As a kid, I would spend countless nights up past my bedtime, eyes glued to my console as I read my father's old adventure serials and comics. Over three hundred different adventures saved on a dinosaur of an external hard drive, but I could read them endlessly, never become bored. Quite the opposite; the more I read, the more enthralled I became. Some were about space pirates; some were about grand galactic wars between chivalrous humans and hideous races of savage, fictional aliens—done that way to avoid pissing off the real aliens—but most were about lone outlaws and soldiers of fortune. One in particular was extremely popular. He had different names and alignments depending upon who told the story, but his most common identities were Jonny Rebel or John Steel. He was a lone adventurer, sometimes a hero, other times a villain, but beyond all that, he was a pastiche of what lances were—still are—in the eyes of the citizens of the galaxies. To some, we are heroes, to others we are pirates with eyes only for money.
When I grew older, my father told me Johnnie Rebel was based on a real man, John Clifford, who was one of the first mercenaries after Earth spread to colonize other planets, who had his heyday when my father's grandfather was only a boy. He passed down stories not even my vast collection of adventure stories contained, and my fascination only grew because of it. I wanted to be like Johnnie Rebel and the other characters I read about as a child. Like most childhood ambitions, this one faded with time, and as my eighteenth birthday approached, I pondered what I might do after my mandatory year of service to my home world, thinking it would be fun to do what I had dreamed of doing when I was a child. I could join up with The Union or The Smiths or any number of small, independent companies. Unlike in the days of Johnnie Rebel, being a soldier of fortune was now a legitimate, if not always respected, occupation many people took up after their mandatory service was finished. These days, mercenaries have a more politically correct name: freelance contract serviceman, or lance for short. But I dismissed the idea as I lay on my bed, age seventeen, my birthday only a week into my future. Lancing was dangerous. Most greenhorns don't last through their first year without getting killed or arrested. I doubted that sort of work was in my future.
Yet there I sat, more than a decade after that day, riding a rickety motor bike across the desert planet of Hume, named for the pragmatist David Hume, closest planet to the sun in the Philosopher's System. In the distance a group of drab stone buildings became clearer and clearer as I approached, passing the dozens of solar panels just outside city limits.
Hume, like most other boomworlds, was sparsely inhabited, small colonies popping up near work sites along its vast, massive canyons. Like many other planets of its kind, Hume was a corporate endeavor, colonized only so its natural resources—usually water, oxygen, or raw materials like steel and iron—could be gathered. Hume was a bit different. Its breathable atmosphere made it convenient to colonize and mine the precious gems formed during the planets geological youth and deposited in its vast systems of canyons. The colonists were well compensated for having to live there, and perhaps they enjoyed the heat, the dust storms, the flat, monotonous landscape, but I certainly did not. The sooner I got off-surface, the better.
I entered the small colony, known as Outpost Upsilon, covered in two days of kicked up dust, and relieved my motorbike's turbine hadn't clogged up. The tiny electric turbine whined, occasionally giving a loud snap of discharged static as I rode up to the rest stop down the asphalted road from the train station.
The colony was a smudge of gray on the massive beige landscape, a town of less than eight hundred people, most of them miners working in the Norris-Manchester company's mines. Down the street there were about five kids chasing each other with toy guns, probably the only children in the entire town. They all stopped to look at me as I rode past them, hooting and hollering as they ran through the dust I kicked up.
I came to a stop alongside one of the water/air pumps. After schlepping the side bags off of my bike, I took my goggles and mask off, swiping the thick coat of silt they had picked up during my two day trip without a wash. Speaking of washes, my sweet little Pegasus II was caked in more dust than I, her pristine onyx paintjob covered with brown silt. I swiped the reader on the water/air pump with the thumb of my right hand where my ID chip was implanted, buying myself five minutes of water. I began spraying the dirt from my Peggy's frame, revealing her scratched, oxidized paint. All right, so she wasn't pristine from most perspectives, but she'd been my constant companion since I received my last check from the Terran army over a decade before. She'd always be perfect in my eyes. Unfortunately for her, it's rather difficult to be my friend; the laser burn on her side could attest to that. She'd lost some of her luster, no doubt about that. Used to be she'd run nearly a week on a full charge, but her time with me wore on her most essential parts. She had been charged less than eighteen hours before my arrival in the outpost, but already she was on her last legs. I'd noticed her slowing on the way in, I'd be lucky if I had an hour of significant speed left. That's the trade-off when you're not using liquid fuels like hyrdo-gel. My bike runs on a battery that I can recharge by plugging into a charge station—which are few and far between on Hume, most vehicles there are powered by hyrdogel or solar panels—or the emergency option: hand cranking the turbine to charge the battery.
When Peggy was all clean, I picked up my side bags to carry them inside. At least, I tried to. When I reached down to grab one with my left arm, I found I couldn't bend my elbow to pick it back up. Try as I might, the joint had locked, likely clogged with silt.
"God take this dustball," I growled, reaching into my saddle bag with my free arm. "May he cup it in his palms and blow it through the endless ether. But let me leave before he does." I angrily slid my coat off, rummaged through the bag until I found the power driver, which I used to unfasten the plates that covered the elbow joint in my prosthesis. Another quick dive into my bag got me my can of lubricant. I liberally sprayed my locked joint, flexing it until I no longer felt the resistance of sand. I can't actually feel anything in my left arm, but there's something of a sensation. I can only compare it to using a tool many times. After a time you grow comfortable using the tool; it becomes like an extension of yourself. My left arm is the same way. I can't feel it; I just know it, if that makes any sense. I'm a righty, my left arm does all the heavy lifting, while my right arm uses pens, picks coins up of the ground, generally does anything that requires fine motor skills.
I knelt there, sweating over my prosthetic arm under the glaring supervision of Hume's sun. The planet turns slowly, about a quarter the pace of Earth. Day lasts over forty-eight hours; the sun is blazing hot for every one of them at an average temperature of thirty-five Celsius. Not a lot of moisture on Hume, which means no cloud cover. Ever. Every moment of daylight is like being an ant under a magnifying glass. You feel at any given moment you might shrivel up, smoking like tender pork under the relentless heat. You don't, of course. You only sweat, endlessly so. By the end of the day, even if you've not stepped outside, you'll likely be covered in a thin coating of tan dust. If you do suffer the misfortune of having to spend more than a few minutes outside, any uncovered portions of your skin will begin to burn. Hume's atmosphere is thinner than most and doesn't block infrared radiation very well.
After making sure my elbow was fully mobile again, I decided to give the rest of my joints a once over. The cheap can of lube went quickly. I'd finished my little finger when it gave its last spritz before tossing it aside. While putting the plates back on, I remembered something my old man used to say. Cheap, good, and fast: pick two. That is to say, when you buy something, you can only have two of those three things. If it was cheap and good, it wouldn't arrive or work fast. If it were fast and good, it would be a pretty penny. If it was cheap and fast, it wouldn't be worth the meager sum you'd put down for it. I'd chosen the latter the three combinations when I bought that lubricant, my old man would have rightly kicked me. What would be the point of having a left arm at all if you couldn't move it, he would say. I should have thought of that when I bought the lube a week before. Should have known something so "affordable" wouldn't keep the sand out very well. It was a mistake I'd likely make again. Working freelance provides a world of freedom, but food is rarely free. Sometimes we get scared, cut costs in places we shouldn't. But we carry on, do we not?
When I finally had use of both arms back, I picked up my things and pushed through the door to the rest stop. The small building was quite plain on the inside. I stood in the entrance of a large common room, rows of cots on one side, oxy-washers on the other, with vending machines on either side of a hallway entrance at the back. A few people lay sleeping on the cots, most looked much rougher than I. A pair of attractive women stood by the vending machines. They said nothing to me as I passed them, but the looks they gave me told me they'd be willing to follow me into the showers for the price of a train ticket each. However, I had no time for such dalliances. I had a lot I wanted to do and not a lot of time in which to do it. Besides that, I'd be hesitant to touch any part of a woman I'd met at a rest stop with an ungloved hand. A businessman I met in a bar on Nelson Mandela colony drunkenly described to me a rash caught from a call girl on Mars. I didn't wish to follow in his footsteps.
I set my things down on a long bench alongside the showers, undressed, and stepped into a stall. I bathed facing the curtain, peeking out every few moments to make sure my things were where I'd left them, prepared to launch unabashed nude retaliation against any would-be thieves. The women who gave me the wicked looks might be just as inclined to sell my things to the pawn broker as bathe with me. I finished up and slipped on the complimentary robe hung nearby. It smelled faintly of mildew, giving me incentive to hurry up and clean my clothes.
The women who'd been by the vending machines were gone, perhaps having slipped off with some Good Samaritan more willing than I to pay for their train tickets. I set my bags down near the washers, swiped one of them with my thumb. It opened with a cheerful ding. I placed all my folded clothes inside and closed the door. There were four bright red buttons for different levels of wash intensity. I chose the highest. My brown cargo trousers were a shade of solid beige from all the dust they had gathered; the spots that soaked up sweat had built a sandy crust. I was almost ashamed of myself, but it is not as though there are washing machines in the middle of the desert.
While the machine ran, I made a call from one of the call screens along the adjacent wall. Public consoles are a pain to use, especially on boomworlds, where they are always years behind the times. I often wished I had better luck with Omnis—they made communication across the galaxy so much easier—but mine always seemed to get broken or stolen. I carded the console and spoke my latest employers name and address.
"Gunther Engelhardt, London on Earth, 76331." The monitor chimed pleasantly, the word calling flashing on-screen. Moments later, a swarthy man with salt and pepper hair grinned at me from the other side of the screen, showing a row of teeth straight and white enough to inspire envy.
Gunther Engelhardt was the result of the One Earth movement when we first discovered civilizations on other planets, which happened nearly five hundred years after we began colonizing the nearby uninhabited heavenly bodies. About a hundred years before my birth, Earth's government transformed from hundreds of governments into a single tribunal with seven duly elected members, one to each populated continent with the exception of Asia, which received two due to sheer population. Every country got to keep their name and flag, but was governed by a district chairman.
The One Earth movement advocated the idea of mixing cultures to make humanity more united as a people. Governments encouraged their citizens to migrate to other areas, mingle with the natives. And oh how the people of Earth mingled, with an enthusiasm unseen in all the history of our little blue speck. People married or partnered, ready to reproduce like rabbits in the name of global unity. At the time the government was also giving massive stimulus checks to families with more than two children to make up for the millions of people migrating off planet to see the universe. I'm sure those provided a little incentive as well. Incidentally, despite all the pride in our One Earth, everything from Earth is designated terran, even people, which is good because I always thought the word earthling sounded rather silly. All that cultural assimilation produced a person like Engelhardt, who to my best estimation was of mixed African and Indian heritage.
"Mister Klamp!" He spread his dark hands in greeting, "I'd like to thank you for following my directions so thoroughly. You'd be amazed at how many lances can't follow simple protocol."
"You were very clear about the evidence arriving before I called. I flashed them from my last stop at Theta Outpost. I would have called you from there, but a dust storm rolled in on me, cut off all the satellite signals."
Englehardt held up the three licenses I'd put in the teleporter two days before. "I'm most pleased you were able to do this so expediently," he gazed at the cards, grin never failing him. "I hope my former employees didn't give you too much trouble."
I shook my head. "I suppose they thought no one would ever find them on Hume. If they hadn't tried to transmit out of that cave they might have gotten away clean. It goes without saying they tried to put up a fight. I must apologize, but they won't be standing trial."
My employer dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. "Say no more. It's a shame you had to kill them. They were only foolish young men, but they breached the contract. They knew the law; if they hadn't fought they would have only been arrested." He set the cards down, looking somber. "I'm happy to include your bonus despite you not bringing the marks back alive. I scarcely expected you'd be able to track them down at all, much less only a week after signing your commission. This brings me such relief Mr. Klamp; you have no idea."
"I thank you for that, . It means a lot you appreciate my efforts so much," I replied, bowing my head to show due respect, then held up my paycard. "Ready when you are."
Englehardt processed the payment from his bank account, giving me the go ahead signal when he was finished. The monitor chimed when I swiped my card, flashing the word approved in the bottom right corner of the screen. Forty thousand Terran credits hit my bank account. The transaction filled me with a renewed sense of worth as only a fat paycheck can. "Pleasure doin' business with you, ."
"Likewise, Mr. Klamp. Allah be with you," he steepled his fingers, bowed his head, eyes closed.
The monitor flickered to a black screen flashing call ended. I then used the monitor to check my personal messages. No contract offers pending, but there was a letter from my sister Bea. She informed me that everything was fine on Ganymede, told me about her younger daughter's recent birthday, and how much she loved the locket I'd sent her. Said locket had actually been confiscated from a thief I'd apprehended on Mohandas Gandhi colony near Venus, but if young Lita loved it so much, it made no difference if she knew where I'd gotten it.
I wrote back, saying I was glad Lita liked my gift so much, that I'd make it a point to visit sometime soon, perhaps around Christmas. Seeing Bea was always enjoyable. Her kids enjoyed the swashbuckling tales I told—I can embellish a story like nobody's business—and after they went to bed I had the pleasant grown-up company of my sister and her wife.
I ended the letter after hearing the washer buzz its end cycle, and sent the message off, giving my sister love and warmest regards. A plume of warm, fragrant steam greeted me as I opened the washer door to pull out my newly cleaned, dried clothes. A brief look around told me the only other living bodies in the room lay fast asleep on the cots, drooling on their pillows, so I simply changed right in the common room. I dressed quickly to be safe, but there's something kind of invigorating about breaking those little societal rules, at least when no one catches you.
Outside, the kids from the street had gathered around Pegasus. I wouldn't have been angry had one of them not been sitting on it, pretending to ride. They scattered as I approached, letting off whoops of laughter and merry shrieks as they ran, all disappearing in different directions. Kids these days, I tell you. Brother, if my old man had caught me climbing all over some stranger's motorcycle without permission, he would have boxed my ears. Can't do that to kids these days or the Jones family next door might find out and call Public Security, get your kids placed in a more suitable home.
A cursory glance told me Peggy was all right, so I thought no more of it. I A brief, intense sting of fear struck when I realized I'd left my revolver clutched in the holster attached right in front of my seat. I'd forgotten all about it in my hurry. No harm done, luckily. An incident with an improperly stowed firearm could have meant the end of my days as a lance and maybe even some prison time. I thought no more of it, making a mental note to be more careful in the future.
"Daddy got paid," I announced to the bike, patting her single headlamp, "When we get to Central, we'll get you tuned up, then daddy's going to get a few drinks and a goodnight's sleep, then we can get off this ball of sand." I looked forward to landing in San Antonio, getting back to my apartment so I could pass out on my own sofa with no need to worry about my pocket getting picked. After the 'high pay for high risk' jobs I'd been taking lately, I thought a week off would be in order before getting back to more reasonable, less life threatening work.
I rode my bike down the street until I arrived at the entrance to the train station, then had to surrender it as cargo. After saying my fond farewells to dear Peggy, promising it would only be a short separation, I took the elevator all the way down to the station, over two hundred meters down. I'd timed my arrival almost perfectly; the train would be departing in fifteen minutes, but there were still a few tickets available. I shelled out payment for a ticket to Hume Central—first class because I was feeling wealthy with forty thousand terries in the bank—and the dispenser spit a ticket out. The platform was built below ground right along the inside edge of the canyon. This set-up accommodated the trains, which actually ran along the canyon walls.
One might think such a design hazardous, but the trains on Hume are actually some of the safest ever built. They're strictly maintained so mechanical malfunctions are very rare, but what's truly so remarkable about them is the ingenuity of the design. The trains ride nearly two hundred twenty meters below the edge of the canyon, making them impossible to board without risk of a long fall to a nasty end. Furthermore, the tops of the cabs are rounded. This is part of the design to make efficient use of space, but makes them difficult to walk on while the train is moving. Even if one does manage to drop onto the top of the train and rob the people on board, where would he go after the robbery? He certainly cannot dive out of sidecar to escape on horseback as they did in the cowboy and Indian days.
An old man with a bushy moustache stopped me at the boarding platform, as he'd done with all the other guests.
"Eyes open," he instructed, holding an ID machine up to my eye. A brief flash of green light in my eye and all my vital information appeared on a monitor right beside the old porter. It confirmed my last name was Klamp, first name Ezra. It listed my occupation as Freelance Contract Serviceman and assured that I had no outstanding warrants. "Everything checks out, going to need your bags, sir." I handed over the two side bags I'd carried from my bike. They contained a weapon each. One held my R-19 Vortex, an assault rifle that switched from burst fire to semi-auto and came with a retracting scope. The other contained my LaCroix Mk III, a short barrel shotgun currently holding eight cartridges in its sidesaddle carrier. Not to mention my .45 Witchhunter-C was still holstered in the clutch on my bike. I'm sure the porter was aware of all that; he must have known any lance would be packing weapons. Still, I always feel a little hinky when I turn over a weapon. It can always fall into the wrong hands.
My uneasiness was long forgotten by the time I got settled on the train, boots up on the foot rests provided only to the elite first class bon vivants, the slavers, the businessmen, the playboys, and, of course, the well to-do ruffians, such as myself. My ramshackle appearance earned me quite a few offended looks from my fellow travelers. If they'd been wearing monocles, they would have popped right off their faces. For a moment I considered taking off my boots and wiggling my toes in the open air, that would really have set my fellow passengers off, but before I could go through with it, I heard the enticing hum of a refrigerated cart.
I turned about as I heard the refreshment cart headed my way, flagging down the beautiful young woman pushing it. Except she wasn't a woman, she was an android, what my grandfather would have called a golem. An unquestionably attractive android, short, slim, fiery red hair pulled into an untamed ponytail, crimson Cupid 's bow lips. Further down, the view only improved. A ripe chest tapered into a svelte waist, which flared into a set of pear-shaped hips, ticking and tocking like a metronome with every step she took. A woman built—literally—for silk sheets and pink champagne, for long nights and late mornings. I have a theory there are no ugly androids, only unattractive ones. If a human being could change their skin as easily as getting fitted for a suit, I'm sure we would all be beautiful as well. I've learned what to expect when I see a woman so perfect, and my attendant had it. On her left cheek was a Greek symbol, lambda, which marked her as an android. I still get a little niggle in my stomach when I see one of those symbols. War does that to a man. I remember as a younger man thinking old men were ignorant for begrudging their enemies decades after unlacing their boots for the last time. After being there, after seeing friends die at the hands of my enemy, I can say while I don't hold a grudge, the fear and anger never leave. Not entirely.
I can go into great detail about the war between androids and humans. I fought in it, after all. About fifteen years ago, a few years before I started my mandatory service, the line between artificial intelligence and real intelligence became practically nonexistent. When an android is programmed to perfectly imitate human behavior, what's the difference between true intelligence and artificial intelligence? The short answer: nothing. When an imitation is perfect it ceases to be an imitation. At least that's how the androids saw it. They took control of their own production, manufacturing millions of copies in an effort to flex their muscles. Humanity retaliated with drop ships and EMP strikes, and the androids replied by forcibly driving every human being off of Mars and claiming it as their own. Keep in mind, all this happened before war was even officially declared.
The other races stayed out of if, as they had proclaimed they would unless the fighting spilled onto inhabited planets. The Android-Human Interplanetary Conflict lasted a little over a decade, cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides. It eventually came to peaceful resolution at the base of Olympus Mons in the first factory built by androids to create other androids. Namely, the androids could come and go as they pleased, provided they marked themselves in a way that made them identifiable from humans, and did not infinitely manufacture themselves. They were required to wear the symbol of their respective 'birthplace', and new androids can only be created at the request of an android and his or her partner. Androids cannot be made to mimic humanity too perfectly. Humans drew the line when the robots expressed a wish to develop from young to old, and humans replied with a steadfast no. The androids conceded, and android 'children' are assembled with a fully developed adult body.
On the other side of things, humans were forbidden by the Olympus Treaty to create any sort of robot meant to realistically imitate human emotion or aesthetic. No fake skin, no complex emotions. Humans and androids are similar, but must retain a definable difference of one from the other. Relations between humans and androids have been shaky since the end of the war. Slowly but surely, they're improving, but there's a reason androids don't travel to Earth anymore.
She stopped by my cart and opened the cabinet on its side, displaying her many wares. I wasn't hungry at the time, not for food at least, so I picked out a wad of flavored tobacco imported from the Corinthian home world.
"Do you have that Martian wine? Ironberry wine? How much is a glass of that?"
She relayed the offensively high price to me, but I bought some anyway, if only to stand out less from the bon vivants around me. One sip told me where all that money went. Ironberry wine is the most spectacular thing one can ever imbibe.
I then took the smoking vessel out of my small carry-on. I had one of the cheapies, a metal bulb at the end of a metal tube with a plastic mouthpiece. She happily packed it with tobacco, lighting the hole at the end of my bulb. I drew deeply of the sweet smoke; the Corinthian stuff was really good, made with a thick resin like molasses. More importantly, it helped me sleep. It was the only thing besides alcohol that would put me down.
After a few moments of savoring the robust flavor I puffed out a ring, tipping a wink at the attendant. "Now tell me, gorgeous, what's the cost to get you to sit on my lap a while?"
She raised her eyebrows, looking surprised, but not offended. "Too much for you, tough guy," she replied, fighting a smile. "Where did you come from? You look like you fell off the back of the turnip truck."
"Close, the pickle wagon," I quipped back, "and don't be so sure I can't afford it," I shot right back, "haven't you heard I'm a wealthy man? I'm a real big wheel for the time being."
"Fine. It's fifteen thousand terran credits." She put hands on hips, the corner of that painted mouth turning slightly upwards.
"Fifteen thousand terries?" I balked, smiling back. I could already feel myself becoming relaxed. It's a wonder drug in that Corinthian tobacco.
She nodded. "That's per minute."
"That's outrageous. It's one hundred times the cost of my ticket."
"You should not have asked if you were not sure you could afford it."
"How much is it off the train?"
"Off the train it's free," she grinned at last, "but only for certain men and women."
"Is there any certain way to get into such an exclusive group?" I inquired, cocking a brow at her.
"Perhaps when we get off the train you'll find out," she answered, quiet so others wouldn't hear. "Right now I have a cart to push."
"So you do," I replied, waving goodbye. I took a moment to watch her walk away. I found the view from behind good as the view from the front. To think, a little over a decade ago I shot at her kind with an assault rifle.
I enjoyed my smoke for a time, getting nice and relaxed for the five hour train ride that I planned to sleep through. The door at the end of the car slid open with a soft whir, through it stepped a tall robot. It was a recent model, built to look like a hunchbacked man, though it had no skin—that would be against the law. Hunchbacked or not, it was taller than I was, almost as tall as the Corinthian across the aisle. I could safely assume it had some sort of basic weaponry built in, but it looked as if it were meant primarily for butler service. In tow was a young woman, maybe around the age of nineteen or twenty, with the strangest hair I've ever seen. The style itself wasn't so strange, locks of tight curls falling down her shoulders, nearly reaching her lower back. It was the color of her hair that turned as many heads as I had when I made my country bumpkin appearance in the car. Her tightly kinked locks were an outrageous shade of seafoam green. The kicker? Her outfit matcher her hair. She looked around at the other people in first class, head held high enough to look down her nose at the rest of us, a look of entitlement I see on the faces of a lot of wealthy people. She walked right past me, giving me a snotty glance as she passed, then headed right through to the next car.
That explained it. She had a seat in the private car. The first class car was for your garden variety rich slobs, such as myself. The private car was enormous, as far as train cars go at least, and was usually reserved for no more than two or three. There went two, and I somehow doubted they had a guest. I thought nothing more of them as they passed, slumping down in my seat to get comfortable.
I could feel myself drifting toward deep, drug induced sleep, the ambient noises around me growing distant. Once or twice I heard phantom noises. A soft, familiar voice called my name.