Ballad of Jeremy Diggitt

“You sure that’s all you’ll need? I know you’re good for it. You can pay me back whenever you . . . “Ethel said, her head cocked.

Milla interrupted her friend. “Thanks, Eth, but you have your own troubles. I can’t owe anyone, especially now.”

“I can write anything I want off as a loss. Damaged stock. Those crickets can be ornery.”

Milla smiled and patted her daughter on the head.

“You hear this, Gin-Gin? People don’t do this for each other in a big city like Burroughsville. That’s why we moved out here.”

Ginny nodded under her mother’s hand. She was looking at the hovertruck that had pulled up outside.

The airlock door slid open and four men in dusty Mars suits stepped through, their helmets still inflated and locked in place.

“Well, you can’t stop me from gifting Ginny something.”

Milla inhaled sharply to complain, then stopped. Ethel handed the little girl a cupcake with pink frosting.

“There’s a cricket-free guarantee on that one,” Ethel said, winking.

Ginny smiled and took the treat.

“You seen any rogue cargo drones around here?” one of the men said over his external phones. Too loud. Too intentional. Aggressive.

A chill ran through Milla.

“Let’s get home,” Milla said to her daughter, nudging her forward.

One of the men stepped into her path. A chrome-faced visor stared down at her.

“We lost one somewhere near-about your place, Mrs. Diggitt.”


The man in the grey exosuit climbed out of the exterior airlock accompanied by a blast of frost. An empty Kwikmeel bar wrapper flew out into the orange-tinted dark, flitting up. Mars loomed heavy in the sky, threatening to suck everything into its mass. The numbers claimed that Phobos had just enough gravity to prevent falling off it’s surface, but cold physics were no comfort, standing there, looking at the God of War hovering overhead. The assassin kept his visor down, eyeing hand-grabs and footholds. Reg’s corpse swelled up a half-size in the zero pressure, snugging tight in the door frame.

The assassin yanked hard. Again he yanked, with only centimeters gained, then planted his feet on either side of the door and pulled hard. Reg was plucked free. The assassin scrabbled for a hand hold, then reached out and grabbed Reg’s foot before he floated away. Blood and bile had already begun to boil out of Reg’s mouth, freezing into globby strands. The assassin paused to watch as a meter-long stalk of ruby coral crawled out from Reg’s open mouth. Reg wobbled to a standstill, his head propped back at an awkward angle by the ruddy stalk.

The assassin pulled his way to the side of the building, careful not to lose grip. Nestled in the shadows was a coffin-shaped box. He pulled it out into the open where Reg waited, coral branch now rooted into the ground.

Digging through one of the many pouches on the buckymesh box, the assassin pulled out a hand-held rocket and strapped it to Reg’s swollen foot. Blue veins cracked beneath the corpse’s skin like old porcelain.

Aiming the rocket up at the Mars-filled airless sky, the assassin pushed a button and stood back. The rocket yanked dead Reg up like a grisly balloon.

The assassin looped his arms and legs through straps on the box, wearing it like an oversized backpack. A kick, and the assassin pushed off the ground. With a puff of nitrogen, wings unfurled, stretching out like a giant bat. The craft swooped upward into Mars’s atmosphere.


“I’m sorry, Mr. Diggitt, the satellite feed over the Burroughsville region has been black for the last two hours. We have no way to confirm your claims.”

Sounding more like a growl, Diggitt grunted a yes. On screen, the deputy stared back at him, looking more amused than concerned.

“I have evidence right here.”

Diggitt held up the dented sliver of metal to the screen.

“These marks here say it was a Turtle drone that trashed my crops. I’m sure you can find out who is operating them in my area, can’t you?”

The deputy leaned back in his chair and rolled his neck on his shoulders. Diggitt dropped the shard onto the table with a clank.

“Tell you what, Diggitt, you don’t tell me how to do my job, and I won’t tell you how to do yours.”

Diggitt leaned in to the screen and yelled, “I don’t HAVE a job anymore because someone smashed my crops, and it’s your job to find out who did it! How about you start by asking Moses Clayburn where his fucking Turtles have been for the last two hours!”

The deputy looked off-screen and hissed a hot breath out from his nose.

“I think we’ve got all we need from you, Mr. Diggitt. We’ll be in touch if we find anything.”

The screen blinked back to the menu.

Diggitt cursed and glared at the Red Island One Communications logo in the corner of the screen. He picked up the metal shard and tapped it on the table. The logo gleamed in an animated loop, Mars rotating in the ‘O’ of the word ‘One’. Diggitt bit the inside of his lip.

“This should be interesting . . . ”

Diggitt tapped open a line to Red Island One.

Anne, the voice of the AI interface asked which department he wanted.

“Emergency . . . Gretchen Anderson,” Diggitt said.

“One moment, Mr. Diggitt,” said Anne.

Gretchen’s face popped up on screen and a gurgle churned in his guts. Even after all these years, she was still pretty. In microgravity, faces swelled just enough——age lines disappeared. Too practical to care about her looks, she had cut her hair short. Too busy to acknowledge the emergency blink, her head dropped off screen and came back in profile, not looking at who was calling.

“Sorry, we’ve had some problems up here today, what can I do for you?”

She leaned out of frame again, then returned. Her eyes twitched wide when she saw Jeremy’s face.

“Jer. It’s been a while. I didn’t expect to hear from you again.”

“Sorry, Gretchen. It just got too . . . complicated.”

“I know. You said. For me, too.” She looked off screen for a moment, took a breath. “I’ve been busy, anyway. We’re starting to cover Tharsis next month. Thirty new satellites.”

Hearing the words coming out of her own mouth, realizing how pathetic she sounded, her eyebrows knitted.

“You’re doing well for yourself,” Jeremy said, forcing a smile. “Good to hear.”


Gretchen shook her head and flicked her eyes above the monitor. A bleeping alarm pulled her away.

“Pause?” she said, her hand already reaching out to switch him off.


The screen flipped back to the Red Island One logo. Jeremy rubbed his face and coughed.

“What did you expect? Of course she’s angry,” he muttered.

Nine years ago, they had been in the same Mars habitation training classes, learning emergency routines and maintenance of air scrubbers, how to drill for water, how to signal satellites for help. They had gotten close. They were talking about a future together when he met Milla, and Gretchen took the job on Phobos. Diggitt knew he had hurt her, but that was a long time ago.

Her face returned to the screen.

“Sorry. You would not believe the sol I’m having. One of our people went missing.”

“Missing? Not many places to hide up there.”

“Exactly. No ships leaving either, but no trace of one of our techs.”

Her eyes focused on a spot somewhere off screen for a moment, grasping at a theory. She blinked the thought away.

“What’s going on with you?” she said.

“What happened to your satellites over B-ville?” Diggitt said, something knotting in his throat.

Gretchen laughed and shook her head. “Business then. Okay. Well, Mister Diggitt, our tech working on that problem is the one who disappeared about an hour ago. Red Island One ain’t that big, but he is——size of a full grown bacon tree, and we can’t find a trace of him anywhere. Why? . . . and how did you know we’re black?”

“Someone trashed my crops, Gretch. I think it was another steam farmer, name of Moses Clayburn. He’s been trying to get me to sell for months. I think he got someone to hack into one of his drones so it would look like an accident. Had to be someone with satellite access.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“I’m pretty sure Clayburn paid off the local enforcers. They were the ones giving me static. Told me about B-ville going black.”

Gretchen tapped her fingers on her workstation.

“Son of a bitch. Okay. I’ll see what I can find out.”

“Thanks. I owe you one.”

“You sure do, Germy.”

She smirked and blinked off.

Diggitt leaned back in his chair. Guilt pulled through him like a rusty cable. He had clearly seen the pain in Gretchen’s eyes. She had hoped that they would end up together, even after his daughter was born. Milla never found out about that last time when Gretchen visited Burroughsville. He looked at the clock. More than an hour had passed since he had talked to his wife. It never took her longer than an hour to get back from the farm. He called up her blinkstick.


Moses Clayburn was proud of his chair. His big, overstuffed  wood-and-upholstery throne smelled like ancient cigarettes and cedar. Visitors to his office would quickly understand Clayburn’s status when they saw the shiny black wooden chairs surrounding his huge oak desk. Earth items, especially the heavy ones, were the most expensive to ship to Mars.

He pulled out the top drawer just to feel the wood slide apart. Something heavy rattled inside, and the musty scent of Earth curled up his nose. Moses pinched back a sneeze and closed the drawer slowly, relishing the finely crafted solidity of the thing. It thumped shut just as his com bleated.

“Milla Diggett here to see you,” said the synthetic voice of the AI named Anne.

Milla walked in, carrying Ginny in her arms. She was flanked by the four men in Mars suits, their helmets deflated on their backs.

“Kidnapping now, Clayburn?” Milla barked.

Moses scrunched his face like he had smelled something foul. “Mrs. Diggett, such a strong word, kidnapping. You were escorted.” He rose and gestured to one of the polished black wooden chairs at the edges of the room. One of his men pulled it closer.

“I wanted you to be here if your hot-headed husband got the wrong idea.”

“What wrong idea would he get? The one where you had our crops smashed? Hell, everyone knows you’ve been trying to push us off our land. How would he get the wrong idea? How would anyone?”

Clayburn smeared his face into mock surprise. He long-grunted and raised his finger.

“Seyopont policy is very clear on . . . please sit.” Again, he gestured to the chair.

“I’ll stand.”

“Seyopont policy states that if the registered person or persons assigned to a parcel of land are unable to produce sufficient cubic meters of water vapor per month . . . I forget the exact numbers here, but that’s hardly important at this juncture . . . unless you meet the quota, the land may be claimed by another interested party. It’s all in your contract.”

Milla glared at Moses. He nodded his head and continued his thought.

“I heard that your crops had been . . . compromised. And I put in a bid to——”


“You’re upset. That is entirely understandable after such a loss. I hear the Burroughsville retraining center is quite nice, and I’m certain that wearing orange will bring out those beautiful green eyes of yours.” He smirked. “Please. Sit.”

“How can you live with yourself?” she growled.


Two men jammed down on her shoulders. Ginny whimpered and held tight to her mother as the antique Earth chair creaked under their weight. Clayburn cleared his throat and composed himself.

“Now I have some representatives of Ares Aqua on the way, and we need your husband present to blink-sign the documents. I figure once he realizes you’re late, we can——”

Milla’s blinkstick bleated.

“Ah!” Moses smiled to his men and raised his palm to her. “Perfect timing. Didn’t I say?”

The men chuckled.

Ginny clung to her mother’s neck as she blinked in to answer.

“Hi, hon . . . Yeah, I know, I’m . . . no. No, I’m not . . . Jeremy, listen to me. I’m at Moses Clayburn’s. He brought me here. He wants us to . . . No. He wants us to sign some documents.”

There was a long silence. Milla softly yes-grunted twice, then put her blinkstick away.

“He’s on his way.”


The assassin’s inflatable dropkite skirted the thin atmosphere, skimming the outer layers. Conducted through the straps, he heard the wings creak as they flexed into the white-hot reentry. The stats in his helmet were clean, though. Right on target.

The dropkite’s AI set the flight pattern into wide spirals, slowing its descent. A panorama of the lowlands scrolled across his visor—the crumpled expanse of Xanthe Chaos to the south, the water-etched Tiu Valley rolled by next, followed by a pop-up inviting him to the Pathfinder museum. The planetfall so far was drone-perfect, right by the numbers, but it was the beginning of storm season on Mars—gusts ripped sideways out of nowhere, tearing apart unsuspecting aircraft. If the drone overcompensated for one of those gusts, the flight could be over real quick.

The cratered flats of the Golden Plain curled under him as he circled north of Burroughsville, careful to avoid any incoming traffic to Casablanca Spaceport below. He scanned the sky. Nothing. The satellite must still be black——no permitted landings.

The target landing site to the east of B-ville slowly curved into view. The kite straightened out for the final descent. Swatting away a pop-up advertising the Viking Lander Museum, he switched to manual. The kite shimmied, but stayed on course.

A sideways gust gnawed on the right wing, dipping it low, pulling the nose right for the dirt. He threw the toggles back, making the coils scream in protest as they bent the wings hard, like a duck coming in for a pond landing. Slowing . . . pulling up. The nose tapped the bottom of the horizon line just as the deck knocked into him. The belly of the kite shrilled as it scraped against the regolith, scouring micro-tears into the diamond-hard fabric, heating up. The nose about to tuck, the kite was ready to flip. He pulled the brake, deflating the wings forward, slowing the craft. All his blood pulled into his face as he was slammed into the protective shell. The body of the kite bounced up, the deflated wings dragged behind, slowing it. Another bounce. Another, and the flopping mass of blackened buckymesh rolled to a stop.

He peeled himself out of the dropkite and tapped into the satellite feed. Still black. No evidence of his descent. Only two kilometers away from the target drop, he sent up an EM flare.


Alarms wailed. Clayburn checked his screen——the security cameras showed Diggitt’s rover speeding down Clayburn’s field of steam pylons, smashing the tops off of them with an extended crane, taking out the monitor units.

“Stop him!” Clayburn said, slamming his fist into the oak table top. The four men rushed toward the door.

“No, you stay here. Get your men on it,” Clayburn said, rubbing his hand.

The four men blinked into their systems and directed their men to shoot out the wheels if they had to, but to be careful not to pop Diggitt’s suit.

Outside, thirty men jumped onto hoverbikes and tore off to intercept the rover.

Milla was stroking her daughter’s head, whispering in her ear when Clayburn laughed.

“Your husband doesn’t have to be alive to sign the documents, mind you. I just need his eyes intact. We can’t have his suit blowing out.”

The chirp-squeal of a blaster echoed down the hallway.

Clayburn jumped. Milla gasped and petted her daughter’s hair.

“Mick, Go see what that was!” Clayburn coughed, pointing to the open door.

One of the men unsheathed his blaster. He stepped into the hallway. A blaster bolt hit him square in the chest. He jumped a meter into the air and fell to the floor, twitching.

The three other men spread out to either side of the door with their guns ready.

“Jeremy? Is that you?” Milla called, desperation cracking her voice.

“You both okay?” Diggitt called back.

“We’re fine,” she sighed, sharing a smile with Ginny.

“How many of them are in there, hon?”

The men looked at each other and Clayburn, who stood, dumbfounded. This wasn’t part of the plan. Clayburn scowled and stabbed his finger at the doorway, mouthing something urgently to his men.

“Three and Mr. Clayburn.”

“You shut up,” Clayburn finally said, now quivering his outstretched finger at Milla. He yelled into his com, “Get back here now. He’s outside my office!”

Diggitt’s heavy footfalls neared the door. The three remaining men gripped their weapons tight. Jeremy peeked into the room. His suit was dusty and red, his helmet resting on his back—the shoulder lights of his harness switched off. He held his finger up to his lips as Ginny smiled at him.

     Clayburn saw Diggett’s shadow fall against the door frame. Clayburn jabbed his finger again at the open door and glared at his men. The closest man moved. Ginnny’s eyes followed him. Reading his daughter’s face like a tracking device, Jeremy crouched and aimed.

Clayburn’s man turned into the hallway and got a crotch full of plasma. He shrieked, dropping his gun. He cracked his head onto the door frame, and spasmed on the floor, boot heels chattering on the tile, froth billowing from his mouth.

Diggitt picked up the fallen man’s blaster and ran down the hall away from the office.

“This is ridiculous! Shoot him already!” Clayburn barked.

The two remaining men yes-grunted and inched toward the door, guns ready. One gestured to the other in tactical sign language. A nod of acknowledgment from the other. Back-to-back, they lunged into the corridor.


One gestured to the other to follow him to the far end of the corridor.

“Don’t fall for that!” Clayburn yelled.

Milla raised an eyebrow to him.

“What’s wrong, Moses? Afraid he’s got the right idea about you after all?”

Clayburn sneered and opened his desk drawer. He pulled out an antique pistol and aimed at her.

“I told you to shut up.”

Three tightly bunched blaster shots echoed down the hallway. Ginny clenched her mother’s neck. Milla nodded and told her daughter to hush.

“Daddy’s okay.”

Clayburn loaded bullets from a box into the pistol as one set of footsteps clapped down the hall.

“Gator? . . . Markley? . . . answer me,” Clayburn said, sweat rolling down his cheek.

The footsteps stopped. Clayburn snapped the gun shut and aimed into the empty doorway. He pulled on the trigger, testing the pressure. No give. He pulled it back to his chest again to examine it.

“You messed with my crops, and you took my family, Clayburn,” Diggitt said from the hall.

Clayburn fiddled with his gun, clicking levers. When he looked up and aimed again, Diggitt was smiling in the doorway, blaster aimed at Clayburn’s face.

“Seyopont says guns like that are illegal, Moses. Tends to put holes in pressure walls. They find evidence you used one, you’ll be taken down for more than just wrecking my crops.”

Clayburn opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “I’m willing to take that chance. All I need from you is your eyes, Mr. Diggitt. This little beauty won’t boil them white, unlike that blaster of yours.”

“For the record, mine is set to stun. And for the record, I spent ten years in Guatemala, fighting in the Water Wars. I’m willing to chance that I’m a better shot with this blaster than you are with that old piece of crap you’re holding.”

Clayburn’s pistol shivered.

“So why don’t you drop it, Clayburn, and let me and my family go?”

Moses Clayburn hesitated. The muzzle of his gun dipped slightly, then raised again to center on Diggitt’s chest.

“I could have shot you just now, but I didn’t,” Diggitt said. “There are two ways this can go, Moses. One, you shoot me dead right here, and you get three hundred more pylons on your registry.”

Clayburn blinked sweat from his eyes.

“Two, you let me walk out of here with my wife and daughter, and I tell Red Island One to not send out this video I’m streaming to them right now. It’s up to you.”

Diggitt pointed to his harness cam. Clayburn’s aim wavered, then lowered. Diggitt held his gun straight.

“Ginny, come here, kiddo,” Diggitt said without taking his eyes off of Clayburn. Clayburn glowered at Diggitt from under his wiry eyebrows. Ginny ran to her father and hugged his waist. Jeremy patted her on the back.

“Why aren’t you wearing your density harness? You don’t want to get bird-boned, do you?”

“Sorry, Daddy.”

“Hon? Come on, hon. Let’s go home.”

Milla stood up. The chair creaked. Clayburn scowled. Milla Diggett backed out of the room, watching Clayburn. Her daughter smiled up at her. Jeremy Diggitt chanced a look over at his wife.

Clayburn raised his gun. Diggitt shot. Clayburn spun, throwing his gun against the wall.

“GAH!” Clayburn yelled, shaking his hand as it jerked in spasms. He clutched his arm.

Diggitt aimed his blaster at Clayburn’s face. “I could have ended you right then, Moses. That was your third chance. You won’t get a fourth.”

Clayburn glared. His com bleated. AI Anne said, “Sir, the Agent is here to see you.”


Diggitt pulled his wife and daughter down the halls of Clayburn’s complex to the rear loading dock.

“What are we doing?” Milla rasped.

“Clayburn’s men will be back any minute. Head through the airlock.”

“We don’t have suits,” Milla reminded him.

“I know, hon.”

“Your rover’s not coming back, is it?”

“No, hon.”

“Well how are we going to——”

Jeremy kissed his wife. Her lips tasted of salt and her breath held the acid tang of fear. He peeled away from her and pointed to the airlock door.

“Go. I’ll catch up on one of their bikes.”

“Where are you going?” she said.

“Clayburn’s men. Don’t want them holding us up. Now go.”

Ginny ran to Jeremy. He squatted down and she hugged him tight, the plush cat patting against his back.

“Go with mommy now, Ginger Snap.”

He smiled, straightened her hair with his palm, then kissed her on the forehead.

“I’ll be right behind you.”

Milla pulled her daughter away, and gave her husband one last glance. A dead mask stared back at her. She had seen that face before, when he had thoughts about the war. She forced a smile and ran to the airlock.

The outer door glowed green. Through the window, she saw the markings of their family car sealed into the dock.

“Daddy called the car for us?”

Milla opened the door.

“My clever man.”


Diggitt shadowed the wall as boots scuffled on the floor of the next room. The rest of Clayburn’s men were back. From the sound, there were ten or twelve of them. They found the two men Diggitt had shot, unconscious on the floor of the hallway. There were mutters of hushed conversations. Clayburn was giving them more orders over the com. Everything got quiet then.

Diggitt peeked into the room. A blast left a scorch on the far wall. Diggitt ran in place, making it sound like his footfalls were disappearing down the hall. The men piled into the hallway the chase him.

One. By. One. They fell. Diggitt popped each one that followed with a blast to the chest. Five. Six. Seven . . .

The bodies shivered on the tile, hiccupping and farting as their limbs and organs spasmed. They mopped the frothy spittle spewing from their mouths with their own faces and hair.

Inside the adjoining room, boots scraped the floor and weapons clicked. The twitching limbs in the hall ebbed to a standstill. Diggitt backed out down to the end of the hall, hid around the corner and waited for the men inside to move.


Milla checked the vehicle for damage. She reviewed the programming log showing that Jeremy had set the car to leave Buncha Farms and drive to Clayburn’s rear gantry. Somehow, he had gotten through Clayburn’s security codes. It was that woman from Red Island One. Milla suspected something had been going on between them, but she never thought he would bring her in on a family crisis.

She fought down her jealousy and felt her daughter beside her. Ginny was staring out the window, clutching her toy.

“Hey, it’ll be okay. Daddy will be fine,” Milla said, patting Ginny’s head.

Ginny nodded, then looked down at her cat for comfort.

“Nekochu, will daddy be okay?”

The AI box in the stuffed cat purred and said, “Your daddy is strong and careful, Ginny. He’ll do everything he can to make things right.”

“I know, but will he be okay?”

“Of course he will!” the blue cat giggled. Ginny hugged the doll.

“I told you to get going!” Jeremy said, making them both gasp.


Diggitt held his arm with his gun hand, scorch marks on his forearm.

“What happened?”

“Let’s get out of here,” he said, pulling a satchel of blasters into the back. “Clayburn’s men will be out for a while, but we gotta get to the house and grab what we need. I blinked my brother. We can stay with him until we clear this all up.”

Milla ran over to her husband and hugged him tight.

“I told you I’d find a way to catch up. You should have left.”

She kissed him. Hard. Pulling back, she grabbed and wriggled his ear.

“Ow,” he said, smiling.

“Baka,” she said, pushing a frown through her wet smile.

“Diggitt!” called a hard male voice from the hallway.

Jeremy turned cold, scowling as he pulled away.

“Let’s go now,” she whispered, clinging to him.

He shook his head and held up his hand to quiet her.

“One way or another, you’ll sign.” The voice didn’t belong to Clayburn.

“Who is that?” Milla said.

Diggitt shook his head and unholstered his gun. Milla put her hand over his gun hand and pulled his face to meet hers.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“They’d just follow us. Shoot out the car windows . . . ” Jeremy looked at his daughter and lowered his voice. “You have to get home, start packing. There will be nobody to bother us after this. We’ll start over. Maybe in Tharsis. The space lift is gonna start being built soon, and there will be more than enough jobs——.”

“Come out in three seconds, or I start shooting up your family, Diggitt.”

Milla took her hand off of his gun and nodded. Jeremy stepped onto the airlock ramp. At the end of the hallway, stood a man in a grey exosuit, dusty and blackened, like he had emerged from a pit of hell. His helmet was still inflated, shining back a tiny refection of Diggitt. A gauss gun——a dart-projecting magnetic pistol——was pointed at Diggitt’s chest.

“Whatever happens here, Clayburn gets your land. You did something stupid——you used your rover. It’s all recorded, Diggitt. You and your family are going orange whether you like it or——”

Diggitt fired and dropped to the floor. The assassin’s dart pealed over his head. He heard a pop behind him. The assassin convulsed to the ground.

From inside the car, a keening wail. Depressurization? Was the car popped? He jumped into the vehicle. Diggitt’s eyes flew wide. It was his wife that was making the noise. She was screaming.

Milla cradled little Ginny in the passenger seat. Tears streamed down her face as she shook the slack-faced child.

“Ginny! Ginny!”

The color pulled from his daughter’s face as the hole in her chest poured red onto the floor. Milla looked up at him with silvery eyes rimmed with red.


Diggitt turned away. Snapping open the release on his gun, he unlocked the inhibitor, revealing the red label underneath warning him that his weapon was now unsafe and illegal. He snapped it shut and marched over to the assassin. He fired twelve shots, shattering the faceplate, boiling the eyes white, scorching the face black, shattering the teeth. Green and yellow froth boiled out as the body spasmed from each shot.

“Jeremy!” yelled Milla.

He turned to face her. She was pointing and screaming his name, but the sound was drowned out by a concussive explosion.

Diggitt felt his the air punch out of his lungs. His chest burned red hot as he spun on his heels. Clayburn. Clayburn stood with a smoking antique pistol in his hand.

His vision going grey, Diggitt aimed and fired. Once. Twice. Three, four, five, six times. Clayburn bucked on floor, his face seizing up into mask of gasping terror, staring with egg-white eyes.

Diggitt fell. Milla rushed over and held him.

“No, no, no, no. Jeremy!”

Milla leaned over and tasted his last breath.


‘The Ballad of Jeremy Diggitt’ was a song sung in villages all across Mars that year. By Spring, and the end to the paralyzing dust storms, the song had spread throughout the Solar System, giving birth to Martian Blues.

His wife kissed his chest as he exhaled
his last breath.
Dusty red, dusty red.
One day we all pray the water will stay
and flow freely like Diggitt’s own blood.
Rusty dead, rusty dead.

Ballad of Jeremy Diggitt

Jeremy Diggitt pulled free a shard of crumpled metal from the Martian dust. He huffed out a disgusted sigh and surveyed his ruined crop field. Something had crushed every one of the 312 steam vents, leaving nothing but piles of tortured metal. Although wind had scoured away most of the evidence, traces of tracks remained in the red dust in too precise a pattern for a human driver to have made them. He scanned the grid of imprints and a match came back from the Mesh: a late model Turtle cargo transport drone——the same kind of vehicle that his neighbor Moses Clayburn owned.

“So that’s that,” Diggett said, tucking the tortured metal into his tool satchel.

Automated Cargo drones don’t aim for obstacles——and certainly not more than three hundred of them. Someone must have hacked the drone. Diggitt knew from his own rover that drone pilot programs are over-sensitive. Even after upgrading to the most forgiving terrain algorithms, his rover’s AI took almost twice as long to navigate to the next village, avoiding every potential hazard, including every rock larger than a boot.

A dust devil danced on the horizon. The vanishing tread marks were proof that intentional malice had been at work here. Moses Clayburn was the only one who had a motive——harassing Diggitt to sell his land. The field of Winchester terraformation pylons was the only thing keeping Diggitt’s family from going back to the zero-credit retraining centers. He had lived like that back on Earth, working minimum wage, dressed in an orange duty suit. An image of his wife and daughter wearing those same overalls flashed through his mind, and his face swelled with rage.

Mars was supposed to have been his new start, but troubles had followed him from Earth. He had done everything he was supposed to——followed the rules, paid his dues. All for nothing.

‘Help us breathe life into Mars’ the ads had said. After the war in Guatemala, Diggitt had no life to come back to in the States——his parents, his sister and her boys had died during the famines. The Seyopont Conglomerate had offered to subsidize the cost of his move to Mars. They had promised him a good job, and if he married, Seyopont would give him a family living unit, the first year of air, and a parcel full of Winchester steam pylons, which earned credits for every cubic meter of steam vented into the thin Martian air.

The anemic wisps of water vapor streaming out of the crushed pylons were the last dying breaths of his dreams. Diggitt clicked into the com relay and blinked over to talk to his wife, Milla.


     Ethel, the stock clerk at Buncha Farms and long-time friend of Milla Diggitt, arced her finger through the air. “And that cricket went right into the batter.” She poked 6-year-old Ginny Diggitt on the nose.

They all laughed. Milla placed a bag of green beans into her cart as Ethel arranged a tray of cupcakes in the display case.

“Did you get it out?” asked Ginny, squeezing her plush toy cat.

Ethel yes-grunted in the Martian manner and laughed.

“I had half a mind to poke him right down in there and cook him up, he gave me so much trouble. But yeah, I got him out.”

Ethel held a cupcake up to Ginny’s nose. “Or did I?”

Ginny giggled and dodged the pastry. “Ewww.”

The wind outside rained pebbles onto the domed roof with a loud grating hiss.

“Storm season’s coming,” Ethel said, looking up. “They say it will be worse this year.”

“I saw that too. Air’s getting denser,” Milla said. “I guess all that steam we’re pumping into the air is working.”

Ethel coughed a yes-grunt. Milla’s blinkstick bleated. She reached down to her hip and pulled the device to her face. The earpiece chimed softly, confirming the connection.

“What’s up, babe?” she said.

“Where are you?” Jeremy couldn’t keep the distress from his tone.

“I told you I was picking up some food at Buncha Farms today. What’s wrong?”

The wind scraped another wave of pebbles across the roof, bathing the market dome in white noise.

Ginny looked up at her mother. Milla patted her on the back.

“Nekochu, I’m scared,” Ginny said to her doll.

The AI box in the blue cat purred and said in its iconic stuffy-nosed-girl voice, “There’s nothing to be a-scared of, Ginnypoo. This dome is made by ExoTerra, the only hab to grab. They’re built to stand up to worse than this.”

“All the crops?!” Milla hissed.

Ethel turned, concern cracking across her face. Ginny grabbed the doll tighter.

“Okay. We’ll see you back home in about an hour.”

Milla blinked off and sheathed the blinkstick.

“What’s wrong?” Ethel asked, wiping her hands in her apron.

“Someone smashed our pylons,” Milla said, rubbing her temples. Her other palm stabbed angles in the air. “Tire tracks all over the field.”

“Oh, no.”

“Looks like we can’t afford any of your cupcakes today,” Milla said.

Milla tightened her lips into a white line and looked down at her cart of groceries.

“Oh, sweetie,” Ethel said, reaching out and embracing her. “Let me know what we can do.”

Milla yes-grunted and sniffed back her anger.


     Orbiting high above the planet in Red Island One, a communication facility built on Mars’s closer moon, Phobos——Reginald Jost floated in a harness over his work station. His belly swelled out from between the straps as he drank from a sipper of Strawberry Smilk. On his screen, a shiny beetle-like object treaded toward a chasm. The image wavered as a cloud of dust passed under the satellite camera. Reg activated a filter to enhance the image. It was important that he confirm what happened next. The drone had completed its task, smashing those pylons, and now evidence needed to be deleted.

Warning lights blared. The blinder hack he had slapped onto the cargo drone’s AI was fragging.

“Ten more meters. Come on.”

The Turtle transport’s AI kept squirming through his hack to request GPS data. The drone knew it was headed for a cliff, but it couldn’t confirm just how close it was. It had no control over its movement——Reg had locked it onto a straight path. The only thing that could stop it would be a built-in auto-brake if the AI confirmed the cliff edge. Reg juggled between shrouding the terrain map from the drone’s systems and denying it access to satellite imagery. A wink of terrain data snuck through when the drone summoned a weather request. Reg hadn’t thought of that.

“Clever bastard!”

The drone slammed its brakes and it dragged to a halt, half hanging over the abyss. Wheels spinning in reverse, the Turtle wobbled in place, grinding up a cloud of dust. Reg ran some metrics on the weight distribution of the drone, the traction ratios of the wheels, and the geologic properties of the rock ledge. The numbers came back in his favor. He sipped his Smilk and waited. Wheels continued to spin. A gust from the impending dust storm tore across the vehicle, wiping away the amber cloud that had obscured it.

“Come on. Come on.”

The drone rocked forward in one slow arc, then careened downward into the chasm, bouncing once off the cliff wall before it was lost to the dark.


Reg clicked off the recording and took a moment to roll up the Smilk bag. He emailed the video to his contact and tossed the empty sipper over his shoulder. A vacuum scoop fixed to the wall sucked the bag away to be recycled.

“Reg?” a woman’s voice crackled over the intercom, “You patch Meringula Eight yet? I’m still getting black over Burroughsville.”

“Working on it, Gretch,” Reg said, smiling. “The patch was corrupted when I got it. Have to wait for them to resend. Something broke the feed mid-stream. Asteroid, or something.”

A pause followed as Gretchen Anderson checked the navigation charts. Reg clicked over to his hack of her system and watched her screen pop up with the orbit data of asteroids. He had checked the charts. The mining colony Ida had passed precisely between Mars and the base on Earth’s Moon approximately an hour earlier.

Reg smiled.

“Okay, Reg, our supply ship docked twenty mils ago. I’m gonna go confirm inventory, but blink me when you get Eight back online. Readback?”


Reg smirked and switched over to his account, waiting for the payment promised him. He stretched out to order another Smilk sipper from the dispenser and heard the pressure door to his cabin open. Rolls of skin bulged as he twisted in the harness to see who had entered.

A blaster shot slammed square into his side.

The catches on Reg’s harness clinked and rattled as his body convulsed, smilky froth spewing from his mouth. In the microgravity of Phobos, the pink liquid coagulated into globs,then crawled down the wall like a slow-motion snowball. Reg’s rattling and kicking slowed and stopped.

The assassin, wearing a grey exosuit, holstered his weapon and pulled himself over to the bloated corpse. He unlatched Reg from his harness and pulled back his head. Boiled white eyes. Dead. The grey assassin pulled the body by its collar out the cabin door.


My horse ain’t at all well. His chest started clunking yesterday—he’s drying out. De-hy-dration. I pinched his neck, and the skin stayed raised up too long. That’s a sure sign. Worse today. I need to find water. Still have a long way to go to get out of this desert. My tongue is sticking to the roof of my mouth now, and I got a headache that could drop a buffalo.

At least I got what I came for. Scanlon’s head is stuffed into my saddlebag. No flies on him, it’s that hot. Or maybe his soul was just as damned as everyone said it was, and Old Scratch won’t have anything to do with him.

The land play tricks on you when it’s this hot. The desert doesn’t want me or him to leave it—would have me tracking in circles until I shriveled into jerky. I just keep riding east. Every morning, I make sure to line myself up with the sun. East means life.

My side itches, and I scratch, and my fingers come back tacky. There’s a dark stain down my side. Lots of blood. Scanlon shot me and I didn’t even notice. I laugh and the sound gets sucked away quick. So hot.

I open my shirt to have a look. Looks worse than it feels. Creased a rib or two, that’s all. Belly’s not puffing, and I’m not coughing up any blood, so the bullet must’ve missed all the important stuff.



I reach back and punch the saddlebag. I know Scanlon can’t feel nothing now, but it makes me feel better anyhow. I punch again and start to black out. Need to face forward and calm down. Need to focus and get out of this desert. I think about all the money his head will get me.


Scanlon liked injun women. Sometimes they liked him back, most times they didn’t. Those that didn’t I found what was left of them when I was trailing him, reminding me that Scanlon was worth every bit of the bounty on his head. ‘Dead or alive’ made me think it would be easy.

Easy’s what twenty or more other bounty hunters thought, too. A few names I heard of went shooting for him before me—Parson Green, the ex-preacher, for one. They found his corpse three months back, chest peeled open and his heart gone missing. They found one more body the month after that. Looked like a scarecrow made out of charcoal standing out in a field. Crumbled to pieces when somebody tried to take it down. It took the local dentist to figure out whose body it was. Henry Samson used to be the biggest, meanest son of a bitch I ever knew—charred down to no more than ash and bones. And Frenchie the Frenchman, a fancy shootist who dressed in silk shirts, I heard was the only one who came across Scanlon and lived. Frenchie they found screaming with his eyes torn out. Word is, he done that to himself, but nobody could get out of him just why. Wouldn’t stop screaming to tell.

Scanlon left a trail of bodies everywhere he went. Easy enough to track, just followed the smoke and screaming. Slippery devil must have known I was after him though, because he dodged me for mor’n a month. Wearing me down, I suspect.

Four nights ago, he made his move.

My eyes were normally good for seeing under even a thin sliver of moon, but it was damn close to pitch out there that night, with only the stars to see by. Had to stop riding. Horse kept stumbling. Couldn’t risk a broken ankle or worse. Lots of desert around me and not a good place to get stuck.

The coyotes and crickets were louder’n I ever heard. When they get hungry enough, coyotes get brave and come in close, but when I heard a crunch it sounded heavier than any coyote.

“Who’s there?” I said, drawing my pistol on the dark, knowing full well who it was, but not wanting to admit. And here I was half naked in my bedroll, didn’t make no fire so as to not attract attention. Bastard found me anyhow.

Wasn’t sure there was anything out there at all until I heard something hit the ground near me. Then another. And another. Hail? No, way too hot. Another, closer. They rocks? I rolled out of my bed away from the sounds and crouched. Another. Scanlon was out there throwing rocks, trying to find me in the dark.

Between the animal ruckus I heard the chuff of fabric and shot. In the flash of my gun, I saw his face in the scrub. I shot once more and ducked. He got off one shot, then he fell over, coughing. The coyotes stopped their yelping right then. The crickets seemed to take a pause to reflect, too. I stepped over, following his gurgling and scuffling in the gravel. My gun was cocked and ready.

He went quiet. Seemed like even the stars went out. Real dark. I didn’t move. Hardly breathed. Listened real close. No way that bastard was getting away from me after all this trouble. I stood listening until morning creeped up, then I could see Scanlon staring up at me. Dead. A hole right through his neck, dead center. Scorpions sipping at his eyes.

Easy as that. No wild showdown with guns blazing—a three bullet fight. I managed to shoot him through the skinniest part on him in the pitch dark. That was worth a month or two of free drinking I figured.

“Hot damn,” I said, slapping my hat.

Scanlon was big news after all. A dime book had come out about him, and plenty of folks were waiting to hear about how he came to his end. I was eager to collect his bounty and start bragging about it, but the desert wasn’t gonna give him up so easy. No way I was lugging his injun-loving ass out of there as big as he was, but ‘Dead or Alive’ meant I needed some kind of proof. Since I couldn’t find his horse, I took his head and left the rest. Vermin for the vermin. Stuffed his head in my saddlebag and headed east.


I forgot how cold it got in the desert at night, even in August. Still no water. Lit a fire and hung my saddlebags from a tree stump. In the morning, my horse was dead and Scanlon was covered with ants. Rolled his head in the dust and waited for the sun to come up before setting my boots towards it.

Sun is still low and already it’s baking everything it sees. All this heat is turning Scanlon to goo. He’s dripping out the corners of the bag, collecting biting flies. I keep thinking about how I’m gonna spend all that bounty money and try to ignore the stink. Can’t smell much of anything else.


Must’ve blacked out. Woke up with my teeth plowed into the dust. Some big toad crawled into my mouth while I was asleep. I yank at it. Fat thing is choking me. Can’t breathe. I yank and yank until I realize it ain’t no toad—it’s my tongue swelled up.

Behind me, the red sun is hanging onto the horizon, not letting go. I watch it for a long while to make sure of its intentions. Won’t sink lower, won’t raise higher neither, just stays clung to the hills. Since I woke pointed to the opposite direction, I make a guess that it’s trying to set and call it west. I walk on.

Then I hear laughter coming from the bag. Scanlon’s an ornery son of a bitch even after he’s dead. I open the flap. His eyes is gone, but his mouth is open, laughing. I close the flap and smash him against a rock. That’ll shut him up a while.


I look down at my hands. They’re cracked and grey from crawling through the dust. Should be burning, but the gravel is cold. My shadow dances out in front of me, grey and tall. Spindly. It starts buzzing like the wings of a fly. Then it peels off the ground and runs away from me. Off ahead, I hear coyotes. My shadow heads right for them.


Jolting awake, something jumps away, kicking grit into my eyes. They yelp when I swat at them. Coyotes got in too close. Pieces of my shirt torn free.

I see some green up ahead. I cram my eyes shut, pry them open again and try to focus on it. Sure enough, green grass. I get to crawling.


Don’t know how I made it, but here I am, face inches from water. My hand stinging cold in this stream. I lift up my hand and bring it to my leather tongue. Water burns. Manage to get some in past my teeth. I choke. Feels like rotgut going down my throat, and tastes like bad meat. I bring my hand up a couple more times. A few more drops trickle down my gullet like fire.


I wake again and drink. I doze and drink for what feels like a week, or an hour. Can’t be sure. So dry, my eyes feel like sandpaper, but I’m not choking anymore when I swallow.


The cave is cool. Can smell the air. Sweetgrass. I could sleep for a month of Sundays. No coyotes or even crickets around. Not sure how I got inside this cave, but I welcome it. Still don’t believe there’s a God up in Heaven, but I thank him all the same. Just in case.

Outside, the scrub looks healthy. Tracks from all kinds of animals around here. Deer. Rabbit. Raccoon. Squirrel. They all come for the water. Still got my gun and plenty of bullets. I could eat. I could get out of here. I just wish this headache would stop.

Shit! Where’s Scanlon’s head? I pat myself down, as if he were a lost pocket watch, then look in and outside the cave. Coyotes must have run off with him. I’ll be damned if I’m leaving without his skull. The sun still hasn’t gotten any higher. I aim myself for it.