Authors: Michael Rizzo
Tags: #mars, #military, #genetic engineering, #space, #war, #pirates, #heroes, #technology, #survivors, #exploration, #nanotech, #un, #high tech, #croatoan, #colonization, #warriors, #terraforming, #ninjas, #marooned, #shinobi
My hands are shaking.
I have the familiar feeling that I’m talking to a
madman, an extremist who has gone too far beyond acceptable human
conduct to have any anchor anymore. In that, he’s no different than
any of the other mass-murderers I’ve been so thoroughly programmed
to kill, because I know the world would be better without them.
Except that somehow he’s raised a doubt: Somehow I
to understand him, despite what he admits to doing.
“Despite what my drones had inflicted, I realized it
would not be enough,” he continues solemnly. “You would return to
rebuild Mars eventually, no matter the cost. The only way to
prevent further slaughter was to make the cost unthinkable. I
worked to convince Earth that Mars was hopelessly contaminated, too
dangerous to ever hope to return to.”
“How?” Anton challenges, leaning forward in his
chair, his face clearly saying he’s not willing to believe anyone
responsible for an atrocity on this scale would do anything to
preserve life. The shadow chuckles like it’s funny.
“The survivors weren’t as good at hiding as they like
to think,” he explains lightly. “I sent signals, created illusions
with simple EM fields, sustained the belief that a nano-plague had
infected Mars, that no one survived. I only had to do this for a
few years, but I kept at it for a decade, just to be sure the Earth
remained sufficiently terrified. The amusing part is that the ETE,
in their single-mindedness, ignorantly took over this deception for
me when they established their atmosphere containment field. I
eventually settled myself into a life of isolation, consoling my
guilt that I had done what I had done for the greater good, and
that I had succeeded, and at far less cost than there could have
He stops, tilts his head down to the floor, his
posture looking humble, almost remorseful.
“But you aren’t finished, are you?” I ask him softly
He shakes his head.
“I now fear I’ve only
nightmare that became our downfall,” he confirms with what sounds
like honest regret. “You awoke. You called Earth, revealed the
deception. And the ETE, who hid themselves and their own atrocity,
have now shown themselves for what they are. The seeds of our
destruction still exist, you see. Pandora’s Box is still calling to
be opened, as if the timeline is fighting to restore itself.
“Look to the ETE, to what they’ve done to themselves,
if you doubt me. Or to the lengths that the Shinkyo have gone to,
to acquire what no one should for their own greed. And the Earth:
still greedy, still willing to risk the lives of everyone—the
entire human race
—to forestall death. You think they won’t
covet what the ETE have shown is possible? You think they won’t try
to profit? They haven’t learned their lessons, no matter what
righteous ideals they’ve been professing to you. And now,
now, they’re coming back here. You yourself don’t have
faith that their only intent is to relieve the survivors. It will
only be a matter of time before they walk the path to our ultimate
The silhouette begins to ripple, arms gesturing
“I have given
!” he all but shouts,
like an actor on a stage, overplaying to the back rows. “I have
atrocity—I have killed many thousands, and
in the process erased the lives of countless more that would have
come from them. I have wiped out an entire future, an entire
world. And I have not made this world, this time, a
better place for it. But you are still
, and I
you will remain so.”
He becomes calmer, cooler after he makes this
declaration, reminding me how dangerous he is, how much the
“And what do you intend to do to this base?” I want
“That is up to you,” he tells me like it’s
inconsequential to him. “I’ve jammed your transmissions, cut you
off from your masters and your allies so that you can make your own
decision. Right now, this place is a foothold for Earth, and Earth
remains a threat to
of us. It must be dealt with, before
everything I have done at such great cost is undone.” A good
salesman, he pauses for effect, then offers his bargain with all
sincerity: “But if you join with me, we can make this
world. I have the tools to hold this planet, to keep them from it,
to make it a safe place, a vital place…”
“And what if you prevent their return, and instead
they pursue the research that you fear will destroy us on Earth?” I
challenge. “What if holding Mars doesn’t stop what you’ve seen us
become? What if it actually spurs them to accelerate their research
just to fight you?”
“Then we will stop them,” he tells me firmly. “I
studied your past, Destroyer, knowing I might meet some earlier
version of you here. I know how you feel about following orders
unquestioningly. I know you weigh your duty against your doubts,
your own values against the agendas of those you serve and those
you lead. You know in your heart that your leaders manipulate you,
that your people are all expendable to them. And you know that
there is the promise of a real life here, free from Earth’s corrupt
politics and twisted morality. You
“So choose. Or let your people choose—let each person
make his or her own decision. Only know that the one thousand two
hundred of you in this concrete hole are of no consequence to me,
weighed against what I’ve seen in my future and have sworn to
remove Earth’s hold on this planet, and then
I will wipe it clean of all the abominations that threaten our
Chang softens again, acts like an old friend.
“You can’t imagine how good it is to see that you’ve
grown old and stayed old, Michael Ram. It’s not how I knew you. To
be mortal is precious.”
Then the lines begin to blur, the shadow begins to
dissolve inside the containment chamber. The weight readings on the
floor plates drop to zero.
“You have one hour to decide,” is the last thing he
says, and then the shadow is gone from the chamber.
“Do you believe a word he—that thing, whatever it
was—said?” Tru is the first to challenge as we meet around the
conference table. But her tone is unsure, ambivalent. She denies,
but also believes. She isn’t alone in that.
believes it,” I offer everyone.
“That conviction makes him dangerous enough. And what we can see
outside substantiates his claim that he
connected to the
Discs, which means he could very well be responsible for everything
“It would answer a lot of questions after all these
years,” Rick is the first say what we all seem to be thinking,
“despite how insane it sounds.”
“Is anything he said about time travel possible?”
Kastl wants to know.
Rick shakes his head, shrugs.
“The ETE came to pretty much the same conclusion I
did in analyzing that Disc,” Anton tries urgently. “Their tech
possible in 2045. And I’ve heard the theories about
quantum relativity, about particles and forces that don’t conform
to our relative time. If you could locate and manipulate those
particles, I suppose you could apply nano-manufacturing techniques
“I overheard Paul Stilson say their nanotech had
rebuilt his brother’s body from the meat scraps we picked up after
that Disc blew him apart,” Rios puts in. “Could more advanced
nanotech rebuild a man out of raw elements, memories and all?”
“We’ve seen a lot of unthinkable shit since we woke
up,” Rick allows.
“Occam’s Razor,” I cut in with what I have to
believe. “More likely he just made or got hold of something
beyond-bleeding-edge, snuck it to Mars, then apparently followed it
here, all because he was terrified of some future nano-apocalypse.
Then he managed to survive the bombs, spent the interim years
tinkering with the tech like the ETE, or maybe stole from the ETE,
made himself into some twisted version of what they are, and went
crazy in the process. He may just really believe he’s some savior
from the future, delusional in his fanaticism.”
Rick nods, buying in. The rest don’t look too sure
either way. (I realize I’m having my own doubts, which just tells
me that Chang is a good salesman, something that likely helped drag
the PK and Zodangans in with him.)
“Too bad we can’t call anybody Earthside to ask for a
second opinion,” Halley considers.
“You think they’d give us a remotely straight
answer?” Tru snaps at her.
“Are you expecting we’d be thrown in front of Chang’s
guns if we asked Earthside for orders?” I let her know it’s not
just her thinking it.
“It’s exactly what I’m thinking,” Tru confirms,
looking around the table. “Time travel or not, I can’t imagine
they’d just tell us to surrender this base. But I’m not for
throwing in with a butchering psycho, either. If you believe any of
his bizarre-ass story,
toys played us against each
other, killed a lot of good people that didn’t need to die.
Shredded orbit. Nuked the planet. Killed everyone incoming or
outgoing. The fucker’s murdered thousands of people—
—and he sounds like he doesn’t think it’s a big
I nod heavily, letting her know I share her
“Are there other options on the table?” Rios asks
No one speaks for a while.
“We’ve been asked to choose death or surrender,” I
clarify. “No room for negotiation.”
“So?” Tru presses, impatient.
“I believe it’s always best to negotiate from a
position of strength,” I tell them. “Can we hit them hard enough to
make them rethink the choices they’ve given us?”
“If we break whatever jam they have on us, we could
call for help,” Metzger considers.
“Our silence for this long may have gotten some
attention,” Kastl tries. I nod my agreement.
“Help may already be on the way,” Rios concurs. “And
help’s likely to start shooting as soon as they eyeball what’s
hovering out there, especially when they can’t raise us.”
“Can we hurt them?” I ask again.
“A lot depends on how they can hurt us,” Metzger
gives me. “Assume the Discs will go for our remaining batteries and
any ships we put in the sky. Six is a lot of Frisbees to deal with
at once. Then whatever those new light fighters strapped to the
pirate ships can do.”
“What if we power through the small threats, focus on
taking down the mothers?” Kastl suggests. I nod.
“Ground troops can keep the little blips busy,” Rios
offers. “We could surface H-A squads all over, put our recent drill
time to good use.”
“You’d be walking into a meat-grinder,” Tru protests,
then gives: “But I can give you more guns on the ground. My Ecos
used to shoot at you; we can hit a few Frisbees.”
“We can’t armor all of you,” Rios warns.
“We didn’t have armor before,” she reminds him.
“They’ve also left a Nomad camp at their backs,” I
notice, almost cheerfully. “I’m betting they step up with us when
the shooting starts, even if we can’t call them.”
“What about our shadow-man?” Halley throws out.
“Chang or whatever he is… His tech does impress, even compared to
the ETE. What do we expect from him?”
“He didn’t show us any weapons,” Sakina offers her
assessment. “If a man wants to kill you, he does not display his
weapons until the last instant. If he wants to intimidate you, it’s
the first thing he does. If this shadow-man had personal offensive
devices better than the Jinn, he would have shown them, because he
intends to be intimidating—displaying his fleet instead of
attacking with surprise tells us so. He only showed us he could not
be touched himself, or that he is good with illusions.”
I give her a nod. “She’s right. He also claims to be
some kind of mad scientist, not military. I could believe that from
his body language. And he gave his drones full credit for their own
tactics. He may be smart, and have impressive resources, but he
doesn’t strike me as an experienced tactician. He
on a show out there. I think he’s counting on us to be intimidated,
to either give up or dig in and get hammered.”
“A blitz against his big ships could shake him,”
Metzger agrees. “Unless those pocket fighters carry passengers, his
crews could be looking at a long walk home.”
“He says he has Janeway and Bly behind him,” Rios
“Bly is a raider, not a soldier,” I counter. “He’s
used to hitting and running, having the advantage of surprise and
the air. Janeway…
could be a threat. But he’s also used
to playing defense from a fortified position—I’m not sure if he
could coordinate an effective all-out attack with unfamiliar
“One way to find out…” Tru concludes, reminding me
that she was an impressive field commander herself once upon a
“Any comments or questions?” I throw out. Everyone
shakes their heads, and I get a chorus of firm “No, sir.” More
impressively, no one brings up Chang’s offer to let each one of us
choose their own way independently. Not even Tru, who speaks for
the resident civilians (and I know she must have asked them in the
minutes that passed between Chang’s vanishing act and our
regrouping in the conference room).
I check the clock: It’s been seventeen minutes since
Chang gave us his hour. I stand up, signaling that the discussion
“Have MAI run some solutions,” I order. “Get Tru’s
people properly equipped. Suit up every H-A we have. Spin up what
we’ve got that flies. I want to answer Shadow Man
hour is up.”