I was beginning to miss the desert. The jungle was hot and damp and the flying insects were bigger than my head. They buzzed around like a swarm of gyrocopters. And anyone that tells you green is calming colour never had to dodge a snake with a big flat head the shade of a leaf. The only thing that was keeping me hacking through the undergrowth was the promise of hidden treasure. That and the fact that I was bursting for a swazz and I was afraid to unzip in case some-thing locked its nasty mandibles on my man-thing.
But the worst thing was the humidity. Every part of me was running with sweat and my clothes were soaked through. I was going to end up with head-to-toe diaper rash. Previously I’d taken feeling dry for granted but now I was thinking of it as one of the main features of Paradise.
I paused to catch my breath and to silently curse the old fool that had offered me this crazy ‘opportunity’. And the young fool who accepted it. That would be me, Quincy Randall. Thief, conman and part-time idiot. If I’d known what this expedition would be like, well, I’d probably still have come. I needed the cash. But I’d have brought more changes of underwear.
I heard something incoming and swung the machete – then watched one of the giant insects spiral down towards the damp black soil. A long pink tongue snatched the wounded flyer out of the air. I couldn’t see the mouth it belonged to, but I could hear the crunching. I shuddered, reminded of the hid-den dangers the jungle was home to. Including creatures that were big enough to eat me.
The umbrella-sized leaves just ahead of me stirred as a little yellow frog launched itself into the unknown and beyond them I saw… what? Dappled sunlight on tarnished metal? I hoped that’s what it was. That’s what the old man had promised I would find. I ducked another dive-bombing insect and hacked away at the foliage with renewed vigour, trying to catch another glimpse. If this was the wreck I had been told about, maybe the treasure was here too.
The old man told me his name was Jack Sulver though I suspect that, like me, he’d had a few different names during his time. I met him in the prison in Fowlerston, a desert town that lay almost two hundred miles north of the equatorial jungle. Old Jack had been found guilty of killing a man in a bar fight, or so he told me, and seemed content to live out his remaining days within the prison’s walls. I had been arrested as a result of a misunderstanding regarding ownership of a sand yacht that I had won in a card game.
The old man had been in prison long enough to know how things worked and he somehow managed to get jugs of the local moonshine smuggled into the cell we shared. Dragon’s Tears the locals called it. Dragon swazz more like. Old Jack liked to drink and talk, and I was happy to drink and listen.
“You stole a sand yacht?” he said, looking at me in a way that said ‘What the heck would you want a sand yacht for?’ Or maybe he was just squinting because he was soused.
“Technically I only sort of stole it,” I said. “There was a mis-understanding.”
“You’d better come up with a better story than that when you go up before the judge.”
“It was a beautiful ship,” I said. “It looked like one of those paddle steamers you see in paintings. Layered like a wedding cake… just floating over the desert like a mirage.”
“How do you steal something that big?”
“I didn’t steal it. Not exactly. I won it fair and square. Or so I thought. I had the registration document in my hand.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I was playing poker with this guy. People called him One-Eyed Jack on account of his eyepatch, but his real name was Marmaduke – or was it Maurice? Doesn’t matter. He had a ‘tell’. When he had a good hand he’d touch his eyepatch – as if he wanted to show it to his missing eye.”
Old Jack smiled. “You cleaned him out! Got everything, including his yacht.”
I smiled too – until I remembered what had happened next.
“Turns out it was registered to the guy’s wife. He didn’t have a penny to his name. Gambled it all away.” I don’t usually drink much and this hooch was making my brain feel spongey. “To save himself, Marmaduke told his wife I’d stolen the papers. I saw his wife and I know why he’d feel the need to do that. I felt sorry for him, so I took the rap.”
“That story’s so crazy the judge might just believe it,” Old Jack said. He took another long pull from the dirty stone jug.
“I told my whacky story, now you tell one,” I said. “You’ve been around a while – you must have seen some things.”
Old Jack’s eyes did the squinting thing again and I thought that perhaps he wasn’t as drunk as he was pretending to be. I expected him to tell me about the man he killed, but he had an even better tale than that. Crazier than mine.
“There’s a lot of men would like to learn what I know,” he said, slurring his words. “There’s a fortune to be had by the man who knows where to look.”
Tales of hidden treasure were common in the years after the end of the War. Not gold and silver or pilfered works of art but tons and tons of salvage. Military hardware – either floating dead in space or lying on the surface of planets scattered across the warzone. Not the alien stuff, of course, that was mostly biological and decayed quickly. But the human stuff was still out there. Weapons and machinery brought a good price but the greatest prize of all was a ship’s Navigator – the artificial sentience that controlled a battleship’s systems and directed the movement of its fighter craft. A bounty was offered by the government for the return of a Navigator and even now, almost forty years later, you could collect the prize and never need to work another day in your life.
“My ship came down and she’s never been found,” Old Jack said, “but I knows where she’s hid.” There was a twinkle in his eye when he said it, but I got the feeling he was telling the truth. Or believed he was.
“You were a soldier?” I asked, taking another swig of the harsh liquor.
Jack Sulver shook his head. “Engineer,” he said. “I used to service the Warbirds, keep ‘em flying.”
“What ship were you on?”
“The Celestia,” he said, then noting my lack of recognition he added, “Dreadnought class. Not the biggest warship we had, but by that stage we were sending everything we had to the frontline. And this is where we came down.”
It took me a minute to realise what he was saying. I blame the moonshine. “You mean the Celestia came down here?”
Old Jack nodded.
“It crashed down on this planet? On Saphira?” I said. “And you walked away from the wreckage?”
“Don’t be daft, lad, nobody walked away from the wreckage. I got away in a lifeship – came down after her. Our Celestia lies but a stone’s throw from where we are tonight.”
I made a wet farting noise with my lips and poured myself some more moonshine. Old Jack didn’t seem offended by my scepticism – he just sat smiling, that twinkle still in his eyes. He set down his mug and reached into his stained and tattered shirt, pulling something out. He tossed it to me.
I caught the cloth-wrapped object and looked down at it. It lay heavy in my palm. I carefully peeled away the bandage-like covering.
“You know what that is, Quincy?” he asked.
I nodded. The smooth sphere in my hand was part metal and part crystal. “It’s one of the eyes,” I said.
Old Jack nodded. “One of the tracking eyes from a cannon – a big one.”
“Dreadnought class,” I muttered.
“And the rest of the Celestia lies in the jungle a couple of hundred miles south of here, untouched by man since the night she came down.”
I stared down at the eye. The metal was warm from Jack’s body heat but the crystal was ice-cold under my fingers. “But surely she was salvaged,” I said. “Her position would have been reported.”
Old Jack shook his head, his eyes still glittering in the gloom. “We never reported it,” he said. “There was maybe two dozen of us survived, coming down in three life ships. After we touched down, we stood in the desert and looked up at the stars – and all of us decided we’d had enough of war. We made a pact that we’d never tell a soul where the ship had come down and we’d live out the rest of our days as civilians. I’m the only one of us left.”
He watched me, probably trying to see if I believed his story.
“That was forty years ago,” I said.
“Give or take,” he said, nodding.
I wrapped the eye back in the cloth and passed it back to the old man. There was every chance he’d stolen it or won it in a card game. His was an unlikely story. But it might be true. And if the Celestia was lying out there untouched, then there really was a fortune to be had by the man who knew where to look.
“And in forty years, you’ve never been to the crash site?” I asked.
“I never said that, now, did I?” He tucked the eye back into his shirt. “I went there once on my own, just to see her again. And then a few years ago I went with a few old friends to see what we could get from her. But all we got was trouble. Salvage is a young man’s game, Quincy.”
“And she’s still out there…” I mused.
“She nose-dived into the trees and broke into pieces that stretched in a line for twenty miles or more. Everything must have been burned when she hit, but the jungle grew back around her and over her and now no one can see she’s there. But her belly’s intact, Quincy, waiting for the right man to open her up and relieve her of her riches.”
It was one of those stories that you want to be true. Everyone loves a story of hidden treasure. But even with the ‘evidence’ Old Jack had shown me, and even in my drink-fuddled state, I knew it was just a story. He had probably never been close to a battleship and that oblong scar on his arm wasn’t a war wound – he’d probably burned himself stealing bread from an oven. That’s what I was thinking as I went to sleep that night in that dusty prison cell. But it wasn’t long before I came to change my mind.
Desert architecture doesn’t vary much from planet to planet. Buildings are low with thick walls made of concrete or mud or whatever. They’re usually painted white to try and reflect the heat away. And roofs are either flat or made of heavy clay tiles. The buildings in Fowlerston were all like this, including the prison. It was a squat two-storey structure with a yard at the back with a high wall around it, topped with coils of razor-wire. There were signs hung from the wire that warned of the danger of electrocution. I suspected that the fried rats and pigeons hung from the wire were placed there to make us believe it was electrified, but that was a theory I wasn’t in a hurry to test.
There was a wooden watchtower at one corner of the yard, manned at all times by a guard with a rifle, and a platform with a large searchlight on it at the other, manned only after dark. The prison warden’s office looked out into the yard and there was a small section of the yard under his window marked off with white painted pebbles – a little garden filled with cacti and other desert plants.
The yard itself was hard-packed dirt like the town’s roads. You probably couldn’t have dug your way out if you had a pneumatic drill or dynamite. The only way out was up and over the wall. Not that I was thinking of escape. Not at that moment. I wasn’t up to thinking much of anything.
I’d heard it said that you couldn’t get a hangover from alcohol distilled from fermented cactus. I can tell you now that this is a myth. That morning it felt like someone was driving a big spike into my skull and the sunlight hurt my eyes. Old Jack, sitting next to me, thought this was amusing – he seemed totally unaffected. Being outside during the day was preferable to sitting in a cell trying to breathe the dry dead air. And the heat meant no one wanted to move, so we were unlikely to cause any problems for the guards. The assembled prisoners huddled in whatever part of the yard was currently in shadow, moving around during the course of the day as the sun arced through the sky. At midday everyone went inside for a meal and a siesta. There were only about a dozen prisoners in total.
It was a small prison but Fowlerston itself wasn’t much of a place. Other than Old Jack, my fellow inmates were a handful of locals – a kid on a drunk-driving charge who flew an airbike in through the mayor’s front window and out through the back where there wasn’t a window. A couple of vagrants there for the free food and water. And a man accused of scracking his neighbour’s goat, brought into custody for his own protection. That’s what Old Jack told me, though he may have had the story from an unreliable source. None of these men were real desperadoes. The closest we had to that were a couple of crooks that were straight out of a comic book.
The little one was Paulie Pickles, which was probably an alias. Or maybe his pop had been an onion farmer. He looked like he’d spent a lot of time on high-gravity planets. It wasn’t just that he was short and squat, he looked like he’d been squashed. His head was a sideways oval and he had no neck. If his legs had been any shorter he’d have been able to scratch his toes without bending. Dark hair sprouted from every bit of his skin, sticking out like spines on a cactus. He was like a hedgehog someone had sat on. Prickly described him in other ways too. His brow was set in a permanent scowl and his lips had only one setting – sneer. Paulie’s eyes were permanently shadowed and he always looked like he was up to no good. Maybe no one had told him that it was a bad idea for a crook to look like a crook. Though his career options must have been limited by his physical features. His high school counsellor had probably hinted that ‘children’s entertainer’ wasn’t really an option.
Paulie’s partner was Augie ‘The Axeman’ Allsop. Again, I’m thinking the name was a bit of a giveaway. Augie was the muscle and he obviously took this role literally. Even in the blistering heat he was over in a corner loading all the cast-iron weights he could find onto a single bar for lifting. His head was shaved smooth and shiny and he had a thick dark moustache. He pretended not to see me watching him and pulled off his shirt and stood flexing. I like a man who looks like a man, but that bulging muscles thing doesn’t really do it for me. He looked like an orange condom stuffed with walnuts. His tattoos had been done by someone who knew what they were doing – a talented artist or maybe a robot. There was a dragon with its wings spread across his chest – and there was enough space for them to be spread wide.
Augie was vain and he was watching us to make sure we were looking at him. But Paulie was watching us too and that made me uncomfortable.
“Something’s going on,” I said. “He’s watching us.”
“He’s been watching you ever since you got in here,” Jack said, nodding towards Augie and grinning. “I think he likes you.”
I nodded towards Paulie Pickles. “I don’t reckon much to yours.”
“I’ve had worse,” Jack said and cackled.
“Randall!” I looked up as my name was called. Grainger, the head guard, was standing by the little cactus garden, the door open behind him. “Warden wants a word with you.” He tried to make it sound threatening, but even without the hangover I could have cared less. I pulled myself to my feet.
“Be careful today,” I said to Jack, still uneasy.
“I always am.”
Grainger tucked his thumbs in his belt and swaggered across the yard, squinting his eyes at me as we passed each other. I resisted the urge to blow him a kiss. The warden appeared in the doorway of his office as I approached.
“Macready,” I said.
He turned and disappeared into his office without acknowledging me. We were supposed to call him Mister Macready as a sign of respect – maybe he noticed my omission. I followed him into the office, not closing the door behind me. I wanted to be able to see what was happening in the yard.
Macready was sitting on the corner of the desk. There was a chair off to the left and I wanted to slump into it, but that would be a display of weakness and I didn’t want to show my hand too soon. My eyes gradually adjusted to the gloom. The office had a dry dusty smell. The role of prison warden apparently didn’t merit air-conditioning. Keeping my eyes down I shuffled sideways so that I could see out through the open door.
Warden Macready had skinny arms and legs and a potbelly. He looked like a thin kid trying to shoplift a bowling ball. His bushy eyebrows were a natural sandy brown but his thinning hair was a flat orange colour out of a bottle. The white shirt and tan slacks he wore were clean and freshly pressed every day but by mid-morning they had that wilted and dusty look.
“Judge will be here day next Thursday,” he said.
I nodded. I knew this already. It wasn’t why he had asked me into his office. He waited for me to say something but I chose to disappoint him. I wasn’t worried about going up before the judge – either I’d talk my way out of it or I’d escape after he’d sentenced me. This wasn’t my first small-town rodeo.
“Got a message for you over the interstat,” Macready said. He was pretending disinterest but he was obviously curious. Who was I to be getting messages from off-world?
“Yeah?” I said. I was pretending disinterest too. But in reality I was worried – no one was supposed to know I was on this squit-hole planet.
“Old friend of yours asking to be remembered to you. Says he’s planning to visit. O’Keefe. You know who that is?”
It must have been obvious from my reaction that this was bad news. I saw a flicker of a smile on his lips. But the warden evidently had no idea who O’Keefe was and I wasn’t about to tip him off. “Like the message says, just an old friend,” I said.
The warden watched me, wanting to know the truth. But what could he do? He couldn’t have the guards beat it out of me. Not until I’d been up before the judge.
A movement in the yard drew my attention towards the open door. The warden couldn’t see it from where he was. I made it look as though I was eager to make my exit. I saw Paulie Pickles approach Officer Grainger. They carried out a brief muttered conversation and the little man surreptitiously pressed something into Grainger’s hand. Either a message or a bribe, I felt sure.
“That’ll be all, Randall,” the warden said, still dissatisfied.
I walked back across the yard and Grainger came from the opposite direction. As we passed, I stumbled and bumped into him. “Sorry, boss,” I said.
“Shouldn’t drink if you can’t handle it,” Grainger said.
Moving away, I looked down at the folded paper I had lifted from Grainger. A hundred dollar bill. That was quite a bribe. I wondered what it had paid for. I could have taken Grainger’s pistol when I’d ‘accidentally’ collided with him, but that would have been spotted quickly and we’d all have been lined up and strip-searched while the guard in the tower pointed his big gun at us. Sometimes you have to take a subtler approach. I turned and watched Grainger disappear into the warden’s office and close the door behind him. Perhaps he had been paid for his absence. That meant something unpleasant was about to happen. Paulie Pickles was up to something – I’d have to keep a close watch on him until he made his move.
I didn’t have to wait long.
There was a flash of sunlight on metal and Paulie was standing behind Jack and had a shiv pressed against his throat. The little man was standing on tiptoe.
“You and me is going to have a little chat, Jackie boy,” Paulie said.
I didn’t see how he managed to get the jump on Old Jack, I was over at the water barrel near the warden’s office. Augie was standing behind Paulie, making sure no one thought about coming to Old Jack’s rescue. I sat down with my back against the barrel trying to come up with a plan that didn’t involve me facing off against a thug with biceps bigger than my head. I came up with nothing. I should have taken Grainger’s gun. I pulled off a boot and tugged at my slightly damp sock, making sure there wasn’t a hole in the toe. Then I reached for one of the white-painted pebbles from the cactus garden. I looked down at it – then swapped it for a bigger one. There was no way this was going to work.
“Augie and me heard you and your bed-mate last night,” Paulie rasped. “That was some mighty interesting pillow talk.”
Paulie Pickles and Augie were in the cell next to ours. With the drink taken, it was entirely possible that Old Jack and I had spoken more loudly than we thought.
“It was just talk,” Jack said, “just a made-up story to pass the time.”
“I don’t think so,” Paulie said, pressing the improvised blade into Jack’s skin. “You’re going to tell me where that wreck of yours lies – or I’m going to start cutting bits off you with this… this…”
“It’s a spoon,” Jack croaked, looking down cross-eyed at it.
“I spent a long time sharpening it for you,” Paulie said. He slashed a red line across Jack’s cheek to prove it.
“You don’t have to hurt me,” Jack wailed. He was looking in my direction, hoping I’d intervene. I should have told him I wasn’t the hero type. “I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you!” Jack said. “Just don’t hurt me.” Maybe someone had told him and he was now appealing to my criminal nature. I’d have to rescue him if I wanted to avoid him giving away the secret of the hidden treasure. I cursed him, pulling my boot back on. It felt clammy against my bare foot.
I hurled one of the white pebbles towards Augie, just missing his head and sending it over his left shoulder. While he was distracted by this, I started whirling the pebble in the sock round and round over my head and giving the sort of scream I imagined a suicidal warrior might give. I ran towards the big man.
The pebble hit Augie in the side of the head with a loud hollow thok! Everyone in the prison yard winced. Apart from Augie. He hardly seemed aware that he’d been hit. As I started swinging the sock again, he reached for it and clasped it in one of his massive hands. Before I knew what had happened, he pulled me towards him and wrapped an arm like a tree trunk around my neck and the sky started to go dark.
Up close, he smelled like a horse. I had a better view of his tattoos. On one arm was a harsh-looking woman in a provocative pose – his mother maybe. But the best image was on his right arm – a highly detailed skull with a snake threaded into its eye socket and out of its mouth. The work on the serpent’s scales was some of the best I’d seen. If I didn’t do something soon, it might be the last thing I ever saw.
“Hey, gorgeous, don’t hug me so tight,” I croaked.
“I’m going to kill you and scrack you while you’re still warm,” he growled.
“You’re a silver-tongued devil,” I said.
“I’m your worst nightmare.” His breath was warm in my ear.
“Actually, I have been dreaming about you,” I said, “ever since I saw you in the shower.” The arm around my throat relaxed – just a little.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“It means I’ve been wondering how it would feel to have these arms wrapped around me.”
“That so?” His grip relaxed a little more and I managed to squirm around and look up into his face. He was frowning. “You hit me with a rock.” His lower lip stuck out, big and wet and pink.
“A love tap to get your attention.”
“You already had that,” he said. He leaned down and planted a wet kiss on my forehead.
“He’s pretty – can I keep him, Paulie? Can I?” Augie mocked.
“Have you two lovebirds finished?” Paulie snapped.
Augie ignored him. “I bet you’ve never been with a real man.”
“I never met anyone quite like you.” I stroked the front of his sweatpants.
“I’m not wearing anything under them,” he whispered.
Under different circumstances this might have been fun. I grabbed his scronies, squeezed hard and twisted. Augie cried out in surprise and it became a bellow of pain. He went down on his knees and I went down too, not daring to let go. If he got free, he’d break my neck.
“Don’t move,” I warned. I held a knife close to the bulge of cloth and scronies that I was holding on to. It was a big hunting knife, bright and with a sharp edge. I’d lifted it from Grainger when I took his money.
Augie had tears in his eyes and he was looking at me like I had betrayed him. He was lying on his back now with his arms above his head in surrender.
“Sorry, handsome,” I said. I looked over to Paulie Pickles. “Drop the blade or Augie sings castrato.”
“Drop it,” Augie squeaked.
There was another moment’s hesitation, then Paulie dropped the shiv. Old Jack bent and snatched it up, grinning triumphantly.
“You shouldn’t bring a spoon to a knife fight,” I said.
Paulie spat at me. I looked at Augie. Sweat streamed down his face and he looked like he was on the verge of puking. I didn’t think he’d give me any trouble if I released him. At least for a little while. I let go and backed away, still keeping the knife ready. Augie just lay in the dirt clutching his groin and making weak groaning noises. I felt for him – every man in the yard did.
“Maybe you can bribe Grainger to bring him some ice for the swelling,” I said to Paulie.
“My eggs hurt,” Augie wailed, “I think he broke them.”
Paulie scowled. “You know what you are?”
“A smart guy with a big knife?”
“You’re a dead man!”
“Say something nice at my funeral.” I turned my back on him and walked away. Old Jack scurried after me.
“You never said he’d hurt me,” Augie whined.
“They’ll kill you for this,” Jack said, “the first chance they get. You’ll have to watch your back. And I’ll watch it for you. I won’t forget what you done for me, Quincy. You’re a good man.”
“I’m not worried about them,” I said. “But O’Keefe is a different matter.”
“Who’s O’Keefe?” Jack asked, confused.
“Trouble.” If O’Keefe arrived I’d be facing worse than a charge of taking a sand yacht without consent. I found myself scanning the layout of the prison. “I’m going over the wall – tonight,” I said.
“That’s crazy!” Jack protested. “The guards will shoot you before you’re half over. And even if you make it, they’ll hunt you down with dogs.”
“They have dogs?” I asked.
“They always have dogs.”
There were no hounds at the prison, we would have heard them. Maybe they called in a hunter from outside. I’d worry about that if – when – I go that far.
“I have to go,” I said.
“A bounty hunter. There’s a price on my head. A big one.” Old Jack didn’t seem surprised by this, which was flattering in a way. “You coming with me?” I asked.
Old Jack thought about this and then shook his head. “I’ll take my chances in here. But I’ll help you. Tonight you and me will be drinking and talking and singing like we did last night – only this time I’ll be playing both parts. I’ll give you as much time as I can.”
“You’re a good man, Quincy,” he said again, nodding to where Paulie and Augie were huddled against the prison wall watching us.
“Just helping out a friend,” I said.
“If O’Keefe is coming for you, you’ve got to get away,” Jack said. “Off the planet.”
“If I had money for passage off this rock, I’d have been gone long before now.”
“Maybe I can help you with that,” Jack said. “I’ll give you my map.”
“Lots of it!”