The sky overhead was blue, but it was just an illusion.
The red dust choked the skies of Mars. Only under the dome of the colony was it blue from horizon to horizon. It wasn't supposed to be blue now, because it was scheduled to be night time. The dome's control computer must have suffered another glitch.
The colony’s designers had decided that the colonists would be more comfortable under a blue sky, as they labored to make life under the domes more bearable. But that was a long time ago, when the colony was brand new. Now, they could barely keep things working. Magnacolonia had fallen on hard times.
Marstech Corporation, the company which had built Magnacolonia, went bankrupt when the investors pulled out. They considered colonization of Mars by Marstech a failed endeavor, because so few people had signed up to be citizens of Magnacolonia. The truth was, people just didn’t trust Marstech, not after what had happened.
There had been an accident during the construction of one of the domes of Magnacolonia, where nearly one thousand workers died. The few survivors who were sent back home to Earth, told stories of harsh working conditions, and made it into the press.
Marstech tried to fight this with a PR campaign, saying that, as usual, the press had managed to blow it out of proportion and made everything seem more horrible than it actually was. They even got some of the news outlets to give official apologies and withdrawals of the supposedly erroneous articles.
But, the damage had been done. In the public mind, Magnacolonia was not a safe place to live. So, while other Martian colonies built by other companies thrived, Magnacolonia was left to rot.
When the company went bankrupt, it offered a few colonists a free trip back to Earth. They were middle management level and up. The workers, and other lowlevel citizens, would be left behind. The company claimed they couldn’t afford to transport more. While most who could, accepted the offer, a surprising few rejected it. They’d built too much on Mars to leave.
Some were the adventurous sort, thinking of it as an opportunity to make a new way to live. Others, who had joined the colonization project under dubious circumstances, stayed because the only thing left for them on Earth was a room with bars. Still others stayed because they had nothing left on Earth to go back to, nothing to lose if they stayed. They’d lost everything that had held them to Earth, and Mars had been their fresh start.
The rest hadn't had a choice; they stayed because they had to. He was one of them.
His name was Dreng— at least, that’s what he told people to call him, if he ever encountered others. He lived on the outskirts of Magnacolonia, in Dome 5, the last constructed before Marstech pulled out, and the one where the accident had happened. He lived away from the more populous areas, so he rarely saw other people. In short, he was a hermit.
He was in his mid 40s, but looked older. He had long, scraggly black hair, with a beard he rarely trimmed. His eyes were deep-set, shaded by his black brows. The left side of his face was scarred around the eye. The telltale green glow and metallic glint revealed his left eye to be cybernetic. His natural right eye was brown.
He typically dressed in gray, brown, and black; rugged clothes made of khaki and denim. He wore a battered wide-brimmed hat, a canvas duster, and well-worn work boots.
Dreng liked to live in the moment. He kept his past locked away in the depths of his mind, where he didn’t have to think about it. Sometimes, at night, the memories would come back to haunt him in nightmares. He mostly forgot the dreams afterward, but he did remember enough to feel a sense of dread when he went to bed.
His hut, which he’d built out of scrap, was self-sufficient, with its own cistern and hydroponics farm. He also kept a few goats, both for their milk and meat. But when he got lonely—which was rare—and sick of his own meager cooking skills—which was often—he would head into the nearest town to trade some of his crops for supplies. He was readying himself for such a trip, when he heard his goats bleating with distress.
He peered out his bedroom window in the direction of his goat pen. The goats were gathered together in fear, horns pointing at dark shapes looming over a wounded one.
Damn. Giant spider-rats. A product of experimentation to create a lifeform capable of surviving both inside and outside the domes, they’d escaped when Marstech had shut down their labs. Now, the brown man-sized eight-legged fanged furry horrors infested the domes.
Dreng grabbed his holster from where it hung by the door, then rushed out of his hut to the goat pen. He didn’t see how spider-rats had gotten inside at first, but then he saw the door wide open. The critters must have figured out how to pick the lock; again. They’d made them too smart for anybody's good. He’d have to upgrade it to an even more expensive lock.
He drew his gun, a revolver, and aimed at a spider-rat which was clinging to the chicken wire wall on the outside of the pen. He squeezed the trigger, and the spider-rat’s head exploded into black goo. This alerted the other spider-rats to his presence.
One charged at him with a ferocious growl, fanged maw open beneath its eight beady eyes. He blasted it, and it skidded to a stop. But that just made the other spider-rats even more determined to make him their next meal.
He heard a screech, and looked up to see a spider-rat jumping off the corrugated aluminum roof of the pen. It was heading right for his face, all eight of its legs with claws ready to rend his flesh!
Dreng put his left arm up, as the spider-rat wrapped its legs around his wrist, biting his hand. But the fangs slid, and couldn't pierce the steel skin of the man’s cybernetic arm. Venom oozed from its fangs, steaming, etching the metal, but not causing any real damage. Still, it put him off balance. They tumbled to the ground, rolled. The spider-rat came out on top.
The creature insisted on trying to tear Dreng’s left arm apart, but couldn't do it, only shredding the left sleeve of his jacket. But as Dreng had managed to keep hold of his gun in the fall, he wedged the barrel between the fangs of the spider-rat and soon a round made its head explode. He turned his face away, avoiding being blinded by the viscous goo.
He shoved the dead spider-rat off himself, and leaped to his feet. The other spider-rats eyed him warily, chittering. Perhaps they were readying for another attack. The truth was, the fight had gone out of them. They started backing away, the ones inside the pen exiting. One of them used its prehensile tail to drag the wounded goat inside a partially completed web cocoon. Dreng shot it, and it dropped into the dust.
The others turned and ran. Dreng let them go, rushing over to the downed goat. He crouched next to it, eyes on the fleeing spider-rats. He used his left arm, already covered in spider-rat guts, to pull away the webbing, hoping he’d been in time to save his goat.
But the goat was already dead, the spider-rat’s venom having dissolved its insides. He shook his head, disappointed, then stood up to take stock.
He’d lost one goat, and his jacket had been shredded and covered with goo. It was a lost cause, good thing he had a spare—same for his arm. If the spider-rat had latched onto his natural left arm, lost in the same accident that had cost him his eye and doomed Marstech, he might be dead now. Still, the goat’s hide was mostly intact. Moreover, there was a bounty on spider rats, and he'd killed four. Using his utility knife, he collected a claw from each, and put them in a sack.
He checked on his goats, which seemed calmer with the spider-rats gone. He closed the door—just chicken wire stretched on an aluminum frame. He examined the lock, which had two ends of a long wire stuck inside. Great, the spider-rats had become tool users. At least he was able to use the wire to secure the door closed, crimping it with his left hand, so even a spider-rat couldn’t open it again.
After cleaning himself off and putting on a new jacket in his hut, he went to his quad bike out front. He’d scrounged the parts and assembled it himself. He was proud of it, even if it was just rusted junk welded together. It had four large rubber wheels with shock absorbers at the end of metal struts, with cargo netting stretched between them, a low-slung seat in the middle of the frame, with the engine behind it, and handlebars studded with controls in front. He’d named it Bessie.
He put the sack with the spider-rat claws in the front cargo net, and the dead goat and other trade goods he’d gathered in the back net. He put on a dust filter mask with built-in goggles, and chinched the chin strap on his hat tight. Then he got on Bessie, gunned the engine, and headed for town along the dusty trail.
The town was called Raven’s Roost. It was ramshackle, built from scrap leftovers from the construction of the dome, and sparsely populated. Dreng liked it enough to build his hut nearby. There usually wasn’t much trouble.
Ever since Marstech pulled out, gangs’d taken over Magnacolonia. They’d started as ragtag bands of colonists gathered together for safety, and grew into gangs carving out territory and warring with each other. Some reigned with terror, treating those under their “protection” like slaves, and feeding off the people like parasites. In areas controlled by them, you were either a gang member or exploited. If you didn’t work, you didn’t live.
Some gangs, like the Raven’s Eye who controlled Dome 5, did provide some actual protection. They were respected, not feared, by the populace. Life under their rule was harsh, but fair. If you couldn’t work, they’d feed you and take care of you, but your family would be expected to take up your slack. No family, you were given to one.
One feature of Raven’s Roost that Dreng liked was the saloon, The Grim Gaucho. It was similar to those he’d seen in old westerns, deliberately designed so. It didn’t have all the automated service like they had back on Earth, and behind the bar was a human, not a robot. Her name was Gladys. Not much older than Dreng, but she'd had a rough life, she looked it. Her golden-toned face was deeply lined, her white hair was tied back in a bun, and she wore a green homespun dress she’d probably made herself. She’d gotten to know Dreng well enough to leave him alone.
Dreng never drank much because he wanted to stay alert. Old habits died hard, though he longed to drink to forget, dull his pain. But he enjoyed Gladys’ cooking. He nursed a beer, which was a local brew, if not one that Gladys created herself. It was best not to think about what it was brewed from. Or, for that matter, what the food was made from. At least it wasn’t his own cooking.
He was minding his own business when some young bucks, in brown lizard leather jackets, leggings, and boots, walked into the saloon. One fact of life in a colony ruled by gangs were turf wars. There was always some gang looking to expand their territory by forcibly annexing the land of another. Usually it was the more violent and aggressive gangs, seeking to destroy their rivals and put more people under their “protection”.
He recognized them. They were from a gang in the next dome, called the Sand Lizards. They were mean sons of guns. They were also armed with them.
When Marstech pulled out, they’d taken their most valuable technology with them. They'd have to try to recoup their losses somehow, and selling their tech was the best way. Their cargo ships being full of their gear was why they’d had no room to evacuate Magnacolonia completely. As a result, almost everything became low-tech in the domes. They didn’t have any sophisticated weaponry like Earth or the other colonies—no laser rifles, railguns, and the like. Not even the black market supplied them, because no one in Magnacolonia could afford them. The most common weapons were projectile guns, inspired by old designs, but locally made. Or, bladed and blunt weapons assembled from scrap. Still, it was old wisdom that a bullet can kill you just as dead as a laser blast. Same for a knife or a club.
Dreng attempted to just ignore them as they knocked over tables, and generally made a nuisance of themselves. They harassed the other patrons, forcing them to leave. But they didn’t seem to notice Dreng. He figured they were there to pick a fight with the Ravens, starting one of their ridiculous gang wars. But it wasn’t any of his business. All he wanted to do was finish his beer in peace, then pick up the rest of his supplies from the market, and head home.
However, when they started to get physical with the barkeep, he was disturbed. Gladys made the best food in the whole of Magnacolonia. So, he left his beer at his table, and walked over to the thugs who were disturbing the bartender.
“The lady said to leave her alone,” he said to one of them, who was threatening Gladys with a broken bottle.
The thug merely glanced at Dreng, then dismissed him, saying “old dude, can’t ya see I’m busy, leave me alone before I cut your good eye out!”
Dreng grabbed him by the back of the neck, smashed him head first into the bar, and the thug slipped to the floor unconscious.
The others were startled that their comrade had been dispatched so easily. However, they knew that their superior numbers—not to mention their guns—gave them the advantage. Dreng knew that as well, which is why he didn’t want to give them a chance to draw them. They spread out, surrounding him. Old skills, old training, kicked in.
He rushed in and smashed one in the chin, sending him reeling to the ground. Another tried to whack Dreng on the head with a bat, but he dodged, taking it on the shoulder. He kicked the Sand Lizard in the stomach, making him double over in pain. A third tried to circle behind Dreng while he was tangled up with his buddy. The Sand Lizard held Dreng so he couldn’t escape, grinning over his shoulder at the other who was positioning himself for the kill.