Colt interrupted this time: “What about my friend. He’s dead now. What about emotional damages? What about—what about the years UOFA stole from us?”

Ukik was exasperated. “Sirs, I am hardly equipped to answer these questions, I am here to cover the physical damages—”

No one liked to allow the sweaty young pen-pusher to finish his sentences. Suddenly an older man with an even more expensive suit and a smattering of congenial wrinkles below a receding hairline put hands on Ukik’s shoulders and said, “I’ll take it from here.”

Ukik looked up in surprise, then relief. He nodded and left.

Marianna nearly lost her lunch. “It’s the emperor—”

“That’s not my name, Mrs. Kennedy. My name’s Smith, Adam Smith, and I’m president of Northern Hemisphere.”

Colt and Don looked at each other and raised a collective eyebrow.

Marianna said: “But shouldn’t you be on Earth?”

“Heavens, no. I sent word back to Earth that our UOFA offices on Mars should be closed. I was waiting here for you or some other courier to arrive and tell me the board's decision.”

“…Oh. I guess I didn't expect I'd be reporting directly to you—”

“Be glad you did, or you never would have made it here. One of the reason's we're closing the UOFA offices is just that kind of bureaucratic negligence—it's a consequence of time, though, I'm afraid. These things do tend to happen. Had I not been here, I don't believe it would have crossed the minds of those working to go looking for you. And if it did, why; it's in their interest as much as the union's not for you to arrive with the board's decision. So you see, I had no choice but to come myself—”

Don had been restless throughout Mr. Smith's explanation. Finally he cut him off: “Listen here, Mr. Chairman-of-the-board, my son and I have gone through more heartache and trouble in the last week than you’ve probably seen your whole life. Ukik can’t fix what’s happened to us, and I doubt any money can fill the hole Little Wieczorek’s death, or Greg’s, for that matter, has left in both our hearts—”

“Sirs, I don’t think so in either case.” Said Smith. “I don’t come to offer you monetary reconciliation, I come to offer you both a job.”

Colt’s mouth dropped. Marianna nearly fell out of her chair. This didn’t phase Don, however. “Keep your job.” He said. “I’ve never worked for any damned union, and I never will. I see what kind of people your unions have. Lazy and ignorant people, the kind who either don’t like to think for themselves or are too stupid to and so have to join a damned union and get defensive about it. Defensive to the point of riots, and tricking and killing poor Greg. You keep your union.”

Smith wasn’t phased, as his smile attested: “Your criticisms are well-based, and as I've said, that's one of the reasons we’re pulling our unions out of Mars. The UOFA has outlived its welcome here. It is time to advance elsewhere, economically.”

“Never had any damned welcome!”

Smith made a face. “Mr. Bannister, if I may be so bold: I don’t think you understand the necessity of a labor union in a modern society; especially in a budding industrial atmosphere such as Mars’ freight-lines. Unions like UOFA, which we created and funded as part of our planetary habilitation program, are absolutely necessary—for a time. Look to the moon, and the unionized factions we had tunneling the H-9. Of course, like on the moon, after the famous riots of the thirties—”

“I don’t need to hear this! Nobody’s taking your damned job, you can keep it.” In a fit of rage, Don swept his cup from the table and sulked.

Adam Smith pursed his lips. “Let me try this again,” he said something into a microphone in his lapel. Ukik appeared with some kind of mobile transportation. There had been no expense spared on this over-dramatized golf-cart, it had plush seats and a refrigerator.

Adam Smith and Ukik sat down in the rear, and motioned for those at the table to join them.

Colt looked uncertainly at his father, who shrugged and rolled his wheel chair up a ramp and to a vacated space across from the two businessmen. Marianna found a seat between the Bannisters.

After several attempts at explanation, apology, and banter—in that order—Adam Smith gave up and followed Ukik's example. Soon they rode in silence.

Colt noticed they were moving to the cavernous hangars of Titan’s renowned airborne shipyards. The finest of vessels were constructed there; known in every town, outpost, metropolis and docking matrix across the planet…

Down a lengthy corridor lined with forcefield viewports; around a number of empty bays, through a passage without windows or viewports, and now more transparent forcefields stretched beyond vision into cavernous garages—

And then, suddenly, the most beautiful Zeppelin Don had ever seen was revealed bathed in an azure tone.

“She’s all yours,” smiled Smith.

Don gaped and his mouth worked up and down; he began to say: “No new ship could ever…”

Then the wheels on the cart sucked beneath it, and a titanium arm extended from behind the fridge and connected to some kind of zip-line that picked them up and lifted them to one of the humming viewports, which opened so the five of them could pass slowly through.

They came steadily closer to the ship.

And when Don saw Little Wieczorek emblazoned across the cushion of the vessel, and realized that it wasn’t a new ship, but his ship, overhauled and re-outfitted with all manner of contemporary gadgetry, he looked at Smith and his mouth worked up and down, finally managing to gasp: “You think this could possibly, could ever...you think this thing you've done—you think—”

“Yes, I do think. I think you’ll be well compensated as well.”

Colt said, at the same time as Marianna, “Dad—” / “Don—”

“Okay, Mr. chairman-of-the-board.” Bannister tapped out his pipe and looked from Smith to the ship, then back again. “Okay.” He shook Smith’s hand, and anyone could tell he was trying not to smile.

But Colt interrupted: “Dad, that isn’t Little Wieczorek, that’s a new zeppelin of the same make and model. Look. She’s got a whole different rudder system. The cushion’s a Mark-6, and she’s missing the hidden cargo hatch, see? No seam. They probably found 'er in a scrapyard and went off the dossier on file at the Ed Burroughs matrix.”

“I’ll be—say, Smith, what are you trying to pull?”

For a second, the president of Northern Hemisphere looked dumbfounded; but only for a second. “Nothing, of course. We knew you would be able to tell the difference from her interior.”

“So why does it say Little Wieczorek on the side?” Colt’s eyebrow was suspicious.

“Eh—”

Bannister shook his head, “You’ll have to take us back to that café, I don’t think our discussion is through.”

“Wait a minute…hold on now, let me think here. Maybe I’m just emotional. Maybe I’m not thinking straight. Dad. Why can’t we take her?”

“What?”

“Well, Wieczorek was old anyway, and from how you tell it, she went out with a bang. Why not re-name the ship?”

“Can there be any better name than Little Wieczorek? And can a ship with a different name ever replace my baby?”

“I can’t say as I know that, and I don’t feel like this ship can ever replace the Little—”

“What name did you have in mind, son?”


Colt hadn't had anything in mind, in truth; but then he glanced at Marianna, and remembered when they had asked her name, and how she had stuttered, and he did the same thing: “Dejah...? Dejah...Tennessee?”

Bannister chuckled and considered this while Adam Smith fidgeted as though he were late for a meeting. At length Don said, “Okay, Smith. You get your boys to paint the name on my new ship,” then turned to Colt, “Let’s go see Jinny.”

Marianna smiled a slow, tired smile. “I guess this is goodbye, then, Mr. Bannister.”

Looking at that expression, Colt remembered Marianna telling him to shut up, and pointing out Titan in the sky. And he remembered the rail-guns, and he remembered his oath. “It doesn’t have to be goodbye,” he said.

Don cocked an eyebrow. “Why, Marianna Kennedy, if I asked you to live in this new Dejah Tennessee with me, what would you say?”





Epilogue, six months later:

In the Marineris canyon there is a plaque, and on that plaque this is written:



Here lies Greg Redgruen. Friend, former resident of the former Little Wieczorek, destroyed in combat.

Traitor.

His death signifies the birth of a new era for the civilized territories of Mars.

May he forever be remembered, and may he ever rest in peace.



Standing in front of the plaque, Colt let half a smile turn his face. The expression complimented a single tear that rolled past his lip and splashed noiselessly into the ruddy dust fines.

There was a young woman with him. She cried, too. Tenderly, she bent down, and with a sharp knife crossed out the word “Traitor” from the plaque, so that it couldn’t be deciphered. There were a dozen of the darkest crimson roses in her arms, and she left them at the base of the memorial, standing up and brushing herself off absent-mindedly.

She turned to Colt.

The young Bannister put a bouquet of a dozen black roses over the grave, and returned her stare. “I’ll never think he was anything but a good man.”

She nodded. “I’ll never know him.”

Colt put his arm over the young girl’s shoulder. She trembled for a moment. “We were separated when we were little,” she said. “Last I remember, Daddy left the apartment with him, and they never came back. Now...I guess now I'll always know where he is...”

“He loved you a great deal. He cared about you more than any of us, I'll tell you that. And I never even knew he had a sister—”

“I'd rather not talk about it,” she said. “I want to go home.”

“Yes ma'am,” Colt replied, and put a finger to a transmitter in his ear: “Dad? Yeah. We're headed back.”

They turned from the memorial and disappeared into Martian twilight. Floodlights of the Dejah Tennessee lit the canyon briefly before fading into the darkness until they were indistinguishable from the first evening stars.

This entry was posted on Friday, May 6, 2011 at 8:31 PM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

1 comments

Great read. I think you got the gift kid.
Good quality work. Wish you loads of success, we need more "good" writers online.

May 7, 2011 at 3:35 AM

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