My flash fiction piece “Doomster,” excerpted from the opening chapter of my shelved novel project, along with a review of Jack Ketchum’s tremendous essay collection Book of Souls, can be read for free online in the latest issue of Surreal Grotesque.
My short story “Moonbound,” a bizarre, sentimental little piece I wrote last summer, is now live at ThunderDome Magazine. Read it, rate it, share it. Thanks. Enjoy!
“El Mirador” appears in the augmented-reality fiction anthology Mirror Shards: Extending the Edges of Augmented Reality, Vol. 1. The story is reproduced below in its entirety, in observance of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day.
by Alex J. Kane
You wake to find yourself in a cramped, foul-smelling capsule spacious enough for one. After coughing up congealed phlegm and bronchial surfactant, you stretch your arms and legs, roll your neck, and glimpse the artificial world beyond the escape pod’s porthole.
The Niven habitat El Mirador stretches out before you: a pearlescent band filled with verdant earth and vast oceans, its distant pinnacle arcing sunward to the point of near-invisibility.
A ping flashes in the corner of your eye; then highlights your destination, and marks it with realtime ETA and proximity data.
Two blinks, in rapid succession.
The pupil-centric indicator in your field of vision hovers to CONTINUE ON PRESENT ENTRY VECTOR, and winks green.
You rub the coarse sleep from your eyes, and wonder just how long it’s been since you were put into cryo. Has it really been twelve years? Thirteen? Does the mission still stand, after all this wakeless time?
Pulling up the contract shows it was last synced with Astralum Corporation’s database just over a month ago.
You’re still their dog, still on the hunt.
Just a highly intelligent, highly dangerous animal, as far as the suits on Earth and the inner colonies are concerned.
The Lagrange points, they probably snicker from a coward’s safe distance, befit an engineered killing machine like you.
All that wild emptiness.
The megastructure outside the pod draws nearer, but no red fireball licks at the pod. Not yet.
You catch sight of the flaring solar mirrors that regulate temperature and sunlight. The telescopes and lasercomm relays that speckle the vacuum all about the station like a swarm of winged insects, each pointing toward its own
assigned in-system colony.
Memories come flooding back like the vague recurrence of some long-forgotten dream.
A name: Tzitzi.
Something about irony, flowers, and a dead language on some plague-ravaged precolonial continent. Life prior to that of the mercenary huntress. Prior to purpose.
Untold debt, still waiting to be paid. Ah, you think. That’s what this bounty was all about. Yeah. Getting that shit paid off so I can buy my freedom. Clear my fugitive status, maybe even have fifty or sixty thousand credits leftover.
Except that you know this one gig won’t be enough. There will have to be more. You might go to sleep for months, or years, but debtorship doesn’t ever freeze. It just expands.
You think, Someday.
Inside the ring’s atmosphere, now — beneath the kilometers-high outer walls. A glow of rushing heat and fire. The rattle of air resistance.
Another name: Sol Mendoza. Your mark.
You pull the ripcord overhead; a practiced, reflexive action. This isn’t the first time you’ve had to crash-land one of these half-assed excuses for a spacecraft.
Drag fins snap out into the air behind the pod, reverse thrusters firing their explosive single-use rockets in a quick blast. The pod lurches sickeningly, and you stiffen in spite of yourself.
The ground below grows closer, closer . . .
Optical sensors overlay topographical data upon the visible terrain, and the craft’s autopilot compensates for a level impact. To minimize damage; to the pod, to you.
A flash of forested green, and then the world falls dark.
— — —
Semiconscious and howling in agony, a good twenty-four hours or so pass. Meantime, a calculated spectrum of probiotics and autonomous nanobots in your bloodstream work diligently to seal the breaches in your dermis, nourish your hungry cells, and replenish the fractured regions of your reinforced skeleton.
Fueled by adrenaline, you manage to hurl the canopy open and gaze out at the world that encircles you. You reach for the edges of the ruined capsule, and pull at your own weight to heft yourself upright. Wincing, straining –
You’re still far too weak to stand.
Try as you might to fight it, another blackout seizes you.
— — —
The nearby village settlement of Faribault sits low at the riverside. Concrete walls skirt along its borders, to keep the inhabited region from flooding. Scattered houses dot the rocky hills in the distance. Smoke and industrial filth curls skyward from the mess of belching factories on the edge of town opposite the river.
Wind turbines face upstream, their dizzying spiral dance supplementing the hydroelectric generators that jut from the floodgates. Churning, whining, tossing foamy spray.
This limitless data clouds your vision like so much eye-pollution, so much noise. Your cerebrospinal implant interfaces with the colonists’ own network, and suddenly everything you’d ever care to know — more knowledge than any individual could possibly retain — is made accessible.
Is made your own.
No possessions, no citizenship on this world or any other, and yet even the impoverished exile can reap her fair share of the intellectual commonwealth.
“Okay, Sol,” you whisper to yourself. “Where are you hiding?”
You strike out walking, headed for the settlement.
A tap of the touchpad tattooed along the inside of your wrist summons a list of recent queries. With an affirmative blink, the OmniWare device nestled in your brain stem seeks out any available intel on Mendoza’s whereabouts via the town’s surprisingly vast remote databank.
His identification sphere spawns in the air in front of you, immaterial but manipulable.
You spin it this way and that, perusing his personal history with a few flicks of your index finger.
This data is all public, but it beats the hell out of strolling into the pub and questioning the locals. This way, it’s probably reliable.
Date and place of origin, last logged pass through customs, phenotypic profile, blood type, neural uplink make and serial number.
Last known location: UNAVAILABLE.
You pull the luminous sphere open, and examine the slivered facets of its interior.
All around you, folks are stepping outdoors from their rickety wooden homes to take a look at the outsider who’s just wandered into town. Unbidden, untrustworthy. Fingering at the air like some insane mystic.
Offworlder, they silently sneer.
Save for some of the men, of course; some of them are craning their necks to ogle you with lusty eyes despite your alienness. Beneath your leather duster, the bulge of your breasts is still partially visible. Doubtless you’re immensely welcome in Faribault, if these men have anything to say about it.
Striding on, pretending not to notice the curious eyes all about you, you head straight for the regional law office.
Inside the ID sphere, a single document catches your attention. You scan it hastily, and simultaneously pull your hair back into a messy bun.
You think, Now this is interesting.
— — —
AstraCorp Headquarters. El Mirador Outpost.
The young man at the receptionist’s desk is hunched forward, nose-deep in a tattered paper book. He doesn’t notice you looming over him, not until you draw a breath and clear your throat.
My name is JARYN, his name tag reads.
You simply ignore the phantom cloud of information that hovers next to his head.
“Oh, sorry,” Jaryn gasps. “Hello. How can we help you, Miss — ?” The boy slaps the book closed, sets it aside, and taps at the glass panel on his desk.
A hologram flowers to life in the space between you, and his expression betrays supreme confusion when your face registers zero matches in the system.
“Tzitzi. Doesn’t matter.” You say, “I’m looking for a Solomon Mendoza. Goes by Sol. Heard of him?”
“Mendoza,” the boy mutters. “Mendoza . . .” His dull eyes focus on nothing in particular as he seems to consider the name. Then he calls up a population master list, waves his way through thousands of names before pausing to ask, “He the guy who went missing?”
You sigh. Then, “What?”
“Yeah, hate to be the one to tell you, but if this is the same Mendoza, I heard something a few years back about an incident quite a ways upstream from here. Guy broke into a company storehouse and sabotaged a bunch of expensive farming machinery, maybe stole some too. Had help, I think, but he was the one in charge of the whole ordeal. Heard someone pissed him off, but clearly it was uncalled-for.”
“And then . . . ?”
“Then he supposedly just fell off the grid. Must’ve tossed his tablet in the river and took off. Something.”
Speech analysis indicates he’s telling the truth.
Meaning, of course, that Sol doesn’t have a wetware implant installed any longer. He’s all flesh. Which suits a barbarous outcast like him, you think to yourself.
In the pockets of your coat, your hands curl into tight fists. The boy, Jaryn, appears not to notice that you’re shaking with fury.
The idea strikes you that this maybe isn’t the best place to whip out a pair of submachine guns. Effective stimulus or not, they can’t make Mendoza materialize right in front of you.
“Any other incidents involving him?” you ask, slowly leaning over the counter.
“I don’t believe so.”
Again, truthful. The kid’s got no idea that on at least one in-system habitat, Mendoza is suspected — undoubtedly guilty — of murder; that the bastard routinely displays alarming sociopathic tendencies, as the AstraCorp network puts it.
With a flourish you stride back out into the warmth of El Mirador’s reflected sunlight, en route to the wilderness that sprawls for kilometers upstream.
— — —
Waypoints mark concentrations of human presence in your path, which are few and far between. Trees like the mythic redwoods of old Earth tower all about, forming a canopy that drowns the soil underfoot in shadows. A cool wind follows you. There’s the occasional cawing of a bird, but relatively little animal life to be spotted for hours at a time.
You come to realize that those winking green triangles off in the distance are your only beacon of hope.
They mark your progress, of which you’d have not even the vaguest sense otherwise.
They give you the drive to keep on, even as your stomach aches with hunger and your bones grow weary of the pseudo-gravity pulling you down.
— — —
Along the way, you access Mendoza’s ID sphere for further study. Holovids of his last known public dealings, three-dimensional renderings of his face, and even full body scans. Local police logs of his habitual patterns.
The only reason you’re on this backwater station is to track down Sol and spray him with a lethal dose of smoking bullets laced with paralyzing neurotoxins. And all the while, the smug bastard’s walking right alongside you, a ghost of his past reality committed to digital memory just so he can taunt his pursuer.
Unkempt salt-and-pepper hair thinning to a high widow’s peak. Cold green eyes, skin tanned dark by a working man’s hours spent in the sun.
A wide, toothy grin as he swipes his credit chip, mouths “Thanks, asshole,” and nods a solemn goodbye to the cashier at a general store somewhere in the territory. This one’s a nonevent.
In another, this time a police surveillance record, Sol is leaning toward a young woman sitting beside him at a diner. They’re finished eating, knocking back a couple of drinks, and he goes in fast for a kiss. His questing hand slips out of sight beneath the table. She backs away and wrinkles her nose at him in disgust.
He slaps her, hard.
She reaches up to touch her cheek with trembling fingertips, disbelieving. Tears glisten in her eyes as she slips out of the booth and flees, visibly mortified.
Doesn’t take long before you decide this is all you need to know about the man whose life you’re hoping to end, and wave the shattered AR sphere and its contents away.
— — —
Nothing to hear but the wind in the trees, now. The river must be a day’s trek away. The darkness carries with it an autumn chill. No solar mirrors visible up in the sky; only the faint light of the stars.
An indicator flashes, pointing toward something new it’s just detected.
Following the blinking yellow marker, you come upon an abandoned camp site. A kindling burns in the center, putting off the lovely aroma of burning wood. Its embers have died down to a dim orange-red glow, but the heat it emits is a welcome surprise. You sit down on a large log beside the fire, and soak in the warmth.
Your implant brings up an optional chemical analysis of the burn, and you blink affirmatively.
The fire’s only a couple hours old; at least since its flames were last fed firewood.
Curls of smoke waft heavenward from another fiery glow: the tip of a cigar at your feet.
You pick it up, sniff at it. Put it to your mouth and take a deep drag. The smoke burns your lungs and steals your breath. You cough, heave the tasteless puff back up, and hawk a wad of smoky mucus into the dirt.
You think, Well, that’s fucking gross.
— — —
A quick search of the station’s all-encompassing network confirms that the cigar is your mark’s brand of choice. He’s a tobacco smoker, all right. Before coming to El Mirador, he bought them by the crate, like the military does.
Traces of ammonia in the air form a trail leading toward Mendoza’s safe house in your field of vision each time you force yourself to inhale the pungent byproduct of his cigar. You’re just following his stench; chasing his filth through the woods while his own digital ghost leads the way.
I’ll take that AR with the scope, Sol says to some faceless gun merchant. Four boxes of ammunition, if you’ve got em.
Countless sales receipts: for sidearms, signal flares, an inflatable mattress, pieces of attire warm enough for living outdoors.
An order for credit line termination, per colonial law.
So you know he’s well-armed.
Hell, any moment now a bullet might pierce your skull. Game over. But you’ve got a debt to pay, a life to buy back.
Meantime, this lawless bastard Sol owes the authorities his freedom, at minimum; ideally his life.
Like so many, he isn’t worthy of the air in his chest.
— — —
The next town you hit, where Mendoza’s cigar smoke trail vanishes, is little more than a way station. A stop along the wheel that just keeps turning, pouring its infinite river on downstream.
Dawn breaks on the horizon, its golden light halved by the glittering band of El Mirador stretching skyward all around you.
A large unpainted vehicle trundles by on two sets of thundering treads, headed out of town. The sudden squawk of a bird on a rooftop overhead startles you, but you stifle your reaction and keep walking.
“Hello,” says a little girl standing in the road. She grins, toothless, her ocean-blue irises gleaming in the sunlight.
“Hi there,” you say. Then, “Do me a favor: Go inside and stay there, kiddo. Something bad’s about to happen out here.” You press a finger to your lips and make a shushing sound.
She does as instructed, and you let go a held breath. Relieved.
At the sound of her slamming the front door, you start back toward the center of the village, where several horses are tied in wooden stalls outside the general store and the handful of automobiles in sight all have the Astralum Corporation logo emblazoned on their sides in flaking, rust-scarred paint.
Then another sound, a metallic crack, stops you where you stand, and with a pivot of the heel you’re facing back at the house where the young girl entered.
The long barrel of an assault rifle is aimed right at your face.
From behind its large infrared scope, a fat old man leans forward to get a good look at you. Gray hair, thinning to a high widow’s peak. Dull, icy green eyes. Leathery dark skin.
Aged, but not enough to declare him nonthreatening.
A jagged scar runs down his cheek, starting at the corner of his left eyelid and disappearing into the shadow beneath his stubbly chin. His old eyes glint with a quiet intensity.
“Sol,” you say, only it’s not a question.
The child appears again, clutching his pant leg from behind. He shakes her off, tells her to go back inside; she obeys.
“My little niece says you scared her, offworlder,” Sol says.
And you say, “Did I? Just wanted to make sure she didn’t see anything that might haunt her the rest of her life, like me killing you. Like seeing me throw your limp body into a burn pile.”
“This old man?” He cackles.
You say, “Oh yes, Sol. Proper payment for your crimes is long past due. You want peace, you shouldn’t go around murdering AstraCorp employees and destroying their equipment.”
You say, “You’ve jeopardized this colony enough times. Now it’s your turn to fall face-first in the dirt. Sorry.” You offer a shrug of mock sympathy.
There’s that grin: wide, toothy. A few teeth are missing, but the devilish lines in his cheeks and the crook in his brow haven’t fled. Only deepened.
“Pardon me, stranger, but you seem to forget which one of us is staring at a rifle pointed right between her eyes.” Another insane cackle, and he wipes a hand across his mouth.
“The people in this town appreciate you jabbing that thing at anybody who happens to walk by?”
He grunts. “Girl, the people in this town know to mind their own affairs, to keep their noses out. They know better than to cross me. You ought to take heed of their example, you want to get out of this place alive.”
You smile, satisfied to be getting a rise out the old man. “I think you’ll find I don’t need your advice to survive. You always underestimate your enemies, Sol?”
“Not this time, I’d wager.” Mendoza bares his yellowed teeth. “This time, I think I’ve found me just another loyal dog come all the way up here to die. For some damned corporation, don’t give a damn about its own save for what they can exploit. Yeah, I’d say so. Another loyal dog.”
You dive sidelong for the copper soil, reaching into the folds of your duster and pulling out the pair of Xing-Barron submachine guns you keep holstered below your underarms. After a momentous roll, you rise to your feet.
With a deliberate squeeze of the triggers, a spray of gunfire erupts from both muzzles.
The explosive cacophony of all those tiny sonic booms.
You keep your head low, strafing as you fire.
The light of a hundred flaring bullets as they burst free into the air, riddling Mendoza’s ragged flesh and tossing up ribbons of blood in their wake.
He doesn’t even get a chance to aim his rifle.
Instead, the life is flowing out of him like so much wasted potentiality, drowning the earth in an obscene pool of shining crimson as he slumps to his knees, and then collapses backward. He’s heaving labored breaths, coughing up blood that streaks his face and drips to further soak the dirt.
You holster your weapons, and cross your arms.
Sol’s young niece pushes the front door open, and a middle-aged man, probably Mendoza’s much younger brother, steps out behind her. There are tears in the child’s eyes as she hobbles down the stairs toward her uncle’s motionless body.
When the father on the porch gives no sign of confrontation, you give him a grave look, then turn and stride on.
In the nothingness before you, you summon the command interface of El Mirador’s impressive lasercomm array with a few practiced strokes of your index finger. A rough 3-D rendering of the Niven habitat fills the space in front of you, and you prepare a voice recording to send out with the beacon.
The transmission will take months to reach the security contractors who sent you here, and a great deal longer than that before they arrive on-station to extract you. Until then, there will be plenty of time for exploring the luxuries of false liberty: whiskey, campfires in the wilderness, fishing for sport. Home-cooked meals, if you’re lucky. Learning to smoke cigars the proper way, if you’re feeling extraordinarily bold.
All this just to kill the time, and maybe even learn what it feels like to be human.
Before once more you wake to find yourself in a cramped, foul-smelling capsule spacious enough for one. Falling toward a new world; seeking out a new target.
Before you’re unleashed to hunt again.