“You’re only saying it because you have money, Harvey.”
Harvey Armstice looked indignant.
“Nothing to do with money,” he said. “Persistence and charm! They can get you anywhere you like.”
From across the crowded table, Harvey’s older brother, Charles, called, “Even back to Earth?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Charles shook his head. “Harvey, the shuttle ticket alone is two thousand credits.”
“Two thousand? Pfft! I could get back under thousand,” Harvey declared.
“A thousand? You couldn’t.”
“Oh yes, I could.”
The rest of their friends followed this exchange like the audience of a tennis match, keeping their eyes on the metaphorical ball.
“Uh-uh,” Charles objected, folding his arms. “There’s no bloody way you’ll find a shuttle that cheap.”
Harvey’s cheeks went up in a wicked grin. “Wanna bet?”
“And no cheating?”
“Of course not,” Harvey said. “I’ll leave all my cards with you, only take a cash chip.”
Charles’ face split into a grin that matched his brother’s. “You’re on.”
The table erupted in cheers. Half a dozen beer mugs designed for low gravity use smashed together, sending foam flying in ribbons out of the mouthpieces.
* * *
Following in the best traditions of drink-induced wagers, this one too didn’t have its exact conditions specified, so, with everyone in high spirits, they flew Harvey out of Lunaris, expecting him to chicken out. He didn’t. Even after the towers and spires of the lunar city vanished behind the swollen horizon, giving way to vast fields of violet grass.
Harvey neither said nor did anything to protest; he put on a good face instead. He was an Armstice after all, and Armstices never backed down.
They landed near a patch of trees.
Harvey ignored the suppressed sniggers as well as the dead weight in his stomach and got out of the vehicle. One brief look was enough to tell him they were about to abandon him in one of those places even the most passionate cartographers couldn’t be bothered with, no doubt a featureless blob on the map.
Out of the collage of expectant, beaming faces of his friends, a palm belonging to Charles appeared. In it, Harvey deposited his small personal items and cards, except for the cash chip and his netlet, still wrapped comfortably around his wrist.
Harvey straightened up. “See you back home, big brother,” he said and without waiting for a reply, left in the awkward skipping-walk you had to do on the Moon. He heard the encouraging cheers behind, and he thought he caught a surprised, “He’s going to do it!” so he allowed himself a small, self-satisfied grin.
* * *
Two exhausting hours later, the grin was gone. Low gravity or not, Harvey’s muscles were not used to the skipping-walk and began to ache with every move. Luckily, his target was not far out, already visible above the bulging horizon. He followed the map on his netlet to a terraforming plant, where he hoped to catch a ride to Lunaris.
He slowed down when he got closer.
Gray buildings stared out at Harvey with dark gaping holes for windows. The enormous turbines that once helped to create a breathable atmosphere for the Moon now lay lopsided amidst a tangle of spindly frames.
Harvey’s heart sunk. He glowered at his netlet, then at the ruins. The data entry didn’t mention anything about the structure being abandoned.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” he said, throwing up his hands. An empty gesture witnessed only by the deserted landscape.
Can’t stop now. Harvey returned to his map.
What’s the nearest place with prospects for a ride? There. Seven and a half kilometers southeast. A town called the Anthill, if the netlet was to be trusted. The place had abysmal visitor reviews, but who cared? Once he got there some opportunity was bound to come along.
…Or he could message Charles, and call off the stupid bet.
The whole thing had started when someone had brought up the topic of money during their gents’ night out.
He and Charles, well, they were the heirs to the Armstice fortune, as well as future CIOs of the leading industry giant built by their father. Practically born into a world made out of money. Of course, none of it was theirs even if every one of their friends thought differently. Charles didn’t mind. He had that calm and easygoing big-brotherly attitude of his, but Harvey, now Harvey… it drove him up the frigging wall.
All the money he’d made, he’d made from his own hard work for Armstice Industries. No help from anyone, least of all their father. He’d brought in more new business than anyone thought possible and made his share. Fair and square. No matter the circumstances, persistence and a bit of charm were key. Yet, everyone treated him as if life was handed to him on a silver platter.
“It’s all because you’re rich, Harvey,” Harvey muttered to himself, exasperating every word.
He’d prove them wrong.
* * *
He made his way up the slope of an enormous crater. Past its rim, fields of tall violet grass waved gently in the lunar wind, disappearing in the shadows of the impossibly tall trees. Shining above it all was the pale blue dot of the Earthrise.
“More like a blue pancake,” Harvey muttered to himself, not in the mood to appreciate nature’s wonders.
Unoffended, Earth stayed put, bright against the backdrop of deep gray dotted with stars. While most were actual stars, some showed signs of movement. These were the thrusters of transports, shuttles, and barges. An endless stream of commerce flowing between the Earth and the Moon.
Harvey’s netlet chirped. A message from his fiancée Rose.
“Beef or pork roast for tomorrow?” it read.
A memory bubbled up to the surface of his mind.
“Aw, crap,” he said and slapped his forehead. “Harvey, you dim sonofabitch.”
He forgot. He actually forgot.
The thing with Rose was that she couldn’t settle on her and Harvey each having their own separate lives. Oh no. She insisted that he, her future husband, should be a part of her circle of friends. It didn’t work; there was simply no chemistry there. But she kept trying. Every now and again, Harvey would run out of excuses, falling victim to the gentle way of the feminine coercion.
Like when he’d promised Rose to be there on Monday night.
Harvey took a deep breath, brought up the call interface on his netlet, and called his fiancée.
She answered so quickly it made him jump. “Honey, can’t talk now. I’ll call you later, okay?”
“Hang on, just one thing real quick. Um, you see, we ran into an old friend, and he invited us over. I know we have a dinner with your friends tomorrow, but do you think I could…” he let the sentence drift away lamely. Unsure what to say next, he put his fist into his mouth and bit on the knuckles.
The silence on the other end dragged for so long he had to check if the call did not disconnect.
“Harvey Armstice, are you trying to weasel out of our dinner?”
“No!” he said briskly and set his imagination loose. “We haven’t seen George in years, and he—”
“Good, you’ll see him some other time. I want you to be here tomorrow, understand? In top shape too!” she said more coldly than usual and hung up.
Harvey stared at the empty screen and puffed out his cheeks. One call to Charles would solve all his problems, though it would lose him the bet as well.
Cursing and wincing, because of burning blisters on his feet, Harvey broke into a run. In this environment, it felt like the disorienting feeling of a long fall you sometimes experience in dreams.
* * *
Shortly after he lost count of the moss-grown craters he’d traversed, a movement overhead caught his attention.
A light. It grew bigger and brighter as it split in two, then in four, then became the outline of a spacecraft coming down too hard too fast. The ship banked in an attempt to level its course, failed utterly, and fired its braking thrusters hopelessly late. They choked, spat smoke, and went out. Instead of landing, the ship bit into the ground with its beak, raking the sand, gravel, and stones aside in a kind of a low-gravity fountain before it finally skidded to a halt no more than fifty meters away from Harvey.
He barely managed to raise an arm to shield his face when the growing cloud of dust enveloped him and everything else.
What has just happened?
Accompanied by a ringing metallic thud, a hatch opened in the ship’s hull. Two shapes emerged, coughing and fanning the dust away.
One of them said to the other. “You have the disk?”
Harvey decided to make his presence known. “Hello? Are you okay?”
Half obscured by the swirling haze, the figures froze and exchanged glances. Sooner than he knew, they were on him, grabbing him under his arms, one each.
“Who are you? Who sent you?” the shorter one snarled. He had black beady eyes and a mustache many a Spanish conquistador would kill for. “How did you know we were coming?”
A squeaky “What?” was all Harvey managed.
“Mister Bruno asked you a question,” the taller one said in a low growling voice. He had a jaw like a shovel and features so withered they made him look like an inexpensive stone gargoyle.
“I don’t know, I—” Harvey protested. He was lifted even higher by the lapels of his jacket. “Hey! Get off!”
“Hold him still, Kemp,” Bruno said, and Harvey felt his pockets being turned inside out.
“You can’t do that, you pricks!”
“Oh yeah?” Bruno said, pocketing Harvey’s only credit chip, and to Harvey’s horror, he reached for the netlet.
Kemp’s massive forearms held him steady while Bruno removed the netlet with the speed and agility worthy of a lifelong pickpocket. The device dangled between the man’s fat little fingers for a moment and dropped to the ground.
“No!” Harvey cried out, a second too late. Bruno drove his boot into the netlet and ground it out with his heel. The crack of fractured electronics made Harvey wince. “You assholes! Rose will kill me!”
“Who the fu—” Kemp began.
Harvey lunged forward and, to his own surprise, managed to land a punch on Kemp, making the man stagger backward and let go of him. The advantage, however, was short-lived. As Kemp rose to his full height, massaging his jaw, he cast a shadow over Harvey’s terrified face.
The backhand slap made Harvey see starlight. He did half a somersault in the air and slammed into the ground with an oomph.
By the time he managed to pull himself onto all fours, the two men were leaving the crash site, becoming once again shapes in the haze.
The blood pounding in Harvey’s ears screamed for justice, urging him to pursue his assailants. But he thought better of it and settled for seeking the remains of his netlet.
He knew it would be no good the instant he found it. Half the screen was missing, and the circuitry peering through was crushed beyond repair. Something in this depressing sight made Harvey realize the full extent of his situation.
Alone. Stranded. On the Moon. Many kilometers away from any settlement, no money to his name, and no way to call for help.
Persistence and charm were key. Except he couldn’t charm his way across the vacuum to his New York apartment, and as for persistence, let’s say it was easier to be persistent about life in general, and not, say, having to walk for hours on end.
To his right, the ramp of crash-landed ship remained wide open.
* * *
It had to be the most barebone ship Harvey ever saw. Walls stripped of all plating revealed rows upon rows of pipes and wires running the length of the hull as if the vessel was only half-finished when commissioned.
Harvey wondered if the communications array could’ve survived the crash-landing.
He climbed up the ladder into the pilot’s cabin, where he expected to find total wreckage, together with sparks and smoke still coming from the broken electronics. He didn’t. Although the floor was littered with small objects that weren’t nailed down during the crash, the rest of the cabin seemed intact.
Harvey approached the pilot’s seat located under three enormous triangular viewports. The holovisuals flickered, then lit up the cabin in response to his presence.
Things were looking up.
Harvey dropped into the comfy leather seat and brought up the comm controls. His fingers keyed in Charles’ net ID but stopped short of actually initiating the call. He paused and took another look at his surroundings.
This was a spaceship. The two strangers used it to fly here. Sure, it crashed instead of landing, and its braking thrusters were acting up, but if he could manage to get the ship airborne, he could work around the malfunction, and, with luck, make it back home with enough time to spare to laugh in Charles’ face.
He still had a chance to win.
“Huh,” he said, surprised at this change in perspective. “Alright, let’s do this. System check,” he said bringing up the flight controls.
One by one, he went through the critical systems. Life support—check, communications—check, navigation—check, reactor—check, thrusters—check. Everything in working condition. Amazing. This was one tough ship and no mistake.
Harvey uncocked all the safety switches. He flexed his fingers like a magician about to pull a rabbit out of his hat and curled them around the flight yoke.
Suddenly, a loud noise rumbled like thunder. Bright light accompanied it, flashing between blue and red. Harvey looked up to see another ship approach, ten times the size of the one he was trying to fly. It ignited a searchlight so powerful it turned the entire cockpit into a sharp cutout of blacks and whites, blinding Harvey.
A voice got through his comms: “Vessel BT9-OT, this is the Lunar Police. Power down your engines. You are under arrest.”
Harvey shielded his eyes against the dazzling light.
“I repeat,” the voice said in a dispassionate tone. “Power down your engines. You are under arrest. If you try to make an escape, we will open fire.”
Harvey fretted away from the flight yoke.
“No!” he said hastily. “I surrender.” He ought to be pressing something to reply, he thought, but now he couldn’t see the controls right in front of him. He waved his arms around, hoping someone would notice him through the viewport. “I surrender!”
There was no response, no reaction.
Harvey jumped out of the seat, slid down the ladder, ran through the bare corridors until he slammed painfully against the closed ramp leading outside. He punched the large push-button to open it. The moment the ramp dropped, he burst outside, screaming at the top of his lungs: “Wait, don’t shoot! I’m… I’m innocent!”
Engines roared. People in uniforms poured out of the hovering mammoth of a ship and jumped down to the ground. Some passed him and went up the ramp, until one, wearing a brown trench coat, finally stopped in front.
“You are under arrest,” he bellowed over the noise.
Harvey felt someone forcing his arms backward and slapping handcuffs over his wrists.
“You have the right to remain silent, but it won’t do you much good.”
A man returned from inside of the BT9-OT, he saluted the commander. “Captain, the ship’s empty. They’re gone.”
The police captain looked at Harvey as though somehow this was all his fault.
“Where are they?” he demanded.
“I don’t know! This is not my ship!” Harvey shouted. “I didn’t do anything. It… It’s all a misunderstanding!”
“My wife’s maiden name was Miss Understanding. Take him away boys,” the captain ordered. And they did.
* * *
Jeremy Phish, the police captain. Unshaven and looking thoroughly unhappy, sat across from Harvey, chewing his lower lip.
“What’s your relationship with this man?” Phish asked and slid a worn out glass tablet across to Harvey. A smaller version of the fat pig-eyed man stared up from the device.
“I told you, I have none,” Harvey said punctuating every word. “I saw them crash, and wanted to check if—”
“Ooooh, now I understand,” Phish interrupted not even trying to keep the mockery out of his voice. “That’s what you were doing in the cockpit.”
“No, that’s—” Harvey rushed to explain but sighed instead. “Look, I know how it sounds, but I have no idea who they are. They got out of the ship and… well, they mugged me, alright?”
“Just like that, eh? Two people crash a ship and the first thing they do,” Phish said and opened his palms, the very image of innocence, “the first thing they do, is rob a complete stranger who happened to walk past.”
“Excuse me. How is any of this my fault exactly?” Harvey said.
“That, young man, remains to be seen.”
Out of the stormy waters of confusion and embarrassment, rose an island of anger.
“You, you can’t be doing this. I know my rights, I—”
“Let me stop you there,” Phish cut in. “You can shove your rights where the sun don’t shine because that’s not how it works around here. The way I see it you are some hapless accomplice Bruno had no further use for. Now, the last few people who worked with him, my boys had to clean up with a mop. How you lived? I’ve no idea. Suspicious as hell. So,” Phish said and leaned closer, “if you want to help yourself, tell me, where’s the damn disk?”
Harvey gave out a cry of despair. “I don’t even know what the fucking disk is, okay?”
Phish snorted. “You’re quite a number, aren’t you? I haven’t got time for this shit. Let me know when you make up your mind.” He stood to leave.
“Wait,” Harvey pleaded. “My name’s Harvey Armstice. I’m here because of a silly bet I made. I need to get back to Earth!”
“Harvey, tell me where the disk is, and I’ll take you to the end of the rainbow if you wish. For now, the only place you’re going is the clink.”
On the highest point of the island of anger, a beacon of panic flared up.
“Please, I don’t know about any disks! I’m Harvey Armstice, you can check me…”
Phish left shaking his head.
“I have a right to a call, you know,” Harvey called after him.
“Give him his call and throw him in the cell, Oates,” the captain said to someone outside.
Harvey slumped on his seat. This couldn’t be happening. Lost, shocked, and bewildered, he surveyed the interrogation room. From the one-way mirror, a sad and miserable man stared back at him. He had dusty clothes and dirt on his face. It took Harvey longer than it should to understand he was looking at his own reflection.
* * *
Officer Oates took Harvey to a wall-mounted terminal. Harvey’s fingers left sweat marks all over the glossy keys.
The sluggish antique machine reached to the depths of the net in search of Charles.
Harvey licked his lips.
“Hello, Charles Armstice. How can I help?”
Harvey took a deep breath, opened his mouth ready to speak, then closed it again. He stared at the terminal.
“Hello?” Charles repeated.
Suddenly Harvey became aware of how hot and itchy his ears were.
He couldn’t do it… He couldn’t admit to failure.
He tapped the call termination key, leaving it sticky and wet. After a couple of seconds, he turned around to face Oates.
Oates gave him a quizzical stare but didn’t say anything.
* * *
“It was the wrong number. Everyone can make a mistake!” Harvey called from behind the prison bars after the retreating figure of Officer Oates.
The man left.
“Come on!” Harvey rattled the bars.
A low voice grumbled from behind: “Kid, shut up.”
Only then did he spot the cell’s other occupant. In the shadows, a shape stirred, more bear than a man. It, or rather he, turned to his other side, trying to snuggle using his hairy arm as a pillow.
Harvey swallowed and spoke, though he knew he shouldn’t.
“What’s wrong with these people? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Yeah, right,” the Bear grumbled. “Makes two of us.”
Harvey really doubted it but decided not to argue the point.
“How do I—”
The Bear grunted and sat upright, making the bunk creak under all that weight. Harvey couldn’t help but notice that although in a sitting position, the man was a head taller than him.
“What have I told you?” the man spoke as if addressing a slow schoolchild. “I told you to keep your gabber shut.”
“I’m sorry, I—”
“There you go again!” The Bear shook his head. “Unbelievable. Now, I see you’re not the smartest sort, so let me help you understand. Either you sit right there, all quiet like, being careful so as your hair don’t grow too loud, or I put you down myself.”
Harvey gulped and backed away.
“See? You’re getting the hang of it. Now go and sit down. Go on.”
Harvey did as he was told. He sat still, careful not to make a squeak. Every body part he could think of started to itch, followed by all the ones he didn’t think of. This was absurd. He was innocent, wasn’t he? And they had to run a check on him sooner or later, find out who he was, didn’t they? It’ll be alright, won’t it?
* * *
More than an hour later the magnetic door unlocked with a twang. The sleeping Bear’s eyes opened like a pair of steel shutters.
“It wasn’t me!” Harvey protested.
Captain Phish arrived, working at his teeth with a toothpick.
“Let him be, Gustavo. You’re in enough trouble as it is.”
Gustavo looked between Harvey and the captain and shrugged. “No manners at all, kids these days.”
Phish smirked. He jerked his chin at Harvey.
“Come on, lover boy. Change of plans.”
Harvey’s heart leaped…
“We’ve found what we were looking for. You’re a waste of space now, I don’t need you anymore.”
…off a sheer cliff. Though far from a pleasant thought, Harvey came to realize the rude captain was the closest he would get to someone friendly in this place. Someone who could get him back home.
“But—” he began.
“But me no buts, Harold!”
“Doesn’t matter,” Phish said dismissively. “It’s your lucky day, you get to go free!” He led Harvey through the station’s tangle of hallways.
“Can I at least have another call? I have nowhere to go and my fiancée—”
“Off you go.”
The man put an arm around Harvey and steered him through a double door into a bustling street outside. Before Harvey had a chance to protest one final time, the door slammed shut.
“Watch it,” a stranger barked. Harvey stepped aside only to bump into two police officers carrying an unconscious man between them. He muttered a quick apology and retreated into the nearest alley, where he slumped against a wall.
This place was worse than a fucking headache on a sleepless night. Where was he anyway? He came out onto the main street, careful to avoid other pedestrians or getting run over by the vehicles zooming past.
A shadowy gully opened in front of him, with levels upon levels of gray, chunky, ugly buildings stacked on top of one another, running the length of two opposing cliffs. Here and there a frail-looking suspension bridge connected the two sides. The lowest levels were shrouded by gray, swirling fumes, making it impossible to say how deep the place went.
Everywhere he looked an endless flow of people, vehicles, and goods. Harvey could see why the name stuck. The Anthill.
As far as settlements on the Moon went, Lunaris got all the attention. Lunaris, the crowning achievement of Moon terraformation. Before today Harvey had no idea there were any other large centers of population besides it. Yet, here he stood in the middle of the bustling Anthill. It made you think. How many such settlements, hidden from sight, did it take to sustain a city like Lunaris?
He shook his head and returned to the more pressing problem of how to escape this place. How did the workers travel between here and the lunar capital? There was bound to be some means of mass transport, because if you came to work in the health-degrading low-gravity environment, you sure as hell couldn’t afford the luxury of a vehicle. Didn’t he read that a monorail network ran between the different outposts? Yeah. You could take one from Lunaris to the preserved site where the first lunar landing took place.
He caught up with two garbage collectors picking an enormous waste container. “Excuse me. How do I get to the monorail station?”
They eyed him up and down, and Harvey realized he must be looking like he just got off a shift himself.
“The rail’s on the upper levels, over there,” one of them said. “Though you might have trouble getting there on foot, this time of day.”
“Um… why’s that?”
“You’re new, aren’t you?” the other one asked.
“You could say that.”
“Well, the Anthill’s packed this time of day, isn’t it. There are too many construction projects in Lunaris, but they’re not too keen on housing for the likes of us, am I right? So people keep coming and going all the time, between work and bed. You might get lost in a crowd if you try to get there now.”
“Unfortunately, I’m in a hurry.”
They exchanged glances, no doubt wondering what a man like him had to hurry to, and shrugged.
“Try the lower levels. They’re okay if you’re careful about the strange types.”
* * *
Within half an hour, Harvey was elbowing his way through the throng of pedestrians, with everyone pushing and shoving much as he did. The crowd soon became unbearable.
Harvey grabbed his wrist in panic. His netlet. Where was it? The all-too-familiar weight was missing. The fear passed, nothing more than a sting of a digital phantom limb.
He had enough, so he ducked into a side street that seemed less packed, only to regret it immediately. Street food stalls lined it on each side. Harvey’s stomach churned as he hurried past sizzling grills and bubbling pots surrounded by a wonderful congregation of smells. In reality, it was mostly frying oil, but on an empty stomach, it held a promise of a feast.
“Forty creds?” someone said, sounding baffled, “It’s a ripoff!”
“Eat somewhere else,” a voice with heavy mandarin accent replied.
Harvey patted his pocket. At that moment he would be willing to pay anything for a tasty and thoroughly unhealthy snack. The pocket turned out empty, and he had to face his sad reality. He had no money. His eyes met those of a cat licking his paw, sitting over a hollowed out husk of some small crustacean. Harvey’s stomach twisted into a knot, and then some more. For the first time in his life, he experienced how it is to be without money.
He left the place, slouched, resigned, and hungry beyond belief.
He chatted up a stranger. “Pardon me. Could you tell me which way to the monorail? I think I’m lost.”
Despite the bags under her eyes, the woman managed a smile. “Level six. About thirty minutes that way, but it’s best if you wait past the rush hours.”
He returned the smile. “Thank you.” A thought struck him as he watched the woman check her netlet. “Um, could I use your netlet? Mine was stolen, and I need some help.”
She covered hers with a hand and looked at him as if she saw him in a different light. “I can’t… I… I have to go, sorry,” she said and hurried away.
So that was that. Hundreds of people around. Everyone with a netlet of their own, many engaged in a lively conversation with images dancing on their wrists, because these were more real than the actual people around them. And Harvey. All alone.
Even though he grew more desperate by the hour, the thought of asking more people for one use of their netlet repulsed him. He wouldn’t beg.
* * *
Perhaps the hunger and thirst were to blame, but Harvey’s venture into the Anthill’s lower levels seemed almost dreamlike. The deeper he went, the stranger the people became—pale and thin, their skin gleaming with greasy sweat.
There were some who, even in the low gravity, had to walk on crutches. Why were they here? Humans shouldn’t spend more than a couple of months on the Moon, because of the effect it had on bones and muscles. Did these people have nowhere to go? Or no way to return, like him? Or was it too late for them now, because their frail bones would snap like twigs in the Earth’s gravity? Or were they simply the dregs of society, people who fell through the cracks and couldn’t find their way back up?
Harvey witnessed a darker side to the Moon.
The sight filled him with dread and made him eager to leave the lower levels. Fortunately, the crowd on the way to level six had gradually receded.
And there it was—more ugly, dull, and gray, than anything constructed by human hand ever before—the terminal of the monorail station.
While close, the station turned out more distant than ever. The sight made Harvey’s knees tremble.
No wonder the crowd broke up.
He’d climbed the wrong side of the Anthill.
Agoraphobia closed its jaws around Harvey. Without warning, the world shrunk to the size of a pinhead. Here he was, a stranger in this strange land of worker ants, all laboring without rest or respite, set upon bringing more food to the colony to please the queen. How could he ever hope to return home from this… this…
The sensation dissolved. A familiar figure slid in and out of Harvey’s vision. A tall, ugly man, with a jaw like a shovel.
That sonofabitch!… Kern?… Kamp? Kemp! The one who held him while the pig-eyed man took Harvey’s money and his netlet. The sight of him made his blood boil. He forgot all about hunger, thirst, and the despair clenched his fists and followed the man.
Kemp took a couple of turns to stop by some kind of a repair shop. Or at least Harvey assumed it must a repair shop on account of the merchandise laid out in front. It might have been a scrapyard just as well.
From his back pocket, Kemp produced a small parcel and showed something shiny and metallic to the store owner. They exchanged a couple of words, the owner took the parcel, and the two parted.
All of a sudden, pretending to be looking for keys to the nearest door was all Harvey could do to not to be noticed. Kemp’s shadow passed right by him, then went down a ramp to level five.
Harvey trailed Kemp, observing him from the level six pavement, which happened to be the rooftops of level five. He followed Kemp until the man disappeared inside a building. Nothing identified the building as any kind of an establishment, but Harvey made out faint music drumming from under his feet.
He walked down a ramp that led him down one level.
He intended to stop and consider his options, he really did, but well, his feet carried him all this way already, didn’t they? Besides, when did stopping ever help anyone? On plenty of occasions, obviously, but this was different, okay? Harvey had had enough!
He burst in. The sounds of Nu Jazz enveloped him.
In the hallway, he passed two scantily dressed ladies enjoying a chat and sharing a cigarette. They paid him no mind. The key, he knew, was to look like you belonged, like you had purpose being wherever you shouldn’t be.
A double-winged door opened to a club hall where the music played the loudest. The place was packed.
Patrons around the center stage waved their credit chips at the two girls dancing on a pole. The girls went up and down, following the unsteady rhythm of the music. Their naked bodies weaved between each other and the metal bar in a performance made possible by the low gravity.
Before anyone stopped him to ask questions, Harvey approached the nearest waitress. The girl wore nothing but a tightly fit corset and a pair of laced thongs.
“I’m here to see Mr. Bruno,” he said, heat rising within him. “Got an important message for him.”
The girl’s expression wavered for only a fraction of a second.
“Of course,” she said and led him through the crowd.
Although Harvey was soon to be married, and Rose was a fantastic woman in all regards, he had trouble resisting the urge to steal a glance. As if knowing this, the girl looked over her shoulder and gave him a foxy little wink.
She brought him to a table where Kemp and Bruno sat with their friends. Recognition flashed in the two’s eyes, but before they managed to say anything, Harvey pointed an accusatory finger.
“You,” he said, going red in the face. “You!”
Bruno’s eyebrows went up. “Me?”
“I’m stuck here, because of you! Give me my money back.”
Heads turned, people paused to stare.
Kemp shot Bruno a glance, but Bruno gestured him to stay put.
“I’m afraid you mistook me for someone else,” he said.
Driven by the kind of fiery anger he never knew in his life, Harvey plunged on.
“You stole my money. You destroyed my netlet, and because of you, I’ve been stuck in this stinking shithole of a place, with no way to return home. I have been arrested, interrogated, and locked up like some common criminal, all because of you, pricks!”
A pregnant silence followed his outburst because, with some kinds of street theater, even a duo of skilled pole dancers couldn’t compete.
Bruno broke out laughing. “Oh, I see! I’m sorry you’re down on your luck, kid, and probably drunk, but let me tell you… throwing a scene like that? That’s no way to behave,” he said with a voice made of silk. “You’ll turn around and leave if you know what’s good for you.”
Harvey had no intent to back off.
“The police thought I had something to do with that bloody disk they’re after, so you can—”
What they possibly could, or couldn’t, do the world never found out. Bruno snapped his fingers and Kemp jumped on Harvey, punching him in the stomach. He dragged him away from the table. There was the blur of ceiling lights passing overhead and then an empty storage room.
Kemp brought Harvey up to be level with his face. “Mr. Bruno doesn’t wish to see your ugly mug ever again. Nod if you understand.”
On edge and very desperate is a strange place to be. Harvey decided it was time to bargain.
“Just give me a netlet or some cash, and I… I’ll go. I promise. All I want is to get out of here.”
“Tough luck for you.”
A few seconds later Harvey was flung across a back alley. He soared all too briefly before he slammed into a wall. The crash knocked the air out of his lungs and flattened him upside down like some twisted starfish. Once the gravity caught up with the situation, it dropped him into a pile of garbage below.
A door slammed shut, leaving Harvey alone with his thoughts.
Though not for long.
Soon, a figure approached through the upside-down world.
“Friends, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them,” Captain Phish said and kneeled next to Harvey. He peeled something small, almost invisible, like a bit of lint, off Harvey’s shirt.
Harvey rose to his elbows and blinked. Was this why the police let him go? To track him?
“Nasty business,” Phish continued in a sorrowful voice. “Impeding the inquiry I think it’s called. You say you don’t know them. I admit you had me half convinced. But I let you out, and you lead us straight to your buddies. You should be ashamed.”
The faint music coming from the club stopped playing, making space for the sounds of some distant commotion.
“And now, don’t be a bother and stay still,” Phish said.
Shouts were heard from the building. A police vehicle passed overhead, painting the scene red and blue for a brief moment.
Phish pulled out his gun and checked the breech with no apparent haste. In one lazy movement, he aimed the weapon at the club backdoor. When the exit finally burst open, and two characters shot out, he had them in his sights.
“Hands where I can see them! All of you!” Phish commanded.
Both Bruno and Kemp straightened up, raising their hands, as did Harvey, moving to stand next to them.
“Where’s the goddamn disk, Bruno!”
“Ah, Captain Phish.” Bruno beamed. “Great to see you. Unfortunately, the disk is not for sale. A concept you and your men may find unfamiliar.”
“You forget your place.”
“On the contrary, my dear captain. With you around, I find my place hard to forget. But if I show what’s on the disk to the right people—”
Phish pursed his lips, visibly upset.
Kemp chose this exact moment to throw himself sideways and whip out his own weapon. The captain was quicker. After the first shot, stone exploded over Harvey’s shoulder, spraying him with grit. The second shot caught Kemp in the arm, spun him round, but wasn’t enough to stop him. Instead, it only made him angrier. Kemp charged the captain.
In a heartbeat, both Kemp and Bruno were all over Phish, twisting, kicking, and punching. Bruno went for Phish’s pistol hand, tucking it under one arm, and beating it with his free elbow until the man let go of his weapon.
The gun clattered to a stop next to Harvey. He could pick it up before anyone noticed. He smacked his lips and reached for…
“You’re one stupid sonofabitch, you know? Bold to your balls too, but that gets people killed,” Bruno remarked.
Harvey straightened up and tried looking innocent. Though the flaring ears must’ve been a dead giveaway.
“I bet, whatever shit you got yourself into, you’ve only yourself to blame,” Bruno said.
Hearing it like that made Harvey gasp. Whole regiments of excuses lined up to defend the worldview where Harvey was somehow tricked, or hurt, or mistreated, but none of it hid the glaring truth. A bet. What led to the events of the past day was a bloody stupid bet he proposed.
“Thought so,” Bruno said and lost interest in Harvey. He pulled the muttering captain up by his shirt and delivered one nasty head-butt. Phish dropped to the ground limp, with blood trickling from his nose.
Bruno looked to his comrade. “Kemp, can you walk?”
A crimson stain grew fast over one of Kemp’s enormous shoulder blades. The man groaned in pain.
“Kemp, we need to leave,” Bruno urged and helped his companion up. Groans and protests accompanied the effort, but soon enough both men limped away, fading into the deep shadows of the alley, out of sight.
Harvey felt he should help the unconscious captain. But this was the Anthill after all. People around here didn’t seem to have developed any sense of appreciation for human decency. So, like a pragmatic little ant, Harvey knelt next to Phish, tore the netlet from the man’s wrist, and ran. Away from the shouts, away from the approaching footsteps.
Somewhere overhead a police siren wailed. Harvey pushed his way a couple of levels down and into a street where he hid in the dense crowd. He was thankful for the crowd. He was thankful for his backache, blisters, and hunger too because, though a stupid sonofabitch he may be, he was still alive.
Harvey’s brain kicked into high gear and began to form a new plan.
* * *
Harvey picked a spot in the shade, where he could see without being seen, then watched the repair shop owner pace the front of the store. A nervous man on the outlook.
Harvey turned the new netlet over and over in his fingers. It helped him think. From what he pieced together, the disk must’ve contained some evidence incriminating Captain Phish or his men. No wonder the captain wanted it so bad. Bruno, on the other hand, he intended to use the evidence, not as leverage, but to get rid of Phish.
The conflict between the two caused Harvey one misfortune after another. He had a score to settle. Yet a thought pricked somewhere at the back of his head.
A big round figure emerged from the other end of the street and checked if the way was clear. He later returned, helping his wounded companion.
“Gotcha,” Harvey muttered to himself.
Whatever the contents of the disk, Bruno, Phish, Kemp… the thieving, scheming bastards deserved each other. With a bit of luck, Harvey could help them get what they deserved. If possible cut a deal for himself, and who knows—maybe win the stupid bet all in one go.
Bruno and Kemp staggered into the repair shop, accompanied by the worried owner.
Which side was the least untrustworthy? The police captain? Or the two crooks? Who was more desperate now? Harvey pondered this as he opened the call interface on the netlet. Call the store? Or the Anthill Police Department?
In the battle of thoughts, a lone neuron turned the tide. It flashed with activity and sent out a spark which set the neighboring neurons on fire. Cold sweat drenched Harvey’s aching neck because he knew there would be no turning back. He keyed in the ID on the netlet and pressed call. He watched as the circular connection icon swirled this way and that, waiting for the call to connect.
“Yes? Who’s this?”
“Hey, Charles, it’s me, Harvey.”
A relieved chuckle from the other end of the line.
“You went off the grid, big brother. Got us worried. Well, not me, as such—”
“Yeah, yeah. Listen, Charles. Did Rose…” Harvey’s voice trailed off.
“She doesn’t know.”
Harvey relaxed, while Charles went on, “Told you, can’t be done under a thousand. Stuck at the airport, aren’t you?”
“Erm, not exactly,” Harvey closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Charles, this place is messed up. I’ll tell you all about it, but can you pick me up first?”
“Sure thing. Where are you?”
“A town called the Anthill. I’ll be waiting at the monorail terminal.”
“The Anthill? Where on earth is that?”
“On the Moon, actually.”
“Ha-ha, smartass. Never mind, I’ll find it on a map.”
They hung up.
It felt, well…, it felt unlike what Harvey expected. It didn’t sting to lose, nor to admit he was wrong. Of course, he didn’t acknowledge the loss per se. Or the poor judgment on his part. That went without saying. He lost anyway. Instead of regret, he felt a kind of calm, a feeling that washed away the tension and the madness of the day, and left him…. What? Relieved? You could say that, yeah.
He could’ve called Charles earlier. Back on the grassy planes. Back on the crash-landed ship. Back on the… well, he did call Charles from the police station but was still too proud and stubborn to ask for help. And what good did it do him?
* * *
By the time he reached the terminal, dirty, hungry, and weak, his will to fight evaporated.
The crowd was a mixture of city and construction workers traveling to and from their exhausting shifts. Harvey blended in just right. A group of Slav types took him for one of theirs in distress, so they offered him a sip from a tight-sealed bag of orange juice, which turned out to be concealed alcohol. Harvey almost choked among the sounds of applause and laughter.
He tried to explain in English, French, and Spanish that he was hungry and shouldn’t drink, but only mimicking the gesture of putting food in his mouth resulted in a sausage they called “kielbasa” being produced from one of their pockets.
“Where work?” the guy with the kielbasa asked.
“In a…” Oh well, what the hell. “Armstice Industries.”
They did a collective “Ooooh.”
“What?” Harvey was taken aback. “Yes, pay very good.”
They guffawed and patted him on the back. It was a fun crowd, even if he had no idea what they were talking about and in what language.
At long last, Charles arrived. If the fellow passengers showed no signs of judgment, Harvey’s brother made it all up. He lowered his stylish sunglasses and his mouth formed into a silent “What the fuck?”
“Yeah, I know,” Harvey said approaching on wobbly legs.
Dead serious, the two brothers eyed each other. Both spoke at the same time, “Rose can’t find out.”
They burst out laughing, joined by the merry group of Slavs.
There were far worse ways to lose.
Sebastian Hetman is a science fiction writer from Poland, working to share a different flavor of writing with the English-speaking audience.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Stubborn Brother”:
We love to see authors who think outside the box. Good writing alone won’t cut it with us. We want to see an interesting story with interesting characters as well.
Author Sebastian Hetman begins with the simple premise of two brothers making a bet. That premise could have played out in so many uninteresting ways, but he kicked it up a notch with an unexpected setting. It’s not just that the tale is set on the moon, but that the setting is an integral part of the story, almost a character by itself. The combination gives us an interesting and satisfying story and ending.