Robert Appleton

Adventures in Science Fiction

Star Binder Sample Chapter

 

Chapter 1

The Day Before Colonial Day

 

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight;

Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning.


Sergei told me that rhyme once, and I’ve never forgotten it. There’s something powerful in that idea of being able to tell the future just by looking up. But the difference is, here on Mars, with that being close to the sky’s natural colour, you kind of have to read your luck elsewhere.


For a thirteen-year-old drifter like me, Jim Trillion, it isn’t quite so romantic. In fact, it usually involves skimming credits from unsuspecting customers at whichever place I happen to be working at that month.


Last month, at the Glimmer Arch fast food snack bar way out on the skyway road-stop, not so much. Even the cheeseburgers there left you empty. This month, at the Cydonia Sights shopping mall, even less. But with it being Colonial Day tomorrow—the anniversary of the first human colony created on Mars, over two centuries ago—and the local hotels filling up quicker than beehives, I can practically taste the honey.


Yep, Sergei and I can make an absolute fortune if we’re lucky. If we don’t get caught first.


Our day begins the way all days begin in the oases resorts of Mars...with a crime. Not a serious one. No, we don’t roll that way. Many other drifters do, but those grid-lickers never last long outside of colonial custody.


It’s much safer, and much easier, to skim. And here’s how. A customer taps his account password on the nano-ink tattoo on the back of his hand; that opens up a digital link. And in the split-second while the ink is being scanned at the checkout, our handheld skimmer sends a stealth pulse that hacks the link, lightning quick, and skims a couple of credits off the customer’s account. Just a couple, otherwise you’d get caught in no time.


It’s like picking pockets digitally. You have to get in close, though, within a few feet, so Sergei and I take turns wiping tables or sweeping up near the checkout, to skim as many people as we can with our portable device. It generally earns us good travel money, enough to get us from place to place and see a fair bit of Mars. We’d never manage that on ordinary juvie wages. A few clips a week, that’s all these establishments pay kids officially. Not even enough to go spend a couple of hours inside a VRI (Virtual Reality Interactive) after paying for food and our cots at the kip-house.


So far, Birnbaum the cafe owner hasn’t suspected a thing. A pale, gangly guy with a weird allergic reaction to UV sunlight that makes his hands and wrists swell up like inflated red rubber gloves, he’s also the most shameless suck-up I’ve ever met. With his customers, that is. With his staff, especially the older ones like Juan-Carlos and Lucy, he’s a nasty piece of work, not letting them rest for a minute, physically pushing them around, and even threatening their jobs if the customers aren’t completely happy with the service.


Me and Sergei he likes. Maybe that’s because he has seven kids of his own and probably feels sorry for any youngsters without a home and family. But the way he treats his other staff makes up for it. Birnbaum is a typical oasis proprietor: wealthy, mean, and about to get skimmed.


A group of sweaty miners caked with red dust gathers at the smell-sim menu outside when Birnbaum says to me, “Chop, chop, kiddo—clear those tables near the door, will you, so these new people will have somewhere to sit.” He sneers at the sight of the filthy workers. “And make sure the skivvies (cleaning robots) are fully charged and ready.”


“Yes, sir.”


“Good lad. Where’s your big Russian friend?”


“Over there near the till.”


“Why’s he over there when the mess is near the door? Go tell him to wake up and get his—Wait, what’s that in his hand? Is that a—”


“Is that a what?” Oh God, Sergei is seconds away from skimming two trench coat traders at the checkout. The amber download lights on his thin oval skimmer, which is about the size of a bubble gum card in his hand, flash between his fingers.


“Yeah, he needs to use a clean cloth, the idiot,” I say, and try to wave a warning to my friend from behind Birnbaum.


But Sergei doesn’t see me.


“Wait here, Jim boy. Something’s not quite right,” Birnbaum says as he strides away.


Crap. Time to leave. I clock two possible exits for when Sergei decides to make a run for it, which will be any second now. One, through the kitchen and out the back, onto the flop-port where cargo supply shuttles regularly land. Dangerous without breathers, and maybe a dead end. Or two, past the dusty miners and onto the main street of the Sights. Maybe straight into the arms of a colonial cop. But at least there we have room to manoeuvre.


Sergei eyes Birnbaum and continues wiping the table top, having slid the skimmer into his pants pocket. The big guy could easily tackle our gangly boss if he had to, but the café’s getting crowded now and someone else might decide to be a hero and stop Sergei’s escape. You never can tell with people when it comes to Colonial Day. It does funny things to them, for that one day in the year: they look out for each other, especially when it comes to preventing crimes. Some sort of show of unity. Yeah, pity they don’t give a damn at any other time.


To my great relief, Birnbaum marches straight to the two trench coat traders instead, and ushers them to one side.


Too close, Sergei, too close.


Light-headed after holding my breath, I flop onto the nearest chair but miss it and fall in a heap on a lagoon of spilled Coke. Three white-haired Lunar girls at a nearby table laugh at me, filming me with their omnicams. Rachel Foggerty’s with them—lovely Rachel from my Juve-Ed class, who’s entering the junior triathlon in tomorrow’s Games—but she doesn’t laugh. She offers to help me up instead. I tell her thanks but I can manage.


“Where’s a lifeguard when you need one, huh?” one of them says.


“Where’s a zookeeper when you need one,” I shoot back, to which they give off infuriating oohs and jabber among themselves in that breathless Moonspeak no one except those from Lunar One can decipher. At least Rachel isn’t obnoxious like that. She nods politely at her friends’ remarks but keeps an eye on me instead. It’s only fair, I guess, after all the times I’ve watched her poolside, but why—why, God, why—did she have to see me fall on my butt?


After escaping into the kitchen to dry myself off, I pat Sergei’s pocket and whisper, “That was close. I thought he had you.”


“Ah, me too.”


“What was all that about—with the trench coat men? Did you hear anything?”


“Yeah, they’re off-worlders,” Sergei replies. “One of them paid with real physical credits. That’s why I couldn’t skim them.”


“Who are they?”


Sergei shrugs his huge shoulders.


“Well, be more careful in future, numbnuts. We nearly blew our Colonial pay-day.”


He snorts a laugh. “You talk big for someone who just wet himself. Maybe you’d better skim while I go play at being a skivvy for a bit—”


“All right, all right, Sergei. We get the point.”


“You do?”


“We all know what you are.”


“And what is that?”


“Dumb all day.”


“Ooh. Now you’ve no choice but to say it.”


“It.”



“And the rest,” he says. “Or I renegotiate your cut. A zero will be involved—quite a lonely one.”


I sigh, flick my wet cloth at him. He forms his thumb and forefinger into a zero and pretends to kiss it. “Okay, okay, you’re the best skimmer I’ve ever met, Sergei, and I’d be nowhere without you.”


“And what else am I?”


“The Minsk Machine. Made for war, women, and cleaning toilet—”


“Ah, ah.”


“Made for war, women, and the Soviet way.”


Sergei admires his reflection in the sink mirror, pouts, and combs his scruffy dark hair back behind his ears. He has an odd, scrunched weatherworn face that girls seem to like. I wouldn’t say he’s handsome, but he does look as hard as brick, and has a charming lopsided smile. Then he curls his arm over my shoulders, the one thing in the world that always makes me feel safe. “Horosho, Trillion, ochen horosho. You stick with me and we’ll be off-world in no time.”


“Yeah, I’m kinda thinking no on that. Seeing as no one in my family’s ever made it off this rock since they first colonized the place.”


“True. But then you can succeed where they failed.”


“Maybe if we skimmed a few kings and presidents first.”


“Stride with pride, Trillion. Stride with pride.”


“What’s that supposed to mean?”


“It means you never let on you’re desperate, you never let others see your weakness.”


“Word?”


“Word.”


Birnbaum calls after us both. I lift my friend’s muscular arm in order to escape. “Be careful. It’s gonna get crowded in a hurry.”


“What am I again?”


I shake my head and grin. “The Minsk Machine.”


“Made for what?”


“War, women, and the Soviet way.”


Ochen Horosho.”


Da.”


Da.”


“Just one more thing, Minsk Machine,” I say.


“What’s that?”


“Your apron’s in the borscht.” I run out before the swearing begins.



If I’d had an older brother, I’d want him to be a lot like Sergei. Almost two years my senior, Sergei would gladly throw himself into the path of a crashing meteorite for me. And to be honest he might not come off worst; he’s built like a tungsten blast door and could definitely have been a wrestler or a high-g miner or something if things had worked out differently. If his life hadn’t seen red sky at morning. He doesn’t say much in public, so people think he’s shy, but it always makes you sit up and listen when he does speak.


Born in Minsk, in the New Soviet Union, he lost his family, the Balakirevs, in the immigration riots on Mars when he was four. Around the time I was graduating out of diapers, Sergei was breaking out of his second government orphanage. Around the time I’d put two of my crayon drawings up on the hospital wall after having my tonsils out, Sergei had put two boys in the hospital. They’d tried to skim his skimmings while he was asleep. And somewhere around the time my dad and sister were being buried in a cheap grave somewhere outside Bowman’s Reach, when I was still figuring out how to steal my first hot dog, Sergei was already boosting his first skycab.


We met at Fanta Uno, one of the posh resorts in the Vastitas Borealis basin in the north, near the famous Big Red theme park, where I’d hoped to pick the pockets of a few rich holidaymakers. I was seven at the time, Sergei nine. And only a timely intervention from Sergei—pretending we were brothers, and that our parents were waiting for us at the skyport—had saved me from being detained when I’d wandered into a restricted banking area thinking it was a good place to get lucky. A good place to be skinned alive, more like. Ever since then Sergei has taken it upon himself to mentor me in the ways of life as a true skimmer, just like his old mentor, Melekhin, taught him before he got life in prison. Since that day the two of us have been inseparable.


But Mars is slowly shrinking for us, one crime at a time.


At the end of each month—any longer than that in one job and Sergei is convinced we’ll be found out—we pack our shrink carriers, leave our rented cots and our jobs, and migrate to the next skimming opportunity, usually in a new resort. There are only so many of those. It’s a rootless way to live, but with Sergei around it’s never dull. After a good week we’ll spend a few days in the VRI arcades, or hire a sand bike each—a racer that flies a few feet above the ground at frightening speeds—or watch girls around the pools in the posh hotels.


At night in our cheap cots, we’ll make up stories about voyaging to the stars, fighting the Sheikers and the Finaglers across the 100z border colonies. I’ll tell him the tales I heard from my dad, passed down through the generations of Trillions, about the first pioneers on Mars. Sergei will go back even further, to stories of the various Russian revolutions on Earth he’s experienced in VRI movies, or to the space race of the mid twentieth century, when the Soviets were the first to achieve everything in space flight except the biggest prize—first man on the moon.


One day, Sergei maintains, it will be our turn, we’ll get to go off-world and see amazing things. Things no orphan skimmer should ever get to see. Things no human has ever seen.


I do a quick calculation in my head, based on our current income, and tell him we’ll be the oldest, dumbest, most liver-spotted space voyagers who ever lived by the time we can afford a shuttle off Mars.


He snatches the bottle of diluted Vodka McCormick’s off me, shrugs, and then downs the whole freaking lot.


That was a few weeks ago. I can still hear him puking, banging into things on his way to and from the communal toilet all night. It was the most ill I’ve ever seen him, and he’s sworn never to touch booze again. The Soviet way no longer includes Vodka, it seems. Which leaves war and women. And to be honest he isn’t exactly the world’s authority on those either.


But he’s in good spirits today, despite almost being clocked by Birnbaum and then dipping his apron in the beetroot soup. He skims the odd customer now and then but doesn’t push it. He hands the device to me for a spell when he’s told to clean up outside the café.


After an hour or so of missed opportunities, I get lucky. An old woman pays for about fifteen of her friends. I think it might be some kind of Neo-Christian church group. The skim from that sweet little transaction nets us a slick nine credits, a record at Cydonia Sights!


I’m swivelling away in triumph, using my doe-eyed innocent look to hide the victory from the rest of the café when, from out of nowhere, a huge hand squeezes my arm. “That wasn’t nice, kid. Don’t do it again.”


The shock punches a breath out of me. I stare, mortified, at the tip of a sunburnt nose and a twitching, downturned mouth surrounded by a jaw full of stubble—the rest of the man’s hooded face is hidden by shadow. It’s one of the trench coat traders. He doesn’t look up.


“Get off me.” I try to prise his fingers loose. I’m really looking for Sergei, as I’m nowhere near strong enough. And I really hate feeling this small, this helpless.


“Just be careful who you steal from,” he says. I know that voice from somewhere, but right now it’s the voice of an angry angel letting me off the hook.


“Sorry.”


“I doubt it.”


“I won’t do it again.”


“Really.” His sarcasm is light, it skims off me. Whoever this man is, he’s distracted. I’m an afterthought here. I swear he’s looking at the three men sat across the café—they have their backs to him. They’re smartly dressed. White collar. Sipping at their beverages robotically, not talking to each other, gazes fixed on the reflective panel between the napkin dispenser and a poster of those two famous squat aliens who endorsed a make of lemon ice cream several years ago. The men appear to be watching the whole café in that reflection. This trench coat trader in particular.


When I ask who they are, he lets go of me. “Don’t know, kid. Do you?”


“No.”


“Then run along. Stay out of trouble.” A half-assed thing to say. So I back away and pretend to wipe the table behind him, but keep on watching. There’s something strange going on here. Sergei said these trench coat guys paid in real clips. They don’t have ink, which means they’re not eligible to vote in any Interstellar Planetary Administration election. But unless you’re under sixteen, you can’t gain entry to an oasis without having ink. So they’ve either figured a way to fool security, or they have ISPA immunity. Trench coat traders with political immunity? Ridiculous. So who are they?


And why are they being watched?


One of the white collar men gets up to leave, takes his jacket off the back of the chair. Something drops from it. A transparent card of some kind. When he bends to pick it up, I glimpse a weird, angular tattoo at the base of his neck. Some sort of off-world glyph. Both the trench coat men must have seen it as well because they nudge each other and their hoods crease at the same time, as if they’ve shared a nod.


What does the glyph mean?


A moment later, the other two white collar men put their coats on and leave the café. The first stays behind to pay at the checkout. No words pass between them. They’re either the worst lunch buddies of all time or they’re up to something. So are the trench coat traders.


Suddenly it makes it all right for me to be doing what I do. All this sly behaviour—watching watchers’ watchers watch from across the room—it’s just what I need. On my way to the kitchen I whip out the skimmer and wedge it in the folds of the cloth I use to wipe the side counter. It’s pointed at the white collar man.


As he pays, I skim just over two credits.


No one sees me do it. So I sneak off to the staff toilets and punch up the details of the device’s last command:


<<L_5Y9OPEN_INS_INTERVENTION3><KAPPA_MIN_16761609_KM3323/EXC_6.67%_2.12><L_5Y9CLOSE_INS_INTERVENTION3>>


It tells me two important things about the white collar man. The first is that he’s from Kappa Min, one of the farthest colony outposts, out past the 100z border. It used to be in Sheiker space, one of the cutthroat colonies, before ISPA forced everyone to move back inside 100z, which kick-started this whole war. So he could be a Sheiker spy. Then again, Kappa Min is a legal colony. He might just be here on business. Hmm.


The second is his account number, which I can’t do anything with unless I have his nano-ink password. But the cops could. I decide to save this particular command in the skimmer, just in case. Something’s off about these men—both the white collars and the trench coats—so if anything does happen, I’ll at least have a way for the cops to track them.


Then it hits me. I’m doing what everyone else on Mars does around Colonial Day—watching out for the colony, helping fight crime. If fighting crime by committing a crime counts. Hey, it’s a start.


The white collar guys are gone when I reach the café, and it’s almost the mid-point of my shift—Juve-Ed time. Now, most juvies hate having to spend three hours every day studying (that’s on top of their shifts), but Sergei and I kind of dig it, always have. For one thing, it’s a good place to meet girls. Many of the permanent towns and settlements have official ISPA schools, but in the oases resorts, where jobs are often seasonal, parents have to enrol their kids into Juve-Ed centres that offer podnet learning modules rather than classes. There are supervisors, but it’s not like a classroom with a digiboard and a teacher out front. More often than not the “students” just hang out in between logging on and off. I swear I’ve met more people in Juve-Ed than most adults meet in their entire lives.


But the best thing about modules is that every time you complete one, the government grants your employer a wage subsidy, which he then passes (a portion of it) onto you. It sucks if you’re not a worker and you’re only there because your family has forced you to, but for Sergei and me, it’s a necessary part of our income. I don’t know if it’s made us any smarter, but we’ve passed more Juve-Ed modules between us than any five people our age we’ve ever met.


Learning is kinda great when you can pick which subjects to study and you’re getting paid for it. English and history are my faves; you have to answer questions on any book you claim to have read, and if you pass the quiz, you earn module points. The higher the difficulty of the book, the more points you earn. I finished Moby Dick the other week, one of the hardest, and now I’m part way through Montezuma’s Daughter, which is medium difficulty. Sergei’s no slouch either. Two of his recent reads are The Gulag Archipelago, about Russian history, and At Perihelion, a true account of the famous space battle from a few decades back. Both are tough, adult reads.


I dash to the Juve-Ed centre, hoping Rachel might be there. She isn’t. Then I remember she has her triathlon tomorrow, so I sprint to her hotel instead and check out the pool. No sign of her there either. I’m about to sulk my way back to another lonely history module when I catch a few words of that grating high-pitch Moonspeak from across the pool area.


I swivel round in time to see Rachel Foggerty drop her towel, revealing a one-piece black swimsuit and those amazingly long white legs. She adjusts her goggles and her really ugly swimming hat, then dives into the deep end while her friends, those annoying girls from the café, swan off to the bar.


Sitting on the grass, I wave to Rachel a couple of times as she approaches in the water, but I don’t know if she can see me or not, so I decide it’s too dorky for me to try it again. Instead, while pretending to watch the pre-Games ceremony on the giant screen, I watch her swim endless lengths—front crawl, back crawl, breast stroke, butterfly, and even a few completely underwater. She never seems to draw breath! But I hold my breath when she climbs out right in front of me, pulls her hat off and lets her long white hair down. It clings to her face and her shoulders, and seems even whiter—as do her arms and legs—because her swimsuit is so black.


She’s a Lunar girl all right.


Her glance brushes over me, but she pretends not to notice. Instead, she walks all the way around the pool, grabs her chequered towel, strikes a pose that shows off those legs, and tosses her hair the exact same way she always does after a swim. It feels like that’s for my benefit, but I can’t be sure. No. If I was it might make it easier to go over there and say something.

Tomorrow? I’ll definitely talk to her tomorrow.


No, idiot. She’s competing in the Games tomorrow. You might never see her again.


She starts toward her friends and my heart sinks. I can’t get near her while those she-wolves are there. Then, for no apparent reason, she changes direction and heads my way. I check behind me to make sure her grandparents aren’t there. They aren’t.


“Hey, Jim.”


“Hey, Rachel.”


“Sorry about earlier. I wanted to bash those guys’ heads together.” Motioning at her Lunar pals over at the bar. “You weren’t hurt?”


“Nah, happens all the time.” Did I just say that? “I went to Juve-Ed just now, thought you might be there.”


“Aw, you’re sweet. I had to get in this last practice sesh before tomorrow. Big day and all that.”


“Yeah, I really hope you rip it up—I mean win it. You can’t not win it, you’re amazing. Seriously. I don’t even know how to swim.” Seriously. Stop talking.


She grins, shakes her head in a half-superior, half-embarrassed way, as if to say, you’re too pathetic for words, but I like you anyway.


“Why don’t you come and watch,” she says.


“I will.” Even though I can’t—my shift tomorrow’s a double, and Birnbaum’s head would explode if I called in sick on Colonial Day. Hmm, tempting...


“Yeah? Then maybe we can get together after, go watch a movie or something. Might be our last chance.”


“Sure, we should definitely get together. But...last chance? I thought your grandparents were sticking around Cydonia for a while. You said—”


“They were. But Grandma’s job—she works in Communications, don’t know if I said—well they need her back. Something big’s going on, so they’ve recalled everyone who’s out on leave. We have to catch the levway home tomorrow night, just after midnight. The red-eye. First available tickets they had.”


“Wow, that’s...” The most depressing thing I’ve ever heard. “If I’d have known...”


“I know, right? We’ve only really spoken in Juve-Ed. Feels like we’ve had no time.” She sighs, throws a wave at her annoying friends at the bar when they call her over. “Speaking of which, I’ve gotta get going. So I’ll see you tomorrow, Jim?”


“Where do you wanna meet?”


“Um, is here all right? The stadium will be crazy all day. It might be easier to just meet up here in the Sights. Let’s say two o’clock. We can decide what to do then. Okay?”


“Okay. I’ll see you then. Kill it at the race tomorrow.”


“Done. Don’t work too hard.”


“I won’t.”


“Later, Jim.”


“Bye, Rachel.”


Watching her leave crushes me inside for several reasons. One, I’m pretty sure I’ll never see her again unless I bunk off work tomorrow, which I can’t do. Colonial Day is skimmers’ heaven, a once-a-year opportunity to clip the thousands of big spenders who roll through the Sights with their ink red-hot from splashing out.


Two, I’ve just landed a date with the girl of my dreams—a date I’ll regret missing till the day I die.


Three, she’ll be left standing here on her own, maybe always wondering why I never showed up. She could go the cafe, see if I’m there, and I could tell her I had no choice but to work. But that won’t fix anything, won’t change the fact that I lied to her just now. And it won’t stop her from leaving me forever tomorrow night.


Is it always going to be like this? Never being able to keep in touch with anyone? Moving around makes sense as a skimmer—there’s less chance you’ll get caught. But it also means you can’t get close to anyone. You have to be able to heels-up at a second’s notice and leave everything and everyone behind. I’m only thirteen, and already I can see the lonely end waiting for a career skimmer.


What if I never find another Rachel? If I asked for her home address, would she let me visit? What if Sergei and I got a job near there...and retired from skimming?


The period between lunch and dinner is typically quiet in oasis cafés. Birnbaum likes to play songs by old crooners, past centuries' relics like Sinatra, Mathis, Como, Nolfi. He’s told us all about them and seems to think the customers appreciate those sleep-inducing voices as much as he does. I swear you can lose an hour here or there just by sweeping or wiping to the rhythm of those tranquillizer songs.


Sergei’s out front, disinfecting the smell-sim menu when I get back from operating the dishwasher in the kitchen. It’s a little after six, half an hour till the big guy’s Juve-Ed hour. Birnbaum’s on the holo-phone behind the checkout with a flashing blue halo over his head and an obnoxious grin on his face. Six or seven customers chat away inside their virtual omnipod headsets, unaware of the real world around them. Which leaves the two trench coat men, who haven’t budged from their table in all this time. They’re poring over a flexi document line by line, pointing, nodding, even laughing. Their cups of coffee are empty, so I walk over to ask if they might want a re—


Crunch!


We’re all thrown across the room, tables, chairs and people, as the ceiling roof shatters and a blast of hot energy punches into the café from above. Loud explosions rip through the oasis, followed by screams and gunfire. I’m buried under a pair of mangled baby chairs and an avalanche of drinking straws that doesn’t seem to end. My ears start to ring.


I think about shouting for Sergei but the sight of five men dressed in dark grey body suits and masks abseiling down into the café leaves me speechless. They move with impossible speed and smoothness. All five are armed. The guns are mounted on their wrists and have infrared beams that slice through the flickering gloom of the café. Searching. Hunting.


They inch past me. Point their beams in my eyes. I’m so scared right now I can’t stop shaking. The lenses of their goggles, opaque, swirling with oily colours, are terrifying. I know they’re here to kill someone. It has to be me, for skimming somebody I shouldn’t have. Maybe the white collar men. Kappa Min. Sheikers.


I’m suddenly so certain these are Sheiker insurgents that it’s like coming home that morning eight years ago, finding the screen door smashed, the balcony curtains flapping in the aircon stream gone haywire, the uneven whir inside the room, the silence outside...


On the balcony.


Looking over the edge.


Seeing Dad and Nessie crumpled in ridiculous ways on the lawn below, the sprinklers soaking and re-soaking them in their swimwear. And the words written in blood on the path just ahead of them:


A Trillion +1


I don’t know what that meant, and I didn’t stay around long enough for them to get me too. But I’ve always figured—whoever did that to Dad and Nessie would someday be back for me.


Is today that day?


Is this A Trillion + 2?


During a lull in the racket, the whump of warping sheet metal to my left makes me jump. It’s so near and so unlike the crazy explosions I’ve just heard around the oasis, it sounds dumb. Hollow. But it distracts the insurgents. Their red beams slice away from me and converge on a liquigraph wall panel above the self-service drinks station. The panel normally cycles adverts for the available drinks. Now it’s kaput, blank, a metal mirror reflecting the red beams back at the gunmen.


One of them fires a pulse blast. The squeal of carking metal splits my ears. But while the insurgents focus on the damage they’ve done to the panel, I glimpse a hooded face staring down at them through a hole in the roof.


It’s the trench coat trader!


He sees me, puts a finger to his lips. No need to tell me to stay silent, but I nod just the same. He’s clever, having tricked them into thinking he was inside the wall when he was up there on the ceiling the whole time. But how did he get up there? Who is he?


All hell breaks loose when he kicks a ceiling panel down on top of the posse and then jumps after it, flattening them all. He’s nuts. Taking them on single-handedly without a weapon that I can see. But he seems to be on my side and the others aren’t, I know that much.


The first insurgent to get to his feet whips his red tracer beam toward Trench Coat Man, but doesn’t fire in time. With a lightning-quick manoeuvre, Trench Coat Man sidesteps the beam, grabs the man’s arm and snaps it back at the elbow. The muffled cry of pain instantly brings the wrath of his colleagues into the fray—the other two that weren’t knocked unconscious by the ceiling panel.


Trench Coat Man is in for it now. He’s still unarmed. Thick dust circulates on the shoulders of drunken aircon streams, making it seem like we’re outside and the wind’s about to bring a full-on red-out, Mars’s worst sandstorm. But Trench Coat Man is wily. He’s crouched behind an upended table near the man with the broken arm, waiting for his chance to strike. The red beams flicker and cross this way and that, trying to zero him through the gloom; they’re also shivering now, uncertain of where to focus. They’ve lost him.


The green, octagonal eyes of a skivvy stare at me through the darkness. The little droid has been smashed, its blunt octagonal head severed. It twitches with the final flickers of residual power, just beyond my arm’s reach.


The armed men see it and ignore it.


Then it occurs to me. He’s the one they came for—Trench Coat Man. This is all about him.


So who is he?


They circle around their colleague with the broken arm, who’s on his knees, groaning in agony. A dozen more steps and the insurgent nearest me will have a clear shot at Trench Coat Man when he sees him...if he sees him...


Sees him.


The green, octagonal eyes blink rapidly, then fade to darkness. It gives me an idea, one I can’t shake. The skivvy’s head is hard metal, its edges are sharp. To even the odds, Trench Coat Man is going to need this weapon.


It might be insanely stupid to get involved but something’s telling me this guy needs to win here, he needs to make it out of this alive, if only because he’s on my side.


If I can throw him the droid’s head, maybe he’ll have a chance.


But I can’t get his attention without making a noise. No good. What else?


A mountain of drinking straws is about the only other thing I can reach, so that’s what I’ll have to use. There’s no time for anything else. It won’t be completely silent, but it’s pretty accurate. Sergei was always the blowpipe master, though. Chrissakes, if only he was with me. I hope he’s okay.


I gently peel the paper wrapper off a straw, then bite a piece off and wet it in my mouth. That’s my messenger. Then I stuff it inside the end of the straw, take a deep breath, and blow it as hard as I can at Trench Coat Man.


I hear the pat as it strikes his cheek. He spins toward me. After checking to make sure the others aren’t looking, I give him a wave then toss him the head of the skivvy.


One of the insurgents reacts. He sees...something. But his red beam roves aimlessly between me and the upended table. He creeps this way.


I hold my breath and my side, pretending I’m injured. I curl up against the soft, loose slope of Straw Mountain and start to shake. It’s supposed to be an act but I can’t control it. The closer he gets, the clearer I remember Dad and Nessie, the ridiculous ways they were twisted where they lay on the lawn. I’m frozen inside, just thinking about that and the position I’m in and how I’ve always known those murderers would come back for me someday.


Trench Coat Man’s watching me. He’s perched on the balls of his feet, cocking the droid head over his shoulder, ready to strike. I egg him on with my eyes, begging him to lunge out and do something.


But to my astonishment, he lowers the skivvy and motions for me to stay where I am. What? He’s going to leave me to die when I did my best to help him?


The man with the broken arm struggles to his feet again. He overbalances on the rubble and careens into the upended table with a clatter. Trench Coat Man hops back and stays low, waiting, waiting, waiting...


He’s up! Like a hooded sandman he strikes, reaching my insurgent in a single bound. He uppercuts the nose of the man’s mask with the skivvy head. At the same time he grabs the wrist weapon and makes sure it’s pointed away from me. He performs a powerful spinning manoeuvre that sends the insurgent flying across the café, where he crashes into a pair of mangled stools.


Crack!


A heavy blow to the back of his neck topples Trench Coat Man. He slumps onto the rubble in front of me and doesn’t move. All I can do is gaze up, petrified, into the dark grey mask of the third insurgent, and his blinding, shivering beam that burns onto my retina like a red hot needle.


Inside the red light, I imagine something written in blood:


A Trillion + 1


The past eight years flash before my eyes in the time it takes to blink. I wait for the shot, but like everything else in my life, it doesn’t find me. Instead the beam falls, the dark mask falls, and I’m left staring at the one person I’ve always been able to count on.


“Sergei?”


“Time to get up, brother.” He hammers the insurgent twice with the skivvy’s severed head, then helps me up. “Time to go.”


“Wait! What about him?” I motion to Trench Coat Man’s fallen body. “He took them all on by himself. I think they came here to kill him.”


“What’s that to us? We don’t know him.”


“Sergei!” His grip’s as strong as a goddamn power loader’s, but I hold my ground. “We need to get him out of here. We can take him with us.”


“You’re nuts, Jim. Where can we take him?”


“To our hotel.”


“Yeah? So how the hell do we—” His face bunches into that big Russian scowl I know so well. It means nothing will stand in his way once his mind’s made up. 


“All right, but stay close, da?”


I snatch his skivvy and use it to crown the man with the broken arm. Now there’s no one who can follow us, no one who can tell which way we escaped. “Da.”


I hold onto the skivvy while Sergei heaves Trench Coat Man up onto his huge shoulders. It takes every ounce of Soviet muscle, but he manages to carry him over the rubble to the kitchen. As soon as he makes a right turn into the utility room, I know what he has in mind for our escape route.


And it isn’t going to be pleasant.