WINNER TAKES ALL
This is episode five of the Garden of Hell series of sci-fi short stories, following after Tiger Lilies, Two Moons, Crow’s Flight, and Impasse – all posted in the fiction section.
Copyright J. Dianne Waye July 2012
Contains mature subject matter and violence.
It took two people to repair the ship – one to lift like a human jack, one to hammer the bent landing gear into place. An unwelcome alliance with Crow had to be made, if I wanted off this planet. Pretty, with the two moons ascending over the horizon, lighting up the jagged cliffs with streaks of amber and silver, colours that weren’t visible in daylight under the emerald sky. But hostile, where every blade of grass seemed bent on snuffing out our existence.
“You lift,” I said. It made sense – he was bigger than me, with muscles honed over years of prison work-outs. It was the vulnerable job, the moment he would be at my mercy. I could kill him while he was trapped under there, defenceless.
I waited for him to protest, to find some excuse to say no, but he didn’t argue with me for a change. He lay down on the ground, wriggling into the narrow space under the belly of the ship.
“Now,” I said when we were both in place.
He let loose a low groan, and the ship slowly shifted enough for me to get to work.
“Down,” he grunted. The landing gear moved away from my reach.
“I’m not finished,” I said.
“Yeah, I know. Give me five minutes, and I’ll lift again.”
Each time he took a break, the lifting time decreased. And each pause saw the job unfinished. Damn it – I was almost done when the ship lowered again.
“I can’t hold it anymore,” Crow said, wiping his sweaty hands on a rag. “I’m too tired. You’re going to have to take a turn lifting, Chica.”
I threw down my wrench. “Don’t call me Chica.”
“Perez seems so formal after all we’ve been through. And you never told me your first name.”
“You won’t fit under the landing gear,” I said.
“Sure I will.” He smiled and grabbed my discarded wrench and flashlight, shifting over, bumping me out of my spot.
I switched places with him, wedging my arms and legs into place.
“On the count of three,” he said.
I waited for his signal, and hoisted as hard as I could. The side of the ship lifted just enough for Crow to start hammering. My muscles quivered, each breath puffing from the exertion. Burning flashes of pain shot through my limbs. Sweat stung my eyes, and I blinked it away. Time slowed down, each detail of the underbelly etching into my vision, all the little scratches and dents, the part numbers of the pieces embossed into the metal, until I had to shut my eyes.
Was this where he brained me with the hammer, or let the ship crush me under its weight? Pinned me until he blasted off, while I fried in the wake of jet fuel?
“Almost… done…” He groaned, the sounds of scuffling rocks and shifting gravel marking the point he wedged himself free.
“Finished,” he said.
I slowly lowered the weight. If I dropped it quickly, the bounce-back could kill me, saving Crow the effort.
“Come on out from under there,” he said. “What are you waiting for?”
He leered over me, a jack-o-lantern grin cracking over his parched lips, grabbing my arms to help drag me out. The mist swirled around his burnt feet, tendrils of grey brightening with the rising dawn.
In the field around us, those crazy plant people stood like trees, waiting for the first rays of sunlight to bring them to life. Crow walked around the statuary clusters, some more complete than others. All the Rosevelts looked human-like; they’d had the most time to grow. The Fausts were still malformed and misshapen, as if reflecting the soul of the original man.
“Creepy,” Crow said. “It’d drive me crazy, looking at this every day.”
I ran a hand over my forehead and squinted at the night sky. The moons were almost down. I figured we had an hour, maybe two, before sunrise. “No time left for a water run,” I said.
“You can make it, if you run there and back,” he said. “My feet are too damaged for running.”
“I’m too tired. We can go together, at dusk.”
“Fine by me. Let’s test the landing gear. I’ll fire this baby up, and you tell me if the warp casing slips into place.”
“No – you check the casing. I’ll handle the controls.”
“Darling, you don’t trust me.” He laughed it off, but he knew I wouldn’t leave without a supply of water.
I stepped inside the ship and fired up the controls, testing the warp bubble, on off, on off. The lights blinked green, good to go. I popped open the cargo bay door to his wide grin.
“Looks like we’re free,” he said, as he made to step inside. “All good out here.”
I cracked him in the face with my fist, snapping his jaw to the side, spittle flying, the satisfying crunch followed by a trail of blood from his nose.
“That’s for kissing me without permission,” I said. “Don’t ever touch me again.”
“Duly noted, Private Perez 4930,” he said as he bolted the door against the rising dawn.
The pounding of my heart kept me from sleeping. Blowing sand peppered the windows. The subtle rustling of the zombie people fell quiet before the onset of the sandstorm, hunched forms turning their backs to the wind. Outside the sky grew dim.
I fired up the navigational system, searching for the co-ordinates to my first assignment, an uninhabited planet that failed to meet the standards for colonization. It couldn’t feed a nation, but it could support two humans. Or one.
“What are you looking for?” Crow leaned over my terminal, careful to keep his distance from my fists.
“Somewhere to go.”
“Let me know when you find something.” He nestled into his bunk and closed his eyes.
I settled back in my seat and went to work. It would help if I could remember that damned planet’s name. There were thousands of possibilities all ending with the co-ordinates 851, the code for habitable planets rejected for colonization. Would somebody have entered the mission results yet, or were they still buried under a stack of reports yet to be logged?
It didn’t matter if it took me all day to find it – nothing else mattered, not sleep, not peace, not hunger, not fatigue. Everything else became insignificant, yielding to the simple fact that I could never go home. And I could not live here.
Crow was snoring when I found the co-ordinates to my new Eden. I stifled the cheer that wanted to erupt. No way would I wake him and tell him what I found; it was my only leverage against him. I wrote down the details on a piece of paper and tucked it into my pocket, then tried to fall asleep.
The sunset blazed lingering streaks of blue and green across the sky. Long cool shadows stretched and faded into the twilight, finally surrendering to the darkness. Dusk fell, bringing with it the welcome slumber of the plant-people standing at attention, sentinels gathering, thickening, replicating with each passing day. I stepped outside to walk through their rows, tall and swaying like cornstalks, looking for that one special face: Andrew Miller. There was only one of him, and he wasn’t in this crowd. Disappointed, wanting my farewell, I turned away, trailing a hand over the last form. Its skin was rough like corn husks, crazy feet anchored into the dirt. The moons peeked over the horizon, casting pale double-edged shadows over the rough ground.
Crow popped outside, fresh-faced and eager. “Did you find our planet?”
“No,” I said.
“Let’s get moving.” He slung half of the empty water containers over his shoulder and trudged toward the river, limping along, but after a kilometre or two he seemed to forget about his burnt feet. “We should check the village before we leave. There’s bound to be supplies we can use.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Better time it.”
I looked at my watch. We had three hours out, three hours back, an hour margin for error, and then sunrise. Lots of time for him to ditch me and escape on his own, to leave me behind.
The village waited, an eerie hush dampening our footsteps over the moss-covered sidewalk, the village square gazebo a mausoleum to my dead companions. Inside, amongst the rotting flesh and brittle bones, the charred remains of the blazed eggplants were overrun by thriving new plants, despite Miller’s attempt to burn it all down. This was where it all started – the evolution of a new species, the mingling of plant and animal.
Outside the tiger lilies swayed, soft white blooms tipped in orange and black. Beautiful in design, heartless in purpose – the judge, jury and executioner of my species.
“Go check that house,” Crow said. “See if you can find anything useful. I’ll check the other one.” He nodded his head, eyes glued to me.
I took a few steps in the direction he pointed, then paused and looked back. He hesitated, watching me, waiting. I stepped toward the house again. He walked away, a little. I stopped. He stopped.
Our eyes locked. In those brown eyes so much like Andrew’s, lurked the shadows of betrayal. He smiled, but his grin faded when I didn’t look away.
I turned and ran. I could make it back to the ship first. I wasn’t about to let him leave me behind while I sauntered around the village looking for supplies.
He bolted after me. And for someone with burned feet, he sure ran fast.
Panting, sweating, I broke into a steady run, hitting full stride as the grasslands smoothed the way. The water bottles thumped against my hips, weighing me down, but I would need them later. A kilometre yielded. I turned, glancing back, and there he was, moonlight gleaming off his shiny bald head, still keeping pace with me.
Tired, my vision blurred; the broken shadows deceptive. A rock twisted under my boot and I tumbled down, rolling to absorb the impact. I stood up and put full weight on my foot, wincing at the results. Sprained, not broken. The pain brought on a sheen of fresh sweat. I shivered in the coolness of the lonely night, each step focusing and narrowing my vision, until the world was nothing but me and my insane pursuer, while the rows of zombie people stretched across the horizon, blocking the path to the shuttlecraft.
I plunged into their depths, running, running. The field of zombies shifted, taking me down a pathway that broke out into open space. I burst into a clearing, but it wasn’t the one around the ship. I submerged into their midst again.
This pathway led back to Crow. He sprinted over the last ridge, eyes wild with fear before he dove into the tall stalks and disappeared.
Moonlight glinted off a taillight, flashing a sliver of red, showing me the way back to the ship. I made it there before Crow.
Miller stepped in front of me, barring the way. “Eeeevaaaaa…” he moaned, the sound stopping me dead.
“Andrew,” I whispered, as I looked up into his face.
He lifted a stiff arm and touched my cheek with his fingers, tracing over the half-moon scar carved into my skin. In his eyes, the edges of brown pulsed and grew, swallowing the green, as if somewhere inside his humanity fought to be free.
I couldn’t breathe.
Crow broke free from the maze. And in that moment, as indecision paralyzed my limbs, his opportunity presented itself. He withdrew a concealed revolver, pointing it my way.
Shots shattered the night. Andrew’s scream wailed so high it broke the spell riveting me in place. He clutched at me as he fell, papery hands grasping mine, slipping away.
The stalks swayed, angry but impotent without sunlight.
“Come,” Crow said, dragging me away from his son writhing in the dirt.
Crow stowed the supplies, powered up the engines, and buckled himself in.
“Enter the co-ordinates,” he said.
I didn’t argue or pretend I didn’t know them. I tapped them into the system – 420 684 851.
Exhaustion cusped over adrenaline as I fastened my seatbelt. I closed my eyes and yawned, the ship shaking as we left orbit, to open them on the planet shrinking smaller and smaller in the viewport, until it was an insignificant speck in the heavens.
I was wrong about Crow – he never wanted to leave me behind. I finally started to relax for the first time in weeks. Or months. How much time had passed?
A clanking noise broke through my drifting thoughts, driving away the haunting memories of tangling vines and choking creepers. All around the ship the warp bubble swallowed the view, trapping us in its claustrophobic shell. No matter how many times I made the jump, I never got used to the sensation of warp travel. It felt like my soul was tearing away from my body, making me question if they would rejoin. Was this what dying felt like?
Crow looked at me and grinned that jack-o-lantern smile of his. “Computer – Override Destination Co-Ordinates.” The words came out rough as his teeth rattled in the shockwave. “New destination 370 929 850.”
850 was the code for a colonized planet.
No, this was what dying felt like.