Belt Trail Bandits 56-K94 was one of those thousands of non-descript asteroids circling about the Belt before it was nicknamed simply ‘Mitten’ by the space pioneer, Everett Knutson, the first man to set up a gas station-bordello in that part of the Solar System. Mitten was the name of Knutson’s ragdoll, a big, fluffy thing that liked to flop down on the floor just seconds before some poor sod rounded the corner and, inevitably, tripped on her. The station-bordello was named ‘Damned Pussy.’ Clearly, it weren’t the names that guaranteed Mr. Knutson a vast, colorful clientele over the upcoming years. He hired a handful of Mars-born aliens to work for him. ‘Bug-eyed, thick-skinned, short humanoids with various birth-defects to whom living in microgravity was second nature. Cheap workforce, quick to learn, ate relatively little.’ Their job description included serving drinks such as Neptunian throat-freezers (more popular than the name suggests) and plenty of lying on their backs. As predicted, Earth-born cargonauts welcomed the services of Mitten and its beer-stained establishment of spacey delights with open arms and bulging pants. Knutson had hit the jackpot. Some twenty years after the opening of Damned Pussy, four punters sat slumped and sweaty around one of its chipped plastic tables, Japanese-made malt in their pints, the taste of dried voyage food still not quite washed off their throats. Bane, a big, ginger veteran of a cargonaut eyed the victims of Martian-trafficking with a half-hearted leer. He had just completed three runs back and forth between Earth and the Belt Trail, hauling ore to Earth and tools, supplies, and weapons back to the Belt for half a year. Mauser, Bane’s buyer on the Belt, sat next to him, his face knotted in a disapproving frown. The two others were Kajo, a weapons-dealer extraordinaire, and her short, bald companion, Zork—real name Tim, but he was Mars-born and thus, in Bane’s opinion, required an exotic nickname. Kajo was counting Bane’s gold with the wistfulness of a stingy person about to be parted with her dough, the little nuggets clicking against the table, her full-lipped mouth quietly counting to the twelve nuggets she owned to Bane. As if it wasn’t bad enough he’d surely spent them on Zork’s scantily clad kin, no, Kajo also hated the hollow weight of a depleted purse. It felt like giving your kids to adoption. “There you go, you son of a whore,” she called over the groovy funk, and pushed the nuggets over to Bane, carefully covering their glint from curious onlookers. Bane shone a big, stained grin at her and scraped the nuggets onto his palm. Soon, oh so soon, his retirement fund would be plentiful enough. Mauser snapped his fingers, and Bane scowled at him like a bear whose honey pot was under attack. A few more nuggets exchanged owners before Bane hid the rest in a breast pocket. “Ain’t long ‘til I can buy that bungalow on Earth,” he said and took a sip of stale ale. “It’s good to have dreams,” Mauser muttered. He slipped his money into a secret compartment in his cap, then pressed it back on his hair, thick and blond like curly fries. With a sigh, he sunk a fork into his cosmic apfelstrudel. Mid-bite, the bar’s double doors flew open, and a raw voice cut through the funk. “This is a fucking stick-up!” Suddenly Bane wished he hadn’t taken Kajo’s money yet, Kajo wished she’d get a good angle at the bandits with her concealed, sawed-off shotgun, Mauser wished his apfelstrudel wouldn’t get all cold and dry, and Zork, once again, cursed the day he had left Mars for Kajo. A bullet cracked through the air and hit a Martian prostitute in the shoulder. She toppled down, and, as if on cue, the rest of the people went floor-bound as well, screaming and cursing. Two men, one with the body-shape of a barrel, the other with that of a beanstalk, made their way to the bar and, holding the bartender at gunpoint, ordered him to empty the till. Two others, one thin as a straw, the other bald like an elbow, started scouring through pockets and purses. Kajo grimaced at Bane. “Ain’t no fucking way they’re taking my money,” she mouthed at him. Bane pointed at Kajo’s hip. “Give me your pistol,” he mouthed back, and she raised her eyebrows in confusion. Bane mimicked the shape of a gun with his hand and nodded at her hip. “Fuck you, Bane, I ain’t giving you my—” The straw-shaped man grabbed Zork by his thin neck and lifted him up. “Now, now, what do we have here,” Straw growled, the must thing to say when you’ve got a Mars-born in your hands. Kajo rolled her eyes, took advantage of the men’s attention being on Zork, and slid her pistol to Bane. Then she nodded at Straw and Elbow. She would take care of them. Bane glanced at the men at the bar. Barrel had his shotgun trained at the punters, Beanstalk was stuffing money into a backpack. One, two, three, Kajo’s fingers counted, flat against the floorboards. With one fluid movement, she pulled her shotgun and blew off Straw’s face just as he was emptying Zork’s pockets. Zork fell on the floor and made himself as small as possible. The next shot caught Elbow in the chest, but he was wearing some kind of surplus armor. The pellets sunk in, he reeled, but wasn’t badly hurt. Bane had accidentally shot the bartender. Barrel and Beanstalk dived for cover. Kajo whirled around and found herself staring into Elbow’s rifle barrel. He pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. Kajo sent another blast at him, this time at his head. Brain matter splattered around the screaming people, but at least she had done her job while Bane tried to kill the bar counter until his gun went dry and he hid under a table. Mauser let out a yowl, like someone had grabbed him by the balls, and sprung to unexpected action. Where the hell he had pulled out that handgun with armor-piercing rounds, only he knew, but Kajo had, as sure as the sun, not sold it to him. She wouldn’t have trusted Mauser with scissors, let alone with something that was ridiculously dangerous in space to both, the target and the shooter. For the next twenty seconds, Damned Pussy was filled with ear-splitting blasts, broken pipes letting in steam, cracks in the walls leaking in ammonia, tankards and bottles shattering, glass raining on the people on the floors, and blood sputtering from lethal wounds. Two against three, Barrel and Beanstalk went down with gaping cavities all over their bodies. Breathing rapidly, Bane slumped onto the floor, back against the wall. This is not good, he thought, this is not good, this is not good. “Get your shit together, big man,” Kajo grumbled at him while she checked the dead were truly dead, ready to blast them with her 12-gauge. Mashed flesh squished under her boots, making her shiver. “I got my shit, but what about you? Your mug’s on film too,” Bane said with a nod at the security cameras. “I know, and we can’t linger.” The rest she kept as a thought: Or the cops are gonna learn a lot more about us than we’d like. Her gaze fell on Bane, and when she saw the red, she had to fight the urge to face-palm. “Aw crap, don’t tell me you got hit.” Bane showed her his bleeding hand. “No, I was jacking off and my balls blew up.” Kajo dug into one of the black holes that were her pockets and produced a first aid kit. “I’ll glue you right up. Then we seriously gotta go.” She aimed a lipstick size and shaped Stauncher at the graze. White goo spurted out like toothpaste, burned the wound as if Bane had just stuck his hand into the sun, and then slowly, surely cooled the pain and staunched the bleeding. In a few days, all he’d have was a charming scar. “There, now—” And then the crowd was all over them, cheering, patting their shoulders, kissing and hugging. Even Mauser’s expression brightened up when he received a replacement apfelstrudel. That was all he ever wanted in life; find the perfect piece of apple pie. Kajo left Bane to gather himself from the floor and hurried to help Zork to his feet, then held him like a mother holds her son. Sirens sounded outside and the crowd announced what the four already knew; the Patrol was there. “Guys, we gotta shift. Now!” Bane called. “And switch off your Sensors, we don’t want our moms calling us when we’re on the run.” He looked at Kajo with fear she had never seen in his eyes, and she had known him for a few too many years. He had been to war at twenty and shat his pants on the battlefield. He had been bitch-slapped and laughed at by fear, had never conquered it, but learned to live with it. And now he was scared? “Tim, let’s go,” Kajo whispered, kept her shotgun close as she went, following in Mauser’s and Bane’s wake. Space was big, hella big, they all knew, but hide-and-seek with the Belt Trail Patrol never ended well for anyone. # “Your ship reeks of shit.” The very first thing Kajo said. Bane shrugged and closed the airlock’s hatch. The mechanism cycled with the unsettling finality that always made him shudder. Borderline fresh oxygen and enhanced gravity were left behind. All he had to look forward to were heavily recycled air and endless floating from A to B. Well, he had the artificial gravity spinner, did good to your brains and bones, but it also made him sick. Hence the smell of shit, he supposed, but that smell always kept him anchored to sanity on long voyages, so it wasn’t all that bad. That was also why he had a small, tightly stoppered bottle hung around his neck, a small turd of his very own making jangling inside. It reminded him of home while he was sailing through the emptiness of space, a place so vast and unwelcoming it sometimes bent his mind all out of whack. That was when some people lit up a cig, some clutched a bottle of shit. “Where to? Where the fuck to?” Mauser whined, panicking, hands shaking, the powerful pistol tucked safely under his belt, dead-straight towards his cock. “Vesta? Lots of places to hide,” Kajo suggested. “Mars?” Zork said timidly. “Not fucking Mars,” Bane groaned. “It’s too fucking far. They’d intercept us.” “We’ll hide among the asteroids,” Kajo said. Mauser kept pacing back and forth. “For how long?” “As long as it takes.” “I’ll start the engines,” Bane said and went to the cockpit. Bane’s ship, Antonia Mercy, rumbled and shook. The ion rockets pushed her off Mitten and towards the thicket of asteroids. The seatbelts kept Bane firmly seated, but Kajo, Mauser, and Zork floated off the floor like helium balloons. Bane glanced to his left. Kajo had hooked her feet around a pipe on the floor. She looked back at him with eyes like black holes, he could’ve sworn, they sucked the light out of your smile and soul. Yet feeling brave, he said, “Should’ve stayed on the straight and narrow, huh?” “Ain’t in your blood.” Something akin to a smile flitted across her face. He shivered, like teeny-tiny mice had scuttled down his spine. Kajo could be sweet if she wanted to. Sweet and cool like cyanide and ice cream. A through-and-through dyke for sure, or so she said, and the fact she hadn’t fucked Bane was a testimony of it. Who could resist a tattooed ginger? Or maybe she was fucking the Martian freak. “Ain’t in none of us, it seems,” he said. Kajo’s face crunched up in thought. “You know,” she said, “I think I know where to hide.” # Ceres became a planetary hotspot shortly after humans were able to utilize its water reserves. To the immense disappointment of many a galactic surfer hopeful, the oceans were more on the frozen or quickly evaporating side, but despite the lack of beaches and the more or less steady temperature of -38 C, colorful communities sprung up around the ever-expanding capital, Piazzi; asteroid miners, interspacers, cargonauts, geologists, volcanologists, quacks, and button peddlers. Jutting out of Ceres’s side, Piazzi looked like a gray, space junk -battered tumor growing into every direction with its domes, pipes, and serpentine hubs. Other than that, Ceres was beautiful; milky white, like a glistening ball of vanilla gelato hanging in the darkness of space. Bane steered Antonia Mercy towards one of the bays on the more pockmarked side of Piazzi. Workers’ Corner, they called it. Windowless containers instead of domes with panoramic views. Shabby ships that leaked ammonia. Ion engines fritzing out left and right. Bane felt strangely at home, blanketed in tranquility that had come unannounced. Some people were at peace when sprawled on warm sand, the setting sun caressing their skin. Some on top of a Martian mountain, red dust blowing away every negative thought. And some several astronomical units away from their birth soil, surrounded by the smells of stale sweat, a capricious toilet, and synthetic oil. With several thumps and yelps Ceres’s enhanced gravity pulled the three others down. Kajo brushed dust off her cargo pants and made a face, as if she had inhaled wasabi paste. “I think I sprained my back,” she said, hunching. Bane was quick to split a grin, seize the moment. “Want a back rub?" “Hm, sure.” The grin crumbled. “Huh?” In truth, he had expected a pseudo-miffed refusal. She tilted her head at him, one eyebrow arched, dark eyes glittering. “Ah, you’re taking a piss at me,” he muttered. “Obviously.” She could say that one word with such a ball-crushing tone it made Bane shrink back—and not just metaphorically. “So, where are we headed?” Mauser asked. Kajo let out a hoarse laugh. “We?" “This where we part ways, huh?” Bane asked, switched the ship on hibernation, and then stood up. “You know I got you in this mess, K, and I’m gonna get you out of it.” Again that laugh. Like having gravel thrown at your face.“My knight in shitty armor, Sir Bane McClain!” Her acidity evaporated as a wounded look settled on Bane’s face. “Look, I know the score. You want to tag along ‘causeI know how to keep us out of the Patrol’s radar.” “I can pay you,” Mauser interjected. “I’m listening.” There was a brief staredown. Slowly the ship’s lights dimmed as it went into hibernation. “Let’s talk outside,” Bane said through the dark. # Kajo’s gold purse, replenished once more, disappeared under her leather jacket. She flashed a toothy smile at the two, then started down a narrow, triangle-shaped corridor, Zork at her heel. Zork, who didn’t have to pay anything. Again Bane couldn’t help but wonder why the scrawny little thing followed Kajo like a lost puppy. On the other hand, Bane followed Kajo’s exceptional ass like a shark follows a leaking boat. In fact, he too wanted to take a bite. The pleasant image puffed away when Bane nearly stomped over a passed-out drunk, splayed on the floor, an empty bottle of barley booze still cradled in his arms like a baby. “Oh, huh, there he is!” Kajo exclaimed and prodded the drunk in his side. “Go away, I’m meditating,” sounded a muffled grumble from under a shaggy beard. “What are you doing down here, besides meditating?” One rheumy eye opened a crack. The man’s nose wriggled like that of a rat. “Powder my bottom and call me Betty!” His eyes opened wider. “Is it Kajo? Kajo Robinson? If a sugary macchiato could assume human form, it’d look like you, my sweet!” Bane, Mauser, and Zork all took a step back. “An ex-flame of yours?” Bane whispered. “Shut it, shit-neck,” Kajo hissed, then opened her arms to the scraggy, smelly thing. “Josif, meet my... acquaintances, Bane McClain, Klaus Mauser, and Tim Inchl.” “Ay-yai-yai, is that a real Martian, for Vesta’s sake? Straight from the domed city of Ares?” He spoke like a priest who had downed way too many goblets of church wine. “Are you sure we aren’t wasting our time?” Bane asked Kajo. “They’ve got surveillance even here in Workers’ Corner, and I ain’t too keen on displaying my mug for every copper out there while this nutsack makes a spectacle out of your pet alien.” “Martians are our flesh and blood,” Kajo snapped, but then squared her shoulders and fixed Josif with a hard stare. “I need your help. Is there some place we can talk?” Josif winked. # Josif’s apartment resembled a dumpster, the type that had stood in every corner in New Amsterdam before the disintegration ray was invented, then subsequently banned after people started disintegrating each other, after which the Densifyer™ was introduced. The number of people densified by the Russian mafia has remained unknown to this day. Granted, this dumpster was surprisingly spacious, and embedded into the floor, cellar-like. The five barely fit inside, and even then Zork had to sit on the floor, halfway under a small plastic table you’d usually find in a playhouse rather than in an adult man’s space pad. Josif poured hot water into colorful cups while explaining how screwed exactly his guests were. If Kajo fell under police scrutiny, they’d surely find out she had traded weapons to the Triad of Vesta City. They’d find out Bane had hauled illegal firearms from Earth to the Belt, and not just that, but amidst his legal cargo, he had brought Mauser’s order: first-grade coke. Impossible to grow in space, highly priced, and dangerously coveted. Yet all three had still wished to preserve at least a facsimile of law-abidingness. They had to. Better play to the police side of the court than to the criminals’ since the latter got you space-walking with hair-raising certainty. Then something Josif said caught Bane’s ears. It turned around the contents in his stomach like clothes in a tumble dryer. “No, Josif. No, no, and no.” “Oh, I can take care of her until all this blows over,” Josif said, his smile eons away from trustworthy. “No, me and her, we go way back. I can’t just abandon her.” “That bucket is too recognizable,” Kajo grunted. She might as well have stabbed Bane in the brain with an icepick. He set free a string of curses, but Kajo weathered them without so much as a twitch. “Face it, muffin,” she started, almost gently, “they can pull out your data once they see the vid of the shootout, and they’ll notice Antonia is registered to you. They’ll find out how it looks, they might even be able to track it. Or if you want, you can sink with your ship, Cap’n, but don’t pull us down with ya.” Bane sighed. There came a time in every man’s life when they found themselves just a short distance, a blade’s breadth away from the moment that called for them to sell one of the three: their spine, balls, or heart. Grudgingly, head bowed and mouth tight and stretched like a trapeze rope, Bane offered his palm to Josif. The man produced a matchbox-size key reader from under his rags and placed it upon Bane’s palm, like an offering on an altar, then punched in the de-lock code. There was a sallow flash of light, a tickling sensation, and then Bane knew the key to Antonia was gone—with his heart. “You can have my ship as a trade-off.” Josif said, cracked a sparse-toothed grin, and placed the reader on Kajo’s palm. Another flash, a slight quiver of her eyebrows, and so she was made the captain. “There you go.” She frowned, opening and closing her palm. “Oh, don’t tell me you named your ship Egbert.” “It was my grandmother’s name. Now, this is where you should go if you want to be safe...” # It was a fitting name, though. Josif’s ship was white and shaped like an egg. It was a lunar ship, easy to land, and quite functional in dead space too, but for Vesta’s sake, it did look about as dignified as vomit on a noblewoman’s neckline. It also handled like a big, plump egg. In short, Kajo had little to no control over the damned thing, and she wasn’t even sure if they were going in the right direction. Josif had downloaded a map to her key, from which it transferred to Egbert’s navigation, but it looked like the ship’s positioning ware wasn’t even in the same solar system. “Okay, hit one more piece of space crap and that windshield's gonna crash on us,” Bane said, floating by her side, ass over elbow. “I’m trying, but a comatose fucking sloth would respond faster than the maneuvering rockets we’ve got!” “Let me try it.” “No, I got it. ‘Sides, I got the key.” He rolled his eyes, let out a drawn-out sigh. She enjoyed this far too much. She was quite certain he did too. “How long do you think we need to stay in hiding?” Mauser asked, hovering next to them. “Months, years, who knows? We have to keep an eye on the news. You guys have any savings?” “You have our savings,” Mauser grumbled. “And I wouldn’t wanna blow my bungalow money,” Bane said. “‘Sides, I can’t go back to my pad on Hand Egg to fetch them anyway.” Hand Egg was an asteroid a bunch of British pioneers had named after a popular American sport due to its distinctive shape. “Might be cops there already.” Zork listened to the conversation from the cockpit’s hatch, his large, gray eyes slowly narrowing. Typical Earthmen, either they hid the guilt of killing fellow beings or they just didn’t feel anything anymore. All they cared about were their own precious hides. Had been that way right from the start, when they had first come to Mars and started boinking like bunnies two seconds after gravity was back. The children who were born, and their children and children’s children, and so on, generation after generation, changed, evolved, deformed and reformed, until the Mars-born babies looked so different from Earth-borns that it felt like a suitable time to start oppressing and shunning them. Most dictionaries described them as stupid, short—despite the lighter gravity—oddly gray, often bald, and burdened with random cases of infertility and inner ear problems. Earthmen, they thought they were so much better. But the fuck-ups in Bane and Mauser were hard to paint over. Their facades may have been pretty and proportionate, like the bright Venus from afar, but under the clouds, the air was all poison gasses and molten metal rains. “What are you looking at?” Bane grunted at Zork. Twitching, the Mars-born met the Earth-born’s narrow eyes, then quickly looked away. “Uh... ships.” “Huh?” “Ships. Ships!” # “Left, left, left!” Mauser screamed, waving at Kajo as if that’d help. “What do you think I’m trying to do, huh? Go in fucking circles?” The egg-shaped ship zigzagged between asteroids, taking sharp 90 degree turns. Apparently that was all it was capable of, but it seemed to confuse the two Triad ships on their tail. A warning signal erupted from the dashboard and an indifferent, effeminate voice blared, “Attention, one out of four auxiliary rockets critically damaged.” “They’re just trying to scare us, that’s all,” Bane said. “They want us to land on some rock and try to talk ourselves out of this, but you keep a cool head, K, and we’ll be fine.” “Are you sure they didn’t simply recognize that crazy motherfucker’s ship?” Mauser asked. “He looked like the type to make enemies!” “You know, that’s pretty prejudiced coming from someone who’s always judging me because of the whores,” Bane barked back. “Shut up, you two. The navigation’s all garbled,” Kajo huffed. “Rocks and ships, they all look the same. And we have the shittiest visual in the universe!” “I can see them,” Zork’s small, raspy voice sounded close by. He leaned forward, peered through the windshield. “There, at ten o’clock.” Kajo steered them into the opposite direction, just barely dodging a slab of an asteroid. Pale-gray Triad ships tried to flank Egbert, their railguns trained at it. She knew all too well that those puppies could blast even nanocarbite to bits, the sturdiest building material humans had developed so far. “Do we have weapons?” Bane asked. “Could somebody else browse? I’m kinda busy steering!” “Doesn’t it have a voice responder?” “Egbert, you got guns?” Kajo shouted at the dashboard. No response. Bane punched in a search sequence, a surprisingly challenging task when you were bouncing back and forth on your seat, the crisscrossing belts the only thing that kept the passengers from smashing around the ship. So much for microgravity when a ship was jerking abruptly amidst a sea of rocks. “Come on, come on, come on, you little shit,” Bane muttered, the little row of dots that marked ‘search in progress’ flashing back and forth on the screen. Another warning signal flared up. One recycle pipe had blown on top of the ship. “I think they want us dead,” Mauser said. “Nukes,” Bane said. “Nukes?” Kajo exclaimed. “Nukes. Good news is, we got three. Bad news is, they’re behind voice recognition and only Josif’s got access.” Yet another ear-piercing warning signal went off. “One of the oxygen suppliers got fucked!” Bane shouted, but his voice was drowned under the sound of the computer counting down to a life support failure. “I’ll try to land on that rock,” Kajo said, blobs of sweat forming on her forehead. “You’re doing exactly what they wa—” “You wanna die?” she snapped at Bane. “Not like this, no.” “Then hold the fuck on. We’re going down.” Which, of course, was a figure of speech. They didn’t so much land on it as much as they latched onto its side, the weak gravity drawing them in just enough. Egbert thumped into a steep crater, and judging by the bangs and creaks that emitted from its core, it wouldn’t be blasting off the rock anymore. Shaking, sweating, and with laborious breaths, the four exchanged bewildered glances. Kajo wiped her forehead, then reached a hand towards Zork. “You okay?” A small, grayish hand entwined with the brown, slender one. “I’m fine.” Then his enormous eyes turned to gaze into space. “But they’re still out there.” # A mechanism activated deep inside the guts of the asteroid. First cumbersome, a little stiff, as if it had just woken up and needed to stretch a bit. Metal creaked, pumps hissed, wheels turned, and the system drew its first breath in a long time. A slab of nanocarbite trembled under the white, egg-shaped ship and then started its descent. The four passengers stared at space, at the darkness and stars, as it was slowly replaced by the wall of a man-made elevator shaft. A hatch slid shut above them, encasing them inside what they had considered an innocent asteroid. “Triad’s budget has grown,” Bane said under his breath. “I’m impressed.” “I’m so fucking impressed I’m shitting myself, and so should the rest of you shit-necks,” Kajo snapped and unbuckled herself. “The Triad ships might’ve chased us here on purpose, so let’s gear up. Who knows what’s gonna be down there, waiting for us.” After a moment, the elevator came to a halt. Double doors drew aside like curtains before Egbert’s windshield. Cold light flooded in. Kajo had frozen by the cockpit’s doorway, gaze glued on the scene. “Guys, we have light.” “And if these readings can be trusted, we also have oxygen,” Bane said. “K, can you put the wheels down? Let’s roll in.” Egbert sprung out a foursome of heavy-duty wheels and trundled into a hangar of sorts. There were several platforms, like parking spaces for ships, and Kajo steered their ship next to the closest one. “There’s no one here,” Zork said. “No other ships either. It’s like the Triad didn’t follow us down here.” “Let’s get the guns and find out where the hell we are,” Kajo said with an air of bravery, but everyone heard the tautness in her voice, the whisper of fear they all felt in their gut. “Should someone stay behind, keep an eye on the ship?” Mauser asked. Bane knew exactly whom the cowardly son of a whore meant. “Good idea.” He turned to Zork. “You okay with that?” A flick of an eye at Kajo. The merest nod and a small, sad smile from her, a flash of affection that made Bane more jealous than seeing a twenty-something interspacer sweet-talk her before his very eyes back in Damned Pussy a billion years ago. “Keep your switched Sensor on,” Kajo said, tapping at the side of her head. Zork nodded and tapped his. “Good. Mauser, Bane, let’s go,” she then said and turned on her heel. Mauser scowled at Bane, prickly enough to grant him a wave of satisfaction. Sure, he’d pay for this, sooner or later, but right now he was happy to bust the Austrian's balls a bit. Made things feel more normal—not like Fate was counting down his heartbeats. # “What is this place?” Kajo asked, having stopped in the center of an oval control room. She was surrounded by sleek, white desks and soft, back-hugging chairs by PuffiCloud™. “Probably an old Union stealth ship,” Mauser said and flopped down in one of the chairs in front of a row of computer pebbles. “They started selling these after the collapse. If you got enough gold, you could buy anything from a Comet Chaser to an ice bond on Neptune.” He dabbed the closest pebble, and a computer screen materialized in the air. “Password protected, of course.” “How did we get in?” Bane muttered, circling the room one more time, scowling at the nooks and corners, the shotgun Kajo had graciously borrowed to him at the ready. Kajo sighed and slumped on a narrow, blue couch on one side of the room. “Either by a stroke of luck or...” “I’d put my money on the latter,” Bane said and stopped by the entrance to scratch at his quickly healing hand. “Oi, don’t do that. You’ll just irritate it,” Kajo said. “Sorry, Mom. But it itches like crabs.” “You should know.” "I walked into that one, didn't I?" “He introduced the crabs to the Martian whore populace,” Mauser drawled. Insulting Bane was usually one of his favorite past-times, but semi-pissy banter required more energy than he could afford right now. Two days virtually without any food or sleep was starting to weigh on him. “Whores? Don’t you mean prostitutes? Ladies of the Twilight Discourse?” Bane jeered, a challenging edge to his voice. Kajo stood up with an exaggerated sigh. “Okay, guys, let’s check the rest of this bucket and, if it looks like there really is no one around, we’ll chow.” # They had assembled in Egbert’s tiny mess, Kajo and Zork sitting on a worktop, Bane and Mauser at the only table, all with noodle soup in their bowls. “You know,” Bane started, lowering his spoon with a clink. “This rock’s gonna make a pretty good hide-out. Apparently those asswipes outside didn’t get in, this place seems to be deserted, and it looks like a goddamn rock. No copper’s ever gonna find us here.” “But how do you explain us getting in here in the first place?” Mauser asked. Bane slurped up his last noodle, then shrugged. “Fluke?” “There are no flukes in the cosmos.” “You being born must’ve been one.” Against all odds, Mauser burst into laughter. Bane eyed him for a second, then cracked up as well, rich laugh bubbling like porridge in a pot. Kajo’s eyebrows joined in an annoyed scowl, but soon her expression relaxed, a few chuckles leaped out, and before she knew it, she too was clutching her stomach, caught in the throes of unexpected hilarity. “What is it? What’s going on?” Zork asked, afraid he had somehow become the butt of some joke he had utterly missed. “I, I don’t know,” Kajo sputtered. “It’s just... so funny.” Bane had crouched over the table, his laughter resembling asthmatic oinks, tears streaming down his face. Mauser slid off his chair, wheezing for breath, cackling like a madman. “It’s too much.” Bane gasped, split a huge grin, then slumped forehead-first against the table. Unmoving. “Oh no...” Kajo let out a whimper, keeled over, and, if it hadn’t been for Zork’s reflexes, would’ve nosedived on the floor. Mauser was twitching halfway under the table, his laugh fading into desperate rasps. After a long, rattling breath, his eyes rolled in his head and body fell limp. Then Zork felt it too. This was really damn funny. The way the others had slumped around the mess, in all kinds of hilarious positions. Bane’s arms hung towards the floor like those of a chimpanzee, his head propped against the table. Mauser’s pants were smeared in soymilk. Kajo’s face reclined against Bane’s shoe. “What a mess,” Zork squeaked. “Mess, get it? Mess in the mess!” And so he too exploded into maniacal laughter until his consciousness faded and body lolled down next to Kajo’s. The mess fell silent. Oily soup drip-dripped from an upturned bowl onto the floor. A lonely bit of parsley was stuck on Mauser’s mustache, quivering slightly in the breeze of his inaudible breath. The lock of the hatch clicked. # Head stuffed with cotton wool. Breath sporadic and raspy. Mouth and throat parched, as if sprinkled with grains of sand. Limbs tingly, like someone had fallen asleep on them and they had grown numb under the weight. The aftereffects of Avinon X, a rare yet powerful knock-out gas. Kajo, Bane, Zork, and Mauser woke up to these sensations, each enjoying them in different measures. Bane let out a surprised caw and forced his eyes open. It took a while for his sight to adjust to the garish light. He tried to rub his eyes, but his hands wouldn’t budge. Tied behind his back. He twitched with panic, struggled against the restraints for a moment. Then a blurry figure slapped him in the face. “K, that you?” He coughed. Wasn’t that how the damned woman said ‘good morning?’ “You’re awake. Good,” a small, unfamiliar voice said. Bleary-eyed, Bane tried to find the source, but he was trussed up like an escape artist. The cold, metallic floor ground to his hip bones. His neck crunched as he turned it to catch a glimpse of his surroundings. He recoiled, coldness rushing through his abdomen. A diminutive person, short-legged and long-armed, quite possibly a Mars-born woman, was standing a little ways to the side, peering at him with amazingly large eyes. She was wearing a lab coat and had wrapped a turquoise scarf around her undoubtedly bald head. “Who are you and what do you want?” Kajo’s voice cut through the silence. “That’s what I’d like to ask you.” The stranger’s voice was small and soft, like having a kitten sneeze against your cheek. “We didn’t mean to intrude,” Mauser said. He was actually sitting upright, back against a wall, but tied up just like the rest of them. “Right. Then why are you flying Egbert Aakster’s ship?” “Whoster’s ship?” Bane wheezed, struggling to sit up as well, but somehow all he managed was to roll on his back, his arms twisted painfully under his weight. Kajo cursed in her native Flamish. Bane let out a groan, then eyed needles at the woman. “It wasn’t Josif’s ship, was it? It wasn’t named after his grandmother, was it?” His voice grew in volume. “No, because Egbert is not a woman’s name, is it?” “Well, you don’t look like you are worth a dime anyway,” the kitteny voice said. “You stole the ship?” “We traded it,” Kajo muttered. The Mars-born woman tilted her head, a smile flickering on her heart-shaped face. Then she let out an airy laugh. “Enough games. I know who you are. The Belt Trail Bandits, come here to hide from the Patrol.” All four blinked at the woman in mute confusion. She seemed to notice this, and frowned. “Okay. Not quite the reaction I expected.” "Who are those Belt Trail...” Mauser started. “Bandits, did she say Bandits?” Bane hissed at him. “I ain’t no bandit. And what kind of a goddamn name is that anyway?” The woman whirled around, strode over to a pebble, and conjured up a computer screen. She pinched the edges outwards to widen the screen so that everyone saw what was on it. A wanted poster, a quite fancy one at that with big pictures and a five-figure reward. “You look pretty good, K," Bane said. "I like the scowl. Looks like someone drank your beer.” “While you look like a hippo sat on your face. What is this shit? We aren’t bandits!” “You were part of that bloody heist on Mitten,” the woman said with eerie indifference. “We saved those people,” Kajo insisted. “We didn’t mean to,” Bane said, but received a murderous glance from Kajo. “I mean, see, one of them shot me!” “How am I supposed to tell that shot’s from a bandit's weapon? Could’ve been a cop.” “Oh, come on, there weren’t any cops there!” “There’s been a misunderstanding,” Mauser said calmly. Surprisingly calmly. He if anyone had a reason to hate people who played with gases. “It’s a false accusation, and seeing how the Patrol operates, is it a wonder really that we won’t turn ourselves in? They’d just lock us up and use us as scapegoats ‘cause they’re too afraid to go up against the Triad. It’ll look good, but it’ll be a miscarriage of justice.” “If you aren’t bandits, why do you carry weapons?” “I’m a weapons dealer. Legally,” Kajo said. “Where are our guns anyway?” “In safekeeping.” “And our Sensors?” The familiar pressure in her right ear had disappeared, and when she tried to think of making a call, all she got was silence. “I think it’s safest if you don’t keep them on. Who knows, could be used to track you down.” “Miss,” Zork started, “can you not sense if we᾿re telling the truth?” “How could I?” she asked acidly. “Well,” Zork’s voice trembled, “I can᾿t sense lies, but I do feel you᾿re more advanced than I am, and I᾿ve heard that extremely advanced Mars-borns can sense more of a human than humans ever could.” The woman sighed. “I can sense you᾿re mixing truth with lies.” “Well, Miss, that᾿s because they have skirted around the law, but not how the police portrays it.” “How come a Mars-born boy has tagged along with a bunch of humans? Are you their slave?” There was distinct scorn in her tone. “No.” She stared at Zork with those big, pale eyes for a long time without blinking. “That is curious.” “So,” Kajo cut in, impatient, “did we pass your test? Will you let us go? Can we get our guns?” The woman smiled. Two perfect rows of tiny white teeth. “Why wouldn᾿t you stay? This is the perfect hideout, isn᾿t it?” # “How do you do it?” Bane asked, at the same time curious and wary of the Martian who had introduced herself as Pearl Avinon and poured them all cups of moonshine as a welcome drink. “Read our minds?” “I don᾿t read them," Pearl said and folded her hands on the sterile, white table, "but like Tim here said,” Zork, Bane added in his mind, “I can often sense when humans lie. Your sweat glands, heartbeats, and gestures betray you. As a species, you᾿re rather... simple.” “We᾿re of the same species,” Kajo said dryly and gulped down the rest of her drink. “I᾿d say we used to be one big river, but that river forked a long time ago. We may be running side by side, but we᾿re definitely different bodies of water.” “Hear, hear,” Bane mumbled from behind his cup. “In many respects, we have transcended you lot,” Pearl said, a lazy smile creeping on her face. There was something captivating about her Bane hadn᾿t noticed in the Martian whores of Damned Pussy. Confidence? Dignity? Yet not of the prickly, bitter spinster kind, like was the case with Kajo. The ‘it᾿ in Pearl was difficult to pinpoint, but Bane᾿s gaze was drawn to her time and time again, and if their eyes met—they often did—his ears caught fire and he had to busy himself with his drink. “You still haven᾿t told us what you᾿re doing here,” Kajo said. “You work for that Egbert guy?” “You could say that, yeah.” “What is it that you do here?” Mauser asked. “Research.” Kajo pursed her lips. “That gas you knocked us out with a part of your research?” “Indeed it is.” While Bane was reluctantly captivated by her, the rest felt less at ease. Being stuck inside an asteroid-ship no one was inclined to find, especially with a Martian scientist who could make poisonous gasses, was only a hair better an option than getting imprisoned by the Patrol. “Well... Thank you for the drink. Hopefully it wasn᾿t anything poisonous,” Kajo said and clanked her cup on the table. “But I think I᾿m gonna be turning in. We haven᾿t slept for days.” “I᾿ll come with you,” Mauser said and slid off a high stool. Kajo extended her hand. “Tim?” He nodded and skittered after the woman. “Bane?” “Oh, uh...” “Hm, I just poured you another one,” Pearl said apologetically. “I᾿ll just finish this real quick.” “Suit yourself.” Kajo shrugged and followed Mauser and Zork out of the asteroid᾿s mess and into one of its sleek, gray corridors. When they were far enough, she turned to the others, face crunched up in a frown. “I don᾿t think we᾿re safe here. There᾿s a reward on us, and I bet she᾿s gonna turn us in.” “I᾿m not so sure about that,” Zork said quietly. “I, I think she too is a stowaway.” “Huh?” “Aaksters are quite famous of being horribly racist.” “So they wouldn᾿t... hire a Martian?” “Probably not. Besides, why would she be all alone here if she᾿s working for Egbert Aakster? She would have assistants, a cook, a janitor, and so on. But there doesn᾿t seem to be anyone else here.” “Good point,” Kajo said and gave the boy᾿s shoulder a squeeze. “We should probably fetch Bane,” she added and was about to turn around, but Mauser clasped her arm. “You know, if I were you, I᾿d sit this one out.” “Why? He might get in trouble.” “He᾿s been putting down Martians as long as I᾿ve known him, treated them like crap. I think it᾿s about time he meets his match, someone who᾿ll put him in his place. Besides, one of us should be with Pearl at all times.” Both, Kajo and Zork looked like Mauser had slapped them upside the head with a bundle of seaweed. Blotches of anger started forming on Kajo᾿s cheeks. Right, she had spent three years trying to convince Bane he was a backward bigot, and now, all of a sudden, some Martian bint could do it in a matter of hours with a bottle of moonshine and a tiny ass like two apricots hugging. “I don᾿t think this is the time or place to start teaching morals to that dickwad,” Kajo snapped. Mauser started down the corridor, heading towards the heavy double doors that led to the hangar. “I think this is the only way he᾿ll learn.” “Wow, you really must hate him.” “No, not really. But I am slightly miffed he got me into this mess.” # Bane couldn᾿t remember what it was like to wake up to sunshine on his face. To the smell of freshly ground coffee. To the sounds of birds warbling outside. Some distant, deeply buried cache in his mind had surfaced, opened up, undammed a raging river of memories. The sun, the coffee, the sing-song, the breath of a lover brushing against his face, waking him up. All enveloped in the smell and feel of warm skin, pressed against another body. The entire universe in one moment. The moment expanded, reached out of the bed, the room, the house, it swelled like a balloon, all the way to the point of bursting, until it collapsed on itself, and all the colors dissolved into gray mush, like a wet painting immersed into water. Bane drew a sharp breath and opened his eyes. Darkness. Heavy, suffocating darkness. He swallowed, panic and despair choking him, pinning him down, attacking him from every direction. ”You awake?” Pearl’s voice snaked through the dark, at the same time welcome and off-putting. Bane would’ve preferred to be alone with the anxiety attack; it wasn’t a side of him he was ready to share with a half-stranger. But at least someone was there. For the first time in fifteen years—fifteen!— someone was there in the morning, or whatever the time was right now—heck, were there even mornings on the Belt? “How you feeling, stranger?” Pearl’s voice sounded again, a breathy, sexy whisper. “Ugh.” Bane’s back was stiff and head even worse than after waking up from the knock-out gas. “Shall I switch on the light?” “No, please, don’t,” he croaked. “I don’t think I’d survive it.” The bed sheets rustled, the mattress lurched, and then something snuggled to his side. Martian skin; it was smooth and cool like marble. “Did you have fun?” Pearl asked. This time Bane’s mind filled with images of less wistful nature. He couldn’t help but grin. “Oh yeah.” He was going to suggest they’d have fun again, but an age-old uncertainty hit him like a jackhammer in the gut. She’d just think he was some kind of a Back Belt wanker, in on this just because he wanted to use her, just like he had used her kin in joints like Damned Pussy. And he knew full well why he’d done it, and it wasn’t because he hated the Mars-born. Someone knocked on the door, jerking him out of his pathetic musings. Pearl cursed, and this time did switch on the light. Its searing glare punctured Bane’s brains, and he yanked the bed sheet over his head. “Hi, have you seen Bane?” a familiar voice asked from the door. “Sure, he’s right there.” “He’s right— Bane, you there? What the… Are you hiding?” He peeked over the edge of the sheet. Kajo scowled at him from the door. “I wasn’t, I was…” “Using yet another Martian as your blow-up doll?” Silence ensued. Then Bane surged to his feet, never mind he was naked apart from the turd necklace, and stomped over to Kajo. He blocked the doorway with his hulking figure, broad shoulders drawn back, chin tucked to his chest, his cock standing in indignant attention, as if daring Kajo to look down. At first she remained firmly where she stood, defiant, but Bane forced himself to stare her down, and soon she wavered like a reed in the wind, stepped back, gaze on the floor, head slightly bowed. She knew she had crossed the line. “Don’t push it, Kajo. Say what you came to say, then fuck off,” Bane said, his voice rumbling all the way from his gut. The surprise on her face was sweeter than Star-Gleam ice cream. “We’re having a meeting. Thought you should be there too.” She spat out the words as if they were grit. “Where? In our ship?” She nodded. “In the mess.” “I’ll be there in a few.” Another nod, then she stalked off, head held high. Bane released his curbed breath and leaned a shoulder against the doorframe. His heart was clobbering against his ribcage, his blood coursed with oceans of adrenaline. “I think she likes you,” Pearl purred from the side. Bane cringed at the sense of elation her remark sparked. “Nah, she’s a dyke. And a real bitch to boot.” # Egbert Aakster had bought the Weaner Bate—which was the name of the asteroid-ship—from the Union with an outrageous sum of gold. This ingenious creation of Artur Weaner, a Union engineer who was later executed as per the orders of Governor Pip, was able to not only hide on the Belt better than a grain of sand in Sahara, but it also protected its passengers from cosmic radiation better, accelerated faster, and withstood more space particle showers than any other ship in commission. It would have been a big, hairy lie to say commandeering and blackmarketing the Weaner Bate had not occurred to the alleged Belt Trail Bandits. It had, and the thought kept surfacing, and so greed fed foolhardiness by the bucketful. Yet their meeting concerned more innocent matters, namely their position on the Martian scientist, the inevitable task of fixing Egbert’s take-off gear, the rationing of their meager munitions, and the possibility of settling down on—or in—the asteroid. Like experienced negotiators of a true democracy, the four had quickly succumbed to a who-shouts-the-loudest competition. Bane wanted to stay because he got laid. Kajo wanted to leave because she didn’t trust Pearl (“but not because she’s Martian!”) Mauser wanted to stay because, according to his intricate calculations, the risks were in acceptable limits. Zork wanted to leave because Kajo said so. “That’s settled then.” Kajo finally shrugged. “Me and Tim take Egbert. You guys can stay here.” “What if something goes wrong and we need to get out of here?” Mauser asked. “That’s a risk you’ll have to accept. I’m not putting Tim in danger just ‘cause you two think hiding in some ship with a mad scientist is a good idea.” “She’s not mad,” Bane muttered. “She knocked us out with that gas.” “I would’ve done the same in her pants.” Bane’s thoughts screeched to a halt, fumbled around the fact he had just been in her pants, but he collected himself quickly enough and added, “And you sold weapons to the Red Flame of Pallas and got 13 people killed, so look who’s speaking!” “You brought them from Earth! Besides, I didn’t kill them, the rebels did!” But Bane could see he had punched her below the belt and that she was reeling. He almost felt bad about it; just a tickle of remorse. Kajo raked her hands through her kinky hair. “Would you idiots really put us in danger? In more danger than we already are, that is.” “That’s not our intention, but… either way, we’re screwed,” Mauser said. “At least here we have food and shelter. And if Pearl really is a stowaway as well—” “She did say that to me,” Bane said. “Pillow-talk,” Kajo mouthed at Zork. “She’s most likely telling the truth. That means, she won’t turn us in ‘cause that’d compromise her position. And we won’t turn her in, ‘cause we’d just fuck ourselves in the ass that way.” Might be worth the risk, everyone thought. “Oh right, if we stay, only two of us get fucked,” Kajo chirped. “You’re just jealous,” Bane said indignantly. “Lesbian, remember?” “Jealous that… Pearl isn’t?” “It’s settled then,” Mauser said. “We’ll stay. For now anyway. But everyone keep your wits about, eyes open, and guns close by.” “Aye, aye, Mein Führer.” Bane yawned, stretched his arms towards the ceiling. Then stood up.“ If that’s all, see you later, suckers.” After the door slid shut, Mauser turned to Kajo. “You aren’t really, are you?” She scoffed. “Just ‘cause I work a manly occupation, I’m automatically a minge-binger?” He looked from Kajo to Zork. “Why then? So as to conceal—” They both shook their heads, looking disgusted. Kajo let out a weary sigh and leaned her elbows on the table top. Zork patted her on the shoulder, smiling hesitantly. “To save face, right?” “Something like that.” She flushed violently, embarrassed to the core that she had gone to such insane lengths to keep herself intact. “If only I were gay.” Maybe life would be simpler in a prison camp. At least there’d be no men. # The next three days were spent in relative tranquility. In truth, there wasn’t much to do aboard the asteroid-ship apart from fixing up Egbert, which they got done in two days. They had even found a secret contraband compartment close to the crew cabins, but it wasn’t big enough for them all to hide in should the Patrol come a-knockin’. A nervous mood hung over their little group like a bad stench, though Bane was coping with it better than the rest. Kajo was adamant about getting her guns back, but Pearl was equally stubborn about hiding them. She insisted that if hostiles entered the asteroid, she would have quick access to the weapons, but as long as it was just the five of them, it was best not to arm anybody. Kajo was getting desperate. It was unnatural to live and breathe without her cold, hard companions. She imagined it was close to having your ass removed. Yeah, try to sit without your buttocks. Try to look good in skintight jeans. Try to run, jump, sleep, or take a crap. Not so easy, is it, without your fucking butt? It was a matter of principle. With your gun, you always had the choice to fight back or give up. Without your gun, you had no choice. Everything was down to luck; whether the armed people coming for you would show mercy—or not. Fuming, she stomped towards the living quarters of the Weaner Bate. While Kajo, Mauser, and Zork still lived in Aakster’s egg, Bane had relocated to Pearl’s ‘boudoir.’ Yes, boudoir. It wasn’t every day you met a Martian snob. This time it was Bane who came to open the door. Half-clothed, the pessimist in Kajo remarked. He had that wary look in his skittish, Irish eyes, like Kajo had come there to sit on his birthday cake. Pearl was in the shower, judging by the sound. Kajo tried to look amiable, though on the inside she was more jittery than a heroin addict gone cold turkey. “Hi, how are ya?” Bane scratched his pale belly, slightly pudgy from all the beer he chugged. “I’m okay. Just...” He waved at something inside the room, leaving Kajo nonplussed. “Yeah... You?” “Oh, I’m fine. A bit bored, really.” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned a shoulder against the doorframe. “You want something?” Kajo let out a curt chuckle. “What makes you think that’s the only reason I’d come to see ya?” “Isn’t it?” She sighed, cheeks turning pink. “I... I want my guns back, okay? And I was thinking if you could talk to your girlfriend about it?” “My girlfriend.” The realization dawned on his face. He looked like he had come up with a major scientific breakthrough. “Shit, man, that’s her, ain’t it?” he whispered, eyes glimmering with excitement. “What are you, twelve?” Kajo snapped under her breath. His smile vanished. “Shit... I’m sorry, Bane. I didn’t mean it to come off like that. I just... Please, could you talk to her?” He nodded, a wounded expression still hanging on that faintly freckled face. Sometimes Kajo just wanted to pinch his cheeks and... What? “Yeah, I’ll ask about it. Tell you the truth, I feel kinda naked without a gun myself,” he said. The shower was turned off. Bane glanced over his shoulder, then back at Kajo. “Anything else?” “No. And thanks.” “No prob. Later, K.” The door slid shut in front of her nose. The blush on her cheeks intensified. She turned on her heel and slouched down the corridor, hands deep in her pant pockets. Quite a badass Belt Trail Bandit she was, getting all hot and bothered over something so innocent. Loneliness was a quirky thing, if truth be told, and she had no idea how to save herself from it any more than she knew how to steer clear of the Patrol. # Against all expectations, Bane managed to talk Pearl into returning the guns to their rightful owners. Perhaps he was better in the sack than he was given credit for, perhaps Pearl had started to trust her fellow stowaways. She also gave back their Sensors, although using them for communication purposes was out of the question. The Patrol could track them, so an absolute radio silence had to be maintained. Pearl also decided to give her guests a tour in her laboratory. It was a brightly lit, dome-shaped room with test tubes, petri dishes, centrifuges, see-through pressure cabins, and other paraphernalia that was not to be touched by anyone else but her. “So, why are you hiding here anyway?” Mauser asked, his hands clasped behind his back, head tilted, attention on some bubbling liquid inside one of the cabins. “My funding was cut, and it’s difficult for a Mars-born to find a job out there.” Pearl flicked a couple of switches and the cabin started to fill with sickly yellow gas. “I came across this place by accident and thought I’d get to carry on my research here without anyone bothering me.” “How come Egbert Aakster is this clueless of the whereabouts of his ship?” Kajo asked. “If it’s worth a friggin’ gold mine.” “He’s busy running for office on Pallas. I keep tabs on him, but so far he’s had other things on his plate.” “What's this?” Mauser asked, nodding at the gas. “Pesticide.” “Oh. For... space bugs?” Pearl let out a light laugh. “You wouldn’t believe the size of bugs on Mars.” Mauser was about to continue, but Bane cut in, “So, you’re set on staying here, then?” He curled an arm around Pearl’s narrow shoulders and pulled her close. She smiled up at him. “For now, yes. I have a lot to do still. Finish my product, test it, sell it.” “There good money in pest control?” Kajo asked. Pearl shrugged demurely. “Aren’t you putting yourself out of a job if you kill all the bugs with this?” The Martian grinned. “Can’t kill them too thoroughly, can I?” Kajo threw a furtive look at Bane, but the man seemed not to notice anything questionable about Pearl’s career choice. Suppose it made sense, what with a few smudges in his past, too. But something about their affair rubbed Kajo the wrong way. Bane was always such a brute with Martians, yet now he acted so... love-dovey, respectful, like he wasn’t thinking only with his dick anymore. It must have been a sign of an impending apocalypse. “These what you make your gas out of?” Mauser asked, pointing at a row of tiny containers. “Yes, some of them are used in the process.” “This stuff is not for pesticide.” “Excuse me?” Pearl’s voice was loaded with brazen indignity. “You can make Gerrier gas from these ingredients.” Just saying that word ensured Mauser had everybody's attention. Gerrier gas, a quick and efficient way to kill a person whose face didn't please you. “You can make all kinds of things from these—” Mauser slammed a fist against a tabletop. “Why do you have this shit here?” “Dude, calm down,” Bane said, his tone laced with a forewarning of whoop-ass. “The fuck you on about?” “It’s okay, Bane. I got it.” Pearl smiled. “Some of this stuff was here when I came. I wouldn’t be surprised if Aakster had put some money in Gerrier as well. It is, after all, an excellent defensive weapon.” “You call it defensive what the American and European Federations did to the Union?” Mauser grunted. “They didn’t just bring down the Milisya, they killed dozens of civilians. That gas was banned short after the Truce.” And the Patrol replaced the Milisya, and it was freedom to those with money, imprisonment to those who were caught with their hand in the cookie jar but no gold in their purses. “So what do you want to do with it?” Pearl asked impatiently. “Destroy all this, so Aakster can’t make any more of it.” “But I need some of those ingredients for my pesticide.” “Take what you need, and we’ll get rid of the rest. Open the cabinet, please.” “I’m afraid I can’t do that.” “What?” This time even Bane looked uncomfortable. Kajo stepped over to Pearl, hand already creeping towards her holstered pistol. “Why not? Mauser is right, we should just get rid of it,” she said. “Go on, open it,” Mauser urged. As Pearl didn’t comply, he pulled out his pistol and aimed it at her, causing Bane to react. “What the shit? Put it down, asshole!” Then he stepped between Mauser and Pearl. “Put it down. Now.” “Bane,” Kajo started. He raised a palm at her. “I won’t let him shoot her.” “Bane...” “Listen, woman, if I want to be the human shield, I’ll fucking be the human shield!” “Bane, he’s got armor-piercing rounds. I’m glad you’ve got confidence in your flab, but it’s still gonna go right through ya, and it’s gonna go through her as well, so this is fucking pointless.” Bane opened and closed his mouth. “Well... uh, then you’ll have to go through me!” he growled at Mauser. Both of them were perspiring pebbles, hands trembling, chests rising and falling. The stare-down dragged on like a two-legged dog. Kajo tried to think up a tension solvent before bullets started flying. Someone was going to die if she didn't... Grinding his teeth, Mauser lowered the pistol and gave the slightest of nods at Bane. “Fine. But I’m not gonna stay here as long as she’s got that shit on board.” “Fuck off, then,” Bane said through gritted teeth. Mauser was about to turn to the door, but then swerved towards the cabin and fired at it. Ear-splitting cracks halved the air, glass shattered and rained on the floor, and then something burst with a sharp bang, like slamming an aluminum baseball bat against a car. Kajo was screaming at Mauser to stop while Pearl, Bane, and Zork had all hit the deck. Finally Mauser seemed satisfied with the level of destruction he had caused and holstered his gun. Something was seeping out of a container behind the cabin with a soft hiss. “You idiot!” Pearl screeched, clambering to her feet. “Look what you fucking did!” A thin, yellowish cloud rose to the air, slowly like steam from warm earth on a cool autumn morning. “Kajo, I think we should go,” Zork said and hurried over to her. Mauser had blanched, eyes nailed at the growing cloud of gas. Kajo grabbed him by the sleeve and started dragging him away. “Bane! Come on!” she shouted over her shoulder. They cleared out of the laboratory, and Pearl hurried to a panel next to the door, ran her fingers over a few buttons, and soon the doorway was sealed. “If it’s Gerrier gas, that’s not gonna stop it!” Mauser growled at her. “It’ll slow it down. But we’re gonna have to leave this rock.” Mauser’s eyebrows shot up. “So you do have Gerrier gas here!” “No time to argue, come on!” Kajo shouted, having made it to the end of the corridor already. They raced down to the hangar and towards Egbert, all too aware what the gas could do to them. Lesions, bleeding through the skin, vomiting, and hair loss were just a prelude to hours of excruciating pain and a slow, certain death.Kajo started preparing the ship for takeoff while Pearl hit in the sequence that would activate the elevator and take them back to the surface. “Roll her in!” Pearl called from the large double doors that led into the elevator. Egbert rose to its wheels and rumbled over to her. Just as she was about to jump in, Mauser stepped to the airlock. There was a curt crack, Pearl’s head lurched backwards, and she sunk to the floor. Mauser hit the sealing sequence of the lock, but just as it hissed shut, he was dragged off his feet and slammed to the floor. A heavy boot ground down on his hand that was still clasping the pistol. His grip loosened, and the gun was kicked away. “No, don’t!” Zork shouted at Bane who left Mauser on the floor and dashed to the airlock. “You’ll just get us all killed!” “We’re not leaving without her!” All Bane could think was the gas spreading slowly but surely, reaching every nook and corner down below, seeping into every pore and cell of Pearl’s lifeless body, corroding the metal structures, eating through, rising up, hunting Egbert with the stubbornness of death itself. Zork scrambled over to him, the large, pellucid eyes pleading for mercy. “Bane, she was shot in the head. She’s gone.” “Then I’m going!” His words came out as a hoarse, rending yell. “We’re almost in the elevator. We can’t risk opening the door anymore. You saw how fast Gerrier gas spread back then on Vesta. We have to get out now, please.” And then, unexpectedly, Zork laid a small, bird-boned hand on Bane’s shoulder. For the first time he looked at the man with something else than disdain. Pure, unadulterated pity. It sent a flare of rage through Bane’s chest. He whirled to Mauser who was collecting himself off the floor while the mechanism of the enormous elevator rumbled outside, dragging the ship towards the surface. A heavy boot clopped into Mauser’s face and sent him on his back before Bane fell on him, one big hand pressing him down by his throat, the other raining fists at his face. Within seconds Mauser looked like a meatball drenched in ketchup, his lips cracked, nose spread on his cheek, eyes swollen shut, and two of his front teeth missing. Zork bolted to the cockpit, certain Bane was going to kill Mauser, but he couldn’t step between them without getting hurt in the process. “Kajo, the guys are fighting!” he cried. “Shit! Well, stay out of their hair. I’ll check up on them once we get this bucket in space.” “Okay. The gas can’t reach us once we’re out, right?” “I sure hope so. It should have trouble traveling through the vacuum.” # ”I think we’re safe now.” Kajo sighed and set the ship on autopilot. Then she floated off the chair and into the vestibule. Kajo was presented with a strange display. Bane and Mauser were spinning around in midair. Bane’s legs were hooked around Mauser’s midriff, he had grabbed him by the collar, and kept punching his face with his free hand. Round and round and round they spun, every punch sending another spray of bloody bubbles in the air. “Cut it out, you two!” Kajo barked, but as it seemed to have no effect on the two, she whirled around, floated back to the cockpit, sealed all the hatches that led to the corridor, and started dropping the pressure. After a moment, Bane seemed to notice this and his punches became sluggish. “Let him go, Bane,” Kajo said into the intercom, peering at the two through the small window on the cockpit’s door. “Or I’ll knock both of you out.” Finally the men floated apart, and Kajo returned the pressure levels back to normal. “Good, now Mauser, get yourself patched up. There’s blood bubbles in our oxygen.” She pushed herself off the seat. “Tim, can you keep an eye on the controls?” The Martian nodded, and Kajo returned to the vestibule where Bane was still hanging, chest rising and falling, hands clenched in fists. “I’m sorry it turned out this way,” she said. Bane let out an incomprehensible grunt and started down the corridor towards the sleeping area. Kajo kicked herself off the wall and after him. “Bane... She had Gerrier gas, for heaven’s sake, and she lied about it to us!” He held onto a handle on the wall and spun around. “We don’t know why she had it, but wouldn’t you keep quiet about it too? Haven’t you kept quiet about your own shit even though you think you have a perfectly valid reason for selling railguns to the Triad? Railguns that almost got us killed!” He spread his hands. “Maybe she had a good reason too.” “Ok, those were so not my railguns! And I only sold some parts anyway.” Bane tilted his head, one eyebrow raised. Kajo let out a frustrated sigh. “I-I’m not defending Mauser, you know. And I don’t think we should just let him get away scot-free, but I won’t pretend that Pearl didn’t have one of the most poisonous chemical weapons ever created readily available in her lab. And I don’t want to share a ship with someone like that.” “Isn’t that a little hypocritical? How is that any different from sharing a ship with me? I killed people in Libya. Your merchandise has gotten people killed, too.” “But I know you. And you know me. We’ve known each other for years. I can trust you, but I couldn’t trust her. Did you?” Bane looked away, features twisting in pain. “Did it ever occur to you she might hurt us?” Kajo moved a little closer, smiling cautiously, dressed in sympathy. “Hurt me?” A corner of his eye twitched at that. He cast a heavy look at the woman, then shook his head. “I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you in case you haven’t noticed. And no, I didn’t trust her. But once you’ve fucked someone a few times, it ain’t that easy to accept they’ve just been murdered.” A twinge of pity poked through, made Kajo drop her gaze, wiped away her smile. “I’m really sorry.” Bane cemented his expression and posture. “Yeah, whatever. So, where are we going next?” “Well, Josif said we should head to Boneyard.” “You follow the advice we got from the same asshole who sold us someone else’s ship and you lecture me about fucking trust?” She bit back a prickly retort. “Well, yes, but... I think we should ditch this ship first, then head there. Boneyard is full of losers like us, we should fit right in. And the Patrol rarely goes there anymore. Too late to clean that up and all that.” “Yeah, except let’s see, do I want to get fucked in the ass by the police or by Boneyard cutthroats…” Kajo blinked at him. “Boneyard cutthroats it is, then.” Bane sighed. # Boneyard wasn’t as much a thorn as it was a wart on Pallas’s side. Compartments upon compartments were built from recycled and second-hand materials, and it was essential for the visitor to know which sections were regularly maintained, which were likely to snuff out their life. One could buy a guide from the shady vendors who loitered about the main hangar, but they weren’t kept up to date as, every now and then, parts of Boneyard died while new parts grew. In the core of the station pulsed the most colorful bazar in all of Belt Trail. The black market had blossomed after the fall of the Union, and now one could find anything their heart desired from the many booths, looses, and curtained corners scattered about miles and miles of corridors. Even safety from the Patrol, if it came to that. “I’m telling ya, this was a bad idea,” Bane grumbled to Kajo’s ear as their group of three weaved between bartering customers and wildly gesturing sellers. “We ain’t cutthroats, we don’t know anyone here, so it’s way more likely they’re just gonna sell us to the coppers what with that fucking warrant out and all.” “Beggars can’t be choosers, can they?” Kajo said under her breath. “Josif recommended we come here and seek out Jabber.” “Jabber?” “Jabber.” “You say that like you know the guy. Is that supposed to reassure me? ‘Cause I know you don’t deal with cutthroats. The Triad maybe, even rogue coppers and corporate CEOs, but you never deal with cutthroats.” Kajo stopped in front of a booth that sold used hydraulic pumps, and gestured for both, Bane and Zork to come closer. Mauser they had left in the ship, dazed and handcuffed, courtesy of Bane. “Fine, I don’t know him,” she admitted, but then squared her shoulders and cleared her throat, “but Josif said he could help us find a compartment where we could hide in ‘til this shit blows over.” “What about Mauser? You still want to sell him?” Zork asked tentatively, throwing fearful looks around their surroundings. He had pulled a hood over his head; Martians were easy pickings for cutthroats. “It’s perfect. We need money, he killed a woman in cold blood.” Bane shrugged. “Deserves to have his organs harvested, or, I don’t fucking know, become a slave for the ice drilling companies of Titan.” “That’s a bit cold, isn’t it? No pun intended,” Zork said. “So’s what he did to Pearl.” “Boys, let’s just get this over with. I’m sure Jabber can help us find a buyer. Come on, it shouldn’t be far.” “If Josif’s map can be trusted.” “Shut up, Bane.” # Jabber turned out to be a pasty man with a close resemblance to a whale washed ashore. A blood-red divan was groaning with his truck-tier size midriff and limbs like sacks of potatoes. His head looked like it was about to disappear into his body and his tiny eyes were like piss holes in snow. Trust, he did not evoke. He spoke in an oily voice, gaze never leaving Kajo’s chest. “I’m no slaver, I don’t traffic humans, so what would I want with your captive?” “Consider him non-human,” Bane said. “You can sell him for swine food for all I care.” Not that Jabber seemed to be in need of quick cash. His office, if it could be called that, was laden with cutting-edge technology, abstract paintings, and wooden, polished furniture. Jabber let out a rattling sigh. “All right. What else can you offer?” Kajo’s eyebrows knitted together. “Else?” “You have to offer me more than you four are worth.” He smiled like a cat with a cunning plan. “Belt Trail Bandits.” There was a collective ‘oh fuck’ and an exchange of glances. But of course. Kajo was the first to regain her composure. She cleared her throat, an angry blush creeping on her cheeks. “I can assure you, we’ll be far less profitable to you behind bars, so why don’t you take advantage of our expertise now that you’ve got the chance.” Jabber’s pale eyebrows quirked up ever so slightly. Then a squiggle of a smile rose to his lips, spelling it out, loud and clear, that Kajo, Bane, and Zork would not be receiving the better end of the deal. # “Now, wouldn’t it be nice if we had that Gerrier gas right now? For, I dunno, leverage?” Bane asked. “Shut up.” Kajo rested the back of her head against a wall, limbs taped up good and proper, just like Bane’s and Zork’s. “I’m trying to think.” “You didn’t think a slaver would sell us as slaves?” “I thought he’d come up with some other uses for us.” Bane rolled his eyes. “I bet he has other uses for you than an ice cave slave miner.” “Mauser’s probably getting pretty hungry by now,” Zork said. They had left him in a sleeping closet, ironically enough, taped up just like the three of them were right now. “We can’t worry about that now,” Kajo said. Bane snorted. “I wouldn’t worry about that bastard at all. Okay, so what have we got to trade? I’m not saying you ain’t hot, K, but I’m pretty darn sure even selling your fine ass won’t cut it.” “How very kind of you. Hang on... We could trade Egbert?” “Why’d Jabber want that piece of shit? You can hardly fit the four of us in there, so how do you think he’d fit?” “The Weaner Bate,” Zork said. “Which is, hello, cont—” “Completely perfect!” Kajo cut in. “Pearl said it’s worth a lot of gold. But only we can access it.” Bane looked nonplussed for a moment, but then his eyes lit up with understanding. “Oh yeah, now we’re talkin’...” # Bundled up and stuffed into a crew cabin was one of the least pleasant experiences of Mauser’s life. The operative words for his predicament were stifling hot and cramped. Grunting and huffing, he scraped the duct-tape that held his wrists together against the sharp edge of a lap top ledge. Almost... there... He wriggled against the restraints with all his might, then let his shoulder relax and breath escape in a long sigh. Not even close. Something caught his ears, spilling in from outside the compartment. Mauser froze, straining his hearing. Were the others back already? And if so, what would they do with him? Now he heard it clearly; people talking, footsteps, someone laughed. Hatches and closet doors were yanked open. “Oh yeah, a woman lives here!” someone cackled. “Maybe we should wait for her to come back, have some fun,” another responded. Boneyard cutthroats. Miscreants who didn’t fit anywhere else and now supported themselves with drugs, prostitution, human trafficking, weapons, booze, as well as petty and heavy crimes. The door of Mauser’s cabin flew open and he found himself face-to-face with a skinny, heavily bearded individual. “A passenger!” he said, huffing foul breath on Mauser. “A prisoner!” another man, short and pear-shaped, exclaimed and peered into the compartment. “Look, trussed up like a dead deer. Wonder if he’s any valuable.” “That mug looks mighty familiar, don’t it?” “One of your boyfriends, Benny-boy?” The bearded one smacked his short friend upside the head. “Real funny from a half-wit. I mean I seen this son of a whore on posters. Bastard killed a bunch of punters back on Mitten, remember? Belt Trail Bandits, they call ‘em.” “Shit, man, whatta hell are we messing with them, then?” “Posters mean a fucking warrant, you buttplug. A warrant means gold. You do know what gold is, do you?” The short one nodded eagerly. “Mmhmmph!” Mauser protested. “He tryinna say somethin’?” Benny-boy tore the tape off Mauser’s mouth. “Well?” “I’m not who you think I am!” The short one smacked his left year and his eyes glazed over for a second. He was clearly Sensoring for information, scouring the news for pictures. Then he shook his shaggy head like a dog shaking water off its fur. “Nope, it’s you, all right. Klaus Mauser. That’s a funny name, ain’t it? Klaus the Maus, how about that?” “Don’t know how you do it, how does that mouth keep runnin’ even though there ain’t nothing turning between those batty ears,” Benny-boy said. “So where’s the rest of your lot? Out shopping?” “I-I...” Mauser swallowed, his mouth still bristling with pain. “Why should I tell you? You’re gonna sell ‘em too, won’t you?” “What do you care, Fritz? They hogtied you for some reason, eh?” Benny-boy said. “Unless it’s some kind of bondage game, right, Benny? Eh, eh?” his friend cackled. “Sure, must be that. Come on, halfwit, let’s take this fucker with us, see if Boss comes up with some use for him.” # Jabber rubbed his overflowing chin, eyes half-closed, a lazy smile idling on his face. He stretched himself on his divan, joints cracking. Finally he nodded. “All right, you may be more use to me this way. You show my men where this magic ship is and we’ll then see about your freedom.” “That’s not good enough,” Kajo said. “Let one of us go first.” “Yeah, her,” Bane joined in. Kajo turned to him, eyebrows raised. “They need me to fly the ship!” “Oh yeah... Forgot about that.” “You let Tim go.” “What?” Bane and Zork exclaimed in unison. “You’d let me go alone with these goons?” Kajo asked Bane, smiling sweetly. “Oh, right. Well, no, I wouldn’t. So, yeah, Zork, that stump,” he said, nodding at the Martian. “No, I can’t...” Zork started, but fell silent when Kajo cast a hard look at him. Jabber frowned. “Tim, Zork, and the stump are the same person, I presume.” “Yes, they are the same person. Let him go first, then I’ll take you to the asteroid,” Kajo said, frustrated. A constipated look came over Jabber’s swollen, lumpy features. “Fine, he can go.” He nodded at a couple of guards who walked briskly over to Zork. “Now, you two show me this stealth ship slash asteroid, and then we’ll see about your freedom.” # Fate was a cruel bitch, a Vestan meter maid, a bitter spinster with a stick up her sphincter. She took her loneliness out on those who had the slightest chance for happiness and when she was done, she curled up in her favorite armchair with a trashy erotica novel, two fat cats purring at her feet, a self-satisfied smirk on her face. Job well done, suck on this, motherfucker, Bane thought bitterly. He glanced at Kajo walking by his side, then at the six Jabber goons behind and in front of them, and shook his head. “You really want me dead, do you?” he whispered. “Sorry?” “Getting Zork free but sending us back to that rock.” “You know, deep down, somewhere in the very core of your heart, if you even have one, you know that was the right thing to do.” Bane mulled it over, then let out a half-approving grunt. “Guess so. What is Zork to you anyway? What is it with you fussin’ over that little fuck every fucking second?” When Kajo replied, her voice was taut as a guitar string. “That’s between him and me.” “Well, I know you ain’t fucking him ‘cause he’s no girl.” “No, not fucking him.” Despite everything—despite Pearl—a familiar wave of elation rippled through Bane’s chest. In a twisted way it felt like the stars had finally aligned just right. Now it was just the two of them left, up against the world, a united front with far less physical contact he would’ve preferred. He shook away the thought, but a small smile wouldn’t leave his face. “What if they find Mauser?” Kajo asked under her breath. “Well, since we aren’t gonna trade his freedom for the asteroid that’s gonna kill us in, say, ten hours or so—” “Shh!” “So, I don’t think they’ll mind another bounty.” “Yeah, you’re probably right.” They arrived at the hangar, a huge space with rows of cargo ships, moonlanders, Comet Chasers, and dead-space cruisers. The smell of fuel hung everywhere, and men with orange vests and toolboxes hurried to and fro amidst baseball cap donning pilots, hopeful hitchhikers, and drunken crewmen. Jabber’s goons bunched up on the two, weapons at the ready. Hangars were public places, just as welcoming to Jabber’s henchmen as they were to Major Fuchs’s, Jabber’s number one rival. A bit of overkill, Bane thought. On the other hand, he didn’t know how exactly things were run in Boneyard, apart from very violently. “There’s some guy hovering about our ship,” Kajo whispered. A lanky man was standing in front of Egbert’s entrance. Bane moved a step closer. “And with a fucking automatic. That's always a good signl.” The man spotted the group and lifted his rifle. Jabber’s men followed suit, but before they had time to react, a loud crack erupted from somewhere and one of the men jerked forward, then fell on his face, blood pooling around his head. Bane pulled Kajo with him down to the floor, shielding her, but she cursed irritably. “Get the fuck off me and find some cover!” “Oh, right. There, under Egbert.” More blasts sounded off, now coming from both fronts. Their hearts hammering in their throats, Bane and Kajo slithered flat against the floor towards the ship, rolled under it, and then turned to observe the devastation. Bleeding, moaning men lay splayed on the floor while a few more had sought cover behind other ships or maintenance trolleys and kept exchanging bursts of lead with shooters firing from two separate locations. Then a sharp blast tore through the air, louder than the gunshots. “Oh shit, tear gas,” Kajo said under her breath. “Get in the ship!” Bane started pushing her out from under Egbert. Smoke-like gas was rapidly filling the hangar, curling men up in harsh fitting coughs, disabling most of them. Black shadows moved in from all entrances, dressed in helmets and armors, carbines in hands. Kajo pressed her palm against Egbert’s keypad and prayed for the green light to appear. Bane had turtled his head halfway under his jacket, the smoke starting to prickle in his lungs. Come on, come on, come on, he thought, slamming his hands against the door. It flew ajar. What the hell? Bane didn’t sacrifice any further thought to it, just pulled Kajo in with him, sealed the airlock and the vestibule, and hurried to the cockpit. “Seal the oxygen supplies and carbon dioxide outlets,” Bane grunted as Kajo brought the computers back to life with the palm key. “As fast as I can! Fuck, what the hell just happened there?” “Don’t know, don’t care. Just get us out of here.” “How? The whole hangar is under fire and... fucking gas. You really think flight control’s still online?” “Shit. What then?” “I don’t know, I... Okay, oxygen and carbs are blocked, and we have the internal system on.” She drew a deep breath. “I think we should just wait. Nobody saw us come in here, anyway. I hope.” Bane slumped into the co-pilots seat and coughed. “Fucking hell, K. Fate’s one tricky bitch, ain’t she?” She let out a hollow chuckle. “What makes you think it’s a bitch? Could be a dick too.” They remained silent for a long time, listening to the shouts and shots still echoing outside, wrapped up in their thoughts, in their mistakes and wrongdoings and endless regrets. The only thing that gave Kajo a sliver of comfort was Tim’s freedom. The little Martian was not meant to survive on his own, but better lost and alone than under attack. At long last Bane cleared his throat. He looked at Kajo, the pale eyebrows drawn into a worried frown. “Sorry I couldn’t help you out of this mess.” Kajo twitched at a sharp gunshot sounding off somewhere nearby. “Nah, you did your best. No need to apologize.” She glanced at the man and was surprised to find clear anguish on those faintly lined features. “Bane, what’s wrong?” “Other than we don’t know what the hell’s going on except that it involves big guns and chemical weapons?” He grimaced. “I don’t know.” They sat in silence for a long time, Bane fiddling with his shit necklace, Kajo nodding off against the backrest. “Well,” Bane started. Kajo glanced at him. “Well, I guess there’s just one thing I wanted to say, is all.” “Then spit it out. Looks like you’ve been chewing it long enough.” He looked down at his lap like a little boy ashamed of some stupid prank. “In case this is the last time I see you, K, just wanted to say that I never meant to be so shitty towards ya. It just kinda turned out that way.” “Yeah, after I told you I’m a lesbian.” He flinched at that. “It’s not that I’m sexist or whatever.” “You don’t even know what ‘sexist’ means.” “Well, who cares, all I’m sayin’ is that I’m sorry I gave you grief and acted shitty towards Zork.” “His name is Tim.” “Yeah, sorry about that too. I guess I was just kinda pissed off ‘cause I really thought you were the hottest chick I ever seen, and then you say you don’t even swing my way.” Kajo let out a long sigh. “I said it ‘cause that’s how I get rid of the guys I don’t wanna fuck.” “Huh?” She turned to look at him, eyebrows raised in meaningful arcs. Bane couldn't believe it. What a bi— “You mean you lied?” “I always say that when I want the guy to go away. It’s just that... You never went away, you know, and then it was too late to take it back.” “Why didn’t you just say you didn’t want me?” “‘Cause you would’ve clung onto that teeny-tiny hope that if you got me drunk enough, I’d still fuck you.” “I still cling onto that!” “Still? Even now?” “Well... Probably until you die, if truth be told. That’s guys for ya.” Bane shrugged. She couldn’t deny it, his confession did feel good, like warm sunshine on your skin. Smiling sadly, Kajo glanced at him. “I thought you were in love with Pearl.” “I don’t know. I really liked her, you know. And if I ever get out of this shit, I’m gonna hunt Mauser down and kill him. Cut off his fucking face and feed it to him.” “Just don’t get caught,” Kajo sighed. They were enveloped in another anxious silence. In their case, it felt like freedom was very much like virginity; it was forever gone, lost in a drunken spur of the moment, impossible to get back anymore, and never appreciated enough when they still had it. And it wasn't like losing it had been an entirely pleasant experience, either. “Listen,” Kajo said, grabbing Bane by the arm. “What? I can’t hear anything.” “That’s just it. I think they’ve stopped shooting.” She typed in a few commands and a video feed of the hangar appeared on the computer screens. The cameras showed thick smoke and a few shadows moving back and forth. Then one shadow stopped close to the lens. Kajo and Bane both drew sharp breaths. The Patrol. “You don’t think they did this to catch us?” Bane croaked. “Well, they could be after Jabber and whoever was shooting at us.” “Okay, not good, not good! He’s going to the airlock!” “Shit, come on, we gotta hide,” Kajo said and jumped to her feet. “Where? You think they won’t go through every compartment?” Kajo looked around, biting on her lower lip. Then a triumphant smile rose on her face. “I know where.” # Eventually, a police squad combed through Egbert, every compartment they could find from the toilet to the tiny cargo hull, but they were left empty-handed. Five minutes after they had left, the hatch of the contraband locker fell open. “They gone?” Kajo whispered. “Looks like the coast is clear,” Bane replied in a strained voice. He had hardly fit in there, his shoulders pressing painfully against the walls. “Okay, I’ll push you,” Kajo said and gave him a good shove. “Aw crud!” He tumbled down and rolled all the way to the closest sleeping compartment, crashing through its door. “You okay?” Kajo called. “Yeah, yeah. So who do you think they were talking about?” “Mauser?” Bane sat upright and dusted his jacket. “Maybe. But how do you think he got out? I tied him good and proper and we locked the doors.” “You think someone got in?” Kajo asked, holding out her hand to help him up. “Might explain why the airlock was open. Though I s’pose Mauser could’ve left it like that. It’s just that there’s no fucking way you get free after I’ve taped ya.” Bane winked at Kajo, who rolled her eyes. “Well, it couldn’t be the cops who found him,” she said. “Or else they would’ve just confiscated Egbert and raked through Boneyard ‘til they found us. So I don’t know, he got out and tipped off the cops? He probably guessed we’d return to Egbert at some point.” Bane heaved a deep breath and rubbed his temples. “Great. Well, at least they now think this ship’s empty. Where do you wanna go from here?” “I bet Jabber still wants Egbert, so he might return here once the dust’s settled. I just don’t think we can stay here in Boneyard; he’s got his tentacles everywhere and would find us sooner or later, and frankly, I’d rather not go back to that asteroid-ship anyway.” The two stared at each other, each hoping for the other to come up with some brilliant plan. Bane rubbed his temples again, as if that’d spur his thoughts in motion. “How about makeovers? And we’d have to go our separate ways. A ginge and a black together... We stick out,” Kajo suggested. “You could probably disappear in the crowd if we shaved your head...” “But you’d need a wig and a beard, and we haven’t got either.” “Fuck... So we’re stuck?” “So we’re stuck.” # Bane stirred, let out a sleepy oink of sorts, and opened his eyes with effort. Kajo was calling his name, rapping on the door of his sleeping compartment. “Yeah?” he grumbled, opening it just a crack to shield himself from the searing light. “Someone’s at the airlock, trying to get in,” Kajo whispered. He blinked at her. “Shit. You sure?” “Pretty sure, yeah. Someone’s trying to pick the lock.” “Didn’t the coppers break it?” “They probably slammed in a new one. Come on, we gotta hide. Could be them again.” Bane grimaced at the thought of having to squeeze into the contraband locker again, but there was no choice. They were still unarmed, not a gun left aboard the ship. Uncomfortably tucked in, Kajo’s elbow digging in between his ribs, Bane’s shoulder pressing her face against the wall, the two waited. Someone entered the ship and sealed the airlock. The sound of light footsteps faded into the cockpit’s direction. “Just one,” Bane whispered into Kajo’s ear, his warm breath tickling her neck. After a few minutes, the engines roared to life, and the whole locker started to tremble with the ship. “What the... No one else should be able to start it!” Kajo hissed. “Look at the bright side, there seems to be only one guy.” Their bodies tensed in sudden realization. Egbert was about to take off, manned only by one pilot. Yet another chance for freedom had been dropped on Kajo’s and Bane’s laps. They could feel the wheels grind out of the ship, shoving it into motion. After several minutes of back-breaking shaking and rumbling, Egbert came to a halt. Kajo and Bane felt the gravity disappear. Her curly hair rose in the air and tickled Bane’s nose. Don’t you dare sneeze, Kajo thought, casting a warning look at him, which he missed since it was too dark in the locker. They waited for another five minutes, making sure that Egbert really had left Boneyard behind. “Okay, let’s go,” Kajo whispered. They wriggled out of the locker as quietly as they could. From the maintenance compartment they found a knife, a hammer, and duct tape. Floating soundlessly, the two approached the cockpit’s hatch. “You roll open the hatch, I’ll go in first and take the fucker down,” Bane said, flashing the knife at Kajo. She nodded, started turning the wheel, and when it reached the end of its cycle, she pulled the door open. Bane pushed himself in, weapon at the ready, but then let out a surprised yowl. “The fuck?” He kept sailing all the way to the opposite wall before coming to a halt. Zork struggled himself free of the seatbelts and sprung off the pilot’s seat, eyes wide with fright. “Tim?” Kajo breathed, and lowered the hammer. “How did you...” “Y-you, I thought they got you,” the little Mars-born stammered and backed to the furthest corner. “No, but it was close,” Bane said. Then he frowned. “How did you know about that?” Zork’s enormous eyes flicked from him to Kajo and back again. “Oh, uh, I... heard about it. They talked about it on the streets.” Bane tilted his head. “Huh? The word on the street was that we got caught? Why would they say that?” “I, I don’t know.” “How did you get in here?” Kajo asked. “I sealed and locked the front hatch. The only way you’d get in would be with a lock picker.” Her eyes glided around the cockpit, then stopped on a complex contraption the size of a shoebox. “Oh... So you have one. Where’d you get it?” Zork shrugged. “The bazar.” “Those cost a pretty penny.” “Heh, it was a real bargain.” “Tim...” Kajo squinted at him. “What’s going on?” Something cold came over Zork’s gray features, as if his expression simply glazed over. His eyes looked dead, his mouth became a hard line. “What did you do?” Kajo demanded, her voice ringing harsh and accusing over the low hum of the engines. “‘What did you do?’” Zork mimicked. “‘What did you do?’ What do you think I did?” “You little shit,” Bane said. “You told the cops where they’d find us so that you’d get the bounty.” A sneer came over Zork’s features. “Don’t pretend you wouldn’t have deserved it.” “Tim, please tell me you didn’t—” Tears glistened in Kajo’s eyes. He sighed. “What’s the point? What would you do anyway if that was the case? We’re flesh and blood, remember?” Bane burst in laughter. “Yeah, right. Dream on, you little maggot. How could you two be—” “Bane...” His head snapped into Kajo’s direction. “He’s telling the truth. And he’s right. We are flesh and blood. I just don’t understand,” her voice broke, “I don’t... I always took care of you, Tim.” “No, you always separated me, always made sure I was the freak, that I was different and should be kept apart from the rest of the world. You made me feel like there’s no place for me here!” Zork burst out. “You took me from my home!” “I wanted you to see something else than that shithole!” Bane glanced at the computers and frowned. “We’re headed to Mars.” “No, chucklehead, I am,” Zork said acidly. “Here’s the deal. Yeah, now you know I tried to sell you to the cops, the truth’s out and there’s jackshit we can do about it. However, if you drop me to Mars, you can go anywhere you like and keep Egbert.” Bane let out a hoarse chuckle. “Now, riddle me this: how is it that you still think you’re in control? It’s two against one, so who’s the real chucklehead, eh?” Kajo turned to him, eyebrows arched. Then she bobbed her head at the lock pick. “He’s overridden my key. Tim’s the only one who can fly this bucket now unless he gives the controls back to me.” “Oh.” He blinked. “Shit.” Then his face lit up and he maneuvered closer to the Martian. “I can persuade him to give it to us earlier.” “No! Don’t hurt him!” Kajo cried out. A self-satisfied smile rose to Zork’s oval face. “So we have an understanding?” Kajo nodded. “We’ll drop you off on Mars.” For a few breaths, everyone floated in silence, uncertain how to proceed. Then Kajo sprung forward, swung the hammer, and clocked it against Zork’s skull. They smacked against a wall, and she wrapped her legs tightly around his torso, holding down his hands. “Quick, give me the knife!” Dumbstruck, Bane obeyed, but he had to look away when the knife sunk into Zork’s limp hand. Blood bubbled out as she dug deeper, a fervent look on her face. The pain stirred Zork, but with a primeval shriek, Kajo headbutted him. Zork’s cranium bounced off the wall, and he fell unconscious again. In the meantime, Kajo carved the fake key out of Zork’s hand. “There, why don’t you tape him up,” she huffed, her hands bloodied, her face streaked with tears, some of them rising to the air with blood. “This time so that he doesn’t slip away like Mauser.” “O-okay.” Again Bane obeyed, ashen-faced, still unable to grasp what exactly had happened. “We’ll drop you off on Mars, all right. You’ll see,” Kajo muttered and started working the ship’s controls. Bane ripped a piece off his flannel shirt and bandaged up Zork’s bleeding hand. When the Martian came to, his eyes sprung wide, and if his mouth hadn’t been taped in addition to his wrists and ankles, he would’ve broken into agonized screams. “Stuff him into the locker,” Kajo grunted. After the whimpering, sobbing Zork was locked away, Bane returned to the cockpit. He hated blood bubbles; they were like particularly creepy bugs. Dodging them, Bane moved over to Kajo. She had strapped herself in the seat, eyes fixed on the dead space ahead. Bane pulled himself next to her and buckled up as well.. He looked at Kajo, was about to ask what had just happened, but then zipped his mouth. Eventually he just placed his hand on her shoulder. She twitched and hung her head. The entire universe in one moment. Told ya Fate’s a real bitch. # 6 Months Later A man with a shaggy black beard and curly black hair pulled a free stool for himself, then flashed two fingers at the Martian barmaid. He glanced at the bald woman next to him. She pretended to be immersed in a newspaper, her finger going right-to-left, right-to-left, as she slid through the pages. "They never caught those bandits, did they?" the man asked. "Belt Trail Bandits? Well, they got one. Klaus Mauser. He's baking apple pies in the Ding Wing." A Neptunian throat-freezer was placed in front of her. "On me," the man said. "You sayin' the man went nuts?" She shrugged. "Gonna be behind bars for a while, that's for sure. Someone tortured his balls off before the Patrol found him and locked him up. Well, that's what they say anyway." She squinted at the drink. It was enveloped in dry ice. "Thanks." Then she sought out the man's eyes. "Feelin' better about Fate yet?" He gave her a stained grin. "I dunno. You feelin' straight yet?"