"How dare they defile The Survivor's Covenant?" asked Winston.
I didn't answer his rhetorical question. Instead, I watched the approaching cliff face as our transport flew over the lake towards the defilers. They'd come far enough to discourage visitors, but had still kept the city on the horizon of the lake.
You ask me, "defiled" was an overstatement. But, Winston's native language was hyperbole. When it came to the Covenant, no statement was too grand. Was the couple's relationship a violation of the law? Yes. "Defilers?" Come on.
At least Winston's reputation had preceded him. The poor bastards who'd worked with or under him in the past made a point of warning anyone else about to join the club. Which was nice. Especially since the club was all guys that didn't generally catch on quick; new guys and fuck-ups.
I was not a new guy. I'd never been one to follow the letter of the law. Not really marshal material, but I also didn't like being told what to do. When they'd said I'd never make it as a marshal, I'd decided to show them. And there I was.
Anyway, I'd been warned. That was all that kept me from rolling my eyes every time Winston opened his mouth.
The obsidian face of the cliff rose straight up from the dark blue lake. Little pockets of black sand beaches reached out into the water while bits of volcanic rock pushed up through the sand like islands. A misty wet cloud bloomed around us as the engine wash beat down on the lake.
"There." Winston pointed to the small cave mouth three or four meters up the face. A small boat waited on the beach below.
I set the craft down next to the boat and finished the landing cycle, leaving the transport in standby mode. Winston unbuckled his harness, stood, and stretched. Twenty yards of shore lay between the nose of the transport and the cliff face.
He rubbed his beard and cracked his knuckles. The joints in his knees popped and snapped as he moved into the small cargo bay in the back. By the time I joined him, he'd already opened the storage locker that held our railgun rifles.
"Rifles?" I asked.
"Yep." He set a rifle on the scuffed metal bench bolted into the wall.
"It's just the two of them." I rested my hand on the pistol on my hip.
He looked up from the rifle, his face stern. "How long you been a marshal?"
I did the math. "Five years next month."
He checked the charge on one of the rifles. "You been playing fast and loose with the rules the whole time?"
"I wouldn't say that."
He scowled. "I would. You"--he jabbed a finger into my chest--"think you can make it up as you go. You take the safety the Covenant provides as a given. But laws, rules, and regulations are the way they are for a reason. Regs say we take rifles. Besides. In the twenty-five years I've been a marshal, I never wished for a smaller gun."
He handed me the rifle.
"Yeah. Okay." I hefted the long barreled railgun. How far up that ladder would Winston have to climb before he wished for at least a lighter gun?
He turned to the screen on the wall opposite the storage lockers. It showed a thermal image of the cliff and caves. He thumped the touch pad below the screen, skipping through menus with familiar ease. The thermal sensors found and focused on the man and woman.
"He's armed," Winston said. He unfastened a metal buckle at his ribs, loosening his plate armor. He took a worn, dirty book from a pocket inside and held it out. His copy of The Survivor's Covenant looked like he'd carried it with him every day of the twenty-five years he'd been a marshal. Smelled that way, too.
"In the name of the Covenant," he said, motioning for me to do the same.
I had no desire to touch his sweat-moistened book. But since his face told me he was serious about the rarely-used ritual, I played nice.
Hand on the book, I said, "In the name of the Covenant."
Satisfied, he tucked it back into place and fastened the armor.
"Starboard or stern hatch?"
"Stern," he said. A quick tap on the touch screen and he said, "Opening hatch." It opened, swinging up and out from the back of the transport. Cool air slid into the cramped cargo bay.
He made a series of hand signals that indicated I should walk around the corner and assess the situation.
I sighed. "Yeah. I'll look." He gave a curt nod and lifted his rifle.
I stepped out of the transport, keeping its mass between me and the cliff. A breeze rolled off the lake. It felt fresh, clean. At my feet, gentle waves rolled onto the shore. Far off across the water, the silver glint of the city buildings pierced the otherwise featureless horizon. I could see why the "defilers" picked this spot.
I glanced up at the cliff, then nodded to Winston. He stepped out.
The man greeted us with a shot from his rifle. It struck the transport between us and him, bouncing off the armor plating.
"So much for hospitality," I said.
Winston gave me a sidelong glance. "I told you to che--"
The man shouted, "You two just get back in your ship and go back where you came from. That armor won't do you any good up here."
Winston answered, "Mr. Costa. We are city marshals. Cease fire and surrender your weapon."
"Or what?" Costa said.
Winston trained his rifle on the cave mouth. "Do you know what a mini-grenade will do in a cave that size?" He motioned for me to get one ready.
I turned to Winston. "Really?"
Before he could answer, the rifle landed in the sand near the front of the transport.
I wanted to point out to Winston how successful our strategy of not killing everyone had been. Instead, I bit my tongue and stared at the rifle. Winston glared at me as if his stare could leave a mark.
"Now what?" asked Costa, still hidden in the darkness.
"You come down," said Winston.
Costa stepped onto the threshold and partially into the light. His clothes were worn and dirty, his jaw darkened with a beard. He looked as filthy as the copy of the Covenant tucked into Winston's armpit. He set a wide-brimmed hat on his head and climbed down the ladder.
The woman moved to the mouth of the cave. I could see the loose folds of her tunic and part of her face as she peered out from the safety of the shadows. Costa motioned for her to stay. He stepped off the last rung onto the sand.
"Sir. I am Marshal Winston Gates and this is Marshal Zeke Bowen. We are here because you and the woman with you are violating law 17 of The Survivor's Covenant. 'Sow each field with many crops. Let each crop spread across many fields. No man-–'"
Costa interrupted. "Fuck you. Fuck your book."
Winston continued as if Costa hadn't spoken. "'No man or woman may pair with only one partner; diversity ensures continued adaptation and evolution; our duty is to ensure the diversity of our offspring.'" He paused. "How do you answer this charge?"
Costa looked back up at the woman in the cave where she stood, still half in shadow. "We're not going back."
Winston said, "Marshal Bowen, what is the penalty for violation of the laws set out in the Covenant?"
"In this case?" I asked. "Or generally?"
"Death," he said. "The penalty is death."
How far would we take this? Execution was more of a closing argument, not an introduction.
Costa put on foot on the ladder. "That all you got to say?"
"There is no more to say. That's the sentence for violating the Covenant," said Winston. "It is non-negotiable. You can end your violation and return to the city and your city-selected offspring partners. Or, we can come up there and serve you and Selah's sentence."
I looked towards Winston. "Selah?"
Costa started back up. "Like I said. Fuck you. Fuck your book. She's with me. And we're not going back." He climbed back up the ladder, pausing at the mouth of the cave. He pointed at me. "Fuck you, too."
Costa went back into the cave.
Winston turned to me. "Zeke. Go serve their sentence."
"So is this a good marshal, bad marshal thing?"
Winston closed his eyes and tilted his head to the sun. He exhaled.
"Not that I'm saying you're a bad marshal. But you know, I could go up and try to talk them down..."
"No," he said.
My brow furrowed. "No negotiation?"
"What are you going to negotiate?" he asked.
"Their return to the city. I mean, we could always restrain them." I pointed to the handcuffs on my belt. "Maybe even throw in some corporal punishment? The Covenant allows it."
"Mr. Costa already declined our offer to return them to the city."
"Yeah, but he probably didn't think we were going to come up there and shoot them both in the face."
I glanced back up to the open mouth of the cave. "Don't you think we're being a bit hasty? Declaring a death sentence for those two because they won't reproduce with their selected partners...It's just so..."
"The Covenant is clear on the penalty for non-compliance. It's also clear that it's our job to enforce that penalty. So go serve their sentence"--he pointed to the ladder--"unless you want a refresher on the penalty for insubordination."
He wasn't talking about time off with pay, so I put one foot on the bottom rung.
I turned and asked again, "Selah?" Their full names had been in the briefing, but Winston using it felt odd.
He pointed at the cave.
I sighed, readied my rifle and started up. Maybe I could talk them down once I got up there. Although Winston might still shoot them when they came down. What did he have against these two? I'd heard he was a stickler, but this was ridiculous.
"Make it quick," he said.
My heart pounded as I climbed, the rifle slung over my shoulder. It felt loud enough for Winston to hear, especially in the dead quiet of the lakeshore. My head was almost level with the floor of the cave when I stopped. I readied my rifle, pointed the barrel into the cave and peered over the lip into the darkness. Costa and the woman sat on the floor, watching me.
"Marshal Bowen, this is my wife, Mrs. Costa," he said.
I knew what it meant, but it wasn't a word people used anymore. The Covenant had eliminated state-sanctioned lifelong partners, loosening the bonds of the family unit enough that we could overlap and procreate with less friction.
She said, "Please, call me Selah. And yes, we are husband and wife."
I looked over my shoulder to see Winston staring up at me. He held up his watch and tapped the face. I turned back to them. "Listen. I might be able to help you, but you've got to change the way you're--"
Mr. Costa interrupted. "Do you know why the survivors included that law in the Covenant?"
I gripped the ladder in one hand. "Mr. Costa. You need to work with me here."
He motioned for me to join them in the cave. "Let's talk."
"That's the right attitude," I said. "More, 'Hey let's talk this over' and less 'Fuck you, fuck your book.'" I steadied myself against the cave floor and climbed out of the sun into the cool darkness.
Mrs. Costa said, "We had to adapt. Diversify the gene pool. It was the only way to ensure our survival."
"No time for a history lesson. We need to talk abo--."
Winston shouted up, cutting me off. "Do you need assistance, Marshal Bowen?"
I looked at the Costas. "You know he sent me up here to shoot you both?"
"We had to multiply fast, grow the population," said Mrs. Costa.
"Do you really not get what's about to happen?"
Mrs. Costa continued, unperturbed. "The Survivor's Covenant was written generations ago. There were less than a hundred survi--"
Winston again. "Marshal Bowen, is there a problem?"
I shouted back, "No sir. I'm just...We're talking."
The top of the ladder scraped against the cliff face as Winston stepped on the bottom rung.
Mr. Costa said, "There were less than a hundred survivors left after the crash. We now number more than ten thousand. The law served its purpose."
Winston's steps echoed up the ladder. Neither of them seemed to hear the footsteps or my warnings. "He's going to shoot you. The law demands it," I said.
Mrs. Costa said, "There's no reason to enforce that law."
She had a point. But as much as I didn't want to enforce the letter of it, Winston sure did. I shrugged. "It's the law. It's the book."
They held hands. Mr. Costa said, "You're not here because of the book."
Something tickled the back of my brain, but another thud of boot on ladder behind me pushed it out. "It's not like you can't see each other," I said. "You're both obligated to reproduce with three other partners, but you can still live together. You know that, right?"
Mrs. Costa tilted her head. "You don't know, do you?"
That was when Mr. Costa's expression changed. His eyes flew open and he threw his hands up and out. The boom of the Winston's railgun filled the cave. A finger-sized hole appeared in Mr. Costa's forehead. A cloud of pink mist exploded from the back of his head. He crumpled to the ground. Winston's rifle made a barely audible whine as it recharged.
I rubbed my right ear, still ringing from the noise.
"What the hell, Winston?"
Mrs. Costa's cry started in her stomach. Her mouth fell open and she let out a dry moan that rose in pitch and volume until she fell on her husband, wailing a wet, choked scream. She pulled his limp body to her chest, cradling his head as she cried.
"In the name of the Covenant," said Winston. He stood in the cave mouth, his rifle now pointed at her.
I set my rifle down and stepped in front of Winston. "You can't just shoot people, Winston."
"Am I going to serve three sentences today, Zeke?"
He was serious. I said, "You've lost your mind. This isn't the way we--"
Mrs. Costa set a bloody hand on my shoulder, stepping into the beam of light from the cave mouth. "Wait." She held the loose folds of her tunic in her other hand. Her words just slipped over her lips, flat and tired. "I'll go. Okay, Winston? I'll go."
She might have gone into shock, but that was better than her being dead. If she could be reasoned with, maybe we could work something out, something that didn't involve executing her.
Winston's brow furrowed, his eyes on her stomach. "Are you pregnant?"
"And it's..." Winston motioned to Mr. Costa's body.
"Wait--" I said, but she nodded yes before I could finish.
Winston's finger moved from the trigger guard to the trigger. Acting on instinct, I swung my arm up into the barrel, sending the projectile into the ceiling of the cave.
Dust and debris exploded down onto our heads, bouncing off our shoulders and filling the air. My pistol was in my hand, pressed hard into the crease of his body armor.
He stared me in the eye, looked down to my gun, then back up at me. He ground his teeth together. "What exactly, Marshal Bowen, is your intention?"
"Put the rifle down."
He set it at his feet.
"Kick it out of the cave."
He did, and I listened for the sound of the rifle hitting the ground. "Come on, Winston. A pregnant woman? You're going to shoot an unarmed pregnant woman?"
He held up his right hand, palm open. Eyes still on me, he unbuckled his body armor. He slid his copy of the Covenant out and held it up. "That child makes their violation of the law indelible. Selah's first child by Mr. Costa is back in the city with her parents. That combination of genes already exists, and the law is clear. There is no place in our society for their second child," he said. "It's the law."
I shook my head. "Why do you keep calling her Selah? This isn't about the book, is it?"
He shook his head. "Sorry, Zeke."
Moving both hands at once, he brought the Covenant down on my gun and grabbed for the pistol on his belt. My gun went down as his came up.
I shoved him with my free hand. He stumbled. He clawed at the sides of the cave mouth. His foot stepped on empty air. Winston fell from the cave, arms windmilling all the way down until he landed on a rock with the unmistakable cracking of bone.
"Huuuhrrrkkkk," he groaned, one leg bent the wrong way, his pistol several feet from where he lay. He writhed in pain. I needed to get to him before he got to his pistol, but I had a minute or two. He wasn't going anywhere.
I lifted my eyes to the city.
An injured officer of the law lay below me, and a pregnant violation of the law waited behind me. And I couldn't see a way they both came home.
That's when a sound turned my attention to Mrs. Costa. She cowered in the corner behind Mr. Costa's body, holding my rifle with unsteady hands. The barrel shook as she sobbed, but still pointed at me.
"Whoa," I said.
"The gun. On the ground."
I backed toward the cave mouth.
"On the ground," she said.
I set my pistol down. "I tried to help you. Remember?"
"Have you figured it out yet?" she asked. "Or are you so stupid I have to write it down in a book?"
"He knows you. That's it, isn't it?"
She nodded, glaring through me. "And?"
"You're paired as future partners?"
"How long have you known him?" I glanced over my shoulder.
"Does it matter?"
I guessed it didn't. "Look. There has to be a way we can work this out."
"He said our child made it indelible." She put one hand to her stomach. "You know what that means for us?"
I stepped to the cave mouth and pointed to Winston, "He shot your husband. I'm the voice of reason, remember?"
She considered my answer. Pressing her lips together, she tightened her grip on the gun. Before she could decide, I jumped, aiming for Winston.
When Winston fell from the cave, he hit a rock hard enough to break a couple bones. He'd rolled off that rock to lay in the black sand. By the way he grunted when I landed on him, I think he broke a few more. That, and the dry snap of his ribs under my shoulder.
He deserved it.
His body compressed under me, absorbing most of the shock. He grabbed at me as I rolled off him and came up in a low crouch. Pulling my foot free from his hand, I ran for the transport.
Mrs. Costa fired at me from the cave mouth and missed. The splash in the lake told me she missed by a lot. I doubted she'd ever hit a moving target, but I hurried anyway.
Winston crawled to his pistol, groaning every inch of the way. He rolled and fired after me. Shots bounced off the armored front of the transport as I ducked into the open bay door, closing it behind me.
I grabbed the mic in the cockpit and keyed the external speakers. "What the hell are you shooting at me for, Winston? You want me to fly off and leave you here? Let her drag you into the lake and leave you?"
That's what I should have done. Flown off and left them both. That would have made for an easier explanation back home, at least until they sent somebody out here for the bodies.
Winston rolled on to his back and started firing up at the cave mouth. The asshole. After a shot sprayed rocks into the cave, Mrs. Costa started shooting back at him.
Great. I watched through the transport's monitors as they exchanged volleys back and forth. They had plenty of bullets, his pistol held fifteen and she probably had triple that in the railgun. But between his bad position and her bad aim, they hit nothing but the cliff face and sand. Still, I wasn't about to go out there while they were shooting at each other.
Maybe they'd run out of ammo before one of them shot the other.
Maybe they'd just shoot each other.
That'd make for an easy explanation. Sad, but easy. But I doubted I'd be that lucky.
Then I saw Winston pull the trigger with no result. That was good. "Come on," I said under my breath. He started crawling toward his rifle and the transport.
I had forgotten about that. Mr. Costa's rifle was out there too, so they weren't running out of ammo anytime soon.
At least I'd closed the hatch.
Mrs. Costa took advantage of the opportunity, steadying her rifle against the lip of the cave. She fired and missed. He crawled on. She fired again and again, missing by less with each shot. He made it to his rifle and took it in one hand, continuing on towards cover.
Somehow, she hit his leg as he reached the edge of the transport. He grunted and kept going, sliding past the cockpit's side facing windows and out of view. He was a bastard, but he was a tough bastard. I toggled the side view camera and saw him head for the back of the transport, using it for cover.
With twenty yards of lakeshore between the ship and the cliff face and the cover of the transport, he'd be safe for now.
She stopped shooting. Finally, she stopped shooting.
Was this my chance?
He'd re-armed. Still, this might be the best chance I'd get to take control of the situation. As much as I didn't want to, I got up and went back to the cargo bay.
Maybe if I got him under control, I could talk some sense into her. Assuming neither one of them shot me first.
I grabbed the medkit off the wall in the cargo bay. Maybe I could sedate him while I bandaged that leg wound.
Because I'd finally come around to never wanting a smaller gun, I grabbed a rifle. And because I'd also decided I couldn't have too many guns, I slipped a pistol into my holster and tucked a second smaller one inside my body armor. It hurt like hell, jammed between the plate armor and my ribs, but I was done being sorry. I was going with safe from here on out.
The one thing I did know was he'd probably expect me to come out of the rear hatch. So, even though it would give Mrs. Costa a free shot, I decided to go out the smaller hatch on the port side. I checked the external cameras and saw him propped up on the starboard stern corner, Costa's gun in his lap. If she didn't shoot at me, I might be able to get behind him. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
I ducked around the corner, staying low, my rifle up and ready.
He lay propped up on the back corner of the transport, facing the cliff face.
He heard my footsteps and started turning toward me.
"Don't," I said.
He'd managed to swing his rifle halfway around, but stopped there, the gun aimed out at the lake.
"Down. Set it down."
He thought about it for a second, then nodded and laid it on the ground.
"Slide it to me." I wasn't getting close enough for him to grab me.
He did. I bent and picked it up, my gun still trained on him. I tossed his rifle into the lake.
"Where's Costa's gun?"
He tilted his head towards the cliff face. "Over there somewhere."
He leaned back against the transport. "What now? You going to shoot your partner and take the criminal home?"
"I'd rather not."
He gazed out at the lake. "Then what? What scenario do you see where this works out? What part of the Covenant are you following?"
"This was never about the Covenant, was it?"
He turned his head and stared at me. "What do you think you figured out, fuck-up?"
"Selah. You know her."
He shook his head. "I'm getting interrogated by a junior fuck-up."
"And you want her. For you. You're supposed to partner."
"Why don't you toss me that medkit?"
I shook my head. "So you shot her husband. You almost shot your partn--"
He laughed. "Husband? Don't tell me you buy that shit."
"I don't buy your shit. That's what I don't buy."
He focused on something behind me. I'd forgotten about Mrs. Costa. Too late, I felt a gun barrel against the back of my head.
"You go ahead and toss your gun in the lake," she said.
Winston shook his head like I should have known better. And he was right. I should have.
Did she have any ammo left? Had she picked up Mr. Costa's rifle? I didn't want to take the chance, so I threw my rifle into the lake to join Winston's.
"Now what?" I asked.
"The pistol, too."
I took the pistol from my holster and tossed it after the rifle. It splashed and sank. As the metal of the gun I'd stuffed inside my armor dug into my ribs, I was glad for the pain.
She didn't speak for a few seconds. Then the pressure from the gun barrel disappeared. I heard her step back.
"Sit," she said. "Next to him."
Winston said, "You shoot us and they'll send more."
She considered his statement. She blinked, looked over to where they'd tied up their small boat and said, "At least I'll have a head start."
"Why don't we just forget the damn book? Forget the rules?" I offered.
"It's not like you followed the book out here," she said.
Winston said, "As a matter of fact, we did. We are marshals and are bound by the Covenant."
She squinted at him. I saw something turning behind her eyes. "You still have it tucked in there?" She pointed at his chest.
He nodded. "Of course."
She pointed to me. "Give it to him."
She raised the rifle to her shoulder and pointed it at his face.
"Okay, okay," he said. He unbuckled his body armor and slipped the grimy book out.
Where was she going with this?
Winston passed it to me and I took it. "Now what?"
She said, "Law three. Read it."
Winston's shoulders fell.
I thumbed the book open and found the third law. "A marshal of the city must remain impartial while enforcing the laws of the Covena--"
Winston cut me off. "You think you're so smart, don't you? Using the book against me?"
"Go on," she said.
"They will serve the Covenant first, before their own desires and welfare. If they should fail to do so and use their position for personal ga--"
Winston said, "Enough. Just stop, okay?"
"No," she said. "Finish." She pointed the rifle at me. "Stand up. Then finish."
I got to my feet.
"Start from the last sentence."
I nodded. "If they should fail to do so, and use their position for personal gain, they will be sentenced to death."
His face changed, fear leaking in at the edges. His voice went up a note. Not much, but enough. "Zeke, you know me. You know damn well this isn't about what I want. We were doing our jobs, enforcing the law"--he pointed at her stomach--"that child proves it. They broke the law and that's why we're here. Not because she and I have some small connection. If anything, the fact that I ordered you to serve her sentence proves that fact."
The sun had started to set. His eyes reflected the orange-red light as he pleaded.
Mrs. Costa held the rifle out to me, butt end first.
I looked at it, then up at her.
"Well?" she said.
I took the rifle.
She stepped back toward the starboard side of the transport, where she'd come from.
Would serving Winston's sentence be following the law or breaking it? And did I care? Should I serve a sentence on both of them? Should I pay any attention to a law that said I should kill a pregnant woman?
Winston said, "That was stupid. He's not going to shoot me"--he shook his head and extended his hand--"C'mon Zeke. Help me up."
I raised the rifle to my shoulder and pointed it at Winston's head.
I pulled the trigger.
She'd given me an empty rifle.
Winston flopped back against the transport, shock on his face. "You tried to shoot me."
I looked at her.
She reached around the corner and picked up Mr. Costa's rifle. "I didn't know if I could trust you. I didn't know what you'd do," she said.
"Me neither," I said.
Winston started to get to his feet.
I turned back to him, took the pistol from inside my body armor, and shot him in the head.