Two prisoners. One forgotten planet. A secret that twists justice beyond all recognition.
All Sandman wants is to get away from his violent past on Hell’s End, but trouble follows him, leaving him with more blood on his hands and a one-way ticket aboard a crewless prison transport on a pre-set course for Deimos.
By the time he realizes the transport’s actual destination is a mystery, there’s only one other prisoner he can trust. He doesn’t like it, or the things Vijay makes him feel. Caring makes you weak. Makes you easy to hurt. And Sandman’s never been easy, or weak.
Vijay is focused on what he’s always done best. Survival. But Sandman is an enigma, fearless in battle yet terrified of tight spaces. Vijay finds himself longing to break through the fierce young warrior’s shell.
After crash landing on an uncharted planet, they stumble on the justice system’s dirty little secret—the Farm, where prisoners go in but never come out. When the Farm’s threat gets personal, Sandman and Vijay each test the limits of endurance to protect the man at his back—and in his heart.
(Warning: This book contains spaceships, soldiers, good guys, bad guys, solar system politics, and a one-eyed Gutter with an attitude. )
© Copyright 2014 Ally Blue
Sandman traded passage from Hell’s End to the Mars colony for one dead man and a blow job.
To be fair, the blow job was a freebie. He liked sucking cock—the feel, the taste, and especially the power—and the chances of getting any once he reached Mars were remote. The ID bead he’d cut out of the dead man’s arm and implanted in his own ought to get him past the ship’s security system and maybe into the colony, but someone would eventually figure out he wasn’t who it said he was. Which meant he’d need to lie low and go sex-free for a while.
Not fun, but doable. Especially since it meant getting the fuck away from the space station where he’d been born and spent his whole life. He’d rather jump out the airlock than ever see the damn place again.
When Sandman reached the docks on the agreed date and time, the medical assistant who’d hated a would-be immigrant enough to have him killed was waiting. The man shuffled from foot to foot and bit his nails, his eyes cutting this way and that. He couldn’t have looked more guilty if he’d tried.
Keeping his stride casual, Sandman walked up and patted Lew’s shoulder. “Settle down. You’re going to attract attention.”
Lew tightened his lips but didn’t argue. “Come on. The passengers are all in hibernation, and the rest of the crew’s busy with preparations for launch. If I’m gonna get you on board without anyone noticing, it has to be now.” He spun on his heel and headed for the ramp into the ship’s guts.
Sandman followed. Eventually, they entered a dim, empty hallway, unremarkable except for the row of narrow portholes set in the outer hull. Sandman could count the times he’d seen outside on one hand. He didn’t even consider not stopping to look. Pluto took up half the sky, a huge gray disc as barren as space itself, the entire human population of the place hidden in the barely visible black dot of Dome City. Beyond, the universe stretched vast, black and empty.
The sight excited him, like it had ever since the first time he’d seen it as a child. He’d dreamed of it—the immensity of space, the sheer endless possibility of it. Anything could happen out there. He could do what he wanted. Finally haul himself out of the dark, bloody grip of his past and become someone else.
He could work out who he wanted to be later. There’d be plenty of time once he got to Mars.
Lew, evidently unconcerned with Sandman’s future, yanked on his arm. “Come on. We don’t have much time.”
Sandman nailed the man with the coldest stare he could muster. Lew cringed and stepped back. It was the missing eye, and the yellow smiley-face ball taking its place. It freaked people out. He didn’t even have to raise his voice to make people afraid of him. He liked that. Mostly.
Fingers opening and closing like he couldn’t decide what to do with them, Lew turned and strode down the corridor into the depths of the ship. He didn’t say anything. Sandman followed, because the sniveling little coward was right—they were running out of time.
Once he got to Mars, Sandman told himself, he could actually go outside as much as he wanted.
Go outside. Leave the protection of walls and artificial atmosphere and actually expose his body to the elements. Stare up into a real, true, open sky and breathe air that had never been recycled through machines.
The idea of going outside was a foreign concept on Hell’s End. In fact, most of the human race probably hadn’t been outside since they first left Earth behind many hundreds of years ago. The environments where they’d settled—the moons of Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, the space stations, and especially the surface of Pluto—weren’t friendly.
Mars was the exception. Ever since terraforming had proven successful fifty years ago, the planet had become a popular spot for immigration, for those who could afford it. Sandman had seen pics of Mars on the vidfeed while on food runs for the Gutters. Green, beautiful, ripe with crops. Endless space in which to get lost. He’d wanted to go ever since his first sight of it.
Maybe he could’ve gotten a permit to immigrate. The corrupt old government was gone. He had friends at the top now, and they wouldn’t have gotten there without him. No doubt they’d give him whatever he wanted, if he asked. Even a ticket to Mars, if they could swing it.
He didn’t want it. Didn’t want their help, or their charity. Didn’t want anyone to know exactly where he’d gone.
All he wanted was to start over.
Lew’s unwelcome voice jarred Sandman out of his thoughts. He stopped. Blinked and looked around, then laughed. “No.”
Predictably, Lew cringed. “I’m sorry. But there’s really no other way.”
Sandman stared at the rows of occupied hibernation pods and the single empty one directly in front of him. His pulse pounded in his ears. “No,” he repeated, shaking his head. “I won’t hibernate. I can’t.”
“You don’t have any choice.” Lew swallowed. His expression turned determined. “Look, I don’t expect a Gutter to understand any of this—”
“Fuck you.” Sandman kept his voice low, holding back his fury by pure force of will. “Just ’cause I’m a Gutter doesn’t mean I don’t know how shit works.”
The disgust in Lew’s eyes said more than words could about what he thought of Sandman’s violent upbringing on the streets of level 36, but he kept those thoughts to himself. He stood as tall and straight as he could and stared right into Sandman’s eyes. “Then you ought to know a colony ship can’t provide life support for a stowaway. You go in hibernation, or you don’t go.”
It took balls for a spineless ass like Lew to stand up to someone who scared him. Sandman had to respect that. Besides, he was right, galling as it was.
“Fine.” Sandman aimed his best wrathful, one-eyed glare at the ever-susceptible Lew. “Wake me up at least two hours before the other colonists. Okay?”
Lew glanced away, twisting his fingers together. “I don’t know…”
Sandman saw red. He leaned close enough to kiss Lew’s thin, colorless lips, if he’d wanted to. “If anyone finds out I’m not who I’m supposed to be, they’ll find out who had that colonist killed and let me on board in his place.” He grinned, knowing he looked frightening and relishing it. “I’m pretty sure you don’t want that.”
An angry flush climbed Lew’s neck into his face. He took a step back. “One hour. That’s the best I can do.”
It was cutting things too close for Sandman’s comfort, but he’d make it work. He patted Lew’s cheek. “See how good it feels to compromise?” Ignoring his partner in crime’s obvious discomfort, Sandman stripped to his skin, wadded his clothes in the foot of the hibernation pod and climbed in. “Show me how to hook this thing up.”
“Instructions are printed on the inside.” Lew’s features twisted into an ugly, gloating sneer. “Oh, that’s right. Gutters can’t read.”
In fact, Sandman, like plenty other Gutters, could read enough to get by. But panic tended to throw everything else out of his brain, and he knew better than to think he wouldn’t panic once he stretched out inside this fucking thing.
Shoving his anger behind the metal door in his mind, Sandman smiled. “You got me. Ouch. Now if you’re feeling better about yourself, maybe you can show me how to hook in so we can both get on with shit. Okay?”
The little asshole’s face went from pink to crimson purple. “Put the heart monitor pads—those round things there—on your chest. Here, here and here.” Lew pointed to the spots on his own body. “Then lie down on your back. The heart monitor triggers the system. It takes over automatically after it picks up your heartbeat.”
Sandman stuck the pads on his chest where Lew showed him. A soft light came on inside the pod. “Your hibernation pod will close in ten seconds,” said a soothing electronic voice. “Please lie down on your back and remain still.”
Grinning, Sandman stretched out on his back and waved at Lew as the sexless computer voice counted backward from ten. “Bye, Lew. See you on Mars.”
Lew didn’t answer. The pod cover closing cut off the sight of his grim expression.
The instant it snicked into place, the pod’s walls went from translucent white to solid gray, and Sandman’s cool vanished along with his hazy view of the hibernation bay. Sweat broke out on his brow. His heart galloped fast enough to make him sick. It took everything he had not to pound on the lid that had just slammed shut above him. He hated tiny, closed-in spaces.
“Please relax,” the soothing voice told him, as if he wasn’t locked in a plastic coffin barely bigger than himself. “Lie on your back and remain still. You will sleep soon.”
And here came the panic, just like he’d known it would. All his life, he’d slept with a corner of his consciousness aware of his surroundings and ready to leap into action. The thought of hibernation unnerved him.
“Let me out,” he said as calmly as he could. “I changed my mind. I want to get out now.”
“Please relax and lie still.”
He shook his head. Pushed on the pod lid. “Let me out. Now.”
“Please relax and lie still.”
Pulse racing, he grabbed at one of the monitor pads with the intention of ripping it off. If putting the damn things on triggered the system to start, maybe taking them off would trigger it to stop.
Something wound around his wrists, pulling them tight against the padded bed of the pod. He shouted and yanked on the restraints. They wouldn’t budge. More restraints whipped around his legs, anchoring them in place before he could kick. “What the fuck? Stop! Let me out!”
“Please relax.” The voice sounded less soothing and more sinister now. A hypo emerged from the wall of the pod and pressed against the vein in his neck. He felt a small, sharp sting. “You will sleep now, Mr. Galan Darvian.”
The electronic torturer was right. Sandman’s head already felt fuzzy by the time the computer stopped speaking. He couldn’t move his body. His eyelids were heavy as airlock doors. Each slow-motion blink lasted hours.
Pure panic clawed inside him, even while his heartbeat and breathing slowed and his body’s systems spiraled down into hibernation mode. He tried to scream, but his paralyzed vocal cords wouldn’t make a sound. As consciousness began to fade, he thought he felt something punch through his chest wall.
I’ll never wake up, he thought, and fell into blackness.
He woke to the sensation of his chest ripping open. Confused and scared, he started to sit up.
His forehead whammed into something hard before he’d gotten more than a few centimeters. “Shit.” Jupiter’s balls, his throat hurt. He tried to raise a hand to his aching head or his raw throat, or both.
He couldn’t. His arm wouldn’t budge.
That was when it all came back.
“Please relax,” said the evil fucking computer voice before he could start screaming. “You are emerging from hibernation. Headache, sore throat, weakness and mild confusion are normal. You will require rest and nutrients for the next ten to fifteen hours. Please follow the instructions of your medical provider.”
Sandman tugged on his restraints. They held firm. He clenched his teeth. “Fuck you.”
“Please relax, and you will be released.”
In his mind, Sandman pictured himself taking a large piece of scrap metal to the damned computer. The fantasy made him feel better. He breathed in. Out. Forced the tension out of his muscles, because he was damn well not spending one more minute in this fucking box.
The straps around his wrists and legs retreated. The pod turned translucent and slid open.
He sat up, both hands going straight to his chest. He found a tiny pucker in the skin just under his right collarbone, but that was all. Which was weird, because he could’ve sworn he’d felt something being torn out of his skin.
“It was an IV. The machine puts it in one of the big veins in your chest, to give you concentrated nutrients while you’re in hibernation.”
“Hi, Lew.” Sandman yawned, doing his best to hide how shaken he still felt. “You look like shit.”
Lew glared, which made the black circles under his eyes even worse. He’d lost weight during the journey, and the lines on his face had dug in deeper. The visible reminder of how many weeks had passed was jarring. “At least I’ve got both eyes.”
Sandman laughed. “And no sense of humor. Some things never change.”
“Yeah, well, you can yuck it up all you want later. You got fifty minutes to find a place to hide before I have to wake up your fellow immigrants.”
Only the fact that Sandman felt weak as a newborn kept him from strangling Lew with his bare hands. “You said an hour. Not fifty minutes. What happened?”
He’d spoken calmly, all things considered, but Lew still went dead white and wide-eyed. “I had a hard time getting away. It’s only ten minutes.”
Yeah. Ten minutes less time to scrounge some food and water then hunt up a spot where he could go to ground—so to speak—until the ship landed.
Sandman yanked off the heart monitor pads, then pulled on his clothes while sitting inside the pod. Once he was dressed, he climbed out onto the padded floor.
He fell to his knees. Ignoring Lew’s nervous shuffling, Sandman forced himself to his feet and stood there hanging on to the edge of the pod, legs shaking, until the room decided to hold still and he felt like he could walk.
It took way too long for comfort.
“You really ought to just disembark with the other passengers,” Lew said when Sandman tried a couple of wobbly steps, clinging to the pod. “You have the ID bead. It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Except for the tiny little fact that my picture and stats have been all over the newsfeed on Hell’s End. I’m a wanted man, or I was when I boarded this ship. I’d rather not find out the hard way that I still am.” He aimed the icy stare he’d once used to keep the Gutters in line at Lew. “I need food and water. Where can I get some?”
Lew sighed. He bent, picked up a bag Sandman hadn’t noticed lying on the floor and handed it over. “Here. It’s not much, but it’s all I could get without anyone noticing it missing.”
Sandman took the bag, opened it and looked inside. It held a couple of protein bars and a LyteSak. He’d had the electrolyte replacement fluid a few times before. It tasted like sweat, but it worked much better than plain water for restoring energy when you felt run down.
Not exactly a belly-filling meal. He’d lived on a whole lot less for a whole lot longer, though.
He favored Lew with a smile. “Thanks.”
Lew’s entire body relaxed in obvious relief. “Sure.”
It was all Sandman could do not to roll his eyes. Great Jupiter, Lew was a sniveling little shit. Since he’d saved Sandman time by bringing him food and fluid, though, he decided to be nice. “Any idea where I can hole up ’til we dock?”
“Hm.” Lew scratched his chin. “The cargo bay’s probably the best place.”
“You sure?” Sandman popped open the LyteSak, sipped and grimaced. Shit, that was bad. “Aren’t there guards on the bay?”
“Not this time. The only cargo we have this trip is liquid hydrogen.” Lew grinned. “It doesn’t need guards. Nobody wants to mess with that shit.”
Sandman gaped. “You’re fucking with me.”
“No.” Lew gave him a strange look. “What?”
The way Sandman saw it, no commanding officer would ever leave a potential weapon unguarded unless they expected someone to use it. That being the case, an incident once the ship reached Mars was practically a given.
He peered around him at the hibernation pods filling the cavernous room. All those sleeping people—couples, families, single men and women of all ages—each one of them looking for a better life on Mars.
Just like him.
Maybe whatever was about to go down wouldn’t involve them. But maybe it would. And he didn’t have it in him to let these poor suckers become unwilling sacrifices to some fucking nutcase’s political agenda.
None of which he said out loud, because he wouldn’t trust Lew as far as he could kick him. Instead, he put on his best bland smile. “Nothing. How do I get to the cargo bay?”
Lew led him to the surprisingly small compartment three levels down. Sandman couldn’t help noticing that it lay directly below the airlock where all the shiny-faced new Martians would gather in a few hours. The strategic location only made him more certain he was right and something was bound to happen.
“There’s a storage closet on the right-hand wall as you’re going in. You can hide in there.” Lew glanced around the corridor outside the door. “There’s cams in here, but nobody watches the feeds when we don’t have anything anybody can steal, so you’re safe enough. Still, it’s a good idea to lie low in case somebody watches it later. You don’t want to be on a vid record if you can help it.”
Sandman nodded, though he got the feeling the cams weren’t on this time. Nobody in their right mind would want evidence of what Sandman feared might happen soon.
He clapped Lew on the shoulder. “Thanks. Maybe I’ll see you around Mars.”
Lew snorted. He thumbed open the cargo bay door. Sandman slipped inside. The door slid shut behind him, and he was alone.
He crept along the edge of the room to the closet and eased himself into the cramped space. The specialized containers keeping the liquid hydrogen super cold sat in a rack welded to the inside wall of the bay, directly across from his hiding place. His food and LyteSak in one hand and his knife a comforting weight against his thigh, he shut the door and sat on the floor to wait.
He’d finished the Lyte and protein bars by the time the ship docked and the computer announced disembarkation. He was pondering the idea of escaping instead of carrying out his plan when the inner cargo bay doors opened. A woman entered, shut the door behind her and shot a nervous glance around the room.
She couldn’t have looked more guilty if she’d had I’m up to shenanigans tattooed on her face. Still, Sandman waited until she actually laid hands on the hydrogen tanks before he burst out of the closet and took her to the floor with her arm twisted behind her back and his knife at her throat.
“Be still and don’t yell, and maybe I won’t kill you.” He dug his knee into the back of her thigh when she squirmed. “What’re you doing with that stuff, huh?”
“Just…just checking that it’s secure. That’s all.” One wide gray eye rolled sideways trying to see him. “Who’re you? What’re you doing here?”
“None of your fucking business.” He traced the tip of the knife down her skin enough to draw blood. She squealed, and he leaned down to put his mouth next to her ear. “Shhhhh.”
“You cut me.” Her voice shook, but at least she kept it to a whisper.
He raised his head enough to peer at the spot she’d been going for. He didn’t need to be able to read to know what the graphics next to the flat interface meant. “You were about to turn off the cooling mechanism.”
The way her body tensed beneath him gave him his answer, though she pressed her lips together and didn’t speak.
He considered his options. Killing her would eliminate the threat, but he’d run the risk of getting caught and locked up for murder. He might even be executed. And no one would ever know this woman had threatened people’s lives.
Fuck that. Becoming a martyr was too good for the bitch.
Keeping his grip on her arm, he got his feet under him and hauled her upright with him. She made a low pained noise. “You’re hurting me.”
“Poor you.” He marched her toward the outside doors, his knife at the back of her skull. “One wrong move, I’ll shove this blade into your brain. Got it?”
She let out a soft sob. “I won’t do anything. Don’t hurt me.”
“What the fuck did you think was gonna happen when the ship blew up, huh? Did you think you wouldn’t die along with everyone else?”
She went quiet, which told Sandman all he needed to know. Rage boiled up inside him. He stomped it down. He’d killed a lot of people in his life, but never for frivolous or selfish reasons. The way he saw it, the motives for murdering hundreds of people at once couldn’t be anything but selfish. Political, most likely, considering some of the things he’d been hearing over the last year or so about the growing hostilities between the Mars government and the fringe groups who didn’t like the way the colony was run.
He stopped at the outside doors. “Here’s what’s gonna happen. We’re going outside. We’re gonna find the closest Gov goon, and—”
“Wait, what?” She glanced backward at him, looking way less scared than she ought to. “Goon?”
Jupiter’s balls. She must be a Mars native. “An authority figure,” he clarified, laying on the patience thick enough to turn a sizzler bolt. “We’re going to find someone in authority. And you’re going to tell them what you planned to do.”
She laughed, which wasn’t at all the reaction he’d expected. For a second, his temper got the better of him. He dug the knife into her scalp. Not too deep. Just enough for her fucking irritating laugh to dissolve into a terrified yip. He smiled, satisfied.
“You got nothing to laugh about. Best remember that.” He studied the area around the doors, found the code interface and dragged his prisoner over to it. “Open it.”
She didn’t argue. Didn’t fight. Was, in fact, beyond calm and almost into eager territory.
Which was probably one reason Sandman was ready when the big cargo doors rolled up to reveal a cluster of three ragged colonists standing outside. A fourth sat at the controls of something that looked kind of like the electric pods people drove around on Hell’s End.
So she hadn’t intended to go down with the ship. And she’d kept quiet about the people waiting for her on the outside.
Too bad it wouldn’t help her any.
“Sorry, sister,” he whispered, brought his knife around and slit her throat.
The arterial spurt paralyzed the men at the door long enough for Sandman to sprint right through them, drag the one in the vehicle out into the open and dig the point of the knife into his balls. The man hissed and went still.
“All right.” Sandman aimed his most dangerous smile at the three men gaping at him from the cargo bay doors. “I guess I have your attention, right?”
One of the guys edged forward a couple of steps. “What do you want?”
Sandman swept his gaze around the bit of spaceport where they stood. It was nearly deserted, but voices and the shuffle of hundreds of feet came from the arch only thirty or forty meters away.
“We’re going to the public area over there.” He nodded toward the arch. “The three of you, link your hands behind your heads and walk in front of me and my sweetheart here. If you try to run, or if I see you trying to let your arms down, I’ll cut off your friend’s balls, then I’ll cut off yours. Am I clear?”
The colonists shared a questioning glance, as if to say, He can’t really do that, can he? Since they apparently didn’t believe him, Sandman pressed the knife into his captive’s groin until it cut through the course cloth and he felt the skin give.
The man yelped. “Fuck! Do what he says, guys, c’mon.”
This time, three sets of hands clasped behind three heads before you could say boo. Three scared, wary faces watched Sandman like he might do something insane any minute.
He’d kind of hoped to get away from that shit, but what the hell. At least he’d earned it this time.
He took his prisoner’s left wrist and yanked it up behind his back so he couldn’t get away. “All right, then. Let’s walk. Nice and slow.”
They all looked like they might piss themselves any second, but they did as they were told like good boys. Sandman elbowed his hostage in the back. “Move your ass, babycakes. Your balls’re safe as long as you do what I say.”
The man’s disbelief came through clear as water in the way his throat worked and the sheen of sweat on his pasty forehead, but he shuffled forward without arguing. Sandman moved with him, keeping the blade firmly in place without pushing it any deeper. It was a handy skill to have, one he’d developed as soon as he was old enough to wield a knife and accompany the older Gutters on food raids.
As their little group got within a few meters of the arch—close enough for people in the crowd to spot them, if anyone had bothered to look—a woman in uniform stepped out and almost ran smack into one of the terrorists Sandman had captured. The man let out a surprised ah! His hands stayed where they were, probably from fear of losing his privates.
The woman brought around the weapon on her back so fast Sandman had trouble following the movement. “Freeze! All of you.”
The three men froze, though Sandman could see them shaking just as hard as the one in his grip. That one breathed so hard he made a faint mewling sound with each exhale. Sandman thought he might pass out.
Great Jupiter. These were some pansy-ass terrorists.
“You. With the knife. Drop it.”
Sandman ignored the woman’s command and studied her instead. A guard, obviously, considering the uniform and the weapon—an unfamiliar one, but he knew a weapon when he saw one.
He smiled at her, deliberately toning down the scary as much as he could. “Officer, my friends here have something they’d like to tell you.”
The tall, skinny one of the bunch turned to stare at him. The man with the knife in his balls moaned.
The guard frowned. “Mister, I don’t know what’s going on here. What I see is you with a knife, holding four of our colonists hostage. So I’m going to ask nicely, one more time. Drop the knife, or I’m going to shoot you.”
Sandman planted a gentle kiss on his captive’s cheek. “Tell the nice lady what you were about to do, sweetheart, and I’ll let you go. If you don’t, I’ll slice off your favorite parts and feed ’em to you.”
The man sobbed. “Verity was supposed to let us in. We were gonna plant evidence to make it look like Gates was behind it. Then we were gonna turn off the cooling system, open the hydrogen tanks and make a run for it. The tanks would blow right when all the passengers were disembarking, and take a bunch of colonists with ’em. And Gates and her board would get the blame.”
The guard’s dark eyes went wide. “Central, come in. I need backup, right now.” She stared at the four men with a new hardness in her face. “Move one fucking muscle, any of you, and you’re dead.”
None of them moved. Sandman eased the knife out of his friend’s testicles but otherwise held still, since he didn’t particularly want to find out what the guard’s strange-looking weapon would do to him.
In a matter of seconds, three other guards came racing up with more of the things that looked sort of like sizzlers but clearly weren’t. One of them glanced at the woman who still hadn’t taken her gaze—or her aim—from the three men with their hands behind their heads. “Kane? What’s going on?”
“One-eye there caught these others trying to blow up the colony ship.” Kane’s mouth twisted into a grim smile when her fellow guards all gawked at her like she’d lost her mind. “The guy bleeding from the balls there confessed. They were trying to pin it on Governor Gates.”
“Shit.” The other guard advanced on Sandman, square jaw tense behind his faceplate, and yanked the quivering, sobbing prisoner from Sandman’s grip. “Shut the fuck up. You were gonna murder two thousand innocent people, so I’m thinking you got no call to be crying like a little bitch.”
Sandman grinned. A man after his own heart.
Said man arched a pale eyebrow at him. “Don’t be too proud of yourself, hero. We got plenty of questions for you. You’ll have to come down to the town hall with us.”
Town hall? Sandman didn’t know what that was, but it didn’t sound good. He peered up at the big, tall, strong-enough-to-break-him-in-half man and tried to look harmless. “Of course. I’ll do whatever I can to help. Is it all right if I get my things first? I just came in on the colony ship.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Colonists don’t bring luggage. There’s no room on board. The colony provides everything they need to set up a homestead here.”
Shit. Should’ve kept his mouth shut.
The suspicion on the guards’ faces made Sandman’s decision for him. He shoved straight through the middle of the armed group and raced into the spaceport crowd.
They followed, but he’d taken them by surprise, which gave him a few precious seconds. Plus he had the advantage in speed and agility. He lost them quickly in the press of people, even though they knew the area and he didn’t.
Once he was sure they were no longer in sight behind him, he stole a floppy hat from a bench where an older man was talking to several other people and not watching his belongings. He stuffed his hair underneath it and pulled it low over his forehead. It blocked part of his peripheral vision but hid his long blond hair and missing eye from casual observers. The tradeoff was worth it, in his opinion. He needed to blend in right now, not stand out.
It didn’t take him long to find the exit. All he had to do was follow the general flow of the masses. He moved along with all the others, let them jostle him from all sides and kept reminding himself that none of them knew who he was. None of them cared who he was.
Better yet, no one feared or hated him. They didn’t even notice him.
The anonymity felt good. If he was lucky, maybe he could hang on to it for a while.
A strange glow ahead caught his attention. It was different from the harsh white lights on Hell’s End. This was softer. Warmer. Like something living. He could see the arched tops of huge windows at the end of a hallway and a suggestion of movement like a door opening.
His heart caught in his throat when he realized what it must be.
Outside. Sunlight. Fresh air.
Not daring to look away, he pushed through the throng toward the promise ahead. As he drew closer, the windows grew bigger and more impressive. Sunshine poured through in a brilliant golden flood that hurt Sandman’s eyes and made him glad of his stolen hat. If he squinted against the brightness, he could make out a flat courtyard outside the doors, and beyond that, tall green things whose tops moved, swaying back and forth.
Trees, he realized in a goose-bump-inducing burst of insight. Real trees, not the Living Plastics imitations they had back on the space station.
“Great fucking Jupiter.” His whisper was lost in the noise of the crowd. Licking his dry lips, he paced forward to the sparkling glass doors. They swung open when he got within a meter or so of them. His pulse racing, he walked through and out into the free air of a planet for the first time in his life.
Self-preservation kept his feet moving until he was out of the courtyard area, down the steps and under the trees. No power in the universe, though, could keep him from stopping and savoring this moment.
Tilting his head back, he peered up at the trees. They rose from the ground toward the sky, sprouting long limbs along the way, each one ending in clusters of papery, green, oblong things that smelled crisp and alive and rustled pleasantly in the air moving against his face. The sun, now a giant ball of fire instead of a bright but tiny dot in the blackness of space, beamed life-giving light and heat from a backdrop of pure gem blue.
It was beautiful. The most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, even though the brightness stabbed into his skull with a pain he knew he wouldn’t be able to stand for long. He’d seen little enough beauty in his life. This—his first sight of sunshine and trees, of the outside, of a living planet—would remain burned into his brain as long as he lived.
He shut his eye and breathed deep. He smelled the green things, nearby machinery, something with a fresh, sort of musky scent he couldn’t identify, and farther away, water. He was sure of it. He opened his eye, crouched and touched the ground. It was covered with short green blades that smelled a bit like the trees. They felt springy and prickly. He pushed an exploratory fingertip into the green stuff. His finger sank through into something cool and damp underneath. Delighted, he dug both hands straight through the green blades and into the stuff beneath. When he brought up a double handful of something dark, moist and crumbly, he realized it was producing the musky-fresh scent.
Jupiter’s balls, this was amazing. Laughing quietly, he rubbed the stuff between his hands, pressed his palms to his face and just breathed. This was beyond anything he’d imagined when he’d decided to come to Mars. How did people get anything done here? How did they not spend all their cycles lying on the ground, enjoying the sun and the smells and the freshness of the air?
Promising himself he’d find a deserted piece of Mars for his own as soon as he got well away from the spaceport, he glanced around to get the lay of the land. About forty or fifty meters to his right lay what was obviously a road, though he couldn’t put a name or even a category to some of the things moving along it. Whatever they were, some traveled toward the spaceport, but most traveled away from it. Off into the mysterious distance, with all its wonderful, terrifying, compelling possibilities.
That was for him.
Head down so the hat brim would hide his face, he strode off to join the flow of people walking alongside the road away from the port and toward whatever lay beyond the trees.
He’d only gotten a few steps when something went pop behind him. A white-hot burn pierced his left calf, knocking him down.
He didn’t have to look to know the goons had caught up to him.
He shoved himself to his feet. Agony drilled through his injured leg when he stepped on it, tearing a hiss from him, but he ran anyway, because not running meant giving up, and giving up meant capture or death. The hat tumbled off. He let it go, because he was getting away, they were falling behind in spite of their weapons and their shouting and their numbers. Great Jupiter, he was going to make it…
A woman yelled right behind him, a weight landed on him from the rear, and he crashed facedown on the ground. Kane’s knee dug into the small of his back, driving the air from his lungs. The rest of the guards swarmed over him, yanking his arms behind him, binding his wrists and ankles, shoving his face into the fragrant, springy green stuff.
Someone grabbed Sandman’s wrist and pushed something hard against it. “Hey, this guy’s ID bead is stolen.” It was the big guard from before. No mistaking that booming voice. He leaned down to stare at Sandman with what was probably supposed to be an intimidating glare. “The photo of the real colonist was on the newsfeed several months ago. His body was found on the Hell’s End space station.”
Shit. Sandman didn’t know how long a month was, but it apparently wasn’t long enough for anyone to forget what he’d done. He kept his fear off his face and his gaze focused on the guard with all the defiance he could muster. If he was going down, he was going down fighting.
Kane got a fistful of his hair and jerked his head up at a painful angle. “You killed him, didn’t you?”
He grinned at her. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Fucking asshole.” Scowling, she dropped his head. “You’re under arrest for fraudulent ID and murder. And whatever else we can find.”
He tongued the place where his teeth had cut the inside of his cheek when the guards tackled him. “Whatever. Have fun.”
“We will. Little shit.” The other guard kicked his injured leg.
He didn’t make a sound. No way was he letting them know they’d gotten to him in any way. Besides, he’d had worse. Sizzler wounds hurt more, even though they didn’t bleed like this one. He could feel the blood soaking through his pants.
Kane aimed a cold smile at him. “Up you go, shithead.”
She grabbed him by one elbow. One of the other guards hooked a beefy arm through his other elbow. Together, they hauled him upright and dragged him toward a weird-looking black metal box a few meters away.
He lifted his head and squinted up into the trees with their green appendages rustling against the endless blue of the sky. He had only seconds to memorize the warmth of the sun, the cool of moving air, the sounds of the trees, the smell of the ground. He wanted to tattoo those memories on his consciousness so he’d have something to hold on to in the cycles—orbits? Years?—to come.
When they reached the metal box, the guards opened a door in the side and tossed Sandman into the dark, windowless interior. Two of them climbed in with him. The other shut the door. A light came on—familiar, harsh, white, like the lights on Hell’s End. A vibration began, and Sandman realized the whole contraption was moving.
So this was it. He rested his cheek on the cold metal floor, closed his eye and thought of the damp, sweet-smelling ground between his fingers.