Second Chances The hot water from the new shower new head cascaded down Marcus Wright’s body. He watched the red as it swirled around the drain and vanished, leaving behind the contrite emotions of the night. His shoulder was still tender from where James Bronco, James freaking Bronco, had banged him with the bat before Carmak Jones exploded his head. Carmak had used one of the experimental weapons nicknamed the teakettle. When a poor fellow was shot with it, whatever body part was hit would explode. The energy from the gun excited the atoms and made them bounce around until the skin or bones couldn’t contain it any longer. He would foam at the mouth and whistle through his ears or nose for a few seconds before the big pop. Nasty bugger. Marcus inched the dial a bit hotter and let the water ease some of the pain from his muscle. The steam shrouded around him and fogged the imitation glass, but he hadn’t opened his eyes since he’d hopped in. James freaking Bronco. He couldn’t shake the guy out of his head. James had been there with them since the initial deals. The ones way back on Phobos, and only the loyal remained after the dust settled from that nightmare. A betrayal after something like that was unfathomable. Would be unfathomable except Marcus was thinking the same thing. He wanted out more than ever. There’s got to be another way to live, he thought, palming his black hair back and out of his eyes. Life didn’t used to be this way. Then, the doorbell. Marcus eased open his eyes. The glow from his blues still radiated, as they always did whenever he witnessed a crime. The blue reflected against the steam and glass, flickering as he blinked, trying to figure out what to do. He wasn’t expecting company and he hadn’t ordered any takeout in weeks. “I’m in the tub,” he yelled toward the door. The doorbell chimed again and he cursed, turning off the water and stepping out. The droplets of water made crackling noises against the tile as he went over and wiped away the condensation on the mirror. He stared at his face. The blood was gone, from what he could tell, but his blues kept glowing. Even after the eye drop accelerants there was at least another hour before they reverted to normal. Stupid politicians and their mandates. The law had been passed in 2020, the year of perfect vision, and now everyone off-Earth had to wear contacts that recorded two petabytes of high definition data at a time. The contacts glowed whenever they recorded a criminal act. The politicians on Earth had been trying to figure out ways they could crackdown on off-Earth crime. The citizens fleeing the tragedies of Earth had outnumbered the police forces since that crazy kook, Kim Stanley Robinson, invented a way to colonize and travel to Mars in 2015. Who would have guessed that the water hidden on the red rock would enable habitation? And before aliens invaded Earth. The politicians had even figured out a way to track every person wearing the contacts, and the contacts synced with the user’s vitals. If the specs were taken out for longer than two minutes at a time, and the user’s hear rate didn’t slow like with sleep, every cop in the quadrant would come buzzing to their door. Freaking politicians. The doorbell chimed three times in quick succession and snapped him from his thoughts. He grabbed the Oakley’s sitting on his sink and fumbled to get them on, jogging to his front door, leaving a trail of wet carpet behind him. The week-old UV-wave-oven pizza still made his house reek of cheese and sausage, and he made a mental note to discard it before he left again. At his front door Marcus pressed the transluscer, and the material in half his door wavered to translucent. Two United World agents stared at him, noticing the blue leaking from behind his shades. They both sighed. “We just want to…” they started, but Marcus was already sprinting toward his bedroom. He could escape through the window there. They hadn’t ID’d him yet, and the house title was in a phony name. They’d never catch him. He finally had a valid excuse to take that vacation back to Earth, maybe relax on the last beach before it too became too polluted to populate. He zigged back to his room, hearing the smash of his door being kicked open by the agents. His heart raced. His breathing elevated. Where’s my piece? Where’s my cash? He heard their heavy steps thumping against his carpet and decided he didn’t have time to search his room. He would call Mack when he was clear and get some weapons, maybe do a few jobs and get some cash before heading to Earth. Flinging open the window so hard it cracked, he stepped through and hopped down to the red brown of Mars’s soil. He ran along the side of his house and heard the agents hopping from the window as well, screaming for him to freeze before they opened fire. His pulse pounded against the inside of his head and he could barely think. He almost tripped over the decorative rocks he had used to line his yard, stumbling onto the paved road and breaking into a run. He passed his neighbor, who was hosing down his grass with UV-infused water. The dome covering the Mars colonies blocked most of the few bits of UV coming from the sun, so any form of life transferred from Earth had to receive UV treatments to thrive. Marcus made it a few steps before he felt the impact of the anti-gravity round as it slammed into his back. Moments later he was still moving his legs as fast as he could, but he was floating a few inches above the ground, unable to run, unable to escape. He sucked his teeth. As he floated higher and rotated gradually, he made a full circle and saw the UW agents sauntering up to him. His moue hinted he wanted nothing more than to shoot them both where they stood, but he hadn’t had time to snag his gun. They smirked and grabbed his hands. There was no point in resisting, but he did anyway, on principle, showing his vehement distaste for them by spitting. The anti-gravity effects made his saliva drift upward, harmlessly, and the UWs chuckled. They walked toward their hover car, pulling him along in the air and stuffing him in the back before starting the engine and puttering away. Marcus brooded in the backseat. “What are you taking me in for?” The driver glanced back. “Despite the glow your blues have got, and the fact that you ran, we’re not here to arrest you. We’ve got a proposition, and you may be the only one to help.” “That right? Well I don’t help Udies.” He spat out the slang for the UW agents with malice dripping from his syllables, but they just smiled and kept going. They pulled up in front of a building, unmarked and obviously not UW headquarters, and got out, towing Marcus behind them in the air. They knocked twice on the front door and it was opened, no transluscer. Inside were six other agents, all wearing the more traditional combat uniform and wielding antimatter assault rifles. Marcus wasn’t shocked to see they didn’t have the old-world antimatter rifles that were simply powered by antimatter. They had the new models, the models that shot a round of antimatter particles specifically designed to obliterate a controlled area of the target. It took the UW congress four years to pass a sanction that persuaded Earth in favor of official use. The UW didn’t play around with anyone, so why were the two squiring Marcus so light on their feet? The interior of the building was dark, and a constant ticking of some sort clicked in the background. None of the agents made a noise, but they all watched him with firm features, fingers on their triggers, muscles tense and ready to go. Only two lights were on, and the illumination almost allowed the agents to hide in the shadows with their black uniforms. The structure wasn’t large, and the walls were lined with equipment crates. Marcus could barely see into a back room that had floater cots made from Lithium and Carbon Aerogel. The two light materials, supported by Martian gravity and horizontal fans, enabled the cots to float, giving the sleeper a deeper sleep. New colonizers raged over the things, but they were too expensive for most people. A lone silver table was toward the back of the building. A chair was on either side, and the two agents sat Marcus down, one of them standing and the other sitting across from him. “Would you like some tea? Coffee? Giggle bubs?” the sitting agent proffered, leaning back in his chair and loosening his red tie. Marcus was silent. “Right. Well I’m special agent Franks, and this is my partner, special agent Furts. I’m not in the business of wasting time, so let’s get to it. We need you for one reason: Carmak Jones. We’ve lost tabs on him in recent weeks, and he’s stolen a great deal from Earth and Mars. He’s managed to pilfer all this money, but we have no evidence on him. He’s been using an encryption virus that scrambles everyone’s contact lenses. Anyone that looks at him accepts the virus, and their recording of him is corrupted. We don’t know who created this virus or how Carmak got a handle on it, but it’s working. We caught him once, but we had to release the skiderik because all the evidence against him was corrupted. Even our own surveillance can’t get eyes on him.” “Even if I was going to help you, which I’m not, what could I do? I’ve got the same specs everyone else has.” Marcus folded his arms and leaned back, floating up a little, still suffering from the anti-gravity round. “We can’t get visual proof, but we can get audio proof. The Martian district judges are all in his pocket, but if we can get him back to Earth we’ll be able to get a conviction that sticks.” “No.” “Need we remind you, Mr. Wright, that we can, at any time we see fit, arrest you. I’m sure that if we went back through some of your memory files we would see a crime or two that could put you away for a few years.” Special Agent Furts folded his arms, wrinkling his white shirt. “Not if I was with Carmak, according to you. Either way, swallowing a few bars would be better than getting blasted by Carmak. And way better than helping a freaking Udie.” “We can offer you asylum, and we can expunge your records.” Marcus stared long and hard at special agent Franks. Marcus had been looking for a way out all along. He’d wanted to get clean, maybe find a nice girl and settle down. The only thing stopping him before was Carmak and his record. This Udie offered a way to get rid of both. Still, Carmak had ways of finding people. “How can you protect me from Carmak? You know as well as I do that he has power that stretches to planets we haven’t even colonized yet.” “The auditory tape will be from the 90’s, so his tracers wouldn’t detect it. Furthermore, we’ll have agents watching and protecting you.” Marcus laughed. “You guys must not know as much as you think about Carmak.” “Well your options are limited.” Marcus sighed. “Give me 500 bucks and you’ve got a deal.” “Dream on.” Marcus smirked. “It was worth a try.” An agent came up behind Marcus and pressed an injector to his neck. The prick was slight, but he still jumped a little, the metal in the head of the injector chilling him a bit. A few seconds later he dropped to the chair, the anti-gravity round’s effects eliminated by the concentrated gravitons in the injector. The blue from his contact lenses faded to normal as well. “When’s the next time you’re meeting with Carmak?” “Tonight. We have a weapons deal.” Marcus thought of James Bronco, of his eyes as they swelled red before his head popped. “Our intel corroborates your story.” “Yeah, we got the merchandise last night, demonstration included, and the buyer is excited. We get to Phobos at 11:30, scope the place out, and wait for the buyer to arrive by midnight, Earth time.” He looked sideways at special agent Furts. “Do I at least get a high-tech piece?” “Nothing that isn’t already yours. Showing up with a new gun might alert Carmak and blow the whole thing.” “Here’s the recorder. Just slip it in your pocket. We’ve modified the microphone in it to pick up and transmit sounds back to us, but it’s still pretty old tech.” Franks handed the recorder to Marcus and he pocketed it. “Why Phobos?” “Carmak has always dealt on Phobos. It’s small enough to keep tabs on any ships coming in or going out. Harder to get double crossed.” “We’ll have stealths watching, so don’t worry.” Marcus shrugged. He rubbed his shoulder and stood when special agent Franks stood. Franks folded his arms and looked at the door. Marcus glanced back, looking around the room for a bit and smiling. “Don’t I at least get a ride home?” “We’re under budget constraints. The ride here was lucky.” Marcus huffed a gust of air through his nose, shaking his head and exiting. Outside, he glanced up, glaring at the sun from behind the dome. Tinted by the blockers in the thick glass, it glowed a dark orange. He’d never adjusted to the visual size difference of the sun on Mars, but at least the dome’s environment controls kept things at about the same temperature. A volcano erupted in the distance. The peak of the lava geyser arched and dropping red and orange globs outside the dome and beyond his scope of vision. The image reminded him of the traitor before James Bronco, the guy that was tied belly up to a small volcano. Just his back covered the hole, and when it erupted his screams echoed and haunted Marcus for three weeks. Carmak was merciless toward disloyalty. Back at his house the sun had already started setting, casting the horizon in grey and white instead of the oranges and yellows from back home. Here, the moons were too small to see, so the dome displayed a white circle in the corner to help people adjust to the near pitch blackness. He walked through his doorway, stepping over the door. He cursed the agents for breaking it down earlier, but used some sealant foam to hold his door in the frame. It wouldn’t be usable until it was fixed, but at least it would keep the pilfs out. After tossing the old pizza in the garbage, he tossed a fresh one in the UV oven and sat on his sofa while it cooked. He couldn’t believe he had a way out. It was dangerous, and he’d rather leave on his own terms, but he didn’t have much of a choice. The agents knew he was up a creek, and they’d taken advantage, but that didn’t change a thing. The UV oven dinged and he grabbed his dinner, scarfing it down in a few bites, barely doing more than smelling the cheese and sausage before it was in his stomach. He wiped the grease on his sofa and went to his room, checking his money stash. 30 bucks. He needed to get some money if he wanted to make it as an unaffiliated man. But that’s what he’d have to figure out later. He picked up his vintage, Ruger Blackhawk revolver and checked the cylinder. The gun had been a gift from a friend when he was still on Earth. He hadn’t had enough money to buy ammo, so the three bullets he had would have to do if any trouble arose. He stuffed the piece in his holster and slid through the window, starting up his personal-short-range-ship, hoping the gas would at least get him to Phobos and back. # Phobos was a barren slab of grey rock and a poor excuse for a moon. Marcus parked his ship in the docking bay at the visitor’s center and stepped out. The number of the other ships hinted he was the last to arrive. There was no gravity on the moon, so the encapsulated walkway had rails to allow for movement via pulling. Once inside the visitor’s center, artificial gravity was activated and normal movements restored. No one had any interest in Phobos since the visitor center had been built with the first Martian colonies. Not even tourist wanted to see the grey rock. Not that there was anything to see. Still, the center stayed open and was where Carmak always conducted his business. Inside the visitor center Marcus greeted the rest of the gang. Carmak was poring through one of the historical pamphlets lining the walls of the center. He didn’t look up when Marcus walked over. “You’ve never been late, Marcus,” Carmak said, glancing up and glaring at Marcus. Marcus gulped, rubbing his shoulder. “Sorry boss. I was a little shaken up. Couldn’t believe James had turned on us.” Carmak nodded, his green irises emeralds in the light of the visitor’s center. “You understand why he had to die?” “Yeah, traitors are scum, but he was a friend. I wouldn’t have been able to do it.” He glanced at the ground. “Don’t know how you pulled the trigger.” “I had to do what was necessary to keep our operations alive.” Marcus gulped again, wondering if that counted as a confession to murder. He noticed the teakettle on Carmak’s hip and a morbid curiosity made Marcus wonder what it would feel like to be shot with it. “We clear?” Carmak said as the first runner came through the walkway. There were six runners all together. They used space suits and accelerants to sprint the six miles around the small moon, making sure there weren’t any unnecessary ships posing a threat to their business. The first runner gave the thumbs up as two more filed in. After all the runners gave the okay, Carmak checked his watch. The affiliates lined against the back wall with Carmak in front, all three of the weapons cases at his feet. And then they waited. Five minutes to midnight came, and the buyer’s massive ship roared over the visitor’s center, rumbling the whole moon as it docked. Two minutes to midnight the buyer walked through with two thugs. All three of them wore suits. The buyer had greasy hair, combed and parted to the side. His suit was black, and his tie was grey, resembling a shadow. His shoes were shined enough to reflect faces, and he carried an equally shiny briefcase. “200,000?” “No, the money will be transferred via computer wire. We couldn’t access that much cash, not with this economy, not without raising a few flags.” Carmak lowered his eyes. “Not what we agreed on.” He sighed. “But it’ll have to do.” The thug to the right of the man in the suit grabbed the briefcase and opened it, kneeling and holding up the case so that the man in the suit could use it. It was a computer. Carmak walked over and the two discussed something that Marcus couldn’t hear. Hopefully the microphone picked it up. When the shatter pin pierced the top of the dome everyone froze. All eyes widened and looked up. Stupid Udies didn’t say they were going to bust in that way! They all pulled out their emergency suits as the high-pitched ringing resonated. Everyone off-Earth carried one in case of an emergency. Marcus pulled his out and pressed the top of the two-inch-by-two-inch box. It exploded, covering his body in a gel. The gel crawled across his skin, eventually covering his head. When he was completely covered the gel solidified. He exhaled, and without a hitch the air from his lungs activated the puffer cells in the gel. The area around his head inflated until a helmet-sized bubble was formed. The puffer cells provided seven hours of oxygen. Marcus looked around in time to see Carmak and the rest of his squad get their suits on. Seconds later the glass ceiling shattered, and they were all sucked into space with a whir. Carmak had un-holstered his gun before activating his emergency suit, and now he had it in his hands. In the zero g they all rotated slowly, but Marcus caught glimpses of everyone else. Apparently one of the buyer’s thugs was not quick enough. His body bloated and his face faded to blue as he started to wave his hands in an attempt to grab onto a passersby. He failed. Still alive and cohesive for a few seconds, Marcus imagined how horrible it must be to be unable to save yourself, watching as others floated safely by. The agents all wore full space suits. They held normal projectile weapons and pointed the business end at everyone. Caramak pointed his weapon at the agents, but soon dropped it when he saw they were outnumbered. Marcus’s heart was beating in his throat. He was convinced everyone would know that he had helped with the raid, despite there not being any hints to suggest it. They would find out for sure. Everyone floated for a few more seconds before the agents deployed nets and wrangled everyone up. Most people fought, but not Carmak. His cheeks dimpled with a serene smirk. Before they were separated in the containment pods for transport to wherever the agents wanted, Carmak made eye contact with Marcus and Marcus shivered. Carmak knew. # The UW agents went through all the formalities of an arrest to make sure Marcus remained their anonymous source. Prior to releasing him, they took the tape recorder back and said the confession to murder would be cause enough. Earth’s judges hated Carmak, so he would get the years he deserved for his crimes. Marcus wasn’t convinced. The agents did end up giving Marcus a bit of cash for his troubles. Back at his apartment, he held the money and stared at it. He was finally free. Yet, despite his freedom, he still felt like he was in bondage. He didn’t know what to do or where to go. He glared at the money and thought of Earth. At least he could try to start over there. With a sigh, he logged onto his personal computer and looked up ticket prices for flights to Earth. The tickets were surprisingly cheap this time of year, being that it was the offseason, and he managed to purchase a ticket for that night with a little spending money left over. He didn’t want to spend another moment on the god-forsaken red rock. He checked the time. He had three hours to get to the trans-mundo station. Packing his only suitcase with his meager supply of clothing and valuables made him brood. He had come to Mars after his first release from prison, hoping for a new life on a better world. The principle of the judicial system was as wacked out as ever, and getting a sentence, no matter how long, inevitably meant punctuation would follow. Upon his release, his legal working life ended, period. He was deemed unfit for work by too many employees. He had to affiliate. He stuffed the last wrinkled shirt in the case and slammed it shut, clicking the metal hasps in place and looping the miniature padlock through the proper hole. He left his dirty laundry on the floor in the corner. After setting his suitcase on the bed he went to the kitchen, grabbing a bottle of purified water and a premade turkey sandwich. This’ll have to last me until Earth, Marcus thought, reminiscing about the first time he’d traveled a planetary distance. Like most who were too poor to afford counter drugs, he had suffered from the motion sickness wrought on by the high speeds required to traverse such great expanses, vomiting on a little girl that sat across from him. Now, all the wiser, he decided to eat long before the flight to prevent further embarrassing escapades. Ambling back to his room he peeled back the plastic coating on his sandwich and took a bite. He sat on his bed and it groaned from the burden of his weight. As he ate he fantasized about what it would be like to be rich. Sleep on an air mattress, or maybe Earth’s version of a floater cot. He sighed and stuffed the last piece of sandwich into his mouth before picking up his possessions and climbing through the window. He walked around his house, pausing at his personal-short-range ship. He should have waited a few days and sold it. There was no use for it on Earth, and he could have used the cash. Frustrated with himself, he armed the alarm system. The spacecraft was barely bigger than he was and more uncomfortable than anything he’d ever ridden in, but it had been his first so he loved it. There was a small chance the pilfs wouldn’t notice he had abandoned the house, and maybe if they thought he was still living there they wouldn’t try to steal his ship. “One day I’ll be back for you,” he whispered, kissing two fingers and touching the craft. Still feeling sentimental, he glanced at the house one last time. It wasn’t in his name so there was no way he could sell it without his blues lighting up, and it wasn’t worth the risk of getting arrested. The sun had gone down long ago, but the artificial light from the dome kept things in a pseudo-brightness. Shadows were short and broken into four silhouettes of the main image. He walked along the sidewalk, wondering why a street even existed anymore since all the cars were hovercraft. He shrugged it off as another attempt to make people feel at ease by mimicking Earth’s practices. Walking to the trans-mundo station was as uneventful as any night. A few dogs barked at him as he passed, their UV collars giving their heads a faint purple tint. Some of the night gangs were out, tagging buildings and chuckling to each other as their contacts lit up from the crime, casting their surroundings in greens, browns, and blues. Udies didn’t bother prosecuting minor violations anymore. Marcus arrived at the station and stood in front of the two giant, silver arches that marked the entrance. Still in a state of slight disbelief that he was finally leaving Mars, he pushed through the crowds without saying anything to anyone. The station was as loud as any, the indiscriminate chatter seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. All sorts of people bustled by, minding their own business, searching for their transport that would take them to wherever they wanted to go. Finding his transport dock, he scanned his ticket and boarded, sitting down with a sigh and keeping his suitcase on his lap instead of checking it below deck. He’d heard too many horror stories about people losing their items, or, in situations involving larger than normal suitcases, unknowingly taking home a pilf that stowed away in their bag. Plus his piece was in his bag, and he couldn’t risk losing that to some maniac. Weapon possession was the only law he agreed with the politicians on. There had been so many years of debate, but after the employment of the contact lenses, no one could carry an illegal firearm without their eyes giving them away. Subsequently, anyone that desired to carry a weapon could, as long as they received a permit, and weapon related fatalities decreased after a brief four-month spike. People learned in a jiffy that it was a lot harder to go on a shooting spree when all of your targets shoot back. An antimatter engine firing up to the right drew Marcus’s attention. It was always intriguing to watch the ripples of energy as they shot from the exhaust pipes. The engines were too big to fit in commercial vehicles, so until they figured out how to miniaturize the controlled, antimatter detonations, the engines would be found exclusively on trans-planetary transports. A few seconds later the transport was too far away to see. Marcus sat back and hoped his food was fully digested as his ship powered up. There weren’t any children around him this time, but he still would rather not blow chunks. Earth and Mars were constantly moving around the sun, but at different speeds and on different courses. Certain years the two planets were closer together than others, and thankfully this wasn’t a year they were too spread apart. Quaking enough to make his teeth chatter, the antimatter engine initiated. There were a few seconds of vicious vibrations that made his body tingle, but then they rocketed forward. Instantly, the equalizer in the cabin caught their speed and stopped everyone from shooting back and smashing against the back wall. When they were clear of the station and well on their way, a timer counted down toward the front of the cabin. Marcus relaxed, the nausea he felt at first dissipating as his body adjusted. He pressed the button for the transluscer on his window and glared out. Back when he was on Earth he remembered marveling at the few stars he could see through the clouds of smog and pollution. On Mars, under the dome, the stars were imitated, again to give a more earthlike feel (even though one could barely see stars from Earth), but there was nothing like seeing the stars from space. It was hard to describe how magnificent and terrifying and chilling the sight was. It was like being trapped in a network of spider webs after a drizzle, surrounded by the sparkling droplets of water fixed to the silk. # The timer reached zero and the ship halted, jerking slightly before the equalizer caught their speed. Earth used to be a giant bubble of blue and white and green floating bright against the black backdrop of space, but now it was barely more than grey. The clouds of smog and pollution covered and blocked most of the view, and the poor planet only had but so long before it was completely asphyxiated and killed. The ship vibrated again as it speared through the atmosphere, and an orange tinge crept up the transluscer. Once through, they penetrated the thick layer of smog, and for a while everything was grey and dark. After the clouds an industrial backdrop of gigantic structures came into view, the thousands of streets leading to the main city like tangled roots. Then they entered the station and everything went dark. He turned off the transluscer and unbuckled his harness as the ship came to a lurching halt. The passengers all stood. Being back on earth allowed a certain panache for Marcus. He had been raised on the dying rock, and even though he had taken a leave of absence, seeing home again instilled confidence. But as the doors of the transport opened, and he was swallowed by Earth’s dying smell and a crowd of murmuring citizens, his comfort dissolved. Not only was Earth different, but he was right back in the same predicament he was in when he first left. Now, assuming Carmak was convicted, he was unaffiliated and therefore had no contacts. Carmak didn’t deal on Earth anyway, as far as Marcus new, so even if he was still affiliated he was out of his territory. What would he do to live? The paltry amount of cash he had left was enough for a hotel room for a full day, maybe two if he found a particularly seedy establishment, but then what? After being shoved a few times for standing unmoving on the platform, Marcus started walking. He found the exit and went outside. A string of hover taxis waited for patrons, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford transportation. He would have to walk to some slum and find a room for the night. He bit his lip and thought, knowing there would be some unaffiliated work to be done in the slums, but his contacts were still registered to him as long as his permanent residence was on Mars. He couldn’t commit a single crime without lighting up like a blue flare, heralding all the cops in the area to take him in. He couldn’t go back to prison, he couldn’t take his contacts out or risk being arrested by the UW and he couldn’t find a job with a record. He gritted his teeth, the dilemma digging into his spirit as he trudged. Earth smelled like one giant dumpster. The fashion had changed in his absence, and apparently all the rage was wearing white. Even the poor had attempted to follow the trend, but most of their whites were smudged with the grunge of their lifestyle. Marcus chuckled at a few of the hopeless posers, their desire to provide an appearance overriding their common sense. Litter and trash overflowed into the streets: the result of the overpopulated cities but undermanned waste removal services. Synthetic products rolled along, carried by the wind like industrialized tumbleweeds. Even the scatter of animals appeared to be dying, strangled by Earth’s constantly depreciating air quality. It was odd to see dogs walking around without UV collars, withering to nothing, abandoned by masters faced with a decision to either eat or release the canines. The smog blocked out much of the sun, so Earth was almost always cast in a dreary demeanor. Because of the constant low lighting, much of the businesses and stores sported neon signs that stayed illuminated all day. Marcus trekked along lost in his thoughts. He didn’t pay any attention to where he was until he noticed an influx of hookers soliciting him: a telltale sign of being in a slum. Slum cops barely lifted a finger for anything less than murder, or rape if it was violent enough. Stopping in front of one of the smaller high-rise motels, Marcus figured his best bet would be here. It was aptly titled The Surly Shortie with a yellow neon sign, but everything but sur tie was burned out. A transvestite hooker was clutching his crotch in advertisement as Marcus passed but he ignored the offer, pushing open the door. The door had a bell attached to the inside like it was a corner store. “How can I serve?” said the front desk attendant. The attendant was a woman wearing a yellow blazer jacket and pencil skirt. She hadn’t bothered to put a shirt on underneath the blazer, and only the middle button had been affixed. Her cleavage pushed against the jacket and a stud twinkled in her exposed navel, catching the fluorescent lighting. She chewed gum loudly as she waited for his response. Marcus swallowed. He’d all but forgotten what it was like to be with a woman. It had been too long since he’d even seen one in all her glory. “Sir?” the attendant asked, drawing Marcus’s gaze away from her chest. “Give me your cheapest room.” The attendant rolled a lock of her black hair with one finger as she typed something into the computer on the desk. “It’s 65 for the night.” “How much?” he said, pulling out his wallet and leafing through the bills. “65, sir.” “That’s a pilf,” he muttered, shaking his head but tossing four twenty dollar bills on the counter. “We only accept credit sir.” Marcus sighed. “Look, lady, I don’t have a card. I’ve been on Mars for the past few years and cash is all I got.” The woman in yellow smiled when he said he was from off-world, giving a look of approval. She typed something into the computer. “We’ll have to take your ID then and keep the record on file until you checkout.” “Yeah, whatever. I just need a place to stay. So unless you’re offering up your room for free, just give me what I can get.” She smiled again, taking his ID and typing in the appropriate numbers before reaching under the counter and pulling out a plastic card. She activated it with a machine on the counter and handed it over. Marcus said thanks and headed to his room. Once inside he felt like he was in prison again. The room was barely bigger than a twin-sized bed. A television screen hung from the ceiling. He sighed and tossed his luggage on the ground, flopping on the bed and frowning from the squeak it released. Trying not to think of his current circumstance and hoping a nice dream would provide some sort of comfort, Marcus Wright closed his eyes and went to sleep. # Marcus roused with a groan, the grey shroud of Earth blanketing his internal clock. He glanced at the chronometer ticking on the wall: 12:24. He rubbed his head and sat up before swinging his legs out of bed. He still had no idea where to go or what to do, but the thought of being free from Carmak’s gang assuaged the feeling of dread a little. As long as Carmak was behind bars Marcus would be safe. He stood up and decided to spend the day applying for jobs. Maybe his luck would turn and he would manage to find employment without becoming affiliated again. Prying apart his eyelids, he inserted the contacts and grabbed his wallet and gun. Trudging down the hall to the front desk he nodded at the attendant, a frail adolescent with a pimply face, before pushing through the bathroom door. A cracked mirror split his reflection, but he was still able to see the severe case of pillow head he had. He smoothed back his hair with a bit of the rusty water from the sink, trying to appear as presentable as he could. He had no suit and his clothes were starting to stink. He knew he needed something better looking if he wanted to get hired, but what options did he have? After splashing handfuls of water in his face he exited the motel and entered the slums. The noonday rush was bustling from caffeine shop to caffeine shop. He stopped in front of a Starbucks and watched a patron exit with her fix. He had never been one to take the stimulus injections, and watching the track-armed addict stab her arm with the needle made him grateful. “Nothing like legal drugs,” he whispered to himself as the woman stopped shaking, straightened her blazer jacket and hopped into a hover taxi, undoubtedly heading to work. A tiny bell on top of the door rang as he entered, and he let his eyes drift around the store. The green and white interior and low lighting made for an eerie experience, but Marcus figured he could get used to it. A few addicts were playing with the holographic touch displays of their computers. Some patrons were working, interacting with friends, writing, and one patron in the corner was soliciting a virtual hooker. Marcus went up to the front and ignored the barista’s request to take his order. “Can I get a job application?” “You most certainly can sir,” the barista said, her bleach blond hair stiff and poking from beneath her black cap. The barista bent down and pulled a tablet-sized holographic application computer from beneath the desk. She handed it over to him, flashing her coffee-stained teeth as he took it out her hands. Few people consumed caffeine through beverage form anymore, but it made sense for one of the few to be someone working at a Starbucks. “Just follow the instructions and we will contact you within one to two business days.” “Thanks a heap.” Marcus took the application tablet and took a seat by the door. He followed the onscreen commands until a life-like holographic projection of a man in a barista outfit materialized above the tablet. The nametag read hiring manager. “Greetings prospective applicant and thank you for your interest in Starbucks.” The hologram held out a hand for Marcus to shake, and he complied. He felt a little dizzy from the sensory pheromones as they triggered his brain to feel as though he actually made contact with a human being during the shake. If Marcus didn’t know he was using the device he would never have known the projection was not real. After a series of questions Marcus concluded the application interview and walked the tablet back to the barista. She flashed another smile and Marcus nodded, exiting the store. The interview had taken a half hour and he was hungry, so he stopped by a local fast food restaurant and grabbed some grub before heading back to the motel. Mid-bite and halfway through the door, Marcus saw him and froze. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It had to be residual effects from the sensory pheromones. He gulped down what was in his mouth without chewing, the painful lump pressing against his throat and lodging in his gut. “Hello, Marcus. Good to see you again.” Carmak stood and wiped his hand on his slacks before holding it out for Marcus to shake. Marcus shrugged, holding up the food in his arms and staring for a few seconds before gathering his bearings and responding. “Carmak? Am I hallucinating?” Carmak released his deep chuckle, full of mirth from Marcus’s expression and questions. Marcus faked a smirk and set down his food on the Motel’s floor, holding open his arms and embracing Carmak. Carmak’s wingspan enveloped Marcus and he felt a twang of intimidation. Their waists touched during the hug and Marcus felt the teakettle bulging from beneath Carmak’s slacks. Carmak pulled back and looked at Marcus, still smiling. “You need a shower, my friend.” Marcus laughed, picking back up the food and nodding for Carmak to follow him to his room. Carmak was saying something as they walked, but Marcus was engrossed in his thoughts. Now what would he do? How did Carmak find him and why? Did he know of the betrayal? Marcus’s heart thumped faster as he wondered if he had been discovered. He cringed at the thought of the teakettle bursting his cells. At his door, Marcus fiddled with the swipe card, his hands shaking as he let them both inside. “Times must be tough.” Carmak said, seeing the cramped space. “No matter, things are on the up and up. But first we have to eliminate the judge that plans to prosecute me.” Marcus glared at Carmak with a blank expression for a few minutes. “I’m a little lost. People of your caliber usually aren’t let out on bail.” “Very accurate assumption. But I have a few friends in high places here on Earth. I haven’t needed any favors since I last escaped this dreamy rock, but a favor is a favor.” Marcus popped a few fries in his mouth to mask his nerves. “Not that I have any problems with it, but how did you find me?” “You were simple enough to track when you gave the front desk your ID. I figured you’d end up in a place like this.” Carmak paused and glanced around again. “Maybe not this bad.” Marcus released a nervous laugh that came out more like a squeak. “What’s your plan?” “The judge is going to an advanced screening of The Third of Seven. Some sci-fi movie about other dimensions or some crap. We’ll take him out before he leaves the theater.” “Never really figure judges and the like for sci-fi fans.” “Me either, but this might be our only chance. You know as well as I how hard it is to get access to a judge.” “There’s no way he’s going in there without a few guns and trigger pullers.” “We’ll have more fingers and better guns,” Carmak said, his eyes narrowing to slits, his moue screaming his moxie loud enough for Marcus to feel it in his bones. “I’ve got a few affiliates wrangled up and we’re meeting at the Fateway Inn next to the theater. I’ve got a room there.” “Fateway, got it.” “You’re welcome to come there now, if you want to leave this roach-infested place.” Marcus shrugged and went over to his suitcase, closing it and locking the hasps in place. Carmak slapped his hand on Marcus’s shoulder as they exited the room and headed for the front of the motel. “I do find it interesting, Marcus, that you were the only one from Phobos who was not sent to Titan for trials.” Marcus’s heart nearly jumped up his throat and out his mouth. He had started sweating back in the room, and he felt more exude from his pores, cooling against his armpits and chest. He gulped and glared straight ahead. Thoughts of the teakettle on Carmak’s hip and the gun on his own invaded his cranium. He’d always been quick, but would he be quick enough? He’d be justified in defending himself, and the udies could vouch for him. Stupid udies were the ones to get him in this predicament in the first place. They had their heads too far up their own anuses to see that Carmak would not take a conviction so easily, even on Earth. “I have a few old friends too. Since I didn’t touch any of the merchandise, they managed to get me released with a slap on the wrist.” Carmak’s eyes studied Marcus’s face. He shrugged and they kept walking. “Glad to hear it, old friend.” Marcus shuddered. Before Carmak pulled the trigger on James freaking Bronco, he had said, sorry to hear it, old friend.” Carmak had a taxi waiting for them outside the hotel and they exited the slums. They made it to the Fateway a few hours later. Inside Carmak’s presidential suite were 16 other affiliates. Three large briefcases were lined up on Carmak’s bed, the locked clasps facing the edge. Marcus didn’t know any of the other affiliates, but they all looked like the normal crew, save for one. A raccoon among rats, he was at least seven feet tall. His muscles pressed against his clothing and his thick neck nearly ripped his collar. He wore a black button up, black slacks and black polished shoes. Carmak introduced him as P. The affiliates and Carmak played cards to bide time, but Marcus glared out the window, hoping something would come along and save him from this fate. He had tasted freedom for all of a day before he had been sucked back in. The advanced screening started promptly at 20:00. # Clicks echoed through the otherwise silent apartment as the affiliates loaded their weapons. Carmak had gone all out for this assassination. Ten of the affiliates had udie-quality antimatter rifles. They were tasked with obliterating any armed opposition, and, if the opportunity arose, the judge. Five affiliates had antigravity weapons, and were deemed crowd control. Carmak had his teakettle. P had an obstruction extension installed into his button-up shirt sleeve. The devices weren’t bulky, but they weighed a ton. When activated, a force field would be generated using the wielders heart as a source of energy. As long as the person was alive, the force field would be active. On most occasions the device was too heavy to use, but P’s monstrous frame was perfect. He would cover their escape if necessary. “You sure you don’t want a new piece?” Carmak asked as everyone did their checks on their weapons. “I like this gun so I’ll stick with it.” “How many shots do you have?” “Three.” Carmak laughed. “Three? I don’t have any ammo for that, my friend.” Marcus shrugged. “I only need one shot to take out the judge,” he said, secretly hoping he wouldn’t have to use his weapon that night. “Let’s go to work, gentlemen,” Carmak said in an authoritarian voice. Donned in their street clothes and trench coats, they all concealed their weapons and exited the room. Some hollered and yelled in anticipation of the night, but Marcus was quiet. P retained the same tacit reserve, and Marcus realized the giant hadn’t said a word since he had arrived. They walked down the street toward the theater: a phalanx of death. The theater was under construction, for expansion, and the metal frame of a stationary crane hovered above the back section of the theater, still securing its cantilever payload. An impasse of black hover limousines and security cars were parked in front of the theater. Marcus looked around, nervous. Carmak had explained that they would have 15 minutes to eliminate the target before the SWAT teams arrived. The few police nearby wouldn’t stand a chance against the advanced weaponry, and the security was little more than a joke, but SWAT would be better prepared. “Tim, will you do the honors?” Carmak said, tapping one of the affiliates on the shoulder. Up until then Marcus had wondered how they planned to get into the theater and kill the judge. They had no entrance passes, and if they blasted their way in through the front door the judge’s security team would undoubtedly lead the judge through a back door and escape. Theaters were notorious for having multiple exits, and in the confusion it would be impossible to know where the judge would end up. Marcus thought their best option would be to surround the building and have a man at every exit, but that wasn’t what Carmak had in mind. As he tapped Tim on the shoulder, the affiliate looked through the scope of his rifle, aiming at the crane dangling the cantilever above the rear of the theater. Genius! Create a diversion so the judge exits but doesn’t even know what’s coming. The antimatter rifle discharged and the recoil shoved Tim’s shoulder back. The sound from the muzzle barely registered in the dark void of the night, but the orb of antimatter particles zipped through the sky like a flare. With wide eyes, Marcus watched the round slam into the head of the crane. In a flash of light the crane teetered on the edge of existence, sending a shockwave of energy slicing outward, followed by a fuchsia explosion as the antimatter particles cancelled out the matter particles. A lurching, metallic sound howled before the cantilever plummeted toward the back of the theater, slamming into the building with a boom. The cantilever went through the roof, and a cloud of dust and pulverized building substances plumed outward from the hole. Carmak glanced at his watch. Four seconds later the screams came and people started pouring out of the theater, their cries muffled by the blockade of cars. “Make me proud, boys,” Carmak said, walking toward the commotion. With louder bellows and cries of joy, the affiliates rushed the crowd. Marcus had forgotten how ruthlessly evil Carmak could be. When he wanted someone dead, everyone and everyone around them was killed as well. The sound from the antimatter rifles filled the air and fuchsia explosions bubbled through the crowd. Screams stopped midway before being muted as the voice’s body was snuffed from reality. Marcus continued to walk with Carmak, seething, wanting nothing more than to shoot the vile man through the ears. Screams and rifle blasts and explosions and fuchsia bubbles created a malignant amalgam and Marcus thought of all the innocents being squashed because of one man’s thirst for corruption. Car tires screeched briefly as a few people reached their transportation but were subsequently erased in a rolling blob of reddish pink. Then the judge. Judge Iscariot Hahn stumbled from the theater with his head low. The featherlike white hair moved like dandelion seeds as the energy from all the destruction blew around him. Two guards were carrying him by the arms, their weapons drawn. They had mere concussion pistols, undoubtedly the result a handgun law passed by some out-of-touch politician. The throaty gurgle of the concussion pistols toyed with the amalgam of screams and explosions, sounding like toys. One guard was unlucky enough to draw the attention of one of the affiliates, striking the thug with a concussive blast that barely knocked him from his feet. When the affiliate recovered, the antimatter orb flew clean to the judge’s guard’s chest. The explosion knocked the judge and the other guard to the ground. “No!” Carmak screamed, jogging with his hands up, instructing the affiliate not to fire again. Carmak made his way to the judge, who noticed him and wrinkled his face in confusion. The guard held up his gun and fired at Carmak, who leaned to the left. He pulled out the teakettle and responded. The guard dropped his concussion pistol and it clanked against the pavement. He held his hands to his ears, but it was too late. His eyes widened and he tried to scream, but nothing came out but the whistle of pressure as it squeezed through his swelling orifices. Pop! Marcus turned away and stifled a frisson of vomit that burned the back of his throat. Memories of James freaking Bronco drifted into his head and he grew enraged. James had once been a dear friend. Enough was enough! “Hello, Judge Hahn. It’s so nice to finally meet you.” Carmak said, pointing the teakettle at the poor fellow’s face. The judge held up both arms in defense, as if that could help. Marcus glared between the two before pulling out his Ruger Blackhawk revolver and pointing it at Carmak’s temple. “Don’t do it,” Marcus said, his voice betraying the anxiety that shook to his soul. No one betrays Carmak. Carmak didn’t speak. He lowered his gun and turned to Marcus, cocking his head to the side before releasing a hearty laugh. Marcus gulped, sensing P moving at his left. He cocked back the hammer and kept his hand steady. “Don’t do it, P.” P was quiet but stopped moving. “You didn’t have any friends that got you out of going to Titan, did you?” Marcus clenched his jaw but kept the gun trained on Carmak’s forehead. P was standing a solid six feet away, looking between the two as if uncertain of what to do. The other affiliates had continued on for a few seconds, but now everyone had frozen in place, looking to Marcus to make the next move. The screams of the innocent continued to pierce the night air, and Marcus watched a few scurry around corners to escape. A siren wailed in the distance, getting closer. “What do you plan to accomplish here? You know as well as I do that they won’t be able to convict me. They’ve got nothing on me that a bit of money and power can’t make disappear.” “They’ve got me.” Carmak narrowed his eyes, realizing that no one had ever even thought about testifying against him. He had taken precautions against such a thing from ever happening. All the money in the world couldn’t silence a damning voice in the courtroom. Not in this age of fear. The option was always to keep the voice was talking. The sirens grew louder. Marcus used his free hands to wipe the sweat that was beading against his brow. His heart was a stampeding horse inside his chest. Then Carmak lifted his arm. Without thinking Marcus pulled the trigger and the bullet jerked Carmak’s head backward, taking with it his body. Time slowed as the smoldering casing plinked against the ground. Carmak’s finger twitched as he fell, and the teakettle fired, but missed wide. As the Ruger report echoed through the night sky all else was still. Then Marcus turned for the theater and started running. Antimatter rifle orbs blasted the area behind him, but he didn’t stop until he made it through the doors of the structure. He could find cover until the SWAT team arrived. He looked around. Movement out the corner of his eye pulled his attention back to the entrance. P lugged through, his energy shield a glowing blue wall. On instinct Marcus fired, but the bullet ricocheted and embedded in the wall to the right. Stepping back, Marcus tripped over some rubble and landed on his butt. He loaded his last bullet in the chamber, but P was already on top of him, wrenching the Blackhawk away with his free hand before hoisting Marcus into the air. The force field hummed at P’s side as he kept it on but lowered his arm. Marcus kicked and swung with his limbs, but they bounced off of P’s massive body, the giant barely moving more than his lips to curl them into a malevolent smirk. Marcus gagged as his consciousness tinkered with the idea of leaving. His eyes wafted to the gun on the ground. It teased him just out of reach. As his eyes lulled to the back of his head he felt tranquil. At least he had taken out the monster of a man Carmak before he had gone. If nothing else, death would bring peace. A loud boom crackled behind P and he released his grip on Marcus’s throat. P whipped around and Marcus crumpled to the floor, coughing and gagging, clutching at his windpipe. He was still dizzy but he managed to make out a cop shoot again at P’s arm. Struck in a vital location, behind the energy, the force field shuttered off before the giant could bring his arm around to defend himself. P’s long reach enabled him to backhand the cop before the guy could fire again. The cop flew to the side, his body limp as it cracked against the door and landed on the floor. Marcus scrambled to his gun and picked it up as P marched back to him. P saw the threat and held up a hand as Marcus fired. P’s hand flew back and red sprinkled on Marcus’s face. He glared at the giant, hoping there would be a hole centered on the massive man’s head. But there was not. The bullet had twisted and spun after exiting P’s hand, and the man’s scowl hinted he barely registered the pain from the bullet. Angry now, he stooped down, resting a knee against Marcus’s chest. Marcus didn’t have the strength to remove it, and he watched as a massive elbow lifted into the air and slammed into his nose. The pain torched through his head and he felt his vision haze. Something warm and sticky fanned out from somewhere on his face. He brought his arms up and clawed at P’s chest, trying to reach his face. Maybe get a hand on the giant’s windpipe. But he failed. Marcus watched as the sledgehammer of an elbow lifted into the air again. It came down and Marcus closed his eyes. But no pain come. The pressure from P’s knee had vanished and Marcus opened his eyes. P was gone. Blinking, Marcus rolled onto his stomach and pushed up until he was on his feet. He staggered toward the door and looked out. P was trapped in a net at the bottom of one of the SWAT vehicles. The net cannon was controlled by a hefty officer that nodded and saluted Marcus. Overwhelmed with joy, Marcus saw that the SWAT team had captured five of the affiliates. The others lay in mangled positions, their rifles still clutched within their grasp. The judge was by an ambulance, trying to wave away the medics as they attempted to put a bandage on a cut above his right eye. Marcus staggered the rest of the way out and went up to Carmak. A puddle of blood was drying against the evil man’s head and Marcus sighed in relief. There was no way Carmak was coming back from that. “You the one that did this?” Marcus turned and saw a police officer looking at Carmak’s body. Marcus nodded, welcoming the impending handcuffs. Instead, the cop stared into Marcus’s eyes and nodded, turning his back and walking away. Marcus didn’t have to be told twice. He silently thanked the officer and found a taxi, telling the driver to take him to The Surly Shortie. # Still a little lightheaded from the pounding he took from P, Marcus hobbled into the motel. His nose was broken and he had to breathe through his mouth, but he hated doctors and refused to visit a hospital, despite the pleading of the taxi driver. A little sleep and some food, and he’d be alright. The woman in yellow was back behind the front desk and she smirked when she saw him, the sight of the blood appearing to turn her on. She swirled a finger around a lock of hair and used her index finger to lure him to the desk. “I’ve got a message for you.” Marcus glared at here, swaying on his feet, fighting the urge to pass out. “For me?” He managed. “Yup.” The attendant slid a slip of yellow notebook paper over to him. Taking it with a grunt, he limped down the hall toward his room. After keying his way in, he tossed his empty gun on the bed and looked at the paper. When he read what it said, a smirk inched across his face. It was from Starbucks. Congratulations Mr. Wright. Your application for Barista was accepted. You can report to orientation tomorrow morning at 0800. He flopped on the bed and winced at the pain. His head was killing him and he knew it would only get worse as the adrenaline continued to dissipate from his blood. He closed his eyes, smiling through the suffering, full of the hope that only a second chance at a new life can bring.