Children of Darkness: Chapter 5

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Marcus rolled over on the cheap bed and groaned. He’d guessed right about the party. His mouth tasted like a family of dome rats had moved in and set up housekeeping. Light streamed through the windows of the room he and Solomon shared. Two beds, two footlockers, and nothing else. The rooms at the lounge didn’t cost much for a reason.

How long had he slept? The party wound down way after midnight. He sat up and wished he hadn’t. His head throbbed and the room seemed to expand and contract with his pulse. He couldn’t do this anymore, the all-night parties. Maybe the Fireside wouldn’t suck so much after all.

The door swung open and he grabbed his gauntlet. When he saw Solomon he set it back down.

“Finally awake?” Solomon carried a tray loaded with pastries and a steaming carafe.

Marcus groaned and lay back down. He didn’t want food, just thinking about it made his stomach churn. The coffee smelled good though.

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Solomon set the tray on Marcus’s footlocker and poured coffee into two cups. He dug two gray pills out of his pocket and held them out to Marcus along with a cup. “Here, Dodger left these after he helped carry you up here.”

Marcus sat back up and took the cup and pills. “His miracle hangover cure?”

“So he said.” Solomon spoke around a mouthful of pastry.

Marcus grimaced. Dodger’s habits made him look like a tea-teetotaling nun. His quest for a miracle hangover cure had grown legendary. Marcus tossed the pills aside and they rolled around in the corner. “Last time I took one of his concoctions it made me sicker than the hangover.”

“He said he had it just right this time.”

“He said the same thing three years ago. That mixture must have been his fifteenth version. This must be thirty or forty. No, thank you.” Marcus reached under his bed and dragged out his duffle. He dug around and pulled out a bottle filled with painkillers big enough to numb a horse. He managed, with much effort, to choke one down. “That ought to do it.”

They finished the pastries; in fact Solomon finished the pastries, Marcus just nibbled on a doughnut. His headache faded and his brain started functioning again. They needed to sell the destroyer. Then they’d have enough to give the Star a complete overhaul.

“Are you sure you want to spend another night here?” Solomon asked.

Marcus almost grinned, but the dull ache behind his eyes made him think better of it. “Maybe one night partying with the old gang was enough.”

“Should I call over to the Inn and make reservations?” Solomon danced in place.

“No, let’s head to the junkyard and sell the destroyer first. Then we can find new accommodations. There must be somewhere better than the bloody Fireside Inn.”

Solomon shrugged. “All right, where are we going?”

“William O’Mara’s junkyard.”

Solomon groaned. “Not Slick Willie again. The last time we went there he tried to cheat us.”

“Trying to get twice as much as something’s worth isn’t the same as trying to cheat you, it’s negotiating. Willie’s as honest as any of the merchants we deal with.”

“There’s a ringing endorsement.”

Marcus laughed then winced when his headache flared up. “I thought I was supposed to be the cynic. Everything Willie sells works and he always pays on time. You can’t ask for any more.”

“Fine, but the way you two haggle I’d better make the reservations now.”

“Suit yourself, my friend,” Marcus said, trying hard not to laugh.

They left the empty Spacer’s Lounge and headed down the street to the hovertrain platform. Willie had his junkyard in the next dome north. They had the platform to themselves, most people with jobs left for work well before ten o’clock. The train arrived with computerized precision. Marcus dropped a twenty-credit coin in the slot and the doors slid open. They boarded and sixty seconds later they blasted out of the dome at three hundred miles an hour.

It took twenty minutes to reach the next dome. They disembarked and found a small group of tourists waiting to board. Marcus sidestepped a man with a holorecorder who paid more attention to the scenery he filmed than where he walked. He couldn’t imagine what the dope wanted to record around here. The buildings had all seen better days and the air left a metallic tang in his mouth. Marcus figured the filters needed tuning, or better yet replacing.

They left the tourists behind and headed down the street toward the mountain of junk visible from the platform. Dying maples and yellow grass grew at irregular intervals along the sidewalk. For sure something was wrong with the filters. Three blocks from the platform they found the junkyard unchanged from their last visit. Scrap metal and parts piled on either side of a squat, rundown office. On the side of the building an ancient 1900’s style neon sign flickered, showing a leprechaun sitting on a hyperdrive coil.

They went in without knocking and found Willie behind his desk writing and muttering to himself. The old man looked like a big brother to the leprechaun outside. He glanced up as they approached.

“Hi, Willie,” Marcus said as they entered. Solomon closed the door behind them.

“Hello, lads. Have a seat.” He gestured to a pair of chairs covered with papers. Once they cleared them off and sat Willie continued. “So what brings you boys by?”

Marcus smiled. He turned thirty in eight months and nobody had referred to him as a boy in a good while. Still, he took no offense as Willie passed ninety a few years ago and to him everybody younger than sixty looked like a kid. “We’re here on business.”

The old man’s expression narrowed and he got a hungry gleam in his eye. Willie lived for a deal. “Buying or selling?”

Out of the corner of his eye Marcus saw his friend roll his eyes to the ceiling. “We’re selling,” Marcus said.

Willie rubbed his hands together. “What have you got for me?”

Marcus typed a short command into his gauntlet and a hologram of the destroyer appeared in the air between them. “We found it drifting in deep space. There was no one on board to claim it so it’s fair salvage.” It was true enough since Iaka didn’t want it.

“That’s an old Earth Force destroyer, isn’t it?” Willie squinted at the hologram.

“Sure is, decommissioned for civilian use.”

“Give me the specs and I’ll make you an offer.”

Marcus had typed half of another command when in walked two men wearing identical black suits. Slight bulges under their arms betrayed the blasters holstered there. Earth Force agents, Marcus would have bet the Star on it.

“You two will come with us,” the agent on the right said. They showed no emotions. Earth Force agents seldom did.

“Of course,” Marcus said. His mind raced. Whatever Iaka’s mission, it must have been important if they had the dogs out already. Marcus knew they should have delivered her frozen and let Earth Force thaw her out. He remembered those legs and decided maybe he could stand a little trouble. He had to figure a way out of this mess.

As he and Solomon eased up to their feet, Marcus tapped the front of his gauntlet and a pair of metal studs popped out and locked in place. “We’ll have to finish this conversation another time, Willie.”

Willie nodded. “Sure, lad. I’m not going anywhere.”

“You’ll have to remove that as well.” The agent on the left indicated his gauntlet.

Feigning irritation, Marcus removed the gauntlet and tossed it to the agent on the right. He threw it harder than necessary and the agent fumbled it. His hand hit one of the studs. A light flashed and the second agent watched his partner fall to the ground. Marcus took advantage of the distraction to clobber the still-standing agent in the jaw. He wobbled and Marcus waded in with a left to the gut and an upper cut. The agent collapsed to the floor, out cold.

Marcus rubbed his hand. He hated bare knuckle fighting. His hand would ache for days. Marcus collected his gauntlet and helped himself to the agents’ blasters and communicators. Solomon caught a blaster and communicator when Marcus tossed them his way. The second weapon Marcus slipped into his front pocket. He smashed the second communicator under his heel.

“How do you suppose they found us?” Solomon asked.

“Sleeping Beauty probably told them we planned to salvage the ship.”

“I suppose, but how did they know to look for us here?”

“I don’t expect they did. How much you want to bet there’s another pair waiting at Mac’s junkyard? What I don’t get is why. We don’t know anything. We just gave her a ride home. Hell, they should thank us for rescuing her.”

“I hate to interrupt you boys, but what should I do with them?” Willie nodded at the unconscious agents drooling on his floor.

Marcus reset the weapons module on his gauntlet and pumped stun blasts into each of the agents. “They’ll be out for at least an hour. Give us a fifteen-minute head start then call the dome patrol. Tell them what happened but don’t mention the destroyer.”

Willie nodded. “Speaking of the destroyer, I’ll take a pass on it. You boys come back after you get this mess cleared up and we’ll talk again.”

“Sure.” Marcus shook hands with the old man. “I’m sorry to get you mixed up in this.”

“Bah, I’m ninety-four years old. What are they going to do, arrest me?” Willie peered at them. “You boys in bad trouble?”

Marcus sighed. “Bad enough, I imagine. I noticed their blasters didn’t have a stun setting so what does that tell you? I think it’s time for us to get off Mars for a while.”

“Yeah, like forever,” Solomon said. 

They left Willie and the unconscious Earth Force agents and retraced their steps back to the train platform. They needed to return to the ship and jet. If someone had left a job offer they’d wait long enough to load.

An empty platform greeted them. Pity, Marcus would have welcomed some people to act as cover. Solomon went to check the schedule. “Next train’s in five minutes.” Solomon sat on the bench while Marcus paced. Their head start dwindled by the second.

Marcus checked the clock in his gauntlet for the third time in a minute. You’d think the goddamn train could arrive early once in his life. He looked up and blinked. A pair of large, hairy humanoids plodded towards them. When they got closer Marcus realized how big they were. Both stood over seven feet and must have measured five wide at the shoulder. They wore nothing but loincloths. He recognized the creatures as Gorts. Not just any Gorts, but he suspected a pair of old associates.

Marcus tapped Solomon on the shoulder. “Look sharp, partner. We’ve got company.”

Solomon got to his feet. His hands shook as the two behemoths bore down on them. He reached for the blaster they’d taken off the Earth Force agent but Marcus grabbed his wrist. That little blaster would just piss them off. “Steady. I don’t think they mean us any harm.”

“They’re Gorts, they mean everybody harm.”

The creatures stopped two strides away. The one on the right held out his hand. In it rested a small metal disk half an inch thick. Marcus knew better than to accept gifts from strangers, but he also knew better than to refuse a Gort. He reached for the disk, expecting his arm to get ripped off at any moment. He grabbed the disk and the Gort lowered his hand and stared at them.

Marcus handed the disk to Solomon, relieved to have his extremities intact. “What do you think?”

Solomon checked it over. “Doesn’t look dangerous. There’s a button on the side that probably turns it on.”

“What’s it do?”

Solomon shrugged. “Beats me.”

“Turn it on.”

Solomon handed it back. “You turn it on.”

Marcus grinned and thumbed the button. The disk hummed and a moment later a hologram of a man’s head appeared. He wore his white hair pulled back in a neat ponytail and sported a white goatee. His eyes sparkled, piercing and icy blue. Vlad Valcore.

“Hello, Marcus,” Vlad said in his familiar Russian accent. “I hope King and Kong didn’t startle you. We need to talk. I’m sure you remember the way, but the lads will make sure no one bothers you.”

The hologram faded away then the recorder sparked and shorted out. Marcus tossed it to King who snatched it out of the air and crushed it. King smiled, revealing double rows of razor-sharp teeth. Vlad must have heard what happened, maybe he could help them get off planet.

“What now?” Solomon asked.

“Now we go see what he wants.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea? We’re in enough trouble without getting mixed up with Valcore.”

“I can’t argue about the trouble we’re in, but Vlad might be our best way out of it. If anyone can get us off Mars it’s Vlad. Lead on, fellas.”

King plodded forward and Kong motioned them to follow while he brought up the rear. They obliged and after half a block Solomon said, “Be honest, you just want to visit Vlad once more before we leave Mars, maybe forever.”

“I would like to say goodbye. Hell, the old man was like my second father. He taught me everything I know.”

“About crime,” Solomon added.

“Not just that. He taught me to fly, to fight, and to take care of myself. After Mom and Dad died I wouldn’t have lasted six months if Vlad hadn’t taken me in.”

Four blocks from the platform Marcus spotted a pair of white-haired, stooped humans, a husband and wife he thought. The pair rushed toward them. The man held an expensive holorecorder. He pointed it right at King and snapped a picture. King snarled and bared his fangs.

The wife smiled and clapped her hands. “Oh, George, get a picture of it snarling.”

“Yes, dear.” The old man raised the camera and snapped another picture. The resigned look on his face said he’d prefer the Gorts kill him than tell his wife no.

Marcus smiled. King and Kong must have had orders to be on their best behavior since they didn’t rip the man’s arms off and beat him to death with them. Marcus had seen a Gort do that once.

The tourists wandered away and Marcus heard the wife say, “Wait until Martha sees these pictures. She’ll be so jealous.” Marcus shook his head. Those two should buy a lottery ticket. 

They reached Vlad’s home base, an old Earth antique shop. They went around to the rear of the building and found the back door unlocked. King opened it and motioned them in.

Stepping into the shop felt like stepping back in time. He’d only been eight the first time his mother brought him here hoping to find a new book for her collection. They’d gone home with a leather-bound copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He remembered the huge smile she wore the whole way home. Mom already had two leather-bound Verne novels and she’d looked so excited to add a third. All three of those books now sat on a shelf in his cabin on the Star.

Marcus and Solomon walked through stacks of books and old oil paintings. The scent of wood polish and leather filled the room. They passed a glass case and Marcus saw the old Colt Peacemaker still rested in the same place he remembered.

The steps up to Vlad’s office sat in the back corner of the building. Time to pay his respects to one of the three most powerful men on Mars.

Marcus took a deep breath, let it out over a slow five count, and started up the steps. At the top they found a well appointed room lined with bookshelves filled with leather-bound books and other small collectibles. In the center of the room sat an antique oak desk and three leather chairs. Behind the desk waited the man from the hologram, Vlad Valcore. A cigarette hung from his lip and as they approached he took it out and smiled. He set the smoldering cigarette in a porcelain ashtray.

“Hi, old man,” Marcus said.

Vlad stood and walked around the desk. He looked a little thinner and his face had a few more lines. Still, for a man in his mid-seventies Vlad stood straight and tall. Marcus stepped closer and the two men embraced. “Good to see you, my boy.”

They stepped apart and Marcus smiled. It felt good to see the old man again, right, like if he’d left without this visit he would have had unfinished business. “Good to see you too.”

“Sit down, both of you. We have much to discuss.”

Marcus and Solomon sat in front of the desk while Vlad made his way back to his chair. He took a drag on his cigarette and blew a smoke ring.

“I thought you said you’d quit,” Marcus said. “Those are terrible for you.”

Vlad smiled. “You sound like Anna. Why worry so? Cancer and heart disease were wiped out centuries ago. There’s nothing I can do to myself that medicine can’t cure. Being on Earth Force’s most wanted list is much worse for you.”

“We’re on the most wanted list?” Solomon’s voice squeaked.

Vlad let out a wheezing laugh. “Not the official one, but considering how many men they have looking for you, you made someone’s list. They have Spaceport Two shut down and agents crawling all over the place.”

Marcus sighed. It sounded worse than he imagined. Good thing Vlad reached them before they walked right into a shit storm. “Thanks for the warning.”

Vlad waved him off leaving a trail of smoke in the air. “What’s got them so riled up?”

Marcus smiled. “A woman.”

Vlad smiled as well. “Of course. Tell the tale, my boy.”

When Marcus finished Vlad shook his head. “Remarkable. I look forward to hearing how it ends. Now to business. I believe we can help each other.”

“We could use some help,” Solomon said.

“A plan is in place to get you off the planet. In exchange I need you to make a delivery for me.” He held up a disk like the one King carried. “This is your cargo.”

“Where?” Marcus asked.

Vlad held up a data chip. “All the details are here. The disk must be accessed within one minute of midnight Earth standard time. If you access it at any other time it will self-destruct. If it isn’t accessed by two minutes past midnight it will self-destruct.”

“Pretty heavy security. You must not be too confident in your plan to get us off Mars.”

“I put your chances at fifty percent. They want you bad, Marcus. You’ve really stepped in it this time.”

“I prefer to think I stumbled into it this time. Still, you’ve got a deal. What’s the plan?”

When Vlad finished Marcus thought fifty percent an over-generous assessment.


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