Art by David Revoy/ Blender Foundation

Past Another Sky

By Scott Birrenkott

The shuttle came down as a blaze from the distant sun. I watched it slow in an instant, landing just outside the town and beyond my view. Above me, just past the hazy atmosphere that didn’t belong on this moon, was the outline of the ship the shuttle had come from. I wouldn’t have even known the ship was there if not for the way it blocked out the stars. I tried to guess at why Earth had sent such a ship to this place, our moon being nothing but another humble claim to space, but I already knew too well.

A creaking vibration reminded me where I was, and where I was going. I made my way through the town and decided the background noise was more of a rickety hum than a true creaking. The sound didn’t bother me much but I could never quite ignore it, either. There was also the constant, stubborn mist that fell over the entire town, but I had a good firm hat and duster for that.

Bright white lights shined from where they were perched on poles, guiding me through the town. Mixed with the lights there was a bluish tint to the air that gave everything a much-needed liveliness. Without it the shuttered homes were as gray as the earth. Sometimes a little life would make itself known, with a tomato plant or stalk of corn peeking out from behind one of the fortified gardens that were hidden on the roof of every structure.

I hesitated with a cigarette outside the mayor’s house. I didn’t think she’d mind if I smoked but I put the roll away anyway. I could always change my mind later.

When I went inside the mayor was behind her wooden desk. It was nice, carved and varnished and everything, probably the only bit of luxury tree in the whole town. She was sitting there working, and I knew she had heard me come in, so I waited for her to finish.

“You saw the shuttle come down, no doubt,” she said without looking up, putting one data slate aside and reaching for another.

“Big ship for such a small place,” I said, looking up as if I’d be able to see the craft again.

The Worldbridge.” The mayor nodded, holding up one of her slates to scrutinize it more closely.

“Pardon?”

She ignored me. Her eyes continued to scan the slate, back and forth, narrowing as they moved. After she finished, or was content enough to stop, the mayor put the slate down and turned to me.

The Worldbridge. That’s the name of that particular ship, the one that burned more fuel than our whole town is probably worth to get here.”

“For one man to get here, I’d wager.” I wanted to wonder why, but I reminded myself that I already knew. Or that I ought to know.

“Better one man than a whole lot of them,” the mayor said. She pushed her chair back to walk around her desk, and I watched her move, taking her in as she looked away.

Her dark crimson dress was smooth on her body. It was particular to her figure, and I followed it down to her legs where it opened at the sides. The dress was flashy, fancy even, and its gold embroidery was elaborate enough. Perhaps a man of class would have appreciated it, maybe even on another world one would scoff at the dress’s modesty, but the entire perky outfit was too much for me.

Mayor Escle was pretty enough and I’d have rather seen her out of the whole garment than try to appreciate her in it, to have the truth of it. When she turned back to me I had to keep my eyes from speculating over that particular fantasy, though. Such a thing would be insulting, disrespectful. Instead, I hid my desires by pushing a cig to my lips.

I hadn’t lasted very long, though smoking was a lesser disrespect and one I didn’t care as much to hide. The mayor noticed it all the same; she brushed her hand over her desk and tapped at it lightly as she regarded this particular affront.

Escle moved beside a glossy table to the side of her desk. It wasn’t wooden, but was a good replica. I wasn’t sure how I could tell it was fake, possibly because of how close it was to the solid wood desk it shared the room with. Either way, I was far more interested in what it held.

“Drink?” Escle offered.

“I wouldn’t refuse.”

The mayor took out two solid glasses and pondered over a variety of old bottles. She certainly had the best drink, distilled from far off world, from Earth, even. I could tell by the bottle she chose and by its sweetly stinging scent as she poured it. I tried to keep my glance casual, though it was futile. My glistening obsession couldn’t be concealed. Not that it needed to be, the mayor knew me well enough.

Escle regarded me coolly as she let the bottle waver over the second glass.

“A man really shouldn’t tempt himself with such vices. I’ll take that burden for you, Sheriff.”

She poured again, only once more into the first glass instead of mine. Then she downed most of it in one take.

“That shuttle,” Escle said, half to herself. She circled back around her desk and glanced out the window behind it. “You know why it’s here?” She turned back to me.

I nodded.

“And you know why you’re here?” She swirled the remains of her drink.

“S’pose I could assume that, too. Though I never make more than one. Assumption, that is. Matters start to get tricky past one.”

“I’d like you to receive Earth’s marshal from his shuttle.”

“He should be able to find his way without me.”

Escle swallowed the rest of her drink and glared at the empty glass.

“He certainly could. But you’ll agree he’s here for a problem we should have sorted out on our own, yes?”

I said nothing, and she paused to wait. After a moment Escle returned the glass to its table. She considered the bottle for another fill before pushing it away and turning back to stare me down.

“This is the tricky part,” I said.

“Marshal’s here to kill a man.” She tapped her finger on the desk. “I want you to go with him.”

“Marshal can take care of himself.”

“No doubt. But I want him to know the town takes care of its own.” Escle leaned over her desk.

I tossed the remains of my cig aside to let her know I understood, and what I thought of it.

“Town already decided what to do about this problem. That’s why the marshal’s here at all.”

“The marshal’s here to remind us who’s in charge. Walsh was our problem, but he ran off. He wanted his own law, and he can wander off past the sky and make it there for all I care.” Escle tapped harder at her desk. “Even if we had marched out and dragged him back, what could we have done? Now he’s gone and got Earth’s attention, and we can’t rightly ignore him anymore.”

I kept quiet. I had nothing to say on that matter. Escle knew how I dealt with Walsh at the time he went wrong, and there was no point bringing it up now.

“Damn, man, I’d do it myself.” Escle clenched her fist and stared at her family’s pistol where it was propped up on her desk. I imagined if she still held her glass she would have smashed it at this point. “I’m trying to maintain our way of life here. My time’s invested in other matters.”

“I know you got a lot of people to please, lots of choices to make. If that’s how you need to justify this, I’ll go.” I nodded and made to leave.

“Like hell. I’m not saying I’m right, just that I’m the one who got stuck in the place to decide what is.”

“Walsh too, then.” I turned back around. I shouldn’t have said that, it was one assumption too far, but I let my frustrations get the better of me.

“He gave up rights to that claim when he raped that girl.”

I couldn’t argue there. Walsh had given up a lot of things when he took to that sin, but he was a decent man before that. Before the tension and politics that had left his younger sister in charge instead of him, and before the disgrace he had surely felt after. Still, it was best not to argue.

So that was it. I was to be the vicarious killer. To lay this long lingering shame to rest, and to give Escle some peace that she had taken a part in it.

“I should be going.” I brushed my side to be sure my weapon was still there and to let the mayor know I was aware of its importance.

[divider]
My badge meant little in town, where its authority was implied at best. Out here, near the scorched landing fields, it meant nothing.

I heard spacers and vagabonds muttering around me in that patchwork language they thought I couldn’t understand. A few of them gave me challenging glances so I tugged at my coat, just enough to reveal the holstered pistol at my waist. That was usually enough to allow me my way around anyone not carrying one.

The air was better out here, or worse, depending on how you looked at it. It was a little harder to breathe but each step was easier and took you a little further. That and the moisture was down to nothing but a thin fog.

I didn’t know much about the electromagnetic atmosphere the town had, but it was certainly weaker the further out you got. I knew our artificial sky didn’t reach forever. Walk off too far and there wasn’t anything to breathe or hold you down.

Along the horizon I could see the distant, crumbling ruins of abandoned structures. Between that failed homestead and the town I came from was the rest of spaceport and Earth’s shuttle.

Near the shuttle I could see a group of thick-suited workers dragging around an intricate set of equipment. From the way they were meticulously swiping tube-like devices around their shuttle I guessed it was some sort of static vacuum.

I saw an automaton carrying a crate much larger than itself away from the workers. It moved its feet in a belabored series of motions that made it seem like it might fall over at any moment. Its jerky movement wasn’t a reassuring sight, but the machine was lifting cargo that would have otherwise required a truck.

I spent a moment trying to pick the marshal out from the crowd of spacers, government officials, and other off-worlders before turning toward the nearby tavern. It was the most prominent building near the field, and the marshal would likely be making his way there at some point. He could find me there, since I wasn’t about to give him the impression I was eager to greet his arrival.

Inside, townsfolk were bartering with the spacers. They traded trinkets and stories, trying to supplement their meager credit accounts. I took a flimsy metal stool at the bar and pressed my thumb to the rusted old reader, keying in my own account that was maintained by bankers somewhere off world. After I had a quick word with the bartender, he brought me a drink, and I began my wait for the marshal.

Three and a half glasses later, the whole room and probably the entire tavern went quiet as everyone shifted to watch the man enter. Except me, I kept to my drink. The marshal had to know who he was here for, after all.

When the marshal found me the tavern resumed its normal course but with an air of caution. I turned to face him so he could see my badge. His coat was far nicer than mine, embossed and embellished, but still worn. I couldn’t help but respect a man with a coat as worn as that.

His face was even more weathered and older than his coat but lacked the weariness or the impatience I had expected. His marshal’s emblem shined, making my own tin star look like a trinket I should have been trading with the other townsfolk. When he finally spoke I was surprised by the lack of weight his voice carried, he sounded just like any other man.

“Liquor and gunpowder don’t make a fine mix. How’d you come to bring them together?” he asked.

“Before I took up man’s law, after I lost interest in my old calling, I developed a skill with one and a taste for the other. Now, they pay each other’s debts.” I pat my gun and finished my drink.

The marshal took a seat, and without so much as a glance the bartender brought him a tall glass of what I imagined was his finest. The marshal took it and slid it to me. I wasn’t sure if he meant the offering to be friendly or if it was supposed to be a kind of test. I didn’t give it a second thought, though, not being one to turn down such a kind gesture.

“Fine establishment. Fine town,” the marshal said, looking around. I almost asked him what other places he’d been to that let him evaluate our little moon so warmly, but I contented myself by starting on his drink instead.

“I’d like to ask for your hospitality in helping me with a displeasing but necessary matter.” He went on, “Our craft, The Worldbridge, has been in the deep maws of space for some time and we have not gone without facing the hardships that come with such travels. If your town could accommodate for the burial of our dead it would put one of our many burdens at ease.”

I paused to reconsider my first response before I voiced it, which was to tell the marshal he could bury his dead wherever he pleased. He probably expected a little more respect than that.

“We have a humble cemetery just outside town, if that will do.” I said. I wasn’t able to manage any solemnity in my voice, but I did keep from slurring.

“That will do.” He leaned forward in appreciation. “My crew should be able to find it.”

The marshal let me finish my drink in silence and even allowed a little stillness after before he began with the business he had come for.

“I’m here to bring Walsh Slovaris to Earth’s justice.”

I palmed the tall glass, already forgetting it was empty. With a little reluctance I set it back, deciding it would be impolite to ask for another. I waited for the marshal to go on.

“It’s my understanding that there have been quite a few unsanctioned attempts at founding town steads in the surrounding area. Might I find Mr. Slovaris hiding amongst one of these warrens?”

“No need to worry about the hunt, Marshal. The Mayor’s asked me to take you straight to Walsh himself.”

The marshal laid his hands open at the bar. “Gracious of her, gracious indeed. And quite honorable.”

“The town can take care of its own,” I quoted Escle. Too late I realized how it sounded to the marshal.

“It seems there was an incompetency on the part of the town in that regard. Had your own been dealt with properly in the first instance perhaps I wouldn’t need to be here.” The marshal looked me in the eye and waited for me to return his gaze. “I would have expected to see more pride in maintaining this place given the risk your Mayor’s forefathers took when they obtained a colonization grant. Now their legacy sustains murderers and thieves.” That last bit seemed unnecessary, and I could tell it even irked a few folk nearby.

I made sure to keep silent after that, and it seemed to mark the end of our dealings with words. The marshal made to leave, and I realized I was to follow him. Outside the tavern I noticed two sturdy guards on either side of the entrance holding high-powered rifles at their shoulders. Their weapons and clothing alike were intimidating, being of a quality never seen on our world.

The presence of the guards made me scoff over boldness in the marshal’s remarks. Yet my disdain faded quickly as I saw he had no regard for their presence. The way he held himself indicated one who would always speak as he pleased, possibly even with a gun at his back. His air of confidence was clearly not maintained as a comfort granted by the security of others.

[divider]
The marshal and I made our trek alone. I knew where Walsh was holed up, and we didn’t have far to go. There were no threats to be expected along the way, but we both knew Walsh wasn’t likely to come easy. I couldn’t help but second-guess my judgment of the marshal’s boldness given how reckless our two-man posse seemed. Still, I had to trust him since he seemed to trust me in leading him through the safe pockets of atmosphere held down by our artificial sky.

Around us the land was thoroughly worked over, leaving gruesome trenches between the littered husks of remaining buildings. We passed a few active farms and excavations, but they were only hopeless latecomers, unfunded townsfolk hoping to find anything the paid workers and Earth’s machines might have missed or left behind.

Under the sky and sometimes past it, where no man could survive, were endlessly toiling figures. Workers that looked human but stuttered like the automatons they were. The marshal and I stopped close to some and the nearest few quit their work at once. Their shuddering movements halted so their heads could turn, as if they could only conduct one motion at a time. The figures stared at us, registering our presence before they made a series of movements that brought them back to their work.

We didn’t have to go much further before reaching a small cluster of buildings less flimsy than those we’d passed so far. The structures were grouped close enough together to pass for a small town.

As we reached the outskirts, two men approached us slowly. A third sat behind them on a red barrel lined with rust. He seemed to be dozing under his hat, but I knew better by the way he cradled his old rifle.

Our two greeters didn’t offer much of a welcome. They stepped around us carefully, sizing us up before stopping outside our flanks. Their hands rested easily beneath their coats on what I could only assume were weapons.

“We’re here for Walsh.” I stated.

The two men looked between us. The one nearest me smiled and broke off some sort of stick he had been chewing on. They let their coats float open, and I saw their guns had been trained on me all along.

That wasn’t anything too unfamiliar for me. A standoff like this was usually won by whoever had their weapons out first, so I was content to leave mine where it was. I never liked to hold it much, anyway; I always considered it to be much more comfortable at my side. Besides, words were more useful in situations like these.

I flicked away my burned-out cig.

“He’s a marshal,” I said, turning my thumb to my companion. The guns shifted to the marshal, but he seemed to mind it even less than I had.

“The space man’s law come to try for Steel Walsh at last, eh?” the man said, still chewing on the end of his twig.

“God fearing folk such as yourselves should show a little more respect,” the marshal replied.

“God ain’t made his way out here yet, marshal. Our old preacher of a sheriff here could have told you that.”

“I’m here to bring Walsh to justice. Quietly, if possible. I’ve got no mind to trifle with you but I have no qualms about it, either.” He gazed at each man in turn before going on. “Earth means to resolve this affair, gentlemen. One way or another.” The shadow of the marshal’s massive ship still orbiting our moon seemed to loom even more dauntingly behind him.

The two traded glances, and the man with the rifle had perked up, but none of them made any move.

“Step aside,” the marshal said as he strode between them.

They did, dropping their guns back where they belonged. It wasn’t the marshal’s words, or even the way he growled them that seemed to quell the men; though his first remarks had sufficient reason, and those after had a particular ferocity that should have sufficed. More particular to his success, I saw, was the way he had simply walked between his challengers as if they were no longer present. The marshal moved in a way that asserted his belief that these men wouldn’t dare shoot at him. He knew they wouldn’t shoot with such certainty that the men themselves adopted his knowledge.

Once inside Walsh’s small town, the marshal picked up his speed and pulled out a gun that I at first mistook for a massive white glove.

“That’s quite the cannon you’ve got there, Marshal,” I said.

The marshal didn’t reply, and I tried to figure out how his weapon worked. It was flecked with bits of metal that twisted over more contraptions than seemed necessary, but the business end was quite clear. It seemed like enough of a gun for the both of us, so I didn’t feel too bad about leaving mine right where it belonged.

The marshal seemed to know where he was going, so I followed him to the largest building around and up its steps. He smashed the door open without a word. Inside, Walsh’s men were waiting for us. I counted about seven men in the open, guns held ready.

As I stepped up beside the marshal a noise roared out that I imagined has only been heard before in hell. The banshee’s scream tore through the room as the marshal swept it with his weapon. Metal and plastics splintered off and exploded to dust while men caught in the stream of gunfire toppled quickly. Even after the blazing weapon stopped it left a ringing in my ears. I figured our opponents got in a few shots in return, but they were nothing compared to the marshal’s one-man firestorm.

The marshal stopped in the middle of the room and looked around cautiously. I had already picked out the survivors and could see them peeking out from the spots they had dove behind. I wasn’t sure if the marshal saw them, and my gut twisted with apprehension.

I bit down on the end of my cig as my fingers twitched near my gun. I spotted the first survivor as he shuffled out from under a shattered metal table. I swiped my weapon out and pulled the hammer back with my thumb. It was an unnecessary habit, but not my worst.

The man stood up, right where I had my gun ready for him. It cracked and snapped back. My single shot seemed louder and more forceful than the marshal’s weapon, and I decided I liked it better that way.

One.

I turned to where I’d already staked the next man to pop out. He snapped one panicked shot off, but I took my time, wanting to make mine count. I fired again.

Two.

Up above I scanned the rafters with the point of my gun. My heart leapt as I realized the gunman had seen me first, but I didn’t flinch. My hand followed him as he took his shot, and I made mine.

Three?

The man screamed out and toppled over. A stream of pained curses came from above.

I moved up the stairs and found him quickly. He was sprawled out on the floor and grasping at his leg. His gun had tumbled away, and he seemed to have lost interest in it. I hesitated with my own pistol, pointing it down at his chest.

“Stop,” the marshal said just as I decided to pull my gun back. He pulled out some sort of thick bracelet that he clamped over the wounded man’s thigh. The gunman screamed out as the device whirred and tightened into place. Despite the man’s groans of pain the marshal pulled off the bracelet, which in turn dropped out a bloodied bullet.

The marshal stood up and turned back to me. He checked my gun and waited for my full attention while I reloaded.

“I have to warn you, Sheriff. This is no matter of redress or recompense, it is one of justice,” he said.

I nodded back to him, understanding. I had my gun out, and I had already used it. Had he not seen that? He didn’t have to explain to me what we were about.

Behind the rafters was another set of stairs and I followed the marshal upward. We went down the hall and checked a few rooms as we went by but found nothing. One last door waited for us, and the marshal wasted no time breaking it down.

I heard the marshal’s weapon shriek out again in three quick bursts as he swept it around quickly and mechanically, but I didn’t follow his motions. I had my own pistol up as soon as I entered the room and was staring down the barrel of Walsh’s own.

“Sheriff.” Walsh smiled at me and held his gun steady.

The marshal had his own gun on Walsh now, but we were both ignoring him. Sweat stung my eyes as my finger pressed the trigger slowly, expertly, so that only a hair’s more pressure would have sent a bullet tumbling at Walsh.

“Stand down, my friends,” Walsh said. I noticed there was more than one gun on me. Apparently the marshal had not gotten everyone. “Stand down,” Walsh said again, dropping his pistol. “This is a matter best sorted out as gentlemen.”

I kept my gun up, as did the marshal, but Walsh tossed his aside. His companions looked at each other warily but kept their guns up. Walsh took a step toward me, and I took one back. He laughed and undid his holster and tossed it at my feet.

“Well, Sheriff?” His eyes gleamed.

I glanced over at the marshal. He was holding his gun steady, and it seemed like he was only waiting for something. I realized it was for me.

Walsh rolled his steel-plated shoulder as he stared me down. It seemed like so long ago that the mayor had let him go. And me too, I supposed, only after I had shot him once, where his artificial shoulder now shrugged. I could forgive Mayor Escle, as the bond between siblings ran deep, but Walsh had only been a friend to me; his sin should have dissolved that. I could have stopped him, should have put a bullet in his back. That might have given the mayor one more reason to spite me, the marshal with no reason to be here, and me only another reason to tip the bottle, but I couldn’t keep my hand steady. I had let Walsh leave town with his life and a broken bit of metal torn through muscle and bone as his only repentance.

“Under the laws of Earth and its global foundation, in keeping with the treaties of the provinces of Mars, to which the universal colonial moon charters, their charterees, and their inhabitants are subject …” the marshal started to speak boldly and theatrically, but I only half listened as he went on, “… for the conversion of, dismantling of, and trade of government machinery …”

Walsh stepped forward again, but this time I held my ground. He wasn’t listening to the marshal any more than I was. I tried to figure out what was going on behind his eyes, his smile. There was no reason to be so unnerved by his demeanor, and I couldn’t place why I was. I had stared down and shot plenty of men before, including Walsh. I knew him, knew him too well, and my hand shook, just like before.

“… and the murder of government officials and others sponsored by Earth contracts, I hereby sentence—”

My shot rang out, cutting off the Marshal’s execution order. Walsh was on the ground, and I knew I hadn’t missed this time.

The marshal seemed undisturbed by the sudden interruption. He kneeled before Walsh and felt at his wrist. After a moment he pulled out a needle that he stuck in the dead man’s neck. After pulling the needle away he paired it with a small data slate and stood up, content.

The marshal looked around at each remaining gunman, but they didn’t return his gaze; they were all staring at me. Taking note of this to his apparent satisfaction, the marshal glanced at my badge, acknowledging it for the first time. He tipped his hat and nodded to me before taking his leave.

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Scott Birrenkott currently resides in Wisconsin where he recently received his Juris Doctorate from Marquette University Law School.  He has pet fish, and a snail, and a frog, too.  This story is his first publication though another will also be appearing in the next issue of Liquid Imagination.  He hopes that it is the first of many to come. Find him on Twitter @sbirrenkott.

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