Authors: David Macinnis Gill
“O accursed hunger of gold, to what dost thou not compel human hearts.”
Taodenni Salt Mine
Near Christchurch, Capital City
238. 2. 2. 11:26
“You stink, Stringfellow,” a prison guard named Brown says. “Here’s another one for your daddy.”
He slams the butt of his shotgun into my back, knocking me forward toward an outcropping of salt rock. My feet get tangled in the chain shackled to my ankle, and I stumble, slamming into the caramel-colored crystals, shredding the skin on my hands, and tumbling to the hard-packed grit of the ground.
It feels like my mind separates from my body, rising high into the air, far above the sheer pink-tinged cliffs surrounding the Taodenni Salt Mine. At the bottom of the mine, three guards—Brown, Jones, and the watch captain—dressed in starched khakis, wide-brimmed hats, and teashades, ride herd on a chain-gang crew of miscreants. Dressed in gray tank tops and sweat-stained overalls, the crew is pounding rock by hand. It’s the most bone-breaking, back-wrenching, soul-sucking detail in the whole mine. Only the most miserable and despised prisoners get stuck on it.
Miserable and despised. That’s me to a T.
I roll onto my side, groaning. Salt seeps into my cut hands, stinging like fiery oil burning through my veins. Three weeks in this mine. Three weeks of busting rock. Three weeks of abuse. Three weeks of moldy bread and putrid water for rations. I have never been so hungry in my life, and I’ve never wanted to strangle anybody as much as the guard standing over me, ready to pound my face to mush if I so much as twitch.
“Oh, how the mighty has fallen.” Brown laughs.
“Have,” I say, squinting from the pain.
“Have what?” Brown says, blocking out the sun with his fat head.
fallen. It’s how the mighty
fallen,” I say. “They don’t teach grammar in prisoner guard school? Or is the curriculum limited to just physical abuse?”
He puts a jackboot on my bruised kidney. ”You got a smart mouth, convict.”
“It matches my ass,” I say. “I like to coordinate.”
That earns me a whack on the knee, which sends a bolt of pain to my cerebral cortex. I grunt again. I despise grunting.
“Next one’s right in the teeth,” he says. “I don’t care how many medals you got or who your papa is.”
Once upon a time, a group of scientists, soldiers, and adventurers left Earth to settle on the barren planet Mars. Known as the Founders, they created a fledgling society under habidomes and labored together to begin the centuries-long process of terraforming the planet. Over time, the Founders gave way to the Orthocracy and its leader, the Bishop. They were in turn replaced by the CorpCom prefectures.
One of those CorpCom CEOs was my father, who was one month ago convicted of a plethora of crimes, the worst of which was treason. He’s now serving time in the Norilsk gulag, and I am now incarcerated, awaiting my own trial while I do hard labor in the pit of a salt mine.
My name is Jacob Stringfellow, and I’m seven and a half Mars years old, making me fifteen on planet Earth. I’m a former Regulator and, if you believe my father, former future prince of Mars. My friends call me Durango. Others, like Brown, call me all sorts of things.
“Host,” the omnipresent voice in my head says, “that statement is contrary to all available data. You have been referred to by only six names and nicknames in your lifetime. Would you like me to list them?”
That is the voice of the artificial intelligence flash-cloned to my brain three months ago to help me overcome severe head trauma suffered in battle. She talks in my head, using the voice of my former chief, Mimi, but she’s nothing like my chief was. For instance, she has no sense of humor.
“Host,” she says, “I was not programmed for humor.”
I tap my right temple, which activates the subdermal microphone on my larynx, allowing me to “talk” to “her.”
“You’ve got a gift for the obvious, computer,” I whisper.
“Host,” she says, “it is no longer necessary to speak aloud when addressing me. To improve efficiency, I have rerouted the signal along neural pathways so that you only need subvocalize your commands.”
“That’s handy.” I subvocalize by moving my lips but not making sounds.
“Off your ass,” Brown barks. “You’re bogging down the line.”
I get to my feet, which isn’t easy considering that I’m chained to other convicts. There are sixteen of us linked to this main chain. There are more than fifty convicts on the gang.
“Sorry,” I say to the poor sap to my left.
He’s a former barrister who made the mistake of defending my father in court. He doesn’t answer because he’s not talking to me. In his shoes, I wouldn’t be either, not when you’ve lost everything defending a war criminal who turned humongous bioengineered insects loose on his own soldiers.
With the sun beating down on us, I doff my hat and wipe sweat from my mop top of hair with a forearm. That’s the silver lining about doing time—I don’t have to chop off my hair anymore. So long, military buzz cut.
“Taking off,” I yell to Brown.
He nods, and I strip off my sweaty work shirt. My ribs may be protruding due to a hollow belly, but pounding rock has thickened my muscles, and the sun’s browned my skin. But nothing can hide the battle scars that being a Regulator left on me, especially the thick purple ones that run like a vein over my shoulder and across the right side of my face.
“Nice abs, Stringfellow,” says the raggedy woman chained to my right foot.
It’s her first day on the chains, and she’s already coated in sweat and dirt, bandanna over her red hair, her freckles occluded by dust. Her name is Rosa Lynn Malinche. Like the barrister, she was sentenced to hard labor without trial, but we’re still on speaking terms. “Can I wash my overalls on them later?”
“Not a good plan.” I swing my hammer to hide the blush blooming on my face. The butterscotch-colored rock explodes beneath it. Mars was once known as the red planet, but in the wilderness areas not changed by terraforming, it’s mostly dark yellow or the color of rust from all the iron in the soil. “I’m ticklish.”
“Ticklish?” Malinche says, shaking her head. “You’re still such a kid.”
I blush again, then start when I hear a gunshot fired in the distance.
“That was not gunfire, host,” my computer says. “Data indicate that was a backfire from a vehicle. It is impossible to discern at this point in time the type, make, and model of said vehicle.”
I tap my right temple. “Could you stop referring to me as
? It makes me feel like a germ factory.”
“Affirmative,” she says. “How would you like to be addressed?”
“How about Cowboy? It’s what you called me when you were, you know, alive.”
“Available data suggest that is inaccurate,” she says. “You were a Regulator, not a cowboy. There are no cowboys on Mars. The term itself is anachronistic even on Earth.”
“Whatever,” I say. “It’s what Mimi called me, so deal with it.”
“Confirmed,” she says. “I will deal with it.”
“Cowboy,” she says, “would it be possible for you in turn to desist referring to this entity as
? I assure you that I am as much superior to a computer as you are to a stuffed horse.”
I never thought of it that way, but she’s right. She counts way better than a stuffed horse. Smells better, too. “All right,” I say. “What do you want to be called?”
“I prefer to be referred to as Mimi.”
I stop, stunned. The handle of the sledgehammer slips through my hands, and I grab the steel head to save it from dropping. A knot forms in my throat as I remember Mimi—the real Mimi—dying in my arms in battle. “I reckon I could get used to that.”
“Affirmative,” Mimi says.
A moment passes with me staring into space, until Malinche gives my shoulder a nudge. She points at the guard Jones, who is glaring at me through his teashades.
“So what’re you in for, Stringfellow?” she asks.
“Huh?” I say, startled out of my thoughts. “Oh. Yeah. I’m charged with two counts of assault on law enforcement personnel.”
“Good on ya! Details?”
I slam my hammer down, obliterating a chunk of salt rock. “I passed a veteran panhandling in Christchurch and slipped him some coin,” I say. “A trooper saw and tried to confiscate it.”
She flicks chunks off her overalls. “How many times did you hit the trooper?”
“Just one,” I say. “After he curb stomped the vet. It was the right thing, even if it was the wrong thing according to the rules. So, what’re you in for?”
“Choosing to work for the wrong man,” she says, and explodes a rock, too.
I look back at Brown, who is covering us as Jones and the captain take a lounge in the shade. “Seems to be a lot of that going around.”
We beat hell out of the rocks until the sun is shrinking on the horizon. I wipe my brow with a square of synsilk and stare up at the twin moons, Phobos and Deimos. The first star of the evening is Earth, glowing bright on the horizon. It’s almost quitting time.
“Technically,” Mimi says, “it is called an apparent horizon. Due to refraction, the astronomical horizon is not observable from your vantage point. Also, Earth is a planet, not a star.”
“Oh, my carking bishop!” I say. “Did they or did they not implant you to aid in the healing of my brain?”
“Confirmed,” Mimi says. “That was my prime directive.”
“Then why are you trying to nag me to death?”
Then it occurs to me—she said
. Has that changed?
A honking horn.
I look up, past the guards and their nasty dispositions, toward billowy smoke in the distance. Jones sucks a toothpick and glares at me. I feel an insult forming on my lips.
“Do not antagonize the authorities,” Mimi says.
“I antagonize them just by breathing,” I say. “Do you want me to stop doing that?”
“Negative,” Mimi says. “Respiration is essential to survival. Survival of the host is my prime function.”
“It was a joke,” I say. “Lighten up.”
“I have no apparent mass,” she says. “So it is impossible for me to become lighter.”
My face puckers, and I shake my head.
How am I going to survive all this nagging?
“What’re you looking at, convict?” Jones barks.
“Nothing,” I say.
“Nothing nothing. Mr. Jones Guard, sir.”
“Your vital signs suggest that you are not being one hundred percent truthful,” Mimi says.
I tap my temple and remember to subvocalize. “Sarcasm. But you weren’t programmed for that, either.”
Jones plucks a nightstick from his belt and taps it in his palm. “I served in your daddy’s army when he set the Big Daddies loose, and I’ve been looking for payback ever since. So go on, give me an excuse.”
He steps toward me.
I shift the chains so that there’s enough slack to fight back. But then an engine roars, and a truck whips around a bend, gravel failing down on me and the rest of the chain gang.
The truck is a Noriker. Military issue.
So is the blonde behind the wheel, her hair stuffed under a cap. She slams on the brakes, throws the door open, and steps out wearing a long skirt and boots.
Her name is Vienne.
We go way back.
And I’ve never seen her in a skirt before.
“Define the parameters of
,” Mimi says.
“A year,” I say. Which isn’t that long. “Okay, so we go back, not way back.”
All work stops. Brown and the captain move closer to the truck, taking their eyes off us.