This is a story from my sci-fi setting. It's set some centuries into the future, where the colonisation effort of the solar system Nyx went horribly wrong. People struggle to survive, massive community-vehicles roam the deserts and starving cities fall under the yoke of fascists. The series follows a bunch of different characters. This story was previously posted on my Prose page.
Mac I.The sun descended, lazily gliding towards the westward mountains. Bright yellow dunes and a sapphire blue sky slowly turned to a velvety red. Darkness welled above, while radiant Nyx cast a passing twilight.
Mac stared from the aft gun post. A long, sleek heavy machine gun loomed over him, its barrel hanging over the edge of the kevlar-covered parapet. Him and two other monteros were preparing for an eight-hour watch. Down below, a lazy trail of sand clouds rose from massive freighter wheels. The rolling monstrosities of rubber big enough to crush ten men standing abreast. The slopes in the wheels were deep, shaped to dig deep into the loose sand. The tension of grinding sand groaned all the way up to the gun post.
Nyx drew closer to the mountains. Mac drew in his breath as vapors flushed into his mouth, down to his lungs - Chamomile. Herb-like flavor fired over his entire nostrils and tongue. He glanced down at his brass-and-steel pipe. Nights on Moros were cold - a strange contrast to the deathly heat during the day. Even as the golden-yellow eye was about to pass behind the mountains, the metal surfaces around him were hot to the touch. Mac was careful not to let naked skin touch any metallic frame - he had enough blisters on his back and arms as it was.
“Gun checks out,” Abon said, half covered in gun-oil, running his hand through his curly black hair without thinking. He had stripped half-way off his battle dress and tied a frock on. Compared to Mac’s half-cream half-red skin, Abon had a deeper chestnut complexion - much more suited for the climate.
Mac exhaled a chamomile plume of vapor. Dune crests passed by. “Well done, Abon,” Mac replied. “Get suited up. You too, Lasco.” To which the other montero nodded. Compared to Abon, Lasco was wiry, almost spider-like in his manners. He would sit on ledges or perches, his black and brown eyes gazing for prey. Just thinking of him made Mac’s skin crawl and wrinkle.
Mac shrugged and sucked in a new stream of chamomile vapor, milky white trails emanating from his nostrils. Mac pictured Lasco in his mind and felt another wave of cold. He tapped the steel railing next to him. He, Lasco and Abon had served on the Issola’s Heart for about four years, the very freight-rover he stood on. Wheat years, Mac thought without really remembering who had said the phrase.
Before Issola, Mac had been a guard on another freighter called Booley, which was at some point sold off in a bankruptcy suit. Before that he was breaking his back in the mushroom vat-yards of Shenzen Arcology. Rows of fungiculture tanks, damp catwalks and bio-reactors. Mac exhaled, letting curly waves of vapor unravel like a painting, subject only to the traverse wind of twilight breeze. He closed his eyes and for a moment, sulphur and smoke replaced the mild flavor Chamomile. He saw skyframes warping under the fires in the Shìchǎng district.
He opened his eyes again. Nyx was finally just a sliver of light on the crest of the mountain. He shut of his pipe. Smoking did not seem so appealing anymore. He slipped it into one of the many pockets on his vest and took a step back. Mac imagined the long wait, the many hours of staring into IR-scopes, walking back and forth on the hard steel. Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten up this evening, Mac thought.
“Can you believe it?” Abon said suddenly. “Forecast says we’re going to have fog tonight.”
Mac shrugged. “It’s seasonal. It’s normal around these parts.”
The North-West Reach of Spice Basin was relatively moderate in terms of climate. Plenty of aquifers, seasonal waters and plains of cacti. Issola’s Heart had only recently taken a turn for the North-West Reach. Apparently, the captain, an ageing Ramio Jinshui had secured a contract for a recently established consortium. All that meant for Mac was at least another year of stable pay. Maybe even two years. Wheat years, Mac thought again. A concern grew suddenly in the back of his mind. Maybe the best days have already passed.
Red faded into violet and black. Night was coming.
The dunes looked verdant through IR-lenses. Two hours had passed. Mac pulled back from the scope and looked down at Abon, whom had his face fixed in another scope. He worked open a pouch-flap and produced his pipe. One push on the trigger and only a beat later it began to puff out creamy-white tendrils.
“Takin’ five, Abon,” Mac said. “Lasco, you’re up.”
“Aye,” Lasco said and climbed down from the spotter’s perch with the grace of an eight-legged predator. “All quiet down bow.” As a matter of redundancy, the third montero would usually keep tabs on another vehicle sector.
Mac stepped down from the gunner seat and walked to the edge of the nest. Took a drag from the pipe and walked up on the catwalk that led to the hub. As he exhaled, something flashed in the corner of his eye. No, barrel flashes. He was right. Loud, really loud clangs shrieked from the bow of the Issola. The very catwalk whipped like an elastic band and hurled Mac off his feet. The next thing he saw was the grid metal of the catwalk coming straight at him.
“Incom-” a shot of pain wracked Mac. His right leg felt awfully wrong, numbed and stinging all at once. Like some invisible maw had dug its teeth right into his ankle. Mac glanced at his leg, which now had a new angle. Moving made his leg flair with bright pain. He tried to move and immediately regretted it. A thunderclap cracked across the sky, followed by two bright pinging sounds. Issola was hit again. A secondary explosion rumbled and shook the entire hull. Hydrogen tanks were hit, Mac managed to think.
“Mac!” Abon shouted over the com-piece. “We got bogies! I can’t see ‘em.”
“Starboard, two a clock!” Mac grunted while dragging his crippled body along the catwalk. Only a heartbeat later, the machine gun began a staccato of barks. Hopefully they see it, Mac thought while another surge of pain rippled through his leg and chest. Hopeless, Mac thought about himself and reached forward another bound. Following Abon’s gun, another gun post began blasting out rounds.
Another move, Mac thought and slung his left arm forward. Pulling his weight sent sparks and stings of pain along the core of his broken leg. Klaxons had begun to blare, howling like a tortured bull. Issola is bleeding, Mac thought. Lights were coming from the hull where they definitely should not. Come on. Mac lunged forward with his right arm and grasped the metal grid.
Lasco shouted something, moving bee-line toward Mac. Even in this situation, Lasco’s pace was uncanny. He slung his arm under Mac and hauled him up in a smooth move. Jiu jitsu, Mac remembered. Within a couple of heartbeats they were in the gun post. Abon was in the seat, the hawk-like gun veering bow-side. Its muzzle flashed constantly, a beacon of death. Hot shells were piling up in the bottom of the post, spilling below the grid-floor.
Lasco eased Mac down onto a seat and strapped him in, then dashed for the second seat on the gun-frame. A third ping rang from somewhere bow-side. Then suddenly, Mac saw it. Matte surfaces slid into view, lit up by the yellow flames. It’s a damned stealth rover, Mac thought. A vehicle, about the same height as Issola, moving like a shark. A black, armored shark. Mac felt a deep pit open in his belly. Ghostly silent, a section slid open on the rover. A glassy red eye appeared where the section disappeared. Not good, Mac thought as he recognized the focus-lens of a laser. He closed his eyes and prayed - there was nothing else to do. Wheat years.
A white blast sent sparks of metal flying everywhere. Lasco fell down like a rag doll and lay down in a really uncomfortable position. Abon got up from the gun post seat and took two steps before the whole post suddenly shifted. Issola came into view where she definitely should not. Lengths of cat walk and torn steel beams was all that held the gun post to the wounded rear wagon. The metal body of the wagon had a orange-glowing gash from aft to junction, smoke pouring from its insides. All Mac could hear white a bright ringing sound.
The stealth rover stalked behind the Issola at a distance. He could see the gun turrets coming about. They were subtle features on the sleek, dagger-like hull. If they had not rotated, Mac would not have seen them. The muzzles flashed and white lines streaked from them into the tortured hull of the Issola. Another blast went off.
Finally the gun post gave in and tore free from the Issola, plunging to the sandy ground below. He felt the seat slam against his body, his limbs and head shaking with the forces of the crash. Fine sand kicked up everywhere, filling Mac’s field of view with a milky brown fog. Orange and white lights flickered in the distance. Mac did not want anything anymore and closed his eyes.
Mac strained, trying to open his eyes. Fine sand had settled in his eyes and with a swipe of his hand, the caked sand came loose. Mac lay face down in sand, which was mottled with drying blood. He tried to move, but felt the straps of the seat dig into his shoulders and ribs. His right leg assaulted his mind with numbness and small needles of pain.
“Mac,” he heard Abon say. “Mi amigo, you’re alive.”
Mac opened his mouth to speak, but not a single word passed his dry lips. He moved his hands to the straps and undid them, fell flat on the powdery sand and turned about. Nyx’ light drew crisp shadows across the sand. Wreckage from the gun post jutted out from the sand as if they had been there for hundreds of years. Cradled against a broken parapet plate lay Abon, clasping a patch of crimson on his abdomen.
“This ain’t good,” Abon said.
Mac grunted and went for his chest-pouch, undid the flap and picked up his pipe. He put it to his lips and sucked in, but nothing happened. He held it up before his eyes and noticed a piece of shrapnel protruded from its vapor-chamber. Wheat years, Mac thought and chuckled desperately. He threw away the pipe and tried to get up. His leg complained and kindly reminded him how injured he was. Sand fell from the vest, revealing a spray of shrapnel that had dug into his vest.
“What is our situation?” Mac grunted as soon as he managed to moisten his throat. “Lasco?”
“Lasco’s gone,” Abon replied. “I think he went down when the gun post broke.”
Mac looked around, half-way gesturing at the remains of the gun post around them. Abon shook his head.
“Nah, this is only a few pieces of the gun post. He fell when the gun tore free.”
“Those cannons hit us hard, amigo,” Abon said. “We were the lucky ones,” he said and pointed in a direction behind Mac.
Mac turned around to see a faint column of smoke rising from the carcass of Issola. It lay half-buried in a dune, wagon-sections splayed out and warped by explosions. Mac guessed the wreckage was about two kilometers away.
“She kept going,” Mac said to no one in particular.
“She was a tough horse,” Abon lamented.
“Enough bullshit,” Mac said. “I’ll patch you up, then check out the wreck. Maybe there’s supplies. Water.”
Abon nodded. The shrapnel had done a number on his kit. The med-pack was damaged, but he produced a anti-bacterial gel and sealing foams. Mac knew next to nothing about surgery, but he could at least provide some first aid. He worked for a few minutes, tracing the wound and scraping away blood-caked sand. The sealing-foam covered the wound and started to harden almost immediately. Judging by experience, Abon had about two to ten hours, depending on how bad the wound was. Not enough, Mac thought. Rescue can take days.
He had been part of a rescue op back in ’43. By the time they reached the disaster-site, it had become a salvage mission instead. The crew of the Davica had run out of water and died of thirst. He still remembered. Two of the crewmen had desperately tried to strain some water from a towelette pack. One of them had one in his mouth. More often than not, a stranded rover could be stuck for days and sometimes weeks in the sands.
Abon sighed. “Go check out the wreck,” he whispered.
Mac nodded. He stripped down his seat with his knife and made a make-shift splint for his leg. He worked fast, his leg sending a wave of numbing pain each time he touched it wrong. Finally he clasped two plates against it and tied the strap around. Bright, starry pain shot up to the back of his neck. Mac grunted once and got up on his good leg.
“Abon,” Mac said. Abon looked back at him. “I think we’re done for.”
Abon nodded. “I’d offer you to sit down and die with grace, but I know you.”
“Just like the vat yards,” Mac said.
“Just like the vat yards” Abon repeated, invoking images in the back of Mac’s mind. Fires, smoke and mushroom vats coming down upon an angry mob. Before his mind could begin to delve in those memories, he snapped to and turned about. Two kilometers on one leg could get interesting.
Nyx was one third of its way over the sky. To the west were the Barrier mountains, which were barely visible in the horizon. Around him were white and beige dunes, marred only by blackened wreckage and debris of the Issola’s Heart. A softened, barely visible track from the freighter’s tires was still visible. Moros only bred hard folk. His father would speak of the wheat years sometimes. Back when the Colonial Republic was still a thing. His father had been a child when the state had fallen, eaten up by greedy tribes and the constant pressures of survival. In those days, his father would recount, they could eat wheat bread, drink as much water as they pleased and even shower.
But the Colonial Republic had fallen, its orange, green and blue flag reduced to embers and ash. Some spoke of it as the end of mankind on Moros. However, that end had not come around as long as Mac had been around. Arcologies were still being built, aquifers were discovered and outposts popped up each year. Since Mac begun working as a Montero, the number of rovers working the trade routes had doubled. Even dirigibles had become a thing now. Propaganda on the internet even claimed that some institution was working on reactivating Colony One and regain contact with Earth. Mac had his doubts. People had been on Moros for seven hundred years and in all that time, not a single word had come from Earth.
Issola was silent. The only thing Mac could even hear was his own grunting and the breeze playing over the dunes. He bit into the pain. He had almost made it to the wreck. From the distance, the gun post looked like a small geometric contrast. A jagged frame of metal sticking up from flowing dunes.
“How’s the view?” Abon asked over the radio.
“You won’t believe it,” Mac gasped. His throat felt like it was about to crack. Water, Mac thought. “There’s sand everywhere and a sun!”
“Really funny,” Abon coughed.
It took about an hour to inspect the wreckage. It seemed like the black rover had stopped nearby at some point. Near the bow of the Issola he found a row of bodies. Crewmen of the Issola, lined up and shot in the head. Much of the vehicle had burned out. Storage containers had melted like margarine in the sun, interior compartments had been blasted and the resulting fuel fire had reduced the bulky freighter to oversized scrap. Thankfully, one of the EVA bays was somewhat intact.
Without power, Mac had to manually open the door with an emergency pump. He climbed in and went through the gear lockers. Med packs, water canisters, desert gear, all within reach. He was relieved, laughing as he gathered supplies. He picked up a water canister and undid the cap and desperately drank half of it in one go.
“Abon, I found supplies,” Mac said. No response. He waited for a while. “Abon, do you hear me?”
I have to hurry, Mac thought. He moved fast, picking up a second explorer’s pack and as many water canisters as he could carry with his left arm. Walking out of the EVA bay felt a lot worse than entering it. All the supplies weighed on his broken foot. He just made steps with his left leg, almost jumping forward, while his broken foot merely dragged after him. Returning to the broken gun post felt like an eternity. By the time he reached the wreckage, his broken leg pulsated and pressed its numb feeling up to his hip.
Abon must have fallen asleep. Mac checked on him and found that his pulse was relatively strong and his chest rose and fell with gentle breaths. Mac tapped Abon’s forehead while he undid a water canister. Abon’s eyes opened and when they saw Mac, he smiled gently but did not say anything.
“Water, amigo, you gotta drink” Mac said and held up the canister to Abon’s lips. Abon took a good sip, but struggled to move his body. Mac could tell by the contractions in his face, the way his throat tightened that he was biting in pain. The abdominal muscles were used for a lot of actions, apparently. After a few more sips, Abon held up his hand to signal stop. Mac set aside the canister and looked at Abon. He didn’t have to say anything. Abon’s brown eyes were telling stories by themselves.
“Remember Sana?” Abon asked with the hoarsest voice Mac had ever heard. Sana, Mac thought, remembering a lithe, young, no-bullshit woman from Shenzen Arcology. She was the overseer’s daughter, sometimes messing around in the vat yard, under the pretense to applying her engineer studies to the family business. Really, it was all about visiting Abon when she could.
“I do,” Mac said.
“I wonder what happened to her,” Abon pondered. “Maybe I should check up on her.”
It was impossible, of course. Both him and Mac were wanted there. And the other thing. Mac remembered when the fire had started. Sana had been cornered by angry protesters. It didn’t matter that she had brought them food and water throughout the years, since she was eleven. That night, everyone was angry and she was a symbol of the overseer. Mac felt the old shame rise. He had stood by. He could have done something.
“I might go look her up,” Abon said. Mac was confused.
“You think she’d put up with someone like you?” Mac asked. “Monteros like us aren’t exactly strapped with creds.”
Abon laughed, intermingled with slight coughs. For this moment, nobody was injured, stranded or dying. “I have savage charm, though,” Abon insisted. “And I got soul.”
Mac looked at Abon’s feet. The boots covering them were covered with small metallic splinters. “You might need a new sole,” Mac said, which puzzled Abon for a moment. He too looked at his boots.
“You bastard,” Abon cursed. “Sana isn’t some superficial girl. She cares not for creds.”
“Same for every girl that has creds overflowing her account,” Mac chuckled. “She’s the type of girl that showers and leaves glasses half full. What’d you do to win her love? Poems? Read some Shakespeare and bring her caramels?”
“My, Mac, those are some very good tips there,” Abon laughed again, causing his wound to seep slightly. “If I wanted to look like a moron, that is. Sana was a girl of adventure. I’d offer her a spot on a rover. Show her the Kolhali Massifs, race on the Riyaha flats, barbecue wild goat by Lake Arina.”
It sounded good to Mac. “Such a romantic,” Mac sighed.
“You’re welcome to take notes, amigo,” Abon said.
“Man, I need some vape,” Mac said, remembering that his pipe was broken. His heart raced a bit, his temples tightening a bit.
“You can have mine,” Abon said, and rummaged through a pocket on his pants. He produced a dull, metallic grey pipe with a charge chamber and compressor. He reached out to hand it over to Mac. Just touching the pipe made him feel tingles in his belly. He put a chamomile charge in it, hit the button. He could hear the subdued hiss of the compressor and incinerator working. Within seconds he could smell the herbs.
“What will you do when you get out of this mess?” Abon said.
“Get another job,” Mac said and realized how boring the answer was. “Then take some girl to the Kolhali Massifs.” to which Abon chuckled. “I can’t work security forever,” Mac said and let the feeling hang in the air.
“We could start a security firm,” Abon suggested. “We’re as good as self-employed right now anyway.”
“Sirai & Cete Security?” Mac pondered.
“Sounds good,” Abon said and his eyes lingered to something behind Mac. Mac was about to turn to look as well, when Abon’s closed slightly. “Mac, I want to see Sana again and...” his eyes closed.
Mac knew it was coming. He leaned over and checked on the artery in Abon’s throat. Nothing. He could try to revive him. But there was no chance. They could end up sitting here for days and the wound was dire. He had never felt so hollow. Abon lay there, and yet he did not.
He drew in chamomile vapors from the pipe. White trails of the vapor rose from his mouth and nose. Abon lay there, unmoving. Nyx passed above them. By the third pack of chamomile, Nyx was about to set behind the westward mountains again. He was about to press the button when he heard a familiar sound. Rubber grinding against sand. Wheels, Mac thought. Moving with his limp leg, he came out of the gun post and saw a set of bright lights. One light fixated on him, Mac noticed, and as the lights drew closer, he could make out details. It was a freight-rover, broad and perched on massive rubber wheels. It was about to pass him when he saw the letters ROSE printed on one of its surfaces.
“Jed, prep for survivors,” he heard a female voice say over the rover’s speakers.
Survivor, Mac thought. Everyone else is dead.