Life as it is – 3
An unexpected visit by Carson forces Zachary to remember the past.
Set during "Westride", concurrent to "Life as it is – 2".
Disclaimer: 'The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers' is copyrighted by Hearst Entertainment, Inc. This is a work of fanfiction and I make no profit of it.
While the computer slowly transmitted the collected claims to a League database, Zachary enjoyed the opportunity to be alone with his thoughts in the land registration office.
He had hardly gotten a moment of quiet since arriving on Ozark, and it was as a good opportunity to compose his report while his memories were still fresh. It would also give him time to chat with his children when their time zones synced.
What he wrote took up one page, what he didn't write could have filled a lot more.
… We detected a group of about five subjects in land rush territory and gave chase. … One of the pursued threw a grenade that detonated the bridge we were riding over. Our robot horses were able to jump the abyss, but my horse, Brutus, failed to gain a firm stand and had to be steadied by the other rangers with the help of lassos. Because of that delay, the group of trespassers that we had pursued escaped. …
He was used to getting close to death during his work. He didn't take it personal, but it greatly increased his motivation to arrest the perpetrators. He wondered if it had been Daisy's intent to kill them. Probably not her prime goal. In her logic, if you couldn't fly, it was your own fault.
… We identified Macross, Daisy O'Mega and four other members of the Blackhole Gang but could not apprehend them due to their being on the other side of the starting line. …
Criminals were the spice of his professional life, but he liked his food bland. He also enjoyed creating order out of disorder and escorting the arrested to prison.
… At the starting line, we checked the mounts of people registered for the land rush and disqualified 13 of them. …
He had been to territory openings before, more than 15 years ago on Nebraska. But these had been lotteries and mostly well-organized and peaceful. Ozark had attracted a lot more fortune hunters. Before the hyper drive, being a galaxy ranger mostly meant escorting freighters, tracking down smugglers and assisting local law enforcement. The basic principles stayed the same, only that now dragons, sorcerers, singing cats and the occasional alien invasion had entered the mix.
… Using a wooden tower-like construction whose feet they set to explode, the Blackhole Gang was able to bridge the abyss. Through her psi powers, ranger Niko detected that they planned to rob three settlers of their tracking devices and take possession of their claims. We split up to warn the claimants. …
Goose went to help Annie. There was no way Zachary could have kept him from that task.
Niko took Carson. For all she disliked his attempts to flirt with her, she was the one he was least likely to pull a trick on.
Doc got Roy McIntyre. If he had to be robbed, Roy would most enjoy complaining to Doc. They were two of a kind even if they didn't admit it. He wondered if he should explain to Doc that on Mars nicknames were a sign of comradeship. You only went back to calling someone by their full name if you were about to die or kill them.
All in all, that part of the mission had been a success. Niko didn't throw Carson back into the water, Goose didn't break anyone's bones, and Roy still called Doc Wally.
Zachary himself had shouldered the task of dealing with the Ozark elders. He spent one hour trying to convince them that the Blackhole Gang's tower was contrary to the rules, one and a half hours that they should rescind the immunity for previous crimes and half an hour patrolling the ravine beyond the starting line to vent his frustration.
… Through the strength of Brutus and the other robot horses, we were able to transplant the markers and arrest the Blackhole Gang when they crossed unknowingly over the line. This maneuver was conforming to the stated rules of the land rush. …
Writing down a justification for moving the markers was easy. It was the Blackhole Gang's own fault if they didn't check the coordinates of the starting line. Never trust a galaxy ranger if you stand on the other side of the law.
Believing what he wrote was harder. But much more had been at stake than the three claims or the arrest of the Blackhole Gang. He hadn't moved the markers for Roy or Annie and certainly not for Wildfire. They'd have been able to find a different piece of land, even if having the Blackhole Gang installed in the New Territory would have been a nuisance.
He had done it for his team. He was afraid how one defeat after another would tear them to pieces and apart. He had always separated his job and his personal life, but after the Queen captured Eliza, it had become more difficult to focus. His teammates helped him stay alive and sane. Sometimes relationships were more important than order.
He wondered if they had a bad influence on him. But then, the universe had changed. Aliens just didn't draw numbers when to attack Earth.
Somebody knocked. He activated the lock of his e-pad and went to open the door. He was prepared to tell the elders that whatever their problem was, he would take care of it tomorrow – and saw himself face to face with Carson.
"May I come in?"
"What for?" The words were out of his mouth before he could think better of it.
"Well, I have to thank you rangers for helping me reclaim my land, don't I?"
Wildfire looked around the room, ostensibly for a place to hang his hat. He had a talent to feel welcome even if he wasn't.
"What are you going to use the land for?"
"Settling down. Sit in the shade on my veranda. Read a good book and sip some good wine."
"You've never settled down in your life."
Zachary briefly thought that Carson was on the other side of the demarcation line. There had to be some outstanding warrants for him. Theoretically, he could have arrested him, but it would have been petty.
"I came back to Mars pretty regularly."
You better hadn't, Zachary thought.
Cody walked past him into the room. Zachary gave in and shut the door.
"How's your family?" Carson put his hat on the table, but stopped short of appropriating a chair. His clothes were more rumpled than usual, but otherwise he didn't look like someone who had almost drowned.
His sibling were employed and not in jail.
His mother was still working, never giving in to fatigue.
„The kids are doing fine in school like you did?" Carson crumpled his hat in an old habit.
Jessy had been commended for doing the best physics presentation, and Zach junior had improved his grade in French to a B and been accepted onto the school basketball team.
"You wouldn't happen to have a photo of them?"
"Avoiding you hasn't been as easy as it used to be since we got the Andorean hyper drive. We haven't really talked in 20 years."
"And there is no need to change that." Zachary almost threw Carson out, but there was something serious in the desperado's eyes that said this wasn't a trick. At least not entirely.
"You know, I don't believe in guilt trips, but there are some things I think I ought to make amends for."
"Become a decent citizen then."
Unasked, Carson took a chair and put two bottles and two plastic beakers on the table.
"Coke and whiskey. Take your pick. The coke is more expensive to get on border worlds."
Zachary stared at the drinks. His first thoughts were delirium, poison and bribe, but none of it made sense.
„How's your wife?" Carson asked as he unscrewed the bottles.
"That's none of your concerns." A tornado couldn't have been colder than Zachary's voice.
Carson rocked back and forth on his chair. It squeaked audibly.
"The strange thing is, when I asked your colleagues about your family, they changed the topic or suddenly remembered to arrest me. So did your wife leave you, or did something happen to her?"
Zachary didn't reply. He'd already decided he wouldn't arrest Cody today, and Mars would turn green before he told an outlaw anything personal.
His silence must have told Carson enough.
"All right, as you said, it's none of my business. You know, I'm glad you didn't get your moral standards from me because it's not my strong side. But if I've learned one thing in 57 years, it is that you don't allow life to get you down."
"Why would you care at all, and what brought about this sudden change of heart?"
"Well, you know, one day I was traveling along the Denorius Belt, and my life support processor gave out. I had no replacement, and I thought my number was up. I sent out a distress signal, but I didn't hold much hope. As I was drifting in and out of a haze, some smugglers came. Took all my cargo, but left me an old life support processor. 20 minutes later, galaxy rangers showed up and wanted to arrest me. Took me quite a while to lose them among the debris. I had to get way too close to the asteroids, and the maneuvers almost used up the little life support I had left. Anyway, I'm getting too old for that type of adventure, so the thought crossed my mind I should settle down."
In Carson's mind, it probably made some amount of sense.
His watch told Zachary he'd have to go soon.
"You've been looking for danger all your life. Why would this instance make any difference?"
"I've escaped from the jaws of death more times than I care to count, but never for forgetting to buy replacement parts. And, I don't know, have I been so bad at taking care of things?"
Zachary stiffened. He had to tell his bionics to relax.
"There is a party going on. Why don't you join it? I still have work to do."
Carson grabbed his hat.
"Fine then. I guess I made enough amends for one evening."
As Wildfire walked out, he left an empty chair and two bottles Zachary didn't know what to do with.
He could have laughed at the absurdity of Carson trying to start over if it hadn't taken all his effort not to break the back of the chair he was clenching. He felt like running a marathon fast.
Carson was harmful simply by way of his example.
There were many things in Zachary's life that weren't as he wished them to be. He hadn't chosen to grow up on Mars during the Great Drought, or to be an orphan, or to know Carson. He made the best of what life handed him.
His step-father, Jim, had taught him how to do the right thing even under the pressure of hardship. His mother had taken care of the survival part of life. Jim was black and white. Mum added enough gray to make it work. When Carson came, he added splashes of color. Some of them were read.
It had been 18 years since Zachary left the wasteland of Mars. He'd gotten as close to perfection as he could by marrying Eliza. She was the part of him that could see the beautiful side of things.
"Why don't you give him a chance?"
"You don't know him."
Carson had some reliability, in his own way, but you couldn't depend on him to show up every day, clean the dishes or keep people out of trouble.
"Of course I don't know him because you never told me about him."
Zachary's step-father died when he was ten. His mother sold the family farm and moved to the slums of Mars City where she found work in a factory. A year later, Carson showed up and became a regular visitor in their family. He kept stopping by for four years. His mother never accepted money from him, but he brought his own food and took the kids to play. Zachary, Aron, Eileen and Karen trusted him.
"You can't trust Carson."
"Can't you forgive him?"
Sometimes he was afraid that hearing her voice meant he had gone crazy, but he was more afraid of not hearing it anymore.
"I'm not looking for revenge."
Whenever he was talking to her, she wore the white-blue uniform designed for civilian employees that she had worn the last day he had seen her unharmed.
"Fine. Then can't you talk to him?"
"You don't know him. Hist list of crimes is longer than the average government budget."
"No, I don't. But I know that you know what it is like to live with regret."
She was standing there, looking at him with compassionate eyes, yet too far away to touch.
Carson didn't deserve this. But then, by definition, there was no way anyone could deserve forgiveness.
"What would your life have been like without Carson?" Eliza asked.
"I would have been older when I first tried ice cream. I wouldn't have seen half the parks of Mars City I did. We wouldn't have had any toy lions. My stupid brother wouldn't have gotten it into his head that being and outlaw is something glorious."
"What happened to Aron?"
"He joined a gang. They treated him as cannon fodder. He lost his right hand in a raid. Mum used up all our savings to buy a simple prosthesis for him. He got four years of juvenile detention. Used it to learn a trade. He's making do as a mechanic."
"I don't think Carson intended to hurt your family."
"We're responsible not only for what we intend to do."
Curious now, she turned around to face him.
"Is that why you became a galaxy ranger, to fight outlaws?"
It was easier to be totally honest with her when she was only a figure of his memory, and that frightened him.
"No. If you live for revenge, it catches up with you."
That was the law of Mars: live by a gun, die by a gun. You became either a victim or a fighter. A cop or a criminal.
"What was your motive then?"
"Hope. I wanted to get out of it."
The only way away from Mars were the skies, as Carson would say. Only that he didn't use them to leave crime behind.
"Was everything you learned from Carson bad?"
"He's dangerous even to those he loves. You have to draw a line somewhere."
"I know you're good at that, honey. But what type of picture are you drawing?"
"I... I don't understand." She was a literature teacher, but he didn't think she was quoting.
She turned sideways again.
"No little thing that you could be thankful for?"
"He taught me to bluff at poker."
Her outline was fading. Maybe he couldn't envision what more she would have said. He was alone again.
The two bottles were reminding him he needed to come to a decision.
Although he would never admit it to anyone, knowing Carson had prepared him for being a galaxy ranger. Without that experience, commanding a team of rangers who thought moving the markers, using a band of Lycans for interrogation and donating used cyclops technology to Tarkon was part of their job would long have driven him crazy.
"Maybe there were one or two things to be thankful for."
He didn't think he would regret never talking to Carson again, but why take any chances.
He gathered up the bottles and the beakers and made a detour to their ship to get some dice. He found Carson on the other side of the line where he was playing star-poly with the pocket version of his AI, Roberta. Carson looked surprised to see him.
"I didn't come to talk. There is an amnesty this side of the line. Let's just say right now I only remember that you used to be an expert at playing Yatzy."