StoryCraft: Backwater Station
We rode out into the desert again. Myself on the Vulture, Horner riding shotgun behind me. Tychus, having commandeered the Zephyr for himself, hung back some. Close enough that he could get a couple good shots off with that rifle if we decided to break for it, but not so close that he could hear us talking.
"What's the plan, marshal?" Horner whispered to me.
I kept my eyes on the dunes. "The plan is that I am going to arrest him, and then he is going to hang for murder of those soldier boys of yours."
The emissary shook his head, "You can't. He's got to be tried before a colonial judge. That's justice."
"Not around here it ain't."
"And just how are you gonna do that with these?" He held up his wrists. They were shackled with handcuffs. My handcuffs. There was an identical pair around my wrist.
"Let me worry about that."
"Where do you think he's taking us?" Horner changing the subject."
“My guess. Backwater. It’s the nearest town with a spaceport. He’s going to have to get off world, and quick before more of your people come looking for him.”
My hunch turned out to be correct. We soon reached a feeder road that spilled onto Route 10, the Erye highway. From there it was a straight shot into Backwater. These roads were not trafficked much, especially in the summer when the heat was high enough to melt the tires off your more pedestrian vehicles. But there would usually be some. As I looked down one long stretch of highway to the next, though, I saw none. We flew past a sign that said Backwater three miles and that was when Tychus motioned to a gas station on the side of the road. Off in the distance I could see the bone dry cooling towers of a vespene refinery.
Backwater was about as out of the way as things got around here. After the discovery of the Sarengo, it hadn’t been long before the Morian’s arrived. The mining corporation had swept over Mar Sara, checking under every rock and patch of dirt for anything worth anything. They’d found a fair bit of iridium and one by one, excavation towns had sprung up overnight. But when the iridum dried up so too did the towns. The Kel-Morians packed up and left, leaving behind ghost towns like this in their wake.
“You can’t just hang him,” Horner said, as we pulled into the gas station. “He needs to be tried before a colonial judge. That’s justice.”
“Not around here it ain’t.”
Horner got off the bike, clumsily because of the cuffs. “Were taking him to the magistrate.” Tychus was walking over towards us, steering us into the gas station.
“Tychus,” Horner said loudly, still focused on me, “why don’t you tell us about these monsters of yours? The ones that attack the squad. What happened? What did they look like?”
The marine chuckled. “What do monsters always look like? Like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Truth is it don’t much matter what I say they looked like, does it? You folk ain’t gonna believe me unless you see ‘em with your own eyes.”
“I know what monsters look like,” I stared at Tychus, “They always look the same.”
There was a look in Tychus eye. The same kind of look a man gets when he stops caring about his fellow man's life. I had seen that look before, many times. It had been there when I'd first come back to Mar Sar as the newly appointed marshal My first stop had been the local biker club. Where Miguel Omer and his cronies used to hang out. I'd gone up there to introduce myself. Let them know that I was the new law in town and that things were going to change. They had laughed at me. Omer perched up on his souped up Vulture bike with that same look in his eye. They wouldn't be laughing for long.
The gas station looked empty. There was a convenience store attached to the pumps and that's were we headed now. Tychus walked us into the store. At gunpoint. A tiny bell over the door jingled as we came in. There was a ripping sound too, like velcro. I lifted up my boot, stuck to the bottom of it was a moldy substance, like black jam. The stuff was all over the floor, in little puddles and such. And that wasn’t the worst of it. Place looked like it had a herd of bulls run through it. Shampoo products, cleaning supplies, snack food just littered all over the place. The coolers in the back were all smashed, water pooling in the space below the machines, mixing with the jam. There was no one behind the counter.
“What the hell?” Tychus said, coming up behind us.
“What do you suppose happened here?”
“Heck if I know,” I scraped the jelly off my boots. It was sticky, had a way of clinging to things you know. Tychus, meanwhile, had made his way around one of the aisles. He was grabbing first aid stuff and shoving it in his pockets. Pain medicine. Bandages. His shirt was completely soaked with blood by now and the man was beginning to look a little pale. Horner and I helped ourselves to some refreshing beverages in the back.
“You’re gonna need more than that.” I said once we were back out at the bikes. I was drinking a redbull and leaning against the repulsor plates. “Them wounds are gonna fester something nasty in this heat.” I took another swig. “Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t pop a lung.”
Tychus ignored me. He had wrapped the dressing around his thorax and popped a good number of those pills. He was putting food and supplies in the hoverbikes. He had the look of a man at the beginning of a grim journey. Determined to face what lay ahead. I was right, then, he meant to skip town at Backwater. Hitch a ride up to orbit.
“I wonder how you got them. Those don’t look like bullet holes.”
The marine glanced over at me. His lip curled but he didn’t say nothing.
“Look, you need a hospital,” I continued. “You don’t get one, you’ll die. Let me take you in. We’ll patch you up good as new and, and then I’ll hand you over to Horner’s men. They’ll give you a fair shake.”
Tychus laughed. Then pointed the gun at us. “Break times over, ladies. Lets go.”
We reached Backwater just as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon. The entire town was lit up by the last rays of daylight, shades of orange and grey. I could hear the sounds of the desert now. Deserts always came alive at night. The heavy buzz of insects at dusk. A lyote howling. The expiratory sigh of barometric pressure coming down from distant mountains to rest in the valley below.
The same could not be said for Backwater. It was quiet here, and still as the grave. We passed by the local bank, “Prosperity and Price,” a rundown casino, a couple grocery stores and an improv theater. All empty. Abandoned.There was a crash. Glass shattering. Horner and I turned to see Tychus had broken through a window display of a mom ‘n pop store. The fool had snatched a boonie hat and was admiring himself in it.
We came to the middle of town. There was a Command Center here. The thing had been there since forever, since the KM days. It was called a Command Center because 'mobile smelting plant' just didn't have the same ring to it. It had a hemispheric shell, like some kind of giant shy tortoise. This was covered in ablative plates, capable of withstanding everything from hostile wildlife of Brontes to the firestorms of Char. Centers such as these were the cornerstone of Terran expansion. Whether civilian or military, these babies were the first thing to touchdown when humanity claimed a new world. In addition to ore refinement these facilities offered logistical and communication support. Even housing for new colonists. And anyone who'd ever seen the Atlas boosters riding down the atmosphere can vouch that it's a damn sight to behold.
We parked our bikes and went inside. It was dark. The smell of coal hung thick in the air. I could hear iron chains swinging in the rafters. We walked through into processing. A blast furnace was here, easily three times my height. Coming off of this black cauldron was a network of feedlines, conveyor belts and flux tubing. Horner climbed up one of the gantries peeking into the observation deck at the very top of this dome, then came back down again.
"There's no one here," he said, reaching the bottom of the walkway. "It's completely deserted."
"Weird," was all Tychus said before a pain caught him in the side.
He bent over, face all twisted up. And I knew that this was my only opportunity. Quick as a cougar, I threw my wrists up over his head. Then yanked back. Hard. The chains of my handcuffs squeezing around that tree trunk thick neck of his. I pulled. Took him by surprise and off balance and this giant came crashing down with me underneath. It knocked the wind out of me but my grip held fast. Horner was yelling. Something about justice.
"Get…his gun," I struggled against the man. He was strong. Horner as he was told. Grabbed the Gauss rifle. Was trying to figure out how to get the safety off when I made a mistake. I had been trying to get Tychus in a crucifix hold but he reached up and grabbed my leg. Tore me off from him, scrambled up and made a break for it. I took off after him. He still had my gun.
I chased after the marine as he fled out the front of the command center. Tackled him as he cleared the loading dock and we wrestled to the ground. He caught me square across the jaw which felt like being hit with a bacon-wrapped brick. I counterpunched into his ribs, where I knew he was wounded. The marine just ignored this. I dodged his left hook. Got a knee up under his belly and pushed off, grabbing my revolver from his belt as I did.
I tried to scramble away but Tychus grabbed me with both hands. Threw me, like a barrel of hay into the side of the CC. My gun flew from my fingers and before I could get up again Tychus was on me. Pummeling. I was seeing stars. Couldn't think straight. Horner was still hollering. Another hit. I was going to die. Then, suddenly, he stopped.
I blinked. Gasping for breath, looking up at Tychus who was looking at something in the distance. The sun had set. It was dark all around us, just a thin pool of light from arc lamps on the loading ramp. I twisted my neck to look in the direction Tychus was staring. And that's when I saw them. People, maybe a hundred of them, shuffling down the pavement. Towards us.
They moved like things on puppet strings. Fast twitches. I could smell them from here, like rotting meat. Their skin was covered in these fungal spores and boils. One woman's tongue had swollen up so big it looked like a tentacle sticking out from her teeth. You could hear her, struggling to breath. Another, this one only a kid, maybe twelve, had compound eyes, like a spider and a scaly rash all across his body.
Tychus and I retreated back up the loading ramp, into the command center. I debated going after my gun but there were too many of them out there. Horner gave me the rifle, instead and I stood on the ramp, facing the crowd.
"Stop or I'll shoot," I shouted. They were eerily silent. None of them acting as if they had heard me. "Last chance," I announced. Gritting my teeth, I raised the gun and aimed for the tallest person...thing in the crowd. It was a lanky, older man with a cauliflower growth where his...its eyes used to be. I squeezed the trigger. His head exploded. But he kept walking.
"Well shoot," Tychus said. He reached up, grabbing hold of the shutter doors at the edge of the ramp. There was a loud sound as he pulled these down, I had to duck and rolled to get back inside the building before it slammed down. Horner found a padlock near by which we used to secure the door. We all stepped back and looked at each other.
"Those were zombies," Horner said, stuttering.
"No, they were not." I ejected the clip, checking how many rounds remained. Not enough for what was out there.
"You shot that man through the head. It didn't even flinch. How is that not a zombie?"
"Because zombies don't exist," I shouted back at him.
"If I could interrupt you too for a moment we have more pressing needs then taxonomy. Such as how the hell were going to get out of here.
I looked at Horner. He looked at me. I shrugged. It was a goddamn pickle.
"We could…" Horner started. Then stopped.
"What?" Tychus asked.
Tychus stepped towards the emmisary. "What? Spit it out boy, if you've got an idea were all ears."
Horner shrunk, "it's nothing just, we could use the boosters. All of these modules have Atlas boosters for easy relocation. They land on a planet and if the prospects are slim, pick up and float to a better one."
Tychus glanced over at me, "Would that work?"
I shrugged again. "I suppose. It's worth a shot. Ain't never flown anything before much less a building."
"We can't," Horner blurted out.
"And why's that."
"This command center has been here since this town was built. Who knows why the Kel-Morians left it behind but they did. If we lift off…"
"...it'll incinerate the town," I said, finishing his line of thought.
"Look around you boys," Tychus knocked on the shutter doors, several nasty things clawed back. "Ain't no town here anymore."
I frowned. He was right. Whatever those things out there were, they weren't people. At least not anymore.
It didn't take Tychus long to convince Horner that if we didn't blast off he was going to be zombie food. Figuring out where the controls were, up in the observation deck, and how to work them, took a bit longer. Luckily, the emissary's login credentials were enough to grant us access. This thing might have been built by Kel-Morians but it belonged to the Colonial Magistrate now. Horner fired up the Atlas boosters and the command center lifted off. It rose on a plume of destruction away from the town. Carrying us away to safety.
"Adios motherfuckers," Tychus yelled from the window, seconds before the heat shields deployed. I was thinking about my bike, melting into molten slag. I was going to miss her.10 Read the full article on Reddit