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A short story by

James Waugh

There were few things in the Koprulu sector that Jim Raynor hated more than Perdition's Crossing. But a man's feelings toward a geographical region didn't exactly factor into his duties as a Confederate marshal. So, Raynor once again made his way into that gulch of hellish desert in the middle of Mar Sara's notorious badlands—in the middle of nowhere.

Wind rushed and boomed around his vulture bike as he made double time across the desolate ravine so he could get back home to his now-pregnant wife, Liddy, within the two-day window he had promised her. The air was acrid, dry, and hot. The hard-packed desert beneath him had cracked in long veins from the sun's heat and what seemed like an eternity since even the slightest kiss of moisture had blessed it. Mankind was never meant to survive in environments like this, Raynor thought, but that fact sure as hell never stopped him from trying.

In the distance, he could see, like some twisted, unwelcome mirage, the vague outlines of Sheriff Glenn McAaron, a police hovertruck, and what Raynor was there to pick up, a medium-sized, Confederate-issued prison cube. Their bloated shadows bent in the afternoon's high sunlight.

"Damn," Jim muttered under his breath as the shapes started to become clearer, as clear as the memory of Liddy kissing him goodbye. Perdition's Crossing was at the center of Mar Sara's infamous "wave-band anomalies," which meant that vector-balance equipment often didn't work and that comm contact was heavily scrambled and limited, if possible at all. This made dropship transport across the desert valley, even if it could be afforded, a dangerous proposition, but it was more so because the anomalies turned the 2,400 kilometer stretch into one of the most unpoliced regions on the planet—maybe even in the galaxy. It was a fact that Mar Sara's outlaws and roving packs of criminals knew all too well. Most eggheads from the Confederate Science Corps believed the wave-band anomalies were due to the electron impulses emitted from the rare crystal formations that seemed to sprout up like sharp, jagged crops from the mineral-rich depths below. No matter what the cause, the result was that Jim had to ride into the most dangerous pass in the sector to meet up with his least favorite sheriff in order to transport prisoners from one side of the planet to the other.

"You here to pick up this cube or join 'em in it, Marshal?" McAaron smiled a grisly, toothless grin as Raynor brought the vulture to a stop. It was the kind of ironic smile that implied flatly that humor wasn't its intent.

"Not unless you say something that rubs me wrong enough to cause me to do some lawbreaking." Raynor spit at the dusty ground. McAaron had let himself go soft over the years; the plump gut around his waist was protruding over his belt in a way it hadn't the last time the two men had crossed paths. It seemed to grow with each encounter. The sheriff was preparing for the easy life of retirement that loomed on a very near horizon.

"I wouldn't put that past you, son. You got a longer rap sheet than most of the criminals I bring out here. If you didn't have the friends you do, maybe it would be you heading out to El Indio this afternoon."

"Now, Sheriff, where's your faith in redemption?" Jim flashed his own prize-winning smile and stepped off of his bike. McAaron had worn a badge a long time, and he had heard about Jim's past. Men like the sheriff were stubborn and fixed in their ways. His attitude toward a former criminal wasn't personal; it was just a matter of practice.

"Ahh, men don't change, Marshal. You stay a lawman long enough, you'll know it's so. Why I keep my eye on you."

"And I do so 'preciate that, Sheriff." After a moment, Raynor continued. "What of our boys here?"

He kneeled down and looked through small, electrified bars. Confederate prison cubes had become a staple on frontier colonies and backwater planets where police dropships and other conveniences of more sophisticated worlds were too expensive to come by. The cubes had magnetic axles, hover technology that would keep them stable at speeds of up to 480 kilometers an hour, a controlled-temperature environment, support for all biological needs, and clean, purified oxygen replenished every 30 minutes. It seemed to Jim as if the criminals had it more comfortable than he did.

"Oh, you know, usual cheery lot, primed and ready for a long stay in Mar Sara's finest hotel." Suddenly the sheriff's voice went up several decibels. "You hear that, boys? El Indio Prison's where you all headin'!" The laugh that followed exploded into a hacking, wet cough. Again, there was no humor behind it; it was cold and cruel.

Jim didn't laugh. El Indio Prison was hardly a thing to make light of—an underfunded, hard-as-nails penitentiary that held only the roughest of criminals. It was a known fact that the survival rate for prisoners going into El Indio was a mere 64 percent. It was the embodiment of Confederate justice at its frontier finest.

"Look at 'em," the sheriff said, spitting onto the sand. "What a waste of tax credits, huh? We could always hope for the best and pray you don't make it out of the crossin'."

"Can we get this damned show on the road?" It was one of the criminals inside, a big, burly monster of a man with a jet-black mustache, bald head, arms as thick as telecom poles. His body was covered in hellish tattoos from across the sector. He glared through Jim as if not a thing in the world could shake his confidence, certainly no lone marshal, some errand boy carting him off to an inevitable fate.

"Watch out for that one. His mama never taught him no manners. That there is Marduke Saul, meanest mother you'll ever know. Here for assault, murder, terrorism, kidnapping, and being one rude sonofabitch." McAaron spat again, and this time the swath of fluid hit the cube near Marduke's face.

Marduke snarled back, "You lucky I'm in here, Sheriff."

"Ain't that the truth."

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