Catch A Burning Star

By Gareth Lyn Powell

Overhead, the snow was settling onto the transparent sheeting of the city dome; and not just normal snow but great big gobs of it, like polystyrene packaging. Nick Malik stood outside Huczynski’s tattoo parlour for a few minutes, watching it turning dirty pink as it mixed with the windblown Martian dust. Against the low grey cloud, it looked like neon static. He'd spent his last few credits on a cup of hot coffee from a roadside stall. The coffee had taken away his fatigue and dulled the hunger that usually kept his stomach clenched around itself like a fist. For the first time in days, he felt relaxed and clear-headed, ready for his weekly confrontation with Huczynski. The clock icon overlaying the vision in his left eye read 18.45, local time. Around him, the streets of Roxport held their breath, caught in the twilight lull, suspended between the cold of late afternoon and the bitterness of early evening.

As he pushed open the tattoo parlour door, he caught sight of his pale reflection in the glass. His cheeks were sunken and he’d lost some muscle tone. The money Huczynski paid him was a lot by Fringe standards, but he still couldn’t afford to eat every day.

Standing behind the desk in the back room office, Huczynski was a short woman with hair and fingernails the rusty colour of dried blood. At her feet, a silver travel case sat like an attendant familiar.

‘You’re late.’

Malik shrugged. ‘I had to see Spicer, he had a delivery for me.’

‘I don’t care about that. Have you got the files?’

‘Most of them.’

‘Good.’ Huczynski seemed unusually agitated. She reached into a drawer and pulled out the uplink. ‘We don’t have much time.’

She pressed the uplink against the base of his skull, where it could interface with the symbiotech implants beneath the skin. Malik closed his eyes and downloaded the files he’d scanned earlier that afternoon from Pia’s computer terminal. The uplink compressed them and squirted them up to a Tanguy Corporation stealth satellite. The process took a little over three seconds and felt like a long blink.

When he reopened his eyes, Huczynski had already pocketed the uplink. She bent at the knees as she reached for the silver case.

‘Are you going somewhere?’ Malik asked, lighting a cigarette.

She straightened up, leaning slightly to compensate for the weight of the case.

‘We’re pulling out. I suggest you do the same.’

‘Have we been compromised?’

Huczynski nodded.

‘That money I gave you last time? Don’t try and buy anything with it.’

‘Why not?’ He blew grey smoke into the space between them.

‘We got ripped off. It’s all forged, and forged badly at that. Last night, Larsson Security picked up one of our contacts trying to spend some of it in a bar.’

‘Shit. Do you think he’ll talk?’

Huczynski’s smile was bleak. ‘Everyone talks, sooner or later.’

She hefted the case, as if about to leave, then paused. She looked like a woman struggling with her conscience.

‘That’s not the only reason we’re leaving, though.’ ‘There’s something else?’

She pushed her hair back in an agitated gesture. 'I shouldn't be telling you this,' she said. ‘But last night, Larsson troops attacked a Tanguy mining outpost over on Syria Planum and, in return, Tanguy destroyed several of their prospecting vehicles.’

Malik shrugged. Minor skirmishes between the multinationals were nothing new, certainly no cause for immediate concern.

‘The UN will step in if it looks like escalating.’

‘Don’t be so sure.’ Huczynski checked her wristwatch. ‘I got a warning about an hour ago. Tanguy have decoded one of the reports you stole from that lab assistant you’re sleeping with.’

‘Her name’s Pia.’

‘Whatever.’ Huczynski took a step toward the door and shifted the case from one hand to the other. ‘Seems they’re planning to test one of their biotech weapons against us.’

The smoke was bitter in Malik’s mouth. ‘Against Tanguy, you mean?’

‘Yeah. They’re going to hit Anaheim at midnight tonight.’

‘Christ!’ There were one hundred and fifty thousand people in Anaheim. ‘Is there anything we can we do?’

Huczynski leant toward him, her voice lowered. ‘At nine o’clock, one of Tanguy’s automated cargo shuttles, the Morningstar, will suffer a tragic malfunction during re-entry. It’ll hit Roxport at nine-oh-five. The lab facility will be destroyed before they can deploy the biotech.’

She straightened up and brushed an imaginary speck of dirt from her jacket with rust-coloured nails. ‘So I suggest you get out.’

Malik nodded, stunned. The Morningstar would hit the town like a meteorite; the lab and large areas of downtown would be instantly vaporised. With the dome punctured, the outlying districts would quickly suffocate. The only survivors would be the lucky handful who happened to find themselves in pressurised buildings or shelters at the moment of impact.

Absently, he dropped his cigarette to the carpeted floor and ground it out with his toe. Huczynski was watching him closely, and there was a human concern behind her eyes that he’d never seen before.

‘Are you okay?’

He nodded. ‘I will be.’

‘Good.’ She checked her watch again. ‘I shouldn't have told you any of that, but you deserve a chance to escape. You’ve got a little under two hours. Go home, grab what you need, and get to the station. But be careful; since the shooting started, Security have been on high alert.’

She opened the office door and he followed her through the darkened tattoo parlour.

Outside, taxis and rickshaws drifted along the street. Music came from the open doorways of the bars and cafes and cybersex joints. From the edge of town came the rumble of a departing spaceplane.

Roxport was a company town, constructed and operated by Larsson Industries as a mixture of scientific outpost and ore refinery. The streets were narrow and the buildings varied from the glass-fronted offices and fashionable ziggurat apartment blocks surrounding the decorative downtown plazas, to the huddled pressure bubbles and prefab shelters of the Fringe, the shantytown that clung lichen-like to the rock of the crater walls. The inhabitants of the Fringe were the flotsam of the colonisation effort: dealers, pimps and parasites; bankrupt settlers and failed pioneers; drifters; an underclass of the unemployed and the unemployable, trapped on the edge of Roxport because they couldn’t scrape together enough money for a ticket back to Earth.

It was where Huczynski had found him, two years ago.

They paused for a moment, their breath clouding in the night air, and he noticed that she hadn’t bothered to lock the tattoo parlour door.

‘I’ve got a train to catch,’ she said, waving to a cab that was idling outside a Sushi bar a few doors down.

Malik nodded and she squeezed his upper arm with an unexpected tenderness.

‘Good luck.’

‘Yeah. You too.’

The cab drew level and she climbed in. As it pulled away, its tyres made a soft tearing noise on the compacted regolith of the road.

Huczynski didn’t look back.


Pia Licari was asleep on the couch when he let himself into her apartment. The room was in semi-darkness, lit only by the muted softscreen on the wall and the bars of orange street lighting that shone through the slats of the window blind. Her long dark hair had partially escaped from the ponytail she wore during the day, and strands of it trailed across the cushion. Her face was pale and drawn and there were dark rings under her eyes. The softscreen showed scratchy newscast footage beamed back from one of the interstellar colonies. He turned it off and crossed to the refrigerator, where he took out a Bud. As he cracked the seal, he heard her stir.

‘Nick? Is that you?’

‘Hi.’ He took a swig.

She propped herself up on one elbow and rubbed her eyes with forefinger and thumb. ‘What time is it?’

‘About seven fifteen.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘Drink.’ He waggled the bottle. ‘Do you want one?’

She sat upright and clicked her fingers. The lights in the room came up slowly.

‘Did you see Spicer?’


‘Did he have it?’

Malik pulled a spray-hypo of Rhapsody from his jacket pocket.

‘You mean this?’

‘Yeah. Please don’t mess me around, I’ve had a shitty day.’

‘It’s going to get a whole lot shittier, real soon.’

‘What do you mean?’

He tossed her the hypo. ‘Take that first. I’ll tell you after.’

He had to look away as she injected herself. He heard the trigger click and her sharp intake of breath. When he looked back, she was rolling down her sleeve. Tiny circular bruises from previous injections covered the skin on her forearm like malignant yellow freckles.

Rhapsody was a military spin-off, a designer stimulant that smoothed-out cognitive function and improved spatial awareness while simultaneously suppressing negative emotions such as fear and guilt. Taken in large enough doses, it produced a zombie-like state of emotional calm and spiritual well-being. It was both highly illegal and highly addictive, and Malik had encouraged Pia’s dependence on it in the name of industrial espionage. Somewhere, hidden deep inside, he knew that part of him would carry the shame of that for the rest of his life.

He took a drink. The Bud was cold and fizzy but it might as well have been mineral water. The cheap coffee and cigarettes had destroyed his sense of taste. He waited until Pia collapsed back on the couch, and then moved over to the terminal in the corner.

Once a week, for the last two months, he’d been using her terminal to access files from the weapons lab and scan them into his neural symbiotech. Usually, he had to move carefully and remain inconspicuous in order to avoid setting off any alarms. It had been a slow and frustrating process. As a lab assistant, Pia didn’t have clearance for many of the more sensitive files, and so he’d been forced to sniff around the less restricted periphery. Using a mixture of guesswork and interpretative software, he’d been able to painstakingly piece together details of some of the bio-weapons being developed at the lab.

Tonight, however, all bets were off. He crashed straight into the main system. The countdown blinking in his left eye showed the seconds dwindling toward the moment of Roxport’s destruction. There was no longer any point in subtlety.

He used Pia’s ID to access the lab’s central core and activated the specialised search software he had installed. He knew that, on maximum scan, it would take the data miners in the software only seconds to trawl the entire core and extract the full specs for every weapon produced at the lab. Those seconds seemed to take an eternity, however, and he began to sweat. Alarms would be going off all over the system; his intrusion would be traced almost instantly.

As soon as he’d finished scanning the retrieved files into his implant, he turned back to Pia and kicked the couch by her feet.

‘C’mon. Get up.’

‘What’s the matter?’ She rubbed a bleary eye with the heel of one hand and squinted up at him.

‘We’re leaving.’


‘Because we’ve only got an hour and forty minutes to get out.’

She sat up, her face calm with the soothing smoothness of the Rhapsody.

‘What do you mean?’

‘A shuttle crash." He mimed an explosion with his hands. "Punctured dome. No survivors.’

She tilted her head to one side, assimilating the information. ‘How do you know?’

He pushed a hand back through his lank hair.

‘Just trust me, I do.’ He crossed to the wardrobe and stuffed a few random handfuls of her clothes into a holdall.

‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’

‘Yep. And you’re just stoned enough to deal with this in a rational manner.’

He threw the bag to her and blinked up a net display in his left eye. A few sub vocal commands took him to the train schedule. There was a departure for Anaheim due in thirty minutes. He booked two tickets and flagged an automatic request for a cab to pick them up from outside the apartment.

‘Is this something to do with the bio-weapon test tonight?’

Malik nodded. ‘Yeah. The people you’re targeting aren’t too keen to find out how effective it is.’

‘What people?’ Pia climbed stiffly to her feet.

Malik didn’t bother to reply, crossing instead to the window, where he looked through the blind into the street below. He didn’t know how quickly Larsson Security would react to his crashing around in the lab’s data core, but he hoped that he’d have time to get to the station before anyone came looking for him. He could feel his heart thumping in his chest.

With a shaky hand, he patted his jacket pocket, where he was carrying a second hypo of Rhapsody. Pia was calm at the moment but it paid to have a back up. If they were delayed, he didn’t want her suffering a crash detox and drawing attention until they were safely away.

‘Who do you work for?’


‘I’m serious, Nick.’

Malik shook his head and picked up the discarded hypo-spray. ‘What do you care, as long as I keep bringing you these?’

He tossed it to her and she caught it by reflex, then dropped it and stepped back, as if it had stung her.

‘That’s not fair.’ Her tone was flat, matter-of-fact, where he’d expected anger. He turned away so she wouldn’t see the guilt in his face.

‘It’s up to you,’ he said, roughly. ‘Stay here and die, or come with me. Now.’


They arrived at the station just in time to see a handcuffed Huczynski being pushed into the back of a Security rover. Armed troops blocked every exit, scanning anyone who tried to gain access to the platform. Malik hunched down and told the driver to keep going; if they knew who she was, they’d surely also be looking for him.

As they drove, the passing shop fronts and overhanging balconies, the plazas and markets, slid past the cab window like grainy newsreel footage, a backdrop for the early evening citizens hurrying along the cold pavements in their thick jackets, unaware of the disaster that awaited them. For a mad instant, he wanted to throw open the car door and warn them, give them a chance to escape, as Huczynski had done for him, but he knew he couldn’t.

It’s just numbers, he kept telling himself. Cold, hard numbers. Seventy five thousand people might die tonight in Roxport, but there were a hundred-fifty thousand in Anaheim that would live. He had to keep quiet, had to make sure that Larsson’s weapon labs had no forewarning.

Beside him, Pia hugged her holdall to her chest.

‘So how are we going to get out now?’ she asked.

He closed his eyes. How indeed? With the station closed, they were trapped.

‘Have you got any money?’ he asked, thinking that they could maybe bribe their way out.

Pia shook her head. ‘A few dollars, that’s all. I don’t get paid till the end of the week.’

Malik swore under his breath. All he had was the counterfeit cash Huczynski had warned him about. He saw a Security rover parked on a street corner and slid further down into his seat.

Suppose they did get out before the Morningstar hit, what then? If they made it to Anaheim, once Tanguy’s biotech division got their hands on Pia, he might never see her again. He couldn’t do that to her, not after everything he’d inflicted on her in the last few months, not after the Rhapsody.

In his left eye, the merciless countdown continued.


Rumour had it that Spicer had once been a UN marine and had acquired the fungal scarring on his face during a police action in Azerbaijan. He was reputed to have contacts at all levels of Roxport society and the word was he could fix you up with anything you needed. Malik found him at his usual table in the Irish bar on Park Street, drinking sapphire gin and smoking a sickly cigar.

‘So, you’re back already?’

Malik shrugged. ‘Looks that way.’

Spicer pushed himself back in his chair and reached into his leather waistcoat to scratch the red puckered skin around the symbiotech equipment jacks sunk into his chest.

‘What do you need? And don’t tell me more Rhapsody, ‘cause there’s no way that bitch of yours already finished the load I sold this afternoon.’

Malik shook his head. ‘I need something else.’

Spicer spread his tattooed hands. ‘Well then, I’m open for business.’

He tapped a button on his commcard and the jukebox hissed into life. It was some sort of industrial folk music, all fiddles and drum machines, played at a volume which guaranteed no one would be able to overhear their conversation.

Malik pulled up a chair and leant forward across the table, raising his voice over the noise.

‘Do you have access to the protocols for the Larsson personnel system?’

Spicer regarded him with hooded, calculating eyes as he took a mouthful of sweet smoke. The scarring on his face seemed to glow in the gloom, lit by the burning cigar.

‘Need a new identity, huh?’

Malik nodded. ‘For myself and one other.’


‘Yeah. I figure I owe her that much.’

Spicer smiled. ‘It’ll cost you.’

Malik reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a couple of counterfeit credit disks.

‘No problem.’

Spicer’s hand whipped out and swept the disks from the table in one smooth movement.

‘You need them right away?’

‘Yeah. Travel papers, too.’

Malik realised he was sweating. He swallowed hard and tried to relax but the smell of Spicer’s cigar on an empty stomach made him feel ill.

‘Travel papers?’ Spicer raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s going to be difficult. Maybe you haven’t heard, the station’s closed to all non-essential personnel. Some sort of Security operation.’

Malik slipped another couple of disks onto the cracked plastech tabletop.

‘I was hoping you might know of another way out.’

Spicer pocketed the money and fingered his commcard. It was a custom job, it’s smooth sides interrupted by the organic clumsiness of solder and the parasitic cluster of added components. He activated a virtual keyboard and tapped away for a few minutes. Malik sat back and tried to listen to the music. Only a lunatic could have thought that an Irish jig would sound good mixed with squalling electro-industrial fuzz guitar and a pounding drum machine. Spicer seemed to like it, though. His head was nodding along with the beat.

After a while, he looked up from the card with a nod of satisfaction.

‘There you go.’

Malik sat up straight. In the corner of his eye the readout stood at forty-five minutes and counting.

‘You’ve got us a way out?’

‘Yeah.’ Spicer’s smile was cold. ‘It’ll cost you extra.’

‘How much extra?’

‘Four hundred.’

Malik puffed his cheeks and exhaled, trying to look reluctant. He had over a thousand dollars worth of the fake disks in his pocket, but he didn’t want to seem too eager to pay up, or Spicer might start asking awkward questions.

‘Three fifty?’

‘What the hell are you talking about? The price is four hundred. One time offer.’

Malik slid across the extra disks and Spicer responded by passing over his commcard.

‘I’ve booked you onto a flight,’ he said.

‘What flight?’

‘Does it matter? It’s all there. Scan it and get lost.’


The false papers got them through the Security cordon and into the shuttle port, but Malik’s surge of relief was premature and short-lived. When they reached the departure lounge, they found that their flight had been delayed.

‘Some sort of security crisis,’ shrugged the desk clerk.

Malik felt the strength drain out of him. He led Pia over to a plastic bench, feeling numb. They’d tried every way out of the city that he could think of, and now there wasn’t time to look for an alternative. There were only twenty minutes left. They weren’t going to make it.

He fished the second hypo from his coat pocket and looked at it for a long moment. Finally, trying not to think, he set it for a half dose and pressed it to his thigh. He pulled the trigger and settled back on the bench, feeling resigned and slightly sick.


In the end, it was Pia that got him to his feet, that dragged him to the gate when their flight was called. Lost in his own thoughts, he hadn’t heard the announcement.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked, pulling back. The delayed shuttle was due to lift at approximately the same moment the Morningstar struck. It was too close. At least here, in the pressurised terminal building, they might stand a chance.

Through the detachment of the drug he looked at her, as if seeing her clearly for the first time. She was on the downward leg of the Rhapsody cycle and her eyes were raw slits. She was sweating heavily and he could see she was fighting to stay awake.

‘Returning a favour,’ she said, giving him a shove.


Beside him in the shuttle’s cabin, her head lolled against the safety straps of her couch. The final effort had exhausted her. When she woke, she’d be nauseous and depressed but by then they’d be in orbit and he could pass it off as a natural reaction to being weightless for the first time.

In his eye, the countdown reached three minutes. On the back of the seat in front of him, a softscreen showed an external view: the spaceplane had reached the end of the runway and was awaiting launch clearance. He checked his own straps for the hundredth time and realised that, even with the half dose of Rhapsody, his hands had begun to shake. Why was it taking so long? Surely they couldn’t fail now, not after coming so far?

He tried not to think about how many people were about to be killed; the numbers were too big, too abstract. The important thing was that he was getting Pia out. She was his redemption. Whatever he’d done to her in the past, he hadn’t left her there to die.

When they reached orbit, they’d join the other two hundred aspiring colonists in the sleep tanks of the Larsson starship, bound for Beta Hydri. It was a second chance at a new life, on a new world. He reached over and brushed an untidy strand of hair from her forehead. Perhaps it would be a chance for both of them to build a new life, together. Their relationship so far had been built on manipulation, addiction and lies but there’d always been a mutual attraction. Maybe they could salvage something from the wreckage, and maybe they could start again?

He glanced down at the names printed on the tags fixed to the breast pockets of their flight suits: Mr and Mrs Jack and Wanda Harvey.

‘I guess we’re married now,’ he said, pulling back his hand and using his thumb to wipe the drool from her cheek. ‘Who would’ve figured Spicer as a minister?’

Across the aisle, a woman with a complexion like fine marble smiled encouragingly at him.

‘Is this your first flight?’

He returned the smile over gritted teeth. Even though his surface thoughts were cool, his palms were sweating.

‘And last.’

The noise from the engines rose to a deafening shriek and he was pushed back in his seat as the plane roared down the runway and leapt up into the thin, cold air.

As they ascended, he kept his eyes on the softscreen on the back of the couch in front of him but, by the time the countdown in his eye reached zero, they were so high that the flash of the Morningstar’s impact was lost beneath the dark snow clouds that still shrouded the Martian night.

The End

Copyright © 2004 by Gareth Lyn Powell

Gareth Lyn Powell is a writer and prize-winning poet living in the South West of England. He has had work printed in a wide variety of publications, including London arts magazine TANK, and Welsh short fiction magazine Cambrensis. He co-edited and contributed to The Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1991, featuring Neil Gaiman, and wrote four episodes of a monthly science fiction serial for the UK Mars Society. His first collection of poetry, Neverland, was published in 1992, and he is currently searching for a publisher for his first novel.



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