Read The Mars Shock Online

Authors: Felix R. Savage

Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Alien Invasion, #Colonization, #Exploration, #First Contact, #Galactic Empire, #Military, #Space Fleet, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Space Opera, #Space Exploration, #Science fiction space opera thriller

The Mars Shock (5 page)

BOOK: The Mars Shock
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“Sophs,” she said. “Three minutes.”

There wasn’t any way for telepresence operators to talk in private, since everything was recorded in their data dumps. But Colden and Gilchrist had worked out a system. Colden popped off her mask, gloves, and headset. She was due a legally mandated exercise break. Her phavatar’s MI could handle a task as simple as digging. She left the telepresence center and ran downstairs to the garden. A public vidphone hung from a tree. No one was waiting to use it at the moment. She dialled.

The signal merged into the datastream connecting Alpha Base with one of the UN sats in orbit, and bounced down again to Theta Base, 300 klicks to the south.

Sophie Gilchrist—cued by Colden’s warning to wait by the public vidphone in her own base—picked up.

“Hey, Jen. Guess what?”

“Huh?” Colden said. “I just wanted to tell you something without frightening the noobs. I have a theory about how the PLAN’s targeting us. It uses the muppets as spotters. They see us, they call it in.”

“With what, telepathy?”

Gilchrist’s tone was skeptical, but Colden nodded into the phone. “Telepathy. Or think up something more sciencey to call it, I don’t care.”

“The grunts here were actually saying something like that the other day. They think that’s why the PLAN doesn’t target our MFOBs—we make damn sure no muppets ever get close to us.” On the phone screen, Gilchrist glanced around to make sure she wasn’t being watched. She tucked a strand of blonde hair behind her ear. “The other theory is it’s seismic.”

“Huh?”

“You know how the whole planet is supposedly crawling with nanites. Well, according to this theory, whenever we walk on them or crush them with our vehicles, that information gets transmitted back to the AI. So the PLAN actually knows where we are and what we’re doing at all times. We can’t take a step without being watched.”

Colden shivered. But if she let herself get that paranoid, she’d be finished. She scoffed, “If that was true, they would KKV the fuck out of us on a daily basis.”

“Unless,” Gilchrist said, “they’re deliberately luring us … further and higher …”

Gilchrist’s MFOB, Theta Base, was higher up than Alpha Base, crawling across the northwest slope of Olympus Mons.

“They might be luring us into … a
trap.”

“Woo-oo-oo!” Colden clapped her hands to her cheeks, mimicking fear.

They both laughed.

“I don’t even believe in the nanites,” Colden said. “It’s just a story to scare the grunts, as if they aren’t scared enough already. But what I wanted to say is, I think you’re right: the farm was
not
just a lucky hit. Assuming active targeting of whatever variety, it might be an ambush. Blow something up, wait for the first responders to arrive, and then blow
them
up. I think we should come up with some way to get the humans away from there.”

“Jesus, Colden, you’ve got a twisted mind.”

Gilchrist slipped back into calling Colden by her last name, and Colden, feeling that her idea had been rejected, said snippily, “No, I just researched irregular warfare tactics back when we were fighting on Stickney.”
When you were flapping around moaning about how terrible it all was,
she thought.
But it would be a whole lot more terrible if WE were the ones getting killed. Elfrida and I understood that from the beginning. The only way to stay alive is to do the job right.

“I remember Goto used to do her research, too,” Gilchrist said. Their minds were running along the same track. “She really took the job seriously. Ugh, I can’t get over her being gone.”

Colden’s throat tightened with grief. Elfrida Goto had been her best friend. She’d died in Mars orbit, thrown off a fragmented moonlet, her body lost forever in the chaos of the Big Breakup.

“There was some rumor, I remember,” Gilchrist went on, “that she was special. She was some kind of an outlier who could survive anything.”

“All that was, was lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

“And I keep thinking, if even
she
could get killed, what are
our
chances?”

Colden was about to snap back something about Gilchrist being as self-centered as ever, when she realized that she was witnessing a moment of vulnerability. Gilchrist was scared to death, just like everyone else.

“We’ll be fine.” Colden managed a grin. She snapped her fingers sassily. “Fat girls don’t go out like that.”

“Guess I’m screwed, then,” sighed the sylph-like Gilchrist. Then she crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. She was an OK chick at heart. “So listen, what I was going to tell you! Oh my God, Jen, are you ready for this? Guess who’s coming to Theta Base on the next transport from Eureka Station? I’m just going to tell you, because you’ll never guess.
Magnus Kristiansen!!”

The name of her old flame went through Colden like a rod of solid titanium. The surge of emotion she felt surprised her. Kristiansen had broken her heart long ago, when he chose his ideals over her. She didn’t feel anything for him anymore. Did she?

“Well, thank God they aren’t sending him here,” she said. “Because I would have had to tie his balls around his neck and push him out the airlock for the nanites to devour. Say hi to him from me.”

Gilchrist giggled. “Will do. And regarding your ambush theory, I’ll pass it on to the grunts from Theta. Maybe I can even get Captain Saroyan to take it seriously. He quite likes me.”

The screen darkened as Gilchrist signed off, twirling her hair. Colden smiled tolerantly to herself. Same old Gilchrist, convinced she was God’s gift to men. It was funny how much people could change, and yet stay the same …

She hurried back to the telepresence center. Her practiced eye surveyed the couches. All quiet. Her operators lay peacefully in their polyfoam cradles, only their right—or left—hands twitching slightly, depending on whether they were right- or left-handed. They were digging. If there’d been a flap, they would be jerking around. Involuntary reflexes, you couldn’t control ‘em.

She squeezed between the couches and crouched down by the one that held Drudge’s skinny body. She tapped his shoulder. You weren’t supposed to do this, but if Drudge couldn’t cope with an off-schedule break from immersion, he wouldn’t last long in the Corps.

His limbs flew out straight—one arm narrowly missing Colden’s head. He sat upright and ripped off his mask. “What the fuck? What’s happening? Oh whoops. Ma’am!”

“Drudge, where are you right now?”

“Right here! Oh. OK. I get what you mean. I’m digging,” he said virtuously.

“No, you’re not,” Colden said. At this point in her acquaintance with Drudge, she didn’t even need to make it a question. “You’ve bunked off again.”

“I’m right over there,” he insisted, pointing at the wall of the telepresence center, meaning the same direction relative to his phavatar’s location in Conurbation 243.

“Good. No, I’m not taking the piss, Drudge. That’s good, that’s what I wanted to hear. You went to look for souvenirs, right? So go a bit
further
away. Like a couple of streets. And then …” She lowered her voice and told him what she wanted him to do. He leaned towards her, shoulders sharp-pointed under his shapeless uniform. He reeked of cheap cologne. Like he thought he was going to get some romantic action, on freaking Alpha Base.

“Got it,
ma’am!”


Colden hopped back onto her couch and waited for the fun to start.

The rest of her platoon were busy digging. They’d persuaded an earthmover to come over and help. It was a smart six-legged bulldozer that scooped up pieces of rubble too big for the phavatars. The PLAN had built its silos, farms, and city walls out of regocrete—a concrete-analog made from pulverized Martian regolith—reinforced with steel rebar. These tall, skinny structures looked deceptively fragile to Earth-adapted eyes. They were actually very strong. The PLAN’s regocrete used molten sulphur, which was abundant on Mars, as a bonding agent. Even in the quakes following the Phobos impacts, which exceeded the greatest earthquakes in Earth’s history, structures located further from the equator had swayed and cracked but not fallen. Took a direct impact to bring these suckers down …

Colden glanced up at the haze. She was twitchy, fearing that any moment the next KKV might split the overcast sky.
Come on, Drudge.

Turned out he’d just been obeying her instructions to move further away. “Hey, guys!” He broadcast his shout to everyone at the site. “You gotta come and see this!”

Colden exclaimed in fake surprise, “That’s one of my agents! Wonder what he’s found?”

“Like,
guo lai ya,
dudes!” Like all the newbies, Drudge had been made to learn a bit of basic Chinese. “For real! I need backup, pronto!”

All the Chinese troops immediately downed tools and drove towards Drudge’s location. The Star Force troops followed, just in case Drudge had found something good and the Chinese were going to get to it first.

Result!
Colden thought to herself. She counted a hundred and fifty human beings passing her, hanging off the sides of their Death Buggies and
Dongwu Che
surface transports. There could hardly be anyone left at the farm. They all converged on the building where Drudge was yelping about his amazing discovery.

Uh oh. He’d better have found SOMETHING to justify this build-up.

She needn’t have worried.

Drudge’s phavatar stood on the roof of a ziggurat. This wasn’t one of the 120-meter ziggurats that housed the PLAN’s fission reactors. She’d never seen one like this before. It was a smooth-sided cone, about 30 meters high, with a ramp that spiraled up to the top, reminding her of a helter-skelter. She flashed back on the pure joy of a day at the funfair with her parents, and then she saw the skulls carved into the sides of the ramp.

Scratch that.

Actual
skulls—muppet skulls—set into the regocrete, like decorations.

“Oh boy, this is sick!” said the grunts, vidding from every angle.

“It sure is!” Drudge shouted. “But you haven’t seen the really interesting thing yet!” His phavatar danced like an excited stag beetle. “Come on up here!”

Chinese and UN grunts climbed the ramp. It was steep enough to force them onto their hands and knees. Infected by the general excitement, Colden climbed up behind them.

There were so many people crowding the platform at the top that she couldn’t reach Drudge. She turned to look back at the ruined farm, about a klick away. Her platoon’s phavatars were still digging, as were those from Rho Base and Theta Base. She line-of-sighted Sophie Gilchrist’s phavatar. “Any time now,” meaning that all the humans were off the site, so she wouldn’t mind if the PLAN sprang its ambush any time.

“One of our combat units is still here,” Gilchrist responded anxiously. “They found a bit that didn’t collapse, and they’ve gone inside. I told Geoff—I mean Captain Saroyan—about our theory, but he was just like, ‘I don’t give a rat’s ass. This is my duty.’”

“It’s Geoff now, is it?” Colden teased her.

“Ma’am! Ma’am! Mizz Colden!” Drudge was trying to get her attention. “You really should look at this!”

People were squeezing through the crowd to where Drudge stood. One by one, they bent down as if to look at something on the floor, and fell back with curses on their lips, to make way for the next set of gawpers. Drudge held his position, quivering self-importantly. Colden could have accessed his phavatar’s optic feed, but whatever it was the human beings were getting so riled about, she felt like she ought to see it with her own eyes, even though she was a hundred klicks away on the couch.

Did that make any sense? Nope. She pushed her way towards him.

He stood guard over a telescope or periscope set into the platform, wrong end up, waist-high to a human. There were metal handles on either side that you could use to focus and tilt it. Star Force and CTDF gloves had rubbed the dust off them. Colden aimed her optic sensors at the telescope’s eyepiece. Lenses trying to look through lenses. All she saw was a blur. Then her sensors auto-focused, rendering a picture of a dimly lit room with a square object in the middle.

“It’s like a crypt or something,” Drudge jabbered. “I bet there’s a mummy in there!”

Colden said, “The walls of the room look to be covered with markings. Probably just PLAN glyphs, but I’m getting that they’re
red
. That’s unusual.”

The PLAN never normally used colors. Its cities, monuments, and earthworks were paintless, lacking any pigments except the natural brownish-gray of regocrete, or the blue-black of graphite-based solar panels, or the oxidized terracotta hue of Martian rubble. Martian houses weren’t decorated on the inside, either. In contrast, Colden’s optic sensors reported that the graffiti in the crypt was primary-colored—mostly red, a bit of yellow and black. There was a light source in there, illuminating the reflective square object in the middle of the room, like an exhibit in a museum.

Interesting that the monument still had power. The PLAN’s power grid had gone down for the count. In pre-war days, solar panels had paved vast areas of the planitias, sucking up the sun’s energy. Any surviving solar panels were now useless, thanks to all the dust in the atmosphere. The fission reactors in the towns had also died, as dust clogged their vents and filters. This monument must be important enough to have its own backup generator.

BOOK: The Mars Shock
3.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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