Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Science Fiction Friday (T minus 3) -- Chapter 4

Read Chapter 1 Here

Read Chapter 2 Here

Read Chapter 3 Here

With the Mystery Tramp

Limbs were all around me. I was shoved back toward the centerline of the massive tree. A large branch scraped the side of my head and neck. The mass and momentum of the falling giant snapped that branch near the trunk which, for an instant, threatened to crush me. Then the tree rolled a little to the right pulling me with it so that I was lying nearly flat on my back. My left shoulder and side were propped against the trunk with my left leg tangled in some branches and my right leg doubled back and pinned against the ground. When everything settled — and it took some time, I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn't been broken up — as best I could tell, or killed, which I was fairly sure of. I began the attempt to untangle myself as rain started pouring down in a relentless deluge.

The first thing was to get my head out from under the big limb that rested on my throat. That was also the last thing. There was not enough room between the trunk and the splintered but still attached branch for my head to pass through. When the limb snapped it had gone around me. It, along with others driven against the ground, had acted as springs under the main weight, their ends now turned beneath the trunk, compressed and immobilized. I was closely snared by a noose of thick, green wood. I panicked. I fought against the strength of gravity and solid wood until I was completely exhausted. It was futile. There was no release, no way out. I cursed. I tore the nails off my fingers trying to claw my way free. I scraped my neck, jaw, and shoulders raw. Finally with a wail of utter, hopeless anguish, I gave up.

The merciless rain beat upon me. The cold tortured my shivering frame. I was destroyed. I was helpless. And I was alone. When I had arrived on Cotter I thought I had hit rock bottom. Now I knew there was a lightless depth of existence beyond even the harshest life, a nightmare of consciousness with no relief in awakening. By the time the storm ended and dawn broke, I was delirious from exhaustion, starvation, and hypothermia. Having screamed until my voice was broken, there was nothing to do but wait and die.

I came around with a brilliant light in my face. I thought it was a train bearing down, and I tried to leap aside only to be painfully reminded of my plight. I recognized the light as the sun directly above me. That's when I noticed the water. The rains had fallen, long and heavy, in the hills. All the little streams and washes that fed the river were pouring in their excess. The water was rising. My back was already wet, and, moment by moment, the icy flow rose higher. It was so absurd that I laughed, though my abused vocal cords gave little sound. I who had lived as though the whole universe existed for me was about to be snuffed out with no more thought or concern than I gave in crushing a spider. I thought of my mother. For the first time in many months, I thought of my abandoned wife and children. In a way, it seemed almost fair for me to go out into the black by myself. Whether I deserved it, I couldn't say, but I knew I had earned it.

The water was washing over my chest. I could still breath only because the tree held me just off the ground with my head slightly higher than the rest of me. I tried to twist around a little. My face was submerged. There was no point in fighting it any more. I wanted to open my mouth, inhale, and finish it. Yet a voice rang in my head, stirred me. Something told to try one more time, one last effort — not desperate but resigned. My right leg, though numb, tried to straightened in unfeeling obedience. I had no strength left, yet I gave a little push. Something gave way. Wood creaked. My head slipped almost effortless from the trap. I broke through the surface amid a tangle of branches. Too weak to stand, I crawled through the water to dry ground and collapsed on the sun-warmed pebbles. It was the funniest thing that had ever happened, but, too weak to laugh, I passed out.

It was the bear ripping my flesh that woke me up the next time. At first I thought it was a dream then my eyes opened to a huge, horrible mass of brown hair, nasty teeth, an incoherent growl and an overpowering stench. I tried to scream. I struggled to get up. I aimed a feeble, ineffectual kick in the beast's direction. It had already eaten off my hands and arms. It kicked me in the ribs and somehow yanked me up on my knees.

The growling resolved into words. "Don' gib me no troub'. I split yo' damn' 'ead. Yo' 'bout as much use dead as 'live. All I need yo'un scen' t'cub m' bat'trail. Foo' dat damn' dawg."

While it didn't make much more sense than an animal growling, this was clearly a human of some kind. He had bound my hands with a flat strap. He pulled me forward. I managed to stand and take a step or two before I stumbled and slammed against the ground. My captor continued moving forward, dragging me with seemingly little effort. I pulled against my bonds and managed to get up again only to fall back down after ten or fifteen paces, and the process was repeated until I could no longer gain my feet. It seemed to go on forever, but I was only dragged three or four hundred meters, upriver, around a bend, and out of sight of the crossing.

Not being dragged over the rough ground was a relief. That I still lived was unbelievable. I just wanted to sleep. Yet in my barely functioning brain there rattled an alarm, something I had to do. I raised my head and looked at the man. "What'd'ya want?" I croaked.

"Fo' yo' be quie'. Don' spook dat dawg. I ki'ya." He pulled a knife and pressed it against my throat. "Mak'a soun' an' die." He was whispering. Almost to himself he muttered, "Ou'a go 'head t'may' sho'." He snickered. "But 'e might be good fo' sumpin' lata'."

"The red dog?"

The point of the knife sliced through my cheek, clinked against my teeth. "Yo' tink I jokin'?"

I'm not the smartest fellow around but I can take a hint. My brain began to unfog a little. The madman was set up with a long gun braced on a bipod, screened by low brush from anything coming up the path along which I had been dragged. He expected the dog to return, looking for me. She would catch my scent and trot happily toward us. And he would kill her. I had no idea why.

My hands were bound in front of me. The gun rested only a step from my head. I thought I had enough strength left for one last lunge. If I timed it just right, I might be able to throw off his shot and save the dog. The payback probably wouldn't be much fun, but I had to do something. I decided to concentrate on watching his trigger finger. When it began to tighten, I'd throw myself forward. I waited.

It was mid-afternoon — the time when the dog usually sought me after her excursions. I saw the madman's hand go to the grip. He could see her. "Co'moan," he muttered. After a moment he whispered a violent, though completely unintelligible curse and shifted the base of the gun closer to me. The dog had moved off the trail. He shifted further, now moving the bipod over to the other side of me. She was circling around, still out of his range. He was muttering nonstop. "Ha!" he said at last and settled down for the shot. I took a deep breath; my eyes focused on the trigger finger. I had to spring just when it was too late for him to recover.

Suddenly his hands came away from the gun entirely. "Don' shoo'," he said. I didn't understand what had happened. Had he changed his mind about killing the dog? "Ah. You. Wha'ya do ov'a hee' meddlin'?" the madman asked.

"I ain't meddlin', LeMat," another voice said. "Ya got my friend trussed up, and yer 'bout to shoot his dog. I'd say that'd be some a' my business."

"Del, you gotta know, I din'a know he be no frien' a' yo'un. Why I's jes' gettin' ready t'feed 'im anyways. Yo' 'oungry y'sef?"

"How'd he get that fresh gash on his face?"

"Jes' a'lil miskamoonakin'. An', ain' like he die a'nuddin'. Beside he done got dat dawg out'a my own trap up den da hills. Now you know dat ain' rhat. I done been trailin' 'im ni'on two week. Dat my dawg. Dat my boun'y."

"Not this time, LeMat. If ya'd tend t'ya traps like a man's supposed to, it wouldna happened, would it?"

"'Ell, I fergit. We ah' be frien'. We le'd go dis time."

Del removed the strap from my hands after he had LeMat discard the remainder of his weaponry by the long gun and move some distance back. The dog had come up to us. She sat down near me where she could watch LeMat. I was given a drink of a tepid, bitter liquid and a few bites of some kind of soft sausage-like food. Breaking my extended, involuntary fast would have to be done cautiously. Del shared some of his grub with LeMat, and they talked as they ate — mostly about how their trapping and hunting efforts were going.

"All right," Del said after a time, "me and m'friend's goin' back across the river. I reckon we'd better be gettin' on."

"Sho," LeMat replied, "you min' carryin' m'guns down d'da crossin'? Jes' leeb'em in da us'l place. I be down, geddem adder w'ile."

"Be glad to. Ya take care now."

With Del assisting me occasionally, he, the dog, and I forded the river without incident and reached his campsite, a rough lean-to shelter. The long twilight held as my friend brought the fire to life. I wasn't hungry, and I was warm. I tried to talk, but I could not stay awake for more than a minute or two at a time. Del told me to rest. I saw him give the dog a joint to chew on. I heard the cracking of the bone as I fell into blissful slumber. When I roused again, my dog was lying partially across my legs, watching over me.

I suppose I was still what many would think of as a young man back then. I began to regain my strength right away. The puncture wound from LeMat's blade bothered me as much as anything. We had no weave to patch it up, and I still carry a puckered scar on that cheek, but, these days, it's no more than one of many. Anyway, I was never all that pretty.

The first thing Del taught me was how to make a fire. He gave me a knife with a file pattern cut into the spine and a flint that locked into the pommel. "You keep that with you," he explained, "and you'll have no reason to do without in the outlands." I learned to lay out my fuel from kindling, to small sticks, to larger chunks, make tinder, and expertly — or nearly so — strike a spark that would catch and burn. I was much slower to pick up the ways of trapping and snaring, but Del set me to work right away learning to skin and dress game, to build gums, whittle out triggers, and to do some of the cooking. Once the dog was in the company of a capable human, she no longer made her early morning forays. If I left camp, she'd follow me. She'd go with Del if he called her. At that point, I still hadn't given her a name — I just called her "Dog" or "Girl".

As we were finishing up our after-supper camp chores one evening, Del brought up the subject of naming the creature. "I don't know," I replied, "I don't want to get too attached to her."

"Why not?"

"Probably somethin'll happen to her, or she'll run off or somethin'."

"That's no reason. Ya'd still wan'a remember 'er."

"I been meanin' to ask ya. Why was LeMat tryin' to kill 'er? What did he mean about a bounty?"

"There's a bounty on some a' th' hounds. I don't know th' whole story, a'course. Probably nobody does. All that GM stuff that's s'posed t'be illegal. I think they done it on animals — dogs 'specially. Brought 'em t'planets like Cotter. Some of'em got away and bred in the outlands. Yer dog's most likely from that."

I nodded and frowned. "She looks normal."

"More'n likely it's their brains, maybe other internal parts."

"She does seem pretty smart."

"So what'a ya gone'a name 'er?"

"Somethin' that don't take much effort - how 'bout 'Ginger'? I once knew a mighty fine-lookin' girl by that name. Call her 'Gin' for short."

"Try it. See what she thinks."

The dog was lying on the far side of the stone reflector that backed our fire. She was facing out toward the night, apparently asleep, but her ears were alert in our direction. "Gin!" I called. She immediately raised her head, faced me, and wagged her tail. I looked over at Del; he nodded approval. Ginger came around to us and laid her head on my lap.

"I'd take that fer a sign," Del said.

I smiled. "So, is ever'thing a sign?"

He was silent a moment, serious, face turned toward the stars, contemplating or, perhaps, praying. "No," he said at last. "Some things are wonders."

Friday, December 17, 2010

Science Fiction Friday -- Chapter 3

Read Chapter 1 Here

Read Chapter 2 Here

With No Direction Home

Beyond the edge of the vast table land where most of Cotter's human life resides, the terrain is much more varied. The plateau is undulating, but it lies all at roughly the same altitude. It is the most elevated and the most arid part of the planet. Rains fall with much more regularity in the lower lands. The equatorial belt is a barrier to weather systems that arise in the north and the south, spinning toward the equator from the polar regions with their salt seas. Storms flirt with the plateau on both sides but rarely pass completely over.

After leaving the herders, I made my way down into broken lands of the high foothills then took an easterly direction as they had told me I should. It was impossible to hold to a straight line route for any distance above a half a klick — or so it seemed. Gullies and ravines and steep-sided hills drove me to constantly change tracks as I struggled with vines, brambles, and thorny brush.

Still, I felt better in one way. The air was richer, and the nights were not quite as cold. That was a good thing since I saw no human habitations, and I had no experience in building a shelter, or, for that matter, a fire. Yet even with the moderation in temperature, I was able to sleep only in snatches when exhaustion would briefly get the upper hand in battling chill. I tried to be careful with my food, so I was hungry most of the time. Someone who knew what he was doing could probably find something to eat even in that scraggly terrain; I wasn't that somebody. Water I had some hope of — after all I was looking for a river, and even I knew a river was made out of water.

A few days out a storm whirled up from the south, smashing like a wave against the highlands. The rain didn't last long but it fell hard and fast. I managed to find some cover under a steep bank with overhanging junipers. It wasn't much help, and I was fairly soaked. Cold followed the rain, and I stumbled on through a fog as best I could. I was more than a little afraid I'd lose my direction, but I couldn't stand still for fear of freezing to death. The waters from the rain were hurrying down the ravines and washes, and, as I crossed a narrow, temporary stream, it occurred to me that I'd crossed several like it dry the last couple of days. I halted and turned it over in my mind, picturing water running downhill. I cursed. Then I wanted to weep, but I was so cold I think the tears would have frozen, salt or no.

If I had had the sense God gave a shirt button, I would have followed the first dry wash I came to down, out of the foothills and, more than likely, right to the head waters of my river. The herders had told it wasn't all that far, but I had just assumed that I was slower and didn't know how to get around. And that was true enough. But I been bearing east for days. For all I knew I might be past the river I sought. I stood there shivering and thinking. The first thing I thought was that I ought to climb back up to the plateau, go back to where I'd left the herders and start all over again. That way I'd be sure to hit the right river with my new-found geographical insight. But there were a few things wrong with that idea. I was worn down and hungry. Going downhill was easier than climbing out. I was running out of food and thus out of time. The worst, though, was knowing that if I went back up on the plateau I would go back to my old ways.

It would make sense, of course. I'd just get another job temporarily to rebuild my stake. And then the end of the week would come. I'd have the credits in my book. I'd be thinking of the cold and the thorns and sore, weary feet. I'd tell myself that one or two drinks wouldn't hurt. It wouldn't hurt to work another week or so and build up my reserves. Then the end of the next week would be the same. No.

I looked at the little rivulet at my feet. It was going somewhere in a rush. I bent down and filled my bottles with the slightly murky waters. At least I wouldn't die thirsty. Sometimes a man just has to take things on faith. I began walking along beside the little stream. It was almost like having a friend with me who knew the way. Before too long, my shivering had stopped as my clothes began to dry. The chill fog blew out on a warmer breeze from somewhere behind me.

My joy did not last through the night, but the idea of turning back was gone. Doubts still dogged me, although every alternative seemed as flawed as the track I followed. Eventually, the storm waters disappeared and I trod the dry branch. Then, as the land flattened a little and spread out, I began to encounter little pools, and, after that, little pools connected by shallow, stony riffles. After a couple of days, I was making my way along the banks of a persistent little creek of clear water dancing over a bed of gravel. I thought I was bearing west; it could have been wishful thinking. Overall direction was hard to pin down. The creek twisted and turned to many times its straight line length. Despite the multiplication of steps, I was afraid to leave it and strike a more direct course.

I thought there were probably fish in the water. If catching one hadn't been beyond my ability, I wasn't yet hungry enough to consider ripping into the raw flesh with nothing more than my teeth to part it. A gun's a good thing as I've learned since those days, but a man without a cutting tool and a way to make sparks will hoe a hard row on any world.

With only three days more of food in my pack, no matter how much I stretched it, I was thinking hungry thoughts when I saw something dark and moving on a span of dry gravel some distance ahead. It was shifting more than moving. In fact it seemed as if it were anchored to the ground somehow. As I drew closer I began to make it out as an animal of some sort. I was within twenty meters or so when it saw me and lay down. The thing just looked at me. It didn't look too dangerous. I pulled my gun and moved closer. When I was as close as four or five paces, I saw why the creature hadn't run from me. Its right hind leg was caught in something; the leg was raw red and misshapen from swelling below the metal that gripped it.

I didn't know quite what to do. I had little knowledge of animals, still I didn't care much to think about any live thing caught like that to starve to death. This thing's ribs were already standing out, and it was weak, no question. I'd seen people with pet dogs a few times — rich folk who could afford to live the memories of Old Earth. This was a canine of one kind or another — a wolf, I thought, would have smaller, pointy ears. This one's ears flopped down, and it had a fairly smooth, reddish coat with a big splotch of black hair on its back. I decided it was a dog. I also decided that its leg was caught in a trap. I still didn't know what to do about it.

I wondered if these were animals that Del trapped, though I doubted it. Del didn't seem to be the kind of man to leave a thing to suffer, nor to forget he had set a trap somewhere. Since it didn't seem to be afraid of me, I wondered if it belonged to someone rather than being a wild dog. Calling myself a fool the whole time, I dug into my ruck and pulled out a small piece of a protein bar. With it in one hand and my pistol in the other, I moved up close enough to toss the bit under the dog's nose. It jerked back a little then sniffed at the chunk. The piece of food disappeared in an instant. The dog's tail wagged — flop, flop — against the ground. Taking that reaction for a sign, I peeled off my coat and checked the safety on my gun before sticking it in my belt. I wrapped the coat around my right arm as I very slowly moved toward the animal's trapped leg, all the while half expecting the creature to lunge with a snarl and try to rip out my throat, for a really good meal. My hands were shaking. The smart thing would have been to back off and just put the beast out of its misery.

"Nice doggie," I said. I put my left hand on the near jaw of the trap and tried to pull it off. At that point the dog whimpered then snarled, twisted, and snapped. I caught the teeth on my padded right arm, thinking that I had been rather clever. I had the front part of the dog safely pinned to the ground, and I was glad that he, or she, or whatever, was not too large and not too strong.

All well and good, except I still had the problem of how to open the jaws of the trap with one hand. After considerable puffing and twisting and not a little cursing, I managed to catch the inside jaw with my heel and get my left hand back on the near jaw. Thankful there was no one around to see my current position, I managed to pry the trap open just enough for the dog's leg to slip out, which actually took what I thought was an awfully long time. I released the trap with my hand, and it somehow managed to clamp shut on my boot heel.

"Hell!" I said.

I pushed the dog away from me and scrambled as far from it as the staked trap would allow while grabbing for my pistol. The dog looked at me, its lips ever so slowly coming together to erase the snarl and cover its bared teeth. It tried to stand up. The damaged leg gave way. Trying again without relying on the numb limb, the dog was successful. It ignored me and hobbled to the edge of the water where it began to lap vigorously and noisily. I felt a pang of sympathy. The dog had been trapped for days in sight of the water, its nose full of the smell of water, yet in agony, unable to quench its thirst.

While the beast was busy, I managed to get loose from the trap myself, though I didn't miss losing a thumb by but a hair. Standing up, I gathered my ruck and put on my now-slightly-worse-for-the-wear coat. I kept the pistol out in case the dog decided I looked tasty. And I kept an eye on it as I started to move on down the stream. With its craving slacked, the animal turned to see where I was. It put its nose down and sniffed around a bit then wagged its tail. On three legs it began to limp along behind me.

That night, I stopped to rest against a fallen tree that sheltered me from the winds, and where limbs and dead leaves would insulate me a little from the ground. The dog had kept pace with me at a distance through the day. When I stopped, she - I finally figured that out - stopped as well. She lay down about ten paces distant and looked at me quizzically, or so I imagined. She seemed to be expecting something - food or fire, I suppose. I couldn't spare more of my grub, but I would have built a fire if I'd known how. As it was I just huddled up and tried to sleep. When I woke from cold in the night, I didn't see the dog, and she was no where around the next morning when I set out. I figured she'd gone off to find a more intelligent and skillful human. Around the middle of the afternoon, I paused for a drink of water and a brief rest. Looking back the way I had come, I saw the dog. She looked different. I thought for a moment it might even be a different dog, but the sign of the trap was still on her leg, though the swelling was gone.

"Where ya been? And how do ya reckon ya found me?" I asked aloud. "Even more to the point, why'd ya find me?"

The dog lolled her tongue out and wagged her tail. Dropping down a little she approached me in what I took to be a friendly way. Without thinking about it, I put my hand out. She came close enough that I could stroke her head. As I sat there petting the dog, I thought she looked sleeker than before. Of course, she'd been dried out and dying of thirst, but now she appeared to have eaten, and quite a bit at that.

"So, ya brought me none, I take it? Fair enough. I ain't givin' ya none a'mine. Ya have to look out for y'own body first. Still, I wonder what ya had. Somethin' already dead on its own most likely, so I don't envy ya all that much. Not yet."

The rest of the day the dog ambled along beside me, her limp gradually evening out. When I found a place to try and sleep for the night, the dog watched me then came over, turned around a few times and lay down next to me. Dogs, by the way, are warm. I slept well. I woke up cold sometime before dawn. My dog was gone. Even after the sun was up and I had consumed my meager breakfast, I was reluctant to move out because she had not returned, but I finally started walking, though not without frequent glances over my shoulder. A little after noon, she caught up with me.

"Hey, girl — didn't leave me after all. I cain't say it's wise on your part, but I like having ya with me."

As long as I had food, I could keep track of the days. After I ate the last mouthful, I more or less gave up on time for a while. Some planets have moons that wax and wane, like the Moon of Old Earth, the place men first stepped off our home world. People with calendars don't appreciate moons of that kind. We would have had days and seasons with Old Earth's axial tilt, but it was man's original silver goddess that gave us months and weeks. Cotter had been a moon itself prior to conversion. All it had were a few rocky bodies that had somehow wound up in its orbit, debris left over or picked up during the terraforming. One, far enough out to sometimes escape the nightside shadow, big enough, and reflective enough to be easily seen, was called Elvira. It was considered a good omen for Elvira to be visible, but she had an eccentric, retrograde orbit so that most of the time she was either invisible on the dayside or lost in the shade. I saw her twice after I finished off the last of my food.

They say a man can go three weeks without food. Days of walking on short grub followed by a week or perhaps two on none had left me starving, my mind and body barely functioning at all. My feet moved slowly, and I had to stop often. The dog continued her habit of staying with me until a couple of hours before dawn and catching up with me in the middle of the day or mid-afternoon. Late one evening we came to a change. The creek we had been following suddenly widened, and the land dropped down and leveled out as we entered a valley. As the shadows deepened we were led by the waters through a swamp until we came at last to the edge of a river. We were on the eastern bank, and I believed that it was certainly the river that would lead to Del. The river was there deep and swift where the creek swirled and mixed into it. My first thought was to find a crossing place as soon as possible for I believed without reasoning that my friend would be somewhere on the other side.

It was full dark when the dog and I came to a place that was open, pale and broad, under faint starlight. Looking up I saw Elvira blazing near the zenith. We had found a gravel bar below a slow deep pool where the river would likely let us cross without too much trouble. I considered crossing in the dark, but I was afraid. Instead, I found a spot up against a large tree leaning out a little over the water with a trunk that reflected a ghostly silver by the stars. Hungry and weary as I was, I settled down to sleep feeling hope and peace for the first time in many, many days — really for the first time in my memory. I knew the journey ahead might still prove too much for me, but I also knew I had found the right path.

Oddly, the dog seemed anxious. I was able to coax her into curling up next to me, but she whimpered and didn't want to sleep. It wasn't long before I, having dozed off, woke to find her gone. It was very dark. The absence of stars told me clouds had gathered. I sensed more than saw them brooding low, black, and thick. The wind had been blowing steadily for days. Now it was still, and the atmosphere was heavy. Only the sound of the river rushing over its shallow bed pushed back against the oppressive silence before the impending storm.

My body was desperate for sleep, and, despite the ominous signs I again nodded off. When I next awoke it was to horrific roaring like the engines of a hundred ships just overhead. The still air was suddenly driven. I felt the tree by which I huddled begin to vibrate and shudder. Instinctively I stood and tried to run as a brief surge of strength powered my weakened legs. I wanted to cross the river no matter what else happened. The wind seemed to be coming from all directions. I stumbled in the deep, loose gravel just as a powerful gust caught me from behind. It was as though a giant hand slapped me face-down against the rocky water's edge. Above the howl of the air I heard a rending sound, and, just as I managed to get to my knees, I sensed a movement behind and above me. With an almost human moan, the great white tree fell.

And I was beneath it.

Chapter 4

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An Exchange

The fool says in his heart, "God does not exist." They are corrupt; their actions are revolting. There is no one who does good. — Psalm 14:1

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience that He may have mercy on all — Romans 11:32

Atheist: I don't believe in god. There is no god. God does not exist.

Theist: I don't believe in atheists. There are no atheists. Atheists do not exist.

Atheist: Wait a minute. Don't try playing this game with me. You're going to try to get me to prove I exist, and, of course, you'll deny all my proofs just as I deny your proofs about God.

Theist: [Shrugs]

Atheist: I'm on to you. It won't work. Your approach is simply childish and absurd.

Theist: [Sips coffee]

Atheist: Oh, I see, now you're making the argument that my argument is childish and absurd since existence without (airquotes) god is itself absurd. Is that it?

Theist: [Yawns]

Atheist: I get it. Now you're suggesting that I'm the one who is obsessing over something I claim doesn't exist. But the fact is that billions of people around the world are drawn in and deluded by this whole god thing, to their detriment. They are controlled by baseless guilt and shame and meaningless moral absolutes. They live with a false hope of being rescued at the end of life by an old man in the sky. They can be set free from —-

Theist: [Passes a loud and malodorous fart]

Atheist: So now you're challenging my belief in restraints on society. I've heard this argument. 'If everything is relative...' or 'if we can all just do what we want ...'. My response, of course, is reason. Humans are capable of reason and can derive reasonable limits and recognize the rights of others so that we can maximize happiness as a society because we evolved as social animals. That's where how our intelligence evolved, through consensus and objective agreement about how to interpret the world.

Mind you, I'm not saying that religion, which was part of that evolutionary process, didn't serve a purpose at one time. You need to face the fact that we now understand how the world works. We know there is no old man in the sky. We've gone beyond the need for the boundaries that belief in gods imposed, and we live much happier, fuller lives without it.

Theist: [Glances at his watch]

Atheist: Oh, please! Death is simply the cessation of life. There is no eternal happy heaven, and, conversely, there is no eternal punishment in hell. We are animals who live, pass on our DNA, and, now, our knowledge and our discoveries and our understanding. We may not be evolved enough mentally — and we won't be until all you deluded believers wake up — we may not be there yet, but we will do what we can to make the world a better place, to increase knowledge, to give succeeding generations the power to fully understand and fully inhabit the universe ...

Theist: [Smiles]

Atheist: You think you've got me with the word 'better'? I've already explained that reason is the basis for a positively evolving ...

Theist: [Laughs]

Atheist: It's just a limitation of the language. Everybody knows —

Theist: - that atheists don't exist.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Science Fiction Friday -- Chapter 2

Read Chapter 1 here

Like A Rolling Stone

The pistol was not a large one. It bore little surface resemblance to the piece that Del had shown me, but, like his, it had been made in the firearms factories of Marfa - a place even farther out on the fringe than Cotter. I held it in my cold hand and considered the weight of it. I considered its power and potential. I had looked at one of the rounds it fired. They weren't round at all except for the very end. The body was triangular with rounded corners, made of a kind of waxy-feeling gray material behind the bright metallic nose — the part that did the damage.

It was past midnight. More than an hour before I had cautiously trailed my quarry down the street and into this tavern. In a little while he would stumble out, having drunk himself into oblivion with my money. At that point I would end his life and his thieving and, possibly, my own life. If I lived, and the sheriffs didn't hook me, I would head out into the wilderness to find Del or die trying - a much likelier thing.

A rectangle of light splashed onto the walkway. A dark form fell within. It was the thief. He was thoroughly drunk — and singing. I stepped from the deeper shadows and into his path. He took a couple of wobbly paces toward me then paused, not quite sure if he saw a specter in his way. He mumbled something and took another step. I leveled the gun and pressed the trigger. Nothing happened.

Frantically I tried to work the unfamiliar mechanism without benefit of light. I tried again. Nothing. He was an arm's length away. I whipped the heavy barrel of the weapon down on his head. He dropped with a groan and a thud. I slammed the toe of my boot into his ribs a couple of times for good measure, shoved the pistol in my coat pocket, and walked away trying to figure out which way south might be.

A walking tour of that broad, scarred tabletop on Cotter isn't much to talk about. There are places where people work, and, hard by, places where they live and trade. A mine or a smelter is like a stump with a ring of sprouts coming up from it, nothing elegant or orderly about it. In the middle of the day, I came to one of those places. A kind soul let me fill my water jugs. As I moved on, I wondered if Del had come through exactly this way. I felt that he probably had, that he had passed by these stores and shacks on his way to the outlands. I felt a little rush of something I didn't have a name for, but it was good. I knew that much. There had been a voice in my head all the time I was walking that told me I was a fool for leaving the mine. It asked me how long I thought the protein bars would last, and where I'd get a drink of liquor when the craving hit me, and how I thought I was going to make it sleeping on cold ground of a night. It was a persistent and thoroughly sensible voice that sounded a lot like mine, reminding me that I was, after all, possessed of a weak and questionable character, lacking in perseverance and prone to addictions and taking the easy way out. Every bit of what the voice said I tended to agree with - and, anyway, there's not much point in debating a voice in your own head. I usually lose track of whose side I'm on.

The sun was slanting low above the horizon in a cleft in some heavy clouds when a couple of fellows came up behind me on a six-wheeled mule pulling a wagonload of crates. I waved them down and asked if I could hitch a ride to the next town. They told me to hop on top of the crates and make myself at home. The ride was rough but it was faster than walking. I could hear the men on the mule talking, but I couldn't make out the words. They stopped at a crossroad and told me to get down. I didn't mind. They'd saved me a lot of steps, and I figured they had decided to change directions. It bothered me a little that they both climbed off the mule and faced me.

"Thanks for the ride, boys. I appreciate it," I offered.

One of them pointed at my ruck. "Let's see what's in yer bag."

"Look, I'd give ya somethin' if I had it. All I got is a little food, extra shirts and socks. Ya wouldn't leave a man to freeze and starve out here, would ya?"

"Ain't our worry. Hand it over."

I still hadn't figured out how to use my gun, and I had a flash of regret that I hadn't bothered with it the whole day. As it stood, I didn't have that much more to lose by making a play, so I pulled the pistol out of my pocket. I had barely gotten it pointed in their general direction when the damn thing went off. The bullet plowed into the ground at their feet.

"Hell!" I said.

My shock and surprise were genuine but mild in comparison to that of my would-be attackers. Before I could quite register what had happened, they were on their mule and putting as much distance between us as possible. The wagon was bouncing violently as they went out of sight, and I half hoped that one of the crates might be jarred loose; it was not to be.

Now I had a mystery. Why had the pistol failed to go off when I had tried to kill a thief the night before, only to fire almost on its own this time? I wondered if it was robotic or on a timer. As I stared at the mute metal, I noticed a little button that showed red at the base of it. Thinking that red was some kind of warning, I carefully pushed down on the button while keeping the muzzle of the pistol pointed away from my various body parts. There was no explosion, so I pointed the gun at a rock some distance away and pulled the trigger. Just as the night before, I heard only a click. The button I had depressed was a kind of cross toggle. Pushing it down on one side of the trigger guard pushed it out on the other. I very carefully pushed it back until red was again visible. Again, I squeezed the trigger. This time the pistol boomed and bucked in my hand. A geyser of dirt was thrown up in the approximate vicinity of the rock I had targeted. "I had the ruttin' safety on," I said aloud. As the gun rode in my coat pocket all that day, I must have bumped the little button into the off-position. Making my weapon as safe as possible, I returned it to my pocket and resumed my journey.

After about twenty minutes, I reached the top of a slight rise. The ground fell away gently for a few klicks then just as gently rose so as to form a shallow bowl with a cluster of buildings at the bottom. A great cone-shaped kiln stood above where the land climbed to the south and the west pouring out smoke that sank over the village and clouded the pathways that wandered from shanty to shack. Shadows were already thickening in the low spot as the sun sank, and lights seemed to spread like sparks from one little window to another.

I thought I might find a corner somewhere there to pass the night and sleep in relative warmth. A hot meal would have been welcome; I had no hope of it, thinking that my best chance might be to find some abandoned or neglected structure that would get me off the bare ground and hold in a little heat. As I drew nearer the village on what might be called the outskirts I came to a little hut with no lights. Because it was off by itself and dark, I thought it might be the kind of place I sought. I stepped up to it and was about to rap on the door when a voice called from inside.

"Enter, friend, the door is not latched against you."

I lifted the bar and pushed the door back. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb no one. I was just after a place to sleep out'a the cold. Didn't look like anybody was home here."

"Ah, it's dark then. I don't pay that much attention to the time of day. Come on in and hold the heat we have. It will be little enough on my creaking, lazy bones."

I still couldn't see anything in the interior, but the voice sounded honest enough. Sometimes a man has to take things on faith. I stepped through the opening and closed the door behind me.

"I know I have a lamp here somewhere."

Suddenly the room was illuminated. I blinked.

"Is it working?"

"Uh, yep, if ya mean the light," I replied. "Are you not able to see that?"

The occupant of the house looked toward me. It was a man, perhaps a few years older than I was, dressed in a faded uniform of some kind. I could see the eyes now, and there was no question of him knowing the light was on.

"I'm sorry."

"Be not sorry for me, friend, you have burdens of your own, no doubt. Each of us is given only that which we are able to bear. I can bear mine if you can bear your own."

"That sounds philosophical enough. Poetic, near."

"You're a literate man, then?"

"I can read and write, and I always kind'a liked rhymes and poems."

"Wonderful. You are an answer to prayer."

I laughed a little. "I don't believe even my mama thought that." My host chuckled and pointed me toward a wooden chair which I was happy to take. I sighed as I rested my weary feet. "In fact," I continued as I drew off my ruck and my coat, "she said sometimes that I was God's punishment on her for the wicked ways of her youth."

"She meant it for humor and loved you very much. I can hear it in your voice."

"That's true," I said. "Me and Mom got along real good. I don't usually think of her 'cause I miss her so much. I been meanin' to send her a wave when I could afford it, or maybe a letter."

"The letter would be the better. I'm sure she'd love to see your face, but a letter she could hold close to her heart knowing your hands had touched it, and she could read it again and again."

A complete stranger had me close to crying. I didn't know what was going on. I shook my head. "I ain't even told you my name. I'm Hayes."

"Most people call me Tenny, and I'm pleased to meet you, Hayes. We'll have supper shortly."

"Oh, I don't need nothin' to eat, Tenny. I have some protein here in my bag. I'll be happy to share it with ya. It ain't much for taste, but it's fillin'."

"No, Hayes, you keep that. You're likely to need it soon. I have food to spare. The Balfours see that I always have plenty to eat. They aren't quite so conscientious on extra fuel for my generator. But I think the last few days have been sunnier than usual so my cells are fully charged. We can have lights and heat all night if we want."

I nodded, then realized Tenny wouldn't be aware of it. "We won't need to do that. If you don't mind my askin', who are the Balfours?"

"The family that owns the kiln and muckpits around here. I used to work for them. I lost my sight in an accident. They were very generous and sent me to a Central planet facility. The restoration attempts were unsuccessful. There was just too much damage. They would have given me a place there where I could have lived, but I wanted to come back to Cotter."

"No offense, but I don't understand that a'tall."

"It's a long story. Too long for tonight. Maybe the next time you stop by I'll give you my complete autobiography which I plan to finish soon and market as the ultimate non-addictive sleep aid." Tenny paused while I laughed. "Now, let's eat."

Tenny didn't ask a lot of questions about my life, and he didn't tell me much about his. We talked about my folks, my mother especially, and about books and music and funny stories we had heard. I picked up that Tenny's situation was some kind of special case. Even the kindest and most generous families with connections that will get someone into an advanced facility back in the hub aren't likely to do for a common worker what the Balfours had done for Tenny. And then there was the old uniform that I couldn't quite recognize — but I didn't press it. I was the man's guest, consuming his bread, beans, and beer. He could tell me whatever he liked. It was just proper etiquette not to ask too much or too close.

After supper, Tenny explained what he had meant by me being an answer to prayer. "I have my books." He handed me a reading pad. "There's a built-in voice for the blind, the illiterate, and the lazy, but I get so tired of the sameness of it. It's too mechanical. I would be most grateful if you would read a page or two for me."

I was happy to oblige. He indicated that he had the pad on the page he wanted to hear me read:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves-goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is-
Chríst-for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

I stumbled through, and Tenny asked me to have another go, and then another. He gave me a word or two, and I realized the rhythm and the music in it at long last. I fell asleep with the memory of it echoing through my dreams.

The next morning I was kind of slow leaving. The truth is that I was afraid of what lay ahead of me. I hadn't had much time to think it over and the sanctuary of Tenny's place was tempting. I was sure I could find a spot working in the oven or the pits and hang around to be a help to my blind friend and myself. It was weighing down my mind, making me hesitant and lethargic.

"For that I came," Tenny said to me.


"The line from the poem."

"Oh, yeah. Where's that feller from?"

"Gerard Manley Hopkins was an Old Earth man from what they called 'England', I think. He's one of my favorites. But I say that about most of them after I've read them again, whether it's Hopkins, Browning, Cohen, or Ran. He's good, though."

"I guess I'd better be goin'."

"You don't want to stay here, Hayes. You have something else to do. You have another destiny. I want you to do two things before you leave. One is to write down 'As kingfishers catch fire' to take with you. The other is to write a letter to your mother. I'll get it sent out for you after you're gone a few days. Just in case." Tenny smiled. I smiled back, and, this time, it didn't occur to me that he would miss it.

I was back on the road by mid-morning. Late in the day, I fell in with some herders that were on their way back to the outlands having brought in a load of alpaca fleece for trade. They were a decent sort and knew of the river that Del had mentioned. It would have been out of their way to take me right to it, but they let me ride with them to the edge of the plateau and pointed me in the right direction.

Chapter 3

Monday, December 6, 2010

Feet in Clay

"You will never wash my feet — ever!" Peter said.

Jesus replied, "If I don't wash you, you have no part with Me."

Simon Peter said to Him, "Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head."

"One who has bathed," Jesus told him, "doesn't need to wash anything except his feet, but he is completely clean. You are clean, but not all of you." — John 13:8-11

The scene of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples is a well-known one. Usually we think of the lesson in servanthood demonstrated and the nature of leadership in the Body of Christ. I have attended Holy Week services at a Catholic Church, and I remember the priest's re-enactment of Christ's self-humbling as being an extremely powerful moment. To think that God-in-the-flesh knelt before unworthy humans performing the most menial of task is a poignant depiction of His willingness to be available to us in a relationship.

I want to look at a different aspect, though. While we are in this world, we are not to be of it, not overwhelmed by the day-to-day necessities of functioning in a material world. It's not an easy task for some of us to keep focused on what is real and what is important. It is not unlike an outdoor wedding being invaded by a swarm of hungry mosquitoes. They may not be what the day is about, but they can be awfully distracting. It is not for nothing that one of the chief devils is called Beelzebub, i.e., "lord of the flies". God calls us, enables us, and desires for us to live holy lives, lives set apart to Him. How do we do that in a fallen world?

First we do it by understanding who we are in reality. This is a subject I bring up often -- to remind myself mostly. I am not who my family and friends say that I am — for better or worse. I am not who advertisers want me to believe that I am or that I could be. I am not who the government says I am. I am not who science says I am. I came into this world from God for some purpose, and when I leave it I will return to God with, I hope, that purpose fulfilled. Though I enter as a fallen son of Adam, I will exit as an adopted son of God through my elder brother Jesus, washed clean in the blood of the Cross.

But I still have a problem, that of the insidious and clinging nature of my relationship to the world system. I seek to throw it off, but the accusation that I give in to sin far too often cannot be dismissed as false. I may say it doesn't matter and recall that, after all, I "live by faith", but that misses the point.

When my wife picked out the carpet for our house, for the main part of it — not my office, thank God — she chose a white berber. It's not pure white, but it's pretty close. I might be the "man of the house" and have every right to walk right in the front door with my boots on, but having the right, and it being right are two different things. She might let me slide if I just need to enter the kitchen with its tile floor, but if I want to watch my big television in the living room, or if I plan on sleeping in the bedroom, I'd better get my boots off and make sure I'm not "tracking in dirt".

On a daily basis, having right-standing with God is a wonderful thing, but if we are going to relate to Him in a more personal way as Father, we don't want to "track in dirt" when entering the sanctuary. The priests of the earthly temple had a big bronze basin filled with water that they used for ritual cleansing before entering even into the first chamber of the sanctuary. They could physically wash off the common dust of the profane world. But how do I do it?

Jesus didn't tell Peter and the rest to take a bucket and wash their own feet. He took it upon Himself to make them clean enough to commune with Him. He will do the same for us. We just need to give Him the time and the opportunity to cleanse us of that everyday stuff that gets on us and clings to us as we walk through this world. A few minutes of opening our hearts to Him in confessing prayer, a moment of meditation, reading a scripture verse or two, singing a few words of praise — that's all it takes for Him to freshen us up and usher us into His presence.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Science Fiction Friday

Welcome to Cotter

Nobody is on Cotter because they thought it would be a nice place to live. A few are born here, and they look to ship out as soon as they are old enough, big enough, or pretty enough to hitch a ride on a transport going anywhere. Everybody else on Cotter has a story. Mine? Common as most.

I ran corporate security for an operation of one the big families on a hub planet. I didn't do the body work, but I knew the codes. I made good money, married a sweet girl, had a couple of cute kids. I would have had a couple more, except I liked to gamble. It seems silly now, but it made perfect sense then to risk things. They were just things, and there was a thrill. My gambling got me in trouble, then it got me a second job with credits on the side, no bite out for the Gov. Selling codes, discreetly you understand, gave me money to blow on the happy powder mixed in my fine interplanetary bourbon. It ain't hard to guess where things went from there. I'd already dumped my beautiful wife and kids for a veil dancer when I had to squeeze out, filthy and half-frozen, in the cargo bay of a transport that sounded like it was going fly apart any minute. They dropped me at Cotter as I was, another dried up morsel for the maw of the mines.

That's mainly what folks do on Cotter, dig ore out of holes and crack it, that, or make ceramics out of heavy metal muck. It's too smelly and nasty for the pristine planets back in the hub. They leave it to us out on the fringe to poison our bodies and our dirt. I don't know which is worse, the mines and the smelters or the mudholes and the kilns. I worked the mines when I first arrived along with the majority of the bodies in the equatorial belt.

One evening I stumbled out of a bar half blind from booze with more than a touch of wood alcohol. I collapsed, you might say, in a muddy alley with my back to a trash bin. I don't know how long I was there, but night was falling under a clear sky in some high plateau town. It was full dark when I roused. Somebody was trying to get me up on my feet. A voice rasped and laughed in my ear, "You'll freeze to death out here, commie."

"Don't care," I managed to croak. "Might as well. Ain't we in hell already?"

If a crow could laugh, it would make a sound like my rescuer. He dragged me on until it was light and warm, stretched me out by a little portable heater. I knew nothing else until I woke up from senseless dreams with a foundry in my head and rats in my gut. I tried to sit up. A broad, thick hand descended from the heavens bearing a battered metal cup with perhaps fifty cc's of some dark liquid.

"Hair of the dog?" I muttered.

"More like balls of the wolf. Down it fast."

I didn't argue. I gagged. It was all I could do to keep it down. Still, my head felt better almost immediately. It a few minutes I was on my feet and drinking strong coffee from the same cup — after my benefactor had rinsed it out.

"You could make a good livin' sellin' that stuff in the back alleys of a mornin'," I told him. "My name's Hayes Re—."

He interrupted me. "Hayes is good enough. I'm Del." He offered me a big, dark hand, clean, but cracked over calluses and heavily stained.

"Del, thank ya. I owe ya for pullin' me out'a the cold last night."

"You'd a done fer me jus' the same."

"I'm not so sure 'bout that. I ain't the man I ought'a be."

"Who is? I know ya would, though. Ya been on Cotter long?"

"Ah, six, eight months. I lose count. Underground most of time and ever day the same."

Del had not stopped smiling. He had a broad, flat face burned dark and weathered. He was mostly bald. The fringe of hair remaining was streaked silver and badly in need of a trim, but his mustache was heavy, neat, and pure white above and to the sides of a wide, thin-lipped mouth. He was lean, not a big man at all, but he looked tough. The object on his hip drew my attention. The only people on Cotter with visible weapons were guards, sheriffs, and the occasional visiting Fed.

"How'd you get a stunner? I'd never take you for a guard."

"This ain't no stunner, son," Del said as he drew the weapon and handed it to me butt first. "Part of my kit. Comes in pretty handy out where I go. You know what it is?"

"It's a — a projectile weapon of some sort. Is it an antique? It looks like the Old Earth guns in the history books."

Del nodded, accepting the weapon as I passed it, very gingerly, back. "You're close. It ain't no antique, though. It was made a couple of systems away on a planet called Marfa. Uses caseless ammunition, but, other than that, it's about like Earth-That-Was firearms. It'll kill most things up to the size of beef cow or whatever pretty easy. I mainly use it when I've snared a toothy somethin' a' one kind or another."

"What do you do?"

"Oh, this, that, and the other. Mostly I trap and hunt. I sell the furs and hides if they're any account. Eat or sell the meat if it's edible."

"You mean you hunt some kind of animals? I've never seen anything on Cotter. I saw deer in the reserves back on, uh, the hub planets. I even hunted once — with a crossbow, like William Tell."

Del gave his crow laugh. "Yep, this ain't like that. Here's the thing. Out beyond the Belt, the weather ain't so good. You go north or south on this rock, and you soon hit all-day cold. The tiffers didn't get 'nough tilt, or get it in close enough, I reckon. Anyway, ya cain't grow much a'nothin' out there, but sheep make it all right."

"I can understand that, but why would they put wild animals and things on a terraformed planet?"

"They probably don't like to brag about the truth too much. Tiffers just do what the planet scientists tell 'em. I might know. I've been on fresh planets a time or two. You want to guess my age?"

"Older than me, I guess. Seventy?"

"A hunnerd and thirty."

I whistled. "My great-great granny was a hundred and thirty when she died all right, but she didn't look like she could run amuck in no bar full'a Tong."

Del doubled over laughing. When he was able to he continued, "I knew I liked you, Hayes. You got a sense of humor. Ya need that. Truth is I ain't got no good explanation fer my age and unnatural preservation. But the point is that I've seen some things, and I worked as a tiffer myself at one time." He paused and refilled our coffee cups. I took the chance to look around. We were in a little block shack with a one-way roof. It was open to the rafters. I judged that it was attached to the side of a bigger building, like a lean-to.

"The smart boys figured at first that you could just make a planet then send people with seed and livestock. And ya can do that. But the rumor among the tiffers was that strange things would begin to happen to the stock and the plants, and, sometimes, to the people. A world'll fill itself up and get what it needs to plug its holes. Old Earth had lots of places fer things to live, and there was somethin' livin' ever'where. The story goes that they'd drop cows on a rock and pretty soon somethin' be birthed that wudn't exactly a cow, or anything else that anybody'd seen. If ya dropped dogs and cows, there was less trouble. If ya dropped dogs and cats and cows and birds and fish and frogs, there was even less trouble. The more variety they put down to begin with, the less things had to mutate to fill the holes. So the stories around the stove go.

"I don't know if that's all true fer sure or not. I know that's what's done any more and has been for at least the last four hunnerd year or so.

"So, there's small game, beaver, wolves, panthers, wild dogs, eagles, wild sheep and goats, caribou, wild ox — lots a' game out there beyond the Belt. It's hard country and hard livin', but a man's in the open air and on his own. That's worth a lot."

I nodded. "Yep."

We talked on for a while. Del seemed to enjoy my company. I finally had to leave to get back to my shift at the mine. I tried to pay him at least for the food he shared with me, but he wouldn't take anything. He said that my credits would cause him more trouble than they were worth. I didn't quite understand that at the time.

As I rose to leave, Del said, "Ya get tired a' that hole, come join me in the outlands. I could use a good hand skinnin' and settin' snares. I cain't pay much, but I feed good 'nough."

I shook his hand again. "I'll think about it. When ya comin' back to town?"

He shook his head. "No tellin'. This is my first trip in in five year. Ya might ought'a take it as a sign. I'm headin' due south from here. Once you're off the plateau, there's a river runs down to a big lake, a real big lake. It's fourteen-fifteen days on foot. I'll be camped somewhere around that lake for the next three-four months. After that I cain't say, but it ain't likely to matter if ya ain't there by then."

In the mines, we didn't get paid by the hour or the shift, we were paid by ore mass. The more ore a miner could send to the top, the more credits he drew at the end of the week. Each of us had two "buckets", big robotic bins that held five hundred kilos a piece. A man who sent four buckets a day to the top could make enough to live. The start of the week after I met Del, I had drawn a rich run and was sending up six buckets just about every shift. When payday rolled around, I was expecting a nice bonus, but my pay was the base amount — as if I had just been doing the regulation four buckets. I headed for the paymaster's office. She showed me the tallies, and mine matched my payout. I studied it for a few minutes.

"Is there anyway to finigle these?" I asked.

The paymaster was an older woman, pretty hard-looking, but kind-hearted and fair. She answered slowly, "I have heard of it — miners pullin' somebody's ID out and slippin' in their own. I don't know how you'd figure it out, though."

"Timin'. I worked sixteen hours shifts all week. I sent up a bucket two or two and a half hours into my shift, then about every three hours after that. Nobody pulled my last bucket 'cause I always came out with that one. Run my tallies and look for the gaps."

She did. The first two days the thief had been careful to pull my loads at different intervals: first and fifth, then second and fourth. The last four days, he had just taken the middle two, third and fourth, consistently. "All right," I said, "let's look for somebody that had two loads in the middle of my shift those last four days."

We found three miners that were close. When the paymaster matched them up to the times on the first two days stolen batches, one name fell out. The paymaster called in a couple of higher ups, and we went over my story. The higher of the higher ups expressed sympathy, "But," he explained, "there's really nothing we can do unless this other miner is willing to admit to the mistake. The machine could have misread — "

"Sure. Once or twice. Or ever time, but not a pattern like this. This had to a'been done deliberate." I was getting more than a little frustrated and heated.

The higher up shrugged his shoulders. "There's nothing we can do unless the other miner is willing to confirm your claim."

"All right. All right then. I'll see if that there can be arranged." Spinning around, I stormed out of the slick, clean offices and back into the rubble, rock dust, and puddles. I didn't have many friends among my fellow miners, but I had a few I knew well enough. It took me about forty-five minutes of asking questions to locate the bastard who had swiped my buckets. He was having dinner at a place called the Redhand Club — which seemed poetic enough. There were two men and two hired women at the table when I strolled up. My pigeon was a big one. He had about four inches and, worse, probably twenty pounds on me — all muscle best I could tell.

I told him my name and my bucket number. "Which," I said, "you ought to know pretty well by now seein' as it's payin' for yer dinner and yer escorts here."

He smirked. "You accusin' me a'somethin', squish?"

"Yep. And I'd call ya a thief to yer face if ya'd quit sittin' on it."

He was fixing to stand up when I dumped the table over on him. It went downhill from there. His partner helped a little. He was trying to take me out with a sap but took his buddy down instead. By then our one-on-one had blossomed into a general brawl, and the fellow with the sap had his own distractions. I was dragging my unconscious witness to the door when he recovered his wits. He lit into me and was getting the better of it when the sheriffs arrived and electrified everything that was moving. They threw six of us in the tank — the same tank — where our dispute resumed. Fortunately, the three other miners were willing maintain a peaceful neutrality. We passed the night without further violence. Bright and early, the sheriffs shoved us out the door to make room for a new batch. I should have let it go, gotten drunk, and considered it a lesson learned.

Instead I went down to the market and started talking and dropping credits until I found an old woman who dealt in items she didn't keep on her table. I laid out my complaint. She took my money — every single credit in my book — and handed me a canvas bag full of cheap protein bars. "Don't open it until you get back to your place," she whispered.

I went into my tiny room, shut the door, and sat down on the bunk. Fishing in the bag, I was a little angry thinking perhaps the old woman had cheated me, then my hand closed on the cool metal. I drew out the pistol. It was fully loaded with thirty rounds. I had no idea what it would feel like to shoot it or even how to shoot it. It is a wonder that I didn't blow a hole in my foot. After I had fiddled with it for an hour or so I thought I had the operation down pretty well.

I stuffed the protein bars in a rucksack along with my spare clothes and the rest of my worldly possessions. All told it weighed about ten kilos and the protein was half. I put on my coat and headed down to the back alleys to look for the man who was about to die.

Chapter 2