I saw Rigel’s boots step down from the craft, followed by Brigette. The rest stayed in the rover. They did not expect to stay long.
As I breathed, particles of sand fluttered about my mouth. The hum of Hellas throbbed in my ears, in time with my blood, and I felt my heart rate increase. I watched the legs of the people ahead of me, but behind them, under the huge vehicle, I saw something strange.
A drip, a small bit of liquid, fell out of the front of the machine. And again. The same drip I had seen what seemed like weeks before.
But Rigel’s voice tore my attention away.
“Well,” Rigel said, speaking to Jim for the first time in hours.
Jim said nothing. He held his wrists out, and Rigel removed the bonds with a short knife. Jim felt the skin that was rubbed raw, flexing it. No one came to release me, but then I assumed Jim would once we were left.
“I thought more of you,” Rigel said, slowly. “I thought you would help me establish something great. You could have ruled,” he said, and my mind began to spin.
“Not with you,” Jim said, “not after Arthur.”
Rigel’s eyes narrowed, and he pushed Jim back a step. “Arthur?” he said, “Arthur? You think that’s what this is about?”
And Rigel’s eyes became wild, filled with hate, and I knew what would happen.
“Arthur!” he yelled, and threw a punch at Jim. Jim stepped neatly back, circling, and Rigel balled his fists.
“You wanted to betray me! You wanted peace, you wanted weakness, you wanted to submit!” He was spitting with rage, now, hardly able to strike my friend.
Friend? I realized I knew nothing of Jim, nothing at all, and this development proved there was far more beneath the surface than I could have possibly imagined. Still, I considered him my friend.
“And you,” Jim said, “you wanted everything.”
He dodged another punch, and Rigel stood with a heaving chest, the birthmark a dark, angry smear across his face and neck.
“Brigette,” he hissed, and the woman took an object from a holster and tossed it to him.
He looked at the device in his hand, flipped a switch, and I saw a light begin to glow. It was a laz-gun, and he leveled it at Jim.
“I should kill you now,” he said, “I should have killed you long ago.”
“Maybe,” Jim said, and stood tall. He, finally, was unafraid. He was in power here, not Rigel, not Brigette.
Rigel motioned with the gun, emphasizing his voice. “I should have made you bleed,” he said, “and I will. This farce, this message, it means nothing. This,” and he hefted the weapon, “this is power.”
And he pointed the laz-gun at Jim’s chest. I could see Jim’s eyes close, readying himself—
And the driver’s head appeared in the rover’s hatch. He leaned out, and called to Rigel.
“There’s something wrong. The drive shaft, it’s—”
And curiously, the front of the craft seemed to glow. It was humming, the mains power still on, and the humming grew into a whine, into a scream, and I saw a trail of plasma reach down out of the front of the rover.
The plasma sparked, widened, and the liquid below the craft began to burn. I saw Rigel’s face lit by the flames, and Jim leapt to take the weapon from his hands.
He was too slow.
The craft exploded. The front of it erupted in a ball of flame. It was lifted into the air, turned over, and fell back with a crash that shook the ground. I saw Brigette hurled to a prone position, Rigel and Jim throne apart. I shrank from the blast, and felt something white-hot slice into my back.
The pain was instant, violent, and I shuddered. A cloud of dust had risen about us, and I looked for Jim in the haze.
He was lying in the dirt, trying to rise, and I crawled over to him. Together we stood, and he pulled at the bonds on my wrists. We heard an incoherent yell from the dust cloud. A dark shape started forward, and a beam of light split the air between our bodies.
“Go,” Jim said, and shook me by my shoulders. “Go!” We turned and ran, away from the fire, away from Rigel, and laz-beams lit the air about our heads. We sprinted through the dust, through the haze, and I heard Rigel running after us.
Jim cried out and stumbled to a knee. I pulled him up and forced him to keep running. We had only one place to go, one place where we could not be followed.
I felt a beam roast the flesh at my shoulder. The wound smoked and I smelled burnt flesh.
My breath was raw in my throat. I realized the clouds were not so much dust from the wasteland, but pollution destined for the scrubbers in Hellas. Tears stung my eyes, and I stumbled forward half-blind and wheezing.
The beams were fewer now, and wider apart. Rigel was losing us.
I gave a yelp as my foot touched air rather than solid ground. I pitched forward, clawing at Jim’s arm for stability, and we fell over a cliff.
I felt weightless for a moment as we fell, and I wondered if I had dreamt all of this, if I were still in the liner from the Moon, if none of the events could possibly be real.
Then we hit the side of the cliff and rolled down a steep slope, and my thoughts were shattered.
I was coughing, spitting, and crying as we rolled to a stop. We were covered in dirt and the light was dim inside the clouds of Hellas. I could hardly breathe; the air seemed to scrape at my lungs like fingernails on open skin. Jim and I both were bruised and battered from the fall and the explosion.
Flashes of light gave his face a blue pallor as semi-artificial lightning sparked above us. I looked into his face, and I saw a smile slowly crawl across his lips.
He laughed, softly at first, but then in great, shaking whoops of joy. I sat back, horrified, but the laughter spread and we lay there together, cackling in mirth, in safety, in freedom.
As the laughter died, Jim began to cough. The sound was rasping at first, but progressed into a wet, throaty cough and when he moved his hand from his mouth I saw blood.
I crouched at his side. “Jim,” I said, and he waved me back. He tried to stand, to dust himself off, but his leg buckled beneath him and he fell back. “Jim,” I said again, and I saw that his calf had been torn by a laz-beam. The flesh was burnt black and red, and I recoiled from the stench.
“It’s nothing,” he said, then coughed again and crouched over his chest, clutching his arms together.
I took his hand and moved it, and there, along the side of his ribcage, was a gaping hole, charred and cracked and bleeding. Rigel had hit him, somehow, and hit him bad.
“Jim,” I said again, this time a whisper. He looked down at the wound, and his face crumpled.
“Oh,” he said, and laid back onto the ground. “Oh.”
“It—it’s okay, we can—”
“I’m hit,” he said, the words eking from his mouth and pooling between us. “Oh,” he said, wincing, “oh.”
I clutched his hand, and I felt more tears roll down my cheeks. These were not from the smoke in the air.
Lightning flashed above us, thunder rumbled, and Jim was lit for a second.
“Kelly,” I said, “my name is Kelly.”
I did not want to face it, but it was happening, and I could not turn away.
I felt his fingers clamp tight around mine.
He looked into my eyes, and I bent my head to his. “Kelly,” he said, and the air rattled from his throat.
I felt his fingers weaken, then give up, and still I held his hand.
I cried, then, and pounded a fist into the ground, and my thoughts were messy and fractured.
I remember coming slowly aware of my injuries, of the pain that wracked my body, and I remember the trudge of footsteps. I crouched over Jim, looking to protect him, and I saw a bloated figure in a dark mask and gray suit come toward me.
We shared no words; I could not hear them through their mask and the sky above us was loud with machines and thunder.
The figure took my arm and helped me stand. It led me away, down the slope, and I could not bring myself to look back. We could not bring Jim. I was weak and the figure had to help me walk.
My knees were shaking, and gave out more than once, but eventually I was put into a clean bed in a bright room. I remained there for some time, and I used that time to think, to heal, and to write.
My saviour was kind to me, but that is another story.
The next time I write, I hope to be off this miserable planet and falling home to you.