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The red winds of Togra-Re whipped about Ace Archer’s face, his nose and mouth covered by the silvery-blue scarf given to him by Princess Cymbeline. He squinted to keep the toxic crimson dust out of his eyes, but it was only partially successful. He could feel tears running down his cheeks and he knew they must look like blood.
The sky-ark was teetering precariously; it had only lost one grav-jet, but it was enough to destabilize Khan’s entire floating citadel. Ace hoped that Anne and Chip had been able to get to the flight spheres in time.
“Archer!” screamed a hoarse voice from behind him. Ace didn’t turn. Dalor Gruz, Malus Khan’s finest assassin, had tracked him down. Ace had known he eventually would, but he had hoped he wouldn’t be hanging onto the side of a crashing sky-ark when it had happened.
Up ahead, Ace saw the great crack in the ground the Togra-Reans called the Catachasm. It was easily wide enough for the sky-ark to descend into it. The natives said that any who entered the Catachasm would be devoured by the spirits of the ancient dead. At least Malus Khan would be going down with him, Ace mused.
A green beam of lethal light illumined the right side of his face as Gruz’s raybeam barely missed Ace. Dalor Gruz was too good a shot to miss at this distance. He was playing with Ace.
“Just do it, Gruz!” Ace yelled. “You’ll still go down with the rest of us.”
“You have cheated death on too many occasions for me to underestimate you, Archer,” Gruz growled. “No, this time your damned luck will serve me as well.”
Ace laughed. “You want me to save you, Gruz? As soon as you’re out of danger you’ll kill me anyway. I’m no frog to your scorpion!”
“I care nothing for your nonsensical metaphors, Archer. I only care to survive.” The red winds were thicker now, and Ace Archer could only see Gruz’s glowing eyes. “I give you my word on the blood of my victims.”
“The word of an assassin is hardly something I’m likely to value,” Ace said. “Besides, I’m no more likely to survive this than you.”
That was when the rope hit Ace on the top of the head. He looked up to see a flight bubble, blue electricity arcing across its surface.
“Grab the rope!” Anne Stevens yelled.
“Darn it, Anne, you were supposed to get clear!”
“And leave you behind? Not bloody likely!”
Ace grabbed the rope. They were close to the Catachasm now, and Ace worried that even a supercharged flight bubble wouldn’t be able to get free of the spiritual gravity of the Togra-Rean dead.
“Fly, I’ll climb as we go!” Ace yelled. He hoisted himself up onto the rope and began to climb. A green light shot a hole through his billowing cloak.
“I will sever your lifeline if you move in the slightest, Archer.” Gruz said in his booming voice. “Unless…”
“Unless I bring you with me? Hah!”
“Then perhaps I should just kill your woman.” The assassin raised his raybeam pistol to aim it at the flight bubble.
Ace kicked against the side of the sky-ark and swung out over the gaping maw of the chasm in a parabolic arc. Gruz turned to fire at Ace, but the tension of the rope was already pulling Ace back towards the assassin. Two Chicago-made boot heels hit Gruz in the face and there was the sound of breaking bone. Gruz hit the side of the sky-ark and dropped his pistol.
“Ace! We’re falling into the canyon!” Anne screamed from above. It was true. As the sky-ark listed to the left in a desperate attempt to avoid the Catechasm, the flight bubble continued inexorably forward. Ace was pulled away from the ledge before he could finish off Dalor Gruz. He cursed under his breath; they would meet again.
Rapidly Ace shimmied up the rope to the opening in the side of the flight bubble. From inside, Anne gripped his wrist tightly and leveraged him in.
“Thank goodness you’re safe,” Anne said.
“We’re not out of this yet,” Ace said, turning to the bubble’s console. The atomic charger that Professor Prospero had built was attached to the side, pulsing with blue lightning. Ace grabbed the flight stick and yanked it hard to the right, executing a perfect Immelmann turn. They were heading out of the Catechasm now, but even with his visibility obscured by the red winds, Ace knew they weren’t moving fast enough.
“Ace, what’s that noise?” Anne asked.
Ace listened but all he could hear was the crimson air whipping around the bubble and the flickering crackle of the atomic charger.
“I don’t–” he started.
“They’re calling my name!” Anne shrieked, her face growing pale. “They know I’m here!”
Ace gritted his teeth in steely determination. Whatever spectral secrets were lurking in the great pit of Togra-Re weren’t going to get their hooks in his girl. Ace knelt next to the atomic charger, remembering the words of Professor Prospero.
“The radioactive core should last long enough to make it back to the Tempest,” he had explained. “So long as you keep it at this level. Any more power and you’ll be stranded in the Great Red Desert.”
What Prospero had meant as a warning, though, Ace saw as their last chance. Removing the casing from the charger, he saw the output dial connected to the atomic core. Ace put on his leather gloves to protect his hands from the lethal atom radiation and reached inside, turning the dial all the way to its maximum setting.
The bubble lurched forward like a Coney Island roller coaster cresting a peak. Anne fell backwards but Ace caught her in his arms.
“Out of the fire, into the frying pan,” Ace quipped, but Anne was unconscious.
They rocketed free of the Catechasm and into the Great Red Desert of Mars.
“Mr. Brakura?” Anne asked.
Ace turned to her, fear striking his heart.
“It’s time for your pain meds, Mr. Brakura,” said his nurse Kristy, today dolled up in scrubs with some kind of bizarre yellow sponge wearing pants on them. “What’s your pain level at?”
Ace was lying in a hospital bed. The television affixed to the wall was silently playing some kind of court show. Ace reached a wrinkled and spotted hand to rub the sleep from his dry eyes. An PICC line ran from his neck over the side of the bed. Ace Archer was dying.
“I survived the torture chambers of the Order of Jeth,” Ace muttered, his voice weak and old. “Maybe a five.”
Kristy smiled patronizingly and screwed her syringe into his IV tube. “Tell me when you feel it.”
After a moment, Ace felt the dilaudid hit his bloodstream and a wave of relaxation rippled down his body. He closed his eyes. “Feel it,” he said, and the deserts of Mars faded to the back of his mind.
© 2013 by Douglass Barre, All Rights Reserved.