Chapter 22

“Can you hear me kid?” asks Gristle.  His voice is loud and deep over the suit radio.

“Yea,” I reply.

“Good.  You gave us good run.  But it’s game over. I’ll take that key now.”

Ok, I think to myself.  He thinks I still have the key.  I can use that.  Maybe I can lure him into the ship, then Louis or Katya can clobber him from behind.  “Sure, you win, I’ll give you the key,” I say.  “But it’s in a pocket in my pants, inside my suit.  We’ll have to go through the airlock so I can take off the suit and get it for you.

Gristle’s massive helmet cocks to one side.  “Na, I don’t think so.  Can’t be sure what’s waiting for me in there.  Ya know, I’m real disappointed in you kid.”

“How’s that?”

“I thought you was on board.  Thought you was going to come over and join the winning team.” He shakes his head.  “But here you are, making it hard for us.  Not smart, kid.”

So there it is.  I did make a deal.  What a dumbass I was.  I won’t make that mistake again.  “I had an agreement with the government, not you,” I say.  “And I didn’t sign up for no murder.  You beat up the captain.  You killed First Officer Nastez.  In cold blood, right in front of me.  So I changed my mind.”

“Yea, I figured that.  You gonna learn a hard lesson, kid.  Out here you’re either predator or you’re prey.”

“I didn’t buy in to none of this,” I say.  “I just wanted to get out of Shacktown.”

“See, now you’re talking,” he says.  “What do ya think is going to happen to Shacktown?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean whole damn town is gonna get owned.  Nifty Jim calls in the debt, then we own the scope.  Everybody in Shacktown is going to be working for Malapert and they’ll have to do whatever we say if they wanna live.  Not one of them can afford a trip back to the Marble.  What else they gonna do?  Now, ‘cause you been a bad boy, you won’t be no different.”

“So.  I can work if I have to.  Where will they put me?”

He shrugs.  “I don’t know, ain’t my problem.  Everybody contributes somehow at Malapert.  The strong ones work, the weak get killed—I mean euthanized, that’s a more nicer word.  The nice-looking ones will be tourist escorts.  Like those pretty orphans you been helping, twins ain’t they?  They won’t have to work.”

“Wha…what are you talking about?  Escorts?  They’re just little kids!”

“Oh,” smiles Gristle, “they’ll grow up real quick, don’t you worry about that.  Once they go through Implants & Training, they’ll get juiced with the best pharma that coin can buy.  Little girls become women after a quick surgery and some shots.  Sometimes little boys do to.  They’re much cheaper than robots.”  I must have made some kind of noise because now Gristle is laughing.  Laughing loud.  “Oh, don’t worry,” he says.  “They won’t mind.  Once they get juiced, they’ll be up for anything!”

I gasp and step back; that’s when it all sinks in.  I thought things couldn’t get worse in Shacktown, but I was wrong.  This ain’t about jobs.  This ain’t about money.  This is about power—it’s about slavery.  This is about Macy and Mason and all the other kids at the Children’s Home, and everybody else in Shacktown, scraping by and working themselves to death, losing everything—even their own bodies, even their own minds.  This is about a living hell.

Gristle stands up from the ladder and comes to his full height.  Between his huge body and his EVA gear, his figure nearly fills the decon tent.  The beams from the lights behind him, wobbling back and forth from the ground quakes, make him look even more ominous, like the figure of Death himself, with his helmet illuminated just enough that I can see his tiny, insane eyes staring at me from behind his visor, unblinking.  How can I possibly beat him?  But I have to, somehow.

“So I figure I can kill you first,” he says, “then slice open your suit and take the key.  Or I could just slit open your suit first and take the key and let you die that way.  I just can’t decide what kind of mood I’m in.  Ain’t that funny?”  He drums his thick fingers on the side of his helmet in indecision.

My mind is racing. He’s huge.  I would have no chance fighting him.  I look around for something to hit him with, turning my eyes without turning my helmet in hopes he won’t notice me looking.  But there ain’t nothing.  Gotta change the circumstances somehow.

I run.  I duck behind the fabric of the decon tent and head in the direction of the tool bin.  Maybe I can maneuver him below a thruster and Katya can burn him to ashes.  Maybe I can lose him in the dust like I lost the others.  But after only a few seconds of running, there’s a violent quake and my right boot misses its grip.  My momentum tears my left boot from the ground too and I lose traction completely.  I find myself flying through the air, hands flailing uselessly, yelling to myself inside my helmet.  I tap the rescue jet control—nothing.  My last emergency charge is a dud.  I collide with the side of the ship, near the tool bin door.  I frantically claw at the curved door trying to find something, anything to hold on to, but the smooth steel of the door gives me nothing.

Something grabs my ankle.  I look down to see Gristle’s huge paw pulling me.  I hear him laughing through the radio.  He throws me down, my back to the rocky ground, and stomps on my chest.  His boot’s claw-like grippers quiver inches from my face as Gristle’s suit tries to decide whether I am a rock of sufficient density to drive its spikes into.  Looking up, I can only see Gristle as a huge silhouette against the dark sky and the lights of the Kestrel shaking and glowing in the background through the puke-colored dust.  “Now you’ve gone and done it, Yuuta,” he says.  “Now you done pissed me off.”

He pulls his long stiletto from a pocket on the thigh of his suit.  The side of the knurled handle catches the light from the floods.  He puts weight on his boot.  Even in low gravity I can feel my ribcage folding under the pressure of the boot and his massive body.  I push back on the boot, my gloved hands using every desperate bit of strength I have.  The boot don’t even budge.  The rib that got bruised back in Shacktown is throbbing with pain and feels like it’s gonna snap any second.  I struggle to breathe.  “Does this boot make my butt look big?” he asks.

Exhausted, I drop my hands to my side and surrender to the pain washing over me.  Just as my left arm lays down on the rock surface, I feel a tugging, a familiar stirring.  Structure has rejoined my wristy.  Why did he come back? I wonder.  My headset immediately comes alive with conversations between Kestrel crewmen.

“What’s Gristle doing over there, over?”

“He’s playing with his knife, looks like.  He’s got somebody down in the dust.”

“Can’t see who it is, can you, over?”

“Hey!  The ship’s lights went out!”

Gristle lightens the weight on the boot as he turns and looks at the Kestrel.  Sure enough, all the lights on the other ship have gone dark.  Did the ground quakes damage the ship?  “All crew, this is Kestrel actual,” comes an official-sounding voice.  “We’ve had a proton strike or something, our systems are down but they are coming back up.  We expect full recovery, nothing to be alarmed at.  Lights will be back on in a moment.  That is all.  Out.”

I know I’m in the area where I had dumped out all the tools from the tools bin.  With Gristle looking the other way, I sweep my arms around under the dust, hoping to find a knife or a screwdriver or anything that might help me.  I feel a handle of something with my left glove, but my fingers can’t quite grasp it and the effort is excruciatingly painful.  Whatever it is, the ground vibrations bounce it from my fingertips.  I curse under my breath.  I am desperate.

My right glove comes across something; I grab it and pull it to me.  Gristle is still looking the other way, in no hurry to finish me off.  I’m no threat to him.  I look over to my right and squint through the haze to see what’s in my glove: it’s the foam repair gun.  Great.  What can I possibly do with that?  But the tip of the applicator is hard metal; maybe I can stab him with it.  Anyways it’s all I got.  I keep it out of sight under the dust.

The lights ringing the Kestrel’s hull blink and come to full brightness.  Gristle turns to back to me.  He leans in again, putting his weight back on my chest.  I scream in agony.  “Well now that was real interesting, weren’t it boy?”  he says.  He takes his boot off my chest and sits down on me, his face towards mine, his wide butt across my thighs.  He pushes my helmet back into the dust with his massive hand.  I feel the ground vibrations in the back of my head.  For the moment I can breathe at least.

“Ya know kid,” says Gristle, taking an avuncular tone, “seeing as you’re gonna die in about 30 seconds, I just want you to know something.  You may think I’m a real bad man.  I ain’t, though.  I don’t enjoy killing.  It’s all about the cash with me.  I have expensive tastes.  Besides, killing makes a mess.  And sometimes, it smells bad.”  I maneuver the foam gun under the dust, sliding my fingers over the handle to get a firm grip.  “Because, Straker—may I call you Straker?  I am actually a disabled person.  I am a disabled person because I am what physicians call a drug addict.  Nifty Jim’s boys make the best stuff in the system and I got a powerful need for it.”

“I don’t know much about that,” I say, stalling for time.  Maybe when the other Kestrel men get here, they’ll stop him from killing me.  Not likely I know, but it’s what I got.  That and a worthless foam gun.

“Well that’s too bad Straker, really too bad, because here’s what you don’t understand: this stuff makes you feel so…damn…good, so good!  And I’ve got a big hit all stored up in my dispenser.  All I have to do is hit this button on my wrist and it’ll inject a big hit of Paradise right into the pleasure centers of my brain and I’m gonna feel SO DAMN GOOD!  Just like before!”  He laughs crazy behind his dusty visor, exhilarated by the thought of it—it’s a twisted, demonic laugh.  His hand hovers over his wristy, his tiny eyes wide with anticipation.

“Hey Gristle, this is Kestrel actual, over.”

Gristle’s head jerks around to face the Kestrel.  “What?  Shut up I’m busy!” he barks.

“Just got a priority message from Malapert.  Don’t kill any more Allgood people.  They’ve made a deal.  Repeat, don’t kill anyone.  Acknowledge.  Over.”

Gristle looks back at me and drops his hand from his wristy.  I can feel him shaking with rage.  His helmet whips around to face the Kestrel again.

“I’ll kill whoever I wanna kill dammit!  I’m the big man here!  You tell Nifty Jim you couldn’t reach me!  You tell him that!”

“No can do Gristle.  These are orders.  Stand down.  Stand down right now.  Acknowledge, over.”

“Acknowledge this Over!”  yells Gristle, holding up his gloved middle finger to the Kestrel.

Daytime has crept up again.  The sun’s rays beam at a low angle, illuminating everything in their path with brilliant light, and leaving everything not in their path in long shadows.  It casts a bright light on the corner of Gristle’s face through his visor as he turns back to face me.  “I didn’t finish telling ya.  I don’t enjoy killing, but I did enjoy killing your father.”

“Wha…what?” I gasp.

He shrugs.  “It was a contract job, nothing personal.  But your old man fought back.  He hit me in the nose and made me bleed—then he kicked me in the damn crotch!  It hurt.  It got real personal then, you best believe that.”

“You killed Pops?”

“Well, hell, I was gonna kill him anyway, but he was just nasty.  Wouldn’t go down like no gentleman.  So first I broke his arms and legs, one by one, crack!”  Gristle chuckles with the memory.  “Then I took a big dose of Paradise…the drug of angels, the drug of the devil, right in my brain.  Ahh…in my BRAIN!”  The beam of sunlight highlights the corner of his obscene grin, wide with an excitement.  “Then I slit his throat, haw haw, I slit it good, and watched him gurgle through that crack in his neck and bleed and die.”  He brings his helmet down in to the dust, his looming rhinoceros face inches from mine.  “And I was so high.” he whispers.  “I was so high that it was like heaven.”

Gristle sits up straight, his body aglow in the bright sun.  “Just like now when I cut you up,” he exclaims.  “Like father like son!”  He smacks his wristy, releasing the drug. “Ahhh…” he grunts.  His body is trembling as the drug does who-knows-what to his brain, his beady eyes about to pop out of their sockets, his eyebrows arched, his quivering mouth open, panting in short breaths.  He looks at me, grinning lips thick with the lather of his own saliva, dripping down and smearing the inside of his visor.  He holds the slender stiletto in front of my face.  He presses the button and a long blade snaps out of its handle, gleaming like a mirror in the new sunlight.

I struggle frantically to get out from under him but his weight is too much.  He arches his back, and holds the stiletto high in both hands, its point aimed at my chest.  I have one chance.  I whip the foam gun up behind him with my right hand and jam it in the joint between his backpack and the fabric of his suit, near the small of his back on his left side.  I feel the metal nozzle of the gun penetrate the fabric.  My index finger squeezes: the trigger lock clicks on.  But it doesn’t faze him—he’s much too high on his Paradise to even notice.  Defeated, I drop my hand, but the gun stays stuck in Gristle’s suit.  I see a stream of foam through the dust, leaking from behind Gristle, drying and sealing the gun to the suit.  Gristle looks down at me with an unnatural grin.  “YOOU DIEE NOW,” he says in a stoned slur.

He plunges the knife down.  The stiletto stops short—he can’t move it any further.  He tries again, but his left shoulder won’t budge.  He looks over at his shoulder, blinking his eyes in disbelief, not comprehending what is happening to him.  The foam is pumping and expanding into his suit, the gun undulating obscenely within a penumbra of oozing foam as the suit squeezes in reaction to the sudden new pressure.  Some of the foam has already reached Gristle’s shoulder and has hardened.  Confused and intoxicated, he curses over the radio, his words unintelligible.

I look down and see the fabric around his thighs bulging, then contracting.  The foam is coursing through his suit and filling every gap it can find.  The programming of the electronic fabric is trying to equalize the pressure inside the suit by expanding and contracting, and with each contraction further spreading the foam against his body.  “Hey!”  Gristle screams, barely intelligible in his stupor.  “Hey! Somebo cu hep!  CU HEP!”

“What’s that?” comes the Kestrel voice.

“SHISS IH MA SU! HE!”

“Gristle, stop clowning around and get back to the ship immediately.  This asteroid is coming apart.  Acknowledge, over.”

Gristle’s arm is stuck up high, as if saluting, while pulsating grotesquely as the foam and battles the suit.  His glove inflates cartoonishly as the foam surrounds his fingers.  His right arm is forced to extend at the elbow, reaching into the sky, the fabric quivering madly.  He struggles in vain, turning right and left, desperately trying to look around his breast plate and find the source of the flow.

I hear a wheezing noise culminating in a high-pitched whistle over the radio.  Gristle’s breath is being forced from his lungs as the foam expands mercilessly under his rigid breast plate.  He stands up and off of me, the foam flowing down both of his legs, forcing his knees to straighten.  Foam bubbles up behind his visor.  Gristle shakes his head back and forth in terror as the unstoppable mass covers his lips.  I hear one last animal scream, then a gurgling as the foam forces itself into his mouth, down his throat, bursting his lungs and stomach.

Within seconds, his wide, panicked eyes are submerged under the rising tide.  He stops struggling.  I stand up and look on in morbid fascination.  I hear bones splitting.  I see a chunk of flesh pushing out against the inside of his visor, and then realize it’s his chin, pushed inexorably by the foam, separating his jaw from his skull, flattening it against the transparency at a freakish angle.  Now I don’t see nothing but foam and chin behind Gristle’s visor.  I wonder if the Paradise make his death any more pleasant for him.

The team of Kestrel men have walked up while I was down in the dust, but they are as fascinated as I am.  They stand in a semicircle around Gristle and don’t even notice me.  They don’t try to help as his right and left boots explode.  Black foam shoots out, slithering and expanding like massive pythons, hardening and pushing against the ground, lifting his body up a meter from the ground.  Gloves pop off.  Black foam rockets out from his sleeves and harden into two downward-curved, black tubes extending from his wrists.  A black chemical geyser erupts out the top from the top of his helmet, instantly blossoming into an asymmetrical, rigid blob.

He’s finally still.  What’s left is a shining black figure, dripping bodily fluids, towering against the distant sun like a bizarre statue produced by an overpaid sculptor at some pretentious Malapert museum.

“Well, he’s a big man now,” says a voice.

I feel the surface of the black monstrosity with my glove.  It’s as hard as the steel it was designed to repair.  Ain’t no man ever been deader.  Ain’t no man ever deserved it more.  “That’s for killing Pops,” I say.

The Kestrel men don’t seem to mind that Gristle is a corpse.  Maybe he was as much a threat to them as he was to us.  But nobody has much time to ponder: there’s a massive quake; I fall to one knee, then pick myself up, keeping my legs far apart for balance; I shuffle my boots into the ground to get them locked in.  One of the Kestrel men fell flat on his back but he’s getting up.  “Holy crap!  We need to get out of here!” he exclaims.

I look over the man and pick out the one that looks like he’s in charge.  His armbands are silver and the rest of them seem to pay attention when he talks.  I walk over and plant my boots in front of him.  “You in charge of these guys?” I ask.

“Yup,” says Silver Armbands.

“So what now?”

“Well we’re not going to attempt to take Gristle back to Luna, if that’s what you mean.  He stays.”

“I mean what now with us?  With the Allgood crew.”

He shrugs a little.  “Ah…we got word not to hurt you.  Some kind of deal has been made.  I guess you are free to go, and we’ll find out who pays who when they choose to tell us.”

“Not so fast,” I say.  “You killed a member of our crew.”

The man looks insulted.  “I didn’t kill nobody.  He did the killing,” he said, nodding towards Gristle’s encapsulated corpse.

“We’ll see about that,” I say.

“Do what you want kid,” he says, “but you gotta know by now that Nifty Jim owns the law back home.”

With that, the ground shakes again, hard.  I look over the horizon—there are huge boulders flying up into the sky, propelled from underneath by the expulsion of the dark red gas.  The materia is too damaged to hold the stroid together no more.

“On one condition,” I say, locking my knees against the tremors.

“What?  Who are you to give me conditions?  You little punk—you see how many men I have?  Do you see the weapons?”

“Stop shooting the red stuff,” I say, “Stop shooting it right now.”

Silver Armbands smiles and shakes his head.  He looks like he’s going to laugh when another voice breaks in.  “Prescot, this is Kestrel actual, over.”

Silver armbands answers: “Kestrel, Prescot, over.”

“Stand down from shooting the red mineral.  Hold your fire and bring the rover back.  Prepare to launch ASAP, over.”

“Wha…what?  Repeat Kestrel, over.”

“Hold your fire.  Retrieve your men and leave the red mineral alone.  Bring the rover back to the hanger, we’re launching soonest.  Orders from Malapert.  Acknowledge, over.”

“Roger Kestrel.  Prescot out.”  He switches his radio over to talk to me.  He don’t realize I heard everything that was just said.  “Well, this is your lucky day,” he says, with an undertone of frustration.  “We just got orders to hold fire.”

I nod.  Structure has done his job well.  Every desire I express will come back to them as a command from their boss, with all the authentication protocols perfectly intact.  “We’ll be going then,” I say.  “When we get back, we’ll see who goes to jail as an accessory to murder.”

He grins behind his visor.  “Oh, you think so?” he says with a chuckle.  “Nifty Jim will take care of you, one way or another.  You got no idea.”

I pivot in the dust to head back to the CM.  “See you soon, Prescot,” I say as I’m walking away.  No reply.  He’s got to be wondering how I know his name.