I Owe My Soul Chapter 4

This multi-part story is set in the same universe as “The Things We Do For Family

Link to earlier chapter

Rick woke up the next morning feeling like he’d been run over by an ore dozer. Pudding did that to him these days. Well, really any alcohol but pudding was the worst. When he was a kid, a hangover meant a headache that was taken care of by a couple of Ibu’s and breakfast, not this full body ache. He lay there for a moment, wondering if he could go back to sleep. I’m gonna try, he thought.

Later, how much later he didn’t know, he awoke to voices in the main room and remembered the twins were home from school for semester break. Calling it “school” was a bit of a stretch, he thought. The corporation’s idea of education was just trade schools that provided little actual academic learning. They were meant to turn out future miners and imparted just enough knowledge to do the job but never quite enough for the kind of critical thinking that could lead employees to ask uncomfortable questions. But, he thought, that was the life he’d signed on for. He rolled out of bed, groaning at the effort. Shoving his feet into a pair of slippers, he wrapped himself in a robe that had seen better days before heading out to greet his family.

“Dad!” said Janai. “You’re finally up.” She rushed over to embrace him. Janai was always more effusive than her more reserved brother. Something demonstrated yet again by Jak’s modest response.

“Hey, Pop,” he said. “Thought you were going to sleep all day.”

The two may have been twins but they were distinctly different people. Jak liked things neat and orderly while his sister loved pushing boundaries. The differences were born out in the clothing they wore. Jak, though it wasn’t necessary, was wearing his school uniform which was a modified version of what his father wore at work: a loose-fitting gray work shirt with green piping to indicate that he was still a student, similarly gray pants that were loose in the hips and tapered down to be tucked into black and green solarknit boots. His sister, on the other hand, wore a pair of synthcotton shorts and a tee shirt featuring her favorite band, Animal Androids.

Rick eased himself into a chair and said, “Yeah, it’s hard to get out of a real bed first day back from a tour out on the rocks.”

A cup of stimmy appeared in front of him almost if by magic and Marta said, “Yes, the bed was the culprit this morning.” She looked at him with a cocked eyebrow that conveyed her thoughts about a man his age carousing all night with his crew. She may have understood the necessity of last night’s binge, but that didn’t mean she liked it. But, however she felt, he knew she’d never voice her disapproval in front of their kids.

Rick noticed that she’d also laid 4 ibu’s on the table to help with his aching head, prompting him to pull her onto his lap, saying, “Baby, you are an angel.”

The twins were disgusted by their parents’ public display of affection, but their little sister, Marcine, who’d just emerged from the bedroom, giggled at the sight. Marta used the distraction to slip away and the little girl ran over and jumped at her father. It was really more than Rick could handle in his current state but he couldn’t say no to his youngest. They’d thought they were done having children after the difficulties Marta had with the twins, so Marcine was a surprise. A welcome one, but a surprise nonetheless. The girl wrapped her arms around Rick and said, “I missed you so much, Daddy!”

“I missed you too, sweetie,” he said, hugging her tightly. “But, Dad’s gotta have some stimmy, so let’s do this,” he said, turning her around in his lap so she faced her brother and sister. He tossed the ibu’s into his mouth and washed them down. “So,” he said to the twins, “how’s school?”

Janai shrugged, saying, “Meh, it’s okay I guess.”

Jak, with a sour look, said, “You’d like it better if you kept your mouth shut.”

Janai bristled at that. “Shut up, Jak.” Then, almost under her breath, she said, “Teacher’s pet.”

Her brother looked up from his breakfast. “Better to be the ‘teacher’s pet’ than to get extra duty.”

Rick looked over at Janai. “’Extra duty’?” he said.

Janai’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “I was answering a question during history class and said something about Harland Settlement.”

“You did what?” Rick asked.

“I didn’t mean to,” the girl said. “It just slipped out.” She looked down at her soyameal and continued. “The teacher flipped out, yelling that I knew better than to bring that up. Then, they sent me to the supervisor’s office.”

When she didn’t continue, Rick prompted her with a stern “And?”

Janai sighed. “I got a lecture about promoting Radical propaganda and an extra 12 hours of janitorial duty.”

The Radicals were a militant pro-labor group that constantly agitated against company policies involving working conditions. They were right about almost everything but Rick thought their methods were going to get people hurt. Maybe even killed. He looked at his daughter who was obviously crestfallen at having to admit her sins in front of her father. He reached over and took her hand, saying, “It’s all right. We all screw up from time to time. Just try to be more careful, okay?”

She looked up and seemed a bit buoyed by his response to the confession. She nodded and said, “Yeah, Dad. I’m not making that mistake again.”

“Good enough,” he said. He took a sip of stimmy and looked down at the squirming 4-year-old in his lap.

“I think I need to stretch my legs this morning. Want to take me to the park?”

“Yes!” the little girl said. “The park is fun.”

“You guys want to come along?” Rick said to the twins. “Or do you have important teen-age stuff to do today?”

“I wish,” said Janai. “But, I got behind on school stuff with the extra duty and I need to get caught up before we go back.”

“Same,” said Jak. “Well, not really ‘school work’, but I got stuff to do.”

Rick laughed. “Sure, you do.” Then, to Marcine, “Looks like it’s just you and me, kid. You all right with that?” The girl nodded eagerly and jumped off his lap. “Where you going?” he called as she ran off to her room.

“To get ready. Want to go to the park right now!”

“Wait, I need to eat breakfast first,” he said, but Marcine was out of earshot.

The “park” Rick referred to was more of a vacant lot where kids gathered to play. Some of the parents had cobbled together a few structures for their kids to play on and at one point, the company had even made a small effort to help by providing a climbing tower constructed of ore-resin, a material made from mining waste that was probably toxic as hell. When it was first erected, Marta swore she’d never let her kids near it. That changed when Rick pointed out it didn’t really matter since their entire flat was made of the same stuff. She held out for a while but eventually relented because the tower was Marcine’s favorite item in the park. When they arrived, she wasted no time in clambering up as high as she possibly could.

“Look, Daddy, look!” she giggled from her perch. “Look how high I am!”

Rick smiled and nodded, saying, “I see you, baby. Be careful, now.” The possible toxicity of ore-resin wasn’t Marta’s only issue with the tower. It was a good 3 1/2 meters to its highest point and their daughter was a daredevil. Marta blamed him for this, claiming no one on her side of the family had such a love of danger. Rick thought she was probably right since he did have a history of thrill-seeking. After 15 years of crawling around in a vacuum with practically non-existent gravity while playing with explosives, he didn’t really crave thrills so much. But not Marcine.

As he watched his daughter scramble around the tower, hopefully close enough to catch her if she fell but not so close that she would realize he was there, the sense of unease he’d felt since they’d left the apartment intensified. After a moment, he realized that it was the same feeling he and Davy had noticed on their return from Ceres. Only now it was stronger. There were few people out and those that were kept their heads down and moved quickly. He looked around the park and saw that he and Marcine were the only people there. Normally, this place was full of children laughing and playing. Calling the feeling eerie was an understatement. Marcine noticed it, too.

“Where are all the kids, Daddy?”

“I don’t know, honey. Maybe they slept in this morning.” He smiled up at her. “Not everyone’s an early bird like you, you know.”

“I’m a early bird,” she said, laughing and waving her arms like wings. “Watch me fly, Daddy!” She launched herself from the tower. Rick, who had learned early on to be prepared for anything where his daughter was concerned, caught her easily. Thank god she was small for her age, he thought.

“What do you want to do now?” he asked, knowing that she wouldn’t say she was ready to go home. Marcine was never ready to go home.

“Climb some more,” she said. He placed her on the ground in front of the tower. Once, he’d made the mistake of putting her up higher. He didn’t do that anymore. The girl felt cheated if she didn’t ascend every inch by herself.

He stood, half watching his daughter and half watching the neighborhood around him. The place was a powder keg, just waiting for something to light it off. He hoped nothing would happen, that everything would calm down and go back to normal. Yeah, he thought, and a flock of borebeetles might fly out of my butt, too.

A few days later, Rick, Davy, and a few other pod members were gathered around their customary table at the Blasthole. It was perfectly situated, equidistant from both the restroom and the bar. While neither of those fixtures was up to the standards of the upper levels, they were decent for a dive bar like the Blasthole. The crew was celebrating Matty Sandsen’s recovery and return to the pod after his pudding accident. They were on their third round of Saturnian sambuca, Rick having splurged on the expensive liquor for the occasion.

“Glad to have you back, Matty,” Rick said, raising his glass in a toast. The others did the same, the glasses clinking together. “It’s been rough without you and I’ll appreciate having some consistency on the drill.”

Everyone tossed their shots back and slammed their glasses on the table. “So, how are yo—” He was cut off by a commotion out in the street. It sounded like a large, rowdy crowd. “What the hell is that all about?” He looked toward the owner, Newton Derson. The man returned his look with a shrug. Just then, the door banged open and a man stumbled in and made his way to the bar.

“Give me a shot,” he said, dropping some credits in front of the bartender.

“Okay,” Newton said. “Like what?”

The man wiped his hand over his face and said, “I don’t care. Just as long as it’s strong and cheap. After what I been through, I need a jolt. Bad.”

Rick got up and made his way over. “What’s going on, friend? Were you in that crowd that’s making all the noise?”

Derson set a glass of bootleg sachi down in front of the man. He pounded it down, grimaced and croaked out, “Another!” Sachi, made of whey extracted from the tofu that made up the bulk of the miner’s diet, was nowhere near as smooth as the sambuca Rick and his friends were drinking. But it was strong and it was cheap, just as the man had asked for. He downed another shot before turning to answer Rick’s question.

“Yeah, I was out there. It’s insane, man. In-freaking-sane.”

“What do you mean?” Rick asked. “What’s going on?”

“You didn’t hear?” Rick shook his head. “I guess not, since the word just came in. The Delta 5 pod was lost.” He downed another shot. “All hands.”

Oh shit, Rick thought. He’d been afraid something like this might happen. And now, here it was. Hopefully, the company could things back under control before it got too out of hand. “How did it go down?” he asked.

“Word is a cave-in. Delta 5 had just transitioned to the new suits and they all failed.” After another shot, he was beginning to slur his words. “Even the Ironclads.”

“When did this happen?” Rick asked. Delta 5 had relieved them a little over a month ago and was working the same rock his crew had been on.

“Not sure,” the man said. “Only reason we know anything is a crew member on an ore shuttle slipped a note to the Radicals and they’ve been blasting the news over their wave all afternoon.”

The Radicals, Rick thought. He sympathized with them, but now they’d started a riot and the corporation did not respond to riots gently. “How bad is it out there?” he asked.

“Bad. And, getting worse.” The man had finally quit slamming back shots but the damage was done and he was getting hard to understand. “It wasn’t much to start. Just a small crowd outside headquarters. Pod leader’s wife, Carlie Warto, was there, demanding answers about what happened to her husband. The company didn’t like that and a security team came out to disperse the crowd. Then, some rocks were thrown and the security people got pissed. Waded into the crowd with batons and stunners and all hell broke loose.” The words had poured out of him like a dam had burst. He stopped to gather himself and laid his head on the bar like a child taking a nap in school.

Rick looked back at his friends who sat ashen-faced, in shock. He felt he should say something to reassure them but what? He tried several times, but nothing came out and he just stood there. It was Davy who broke the silence.

“Damn. I mean, it was bound to happen sooner or later, what with the way have been around here. But… damn.”

His friend’s words broke the spell that held Rick immobile and he immediately sprang into action. “Okay, we need to get to our families. Right. Now.” He strode to the front of the bar and cracked the door before closing it quickly. “Okay, not that way. It’s a freakin’ madhouse out there. Maybe we can slip out the back.”

They were almost an hour into a trip that normally took 10 minutes. Avoiding the mob meant ducking down alleyways, backtracking multiple times, and even hunkering down while the horde passed by. It would have taken even longer but for the knowledge of Donio Sturnel, who had grown up as one of the settlement’s street rats. An orphan, he had joined the pod at 14 years old after being caught up in a security sweep and his options were reform school or heading out to the rocks. Rick was glad to have him because he was a steady hand and, now, his encyclopedic knowledge of Mingo’s seedier side was paying dividends. Rick wasn’t sure they’d have made it 10 feet from the bar without getting swept up in the frenzy without him.

They were huddled in an abandoned storefront while Donio scouted ahead. Rick heard noises and peeked out a dirty, broken window. He could see the mob rampaging past a block up from their location. But no one looked their way. He turned and settled in beside Davy.

“This is some shit, huh?” he said to his friend.

“You could say that, yeah,” Davy said. She looked over at Russon and Sandsen. Barie had broken out her ever-present deck and the two were playing batjac. “Check it out,” she said. “The world is burning down around us and those two play cards like it’s just another day.”

Rick shook his head. “You can do that when your only responsibility is yourself. You and me? We got too much to worry about to lose ourselves in a game.”

“What are you going to do about all this?”

Rick stared at him for a second. “What am I going to do?” he replied. “I’m going to make sure all our people are safe and sound and then hunker down and ride this shit out.”

Now, it was Davy’s turn to stare. After a moment, she said, “That’s it? That’s the plan? Just hunker down and ride it out?”

“Yeah,” Rick said. “You got a better one?”

“I do,” his friend said. “Join the Radicals and get in the fight.”

“’ Get in the fi—. Are you crazy?” Rick snapped.

“No, I’m tired of my life coming second to Wynotech’s bottom line. The only way I see that changing is if we seize the means of production and send the company packing.”

“’Seize the means of production’? Where did you get that shit?” Rick said. “Jesus, Davy. You haven’t been hanging out with those lunatic Radicals, have you?”

She looked down at her hands for a moment before answering. “Maybe,” she said.

“Jesus,” Rick snapped and rolled his eyes.

“What they’re saying makes a lot of sense,” Davy said. “I don’t see what the problem is.”

“You ‘don’t see what the problem is’?” Rick said incredulously. “How about the fact that the company already comes down hard on any Radicals they catch? After this mess, what they’ve been doing will seem like a picnic.” He shook his head. “We’ll be lucky if they confine the punishment to the perpetrators instead of smacking the whole settlement.”

“So, you’re just going to write off the whole thing? Like, we’ve already lost?”

Rick stared at his friend for a moment. “Davy,” he said slowly, “we have already lost. They have the weapons and the troops to use them.”

“There isn’t enough security personnel to stop this thing if we all get behind it.” She looked Rick in the eye when he said “all”, the emphasis clearly indicating she expected Rick to get involved.

“Enough security personnel,” Rick parroted with a laugh. “Shit, Davy, the company’s security guards are the least of our worries. You know there’s a Guards detachment over at Tharsis, right?”

“Yeah,” Davy replied. “So?”

His friend’s response shocked Rick. “’So’? Do you have any idea what the Guards are capable of?” Guards units were the elite of the Terran Federation Defense Forces, highly trained and extremely well-equipped. There hadn’t been any real military threat since the corporatists had taken over the government 70 years ago and the Guards were essentially hired muscle, enforcing the will of their corporate overlords. The Martian Guards, due to their experiences dealing with fractious miners, were particularly ruthless.

“How bad can they be?” Davy asked.

“You ever heard of Harland settlement?” Rick asked.

“Sure,” Davy said. “Who hasn’t? But it’s just an old wives tale. A story to scare workers back into line.”

Rick shook his head. “It’s no wives tale. I was there.” He looked down at his hands, hating the memories that flooded in.

“Really?” Davy said. “What happened?”

“The union—this was back when they actually worked for us—decided to strike for better pay and housing conditions. To break it, the company brought in scabs from Earth and when they tried to cross the picket line, it got ugly. A bunch of them, along with some security guards, got beat up pretty good. A few broken bones and plenty of bruises. Even some blood. The company rep panicked and called for the Guards. When they arrived, they headed straight for the picket line. The commander gave the order to disperse. When people didn’t comply fast enough, they opened fire. Killed 15 miners. Then, they started rounding up the ‘ringleaders’, aka anyone even remotely associated with the union. There were ‘trials’,” he said, making air quotes, “with a guilty verdict in every single one.”

“Damn,” said Davy.

“They didn’t fuck around then. And they won’t this time, either,” he said. “If the Guards show up, it’s going to be bad. Real bad.”

Before Davy could say anything else, Donio returned. “I think we’re clear all the way to the residential block. But we gotta move quick. Things are changing fast out there”

Donio’s assessment of the situation was correct: it had been clear sailing all the way to the residential block. And that was their downfall. They’d lowered their guard and had stopped scouting ahead. As they turned the corner and the entrance to the building containing their flats came into view, they saw a crowd milling around in the middle of the street. It caught them off guard and they froze for just a moment. Not long, just a flash. But it was long enough for the crowd to notice them, too. As each group marked the other’s presence, Donio tried to pull them back around the corner but it was too late. Rick heard someone shout “HEY!” and realized it was Huelet. The man also recognized Rick because he yelled, “Motherfucker!” and stalked toward the pod.

“Well, shit,” said Davy. “This isn’t good.”

“Yeah,” Rick said. “Get ready, people. This is going to get ugly.” As Huelet closed the distance between them, Rick noticed a length of titanium rod in his hand. On Earth, titanium was rare. But this close to the mining operations, it was as common as a Terran 2 by 4 and used in much the same manner. It was nothing to find scraps lying around building sites all over Mars. It was light, it was hard, and getting hit with it would ruin your day which made it an excellent weapon in a street fight like the one that was coming. He felt as much as saw his friends move up beside him, although he could hardly miss Matty’s massive bulk slide into his peripheral vision. Huelet and his mob stopped a few paces away from them.
“Well, well, look who we have here,” the man sneered. “If it isn’t my old boss, the great Rick Quentan.” He spat at Rick’s feet. “I got a score to settle with you, old man.”

“What, has the ass-kicking I already gave you worn off?” Rick said, hoping against hope that some bluster and bravado might avert the imminent brawl. He did not want to go up against Huelet while he was wielding that bar. But, it didn’t work.

“No sucker punches or nut shots this time, Quentan. I’m ready for your ass.” He smacked the metal rod in his hand menacingly and gave a nasty laugh. “Let’s dance!” he said as he swung.

Fortunately, he telegraphed the move, giving Rick plenty of time to evade the blow that likely would have caved in his skull. Stepping inside his opponent’s reach, he hammered two quick blows into Huelet’s mid-section. The man wasn’t ready for them and Rick heard his breath leave his lungs. He watched Huelet sink to his knees, wheezing, and then looked around to see how his friends were faring.

Donio and Barie stood back to back, holding off a group whose offensive efforts seemed more than a little half-hearted. Matty, on the other hand, was going toe-to-toe with a fellow almost as big as he was. Neither man was quick but the blows they were landing on each other made Rick wince just watching them. Meanwhile, Davy disappeared around a corner, chasing one of the mob. He hoped she’d be okay but knew she could handle herself all right.

He heard a noise from behind and turned to see that Huelet was back on his feet and winding up another swing with his club. This time, Rick couldn’t dodge it completely and he caught it on his left side. He skipped away enough to diminish the impact a bit but he still heard ribs cracking and it knocked him off his feet. The pain he felt as he put a hand down to cushion his fall confirmed what he thought: broken ribs, at least one, maybe more.

Huelet stood over him, holding the bar in both hands. “This is it, Quentan. This is where we settle up.” He raised the rod over his head for a killing blow and Rick prepared to meet the Maker. Before it came down, though, a shadow loomed over him and he saw Matty punch Huelet, catching him full in the face. The blow was so mighty, it lifted Huelet off his feet and dumped him on the ground in a heap. Then, the big man helped Rick to his feet. As he did, Rick noticed that the fighting had stopped. Matty’s opponent sat on the curb, dazed, and the lackluster trio attacking Barie and Donio had taken off when they saw Sandsen take out their leader. Barie came over to Rick.

“You okay, boss? It looked like you took a good lick from that asshole,” she said.

“Yeah,” Rick answered. “I think I got some broken ribs.” He looked at Sandsen. “But that’s it, thanks to Matty.”

“Uh, guys. You might want to come over here.” Donio was kneeling beside Huelet.

“What is it, Dee?” Rick knew they should check on Huelet to make sure he couldn’t start any more mischief but he found it hard to care about the man’s condition.

“Fuck that guy, Sturnel,” snapped Ruson. “Nobody gives a shit about his stupid ass.”

“No, seriously,” Donio said. “You need to see this.” Something in his voice said they really should see what Donio had found and Rick and the big man made their way over.

Barie got there ahead of them. “Jesus, Matty! What the hell did you hit him with?”

“Just my fist,” Sandsen said sheepishly.

Rick looked down at a face that wasn’t really recognizable as Huelet anymore. Before, he had a sharp-featured face with a prominent nose. “Aerodynamic”, Naldy Larker, the pod’s resident comedian, had called it. It wasn’t anymore. Everything was pushed in like he was a cartoon character that had run into a brick wall. The once-prominent nose was laid over to one side and almost melded into the flesh surrounding it. They all stood there for a moment, marveling at what a single blow from Matty’s enormous fist had done. Then, Barie spoke up.

“Okay, let’s get Rick off the street before any more assholes show up. I don’t think he’s up to another scrap.”

“You got that right,” Rick laughed. He winced, not realizing just how much it would hurt until it did. Holding his side and supported by his friends, he made his way to the door of the apartment block, dreading what Marta was going to say when she saw what had happened.