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 (9 page)

BOOK: The Mars Shock
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“Rescuing,
cough,
capturing them, yeah. That’s the only way we’re ever gonna find out how the virus works. How’d the Chinese manage to poke a hole in the PLAN’s information security, when we’ve tried and failed for decades?
Gotta
get the source code.”

“So it’s all about our competition with the Chinese.”

“That’s why I’m here. What about you?”

Kristiansen laughed. He moved across the hole in the side of the module to where a long, warped rod stuck out. It was a section of maglev track. He jumped, grabbed hold of it, and did a pull-up so he could see over the debris partially blocking the hole.

Martian dust coated a landscape of sinuous metal curves and depressions. His brain extracted patterns from the rubble. Topology.

“Whoa. Murray, there were hills inside this module. Buildings. Looks like a river-bed.”

“Oh, this I gotta see. They said these modules were actually pieces of Tiangong Erhao. You know, that white elephant we used to think was a space station, which was actually an unmanned arkship. It lit out for Barnard’s Star during the Big Breakup, and dropped these off on the way.” Murray copied Kristiansen’s move of grabbing onto the maglev rail segment.

Kristiansen swung himself up so he was standing on the rail.

He looked back the way they’d come.

The dust clouds parted momentarily.

“Murray!”

“What?”

“Our buggy!”

He’d not known what he was looking at for a moment. The buggy had lost its defined shape, bloating into a matte black blob. The blob quivered. Zooming in, he saw that it seemed to be made up of hundreds of small, active bodies.

His only chance of survival was vanishing before his eyes.

 

v.

 

“Oh, Gilchrist,” Colden sobbed, mashing her blanket to her face as if the soft, nubbly fabric could give her some comfort. “Sophie, Sophie. Why’d you do it?”

She’d got the news about Theta Base during lunch. A private heads-up, classified for officers and managers only. The situation was still developing, and the announcement had been terse to the point of obfuscation. But as soon as Colden saw that a COP operator had been the culprit, she knew what had happened.

And she knew why.

Sophie Gilchrist had tried to save her boyfriend, and condemned everyone in Theta Base.

Colden couldn’t hold it together. She knew she was partly to blame. She’d reinforced Gilchrist’s belief that the nanites were nothing but a scare story. If she’d instead talked her out of it, Gilchrist might not have taken that desperate gamble. Hundreds of people wouldn’t be dead … or maybe worse.

The other ranks weren’t allowed to know anything yet, and she didn’t want to start them asking questions she wouldn’t be able to answer. So she’d fled the mess hall to have a breakdown in the privacy of her berthing. She shared a ten-rack cabin with other Space Corps agents. But right now they were all chowing down on fresh corn on the cob and homegrown soybean porridge, oblivious to the catastrophe unfolding 300 klicks away.

She burrowed under her blanket, and sobbed and trembled.

At last she sat up, wiped her face with her sleeve—and yelled in shock, “Hell!”

Danny Drudge stood in the doorway, looking as close to abashed as she’d ever seen him. “Ma’am?”

“What the fuck are you doing here? Go eat.”

“Ma’am, the commander wants to speak to you. I guess he pinged you, but you didn’t answer.”

She blinked tears away from her retinal implants. Indeed, one of the many notifications that had been obscured by her grief was a personal text from Commander Jackson. “Agent Colden, report to my office ASAP.”

This was highly unusual. And ominous. Today was turning into a
great
day, as Sophie Gilchrist would have said.

“Got it.” Colden dismissed Drudge and then dashed into the bathroom attached to the cabin. She pumped sanitation foam into her palm, rubbed it over her face, and stole a quarter-cupful of water to blot the foamy residue off her hairline. She had to present an unruffled appearance. The dignity of the Space Corps was on the line.

“Ma’am?”

“Are you still there?”

If he asks me why I was crying,
she thought,
I’ll deck him.

“Ma’am, you know how our COPs are in the shop for repairs?”

Every COP in the platoon, apart from her own and Drudge’s, had been badly damaged in the second KKV attack. They’d been brought back to base for repairs. Still staring into the pocket-sized mirror, Colden shouted, “Yes, and?”

“Can I DIY mine a bit? I just wanna bling it out. There’s no rule against that, is there?”

As she gazed at her face in the pitiless bathroom light, her ebony skin seemed to fade to white, and it was Sophie Gilchrist looking back from the mirror at her, across an unbridgeable distance. Tears blurred her vision again. The features in the mirror wavered, and now it was Elfrida Goto looking at her, mouth open as if to say:
Hold onto me. Don’t let me go.
But Colden had let Elfrida go, and now she was dead, too. She bit her knuckles, forcing the sobs back inside. “There’s a rule against everything, Drudge!” she shouted. “But you know what, have at it. A bit of paint, a bit of bling. It might cheer people up.” They would need it when they found out about Theta Base.

“Rude, ma’am! Thanks!”

“Wait, what exactly do you mean, bling it out?”

“Oh, just like you said, a lick of paint, some fins. It’ll be evil!”

Colden emerged from the bathroom and yanked her best uniform out of her locker to change. Drudge was already skipping away through the trees. She yelled after him, “Hang on!
Your
phavatar isn’t in the shop.”

“I switched with Mattis,” Drudge called back without stopping.

Colden shook her head. That kid! He’d made followers out of earnest Mattis and several others. He had also leveraged his momentary fame, as the discoverer of the NASA museum (as people were calling it), into a shadowy kind of star status on base. He got smiles and fist bumps from even the hardest-core vets now.

She went to see Commander Jackson.


“This is
not
about the situation at Theta Base. We will not be discussing that, so don’t ask me any questions, because I won’t answer them. Clear?”

Commander Sam ‘Squiffy’ Jackson sat behind a desk made, like all the furniture at Alpha Base, of stiffened rattan fiber grown on base. It appeared to be balancing on his belly. The joke about Commander Jackson was that
he
should’ve been disqualified from service on Mars, on account of exceeding the weight limits.

Gathered in Jackson’s stripped-down office, besides Colden, were Captain Hawker and Specialist 1
st
Class Hannah Goldberg, of the Star Force Engineering Corps.

“We’ve been ordered to carry out a search and rescue operation on the Mahfouz Gradient,” Jackson said, naming a region of the northwestern scarp of Olympus Mons. Like many other things on Mars, it had been named for one of the Luna Union pilots who died in the Phobos maneuver, as a way of buying the Luna pols off.

Hawker blurted, “Isn’t that where the MFOB that shall not be named is operating?”

“Do I have to fucking repeat myself? This is
not
about that. It’s about the ISA having too much power for anyone’s good.”

Jackson ranted about how intelligence priorities were trumping military logic. Colden and the others sat tight. The commander was on the edge—they all knew that. Jackson had to carry out often-contradictory orders from Earth, while safeguarding his troops’ lives, and repudiating any fascination he may have had with the idea of military glory that lived on in Star Force’s institutional memory. They let him talk it out. The ISA was to blame for everything. It was
their
fault the war had taken this hellish turn in the first place. Blah, blah, blah.

“And now they’ve mislaid an agent on the Mahfouz Gradient,” Jackson concluded. “And our job is to locate his sorry ass and carry him to safety in protective wrappings.”

He pointed at Colden. “Put together a platoon of COPs. Pull them off other duties if you have to.”

He pointed at Hawker. “Back the COPs up with two Death Buggies.” The Death Buggies did have an official designation—
Velociraptors
—but even Squiffy Jackson couldn’t stand to articulate such a cretinous name.

He pointed at Goldberg. “Any kit problems, make them go away. I don’t want to hear about it.”

“Yes, sir,” Goldberg squeaked. They were the first words any of them had spoken since Hawker got slapped down.

Colden mustered her courage. “Sir, what should we do if we run into any warblers?” She felt like she owed this to Gilchrist.

“Warblers? Detain them, Agent, detain them. Like it says in our standing orders.” Jackson’s eyes said the opposite. She could see Hawker’s lips moving soundlessly in the corner of her eye:
If it moves, slag it.

She hurried to reassure them that she wasn’t going soft. “It’s just that there’s a theory going around that the warblers may be primary targets of the PLAN. That it’s at war with them, too, so to speak. And if that was true, detaining them would put us at risk of a KKV strike.”

“That’s a nice theory, Agent, but it is irrelevant to your mission. Which is to retrieve this ISA asset. And don’t let anything get in your way. Clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

The trio saluted and retreated across a wide floor speckled with dirt. Jackson’s office had once been a smaller garden on 04 Deck. He had had the soil and plants removed because they offended his notions of military hygiene. But crumbs of soil kept creeping back in from the 04 Deck forest, which was twenty centimeters higher than the office, the soil held back by a restraining plank across the bottom of the door.

Specialist Goldberg tripped on the plank and nearly faceplanted. Hawker caught her elbow to steady her. Jackson simply hit the door-close button. Now he would go back to watching his screens.

Like a parting boot in the ass, their official orders thudded into Colden’s HUD. She wearily scanned the jargon—and gasped aloud.

“What’s up, Colden?” Hawker said.

“This missing ISA agent, he’s not on his own. He’s with …”

There was no need for the whole base to know her business.

“With some meddling turdbrain from Medicins Sans Frontieres,” she finished, angrily.

She’d heard that Kristiansen would be arriving
next week.

When she heard about Theta Base, she’d felt a stab of relief that least he wasn’t there.

It appeared he
had
been there, but he hadn’t fallen prey to the nanites.
Thank God.
He’d escaped, with ISA agent Kevin Murray, heading north down the Mahfouz Gradient.

Hawker laughed out loud.

“What?” Colden said.

“I’m just thinking, an NGO guy and an ISA agent? Talk about the blind leading the blind. If they’re still alive when we get there, it’ll be a miracle.”

“Why shouldn’t they be?” Colden snapped. “They’re only about forty kilometers from the scarp. As long as they don’t fall into a ravine, they’ll be all right. There aren’t any conurbations in their way.”

“Speaking of those ravines,” Hawker said. “They’ve not been very well mapped yet. We’ll be heading into the unknown.”

The Mahfouz Gradient rose ‘only’ about 300 meters above the plain, as compared to the stunningly high scarps on the south side of Olympus Mons. Primordial lava flows and landslides had mostly buried it. More recently, subsidence had cracked the gradient like the toes of some monstrous beast, opening up a number of deep north-south ravines.

“Yeah,” Colden said, picturing the map in her mind. “That’s why I thought we might run into warblers.”
Gilchrist said they were hiding from the PLAN …

“Muppets,” Hawker said. “You mean muppets. That’s somewhat of a given, I think.”

“Let’s just get moving,” Colden said.

She was already pinging the agents she wanted to take. She hesitated over Drudge. But he had a nose for finding things. It might be needed.

“Colden?” Whenever Goldberg talked, she sounded like a beaten wife. That was what came of being the Engineering Corps’s point person for Jackson’s shit. She sniffled, “One of your agents, um, D. Drudge, just signed for five kilos of splart.”

 

vi.

 

The buggy was under attack! Kristiansen charged up the slope with no thought in his mind except rescuing the vehicle and his Medimaster 5500.

The things swarming over the buggy had to be PLAN salvage bots. He’d heard they weren’t dangerous in and of themselves. He stopped at a safe distance and threw stones at them.

They boiled off the buggy and scrabbled towards him. Their eyes glinted blood-red. They had
fur.

Bots?

BOOK: The Mars Shock
10.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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