High Winds / by charles desrochers


Charles Desrochers

There was a strong wind blowing across the high desert today. That’s as much weather as we can hope for so far from Central City. I miss the days when I could smell the moisture in the air fluctuate and just moments later feel a downpour of rain that’d wash my clothes and face. Earth had the best rain or snow or fog... Nigel doesn’t have weather.

I don’t usually just lounge on the deck, this town is sleepy enough without having the stereotypical sheriff sittin’ with his feet kicked up on the railing and hat sitting low over his eyes while he sleeps or smokes. I don’t smoke, the air here is dirty. I got a good nights rest so I ain’t tired. I do wear the hat but that’s to keep the sun out of my eyes.  You’ve got to wear glasses or a hat lest you want to go blind like the barber, Mr. Hutchinson.

He’s still a damn fine barber but it’s a true test of your upbringing to look those glassy blue eyes while carrying a conversation. Like I said though, damn fine barber. Damn fine.

            My new deputy is supposed to be coming into town today. That’s why I’m sitting here.

            My last deputy got himself lost in the town and I haven’t seen him in about a year. Figured that was a good amount of time to report that my right hand man was missing. ‘Sort of like a dog that runs away. You give it enough time for it to come back on its own but, soon enough, you’ve waited too long for the wrangler to be any use.

So, I needed a new right hand man, woman in this case. I’m a lefty in case you were wondering. There’s not a whole lot of murdering and stealing going on but that’s because we’ve managed this equilibrium of sorts. There used to be a lot more crime, or at least I noticed a lot more crime back in the day.  You see, there’s a drug here- can’t find it anywhere else- and I’m sorry to say that most of the town’s on it. The gang or collective or whatever they’re calling themselves these days has this hierarchy going on and if you step on any of it you’ll find yourself somewhere in the desert with no water. These days people just don’t get in the way, which suits me fine. I don’t do take “Gock” myself but I can see why others do. For fun this town’s got the brothel, the bar and the arcade. Other than that it’s just a few dozen monolithic apartment complexes to hold the tens of thousands of people that work in the refinery.  Entertainment is beamed in from Central City, food comes in on the rails since there’s no farms and handful of women to speak of. Whole town’s got this Amber glare to it from the minerals in the ground. It’s just brown and metal, as far as the eyes can see. Drugs are almost mandatory with that level of boredom. Besides, what else do they have to spend their money on?

It’s some sort of psychedelic but it allows the user to keep all motor functions. Imagine you’re watching television and suddenly everything gets all animated and wonderful. Same people, the same places but tripped out something fierce. Everything seems normal on the outside at first, calm waters running deep-ish, but you’ll realize that most people have been doing this every day all day for as long as they’ve been here. Somewhere behind their eyes is a fantastic world unfolding, or at least it would be if they hadn’t grown bored of that too.

            I’ve had it before, once. I didn’t like it, but, then again, I didn’t want it in the first place. If I had to, if you forced me to say it, I’d say that that was the worst day of my life. Enough about that though, I don’t like talking about it.

            I hope this new girl is different from the last. You got to give her credit, I think outside of Central City there’s only a couple thousand women in the mining towns that didn’t come here for the hooking. That’s not a judgment mind you. Prostitutes do pretty well for themselves out here. The hookers in our town are the wealthiest of all my constituents. They’ve got a union, schooling for their kids and any others that happen to show up, some even manage to get off this rock.

            Admittedly, I’m partial to a girl in particular, Clarisse. I can’t count the times I’ve told her that I loved her and she reciprocated the notion. Almost as soon as I was out of the bed someone else was most surely sliding in and giving the same money and probably whispering the same sweet nothings I had just got done telling her. I understand though, a girls got to eat, regardless of how well that is.

            The new deputy’s file says she was born here. Not in town, but on planet, Nigel, named after the guy that found it in the nights sky about a hundred or so years ago. It’s got some numbers that further identifies it but I never cared enough to learn them or at least remember them after I had.

Back when the man Nigel was looking through a telescope I bet it looked completely different then it does now. It could have been green or blue, red or purple instead of this sand and rock. It’s a couple million years from Earth so it’s gone through some wear and tear since whatever that reflected light that Nigel saw got to us and then us to there. If you want to add more complication to the matter, the planet’s atmosphere was all but inhospitable. Most of the air here was a mix of magnesium and nitrogen so we as humans did what we seem to do best and stuck our dicks in Mother Nature, fuckin’ it all up.

There could’ve been some beautiful foliage but after the terraforming it’s all stone and sand, metal and dirt. How do you think earth would react if its atmosphere changed over night? Not good, tell you that much. But, here we are, spending trillions and trillions of dollars to be here. Why? ‘Bet your ass it’s not for the beaches.

Nigel’s got this stuff on it, in it, whatever. We mine it for energy and bring it back. It’s got a long name to it with numbers and dashes but I don’t ever recall learning that one. We call it “Goop” and that’s where the peddlers get their “Gock,” the nasty stuff I was talking about earlier.

I don’t like it.  I wish it never turned up. Like I said before, worst day of my life.

What was I talking about? Oh yea, the new girl. She’s coming in today, that’s why I’m taking a load off. I’m waiting on the rail that’s bringing her in. Don’t know why they call it a rail though. Never seen them on a rail, usually they just float, zipping by like a bullet skirting across the desert floor.

Anyways, it’s late. They’re not usually. The company doesn’t like it when things are late, even though all a body’s got around here is time and money. It’s so hard to find workers for Nigel that the company happily pays them a small fortune to come out and slum it for a decade or so. Don’t know why though, I’ve never met a John who’s left. Instead they just stay here, with their stockpile of cash and nothing to do with it. It used to be that you would have one or the other, money and no time to spend it, or time with no resources to take advantage of it all. Not on Nigel I guess.

Only people I see not well off are the hobos in the CC, workers who for whatever reason couldn’t last on the rigs or spent too much on the Gock. It’s strong stuff. I hope she can stay away from it. Nothing really prepares you and it’s up to a person’s constitution if they’re gonna leave it be or not. Everyone on Nigel is here for the money. She was born here though, so, maybe she’s different.

I remember my first day as a deputy. The same winds blew. I can recall the rail racing these ancient branches and “Organic Debris” on its journey to Outpost D-56, the official name for the town. That debris is why all these buildings got armor on them. No one’s shooting up the place and any native life died when we took away their air. But if you had the misfortune of getting caught outside in a windstorm some chunk of tree bark or ancient leaf of grass would cut you in half or sever an artery.

I could count the hills between D-56 and CC on one hand. I grew up on the outskirts of a megalopolis back on earth. I was used to rural but in this place is something different entirely.

Everything on earth had been discovered long before I was ever born. We even found this suberenean species of snakes that were pure white with no eyes. Their bodies were covered in these scales that could articulate so move it through the dirt and rock. Some scientist got to thinking about how tough their skin was so he shot it. Turns out the little bastards were all bulletproof.

Every bay was mapped, every animal had been skinned, studied and every bug catalogued and used in whatever medical treatment you could think of. Whatever sense of adventure had long gone. Guess that’s what brought me here, the “thrill,” so to speak. I enrolled in the academy, took the classes and did well enough to graduate and earn a requested assignment. I thought I was going to be wooing young women, saving the day, and righting wrongs. More than ten years in and here I am, sitting on a deck, waiting on a rail for a girl to step off of it. It’s almost romantic if you skip over the finer brush strokes.

I think it was 12 years, actually. I wanted to make a difference but, alas, such was not the case. I was so gung ho and my mentor, the old Sheriff wasn’t having any of it. Before I showed up there had been an average of 7 arrests per year. I arrested that many after one bar fight. I’m not an old man but it feels like it. Those memories seem so long ago. The days here are short. Nigel does a revolution every 13 hours and a rotation around its sun every 3 Earth months. It fries the brain. I remember going to see a telecomm and if it were late enough you’d walk in with the sun high in the sky but when you left it’d be dark. That’s a coffee here, or a game of poker. Just blink and the night turns to day and then from dusk to dawn again. It’s surreal at first. Then like everything on Nigel, it gets old.

Imagine walking ‘round Old Paris and in the span of one year you’ve seen every season four times and in a mere half a day the night would come alive while dim yellow lights flickering on and illuminated every eccentric and artist. All of the winding cobble streets, cafes and elegant women who’s necks stretch for hours from their slant jaw to their soft and supple collarbones. It would really be magnificent if were anywhere else but here.

Fuck Nigel. 

It took a while to get here because Nigel is so far away from Earth. The only way to reach it in one lifetime is with wormholes. If you’re uninitiated, and I’m not sure how you wouldn’t be if you’re talking to me, then you’d think that these jumps happen in a blink of an eye, but no.

First you wait a while at whatever dark space is available. It’s not like you can just conjure up a miniature black hole wherever you want and there wouldn’t be repercussions. Once a satellite got sucked up there and we lost the navigation systems for a flight heading to Europa. It all ended well for those folks though, don’t worry. Their onboard system got lost and flew somewhere over Mylasia. That’s what counts for excitement, a delayed flight. I guess that why I couldn’t live on Earth anymore.

Once that perfect little window in that perfect little space happens you can call a black hole, we call this “waiting on the rift.” Then you activate the subautomic something or whatever and boom, worm hole. You’d think that with all of the precision it takes that this would be a job for some computer system but the boom creates so much static that only a person can reliably navigate in the rift. Let me tell you about the grit of these guys, probably as close to one of those fighter pilots we’d read about in school that would rip through the sky while bullets and shell casings poured around them and fire seeped from the holes in their fuselage. I’ve been shot, went to see the doc afterwards. Those dudes get shot? They fall from the heavens leaving only a crater and fire in some pour bastards back yard.

The stakes are even higher than that I suppose when you’re jumping the rift. The passengers are in a stasis the whole time the blackhole is up, which I hear is a good thing because rumor is that they can get stuck in that in between space. There’s an old wives tale that someone was awake during the jump, besides the pilots of course, they’re trained for that kind of thing. By the time the ship made it out of the jump the son of a bitch was catatonic. There’s all kinds of theories as to what that space is. Hell is a popular one. Some people think it’s nothingness, the complete absence of everything.  Whatever it was the story  goes that the man hasn’t said a word since.

I woke up feeling like a million bucks. I closed my eyes and a minute later I was approaching the orbit of Nigel. All’s I had to do was sign the paperwork, pick up my uniform- I don’t wear a uniform anymore- watch the video and get on the train.

Like I said before, I tried to do the best I could when I got here. It didn’t take long for me to see that our little station here had a big problem. I wasn’t about to play ball with the local pushers so they set out to make an example of me. At that point I didn’t even know the players’ names but when I started knocking on the right doors anyone could see that it was a matter of time before I got to the higher ups. I used to be pretty good at my job.

I cracked the eggs and they ended up making the omelet. They kicked in my door and started making demands. I told them I didn’t want any part of their operation. I said the next time they saw me was after I’d arrested all of them. You know, because they wouldn’t see me coming? Yeah, they didn’t get it either and of course they proved me wrong. I was so pig headed back then that I thought this whole macho shakedown was a good idea. Apparently it’s also not a good idea to tell a criminal you’re going to arrest him later because they’ll just save you the hassle and kill ya. But, luckily for me all I got was kidnapped.

I came to from time to time while they were carrying me but for the most part it’s a fog. They’re would be small glimpses through the rag that covered my eyes from time to time but for the most part it was just colors and tones. Bright yellow meant that we were outside. Grey and dark meant that we’d gone inside. Smells didn’t help much while we were traveling but once we reached the place it made all of the difference. Suddenly I could feel the air go cold and moist. Chlorine. That didn’t give me any new information about where we were but it stays with me to this day. The sense of smell in memory is a lot more powerful than people give it credit for. Smell a rose and thoughts of loved ones float into a person’s head. The smell of booze could make someone remember a particular bender. Chlorine makes me think of that hallway.

They were dragging my by my arms and I could hear the scraping of my feet bouncing off of the concrete and metal all around us. I figure we were in the factory somewhere. Makes sense, that’s where the stuff comes from so why wouldn’t they just set up shop at the source. 

It was a long hallway, felt like they were dragging me for an eternity. ‘Only thing I could think to do was stay as limp as possible and let them think that I was still knocked out. The hard souls of my boots sounded like the needle on a record, stuck in an infinite loop of dull static and pops once the music was finished.  It was hard to stay still. They weren’t exactly being gentle with me under the arms and it felt like my shoulder was about to rip out of the socket. I grimaced as the smell got stronger and stronger and it must not have been long before they saw. The slapjack came down hard on the back of my head and I was out again.

You ever wake up or been woken but you weren’t quite ready yet? You don’t know if you’re still dreaming or not. Reality seems more surreal and fantasy more grounded. The room they brought me to was about the same. My eyes opened but not as fast as I was willing them to and I thought I heard the sheriff’s voice. Everything was groggy and in a fog. The moments were bleeding into one another between the echoes and the ringing in my ears. It felt like I was underwater but I had the sense enough this time to stomach it and stay quiet.

The voice couldn’t have been him though. He did all but bury his head in the sand when it came to matters like this. Not to say he didn’t like to get his hands dirty but rather he thought it was all clean to begin with.

One guy was shouting and another was calm and polite. “Maybe that was him…” I thought.

After a while the quiet man started shouting too. I still didn’t move. I’ve had my fill of head trauma for the day.

It was hard not to flinch when I felt the gun barrel brush my head. It was light, almost gentle, and had I been more concussed I wouldn’t have even noticed the hairs on the back of my head being fanned by the cold metal. If I got a hair cut like I’d planned then I don’t think I wouldn’t have felt it.

But I did, and I knew. I knew that it was the sheriff and what they were arguing about was real clear. Still I sat silent, pretending to be as conscious as a corpse while they decided what could be done with me. They seemed familiar with one another, too familiar, like old friends. Possibilities started running through my head as the two went back and forth. How could I be so god damned stupid?  Of course Sheriff was in on it. He wasn’t just lazy, he was complaisant and it was always like this. I’d want to rustle the hedges to see what stirred and he’d be on his ass, feet in the air shouting “Let it be, Marshal.”

I was furious. If they were watching me they could see my hands clenched, teeth grind and jaw tighten. I wasn’t hiding anymore but in my quiet rage I didn’t notice how soft Sherriff’s voice had got.

He wasn’t just arguing. He was pleading.

Bossman would shout how I would effect business with a harsh graveled passion to his voice and sheriff would be soft and bargaining. When big B mentioned me though, the sheriff seemed to impose himself a little bit more. I snapped out of it in time to hear it.

“You don’t have to, John! He doesn’t know a thing and he won’t. I swear! He’s a good kid, just let him go.”

So that was his name… John.

Then I hear this John saying, “I thought we had an agreement. No more snooping and no more threats.”

A gun cocked.

“We didn’t have anything of the sort, damn it. You think me staying out of your business is an agreement? I didn’t care about what you did because I figure the people doing it are hurting yourself. I’ll give you credit, you’ve set up a hell of a pipeline. No one gets hurt less they’re looking to get hurt. But, you kidnap my deputy and we have a pretty big problem. “

Then I heard more guns pulled from holsters and the hammers drawn. I managed to recognize a sharp clanking surrounded by a tiny chorus of hydraulics and ratchets, almost like a factory inside the factory. Someone must have thrown on some mech-gauntlets the workers use to lift the barrels and pipes.

That’s when John chimed in again. “I guess we do,” he said.

This is when things got quiet. More quiet then I’ve ever heard on Nigel. Couldn’t hear the wind beat against the walls, critters scamper across the floor, heavy breaths from the tweaking bastards holding me. All I heard was the few drops of sweat falling from my nose. Sweat, that’s what I tell people. Time was at it’s own stand-off with fate and the hours could have been minutes or seconds for all I knew.

“Then let’s make a deal.”

Sheriff was the one who caved. This is when I learned that the first one to talk loses.

My exact thoughts were, “This can’t be goo…”

Smash cut to black again. Should’ve seen that one coming.

I woke up in my bed, face down.  When I got up I found myself stumbling to the mirror. My eyes struggled to open the same as after a bender and I hoped that it was all a stress dream.  I must have been working too hard again and it was bleeding into my nights.  Head hurt though.

That’s fine. The moonshine in Nigel’s strong. Again, I hoped to god that I just drank myself stupid. The moonshine on Nigel is some strong stuff, easy to get carried away and get so hung over a gang might as well have kicked your ass.

I didn’t turn the lights on when I got into the bathroom. I knew what I was going to see but I wanted to be as ignorant about it for as long as possible. Just a few more seconds of me thinking this was a normal morning before reality hit me as hard as those dumbass clubs did. I flicked the switch and I was snapped from all my dark thoughts or worries and thrust into the bathroom. Unfortunately for me the two weren’t too far off.

My eyes were swollen shut. Lumps protruded from every inch of my head and face like those golf ball sized tumors old dogs would get. I ran my fingers over each and every one to take inventory. That one was from the bedroom, this one from the hallway, the other from the white room.  They were all there.

I went to work and waited. Not like right now, here with my feet up, spurs dangling and cap slung low over my eyes. No I sat as straight as an arrow with my pistol in my lap waiting for something, anything. The hours ticked by and like in the room I lost myself in time. I sat in that chair until I needed food and water. I know people always say that they were “famished” or “starving,” “couldn’t go any longer without food” but let me tell you that this wasn’t a normal hunger. My stomach had turned inside out and began devouring itself like a worm. I went to the tavern.

At first a drink and loaf of something was all I wanted. The place was its usual self. The guys on the third shift were enjoying some sips before work and the girls were playing into the fold as normal, looking for new customers and old. I was new at that point but I didn’t feel like popping my call girl cherry that day. The bar and water helped bring me back up to speed. No booze that day, I was going to need what little wits I had. I walked through the felt curtain where the ladies had always taken their Johns for the night. It was soft on my bruises like the touch of a woman. For most it was a taste of things to come. The silky embrace wrapping around ya’ as you’re about to get your gock on and then get your groove on. I’ve been here before on a sting I conducted. I really was a little shit back then I guess. But this time was different. Everyone knew who I was and where I lived and whom I cared for. Apparently they knew it was coming too.

There he was. Big B, or John as I found out.

He must have been trying to set the scene for me because he was sitting at the biggest damn table I’d ever seen. To his sides were the place’s best girls and on the fringes were his men. He had a smug look on his face. I’ll never forget it.

Those jagged yellow teeth went in every which way but straight. The deep wrinkles on his face formed crooked lines like tattoos you’d see in the old records of the indigenous. For the life of me I wondered why he even smiled at all. It was disheartening. A barking dog was less intimidating than this man’s smile. The sharp edges of his lips shot out far past his teeth and nearly touched his ears. His hair was slicked back and his claw like fingers groped the women at his sides.

I thought “Great, I’ve gone and started a war with the devil himself.”

How long was he waiting at that spot? Was it all morning or did he just exist in this state? Like a snap shot permanently stuck on a scene in which Judas was toasting to himself.

“Sit down,” he said. “You look like you could use a drink.”

I told him I didn’t need one.

“Well,” he said, “maybe a warm bed and a soft body to go beside you?”

“No need for that either,” I told him.

Just as I did though I saw her, Clarisse. I busted her before I knew it weren’t illegal to be hooking in D-56.

She looked… pretty. Maybe I pegged her because I thought it was such a shame for a sweet young thing to be doing such an awful profession. Still is pretty too.

“Hi John,” I said.

That seemed to be enough. His smile faded to a stern look and his boys away. Not the girls, though.

“Where’s the Sheriff?” I asked.

“He’s retired,” John told me. “Congratulations, Sheriff.” He raised his glass and downed it. His voice was shrill like vultures circling a carcass.

I just kept staring, trying to find a weakness. There wasn’t any. He was invulnerable sitting there in his big comfy seat surrounded by every working girl worth a couple coins in 56. He knew it too. That drink, those girls, this place all meant nothing to him deep down. I didn’t say a word.

“I’ll tell you something. Take this drink.” John snapped his fingers and almost immediately a shot was placed in front of him. “ Take a girl. This one right?” He pointed to Clarisse. “You like her, right?”

I stood still. I didn’t see the point in arguing or shooting him. He was such a piece of work that his eyes disarmed me as soon as I walked into that room. He laughed out loud and it snapped me out of my daydream. That’s when that smile came back and all I could do was keep staring.

I thought over and over again trying to come up with a reason to keep this vendetta going but for the life of me there just wasn’t one to be had. The people, maybe? I might have been the only one who cared enough to even call it a crime. My pride? Something else that only mattered to me. Because selling Gock is wrong? Who’s “wrong” is that though? Apparently my values weren’t aligned with that of the 56’s. If they didn’t care then I decided I wasn’t going to either. I was tired of all of it.

This was what I signed up for but I didn’t know things would be so up hill. Maybe it was time to stop. Maybe I should’ve just played ball from the very beginning. Blood was on my hands and nothing I did even made a dent in this world.  It was all for naught, so they say. The silly old Sherriff tried to kick the crooks out of town but missed and fell on his ass. That’s how I’ll go into the history books here when the ladies tell their kids, if I’m even remembered at all.

I took a deep sigh and had the drink. Clarisse came to my side and kissed my neck. Lord did that feel good. First soft touch I felt in so long. Better than anything I’ve felt since too. It was the relief, the giving in that made it so relaxing. And here I am now, on a porch with my boots up waiting for my next would-be deputy. I’ll be better than Sherriff. I’ll let her know what’s what early on so they don’t have to find out the hard way, like I did.

About time now, trains rarely late.

            Yup, sounds like it’s coming through right now, fast as lighting and reliable as bad news. Guess I’ll go meet her then. Hope she’s a good one. Better than me at least.