Not all Space Westerns are bang-bang shoot’em ups. Some are about broken men with forgotten pasts seeking the answers to life on back-water planets. — ed. N.E. Lilly
The poker games are done for the night. Quiet settles as the last of the miners stumble off or pass out drunk. Someone sweeps the yellow dust from the floor, battling against insurmountable odds. I sit alone, shuffling a deck, staring at the green felt table across the way.
“Haven’t had enough, Conway?” Alyana asks. One of the saloon girls, she’s taken a liking to me.
I shake my head. The answers have eluded me, perhaps tomorrow they will not.
Alyana takes away my empty glass, pulls out another filled with dingy water. Her flashy clothes and deep rouge no longer seem to fit. “Here.” She pushes the glass before me as she sits down, leans her head on her hand to gaze at me.
My once white shirt is now stained yellow, stubble covers my cheeks, and reflected candlelight gleams through the thin unruly hair upon my head. People can tell I don’t belong, and they wonder why I came. Back on Earth they worked in factories and fields, saving for years for a one-way ticket to the space colony Marun, to paradise.
I drink down the water, ignoring the rotten egg taste that lingers in my mouth. This might be hell, but I’ve come for my salvation, although from what I do not know.
“What were you before?” I ask, and my words startle her; they are the first I’ve spoken this day.
“What’s it matter? It was worse than here.” She’s still beautiful, in a way that this place will steal from her. But her eyes—hazel, large, curious—they show her age, show the amount of life she’s lived. I think they’re her best part.
“Worse?” I feel like laughing, but cannot, which is good because the word itself upsets her.
“What were you?” she asks.
I try to shrug or sigh but only remain as still as stone. I was important and well taken care of. This place is much worse than before.
When my inaction stops her hands from reaching out, it doesn’t stop her hazel eyes from showing their concern for me. Julie, I think; they look just like Julie’s eyes, although I don’t remember who Julie is—No, was, who Julie was.
Alyana watches me from across the crowded room with hazel eyes. Familiar is what they feel like, and a whisper of emotion stirs in my cold heart.
The numbers dance in my head: aces and queens and multiples of four. It doesn’t help me win this hand, and the chips are pulled towards another player.
“You in Conway?” the dealer, Milo, asks. He’s a big man with broad shoulders and muscular forearms below his rolled up sleeves. He eyes me curiously; I confuse and amuse him.
I nod, and toss my chip into the center of the worn felt. The answers beckon and I have enough winnings to lose a few hands in order to find them. Tonight the game’s five card draw. A pair of fours, weak kicker, I ask for three more cards. The mine manager, who thinks he knows the game better than he does, bets big, booming voice talking up the table. Two local players call. Still no high cards, they’ve got me beat, but I waver on throwing in the hand.
Among the jacks, and tens and kings another thought emerges, other odds, figures from long ago, equations I know by heart. The mine manager continues to boast and I fold. I wave a hand to shush his jibes; there are more important things. I try to burn the formulae into my mind, to remember what they were for and why they matter.
“You’re a peculiar man, Conway,” Milo tells me. The night has yet to begin. A breeze blows dust in from the street and I watch it drift in the afternoon sun. I look up at him, his chiseled features masked by a thin beard. Knowing I won’t reply, he continues to shuffle a deck in a flashy, complex manner.
Only during the game do other numbers dance in my head: the formulae, my true weapons. I play with the figures in them, defining and redefining. The formulae have meaning; they tell of something, something important, something I can’t remember.
Alyana crosses the room and places a plate in front of me before sitting down beside Milo. “Go on, eat. You must be hungry.” She smiles.
I lift the fork she’s laid on the metal plate and take a bite, although I don’t really taste the food. Like everything else, it’s full of the stink of this place.
“You should take better care of yourself.” Concern shows in her voice, though I’ve never shown any to her.
“Why?” My voice crackles from a lack of use. Increasingly, I’m convinced there’s nothing after I find the answers.
“Well…” She frowns. “Because…that’s why.” I can tell she wants to say more, can read it in her open face. I forget there are people who care not what of themselves they show the world.
Milo casts me a warning glare. “Where did you come from?” he asks me. “One of those lofty towers? The kind where there’s windows above the smog, the floors are marble, and everything sparkles with cleanliness.”
“Perhaps,” I say, surprising myself as much as them. “I don’t remember.”
“Why not?” Alyana asks.
I try to shrug. “It was before.”
“Before what?” She leans across the table to pick at my food. It snaps a memory into place—the same curious hazel eyes, but instead the hair is long and black, spilling over a slender shoulder.
“Before Julie…” the last word won’t cross my lips. Before Julie died, I answer in my head. Before my life fell apart without her.
Loud music, laughing strippers and the hoots of drunken miners reverberate off metal walls. A yellow, dusty haze fills the crowded room. The stubble has grown into a short beard. My figure is now gaunt from lack of eating. My eyes are dark rimmed. I play every game Milo deals, sure buried in percentages and outs are my answers. I lose, I win, I lose. It doesn’t matter.
The next hand of seven-card stud starts with a pocket nine and king of hearts, a ten of spades showing. Worth playing, not that it matters. Fourth street is a jack of clubs. Four outs to a straight, no queen on the table yet. Two players in and I run the possibilities of what they have, what their own hands hide, and slip past it all to what really matters.
The formulae tell of the transfer of energy, of order becoming disordered. But, what if you reverse it? What if you order the chaos? If you can hold molecules close enough can they fuse, create order and with it energy? The formulae speak of the possibility.
The fifth street brings a ten of hearts, a shown pair, but no relief. Three cards of a straight present, although lower, for the miner to my right. The traveling gambler across the table bets on his pair of jacks, rambling on about his poker prowess, smooth smile on his face. I shake my head at his distraction. The game is on, bringing needed numbers and answers. Milo laughs and draws attention away from me, casting me a wary glance when others aren’t looking.
It’s been thought of before, cold fusion. How do you slow the molecules down? How do you make them stop, much less want to combine? So many others have tried. Had they not failed, Earth might still be green. The people filling this bar would not have left the stink of pollution for that of this world.
The straight to the right gets another leg, only a jack or six needed to complete it. She bets uncertain, perhaps still playing a hunch. Across the table, there’s a pair of sixes to go with the jacks. He comes out firing, at the least trying to show he already has the full house. A five of hearts strengthens my backdoor flush possibilities. Nine hearts out, not the best odds for a fifth in my hand. Without the cards there’s no connection to the answers, so I call.
What if I combine them, the formulae traditionally used and mine? Yes, all the figures are similar. I can redefine a few. Then they fit together, and make formulae that are more complex. Is this the answer? A formula for energy, clean and pure.
The seventh street, face down, brings a lowly two of hearts. “There must be more,” I whisper. The answer can’t be a simple formula. I back away from the table, away from the sinking feeling in my gut that there is no real truth, no real answers. I’m crazy. Higher society cast me out for it, doomed me to this place. Is that the truth? Is that all there is?
“Are you folding?” Milo calls out to me. “The gambler didn’t make his hand.” He points to the revealed cards. I stumble backwards out of the saloon, pushing others out of the way, allowed to pass because of the crazed look on my face. “Conway?” Milo’s voice echoes into the still night outside.
I fall to the hard, yellow ground in a heap. Did it all mean nothing? Was it all an illusion to help me deal with what my life has become? Staring up at the empty sky, I feel that is the final answer.
The dawn sky threatens to emerge. I sit alone on the metal porch, the saloon behind me finally empty. My mind is void of anything; it seems so odd.
Soft footfalls approach, and Alyana sits down beside me. Silence hangs between us, and I expect her to speak, but she doesn’t.
The answer was that there were no answers. I’ve repeated that line all night. It still disappoints me as much as the first time. The sun lights the sky purple and orange and blazing red. The beauty of it doesn’t reach me.
“Who’s Julie?” Alyana’s voice is quiet and unsure.
I think about not answering. What do answers matter now? “She was my wife.”
Alyana leans forward to search my hand for a ring. She finds none. The memory of my throwing it away enters my mind—the glittering gold floats down into the murky air below the tower, while I calculate the energy with which it will hit the ground.
“How did she die?” Her voice is so gentle; I wish to tell her.
“I don’t remember.” I remember her before: warmth enfolded in my arms, soft kisses, light laughter. And I remember after: grief and despair so great I fled to this hell to escape it.
“You loved her very much,” Alyana says. “The kind of love that consumes you, and connects you, and keeps you anchored to life.”
Her words express common experience between us, and I turn to her. She gives me a shy smile, clearly not wanting to tell her own tale.
“Perhaps,” I say, knowing she’s correct. Love is incalculable, as emotions tend to be. But I can feel it, deep inside me, love for Julie, the connection with her broken, an ache that she’s not here.
“I just wish…” I wish I could remember it all. I wish I knew what really happened. I wish I had…
Alyana’s head is bent up, her face lit by the rising sun, her eyes aglow. I can see Julie in that exact pose, face lit by moonlight, hazel eyes reflecting the glimmering of stars.
Suddenly, it occurs to me that the final formula from before was wrong, just slightly, almost unrecognizable. I didn’t catch it soon enough, didn’t see the problem such a small mistake would make. Julie had been so happy for me, like always. An answer to Earth’s problems, ‘who would miss that,’ she’d said.
“There was an experiment, my experiment. But the numbers were wrong. I didn’t know, until… My mistake, Julie’s life.”
Alyana frowns. She reaches out a hand to comfort me, and I don’t resist.
That was the answer. I see it now, that moment between what was and what is. An explosion rocked the lab. I fought my way through the fire and chaos to her, heart racing. She lay on the floor, not quite gone. I lifted her into my arms; whispered again and again that I love her, that I need her, that she can’t die.
I feel like I’m crumpling, just like my fusion field did. And then warm arms have me, holding me close. Soft words are whispered into my ear. A hand runs through my greasy hair. I suddenly feel everything, like every nerve in my body, heart and soul is finally alive again.
In pieces I make out what Alyana says. “So sorry—so sorry—take care of our own—don’t worry, Conway—you’ve finally come home.”
- SpaceWesterns.com First Year Writer’s Interviews by N.E. Lilly (Jun 29, 2008)