dallas gawlick

Letters from Abroad

A series of letters home, from an intrepid writer traveling the solar system.

Letter 2 Page 4

“War?” I said, aghast. “There hasn’t been war for decades!”

“War.” Jim looked at his hands, where the rope had chafed his wrists raw. “At the start it was a good cause, a just one. The Resistance wanted fairness. We all did.

“But Rigel came along, and twisted our goals into something bitter. Now the fighters are hard and they take orders to their graves, but the cause is sick. Mars is sick. That’s why I left. I hoped I could find something out in the wastes, anonymous. I guess I got unlucky.”

I raised a hand to his shoulder, and mumbled some kind of condolence. He shook it off.

“I got unlucky. And now they’ll kill us.” He looked up at me, and I saw real fear in his gaze. “I’m sorry,” he said, and I sat back.

I could not believe it. In a few short hours my life had been reduced to a bit of rope, a broken man, and a small, stale room. “No,” I said, “why would they kill us? You haven’t said anything. You just wanted to leave, you just wanted your own life! And me—I’m nothing to them, just a visitor. What reason do they have?”

“Rigel will make an example out of us,” Jim said. “He needs to show what happens to people who think they can get away.”

He took a breath. “He needs to show the Resistance holds nothing back.”

“No,” I whispered, but it was half-hearted, and not to be.

The night passed slowly, as nights usually do. The window at the top of the room was dim and gray and became darker as the hours ticked by. When it was black, if I strained my neck and looked at the right angle, I could barely see a few pin pricks of light hanging in the sky.

“What are you doing?”

“You can see the stars, if you look the right way,” I said, and motioned Jim over.

He moved slowly, clutching his chest, but without complaint. He sat next to me, carful to not jostle his injuries.

“See?” I said, pointing, and he craned his neck like I had done.

“Is that—”

“I think it’s Earth.”

We sat and watched the speck of light travel through the night. The world was quiet; the Resistance had evidently gone to sleep and the only noise was the occasional whistle of wind about a cable.

I felt Jim’s hand touch mine on the bare floor of the cell.

“Sorry,” he said, looking quickly to me and away. I shrugged.

We fell asleep eventually. The night passed quicker then, and the morning lanced through the small window into my eyes without remorse. I blinked it away and sat up, rubbing my arms.

I nudged Jim awake, and he made similar motions to mine. The night air was cool in the wastes.

The cell door opened roughly, banging on the wall beside it, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Brigette stood there, silhouetted in the morning glare, and I squinted at the sudden brightness.

“Good morning,” she said, and she smiled a toothy, evil grin. The woman tossed nutrient bars at us, as well as a water bottle, and slammed the door shut.

I looked at Jim. He made a face, but crawled to the food all the same.

I bit into the brick and tasted dust. I ate it slowly, hating every bite, and Jim fared little better. We shared the water equally, and I looked around for somewhere to relieve myself.

I saw nothing, and despaired.

“What is it?” Jim asked, and I explained. I tried to use euphemisms, to withdraw from embarrassment, but I could not avoid it.

“I need to pee.”

“I don’t think they’ll give us a bathroom,” Jim said, “but I won’t watch.” He was matter-of-fact about it, and I appreciated that.

We took turns using the corner.

The door opened again, and this time Brigette hustled us out of our prison. She wrinkled her nose at the smell. I am not sure what she expected to find.

We stretched in the open air, happy to be in the Sun again. I forgot, for a moment, my impending doom.

Then I saw Rigel.

He strode over with purpose, feet falling heavily. His face was taut: not angry, but serious. The birth mark on his neck was purple, like an old blood stain that hadn’t quite been cleaned. I would not have been surprised if that was what it turned out to be.

He wore a darker variant of the standard Resistance uniform: shadowed blacks and browns that blended into the darkness between buildings. His boots were spotless, and I wondered how people living out in the wastes could possibly keep their clothes so clean.

“Good morning,” he said, voice strangely cheerful for a man who had jailed us through the night.

I nodded, and Jim avoided eye contact.

“Sleep well?”

“No,” I said, but he did not seem to hear me. His vague platitudes were lost on us; he had beaten Jim and thrown us both in a cold and dark cell. I was frustrated at the persona he insisted on wearing.

“Fair enough,” he said, “I treated you roughly. I apologise.” He bowed. “Today I shall treat you with courtesy.”

I looked at Jim, but his eyes were on the ground. I remembered what he said only hours before. I did not know how to brooch the subject; I let the unspoken words hang in the air with the morning haze.

“If you’ll follow me,” Rigel said, “I will give you a tour of our small encampment.” He raised his arm to us, and we had no choice but to follow. Brigette brought up the rear, huge and hulking, steps thudding into the dirt, and I could not help but wonder when Rigel’s mood might change again.

“Your unfortunate lodgings for the night—again I apologize, I was in one of my moods—were the brig. We keep insubordinates there; thankfully we have very few.”

I glanced at Jim. He made a face that seemed to say ‘We have very few alive’.

Rigel continued. “The large building is the command centre. It is where I have my seat, though that is figurative. We organize our missions and goals about a table, where every voice is heard.”

But you are still King, I thought; the words did not escape my lips. Rigel was strange, prone to fits of violence, apparently, and I did not want to push him into another.

“Over here,” he said, leading us around the main building, “are the domiciles. These are where the men and women loyal to the plight of Mars make their home.”

It looked much the same as MacKenzie’s camp: light, alloyed huts crowded one another, with barrels and crates around them for equipment. It was these Rigel led us to next.

He opened a crate, and took out a sphere the size of his fist.

“This,” he said, hefting the object, “is a concussive-EMP shell. Quite effective at neutralizing equipment, with little damage.”

He put it back gingerly. I remembered the flash and the explosion inside the rover. It was true: the rover had seen little damage after the impact.

“And this,” he said, as if introducing his child, “is a laz-gun.” In his hand he indeed held a gun, but it was small and unassuming. It was the same gray metal, though it had a red stripe painted on the side. It was rectangular, with a plate trigger and a slot for a charge pack. It was small, but I had heard the damage they could do. They were not used anymore: wars were not fought anymore.

“How did you—” I spoke before I could catch myself, the need for information overpowering. Rigel’s face snapped up, and I heard the crunch of Brigette’s boots, but I saw his hand motion for her to relax.

“Yes?”

“How did you get all this?”

The boxes were not filled with weaponry; indeed they were rather bereft. Other equipment was packed inside: tools and objects I did not recognize. But laz-guns are of the highest illegality, and so the procurement held some interest for me.

“Through certain avenues, anything is possible.” He put the weapon back into the crate. “And only through certain avenues,” he said, looking upon his hoard, “are some things possible.”

He sealed the box and turned toward us. “You may be wondering why I’m telling you all this,” he said. “Especially telling a deserter,” and he took a step closer, “and a journalist.”

“How did you—”

“Oh, we know all about you, Fontanne,” he said, and brushed between us. We had no choice but to follow.