by George Potter
July 11, 2005
It's my deep suspicion that every man pisses his pants at least once in his life time. No matter how powerful or brave or flat out ornery. Once in his life, every man who ever lived felt his bladder let go and that awful warm spreading down there where it ain't polite to call notice too. I'm not too proud to admit that such a time had even come for ol' Jubal Early and he lived through it.
But now it's come for Clarendon Fellows, and he wont.I got him trussed up in the bridge of his own damn ship, didn't even have to sneak up and board the hard and quiet way. Fellows welcomed me aboard and poured me a drink. We go back a ways, me and Fellows. We go back further than he ever knew. Took me three months and two substandard paying jobs worked for the man before I got him opened enough to tell me a little story about burning down a farming town on Hester years back.
Among the people who died in that fire was a raven haired little girl named Alice Ramirez. Pretty thing, I got a picture of her stored on my ship com, and I've looked at it once a day ever since I made a promise to a man with his guts torn out, on the floor of a cave on a bootleggers moon. I'd only met the man an hour before, but he'd saved my life when the fugitive I was tailing got the drop on me. I figured that meant the least I owed him was to sit with him while he died, after I'd separated the head and body of the man who killed him while aiming at me, and stored it in my cryochest.
Took him a while to die. In the process, he asked me to do him a favor. He himself had been looking for a man. An Alliance officer who had burned an entire town, including his five year old daughter, back in the war. He had his stats stored on a flexie. That was where I got the picture of Alice too.
I take my promises to dying folk serious. Especially the ones I owed a favor.
Still -- there was something about looking at that picture every day. Even if her daddy hadn't saved my tail, I think looking at that picture would have set me on the path to Fellows. There was a burn in those little eyes, like the uneasy soul of Alice Ramirez haunted 'em, like the ghost in that picture demanded avenging.
Things get me sometimes.
I pace around Fellows as he goes through the routine. First he curses and threatens. Then he begs. Then he offers money -- quite a lot of money. I slap him for that. Visiting my intentions is the best way to get hands laid on you. I got him tied like a hog for slaughter, right to his command chair. I don't say a damn thing until he shuts up.
The last thing he asks me is in such a comical tone of resignation that I almost laugh.
"Who put the fix on me, Jubal? Who was it?"
I stop and stare at him for a minute. He shivers under my gaze.
"Now that's an odd thing, Mr. Fellows. Some -- the more philosophical minded among us, say -- would figure you put the fix on yourself, quite a few years ago. Others -- the more mystical minded -- might say two dead people were the ones who did the deed."
I grin at him. "I won't torture you because I was asked not to, by a man with more conscience than both of us." A pause, and I burrow my brow in thought. "I'd have done so, if he asked."
I add that as an aside, quiet enough that he has to strain a bit to make it out. My momma used to tell me "Jubal, even when you're being a good boy you can still be a bastard more like than not." My Momma was a smart woman.
It is cruel, isn't it? To let a little relief mix with the fear. I do this for Alice, and her eyes, and I wonder angrily at the fear she felt as the fire closed in on her, and if she maybe for a second thought she heard the sound of rescue coming, just before her hair caught fire and her eyes bled from the heat.
"I myself am a philosophical sort." I tell him, tone back to normal, just like we were having a discussion over drinks. "A philosophical man who is also the worst sort of pragmatist. I think you know that there is no more deadly combination."
I stop my pacing and drop before him, to stare into his eyes.
"And the truth is you had a chance to save yourself when you told me that story. You remember the one? The story about burning Kinseytown, on poor old slaughtered Hester, in the last days of the war?"
Even in understanding his eyes don't change. Once fear has a man in it's grip it sort of holds the fort against every other emotion.
"You told me that story laughing. You told me that story as a way to prove yourself a real hardass bastard. You told me that story without a fleck of regret and without a hint that such a deed left a mark on your heart."
I have to give the man some credit. He refrains from contradicting me or begging at this last moment.
"I'm gonna let you in on a little secret, for you to think on as you make your way to whatever hell you're bound for. A real hardass never talks about the hard things. A real hardass just does the hard things and lets them do the talking."
I take the little printout of Alice's picture from my belt pouch. I give him a good look at her.
"This is Alice Ramirez, one of the many who burned by your hand that day. I'm sure those others were decent folk, but it's Alice who gets your soul, Mr. Fellows. I made the promise to her daddy, but it's Alice who reminded me of the promise every day."
I tuck the picture into his bonds, right over his heart.
"Maybe you can sleep easy now, little girl." I say, then rise and step back. I pull the burner from my holster, draw bead and fire, right into and through the picture to his heart.
Half a megawatt of focused microwave lances invisibly from the gun and through his heart, cooking it instantly, bloating it, popping it like a meaty balloon. I can almost hear the pop. He shudders once then dies from shock, body twitching afterwards.
On his chest, the little paper picture of Alice smolders into ash, the circulation vents catching the bare hint of black smoke and whisking it away. The crumbling grey remains disperse from the corpse gently, fluttering in the cycled air. They seem to halo about the dead man for a moment, and I contemplate them.
Then I pluck out Fellows right eye, the one I'd noticed him offering to the ID readers, and begin to loot his ship.
Personal jobs are a balm to the soul, but they don't pay the bills.
Not a bad haul I tell myself, as I sit cataloging my loot into the cargo hold. A nice chunk of Alliance fiat, a few decent guns, and -- the jewel of the job -- a Featherstone Mini-Tug plasma engine, unassembled in it's packing crate. It's a bitch to get aboard my little ship, but I manage it with the help of a loader rig. Soon as I can get it swapped out for my current engine, Matilda will be the fastest thing for her size on the whole Gorram frontier.
I hit the command chair and chart a course for Persephone. I watch Fellows ship dwindle as Matilda pushes me away from her. I had considered blowing it up: cycling up the powerplant and leaving her to rev till overheat and destruction. Then I decided not to bother. Let the Reavers have him for a snack. They don't mind their meat a little ripe.
The last thing I do, before letting myself sleep, is to call up the image of Alice Ramirez on the screen one final time. I smile at her. Her eyes seem different. Happier. More content, maybe. Or, more likely, my eyes have changed since I've seen the promise well and truly fulfilled.
It doesn't matter. What matters is that I don't have to look at those eyes anymore.
I delete the picture, then kick the command chair back into full recline. I prop my feet up on the hull and sigh.
I watch the dead ship dwindle until my eyes close on their own. For a moment, Alices eyes are still there, but they fade. Things always fade.
I hope I don't dream about her in the fire anymore.
Like I said: sometimes things get me.