Good Will to Men
By Sarah A. Hoyt
You shouldn’t have to bury your last friend on Christmas morning. Particularly not when the ice was thick and deep on the ground, and all you had as help was a scrap-built bot that looked like a giant snail and had done pass after pass over the chosen site, until it was warm enough to dig.
Brax adjusted his gloves, and glared down at the hole, now maybe four feet deep, and six by three. Beneath the ice and snow, the dirt was red like freshly spilled blood, and left a stain on everything it touched, so that now his last pair of decent gloves, his warmest pants and his boots all looked like he’d been wadding in freshly butchered victims, chest deep.
He closed his eyes for a moment, gathering his thoughts, which had been squirreling all over the place since last night. Since Drav had breathed his last.
What kind of friend went and died on you in the most stupid possible moment on Christmas eve?
Brax spit onto the hole, then went back to the shelter. He’d not really tried to make Drav more decent after death. He had closed his eyes and put a cred note on each of them, because he didn’t have coins, and in Madrasta you sent your friends and family off with money to pay the ferry.
Not that anyone knew what the ferry was, or from where to where, but one thing boys from Madrasta knew and knew early was that there were always fees. And then he’d covered Drav with one of the older blankets until morning.
Now, there was just this person-shaped lump laying on one of the thin mattresses, and covered in the dirty, faded blanket. And it was an awful way to bury your last friend in the universe, but what else could Brax do? And he wasn’t about to pull Drav off the mattress either. It had got good and soaked in Drav’s blood, and it wasn’t like they had any kind of cleaning equipment.
He paused and hissed through his teeth, something he used to do when he was in pain and which used to drive Drav crazy. Only there was no physical pain, other than a tired back and blistered hands. But there was pain. Because now it was he didn’t have any cleaning equipment. He. Maybe forever. Or for the rest of his life, however long that was.
He glared at the sodden bundle on the floor. Right. Drav had no meant to die. It was just that he was messed in the head. He kept talking about men of goodwill, and their duty to humanity, as if two deserters, here, on the ass end of nowhere, in a planet they’d named Popsicle could save the universe.
And then he’d gone and got stupid.
“You got stupid,” Brax said. He was kind of stealing Drav’s schtick, though Drav sometimes said he was praying, which was another piece of stupidity, because if there was a God, and Brax was not laying in bets either way, he was either sadistic, or had forgotten them, and all the people like them. He might be a God for the rich people of Earth, the one who decided the plans for the Universe and decided which worlds went free, and which were ground under the boot; which men got to work and learn, and which were fed into the gears of Earth’s war. Not for people like Brax and Drav.
“You got stupid,” Brax said. “And you thought you were a hero, bro.”
He grabbed the mattress and pulled, while he walked backward. When he’d been drafted into the army of the Empire of Earth, he’d been a skinny boy, with arms like twigs, and legs not much better. If he’d had to drag this weight then, he’d have collapsed, and probably frozen, just outside the door.
Only the years of training, and the years of fighting, and then the three years here, alone with Drav, and having to improvise things, and build the shelter from the pieces of their stolen and crashed ship, and till the land in the all too brief spring and summer, and chop wood for the long winter, had made this task almost nothing.
The only problem was being bent almost double, to pull the dratted thing on the snow. He and Drav had talked about building a sleigh next summer. But they’d never got to it. And now it wasn’t like Brax was going to bother. Where could he go?
“You could go to the ship,” Drav said.
And for a moment, the words were so clear, and the… Not Drav’s voice but the memory of it hanging in the air, like words do after being spoken, was so clear that Brax almost thought—He’d thought that maybe—
Only before the thought fully formed, he remembered Drav dying, and the blood, and the way Drav’s chest was cut across, and there was no fooling himself. And he knew that.
“Yeah, okay, so I’m dead,” Drav said. “But you still should radio and get the patrol on that ship.”
And that was the problem. Drav had a hole in the head about that ship that had landed just two miles from their shelter.
It wasn’t as if there was some danger to them, or as if the ship was going to discover them. The ship had come down hard, like it had lost its last ability to soften the landing, and Brax had been a pilot. Not that of that type of transport, but enough to know there was something wrong with the ship. And the men who were swarming around the ship, doing things to it – he’d looked through the far-viewer they still had – apparently knew what was wrong and how to repair it.
Sure, they had kids with them too. But Drav had no reason to make up a whole story from it. Because it made no sense. He could not know.
He’d stood there most of the day, after Brax had discarded the far-viewer and said “No danger to us.” Drav had stood there, looking through it, and then he had snapped.
“They’re slavers, Brax. And slavers who take kids are always bad news. All slavers are bad news, but slavers who transport kiddies are bad. Because kids can’t work. They can’t do much worth the slaving, Brax. So, they’re wanted for other purposes.”
Brax had tried. He had tried. He tugged on the mattress, towards the hole, remembering how he’d tried. He’d told the damnfool he didn’t know if these were slavers, or just a school trip or something.
“But they don’t have any symbols on the ship, Brax. And they haven’t sent up a distress signal. I checked on the com.”
“If our com even works. If it’s not all busted up.”
“It works. They haven’t commed. They don’t want to be found and the patrol is probably after them. Slavers, Brax.”
“Okay, let’s say it’s true. What the hell are we going to do about it?”
“We could com the patrol for help.”
“And then we’d be taken too, you idiot. We’re deserters.”
“So? Not death penalty. We’ll serve our term. We’ll be busted in rank. We’ll survive. But Brax, the kids won’t.”
“You don’t know any of that. You are blowing this all up. Maybe the kids are refugees.”
“And the people transporting them are all male, and fixing up their ship in Popsicle instead of calling for help. Sure thing.”
But Brax couldn’t be moved, and Drav, the fool, had decided to go and make some kind of sleigh, so he could go out and see up close what the hell was going on. He’d taken their last dimasword and gone out to the shed, and– And slipped, and fallen across the damn sword.
How stupid was that. It wasn’t even a death in battle.
In his mind Drav laughed, “Well, no. But at least I was trying.”
Brax stopped long enough to take a deep breath, “Shut up, shut up, shut up. You’re dead. Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
Then he clamped his mouth shut, realizing in the empty ice planet, sound carried, and the… whatever they were might hear him, and then—
“They’re slavers, Brax, and you should com the patrol.”
Brax almost kicked Drav then, but there were limits. You don’t kick corpses. Not the corpse of your enemy, much less the one of your friend.
“Besides,” Drav said, with a rasp of laughter behind his words. “It might dislodge the creds, and then how would I pay fare to the world of the damned.”
“You’re not damned,” Brax said. It was a growl. “What have you ever done but escape a meat grinder. It wasn’t a crime.”
“Ah. It was according to all the laws of the Empire of Earth. And I died without doing what needed to be done. I’ll have no peace.”
And like that, as though it made a wit of sense, Drav broke out into song in Brax’s head.
It wasn’t like it was difficult to imagine. The damn man had spent the last thee days singing it, as he chopped wood, and set the tiny little tree he’d managed to chop down in the corner.
He’d decorated it with tatters of their uniform. Realistically it looked like a tree with bits of tattered cloth on it, but Drav did that every year, and when they sat around on Christmas eve, drinking spiced cider – some probably broke and forgotten colonist had left apple orchards all over this area of Popsicle. Other stuff too, which was how they’d survived, but also apples for cider, to warm you in the long winter – they could convince themselves that it was a Christmas tree, like the one they lit every year in Lar, capital of Madrasta and only city worth the name.
Drav always sang the same song when he was working on the Christmas stuff:
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,
“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”
And now he was singing again, which was not even decent, when he should be dead. When he was dead. But not quiet.
“Listen, you,” Brax said, in an angry semi-whisper. “Listen you. You are dead. You shouldn’t talk. And you absolutely shouldn’t sing.”
“I’m not. You’re just going nuts. You don’t cope too well with being alone. Aren’t the next few years going to be a delight? Com the patrol, Brax.”
“I dug you a hole. I’m going to put you in the hole, and you’re going to shut up.”
“Really? Why dig a hole. You could lean me on a snow bank, and I’d stay frozen till spring. Com the patrol, Brax.”
And that was their problem. Drav had never known how to quit. If it weren’t for him, they’d never have escaped from that battle front on Gathretides. They’d spent a year there, advancing and inch, and then losing that inch, and getting slaughtered by the hundred. And then the supplies had failed. Oh, not all supplies. They had eggs but not guns. Or ammo.
They’d know they were going to die, until Drav had figured out how to steal the transport of the general who had come to talk them into attacking without guns, into the lines of the enemy.
They’d thought to make it to Madrasta; to get lost on the beaches, disappear into the forests. Drav had the strange idea he was going to find Rayv his long-lost sweetheart he’d left behind, as if a woman would have waited for six years for him. But– Well, they’d been pursued. Probably because it was the General’s transport, to be fair, and not to rustle back two ragged deserters who weren’t worth much.
But they’d taken fire, and then there wasn’t much Drax could do. He’d jumped twice, thinking he was going in the direction of home, but the jump computer was burned, and they’d ended up on Popsicle.
Which—they’d lived. They’d been alive. But now he was alone forever in Popsicle.
He’d gotten Drav just out of the shelter, and now he turned and sat down heavily on the steps to the shelter. “Damn it, Drav,” he told the bundle.
He didn’t know if the worst thing possible was to be here all alone, or to be here hallucinating Drav with amazing clarity and accuracy. And being told what to do, in that tone that usually meant Drav was somehow right.
Brax wanted to scream or punch something. But screaming was an unwarranted risk, and what the hell was he going to kick.
“Fine,” he said. “Fine, fine, fine, fine. I’ll go take a gander at that damn ship up close and personal, shall I?”
He would later swear that Drav sniggered.
Going to take a gander was easier said than done. He wasn’t going to build a sleigh. Partly, honestly, because he didn’t want to go into the blood-soaked shed.
Instead, he dressed warm for the cold, taking Drav’s coat on top of his own, and he’d taken all their working weaponry – not much. Mostly three tractor ray guns. Because they didn’t have ammo for the projectile guns – and he’d slogged.
It probably wasn’t the brightest of ideas to slog a mile and whatever through the snow after spending most of the day digging a grave. But it was what it was.
By the time he’d got near enough, he was out of breath, shaking with tiredness.
But sane enough to hide behind a snow covered hill.
The men – there were four of them – were armed to the teeth and clearly didn’t have a lack of ammo. And while these were dangerous times, they were wearing full armor and weaponry while working on the ship.
And then they took a break. He’d never know if it was a good or a bad thing that they decided to take a break just on the other side of the snow hill. Of course his heart about stopped, but they’d removed the helmets and were eating and smoking, and talking
They spoke English with a weird accent, like they were from Britannia on High or something. Like the tourists that used to come to Madrasta before the war.
“Well, we should be able to liftoff tonight, and take the cargo before it spoils.”
Brax had no idea what spoiling meant, because Drav had said it was kid. But then again the “spoil” had been said with heavy irony, so…..
And then… well, there was a lot of chatter, but suddenly there was a name even Brax knew. He only knew it because he’d read everything he could get his hands on, back on Gathretides. He’d been bored out of his mind. And he’d read this true crime gem that had been passed around, and they’d talked about how Yos Calvarin was the brothel-boss of Ufraglio, and how he had people bioed for … for sex slavery.
But children! Brax thought. And in his mind Drav sniggered again. Because he’d said—
Slogging back to the ship was twice as hard, because he was tired, and because all the time in his mind, he was trying to think through the impossible task.
And of course, this was the time Drav had chosen to be silent. He always had the best plans.
But then he thought of Drav, and how someone like Drav, if he was going to die young, should die fighting the good fight, and not because he was a clumsy fool.
And he thought of the bots he’d created, like his attempt at a wood chopping bot. It hadn’t worked too well, because the force of the ax lifting and falling had spun it out of position, so it had ended chopping a whole through the floor. But with minor modifications, it made a great trigger-pulling bot. And Brax had three guns.
Dragging Drav’s body to a snow covered hillock just far enough from the ship they’d have to go there, was hell, but arranging him wasn’t so hard, because the freeze helped. It was probably less respectful than kicking the corpse, but then Brax thought Drav would approve.
There was only the top of Drav’s hair protruding, and Brax used a rod from the bot to make sure the path to shoot through the hill and the snow was clear. Then he rigged the bot, which stripped to essentials was a great timing device.
He then set himself in position and remote started the bot.
It worked almost immediately. Brax couldn’t aim Drav’s gun at the men, because they’d move. But he could aim it at the ship they’d just repaired.
It was the sort of thing that sent three of them running towards the hill.
And Drav had put himself just so, so he could shoot them as they passed, without signaling his position.
When they didn’t return, the remaining one ran towards the ship. But by then, Brax had got close and cut him down.
He didn’t like killing people. But these guys probably deserved it more than the soldiers of her majesty he’d killed on Gathretides and who were not guilty of anything but being drafted.
Afterwards, he’d gone cautiously into the ship, because there might be traps or something. But there were none. Just a cell at the back, with twenty kids.
Most of them were really little, like two or three, but two little girls were ten or so, and old enough to look at him in horror. He imagined what he looked like, covered in the red mud and some blood from Drav, plus the old scars from Gathretides.
He told them they were okay, and they’d be safe, but he doubted he’d got through to them. They were locked up, with no water or food.
He found the galley, and opened the door, and passed milk and juice packets in. They didn’t even try to escape, and he didn’t like what that said.
Then he locked them again, for their protection. He couldn’t have them running around while he commed.
The com room was deep in the ship, and there was a star chart, so for the first time he knew that Popsicle while unnamed, was in the Harper system, on the edge of the Angel Tears cluster.
Which meant he was deep in Britannia on high territory. Did they have a patrol? He knew what the war propaganda said about them, but they couldn’t possibly want kiddies sold into slavery. And Ufraglio was under Earth Empire, he thought.
It wasn’t like he could call information.
He sat there for a long time, very quiet. He wondered if the men had some king of contact sheet on them, then he realize those wouldn’t be for anything he wanted to do. Or anywhere he wanted to go.
He remembered, when he was a kid, reading an adventure series set in Britannia on High’s star empire. They had this thing they called The Imperials, who served at the behest of the queen and… well, were policemen in space.
After a while, he remembered they were located in Imperial city in Britannia on High. And that had to have information.
Accessing Imperial city wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t impossible for an ex-pilot. He knew where to aim the beam. And he had no idea how the heck the space com worked, but he knew this was a high-level system and worked with almost no delay across galaxies. He imagined it went through jump points, like the ships.
He did his calculation, then checked them twice, then started the call.
It might have almost no delay, but it seemed to him like an eternity, and then a girl’s voice with a tinny quality asked what he wanted.
He explained he wanted the Imperials.
Then he had to explain why. And then, after a long time, he was transferred, and had to explain it all again.
And then, he fell asleep.
He woke up, mad at himself for falling asleep, and realized with a shock he was in a hospital bed, in a bright, clean room that seemed far more high tech than anything he’d ever seen.
A man in uniform, with decorations, sat by the bed.
For a panic moment, Brax thought he should get his gun, but he was too tired, anyway.
“Hello son,” the man said, even though he was obviously not Brax’s dad. Not that Brax had any idea who that might be. “You did a very brave thing there.”
Eventually he got through to Brax that Brax and Drav had been suffering from a virus. Popsicle, it turned out, had been inhabited before, but a virus, either native or mutated from the colonists, had turned very bad. It slowly attacked the central nervous system. Which, it appeared, was why Drav had been so clumsy. And why Brax had passed out.
But the Brittons had found no reason to repatriate Brax. They had voted to give him a decoration and a pension, because rescuing those kids had led to finding the creche in which they were being grown, and – before Brax even woke up – to taking down Yos Calvarin.
“You’re a permanent resident of Brittania on High, and we will give your friend a funeral with military honors.” The older man who turned out to be some kind of Admiral stopped and said, “Oh, and you kept talking about Rayv Dittar from Madrasta. Our… services located her, but it turns out she was engaged to your friend Drav, not you?”
“She waited for Drav?” Brax said and wanted to cry.
“Yes. But … we’ve got her out for the funeral.”
And that was how Brax had come to know Rayv. They’d waited Drav’s funeral for both of them. Rayv was pretty. Small, tidy and dark haired.
He told her how Drav died. He told her how Drav had talked in his head after death, which he guessed now was the effects of the virus.
And then… Well. He wasn’t Drav. But they’d both known Drav. And they’d gotten to talking. And Brax had figured out he could get patents for his inventions on Popsicle, and then….
He got a little workshop, to invent useful stuff. No war stuff. Nothing big. Just little things.
And he and Rayv got married and lived above his workshop.
They named their first son Drav.
And every Christmas, they’d sit around the tree, and he’d tell the children stories of Drav, and the tree Drav had decorated.
And they always sang,
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,
“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”