by Bill Bowler
part 1 of 2
What I was walling in or walling out”
— Robert Frost
Edgardo Plum was startled to hear a thump against the dining room glass doors. He took his loaded N-gun from a bureau drawer and went cautiously into the dining room. He moved quietly to the doors and looked out onto the deck, his eyes searching for any signs of an intruder.
Edgardo noticed a drop of red on the glass. Blood. On the deck, wings spread, neck bent at a bad angle, lay a small yellow bird. He put the gun on a table and slid open the glass door. He stepped out onto the deck and knelt down by the bird. Its eyes were open wide and full of terror, but it lay motionless. Edgardo went to get a broom and dust pan.
* * *
The small interplanetary freighter was on final approach to New Earth. The hazy blue-green sphere now filled the cockpit window. The surface of New Earth, its oceans, land masses and great mountain ranges, were coming into view. The pilot keyed in the landing site coordinates.
The cargo manifest listed farm machinery, but the hold was packed with passengers, not machines: illegal Xenites hoping to reach New Earth. The pilot had no intention of producing the fake manifest in any case. He intended to skirt in low, under the radar, and deposit his cargo at an unmarked landing site.
The pilot leaned back and looked out again at the surface of the planet. Without warning, the needle nose of the ship snapped off and the sleek cylinder of the fuselage flattened like a pancake. A huge fireball flared in the black night of space and then dissolved into a smoky gray smudge that lingered where the ship had been.
* * *
Egdardo dropped the dying bird into the zapper at the side of the house. He was getting jumpy. He knew it. But who could blame him? His neighbor had been robbed last month. The burglars got through security somehow. No one was apprehended but Edgardo had strong suspicions. A bunch of filthy Xenites were camped out in shacks down near the river.
Edgardo’s eyes surveyed the artificial lawn that spread like a bright green rug across his property. It looked almost real. From a distance, you couldn’t tell. It was expensive, but worth it — easily the finest lawn in the neighborhood. It covered the entire rock surface of his yard to the ten-foot stone wall that marked his property line and ensured his privacy.
Edgardo looked down through a wrought iron gate to which he held the only key. He could see the checkpoint at the single entrance on the road below. Armed guards permitted no one to pass who did not show a resident i.d. card. From both sides of the checkpoint ran the deadly force field that encircled Woodland Estates and provided security for the residents of the community, the wonderful community into which he had recently been accepted.
Edgardo had good reason to feel pleased with himself. He had achieved, not yet the pinnacle of luxury, but a reasonably high degree of comfort and prestige. His home was not quite a mansion, but was spacious and impressive. His property was not really an estate, but he had a front yard, a back yard, and a private launch pad. His shiny black sport utility rocket with the one-way tinted cockpit glass drew envious looks from his new neighbors, who had money themselves.
And most importantly, the space shield was up and running, operational. New Earth was safe and secure. No one and nothing was coming through that didn’t belong.
So, now that they were completely safe, why was he so jumpy? He shook his head and turned back towards the house...
* * *
Larx steered his half-track over the rim of the extinct volcano and back down the slope of the crater to the edge of the ice sheet. The other vehicles in the company fleet, forced in by the storm, were unloading back at the melting facility, their drivers through for the day. But there was time for one more run. A little snow was not going to stop him. And they were paid by the block. He could use the extra money.
Icicles hung from the track housing. The frozen treads creaked and groaned as they crawled over rock and gravel in sub-zero temperature. Larx was driving blind. Light from the headlamp beams reflected back into his eyes from the swirling wall of snow that hung like a curtain in front of the half-track and enveloped the vehicle from all sides.
Larx knew the path from childhood, had driven the way countless times, and kept his bearings by instinct. The steep slope leveled off. Larx came around a deep snowdrift and saw the gray outline of an abandoned warehouse. He swung the half-track around, put her into reverse, backed up to the edge of the lake, and came to a halt.
He turned off the engine, pulled on his goggles and slid open the door. The wind dumped snow into the cab as Larx stepped out onto the track housing. The blizzard raged around him. The frigid wind howled and cut through his short, dark fur and the layer of subcutaneous fat that normally insulated him from the cold. Larx shivered and zipped up his vest. He slid the door shut with his tail and jumped down to the ground.
The falling snow had covered both rock and ice, and the edge of the great ice lake was scarcely discernible in the swirling white. Larx opened the trunk, took out the powerblade, and strapped it on. He walked through the falling snow to the edge of the lake, positioned the blade, and began to cut the ice.
He shivered from the cold as the wind cut through his fur and his lithe muscles soon ached from the heavy labor. By the time he had a full load on the half-track, the snowfall had stopped and the grey, overcast, rippling sky was growing dark as night came on.
Larx stowed his gear and climbed back into the cab. He swung the half-track around, gunned the motor, and the half-track, creaking and straining under the load, started climbing slowly back up the slope.
As he pulled through the village gates, Larx saw the steam rising from the stack of the melting furnace at the water supply plant. He pulled into the lot and backed the half-track up to the dock between two other transports. The plant hands began unloading the heavy blocks. Larx, frozen and exhausted, his back stiff and his muscles aching, walked slowly across the lot, out to the path.
Night had come. The storm had passed. The sky was clear now and the temperature was dropping. Larx heard the muffled clamor of voices and faint music. Yellow light shone through the windows of the all-night tavern across the way and beckoned to him.
Larx entered the tavern. Light and warmth and the din of conversations and clinking glasses enveloped him. He stamped his feet to shake the caked snow from his boots and looked around the room. His friend Nozzy was waving to him from across the room. Larx elbowed his way through the crowd to Nozzy’s table. Nozzy was sitting with someone Larx had never met.
“Sit down, Larx! Join us. This is Vinkton.” Nozzy lowered his voice, “He’s a pilot.”
Larx shook the stranger’s hand. He was a human from New Earth. Nozzy poured a glass of lichen beer from a pitcher on the table and slid it towards Larx,
“You look beat.”
“Just got in. They’re unloading my rig now.”
“You were down at the lake in that storm?”
Larx shrugged. He raised his glass, Nozzy and Vinkton raised theirs, and Larx took a gulp of the sparkling bitter brown liquid.
“I’m through with it, Larx,” said Nozzy, speaking softly again. “I’ve had it. It’s not worth it. You slave and slave and for what? A few measly credits that won’t even buy food for the week?”
“It’s sucker’s work,” said Vinkton.
“I can’t stand it,” said Nozzy. “I’m leaving.”
Larx put his glass down and looked straight at his friend.
“That’s right. I’m leaving. I’m going to New Earth.” Nozzy lowered his voice to a whisper, “Vink has a ship.”
Vinkton nodded. Nozzy went on,
“There’s room for one more, Larx. Think about it. We’re leaving next Nagbor.”
“I don’t know,” said Larx. “My mother and sister, they...”
“Listen, Larx. You can rake in more money in one day on New Earth than you can slaving for six months in this frozen hellhole. You transfer most of the credits back here for your family. They live quite nicely, better than now, and you live like a king on New Earth on the balance. And then after, what, a year or two? Once you save enough, you do what you want. You retire. Come back here if you want, which I doubt. (Vinkton snickered.) Or live the good life on New Earth. Travel. See the Galaxy. You name it.”
“But what about documents?” asked Larx. “How do you get through the checkpoints? What if you’re picked up?”
Nozzy and Vinkton exchanged glances.
“Not a problem, Larx,” said Nozzy. “Everything’s taken care of. It’s a package deal.”
Larx took another sip of beer. He felt the bitter liquid course down his throat and a warm sensation spread through his limbs.
“Hey, hey! You’d make it back in three days,” laughed Nozzy. “Consider it an investment, an investment in the future.”
“That’s all we have. It would clean us out,” Larx shook his head. It was a lot to think about.
The sky was still black but a band of gray was beginning to glow low on the horizon as Larx shuffled down the alley where his family lived at the edge of the village. Lights were blinking on from the windows of the small huts and silhouettes began to move to and fro inside.
Five thousand credits for passage to New Earth. His sister was too young to understand, but what would his mother say? What would she do, if he took the money and something happened and he couldn’t replace it? He didn’t want to follow that line of thought.
He reached the dead end of the alley and turned up the walkway to the door of a small hut. The lights were on. He opened the door and stepped in.
His mother was lying in bed under a pile of rags. His sister Lorul was sitting by the bed, holding his mother’s hand. Larx could feel his sister’s worry, her fear and, from his mother, Larx felt pain, resignation, weariness, the wish for death.
She was wasting away. Her bones were soft as mush. The illness was progressing. She was too weak to leave the bed now, could hardly sit up. She might never walk again. Her once beautiful silver fur was falling out in patches. Her eyes were dull yellow and lined with red. Her breathing was shallow and labored. She was eating almost nothing now, just lying and waiting for what was coming. Larx barely heard her weak voice.
“I feel so much better when you’re here.”
He leaned over and kissed his mother. A faint smile crossed her lips.
Larx clenched his fists in a sudden rage. If they had money for medicine, money for doctors and proper care! Marrow rot was treatable if you could afford the drugs. It didn’t have to be like this. This was insane.
“Don’t be angry, Larx,” his mother whispered. “I feel you struggling, straining. What are you thinking? What is it?”
Lorul looked up at him with wide eyes, “Don’t leave us, Larx. Don’t leave us like Papa.”
His little sister was too young to understand anything.
If only his father were here. Ten years had passed since they last saw him. Yet his memory was fresh as yesterday and Larx often spoke to his father in dreams. At his sister’s words, Larx remembered when his father had left, felt himself a child again, waving goodbye, in tears, as the line of trucks rolled down the frozen village path and out, heading north into the wasteland. They had no idea they would never see him again.
“Don’t worry,” Larx said to his mother and sister. “I’m not going anywhere.”
But his feelings did not match his thoughts. He was beginning to doubt, beginning to wish and hope, yearning to do something, anything, to break the chains that held him fast. And his sister watched him, sensing his feelings and guessing his thoughts.
* * *
Anala lived in a one room shack with her two children in the shantytown on the muddy bank of the river that ran from Woodland Estates down into the sea. From the valley bottom, where the shacks crowded the riverbank, the splendid walls and spires of Woodland Estates could be seen amid the low rolling peaks of the northern hills.
Anala had arrived in New Earth from Xenon five years ago, pregnant with twins. Her babies had been born on New Earth. To earn a meager pittance, Anala had found work as a house cleaner in the Woodland Estates compound.
Today, as every day, she left the little ones in the care of old Nyra, her neighbor, and climbed the road from the river up to Woodland Estates. At the checkpoint, she showed the armed guards her work i.d. and they let her through the force field. She followed the path from the checkpoint up to the iron gate in the high stone wall where she buzzed. The retinal scanner recognized her and the gate clicked open.
She crossed the bright green lawn to Master Plum’s house. At the door, a small glass tray slid out next to the lock. Anala touched her tongue and placed a saliva sample on the tray. The tray slid back in. Her DNA checked out, the auto-bolt released and the door clicked open. Anala stepped into the house and went straight to work.
First she cleaned the bathrooms. Then she swept the floors, dusted, and washed the big glass doors in the dining room. She was bent over on her hands and knees scrubbing the tiles of the kitchen floor when she felt eyes upon her.
Edgardo was standing in the kitchen doorway, watching from behind. Down on her hands and knees, Anala’s short skirt had hitched up. Edgardo admired her shapely calves and thighs. The short sleek fur that covered her body was so fine and sheer, it looked as if she were wearing a clinging, transparent undergarment.
Anala felt something and glanced back over her shoulder. Her eyes shone like two hot coals and burned into Edgardo like smoldering embers. Anala felt his emotions and desires wash over her as they emanated from him in wave after wave. Her tail flicked involuntarily and she stood and turned towards him. His wants, his longings, his excitement flared around him in plumes of orange while the transparent blue flames of his aura crackled and sparkled. She stepped back, away from him, but he smiled and reached for her...
The front door clicked shut as Anala left the house. Edgardo climbed the stairs to his study on the second floor, settled into the soft cushion of his snarkhide easy chair, and watched through the bay window as she walked slowly down the path and out through the gate. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling. Better not to think about it. He picked up the phone and punched in a number.
“Borkley? It’s Edgardo... Fine, thank you. And you?.. Good. Glad to hear it. Listen, Borkley, you know we’re bidding for the space shield contract, right?.. Yes, we are... The thing is, I’m thinking, well, you probably could give us some frame of reference as to, you know, how should I put it, the parameters, the range of the bidding, because, you know, we want to come in low. We need the contract, Borkley. I’ll tell you that straight out. And we’re the firm to build the shield, anyway. No one else can do it...
“Who?.. Forget about them. I know they’re after it. But they’re losers, Borkley. Shoddy work, inferior materials, and overpriced. So we want to put our bid in at, you know, the right level, right at the sweet point. Give me some guidance here, Borkley...
“Of course, of course. Our support of the Chancellor’s campaign is unrelated to all this. The committee’s work on Immigration Prevention and Expulsion is too important... Eighty-five? How can they go that low? It’s impossible!.. They’re cutting corners, Borkley. They can’t deliver at that price. I can guarantee it...
“OK, OK. How does 85.5 sound? We’ll come in at 85.5. The deadline’s tomorrow, right?.. We’ll put it in tomorrow, just under the wire, at 85.5, when it’s too late for counter-bids... Thanks, Borkley. How’s the wife? How’s your boy?.. Good. Glad to hear it. OK, I’ll be in touch.”
Edgardo hung up, took a deep breath, and stared intently out the bay window at the setting sun. Everything depended on the space shield contract. He needed it. New Earth Eagle needed it. They were one of only three companies with the technology, experience, and manpower to construct space shields, but he couldn’t bring it in for 85.5. No one could. The cost of materials and equipment alone... There was no margin, no profit. He’d end up losing his shirt. It was pointless.
Unless... He had to laugh. It was risky, but it would work. It was the only way out. The one place he could trim fat was labor. Edgardo drummed his fingers on the snarkhide armrest. There were a lot of angles. He had to think this through.
* * *
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Bowler