This Louis Ting story washed ashore just outside of Cape Town, South Africa in 1973, the bottle it traveled in smashing and scattering the story’s pages back into the sea. The last creature to lay eyes on it was a seal that was promptly eaten by a shark.
Jupiter’s disk filled the craft’s porthole, the gas giant’s pink glow flooding the cabin. On the craft’s starboard side was Olympus 5, a way station for the mineral miners and ice harvesters of Jupiter’s moons. He keyed the communicator, a crack of static slicing through the silence. He spoke, his voice roughened from lack of use. “Olympus 5 Docking Control, this is O-N-E craft 3-6S requesting a Class 1 docking permit. Over.”
More static sliced the air as a garbled woman’s voice answered, sounding somewhat astonished. “Um, 3-6S, your permit is granted for Terminal 3. Please disengage your navigation system for landing guidance. Over.”
He released the craft’s controls and disengaged the navigation system. There was a slight lurch as the station’s computer took control of his craft. Olympus 5 grew in the porthole, and he could now see, docked at Terminal 1, a converted Class 4 extraction craft with its universal docking hatch and a custom gun turret in its belly. The extraction craft was then blocked from view as his own craft nestled into Terminal 3. The docking bolts engaged with a hollow, metallic clank and the hiss of the airlock. The woman’s voice returned to the communicator. “3-6S, your craft is secure and the airlock engaged. It is now safe for you to exit your hatch. Olympus 5 Docking Control out.”
“Olympus 5 Docking Control,” he said into the communicator, to a seemingly gaping silence, “under O-N-E law, Article 4, Section 3 of the Anti-Pirating Act, your station is under quarantine and you are to shut down all terminals. O-N-E 3-6S out.”
There was no response from Docking Control. Olympus 5 was now the last functioning station beyond the Mars base. Saturn’s station, Cronus 6, was crushed in the ice rings. Uranus’s Titan 7 was full of only corpses. Neptune’s Trident 8 had a skeletal crew so far gone with Frontier Fever that they had long ago eaten the remainder of their peers. And Pluto’s Hades 9 was eerily empty.
He stood from his craft’s controls and stepped to the hatch. He could no longer remember how long he’d been chasing the Class 4 docked at Terminal 1—time was meaning less and less—but he’d finally caught up with his quarry, and his mission was coming to an end.
He stepped into a dimly lit lounge. Jupiter filled the row of windows that made up the lounge’s outside wall, bathing the room in a pale, pink glow. The only people were a bartender behind the bar, and two men hunched over a small, round table in a corner. He approached the bar, flicking aside his long, black coat from the weapon on his hip, a habit whenever entering a room.
The bartender was a woman in her late thirties. Her pale skin hung from her skull in a manner reminiscent of melting candle wax. She was missing her two front teeth, and the only life in her eyes was the flicker of Jupiter’s reflection. She regarded the long, black coat and the black boots that were standard uniform for all O-N-E marshals. Then her gaze went to the A-40 pistol at his side. Her eyes fixed on the weapon with a mixture of fear and lust as if he’d exposed to her his sex. “Couldn’t believe it when word came down that an Interceptor was docking,” the woman said, her eyes flashing across his Earth-blue eyes. Her gaze faltered, maybe due to the man’s cold stare, maybe because his eyes reminded her of a planet she’d probably only heard about. “I didn’t think you guys still existed,” she said.
His expression never changing, he said, “This station is harboring fugitives of the O-N-E Anti…” He stopped and spun around, his hand going to his A-40. Over his left shoulder, the bartender’s head came apart like an exploding melon, her torso falling behind the bar.
The hairs on the back of the marshal’s neck stood erect in the wake of buzzing atoms, and behind him was a man holding what the military called a Matter Displacement Weapon, but what was more commonly known as a Matter Annihilator. Matter Annihilators were popular on the black-market trade, although they were not recommended for non-terrestrial use (for one thing, they were capable of breaching a station’s outer wall). The only things saving the marshal’s life were his quickness, and the fact that Matter Annihilators were notoriously inaccurate. This trait was not innate for the A-40 plasma pistol now in the marshal’s hand. The man with the Matter Annihilators dropped to the floor with a smoking hole in his chest.
Bullets whizzed past the marshal’s head. The other man that had been at the table was now firing an old fashion .45 semi-automatic, rushing his shots, bullets spraying randomly. The marshal leveled his A-40 and dropped the man with another single shot.
As if by instinct, the marshal turned his weapon toward a small alcove to his right. He waited a moment, his weapon trained on the place where he anticipated another man to emerge. But, instead of a man emerging from the alcove, a weapon slid along the floor to the marshal’s feet. He looked down to see an A-40 exactly like the one in his own hand.
“You always were a better shot with that thing than I was,” a voice said from the alcove. A man stepped into view. “Looks like I chose a hell of a time to take a piss,” he said. He had a thick mustache, and his hair was long and scraggily. Though the man’s clothes were the generic standard issue of most “frontier folk,” he wore a long, battered, black coat—the black coat known to all O-N-E marshals. With his left hand, the man cut and re-stacked a deck of playing cards in a hypnotic rhythm. “I thought we lost you at Hades,” he said.
“Ross Kubler,” the marshal said, his expression never changing, the A-40 trained on the man standing before him, “under Article 4 of O-N-E Anti-pirating…”
“Will you stop with that,” Ross said, smiling. Still cutting the deck of cards with one hand, he stepped up to the bar, glancing over its side at the bartender. “Ew,” he winced. The grin then returned to his face. “Billy always was a lousy shot with that Annihilator thing. I’m surprised he even managed to hit her.”
“You are under arrest for acts of piracy against the Organized Nations of Earth, and you are to be…”
“Do you recognize her?” Ross interrupted, nodding to the bartender’s headless torso. “I mean, obviously you don’t now, but did you recognize her?”
Without looking at the bartender’s corpse, the marshal answered, “No.”
“That’s Jim Harper’s daughter, Lola.”
The marshal’s eyes narrowed, but he still didn’t look at the bartender.
“She was probably missing her two front teeth the last time you saw her, too, only, that time, they grew back.” He shook his head, chuckling, “Christ, how long do you think you’ve been chasing me?”
“Long enough, but no longer.”
“Time has a way of getting messed up while traveling at Sub-light speeds, doesn’t it? Travel Hibernation with its sleeping, waking, sleeping, waking… I mean, look at that,” he nodded at the bartender again, “you somehow ended up the same age as Jim Harper’s little girl.”
“Ross Kubler, under the O-N-E…”
“Are you sure the ONE even still exists?”
The marshal’s eyes narrowed again.
“Are you sure Earth even still exists?” Ross asked. “I mean, yeah, we can see that it does, even from out here, but I mean the Earth in the sense that we know it? Or knew it. When’s the last time you received orders from ONE?”
“When they told me to find you.”
“Christ, Lola here probably hadn’t even hit puberty yet,” Ross grinned, looking for a moment at the woman’s corpse. He then turned his attention back to the marshal. “You know what the last thing I heard about Earth was?” Ross said, “Now, granted, this was from an old-timer so batty with Frontier Fever that he’d picked his lips clean off of his own face, but he told me that The ONE was losing control and now the trade barons were running the show. And who knows how long ago that was.” He stared out the window as if trying to find his bearings in time. “Let me ask you this,” he said, “If you arrest me, what then? Where do we go? The ONE lost control of the outposts years ago, and the supply ships that do make it out here no longer have O-N-E seals.” He chuckled, but his eyes held no humor. “Hell, I’ve been pirating pirates. You know the people out here can’t afford the tariffs. Think of me as a kind of Robin Hood.” He chuckled again.
“Ross Kubler, under Article 4 of…”
“Christ,” Ross groaned. “Look, you won, okay? It’s over. You fulfilled your duty. But it doesn’t mean anything. You have nothing to return to. This system has moved on. You haven’t. You know, in mid-time America, they used to have those dog races. They’d send the dogs around a track chasing a mechanical rabbit. Thing was, if a dog caught the rabbit, he was no good anymore. They’d have to kill the thing. Don’t you see? I’m your rabbit.”
“I can’t go with you,” Ross said. “You have no idea what the barons will do to me.”
“Wait, look,” Ross said. He smiled, but his eyes were filled with terror. He held up the deck of cards between them. “We’ll do it like the old days. You remember? We’ll do it the way we chose missions. High card wins.”
The marshal stared him in the eyes for what seemed to Ross an eternity. Then the marshal cut the deck, holding up the King of Spades. He returned the top half to the deck, and again, he stared into Ross’s eyes.
Ross laid the deck on his left palm, and with his right hand, he cut the cards, but his shaking fingers squeezed too hard, and the cards sprayed from his hand, fluttering to the floor. “Shit,” he said, stooping to retrieve them. But, instead of gathering the cards, he took hold of his discarded weapon at the marshal’s feet, and, rising from his crouch, he felt the barrel of the marshal’s A-40 against his forehead. But still he rose, weapon in hand, and he closed his eyes, knowing that time had finally caught up to him.