Chapter 1: Wasteland
They say when the Nagglfar first set down on Tarsonis that its passengers wept tears of joy. Banished from their homeworld, they had awoken from cryogenesis to find a planet much like their own. They took this as a sign from providence. Vowed to never again allow for the kind of oppression and greed which had poisoned Earth. The passengers of their sister ship, the Sargengo, we’re not so lucky. That vessel crashed upon landing, thirteen thousand souls perishing in an instant. It would be over a century before a young prospector, himself lost, would discover the wreckage. He named the desert planet Mar Sara. It means “Wasteland.”
The mood in Joey Ray’s that morning had been unpleasantly sober. I'd been up all night before, tracking down wayward cattle from Ms. Welke’s ranch before the lyote could get at ‘em. Which explained why I felt all sorts of beat up and wrung out. Joey was in his usually spot, behind the bar, wiping mugs and nozzles with a rag that was dirtier than sin and certainly the glassware. The jukebox was caterwauling, those oldies which Joe seemed to favor. Sweet Home Alabama. And I was staring down the barrel of a shot glass, at the whiskey-brown reflection of someone I used to know.
“...and in other news,” the TV buzzed, “a global manhunt continues after the bombing of a local hospital yesterday. The Sons of Korhal have claimed responsibility for the attack. The current death toll, five hundred and seventy…”
The doors wheezed open, letting in a hot rush of air. I turned around to see a man in the doorway. Cleanly shaven. Three button suit. Jodhpur breeches. The 'not from around here' type. I turned back to my drink.
“I’m looking for Raynor,” the man announced. He had the voice of someone from Tarsonis. Proper and educated, the kind of voice that could still look down on you from the bottom of a gravity well.
“Looking for Marshal Raynor,” he said again as if we hadn't heard this fellow the first time. I glanced at Joey.
“Who's asking,” said Joey, eyeing the man. Trying to decide if this meant business or trouble. I knew the answer to that. Someone came calling for the marshal, it was always trouble.
“Matthew Horner. Emissary of the Grand Magistrate to Mar Sara.”
The man, Horner, took a seat beside me at the bar. He looked over, nodded my way, asking Joey. “This him?”
“Yeah,” I said, swiveling on the stool so that I could look him in the eye. “What can I do you for you, Mr. Horner?” The man had enough polish on his jack boots for a gymnasium floor.
“Marshal Raynor. By order of the colonial magistrate your services are hereby requested and required. There is a squad of Confederate marines in the canyons up near Perdition’s Crossing. We need your help to find them.”
“Perdition’s Crossing? Lemme guess, y’all lost radio contact soon as they entered the canyons.”
Horner’s face tightened.
I reached for my gun, a .45 D Smoke and Winston. Then slid Joey some extra credits. "It’s all the lodestone." I explained. "Always messing with the electronics. Happens at least twice a year, some ambitious ranch hand or rookie trucker gets himself lost in those trenches. You know who always has to fish them out?” I got up. “Welst, I reckon you do, else you wouldn’t have come to the right place.”
“Wait,” the emissary called out, practically bleating. I stopped at the door.
“I’m coming with you.”
“Like hell you are kid…”
“By order of…”
“Heard about a damn ‘nough of this….” I pushed my way through the door. The sun had risen to high noon. Was it noon already? I tugged the brim of my hat just a bit lower. Waiting outside by the entrance to the bar was a line of hover bikes. My 2479 Vulture was idling at the end. Next to this was a Zephyr with a wizard blue paint job that just so happened to match Horner’s suit. You could smell the ozone coming off its repulsor plates, refreshing as a mint julep in the Sahara. I turned.
“That your ride?” I asked, curiously pointing to the Zephyr.
“Not a bad rig…” I said to myself. “You wanna tag along, that’s fine.” I settled into my Vulture. Ignited the engine. “Just don’t slow me down.”
I'd always found it a little funny. How a man like me could have become the law. I'd been born on Shiloh but my family had moved out to Mar Sara when I was very young. Fleeing religious persecution, Tarsonis was cracking down pretty hard on that back in those days. My father said that this was our chance at a new life. A chance to be free. Make our own choices. And he was right. Just a year later, when my dad got shot up on King’s crossing and bled to death in a solar field, I became the man of the house. Free to make my own choices.
We rode out into the Akilon Flats. The flats were an endless wash of salt and sediments, all melting together under the August sun. Could have heard the roar of our engines for miles, least you could if there had been anyone out here to begin with. Which there never was. This place was emptier than deep space and about half as interesting. I kept my Vulture at full throttle, just to see what the emissary’s Zephyr could do. And I'll be damned if his bike didn't keep good pace. Here I was, sitting on a custom hog, 318 Scotia ionic engines, nitro-injectors and he was matching me for speed. I’d been right. It was a damn fine machine.
“So explain something to me,” I said after a while. “What’s a group of Confederate marines doing out in the Mar Saran desert anyway?” You guy’s ain’t taken an interest in these parts since all the vespene dried up fifty years ago.”
“Mar Sara is a member of the Confederacy,” Horner yelled over the rushing wind.
“A ‘member’ of the Confederacy.” I laughed. “Well that makes it sound like we all on equal footing, now doesn’t it. When we both know that out here, we exist only to serve at the pleasure of Tarsonis.” I tipped my hat sarcastically.
“Careful marshal, that sounds an awful lot like treason to me. Everyone knows that Mar Sara has become a breeding ground for insurrection. Sons of Korhal practically call this dustbowl home.”
“True, course that never would have happened if you Confederate types hadn’t blown up their homeworld in the first place. You didn’t answer my question either. What’s Confederacy doing here anyway? All day I see the drop ships, flying in and out of Mar City.”
He looked uncomfortable. Like the man had demons eatin’ him up. “There’s something happening on Chau Sara.” He said finally, slowing his bike down enough that I could better hear him through the wind. “Even the Magistrate can’t figure it out. Complete radio silence. Like the whole planet just disappeared...”
“What do you mean?” I asked but Horner had stopped talking. He had skidded his bike to a halt, looking at something. I circled around and dismounted. There was a dark spot in the ground, like the kind leaking engine oil leaves on concrete. I knelt down next to it. It smelt like iron.
“What is it Marshal?”
“It's blood,” I said, rising up. “Something died here. Something big.”
I scanned the horizon. Nothing moved.
“I’m not sure. Let’s keep moving.”
The hours passed but the salt stayed the same. Here and there were cracks from where ancient springs had bubbled up to the surface long ago. The only green we saw, actually the only color to speak of, was this tumbleweed bush. We veered around it, Horner giving the only sign of life in this place a very wide berth, as one would a holy shrine. The sun chased after, then caught up and overtook us. It was late afternoon when, all of the sudden, one of the mud cracks split apart like hell’s mouth, widening until it had become a deep ravine. This was it. Perdition's Crossing. It wasn’t very long indeed until we found our first clue.
“Marshal! Over here!” His voice had lost some of its pedantic edge. He sounded almost nervous. He was holding something in his hand for me to see. A metal cylinder.
“Yeah,” I said, confirming his suspicion. “Those are C-14 rounds. Spent ones.” I spun around, scanning the canyon walls for any bullet holes. Which was how I saw it. A gap in the stone, maybe three meters wide and twice as tall. It would be snug but I supposed that a marine in powered armor could fit through a crack like that. With the proper motivation, of course.
“Stay here,” I undid my holster. “I’m going to go check it out.”
I crawled up to the cave’s entrance. From what I could see it was a grotto, at least twenty feet. I crawled in. The air was cooler here and smelled like guano. It was dark. I took a flashlight, my gun in the other hand. The rocks were slippery from runoff and once or twice I almost took a rough spill. But soon the cave opened up again. My light played across the limestone until I saw a figure slumped over on a boulder at the far end of the cave. It was a marine. I could see his CMC powered armor, like a gorilla encased in neosteel.
CMC. That means Confederate Marine Corp. Militaries run on acronyms and the confederacy was certainly no exception. CMC armor was standard for all Confederate marines. Three hundred pounds of chrome-plated exoskeleton. Normally, fog would be spilling from the exhaust fans on the back. Fact that that wasn’t happening meant that the suit was probably dead. Cautiously, I walked closer. It was indeed damaged, I could see that now. Like someone had opened her up with a butcher's knife ‘cept there wasn’t a knife ever made as could cut through that much neosteel. Reaching over, I hit the release on the helmet and the amber visor flipped open. It was empty.
I heard a click behind me. Then a voice, raw boned with just a hint of southern drawl.
“That’s far enough, chief. Drop the gun and turn around slowly.”
I did as he said. Raising my hands and turning around to face him.
The man was huge. The kinda guy that gets picked first in yard ball even if he’d never played a day in his life. All muscle and grit. He was wearing mojave fatigues and a wife beater. These were covered in blood from a large gash in his chest. His oversized hands were cradling a rifle. C-14 Impaler, also standard issue. It whined at the barely perceptible edge of hearing.
“Kick that iron over here." He growled. "Communications too.”
“Easy,” I said, still doing as he said. “Names Jim Raynor. The marshal of these parts. “I’m here to rescue you.”
“Just you? I heard voices.”
“Just me,” I lied.
At the same time Horner called up into the caves. “Raynor! Have you found anything.”
I winced. The marine smiled, “Oh, you found me alright.”
“What happened here?” I asked, glancing over at the armor. “There were twelve men in your squad. Where are the others?”
The marine unhooked a pouch on his fatigues, pulled out a cigar and stuck this in his mouth. Then he raised the gun. I dove for the ground as he fired. Would have taken my head clean off if he hadn’t been aiming too high. He casually dipped, lighting his cigar off the white hot barrel of the gun. “They didn’t make it,” he said at last.
Horner, ‘Emissary to the Grand Magistrate of Mar Sara’, didn’t put up much of a fight either. The big guy marched out of the cave, with me at gunpoint, and Horner gave up immediately. I can’t blame him, he was unarmed. But still.
“What do you mean they didn’t make it?” I asked as the marine patted Horner down.
“Monsters,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Monsters,” I repeated. “Monsters, ain't that something....Hey Horner, I figured out what happened to your missing squad," I pointed at our captor. "This jarhead went postal. Shot ‘em all up. And is now holed up in a cave because he knows the only thing waiting for him back in town is a lovely date with the hangman. Don't touch that!" I yelled as the marine ran a hand along my Vulture.
"This yours?" He kicked the repulsor plates. "Now, now don't get your hackles up..."
“Is it true?” Horner asked the marine, “Did you kill those men? What’s your ID marine?”
“NSC92572,” the marine answered. “But you girls can call me Tychus.”