I try to keep pressure on the bullet wound but blood still leaks out between my fingers. It’s a deep red against my green scales. I don’t know if I hit that damn bug, Renny. But he hit me. It’s been quiet for a minute or two, or ten. I think I’m in shock; staring first at my blood, then my badge, then my blood. The sun’s starting to get low in the sky, casting long shadows in the rocky canyon. My thoughts drift.
In my mind, I see the government frigate orbiting. Big letters on the side say Interstellar Alliance of Planets, but I can’t remember the identifier after it. Doesn’t matter. Rumor is, the IAP collapsed from the weight of its own bureaucratic ineptitude long before I woke up. The nearest outpost I can remember was at least fifteen jumps away. Those guys are now probably local police or warlords or farmers. If they’re not dead. No help is coming.
I struggle to stand, pain exploding in my side, and stick my head up to see if my floater is still there. It is, and the weathered saddle bags are untouched. I creep toward it, each step a painful reminder I’ve been shot. Holding my archaic pistol in hand, I notice it’s unusually heavy now.
My tongue instinctively shoots in and out of my mouth, smelling Renny’s copper-rich hemocyanin. Unlike me, he bleeds out the blue stuff. I did hit him, then.
“Stop right there, Masok,” Renny shouts.
“Damnit, Renny. I took a bad one. Fact that I’m not dead means you took one too. Can we stop shooting at each other?”
“Yeah, okay,” he responds.
“I’m gonna get my med-packs and some of that home-made whiskey, okay? You want some?”
He’s slow to respond. “Yeah, whiskey sounds good.”
Staggering to the floater, I rummage through the saddle bags for my last two med-packs and a metal bottle with the well-worn stenciled words “In Case of Emergency” on it. We’re so far out in the Fringe that getting another floater or any medical supplies is nearly impossible. The IAP, if it still exists, hasn’t sent a ship in over two generations.
I hobble over to Renny and survey my handiwork. He’s shot in the gut and is barely conscious, propped up against a rock. Most of his eyes are closed but I see the feelers moving around his mouth.
Slumping to the ground beside him, I prep the med-pack but he waves me off.
“No, just give me the bottle.”
Flipping open the top, I pass it to him. He looks at the writing on the side and chuckles, then coughs. “Ain’t that the truth?”
I tear open my shirt, slap on the med-pack, feel the pinch of the needle and the sucking sensation as it closes over the wound. Immediately, the pain subsides.
Picking up my last med-pack, I prep it and lean over Renny. He tries to push me aside as I get to his wound but he’s too weak, his chitinous arms too heavy. They fall limp at his sides. I put it on and activate it.
Renny’s eyes light up after the meds hit his system.
“Masok, you idiot,” he rasps. “That was a waste.”
He takes another swig and hands me the bottle. After a long draw, I give it back.
“Damnit, but bullets hurt,” he manages. “Why didn’t you shoot me with a sun gun?”
“Same as you. Can’t afford the charge. Don’t know where you been lately, but nothing in town generates that kind of power. So, lucky you, you get a bullet.” I change the subject. “Why, Renny?”
“I could ask you the same thing. You coulda looked the other way.”
“I did more than my share of looking the other way. Couldn’t do it anymore. You knew I’d be here, knew I had to be. But you tried to rob that old mag lev anyway. That’s why we’re both shot. With bullets no less.”
Another chuckle. “I just wanted to get off this rock. I miss flyin’. I miss salvage. Those were good times.”
“Don’t bring that up,” I say. “That debt’s been paid.”
But Renny has to go there. It’s all he’s got left and, even now, he’s looking for leverage. Renny found me in a salvage operation four jumps away in cold sleep. When he woke me up, I had lost eighty-seven years and any hope of a pension.
“You were an icicle in that IAP ship before I found you,” He says. “I liked you better then.”
Before my badge.
“Yeah,” he continues. “With that mag lev’s cargo, I coulda bought my way off this rock.”
‘This rock’, though not crowded, has its share of natives, colonials, former IAP and aliens. Not much else, though. Maybe Renny’s right. Maybe I should book passage somewhere else too. But where would I go? We get so little word of what else is going on in the Fringe, much less the rest of the galaxy.
I hear his labored breathing as we sit for a while. “Where you gonna go, Renny? Where is better than here?”
“My pocket,” he whispers. He points because he doesn’t have the strength to reach into it. I lean over, withdraw a picture. Across the top it reads, “Monoceros, Ptolemy Cluster, Orion System.” The picture shows lots of water and green plants I’ve never seen. Everyone in it wears little more than a smile.
“Looks nice,” I say. I hold it up for him to see and he smiles too. He stares at it unblinkingly for a few moments before I realize he’s dead.
Reaching over, I close all of his eyelids. “Looks like you got off this rock after all.”
I put the picture in my pocket. The sun stabs a shaft of light into the canyon and it reflects weakly off my tarnished badge. I rip it off my blood-soaked shirt and gently slip it in Renny’s pocket.
Steven W. Johnson lives in suburban Denver, CO with his wife and son. After years spent working in finance and real estate, he is finally getting a chance to follow his passion. He’s very grateful for the support of his family, the Louisville Writers’ Workshop and his steadfast companions at the Cannon Mine who have suffered through so many versions of his stories and without whom his work would not be nearly as good.
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