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Horizon: A Question of Survival (chapter 2) by Magnus Graham

© Magnus Graham

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Chapter 1 recap

Previously: Having escaped almost certain death after their short range shuttle collided with an escape capsule during planet-fall, 'interplanetary traders,' Stig and Jesper, decided to take a closer look at the object that so nearly killed them. After breaking open the capsule and finding a cargo of merchandise - no doubt bound for Port Kalrin's black market - it seems as if their luck is finally changing. Having loaded up their cargo hold with booty, Stig decides to head for Port Kalrin. Once there, the dodgy duo hope to sell enough of their newfound wares to get much needed work carried out on their shuttle, before flying off to make their fortune. All they need is a buyer.

Chapter 2

“Mr Martin! Mr Martin..! I've been wanting to talk with you... We have urgent matters to discuss.”

Martin Aldiss cursed inwardly as the owner of a nearby stall jostled his way through the thronging masses. Perhaps the decision to go to Carl’s workshop by way of the market wasn’t such a good idea after all. Ros had agreed to mind the shop, but he had told her he wouldn’t be much longer than an hour. That was almost two hours ago.

“Hi there, Levi. I’m in a bit of a hurry at the moment,” Martin called back, inching away from the stallholder, hoping that whatever he wanted to discuss could wait. “I’ll maybe catch you later, yeah?”

“No!” the man screamed back, his voice suddenly shrill and full of panic. “I must talk with you right away.”

With some reluctance Martin stopped. Taking off his backpack, he placed it between his legs, standing on one of the straps in case anyone should have any ideas about snatching it.

The stallholder was known locally as Levi Lopside. Middle-aged, short, bald, and with one leg shorter than the other, Levi was someone who was hard to take seriously. Primarily he sold cheap clothes, manufactured in some backstreet sweatshop run by his dodgy cousins. By all accounts Levi was treated little better by his relatives than the workers who toiled long and hard in order to produce the shoddy garments he sold at market. That was, in all likelihood, why he tried to earn a few extra credits by flogging other goods that came his way. From time to time those additional goods were supplied by Martin Aldiss. All too often, even the seller knew they were more trouble than they were worth.

As he waited for the little guy to emerge from the crowd, Martin did his best to smile and give the impression he was every bit the dynamic young entrepreneur he pretended to be.

“How’s it going, Levi?” he asked, as the stallholder emerged at his side, out of breath and with his head glistening with a thin film of sweat. “What can I do for you?”

“It’s the watches... Those bloody timepieces you sold me last week...”

“Well, I’m afraid I haven’t got any more. You got the last of my stock – ”

“I do not want any more! Please... you must take them back. They’re no use.”

“But those timepieces are totally legit’. Not like most of the crap sold around here. And they’re made by the finest craftsmen on Tarvos.”

As he watched the little man’s face redden, Martin found himself struggling to keep a straight face. Levi was growing more and more animated, waving his arms around and gesticulating wildly. The stallholder often behaved in this manner whenever he became frustrated. Events, it seemed, had a way of conspiring against him. Martin was rather fond of Levi. The guy was alright – a decent enough man, trying to do the best he could with the hand life had dealt him – but there was seldom room for sentimentality where business was concerned.

“Those timepieces may be of use on Tarvos,” said Levi, slamming the palm of his right hand into his forehead theatrically, “but they’re no use here, are they?”

“But that’s why I gave them to you at such a good price. I thought you knew.”

“Of course I didn’t know! Do you take me for a complete idiot?”

Martin evaded the question. “Look, I’m sorry if you’re finding it a little hard to shift the goods, but I can hardly take them back, can I? You know what a problem credit flow is these days. Okay, I can see you’re a little disappointed, so if there’s anything I can do to make it up to you –”

“Make things up to me!” Again Levi thumped the palm of his hand into his glistening forehead. “It is always the same when I do business with you. Always there is some little detail you neglect to tell me about.”

“But you have to admit, they are damn fine timepieces. You can’t argue with that.”

“Yes, they are good! If you happen to live on Tarvos, where a day lasts for twenty hours – and twenty Tarvos hours, at that – but they aren’t exactly much use here on Horizon. In case you hadn’t noticed, a day here lasts for twenty four hours! No... You will have to take them back.”

“I wish I could, Levi, really I do, but business is a little on the slow side right now. Anyway, I thought you had family on Tarvos.”

“Yeah, I did. Not any more though... They got the sickness on account of the wars. Thyroid sickness, I think.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I thought Tarvos wasn’t so bad. I mean, I’ve seen pictures... There doesn’t seem to be so much in the way of devastation – not like here on Horizon.”

“Yeah, well... looks can be deceiving. I guess the wars left their mark pretty much everywhere...”

As Levi’s voice tailed off, Martin couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. He genuinely hadn’t realised the man’s relatives – his less odious relatives, by all accounts – had perished. “Look, about those timepieces... I’ll ask around. There’s bound to be freighter crews heading out that way. I might even be able to get you a good price for them. You never know.”

The stallholder looked far from convinced.

“I’ve really got to be making tracks.” Martin was feeling a growing sense of unease about his last deal with Levi. “I will make it up to you though. That’s a promise.”

With those words, he shouldered his backpack and began edging away, glad to see that people were quick to fill the widening gap between him and the somewhat crestfallen stallholder. Turning around, he felt suddenly impatient to get to the Rankins’ workshop. There he would see for the first time the racing skiff his friend had spent so long putting together. If Harry was as good as her word, there was a semi realistic chance of a podium finish at the big race meeting. Normally skiff racing was not something he ever got excited about, but on this occasion Martin had reason to feel a little apprehensive. The next race meeting was going to be a little different.

* * *

The rather grandly named Aldiss Antiques was little more than a cramped backstreet shop, cluttered with furniture and ornaments salvaged from towns and cities all but destroyed during the mineral wars. Although situated a mere stone’s throw from the larger and more brightly lit stores on Cooper Street, it was one of those places that struggled to attract passing trade. As a result, the rent was affordable; and the shop did come with an equally cramped living space upstairs.

Sitting behind a shop counter littered with various pieces of computer hardware – all of which looked strangely out of place, surrounded by junk posing as antiques – Ros was getting more than a little irritated. Scrutinising another circuit board through a pair of oval spectacles perched on the end of her nose, she was fast coming to the conclusion that this latest piece of hardware was just as useless as every other piece she’d examined.

“We have come to see your boss, yes?”

Ros wanted to take the useless pile of rubbish she was so studiously examining and ram it down the throat of the irritating man on the other side of the counter. Instead she opted to ignore him in the hope he’d crawl back underneath whatever rock he’d emerged from.

It was almost midday and the leaseholder still hadn’t graced the shop with his presence. Not for the first time Ros found herself wondering why the hell she’d agreed to play shop assistant. It wasn’t as though she didn’t know what Martin was like. After all, they had grown up together. Yet here she was... again, looking after Aldiss Antiques while Martin scampered off on some dubious errand that simply couldn’t wait. He’d said he wouldn’t be much more than an hour. Why had she fallen for that old ruse? Not much more than an hour could mean anything to the likes of Martin Aldiss, as well she knew.

“Please Miss... We are here with a business proposal for your boss. It is very important we speak with him.”

In many respects Ros felt angrier with herself than she did with the absent leaseholder. Not that that point would stop her from doing serious damage to the arsehole on the other side of the counter if he referred to Martin bloody Aldiss as her boss one more time.

What was becoming obvious was that every bit of computer hardware she intended to examine was nothing more than hi-tec junk. It had all been put beyond use. No doubt Martin had known all along, or at least suspected as much. The hardware had been part of a larger haul of goods, scavenged from God knows where. Perhaps she should have questioned the fact that it had miraculously shown up at the same time as Martin needed someone to look after the shop –

Suddenly a grubby hand appeared between Ros and the object of her scrutiny, waving to her in a none too subtle attempt to attract her attention. Snapping off her glasses, she looked up from the debris-strewn counter for the first time since the two men had entered the shop.

“What do you want?”

“I see you are putting together a computer, yes?” The man addressing her had a thick accent and the red face of someone who had recently spent time in the sun after a period in space. He also had a nasty gash above his left eye and a metal ring threaded through one nostril. “Computers can be very tricky, yes? It takes much skill to make them work. Or sometimes a hammer, no?”

Ros wasn’t in the mood for small talk. Folding her arms she glared at the offworlder standing before her, while he simply grinned back, nodding sagely, as if he’d just solved some sort of perplexing puzzle. Over the man’s shoulder stood an equally loathsome example of a human being. Slightly shorter and mildly less ugly, but every bit as grubby, he bounced around nervously, continually transferring his weight from one foot to the other.

“What do you want?” Ros repeated, her nose wrinkling in distaste as a host of odours wafted towards her, none of them pleasant.

“We are here to see Martin Aldiss. He is a good business friend of ours and we have a very exciting possibility for him. My name is Stig and this here is my business partner, Jesper. We are interplanetary traders.”

Interplanetary traders! Ros could think of many terms to describe the pieces of human wreckage who were currently taking up her time and testing her patience, but the term interplanetary traders was not one that immediately sprung to mind. Perhaps there was little wonder that the idiot doing the talking had the irritating habit of turning every second statement into a question. Surely even a cretin such as him would struggle to swallow half the crap that spewed forth from his own mouth.

Ros opted to spell things out for him. “He... is...not... here!” she said, hoping the two grubby interlopers would finally take the hint and leave her in peace.

“But Martin Aldiss is your boss, yes? You do work for him, no?”

Feeling her teeth grinding together, Ros clenched her fists. Both interplanetary traders appeared to shrink back a little, as if even they could not fail to sense the young woman’s hostility.

“Please, Miss,” the one called Stig began a little more tentatively, “do you know when Mr Martin is expected back?”

“Over an hour ago.”

Both men looked at each other, obviously confused by the answer given to a relatively straight forward question. Eventually Stig let out a cautious laugh and wiggled a dirty finger, no doubt to emphasise what it was he was feeling. “Ahh, I see... You are making a joke with us, yes?”

“No.”

Again the offworlders settled on an expression that suggested confusion. Eventually the shorter man stepped out from behind the shoulder of his companion. “So, are you telling us you do not know when Mr Martin will return?”

Ros did her best to force a smile. It wasn’t so much a warm grin, as a sarcastic smirk; the kind of smile she reserved for idiots who were wasting her time by pointing out the bloody obvious. As she did, she caught the distinct whiff of urine amongst the noxious odours that had entered the shop at the same time as the men she wished to be rid of.

The one called Stig was doing his best to look pensive and introspective. “So, until he returns, you are in charge, yes?”

Ros rolled her eyes, but made no reply.

“Perhaps it would be okay if we hang out here until our business friend returns, yes?”

“No!”

The thought of having a couple of foul smelling cretins lingering around until Martin decided to return – whenever the hell that might be – filled Ros with a new sense of urgency.

“You do not want us here?” asked Stig, trying his best to look hurt.

“You’ve got it in one.”

“Why not?”

“You’re scaring the customers away.”

Both men looked around the empty shop, frowning.

“You stink of piss,” Ros elaborated, hoping they’d finally take the hint.

“Ahh, yes, I know what you mean,” declared Stig, sniggering at something only he found amusing. “We had a few problems landing our shuttle. Jesper here thought we were going to die; but we didn’t. He had a little accident... like a baby –”

“Is there anything else?” Ros snapped back, failing to see why an explanation such as this could possibly lead to her changing her mind.

“I think, perhaps, we should go now.” It was Jesper – the one who had wet himself – who seemed the keener to be moving on.

“Okay,” Stig agreed, with some reluctance, as his friend took a couple of steps towards the door. “But you will tell our good friend, that we are looking for him, yes? It is very important he knows we have a great business opportunity for him. Tell him we are going to the market, yes? To get something to eat.”

Ros put her glasses back on and promptly turned her attention back to the scatter of computer components strewn across the shop counter. “I’ll pass on the message,” she replied, disinterestedly.

As the door finally closed behind the offworlders, Ros breathed a sigh of relief. This was definitely the last time she was going to do Martin Aldiss a favour. Ever.

* * *

To the north of Port Kalrin lay the sprawling jumble of Callisto docks. From a distance, the motley collection of haphazardly parked spaceships appeared as nothing more than a shifting mass of dark shapes. Individual vessels were hard to pick out. Somehow the metal jungle of privately owned ships seemed to have a life force of its own. When he was growing up, Martin had always felt uneasy around the docks; somehow this disordered scatter of flying machines reminded him of a childhood story about a hibernating ogre, a dangerous monster that could awake from its restless slumber at any moment and provoke all manner of havoc.

Only as he got closer could Martin discern individual crafts. Now and then a flurry of sparks could be seen flying into the air, before cascading down to the ground. All around, the sound of grinding metal and the shouts of harassed workers got louder. From close up, Callisto docks began to take the form of nothing more than a giant scrap yard, a resting place for spaceships that had seen better days. To Martin, it was a mystery how many of these battered old crates ever got off the ground. How they ever managed to break atmo without tearing themselves apart went way beyond his understanding – never mind how some of them managed to cross the airless vacuum between worlds.

The workshop run by Bryan and Harriet Rankin was one of a cluster of workshops on the southern fringes of the docks. Before the wars Bryan Rankin had been an engineer on several of the colossal transport ships that used to operate in the system. Unlike his daughter, Bryan had been fortunate enough to undergo an apprenticeship of the kind that no longer existed. He had taught Harriet – or ‘Harry’, as she was commonly known – as much as he could, but he often felt he was learning anew himself. Once, extravagant amounts of credits had been spent in order to maintain the smooth running of any vessel; nowadays it was always a case of: use whatever you can cobble together, cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Together, Bryan and Harriet Rankin made a living repairing the smaller crafts that put down in Port Kalrin – short range shuttles, fliers and the occasional land vehicle. Sometimes they were brought in on larger jobs, working alongside other private contractors, under the orders of one of the larger outfits. Although such jobs paid well, Bryan Rankin far preferred being his own boss, taking jobs as they came. That way he had no one breathing down his neck.

“Hello, anyone home?” Martin called out as he strolled into the semi familiar surroundings of the workshop, his eyes taking time to adjust to the relative darkness after so long in the sunshine.

“Over here!”

The familiar female voice had Martin switching his gaze to the furthest away of two inspection ramps, where Harry was underneath, examining the undercarriage of a flier.

“Go through and stick the kettle on. I’ll not be a minute.”

In the cupboard-like room that served as an office, Martin dumped his backpack on the desk and filled the kettle, before looking for the least dirty mugs he could find. As he often did, he paused to look at the photograph of Harry’s family, stuck to the fridge door with the aid of a magnet. It was almost a decade old and showed a young Harry with both parents and her brother. All four of them were smiling. Despite the fact the girl in the picture was only nine years old, Harry was easily recognisable. Even back then, despite the long brown hair she kept to this day, she still had a distinctive tomboyish appearance. In the photo the family looked so carefree, yet barely a year after the image was captured, both mother and son had contracted the sickness. Martin was never quite sure what to make of that. He’d never known his own parents, nor even if he’d ever had a brother or sister...

“Did you get everything we need?” Harry asked, snapping Martin from his reverie as she sauntered into the office.

As the kettle came to boil, Martin spooned coffee into the two mugs he’d selected. “Sure did,” he replied, picking up the kettle. “I hope this skiff is as good as you claim. The last thing I need is my shop’s logo on the side of a racer that stalls on the starting grid.”
“There’s still a little fine tuning to take care of, but we’re ready for a practice run this afternoon.”

“You really believe Dregan’s got what it takes to fly the thing?”

“Sure I do. He’s a lot better than you give him credit for... The boy’s got a real aptitude for racing. There’s not many like him around.”

Martin always had a problem picturing Dregan as a talented skiff pilot. The thought of such a dim-wit hurtling around Redrock gorge race circuit at breakneck speed – and with only a split second to react to danger – was going to take a bit of getting used to. Skiff racing was highly dangerous and pilots – talented or otherwise – had a nasty habit of getting themselves killed. Perhaps Dregan was simply too stupid to recognise the danger. Martin sometimes wondered about that possibility, but ultimately he was thankful it wasn’t going to be himself in the pilot seat.

Harry removed several tins of spray paint and a set of stencils from the backpack and examined them. “Just what we need,” she said, shaking a tin, before testing the paint on a scrap of cardboard. “She’ll certainly look a lot better with a bit of colour about her, that’s for sure.”

“You really think Dregan can pull it off?” asked Martin, casting a quizzical eye in his friend’s direction. “...A podium finish, I mean?”

Harry shrugged. “Sure, it’s possible. The skiff we’ve put together will be a match for any in her class, particularly on those tight corners. There’ll be others who will have more in the way of acceleration on the straight, of course, but if Dregan can tuck in tight behind the right racer – get right into its slipstream – it shouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility. The corners are where it counts and that’s where our little beauty will excel.”

Martin shook his head, struggling to picture the image Harry was trying to conjure up. Dregan could barely read or write, never mind negotiate the treacherous corners of Redrock gorge from behind the controls of a single seated suicide machine.

Harry pushed her fringe away with the back of her oil stained hand. “You want to see her?”

“Yeah, sure I do.”

Harriet Rankin led the way back through to the workshop. Skiff racing was not normally something Martin ever got excited about. Engines in general were something of a mystery to him. They didn’t give him the same buzz as wheeling and dealing, entering into clandestine business deals where there was the potential to net a tidy profit at the drop of a hat. This particular skiff race was different, however. Not only was the name of his shop to be emblazoned onto the racer’s bodywork, but he had a percentage entitlement to any winnings. A podium finish would guarantee him back the credits he’d invested – along with a tidy little profit. And there was bound to be a significant rise in business as a result of such high profile advertising. By the time Harry pulled back the tarpaulin sheet covering the skiff, Martin could feel a distinct knot of anticipation in his stomach.

“Well, what do you think?” his friend asked, her tone suggesting she was revealing some new wonder to the world.

Martin stared at the skiff in disbelief. Without paint, it looked like some kind of ugly and uninspiring flying go-kart at best. “That’s it?” he asked, making no attempt to hide the disappointment in his voice. “I think it looked better when I couldn’t see it.”

* * *

“Well... any sign?”

The rat-faced man on horseback refused to meet his gaze. Instead, the cowardly rodent scanned the horizon with keen eyes, as if half expecting the owners of the shuttle to see the error of theirs ways and do an about turn. “Nothing, Mr Harkins,” he replied, clawing at the stubble on his cheek.

Leaning out of the passenger window of the armour plated van, Pat Harkins felt the bile rising in his throat. “Then you’re not damn well looking hard enough!” he barked out in frustration, silently willing the man to turn and face him.

The man on horseback simply pointed westwards, towards an area of low-lying hills. “You want me to try over there? They could have doubled back – they can’t have got far, not with that shuttle flying as it was.”

“You’re damn right I want you to check over there! And don’t dare return until you have something concrete to go on, you understand?”

“Sure thing, boss.”

Sure thing boss! Harkins wanted to throw the man from his horse and pistol-whip some respect into him, but it was already too late. The moment had passed. His subordinate was already galloping westwards. No doubt the man was simply relieved to be riding away from a boss whose odds on living a long and happy life were lengthening by the minute.

“Damn-it!” Harkins cursed out loud to no one in particular, sweat now running freely down his face and body, even though he could sense the icy fingers of death reaching out for him. He had to find that damned shuttle... and fast. His continued existence depended on it.

High above him, an ocean of blue sky appeared to spin round and round. Disorientated, Harkins opened the passenger door of the van and stepped away from the vehicle. No doubt his driver – like the useless cretin on horseback – was glad of the growing space between them. Turning back the way they’d come, he could see the caterpillar tracks left by the bastardised former road vehicle. They stretched back as far as he could see, right to where a heat haze shimmered on the horizon. He looked at his watch, his heart sinking further as he realised he was already overdue. Elias Ransom was not a man who appreciated being kept waiting, but he knew to return empty handed was nothing less than suicidal.

Turning to the east, Harkins watched as another of the men under his command galloped towards him. As the horse slowed, snorting heavily, its rider lowered a tightly wrapped scarf from around his mouth.

“Well?” Harkins snapped, fearing he already knew the answer.

The rider shook his head. “Nothing,” he said, scanning the horizon in an annoying manner that was becoming irritatingly familiar.

The man was Fitz Deans, his most likely replacement if Harkins himself became... indisposed. Harkins glared at the man, willing his potential replacement to challenge his authority. Deans, of course, did nothing of the kind, seemingly content to stare into the distance with an air of aloof detachment.

Damn it, why would no one look him in the eye?

But Harkins already knew the answer. None of his men wanted to share his responsibility... or his fate. The blame for not managing the seemingly simple task of retrieving the goods from an unmanned space capsule would rest squarely on his shoulders. “Take a ride out west,” he said, feigning a measure of confidence he certainly didn’t feel. “There’s been a suspected sighting.”

For a moment Deans’ eyes met with his. Harkins allowed himself a humourless grimace. No doubt Deans had already been fantasising about stepping into his shoes; perhaps the bluff would keep the man’s ambitions in check... for a few minutes, at least. But any satisfaction was fleeting at best, for as soon as Deans was galloping westward, he could feel the bile rising in his throat once more. If he ever got his hands on whoever was in that damned shuttle, he’d take great delight in slitting their throats.

As the sound of hooves faded, Harkins looked up to the sky once more. High above him, a Carrion vulture kept a lone vigil. It was directly above him, circling round and round, as if sensing death. What’s more, it seemed to have eyes only for him. The men under his authority may not be able to look him in the eye, yet the ugly, hairless, brute of a bird had no such reservations. It seemed to be sizing him up, as if already anticipating its next meal. As omens went, the presence of a Carrion vulture didn’t bode well. Damn that shuttle to the depths of Delphin! This was not a good sign.

Harkins tried to put such thoughts to the back of his mind, but it wasn’t easy. Failure to carry out the instructions of Elias Ransom, were rarely met with indifference. Especially when there was such a valuable cargo at stake.

Chapter 3

As the door to Aldiss Antiques was pushed open, it set off an irritating little buzzer that announced each new customer's arrival. And as with every other time during the last three and a half hours when that irritating buzzer sounded, Ros's eyes shot up towards the door and she found herself itching to unleash her pent up aggression on the shop's absent leaseholder.

Once again she was left frustrated. It wasn't Martin Aldiss who had set off the buzzer, but at least it was a familiar face. Awkward, ungainly and about five years older than her, the man who sauntered into the shop had a battered old guitar case slung casually over his shoulder. Ros let out a sigh of frustration. "Hi Aiden," she said wearily, before sweeping the last of the useless computer components off the shop counter and into a box off rubbish. Her wrath, she realised, would have to stay bottled up a little longer.

If the musician was offended by the lack of warmth in his welcome, he didn't show it. "Martin around?" he asked, casting an eye over the contents of the shop from under his unruly mop of hair.

"Nah," Ros replied, with another weary sigh. "He should be back soon, though. What's he got you doing this time?"

"Not sure yet... Probably fixing up some new stock, making it presentable, I expect."

Feeling at somewhat of a loose end now that she'd finished examining the useless pieces of computer hardware, Ros shook her head as Aiden put down his guitar and proceeded to construct a suspiciously long roll-up on the shop counter. For a moment she wondered how the hell Martin bloody Aldiss managed to have so many people at his beck and call. It made no sense. Shaking such thoughts from her head, Ros felt her mood brighten a little as she absentmindedly watched Aiden piecing several cigarette papers together.

Aiden Dochilli wasn't exactly typical of people in Port Kalrin. While everyone else seemed to rush around impatiently, desperate to make enough credits to put food in their bellies, Aiden sauntered through life as if these everyday problems were of no consequence. It was as if the invisible rules dictating what people could and couldn't do, simply didn't apply to him.




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