I’m still only on Phobos.
Every time I think I’m gonna wake up down there, in the canals.
Instead I lie strapped to the couch, drinking warm vodka from soft PVC bottle, watching the droplets of my sweat drift slowly in the air that smells of stagnation.
Phobos. What a waste.
It took the Command a week to summon me – all this time I practically felt my bones decalcifying in microgravity of the transfer barracks. The mission materialized as two hard-faced MPs that whisked me away from my squalid cube to the splendour of the staff quarters. I was marinated in sweat, half-dead from hangover, and they plopped me onto plushy upholstered chair in the middle of the lunch. The general and his staff had steaks. They ate from plates, drank wine from tall glasses – there was gravity, because, obviously, staff quarters are in rotating section of the base. It was unreal. I was barely able to focus. They did small talk. They drank and chew and acted civilized, the gentlemen-officers, treating the unshaven Neanderthal in dirty suit undergarment sitting among them as one of their own. They asked me questions about my service in country, I “couldn’t comment”. When the tea and biscuits came in, they cut to the chase and gave me my mission: I was to travel up the Avernus canal by means of a standard Army tripod, then find colonel Walter E. Kurtz and “terminate his command”. By any means necessary.
So politely put.
I had my marching orders, a mil-standard encrypted cube full of reading material and was out of upholstered staff quarters and in a drop pod a scant half hour later. This is how it started: with a nasty hangover in the red darkness of a delivery capsule. I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet.
The tripod was dirty, cramped and had this peculiar smell of ozone, ground dust and stale sweat, the smell that meant “Mars” to anyone who’s been on the ground. They wanted a discreet transportation upchannel, something nondescript and you don’t get more nondescript than a tripod. It was slow, I wouldn’t mind if I hadn’t to rub elbows with the crew. They were a pretty standard bunch, unhappy to have me, unhappy with the mission. They only wanted to finish up the contract and go home. The problem was that “home” didn’t exist anymore, I was there, I saw it. After a tour on Mars, home seemed unreal. Surreal, even. Hot, heavy, colors all wrong. The worst thing was people, though. “Oh, you were on Mars? How is it?”
How do you even answer such question? You don’t, you can’t. Same way you can’t tell these guys here what “home” has become. So you simply sit, silent, and read the Kurtz dossier.
We were underway to the mouth of Avernus, wading through fields of squat cactoids growing on the Mare Cirrenium floor. The grunts tended to call this place “the A-nus”, and no wonder – there was nothing even remotely interesting here, aside from the countless warrens that dug deep into the canal walls. Avernus was Mickey territory; tripods were regularly ambushed here. Usually the fight was over almost before it began – a single heat ray strike, a camouflaged pit to trap the leg, sometimes one of their not-dogs with an explosive vest and that was that. There seldom was anything to fire back at, but this didn’t stop the tripod gunners.
But the day was nice and calm, for a few hours the war was far away. I was reading, the Chief was driving, Clean was at the scanners and Lance was tripod surfing, balancing on the upper carapace with nothing but his suit soles for grip. He was shouting in the intercom, having the time of his life, apparently.
There was a sound, kind of a slow, long thunder. The ground shook, the tripod swayed. Lance fell in.
“- Whoa, hey, what’s that?
– Arc Light. Orbital strike.
– Every time I hear that, something terrible happens.”
And it did. Not immediately, but it sure did.
About a week in I got word from On High. We stopped at a cookie-cutter firebase in the middle of nowhere, caught some rest, restocked – and got mail. The Command in its infinite wisdom has decided to send me an update to the mission profile.
Apparently I wasn’t the first guy they had after Kurtz: about three months ago they’ve sent a Green Beret upchannel, one Cpt Colby, with a mission to “contact Col Kurtz and ascertain his fitness to command”. He failed to make contact, so they had him pegged as MIA – until now. They’ve also sent me his full dossier.
Cpt Colby was Modified.
The rumours about Soldier Plus program were impossible to squash – it seems that every base had someone talking in hushed tones about guys selected for “special training”, about “too many damn eggheads”, about suspiciously well equipped hospital units… This sounded like standard Army bullshit to me, fantasies for bored grunts. Looks like I was wrong. Apparently the brass wanted Green Berets (or should they be Rust Berets, here?) able to live outside and penetrate the warrens, to reach Martians where even the fuel-air vapor and the shockwave couldn’t. What for? Well, not for their hearts and minds, that’s for sure.
They practically mutilated him. After they were done, he looked like a fucking gargoyle. The photos were a bit much even for me.
At the end of his dossier was an intercepted tight beam transmission. “Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids. Find someone else. Forget it. I’m never coming back. Forget it.”
He had a family?
They took a family man, put him here, stripped him of everything human and then sent him after Kurtz?
I think that this momentary insight into minds that could think of something like this was my first contact with a truly alien civilization.
We heard the fight from many kilometers away, but the sight after the last bend still surprised us. The Avernus Lift was the last Terran outpost in the canal, 750 meters of carbon nanotube elevator that could transport a tripod every fifteen minutes all the way to the Cimmerian Higlands – if it was operational. Now it wasn’t for sure – a direct hit from a heavy scorch set it on fire.
There is no sight that even begins to compare to a three quarters of a kilometer long nanotube weave burning in the darkness of Martian night. None.
The fight was still on. I asked the Chief to stop the tripod – I had to get out and check if there was anything new for me. He thought I’ve lost it completely, I wasn’t so sure myself.
The outpost was a complete chaos. Some grunts were shooting at everything that was half a Kelvin above background temperature, others were running around, evacuating their kit from the impact area of the elevator. Many looked half-dead; shell shocked, stoned or hit – I couldn’t tell. Dust was burning in the heat beams slicing the air above trenches. A not-dog managed to sneak through the perimeter and detonated, taking out a remote laser cannon station at the outer rim. I spent half an hour looking for someone in charge, then went back to the tripod.
“- There’s no CO here, no news, no nothing. Let’s get the hell outta here.”
The tripod lurched and moved, gaining speed.
“- Chief, what the fuck is this? What’s going on? What are we doing here?”
Excellent question, that. I don’t think anyone has the answer to this one. There is nothing on Cimmerian Highlands, they are as barren as they come. This lift is pointless, our whole presence in these parts is pointless, all this – it’s all pointless. This war isn’t about the revenge: maybe it started out as payback for the invasion, but you have to be blind or stupid to think this is a valid reason. The Martians are done for, they were done for long before we set foot here. That half-assed invasion attempt of theirs was a last ditch effort and it failed miserably. They are a dying race, clinging to their warrens, cactoid fields and remnants of the advanced tech. It is not about the resources: we can get to the abandoned Martian cities with minimal effort, they are ripe for exploration. The main Precursor site is at Syrtis Major, which is our playground. So what are we doing here? What this is about?
I think this is about nothing particular anymore. This war no longer needs any reason to continue – it just is.
It was an ambush. We were moving slowly, carefully maneuvering through a boulder field, when the heat ray hit. The alarms screamed, tripod broke into a trot, Lance blindly fired our front gunpod. The air was suddenly full of dust, then simply not there. We broke through, then slowed to a stop about two klicks away. The Mickeys thought it through – we had to slow down in the boulders, which gave them a perfect place to hit us with a heavy heat ray. It burned through the armor, took out entire sensor station along with Clean, and sliced off the better half of Chief’s legs. Neither we nor the suit were able to stop the bleeding – and that was that.
The Kurtz compound was barely worth the name – just three shelters, prefab hothouse, small drone foundry and a tiny powerplant. There were just six humans there, including Colby and the civilian; six humans and about a hundred combat drones. I could tell they were unshackled: normal combat drones do not take kill souvenirs. When we moved in, they all looked in silence.
They overpowered us about thirty minutes after we left the tripod.
I spent two weeks in the cage. They took away my rebreather. I was on their air, bound not just by cage but by the umbilical, snaking away to the camoed prefab shelter barely visible through red dust. I’m pretty sure I hallucinated there, but the visits from Kurtz were real.
“What are they gonna say about him? What are they gonna say? That he was a kind man? That he was a wise man? That he had plans, man? That he had wisdom? Bullshit, man!”
I thought they’ve put something in my air, but the photojournalist’s suit was on closed loop. He was ranting without any additional chemical help.
Maybe it wasn’t just in my air, but in the thin air around us, in the dust, in the bulbous plants. Maybe you simply went mad down here, in the canals.
He belonged here. It was that simple.
I don’t think the Command saw that – or if they did, they failed to see what will happen if they send him down. All the psych evaluations they gave me weren’t worth two shits, anyone who ever set foot on Syrtis Major could see this. He hadn’t “lost restraint”, was not “suffering from delusions”, his state of mind wasn’t “caused by long-time isolation and combat stress”.
He was a Martian, more than this poor bastard Colby with all his Soldier Plus mods. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he could live here without his suit. He was tuned to the bones of this dead planet, that’s why he had to die. Everybody wanted him dead, he most of all. Even Mars wanted him dead, and that’s who he really took his orders from anyway.
In the end, there was nothing remarkable here. No Precursor ruins, no warrens, no Martians. Nothing special about this particular nook of this particular canal. Nothing but dust and Kurtz.
Now of course it was just dust, slowly eating away the tracks my tripod left.