Authors: M Orenda
For Sonny, and for "Z", and all others who served, or are currently serving, in the US Military
Storms in thin atmospheres don’t lift equipment, or carry off what’s heavy, but they can still wreak havoc. They blind satellites, ground aircraft, halt supplies, and bombard engines and machines with layers of dust.
Throw a little chaos into any situation, and people suffer.
Add a little more, and people die.
Petra grimaces through the windshield of the old track vehicle, seeing nothing for nothing in the pitch black frost, though radar’s picking up three sizable objects inbound, 60 kilometers out, at seven o’clock, altitude a notch over 200 feet.
The track lumbers on through coppery Martian dust like the big dumb beast that it is, impossible to hide now, even if they cut the engine, and the exterior lights, because everything’s still hot enough to glow forth in bright thermal hues.
“They’re large aircraft but that doesn’t make them hostile,” Clara offers, shifting gears in an effort to push the track faster. “Probably just trying to outrun the storm. Winds supposed to get to Cat 5, which will foul up comms and navigation pretty quick, and so they’re flying low, praying to reach cover before it picks up. Maybe it’s coincidence that they’re crossing our path. Doesn’t always have to be about you, wild thing. Maybe it’s just a pair of indifferent aircraft on their way to safety, and chose a dumb route, is all.”
Petra hisses through her teeth, thinking the odds of her crew not being in real trouble are close to nil, like always…only more so at the moment. She flips the intercom switch to warn the two crew members in the back. “Suits on, we got an unidentified aircraft on intercept course.”
Clara squints, mouth creased to a frown. “Jumping straight to the worst case? Not even going to attempt comms first?”
“They say what they say. Not gonna believe’em.”
“Just jumpy,” the older woman says. “And for what? Thieves that got the resources for big aircraft are also smart enough to know we’re riding light, just delivered our contraband in New Beijing and got paid in cred for it all, so nothing to take from the inside of the track, unless it’s us.”
“Unless it’s us,” Petra agrees.
“We’re easier to take when we’re in a baijiu bar, and we just left one.”
“Too many witnesses in a bar.”
“Wit---you got something you wanna tell me?”
Petra presses her lips together, watching that blip jump across bright orbits of distance on the tracking screen. Bearing down. Moving fast.
“Stop the track. Get your suit on.”
“Can’t out run’em in a track, and the canyon wall is too far away. We’ve got no cover. If they’ve got a missile---”
“Missile? You kidding?”
Petra pushes out of the cockpit seat, reaching for the slim environment suit hanging behind it. The thing is rubbery, a human shell weighed down by a power unit and life support, with appendages that flop and struggle with drunken resistance.
She jams one foot into the suit, hopping to keep her balance so the other can go in. Adrenaline’s got her chest pulled tight, no breathing, only sweating, and fumbling through routines like it’s the first time.
Clara’s wrenching on the stick, downshifting as quickly as she can. The 68-ton track clacks to a halt in the hard chalk, clouds of silt creating a pale, reflective murk beyond the windshield. She cuts the flood of headlights, and climbs out of her chair with effort. “We’ve been attacked before---sure---but only when we were doing something stupid… and now we got no merchandise, and we’re not doing anything stupid. So why would anyone have a
Petra scowls, knowing there’s no getting out of it. “I might have nosed around a bit too much in Beijing filter.”
“I was asking questions in that baijiu bar.”
“Questions about that teenage girl.”
“What teenage girl?”
Petra glares at her. “
What teenage girl?
How much were you drinking? Remember Niri? The top secret girl that Colonel Voss is set on keeping alive, the one those mystery subversives are trying to kill?”
“You were asking questions, about her, on behalf of your
“Colonel’s not mine.”
“So you were asking questions that could get us all killed, on behalf of a man who’s
yours, who’s an Earthbounder---Assaulter Lieutenant Colonel, no less---creature of war and wrath who can surely ask his own damn questions at the point of a gun, or with those two bloody fists of his. What demented logic got you to believe a man like that needs your help to protect one girl?”
“We’re criminals. People tell us things.”
“I was subtle.”
“Subtle as what?” The pilot shoots an accusing look over her shoulder, temper flaring as she struggles with her own suit. “Let me guess how it came out, something like… Attention, all you addicts and lowlifes! Any one of you know who those subversives are? You know, the mysterious ones that just appeared a few months back, and attacked our ship coming back from Earth when we were smuggling covert Assaulters and a secret girl who hears things? Better yet… anyone know who’s payin’em? Or… why do they want that poor crazy girl dead?”
“Didn’t go like that.”
“Yeah? Tell me how subtle you were, with us under attack. You put us right in harm’s way to gather intelligence for an Assaulter. The man’s a killer. You saw it. We all saw it. He leads a
of warfighters, and got no business convincing one foolhardy woman smuggler that such spying would be would be safe for her and the idiots who form her crew… not killers, not warfighters.”
Petra grinds her teeth. There’s no time to give an adequate reply, and it’s impossible to explain anyway. Colonel Voss is many things, but a flesh and blood man is foremost, his own harsh memories scrolled out in scars and tattoos, on skin she’s touched, with warmth she’s felt, and can’t now forget, even for trying her utmost both drunk and sober.
He might be a killer to some, but he’s careful enough when he chooses to be, and never tried to convince her to spy on fellow smugglers on his behalf, nor thought it was a good idea. He argued against it. Then he gave her a weapon, and a wrist locator disguised as a bracelet, and a secure link to call him with in case of trouble. Admittedly, it came as unwelcome micromanagement at the time, but now… not so much.
She drags the suit’s weight up over her shoulders and activates the seals, locking her helmet into her collar, “Open channel. Connect Voss. Secure.”
“Connection failed,” the computer replies in its modulated human voice.
“Diagnose problem, connection.”
The computer pauses. “Jamming signal detected.”
Petra curses and grabs two survival packs from behind the seats. “Those nice aircraft heading our way are jamming us,” she yells at Clara, her voice echoing over the track channel. “Which means attack.”
The pilot locks in her helmet, glances at the consoles. “They’re two kilometers out and closing. Could’a fired a missile already.”
“Out of the track,” Petra snaps, tossing one pack to Clara and shouting orders through the track comm. “Attack craft inbound at two klicks. Everyone get your packs and get out of the track. Spread out, and head for the canyon. No bunching up tight.”
Acknowledgments bounce back, spoken in panic, a soft ‘ma’am’ uttered by the cargo tech, another from the load operator. The aft airlock alarm sounds as the seals break, the crew already through the dispersion chamber, and exiting the outside hatch.
Interior lights go red.
“Move!” she shouts at Clara.
“And leave you here with nothing but your own sense? Na-uh.”
Petra shakes her head, lunging up two steps to swing open one of the cockpit lockers. Voss’s Red Filter assault rifle hangs by its sling inside, looking lifeless when not in the hands of an actual Assaulter.
Five full magazines are stacked on the metal shelf below it.
She lifts the weapon into the glow, grabbing one magazine and inserting it into the well, hands shaking enough to make a simple action hard.
Pull, release the charging handle. Shwish. Click. Chamber the first round. Keep the muzzle pointed away. Keep trigger finger off the trigger.
She’s no professional, and it’s not natural, but it has been practiced a few times, for whatever that’s worth. Turning to one side, weapon balanced, she packs the extra magazines into the utility pockets on the front of her suit.
“Blow the door,” she calls out.
Clara activates the emergency hatch escape, and the seals on the cockpit hatch burst outward in a spray of sparks, door gone, deep cold and dust swirling in, caution lights flashing in the instant haze. The pilot shrugs on her pack and grabs for the open hatchway, pulling herself out into the night.
Petra follows; her helmet visor switches to thermal view.
The smooth plain around them appears in shades of green, its low swept hills scattered with dark rocks. The sky above is milky, and warmer for friction, a sign that the coming storm is thickening in the atmosphere.
The storm could be useful if the inbound aircraft can be held off long enough for the winds on the ground to kick up and haze visibility. Only there’s no time for it. A pair of clustered lights hangs over the valley, growing larger, and brighter, and heading straight for them.
The moment goes insanely quiet, Petra watching those ships approach, hearing nothing but the breeze hissing through the helmet speaker, the Gods of Mars and man ambivalent to whatever destruction will be wrought.
She struggles to breathe, still busy fighting the disbelief for no reason since it’s clear what’s happening, and it’s best to meet it head on. Taking cover behind the track, she swivels the gun’s selector from safe to semi, then tucks the butt plate under her right shoulder.
“Big and fat, and flying like old air transports,” Clara says. “Under powered and stuck on dumb flight, maybe a bad pilot on the lead---”
Gunfire erupts from the point aircraft, a sparkle of muzzle flashes under the fuselage. Tracer fire crackles overhead, not aimed at the track, but further out, at the crew escaping toward the canyon wall.
Petra hooks her finger around the weapon’s trigger, rising from cover to fire back. The assault rifle chatters awake in her hands, ripping in her ears, shaking with its own brutal force. She fires a burst, then another, and the aircraft turns, tilts, issuing a hollow