Gas Punk Chaos — Book 1, Episode 2

Here lies Episode 2 of Book 1. A bounty hunter space adventure.

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Episode 2

MARS — The Desert

He wasn’t a Martian chameleon, technically, though he was born on the rusty red planet. He was actually a composite of genetic components, spliced and sliced and diced together in a petri dish and then funneled through the embryo of an iguana. This made him a touch larger than his Earthling relatives, but with the same color-changing quality.

His name was Thomas. Or that’s what the little girl in the ruby red spacesuit had told him all those years ago. He saw no need to argue the issue.

Thomas wore a thin silver band, wrapped around his skull, leading to a single crimson lens fitted neatly over his right eye. The girl, a brilliant biologist with a penchant for technical gadgets, built it herself, all the while telling him of the newfound superpowers it would bring. On a whole, he had been impressed, an opinion he voiced through a small speaker wired below his chin.

“But are the mathematics really necessary?”

“I might need your help,” she said.

“Fantastic. You’ve turned me into a calculator. With scales.”

“Shut up, Thomas. You eat way more flies than a calculator.”

“And you save on batteries. Find me a calculator that’ll show you the trajectory of a bullet over three hundred yards against twenty mile-per-hour gusts at three millisecond intervals -”

“I’m sure I could find one that doesn’t talk so much.” She turned to a scope attached to her bolt-action rifle. The weapon was the same size as her skinny sixteen year old frame. “Now let me focus.”

Along the bottom of its lens was Thomas’s calculations — wind speed, distance to target, along with the subtle outline of a fired rounds probable trajectory.

She traced the desert floor to a dirt-stained mannequin torso, probably pilfered from the dumpster of one of Mars’ more fashionable shopping areas, a forearm and half its head missing. She relaxed, muscle by muscle, exhaled, wrapped a finger around the trigger -

“Aren’t you going to load it?” asked the chameleon. The girl looked up from the scope.

“What?”

“The bullet thing goes in the gun thing and then it shoots the thing.”

“Wow. Did you calculate that?”

“Shut up.” And she scrambled back to the junkheap she called a vehicle, trying to find the ammo.

Raven’s — that is, the girl in the ruby spacesuit’s — junkheap was a dune buggy. The debate, when she acquired the tin box on wheels two years ago, had been brief. Her first instinct was to acquire a used van, hauled over from Earth, that gave the impression of having been an outhouse in a past life. It was wheeled, not hover, horribly passé at this point, and lacking basic equipment like an oxygen generator or a radio.

“That?” asked Mom, surprised.

“That.”

“I don’t need you showing up for school looking like you’re starving.”

“It’s vintage,” Raven insisted.

“It’ll kill you.”

Mom was keen on a slim hovercraft, an aerodynamic, turquoise two-seater with the dimensions, shape, and storage space mirroring a pageant queen in a form-fitted dress. Raven insisted that she didn’t need to show up for school looking like she’d forgotten her fucking tiara.

They compromised. The four-wheeled dune buggy Raven settled on was glistening silver, a jewel with roll-bars, a status display, and even emergency oxygen. On its first outing, Raven drove through Mars’ desert, targeting every crevice, cranny, ridge and rock she could find, until the buggy had more dirt stuck to its tires than a derby car at a county fair.

A few dozen dents later, she was satisfied. Raven named it Rowdy, after some Scottish wrestler from a few hundred years back. Rowdy seemed okay with that.

Today she revved him through the Martian suburbs, leaving a copper colored trail over the floor of the freight elevator, a two story tower functioning as both lift and garage. She lowered Rowdy’s window, tapped a key card to the door, and floated upward, vehicle and all.

Magda had pride in her living room. It was the sort of admiration that comes when rising from poverty to prosperity, with a strong sense of, if not “I built this”, at least “I paid for the damned thing.”

So it was clean and tidy when she sat in it, the result of a service she had busted her ass to afford. The same cleaning service that found the forty-four caliber revolver in Raven’s room.

Magda admitted, when she sat there, her thin, muscular frame indenting some synthetic-silk cushion she’d imported from a shop in New Tokyo, that however her daughter had managed to pay for the pistol, the spritely teen had clearly worked her ass to the bone.

On second thought, Magda murmured to herself, girl probably stole it. Hope she didn’t hurt anyone.

She fought the sharp sense of admiration that slithered up her spine and reminded herself that, as life-giver to a stubborn teenager, she was supposed to disapprove of such things.

Magda would tell her that when the doors opened. Which they did, quite suddenly, and at the sound, Magda instinctively pulled back the hammer of the gun.

“What’s up?” Raven tip-toed into the room.

“Sit down.”

The young girl’s notion of rebellion was to stay standing. Thomas perched atop a lamp in the corner, a theatergoer in a box seat.

“You want to tell me about this?” Magda asked.

That, of course, was the revolver. Next, she knew, Raven would resort to the tried-and-less-often-true-than-you-might-think method of reacting as though a deadly weapon in a young girl’s bedside drawer was perfectly normal.

“What about it?”

There it was.

In any conventional household, “What about it?” would be followed with “What do you mean what about it?” and the inevitable “What the hell were you thinking?”

But here, this was Magda’s room. Not her bedroom, mind, but a room only accessible through the back of that bedroom. In this little corner space were shelves. On these shelves were dusty harnesses, rusted rappels, kevlar vests, pistols, shotguns, and grenade launchers in need of a good greasing and thorough cleaning. All the scraps and crumbs of a forgotten trade.

A trade left behind in favor of a desk, a salary, and, she thought, a more reasonable life for Raven to aspire too.

“How did you get this?”

“With my money.”

“What money?”

“What the fuck were you doing in my room?” Raven stomped off to her bedroom, Magda at her heel.

“Cleaning it.” Shit. She changed the subject again. It was like interrogating a shark with waterboarding. The shark doesn’t mind, and it’s not as if the the slippery thing could speak in the first place. “Are there any more?”

“You have a hundred of ’em -”

“I had training,” said Magda. “I did this. You don’t. You don’t have to. That’s the whole point of being here -”

“Dad didn’t want to be here.” Raven ripped off her coat and hurled it across the bed. She tapped a screen, installed into the wall, jolting it to life.

“Contact.” A display appeared on the monitor, a list of names, photos, locations -

“Samson.” The screen flashed, recent contacts, less recent, and then to the gruff, scarred, square-box head of the Scotsman.

Magda rewound the chaotic two decades of dating choices and job choices and drink choices and all that had led to this volatile moment; the stuttering, syncopated rhythm of Raven’s speech when tempers rose. A bit like mine, she thought. Too much like mine. She regretted much of it, but not Raven. Not her daughter. That’d be mourning the air she breathed, the water she drank. Impossible. Suicidal. But Samson? Should have left him sooner. So much easier if she’d left him when…

Magda heard an audible sigh seep from her own throat; self-loathing etched itself into her pores; hairs pricked up with rage at her own anxieties, and Raven, and that stupid Scot on the screen. But if she expressed that rage aloud, she’d hear her own drummy words all over again, and sigh again, and be all the more angry, and drum again, and sigh again.

Like so many people when they have no idea what to do, Magda did the worst thing she could. She pointed the pistol at the screen, at Samson, at the signal line indicating a call was being placed, and pulled the trigger. A thousand shards of polystyrene scattered about the place.

Raven looked at the carnage through eyes blurred by tears, fighting to pour over her lashes, like water flowing up a shore, stopped, and sent back to the ocean. Thomas watched worriedly from the hallway. Magda caught her breath and lowered the weapon.

“Okay?”

Raven nodded.

“Okay.”

Neither was sure what the other meant by that.

The city of Ares occupied most of the Utopia Planitia, an impact crater spread across two thousand miles of Mars’ surface. At its heart it was a complex, a skyscraper built by The Company and dedicated unto itself.

The Company was Black Basin. Of the housing, most was reserved for employees, Magda among them. Of the grocers and jewelers and public transit and private hover car dealers, Black Basin oversaw the manufacturing, marketing, distribution and sales. The Company was a self-sustained cancer. It survived by feeding upon itself and grew fat from more far reaching enterprises.

Despite its luxuries, Ares, like many major metropolises, had suitable room for slums and sties on its outskirts, and beyond these, tiny towns where a basic living could be made manufacturing niceties and trucking them off to the bottom of Mars’ basins, to be bought up by white collar power brokers and the socialites they seduced and discarded on a biannual basis.

In one of these little towns, Raven found a mechanic. Like most mechanics in need of a second income, this one dealt with smugglers, pirates, and scoundrels, and the bounty hunters who pursued them, and the people who paid to have the criminals pursued.

Which meant, Raven knew, the place would have a police encoded fax machine.

Thomas scurried up the tower, small metal box in his jaws, and left the box leaning on a cable. The box was attached to a long copper wire, stretched down into Rowdy’s open window.

Notices would be broadcast by satellite, sent along the cable, and printed in the garage’s office. With the box in place, Raven could intercept these faxes before anyone in the workshop heard the tinny grind of the printer.

She waited, tablet in hand. It was a rusted brick, screwed together with nickel plates and washers. The copper wire led to a universal plug, mounted on the brick’s back. Notices popped up in green lettering against the screen’s black background.

The first few hours brought off-world alerts: a hijacking on Ganymede, breaking and enterings near the Heller Station around Castle de Solar, arson at the helium mines on Mercury. Solar had a listing near Saturn’s rings, dispersing protesters and picketers who were furious when a fleet of android’s landed to take over the ice harvests and sent the workers back to Earth, unhoused, unfed, and unemployed.

That one only paid a couple million. Nothing that could get her off the burnt bit of charcoal Magda had made their home. She skimmed past it.

Half a day passed. Raven was curled up like a newborn kitten, Thomas asleep on her shoulder, when the flash of her tablet’s screen ricocheted off Rowdy’s windows.

She read over the bounty. Twenty million. That’d get her her own shuttle. Not a full cruiser like Dad had, but enough.

The photographs were useless neon pixel paintings. But the listing itself:

Griffith, Alex; Felix, Chester

Threat Rank: 8*

Murder, Attempted Murder,

Grand Larceny, Grand Arson,

Burglary, Fraud.

High Value Target. Consider Armed,

Extremely Dangerous.

Approach With Caution.

Bounty Issuer:

Venusian Reserve Bank & Holdings, Ltd.

Value:

Alive — $20,000,000

Deceased — Unavailable.

Thomas had wired the copper into his headpiece, eyes on the mechanic’s shop next door. Even with Rowdy’s windows closed, Raven could make out the excited squawks of the crew inside.

“Says they’re Southwest of Ares. Sighted near New Davenport,” said Thomas.

A smiling Raven crawled over the driver’s seat. Rowdy gave a growl, popped into gear, and charged off, cable dragging Thomas’ plate behind them.

New Davenport was a tin hut village, the classic Martian shanty town, built by people retreating from Earth, only to find themselves outsized and outclassed by the rest of the solar system. Huts were built with mish-mashed bits of mismatched metal welded together to form housing. A large colander, the size of several houses stacked, stood on the outset of town, baking the soaked water, ice, and permafrost from the planet’s soil, sifting through the poisonous particles and funneling out the useable liquid. What water couldn’t be pulled from dirt was shipped over from Saturn’s ice rings — or was, until the android scabs arrived and the protests started. Things had been dry since then, and not a little tense.

Raven was a mile off and a hundred yards above, overlooking the village. Her buggy was parked on a near vertical incline. She reached under Rowdy’s rear fender to retrieve her rifle and scan the slums.

“They said alive,” said Thomas.

“I’m just seeing how far it is.” Raven twisted the dial on her scope.

“And I’m just wondering about the smarts of your finger on a loaded gun’s trigger, if you want the people in the building you’re pointing it at to stay breathing and heartbeating, all those important things you need to go on, you know, living.”

“Fine. You go. Third shack from the right.”

“Alright.” He flicked his tongue at the girl. “But anything happens down there, anything gets dangerous, you take your buggy and that gun, and you come get me.”

“Yeah. Can’t live without my calculator.”

“I mean it! I don’t want to get left here with these people.”

The Android’s Almanac : Zero-Atmosphere Firearms

Zero Atmosphere Environments have problems. Merely being a Zero Atmosphere Environment tends to be high on that list.

This proves especially difficult for the blue-collar sap suckered into his first fax, darting after a bounty, who decides to barge in guns ablazing for a daring hyperspace hijacking.

Steel meets flint meets spark meets oxygen meets powder makes explosion. This doesn’t work if there’s no oxygen.

His helmet might fit, and the oxygen might flow, but come time to draw pistols and demand the door be opened, he’ll often find himself floating home with a useless cap gun in his hand and a bounty on his head.

To circumnavigate this issue, arms manufacturers like Black Basin, Solar Corp, Saturnalia, et. al. began equipping pistols with a secondary aerosol chamber, located above the bolt. A simple flick of a switch moves the firing pin to the air charge, and suddenly you have a zero gravity gun.

The companies offered replacement weapons for interplanetary travelers at a “nominal fee.” Most commuters realized they could create the same item with an aluminum tube, a drill bit, and some glue.

Hijackings around the galaxy increased three hundred percent over the following month.

Felix awoke just after noon, Martian Southern Hemisphere Time. He stretched open the aluminum shutter of his hovel and bathed in the light of one of Mars’ two dozen pint sized artificial suns.

He snatched his pistol from a pillowcase, the cotton bag doubling as a backpack, and switched the firing pin to the air canister protruding from the top of the weapon.

Felix rolled up his right pant leg, revealing a piecemeal limb of rusted metal. It creaked at the knee as he sat. He unloaded a round from the gun’s chamber, caught it in his hand, and let the clip drop to the mattress. Hammer back, a trigger squeezed, and the gun’s barrel blew air through his knee, sending loose grains of soil to the floor.

“Wake up.” Felix kicked the opposing bed with his artificial leg.

The occupant, Griffith, a six foot troll with thin blonde hair, awoke. He scanned the room, his bright red eyes blinking until sleep tumbled down his cheeks.

“Where we at?”

“My brother’s place.”

Felix nodded to a German Shepherd, panting over the body of a young man dressed in bloodied overalls. The man’s neck had been twisted about until the skin seemed to fold up under his chin like a wet sponge, ringed out over a sink.

“I thought he’d be happier to see me,” said Felix. “Ease up, boy.” The Shepherd pouted, sniffed the corpse, and skipped off toward the kitchen. Felix followed. “Neighbors going to miss him, town this small. We need to move.”

“How long was I out?”

“Three days. Bounty bound to be out by now.”

“I wonder how much we got on us.”

Felix returned with a bowl of water for the pup and a glass for Griffith. The Shepherd, whom Felix, in a fit of creative impulse, called Shep, ignored the drink and stayed fixated on the open window.

“Spot yourself something, boy?” he asked.

Griffith’s eyes dilated, the crimson iris divided into minute layers, each pivoting around the black pupil like the tumblers of an old lock aligning themselves. He could see everything; the dust in the air, the smudges of the dead man’s old fingerprints on his water glass; each breath as Felix inhaled and exhaled; the light waves of New Davenport’s faux-sun; and, in the corner of his eye, a weird little lizard scurrying across the yard fence.

Raven scouted Thomas through the scope. He wiggled behind the shacks, shimmying his way atop a wire fence that ran from building to building, dividing a small gravel alley.

She set down the rifle and hoisted her bulky tablet, a kevlar strap wrapped around her neck to support it. On screen, a fuzzy green and black outline broadcast what Thomas was seeing. It was a long tin structure with an open window.

A line of text blinked on the bottom of the tablet’s screen.

Sounds like somebody just woke up. I hear yapping.

Raven opened a small panel on the side of the tablet, revealing a sort of two-way radio installed in the box. She pressed a button beside the speaker.

“Just give me a head count and find the power lines.”

And do what? Chew them off?

And then he was gone. The screen went dark, the text disappeared. Simply nothing.

“Thomas?”

She landed on her stomach and snatched up the rifle. Through the scope, a German Shepherd was flailing about, apoplectic, like an epileptic on one of those days he’d rather not think about and sorry if he broke anything.

The Shepherd, for his part, was occupied trying to get the antenna unstuck from the roof of his mouth. He’d dropped his jaw, anticipating a scaly morsel, and got a needle to the brain and a tongue full of cold steel. The oversized chameleon’s tail, built more like the bullwhip of an iguana’s hind end, flicked him in the eyes and across the ears. Griffith called to the pup.

“What’re you yapping at, Shep?”

Felix followed his partner to the alley. A whipcrack shook the dome. Shep’s hind leg splintered. He yelped, collapsed, and whimpered in the corner. Felix leapt over him, hand on the dog’s bloody leg, another at his jaw.

“Hey now, boy. Let her out.”

Griffith scanned the skyline for the source of the crack.

“Somebody’s shootin’.”

Felix pried open Shep’s jaw and ripped Thomas from his throat. The chameleon’s metal band stayed lodged in the pup’s top pallet. He hissed when Felix held him aloft, red lens peering back into Felix’s brown eyes.

Raven jumped into Rowdy, starting him up at the touch of a button, and cocked her rifle. A spent shell flew to the floor. She tossed her tablet into the passenger seat. On it, Felix’s jumbled eye. She gunned it toward Thomas.

Griffith’s digital irises dialed in on the dune buggy, a soot smothered machine, with glimmers of what was once silver underneath. It bounded through backyards and dislodged the odd curb at eighty miles per hour.

“Company,” he muttered.

Felix emerged from the shack, gun in one hand, pillowcase in the other. A twisting Thomas struggled inside, trying to gnaw his way through the threads.

“Looks like,” said Felix. “What you make of this?”

Griffith opened the bag and peered at the chameleon.

“Got a techy comin’ after us.”

“The techy? We can bury the techy.”

Raven parked Rowdy a half-block back, butt of the rifle to her shoulder. It attracted the odd glance from a concerned neighbor, but in an area like this, a corpse or two a month was expected, and it wasn’t like Black Basin’s Peacekeepers strayed this far from Ares anyway.

She approached the shack unimpeded. The door was open. Ominous, she would have thought, if her attention wasn’t on a big cloth pillowcase hung from a banister in the middle of the room.

Still, the girl prided herself on her brains, and she did what she thought was what you did, which was pivot left, then right, checking the room for bandits, before inching softly to the center.

By this point, Griffith was digging his way through Rowdy, looking for valuables; credits, trinkets, tech, that sort of thing. He found a bag of dead flies and tossed it aside.

For Raven, it started cold, like an ice cube pressed to her neck. That’d be the gun’s muzzle. Then pain, when what felt like a sludgehammer slammed the back of her knee. Raven was told to drop the rifle, so she did. And then a sense of fine-toothed sandpaper on her cheek, as she was dragged across the scabby wooden floor, face down, kicking, crying.

In that moment she missed Magda; she should’ve listened to Magda; should’ve listened to Thomas. Thomas? Where was Thomas? Call Dad. Dad’ll know what to do.

Magda always got mad when she called Dad, but this situation seemed to justify the interplanetary roaming charges.

Raven rolled around to find Felix over her, radio in hand, a pistol at his side.

“Now, I’m going to kill you,” he said. “I don’t want to lead you on, with premonitions of you saving your own life. It’s really just a question of how you feel about pain. I’d like to make this clean, y’see. Less pain, less squealing, means less prying eyes I’ve got to deal with. So who’d you call?”

A mind in chaos cannot comprehend its own language; all Raven heard was the low drone of murmurs and mutterings. So she said the first thing that occurred to her.

“What’s wrong with your leg?”

“Goddamn, squeakin’ again? Got some god damned sand in there.” He squeezed the trigger on his radio. “Griff, you find some oil in that there vehicle, you bring it here.”

It takes a man of extraordinary confidence in his work to be so easily distracted from it. Griffith’s voice crackled from Felix’s palm.

“You take her head off yet?”

“Give me a minute now. Still going through our interrogations.” He turned his attention back to the girl. “I’d asked you a question, little one, and I’d appreciate an honest answer. Who’ve I got tailing me? We got Peacekeepers coming outta Ares, or I got a whole slew of prepubescent bounty hunters coming behind you?”

Rowdy rolled up outside. Griffith stomped into the shack, door shut behind him, in time to hear the soft, damaged buzz of Thomas’s voice box.

“Threatening her life doesn’t give her much of a reason to talk.”

Felix actually laughed.

“Homemade, that one?” he asked. “Not bad, little girl.”

“I don’t like him,” said Griffith. “Let’s fix him for supper.”

“Suits me fine. I’m helpin’ her avoid undue pain, Lizard. Being gentleman-like. So tell me, girl. I know we’ve got a bit of a price on our head. How much we looking at? Forty, fifty million I reckon?”

“Twenty,” she choked. He crouched beside her.

“Twenty? Gods almighty, we done more work than that. Ain’t no bragging rights in twenty.” Felix pulled back the pistol’s hammer and -

“Don’t go shooting nobody yet.”

Felix had found his favorite moment; that of utter panic, when the circulation is smooth and the breathing easy, and nirvana seems to settle over; you resign yourself to death, but hell, even a nebulous solution can come dropping out of the stars time and again. He’d been here before, he’d be here again, and for forty-some years (Felix wasn’t exactly sure of his own age) he’d survived.

Next time, thought Felix, I’m shooting Griff.

“What?”

“That there vehicle out there’s tagged in Ares,” Griffith said.

“Come again?”

“She’s registered up in Ares.” He rolled Raven over with his boot. “Big golden block of wealthy. Means this is a bored little rich bitch, coming out here, trying for whatever it is little rich bitches try for. We got no cruiser, we got no passes, we got no money for getting off this ball, ‘cept that bag of money you’ve gone pulling pistols on. I’m saying, Felix, don’t bleed her. Not until we get what’s ours.”

Felix holstered his pistol and picked up Raven’s rifle, inspecting the homemade scope.

“Yeah, she ain’t nothin’ if not well educated. How you planning to fix this up, before half the system comes hunting?”

“Like I said, lizard thing’s a techy. I got a hunch we can get heard, maybe seen. Might have to dismantle him a bit, but there’ll be enough left over for a snack or so.”

Felix looked to Raven and shrugged apologetically.

“Griff here ain’t much of one for reading, but the man can computate well as the best. Made his own eyeballs. Hell, made this here leg, keeps making noises on me.”

“Fried lizard, only thing I can cook. Or beer battered lizard.”

“That’s Griff’s favorite,” Felix smiled.

As he spoke, Griffith hoisted the girl from the floor and kicked open the shack door, tossing her in Rowdy’s rear. He bound her wrists with cables from the buggy’s toolbox. Thomas followed with an angry hiss, his pillowcase prison landing at Raven’s feet. A dozen disconcerted neighbors glanced at the kidnapping and bolted their shutters.

Felix hopped into the passenger seat and looked at the girl behind him.

“Think of that, little one,” he said. “My poverty just saved your life.”

Magda woke to an empty home. She sorted through yesterday’s temper tantrum, until instinct dragged her to the room. The little girl’s pistol was still there, along with everything else an ambitious warlord could want.

A press of the elevator call button and a two minute wait carried Magda down to the surface. It was dawn when she stepped into the dim light of the city’s twin suns. They didn’t move in a direct orbit, but in a slow dance with one another, as smooth and graceful as a ballet, directing the shadows as required to keep cool what needed to be cool and warm what needed to be warm.

Mankind, for all its innovations and persistence toward perfection, seems to concern itself most with what the weather should be like in the mornings.

Ares’ skyline peaked at the city’s center, like a drop of water in a still pond reversed, scaled downward toward the outskirts. She strolled from her tower past neon lights. They blinked alive, each store broadcasting another language; some indecipherable hieroglyphs, some clearly born of Earth, most a mix of both, like a crazed polyglot given license with a bundle of light bulbs.

The lights were matched by the music. It bounced between the buildings, every block another song, another advertisement, another cacophony of noise. It had all the tranquility of a carnival attraction.

The disco-panoply of bulbs surrounded building displays, thirty or forty stories at a time, advertising mineral remedies from the core of whatever meteorite had been mined a day earlier; a new style of vehicle, more corseted prom queen than the blue dress model she’d liked a few years ago; liqueurs and beers and brandys, crafted from ethyl alcohol harvested from the specks of dying stars.

And Raven.

This last bit took a glance or three. Magda squinted and turned to another building. Raven’s body, eight hundred feet tall, lopsided, bruised, smothered in brown soil.

And icy. Surrounding her was a wall of frost. She was shivering.

Raven was on every screen, every display in every store, every skyscraper, every digital ad on every passing taxi. Her face, scratched and bloody from the shack floor, like a rug burn across her cheek; neck, sore and bruised for millions of people to see.

And then the city was silent. The shaking camera focused on Raven as she stared at something just offscreen.

“I am a citizen of the city of Ares. I have been kidnapped. I am being held for ransom at an unknown location. Pay fifty million credits, or I will be killed. Terms can be discussed by responding to this broadband channel. Again. My name is Raven Headley. I am a citizen of the city of Ares. I have been kidnapped.”

The girl paused to pull her lips apart; they seemed to stick, frozen from dried saliva, between each word. Magda watched, mouth ajar, mind mediating each breath and each heartbeat. It kept her calm.

“Pay fifty million credits, or I will be killed. These people are serious, very dangerous… and ugly. The big one looks like a cow -”

Magda smiled, until what looked like a white brick collided with Raven’s temple and sent her to the floor. Off camera, someone barked.

“Keep reading.”

Did Raven just laugh? No. Never that foolish. She did, however, tap her first two fingers on her knee.

“Terms can be discussed by responding to this broadband channel.”

Good girl, thought Magda. Only two of them. A public broadcast. Bush league bullshit. Put a bullet through each of their throats and ground the stubborn delinquent for the next fifty years. That’s the sort of practical reasoning that gets a mother through a public display of panic.

She looked over the sea of Ares’ citizens around her, staring aghast at the beaten teenager, until the screens went dark and the city stood together in silent dismay. Magda meandered into a nearby cafe, strolled straight to the restroom, and locked herself in.

Despair boiled up from her belly, an earthquake shaking each rib loose and tightening the muscles of her chest, until sobs broke free of her throat, like a kernel of corn popped in the kettle, ending in a trumpeted wail.

And then her phone buzzed in her pocket. She stood up, wiped her eyes, and answered.

That call led her to an office. The door was opened by an impeccably maintained and fashionably dressed android named Arthur. She greeted him with a soft smile. The office itself was fifty yards across and the same in depth, with vaulted ceilings. From this dangled an array of Edison bulbs, as if a technological substitute for the candles that would normally ornament a cannibal’s throne room.

As a result, the entire office was undateable; every object, from the oak desk to the muted lights to the simple plastic chairs, was as timeless as the man who occupied it. His silver combover and simple suit contrasted a smooth face, incapable of sprouting a single hair. He might have been a hundred; he might have been twelve.

Magda always called him Gray. It suited his complexion. To his right was a camera, a small red bulb lighting the high bones of his skeletal cheeks.

“I’m delighted you came, under the circumstances,” said Gray.

“I appreciate that, sir.”

“There may be some discrepancy in our concerns. This is less about your daughter than you might like, Magda.” His voice seeped out with the tenderness of a father inquiring after his little girl’s first day of school. “It’s concern for the actions you might -”

“I’m aware,” she said. “I thought we were pretending to be cordial.”

“We’re well past that, Magda. First, we would like to emphasize our appreciation for your time at the Company. The value of your contacts, your negotiations, your management, to Black Basin’s financial foothold has been — I shouldn’t say incalculable. But significant.”

“I know.”

“Good. Then you know in taking you on, we were willing to overlook your… negotiation tactics, in your previous line of work.”

“How did you think I made those contacts?” It wasn’t a question, but etiquette demanded she inflect it as such. Gray knew perfectly well what her body count was.

“Not our concern, Magda. All I need, in lieu of your previous career, and the situation your daughter is involved in, is your appraisal of the situation, your intentions hereafter, and assurances that this will in no way involve the Company.”

“I see no reason two moderately competent criminals should concern you.”

“That’s taking into account your daughter?” His blue eyes brightened.

“I think it’s best if everyone in this room,” and here she looked directly into the camera’s lense, “refers to the hostage, Sir.”

Gray examined her as one might the ceaseless chirp of a cockroach; always heard, persistent, grating, lodged somewhere in the corner of the room, but for all the carnage employed in upending the furniture and ripping apart the carpet, never found.

The enigma pleased him. From the dark, his hand emerged with a petite cup of coffee. He slurped from it like a child with a sippy cup, licked his lips, and smiled.

“Continue.”

“A mass broadcast of demands implies they’re not sure who the target audience is, or where the money will come from. So the hostage in question was arbitrarily chosen. Which means they’re unprepared.”

“Unprepared?”

“For me.”

Gray nodded. He realized, only now, that Magda had not blinked, had not adjusted her seat or brushed a bit of hair from her eyes, since she sat down.

“If they’re willing to announce their crime so publically, they must be two things; well hidden, and in a hurry,” she said. “I see no problem once I’ve lured them out of their hole.”

“Which you will do how?”

“By giving them fifty million credits.”

He massaged his thin eyebrows with a thumb and forefinger, glancing sidelong at the camera.

“Some of our members were curious why I’d ask you to arrive in person for a conversation we’d normally have via courier. But I see our concern is justified. You intend to come out of retirement, as it were.”

Mind mediated breath. Magda spoke slowly, each word a deliberate action.

“They are operating within a fixed schedule. Another day or two, they resign themselves to survival without the money. They will move. And I will have lost the hostage.”

“You understand our policies, Magda. Black Basin does not negotiate, nor cooperate, with these sorts.”

A light, soft and white, shone from Gray’s desk; a small display mounted within the woodwork. It lit his face from beneath, like a flashlight at a roundtable of campfire horror stories. His eyes flickered to it as he sipped his coffee.

A swallow, a tongue across his narrow lips, and a smirk.

“While my peers have taken into account your years of adequate service, the answer, I fear, must be no.”

“You’ll have every credit back.” Even while begging Magda seemed cut of marble. “By tomorrow.”

“Unfortunately,” said Gray, “the Company must still construe this a risk. It’s not the finances, Magda. It’s the precedent that would be set. We’d all wake tomorrow to find cousins of cousins held up in some shack near Davenport, and then where would we be? You understand.”

Silence, aside from the scuffing of Gray’s ceramic cup on the desk. The shake of his head was so slight it might have been taken as a nervous twitch.

“Goodbye.”

Maurice had turned eleven years old the week before. On that day, his father gave him the keys to the Mule and sent him to work.

The Mule was a hydraulic load truck, with massive jaws attached to the rear axle, scooping up soil and sifting out the larger rocks before piling the dirt into colanders near the villages, where water could be retrieved. It was an average job, performed by a boy of average intelligence for an average wage.

Most of the icy topsoil had been harvested over the last century. Maurice found himself fifty miles outside the dome, far from the safety of Ares’ atmosphere, when the Mule struck a boulder. It tipped sideways thirty degrees, and the oxygen tank popped loose from its cables.

Maurice grimaced, fretted for a moment about his father killing him, and tugged the helmet of his space suit over his head.

No artificial atmosphere meant meager levels of gravity. He spotted the air tank a hundred yards away, uphill, wedged between two stones. Air hissed out of the Mule’s torn cable; alarms beeped and buzzed, proclaiming death for any occupants if measures were not taken.

Maurice kicked the Mule, and alarms stopped. He skipped over the Martian surface and found the tank. Scooped it over his shoulder and took a mental panorama of the small crater below him.

There was a shelter compiled in large pieces like a giant Lego set. Next to it was a buggy; filthy, pockmarked with dents, but a least a few hundred years newer than the steel house behind it.

Curious.

Behind the shelter, the boy spotted several large steel tanks, a few dozen feet in height. Oxygen, maybe. Maurice secured his hold on the pint-sized oxygen canister and strolled off toward the building.

First he checked the tanks.

Yes, oxygen. Being the ever-cordial country boy that he was, Maurice knew it was impolite to steal, but most people give gladly if asked nicely. So he feigned a chipper smile, wound his way to the front airlock, and knocked.

After several hard raps on the door he realized his mistake and pressed a button marked entrance. No sound came. He pressed it again.

At the third attempt a warning beep from Maurice’s suit echoed through the helmet; he was running out of air. Discretion being the better part of survival, Maurice discreetly hoisted the airlock’s frosted handle and made his way inside.

Once through the airlock and having been pressurized and inundated with freshly harvested atmosphere (he filled his tank and suit at a station near the entrance), the boy stepped into the shelter’s foyer and snooped about. If they catch me I’ll just tell them I wanted to thank them for the air.

Maurice noted the abandoned cafeteria trays and silverware; the medical bed and its attached accoutrements; the television, a small plastic frame, with one of those old fashioned remote controls he’d read about in period dramas during his literature classes; all of these, eroded by centuries of carbon dioxide and dust particles, frost and friction etching them toward oblivion.

In particular, he memorized the outline of a massive emblem reading NASA. And then he noticed a staircase.

The staircase led to black.

“Hello?”

Maurice had the growing sense of an adventurer, a boy out of his element, using his smarts and courage to investigate new surroundings, overcome new challenges, and to explore even the greatest of terrors.

And so, if for nothing better than a bizarre tale with which to enthral his classmates, Maurice stepped slowly into the abyss, praying simultaneously for a monster, and for not a monster, but perhaps something monsterish enough he could claim with reasonable honesty that he thought it was a monster, but still disarm and incapacitate it.

Instead, in the basement, he found a box. It was large, about the size of a small apartment. And built into the box was a door. He pulled the handle, and felt a chill of Arctic wind, like tip-toeing into Dante’s final circle of hell.

Maurice realized the box was a freezer.

Inside, he found slices of frostburnt pig ribs, milk molded into cardboard-covered bricks of ice, relics of broccoli and chicken breasts and reheatable noodles.

And a girl. And a chameleon.

The reptile was on its side in a cage. A small pool of blood had formed and frozen around its head, but from the purrs and pawing, Maurice suspected it was alive.

Not much of a dragon, really.

Beside it was a thin, round beam of steel, mounted to a six-inch tall stand and set atop a table. On the steel beam was a tiny red lense. This was wired to a computer and aimed at the girl.

She was a few years older than Maurice, at least, but a suitable damsel; disheveled, even distressed, but beautiful; beaten, but exhaling frosted air. The teenaged girl lay on her back, half asleep, half starved. A perfect princess, he thought.

The princess sat up, smiled, and opened her mouth to speak. But the smile turned to a gape, her black eyes widened, and her gnarled, nasty finger pointed behind her hero. He turned about to find an enormous troll with strange eyes, wielding a silver sword.

Raven watched as young Maurice’s skull was split apart by a crescent wrench.

Read Episode 1, the rest of 2, and 3 at https://www.amazon.com/Gas-Punk-Chaos-Johnny-Wilson-ebook/dp/B01H2MD1YA/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=#navbar