John Whalen brings us a tale set on the planet Tulon. Previous stories of his can be found at Raygun Revival — ed. N.E. Lilly
Jake Bracken never liked the rain. It always seemed to bring him bad luck. It rained that night back on Earth when Holly left him. Took off with a pharmaceutical salesman from Abilene. It rained the day he came home from the Terror War and saw that the Qaeda had burned his ranch to the ground. It was raining now, as he pulled his Hover Jeep up to the boardwalk in front of the Green River saloon.
A flash of lightning forked the night sky as he climbed out of the Jeep and stepped up on the boards, rain pelting the brim of his Stetson. He stood under the awning for a minute, looking into the saloon through the batwings. It was just a rundown saloon in a broken down town on the outskirts of nowhere.
He was tired. It had been a long ride from Trans-Mesa. He was really too old for long rides. His body ached from the wear and tear of 64 years. They had been hard years, spent mostly in the Tulon desert, where the oil derricks all now stood still and silent like steel cacti. Tulon was a busted planet.
He pushed through the batwings. There were maybe ten men in the place and a couple of women. A man with no hair on his head sat at a synthesizer playing “Wildwood Flower.” Bracken went over to the bar.
“Synth-Whiskey, if that’s all you got,” he told the barkeep, a skinny fellow with black hair and a long neck.
The bartender set a bottle and shot glass down and poured.
“Next shipment of the real thing doesn’t come til next year,” he said.
Bracken tossed it down. His stomach turned hot when the synthetic bourbon got there and the warmth spread up his chest and out to his arms.
“Another,” Bracken said.
“Stranger, aren’t you?” the barkeep asked, pouring the second round.
Bracken put the glass to his lips, but this time let it pour slow into his mouth and slide down his throat gradually. It tasted burnt and a little sour. He could feel warmth going down to his legs.
“Just passin’ through,” he said.
“Where you headin’?”
“No place in particular. Got anything to eat?”
“It’s late,” the barkeep said. “Only got just some Slumgullion.”
“Cook used to work on a ranch in the Mesquite country back Earth-side.”
“I’ll have some.”
Bracken picked up his glass and went over to a vacant table near the door. He sat with his back to the wall, and listened to the rain coming down in the street outside. To his right, a couple tables over, four men played poker. They looked like ex-oil field hands. There were plenty of them unemployed now. Men who drifted from place to place looking for work or trouble. Tulon had the richest oil deposits of any planet in the galaxy. It had boomed until they discovered Digital Atomic Virtual Fuel back on Earth and nobody needed Tulon’s crude anymore.
There were two men at another table who sat and drank with a young doxie who had her back to Bracken. There were a few other hands scattered around the place talking and drinking.
There was a sudden lull and Bracken could hear the rain coming down harder out in the street. Funny, how the rain had made him think of Holly when he’d pulled up outside. He hadn’t thought about her in a long time. Not consciously anyway. Although he realized he probably had never gone a day when she wasn’t there, somewhere in his mind. It was the loss of her and the ranch that drove him to leave Earth and come to Tulon thirty five years ago. They’d needed men to work security for the oil fields back then.
“Here’s the gullion,” the barkeep said, laying the tin plate full of stew on the table with some silverware. “Need a place to stay? We got rooms upstairs. Even fix you up with some company.”
Bracken glanced up at him. “Probably. The room at least.”
“That’ll be ninety,” the barkeep said. “For the gullion and drinks so far.”
Bracken reached into the pocket of his jeans, took out a roll of cash and peeled off a hundred. The bartender took it and went away, his eyes tight on the bank roll Bracken put back into his pocket. Bracken put a spoon in the watery-looking stew and took a sip of the gravy. Wasn’t bad. He scooped up a piece of beef and a Bell pepper and put it in his mouth. Even though the beef had probably cooked all day it was still chewy.
As he ate, he saw the bartender out of the corner of his eye give a high sign to the girl sitting at the table with two men. She started to get up but one of the men grabbed her arm.
“Where you goin’, honey,? he said.
“We got other customers, Brent,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back.”
“Now hold on,” the man said. “You’re with me right now. You just sit tight a little while and have another drink.”
The girl looked back at the barkeep who nodded and she sat back down. She was young, Bracken thought. Too young to be a working girl. But on Tulon the young grew up fast. He looked at the man she’d called Brent. He was a big man who took up a lot of space in the chair he sat in. He wore a fancy white shirt and a black vest over it. Bracken didn’t like him. But it was none of his business.
He should probably get a room. No sense going any further in that downpour. What was the hurry? He wasn’t going anywhere and he knew it. The doctor in Tulon Central had laid it all out. He’d been having dizzy spells awhile and got short of breath easy. Then that terrible stabbing pain in the chest. He collapsed in the street in Trans-Mesa and came to in the doctor’s office. They flew him to Tulon Central, where the sawbones gave him some pills for the angina, some blood thinners. They put in a defibrillator, but there was nothing that could be done. Too much hardening of the arteries. Bracken could tell there wouldn’t be much time, the way he felt.
He’d stayed in Tulon Central a few days and then got Deputy Harris to pick him up and take him back to his home in Trans-Mesa. He called it home anyway. It was just a room above a convenience-general store that he rented by the week. After a few days, he got some of his strength back and packed up his few belongings in a blanket roll. He walked over to the Sheriff’s Office, took the tin badge off his vest, and dropped it on the desk. Deputy Harris looked up at him.
“So that’s what you’re going to do?” he said.
“You’re sheriff now, Frank,” he said. “I’m leavin’”
And he rode out of Trans-Mesa. He had no clear idea where he was going. Just wanted to go where nobody knew him. Where he could die alone, in peace. He’d spent thirty years as a lawman in one oil boom town after another. He’d done some good in the world, he reckoned. But mostly he’d just arrested drunks, wife beaters, caught a few bank robbers, shot a couple of killers. There had to be something more to it than that. A man’s life ought to mean something. It ought to end with some purpose to it. He’d ridden most of the day and then fifty miles from Green River, in the late evening, the rain started.
“Want some company, mister?”
He looked up. For a moment, he didn’t breathe. Holly? He blinked. No, it wasn’t Holly. But damn, she sure featured her a lot. Same color hair, same color eyes. She wasn’t even seventeen years old.
“I said do you want some company?” she repeated.
“Alright,” he said. “Have a seat.”
“Buy me a drink?”
Bracken looked up and saw the skinny barkeep standing there.
“Get her whatever she wants,” Bracken said.
“Champagne?” the girl said.
“Whatever you want. Bring that whiskey bottle over here too.”
“Comin’ right up.” The barkeep went back to the bar.
“Not often a hand around here buys a girl champagne,” she said. “Thanks, mister.”
“What’s your name?”
“Francine. What’s yours?”
“I had an uncle named Jake,” the girl said.
“That right? He an old man too?”
“No. That’s not what I meant.”
The barkeep set the bottles and glasses down. He popped the champagne and started to pour it. The man named Brent, from the table that Francine had left, turned at the sound of the popping court.
“Hey, Francine, looks like you got a live one,” he said. Bracken looked over at him. He was a tough looking hombre with a big chin and a wide nose. A malicious grin split his face, and here was a wide space between his two front teeth. “A little long in the tooth, though.”
The man turned back around to the other two men at the table and they all laughed. He picked up the deck of cards they were playing with and shuffled them.
“Friend of yours?” Bracken asked the girl.
“You could say that,” she said, taking her first sip of the bubbling champagne. “Ooh, it tickles your nose.” She took another sip. “It’s good.”
Bracken poured another shot.
“Mind if I ask you a personal question?” he said.
“Not at all.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m old enough. I’m seventeen. Old enough to do what I want, when I want, where I want.”
“Sounds like something you rehearsed,” Bracken said.
“I got plenty of practice saying it.”
“My father for one. He just wanted to keep me locked up until I was an old maid. I wouldn’t have none of that. We fought all the time. He finally threw me out of the house. Here’s to freedom.”
She raised the half-full glass and poured it all down. Bracken took a sip of the whiskey and set the glass down.
The girl poured herself another drink. She studied the pink colored beverage in the glass.
“Look at all those bubbles rising to the top,” she said. “Don’t you think they’re glad they’re not locked up in that bottle anymore?”
She raised the glass to her heavily rouged lips and gulped down half of it.
“Whoa, there young lady,” Bracken said. “You better slow down. That stuff gets to you.”
“I know what I’m doin’” she said and finished the glass.
That’s what Holly said, the night she left him. “I know what I’m doin’, Jake. Don’t try to stop me. I can’t take this life out here in the middle of nowhere. Ranch life is not for me. I need bright lights. People.”
And then she’d gone out into the rain, where the drummer waited. He could have gone out there and shot the man. He never knew why he didn’t. He just let them go. Maybe it was the look on Holly’s face. The desperate look of a caged animal.
“You know what you’re doing, do you?” Bracken said to the girl sitting in front of him.
“Matthew doesn’t think so, but I do. I know exactly,” the girl said.
“Matthew?” Bracken said.
“My ex-fiancÃ©,” she said.
“That’s right,” she said, pouring a third glass. “He was another one, wanted to put a cage around me. Keep me all to himself, out on his beat up old farm. What in the world would a girl like me do out on a lonely old farm like that? I’d go crazy. So I broke up with him.”
“You’re pretty independent, aren’t you?” Bracken said.
“You bet I am. But Matthew is stubborn. He just won’t let go. Keeps pestering me to come back. I’ll tell you a secret.” She leaned closer. “You see that man back there at that table? The one I was sitting with. His name’s Brent Calhoun. He’s going to take me to Tulon Central. Soon as we both get enough money saved up. We’ll take the Electro-rail.”
“He’s not like Matthew,” Francine said. “He let’s me be. He loves me too. He said so. But he doesn’t try to stop me doing whatever I want.”
Bracken didn’t say anything.
“Matthew — he just can’t understand a girl like me.”
How many times had Holly told him that. He just didn’t understand her. “We’re two people as different as snow and rain,” she said.
“So how about it, Mister Jake?” the girl said. “Want to take me upstairs?”
Holly went out into the rain with the pharmaceutical drummer and he heard the old combustion engine of the drummer’s motor car driving off.
“Mister? Did you hear what I said? Want to go upstairs?”
“Not tonight, Francine,” Jake said. “But here.” He reached into his pocket and took out the roll. He peeled off a hundred. “Here. That’s for your time. I enjoyed talking to you.”
Francine took the bill wide eyed. “Gee thanks, Mister Jake.” She tucked it in her cleavage. “Aren’t you just the nicest man.” She stood up. “If you change your mind—”
Bracken watched her walk slowly back to the table where the man called Brent Calhoun sat. She sat down next to him and talked to him in hushed tones. Calhoun gave him a short backward glance.
Bracken drank down what was left of the whiskey and poured another. Outside the rain seemed to be coming down even harder. He closed his eyes.
He heard about ten years later Holly died alone of pneumonia in Las Cruces. The drummer had walked out on her years before. She must have been too proud to come back home. The synthesizer player stopped playing and the level of conversation in the saloon dropped low. Lightning flashed and thunder clapped loud at the same time. Someone came in through the batwings. A young man in his early twenties stood there. Water dripped from the brim of his hat and drops of water dribbled onto the floor from the poncho he wore . He walked into the bar, his eyes two narrow slits focused intently on the table where Francine and Brent Calhoun sat.
“Francine!” he shouted. “Francine, get your things. I’m taking you out of here.”
The girl shot up from her chair.
“Matthew,” she shouted. “How many times I got to tell you. It’s over. I’m staying with Brent. Get out of here.”
“No you’re not,” the young man said. “He’s no good for you. He’s lettin’ you whore yourself so he can use your money. He ain’t never takin’ you nowhere. Can’t you see that?”
Calhoun sat there and looked up at the boy.
“You sayin’ I’m a liar, boy?” His voice was low and rumbled across the room like faraway thunder.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Calhoun stood up slow, his eyes aimed at the younger man. He was tall and big shouldered and he moved like a cat. He took several steps away from the table. Bracken looked at the girl and saw the strange expression on her face. It was a mixture of excitement and terror.
“I’ll give you a chance to take that back and get out of here,” Calhoun said.
The boy threw the wet end of the poncho back over his shoulder. A Ruger Plasma T45 was strapped down on his leg.
“Oh-ho,” Calhoun said. “You came here ready for business. Then let’s get to it.”
“Matthew!” the girl shouted. Bracken could tell from what was in her voice how she really felt about him. And he knew what he’d come here for.
“Are you coming with me?” Matthew asked.
“He’ll kill you!”
“One, or me him the other.”
Bracken stood up and everyone turned at the sound of his chair scraping the floor.
“Go on home, son.” he said. “Take the girl with you.”
The boy looked at him confused.
“What’s your say in this, old man,” Calhoun asked. His hands were hanging loose at his sides. Bracken saw that he wore two pistols— Beretta Electro-Blasters like the one he carried.
“No say,” Bracken said. “No say at all. But you’re gonna let that boy out of here and take his girl with him. You just lost your meal ticket.”
Calhoun chuckled low under his breath.
“That right?” he said. “Well, I guess you’ll pay hell provin’ it, old timer.”
“This is my fight, mister,” Matthew said and drew his pistol.
Calhoun drew both of his weapons. He fired once and the boy spun to the floor.
“Matthew!” the girl screamed.
Bracken drew his Beretta. Calhoun got off another shot. Bracken felt the blue electric pulse tear into his chest as he pulled the trigger. Calhoun crumpled to his knees and fired again at the floor. Bracken fell backwards and lay there looking up at the ceiling. He knew Calhoun was already dead. There was that silence that always came after every fight, then he heard the girl cry out and run to her ex-fiancÃ©.
“Matthew. Are you alright?”
“I -I think so. Just got me in the shoulder.”
“Thank, God,” Francine said. “Why did you do such a crazy thing? ”
“I couldn’t let him hurt you anymore, Francine,” the boy said.
“I’m sorry, Matthew. I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Bracken heard the sound of the boy getting to his feet and footsteps coming toward him. Under the pain of the chest wound, he could feel his heart fluttering wildly. It was difficult to breathe. He saw the boy standing over him, his hand over the wound in his shoulder. Francine knelt down beside him.
“Mister,” she said. She looked down at him and didn’t have to ask how he was. “Somebody get the doctor!”
“No need,” Bracken said.
“Why’d you do it?” the boy asked.
“No time to explain,” Bracken said. “There’s money in my pocket. Enough for both of you to go to Tulon Central if you want to or buy improvements for the farm. You two work it out.”
“What the hell?” Matthew asked. “Who are you, mister?”
“Just somebody that came in out of the rain.”
He looked up at the ceiling. He could hear the rain still coming down steady. For a moment, he thought he heard the sound of an old fashioned combustion engine and a motor car driving off outside. He shifted his eyes and saw the girl Francine leading the young man toward the door. They’d be all right, he thought. And then he couldn’t see anything anymore, and the sound of the rain echoed off into the night.
Other works by John M. Whalen