May 2011 06

by Mur Lafferty

SuicdeGirls presents the sixth installment of our Fiction Friday sci-fi series, Marco and the Red Granny, which is brought to you by SG columnist Mighty Mur a.k.a. cyber commentator Mur Lafferty.

Marco and the Red Granny is set in a not-so-distant future where an alien species, the Li-Jun, has transformed the moon into the new artistic center of the universe, where the Sally Ride Lunar Base soon gains the nickname “Mollywood.” These aliens can do amazing things with art and the senses, allowing a painting, for example, to stimulate senses other than sight.

In the previous installments, Marco, a writer whose career has long been in the doldrums, gets a surprise call from an agent he thought he no longer had, informing him that he had received an offer from Mollywood for a much coveted Li-Jun patronage. Keen to catch up career-wise with his ex-GF Penelope, who’d unceremoniously dumped him after being recruited by the Li-Jun two years earlier, Marco jumps on the next shuttle to the moon. Once aboard, he finds himself sitting next to a seemingly unassuming old lady called Heather, who turns out to be The Red Granny, a legend in Li-Jun’s reality show world for being a three-time champion of The Most Dangerous Game (which requires contestants to sign away the rights to their life).

We join Marco as he settles into his new accommodations at House Blue. After a brief meeting with his new patron, a Li-Jun called Thirteen, Marco realizes he’s never been shown the terms of his employment. A sense of unease sets in as he prepares for the evening’s designated entertainment – a trip to see The Most Dangerous Game. He dons a not-so-simple Li-Jun-made white button down shirt, which smells like an apple orchard in fall and gives those that brush it a shocking sense that they are actually among the ripening trees, takes a quick gulp, and heads to the “battlefield” with his new friend Heather and his Li-Jun handler Six.

Marco and the Red Granny – Part 6
The left Heather at the contestants’ entrance, where fans had thronged to get a glance at her. Some screamed her name and cheered, others jeered and shouted insults about her age, her race, and one person, Marco thought, yelled something about the size of her feet. He shook his head. Some people.

It struck him how clearly the Li-Jun ruled Mollywood. Earth reports described how the Li-Jun were there with the humans’ permission, and how they provided much of the financing and creative tools for the base, but they didn’t indicate how clearly the Li-Jun were the upper, ruling, class here. Most of the humans had donned space suits with radio hooked up to game announcements and had gone outside to fill the stands around the open battlefield, much like a coliseum. All Li-Jun and some humans were in indoor skyboxes that stuck out from the dome, reminding Marco of the little plastic bird feeders his mother used to stick on the windows. It was colder than the interior of the dome, but obviously much warmer than the atmosphere-less night outside.

Still, Marco had been glad Six had suggested he bring a large heavy jacket, the outside made of an indeterminable leather, and the inside lined with a soft, red fur. He dug his hands in his pockets and did not envy the combatants. He enjoyed the brief sound of sweat-infused, late night, New Orleans jazz that whispered through his head as he brought the coat tighter around him.

It was the beginning of The Most Dangerous Game season, the first episode of the first round. Television cameras were everywhere. The moon landscape had been changed to make for a more interesting battle. The stands surrounding the battlefield encompassed a square mile or so. Several craters looked bottomless, while hills and even caves had been formed from the moon rocks to give the competitors places to hide.

Because of the terrain changes, Marco couldn’t see the far end of the field, but several screens lined the lower half of the skybox so he could watch live or on the monitors.

Thirteen was there when he arrived, her sinewy body reclining in a large chair, along with several members of her household. The imposing figure of Seven drifted by the refreshment table.

Six led him to Thirteen’s side and she gestured to a chair beside her. “It pleases me to see you, Marco. Please take something from the refreshments table and join me.”

Marco nodded and went over to where Seven was picking through a bowl of fried food.

“So what do we have here?” Marco asked.

“Pakaran,” Seven said, pointing to the bowl with a free tentacle. “Fried meat of various sea creatures from our home. Thirteen has it imported for the Games. Over there you will find snacks from your world.”

Marco had no idea if he would be able to eat the alien food, or even if he was expected to, so he played it safe and loaded a bowl with tortilla chips. There was no alcohol in the skybox, and even though Marco would have liked one drink to dull his anxiety, he figured with the recent hangover he might want to stay sober. He took a bottle of soda and joined Thirteen, who watched the announcer on the monitor.

Her face drooped in a look that Marco was beginning to note indicated concern, or at least academic interest. “The Alcoholics Guild has entered someone this season,” she said.

Marco opened his soda. “Is that bad?”

“I suppose the Guild is more active here than on your planet,” she said. Marco nodded. “Well, yeah. The Alcoholics Guild back home is outlawed. There are some underground sects, but no one who’s official Guild here on Ride Base is allowed to return to Earth.”

Thirteen inclined her thin head. “The Alcoholics Guild celebrates and encourages the irrational and sometimes violent behavior that alcohol can give, but they’ve never entered the Games.”

“Do you think their entrant will be a threat to Heather?” he asked, looking at the monitor.

“Every entrant is a threat,” Thirteen said. “Why would we watch, otherwise?”

“Oh. Of course,” Marco said, flushing in the chilly dry air.

The announcer on the monitor began introducing the contestants. “Aaaaaand we have a first for the games, a representative of the Alcoholics Guild! Please light up the night with a warm round of applause for six-foot tall, three hundred Earth pounds, Make Direct Amends Peterson!”

Peterson, who had changed his name to the AA step he’d been on when he had dropped out, was a big white man with a 9 tattooed on the left side of his neck. He was thirty-five and had been drinking since he was twelve. According to the bullet points below his name on the monitor, to prepare for this battle, he had downed a bottle of gin daily, keeping the hangover at bay to keep himself at top performance. When the announcer asked how he felt, the big man slurred, “If I don’t die tonight, I’ll wish I had tomorrow!”

“He’ll snap Heather in half!” Marco said.

“I keep forgetting you haven’t seen the Games before,” Thirteen said, still watching the screen. “Remember, Make Direct Amends Peterson now weighs fifty pounds instead of three hundred. Heather doesn’t have the handicaps of her age including the fear of falling and injuring herself. And then I suppose you don’t realize she’s a peasant survivor of the Chinese invasion of Spain several of your years ago?”

Marco had had no idea. Heather had a Southern American accent, not Spanish. His own grandparents had fled the invasion of Spain and had taken refuge in Canada, and he’d heard stories of the brutality.

“She managed to keep her parents and herself alive when she was ten,” Thirteen said.

Marco swallowed nervously.

The other three contestants were introduced. Yuri, a thin Russian who was on Luna for the first time, Akoth, a woman with sharp black eyes who had been a marathon runner from Kenya, and another first for the games, Lucas, a lanky, seven-foot-tall, Lunar-born twenty-thee year old who stood with confidence, having experienced lunar gravity for his whole life.

And then there was The Red Granny. They gave her no bio, but when her face showed up on the monitors, the crowd outside flashed penlights on and off to indicate their wild support of the little old lady.

The announcer, a balding white British man with a retro plaid lunar atmosphere suit, waved his arms and said, “Let’s play the Most Dangerous Game!” The contestants were each whisked away by a Li-Jun (“House Orange,” Seven had said with what sounded like a haughty sniff) to enter the battlefield at an undisclosed spot.

“How does it work exactly? Do they just fight to the death and then it’s over?” Marco asked as the plaid suit lumbered onto the lunar surface, kicking up dust and waving to the crowd.

“No, that would not be interesting,” Seven said. “Each contestant will be handicapped in some way. They bring their own weapons though, so they know what they will fight with.”

One of the monitors was tuned to Las Vegas where the odds were displayed. Heather was 2-1; the woman from Kenya was the long shot at 80-1.

“Why so unlikely?” Marco asked.

“She has no patron,” Seven said. Li-Jun-supported contestants have the best atmospheric gear and the best weapons. Earth humans bring Earth weapons and bulky Earth space suits and die almost immediately. Heather has a suit designed by the best Li-Jun artists, blending tailoring and music that only she can hear to bolster her.”

Marco turned from the Li-Jun and looked at the battlefield, excitement and anxiety pooling in his stomach. He took a sip from the soda, nearly gagging at the metallic taste.

“I thought only ex-cons got involved with the Games,” he said, not liking the silence in the skybox.

“As it’s gained popularity, more and more humans are willing to express themselves in the ultimate way,” Seven said, coming up behind them. “They sign away all legal rights, renounce Earth citizenship, and either die or become celebrities here.”

Thirteen pointed with a tentacle. “It begins.”

A suited figure stepped from underneath the stand on the west side of the stadium and looked around. It was Make Direct Amends Peterson, swaying on his feet and trying to get his bearings. He was the only one Marco could see, but the monitors showed Yuri emerging behind a hill and Akoth climbing clumsily from a crater. Seven had been right; Akoth wore a bulky Earth space suit, not the leaner Lunar-made suit.

“I don’t see how she’s handicapped,” Marco said.

The woman looked down and fingered her suit as Seven responded. “Her suit is ripped. Her time is limited. It is to her benefit to finish the battle quickly.”

The woman’s face was hidden by the gold visor as she walked in long, graceful steps out on to the field, flexing her hands.

“Ah, we were mistaken. Her weapon is Li-Jun-made,” Thirteen said, looking at the close-up shot of the woman’s hands, covered by a pair of thin gloves from where five small blades grew. “Difficult to kill someone with that, but easy to rip a hole in a suit. Killing by destroying someone’s suit is legal, but not considered impressive.”

Still, her odds had gone up to 60-1 with this revelation.

Yuri had spotted Akoth and started lumbering toward her. Akoth did not notice him behind her. He climbed to the top of a crest, about twelve feet above, and waited.

“Where’s his handicap?” Marco watched as Yuri loomed, waiting for his chance.

Seven pointed to a monitor. “The heater in his suit is gone. He only has a little bit of time before he freezes to death.”

“How many people die in this game before someone kills them?” Marco asked.

“About half,” Thirteen said.

Yuri drew a wicked-looking knife from his belt and crouched, preparing to leap on Akoth. But before he could spring, he was hit from behind by Make Direct Amends, who had managed to approach them both without detection. The crowd went wild, lighting up the battlefield with their pen lights in applause, which caused Akoth to turn around to see Yuri and Make Direct Amends tumble off the hill, landing in front of her in a slow-motion cloud of dust.

Make Direct Amends had a garrote around Yuri’s throat, a weapon that benefited from his incredible strength. The tough fabric of Yuri’s environment suit protected him, but Make Direct Amends’ alcohol-fueled brute force choked the life from the young Russian, and he sank into the dust, his struggles gone. Make Direct Amends had been so intent on killing Yuri that he didn’t notice the Kenyan woman looping behind him and swiping at his back, as she did just as he sat up from crouching over his kill. The claws struck true and took a hunk of the big man’s thin silver suit, severing his air lines as well.

He was as good as dead, everyone knew, and Akoth could have just left him to expire, but she kept going. As Make Direct Amends clawed at his back, she swept down with her other hand and gouged a hunk of flesh from his back. The blood sprayed slowly in the vacuum, forming perfect red globes before falling gently to the dust. The lights flashed around Akoth wildly as the crowd cheered her sadism. The cameras focused in on Make Direct Amends’ helmet, his face contorted in silent agony. He collapsed into unconsciousness in about ten seconds.

The Kenyan looked up from the two bodies, watching the lights flash around her. The new crowd favorite waved at them, and looked around their field for her last two victims.

“Whoa,” Marco said, “Heather needs to watch out for her. But where is she, anyway?”

Thirteen peered over the battlefield, where she could see only the one alive competitor. “She and Lucas are both missing, I would guess they are hidden inside a crater.”

One of the monitors flipped to a greenish night-vision as a camera embedded in a crater showed the small, bubble headed form of Heather, her fingers splayed out wide as she felt the sides of the crater. Behind her, strapped to her back, was a long staff with a blade at the end – a scythe. She’d put it away in favor of a smaller knife she held defensively in her hand, slowly moving it around as she felt the wall.

“What is she doing?” Marco asked. “Why doesn’t she fight?”

Thirteen exhaled, her feathery nostrils flaring, and leaned forward, intent.

“They’ve blinded her. She’s wearing a black helmet. No sight, no hearing. Smell and taste do nothing for her. She’s got touch, and that’s all. One sense.”

“Oh man. Have they ever done this before?”

“They’ve given contestants half blind helms before, but never full.”

Bile rose in Marco’s throat. “What’s she going to do? She can’t fight like that!”

Thirteen sat back. “No, she can’t. This should be interesting.”

“Interesting? Don’t you care about her?”

“She knows what she’s getting into. And stopping a fight to the death because our competitor might die is rather counter intuitive and unfair, don’t you think?” Seven said.

Marco gritted his teeth, disliking this haughty alien more and more. “What about the other guy? The moon-born guy?”

“There he is,” Thirteen said, and pointed to a monitor.

“I don’t get it,” Marco said. “Where?” The camera had focused in on some rubble and Marco had to squint before he saw the glint of a helmet. The man had used the low light, the shadows, and his own clothing to camouflage himself against an outcropping of rock.

“So he’s just waiting there like a spider?” Marco asked. “What if Akoth never wanders past him?”

“Then we see what happens when the impatient spider gets hungry,” Thirteen said. “But watch our Red Granny.”

Marco focused again on the older woman, who was feeling around her surroundings. She tentatively edged her toe along the ground, discovering the ledge she stood on went halfway around the crater she was in. She picked up a rock and tossed it over the side, placing her hand on the ground and keeping very still.

“She’s trying to feel the vibrations when the rock hits bottom,” Seven offered.

“Yeah, I got that, thanks,” Marco said. Heather had come to some conclusion. She unslung the scythe from her back and tested the wall, being able to reach the lip of the crater with her curved blade. Stepping to measure the length of her ledge, she reached one far edge, then turned and ran, an ungainly, hoppy, lumbering run. But it was enough. She planted the scythe and soared out of the crater, pulling the long weapon with her.

She landed in a crouch, her small knife in one hand, the scythe whipping around in a circle to catch anyone close by- there was no one. Marco’s face felt hot; he wondered what it would be like, realizing you’re out in the open with no sensation, knowing four people could be hunting you. He would go mad.

Heather then began spinning the scythe around her, forming a sort of moving shield with the weapon. The complicated figure eight movements whirled from right to left, overhead, and then back to the right.

“Does she have a plan?” Marco asked.

“She always does,” Thirteen said.

Akoth still hunted warily at the north end of the battlefield, her limited time making her jump at shadows. “The Kenyan woman will be feeling the effects of hypothermia now, and will run out of air shortly.” Seven said.

“That is a pity, she showed promise,” Thirteen said.

The woman started her own slow run south, her head twisting desperately for her fellow contestants. What a crappy way to go, Marco thought, after a great showing to just expire before you could find your opponents.

She missed Lucas’ hiding place by fifty yards, and the monitors showed a close-up of him, watching her go by, refusing to reveal himself. “How’s he handicapped?” Marco said.

Thirteen glanced at another monitor with stats. “Ah, he has no weapon. He must disarm, loot a body, or fight unarmed.”

“And that’s equal to Heather’s handicap?” Marco asked, outraged.

Seven turned one eyestalk toward him. “He is not the Red Granny.”

Marco stopped paying attention to him. Akoth had found Heather and stood well away, judging her odd whirling movements. The blade went up and down, followed by the butt of the weapon, then back up, then back down. Her eyes followed it, and she leaped forward as the butt end was coming down. She accepted the hit to the shoulder and lunged forward.

Heather’s response was instantaneous. She flipped backward, dropping the scythe, gloved hands reaching up to her helmet. Her fingers, nimble in their alienware gloves, snapped the buckles that attached her helmet to her suit.

Marco gasped as her helmet flew off, and she revealed her naked head in the total vacuum.

“Ten seconds,” said Seven impassively as he watched.

It took three seconds for Heather to focus on Akoth, move forward, and duck the Kenyan’s first deadly swipe. Two more seconds passed as Heather’s hands made quick work of the buckles on Akoth’s helmet as the older woman kneed her in the sternum.

Right after Seven warned, “Five seconds,” Heather fitted the helmet over her own head, leaping away from Akoth, apparently, gasping for breath.

Marco’s voice nearly gave out from his cheers, echoed in silence outside as the crowd stood as one, flashing their lights for much longer than it took the younger woman to expire, unconscious, on the lunar surface.

Marco collapsed back in his chair. “Holy shit. How did she do that?”

Thirteen sipped at a blue liquid. “Humans can survive in a vacuum for about ten seconds before they experience heart failure. It was a bold move, as Heather’s heart isn’t as strong as a younger woman’s. But she had a plan worked out for total vacuum, while the Kenyan woman was taken by surprise.”

“She truly is amazing,” he said.

“That was a new move. I think she may be due for a raise,” Thirteen said.

“If she survives. There’s one more to go,” Seven said.

Marco scowled. “She’s not even handicapped anymore, what’s the worry?”

“There’s always worry. She’s also very likely suffering the effects of vacuum exposure. Our physicians will be able to treat her, but for the moment she’s working at less then optimal performance.”

The Red Granny had taken a moment to rest from her exertions, after discovering there were no other enemies around her. She was about seventy-five yards south of where Lucas crouched. She stood and, leaving her scythe behind, walk-jumped around the perimeter of the battlefield. She soon discovered the bodies of the two defeated competitors, and slowed, looking around her.

Cautiously, she started her search again.

“She has realized that the final competitor is likely hiding,” Seven said. “It’s a game now.”

“Don’t people find this boring?” Marco asked. “She could be out there for hours. And the crowd can’t even help.”

Seven shook his head. “They have one hour of air in their tanks. This keeps the battles constrained to a time limit. And Heather has lost a good amount of her air in her helmet exchange. It will be over soon.”

Marco shrugged. He realized his apprehension was partly selfish, wondering what he would do if he lost his only human ally among these aliens.

“I estimate five minutes left until she needs oxygen and medical attention,” Seven said. “If she simply falls over and dies, Lucas wins. But it’s a passionless win. One doesn’t become a champion by hiding. He needs a kill of he’s going to have he crowd behind him.”

Lucas apparently knew this. He shifted in his shadows as Heather lumbered closer. The crowd began to show their agitation; flashing their lights a she neared his hiding place. The camera focused in on Lucas’ hands, flexing, opening and closing. Marco wanted to yell at her, again, to warn her, and his impotence enraged him.

“This is sick! Who gets off on this?”

“Most of your planet.” The words came from one of the aliens, but Marco couldn’t tell who had said it. The room fell silent as movement exploded on the battlefield.

Heather had turned with a smooth movement and thrown her small knife. In the low gravity, it seemed to float instead of fly, end over end. Lucas’ hiding place compromised, he stepped forward and focused on the projectile, easily batting it out of the way.

This change of focus turned out to be his undoing. Heather took advantage of his distraction and launched herself at him, kicking off a hill and coming down at an angle, striking him in the chest. They both went down and he struggled under her, but then went slack.

The camera focused in on Heather’s boots, previously unnoticed, which had small spikes embedded in the toes. The spike of her right foot had torn through his suit and gone into his abdomen.

She stepped back from him and waited, ready, her unarmed hands up ready to defend, but Lucas didn’t move. The camera focused in on his face, panting and fogging up his helmet, and, unbelievably, tears streaming down his face to catch in his blonde hair.

“The spike wasn’t that big, it can’t have hurt that much,” Marco said. “Isn’t he a warrior?”

The aliens ignored him. The man wept on his back, unmoving, and then Heather found the knife he had batted away. She went back to Lucas, sobbing and fetal now, and coaxed him with surprising tenderness to lie back. He didn’t resist her motherly ministrations, and when he was back, she sliced open his suit, exposing his neck, and cut his throat.

The crowd lit up again in their frantic admiration of the Red Granny, and the old woman waved, smiling, at them, and then collapsed onto the Lunar surface.

Excerpt from the Marco and the Red Granny, published by Restless Brain Media at Smashwords. Copyright 2010 Mur Lafferty.

Mur Lafferty is an author and podcast producer. She has released several works via audio podcast, including her novel Playing For Keeps, the novellas in the Heaven series, the audio drama The Takeover, and many others. She’s won the Parsec Award and the Podcast Peer award. Her published works include Playing For Keeps (Swarm), Nanovor: Hacked (Running Press Kids), and Tricks of the Podcasting Masters (Que), not to mention several short stories. She is the host of I Should Be Writing and the Angry Robot podcasts, as well as the editor of Escape Pod, the sci-fi audio magazine. Marco and the Red Granny was originally published as the premier podcast serial at Hub Magazine, and is available for Kindle via Amazon.

Mur lives in Durham, NC with her husband, Jim Van Verth, their daughter, and two dogs. You can find her in the Murverse, at Smashwords and on Twitter.


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