by Noel Ayers
The Ice Hauler’s voice called down a hallway cluttered with the floating debris of our little war.
“Sure, you are.” I yelled back after a quick check to confirm I hadn’t let myself drift past the cover of the hatch frame.
“Don’t believe me?” There was a chuckle in his gravelly voice. “See for yourself.”
Seconds later a pistol sailed through the open hatch amid a cloud of red orbs.
He’s hit. That was my first thought. Most likely because I couldn’t quite process that he really was out of ammo. That the gun that had killed Mark and Stacey hung impotently in the stale air before me. I wracked my brains, trying to find the trap, but I knew there was no second weapon. The only guns on board this ice hauler were the ones we had brought with us.
My wrist vibrated, and I looked down at the display to see another group checking in. 5 out of 6. One more load of ice, and we’d divert enough to break the baron’s vicelike grip on Earth’s water supplies. That’s what the geeks said. Six haulers’ worth of ice and we’d kick start that rock back into operation. We needed one more ice hauler. We needed this ice hauler.
I glanced over my shoulder at Stacey’s limp body, eerily animated by the Zero G. She and Mark had given their lives for this. I sucked in a careful breath and peeked around the safety of the hatch frame.
The Hauler had abandoned the meager cover of his bench. I tried to gauge how much blood he’d lost as I entered the cramped compartment, but I wasn’t sure. I was intimately familiar with spilled blood, but I’d never seen it like this, floating in a cloud of droplets that seemed to seek each other out, binding and forming ever larger orbs.
The Hauler chuckled, and my eyes snapped to his, cursing myself for being distracted by the phenomenon.
“If I were one of you, I’d probably be dead already.” There was a dark humor in the timbre of his voice.
He gently patted his chest, about six inches above where his other hand was clamped down on his gut. “Heart gets lazy in ZG. Not much effort to move the blood when you ain’t fighting gravity to go round trip. Comes in handy when you start poking holes in the system.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners, and I remembered that Haulers don’t age like we do. No sun damage. No gravity. He could be anywhere from 25 to 50.
The amused wrinkles went taunt as his skin gathered in fretful folds over his brow. I thought of videos I’d seen of water rippling on the Earth that was.
“Is it true?” His frown lines now reminded me of the etched rock of the dried up Earth below us. “What the other woman said about San Antonio, I mean, AHP-085 having their water cut off by the barons. Was that true or were you just trying to get me to play along?”
My eyes darted back to the hatch as my mind supplied images of Stacey determined, grinning, alive. But the final images were of the bullet tearing through her before lodging in the thick armor of the outer hull, of red orbs floating through her still lips as she hung limply just beyond my reach.
My grip tightened on the pistol, and I smiled as I answered his question.
“It’s true. They shut off the water to all the AHP over 6 years ago.”
“Did they conscript?” There was still a bit of hope in his voice.
“No.” My grip slackened as I watched him absorb the answer that was my revenge. His face pinched into a map of pained wrinkles, and I found myself thinking he must be closer to the 50 side of my age estimate. Maybe older.
Finally, the waves of pain subsided, and his skin went flat, expressionless.
“Well, then.” His voice wasn’t much more than a whisper.
He took his hand from the jagged hole and blood began pulling away from it like lurid red balloons.
I gave the pistol in my hand a firm shake as I gestured at the wound. “What are you doing? Put your hand back.”
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“No!” I yelled, suddenly furious. “I wanted you to give us the ship. We never wanted to hurt you. You Haulers are victims, slaves like the rest of us. We came to–”
“Save me?” he interjected, shaking his head. For a brief second I saw him smile again. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve been up here? You know what Overtime means to Haulers?”
Overtime. Too much time in space. It eats you up. I’d seen it.
My mind flashed back to nine-year-old me crawling my way through a crowd of water scroungers gathered around a downed ejection pod. I saw again two men with an emaciated Hauler draped over their shoulders. She was gasping for breath. In my memory I can hear her voice, but I know that’s not how it went. That I only learned what words her lips were forming later. The two men had laid her on the ground as gently as I thought possible but the crowd still winced at the unmistakable sound of bones cracking. She’d grasped a feeble handful of sand and gone still.
“I know what Overtime means.”
His eyes twitched at my tone, and I knew some emotion from the memory had made its way into the words.
“I been a dead man since I put pen to paper,” he said. “You was never gonna save me, lady. You know why AHP-085 mattered to me?”
“Yeah,” he answered before I had time to. “Else you wouldn’t’ve smiled like you did earlier.”
I nodded. “It was listed as your place of residence on your Hauler profile.”
“It was.” He glanced at the grimy metal walls around us. “Guess this is where I live now. Where I die. I knew I’d die up here but–” His voice broke.
“Just put your hand back,” I pleaded as blood continued to migrate toward the growing mass over the control panel.
“They promised.” He wasn’t paying attention to me anymore. I might as well have been pointing a stick at him. “That was my deal. One-way trip, but my family’d live.”
I let go of the gun. I guess I still expected it to drop to the ground but it hung near my fingers and I pushed it away angrily.
“Take the ship.” His voice was barely audible. “Crash their damn water in the dead seas for all I care.”
“I’m sorry.” Tears formed, and I blinked furiously to displace the stubborn curtain of moisture.
I cleared my eyes in time to see his final anguish as he whimpered. “They promised.”
His body didn’t go limp like it would have on Earth. He just hung there under the red cloud of his own blood, and I felt more tears pulling at my eyes, drifting off into the stale-aired prison.
This is what they do. I thought. Remember the mission.
Six Ice Haulers. Six ships loaded down with water from Europa, Jupiter’s ice moon.
This time the Barons wouldn’t add it to their hoarded supplies.
I pulled up my sleeve and tapped out my confirmation code.
This time we would make it rain.
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Noel Ayers currently lives in Midgard following banishment by Loki, who should really reconsider. That building was going to fall down on its own eventually. (Ever heard of entropy?) Ayers hopes Loki will read and enjoy this story while reconsidering his somewhat rash decision.