The Last Horizon
Author:Anthony Hartig

The Last Horizon - By Anthony Hartig



Chapter 1



Nikki

I think back to the evening it started at Kurlie’s place--Curly’s Tavern. A dingy, soot-stained brick structure lost among the third rate pawn shops, liquor stores, and low cost flats in a forgettable district populated by cut-throat hustlers and pushers after sundown. Not the kind of place a stranger wants to be caught alone in unless you were armed or known by the locals. Me? Well I’m not a local, but I’ve been here enough times for the urchins to be familiar with my face and reputation.

I adjusted my fedora, and zipped-up my leather jacket to conceal the shoulder holster that housed my Cobalt as I crossed the boulevard and zeroed-in on the saloon. The late afternoon shadows grew long on the streets and I could hear the heavy rhythm of a synthesized bass drum seeping through the heavy double doors of Curly’s as I drew closer. The repetitious beat seemed so prevalent in every techno-pop push song; a heavy thump that seemed to shift your bones to the left when your brain is stewed on cheap beer accented by the flavor of flat cheese crackers and bland cold cuts.

The foyer was darkened by one of Kurlie’s oversized bouncers, a man that had a head the size of a grapefruit and shoulders as wide as a Knifeball offensive lineman. He grunted at me in recognition as I entered the pub and continued to scan the boulevard with a suspicious eye.

You can never be too careful in my line of work, and I always packed heat whenever I ventured into a deal. I swore to myself that I’d never step foot in this hole again, but Kurlie’s message the other day got my curiosity up when he said he would make it worth my while, “…an offer you can’t refuse, Nikki, but I can’t hold it open for ya long.” was the way he phrased it, and what the hell, I needed the gig and the money for the upkeep of my ship.

So against my better judgment, I found myself at Curly’s pushing through the multi-colored strobe lights filtered through the haze of stale cigarette smoke. The club was slowly filling up with the silhouettes of baggy-eyed working stiffs, cycle gang members, and questionable characters nursing their watered-down cocktails.

“Nikki! How ya been, hon?” A gravelly voice cut through the din of happy hour. It was Kira, a cocktail waitress in her early forties that had too much class to be in a place like this. She balanced a tray of beer mugs over her left shoulder with the grace of a dancer as she leaned over the mahogany counter and shouted over the music to the bartender.

“Charlie, I’m going to need two Aftermaths and a Kidney Punch for table three, and we need to cut-off the ass monkey at table twelve. I swear, if he grabs my butt again and asks to be breast fed I’m going to open his head with the pitcher on his table.”

Kira sighed as she set down the tray on the bar and gave me a hug. “Wow, look at you! My Nikki getting more devastating every day!”

“Kira, you look wonderful,” I beamed as I hugged her back hard. She was like a big sister to me, “How’s it shakin’, crazy lady?”

“Aw, you know,” she put an arm around my shoulder and kissed my forehead, “workin’ my butt off and keepin’ the dream alive as best I can.” Kira smiled as she wiped her hands on her apron.

“Kurlie here?”

“His usual place.” Kira motioned toward the back of the room. “Here on business, huh?”

“Well I didn’t come here for a free pelvic exam.”

“HA! HA!” Kira snorted as she shook her head. “You’re such a paper cut!”

“I better get going and get this over with.” I sighed as I scanned the dance floor for a path.”

“Okay,” Kira grinned, “but be careful Red Riding Hood, the wolves are out in full force tonight.”

“Nice seeing you again, Kira.”

“Take care of yourself, hon.” Kira embraced me again. “You stay out of trouble, okay girl?”

“You too crazy lady.”

As I made my way through the crowd, a heavyset barfly with a sculptured goatee stepped in front of me--the jerk from table twelve.

“Well hallo there sweet cheeks. You sure are a tiny little thing.” He leered as he began to undress me with his bloodshot eyes. His breath reeked of alcohol as he leaned into my face. “How ‘bout you let me take you home and show ya a good time?”

This guy must have outweighed me by two hundred pounds. “How ‘bout you fragg-off, fat boy?” I scowled as I side-stepped him. By then, some of the barstool occupants elbowed each other and smiled as they turned their attention to the unfolding drama.

“Whoa! Whoa! You’ve got a smart mouth lady,” he grinned as he put his hand on my shoulder, “I like it when they talk dirty and play hard to get. Wadda say you let big daddy show ya what a magnificent pagan beast I can be?” He smirked and licked his lips as he stared at my breasts.

“You looking to dance, big guy?” I smiled shyly as I squared-off in front of him.

“I’m looking to unload.” He swayed as he nonchalantly brushed the left side of his jacket open and exposed an unbuttoned shirt that revealed his hairy chest. I knew it; low forehead, protruding eyebrow ridge, and thinks with his crotch--Neanderthal man.

“Come on, baby, let me top-off your gas tank.” He stuck out his thick gray tongue and wiggled it at me.

“Let’s dance, handsome.” I said demurely as I puckered and blew him a kiss.

“Now that’s more like it!” He smiled broadly as he puckered-up and leaned down into my face.

I reached up seductively, put my right hand behind his head, and pulled him down hard and fast as I rammed my left elbow into the scumbag’s nose with a sharp smack and followed through with two fast jabs to the face. His head snapped back as he put his hands over his nose and blood flowed between his fingers.

“YAAAH! Farking slag!” He slurred through split lips as he staggered sideways.

“All you can handle “Big Daddy”.” I growled as I sprang forward and threw a side kick with my left leg into his stomach.

“OOOPHF!” He grunted as he wheeled backwards through the crowd, crashed into some tables at the edge of the dance floor, and scattered chairs and their occupants into the darkness.

The crowd parted as I walked calmly to where he lay crumpled on the sticky film on the floor composed of wasted beer, liquor, and now, blood.

“You should learn to pay your respects.” I glared over the wheezing mound of fractured alpha male. “In case you’re wondering, the name’s Nikki Wells, and you’ve just been chicked.”

I tipped my hat and bowed politely at the crowd as they applauded, whistled, and cat-called to show their appreciation for the sideshow. I saw Kira at the front of the pack. She grinned and gave me a thumbs-up, and I continued my journey through the crowded dance floor.

I spotted Kurlie in a back booth with a curvy blonde half his age sitting on his lap. She was wearing a very short black strapless dress. He waved me to his table, and even through the noise of underground pop, I could hear his deep, raspy laugh as he leaned into the blonde with a sinister Cheshire grin that meant no good but at the very least promised a vexing conversation laced with perverse humor.

The girl, as if on cue, stood up with a polite smile and dismissed herself at my approach as Kurlie winked and motioned for me to take the seat across from him.

“Nikki, nice moves back there with that clown.” Kurlie clapped with approval as he shook his head and puffed on his cigar.



I haven’t seen Kurlie in almost a year, but he was one of those people that never seemed to age. Heavy-set with a bald head, he was a man in his fifties with a powerful build that he liked to cloak in expensive suits.

“Sorry about the mess, Kurl.”

“Forget about it. A little dinner theater is good for business.” Kurlie beamed as he exhaled a thick plume of smoke. “Been a while, no? How ya been?”

“Not too bad, Kurlie. Still going after the young ones, eh?” I nodded my head in the direction that the blonde had vanished.

“Every chance I get.” Kurlie winked. “You’re looking really fine this evening, young lady. Love the hat. So when are you gonna let me buy you some dinner, Nikki?”

“Down boy,” I smiled as I settled into my chair, “and save the charm for the bimbo. I see you’ve got a new man at the door. What happened to Gus?”

“A little mishap last week, he’s getting some dental work done and will be out for a few weeks.” Kurlie shrugged. “Punctual as always, Nikki. That’s what I always liked about you--always on time.”

“Well I’m glad there’s something you like about me, Kurlie, because there’s absolutely nothing I like about you.”

“Heh-heh-heh!” Kurlie chuckled, “That’s my girl, always kiddin’ around. Hey, why don’t ‘cha have a drink? It’s on the house.”

“I’ll pass, Kurlie,” I said sternly. “Whatever deal you’re about to propose I’d better damn well be sober.”

“Oh come on now, Nikki, would ol’ Kurl steer ya wrong?”

“Absolutely.”

“Oh stop, I’m starting to get giddy with all the flattery.”

“Want to get down to business, Kurlie?”

“All right, just cool your jets for a minute.” Kurlie grinned as he laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. “Ya know where Medusa’s set?”

“Yeah, it’s a star neighboring Polaris isn’t it?”

“Lemme get the chart out.” Kurlie replied patiently as he pulled out a star map and unfolded it onto the table. “The third planet around Medusa is Nexus,” Kurlie said dryly as he put his index finger on the satellite, “it’s settled by miners and deep space colonists. There are several colonies concentrated around the base of a mountain range called Sertina’s Pass.”

“I can also see that it’s a pretty good distance from here.” I squinted as I traced the distance from Earth to Nexus on the chart with my index finger.

“Sure is. The fastest growing city that’s significant to all the Sertina colonies is Fluture. Your destination. Can that Zephyr of yours hold a thirty-five thousand pound cargo?”

“Depends on what it is.”

“Wadda you care, Nikki? The trip’s illegal anyway. Since the conflict with the Serenian Empire has escalated again, there are no solo flights allowed outside the solar system.”

“I don’t haul weapons or drugs, you know that.”

“Now would I be mixed up in weapons or drugs?”

“Up to your ass.”

“Heh-heh-heh!” Kurlie shook his head, “There’s that sense of humor again.” He grinned as he took a sip of his drink. “No, nothing like that, Nikki.”

“No contraband, Kurlie.”

“Contraband.” Kurlie chortled. “What’s contraband? Everything’s contraband to somebody some where. Besides, this is just stuff for the ladies.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like I said, Nexus is just getting settled and it’s a wild, wild place. Lots of drinking and gambling. A bunch of mining colonies on the frontier and the settlers have their wives and girlfriends with ‘em. The cargo I need ya to take is stuff for the ladies--fancy soaps, powders, and lipstick. You know, things you ladies just have to have.”

“That’s contraband.”

“Sure, sure, but it’s nice harmless contraband, Nikki, you can go check it out for yourself on the docks.”

“So what’s the split?”

“Fifty-fifty, girlie, for four mil.”

“I...what? Two large? ”

“Ya heard me. Fifty-fifty. And four large is your cut.”

“Oh boy, what’s the catch? Nobody pays that kind of money to move cosmetics across space.”

“No catch, the split is right down the middle. Four million. I just need you to make the drop ASAP. That, and I wanna send an envoy along for the ride to make sure the goods get in the right hands on time.”

“An envoy?”

“Yeah, an escort for the product if you will. You get him to Nexus and back and that’s it.”

“Kurlie, you know I work alone. No passengers.”

“It’s just one guy. Name’s Fenmore Scott. He knows Nexus like the back of his hand. Besides, it’s always good to buddy-up with someone on these voyages, no? He’s part of the deal.”

“Kurlie...”

“Hey! Speak of the devil.” Kurlie smiled as he stood up and waved to a well dressed man working his way through the crowd toward us. “There he is now. You’re gonna love this guy...”



Fenmore

I woke up this morning on shaky legs; wobbling down the stairs with fog in my head--nauseous, and on the verge of having an out-of-body experience triggered by my hangover. I could still see the pools of blood from the night before. Even as I mixed a vodka and milk breakfast I could hear the sound of gunfire and still see the plumes of my breath absorbed into the darkness.

Last night, while watching a funny movie on the telecom and not holding anything in particular in my mind, I heard the screech of tires, the thump of meat being slapped hard, and the thrashing of some terrible beast on the porch.

When I parted the curtains and looked out my grimy window, there was a buck--an eight pointer, spewing blood from post to post on my front porch, kicking and bleeding, he was in shock and stopped only for a second or two as if he were transmitting a message for salvation as he looked at me with his marble-black eyes.

Transmitted or not, I understood. I backed away from the glass, and ran and grabbed a pistol that I had stashed between the couch cushions. Barefooted and drunk, I ran up front and put one into his head. I went back inside to call the sheriff but the phone was already ringing.

“Sir, we just received a call from a motorist and we understand a deer has been hit on your street. We’ve dispatched an officer to come and put it down.”

“I’ve done that already.”

“You’ve...”

“Yes. Somehow it ended up on my front porch. You’ll have to send someone from the Department of Sanitation instead.”

“Yes sir. We’ll have a clean-up crew out within the hour.”

“Thanks.”

Going to bed seemed the next best thing to do, so off I went. One thing that can be had by living out next to the woods that one can’t get within town limits, is privacy. For this I am grateful. I don’t like questions and I never have. Neighbors like to ask questions and I don’t want to be bothered. I don’t like dealing with the reciprocating ratios of self-disclosure.

Out here, the houses are not real close together and the main road is just offset from my property for convenience. The beauty of it is that the road is concealed by a grove of birch trees and shrubs.

Neighbors. Walter and Sandy live next door with their three kids; two from this marriage who are twins, a boy and girl of eleven years, and an older girl from Sandy’s previous marriage who is starting to drive now. I don’t really know them, but the kids tromp about the yard hip deep in snow--they are intrepid and determined in the face of northern winters.

Yesterday when I was home drinking a vodka and lemonade, I heard a huge chunk of ice fall from the roof. Nothing for more than a second or two when I heard a thumping against the wall of the house. I went to investigate and found the younger girl’s legs poking out of a snow pile by the back door. Pulling her out was a lot easier than trying to get her to stop crying, and the whole scene would have been a disaster had Sandy not come out to help.

I’m really not cut-out for this savior shit, and honestly, someone should have been watching this mouse. I see them though, trudging through the snow, trooping out after their dog who’s constantly whiffing for winter berries on frozen branches.

Renting them the house was a good idea and here’s why: when I moved out here for good I didn’t look for work. I didn’t make my source of income known to anyone, and that’s the way I like it. But I almost forgot that small town people are nosy. They love to gossip, and someone in the area who cannot be identified as working there is definitely an outsider. The subject of gossip and speculation.

I wanted to blend in, so I bought the house next door, rented to a nice family, and sent the money to the bank regularly. I kept my other finances separate from the local financial institution.

The truth is I don’t have to work. Not now. Not ever if I live as I have been--modestly and well within my means. But from my personal history, work is all I have. It’s all I know. It’s actually who I am.

I know what it means to look back centuries on the legions of soldiers that marched into battle and said the ominous words from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Even as late as this war with the Serenians, the phrase is written on the backs of tactical helmets and body armor of grunts in the field...and so the tattoo of death remains unchanged to present day.

I am become drunk. That is what I know today. I am become vodka. Perhaps that’s a better way to put it. There’s a mil-spec assault shotgun in the bathroom and one by the door. I keep a Raven automatic pistol stashed in the couch cushions in the living room where I sit and watch the endless parade of interstellar news on a split-screen telecom. I keep a 24 hour clock on the wall so I know if it’s night or day. I’m often confused about if I need a drink or if I’ve just had one.

The groceries are delivered twice a week by a faded yellow and silver hovering automaton from the local chain so I don’t have to drive to town and interact with human beings. My list never changes from white bread, liquor, hamburger and eggs, some milk for my morning cocktail, and some lemonade for the afternoons if my stomach can take it.

Mostly though, the mystery of why my useless life is guarded with such energy is in fact a mystery to me as well. I have not produced anything of value in this life. I am a sociopath. I killed small animals as a boy and I’ve gone on to kill humans with frightening efficiency in the service of the military. To my understanding, my extraction from combat years ago was fast and covert.

I don’t remember much, the Alliance found my body crushed and half dead. It took a year, and the surgeons thought my recovery a miracle. So here I am, reconstructed and released as Fenmore Scott.

If by elimination a man can contribute to the sum of things, then show me the math. Here’s the real rub: now, with drink and sloth, I have drifted aimlessly into alcoholism. I stagger around in my fart smelling sweats, a hairless ape with some education and two biomechanical legs and a left bio-mech arm that can punch a hole through a concrete wall.

All this hardware cognitively integrated and sheeted with layers of synthetic tissue and epidermal membrane. They look and feel so real, and sometimes I forget that I’m a host to interlocking cybernetic neuro-transmitters and silicone micro-implants. I am become bionic.

Picture the scene of the neighbor’s child trapped beneath a hundred plus pounds of snow and ice. Her rescuer, drunk with a beard crusted stiffly with dried drool, stinking of a month without a bath; stumbling, and wheezing; unsteadily opens the door to discover tiny feet sticking out of a snowbank; yanking unceremoniously on the limbs he extracts the terrified child, who in red-faced fear leaps from him into the arms of her mother.

This is the beast I have become. Once sinew and the cat paw of death, now the soiled and malodorous sloth of number 1650, Route #28 in the little hamlet of North River. Were it not for my cat Damn it, who refuses to acknowledge me anyways, no one needs me, remembers me, or sends an awful fruitcake at Christmas.

The one thing that I have done besides remove my tumorous self from the body of society, the one thing I can say I’ve accomplished in my forty-six years on the planet, is pull an eleven year old from the snow.

My money, my position and rank in the military, and my love for Mozart and appreciation of Degas in the overall scheme of things will mean nothing. When death comes to call, I’ll end and that’s it. I’ll become protein; eaten like a shark eats a walrus. No soundtrack. No chorus of angels, last rites, or ceremony. Gone.

“Here lies Fenton Scott--goddamn he was a drunk.” Perhaps there’s some dignity in it that way. How bad can it be to almost instantly be transformed into food? Enter the ecosystem in the fast lane.

I staggered by a room upstairs that I like to call my library. Inside on a desk, the computer light of the monitor blinks and the cruel process of apathy and neglect take over in my mind.

A question forms: “Do I bother answering the call?” It’s by computer that I receive and accept my contracts. Long years have gone since I’ve accepted a contract to kill anyone. Long years since I was in any shape to do so.

Since no one has seen me in ages, and since I don’t go out or attend anything like a social function, no one knows I’m an enormous turd. So the calls come, usually months apart, but they are something I get with regularity.

Anyway, they come without a ribbon or bow, they come without warning through a scrambled network disguised as a news site called “The Daily”, but they always come with money. Lots of money.

Waking up in my chair downstairs is not an occurrence that is rare or in the least bit foreign to me, and I know by the pinch in my bladder that I’ve been here a while. Getting up to take a leak, I stumble, reel, and I put my socked foot into a bowl of wet cat food.

“Damn it! Fugg...grrr...damn it!”

The cat flattens herself with gleaming eyes, then blasts-off the couch and bolts upstairs to hide. She knows it’s not her, and I never mess with her, but the noise has set her into rocketship mode.

After pissing, I navigate the stairs to look for my pet and see the blinking light of the computer set to a constant green. That’s funny, I don’t remember answering it. But I’ve answered it though, or it wouldn’t be solid green. Had I ignored the message, it would either go on blinking red or disappear after a while. A short while. But it’s not. It’s green. Solid. Staring at me with one cycloptic eye, it draws me into the library.

Oh boy. No really...oh boy! I think I’m in some trouble. You just don’t answer a call like that and not follow through, and following through is not my specialty lately. For a year and a half I’ve been in the woods; I invited and allowed the fates to take a great big dump on me...a billowy, blustering, steaming pile of poo on my life. Now I’ve done something to alter being a bystander. What the hell do I do now?

Okay, okay, okay. First thing’s first. Check the message. Remain calm and read it. I sat down at the desk and slowly hit the Enter key on the board and a blue dossier screen popped up with instructions after I typed in my password.

The profile was a bald, heavy-set man that resided on a planet called Nexus. Robert Charon, age 54. Suspected of heading a slavery and prostitution ring, he was also mixed up with the manufacturing and distribution of crunch dust. Planet of origin, Earth.

This guy was always one step ahead of the law and a real piece of work: busted for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon at age 14, authorities believe Charon’s indoctrination into the life involved cleaning-out the register of a local holograph and music store at gunpoint.

He shot a customer that tried to run out of the building. A lady in her third trimester. She lost her baby from the trauma. Charon fled on foot with a bag full of money and credits but was picked up by the cops four days later when an anonymous source dimed his whereabouts for a reward.

Charon was out in under two years because he was a minor. But while in stir, it was believed that he shanked two kids, but it could never be proven. The story is that Charon stabbed the other two inmates while they tried to rape another young man that was just brought into the facility the night before.

Turns out that the kid he saved was the only son of a known syndicate boss named Jonathan Ness. A major player in the underground and deemed untouchable by the Alliance Council. So Charon had achieved status from the other juveniles on the inside for his actions, and inadvertently paved the way for his future by saving Ness’s son.

They became friends, and that friendship blossomed when they were released. Ness’s kid, Fredric, introduced Charon to his old man as a gesture.

Years later, at the tender age of 24, the police nailed Charon for carjacking, but he beat the rap and never served time thanks to a high priced lawyer provided by his new fairy godfather Jonathan Ness. Ness became his benefactor, and two years later, when his own son overdosed on a harquinol and crunch dust cocktail called a speed demon, he took Charon under his wing like a son.

At age 32, Charon was suspected of kidnapping an 18 year old girl along with multiple homicides that occurred across three cities over a period of four years...all believed to have been done on behalf of his newly adopted family. He had graduated to hitman. But the authorities couldn’t pin any of the murders on him, and the girl was never found.

He turned up later on Nexus as the “Manager” of the largest casino on Colony-9 (also known as Fluture). Nothing slipperier than a criminal that migrates across planets and colonies.

For Charon, money would never be a problem. When his mentor Ness died, Charon was rooted deep in the family business. A made man. He had expensive tastes and apparently enjoyed indulging in the finer things in life. Well-manicured, well-dressed, and heavily guarded by a group of scumbags wearing pricey suits, it just goes to show you that no matter how many times you polish a turd, it’s still a turd.

The profile indicated that Charon was behind the kidnapping of young women, getting them addicted to crunch, and turning them into high dollar call girls for the big spenders in his casino. Politicians, corporate shakers, celebrities, and inter-planetary delegates...a nice long roster of wealthy clients. All hush-hush and stealth for the reputations on the make.

I may not have amounted to much in the eyes of many in this life, but at least I’ve never preyed on the innocent. Charon was a predator of women and children. A reptile. And now my employers want him dead, and I’m the one that gets to end him for a twelve million credit contract. I am become death.

The instructions: get to New Detroit within the next two weeks and find a man named Charles “Kurlie” Montrell, a mid-level crime boss. He would provide me with a means to get to Nexus undetected. An expense account has been set up for my mission. But the first move--get sober...