Episode 1: Preacher at Xanadu
The living eddies within the sweating glass of red rebyl mimicked the dust storms engulfing the Martian port city of Lachish. Guido Sparks pressed the glass to the scar transecting his cheek for a long breath. Finally he downed the bottom third of the whisky in a single gulp.
“Another round?” Phish, his Venusian companion, snatched the glass from Sparks’ hand before he could slam it down.
The grit beneath Sparks’ collar, combined with his growing unease from being in one place too long said yes. The jangle of his diminishing credits said no. He nodded. The two of them would simply have to ensure the next lead panned out, unlike the last several.
Phish had already risen and started toward the bar in his typical Venusian gate—a long-strided movement chewing up distances deceptively and without hitch. The shorter of the two men, Phish could outstrip Sparks in a footrace—something Sparks never incorporated into plan A, or any plan.
Sparks surveyed the unusual crush of patrons seeking shelter from the red clouds of dust that blew in the day before. A clash of languages battered his ears. Taken alone he could understand each. At the moment he had no interest in doing so. The Bloody Bucket remained a safe haven for space rangers, smugglers and the like. Even the rankest of outlaws, if intent on continued survival, honored the varied patronage’s shared need for discreet anonymity.
Sparks also respected the unwritten rule, despite the fact such anonymity remained possible for himself in scarcely a corner of the galaxy. Lazily, he noted the entrance of a lone woman amidst of maelstrom of red dust. Stirring up no shortage of curious half-glances, the woman made directly for his corner of the establishment.
Phish returned balancing three glasses of rebyl.
Sparks’s pale-grey gaze flicked from the woman, dressed in spacer’s leather similar to his own, to his partner’s crooked grin. “Expecting company?”
“Employ.” Phish whisked into his seat and distributed the glasses of rebyl while shoving out an empty chair with his foot.
Without dropping the Venusian’s gaze, Sparks watched the woman weave through the crowded bar. He could tell already her clothes were props. Not that she didn’t wear them well, or that the grip of the leather hadn’t been accustomed to the curves it concealed. But something about her posture and movement didn’t match the outfit.
Not waiting for their undisclosed guest, Sparks tipped back his glass. Surely the woman’s lack of wariness, something developed as a natural byproduct of lurking within the galaxy’s shiftiest shadows, hadn’t escaped Phish’s seasoned eye. If anywhere in the galaxy there was a man as worthy Sparks’s respect as the man sitting across from him now, Sparks had yet to meet him.
The woman must have impressed his companion via some other means, but Phish wasn’t letting on. At last Sparks disengaged his cloud-grey eyes from his partner’s turbid black ones in order to address the woman.
She stood before them wordlessly, returning Sparks’s stare without waver—something few accomplished. In a sudden movement that brought Sparks’s hand instinctively to the well-worn grip of the heat gun strapped to his hip, the woman whisked off her visor-less helmet.
An incredible amount of untamed, fire-orange hair spilled out from the helmet’s cramped confines. The radiant tussle lit her face and sparked an instant contrast with her emerald eyes. Sparks’s tense surprise registered in the woman’s awareness, proving she’d achieved the response she’d aimed for. The slightest of grins curled the corner of her lips as she turned toward Phish and nodded while filling the empty seat.
“Guy, meet Persephone,” Phish did the introductions. “Persephone, as I’m sure you’ve deduced, this is Guido Sparks.”
After Sparks had confirmed Persephone’s ledger, it had taken all of forty-five minutes to load the necessary supplies and clear the Tempest for launch. Even before that, both men knew they would take the job. As confident as the woman had been confronting nefarious outlaws, she’d been equally as terrified discussing the job—a bounty. And on a preacher no less.
Boring, conceited, sure. But a preacher capable of talking folk to death? Sparks’ curiosity had been indelibly impressed.
Of course not everything was on the up and up. The woman had strived too laboriously to weave a lavish false backstory. Most people who found themselves in need of the likes of Guido Sparks had long relinquished propriety.
As the Tempest cleared the thin Martian atmosphere, Sparks jettisoned the exhausted burn tanks and turned to discuss the matter openly with Phish. “What do you think?”
Phish removed his headset and reclined his seat. “She’s money.”
Sparks nodded. He understood what the cunning Venusian meant in both senses of the word. “Makes sense. She sure thinks highly enough of herself.”
“Only Black Pharol thinks higher.”
“What does that make the preacher? A runaway slave?”
Phish shook his head before riveting Sparks with his hungry black eyes, betraying his cherubic golden locks and pale skin with a deeper savagery. “You saw the terror when she spoke of him. I’ve no idea whether the preacher be slave or free, but I’ll bet the next case of rebyl he’s not a man like you or I.”
“Hardly seems like a fair bet,” Sparks locked course for Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and deployed the sails. “I suppose I’ll take it. In that case, how many do you think she’s sent before us?”
“Does it matter?”
“It’s just that, well you saw how she talked more about herself than the job.”
“As if it were her first time.”
“And she seemed to be more interested in hiding her own identity than describing the preacher’s.”
“As long as the money’s real,” Phish shrugged as he stood. “I’m going to get some rest.” With two long strides he exited the bridge and slipped into the tiny living quarters. “Wake me if you spot Patrol. It’s been over a week since I’ve gotten my blood up. I could use a good drill.”
“You and me both.” Sparks stretched and watched the nearer stars rush past. After a mesmerizing few minutes he lowered the blast shields and drifted off to sleep fully expecting to dream of a sun-haired woman and the terrifyingly sweet-tongued preacher who’d incurred her rancor.
Sparks awoke to an orchestra of tiny plinks and larger thunks against the hull as the Tempest plowed a path through unexpected debris.
Instantly blinking away the fog of sleep, Sparks slammed his hand into the controls and retracted the sails.
“Where are we?” Phish flowed into his copilot chair. He switched on the display to answer his own question.
“Right where we’re supposed to be, as far as I know.” Perturbed, Sparks fired thrusters in reverse. The tempo of metallic music playing against the blast shield slowed, then stopped.
“The Tempest agrees. Supposedly we’re one click outside of Titan’s orbit.”
Sparks retracted the blast-shield for a visual and scratched his head. The blue-green haze of Titan filled nearly half their view. “And we’re on course?”
“Why hasn’t the shipping channel been cleared?”
“Maybe they’re all at church,” Phish grinned.
“This guy I gotta hear. Just as soon as he collects an offering to repair my sails.” Unamused, Sparks gripped the joystick and fired all thrusters into full descent toward Titan’s heavy atmosphere.
The bumpy ride intensified as they transitioned through blue swirling gases into green ones and finally a faded yellow, like that of the exhausted fields of wheat Sparks remembered from his childhood on Earth. He leveled their descent and corrected course according to Phish’s instructions until they punched through the dense clouds.
Visibility improved marginally as they emerged into a dry blizzard typical for Titan this time of year, or at least Sparks assumed. “What season is it here?”
“Summer, for another thirty-two days.”
“And the temperature?”
“Negative two degrees, or 28 of your precious Fahrenheit.”
The ground appeared suddenly. “Please, spare me the lecture on Earthmen hubris.” Sparks yanked the controls, assuming a course parallel to and no more than a hundred meters above the rugged, snow-covered terrain spanning much of the moon’s surface.
Phish yawned and stretched.
“How far to Xanadu?” Sparks queried.
Phish jumped forward, pressing his forehead against the windshield. “Did you see that?”
Without questioning, Sparks banked hard to port in order to come around for another look at whatever the keen-eyed Venusian had seen.
“By Black Pharol, nothing good has happened here.”
Sparks caught his breath at the sight. He banked into a low circle around the consumed ruins of what he assumed had been a mining outpost. “What does the map say?”
“New Rutan, a decade old settlement along the main vein of guarganite, home to 1,734 souls.”
“Not anymore.” Sparks righted the Tempest and followed the spiny ridge of mountains southwest toward the mining center of Xanadu. “Could have been an explosion from the mines.”
“I didn’t see a crater,” Phish frowned. “I did see bodies, dead but intact.”
“Raiders? Disease? Natural disaster?”
Sparks scratched the back of his neck. “Curious.”
The two partners completed the last minutes of their trip in silence, passing over another ruined settlement along the way. Finally, they arrived at Xanadu, a fortress of a town hunkered into the side of the mountain and overlooking the equatorial plains of Titan.
Near the equator, and only near the equator, Titan sheltered a small indigenous population. Tribal folk from a forgotten origin and forgotten time, they sustained themselves by raising herds of Gaugan along the narrow band of Titan tundra. Humans only dealt with them to improve their Gaugan breeding stock.
Here at Xanadu, the two commodities Titan had to offer merged: Gaugan, the cold-planet beast of burden and Guarganite, a volatile mineral used in space combat and interplanetary missiles due to its explosive properties when in liquid form. Concern over military use of the stuff typically rendered criminal access to Titan tricky, to say the least.
Patrol regulations should have dictated the Tempest be intercepted in orbit. While Xanadu appeared intact, no welcoming party had extended a hand of greeting, friendly or not. Sparks opened the com to all frequencies. He eyed Phish before clearing his throat, “Edsel class merchant ship, the Tempest, requesting entry.”
No response was forthcoming.
“Hello? Smugglers and outlaws with a warrant here.”
Sniggering, Phish bit his lip.
Sparks continued, “We’d like permission to kill one of your citizens and return him for cash payment.”
Static popped over the connection, “Could you repeat that?”
With raised brow, Sparks stroked the stubble on his chin.
“Edsel class merchant ship, the Tempest, requesting entry,” Sparks repeated himself.
Static filled the connection for a full three seconds before, “Oh, yes. Sure thing, right after I send you back to the void from whence you came, you barbarous devils!”
Sparks’ eyes widened as a Patrol gunner ship plummeted out of orbit and streaked straight for them, a plume of entry smoke trailing in its wake.
“Black Pharol squats!” Phish swore.
Sparks jammed the stick forward and dove for the surface with little hope of outracing a gunner at full decent. The Tempest was fast, but—
Sparks jerked his eyes toward the Patrol vessel. It was falling at suicide speed. “There’s no way.” With the Tempest still descending toward the tundra at full thrusters, Sparks slammed his hand down to deploy the blast shield.
“What are you—” before Phish could finish, the Tempest sheered suddenly to starboard and down. Sparks stiffened as he wrestled to regain control of the stick. A moment later a deafening roar washed past the ship and the hull began to glow red-hot.
“Horizon?” Sparks forced the word through clenched teeth.
Phish snapped into action. “Fifty meters, ten degrees.”
Sparks continued his tug-of-war with the controls. “Little help.”
“Right,” Phish reached across. With his hands on top of Sparks’, he joined in the fight. “Nine degrees. Eight. Impact imma—”
The Tempest struck down hard, but didn’t tumble. Slowing rapidly, she listed slightly to port before coming to a complete stop, apparently in one piece.
“Damage?” Sparks cautiously reached for the button to retract the blast shield.
“As Pharol lives,” Phish scrolled through the readout. He breathed deeply and turned to Sparks. “She’ll take off when we need her.”
Sparks raised the shield with little effect. Instead of the sky or even the surface of the Titanian tundra, the two stared into a wall of ice and alluvial deposits. “Altitude?” Sparks questioned.
“Three meters beneath the surface,” Phish grinned.
The partners stood in the aft of the tiny ship, waiting for the heat of the Tempest’s hull to melt enough snow and ice for the hatch to open.
Phish stashed a knife in his boot. “How did you know the Patrol vessel had armed itself with gaurganite missiles?”
“I didn’t. Not for sure anyway. Something about their suicidal approach.”
“I’m surprised they even got a missile armed before it went off, as hot as their entry was. What do you think they were going on about with that barbarous devils bit?”
“Sounded like preacher talk to me.”
Phish cinched his gloves tight around his wrists and checked the hatch, finding it clear enough. “My thoughts exactly.”
The two men scrambled out the entry path the Tempest had left in the tundra and took their first look around from ground level. A small herd of guagan sniffed around the scene curiously.
“Wait here, I got an idea.” Phish disappeared back down the short tunnel.
A half hour later, and with a lot of coaxing, the rangers managed to mimic ranchers and herdsman effectively enough to hitch a half dozen of the beasts to the Tempest and tow her to the surface.
As the last of the guagan lumbered away, Sparks turned his attention to the fortress city of Xanadu. “What do you think?”
Phish shrugged. “Things have gone pretty smooth so far. Getting in shouldn’t be too bad.”
“Actually, I was wondering what the chances were of getting a bath. Otherwise I’m gonna smell like guagan leavings until the calendar switches.”
“The beasts were indeed a bit more pungent up close than I had imagined.”
Sparks rubbed filth from his gloves using relatively clean snow. “Still, it was a good plan. Now to find us a bath and a preacher.”
“Clean inside and out? Guy, what’s happened to you?”
Sparks set off at a fast clip for the walls of Xanadu, a few kilometers distant. “Don’t you worry, friend. Nothing a little rebyl won’t cure after this is all over.”
“About that, still think I’m gonna be buying?” Phish caught up and clapped Sparks on the shoulder.
“I hope not.”
After twenty minutes of hiking, the two mercenaries stared up at the towering gates built into the abrupt start of the mountain. Sparks had worked up a sweat and wasn’t fond to let it freeze between his parka and skin.
“How does one go about knocking at a place like this?” Phish stepped within reach of the looming metal doors.
Sparks eased his heat gun from the holster and stood ready beside his partner. “Try your fist first.”
Shrugging, Phish pounded three times. The cold metal creaked inward, revealing the doors hadn’t be locked or even latched. Knife in hand, the Venusian stepped aside and offered Sparks the lead.
As the Earthman stepped passed the threshold, a timid voice arrested him.
“Where would my masters wish to go?”
Sparks spun in the direction of the thickly-accented English, keeping his firearm lowered. “Who’s asking?”
A short, ruddy man, lessor in years than Sparks, advanced from the shadows. “Your servant does not deserve name, only task.”
Phish leaned close, “He’s a native.”
Sparks nodded. “Are you the doorman?
The queer man with ruddy oversized limbs and small torso bowed low. “At your service, my masters.”
“First off, stop calling me that,” Sparks demanded.
“As you wish, my—” the man stopped short, leaving an awkward silence.
Phish filled it. “By Pharol what has happened here?”
The native lowered his gaze further. “Much has happened in Xanadu for many—”
Holstering his heat gun, Sparks put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Wrong answer.”
Trembling beneath Sparks’s touch, the native quickly changed tactic. “The preacher comes. He brings truth with him. He speaks it to us, like in Charlton and—”
“New Rutan?” Phish finished for him.
The native nodded.
“What kind of truth tears down a city from the inside out?”
“I—” the man shook his head. “I am only servant.”
“Never mind.” Sparks cocked his head in the direction of a shuffling sound above them. He didn’t like how vulnerable they were at the base of a long set of stairs leading further up into the city. “Just take us to this preacher fellow.”
The native shrank back, spasming with tremors. “Would my masters not rather—”
“Preacher, now.” Sparks drew his heat gun.
“As you wish.” The man scurried ahead of Sparks and Phish. But rather than up the stairs, he hurried into a darkened tunnel at their base.
“What, no bath first?” Phish breathed in Sparks’s ear as he fetched a light from his pack.
Sparks ignited his own chemical stick while loping to catch up with the oddly long-limbed native. “I changed my mind. This place stinks worse than the gaugan leavings.”
The temperature inside the tunnel rose several degrees. Sparks had just unzipped the front of his parka when the native man stopped in front of a dimly lit lift carved into the rock. The man ran his fingers over a number pad until a bright red light shone from the ceiling.
Through the dispersing, eery glow Sparks glimpsed a moving shadow several meters further along the passage. He gestured to the native. “What else is down here?”
“Tunnel is direct connection to mines.” The man shook his head. “Few workers remain after preacher speak truth to us.” The red light turned green and the elevator door opened. Phish followed the native onboard.
Sparks stood a moment longer in the tunnel. He swore he heard human speech, but in a tongue he hadn’t heard in years. He understood a few echoing words despite not recalling the language from which they came—something about a mom and dad. Slowly, he backed onto the lift.
As the doors closed in front of him, a snatch of a children’s song rang in his head: “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.” It was a Gaelic tune sung to children in the mining town near the farm where he’d been raised.
Pale faces smeared black haunted him until the lift jolted to a stop. The lights flickered once, then expired. Instinctively, Sparks’s fingers found themselves wrapped around the grip of his heat gun. “Doorman?”
“Nothing to worry yourselves, my—” he caught himself. “Is only electricity outage. Every lift is equipped with manual crank.”
A panel cracked open somewhere in the dark. Sparks placed his back against the doors and relaxed his grip on the heat gun.
The native man grunted. Slowly, the lift began again to rise. Rhythmically, the man grunted and cranked, and the lift rose.
After a few minutes, the extent of the distance they had yet to go along with the elevator car’s similarities to a coffin settled over Sparks. “Step aside.”
“But—” the native attempted to object.
“We’ll rotate the duty until we reach the top.” Sparks found the crank handle. Figuring the rotation, he started raising the lift and double the pace. A few minutes later, he recognized why the native had chosen the slower one.
As his muscles began to quiver, Phish stepped in. “My turn.”
The three men kept the rotation for nearly twenty minutes. When the car clicked against it’s moorings at the top of the run, Sparks had never been more grateful to exit a lift. But after the native pried the doors open and Sparks’s eyes adjusted to the light, the thrill abated. Drawing his heat gun, he swept the ruddy man aside and darted for the nearest cover.
Phish leapt to his partner’s side, cracking the skull of an attacker with a vicious elbow. Sparks sent another reeling with a steely-fist. Then, just as quickly as the attack had begun, it abated.
The two who’d been bloodied, tumbled into a drift of powdery snow at the feet of a half-dozen others. “Good show, you dim-wit.” A third man laughed as he bent over to assist one of the fallen. The moment he stabilized the man he delivered a hardy headbut, and both men fell down to the great amusement of the others.
“What the—?” Sparks helped the toppled native to his feet.
“It is true for these to act as such.” The man swept dry snow from his tattered cloak. “Now, unless you have changed your minds—”
“Not a chance. Take us to your precious preacher.”
Phish joined the two, a snarl on his lips. “And things were just about to get fun.”
Sparks scoffed as the three men resumed a quick pace along a cobbled street, “Nothing’s fun about killing a pack of brainwashed idiots.”
Phish wiped the glistening sweat from his face, a disturbing lust still lingering within the dark night of his eyes. “Says you.”
Sparks shivered, both from the cold wind and the reminder of the animal instinct just beneath the pale skin of every Venusian. Quickly, he shifted his focus to their surroundings.
The towering tops of stone buildings disappeared and reappeared as howling skiffs of snow coursed through the deep-cut arteries of the mountain city. Sparks knew the visible portion of Xanadu represented only a small fraction of the total, the portion inside the belly of the mountain certainly the greater.
That so much of his surroundings remained hidden made him uncomfortable. And though the ground beneath his boots felt solid enough, he knew it to be anything but.
For several minutes, they progressed smoothly through the city, seeing little signs of life, but many of decay. Shops had been abandoned, homes barricaded. Sparks gave up counting after they passed three dozen lifeless bodies, the cold preserving them from decay.
They passed a fire in an alley where several natives warmed themselves. A woman ran past them screaming about pursuers. Sparks raised his heat gun, scanning the dark doorways and windows in the direction from which she’d come. Nothing emerged.
It was then he noticed a grinning face amidst a heap of rags several feet in front of him. He lowered his weapon. The hairless face grinned wider, revealing a few isolated teeth, the last cogs on rusty and forgotten gears.
The man, at least Sparks believed it to be a man, smacked his lips and appeared to laugh silently. He raised a disembodied hand from the shifting pile of rags and beckoned Sparks closer.
Out of curiosity, Sparks did so. The closer he got, the more the beggar’s eyes roved over his body, growing wider all the time. From a few feet away, Sparks recognized the pile of rags contained various pilfered items: a cookstove, chemical sticks, full liquor bottles, an empty holster.
At this, Sparks jerked upright.
Again, the beggar shook with silent laughter. Then he nodded, and with a point of his chin directed Sparks’s attention to a darkened alley opening behind his pile.
As if he’d been watching the interaction, the doorman spoke, “Here is home of preacher.”
Phish stepped forward, “What, this guy?”
The doorman shook his head, “At end of alley.”
“No fancy temple?”
The doorman lowered his gaze straight down. “Is only humble messenger of truth.”
“Well, we’ll see about that.” Sparks strode toward the alley opening.
The doorman whimpered and fell to his knees.
Sparks turned toward the native and then his partner.
Sparks lifted the doorman to his feet and forced the man to look him in the eyes. “You’ve fulfilled your duties. Now go home, back to your family if you’ve got one.”
“Go!” Sparks released the man, and he shot away from them aether in a jet wash. With a nod of his head, Sparks signaled Phish. The partners entered the alley shoulder to shoulder, one side of the two-headed mercenary armed with a heat gun, the other a crystal-sharpened, Venusian blade.
“So,” a withered voice rose from a darkened corner of the ground-level flat, “you come from across the system to wrestle with the truth?”
The door had been wide open. Sparks moved to his right on silent boots. Phish disappeared into the darkness at his left.
“There is no need for stealth. The truth is always free for the taking.” The voice paused for a long, raspy breath. “As a matter of fact, it seeks out those willing to accept it. To embrace it.”
“Like all the cold, lifeless bodies I stepped over to get here?” Sparks scanned the dark with his steel-grey eyes for any signs of movement. “Is that what happens to folk when they accept your version of the truth?”
“Oh, the truth is not mine. It belongs individually to those who grasp it. To each his own, Mr. Sparks.”
The earthman shivered at the sound of his name spilling from the preacher’s lips.
“Are you surprised I know your name? And that of your Venusian friend? Would not the truth be aware of such trivial details?” The preacher’s voice rose in timbre and steadiness, as if the man himself were aging in reverse. “Phish and Guido, no two men past or present have matched your lust for adventure or your thirst for violence.”
Sparks misstepped, his boot crunching something brittle beneath it. At the same time, his mind began to swim. He used his off-hand to steady his heat gun. He should just fire, slash the darkness wide open and burn the man until he pulverized the stone wall behind him. But he didn’t know where to aim, and he couldn’t fire without aim.
The voice grew more intense and angry. It vibrated inside Sparks’s head. “Haughty, arrogant, you consider every other form of life beneath your own.”
An aurora burst to life before Sparks’s eyes. Shaking his head, he couldn’t shake the swimming light that burned images of his own violent acts into his sight. He lowered his gun and pressed the heal of his palm to his sockets.
The preacher continued, “Oh, you have strength of will! An iron strength that crushes all else! Death in your wake!” The preacher’s voice rose to a tumultuous fever pitch as he began to sing. “Respecter of none, sower of chaos, you shall reap what you have sown. From boy to killer you have grown! Liquor your drink and violence your food, on nothing else you shall brood.”
Sparks jerked. “Shut up! Shut your cursed face!” His arm spasmed and a dazzling flame burst from the end of the barrel in his hand. Ripped open, the dark dispersed as Sparks flailed to the ground, lashing a beam of energy wildly across the room.
“Watch it, earthling!” Phish snapped as he danced clear of the errant ray.
Sparks only released the trigger when the cold blade of Phish’s knife pinned his wrist to an overturned chair. In the bubble of silence that followed, Sparks heard the preacher laughing quietly. Lost to his pain and confusion, Sparks freed his hand by removing the knife.
As he did so, the voice continued, once again withered and weak, “I have spoken all that truth has to say. Go. If in a day’s time you still desire to kill me, I will offer my life willingly.”
At the mention of killing, Sparks leapt at a thought as if a distant memory. He had come here to kill someone, but who? Killing. It was the only thing that felt right. He should do so now.
“Go!” The voice commanded.
Sparks jumped to his feet. Unthinking, he backed toward the door.
“Come back tomorrow,” the voice paused as its owner heaved a deep sigh.
Sparks wasn’t sure why, but the words seemed full of sorrow and pain.
“If you can.” The voice finished with these final foreboding words.
To Sparks they didn’t seem sufficient. He grasped at a question that seemed to be fleeing his mind more quickly than he could ask it. He needed to know more. He needed some answer to a question he forgot.
“Out of the way, earthling, before you bleed on me.”
Sparks had reached the door, but before he could back through it, an angry Venusian barreled him over. Tumbling into a drift of snow in the alley, Sparks rebounded quickly. Leaping forward, he swept the Venusian’s legs and shoved him headlong.
A moment later the two men clambered into the street while exchanging blows.
“Out of my way! I’m thirsty!” Getting the better of him, the Venusian clapped a two-fisted hammer against Sparks’s jaw.
Sprawling to the street, Sparks struck the cobblestones and rolled to a hard stop. The punishment severed the final tether his mind had been grasping, and whatever it was he’d been attempting to realize sank into the cold stone beneath his cheek.
Sparks awoke to something tugging gently at his side. Reflex guided his hand to the grip of his heat gun where he fought off a frail, bony hand already in the process of removing the pistol from its holster. His other hand shot out just as quickly to grip the throat of the intruder.
Sitting up and blinking snow out of his eyes, he finally focused on the toothless grimace of a beggar. The man choked and sputtered. Sparks squeezed. “You’re not even worth the charge it would take to fry you.
The man attempted to shake his head, his eyes bulging. He slapped his ears repeatedly with open palms and again tried to shake his head.
Sparks squeezed. He didn’t know where he was, or who this man was before him. But he knew the taste and touch of killing intimately. The act of it warmed his insides.
The man slapped his own ears until they bled, his eyes now rolled into his head.
One last twitch and it would be done. Then it struck him. As bright red drops of blood stained the drift of white snow gathered where Sparks had lain on the cold cobbles, it struck him. The beggar was deaf.
Sparks released his grip, dropping the pitiful creature facedown in the street. Why should it matter? Who cared if the man was deaf. He had tried to steal another man’s pistol. For that, it was Sparks’s right to kill him, deaf or otherwise.
But for some reason it mattered.
Cold and sore all over, Sparks let it go. His stomach rumbled. His throat ached. He needed something to sooth it. He needed a drink. Wobbly, he rose to his feet and kicked the beggar out of the way.
A natural instinct for finding taverns and a vague recollection of his surroundings led him in short time to a doorway lit by flame and buzzing with laughter. Scattered chords of a familiar ditty played on a strange tonal percussion instrument greeted Sparks as he ambled across the threshold.
“About time you show up, slowpoke.” A gold-haired cherub of a Venusian called to him from the back corner. “I was beginning to think that beggar slit your throat.”
Sparks grinned, “Fat chance.” He turned aside to the bar. “What is there to drink in this shinta hole.”
“Why don’t you start with your own blood, you foul-mouthed devil!” A lumbering minor rose from his stool and slashed at Sparks with a roughly fashioned shiv.
Sparks casually drew his heat gun and burned a hole through the man’s chest. As the man slumped to the ground, Sparks slammed his pistol on the bar. “I said get me a drink!”
“Better make that two.”
Sparks spun to face the devious black-eyes of the Venusian.
For a split second, the confidence buoying the two terrible windows into a dark time before history deflated. “I seem to recall something about you owing me one.”
Sparks nodded. “You know, I think you’re right.” He pounded the bar again. “Two drinks!”
A ruddy-skinned, long-limbed bartender shook as he attempted to pour the drinks.
Sparks snatched the bottle and shoved the man against the shelves behind the bar. As the bartender struggled to catch bottles of turbid liquor before they shattered against the stone floor, the bar song rose in volume and intensity. An alien voice took up the tune.
Sparks seized, his muscles jerking, his consciousness dancing like a needle across the grooved surface an ancient vinyl record—the kind his grandmother kept on her high shelf. Something familiar resided in those grooves, but his mind couldn’t settle into them.
The musician sang the chorus with lilting tremolo as if from dual throats, “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.”
In hostile resistance, Sparks’s mind skipped completely, returning control of his body to a baser instinct. He licked his cracked lips. Half swaggering and half dizzy, he sidled to the table where the Venusian sat. “The service around here stinks.”
“I think it’s you that stinks, my friend.”
Sparks slammed the bottle on the table and lunged with a slow haymaker.
The Venusian caught it while pulling a knife from his boot.
Sparks jabbed his heat gun into the Venusian’s ribs at the same time he felt the knife against his own. Both men looked down and laughed.
“This calls for a drink!”
Sparks attempted to cork the bottle after pouring two glasses of nose-curdling, blue liquid. He stopped short at a sharp pain.
“What happened to your wrist?” The Venusian pointed with his glass before knocking back a third of it and grimacing.
Sparks held up his hand, a curious look on his face. In the background, the harpsichord-like music plinked and plucked at a tune Sparks felt he could hum to if he were so inclined. Gritting his teeth, he dug his thumb into the wound. His hand twitched, but all the fingers still worked.
A memory flashed through his mind alongside the pain. The injury was recent. Why couldn’t he remember it? He battered the door of his mind in attempt to break it down, but failed. The earliest thing he could recall was the beggar. He hummed a bar or two of music. “Did you know that beggar is deaf?”
“Deaf? Why in the name of Pharol should I care about that?”
Sparks used his good hand to tip back his drink. The odor was like wet dog, and the taste diesel. But the burn. The burn took his breath away. Blinking through the fumes, he finally managed to gulp air into his lungs.
The Venusian laughed before taking a swig himself. When both men recovered, he continued, “How can a moon with so much snow be so dry?”
They clinked glasses and Sparks licked his lips in anticipation of that blessed burn.
Everything began to blur together. Hours passed, possibly days. Sparks couldn’t be sure. At first he thought it a nasty side effect of the booze, then something else. Possibly the Venusian had poisoned him. He couldn’t remember how many times they had fought, or why.
A strong heat brushed against his face. Laughter filled his ears. Suddenly he rolled onto his side and puked. The bile stripped the inside of his throat, leaving behind nothing but pain. Through the pain, he recognized the sound in his ears as fire rather than laughter. The burn in his throat became a combination of bile and smoke.
He rolled onto his stomach and pushed against the floor, heat radiating from the cobbled stones. His muscles trembled at the effort. What was wrong with him?
Finally, he reached his knees. He coughed in the thickening smoke and froze as a familiar tune tickled his ears. Chords of music rose over the cracks and pops of the fire, then an alien voice, “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.” A clot of fear lodged in his chest. His parents. He had to save them, but where were they?
On unsteady feet he plodded and stumbled through a maze of overturned tables searching for family to pull from the flames. With each uncertain step, the farmhouse and hay barn of his youth transformed into a tavern of stone and rough-hewn wooden beams.
With each rasping breath, his murderous lust evolved into duty, loyalty. But to what? And to who? The music grew off-tune, skipping notes and plucking dead strings. Sparks took up the tune himself. Mouthing breathless words, he continued the song. While his muscles deteriorated with each effort, his mind strengthened.
Xanadu. The bar, the city where he found himself. He remembered.
He caught a flicker of movement through the corner of his eye. Behind a wall of smoke, at the back of the bar, someone else struggled to survive. Hacking, choking, stumbling, Sparks wrenched a table off of a gold-haired Venusian. “Phish,” his throat constricted around the word.
His friend was burned, but angry—the anger a good indicator of life.
“Help me up, earthman.”
Sparks tugged with every dying ember of his strength and the two rose together. The music had stopped altogether and Sparks had lost the tune, but he remembered where he was and why he’d come—to kill a preacher for money.
The purpose lent him new resolve. As the mammoth timbers girding the tavern ceiling snapped and gave way to the hunger of the flames, Sparks and his Venusian partner rolled gratefully into the welcoming cold of a snow drift.
A cold trickle worked its way down the back of Sparks’s throat. His swallow reflex jolted him awake as the constriction of his burning throat shot pain up and down his spine. With difficulty he raised his head. A dazzling aurora swam in the sky above him. He watched the colors morph and dance in amazement. A trickle of melted snow ran down his nose and pooled at his lips.
As he licked the water, a thirst reared within him. How long had it been since he had drank anything but booze?
A quick movement caught his eye just before a cold puff of snow struck his head. He blinked away the dry flakes and focused on a man, a Titanian native with long ruddy arms and legs.
The native dusted snow from his hands and cocked his head.
“Do I know you?” Sparks whispered the words as loud as he could.
“Where would my masters wish for me to take them today?”
The accented English combined with the subservient tone sparked a memory in a dormant section of Sparks’s brain. “The doorman?”
“At my masters’ service.”
A rustling at Sparks’s elbow diverted his attention. “Phish, about time you wake up.” Sparks tugged his partner into a sitting position and helped dust off the snow that had drifted around them.
“Guy?” The Venusian’s voice cracked. He grimaced and attempted to swallow. Finally he whispered, “Where are we?”
Sparks smiled broadly enough to make his lips bleed. “Xanadu.” He turned toward the doorman and continued, “I think we came here on a bounty.”
“I remember. Something about a preacher.” Phish gripped Sparks’s hand, and they helped each other up on wobbly legs.
Sparks nodded. “A preacher we’re supposed to kill.”
The doorman drew cautiously near, “Would my masters like me to take them to preacher?”
Breathing shallow, Sparks rested his hands on his knees in an effort to stop the world from spinning. “First, stop calling me that. Second, yes, take us to this preacher. But could we get something to drink first?”
The doorman stepped back glancing nervously between the two men and the smoldering remains of the tavern.
Sparks understood his concern and shook his head. “Not booze. Water.”
The doorman smiled, his lips rising in the middle as well as both corners. His voice warmed and grew an added dimension, “As you wish.”
Slowly, the small party worked its way along cobblestone streets—one block, then two, and finally a third. The only visible bodies remaining in Xanadu not belonging to the three of them were dead ones. Sparks didn’t miss the fact that not one of the dead were natives. They stopped in front of large and luxuriously-one-storied building. The wooden shutters were shattered and listing, but the rest of the structure remained intact.
The doorman led them inside the abandoned structure and seated them near a window.
Sparks caught the doorman’s shoulder. “How long—” He fumbled over how to formulate his question, unsure of exactly what he was asking. “How long ago did we first meet?”
Without lifting his gaze, the native responded, “Five days have passed since first I serve my—” he caught himself, “since first we meet.” The man scurried off before Sparks could detain him further.
“Five days?” Phish grilled Sparks with black eyes and furrowed brows. “What have we been doing for five days? I barely remember arriving.”
Sparks met the Venusian’s intensity and raised it. “What are we?”
Phish cocked his head and raised a brow.
“I mean, what dictates who we are?”
“A man’s no better than his actions, why?”
Sparks nodded. “So we’re drunks and hooligans.”
Phish narrowed his eyes, a flare of anger sparking beneath their polished black surface. “We’re mercenaries and smugglers.” He straightened. “At least I think we are.”
The doorman returned with two metal mugs filled with water and two hard loaves of bread that clanked nearly as loud as the mugs when he placed them on the table. “I shall show you to preacher at your leisure.” He bowed and withdrew.
The two partners ate their meager meal in silence, finishing it as quickly as their parched throats allowed. Fifteen minutes later they followed the doorman’s lead as the three of them pushed through a newly invigorated northern wind carrying with it blinding skiffs of snow.
“You’re late,” a shriveled voice spoke from the shadows.
A dizzying sense of deja vu struck Sparks between the eyes. “Time flies.”
“For some,” the preacher wheezed, “but truth is eternal.”
Sparks closed his eyes, stabilizing himself with Phish’s shoulder. Slowly but surely his memory of their previous encounter with the preacher returned. “You,” he released Phish, “you on the other hand, are not.” He gripped an unlit chemical stick in one hand and his heat gun in the other.
“Despite your tardiness, I will honor our agreement. You’ve no need to fear.”
“Fear?” Phish interrupted. “As if we were afraid of an old man hiding in the shadows?”
“Oh you are afraid, my Venusian warrior. Do not mistake the willingness to die as lack of fear. Your fear stems from lack of necessity.” The man wheezed in an effort to catch his breath, his audience unable to override him. “But as I have said, you fear needlessly, for Guido Sparks has need of you, as have I.”
Sparks blinked a drop of sweat from an eyelash and grew suddenly aware that he’d raised his heat gun. He gripped it so tight, his hand shook. His chest heaved and his brow ran with sweat despite the cold. “Who are you?”
“Does it matter? You have come to kill me, and I have surrendered myself into your hand.”
Phish nudged Sparks.
Sparks shook his head.
Impatiently, Phish tugged the chemical stick from Sparks’s left hand and activated it. The pale, blue-green glow burst to life, pushing back the shadows and revealing a hunched figure no more than ten paces in front of them. The Venusian sheathed his knife and drew his own heat gun. “Burn him, or I will.”
“Not yet,” Sparks barked through gritted teeth. He fought against his own urge to squeeze the trigger, to vent the building urge to sever the preacher’s connection to this world, to fulfill his word with the taking of a life. With quivering lips, he continued, “You speak of the truth as if you’re incapable of telling a lie.”
“Telling the truth and speaking it are two different things.”
Sparks shook his head, his hand cramping around the grip of his gun. “No. A man is more than what he does.”
“So Guido Sparks wants to be more than a killer? A killer for pay perhaps?”
“Guy, what are you doing? We can’t wait any longer.” Phish squeezed the trigger.
Sparks sensed the moment coming. Colliding into his partner’s shoulder, he forced the Venusian’s energy beam high. The stone ceiling crackled and burst into a spray of shattered rock as Sparks attempted to wrest the gun from Phish’s grip. “Who are you?!” Sparks continued to grill the preacher even as the ray from Phish’s heat gun slashed across the far wall. “I need to know!”
The preacher’s voice rose again in timbre and richness. He bellowed above the crackling thunder of the superheated rock exploding from the ceiling and walls. “One day you will find what you seek, Guido Sparks. I am not truth, but merely an unholy messenger, brought about through unrighteous means and unleashed as a weapon. Now, I beg of you, end me!”
Surrendering both to his own impulses and the strength of his Venusian companion, Sparks and Phish directed the beam of sizzling energy together. Four hands gripping the gun, and in singularity of action, the hunched figure of the preacher toppled and fell beneath the ray of unquenchable thirst.
Sparks blinked through the smoke of sizzling rock and burning clothes. Absent was the stink of scalded flesh. Clambering to his feet, he witnessed the collapse and consumption of the preacher’s cloak, but the old man’s body had gone. If ever he had possessed one, nothing now remained. No stink, no ash, nothing.
Phish rose and holstered his weapon. “What was that about?”
Sparks shook his head. “I wanted an explanation for the past five days.”
Phish raised a brow. “Explanation for what? The dust storms on Mars? For why we had such a long row of bad luck? And why in Pharol’s name would this guy know about any of that?”
Sparks stood dazed. “You don’t remember?”
Phish rolled his black eyes. “Fine, I owe you a case of rebyl. As soon as we find a tavern, I’ll pay up.” He wiped the sweat from his brow. “First why don’t we follow up on that bath you mentioned?”
On their way out of Xanadu, Sparks did his best to explain what he could remember of the five day gap between the first time they confronted the preacher and the last. Part of him had hoped to run into the doorman, but the only living soul they encountered had been the deaf beggar.
Sparks had grilled him with narrow eyes and the beggar had merely shrugged and given him a toothless grin, as if to say “it was worth a try.”
Sparks couldn’t help but wonder why the natives seemed unaffected and if they had been what prevented Xanadu from descending down the same path of complete destruction that the other settlements had. Was their truth that different from his and Phish’s and the rest of the off-world miners’? Perhaps the recent century of oppression had been their salvation. Perhaps his experience simply couldn’t understand theirs.
After they did what they could to repair the Tempest’s solar sails and succeeded in punching through Titan’s thick atmosphere to establish orbit, Phish turned to Sparks with a question revealing what had been occupying his more practically keen mind, “Before we killed him, the preacher mentioned being unleashed as a weapon. If that’s the case, who do you think unleashed him and why?”
Before Sparks could respond, the Tempest’s com bleeped with an incoming message. Sparks hesitated, his finger hovering over the button. “Time to collect payment?”
Phish shrugged, “You’re gonna have to buy me a case of rebyl somehow.”
Sparks opened the connection and cleared his voice.
“About time you boys poked your head up through the clouds.” It was the cocky-smooth voice of Persephone. “I’ve been looking for your signal for some time. I hope everything went smoothly?”
“Your preacher’s dead, if that’s what you’re asking.” Sparks ran a hand across his face, realizing his stubble had nearly grown into a beard.
“Oh I never doubted that.”
“Trouble?” Phish laughed. “Oh no trouble, just transfer the ledger and we’ll be fine.”
Sparks detected the slightest of hesitations on the other end. He hated wrapping up deals of this magnitude via such impersonal means. People made dumb decisions from the anonymity and perceived security of great distances.
“Will do,” she finally continued. “Just give me a minute, and you’ll see it appear.” She sighed audibly. “I’m sorry we couldn’t share another drink together, Sparks.” She cut the connection.
Sparks exchanged uncomfortable glances with Phish and his skin began to crawl. “Did something about that sound—”
Phish nodded before he could finish.
Without even checking their ledger, Sparks fired full thrusters to break orbit. Sitting still had once again become intolerable.
A slim three seconds later, the coordinates where they would have been, had they not altered trajectory, collapsed and then expanded exponentially as a interplanetary ordinate tipped with gaurginite detonated less than a click off their port side. The ripple flipped the Tempest before Sparks could respond.
Held fast by his harness, he mashed his palm into the controls in effort to deploy the single-use, emergency sail. Succeeding, the Tempest tumbled even more violently to face the source of the explosion, as the sail worked like a pillowcase in a hurricane.
Bucking against his restraints and struggling to hold his chin off his chest, Sparks managed to ride the surge without blacking out. The moment they dropped from the wash, he fired full thrusters and manually steered for a course somewhere far away from Titan. “Coordinates.”
“For where?” Phish rubbed his bleary eyes in an attempt to focus.
Phish punched in their destination and without wasting a heart beat, Sparks deployed what was left of their solar sails. Without looking back, he opened up the Tempest’s full capabilities, and to anyone who might still be looking for them, they became a blur streaking across the swirling backdrop of Saturn.
END of Episode One