Three men meet under the clock on the station of Esgarion. One is the leader of the rebellion on Mars, the other is the man who will help him escape Earth, and the third is their hunter. But who is who?
He was here, Kade thought. Somewhere amidst the well-pressed suits and the glittering gowns was the man whom Kade sought. It seemed as though every celebrity had descended upon this bright spinning station in Earth’s orbit. Glass walled the circular room, and, beyond it, a sea of lights sparkled in the darkness, and the moon hung like a gray pearl, so large that it dominated the view in one direction.
Esgarion was said to be the last bastion of real civilization, for the colonies of the moon, Venus, and Mars possessed all the roughness and resilience of the frontier. Esgarion was the Ellis Island of Earth, the international passage to and from the Mother Planet and the colonies. It was also a favorite meeting place of the wealthy and influential from all nations, and the United System events on Esgarion kept a fragile peace amongst the powerful nations who had interests in the colonies.
Such events were the perfect places to hide in plain sight. Of course, there were identity checks and a dozen other security measures, but as quickly as brilliant minds devised such precautions, other brilliant minds designed counter-measures to render the precautions useless. It was the way of technology.
There were also ways to change one’s appearance. Even if Kade had known the man’s features, they could be different now. The man that Kade watched for could be anyone.
There was only one clue to the other’s identity: the large ivory-faced clock occupying one wall, displaying intersystem military time. The man he looked for would be under that clock at precisely 2400 hours, and he would make three errors in his speech by 2405. That was all that the decoded message had said.
It was 2358 hours now. As the wall beneath the clock already included a sizable gathering of guests, Kade decided to take his place there and wait for the crucial moment. One could never be too careful.
Kade crossed the room in the shortened stride of one who is familiar with the errant drift of artificial gravity, which approximated only one-quarter of the gravity one might feel on Earth. Some of the guests were not so well-traveled, and, although some had the sense to wear the slender “gravity belts” that helped them to feel more grounded, others bounced and swayed to the music. A woman—of some Slavic origin, he guessed—leapt into the air and executed several rotations, to the delight of her similarly half-inebriated friends. Had it not been for Kade’s quick reflexes, her hand, outstretched as though in flight, would have slapped him across the face.
Kade swallowed his frustration and smiled sardonically into his dark beard. What, Kade? Were the nerves taking over? How inconvenient.
He dawdled at the nearby table, cracking lobster tails, spearing olives with toothpicks, and drowning artichoke leaves in butter. It struck him that the very act of eating was rather savage. He felt suddenly very predatory. The buzzing of his nerves vanished, replaced by a lethal awareness. There. That was better. It always took him some time to find his zone.
“Now here’s one!” A laughing voice filtered into his consciousness. “Look at that face. Observe the dark glitter of his eyes, the grimness of his mouth. Fearless, relentless, crafty. A veritable piranha.”
A bouquet of glittering ladies laughed, and Kade realized, with a flush of sudden heat, that they were laughing at him. In the midst of the ladies sat the speaker, draped in his chair in a posture of lazy dignity, his dark hair swooshed perfectly to one side, his grin spotless. Kade turned a grim expression upon him.
The young man noticed and laughed again.
“No offense!” he said cheerily. “We’ve decided that you are the ideal frontiersman. A man like me wouldn’t survive the colonies a week.”
“Not dressed like that, anyway,” Kade remarked dryly, lifting a filled champagne glass from the tray of a passing waiter. “You’d be mugged in no time and evacuated into space, or possibly composted with the organic waste.”
The ladies gasped with delicious horror.
“Cheery one, isn’t he?” The young man laughed again. Stars above, he looked like a teenager. Kade couldn’t decide if the boy’s impudence was amusing or annoying. Likely both.
“Your frontiersman is not so far off the mark,” interrupted a British voice. The speaker was a heavy man whose bulk rested comfortably in a transparent wheelchair, as though he were a king who sat on a throne of glass. Kade was certain he had seen that bulldog face before. The newcomer beamed benevolently at the listening company, adding, “They say that the colonies are filled with convicts and criminals. It’s easy to hide in the colonies. Pathetic lack of government, don’t you think?”
The young man regarded the disabled man with some perplexity. “And just who are you? The mayor of Mars?”
“Nothing so eloquent,” the corpulent man replied. “Alexander Mudgerson, but call me Mudge. Everybody does.”
“Ah! The investor and philanthropist.” Now Kade recalled him. “Also owner of Mudgerson Corporation. Heavily invested in Venus, I believe.”
“Of course.” Kade extended a hand. “I’m John Kade.”
The two men shook. Mudge’s grip was firm but not crushing, and his gaze never left Kade’s face. Even if Kade had not known the details of the shrewd and the nearly-but-not-quite-illegal schemes executed by Mudge, he would have learned the caliber of the man through the handshake alone. Here was a man not to be trifled with.
“So long as we’re all introducing ourselves,” said the young man, “I’m Fred Copperthwaite.” He waved indolently from his chair, but did not offer a handshake.
“I suppose,” said Kade, “that the colonies are simply going the way of all colonies.”
“How so?” Mudge twitched a finger at a waiter, and collected three stuffed mushrooms on his small hors d’oevre plate.
“Independence,” Kade replied. “Every colony has dreamed of independence at some point. And now there’s enough of the insurrectionists to spark a war.”
“How vile!” Copperthwaite said with a yawn.
“Cassie—that is your name, isn’t it?—get me some crab. There’s a good girl. I heard,” he continued, with the smirk of one who loves to bear shocking news, “that one of the insurrectionist leaders on the Earth-side was on the edge of being identified, but he disappeared. They speculate he’s bound for the colonies. Might come right through Esgarion on his way to some distant settlement. As Mudge said, it’s easy to hide in the colonies.”
The media had said as much.
“Yes,” Mudge replied thoughtfully. “But I don’t expect him to get there. Not unless he has help, of course.”
“Oh yes, the ‘Star Fox,’” Copperthwaite grinned, raising and dipping two fingers in quotations as he spoke the title. “The mysterious smuggler of human cargo to the colonies. Identity likewise unknown. It’s like a medieval tale, isn’t it?”
“The Martian Scarlet Pimpernel,” Kade muttered.
“The what?” Copperthwaite blinked. Mudge nodded at Kade. He understood the reference. Copperthwaite’s gaze flickered between the two men, then, when no explanation was forthcoming, he sighed loudly and changed the subject.
“Who would want to go to Mars? It’s cold and lifeless and stark. Aside from the colonial terrasystems, or the subterranean vaults, it’s just a mass of red dirt. Useful for raw materials, I suppose, but certainly not aesthetically pleasing. Unless you like barren views.”
“Venus is worse,” Mudge said. “At least, if you want to live long. Six hundred eighty-seven days to a year. That’s why the average lifespan of a Venusian is thirty-four years old, which is over seventy in Earth years. I asked Senator Stride to consider a bill that establishes Earth-years on Venus. After all, we’ve already established an intersystem time.”
As though to prove his point, he gestured to the clock above him. The time read: 2400. Kade felt cold suddenly.
Mudge watched the other two men from beneath his heavy eyelids. Which one was the man he sought? Or perhaps, he added to himself, which one was the man who sought him? Mudge chuckled to himself. He loved games. There was something wild and unpredictable about them, the predator against the prey. He wondered which of the three of them was the predator, and which was the prey. He infinitely preferred being the predator, if he had to choose.
“An intersystem year would never work,” Kade remarked. “Even Earth requires different time zones. Why not the solar system?”
Copperthwaite sighed. “I knew it would get around to politics. These intersystem discussions always do.”
“The math for such a system doesn’t work,” Kade insisted.
“But, my boy,” Mudge interrupted. “Think what you are saying! If the colonies have their own time, they are that much more separate from Earth. They have that much more reason to throw off the yoke of the Mother Country, so to speak. They must conform! It’s time that we show them who is alpha of the pack, and who is zeta.”
“I agree,” said Copperthwaite languidly.
“That’s a quick way to push them into rebellion,” Kade pointed out. “They are not beasts to be controlled. They are children to be trained.”
“Yes, and unruly children deserve spankings,” Mudge growled. He was feeling rather heated now. How amusing. He liked Kade immensely. The solemn man might be on the opposite side as Mudge, but he was sharp. Very sharp.
Mudge liked sharp minds.
“There is a point,” said Kade, “at which punishment ceases to be correction and becomes coercion. A good parent knows the difference. You cannot simply force the colonies to conform. You have to make it worth their while to do so. It must have some benefit for them.”
“True,” Mudge agreed reluctantly. “But there will always be extremists who seek to incite matters, or to twist them. History is full of this kind of story: the American Revolution, for example.”
“Yes,” Copperthwaite spoke to Kade, in the eager arrogance of one who seeks to regain lost respect. “In the Revolutionary War, only a small percentage of Americans supported independence. The majority actually preferred allegiance to Britain, or, at least, considered it the lesser of the two evils. You’re American. You know how it works.”
“I’m Polish,” Kade replied stiffly. How interesting. Mudge had already guessed that Kade was not American. But Mudge doubted that he was Polish either. What was he?
“Your American English is exquisite,” Mudge said. “But come, I want to hear your defense. What about the extremists? You only need a few to leverage the general disgruntled mass and spark a rebellion.”
Kade answered grimly, “That is why I say it is in our best interests to placate them.”
“But when they want the Moon?” Mudge grinned at his own joke. Copperthwaite laughed outright. Kade didn’t even crack a smile. What a doleful fellow.
“They won’t want only the Moon,” Kade said, “if they think they can still have a piece of Earth too.”
Mudge raised both eyebrows in a gesture of resignation. “I acknowledge your point. Well done, sir.”
All in all, tonight was going marvelously. He had both men hooked. Now he had only to reel them in, and figure out which one was which. He grinned to himself. He loved a well-set trap.
He glanced up at the clock again. 2402.
Copperthwaite wasn’t sure he liked the looks of either of the other two men. Mudge had the appearance of a benevolent uncle, but there was a dark twinkle in his eye that betrayed the intelligence of a man not likely to make mistakes. Whether his sputterings about the evils of the colonies were all an act, or genuine, he was a man to be reckoned with.
Kade, on the other hand, had the stillness of an alligator, waiting just under the surface of the water. At any moment, he might spring. There was something truly unpredictable about that man. As for his opinions, Copperthwaite had to concede that his arguments were thoughtful. But were they sincere?
Copperthwaite felt himself rise to the challenge as though girding on invisible armor. They were all of them predators. He would not be outwitted tonight. He would find the man he sought.
“People are idiots,” he summed up, yawning. “Look, the colonies want more—more industrial freedom, more independent rules—and Earth wants more—more colonial raw materials, more leverage. Why can’t we leave each other alone? The colonies should be happy with what they’ve got, and we should be happy with what we’ve got, and everyone will be better off.”
“True,” Kade agreed. “I believe compromise is in our best interests.”
“Do you think it will work?”
Kade considered, then said slowly, “No. I don’t. But I think it’s our best chance of forging peace for now, and finding some way to split peaceably in the future, without nuking the daylights out of each other and while retaining mutual trade.”
Mudge summarized: “So in the end, you believe that neither side will compromise.”
“You seem very attracted to the idea of war.” Copperthwaite’s mouth twisted with distaste.
“I’m attracted to truth. I believe that a split is inevitable. The Mother Planet’s relationship with the colonies will determine whether that split occurs with or without significant loss of life and infrastructure.”
Mudge shook his head and waved his hands as though to clear the air of Kade’s viewpoint. “It won’t come to that. The colonies are too dependent on trade with the Mother Planet.”
“True,” Copperthwaite pounced on the idea. “Until the terraformation is complete, and the atmosphere balances, the colonies will remain dependent. After all, the atmosphere on both Venus and Mars is 95 percent carbon dioxide—unbreathable for humans.”
“Eighty-five percent,” Mudge corrected. “And everyone says terraformation will take up to another seventy years to accomplish. We won’t see rebellion in our lifetime, anyway.”
“I wouldn’t put it past them,” said Kade. “The escaped Earthside insurgent is a sign of our times, and I am sure there are more like him. Perhaps the rebels have found some way to speed up the process, or to simply exist underground for a few generations until the terraformation is complete.”
He paused thoughtfully and glanced up at the clock. Copperthwaite’s eyes followed his. 2405.
“Well,” Copperthwaite rose and stretched. “I think I am going to dance. Which of you lovely ladies will give me the honor?”
Kade groaned and his eyes rolled open, his head humming like machinery. No. That was the sound of a space vessel in mid-flight, and he lay in a cot with a restraining belt around his waist. When he unhooked the belt, his body drifted gracefully from the cot, his limbs floating round him weightlessly. His clothing had been exchanged for a rust-colored uniform, with a shirt a little too small. A clean cut in the flesh of his forearm had been neatly stitched. Even before he reached up to his ear, he knew the truth. He grasped one of the many wall handles and, anchored, leaned his head against the wall and tried to remember.
Slowly, memories filtered back through his consciousness.
There had been three mistakes. It was Mars, not Venus, which had the six hundred eighty-seven day year. Pack animals, like wolves, consisted of alphas and betas, not alphas and zetas. And Copperthwaite had been right: the atmosphere of Venus and Mars was ninety-five percent carbon dioxide, not eighty-five. The correct answers—Mars, bay (from beta), and ninety-five—all gave directions to Mars Bay 95, one of Esgarion’s departure gates for the colonies.
The giant freight craft in the bay had given no clue as to its ownership, but ownership might be misleading anyway. The Star Fox likely used whatever transportation he could sneak or bribe to his advantage.
Regardless, Kade did not need to identify the owner. The owner would identify himself. Kade had only to explain that he was the man whom the Star Fox sought.
But somehow it had gone wrong. The assault had come so quick; reaction was impossible. He remembered approaching the bay, searching for his quarry, and then he remembered a sharp prick in his neck. The world tilted, the floor suddenly slapped his side, and his mind spun with a momentary panicked thought--I’m dead. Where did I go wrong?—before he lost consciousness.
But he wasn’t dead. What did that mean?
Kade released the wall stop and, hand-walking along the wall, he glanced out the nearby small, oval vessel window. Earth and its moon hung like a sapphire and a pearl against spangled black velvet, and Esgarion was a bright pinpoint in the sky. A whisper of movement caught his attention, and he whirled.
“At ease,” Mudge held up his hand. When Kade remained coiled, he grinned. “If I had wanted to kill you, you would already be dead.”
Kade considered, but did not reply. In the absence of gravity, Mudge had no need for his wheelchair anymore. Instead, his withered legs—such a contrast to the robust ruddiness of the rest of his body—were encased in transparent braces to allow him some structure of movement.
Mudge regarded Kade with that deceptive benevolence that marked him more lethal than the raging villain of fiction.
“I thought of killing you, of course. But”—Mudge made an ambiguous gesture—“death is so barbaric and final. I like to keep my options open. You never known what serendipitous angle might arrive that you can use to your advantage.”
Kade expelled a long breath and turned away from Mudge toward the oval window. True. And as long as he was alive, he had options as well.
“No,” said Mudge, as though answering Kade’s thoughts. “You really don’t have any options, Henry.”
Kade twitched, then cursed himself. It was a trick as old as the Earth. Mudge just laughed. At that moment, the hatch slid open with a whisper, and Copperthwaite entered, pulling himself awkwardly from hand-hold to hand-hold. Clearly, he did not travel through space often. Perhaps this was even his first time. The asinine expression had vanished from his face, replaced by a cold glitter in the eyes and a grim set to the beardless jaw: the look of a man who has risked all and won.
“Hello,” he said, wobbling stiffly across the room.
“I was prepared for the possibility my message might be intercepted,” Mudge explained. “Of course, I didn’t know which of you was my man. So my androids nabbed both of you. And that”—he pointed to Kade’s patched arm—“gave you away.”
If they could trace him to Bay 95, they could… “I backfilled your feed with erroneous information, of course,” Mudge continued. “I’m quite good at that sort of thing. Your authorities will think you’re pursuing your prey to the Moon.”
Kade’s hope fizzled. “We’re going to Mars.”
“Yes,” Mudge replied. “I think you’ll like it there.”
“Not once they find out who I am.”
“I’ve already made arrangements for that,” Mudge said. “You’ll be traveling with Raines. He’ll keep you out of trouble.”
Copperthwaite—now Raines—nodded his agreement.
“I assume,” said Kade. “That you’ve taken precautions to ensure that I can’t sell the colonists out or contact Earth.”
“Oh yes!” Mudge half-grinned. “You see, you’re the escaped insurrectionist leader, belatedly identified. You’ve been using position as an international agent as a cover for years, and you volunteered to hunt the supposedly escaped criminal because it gave you your chance to escape through Esgarion.”
Kade knew how easily the right circumstantial evidence could stack against him. Every trip he had ever taken to the colonies would be linked to some subversive activity, every sincere suggestion for leniency toward the colonies would be proof of his sympathy for them… He tried to think of ways he could have been more careful, but every alternative was equally susceptible to manipulation and lies. He rubbed his hands across his face—his lips still felt half-numb from the sleep dart—and remarked, “I hoped it wasn’t you. I liked you.”
“Ah. Then it was I you were after, and not Raines.”
Raines blinked, color deepening in his face. “You mean I was allowed to escape? Just to lead you to the Star Fox?” He blew out his cheeks in a heavy exhale and shook his head. “No wonder it was so easy. I thought something was amiss.”
Kade’s gaze upon Mudge remained steady. “Why throw your lot in with the colonies?”
“Well, for one, I get to have a splendid nickname. Star Fox. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”
Kade glared at him. Mudge chuckled. “My boy, change is the way of the world. The insurrectionists have made a marvelous monopoly in raw materials, in exchange for my aid, if I will use my influence to smuggle certain goods to the colonies.”
Of course. Mudgerson Corporation. “You’re stealing from yourself to sell to the rebels.”
“Clever, isn’t it?” Mudge steepled his hands in front of his face and his expression had a distinctly boyish quality.
There was a long silence. Then, Raines asked, “Just out of curiosity: Were your political views sincere? Compromise and all that?”
“Yes.” Maybe that was why Kade was still alive. A fanatical stance against the colonies (such as Mudge had feigned) may have been a risk too high to take.
“I thought so,” Mudge nodded. “But you’re not Polish. I looked you up once we were underway. (Yes, I’ve got my fingers in all sorts of secrets.) You’re South African. Special Agent Henry Scott. And my escaped revolutionary here…”
“August Raines,” the young man said, extending a hand. “Cordner School of Law. I had to interrupt my doctorate thesis to flee.”
So his flippancy was part of his real personality. It wasn’t arrogance—he had the sensitivity not to throw Scott’s predicament in his face—and it somehow it made him likeable. Scott shook the offered hand. From the smoothness of Raines’ hands and the pressure of his grasp, Scott confirmed him as an academic and a man of inflexible purpose.
For a moment, all three were silent, their gazes lingering on the shrinking Earth. Raines sighed. “I’ll miss Earth. But I knew that was the price of freedom.” He glanced at Scott. “I’m sorry you got mixed up in this. I did warn you.”
Scott recalled Raines’ whining question, “Why can’t we leave each other alone?” and mentally conceded that the other man had a point.
“Well,” Raines sighed and shrugged again. “Since our fates are now intertwined, do you think we could manage to be gentlemanly adversaries, at least?”
Slowly, pieces fell into Scott’s mind like a pattern taking shape. It wasn’t what he planned. He would never truly be a free man. Or would he? There was something about Mars—its wildness, its clash of ancient world and modern technology, its unpredictability—that had always beckoned him. Perhaps… Perhaps the future might offer him more options than he expected.
He turned to Raines, and read sincere respect in his opponent’s expression.
“I think we can get along,” he conceded. He caught Mudge’s eye, and the Star Fox seemed to read his thoughts, and approve of them.
They watched together in silence as Esgarion shrank into the blackness of the deep sky.
Copyright (c) 2018 Yaasha Moriah