The sun was still an hour beneath the horizon, but the dust in Mars’ atmosphere rose many kilometers high, so there was already a hazy light flooding the broad plain. Despite the high dust, visibility would have still been good, but the morning fog had spilled over the nearby rim of the Hellas Impact Basin. So when Roids Cavanaugh opened his pale blue eyes, he saw nothing but the bloody pink he’d seen every morning for the past three weeks.

Stretching the kinks from his lean muscles, Roids took in a long yawn then let it out, momentarily steaming his face plate. He squirmed easily out of his thermal pocket and began packing it away. Having rolled it up, he slung it on the back of his hov bike and checked on his prisoner.

“How’s it going for you, Slanty?” He asked cheerfully. Slanty had picked his name up five years earlier, during the Justin Kickback skirmish, when he’d lost pressure in his suit’s right leg and couldn’t seal it in time. The harsh cold of the Martian night had frozen his right foot solid, and the prosthetic he’d replaced it with had never matched completely. A downside to a life of crime was substandard access to medical treatment, though it did have the bonus of colorful nicknames.

As he had been since taken into custody by Roids at the Iron Dust Saloon in Apia, Slanty remained silent. Roids didn’t really mind - he was used to being alone for long periods of time - but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to put in a dig.

“You sure been grumpy, Slanty. Hope you don’t hold my arrestin’ you against me.” Roids chuckled as he swung his gun belt around his waist. “But you swiped Miss Riggin’s Dexters, and she needs that beef for the winter, and the money they’ll bring next spring, when she sells ‘em to the miners.

“Coulda been worse, though,” he added in a thoughtful tone as he dug through the bike bags for the morning’s meal. Since Slanty hadn’t asked for any food, Roids took out only enough for himself. “You coulda been stripped ‘n chased in Apia. Remember Earl Stackleroy? The folks over in Apia caught him with Lefty Sanchez’s wife and they stripped him naked as a gamma and chased him right out of town, dustin’ his heels with slugs. I heard he ran almost a half kilometer before he popped. I’m tellin’ you, Slanty, you did all right by me.”

Slanty didn’t take the encouragement well. He resolutely kept his back to Roids, ignoring him. Roids didn’t take it personally, though. He would have been a little stiff, too, had he a one centimeter hole between his eyes and a four centimeter hole out the back of his head.

Sectionbreak.png

Sometime later that same day, Roids almost wished he hadn’t killed Slanty. The man was a suit-slashing no-account, but he knew the basin between Apia and Vermilion better than anyone alive. Now he knew it better than anyone dead, but that was little help to Roids.

Roids Cavanaugh had been a Red Marshal now for three years - nearly six in Terran years - but he’d been in this section of the basin only once before, and then it had been with a fully charged bike and clear skies. This time, however, he was caught in an endless dust storm. And while Slanty’s three quick shots had done Roids no physical harm, one of them might yet kill him, as it had badly damaged the mass converter module on his hov bike. It was operating at less than ten percent, which meant he could stay warm at night and keep up the antigrav field on his bike - even ride it for short distances - but not much else. Worse, if he didn’t get some direct sun soon, the converter would begin eating itself up until it was a hollow shell and Roids was a frozen corpse, left to the mercy of the Martian nights with no thermal field.

He stopped and looked around, but it was pointless. He wasn’t lost; his suit’s navigational system was in perfect shape. But if he didn’t find some sort of man-made habitat in a few days, he was doomed. At least, he thought wryly, I’ll know exactly where I died. Shaking his head at the darkly humorous thought, he tugged on the reins of his bike and continued walking east, toward Vermilion. The bike, burdened with supplies and a still silent Slanty draped over the saddle, slipped along after him without effort or complaint.

By the time night had swung around, Roids was closer to Vermilion but no closer to surviving. The strength of the storm remained unchanged, and the bike was beginning to show signs of fatigue. Twice it had nose dived into the desert sand, its antigrav field momentarily failing, though it reactivated quickly enough. A night’s rest would help both man and bike since the antigrav field ate up twenty times the power a thermal field did. But the bike hadn’t been shutting off before and now it was. The cycle - to make a pun of it - had begun.

Roids spotted a cave in the failing light and headed for it. The temperature was already in the negative forties and dropping fast. The sooner he got the bike’s thermal shield running, the better it would be for the power in his suit.

He tugged the bike around a hump of rock and stepped inside the cave. It was a rough circle, five meters in diameter, that sloped back to another passage less than a meter high. The ceiling was three meters up and fairly uniform. Good enough. He hurriedly unpacked the bike, not forgetting to move Slanty in far enough to keep him from turning into a crookcicle. He activated the bike’s left side thermal field projectors and they began to glow a soft orange. He unrolled the thermal pocket and hunkered in. Pulling his rations close - he was now down to dried beef and a handful of coffee nuggets - he set the suit to meal mode and opened his protective face plate. An energy shield instantly filled the space around the helmet’s rim, keeping in air but allowing objects to pass through. He brought a piece of beef to his mouth and stuffed it in.

Roids preferred eating slowly, but that consumed too much of the suit’s energy now, since bike could no longer recharge it. Wolfing down his meal, he then washed it down, drinking nearly a liter of his remaining twenty. Finishing, his closed the face plate, deactivating the protective shield. He rolled over and pushed the loose sand into some semblance of a bed, then gratefully stretched his lanky, two meter frame along the ground.

“G’night, Slanty,” he mumbled, his thoughts already drifting. “Mind you don’t start sleepwalking. It’s cold out there.”

Sectionbreak.png

For the first time in the three days since he’d said good night to Slanty in the cave, Roids was getting worried. Vermilion was only two hundred kilometers away now, and to reach the wild mining town meant life. But even in his best shape he could only do a hundred and twenty kilometers a day on foot, and that meant some night travel. If he left the bike behind - and Slanty as well, to keep an eye on it - Roids might possibly make Vermilion in forty hours. But that would mean nonstop travel and the suit wouldn’t take it. Not in its depleted state. The comlink was still useless in this dust storm and the booster far too much of a power glutton. Roids’ chances were down to slim and none. And Slim had just left town.

The bike gave a shudder and thumped to the ground, yanking Roids off his feet and to the sand. Slanty also took a ride, flying over the handles and forward antigrav prong. He fell in a heap beside Roids, his accusing, dull eyes staring through the holed face plate. Roids came to his feet and shrugged at his companion.

“Sorry, Slanty, but you just ain’t pulling your weight. I’m about thisclose to giving you a decent burial right here instead of hauling your sorry ass back to Vermilion.” He sighed and began shifting the body back onto the bike. “Sorry, Slanty. I didn’t mean that. I believe in the code, an’ even a pathetic excuse for a man like you deserves burial among his kind. C’mon, let’s go.” The antigrav drive gave out a thin hum and sprang back to life, raising the dying hoverbike up one more time. Taking a quick nav sighting, Roids again struck out for the ever-so-distant settlement.

Sectionbreak.png

This was it, then. This was how Roids Cavanaugh came to his end. Not in a blaze of hammering guns and justified rage. Not with a quip on his lips and his fellow Rangers around him. Nope. His lot was to die in the basin, beside a failed hov bike and a piece of flesh that had once been a criminal. And a pretty lousy criminal at that.

The bike had gone down for the last time, Roids was certain of it. The converter was operating on less than a half percent efficiency. He could get maybe one more night of thermal field out of it. And Vermilion was still a hundred and fifty kilometers away. So he could now wait it out here and live maybe two days. Or he could leave Slanty with the bike and scout around for a day on foot and then die.

He sagged to the sand and leaned back against the grounded bike, looking up into the pink dust storm that had consumed him and was now standing ready to digest him. He felt no anger or frustration with the storm. This was simply what Mars was. He was the intruder here. If he didn’t like his hostess’s mood, well, he was more than welcome to leave.

“Gimme a few more hours,” he muttered, “and I’ll be leaving, all right. Feet first.” Moaning, he got to his feet and scrounged through the bike’s storage compartments. The food was gone, but he still had five liters of water left. He used two liters to top off the suit’s three liter reservoir. He then pulled out his slug rifle and ammo. A dead shot, Roids could pick off a ten centimeter target at three kilometers. He hesitated over taking the energy gun, but then took it, tucking it into the ized holster on his back. The gun’s grip adjusted to the izer’s field and seized hold. It was doubtful he’d use it; the energy pack was only good for ten shots and only if he used them in less than five minutes after the first shot. But Roids always liked an edge.

“You watch the bike, Slanty, and I’ll be back for you. There’s no food, but you can have the rest of the water. Just don’t guzzle it all at once.” Slanty gave every indication of making the water last a long time, so Roids gave him a wave and began walking east. Too hardheaded to quit, he thought wearily, and too stupid to know when he’d lost fair and square.

He continued on for an hour, then stopped suddenly. He’d been following a low ridge to protect himself from the wind and only in that instant did he have a sense of familiarity. He spun around quickly, examining the entire landscape. Nothing but red rock and pink sand, washed together in the sound of endless wind. He shook his head irritably and continued on, angry at himself for even daring to hope.

A minute later, he stopped dead in his tracks. He had been here. And so had somebody else. Not twenty meters in front of him was a two meter wide sign made of cold, hard, glorious Martian iron.

MAGARRITY.

Then he had it. This was the Magarrity homestead. Eb and Sue had come out here eight years earlier, in Martian year 3 - 2055, by Terran reckoning - back when there was nothing and nobody. They hadn’t planned on doing anything, just live out their retirement years in their sealed cavern and small home.

Then, two years later, Danny McWilliams hit the mother lode only two hundred kilometers north of here, on the northeast rim of the Hellas Impact Basin, and the Martian Iron Rush was on. Nobody came this far south these days, but back then, people were looking for iron and titanium deposits everywhere. It was too much for the Magarrity’s, so they packed up and moved into legend, never to be heard of or from again.

So far as he knew, this sign was all that remained of the Magarrity home. Yet it was nonetheless a great comfort, because he now had something to pin his hopes to. And maybe there was still something left that he could put to use. Even their sealed cavern would be enough. If he could wait out the storm in a sheltered area, with an atmosphere to provide some insulation, Roids would have a chance. The Rangers would be looking for him by now, he knew. The code of not being buried alone applied to everyone, but for the Rangers, the only law enforcement on this raw, wild planet on the barely settled edge of civilization, the code extended much further.

Feeling much lighter on his feet, he jogged up to the sign, knowing it was a waste of time, but wanting to touch it anyway, to convince himself it was real. It was an easy jog, only twenty meters, and he reached out a hand...

There was a hollow boom and the dirt in front of him kicked up a cloud.

“I reckon you’ve come far... hey!” a voice shouted from behind him.

Not waiting to hear what he was going to say, Roids dropped his rifle, gathered himself, and leaped into the air. The sign stood three meters high, but Roids reached it easily and grabbed the top with both hands. Wrenching his arms almost to breaking, he spun behind the sign, stopped his progress and held on tight, the sign giving only the slightest of cover.

“You come out from behind there, Marshal!” the man’s voice blared though the comlink. “I ain’t got no beef with you!”

Roids didn’t wait. The man would take about two seconds to see if Roids would come out and be a sitting duck, then he’d just start shooting through the sign. Once again gathering himself, he launched into the thin atmosphere, this time using the sign as a springboard.

“Ha!” came the triumphant shout. “I got ya’!”

There was a loud boom and Roids felt a tugging at his right shoulder, followed by the rush of suit decompression. He’d aimed his leap for the rocks behind and to the right of him, however, so one shot was all the man could get.

Roids landed hard among the rocks, but quickly scrambled another ten meters from where he landed, his left hand firmly clasped over the tear in his suit. Once safely positioned, he reached into his left front pocket with his right hand and quickly pulled out and prepared a patch. Counting three in his mind, he released his grip on the tear, snatched the patch up, and slapped it onto the suit. He hit it perfect and it bonded over the tear, allowing the suit to pressurize properly. He could feel blood seeping out the wound, but it didn’t feel to be bad. Repairing the suit was all that counted, and that taken care of, so he drew his slug gun and got down to business. He jerked his chin down and opened the comlink.

“You’ve pretty much pissed me off, friend, but I gotta give you a chance to surrender. Do us both a favor and refuse.”

There was a dry chuckle over the link. “Oh, I’ll refuse, all right, Marshal. I ain’t doin’ you no favors, though. You’re a dead man, Cavanaugh, an’ I’m calling your scalp.”

“Zarod, you no good vacuum rat.” Roids was moving quietly to his right, using a low outcropping for cover and being careful not to make a sound that would carry over the comlink. “I always figured you’d try for my hide some day. What makes you think you got the guts to do it today?”

“Doesn’t matter what I think I got today or not, Marshal. My nav went out in the suit and my bike’s is busted, so I got lost out here about a week ago. I’ve been wandering around, hoping to find someone I could shoot and strip their nav system off. Then I saw this sign and figgered this was as good a place as any to wait.” He chuckled again, and Roids heard a small click of suit on stone, meaning Zarod was also maneuvering for position. “I kinda wish it wasn’t you, to tell the truth, Marshal. You’ll get some steel into me before I kill you. But, like you said, I been gunnin’ for you anyway. This way, I kill two birds by killin’ one marshal.”

“You’re stuck out here, too, Zarod? So am I. Fact is, I got a prisoner with me, and he’s gonna be some put out. You know Slanty Dermitt, don’t you?” He had now come close to the point where Zarod had probably been lying when he’d fired. Another minute and Roids would make his try.

“You got Slanty? Good job. Always hated that sumbitch. Couldn’t keep any money he stole, but he was wicked with a gun. You shoot him fair?” Zarod was obviously trying to pick up feedback echo from Roids’ face plate to figure out his position. That was pretty tricky, though, and he was aware of it, so Roids didn’t worry.

“Yeah, I got him fair. He was in the Iron Dust, up in Apia.” Damn! Zarod was gone! He began looking around through the blowing dust and gathering twilight.

“I know the place. He always took the corner table.”

“Uh-huh. Did this time, too. I didn’t give him a chance, though. I just walked straight in and straight up to him, sayin’ he was under arrest. Slanty went for his gun.” He made out a vague shape right beside the iron sign, some fifteen meters off. It was Zarod and he was crouched and waiting, his rifle up but facing the wrong way.

“Heard he was fast.”

“He was fast.” Roids steeled himself. “Too fast for his own good. He got off three shots before I got him. He missed me, but one shot hit my bike outside. He was fast, Zarod, but he didn’t have the nerve.” He stood up and began walking toward the outlaw, unseen but completely exposed. “And I’m betting you ain’t got the iron, either.”

Zarod jerked and started looking around desperately. He spotted Roids, now only ten meters away, and swung his rifle around, snapping off a shot. There was a loud boom and Roids heard the slug pass by his head. Then his gun came up, slick, fast and deadly. Zarod was working the rifle, trying to jack another slug into the chamber.

Roids’ gun bucked in his hand once, then again. Hit hard by both slugs, Zarod dropped as though kicked by a mad Dexter bull. The rifle flew free and he sprawled on his back, his head resting beside the Magarrity sign. From the center of his chest, the quickly decompressing suit blew out air and droplets of blood. Roids walked up to him, holstering his gun.

“You wanna tell me where your bike is, Zarod?”

“Go to hell!” he choked out.

Roids chuckled. “Not likely, Zarod. Tell you what, though. I’m going to find your bike easy enough, anyways. You’re too lazy to keep it hidden all that well. You tell me where it is and I’ll bury you with a tombstone. Otherwise,” he squatted beside the dying man and studied him, “you’re just a sack of unnamed fertilizer.”

“You’re cold, Cavanaugh.”

“Not as cold as you’re gonna be in a few minutes, Zarod. How about it?”

“All right,” he gasped. “You’re a mean sumbitch, Cavanaugh, but I heard you keep your word.” He told Roids where the bike was, his voice fading.

“Remember, you promised, Cavanaugh,” he whispered, only barely audible over the comlink. “I get my name on rock.”

“That you will, Zarod. Only I gotta be honest with you,” he gave a quick smile. “You’re gonna be planted next to Slanty.”

“Hell, that ain’t so bad,” Zarod gave a wheezing, short laugh and pointed a weak hand at Roids’ patched shoulder. “Least I got a piece of you. Best Slanty could do was shoot your bike.”

“And I’ll put that on your tombstone, too, Zarod, if you want me to.” The outlaw made no answer, and Roids could see he was dead.

Stooping down, he hoisted the body up onto his shoulders and began walking toward where the bike was hidden. He’d walked only a few steps when he stopped and turned back toward the sign. The dust storm was finally starting to abate, and the sign was still visible in the near darkness. The quickly dropping temperature made the iron creak and pop as it contracted.

“Much beholden, Eb and Sue. You two take care.” He shifted the dead weight slightly and resumed walking.

“Looks like Slanty’s got some company now. Hope you two don’t keep me up at nights, talkin’. I get ornery if I don’t get my sleep.

Sectionbreak.pngSectionbreak.png

Sign Of Iron

Copyright ©1999 by Peter Prellwitz All Rights Reserved.