“That’s it, kids,” David Parker said. He off tore his tie and tossed it on the sofa with his commuter satchel. His short, salt and pepper hair was pasted to his forehead with sweat. He stomped into the kitchen and began opening and closing the cabinets. He leaned over the counter so that it seemed to be holding him up by his office-worker sized stomach. He yanked out cans of food, two by two, and dropped them on the counter with bangs.
His eldest son, Guy, watched from the table where he had been hunched over his screen, trying to solve the problems in his homework. Guy’s blue eyes were still filled with the sleepy boredom that came with the study of mathematics and he watched his father’s frantic emptying of the cupboards with lazy interest.
“What’s up, Dad,” asked Guy.
“I’ve had it,” said David. “I’ve had it and we’re leaving.”
“What? Why? Where?”
“America. Earth,” David said. He examined a can without a label in an attempt to divine its contents. He looked at his son and frowned. “Did you know that you could be tried as an adult for most crimes now? You’re fifteen for Christ’s sake.”
“Sixteen next month.”
“Sure,” David said with a dismissive wave. “And a fourteen year old just got ten years in prison for drawing pictures of guns in his notebook that a teacher interpreted as a threat. That could have been you. Or your brother! Ten years for a sketch… Jesus!”
“We’ve never been in trouble, Dad.”
“Not yet,” David said. “But no one will let boys be boys. The last thing I want is one of you to getting five-to-ten for something stupid like riding your bike without a helmet or me being put away for allowing it.”
“Can that happen?”
“I don’t know,” David said. His voice high and clearly out of breath.
Guy watched his father interest, wondering from where the panicked state had sprung.
“I don’t know,” David said again in a sigh. “I doubt it. I just think we need to get the hell out of here.”
“And go where?”
Guy felt his father’s eyes and wondered what the old man was thinking. He reached behind and flipped off the screen, figuring that, whatever was going on, he wasn’t going to do his homework tonight.
“I was thinking about the colonies,” his father said. It was delicate, as if testing hot water with his least favorite toe.
Guy’s eyes widened and his mouth opened and closed in the movements necessary for words but without voice.
His dad nodded with a tight jaw.
Guy ran his hands through his shaggy brown hair, considering. He glanced at his father, who stood still for the first time since had coming home, and then at the floor. His fingers ran through his hair again to take it out of his eyes. He looked back at his dad.
“When would we go?”
“As soon as possible,” David said. “I already quit my job.”
“This ship isn’t very big,” Guy said. He had a deep frown creasing his face that highlighted the thin browning of his upper lip. He examined the narrow metal hallway with its regular intervals of rivets. The color that was once brushed steel but had dulled to a gunmetal gray. Rust dripped in streaks along the most used collection paths of condensation. “I always thought these things were bigger.”
“It’s big enough,” David said. “Isn’t it, Phil?”
David punched the skipper on the shoulder knowingly and smiled his wide smile that exhibited all his teeth for inspection and turned his eyes into thin slits on a pudgy face. Phil replied with a polite curl of his lips and a nod. Guy tried to look away from his father’s clumsy attempt at being friendly.
“She’ll get us there,” Phil said. “She’s the newest class boat on the market. Rayo can’t seem to build them fast enough.”
“She’s a beaut all right,” David said. He stroked the bulkhead as if it were a horse. “A Tomcat, right?”
“Yes, sir,” Phil said, nodding. “And she’s been out to the colonies twice already, so she has more miles than any other Tomcat flying.”
“Does it have a name,” asked Lincoln Parker, David’s younger son, as he moved out from behind Guy.
Phil began to speak but his answer cut short before he could put voice to it.
“She’s called the Sophie,” his dad said, mussing his son’s hair. “Isn’t that right?”
Phil nodded. His cheeks rippled with the clenching and unclenching of his jaw.
“Dad,” said Guy. He kept a nervous eye on the skipper’s silent stewing. “Maybe we should make sure all our stuff is on board. We don’t want to leave anything behind.”
“What’s that,” his dad asked. He stopped stroking the wall and faced his son. “Oh, right. Yeah. Well, we should leave Phil here to do his thing.”
“Not a bad idea,” said Phil. “We’re buttoning up in four hours and will be off-world shortly thereafter. It’ll be art-grav for the next fifty days so make sure you have plenty of entertainment.”
“Great,” David said. “Thanks, Phil.”
David guided his children in an awkward six-legged shuffle off the main deck to the cargo deck below. He pulled them close and ruffled the boys’ hair, receiving many embarrassed glances from his sons in return.
“Did you guys hear him,” David said. “Art-grav? That must be part of the lingo of being a space traveler. Like calling the Sophie a boat instead of a ship. Pretty neat, right?”
“Dad,” Guy said, shaking his head. “Would you be a little bit more… calm?”
“What? Why,” his dad asked. “Am I embarrassing you?”
“Yeah,” Guy said. “Just be cool. It’s a boat because it’s not military.”
“Listen to ‘Mister Know-It-All’,” David said. His smile disappeared and his eyes hardened as he spoke. “Why don’t you do an inventory on our crates while Lincoln and I go get some reading material? Or would that be too embarrassing?”
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Guy mumbled. He watched his dad and brother stroll down the loading ramp into the bustling crowds of the port. He fished out a beaten pack of smokes from his trousers and tapped a crooked cigarette into his palm. He eyed it with suspicion as he stuffed the pack back into his pocket. He tried to bend it back into an approximation of straight. With a quick glance around the bay to ensure no one was watching, he lit it with a palmed lighter and took in the stale gray smoke.
“Does your dad know?”
He jumped at the unexpected voice and dropped the cigarette on the steel floor, dancing ito stomp it out but missing every time but missing with every step.
Guy turned to see a dark haired woman standing behind him wearing a dirty t-shirt and a pair of very loose fitting cargo pants cinched to her waist with a man’s belt.
“Yeah,” said Guy. “Sorry.”
“Like I care,” she said. She hoisted herself up on a crate and pulled a metal flask from a pocket at her knee. Unscrewing the cap, she took a swig.
Guy picked up his cigarette and tapped off the imaginary ash.
“I’m Guy,” he said.
“Of course you are.”
“No,” he said, a scarlet blush rising across his face. “I mean, that’s my name.”
“No,” she said. A knowing grin spread across her pink lips. “I got it.”
“Oh. Right,” said Guy. He ducked his head low on his shoulders and hair fell across his face. “Well, we’re headed out to the colonies. I mean, we, my family and me.”
“Figured,” she said. “What with you being on our boat and all.”
She took another swig from the flask and whipped her head from side to side as the concoction within slithered down her throat. She eyed Guy with a sad curiosity and passed it over.
“Well,” she said. “I hope you have fun. And lots of guns.”
Guy surveyed the plot his father had marked off with disappointment. When the Sophie paused on Galileo on its way to Darwin, he’d heard rumors of the property “laws” in the colonies but was deeply disappointed by his father’s conservative adherence to them. The plot David managed to fence in was a little more than two acres, and wasn’t near any body of water that he could see.
“So, this is it,” Guy asked.
“Yep,” David said. His hands were on his hips and he took a moment to observe their new kingdom.
“We could fence off some more,” Guy said. “You know, some parts with a creek.”
“Only what we can defend,” his dad said. “Besides, this is big enough to feed us.”
“But it isn’t much bigger than our old back yard.”
“What are you, a surveyor now,” his father asked. He planted his shovel deep into the ground and wiped his hands to little effect on the sweat drenched shirt that clung to his round, heaving belly. He rested an elbow on the handle in an attempt to seem casual but came off as awkward. Guy tried to repress a grin every time his father slipped from the supposedly casual pose.
“I’m just saying. There’s a lot of unclaimed land around here that we could fence in.”
“We’re not here for a land grab, Guy,” his father said. “We’re just looking to claim a piece for ourselves and a little freedom.”
“Yeah, but we don’t even have a water source.”
“Your brother and I took soundings a week ago. We’ll dig a well and build our house next to it.”
Guy retreated to his tent and dug through his pack for the carton of cigarettes he purchased on Galileo. He opened a fresh pack and lit one as he watched his father shade his eyes and survey the property. The old man seemed happy. In fact, he had never seemed more so than since they left Earth and had a contentment in his face new to his son. Guy wasn’t sure whether it was the lack of television and any political shows to cause agitation or whether it was the place itself. But something was different. He could feel it.
“Guy,” called his dad. “I know you’re smoking in there.”
“So, if you’re going to smoke, come out here and do it.” Then, mumbling more to himself more than anyone else, “Can’t have you burning your tent down…”
Guy pulled himself off his sleeping bag and reemerged into the late afternoon light, trudging slowly to his father and the dread speech he knew was coming.
David put his arm around his son and guided him over to the fire pit where they spent their evenings.
“Have a seat.”
“Dad, I know…”
“Just… just be quiet for a second, okay?”
David ducked into the tent he shared with Lincoln and returned with a large unlabeled bottle of amber liquid and two metal cups. He poured a splash into each cup and passed one over.
Guy sniffed at the contents and recoiled in disgust. It was alcohol but smelled more like aircraft-quality paint stripper than something drinkable.
“The best whiskey on Galileo,” David said holding his cup into the air.
Guy watched him, uncertain as to the trap being set.
“We’re on a new world, Guy,” David said. “We can be who we want to be and do what we want. No one’s around to tell us we can’t. Not on our land.”
Guy paused to wipe the sweat from his forehead that kept rolling into his eyes and breathed deep. The white sun was at its apex and beating down in full force. It was amplified by the adobe roofing tiles he was laying, giving him a double dose of heat. He was already shirtless, his chest muscled and dark from the months of hard work on the ranch. He considered removing his pants, but decided against it for fear of burning himself in sensitive places against the roof tiles he was placing and caulking.
The bucket of water he brought up to drink had evaporated to a few drops. He looked for Lincoln to fetch him a new one when, in the distance, he saw a glint on the horizon.
Guy sat back on his haunches and shaded his eyes in the hope of seeing further. He swore he could make out three shapes bouncing across the empty plain, the far away mountains a painted backdrop. After a few minutes they grew larger and he could see were coming toward the homestead. Guy watched open-mouthed in wonder. Aside from the sonic boom of a ship entering the atmosphere or the rare flyover of a ship heading elsewhere, they were the first proof of other people on Darwin he had ever seen.
“Dad,” he called over his shoulder. “I think there are people coming.”
David stood, also shirtless and almost as lean as his son. Looking in the direction that Guy pointed, he squinted into the distancebut couldn’t see a thing. He removed his work gloves and dropped them next to the adobe kiln.
“I don’t see anything,” David said.
“They’re headed this way,” Guy said. “On horses.”
“Horses, huh,” David grunted. He glanced sideways at his hand-tilled field and smirked. “Come on down from there and let’s greet them.”
Guy stepped off the ladder, joining his father on the ground. He tucked his shirt into the waist of his jeans so it hung like a bar rag. Standing next to each other, they looked more like older and younger brothers than father and son.
“How many,” David asked. He glanced back at the kiln, remembering the tiles baking inside.
“Two for sure,” Guy said. “Maybe three. Could be four. I don’t know. They’re pretty far off and the glare was in my eyes.”
“Headed this way?”
“Looked like it.”
“Where’s your brother?”
“Don’t know,” said Guy. “Haven’t seen him.”
“Find him and tell him to stay inside,” David said. He turned back to the kiln, crossing under a line of pelts drying in the sun that Guy had taken from the Darwinian equivalent of rabbits. They had six legs each and, of course, tasted like chicken. Lincoln had dubbed them “sebbits”. David opened the door to observe his baking tile and glanced up at Guy. “Grab a couple of rifles. Just in case.”
Guy nodded and went into the cottage. It was cool compared to the blazing heat outside. He took a deep breath and smiled at the result of his labors. Lincoln was asleep on his cot and Guy roused him with a gentle shake.
“What, Guy,” Lincoln complained. He rubbed fists into his eyes.
“Dad wants you to stay inside for a while,” Guy said.
“I was asleep,” Lincoln mumbled. “I wasn’t going anywhere.”
“I know. But we’ve got people riding up and Dad wants to make sure you’re safe. Okay?”
“Yeah,” said Lincoln, perking up at the news of company. “But…”
“Just stay inside,” Guy said. Lifting himself off the cot, he reached up to the high shelf for rifles. He loaded them with ammunition from a half empty box and put the box back up top.
“Guy,” Lincoln asked. His eyes were fixed on the guns.
“Everything’s fine,” Guy said. “Just stay here.”
By the time he reemerged into the sun, Guy could make out three people bobbing towards the ranch on horses as clear as if they were standing next to him. He carried the rifles to the well and pumped out a fresh bucket of water. He dipped his hands into the bucket and splashed his face. He pulled on his t-shirt and refilled the bucket for his father.
David accepted it with a grunt of thanks and washed-up also, but his eyes never left the people riding toward his property. Clean, he grabbed the shirt that hung off the handle of a nearby shovel and buttoned it up. Guy handed him a rifle and the two walked out to the fence to meet the riders. The men stopped ten feet away.
“Gentlemen,” David said. “It’s good to see people after all this time.”
“There’s a town going up not far from here,” said the center rider. His voice was harsh and cold but his accent was American. “A few thousand people are calling it home.”
“Nice to know,” David said. “What can I do for you?”
“This land belongs to Adrian Coupland,” said the center rider. “We’re here to clear people off it.”
David glanced at Guy and saw his son keeping a venomous eye on the strangers. The riders returned his look with an even lower temperature as their fingers tickled the butts of the pistols at their hips. Each had at least one semi-automatic and a few spare clips of ammunition on display.
“I’ve never heard of a Mister Coupland,” David said. “And we’ve been here the better part of six months.”
“Don’t matter,” the center rider said. “This is his land and you’re on it. Now, there’s that town not far from here. You’re welcome to it or you can just head on south to Little Melbourne on the ocean.”
“Gentlemen,” David said. He struggled to maintain a degree of civility but a tone of tired irritation hid just behind his words. “This land is rightfully ours. We fenced it. We developed it. ”
“I don’t think you’re hearing us,” said the right-hand rider.
Guy lifted the rifle to his shoulder. “I don’t think you’re hearing us,” he said.
No one said a word. The riders exchanged a glance as if trying to determine the threat the boy posed Then the center rider, still tickling his pistol, grinned.
“That your boy?”
“He is,” David said. His nervousness betrayed itself with the clipped words.
“You should have a talk with him,” the rider said. “People who point guns at strangers don’t tend to live long.”
David pulled his shoulders straight and glared at the visitor, eyes on fire. His face flushed a deep red and through gritted teeth he growled. “He’s just making a point. Now get the hell out of here before we have to emphasize it.”
The center rider grinned in a way that stretched his face into a frightening mask of bleached, dried skin and shook his head. “I don’t know where you think you are but the only law out here is force.”
“I don’t need a lecture from you.”
“Just say’n… Mister Coupland has plenty of force.”
David stoked the fire in the hearth to warm the house. He never ceased to be amazed how cold it was at night despite the hot days. Once satisfied that it was burning with the appropriate intensity, he straightened himself, knees popping and back cracking. He reached for his glass of whiskey and took a healthy sip. He turned to his sons, shaking his head.
“They’re going to be back,” he said. “They don’t strike me as the type to make idle threats.”
“So,” Guy said. “We’ll hold them off.”
“Will we? Can we?”
“Of course,” Guy insisted. “We’re not going to be forced off our land.”
“But they’re right, Guy,” David said. He sighed as he lowered himself into a canvas folding chair. “There isn’t any law to protect us. It’s us against them. Might apparently makes right, at least out here.”
“I thought we came out here to get away from laws,” Guy said. “So what? Now we’re just going to run back to Earth? No way. Not after all the work we’ve done.”
“It won’t mean anything if we’re dead, son,” his father said. “Maybe we should resettle in a town.”
“Do I get a vote,” Lincoln asked. He glanced with desperation from father to brother and back again.
“We’re not voting…”
“Yes,” Guy said.
“I think we should stay,” Lincoln said. “I like it here. I like our house.”
“There you go,” Guy said. He looked for his father to challenge the majority rule. “We’re staying.”
The riders came again a week later while David and Guy were on the roof patching the flaws in Guy’s tiling that became apparent during a rain the night before. As before, they appeared, bobbing on the horizon toward the Parker ranch. But instead of a small group, they appeared as a line, perhaps twenty across, maybe more.
“Here they come,” David said.
They retreated inside the house, fetched their guns from the shelf, and began loading them with ammunition. David found a second box of bullets and handed it to Guy.
“You take that window, I’ll guard the door,” he said. “Lincoln, I want you to stay low and away from any opening, you understand.”
Lincoln nodded. His eyes were wide with excitement and fear and his narrow shoulder shook.
“We should give him the shotgun,” said Guy.
“Your bother’s not going to fight,” David replied. “Now keep an eye out.”
The riders trotted onward at an easy pace, stopping fifty feet from the house at the barbed wire fence. The horses whinnied in the silence, only the buzz of the native insects providing any other sound in the dry heat. The saddles of the riders creaked as they adjusted themselves. At the front was their leader, the one from the first encounter.
“This is your warning,” the leader called. “You’re trespassing on Mister Coupland’s land and trespassers are dealt with harshly.”
“If you cross our fence,” David yelled back. “You’ll be the one trespassing!”
Both Guy and David had their rifles aimed through their openings and trained on targets. The leader of the gang pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it at the house. The others followed suit.
“This is your last chance,” the center rider yelled.
A crack ripped through the board covering the window, splinters flying. The eldest Parker pulled his trigger in nervous reaction and fired his weapon out the door, matching the noise. He ducked back inside to see Guy take aim–practiced from months of sebbit hunting. But Guy didn’t have a chance to shoot as gunfire rained against the adobe walls of the house.
“Did you shoot,” David asked. It was a small cry over the din.
Guy didn’t answer as he spilled his box of bullets onto the mud floor for easy access.
The gunfire subsided and voices began to shout. The beat of hoofs pounded across the dry land. David peeked out and saw the line of horses breaking to encircle the farm. He raised his weapon and fired at a rider, knocking him sideways off a black horse. Guy fired twice, missing once and hitting a painted horse in the throat with the second. It fell over and took its rider with it, pinning him under the writhing animal.
The gang returned fire and the Parker men again hid behind the cover of the thick mud walls, taking the available time to reload their weapons. The gunfire from the horsemen was intense but ineffective, showering them with little more than thin splinters. When the rain of bullets subsided, the Parkers replied–sometimes hitting an attacker and sometimes missing. Still, the gang showed no sign of surrender.
For half an hour the back and forth continued until one of the riders, dismounted from his horse, snuck from behind the house and attempted to storm through the front door. His gun fired all the way in, bullets shattering Lincoln’s clay pots and striking deep into the brick walls. David dropped his rifle and tackled the rider to the floor. The two wrestled over the rider’s pistol. It discharged, the round hitting a metal pan with a loud clang.
David Parker was no longer the fat office worker that had come to Darwin six months before but he was no fighter. The rider was younger, stronger, and capable of avoiding the sloppy punches David threw at him. He replied by pounding his fist into the older man’s face with alarming force and accuracy. Under the blows, David lost his grip on the pistol and the rider. Having regained his weapon, the rider shot David through the throat with a single deadly pull of the trigger. David grabbed at the wound and gurgled in panic as he began to drown on his own blood. Then he went limp as his life left him.
The rider leapt to his feet, disoriented from the fight, glancing around to regain his bearings. Before he could get a full appraisal of the situation, he was struck in the chest by a bullet and fell in a heap.
Guy kicked the rider’s legs off his father’s body and knelt to find a pulse. Tears began to well in the corners of his eyes. They perched on the edge but didn’t have a chance to fall before a new volley of weapons fire began outside.
Guy pulled his brother from under the cot and slammed him against a wall opposite the window. He jumped up and reached for the shotgun atop the high shelf and brought it down with a box of red buckshot shells. He cracked the double-barreled gun and loaded two rounds into the breeches. He pushed it into Lincoln’s chest.
“You have to fight,” Guy said. His voice was calm in a way that disturbed Lincoln more than what he’d seen. “If anyone comes within fifty feet, just point and shoot. This will take care of the rest.”
The gunfire ebbed again and Guy poked his head above the windowsill high enough to observe the riders, shouting at each other and pointing in various directions. He glanced back at his brother.
“Can you do it?”
“Uh huh,” Lincoln said. His head was bobbing but his eyes were wide and focused on their father’s body.
“Do it now, Lincoln,” Guy shouted. He ran for the door and took his father’s position as Lincoln pushed his gun out the window and accidentally fired both barrels. Guy grinned as he heard whoever Lincoln hit scream out. He leaned out the door, aimed at a rider and fired, missing the man but hitting the red horse under him in its wide flank. The horse reared up on its hind legs and dumped its rider, charging off in pain. He aimed at another man and pulled the trigger but it delivered nothing except an empty click.
Guy dropped his rifle and grabbed his father’s, leaning back out the door but finding no target to shoot at.
“Are you guys ready to give up,” Guy shouted as he pushed rounds into his father’s weapon. “We can do this all day!”
No response came for a minute and the only sound Guy could hear was his own heavy breathing. He pulled himself away from the wall and leaned out the door, his rifle leading the way as he surveyed what little he could see of their property. There was no movement except the odd horse, standing without a rider. Finally a voice replied from behind the house.
“All right, all right,” a voice cried. “We’re leaving.”
“Leave your guns and your horses,” Guy shouted. “Or, so help me god, I’m not above shooting you in the back!”
Of the perhaps twenty riders, five emerged from behind the house, their hands high in the air. All of them dropped hip or shoulder holsters onto the dirt.
“Okay,” Guy said. “Now get! Run!”
The five men hitched up their trousers and jogged off the Parker’s property, back the way they came. Guy waved Lincoln over to him and his brother crawled over, crouching against the wall.
“Stay and watch for anyone,” Guy said.
He inched out the door, waving his gun from right to left. First, he circled the house then climbed up onto the roof to watch the remnants of the gang trudge back toward the mountainous horizon. For half an hour he watched until he remembered Lincoln in the house below. He took the ladder two steps at a time and edged toward the door.
“Lincoln,” Guy said. “I’m coming in. Please, don’t shoot me.”
Guy watched the door with trepidation but found that Lincoln hadn’t held his post. He stood over their father and stared into the dead eyes, holding the shotgun limp at his side.
“Lincoln,” Guy said. He was at a loss for words. Pulling the gun away from him, Guy wrapped his arms around him and hugged him tight.
Lincoln’s eyes drifted up, wide and blank, unsure of what they saw.
“What do we do now,” Lincoln asked.
Guy rested his elbows on the fence of the new corral and the five horses contained within, grinning at a job well done. On the horizon to the north he saw a lone rider making his way across the prairie toward the ranch. The rider waved and Guy’s smile grew larger. Lincoln was returning.
As Lincoln and his horse meandered into the yard Guy grabbed the reins to guide them into the corral.
“They weren’t lying,” Lincoln said, leaping of the high animal. “There’s a town to the northeast. Maybe twenty miles from here. About five thousand people.”
“Nice,” Guy said. “Did you get what we needed?”
“Yeah,” Lincoln said. He opened the saddlebag to reveal boxes of fresh ammunition. “Apparently people send twelve year olds all the time. They didn’t even look at me twice.”
“How many pelts did you trade?”
“All of them,” Lincoln said. “Sebbits are pretty common.”
Guy lifted the bags off the horse and slung them over a shoulder. He took them inside and dumped their contents onto a cot. As Guy sorted it, Lincoln waddled up, still sore from the ride.
“So, what do we do now, Guy,” he asked.
“First, we fence in some more land,” Guy said. He stood and reached for the bottle of Galilean whiskey. He poured out two cups and handed one to Lincoln with a grin. “Then we do what Dad wanted us to. We live the way we want.”