THE WAGER

Copyright Doug Bittinger, 1988

MarsIt was hot… so hot that even in a cool-suit I could feel my brain sizzling inside my skull. I reached the top of a pile of rocks and stood as tall as I could to scan the horizon before starting down again. Nothing. Just the shimmering air – what little of that there was – and big, sharp rocks with traces of cinnamon-colored sand between them.

“I’m not going to make it.” I sighed, “It’s going to take me four or five hours just to reach the horizon, and I don’t see Transtellar’s dome at all. Not a sign of it. And worst of all: now I’m talking to my self!” I was lost. I was going to die. This didn’t surprise me much, since I knew the risks before I started out, but it was a disappointment; I really thought I could do it.

“Come too far to turn back, have to keep trying…”

I began my descent, my feet heavy, legs weak, vision blurred. Suddenly the rocky ground rushed up at me and everything went bright red, then faded to black.

~/ *_* \~

When I came around, I felt cool air moving against my cheek. The sticky closeness of the cool-suit was gone and I was lying on my back in a bed. I opened my eyes and stared at the off-white ceiling, waiting for my eyes to focus.

“Well, I guess our intrepid wanderer is going to live a bit longer after all. We weren’t sure for a while there.” It was Jana’s voice, but I couldn’t see her. She wasn’t gloating. I thought she would; she’d won the bet. “I’ll be back to settle up with you when you’re more recovered, Mr. Whitley.

“How’d I get myself into this?” I asked myself. Oh yeah, I remember. It started with that argument we had in the rec room.

“Whitley, you know I can’t just let you leave. You have a contract with Petrochem to work here for a full year. You’ve been here less than three months.”

“You can’t be serious, Jana. This place is a dump! I have to share a room with two other guys, the chow tastes like freeze-dried dust, there’s no rec room…”

“Now hold it,” Jana interrupted, waggling a finger at me, “This is a perfectly usable rec room.”

“Oh, yeah,” I scoffed, with a sweep of my arm, “two card tables, a few board games and a jukebox. Where’s the foosball, Jana? Where’s the pool table? Where are the Vid games?”

“And you think Transtellar has those, is that it?”

“Hey, I know they do. I’ve been talking to the hopper jockeys. Transtellar not only has those, but a bowling alley, a real kitchen with canned food, and private rooms. All for the same one-year contract and higher pay scales to boot.”

“I can not, will not, let you out of your contract, Whitley. You can’t go. That’s it.”

She turned to leave, thinking she was going to have the last word in the matter. Since she was the base director, she should have but, me being the fool I am, I couldn’t accept that. “I’ll go anyway.”

She stopped dead in her tracks. Her back was to me but I knew she was rolling her eyes with that ‘God, will these kids ever grow up?’ look of hers. She turned around slowly, speaking in a slow monotone as she came.

“And how do you expect to get there? The trucks don’t have anywhere near that kind of range. The supply ship just left. Another won’t be here for two months. And even then the hoppers always land at Transtellar first, then here. You try to get to Transtellar via Earth and Petrochem will have you in jail the second you step off the transport.”

“I’ll walk if I have to, but I’ve had it with this place. I’m outta here.” I laced my fingers behind my head and leaned back in my chair, trying to look self-assured. Billy just peeked over his cards and kept quiet.

The beginnings of a smile cracked the rigid mask of Jana’s face. “Walk?”

“Yeah. It ain’t so far; ten, twelve hours should do it. I’ve been out there bustin rocks for six hours a day, five days a week for three months now. I’m used to it. I bet I could walk to Transtellar’s dome, no sweat.”

“Bet?” She just stood there a while, her mouth drawing into a pucker. Everyone knew of her penchant for wagering. “OK kid, I’ll take the bet; here’s the deal. I’ll give you a cool suit and a thirty minute head start. If you make it to Transtellar, I fill out the papers as “missing–presumed dead.” If my guys catch you, I get a two year contract from you, at your current pay scale, and no… more… griping. You game?”

I had to think about that. Two years in this place; could I stand that?

On the maps, Transtellar’s mining camp didn’t look very far from our own: we were working the same Iridium field, after all, but I wasn’t sure about the exact distance. I was young, with lots of stamina. But her security team did nothing but exercise in their time off; they were monsters. Probably not very smart though, or they wouldn’t have stayed here so long. I could outwit them easy.

“OK, it’s a deal.” We shook on it. “I’ll leave at dusk tonight.”

She smiled a smile that chilled my bones, “Good. Airlock four. Dusk, tonight.”

Sunset came awfully early that day. I spent the rest of the afternoon in my room. Bill was out on his shift, Jerry was just getting up. A few friends dropped by to offer their condolences and get dib’s on my stuff. Some friends.

Airlock four was the maintenance shed and, as usual, one of our huge trucks was spread all over the floor like some giant 3-D puzzle. I threaded my way through the clutter and rounded the front left tire. Two goons and Jana waited for me next to the airlock.

“We were beginning to worry about you, Whitley. It’s getting dark already. Better suit up fast if you want to make the most of the night.”

Her apes were already suited, visors up to conserve their bottled air, smoking cigars and chatting like this was some normal patrol assignment.

It took a little longer than usual to get dressed, I double checked every strap and joint to make sure it was right. I slung a couple of extra air tanks over my shoulder–the gorillas were taking extra, so could I–and walked out into the bay.

Jana started her timer from the moment they sealed the inner door of the personnel hatch. I had thirty minutes to get as far away from here as possible before they came after me.

Tracks would be easy to follow in the sand, so I’d have to stay in the rocky patches as much as possible. This would slow me down but make finding me harder because they’d provide cover I could hide in. They knew what general direction I’d be going, but they had to actually catch me to win the bet. The outer door swung open and I trotted off into the gathering darkness.

The sweat bands in my helmet were soon soaked. These cool-suits were made for equipment operators, not cross-country runners. Occasionally a droplet got past the band and stung my eye. I tried to blink it away and pressed on.

I hopped over a sandy runnel to the rocks on the other side and stepping-stoned my way into another cluster of boulders. Out of sight, I scrambled through to the other side. Dang: a wide stretch of cinnamon sand lay before me. Cut across and leave tracks, or go around and take five times as long?

I dropped my spare air tanks and climbed one of the shard-like boulders to have a look around. I stared out into the pink and black of Martian night for a long time. Nothing moved. I’d given them the slip.

Encouraged, I retrieved my tanks and trotted out into the loose sand.

~/ *_* \~

Dawn took me by surprise. With very little atmosphere, we don’t get the spectacular painted sky of an Earth sunrise; the sun just sort of slides up over the horizon. No fanfare.

The temp started rising right away. By the time the sun was straight overhead my A/C units were working at max capacity to keep up, and not quite making it. By now the apes would have turned back. They weren’t crazy enough to stay out in this heat so far from base. I changed my air tanks and left the empties lying in the sand; wouldn’t matter if anyone found them now. Transtellar had to be just over the next hill.

Except, it wasn’t.

~/ *_* \~

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of sweet, fresh med-bay air.

The door banged open and a guy I didn’t recognize carried in a food tray. “Lunch time! Sit up and eat this before it gets cold. Bad enough when it’s hot, worse when it gets cold, but it’s all you’re gonna get.”

I sighed wistfully and said, “I almost made it, you know.”

“Made what?”

“What do you mean, ‘made what?’ Haven’t you heard? I’m the guy that tried to walk to Transtellar.”

My caretaker’s brows knitted and he looked at me as if I’d told him I had five eyes. “Almost walked to Transtellar? You are AT Transtellar.”

“What?” I choked, “I made it? But how… I passed out.”

“I heard one of our surveyors found some fool stumbling around out in a fringe area and brought him in. Must have been you. Lucky thing too or you’d be dead for sure.”

“Ha Haaaa! I won!” Then a thought hit me like a slap in the face, “That woman who was just here, how’d she get here?”

“Ground buggy.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah, she and our director visit each other pretty often. The buggies have a lot more speed and range than the heavy trucks. Rumor has it that they’re having an affair.” He winked.

“The bitch! She put me through this when all along… Oh, no matter, I’m here. I’m free. A bet is a bet.”

“Free? You came from Petrochem didn’t you?”

“Yeah, so?”

“I hear Petrochem’s an Eden compared to this dump; real food instead of this reconstituted crap, a racquetball court and everything.”

“No way. Petrochem’s a hole. At least you’ve got a decent rec room.”

“Rec room? All we’ve got is a reading room with a bunch of twenty year old paperbacks.”

“Private rooms?”

“Wards. Ten men to a ward.”

“Oh, God…”

“You been talking to a hopper jock haven’t you? I heard a rumor that Transtellar was offering them a hundred credits for each man they got to sign on when their Petrochem contracts were up. Guess it’s true.” He chuckled, ” Petrochem must be doing the same thing because they’re always talking about how much nicer it is over there; only three to a room, a card room, two days a week off… heaven.”

“I closed my eyes and flopped back into the pillow, “Take the tray away, I can’t eat that slop.”

The orderly just shrugged, picked up the tray, and left.

A while later Jana came back with some papers. “I have your disappearance report right here, once I sign it you’re free to stay here as long as you like. Just like I promised. Wanna see it?”

“No.” I was miserable. “Jana, please; take me back. Don’t leave me here.”

“Can’t do it, sport. We had a bet. You won. I don’t Welch.”

“Please! I’ll even sign the two year contract and say your goons caught me, just don’t leave me here. Please?”

She pinched her lips together and thought it over with a deep sigh. “All right, I’ll get the paperwork.”

She was back in just a few minutes with the two year contract, which I gladly signed. Then a doctor came in and prepared a hypodermic.

“What’s that for?”

“I understand you’re going back to Petrochem. That’s a long buggy ride and you’re in bad shape, son. You’ll be a lot more comfortable if I put you out for the trip.”

He jabbed the needle into my hip, I felt woozy right away. As waves of blissful euphoria swept over me I think I heard him say to Jana, “Think he bought it?”

“Oh yeah; hook, line, and sinker.”

“Good,” the medic chuckled, “I’ll have him moved down to his old room and he’ll never know…”

~/ *_* \~

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