October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
A storm was on its way when James Finlay caught up with me.
The outer door clanked open and there he stood, his grey pressure suit covered in red desert dust. His filthy visor had smear marks on it where he’d tried to wipe it clean.
I stayed put in my chair as he sealed and depressurised the airlock compartment. He opened the door to my living room with the slowness of a dream as he manoeuvred his heavy Martian suit.
As always, something seemed to fall within the mechanism as the door swung on its hinges. Nothing works properly on Mars for very long. Everything breaks.
He closed the door, having to push until it latched on and hissed, then turned towards me and began to undo the straps of his helmet. He seemed to take forever.
Another hiss and a pop, and his head was free to breathe in the musty, acrid air within my own personal condo. He looked very much the worse for wear, unshaven chin, large overgrown moustache, and a thick mop of dishevelled hair. His eyes were bloodshot and tired.
“Jesus,” he mumbled. Then looked straight at me and pulled out a pistol from his suit-holster.
And I knew death had finally staked its claim.
But he didn’t shoot me down like I was expecting, like I’d been dreading for so long.
He just stood there. Looking at me. And what came next surprised me somewhat.
He looked around the room, dropped his helmet on the floor, held the gun down to his side and walked over to a cupboard. He opened up the door and found a bottle of Scotch there.
“You mind?” he said, without looking at me. He holstered his gun, took off his gloves and picked up a glass, a real Earth glass. He poured it half full without me even answering.
I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t speak.
He turned to me again and a shiver went right up my spine. “James,” I managed to say, and my voice trembled and stuck in my throat. I turned my gaze away from him and out the window. Beyond the pressurised perspex, the distant Martian sun beat feebly down onto the desert compound I’ve never called home. The day was dim, as always, the perpetual storm clouds hanging over the horizon, making their sluggish way towards us. Threatening death with fork lightning and paint-stripping winds.
Two hours earlier I had watched as the supply ship broke through the clouds created by its arrival, lightning sparking from the hull as it plummeted towards the desert landing spot, and I’d had a feeling. A dreadful, black feeling.
“Must’ve hurt, that landing,” I said.
“Wrapped myself up in packing. Wasn’t hard. Hardest thing was getting up to the Station.”
The Station. The satellite orbiting Earth from where they hurled the unmanned supply ships in our direction. Earth’s salving of their own consciences, keeping us alive after they’d left us stranded out here.
Abandoned colonisation. Mankind’s dream left unrealised.
“How’d you do it?”
“Get onto the station? Or find out where you were in the first place?” He took a swig of the whisky. Real single malt Scotch. “You know me, Bill. Obsessive. You knew I’d track you down eventually.”
“I suppose I did. So, this is it then. Judgement Day.” I needed a stiff drink myself, but I seemed to be fixed to my seat.
“Guess it is.” He moved to the other chair and sat down in it. “I’ve thought about what I’d say over and over.” He looked at me again. “Now I can’t remember any of it.”
He leaned back and sighed. Years of tension seemed to drain from him and he visibly shrank, almost melted into the seat. “God, Bill,” he sighed. “Now I’m here.
“You know,” he paused a while. “Japanese fella, name of Sagawa, once told me something. Told me love an’ hate are the same thing.” He stopped again when he saw my eyebrows raise a little. “Yeah. I always reckoned he was talking crap.” He took a breath, leaned forward stiffly, and cradled the glass in both hands. “Don’t make sense, does it?”
“I don’t know.”
“But he insisted. Told me a story to illustrate the fact.” James took a small sip of the scotch and looked at the glass appreciatively. “Good stuff.” He carried on. “So anyway. Two Samurai, back in old Japan. One had been wronged by the other. Spent years chasing him to get his revenge, get his honour back. Storms, earthquakes, they didn’t matter to him. He had to find his enemy. Seven years, it took him.”
James leaned back again, a painful look flashing across his face.
“Anyway, he became obsessed, spent everything he had trying to find this guy, spent all his time thinking about him. There was nothing he did that wasn’t aimed at getting his vengeance.” He took another sip. “Total obsession.”
After a while, he carried on. “That’s what Sagawa meant. You love someone, you spend all your time thinking about them. Same when you hate someone.”
I still couldn’t move from my seat. “Well, James. You got plenty of reason to hate me.”
“And then some.”
“In my defense, I’m a different person now.”
“Oh, aren’t we all, Bill. Look at me. I’m a shadow of the man I was. First I lose my wife, then I lose everything else trying to find her.”
“Yeah.” I looked at the floor. The cold, dull metal floor.
“How is she?” he said.
“Died on the way here. Never even made it. Radiation got her.”
“Christ. We all lost out then.” He looked around the room. The room full of broken, repaired, salvaged junk. It looked like a workshop. “Least you got somewhere to sleep.”
Somewhere to sleep. Cold, empty Martian bed. All alone and so far from Earth.
“More than I’ve got,” he said. “Bill, I’m getting old. I don’t want this thing to go on longer than necessary. Just one thing.”
“Was it worth it?”
“Destroying your life, getting the woman we both loved killed. Turning my own life into a damned desert.” I groaned. “Hell, James, what do you think?”
He got to his feet and began to put his gloves back on.
“Think I’m gonna have to finish this for good.”
I closed my eyes. I still couldn’t get up, but didn’t really want to. I wasn’t going to fight back. Had to take what was coming. I screwed my eyes tight.
James carried on talking, voice disembodied in my head. “I’ve chased you god knows how many years, Bill. I lost count. Only one thing mattered during that time.” There was a clicking sound that I took to be his gun. “You dying.”
I shuddered. “Best get on with it then.”
I felt drunk, swaying about in the darkness. If I wasn’t sitting, I’d have fallen.
“Reckon so. Only one way this should go. Law of the New Frontier, isn’t it, eye for an eye? Way things are says I got to kill you.”
“Eye for an eye,” I repeated. I felt dizzy.
“But I’m tired, Bill. I’m just not so sure anymore.”
I waited for the end.
Would I hear the shot? Would I know when death hit me? Would I be aware that things had come to an end? I waited.
But when I heard the door open I looked up. He shut it behind him, strapped on his helmet and flicked the pressure switch. The outer door opened and he stepped out into the wild Martian desert. The storm was on its way, and dust blew into the compartment. I saw a flash of lightning some miles away just before the door locked shut with a hiss.
Through the other window I could see a few splats of rainwater as they hit the Perspex. Rainfall echoed over the metal roof, getting louder.
The storm was here and James Finlay had walked out into it.
He’d be dead within thirty minutes.
I probably had another ten years to endure.
© Chris Young, 2009