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G581: Plague Tales

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Chapter One

Make Bombs, Not Babies

Spring 2096
Earth - Chicago, Illinois

Psilocannabis was supposed to open your mind and provide a overarching positive, even euphoric experience for the typical user. For a few, a very few, it had the opposite effect, causing depression and CMS, closed mind syndrome. And then there was Brigid, who seemed determined to blaze a completely different path, and corresponding reaction, to the drug. 


Michael Nix was slouched on the sofa, jeans around his knees, too overwhelmed with the post-coital bliss and the accompanying psilocannib high to take the time to pull his pants back on. His lover, however, was on her feet and pacing. No post-orgasm rubber-legged feel for her, oh no. She was angry, her hands moved in sharp jerks, gesturing out at the world beyond the filthy glass panes of the converted warehouse.


“We have become irrelevant,” she spat. “Useless mouthpieces whining about the environment, and asking for a helping of porridge like some stupid child!” She ran out of space in the long, narrow room, pivoted on her heel and paced in the opposite direction. 


Nix grinned. She was fucking beautiful when she was angry. Bonus points that she didn’t have a stitch of clothes on, and her body was lean, muscled, and her tits were perfect, without the tiniest amount of sag to them. Well, they could be a little bit bigger. But other than that…


She stopped abruptly in front of him, her breath sharp, irregular, her eyes snapping. “What?” She snapped at him. “What are you looking at?”


He grinned wider, licked his upper lip. “A goddess?”


Her expression softened, changed, but just for a moment. “Is sex all you think about?”


His body was telling him to answer yes. In fact, it was already saying it if she would just look a little further south. He forced a serious expression on his face. “Of course not. The cause, EnviroFirst, we are going to change the world. You, me, the others.”


She looked down then, then back up at his face and rolled her eyes. “Christ, you are so full of shit.”


“You are Sekhmet, goddess of war, and I damn well do worship you.” He insisted, stretching out a little further, sliding his feet out of his jeans and grinning as his smaller head bobbed a hello. “Come back over here, I’ll show you how dedicated I am to my goddess and her cause.”

A Taste of War
In the pre-dawn hours, Michael woke, reached out and felt for Brigid, but her spot in the bed was empty, the sheets cool to the touch. The psilocannabis was still working its way through his system, but the euphoric effects were fading fast. He found her on the roof, wrapped in a blanket, barefoot. To the east, the glow of the approaching sun spread across the horizon. He wrapped his arms around her, nuzzled her neck. She ignored his advances.


“Can’t sleep?”


She shrugged. “Something you said, it got me to thinking.”


“Should I get back on my knees for this?” That earned him a small snort. 


“Sekhmet, the goddess of war.”


“Mm,” Nix said, his hands looking an entrance to the body hidden beneath the blanket, “I definitely should be on my knees.”


Brigid pulled away. “I’m serious.”


Nix frowned, stopping as she stepped away from him, “So am I.”


“They need to know that EnviroFirst is a force to be reckoned with. That things need to change, now. Not continue with the same old bureaucratic bullshit song and dance. Real change.”


Nix tried to hide his disappointment. He’d rather enact change in bed. A new position perhaps, or try out those aerial silks she had hanging from the ceiling.
“Sure, baby. You are a goddess of a leader.”


Brigid shot him a look. As usual, he had said the wrong thing.
Sex is definitely off the list for now.


“We need to send them a message.”


“Okay. What are you thinking?”


Her eyes narrowed as the sky lit up with the first rays of sunlight. “It needs to be something big, a place known for polluting the environment that has sidestepped all attempts at regulation and cleanup. One that is know for bribing officials and flouting the law.”


“China is big. The communists are greedy.” Nix volunteered, thinking of a recent expose he had watched. Several of the massive country’s industrial cities had especially egregious track records. Cancer rates had skyrocketed, and the birth rate had declined precipitously in the last two decades, even with the abolishment of the One Child legislation from the 20th century.


Brigid’s face lit up, her eyes gleamed with excitement. “Yes!” She turned and strode toward the door, leaving Nix alone on the rooftop to watch the sunrise alone. When his stomach signaled it was past time for tea and some breakfast, he made his way down the metal staircase and found Brigid glued to her tablet, her fingers dancing over the keyboard. She hardly acknowledged the toast and tea, leaving both to cool as she continued to dig deep. It was nearly noon before she came up for air.


“That electronics plant in Shenzhen, the Guangdong region of China. The pollution rates are off the charts and the only way they’ve stayed open is bribery and corruption.” Her eyes had the intense stare that Nix hadn’t seen for a while. One that signaled a burgeoning plan and days of obsessive research and planning.


She would come up with some kind of protest that would be particularly effective. The last one had targeted a bottleneck in the only road to a plant on the west coast. Blocked with a few dozen bodies and a handful of cars, it had effectively shut down a plastics plant for weeks. Enough time for EnviroFirst to expose a particularly corrupt politician and threaten the re-election chances of the Republican governor. The ripples from that action had reached as far as the vice-president of the Reformed United States of America, and practically paved the way for the election of a Democratic contender. A relative unknown, Gary Chen, would take office in just two short months thanks to the fallout caused by EnviroFirst’s protests. 


Brigid is too hard on herself. She is constantly downplaying how strong of an effect EnviroFirst has, and herself, for that matter, on hard-hitting environmental issues.

 

They had met by accident. She was heading a protest, something he found out later, and he was finishing up on the last requirements for his degree in ethnobotany. God, how his father had sneered at that.


“I’ve spent $200,000 Ameros putting you through college so you could become a goddamn farmer? In what world does that make sense?” Isaac Nix had rolled his eyes over the video feed, disgust written all over his face.


Nix had still been smarting over that conversation, just hours before, when he absentmindedly crossed the picket line and stumbled into Brigid Teraby. It had been lust at first sight. Getting laid was usually his response to the past seven years’ of more or less negative interactions with his dad. Find a woman, get laid, give her lasting memories. He was good in the sack, and he knew it, cultivated it, learned with each new lover. He might disappoint Isaac Nix, entrepreneur, self-made man, multi-billionaire and more - but Michael Nix didn’t disappoint the ladies. When he ran into her, quite literally, they both ended up on the ground. She thought he had done it on purpose, and her face flushed with anger, her finger had jabbed at his chest as he tried to apologize.


There was something about her. A fire in her that he couldn’t resist. 


She wasn’t beautiful. At least, not in the stereotypical way. Brigid was rather plain-faced, but she did have a fantastic body beneath the plain looks. It was the fire inside of her that attracted Nix more than anything. She wasn’t afraid of anything and she was willing to drop everything and fight, with her fists if need be, for what she believed in. 


He had never felt more alive than when he was by her side. Whether it was in between the sheets, or manning a bullhorn at a protest, the energy that flowed from her was intoxicating and addictive. He had grown up alone after the accident that took his mother’s life at the age of five. Alone except for a series of nannies who had come and gone until he was twelve. Soon after that it was off to boarding school and then college after that. His father had hidden himself away from his own grief by working more hours, longer days, even weekends. Eventually, they had been nothing but strangers existing in the same house. Thankfully, thought Nix, it had been a very large property. It hadn’t taken much for the two to avoid each other completely for days at a time.


“Bomb.”


Nix was pulled out of his daydream. 


“Wait,… what?”


Brigid glared at him. “I knew you weren’t listening to me.”


Nix sighed, grabbed the rolling chair from his side of their two-sided desk, and planted himself before her. “I’m sorry. My mind wandered off. Tell me again.”


Brigid glared for a moment more before relenting.


“Zane thinks we can infiltrate a Chinese plant and plant several explosive devices. Enough to set of a chain reaction in the coolant tanks and incapacitate the plant, draw attention to the cause, and really put the screws to those capitalistic shits masquerading as communists. They will be forced to take us seriously then.”


Zane was Brigid’s half-brother. He was also half-Chinese. His mother had been part of a wave of rich immigrants that had come in after The Collapse and singlehandedly propped up the economy of the West coast, and other areas, for decades. Zane was a dick who would choose chaos over calm, and rioting over protests any day of the week. 


All Nix heard was chain reaction and the first word… bomb.


“A bomb?”


“Well, technically, a series of them. Small ones.” Brigid shrugged.


“Are you fucking kidding me, Brigid?” Nix stared at his lover, whose pale skin flushed with anger at his tone. “You think the way to make a name for EnviroFirst is with a bomb?”


“I can’t talk to you when you are like this.” Brigid snapped. “You sound like your father.”


It was a low blow and one she had to know hurt. “I’m nothing like my father.”


“No?” Her mouth twisted. “Let’s see, deprecating tone, check. Self-entitled pompous asshole, check. Judgmental prick, check.” She smiled, showing her teeth, “Sounds like you didn’t fall too far from the family tree, Michael. Just like ole Daddy.”


Nix bristled. Brigid had hard edges, he’d seen them, but usually she reserved them for others, not him.


“Fuck you, Brigid.”


“Already did that.” She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows. “You were pretty good, for a college boy.”


He was out the door, his legs took long strides, powerful, angry, and desperate to put space between the warehouse and him. Damn her. She could be vicious when she wanted to be and especially put out when anyone, anyone at all, questioned her ideas and plans. 


“Damn that Zane.” Nix growled as his strides brought him to the edge of the city, blocks away from the warehouse where he normally felt more at home than the house he had grown up in. Zane had done this. He had been pushing Brigid towards increasingly violent confrontations and now this? The thought of them actually going forward with it was sickening. It was one thing to see a protest get heated, and it was an entirely other thing to bring true violence into the game.

 

How could that possibly achieve any real success? They would lose support if they resorted to violence. How could Brigid not see that? Why would she listen to that fool Zane? For the first time he was seeing a different side of her, and he was sure it had everything to do with poison being whispered in her ear. Brigid was blind to her brother’s shortcomings. 

Protest in Beijing
The crowd was far bigger than any of them had even hoped for. Chalk it up to four billion screaming Chinese, Nix thought, as he stared at the massive crowd chanting and holding signs. The streets were crowded here, far more crowded than anything he had encountered back home. He glanced over to where Brigid was standing. He had stayed away for two days, nearly three, returning as the sun lowered in the west and the heat of the day was slipping away, rapidly cooling once the sun’s rays had deserted the pavement below.


She had said nothing, simply pulled him into her arms and began kissing him, slow, and deep. Hours later, sweat beading their bodies, she had told him about the new plans for the protest in Beijing. 


“We can remind the people how terribly their business leaders are violating the very environmental programs they took credit for helping to pass,” she had said, her finger tracing an intricate design only she could see into his chest.


“And the plant? The… bomb?” Nix asked.


“Shelved.” She answered tersely. “We will focus on Beijing first and see how much of a following we can get going. They’re stacked on top of each other in the cities, with asthma and other air-quality related illnesses on the rise everywhere. They’re desperate for change. And they have the numbers to get it done.” She sighed, her fingers ever in motion. “I missed you.”


It was the closest Nix would get to an apology. If it could even be considered one. 


“What does Zane say to all this?” 


He felt her stiffen momentarily, then shrug, before she returned to drawing on his skin. “He was disappointed, but he’ll deal. Better now that I’ll put him at the front of the Asian office of EnviroNow. He looks Chinese. Our dad really didn’t come through in that mix.” She snickered then. “Most think he’s full-blooded and that I’m his stepsister. So why not roll with it?”


That had been six weeks ago. Something more was at play. Something Brigid wasn’t telling him. Details he wasn’t privy to. Nix suspected Zane was a big part of it, but he couldn’t prove it, and it wasn’t as if he had ever been one hundred percent inner circle in the organization. Still, it was disconcerting. He’d walked into the room a half-dozen times and talk had ceased, Brigid and the others suddenly busying themselves with tasks he knew had already been assigned to others, lame jokes, and surreptitious glances. The last of his college classes finished, he had joined them on the flights out. There were seven of them in four separate planes, all landing in different airports.


“It will arouse less suspicion that way.” Brigid had said. “Zane and Leila are headed in by ship.”


The sea of faces surrounding him were predominantly Chinese. He couldn’t see Zane anywhere, and Brigid was no longer by his side. Nix held his sign, written both in Chinese and English and chanted with the crowd. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t speak the language, the intent was the same. He felt the crowd surge around him, pushing his body with theirs. The police here were a far cry from law enforcement back home. He couldn’t see their faces behind the darkened riot gear helmets. Each stood, clothed in black, with the shining white body armor, batons and more at the ready. He had a sneaking suspicion they wouldn’t bother with tear gas. Instead, they would wield their batons and tasers and follow it up with something more permanent.


The crowd moved, a body and force of its own, pushing tighter against each other as they crammed into an older, more narrow Beijing street. The older buildings, shops, restaurants, and more, now lined both sides and Nix was finding it hard to breathe as the crowd crushed closer and closer together. The police seemed intent on occupying the sidewalk of the south side of the street, where a slick, new office building rose in the middle of the decaying structures. They screamed at the protesters over a bullhorn. Again Nix cast about for Brigid, for Zane, or any other familiar face. He was alone in a crowd of strangers.


An older man was suddenly pushed against him. He was holding a bag of food in his hand and Nix marveled at how far he had managed to move from the hole in the wall restaurant he had obviously come from, into the maelstrom of the crowd. Whether it was his age, which was far older than the protesters who surrounded him, or the bag of food in his hands, it was clear the old man did not belong in the melee. 


This did not stop the riot police, however. Just as the man looked as if he might be able to edge his way across the street to safety, the sound of guns firing cut through the chants of the protesters. Whether it was rubber bullets or something else, it mattered not in that moment. The reaction was instantaneous. Screams of pain from protesters, a wave of bodies, both those falling to the ground and others scrambling to escape, swept through the crowd. Nix watched as the old man was struck, his body arcing back, the food in his hand thrown into the air and Nix had no time to react as he felt the simultaneous punch of impact into his ribs, the brutal wrench of bodies in the crowd slam into him and then knock him and the old man down. He had an instant of clarity. Hard macadam beneath him, grinding into the meat of his jaw, his ribs on fire, someone’s foot on his hand. A container had escaped the bag of food, rotating in midair before impacting the crush of bodies, hot soup splattering, small droplets of it burning hot against Nix’s face. In front of him, the old man lay on his side, his mouth working, as if he wanted to say something, anything. But the screams, the crack of guns, and all of the rest blocked it out. Nix watched as the light in the old man’s eyes faded, and whatever it was that made the old man who he was, individual, unique, vanished. It left but a shell behind. He heard the police fire their weapons again, the crowd surging and screaming and falling. A slam of a body impacting his, hard against his head, and then Michael Nix surrendered his consciousness to the night.

You’re in the Hospital
Consciousness is highly overrated. No one ever mentions that coming to hurts so damned much. 


When Nix came to, he was in a hospital room. Cultural differences aside, hospital rooms are quite recognizable. So was the zip-ties attaching his left wrist securely to the bed frame. Nix sucked in a breath and immediately regretted it. The sharp pain emanating from his left ribcage told him that he wouldn’t be going for a jog anytime soon. 


The door slid open then and Brigid’s face came into view. “Hey, you’re awake.” She whispered it, glancing at the door she had just come through. “We don’t have much time before the police come in. But I wanted to check on you.”


“I lost you in the crowd.” Nix whispered back, his back and ribs screaming in pain as he tried to sit up.


Brigid glanced at the door. “I have to go. They can’t find me here. They will haul me in for questioning and Zane’s waiting for me outside.” She reached over and squeezed Nix’s hand. “Look, Nix, when they ask, remember, you don’t know anything. What happens next has nothing to do with you.”


Nix captured her hand in his. No easy feat, it appeared two of his fingers were broken. “Brigid, wait. Where are you going?”


She smiled at him. “Sometimes it takes a violent act for people to wake up to the reality of the violence we do every day to Mother Earth.” She cast another glance over to the door, leaned over his bed and kissed him passionately on the lips and then slipped out of the room before he could raise any more objections.


Shit, shit, shit!


Nix closed his eyes, wincing at the pain that rolled and pulsed through his body. He struggled to pull himself upright, to somehow get his left hand loose from the zip-tie. A hand to his cheek sufficed only to cause him more pain as his fingers found the raw, chewed up skin where his face had met the pavement. His legs, arms, back and ribs ached and burned. He pulled against the restraints, the zip-ties didn’t budge, other than to further cut into his skin. 


And then it was too late, far too late, a sharp-tongued nurse was at the side of the bed, her voice loudly calling out, likely for help, because seconds later, two men, obviously part of hospital security, came running in. They helped hold Nix down until his free right hand could be zip-tied in place and whatever sedative the nurse added to the IV had taken effect. 


As Nix slipped into unconsciousness, his last waking thought was of Brigid. She hadn’t given up the idea of bombing that plant. Not at all. And he had been a fool to ever believe she would.

Stupid American
News of the bombing hit less than 48 hours after Nix was transferred from the hospital to a prison infirmary, looked over with a jaded eye and placed in the general population. He could walk, and as long as he didn’t try and move to fast, he could manage to breathe shallow enough that the broken ribs didn’t send flashes of agony through him. 


The other prisoners left him alone, avoided him, actually. This was no surprise. He was in dutch with the guards and being seen with him likely wouldn’t help anyone else. The bombing made it worse. He knew something was up when the whispers and sideways glances increased exponentially. He had been an oddity for a day, then it became business as usual within the metal and cinder block world he found himself in.  But now, something had changed. As they had queued up for dinner, with Nix hanging back from the others, he hadn’t been particularly surprised when guards descended upon him, handling him roughly as they dragged him away from the mess hall, down a long corridor, steps, and deep into the guts of the prison, far below most prisoners. 


Here the lighting blinked to an inconsistent beat. The walls were damp with condensation, and the dimly lit corridor held prisoners in dark, miserable, fetid cages of steel and stone. He could hear one man cough, low, wet. The kind of cough that sinks its claws into you and won’t let go. The stench of unwashed bodies and fear permeated the place. Here he was shackled in a dim, damp room. His hands, then his legs, the metal bolted deep into the stone bench that sat before a table with an office chair. Not too close, though. Certainly not within reach, or even spitting distance, were he so inclined. Which Nix most certainly was not. He did not resist. He hadn’t. Not since that moment of madness and desperation in the hospital. He sat there, waiting, the cold of the stone and the wet on the walls seeping into him, working at him. They had chained him, then left, the door swinging shut with a groan. Time passed. Hours, possibly. The chains prevented him from laying down, or reclining, or really much of anything other than sitting there waiting on the pleasure of the men in charge.


Nix reviewed his situation with growing dread. He was here on a tourist visa. He’d broken a half-dozen laws by participating in the protest and it was easy enough for the Chinese authorities to tie him to Brigid and the EnviroFirst movement. Should I have tried to tell them what she was planning? Would it have done any good?
He waited for so long that his ass had long gone numb, and muscle cramps had begun to work their way up his back, seizing at intervals along his spine. Despite this, he occasionally managed to drift off, even if it was for a few seconds or a minute. Just long enough to make reality, and consciousness, all the worse. He was absolutely, and completely screwed.


He jerked involuntarily when the door swung open. Nix wasn’t sure if it was day or night. His stomach was empty, his mind blank, and his body wracked in pain from sitting so long. He watched as two men filed in. One sat, placed his tablet on the surface, and began to type. The other stood directly behind the first man, and stared directly at Nix, his expression stern. The seated man muttered something in Mandarin and the man standing interpreted.


“You are part of the terrorist group, EnviroFirst, responsible for several deadly incidents on Chinese soil over the past two years.”


Nix said nothing.


The seated man spoke again, and again the other man interpreted.


“Your lover is Brigid Teraby. She and her brother set off a series of explosions at the Shenzhen plant in the Guangdong Province early this morning. She is currently under arrest and being interrogated for information on other plots by your terrorist organization.”


Shit, shit, shit. Nix was totally and completely screwed and he knew it. There was absolutely nothing he could say that would make any of this better. He kept his mouth shut. 


That didn’t last what followed next. Time became something he hated, something hard and unforgiving and drawn out. Consciousness is highly overrated. Conscious meant a beating was coming. And questions. Questions he couldn’t answer because he didn’t know what they had planned. So he told them everything he did know. He opened his mouth and let the words pour out. Whether they made sense or not, or even if they were applicable. In the middle of it, at its worst, he begged. For the beatings to stop. Or maybe even for them to kill him. All the movies he had watched where the hero stays silent, stoic, while enduring horrific torture, that was not him. Nix knew his worth, and it was measured in moments, memories.


He told them about his childhood. His rich father. He promised them money, Dad’s prized Bugatti, his watch collection, and pretty much anything else he could think of. He swore, up and down, that he hadn’t known of Brigid and Zane’s plans, or whether there were any other plans he didn’t know of. Amidst blood, snot, and tears, Nix found himself no more important to the human race as the cockroaches that skittered about on the floor. And by the time they relented, brought him to another cell and left him there, with something resembling food but nearly unpalatable, Nix collapsed on the thin mattress and cried himself to sleep. It didn’t take long. He was a fool, a stupid American, a patsy, and he had chosen poorly in every possible way. The voice in his head, the one saying all of it, as he sank into unconsciousness, it sounded exactly like Isaac Nix’s voice.

They Need Farmers on Mars
Nix counted at least ten days, possibly more. The beatings had stopped, but they left him there. In the cold, dank bowels of the prison. He could hear snatches of sound when the door to his cell opened or closed, but beyond that, nothing. Until one morning. He only knew it was morning because of the change in food. The gruel from breakfast was different than the watery soup at midday or the noodles served in tasteless sauce in the evening. That morning, shortly after he finished forcing the food down his throat, the guards came. A moment of terror ran through him, especially when they dragged him to the showers, where they had hosed him down and beat him over and over. He was pretty sure his broken ribs would never heal at this rate.


He winced as one guard shouted at him in Mandarin, saying something like “ko yee foe” over and over and pointing at his clothing. Finally he realized the guard wanted him to undress. Shaking, he obeyed. “See foodzi” the guard said, pointing at the shower and pantomiming washing himself. Nix did as he was told.

They wanted him clean. That was something. Better than a beating. He washed in the lukewarm water, lathering up with soap, rinsing, trying to ignore their stares. Being shaved, however, was terrifying after all he had endured. When one of the men came at him with a straight-edge razor, Nix reared back in the chair they had pointed to. “Qua hoze!” the man holding the razor repeated and pantomimed running it across his own smooth face. Nix had only a towel around his waist and it had taken all the calm he could muster to allow the man to shave him. On each side of him, guards stood ready with hands on truncheons.


Clean, and clean-shaven for the first time in weeks, Nix was handed a clean shirt and pants. Not his, but also not a prison uniform. What was going on? What were they up to?


Down the corridors, past the dozen other cells, up flights of stairs and into the main part of the jail, he was led, hands tied behind him. Nix hadn’t thought he would ever be grateful to see the inside of the main level of the prison. Then again, he hadn’t ever been in a jail before, and certainly not in the squalid, decaying warren of cells below. Down another corridor, through countless doors, until he lost track of where he was, as if he had ever known to begin with. Finally a simple room, with a table, two chairs. They removed his shackles and gave him a push toward an empty seat. The door shut behind him, only to re-open seconds later.
Nix blinked at the sight of his father. His presence here made no sense. Isaac Nix was far too busy shuttling from his holdings in Europe and the Americas to come here. And yet, here he was. In the flesh. Nix stared at the man who he shared 50% of his DNA with. Isaac Nix was dressed impeccably, his Bugatti wristwatch peeking out from the edge of his tailored cuffs, held with onyx and diamond cuff links. 


“Good morning, Michael.”


Nix’s mouth worked. Isaac’s tone was no different than it had been when greeting him at home, on the rare occasion when Nix would land there for a day or two, before escaping to a friend’s or a lover’s, anywhere that wasn’t home.


“Good morning.”


Isaac sighed, and set a thick sheaf of papers down on the table. “I need you to sign these papers.”


Nix stared at them and looked back up at his father. “What are they?”


“You admit culpability in instigating a riot and plead no contest to breaking half a dozen of their laws, including association with a known terrorist. In exchange, you get to live. But it won’t be here, and it won’t be on Earth.”


Nix frowned, confused. 


“A loophole, for unwanted, brilliant fools like you, Michael. You can thank your farming degree.”


“Ethnobotany.”


Isaac Nix laughed, wryly. “Trust you to argue a point when facing a life sentence at minimum and possibly a fate far worse.” He tapped the papers. “Sign them, please.”


Nix reached for the fountain pen. “Where am I going?”


“Mars, Son. You are going to Mars.”


Nix wondered if the beatings had replaced his ability to think with a soft-serve sludge. Mars was nothing but domes and dry, barren, with dust and rocks. What in the hell could he grow there? As if reading his mind, Isaac had said, “Huygens Outpost is building an enormous Hab dedicated to crops and small farm animals. You can grow your flowers and play farmer, or you can face charges of eco-terrorism, and face a life sentence.”


Nix opened his mouth to speak, and his father raised a finger in warning.

 

“I will remind you, however, that this falls under the Condaga Agreement, and with it, the charges of terrorism of any kind can be a death sentence.”


Nix felt a rushing in his ears. Death. For what Brigid and Zane had done. For what he should have known they would do. I knew something was going on, and I did nothing. Said nothing. I am complicit in this.


His father leaned in closer, “Michael, take the deal, and you will go into Cryo within 48 hours and be shipped out on the next flight with the Jupiter Supply Ship. You can use your skills and passions to make a life there for yourself.” Nix saw compassion in his father’s eyes. Only for an instant, before the billionaire entrepreneur returned to his natural state: cold, dispassionate, and highly effective at saving his only child’s life.


Nix signed the papers. He didn’t read them. He seized the vintage Aurora Diamante fountain pen his father had carried with him his entire life. A pen that had helped Isaac build empires. He signed his life away, his sight blurring with emotion.


Isaac had stood then. He had reached out and pulled Nix into a tight embrace. His voice was gruff, heavy with emotion. “Be well, my son.”


When was the last time his dad had ever so much as touched him? Nix couldn’t remember. He had felt his vision blur with tears. “Thank you, Dad.”

Inside the Domes
“Whatcha got, Nix?” 


“A guaranteed fun night starting with drinks in the Commons at 1830 with Sheela from Philly.” Nix answered, as he typed in the latest measurements on the seedlings here in the Garden Hab. There were more than twenty rows of them, each labeled neatly. The other side of the room was filled with lights, racks of seedlings, and bags of compost. Garden Hab had an earthy smell, at odds with the smells in the other Habs.


Denali snorted. “I meant the plants, young buck. What, you run through all the girls here in Hong Kong and gotta branch out now?”


“Hey, she came on to me, man.” Nix shrugged, “What can I say? I’m doing my best to improve inter-Hab relations. Besides, the girl has got legs that just don’t quit.”


The older man snorted again and gave him a friendly shove. “Lemme see those numbers. You are too busy chasing tail.”


“Not true. Not at all. The wheat sprouts were thriving in compost mix 5A and 7B, just as I thought they would.” Nix countered, grinning at his friend. 


Denali frowned, his thick eyebrows bunched up like furry caterpillars. 


“Not 6C and 8E? I was sure the nitrogen mix would counteract…”


“It didn’t. And they are coming in at nearly 30% slower growth rate, old man. Kind of like your…”


“Eh, eh, careful there, boyo.” Denali’s tone was sharp, but his smile showed he didn’t mind Nix capping on his love life. He was a lifelong bachelor, something the Mars team had known when they first recruited him. Denali was in it for the science.


Nix grinned, ready for more verbal sparring, when his iDent pinged. “Michael Nix - report to Receiving.” Nothing was due in. And his reports, typically sent via tablet uplink to Earth, were all digital. 


“Jupiter landed last night.” Denali said, shoulders shrugging, looking as mystified as Nix. “Maybe that botanist chick back on Earth has the hots for you.” A grin crept onto Denali’s face.


Neena was edging into her 70s and dedicated to one thing, her work. Nix snorted. “More like she has the hots for you, man. I’ll tell her you’re a sure thing and I’m sure she’ll make an exception for that Martian sand rot you got going on in your crotch.”


He left the Garden Hab to Denali guffawing. It was a short walk, and he spent it mulling over who would be sending anything to him that couldn’t be done digitally. Receiving was a large Hab. It had the largest set of airlocks and most of the traffic was the food stores. Piles of MREs, the much desired junk foods, and cases of alcohol filled the large space. The Jupiter Supply Ship brought deliveries twice a year, four sets of crew members rotating between Ptolemy Lunar Colony and Mars.


Due to the valuable cargo, and the tendency towards some of the older, established Mars settlers to engage in black market dealings, or flat out theft, the area was monitored and restricted to most. His presence in Receiving Hab was digitally noted thanks to the iDent chip in his badge.


“Nix! Get your ass over to the office!” The head of Receiving’s voice blared over both his communicator and the loudspeakers. 


Nix smirked. 


Sonia was petite, her hair buzz cut down to her scalp on one side, long braids on the other, with feathers and beads worked into the braids. Assuming she was anything but a badass was a mistake that men made once, and never again. She ran Receiving and the airlocks with an iron fist, and made it her personal mission to permanently damage anyone who was foolish enough to try to abscond with the snacks and liquor. The black market was her fiefdom here in the Hong Kong Hab, and she aimed to keep it that way.


She sat, her feet up on the desk, an envelope in her hands. Despite being in the dustiest part of the Hab, mere yards away from the airlocks, there wasn’t a speck of the red Martian dust anywhere in sight. He wasn’t sure how she did it, but Sonia’s office was immaculate. She gave him a small smile.

 

He bowed. “Sonia.”

 

“Nix.” She ran a delicate finger along the top of the envelope. “I haven’t seen you for a while. Getting your kicks elsewhere?”


He smiled at her, slow, sexy. “Jealous?”


“Hardly.”


They had gotten hot and heavy a few months after he had landed. In truth, she had been pursuing him from the first day he stepped into Receiving and removed the suit. Sonia liked breaking in the new single men, and occasionally the women as well. She ran the darker side of Hong Kong Hab, after all, and all under the table deals went through her. Their time together had been fun. He had to give her that. She was a tiger in bed and it had broken him out of his deep, depressive funk. Waking up from Cryo, stuck on an alien planet with no atmosphere to speak of and learning that Brigid had been executed while the spaceship he was stored on spun through space was hard to take. 


In truth, he had watched the vid. Over and over and over. Until it infiltrated his dreams at night and slowed his steps during the day. Sonia had cleared the board, returned him to the here and now. He was grateful for her in many ways. She had reminded him that the life he had was no more, but that he wasn’t dead either. They had ended as cleanly as they began, when a shipment of new meat arrived.

 

“You just prefer to be on top.” Sonia said, wiggling her carefully shaped eyebrows at him. “I could make an exception, maybe, just once.”


The envelope in her hands caught his attention. It looked familiar. The seal, the print type. 


“Is that for me?” 


“It seems to be.” She rotated it in her hands. “Ident, fingerprint open only. Must be important.”


He didn’t rise to the bait. “Must be.” He recognized it for sure. It was from Dad’s assistant, Starling Anders. He was pretty sure she had been Isaac Nix’s lover, as well. They had kept it discreet, however, and she had always been kind to Nix and absolutely dedicated to his father.


His stomach twisted. Not a single word from Dad since I got here, and now this? He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the packet in Sonia’s hands. What was in it? Could they have reconsidered his sentence? Had his father used his power and money to not just save Nix’s life, but return him to the planet of his birth?
Nix finally pulled his eyes away from it. Met Sonia’s eyes, her expression had changed from seductive to curious, measuring. How much of his past must she know? From what he had seen of Sonia, who made a practice of keeping her fingers on the pulse of everything and everyone that moved into and out of Hong Kong Hab, she knew all about his rich father. She knew, and she was considering how to turn it to her advantage. It wasn’t the first time he had seen it, and it likely wouldn’t be the last, even 56 million miles away from the man, he could still feel his influence.


Sonia smiled then and held out the envelope. It was sealed in secure holoseal tape. Nix took it from her. 


“Give me a call some night, Nix.” She said, tilting her head back, stretching in her seat so she showed off her lithe body. “We could have some fun.” She winked. “Maybe I’ll even let you have a turn on top.”


Minutes later, sitting in his singles Hab, with its narrow bed that doubled as a couch, efficiency bathroom and kitchenette, Nix sat down and stared at the envelope. Something that couldn’t be sent digitally. Now that was a rarity reserved only for the most serious of occasions. Was this a chance at a trip back? Or something else? After a few moments of stillness, he reached out and placed his right thumb on the reader. Doing so, caused a chain reaction, the tape dissolving along the edge of the envelope’s flap, which swung open to the contents held inside. The first was a small, handwritten note from William Estes, Isaac Nix’s only real friend. A friendship that had lasted a lifetime as they had been raised together since nursery school.

Michael-
I’m so sorry you have to hear of your father like this. It was quick, though. A stroke. He was gone before his body hit the floor. His body figured it out a couple of days later. 


I know he never told you, but I think you should know. Your father paid one hundred million Ameros in bribes to keep you alive, and commute your sentence to a life on Mars. He would have paid every cent of his fortune to save you. Why he couldn’t just say that, well, Isaac was who he was.


He was a good man, and a better friend and father than you can possibly know.


Deepest Regards,
-W-

Nix stopped. A headache was moving in, thrumming in the back of his head, and his heart hurt. Dad had never had time, or words to spare for him. Yet he had known that his father cared. It just hadn’t been within his ability to show it as other fathers did.


And now he was gone. There would be no conversations, no more words, no understanding. No chance to have a father and son moment. Not that there could have been with these millions of miles between them. Not even when they had lived on the same planet, or even in the same house.


Nix opened the second envelope. His name written on the front in a familiar script.

Dear Michael-

If you are receiving this, well, you know how the saying goes. 
Michael, I’m leaving everything to charities. I know you won’t care–the money never really mattered to you–and I understand you better in your absence than I ever did when you were here. 


When you went after the ethnobotany degree, instead of following me into law or business, I will admit to being disappointed. However, I have come to re-evaluate those feelings. Now, in your absence, so far away from me, I recognize that we are who we are, and that you were true to those feelings and deserving of my respect.

 

I read all the reports from the incident; I recognize now that you had done nothing wrong, and nothing worthy of being labeled an eco-terrorist. That fate rests squarely on the young woman you were with, Brigid Teraby. I wish that I could bring you back to Earth, but they have apprised me that, should you return, your fate would be that of a prison cell, no matter your innocence. After all, it became an international incident, and the Chinese government is not a forgiving sort. In case you were unaware, they executed Brigid as a terrorist under the codicils put forth in the Condaga Agreement in a Chinese prison the month after you left on the Jupiter Supply Ship. 


Forgive me, son, for not understanding you better, for belittling your choice in occupation and giving you the impression that I thought less of you than I should.
Apart from your mother, there is no one I have cared for more. Be well, my son.

Find happiness and fulfillment wherever you can.


Your father,
Isaac

Nix swallowed past the lump in his throat. His past was Earth. His future, Mars. There would be no return. And frankly, there was nothing to return to. Before him, a life lived in domes. Somehow, he had to make a life of it. One filled with meaning.


For now, however, he wanted nothing to do with anyone. He turned his communicator over to Do Not Disturb. He sent a terse message to Denali, who served as his supervisor, and told him he was taking the rest of his shift as a sick day. Denali wouldn’t bitch, it was the first one Nix had taken since he had arrived at Huygens Outpost.  


He opened the photos on his tablet. Pictures of his mother, gone since he was four. Of his father. Brigid. His friends and life on Earth. He lay in bunk, a bottle of Mars-brewed vodka in his free hand and paged through photo after photo.


Tomorrow, he would get on with living. Tomorrow, he would leave the past behind. But as for today? Today he would spend with the dead.

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©2021 by Christine Shuck - Author, Artist, and General Malcontent. Proudly created with Wix.com

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