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The Stars Came Back


Rolf Nelson

Copyright © 2013

All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: Any similarities to real people, places, events, calendars, numerical systems, languages, space aliens, politicians, technologies, scumbags, misanthropes, punctuation marks, priests, alphabets, monastic orders, recipes, or pets is coincidental, accidental, a paradoxical distortion of the space-time continuum, or by chance. Unless it’s on purpose. Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe better.



My family, whom I hope will always be free;

browncoats everywhere;

everyone that wants a good adventure story

with something to think about inside.



Author’s Note

I trust YOU to put a price on the book, according to the value you put on the story. This book has no DRM (Digital Rights Management), so if you bought it, feel free to convert it to whatever format is most useful to you, because you bought the story, not a particular file format or storage location. If you did NOT buy it and like the story please buy a copy so I can afford to keep writing. The book is a self-published first novel, so it is inexpensive; if you REALLY liked it, compare it to the cost of a typical 160,000 word novel written by a big name author from a big name publisher, and consider buying more than one copy accordingly.


The website for the book is, shockingly, Please visit!

This was written in a format somewhat similar to a movie script, though it does not strictly follow those conventions. It is much too long to be a proper movie, more like a movie of the week or half-season series. It morphed into a novel while being written. It is based on what you can see and hear. There is little getting inside people’s heads (trust me, you don’t want to go there; very cluttered). You have watched movies and know how directors and producers cut and edit dialog and action, so just pretend you’re watching a movie while reading.

A few quick formatting notes:

OC – Off camera, you can’t see the person or avatar on screen when they are speaking

VO – Voice Over, someone talking over the action, like a narrator

 INSET – A quick showing of a close-up, such as a thing in someone’s hand

 INT – Interior scene

 EXT – Exterior scene

 DAY, NIGHT – Used to indicate lighting or specific setting

Appendix I has basic ship drawings.

Appendix II has background on the universe, terraforming, some deleted “scenes,” etc.

Thanks VERY much to Paul, RabidAlien, Peggy, Michelle, Ubu, Sendarius, Defens, Joe, David, and the rest for their criticism, proof reading, editing, Latin assistance, and commentary to improve the final version. Cover art by FiscusMedia.


Table of Contents

The Stars Came Back

Ordinary Life




Part II

First Mission


Ammo Run

HMS Hussein


Transportation Job

Air Defense

Part III

Raptus Regaliter

Meeting Taj

The Hull Truth

Tau Piper

One Day War



Star Power


Appendix I

Appendix II


Ordinary Life


White screen

Bells, sirens, klaxons, and warnings are sounding. Roars, drones, thumping, and bangs beat the air like all hell has broken loose aboard a ship.


INT – DAY – Bridge/cockpit of a small starship

More buzzing, danger signals, many blinking warning lights and computer voice warnings about exceeded limits and system failures. Helton Strom (clean shaven with shortish hair in his late 30s, well built, wearing a simple jumpsuit uniform), is strapped into the pilot chair with one hand on the control yoke and the other hand flipping switches and making adjustments on the controls in front of and around him. The whole cockpit is shaking him and everything in it violently. He is trying to get a ship in much trouble under control and grimaces as he struggles to get it back to normal. Things go from bad to worse with more flashing and audible warnings such as “DRIVE CORE OVER TEMP” and “Hull Breach!” Helton goes sideways, then upside down with objects falling past him, and back to hanging sideways in his harness. Smoke rises, coming straight at him from his left, and briefly he looks at in surprise. There are a couple of loud BANGS and popping as if equipment is breaking, another puff of smoke, a final lurch, then all the shaking stops. The lights in the control panels and screens blank out and go black. He hangs sideways, silently, motionlessly, an expression of tired fatalism on his face.

Instructor: (OC, drolly) Well, that’s a first.

Camera pulls back to reveal that there is a man strapped in next to Helton, looking at him wondering what to say. He’s also in a jumpsuit, with “Flight Instructor” where his name tag would be.

Instructor: (Slightly incredulously) You managed to crash… and break… a flight simulator doing a simulated crash landing. Impressive. Test again after it’s repaired?

Helton looks blankly at the screen in front of him, shakes his head slightly, and sighs heavily through pursed lips.





EXT – DAY – Outside a diner with “Kwon’s Kosher Cajun Curry” on the flashing neon sign

Camera slowly zooms in toward the door.


INT – DAY – Interior of shiny, cheerful looking diner

A half dozen patrons sit here and there, a news show drones quietly on a corner screen, some Bollywood-Bluegrass music bounces in the background. A single patron (Adam, older, slender, weedy looking gent) sits at the counter in front of a cup of coffee chatting with Kwon Fogel (a mixed-race far easterner in his 60’s with a yarmulke on his head), behind the counter who is topping off Adam’s cup.

Helton walks in to the tinkling of a bell.

Kwon looks up and smiles and reflexively starts to say “Welcome,” but sees who it is and the expression on Helton’s face, and instead pours a cup of coffee, grabs a bowl full of something from behind the counter, and places it out a seat over from Adam. Helton nods a greeting to Kwon and Adam, and sits down silently at his spot, adjusts the bowl in front of him slightly, takes hold of the cup, and turns it slowly but doesn’t drink.

Helton: (Looking into his cup, to no one in particular) Nope.

Adam: Ah, you’ll pass next time.

Kwon: Well, everyone has to be bad at something.

Helton: Maybe, but not this bad… I broke the sim.

Adam: (Hides his chuckle behind a sip of coffee) Fifth time isn’t a charm, eh?

Helton: Guess not.

Kwon: (Wiping counter) Keep teaching, then?

Helton: (Shrugs) Dunno. Next cycle doesn’t start for three weeks.

Adam: Finish one more cycle, you can celebrate the same career for more than three years.

Kwon: He’s right, then that would be, what, fourth time you stayed somewhere long enough to qualify for a pay bump?

Helton: Yeah, but it’s not going anywhere.

Helton picks up a spoon and absently stirs the stuff in his bowl.

Kwon: (Shaking head in quiet exasperation) Of course it’s not; new kids each time, same material. You knew that when you started.

Helton: I know, but I thought it would be… different… each cycle. But every change I try to make gets blocked by the admin, so it grinds on the same mediocre path as the cycle before.

Adam: You always think that.

Helton: Huh?

Kwon: (Pointing out the obvious that been said many times before) Each job, wanting to make a difference, be unique, be really good at it. Always end up feeling-

Helton: -utterly replaceable. Yeah. Sad, ain’t it?

Kwon: You don’t need to save the world…

Helton: Don’t want to. Just want to find my place in it.

Kwon: Then pick a place, and make it work. Think I always wanted to be here my whole life?

Helton takes a drink of coffee, swirls it around, looking contemplative.

Adam: Look at the bright side.

Helton looks questioningly at him.

Adam: (Sets cup down) For the first time, in how many career attempts? Seven? Eight?-

Kwon: Nine, don’t forget that geology thing.

Adam: -Nine attempts, you finally found something that you aren’t good at, so you can quit thinking it might be the one perfect career. Maybe poetry in dead languages, maybe mechanic, maybe soldiering-

Helton: Don’t want to be too good at that.

Adam: -maybe teaching or cards or terraforming, but not piloting. It’s progress, see?

Helton looks at him, then grins and chuckles.

Helton: Well, that’s one way of looking at it, I guess.

Adam: Each person’s gotta find his own niche… you’ll find yours. Eventually. (Then, jokingly half under his breath) About the time judges are held accountable around here.

Adam and Helton sit silently at the counter for a moment sipping coffee, looking at the screen in the corner, while Kwon does busywork behind the counter. On the news screen, images of marching troops and tanks roll by for a few moments. Then a “NEWS FLASH” announcement pops up, and a pretty announcer replaces the soldiers.

Newscaster: (At higher volume) This just in: A passenger ship was forced into Bradbury Four Five One, when it caught a swirl as The Deep pulled back that left the planet accessible for the first time in almost five hundred years. Bradbury has two planets being terraformed, and some TFPs appear to still be operating on automatic. Bioactivity is level three or lower, and perhaps both planets have been returned to a state of nature. Scientists had high hopes for these worlds, as the terraforming teams were from among the best geoscientists of the day.


Sound fades down into the background and camera focus returns to Helton.

Helton: “State of nature.” (Snort, then sarcastically) Hell of a euphemism for “Everyone died.”

Adam: (Musing) Wonder what percent water it is? Five hundred years of converting silicates and carbonates into hydro is a lot of cubes. Might be worth checking out.

Helton: Depends on how many terraformers have been working, what sort of rock it had, what sort of plan they had. Could be half… Might be less than 10%.

Images of the planet flash up on the screen.

Kwon: News Full Wall.

The images now expand to take up most of the available back wall, magnifying them significantly. The planet looks mostly shades of tan, very few clouds, one tiny ice cap, and a few little slivers of equatorial water as the image rotates.

Helton: (Squinting at it a bit to see details) Ouch. Looks less than 2% water, few clouds. Plan must have been a bad one. Or else too many talkers and not enough doers.

Kwon: But they said it had good geo guys?

Helton: Maybe, but that was one of the early government-run ones, back when they were still sorting out the leftovers from the atmo CO2 fiasco. A lot of smart people have bad plans. That’s, what? A dozen terraformed planets that have come out of the Black in the last three years? Dead, hanging on, or thriving, and about the same success rate from the privately funded amateurs as the big government programs with lots of experts. Just shows most folks really don’t know as much as they think they do. Heck, this place was almost a bust early on.

Kwon: If a few top idiots in office don’t get their act together, it might be one yet.

Kwon waves at the screen and the news show goes back to a regular-sized screen and lower volume of war-related news in the corner.

Kwon: So, what now?

Helton shrugs, holds out his cup for a refill. Kwon pours some in, then goes to fill Adam’s cup. Adam pulls his away.

Adam: (Jokingly) Hey, not that stuff! I like my coffee like my women: fresh, hot, black, and sweet.

Helton: (In mock confusion) Then why are you married to old, cold, bitter, and pale?

Adam: (Straight faced) Family tradition.

From the back room a shrill voice calls out angrily.

Adam’s Wife: (OC) Adam! ADAM!!

A look of feigned fear crosses his face, and Adam downs his remaining coffee and bolts for the door.

Kwon and Helton watch him leave, grinning. It’s not the first time something like that happened.

Helton scoops up a spoonful from the bowl and pauses before he puts it in his mouth, looking at it. He looks at Kwon, a look of skepticism on his face.

Kwon: New experiment. You’ll like it.

Helton sniffs it deeply, smiles, and takes a bite. He starts chewing. He chews slower, then waves his hand to signal he wants something because the food is so spicy hot. Kwon, grinning, hands him a ready glass. Helton gulps some down.

Helton: (Breathing exaggeratedly and fanning his mouth with his hand) Holy COW!

Kwon: Here.

Kwon hands Helton a magnum sized seasoning canister. Helton looks at it.


INSET – A two liter container labeled ARMY brand “BLAND” seasoning. “Kills flavor FAST!”


Helton sprinkles some on his bowl and stirs it in. While he does this, Kwon talks.

Kwon: You said you wanted more food with some kick. So?

Helton: (Tentatively tries another sample) Success. A little less kick next time.

Kwon: Better make up your mind on the teaching contract. Pretty soon they won’t be approving job transfers unless you pay the right people more than you can afford, or put a uniform back on.

Helton grunts acknowledgment. He takes another spoonful. There is a beep, and a screen in the countertop in front of him displays the words “Message for Helton from Blondie [display] [forward] [delete]”.

Kwon looks down, sees the notice, and politely turns away to fiddle with something facing away from the counter.


(Camera view changes to counter level, looking at Helton)


Helton taps the counter and scans the message while spooning some stew into his mouth, then taps the counter again to clear the message. He looks up thoughtfully.

Helton: How far to Niven III A?

Kwon: Normally about a week each way.

Helton: (Looks thoughtful for a moment, shakes his head dismissively) Won’t work.

Kwon: (Trying to elicit more info) Recently it’s been closer to a day coming back ‘cause of a big swirl headed this way, sometimes less going out with a lucky midpoint transfer…

Helton: (Thinking out loud) Hmmm… Two days each way either end conventional, a week transit there, a day back. Less than a week grounded. Tight. (Shakes head slightly)

Kwon looks inquiringly with raised eyebrow.

Helton: Sis and her other half moved there a few years ago. She’d like me to visit, and maybe work for him for a bit. Needs a reliable techie. Things are growing fast, between kids and folks fleeing the bombings and conscriptions on III B. In any case, she definitely sounds like he needs some help to get some things straightened out. Only three weeks ‘till the next cycle starts… It could work, but…

Helton shakes his head, dismissing the idea. Kwon rapidly punches up a few things on a screen behind the counter. Popping up on a wall screen is a departure schedule at the local spaceport. He scans it quickly.

Kwon: There’s an independent in port headed out this afternoon going that way. Get away, do you good. If you’re a day or two late, they’ll hold the contract for you.

Helton: Dunno. Awful tight margin.

Kwon: (Persuasive) You can bring back some spices that are expensive here from Nath Imp/Exp as personal baggage. Make you twenty percent, save me fifty. Pays your ticket.

Helton pauses for moment, indecisively, then stands up, pats his pockets, realizes he doesn’t have his wallet.

Helton: Ah, crap. It must have dropped out in the sim!

Kwon: (Dismissively) That’s OK, cash is a pain if they think you’re using it too often. Pay when you’re back.

Helton gives a quick wave and heads for the door in a hurry.

Kwon: (Smiling) Happy transit. Vaya con Dios!






INT – DAY – Spaceport near check-in area

Port is starkly lit and utilitarian, clean but run down, not a lot of people, mostly queued up and looking resigned to fate. Focus and pan on Helton as he walks hurriedly along. He is dressed in a brown travelers coat (heavy duster with a longer cape, wide cuffs, layers, and lots of pockets), waistcoat, khaki cargo pants, hiking boots, and carries a half-full large duffel bag. Helton looks a bit rough-and-ready and tossed together. As he scans the reader boards and heads for a counter he passes a pair of security guards in light body armor carrying carbines (uniforms look like typical police-state blues). They eye him suspiciously, then exchange glances. Helton is focused on getting to the counter, oblivious to them. He reaches the counter behind one elderly man (Art, dressed very neatly and looking dapper) talking to the middle aged, bored looking, grossly overweight female check-in agent behind the counter. She wears a sharply creased but ill-fitting light blue uniform with Sam Browne belt, high collar, and various award ribbons next her badge.

Art: Yes, that’s right. Business trip again.

Checker: Job?

Art: Fine arts dealer. I’m taking several pieces of commission work for a final inspection and delivery.

Checker: Duration?

Art: Three days there. I need to return as soon as possible to continue my work.

Checker: Business? Any family?

Art: Oh, yes, my wife is here. I mean to say “yes, the trip is only business.” No family there.

Checker presses a few buttons and waves him past to head for the boarding area. She looks up at Helton and her eyes narrow. She points to the ID scanner on the counter in front of her. He places his face in front of the camera where it is briefly flashed with a crosshatch of faint laser lines. He sets his hand on the palm pad.

Helton: Helton Strom. Teacher.

Checker eyes her screen, then Helton, then screen, frowns, then Helton, and then over his shoulder and back again.

Checker: (Eyes narrow, suspiciously) Reason for travel?

Helton: Vacation.

Checker’s eyes narrow more. She taps on her screen a time or two and eyes him, then taps several more times, while looking back and forth between him and the screen.

Checker: Job?

Helton: Teacher at the high school.

Checker taps on the screen a few more times. Helton starts to look concerned.

Helton: Is there a problem?

Checker: (Rudely) I’LL ask the questions, if you please.

Helton is taken a bit aback. He steps back slightly and straightens up a bit, bumping into someone behind him. He starts to turn to say “sorry” but realizes it’s a pair of security guards standing right there, rifles at port arms. Helton realizes something is badly amiss and bites off his planned retort. He goes on in a more tightly controlled voice.

Helton: I would be happy to answer any questions you have.

Checker: Who bought your ticket?

Helton: I did just-

Checker: It was bought with CASH, can you prove it was you?!

Helton: I don’t know, I-

Checker: Stop lying!

Helton: I don’t think-

Checker: Lying to a government agent is a crime, Mr. Strom, so DON’T think, just ANSWER!

Helton: But I did tell-

Checker holds up her hand to silence him as she looks at the screen.

Checker: Well, well, well. And just why is it that you were sent a list of spices in commercial quantities, when you are not a registered and licensed wholesaler? A violation of the Terrorism-Supporting Black Market Reduction Act, perhaps?

Helton: How did-

Checker: You lied to me. Summary fine against assets per false statement.

Helton: (Shocked) WHAT?!

Checker: You WERE a teacher, but are now listed as unemployed. You lied. You said you were going on vacation, but you have a job offer from your sister. You lied. Someone bought your ticket with cash to avoid tracking, you lied. You are obviously attempting to dodge taxes and business licensing. You bought a one way ticket as an emigrant would-

Helton: Because I didn’t know when I was coming back! I just now decided to go to-

Checker: But you still tried to dodge the emigration tax!

Helton: But how could I be emigrating if I’m planning to smuggle spices back here!?

Checker: Well, now, that WAS pretty stupid of you, wasn’t it? Didn’t think things through. Tell it to the judge! WE don’t make mistakes that stupid.

Helton looks shocked as he realizes the turn this is taking.

There is a faint, deep CRUMP in the distant background, barely noticed at that moment, as the smug checker and Helton stare at each other for a moment.

Checker: (To guards) Escort Mr. Strom to Interview Room C for further questions.

The guards step up even closer behind him and one of them indicates with his arm which way he should start walking. Checker smirks. Background bystanders studiously look at the ground, away, or at things in their hands, not making eye contact as he turns and starts to walk away.



INT – DAY – Small interrogation room

Helton sits, coat over the back of his chair, at a small table across from a weasel-like uniformed guard.



Same room. Helton sits across from a different uniform, who wears more gold braid and a bigger hat.



Helton sits across from a sour faced woman with a pinched smile in judges robes, and she bangs her gavel on the small table between them, while off to the side the higher ranking uniform looks on, smirking.



INT – NIGHT – Sparse and spare starship lounge

Lounge is dimly lit in reddish light with a few round ports and several screens on the walls.

Helton is sitting, half facing Art, with a dazed expression on his face and a drink in his hand, looking absently out the viewing port. His coat is tossed over the back of a chair, his bag supporting his feet as he slouches down.

Helton: By the time it was over, virtually all my assets were forfeited on the spot, I’d been stripped of citizenship, and searched by the Blue Gloves way more personally than I’d like… How…? (Shakes his head in disbelief) How did we get here…?

Art: (Quietly) It could be worse.

Helton stares at Art, incredulous.

Art: You are here, yes?

Helton: Well, yeah, but-

Art: Not in jail. Not in uniform.

Helton: They wouldn’t-

Art: Still breathing.

Helton stares at Art, comprehension dawning on his face at how bad it could have been. He takes a drink.

Helton: But I don’t understand… Why?…

Art: They get a percentage of any fines or forfeitures they assess, as an “incentive” to be attentive to the letter of the law. You likely got put on a list some time ago, and this was just the easiest opportunity to make you go away. If they hadn’t gotten busy with that bomb on Level 8, you might still be there.

Helton: (Confused) Wha…? Bomb?

Art: The disturbance that called them away?

Helton: But that was some sort of transformer explosion in an electrical vault…

Art looks as him with a slight shake of his head and a knowing, apologetic smile on his face.

Art: Always buy a round trip ticket. Always have the appearance that you have good reason to come back, and no plans to do otherwise.

Helton: You…?

Art: You are just now realizing what’s been going on these last months and years?

Helton nods slightly, slowly.

Helton: (Feebly, not even accepting his own excuse) …Been busy.

Art: People have had to flee on a moment, packing light, for thousands of years. The warning signs of collapse are always the same. The debt. The scapegoats. The lies. The “temporary emergency measures.” I was cutting it closer than I should have. (Shrugs) My family is all safely away, and everything else shipped ahead for us by others.

Helton stares at him in near disbelief.

Art: It looks like you won’t be returning, either. (He smiles a small, sympathetic smile)

Helton: (Quietly, in shock, to himself) Homeless.

Helton stares off blankly, dazed.

Art: You are lucky, though…

Helton: (Discouraged/sarcastic) If this is lucky, I’d hate to see unlucky.

Art: (Looking intensely at Helton) They picked you clean, but they let you leave. And, think… What do you have? Where are you going?

Helton: (Looks blankly for a moment, then shrugs and waves to his coat and bag) My sister’s.

Art: And…?

Helton shrugs, still not sure what he’s being asked. Art taps his temple, then his chest. Then waves to the room around them. The glass in Helton’s hand.

Helton: (Slowly, forcing himself to think positively. He taps his temple) I have… useful skills… and knowledge. (He touches his chest) I’m heading for family… who will welcome me… work… I’m not sucking vacuum or (holds up his glass) dying of thirst in a desert… Better off than Odysseus meeting Nausicaa.

Art: (Big smile as he sees Helton now has a better assessment of his situation) A man of education.

Helton: Not enough. Didn’t see this coming.

Art: It will serve you well. Never forget your assets, just because you acquired some new liabilities. Have faith in yourself, and you’ll be OK… God works in mysterious ways.

Helton looks at Art silently for a long moment, trying to understand it all. He drains his glass, not looking very convinced.




New Acquaintances


INT – DAY – Space liner hallway

Helton walks down the passageway. He’s dressed in his normal shipboard attire: collared shirt, earth tone vest with several pockets, dark pants, five finger-style shoes. There are several others headed in the same direction, each with a different style of clothing (mostly of simple cut but stylish, in much brighter colors). The hallway has a sense of faded high-tech elegance. As they walk, the ship’s announcement system drones in the background.

Announcer: (Calm and pleasant female voice) Passengers on B Schedule proceed to your assigned dining rooms on Level E, Corridor F, for the traditional first night formal meet and greet. Your seating assignments will be at your tables if not noted on your ticket. Please arrive promptly at 1830…

Helton and the rest of the passengers turn and stream through a doorway into a large, low room with some two dozen oval tables that can seat ten people each. It has the same sense of faded elegance: nice chandelier but with a few lights burned out, slightly worn seat upholstery, indirect lighting that is inconsistently bright, colors that don’t quite all coordinate perfectly, as if they could not be bothered to find identical replacements. Each table has a busy artistic centerpiece and a small sandwich-board style screen with a list of names on it. Many of the tables are full or nearly so. Helton wanders by and glances at one with several openings, then goes on to the next table with spaces, where he sees his name on it. There are already eight people there: Doctor Local & wife, Senator Snol & wife, Penger Trask & wife Lucretia Trask, the Liner Engineer (an older man in disheveled ship uniform), and Bipasha( beautiful East Indian woman, mid 20s, well dressed). He takes a seat between Bipasha and Lucretia. Everyone except the Liner Engineer greets him.

Everyone at the table: Greetings/Hello/How are you?/Welcome.

He nods his head around the table in general acknowledgement.

Helton: Howdy.

He picks up the slim e-reader (about the size of a sheet of paper, no bevel) and scans it. He touches a few items that light up to order.


INSET – He touches Lamb & Rice Pilaf, vegetables* (note at the bottom says “*synth”) and Iced Tea. Most of the items have the asterisk, and the price totals at the bottom as he chooses.


Meanwhile his tablemates chat quietly among themselves; there is a droning of others doing the same, the hum of the air system and engines, and the clatter of silverware. He sets the menu down and looks up, listening to what they are saying. The wives are generally playing up what their husbands do, and the Doc and Senator are unsuccessfully trying to act modest while playing up their skills and influence. Trask is more seriously modest. He is a wealthy mining and manufacturing magnate, the Doc a neurosurgeon, the Senator on several committees.

Helton glances at Bipasha and she is looking at him. Dressed in a lovely, brightly patterned dress, nice jewelry, nice hair, very attractive, she nods in greeting.

Helton: Helton. Hope I’m not taking anyone’s seat here?

Bipasha: Bipasha. No, it’s free… I’m headed for Niven. You?

Helton: Yes. Visiting family.

He looks inquiringly at her.

Bipasha: I just finished school, and my uncle has an import/export business there.

Helton: You don’t sound too thrilled about that.

Bipasha: I had kind of hoped that I could travel more and find a job on my own before my family talked me into anything, but… He’s an honest man with a good business, so I’ll work for a few years while I look for something with more excitement and possibilities. You? Any business, or just the family?

Helton: Wellllll… (Looks a little uncomfortable)

Bipasha: Running from the draft?

Helton: No! I served my time, but… well, it just got a bit complicated.

Bipasha looks skeptical. Helton drinks a sip of water.

Bipasha: Being a soldier is a perfectly respectable profession, if you are a good one.

Helton: Agreed, I just didn’t like the guys giving the orders. I’m a teacher now. Well, was… My sister is on Niven. Her husband needs some help. I was headed that way and things went off the rails…

Bipasha: Yes, lots of plans getting changed these days.

Helton: Isn’t that the truth.

A waiter shows up with a tray to serve them dinner.


INSET – The plate put before Helton only has the barest resemblance to what he ordered.


Bipasha: (Eyeing the plate before her uncertainly) This is vindaloo?

Helton: Hmmm. I’m sure it’s edible, even if it isn’t quite what you had in mind.

They both tentatively take a bite of their respective dishes, and look at one another, then simultaneously make a face and shrug as if to say “eh, OK, but nothing to write home about” and keep chewing.





INT – DAY – Starliner dining room

Most of the food has been eaten, people chatting at their tables, except Liner Engineer, who sits tiredly in his seat being ignored, and ignoring most of his food.

A man, Lag, approaches the table. He’s wearing a conservative, somewhat Edwardian dark suit with brass buttons, a high collar shirt, jacket, and vest, looking like a well-to-do businessman: short hair, no whiskers, mid 40s, broad shoulders and powerfully built.

Lag: (Indicating a chair between the Doc’s Wife and Bipasha, across from Liner Engineer) Is this taken?

Chorus from the table: Oh, not at all/Please be my guest/Have a seat/Welcome.

Lag: Ah, thank you. Sorry I’m late. Always more details. (Half to himself as he picks up the menu) Hmmm, what are the choices?

Everyone else goes back to their conversations while Lag looks over the menu reader, makes a couple of rapid selections and sets it down. He then turns to Bipasha and is about to speak when the ship’s announcement system chimes, and the familiar calm female voice comes on.

Announcer: (OC) May I have your attention, please… Navigation has informed the Captain that due to a change in the regional subspace conditions and news our schedule will be somewhat altered.

A collective groan rises from the around the dining room. The passengers listen attentively and exchange looks.

Announcer: (OC) We still expect to arrive in Niven on the scheduled date. We will be detouring through a swirl headed our way, stopping briefly at a transfer station point outside of Eldari to exchange passengers, then continuing to Balltic and Niven. Ship time will be approximately five days, universal time about seventy-two hours plus a short time at Eldari for transfers. We will be arriving at the Eldari transfer point in about ninety hours. That is all.

The dining room erupts in murmurs of excitement, confusion, and relief, depending on the person.

Senator: (To the table) I don’t understand; we’ll be on the ship for five days, but we will arrive at Niven in only three? And we won’t get to the transfer for ninety hours? That doesn’t make any sense.

Lucretia Trask: Yes, that’s impossible… how can we get there before leave?

Helton: No, we won’t.

Liner Engineer looks acutely at Helton. The others at the table look at Helton curiously.

Helton: The details of FTL are complicated of course, but the basic idea isn’t. Universal time, how time passes in the conventional universe where we usually live, passes as a pretty constant rate everywhere. According to the clocks on Niven and where we just left, we’ll arrive in-system in three days. But time moves differently in subspace, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always forward, depending on a lot of things: what kind of drives you have, what sort of gravity wells you pass, which way subspace is blowing, and-

Doc Wife: Subspace blows?

Helton rearranges a few things on the table, clearing out things from the centerpiece, putting a carafe at one end and a bauble from the centerpiece near the other. While he does this, he explains:

Helton: Yes. There are twenty-two dimensions, as you may have heard. Three in space that we can normally perceive, plus time. The physics are similar, but different, in the other dimensions, and by transitioning into them we can do things like go faster than light can here in our universe. But, just like space bends from gravity and solar winds blow here, things are neither smooth nor static in the other dimension. It’s kind of like wind. A little bit of wind and you can walk or fly normally and mostly ignore it. If there is a strong tailwind blowing you get there faster; if you are bucking a strong headwind it takes longer, but the distance is the same. If a hurricane is passing through, then you can’t go anywhere-

Bipasha: Ah, the “Deep Black”…

Helton: -yes, that is where the subspace is simply much too turbulent to transition into and fly.

The others look at him with a mix of interest and incomprehension on their faces.

Helton: Pretend this (indicates the centerpiece on the table) is an island. That (pointing to the bauble) is your ship, and that (points to carafe) is your destination. In a light tailwind blowing from you (points to the Flight Engineer on the end), the ship could sail down either side of the island at the same speed, but going back would be slower. But if a strong wind was blowing from you (points to another) at an angle across the island, then sailing on that side would be fast, but the other side would be slow and difficult because of all the wind eddies and swirls there. If a hurricane comes through, then no one sails anywhere, they just hide in the harbors and hope for the best (he puts the bauble in among the details of the centerpiece), which is what happened when Eta Carinae blew. The Dark came in because subspace was not navigable. The local effects of the stars and planets swamped it close in, so A-grav and accelacomps worked in-system, but not FTL. It sounds like right now we’ll be able to catch a wind that blows us, very quickly, past you (he tosses the bauble to Bipasha) then to you (indicates she should toss it to the Penger Trask, which she does) then on to Niven (it gets tossed to the flight Engineer). Because we are going further in subspace against a wind as it were, it’ll take longer ship time, but Niven hasn’t moved, so our real time hasn’t changed much.

Lucretia Trask: OK, I guess that sort of makes sense…

Helton: Like I said, the details are complicated. If you are not interested in math and physics it’ll make your head hurt, but just remember time always goes forward, just at different rates depending on your path. Kind of like how time seems to go fast when you are having fun, and seems to drag when you are bored. Sometimes weird things happen, like being able to go a lot further, a lot faster in universal time, but it’ll take much longer ship time while using less fuel, or more time on ship but less in universal time. Just imagine different weather and winds and currents and islands and mountains with the sailing ship, and it’ll be easier to visualize, even if it’s not entirely accurate.

Lag: One of the better descriptions I’ve heard.

Helton: Thanks. I’ve had to explain it more than a few times.

Ship Engineer: Oh?

Helton: I’m a teacher. Between classes and a passel of nephews and nieces-

There is a sudden burst of cheers and laughter from a table at the far side of the room, where a group of young men and women (mid teens to early 20s) seem to be having a very good time.

Doc Wife and a couple of the others glare at them. This is not the group’s first outburst.

Doc Wife: I wonder where the parents are? Children without manners should not be abandoned in public like that.

Lag: (Sighing) No rest for the wicked. Excuse me, please.

Surprised looks on their faces, the rest of the table watches him stand up, glass in hand.



View of the table full of young adults on far side of dining room

Lag approaches the table. Sitting there are seven young Plataeans (four male, three female) dressed in dark, almost uniform style clothes, somewhat similar in style and color to Lag’s. They are celebrating loudly. He smoothly helps himself to the one empty seat at the table. After a moment they all notice him, turning silent and eyeing warily as they do so. Lag’s expression is cheerful, and his demeanor friendly. He speaks quietly and sincerely.

Lag: I understand that congratulations are in order. To adulthood!

He raises his glass to them, saluting around the table, and takes a sip. They return the salute with their glasses, some of them just sipping, some tossing back the rest of their drink.

All others at the table, loudly but unevenly: To Rights!

Lag: So! Who took the biggest risk?

A small young lady at the table smiles shyly and raises a timid hand.

Lag smiles in some surprise and nods to her, again raising his glass, but not drinking.

Lag: And?

Plataean1: I tried a 4.5… but I only scored a-” she’s cut off cheerily by Lag.

Lag: Ah-ah. Don’t dwell on the mistakes; learn for them. Even trying for a 4.5 is a daunting task. Quite commendable to take on a serious challenge. You aimed high and passed. Learn from it and move on. (Looks around the table) High score?

An obviously tipsy young man of nineteen leans forward to brag.

Plataean2: I got a sixty-seven! With THREE extra points!

Lag: (Sounding honestly impressed) Oh, outstanding! Well done! Three extra points are not easy. A score like that is an excellent way to start the resume!

Lag looks around the table, and sees one young man who looks slightly sullen, and not quite as celebratory as the others. There is also something not right about one sleeve of his shirt. He nods towards him.

Lag: (Concernedly) And how did you do?

Plataean3: (Downcast, slowly then faster as he explains what happened) Well… only an 8… I went for a star-drive apprenticeship, and would have earned a 4 on performance, but on my last shift a power conduit I should have checked blew and took this… (holds up the stump of his arm, gone about halfway between shoulder and elbow) They docked it down to a 1… I’m good at math, so it was supposed to be an easy assignment for me. If I hadn’t got the conduit properly shut down and a tourniquet on my arm in time it would have been worse, though.

Plataean1: (Blurting out, sticking up for #3) He earned an extra two points by shutting it down correctly after he lost the arm and saving another guy injured in the blowup, and it really wasn’t his fault. He was just on duty at the time. (Plataean3 looks at #1 appreciatively)

Plataean3: (Bitterly) Trying to get a drive tech job scoring an 8 isn’t going to happen.

Lag: You followed procedure and got things shut down safely, after losing an arm, hmmm? That’s not nothing.

Plataean4: (Also sticking up for #3) And getting the senior drive tech out of the room. He was knocked out by the blast. And he was really the one responsible.

Lag: Hmmm… Well, the situation isn’t always as bad as you might think. An 8 is passing, if only just. I know someone that scored an 8 and is doing quite well. Good friend of mine, in fact. You still earned full rights of adulthood, and that’s worthy. But… (leans conspiratorially forward and lowers his voice), I do have to tell you… (they all lean in to hear, as he speaks almost apologetically) now that you are adults, you are representing Plataea and can be held fully accountable for your actions. There are some people at my table who have the ear of the Captain, and they don’t want to be bothered by your honestly deserved celebration. A more private place might be better. You should keep it down a bit… (looks pointedly at one of the young men, Plataean5) if word gets back of any brig time to your aunt Elen, Argo, she would not be amused. (Lag holds up his hands in mock surrender to forestall argument) I won’t tell. Komenagen deserves celebration. Just a word to the wise.

The table group suddenly realizes his point, and Argo sits back a little wide eyed at the implications, while also wondering who Lag is and how he knows his name. They fall silent.

Lag pushes his chair back and gets up, raises his glass in salute.

Lag: Again, congratulations!

Lag turns and heads back for his table.

As he walks back he passes a young lady in clothes similar to those worn by the Plataeans at the table. She sees him and stops with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, as if she can’t believe who she’s seeing right in front of her. She watches him return to his seat, then hurries over to her table to join her friends. There is a rapid chatter of energetic whispers and gesturing, with some unclear louder voices, quickly dying down in the background.



Helton’s dinner table

Lag returns to the table and sits. Looking around at them, he nods and smiles cheerily.

Lag: They did well, and deserve a good celebration. I think they understand things now and will be quieting down soon.

Senator: I should hope so, the rowdies. Kids today, no respect. What in a kid’s life is worth that kind of noise?

Lag: Komenagen. They are now legally adults. By the way, Senator, did you know that the Plataean way to reply to an apology you accept is to say “proper”, meaning it was a proper apology, and no further action is needed?

Senator: (Densely) Huh? I don’t get your point.

Doc: (Almost simultaneous with the Senator) Them? Adults? But they look like kids!

Doc’s Wife: What’s Komen-whatever?

Lag: Komenagen. Plataean coming-of-age trial. Legal adulthood and voting rights are earned there and have no specific age. Some earn it by military service-

Senator’s Wife: I’ve heard Plataean soldiers are bloodthirsty butchers!

Lag: -some by earning a living on their own for a decade, but most go through a trial between the ages of 15 and 21 standard years to demonstrate adult capabilities.

Doc’s Wife: How barbaric!

Lag: Not at all. “Things not earned are not valued.” The individual picks the challenge, with advice from adults close to them. It can be something relatively easy, like planning and catering a full dinner for 20 people, including childcare and entertainment, for someone with more limited abilities and modest aspirations, to apprenticeships like one of those young men went for, or even some very difficult, perhaps life threatening, challenges, that may take a year or more to complete. Military service in battle often passes on its own merit.

Trask: (Sounding unconvinced) So why doesn’t everyone just do something simple and be done with it?

Lag shrugs and serves himself from a some dishes set in front of his place.

Lag: True, all who pass legally become adults, regardless of score… but that score becomes the first point on their resume. A high score can help one’s prospects a great deal.

Doc: So, how is it scored, if everyone is doing different things?

Lag: It is based on three simple scores from 1 to 5, overall difficulty, difficulty for the chosen challenge relative to that person’s particular abilities, and actual performance. Those three numbers are multiplied together, and any extra points they earn are added in.

Senator: They… hey, the big drunk one is coming over. I hope you didn’t just make him angry!

The Senator glares at Lag, who smiles and applies himself to his food while Plataean3 approaches.

Plataean3 walks unsteadily up to their table, and the dining room buzz quiets down to watch.

Plataean3: (Looking straight ahead, sort of at attention, but turned toward Lag) I apologize if we-

Lag quietly cuts him off with a sound, then nods toward the rest of the table, and speaking very quietly and pointedly.

Lag: Ah. Not me. Them.

Plataean3 slurs his words slightly, seemingly thinking about it hard to make sure he speaks correctly, and he turns towards the Senator.

Plataean3: We are sorry if we disturbed you Sir, that was not our intent. It won’t happen again.

He then stands there, awaiting a reply from the surprised table.

Senator: (Confirming with Lag) Uh, proper? (Lag nods) Proper!

Plataean3 nods assent, does an about face, returns to his table briefly, then heads out the door with three others.

The people at Lag’s table look between themselves, at the departing Plataeans, then at Lag.

Senator: (Eyebrows raised in surprise) What did you say to them?

Lag: (Seemingly preoccupied by eating then looking up from his dish) Hmmm? Oh, I just wished them well and explained the situation clearly.

Lag takes another bite of his food, as if he’d explained everything, and it was trivial.

Senator: How did you know he’d apologize?

Lag: (Swallow) Wasn’t sure, but it was a likely outcome. With clear understanding a best course is usually obvious.

Penger Trask: (Curiously) I’m sorry, I didn’t catch if you said what you do.

Lag: Ah. Didn’t. Dispute resolution and troubleshooting. Mostly corporate or intergovernmental. (Smiling) Occasionally interpersonal.

Trask: It seems you know your business.

Lucretia Trask: (Ingratiatingly) Perhaps you could settle a small dispute at the table?

Lag: Maybe. No guarantees, unless… (joking grin) you get a contract and a bill.

There is general laughter around the table.

Lucretia Trask: Well, before you arrived there was a question as to which occupation was more important, a senator, or a doctor?

Everyone at the table becomes either silent and interested or slightly embarrassed at the obvious attempt to liven things up at someone else’s expense.

Lag: Ah, I see. So, if I may interpret your question more precisely, you are asking me to say who is the most important person at this table?

There is some halfhearted protesting by the Doc and Senator and their spouses that that isn’t really what was being questioned, but also some hearty “that’s a great way to put it” by the rest of the passengers at the table and a few nearby who have been listening in. Lag looks around at everyone seated.

Lag: Well… (chews thoughtfully while looking around the table) Obviously I don’t know everyone perfectly, so there is always a chance I’m wrong, but… a senator passes laws that affect everyone… but if he makes a mistake, he doesn’t know who died, there are lawsuits, money changes hands, and he passes another law while blaming the opposition.

There are general gasps of agreement at the baldness and accuracy of his words.

Lag: A surgeon holds life in his hands. If he makes a mistake, someone dies on his table…

The Senator and his Wife look flustered, the Doctor smiles but says nothing.

Lag: But it’s only that one person.

The Doc frowns, and the Senator’s Wife smiles.

Lag: However… judging by the flaming cog of a drive tech, the number of stripes on his sleeve and bags under his eyes, the chief engineer down there (everyone swivels to look at the somewhat disheveled older man in an ill-fitting and rumpled ship uniform, with a flaming cog badge on one shoulder and many service and rank stripes), has been putting in long hours keeping this old bird flying. If he makes a mistake, we all die. I’d say he is the most important person on this ship right now.

There is a general acclamation of his answer at the table, muted protests by both the Senator and Doc and their wives, and the Chief Engineer’s surprised expression slowly turns into a grin.



Same table. The evening passes, dinner eaten, conversation moved on, seating shuffled a bit, and now Lag and the Chief sit next to each other.

Lag: (Quietly, and directly towards the Chief) Seriously, how are things?

Chief: Holding together. We’re down a few key guys so we do a few extra shifts. Keeps us busy. No real problems, though.

Lag nods in understanding and leans back in his chair.



Same table, later. The view is from behind and between Trask and Lag as they sit leaning slightly together and half facing the table, Bipasha and Helton are chatting in the background.

Trask: Well, that is a way to end an argument, though I think you made an enemy or two.

Lag: (Chuckling) I said I settle disputes, not that I make people happy… Besides, bending a third rate snollygoster that will get voted out next election and a man with delusions of importance and a lot of blustery arrogance but no power outside his hospital is a small price for truth.

Trask: Well, you certainly made everyone else at the table happy.

Lag: It is amazing how a little perspective makes things clear, isn’t it?

Trask: (Somewhat more seriously) Yes, indeed. You know, I was wondering…

Lag: (Knowingly) If I’m available for some intractable problem you have?

Trask nods the affirmative and looks inquiringly at Lag.

Lag: Things are a little busy at the moment, but I may have some openings. What and where?

Trask: I was heading to Throwdart II to deal with a series of disputes at a local mine. It seemed to finally be settled after an explosion killed some people, but now the accounting is looking very… odd. And I’m not getting any straight answers from anyone.

Lag: Hmmm… I don’t usually do accounting issues, but… Throwdart II is interesting. Rough place a while back, with a very ugly mine strike. Quiet now, I hear.

Penger Trask: (Nodding) Ah, good, you know of it. So… any chance you’ll be out that way?

Lag: Not planning on it, but it’s not too far off course. If we catch a swirl that forces us over that way, I might be able to drop in. Are you going directly there?

Penger Trask: Not quite. I’ve another couple of stops. I should land there in a month or so.

Lag: Well, we can talk more as we get closer to transfer, and I’ll see what looks possible.





EXT – NIGHT – Dimly lit space station, black of space in background

Several ships are attached to a large transfer point space station in orbit four or five AUs from the star, well out to the edge of its gravity well. One liner is approaching, a freighter is leaving. Both are glowing faintly. Serene and quiet, looking as if everything is going according to a computer-regulated plan. On one of the docked liners there is a small flash of an explosion, and debris sprays away from it into space.



INT – DAY – Interior of spaceport docking ring

A couple of Liner crew in uniform say the routine “Goodbye and thanks for flying with us” to the departing passengers headed down the gangway, Lag included among them. The crew’s voices are flat, visage grim. In the background, the one-armed Plataean is standing at stiff attention in a brand new ship uniform, a barely contained smile on his face as he salutes Lag as he walks by. Lag nods in reply with a grin.

Lag: Looking sharp, young man! Do your family proud! Now, get out of here. You’ve got work to do!

One Arm turns and heads away. Lag turns to leave as the CEO passes by.

Trask: Good luck on your trip, and I hope our paths cross near Throwdart next month so we can connect on the ground.

He sticks out his hand to shake. Lag takes it.

Lag: I will, I will. And if you ever find out where that missing two and a quarter percent went, let me know, sounds interesting.

Lag heads down the gangway. With him go the Doctor & Doc Wife, the Senator, and others, while Trask goes back for his wife. Helton (carrying his duffel) and Bipasha (carrying nothing) walk side by side, then look up and around at the lights as they fluctuate in brightness.

Bipasha: Another power system problem? Glad we made it to the station.

Helton: Yeah. And lucky there are some other ships docked with room to squeeze us all into, if only barely. To bad we couldn’t both make the same one, though.

The lighting fluctuates more, and a distant, barely audible thump is heard amid the hubbub.

They walk down the gangway together. The waiting room beyond has a couple of exits with reader boards above each listing different ships and parts of the station.

Helton: Here is where we part, I guess. Good luck with the job. Maybe you can get out to-

Bipasha: Yes, maybe so. We’ll see.

They shake hands awkwardly, then she goes one way and he goes another.





EXT – DAY – Desert valley

Low angle camera, close-up view of Helton’s face as he lies face down in the sandy dirt, brightly lit by a reddish sun low in the sky. With a flopping sound a puff of dust blows by his face. He twitches, blinks his eyes, and squints as if he is just waking up. Camera pulls back for a wider view. He is lying on the ground, stretched out, with other people lying in the dirt near him. As he starts to groggily move some of the others also begin to make small movements. A big brute of a man, Slaver1, wearing something vaguely resembling a uniform, walks into view dragging two people by their collars. He drops them roughly in the dirt next to Helton and turns to walk back the way he came. Another big and rough looking man, Slaver2, wearing similar clothes, drags a child and woman and drops them carelessly. As the view expands, there are about two dozen men, women, and a few children, dropped like so many sandbags, scattered about on the dry, dusty ground of a desert basin around the loading ramp of a small anti-grav transport. A couple of them are recognizable from Helton’s dinner aboard ship. Slaver1 picks up a large canister, shaped like a two-gallon fire extinguisher, and turns it on the unconscious people, spraying a white chemical fog out over them, sweeping it back and forth as he stands on the ramp. The cloud settles down over the victims, then dissipates.

Slaver1: Wakey wakey, sleeping beauties!

Slaver2 thinks this hysterical and laughs loudly. People start to twitch and slowly turn over, shaking heads, spitting dirt out of their mouths, sitting up or getting unsteadily to their hands and knees. Slaver1 goes over and kicks the ones that aren’t moving. One groans and starts to stir. The other lays unmoving. He kicks her again. She lays there, unresponsive.

Slaver1: One down already. Might have to put another bet in the pool.

Slaver1 walks back to the ramp and hops on. He addresses the crowd with malevolent relish in his voice.

Slaver1: Welcome to Hell. You can sit here and die, but that’s no fun. For us, that is. Or, you can walk that way (points down a valley between two mesas) for a few days to get to the prison mine. Those that live that long will dig ‘lonium there ‘till you work off your debt. In the meantime, how many of you die on the march there will entertain us. I’m betting the pool that only 11 of you make it. He’s (hooking a thumb at Slaver2) betting on eight, ‘cause of all the weak ones he sees. But I’m an optimist.

Passenger1: (Unsteady but with growing rage) You can’t DO this to us! WHAT debt? When we get there, I’ll rip out your-

Slaver2 draws a pistol and BLAM! Passenger1 drops with a thud to in the dirt without a twitch.

Slaver2: No, you won’t. (To Slaver1) One less tough guy!

With a chuckle and smirk, Slaver1 kicks a stack of 1 liter water bottles off the ramp.

Slaver1: One each. You can fight over ‘em now or later, your choice. Got bets on that, too. (Evil grin) See you soon!

The transport lifts up and speeds away, leaving the passengers gaping in disbelief. They slowly start to stand or crawl toward the water, unsteady as they recover from the effects of the sleeping gas.

As Helton sits up he sees a very tough looking bearded Sikh in his late 40s sitting next to him, alternately looking at Harbin and eyeing the retreating flier, adjusting his turban and starting to flex and loosen up.

Harbin: Name?

Helton: Helton. Can’t say I’m glad to meet you.

Harbin: Harbin. The same. (Looks at the dead Passenger1 and shakes his head) Stupid.

Helton: What the hell happened?

They both move carefully to their knees.

Harbin: Pirates. They can sell the ship and cargo. People are harder. A couple of inside guys can put knockout gas in the air but they might be skittish on just spacing everyone. So, entertainment, then slavery in a prison mine where there isn’t a lot of paperwork filed, I expect.

Helton: (Looking briefly around at the terrain) Sssshhhhiiiiit.

As his eyes come back to the people around him, he notices that a little way back, behind Harbin, six tough looking youngish punks are gathering.

Helton: (Nodding slightly toward them) That doesn’t look good.

As he kneels there, Harbin casually glances out of the corner of his eye, back at Helton, then bends as if stretching and surreptitiously picks up an oblong rock in one hand.

Harbin: (Very quietly, nodding slightly) Good call. Can you move OK?

Helton stretches carefully, grimaces, and nods slightly.

Harbin: Right. Follow my lead.

Harbin slowly stands up, flexes, and goes toward the six punks. They look at him suspiciously, also stretching, flexing, and making fist-into-palm motions. Harbin grins a wicked grin as he approaches, while also taking a moment to leer at one of the ladies. They spread out, preparing to fight him all at once. When he gets close, but not quite touching range, he speaks quietly, pitching his voice as a whisper for their ears only.

Harbin: Kill the other men, then rape and kill the women and kids, take all the water? Make for an easy walk to the mine.

Thug1: Shit, yeah!

Thug2, Thug3, Thug4 all smile.

Thug5: Kill ‘em, then rape ‘em. Can’t hurt you that way, and it’s faster.

Thug6: I like the way you think!

Harbin: (With a nod and an evil smirk) Thought so. Here’s how.

Harbin steps toward them, waving them in slightly as if to huddle for a quick plan. There is a whirl of kicks, chops, lunges, smashes with his rock, a head butt and neck twist. In a few brief seconds of violence five of the punks lay dead, or at least out cold and bloody. The sixth, who was biggest, is fighting with Helton. They are about evenly matched. As they clinch and struggle Harbin steps up and efficiently whacks Thug6 in the back of the head with almost casual precision, laying him out very effectively, like it’s something he’s done many times before.

Everyone else is scrambling out of the way, then staring in wonder and fear at the sudden turn of events.

Helton: Thanks.

Harbin: (Not the least bit out of breath, nods acknowledgment, and speaking quietly, keeping it just to Helton) Thank you. Four isn’t a problem; six is pushing it.

They look at the bodies, then at the fearful groups of passengers.

Helton: Well, that helps the water problem, anyway.

Everyone has scattered, putting some distance between themselves and the violence as they assess the situation. A few have grabbed water bottles as they moved. Then, everyone is still, eyes on Helton and Harbin as they walk toward the small heap of remaining water bottles, suspicion showing on their faces. Some of the adults shield their children behind them. Helton squats to pick up a bottle and hands a second to Harbin. They look around to evaluate their position.

From between two groups of passengers, a frail looking elderly man in a monk’s habit slowly gets to his feet, then walks stiffly toward them. They watch him silently. He stops a few yards away and regards them intently. His face is ashen and yellowish, even the whites of his eyes are yellow, but his expression is sharp and inquiring.

Monk: What now, my violent young friends?

Helton: Well, (takes a drink) We make a plan, and get everyone to safety.

Monk: (With a small smile) I admire your faith, my son, but you seem to have more hope than sense.

Harbin: (Skeptically) Doesn’t your God preach “God will provide?”

Helton: Yeah, right now all He’s provided is an abundance of shortage.

Monk: Perhaps. But He provided them (waves his hand to indicate the rest of the passengers) with you (nods to indicate the fallen punks).

Helton: (Sarcastically) Which only proves He’s got a really odd sense of humor.

Monk: (Wryly) Perhaps. But you don’t look like a punch line to me.

Harbin: (Grimly) Not a perfect situation, but we’re not dying of thirst just yet.

Helton looks sharply at Harbin, closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and talks mostly to himself

Helton: Liabilities are obvious. Assets. Observe, orient, decide, act.

He looks around, eyeing the people, the water bottles, gazing over the terrain. Suddenly he squints more closely at one of the mesas, then back and around. Surprise lights up his face.

Helton: Hey, hey-hey-HEY! I… I know that rock outcrop! I know this place. I’ve been here before!

Helton paces back and forth a couple of times looking at everything around him like a crazy man energetically pointing out things and muttering to himself.

Helton: The basalt was over there, and the granite that-a-way, terraforming cut through silicates there

He’s gesticulating, trying to remember everything from a faded memory years old. Everyone else around him eyes him cautiously.

Helton: (Snapping his fingers) GOT IT! Sun’s coming up over there, gonna get hot, damn hot. That valley he pointed us down is a long way to the mine, but it should be easy walking. There is a shorter way around that side, but it’s rough. Lots of sharp igneous rock, and an old TFP cut. How, how, how…?

Harbin: Could we cut ahead, take a transport, come back to get them?

Helton: Huh? Oh, ummm… no, well, maybe… ah… let me think…

Helton taps his chin, looks around him intently, becomes oblivious to the people around him, muttering and looking acutely at features here and there.

The monk collapses, sitting down hard. His face is pale, jaundiced, and sweating. Helton snaps back to the people around him and goes to the monk’s side.

Helton: What’s wrong?

Monk: (With labored breathing, trying to put a good face on a dire situation) Nothing that’s not been going wrong for months. I was headed home to the abbey for my final voyage. (He winces faintly in some internal pain) Looks like… uuuhhhh… it might be a shorter trip than I planned.

Helton: No, you’re going to make it! We’ll all make it!

Monk: Would that it were true. But no, I… It’ll spread the water. I’ve done my work in this world.

Helton: No, you’re not done yet!

Monk: With my kidneys, I’ll be visiting with God in a couple of hours. Sorry to disappoint you…

Helton: Well, we’ll do what we can do.

The monk smiles at him faintly, and Helton stands up and looks around, for a minute…


Flash a rapid series of images from Helton’s POV:

  • Harbin
  • A mesa
  • Six groups of dumped passengers, one after another
  • Another rock outcropping in a different direction
  • A small heap of ten water bottles
  • The sun, about twenty degrees above the horizon
  • The monk
  • Another rock outcropping


Helton: (Confidently) OK, unless someone has a better idea, here’s the plan.

Helton squats down and picks up the water bottles one at a time, looking around to see who has what. He tosses water to everyone that doesn’t already have one, and an extra one to each of six that appear to be family groups or together. While he does this, Harbin checks through the clothing of the seven dead for possibly useful items, taking jackets and belts and tossing them to the groups for nighttime warmth, and turning out pockets looking for useful items. Helton explains, talking fast and firmly, pausing to look people in the eye as he hands them things.

Helton: Harbin and I can cut over that way along other side of mesa and-

Passenger2: (Pointing down valley) But they said the way to the mine was that way.

Helton: Just ‘cause they handed us a crap sandwich doesn’t mean we have to eat it. Just deal with it. Now, the sun is still low, so we can move into and through the shadows on the east side of the canyon for a while. By noon it’ll be getting hot. Find a shady spot, lie down, and sleep if you can. Move out again in the evening as it cools. If you come across any water it’ll have a lot of alkaloids, so DON’T DRINK IT! And…

Helton cuts himself off, and pats at a few of the many pockets in his travelers coat. His face brightens.

Helton: Ha! Here.

Helton pulls out a series of tiny flashlights, checks them and tosses one each to four groups.

Helton: Always kept a supply of these handy for the kids. You’ll need to march all night to keep from freezing, but don’t go too fast or you’ll sweat and get dehydrated and exhausted. Save your water until tonight if you can. A couple of big turns down the canyon, you’ll see the prison mine. Find a spot just around the bend, out of sight on the west side, and wait for us. Harbin and I’ll take the cut around the other side of the mesa. We’ll sneak in, grab something flyable, zip out to grab you, and get as much airspace as we can between us and them as fast as we can. We’ll aim for sunset in two days, so be ready to move. If we don’t pick you up before sunset in three days, go in together as a group, and you’ll have to take your chances because in three days… (shrugs the obvious alternatives away). If you are stopped and cold, huddle together. Questions?

Male passenger2: Shouldn’t we bury these guys?

Helton: No. No time to waste before the heat sets in. Anything else?

Monk: (Holding out his water bottle) I won’t need this.

Helton: Yes, you will.

Monk: (Gritting his teeth) No. It won’t make any difference for me, might save one of you.

Helton: Thanks. (Takes the bottle gently) We’ll come back for you.

Monk: Only if you can do so safely.

The monk motions feebly to Helton for him to come closer. Helton bends down. The monk whispers something into his ear, and presses a small medallion into Helton’s hand.


INSET – a 40mm medallion of metal, red with a black enamel Possenti cross, which looks somewhat like a mil-dot reticle with two short and one long stadia lines on each vertical, and two short stadia on the horizontal crosshairs.


The look of seriousness on Helton’s face deepens. He puts his hand with the medallion into his pocket.

Helton stands up, looks at the group as they arrange themselves, looking like they have renewed hope, even if it’s going to be tough.

Helton: Well, good luck. Hopefully we’ll see you all in two days.

One of the ladies in the group comes up and gives him a hug.

Lady1: Thank you. Good luck!

The rest of the group gives Harbin and Helton a quick hug or handshake, with murmurs of “Luck” or “Bless you” and “Give ‘em hell.” Harbin takes a close look at the monk, sitting, slumped on the ground. The monk looks at Harbin and shakes his head slightly, wincing. He straightens up slightly, adjusts his position, and settles into a meditating position.

They all start off in their respective directions. After two dozen paces, Harbin stoops, picks up a smooth rock a bit smaller than a baseball, hefts it, and turns toward the monk, now sitting facing the sunrise. The camera view returns to frame Harbin as he winds up and hurls the rock, hard, and there is a soft crunch as it smashes into the monks skull, then the flopping sound as he collapses over onto the ground. Helton looks at him, appalled.

Harbin: (Flatly) Alone in a desert dying of thirst and organ failure. Not a good way to go.

He turns to address the monk, salutes him, and speaks in a respectful, sincere tone.

Harbin: May your God watch over your soul.

Harbin turns back to Helton, waving his hand in the direction of the mesa.

Harbin: Lead on, gubernator.





EXT – DAY – Near the foot of a long mesa

Helton and Harbin scramble rapidly along a narrow flat spot at the foot of a mesa, Helton’s traveler coat flapping in the wind, with a steep side going up on their left, and a deep, regular but rough, nearly semicircular valley cut made by a terraforming machine sweeping down to the right. They hop from one rock to another, moving smoothly along, a half dozen paces apart.



Series of short aerial flyby shots of them making rapid progress along the foot of the mesa, first in shadows then with the sun working its way overhead.



A series of shots showing some of the other groups of people walking along a sandy valley bottom, steep canyon walls rising around them. They march along, the stronger helping others who are struggling, such as one man lifting up a young girl to sit on his shoulders.



Flying zoom into Helton and Harbin standing side by side, surveying the way ahead, pointing out a possible path, then standing arms akimbo as they just take in the view across the valley.



Much closer view of them standing, scanning ahead and taking a breather.

Harbin: Where did you serve?

Helton looks at Harbin questioningly.

Helton: Serve?

Harbin: The way you talk, move; like most of the good officers and NCOs I’ve known. Either officer training, or good command instincts.

Helton: Thanks. I did the traditional two years everyone in my family did. Army on Asimov 3. (Faux haughty) Attained the exalted command rank of corporal, second class, promotable. (Sarcastically) The 500 they asked me to pay for a five year reenlistment and one-grade promotion didn’t quite seem right.

Harbin laughs out loud and nods knowingly.

Harbin: I’ve worked with that sort of force before. Payoffs and corruption throughout.

Helton: You’re a soldier?

Harbin shrugs to indicate “more or less.”

Helton: …Mercenary?

Harbin: I prefer “freelance righter of wrongs.” My wife describes it as “negotiation failure contingency planner” to keep from scaring people.

Helton: Anywhere in particular? Lots of stuff going on right now.

Harbin: I work for a Plataean unit wherever it goes. Here and there.

Helton: You Plataean?

Harbin nods.

Helton: Now I believe some of the things I’ve heard about them.

Harbin: An honest reputation is worth far more than one not earned.

Helton: Native or earned citizenship?

Harbin: Born there, but Plataean citizenship is always earned. Passed my Komenagen at 19 with an 8. Bothered my parents that I passed the test in the field with the only person in a generation to score a 130.

Helton: 130? A perfect score?

Harbin nods the affirmative.

Helton: And you barely passed? Ouch.

Harbin: I was a punk, once. Someone looked past the score, looked at me. It worked out well enough.

Helton: …She mind you being gone, out to places like this? Your wife, I mean.

Harbin: Hadn’t planned on being here. She likes me being good at what I do, and standing by her. A steady income working for honest people is beneficial for a marriage, too.

Helton: Glad you’re on my side… You are on my side, aren’t you?

Harbin: We have a strong mutual interest in each others’ success.

Helton looks at him, acknowledging there is much left unsaid.

Helton: What now? Rest ‘till it gets cooler?

Harbin: You’re in charge. But since you asked, I’d say we should look for a good shadow to hide in.

Helton: (Skeptically) I’m in charge, huh?

Harbin shrugs, a matter-of-fact expression on his face.

Harbin: You know the planet, the mine, the terrain. You made the plan and took command in a very decisive way. I’m just along for the scenery until we reintroduce ourselves more properly to those who, as you said, handed us this “crap sandwich.”

Helton: Well, then I guess-

Helton suddenly cocks his head to listen, then scans the horizon and the rocks around them. A slight hum can be heard.

Helton: Damn. Flier of some sort. See any place to hide?

They both take off at a run along the scree slope, trying to find something to hide behind. They bounce along the slope rapidly, then come around a small spur and see a dark spot in a narrow draw that looks like a cave entrance, partially covered by rocks and debris. They scramble quickly over to it and slide in.




INT – DAY – Interior view of cave entrance

Helton and Harbin slide down the loose rocks and sand half filling the cave mouth and lie, panting quietly but otherwise motionless, listening intently for what is passing outside. The humming of a flier grows louder as it approaches, then Dopplers down and fades away. They are about to move again when the sound of a different flier is heard approaching, then fades away. They look at each other, then around the cave.

Helton: Good a place to rest as any. Cool, out of sight.

Harbin grunts agreement, keeping his eyes on the entrance.

They both lay back and relax in the half light that comes in the partially blocked entry, and look around to take stock of their situation. The cave is flat bottomed, with nearly perfectly round walls and ceiling, like a culvert one-third filled with sand, about three meters diameter, going back as far as they can see, straight into the dark. There are rocks and debris scattered about the floor, and the walls are even but not very smooth. In the poor light they can’t see very well.

Helton: Hmmm… This cave isn’t natural.

Harbin looks at him skeptically.

Harbin: Looks natural enough to me.

Helton: (Shaking head, examining the wall more closely) No. Too symmetrical. Eroded, so it’s been here a while, but it’s not the sort of tube that would occur naturally in this kind of rock. Lava tubes are usually in lava. Wrong geology. Weird.

Harbin: If you say so. Not my field.

Helton rubs the wall, and finds it is much smoother than it first looked.

Helton: (Quietly to himself) A long while.

Helton stands up, brushes himself off, and walks back slowly into the cave keeping one hand on the wall, tapping and sweeping his foot back and forth in front of himself gently, checking for holes, booby traps, or anything suspicious. He stops, pats his pockets, digs out one of his tiny flashlights, then clicks it on and shines its dim beam around. Walking back some distance, the tunnel becomes gloomier, the dark rock reflecting little light. Faintly discernible ahead in the feeble beam is a low pedestal in the center of the tunnel. He approaches cautiously. On it is something book-shaped, about 20cm x 30cm x 5cm. He picks it up. There are no markings on it. The pages are almost to the edge of the binding. He tries to open it up, but it resists. Shut fast, with no obvious locking mechanism. Helton looks it over thoughtfully, then examines the pedestal briefly. It is a simple hexagonal column of rock with no symbols or details. Staring into the darkness, and a short way further on is the end of the tunnel. He turns and walks slowly back to the tunnel entrance.

Harbin: (Looking out the entrance, talking over his shoulder) Anything?

Helton: Dunno. What do you make of this?

Helton hands the book over to Harbin to look at.

Harbin examines it briefly.

Harbin: (Skeptically) Book?

Helton: (Sarcastically) Really? Never would have guessed that.

Harbin: Old desert hermit’s bedtime stories?

Helton: Hmmm… Maybe. (Examines it more closely) Let me see here.

Helton takes off his traveler’s coat, flips up the cape revealing a large flat pocket between the insulating lining and the tough outside layer, sized for storing things like maps. He tucks the book into it, where it barely fits, so it will fall high on his back, like a pack. Harbin looks on skeptically.

Harbin: (Disapproving) Souvenirs are useless. Kill more people by distracting them from the mission than you’d believe.

Helton: Maybe so. But something tells me this is worth the risk. It’s not that heavy. (Nodding out the entrance) They gone?

Harbin: Seem to be.

Helton: Think we can rest a bit longer. Until it cools off, anyway.

Harbin shrugs his assent, lies back into a more comfortable position, closes his eyes, and looks as if he falls asleep immediately. Helton looks at him in surprise, then settles back as well.



INT – EVENING – Cave entrance

The reddish light filtering into the cave mouth is dim and low angled. The sun is close to setting. Helton gently kicks Harbin’s boot with his. Harbin’s eyes open narrowly, then fully.

Harbin: Rocks. Comfy as always.

Helton: Yeah, I hear you, but better than sleeping with knock-out gas.

They both stand, stretch a moment, adjust their clothes, drink from water bottles, gage the little remaining, then lean up the slope to the open part of the entryway, listening closely. Noting but the faint breeze reaches their ears.

Helton: Well, not too much farther… let’s roll, then.

They scramble up the slope and out.






EXT – DAY – Low rocky ridge

Helton and Harbin lie just below the crest of a ridge of gravel and rocks, peering over the top toward the mine. The sun is halfway to zenith. Their dust covered clothes blend into the rocks. In the near distance, against the far wall of a small valley is the prison mine operation. It is located where three steep-walled valleys converge. They see scattered tailing piles and a landing pad to one side with two large fliers, one medium, and two small two-person quad-rotors. No walls or fences can be seen, just industrial style buildings built against the rock face, a few outbuildings, one not far from the landing field, and a couple of conveyor belts coming out leading to large gravel piles. There are a few large pieces of earth-moving equipment parked in the shadows.

Harbin: No fence. That’ll make it easier.

Helton: Don’t need one. Where’d they run?

Harbin grunts concurrence as they look the place over.

Helton: We’ll need keys, likely from the building next to the field, then go for the biggest flier. OK, so we wait for dusk, sneak in over there on the right in the shadows.

Harbin: No.

Helton looks at him with cocked head, questioningly.

Harbin: In another hour or so, the rocks will be the same temperature as us, and we will hardly show up on thermal scanners. They won’t expect someone coming from this side, and they’d not expect someone to try to escape during the heat of the day, so they’re not likely to see us in full daylight. Sun overhead means little shadow, too.

Helton: (Sarcastically) Just walk up? I thought I was in charge.

Harbin: Of getting us here. Winning battles is what I do.

Helton: Hope you’re right.

Harbin: (Grinning widely) So do I, Helton. So do I.

They carefully start backing down the ridge.



EXT – DAY – Gravel pile near the mine

The sun is directly overhead, shadows are almost nonexistent. Helton and Harbin stand at the foot of the gravely ridge, near the end.

Helton: Time. Let’s do this.

Harbin nods, hefts a baseball-sized rock and tosses it in the air, catches it, flexes his shoulders, and nods, a set look on his face.

They walk smoothly and boldly around the corner and across the open area for one of the outbuildings, their clothes blending into the everything-dust-colored buildings and background. They approach a door facing them, open it, and stride right in, Harbin leading the way, rock in hand.



INT – DAY – Well lit storage building

Helton closes the door silently behind them. Looking around, no one is obviously there. Crowding the warehouse are stacks of crates and barrels, and shelving with boxes, bins, and cases on them. Visibility is limited. To one side are a desk and a small walled cubicle with a closed door. Harbin holds up his hand to motion silence, and both listen intently. Nothing. Harbin motions for Helton to go left while he goes right. Moving quietly along their respective walls they see no one. Circling around and meeting back by the door, they shake their heads indicating nothing seen to the other. A desk sits near the door with a couple of screens (on one a paused movie, on another four CCTV images of outside the building and surrounding area, on the third a bunch of text in various windows) a handheld barcode scanner, and some generic office gear including a large pair of scissors. They look at each other and are about to speak when a flushing sound comes from the side cubicle. Harbin grabs the scissors from the desk with his left hand, wielding them like a knife. The two of them spring to either side of the door, waiting to hit or grab whoever comes out.



Close-up of the bathroom door

It opens, showing a dirty bathroom, with Slaver1 looking down and slightly sideways at his left hand and scratching himself with the other. He notices Helton out of the corner of his left eye and reacts in a flash to reach for a com unit on his belt. Harbin holds the scissors to Slaver1’s neck and he freezes. Harbin whacks him carefully with the rock and drops him, then crouches and takes the com from his belt.

Harbin: Well, well, well…

Helton: Looks like his Karma wheel is spinning faster than most, eh?

Harbin eyes the com, examining its settings. He nods in satisfaction and bends to feel the pulse of Slaver1 for a moment.

Harbin: Thick skull. Get a drink, I’ll watch him.

Harbin starts to go through Slaver1’s pockets and drops the contents on the floor. Helton goes into the bathroom, turns on the faucet, rinses his hands, then cups them to drink deeply and splash water on his face, standing up with a sigh of relief. Helton turns around to see a small pile of assorted pocket contents and Harbin dragging Slaver1 out of sight of the door with one hand, scissors in the other. Helton goes over and helps drag the last bit.

Harbin: (Nodding toward the front) Watch the door and cameras.

Harbin looks around and grabs a spool of cord from a shelf while Helton walks back toward the front.



View of desk and cubicle next to the entry door

Harbin walks to the cubicle and pauses at the door.

Harbin: Anything?

Helton: Nope. All quiet.

Harbin nods and enters the bathroom cubicle and closes the door.



Helton and Harbin are looking at the security camera screens. They hear a groan and look back toward the prisoner, take a quick glance at the screens, then go back to where Slaver1 is tied up to a heavy duty shelving unit. His hands are bound behind his back, feet are bound, and there is a cord with a noose around his neck tied to the shelf, so if he moves or tips over he will choke. There is blood on the floor behind one knee. Helton looks sharply at Harbin.

Harbin: (Flatly) Hamstrings. Didn’t want him getting any ideas.

Helton nods grimly in understanding. He squats and looks at Slaver1 closely. His eyes are still closed, and he’s not moving much.

Harbin: I’ll keep an eye out.

Harbin turns and goes back, out of sight of Slaver1. Slowly and groggily Slaver1 comes around and looks blearily at Helton. A flash of recognition comes over his face.

Slaver1: You!?

Helton: Yup. Looks like the shoe is on the other foot, hmm?

Slaver1: How’d you get here so fast? Where’s everyone else?

Helton: Life is full of little mysteries, ain’t it?

Slaver1: Sod off, snoddie!

Helton: You aren’t too bright, are you? (Nods to the leg)

Slaver1: Look in the mirror, asshole. You can’t go anywhere from here!

Helton: Just have to see about that.

Slaver1: We’ll hunt you down like a dog!

Helton just eyes him for a minute, turning the scissors about in his hand. Slaver1 stares back.

Helton: So. What’s the routine around here?

Slaver1: Screw you! You can’t even fly out of here unless you have clearance, and pass onboard security. You’re stuck here!

Helton: (Not sounding very concerned) Well, that might be a problem. Or, it might not.

Slaver1 laughs, then chokes and gargles to a stop on the cord around his neck.

Helton: You didn’t think we could get here for two or three days, and we showed up in a day and a half.

Slaver1: (Glaring) So? So you took all the water and ran here, sweating it out. Big deal. I don’t give a shit about sheep like you. Not a runny, puss-filled shit about any of you. You’re all scum, and you’ll die in the mines like the rest!

Helton: Maybe, maybe not. But if I can get here much faster than you thought possible, and get the drop on you, what else might we do to clear atmo?

Helton stand and walks away, leaving Slaver1 to think about his options for a bit.



Front of building by desk and door

Helton walks up beside Harbin.

Helton: (Quietly) He’s got a point. Fliers have locks.

Harbin: Hmph. (Points to a screen) One problem at a time.

On one of the CCTVs, two men walk across the ground toward their building. One of them puts a hand to his ear trying to better hear a com unit. He stops walking and gesticulates like he’s arguing with someone. The guy in front of him stops and looks back. The talker turns around, shouting at someone near the mine entrance. He’s on the losing end of the argument and they both head back.

Harbin: (Murmuring quietly, fingering the edge of the scissors) Their lucky day.

They watch the two return to the main mine building.

Helton: What’s with that guy’s attitude?

Harbin looks at him questioningly, looking for clarification.

Helton: Why did they dump us and say “work off our debt,” and now he says we deserve to be here?

Harbin: Compartmentalization.

Now it’s Helton’s turn to look blank, not understanding.

Harbin: Op-Sec. And a way of getting good and marginal people to do bad things. If you tell the average guy to go murder someone, he won’t. But the guys on the ship that gassed us were told one story. They need to be smart enough and educated enough to get a sensitive job onboard, and patient enough to be in place a while; that’s not the typical psycho killer. So, they don’t directly hurt anyone. They can deny their evil to themselves. The ship and passengers then get passed to someone else, who is told a different story. We get passed along by who knows how many people, with yet a different story at each step. Each stupid grunt is fed a story that lets him live with himself and think his actions are justified. That way the people making the plans, and profits, only need a couple of real psycho-killers on the payroll, rather than dozens. Much easier to do. Each is in a separate compartment of information from the other. He possibly really does think we belong here and doesn’t know a single correct thing about us. Crime gangs, cult leaders, pirates, and politicians all do it. Military units, too. It is often called “need to know.”

Helton shakes his head in disbelief.

Harbin: It’s useful. And dangerous.

Helton: Well, shit… With guys like that around we might have to leave fast. Best not leave empty handed. I’ll see what I can find.



Series of shots:

●  Helton walking along shelving looking at boxes and bins and crates

●  Helton grabbing a couple of water bottles

●  Helton hefting a gym bag type duffel, then dumping it out

●  Helton popping open a box labeled “emergency rations” and tossing some into the bag

●  Helton stopping in front of a stack of footlocker sized crates labeled “6.5mm M210 Carbine”

●  Helton hears a door open, and voices arguing



View of front door

Harbin stands next to it, one half of the disassembled scissors ready to stab or slice. The door opens, sunlight blasting into the relatively dark interior of the building. One guy walks in followed closely by two more, who are arguing. They all wear ill-maintained guard uniforms, and can’t see Harbin in the dark shadow beside the door.

Guard1: -So I tell the guy “that’s bullshit,” and-

Guard2: The hell you said that-

Guard3: URK!?

Harbin steps forward between Guard2 and Guard3, stabbing Guard3 in the throat with the scissors and shoving Guard2 hard from behind, tossing him forward onto Guard1, who stumbles and falls with Guard2 on top of him. Harbin grabs the very surprised, and nearly dead Guard3 and pulls him forward on top of the other two, while pulling out the scissor blade and slicing sideways as he does so.

Guard1: (Stumbling forward) THE HELL?!

Guard2: (Falling on Guard1) WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!

Harbin lunges forward and slashes the throat of Guard2 as he rolls over trying to recover. Harbin holds it to the throat of Guard1 with an intense “freeze or die!” look on his face. Guard1 freezes.



View of down a back aisle between two high rows of shelving

Helton hurries down the aisle and around the corner and sees what’s transpired. He looks slightly shocked.

Helton: Why didn’t you call me?

Harbin: (Matter-of-factly) There were only three of them.



Low angle view down a middle aisle

Guard1 is tied up similarly to Slaver1. Two bodies lie nearby with Helton and Harbin in the background looking into an open gun crate.

Harbin: If we can find ammo, things just got easier.

Helton: I’ll see what there is.

Helton moves off down the aisle and around the corner searching shelves. Harbin stoops down, removes a rifle shrink wrapped in plastic from the packing crate, peels back the wrapping.

Helton: (OC) Found it.

Harbin: Good. Drag a few thousand rounds up front, then find magazines.

Helton: What?

Harbin: Hope we don’t need it all, but ammo is like money. I have yet to have too much.






INT – DAY – Warehouse near front entrance

Harbin and Helton carry rifles slung across their chests with a few magazines of ammo in their pockets. There is a heap of stuff near the door: two duffel bags, 20L water cans, a couple more rifles, opened cases of ammo and bandoleers full of magazines.

Helton: Almost time.

Harbin: (Nods) Still need more flier info from our unhelpful friends, though… You might want to plug your ears.

Helton looks at him uncertainly.

Helton: I thought Sikhs were all peaceful and into the sanctity of life?

Harbin: Mostly, yes. Never said I was a particularly good one. And others are depending on us.

Harbin walks out of view toward the back of the warehouse. An agonized scream rings through the room. Then another. Another. Helton winces more each time.



Front of warehouse

Harbin walks toward the pile of things he pulled out of Slaver1’s pockets and fishes out an electronic key. He then holds up a small bag with something in it.

Harbin: I think we have what we need. Time to go.

Helton: (Warily) What’d you do?

Harbin: Pegged his give-a-shit meter.

They turn toward the door.



EXT – DAY – View past the corner of the warehouse

Helton and Harbin walk confidently by the corner of the building toward the landing area. Each carries a slung rifle across his chest, three bandoleers and a duffel slung over his shoulders, a water can in one hand and an ammo can in the other. They stride boldly to the largest of the fliers. At the boarding hatch near the front they set down the gear and water in their hands. Next to the closed hatch is a hand-scan pad.

Helton: What now?!

Harbin retrieves the bag from a cargo pocket. From it takes a severed hand and places it against the scanner. It flashes green and built-in stairs fold down as the hatch opens. He drops the hand back in the bag, tucks it back in his pocket, and picks up his load as if it were the normal boarding procedure. They march up the stairs and inside.



INT – DAY – Cargo bay of flier

The door is closing behind them as they come aboard, drop the supplies on the deck, and head for the nearby cockpit door. They arrive at the door side by side and pause, each waving the other to go first. There is an awkward silence as they look at one another with an awful realization.

Harbin: Are you a pilot?

Helton: … Aren’t you? It was your idea.

Harbin shakes his head.

Silence for a moment as they consider their predicament.

Helton: (Questioningly) Not at all?

Harbin: Not even barely.

Helton: Then let’s hope this thing doesn’t crash as easily as a simulator.

Harbin gives Helton a look of surprise, then fatalistic acceptance, as Helton leads into the cockpit.



INT – DAY – View of cockpit, from the front toward the door

They climb into the seats and buckle themselves in, then sit for a moment as Helton looks over the controls.

Helton: (Muttering to himself as he visually identifies and points to items) OK, master ignition, keylock, attitude indicators, pedals, landing gear, that must be… (confused for a moment) hopefully something I don’t need… Ah! Security check! Give me a hand, there.

Harbin positions the severed hand on the hand-print reader off to one side, which blinks for a moment then lights up with “pilot authentication POSITIVE.” Harbin gives the electronic key to Helton, who inserts it into the keylock, lighting up the panels. He examines screens, flips a few switches, and a moment later the sound of machinery spinning up to speed reaches their ears.

Helton: (Grimly) Here goes. Hang on tight.



EXT – DAY – Aerial view of the small landing field

Their flier sits in the foreground. It start to rise, slowly, unevenly. It tips, lurches to one side, runs into the other large flier next to it with the landing strut, tearing a big gash and tangling the forward landing gear of Helton’s flier. It twists, tips, and turns trying to get free, but the strut just gets more tangled. After a few moments struggling to the whining sound of over-stressed drives, it sways and sags down on the opposite side of the grounded ship at a steep angle, front end on top of the second large flier, back end squishing a nearby small flier.



Large doorway of a building built into the side of the mesa

Armed and uniformed prison guards, sloppily dressed and unkempt, exit the building, firing at the ship that is now sitting off kilter, half on and half off the other large ship. The rear cargo ramp of the flier drops and Helton and Harbin run out, heading for the remaining medium flier. Helton is carrying supplies (water in his hands, duffels and rifle slung), Harbin only bandoleers, an ammo can, and a rifle.



View from behind Harbin over his shoulder, towards the building door

Harbin drops to one knee into a good supported firing position and squeezes off a dozen rapid aimed shots, guards falling to the ground in rapid succession. Though the guards are spraying on full automatic, the shots wildly kick up dust spurts, none very close to Harbin. He is calm and precise, a professional. A few more guards come out of the building at a run while some retreat back into the building rather than get shot, a generally confused and chaotic scene. Harbin keeps shooting, drops a magazine, and smoothly inserts another one with barely a pause in his firing.



View through a gun’s telescopic sight

Looking down from a high angle, the crosshairs are centering in and focusing on Helton. Much shooting is still heard in the background. Helton tosses a few items in through the flier’s open door and turns (facing away) to wave to Harbin and yelling to hurry up. The crosshairs settle high on the center of Helton’s back. BOOM! The view jerks up in recoil then settles back onto Helton’s prostrate form. He is stretched out face down, motionless, a charred smoking spot covering much of his upper back. The scope swings over to the foot of the ramp of the crashed flier where Harbin is firing. As the crosshairs focus on him, it is clear that Harbin is aiming directly at the guard looking through the scope. Harbin’s gun jerks slightly, and there is a puff of smoke from the barrel. A bullet THWAKs into flesh, and the view of scope and crosshairs jerks crazily skyward.



View over Harbin’s shoulder, with twenty-one dead guards spread around the open door of the building he’s facing and no moving guards. One dead guy hangs over a parapet wall atop a building, next to a mounted light grenade launcher. Harbin squeezes off a few rapid rounds through the open doorway to the building guards were coming from, and into the metal edges of the door.



INT – DAY – Just inside the mine building

A pair of guards stand at the edge of the large doorway. One nervously prepares to peek around the corner toward the airfield, and suddenly a hole appears with a CLANK! in the sheet metal wall next to him. He pulls back sharply from the doorframe as bullets buzz past to ping on metal somewhere inside the building.



EXT – DAY – View of Harbin on the landing field

Harbin grabs his ammo can from the ground and sprints to where Helton has fallen. He kneels, taking a few more covering shots. He looks down at Helton. The big burn mark clearly goes though the coat, revealing the shiny silver-white of the book that Helton tucked away in the cave. Smoke rises from his coat, and the back of his neck and head are blackened and blood-spattered. Harbin grabs Helton’s shoulder and rolls him over.



Helton’s POV as he rolls over

A ringing, roaring, muffled combination of sounds. Everything is blurry, dark, and slow motion as he looks up into Harbin’s face as he mouths “Come ON! ON YOUR FEET! We GOTTA GO!” The POV goes black for a second as Helton closes his eyes and reopens them in slightly better focus. He half sits up, looking sideways at an angle. Dust puffs kick up from bullets hitting nearby.



Normal over-the-shoulder view of Harbin taking a few more cover shots, then pulling back as he helps Helton to his feet and, stumbling, the few steps to the flier stairway. As Helton works his way up, Harbin drops to his knee and takes a few more aimed shots. He stands, tosses the last things through the door, runs up the stairs to board the ship, pauses at the top, rapidly empties the magazine back at the building, then ducks through the hatch.



INT – DAY – Cockpit of ship

The layout is much like the simulator layout Helton crashed. Sun comes in through the windshield, casting stark shadows on the grimy cockpit.

Helton looks over the controls for a moment, rubs his face, shakes his head gently to clear it, winces and begins the launch sequence, visibly struggling to focus and think. He clumsily slips the electronic key into its slot, and Harbin puts the severed hand on the ID scanner again. Helton flips switches. The sound of a drive system spinning up fills the cabin.



EXT – DAY – View of ship and landing field from a distance

Flying camera view following the flier as it rises smoothly, angles away, and heads toward a valley between two mesas. It sweeps up and around the building, across a small spur and around a bend in the valley, then swoops down to land near the cluster of waiting passengers.



INT – DAY – Cargo bay of the flier

It is small, about the size of a V-22 deck, lined with flip-down seats. Harbin stands next to the ramp, pulling tight the straps on a safety harness. There is a thump and a jerk as the flier sets down. He hits a large button on the bulkhead and the rear ramp rapidly lowers to the ground. Many exclamations of “thank God” and “great to see you” and the like are heard from the passengers as they scramble aboard.


Female passenger: (Happily) Yes, all here!

All the passengers run up the ramp as fast as they can to board, carrying the smaller kids.

Harbin: (From ramp door facing inward, yelling, serious drill sergeant voice) One per seat and buckle up!

He takes a nearby kid from her dad and sits her into a seat, grabs the straps, buckles her in with practiced speed and efficiency, then looks up the cargo hold to see everyone else is doing the same.

Harbin: (Yelling towards the cockpit) LIFT OFF! GO GO GO!

He slaps the ramp button, and it slowly starts to rise.



EXT – DAY – Landing field

One of the slavers carrying a light machine gun with a long belt of ammo jumps into the remaining flier, a small open-topped two man quad-rotor with ducted fans. He drops the gun into the pintle mount on the front right corner of the cockpit, grabs the controls, hits a button, waits a moment as the propellers spin up to speed, then takes off after Helton.



INT – DAY – Flier cargo bay

The cargo bay loading ramp is about two-thirds closed. Harbin, now with a safety line clipped to his harness, checks the buckles of those seated on the cargo deck wall. Next to him, a passenger pours a cup of water from the 20L can they had brought aboard. A loud roaring of air rushing past an open door fills the cargo bay, everyone’s hair is blowing a bit. There is a metallic CLANK as the water can sprouts two holes, one facing the open ramp and one on the opposite side. Harbin jerks his head around to look out the back door. There is a spurt of hydraulic oil out from near the ramp lift pistons. One of the lines springs a bullet hole, and the ramp stops closing.

Camera view pans to look out the back door, then zooms in on the small quad-rotor that is now just a little way behind them, its pilot aiming at them with the mounted machine gun.



View from the front of cargo bay looking out the back hatch

Passengers line the wall, buckled in, holding various items like the duffels, ammo bandoleers, and the water can. Harbin snatches his rifle from the man holding it for him, barrel-down, steps to the back door and braces with a knee and one hand, then starts firing at the quad-rotor as it dodges and jerks behind the swooping, twisting ship. Harbin struggles to keep his feet as the flier dives and swerves, the view out the back door shifting wildly. A series of holes appear in the loading ramp. Splashes of bullets bouncing off interior points glint around the cargo hold.


INSET – A bullet passes through Harbin’s leg as he stands there, blood leaking out of the entry wound, and a small spray of gore out the exit wound. More than a scratch but not hitting bone.


Harbin fires one handed, fires, fires again, but the combination of Helton’s evasive flying and erratic quad-rotor motion is hard even for him. He drops the magazine, inserts another one from a pocket, switches to full auto and hoses down the general area of the quad-rotor, brass flying.



Flier cockpit

Helton twists and turns the control yoke as the canyon walls flash by through windows and screens. He flips a switch, adjusts a large lever forward. He grits his teeth and, seeing a sheer wall ahead, pulls back hard on the yoke.



EXT – DAY – Over-the-shoulder POV of quad-rotor pilot

One hand is on the belt-fed pintle-mounted light machine gun, the other on the control yoke. As he flies erratically back and forth, he fires bursts at the flier, sometimes hitting it, sometimes shooting wide. They swoop through a series of tight turns with steep canyon walls on each side. A bullet from Harbin breaks his windscreen, making him swerve. He fires back. Another swooping curve, another round tears a small hole in the front of his quad-rotor. He shoots again. A stream of tracer fire blossoms out from the flier as Harbin fires on full auto. The quad dodges wildly to avoid it. The tracers cease, and the quad banks back to fire another burst. Suddenly, the flier pulls straight up, revealing a sheer rock wall ahead.



INT – DAY – Cargo bay, view of Harbin

Rifle still shouldered he inserts another magazine. The view out the aft door changes sharply as Helton stands the craft on its tail and climbs straight up. Shift to slow motion, Harbin is pitched forward and through the half open ramp door, getting a clear and close shot at the quad-rotor. As Harbin falls through the air he points the rifle, firing on full auto. Tracers rip through the quad pilot and one motor.


Cut back

EXT – DAY – Quad pilot over-the-shoulder POV, slow motion

Helton’s flier goes straight up. As Harbin drops out trailing his safety line on the harness, he fires a long burst. The quad engine explodes, the windshield shatters, the pilot rocks back as rounds rip through him. The quad-rotor is heading straight for where Harbin falls though the air. He’s jerked up hard on his safety line, whipping up and out of the view, clearing the oncoming quad-rotor like a high-speed yoyo being reeled in. The quad flies straight on into the rock wall and explodes, splattering on the sheer rock wall of the canyon.


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