Authors: Eric Schneider
Tags: #Science Fiction
By Eric Schneider
Published by Swordworks Books
Copyright © 2011 by Eric Schneider
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
The ship finally blasted off from New Houston Spaceport, leaving a trail of vapor in its wake, together with his old life. Rahm felt an overwhelming sense of relief as they left behind the vast complex of launch pads, hangars, and processing plants. The spaceport was a recent construction, built with just one purpose. The transport of a single substance across millions of miles of space. The ship was heading to a new horizon, to the outer limit of the solar system. He was heading away from the spectacular failure that had changed the course of his life. This mission was to mine a desperately needed mineral resource from a distant planet. To wrench the precious substance from deep beneath the hostile surface of Mars. Only the latest technological advances had made the journey possible. New discoveries, new materials and the development of a radical propulsion system had opened up new possibilities to further human exploration. To increase the knowledge of the solar system they inhabited. Some people trumpeted the benefits of colonizing distant worlds, and others planned new tourist ventures. Yet no sooner had interplanetary space travel become a practical reality than a new crisis emerged. At first it was shrugged off, warnings that had been growing for centuries. Icebergs were melting, and sea levels were rising as a consequence. That was part of the natural cycle on Earth, so some people said. Forests became farmland, and green fields surrendered to desert, yet deserts could be irrigated with the new desalination technologies. Forests could be replanted. Couldn’t they? No problem!
Few noticed the inexorable advance of man-made destruction over nature. Governments and corporations always put the balance sheet first. It was only when people began to struggle to breathe that they became worried. Even Saul, his best and most trusted friend, had been excited about the possibilities for the new mineral when he heard about it.
“Look at this stuff, Rahm. It’s called trevanium. They say it’s a miracle, the solution to our problems with bad air quality. I mean, Christ, it’s disgusting. I can even taste the air as I breathe it!”
Yes, the air was foul. Worse than that, it was increasingly toxic.
“It sure looks promising,” Rahm replied. “It’s only a pity that it’s so far away to recover it.”
“Oh yeah? The harder and dirtier it is to mine the stuff, the more they’ll pay to get the job done. I keep telling you, where there’s shit there’s money.”
He smiled. Saul Packer was an skilled toolpusher, one of the best in the business, and he was correct about the money. Extracting the rare and valuable resource would result in some hefty pay packets for all of them.
“You are right, if what they say is true, trevanium will transform the Earth from a polluted hell into a paradise.”
“It’ll transform my bank account, that’s for sure,” Saul grinned.
Using trevanium it was possible to start a chemical reaction, whereby atmospheric pollutants bonded with the mineral catalyst to output pure, clean air. He had heard of the mineral in the early days of his career, although he’d had other priorities. After completing his doctoral degree Rahm was appointed director and chief engineer of a multi-billion dollar research station. The plant had been built in Afghanistan, near to the border with Iran. His company had discovered that the opium poppies, the great harvest of the Afghans, could produce more than heroin and morphine. New advances in biological computing required new materials, and the deadly poppy promised to deliver the complex solutions to fast processing that they sought. Rahm even had his beloved fiancée, Chrissie Blake, working at his side, and life couldn’t have been better. Until he’d scrambled out alone from the wreckage of his research station in Herat, mentally shattered by the destruction of both the station and the lives of everyone inside it.
They’d said it wasn’t his fault, but he had done nothing to stop them. He couldn’t carry any more responsibility for people, for property and budgets, couldn’t see any more of his loved ones die agonizing deaths. He’d tried to recover from his pain by working as little more than a laborer in isolated mining operations. Then he’d taken out his fury by engaging as a mercenary, and in the process he met Saul Packer. The contracts included small-scale military operations to protect mining colonies in isolated parts of Africa and the Amazon Basin, where the natives didn’t take kindly to companies that raped their lands and left them polluted and dying. After six violent months fighting off the attacks, he was sated by the brutal violence, and he signed up with the company that mined trevanium on Mars. Extracting the mineral was hard, the most dangerous job in the universe, so they said. The fields they operated in were situated in the most hostile environment imaginable. But it suited him, for Rahm wanted as little human contact as possible. They’d made him take the crew chief position, because of his experience and doctorate. He hadn’t wanted the responsibility, but it was that or nothing. Saul had persuaded him accept and he’d given in only with great reluctance. Besides, according to Saul Packer, they were traveling to untold riches.
“The safety light went out five minutes ago, you were miles away.”
He looked across at his best friend. Saul had fought the vicious battles alongside him in South America. A skilled driller and miner before joining the security detail, Saul was a man he’d come to rely on. Through numerous bloody fights, he’d proved himself time and again. It was fine with him, just as long as Saul didn’t ever need to rely on him if things went wrong. Like Rahm, he’d become sickened by the violence, it was hard to pull the trigger when you sympathized with the other side. So they’d both gone back to mining, but this time with a difference. They were traveling to the most dangerous and hostile environment known to man. Mars.
“I’m just tired. We put a few away last night.”
Saul grinned. “We sure did. I took that girl back with me to the hotel last night, she was really something. My God, I won’t forget her in a hurry! I even brought a picture of her along with me.”
He took out his billfold and lost himself looking at her photo, recalling the happy memories of the night before. He grinned at Rahm and pushed back his dark hair, which he wore long because some girl had told him once that it made him look like a rock star. Rahm saw him as more like a friendly grizzly bear, big, muscled, dark and potentially very dangerous. His face carried the scars of countless scrapes that he’d been involved. His career was as notable for his hard-fought victories as a fighting man as it was for his skills as a miner. Saul was a good man to have as a friend and a deadly one as an enemy, as many had found to their cost. He was also an inveterate womanizer.
“What about you? Her friend looked pretty special.”
Saul recalled the girl’s dismay when it became obvious that Rahm wasn’t interested in her. “I liked your friend, Saul,” she’s told him. “He’s dreamy. I go for guys like that, tall, with lovely, glossy, thick black hair, he’s a bit of a looker. Why isn’t he interested in me? Doesn’t he think I’m pretty?”
“Of course he does,” Saul had hastened to repair any bad feeling. All he wanted to do was disappear to his hotel room with his own girl. “I’ll tell him you’re interested, don’t worry, he’s probably got a lot on his mind. He’s the crew boss for this upcoming trip.”
His own girl was pulling him away and he left Rahm to fix himself up. He was an adult, for Christ’s sake.
“Did you go with her? She was really keen on you.”
Rahm did have a powerful effect on women. He looked tall and scrawny at first sight, but underneath he was tough and resourceful. He’d fought hard as a mercenary and had earned a reputation for suicidal bravery. Yes, women liked him; he was a man they could love. He was also a man to fear. He was striking to look at, with a rugged, square face that always looked faintly curious, perhaps a throwback to his academic days. It was also a face that could switch from relaxed to threatening in a fraction of a second. He had the grace of a dancer, yet there was nothing soft or weak about him, the man had demonstrated time after time that he had the strength and power of a natural athlete.
“No, I didn’t. I went back on my own.”
“On your own! My God, I thought you were away with that one. She was sure giving you the eye. Hooters like watermelons, pretty as hell, I can’t believe you connect with her. I’d have taken them both with me if I’d known,” he smiled slyly. Then he became serious as he realized his friend and crew boss wasn’t smiling with him. “Hey, I’m sorry, have I offended you?”
“No, you haven’t.”
“I mean, if you didn’t fancy her, that’s fine by me.”
“It’s not that I didn’t fancy her, she was real pretty.”
“Right. Well, not your type maybe.” He looked sideways. “It’s not my business, of course. I mean, your taste in women is your own affair.”
“I’m not gay either. You know why?”
“I haven’t got a clue.”
“Because it’d mean dating an ugly bastard like you.” He smiled and punched him on the arm. “Look, she was pretty as a picture, but I’m just not in the mood right now, ok? So shut up about her.”
“Attention everyone! My name is Tobin Ryles, and I will be the assistant base manager when we arrive on planet.” He was short, with a slight build, the original seven stone weakling. To make matters worse, he had a whining, nasally voice. He probably he had problems with his sinuses, Rahm reflected. Or maybe he was just a total nerd. Saul grinned, coming to the same assessment of the bumptious little man. He was short and weedy, with a thin face bearing the marks of a teenage acne attack, making him look rather like a speckled weasel.
“The cabin crew is passing out your safety leaflets, please read them thoroughly. I will be available to answer any of your questions during the flight. Journey time will be slightly less than our original estimate, and our estimated landing on Mars will be in five weeks. The captain says that we’ve caught favorable conditions including the tale end of a solar storm. If you need something to read there are tablets in the library for you to borrow. I’m afraid that new movies will not be available on this flight, as the ship is due for refit when it returns to Earth. The owners were not inclined to spend additional money on pointless luxuries. For that reason the galley stoves are not working as well as they should, but I’m told the cold food is still excellent.”
A groan went around the cabin, but the nasally voice ignored them.
“The base manager, Jacques Fechter, will be available to answer your questions at various times during the flight. That is all.”
Saul snorted. “So they reckon that Mars is the toughest drilling assignment around, and they send us out with an overgrown kid to do a man’s work. Did you see Ryles when we signed up?”
Rahm shook his head.
“He’s a jumped up little squirt. I don’t know what it’s going to be like on the planet, but they tell me it’s pretty bad. It makes some of the nastier places on earth, like Siberia and Death Canyon, look like your local park. If anything goes wrong the only thing I’d trust him to do would be to straighten out a bent paperclip.”