by Dr. Noh
illustrated by indelicateink
“Fucking, fucking bag of moo and shit,” Sergei muttered. He eyed the cow, just out of reach. It rolled its eyes wildly back at him. A little more of the ledge it stood on crumbled.
“How did you even get there?”
The cow didn’t answer.
Above them, the cows and goats Sergei had already herded back up to solid, level ground milled and mooed. Below them, the Turnbolt Rift plunged straight down for nearly six miles. The cow skittered sideways, and its hooves slipped. It went over the edge. Sergei watched until it bounced off a wall, and then he looked away. He’d got all but one. Harp would be happy enough, and he’d pay up, and that was what mattered.
And another damn cow got to see the bottom of the Rift before Sergei did. He leaned out, over the edge, and saw it bounce again, far below. If you aimed just right, and were smaller than a cow, you might fall a solid mile before you hit something. Maybe even two.
He rubbed his thumb over the pitted surface of the carabiner that kept him roped in and safe. Maybe you’d make it all the way down. Some days, it sounded like a good shortcut.
He dragged himself back up, from ledge to ledge, until he could crawl back onto the high plain. He lay on his back and looked up at the solid blue sky. A goat licked his ear.
This had to stop. He was letting himself drift from day to day, and he was going nowhere.
Sergei settled on his usual stool at the end of the bar. Tilde leaned toward him, bent over far enough that he could see the .22 she kept stashed between her tits in case of emergencies.
“Drink?” she said.
“Sure, hon. When they–”
“–fix the Rift and water’s cheap as whiskey, I know.”
“I’ll rent you a beer. Hear you had a shit day.”
“I fucking hate cows.”
“Did you get any deeper?”
“No time to even try. Still stuck at that overhang ’bout ten thousand feet down anyway.”
She patted his shoulder, pulled him a beer, and then left him to marinate in dust and misery. Maybe it was time to get the fuck offworld. He’d been in this piss-poor town for two years, and he was no closer to his goal than the day he’d set foot in the Dries.
All he’d got for his trouble was dust bowls in his ears and cow shit on his boots so thick that he stood two inches higher for it. The only work he found was pulling stray livestock out of the upper reaches of the Rift, and even so it kept him too busy. It’d been nearly three weeks since he’d gone down to take a look at the latest obstacle in his climbing route.
He needed a beer, another beer, and at some point Harp would show his face and pay up for the five fucking cows and six goats Sergei had herded back onto his property, and then he’d get a real drink.
It was, as so many people had warned him, no way to live. Fucking Rift. Fucking Dr. C. Turnbolt, who’d promised a whole new method of terraforming, and instead screwed over the planet, created the Rift, and created Sergei’s unfortunate obsession at the same time.
So he’d go home. He’d give up and go home and never have to set eyes on another cow and–
The screen door creaked open. A stranger stepped in on a shaft of grey dusk-light and swirling dust.
Everything stopped, and Sergei was thrown back to his own first entry into this place, the blank stares, the silence. The stranger crossed the room in five paces, slung his bag onto the stool next to Sergei, and ordered a double whiskey, neat. That was him sorted, then.
People went back to their pick-up games of poker and asteroids. Sergei looked the stranger over. Average height, well muscled, packing on both thighs as well as something big sticking out of his bag – Saiga-12 maybe. Hard to tell just from the butt end. He fit in better than Sergei had on his first day here. Sergei hadn’t thought he’d need a gun. This was one of the civilized worlds, after all.
He might be a native, but he didn’t look it. Hair too long, eyes and hands too quick and clean. Sergei could see the faded blue lines of a tattoo just visible under his shirt collar, and it looked more complicated than the skulls or horns or cracked-hardpan hearts you got around here.
Sergei waved Tilde over. “Hey, you wanna rent him a beer too? On me. Come on, Harp’s gonna be in any time.”
“Harp could be eat up by rollies or down the Rift or having himself a goddamn cardiac incident right now,” Tilde said. “You wait, Serg, you just wait.”
As it turned out, he didn’t have to. The stranger knocked back his whiskey and talked briefly to Tilde, who delivered to Sergei a whiskey of his own. Sergei nodded in thanks as the stranger slid onto the stool beside him.
He looked pale. Not just no-sun pale, or naturally pale, but ill maybe. Too long inside, light shadows under his eyes. What kind of doctor sent a man here for a rest cure? Oh, what the hell. It didn’t much matter; Tilde had his prints and she’d run them as soon as he was out of sight. Probably with the whole bar looking over her shoulder. Memorial was a town full of nosey, bored fucks.
“Constance,” the stranger said, and stuck out his hand.
“Sergei. Nice to meet you, Connie.”
“Likewise, I’m sure, Sarah.”
Sergei grinned, but Constance’s expression stayed flat.
“Tell me, this place rents rooms, doesn’t it?” Constance said.
“And how many other lifeforms would I be sharing this hypothetical room with?”
“Low biomass. I rent one myself, and I don’t wake up bit more than once or twice a week. Ain’t been fatal yet neither.”
Constance propped his chin on his fist and leaned into Sergei’s space. “Maybe that’s just your room.”
“Maybe you oughta check it, see for yourself.”
“Maybe you should finish your drink.”
Sergei did, and licked the rim of the glass. Constance stood and shouldered his bag. Sergei stood as well.
“Really?” he couldn’t help asking.
Constance scanned the room. “I want someone, and you don’t have any serious competition.”
“Sure, if you like guys with all their own teeth.”
“I consider it a minimum requirement.”
“Then I’m your man. Hey, Tilde, shake down Harp for me when he comes in, yeah?”
She gave him a nod and a sketched salute. Sergei led Constance up to his room. The stairs were creaky polyboard, heavily bowed in the middle. Constance kept to the edges and didn’t touch the walls.
Sergei’s room was small, clean by virtue of not owning much of anything except climbing gear, and mostly filled by a single bed, side table, and dresser. The floor was bare, extruded foam, hardened by sun and heat to the consistency of granite.
“Nice,” Constance said. He dumped his stuff on the floor and started to strip. He was methodical about it rather than seductive, but Sergei was getting hard for him anyway. Boots off, coat off, and he was wearing a shoulder rig too, higher caliber than the matching heat strapped to his thighs.
“You’re prepared,” Sergei said.
“For all eventualities, believe me.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’ve heard so much about the natural reticence of the denizens of the Dries.”
“One, not from here. Two, that’s bullshit. I guarantee about twenty people will ask you the same tomorrow.”
“Twenty people live in this…place?”
Sergei ignored that and reissued his question with two raised eyebrows.
Constance dropped his assorted weaponry in a pile on the floor, and his pants followed. “Maybe after we fuck.”
He was up for it. Good thick cock, half hard and getting thicker as he stroked it root to tip.
“Fuck, okay,” Sergei muttered. He sat on the edge of the bed and curled his fingers in a come-here gesture. His mouth was watering. His choices in Memorial were limited to four guys: two over sixty, one only sixteen, and one just a bastard. Usually he saved it all up for his trips to the city. The last one had been three months ago.
Constance slid his cockhead over Sergei’s lips, and Sergei groaned and shut his eyes. He let his mouth hang open, and Constance pushed the head against his tongue, rubbing it in so Sergei caught the taste of it all the way back into his throat when he breathed in. Sergei dug his fingers in to Constance’s hips and hung on while Constance pushed deeper with short, teasing strokes.
Sergei’s cock rubbed hard against his zipper every time he shifted on the bed, and it jerked painfully when Constance’s smooth hands came up to cup his face and hold him still. Constance pushed in farther this time, dick wet along Sergei’s tongue, right to the back of his throat.
Constance tightened his grip and breathed out slow. “Yeah. Thought you’d be good at this.”
Sergei had no witty comebacks and a full mouth besides. He sucked hard instead until Constance hissed and rocked forward onto his toes. Sergei let him slide deeper for a moment and then pushed his hips back inch. Forward again. Constance got the idea and started rocking. His thumbs pressed into the hollows of Sergei’s cheeks, and his nails sunk in behind Sergei’s ears.
A trickle of saliva escaped from the corner of Sergei’s mouth. Constance was moving faster, getting nearly down Sergei’s throat with each thrust. Sergei could feel the bunch and knot of his muscles as his ass flexed and imagined shoving into his body the way Constance was shoving into his mouth.
Constance bent low over him and then arched back, head tipped until his hair brushed Sergei’s hands. He came in a hot rush, and Sergei swallowed it down, cock throbbing.
They swayed briefly, and Sergei pulled him down onto the bed. To his surprise, Constance settled meltingly close against his side and tipped his head up for a kiss. Sergei obliged him and watched him blink slowly afterward, eyes soft, smile hazy.
Sergei smiled in return, amused. “You’re pretty easy.”
He kissed Sergei’s neck, and Sergei smoothed a hand over the tattoo that covered his back. It was lines and dots, mostly, like a star chart, though not one Sergei could identify offhand. Although–
He touched a dot and traced the lines radiating out from it with his forefinger. “Is this us? Looks like us, with Alpha Sevron and Gamma Sevron on either side. And that’s Carson’s Blue up over here. And that binary system way over here. It’s got to be us.”
Constance nodded fractionally, and the muscles along his spine tensed. “Very good. I didn’t think anyone here would be up to reading that.”
“My mom piloted one of the big interstellars before she retired. I grew up looking at maps like this.”
“You were a ship brat?”
“Fuck you, man,” Sergei said, without heat. “The dust ain’t all that ground in. So why you got us on your skin?”
There was a pause. “It’s a reminder,” Constance said. “A reminder to come back.”
“You are from here then? I wouldn’t have thought.”
“No, I wasn’t born here. But you could say this place has had more influence on my life than most.”
“This place? Really?”
Constance laughed, a surprisingly free sound. “What about you? Something with a fair amount of mass seems to be keeping you in orbit here.”
Sergei shrugged, faintly embarrassed as always to explain his obsession once again. “It’s the Turnbolt Rift. I want to see the bottom.”
Constance twisted to look up at him. “And? Any progress?”
“Stuck at an overhang.”
“Loose stuff underneath? Shale? Limestone?”
“You know climbing?”
“I know some.”
“Yeah, shale. And under that…” He stopped. He hadn’t told anyone this yet. It was his secret. He’d hung down there sometimes for as much as an hour, just staring. It was a beautiful sight, especially when the sun slanted just right and lit up the facets like stars.
“A band of crystal,” Constance said.
Sergei gaped. “How–”
The door splintered around the lock and flew inwards to hit the wall. Harp and one of his hands stood in the doorway, rifle and shotgun pointed squarely in Sergei’s direction.
Sergei raised his hands carefully. “What? I got the cows back. They’re in your damn pasture, did you even check?”
“This ain’t about cows, Sergei. You move right away from that son of a bitch.”
“What? Why? What the hell, Harp?”
Sergei did, but only because he was leaning on Constance, and Constance suddenly wasn’t there anymore. There were three shots in quick succession. At the end of it, there was a load of buckshot buried in the floor, a broken mirror, and Harp’s body lying on the floor with a red hole in his forehead.
Constance held one of his pistols, still aimed at where Harp’s head used to be, when Harp was upright. And alive. Harp’s man was gone. The room smelled of gunpowder.
Sergei swallowed. His own gun was still strapped to his hip, and his fingers were creeping toward it of their own accord.
Constance pulled on his pants and strapped on his thigh holsters. He was pulling on his shoulder rig when Tilde appeared in the door, grim and pale.
“Sergei,” she said.
“You here to tell me what in the hundred worlds is happening?”
“I ran his prints.”
“I figured that much, woman! Is he a serial killer? Revenue agent? What? What did it kick up about him that almost just got me dead?”
Sergei knew. The certainty settled in his mind like stones dropping to the bottom of a pond, or cows to the bottom of the Rift. He looked at Constance, who nodded.
“Dr. Constance Turnbolt. Pleased to meet you.”
“I guess if the C in my name stood for Constance I’d keep it pretty quiet too. This why you hooked up with me? Didn’t want to show your ident card to get a room?”
“I was mainly using you for sex, promise,” Constance said, straight-faced.
Tilde rolled her eyes. “You want to get out of here before I plug you myself, Doc. Serg, you might think about making yourself scarce for a week or so too.”
The amusement faded from Constance’s eyes. “They’d honestly kill me for this? That man wasn’t just a fluke? I didn’t expect a warm welcome, but I hadn’t planned on a lynching either.”
Tilde stared at him. “You split the continent in half and polluted the entire water table on a planet that weren’t exactly swimming in it to start. You want us to throw you a goddamn party? Be glad I ain’t a killing sort of woman and get the hell out of my bar.”
The creak and pound of feet on warped polyboard drifted up the stairs. Tilde glanced behind her. “Shit. Hurry,” she said, and fired her .22 at the ceiling.
Sergei grabbed Constance’s bag and tossed it through the window.
“What the hell was that for?” Tilde said.
“Realism? Fuck, I don’t know,” Sergei said, and pulled up the sash. He slung on his overcoat and gestured to Constance, who glanced out and then dropped lightly on to the roof of the stables.
“Thanks,” Sergei said to Tilde.
“Glass costs money, you dick. You’re paying for that when you get back.”
He grinned at her and followed Constance out the window.
In the stable, he scooped up his climbing gear and maneuvered Harp’s ATV out of its corner. Constance got on behind him, still-bare chest pressed to his back, bag slung over his shoulder. They rolled out in the direction of the Rift with no discussion.
The stars hung over them, bright and crisp. Sergei tied a bandana over his mouth and nose to keep the dust out and passed one back to Constance. Halfway there, he stopped and killed the engine.
“Are we doing this?” he said. “Are we going the right way? Should I be heading for July or Plantation, or one of the spaceports?”
“I’m going to the Rift,” Constance said. “It’s what I came here for. I need to see if– If there’s anything I can do.”
“I thought you were in prison.”
“Ten year sentence.” Constance swept his hair away from the side of his neck to reveal a small, metal disk with a blinking light. “Tracker. I’m out on parole. I told them I could fix it.”
“Don’t know. There should still be remnants of the deployment mine at the bottom. The shaft was drilled near here, I have the coordinates. I need to see it.”
Sergei nodded, and they drove on.
He pulled up by the edge of the Rift. The reverberations from the engine noise died away until it seemed impossible that the silence welling out of the Rift had ever been broken by anything man made.
“How were you planning to get down there? You know there’s no mapped climbing route, right?”
Constance walked over to the edge and looked down into the dark. “I thought there’d be some nut trying to do a descent,” he said.
“That’s me. Some nut. But I’m only two miles down, like I said. Past that – well, I can get past that, but there’s no guarantee we’d get back. The way crystal can fracture–”
“And I don’t even know what kind of crystal it is. There’s no way to predict–”
Constance wrapped his arms around himself. Sergei came to stand behind him and stroked one hand down his spine.
“Did you get the tattoo done in prison?”
Constance nodded. “They put me on Reston. There’s some good artists there.”
Constance’s skin was cold, and it prickled into goosebumps under Sergei’s hands. Sergei wrapped his arms and part of his coat around him. The second moon was rising, a pale shell pink disk over the far horizon.
“If we make it to the bottom, if I find the deployment mine, if I convince them I can do something to repair the damage here–” Constance took a breath and let it out slowly. “They will retrieve us. Somehow. It would be a massive PR coup for the current administration, to fix what their predecessors fucked up.”
“If you can’t–”
“Pretty excellent chance we’ll die, yeah.”
“Right. We’ll start at dawn.”
By the time they’d reached the overhang, sunlight was just starting to fall past the lip of Rift. They lay on their stomachs and looked over the edge.
“What do you call it?” Constance said.
“This.” He slapped the rock of the overhang hard with his open hand. “Come on, you’ve been stuck on it for three months, you said. It’s clearly a major feature of the route. You must’ve named it.”
“Did you call it Sergei’s Shelf or something?”
Sergei sighed and looked down into the void. You couldn’t see the bottom, even from here, two miles down.
“Point of No Return,” he said.
There was a pause.
“Who’s going first?” Constance said.
“Rock, paper, scissors?”
Constance chose rock and crushed Sergei’s scissors. “It’ll be good,” he said. “Fresh pair of eyes.”
It didn’t take long for Constance to let himself down. He hung, silent, for five solid minutes until Sergei finally called down to him.
“Worth the trip, right?”
More silence. Sergei hadn’t named the sparkling band of crystal that started just beneath the layer of shale. He’d tried, but nothing seemed to fit.
“Yeah,” Constance said. And then more steadily. “Sure. I predicted this. It’s a good sign. I see a solid patch, think I can free-climb to it.”
“Are you fucking nuts?”
“Oh, right then. Go ahead. No, you dumb fuck!”
“I’m doing it.”
Sergei scooted over the edge and let himself down just in time to see Constance swing in to hug the wall, unclip from his rope, and scramble sideways across the crumbling rock face.
Sergei could see the patch he was aiming for. It did look solid enough to hammer an anchor into. It would also mean leaving two ropes behind, and, assuming they made it down and then back up this far, free-climbing up to the ropes and jumping for them. And then falling painfully to their deaths. Which was why Sergei had dismissed it out of hand on previous climbs.
But Constance was there already, hammering away. “You ready?” he called to Sergei.
“Don’t you get it? There’s no way back after this!”
Constance waved a hand at the overhang. “So you gave it a good name! Come on, you’ve been waiting years for this! Do you want to see the bottom or do you want to go back up and rescue cows?”
Sergei swayed gently on the end of his rope. This was where he’d been for months, in his head. Right here, trying to work up the nerve to do what Constance had done without a second thought. What exactly did he have to lose?
Go on, go back, or go home. Sergei swung in, got a hand-hold, toed into two worryingly soft patches in the wall, and unclipped his rope.