“We know all about you,” Rigel said, and we followed him through the dirt. His words were serpentine, and I shivered to hear them. “Your luggage was in the rover, remember?”
My blood went cold. All my things, all my worldly possessions, at least on this planet, gone to the Resistance’s dirty hands?
“You have no right—”
“And that,” Rigel whirled to face us, “is what the Colonists want us to think.” I heard Brigette grunt approval behind me.
“We have every right,” he said, and continued toward the camp’s main building. “Your possessions have been confiscated as articles of desertion, or as articles of conspiracy to desert. And we know exactly who you are.”
My step faltered, but I kept on, fearful of the large woman behind me. As we came around the corner of Rigel’s command building, I saw the rover. Its wheels gleamed, its doors were buffed, and the windows cleared of dust. There was already a red stripe painted on its side, bright against the wasteland. My and Jim’s other abductors were standing around it, taking readings, checking fuel levels, and the like.
Rigel put a hand on the machine, caressing the bare metal. “I have a fondness for technology,” he said, gazing at the rover. “I know the damage it can do.”
He pulled a small glass square out of his pocket. It had a scratch on the upper middle of the screen, a small puncture from a bad fall.
“That’s—” and I lunged forward, but he yanked it out of my reach as Brigette grabbed hold of my collar and hurled me back.
“Yours?” Rigel said, looking at the pocket tablet. “And what would you do with it?”
My mouth opened, but I could think of nothing.
“You’d use it to tell all who would listen of our plans, of our secrets. Of our location.” He held it clumsily, and my muscles were rigid. The machine was my lifeblood. It had been with me for years, and though the data was stored externally the physicality of it held much sentimental value. It was on that machine I wrote my first letter to you.
“I don’t even know where we are,” I said, and that was true. I had been unconscious for most of the trip out, and if I had to guess I could draw a circle five hundred kilometers wide about Galle as an answer. But I suppose that was enough.
“I do not know whether you tell the truth, Fontanne,” he said, his voice now icy smooth, “and I do not care. There is one way to be sure, however.”
He tossed the tablet on the ground, and I jumped on it—but Brigette pulled me back again, raking the breath from my throat.
“Brigette,” Rigel called, and she shoved me aside to walk to the precious object now lying on the rocks at our feet.
She looked at me, and she winked, and she rammed her heel into the tablet. It shattered.
I gaped. I’m sure some sound came out of my mouth, but it was meaningless. In the face of rampant paranoia and near-surface anger, I was powerless. My fists clenched and unclenched at my sides.
Rigel shrugged. “That’s not all,” he said. He reached up and opened the hatch into the rover. The entry stairs folded out neatly onto the ground. “Get in.”
“What?” I said, finding my words. Jim’s head sunk next to me. “Why?”
“Get in,” Rigel said again, and this time his tone was much less affable.
I followed Jim into the rover. What choice did we have? I did not want to end up like my tablet in the dirt, so I went into the mouth of the machine. My heart thumped with my feet on the steps, and my stomach felt heavy.
Jim and I sat in the back, and he looked at me. There was a sadness in his eyes: quiet and gray, and full of remorse. His eyes said I’m sorry, and I could only shake my head. I had not yet processed the events transpiring before me; they moved too quickly.
Rigel got in after his crew. The same man drove, while Brigette sat and stared out the window, unmoving. The man with close-set eyes was not with us.
Rigel faced a window, and the craft hummed to life and lurched on its way. The giant wheels were slow to pick up speed, but nearly unstoppable once they did. Wherever we were going, it had an air of finality.
I watched the camp dwindle behind us. The buildings looked like playthings as we crested a rise, then were gone. Only the open wasteland stretched out before us. It looked bleak, then, with the Sun high and casting a pale light and the rocks looking drab and heavy against one another. It depressed my spirits, and I longed to open the door and leap from the rover. To go where, and with what equipment, I did not know, nor care. I wanted only to escape my peril. My muscles felt taut, and I made an effort to relax them.
“Mars,” Rigel said, wistfully. “I never get tired of her.” He seemed to be talking to no one in particular, rather eyeing the hills with a certain rapture. “Do you, Jim?” he asked, and Jim turned to the glass-substitute.
He looked out for a long time. The distance stretched on, and Jim finally mumbled a “No.”
“You will,” Rigel said, smiling to himself.
I studied Rigel’s face, when he wasn’t looking in my direction, and was sickened by what I saw.
It was lined and blotched, the dark mark on his neck creeping like a hand across his flesh. His eyes were cold and gray and seemed to hold no emotion, not when he laughed, not when he shouted. He seemed a dead man, only his body had not caught up with his soul. His hands fiddled with each other in his lap. He was restless, wanting to finish whatever we were out here to do.
But the rover did not stop. We kept rolling along, and I began to cramp. I stretched out my legs, massaging them, and wondered why everything in my life had pointed me to this dreary place, this dreary farce of a monarchy.
I could not talk to Jim. Not while Rigel was listening, not while we were encased in that metal beast awaiting whatever punishment the so-called King had in mind. Jim seemed to have an idea, or at least was at peace with his fate, but I could not ask. Not without appearing weak or craven, and that I would not do. Not yet, at least, not while Rigel might still hold some respect for me.
I turned to the King. “How did you get into my tablet?” I asked, and was rewarded with a surprised expression.
“We have our ways,” he said, trying to brush off my question with mystery.
“It was encrypted,” I said, “geared to my bio-imprint. How did you get in?” I marvelled at my unwavering voice.
“Some of us are skilled with technology,” he said, though I could tell he had no idea how one of his soldiers broke the code. “It is no barrier.”
“So you know who I work for?”
“And you don’t think they’ll look for me?” In truth, Ridgelow had given me incredible leeway on this assignment; I doubted he would miss me for several weeks. But it was the only ploy I could think of.
“I assume they will,” Rigel said, brows knitting together, “but Mars is a big place.”
“It is,” I said, “but the sat-link on my tablet narrows it down a bit, doesn’t it?”
Rigel brought a hand to his chin, and sat looking out the window. The rover rumbled across the uneven ground, and I thought I had won a point. I had not.
He spoke without looking at me, disinterested again. “We can move camp,” he said, “we’ve done it before.
“And you won’t be found.” He gestured vaguely at the wasteland. “Not out here.”
Those were the last words spoken for several hours. Jim grew steadily more morose, not even catching my eye, and I had only to wonder what was to become of us. It seemed uncalled for, irrational, but then most things do in the moment. Looking back I see now that Rigel had to make an example of us: desertion could not be tolerated or he would appear weak. And a man who rules through fear cannot appear weak, or he risks debasing himself and his cause.
No, regardless of who Rigel was, his station required a certain decorum. And he handled that decorum with violent intent. He handled us with violent intent.
And, as I waited, sitting in the back of that steel tomb, I thought of you.