Saturday, October 31, 2015

3:10 To Wafra

Snaking across the vast red landscape and winding around its various craters was a stretch of track that went from Aeolis Serpens all the way to Wafra Crater. A lonely stretch of track on a desolate planet with nothing but the wind and rust for several kilometers.

What could go wrong? Hilda thought to herself as she sat back in her seat on the train currently on those tracks. That was what she had asked the kind old lady who had sold her the ticket. 

"That stretch of track is lousy with robbers and ne'er-do-wells, a nice young girl like you would be taking a serious chance taking this train." she had told Hilda.

"Do you say that to everyone who takes this train?" she had asked.

"Only the ones I like," the old woman had said with kind smile.

Hilda smiled, it's not every day you find someone so sweet at the ticket teller. She leaned back in her seat and listened to the slight rumble of the train. The place was packed with travelers, tourists from Earth, and a handful of security guards posted on either end of the car. These guards were usually mercenaries, and not the best quality. The government couldn't afford to pay for top quality mercenaries to protect trains from robbers.

They weren't stingy when it came to bounties, however. Hilda figured there were a couple wannabe bounty hunters on this train somewhere hoping to score big. She was more worried of the bounty hunters than the bounties in that case. Still, she always felt anxious when traveling through such long stretches of the rustlands. You never knew what was lurking out in the craters and dust storms.


Perched on the lip of a small crater, Pietro stared through his binoculars at the section of track he had picked out to begin the heist. A light gust was blowing but he could barely feel it through his environment suit. Logan and Kurtz were huddled together behind him. Kurtz with his rifle and Logan with his sub-machine gun. They had been waiting all morning for the 3:10 train to Wafra to arrive. Pietro knew that Kurtz was getting restless, for a sniper he didn't have much patience.

"How much longer?" Kurtz asked.

Pietro checked the time on his visor. "Ten more minutes."

Kurtz let out small sigh, making a point to leave his mic on when he did to express his disdain. Pietro ignored it and went back to watching the track. 

Logan, the more stoic of the trio, remained silent. Which was a relief for Pietro because he really didn't want to hear anymore bitching. It was bad enough that they had to sleep in their environment suits all night after setting up the trap. Having to deal with two complaining children would've been too much for Pietro. Though he didn't know if Logan's silence was a sign that he didn't mind the discomfort or if he was incredibly pissed that they hadn't sprung for the portable habitat when they were getting ready for this heist. Either way it didn't matter, soon they'd have enough money to pay for a proper place in a nice, warm, preferably underground, colony.

Pietro grinned, not at the thought of finally being able to afford a comfortable place to relax without having to worry about breaching his suit if he turned over onto a sharp rock, but at the sight of the 3:10 train to Wafra Crater coming into view in the distance.

"Okay boys," Pietro checked his pistols, "get ready, it's coming."


The wind picked up, sending up a shroud of dust that cloaked a figure clad in an old, beaten, space suit and long brown duster. The figure watched the trio of criminals lurking on the edge of the small crater several kilometers away through his rifle scope. With the wind picking up, the figure had to watch them through the infared filter, so the three men were nothing but bright white dots in a sea of black and green. 

He could kill them all from here, but that wasn't the reason he had been tracking them for the last three days. No, he had to bide his time, wait to see which one was the real target he was seeking. While it bothered him that he'd have to wait for them to stop the train and raid it, he knew it was the only way. He could wait. He'd waited this long, he could wait longer. The train was on its way, bearing down on the trap they had set up. A magnetic lock that would stop the train the moment it was triggered. It'd be jarring to those on board, but it wouldn't damage what the men were after. And judging from the large tanker truck they had hidden in the crater they were after one thing: the water the train was hauling. 

The train would hit the trap in 7 minutes. The figure remained still, waiting for things to play out before making his move. 


Hilda was asleep when the train came to a sudden halt. She was forced further into her seat, as her seat was facing towards the back of the train, while the couple in front of her were thrown out of theirs. The train car was thrown into chaos as luggage rained down from the cabinets above and people cried out in surprise and pain. 

This is it, she figured. It was obvious what would happen next.

After a brief moment the security guards were up and ordering people to remain calm and to stay down. Hilda did as they told and huddled beneath the window, then she waited. There was silence, at least as silent as it could be with so many people cowering, waiting for whatever horror was coming next. She could hear a low rumble off in the distance and she went to the window to see what it was. 

Sure enough, there were a couple bandits in a large tanker truck coming out of a small crater a few yards from the tracks. They were going for the water, pretty bold of them given she could only see two men. No doubt there was a third man, a sniper, not that far giving them cover.

The guards in the car started shouting and ran to the emergency airlock. They poured out as the truck passed them. Even through the thin atmosphere Hilda could hear one of the guards open fire  Then he suddenly stopped and collapsed onto the ground. The report of a distant gunshot confirmed Hilda's suspicions that there was a sniper. Another guard went down, a spray of blood coating the visor of the guard behind him. People began to scream, and Hilda started to crawl along the ground towards the rear of the car. The guards were dead, no doubt more would follow, but Hilda couldn't do anything about that right now.

She had a job to do. She opened the door and slipped into the next car.  


"There it is! The water!" Pietro shouted to Logan, who was firing his machine gun at a group of mercenaries on the roof of the car ahead of the tanker car. He missed one, who started to take aim at them before his helmet's visor exploded into a shower of glass and blood. Pietro saw the oxygen rush out of the broken helmet and the mercenary fell off the train and onto the red soil. 

Does Kurtz really need to shoot all these assholes in the face? Pietro wondered. He couldn't help but cringe because, while the guards he had shot might very well die, he wasn't making absolutely sure they were dead by shooting through their helmets. Most environment suits came with an emergency sealant to keep pressure from escaping. However a shot through the visor of a helmet was a death sentence, even if you didn't die from the bullet bouncing around inside the helmet by some miracle the exposure to Mars' atmosphere would finish you off for sure. 

The fact that Kurtz made an effort to do so just proved everything Pietro feared about the guy, he was unnecessarily cruel. 

Pietro brought the truck to a stop next to the tanker car carrying the water and quickly hopped out. Logan did the same, gunning down a merc that had just stepped out of the car behind it as he did. The two men worked quickly, Pietro grabbed the reel of hose connected to the tank on the truck and raced towards the tanker. He scampered up the ladder while Logan and Kurtz covered him. Already he could hear more mercenaries shouting, hopefully this wouldn't take long. He got to work connecting the hose to begin pumping the water out of the tank. 


Hilda heard more gunshots and screams as she made her way from one car to the other. The mercenaries had left the train to deal with the bandits outside, but from what she could see through the window outside they were getting picked off by that sniper. And from the sound of it, he was a crack shot with that rifle. She knew she had to take care of him first if she wanted a shot at the other two. 

No doubt that's Kurtz out there, she figured, so Peitro and and Logan are at the water car. Hilda fiddled with a device fixed to her wrist and a collapsible helmet began to form around her head. Once it made a perfect seal, she made a bee line towards the emergency airlock on the far end of the car she had entered and stepped out onto the unforgiving Martian surface.


Kurtz spied another hapless mercenary running along the roof towards Pietro. In the span of a second he'd locked onto the merc's helmet and squeezed the trigger. The merc's visor shattered, oxygen and blood sprayed into the air, and the merc tumbled over the side of the car and disappeared. Pietro had already begun pumping water out of the water car, it'd take a few minutes to fill the truck but Kurtz wasn't worried. These mercs were too stupid to do anything. They just kept lining up in front of his crosshairs like lemmings. 

He spied another merc about to step out of the car's emergency airlock and took aim. He shot out the airlock window, a stupid design choice Kurtz figured but he used rounds capable of piercing the bullet resistant glass so it was a bit of a moot point, and the merc suffocated before he could get his helmet on. 

Too easy, Kurtz grinned. 

That's when a bright light, as if from some major explosion, blinded him. Kurtz screamed and instinctively tried to clasp at his face but couldn't through his helmet. He kept screaming, his eyes felt like they were melting out of their sockets. It felt like it took forever for the pain to subside, but when it did Kurtz opened his eyes and was met with only darkness. 

For a brief moment, he panicked, the idea that he had been blinded overwhelming all other logic. However when his vision finally cleared he was relieved to see the lights inside his helmet and his heads up display as clear as day. His visor was just blacked out by some sort of substance. He found he couldn't wipe off whatever it was and began to curse and shout. 


"One dummy down, two to go." Hilda said to herself. She had settled herself beneath the train where she had carefully pinpointed Kurtz's location before launching a little device of her own design. No doubt he was freaking out that he'd been permanently blinded or, if he had a single brain cell left in his skull, he was clawing at his visor in a vain attempt to wipe off the little agent Hilda had concocted herself to adhere to a person's visor and leave them.. well, blind!

 And since he couldn't really get at it without taking his helmet off that meant he was out of the game for the time being. Now it was time to focus attention on Pietro and Logan, no doubt they were nearly finished filling up that truck of theirs.


"Are we done yet?" Logan asked Pietro over the radio, "I think somebody took out Kurtz!"
Pietro checked the readout on his visor, the truck was full now. "Yeah, let's get out of here!" Pietro removed the hose and pressed a button on his wrist computer to make the truck spool up the hose. He turned and quickly slid down the ladder. 

When he landed he turned to run to the truck but was met with a number of bullets tearing through his suit, and by extension himself. His legs buckled and he fell face down on the ground. Alarms were blaring in his helmet as the suit computer detected the breaches and tried to seal them. Pietro tried breathing but it was ragged and painful. He was confused, what had happened? Who shot him?

His answer came when Logan turned him over with a firm kick. 

"W-why?" Pietro tried to say as his lungs slowly filled up with blood. 

"The Viper would like to thank you for your help, but doesn't appreciate amateurs that have a habit for double crosses." Logan muttered as he brought down his machine gun right onto Pietro's visor.

Pietro closed his eyes and waited for the shot. He had hoped he wouldn't be taken out like this, like those mooks Kurtz had offed, but then he should've known trying to steal from The Viper would come with a price...

A series of gunshots rang out, but after a moment Pietro opened his eyes and saw Logan on his knees, bullet holes in his legs and shoulders. Logan was staring at something and Pietro struggled to turn his head and see what it was.


Hilda heard more gunshots as she ran along the roof of the train. She reached the water car and was a bit worried when it seemed like Pietro and Logan had managed to finish pumping out the water they had come to steal. However, as she got closer she saw what looked like Logan kneeling over Pietro's bullet riddled body. 

Another person was with them. Whoever it was, they had a gun trained on Logan, but it was obvious that they weren't part of the guard detail. She figured it must've been a fourth man, she figured it was possible Pietro would hire a fourth guy for support and she must not have seen him earlier in all the chaos. From the looks of it, this unknown fourth gunman was pulling a double cross on them. She slowed her pace and made sure to keep out of sight. 

The thought of bringing in four bounties instead of three was extremely promising, so she didn't want to mess this up. She figured the best plan would be to get behind the fourth man and incapacitate him. She readied her stun gun, a rather imposing collapsible rifle of her own making, and started to creep along the roof, making sure not to be seen.


The plan had gone as planned. While a number of mercenaries had perished in the attack, it couldn't have been prevented, not if he wanted to get what he had come for. 

So it was Logan, he was the one. Kurtz was the obvious choice, given his penchant for needless slaughter he would've no doubt fit the bill for a one of The Viper's men. Logan, on the other hand... well it hadn't been completely clear which one was an agent for The Viper until one of them had acted. 

Logan looked up and stared into the reflective visor of the man who had just shot him. 

"Tell me everything you know," the faceless figure said in a calm, cool tone.

"Fuck you," Logan hissed. His arms and legs were on fire, and he couldn't move without considerable pain shooting through them. 

"Where is The Viper, Logan?" The figure said.

"You're stupid if you think I know information like that." Logan said, he too was surprisingly calm in spite of the situation he was in.

"Tell me what you know. Who sent you to kill these men? To steal this water?"

"If you knew who you were hunting, truly knew, you'd know offering to spare my life for the information I carry is pointless."

"I know all too well who I'm hunting," the figure said. "Tell me and I'll grant you a quick death. Don't and I'll make sure The Viper thinks you did regardless. Save yourself the pain of a slow death and tell me what you know."

Logan fell silent, considering his options. The figure remained still, his revolver trained on Logan's head. 

There was a moment of silence as the two men stared at one another, and it was in this moment that the figure noticed a blur move in the faint reflection of Logan's helmet. 


Hilda landed behind the unknown man with the grace of a cat, barely kicking up any dust from her landing as she did. It was perfect, a flawless flanking maneuver. So much so that when she saw the man whip around and train his gun on her took her by surprise. It had been so fast, like lightning, that she didn't have any time to react. 

She dove to her right in an attempt to avoid the shot she figured would follow, but it never came. She rolled and ended up in a kneeling position. She brought up her stun rifle and trained it on the gunman. 

"Bounty hunter," the man said. His voice was eerily calm. "I don't like being snuck-up on."

Hilda remained silent, she just kept her finger on the trigger and waited for this man to make his move. 

"So you were the one who dealt with Kurtz. I must say, that was impressive. If you're here for the bounty on these men, don't worry. You can claim it. Just allow me to conclude my business with this man here." He motioned to Logan.

Hilda was confused, "What are you talking about? You're not with them?"

"No." The man said frankly. 

"And you're not a bounty hunter?"


"Then what are you doing here?" 

"Like I said, I have business with Mr. Logan over there, allow me to conclude it, and I'll let you collect the bounty on Pietro and Kurtz."

Hilda shook her head, "Uh-uh, Logan too. You said I could collect them all."

"Sadly, Mr. Logan's business with me concludes when he's dead. It's an agreement he's yet to make a decision on." 

Hilda didn't know what was going on, or even if this guy was telling the truth about any of this. "I can't let you do that. That's my bounty." 

"If you'd prefer it, I could deal with you as well." 

"Is that a threat?" 

"Only if you intend to get in my way." 

"You may not know this, but I'm no common bounty hunter."

"It's readily apparent to me that you are a cut above the common bounty hunters I've met, ma'am. That is of no concern to me." 

"Maybe if you knew who I was you'd think twice. My name is Hilda, known to many as..."

"The Iron Harpy. Yes, I know. You're reputation is well known. Many people say you're the best bounty hunter on the planet. I happen to be one of them."

"So you know I always collect on the bounties I go after, that includes Logan. If that means I have to go through you, I will." 

"You may be the best bounty hunter in the world, but like I said, I am no bounty hunter. I'm willing to compromise with you. Logan for the other two, I suggest you take my offer."

"No deal, buster!" Hilda leaped into the air, high into the air. Aided by a battery of thrusters built into her boots and the shoulders of her armor she rocketed up several feet into the air. Initially Hilda had hoped this would catch this guy by surprise, but since he apparently knew about her she figured this wouldn't be as surprising a move as she wanted. 

It wasn't, as the man had quickly adjusted his aim and fired. He must have missed because instead of hitting her the bullet grazed the side of her rifle and threw her aim off. She adjusted her position with her thrusters and tried to get him in her sights, again the guy somehow kept up with her movements and fired. He hit her rifle again, this time just as she pulled the trigger. The stun round was like a streak of blue light as it missed the man by several feet and struck the side of the train. A small explosion of sparks and electricity burst from the round as it locked onto the train with tiny pincers. 

It was crazy to consider it, but Hilda got the sneaking suspicion that this guy wasn't trying to kill her. He was intentionally throwing her aim off. She tested this theory with another change in her trajectory as she took aim at him once more. 

His aim was accurate and quick, he followed her movements and fired again. And just as she expected the bullet struck her rifle and threw off her aim. 

If that's how he's going to play, we'll just change the game! Hilda figured. She collapsed her rifle and locket it back onto the magnetic holster on her leg. She closed the distance between them with her thrusters and produced a blade from her wrist.

The first blow seemed to take the man by surprise, though she couldn't tell through the reflective surface of the visor. She managed to slice through the collar of the duster the man was wearing before he dodged her attack. He started to step back, ducking and weaving around her slashes and stabs with surprising speed. 

Hilda tried to catch him off guard by faking a kick to his ribs and going in with her blade when he tried to block it. It worked, but not perfectly. The fake-out took surprised him but he responded to her second attack by shooting her blade. It must've been a bit of a desperate move on his part, but it paid off. The force of the bullet hitting the wristblade shook her entire arm and threw her off balance. The man then struck her in the head with the butt of his gun. Hilda went sprawling into the dirt. 

"Please, stay down. I don't want to kill you, but I will if you keep getting in my way." The man's voice was just as calm and cool as it had ever been. It sent a chill down Hilda's spine. She didn't dare move, as she figured he had his gun trained on her.

"Now, have you made a decision, Logan?" 

Hilda looked to where Logan had been and saw that he had recovered his machine gun and had managed to turn it on himself.

"Fuck you, asshole." He pulled the trigger and his helmet exploded into a shower of blood and pieces of helmet. The blood flash froze when it made contact with the atmosphere and what remained of Logan slumped into the red sand. 

The mystery man looked at Logan's corpse for what seemed like forever. Hilda used this moment to use her thrusters to propel herself up and over him and behind the train. When she was safely behind cover she produced a pistol and another blinding residue grenade. She knew this guy was no pushover, and she had just managed to keep him from "concluding" whatever business he had with Logan, she didn't know what he'd do. She listened, but there was no sound. 

After a moment she decided to move. Using her thrusters she leaped back over the train and readied the grenade. But the mystery man was gone. There weren't even any tracks telling her where he'd run off to. He just disappeared like a ghost. 

When she landed, she expected him to leap out from beneath the ground or something, but the attack never came. When it became clear that the guy had fled, Hilda finally relaxed. What few guards were left finally arrived, along with a few journalists who had been on the train. With Logan and Pietro dead, and Kurtz incapacitated, it didn't take long for the train's engineers to return the water back to the train's tank and deactivate the magnetic lock. Soon, the train was once again on its way to Wafra Crater.

Upon its arrival, Hilda had Kurtz transferred to the police for processing and collected the bounty on him and Pietro. Logan's bounty was null and void as he was wanted alive, so that was a bust. Hilda ordered a room at a nearby hotel and quickly washed herself of the day's hardships. Tomorrow would be a new day, with new bounties. 

But that evening, she found herself wondering just who that mysterious gunman was, and what he wanted with Logan in the first place. The man's voice echoed in her mind and the soreness in her arm kept reminding her that whoever he was, he could've bested her easily. And that thought kept her from sleeping peacefully that night. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"Life In The Rustlands" A Brief Look At Life On The Red Planet by Patricia Musk

Excerpt from March issue of Eyes To Mars digital magazine. Published in 2133.

When one thinks about life on Mars it inspires images of large headed aliens with big eyes who zip around on flying saucers, at least that was the case throughout most of the 20th and 21st century. Nowadays, it inspires imagery not unlike the Wild West with a dash of the post-apocalyptic for good measure.

It's been nearly a century since the first settlers landed on Mars, and in the intervening years since that momentous occasion living there hasn't been a picnic. The soil is toxic, and there's nothing between you and the cosmic radiation but a thin layer of ice cold atmosphere. The life expectancy of most Martians is, at the most, 50 years. With the most common cause of death being from various forms of cancer. But that's if you live long enough.

Mars is very much considered the next frontier, and with it comes a level of barbarism not unlike the old west. While many Martians just struggle to make ends meet without dying, there are those who have taken to crime. And with only a few pockets that can be considered true civilization, The Red Delhi Caverns and Blue Crater being the most notable, maintaining the peace is virtually impossible. So it's no wonder that bounty hunters have seen a resurgence on Mars. In fact, bounty hunting has become a lucrative vocation for those with the skill and luck to live beyond a week.

And this is because of the myriad of criminals that run rampant on Mars. Drug smugglers, thieves, murderers, you name it and it's more than likely that Mars has it. With so little control in what the locals now call "the rustlands" (due to the iron oxides which gives Mars its distinctive red color) illegal activity has skyrocketed with various gangs and hideouts sprinkled throughout Mars' numerous cave systems and abandoned mining operations. While many gangs come and go over time some criminals eventually become kingpins of small criminal empires across the planet.

The most notorious of which is a criminal known only as The Viper whose influence has been felt across the Martian surface for well over two decades. The Viper operates numerous criminal enterprises ranging from android slavery, drug manufacture and smuggling, and robberies focusing on the most precious thing on Mars: water. Since The Viper's rise to power, they've attained the largest bounty in the history of the red planet thus far, a bounty now posted at 350 million dollars.